Mordecai Kaplan: Founder of Reconstructionist Judaism

An examination of the philosophy of one of the twentieth century's most prominent Jewish thinkers, Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983).

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Reprinted with permission from Jewish People, Jewish Thought (Pearson Education).

[Mordecai] Kaplan was born in 1881 in the small town of Svencionys, in the Lithu­anian district of the Jewish Pale of Settlement in tsarist Russia. At the age of eight he came to the United States with his family. Kaplan's early religious education was traditional, but he attended public school and Columbia University where he absorbed a modern critical approach to religion and to the Bible. After ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902, Kaplan served as rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in New York until, in 1909, he was appointed dean of the newly estab­lished Teachers Institute of the Seminary and soon afterwards also made professor of homiletics, midrash, and philosophies of religion. During his more than fifty years on the faculty of the Seminary, he attracted a devoted student following and, at the same time, maintained an exten­sive involvement in Jewish communal activities. 

In 1917 he became leader of the first synagogue to incorporate a broad range of cultural and recre­ational activities into its program. After a split developed in the congregation over his innovative views, he and his supporters left to organize the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (1922),a New York syna­gogue and Jewish center based on Kaplan's position that worship was only one of the functions that a congregation should foster.

His first major book, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), contained a detailed criti­cism of existing Jewish movements and a call for the "reconstruction" of Jewish life, leading him and his associates, the following year, to publish The Reconstructionist, a journal of Jewish affairs that has made consid­erable impact on the leadership of non‑Orthodox American Jewry. In the 1940sand 1950s, the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation issued a series of new liturgical texts: a Passover Haggadah and prayer books for the Sabbath, the high holy days, and the festivals. In 1968, the Founda­tion opened the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College in Philadelphia with a curriculum arranged according to priorities that the movement felt were not adequately espoused by other forms of American Judaism. Thus, in Kaplan's later years, Reconstructionism was transformed from an ecumenical position cutting across Jewish denominational lines to a small separate movement.

As previously noted, the starting point for Kaplan's position is his critical evaluation of the main tendencies of American Jewry, especially, their inadequate view of Judaism as a totality. According to Kaplan, Reform rightly recognized the evolving character of Judaism but ig­nored the social basis of Jewish identity and the organic culture of the people. At the other extreme, Neo‑Orthodoxy recognized that Judaism was a complete way of life and provided a substantial Jewish education for children (something noticeably lacking in Reform), but considered the Jewish religion to be timeless and static.

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Robert M. Seltzer

Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College (CUNY).