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Mordecai Kaplan

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Mordecai Menahem Kaplan (June 11, 1881, Švenčionys – November 8, 1983, New York City) was a rabbi and essayist and the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.[1]

Kaplan was born in Švenčionys, Lithuania and was ordained as a rabbi at Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City in 1902. Kaplan began his career as an Orthodox rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a synagogue in New York. He helped to create the Young Israel movement of Modern Orthodox Judaism with Rabbi Israel Friedlander, was a leader in creating the Jewish community center concept, and helped found the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.

Relationship with mainstream Judaism

Kaplan was the first rabbi hired by the new Jewish Center when it was founded in 1918. He proved too progressive in his views and resigned in 1921.

Due to Kaplan's evolving position on Jewish theology, he was later condemned as a heretic by Young Israel and the rest of Orthodox Judaism, and his name is no longer mentioned in official publications as being one of the movement's founders. Indeed, in 1945 the Union of Orthodox Rabbis "formally assembled to excommunicate from Judaism what it deemed to be the community's most heretical voice: Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the man who eventually would become the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan, a critic of both Orthodox and Reform Judaism, believed that Jewish practice should be reconciled with modern thought, a philosophy reflected in his Sabbath Prayer Book..."[2]

In 1909 Kaplan joined the staff at JTS, where he had great impact by teaching Conservative Jewish rabbinic and Jewish education students over a 50-year period. His central idea of understanding Judaism as a religious civilization was an easily accepted position within Conservative Judaism, but his naturalistic conception of God was not as acceptable. Even at JTS, as The Forward writes, "he was an outsider, and often privately considered leaving the institution. In 1941, the faculty illustrated its distaste with Kaplan by penning a unanimous letter to the professor of homiletics, expressing complete disgust with Kaplan's The New Haggadah for the Passover Seder. Four years later, seminary professors Alexander Marx, Louis Ginzberg and Saul Lieberman went public with their rebuke by writing a letter to the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, lambasting Kaplan's prayer book and his entire career as a rabbi."[3]

His followers attempted to induce him to formally leave Conservative Judaism, but he stayed with JTS until he retired in 1963. Finally, in 1968, his closest disciple and son-in-law Ira Eisenstein founded a separate school, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), in which Kaplan's philosophy, Reconstructionist Judaism, would be promoted as a separate religious denomination.

Kaplan wrote a seminal essay "On the Need for a University of Judaism," in which he called for a University setting that could present Judaism as a deep culture and developing civilization. His proposal included programs on dramatic and fine arts to stimulate Jewish artistic creativity, a college to train Jews to live fully in American and Jewish culture as contributing citizens, a school to rain Jewish educators, and a rabbinical seminary to train creative and visionary rabbis. In 1941, with the participation of Rabbi Simon Greenberg his efforts toward that end culminated in the establishment of the American Jewish University, then known as the University of Judaism. His vision continues to find expression in the graduate, undergraduate, rabbinical, and continuing education programs of the University.

Kaplan's theology

Kaplan's theology held that in light of the advances in philosophy, science, and history, it would be impossible for modern Jews to continue to adhere to many of Judaism's traditional theological claims. Kaplan's naturalistic theology has been seen as a variant of John Dewey's philosophy. Dewey's naturalism combined atheist beliefs with religious terminology in order to construct a religiously satisfying philosophy for those who had lost faith in traditional religion. Kaplan was also influenced by Émile Durkheim's argument that our experience of the sacred is a function of social solidarity.

In agreement with prominent medieval Jewish thinkers, Kaplan affirmed that God is not personal, and that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are, at best, imperfect metaphors. Kaplan's theology went beyond this to claim that God is the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled:

To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man's destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.[4]

Not all of Kaplan's writings on the subject were consistent; his position evolved somewhat over the years, and two distinct theologies can be discerned with a careful reading. The view more popularly associated with Kaplan is strict naturalism, à la Dewey, which has been criticized as using religious terminology to mask a non-theistic (if not outright atheistic) position. A second strand of Kaplanian theology exists, however, which makes clear that at times Kaplan believed that God has ontological reality, a real and absolute existence independent of human beliefs. In this latter theology Kaplan still rejects classical forms of theism and any belief in miracles, but holds to a position that in some ways is neo-Platonic.



  • Judaism as a Civilization (1934)
  • Judaism in Transition (1936)
  • The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1937)
  • The Future of the American Jew (1948)
  • Questions Jews Ask (1956)
  • Judaism Without Supernaturalism (1958)
  • The New Zionism (1959)
  • The Greater Judaism in the Making (1960)
  • The Purpose and Meaning of Jewish Existence (1964)
  • The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (1970)
  • If Not Now, When? (1973)


  • 'What Judaism is Not,' The Menorah Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4, (October 1915), [1]
  • 'What is Judaism,' The Menorah Journal, Vol. 1, No. 5, (December 1915), [2]
  • 'Isaiah 6:1-11,' Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 45, No. 3/4, (1926).
  • 'The Effect of Intercultural Contacts upon Judaism,' The Journal of Religion, (January, 1934).
  • 'The Evolution of the Idea of God in Jewish Religion,' Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 57, (1967).


  1. "Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983)". Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  2. Zachary Silver, "A look back at a different book burning," The Forward, June 3, 2005
  3. Silver, "A look back at a different book burning"
  4. Sonsino, Rifat. The Many Faces of God: A Reader of Modern Jewish Theologies. 2004, page 22-3

Further reading

  • Alpert, Rebecca T.; and Jacob J. Staub (1985). Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach. Wyncote, Pa.: Reconstructionist Press. ISBN 0-935457-01-1. 
  • Kaplan, Mordecai M. (1981) [1957]. Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. ISBN 0-8276-0193-X. 
  • Kaplan, Mordecai M. (1994) [1962]. The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-2552-1. 

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