• Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century.  We believe that his thought may be even more important in the 21st century.

Welcome to Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood

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  • "Reconstructionism is a method, rather than a series of affirmations or conclusions concerning Jewish life or thought. ... Reconstructionism is not the ideas about God, ritual, community ... which anyone may hold. It is a method of dealing with Judaism, or with that which unites Jews in time and space, and differentiates them as a group from non-Jews."  -- Mordecai M. Kaplan, Questions Jews Ask (1956), pp. 80-81. 

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Mel's Desk

 

The Meaning of Happiness: A Rosh Hashannah Sermon From Mordecai Kaplan

In the summer of 1956, Kaplan was thinking about a sermon for Rosh Hashannah.  It was his custom every year to meet with Conservative rabbis, his former students, and help them with their High Holiday sermons. They would come to the Jewish Theological Seminary sometime in the late summer, and Kaplan would give them concrete suggestions for sermon topics. Kaplan often recorded his thoughts for sermons in his diary.  The 1956 sermon, titled “The Meaning of Happiness,” represents in my judgment the best formulation of what Kaplan means by “salvation.”  Salvation as the goal of religion is, of course, a fundamental concept in Kaplan’s system.  Kaplan in his theology often refers to God as the “the power that makes for salvation.”

In a series of entries in his diary in early August of 1956, Kaplan wrote out what would become his sermon on happiness.  He delivered the sermon about a month later, on Rosh Hashannah, at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.  He was quite satisfied with it both as to content and as to delivery. The remainder of this article is based on Kaplan’s notes for this sermon. ...

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From the Executive Director

Why a Kaplan Center?

Almost 80 years ago, at the very beginning of the very first issue of The Reconstructionist journal, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan and his colleagues reprinted an editorial from a 1928 issue of that journal’s predecessor, The S.A.J. Review, succinctly explaining their reasons for the creation of a new movement. “[T]he problem of Jewish life is just th[e] problem of unity,” the editorial stated. “A solution to the problem of Jewish life depends upon finding, or making, a positive ideology which will enable both Orthodox and Reform, both believers and nonbelievers, to meet in common and to work together. It is only by conceiving Judaism as a civilization, and not as a general religious movement embracing many sects, that we will be able to construct such an ideology and reconstruct the Jewish civilization." ...

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Audio and Video

Greatest Hits

 

For one of the most cogent statements of Kaplan's theology, in his own voice, please listen to "Kaplan's Theology".

(From Mel Scult's collection of recordings of his interviews with Kaplan in the early 1970s.)

 

For Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's salute to Kaplan on the occasion of Kaplan's 90th birthday, please listen to "Heschel Salutes Kaplan".

(We are grateful to Heschel's biographer, Edward Kaplan, for providing this recording.)

 

More Audio-Visual Materials

 

Diary of Mordecai M. Kaplan
Monday, June 29, 1953

We left Jerusalem at 8:15 AM last Thursday, June 25, exactly 13 weeks after we had arrived there. The TWA plane left Lydda at 12 and arrived at Athens at three. The official at Lydda who looked at the passport noticed that I was registered as Rabbi. He, therefore, asked me whether we wanted Kosher food for lunch on the plane. We were, no doubt, the only passengers that preferred Kosher, yet we were served it in grand style.

By 4.00 PM we were on our way to the Acropolis. There we hired a guide for $2.00 who showed us around. It was a moving experience for me. I felt the shock of self identification with the basic elements of Western civilization, the mythology, history, philosophy and art of ancient Greece. Coming after the thirteen weeks I had spent in Israel, it was like a refreshing shower after a grueling workout in the gym. That was only mentally and spiritually. Physically, I was quite tired. When evening came round Lena and I sat in the park near the Grande Bretagne where we were staying, watched the people sitting around leisurely, ordering their drinks, and conversing, all in the intimate fashion of European life. Even we couldn't avoid ordering ice cream. After a while we went back to our hotel. Friday morning at 9.00 we had the same guide take us to the synagogue – a newly built simple marble structure. The Shamash told me that out of the 60,000 Jews who had lived in Athens before the war, only 3000 were left and that many of them wished to migrate to Israel. Only about 120 children attended the religious school which is conducted by a young man from Israel. Opposite the synagogue is a Jewish hospital that was established with money provided by the JDC. In the lobby of the synagogue is a marble slab recording the fact that 800 souls perished at the hands of the Nazis.

From the synagogue the guide took us to the Museum of Ancient Relics. Not quite the same feeling of self identification as in the Acropolis – like the difference between being on top of Mt. Blanc and seeing it from a distance. From there to the Tower of Winds which is situated near the ancient Roman marketplace and not far from the Agoura.

As we were preparing to leave Athens at 3.00 by plane, I asked one of the officials that he provide Kosher dinner for us on our way from Rome to Paris. We arrived at Rome at 6.00. Just before dinner was to be served, Lena and I recited the Sabbath eve prayers. As I was reciting them, I experienced a sense of self identification with my early Israelite ancestors through the medium not of visible things and places but of living words, which they had conceived, written down, transmitted and which generation after generation repeated. As for the glories of mythology, I am inclined to prefer the one of Vayechulu to the one about Zeus and Semele, or the many about Minerva. This time the Sabbath eve prayers performed for me the important function of helping me recover the significance of my Jewish identity. We learned that TWA had wired to Rome to provide Kosher for us. We had “gefilte fish” de luxe.

We are grateful to the Jewish Theological Society of America for permission to reproduce pages from Kaplan's manuscript diaries on our website, as well as for making the diaries available online (http://sylvester.jtsa.edu:8881/R/S95CIHP5QI6PHY6RVIGH2RH4VC7AS7J26NKKU71TPELINCK4DQ-00684?func=collections-result&collection_id=1335).

 

Eric's Forum

Magnificent Obsession

Three things interest me in this excerpt from Kaplan’s diaries, all of which relate in some way to his concept of living in two civilizations (Jewish and non-Jewish).

1. Food. The Kaplans order in-flight Kosher food when flying from Rome to Paris. However, when flying from Israel to Greece they only order Kosher food after being prompted by an airport official. How can we account for this? Both flights are three hours long. While it is true that Kaplan believed that is was permissible to eat non-Kosher outside of the home (Judaism as a Civilization, pp. 441-442), he counseled travelers to avoid eating forbidden meats and seafood (The Reconstructionist, December 11, 1941, pp. 16-17). ...

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Guest
Commentary

Deborah Dash Moore

This fascinating diary entry covers two days: a Thursday and a Friday at the end of June 1953, eight years after the conclusion of World War II, five years after the State of Israel was established, and only ten days after the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for conspiracy to commit espionage.

Mordecai and Lena Kaplan are flying from one sacred city—Jerusalem—to another—Rome—via a third—Athens. Each city physically embodies religious and cultural traditions—Jewish, Christian, and Western—that Kaplan engages as a Jew. ... 

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Our Reference Desk

 

Watch MK Dr. Ruth Calderon's recent commencement address at the Jewish Theological Seminary: