Welcome to Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood
- "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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“Peoplehood and Personhood in the thought of Mordecai Kaplan”
To say that Kaplan believed strongly in peoplehood is of course an understatement. Peoplehood for Kaplan means relating to our history, our culture, and our religion. His values were universal and particular at the same time. He believed that all cultures and religions basically had the same values but expressed them differently through specific holidays, scriptures, and rituals that he called “sancta”. We live in the specifics. He once said, the universal without the particular is empty, the particular without the universal is blind. It is in the sancta that we see our unity, although we relate to them differently. Unity in diversity is the core of the Kaplanian attitude.
Kaplan saw the Jewish people as an international people, with Israel and American Jewry sharing the values of Jewish civilization. This means the primacy of justice, and the right to be an individual, for all citizens, both in America and in Israel.
Peoplehood also means boundaries. He opposed intermarriage before the fact, but there is evidence that he was willing to accept it after the fact if there were a commitment to a Jewish way of life and the hope of conversion.
Along with peoplehood, he believed in sheleymut, or perfectibility, wholeness, self-fulfillment, and self-realization, which he called salvation. The Jewish community would be the setting for this fulfillment for Jews. He talked of maximalism, which would mean a multitude of opportunities would be available such that individuals could easily find their fulfillment within the community. Individual fulfillment within community was the goal and the ideal. The Jewish Center with the “pool and shul and school” was the perfect embodiment of this. The Center was a “Y” with a synagogue and illustrates his sense that the community should serve all the needs of its members, both spiritual and physical. Jewish Community Centers today are the linear descendants of the Center he established in 1917.
Sheleymut or salvation means creativity, growth, and integration of the individual within the community. Sheleymut means moral perfectibility – we want to move up on the scale of goodness.
The Kaplanian solution is a balance between peoplehood, Jewish solidarity, and sheleymut. Peoplehood and personhood. If we go too much to one side or the other it will mean disaster. Too much to the right and peoplehood means chauvinism and tribalism. Too much to the left and individualism means narcissism and self-indulgence. The key to this balance is a maximum of Jewish education. Jewish education for Kaplan was not only about identity but about leading an ethical life. John Dewey, one of Kaplan’s primary teachers, said that “education is not preparation for life, it is life.”
Kaplan’s solution is as relevant today as ever because it speaks to our individual need for fulfillment but at the same time recognizes that this need must be balanced by our realization that fulfillment demands community. The individual can only be fulfilled within the group. The community must serve each one of its members and provide the maximum opportunity for fulfillment. This is the case from the level of the congregation up to the national level of the State of Israel. The collectivity is there to serve its members. Jews must find their fulfillment within the system of Jewish sancta.
Some brief texts that illustrate Kaplan’s attitude [Kaplan Diary, August 1956]:
KAPLAN ON PERSONALITY
“As we discover the potentialities in our environment for fulfillment we discover God. The function of different philosophies and religions has been to propose ways and means of discovering personality [the fullness of life] in ourselves and God in our environment. …”
KAPLAN ON THE MEANING OF PEOPLEHOOD
“If the Jewish people is the body to which the Jew can turn for making the most of life or achieving salvation [sheleymut] then it follows as the night the day that it is the Jew's task to reconstruct the life of his people so that it shall actually function as a source of salvation. This, indeed, is the main paradox of the spiritual life: the way to achieve salvation [sheleymut] is to bend all of one's efforts to render the people to whom one looks for salvation capable of providing it.”
For Mel's blog, click here.
For a recent interview with Mel in the New Jersey Jewish News, titled "Judaism should serve the Jewish people," click here.
For Mel's latest book, click below:
Mel discusses the book in a recent podcast.
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." ...
Audio and Video
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.)
You can experience, or re-experience, our "Wrestling with Jewish Peoplehood" conference by clicking here.
The Kaplan Quiz (Round 5)
What well-known rabbi wrote the following in his synagogue bulletin dated December 16, 1949?
"I am closest in spirit to Reconstructionism. My disagreements with it are minor. My approach to the Halachah and my conception of a modern Prayer Book may be somewhat to the right or left of it as you please. … The Prayer Book should be much briefer, less apologetic, argumentative, and sermonic than the Reconstructionists have made it. The Jews of to-day may perhaps still form the habit of praying if we give him [sic] little, and direct that little to his emotions. In other words, a service in our day must become, within our modern setting, what it was at its inception—drama, pageantry, song. It would make me happier if … the Reconstructionists realized that for those of us who take a modern view of revelation the theological discussion of the selection [sic] of Israel has become superfluous and monotonous; and … if they were less vague about their community approach. But there is blessing in what the Reconstructionists have thus far done, and of all of our present Jewish ideologies they hold out the greatest promise."
Please send your answers to [email protected]. This time, the first person to answer correctly (excluding clergy, staff, members, and hangers-on of the synagogue in question) wins a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel, Here I Am. The correct answer will be posted in a few days.
You can see previous Kaplan Quiz questions, and the answers, by clicking here.
In Memory of Rabbi Dr. Harold Schulweis, z"l
The recent death of our revered Senior Fellow Rabbi Dr. Harold Schulweis, one of Mordecai Kaplan’s greatest students and a congregational rabbi whose ideas and work reverberated far beyond the walls of his California synagogues, led me to revisit the many references to him in the Kaplan diaries of the 1950s. Below are two entries that are interesting for different reasons. My thoughts on these excerpts appear in italics underneath the selections.
1) Saturday night, June 11, 1955
On Thursday June 2 I left for Oakland at 1.00 PM (N.Y. time) and got to San Francisco at 6.30 PM (San Francisco time). I was met by Rabbi Harold Schulweis who after considerable pleading had gotten me to accept the invitation of the Oakland Jewish Community to deliver the main address at their Tercentenary Service scheduled for June 5. ...
Reconstructionist Jewish Education Today: Evolving the Vision
Shlomo Alkabetz, the Kabbalistic liturgist of “Lecha Dodi,” reminds us that there is a complex relationship between action and intentionality. Of the Sabbath we sing, “Sof ma’aseh b’mach’shava t’chila,” last day to be created but the ideational foundation for all that preceded it.
We might say the same about the ordinal relationship between the chapters in Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization. It turns out that Kaplan’s chapter on Jewish education is the last full chapter of Judaism as a Civilization. Yet, Jewish education is most powerfully the knowledge and reflective thread woven through prayer, ritual, “Tikkun Olam,” and community building. Learning functions this way in John Dewey’s functional philosophy of education to which Kaplan is so deeply indebted.
Although education is the subject of the last chapter in Judaism as a Civilization, for any number of ideological and editorial reasons one could certainly make a case for Jewish education being the first chapter – if one is looking for the best tool for creating the new blueprints for Jewish civilization that Kaplan envisions. We are at our best not only a “people of the book,” but also a “learning people,” always using our reflective capacities to improve Jewish and world civilization.
I confess to a certain brazen advocacy for Jewish education here, but these observations also point to an important forthcoming joint project of the Kaplan Center and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. How do we refine and reconstruct our Kaplanian vision of Jewish education in order for it to function effectively in 2017? Next fall and winter a group of rabbis, educators, and rabbinical students will be devoting themselves to this important challenge. During the fall, participants will be enriching their own educational dreams through a deep, critical study of Kaplan’s chapter on Jewish education, as well as through creative and imaginative educational programs most responsive to the unique needs of our time.
Based on these initial fall explorations, these same participants will gather at RRC for four days at the end of January 2017. Participants will update their colleagues on their reshaped and deepened dreams of a transformative educational project. Collectively, they have one other crucial task to complete: Rewrite Kaplan’s chapter on Jewish education in the form of a set of design principles for 21st century Reconstructionist Jewish education.
Ambitious? Of course, but ayn zo aggadah, it is no hollow dream. If we commit our best educational thinking and collegiality to the project, I have no doubt that what we will generate will be of great use to Jewish educators of all orientations throughout North America.