The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood

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.

“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.

Mel’s Desk

Kaplan on Creation, Creativity, and Us

Kaplan is much undervalued as a theologian.  We think of him as a sociological thinker, with his central concept of “Judaism as a Civilization.”  But, of course, he is much more than that.  We might refer to him as the sociologist become theologian.  Below we will see the theologian at work.

Kaplan understands that when we talk of creation we mean to refer to the order and unity that comes out of the chaos – out of the Tohu va-Vohu as the Torah puts it.  (I love this expression, not the chaos but the words, because there is so much chaos in my life and in the world that I need to remove.)  The order and the unity that are the primary qualities of creation may be found not only in the outer universe but also in the inner life of each of us.  The inner life is always a reflection of the larger cosmos.  We are connected.  Thus, whenever we create, we are in a sense contributing to the greater order and unity that is the ongoing process of creation. Our creative acts are a manifestation of the Divine. ...

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To order Mel's third volume of Kaplan's journals, click below (and use the discount code FW20):

For Mel's second volume of Kaplan's journals, including a discount code, click below:

Mel discusses his book The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan in a podcast.

For that book, click below:

For an interview with Mel in the New Jersey Jewish News, titled "Judaism should serve the Jewish people," click here.

From the Executive Director

Why a Kaplan Center?

More than 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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News from the Kaplan Center

Not yet on our e-mail list?  We would love to add you.  Please e-mail Dan Cedarbaum, at dan@kaplancenter.org.

The Kaplan Conversations

We are happy to offer you a new venture from the Kaplan Center.  From time to time, we will present a selection from the soon-to-be published Communings of the Spirit – The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Volume 3: 1942–1951, edited by Mel Scult.  (You can pre-order the book, at a substantial discount, by clicking on the cover image to the left on this page.)  We invite you to react to Kaplan’s often radical ideas, to his daily struggles with himself, and to his entanglements with the Jewish community.  We will then put up some of the responses on our website.

So come and join the conversation by clicking here.

The Kaplan Quiz (Round 12)

Please read the following excerpt from Mordecai Kaplan’s diary entry for June 1, 1963:

“Perhaps there is in the vocabulary in all that I have written a term which were better replaced by a less confusing term? I refer of course to the term ‘religious’. Thus, might I not have been better understood, if, instead of referring to Judaism as ‘a religious civilization,’ I would have referred to it as ‘a spiritual civilization’. Actually, ‘spiritual’ might well serve as the equivalent of the term ‘holy’. It would have the advantage of being a term which suffuses the entire Bible, whereas ‘religious’ is definitely a foreign importation, with an implication that limits it to taboos. In other words the term religion has the connotation of טומאה [tumah-ritual impurity], whereas the term spirituality the connotation of קדושה [kedushah-holiness].”

Which Jewish leader, with whom Kaplan had personal conversations during the preceding week, did he identify as the inspiration for this thought?

Was it:

(a) Rabbi Alan Miller

(b) Rabbi Ira Eisenstein

(c) Moshe Sharett

(d) David Ben-Gurion

(e) Rabbi David Polish

(f) Rabbi Robert Gordis

Please send your answers to dan@kaplancenter.org.  Once again, the first person who answers the question correctly gets free admission to a Kaplan Center conference or other event.  The correct answer will be posted within a couple of weeks.

You can see previous Kaplan Quiz questions, and the answers, by clicking here.

Eric’s Forum

Kaplan and Birmingham (1963)

While working on a project for The Ira and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein Reconstructionist Archives of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (here), I came across a letter to Mordecai Kaplan from Rabbi Everett Gendler, a prominent student of Kaplan’s who is still living, thanking Kaplan for his speech to the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly (RA) convention of 1963 and for his role in “ma[king] it possible for the Rabbinical Assembly to speak as it should have on the Birmingham Situation.”

Gendler, a member of the convention’s program committee, had in the previous year participated in prayer vigils and protests in Albany, Georgia, in support of Civil Rights. He led a group of 19 Conservative rabbis who left the 1963 RA convention to go to Birmingham, Alabama to support Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in their on-going efforts to desegregate the city. (To learn more about Rabbi Gendler, click here.) King’s campaign was front-page news at the time because of the city’s use of attack dogs and high-pressure water cannons on protesters of all ages and its arrest of more than a thousand activists.

The RA delegation to Birmingham, the first to be sent to the South by a major American Jewish religious denomination, has a storied place in the history of American Jews and the Civil Rights movement. Kaplan, however, is never associated with it. I wondered: What is Gendler’s letter referring to? I found the answer in Kaplan’s diaries and in the 1963 volume of the Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly. ...

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Education Corner

Jeffrey Schein

Lifelong Spirituality and God Connection

I am writing this piece on Groundhog Day, so readers will excuse me if a long shadow accompanies it. I will try to counter this phenomenon by practicing the fine Jewish art of saying what one wants to say al regel achat, briefly enough to be able both to stand and to write on one foot.

I am very excited to be offering Kaplan Center followers a new resource in the form of an e-book, Lifelong Spirituality and God Connection: A Kaplanesque Suite of Learning Resources, which you can find here.

The foreword to the volume captures what I hope the reader will find as s/he explores the volume:

Jewish tradition revels in the magic of the number three. This volume is fashioned out of three Jewish values:

רוחניות: spirituality that is deeply implanted within us;
ספר החיים: learning that is life-long;
אלוהות: the Kaplanian conviction that God and godliness are experienced within and around us as well as beyond us.

Enjoy the deep meaning that comes out of the interplay of the three!

Also, please note that our 21st-century Kaplanian resources for Jewish education have been greatly enriched through the work of Rabbi Erin Hirsh. Please visit these expanded resources here.

Jeffrey Schein can be reached at jeffrey@kaplancenter.org.

 

The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood

1574 Ashland Avenue, Evanston, IL 60201
Phone: 847-492-5200