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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“The Confessions of a Kaplan Disciple”
The April 2016 "Wrestling with Jewish Peoplehood" conference in Philadelphia sponsored by the Kaplan Center and others was provocative and stimulating. It also made clear once more that there are people who think Mordecai Kaplan is merely of historical interest and not relevant to the problems of contemporary Jewry. What follows is my sense of Kaplan’s relevance.
I have been wandering in the desert of Mordecai Kaplan’s prose for more than forty years. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have climbed the mountain many times, and there have been a multitude of revelations or wonderful flashes of insight. At times I burst from my study and shout to my wife, “I am epiphing, I am epiphing, I finally got it.” For these many years, Kaplan has sustained me and given me guidance and given my life meaning. In short, I have become a faithful disciple, but as such I have given my teacher the respect of disagreeing with him and offering a version of his thought which he might have found unfamiliar at times.
Let me put it another way: the Kaplan that means so much to me is not necessarily the Kaplan that others understand. ...
For Mel's latest book, 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.
For Mel's blog, 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." ...
Audio and Video Archives
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.
You can watch or listen to recordings of recent Kaplan Center programs by clicking here.
News from the Kaplan Center
Not yet on our e-mail list? We would love to add you. Please e-mail Dan Cedarbaum, at [email protected].
The Kaplan Conversations
We are happy to offer you a new venture from the Kaplan Center. Each month, we will present a selection from the recently published Communings of the Spirit – The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Volume 2: 1934–1941, edited by Mel Scult. 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.
For the Cognoscenti: The Kaplan Quiz (Round 8)
On December 8, 1950, a modern Orthodox rabbi in Pittsburgh named Morris Landes wrote to Rabbi Kaplan to introduce the work that would become Rabbi Landes’ doctoral dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh, an “analysis of the varying conceptions of the mitzvot massiot held by accepted leaders of American Jewish thought in the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox ranks.” Rabbi Landes asked Rabbi Kaplan “to list ten men in the general Conservative ranks and ten among the Reconstructionists, who would be considered accepted leaders of their denominational thought. It is understood that the same names may appear in both lists. There is no desire here to put you in the difficult position of choosing the ten leaders of your denomination, merely ten representative leaders of denominational thought, whose published works are available, with the understanding that there might be others who might equally appear on this list.”
In a letter dated December 21, 1950, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein replied to Rabbi Landes on behalf of Rabbi Kaplan. Rabbi Eisenstein wrote that Rabbi Landes’ letter “was discussed by [Rabbi Kaplan] and one or two of us in the Reconstructionist Foundation office, and I am pleased to submit herewith the names of ten Reconstructionists whom you might want to use for your study. I think that it would be best for you to approach the Rabbinical Assembly of America to get the list of ten Conservative men.” (Rabbi Eisenstein for some reason did not mention in his letter that he was then the president of the Rabbinical Assembly.)
The list of Reconstructionist thought leaders set out in Rabbi Eisenstein’s letter included Rabbis Kaplan and Eisenstein themselves as well as Rabbis Eugene Kohn, Jack J. Cohen, and Milton Steinberg, who had died a few months earlier. The other five names on the list are far from obvious.
Question: What is the name of one of those other five people on the Reconstructionist list (two of whom were not rabbis)?
If (as we expect) numerous people correctly identify one of those Reconstructionist thought leaders, the tie will be broken in favor of the person who submits the most correct names. Accordingly, you should do your best to submit five names. (Caution: If you send in more than five names, we will accept the first five and discard the rest.)
Please send your answers to [email protected]. Once again, the first person to answer correctly wins free admission to a Kaplan Center conference or other event. The correct answer will be posted in a few days.
You can see previous Kaplan Quiz questions, and the answers, by clicking here.
For the next year, I will be using this space to post selections from the published writings of Mordecai Kaplan that address issues of continued relevance to Jewish (and non-Jewish) life. Most of these will be passages that are not well known. A new selection will be posted every month.
For each passage chosen, I will provide a brief introduction that places it in its historical context and situates it within the rest of Kaplan’s thought. After each excerpt, I will share my own thoughts on the passage and then invite you to post your own response to it. My hope is that this forum will thereby become a venue for a vibrant discussion of contemporary issues in Jewish life that is in dialogue with the thought of Mordecai Kaplan. Teaching Kaplan at McGill University and elsewhere, I have seen that engaging with Kaplan in this way leads to rich conversations.
This month’s selection is taken from Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers. This book was published by the Reconstructionist Press in 1956 and gathers together many of the “Know how to Answer” columns that Kaplan wrote for The Reconstructionist magazine throughout the 1950s. These columns were responses to questions addressed to Kaplan in writing at lectures given in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (Kaplan insisted that audiences submit their questions on note cards because he believed that this both led to clearer questions and encouraged them to formulate their thoughts as a question.) The book divides the columns thematically—Jewish peoplehood, God, ritual etc.—and each section begins with a significant article published in The Reconstructionist that challenged Kaplan’s approach to the subject, followed by the response that Kaplan published at the time. ...
Text Me: Ancient Jewish Wisdom Meets Contemporary Technology
A play in three acts, taken from one of my scholar in residence weekends:
Act One: I hold up my phone: “What is this?” Quickly the answer comes back: “a smart phone” (of course, technology mavens will immediately debate whether it is important that I showed an Android or an Apple device). When asked about the uses they make of this device, “text people” is often the first response.
Act Two: I hold up a Chumash, Torah with commentary. What is this? With a little coaching, we come to an answer: a sacred text. ...
The full range of Text Me dialogues and presentations can be found here.