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The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood

    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

    Pandemic, Pods, and Havurot

    Jonathan Rosen in The Talmud and the Internet (2000) explored the meandering, highly associational nature of Talmudic thought.  A word or phrase in one context is connected with lightning-like speed with the same word or phrase in a different passage, and a new meaning is often derived from the connection.

    I had this quintessentially Talmudic experience over breakfast the other day. My wife, who shares the newspaper with me (how quaint, I know), passed on the article In Pod We Trust from the November 11 Minneapolis Star Tribune.  As I read of the four criteria for forming a good pod, my mind was cascading back to both my own experiences and the literature about Jewish Havurot (friendship circles).  Eventually, I hope to create a dialogue between the list of criteria for establishing pandemic pods from the Star Tribune article with a list of criteria for establishing Jewish Havurot.

    PODS: INTIMATE AND SAFE DURING THE PANDEMIC 

    Thoroughly assess potential pod mates;The four criteria offered for forming an effective pod during the pandemic were:

    1. Keep your pod small;
    2. Agree on clear rules for members to follow; and
    3. Be willing to change course quickly.

    In a very real way, the desire to establish real time pods also reflects Zoom fatigue.  With all due appreciation for the essential zoom connections Zoom is providing the pandemic, people are now  resonating to the tropes heard from David Sax in The Revenge of Analogue (2016) and Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brain (2011).  From the shadows of the surreal life we have been experiencing, people hunger for the real.  People are longing for intimacy that includes feeling and touching as well as seeing and hearing.  The guidelines in the Star Tribune article are largely about restoring this intimacy in ways that are both physically and emotionally safe.

    Havurot: A Different Kind of Search for Intimacy and Contact

    In 1961, Rabbi Jacob Neusner responded to a different kind of problem with not being seen or heard.  In his monograph on The Havurah Idea published by the Reconstructionist Press, Neusner outlined a program for establishing a new kind of pod, a group of like-minded Jews looking to study and celebrate Judaism together.  These were Jews who were lost in the largeness of mega-synagogues, hence neither seen nor heard in institutional Jewish life.  The pandemic of their time was of the neshama (soul) and lev (heart) and not the guf (body).

    We might call this the formation of “spiritual and cultural pods”.  Neusner suggested that the formation of these pods would be marked by five guiding principles:

    1. The Havurah should take its particular character from the fundamental concerns of Jewish faith and tradition;
    2. The Havurah should seek fellowship rather than simply friendship;
    3. The Havurah should aim at the personal involvement of each member in the achievement of its purposes;
    4. The Havurah should set mundane, tentative, and austere goals  and
    5. The Havurah should be regarded under the aspect of time, as an institution that happens at the moment of its own re-creation.

    Comparison and Contrast of Criteria for Pods and Havurot 

    Comparing and contrasting the criteria for the formation of pods and Havurot leads to some insights and, ultimately, a proposal for when we return to the “new normal” in Jewish life.

    When will that new normal emerge:  in 2021?  2022?  2023?  This very uncertainty points to the importance of adaptability embodied in both sets of criteria.  It also echoes the focus on goals that are “mundane, tentative, and austere”.  One might add “nimble” to that short list as well.  Expectations that are so ambitious as to be unrealizable in this pandemic era are not helpful.  Projecting a full Jewish life immediately for a Havurah that requires three to five years of nurturing (Rosen, 1995, Stroiman, 1984) is similarly unhelpful.

    The imagery of a pod is also striking and applies to both types of communities.  The outer shell of strict rules and procedures for the living-together pod allows immune systems to adjust and keeps out intrusions of disease.  Jews joining a Havurah are often at a delicate stage of their own Jewish journey and need the protection of small size and intimacy to grow apart from other demanding exigencies of Jewish life.

    An Ending Big Idea 

    I end with a “big idea”.  I encourage our rabbis, professional educators, and volunteer leaders to think creatively about the “new normal” that will come to our congregations and other Jewish institutions (bimheirah b’yameinu, speedily in our time).  Let’s not be deceived by the rejoicing that will occur as we can move beyond pandemic-restricted groups of 25 or ten to a happy hamon (throng) of 100 or more Jews.  Let’s have in place for this return small-group and other community structures that can sustain the joy and intimacy in the long run.  This unique moment on the horizon is full of potential to address a long-standing issue in Jewish life.

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    The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood

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