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 4)
On December 6, 1949, in a speech to a conference of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, Mordecai Kaplan proposed the formal recognition of "Rightist, Centrist and Leftist groups" within the Conservative movement, and in particular the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. [The speech was reprinted in Mordecai Waxman ed., Tradition and Change: The Development of Conservative Judaism (New York: The Burning Bush Press, 1958), pp. 289-312.] Kaplan believed that a sympathetic discussion of his proposal at the conference led by a particular prominent figure in the Conservative movement would have made its acceptance more likely, and Kaplan was very disappointed when that person declined to lead that discussion. On December 2, 1949, that person sent Kaplan the following letter:
[Courtesy of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Archives.]
Who wrote this letter?
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.
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. ...
It has been my privilege these past few months to have worked on a suite of educational resources.
I have labeled each of these five resources as a matana (gift) in honor of Shavuot, z’man matan Torateinu, the time of the Jewish people’s accepting the gift of Torah. But of course to "receive" has many levels of meaning. I hope many of you will not only receive these in your inbox but also find them a source of stimulation for you as a Jewish educator, whether professionally or otherwise. Working their way into your lev (mind/heart) is the real prize.
These resources include a report on the educational issues emerging from the Wrestling with Jewish Peoplehood conference, a Kaplanian report card for our efforts in Jewish education, a child’s biography of Mordecai Kaplan, a set of activities designed to help teens explore their own God thinking, and a reflection about Jewish education in the digital age.
We have posted the new educational resources here. Please begin by watching the four-minute orientation video on that page. Enjoy!