Kaplan takes Judaism personally. It is a magnificent obsession with him. I have a suspicion that just as the mystics of old used to stay up at midnight worrying about the Shekhina, he stays up at midnight doing Tikkun Hatzos [a vigil] and worrying about the Jewish people.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking at Kaplan’s 90th birthday celebration
Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) is now widely acknowledged to have been one of the two or three most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. The goal of The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood is to insure that the influence of Kaplan’s thought in the 21st century is commensurate with that stature.
Why is this task so important? When in about 40 years some of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be considering maintaining their Jewish identity in North America, we are virtually certain that among the options available to them will be a variety of healthy Orthodox and near-Orthoprax communities.
We are much less confident that they will be able to find a liberal community that is intellectually vibrant, emotionally fulfilling and programmatically daring, and at the same time is strongly rooted in the Rabbinic Jewish past that, in Kaplan’s famous words, should always have a vote but not a veto. Increasing the chances that such serious, but religiously progressive, alternatives in Jewish communal life will exist for our descendants is of vital importance to us, and we believe that implementation of Kaplan’s agenda for the reconstruction of North American Judaism is the best way to do so. This agenda ranges from the creation of new Hebrew liturgical materials to the production of new Jewish music and art to the redefinition of the fundamental concept of the kehilla, of the community. Most of this agenda, surprisingly, still awaits any attempt at implementation.
We are emboldened by the remarkable extent to which our belief in the importance of Kaplan’s agenda is shared by none other than one of the most important contemporary modern-Orthodox thinkers, Rabbi David Hartman. In an article published in March 2010 titled Redemption and the rational mind, Hartman reveals that,
“In search of a little religious sobriety, I recently began revisiting the work of Mordecai Kaplan, the great 20th century Jewish thinker … and founder of the Reconstructionist movement. The crucial question for Kaplan is how do the commandments percolate into the lifestream of the Jewish people? How do the rituals shape us ethically? How do the mitzvot propel us to become full human beings and reach our powers of ethical personality? In other words, how does Judaism impact us in the quest for human self-realization?*
*David Hartman, Redemption and the rational mind, The Jerusalem Post, March 29, 2010.
Hartman goes on to make the following compelling case for the Kaplanian approach to Judaism:
What Kaplan wanted was to make Judaism real as an experience, not as a supernatural obsession. He did not believe that revelation meant God breaking into history. He believed that Judaism is not most essentially from God; it is, rather, the Jewish people’s prayer to God. In Kaplan’s understanding, it is not that the Jewish people exist in order to serve God and to obey the commandments; the commandments exist to help the Jewish people access a sense of possibility for their own moral future. Judaism is the Jewish people’s way of maintaining God consciousness in our souls. … Redemption is not otherworldly salvation at the end of time. It’s not the World to Come or Resurrection of the Dead. For Kaplan, redemption is not something that’s going to happen at the end of days when we’ll all be instructed to pack our bags and welcome the Messiah. Redemption is an individual’s growth into a complete human being, a person who fulfills all of his or her aptitudes. Redemption is not an abstract philosophical or theological construct, but a fine-tuning of the human soul that helps us to love more and to be more sensitive. It creates a meaningful pattern of self- fulfillment.
We hear too often that Kaplan’s program is out of date, or even that we have evolved beyond Kaplan. This position seems to us to be fundamentally mistaken, regardless of whether it is based on simple ignorance (as it sometimes is) or on a more or less disguised dislike of Kaplan’s religious naturalism and alleged hyper-rationalism (as it sometimes is). In fact, Kaplan’s basic ideas remain amazingly fresh and vital. To be sure, some of Kaplan’s writings deal with a socio-historical context, involving in particular overt anti-Semitism and issues particular to new immigrants and their children, that is not ours and so may largely
be of historical interest only. But we are convinced that the central challenge to which Kaplan responded, that of how one could live a committed Jewish life within a North American civilization that is wonderfully free, open and welcoming but at the same time exerts enormous assimilative pressures, is still our central challenge. We believe this to be so even though, as the now near-cliché goes, Kaplan was dealing primarily with Jews who needed to learn how to be Americans while we are dealing primarily with Americans who need to learn how to be Jews.
And what is the essential Kaplanian commitment? Leading Kaplan scholar Mel Scult has proposed the following: That to be a Jew, one must identify with the great drama that is the life of the Jewish people. To be a part of that drama, we must converse with the Jews of the past and use their experiences and their wisdom to transcend ourselves. We must make their world, in all of its manifold aspects, a part of our world so that we may restore and renew ourselves.‖ And to paraphrase the words of Rabbi Emanuel Goldsmith, we revere Kaplan, not as hero worship, but because he legitimized dissent and rationality in religious belief. Kaplan was fundamentally a pluralist, believing that many different Jewish paths could lead to communal and individual fulfillment.
For centuries the reigning view among those devoted to the Jewish tradition was that the Jewish people were there to serve Judaism. Kaplan asserted once and for all that Judaism was there to serve the Jewish people. This view was revolutionary, and we have not yet begun to absorb the full impact of that revolution.
We understand Kaplan’s assertion that Judaism is there to serve the Jewish people‖ to mean all the Jewish people, women and men alike. His vanguard ideas with respect to women’s equality in Jewish law are the necessary consequence of his total rational philosophy of Judaism. In the last half century Kaplan’s revolutionary ideas regarding the status of Jewish women have been heeded and implemented in many parts of the Jewish world, but the task is not yet complete.
We understand Judaism to be the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. We therefore choose not to use the term Kaplanian Judaism.
Rather, we speak of an approach to Judaism, that is, a lens through which we view the past, present and future of the Jewish people. In other words, we do not believe that we, or any other individual or group, can determine what Judaism is or will become; what we can do, and strive to do, is to promote pluralistic experimentation as a means to enhance the evolutionary process and to help clear the Jewish life-path of dogmas or ideological requirements that are stumbling blocks for so many contemporary Jews.
Our understanding of Judaism causes us to affirm the centrality of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, in the grand narrative of Jewish history. We assert that an individual’s or a community’s ability to participate fully in the life of the Jewish people is not, and should never be, dependent on her, his or its acceptance of any form of supernaturalism, or dogmas of any kind.
We are committed to renewing, in our rapidly changing world, the covenantal balance between the individual and the community that Jewish law and philosophy, and the ritual calendar, so wisely cultivate. We are committed to unveiling the Jewish tradition as an ancient yet fully contemporary way to attain what Kaplan called salvation – what others might call self-actualization or full mentshlikhkayt. Kaplan’s intent was not merely to salvage Judaism from the erosive force of modernism, but to cultivate the Jewish tradition’s soul-changing and world-changing potential in our modern world. We seek the same.
While we celebrate the flourishing of a variety of Jewish languages, and particularly of Yiddish and Ladino, in different places and at different times, we affirm that the Hebrew language has played a unique role in unifying the Jewish people throughout its history. We believe that any segment of the Jewish people in which a basic level of Hebrew literacy is not widespread will not long thrive.
We proudly affirm the central importance throughout much of Jewish history of a longing for the re-establishment of a home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel, and we are passionately committed to preserving that homeland now that it is a reality. We also believe that Judaism’s insistence on the pursuit of justice, including for the stranger among us, applies as much in the State of Israel as anywhere else.
We believe that the Kaplanian approach to Judaism can strengthen each of the existing denominational movements and have a positive influence on the lives of individual Jews regardless of their levels of observance, or even, within limits, their theologies. We resist use of the term post-denominational, but we embrace use of the term trans-denominational, and in doing so we recognize that none of the above is becoming a sizable denomination.
Simply put, the mission of the Kaplan Center is to disseminate and promote the thought and writings of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan and to advance the agenda of the Kaplanian approach to Judaism in the 21st century. On a more concrete level, we expect that the Kaplan Center’s initial agenda will include the following projects and programs, some of which are already in process:
The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood is an independent organization. The Kaplan Center works in cooperation with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation but has no affiliation with any of those organizations.