Understanding the Layers of Our 21st Century Kaplanian Vision of Jewish Education

The components of our 21st Century Kaplanian vision of Jewish Education are the product of a multi-faceted two year process.

PaRDeS, a traditional acronym for Jewish meaning-making, offers a helpful way to introduce you to many of the layers that this project encompasses.

  • P’shat – simple, straightforward meaning
  • Remez – suggested, “hinted at,” hidden meaning
  • D’rash – interpreted meaning
  • Sod – evolving, philosophical meaning

P’shat: Kaplan’s 20th Century Vision of Jewish Education as Described in Judaism as a Civilization

The peshat of the new Kaplanian vision are selections from the 1934 Judaism as a Civilization chapter on Jewish education volume that seem to have stood the test of time. They still cast brilliant light on the contemporary challenges of Jewish education. We call them Kaplanian gems and they are presented in three different formats: bare as stand alone selections (Option A), “adorned” with overarching questions to contemplate while reading these texts (Option B), and with targeted questions to consider while studying specific texts (Option C).

The reader we hope would ask, “how did we arrived at these selections?” The answer is that over 30 rabbis and educators were invited to re-engage with this chapter through a methodology I call the “color coded” hermeneutic. It is adapted from a scholarly work of Jacob Friedman called The Polychrome Haggadah which color coded the contributive threads of our contemporary haggadah according to biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern-contemporary sources with each source being assigned a specific color.

The adaptation for our purposes involved inviting participants to use three different markers to indicate which elements from the 1934 chapter:

  1. Foundational challenges of our work in Jewish education in 2019
  2. Selections that belong to a “by gone” era in terms of addressing the audiences Kaplan was addressing; put briefly, his challenges not ours.
  3. Passages that still seem relevant but our in need of adaptation or reconstruction to address our contemporary needs.

The selections from Kaplan are the “Gems” that resonated most with the seminar participants.

Remez: Kaplanian Frameworks and the DNA of American Jewish Life

As Charles Leibman observed in 1969 there are ways in which Kaplan’s thought reflected the “folk religion” of American Jewish life. Unsurprisingly and by extension, the notion of “Judaism as an Evolving Religious Civilization,” “peoplehood,” and “multiple pathways to God” are implicit constructs for many curricular materials and approaches in contemporary Jewish education. It hardly needs a Kaplanian label because in that sense the notion has become part of the DNA of contemporary Jewish education.

We have included an array of Educational Resources that reflect Kaplanian concepts implicitly or explicitly. They include a variety of curricula as well as tools for educators geared for a variety of different populations and age groups. We want to particularly thank Reconstructing Judaism for generously allowing us to share their materials in conjunction with this project.

D’rash: A New 21st Century Kaplanian Vision with Commentary

A think tank of a dozen rabbis, educators, and lay leaders revisited the chapter along with the issues that had been raised about the nature of a Kaplanian vision in a seminar sponsored by Reconstructing Judaism and the Mordecai Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. They also viewed the vision from the perspective of the newest tag line for the Reconstructing Judaism movement, developing a Judaism that was simultaneously “deeply rooted and boldly relevant.” Out of these deliberations the author crafted a “21st Century Kaplanian Vision of Jewish Education,” which was circulated among the participants for further critique. After additional revisions, a dozen rabbis and educators were invited to provide commentary on the vision.

This new vision and the commentary it generated are presented under the rubric of D’rash.   

Sod: Ongoing, Evolving Meaning

To paraphrase Rav Kook, we have a dual obligation to “make the old new” and to “make the new holy.” In this section, we present some of the central challenges to a 21st Century Kaplanian Vision of Jewish Education. The challenges are presented in distinct formats designed to facilitate an understanding of the unique nature of each challenge.

Exploring the 21st Century Vision through the Lens of its Challenges

  1. The Challenge of Educational Goals: Language, Concept, and Context
  2. The Challenge of Authenticity and Relevance
  3. The Challenge of New Paradigms
  4. The Challenge of Assessment & “Measuring Up” (The Kaplanian Report Card)