Context: A Lifetime of Writings

Kaplan’s Chapter on Jewish Education in the Context of All His Writing on the Subject

Dr. Mel Scult, a co-founder and Vice President & Secretary of the Kaplan Center, is the author of The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan and Judaism Faces the Twentieth-Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan. He is the editor of selections from Kaplan’s diary, Communings of the Spirit. Here Dr. Scult describes the context of Kaplan’s chapter on Jewish education in Judaism as a Civilization in the context of all of Kaplan’s writings about Jewish education.

Kaplan and Education

Nietzsche famously tells us that all philosophy is really a matter of biography. Following his direction in looking at the biography of Mordecai Kaplan we find that he was deeply involved with education on many levels over most of his life. To understand the essence of the Kaplanian revolution we must look at the philosophy that flows from his educational efforts.    

His educational activities covered a wide spectrum. For more than fifty years Kaplan taught Midrash to rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. At the same time he was the founder and directed the Teachers Institute for the first half of the twentieth century. All the major figures in American education in those years were his students [e.g. Leo Honor, Isaac Berkson, Israel Chipkin, Alexander Dushkin Samuel Dinin]. Additionally, Kaplan taught at Columbia Teachers College from time to time and at The School for Jewish Social Work. It is perhaps emblematic of his stature that in the thirties when he spent two years in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University he was professor of education. Alexander Dushkin, his former student, who had established the department of education at the Hebrew University was the one who arranged his appointment. 

To understand Kaplan’s philosophy of education we must begin with a short statement on his general ideology. He understood that Judaism can only be reconstructed if individual Jews will reconstruct themselves. Reconstructing yourself or remaking yourself is a very tall order but it is the only way in which individuals can reach their full potential. To reach one’s full potential was the goal of religion in general and of Judaism in particular. Kaplan called it salvation. 

Salvation for Kaplan meant  three things – growth, creativity and integration. Growth and religion were identical for Kaplan. In his diary he put it this way: “ . . . growth itself is a prerequisite to making the most out of life, for growth is the progressive realization of the potentialities latent in us, potentialities physical, mental, social and spiritual. Growth is thus a prerequisite to finding life worth while.” [ Kaplan Diary, December 16, 1942] 

Salvation for Jews came only by means of Torah and Torah for Kaplan meant life long moral education. John Dewey one of Kaplan’s primary mentors famously said that education is not preparation for life it is life. 

Education means to become fully aware of the ideals for which we strive, and to show how these ideals might be realized in everyday life.  We might characterize the spiritual person as one who lives in the light of the ideals. Under this definition Kaplan was certainly a spiritual man. We must help those whom we teach to become as truly spiritual as they are able

Kaplans philosophy is really the democratization of Judaism and of religion. At the core of the democratic faith is the sacredness of the individual. This does not mean any kind of narcissistic egotism but the highest regard for the right of every individual to a life of their own with the safeguards of equality before the law and in general the rule of law. Educationally this means the curriculum must be used in every way to help students at all levels explore their own unique life plan and the way that the Jewish experience might aid them in this quest. 

To set our minds on  democracy  as the meaning of the life of the individual is not unusual.  What is novel is that Kaplan makes these goals the center of the religious quest and demands that Jewish sources and the mitzvah system be the means to accomplish these goals.  

The honest quest for Jewish identity is always our primary goal but it is only the beginning. Honesty was one of the supreme virtues for Kaplan, particularly when it came to religious belief. Jewish education must at all levels stress the openness what allows each individual to say what he really thinks – about ritual, about prayer, about synagogues and rabbis. Thus Kaplan states at one point “for economics the ideal is proportionate opportunity, for education [which includes the whole range of human culture] the ideal is freedom and for politics the ideal is fraternity.” [November 22, 1944].

To be really free means to be able to be honest with ourselves and with our peers. For Kaplan, it was only though the honest search for who we are, that people are able to be religious, to explore their identity and to orient themselves to their community and to the world. 

The twin foundations on which education stands for Kaplan are honesty and orientation. As Kaplan puts it, “The human being in his self-adjustment to life is dependent upon orientation [Kaplan Diary, March 21, 1940].” The individual must be oriented toward his community, toward his nation, toward humanity as a whole and toward the cosmos. 

We meed to understand that the tradition was the product of our basic need for orientation. As Kaplan states, “The great value which the religious tradition had for mankind lay not so much in the specific beliefs and practices that it prescribed as in the general orientation that it provided. As a result of such orientation human beings felt at home in the world. Men struggled and suffered, but they had, so to speak, a roof over their heads. Nowadays, they no longer have that feeling of being at home in the world. The sense of homelessness, of forlornness dampens all our joys and adds torment to our sorrows.” [February 8, 1950].  

Because the tradition no longer provides the orientation we need, we must create a new orientation which will allow us to feel at home. We must build a new structure which will house us and which will make us feel secure. Kaplan challenges himself and us, our leaders rabbis and educators to create this new structure.