• 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.

The Kaplan Conversations

For our second offering, as we count the steps of the Omer from Egypt to Sinai, we are naturally drawn to the question of how best to help to implement the Torah’s vision of a just society.  Does the Torah lay out a specific agenda, or only broad goals?  And when, and how, should Jewish communal leaders speak out on political issues that transcend parochial Jewish interests?

Here is the selection:

Should Rabbis Speak Out On “Non-Jewish” Social Issues?

Wednesday, January 3, 1940

“I somehow could never accept Karl Marx's version of what he calls the class struggle.  All I could see was that there are people who have power and those who lack it, but the former exploit the latter and are on the lookout for any signs of rebellion on the part of the exploited. But once in a while I cannot help being impressed with the reality of the class struggle.  Ira [Eisenstein] and I have a difficult time with the few leading members of the SAJ because they sense that we are not in sympathy with the status quo.  They sabotage the Reconstructionist because once in a while it comes out with an editorial attacking some flagrant evil of the present social order.  The following are instances of what we have to put up with: …

Joseph Levy stated to me at one of the luncheons I had with him a couple of weeks ago, that the Reconstructionist had no right to attack Mayor Hague of Jersey City for keeping out the CIO from his city … .  Joseph Levy said that the Reconstructionist should confine itself to matters of direct Jewish interest only, and that in our preaching and writing we should avoid dealing with specific evils, but try to uphold the general principles of ethics.”  (Communings of the Spirit, Volume 2, pp. 199-200)

Let us hear from you.  Post your comments below.  

Our first offering deals with religious observance, particularly with the Sabbath.  Kaplan, from a traditional home, always took the tradition seriously, although he passionately wanted to make it relevant and functional.  The “vote” in “The ancient authorities are entitled to a vote—but not to a veto” (Not So Random Thoughts, p. 263) was not merely rhetoric for him.

Here is the selection:

Conflicts about writing on the Sabbath

Saturday night, April 18, 1936

“Last night I wanted badly to write in this journal some of the things I had on my mind, but I could not get myself to do it.  Some years ago I managed to overcome my scruples against writing on Sabbath, but I have not been able to develop complete equanimity with regard to writing on the Sabbath as I have developed, say, with regard to turning on the lights.  Basically, I believe the main cause of the inhibition against writing on Sabbath is not any inherent objection on the ground that writing is not in consonance with the Sabbath spirit.  On the contrary, affording me as it does spiritual pleasure, I should feel perfectly at ease about it. I think, therefore, that I have been inhibited mainly by the consideration that even those who are in sympathy with my views are under the impression that I do not write on the Sabbath.  I therefore do not want to do anything in the privacy of my room which I would not do freely in their presence.  The Rabbinic principle davar he-asur mi-shum marit ayin afilu be-hadrei hadarim asur [Heb., something which is forbidden because of appearances is forbidden even in the most private place] is undoubtedly valid from an ethical standpoint.”  (Communings of the Spirit
, Volume 2, pp. 71-72)




Submitted by Ruth SMith (not verified) on
I think he nails it. He has raised the issues around a thoughtful response to reconstructing the tradition. On the one hand writing is a spiritual pleasure for him. How else can he get out what he has to say? He needs to write as a fulfillment of his spiritual needs. When he writes about his thoughts he is in an eternal conversation. Isn't that what Shabbat is all about-- making time to be in eternal conversation. Shabbat is a time for getting away from the mundane and entering into the realm of the holy. For Kaplan, being in conversation with himself (one of his favorite chevruta partners) and writing, so that we who come after him can see his thoughts, would fit that bill. However, there is the technicality. He isn't supposed to write. Can we just throw out the tradition? I love that he wants to be fully ethical, and not get away with writing. He wants to know that what he does anywhere meets the same standards as what he does in front of anyone. I think this piece is a great way to look at the issue of reconstruction. It gets at the main points of what it means to reconstruct.

Submitted by Nadav (not verified) on
Kaplan's insight makes a very interesting point on the importance of having some personal unifying standard, although in such 'Bein Adam la-Makom' [between human and God] issues there may be certain exceptions. And still, Kaplan is stressing the importance of the social ... in Judaism. Yishar-Ko'ach to the Kaplan center for this new interactive platform!

Submitted by Daniel G. Cedarbaum on
Thanks, Ruth and Nadav. What I find fascinating about this diary entry is that it reveals a man at once completely steeped in Rabbinic culture and yet engaging in an entirely unconventional analysis of a halakhic issue. From what we know of Kaplan’s writing habits (not on Shabbat!), and from the fact that what he presents is a slight paraphrase, we can be pretty certain that Kaplan’s recitation, in Hebrew, of a technical Rabbinic principle regarding marit ayin (appearances) is from memory. And yet no rabbi talking about writing on Shabbat from a conventional halakhic perspective would see it as a matter of marit ayin; rather, it would be viewed simply as a violation of the core prohibition of writing on Shabbat.

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