• 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 Quiz

Round 7

Question:  What well-known rabbi claimed, in 1974, that he had persuaded Kaplan to add the word “religious” to his original definition of Judaism as “the evolving civilization of the Jewish people”?  (Hint:  That rabbi at the same time reported that he had turned down Kaplan’s invitation to serve on the first editorial board of The Reconstructionist magazine forty years earlier.) 

Answer:  Robert Gordis.  

The prize goes to Rabbi Dennis Sasso, who set a new speed record by responding correctly within five minutes of our sending the question. Extremely honorable mention to Miriam Eisenstein, Benjamin Goldberg, Rabbi Richard Libowitz (the previous speed-record holder), and Marc Swetlitz, all of whom answered correctly, just a little less quickly. 

Round 6

In a June 1972 letter, the writer said of the recipient that “you, and you only [were] the founder” of the Reconstructionist movement. 

Question:  Who wrote the letter, and to whom?

(a)  Louis Finkelstein to Mordecai Kaplan

(b)  Mordecai Kaplan to Ira Eisenstein

(c)  Ira Eisenstein to Mordecai Kaplan

(d)  Mordecai Kaplan to Harold Schulweis

(e)  None of the above  

Answer:  (b)  Mordecai Kaplan to Ira Eisenstein

The prize goes (again) to Rabbi Zachary Silver, whose expertise on Kaplan is evident elsewhere on this website. Extremely honorable mention to Abraham Clott, Ron Glickman, David Goldfarb, Rabbi Richard Hirsh, Eric Levine, Alan Marcum, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, Rabbi Dennis Sasso, Carol Stern, and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, all of whom answered correctly, just less quickly.   

Round 5

Question:  What well-known rabbi wrote the following in his synagogue bulletin dated December 16, 1949?

"I am closest in spirit to Reconstructionism.  My disagreements with it are minor.  My approach to the Halachah and my conception of a modern Prayer Book may be somewhat to the right or left of it as you please. … The Prayer Book should be much briefer, less apologetic, argumentative, and sermonic than the Reconstructionists have made it.  The Jews of to-day may perhaps still form the habit of praying if we give him [sic] little, and direct that little to his emotions.  In other words, a service in our day must become, within our modern setting, what it was at its inception—drama, pageantry, song.  It would make me happier if … the Reconstructionists realized that for those of us who take a modern view of revelation the theological discussion of the selection [sic] of Israel has become superfluous and monotonous; and … if they were less vague about their community approach.  But there is blessing in what the Reconstructionists have thus far done, and of all of our present Jewish ideologies they hold out the greatest promise."

Answer:  Rabbi Solomon Goldman

The prize goes to Professor (and Rabbi) Alan Brill, of Seton Hall University.

The bulletin was that of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, the congregation that Rabbi Goldman served from 1929 until his death in 1953.  Goldman was a devoted student of Kaplan's, and, in addition to being one of the great pulpit rabbis of the 20th century, Goldman was one of the most important leaders of the American Zionist movement.  

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.]

Question:  Who wrote this letter?

Answer:  Rabbi Milton Steinberg

Rabbi Steinberg, who died, tragically, at the age of 46 just a few months after having written this letter, was one of Kaplan's most brilliant disciples and one of the great pulpit rabbis of the mid-20th century.

The prize goes to Rabbi Zachary Silver, whose expertise on Kaplan is evident elsewhere on this website.  Popular answers to this question were Rabbi Louis Finkelstein and Rabbi Robert Gordis, both of which are good guesses.

Kaplan stated, more than once, that he believed that Louis Finkelstein, then the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was prepared to support Kaplan's 1949 proposal until convinced not to do so by another member of the JTS faculty. Kaplan speculated that the objecting faculty member was Saul Lieberman (see Round 2 of the Kaplan Quiz, below).   

Round 3

Question:  Who wrote the following (in 1974)?

"If I had known about philosophy and theology what I have come to know since I became a professor of philosophies of religion, I would have refused to continue teaching under that title.  Philosophy, as I now know it, is the immaculate conception of thought not sired by experience.  Moreover, in view of Philo's and Maimonides' 'negative theology,' a theologian is a philosopher who admits he does not know what he is talking about and is proud of it."

Answer:  Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

The text comes from a letter, dated May 10, 1974, that Kaplan wrote to his former student Gerson Cohen, then the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.  Kaplan noted at the top of the letter that he did not mail it, without specifying a reason.  

Although his position as a professor of homiletics at JTS is better known, Kaplan was indeed also a professor of philosophies of religion there.  In the letter, Kaplan writes, "You [Cohen], no doubt, recall my having proposed to you that you succeed me when I retired as professor of philosophies of religion."

[Addendum:  We recently came upon the letter from Cohen to Kaplan, dated October 22, 1961, in which Cohen declined Kaplan's invitation:

Courtesy of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Archives.]

The prize goes (again) to Alan Septimus, who threatens to become the Ken Jennings of the Kaplan Quiz.  The most frequently submitted answer to this question was Rabbi Dr. Neil Gillman, Kaplan's student and devoted disciple (and, we are proud to say, Kaplan Center Senior Fellow), who indeed taught philosophy for many years at JTS.  

We are surprised that no one raised the question of whether the writer had conflated (perhaps intentionally?) the doctrine of the immaculate conception with that of the virgin birth, but we will not opine on matters of non-Jewish ideology.  

Round 2

Although deservedly famous as an important and influential Jewish thinker, Mordecai Kaplan is rarely given sufficient credit as a Jewish scholar, particularly in the field of Midrash.  However, at least one very prominent Jewish scholar had great respect for Kaplan's expertise in Midrash, as evinced by the following letter to Kaplan from 1941:

[Courtesy of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Archives.]

Question:  Who wrote this letter?

Answer:  Saul Lieberman, perhaps the 20th century's greatest Rabbinic texts scholar.

This was a very hard question.  (Perhaps we should not have removed the Jewish Theological Seminary letterhead from the letter image, but we thought that would have been too broad a hint.)  

Not surprisingly, only one of you, Professor (and Rabbi) Richard Libowitz, of Temple University, got the correct answer, and he is a Kaplan scholar who had previously read the letter! Among the good, educated guesses were Robert Gordis, Max Kadushin, Louis Ginzberg, J.D. Eisenstein, and Samuel Lachs.

Many have thought that Lieberman's relationship to Kaplan could be captured in a single word: nemesis.  That turns out to be an over-simplification.  Lieberman clearly respected and valued Kaplan's expertise on esoteric Midrash questions. Moreover, although Lieberman has been reported to have "honored" in some ways the Kaplan cherem ("excommunication") in 1945, we have found a letter from Lieberman to Kaplan written (in Hebrew) less than three years later that is, at least to all appearances, extremely respectful.  (One scholar, however, has suggested that at least some of the language in that letter may have been sarcastic.)  Interestingly, according to Kaplan's diary, when in 1959 Lieberman turned up as a guest at a small engagement party for Kaplan and Rivkah Brandstater Rieger, Kaplan was surprised, but apparently pleased, to learn that Lieberman was a cousin of Rivkah's, and so shortly thereafter Lieberman became Kaplan's relative by marriage. For more on the cherem, please see https://kaplancenter.org/herem-text and the two articles linked on the left side of that page.

Round 1

Question:  Who wrote the following passage (published in 1967)?

"Religion is the sum total of the customs and teachings articulated and formulated by the religiosity of a certain epoch in a people's life; its prescriptions and dogmas are rigidly determined and handed down as unalterably binding to all future generations, without regard for their newly developed religiosity, which seeks new forms. Religion is true so long as it is creative; but it is creative only so long as religiosity, accepting the yoke of the laws and doctrines, is able (often without even noticing it) to imbue them with new and incandescent meaning, so that they will seem to have been revealed to every generation anew, revealed today, thus answering man's very own needs, needs alien to their fathers.  But once religious rites and dogmas have become so rigid that religiosity cannot move them or no longer wants to comply with them, religion becomes uncreative and therefore untrue."

(Thanks to Rabbi Shai Held for pointing us to this text.)

Answer:  Martin Buber

The author was an important 20th century Jewish thinker whose first name begins with an "M" ... but not Mordecai Kaplan, as, not surprisingly, quite a number of you thought.

Four of you got it.  We had a tie for first place (chronologically, that is) — congratulations to Joshua Krug and to Alan Septimus. Honorable mention to Michael Blackman and Sam Fleischacker.

This was a tough question, I think, in part because, although the "religion"/"religiosity" distinction is classic Buber, the language of "accepting the yoke of the laws and doctrines" is not.  Also, the stated publication date (1967), two years after Buber's death, understandably may have thrown some people off track, for which I may owe you an apology.  The text comes from a lecture, originally given in German more than 50 years earlier, titled (in English) "Jewish Religiosity," which was published in 1967 in On Judaism, Nahum Glatzer's collection of Buber's addresses.  (I do not think that the English version was published before 1967; please correct us if we are wrong.) 

Mel Scult says that he has files titled, respectively, "Heschel as Kaplan" and "Kaplan as Heschel". Perhaps this text will be the beginning of a "Buber as Kaplan" file.  We know that Kaplan and Buber interacted in Palestine/Israel, but we know frustratingly little about the substance of those interactions.  One small gem:  In a letter from Kaplan to Rabbi Ira Eisenstein dated November 5, 1937, while Kaplan was a visiting professor at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he writes that "Buber has been hard at work learning Hebrew prefaratory to his coming to the University.  He already knows enough to make himself understood.  But he hasn't acquired yet the knowledge of that Hebrew which he has to use in order not to be understood."

In addition to Kaplan, Abraham Joshua Heschel was a popular answer to our quiz question, and a logical one because of the substantial influence of Buber's thought on Heschel's.  (And my mention of Rabbi Shai Held was read by at least one of you as a clue to Heschel.)