• 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.

A Panoramic Perspective of the 21st Century Kaplanian Vision Project

Dr. Eric Caplana co-founder and vice president of the Kaplan Center, is a scholar of Reconstructionist Judaism and liberal Jewish life. As we prepared to launch the webpages we developed as part of our 21st Century Kaplanian Educational Vision project, Dr. Caplan kindly agreed to take a step back and look at the project in its entirety, a Panoramic Perspective. Here are Dr. Caplan's thoughtful reflections:  

Educational visions are, as Kaplan tells us in Judaism as a Civilization, “a desideratum rather than an immediate possibility.” They can “set in motion the creative forces in Jewish life” but only if they are grounded in “a workable synthesis of the claims of the environment with those of the Jewish heritage.” Kaplan’s educational vision was “workable” for the realities of his time, even though it was built on an optimistic assessment of what was possible. The 21st century vision put forth by Jeffrey Schein and his colleagues is, like Kaplan’s, both in line with the spirit of the times and very ambitious. The field of Jewish education has much to gain from engaging with the material posted on this website and from seeking out those Kaplan “gems” that are not here. Below are some ideas culled from my own dialogue with this exciting project.

1. Kaplan tells us to cultivate a child’s innate capacity for thankfulness and to relate those moments of gratitude “to the conception of God.” Rabbi Isaac Saposnik agrees that we should call children’s attention to “’wow’ moments” but believes that we should leave God out of the discussion. Young liberal Jews, in his view, are turned off when we “push too much on God” and associating God with these powerful moments transfers the experience “from the heart to the head.” Prof. Saul Wachs, a veteran Professor of Jewish education who also served for many years as national field consultant for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, takes a position on God that is closer to Kaplan’s. His prayer curriculum for children in kindergarten and grade 1, for example, provides multiple examples of how to effectively evoke God within a conversation surrounding extraordinary moments. Where do you stand on this question?

2. Kaplan understands that successful Jewish education requires knowledgeable and pedagogically skilled teachers. He calls on us to create more full-time teaching positions and to thereby make the profession a more attractive career option for our youth. And we must also, in his view, help teachers to acquire the specialized knowledge that they need to be effective teachers of religion. 2 of the 3 points listed under the “Road map” heading of the 21st Century Kaplanian Vision highlight the important role that teachers play. How can we facilitate the realization of this part of the Kaplanian educational vision?

3. Kaplan wants us to attain a high level of Jewish cultural literacy. His proposed educational program includes serious engagement with Jewish text, ritual, history, ethics, art and communal institutions. This aspect of Kaplan’s education chapter does not come through strongly in the new Kaplanian vision. Liberal Jews in the 21st century are generally less comfortable setting forth high expectations for our fellow Jews. We fear that such standards collide with our strong desire to be inclusive: to accept people as and where they are. I think that we can be inclusive and actively encourage—and model by our own behavior—the pursuit of Jewish knowledge. Indeed, without this dual commitment, non-Orthodox Judaism will not thrive.

4. Finally, it is helpful to remember that the chapter in Judaism as a Civilization is not the only important statement that Kaplan wrote on Jewish education. There are, for example, chapters on education in the Questions Jews Ask (1956), Judaism in Transition (1936), The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (1970), and the Future of the American Jew (1948). True, some of what he says in these books repeat ideas suggested in Judaism as a Civilization. But these pieces also contain compelling ideas that are not found here and occasionally address issues that are raised by the commentators on this website. For example, Kaplan listed the “practice of Jewish ethics” as one of his 5 goals for Jewish education. Both Rabbi Toba Spitzer and Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman would like to expand this to include the study of contemporary socio-economic challenges from the standpoint of the Jewish tradition. Kaplan calls for this in the Future of the American Jew:

An unusual opportunity for utilizing Jewish study, as a means of raising the ethical level of life, is presented by the current social issues which hinge upon the rights and wrongs of property, of the state versus the individual, of individual and collective uses of power, of peace and war. Abstract ethical principles, or golden rules, offer no specific guidance, when we come up against these specific issues. What we need is the cultivation of an ethical sensitivity to the principles involved in the various conflicts of interest, something of that passion for righteousness which is the eternal glory of prophetic religion. To experience that passion, we must do more than merely study and analyze the prophetic writings; we must also study and analyze the social situations--poverty, disease, the slums, unemployment, and the many other social evils, and note the extent to which they are due to selfishness, vanity, greed and stupidity, as well as to sheer inertia. (476-477)