Mordecai Kaplan: Founder of Reconstructionist Judaism

An examination of the philosophy of one of the twentieth century's most prominent Jewish thinkers, Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983).

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Congenial to Kaplan was Conservatism's commitment to the scientific study of the Jewish past, its sympathy for Zionism, and its concern for the unity of the Jewish peo­ple. However, Kaplan eventually came to feel that the Conservative movement remained too closely bound by the traditional methods and contents of the halakhah [Jewish law] and was not adequately responding to new con­ditions and needs. (According to Kaplan, Jewish law is to be respected, but it has "a vote and not a veto," so that precedent must, at times, give way to deliberate enactment.) The solution of the present‑day confusion was a definition of Judaism as "an evolving religious civilization."

The practical side of Kaplan's position called for the re‑establishment of a network of all‑embracing, "organic" Jewish communities around the world that would ensure the self‑perpetuation of Jewish identity and fur­ther secular as well as religious components of the Jewish heritage (art, music, philanthropy, and so on). Membership should be strictly volun­tary, leadership would be democratically elected, and private religious beliefs would not be infringed upon, because diversity in modern Jewish life must be cherished. (Kaplan is a strong advocate of cultural and religious pluralism, and he maintains that American Jews should partici­pate fully and creatively in both Jewish and American civilizations.) To clarify the international status of Jewry, Kaplan proposed a world‑wide Jewish assembly that would adopt a formal covenant defining the Jews as a transnational people, the hub of which was Zion and the spokes the branches of the diaspora.

However, Kaplan is not a secularist: Religion, the concretization of the collective self‑consciousness of the group, is an essential dimen­sion of a civilization and a necessary component of an authentic and satisfying modern Jewishness. The religion of a group is manifested in “sancta," spiritual symbols such as persons, places, events, and writings, which inspire feelings of reverence, commemorate what the group feels is most valuable, provide continuity through the flux of history, and for­tify the collective conscience of a people. Kaplan felt a deep attachment to Jewish sancta and Jewish religious literature.

In order to hold the loy­alty of a new generation of Jews educated in scientific and democratic principles, however, the Jewish tradition must expunge authoritarianism, dogmatic claims of infallibility, and recourse to supernatural revelation. (By supernaturalism, Kaplan meant God as a substantive, anthropomorphic entity and miracles as the divine suspension of the laws of nature.) The most important personal function of religion is to answer the question, "What shall man believe and do in order to experience that life, despite the evil and suffering that mar it, is extremely worthwhile?" Religion is the pursuit of salvation, which Kaplan defines in a humanistic, this­-worldly way

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Robert M. Seltzer

Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College (CUNY).