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Mordecai M. Kaplan
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Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan
Religion Judaism
Denomination Orthodox Judaism
Conservative Judaism
Reconstructionist Judaism
Nationality American
Born Mottel Kaplan
(1881-06-11)June 11, 1881
Sventiany, Russian Empire (now Švenčionys, Lithuania)
Died November 8, 1983(1983-11-08) (aged 102)
New York City, United States
Spouse Lena Rubin (c. 1885 – 1958), Rivka Rieger
Children Judith Eisenstein, Hadassah Musher, Naomi Wenner, and Selma Jaffe-Goldman
Parents Rabbi Israel and Haya (Anna) Kaplan
Organization Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Society for the Advancement of Judaism, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
Buried Glendale, New York
Semicha Jewish Theological Seminary of America

Mordecai Menahem Kaplan (June 11, 1881 – November 8, 1983), was a rabbi, essayist and Jewish educator and the co-founder of Reconstructionist Judaism along with his son-in-law Ira Eisenstein.

Life and work

Kaplan was born in Svinstyan, present day Švenčionys, Lithuania, to Rabbi Israel and Haya (Anna) Kaplan. In 1889, he immigrated to the United States with his mother and sisters to join his father, who was working with Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph in New York City. He attended Etz Chaim Yeshiva in Manhattan for a short period. In 1895 Kaplan began studies at the City College of New York. From 1893 to 1902 he also studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. After graduating from CCNY in 1900 he went to Columbia University, studying philosophy, sociology and education and receiving a master's degree and a doctorate. Majoring in philosophy, he wrote his master's thesis on the ethical philosophy of Henry Sidgwick. His lecturers included the philosopher of ethical culture Felix Adler and the sociologist Franklin Giddings.

In July 1908 he married Lena Rubin. He was ordained as a rabbi by Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines while on his honeymoon. Kaplan began his career as an Orthodox rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a synagogue in New York. In 1912, he was an advisor to the creators of the Young Israel movement of Modern Orthodox Judaism, together with Rabbi Israel Friedlander. He was a leader in creating the Jewish community center concept and helped found the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.

He held the first public celebration of a bat mitzvah in the United States, for his daughter Judith Kaplan, on March 18, 1922, at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, his synagogue in New York City. Judith read from the Torah at this ceremony, a role that had traditionally been reserved for males.

From 1934 until 1970 Kaplan wrote a series of books in which he expressed his Reconstructionist ideology, which centered on the "concept of Judaism as a civilization". He was a prolific writer, keeping a journal throughout most of his life.

After the death of his wife in 1958, he married Rivka Rieger, an Israeli artist. He died in New York City in 1983 at the age of 102. He was survived by Rivka and his daughters Dr. Judith Eisenstein, Hadassah Musher, Dr. Naomi Wenner and Selma Jaffe-Goldman.

Relationship with Orthodox Judaism

Kaplan began his career as an Orthodox rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City, assisted in the founding of the Young Israel movement of Modern Orthodox Judaism in 1912, and was the first rabbi hired by the new (Orthodox) Jewish Center in Manhattan when it was founded in 1918. He proved too radical in his religious and political views for the organization and resigned from the Jewish Center in 1921. He was the subject of a number of polemical articles published by Rabbi Leo Jung (who became the rabbi of the Jewish Center in 1922) in the Orthodox Jewish press.

He then became involved in the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, where on March 18, 1922, he held the first public celebration of a bat mitzvah in America, for his daughter Judith. This led to considerable criticism of Kaplan in the Orthodox Jewish press.

Kaplan's central idea of understanding Judaism as a religious civilization was an easily accepted position within Conservative Judaism, but his naturalistic conception of God was not as acceptable. Even at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, as The Forward writes, "he was an outsider, and often privately considered leaving the institution. In 1941, the faculty illustrated its distaste with Kaplan by penning a unanimous letter to the professor of homiletics, expressing complete disgust with Kaplan's The New Haggadah for the Passover seder. Four years later, seminary professors Alexander Marx, Louis Ginzberg and Saul Lieberman went public with their rebuke by writing a letter to the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, lambasting Kaplan's prayer book and his entire career as a rabbi." In 1945 the Union of Orthodox Rabbis "formally assembled to excommunicate from Judaism what it deemed to be the community's most heretical voice: Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the man who eventually would become the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan, a critic of both Orthodox and Reform Judaism, believed that Jewish practice should be reconciled with modern thought, a philosophy reflected in his Sabbath Prayer Book ..." Due to Kaplan's evolving position on Jewish theology and the liturgy, he was also condemned as a heretic by members of Young Israel, which he had assisted in founding. His followers attempted to induce him to formally leave Conservative Judaism, but he stayed with its Jewish Theological Seminary until he retired in 1963. Finally, in 1968, his closest disciple and son-in-law Ira Eisenstein founded a separate school, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, in which Kaplan's philosophy, Reconstructionist Judaism, would be promoted as a separate religious movement.

University establishment

Kaplan wrote a seminal essay "On the Need for a University of Judaism," in which he called for a university setting that could present Judaism as a deep culture and developing civilization. His proposal included programs on dramatic and fine arts to stimulate Jewish artistic creativity, a college to train Jews to live fully in American and Jewish culture as contributing citizens, a school to train Jewish educators, and a rabbinical seminary to train creative and visionary rabbis. In 1947, with the participation of Rabbi Simon Greenberg, his efforts culminated in the establishment of the American Jewish University, then known as the University of Judaism. His vision continues to find expression in the graduate, undergraduate, rabbinical, and continuing education programs of the university.

Kaplan's theology

Kaplan's theology held that, in light of the advances in philosophy, science, and history, it would be impossible for modern Jews to continue to adhere to many of Judaism's traditional theological claims. Kaplan's naturalistic theology has been seen as a variant of John Dewey's philosophy. Dewey's naturalism combined atheism with religious terminology in order to construct a religiously satisfying philosophy for those who had lost faith in traditional religion. Kaplan was also influenced by Émile Durkheim's argument that our experience of the sacred is a function of social solidarity. Matthew Arnold and Hermann Cohen were among his other influences.

In agreement with prominent medieval Jewish thinkers including Maimonides, Kaplan affirmed that God is not personal, and that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are, at best, imperfect metaphors. Kaplan's theology went beyond this to claim that God is the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled:

To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man's destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.

Not all of Kaplan's writings on the subject were consistent; his position evolved somewhat over the years, and two distinct theologies can be discerned with a careful reading. The view more popularly associated with Kaplan is strict naturalism, à la Dewey, which has been criticized as using religious terminology to mask a non-theistic (if not outright atheistic) position. A second strand of Kaplanian theology makes clear that God has ontological reality, a real and absolute existence independent of human beliefs, while rejecting classical theism and any belief in miracles. In 1973 he was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto II.


  • 1971: National Jewish Book Award in the Jewish Thought for The Religion of Ethical Nationhood
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