This Day in Jewish History

1983: A Rabbi Who Dared Think Judaism Should Evolve Dies

Peers at the Jewish Theological Seminary were so menaced by Mordecai Kaplan's views that they boycotted him for most of his 57 years teaching there.

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On November 8, 1983, Mordecai Kaplan, an American rabbi and theologian and the principal founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, died, at age 102.

According to his biographer Mel Scult, Kaplan’s long life and career, were “unfailingly devoted to solving his primary problem: how to save the Jewish people.”

The solutions he proposed revolved around both a reinterpretation of Judaism’s basic tenets, in a way that did away with the divine origin of the commandments, and an emphasis on community life. Running through all of his work was a belief that Jewish civilization was an ongoing and evolving project, an idea that put him at odds with traditional Jewish belief.

Mordecai Menahem Kaplan was born on June 11, 1881, in the town of Sventiany, north of Vilnius in contemporary Lithuania. His father was Israel Kaplan, a rabbi trained at Volozhin and other leading Lithuanian seminaries, and his mother was the former Haya Nehama Kowarsky.

The family, which also included two sisters, moved to New York in 1889, after Israel was appointed assistant to Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the head of a new organization meant to unite America’s Orthodox congregations.

Although the father, Israel Kaplan, was Orthodox in training and practice, he also was a liberal thinker. He expected his daughters to undergo both a Jewish and general education, and sent his son, after preliminary training at the Etz Haim Yeshiva, to study in public schools.

At age 12, Mordecai entered the Jewish Theological Seminary, which at the time was still Orthodox in its approach, and was not yet limited to graduate and rabbinical studies.

Kaplan attended New York’s City College, and then attained both master’s and doctoral degrees at Columbia University, where he studied philosophy, sociology and education. In 1908, he added smikha (rabbinical ordination) from Orthodox Rabbi Izhak Reines to his ordination from JTS. That was also the year he married Lena Rubin.

Scholars Jeffrey Gurock and Jacob Schacter, authors of a 1997 book on Kaplan, note that his diaries reveal that his disillusionment with Orthodoxy began as early as 1904. Yet that didn’t stop Kaplan from working as a rabbi at two Orthodox institutions, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, in 1903, and later at the Jewish Center. And it was only in 1922 that he finally broke openly with the Orthodox movement.

First U.S. bat mitzvah ever

Six days after he resigned his position at the Jewish Center, on January 22, 1922, Kaplan, joined by 31 families from the Center, moved to the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, in New York. SAJ would become the flagship synagogue of the Reconstructionist movement, which Kaplan co-founded with Rabbi Ira Eisenstein.

Less than two months later, on March 18, 1922, Kaplan officiated at the bat mitzvah of his daughter Judith at the SAJ, an event credited with being the first celebration of that ritual for girls in the U.S., and reflecting Kaplan’s belief in an equal role for women in Jewish life. (In 1934, Judith Kaplan married Rabbi Eisenstein.)

Reconstructionist Judaism formally came into being in 1968, with the founding of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, but it grew out of Conservative Judaism in the four decades preceding that date. Although Kaplan continued to teach at Conservatism’s JTS for 57 years, until 1963, for much of that time his colleagues effectively boycotted him, so threatening did they find his philosophy.

Of course, that ostracism was far less severe than the response of a group of Orthodox rabbis, who, in June 1945 -- “just one month after the Allies declared victory over Nazi Europe,” as Zachary Silver noted – gathered in a New York hotel to burn copies of Kaplan’s new “Sabbath Prayer Book” and to declare a herem (ban) on its author.

In a number of books, most notably “Judaism as a Civilization” (1935), Kaplan laid out a philosophy that defined Judaism as much more than a religion, and argued that the advances of modernity demanded of that it reexamine the idea of a personified God and of Israel as his chosen nation. Kaplan, however, and the movement he helped create, continued to place a strong emphasis on ritual practice and prayer, because of the role they can play in bringing the Jewish community together.