Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan
Reconstructionist Judaism, based on the teachings of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, evolved in 20th century
America from recognition of the uniqueness of life in this country. Rabbi Kaplan felt that the essence of Jewish spiritual and communal life in America, built on a solid foundation of tradition, must continue to evolve -- to be "reconstructed" -- or risk losing its relevance to future generations.
Born in Lithuania in 1881, Mordechai Kaplan immigrated with his family to America in 1889. During his early childhood he received a traditional Jewish education in Vilna. After coming to America, however, he became increasingly disenchanted with orthodox theology and more interested in non-orthodox approaches to Judaism.
As a young man, Kaplan pursued Jewish studies and graduated from City College of New York. Later, he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary (of the Conservative Movement), received a master's degree from Columbia University and he was for many years leader and rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (the “SAJ”) in Manhattan, the first Reconstructionist congregation.
Kaplan was profoundly influenced by the new field of sociology and its view of civilization as characterized not only by beliefs and practices, but also by language, culture, literature, ethics, art, history, social organization, symbols and customs.
In 1935, Kaplan wrote "Judaism as a Civilization," a seminal work that became the foundation of the new Reconstructionist movement. He promoted democracy in the synagogue community and advocated voluntary membership, elected leadership and respect for the religious opinions of individuals.
It should be noted that the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is the first to elect a woman president, Rabbi Deborah Waxman. And, Rabbi Kaplan's daughter was the first young woman to have a Bat Mitzvah.
Mordechai Kaplan and students
Kaplan is the only rabbi to have been excommunicated by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment in America. He rejected such fundamental Jewish beliefs as the concept of the chosen people and a supernatural God. Although he valued the Jewish community and was a committed Zionist, his primary concern was the spiritual fulfillment of the individual.
In keeping with his new ideas, Kaplan 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, etc.
However, Kaplan was 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.
Most of the above writing is by
Prof. Robert M. Seltzer with additional
information from the RRC website.