Encore Archive

On this page, we present essays – profound or timely – culled from the CLAL literary archive. Most of the articles that appear here appeared originally in the pages of Sh'ma– A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, which was founded by Eugene Borowitz in 1970 and published by CLAL from 1994-1998.

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(from Sh'ma 14/263, December 9, 1983)

Mordecai M. Kaplan, z"l 

By Seymour Siegel 

Mordecai M. Kaplan was fearless and unconventional in his dying as he was in his extraordinary life. He expired at the age of 102 on November 11. He had lived longer than any other major Jewish personality of recent times. 

At my last visit with him in Riverdale when he turned one hundred, I greeted him with the traditional blessing "until one hundred and twenty." He replied with an almost childlike smile: "I have had enough. Let some younger man use the twenty years." 

He had a remarkable career. He was a professor and guide to multitudes of students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was the spiritual and intellectual guide for the nascent Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He was the author of many books: Judaism as a Civilization and The Future of the American Jew have already won their place as classics. He inspired hundreds of disciples who carried his message throughout the nation and beyond. He was a fearless raiser of difficult questions and the creator of institutions that have left an indelible mark on American Judaism. He was a brilliant speaker and tireless rabbi, leading one of the premier congregations in Manhattan for many years. He was a forceful and dynamic teacher. He was a Jewish scholar of note and a fervent Zionist. He was a loving paterfamilias whose children and grandchildren pursued excellent careers in Jewish work. He was, in short, one of the most creative figures in American Judaism. His attainments were prodigious. If he had one lack it was that he lacked a sense of humor. The problems facing Judaism were too critical. He was always serious.  

He emerged on the scene as a fearless questioner. He, above others, was not afraid to tell contemporary Jews that the Emperor had no clothes. He challenged contemporary Jewry to face the real problems that face it in a new age. He saw these problems as basically two. One was the question of polity and the other was the question of theology.


Reidentifying Ourselves and Our Judaism  

Jews, especially American Jews, face the problem of how to view themselves within the larger community. They are not a religion since so many prominent Jews do not identify with the synagogue; they are not a nationality since they come from different countries; they are clearly not a race since they have dissimilar racial forms. Kaplan's answer is embodied in his famous formula -- Judaism is a civilization. A civilization is a sociological term which refers to a whole pattern of life, music, dress, language, and religion. Ordinary Americans live in the American civilization. Jews live in two civilizations -- the general one and the Jewish one. We need new types of institutions like the Jewish Center in which Jews can pursue all life-interests including art, dance and learning. We need a new type of organization -- the democratic community instead of individual synagogues and we need to forge new links with other Jews, especially those in Israel, where the dominant civilization, unlike ours, is Jewish.  

The second issue which Kaplan addressed is that our world view is not the world view of the tradition. The ancients viewed the universe in three-story terms -- the earth, under the earth where the realm of Hades is found, and above the earth, heaven, which controls the universe and makes individual providence and miracles possible. The modern scientific world-view of course sees reality differently. What are we to make of traditional teachings about God and the liturgy in which we express our beliefs? Kaplan proposed a total revolution in our theology by accepting the postulates of naturalism and denying that there was supernature. God should be understood, in his classic definition, as the Power that makes for salvation. That is, the forces within reality which helps us achieve our fulfillment. No longer is there any dependence on miracles. He recast the traditional prayer book, and also other texts such as the Passover haggadah, to reflect the new theology.  

After a half century association with Conservative Judaism, he was persuaded to form his own movement and thus was born the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and other organizations affiliated with it. 

After a career which spanned more than a century, his restless mind and spirit found its eternal rest. He had changed American Judaism more than any other figure. Our community has been reconstructed because of him. Perhaps not exactly in the image which we would have approved. But at least he brought about change. May his memory be for a blessing.




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