October 20, 2019

Wisdom Learned at the Feet of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

The late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan is best remembered as the father of Reconstructionism, a movement that regards Judaism as “the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” 

But Kaplan’s life and work cannot be encapsulated in a single phrase. He was also a co-founder of the Young Israel movement in Orthodoxy and, with Rabbi Solomon Schechter, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He was the founding rabbi of the first synagogue to install recreational facilities for its congregants and its community, a “shul with a pool.” His daughter Judith was the first young woman in America to be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.

Kaplan, who died in 1983 at the age of 102, passed along his vision and wisdom to the countless number of young men and women who were his students. One of them was our own Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, senior rabbi emeritus of Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades. Kaplan was 90 when Reuben was invited “to sit in his apartment, study Jewish texts, and discuss his vision of contemporary Jewish life with him,” as Reuben recalls in his book “A Year With Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion” (Jewish Publication Society), which has a foreword by Rabbi David A. Teutsch.

“It is almost impossible to adequately capture the remarkable impact that Mordecai Menahem Kaplan has had on the religious and communal life of the American Jewish community,” writes Reuben. “His unapologetic critique of the flaws and failures of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewry to capture the minds and hearts of American Jews in the first two decades of the twentieth century led to his sweeping visions for reconstructing and reimagining contemporary Jewish life.”

Strictly speaking, Reuben’s book is neither a history of Reconstructionism nor a biography of Mordecai Kaplan. Rather, Reuben presents Kaplan’s “wisdom, passion and insights” in a series of short Torah commentaries. Starting with Torah readings drawn from the gender-sensitive translation titled “The Contemporary Torah,” Reuben adds a short explanation of the text, quotations from Kaplan’s teachings and anecdotes from his own experiences as a congregational rabbi. He designed the book “to be read and used each week to help illuminate the Torah one portion at a time.”

Yet “A Year With Mordecai Kaplan” aspires to illuminate more than the received text of the Torah. Reuben also reminds us of Kaplan’s willingness to “challenge our assumptions about God, Torah, Israel, prayer, community, education, values, rituals, traditions, and every other aspect of what it means to live a contemporary Jewish life.” While Reuben casts his book in the classical rabbinical categories of P’shat (explanation) and D’rash (commentary), he urges us to see the sacred text in a wholly new light.

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben offers what he has extracted from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s teachings: “He understood that the fundamental human need for love and connection to others fuels every relationship, every act of kindness to strangers, every expression of compassion, and ultimately the very search for the meaning of our lives.”

By way of example, the very first entry is a quotation from Bereshit: “God said, ‘It is not good for the Human to be alone; I will make a fitting counterpart for him’ ” (Genesis 2:18). As Reuben points out, God is shown to acknowledge that the divine act of creation is not perfect and something crucial is missing: “The Torah suggests that each of us seeks a spiritual partner with whom to share our lives,” Reuben writes.

Then he offers what he has extracted from Kaplan’s teachings: “He understood that the fundamental human need for love and connection to others fuels every relationship, every act of kindness to strangers, every expression of compassion, and ultimately the very search for the meaning of our lives.” And he quotes Kaplan for the credo that “God is in the faith by which we overcome the fear of loneliness, of helplessness, of failure and of death.” And he concludes the entry by revealing his own anxiety: “I was as a young rabbi doing my best to be there for everyone who needed me, and at times I felt like I was just faking it.” His salvation turned out to be Didi, the woman who married him. “Her touch, her smile, her attentiveness, and her delight in others remind me over and over of the magic of making another person feel he or she matters.”

When we reach the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus — “Then Adonai said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.’ ” (Exodus 14:15) — Reuben sees a communal rather than a personal message. “[T]oo often we squander our time and credibility by continually talking about our intentions to help our communities rather than simply taking action,” he writes. From Kaplan’s writings, he extracts a passage about the uses of history: “Our past is not merely to supply wants but to create wants,” Kaplan wrote. As two examples of what Kaplan meant, he cites the founding of the State of Israel and his own father’s decision to leave Russia and join the “millions of immigrants who possessed the strength of character and faith in themselves to follow the American dream.”

One way to understand what is meant when Reconstructionism describes Judaism as a “religious civilization” is that it encompasses all aspects of human life. So, too, does Reuben write about topics on which the Torah itself is mostly or entirely silent, including animal rescue, gay and lesbian marriage, the Boy Scouts, the Vietnam War, the Equal Rights Amendment, Nelson Mandela and the reason why a rabbi might go to church on Christmas Eve as an affirmation of his Jewish values. 

The point is made in the stirring words of Kaplan himself: “The search for truth is hampered by the universal tendency to treat as the last word what is really only the first word in any revelation or discovery.” For Reuben, as for Kaplan, the words of the Torah are only the starting point for understanding and fulfilling what it means to be a Jew in the world.

Buy “A Year With Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion” on Amazon here. 


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.