Mordecai Kaplan’s social justice thought

In early 2014, I was fortunate to be invited to join a Georgetown University panel on the social justice thought of Rabbi Dr. Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983). In preparation for this panel, I had the opportunity to study the writings of Rabbi Kaplan more thoroughly than I ever had before. mordecai kaplan image

Mordecai Menahem Kaplan was born in Lithuania, received early traditional education in Vilna, and later his family moved to New York while he was still a child. Shortly after moving to America, Kaplan began his education, religious studies, and practical leadership in the Orthodox community. In fact, at one point during his illustrious career he was the rabbi at Kehillath Jeshurun (Upper East Side), at the Jewish Center (Upper West Side), and was an instrumental founder of the Young Israel movement, although he was ordained at the [Conservative] Jewish Theological Seminary. Kaplan moved away from the Orthodox community in 1922, when he founded a synagogue called the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. In one of his first books, the seminal Judaism as a Civilization (1934), he advocated a reconstructed Judaism that would continually evolve to meet the needs of Jews in the modern world. Among these changes were voluntary membership within the synagogue, mutual respect for those with differing views, and a focus on egalitarianism for women in the synagogue, including the modern introduction of bat mitzvah into the synagogue. Perhaps out of a desire to maintain democratic ideals, Kaplan also believed that no people were “chosen,” and thus denied that Jews had a unique status in the world. Kaplan’s movement continued, and grew momentously, after his death, and his primary legacy is the development of the Reconstructionist movement, which today comprises perhaps two percent of American Jews.

Reconstructionist Judaic theology differs from traditional Judaism in a number of ways, among them: the highlighted significance of different aspects of the Torah, prayer and ritual, and mitzvot. Reconstructionist Rabbi Lester Bronstein wrote that Reconstructionist Judaism offers beliefs “different from traditional Judaism, but surprisingly close to the spirit of that tradition.” Specifically, the theology regards the Torah as being written by Jews in response to the presence of God, a way for Jews to see the sacred in their daily lives. Thus, while Jews wrote the Torah, “God is everywhere in the details of it.” Furthermore, Reconstructionist ideology stresses the purpose of prayer as a way to remind the people reciting the prayers of their obligation to carry out God’s values, not a way to address or appeal to G-d. Finally, mitzvot are seen as “our people’s way of bringing that universal sacredness to the minutiae of daily life in our own specifically Jewish context,” and not as direct commandments from God.

Though I greatly respect the work and legacy of Rabbi Kaplan, there are many aspects of his thought that do not resonate with me. To name a few:

  1. Naturalist Theology–I believe in versions of liberation theology and process theology and a God that intervenes in the world (albeit in ways we cannot expect to understand).
  2. Revelation–Kaplan came to reject Divine revelation and the centrality of Jewish texts. Obligation is primarily derived from civilization and shared history, not from G-d and revelation.
  3. Chosenness–Kaplan rejected the unique nature of the Jewish people and our mission.

Still, on the other hand, there are parts of Kaplan’s theology that do resonate with me, particularly in my social justice work. For example, Kaplan advocated for a more democratic framework for decision-making in Jewish communities (i.e. elected leadership) rather than top-down leadership. I find this idea very important in social justice work and leadership and it is a framework I strive to adopt and utilize in my work.

Kaplan also believed in the importance of cleaning up our own shops before those of others:

The Jewish community in our day should organize the participation of Jews, in cooperation with other communities, in the struggle against poverty, disease, ignorance, oppression and war. But to qualify for participation in this struggle, Jewry must set its own house in order. The Jewish community is not free from the evils that beset society in general, and must accept full responsibility for carrying out the fight against them on its own sector of humanity’s front…. When the synagogues, schools, and other cultural and social agencies of Jewish life conform to such ethical norms, it will be within their power to influence the ethical behavior of Jews in their other relations as well.” (Future of the American Jew, 54,349)

This ethically rigorous approach should be considered again. Another inspiring idea from Kaplan is his belief that Jewish education was not for the purpose of survival, but about thriving in our worldly mission. He suggested we must radically innovate in our pedagogical approach:

In all specifically Jewish instruction, whether in the traditional sacred texts, in Jewish history, in the languages and literatures of the Jewish people, or whatever else is Jewish, it is not enough to convey that information for the sake of satisfying intellectual curiosity, or bolstering Jewish pride, or perpetuating Jewish ritual, or even developing certain skills that may contribute to Jewish survival. All these achievements have their place in Jewish education as subordinate purposes. But the primary purpose must always be to qualify the Jew for such participation in the life of both the Jewish and the general community as will make for a better world. Jewish education, that fails to extend the young Jew’s spiritual perspective and to link his personal life with the life of mankind, is wasted effort. (Future of the American Jew, 488-489)

One of Kaplan’s most important ideas, and one that I passionately share with him, is that our relationship with God, through prayer, ritual, holidays, text, and community, etc. offers a strong foundation to have a universalistic impact, and achieving the destiny of the Jewish people in collaboration with other nations. While my religious framework looks very different from Kaplan’s, I gain inspiration from his approach and think that it can be a model that may work for others today. It is crucial that we provide more, not fewer, entry points into Jewish life to actualize our spiritual and ethical potentials, and I find certain aspects of the work of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan to be both accessible and inspirational.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”


About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.