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Mordecai Kaplan Dead at 102

Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement and considered one of the most influential scholars in the history of Judaism, died today at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, N.Y. He was 102 years old.

Many of the key developments in Jewish life today are based on concepts Kaplan developed during his long career — concepts like the organic Jewish community, Judaism as a religious civilization with its spiritual center in Israel, the synagogue center and summer camp movements, Jewish community centers, the public celebration of Bat Mitzvah, and an American version of the European self-governing Jewish community (kehilla).

Kaplan’s ideological history was one of a struggle between the Orthodox beliefs he was taught and by which he lived, until he decided that such a Jewish outlook was incompatible with the outlook of Jews born and raised in the unique freedom of American life. Out of that struggle, the Reconstructionist philosophy emerged. He was denounced by the Orthodox who put him in herem (excommunication), a somewhat less than drastic ban in an open society.

INFLUENCED REFORM, CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM

Kaplan originally developed Reconstructionism not as another branch of Judaism but as a stimulation to thinking in non-Orthodox forums. His ideas profoundly influenced Reform and Conservative Judaism. But the pressures for change which his teachings generated led to the crystallization of the movement in its own institutions.

One was the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), the pilot Reconstructionist congregation in Manhattan, which Kaplan founded and served as rabbi even while continuing his teaching duties at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and his busy schedule of writing and lecturing.

Kaplan also founded the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and taught in it. The Reconstructionist movement also has a network of congregations in many parts of the United States and Canada, in addition to the Mevakshei Derech synagogue in Jerusalem, and its own journal, “The Reconstructionist.”

With the publication in the 1930’s of his major work, “Judaism as a Civilization,” Kaplan delineated the basic structure of his outlook, in which he defined the elements of an “evolving religious civilization.” This was to be developed in his prolific writing over many decades. A bibliography of his printed works on the occasion of his 100th birthday included over 700 items.

Born in Lithuania, Kaplan came to the U.S. with his parents at the age of eight. A student at the JTS from the age of 12, Kaplan was ordained in 1902 and began to serve as “minister” of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. Later he became the rabbi there after receiving his ordination on a trip to Europe in 1908.

Appointed as the dean of the Teacher’s Institute of the JTS in 1909, Kaplan worked there for half a century, retiring in 1963. He immigrated to Israel several years ago and taught at the Hebrew University. He recently returned to the U.S.

Kaplan was considered an intellectual giant and was one of the key figures, along with Judah Magnes, Israel Friedlander and Samson Benderly, in the development of various intellectual circles in New York before World War I. One of his earliest acts was the founding of Young Israel.

In the June 1980 issue of “The Reconstructionist,” Kaplan was described “as the one man who has taught at least three generations of Jews how to think about Judaism in the modern world.” Continuing, the editorial stated:

“Perhaps no man ever became more obsessed with a cause then he. For him the cause was the survival of the Jewish people, physically, spiritually, culturally. From heder to yeshiva, from public school to university, from the Jewish Theological Seminary to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he clung to his single purpose, the reconstruction of Judaism for the Twentieth Century.”

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