What My Father Learned From Mordecai Kaplan


Back in the 1950’s, Orthodoxy was descendant with many predicting its demise. Conservative Judaism was on the rise, fulfilling the needs of urban Jews who had migrated to suburbia after World War II.  It would not be until the 1970’s that the resiliency of Orthodoxy would be evident.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, with Orthodoxy on the wane, my father, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, was one of the most elegant defenders of the faith, challenging the perception from the pulpit and in print (with his popular Jewish Week column) that Orthodoxy was dated.  One of his popular works in this effort was a 1961 monograph, Sabbath and Festivals in the Modern Age (which is one of the most prominent and popular chapters in his book, One Man’s Judaism).

Flash forward to the 1990’s, when my father saw that I was reading Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan on the Sabbath and Festivals, I still remember his remark to me, “The first hundred pages of the book [The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion] are apikorsus (heresy), but after that it’s brilliant.”  I will admit that I did not see what was so compelling about the book, though it is the second most famous work of one of the seminal thinkers of American Jewry, a man who was the father of Reconstructionist Judaism, the inventor of the Bat Mitzvah and a beloved teacher for five decades at the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement. 

Which brings me to the other month when a friend requested that I teach a synagogue class on my father’s essay on the Sabbath and festivals.  This led me to reread not only my father’s essay, but Mordecai Kaplan’s book.  I was especially intrigued to reread Kaplan’s book because among the very few volumes that my father had kept in his personal library at the time of his death was a 1937 first edition.

And it is only now that I think I understand what my father saw in Kaplan’s work. The 1937 book focused upon the teleology of the Sabbath and festivals.  Kaplan endeavored to understand the purpose of the holidays and, in his own way, infuse these occasions with new meaning.

My father took issue with Rabbi Kaplan, particularly his assertion that the Sabbath should be devoted to creative acts.  Without mentioning Rabbi Kaplan by name, my father criticized him by noting that if one really understood the history of the Sabbath, one has to refrain from actual acts of creativity just as God refrained on the Seventh day from creative acts.  For Kaplan, the purpose of Sukkot (Tabernacle) was to make Jewry less materialistic and more directly bound to nature.  My father had a similar approach, as he saw the need to live in the frail sukkah as a counterpoint to the conceit people felt after a successful harvest.

And finally it dawned upon me what my father had found so brilliant in Kaplan’s work.  When my father read this book in 1937, he was 27 years old and it may have been this work that had opened his mind to the idea of focusing on the purpose of not only the Sabbath and the festivals, but of all aspects of Jewish law, the halacha.                                    

In his essays on the Sabbath and festivals, my father focused on the purpose behind the Sabbath and the festivals and how it should correlate to decisions made by rabbis.  For example, my father always contended that even if under Jewish law it would be permissible to have electric cars, if it were found that electricity was not analogous to the prohibited use of fire, he would still prohibit electric cars because of how it would change the nature of the Sabbath from being communally centered with a particular focus on the family unit.  The use of an electric car would erode this central purpose.

The reason I probably did not recognize the brilliance of Rabbi Kaplan’s approach when I read it in the 1990’s is because my father had raised me to almost always focus on the teleological purposes behind whatever Jewish matter I was studying.  What I hadn’t realized was that not everyone thought this way and that my father had learned it from somewhere and that somewhere was, I can conjecture, Mordecai Kaplan’s seminal work of 1937.

While both strongly differed in their theology, both focused upon the issues having in mind the collective of the Jewish people and I wonder how the two might have dealt with a new generation that has more of a consumer mentality.  Unfortunately, all too often, the focus of current Jewish teaching is on what one can get out of Judaism.  There is a “what’s in it for me” perspective that my father and Rabbi Kaplan would have found hard to understand.  Obviously, both were magnificent preachers and writers who sought to persuade Jews about the vitality and beauty of Judaism, but I wonder how they would have coped with a generation that is more concerned with personal fulfillment than communal obligations.

Both men loved Judaism and the Jewish people.  They both saw the vitality that was gained from having a broad tent and perspective.  Maybe it is just a sign of the strength of Jews in America and the State of Israel that permits us to focus more on the individual Jew and to denounce each other with self-righteousness and impunity.  Indeed, we often demonstrate intolerance for others be one of a haredi persuasion, a Greater Israel orientation or a cultural Judaism perspective.

My father defended those to the right (and left) of him.  His love of all Jews he learned from his father, a devotee of the legendary Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

The love of all Israel was his hallmark and rereading his work and that of Rabbi Kaplan, is a healthy reminder of how valuable a focus that must remain.

Joseph R. Rackman is a partner in the New York office of the international law firm of Hogan Lovells US LLP.  His ebook, Why Be Moral?, is available on any Kindle device.