Mordecai Menahem Kaplan (1881-1983), American Jewish theologian and educator, was the founder and leader of the Reconstructionist movement in American Judaism.
Mordecai Kaplan was born on June 11, 1881, in Swenziany, Lithuania, and emigrated to the United States in 1889. He took his bachelor of arts degree at the City College of New York in 1900 and his master of arts at Columbia University, New York City, in 1902, the same year he was ordained a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1908 he married Lena Rubin.
Kaplan served in the rabbinate for a number of years. Most of his career, however, was devoted to education and theology. From 1910 until 1963, he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, becoming principal of its teachers' institute in 1909, dean in 1931, and dean emeritus in 1947. He also taught at the Graduate School for Jewish Social Work (1925-1937), Columbia University (1932-1944), and Hebrew University (1937-1939).
Kaplan is best known for his role as founder and leader of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism. In 1922 he founded the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. The society, especially through its journals, provided a forum for the dissemination of Kaplan's views. In 1940 the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation was established and assumed responsibility for the publication of the Reconstructionist, whose editorial board Kaplan headed until 1959.
Mordecai Kaplan developed the philosophy of the Reconstructionist movement over many years. His first major work on the subject was Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life (1934). Among his other important books are Judaism in Transition (1936); The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1937); The Future of the American Jew (1948); A New Zionism (1955); Questions Jews Ask; Reconstructionist Answers (1956); Judaism without Supernaturalism: The Only Alternative to Orthodoxy and Secularism (1958); The Greater Judaism in the Making: A Study of the Modern Evolution of Judaism (1960); The Purpose and Meaning of Jewish Existence: A People in the Image of God (1964); and Not So Random Thoughts (1966). Kaplan was also coeditor of Sabbath Prayer Book (1945), which denied the literal accuracy of the biblical text. As such, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada declared his theories unacceptable.
Kaplan's philosophy contends that the survival of Judaism is dependent upon its "reconstruction," that is, its adaptation to the changing conditions of the modern world, especially to nationalism and naturalism. He viewed Judaism as an evolving civilization and the Jewish religion as its highest expression of the idea of the greatest good. In Kaplan's theology, the land of Israel is central to the continued development of Judaism as a civilization, and Zionism is the means to the spiritual unification of world Jewry. Kaplan was responsible for the revision of Jewish liturgy to meet the needs—as seen by the Reconstructionist philosophy—of contemporary Jewish life.
Kaplan retired in 1963. His last published work was The Religion of Ethical Nationhood: Judaism's Contribution to World Peace (1970). He died in New York City on Nov. 8, 1983.
For a bibliography of Kaplan's writings consult, Mordecai M.Kaplan Jubilee Volume (2 vols., 1953) Moshe Davis, ed; Mordecai Kaplan: An Evaluation (1952). Ira Eisenstein and Eugene Kohn, eds.; Encyclopedia of Judaica