On this day: Mordecai Kaplan dies

8 November 1983: the founder of the reconstructionist movement dies

By Jennifer Lipman, November 8, 2010

Born in Lithuania in 1881, Mordecai Kaplan's family moved to the United States when he was eight. He studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and later Columbia University, and was ordained as a rabbi at the age of 21. In 1908 he married Lena Rubin.

But his experience as a rabbi in New York, at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, was not a positive one, and in 1909 he almost left the role to work in insurance. He did not leave, but he did remain disillusioned with the Jewish practice around him.

So in 1922 he set up what would become Reconstructionist Judaism – a movement dedicated to “the advancement of Judaism as a religious civilisation, to the building of Eretz Yisrael as the spiritual centre of Jewish people and to the furtherance of universal freedom, justice and peace.”

A prolific writer, in 1934 he authored the book Judaism as a Civilisation, outlining the core philosophy of Reconstructionist Judaism.

The movement was controversial from the outset, with many in the Orthodox community considering his radical views on God and the scriptures heretical.

But he also took Judaism forwards, becoming a pioneer in many areas, including in the recognition of the batmitzvah ceremony. In 1923 he put his beliefs into practice when his daughter Judith read a portion of the Torah and the Haftorah.

What the JC said: An outstanding Jewish thinker whose teachings and writings exerted a major influence on generations of Jews. For nearly 80 years he was at the very centre of Jewish intellectual leadership. He has something important to say on almost every aspect of life and thought, and though often denounced in Orthodox circles as a rebel defying tradition, his views won increasing recognition even among some traditionalists.

See more from the JC archives here

Last updated: 12:51pm, November 8 2010