Mordecai Kaplan’s Reflections on American Jewish Apathy

January 24, 2023 | Jenna Weissman Joselit
About the author:

Born in a Russian shtetl in 1881, Mordecai Kaplan came to New York City as a child and, following in his father’s footsteps, received rabbinic ordination—serving at the Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and helping to found the Young Israel network of synagogues. Thereafter Kaplan gradually broke with Orthodoxy and, finding both Conservative and Reform theologies inadequate, developed a program of his own, which came to be known as Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan published much in his lifetime, but his personal journals have only seen the light of day in the 21st century. Jenna Weissman Joselit writes of them:

The voice that emerges from these pages is . . . far more fluid and engaging than the formal, stilted prose characteristic of much of Kaplan’s published writings or the scolding tone of his sermons. Judaism as a Civilization is undoubtedly a great and important book, but his private reflections—awash in juicy characterizations of congregants, colleagues, and family members as well as in shrewd observations of the contemporary scene—make for a rollicking good read.

Kaplan took great pains with his journal writing. He didn’t simply jot down stray impressions or make off-the-cuff remarks. His entries were well crafted, carefully edited, deliberate. Claiming he had to “go through the tortures of the Laocoön” to marshal his thoughts, Kaplan routinely tightened and polished them, crossing out a word, a phrase, or even an entire sentence, substituting another that was more precise, punchier, or softer. At other moments, when in high dudgeon, which happened a lot, Kaplan would come at something that troubled him—his relationship with his students, the viability of Reconstructionism, or his legacy—with the full force of his formidable intellect and prickly temperament.

In 1963, Kaplan reflected on the fortunes of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), the flagship Reconstructionist congregation he had somewhat reluctantly founded 40 years prior:

Those who . . . formed the SAJ, though limited in their knowledge of Judaism, were sufficiently imbued by its general spirit . . . to feel a sense of responsibility for keeping Judaism alive. . . . After a number of years during which the generation that helped me found the SAJ began to dwindle away, it was followed by a generation which knew even less about Judaism and felt less of a responsibility for its conservation and enhancement. Since then it has been harder to innovate, due not so much to active resistance as to sheer apathy or indifference.

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