||Mordecai Menahem Kaplan (1881–1983), rabbi, philosopher, educator, activist, and founder of the Reconstructionist school of thought. Kaplan was born in Svencian, Lithuania. His father, Israel Kaplan, was a talmudic scholar who immigrated to the United States in 1888, where he was joined a year later by his wife, Anna, and their two children, Sophie and Mordecai. Kaplan's early education was strictly Orthodox, but by the time he reached secondary school, he had been attracted to heterodox opinions, particularly regarding the critical approach to the Bible. After his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, he became the minister and superintendent of education of Kehilath Jeshurun, a noted Orthodox synagogue in New York City. It was only in 1908, when he was granted traditional ordination by Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines , that the synagogue was prepared to honor the title of rabbi that had been conferred upon him by the Seminary. Meanwhile Kaplan had become uncomfortable at Kehilath Jeshurun, because by then he realized that he could no longer serve an Orthodox congregation in good conscience.
In 1909, Solomon Schechter invited Kaplan to become the principal of the newly established Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Shortly thereafter, he also began to teach homiletics as well as Midrash in the Seminary's rabbinical department. Later on, he began to teach philosophies of religion as well. For over 50 years, Kaplan influenced the thinking of Conservative rabbis. He spoke to their existential spiritual problems in light of contemporary philosophical and sociological developments and, in his view, the breakdown of traditional theology. Even those who disagreed with his views appreciated his direct approach. They were impressed by his emphasis on intellectual honesty in confronting the challenges posed by modern thought to traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. In his approach to Midrash and philosophies of religion, Kaplan combined scientific scholarship with creative application of the texts to contemporary problems. Kaplan's Reconstructionist philosophy influenced not only his own immediate students, but through them and through his extensive writings and public lectures over several decades, the American Jewish community at large. Many of his ideas, such as Judaism as a civilization (and not merely a religion or nationality), bat mitzvah, egalitarian involvement of women in synagogue and communal life, the synagogue as a Jewish center and not merely a place of worship, and living as Jews in a multicultural society, eventually came to be accepted as commonplace and implemented in all but strictly Orthodox segments of the community.
The most controversial aspect of Kaplan's thought is this pragmatic theology. Early in his career, he rejected the traditional notion of a personal God who intervenes in human affairs. Kaplan chose to emphasize the divine aspects of the universe and the creative forces that are embodied in our attempt to become fully human. His theology is complex and multilayered. He explicitly rejected the terms naturalism and humanism to characterize his thought but rather looked to what he called transnaturalism, a realm beyond but not apart from the natural, where we find the reality of the divine. In arguing that ideas of God are correlatives of ideas of man and the cosmos and therefore bear an organic relationship to man's understanding of himself and the world, Kaplan has been criticized for what is claimed to be his excessive reliance on human reason as expressed in the latest scientific theories of his day.
Although he began to publish books at what might be considered an advanced age, Kaplan was a prolific writer. His first and major work, Judaism as a Civilization, was first published in 1934, when Kaplan was 53. Other writings include A New Approach to the Jewish Problem (1924); the translation and editing of Mesillat Yesharim, by Moses Ḥayyim Luzzatto (1937); The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1937); The New Haggadah for the Pesah Seder (1941); The Faith of America (ed. with Paul Williams, 1951); Ha-Emunah ve-ha-Musar (1954); The Future of the American Jew (1949); A New Zionism (1955); Questions Jews Ask (1956); Judaism Without Supernaturalism (1958); The Greater Judaism in the Making (1960); Higher Jewish Learning (1963); The Purpose and Meaning of Jewish Existence (1964); Not So Random Thoughts (1966); The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (1970); If Not Now, When? (with Arthur A. Cohen, 1973). Over the years, Kaplan was also the dominant figure in the production of the siddurim, maḥzorim, and other liturgical material of the Reconstructionist movement. Three of the above volumes have been translated into Hebrew: The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, A New Zionism, and The Religion of Ethical Nationhood. Ha-Emunah ve-ha-Musar appeared only in Hebrew. A full bibliography of over 400 items can be found in The American Judaism of Mordecai Kaplan, ed. by Emanuel S. Goldsmith, Mel Scult, and Robert Seltzer (1990).