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June 22, 2012 / 2 Tammuz, 5772

Rabbinic Leadership and A Letter from Kaplan's Students

We continue this week the commentary by Prof. Mel Scult on the writings of Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983), who was ordained at JTS and served as a member of its faculty for over fifty years. He is also the founder of Reconstructionism.

Because of Kaplan's radical ideas he was continuously unhappy at the Seminary and often thought of leaving. In 1922 Stephen Wise the popular Reform leader founded a Reform seminary in New York City, The Jewish Institute of Religion. [JIR] Wise and Kaplan knew each other and there was much mutual respect. Though Wise was Reform he was also a dedicated Zionist as was Kaplan. Apparently Wise had his eye on Kaplan as a possible member of the JIR faculty from the time of its founding. He may have even thought of Kaplan as the possible president of the JIR. Kaplan talked to Wise a number of times about joining him.

In 1927 Kaplan finally took the step and resigned from the Seminary to join Wise. There were many who were upset with Kaplan's leaving the Seminary. Rabbis and former students called and wrote pleading with him to return.

Perhaps the most moving entreaty came from the president of the student body Milton Steinberg. Steinberg went on to become a leading Conservative rabbi, a life-long disciple of Mordecai Kaplan and the author of the famous novel "As a Driven Leaf." Steinberg was Kaplan's favorite student. When Kaplan spent two years on a sabbatical at the Hebrew University, he had Milton Steinberg fill in for him. Kaplan and Steinberg, however, did eventually come into conflict partly because Steinberg found himself much more theologically traditional than the naturalist Kaplan.

In 1927 Steinberg as the head of the Rabbinical School student body wrote the following letter to the Seminary's President Cyrus Adler. The letter is instructive because of the ideals of Jewish leadership which it outlines.

The Letter.

There is preeminently one man among our teachers who is responsible for what faith, and courage, and vision we may lay claim to. It is from him that we have acquired the hardihood to go on in a difficult and discouraging cause, for it is he who has given the Judaism we are expected to teach the content and vitality we have elsewhere sought in vain. He made the cause a creative venture, when it was otherwise a pursuit without purpose and without clarity. We have seen in him that clear and simple passion for spiritual honesty which we believe is the first desideratum in American Jewish life. And if we, his students, have learned something of that spiritual honesty our debt is to him. He has taught us devotion and given us things worthy of devotion when we had almost lost the faith that these were anywhere to be discovered. His example has given us to understand that creative spiritual activity was still possible in Jewish life and his was an example we have been sadly in need of. Preeminently our teacher and guide, we feel that the departure of Professor Kaplan will leave us utterly divorced form the things most worth learning without the guidance toward those values which we believe Conservative Judaism ought to conserve and create.


What ideals for Jewish life do you find embedded in this letter? What qualities would you like to see in your own religious leaders?

Mel Scult, Kaplan's biographer, is professor emeritus from the City University and the editor of selections from Kaplan's twenty-seven volume diary entitled "Communings of the Spirit."

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New Publications

Leadership - Innovation - Community
Understanding the Haftarot:
An Everyperson's Guide

In this stimulating and unusual book Rabbi Charles Simon, Executive Director of FJMC, provides the reader with the context to understand how the haftarot were organized, why they might have been selected and suggests reasons for finding meaning and value.
You can purchase it a number of ways.
Intermarriage: Concepts & Strategies for Families and Synagogue Leaders
If family members and community leaders wish to become engaged in the process of Keruv they often need to ask, "Does Keruv have an ideology and theology? And if so what is it?" Then they need to learn how to respond to intermarriage from the perspective of both gender and religion. This publication reflects the most current thinking about intermarriage to date and attempts to provide family members and community leaders with the needed understanding to effectively work with intermarrieds or potential intermarrieds.
You can purchase it a number of ways:
It's time for Build-A-Pair
The best way to teach about tefillin!

HeneniThe "Build a Pair" Program is a comprehensive and fun learning program to introduce 5th, 6th or 7th graders to the joy and mitzvah of Tefillin in Jewish life. Multiple components interplay to explore the religious significance, the construction of, and the practice of "laying" Tefillin. A comprehensive education program with videos helps the religious school teach students the meaning of Tefillin in Jewish life and practice. Students practice writing their Hebrew/Jewish names and the SHEMA (first line) to insert into pre-made wooden Tefillin boxes. Students decorate the boxes in any creative way they wish, allowing for personal expression. Students either compete or cooperate in writing a "wRAP" song to sing at a Big Event. The Big Event can be the World Wide Wrap (WWW), sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs (FJMC), held annually on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday. The WWW program is designed to introduce and re-introduce Jewish men [and women] to the significance of "laying" Tefillin. The "Build a Pair" student program attracts the parents to see their children in their model Tefillin sing the "wRap" songs, allowing two generations (or more!) to join in the mitzvah together, and to let the students' sing their "wRAP" song for an appreciative audience.

World Wide Wrap is Sunday, February 3, 2013
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