A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community: Mordecai M. Kaplan, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism

A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community: Mordecai M. Kaplan, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism

A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community: Mordecai M. Kaplan, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism

A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community: Mordecai M. Kaplan, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism

Excerpt

In the mid 1970s a creative publicist at Yeshiva University conceived of an intriguing gimmick to advertise the school's forthcoming ninetieth anniversary celebration in 1976. His idea was for Yeshiva to search for, identify, and honor the institution's oldest former student. The project moved along until it was determined who, in fact, the earliest alumnus was. Mordecai M. Kaplan was the oldest surviving pupil from Yeshiva Etz Chaim, that small boys' cheder(religious primary school) on the Lower East Side from which Yeshiva University ultimately would emerge. The publicist's plan was quickly abandoned. A decade later, when Yeshiva celebrated its centennial, the search was revived. Ultimately a retired foreman who had worked in New York's garment industry—a member of an Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx—was singled out for special mention. Mordecai Kaplan had died some three years earlier, in November 1983, at the age of 102.

It is quite understandable that the educational flagship of American Orthodoxy chose not to honor Kaplan. By the 1970s the founder of the Reconstructionist movement had been, for more than half a century, an outspoken critic of Orthodox Judaism and an expositor of theological views opposing the very fundamentals of traditional faith. Kaplan would not have questioned this characterization either. Although he had, only a few years earlier, publicly referred to himself as “one of the oldest alumni of the Yeshiva University,” he also asserted unabashedly that, almost from the turn of the century, he had not subscribed to Orthodox teachings or been a loyal member of that community.

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