A Year with Morde­cai Kaplan: Wis­dom on the Week­ly Torah Portion

Rab­bi Steven Carr Reuben

  • Review
By – May 13, 2019

The Jew­ish book­shelf con­tains many vol­umes of reflec­tion on the week­ly Torah por­tion, and A Year with Mordechai Kaplan by Rab­bi Steven Carr Reuben is a wor­thy addi­tion to that grow­ing col­lec­tion. In his lat­est book, Rab­bi Reuben offers his own per­son­al reflec­tions on the week­ly por­tion while also intro­duc­ing the read­er, in small dos­es, to Kaplan’s thought and influ­ence on Jews of all denominations.

In a brief Intro­duc­tion, Reuben sur­veys Kaplan’s impact on twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Jew­ry— as a thought leader, the­o­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and insti­tu­tion builder. Kaplan viewed Judaism as the all-encom­pass­ing total­i­ty of the life of a Jew … he con­stant­ly chal­lenged us as con­tem­po­rary Jews to incor­po­rate as much of Jew­ish tra­di­tion as we expe­ri­ence as rel­e­vant and mean­ing­ful with the best con­tri­bu­tions of mod­ern West­ern civ­i­liza­tion in order to cre­ate an ever-evolv­ing Judaism of the future,” Reuben writes. Each chap­ter of A Year with Mordechai Kaplan is a com­men­tary on the week­ly Torah por­tion or read­ing for a hol­i­day. With­in each chap­ter, Reuben fur­ther divides his com­men­tary into sev­er­al parts. The first part is a close read­ing of a verse. The sec­ond intro­duces Kaplan’s thoughts on a theme from the por­tion. The third part shares the author’s per­son­al reflec­tions from his career in the rab­binate. In the com­men­tary on Purim, Reuben shares Kaplan’s under­stand­ing of Purim as cham­pi­oning the human abil­i­ty to take action that changes the course and fate of our his­to­ry,” an idea that sup­ports Kaplan’s denial of a super­nat­ur­al God. In Reuben’s per­son­al reflec­tion, he shares the inspir­ing sto­ry of Fran­cis­co Car­il­lo, who was wrong­ly incar­cer­at­ed and spent twen­ty years fight­ing for his release. Upon release, he was able to over­come his anger at false impris­on­ment and now works as a coun­selor in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. Reuben admires Carillo’s humil­i­ty and resilience and likens his sto­ry to the sto­ry of Purim. In this way, Reuben inter­sects his and Kaplan’s thoughts into a con­cise, mean­ing­ful, and time­less lesson.

The author makes clear that his book is not designed to be read cov­er to cov­er, but to be read and used each week to help illu­mi­nate the Torah por­tions one at a time.… My hope is that, all togeth­er, these will stim­u­late read­er con­tem­pla­tion, elic­it per­son­al reflec­tions that fur­ther illus­trate or devel­op the ideas in this book, and moti­vate read­ers to make our tradition’s pro­found teach­ings ever more mean­ing­ful and impact­ful in their own lives.” A Year with Mordechai Kaplan does just that, while at the same time shar­ing the wis­dom, pas­sion, and insights that Kaplan can con­tin­ue to offer us into the next phase of Jew­ish life.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions