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

05 Apr
April 5, 2019

A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah PortionYou are invited to spend a year with the inspirational words, ideas, and counsel of the great twentieth-century thinker Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, through his meditations on the fifty-four weekly Torah portions and eleven Jewish holidays.

A pioneer of ideas and action—teaching that “Judaism is a civilization” encompassing Jewish culture, art, and peoplehood; demonstrating how synagogues can be full centers for Jewish living (building one of the first “shuls with a pool”); and creating the first-ever bat mitzvah ceremony (for his daughter Judith)—Kaplan transformed the landscape of American Jewry. Yet much of Kaplan’s rich treasury of ethical and spiritual thought is largely unknown.

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, who studied closely with Kaplan, offers unique insight into Kaplan’s teachings about ethical relationships and spiritual fulfillment, including how to embrace godliness in everyday experience, our mandate to become agents of justice in the world, and the human ability to evolve personally and collectively. Quoting from the week’s Torah portion, Reuben presents Torah commentary, a related quotation from Kaplan, a reflective commentary integrating Kaplan’s understanding of the Torah text, and an intimate story about his family or community’s struggles and triumphs—guiding twenty-first-century spiritual seekers of all backgrounds on how to live reflectively and purposefully every day.

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“There is no greater sage than Mordecai Kaplan to walk us into an appreciation of how religion can add depth and insight to the experience of modernity, and no rabbi with greater sensitivity to guide us along the way that Steven Carr Reuben. Newcomers to Kaplan and longtime aficionados alike will revel in spending a year with Mordecai Kaplan. Relying on the spirit and smarts of these two rabbis not only enlightens us but elevates us.”
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University

“A Year with Mordecai Kaplan is inspirational. It reminds me of a less mystical Larry Kushner and a more anecdotal Harold Kushner.”>
—Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, University Synagogue, Irvine, California

“Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben’s selection of insightful passages from the writings of Mordecai Kaplan and illuminating commentary from Jewish tradition and his own life experiences generate a treasure trove of wisdom to delight the mind and move the heart. A Year With Mordecai Kaplan is a spiritual gift!”
—Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Miriam Wertleib & Zamba Nsimbi

15 May
May 15, 2018

A letter from Miriam & Zamba

Hi Steven! A week later and family has finally left town so we’re just catching our breath! We want to thank you for a truly beautiful cross-cultural ceremony. Your words and energy were so meaningful to us as we were present together in those moments of transition into marriage, but were also truly transformative and a blessing to seemingly each one of our family and friends who attended as well. We can’t tell you how many people have asked us how we found such an incredible Rabbi who could unify everyone as you did, and make them imagine a better world! You really set the tone, helped to open hearts and minds (some particularly from the East coast that needed a little nudge to know it’s okay to open a bit). It was a wonderful experience from start to finish, and we’re grateful for your part in ushering us through the preparations and into the event.

We hope to stay connected with you and send our love. We will be sure to send you our CD when it’s out in just a few weeks 😉

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

24 Jul
July 24, 2015

“Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” declared our ancestors in Proverbs 18:21.  Furthermore they went on to say, “In the multitude of words, there is no lack of sin.” Proverbs 19:10 because they realized how easy it is to talk our way into trouble. In fact, we live in two civilizations simultaneously, both of which are built on words.  Jewish civilization begins with a “brit,” a “covenant” between Abraham and God that we will have a special relationship and follow God’s moral and ethical laws.  American civilization begins with, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union….” And goes on to declare, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” Read more →

Beshalah 2007 (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

01 Mar
March 1, 2015

One of my favorite stories about parents and children is the one where a mother stands on her front porch watching as her young son struggles to lift a large stone that is obviously too heavy for him to manage. She watches in silence as he grunts and groans and strains to lift this heavy stone from the spot in her garden where it rests. Finally she turns to her young son and asks, “Are you using all your strength?” Of course her son starts to get angry at the very thought that she would question how hard he was trying to accomplish his goal and through gritted teeth he answers, “Of course I’m using all my strength.” To which his mother quietly replies, “No you’re not, because you haven’t asked me for help yet.”
Read more →

Beshalakh (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

21 Feb
February 21, 2015

As you read these words Didi and I are sailing on the high seas off the coast of Australia on a cruise that will end in another week or so in the harbor of Hong Kong. It is an awe inspiring sight to visit so many diverse cities, countries and cultures (Australia, Bali, Borneo, Philippines and China) and such travel always evokes within me a profound sense of gratitude and wonder at the beauty of life’s diversity.
Read more →

Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

14 Feb
February 14, 2015

“How do you know when you have really grown up?” I remember being asked that question one evening by one of my 10th grade Confirmation students, and how it produced one of the most thoughtful and reflective discussions we had that entire year. Read more →

Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32)

07 Feb
February 7, 2015

One of my favorite things to do is write children’s songs. Over the years I have written lots of innocuous little ditties for kids as a way of teaching them about Jewish holidays and rituals, ethics and values, and how to treat families and friends. Long ago when I was just starting out as a teacher in religious school I realized that singing a song was an easy and relatively painless way to learn important Jewish lessons about life. So I wrote songs about everything I could think of – from “Hands Hold the Torah Way Up High,” and “Shabbat Shalom Comes to Our Home” to “Kibbutz is Not the Last Car on a Railroad Train.” Kids seemed to like them, and in the process of singing they learn some of the most important lessons about Jewish life. Read more →

Shuvah (Hosea 14:2-10)

28 Jan
January 28, 2015

This has been an incredibly difficult time for us all. We have gone through shock, sadness, anger, grief, calls for revenge, and attacks against Americans with Middle Eastern looks and Muslims both young and old. After the President’s speech to the nation earlier tonight, there emerged a clear sense of our collective resolve to do whatever must be done for as long as it takes to lead the world in asserting the necessary primacy of freedom over religious intolerance and fundamentalist holy wars. Read more →

A Commentary on the Torah and The Passion (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

21 Jan
January 21, 2015

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan once taught that religious identity is based on the “three Bs” of believing, belonging, and behaving. Last week as I sat through two tortuous hours of Mel Gibson’s “Passion,” the bloodiest, most over-the-top violent movie I have ever seen, I was reminded like never before that Christianity is, at root, all about believing. It is based on a theology that teaches all human beings are born in sin and that only through the willingness of Jesus to suffer beyond all bounds of understanding for our sins, is humanity offered the possibility of redemption. It is quite simply, the theology of the redemptive power of suffering and it is as foreign to Judaism and how Judaism views human beings and God as any spiritual tradition could possibly be. Read more →

Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

14 Jan
January 14, 2015

“In the beginning…” These words have captured the imagination of countless generations since the beginning of time. Imagine in ancient times as the family sat around a fire at night marveling at the miracle of creation and wondering at the remarkable vision they had of the millions of stars in the heavens and the multitude of life here on earth. How could their imaginations help but be stimulated by all they saw, and how could they possibly not ponder the unanswerable questions of where it all came from and what is the ultimate source of creation? Read more →

Questions and Answers about Interfaith Issues

13 Jan
January 13, 2015

As asked of Rabbi Reuben by CNN.com

Thanks for contacting me with your questions about interfaith family issues. Since I have been counseling interfaith couples and families for over 30 years and my latest book is There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate – Surviving Your Child’s Interfaith Marriage (Praeger Publishing, 2008) I am happy to share my own thoughts on the subject with you at any time. Here are my reactions to your questions:

Question #1: Is it important for young children, say under 12, to identify with one religion? (as opposed to two?)

Rabbi Reuben’s Response:

I believe that religious consistency promotes emotional stability, especially for young children. Children are very flexible and they have no trouble saying, “My mom is one religion and my dad and I are another and we get to celebrate mommy’s holidays with her, too.” What is most difficult for children is when they are put into a situation where they have to say “I know what my mommy is and I know what my daddy is but I don’t know what I am.”

Question #2: Is it confusing or irresponsible to tell a young child that they can make up their own mind about which of their parents’ religions they should follow?

Rabbi Reuben’s Response:

Telling children that they can make up their minds about which religion to be is putting an unfair and emotionally difficult burden on them. All children have the same needs- to feel that both of their parents love them and will protect them and keep them safe from life’s fears. The last thing that children want is to be in a position where they are asked to choose between one parent and another (that is what causes so many trauma’s among children during divorces) and asking them to choose one parent’s religion over another’s puts them in a no-win situation. Either way they choose they will feel that they are betraying one parent or another and thereby risking that parent’s love and affection. The reality of life is that all of us have the ability to choose which religion or spiritual tradition we will follow or embrace when we become adults anyway – that is why there are literally millions of people throughout the world who do in fact change from one religious tradition to another every year regardless of how they were raised. A parent’s job is to provide every child with the most stable, loving, nurturing, safe emotional environment in which to grow up that they can. My best advice is to raise your children in a consistent religious tradition, whatever that may be so that they will have a sound, emotionally secure religious identity out of which they will make decisions for themselves anyway as they grow older and meet others from different religious traditions.”

Question #3: What are some practical tips about how parents of two different religions should approach major holidays? (Should major holidays of both religions be celebrated? Should parent of that religion take the lead? Is it overwhelming for children to be exposed to too many different religious practices and holidays etc, will they not feel truly connected with either if one religion isn’t focused upon? What if one parent doesn’t want to participate in the other’s religious holidays, should the other parent carry on and celebrate with the children anyway?)

Rabbi Reuben’s Response:

The challenge of an interfaith marriage is to create harmony out of differences, mutual respect and love in the midst of ambiguity and paradox. Learn to see differences as opportunities and gifts from which each in the couple can learn and which can add richness and diversity to your children’s lives as well. When couples can learn to see holidays through the eyes of their partners and not only through the lens of their own upbringing they can enrich their own lives and give their children the tools with which to experience different religious traditions in an open and nonjudgmental way.

Children who grow up in interfaith families have a right to love and respect and cherish all of their relatives regardless of their particular religious tradition. Therefore interfaith parents have a responsibility to teach not merely tolerance but nonjudgmental acceptance of the idea that there are many different legitimate paths to experiencing the sacred in our lives and no one religion is the “right” religion with all the others wrong – if that were the case then most people in the world would always be wrong and interfaith families above all others perhaps have an opportunity to experience and teach the lessons of inclusion and acceptance of differences.

Children can still feel a strong sense of identification with one specific religion or religious tradition of one parent and at the same time enjoy celebrating holidays, customs and traditions of the other without fear of confusion. In my experience with interfaith families over the years I have learned the simple lesson that when parents are confused kids are confused and when parents are not confused kids are not confused. It is helpful for parents to agree upon the religious identity of their children and to work together to reinforce that identity. At the same time every successful relationship, whether same-faith or inter-faith is a partnership. When parents make decisions together as partners then regardless of which specific decision they might make, their children will receive consistent messages and the emotional stability that such messages invariably create.

Only when couples establish what is important to them together will they be able to successfully pass those values down to their children. When parents cannot agree upon how or what to celebrate in their home or even the religious identity of their children they are running the risk of communicating that same ambiguity and spiritual insecurity to their children as well. Ultimately interfaith couples have both the opportunity and responsibility of creating their own unique religious lifestyle together – it requires patience, tolerance, flexibility and an openness to experiencing life in a different way from which they were raised. There is something wonderful about nurturing an attitude of openness and experimentation to new experiences and customs that can allow both parents and children to see themselves as partners on a lifelong journey of spiritual self discovery.

Ultimately someone in each couple will inevitably take the lead in creating the religious celebrations and experiences of the family and if you both partners are willing to share the experiences together and one person has to do it alone it is better to provide a consistent sense of religious identity for your children with one parent than to allow the other’s reticence to participate to deprive your children of the spiritual foundation that a consistent religious identity can provide.”

I hope these answers are helpful. If you have any other questions please feel free to refer to my books on interfaith relationships: A Nonjudgmental Guide to Interfaith Marriage (Xlibris, 2002), and There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate – Surviving Your Child’s Interfaith Marriage (Praeger Publishing, 2008).

Noah (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

07 Jan
January 7, 2015

One of the great scourges of the human psyche, is that most of us spend our lives comparing ourselves to others. As a child I remember everything I did was either “good” or “bad” in my own eyes, in relation to how the same thing was done by someone else. Take sports, for example. I grew up feeling that I had no athletic ability and was basically a klutz when it came to playing baseball or football or whatever sport was popular at the time. I felt that way because the kids I played with always seemed better than me at every game we played. In retrospect, the biggest problem I had as an athlete was simply my size, and by the time I became an adult and my height caught up with everyone else, I suddenly found myself playing every sport pretty well. But the feelings of inadequacy in sports have never gone away. Read more →

Love Your Kids For Who They Are

01 Jan
January 1, 2015

I remember back when I was writing CHILDREN OF CHARACTER, my then six-year-old niece went to a pet store to buy a gerbil. The wise owner of the store told her, “First pick it up and hold it. It you can’t cuddle with it, then you aren’t ready to keep it as a pet.” Read more →

Bereshit 2 (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

28 Dec
December 28, 2014

Every culture, every religion, every civilization has its own “creation story.” Ever since there have been human beings on the earth, we have wrestled with the fundamental questions of life, struggled to come up with a compelling narrative that will explain adequately to ourselves and our children where the world itself came from and what are the essential principles upon which our world stands. Read more →

Noah 2 (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

21 Dec
December 21, 2014

I am writing this commentary after just returning home from serving as the Master of Ceremonies for the annual “Tree of Life’ award dinner of the Jewish National Fund on Los Angeles. It was a very impressive and moving evening, especially as it brought home that Israel is facing a terrible crisis at the moment that is even more significant and frightening than the crisis of terror, suicide bombers, or the Palestinian rejections of Israel’s right to exist in the Middle East. Read more →