The Educational Philosophies of Mordecai Kaplan and Michael Rosenak: Surprising Similarities and Illuminating Differences

Nov. 04, 2014

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 80, Issue 4, pages 388-410


The thoughts of Mordecai Kaplan and Michael Rosenak present surprising commonalities as well as illuminating differences. Similarities include the perception that Judaism and Jewish education are in crisis, the belief that Jewish peoplehood must include commitment to meaningful content, the need for teachers to teach from a position of authenticity, and the importance of developing the inner life. The differences lie primarily in their divergent understandings of what in Judaism obligates, of the importance of reckoning with the Schwabian “milieu” when educating, of the acceptable boundaries of textual interpretation, and of the need to engage with families when educating children….


Finally, we wonder if rooting this article in the spirit of encounters between different philosophies, in an approach that is nonreductionistic and “mutually critical” (Fackenheim, 1973), might suggest at a practical level some useful aytzahs to those who think they are practicing Kaplanian or Rosenakian Jewish education. It is possible that in encountering the other, each might find a neglected “shadow” side of itself.


For the Michael Rosenak in each of us, perhaps it is time to allow the contemporary understandings of the compassionate and social brain to grant a greater role to the group and milieu in the textual encounters that are so central to his educational philosophy. Perhaps the “lonely night of faith” is unnecessarily alone when it comes to the ongoing work of Jewish education.


For the Mordecai Kaplan that resides within our educational souls, perhaps it is of great value to reconsider the philosophical functionalism that guides so much of his educational philosophy. The “philosophical midrash” that Jonathan Cohen believes is at the heart of Rosenak’s approach to Jewish learning teaches us to honor paradox and polarities as sources of educational growth. Perhaps the ability to reconstruct our Jewish and educational lives is most deeply nourished when we allow this very different mode of educating a significant role.

Updated: Dec. 24, 2014