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The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan

By: Mel Scult
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Mordecai M. Kaplan, founder of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, is the only rabbi to have been excommunicated by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment in America. Kaplan was indeed a radical, rejecting such fundamental Jewish beliefs as the concept of the chosen people and a supernatural God. Although he valued the Jewish community and was a committed Zionist, his primary concern was the spiritual fulfillment of the individual. Drawing on Kaplan's 27-volume diary, Mel Scult describes the development of Kaplan's radical theology in dialogue with the thinkers and writers who mattered to him most, from Spinoza to Emerson and from Ahad Ha-Am and Matthew Arnold to Felix Adler, John Dewey, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. This gracefully argued book, with its sensitive insights into the beliefs of a revolutionary Jewish thinker, makes a powerful contribution to modern Judaism and to contemporary American religious thought.

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1 Excommunications: Kaplan and Spinoza

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ONE

Too bad we had only one Spinoza.

—Mordecai M. Kaplan, 1939

Most of us think of Mordecai Kaplan as the founding father of the Reconstructionist movement. Indeed he was, but his life was marked equally by another, quite different, biographical event: he was the first rabbi in the United States to be excommunicated by the ultra-Orthodox. Excommunication is usually associated with the Catholic Church and not with the Jews, but, alas, this painful act has been part of Jewish life for centuries. Indeed, the enemies of Maimonides—Jews, of course—burned his books after he died in 1204 and excommunicated anyone who read them. The most famous excommunication in Jewish history took place in Amsterdam in 1656. Its recipient was Baruch Spinoza, one of Kaplan’s intellectual inspirations.

The excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan, which occurred as a result of a prayer book he published in 1945, is a good place to begin a study of Kaplan’s thought. Thinking of Kaplan in connection with Spinoza will also raise some fundamental and perhaps disturbing questions about Kaplan. Did Kaplan fully embrace Spinoza’s philosophy, or were there issues on which the two differed? And how do these paired excommunications, nearly three hundred years apart, enable us to understand twentieth-century Jewish thinking?

 

2 Self-Reliance: Kaplan and Emerson

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TWO

Know your soul and you will come to know your creator.

—Joseph Albo, as quoted by Mordecai Kaplan, 1954

For the modern Jew, the needs of the autonomous self threaten the coherence of the Jewish community. Individualism is the greatest problem facing the Jewish people. For Mordecai Kaplan, as for so many other twentieth-century Jewish leaders, the primary problem was how to deal with the new sense of self that is at the root of both American culture and modernity. We cannot flee from it. It is precious and yet problematical. We cannot simply dismiss it. If we are to rise above its lowest expression—as narcissism and self-absorption—we must understand it.1

Kaplan’s theology is complex, but I believe that the place of the individual holds the key to understanding his system. As we know, he was a fierce, lifelong advocate of the notion of Judaism as a civilization; he championed the concept of community and of the collective consciousness of the Jewish people. He devoted almost a decade of his life to organizing and running the Jewish Center, and he was a follower of that great cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-Am. While all these are significant, his views on individualism and individual fulfillment are the linchpins that hold the elaborate structure of his thought together.

 

3 Nationalism and Righteousness: Ahad Ha-Am and Matthew Arnold

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THREE

I am more convinced than ever that Achad Ha-Am’s conception of nationality plus [Matthew] Arnold’s interpretation of Israel’s genius for righteousness contains that which could form the positive expression of the Jewish spirit. All it wants is definiteness and detail.

—Mordecai Kaplan, August 1905

A key aspect of Mordecai Kaplan’s talent as a thinker, as we will see again and again, is his ability to combine widely disparate concepts and ideologies into a single coherent whole. He was, for example, a life-long Zionist and, at the same time, a true nephew of his Uncle Sam, even editing a book of prayers and songs for American holidays.1 It also happened that the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the congregation that Kaplan founded in 1922, was first housed in a brownstone once occupied by George M. Cohan,2 the well-known patriotic entertainer, composer, and playwright. Though a mere bit of trivia, such synchronicity is evidence of the many streams of Kaplan’s intellectual life, seemingly divergent but nevertheless overlapping.

 

4 Universalism and Pragmatism: Felix Adler, William James, and John Dewey

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FOUR

The question “What is Judaism?” therefore resolves itself into the question “How do these beliefs and practices function?” For the first time we are getting at the very essence of Judaism; for the function of a thing practically constitutes its essence.

—Mordecai Kaplan, February 1917

Academics, myself included, are fond of exploring influences, of demonstrating the way in which a key aspect of a person’s thought relates to particular sources. It is an attempt to explain through origin. This search for influences, however, should not blind us to the inherent features of a person’s mind. In the case of Mordecai Kaplan’s universalism and pragmatism, though, such a search is superfluous. We do not need to search for the origin of a particular Kaplanian idea in William James or John Dewey or Felix Adler. Universalism and the pragmatic method were essential parts of Kaplan’s mind. Kaplan visited other realms, but he lived in the universal and the pragmatic.

 

5 Kaplan and Peoplehood: Judaism as a Civilization and Zionism

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FIVE

[Emil Fackenheim said that Kaplan represented] “the best side of the American pragmatic genius which refuses to subordinate realities to the requirements of philosophical or theological systems. The other is the indomitable love for amcha [the Jewish people] by an indomitable man.”

Sh’ma, 1972

Despite our focus on Mordecai Kaplan’s individualism and on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence, Kaplan was primarily a “man of the group.” From very early on, he was obsessed with finding a way to ensure the survival of the Jewish people. In his classic work Judaism as a Civilization, Kaplan declared that it was only within the group that the individual could find fulfillment: “Only though the interaction with his group can the individual achieve personality and self fulfillment or salvation.”1 The continued existence of the Jews was always his overriding concern. Indeed, he once thought of calling his new approach Zionist Judaism. Nothing was more important to him than the fate of the Jewish people.

 

6 Kaplan and His God: An Ambivalent Relationship

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SIX

According to Maimonides, “it is not correct to say that God is living, or that God knows or wills. The truth is that God is life, God is knowledge, and God is will.” From the standpoint of knowledge, God is at the same time the known and the process of knowing. Theologically or philosophically speaking, there is little, if any, difference between Maimonides’ conception of God and the conception of God that makes for man’s salvation.

—Mordecai Kaplan, “Soterics”

Some say that Mordecai Kaplan had no theology, while others say that he did not believe in God. Both are mistaken. Kaplan was a courageous man, and if he considered himself an atheist, he would have said so. He was a passionate believer, a naturalist to be sure, but a believer nonetheless. It is quite clear that he would never agree to the derogatory slur that “there is no God and Kaplan is his prophet”; yet, in a certain paradoxical sense, this statement is true.

Though Kaplan dismissed supernaturalism early in life, he was God-obsessed. He thought about God all the time. Nonetheless, he rejected a providential God who concerns Himself with human beings, who directs history, and who lays down laws for us to follow. In a 1905 journal entry, Kaplan rhapsodizes on the infinite, even while emphatically rejecting a “super self” as part of the great beyond: “There is a kind of mysticism which is essential to thought and without which thought is both barren and heartless,” Kaplan tells us, “it is of the very essence of literature to embody this sense of the infinite, this longing for the eternal universal beyond. To call this beyond a person [however] is meaningless, as [Matthew] Arnold has so well proved.”1

 

7 Kaplan’s Theology: Beyond Supernaturalism

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SEVEN

The eternal is an infinite becoming, and not an actual being. That is why we should conceive of God as process and not as entity—for God is a term to designate all those phases of the new direction that life takes on in man which are indicative of life’s infinite possibilities of growth.

—Mordecai Kaplan, October 1940

Theologically speaking, we might say that Mordecai Kaplan was caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he could not easily give up the traditional God of his ancestors. On the other hand, he could not subscribe to the notion of a supernatural, providential deity. His embrace of a naturalistic theology necessitated a rebellion against the father whom he loved and esteemed. But while he often expressed appreciation for his father and the religious culture in which he was raised, once he worked through his new theology, Kaplan never looked back.1

* * *

Though Kaplan dismissed the supernatural concept of God and the magic and miracle so intimately associated with traditional theology, he nonetheless maintained a deep appreciation for the tradition. We must remember that he was brought up in an Orthodox household and that he had a profound appreciation for the very positive ways in which the tradition functioned. Let no one say that Kaplan did not cherish Jewish tradition. Indeed, he believed that, without it, the Jewish people would be lost. In his words,

 

8 Salvation: The Goal of Religion

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EIGHT

Salvation is unhampered freedom in living and helping others to live a courageous, intelligent, righteous and purposeful life.

—Mordecai Kaplan, “Soterics”

Salvation is generally considered a Christian term. Although it appears in the Hebrew scriptures (yeshua), this basic theological concept has never occupied a central place in rabbinic or in modern Jewish thought. Nevertheless, as we have seen, it was axiomatic in Kaplan’s system from the very beginning. Though others bristled at the word, Kaplan was quite comfortable with it. Indeed, we might say that salvation for Kaplan was as important as God. He cared desperately about salvation and how to incorporate it into Jewish life. Although he thought about God all the time, Kaplan was not addicted to metaphysics, as so many theologians are. When he thought about God, it was in terms of the meaning of God for the life of the individual and the community; as we shall see, over his lifetime, Kaplan would offer numerous formulations of this complex concept, but every one revolved around the creation of meaning, in both its individual and communal manifestations.

 

9 Salvation Embodied: The Vehicle of Mitzvot

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NINE

Let every prayer we recite, every song we sing, every teaching we listen to set the current of Israel’s life coursing through our whole being, challenge us to test the ever living truth of what Israel has learned concerning man’s task on earth, and reveal to us the God who always stands at the door of our heart waiting as it were to be admitted. In this spirit let us pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to Thee O God, my strength and my redeemer.”

—Kaplan diaries, October 3, 1942

One of the primary differences between religion and philosophy is that religion is always embodied, while philosophy is not. For every religion, there is a series of particular behaviors which the religious person should observe. Primary among these are rituals, especially prayers and holidays. In Judaism, we find the halakhah, or Jewish law, which concerns every aspect of a person’s life. In explaining Kaplan’s approach to Judaism and religion in general, we must first show how his concept of salvation is embodied in the ritual or mitzvah system of the Jewish people, and especially in prayer. Our consideration of halakhah itself will come later.

 

10 Mordecai the Pious: Kaplan and Heschel

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TEN

The only way in which man is actually delivered from the sinister use of high principles is through the grace of God. Of that grace he is the beneficiary so long as he experiences humility or piety, an experience which means awareness of a transcendent power in the cosmos—a universal consciousness or spirit—that seeks to direct humanity into the path of salvation.

—Mordecai M. Kaplan, October 1943

The relationship between Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel—like all of Kaplan’s relationships—is complex and multilayered, both personally and philosophically.1 Philosophically, there are areas of agreement as well as contention. It will be extremely fruitful to explore the ideologies of these two men, as well as their personal relationship, in greater depth. The dramatic arc of their relationship—from curious correspondents to hopeful colleagues to jealous rivals—tells us a great deal, not only about them as individuals but also about the difficulty of bringing the rational and the mystical into some kind of unity.

 

11 The Law: Halakhah and Ethics

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ELEVEN

What we need is a regimen of observance which shall be affirmative and inspiring. But if this requirement is to be met, it can be only on the acceptance of diversity in regimens as normal and legitimate. All that is necessary is that they help to intensify the Jewish consciousness of their observers, and help to channel that consciousness in the direction of salvation.

—Mordecai Kaplan, December 1942

To understand fully Mordecai Kaplan’s approach to halakhah and mitzvot, we need to examine the seminal influence of growing up in a traditionally rabbinic household in New York City. Rabbi Israel Kaplan, Mordecai’s father, had smikhah (rabbinical ordination) from some of the most famous European rabbis of his time. The family came to New York in 1889 so that Rabbi Kaplan could serve on the rabbinical court of the newly appointed chief rabbi of New York, Jacob Joseph. Israel Kaplan was a “musarnik,” as Mordecai Kaplan used to say, devoted to studying and practicing Mussar, which is a part of the Jewish tradition marked by its focus on the perfection of one’s moral sensibilities and sense of obligation to others.

 

12 Kaplan and the Problem of Evil: Cutting the Gordian Knot

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TWELVE

Where in this conception of God is the place of evil? It is not in necessity but in the creativity of God. Evil is not (as I formerly believed) mere chance or negation, but something very real. It would not be evil if it were mere negation of being. All evil may be reduced either to the destruction or lowering of life. It is the antithesis of life, and in man, of salvation. The first is physical; the latter is moral evil. . . . What we have to assume with reference to God in order that we may accept His godhood is not that He is without evil, but that He is struggling to free Himself of the evil in His being. The evolutionary process whereby life rises to self-knowledge and to the evaluation of evil is an expression of this divine struggle to overcome the evil it has generated. . . . In man’s efforts to achieve salvation it is also God who seeks to exercise his creative power for good and achieves as it were His own salvation.

—Mordecai Kaplan, July 24, 1940

 

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