Kaplan and Creativity Talmud Page

Response for the Kaplan and Creativity Talmud Page

Rabbi Bob Gluck (November 5, 2023, revised March 5, 2024)

Mordecai Kaplan reinterprets the traditional concept of God as creator as the attribute of human creativity. He articulates this in several ways, among them: “the continuous emergence of aspects of life not prepared for or determined by the past.” (The Meaning of God in Jewish Religion, 1937, 62). In the decades following Kaplan’s death, it has become common practice for writers to describe creativity as the potential everyone holds to make spontaneous choices throughout the course of our daily lives. To offer one example following this perspective, walking down a street or a path can involve constant decision making shaped not only by habit, muscle memory, and our environment (like the need to avoid walking into a tree), but by constant spontaneous innovation. Certainly, creativity is an attribute of all human beings.

Kaplan viewed artistic endeavors to be a heightened instance of creativity. Kaplan spoke of the creative artist as “creator par excellence.” (Meaning of God in Jewish Religion, 1937, 77). While Kaplan understood the Arts to be an integral part of Jewish civilization, he lacked a deep understanding of artists and artistic expression. For Kaplan, the value of Art was in its potential to enhance and enliven Jewish life. Kaplan also took note of the tendency of Jewish creative artists to not engage in Jewish communal life. He wondered how their expressivity might be marshalled in service of an aesthetic revitalization of Jewish life. 

I am a musical composer and pianist as well as being a rabbi. As much as I am interested in creative Jewish living in a broad sense, my primary interest in ideas about creativity is understanding and furthering artistic expression. I don’t believe that Kaplan understood a lot about the motivation and processes involved in creative artistry, although he recognized as early as 1934 that there was an aspect of artistic endeavor that is solitary rather than communal. To this point, he acknowledged that “certain types of Art, chiefly literature and sculpture, require very little direct and immediate social cooperation toward their production.” (Judaism as a Civilization, 202) 

For me, composing music is the kind of solitary endeavor that Kaplan speaks of, albeit social in its performance. Kaplan no doubt learned more about these dynamics from his daughter, musicologist and composer Judith Kaplan Eisenstein. Musical composing is distinct from other activities or ways of being in my life. It is one that entails craft, intensive shaping and reworking material, which hopefully resolves into a sufficiently organic whole. In this sense, it is very much akin to literature, which involves multiple drafts of text, and sculpture, which entails multiply building up materials and then carving them back. 

The individualized aspect of composing is a means not an end since performance is a social activity, between performers and between performers and an audience. Composition and performance are social in their needs for communities to sustain and support their creative endeavors. The fuller realization of Mordecai Kaplan’s vision of an aesthetically enlivened Jewish community requires not only engagement of artists to serve Jewish communal life, but movement on the part of Jewish communities to gain nuanced understandings of the realities and resource needs of those who dedicate their lives to the solitary and social aspects of artistic expression.