Kaplan on Intellectual & Spiritual Honesty

Between 1972 and 1975, Dr. Mel Scult conducted about 50 hours of taped interviews with Mordecai Kaplan, some of his family, and several of his students. In these recordings, Kaplan talks about his early life and the influences of his parents and teachers on the development of his world view  

What jumps out immediately is that Kaplan is deeply committed to honesty —his own and that of others as they (we) engage with Judaism and its reconstruction. Kaplan inherited this passion for honesty from his father, Israel Kaplan, and sought to pass it on to his own rabbinical students.   

Kaplan relates that his father was “very critical of people’s ethical behavior.” He rejected Hasidism, in part, because he was bothered by “the politics, yes power politics” which characterized the Hasidic movement. They competed with one another for disciples. He didn’t like that.” In his view, power politics had displaced ethics and intellectual honesty in the Hasidic world. Israel Kaplan rejected at least one rabbinic position offered to him while the Kaplans still lived in Europe because, as Mordecai tells it, the members of the congregation prayed wearing a gartel, “a belt worn by Hasidim during prayers to separate the upper from the lower regions of the body.” 

Kaplan also mentions his father’s chagrin at being sent to Syracuse as a mashgiach looking into the Passover kashrut of a sugar company.  When he came back..he told me, “what was there that could be hametz in the manufacturer of sugar?”  In other words, this is an instance of graft-its not honest.  This was a form of duplicity Israel  Kaplan could not tolerate. He walked away from his position in the court of the chief rabbi and struggled to earn a living in America for the rest of his life. 

In these conversations with Scult, Kaplan notes parenthetically that his own professional experience, upon completing his smikha at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902, led him to better understand his father’s choice to only work for institutions in which he could feel both ethically and intellectually comfortable. “Before I became a member of the Seminary faculty [in 1909]… I was very unhappy as the Orthodox rabbi at Kehillat Jeshurun… because I couldn’t be intellectually honest in that position.”

Kaplan elaborates his view on the centrality of honesty in a Reconstructionist pluralistic approach to Judaism in a conversation with campers at Camp Cejwin.  He emphasizes that spirit and honesty, which distinguish human beings from other creatures, have the potential to bring about universal peace and creative survival.  

Kaplan’s devotion to truth is also reflected in his Scholar’s Prayer, reprinted in the Kol Haneshemah: Limot Hol/ Daily Prayer Book, p. 28.

From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,

From the laziness that is content with half-truths,

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,

O Lord of Truth, deliver us. 

According to two of his students, Rabbis Ray Artz and Michael Graetz, Kaplan often recited recited this prayer (sometimes alternating with Biblical passages) before every class he led, and no other JTS professor led class with a prayer! And he, reputedly the godless one! (cf. Rabbi Michael Cohen’s conversation with Rabbis Arz and Graetz in the “I Remember Mordecai” section of the Kaplan Center website.)

Indeed, perhaps no group so consistently heard Kaplan’s message as did the rabbinical students he taught over five decades.   When Kaplan resigned from the Seminary in 1927—(he later withdrew his letter of resignation)–the Chancellor of the Seminary, Cyrus Adler, received a letter from Milton Steinberg, then president of the student body, expressing the students’ collective debt to Kaplan. By approaching the tradition with honesty, creativity and clarity, Kaplan imparted to them a Judaism which they, and their future congregants, could embrace wholeheartedly. 

There is preeminently one man among our teachers who is responsible for what faith, and courage, and vision we may lay claim to. It is from him that we have acquired the hardihood to go on in a difficult and discouraging cause, for it is he who has given the Judaism we expected to teach the content and vitality we have elsewhere sought in vain. He made the cause a creative venture, when it was otherwise a pursuit without purpose and without clarity. We have seen in him that clear and simple passion for spiritual honesty which we believe is the first desideratum in American Jewish life. And if we, his students, have learned something of that spiritual honesty our debt is to him. He has taught us devotion and given us things worthy of devotion when we had almost lost the faith that these were anywhere to be discovered. His example has given us to understand that creative spiritual activity was still possible in Jewish life and his was an example we have been sadly in need of. Preeminently our teacher and guide, we feel that the departure of Professor Kaplan will leave us utterly divorced from the things most worth learning, without the guidance toward those values which we believe Conservative Judaism ought to conserve and create. 

While speaking to Scult, Kaplan noted that he was lucky that the Jewish communities of the 20th Century had a greater tolerance for expressions of personal religious truths than did the Jewish communities of the past. 

It was fortunate that I lived in an age when they didn’t execute … and when excommunication didn’t mean anything, as it did in the case of Spinoza. After alI, I did exactly the same kind of thing as Spinoza did in his time. 

But as we approach the 40th anniversary of Kaplan’s yahrzeit we should avoid one of the things Kaplan most detested: smugness and self-satisfaction.  Dr. Eric Caplan observed in one of our recent Kaplan Center webinars that Kaplan expected congregations affiliated with his thought to walk the walk even more than talk the talk. They needed to constantly scrutinize their own institutions and structure, perform a heshbon hanefesh of their individual and communal lives, and observe a high standard of ethical behavior and intellectual honesty.