• Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century.  We believe that his thought may be even more important in the 21st century.

Mel's Desk

"The Confessions of a Kaplan Disciple"

The April 2016 "Wrestling with Jewish Peoplehood" conference in Philadelphia sponsored by the Kaplan Center and others was provocative and stimulating.  It also made clear once more that there are people who think Mordecai Kaplan is merely of historical interest and not relevant to the problems of contemporary Jewry.  What follows is my sense of Kaplan’s relevance.

I have been wandering in the desert of Mordecai Kaplan’s prose for more than forty years. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have climbed the mountain many times, and there have been a multitude of revelations or wonderful flashes of insight.  At times I burst from my study and shout to my wife, “I am epiphing, I am epiphing, I finally got it.”  For these many years, Kaplan has sustained me and given me guidance and given my life meaning.  In short, I have become a faithful disciple, but as such I have given my teacher the respect of disagreeing with him and offering a version of his thought which he might have found unfamiliar at times. 

Let me put it another way: the Kaplan that means so much to me is not necessarily the Kaplan that others understand.  I have a very close friend and collaborator by the name of Rabbi Emanuel (Manny) Goldsmith, one of the Kaplan Center’s esteemed Senior Fellows, who was a professor of Jewish studies for many years.  I love him and respect him.  He knows a great deal of Kaplan.  His thinking is deeply valuable to me, and when I hear him speak I hear Kaplan.  But his Kaplan is not my Kaplan.  My Kaplan is less tied to the original and reflects an effort to speak in a more
contemporary voice.

The truth is that there are many Kaplans.  My understanding of Kaplan is based on years of reading his published works and, especially, the 27 volumes of his diary.  My reading reflects my contemporary values and sensitivities.  What I find is a religious man, a spiritual man, a believing man, a man who davenned regularly, and who more than anything else devoted all his energy to saving the Jewish people.  I find not a narrow ethnic tribalist, but a dedicated universalist who believed deeply in the Jewish people as a vehicle for the most exalted human values.  Jewish civilization for Kaplan was one way of being human, not THE way.

It pains me when people relegate Kaplan to the past and consider him important merely as a historical relic.  Some Reconstructionists say that the movement no longer belongs to Kaplan.  I think this is unfortunate, and I think it reflects the fact that they do not really understand him or know his work.  Kaplan initiated a revolution in Jewish life, and there is a sense in which that revolution has barely begun.

So while I stand on one foot, let me give a summary of my understanding of Kaplan’s philosophy.  Everyone begins by pointing to Kaplan’s understanding that Judaism is a civilization.  In our time, this has become so familiar as to be banal.  In its day, however, it was radical and innovative, dubbed a “Copernican revolution” in the understanding of Judaism.  Of course, there is music, art, languages and literature, and a common history, that we have created.  But we also created the religion.  Judaism is the creation of the Jewish people, not the other way around.  It is not God-given; we created it in the process of our search for meaning.  Because we created it, Judaism changes with our experience and our collective needs.  This notion is still scandalous for some Jews.

We created the religion, and, consequently, it reflects our need for fulfillment; it is here to serve us and not we it.  Kaplan was rigorously pragmatic (and that does not necessarily mean practical).  Kaplan, as a gifted sociologist, understands that the essence is in the function.  We must make our Judaism work for us.  If you would understand a concept or a ritual, look to its function.  How did it function in the life of ancient Israel when it was conceived?  Does it still function that way?  If it doesn’t, change it so that it will (i.e., reconstruct it).  If you can’t reconstruct it, discard it.  This is the essence of the Kaplanian method.  At the same time, it is well to remember an aphorism that Reconstructionists are fond of citing, the original version of which is, “The ancient authorities are entitled to a vote—but not to a veto” (Not So Random Thoughts, p. 263).  Kaplan took the first part of this statement as seriously as he took the second part.

Let me say a word about the diary, which is the primary source for me.  Kaplan created one of the longest diaries on record – 27-large accountant type volumes, much of which is available here.  The diary is perfectly suited to Kaplan’s vigorous and many-sided mind.  The diary is not fixed up; it is not consistent – one reads this idea today, another idea tomorrow; it is rich in contradiction and paradox.  The Kaplan of the diary is much more readable than the published Kaplan and is more radical as well. Given Kaplan’s many-sidedness, there is room for all of us.

Here is an example of the unexpected and the paradoxical drawn from the diary:  when Kaplan’s eldest daughter Judith began to read Zionist literature as a teenager, Kaplan panicked, thinking she might make aliyah and live in the land of Israel.  Because he was profoundly American, he immediately began feeding her articles from The Forward that would counter her Zionism. 

Kaplan was never narrowly tribal.  He loved the Jewish people, although truth to tell he often couldn’t stand the balabatim (movers and shakers) of his congregation.  For Kaplan, the particular entity that is the Jewish people carries the universal within it.  Listen to him in as he struggles with his rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary: “The Jews were the first ones to make a religion of their peoplehood,” he declared. The students reacted strongly and accused him of being chauvinistic. “Patriotism is collective egotism,” he retorted.  “The Jews subordinated their patriotism to a God whose primary demand is justice.” 

For Kaplan, Jewish civilization should embody the ideals of democracy.  Although Kaplan was of course a dedicated leader of the political Zionist movement, having a state for the Jews is not the ultimate value.  The Jewish people both in America and in Israel are the primary vehicles for achieving our highest ideals.  Put another way, the ideology of Theodor Herzl was certainly important to Kaplan, but the ideology of Ahad Ha’am was even more important.  (Remember that in Judaism as a Civilization, where Kaplan lists the key requirements for and fundamental elements of Jewish civilization, he does not mention a Jewish state.)  Loyalty to the state yes, but not a blind loyalty, precluding criticism.  In particular, Kaplan argued that the State of Israel must treat its Arab citizens justly. 

Belonging to the group is essential for Kaplan.  He understood that the need to belong is spiritual, and is perhaps more important than behaving or believing.  Yet at the same time he understood the importance of democratic individualism.  Along with his fundamental axiom that Judaism was a civilization, we find the understanding that salvation is the goal and the end of religion.  Salvation is of the individual as well as of the group.  The term “salvation” is unfortunate, and in the 1950s Kaplan proposed the Hebrew term “sheleymut,” from the same root as shalom, or peace.  Sheleymut means fulfillment, or completeness, or perfection, or self-realization, to use the term of the mid-20th-century humanists whom Kaplan read and embraced.  (When I found that Kaplan read Maslow and Jung, it was one of those “epiphing” moments.)  Sheleymut is a respectable philosophical term and goes back to Maimonides, who said that every commandment served either sheleymut ha-guf (perfection of the body) or sheleymut ha-nefesh (perfection of the soul-self).

For Kaplan, sheleymut consisted of three primary elements: creativity, growth and integration. He used the term “personality” not in the current sense of how much we appeal to others, but in the older sense as the whole person - the character and the unique qualities of the person. He firmly believed that all the elements of Jewish culture and the Jewish community, all the sancta (his word for rituals) could be understood as vehicles for the fulfillment of personality. 

Again, let us remember that Kaplan was never the narrowly ethnic.  The universal was never far from his mind.  He firmly believed that all individuals in every society everywhere had the right to a life of their own, to be as creative and as integrated as they were able. Of course, such growth cannot take place when people are in need for the basics in life.   Thus it should not surprise us that Kaplan’s writings have a strong socialist tone to them. In the early thirties he was profoundly attracted to the philosophy of Karl Marx though he found the anti-religious aspects of socialism repugnant. In the privacy of the diary he muses that Mordecai was the confirmed capitalist while Menachem (his middle name) was a communist.  He stated earlier that some in his congregation called him a Bolshevik.

Kaplan’s socialism was in part a product of the 1920s and 1930s, as was his optimism about the possibilities of reconstruction.  I must confess that I am distressed by those who point to Kaplan’s optimism as naïve and superficial and as a product of the inter-war period.  Although our present post-Holocaust period is plagued by a post-modern pessimism, Kaplan steers us away from such an attitude as our guiding principle.  Kaplan more than anything else was the “cosmic cheerleader”.  In the present moment of widespread despair about the unity and continuity of the Jewish people, when our children and grandchildren are inter-marrying at an ever-increasing rate, we need Kaplan’s optimism about the future of the Jewish people and the possibilities of unity despite the daunting statistics and sociological analyses.  We should be disciples of his optimism.

The Reconstructionist movement is still wrestling with the recent decision of its seminary to admit and ordain inter-married or inter-partnered students.  Kaplan’s stand on inter-marriage is clear.  He opposed it before the fact but accepted it after the fact.  In Judaism as a Civilization (p. 419), he stated: “By accepting a policy which does not decry marriages of Jews with Gentiles, provided the homes they establish are Jewish and their children are given a Jewish upbringing, the charge of exclusiveness and tribalism falls to the ground. With such an attitude, there would no longer be any occasion for pointing to the racial pride of the Jews.  What is valuable is the Jewish social heritage, or civilization, not physical descent.”

Last, but certainly not least, is Kaplan’s theology, or rather theologies.  For him, God was not a self, did not speak, did not give laws or govern history.  At the same time, Kaplan gives us a very suggestive and positive non-supernaturalistic theology.  He once said that his disciples tended to stress the negatives instead, which is unfortunate.

As in so many other areas, there are many theological Kaplans.  He believed deeply in God, but he changed his concept of God almost as often he changed his clothes.  There is the naturalistic Kaplan who offers what has been called “predicate theology”.  In 1952, he put it this way: “What I mean by God as process can best be illustrated by the statement: fire burns. … By this time we have learned that there is no independent entity or substance called fire.  The predicate ‘burn’ names the process which takes place when we see fire.  Likewise when we say God loves, forgives, acts justly, we should understand it to mean that the process of loving, forgiving and acting justly are divine or God.  Perhaps that is what Spinoza understood by the statement ‘God is,’ namely that the process of being as such is synonymous with God.” [Kaplan Diary, November 6, 1952]

But, and this is a momentous BUT, the naturalistic Kaplan is only part of the story.  There is also another theological Kaplan who calls his belief “supra-natural”.  Not supernatural, but the natural pushed to its limits, or supra-natural.  He also sometimes sounds amazingly like his younger colleague, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  As a matter of fact, I have a whole file in my computer under the title “Kaplan as Heschel”.  Here is one example.   

 “… we must be in active communion with the God of whom our best self, our selfless urge to make the most of life, is an infinitesimal but actual ray of energy.  With this kavannah [intention] in mind, we should learn to recite our benedictions and utter our praises of God.  Let us grasp the full significance of the keyword barukh used in worship.  It means ‘to bless,’ and is a two-way word, for we bless God and we ask God to bless us.  In the former case it means that we glorify God, in the latter that God prospers.  But there is in the very two-fold use of the term the implication of mutuality, of God's needing man and man's needing God.  In the words of a medieval poet, ‘his glory is upon me and mine upon him.’” [Kaplan Diary, October 3, 1942]

Kaplan has been central in my religious and intellectual life, and I believe if people understood him correctly he would be essential to many more in the Jewish community.