God and Rising Above Despair (October 26, 2021)
Kaplan has been accused of a naive optimism that belongs to a previous era. But the truth is that we desperately need his faith in our ability to overcome the difficulties that life presents to us. We will not survive much less achieve salvation [sheleymut] if we succumb to despair, self-pity and doubt. We must rise above such feelings, and it is when we transcend ourselves in this sense that we grasp the true meaning of the divine in our lives. Kaplan puts it this way: “Every time we rise above corroding doubt, we grow in the awareness that what obtains in the depth of our personality is but an infinitesimal fraction of the creative and redemptive forces in the cosmos that spell God.”
December 16, 1942, Kaplan Diary. Communings of the Spirit, vol 3, 1942-1951. ed. Mel Scult (Wayne State University Press, 2020)
Kaplan on Creation, Creativity, and Us (August 12, 2019)
Kaplan is much undervalued as a theologian. We think of him as a sociological thinker, with his central concept of “Judaism as a Civilization.” But, of course, he is much more than that. We might refer to him as the sociologist become theologian. Below we will see the theologian at work.
Kaplan understands that when we talk of creation we mean to refer to the order and unity that comes out of the chaos – out of the Tohu va-Vohu as the Torah puts it. (I love this expression, not the chaos but the words, because there is so much chaos in my life and in the world that I need to remove.) The order and the unity that are the primary qualities of creation may be found not only in the outer universe but also in the inner life of each of us. The inner life is always a reflection of the larger cosmos. We are connected. Thus, whenever we create, we are in a sense contributing to the greater order and unity that is the ongoing process of creation. Our creative acts are a manifestation of the Divine.
The liturgy familiarly refers to God and the creative process in this way: “God who renews in God’s goodness the work of creation every day.” Creation is not something that only happened billions of years ago; it happens every day. Kaplan refers to self-realization or salvation as the process in which we constantly recreate ourselves. He emphasizes that we must be partners in the creative process and create in whatever way we are able. What Kaplan is doing is to turn the concept of creation into creativity. The way in which the universe began is a problem for the physicists. The meaning of creativity and the way in which we are part of that process is a religious and spiritual problem.
Kaplan ordinarily spent his summers at the Jersey shore. The following statement was crafted during a stay at Long Branch. That summer was one of his most creative, theologically speaking.
The Primary Importance of Creativity and Unity [Kaplan Diary, July 28, 1940]
“The sense of centrality as the creative activity of the mind gives man his world, i.e. it brings unity out of the chaos of his inner and outer life. As he goes on living, his world is continually being upset, and he is always reconstructing it. Whatever helps to restore the unity, man is deeply grateful for. It enables him to pursue his efforts at self-realization. Is it not to be expected that he would ascribe the restoration of the unity to the same Power that makes for salvation not ourselves – however he conceives that Power – which had originally bestowed on him the very ability to create his world? In other words, whatever restores the unity of one’s world or confirms one in the feeling of that unity adds meaning to one’s life. It renders life worthwhile and significant in that it reinforces the drive to salvation. It is a revelation of that original Power which has bestowed upon man the sense of his own centrality and unity of his cosmos. Every creative act of man adds to the meaning of life and is a revelation of the Divine. This is as true a conclusion in soterics* as any theorem in geometry, and for the art of life infinitely more essential.” (Emphases added.)
*“Soterics” is the name Kaplan gave to his system.
See Communings of the Spirit – The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Volume 2: 1934–1941, edited by Mel Scult, p. 267.
To order Mel’s third volume of Kaplan’s journals, click below (and use the discount code FW20):
For Mel’s second volume of Kaplan’s journals, including a discount code, click below:
Mel discusses his book The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan in a podcast.
For that book, click below:
For an interview with Mel in the New Jersey Jewish News, titled “Judaism should serve the Jewish people,” click here.