Mel’s Desk

Can I Be a Rabbi without Believing in God?

This diary entry from Kaplan illustrates the spiritual doubts of a number of rabbinical students from the early forties. The entry is significant on many levels not the least of which is the fact that Jack Cohen and Sidney Morgenbesser were in the group. Kaplan’s response is significant in that it illustrates that though he was a naturalist, yet his belief in God was profound and deeply felt. The concept of correlative is an important one but complex. It refers to a situation where one concept implies another as parent implies child, as donut implies hole. Kaplan uses this concept here to great advantage.

Friday, March 19, 1943
Last night four Seminary students, second-year men, came to see me. They were Jack J. Cohen,[1] [Sidney] Morgenbesser,[2] Spiro, and Gaynor. The first two had attended the Seminary College before they entered the Seminary. Spiro came from Minneapolis, where he studied with Dr. Gordon, and Gaynor had studied in Herzliah and the Yeshiva College. The purpose of their visit was to air their inner conflicts. They find it difficult to believe in God, and yet they want to serve the Jewish people. Can they conscientiously do so as rabbis? They had of course long ago given up the traditional basis for the belief in the existence of God—namely, revelation. But they have so far found no substitute. What I have been teaching as the alternative to the traditional basis for the belief in God does not convince them. I evidently have not succeeded in communicating to them my own experience of a transcendent correlative to man’s will to salvation. They admit the existence of a will to salvation, but they see no need for positing a transcendent correlative of that will. Of course, my contention is not that I intellectually posit it but that I experience it with the same immediacy as I do my own self. Intellectually, I cannot posit the existence of a self, for the little I know of psychology tells me that self is an illusion. Yet if I were to deny the reality of the existence of self as [the] center of initiative, I would cut the ground from under the element of responsibility, without which human life is inconceivable. The same holds true of otherhood, with its element of loyalty, and of godhood, with its element of piety.

These students intimated that they found Ame’s[3] presentation of the conception of God more acceptable than mine. When I elicited that from them, I told them that I would by no means insist on their accepting what I regard as the basis for the belief in God to be justified in taking up the rabbinic calling. The main question which they must answer to themselves is this: Am I able to take the idea of God as found in Jewish tradition and transpose it into the key of modern religion? They have been told by Milton Steinberg in the series of lectures on theology which he is now giving that there are two kinds of religion, theistic and nontheistic religion. What they would like to be told is that they could be rabbis on the basis of nontheistic religion. This, I told them plainly, they could not do, since as rabbis their main function was to maintain the identity and continuity of the Jewish tradition. That tradition minus the God belief is like the play of Hamlet without Hamlet.

Perhaps I would be more successful in conveying my meaning if I were to find anchorage in the spiritual values of responsibility, loyalty, and piety, concerning the reality of which, both as experiences and as indispensable elements in human life, there can be no question. As experiences they are the doors, respectively, to self, the other, and God.
Found in Communings of the Spirit – The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Volume III: 1942–1951, edited by Mel Scult, p. 159 (Wayne State University Press, 2020).

[1] Jack Cohen (1919–2012), ordained JTS, was an educational director and rabbi at SAJ, director of Hillel at HU, and founder of Mevakshe Derech. Cohen made Aliyah in 1961. A lifelong Kaplan disciple, he is the author of Judaism in a Post-Halakhic Age and Guides for an Age of Confusion: Studies in the Thinking of Avraham I. Kook and Mordecai M. Kaplan.

[2] Sidney Morgenbesser (1921–2004), a popular and influential professor of philosophy, studied with Nelson Goodman, professor of philosophy at Columbia University.

[3] The work Kaplan refers to here is most likely by Edward Ames (1870–1958), a Christian theologian from the University of Chicago. The book was probably The Psychology of Religious Experience (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940). This work presents a nontheistic view of God, which the students seemed to have preferred to that which Kaplan offered them in class. But my sense is that he gave them Ames to read.

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, Volume III, 1942-1951, edited by 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 II: 1934–1941, edited by Mel Scult, p. 267.

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Mel discusses his book The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan in a podcast.

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