As we prepare to begin our reading of the Book of Exodus at a time of war and conflict these two reflections by Mel Scult on Kaplan’s views of might and right seem particularly contemporary.
From Mordecai Kaplan:
What can be plainer than that the following indicates what the Exodus meant to Israel: “And for this cause have I let thee live to show thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.” [Exodus 9:16] In these words it is clearly set forth that what Israel learned from the deliverance from Egypt was that the power of God was greater than any power, human or natural, that ventured to oppose Him.
The expression commonly found in connection with the Exodus, whether in the narration itself or references to it in other parts of the Pentateuch, is
“Yad Chazakah”- the strong hand – as if the central truth about the entire event is that God is a God of might….
The conception of God as a god of might is a very dangerous one if held by the mighty. How easily the very opposite of what it was meant to imply is clearly seen from Napoleon who said that God is on the side of the larger battalions.
But it was because of the very inferiority of Israel’s physical strength that the concept of God as a god of might, which in a physically superior people would have led to the most unethical and immoral conclusions, in the case of Israel, led to conclusions …of unparalleled moral courage in the face of the most disheartening odds.
In other words, whereas such a conception of God as set forth in the entire account of the Exodus led some to conclude that ‘might is right,‘ it led Israel to infer that ‘right is might.’ As the first conclusion was the extreme of immorality, so was the second the height of spirituality.
God’s Power and The Matter of Force
Mordecai Kaplan dismissed many of the core beliefs of traditional Judaism and yet as evidenced by these notes he was a man of deep faith. It is probable that he delivered the following remarks around 1920 to the congregation of the Jewish Center.
“The sole reason we are still very remote from regulating our conduct in accordance with the spirit of justice and mercy is that we are mostly persuaded that they can hardly be expected to prevail against the animal passions of human nature that are usually supported by the weight of brute force.
[It is clear ]…that the weakness of justice and mercy are only apparent. In the end, they are bound to be victorious.
As a consequence, we will find it worthwhile to resist the evildoers and withstand the perversions and injustices [ of this world ]. The assurance that “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, [saith the Lord ]” “…[ Zachariah 4: 6], simply means that the spirit of God is mightier than might and more powerful than power. In other words, the Lord fights for us if we align ourselves with Him on our side – [ i.e. the side of justice and mercy.]
[ I have edited these notes for clarity but the message is clear. These thoughts from Kaplan continue a post on the meaning of God’s power in the book of Exodus which I posted recently here. Again, they are taken from Kaplan’s writings on the Torah which are at RRC and in my closet. For those who want to go further, they may look into the selections from Kaplan’s diary in my volumes of “ The Communings of the Spirit- The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Vol I, II,,IIIi. 1913- 1951,( Detroit, Wayne State University)]