• 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.

A Rosh Hashannah Sermon

In the summer of 1956, Kaplan was thinking about a sermon for Rosh Hashannah.  It was his custom every year to meet with Conservative rabbis, his former students, and help them with their High Holiday sermons. They would come to the Jewish Theological Seminary sometime in the late summer, and Kaplan would give them concrete suggestions for sermon topics. Kaplan often recorded his thoughts for sermons in his diary.  The 1956 sermon, titled “The Meaning of Happiness,” represents in my judgment the best formulation of what Kaplan means by “salvation.”  Salvation as the goal of religion is, of course, a fundamental concept in Kaplan’s system.  Kaplan in his theology often refers to God as the “the power that makes for salvation.”

In a series of entries in his diary in early August of 1956, Kaplan wrote out what would become his sermon on happiness.  He delivered the sermon about a month later, on Rosh Hashannah, at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.  He was quite satisfied with it both as to content and as to delivery. The remainder of this article is based on Kaplan’s notes for this sermon.

On Rosh Hashannah we normally greet each other with “Happy New Year”; we do so without thinking much about the meaning of the phrase.  The issue of what happiness is seems like a banal question.  But Kaplan uses the occasion to think about his central notion of salvation, which he presents as equivalent to happiness.  The activity of thinking about happiness is certainly a very American pastime. This is not something the Vilna Gaon or Rashi would wonder about.  Perhaps we might suggest that the concept of happiness be reconstructed into the notion of sheleymut, the traditional Hebrew term for completeness, wholeness, or perfectibility.

To put it in a nutshell, Kaplan is saying that happiness [or sheleymut] means to be a healthy, fulfilled, self-actualizing person.  Kaplan uses Abraham Maslow [1908-1970][1], the humanist psychologist scholar of the mid-20th century, to explain what Kaplan means by salvation, and he focuses particularly on the needs-motivational aspect of Maslow’s work. Because the occasion is Rosh Hashannah, Kaplan employs the concept of nisayon or test, as in “And God tested Abraham”   [Genesis 22:1, the beginning of the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashannah, the story of the binding of Isaac].  The concept of nisayon affords Kaplan the opportunity to emphasize the insight that we do not really know who we are until we have been tested. Kaplan rightly points out that we cannot achieve happiness [sheleymut] unless we have overcome the obstacles that stand in our way.

To begin with, Kaplan states clearly and emphatically that by happiness [sheleymut] he does not mean the pursuit of power and pleasure.  When I met him back in 1972 he was talking of the divine as the “assumption that there was enough in the world to meet our needs but not our greed for power and pleasure.” This formulation recognizes the importance of power and pleasure but also the temptation to make these the crucial goals that drive our behavior.

Kaplan used the Shemah to emphasize the point that we must supersede our lower selves and our preoccupation with power and pleasure. The later part of the Shemah, for example, states [Numbers 15:37-41]:  “Looking upon it [the tzitzit] you will be reminded of all the mitzvot of the Lord and fulfill them and not be seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes.”  Kaplan interprets these words to mean you should not be seduced by power [your heart] or pleasure [your eyes].  

Rather we should recognize that happiness [sheleymut] comes from what Kaplan calls “spiritual health.”[2]  Such health is the goal, which perhaps we never reach. “It is an ever receding goal,” he reminds us.  It is of fundamental significance to Kaplan’s whole system that he sees the equivalence between the goal of religion and spiritual health. This again is a very familiar American way of thinking. In tracing the origins of this notion we could certainly begin with Emerson and then proceed to Dewey or Tillich among the theologians, to Carl Rogers and Erich Fromm among the popular psychologists and perhaps even to Robert Frost if we want a poet in this circle.

The full statement in the diary on spiritual health is as follows:

Happiness comes from a feeling of what may be termed "spiritual health."  It is the feeling that we are making progress in the direction of self-fulfillment or salvation.  It does not imply the actual achievement of salvation.  Salvation is an ever-receding goal.  It does imply, however, the attainment of certain desirable and worthwhile ends.  Those ends or ideals are merely signposts on the way to self-fulfillment.  There are a number of such ends or ideals which, when attained, do afford us happiness, because they are unmistakable evidences of our moving in line with that which is most distinctively and authentically human.  They constitute the realization of our innermost potentialities.  Hence the sense of satisfaction which accompanies them.  [August 8, 1956]

Happiness or spiritual health implies a certain amount of “tension, suffering or struggle.”  Attaining these ends is not all wine and roses, we might say.  The Jewish tradition refers to this struggle as nisayon, Kaplan reminds us.  Kaplan quotes Buber on the subject, although the point is intuitively clear:  “Man finds the truth to be true only when he stands its test and makes it true.”[3]  It takes the challenge of the test to “elicit those capacities in the human being which are part of his truest deepest self.”[4]

Each test or nisayon is a hurdle we have to leap over on the road to spiritual health.  Happiness is the feeling of satisfaction when we overcome an obstacle.  A person might reasonably ask what all this has to do with Judaism.  Kaplan uses the Jewish tradition in order to deepen the notion of test.  He believes there is a fundamental identity here between the goal of spiritual health and the values of that tradition.  Although he does not say so at this moment, his conviction is clear that it is through the mitzvah system that we achieve or are moved further along the road to our goal of spiritual health.  

The first goal or requirement in achieving our “spiritual health” is to be open to experience.  Kaplan has in mind the attitudes and actions of the self-actualized people as we find it explained in Maslow’s work.  Kaplan quotes Maslow in describing those who are self-actualized. Self-actualized people “live more in the world of nature than in man-made sets of concepts, expectations, beliefs and stereotypes which people confuse with the world.  They [the self-actualized people] are therefore more apt to perceive what is  ‘there’ rather than their own wishes, hopes, fears, anxieties, their own theories and beliefs, or those of their cultural group … these people lack defensiveness, protective coloration or pose and have a distaste for such artificialities in others for cant, guile, hypocrisy, front, and playing a game.”[5]

Kaplan had been thinking of the concept of personality for a long time.  Over the years it became central to his notion of salvation.  It is not accidental that Kaplan turned to Maslow’s work, which deals centrally with the philosophical and psychological aspects of personality analysis as a major category.[6]

Thus to achieve happiness [sheleymut] we must be open to experience and look it straight in the face.  Kaplan, perhaps more profoundly than he realized, puts the challenge before us to face reality as the goal of salvation, of religion and of Judaism in particular.  Those of us who read Torah regularly are reminded of Moses wanting to see God’s face, something Moses of course was not allowed to do.[7]  Ralph Waldo Emerson interprets the expression to see “God’s face” as to see the truth.  We are reminded of the expression in the Shemah, “Adonai Eloheichem emet, which is sometimes translated in the prayerbook as “The Lord your God is truth.”[8]  We are also reminded of a line from Stanley Cavell, the Harvard philosopher, who writes in his book on Thoreau, The Senses of Walden, “We crave only reality, but we cannot stomach it; we do not believe in our lives, so we trade them for stories; their real history is more interesting than anything we know.”[9]  To posit seeing reality “face to face” as a requirement for our spiritual health is a brilliant move on Kaplan’s part.   

The second hurdle or test or nisayon that we must overcome in our journey to salvation, Kaplan tells us, has to do with our own unique qualities, our own special personhood.  Kaplan calls this the ideal “of self direction.”  We must, in other words, work toward the realization of what is uniquely us.  In Kaplan’s words, “Every human being possesses a generic and individual nature.  He has much in common with and rightfully tries to be like all other human beings.  At the same time, what is distinctively human in each of us comes through mainly in that which is unique and individual.”[10]  To be fully oneself is not always simple, and we often encounter difficulties, which again for Kaplan are subsumed under the rubric of “nisayon,” of being tested.  Kaplan’s understanding of these difficulties reminds us clearly of Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance. In Kaplan’s words:

The crowd naturally exercises a gravitational pull on the individual mind which is hard to resist. What can seem more important than being adjusted, keeping in step, falling in line? What is more difficult that being considered peculiar, freakish, unaccountable? Or having one’s detachment misjudged as coldness, snobbishness, unfriendliness? … The well-known Hasidic saying [about] Zusia present[ing] himself before the Judgment seat points up this ideal of being fully oneself.” [August 8, 1956]

In dealing with the matter of individuality, it will not take us too far afield if we introduce some parallel thoughts from Aaron David Gordon (1856-1922), the well-known Zionist activist and thinker. Kaplan was well acquainted with Gordon’s thought, and as a matter of fact used him for the epigraph for Kaplan’s only Hebrew book, Ha-Emunah ve-ha-Musar (Faith and Ethics), published in 1954.  Gordon is famous for his emphasis on the holiness of labor, but for our purposes his grasp of the centrality of individuality is more significant.  He understood that the Zionist enterprise was about the transformation of the Jewish people, and that this paradigm shift in Jewish identity could not happen unless individual Jews were transformed.  He hoped that Jews would see their redemption in the Land of Israel, but for him it was essential that the decision to make aliyah be a reflection of the individual consciousness of each person.  He strongly opposed the ethics of sacrifice or of romanticizing the Zionist endeavor.  Sacrifice and romanticism are short lived, he believed, but actions that flow from genuine individual conviction will last.

There is a very moving incident recorded by Eliezar Schweid in his biography of Gordon that beautifully emphasizes our point.  A friend wrote to Gordon about making aliyah.  It was in the early years of the last century, around 1913; Gordon was already in the Land of Israel. Naturally he hoped deeply that his friend, still in Russia, would make aliyah, but nonetheless Gordon wrote him the following: 

… and from you my brother I want only one thing.  Forget for the moment all the opinions and doctrines [torot] in the world, and also our written Torah; forget all that you have read and heard, forget all I myself have said to you.  Remove from your self everything that comes from the outside; withdraw into yourself, isolate yourself and be with nature, be one with yourself and with nature; listen to what goes on deep in your soul, listen to what your pure “I” [ani ha tahor] says to you.  Then I will not have to keep talking.  Then perhaps I will not have to write you. Because then I am certain we will see each other in the land of Israel.  We will work together, we shall speak Hebrew together, and look forward to the revival of our people … “within our midst.”[11] 

The message here is complex and paradoxical.  Gordon is telling his friend that our primary motivations must come from who we are as individuals.  “Don’t do it because it serves some outside goal,” Gordon intones.  “Do it because it is something you must do for yourself.”  But at the same time Gordon has faith that if his friend acts from the most subjective place, he will choose to make the “right” decision and make aliyah, thereby embracing the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

Kaplan would certainly have agreed with Gordon’s individualistic Zionism.  In fact that Kaplan’s earliest name for his system was “Zionist Judaism.”  The whole point of the 1956 sermon for Rosh Hashannah involves Kaplan’s embrace of an extreme individualism as a way of arriving at the transformation of the individual and thereby the redemption of the Jewish people.

The third requisite for happiness or salvation [or sheleymut] Kaplan calls the sense of vocation.  Individuals often find that they are driven toward a unique activity that is a deep expression of themselves. Hopefully we will be lucky to find some niche in life where we can express our distinctive personality.  As Kaplan put it, we have “the urge to place the stamp of [our] individuality on [our] surroundings. … the human being more than any other animate being cannot fulfill himself without experiencing evidences of his individuality.”[12]  We have here another fundamental test, nisayon, challenge.

In emphasizing the centrality of creativeness in individual fulfillment, Kaplan is not only referring to the creative genius or the highly gifted individual.  He assumes that each person has a talent or a calling through which he or she can express individuality.  In this connection he again quotes from Maslow:  “The creativeness of the self-actualized man,” says Maslow, “seems rather to be akin to the naïve and universal creativeness of unspoiled children.  It seems to be a fundamental characteristic of human nature – a potentiality given to all human beings at birth.”[13]

For Kaplan there was an intimate connection between the centrality of creativity and the concept of “Judaism as a Civilization.”  Because Jewish civilization includes the arts and music and literature, there is ample room for creativity of all kinds within the Jewish community.  Kaplan believed strongly in this connection, and we find it stated at an early point in the introduction to Judaism as a Civilization:  “[The Jew] has to evolve some new purpose in life as a Jew, a purpose that will direct his energies into such lines of creativity as will bring him spiritual redemption.  That purpose will have to constitute his salvation.  It is only then that he will gladly identify himself with Jewish life.”[14]

Kaplan, who is always thought of as bringing the secular into Jewish life, here embraces the goal of “spiritual redemption” through individual creativity.  Spiritual redemption is what most people seek, and here Kaplan sees it as the essence of salvation for the Jewish people. For Kaplan, creativity is not only an individual matter but a quality that the entire Jewish people may have in the future and certainly have had in the past.  Although the Jews of their times struggled with the Prophets and failed to heed their message, the eventual embrace of the Prophets as our spiritual heroes constitutes a major act of collective creativity.  

The fourth and final criterion of happiness [sheleymut] for Kaplan was the sense of continuous growth.  One might say that to grow is at the core of being alive.  “Mental and spiritual growth ‘is not a luxury but a necessity,’” Kaplan wrote.  Citing William James, Kaplan asserted that “human beings at best actualize but a small fraction of their latent capacities.”    

Growth is the center of our achieving salvation.  We need it and cannot do without it, and anything that hinders it must be dismissed. Kaplan asserts his commitment to the fundamental nature of growth in the strongest terms:  “The very fact that we have outgrown a conception and method of salvation that served mankind in the past implies that growth itself is a prerequisite to making the most out of life, for growth is the progressive realization of the potentialities latent in us, potentialities physical, mental, social and spiritual.  Growth is thus a prerequisite to finding life worth while.”[15]

Here as before Kaplan uses the concept of nisayon, the test or the challenge we must overcome.  There are a multitude of factors that might inhibit our growth and stand in the way of the realization of our potential.  In Kaplan’s very stirring words:

This is the nisayon or challenge or test which each of us has to be able to meet in asserting our mental and spiritual freedom.  The assurance that despite our own repeated failures to avail ourselves of our inner resources and despite the devastations wrought by mankind, the sources of our true selfhood have not been dried up.  [The faith]  that we still hold our fate in our hands, is indispensible to happiness or the feeling that we are on the way to our salvation.  [August 9, 1956]

Fulfillment, or sheleyemut, or salvation is therefore a state that we never fully achieve.  We are always on the way, and the Rabbis understood this when they said that in the World to Come the righteous have no rest.

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:  “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.”[16]

After specifying what he means by salvation [sheleymut], i.e. detailing the concept of fulfillment or self-actualization and its theological implications, Kaplan proceeds to assert that we must transform or reconstruct Jewish life and the Jewish people so that we as individuals are helped to move toward sheleymut.  Although it is not explicitly part of the sermon, the issue of the relationship between salvation and peoplehood is central to Kaplan’s whole ideology.

In Kaplan’s words:

If the Jewish people is the only body to which the Jew can turn for making the most of  life or achieving salvation, then it follows as the night the day that it is the Jew's task to reconstruct the life of his people so that it shall actually function as a source of salvation.  This, indeed, is the main paradox of the spiritual life:  the way to achieve salvation is to bend all of one's efforts to render the people to which one looks for salvation capable of providing it.  [August 14, 1956] 

Kaplan’s 1956 Rosh Hashannah sermon is awe-inspiring in many ways.  Kaplan raises his notion of salvation [sheleymut] to new heights, and we are lifted with him.  His preoccupation with fulfillment and sheleymut [completeness] is evidenced at many points in the diary.  He continually attempted to refine the concept of salvation.  It may be that in this sermon we find his most stirring definition of salvation [sheleymut] as the goal and meaning of life.  He concludes with the following words:  “Given a sense of reality, a sense of self-direction, a sense of vocation and a sense of mental and spiritual growth, we may be certain we are well on the way to fulfillment or salvation.  This is sufficient ground for being perfectly happy.  Ashrei ha’am shekacha lo, ashrei ha’am she-Adonai elohav.  [Psalm 144:15; Hebrew:  “Happy the people who have it so; happy the people for whom the Lord is God.”]  May such happiness mark the coming year for all mankind.”[17]  Keyn yehi ratzon


 [1] My journey to this article may interest some readers.  In the diary Kaplan mentions Maslow a number of times.  At times [1956] he quotes Maslow from a book that Kaplan called “The Self,” where Maslow has an essay.  I do not know what this book is.  The title is too general, and Kaplan does not give a full citation.  I search for the book and cannot find it.  I also happen to  come across an essay by Jung, which Kaplan lists as appearing in this volume called “The Self.”  Then I happen to look in the flyleaf of the 1956 volume of the diary where these citations appear and find  a quotation from an essay by Gordon Allport, which Kaplan also lists as found in “The Self.”  I search the title of Allport’s essay in Allport bibliographies and find that it appeared in a work called The Self – Explorations in Personal Growth, ed. Clark E Moustakas (New York: Harper & Row, 1956).  Moustakas, who died in 2012, was a well-known scholar in the field of humanistic psychology.  Kaplan builds his notion of salvation completely on the essays in the book.  So salvation as self-realization makes complete sense.

[2] Kaplan diary, August 8, 1956.

[3]  Quoted in Kaplan from Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1947), as quoted in The Writings of Martin Buber, ed. Will Herberg (New York: World Publishing Co., 1956), 87, and found in the Kaplan diary entry of August 8, 1956. 

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Here Kaplan is quoting Maslow’s article “Self-Actualizing People: A Study of Psychological Health,” which is found in The Self – Explorations in Personal Growth, ed. Clark E Moustakas (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), 186.  Before I had the book by Moustakas, I found the quotation almost in full in Maslow’s major work, Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 205.

[6] I have elsewhere detailed the development of  this concept in Kaplan.  See my “Personality in Kaplan-Not Kaplan’s Personality” in the forthcoming volume in honor of Robert Seltzer.

[7] The verses regarding the face of God are from Exodus 33:18-20. 

[8] For this translation see Siddur Sim Shalom-A Prayerbook for Shabbat Festivals, and Weekdays, edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 1985).  I should mention that this translation, although it is very much in the Reconstructionist spirit, is not the simple meaning based on the Biblical text (Jeremiah 10:10) from which it is drawn.  In its original context it is more accurately translated, “The Lord is truly God” [JPS translation].

[9] This statement of Cavell follows on Thoreau’s statement, “shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous.”  Walden, II, 21, quoted  in The Senses of Walden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 81.

[10] Kaplan diary, August 8, 1956. 

[11] Eliezer Schweid, Ha-yahid: olamo shel A.D. Gordon (The Individual: The World of A.D.Gordon (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1970), 36.  The translation above from the Hebrew is my own.  Schweid is quoting here from Gordon’s work “ Man and Nature” page 365 but he gives no bibliographical information about which edition .  The interested Hebrew reader will find a recent edition of Gordon’s works in Aharon David Gordon-Mivkhar Ketavim (Jerusalem: Hassifriyah Hazionist-Publishing House of the World Zionist Organization, 1982). This three- volume paperback selection has been reissued recently (2012?) and is now readily available.

[12] Kaplan diary, August 9, 1956.

[13] Maslow essay in “The Self,” quoted by Kaplan in diary entry of August 9, 1956.

[14] Judaism as a Civilization, 15.

[15] Kaplan diary, December 16, 1942.

[16] Ibid. 

[17] Kaplan diary, August 9, 1956.

Mel Scult can be reached at [email protected].