Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan- The Quintessential American Pragmatist Philosopher and Builder

 Notes from my Shabbat Discussion of August 28

This is a link to the discussion:

The next Odd Couple- Both Professors at my Rabbinical School-yet polar opposites


Here we look at the development of new Jewish thought in the emerging Jewish America- exemplified by two religious scholars who came from the world of Orthodoxy to give Jewish tradition a voice in a secular world. Two very diametrically opposed approaches. Rabbis ( note that the other great figures I had discussed were not trained as Rabbis) who shaped America.


Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan



Personal- his grandson- Dr. Daniel Musher was chair of Education committee when I was asst Rabbi in Beth Yeshurun, TX. His father was co-founder of cosmetic company-Aveeno (because all products include avenanthramides, but he told me confidently, named after Avraham Avinu!) The grandson davened in the Orthodox chapel of the Conservative synagogue(much like our chapel)- an Orthodox service with the one exception of mixed seating. (He broke with the chapel service only when his daughter became Bat Mitzvah).

I had the opportunity of hearing Kaplan once give a guest lecture at my seminary- he was already in his 90’s. In very American style, he presented his arguments on the blackboard in a flow-chart diagram.

In Los Angeles, Kaplans most prominent expounder- Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who helped found the first Havurah based in a synagogue ( my congregation, Beth Shalom, Whittier).

Very creative- founder  and influencer of more important Jewish institutions than you can shake a stick at!

At the same time-Very controversial-even the Reform, at its most un Halakhic- did not elicit the fiery reaction:

One of my Orthodox friends told me he was looked upon with the Moslem declaration: varied: There is no God, and Mordecai is his prophet.



The Controversy:

Even his own Rabbinical school colleagues were not happy with his position. I will explain what it was further down.

Kaplan's central idea of understanding Judaism as a religious civilization was an easily accepted position within Conservative Judaism, but his naturalistic conception of God was not as acceptable. Even at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, as The Forward writes, "he was an outsider, and often privately considered leaving the institution.

In 1941, the faculty illustrated its distaste with Kaplan by penning a unanimous letter to the professor of homiletics, expressing complete disgust with Kaplan's The New Haggadah for the Passover seder.[God is mostly missing from it, flips the Haggadah on its head by emphasizing Moses, who is AWOL in the traditional text] Four years later, seminary professors Alexander MarxLouis Ginzberg and Saul Lieberman went public with their rebuke by writing a letter to the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, lambasting Kaplan's prayer book and his entire career as a rabbi."[6 

I personally recall in Israel, at our branch in Jerusalem, one person was called up for an Aliyah who was reocnstructionst-used the phrase asher kervanu- and it caused an explosion with the resident professor.


But this reaction-takes the cake:


The Herem on Rabbi Kaplan:

As reported in HaPardes, 1945


June 12, 1945, McAlpin Hotel, NYC:

Excerpt, in translation:

Text  of the Decree of Excommunication 

My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth

(Psalm 121:2)

The leaders of the people, rabbis of Greater New York and surroundings, heads of yeshivos, hasidic leaders, and scholars from the great yeshivos of this community, gathering together on the third day of the week of the parashah of Korah (Numbers 16:21), the second day of Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, 5705 – at the calling of the executive body of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada (Agudas HaRabonim) and of the Rabbinic Committee [Va-ad HaRabonim] of Greater New York, because of the terrible scandal done in a high-handed and openly insolent manner by a certain person called Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, in publishing a new monstrosity by the name of Siddur Tefihlos in which he demonstrated total heresy and a complete disbelief in the God of Israel and in the principles of the law of the Torah of Israel – and the future of a heresy that continues like this who can contemplate? – therefore, it has been decided unanimously and in one congregation to banish him and to excommunicate him and to separate him from the  community of Israel until he fully repents in accordance with law and custom.

We hereby publish and declare, by the authority of the King of the Universe and by the power of our holy Torah, with complete fortitude and strength and with the full weight of the law, A Total Prohibition and Total Ban on this Siddur, which must be neither seen nor found throughout all the territory of Israel, and by the bite of the snake [of excommunication], the curse of the rabbis that has no remedy is upon anyone who holds this siddur in his hand or who looks at it, whether in private or in public. Anyone who obeys all of the above will be doubly blessed.


The siddur was then burned; Soon , the Rabbis gathered there tried denying responsibility for it, claiming that one Rabbi had gotten carried away. That was in response to the terrible outcry it caused in the rest of the Jewish community, that was still aware of the book burnings of the Nazis.( The only thing close in Jewish history that is recorded was the burning of the writings of Maimonides by Domincan Friars at the instigation of the Rambam's oponents.)

Image by Aharon N. Varady (transcription) and Mordecai KaplanJuly 28, 2021,  a link back to this source, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) 4.0 International copyleft license ]


What was so scandalous?

Mordecai Kaplan- could be seen as the quintessential American philosopher- highlight-Pragmatic philosophy-Do what works, not what fits theory.

(1881-1983) Lithuania- his father, a Rabbi, came to US to serve under the first Chief Rabbi of New York, Jacob Joseph. Studied at Yeshiva and also at my Rabbinical school, which at the time straddled both Orthodox and Conservative, as well as doctorate in philosophy at Columbia. Ordained by Rabbi Reines, founding of Modern Religious Zionism (Mizrachi).

A builder by nature-straddling from Orthodox to non-

As Orthodox rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a synagogue in New York( Still active, today, affiliated with modern Orthodox Ramaz)

 In 1912, he was an advisor to the creators of the Young Israel movement of Modern Orthodox Judaism, together with Rabbi Israel Friedlander.[3] Young Israel is not so young, but it certainly is wide-spread. Several branches here in LA. It used to be on the liberal side, with mixed social dancing, today, closer to the stricter Yeshiva Orthodox world. 

He was a leader in creating the Jewish community center concept. From his time on, almost every synagogue would be built with a basketball court!

Helped found the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, still active flagship synagogue of Reconstructionist movement. There, he held 1st Bat Mitzvah service ever for his daughter!

He would go on to establish the Reconstructionist Movement, even while retaining his identity in the Conservative movement- eventually, would lead to establishment, by his son in law, of Reconstructionist Rabbinical School . I was actually one of the first applicants, but did not follow through. The premise was fascinating- 1) all students would pursue a full PhD program in some area of Judaica at a major university. In parallel, they would pursue a full rabbinic academic course, premised on the idea of learning Judaism in its course of historic development- The first year, Biblical civilization, the second, the Rabbinic period, the third, the medieval period, and, in the final year, the modern period.) I thought it was too new to risk , and I found the philosophy-too cold. The movement has since then become much more New Age/ metaphysical mystical in orientation)

 The UJ- now AJU: He called for a university setting that could present Judaism as a deep culture and developing civilization a college to train Jews to live fully in American and Jewish culture as contributing citizens, a school to train Jewish educators, and a rabbinical seminary to train creative and visionary rabbis.  called for a university setting that could present Judaism as a deep culture and developing civilization. His proposal included programs on dramatic and fine arts to stimulate Jewish artistic creativity, a college to train Jews to live fully in American and Jewish culture as contributing citizens, a school to train Jewish educators, and a rabbinical seminary to train creative and visionary rabbis in 1947.David Lieber, the second president, was associated for many years with HTBE, where he led Bible study classes.


 What burned up the Orthodox that they were ready to burn his prayer book?


Kaplan's naturalistic theology has been seen as a variant of John Dewey's philosophy: naturalism combined atheism with religious terminology in order to construct a religiously satisfying philosophy for those who had lost faith in traditional religion.( It would be wrong to say that Kaplan was an atheist- but, he was a material determinist, against “metaphysics” so that God could not be described in terms of “ spirit” separate form the world, but as “ the power that makes for salvation.”, Kaplan was also influenced by Ă‰mile Durkheim's argument that our experience of the sacred is a function of social solidarityMatthew Arnold and Hermann Cohen were among his other influences.


In agreement with prominent medieval Jewish thinkers including Maimonides, Kaplan affirmed that God is not personal, and that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are, at best, imperfect metaphors. Kaplan's theology went beyond this to claim that God is the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled:


“To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man's destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.[7]


It is, one may say, theologically, having one’s cake ( God) and eating it to( turning God into a process of the material world).

Kaplan turned the Revelation of Sinai on its head. Tradition- There is first, the revelation and then the formation of a people, Israel. In Kaplan’s view” Judaism as a Civilization”, there is first and foremost, the people, and out of the people comes the revelation of the teachings of justice and ethical living.

On Halakha- he was a traditionalist in his behavior, but felt the Conservative too afraid to take major steps. Halakha- result of the people as source of authority, not Sinai, not the Rabbis- binding “ folkways”.

What is being “ reconstructed”?From My Jewish Learning:

The practical side of Kaplan’s position called for the re‑establishment of a network of all‑embracing, “organic” Jewish communities around the world that would ensure the self‑perpetuation of Jewish identity and fur­ther secular as well as religious components of the Jewish heritage (art, music, philanthropy, and so on). … leadership would be democratically elected, and private religious beliefs would not be infringed upon  (Kaplan is a strong advocate of cultural and religious pluralism, and he maintains that American Jews should partici­pate fully and creatively in both Jewish and American civilizations.) To clarify the international status of Jewry, Kaplan proposed a world‑wide Jewish assembly that would adopt a formal covenant defining the Jews as a transnational people, the hub of which was Zion and the spokes the branches of the diaspora. The religion of a group is manifested in “sancta,” spiritual symbols such as persons, places, events, and writings, which inspire feelings of reverence, commemorate what the group feels is most valuable, provide continuity through the flux of history, and for­tify the collective conscience of a people. Kaplan felt a deep attachment to Jewish sancta and Jewish religious literature.

[This is essentially the most Zionist of all the movements, as it is founded upon the concept of the Jews as a people, not a religion.]


However, in elevating Jewish peoplehood, he also eliminated Jewish choseness. Thus, the Torah blessing_ Asher bachar Banu-becomes

Asher kerevanu. Musaf is eliminated, since it is in essence a petition for return of the sacrificial worship.




What did Kaplan suggest kept the center ( Conservaative) movement together?

Mordecai Kaplan's four areas of agreement (see Waxman, Tradition and Change, pp.214-215): 1)Eretz Yisrael, 2) The primacy of Religion, 3) The maximum plenitude of Jewish content, 4) The encouragement of scientific learning.( from my own course paper, later an essay in Jewish Spectator)


The Reconstructionist Movement

As a movement, it has not become major, but as an inspiration , it has been highly effective.

 Current distribution in USA: est. 38% are members of Reform synagogues, 33% Conservative, 22% Orthodox, 2% Reconstructionist, and 5% other types.( like New Age Judaism-Aleph).

The movement itself has moved back to a traditional perspective of theology:

Reconstructionist Judaism, the small religious movement famed for challenging many of Judaism’s most cherished precepts, has issued a new prayer book that defies some basic tenets of Reconstructionism itself.

Entitled “Kol Haneshama,” or voice of the soul, it is the movement’s first new prayer book in 44 years.

As its name hints, the prayer book abandons the classical Reconstructionist disdain for the spiritual and other-worldly. It is steeped in awe of Divine mysteries, including once-spurned miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea.

It even restores — albeit as an “alternative” reading — Judaism’s most defiant declaration of chosenness, the “Aleynu” prayer.




“The church maintained that having been founded by Christ, who was God incarnate, it alone, through its bishops, was the final and authoritative instrument of divine revelation. Allegiance to the church and obedience to its ordinances were the sole means to salvation. No salvation was therefore possible to anyone who remained outside the church — nulla salus extra ecclesiam. Likewise, Islam placed the main emphasis upon the Koran as the final revelation of God's will. Adherence to the teachings of the Koran, together with the recognition of Allah as God, and Mohammed as the greatest of prophets, constituted for the Moslems the sine qua non of salvation.

The Jews were not quite as emphatic as were the Christians and the Moslems in declaring the rest of mankind ineligible to salvation. Rabbinic teaching was inclined to concede that Gentiles, who were righteous or saintly, had a share in the world to come.”
Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life

The chief opposition to the traditional conception of God in that sense arises not from the scientific approach to the study of nature in general, or even man in general. It arises from the objective study of history. The natural sciences like physics and chemistry cannot disprove the possibility of miracles, though they may assert their improbability. But the objective study of history has established the fact that the records of miracles are unreliable, and that the stories about them are merely the product of the popular imagination. The traditional conception of God is challenged by history, anthropology and psychology; these prove that beliefs similar to those found in the Bible about God arise among all peoples at a certain stage of mental and social development, and pass through a process of evolution which is entirely conditioned by the development of the other elements in their civilization.”
Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life

(Page 485)
Creativity is the result of whole-souled and organic reaction to life’s values” of a reaction in which senses, emotions, imagination, and intelligence are fully aroused. It is not enough for a civilization to be rich in values of a religious or esthetic nature. Unless its people respond wholeheartedly to those values, the civilization is artificially sterile.

(Page 486)
The very significance of Judaism as a civilization would be lost, if artistic creativity in the expression of Jewish values were treated as something secondary to American Jewish life.


 “God is the Power that makes for salvation”

“God is the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.”

“We learn more about God when we say that love is divine than when we say God is love. A veritable transformation takes place. . . .Divinity becomes relevant to authentic experience and therefore takes on a definiteness which is accompanied by an awareness of authentic­ity.”

·  The only way to change the world is to change yourself into what you want others to be.


·  Reconstructionism seeks to put gates through the fences that divide Jews into separate groups.


·  A religion came to mean to me the sum of those habits and values, which give a people the will to live in common, to perpetuate itself and to make the best use of its collective life…[in short, the enduring definition of Reconstructionism, that we understand]… Judaism as an evolving religious civilization.


·  Science does not destroy the belief in miracle. It merely transfers that belief from the supernatural to the natural.


·  God is not the conception of the ordering principle in the universe, but of a power predisposing humans to their ultimate human good, provided each person does his/her share learning about and living up to the requisite conditions. To view the cosmos this way is to believe in God.




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