The flawed genius of Mordecai Kaplan

Kaplan’s genius in broadening our understanding of Judaism suffers from two major flaws.

A man wears a kippa.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man wears a kippa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s influence on 20th century American Jewry extended well beyond his role as the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement. Kaplan taught for five decades at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, influenced many rabbis there, and actually took his first pulpit at an Orthodox synagogue. His greatest work remains Judaism as a Civilization, long after his death at the age of 102 in 1983. This study expands our understanding of Judaism, Judaism being an “evolving religious civilization” in the words of Kaplan. Judaism not only consisted of ethics and ritual but even encompassed secular elements of culture that influenced Jewish faith to confront the larger world and the philosophies and sciences of the day. While an ardent Zionist, Kaplan believed that the survival of Jews in the Diaspora would contribute to Jewish creativity and continuity. Kaplan’s idea of the importance of synagogues as Jewish community centers and his creation of informal prayer circles in “chavurot” transcended his Reconstructionism and has had influence in almost every denomination. His daughter’s bat-mitzvah was the first in the United States and has influenced all movements in modern Judaism to give women a larger role in public Jewish life.
Yet Kaplan’s genius in broadening our understanding of Judaism suffers from two major flaws. The first problem we confront in Kaplan’s theology is his understanding of a personal and supernatural God. His belief that godliness dwells inside each human being serving as a moral guide and exclusion of God as a personal and external force directly clashes with an understanding of God that has dominated Judaism for many centuries. It is impossible to imagine Judaism without a personal relationship between the Jew and the God of both Creation and Israel. Kaplan’s religious naturalism deprives Jewish faith of the central relationship between a greater eternal force – the God of Job’s whirlwind – and the individual Jew. In this case, Kaplan is surrendering to the values of modernity and the triumph of Reason as God. Perhaps for some Jews the idea of a supernatural force in history that has chosen one people as his own is a great embarrassment and smacks of the primitive and superstitious. But the God of relationship, the God of miracles transcending nature, and the God of History are so central to Judaism that to resort to religious naturalism is a betrayal of one of the central tenets of what it means to be a Jew, certainly a Jew of faith.
Once God is reduced to an internal, human, natural phenomenon it certainly follows that there can be no idea of the Jews as a Chosen People. Yes, the matrix of Jewish civilization is the People Israel, but stripped of the concept of God’s election Jewish civilization is meaningless. Jewish peoplehood and Jewish nationalism – especially in the post-Holocaust epoch and the rise of the State of Israel – are more important than ever. But it is dangerous to remove the covenantal relationship from the course of Jewish history. Again, I fear that Mordecai Kaplan, a true genius, surrenders again to modernity by focusing on a certain Jewish mission rather than the idea of Jewish election. While we all value democracy and equal rights for all, that should not preclude the idea of Jews being chosen by God as His treasured people, especially considering that this people were humiliated and broken slaves.
Kaplan’s rejection of the Jews as chosen only levels the playing field in a dangerous way. The key to Jewish survival, continuity and success has precisely been the Jewish belief that the way of life ordained by God and history is superior to other ways of life. This does not mean that a Jew cannot appreciate Russian literature or Zen Buddhism. This does not mean that a Jew has to be intolerant of other faith communities. We are a light unto the nations and have assumed great longevity because of a pride in the superiority of our way of living, not some racial or genetic superiority. Our culture and faith have given to this world great gifts and continues to do so. We raise our children to be Nobel Prize winners, not suicide bombers. There is nothing of which to be ashamed about being a Chosen People in a modern world. Kaplan surrendered too easily to modern notions of emancipation and equality. We all can be true lovers of democracy yet not hide our past, present and future as a “treasured people.”
Mordecai Kaplan’s concept of an evolving Jewish civilization remains critical to Jewish self-understanding and helps us avoid the calcification of a tradition that is thousands of years old. I do believe a Judaism set in stone is doomed. Kaplan’s questions were important ones but I cannot embrace all his answers and I must reject them. He was daring and courageous and attempted a “Copernican revolution” in Judaism that he deemed necessary but is severely flawed. Nevertheless, he never deserved to have his works burned by extremists in the Jewish community and he did not deserve excommunication from the Orthodox Union. Unlike Spinoza, he did not allow his radical ideas to sever his ties to the Jewish community and to the People Israel. He deserves our respect. But he also cannot escape criticism for what I see as a surrender to modern ideas, not all of which we should embrace.