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The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan

Mel Scult

Publication Year: 2013

Mordecai M. Kaplan, founder of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, is the only rabbi to have been excommunicated by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment in America. Kaplan was indeed a heretic, rejecting such fundamental Jewish beliefs as the concept of the chosen people and a supernatural God. Although he valued the Jewish community and was a committed Zionist, his primary concern was the spiritual fulfillment of the individual. Drawing on Kaplan's 27-volume diary, Mel Scult describes the development of Kaplan's radical theology in dialogue with the thinkers and writers who mattered to him most, from Spinoza to Emerson and from Ahad Ha-Am and Matthew Arnold to Felix Adler, John Dewey, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. This gracefully argued book, with its sensitive insights into the beliefs of a revolutionary Jewish thinker, makes a powerful contribution to modern Judaism and to contemporary American religious thought.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: The Modern Jewish Experience


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pp. 1-3


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p. 4-4


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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

There are always many people to thank when one writes a book, and this book is no exception. I am grateful to Professor David Kraemer, librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary, for permission to quote from the diaries of Mordecai Kaplan, the originals of which are at the Seminary. ...

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pp. xiii-xx

I have been studying Mordecai Kaplan, his life and his thought, continually since 1972. One might reasonably ask, as my wife often has, how someone could remain with one subject for so long. Part of the answer lies in the wealth of material Kaplan left behind. ...

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pp. 1-6

Mordecai M. Kaplan was one of the most radical Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. When it came to expressing his opinions, Kaplan had much courage and never hesitated to speak his mind. He vehemently rejected the belief in the Jews as the chosen people of God. ...

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1. Excommunications: Kaplan and Spinoza

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pp. 7-27

Most of us think of Mordecai Kaplan as the founding father of the Reconstructionist movement. Indeed he was, but his life was marked equally by another, quite different, biographical event: he was the first rabbi in the United States to be excommunicated by the ultra-Orthodox. ...

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2. Self-Reliance: Kaplan and Emerson

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pp. 28-45

For the modern Jew, the needs of the autonomous self threaten the coherence of the Jewish community. Individualism is the greatest problem facing the Jewish people. For Mordecai Kaplan, as for so many other twentieth-century Jewish leaders, the primary problem was how to deal with the new sense of self that is at the root of both American culture and modernity. ...

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3. Nationalism and Righteousness: Ahad Ha-Am and Matthew Arnold

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pp. 46-65

A key aspect of Mordecai Kaplan’s talent as a thinker, as we will see again and again, is his ability to combine widely disparate concepts and ideologies into a single coherent whole. He was, for example, a life-long Zionist and, at the same time, a true nephew of his Uncle Sam, even editing a book of prayers and songs for American holidays.1 ...

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4. Universalism and Pragmatism: Felix Adler, William James, and John Dewey

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pp. 66-87

Academics, myself included, are fond of exploring influences, of demonstrating the way in which a key aspect of a person’s thought relates to particular sources. It is an attempt to explain through origin. This search for influences, however, should not blind us to the inherent features of a person’s mind. ...

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5. Kaplan and Peoplehood: Judaism as a Civilization and Zionism

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pp. 88-109

Despite our focus on Mordecai Kaplan’s individualism and on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence, Kaplan was primarily a “man of the group.” From very early on, he was obsessed with finding a way to ensure the survival of the Jewish people. In his classic work Judaism as a Civilization, Kaplan declared that it was only within the group that the individual could find fulfillment: ...

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6. Kaplan and His God: An Ambivalent Relationship

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pp. 110-131

Some say that Mordecai Kaplan had no theology, while others say that he did not believe in God. Both are mistaken. Kaplan was a courageous man, and if he considered himself an atheist, he would have said so. He was a passionate believer, a naturalist to be sure, but a believer nonetheless. ...

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7. Kaplan's Theology: Beyond Supernaturalism

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pp. 132-156

Theologically speaking, we might say that Mordecai Kaplan was caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he could not easily give up the traditional God of his ancestors. On the other hand, he could not subscribe to the notion of a supernatural, providential deity. ...

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8. Salvation: The Goal of Religion

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pp. 157-176

Salvation is generally considered a Christian term. Although it appears in the Hebrew scriptures (yeshua), this basic theological concept has never occupied a central place in rabbinic or in modern Jewish thought. Nevertheless, as we have seen, it was axiomatic in Kaplan’s system from the very beginning. ...

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9. Salvation Embodied: The Vehicle of Mitzvot

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pp. 177-205

One of the primary differences between religion and philosophy is that religion is always embodied, while philosophy is not. For every religion, there is a series of particular behaviors which the religious person should observe. Primary among these are rituals, especially prayers and holidays. ...

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10. Mordecai the Pious: Kaplan and Heschel

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pp. 206-225

The relationship between Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel—like all of Kaplan’s relationships—is complex and multilayered, both personally and philosophically.1 Philosophically, there are areas of agreement as well as contention. It will be extremely fruitful to explore the ideologies of these two men, as well as their personal relationship, in greater depth. ...

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11. The Law: Halakhah and Ethics

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pp. 226-248

To understand fully Mordecai Kaplan’s approach to halakhah and mitzvot, we need to examine the seminal influence of growing up in a traditionally rabbinic household in New York City. Rabbi Israel Kaplan, Mordecai’s father, had smikhah (rabbinical ordination) from some of the most famous European rabbis of his time. ...

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12. Kaplan and the Problem of Evil: Cutting the Gordian Knot

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pp. 249-266

The problem of evil and the issue of theodicy have always been among the most difficult aspects of traditional religion. If God is good and merciful and if God controls what happens in the world, how can He inflict so much needless suffering? Many thousands of volumes have been written to try to answer this question. ...

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pp. 267-276

I have been thinking about Mordecai Kaplan for the better part of the last forty years. I have for a time avoided this conclusion—but, in the final analysis, we must admit that Kaplan really is a heretic. The word is an uncomfortable one, especially with the image it conjures of a roomful of rabbis burning his prayer book. ...

Appendix: "Thirteen Wants" of Mordecai Kaplan Reconstructed

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pp. 277-278


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pp. 279-324

Selected Bibliography and Note on Sources

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pp. 325-328


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pp. 329-336

E-ISBN-13: 9780253010889
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253010759

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 1 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: The Modern Jewish Experience