The Rad­i­cal Amer­i­can Judaism of Morde­cai M. Kaplan

Mel Scult
  • Review
By – August 1, 2014

Rab­bi Morde­cai Kaplan was a tow­er­ing and con­tro­ver­sial pres­ence in the his­to­ry of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Judaism but, in the view of Mel Scult, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Juda­ic stud­ies at Brook­lyn Col­lege and biog­ra­ph­er of Kaplan, is often mis­un­der­stood and not wide­ly appre­ci­at­ed today. To cor­rect these mis­un­der­stand­ings and under­score Kaplan’s con­tin­u­ing impor­tance, Scult has un­dertaken a thor­ough expo­si­tion of all aspects of Kaplan’s think­ing. Based on more than forty years of study, per­son­al acquain­tance, and, most impor­tant, Kaplan’s per­son­al diaries, the record of six­ty-five years of his thought — in Scult’s view, Kaplan’s very soul” — Scult makes a cogent case for the impor­tance of Kaplan’s ground­break­ing rethink­ing of Judaism. 

Brought up in a tra­di­tion­al Ashke­naz­ic Ortho­dox home, Kaplan was steeped in Jew­ish knowl­edge. Edu­cat­ed at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, with degrees in phi­los­o­phy and soci­ol­o­gy, Kaplan was influ­enced by the thought of John Dewey, Ralph Wal­do Emer­son, and Èmile Durkheim ear­ly in his career. He was also ordained at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary and was a con­gre­ga­tion­al rab­bi, most notably at the Soci­ety for the Advance­ment of Judaism, which he found­ed in 1922. Kaplan taught at JTS for more than fifty years and ear­li­er had helped shape the Jew­ish Cen­ter, a syn­a­gogue plus com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter — the first shul with a pool and a school.” 

A believ­ing Amer­i­can and a believ­ing Jew, Kaplan under­stood both the attrac­tion of as­similation and the threat it posed to Judaism, which he saw los­ing its rel­e­vance in a mod­ern sec­u­lar soci­ety. To make Judaism func­tion­al and mean­ing­ful in this world, Kaplan spent his life recon­struct­ing” Judaism. Chap­ter by chap­ter, Scult exam­ines Kaplan’s reconstruc­tion. Nation­al­ism and Right­eous­ness” and Uni­ver­sal­ism and Prag­ma­tism” explore the philo­soph­ic under­pin­nings of Kaplan’s thought in rela­tion to oth­er pro­gres­sive thinkers and Judaism; Kaplan and His God: An Ambiva­lent Rela­tion­ship” and Kaplan’s The­ol­o­gy: Beyond Super­nat­u­ral­ism” indi­cate the com­plex­i­ty and some­times den­si­ty and incon­sis­ten­cy of Kaplan’s thought in work­ing out a ratio­nal but pro­found con­cept of an imper­son­al God. In lat­er chap­ters, as Scult looks at Kaplan’s dai­ly prac­tice and writ­ings on rit­u­al and obser­vance, a per­sua­sive pic­ture of Kaplan as a devout if rad­i­cal Jew emerges. 

Through­out the book fre­quent quo­ta­tions from Kaplan’s writ­ings and, more point­ed­ly, his diary under­line the deep attach­ment of Kaplan to the Jew­ish peo­ple, to the evo­lu­tion and expan­sion of Judaism as a force for all humankind, and to his con­cept of God. In the end Scult agrees with the Ortho­dox Soci­ety of Rab­bis, who in 1945 excom­mu­ni­cat­ed Kaplan, that Kaplan was a heretic, a heretic who recon­struct­ed Judaism from its increas­ing loss of sig­nif­i­cance into a vital and meaning­ful force in con­tem­po­rary life. This is not a biog­ra­phy; read­ers will find lit­tle infor­ma­tion on Kaplan’s life here. The Rad­i­cal Amer­i­can Judaism of Morde­cai M. Kaplan is true to its title, rig­or­ous­ly exam­in­ing Kaplan’s bold think­ing and inno­v­a­tive con­tri­bu­tions to Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca. Appen­dix, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes.

Relat­ed content:

  • The Clas­sics Are Back by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter
  • The Ben­der­ly Boys and Amer­i­can Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion by Jonathan B. Krasner
  • Mate­r­i­al Cul­ture and Jew­ish Thought in Amer­i­ca by Ken Koltun-Fromm
  • Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

    Discussion Questions