In respectful dialogue with Mordecai Kaplan

I find Kaplan's approach, concerns, questions, demands, empowerments of and respect for the Jewish people to be nothing short of inspiring. In fact, I think that Reconstructionism should be the starting point for non-Orthodox Jews (and some Orthodox one's, too) in their search for an authentic and compelling Jewish life. Here I engage with some of his ideas (mine are the indented bullet points).

These are from an essay entitled “Mordecai Kaplan: His Interpretation of Judaism" by Emanuel S. Goldsmith:

    •    Religion could not exist apart from the total life and culture of a people and that economics, politics, an other environmental influences are crucial in the development and maintenance of a religion

    ◦    I think Kaplan would agree that there is something consistent and unchanging about the religion that manifests in different eras, and that therefore the different manifestations of that religion are cohesive with one another

    •    The challenges of America and the “adventure of freedom” it offered its diverse peoples presented a particularly exciting challenge to Mordecai Kaplan in the development of his interpretation of the Jewish heritage

    ◦    I agree that the American experience has offered a unique opportunity for the development of modern Jewishness. I wonder whether Kaplan would rejoice in the choice many have made to strongly de-prioritize Jewish choices in the face of other choices - not all of them about universal human morality

    •    “The point of departure in religious life is the contemporary scene and present day religious experience rather than the dictates of authority and the religious experience of past generations”

    ◦    This is certainly the lived reality, and therefore the starting point, though there is room to wish it were otherwise. We could have hoped that people would have started with a conception of Eternal Israel and made decisions from that place while also being very alert to and responsive to the “contemporary scene and present day religious experience.” While Kaplan’s thinking here very much applies in the realpolitik sense, we may also mourn the many missteps taken by institutional Judaism over the last 100 years and try to avoid them in future. 

    •    “Religious modernists are eclectic, selecting out of the garnered treasures of their forebears only those which they see as relevant and significant for their community’s life today. Only those aspects of tradition which can be reconciled with what they regard as true and valid in their general world view and approach to life will be incorporated into their religious conceptions. For them, it is modernity, despite its flaws and failings, that it is the judge and test of tradition, rather than the reverse.”

    ◦    Again, this is of course true a postiori. But we shouldn’t simply accept that some of those treasures have been and will be abandoned, simply because they have been poorly explained, demonstrated, and/or exemplified. There is still effort to be made to show how other aspects of tradition “can be reconciled with what they regard as true and valid in their general world view and approach to life will be incorporated into their religious conceptions.” 

    ◦    I understand that, in the lived reality of today, modernity is the judge of tradition and not the reverse. But this is not something we ought to take sitting down. There is great value in the effort to reclaim those discarded treasures and re-present them a modern idiom and context for further evaluation. 

    •    “Judaism is more than a specific philosophy of life; it is the ongoing life of a people intent upon keeping alive for the highest conceivable purpose, despite changes in a general climate of opinion.”

    ◦    Who can argue with that? 

    •    The main function of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization is “to involve the individual in the social and spiritual heritage of a historic society and to commit him to the transmission of that heritage… It expects its adherents to identify themselves with all the generations of their forebears who created the tradition and lived by it. Self-involvement in the social and spiritual heritage , and commitment to transmit it, are bound to transform the vicarious experience of the reality of God into a personal experience.”

    ◦    Kaplan’s demand that individuals participate in the transmission of heritage is both obvious and harrowing. Clearly people need to be invested and committed in order to transmit anything of substance. But how much space is there for the individual to interpret and personalize Judaism to the point where they feel good about transmitting it? Where is the push-back that tells the person they may well be wrong? This is a dialogue, right? 

    •    “For us Jews, there can be no higher purpose than that of exemplifying the art of so living individually and collectively as to contribute to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual progress of mankind. The type of religion which we Jews as a people, and which mankind as a whole, urgently needs as a means to survival has to consist, or take the form of, moral responsibility in action. 

    •    The purpose of Jewish existence, for Kaplan, was not that Jews survive as a relic of the past but that they take the old biblical idea of humanity’s being created in the likeness of God and pull it to human life, that they try to make themselves, in A.D. Gordon’s brilliant expansion of a biblical; phrase, “A people in the image of God.” Kaplan always stressed that individuals with a sense of moral responsibility were not enough. If humanity is to survive, the total group must order its life in accord with responsibility.”

    ◦    Yes! And this is such a far cry away from how many Jewish groups are functioning today. i think the idea that what we’re doing here is essentially working for our own, individual “place in the world to come” alleviates us from responsibility as a group to  have and reach collective goals. Individual piety is not irreconcilable with collective insensitivity, and even collective cruelty.

    •    “God is the Power, Force, Process, Dimension, or Energy by means of which people are motivated to exercise their rights, pursue their responsibilities, and strive to be at peace with themselves, with nature, and with other people. 

    ◦    Never say “God is.” What follows is inevitably a diminution. Obviously, if you don’t believe in a God, then go for it. But in my understanding God “is” also the Commander, the Creator, the Challenger, the Consoler, the Other, etc. etc. etc. 

    •    “For a religious tradition to become part of a our personal experience nowadays, it has to possess the authenticity we associate with scientific fact. It has to convey the kind of literal meaning which we can integrate into our normal experience.”

    ◦    I think we have done this far too little, but it is also not the entire story. Yes, we want it to be so real, so obvious, so essential that people immediately identify with and act according to its dictates. But there is another dimension of religious tradition that involves myths and dreaming, stories and messages from another world that surprise us, stir us, and force us to reconfigure ourselves even as we respond. 

    •    “Judaism [is[ not merely a system of religious beliefs and practices, but [is] the sum of all those manifestations of the Jewish people’s will to live creatively.”

    ◦    Is there a limit to this?

    •    “To choose to remain a Jew is a three-dimensional affair. It involves choosing to belong to the Jewish people, to believe in Jewish religion, and to practice the Jewish way of life.”

    ◦    I’d love to know what the distinction is, for Kaplan, between religion and way of life. But, yes. 

    •    “Judaism will henceforth have to be compatible with the inevitable variety of human minds.”

    ◦    Sure, but human minds can change too, no? Isn’t there also a charge that humans open their minds and listen to the ideas of past and present manifestations of Judaism, and evolve accordingly? I fear that Kaplan has too high an esteem for people - he seems to assume that we have all arrived at our current positions on things because we’ve thought them through and are clear, whereas I see that people are often simply lazy, bigoted, small-minded, fearful of not fitting in, etc. And I include myself in that, and I mean it in the nicest way. How are these reconciled?