The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan

The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan

The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan

The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan

Synopsis

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 radical, 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.

Excerpt

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. In addition to the books and articles that appeared during his lifetime, there is a mass of unpublished material. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, which I have been affiliated with, houses a very large Kaplan archive, containing box after box of everything from sermon notes to lecture notes, personal letters to comments on the Torah, and much else in between.

But beyond the almost infinite paper trail, other, more potent reasons draw me to Kaplan. I have for much of the past six decades struggled to define the exact meaning of my Jewishness. Midway through this journey, Kaplan came along. He told me, both in person and through his books and articles, that being a Jew was not primarily about accepting a particular belief system. Rather, being a Jew was a matter of biography and community. “Belonging is more important than believing,” as Reconstructionists like to say. His perspective has been revelatory and liberating. If my relationship to the Jewish people is a matter of biography—if my Jewishness, in other words, is a question of my life story and the life story of the Jewish people—then I am free to evaluate any and all traditional beliefs and reject what makes no sense to me. There is no way in which my being a Jew could be undermined.

Within the liberation that Kaplan has fostered, there are other intellectual and philosophical issues that attract me to him. For many years . . .

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