Angry Mordecai Kaplan



Did the truth set Mordecai Kaplan free or did it just make him angry? When I first read Judaism as a Civilization, I was excited as can be, drawn to a social theory of Jewish culture that did not bog down in the religion/secular, secular/religion binary. But I always thought there was something wanting, theologically and philosophiucally in The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. Mel Scult in his new book is showing the degree to which that criticism of Kaplan is misplaced and uninformed, the notion that Kaplan was a sharper social critic and thinker than a philosophical or theological one. While I’m convinced by Mel’s arguement, it is only semi-so. Without wanting to reduce ideas to mood, at least not entirely, I think I now see how the bitterness that saturates the entire Kaplan corpus is not inconsequential, philosophically and theologically.

You can photograph that mood. Kaplan saw it himself. He tried to make light of it, but the levity is unpersuasive. In the journal entry to May 27, 1929, he writes about phonographic recordings of his own voice and having his picture photographed. “I have to laugh at myself when I recall what passed through my mind when I caught sight of the series of snapshots of which the foregoing is one. I said to myself, ‘No wonder young people take me for a bear when they first meet me. I can understand now why people say I always look angry. I recall Schechter applying to me the Yiddish epithet, a berogezer misnagid [Yiddish: an angry anti-Hasidic type]. I there and then made up my mind that I must assume a pleasant expression. During the rest of my walk, must have looked as though I was obeying a photographer’s order to look pleasant. During the rest of the day, however, my shoes pinched me so savagely that I forgot all about the resolve made in the morning, and continued to look probably like a Male Niobe” (Communings of the Spirit, Journals of MMK, vol. 1, 1913-1934, pp.334-5)

The pressing interest in having his image traced and sounded was self-knowledge (p.334).  The remark here just quoted is self-effacing, but not really. He tries to pass himself off as pleasant, but that’s not working either, not in the pinched shoes and not in the journal. He still sounds bitter, angry, like a bear.

What I think I find wanting in The Meaning of God, and also in Religion of Ethical Nationhood is what stands out as this humorless self-regard. As Scult himself admits, Kaplan lack style as a writer, and this dogs his thought as a whole. Unlike Buber and Rosenzweig, or Heschel and Soloveitchik, there’s no real play to the imagination in Kaplan’s theological and philosophical thinking, which is why it so often seems to fall flat.

I think it has something to do with a lot of things, starting with this. Kaplan was much much too preoccupied by “the truth,” by meaning and sincerity. In the first volume of the journals, you can see this when he writes about mitzvoth and “ritual.” Ready to jettison Kol Nidre  at one point in 1922, he’s wants “sincerity in prayer” instead of letting a poetic image play itself out (p.164). Ten years later, he’s still complaining about rote prayer, which he compares to the chatter of apes and parrots as lacking the “spirit of devotion.” (p.483). It is as if prayer has to mean something, has to intend some truth outside the form of its own poiesis.  To me, it reads like the same anger against supernaturalism or chosenness. Kaplan is always out to beat up some old piece of dogma for the simple reason that he doesn’t think it can be “true.”

Why was Kaplan so angry? Was it the sense of his own mediocrity, bitterness at and jealousy of colleagues such as Louis Finkelstein and Louis Ginzberg at JTS, or his students at the seminary, of his first orthodox congregants at Kehilat Jeshurun or at the Jewish Center, or what he perceived to be his own failure to reconstruct Judaism for his own children?  And always hanging over everything, the fear of death and his desire to persevere in time, which was a major impetus for Kaplan keeping his journal. About this Mel notes, as does Ken Koltun-Fromm, who writes about it in depth in his chapter on Kaplan in Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America).

What of note to me now is that Kaplan always looks angry in photographs, and I think this anger bleeds into his thought. I haven’t finished Mel’s book, The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan (RAJMMK) but I’m noting each time he mentions Kaplan’s “anger,” how Kaplan could not “forgive” the past, how he was “outraged,” how he “shouted” at and was “exasperated” with his students (pp.215, 22, 120, 143).

I’m sure there’s a deep psychological source to this anger, but there’s also a more important intellectual one. The problem, it turns out, was that Kaplan could not communicate his own immediate experience, of God’s presence or the existence of a self. He could experience these things, but he could not “posit” them (RAJMMK, p.145). As I see it, this failure has everything to do with what Scult identifies as Kaplan’s antipathy to magic, myth and miracle (RAJMMK, pp.115, 116) and his lack of poetic ability (pp. 124, 129, 130, 131). And that’s the problem with Kaplan, because as Kaplan understood, and about which I’ll write more later, Kaplan understood that religion is rooted in poetry. That Kaplan proved to be such a bad poet has at least something to do with the quality of his religious thought. Is that why Kaplan always looks so angry? Or is it the anger that cripples his thought?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Angry Mordecai Kaplan

  1. Lazer says:

    “That Kaplan proved to be such a bad poet has at least something to do with the quality of his religious thought.” Um, have you read Heschel’s poetry? It’s garbage, man.

    • zjb says:

      so let’s say the same about Heschel and call it a day! i’m with you.

      • Lazer says:

        But: “Unlike Buber and Rosenzweig, or Heschel and Soloveitchik, there’s no real play to the imagination in Kaplan’s theological and philosophical thinking, which is why it so often seems to fall flat.” I’m confused.

      • zjb says:

        well, ok, it’s a blog. but i’ll say the imagination works out better, more felicitiously, in Heschel than in Kaplan. that doesn’t mean his poetic prose wasn’t limited; and that goes double for the poetry.

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