Self & God (Mel Scult) (The American Judaism of Mordecai Kaplan)

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I’m going to mark Mel Scult’s recent book, The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan as one of the most important books in modern Jewish philosophy that I’ve read in a long time. In re-introducing us to Mordecai Kaplan, Mel opens out new directions for the field as a whole. Based on his lifelong study of the man and his work, the main thing that Mel tells us is that we have all gotten Kaplan wrong for too many years. Mel wants us to know, and about this, he’s very persuasive, is that Kaplan was much more and much deeper than a social thinker, that his thought is not simply humanist, i.e. anthropocentric, or limited by ethics, that he was, in fact, pious, a theologian.

According to Mel, Kaplan shows himself to be invested in the human individual, the self-perfecting human person as a source of infinite creative “potential,” and God, not just as identical to the world, or to the forces of good in the world, but God as a fundamental form of energy, the soul or even oversoul of the world. The theological vision that appears in Mel’s book about Kaplan, the idea of God that Mel reads out of Kaplan reminds me of what Shaul Magid in his book on American Post-Judaism calls “cosmo-theology,” but which Mel calls supra-naturalism, or trans-naturalism, “elan vital,” the natural pushed behind itself (pp.140-2). Mel insists that, for Kaplan, more than a social function, which is how most of us read the figure of God in Kaplan’s work, the borderline is not clear at all between self and God as to where the one ends and the other begins (p.167).

How does Mel know this, and on what evidence does he base this argument about Kaplan? On those very texts ignored by most of us, myself included, who have in the past opined about Kaplan. These are primarily the diaries, which to my best of my limited knowledge of the secondary literature, only Ken Koltun-Fromm has seriously considered, and The Religion of Ethical Nationhood. Reading these texts and Mel’s book sheds new and retrospective light on those works that have dominated the literature on Kaplan. It would seem that many of us, myself included, stopped reading Kaplan after Judaism as a Civilization (1934) and The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1937), and then based our arguments about Kaplan on their basis. Mel is right to insist that we need to reconsider Kaplan in a more holistic light, and what he suggests is that we need to read Kaplan, first in chronological sequence, starting with the earliest diaries, and retrospectively back from The Religion of Nationhood.

I’ll have some more things to say, probably tomorrow, critical things to say about Mel’s book, and about Kaplan as I think we should better understand him now on the basis of Mel’s book. I’ll tell you how and why I continue to resist Kaplan’s theological thinking, and where I disagree with Mel, who, I hope, will respond in order to correct me. But for now, I’m going to leave it at that, the better to underscore just how remarkable a thing this thing is, The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan. A delight to read, Mel writes in a naïve style, which should in no way obscure just how deep the waters run beneath the simple surface of the text.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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