An (American) Jewish Philosophy (Mordecai Kaplan) (Mel Scult)


This will be my final post about Mordecai Kaplan and Mel Scult’s book The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan. My last post about Kaplan was critical, but I wanted to end these reflections on a more upbeat and sympathetic note. If all that remained in the end were the critical comments, then maybe there’d be no reason to read Kaplan at all except for the historical interest, i.e. their place back in the historical time at midcentury. I would like to end these reflections by pointing back to my earlier posts and loop them geographically, into the space-time of Kaplan’s place, geographically, into the United States.

Mel’s book has Kaplan provide the key that opens up America as a place, a new new place for Jewish philosophy. Kaplan’s Jewish thought represents not Europe, not Europe of the 1930s as the place of bad political decision making, between fascism and communism, but a more irenic, simple or naïve place, marked by a democratic faith in human integration and human capacities. New texts for Jewish thought, the ones named by Mel include: Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy and A Common Faith, William James’ “Pragmatism,” Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” “The Divinity School Address,” “The Over-Soul,” and “Spiritual Laws,” and Whitehead’s The Function of Reason, Santayana’s Interpretations of Poetry and Religion.

In short, here’s a rough sketch of what American philosophy gave to Kaplan, gives to an American Jewish philosophy.

Emerson: From Emerson Kaplan, the autonomous self linked up with group life, moral perfectionism, the perfected individual as the goal of group life, the self as defined as process, not substance, the need for inner freedom against social conformism, self-transformation, continual revelation, mind as Over-soul. As Mel argues, religious thought in America means Emerson, or at least coming to terms with Emerson (29), whom, by the way, was loved by Nietzsche.  

Matthew Arnold: From Arnold, the notions of peoplehood and culture as a harmonious building up  of human development vis-à-vis an ordered cosmos and the divine, and the relation between religion and poetry, and the power in the world that makes for ethics. From Arnold also comes the idea of “civilization,” not “culture.” Civilization was, well, more civilizational, more expansive and pluralist in its conception of citizenship and culture, whereas “culture” represents a more German phenomenon, more closed in on itself, more mono-cultural. Mel makes this point around p.89-90, without mentioning how much of this may have had to do with the culture and civilization of British (French) imperialism and colonialism.

Santayana: For Kaplan, Santayana also underscored the relationship between religion and poetry.

Dewey: Mel points out that Kaplan came relatively late to Dewey, which means that Dewey confirmed and bolstered Kaplan’s world view more than he influenced it per se (pp.76, 82). The main line between the two are notions like action and the pragmatic application of intelligence to human problems.

Felix Adler: From Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, the emphasis on ethics, the notion that life is worthwhile, “experience,” intellectual honesty and truth, universalism, and transcendence bound up with morality.

Bergson: From Bergson, the notions of elán vital and creative evolution as a way to grapple with the perceived determinism of Darwinian evolution, the sense of the cosmos having more to do with our collective experience. (I was not expecting to find Bergson in a book about Kaplan. But there he is around p.142 in Mel’s book.)

Whitehead: Alas, there’s very little Whithead here in Mel’s book, to whom Kaplan came late, and whose individualism Kaplan rejected in relation to religion. But Kaplan’s very early discussion of “energy” (Scult, p.80) reminded me of the notion in Whitehead of “vibrations.” There may or may not be an elective affinity here. It would require more working out than I can do right now, but to which I would like to return later, when I have the time to read more Whitehead.

This is just a sketch, in thanks to Mel Scult, who has provided a roadmap for an American Jewish Philosophy. It’s my very strong sense that philosophy in this kind of key would have a powerful and transformative effect on the practice of Jewish philosophy, the way it might situate itself geographically and intellectually into more open and capacious planes and dimensions than the ones offered by Europe in the middle of the 20th century. To switch metaphors, for those of us who want to get off that train, Kaplan represents the next stop.

(Mel’s book sitting on the dashboard behind a Citarella truck on 3rd Avenue)

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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5 Responses to An (American) Jewish Philosophy (Mordecai Kaplan) (Mel Scult)

  1. dmf says:

    sent this to yer SUemail but will share it with folks here, a bit of a recent attempt to plant some American pragmatist seeds in the homeland:

  2. Mel Scult says:

    Amazing summation of what I am trying to say. No need for anyone to read my book. Let them just read Braiterman.

    You have put your finger on the multiple essences.of my work There is a very profound confirmation here for which i am grateful. .


    • zjb says:

      No way! Read Scult! Braiterman is just commentary. This is what a life-time of devotion nets you. I’m so happy that Indiana published this labor of love for the new directions it offers all of us at work in Jewish philosophy.

  3. ej says:

    Why would anyone want to discard the rabbinical library to take on Kaplan’s solutions? If one must get off the talmud-kabbalah train, why not cut out the middle man and do Emerson, and whoever else is appealing today, straight up? Whitehead maybe,quantum mechanics people seem to like him, and so do the panentheists, but Santayana, Felix Adler and Bergson are voices from the past largely left behind. Matthew Arnold is so Rabbi Lichtenstein via Lionel Trilling.

    What happened to critical theory and political theology? To be told Judaism requires Arnold and Adler and not much else is too Reform Judaism circa the Pittsburg Platform, and essentially out of touch with the realities of Jewish life today.

    • zjb says:

      Dear EJ, I’ve missed you and thanks for the critical pushback. But nowhere do I want to get off the Talmud-Kabbalah train. I just think it’s worth opening up new vistas, American ones. There’s plenty about Adler that Kaplan rejected (obviously), and there’s a lot about Kaplan that I reject. It’s the conversations that matter, the open nature of the communication, the pulse on the modern. We can do Emerson straight up, but it’s Kaplan who creates the first link in the circuit. But never, never did I say or mean to say that Jewish philosophy needs “Arnold and Adler and not much else.” But I wouldn’t want to ignore them either.

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