Back from “Architect of the Jewish Future: A Conference on the Life, Work, and Legacy of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan.” The conference was skillfully put together by The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood, the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill University, and The Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. An open forum, it was live-streamed on the internet. Some panelists were forced by the snow to attend via Skype, and people sent in questions via text-messaging and twitter. Perhaps most of all, I liked very much at the conference the combinations of academics and rabbis, scholars and activists, of people from the community and university types, especially the mix of older people and younger people, but also the presence of people both physical and virtual.
Without mentioning any one participant-colleague or panel in particular, I would nonetheless like to mention in specific the presentations by Kaplan’s students from the 1950s and 1960s, rabbis and “rabbi-doctors” William Kaufman, Elliot Spar, Max Ticktin, and Harold White. They spoke for an hour and a half. I would have sat for twice as long. Their memories of Kaplan, loving and moving, opened a neat little window into the sense and sensibility of that period in postwar Jewish thought and culture. Papers and discussions covered the gamut from art, ethics, philosophy, philosophical metaphysics, politics, pragmatism, religion, religious movements in Judaism, technology, theology, social justice, and Zionism. I’ll make specific mention too of the Israel panel, that suggests the potential emergence of Kaplan on the Israeli scene, as well as mention of a work published by Kaplan in Hebrew called Emmunah ve’Musar (Faith and Morality), which has not yet been translated into English.
Looking back at the two days, I think the overall effect was to bring a comprehensiveness and coherence to Kaplan’s thought. It’s a coherence that is often found wanting by Kaplan’s critics in his theology. What I think I understand coming away from the conference is just how important the diaries are and the Religion of Ethical Nationhood are to Kaplan’s project as a whole. The comprehensive and coherence may not have been readily apparent in 1934 and 1937 when Kaplan published, respectively, Judaism as a Civilization and The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. It’s with the publication of The Religion of Ethical Nationhood in 1970 that the entire picture comes into focus.
With the final completion of the published oeuvre, now we can appreciate that Kaplan was not simply a sociological thinker or a vulgar naturalist, as Mel Scult is having us observe. Now we see more clearly the individual, the internationalism and cosmopolitanism, the reach of metaphysical vision, the influence of Emerson, maybe Whitehead. Retrospectively, from The Religion of Ethical Nationhood we now understand more clearly what’s going on in Kaplan’s two books from the 1930s the broader perspectives and larger stakes and implications, all of which are confirmed starting in the early diaries.
I wish we had seen more actual “architecture” discussed at the conference, because to me, what became clear, is the clear design element undergirding Kaplan’s worldview, which appears to me only now, which now comes sharply into view as suddenly systematic. It’s not what I expected going into the conference. Bad weather loomed over and outside the conference, a force of disorganization that shut down the federal government of the United States of America. It was held at bay and pushed back by the warm intelligence on display inside, the spirit of cooperation.