Notes from Mordecai Kaplan Conference at Georgetown (2014)

Kaplan Poster 11-6-13

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.

Kaplan Poster 11-6-13

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.

Kaplan Poster 11-6-13

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.

Kaplan Poster 11-6-13

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.

Kaplan Poster 11-6-13

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.

Kaplan Poster 11-6-13

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 Notes from Mordecai Kaplan Conference at Georgetown (2014)

  1. Charles Arian says:

    I wish that they had done a better job publicizing the conference in advance. I’m a Georgetown alum (and an active donor and alumni volunteer) and I live and work in the DC suburbs. I only found out about the conference a couple of days beforehand via posts from Facebook friends who were panelists. If I had had more advance notice I could have cleared my schedule to attend at least part of the time. I know that you had nothing to do with this, Zak. I’m just venting.

    • zjb says:

      i think the Kaplan Center did a good job setting up a social media component to the conference, but very clearly they have to up their social media presence.

  2. David Kaufman says:

    Thanks for the summary Zak. I would ditto Charles’ comment, and would add to your complaint about a lack of architectural perspective in the program a related, to my mind, lack of attention to Kaplan’s various ‘designs for Jewish living’, ie his vision of an organic Jewish community centered about a central institution, right smack in the center….um, um, not sure what to call it……..;-)

  3. Linda Rich says:

    Also notable were the sessions at the Adat Shalom Shabbaton before the conference. Most interesting was the significant amount of attention paid to Kaplan’s idea of “salvation” by Manny Goldsmith and others. With these events the Kaplan Center has begun to fill the thought leadership void left by the changes in the Reconstructionist movement over the last few decades.

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