Dr. Mel Scult, the leading authority on Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, will be at the movement’s Montclair synagogue this Saturday to address members of Bnai Keshet’s Kaplan Minyan.
Scult, professor emeritus of Jewish thought at Brooklyn College, is also cofounder and vice president of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. His most recent book is The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan, published in 2013.
He spoke with NJJN in advance of his May 14 talk on “God Wrestling: Mine, Kaplan’s and Yours.”
NJJN: Recently a group of Reconstructionist rabbis calling themselves Beit Kaplan broke away from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in large part over a decision to allow ordination of intermarried rabbinical candidates. What are your thoughts on Beit Kaplan? What would Kaplan think?
Scult: I’m a Kaplanian. And Kaplan was very, very strongly against intermarriage; but he made it absolutely clear that this was not racial, and this was not tribal. So he opposed intermarriage in general before the fact but accepted it after the fact — in other words, those people who are intermarried who are friends and relatives I embrace completely, but I believe for the integrity and solidarity of the group, we must try to keep ourselves together.
At the present moment, I identify with Beit Kaplan in opposing [the RRC’s] policy. I believe that rabbis need to serve as a model for their congregations. It’s a little difficult to serve as a model for Jewish culture when you are married to a non-Jew.
NJJN: In your most recent book, The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan, you discuss some of the major misperceptions about Kaplan, particularly that his ideas boil down to one, namely that Judaism is a civilization. Can you speak to this?
Scult: I think it’s become a slogan. It’s so well known that it’s almost meaningless and banal. But it’s still a place to start. It means Judaism was created by Jews, not given by God. That’s the beginning of the Kaplanian understanding — that Judaism was created in response to the quest of the Jewish people for meaning, and as a result, the Jewish people have created a religion that they can believe in.
If I can take a line from Bernie [Sanders], religion has to work for you, and Kaplan was what I call a “pragmatic believer.” He believed that Judaism should serve the Jewish people and their needs, collectively and individually, and that it should do so in terms of the present sensitivities of the Jewish people.
NJJN: People often say that Kaplan did not believe in God but would not acknowledge his atheism. Is this a misunderstanding?
Scult: Kaplan was a religious person. People sometimes see him as secular. He wasn’t. Kaplan never ceased to believe in God. The concept of God was very important to him, although he was a naturalist and dismissed the supernatural. He used “supra-naturalism” — the unity of all that is — pushed to the ultimate. People joke that he prayed ‘To Whom It May Concern.’ If there is no God that hears our prayers, how can we pray if no one is listening? But prayer for Kaplan is about accessing a higher self, our best self. We ourselves have to hear our prayers.
NJJN: Can you discuss your view of Kaplan as a “radical innovator”?
Scult: Let me give you a story to illustrate Kaplan’s radical innovation. And it takes place at the Jersey shore, in 1940. He was there with his son-in-law Ira Eisenstein and his daughter Judith Kaplan Eisenstein. Kaplan would get up every morning and put on tallit and tefillin and daven from the siddur. But sometimes he would put on tallit and tefillin and read [philosopher and educational reformer] John Dewey. I call this “davening from Dewey.” That’s a radical innovation. To daven from Dewey perfectly illustrates Kaplan’s desire to be part of tradition but also to be radically innovative.
NJJN: You quoted Bernie Sanders to explain Kaplan’s religious philosophy. Do you think Kaplan would be a Sanders supporter were he alive today?
Scult: I don’t know who he would vote for. But the idea that Kaplan wants a religion to believe in is pragmatic. He wants a ritual that will work. In emphasizing that it will work, it’s tied to the experience of the individual and culture at a certain point. It’s a constant re-examination of our ideas.
Kaplan had a very strong socialist aspect to his fundamental beliefs. He used to say Mordecai Kaplan could be divided into two people: Mordecai the capitalist and Mordecai the communist…. He had hesitations and criticisms of Marx and of communists, but the fundamental aspects of socialism appealed to him very clearly. He identified with working people and the problem of poverty throughout his life