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The Kaplan Exchange, Part 2: Emerson and the Jewish Prayer Book

by Shmuel Rosner

April 17, 2014 | 3:06 am

Professor Mel Scult

Mel Scult, professor emeritus of Jewish thought at Brooklyn College, received his M.A. from Harvard University, his B.H.L. from the Jewish Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from Brandeis University. He has taught at Brandeis, Vassar College, the New School for Social Research, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Professor Scult is co-founder of the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. He is the author of a biography of Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century, and has co-edited, with Emmanuel Goldsmith, Dynamic Judaism: The Essential Writings of Mordecai Kaplan. He also edited Communings of the Spirit , the first volume of selections from Kaplan’s twenty seven volume diary. Dynamic Judaism and his biography of Kaplan have appeared in Hebrew from Yediot Ahronot.

This Exchange focuses on Professor Scult’s recently published book, The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai Kaplan (Indiana University Press, 2013). Part 1 can be found right here.

***

Dear Professor Scult,

In your book you devote a chapter to the profound influence which Ralph Waldo Emerson had on Kaplan’s thought. In the chapter you present a fascinating prayer which Kaplan wrote based on Emerson’s Divinity School Address. Curiously, though, in that famous address Emerson traces the core of his observations about Self Reliance, salvation, and the divinity of man – all ideas which Kaplan was deeply impressed by – to the philosophy of Jesus Christ, of whom he said that “alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world.”

Now, in the book there is often a feeling that when it came to faith, Kaplan was far closer (or at least every bit as close) to the spirit which Emerson attributes to Jesus, a spirit shared by many deists/pantheists/secular philosophers throughout the ages, than he was to the spirit of the halakhic tradition. You mention that, unlike many reform and conservative rabbis, he categorically refused to try to present ancient rabbinical sources as being more liberal and congruous with modern morality and values than they actually were (in his eyes, of course). The basic philosophy of Emerson’s Jesus seems like it may have been much more palatable to him in that sense.

To a certain extent, being profoundly inspired by Emerson's theology entails being profoundly inspired by Jesus. On a similar note, one could say that introducing Emerson into the siddur entails introducing Jesus into the siddur, a big taboo as far as traditional Judaism is concerned. Did Kaplan himself ever have fears, reservations, or personal red lines about incorporating Christian influences (even if through the back door) into his spiritual life? Was 'going too far' with non-Jewish influences a concern for him?

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

Thank you again for inviting me “to discuss” Kaplan with you. Your question on Emerson and Kaplan is interesting and provocative. I shall try to shed some light on it.

The main point is that Kaplan, though steeped in Jewish sources from the early days of his youth (his father was a Haredi rabbi), had no hesitation in turning to scholars of the social sciences or to Christian thinkers when they were useful.

In order to appreciate Kaplan’s embrace of Emerson, we must consider the context of Kaplan’s life and his writing. Kaplan was a child of immigrants even though he came to America in the late 1880’s, before the millions of the first decade. As a child of immigrants, he wanted more than anything to be American and to embrace America. Many assimilated in their desire to be American. Kaplan found a unique way to be Jewish and American at the same time. He was the dedicated Zionist , in the Ahad Ha-Amian mode, and the loyal American at the same time.

It is well to remember that at the turn of the century, to be American meant in part to embrace Emerson and Thoreau. The centrality of the transcendentalists in American cultural and religious life is no exaggeration. If you would be American and understand American culture and read English that would mean reading Emerson, especially at the early twentieth century. One might indeed write a whole essay on this issue of immigrants and Jews and Emerson noting particularly the work of Horace Kallen, Irving Howe (The American Newness-Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson), and Stanly Cavell (The Senses of Walden and Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes), among many others in between.  

The other aspect of the context is that Jews have always embraced elements of the host civilization and Judaized them. One has only to think of Maimonides and his attitudes toward Aristotle and Greek philosophy as the precedent. It never bothered the Rambam that Aritotle was a pagan. We might also remember the essay by Ahad Ha-Am “Imitation and Assimilation’ [Hikui ve-hitbollelut] where the great cultural Zionist advocated a reasoned adoption of best of the culture of the host nation in adjusting to life in the diaspora.

In the specific case of Emerson, Kaplan found a kindred spirit.  Emerson argued for a reasoned individualism which he called self-reliance. The key statement is “the virtue in most demand is conformity, self-reliance is its aversion.” In other words, conformity is necessary if we are to form any kind of collective unity. People need to embrace the common assumptions of the group if they would be part of the group. But at the same time, Emerson understood the need of the thinking person to be free to assume a truth not embraced by all.  Non-conformity was not always easy even for Emerson as illustrated by the famous protest of Henry David Thoreau who in an act of civil disobedience spent the night in jail.

Kaplan never went to jail. But as we noted in letter one of this series, he was excommunicated for his version of Judaism. Kaplan is a very powerful embodiment of the principle of Self Reliance with respect to the Jewish community and with respect to beliefs he thought we must discard.

The fact that Emerson was a Christian never bothered Kaplan who related to many Christian writers and thinkers whose message was universal. It was perfectly Kaplanian that Kaplan in his classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he trained generations of Conservative rabbis, would give them assignments in the works of Christian thinkers.  For decades Kaplan taught midrash along with his courses in homiletics. It was his custom , however, to have rabbinical students to his house on Saturday evening and study Talmud or read in the works of William James, or Henry Nelson Wieman (a Christian Theologian) or William E. Hocking (a Harvard Christian philosopher and a favorite of Kaplan’s).

Without going into detail it is clear that Emerson’s notion of God as the “Oversoul” appealed deeply to Kaplan. Hence Kaplan’s turning Emerson’s “Address to the Harvard Divinity School of 1838” into a poem-prayer and planning to include it in his prayer book of 1945. He would have us daven from Emerson. Such was the radicalism of Mordecai Kaplan.

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