Jewish Journal


The Kaplan Exchange, Part 3: On Kaplan and Heschel

by Shmuel Rosner

April 23, 2014 | 2:56 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 and two can be found here and here.


Dear Professor Scult,

Following our round two discussion of Emerson’s influence on Kaplan, I’d like to dedicate the final installment of this exchange to another fascinating figure who had a multi-faceted influence on Kaplan’s thought: Abraham Joshua Heschel, arguably the most influential theologian of 20th century Conservative Judaism.

In the book you delve deep into the incredibly complicated relationship between the two rabbis, and it often seems like the tension between them was emblematic of several ideological/philosophical tensions which are still at the heart of the current Jewish American debate: the tension between adhering to age old traditions and embracing modernity; between mysticism and rationality; between approaching Judaism as a culture and approaching it as a rigorous religious practice (I suppose we could go on here).

From the book it is clear that Kaplan was deeply impressed and moved by the power of Heschel’s writing (some of which he even incorporated into his prayer books), and you stress that he had a great appreciation of Heschel's religious vigor. My question:

What kind of influence, if any, did Kaplan’s ideas have on Heschel’s thought (I still don't understand how seriously Heschel took him), and how has Conservative Judaism’s attitude toward Kaplan changed since the times of Heschel?

Thank you again for the book and for participating in this exchange.



Dear Shmuel

As usual, your question is penetrating and central. Rather than talk of influence, however, I would like to talk of affinities and difficulties. You mention in your question the obvious fact that we seem to have here the rational vs the mystical, the sociological mind vs the poetic. But the relationship between these two is complicated and multi-layered and is not easily amenable to familiar categories.

My research, as you indicate, revealed the fact that Kaplan not only appreciated Heschel but was primarily responsible for bringing him to the Jewish Theological Seminary. He also crafted a poem-prayer based on a Heschelian essay which he put into the prayer book for which he, Kaplan, was excommunicated. Everyone connected with the prayer book was excommunicated by the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Ha-Rabbanim and because Heschel was listed as the author of the prayer which Kaplan inserted, one would have to admit that Heschel was also excommunicated. I might add it was clear that though Heschel appreciated Kaplan’s efforts, he was unhappy with the idea that Kaplan had changed the language of some of the prayers. Most famously he introduced new language for the chosen people formula.  Heschel said in a letter to Kaplan that what we need is a community of kavannah [intention, direction], not a change in the nusach [language of prayer.] Of course Kaplan agreed and the fact that he told his rabbinical students that Heschel was part of the answer to Reconstructing traditional Judaism indicates a kind of “community of kavannah.” 

There were, of course, many issues that separated the two. Perhaps the most central is the matter of revelation. For Heschel, the fact of revelation is not symbolic or metaphorical but real.  God is not only concerned with man but communicates directly. For Kaplan, revelation is not only impossible but a scandal. He says at one point that to think that the great ruler of the universe disclosed himself to one group is a sin worse than bigamy. Kaplan believed that the basic truths of religion are available to all men.

But having said this, we only begin to understand these two giants and their respective theologies. First of all, they were both, deeply concerned with the fate of the Jewish people. Their writings are not detached and philosophical but arise out of a passionate devotion to the fate of the Jews. We might say that they basically looked toward the same end but used different vocabularies. Richard Rorty, the great American philosopher, talks of vocabulary as a philosophical concept. Heschel lived in the realm of the ineffable, Kaplan in the realm of the thinkable but in the end perhaps they were not that far apart. Heschel stated that religion was about the transformation of the individual and Kaplan would agree with that 100%.

Secondly, we are all acutely aware of Heschel’s understanding of religion as arising out of our wonder and amazement. Though Kaplan does not talk of this often, he feels the sense of mystery which is central to the religious consciousness. 'How ought we to respond to the wonder?’ Heschel asks us.  We are addressed with the ultimate question – ‘Ayecha- Where are you?’ The command and the mitzvot arise out of this question. Though Kaplan is a naturalist, he would certainly sense the commandingness of the moral imperative, though for him it comes from within and not from on high.

Though we do not have any evidence one way or the other, it is unlikely that Kaplan influenced Heschel. One the other hand, Heschel became Americanized over time and his concern for the fate of the individual and for civil rights illustrates this. Though Kaplan never marched, he was dedicated to the fundamental democratic ideals [as was Heschel] and was known as a champion of civil rights.

Heschel is a man of deep piety and indeed Kaplan is also. Kaplan’s piety is parallel to Heschel’s and might be characterized as a naturalistic piety. To see the ultimate in the mundane, and to live “sub speciae aeternitatis [under the aspect of eternity]” is just as available to the naturalist as to the traditional believer.

The following selection from Kaplan’s private papers of the early 1940’s illustrates his naturalistic piety.

“In our highest yearnings for truth, beauty and justice we experience something supra-natural. Man is not alone in his highest strivings but the universe enables him to reach a truly transcendent realm though of course not a supernatural realm.”

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