Mordecai Kaplan and the Lurianic Kabbalah? Some Preliminary Observations
Sanford L. Drob
Mordecai Menahem Kaplan (1881-1983) was the founder of the Reconstructionist movement in American Judaism. He had been my grandfather's teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary and later went on to become his colleague in the Rabbinical Assembly, in fact succeeding Max Drob as President of that body in 1928. I had the good fortune to meet Rabbi Kaplan in 1971 when he was invited by Thomas Altizer to lecture on theology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and again in 1982 when I visited Kaplan at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, at which point he was 101 years old!
Kaplan viewed Judaism as an "evolving civilization" that has and should continue to actively engage secular culture, as opposed to a rigid body of ritual and law that must stand apart from contemporary society. For Kaplan, our religious lives must be strongly rooted in, but not imprisoned, by the past.
Kaplan was far from being a mystic; he preferred biolgical metaphors, and one of the greatest influences upon him was the American pragmatic philosopher, John Dewey. However, in his conception of the complimentarity between 'personal' and folk-religion, and in his view that while humanistic religion may be adequate for the community it is not sufficient for the individual, he showed an openess to a mystical appraoch to the divine. Early on he wrote that while the mitzvot could no longer be understood as divine legislation "they still may be designated mitzvot in a poetic or mystical sense." Further:
"The human mind can rest only temporarily in a humanistic philosophy; after a while it resumes its endeavor to extend its horizons beyond the narrow span of earthly life and the limited area of visible and tangible realities" (Judaism as a Civilization, Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, 1929, p. 130).
Kaplan here, as in other places, leaves open the possibility, even the necesseity, of a personal, "mystical" understanding of the divine. However, I believe that even Kaplan's non-personal, non-transcendent and "naturalistic" conception of God can be provided a mystical or Kabbalistic interpretation.
For Kaplan God is that power in the universe that humanity calls upon to achieve its destiny and salvation. According to Kaplan, this power evolves along with humanity, and reflects the very advances that humankind achieves in the sciences, arts, and humanities. "God" thus reflects (and evolves along with) humanity's self-conception and achievements.
In his conception of God evolving along with humankind, Kaplan actually comes very close to the Zoharic and Lurianic conception of Ein-sof (the Infinite). In the theosophy of the Zohar and Luria, humanity is not only a partner with God in the completion of creation, but is also actually said to complete God Himself. For the Kabbalists, God or Ein-sof, is not fully actualized and real until humanity, through acts of Tikkun ha-Olam (restoration and emendation of the universe), actualizes divine values in the world.
The Lurianic concept of Tikkun ha-Olam has resonated with many in the Reconstructionist movement, for it suggests that the divine is not so much he who we petition in prayer, but is rather that which we realize through our own efforts at bettering the world within which we live. For Kaplan "bettering the world" involved both Jewish and universal goals and ideals. His Reconstructionist magazine, which he founded in 1935, was "Dedicated to the advancement of Judaism as a religious civilization, to the upbuilding of Eretz Yisrael as the spiritual center of the Jewish People, and to the furtherance of universal freedom, justice, and peace."Contemporary Reconstructionists may prefer more mystical or spiritual metaphors to the biolgical and naturalistic terms preferred by Kaplan, but the underlying call to actualize the full potential of Jewish and world civilization remains the same.
Kaplan held that the individual experiences and comprehends the divine only and precisely to the extent that he or she actualizes the fully human/ethical/spiritual potential within himself and others, and thereby maximizes the good that he brings to himself and the world. Kaplan's notion is linked to both the Hegelian/Romantic conceptions of self-realization and the 20th century psychological (Fromm, Goldstein, Maslow) conception of "self-actualization." However, within the Jewish tradition it is clearly akin to the Kabbalistic/Hasidic view that the individual must "raise a spark" of divinity both within him/herself and all those he encounters in his/her life's way.
Kaplan's theology has been roundly criticized for its extreme naturalism, and for its failure to take into account the dimension of God that is personal and wholly other to humankind. Indeed my own grandfather was one of his earliest critics, arguing against Kaplan's reduction of Judaism to the "folkways of the Jewish people." The Orthodox rabbinate sanctioned him for his liturgical innovations which, amongst other things, removed references to the Jews as the "Chosen People." Nonetheless, the core of his theology, in which God is tied to the evolution of humanity, is not only an important humanistic perspective on the divine but, in my view, also a valuable contemporary source for interpreting an aspect of the Kabbalistic conception of Ein-sof.
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The Lurianic Kabbalah