The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

Author:Freud-Kandel, Miri
Position:Book review

The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan. By Mel Scult. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2.014. xix + 337 pp.

Mel Scult is undoubtedly one of the preeminent scholars disseminating the theology of Mordecai Kaplan, the pioneering American Jewish thinker whose particular efforts to blend American values and Judaism led to the development of Reconstructionist Judaism. This latest volume builds on Scult's previous work and takes his analysis and clear delineation of Kaplan's thought to another level by incorporating and making frequent use of the voluminous personal diaries Kaplan wrote between 1913 and 1978. These journal entries offer valuable additional insights into the development of Kaplan's theology. They also provide an opportunity to learn about his private reactions to various events during his extended time as a faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a communal rabbi at the Jewish Center and his Society for the Advancement of Judaism. In Scult's drawing together of these personal reflections on the religious struggles Kaplan experienced and the frequent frustration he felt at having his often somewhat complex ideas misunderstood, alongside a broad analysis of the wide range of influences that can be seen to have contributed to the development of his thought, this new volume represents a clear contribution to scholarship. It situates Kaplan within the development of twentieth-century American Jewish thought and considers the intellectual influences and interlocutors that led Kaplan to the sometimes contradictory religious positions he adopted. Beyond the usual references to the importance of John Dewey on Kaplan's thought, Scult also considers the role of thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza, Ahad Ha-Am, Felix Adler, Arnold Ehrlich, Matthew Arnold, William James, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. And while Kaplan's thought has so often been associated with a prioritization of the Jewish collective, Scult additionally draws attention to the importance of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the pivotal role Kaplan constructs for individual fulfillment if the collective is to consist of members who bring it value.

Just as Scult highlights how "Kaplan's persistent emphasis on the individual can be surprising. We are used to associating him with Judaism as a civilization," he also tries to make sense of Kaplan's belief in God and to address some of the contradictions associated with a rejection of chosenness...

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