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Communings of the Spirit

Exploring the Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, 1942-1951

edited by Mel Scult

Jewish Studies, Jewish Thought, History, Autobiography

Published: October 2020
ISBN: 9780814348253
Pages: 456 Size: 6 x 9
Illustrations: 10 b&w illus.
Published: October 2020
ISBN: 9780814347676
Pages: 456 Size: 6 x 9
Illustrations: 10 b&w illus.
Published: October 2020
ISBN: 9780814347683
Pages: 456 Size: EPUB
Illustrations: 10 b&w illus.

Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881–1983), founder of Reconstructionism and the rabbi who initiated the first Bat Mitzvah, also produced the longest Jewish diary on record. In twenty-seven volumes, written between 1913 and 1978, Kaplan shares not only his reaction to the great events of his time but also his very personal thoughts on religion and Jewish life. In Communings of the Spirit: The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan Volume III, 1942–1951, readers experience his horror at the persecution of the European Jews, as well as his joy in the founding of the State of Israel. Above all else, Kaplan was concerned with the survival and welfare of the Jewish people. And yet he also believed that the well-being of the Jewish people was tied to the safety and security of all people. In his own words, "Such is the mutuality of human life that none can be saved, unless all are saved."

In the first volume of Communings of the Spirit, editor Mel Scult covers Kaplan's early years as a rabbi, teacher of rabbis, and community leader. In the second volume, readers experience the economic problems of the 1930s and their shattering impact on the Jewish community. The third volume chronicles Kaplan's spiritual and intellectual journey in the 1940s. With candor and vivid detail, Kaplan explores his evolving beliefs concerning a democratic Judaism; religious naturalism; and the conflicts, uncertainties, and self-doubts he faced in the first half of the twentieth century, including his excommunication by the ultra-Orthodox in 1945 for taking a more progressive approach to the liturgy. In his publications, Kaplan eliminated the time-honored declarations of Jewish chosen-ness as well as the outdated doctrines concerning the resurrection of the dead. He wanted a prayer book that Jews could feel reflected their beliefs and experiences; he believed that people must mean what they say when they pray.

Kaplan was a man of contradictions, but because of that, all the more interesting and significant. Scholars of Judaica and rabbinical studies will value this honest look at the preeminent American Jewish thinker and rabbi of our times.

Mel Scult is professor emeritus at Brooklyn College, The City University of New York. He is the author of Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan (Wayne State University Press, 1993) and The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan. He edited volumes 1 and 2 of Kaplan’s journals from 1913 to 1941 (Wayne State University Press, 2001 and 2016) and his works have been published in Israel in Hebrew. He is co-founder and vice president of the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood.

It is axiomatic that the publication of the third volume of Mordecai M. Kaplan’s journals is among the most significant contributions a press can make to the advancement of American Jewish scholarship. Kudos to the press and to Scult for their efforts.

– Jeffrey Gurock, Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University

Mel Scult continues to reveal himself as a master editor and commentator who has done scholar and layperson alike a great service by allowing Kaplan and the events and issues of a decade to come alive through the writings in this book. This latest volume of Kaplan’s diaries is simply a treasure that will captivate and command the attention of a wide swath of readers who are interested in American Jewish history, thought, and religion.

– David Ellenson, Chancellor Emeritus, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion

Another great gift from the world’s foremost expert on Kaplan and his work. This volume of the Kaplan diaries covers critical decades in his life and reveals his response to the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, and to his own excommunication. An invaluable source on one of America’s greatest Jewish thinkers and on American Judaism during a pivotal period of the twentieth century.

– Jonathan D. Sarna, University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University, and author of American Judaism: A History

Covering ten tumultuous years, these excerpts reveal Kaplan championing democracy and battling authoritarianism in geo-politics and religious affairs. We see Kaplan forthrightly accept the opportunities and obligations of America’s sudden emergence as the world’s largest Jewish community and gain further insight into the ways his work was both embraced and attacked. Scult has helped illuminate not only Kaplan but also essential events and personalities from a critical period in Jewish life.

– Deborah Waxman, Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and president of Reconstructing Judaism

Aside from being one of the most influential Jews in twentieth-century America, Kaplan kept an exhaustive diary from about 1904 until the late 1970s. Scult has been expertly excavating Kaplan’s voluminous writings for almost half a century. This third volume comprises diary entries during the war years and the founding of the State of Israel. Scult’s deep knowledge of Kaplan, his felicitous introduction, and his helpful annotations and notes make this a superb study of a tumultuous time in mid-century American Judaism.

– Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish studies, Dartmouth College

Among Kaplan’s many innovative contributions to American Judaism that we learn about from this eagerly awaited third volume of his diaries, masterfully edited by Scult, are the prayer-poems Kaplan composed using the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other modern authors. These liturgical experiments foreshadowed the flourishing of new literary creations that enrich Jewish worship today. I am grateful to Scult for bringing to light these little-known and inspiring compositions, along with the many other fascinating passages contained in this volume.

– Marcia Falk, author of The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival and The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season

Through the pages of the newly published third volume of Communings of the Spirit in particular, the reader can vicariously experience and understand more deeply Kaplan’s full engagement with the realities of American Judaism, as well as his creative intellectual power and his increasing clarity about the possibilities for the future of American Judaism if it can be reconstructed and when a full range of Jewish life and practices find full expression. The possibility for full self-actualization of the Jewish People in America was why, for Kaplan, American democracy and pluralism could also by a source of our salvation. Because of Scult’s enormous contribution in bringing these three volumes of Communings of the Spirit to light, the future of American Jewry in our times can draw on Kaplan’s private discourse in finding ever-renewing sources of salvation.

– Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, CCAR Journal

This book is highly recommended for personal, synagogue, and academic libraries.

– Daniel D. Stuhlman, Association of Jewish Libraries News and Reviews

Kaplan was a man of contradictions, but because of that, all the more interesting and significant. Scholars of Judaica and rabbinical studies will value this honest look at the preeminent American Jewish thinker and rabbi of our times.

– Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Media Review