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Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's Diary and the Search for Meaning


The Jewish tradition is a valuable resource in our search for meaning, but as modern liberal Jews we are fundamentally on our own. We must create a self, construct a cosmos of meaning, and simultaneously find a compatible Jewish community where we can live while pursuing these essential goals. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and his diary can be of significant help to us in this life project.

Mordecai M Kaplan 1913
photo: Jewish Theological Seminary

Mordecai Kaplan  1913

Kaplan appears to us as a very modern Jew primarily because in his ideology he seeks to translate traditional modes and concepts into contemporary categories. But I would maintain that Kaplan is modern in another sense: He is without question one of the greatest Jewish diarists who ever lived, and his diary bears witness to the very contemporary struggle to create a self. It is as the record of that struggle that the diary most draws our attention.

The journal that he kept from 1913 until the late 1970s is a remarkable document. It is extraordinarily long, 27 volumes, to be exact, each with 350-400 handwritten pages - large, accountant-type pages. As Kaplan thinks through the great problems of the time, his thought is presented with a freshness not found in many of his published writings.

He commented on almost everyone he met, both the great and humble. The portraits of the famous become a virtual gallery of leading Jewish figures: Solomon Schechter, Judah Magnes, Chaim Weizmann, Cecil Roth, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Martin Buber, David Ben Gurion and others. Kaplan also described many ordinary Jewish people he met as he traveled extensively to lecture at synagogues and universities. The diary contains countless vignettes of Jews in communities outside the metropolitan areas who were struggling to maintain themselves on a decent intellectual and religious level.

We also have an intimate view of institutional life at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Jewish Institute of Religion, the Zionist Organization of America, the New York Kehillah, the Jewish Center, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), the Reconstructionist movement, the School for Jewish Social Work and the 92nd Street "Y."

Finally, we gain insight into Kaplan the man, as he struggles to strengthen the Jewish people despite his personal doubts and fears and the opposition of his enemies.

Although Kaplan published a great deal during his lifetime, he considered the journal to be his most significant work. Below are a few selections from the volume of selections which were jointly published in June 2001 by Wayne State University Press and The Reconstructionist Press. This volume, the first of three, is about 600 pages and covers the period from 1913-1934.

Gender-based language and punctuation errors in Kaplan's text have not been corrected. Hebrew phrases have been transliterated.

Entries from the Diaries
The Essence of Religion
A Talk at Harvard, February 24, 1913

Religion is primarily a social phenomenon. To grasp its reality, to observe its workings, and to further its growth we must study its functioning in some social group. The individual and his development or perfection may constitute the sole aim of religion, but the fact and substance of religion cannot exist completely and exhaustively in an individual.

Religion as a social phenomenon is a form of the living energy which exists in all social groups.
Kaplan Sails for Jerusalem
Thursday, March 12, 1925 (S.S. Olympic)

On board of the Olympic which sailed from N.Y. last Monday midnight. I am on the way now to Palestine to represent the Zionist Organization of America at the dedication of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. . . .

On Friday night a large contingent of the SAJ came to the boat to see me off. I got a number of gifts which I cannot receive without mixed feelings of delight in their possession and uncertainty as to my measuring up to the idea that the senders have of me. Mrs. Unterberg gave me a check for $500. The Darmans sent me a beautifully fitted leather bag. The Friedlaender Extension classes sent me a pair of field glasses; besides smaller gifts from other friends.

On board the steamer I have been busy working on the address I have to deliver at the opening of the University . . . I am still in doubt whether it is any good. I am waiting to show it to Weizmann who is also on board. We do not see very much of each other here. I keep to my room working most of the time, while he works "prospects." We have had however two long intimate chats and two others in which some of our friends participated. I wish I could remember the talk on Purim afternoon which turned upon his experiences with Allenby and the English Administration in March 1918, and with Briand on the day before the San Remo confirmation of the Mandate. His accounts of the hardships encountered, the obstacles put in the way, especially [by] the Vatican, of the hair-breadth escapes from complete collapse and of the fidelity of Lord Balfour, would make much nobler reading than our present Megillah. I wish the Jews were alive enough to replace our traditional Megillah with an account of some of the recent events which point to a divine providence that is making for the rebirth of the Jewish people. Weizmann repeated more than once that he was sure that a Hashgaha Elohit [Divine Providence] was directing the course of events in Palestine.

Purim: Kaplan as the Grand Koogle
Does the Charleston
Wednesday March 3, 1926

For the first time in years I really enjoyed myself on Purim. The fact that I had gotten through satisfactorily with my sermon . . . on Saturday morning and that I had no classes the day following at the Institute on account of the Purim festival made it possible for me to enter into the spirit of the day. I did something I had never done before. I masked at the SAJ masquerade given on Saturday night. At Judith’s suggestion I wore the uniform of the KKK. On the hood I had a Mogen David instead of a cross. In it I had three “kofs” over the chest . . . and in red letter[s] Grand Koogle. Although a few had a suspicion that it was I who was masked as a KKK, they were thrown off their guard when I charlestoned down the room once or twice. I was even awarded a prize, a silver pencil. This tomfoolery went off without impairing my dignity in the least, even in the estimate of my friends who are overzealous of the proprieties touching my person.

The Diary Saves Kaplan from Oblivion
March 10, 1929

. . . For the last hour and a half I have been writing aimlessly [in the diary] only to find some compensation for my frustrated hopes and ambitions. Would I not have employed that time to better advantage if I had worked on the paraphrase translation of the Midrash Shir Hashirim [classical commentary on the Song of Songs]. From one point of view the answer should be an emphatic yes. A well worked out paraphrase translation would open up new territory to those who are interested in exploring the field of Jewish knowledge. From another point of view the answer should be in the negative. For anyone who has a fair knowledge of rabbinic style and a sense of the English language could do that work. On the other hand no one but myself could write my diary. Whether what I have to say is wise or foolish, interesting or boring it is the attempt of a personality to save itself from inarticulateness and oblivion by the mere skin of its teeth. Its struggles are entirely its own and no other person in the world could know them and record them. That fact makes of this kind of writing an actual addition to the sum of sense or nonsense that constitutes man’s literary heritage. Now that I have stated both sides of the case I find that the hour is 1:45 a.m. and that it is time to go to bed.
Living Among the Idolaters
May 3, 1929

My colleagues [on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary] are worshippers of dead letters just as our ancestors were worshippers of lifeless images. To be a prophet one must not only be an iconoclast but also be able to speak in the name of the living God. Since in spite of all my strenuous searching I have not yet found Israel’s living God and cannot speak in his name, I must abide with the idolaters and imitate their ways.
A Word from Kaplan about Lunch
November 12, 1930

As I sat alone and ate the lunch I said to myself, “This is a fair quid pro quo.” I gave the world three hours of homiletics and the world gave me back a nourishing lunch. I can never cease marveling at the miracle of exchange of goods and services. Not all the Ten Plagues of Egypt with the dividing of the Red Sea thrown into the bargain can compare in marvelousness with the miracle of exchange that makes it possible for me to get asparagus on toast in exchange for the homiletic interpretation of a few paragraphs of Leviticus Rabbah. It is for this marvel of marvels that I thank God whenever I say grace, and I say it quite often with cap on or without a cap.

God As Process
January 15, 1931

After all the years of thinking on the problem of religion, I am still at a loss how to connect the conclusions I hold with the actual situation in which we find ourselves. I know very well what I mean by God. God to me is the process that makes for creativity, integration, love and justice. The function of prayer is to render us conscious of that process. I can react with a sense of holiness and momentousness to existence because it is continually being worked upon by this divine process. I am not troubled in the least by the fact that God is not an identifiable being; for that matter neither is my Ego an identifiable being. Nor am I troubled by the fact that God is not perfect. He [sic] would have to be static to be perfect. Nothing dynamic can be perfect since to be dynamic implies to be in the state of becoming.

But how shall I relate all these ideas to the problem of Jewish religion?

Democracy and Passover
April 1943

If democracy is to win and to hold its winnings, it must not only promise a better world for our children, but it must give proof that it can make good what it promises. Such democracy does not yet exist here or anywhere. If it is to come into existence, it will not be legislated into existence. It will come only through the proper kind of education from the elementary school to the university. What constitutes the proper kind of education? The answer to that can be found in an understanding of some of the deeper implications of the Pesach festival.

April 15, 1943

What Pesach gave the Jews, it did so mainly through the ritual of the Seder. The Seder is essentially a lesson in education. It is a kind of model lesson to the Jewish people. It is intended to point to the spirit in which a people must learn to educate its young. If we study the Seder from that standpoint we note that it is intended to serve as a token of three important principles. Those principles are 1) Education can and should constitute a religious experience, 2) The parental responsibility for the education of the child should be prior to that of the state, and 3) the most important training which any education should afford should be a training in freedom. . . .

The minds of the participants in the Seder are focused on the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. The main theme of the Pesach festival is freedom. The alternative designation for the Pesach festival is “zeman herutenu,” the season of our freedom.

All this should serve as token of the principle that the ideal education is that in which the child is trained effectively to be free to cherish freedom and to know how to use it.

What exactly is involved in training a child to be a free agent? It means that all who have anything to do with his education seek to elicit from him the awareness of himself as a center of initiative. It means making him aware of the inner resources of character and goodness and moral strength that are latent in him and stimulating him to make use of them. It means not only having him discover his own urge to act and to be accepted as a morally responsible person, possessing of inner dignity and inalienable worth. It means having him exult in this discovery and explore to the utmost what he has thus discovered. The making of such persons is the highest goal of democratic education.

M M Kaplan oil painting
Mordecai Kaplan, circa 1929
Oil painting by Enrico Glicenstein
Courtesy of the American Jewish Archives


Author: Mel Scult
Type: RT Article

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