|May 25, 2012 / 4 Sivan, 5772
Kaplan and Maimonides
Mordecai Kaplan felt a deep kinship with Maimonides, not only because of the rationalism of the great thinker but also because Maimonides attempt to understand Judaism in terms of the philosophy of Aristotle lead the Rambam in a clearly heretical direction. While the respective reconstructions of Maimonides and Kaplan are obviously very different there is a similarity of pattern here which Kaplan was no doubt aware of.
Kaplanís understanding of Maimonides has clear implications for his own approach to Judaism and its place within the Jewish community. Kaplan states that heretical ideas may be easily accepted by the Jewish people and incorporated into the superstructure of Jewish thought as long as there is a clear commitment to a reinterpretation of Jewish practice. There is no doubt that Maimonides changed the nature of Jewish thought forever.
It was widely believed that the Maimonidean revolution succeeded only because Maimondes was not only perceived as a philosopher but as a halachaist who took seriously the day to day life of the Jewish people with its obligations and sancta[mitzvot].
This fact was not lost on Kaplan himself. He realized at this early point that unless he devoted himself to a more concrete reinterpretation of the sancta [mitzvot] his reconstruction of Judaism would be rejected.
This passage below was written in 1935 just at the point where Kaplan was working on his Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. This seminal Kaplanian work is his attempt to apply his philosophy to the rituals of Jewish life. It might be called Kaplanís Yad Ha-Hazakah [legal code] and his Moreh Nevuchim [Guide for the Perplexed].
In order to understand it more fully we should think of the purpose and meaning of the Maimonides work.
The Significance of Maimonides
Monday, March 18, 1935
I have to speak the coming Wednesday at Plainfield, N.J. on Maimonides. The celebration of M's octocentenary is a welcome relief from the usual round of Jewish activities which are confined to anti-Semitism and fund-raising. For once the Jews engage in something inherently interesting and cultural and for these days when Jews should be wrestling with the problem of self-adjustment there could be no more significant focus of attention than the personality and influence of Maimonides. We cannot learn from what he taught how to meet our own problems today but we can learn a good deal about Judaism and the spiritual possibilities that inhere in it if we realize what it means for his teachings to have found a place in it. It is true that Maimonides effected a reconciliation between Jewish tradition and Aristotelian philosophy. But in the process of reconciling he so changed the entire perspective of Jewish tradition that it lost its original character and became something different. If the intention of an act determines its character, certainly the intention of an entire system of life and thought gives character to that system. What M did was to ascribe to the social heritage of the Jews an intention derived from Greek civilization. He imposed upon Judaism a pattern of meanings previously unknown to it and foreign to its spirit until his day. How is it that Judaism was capable of assimilating his teachings and accepting him as the foremost teacher since the Judah ha-Nasi? The answer is that Judaism, not being an interpretation of life, but a segment of life, not being a religion but a civilization, must admit of various interpretations. If, however, Judaism is to be prevented from disintegrating as a result of diversity of interpretation, its constituent elements and its sancta must function as objects of vital interest. The reason M was able to change the perspective of Judaism without being excommunicated was that he participated in Jewish life and devoted himself to rendering its sancta [mitzvoth] capable of being observed. If he had not been the great Talmudist he was and had not written his Yad Ha-Hazakah, [Legal Code] his interpretation of Judaism would have been repudiated not merely by a zealous minority but by the entire Jewish people. To appreciate the force of the principle here posited vis: that Judaism permits great latitude of interpretation provided the interpretation is accompanied by an active interest in the activities and sancta of Judaism, it is necessary to know the pattern of the entire Maimonidean thought structure.
How have the Jewish people dealt with heretics? Do you think Spinoza should be welcomed back into Jewish ranks? Do you agree with Kaplanís assumption that Maimonides was a heretic?
Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) was ordained at JTS and served as a member of its faculty for over fifty years. He is also the founder of Reconstructionism.
This week's special commentary was written by Mel Scult, Kaplanís biographer, professor emeritus from the City University and the editor of selections from Kaplanís twentyĖseven volume diary entitled "Communings of the Spirit."
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