A fortuitous mention of a famous rabbi's journals, followed by a serendipitous offer to allow a young scholar to copy them, inspired an enduring scholarly quest as well as an enriching spiritual journey.
Mel Scult, this year's Albert and Liese Eckstein Scholar-in-Residence, tells the story of meeting Kaplan almost 40 years ago and the "excellent surprise" of learning of the diaries and then being granted access to them.
"It allowed me to work in a way that would not have been possible otherwise," says Scult by phone from Florida, where he is wintering with his wife. "It was unbelievable."
Scult, professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at Brooklyn College, tells of his interest in Kaplan, founder of the Jewish Reconstruction movement, piqued by stories of the controversial rabbi's excommunication by a group of Orthodox rabbis in 1945.
Scult, who combined undergraduate studies at New York University in philosophy with night classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary before going on to earn a master's degree at Harvard University and a doctorate at Brandeis University, knew of Kaplan, who was ordained at JTS and taught there for more than five decades. He had never studied with him, but was fascinated with his ideology, a new approach that sought to "reconstruct" Judaism in response to modernity.
The diary comprises 27 volumes, each with nearly 400 handwritten pages, and spans almost six decades, beginning in 1913 and ending in the late 1970s. Kaplan, a prodigious writer, died in 1983 at the age of 102.
"(The diary) includes everything," says Scult, sermons, ideas, writings about a variety of subjects. "It is very, very honest," he says. "(Kaplan) does not hide anything."
"Communings of the Spirit, The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Volume I, 1913-1934" (Wayne State University Press, $22 paperback), published in 2001 and edited by Scult, is the first volume of Kaplan's personal writings. Scult is working on a second, spanning 1934-1941, with additional ones planned.
Scult, speaking to Jewish News in anticipation of his visit to the Valley through Arizona State University's Center for Jewish Studies, has written two previous books on Kaplan besides the edited diaries and is at work on a third. He is conversant with Kaplan's thought, laid out in his seminal "Judaism as a Civilization," published in 1934.
Still hailed as a transformative work on modern Judaism, "Civilization" resonates with its underlying principle of evolutionary change. Even a cursory reading amazes the reader with its timeliness, its pages hinting at a search for self-fulfillment and the desire for a meaningful Judaism, relevant to the immediate reality yet reflective of enduring Jewish values and ideals.
Kaplan, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, came to the United States at the age of 8. He earned an undergraduate degree at City College of New York while at JTS and went on to study sociology and philosophy and earn a master's from Columbia University.
His Judaism reflects a sociological approach, infused with an essential dynamism.
"Kaplan talked about Judaism as an evolving civilization of the Jewish people," Scult explains, and inherent in that definition is both the impact of historical experience and the potential for change. For Kaplan, Orthodox Judaism hewed too closely to the past, while Reform did not fully embrace it.
Scult describes Kaplan's approach as an "Americanization of Judaism."
Viewed as both iconoclast and visionary, Kaplan has been both revered and reviled.
"He was very, very courageous," says Scult, "and very, very radical."
Kaplan's rejection of the belief in a supernatural deity and embrace of God as a creative force in the universe was provocative. So, too, was his questioning of traditional ritual and practice.
"Kaplan rebelled against the notion that there is a set way to do everything," explains Scult. "He believed that there was a minimal obligation but a great deal of choice in how individuals would craft their Judaism."
Kaplan's rewriting of traditional liturgy brought not only vociferous criticism but also the vote for excommunication.
Yet it was his abiding belief in Jewish peoplehood that inspired him.
"He believed that Judaism is not the creation of God," says Scult, "but it is created by the Jewish people. And it reflects their experience and changes over time."
Scult, raised in a "solidly Conservative" family in Paterson, N.J., credits summers at Camp Ramah and the exposure to Jewish thinkers as key to his life's work.
"I saw a group of very, very intelligent Jewish people to whom being Jewish was very important. I wanted to be part of that group."
He has flourished professionally and personally in that milieu.
Besides becoming the premier expert on Kaplan, Scult is also a dedicated Reconstructionist.
"I am a reflection of Kaplan's philosophy," says the professor, an active member of the Reconstructionist West End Synagogue. He also is one of the founders of the new Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood, dedicated to fostering the values and ideology of Kaplan.
And he remains convinced that Kaplan's belief in the continuous regeneration of Jewish life is its future.
"Judaism will be preserved if it works for us," he says. "That's the only way."
- What: "Mordecai Kaplan: The Challenge of His Heresy"
- When: 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 31
- Where: Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center, 122 E. Culver St., Phoenix
- Who: ASU Center for Jewish Studies
- Cost: Free, underwritten by an endowment of the late Albert and Liese Eckstein, with support from the Eckstein family and Friends of Jewish Studies
- Visit: jewishstudies.asu.edu/Eckstein