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Needed Prophets for Our Day, a prayer-poem by Mordecai Kaplan (1942) adapted from “The Divinity School Address” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Needed Prophets for Our Day

He who makes me aware that I am an infinite soul heartens me.
He who gives me to myself lifts me.
He who shows God in me fortifies me.
He who hides God from me destroys the reason for my being.
The divine prophets, bards and lawgivers are friends of my virtue, of my intellect, of my strength.
Noble provocations go out from them, inviting me to resist evil.

But let us not speak of revelations as something long ago given and done.
Only by coming to the God in ourselves can we grow forevermore.
Let us not say that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed.
Let us learn to believe in the soul of man, and not merely in men departed.

The need was never greater of new revelations than now.
The faith of man has suffered universal decay.
The heart moans, because it is bereaved of consolation and hope and grandeur.

We feel defrauded and disconsolate.
Our religion has become spectral.
It has lost its grasp on the affection of the good and on the fear of the bad.

What greater calamity can befall a nation than the loss of worship?
Then all things go to decay.
Genius leaves the Temple.
Literature becomes frivolous.
Science is cold.
The eye of youth is not lighted by hope of a better world.
Society lives for trifles.

In the soul let redemption be sought.
Let the keepers of religion show us that God is, not was.
That He speaketh, not spoke.

This prayer by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, first penned in his diary for 23 August 1942,[1]The digital images for Mordecai Kaplan’s Diaries are accessible at the JTS Library system. This is a “>direct link to the resource, and if that does not work, search their Makor library system for “Papers, 1910-1975; Mordecai Menahem Kaplan 1881-1983.” and then select “View Online” at the entry, “Papers, 1910-1975.” This only worked for us using the Microsoft Edge browser. and published in The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan, by Mel Scult (Indiana University Press 2013). Although the prayer was not included in Kaplan’s Sabbath Prayer Book (New York: The Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, 1945), it was added to the loose-leaf prayerbook he kept at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism synagogue. Scult writes:

To create liturgy, Mordecai M. Kaplan told [his student] Louis Finkelstein in the early 1920s, you must take a theological essay and turn it into a prayer.

[… ]

The Emerson essay Kaplan used for constructing the prayer we are considering was written in the late 1830s, when Emerson was at the height of his creative powers. Born in 1803 and educated at Harvard, he had been appointed minister of the Second Church of Boston in 1829, which he left three years later because of his conviction that he could no longer administer communion. Leaving the post of minister was but one manifestation of Emerson’s growing rebellion against organized religion. Perhaps it was this rebellion that attracted Kaplan.

A prolific diarist and essayist, Emerson wrote and thought and preached his philosophy of individualism, which he called “self-reliance.” His approach to religion was revolutionary, advocating that divinity was to be found within the moral conscience of each person. This particular brand of individualism has been called “moral perfectionism.”[2]This term is very much associated with the work of Stanley Cavell. His essays on Emerson have been recently collected into one volume, Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes, ed. David Justin Hodge (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). People had only to listen to their higher selves and were not doomed to an eternal struggle with their essential sinfulness as traditional Protestant thinkers, particularly John Calvin, had taught.

Emerson’s theology was naturalistic, as Alfred Kazin, the well-known literary critic and Emerson apostle, has emphasized, “Emerson’s God did not make this world or provide salvation in the next. He did not lay down commandments, reward the righteous, or condemn sinners. He was another side of oneself, the ideal, the ultimate—to be reached in the perfection of one’s consciousness.”

Emerson always emphasized that religion is an experience that must exist in the present, rather than as a past tradition, and he was drawn away from any supernatural understanding of Christianity. The prayer that Kaplan composed reflects the individualism at the center of Emerson’s philosophy, as well as a bias against tradition and establishment.

Kaplan composed the prayer from key sentences that he took from Emerson’s 1838 address to the Harvard Divinity School.

In a footnote (ff.11, p. 284), Scult provides some additional information on where the prayer would have been situated in the prayer service. “Kaplan was working on the Musaf (additional service for the Sabbath) in August 1942, and he states that “one of the following selections should be read.” Then follows the Kaplan-Baeck prayer, “Life Is What We Make It,” and two Kaplan-Emerson prayers, including “Needed Prophets for Our Day.” The obvious implication is that the Emerson prayer was to be part of the Musaf service.”

Source(s)

Download Law-of-the-Soul-and-Needed-Prophets-for-Our-Day-from-Mordecai-Kaplans-Diary-23-August-1942.pdf (PDF, 2.45MB)

Notes   [ + ]

1. The digital images for Mordecai Kaplan’s Diaries are accessible at the JTS Library system. This is a “>direct link to the resource, and if that does not work, search their Makor library system for “Papers, 1910-1975; Mordecai Menahem Kaplan 1881-1983.” and then select “View Online” at the entry, “Papers, 1910-1975.” This only worked for us using the Microsoft Edge browser.
2. This term is very much associated with the work of Stanley Cavell. His essays on Emerson have been recently collected into one volume, Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes, ed. David Justin Hodge (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

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