— Rabbi Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, "Toward the Formulation of Guiding Principles for the Conservative Movement," delivered Dec. 6, 1949 to the Rabbinical Assembly
Sixty years ago, Mordecai Kaplan delivered a speech to the Rabbinical Assembly, echoing his vision for the future of the Conservative Movement, indeed it could be read for the future of the Jewish people writ-large. I return to this text often, particularly the above quote. Its lasting relevance pushes me forward, ever-conscious of living a modern Jewish life, filled with the challenges and opportunities inherent in living autonomously and bound to tradition all in one, of living committed to the American Jewish community and simultaneously pulled toward Zion.
For all that Kaplan’s detractors vocally struggled with his philosophical and tangible enunciation of how modern Jews should relate with God and mitzvot/ritual commandments (and I have my qualms, as well), his vision for Jewish community, the “Israel” component of the “God, Torah, Israel” Jewish thought trifecta, was unmatched during his life, and still provides lasting guidance.
Before the speech, Kaplan’s antagonists, going all the way up to the Chancellor of the Seminary, were quite nervous about how people would receive his words. While an outsider for his entire career among the Seminary faculty, epitomized by the unanimous letter of castigation after the publication of The New Haggadah, within the wider rabbinic community, he was the leader of a broad movement.
Despite being a pariah where he worked , Kaplan made policies for the movement both because he was an innovative thinker with impeccable homiletical talents and he spoke up when others did not; with a following of students from 1909-1961 at the Seminary and presence throughout the Jewish communal superstructure, he commanded the attention of his enthusiasts and those who respected him for being their teacher, alike. In 1942, Robert Gordis noted this fact explicitly:
“Only slowly and painfully has a literature on Conservative Judaism been growing up, and it is noteworthy how much of it has arisen as a reaction to the ideas which Doctor Kaplan has presented. Thus both those who accept his point of view in toto, as well as those who are unable to share it in large areas of thought are his are his disciples, drinking his waters and being refreshed by his teaching.” 2
Such sentiments appeared elsewhere, as well.
Finkelstein was particularly apprehensive about Kaplan’s influence here, as he was throughout his career. In the weeks before the speech, Finkelstein wrote a letter to his closest confidant at the time, Louis Ginzberg, asking how he should respond. 3 Using similar rhetoric as he did in the 1910s and 1920s about maintaining a cloistered Seminary, Ginzberg responded that he did not think that Finkelstein should be involved in the affairs of the Rabbinical Assembly at all:
“For a number of years, Doctor Kaplan has published books and articles containing views with which the members of the faculty, or to say the least, the majority thereof, do not agree. Why then, should the faculty now change its policy in this respect. It occurs to me that by doing so, we may be the cause of the Rabbinical Assembly attempting to interfere with the faculty.” 4
This greater mentality of seclusion clearly did not win out at the Seminary, in fact quite the opposite. But for Ginzberg, the “non-academic” Rabbinical Assembly represented a threat to his way of thinking. Reconciling with a figure such as Kaplan was impossible, and therefore Ginzberg preferred for the Seminary not to engage in the discussion from the outset.
As Kaplan expressed through his visions of cultural pluralism that in many ways steered the movement as a whole, in this speech in 1949, he established that it was imperative for the Jewish people to find common ground among the defined denominations in America, which he determined to be Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Secular. 5 Kaplan noted that despite the distinctive ideologies within Judaism, Conservative Judaism still had the opportunity to be a “constructive force in Jewish life.” 6
Of all times in Judaism, Kaplan stressed, it was essential during this era to mount a unified front, for the sake of the new Jewish state. However, due to Jews’ inability to communicate, they had been rendered “virtually incapacitated” to mount an effective “response to the second challenge, that of the establishment of the State of Israel.” 7
Kaplan was quite vocal about his labor Zionist leanings, conceptions that logically fit within his ideas of the Jewish civilization, synthesizing his own blend of the Zionisms of Ahad Haam, A.D. Gordon and Martin Buber. Kaplan resolved that only a Jewish national home could foster a spirit to “achieve those environmental conditions which are essential to its becoming a modern, creative and spiritual civilization.” 8 Of all times in Jewish history, Kaplan voiced that the Jewish people had a central cause for which to advocate — Israel was the ultimate turning point which required a unity of both philosophical and practical proportions.
Kaplan understood Judaism to represent universal religious and spiritual values, but in the system of congregational Judaism, people were unable to experience a “consensus…as to what [was] to unite them, or what their status [was] as a society in relation to each other.” 9 Ira Eisenstein expressed similar sentiments in 1945:
“In meeting as rabbis, we have a tendency to forget what all of us knew before we got here, that Jewish life consists of a whole complexity of activities and institutions and movements, of which our synagogues are only a part. It may hurt some of us very deeply to be only a part and not the whole, but I think we must recognize the reality of the situation. Our community history has oscillated in the last hundred years between community and congregation. Now it is going back to community.” 10
Having the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel be the sole voice for Jews was not an option for Kaplan, and therefore it was absolutely essential for Jews to embrace commonalities, as he expressed in the conclusion to the introduction: “Our most urgent task, therefore, is to find what status shall unite Jews in Israel with those outside Israel, as well as all affirmative Jews, to whichever of the four previously described sections they belong. No section of Jewry is exempt from that task.” 11
One week after marching with 2,000 people and rallying against the Haredification of Jerusalem, epitomized by Nofrat Frankel being arrested at the Kotel (Western Wall) for wearing a talit (prayer shawl) and gangs of ultra-orthodox men protesting the Intel workers in Kiryat Yovel for working on Shabbat, Kaplan’s words ring true ever more.
As can be seen in his principles below, Kaplan would also agonize about the linguistic and sociological formulation of Israel society bifurcating between “hiloni” and “dati,” the split between religious and secular populations in Israel. Nowhere else in the world are Jews “secular” than Israel — an irony of epic proportions. Yet the sociological realities of a significant, perhaps even a majority, of society not wanting to be defined by others’ definitions of religion creates for a vacuum of religious expression for many. Perhaps this is an overstatement — there are options for the religious center. And they are growing. But the very fact that the Hebrew language presents Jews as “secular” is highly problematic for me, and I think it would be for Kaplan, too.
Kaplan emphatically voiced that it was more important for the Conservative movement first to concentrate on the global Jewish community and only after that could it concentrate internally; the Conservative movement on its own merits could not directly attack right wing ideologies, but by rallying the vital center, the ideologies of both the “particular” and “universal” won.
As Kaplan stated, “What is of concern to Jewry as a whole should always take precedence over what can be of concern only to a fraction of Jewry." 12 This did not preclude helping the movement itself, and Kaplan gave specific suggestions for Conservative Judaism, but he certainly gave a set of priorities first to help the world Jewish population and then the movement, which Finkelstein had already illustrated as his policy.
Kaplan outlined four distinct groups among the Jewish people in 1949, which he notably does not define as “movements” — while he introduces these four groups on the first page of the speech, he does not outline them as Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Secularist until his conclusion. 13 His primary goal was no less than to ensure Jewish continuity into the next generation — “there is nothing so urgent nowadays as for all Jews throughout the world to present a common spiritual front against the menace of Jewish self-liquidation.”
Such was the general trend of the Conservative movement, and in no small part why the movement thrived as it did in the 1950s — it indeed both sought and captured the big tent of American Judaism, a vision for the American religious center over a movement-wide vision. These notions were by no means mutually exclusive, nor are they now, but Kaplan emphasizes both his own priorities and indeed the priorities of the movement for the fifties.
In terms of Conservative particularism, here too he emphasizes the need to recognize disparate opinions and in turn to unite the movement in the same way that he voices this goal for Jewish “peoplehood.” Where in Judaism writ-large there were four groups, in Conservative Judaism, three.
Kaplan outlines some of the basic tensions in modern Jewish life, tensions which will be present for at least the rest of my lifetime. That is why I am continually drawn to this speech. Enjoy.
Below is a majority of the principles, in Kaplan’s own words, taken directly from the copy of the speech that he gave that Dec. 6, 1949 14 :
1. The need for adopting the status of peoplehood:
The time has come for all affirmative Jews to recapture that long lost experience of oneness with the people of Israel past, present and future. That should be easy for those who subscribe to the historicity of the miracles recorded in the Pentateuch. It is also attainable, however, by those who regard those stories as legends. The miracle for the Jewish people itself, in its struggle not only to survive but to find meaning in its survival is enough to evoke the emotional response of ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel).”
2. The indispensability of the Jewish community in Israel as the hub of the Jewish people.
The truth is that, despite the religious uniformity that obtained among the Jewish communities in pre-modern times, they had little connection with one another. Each was an island unto itself. What the Jews lost through disparateness of communities they made up with their common devotion to the Torah and the Rabbinic interpretation of it. Now, however, the disparateness itself has to give way to unity. Never since Jews have been scattered, have Jewish communities been so drawn together on the one hand by the dire need for help, and on the other for the generous desire to be of help. Such investment should be treated as the modern form of the highly important mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael (commandment of settling the land of Israel).
3. The recognition of theological diversity as legitimate and normal
Even on the assumption that tradition was infallible, it never was possible to accept the requirement of uniformity of belief and practice as a prerequisite to Jewish unity. This assumption is today challenged as never before. With most Js in our day acquiring basic lit in non-Jewish schools, and absorbing there the general spirit of questioning and criticism, it is altogether improbable that we shall ever again develop a consensus on the infallibility of tradition. Freedom of thought and the right to be different are today no longer merely intellectual but moral issues. To deny freedom of thought in Jewish life and the same time that, as citizens of the democratic states where alone they are likely to enjoy human rights, Jews have to be among the foremost defenders of freedom of thought is to render them subject to destructive schizophrenia.
4. The broadening of the concept of a religion to enable the Jewish people to designate itself as a religiously community
Though Superficially resembles what Reform enunciated, it has a radically different denotation and connotation. It asks that we Jews who have contributed to the religious life of mankind continue to be creative in the sphere of religion … We Jews are impelled to foster that broader conception of religion, which permits theological differences, not only in order to reconstitute our unity, but also in order to make ourselves understood by our neighborhoods. To our neighbors, the only understandable reason for wishing to maintain our corporate unity and identity can be some particular version of religion.
…Moreover, we should at the same time be vindicated a far more intensive and dynamic unity among Jews themselves that could have been possible, with the conventional notion of religion current in the days of those founders.
5. In the United States and Canada, Jewish peoplehood should be mediated through local organic communities
Although all American Jews are, in a sense in the same boat, there is no such thing any longer as compelling everyone of them to pull his own weight at least. Most Jews prefer to rest on their oars.
The only way in which the peoplehood of the Jews can be made an object of flesh and blood experience is to create the human instrument, without which peoplehood would remain a mere potential energy without the dynamo to actualize it.
Since the will to live as a Jew depends so much upon personal preference, every Jew must be enrolled in the endeavor to make the need for belonging a motive for wanting to belong to the Jewish people as a whole and not merely to a clique, or club, or congregation, or even a fraternal order. Translated in to action, that means the formation of workable organic communities.
Organic communities would thus be the deliberate outcome of the attempt on the part of Jews to do what their neighbors had to do as Christians.
6. The need of coping with the problem of Jewish law.
Except for three responsa: kohanim in 1928, takkanah for agunot during the war and the rabbinical assembly prayer book, there has been nothing produced by us.
While the views on Jewish law among us are probably as numerous as our members themselves, we can generally be grouped under three headings. There are Rightists, for who m the present situation seems quite satisfactory. There are the Centrists, who regard the present situation as anomalous, but who believe that any advances in the field of Jewish law ought to be predicated on our ability to discover authority for it within the traditional literature. There are leftists — among whom, as everyone here and elsewhere knows, I count myself—have been hoping that the Law Committee would resort to traditional law for the rendering of decisions whenever the conditions under which the law arose where anywhere near like those which still obtain today.
The fact, however, is that the present Law Committee which consists of representatives of the three groups, Right, Center and Left, has managed to avoid getting itself into a state of deadlock, and has succeeded in achieving consensus on some very important questions… The very freedom and latitude which have made it possible for us to work together in spite of our differences are by no means the least valuable traits of our movement. To these traits our movement, no doubt, owes much in the way of Jewish creativity.
7. The need of rendering Jewish life abundant
Chief manifestation of the creative potential of the Conservative movement is the tendency of all who play a role in it to stress the need of rendering Jewish life as abundant and as full of soul-enriching content as the conditions under which we live permit. We are all agreed that we should, on principle, always aim at the maximum possible in every for of Jewish self-expression, whether it be education, prayer, the observance of the Sabbath and festivals. In that regard, we are no diff from the Orthodox. But we tend to go far beyond them, and it is that tendency which we should stress and deliberately cultivate.
The foregoing presentation is not intended to preclude an alternative formulations of what should be the position taken by our movement. However, even if the specific principles adduced be wide for the mark, I nevertheless believe with all my heart that he future of our movement depends upon the acceptance of the following principles:
1. That it is to the highest interest of the Conservative movement to formulate a plan that would offer a common meeting ground for all affirmative Jews whether Orthodox, Reform, Conservative or Secularist
2. That the Conservative movement should legitimize three groups in its own midst
3. That the problems of law and standards and of Jewish life abundant are the main areas in which the distinctive character of the Conservative movement should find expression.
1. Toward the Formulation of Guiding Principles for the Conservation Movement,” Conservative Judaism, Vol. VI, No. 4. (May, 1950), 3
2. Robert Gordis, “Authority in Jewish Law,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, 1942, 64
3. Letter from Finkelstein to Ginzberg, November 7, 1949, Ratner Center Archives
4. Letter from Ginzberg to Finkelstein, November, 22 1949, Ratner Center Archives
5. Interestingly, Kaplan describes “four distinct groups, each with its own ideology” well before defining them. From the current perspective, it would seem he were speaking of Reconstructionist as the fourth group, but clearly Reconstructionism was far from being deemed a separate movement at this point in history.
6. Kaplan, “Toward the Formulation of Guiding Principles for the Conservative Movement,” Conservative Judaism, Vol. VI, No. 4. (May, 1950), 5
7. Ibid., 4
8. Mark Raider, The Emergence of American Zionism,(New York: New York University Press, 1998), 151. For more information on Kaplan’s Zionism, see Kaplan, A New Zionism, (New York: Herzl Press, 1959)
9. Kaplan, “Toward the Formulation of Guiding Principles for the Conservative Movement,” Conservative Judaism, 7
10. R.A., “Our Expansion Program – A Reevaluation,” Proceedings, 1945, 217
11. Kaplan, “Toward the Formulation of Guiding Principles for the Conservative Movement,” Conservative Judaism, 8
12. Ibid., 19
13. From the current perspective, it would seem he were speaking of Reconstructionist as the fourth group, but clearly Reconstructionism was far from being deemed a separate movement at this point in history. For a comprehensive look at the evolution of reconstructionism, from ideology to movement, see Deborah Ann Musher, “Reconstructionist Judaism in the Mind of Mordecai Kaplan: The Transformation from a Philosophy into a Religious Denomination,” American Jewish History, 86.4 (1998): 397-417
14. Kaplan, “Toward a formulation of Guiding Principles for the Conservative Movement,” Ratner Center Archives,” to be delivered December 6, 1949, labeled confidential