Monday, November 30, 2009

Mordecai Kaplan and Jacob's struggle with "the ish"

This week we read parashat VaYishlach, which features the famous passage of Jacob fighting with his adversary, perhaps an angel of God, perhaps Esau’s ministering angel, perhaps a “man” he encounters on the road. While described as an “ish,” a man, in Genesis 32:25, after the night-long encounter Jacob exclaims, “I have seen a divine being face to face yet my life has been preserved.” This “ish” similarly will not tell Jacob his name (32:30), perhaps a virtue of the fact that the name is too Holy for human ears, or at the least is not meant for Jacob. Whether this is a “man” or another figure, he most certainly is not a simple mortal.

The peshat, the plain meaning of the text, does not necessarily indicate that this mysterious “ish” is a negative character in relation to Jacob. Perhaps it is a test for Jacob, and by virtue of the fact that he emerges triumphant at the end of the night, he receives the name Yisrael, indeed a prophetic name in reference to the future of the Jewish people.

The derash, the interpretative method of the Rabbis, meanwhile almost exclusively reads this “ish” as a negative adversary, out to destroy Jacob. For example, Shir HaShirim Rabbah (Parasha 3, Siman 3) posits a parable of a chief bandit fighting with the son of the king. The bandit raised his eyes and saw the king looking at the two of them and the bandit in turn weakened himself. So, too, the midrash posits, did the angel shrink from attacking Jacob because it saw God looking at the two fighting.

In many ways this midrash reminds me of the Lion King. Think Mufasa, Simba and Scar.

This is one example of such — this was not a wrestling match, but an attempt to destroy Jacob, and in turn, his lineage.

As we studied these passages today in class, I remembered that Agudat HaRabbanim’s official excommunication against Mordecai Kaplan uses this very formulation to castigate the reconstructionist leader.

In the document “Nosah Hahlatat HaHerem,” page 3, the paragraph reads in full (my translation):

Those who ask why Agudat HaRabbanim did enact a herem against the Reformers, who also printed a prayer book, and added and removed from the liturgy whatever to their hearts’ content, and also are inciters and instigators, the answer: These same Reformers have already separated from the community of Israel, for every man of Israel knows that he does not have any connection with them (the Reformers). And the geonim of Israel already declared in their time, such as the Gaon Rabbi Akiva Igger, the Gaon Rabbi Moshe Sofer, and the Gaon Rabbi Yehudah Melisah, and the Gaon Rabbi Hermann Baneth, who were alive during that same era, the begins of the creation of Reform Temples, and there they fought with them with all of their might and strength. For there were greats of Israel in that day who said, “It is more comfortable for a Jew to enter a Church and not to enter a Reform Temple”… But this same man, Dr. Kaplan, he is within (emphasis mine) the children of Israel, speaking and behaving as a Jew, and he has a synagogue where Jews make mistakes by following him and come there to pray. And he serves as an educator of the children Israel, and it is said about him “vayaavek ish imo” (Genesis 32:25). And as it our sages said (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 91), “Like a sage he appeared, and took honor from Jacob;” see the interpretation of Rashi on this passage. So too is the man Dr. Kaplan dressing himself as a sage (Talmid Haham), bringing Jews to follow after him, and he is leading them astray from belief in God and His Torah, which is far worse than the Reformers. And therefore they did as they did, according to the law of the Torah, lawfully and justly.

The text asserts that the Reformers already separated themselves so much from traditional doctrine that they were no longer a threat to the core, which was not the case with Kaplan, who “clothed himself” as a traditional Jew and sage. Additionally, the great sages of the nineteenth century had already fought the battles that needed to be fought with the Reform movement, and thus Agudat HaRabbanim, which formed in 1901, did not feel the need to continue this battle. The Biblical quote in the passage comes from the narrative of Jacob wrestling with the “Angel,” suggesting that Kaplan will both physically and spiritually injure the Jewish people, Israel.

The Talmudic citation from Hullin, as interpreted by Rashi, comes as part of a discussion of how the Angel appeared to Jacob in Genesis. Rav Acha states that the angel appeared to Jacob “clothed” as a Torah scholar, and therefore Jacob positioned himself on the left side of the angel, as Mar said, “One who walks to the right of his teacher does not possess proper manners.” For that reason, the Angel was able to attack Jacob’s right side. In the same way, this text suggests that Kaplan appears to Israel as a talmid hacham but really is an angel out to fool and injure the Jewish people, even destroy it outright if he were able to accomplish the task.

The analogy by definition is subjective. All are, I suppose.

Indeed the document explains why Agudat HaRabbanim deemed Kaplan to be so threatening, as opposed to other “heretics” who had so clearly separated themselves from the norms of Jewish religious practice that traditionalists would not go near them in the first place.

While I believe that the excommunication decree was both xenophobic and inherently counterproductive in 1945, the organization uses the sources quite well. Agudat HaRabbanim believed that Kaplan was out to destroy the Jewish people, and citing this midrash, in turn, is thus quite apt. To Agudat HaRabbanim, Kaplan was PRECISELY this arch-angel.

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