Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Yahrtzeit of the greats of the Conservative Movement; today: R. Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, 2 Kislev

Often we speak of our lives in terms of “aha” moments. In turning points.

It never is so simple. Lives don’t exist in vacuums as such.

Yet our lives still can be defined by specific moments which manifest these larger trends.

Educationally, an internship at the National Museum of American Jewish History served as a springboard to much of my current interest in modern Jewish history and overall exploring Jewish identity in the modern world. There I began work on a paper about the excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan. In the coming year, a version of it will be published in the American Jewish Archives Journal. Keep your eyes peeled.

The assignment was to originally write a 20-page paper on anything I wanted. That semester it ended up being 60.

The following semester, I decided to turn it into a formal thesis. The topic consumed me. And it really has only blossomed from there.

In the process of writing the thesis, I studied the history of the Conservative Movement, with particular attention paid to the Schechter and Finkelstein years (heads of the Jewish Theological Seminary between 1902-15 and 1940-72, respectfully) .

For a whole host of reasons, the history of JTS and the Conservative Movement as a whole is my favorite academic subject. I read this stuff for fun. Both for the fun facts — and the macro ideologies. (I am pained when apartments such as those on the fifth floor of 515 W. 122nd St. use Tradition Renewed as a TV stand — I'm talking to you Loosh).

With this said, I’ll be sharing a series of posts commemorating some of the giants of the Conservative Movement on each respective yahrtzeit (anniversary of the day that an individual died, literally, a year of time in Yiddish).

They have a special spot on the Bustenai Google Calendar (that's right. If you are visiting, you'll be featured prominantly) and will on this blog, too.

This is not meant to “Lionize” the individuals. Though it might do so in the process.

Mostly, it’s a chance to give credit where it’s due.

Today, the second of Kislev is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, הרב מרדכי מנחם בן הרב ישראל. He lived for 102 years, between 1881 and 1983.

For an incredible set of interviews that Professor Mel Scult conducted with Kaplan, see this .

I presented the following text four years ago to the Conservative Yeshiva, with some modifications I have made since then. Below that are some additional sources to consider:

Here’s as quick a resume rundown I can do for a man that lived 102 years and was one of the most influential Jewish leaders in America for almost that entire time. Kaplan graduated in 1902 from the Jewish Theological Seminary and during the next twenty years alone he did the following: was the rabbi at Kehillat Jeshurun in New York, where he was the first to institute English sermons in an Orthodox synagogue, professor at the Seminary beginning in 1909 until 1963, founder of Young Israel, founder of the Teacher’s Institute at the Seminary (now List College), rabbi of the New York Jewish Center – he was also one of the chief candidates to be the chief rabbi of Great Britain, though he turned down the offer (that’s a little known fact, courtesy of this interview. Impress your friends).

Fast forward a bit and he founded and was rabbi of the Society for Advancement of Judaism synagogue, officiated at the first Bat Mitzvah in America (his daughter), founded an ideology that would lead to its own movement, founded another synagogue in Israel and greatly shaped the consciousness of being a religious Jew in America. That was the recap.

Yet through all of this, he remarked in his journal during the mid-twenties about how he was deeply disappointed in about how he had not published. Let's just say he caught up.

To my mind, the most remarkable part about Mordecai Kaplan rested in how he evolved and enunciated a philosophy and then found a way to activate it in modern American life. He literally translated ideology into action. Of course, to his mind, there really was no choice but to do this – if he didn’t American Judaism was bound to die. As he wrote in, Judaism as a Civilization: “The truth of the matter is that what is at stake is the very maintenance of Jewish life as a distinct societal entity. Its very otherness is in jeopardy.”

But in many ways, the fifties in American Judaism epitomized his vision 20 years prior – the Finkelstein era of the Seminary had the base-ideology of Kaplan, though Finkelstein would never say this aloud. His very ideology sparked the action of an engaging pluralism in American Judaism.

During a talk at Brandeis Hillel, when he was well into his nineties he remarked a statement that continues to resonate with me: “those who did not agree with his viewpoint on Judaism had a right to be wrong — but in his estimation they were still wrong.” This view is common in modern discourse, but in the seventies was well ahead of its time.

His main philosophical thesis is now common in academic circles – that each era of Jews have evolved over the course of time, that each “civilization” represented different cultural significance and therefore had to be judged on its own merit, particularly when discussing halakhic norms. Ironically oft-quoted by the Reform movement now, ironic because he polemicized against Reform throughout his career, Kaplan thus stated that “halakha has a vote but not a veto.”

Meanwhile, his theological naturalism served as the backbone to associate with a modern manifestation of God, what Kaplan referred to as “the Power that makes for salvation.” For Kaplan it was not a matter of what God “is” but how God interacted with the world.
Ira Eisenstein, Kaplan’s chief disciple and son-in-law, once found him “davening from Dewey” – one of Kaplan’s “rebbes” of naturalism.

The fact that Kaplan created tangible ways for people to interact with his vision of Judaism made the religion a communal venture, which was ultimately his goal in the first place. And that was what people most feared.

It is why the ENTIRE faculty of JTS issued a unanimous letter to Kaplan berating him for the changes he made in his New Haggadah of 1941. It’s why Agudat HaRabbanim excommunicated him in 1945 and subsequently burned a copy of his prayer book as part of the formal ceremony.

As the formal text reads of the excommunication (herem) reads:

“Dr. Kaplan has published a new monster that was prepared in the name of a prayer book [their emphasis]; its contents were shown to the eye of every heretic and heresy before the God of Israel and the fields of the faith of Israel’s Torah… Because every Jewish Haredi knows from a Reformer, that he needs to stray from them, but the Conservative clothe themselves in a new Judaism after them stream Haredi Jews, because they think that it is the same as ours.”

A book that could simultaneously lead haredim to think that it was a traditional siddur and lead them to complete heresy? That’s something.

The only people that get excommunicated are those that have serious influence. You have to have some serious tochen (substance). Traditionalists feared Kaplan because he had power in the community, and used it to lead people toward his conception of relating to Jewish Civilization in the modern era. Say what you want about his theology, his manipulation of the liturgy — his impact on building communities is admirable.

In the past decade, people would call him a community organizer. But his efforts went way beyond that.

People often assign the term “modern prophet” to certain monumental icons of the modern era. They give the term to giants such as Lincoln and King. But what exactly does the term mean? For me, a modern prophet is one who assigned his entire existence to end the iniquity of a particular status quo. Kaplan certainly would apply here.

On Kaplan’s 90th birthday, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said of his fellow modern prophet: “I have a suspicion that just as the mystics of old used to stay up at midnight worrying about the Shekhina, he stays up at night doing Tikkun Hatzos (midnight prayers of repairing cosmic damage) and worrying about the Jewish people.”1

Sitting now in the Israeli state with such disparate communities, Kaplan’s vision for community building, for organizing, would have particular merit for 2009. His words still ring true 75 years after the publication of his manifesto, Judaism as a Civilization.

Some food for thought, selected paragraphs written by Kaplan:

On Jewish prayer:

“Unfortunately, we Jews have limited prayer to the deadening routine of reciting the few meager passages which make up our official prayer book. If I [had] anything to do with prescribing the rules of prayer… I would have insisted that the vast storehouse of religious poetry be drawn upon continually.”

“A liturgy, like every vital living organism, should be a growth and not a manufactured article like a piece of haberdashery, or a sort of charade. It should be the incarnation of the Godly life of a people’s soul…."2

Recognition of Benedict Spinoza's precedent in modern Jewish thought:

“What Spinoza really did was to shatter once and for all the pretentious claims of the philosophers of the traditional religions that they were able to harmonize the theurgic conception of God with the philosophic conception. And his second achievement is in demonstrating that the philosophic conception of God can serve as the basis of an ethical program. To be sure even in this respect he was anticipated by the Stoics. But there is a difference between saying a thing for the first time, and reaffirming it in the face of universal denial and opposition.”3

Commentary on Halacha, using the example of a Herem (excommunication decree) as a particular precedent for the human politicization of God’s law (3 years prior to his own excommunication):

“What was intended to be only divine law was translated into human sovereignty. The abolition of the Herem has brought about the need for rethinking our position from that moment on. Jewish law is based on voluntarism. There cannot be any more the sanctions which make law, if you are going to use the term law in a pulpit sense.”4

Kaplan, after the excommunication:

“Here is where the nazi [sic] pattern of struggle for power beings to emerge,” explained Kaplan in his journal. “The Nazis – the spokesmen of a people trying to overcome its sense of insecurity by a violent struggle for power – singled out the democracies as the object of attack. In order to bring about inner division among these democracies the nazis [blamed] the Jews, who were the most conspicuous beneficiaries of democracy …. In like manner the most conspicuous beneficiaries of the liberal policy of the Conservative movement is Kaplan whose atheistic philosophy is the dominant philosophy of the movement. It is therefore urgent that we must stop him. Now that he has come out with a prayer book in which he openly aims his heresies is the most opportune time to launch an attack against the entire Conservative movement.”5


"I have always had nothing but profound contempt for the rabbis associated with the 'Union + C.' I had enough of a close-up view of them to know their unusual dealings... This bastardly action of theirs at the present time when even the greatest reactionaries are still lying low and dare not violate publicly the four freedoms for which the war against Germany was suffered and won is liable to render us Jews odious even to the more liberal elements of the general community. What a shattering effect this exhibition of moral [degeneracy] on the part of men who call themselves rabbis has upon me I can hardly express. All my efforts depend upon faith in the Jewish people. With so much corruption wherever I turn, I find it exceedingly hard to carry on the struggle for Jewish survival. Truth to tell I experience neither the sufferings nor the consolation of a martyr.

If I were asked what I regard as the most disheartening aspect in Jewish life as reflected in the tragi-comedy of the herem, I would say that… we have rabbinical gangsters who resort to nazi methods in order to regain their authority and on the other hand our Jewish journalists are cynical about the whole business and treat the very attempt to articulate religious values in terms of a modern outlook in life as silly and superfluous."6

Commonality/”Pluralism” among the Jewish people

“Driven underground, our differences will only cancel out one another, leaving us completely neutralized. Brought to the surface and granted the normal interchange in the free market of ideas and ideals, our differences will enable each group among us to further in its own way what we all agree on as essential to the future of Judaism. We shall thus all be partners in the great adventure which all of us who have anything to contribute to the revitalization of Jewish life should be permitted to share.”7

On the mission of the Seminary

“It is that policy which Dr. Finkelstein has had the occasion to translate into deeds in a more strenuous time and under more difficult conditions those with which Dr. Schechter had to cope…The great function of reconciling all parties and appealing to all sects of the community, Dr. Finkelstein has shown himself as capable of carrying out in a manner so masterly, so skillful that we ought to be thankful to God that at this time when there is so much danger from divisiveness in the life of the Jewish people, that a leader has been given [to] us who is making of this institution a power for Jewish unity by none on the American scene.”8


“The precedent of having undergone metamorphoses twice before in the course of its career, as well as the inner restiveness both on its career, as well as the part of its graduates and lay adherents, should impel the Seminary to measure up to the need and opposition of these new times, and become the kind of institution that would resurrect the Jew’s faith in his people and its religion. In order to achieve this, the Seminary must avoid the pitfall of denominationalism.”9

Reflections on chaos breaking out in his classroom, an anomaly for the gifted teacher, but manifest of him never feeling at home in the Seminary.

“Before I knew it I realized that I had started a hornet’s nest. I was stung more than once by some of the remarks of the students. A battle royal broke out between the rightists and the leftists and between all of them and the Seminary as a while as represent at the moment by myself…[The rightists] referred particularly to my course. That hurt me keenly because I know that their attitude is entirely the result of the efforts of men like [Simon] Greenberg, [Moshe] Davis & [Bernard] Mandelbaum to foster a yarmulke and minyan kind of piety in the institution and of Prof. Abraham Heschel to counteract my influence by making my position out to be merely that of sociology and psychology without any understanding of the meanings of religion.” 10

On the founding of the University of Judaism:

“The decision of the Seminary authorities to develop their institution in to a university of Judaism is not prompted by love of bigness. They are impelled to take that step by the exigencies of American Jewish life. They realize that, if our children are to accept themselves as Jews, they must be provided with trained leadership not merely for their religious interests, but for all their Jewish interest, including the secular [emphasis his]. The problem of how to get our children to accept themselves as Jews is a very different one nowadays. We have to think and act anew.”11

1. S. Daniel Breslauer, Mordecai Kaplan’s Thought in a Postmodern Age, (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1994), 283

2. Kaplan Journal, May 21, 1933 in Jack Cohen, Major Philosophers of Jewish Prayer in the Twentieth Century (New York : Fordham University Press, 2000), 64

3. Kaplan Journals, Sept. 10, 1928, published in Communings of the Spirit: The Journals of Mordecai Kaplan, ed. Mel Scult, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press and The Reconstructionist Press, 2001), 265

4. Kaplan, “Comments on Dr. Gordis’ Paper,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, 1942, 97

5. Kaplan Journals, June 23, 1945

6. Kaplan Journals, June 16, 1945

7. Kaplan, R.A. Proceedings, 1945, 202 in Greenbaum, Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement, 253

8. R.A., Proceedings, “Testimonial to Rabbi Louis Finkelstein,” 1945, 201

9. Kaplan, “From Strength to Strength: A Proposal for a University of Judaism,” delivered February 4, 1945, 17, Ratner Center, 13

10.Kaplan Journal, 25 January 1950, in Scult, “Kaplan’s Heschel: A View from the Diary,” Conservative Judaism, Summer 2002

11. Kaplan, “A University of Judaism,” Conference on a University of Judaism, November 1946, 4, Ratner Center

No comments:

Post a Comment