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Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan

by mel scult

wayne state university press, 433 pages, $34.95

Many of Mordecai M. Kaplan’s contemporaries and students—he had plenty of both over the 102 years of his life—considered him a brilliant religious thinker, perhaps the greatest that American Judaism has produced. Anyone today who struggles through Kaplan’s ponderous prose setting forth such banal and simplistic propositions as that Judaism is a “civilization” rather than a “religion,” that American Jews live in “two civilizations,” that the Jewish religious system is a collection of folkways, and that God is an idea rather than a personality must wonder what all the fuss is about.

Mel Scult’s Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan, its publication timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Kaplan’s death, is the first full-length study of the man and his thought. Based on Kaplan’s voluminous private diaries and interviews with the old man and those who knew him, as well as unpublished correspondence, manuscript sermons, and the published works, the book adds immeasurably to our understanding not only of Kaplan, but of an entire century of American Jewish life. And if the author does identify a bit too uncritically with his subject, the abundant source material Scult provides will enable more skeptical readers to reach different conclusions from his.

Scult is surely correct in identifying the reason for Kaplan’s towering reputation. It was not so much the substance of his thought as his ability to articulate the spiritual doubts and strivings of second-generation American Jews. He understood those Jews because he was one of them. Born in a small Lithuanian town in 1881—the year that the assassination of Czar Alexander II triggered anti-Semitic violence in many parts of the Russian empire—Kaplan was brought to the United States at the age of eight. But unlike most other Jewish immigrants his age, he was the son not of peddlers or sweatshop workers preoccupied with gaining an economic foothold in the new land so that their children might achieve success, but rather of members of the European rabbinic elite: his parents had altogether different dreams for their only son.

Rabbi Israel Kaplan, a scholar of Jewish law, arrived in New York City to serve on the rabbinical court of an even more eminent Lithuanian rabbi hired by several Orthodox synagogues as their chief rabbi. This experiment in European-style Jewish self-government failed miserably in the religiously anarchic atmosphere of democratic America, and the elder Kaplan had to make his living as a ritual slaughterer. Intent on preparing his son for a career as an American rabbi, Israel provided Mordecai with the best traditional Jewish education available in New York—admittedly meager, compared to today—culminating in the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which, at the turn of the century, reflected the religious values of the English-speaking traditional Jews. The young Kaplan also completed undergraduate studies at the City College of New York and did graduate work at Columbia.

In his first pulpit, Kaplan suffered severely from religious doubts brought on by his reading in the social sciences. Under the influence of Franklin Giddings, a follower of Herbert Spencer who taught him sociology at Columbia, the pragmatist school of American philosophers, Asher Ginzberg — better known by his pen-name Ahad Ha’am — who was the leading Hebrew essayist of the time, and Arnold Ehrlich, a Bible critic, the young rabbi lost his faith in miracles, in the literal truth of the Bible, and in a transcendent God. He developed instead an evolutionary understanding of religion: at each stage of history, religious teachings emerge that serve a specific social function for the group that espouses them. If followed to its logical conclusion, this approach utterly relativizes all theology, dogma, and ritual. So wide did the gulf grow between Kaplan’s radical understanding of religion and the demands of his Orthodox pulpit that he briefly contemplated leaving the rabbinate and selling insurance.

Instead, Kaplan made it his life’s work — on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary and as pulpit rabbi, popular lecturer, and writer—to “reconstruct” Judaism to serve the needs of twentieth-century Jews. Seeing all around him the children of Jewish immigrants rejecting the traditional religion of their parents as superstitious medievalism, Kaplan felt that the only way to maintain Jewish allegiance in the modern world was to “demythologize” the faith, determine what social functions Jewish practice and belief had played in the past, and then fashion a Jewish community that would perform those same functions in ways that fit twentieth-century conceptions and would enable Jews to find their place in American life.

Scult’s biography is especially insightful in juxtaposing Kaplan’s public positions with the private vacillations recorded in his diaries. He rejected the “chosen people” doctrine as an ethnocentric superstition incompatible with democracy. Kaplan kept the dietary laws, not out of any commitment to their divine origin, but out of a sense of comfort with a distinctive Jewish folkway. He counseled Jews to try to adhere to the laws in their homes, but not to let them interfere with normal social intercourse outside. And in his diary, Kaplan described these restrictions as obsolete, destined ultimately for oblivion. Kaplan’s religious behavior, hovering uneasily between attachment to old ethno-religious practices and a skeptical sensibility, could be truly bizarre. Traditional Jews don prayer shawl and phylacteries and pray each morning; Kaplan’s son-in-law saw him many times wearing the required paraphernalia . . . while reading John Dewey or Ahad Ha’am.

Indeed, for Kaplan the question of prayer was extremely problematic, since he did not believe in the personal God of the Bible and did not think that many other educated American Jews did either. Several times in the book Scult takes issue with those who accuse Kaplan of secularizing Judaism. He finds in the diaries, especially those from Kaplan’s early years, evidence of profound wrestling with the question of the nature of God. What others see as secularization, Scult interprets as revulsion against the magical notion of a God portrayed in human terms, one who grants favors and punishes. Yet Scult himself provides considerable evidence of Kaplan’s great discomfort with the very idea of a God existing separate and apart from the universe. The attributes that the Jewish tradition ascribed to God were interpreted by Kaplan as inherent within our world. A practitioner of “predicate theology,” he would rarely say anything about God, but would call “love, spirit, courage, devotion, etc.” godly qualities. The religious doctrine of salvation became, in Kaplan’s hands, “self-realization.”

The biography unearths fascinating material about Kaplan’s relationship with his parents, especially his scholarly and strictly Orthodox father, whom he revered but whose religious principles he repudiated completely. Kaplan refrained from expressing the full radicalism of his thought until his father died, but feelings of guilt must have plagued him throughout his life. Later, when he did away with the Kol Nidrei Yom Kippur service, his mother wrote Kaplan a letter accusing him of disgracing both her and his dead father. Jewish mothers are famed for their ability to instill guilt, but this particular charge must have hit home: Kaplan dedicated his 1934 magnum opus, Judaism as a Civilization, to the father who would have considered it an abomination, and years later took great pride in fashioning a startlingly accurate clay bust of Israel Kaplan, a photo of which is included in this book. Might Kaplan’s monumental temper, his inability to form close friendships, his sense of isolation and embattlement, and his attempts to control the life of the oldest of his four daughters—all of which Scult copiously documents—somehow have stemmed from the sense that he had betrayed the father he so loved?

As so often happens, a religious formulation developed to fit the fashion of one generation loses its hold on the next. Kaplan’s daring reinterpretation of Judaism as a civilization — which thrilled the sociologically attuned generation of the 20s, 30s, and 40s and was institutionalized by his followers in the form of the Reconstructionist movement — had little resonance for post-World War II Jews in search of transcendence. Like many another bankrupt concern, his “reconstruction” was ultimately taken over by outsiders”mystics, feminists, the ecologically enlightened, the sexually liberated, the goddess worshipers. The “Woodstock Center for Healing and Renewal,” whose retreat in the summer of 1992 was billed as the first Jewish Woodstock, featured so many Reconstructionist rabbis that the movement’s rabbinical college felt impelled to deny it had sponsored the event.

Scult implies that Kaplan would have approved of the drift toward Woodstock: by accomplishing the reconstruction of Judaism, he argues, Kaplan legitimated each generation’s remaking of the tradition.

Perhaps. But I’m pretty sure the feisty old rationalist is spinning in his grave.

Lawrence Grossman is Director of Publications for the American Jewish Committee.