MORDECAI KAPLAN

JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION


  1. Kaplan’s statement of the problem

Not long after having assumed charge of the Teachers Institute I was appointed to the chair of Homiletics at the Seminary……

As I proceeded with the course, it became apparent to me that the future of Judaism depended on something more than an acceptable ideology. The significance of Jewish milieu and atmosphere, social contact and interaction then began to dawn on me, and I realized that unless the synagogue were more than a place for worship its influence was bound to wane, and the most eloquent preaching in the world would not check its obsolescence. This led me to induce a group of Jews, who were on the point of organizing into a congregation and building the usual type of synagogue, to modify their original purpose and to establish a Jewish Center on such lines as would enable them to conduct in it social, cultural and recreational activities. At the same time I participated in the movement that had been inaugurated in those years to establish a Kehillah, and was active in its effort to organize a system of Jewish education in New York City.

(xii-xiii)


Kaplan describes the radical change that took place in the nineteenth century about how Jews felt about being Jewish.

Before the beginning of the nineteenth century all Jews re- garded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden. The first intimation of that change is recorded in a letter which Moses Mendelssohn wrote to Herder in 1780, ex- plaining what had moved him to translate the Pentateuch into Ger- man. It was, he said, to teach his children to accept their fate with patience and resignation, especially their fate as Jews.' Before long many of the Jews who might have accepted their fate with patience and resignation rebelled against it, and sought to escape it by the road of apostasy. The most prominent among them was Heinrich Heine, who coined the famous quip about Judaism not being a reli- ligion but a misfortune.' From Germany the crisis in Judaism has spread to all countries where Jews have come in contact with modern thought and life. At its mildest, that crisis manifests itself as a sullen feeling of helplessness; at its worst, as bitter resentment and revolt.* Not even the Jewries of eastern Europe which until re- cently seemed strongly intrenched in their traditions have been spared. In Russia, whatever Jewish historical continuity and identity with the rest of world-Jewry the Communist regime might have tolerated the Jewish Communists have fanatically sought to destroy, and in a large measure have succeeded. In the west European coun- tries, it is only anti-Semitism, which refuses to recognize even inter- marriage and baptism as sufficiently dejudaizing, that prevents Judaism from disappearing completely. When we direct our attention to the American-Jewish scene, we note that it, too, abounds in signs of ill omen for the future of Juda-


4 JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION

ism." * The number of Jews who regret they are not Gentiles is legion. **If I had my choice," a prominent American- Jewish woman is quoted as saying, "I would have asked God to make me a Gentile, but since I had no choice I pray to Him to help me be a good Jewess." " Such a woman would scarcely approve of the traditional benediction, "Praised be thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, that thou hast not made me a Gentile." ' She is at least deter- mined to make the best out of what she views as a bad situation. But most of those, who feel as she does, succumb to what they regard as an inescapable misfortune. "The great majority of Jewish youths at the colleges," writes a Harvard graduate, "consider their Jewish birth the real tragedy of their lives. They constantly seek to be taken for Gentiles and endeavor to assimilate as fast as their physiognomy will allow." ^ In Escaping Judaism,'' the author describes vividly the sense of frustration and rootlessness which gnaws at the heart of many young Jews, and the wistful yearnings by which they are tor- tured as they contrast what they consider the rich and colorful life of their Christian neighbors with the drab existence of their own people. He then comes to the conclusion that Jews should reconcile themselves to their fate on the ground that "all men are not born equal; some are born blind, some deaf, some lame, and some are born Jews." That an entire chapter in Jewish Experiences in America * has to be devoted to the problem, "How to Combat Anti- Semitism Among Jewish Children," indicates how widespread is the disease of self-hate among American Jews.

In what respects do the problems identified by Kaplan persist? What has changed for the better, or for the worse?

Kaplan considers some of the causes of the unwillingness of Jews to identify with being Jewish. He begins by rejecting the claim that anti-Semitism is the cause, on the basis that anti-Semitism long predates what he describes as a Jewish “sense of inferiority”.

In accounting for this sense of inferiority and self-contempt which is eating like a canker into the Jewish soul, it is usual to point to the fact that Jews find their Jewishness a handicap to them in all walks of life. As a minority group they are a shining mark for all mob viciousness and xenophobia. Since their Jewish origin stands in the way of their happiness and ambition, how can they help deploring it? However plausible this may sound, it cannot possibly be the true explanation of the way Jews nowadays feel toward Judaism. Jews have always had to bear the vexations and indignities which are the lot of a minority group. Ever since they have been dispersed among the nations of the world, they have been treated as defenseless aliens and compelled to migrate from land to land. Yet, until recently, there existed among the scattered fragments of the

5 THE PRESENT CRISIS IN JUDAISM 

Jewish people more of common life and singleness of purpose than among the members of peoples living in their own lands and under their own governments. This unparalleled sense of unity was accom- panied by an implicit confidence in the validity of that which kept them united, and by a self-esteem which rendered them impervious to the derision heaped upon them. Nothing short of a spiritual cataclysm could so radically have changed the Jew's attitude toward his heritage. The forces at work in the present-day environment must have completely shattered the foundations of his faith in the worthwhileness of being a Jew.

On what was that faith based? The answer to that question would solve the mystery of Jewish survival in the past. It would also indicate to what extent the force or forces that made for Jewish survival in the past can be counted on to check the present disintegration of Jewish life.

As a rule, the answer to that question is : the Jew never doubted the advantage of being a Jew because he believed implicitly in the religion which had been transmitted to him by his forebears and which united all Jews into a common brotherhood. It is, therefore, assumed that, since Jews no longer subscribe wholeheartedly to that religion, they see no reason for continuing as a group apart. But, unless we can understand what in that religion imparted such self- confidence to the Jew and such solidarity to the group, we are back to our original question. Why did Jews in the past hold on so tenaciously to their religion in the face of universal opposition? Why are they now so responsive to environmental influences as to be ready to abandon their faith at the first opportunity? Through- out the past, Jews surely felt the impact of surrounding antagonism to their religion, yet that did not in the least weaken their loyalty to it. Consequently, we are merely deluding ourselves, if we believe that by resorting to the usual commonplaces about religion having been the source of Jewish self-confidence in the past, and the environment having undermined that self-confidence, we have diagnosed the spiritual maladjustment of the Jew of today.

Do we agree with Kaplan that earlier generations felt more confident about being Jewish than we do? Do we feel more confident than our children about our Jewishness? What might be the causes of a change of our level of confidence in our Jewishness, or in what being Jewish means?

Kaplan makes what we may find (and I found) a surprising assertion. He contends that the Mosaic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all had a similar world view. As surprisingly, he asserts that a core of that world view was the perspective that this life did not matter so much for itself, as in its nature as a portal to the next world.


To get to the root of Jewish survival in the past, it is necessary to take into account a highly significant leverage which the Jewish religion possessed during the pre-enlightenment period, and which it has since lost. That leverage consisted in the fact that, before the


6 JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION

enlightenment, the religion of the greater part of mankind was based on the same world-outlook as was the religion of the Jews. Chris- tians and Mohammedans accepted as axiomatic three such basic and far-reaching assumptions as the following: i. The Old Testament account of the creation of the world and of the beginnings of the human race is not only authentic, but constitutes the premise of all that man should believe in and strive for. 2. Human life on this earth, being full of sin and travail and ending in death, can attain its fulfillment or achieve salvation only in that perfect world which is known as the world to come. 3. The only way man can attain such salvation is by conducting himself in accordance with the super- naturally revealed will of God. It is, therefore, a mistake to assume that in the past the Jews were able to ignore or defy their environ- ment. They were, on the whole, just as responsive to it then as they are now, though they li 1 entirely segregated from their neigh- bors. But to be responsive ) environment, formerly meant to be confirmed in one's adherence to Judaism. To be responsive to it now, means to be perplexed by doubt and torn by inner conflict.

Before the enlightenment the one dominant concern of human beings was their fate in the hereafter. Salvation meant to them the fulfillment of their destiny in the life beyond the grave. Men and women were so dissatisfied with their lives, with the imperfections of the physical order and of human nature, that they despaired of ever attaining salvation in this world. It was only the hope of enjoying in the hereafter a life free from fear and death that reconciled them to the trials of this life, to the frequent wars and plagues and famines, to the ruthlessness of nature and the cruelty of man. No wonder then that the Jews, who had even better reason than the rest of mankind to be dissatisfied with what this life offered them, had all their thoughts centered upon their destiny in the hereafter. The prospect of attaining bliss in the world to come, which constituted the Jews' conception of salvation, was thus in keeping with the conception of salvation which until recently prevailed throughout

the world with which Jews came in contact.

The main point at issue among the three great religious groups had little to do with the nature of salvation, or with the general method of attaining it. It turned entirely upon a question of fact; namely, which group was in possession of the authoritative revela-tion of God's will? '* The church maintained that having been founded by Christ, who was God incarnate, it alone, through its bishops, was the final and authoritative instrument of divine revelation. Allegiance to the church and obedience to its ordinances were the sole means to salvation. No salvation was therefore possible to anyone who remained outside the church — nulla salus extra ecclesiam. Likewise, Islam placed the main emphasis upon the Koran as the final revelation of God's will. Adherence to the teachings of the Koran, together with the recognition of Allah as God, and Mohammed as the greatest of prophets, constituted for the Moslems the sine qua non of salvation.


7 THE PRESENT CRISIS IN JUDAISM

The Jews were not quite as emphatic as were the Christians and the Moslems in declaring the rest of mankind ineligible to salvation. Rabbinic teaching was inclined to concede that Gentiles, who were righteous or saintly, had a share in the world to come.^^ The Jewish religion made this concession because, from its point of view, the Gentiles had the opportunity of achieving salvation by conforming to the laws contained in the revelation supposed to have been vouch- safed to Noah. That revelation was the source of the seven Noah- idian laws which, with the exception of the one law which prohibited idolatry, dealt with matters of universal moral import. Hence there was room in the Jewish scheme of salvation for those Gentiles who, in addition to abrogating the worship of idols, conformed to the fundamental laws of the moral life.

Does our understanding of history, and Jewish history, accord with Kaplan’s claims? Do we feel perplexed in our interactions with the larger community?

Kaplan continues by arguing that Jews remained loyal to their faith because of their belief in the impossibility of connection with the life to come in any other way. Today, we tend to read in our views to pre-Enlightenment ancestors, because their world-view is impossible for us to comprehend. Kaplan offers evidence for this claim.

But other things being equal, the Jews were confident they stood a far greater chance of attaining salvation than the rest of the world. "All Israel have a share in the world to come," the Mishnah teaches.^' They also derived considerable self-assurance from the fact that both Christians and Mohammedans had to admit that originally the Jews were the only people in possession of the means of salvation."' For a Jew, therefore, to forfeit that privilege by renouncing Judaism for the sake of worldly advantage, was to ex- change life eternal for a temporary good. Accordingly, no earthly temptation could lure the Jew away from Judaism, nor threat com- pel him to renounce it. No Jew could possibly conceive the validity of the claim advanced by either of the rival groups. Salvation was inconceivable, except as a reward of obedience to the will of God, and where was the will of God set forth so clearly as in the Torah?


8 JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION

Only on the rack of torment was the Jew likely to surrender his religion.

The only way in which the Jew believed it was possible for him to achieve salvation was by remaining loyal to his people, for it was only by sharing their life in this world that he was certain to share their life in the next world. This belief was the great cohesive force of Jewish life in the past. Jews conceived their salvation in terms both national and individual. The coming of the Messiah meant the advent of a scion of the House of David, who would establish the spiritual hegemony of Israel. The main advantage which that hege- mony held out to the Jew was the opportunity to worship God and meditate upon the teachings of the Torah in tranquillity, thereby achieving a share in the world to come.** The hope of national res- toration and glory imbued the Jew with the courage to withstand the tortures and humiliations to which he was subjected. The reward of a life of obedience to the will of God, as made known through the Torah, was to be meted out in the world to come. That world to come, olam ha-ba, meant to those whose outlook had been formed entirely by rabbinic lore, the creation of a new world-order, a new heaven and a new earth, in which death would be abolished. To the few who had come under the influence of the philosophers, it meant the immortality of the soul freed of its bodily vesture and transfigured through its union with God. Thus was the Jew in olden times ani- mated by the twofold hope: the hope of national restoration and individual salvation. This is borne out by the prayer recited after each meal, "May the All-merciful make us worthy of the days of the Messiah and of the life of the world to come." '° And the Jew well knew that the only way he could prove worthy was by casting his lot with his people and doing his utmost to obey the laws which God had revealed to them.

We are so far removed from the world-outlook and thought- habits of pre-enlightenment days that, with the best of intentions to know and understand the past, we find it hard not to read into it our own ideas. We are habituated to the modern emphasis upon improvement of life in this world as the only aim worthy of our endeavors. We take for granted that, if we do our best here, we can afford to let the hereafter take care of itself. So much a part of our thinking has this modern conception of human life become that


9 THE PRESENT CRISIS IN JUDAISM 


<>we can scarcely conceive that not so long ago the center of gravity of human existence for Jews, Christians and Mohammedans alike, lay not in this world, but in the world to come. They differed considerably as to what a human being must do in the here and now to deserve a share in that world to come; but they all agreed that this world was a mere prelude to the hereafter. Judaism may have emphasized more than did Christianity the opportunities for worthy action presented by the life in this present world; nevertheless, even in Judaism, the worth and significance of those opportunities        consisted chiefly in their being a preparation for the hereafter.

The term ''other-worldliness" has a twofold connotation; hence the ambiguity to which it gives rise. It denotes both the goal of human striving and the method of attaining that goal. In the latter sense, it is synonymous with asceticism or abstinence. Christianity quite uniformly stressed asceticism as the surest way of achieving bliss in the hereafter. Judaism, on the other hand, may be said to have deprecated asceticism as a method of living in this world. It rather stressed the importance of utilizing the opportunities afforded by this life as a means of achieving salvation or life in the hereafter. But that in no way detracts from the consistency with which Juda- ism in the past upheld other-worldly salvation as the true goal of human life.

To prove that for traditional Judaism the center of gravity of human existence lay not in this life but in the hereafter is both as simple and as difficult as proving that to the ancients the earth was the center of the universe. The entire rabbinic literature is based on an other-worldly orientation. Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (1707- 1747), who wrote the ethical code Mesillat Yesharim in the spirit of rabbinic Judaism, opens the first chapter, which is entitled "Of Man's Duty in the World," with the following:

It is fundamentally necessary both for saintliness and for the perfect worship of God to realize clearly what constitutes man's duty in this world, and what goal is worthy of his endeavors throughout all the days of his life. Our Sages have taught that man was created only to find delight in the Lord, and to bask in the radiance of His Presence. But the real place for such happiness is the world to come, which has been created for that very purpose. The present world is only a path to that goal. 'This world,' said our Sages, 'is like a vestibule before the world to come.' Therefore, has God, blessed be His name, given us the miswot. For this world is the only place where the miswot can be observed. Man is put here in order to earn with the means at his command the place that has been prepared for him in the world to come.


l0 JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION

The foregoing was not the esoteric doctrine of isolated mystics but a truism with the rank and file of Jewry. The autobiography of Gliickel von Hameln reveals exactly the same attitude. Even in Jewish folk songs and lullabies which may be heard in our own day there is frequent allusion to the hereafter as the goal of life. One need only come in contact with the survivals of traditional Jewish life, which have not been influenced by occidental ideas, to be convinced that, in the past, Judaism was decidedly regarded as a means to the salvation of the soul in the world to come. Even Mendelssohn, apostle of the enlightenment though he was, could not altogether escape the momentum of tradition, as is evident from the following statement in his Jerusalem'.

It is essential that man should be constantly reminded that with death there is not a complete end of him; on the contrary, an interminable futurity awaits him, to which his earthly life is only a preparation; the same as all through Nature every present is a preparation for the future. The rabbins liken this life to a lobby, in which we are to fit ourselves in the manner in which we wish to appear in the inner-room. Then take heed you no longer put this life as the opposite of futurity, and lead men to think that their true welfare in this world is not all one with their eternal welfare in the next.^'

Since all Jews had but one conception of salvation and regulated their conduct in accordance with that conception, the life they led was bound to be conspicuously uniform in content and mode of self- expression. Although they did not lack the variety of dispositions and opinions that naturally springs from differences in character, in abilities and in station, their way of life, their interests and aspira- tions which resulted from their status as a people apart, were funda- mentally the same. Philosophic dissent or social ambition never impelled the Jew to break away from his people, for the salvation he regarded as worthwhile could be achieved only by participating in its life. Thus did the belief in other-worldliness sustain the solidarity of the Jewish people.

How persuasive do we find Kaplan’s quotations from Luzzato and Mendelssohn? Do we hear echoes of the perspective Kaplan discusses in the M’chayeh Meitim berachah in the Amidah?

Kaplan points out that the rejection and hostility which Jews faced from the communities in which they resided, reinforced adherence to their fellow Jews. Among other Jews, they could experience the dignity of being treated as fully human.

The very same belief in the other-worldly salvation which acted as a cohesive influence on the Jews, was used by the peoples among


11 THE PRESENT CRISIS IN JUDAISM 

whom they lived as a reason for excluding the Jews from all the rights and privileges accorded only to believers. So long as the doctrine of salvation as a privilege limited to believers was accepted by the generality of mankind, only those who professed Christianity could be eligible to civic status. For how could those who were doomed to perish and who, therefore, belonged to a lower order of creation, be treated on a par with those who were destined for life eternal? They were not merely excluded from civic and social inter- course; they were treated as an inferior species of humans. Dis- senters were everywhere regarded as deterioris conditionis.^^ It took the genius of a Shakespeare to discover that a Jew was as human as a Christian.''

As a result of the generally accepted notions with regard to other-worldly salvation, the Jew needed his people not only to achieve life eternal but also to be able to live in this world. The Gentile populations treated him at all times as an alien, and often as an outlaw. If they allowed him to live among them, it was only because they needed him for such uses as money-lending, itinerant trading, or, at best, tax farming — occupations which only served to render the Jew even more odious. There was no ground where Jew and Gentile could meet on a footing of equality.

The Jew, however, was amply compensated for the hostility and contempt he encountered in the outer world by the sympathy, under- standing and help he found in his own Jewish world. It was from his fellow- Jews that he received all that made life worthwhile and that crowned his life with a share in the world to come. A well- known poem by Heine depicts what the Sabbath did for the Jew who, during the week, went about peddling his wares among the Gentiles, and who returned for the Sabbath to his home in the ghetto." It was the Sabbath, the holy day which God had given to his people and in which the uncircumcised had no portion,"** that performed the miracle of transforming the Jew from a dog into a prince. This transformation came about through his contact with his people and participation in their life. It was thus that he re- ceived a foretaste of the salvation " for which he prayed on the Sabbath. "May the All-merciful let us inherit the day which shall be wholly a Sabbath and rest in the life everlasting." ''" No wonder, then, that whatever he may have thought of the individual fellow-


12 JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION

Jews of his acquaintance, the Jewish people as a whole was to him not an abstract or invisible entity which demanded loyalty and gave little or nothing in return, but a living nation which conferred upon him a privileged status in the order of creation, believed in him, and assured him bliss eternal. The Torah was to him the lettres patentes which bestowed nobility upon his people, and, therefore, upon him. "Blessed be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the uni- verse," the Jew would recite every time he was called up to the reading of the Torah, "who hast given us the Law of truth, and hast planted everlasting life [salvation] in our midst." ""^

Do Jews still face a situation in which we find ourselves best served by turning inward to sense being fully recognized as valuable human beings? What is our role as Jews in assuring that no one else is treated as being less than fully human?

Turning to the Enlightenment, Kaplan discusses the radical change that took place in the world view of Jews and non-Jews alike, at least in the Western world.

The revolutionary philosophies of men like Locke and the Deists in England, and of Rousseau, Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists in France, gave rise to the modern conception of religion as based upon human experience and reason, Lessing's drama, Nathan the Wise, published in 1779, in which he made use of Boccaccio's The Three Rings, may be said to mark the turning point in the western world's conception of salvation. Though by no means denying that objectively there can be only one true religion, the parable implies that all men who seek to live in accordance with the will of God are eligible for salvation. This meant the final undermining of the assumption that salvation was the exclusive privilege of any one particular group of believers. Simultaneously, Mendelssohn taught that the prerequisite to immortality was not conformity with any supernaturally revealed teaching, but a life based upon the highest dictates of reason. This is the main thesis of his Jerusalem. The eternal truths which are essential to human salvation, he argues, must necessarily be accessible to all human beings, for it would be contrary to the goodness of God for him to reveal only to a portion of mankind such truth as is indispensable to all men.°*

The denial of the traditional assumptions with regard to the nature and means of salvation paved the way for what is generally termed "the enlightenment," which identified man's salvation with his self-realization in this world. The effect of the enlightenment was to do away with the theory that one had to be qualified for life eternal to be eligible for citizenship in the state. Church and state began to drift apart. The Christian, who no longer took literally or seriously the doctrine of exclusive salvation taught by the church.


13 THE PRESENT CRISIS IN JUDAISM 

saw no reason why he should treat the Jew as an inferior being. It was thus inevitable for the Jew to be granted political and civic rights. As a consequence of his emancipation, new and manifold opportunities for the utilization of his long-suppressed energies and talents were opened to him, and he has availed himself of these opportunities with all the avidity of a starved man.

But the more the abilities of the Jew find a field for expression in his new milieu, the less does he need the Jewish community and its spiritual heritage. The average Jew has come to feel that his imme- diate interests lie far less with the rest of Jewry than with whatever group, political, economic or cultural, enables him to achieve the salvation which is of this world. To most Jews, salvation has come to mean self-expression in industrial, commercial, artistic or social endeavor. Their attachment to any group other than the nation of which they are citizens is therefore conditioned by the opportunity it offers for self-expression and creative effort. The traditional scheme of salvation has become meaningless particularly to the large body of the wage-earning class. If they are socially minded, they look for salvation to some program of social reform or upheaval. For the most part, however, they are too much absorbed in the problem of earning a livelihood and in securing themselves against sickness and old age to be worried about anything but their own immediate future.


Had the Jews been accorded not merely political but also social and economic equality, they would long ago have disappeared as a distinct group. The universal breakdown of traditional religion among the Gentiles would have facilitated the process of complete assimilation. But the prospect of the Jew's attaining social and eco- nomic equality is a very remote one. They experience all the tortures of Sisyphus. Brought to the point where they see the chance of bettering their condition, of attaining social standing and a relative degree of economic security, they are told these things are not for them. For the Jew, the primary need of earning a livelihood is beset with humiliating obstacles.

The fact that being a Jew is coming to mean more and more of a hindrance in the effort to find gainful employment is an indication of a very ominous trend to crowd the Jew from the economic frame-

14 JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION

work of society. In the Middle Ages the Jew had no civic rights, and was therefore at a disadvantage economically; but then the economic order in general was still inchoate. As an itinerant people, the Jews were able to fill a gap in the processes of exchange, and so managed to eke out a place for themselves in the interstices, as it were, of the economic order. In addition, there was in those days no uniform policy toward aliens. If the Jews were driven from one country, they could usually find refuge in another. Today all this is changed — for the worst. Nominally the Jews have been admitted into the political framework of the Gentile world, but economically in many parts of the world they are as badly off as in the Middle Ages, in other parts worse, and in no country on a footing of security. With the growing scarcity of economic opportunities, due to the substitution of machinery for manual labor, to the gradual elimination of foreign markets, and to competition in the domestic market, and with the resulting formation of all kinds of collectives for the sake of mutual help in the struggle for a share in the dim- inishing number of opportunities, the Jew is in danger of being deprived of all opportunity to earn a livelihood.

In addition, the Jew is snubbed socially. Whether he tries to send his child to a private school, to rent a better class apartment, to register at a country hotel, or to join a club or a fraternity, he is given to understand that he is not wanted. This hurts him to the quick. He has grown far more sensitive to social discrimination than was his ancestor to brutal persecution. In the past, the Jew submitted resignedly to the indignities inflicted on him by Christian potentates and mobs. He accepted such treatment as part of what a conquered people must expect from its conquerors. But mentally and spiritually he was lord in his own demesne. Living in a world altogether his own, he was immune to the demoralizing influence of hate and derision. The loss of human rights and privileges could not in the least lower the Jew's self-respect. Ostracism from the social life of the Gentiles found its compensations in the assurance that in the hereafter his would be the privileged rank. Solomon Maimon, in his autobiography, recalls that as a child he was dazzled by the sight of a princess Radziwill. His father, noticing this, re- marked, "Little fool, in the other world the duksel will kindle the per sure [stove] for us." "


15 THE PRESENT CRISIS IN JUDAISM 

But now that the aura of divine election has departed from his people, and his Jewish origin brings with it nothing but economic handicaps and social inferiority, the Jew rebels against his fate. This is the fundamental reason for the change in his attitude toward Judaism. It is not merely that Judaism as a world-outlook or system of life is in danger of extinction, but that the Jew is malad- justed morally and spiritually as a result of losing the traditional conception of salvation. He has to evolve some new purpose in life as a Jew, a purpose that will direct his energies into such lines of creativity as will bring him spiritual redemption. That purpose will have to constitute his salvation. It is only then that he will gladly identify himself with Jewish life.

Before we can attempt to formulate any such purpose, there are a number of considerations to be taken into account. First, we have to familiarize ourselves with the specific nature of the present- day challenge to Judaism. The passing of the belief in other-worldly salvation is both the effect and the cause of the changes which have taken place in the ideological, the economic and the political order of mankind. A survey of these changes will help us realize the true character of the predicament in which Judaism finds itself. Second, this will be followed by a survey of the reserve energy and the still functioning resources which we shall have to fall back upon in our efforts to bring order out of the chaos of Jewish life. Such efforts have been made during the last century. Why have they not proved suc- cessful? We must answer this question before proceeding to formu- late that conception of Judaism which, we believe, will enable Jewish life to evolve as satisfying a substitute for the traditional conception of salvation as is possible in an age like ours.


Kaplan’s program

(p. 2)

To review, Kaplan identified the problem confronting American Jewry as follows:

-Before the Enlightenment, a combination of their own world view and social circumstances created a situation in which Jews naturally retained a cohesive community, committed to Jewish tradition and law:

Before the enlightenment the one dominant concern of human beings was their fate in the hereafter…Men and women were so dissatisfied with their lives, with the imperfections of the physical order and of human nature, that they despaired of ever attaining salvation in this world. It was only the hope of enjoying in the hereafter a life free from fear and death that reconciled them to the trials of this life, to the frequent wars and plagues and famines, to the ruthlessness of nature and the cruelty of man. No wonder then that the Jews, who had even better reason than the rest of mankind to be dissatisfied with what this life offered them, had all their thoughts centered upon their destiny in the hereafter.

(p. 6)

-The Enlightenment removed the focus from presumed other-worldly salvation to a focus on what could be accomplished during a person’s lifetime:

The denial of the traditional assumptions with regard to the nature and means of salvation paved the way for what is generally termed "the enlightenment," which identified man's salvation with his self-realization in this world.

(p.12)

-For Jews, particularly in the U.S., the effect of the Enlightenment has been to weaken the bonds with fellow Jews in favor of other types of connections more reflective of the modern world:

But the more the abilities of the Jew find a field for expression in his new milieu, the less does he need the Jewish community and its spiritual heritage. The average Jew has come to feel that his immediate interests lie far less with the rest of Jewry than with whatever group, political, economic or cultural, enables him to achieve the salvation which is of this world. To most Jews, salvation has come to mean self-expression in industrial, commercial, artistic or social endeavor. Their attachment to any group other than the nation of which they are citizens is therefore conditioned by the opportunity it offers for self-expression and creative effort. The traditional scheme of salvation has become meaningless particularly to the large body of the wage-earning class. If they are socially minded, they look for salvation to some program of social reform or upheaval. For the most part, however, they are too much absorbed in the problem of earning a livelihood and in securing themselves against sickness and old age to be worried about anything but their own immediate future.

(p. 13)

-As exemplified by the final two sentences of the previous quote, one consideration of Kaplan’s that has been somewhat outmoded is his focus on the continuing social – though not political – ostracism of Jews.

the Jew is snubbed socially. Whether he tries to send his child to a private school, to rent a better class apartment, to register at a country hotel, or to join a club or a fraternity, he is given to understand that he is not wanted.

-In summary, Kaplan describes the circumstance of American Judaism as follows:

It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Judaism in America is destined to live. It all depends upon what the Jews of this and the next generation will do. Already the maelstrom of life is about to tear up Judaism by the roots, and nothing less than a heroic effort will prevent it from being swept away completely. If Jewish endeavor be merely haphazard and impelled by blind habit, Judaism's day in America is done. But, if that endeavor be directed by an alert intelligence and a high idealism, Judaism will live.

(p. 81)

We turn to Kaplan’s prescription for survival.

He summarizes as follows:

The program advocated in this book is based on the cultural version of Judaism, as accepted by those who take the central position that Jewish civilization can function in varying degrees in the diaspora, provided it have its home in Palestine and retain both its Hebraic and religious character.

(p.86)

In passing, we note that Kaplan acknowledges, and rejects, the idea that Judaism is essentially a religion. Kaplan maintains his stance irrespective of the denomination – Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.

Kaplan is particularly harsh in his treatment of Conservative Judaism (he was a professor at the Seminary).

The outstanding trait of this type of Conservatism is a gift for the evasion of fundamental issues.

(p. 165)

For example, says Kaplan, Conservative Judaism tries to have it both ways on the subject of revelation:

Neo-Orthodoxy is outspoken in its conception of supernatural revelation as the main sanction of Judaism. And there is no equivocation in its use of the term "supernatural." Conservatism is no less emphatic in its insistence upon supernatural revelation as the main sanction of Judaism, but the meaning of the two words "supernatural revelation" is blurred and shifting. At times "revelation" is made to appear as nothing more than a more sensitive conscience, a greater ability to distinguish between right and wrong…That reduces revelation to a phenomenon of an extraordinary but not supernatural character.

(p. 165)


Kaplan summarizes his program by discussing its constituent elements. His idea is that being Jewish incorporates all aspects of life, not only the religious or ritualistic.

[The Jewish person’s] life should consist of certain social relationships to maintain, cultural interests to foster, activities to engage in, organizations to belong to, amenities to conform to, moral and social standards to live up to as a Jew. All this constitutes the element of otherness. Judaism as otherness is thus something far more comprehensive than Jewish religion. It includes that nexus of a history, literature, language, social organization, folk sanctions, standards of conduct, social and spiritual ideals, esthetic values, which in their totality form a civilization.

(p. 178)

Kaplan notes a very practical reason for the comprehensive program he proposes. As can be found in any group, Jews have different interests.

There is little at present in Jewish life that offers a field for self-expression to the average man and woman who is not engaged either as rabbi, educator, or social worker. If one does not have a taste for praying three times a day and studying the Bible and rabbinic writings, there is nothing in any of the current versions of Judaism to hold one's interest as a Jew. Activities that might hold one's interest, and through which one might express oneself as a Jew, have not been recognized as part of Jewish life because there has been found no concept which might integrate them into it. Lacking that integration, they are bound to remain sterile, and Jewish life is apt to become an empty shell.

(p. 178)

What has been our own experience with Jews attempting to relate to being Jewish? In particular, for those not inclined toward ritual or toward study, what are the “portals” to being Jewish? How have we adopted some of Kaplan’s suggestions?


Kaplan continues by discussing several specific constituent elements of Judaism as a civilization. The first he discusses is land. Since this is written in the 1930’s, he refers to the area as Palestine.

Judaism, not being a religion, did not spring into existence at a particular moment in history. The pattern of life we now call Judaism developed gradually and imperceptibly as the outcome of collective life. The process of living together in Palestine molded the various invading Israelitish tribes into the people that in time evolved the civilization which has come to be known as Judaism.

(pgs. 186-187)

Kaplan notes that in the ensuing 1900 years since the fall of Judea at the hands of the Romans, the expression of the desire to return and rebuild Jerusalem and Israel has been a core element of the Jews’ daily prayers.

It does not need a practiced eye to discern the hope for the recovery of Palestine in every move and turn of Jewish life and thought since the destruction of the Second Commonwealth. The Jews did not merely retain the customs and traditions which had arisen and were developed in Palestine, but used those customs and traditions as a means of keeping alive their memory of Palestine.

(p. 188)

Kaplan goes on to note that the liturgy is filled with references to the natural conditions pertaining to Israel, as for example in the prayer for rain or dew.

Kaplan unequivocally asserts that an element of Judaism is nationalism, and that means Jews must have their own home in the land of their origin. In so doing, he reiterates that Jews made the mistake of identifying themselves as exclusively a religion.

the terms on which emancipation was offered to the Jewish people, as well as the terms on which it was accepted by the Jewish leaders of the day, were based on the fictitious assumption that Judaism was a religion only. This constitutes one of the grievous mistakes in Jewish history.

That mistake must now be rectified. Jews must clarify their position both to themselves and to the world. They cannot consider themselves emancipated unless they are granted the opportunity to foster and develop their historic civilization. This means that for the Jews no progressive corporate life anywhere is possible without the establishment of a national home in Palestine.

If Judaism still possesses creative energy, it should regain the only medium through which adequate expression is possible to any civilization - a land of its own. It cannot maintain continuity without an environment where it will be able to exercise a civilization's primary prerogative, that of molding the minds of the young and endowing them with the fundamental traits of human personality. Only those who are thus nurtured by a civilization are its true children, and through them alone it creates values and makes history. Palestine is the only land which can furnish such an environment for the Jewish civilization.

(p. 273)

As some may recall, the emphasis on Zionism was a subject of dispute in pre-War U.S. Conservative Judaism came closest to embracing Zionism, but even that initially was in the role of a relatively passive supporter. Kaplan’s comments were thus progressive in his era.

How has the attitude toward Israel as a fundamental aspect of Judaism shifted in the past 80 years? Where do matters now stand?

The Hebrew language, Kaplan argues, is another key element of Judaism. Language, says Kaplan, is at the core of a nation’s identity.

Every language is a storehouse of a particular cluster of ideas and experiences which are common to the members of the group and distinguish the group from other groups.

(p. 190)

Kaplan notes that Hebrew remained the liturgical language of the Jews even after it ceased to be the vernacular. As Kaplan notes, even the vernacular, e.g. Yiddish, was written using Hebrew characters. He cites with pride the re-emergence of Hebrew as the daily tongue of a significant segment of the Jewish nation.

The rebirth of the Hebrew language is a modern miracle of the spirit. It is almost incredible that a language which had ceased to function as a vernacular for thousands of years should spring into life at the deliberate fiat of a handful of enthusiasts.

(p. 194)