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Future of American Jews The Chosen People? The Co-Founder of Reconstructionism Repudiates Religious and Racial Forms of Jewish Supremacy

jan peczkis|Thursday, July 28, 2016

Rabbi Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, the author, presents a wealth of ideas. I focus on a few themes.


The author engages in what arguably can be called soft atheism. Kaplan consistently rejects the supernatural, including God. (See especially his caricature of God, worthy of a militant atheist, on page 225 and page 538). To Kaplan, "God" is to be re-defined as a cosmic process, or as a Power to help one overcome obstacles, and not a Supreme Being in the conventional sense of the term. (e. g., pp. 171-172, 182-183, 192). Why not just drop the pretense of believing in God at all?

The Chosen People? The Co-Founder of Reconstructionism Repudiates Religious and Racial Forms of Jewish Supremacy

Kaplan's attempt to create a "reconstructed" Judaism that re-interprets (or redefines) the elements of Jewish religion (including "God") in an appealing, up-to-date format (e. g, p. 179), is straightforward in motive. It stems from the pervasive self-atheization of American Jews already in place at the time that Kaplan wrote this book [1948], (quote) ...the majority of Jews today do not identify their Jewishness with any positive religious convictions. This applies not only to the very considerable number of Jews who are avowed secularists. Legion is the number of Jews who profess adherence to Jewish religion and retain some measure of affiliation with the synagogue, but neither subscribe to a Jewish creed, whether in the Reform or Orthodox version, nor submit to the discipline of Jewish religious practice. (unquote). (p. 64; See also p. 413).

There is more. According to a quoted survey, 83% of the American rabbinate, already by the 1940's, had rejected the supernatural origins of the Jewish people. (p. 100).

[Let the reader reflect on the following: Nearly 70 years have now passed since Kaplan wrote this book. American Jews have, by and large, not been inspired by his, or any other, "updated" Jewish religion. Instead, secularization among Jews has advanced even further, and the foundation of the self-identity of American Jews has become something entirely different--the Holocaust.]


Kaplan tends to adhere to the lachrymose view of Jewish history. However, he briefly departs from it as he writes that, (quote) It is a historical fact that, at the height of the Hasmonean power, the Jews did actually impose Judaism on the Idumeans by force of arms. (unquote). (p. 223).

In addition, the main reason that Jews did not more often repress other religions was prosaic. The conquerors had become the conquered. Kaplan quips, (quote) Judaism, which was at that stage of its development also a proselytizing religion, imposed its faith and law on the conquered Idumeans, but that was its only venture in forcibly spreading its creed, because soon thereafter it lost its own independence and, consequently, the opportunity for propagating the faith by force. (unquote). (p. 152). [Those who contend that Islam and Christianity are persecutory religions--while Judaism is not--are being a bit disingenuous.]


Rabbi Kaplan rejects the common notion (or exculpation) that Jewish Chosenness only implies extra Jewish duties to God. He comments, (quote) No one can question the fact that the belief of being divinely elect has long been associated in the Jewish mind with consecration and responsibility. However, we cannot ignore the other implications of this belief, especially those which are often sharply stressed, such as in the ALENU and the HAVDALAH prayers. In the latter, the invidiousness of the distinction between Israel and the nations is emphasized by being compared with the distinction between light and darkness. It is that invidiousness which is highly objectionable, and should be eliminated from our religion. (unquote). (p. 218).

The author elaborates that, (quote) Is it not more in keeping with spiritual religion, when we recite the "ALENU" to thank God for having given us "the Torah of truth and planted eternal life in us", than for not having made us "like the nations of other lands?" (pp. 217-218). For an example of a Reconstructionist prayer book that puts Kaplan's ideas into practice, please click on, and read my review of, Sabbath Prayer Book.

Let us consider Jews as Chosen from another angle. Jews commonly frame Jewish Chosenness as the Jewish duty, or privilege, of transmitting ethical insights (or ethical monotheism: pp. 22-23) to the gentiles. Kaplan dismisses this as a form of what nowadays is called benevolent prejudice. It is reminiscent of the 19th century concept of imperialism as something good, in that white people were the "bearers of civilization" to nonwhites--also known as the white man's burden. (p. 221).

Unfortunately, Mordecai Kaplan skirts around the most controversial aspects of Jewish Chosenness. This includes the Talmudic implications of Jewish Chosenness, which are examined by an Israeli Jewish scholar. Please click on, and read my detailed review of, Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings (Arbeiten Zur Geschichte Des Antiken Judentums Und Des Urchristentums, Vol 23).


Let us expand on the "extra Jewish duties" premise. We often hear the argument (or exculpation) that, whereas Jews have to obey 613 laws in order to be right with God, gentiles have the much lighter burden of obeying only the 7 Noahide laws in order to be right with God. This is disingenuous, and probably of recent origin. Rabbi Kaplan comments, (quote) As for the recognition in Jewish tradition that individuals among the Gentiles might attain salvation by conforming to the ethical laws revealed to mankind through Noah, its application did not extend nearly as far as modern Jewish liberals would like to believe. Maimonides, for example, maintained that for a Gentile to conform to the Noahitic laws was not enough. To obtain salvation he must look upon those laws as revealed by God. Since the only evidence of any revelation to Noah is to be found in the Torah of Israel, the achievement of salvation by a Gentile was thus made to depend on his recognizing Israel as the chosen vehicle of divine salvation for mankind. (unquote). (p. 223; See also p. 204).


Kaplan comments, (quote) Under those circumstances, Jews could not possibly regard themselves as other than the most privileged of all peoples. Those circumstances, however, no longer obtain with the majority of modern-minded men and women. The modern-minded Jew cannot consider the miraculous events recorded in the Torah and the rest of the Bible as other than legendary, he, therefore, cannot accept them as evidence of the traditional Jewish doctrine that Israel is God's Chosen People. (unquote). (pp. 214-215).

However, this does not mean that the Jewish belief as the Chosen People declines together with the decline of religion. Instead, it can take on a modernized, secularized form, as elaborated in the next sections of this review.


With allusion to the long quote below in this section, Kaplan refers to the following books (which see, and read my reviews): German Reform rabbi Kaufmann Kohler's Jewish Theology, and British rabbi Morris Joseph's Judaism As Creed And Life.

In addition, he defines the terms he uses below as follows: MASKILIM--adherents of a movement, among Eastern European Jews, to westernize Jewish life. REFORMERS--the movement among German Jews, which started in 1815, to denationalize and westernize Judaism. HISTORICAL SCHOOL--the movement among German Jews, starting in 1845, to introduce changes in Jewish religious practice on the basis of inherent historical principles. (p. 545).

Kaplan points out that the centuries-old concept of Jewish Chosenness, based on the Torah [and Talmud], had increasingly been replaced, in 19th-century Germany, by a new-fangled racial concept of Jewish Chosenness. He writes, (quote) Unable to accept literally the traditional version of the doctrine of the chosen people, the religious wing of the early MASKILIM, the first REFORMERS and the middle group who designated themselves as the HISTORICAL SCHOOL reinterpreted that doctrine to mean one or all of the following propositions, which are set forth in Kaufmann Kohler's JEWISH THEOLOGY, as justifying the claim of the Jews to being a chosen people:

1. Jews possess hereditary traits which qualify them to be superior to the rest of the world in the realm of the religious and the ethical.
2. Their ancestors were the first to achieve those religious and ethical conceptions and ideals which will, in the end, become the common possession of mankind and help them to achieve salvation.
3. Jews possess the truest form of the religious and ethical ideals of mankind.
4. Jews are entrusted with the task of communicating those ideals to the rest of the world.

(unquote)(p. 215).

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan does not trace the origin of these racialized ideas. Were Jewish racial concepts copied from German racial concepts, was it the other way around, or did both forms of racial identity developed in parallel?


Mordecai M. Kaplan condemns biologically-based Jewish elitism, which may be considered a form of Jewish racism, with the following scathing words directed against the four propositions quoted above, (quote) What is wrong with the reinterpretations? First, the proposition that Jews possess unusual hereditary traits which entitle them to be God's elect is based on a series of unproved generalizations concerning certain qualities as being characteristic only of Jews, and on biological assumptions concerning heredity, which are entirely unwarranted. It is one thing for the ancient sage to express his love for his people by describing them as unique in the possession of the traits of chastity, benevolence, and compassion. But it is quite another for a modern person seriously to assert that, because Jewish life has manifested these traits, Jews alone are inherently qualified to grasp and promulgate the truth of religion. We expect a greater regard for objective fact than is evidenced by such sweeping statements about hereditary Jewish traits. If Jews were to adopt the foregoing reinterpretation of the doctrine of election, they would, by implication, assent to the most pernicious theory of racial heredity yet advanced to justify racial inequality and the right of a master race to dominate the rest of mankind. (unquote). (pp. 215-216).

We thus once again see the manifestation of the UBERMENSCHEN and UNTERMENSCHEN. In fact, the informed reader may be struck by the similarities of the statements of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, and those of certain Endeks, notably the Polish scholar Feliks Koneczny (in his JEWISH CIVILIZATION), regarding the correspondence of Jewish racial supremacy and Nazi German racial supremacy. Unlike Kaplan, Feliks Koneczny has been roundly condemned for making the comparison.


The author calls on Christians to repudiate the view that Jews were responsible for the Crucifixion of Christ. He then calls on Jews to not try to remove the mote from the Christians' eye while ignoring the beam in the Jews' eye--that of Jewish Chosenness. (pp. 78-79).


In the 19th and 20th century, local Jews decided whether they thought that the surrounding gentile culture was "good enough" for their emulation and assimilation. Although Kaplan does not put it in those terms, he makes it obvious that such was indeed the case, (quote) Emerging into the broad stream of European culture, the Jews sought to adapt their own culture to that of the world around them. In Germany, this led to complete assimilation and to the modernization of the Jewish religious traditions. In eastern Europe, where the surrounding culture was on a low plane, the HASKALAH developed a strong nationalist trend [Yiddishism, or Diaspora nationalism: p. 25], with the renaissance of Hebrew literature as the distinguishing feature. There, too, the process of emancipation, expected or partly achieved, together with enlightenment led, in many instances, to complete assimilation. (unquote). (pp. 553-554). [However, Kaplan does not tell the reader that, unlike in Germany, only a single-digit percentage of Poland's Jews ever became assimilated, even at the late date of the German-made Shoah.]


In pre-WWII Poland, there was a conflict between traditionalist Catholicism and the more liberal Jewish mores on marital issues, including co-habitation and divorce. This was illustrated, for example, by Cardinal August Hlond's much-condemned 1936 statement on Jews as a bad moral influence on Poles.

Although Kaplan does not mention the foregoing, he does make it obvious that, even by the standards of that time (1940's), Jewish views of marriage were in fact much more permissive than Catholic ones, (quote) One often hears the complaint voiced against young couples in the collectives [kibbutzim?], who live as husband and wife without the sanction of a religious marriage ritual. This complaint implies that the omission of such sanction is a moral offense. This is not an altogether true appraisal. Marriage from the standpoint of Jewish law, is not a religious sacrament, as with the Church; it is a civil contract. (unquote). (p. 139).
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