In Philip Roth’s story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” the young protagonist Ozzie Freedman, aged thirteen, wants to know how Rabbi Binder can call the Jews the chosen people “if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal.” To be properly appreciated in the context of the American Jewish experience, this remark should be juxtaposed with one made by my grandfather, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, “America iz a goldene medineh—ober a klog oyf Columbus’n” (freely translated, “America is a golden land—but a curse on Columbus”).

These two observations point up some of the ambiguities generated by the mass immigration of Jews to America. They are ambiguities over which many have pondered, and which have been made the stuff of sociological studies, historical treatises, sermons, and fiction galore. Among Jewish religious thinkers, perhaps no one has attempted to resolve them with greater comprehensiveness than Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, who last year celebrated his one hundredth birthday.

The traditional Jewish way of life and thought, old and gnarled by experience and travail, confronted on this continent a complex, novel challenge. America was not like any of the nations Jews had known, certainly not like the land of the Czars or even of the Kaisers. The problem was not only that America was modern, whereas most Jews had lived their years in premodern societies—although this indeed caused many a heartache and generated a great deal of anxiety. The problem was the face America presented to the newcomers. It was a good face.

To be sure, in this goldene medineh the immigrants did not find the streets paved with gold. But what they did find was a peculiar and unprecedented willingness to accept them as Americans, like everybody else. This came as a surprise—a pleasant surprise. There was to be no more “we” . and “they”; no more separation between the people of Israel and the society around them; no more standing out as strangers in a host land, as an imperium in imperio; no more the temporary sojourners in someone else’s territory. The Jews were not the guests, but among the hosts.

The Jews reacted to this surprise with almost painful enthusiasm. No one sang “land where our fathers died” more lustily than children whose fathers had died in Minsk or Vilna, having scarcely heard of Lincoln and Washington. And here, precisely, is where the problem arose. For the essence of Jewish identity is that the children of Israel are not and may not be “like the other nations.” Every Saturday night, the ceremony of havdala (separation) is performed in traditional Jewish homes. In bidding farewell to the Sabbath, the pious affirm:

Blessed be Thou, O Lord our God, who separates between the profane and the holy, between the light and the darkness, between Israel and the nations. . . .

Down through the ages prophets and rabbis had warned against the sin of trying to be like the other nations. Now, in America, there was a prospect of Jews becoming not just like the other nations, but exactly the same. The prospect, in short, of assimilation.

Another problem facing the Jews arose from the relation of America to religious faith. On the one hand the United States had a pronounced disposition in favor of religion. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence mentioned God the Creator. Towns and byways were dotted with churches. At the same time, however, the First Amendment sought to sever the organic relation between church and state. There was freedom to practice whatever faith one preferred. Religion was not to be established. Its proper place was private. Later, in the public school, the special “temple” of American life, its rituals and symbols were forbidden.

Yet the Jewish religion, like other traditional faiths, was anything but a private matter. “You shall speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk in the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” This kind of total claim could not be easily satisfied in a society that discouraged public religiosity while encouraging private belief. Many dealt with the dilemma by abandoning traditional Judaism, or by leaving the fold altogether.

There were other difficulties as well. Although Judaism is of course a religion, and a high one, its essential character lies in the fact that it is embodied in the life of a people, an ethnos, an am (the Hebrew term is related to the Semitic root meaning family). This peculiar fact, that Judaism basically means allegiance to a particular “family,” also means that one may be identifiably Jewish even though denying the basic tenets of the faith. What is important is not theological affirmations, but the sense of attachment. Philip Roth is acute on this point, too:

What a Jewish child inherited was no body of learning and no language and finally no Lord . . . what one did receive was a psychology.

This is an exaggeration, but it points to a genuine quality of Jewishness: the emphasis on belongingness.

This peculiarity of Jewish life baffled many in America, including many Jews. In America, it was felt, the only people one ought to belong to was the American people. Belonging to another people could perhaps be accepted as something temporary, a syndrome of the immigrant generation, but it was a condition that would and should be shed with progressive Americanization.

It soon became clear that this was not so easily done, for dissolving the idea of peoplehood meant dissolving the essence of Judaism itself. Many nevertheless tried to do just that. The effort to shake off or to transcend the fact of Jewish peoplehood—through assimilation, through radical politics, through secularization in its many forms and guises—is part of the story of the Jewish encounter with a land that both welcomed Jews and tended to disparage Jewish separateness.

Finally, there was the immense complication that the separate people to which the Jew belonged was not just any people—it was the chosen people, the favorite people of God. Much as the traditional notion of chosenness was stretched and pulled, obfuscated and reinterpreted, in the end it remained a stark fact, stated in the prayers recited every day—“Thou hast chosen us from among the nations”—and vivid in the consciousness of most Jews. “I have yet to meet a Jew,” the theologian Will Herberg once asserted, “who in some way did not feel that the Jews were chosen.”

This assertion is a scandal to the modern egalitarian spirit. It is also an affront to what the sociologist J. M. Cuddihy has called the American religion of civility. After all, Judaism was not the only traditional faith that was asked to take its place within the new American order. “The situation is,” writes Cuddihy (in No Offense), that “as each of the traditional European religions arrived in America and clambered up out of steerage it confronted an unprecedented pluralistic situation: the existence of other religions.” The theoretical problem facing each of the European religions was how to continue administering a tradition with age-old monopolistic pretensions, while finding ways to legitimate the demonopolization that had taken place. According to what Cuddihy calls “Protestant etiquette,” no one religion could claim to be the only path to salvation; the central command of the new religion of civility was, “Thou shalt not claim any superiority.” This posed an “administrative” problem to all the European religions, but to Judaism the problem was acute: how to obey this command without commiting suicide?



Mordecai Kaplan tried to “reconstruct” Judaism in order to meet these various challenges. His efforts were not merely theoretical. Kaplan was born in Lithuania, the son of a talmudic scholar. In America he went to public schools and graduated from City College and then Columbia University (M.A., 1902). He served as a rabbi in prominent synagogues and taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary for most of his professional life.

This last fact was very important for the formation of Kaplan’s thought. The Seminary, then as now, was the center of Conservative Judaism, a version of Jewish traditionalism which has as its program the maintenance of Jewish distinctiveness with an American style of life, the combining of “tradition and change.” From the beginning Conservative Judaism refused to accept the total acculturation promoted by Reform Judaism, or the defiant separationism of Orthodoxy. It saw its task as one of preserving the tradition, but in the modern mode.

Kaplan, the founder of a variant stream within Conservative Judaism known as Reconstruction-ism, asserted that Jewishness was not strictly speaking a religion at all. This did not mean that it had nothing to do with the sacred. Kaplan promoted a new definition: “Judaism as a Civilization” (a phrase he used as the title of his most influential book, first published in 1934).

According to Kaplan, everyone belongs to some people, and every people creates a civilization consisting of language, art, feelings, history, music, etc. Every civilization also has a religion, which provides the underlying ideas of the people, the sanctification of the important events forming the character of the people, and the various rituals guaranteeing and celebrating the culture of the people. These Kaplan called sancta. But the heart of the religion, as Emile Durkheim had said, is the people and what it considers supremely important.

Thus, in Kaplan’s conception Judaism was not a set of beliefs or a system of law. It was, rather, the evolving way of life of the Jewish people. (This, aside from a nuance or two, was not all that different from the main thrust of Conservative Judaism, which the sociologist Marshall Sklare once described as “ethnic solidarity perpetuated chiefly under religious auspices.”)

For Kaplan, just as there was a Jewish civilization, so there was an American civilization, a whole pattern of events, individuals, documents, and ideas that formed the American soul. (Robert Bellah would later coin the term “civil religion” for this idea.) The American Jew therefore lived in two civilizations: the American and the Jewish. Kaplan frankly admitted the distinctiveness of these two modes of living, yet he saw in the differences a source not of potential conflict but of mutual enrichment. Jews should celebrate both Yom Kippur and Thanksgiving. This was the American way: live in two civilizations.

Kaplan rejected the metaphor of the “melting pot” to describe American life. He rather endorsed what Horace Kallen called “cultural pluralism,” and he urged Jews to realize in their own lives the promise held by that idea. Within the Jewish community he instigated the creation of a new type of institution, the Jewish Center, which absorbed the synagogue and in addition offered many services people had hardly ever considered part of Judaism: basketball, health facilities, art shows, literary discussions.

A second thrust in Kaplan’s reconstruction of Judaism was to provide a naturalistic base for Jewish thought. Kaplan insisted that in a Judaism fit for the modern world, there could be no miracles, no divine revelation. The mountain may have thundered, but the word that came forth was not that of a God existing outside the universe, but the real consciousness of the people assuming unto itself moral commands. God was to be understood—in Kaplan’s famous definition—as the Power that makes for salvation, the sum of the forces within the universe which help man achieve his fulfillment, his self-realization, his salvation.

If Kaplan’s second initiative may be seen as owing something to a line of thought going back to Spinoza, his third initiative was unprecedented. He openly and vigorously rejected the doctrine of the “chosen people.” For one thing, it contradicted the idea of a naturalistic God, for such a God could no more choose anyone, or anything, than could the law of gravity or electricity. For another thing, the doctrine of chosenness was out of step with the circumstances in which American Jews now found themselves, and to which they had to adjust. In The Future of the American Jew, Kaplan wrote: “We must admit that we are calling for a drastic revision of traditional attitudes in the interest of democracy, peace, and good will.” The idea of chosenness, he asserted, was objectionable from the viewpoint that all “who call upon Him in truth” are equally near to God. It was also against the American ideal, the democratic ethos, and the demands of civility and good taste.

Kaplan’s bold insistence on this last point raised a storm in the Jewish community. Scarcely anyone, aside from Kaplan himself, was enthusiastic about excising from the prayerbook those references to chosenness which are so precious to Jewish consciousness. Yet he believed that Jews would not be accepted in the mainstream so long as they retained this article of faith. In this respect he remained the most explicit and the most insistent religious thinker to call for the modification of traditional Jewish doctrine in the interests of an ideal of social harmony.



Kaplan’s triple strand of peoplehood, naturalism, and pluralism was suited to a generation that had become Americanized but that retained emotional ties to Jewishness (not necessarily Judaism). This generation felt comfortable living in a two-story house. The first story, America, was open to all and bore no distinctive Jewish characteristics. The second story was where one went for privacy, intimacy, and warmth.

But what can we say about all this today?

No one could have foretold the emergence throughout American society, even among liberals, of a strong trend toward ethnic self-assertion. As the novelist Anne Roiphe has put it, expressing her own surprise at having come to such a pass, “It is better to be tribal and ethnocentric than urbane and adrift.” Americans of all kinds have discovered a need for “roots,” for belonging to some specialized group or region within the generalized American whole.

In this respect, indeed, Jewishness has acquired a certain cachet—not because Jewish theology has suddenly found favor but rather because the Jewish emphasis on group, family, and tradition is believed to offer an emotional advantage in a cold world. The ethnocentric quality of Jewishness has not only been accepted, it has been elevated into a positive quality for Americans in general. Here Kaplan was decades ahead of his time.

In addition to the new ethnic self-assertion in America today, however, there is also a new religiosity, and it is one that forms an ironic counterpoint to genteel conceptions of the proper place of religious beliefs within the American public order. The new religiousness evident in America is not private, discreet, and polite. Today’s believers lobby for legislation, march in parades, Organize demonstrations. They have gone out of the sanctuary, where one speaks in whispers, and emerged on television and in the newspapers. They worry aloud about the federal budget, and about pornography: about America’s relations with other nations, and about abortion. Their religious values are public, strident, demanding.

This brand of religiosity has been seen before in certain periods of our history. To many it may seem un-American, even unconstitutional. But to traditional Jews it looks familiar. To such Jews, religion has always been public, on the street, and in the halls of government. And even to non-traditional Jews, or to Jews who, although not observant themselves, like to think their strongly held political and moral values owe something to Jewish teachings, the public “thrust” of the new believers must seem a familiar mode of expressing one’s beliefs about society. The new religiousness was born in the American heartland, but it has ties with a certain Jewish style in public life.

Kaplan was least successful in his theological sallies. This was especially true in the rejection of chosenness. After all, the basis of Christian faith is Jewish chosenness. Why should the Jews deny what others affirm? It seems absurd to reject what both Judaism and Christianity have taught from time immemorial: that something important was said at Mount Sinai to the Jews, and to the Jews alone. In a perverse and horrible way Hitler too confirmed the specialness of the Jews.

Most surprising is the contemporary fate of naturalism. Wherever there is religious fervor among American Jews today there is a thirst for transcendence, for mystery. There is a striving—sometimes pathetically gauche—to experience God. Even the Columbia University campus, where John Dewey taught, does not want Deweyan religion; it prefers the Baal Shem Tov. If young Jews cannot find God in Judaism they will look for Him in strange places. Kaplan taught a God Who is totally understood. It turns out that such a God is irrelevant. God is real and concrete only when He is beyond our grasp and understanding—when He is, in the words of Kaplan’s Seminary colleague, the late Abraham J. Heschel, ineffable.



Contemporary Jews have embraced the quality of peoplehood in their self-understanding, but also have persisted in affirming their specialness, and many, surprisingly, reach out to a transcendent God. In this way they have confirmed several of the profound truths about Judaism and America articulated by Mordecai M. Kaplan. But they have also shown that this story, so full of unexpected twists and turns, is far from having reached its final form.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link