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Dr. Kaplan Reinterprets Judaism As a Civilization in His ‘guide’

August 5, 1934
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Judaism as a Civilization, by Mordecai M. Kaplan. The Macmillan Company, New York $5.


Author of “History of the Jews,” National Director, the Hillel Foundations.

Here is one of the great seminal works of our day. It follows in the tradition of Philo, Saadiah, Maimonides and other creative thinkers who have written guides for the perplexed in the eras of cultural and spiritual turmoil. It is a healthy catharsis in the presence of the shallow and sentimental drivel that is being perpetrated by some of our well known literary gigolos who specialize in oddness. The fervor and drive with which the author develops his thesis does not mar his critical power. Lucidly, cogently, he analyzes the present crisis in Jewish life, the factors which have brought about disintegration, the programs of conservation of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, their strength and their weakness, and, finally, a suggested program, the result of twenty-five years of hard thinking, which builds upon Judaism as a civilization.

In outlining his thesis Dr. Kaplan hews to the line without too much regard for the official interpretations of Judaism or for vested interests. Judaism no longer has the cohesive force of the past. The compulsory ghetto is gone, the traditional concept of a “chosen people,” narrowly interpreted, has become offensive, and the theological outlook with its emphasis upon salvation and other worldliness is no longer relevant. “Ethical monotheism” and “social justice,” rallying cries which have been doing yeoman’s service in arousing the enthusiasm of conventions, are not now Jewish monopolies. Their implications have leavened the cultures of all great peoples.


How can the Jew intelligently retain his uniqueness. How is Jewish survival possible? Some groups in Jewish life have attempted to meet the difficulty by stripping away all but the pure kernel of religion. They insist that the Jews are solely a religious community, in all other respects no different from the populations among which they live. Though other religious communities now profess the great truths of Judaism, the Jews profess them in their truest form and the raison d’etre has therefore by no means gone out of Jewish survival.

But, the author insists, Judaism cannot function as a bleak religious philosophy. Whether it be the Orthodox interpretation which treats the religion as revealed, or the Reformist interpretation which treats it as historically evolved, in either case, Judaism reduced to a creed is robbed of its vitality. Judaism is a civilization. Religion is only one of its features, important though this feature be. It includes not only religion, but folkways, social patterns, and all that is meant by the culture of a people. And it must adjust itself to the social and intellectual changes of modern life not by giving up its character as a civilization, but by transforming itself from an ancient to a modern civilization.

Dr. Kaplan’s interpretation of a modern Jewish civilization includes a vibrant nationalism, centering in Palestine but not limited to it, a living Hebrew language and literature, and revitalized religious and social folkways. These can best function through the Kehillah, an organized Jewish community, which will be not merely a physical instrument of administration, but a spiritual agency, building a Jewish esprit de corps and preserving all that is worth while in Jewish collective life. In the author’s program the Hebrew language is the vehicle for group memories, literature and art are the storehouse from which to draw, mores are the social cement uniting past and present and supplying continuity and organic unity, religious elements create the idealism which heighten Jewish values and protect them from destruction or attrition. No one activity, then, serves for the whole of Judaism. Neither worship, nor philanthropy, nor Zionism, nor the fostering of Jewish art.

In such a program traditions are observed as lovely symbols, the holidays are occasions for integrating further the historic and contemporary life of a people. The sense of “ought” goes out of every observance and there is no “sin” where a rite is not punctiliously performed. For it has no magical or salvationist significance. It is a symbol, but it must be a vital symbol. It must be part of the folk memory. And this folk memory can be maintained and can constantly influence modern activity through a creative system of Jewish education, a system which will not only transmit the Jewish social heritage but which will reconstruct it in the very process of transmission.


Dr. Kaplan is quick to recognize that the time has passed when one formula can fit all the diversified interpretations of Jewish life. Jews, scattered by historical conditions to every corner of the globe, deeply influenced by environment, will not fit into any theorist’s Procrustean bed. Exactly because of this, however, such a broad concept as Judaism as a civilization becomes necessary in modern Jewish life. It is all embracing. It makes room for the ultra-orthodox and the ultra-reformist, for the secularist and the Zionist. Perhaps, Dr. Kaplan remarks, “like the modern family, Jewish life is henceforth destined to be ‘an experiment in antagonistic cooperation.’ But one thing is certain. The sooner Jews will come to think of that which unites them as a civilization, the sooner will they overcome the process of disorganization which is reducing them to the status of a human detritus, the rubble of a once unique society.”

This is the general structure of the volume. But no brief outline can do justice to the profusion of ideas, the fine, sensitive scholarship, and the wealth of illustrative material. One example must suffice where a Spenglerian concept is applied with remarkable astuteness. Dr. Kaplan insists that Judaism today must constantly assimilate the best in contemporary civilization. There is no danger and no conflict so long as the folk memory is retained and the organic character of Jewish life is not destroyed for Judaism is not different, it is supplementary.


It does not emphasize separateness, it emphasizes otherness. Separateness involves clanishness, otherwise predicates cooperation. Separation leads to cultural stagnation and makes a minority group alien. But it is possible to cooperate fully with other cultures and yet remain “other,” this otherness complementing and enriching the civilizations that develop side by side. It is plain that the author is not frightened either by the dangers of assimilation or of hyphenism. Assimilation is a blessing where it fuses what is best in the thinking of each generation; cultural pluralism is a genuine necessity for the Jew. He has always served, and served well, as the element of otherness in the civilizations where he has functioned.

“Judaism As a Civilization” will probably not be an explosive volume, partly because it is written with such quiet dignity, but mostly because for more than two decades Dr. Kaplan’s disciples have gone into their ministries, thoroughly mellowed and leavened by their mentor’s point of view. It is cause for rejoicing that the author has set down this point of view for the layman who will find in it a highly satisfactory credo.

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