Page 122 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 38

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JEW ISH BOOK ANNUAL
Kaplan’s emphasis on g roup life led him to see Juda ism as a
religious civilization ra th e r than a system o f beliefs and rituals. A
civilization had its own language, customs, ar t forms, litera tu re
and music. Kaplan did not hesitate to advocate tha t Jews could
and should live in two civilizations — the Jewish and the Ameri­
can. Thus he was saying to young Jewish Americans in the 1920’s
and 30’s tha t they did not have to choose between living as a Jew
and living as an American. Jewish life need not be the cloistered
life o f the shtetl bu t Juda ism and Americanism could fully pen e ­
trate one ano ther in all areas.
MAJOR WORK
The publication o f
Judaism As A Civilization
was, o f course, a
seminal event in American Jewish life. T he last attem p t at some
kind of synthesis by an American Jewish th inker was Kaufmann
Kohler’s
Jewish Theology
published in 1918. Kaplan’s opus was on a
much g rande r scale providing an analysis o f the ways tha t J u d a ­
ism had been affected by modernism and how it could be recon ­
structed . T h e book made a s trong impact on many. H a rry
Wolfson, the grea t sage o f Harvard , wrote to Kaplan, . .w ithou t
any doubt the book is a literary phenom enon o f major dimensions
in the exploration o f contemporary Judaism . . . . I am sure tha t it
will be a source o f encouragem en t and will occupy an hono red
place in ou r literary heritage.”11
Kaplan’s major th ru s t was to set the Jewish people, the ir past
experience and the ir p resen t welfare at the center o f his concep­
tion o f Judaism . T he To rah , Revelation and God were all ex­
plained in terms relating to Jewish peoplehood . Because Kaplan
did not see Juda ism as a system o f dogmas or a set o f laws, he
allowed even the most skeptical o f modern Jews to relate to Jewish
Civilization. I f historically and contemporarily the Jewish people
were the cen ter then any belief could be critically exam ined.
Beliefs m irro red the concerns and values o f the community and
since the community changed th rough time, the n a tu re o f the ir
commitments changed also. T h e re were many critical points in
Jewish history at which the Jewish societal consensus changed in
11 Harry Wolfson to Mordecai Kaplan, December 24, 1934, Kaplan Papers,
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, translated from the Hebrew by Mel
Scult.