(Religion) (Politics)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Judaism as a Religious Civilization

I have recently been pondering the fact that Mordechai Kaplan's concept of Judaism as a religious civilization does not seem wholly wrong.

Today, I saw that Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz apparently also sees some truth in Kaplan's approach. In Rabbi Hertz's Affirmations of Judaism (Oxford, 1927), we read (p. 35):
In other words, Judaism embraces the whole of life. And because it has at all times and in all lands embraced and regulated the whole life of its loyal children, Judaism is far more than a creed or theology, greater than a denomination or a Church. Judaism is a religious civilization – a spiritual culture aglow with a passion for righteousness. It has its own national language, literature, history, customs, and social institutions.
But what is particularly telling is what the footnote there reads:
A fresh presentation of Judaism as civilization is to be found in Professor M. M. Kaplan's A New Approach to the Problem of Judaism. See also I. Zangwill's 'The Position of Judaism', in The Voice of Jerusalem, pp. 131-44.

In honor of the fact that I found an authority to support my holding my Kaplan in this regard, let us quote liberally from an essay I once wrote. The reader is advised to see another part of this same essay of mine, that part regarding the pedagogical task of properly educating our children. That is quoted by Ilana-Davita in Mesorah Project V. The following quotation of mine is regarding Judaism being a religious civilization, but please see also Ilana-Davita's "Mesorah Project V" for the companion to the following:
One of the crucial problems I see with Orthodox Judaism is that we aren't selling a religion based on critical thought, based on the understanding that Judaism is a "religious civilization", on par with all other civilizations. Mordechai Kaplan may have been wrong, but as Rav Kook says, every idea has some divine truth in it. If Judaism is part of world civilization, if Hashem gave us a Torah that deals with the same issues all nations do, dealing with the same societal and personal issues that all people do, then our attitude towards Torah will be totally different. Independent and courageous thought, critical thinking, analysis and investigation of the world beyond our four cubits, will suddenly be more explicable. In a more prosaic way, the idea that aggadot are not dogmas, won't be seen as so heretical, because we'll realize that Hazal were philosophers, using the same basic thought processes as all humans do, albeit with an extra Sinaitic "seed-crystal" to serve as a skeleton for their thought; but the fleshing-out process was a human one. We'll relate to the world's wisdom and to its people differently, because we'll realize, as Rabbi Benzion Uziel says, that ultimately, we, all of mankind, are all striving for the same goal, the same purpose: to sanctify this world and bring human society under the aegis of the Almighty. Therefore, as Rav Hirsch says, with every step taken closer to the truth by mankind, Jewry will only see a revelation of G-d and a further culmination of His purpose. And we'll have the courage to confront the generation's idols, as Avraham did, because not only will we have the intellectual perspicacity and confidence to do so (whereas Haredism is afraid of the world's secular knowledge, afraid that the Torah is too impotent to stand up on its own), but we'll realize it is our purpose. Our very purpose as Jews is to confront the world's knowledge and culture and lead everyone and everything to G-dliness. We'll confront the same societal issues as the world does, with courage and with faith; Mr. Joseph Attias is certainly correct (in his “The Good Life”) that Judaism has its own self-sufficient view, but we will have the courage to apply this view to all of life, and deal sympathetically and courageously with the world's every woe. All of human civilization will be within our purview, and moreover, we will no longer be on the defensive, as Orthodoxy still is today. I don't believe anyone has put it better than Dr. Berkovits's son, Rabbi Dov Berkovits, when he said,
I think it safe to say that Eliezer Berkovits used the well-worn phrase “halachic Judaism” in two revolutionary ways. First, though springing from the fundamental commitments of Orthodoxy, halachic Judaism according to Berkovits refers to a non-denominational, or better, a post-denominational, Judaism whose ultimate concern is not with ideology, or even theology, but with the living demands of the dynamic condition of the Jewish people. Second, though deeply rooted in the wisdom of the Tora, the central aim of halachic Judaism is not to formulate a defensive, traditionalist posture for the protection of Tora from life, but rather to be a formative tool for the creative fashioning of human realities.
This is my Judaism. This is what my mother brought me up with. This is what I saw in Rav Hirsch, when I first became ritually-observant; a grand and audacious search for the truth, to lay all of human experience and knowledge and life at the footstool of G-d's throne. It is this view of the Torah that convinced me that the Torah had the answers to all of life's problems, that the Jewish people, working in concert with G-d as His emissaries, were destined to lead the world to redemption. And it is this view which I do not see being upheld in Orthodoxy today.

I later realized that the seed of truth I see in Mordechai Kaplan, is perhaps what Rabbi Benzion Uziel intends in his describing the Torah as our “national charter”. According to Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel,
He felt strongly that Jews must be aware of their own national charter. Through this self knowledge, they would be able to conduct their lives according to the ideals set forth in the Torah tradition. This would lead to their own happiness, as well as to a positive influence on the world in general. Rabbi Uziel criticized those false ideologies which distracted the Jewish people from their authentic national charter. He rejected the assimilationists, since their strategy would ultimately undermine the true message of Judaism. He also chastised those who would restrict Judaism to the narrow confines of their homes, synagogues and study halls. This strategy would bury Judaism in a small inner world, cutting off its impact on society as a whole. It was necessary to steer a middle course between assimilationist tendencies on the left and isolationist tendencies on the right. Rabbi Uziel cited the verse in Mishlei (4:25) as a guide: “Let your eyes look right on and let your eyelids look straight before you. Make plain the path of your foot and let all your ways be established. Turn not to the right nor to the left. Remove your foot from evil.”

Only by focusing on the specific charter of the Jewish people-to create a righteous nation based on the laws of Torah tradition-could the Jewish people fulfill its mission. Through our creating a model Torah society, we would be seen by the entire world to be the representatives of God. Our Torah teaches us to live life in its fullness. It teaches us how to apply the highest moral and ethical standards to all human situations. Judaism is not a cult, but a world religion with a world message. “Our holiness will not be complete if we separate ourselves from human life, from human phenomena, pleasures and charms, but (only if we are) nourished by all the new developments in the world, by all the wondrous discoveries, by all the philosophical and scientific ideas which flourish and multiply in our world. We are enriched and nourished by sharing in the knowledge of the world; at the same time, though, this knowledge does not change our essence, which is composed of holiness and appreciation of God's exaltedness.” The national charter of the Jewish people is “to live, to work, to build and to be built, to improve our world and our life, to raise ourselves and to raise others to the highest summit of human perfection and accomplishment. (This is accomplished by following) the path of peace and love, and being sanctified with the holiness of God in thought and deed.”
Perhaps Mordechai Kaplan grasped some bit of the truth which so few Orthodox rabbis are capable of realizing.

And now I see Rav Hertz also concurs with Kaplan.


Mom said...

It's always good not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I had begun to tire of late of hearing Mordechai Kaplan quoted almost as if he were Moshe Rabbeinu, and as if Reconstructionism were our religion. You remind me that of course he had some good points to make. He no doubt was genuinely torn between Orthodoxy and liberalism, and sought a synthesis; he was not a bad man who might as well have become an atheist. Reminds me that *everyone* has something to contribute.

And of course the mitzvot are given to us for a reason. I remember as a child sometimes questioning why your grandparents would admonish me to do this or not to do that. I wasn't questioning their authority or knowledge or wisdom; I just wanted to know why, what was the point, the purpose? I felt, and still feel, that knowing why can help me follow the rules better and help me learn to be a better person.

We're supposed to make this world a place where G*d is comfortable spending most of His time (if I may say that G*d "spends time" anywhere). It follows that the mitzvot have the purpose of helping us to do so, doesn't it? G*d isn't so arbitrary and capricious that He gave us a bunch of weird and goofy rules that make no sense, just for fun. (Although some may still seem that way; recently a colleague, upon my telling him that I may not eat shrimp and scallops and such, responded, "I'm sorry." I've likewise been told, "G*d doesn't love you; He won't let you eat crabs!" Yeah, how do you live in Maryland and not eat crabs? Well, you just don't.)

I have found more than once that when I tried to add a new mitzvah to my repertoire, I would soon drop it if it became rote and seemingly purposeless. Once I was able to see the meaning in it, I could "own" it and actually enjoy doing it, with fewer lapses. (I'm thinking particularly of saying brachot.)

Mikewind Dale said...


Actually, Kaplan had been Conservative, not Orthodox, but I'll grant your basic point.

Of course, Kaplan's metaphysics and theology are something wholly separate; I'm not sure, but I think his conception of G-d was some sort of Spinozist pantheism, or some such.

I recently saw Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits make the point that whereas Christianity sees the Kingdom of G-d as something other-worldly to aspire to, Judaism rather sees that Kingdom as something for us to BUILD in THIS world. In the beginning of Genesis, it says, "Asher bara elokim la'asot" (Which G-d created to do); Hazal say that "la'asot" (to do) is an incomplete sentence (to do what?), and that the verse is telling us that we are to complete the world as G-d's partners. G-d gave us swamps to drain, malaria to eradicate, deserts to make bloom with irrigation. Tikkun olam is very this-worldly; our task as Jews is a physical, sociological, political, and economical rectification of our this-worldly reality, all under the aegis of His Kingdom. Not "Man in Search of G-d", but rather (as Rabbi Heschel titled his book) G-d in Search of Man. As Rav Hirsch says, the Torah is an anthropology, not a theology; not G-d in man's eyes, but rather, man in G-d's eyes. The Torah is nothing but an instruction book for how man is to live his life, in this world, to use all aspects of this world and this life in the proper manner. All this, I learned from my mother.

Regarding the mitzvot being given for a reason, see what Rambam says, at

Thank you Mommy for contributing! Now people can see where I come from.

Mommy said...

Oh, yes, the Chr*stian other-worldly belief. The physical world is seen as evil. That belief seems to stem from Greek philosophy, which Chr*stianity bought into, hook, line, and sinker. Chr*stians forget that (1) G*d made the world, and (2) He saw that it was very good.

Mikewind Dale said...

Mommy, you need to make aliyah. I want to you be able to feed your grandchildren cookies as you teach them Judaism!

Mommy said...

I SOOOO need to make aliyah! I have told Daddy that if your brother does, there will be NOTHING to hold me here! I want to stuff my grandchildren FULL of cookies! I want to teach them Judaism! I want to see them every day!

Was that too "chispy"?

Mikewind Dale said...

Nah, that wasn't chispy. Now, when you said you had the shop for the wedding dress picked out, *that* was chispy. But you're just fine here.

Mommy said...

Oh, good!

/* ******** Google Analytics ******** */ /* ******** Amazon ******** */