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Vanishing dance

Lessons on the decline of liberal Judaism

Vanishing dance

Mordecai Kaplan (American Jewish Liberty)

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year’s Day, begins this year the evening of Sept. 29. Some synagogues and temples will be crowded the way churches are on Easter, but most won’t have many worshippers on a typical Sabbath.

Do those who don’t know history repeat the errors of others? A book published 85 years ago—Jewish Theological Seminary professor Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization—led many Jews away from Judaism. Books with similar themes today are undermining Biblical Christianity. 

Kaplan before World War II went on speaking tours, praising Judaism as a fine result of natural human development rather than divine inspiration. He said the Hebrew Bible was not God’s Word, merely a key document in the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Noah’s flood was not a mega-drowning but a writer’s device to get our attention. Exodus was a work of fiction rather than an actual history of liberation from bondage.

Kaplan said young people were abandoning a Judaism based on the supernatural, for they did not find Biblical accounts believable. For the sake of the children, professors should present the Bible as merely “ancient religious folklore … there would be once and for all an end to that mental conflict which has alienated Jewish youth from their religion.” 

Kaplan said the Hebrew Bible was not God’s Word, merely a key document in the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.

Kaplan taught that the Bible is not special: “Beliefs similar to those found in the Bible about God arise among all peoples at a certain stage of mental and social development. … The truths established by the various sciences of human nature and history no longer permit us to concede that Israel received a type of revelation or communication that was outside the order of nature.” 

For the sake of the children, Jews should view Darwinian evolution as not only true but joyful: “The Darwinian conception of the descent of man from the lower animals … holds forth the promise of man’s evolving into a much higher type of being than he is now. Man has so far transcended his original animal nature as to possess reason and spirit.” 

After World War II, many Jews learned of the Holocaust and saw incredible tragedy, but Kaplan saw man still progressing toward “the eventual dominance of his rational and ethical sense over his sensual appetites and savage lusts.” He published a complete siddur (prayer book) that omitted references to basic Jewish doctrines. A supernatural God who hears prayers? Gone. God punishes evil? Gone.

Orthodox rabbis vehemently disagreed. They called Kaplan a heretic and agreed “to excommunicate him and to separate him from the community of Israel until he fully repents.” Some publicly burned a copy of Kaplan’s prayer book in a New York City hotel.

Kaplan pushed back by starting within Judaism a “Reconstructionist” strain that amounted to a doughnut faith: Doughy but with a hole in the middle, where theology should be. Kaplan’s son-in-law, Ira Eisenstein, reported that the great professor at prayer times “would put on tallis [prayer shawl] and tefillin [phylacteries] and read from John Dewey,” the progressive sage. 

Kaplan also published The New Haggadah for the Pesach Seder. (A haggadah is a prayer book used at Passover meals.) It was “new” because it minimized the miracles of the Exodus story, but it apparently did not become new enough. Now a trip to Amazon.com or other sites yields titles like Haggadah for Jews & Buddhists, A Hip Hop Haggadah, The Hyper-Modern Ancient With-It Traditional Haggadah, the Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah (for LGBT users), and the punny Haggadah Good Feeling About This.

The forecast of the Orthodox rabbis was right. Kaplan’s “Reconstructionism” did not satisfy. The sect still has a minor presence in Judaism, but most rebels against Orthodox Judaism did not get off at the Reconstructionist bus stop. One of my cousins became a Jubu, trying to meld Moses and Buddha. Many became atheists. Some, surprised by Christ, became evangelicals (like me) or—like Robert Novak and Hadley Arkes—Catholics.

Today, millions who grew up in Christian homes are asking: What difference does the Bible make? We might think the way to hold onto them is to say, “Not much. Believe in evolution. Have an abortion.” That’s Biblically wrong, of course, but—judging by the Jewish experience—it’s also impractical. Judaism’s disappearing numbers teach that expecting faith, while lacking a theological core, is tap-dancing in the air.