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The Kaplan Exchange, Part 1: America’s First Excommunicated Rabbi

by Shmuel Rosner

April 9, 2014 | 3:03 am

Professor Mel Scult

Mel Scult, professor emeritus of Jewish thought at Brooklyn College, received his M.A. from Harvard University, his B.H.L. from the Jewish Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from Brandeis University. He has taught at Brandeis, Vassar College, the New School for Social Research, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Professor Scult is co-founder of the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. He is the author of a biography of Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century, and has co-edited, with Emmanuel Goldsmith, Dynamic Judaism: The Essential Writings of Mordecai Kaplan. He also edited Communings of the Spirit , the first volume of selections from Kaplan’s twenty seven volume diary. Dynamic Judaism and his biography of Kaplan have appeared in Hebrew from Yediot Ahronot.

The following Exchange will focus on Professor Scult’s recently published book, The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai Kaplan (Indiana University Press, 2013).

***

Dear Professor Scult,

Your book celebrates the life and thought of one of the most intriguing figures of 20th century American Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a man known to many people as the father of the Reconstructionist movement. I'd like to start this exchange with the dramatic episode that you begin the book with – the excommunication of Kaplan by the ultra-orthodox community in 1945, following the publication of his controversial prayer book.

Now, you mention that this was the first ultra-orthodox excommunication of a rabbi in the history of the United States. Interestingly though, the reform and conservative movements had been around for quite a while by the time the event took place. My first question –

Why did the Ultra-orthodox community (and the orthodox community) feel so threatened by Mordecai Kaplan, and why did he generate more radical responses from them than any Reform or Conservative rabbi of his time?

I'm looking forward to reading your answer.

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

Thank you very much for inviting me to participate in this exchange. I find it stimulating and look forward to it.

The most striking aspect of the excommunication or herem of Mordecai Kaplan in June 1945 [on the week of parshat Korach] is its incongruity. In the middle of New York City, in the mid twentieth century, in a hotel across the street from Macy’s, a few hundred black hated ultra-Orthodox men carried out a medieval rite and burned the innovative prayer book of a well-known and highly respected Conservative rabbi. How can we make sense of such a bizarre spectacle?

Understanding the context of this event requires us to examine it from a personal, a social and a religious point of view.  First and foremost is the personal, which cannot be separated from the religious. Mordecai Kaplan had conflicts with the Orthodox for a very long time. His first position after ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902 was at the well-known New York Orthodox synagogue Kehilath Jeshurun.  A newly formed ultra-orthodox organization issued a strong condemnation of the congregation for hiring a graduate of the Seminary, an institution they believed was illegitimate as a rabbinical training institution. It was this same organization that excommunicated Kaplan in 1945.

Kaplan’s heterodox ideas became well known within the Orthodox community. In 1920, he wrote an article for the Menorah Journal in which he stated flatly his conviction that there was no future for Orthodoxy in America unless it changed radically. Kaplan’s seminal work Judaism as a Civilization [1934] condemned the rigidity of traditional Judaism, dismissing the chosen people idea as inimical to a democracy, and advocating that halakhah or Jewish law be considered custom.

Most importantly, in 1941, Kaplan and his supporters published an innovative Passover Haggadah which infuriated many, including Kaplan’s colleagues at the Seminary. Kaplan’s Haggadah was the first non-traditional Haggadah at the time other than a number of new Haggdahs which had been created in the kibbutzim.  Kaplan’s Haggadah omitted the plagues completely,  changed the language of chosen-ness and most significantly eliminated the “Hate formula”  which is said when opening the door for Elijah [“ Pour out thy wrath upon the nations which do not know you…”, Psalms 79:6] The excommunication proceedings explicitly mention the Kaplan Haggadah, condemning it in the strongest terms.

The context of the excommunication or herem, coming only two months after V-E Day, will help us to understand the motivations and the depth of feeling of the Orthodox.  The Holocaust and the murder of so many relatives was very much on the minds of the haredim in 1945. The discovery of the horror of the concentration camps with the war’s end only served to intensify the anger and gloom which enveloped the traditional community. And then Kaplan seemed to threaten the destruction of traditional religious ways as well.

Understanding the herem requires that we remember the total context of American Jewry. The ultra-Orthodox or haredim, as we would call them, were the traditional Jews who could not or would not acculturate to the American scene. In their minds, the Reform Jews were so far removed from the tradition that they were no threat. The Conservative Jews on the other hand were indeed a threat because in the eyes of the ultra-orthodox they might be mistaken for traditional Jews [this language is actually in the official herem document]. The Kaplan siddur of 1945, with all its Hebrew, looked very much like a traditional prayer book whereas the prayer book of the Reform had little Hebrew and omitted a large part  of the traditional liturgy. It need not be taken seriously, they believed.

The excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan was a source of sadness for him but it had little real effect on his life. The herem tells more about the inability of the haredim to acculturate and about the essence of Kaplan’s philosophy which was the Americanization and democratization of traditional Judaism.

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