Kaplan’s ‘New Zionism’, Rabbi Jack Cohen and the State of Israel

It was my good fortune that in 1968, at age 87, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan commuted once a week from New York City to teach at the newly opened Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where I entered as one of nine students in its inaugural class. He did so for just a few years before making aliyah.

There were many precious and memorable interactions in those years, though one in particular stands out in my mind. Rabbi Kaplan made the following confession: One Shabbat, he had been wrestling with a particularly difficult idea when out of the blue, to his amazement, a solution suddenly presented itself. Worried that he might forget the breakthrough, he made the painful decision to write it down on the Sabbath, the only time he had ever done so.

I was stunned. How could Kaplan, gadfly and revolutionary, critic and reformer, have such respect for halakhah [Jewish law]? How could he remain so loyal to, and respectful of, tradition and yet always be thinking and teaching, preaching and reaching out of the box? I knew instantly that this was a very deep and complex man who had been misunderstood by most, if not all, of his detractors.

We are indebted to Rabbi Jack Cohen, z”l, perhaps Rabbi Kaplan’s most devoted student, for revisiting and exploring some of that complexity in his last book, Democratizing Judaism.

Every great teacher and innovator deserves a disciple like Jack Cohen, who has spent a lifetime appreciating, while struggling to understand and interpret, his mentor and friend, Mordecai Kaplan.

In Democratizing Judaism, we are offered some rare glimpses into the twists and turns that the insights of a seminal thinker can take, as Cohen connects Kaplan’s thinking with his life experiences, and Kaplan’s theology with his biography. In Cohen’s words, “I am convinced that there is some connection between the character and temperament of an individual and the content of his or her thinking.” [11] No simple undertaking, especially for Kaplan, who wrote more than a dozen books and kept a diary for 65 years, making entries virtually every day. [15] Cohen draws heavily from Kaplan’s handwritten Diaries now stored in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City and available online.

Cohen begins with what he calls “A Personal Introduction,” a moving and intimate tribute to Kaplan’s influence on the course of his own life, followed by 17 chapters — nine were written for this volume, and eight are revisions or translations of earlier published pieces or lectures.

The book is divided into two distinct parts, despite the fact that many of the themes and topics appear in both. Overall, Part 1 [“Mordecai M. Kaplan Reexamined”] focuses on Kaplan’s methodology and philosophy, and some of his now infamous hidushim [for example, his unique and controversial approach to chosenness or election], as well as three chapters that respond in detail to Kaplan’s best-known critics: David Novak, David Hartman, Nicham Ross and Eliezer Berkovits.

Part II [“Reconstructionism Reexamined and Applied”], for me the most thought-provoking and valuable, revolves around the role Eretz Yisrael and the State of Israel played in Kaplan’s [and Cohen’s] life and thinking, as well as both of their views on some of the seemingly insurmountable problems, decisions and policies that have faced the modern, democratic, multicultural State of Israel.

Though I studied with Rabbi Kaplan three decades after Rabbi Cohen’s years at JTS, his characterization of Kaplan, both in and out of the classroom, parallels my own encounters and interactions. Kaplan’s demeanor in the classroom was fierce, to put it mildly — what seemed like an impenetrable “hard shell,” to use Cohen’s words; yet once you penetrated that exterior, you discovered not only an engaging and sincere smile but “a warm person … genuinely interested in the welfare and progress of his students, regardless of their views.” [12]

Cohen acknowledges that Kaplan could be “ruthless in his criticism of students” and often his temper got the best of him, even though he typically later regretted his outbursts. And Cohen admits that part of the problem was that Kaplan had an “exaggerated certainty about the correctness of his views.” [13]

I have a vivid memory of what recurred numerous times. After lecturing for a while, a student would raise a question or objection, and Kaplan would simply begin again, assuming that his presentation wasn’t clear or that the student didn’t follow his argument or train of thought. We attributed this pattern of behavior to Kaplan’s advanced age. Now I realize how mistaken we were.

Still, when the day ended, on a rotating basis, one of us had the privilege of driving Rabbi Kaplan to the train station.

Those minutes in the car were life-changing. The conversation was usually about us — who we were, our marital status, our background, our plans for the future. And then the best part of all: that warm, infectious smile, coming from deep within Rabbi Kaplan’s neshamah, as he exited the car bidding us “a good week till we meet again.” We knew we were in the presence of a great mind, and a gentle and kind soul.

Rabbi Cohen’s extensive knowledge of the corpus of Kaplan’s work, including hundreds of pages of diary entrees, is indeed impressive. He is able to cite chapter and verse, so to speak, to silence Kaplan’s critics. A few examples will suffice.

Kaplan is typically portrayed as the supreme rationalist and naturalist. He is said to be vehemently opposed to mysticism and all things supernatural [i.e., spiritual] by his detractors. Nothing can be further from the truth. And Cohen rests his argument on several key passages, including the following from A New Zionism [1955] and a Diaries entry from 1938:

[W]e characterize as mystical anything we regard as

indispensable to our life as human persons, without being

able to explain why that is so, on logical or rational

grounds. … [W]hatever experience gives us a feel-

ing of direct personal contact or rapport with what we

consider to be ultimate Reality, we refer to as mystical. If

we have a perceptive eye for the beauties of nature, any

landscape or seascape or starry night meets that

requirement, and therefore puts us in a mystical frame

of mind. [57]

Who am I?/I am I/What am I?/Dust that breathes,/Breath that sings,/Song that dies,/But in dying,/Lives in You. [65]

Eugene Borowitz, David Novak and others have argued that as a naturalist who affirms only the reality of nature, Kaplan has put himself outside the mainstream of Jewish tradition. Like most generalizations, this ignores the complexity and depth of Kaplan’s thinking.

A 1939 entry in the Diaries attests to this:

God should not be equated with Reality, any more than

consciousness with man. God is the positive pole of

Reality. … Reality is polar. It is both body and mind and

couldn’t be one without the other. It is both good and

evil … (God) therefore is ever at war with himself.

He prays to himself. … Since we exist in Reality or are

part of it, we too consist of good and evil and (are) ever

at strife with ourselves. God prays with us as we pray

to him. God prays to God. [108]

Like Jewish thinkers before him, Kaplan uses metaphorical language to articulate his idea of “God,” that is to say, “what there is,” as Cohen explains, “in human experience to which the word ‘God’ can be legitimately attached.” [112] And as Cohen beautifully puts it: “It takes a different mind-set to be satisfied with a God who is to be found in the flux of reality. Kaplan was one of the early proponents of the idea that God is to be sought in the transcendent dimension of demonstrable existence … and in the polar quality of man’s experience in the cosmos (body and mind, body and soul, man and woman, transcendence and immanence, independence and interdependence, and the like).” [188-189]

Kaplan devoted most of his intellectual life and pursuits to the “central question of creative Jewish survival.” [48] And Cohen correctly observes that Kaplan was usually a generation or two ahead of his contemporaries in many areas of public interest, including the role of women in Jewish life, the democratization of Jewish institutions, in his “constant call for a new covenant which would bind world Jewry into a single people around an agreed platform,” and “in his appeal to the non-Orthodox religious denominations to join the World Zionist Organization.” [49]

Kaplan was critical of the Zionist leadership “for their shortsightedness in not involving the Arabs in the building of a shared economy, and in ignoring their national feelings and needs.”

Some of Cohen’s most challenging and timely chapters revolve around the Yishuv in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, as well as the state of affairs in Israel in Kaplan’s lifetime.

It is a fascinating, thought-provoking and in many ways surprising discussion of Israel, particularly relevant, sadly, in light of recent developments.

From the outset, Cohen writes, Kaplan was critical of the Zionist leadership “for their shortsightedness in not involving the Arabs in the building of a shared economy and in ignoring their national feelings and needs.” [37]

Though Kaplan rarely expressed his criticisms publicly, when he did, it was very clear where he stood on the burning issues of his day, as in this passage from The Future of the American Jew (published in 1949):

The White Paper of 1939 [that, among other things, limited Jewish immigration to Palestine and the ability of Jews to purchase land] is the penalty Jews are paying for having mishandled the problem of their relations with the Arabs — Jews should have realized that they have to live with Arabs, and should not have attempted to build a Jewish economy by discouraging employment of Arabs. They should have tried to develop a single high-level economy in which exploitation of both Arab and Jewish labor would have been precluded. [37-38]

This is not typical for Kaplan; he generally “expressed his criticisms,” Cohen notes, “only sporadically and lightly in his published writings … partly because this is what [Kaplan thought] the hour demanded of Jewish leaders.”

But privately, in his Diaries, Kaplan spoke [or wrote] his mind. In a 1929 entry commenting on the Zionists’ disparaging attitude towards Arabs because of their failure to develop the land, Kaplan comments as follows:

Instead of deploying some of the abler and more fiery spirits among the Arabs by giving them positions in some of the financial and industrial undertakings, the Zionist Administration fostered a spirit of Jewish chauvinism and a Western air of superiority which is bound to antagonize the natives.

As Cohen puts it, “Kaplan’s empathy for the Arabs was deep.”

In the same entry, Kaplan goes on to observe that the approach the Zionists took in their dealings with Diaspora Jewry and foreign governments should not be transferred to their dealings with the Arabs. Kaplan was convinced that the Zionist movement had made a serious error in not first negotiating directly with the Arabs before turning to European nations to support the Zionist cause. In a word, as Cohen puts it, “Kaplan’s empathy for the Arabs was deep.”

Mel Scult, in his important book, The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan, explains further:

Kaplan was ever mindful of the rights of all minorities,

both Jewish and non-Jewish, within the State of Israel.

His pluralistic commitments and his concern for democ-

racy led him in the 1930s to support the idea of a bi-

national state where Jews and Arabs would have equal

rights. … During a visit to Palestine in August 1937,

Kaplan noted, “If I had any influence, I would recommend

the Jews propose to the Arabs that they participate

equally in the government and that the population of the

Jews be permanently adjusted to the number of Arabs in

the country.” [105]

Scult notes that Kaplan revised his view on the issue of balanced populations as the situation with Nazi Germany increased the need for a refuge.

In recounting Israel’s mistakes in pre-state times, as well as errors in judgment and policy in more recent decades, Kaplan and Cohen’s views begin to flow together, making it difficult or perhaps unnecessary to try to separate one from the other. Here, we find some of the best that Cohen has to teach us both about Kaplan, who spent two years at the Hebrew University [1937-1939], plus a good number of retirement years towards the end of his life, and Cohen himself, who made aliyah with his family in 1961.

There are two main foci for their concerns: Arab-Jewish relations from the 1920s, already discussed, and the decision to designate Israel as a “Jewish State” and all that follows from such a decision. The latter is one of Kaplan’s most contentious insights — though one that must be addressed, despite its controversial consequences.

For the question must be asked as to whether Israel can be both a democratic and Jewish state. Kaplan believed that it could not consistently embrace both. Cohen cites this telling passage from A New Zionism [published in 1955]:

[Zionists cannot be excused today] from the duty of

facing the inescapable consequences of the idea of a

democratic state, based on the intrinsic and inalienable

rights of each citizen. In the light of those realities, the

         State of Israel cannot be a Jewish State, nor can world

         Jewry be a nation in the modern sense. The State of

         Israel will have to be an Israeli State, and world Jewry

         will have to be metamorphosed into a Jewish People

         which is rooted in Eretz Yisrael and which has branches

         wherever it is allowed to live. [215]

For Kaplan [and Cohen, whom I now quote] to call Israel a Jewish State “distorts the dual aim of classical Zionism of establishing a Jewish homeland while at the same time guaranteeing fully the human and civil rights of the non-Jewish population.”

And, again, in Cohen’s words, near the end of the book:

Unless Israel’s minorities can be made to feel that the

State belongs to them as well — just as Jewish minorities

feel about their roles in other free states — the Jewish

character of Israel becomes deficient in an important

moral dimension. The fact is that the Jewishness of Israel

depends not only on the ability of Jews to remain a

majority but also on their ability to live up to their

creative spiritual potential. [247]

What greater tribute is possible? Cohen opens the volume with glowing words of praise for his mentor and friend. Then, weaving its way through one chapter and another, and plainly visible by the end, master and disciple are speaking with one voice.

It is a voice that deserves to be heard; it is a voice that has much to reveal about the nature of Judaism and the critical challenges facing the modern state of Israel.

One Response

  1. This is a very important article. It is especially important in these times. It is clear the variety of Zionisms today, are far too cramped & could benefit from Kaplan-Cohen. Bravo David.

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