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Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life (Paperback)

jan peczkis|Friday, May 1, 2015

This work (review based on original 1934 edition) covers many topics, and I consider a few of them. I especially focus on Jewish Chosenness. For more on this specific subject, by the same author, in his classic 1948 book, please click on, and read my review, of The future of the American Jew.

Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life (Paperback) This work (review based on original 1934 edition) covers many topics, and I consider a few of them. I especially focus on Jewish Chosenness. For more on this specific subject, by the same author, in his classic 1948 book, please click on, and read my review, of The future of the American Jew.

In this 1934 book, Rabbi Kaplan attempts to redefine Judaism. Instead of the Jews being a community that has come into existence because of God, and which exists in order to conserve and to proclaim God's revelation, it is a self-sustaining, creative community that manufactures and re-invents its own concept of God and religion.


In Deuteronomy 7:6-8 and 9:6, God plainly tells the Jews that He is not choosing them according to any merits of their own. However, this did not prevent Jewish interpretations from developing that explicitly taught that Jews ARE better than the GOYIM, and that God chose Jews precisely because of their pre-existing superiority. Moreover, these beliefs became a mainstay in the Jewish religion, and persisted to fairly modern times. What today is called Orthodox Judaism is really neo-Orthodox Judaism. Kaplan explains this whole process. He writes, (quote) The Neo-Orthodox conception of Israel, though presumably a reiteration of the traditional view of Israel, turns out, upon examination, to be a decided recasting of that view in a number of ways. The traditional belief as formulated by Judah Ha-Levi is that Israel was privileged to come into the possession of the Torah on account of the inherent superiority which it had inherited from Adam, Noah, and the Patriarchs, and which marked them off as a higher human species. According to Neo-Orthodoxy, it is for the sake of the Torah, for the sake of preserving and propagating the teachings of that Torah, and not because of any hereditary superiority, that God chose Israel. Tradition declares that the Torah is principally a means of maintaining Israel's inborn superiority so that at no time shall Israel descend to the level of the nations...It is evident that Neo-Orthodoxy is not prepared to retain the traditional belief in the inherent superiority of Israel... (unquote). (pp. 145-146). Furthermore, the traditional Jewish belief had unmistakable Jewish supremacist connotations. Kaplan remarks, (quote) According to Judah Ha-Levi, KITAB AL KHAZARI I, PAR. 47, the Jews alone inherited from Adam a capacity for spiritual life. (unquote). (p. 526).


Rabbi Kaplan implicitly supports the premise that the Talmud teaches a much stronger form of Jewish elitism than does the Old Testament. He thus describes the reason, according to the Talmud and in contradistinction to the Bible (Old Testament), for God creating the world, (quote) The creation of the world is no longer taken for granted, as in the Bible, as an ultimate act of God which needs no further accounting. It is now interpreted as having been intended mainly for Israel. Rabbinic Judaism represents largely a reversal of centrality in the spiritual realm analogous to the reversal of centrality effected by the change from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican system of astronomy. Instead of Israel existing for the world, it is the world that exists for Israel. (unquote). (p. 380).

It gets even better. The Talmud teaches that, not only was the world created specifically for the Jews, but the entire universe was created specifically for the Jews, and, what's more, ONLY for the Jews. Quoting Berakot 32b (Reference 54, p. 547), Kaplan writes, (quote) It is in no hyperbolic sense that Resh Lakish represents God as saying to Israel, when the latter complains that God seems to have forgotten her, "I have created twelve constellations in heaven, each constellation consists of thirty hosts, etc., and each camp consists of 365 times ten million stars,...and all of them I have created only for thy sake." (unquote). (p. 381). [I invite the reader to check this verse out for himself/herself, as I did. Locate and go to the online Babylonian Talmud, and read Barakoth, specifically Mas. Berachoth 32b].


Mordecai M. Kaplan comments, (quote) The Jews, however, have found it necessary to retreat from the stand taken by them in the past with regard to their being God's chosen people. They realize intuitively that, if they were to persist in the literal acceptance of that doctrine, they would have to exclude themselves from complete self-identification with the state. For, according to the literal interpretation of that doctrine, it is the destiny of the ENTIRE Jewish people to be restored to Palestine. (unquote).(emphasis his).(p. 23).


The author quotes Claude Montefiore, who wrote a 1912 book, OUTLINES OF LIBERAL JUDAISM. Montefiore considers Jewish Chosenness as having less to do with universalism and more to do with what may be called Jewish nationalism. He writes, (quote) He [Montefiore] recognizes that even the few passages in the Bible which dwell upon the election of Israel were always understood in the national sense. Messianism meant less the universal adoption of the truth concerning God than the prosperity of Israel and its spiritual preeminence. The glory of God was identified with the glory of Israel. (unquote). (p. 531). For more on Jewish Chosenness as a form of tribalism, please click on Montefiore's work, Liberal Judaism: An Essay, and read my review.

Some other topics:



In the past, Christians had often criticized Judaism not only for rejecting Jesus Christ, but also for fostering, in their opinion, an overly rigid, rote-oriented, and excessive Pharisaic code morality that has largely replaced other aspects of religious devotion. While Rabbi Kaplan does not go this far, he finds merit in this line of thinking. He criticizes rabbinism and talmudism as follows, (quote) Ritualism, purified, to be sure, of its pagan connotations, continued to possess a degree of importance far beyond its intrinsic value. From the traditional or rabbinic point of view, the ethical values are regarded as indispensable, but are not granted the primacy accorded them by the prophets. Regardless of theory, ritualism acquired a dominant place in practice by reason of the exaggerated amount of attention paid to it in the literature. Compare, for example, the extent of the material in the Talmud dealing with ritual and with the material therein that is devoted to the discussion of the civil law. This legalistic treatment of ritual observance has caused it to bulk large in the consciousness of the Jew, and has laid him open to the charge of being a legalist. (unquote). (pp. 109-110).



On a completely different subject, Kaplan describes the Jewish situation, in the newly-resurrected post-1918 Polish state, as an inheriting of pre-existing problems. He comments, (quote) In Poland, there was a continuation of the struggle to get the government to live up to its constitution, and to remove the numerous disabilities and restrictions which were a heritage from the Czarist [tsarist] times. (unquote). (p. 526).
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