Unhappy Place — Mordecai Kaplan– The Jewish Theological Seminary (1913-1934)


What an unhappy place the Jewish Theological Seminary was for Mordecai Kaplan, and what an unhappy place he must have made it in turn. From this there is a lot to learn about Conservative Judaism and institutionalized liberal religion in America. From the journals, you get a peek behind the scenes of Kaplan’s published body of work. The ideas are like ideas, free floating in their appearance. What they don’t show is the grubby pettiness of modern religion, the bitchiness and the mediocrity that defines an institution. Again and again in the first volume of the journals, out in the open is how much hatred there was between Kaplan, on the one hand, and scholars like Louis Finkelstein and Louis Ginzberg. All towering figures in the annals of the movement, the spirit that comes across is mean, human-all-too-human. No one comes out looking good, not Finkelstein and Ginzberg, and not Kaplan himself.

Beyond the gossip value, what’s worth thinking about is the substance of Kaplan’s critique of Finkelstein and Ginzberg, and what his unhappiness about them says about the Jewish Theological Seminary as the unhappy place that it was and what that unhappiness might say today about the state of Conservative Judaism as it continues to try to figure itself out as a centrist movement in the Jewish world.  Because even then, writing in his journal in 1927,  Kaplan commented upon the uncertainty of Conservative Judaism, whose members were no longer Orthodox but not yet Reform. This, he thought, was a joke that was true to the fact (Communings of the Spirit, vol. 1,  1913-1934, p.240).

Intellectually, the disputes in which Kaplan placed himself concerned the teaching of biblical criticism in relation to the Pentateuch, as well as the teaching of comparative religion. These were part of the reasons mentioned by Kaplan in the letter of resignation that he proffered to the administration and then withdrew (ibid; cf p.441). While the teaching of biblical criticism at JTS is, of course, a settled deal, it is important to remember that it was controversial in 1927. The controversy over biblical criticism was part of a bigger picture, which for Kaplan was theological and institutional, involving [1] the status of revelation and miracle as a buttress to Jewish religion and [2] the intellectual and spiritual independence of the Conservative Movement as a liberal movement vis-à-vis Orthodoxy.

Kaplan complained in his early journal entries about a lot of things at JTS. Most of the criticism was focused around Finkelstein and Ginzberg, but he also blamed Schechter himself. First, he complained, more or less fairly and unfairly, about his colleagues and the detached historicist character of their scholarship. Never mind the eventual popular impact of Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews (1909), Kaplan thought the type of scholarship pursued at the Seminary had nothing to do with or was able to contribute to the needs of the hour and to the emergence of modern day Judaism (436, 462). And then he complained that the leadership and leading figures at the Seminary were unable to free themselves from Orthodox Judaism (471). Kaplan claims that’s why Schechter never wrote a movement program (227). But mostly, he complains about Finkelstein and biblical criticism, about Ginzberg and the slavish devotion to Halakhah he embodied, (227), and about intellectual dishonesty.

Maybe it came down to this, and maybe this remains the challenge of liberal Judaism and Conservative Judaism to this day, intellectually and institutionally. While I do not share Kaplan’s animating animus, his unhappy misanthropy, and the low regard in which he held other people, it is of interest to note how he complained about “the rabbinical calling in New York City,” the narrow horizons and the forced acquaintanceship with “the most boring set of human beings in the world, all of the one species designated by [H.L.] Mencken as booboisie” (438). What I get reading Kaplan trash-talking the JTS is the importance of felicitous place, of how, one might say, place matters.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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