restricted access A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community: Mordecai M. Kaplan, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism
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A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community: Mordecai M. Kaplan, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism. By Jeffrey S. Gurock and Jacob S. Schacter. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. pp. 220.

A collaborative effort between Jeffrey S. Gurock, noted historian of American Jewish immigrant Orthodoxy, and scholar Jacob S. Schacter, rabbi of the Jewish Center of New York City, this book explores two separate but intersecting phenomena: the personal, traumatic spiritual odyssey of Mordecai Kaplan who by 1904/05 had privately broken with Orthodox doctrine, yet continued to guide Orthodox synagogues in the next fifteen years; and the evolving misperceptions and misreadings of this dissenter cum heretic by Orthodox leaders, who, despite Kaplan’s public criticisms of Orthodoxy in the press, still considered him one of their own. Indeed, even after Kaplan’s unequivocal attacks in the Maccabaean and Menorah Journal in 1920 and his subsequent departure from the Jewish Center, some members of that congregation thought a merger between their institutions and his newly created Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) was still possible. And in the following decades, Orthodox leaders continued to consult with Kaplan or his writings for assessments about the spiritual ailments of American Jewry and for creative ideas to attract second and third generation American Jews to Judaism.

The book begins with two brief chapters depicting Kaplan’s family background and early years at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS). Israel Kaplan, Mordecai’s father, ordained by the leading luminaries of Lithuanian Jewry, served as a dayyan in the court of Rabbi Jacob Joseph for two years after his arrival in New York in 1889, and affiliated with the most traditional Orthodox institutions and personalities in the Lower East Side. Nevertheless, he persisted in non-conformist openness to modern trends he had already exhibited in Russia: he hosted discussions in his home with maverick, former apostate and bible critic, Arnold B. Ehrlich, withdrew his son from the Etz Chaim yeshiva, enrolled him in public school, and later sent him to JTS to pursue studies to become a modern Orthodox rabbi. As Gurock has deftly elucidated in many previous works, this religious broadmindedness may not have been the norm at this time, but neither was it exceptional in a first generation immigrant Orthodoxy that was by no means monolithic. [End Page 357]

The first central concern of the book is the charting of Mordecai Kaplan’s developing disaffection with Orthodox Judaism. From Kaplan’s diary accounts, it seems that at least by 1904, at age 23, he harbored serious misgivings about Orthodoxy’s ability to satisfy his spiritual needs and its unwillingness to modernize. By 1905, three years after having been ordained by JTS, he notes his loss of faith in the divine origins of the Bible and its laws and in the efficacy of prayers and rituals; by 1907, he had apparently disclosed his feelings to his parents. Somewhat surprisingly, it was at this same time that he applied for and received his first position within an Orthodox institution. In late fall 1903, Kaplan was appointed superintendent of the religious school at Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ), a gradually modernizing Orthodox synagogue in New York’s Yorkville district, consisting of newly affluent and acculturating East European Jews who had migrated north from the Lower East Side. In April 1904, satisfied that he was a fine preacher and excellent model to represent them in the community, the synagogue board members appointed Kaplan congregational rabbi.

Gurock and Schacter ably describe the terrible inner anguish Kaplan experienced in living a lie. Increasingly alienated from Orthodoxy, he was impatient with what he considered to be minor issues the synagogue board wrestled with in its attempts to define the parameters of permissible liturgical and stylistic changes: incorporating some English in sermons and in some prayers; shnoddering at aliyot ; the use of ushers to maintain decorum during services. But more galling to Kaplan was the pain of knowing that he concealed from the public profound heterodox views; he chafed under the burden of his own hypocrisy and felt ashamed.

In 1909, already thinking of alternative careers, Kaplan was liberated from the Orthodox institution for which he felt unsuited...