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diacritics 30.2 (2000) 70-87



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Overhearing Hollander's Hyphens Poet-Critic, American-Jew

Andrew Bush

in memory of Maria Torok


John Hollander. The Work Of Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.

Hyphens

Mordecai Kaplan's grand quest romance, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), finds its nadir midway through his argument. He had set out not from Judaism in search of, say, God, but from America in search of Judaism, an altogether less auspicious quest. But having slain his rivals--gashed and gory Reformists, Orthodox and Conservatives Right and Left--he stops to survey the field in the section "Implications of the Proposed Version of Judaism." It is a dismal sight.

Kaplan reached that perch by his unswerving loyalty to a reality principle that dictated a revised conceptualization of the "other-worldly." First, he called for a franker acknowledgment that Jewish civilization since the destruction of the second Temple was governed by "other-worldly sanctions" (primarily, reward beyond death for mitzvoth performed in this life): "the only plausible excuse for failing to recognize the predominance of other-worldliness in Judaism," writes Kaplan in a typically feisty moment, "is that it fills Judaism like an atmosphere, and is so ubiquitous as to escape notice" [213]. The proposition does not seem, on the face of it, to require a sharpened polemical edge. But Kaplan was arguing that the "other-worldly stage" of Jewish history was at an end. His position is not an outright rejection of the reality of the other-worldly, but rather an acceptance of the reality of a faith so diminished amongst the majority of modern Jews that otherworldly sanctions had ceased to function as an effective means of binding the community. If the future of Judaism was to be more than an illusion, he asserted, then a new form of coherence was necessary. Hence, the quest.

The same reality principle operated with respect to the whole religious language of Judaism. Modernity had stripped "chosen-ness," "revelation," and even the "God-term" of their literal referents, leaving the central tenets of Judaism accessible to Kaplan's contemporaries only as metaphors. Kaplan's "proposed version of Judaism," which would of course become the platform for Reconstructionism, includes a powerful reading of those metaphors for modern Jews. No deconstructionist avant la lettre, for Kaplan the vitality of those metaphors depends upon some literal grounding, for which he offers the reconstructed literalism of the kehilla. Often a designation for congregations, thus closely associated with worship, and so a term vitiated by lapsed practice and intra-Jewish [End Page 70] strife, Kaplan's fundamental proposal is the establishment of the kehilla--which he translates as "community"--as a literal dwelling together in the neighborhood of a multipurpose "community center." 1 The proposal to build a voluntary ghetto without walls, to make community life binding again by giving it more than a virtual space, looks well beyond the subsequent realization in the form of America's numerous JCCs; but it presupposed a form of political organization at odds with American life, as Kaplan indicated through his mapping of Jewish political geography of the post-World War I era with respect to relative autonomy.

The first zone on such a map was Palestine, "where the Jews are to be given the opportunity to develop their own civilization on the same terms as any other nation," which is to say, "if [a Jew] so chooses, to live entirely within his people's civilization" [215]. A second zone included those countries that admitted political identity to ethnic minorities, including Jews, where cultural autonomy was sufficient to allow for the "survival of the civilization of the Jew on a basis co-ordinate with the native civilization" [216]. In those cases, the Jew may live not only as a Jew, dwelling within a Jewish community, but may live a life no less Jewish than Czech, for instance. But in America, even for the Jew within walking distance of the proposed community center, that degree of autonomy does not exist; and with this realization, in a book directed specifically "toward a reconstruction of...

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