The Menorah Journal and Shaping American Jewish Identity: Culture and Evolutionary Sociology

Article excerpt

The study of the popularization of science sheds light on how particular ethnic and religious communities engage with science. To gain a properly nuanced view, this study must extend to include nonscientific journals that address those communities. The Menorah Journal, an influential English-language American Jewish publication, serves as a case in point. The Menorah Journal's use of evolutionary sociology in articles during its peak from 1915 to 1929 reveals that the American culture of scientific inquiry forms the backdrop to the Menorah Journal's push to construct a Jewish American identity based not upon religion or nationalism, but upon ethnicity. In the pages of the Menorah Journal, prominent intellectuals drew upon neo-Darwinism, orthogenesis, and neo-Lamarckism to address the challenges facing Judaism in America from an empirical, positivist vantage point, and to articulate an approach towards an American Jewish cultural renaissance. This paper situates the Journal within the context of contemporary American cultural reactions to progressivism, Deweyan pragmatism, neo-Darwinian and neo-Lamarckian evolutionism, and the social sciences, and presents case-studies that offer a detailed analysis of articles by Mordecai Kaplan, Leon Simon, Kaufmann Kohler, Simon Dubnow, and Isaac Baer Berkson. Evolutionary sociology, it will be seen, is a key element in the Menorah Journal's efforts to foster a Jewish cultural renaissance. Analyzing how the Menorah Journal deployed evolutionary sociology thus offers a fresh perspective from which to explore issues of Americanization, identity, and cultural vitality.

"As the first step in seeing America and American Jewry eye to eye, the inquirer . . . must cultivate the scientific attitude"

(Marvin Lowenthal)

By the 1920s, American Judaism was at a crossroads. The second generation of American Jews was concerned about becoming fully Americanized, and there was a widespread belief that Judaism in America, brought to a crisis by restrictive immigration laws, would not withstand the forces of assimilation for long. This was the problem of modern American Judaism. The Menorah Journal, an early twentieth-century English-language Jewish periodical, advanced some of the most creative solutions to this problem. The Menorah Journal was one of the most significant American Jewish publications of its time and is an invaluable source of information for charting the evolution of American Jewish identity.1 Originally conceived as the print organ for the university-based Jewish student organization, the Intercollegiate Menorah Association, it began publication in 1915 and enjoyed its peak popularity and influence in the 1920s. It remained continuously in print until 1962. Its uniqueness lay in its humanist approach to Judaism that was independent from religious affirmation or political affiliation.2

The Menorah Journal's contributing authors were among the most important thinkers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, of the period, including such illustrious names as leading intellectual Mordecai Kaplan, writer Lionel Trilling, philosophers Horace Kallen and John Dewey, historian Charles Beard, and writer and intellectual Randolph Bourne. Its Board of Consulting Editors, writes historian Lauren Strauss, "formed a veritable honor roll of American Jewish establishmentarianism," with Chancellors of the Jewish Theological Seminary Solomon Schechter and Cyrus Adler, Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, prominent rabbi Judah Magnes, Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold, Reform rabbis and leaders Kaufmann Kohler and Stephen Wise, and sixteen other prominent intellectuals and leaders associated with it in 1915.3 Its vision was laid out in the Editorial Statement in its January 1915 inaugural issue:

[T]he Menorah Journal is under compulsion to be absolutely non-partisan...; harking back to the past that we may deal more wisely with the present and the future;...to deepen the consciousness of noblesse oblige;. …