Democracy and the New Haggadah

By Moore, Deborah Dash | American Jewish History, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Democracy and the New Haggadah


Moore, Deborah Dash, American Jewish History


On Friday, February 16, 1940, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, American philosopher and founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, confided to his diary: "Utilizing in part Sun Yat Sen's words in his famous will, I would say: Our one end in view should be the elevation of the Jewish people to a place of freedom and equality among the nations." Kaplan's comparison of the Jewish people with the nations of the world avoided any mention of states, the predominant political form adopted by nations in 1940. As he continued to contemplate Sun Yat Sen's political testament first articulated in a 1923 speech as "Three Principles of the People," Kaplan moved deftly from questions of power toward religious aims. "To attain this goal" of freedom and equality, he wrote, "we must bring about a thorough awakening of our own people and ally ourselves in a common struggle with all individuals and groups that labor to bring self-determination and self-fulfillment within reach of all human beings." (1) Kaplan's reflection on the famous Chinese nationalist leader's ideas occurred at a moment when Nazis were rounding up Jews in Poland and forcing them into ghettos. The Nazi assault on Jews had just begun (the German conquest of western Europe would not start until the spring), but Kaplan was well aware of Nazism's identification of democracy as a degenerate political form with Jews as a degenerate race. At this vulnerable moment for Jews, Kaplan pondered the importance of allies in a struggle for self-determination and self-fulfillment--the first a national political goal and the second an individual religious one--for all men and women. While his political consciousness remained firmly wedded to his religious commitment, Kaplan was no parochial Jewish thinker. He was always willing to seek inspiration from diverse non-Jewish sources and to adapt ideas to fulfill his goals of reviving Judaism and the Jewish people in the modern world.

On that cold February day, Kaplan continued to mull over Sun Yat Sen's goals: "I would even adopt his 'three Principles of the People' as applying to us," Kaplan wrote. Nationhood, Democracy, and Livelihood all addressed Jews as well as Chinese. "Nationhood calls for the establishment of a center in Palestine where Jews can live entirely by their own civilization and the fostering of Judaism as a secondary civilization in countries where they constitute minorities." (2) Kaplan succinctly summarized both his interpretation of Zionism and his program of Judaism as a civilization. More than a religion, Judaism involved all aspects of human culture, including, of course, politics. Nationhood, an aspect of Jewish civilization, embraced political dimensions of self-governance, although Kaplan avoided language linking nation and state, in part because of the havoc European nation states were wreaking on Jews. (3) As a spiritual Zionist who was opposed to what historian Noam Pianko has called "the sovereign mold," Kaplan championed the establishment a Jewish national home, not a Jewish state, in the land of Israel, where Jews would be a majority free to shape their own culture. (4) Where Jews lived as minorities, as Kaplan anticipated they would continue to do, they perforce had to participate in two civilizations, the majority non-Jewish one as well as their own Jewish one. In the United States, Jews were fortunate to live in a democratic society. (5)

"Democracy," Kaplan wrote, "calls for the application of the ideals of freedom, justice and peace in all human relationships from those of the family to those between nations."" This was a tall order in 1940. Not only did Germany's Nazi Reich and Italy's fascist government malign democracy as a political system and social ideal, but Stalin's dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union also derogated democratic values as bourgeois and antirevolutionary. Kaplan, however, sought to identify Jews with democracy because he understood it as a moral ordering of human relations as well as a political system.

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