Heschel and Kaplan on the Centrality of Peoplehood

October 1, 2006
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Neil Gillman

Some years ago, I taught a seminar for a group of high-achieving undergraduates, comparing and contrasting the thought of Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel on selected theological/ideological issues. To me, the pairing was a natural, and though conventional wisdom tended to polarize them, I felt that their commonalities were as interesting as their differences. I was particularly interested in ferreting out what fundamental impulses drove their inquiries, what issues motivated them, what got them started.

I was struck by one student’s response: “Kaplan is much more Jewish.” I must have looked startled, because she continued, “Heschel’s issues are universal, human issues. Heschel wants to save the world. But Kaplan wants to save Judaism.” I reassured the student that Heschel too was very much interested in saving Judaism. But I had to concede that she had a point. Kaplan’s point of departure was the centrality of Jewish peoplehood. Judaism was, ab initio, the creation of the Jewish people, which is why it could be reshaped by each successive community in line with its distinctive historical experience. It is no accident that Kaplan’s first and major book was Judaism as a Civilization. His definition of Judaism as a civilization was the central organizing principle of his entire system, and remains his most original contribution. Though it has effectively become mainstream, even in Orthodox circles, it is rarely identified as Kaplan’s contribution.

In contrast, Heschel’s two most important theological statements, Man Is Not Alone (1951) and God in Search of Man (1955), begin with an analysis of the religious experience. Note their titles and the sequence: the first is subtitled “A Philosophy of Religion,” and the second, “A Philosophy of Judaism.” However informed his analysis may be by biblical and Hasidic notes, Heschel insists that our experience of God is preconceptual and presymbolic. It is accessible to all human beings because of our common humanity. Only at a later point is this experience translated into a distinctive symbolic language by a specific religious community. It is not an accident that Heschel is read voluminously by Christians while Kaplan remains unknown in those circles. Nor is it an accident that at a later point in his career, Heschel went far beyond his Jewish concerns to engage in a broadly humanitarian, universal social and political agenda. In contrast, Kaplan devoted the last decades of his career to developing our only indigenous American Jewish religious movement.

Heschel and Kaplan present us with two possible models for Jewish identity. While Heschel fathered the new Jewish spirituality that is omnipresent in our synagogues, incorporating singing and dancing into worship, his major influence lies in his integration of inwardness with social activism. Inwardness becomes “outwardness.” In fact it is his theology that motivates his turn to activism; because God cares about creation, we must care as well.

Kaplan’s notion that Judaism is a civilization, not a religion, not an ethnicity, not a nation, has made it possible for Jews to identify with the community in novel ways. Both the JCC and the Jewish educational camp are institutional embodiments of the civilization idea, and both, inspired by Kaplan, make it possible for Jews to do more “Jewish things” today than ever before, and in “nonreligious” frameworks. That possibility has become enormously attractive to many of our contemporaries, as has his religious and theological naturalism — the way he collapses the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, so that God is a power, not a being, that can be experienced throughout, that is both “in here” and “out there.”

A final comment. Kaplan was a product of early-20th-century America; Heschel was a Holocaust survivor. One might have expected that the emphases would be reversed, that Heschel would have been the particularist, and Kaplan, the universalist. But paradoxically, it may also be possible that each was addressing the distinctive challenge of his generation: Kaplan was making the case for Jewish religious identity against a secularizing and assimilationist trend, while Heschel was addressing the crisis in faith that followed the Holocaust.

The issue demands a more serious analysis. But we can be grateful for the two paradigms and for their mutual endurance. I, for one, am uniquely grateful for having studied with both of these masters, and for my memories.

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Dr. Neil Gillman, Chair of the Sh'ma Advisory Board, teaches philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

1 Comment

  1. I am a Me’ah student nearing the end of my study in this program of 100 hours of learning. Does anyone know of published works comparing Heschel and Kaplan? I found the syllabus of the Dr. Gillman’s course, and am using it to conduct my own study from original sources. Thanks in advance to anyone who can help.

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