by Marc B. Shapiro, Ph.D. — Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton
(We are grateful to Professor Shapiro for permission to republish this piece, and the accompanying materials, which first appeared, as part of a longer article covering other topics as well, on the Seforim blog [seforim.blogspot.com] on September 10, 2014.)
In an earlier post [on the Seforim blog from June 6, 2014 — see seforim.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-pew-report-and-orthodox-community.html] I referred to Mel Scult’s new book, The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan. Scult discusses the burning of Kaplan’s siddur at an Agudas ha-Rabbonim gathering on June 12, 1945, at which Kaplan was himself also put in herem. The significance of this event can be seen in that there were over two hundred rabbis in attendance.
Here is the text of the herem from Ha-Pardes, July 1945.
[For an English translation of the core of the herem document, click here.]
The sentence immediately before the text of the herem clearly implies that the burning of the book was part of the ceremony (and see also Ha-Pardes, Nov. 1945 p. 23). Thus, Jeffrey S. Gurock and Jacob J. Schacter had good reason to write as follows:
Scult, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century, p. 420, n. 38, suggests that the act of book burning was unintentioned and not directed by the rabbinic leaders themselves, but all evidence cited above points to the contrary. This was clearly an official act, sanctioned by those assembled as a fitting and appropriate conclusion to a most serious and solemn deliberation.
Zachary Silver, who has recently written a very nice article on the episode, available here, writes as follows:
Mel Scult’s biography of Kaplan mentions that the event occurred, but he does not believe that Agudat HaRabbanim burned the book as part of the formal ceremony. Rather, he says that the burning occurred incidentally at the back of the room. However, Agudat HaRabbanim’s documents illustrate that it was a previously scripted formula. 
This burning of a Jewish book, coming so soon after the end of the Holocaust and so much at odds with the American tradition of freedom of expression, horrified both Jews and non-Jews. The fact that the excommunication and burning were covered in The New York Times only made matters worse, and everyone assumed that this was an officially sanctioned action of Agudat ha-Rabbanim.
In writing about the event in his diary, Kaplan referred to “rabbinical gangsters who resort to nazi [!] methods in order to regain their authority.” He later publicly stated as follows:
It is just too bad that men who call themselves rabbis should in this day and age resort to the barbarous procedure of outlawing a man without giving him a hearing, and to the Nazi practice of burning books that displease them. God save us from such leadership and from the disgrace it is likely to bring upon Jews.
Responding to the horror aroused by the book-burning, Agudat ha-Rabbanim publicly declared that it had nothing to do with this action. It claimed that the burning was done independently by one of its members. Silver writes:
The Union of Orthodox Rabbis later disavowed responsibility for the book burning, claiming that the event was not a scheduled part of the ceremony but rather the act of one rabbi from the audience who acted on his own, after the service was completed. This version seems unlikely, however, since the article about the excommunication in HaPardes, the unofficial magazine of Agudat HaRabbanim, gives specific justification for the book burning as part of the ceremony and does so in halakhic terms. The more likely scenario is that, after witnessing the heated public reaction, Agudat Harabbanim chose to disavow responsibility for burning the siddur as a face-saving public relations move. Thus, by saying that the burning was not part of the planned activities, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis could attempt to refocus public attention on the greater issues of the heresy of Kaplan and the Conservative movement, rather than on a particularly unsettling segment of the ceremony, which itself evoked memories of Nazi ritual book burnings. Of course, the uproar implies that Agudat Ha-Rabbanim did not realize that most Americans would be troubled by a book burning in 1945 – a lapse of judgment that would manifest the extent by which the Union of Orthodox Rabbis had lost touch with contemporary currents in American culture.
Years after the event, R. Norman Lamm reflected on the book burning.
If we want to win people over to Orthodoxy, we need to present ourselves as measured, mature, and moderate people with deep faith and the right practice, but we do not insult others and we do not damage or condemn them. Coming out with issurim [decrees that forbid particular actions] against everyone else is like another Fatwa. When I was younger there was a heretic by the name of Mordecai Kaplan, and the Agudas Harabbonim had this whole big book burning party. I thought it was ridiculous to have a book burning in the twentieth century. It didn’t make anybody decide to become more religious observant. Nobody who was reading his books said[,] “If important Orthodox rabbis burned them, we’re not going to read them.” If anything, it aroused interest in people who otherwise would not have wanted to read these books. But in addition, what it accomplished was that it got people to look at the Orthodox as fanatics. That’s no way to make friends and win people over to Orthodoxy.
What we see from what I have quoted is that there is agreement that it was Agudat ha-Rabbanim that sanctioned the burning of the siddur. Silver adds, “It is unclear who actually burned the siddur, as the report in HaPardes uses the passive voice.”
In fact, we do know who burnt the siddur, Based on this information, we can also determine that the other point that “everyone” knows, that it was Agudat ha-Rabbanim that sanctioned the burning, is incorrect.
In 1945 The Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation published a booklet, A Challenge to Freedom of Worship. I don’t know why, but this is a very rare publication. I have therefore uploaded it here. From this booklet, you get a sense of the great ill-will produced by the excommunication of Kaplan and the burning of his siddur. This is what appears on the very first page of the booklet.
I first saw this booklet shortly before R. Joseph Ralbag passed away. At that time he was not well and I could not schedule a time to speak with him. However, at my request R. Aryeh Ralbag asked his father some questions about the episode, and I can report the following from the late R. Joseph Ralbag. R. Ralbag did not decide on the spur of the moment to burn the siddur. Rather, he knew he was going to do this ahead of time and even discussed it with his future wife. Yet the other members of Agudat ha-Rabbanim were unaware of his plans until he lit the siddur on fire. In other words, this was an individual act by R. Ralbag and, as Agudat ha-Rabbanim would later state, it was not sanctioned by them. This testimony, from the main protagonist of the event, should finally settle the matter. (Although R. Ralbag denied burning the siddur in the telephone call referred to on the page printed above, this was obviously only said to protect himself after the controversy broke out. As indicated, hundreds of people saw him burn the siddur.)
One more interesting point about this episode is that Rav Tzair (Chaim Tchernowitz) claimed, in the course of an attack against Kaplan’s siddur, that according to halakhah it was forbidden to burn the work. I would be curious to hear what some of the readers make of this.
שמה שהחכמים גזרו על ס”ת שכתבו מין שישרף, אינו אלא מפני שהשמות לא נכתבו בקדושה, ואפשר שנכתבו לשם ע”ז, אבל בנידון דידן הרי לא את כה”י של קפלן שרפו, אלא את הסידור, שסידר אותו יהודי תמים, שבידוע שלא כוון לשום דבר אחר כשסידר את אותיות השם, ובכן אסור היה לשרוף את האזכרות שבו. ובזה עשו הרבנים שלא כדין ששרפו את הסידור (אולם הם הודיעו שלא גזרו שריפה על הסידור אלא שצורבא מרבנן אחד שרפו על דעת עצמו).
Footnotes: See Zachary Silver, “The Excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan,” American Jewish Archives 62 (2010), p. 23.  A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community (New York, 1997), p. 206 n. 14  Silver, “The Excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan,” p. 40 n. 2.  Quoted in Silver, “The Excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan,” p. 23.  Quoted in Silver, “The Excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan,” p. 32.  Silver, “The Excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan,” p. 24.  Quoted in Silver, “The Excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan,” p. 39.  Other sources could also be quoted in support of this assertion. The only source I have found that states otherwise is Simon Noveck, Milton Steinberg: Portrait of a Rabbi (New York, 1978), p. 183.
On June 12, 1945, a few days after the appearance of the Bublick review, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada held a special meeting at the McAlpin Hotel in New York to protest the new prayer book. Attended by more than two hundred rabbis, the gathering unanimously voted to issue a writ of excommunication against Mordecai Kaplan as the principal editor of the prayer book. With solemn ceremony, the entire audience rose and repeated, word by word, the text of the first psalm, after which the traditional ban was promulgated. Immediately thereafter, one member of the group suddenly took a copy of the “new heretical prayer book,” placed it on the speaker’s stand, and set fire to it. The Union later disavowed responsibility for the burning, maintaining that the action had been taken by a single rabbi after the formal meeting was over. All admitted, however, that no effort had been made by those present to prevent the prayer book from being burned.
The first Psalm begins “Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked.” The page printed above quotes a text from the June 21, 1945 New York Times disavowing R. Ralbag’s action. However, there is no such passage in the New York Times. Perhaps it appeared in the Yiddish Jewish Morning Journal which also covered the event.  Siddur Tefilah shel To’im u-Mat’im (New York, 1946), p. 4. This work used to be on hebrewbooks.org but was removed. You can now find it here.