• Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century.  We believe that his thought may be even more important in the 21st century.

Eric's Forum

Kaplan and Birmingham (1963)

While working on a project for The Ira and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein Reconstructionist Archives of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (https://www.correspondingwithkaplan.com/), I came across a letter to Mordecai Kaplan from Rabbi Everett Gendler, a prominent student of Kaplan’s who is still living, thanking Kaplan for his speech to the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly (RA) convention of 1963 and for his role in “ma[king] it possible for the Rabbinical Assembly to speak as it should have on the Birmingham Situation.”

Gendler, a member of the convention’s program committee, had in the previous year participated in prayer vigils and protests in Albany, Georgia, in support of Civil Rights. He led a group of 19 Conservative rabbis who left the 1963 RA convention to go to Birmingham, Alabama to support Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in their on-going efforts to desegregate the city. (To learn more about Rabbi Gendler, click here.) King’s campaign was front-page news at the time because of the city’s use of attack dogs and high-pressure water cannons on protesters of all ages and its arrest of more than a thousand activists.

The RA delegation to Birmingham, the first to be sent to the South by a major American Jewish religious denomination, has a storied place in the history of American Jews and the Civil Rights movement. Kaplan, however, is never associated with it. I wondered: What is Gendler’s letter referring to? I found the answer in Kaplan’s diaries and in the 1963 volume of the Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly.

The story begins in January of 1963, when Gendler invites Kaplan to speak at the upcoming RA convention on the topic of “Judaism and Modern War.” Soon afterwards, Kaplan records a remarkable story in his diary (February 11, 1963). At his wife Rivka’s suggestion, Kaplan interrupts his work on the manuscript of The Purpose and Meaning of Jewish Existence (1964) to watch a television interview with Erich Fromm, in which Fromm states that the significant possibility of nuclear war makes it unlikely that humanity will have a future. Kaplan is “shattered” by this comment because he considers Fromm to be “the most sane thinker in the contemporary world.” He immediately wonders what he can do to make nuclear war less likely: 

The first thing that came to my mind was why not enact a spectacular suicide and leave behind a statement giving as a reason the need of calling the attention of mankind to the urgency of forestalling the outbreak of a third World War, and calling upon outstanding thinkers, scientists, writers, clergymen to do likewise. Such a call would be futile unless the one who issued it set an example. Unfortunately, I am not built for a heroic act of that kind.

But Kaplan does not let the issue rest. The following morning, after “recall[ing] what I had said on many an occasion that the only justification for organized religion is the function of putting an end to international and civil wars,” he decides to add the following to the “Epilogue” of The Purpose and Meaning of Jewish Existence:

We Jews have a Day of Atonement for fasting and prayer, for the forgiveness of sins and the resolve to improve morally and spiritually. If we are to take ourselves and our religion seriously, we should observe the Day of Atonement primarily as a day of protest against the waging of war, and of appeal to all other spiritual bodies also to dedicate a day for fasting and prayer for like protest. Then will those in the seats of authority among the nations of the world be impelled to give heed, and use their power, to render the earth safe for mankind. (318-319)

Kaplan considers this “a highly important innovation in the observance of Yom Kippur,” but, perhaps realizing that more dramatic actions would be necessary for religion to significantly impact the cause of peace, he decides to use his talk at the RA to urge it to “initiate action to call into being a World Parliament of Religions for the purpose of making the abolition of war the primary aim of organized religion, and second, of appealing to all the governments to transform their war industries into peace industries.” 

Meeting in mid-March with Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and Saul Lieberman, the Seminary's Distinguished Research Professor of Talmud, Kaplan requests that the JTS faculty endorse the proposal to convene a World Parliament of Religions with the aforementioned aims. Kaplan records in his diary that Lieberman was against the idea because “it might be interpreted by Russia as a sign of weakness of the Western powers.” In response, Kaplan argued that the West would not cease its “defense activities” until Russia agreed to disarm and that “we owe it to ourselves as Jews and to the world to contribute to whatever efforts are to be made for human survival, regardless of our being heeded or ignored on the principle of אם ישמעו ואם יחדלו [“Whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear” Ezekiel 2:5]. In the end, Liberman “consented” to Kaplan’s idea, and Finkelstein promised to bring it up for discussion at the next faculty meeting. 

Finkelstein never acted on this pledge and when Kaplan complained, Finkelstein reminded him of the 4-page letter (dated March 29, 1963) that he had written to Everett Gendler and copied to Kaplan, in which he explained his inaction. (At Kaplan’s urging, Gendler had written Finkelstein on March 26 to seek the support of the JTS faculty for the proposal to convene a World Parliament of Religions, which the RA would debate at its May convention.) Both letters are housed at the Reconstructionist Archives. 

Finkelstein’s letter is a fascinating read. He begins by noting that the Seminary has a wise tradition of “never pass[ing] on resolutions about actions to be taken outside of its specific domain—which is, running the Seminary.” Finkelstein asserts that this is a tradition that Kaplan endorses and “even insists upon.” Finkelstein then argues that peace will not come about by resolutions—the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, for example, did not prevent World War II. Rather, “[t]he road to peace is along the path of improved moral standards by all of us, and this improvement means … trying to be wide-awake to the moral implications of everything we do in all our relationships.” Finkelstein attributes this insight to Kaplan as well, an assertion with some merit [see, Mordecai Kaplan, The Future of the American Jew (1948), 349-350]. Moreover, Finkelstein continues, a World Parliament of Religions could only come about after behind-the-scenes negotiations with representatives of all major religions and Jews, or at least “Zionist Jews,” could not take the lead in this quiet diplomacy “because of the nature of the present situation in which Israel and the Arabs are involved.” Finkelstein then warns Gendler (and Kaplan) that a World Parliament of Religions “would not be an easy conference” for the West and for Jews, in particular:

At the television conference in which I participated, there was a Hindu lady and an ambassador from Sierra Leone. The Hindu lady, who is a very distinguished person, raised a question which I had never heard raised before. She asked why it was that people in India are under the necessity of studying western languages and also the history of the western countries, whereas we, in the West, feel under no obligation to study their languages or their history. I feel quite certain that if a world conference of religious leaders were convoked for the outlawing of war, its Asian and African members would also want to deal with some of these problems. One issue which might be raised to embarrass its Jewish representatives, would be the internationalization of Jerusalem. Another might be the problem of the Arab refugees. The situation, alas, is full of pitfalls. I imagine that is why this conference has thus far not been held.

Finkelstein concludes his letter diplomatically: “Having said all this, I would be delighted to talk to you about the whole situation, and of course, would be honored if Prof. Kaplan would wish to join us. With warmest regards, Affectionately, as ever.” Considering the content of Finkelstein’s reply, it is hard not to question his sincerity.

Neither Kaplan nor Gendler was deterred by Finkelstein’s arguments. Kaplan’s talk to the RA, by then titled “Wage Peace or …,” called for the convening of a World Parliament of Religions, and the RA passed a resolution urging its members, individually and collectively, to “wage peace,” in part by “join[ing] with all authorized to speak in the name of any of the great religious bodies of mankind in an effort to convene a World Parliament of Religions, for the purpose of formulating some plan and program to bring about the outlawing of war, and [to take] immediate steps to achieve that purpose.” But it is the arguments that Kaplan put forth in his speech to justify the involvement of religions in the discussion of significant political questions—ideas that he reiterated during the floor discussion of Rabbi Harold Schulweis’s convention talk, “The Bias Against Man” (see below), and in the conversation surrounding the Birmingham resolution—that Gendler has in mind in his letter of thanks to Kaplan.

Kaplan’s RA convention address opens with the assertion that, despite the expansion of Jewish and Christian religious institutions in the 1950s, American religions are irrelevant to the “modern world of affairs.” Accordingly, religion’s “present so-called upsurge amounts to no more than giving it the character and function of background music.” For “religion to be taken seriously” in our nuclear age, it must make a clear contribution to human survival by “stop[ping] [to] mouth[] the fine platitudes about the love of God and of man and demonstrate by deeds that it is passionately concerned that an end be put to all war. It must wage peace, agitate for it, organize for it, and tell those in control of the affairs of the world to establish peace that is permanent and universal.” In Kaplan’s view, the religions of the world have a particular responsibility to do so because they, alongside politics and philosophy, have sanctioned and established war as acceptable human behavior. “Politics has sanctioned war in the name of national sovereignty, philosophy in the name of nature, and religion in the name of God.” Kaplan was pleased with his convention session, noting in his diary that “even the discussion from the floor was to the point.”

The programming the next morning began with a session focused on Schulweis’s paper, “The Bias Against Man,” in which Schulweis called upon the RA to support the work of the Institute for Righteous Acts (now The Jewish Foundation for Righteous Acts), which he had just established. This Institute would both celebrate the actions of non-Jews in Europe who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and probe the motivations behind their deeds. The work of the Institute was essential, in Schulweis’s view, because the current focus on perpetrators risked “destroying hope” in humanity’s “capacity for decency.” In the paper that followed, Dr. Perry London, who was engaged by the Institute to study the motivations of Holocaust rescuers, echoed Schulweis’s dissatisfaction with the state of the behavioral sciences, adding that “we seem to understand why Southern Whites oppress and segregate the Negroes there, but we never seek to understand as well, or even ask, why Freedom Riders ride.”

Kaplan’s words in the floor discussion of the two papers shed additional light on his view of the contribution that religion can make to human betterment. For Kaplan, humans—like everything in nature—exist individually but also interact with their environment. Humans, in his view, have acted more egotistically than altruistically only because our social environment has elicited the former more than the latter. “[T]he more we learn to interact, the more we learn to cooperate with those who do not agree with us, the more likely is it that the altruistic, and what we speak of as the spiritual and divine element in us, is liable to come to the surface.” Religions can help move humanity in this direction by encouraging us “to reorganize society into a united nations of the world, a world parliament of religions realizing that we are all one. Not only Kol Yisrael haverim zeh lazeh [sic], but, Kol b’nai adam haverim zeh lazeh.”

During the same floor discussion, Rabbi Bernard Mandelbaum, Provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary at the time, lauded London’s interest in probing the actions of Civil Rights activists (“Maybe the first thing we ought to do is find out why Everett Gendler and [Rabbi] Lloyd Tennenbaum did go to Albany, Georgia, and why the rest of us did nothing”). He also wondered how it was possible for the gathered rabbis to reiterate time and time again the need not to be silent in response to evil, while “we have been meeting for three days, after seeing the newspaper pictures of Birmingham on Sunday, and have remained silent”? 

When the session ended, a number of rabbis asked Gendler to call the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) to see if the SCLC wanted Conservative rabbis to come to Birmingham. Gendler spoke with MLK’s brother and heard that MLK believed that a delegation of rabbis to the city was both “urgent—and of great importance”. While individual rabbis would decide whether to accompany Gendler to Birmingham, a resolution was drafted to express the RA’s support of their mission:

Resolved, that The Rabbinical Assembly, in convention assembled, enthusiastically endorse the action of members of The Rabbinical Assembly who volunteer to go to Birmingham to speak and act on behalf of human rights and dignity.

Both Rabbi Jules Harlow’s and Rabbi Richard Rubenstein’s written accounts of what transpired associate the decision of the 19 rabbis to go to Birmingham with Mandelbaum’s challenge in the Schulweis session. This connection is also made in the New York Times article (May 8, 1963) on the rabbinic delegation. It is, therefore, difficult clearly to link Kaplan’s keynote address and subsequent floor interventions with the decision taken by the 19 rabbis. No such difficulty exists, however, when it comes to tracing Kaplan’s decisive influence on the final wording of the Birmingham resolution. 

Kaplan was the first to speak on the resolution. Each individual, he said, carries a personal responsibility to proliferate justice in the world. But to further justice effectively, individuals must motivate the collective bodies to which they belong to join the struggle for righteousness in cooperation with other groups. This is because only collective action can turn the tide and because—as he had argued previously—individuals develop their sense of responsibility for others by working in community with them. Kaplan continued: 

We are confronted here with a question of whether we, as a body, should send some of us who are in a position to go to encourage those who are fighting the obstructionists. Should they go as individuals, or as representatives of our organization, The Rabbinical Assembly? ...

There is no doubt in my mind that it is our moral duty not to evade questions that have to do with moral issues, confining ourselves merely to questions of ritual matters. It is high time that The Rabbinical Assembly come to be known by the world at large, as well as by our own Jewish people, as a body that is vitally interested in moral issues, with not only something to say but something to do.

A number of rabbis spoke in favor of Kaplan’s view, including Gendler, who said: “Dr. Kaplan's point is very relevant now. We happen to be in convention assembled. It is one of the few opportunities when we can speak collectively. If we are to go as random individuals, then, it seems to me, the real point is lost.” In response, Rabbi Theodore Friedman, the President of the RA, amended the resolution to read as follows:

Resolved, that The Rabbinical Assembly, in convention assembled, enthusiastically endorse the action of the members of The Rabbinical Assembly who in its name [emphasis added] volunteer to go to Birmingham to speak on behalf of human rights and dignity.

The resolution was passed, and the rabbinic delegation left for Birmingham that night.

Mordecai Kaplan’s seminal ideas—for example, his definition of God as the Process that makes for Salvation, his assertion that Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people—have garnered so much attention that his contributions to social justice thought have gone almost unnoticed. Yet Kaplan argued consistently—as he does here—that the main goal of Judaism, and religion in general, must be to improve human individual and collective behavior. And, as here, concrete suggestions for how the Jewish community can contribute to that goal abound in all of his books, from Judaism as a Civilization (1934) to The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (1970). Kaplan’s call for humanity to act responsibly is rooted in a theology that sees moral behavior not only as “good choice” but as a reflection of the very essence of the cosmos in which all things must act both individually and cooperatively to survive. Kaplan’s assumption that all beings have an inborn desire to cooperate fuels his faith in humanity’s ability to turn “swords into ploughshares.” This is an inspiring vision of religion and of human possibility.

One can, as Louis Finkelstein does, dismiss Kaplan’s policy ideas as utopian and not thought through to the end. But in studying these texts, I was more taken by the level of Kaplan’s personal engagement with global issues, by his certainty that Judaism can have an impact on the world’s greatest challenges, by his need to personally respond to these challenges, and by his persistence in making his case. With Kaplan, I believe that there is a place for bold visions in the march to a better world. Without them, we might not begin the journey. And, as our episode shows, such visions, when articulated at the right moment, can indeed motivate people to go beyond what they were originally prepared to do. The pride of place accorded to this rabbinic delegation in American Jewish history reminds us that we do feel good when we transcend ourselves. Kaplan does not seem off base, therefore, when he argues that altruistic behavior becomes more likely when supported by communities. 

Kaplan wrote in his diary that he had hoped that a report of his plea for a World Parliament of Religions, with the stated aim of “waging peace,” would appear in the next day’s New York Times, because a Times reporter, Irving Spiegel, attended Kaplan’s session. Kaplan thought that Finkelstein played a role in keeping the story out of the newspaper because Kaplan had, in the talk, “expressed approval of the recent encyclical by Pope John in which he recommended an end to absolute national sovereignty.” Kaplan recognized, however, that his speech simply might have been upstaged by the convention’s actions on Birmingham. Kaplan was proud of his role in getting the Birmingham resolution reworded: “After I had my say no one questioned the advisability of the RA’s sending a delegation in its name.” And Kaplan undertook to pursue new venues to publicize the idea of a World Parliament of Religions. 

Eric Caplan can be reached at [email protected].

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