Mordecai Kaplan on Women

by Mel Scult

[See Chapter 6 of his Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993).]

Kaplan’s first congregation, The Jewish Center, was Orthodox.  Seating was separate though equal and there was never any question of altering the synagogue ritual to include women.  The major question of the day was women’s right to vote.  Kaplan advocated the emancipation of women.  In his preaching, he went beyond mere support of the vote which he took for granted but did not argue for changing any rituals to include women.  In the fall of 1918, he took the occasion of the Sidra (Torah portion) “Haye Sarah” to deal with the issue of women’s rights.  Preparing the way for the sermon, the center journal published the following question during that week: “Shall the Emancipation of women be merely a duplication of men?”  On Shabbat morning Kaplan pulled no punches when he said that, “Judaism of the Galuth [Diaspora] has said nothing and done nothing to lay claim to any share in the Emancipation of women.”  The major religions, moreover, always lagged behind when it came to movements for social betterment.  He asserted that, “the movement to emancipate women was nothing more than the logical extension of democracy.”

If Judaism in general offered no help on the issue of emancipation, Kaplan suggested looking to the Bible for guidance.  He pointed out that there are many strong holy women in the Bible including Deborah, Miriam and of course Rebecca, who was the focus of the week’s portion.  If Genesis presented us with the matriarchs, however, it also presented us with the curses of Eden.  The curse on Eve reads, “Toward your husband shall be your lust, yet he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).  It is clear, Kaplan maintained, that women are destined to be redeemed from this curse in the time to come just as man will be redeemed from his curse.  We know this because Genesis also tells us that God said, “Let us make humankind, in our image, according to our likeness!  Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea…”  The key word here is Veyirdu; “they,” both male and female, shall rule the earth together.  The ideal is that men and women were meant to be equal and the world is a fall from that ideal.

He looked closely at Rebecca and used her as a model.  Women must be emancipated not for power but for service.  Man’s essential sinfulness stems from his lust for power; the same is true for women.  Women in the past have sought to gain power through their charms.  Women have both gained and lost because of this — in Kaplan’s words, “What if not her desires to entrance man with her charms has caused man to look upon her as his doll and play thing to minister to his wants?”  Thus the enslavement of women has resulted from her femininity, “The power of the eternally feminine,” as he called it.  Now women must be emancipated, not essentially for more power, but for greater service.  Just as Rebecca went the extra measure in her service to Abraham’s servant so must women do the same.  It is almost as if Kaplan were talking about women in the same terms that Jews in general have always talked about themselves – as the chosen people.  The Jews alone are the only ones who have known God says the prophet, and therefore they have a higher standard to follow.  If women were really free they would revolutionize the political sphere by lifting it to a higher level.  The chosenness of women, he believed, made them more humane.  “Women will purify politics, make industry more humane and make justice to the consumer instead of profits to the producer the standard of the market.”  Emancipation is not aimed at power “…neither her own particular power, nor that masculine power which has contributed so much to the destruction of the world.”  As Hannah so eloquently put it in her hymn of thanksgiving to God, “…for not by strength (power) shall man prevail.”[1]

Kaplan was often at his best when he attempted to reinterpret fundamental concepts.  At one point he put forth the idea that reverence for the individual was more basic than the concept of ‘love thy neighbor.’  Being created in God’s image was the Biblical way of talking about the absolute value of human life.  “…the reason it is wrong to take human life is that the human being wears the image of God, therefore, when a human being is slain, something more than that which is merely human is destroyed, the very image of God is shattered.”  The proper attitude toward our fellow human beings is respect, the same awe and respect “…we associate with the idea of God.”  We revere human life because “…it is a spark of that life that animates the universe,” Kaplan told his congregation.  He believed that acting out of reverence was a higher principle than acting out of love.  “It is only after mankind will have acquired the principle of reverence for man that it will be possible to love man as he should be loved, not merely ‘as thyself’ but as the reflection of the Divine.  ‘Beloved is man’ said R. Akiba, “for he was made in the image of God.”[2]


[1]. The Sermon on the Emancipation of Women was delivered at the Center on November 2, 1918.  The concept of the chosenness of women is clearly in the text of the sermon although the word chosen is not used there but supplied by this author.  The verse is from I Samuel 2:16.  The translations from Genesis are from Everett Fox, In the Beginning – A New English Rendition of the Book of Genesis (New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1983).  The verse in Zachariah 4:6 expresses the same thought about power and was a favorite of Kaplan’s although he did not use it here.  “Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, sayeth the Lord of Hosts.”

[2]. The notion of the primacy of  man as the image of God is found not only in Jewish sources but in Christian as well. It was a staple of  16th century Ranaissance Platonists who saw man as a reflection of God and therefore worthy of love.