Revaluation and Transvaluation

In this article Dr. Eric Caplan, the Vice-President and Academic Advisor of the Kaplan Center, explore the way in which we might “draw out” of an ancient text a value that can function for us as it did for our ancestors even if the language is changed.  Mordecai Kaplan had called this process revaluation. Kaplan had contrasted this with an approach that reads in (often unconsciously) ideas and values that were not part of the original intent of the authors (whether divine or human), a process he describes as transvaluation.   The differences between these two modes of interpretation are particularly relevant to the creation of new liturgies. In this edition of the Kaplan Center Talmud pages, we share the article and the commentary of three writers.  In the spirit of critical collegiality, we asked these writers to both affirm and challenge the ideas of both Kaplan and Caplan. 

As Executive Director of the Center, I want to note one other function of this important article.  As the Kaplan Center digs ever more deeply into Kaplan’s vision we want to be equally aware and conscious of our methodologies.  In a way, drawing out of the corpus of Kaplanian thought some idea or value and repurposing it to the challenges of 21st-century Jewish life is a theme of our many webinars this year as we prepare for the 40th anniversary of Kaplan’s yahrzeit in November of 2023.  We ought to have the same integrity as Kaplan in recognizing the possibility that some of Kaplan’s original ideas may require revaluation. 

-Rabbi Jeffrey Schein, Executive Director

Revaluation and Transvaluation

by Dr. Eric Caplan, Vice President of the Kaplan Center

According to Mordecai Kaplan, Jewish religious civilization, like all cultures, is more defined by its sancta—“the cluster of sacred texts, heroes, objects, places and events which have become sanctified through [its] historic experiences”—than by its beliefs. Although beliefs are important to a civilization, they are not the primary source of its uniqueness. Multiple peoples believe, for example, that God hears prayer, and that worship should include praise, thanksgiving, and request; but only the Jewish People express this belief via the Amidah. Similarly, celebrating the new year is a common practice of many cultures but only the Jews do so on Rosh Hashanah, with its distinct liturgies (Unetaneh Tokef, Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, Shofarot) and folkways (shofar, tashlikh, apples and honey).

Jewish civilization maintains its historic continuity through its sancta. But the spiritual values that these forms convey “must be reinterpreted in each generation so that the meanings are relevant to the needs of that generation.” Without this, Judaism risks devolving into a series of hollow rituals performed by rote and texts that do not inspire. And a moribund Judaism will not hold Jews’ interests in contemporary North America, where multiple lifestyle options are available and promoted via social media and other amplifiers of popular culture. Equally important, for Kaplan, a dead tradition will fail to provide the spiritual and moral guidance that Jews need to successfully navigate the challenges that they face in their private and public lives.

In the past, says Kaplan, Jews kept their sancta vibrant by freely “reading their own needs, beliefs and ideals into the religious traditions which had come down to them.” They did not worry that their interpretations may not align with the original intent of a text. The tradition, for them, was divinely revealed so it had to embody the highest moral and religious sensibilities. If a discrepancy seemed to exist between that morality and a given verse, the passage in question must be misunderstood. Accordingly, when the rabbis ruled, for example, that the Torah’s command (Leviticus 24) “if any party maims another [person], what was done shall be done in return, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” refers to financial compensation—i.e., the value of an eye for an eye—they were convinced that this interpretation uncovered the text’s true meaning.

Liberal Jews do not believe that the Torah was revealed or that the rulings of the Oral Torah—the rabbinic interpretation and expansion of the Bible—in some way mirror God’s will. Historical research, the comparative study of religions, and the social sciences, have taught us that Judaism’s laws and texts are human creations that reflect the age in which they were first written. Subsequent interpretations of these materials often say more about the people who wrote them than shed light on a text’s first intent. Kaplan claims that our historical sense makes it impossible for us to feel truly connected to the world of our ancestors if, in his terminology, we “transvalue” Judaism: “ascrib[e] meanings to the traditional content…which could neither have been contemplated nor implied by the authors of that content.” To be “convinced that the continuity is genuine” we must be certain “that whatever ancient meanings or values we choose to conserve and develop are read out of, and not into, the traditional teachings or practices.”

“Revaluation” is Kaplan’s term for this process of “reading out” of a text a spiritually compelling meaning. To be more precise, when we revalue a text or ritual, we first imagine what a given religious idea or institution meant to the people of the time and the function it served for them. We then probe it for an implication that aligns with our world-outlook and can serve a similar function for us. While the implication we embrace need not be something that our ancestors would have said, it must “have psychological kinship with what the ancients did articulate.” Accordingly, not all elements of the tradition are open to revaluation. Some may need to be abandoned or significantly reconstructed.

Kaplan’s writings contain examples that help to clarify the process and boundaries of revaluation. The Aleynu prayer, for instance, concludes with a passage expressing the hope that one day “detestable idolatry” will be “removed from the earth” and all nations will worship the one and only true God (YHVH). If we take idolatry in its literal sense—the worship of physical representations of God—”the denunciation of it or the prayer for its eradication can have only historic interest.” But, says Kaplan, if we read the Aleynu as referring to “any false god, any inadequate conception of deity” that is nonetheless “worshipped with loyalty, idealism, and faith,” the prayer’s call to eradicate idolatry, “yields significant values which have hitherto been dormant.” This interpretation models the act of “reading out” meanings from a text because the Aleynu is indeed concerned with the elevation of false gods. Although the counterfeit gods that the author(s) attack were ones perceived by many as supernatural beings, the types of false gods that Kaplan has in mind—Hitler, less nefarious leaders like Donald Trump, or even pillars of popular culture such as Elvis Presley—wield substantial power and influence. Praying that such gods cease to be worshipped can serve the same function for us as it did for Jews at the time that the Aleynu was written: it reminds us of what we deem worthy of adoration and encourages us to reject undeserving substitutes. Through revaluations of this sort, “Jewish religion can be revitalized, and its identity maintained.”

Other Jewish ideas, however, cannot be constructively reinterpreted. For example, the belief in the physical resurrection of the dead. Many liberal liturgists have suggested that this idea is still compelling if we read it as referring to the immortality of the soul. This is the interpretation that Robert Gordis puts forth in the introduction to the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, published by the Conservative movement in 1946. A similar reading appears in the more recent (2015) mahzor of Reform Judaism, Mishkan Hanefesh: “We might also understand these words to mean that God ‘revives’ the dead by keeping them vibrantly present in our memory, inspiring us to live in a way that honors them” (Rosh Hashanah volume, 47). For Kaplan, however, the defining characteristic of techiyat ha-meytim is the hope that buried human bodies will be restored to life at a future time. This is made clear in the second blessing of the Amidah, where the statement that God “resuscitates the dead” appears alongside the assertion that God “maintains faith with those asleep in the dust.” Accordingly, as he and Eugene Kohn write in the original introduction to the 1945 Reconstructionist Sabbath Prayer Book,

To equate that doctrine with belief in the immortality of the soul is to read into the text a meaning which the words do not express. That the soul is immortal in the sense that death cannot defeat it, that the human spirit, in cleaving to God, transcends the brief span of the individual life and shares in the eternity of the Divine Life can and should be expressed in our prayers. But we do not need, for this purpose, to have recourse to reading a forced symbolism into the affirmation of the traditional belief in resurrection.

Kaplan recognized that there was a poetic element to the liturgy and that it would be a mistake to demand that “prayers be prosaic in their literalness.” As he writes in the Future of the American Jew, “The rational type of Jew knows very well that, in religion, symbols and metaphors are indispensable” and that it is not always possible to find words that “say what we mean” (226). He believed, however, that this should never be used to justify using language that says what we do not mean. A basic tenet of Kaplan’s philosophy is that religion should strive, as much as possible, to be intellectually honest. If an idea needs to be transvalued to be acceptable to the assembled community, it is better to substitute it with a passage from the tradition “which calls forth no mental resistance” and can thus “be shared by everybody.” In the second blessing of the Amidah of the 1945 siddur, for example, the traditional eulogy (ונאמן אתה להחיות מתים, ברוך אתה יי מחיה המתים) is replaced with a phrase taken from the traditional High Holiday insertion into this benediction, ברוך אתה יי זוכר יצוריו לחיים ברחמים (Blessed are You, O Lord, who in love remembers Your creatures unto life).

In his later years, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein—Kaplan’s son-in-law, a co-editor of the first generation of Reconstructionist liturgies, and the founding President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College—no longer believed that the inherited liturgy should be edited to reflect contemporary theology. He reached the conclusion that “If you change this word, or that word…you still haven’t done the job, because there’s so much else that really needs to be changed” — for example, the references to God as a Being, an atah, which conflict with Reconstructionist views of God as process. Eisenstein suggested that Reconstructionists approach praying the rabbinic liturgy as “an exercise in reminiscence,” where we “we put ourselves into the world of our ancestors, the world of our fathers, and see how it feels, how it sounds.” In this approach, reciting traditional prayers becomes an act of quotation that connects us to our people’s past and provides the basis for communal singing. “It’s an aesthetic experience, really…. [W]e come together with other Jews and we sing.”

Kaplan was sensitive to the inconsistency of espousing a naturalist conception of God but continuing to address God directly in prayer and referring to God as a Being, a “He” or “You.” In several articles of the 1960s, Kaplan suggested that the liturgy should address God in the third person, i.e., as “He who.” Kaplan pointed out that this wording is used in the Mi-she-berakh prayers, in Psalms 103 and 104, and elsewhere in the Jewish liturgical tradition. Kaplan, however, was not advocating the rewriting of all traditional prayers to conform to third person form. Kaplan wanted contemporary worship to impart, among other aims, a sense of connection to the historical Jewish people. Direct addresses of God are so prevalent within rabbinic prayer (barukh atah; atah kadosh ve-shimkha kadosh; avinu malkeinu hatanu lifaneikhah…), that to excise them completely would require a significant rewriting of the inherited text. A siddur edited in this manner would feel discontinuous with the Jewish past. Accordingly, Kaplan argued that direct forms of divine address could be recited as “quotations from tradition” [italics mine] but that they should “not predominate in a religious service” that means “to elicit genuine religious experience.”

Kaplan was unwilling, however, to recite as “quotations from tradition” liturgical references to the future resurrection of the dead or to revelation at Sinai. These appear less frequently and are thus easier to replace without undermining the basic structure and feel of Jewish prayer. Moreover, Kaplan was concerned that Jewish intellectuals would abandon synagogues whose prayers continued to affirm creeds that conflicted with contemporary knowledge and ethics. He noted, as a cautionary tale, that Felix Adler left the Reform rabbinate and created the Society for Ethical Culture because he could not, in good faith, identify with a religious group that recited Ve-zot ha-torah (“this is the Torah that Moses placed before the family of Israel, upon the command of God, through Moses’ hand”). Kaplan apparently considered it unlikely that intellectuals like Adler would stay away from synagogues that retained a number of traditional prayers in which God was addressed directly.

Of course, even the phrase “He who” conflicts with Kaplan’s view of God as “the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.” He accepted this dissonance because he saw no way to avoid referring to God as a “He.” Indeed, Kaplan’s most famous original English prayer, “God the Life of Nature,” uses that term: “He is the sameness in the elemental substance of stars and planets…. He is the unity of all that is…. He is the creative flame that transfigures lifeless substance….” To be effective, in Kaplan’s view, our prayers cannot speak of God “in terms of scientific or philosophical abstractions, like process or energy” but must, instead, use personal pronouns and thereby align with how people speak and think.

Nobody would think of saying: Those processes in relation to my body which make for my personality are hungry. One would say simply: I am hungry. Similarly, one would not address one’s neighbor in terms of all the processes which make him the person that he is; one would address him simply as you. For similar reasons, we address God in prayer as Thou.

Because of these linguistic conventions, even religious naturalists can recite the mi-she-berakh form wholeheartedly.

A final consideration influenced Kaplan’s decision whether to reinterpret (revalue) or replace a given traditional belief or prayer text: his observation that “confused thinking often results from the uncertainty as to whether a word is intended in its original, or in its acquired meaning.” This is an especially significant concern when dealing with religious creeds that carry potentially negative connotations. A prime example of how this concern functioned in Kaplan’s thought can be seen in his approach to Jewish chosenness.

In Judaism as a Civilization (1934), his first major philosophical work, Kaplan suggested that chosenness could be revalued because “in any claim to superiority, founded or unfounded, the claimant pays homage to that trait or ability by virtue of which he regards himself superior.” In the case of Judaism, the people’s sense of superiority was connected to their possession of Torah. Kaplan argues that the Jews, in fact, were the first people to celebrate their nationhood for demanding of them adherence to God’s law. A successful revaluation of Jewish chosenness would emphasize the implication that “bayonets do not make a nation” but rather a peoples’ willingness to answer, “the call of the spirit.” By living according to this insight, the Jewish people would help “point the way to the beneficent utilization of the most potent social force in human society [nationalism].”

In the aftermath of World War Two, Kaplan reconsidered his approach to Jewish chosenness. The war was caused, in large part, by the German and Japanese perceptions of themselves as superior nations that should rule over “inferior” ones. With the creation of the atom bomb, such imperialist wars threaten to “destroy human civilization and, perhaps, the human race.” To be relevant, religion must help humanity abandon the idea that one nation is better than another. “Unless [religions] play an important role in ushering in the one world which has become indispensable to mankind, they will be reduced to a state of obsolescence.” But to make this contribution, religions must first rid themselves of the “imperialism” that lurks within them; they must give up all pretensions to being chosen, superior, or of having exclusive possession of the keys to salvation. While a constructive revaluation of Jewish chosenness is theoretically possible, “how are non-Jews to know,” Kaplan now asked, “the new meaning that we wish to attach to the words ‘Chosen People’?” For centuries, after all, these words have involved “invidious distinctions between one people and another.” Since there is no authoritative body representing the Jewish People to proclaim this new meaning, Jews must “eliminat[e] from our liturgy… all references to the doctrine of Israel as the chosen people.” Only when we have done so will we be able to demand of other religions that they make similar changes and thereby move humanity closer to a world where all people are viewed lovingly as brothers and sisters.

The first Reconstructionist prayer books included “interpretive versions” of traditional prayers that Kaplan and his co-editors believed needed to be revalued to be meaningful to contemporary Jews. In Ha-maariv Aravim, for example, God is described as rolling “away light before darkness, and darkness before light.” Kaplan rejected the idea that God literally controls sunsets and sunrises. In the interpretive prayer, the cycle of light and darkness is presented as reflecting the will of God, the Power that makes for salvation, in that humanity requires both the activity of the day and the night’s rest to flourish. I see such interpretive versions as serving an analogous function to the devotional commentaries that appear in the current Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist liturgies. But for all the reasons that I have presented here, Kaplan would not be pleased to see commentary used as a tool to support the retention of siddur passages that he thought needed to be removed. Since many Jews today believe in the literal resurrection of the dead, is there not a real possibility, he’d ask, that “confused thinking” will result from maintaining this passage regardless of what is in the commentary? And why not say something that is closer to what we actually mean, when alternatives exist in the Jewish tradition for doing so?

In my own prayer life, I find that I can recite, as quotation, texts like Eliyahu Hanavi, Lekhah Dodi and El Adon, although each of these present supernatural visions that I reject. But, even accompanied by robust commentary, I cannot use prayers that claim Jewish chosenness, the existence of a physical afterlife, or the revelation of Torah. I am personally happy that Kol Haneshamah and Mishkan Hanefesh reinstate, as choice, the second paragraph of the Shema. Previous liberal prayerbooks often eliminated it out of discomfort with its description of God rewarding and punishing the moral and religious behavior of humans by manipulating the natural order. Contemporary liberal liturgists, however, have argued that Deuteronomy 11 can be read as establishing a link between human behavior and events in nature; an ecological message that is deeply needed in our age. I see this interpretation as a successful revaluation of the Biblical text similar, in spirit, to what the first Reconstructionist siddurim did with Ha-maariv Aravim.

In formulating and reflecting upon my personal relationship with the traditional liturgy, I am inspired by the seriousness and integrity that Kaplan brought to his own worship practice and to the creation of liturgies for others. I share his belief that an interpretation of a traditional text can be too distant from the intent of the original words to foster connection to those words. I look forward to your comments on this and the other aspects of Kaplan’s thought presented in this article.