Commentary Magazine


Two Movements

To the Editor:

Michael A. Meyer coupled two movements, Ethical Culture and Reconstructionism, in his article “Beyond Particularism” [March], which have only superficial similarities but profound differences. Indeed, they may be said to be antithetical, since Ethical Culture sought to reduce Jewish particularism to the vanishing point while Reconstructionism bases its entire thesis upon the proposition that there is purpose and meaning to Jewish existence. Felix Adler made the mistake of assuming, as many Reform Jewish leaders did, that Judaism was a religion, a creed; and since he could not accept that creed, he had to withdraw from Judaism and launch a movement “beyond” it and all other creedal faiths. Mordecai Kaplan, on the other hand, found much in the tradition which he could not accept, but he believed (and still believes) that Judaism, as an evolving religious civilization, does not depend for its vitality upon the specific theological formulation of any one era, and can, like all other civilizations, reconstruct itself in terms of contemporary experience.

He is not the first, nor is he the only thinker who has recognized that Judaism has universal implications; but he and they contend that the route to universalism is by way of particularism. In the realm of ethics and religious philosophy, a doctrine to be accepted must be true—or at least not conflict with known truths, and in that respect must be universally applicable. But when religious philosophy and ethics are to be translated into laws and social institutions, they must partake of the character of a group. That is how cultures have developed, out of the specific and individual experiences of specific groups, whether they be clans, tribes, nations, or peoples.

Perhaps that is why Ethical Culture has not flourished as its founder would have hoped: it was not rooted in the particularism of a civilization. It sought to be universal not only in content but in form as well. It was thus deprived of the sancta which a group creates and around which its people develop emotional associations. It is true that Reconstructionism has had trouble getting off the ground organizationally; but (as I have attempted to demonstrate in a series of articles in the Reconstructionist, a critique of Charles Liebman’s study), the problem has been of a different nature. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, resisted translating Reconstructionism into structures of synagogues, schools, fellowships, etc., hoping that his basic conception of Judaism would infiltrate the existing movements and influence them. When it became apparent that Reconstructionism could not hope to perpetuate itself this way, and that its influence was either diluted or distorted when applied by others, he consented to make of Reconstructionism a movement.

Professor Liebman’s contention that Reconstructionism cannot succeed as a movement, because, allegedly, its approved ideas have already been adopted and those disapproved of have been discarded is, to say the least, premature. Indeed, he himself declares that the establishment of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College may yet give the lie to his analysis. I suppose expert sociologists back in 1917 would have said the same thing about Zionism; it had no future as a political movement, but its goal of revitalizing Jewish consciousness was not controversial and might already have been accepted—at least in theory.

But whether Reconstructionism develops and grows, or withers away, of one thing we may be sure: it always fought the kind of universalism which involved the dissolution of the Jewish people and its culture. To say, as Mr. Meyer does, that “Kaplan might have led a later generation of American Jews down a path very similar to Adler’s” is unmitigated nonsense. It was not the East European Jews whose “intense national feeling” prevented a universalist Kaplan from succeeding. On the contrary, it was an intensely nationalist Kaplan who brought to the East European Jews and others—all equally hell-bent on assimilation—a new rationale for their creative survival.

(Rabbi) Ira Eisenstein
President, Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation
New York City

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To the Editor:

There is evidence in Michael A. Meyer’s article of careful and even appreciative reading of my book, Toward Common Ground . Nevertheless, and despite a certain gratitude, there are matters in Mr. Meyer’s essay that call for reply.

Most troubling is the suggestion that Ethical Culture “. . . represents an attempt to escape from the odium of Jewishness.” The bias introduced by the word “odium” afflicts the remainder of a thoughtful essay. Implicit is the notion that reasonable people might find this description of Judaism fair. An anti-Semite might well indulge in such usage. For the rest of us, however, the ascription of “odium” masks certain genuine issues, e.g., the relevance of Judaism’s “tribal” heritage on an impacted globe; the pressure of Jewish organizationists toward exclusive identity and loyalty; the validity of Judaism’s implicit theology in today’s world. These are matters for rational discourse—something blocked by pejorative labels. One might, for example, regard Judaism as simply wrong in certain crucial ways without regarding it as odious.

Mr. Meyer does move on to more objective considerations. For example, he interprets Ethical Culture as a critical response to Jewish particularism—and in this he is correct. But that response may well be warranted rather than just the outcome of some less than conscious reaction calling for “escape.” Thus, a case can be made—and a good one—that in our complex world, particularism is not merely outdated but destructive. This, of course, makes the problem of achieving meaningful identity quite difficult. But, one does not achieve identity under threats (overt or covert) of treason to the fathers, appeals to guilt, etc.

If a critique of Jewish particularism is one of the motivations for Ethical Culture, it is by no means the only one. Mr. Meyer’s treatment of the reaction to particularism is challenged by the evidence. For example, it is doubtful at best to assert that Felix Adler or his early followers (like the Seligmans, the Morgenthaus, the Sutros) felt “deprivation” as Jews, though one might perhaps make some case for psychological and social deprivation. . . . Moreover, the tendency of many non-practicing and even heretical Jews in the presence of oppression has been to move back toward Judaism—not for religious but for moral reasons. At least this has been my experience with the kinds of people who join Ethical Culture. . . .

The stress on “particularism” as a reason for departure tends to undervalue other equally cogent reasons for rejecting Judaism. Adler’s own rejection of theism is cited, but one might add—and with more emphasis than in the article—the influence of “evolution” and the biological sciences, and on the affirmative side the desire to make moral action the center of religious faith without carrying along an outworn theological baggage. Mr. Meyer’s suggestion that “universalism” serves as an adequate counterweight to Jewish particularism in understanding the motivations for Ethical Culture misses out on Adler’s own development. Thus, while it is true that, at age twenty-three, Adler spoke in the universalistic language of Jewish Reform, somewhat later he was developing alternatives to particularism without the abstractness of universalism. The upshot was Ethical Culture’s personalism . . . that identity, including religious identity, was to be developed by the self in the interaction with other selves, and was not to be discovered in any corporate or collective entities. One might question the psychological adequacy of this proposal but that does not reduce its importance in Adler’s reasoning.

In trying to make his point, Mr. Meyer tends to downplay the role of non-Jewish sources in Adler’s and Ethical Culture’s evolution. Thus, he expresses his doubts about the Emersonian influence on the movement. While it is true that Adler stressed his departures from Emerson, he nevertheless gave Emerson a central place in his own growth. . . .

A few institutional comments may not be amiss. Thus, Mr. Meyer comments accurately on the prevalence of German Reform Jews in the founding and first years of Ethical Culture—but again, I’m afraid, he tends to turn a conjunction into an implication. For example, in the context of his position, one would be hard pressed to account for the centrality of German free-thinkers in the founding of the St. Louis Society in 1886. And while it is true that first-generation Jews of East-European origin were not exactly prominent in Ethical Culture, it is not true that second- and third-generation Jews of similar origin are equally invisible. Quite the contrary is the case—though the Jewish background has become rather attenuated and certainly less significant biographically by this time.

The suspicion that a conscious or nonconscious desire for universalism led Ethical Culture to select Christians with clerical training for its first group of professional Leaders may be warranted—though how one can demonstrate this is a problem. If it was overt, then some record should exist—but does not. If covert, and a result of subconscious motivation, then no record can exist by definition. But to propose an alleged empirical proposition which by definition is non-verifiable is not really to propose any proposition at all. . . .

Let me return finally to the question of “escape” as it applies in more recent history. After nearly twenty years of observation—during which the “accusation” of escape has indeed been made more than once, though not as felicitously as by Mr. Meyer—I can only conclude that if Ethical Culture is an “escape” from Judaism it is a very poor one indeed. Those choosing this rather doubtful path are double-damned—first for seeking to escape; secondly for having been caught at it. Certainly Ethical Culture has not sought to establish a role as an escape mechanism. Its members of Jewish origin do not, by and large, change their names for more “acceptable” ones; Sunday School and adult-education programs include an appreciative attention to sources including Old Testament study; Ethical Societies include a recognition of Jewish holidays among others (at least for awareness of the cultural environment if not for committed participation); and social action programs are undertaken cooperatively with a variety of agencies including Jewish ones. . . .

Human motivations are complex enough so that there must be some truth in Mr. Meyer’s analysis. Yet what I miss most is a grasp of the affirmative motivations for Ethical Culture (whatever the outcome with respect to its survival as a religious movement). When we begin to look in that direction we find some questions that need genuine religious response, e.g., how shall a man live a meaningful life in the new world of large numbers, massive impersonal powers, and corporate organizations? That kind of question more than any other was the central one of Ethical Culture’s origin and its present efforts. That this question needs exploration by all of us need not be argued. Perhaps Ethical Culture has some useful reply; perhaps it does not. But we cannot begin to know that if we trap ourselves into apologia for the sources of our being and engage in a species of historical reductionism.

Howard B. Radest
New York City

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To the Editor:

Michael A. Meyer’s article distinctly merits appreciation and attention. . . . In respect to Ethical Culture, however, I think it is still important to put the same facts and questions into a somewhat broader perspective. “Universalism” and liberation from “particularism,” as tendencies in the American religious scene (during Felix Adler’s student years in the late 1860’s and early 70’s), were not, of course, confined to Jewish circles. In 1867 the Free Religious Association arose as a universalizing departure from Unitarianism, led by liberals (especially from New England) who proposed to transcend specifically Christian and also Unitarian particularism. Felix Adler mentioned this movement in his one and only sermon at Temple Emanu-El, in 1873, and he was clearly encouraged by such thinking to entertain the possibility of newly purposeful, yet “creedless” religion. From 1878-82, that is, only two years after the launching of the Society for Ethical Culture in 1876, he served as president of the Free Religious Association. None of this is incompatible with the view that “escape from the odium of Jewishness” played a part, great or small, in Ethical Culture, but it extends the range of factors that shaped the course of that movement. The first associates who are mentioned by Mr. Meyer as joining in Ethical Culture’s leadership—William MacIntyre Salter, S. Burns Weston, and Stanton Coit—were not sought out by Adler, but came to him in the course of their own universalizing escapes, from Congregationalism in Salter’s case and from Unitarianism in Weston’s. Coit had not studied for the ministry. That other men, some of Jewish stock, came into Ethical Culture leadership in the next two generations, but from secular rather than from seminary education, is significant yet may suggest a diminishing importance of escape motives.

With regard to the final question of “survival,” I agree with Mr. Meyer that it would be illusory to suppose that a universalizing religious movement can long and strongly survive mainly on the basis of escape from any particularism. I believe he touches a more vital point for the survival of Ethical Culture when he alludes to its “falling victim to the plague of excessive abstraction.” Ethical Culture was never as centered in Felix Adler’s personal philosophy as Reconstructionism appears to have been in Mordecai Kaplan’s doctrines. The question of survival for Ethical Culture turns critically, in my view, on whether its doctrinal openness, its universalism, can freshly combine, again and again, with constructive initiatives in matters of education, social affairs, sustaining life values and life styles. The productive character of such combination in the movement’s past no doubt came out of particular historic conditions, in which escape from Jewish particularism was but one strand that appears to diminish in importance.

Horace L. Friess
New York Society for Ethical Culture
New York City

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Michael A. Meyer writes:

The Ethical Culture respondents, it seems, are perfectly happy to be beyond particularism and are simply concerned to justify their universalism. Rabbi Eisenstein, by contrast, is scandalized by the comparison and wants to present Reconstructionism’s particularist credentials. He and the Ethical Union’s director share a high degree of institutional defensiveness.

Mr. Radest is needlessly troubled by my reference to the “odium of Jewishness.” My point was only that the lot of the Jew seemed odious to many who sought refuge from it in universalism, surely not that it represents a fair description of Judaism. On the other hand, to call Judaism’s heritage “tribal” seems to me not only odious but grossly ignorant.

It is certainly true that in a period of aggravated oppression the tendency is toward a reassertion of particularism (though the counter-tendency is also present, making for a polarization). The reason is simple enough! Virulent hatred directed against a group with which one at least vaguely still identifies tends to strengthen that identification. It also eliminates the possibility of transcending particularism. One either casts one’s lot with the persecuted or with the oppressor. Had the 1870’s in America been a period of intense anti-Semitism, it is unlikely that Ethical Culture would have come into existence. But it is just as unlikely to have been born where Jews were not a minority.

Mr. Radest’s main concern, however, is to show that Ethical Culture was motivated not only by the rejection of Jewish particularism but by other factors as well. Motives are indeed complex, and there is no reason to doubt that Adler and his followers had many and various ones, including—though in most instances secondarily—the intellectual and theological objections to Judaism which Mr. Radest lists. But by Adler’s time the Jewish community had already become so multilithic that without the seductive vision of an untrammeled universalism—or, if you like, a universalized “personalism”—the attraction of Ethical Culture for Jews remains unexplained.

I am grateful to Mr. Friess for his supplementary comments regarding the American religious scene and its influence on Adler. I find it refreshing that Mr. Friess, unlike his colleague, explicitly acknowledges the role played by the perceived odium of Jewishness. That there were other factors as well I have already agreed. In response to the last part of Mr. Friess’s letter, I would only emphasize that my analysis of motivation dealt with the first generation, not with the present membership of the Society.

If Reconstructionism and Ethical Culture were obviously alike I would not have made their similarities the point of my article. It is precisely because the parallels are not obvious and “superficial” that I wanted to bring them to light. I shall not restate the remarkable structural analogies or the striking similarities in terminology, which Rabbi Eisenstein does not dispute. His principal objection is to the suggestion that Reconstructionism represents a diminution of Jewish particularism. My contention here is based on Mordecai Kaplan’s rejection of the Chosen People concept, the most particularistic of all Jewish doctrines. Even the Reformers were not willing to abandon that idea entirely. Geiger wrote of a unique Jewish genius for religion and distinguished the Jews as “the people of revelation.” The “Mission of Israel,” however universalized in its objectives, was conceived as the imposition of divine will, not as a self-appointed task. It is true that Kaplan did emphasize the religious and cultural value of preserving the Jewish people—and this importantly differentiates him from Adler. But he shifted Jewish survival from divine imperative to human desire. Thus the sentence which Rabbi Eisenstein distorts by quoting only the second half makes eminently good sense: “Had it not been for his own and his followers’ emotional loyalty to Judaism, Kaplan might have led a later generation of American Jews down a path very similar to Adler’s.” Because of his intense feeling for the Jewish people and its civilization, he did not in fact do so. But Kaplan’s theology went a long way in that direction.

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