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Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life

by Mordecai M. Kaplan

Bibliographic information

TitleJudaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life
AuthorMordecai M. Kaplan
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001
SubjectJewish Religious Thought


Judaism as a Civilization remains one of the most original and thought-provoking contributions toward creating a comprehensive program for creative Jewish life. In this seminal work, Kaplan offers his now famous concept of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization. For Judaism to survive and grow, Jews must continue to reconstruct their heritage in response to changes in social, political, and cultural conditions, producing new literature and liturgy, adding and eliminating customs and traditions. All Jews traditional and liberal, religious and secular can play a part in that reconstruction.

Judaism as a Civilization is indeed a Jewish classic, worthy of its place in the succession of classic texts that have made the rabbinic tradition a way of life for the Jewish people.

About the Author 

Mordecai M. Kaplan ---

Mordecai Kaplan is regarded as one of the twentieth centurys foremost philosophers and interpreters of Jewish thought. He is the creator, and for generations the guiding spirit, of the Reconstructionist philosophy of Judasim.

Through his writings and teachings, he has helped to mold the structure of many American Jewish institutions, providing the American Jewish consciousness with a new vocabulary and a series of challenging value concepts. There are countless institutions that we now take for granted which were created by Mordecai Kaplan, including the synagogue center and the Bat Mitzvah.

Of Kaplan`s writings, the most well known was the 1934 Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life, which has been periodically republished. Indeed, according to Choice reviewer S. D. Katz, reviewing Dynamic Judaism: The Essential Writings of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization was for many readers the only familiar example of Kaplan`s writing. However, Kaplan`s thought was far-ranging and his output prolific. Numerous books, pamphlets, and lectures flowed from his pen; he co-edited important prayer books and translated an eighteenth-century work of Jewish philosophy. In Dynamic Judaism, editors Emanuel S. Goldsmith and Mel Scult brought together Kaplan`s writings in eleven areas, on topics that included "The Modern Predicament," "Jewish Peoplehood," "Judaism and Community in America," "Ethics," and "Reconstructionist Judaism," among others. For a Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor this represented an "impressive" body of work offering "a religious philosophy of a particularly warm and accessible kind." Library Journal critic Robert A. Silver called the anthology "intelligently organized" and "an excellent introduction to Reconstructionism for general readers." Choice reviewer Katz applauded the editors for their breadth of knowledge, their biographical and theological introductions, and their choice of selections from an author whom Katz labeled "the most original Jewish thinker American Jewry has produced."


Kaplan's Judaism at Sixty: A Reappraisal

by Arnold Eisen

Preface to the 1967 Edition

Preface to the 1957 Edition

Preface to the 1934 Edition

Introduction to the 1981 Edition

by Arthur Hertzberg


I. The Present Crisis in Judaism


A. The Factors of Disintegration

II. The Modern Political Order

III. The Modern Economic Order

IV. The Modern Ideology

B. The Factors of Conservation

V. Inherent Factor of Conservation

VI. Environmental Factors of Conservation

C. The Decisive Factor

VII. Needed: A Program of Reconstruction


VIII. The Reformist Version of Judaism

IX. Critique of the Reformist Version of Judaism

X. Conservative Judaism (Right Wing of Reformism)

XI. The Neo-Orthodox Version of Judaism

XII. Critique of Neo-Orthodoxy

XIII. Conservative Judaism (Left Wing of Neo-Orthodoxy)


XIV. Judaism as a Civilization

XV. Constituent Elements of Judaism as a Civilization

XVI. Implications of the Proposed Version of Judaism


XVII. The Nationhood of Israel

XVIII. Nationalism as a Cultural Concept

XIX. Cultural Nationalism as the Call of the Spirit

XX. The Land of Israel

XXI. Jewish Communal Organization


XXII. Introductory. The Need for Reorientation to the Problem of Religion

XXIII. The Place of Religion in Jewish Life

XXIV. The Folk Aspect of the Jewish Religion

XXV. The Past Stages of the Jewish Religion

XXVI. The Functional Method of Interpretation


XXVII. Introductory. Torah as a Way of Life

XXVIII. Jewish Milieu

XXIX. Jewish Folkways

XXX. Jewish Ethics

XXXI. The Meaning of Jewish Education in America


XXXII. Creative Judaism - A Program




The categories under which it has been customary to subsume Judaism have proved inadequate. It can no longer be confined within the terms of revealed religion or ethical monotheism. Both its own nature and the temper of the time preclude its being classified with either the one of the other. We must, therefore, find for it a category which will do justice to the whole of it. Those who try to interpret Judaism to the outside world are in the habit of describing it in terms which they imagine would justify its existence in the opinion of their audience. This is why Philo and Josephus found it necessary to represent Judaism to the Gentiles of their day as a philosophy, and this is why modern Jewish apologists deem it necessary to represent Judaism as religion. But what may reconcile non-Jews to the existence of Judaism does not necessarily help the Jews in solving the problems to which it gives rise. Now that it is in need of intelligent planning and direction Jews should learn Judaism's essential character so that they might know what to do with it in times of stress.

The term civilization is usually applied to the accumulation of knowledge, skills, tools, arts, literatures, laws, religions and philosophies which stands between man and external nature, and which serves as a bulwark against the hostility of forces that would otherwise destroy him. If we contemplate that accumulation is a civilization, which is sharply differentiated from every other. Each block of unit of civilization can exist and flourish, even if every other should become extinct. This fact indicates that a civilization is a complete and self-contained entity. Civilization is an abstract term. The actuality is civilizations; e.g., the civilizations of Babylonia, of Egypt, of Palestine.

Not all elements of a civilization constitute its otherness. Each civilization possesses elements which it shares with other civilizations, and which are transferable in toto to other civilizations. Among these would be included mechanical developments, inventions, the funded discoveries of science. But it would be wrong to assume that these improvements in the mechanics of living constitute a civilization. The elements which give it otherness and individuality are those which produce the human differentia in the individuals that are raised in it. The development of the human differentia is due mainly to non-transferable elements like language, literature, arts, religion, and laws. They are non-transferable in the sense that they cannot be adopted by other civilizations without essential changes in their character.

By placing Judaism within the category of civilizations we shall know how to fit it into the framework of the modern social order. That classification should help us identify in the complex thing called Judaism, all of the elements and characteristics which go to make up its substance, and which can be properly appraised in terms of present-day values and desiderata, because they can be studied as the reactions of human nature to social environment. Judaism is but one of a number of unique national civilizations guiding humanity toward its spiritual destiny. It has functioned as a civilization throughout its career, and it is only in that capacity that it can function in the future.

If Judaism is to be preserved amidst the new conditions, said the late Israel Friedlaender, if, lacking as it does, all outward support, it is still to withstand the pressure of the surrounding influences, it must again break the narrow frame of a creed and resume its original function as a culture, as the expression of the Jewish spirit and the whole life of the Jews. It will not confine itself to a few metaphysical doctrines, which affect the head and not the heart, and a few official ceremonies which affect neither the head nor the heart, but will encircle the whole life of the Jew and give content and color to its highest functions and activities.

A civilization is not a deliberate creation. It is as spontaneous a growth as any living organism. Once it exists it can be guided and directed, but its existence must be determined by the imperative of a national tradition and the will-to-live as a nation. Civilization arises not out of planned cooperation, but out of centuries of inevitable living, working and striving together. Its transmission takes place by the method of suggestion, imitation, and education of the young, sanctioned by public opinion and authority. The operation of these forces is postulated by the existence of the social institutions of the family, school, religious organization and communal self-government. The process cannot wait until the child reaches the age of choice. Civilizations live by the inherent right to direct the child into their ways. It is only thus that the whole course of human development has been made possible.


Mordecai Kaplans work remains not only a classic clearly one of the greatest works in the corpus of modern Jewish thought but a book extraordinary in its timeliness. Kaplan spoke out of and for a very different generation and yet continues to address ours. Judaism in America remains a problem to those who have to teach it, as Kaplan wrote in the opening line of his preface, and who, as he demanded there, is exempt from teaching it? Not I, certainly.

- Arnold Eisen

Author of Kaplans Judaism at Sixty: A Reappraisal

Initially published in 1934, Kaplan's book sets forth the basic tenets that marked his long career in Jewish philosophy. This edition contains the original text plus the introduction to all subsequent editions and an essay by scholar Arnold Eisen.

- Library Journal

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