Mordecai Kaplan’s Reflections on American Jewish Apathy

Jan. 24 2023

Born in a Russian shtetl in 1881, Mordecai Kaplan came to New York City as a child and, following in his father’s footsteps, received rabbinic ordination—serving at the Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and helping to found the Young Israel network of synagogues. Thereafter Kaplan gradually broke with Orthodoxy and, finding both Conservative and Reform theologies inadequate, developed a program of his own, which came to be known as Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan published much in his lifetime, but his personal journals have only seen the light of day in the 21st century. Jenna Weissman Joselit writes of them:

The voice that emerges from these pages is . . . far more fluid and engaging than the formal, stilted prose characteristic of much of Kaplan’s published writings or the scolding tone of his sermons. Judaism as a Civilization is undoubtedly a great and important book, but his private reflections—awash in juicy characterizations of congregants, colleagues, and family members as well as in shrewd observations of the contemporary scene—make for a rollicking good read.

Kaplan took great pains with his journal writing. He didn’t simply jot down stray impressions or make off-the-cuff remarks. His entries were well crafted, carefully edited, deliberate. Claiming he had to “go through the tortures of the Laocoön” to marshal his thoughts, Kaplan routinely tightened and polished them, crossing out a word, a phrase, or even an entire sentence, substituting another that was more precise, punchier, or softer. At other moments, when in high dudgeon, which happened a lot, Kaplan would come at something that troubled him—his relationship with his students, the viability of Reconstructionism, or his legacy—with the full force of his formidable intellect and prickly temperament.

In 1963, Kaplan reflected on the fortunes of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), the flagship Reconstructionist congregation he had somewhat reluctantly founded 40 years prior:

Those who . . . formed the SAJ, though limited in their knowledge of Judaism, were sufficiently imbued by its general spirit . . . to feel a sense of responsibility for keeping Judaism alive. . . . After a number of years during which the generation that helped me found the SAJ began to dwindle away, it was followed by a generation which knew even less about Judaism and felt less of a responsibility for its conservation and enhancement. Since then it has been harder to innovate, due not so much to active resistance as to sheer apathy or indifference.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish History, American Judaism, Mordechai Kaplan

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy