Liberal and Orthodox Jewish Responses to Antisemitism and Assimilationism in the United States during the 1920s: Rabbis Mordecai Kaplan’s and Bernard Revel’s Reconstruction of Judaism for the New American Realities
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By the 1920s, American Judaism was at a crossroads. After decades of Jewish mass migration into the United States, restrictive immigration laws brought the Jewish community to a crisis. Here was a widespread belief that as the number of Jewish immigrants was sharply reduced, the American Jewish community would not withstand the forces of assimilation for long. There were two American rabbis, both Eastern European immigrants, whose responses to this situation proved to be especially remarkable. Liberal rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan envisioned the re-interpretation of Jewish tradition in terms of modern thought, fostering the social solidarity of the Jewish people and the formulation of a code of Jewish practice so that every Jew may know what constitutes loyalty to Judaism. In comparison, Orthodox rabbi Bernard Revel sought to build up an educational system for religiously observant American Jewry in which they would not feel alienated and get lost through assimilation and, yet, still receive a secular education. This paper will present and compare the arguments of Kaplan and Revel, primarily focusing on their writings. Although the two rabbis saw similar challenges facing the community, they proposed different reforms of Jewish communal life that both still influence the American Jewish landscape today.
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