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Three truly exceptional books appeared in the early 1930s--exceptional not only for their absolute brilliance but for emphasizing religion in history as well as modern times. In 1932, Reinhold Niebuhr published Moral Man and Immoral Society, which shook liberal Christianity to its core with its powerful denunciation of naive faith in optimism and progress and its blunt assertion of the reality of evil still darkening human achievement. A year later, Perry Miller published Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, the first in a series of stunning histories by Miller that described the intellectual power residing inside sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Calvinist theology. Miller resuscitated the reputation of New England's Puritans, and his work shaped the writing of American history for half a century. Then, in 1934, Mordecai M. Kaplan published Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life, which demanded wholesale rebuilding of Judaism as traditionally conceived and practiced, and which challenged traditional theistic and prophetic conceptions of religion broadly construed. (1)
Niebuhr, Miller, and Kaplan had no known personal connections and no known intellectual interchanges, although their friendships with others suggest that they could have become stimulating interlocutors. Niebuhr and Abraham Heschel developed a deep friendship in the 1950s and 1960s, and Heschel gave a famously poignant eulogy at Niebuhr's funeral in 1971. Miller and Niebuhr had some oblique scholarly interchanges at several points from the early 1950s until Miller's death in 1963. And, though Kaplan's personal intellectual relationships appear to have been limited after he left graduate school at Columbia, his diaries suggest an avid familiarity with The New Republic, Harper's Monthly Magazine, Harold Laski, and Walter Lippmann. (2)
In a cynical and disillusioned era, Niebuhr, Miller, and Kaplan took religion seriously and boldly asserted religion's centrality to shaping human society, past and present. Niebuhr explicated the problem of morality, society, and religion in a post-industrial West poisoned by the horrors of the Great War, the disappointments of peace, and the rise of German and Soviet totalitarianism, and he demanded the reexamination of evil as an ever-present reality even in modern times--perhaps especially in modern times. Miller explicated the intellectual world of deceased and maligned Puritans who, for better or worse, had cast a powerful shadow across America well into the twentieth century. And the startling opening sentence of Judaism as a Civilization asserted a stunning, possibly even disturbing, paradox of history: "Before the beginning of the nineteenth century all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden."
Kaplan's fame and importance could rest alone on his role as a truly influential Jewish educator, especially in "adult education" for synagogue leaders and as the "founder" of the Reconstructionist movement. But, ultimately, Kaplan's importance is tied to the influence of Judaism as a Civilization as the principal modern text that dared grapple with Judaism's fate amid modernity. Here, Kaplan is burdened by the biases of institutional and denominational religious history: because size counts, Reconstructionism has remained a curiosity, certainly for historians, since it claimed less than 1 percent of a religious group that constituted less than 2 percent of the American population. (3)
Nor is the situation helped by the continuing isolation of American Jewish history within American history generally and American religious history specifically. American historians still struggle to give modern religion the attention rightly due to race, gender, ethnicity, and economics. The continuing separation of historians of religion in America into largely faith-centered professional organizations perpetuates isolation. Relatively few historians participate in the history section of the American Academy of Religion; the American Society of Church History concentrates on Christianity, though it has moved substantially beyond its origins as a society of Protestant historians and clergymen and now studies a broad range of Christian expression including post-Reformation Catholicism. Still, a good deal of Catholic and Jewish history is pursued in separate spheres, such as meetings of the Catholic Historical Association, the Jewish Studies Association, the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, and the Center for Jewish History in New York City. (4)
Kaplan was, of course, not nearly so institutionally bound, and if Judaism as a Civilization is indeed the founding text of Reconstructionism, its great intellectual interest stems from Kaplan's bold demands about salvaging Judaism in the modern world, the problem raised by Miller for the seventeenth-century Calvinism and by Niebuhr for naive modern Christians. Kaplan asks how Judaism--and by implication religion generally--can survive in a time when so many of its prime beliefs have been eroded and when the historical conditions of the Jewish Diaspora have been upended, especially in America, where secular …