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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2013
Number 78
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Valuing Cultural Differences

A review essay by Steven Windmueller

The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism by Daniel Greene. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Daniel Greene treats his readers to a fascinating story associated with the emergence of the idea of cultural pluralism. Employing the Menorah Journal, philosopher Horace Kallen, along with a group of fellow academics and Harvard students, share their critique of the American Jewish scene. For Kallen this journal and its student-affiliated organization, the Menorah Association, would serve as a vehicle during the period beginning in 1915 and ending in the mid-1930s for his ideas and those of his colleagues for creating a vibrant Jewish cultural movement. At the height of its impact, Intercollegiate Menorah Association would be active on more than 80 campuses across the United States.

Emerging as a counter-point to the melting pot thesis of Israel Zangwell, Kallen and his cohort sought to use to the pages of the Journal and the activities of the Menorah Association to articulate their vision for American Jewry. The founders of this movement were seeking “to develop a vibrant Jewish cultural renaissance in an American setting. Kallen’s pluralist vision relied on imaging the nation as conglomerate of co-existing groups.” For Kallen and his fellow travelers, assimilation was identified as “national suicide.” Joining the ranks of the cultural Zionists, he envisioned Palestine as “a center from which the Jewish spirit may radiate and give to Jews that inspiration which springs from the memories of the great past and the hope of a great future.”

In the process of framing their case that American Judaism was without substance, these young scholars would challenge the Jewish establishment. They engaged the key leadership of the primary liberal seminaries, HUC, JIR and JTS and, more directly, a number of central figures within the Reform rabbinate, in a debate over the vitality of American Judaism. Kallen contended that “Judaism tends to be more than a survival worn down to dietary intolerances, an occasional Kaddish for the dead, and perhaps a ticket for admitting to synagogue or hall on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”

A specific portion of this book is devoted to the contentious interchange between the intellectual voices of the Menorah Association and Reform Judaism’s rabbinic leadership. Led by Elliott Cohen, who later would serve as the editor of the American Jewish Committee’s Commentary Magazine, the assault was focused on Jewish assimilation and the failure in particular of the American rabbinate for being “a too meek acquiescence in the degradation of the rabbinic function to that of a spokesman i.e., a mouthpiece of the ignorance, ambitions, and fears of the influential Jewish laity.” In turn, Kallen blamed rabbis for the “failures of educational institutions and the internal divisiveness of organizational life.” These charges did not go unattended, as the leaders of the Reform movement during this period, including Dr. Julian Morgenstern, Abba Hillel Silver and Solomon Freehof, offered their criticism of Kallen and the Journal, ultimately leading to a formal break between these prominent rabbinic figures and the editorial board of the Menorah Journal.

In introducing the Menorah Movement, Greene also documents the emergence and growth of academic anti-Semitism in the 1920’s, led by Harvard University’s president, A. Lawrence Lowell, as the Ivy institutions imposed quotas on both the admission of Jewish students and in limiting the hiring of Jewish faculty members. Greene also does a particular service for his readers by providing a historic survey of the development of the field of Jewish studies in the United States, which parallels the emergence of the Menorah Association. Similarly, the writer offers a historical background on the emergence and growth of Hillel as the primary expression of Jewish religious and cultural life on American campuses, ultimately surpassing and replacing the Menorah Association.

As a part of his closing reflections, Greene identified the more recent challenges to the ideas surrounding cultural pluralism as an accepted social model. Multiculturalism and pluralism are seen by some as the natural successors to the concepts introduced by Horace Kallen.

This well-written text not only lays out the ideas associated with cultural pluralism as defined by Kallen and others but also offers readers an insight into the world of American higher education and its engagement and connection to the rise of Jewish intellectualism. In the end, Greene contends that in a society that valued cultural differences, “promoting Jewish culture would not marginalize Jews but would create opportunities for them to coexist within a diverse ethnic landscape.” As such this book opens new doors to a richer understanding of an essential piece of 20th century American Jewish ideology and social behavior.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union Colleges Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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