What the Times Considers a Burning Issue

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Speaking, as I did in my last post, of the failures of democratic institutions, albeit in an entirely different vein, the following is an unpublished letter of mine to — you guessed it — the Forward, responding to an article by a freshly minted Ivy League Jewish Studies grad regarding the 1945 burning of Mordecai Kaplan’s prayerbook and the excommunication of its author by a group of American Orthodox rabbis. Kaplan, it will be recalled, is the dude who invented Reconstructionism (patent pending), thereby inspiring the wag’s line that “there is no G-d and Kaplan is His prophet.” Personally, I prefer to Jewishly identify myself in the way a friend of mine recently did, as “a Jew under construction.” Shouldn’t we all be?

Another legacy of Kaplan is his innovation of the rite of “bat mitzvah,” having been, it seems, the first to fete his daughter’s coming of age in that way. Well, at least that ritual was started by a guy with “rabbi” in front of his name; the “bar mitzvah,” by contrast, was probably the brainchild of the American Association of Kosher Caterers.

How, you ask, do I know the bat mitzvah was Kaplan’s baby? Because, over the years, I must have read the same sentence in at least 5 or 6 different Jewish papers or books, and always with a sober air of authority (those familiar with the literature know that received wisdom of this sort about the Orthodox tends to get regurgitated repeatedly), in roughly these words: “Even the Orthodox have been influenced by the other movements to accomodate modernity, as in their adoption of the bat mitzvah ceremony first performed by Mordecai Kaplan.” What a gas.

In any event, when our Jewish Studies grad began his retrospective with the following paragraph, you just knew it wasn’t going to end pretty:

Exactly 60 years ago, a group of individuals assembled to burn the prayer book of a Jewish leader and to ostracize him from community life. This event occurred not in Europe but in Manhattan, and the book burners were not Nazis. They were Jews.

And, sure enough, the writer sees fit, many paragraphs later, to conclude his piece with what, to his mind at least, is a happy ending, with the New York Times as heroic protagonist:

Largely because of a New York Times article that publicized the event to the world, both Jews and the greater American public rallied behind Kaplan and lashed out against the Union of Orthodox Rabbis. It seemed that no one could stomach the sight of books on fire — no matter who had lit the match — only one month after the Allied victory over the Nazis.

To which this writer responded:

I’d recommend that the essayist read Laurel Leff’s book Buried by the Times , which Stuart Eizenstat describes as the story of “the abject failure of the world’s most influential newspaper, the New York Times, to report on the Holocaust that its owner and key figures knew was occurring.” Perhaps that would give him the perspective necessary to contrast the Times’ respective responses to the rabbinical burning of a book and the Nazi burnings of millions of Jewish human beings.

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