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A Chosen People in a Pluralist Nation: Horace Kallen and the Jewish-American Experience

  • Daniel Greene


This article examines the ways that ethnic pluralism and Jewish exceptionalism coexisted in philosopher Horace M. Kallen’s thought from the time that Jewish identity began to play a significant and positive role in his own self-conception, roughly in 1900, until his coining of “cultural pluralism” in 1924. Kallen conceived of pluralism, in large part, to address concerns about American Jewish identity, but its conception created a vexing problem for Jews. If Jews were the “chosen people,” then how could they fit into a model of the nation that emphasized equality, or at least harmony, between many different groups? Kallen would solve the dilemma of pluralism and chosenness by advocating that American Jews maintain their particularity on the basis of cultural distinctiveness rather than of superiority. Interrogating Kallen's thought on this question illuminates how his enduring theory of cultural pluralism owed its origins, in part, to specific Jewish concerns and how it developed in conjunction with a sustained struggle to articulate a meaningful Jewish identity that would prove continuous across generations. Kallen’s solution to the dilemma of pluralism and Jewish exceptionalism also demonstrates one instance of how debates about Jewish particularity profoundly influenced understandings of cultural, racial, and religious difference within American democracy during the early twentieth century.



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I presented earlier versions of this paper at the University of Miami Judaic Studies Program in November 2004 and at the May 2004 “From Pre-Modern Corporation to Post-Modern Pluralism” conference at the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture in Leipzig, Germany. I am especially thankful to David A. Hollinger, Denis Lacorne, and Lois Dubin for their comments after the Leipzig presentation. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen and Ranen Omer-Sherman also have been helpful and critical readers.

1 Kallen, Horace M., “Democracy versus the Melting Pot,” in Culture and Democracy in the United States, 108 . Kallen's article originally appeared in Nation 100 (February 18 and 25, 1915): 190–94, 217–20. A slightly revised version was published in his 1924 collection of essays, Culture and Democracy in the United States. The page numbers for quotations in this article come from a 1998 reprinting of Culture and Democracy in the United States issued by Transaction Publishers.

2 Eisen, Arnold M., The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), 34 .

3 Hansen considers Kallen alongside William James, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, W. E. B. DuBois, Randolph Bourne, and Louis Brandeis. James was Kallen's dissertation advisor, and Brandeis was a frequent correspondent. See Hansen, Jonathan M., The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003 ), quotation on xviii. Hansen's language echoes that of David A. Hollinger, who persuasively has argued that identities are acquired largely through affiliation. See Hollinger, , Post- Ethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

4 See Higham, John, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1955, 1994); and Higham, John, Send These to Me: Immigrants in Urban America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984).

5 See Meyer, Michael, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

6 An excellent source for understanding chosenness is Walzer, Michael, Lorberbaum, Menachem, and Zohar, Noam J., eds., The Jewish Political Tradition, vol. 2, Membership (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000).

7 I owe a special debt to one of the anonymous readers of the article for this language.

8 Baeck, Leo, “Revelation and World Religion,” in The Essence of Judaism, ed. Howe, Irving (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), 67 .

9 See Lila Corwin Berman, “Presenting Jews: Jewishness and America, 19201960” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2004), esp. chap. 3, “Mission to America.”

10 Kaplan developed his ideology, among many other places, in a number of Menorah Journal articles. See Mordecai M. Kaplan, “What Judaism Is Not,” Menorah Journal 1 (October 1915); “How May Judaism Be Saved?” Menorah Journal 2 (February 1916); “The Future of Judaism,” Menorah Journal 2 (June 1916); “Where Does Jewry Really Stand Today?” Menorah Journal 4 (February 1918); “A Program for the Reconstruction of Judaism,” Menorah Journal 6 (August 1920); “Toward a Reconstruction of Judaism,” Menorah Journal 13 (April 1927); and “Judaism as a Civilization: Religion's Place in It,” Menorah Journal 15 (December 1928).

11 Kaplan, Mordecai M., Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1934; repr., 1994).

12 Eisen, , The Chosen People in America, 7398 .

13 There is no comprehensive intellectual biography on Kallen, but a number of scholars have published on his life and ideas. See Klingenstein, Susanne, Jews in the American Academy, 1900–1940: The Dynamics of Intellectual Assimilation (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991); Konvitz, Milton R., “Horace Meyer Kallen (1882–1974),” American Jewish Year Book 75 (1974–75): 55–80 ; Konvitz, , Nine American Jewish Thinkers (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2000 ); and Konvitz, , ed., The Legacy of Horace M. Kallen (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1987 ); Schmidt, Sarah, Horace M. Kallen: Prophet of American Zionism (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing Company, 1995 ); and Toll, William, “Horace M. Kallen: Pluralism and American Jewish Identity,” American Jewish History 85 (March 1997): 5774 .

14 See Konvitz, , Nine American Jewish Thinkers, 89 .

15 “[I]n the Boston public schools, visiting Bunker Hill and listening to teachers recite the precepts of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Kallen underwent during the 1890's the common second-generation experience: loss of religion and an uncritical enthusiasm for America.” Higham, Send These to Me, 206.

16 Schmidt, Horace M. Kallen, 21; Konvitz, “Horace Meyer Kallen,” 65.

17 Kallen letter to I. B. Lipson, December 8, 1917, Kallen Papers, Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio (hereafter referred to as AJA).

18 Kallen articulated these criticisms, among other places, in “Can Judaism Survive in the United States?” The essay was originally printed in two parts in the Menorah Journal 11 (April 1925) and 11 (December 1925). It was reprinted in Kallen, Horace M., Judaism at Bay: Essays Toward the Adjustment of Judaism to Modernity (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1932), 177220 .

19 The relationship between the American Reform movement and Zionism defies simple categorization. As Michael Meyer has explained, “Institutionally, classical Reform Judaism put itself on record as fundamentally opposed to political Zionism… . Yet it is of interest that, even in its classical phase, American Reform Judaism was by no means uniformly anti-Zionist… . Some Reform Jews found it easier to be cultural Zionists than political ones, though here too there were some problems.” Meyer, , Response to Modernity, 293, 294. One way to measure the change in the official position of the Reform movement is to examine the platforms written in 1885 (Pittsburgh) and 1937 (Columbus). The 1885 platform of the Reform movement declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and, therefore, expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” The 1937 platform read: “In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.” The two platforms are reprinted in Meyer, Response to Modernity, 387–91.

20 Konvitz, “Horace Meyer Kallen,” 65.

21 Kallen claimed that, had Princeton known he was a Jew, they likely would not have hired him. Kallen reflected on this episode in 1962, writing: “In short, as the Princeton authorities saw me, I was one who had come to live and work among them under false pretenses: a Jew who had ‘passed.’” Kallen was dismissed from the University of Wisconsin for advocating the rights of pacifists during World War I. Kallen also served one semester as an instructor in logic at Clark University. See Horace M. Kallen, “The Promise of the Menorah Idea,” Menorah Journal 49 (Autumn- Winter 1962): 12, and Kallen's obituary in the New York Times, February 17, 1974, 66.

22 Quoted in Toll, “Horace M. Kallen,” 58 n. 3.

23 Menand, Louis, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 389 .

24 The dedication reads: “To / the Memory of/ BARRETT WENDELL/ Poet, Teacher, Man of Letters,/ Deep-seeing Interpreter of America and/ the American Mind,/ In Whose Teaching I received/ My First Vision of Their Trends and/ Meanings/ I Reverently Dedicate This Book”

25 See Kallen, , “A Convert in Zion,” in Judaism at Bay, 64, 65.

26 On the history of the Menorah Association, see Daniel Greene, “The Crisis of Jewish Freedom: The Menorah Association and American Pluralism, 1906–1934” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 2004).

27 Toll, “Horace M. Kallen,” 67.

28 On the possibility of Jewish students at Harvard passing as non-Jews, see Kallen, “The Promise of the Menorah Idea,” 12.

29 See Reuben, Julie, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

30 “The Third Annual Convention of the Menorah Societies,” Menorah Journal 1 (April 1915): 130. As Kallen wrote to Judge Julian Mack in 1915, “Religion is less than life, and as life becomes more and more secularized, the religion of the Jews becomes less and less the life of the Jews. I use the word Hebraism consequently to designate the whole of that life, of which Judaism is a part—in the case of Orthodoxy a major part.” Kallen to Mack, January 19, 1915, Kallen Papers, box 20, folder 10, AJA.

31 Kallen likely developed an understanding of Hebraism from reading Matthew Arnold. In an 1869 essay, “Hebraism and Hellenism,” Arnold argued for a greater balance between Hebraism and Hellenism in the quest for human salvation. He argued that Hebraism was characterized by “conduct and obedience,” whereas Hellenism was characterized by the ability to “see things as they really are.” In effect, Kallen would reverse Arnold's understanding of Hellenism and Hebraism. Kallen understood a primary component of Hellenism to be its resistance to change, where Hebraism allowed for change as an essential condition of modern life. See Arnold, Matthew, “Hebraism and Hellenism,” in Culture and Anarchy, ed. Collini, Stefan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 127 . In 1962, Kallen wrote: “Why ‘Hebraic’ and not ‘Jewish’? Not because, as might be the case today, a prejudice in favor of Hebrew as against the other languages that have figured in the vernacular history of the Jewish people. The reason lay rather in the English tradition of comparing and contrasting Hebraism with Hellenism.” Kallen, “The Promise of the Menorah Idea,” 13.

32 Zangwill, Israel, The Melting Pot (New York: Macmillan, 1909).

33 See Gleason, Philip, Speaking of Diversity: Language and Ethnicity in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 56 , 34.

34 Kallen, “Democracy versus the Melting Pot,” 71. For arguments that Zangwill imagined an American melting pot in which Jewish identity would remain distinct, see Neil Larry Shumsky, “Zangwill's The Melting Pot: Ethnic Tensions on Stage,” American Quarterly 27 (March 1975): 29–41; and Biale, David, “The Melting Pot and Beyond: Jews and the Politics of American Identity,” in Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism, ed. Biale, David, Galchinsky, Michael, and Heschel, Susannah (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

35 A front-page review of the play in the American Israelite of 1909 best summed up American Jews’ anxiety. The reviewer wrote, “Ethnologically the Jew is doomed to extinction in America and this perhaps is the real message that lies at the heart of Israel Zangwill's great play.” “‘The Melting Pot’ Will the Jew Become Merged in It and Disappear?” American Israelite 55 (March 4, 1909): 1.

36 See Gleason, Philip, “American Identity and Americanization,” in The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed. Therstrom, Stephan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 3158 ; Barrett, James R., “Americanization from the Bottom Up: Immigration and the Remaking of the Working Class in the United States, 1880–1930,” Journal of American History 79 (December 1992): 9961020 ; and Gerstle, Gary, “Liberty, Coercion, and the Making of Americans,” Journal of American History 84 (September 1997): 524–58.

37 Higham, , Strangers in the Land, 308–24.

38 One of the most useful sources for understanding competing ideologies of Americanization is still Gordon, Milton, Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

39 James, William, “What Pragmatism Means,” in his Essays in Pragmatism (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 144 .

40 Kallen, Horace, “Introduction,” in The Philosophy of William James (New York: Modern Library, 1925), 9 .

41 James, “What Pragmatism Means,” 145, 149, 151, 155. Italics in original.

42 The year that Kallen spent studying in Oxford, 1907–1908, was the same year that James delivered the Hibbert lectures at Oxford. The lectures were later published as A Pluralist Universe. See Sollors, Werner, “A Critique of Pure Pluralism,” in Reconstructing American Literary History, ed. Bercovitch, Sacvan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 267 .

43 For a discussion of James's ideas about ethnic identity, see Miller, Larry C., “William James and Twentieth-Century Ethnic Thought,” American Quarterly 31 (Autumn 1979): 533–55.

44 Although perhaps a bit tangential to Kallen's eventual understanding of the nation as welcoming contributions from a variety of groups, James had made a similar argument about Harvard College itself when Kallen was an undergraduate. Writing in 1903, James argued that Harvard had to be tolerant of “exceptionality and eccentricity” and devoted “to the principles of individual vocation and choice.” Indeed, a comment that foreshadowed Kallen's pluralism, James concluded: “The day when Harvard shall stamp a single hard and fast type of character upon her children, will be that of her downfall.” James, William, “The True Harvard,” Harvard Graduates’ Magazine 12 (1903): 7, 8. This statement was consistent with his promoting tolerance of difference in an 1899 lecture, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” Here, James urged his listeners to “tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see as harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us.” The lecture is reprinted in James, William, Pragmatismand Other Writings, ed. Gunn, Giles (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 285 .

45 Horace M. Kallen, “Judaism, Hebraism, Zionism,” American Hebrew (June 24, 1910). This article was reprinted in Kallen, Judaism at Bay. All the page citations hereafter refer to the reprinted version of the article.

46 Ibid., 30.

47 Ibid., 30.

48 Ibid., 30–31.

49 Ibid., 32.

50 Ahad Ha’am (Hebrew for “one of the people”) was the pen name used by Asher Hirsch Ginsberg (1856–1927), a Russian Jew who argued against the feasibility of settling a large number of Jews in Palestine but who did “concentrate on fostering a secular Jewish culture based on Jewish national consciousness and the renewal of Hebrew as a means of ensuring the continuity of Jewish creativity.” Ha’am became one of the central figures in the movement for cultural Zionism, sometimes referred to as spiritual Zionism. See Mendes-Flohr, Paul and Reinharz, Jehuda, eds., The Jew in the Modern World, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 543 . See also Zipperstein, Steven J., Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha’am and the Origins of Zionism (London: Peter Halban, 1993 ). Ha’am also “derided mission and election as symptoms of an inferiority complex.” See Eisen, , The Chosen People in America, 89 .

51 Kallen, “Judaism, Hebraism, Zionism,” 40.

52 Ha’am, “The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem” (1897), reprinted in Arthur Hertzberg, , ed., The Zionist Idea (New York: Atheneum, 1970), 267 .

53 Randolph S. Bourne, a critic of Kallen, articulated this idea more clearly than Kallen ever did. See especially Bourne, , “The Jew and Trans-National America,” Menorah Journal 2 (December 1916): 277–84.

54 Kallen, “Judaism, Hebraism, Zionism,” 35. To be sure, not all “natural” talents should be developed for their own sake—Kallen provides the counter example of a skilled thief—but Kallen's point here is that one would not rightly ask if the fiddler has a “mission” to fiddle.

55 Ibid., 37.

56 Ibid., 39.

57 Ibid., 41.

58 Ha’am had written: “In my view our religion is national— that is to say, it is a product of our national spirit—but the reverse is not true. If it is impossible to be a Jew in the religious sense without acknowledging our nationality, it is possible to be a Jew in the national sense without accepting many things in which religion requires belief.” See Ha’am, “The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem,” 262.

59 Kallen, “Judaism, Hebraism, Zionism,” 41.

60 The text of the untitled speech was reprinted in The Menorah Movement: For the Study and Advancement of Jewish Culture and Ideals (Ann Arbor: Intercollegiate Menorah Association, 1914): 81–86. All quotations from this speech hereafter refer to this reprint of the speech.

61 Kallen, , December 20, 1913, speech, The Menorah Movement, 83 .

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid.

64 Kallen's privileging of culture over class is evident throughout “Democracy versus the Melting Pot.”

65 Kallen, December 20, 1913, speech, The Menorah Movement, 83.

66 Ibid., 84.

67 Ibid., 85.

68 Ibid.

69 “The incompleteness and the bias of Kallen's pluralism becomes obvious once we ask what role it assigned to the Negro. The answer is: none.” Higham, Send These to Me, 210.

70 Werner Sollors's criticism of Kallen is pointed but still more tempered than that of Walter Benn Michaels. See Sollors, , “A Critique of Pure Pluralism”; and Michaels, Walter Benn, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995), esp. 6472 .

71 Kallen, , December 20, 1913, speech, The Menorah Movement, 86 .

72 Kallen's Zionist ideas had profound implications. He was one of the primary influences on Louis Brandeis's developing Zionist thought. Brandeis had never exhibited much interest in Zionism or other Jewish causes before the 1910s. Increased contact with Zionists, including Kallen, during the early 1910s led Brandeis quickly to become the most influential leader of the American Zionist movement by 1915. See Schmidt, Horace M. Kallen. On the history of American Zionism, see 190 Raider, Mark A., The Emergence of American Zionism (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

73 Kallen, “Democracy versus the Melting Pot,” 107.

74 See Kallen, “Introduction,” 47.

75 Kallen, “Democracy versus the Melting Pot,” 104.

76 Kallen, ibid., 114–15.

77 Kallen, Horace M., The Structure of Lasting Peace (Boston: Marshall Jones Co., 1918), 31 .

78 Werner Sollors has argued that American ethnicity can be understood as a combination of descent and consent. “Descent relations are those defined by anthropologists as relations of ‘substance’ (by blood or nature); consent relations describe those of ‘law’ or ‘marriage.’” The tension between consent and descent is prevalent in Kallen's writings on Jewish identity during the 1910s and 1920s. See Sollors, , Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 6 .

79 Sollors, “A Critique of Pure Pluralism,” 260, 273. John Higham and Philip Gleason also have provided convincing criticism regarding the lack of specificity in Kallen's pluralism. See Higham, Send These to Me; Gleason, “American Identity and Americanization.” Louis Menand has concluded that, for Kallen, “ethnicity is immutable” and, therefore, that Kallen shared “the scientific assumptions of the anti-immigrationists.” See Menand, , The Metaphysical Club, 392 .

80 Sollors has written: “Instead of accepting the possibility of a text's many mothers, pluralists often settle for the construction of one immutable grandfather.” See Sollors, “A Critique of Pure Pluralism,” 275.

81 See Berkson, Isaac B., Theories of Americanization: A Critical Study with Special Reference to the Jewish Group (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1920), 88 . In a later article, Berskon would rephrase Kallen's dictum, writing, “A man dare not fail to know who his grandfathers were.” See Berkson, , “The Jewish Right to Live,” Menorah Journal 7 (February 1921): 43 .

82 See Franz Boas, “Are the Jews a Race?” World Tomorrow 6 (January 1923): 5–6. Hasia Diner has argued that Boas's discrediting (as well as that of two of his students—Melville Herskovits and Alexander L. Goldenweiser) of racially based anti-black thinking also can be read as an effective technique of combating anti-Semitic thinking and racially based assumptions about Jews. See Hasia Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915–1935 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 142–49. See also Glick, Leonard B., “Types Distinct from Our Own: Franz Boas on Jewish Identity and Assimilation,” American Anthropologist 84 (September 1982): 545–65, Frank, Geyla, “Jews, Multiculturalism, and Boasian Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 99 (1997): 731–45.

83 The role of ancestry in ethnic identity remains a matter of contentious debate, of course. Historian David A. Hollinger has noted that Alex Haley, the author of Roots, could have chosen to trace his father's bloodline back to Ireland rather than his mother's back to Gambia. As Hollinger explains, a postethnic view would allow Haley “to be both African American and Irish American without having to choose one to the exclusion of the other.” This is one of many instances in which Kallen and his critics help to set the terms of debate about diversity in America that would persist long beyond their time. See Hollinger, , Post-Ethnic America, 21 .

84 Gleason, “American Identity and Americanization,” 43.

85 Kallen, , “Culture and the Ku Klux Klan,” in Culture and Democracy in the United States, 35 .

86 Kallen's “Can Judaism Survive in the United States?” originally appeared in two parts in Menorah Journal 11 (April 1925 and December 1925). These articles were reprinted in Kallen, Judaism at Bay. Page number citations refer to Judaism at Bay.

87 Kallen, “Can Judaism Survive in the United States?” 178.

88 On this point, see, for example, Carroll, James, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001 ).

89 Kallen, “Can Judaism Survive in the United States?” 183.

90 Ibid., 189.

91 Ibid., 193.

92 Kaplan, , Judaism as a Civilization, 180 .

93 Ibid., 181. Italics in original.

94 Eisen, , The Chosen People in America, 83, 85.

95 Kaplan, , Judaism as a Civilization, 253 .

96 Kallen, Horace M., Cultural Pluralism and the American Idea: An Essay in Social Philosophy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1956), 22 .

97 Ibid., 33.

98 See Moorhead, James H., “The American Israel: Protestant Tribalism and Universal Mission,” in Many Are Chosen: Divine Election in Western Nationalisms, ed. Hutchinson, William R. and Lehmann, Hartmut (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994 ).

99 On this point, see Conzen, Kathleen Neils, “Phantom Landscapes of Colonization: Germans in the Making of a Pluralist America,” in The German-American Encounter: Conflict and Cooperation Between Two Cultures, 1800–2000, ed. Trommler, Frank and Shore, Elliott (New York: Berghahn Books, 2001), 721 ; and Conzen, Kathleen Neils, “German-Americans and the Invention of Ethnicity,” in Trommler, Frank and McVeigh, Joseph, eds., America and the Germans: An Assessment of a Three- Hundred-Year History, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 131–47.

100 See Eisen, , The Chosen People in America, 7 .

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