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Kaplan's Contemporary Religious Relevance

Mordecai Kaplan in 1931

I AM A RECONSTRUCTIONIST JEW. I have been an ardent follower of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s teachings since I was first introduced to them by the Hillel director at CCNY, Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman, in the 1950s. Many people today view Reconstructionist Judaism primarily in institutional terms — as an organization, a movement, a rabbinical school, a synagogue. To me it is primarily an idea — a philosophy, a theology, a way of thinking and behaving.

Mordecai Kaplan 1931   click to display larger image

Reconstructionism views Judaism as the product of the collective experience of the Jewish people, not as something that God handed down to us in finished form. God, it teaches, should be conceived of as the Creative Goodness in us and around us and not as a person in heaven. Some people are turned off by this idea because they want a God who is responsible for evil as well as good. Kaplan considered the exploration of where evil comes from to be a serious sin. We ought to be so involved in coping with evil and ridding the world of it that we have no time to worry about where it comes from! It certainly doesn’t come from a God who deserves our love and worship.

Reconstructionist Judaism teaches that God is a Process, a Power and a Value in the universe. God is the Zest, the Thrust, the Impetus that goads us to be all that we can be and do all that we can do to make ourselves better than we are and the world better than it is. In short, God is the Wellspring of Goodness in nature and in us (for we, too, are part of nature). God is the Energy enabling us to conquer fear and despair, alienation and loneliness. God is what infuses our lives with confidence, courage and meaningfulness. God is life with a capital “L” and goodness with a capital “G.”

Reconstructionist Judaism also teaches that Judaism is not just a religion, but a culture. Without languages, literature, history, music, dance and visual arts, no religion worthy of the name can survive. Culture plus religion equals civilization — an “evolving religious civilization.” That is how Kaplan defines Judaism in his major book, first published in 1934: Judaism as a Civilization. Kaplan’s approach to Judaism is based on a passionate love for and commitment to the entirety of that civilization without attributing superiority or supernatural status (“chosenness”) to it.

Jewish cultural values make us aware of our belonging to the Jewish people. They enable us to cultivate our love for and loyalty to our people. Such values include the Jewish calendar with its Sabbath and festivals, the Land of Israel as our national homeland, Jewish customs, Jewish languages (especially Hebrew and Yiddish), Jewish history, literature, music and art, and — most important of all — the Jewish home with its ceremonies and observances and its inculcation of Jewish loyalty in the young.

Finally, I am a Reconstructionist Jew because although I am a Zionist who considers the Jewish community in Israel central to Jewish life, I do not feel it necessary or desirable for all Jews to live in Israel. Although I support Israel in every way I can, Jewish history has taught me that the Jewish people has always lived in both the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. It was actually the Diaspora together with the Jewish community in Palestine that created Israel in modern times. We need to support Jewish life everywhere, and Jewish life means community, culture and religion. We need to approach all three with open minds and hearts so that the Jewish people may contribute once again to making the world a better place for all of God’s children of every nation, color and creed, everywhere in the world.

Kaplan is the principal Jewish exponent of religious naturalism, which is among the modern and post-modern approaches to religion that seek to advance the virtues and benefits of religious traditions and develop their ethical and spiritual implications and interpretations of reality in an essentially desacralized or secular world. Kaplan points out that Jewish scripture provides abundant resources for a naturalistic approach to religion and ethics. Explicit homogeneity between nature and Nature’s God, for example, is established in the Psalms (especially Psalm 19), Proverbs 9, and Job 28. Just as the heavens declare God’s glory, the moral teachings enlighten the eyes.

The prophet Isaiah maintains that had his contemporaries behaved according to the laws inherent in the ox and the ass, they would have fulfilled God’s laws. For Jeremiah, the divine laws which human beings are to follow are of the same order as those obeyed by the birds of the sky. Commenting on Job, the ancient rabbis declare that had the Torah not been given to humanity, we could have learned modesty in mating from the cat, chastity from the dove, honesty from the ant, and good manners from the rooster. Were humanity to follow the workings of nature, we would soon arrive at a knowledge of God and God’s laws that would enable us to transform our planet into a Divine kingdom. Scripture thus serves as a source of naturalism, Kaplan writes, while naturalism serves as a source of ethics and religion (The Reconstructionist, February 23, 1963).

Kaplan maintains that the Jewish religion can and should be divorced from supernaturalism and come to be associated with the natural processes of body and mind. The idea that God’s power is manifest in the suspension or abrogation of natural law (in “miracles”) makes super-naturalism untenable. It should be replaced with a religious naturalist or “transnaturalist” approach. Transnaturalism is an extension of naturalism that discovers God in the fulfillment of human nature rather than in the suspension of natural order. It deals with phenomena such as mind, personality, purpose, ideas, values and meanings, which mechanistic science seems unable to encompass. Transnaturalism utilizes symbols, myths, poetry and drama to convey trust in life and in humanity’s ability to overcome the potential for evil inherent in heredity, environment and social conditions. Such trust is synonymous with belief in the Good, or God, since Divinity is the aspect of existence that impels humanity to create a better and happier world, and every individual to make the most of his or her own life.

God or Goodness is a process or function, rather than a being or substance. The biblical conception of God includes the idea of a metamorphosis in human life that will make possible the establishment of the Divine kingdom on earth. The purpose of Jewish life is to promote the idea that this metamorphosis can come about only as the end result of ethical nationhood and world peace. The best way to prevent belief in God from becoming defunct, writes Kaplan (in The Greater Judaism in the Making), is to invest it once and for all with “rational and communicable thought,” establishing a causal connection between believing in God and being a reliable and kindly person.

Paraphrasing Second Isaiah’s definition of Israel’s role as being “to open the eyes of the blind and to set free those who are in bonds,” Kaplan pinpoints enlightenment and liberation as the means by which the true kind of religion may be distinguished from religion that is false and misleading. “Any mystical, metaphysical or ethical idea about God,” he writes (in The Future of the American Jew), “which fails to establish new and fruitful connections and meanings among the things we already know and experience to some extent cannot be true. To be both enlightening and liberating, religion must be based on faith in reason, and resort under all circumstances to the rational conclusions of empirical experience.”

In The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, he continues: “Anti-intellectualism or irrationalism, no matter how euphemistically disguised as intuitionism, romanticism or mysticism, distorts the truth and corrupts the sense of reality. Any conception of Divinity based upon delusion partakes of idolatry. . . . In religion, as in other aspects of human life, faith in tradition and blind obedience to authority should give way to reasoned experience.”

In Kaplan’s interpretation of the Torah, the principle of law and order, which constitutes the conscience of the Jewish people, was to operate through self-government and self-education, with a view to self-perpetuation. Abraham was singled out in order to instruct his children and his posterity to conduct themselves in keeping with the principle of “righteousness and justice,” or “righteousness spelled out into law.” Such is “the way of YHWH,” Kaplan wrote in The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, “or as we would say now, the function of his being a God, namely responsibility as ‘law and order.’”

He asks: What, then, is the scientific significance of the mythological notion of the covenant? It is the law of perpetuity amid changing conditions. “The Jewish people is unique,” Kaplan writes in If Not Now, When?, “in the sense that the ambition to perpetuate itself was uppermost in its self-consciousness from the time that it escaped Egyptian bondage and entered into a covenant with YHWH, who interpreted his name as meaning that he is forever unchanging."

The term “unchanging” here refers to faithfulness or constancy. It is clear that Jewish Scripture and religious naturalism both support the notion of a finite, responsible, reactive and growing God who is solely the source of human good and human transcendence. As philosopher Eugene Fontinell explains (in Traces of a Secular Culture, edited by G. McLean), “it is not possible to reconcile a God who is immutable, omnipotent, and omniscient with a world which is unfinished, in process, and which manifests real chance and novelty.”

The rejection of omnipotence necessitates rejection of the creator role traditionally assigned to God as well. In its place, Kaplan substitutes a conception of the creative urge as the element of Divinity in the world. He claims that this is needed in order to fortify the human yearning for spiritual regeneration and for “creative faith in the reality of the good.” “The moral implication,” he writes in The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion,“ of the traditional teaching that God created the world is that creativity, or the continuous emergence of aspects of life not prepared for or determined by the past, constitutes the most divine phase of reality.”

In Kaplan’s interpretation, God (Elohim or El) in the first of the two stories of creation in Genesis is actually “the reification of the idea of the Creative Laws that make the universe a cosmos, rather than a chaos.” The opening chapter of the Torah, he states, “conveys the idea that Nature’s God, the personification of the process of Creative Law, produced a creature which would, in turn, function like the Creator . . . creatively transforming the chaos of violence into order.” In the second creation story, God (now called Yah/Adonai) is identified with the lawful or orderly processes of life — implying that law reveals God in contradistinction to the traditional assumption that God reveals the law (Reconstructionist, February, 1977).

For Kaplan, responsibility is the spiritual or transcendent dimension in the human person, synonymous with God. Substituting the term super-conscious for what psychoanalysis regards as the subconscious, he states that “to the extent that the human being possesses soul or personality, the super-conscious functions in man by impelling him to use his self-assertion to cooperate with his fellow man. Thus nature, of which man is an integral part, provides him with a twofold drive to self-assertion and to cooperation. The control of the conscious desire for pleasure and power, ends in themselves, issues from man’s inherent sense of responsibility, which is the drive to interact or cooperate with his fellow man, [and] is the spiritual dimension which operates in the interests of human life as a whole.”

What we normally refer to as Divine revelation, therefore, is actually conscience — operating through creativity, responsibility, honesty, and loyalty or love. The role of conscience is not to supply us with information about God or to reconcile us to the evils of life. “It is rather to impel us to make a religion of combating the man-made evils that mar human life,” writes Kaplan (in the Reconstructionist, May 31, 1963). Citing the 1951 pronouncement of the General Board of the National Council of Churches that “abstinence from misconduct is not enough; indifference to corruption in the community is also guilt,” Kaplan comments: “such is the law of moral creativity and responsibility.”

According to Kaplan, an idea of God is essentially an idea of what humanity needs for its creative survival. “The very existence of nature or cosmos,” he writes (Reconstructionist, January 26, 1968), “is due to the interlocking reciprocity of every part of it with every other, whether the parts be vast or infinitesimal, physical, biological or psychic.” In human life, “interlocking reciprocity” becomes the need to be needed, which is the objective fact behind the need to be loved and the need for self-esteem. While the need for self-esteem may result in possessive love, the need to be needed expresses itself in creative love which is essentially social.

“To be needed,” Kaplan continues, “a person must be honest, reliable and just in all his dealings, ever ready to serve, and able to be creative. . . . To the extent that a person produces more than he consumes, he is creative, in that he thereby adds to the positive values that make life worthwhile for the generality of mankind.

”For Kaplan, the experience of the need to be needed, and the opportunity and capacity to fulfill that need, render human beings fit for survival. This, he states, is an absolute criterion for distinguishing the Good or God from evil in the universe of values. That absolute character derives from the fact that such distinguishing is in “harmony with cosmic or trans-human forces, and not merely the product of man’s arbitrary will whereby man, instead of the cosmos, is the measure .... The destiny of man is not for man himself to determine, but rests with those ultimate forces in the cosmos.

”According to Kaplan’s reading of ancient Israelite myth, humanity sins in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis when it attempts to adopt laws without regard to the cosmic process of interlocking reciprocity and winds up resorting to violence, thus inviting destruction and death. Humanity can achieve the goal of universal peace and progress only if it submits to the Divine or cosmic law of justice and mercy.

The universal interlocking reciprocity which is Nature’s God is also the God of humanity manifest in active moral responsibility. The human task is to spell this out in the life of individuals and nations that adhere to God’s way of “righteousness and justice” or justice under law. “What a Hallelujah would resound throughout the world,” Kaplan wrote in Varieties of Jewish Belief, “if all peoples proclaimed that God was to be found in whatever there exists of man’s urge to truth, honesty, empathy, loyalty, justice, freedom, and goodwill!” The confluence of religious naturalism with evolving Jewish thought offers new hope for the survival of the Jewish people and humanity as a whole. Whatever contributes to human survival must be regarded as ipso facto Divine.

1931 photograph of M M Kaplan courtesy of Hadassah Musher


Type: RT Article

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