THE THEOLOGY OF RABBI MORDECAI KAPLAN

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THE THEOLOGY OF RABBI MORDECAI KAPLAN

  1. 1. The Theology of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan by The Rev. Dr Ian Ellis-Jones A Revised Copy of an Address Delivered Before the Sydney Unitarian Church on Sunday, 4 September 2005Many prominent religious leaders over the years have promoted humanisticideals in their theologies and teachings. Some of these leaders have profoundlyinfluenced successive generations of persons, religious and non-religious alike.One such leader was the religious naturalist and humanist Rabbi MordecaiKaplan (1881-1983), the founder of the Reconstructionist movement anddenomination in Judaism.Kaplan was perhaps the pre-eminent American Jewish thinker and rabbi of thetwentieth century. Obsessed by the need to modernise Judaism in order to ‘save’the Jewish people, Kaplan repudiated supernaturalism in its entirety. Unitariansand other religious liberals can, in my opinion, gain greatly from a close study ofhis writings and ideas, particularly in our search for a greater sense of theimportance of community and civilization.Despite, or perhaps partly because of, its strict but uncomplicated monotheism(‘only one god away from atheism’), the religion of Judaism is a religion that isquite humanistic in character, probably even more so than Buddhism. Judaism,in common with Humanism and Unitarianism, asserts that life is better thandeath, that there is nothing evil about the body and its appetites, and that‘pleasures’ are meant to be enjoyed (at least in moderation). This is altogetherunlike Christianity and Islam with their rigid asceticism and unyielding polemicson the so-called ‘sins of the flesh’. It is also quite unlike Buddhism, the teachingsof which are directed at the predicament of sense organs coming into contactwith the outside world with resultant sensations and feelings of unsatisfiedlonging (tanha).Judaism, for the most part a non-creedal religion, asserts that action is moreimportant than belief. ‘Deeds, not creeds,’ in the words of Ethical Culture founderFelix Adler. Unlike Christianity, Judaism is not so much a religion of personalsalvation but of social justice, and human beings are not born in ‘total depravity’but are essentially good.Rabbi Rudolph Brasch (1912-2004), the author of the first book to be publishedin Australia on Judaism, The Star of David (1955), and for 30 years the chiefminister of Temple Emanuel, Sydney, as well as serving as acting minister of theSydney Unitarian Church for a time when the Church was without a regularfulltime minister, has aptly written: Judaism is rational, logical and moral. It is not a creed, but a way of life. It demands righteous living and not acceptance of dogma. Beliefs as such are only significant if they serve as a means to foster goodness and holiness.In the words of Rabbi Stuart E Rosenberg, Jewish theology is ‘inevitablyearthbound’. Arthur A Cohen, in The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition
  2. 2. (1970), writes that Judaism is a ‘realistic humanism’, in which man, ‘the benoni,neither saint nor monster’, is ‘neither evil beyond measure nor good beyondcredibility’. Jews believe that life, which is to be fully enjoyed and honouredabove all else, is better than death, that there is nothing dirty or evil about thehuman body, and that actions speak louder than words and are also moreimportant than belief. Indeed, Judaism teaches that, if a life is endangered, it ispermissible to break every law in the books.The roots of Judaism in its more humanistic forms go way back to Biblical times,when, for example, Micah, who has been described by Unitarian minister GeorgeN Marshall as ‘the great prophet of ethical conduct and personal integrity’, set outwhat he saw as real religion: ‘Wherewith shall I come before HaShem, and bow myself before G-d on high? Shall I come before Him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old? Will HaShem be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what HaShem doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy G-d. (Mi 6:6-8 [JPS ed, 1917])George Marshall, in Challenge of a Liberal Faith (1970), has written: These three verses from the sixth chapter of the book of Micah have been called by many liberal religious persons the high point of Old Testament religion because they turn religion from the external forms to the internal faith which propels and guides a man. There is nothing more required than to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. In this sense Micah gives us an adequate definition of religion.In the Jewish Bible, God was the very first humanist, who created humanity andeverything else, ‘and, behold, it was very good’ (Gen 1:31). God consideredhuman beings so sacred that he issued a commandment that they not bemurdered. Further, there is no doctrine of original sin in Judaism, nothing of the‘total depravity’ of man that is so much a part of certain versions of Christianity.There is an evil inclination (yetzer ha’ra) as well as a good inclination (yetzerha’tov), but throughout Judaism in all of its forms there is a solid emphasis on thehuman capacity for doing good. Rabbi Brasch has written: Judaism believes that man was ‘created in the image of God’. A Divine spirit dwells in every individual. This endows him with potentialities for good, a yearning for the infinite and a longing for an ideal. Through it God and man are no longer far apart, but become closest and nearest. 2
  3. 3. Judaism does not believe in ‘original sin’. Man is born pure. Sin is the result of his freedom and a condition of his moral responsibility. Man’s will is unfettered and completely free. He himself chooses between right and wrong, good and evil, and must therefore be ready to accept the consequences of his choice. Yet there is always the possibility of return. No evil is final. Suffering is not merely punishment, but a means of purification and a test of faith. Nothing in man is innately evil. Even his instincts and passions can be made instruments of sanctification. Judaism teaches neither asceticism not celibacy. It demands the control of human passion: not its mortification, but its consecration.Judaism teaches the three very human virtues of self-reliance, self-giving, andliving and acting in the now: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now – when? (Rabbi Hillel, Sayings of the Fathers, I:14)Modern liberal Jewish theology - very much a ‘theology of man’ - owes to a greatdebt to what is known as ‘predicate theology’. This school of theology, which hascontributed to a new understanding of the nature of God and religion not only inJudaism but also in liberal Christianity, was initially developed by Rabbi MordecaiKaplan and has been popularized and further developed by one of Kaplan’sformer students Rabbi Harold M Schulweis, the emeritus rabbi at a Conservativecongregation in Southern California.Mordeaci Menahem Kaplan was born in Lithuania on 11 June 1881. Nine yearslater his family immigrated to the United States of America. He studied at the CityCollege of New York and Columbia University. He was ordained at the JewishTheological Seminary (Conservative) (‘JTS’) in 1902 and was elected Rabbi ofKehillat Jeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue in New York. In 1909 he became theDean of the Teachers Institute of JTS. He also taught homiletics, Midrash, andthe philosophy of religion. Later, he organized the Jewish Center, where heserved as Rabbi from 1917 to 1922. While continuing to teach at JTS for fivedecades, Kaplan edited and translated the writings of Moses Luzzatto (an 18thcentury poet and Kabbalist), published essays on Hermann Cohen (a 19thcentury German philosopher), and founded The Reconstructionist magazine in1935, a periodical that espoused his evolving liberal philosophy and religioushumanism. After retiring in 1963, Kaplan taught at the Hebrew University inJerusalem. He returned to the USA shortly before his death on 8 November1983, at the age of 102.Kaplan was a religious naturalist who rejected all traditional forms of theism,along with all notions of supernaturalism. He asserted that God was the sum ofall natural processes that allowed a person to become self-fulfilled as a humanbeing. For Kaplan, personal salvation was understood as the ‘worthwhileness oflife’. God, according to Kaplan, is ‘the sum of all the animating organizing forcesand relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos’. 3
  4. 4. Kaplan’s many publications include Judaism as a Civilization (New York:Macmillan, 1934), The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (New York:Jewish Reconstructionist Press, 1937), The Future of the American Jew (NewYork: Macmillan, 1948), Questions Jews Ask (New York: JewishReconstructionist Press, 1956), and Judaism Without Supernaturalism (NewYork: Jewish Reconstructionist Press, 1958). Kaplan also created the ceremonyof bat mitzvah. (See, generally, Ian Ellis-Jones ‘The Religious Humanism ofMordecai Kaplan’ 42:6 Humanist Viewpoints November/December 2003.)In predicate theology God, as opposed to the ‘qualities’ of God, is essentiallyunknowable; the emphasis must therefore be on ‘godliness’ and those qualitiesor virtues that are ‘godlike’ or ‘divine’. In that regard, Kaplan firmly believed that ifbelief in God was to continue to serve a useful purpose for those who believed inscience, the belief had to be reconstructed in naturalistic and humanistic terms.Ever the pragmatist, Kaplan opined that what it gets changed to doesn’t matterso long as a suitable number of people could believe in it and base their livesupon it.Kaplan defined his concept of God in a number of ways over the years. God wasvariously the Creative Goodness in us and around us (and not a person inheaven), a Value in the universe, the ‘sum of everything in the world that renderslife significant worthwhile - or holy’, the ‘totality of those forces in life that renderhuman life worthwhile’, the ‘Power that impels [human beings] to become fullyhuman’, the ‘sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which areforever making a cosmos out of chaos’, and the ‘Power that makes for thefulfilment of all valid ideals’. Kaplan spoke in terms of God, not as a person, butas ‘the Power’, ‘the Process’, and the very life of Nature: God is the Process by which the universe produces persons, and persons are the process by which God is manifest in the individual. (Questions Jews Ask (1956)) God is the Oneness … the sameness … the unity of all that is … the uniformity of all that moves … the rhythm of all things … the mystery of life … the creative flame … God is in the face by which we overcome the fear of loneliness, of helplessness, of failure and of death … God is in the love which creates, protects, forgives. (Cited in Joshua Loth Liebman, Peace of Mind (1946))In a similar vein, Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, in his wonderful book Peace ofMind (1946), writes: I believe that God is the Power for salvation revealing Himself in nature and in human nature, in networks of relationships, in countless situations and fields of operation where evil is vanquished and goodness triumphs. God is in the pain of growth, in the seed of sorrow, in the lure of thought, and in all the laws of fulfillment which bind men and stars together. 4
  5. 5. Similar to the views of the Kabbalists who see God as Ein Sof (the Endless One),an ongoing process, God was not so much the name of a ‘thing’ or the name of a‘person’. God is a verb, not a noun. God is the livingness of life. (That does notrefer to some supposed ‘life force’, a fundamentally flawed concept so popularthese days with many New Agers.) God is the oneness of Life, not in anymonistic sense, but in the empirical recognition that there is only one order orlevel of reality in which all things live and move and having their being. God isthe ‘givingness’ of life to itself, the process and means by which life perpetuatesitself. In short, God is life with a capital ‘L’ and goodness with a capital ‘G’.Is it wrong to redefine God in such terms? Those who answer that question in theaffirmative often fail to recognise that redefining the concept of God is nothingnew in religion. Regrettably, many famous humanists such as Sir Julian Huxleyand Corliss Lamont were simply unable to admit the legitimacy of any Godconcept that was free of, to use Huxley’s words, the ‘spatial, material,mythological, Freudian and anthropomorphic aspects’ of traditional Judeo-Christian images of God. Nevertheless, the process of defining and redefiningGod has been going on since the beginning of time and no belief system has amonopoly of who or what God is. The human concept of God has changed fromgeneration to generation, and redefinitions of God are not necessarily ‘semanticcheating’ (Lamont’s words). Christianity preaches that Jesus brought a differentconcept of God than had been known in Old Testament times. Insofar asJudaism is concerned, as Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B Syme have pointedout, ‘No single interpretation qualifies as ‘the’ Jewish God concept’ (Sonsino andSyme, Finding God (2002)).Rabbi Kaplans idea of Reconstructionism views Judaism as not just a religion,but a culture, the ever-evolving product of the collective experience of the Jewishpeople over time. The idea of Reconstructionism, which is not just a philosophyand theology but also a way of thinking and behaving, was drawn from a numberof disparate sources including traditional Jewish sources, Haskalah(‘Enlightenment’) thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Josiah Royce, and Americanphilosophical pragmatism (as expounded by the philosophers Dewey, James andPeirce), which he generally endorsed. Kaplan was also influenced by the SocialGospel movement of American Protestantism.Kaplan’s philosophy of life has been described as ‘religious naturalism’, ‘religioushumanism’ and ‘Jewish atheism’. As regards the latter, whilst Kaplan has beenlabelled a ‘Jewish atheist’, that is not strictly correct. He was simply of the viewthat modern scientific explanation did not permit appeal to superhuman personssuch as God.Consequently, Kaplan rejected all notion of supernaturalism, andsought to redefine God in ways that were consistent with the discoveries ofmodern scientific knowledge and otherwise ‘useful’ to the Jewish people. As areligious naturalist, whose religious thought was rooted entirely in the naturalworld, Kaplan sought to expound the virtues and benefits of religious traditionsand develop their ethical and spiritual implications and interpretations of reality inan essentially secular world.Kaplan wrote much about ‘civilization’ as well as ‘community’. Culture plusreligion equalled civilization. For Kaplan civilization embraced the accumulationof all knowledge, skills, tools, arts, literatures, laws, religions and philosophies 5
  6. 6. which stood between a particular community and external nature and whichserved as a bulwark against the hostility of forces that would otherwise destroythe community. He saw community as ‘that form of social organization in whichthe welfare of each is the concern of all, and the life of the whole is the concernof each’ (The Future of the American Jew (1948)). Unitarians and Humanistswould have difficulty in arriving at a better statement of our stated purpose.As regards the Jewish civilization and community, Kaplan’s reconstruction sawJews not as a people of God - he never attributed to them superiority orsupernatural status (‘chosenness’) - but rather a people with a common culturalconsciousness, whose ‘salvation’ was to be achieved by obtaining social andeconomic welfare in this world. His version of pragmatism adjudged religiousconcepts by how useful they were to the Jewish civilization, and his primaryconcern was that the Jewish civilization survive. So, whatever tended toconserve the Jewish civilization was deemed of value, and whatever tended todiminish it was deemed to be of disvalue.Kaplan’s version of pragmatism was concerned with what was collectively useful,that is, useful to the Jewish community and civilization. He thought there werepowerful forces working against the survival of the Jewish civilization.Democratic nationalism was one such force, which permitted Jews to be fullmembers of civil society without embracing any religious identity. ScientificHumanism also threatened the Jewish civilization because it made a traditionalbelief in God difficult for many Jews of today.Kaplan also identified a number of powerful forces that worked in favour of thesurvival of Jewish civilization. Those factors included the tendency of Jews toaggregate in large cities and in specific neighbourhoods, a tendency againstintermarriage, Jewish communal centres, religious activities, Jewish education,cultural and philanthropic activities, and Zionism. (The Jewish community inIsrael was considered by Kaplan central to Jewish life.)Kaplan advocated an ‘affirmative and realistic philosophy’ in order to activelypromote Jewish identity as well as a Judaism that could flourish in today’senvironment. In the opinion of Kaplan the traditional versions of Judaism were nolonger adequate to form the basis of a flourishing Jewish civilization. In particular,he asserted that creeds, rituals, and ceremonies in all of the historical religions -not just Judaism - had lost their value by becoming detached from the basicinterests of the life of the individual. Since, in Kaplan’s view, individuals could nolonger connect with traditional religions, the traditional religions could no longerserve as the basis of a flourishing civilization. (Having said that, Kaplanintroduced a number of innovations, religious and otherwise, including the batmitzvah, the Jewish Community centre, and the chavurah.)According to Rabbi Kaplan, ‘spirituality’ referred to everything that had to do withwhatever was not transient (that is, the things we can’t see but whichnevertheless naturally exist and which we can otherwise apprehend, withoutnecessarily being able to intellectually comprehend them) and, specifically, theinterconnectedness and interrelationship of human beings. Spirituality can onlybe spoken of in terms of relationship and the natural processes of body andmind. A spiritual movement, in the sense mentioned above, should be judged 6
  7. 7. according to such criteria as its success or otherwise in bringing ‘order into[humans’] inner life’ that ‘is spiritually compelling’ and ‘socially practical’, thedegree to which its adherents live according to professed ideals, the relevance ofthe movement’s ideas and practices to its adherents, the ability of the movementto adjust to changing circumstances, and integration of its members into thelarger society.Kaplan stated that religion, if reconstructed, could still be of value to a civilization,provided it was not contrary to science. In his book The Meaning of God inModern Jewish Religion (1962) Kaplan wrote: The only kind of religion that can help [human beings] live and get the most out of life will be the one which will teach [them] to identify as divine or holy whatever in human nature or in the world about [them] enhances human life.Humanist Sir Julian Huzley said as much in his Religion Without Revelation(1957) and Essays of a Humanist (1964) (see, in particular, ‘The New Divinity’ inthe latter compendium).As Unitarians, what, then, can we learn from Kaplan? A number of things,including the following: 1. Unitarianism must always remain non-dogmatic and non-creedal. Our views must always be open to revision and new interpretation. 2. Supernaturalism, as ordinarily understood, must be rejected in favour of a naturalistic spirituality that aims to meet fundamental human needs, such as a sense of belonging and being ‘at home’ in the universe. 3. Unitarians and other religious liberals are a distinctive community, and as a community with a distinctive life stance and ethical values the welfare of each one of us, and of each member of the wider community in which we all live, should be the concern of all, and the life of the whole should be the concern of each one of us. 4. In years to come our movement will be judged according to our success or otherwise in bringing meaning and purpose to peoples’ lives, the degree to which we do more than pay lip service to our professed ideals, the relevance of our ideas and practices, our ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and the extent to which we can integrate into the larger society. 5. Although not necessarily our primary concern, we should nevertheless aim to survive as a community with an ability to adjust to changing circumstances, not because it is intrinsically important that our community flourish or even survive but because the underlying values and ideas of Unitarianism are of lasting importance to civilization. 7
  8. 8. The cornerstone of Kaplan’s theology and philosophical system was the notion ofpeoplehood in the Jewish religion. As Unitarians, we too are a people, and weshould never lose sight of the fact that, along with the ‘voice’ of Nature itself, it ispeople that matter and have lasting significance. 8

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