Mordecai Kaplan: Accepting Darwinism

The founder of Reconstructionist Judaism takes a pragmatic approach.

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Excerpted with permission from "Three twentieth-century Jewish responses to evolutionary theory," in Aleph: Historical Studies in Science & Judaism (Magnes Press).

Mordecai M. Kaplan was perhaps the greatest single influence on the non-Orthodox American rabbinate in the twentieth century. In addition to founding Judaism's fourth denomination, Reconstructionism, he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary for half a century.

Darwinism and JudaismKaplan's secular education was largely shaped by the academic emphasis on evolutionary thinking. According to his biographer, Mel Scult, Herbert Spencer "was a primary force in molding Kaplan's thought.... Spencer influenced Kaplan through his own works and indirectly through his effects on other thinkers such as the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha'am and the sociologist Emile Durkheim."

When Kaplan completed his secular education with a master's in philosophy from Columbia University he had an abiding appreciation for and belief in the evolution of both human beings and human culture.

Emphasis on Functionalism

Although his outlook was greatly affected by his exposure to evolutionary ideas, Kaplan, like Kook, wrote very little on biological evolution. His well-known emphasis on functionalism (purpose, practicality, utility of life) rather than metaphysical speculation undoubtedly inhibited him from dilating on the niceties of creation or evolutionary theory.

It was almost enough for Kaplan to assert that "strictly speaking, there can be no conflict between science and religion as such. The function of science is merely to study the sequences of phenomena. The moment science generalizes about the meaning of those sequences and tries to interpret them in relation to existence as a whole, it is no longer science but philosophy."

"Regarding the question of cosmology," writes Richard Hirsh, "Kaplan emphasized the irrelevancy of attempting to answer unanswerable questions." On the issue of creatio ex nihilo, Kaplan argues that "to the modern way of thinking, its connection with spiritual life is remote, if not altogether irrelevant." In another context, he writes: "Nothing really would be gained from understanding the cause of creation and revelation, but we stand to gain much by knowing their purpose."

What is the cash value, Kaplan might have asked, using William James's term, of a belief in creation or evolution? Unless that belief affects one's behavior or one's chance of achieving salvation, Kaplan is disinclined to devote much attention to the topic.

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Shai Cherry

Shai Cherry, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought at Vanderbilt University.