Mordecai Kaplan: Accepting Darwinism

The founder of Reconstructionist Judaism takes a pragmatic approach.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Metaphysical Minimalism

Nevertheless, Kaplan does discuss Darwinian evolution, and with good reason. Kaplan understands that his bedrock metaphysical conviction might be in direct opposition to, or at least in tension with, the fundamental assumptions of Darwinism.

Kaplan has often been interpreted as having no metaphysics, even by those sympathetic to his religious agenda. But such critiques are mistaken. Kaplan may be a metaphysical minimalist, because of his pragmatic emphasis on functionalism, but he most certainly has a metaphysics. 

"Belief in God as here conceived can function in our day exactly as the belief in God has always functioned; it can function as an affirmation that life has value. It implies, as the God idea has always implied, a certain assumption with regard to the nature of reality, the assumption that reality is so constituted as to endorse and guarantee the realization in man of that which is of greatest value to him. If we believe that assumption to be true, for, as has been said, it is an assumption that is not susceptible of proof, we have faith in God. No metaphysical speculation beyond this fundamental assumption that reality assures both the emergence and the realization of human ideals is necessary for the religious life." (Kaplan, The Meaning of God

In this passage, Kaplan describes only what is necessary for a religious life. Eliezer Schweid, in his analysis of Kaplan, has captured what I believe is the key to understanding Kaplan: 

"In Kaplan's early writings, there is sometimes this kind of noticeable pragmatic orientation; but upon examining his principal later writings, we find in them the intuition of someone who believes in a supernatural power that subdues nature for an ethical purpose. This is the basic intuition of biblical prophecy and of the talmudic rabbis, but Kaplan prefers to mask his faith in camouflaging scientific colors in order to make it attractive to those impressed by the importance of science in our time."  (Schweid, American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan)

What Schweid calls "supernatural" can also be referred to as "metaphysical," and such an intuition can already be seen in Kaplan's earliest writings. Schweid's assessment helps explain why Kaplan does not challenge the perceived scientific verities of Darwinism head on: Kaplan did not want to alienate the very audience he was seeking to persuade.

Divinely Inspired Evolution

Nevertheless, Kaplan did engage Darwinism, if only obliquely. In his magnum opus, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), he echoes the sentiments of many of his nineteenth-century rabbinic predecessors:

"What can exercise a more blighting effect upon all moral endeavor than the notion that there is no meaning or purpose to the world, and that it is soulless in its mechanistic perfection...? We may accept without reservation the Darwinian conception of evolution, so long as we consider the divine impulsion or initiative as the origin of the process."

Kaplan's concern here is clearly moral behavior. Kaplan shares this concern with most other theologians, Jewish and Christian, who address themselves to Darwinism. Kaplan does not reject Darwinism, but only, at this point, conditions it on divine impetus.

Of course, past divine initiative does not necessarily guarantee future human salvation as a result of the structure of the cosmos. Thus Kaplan must clarify his position. Toward the conclusion of Judaism as a Civilization, Kaplan adumbrates the metaphysical position that he will later articulate repeatedly: 

"Ultimately, the forces for good that inhere in the world and in human nature will give rise to a just social order, one in which every human being will be able to achieve the full measure of self-realization and accord to his neighbor the same right and opportunity. The evolution of mankind, though marred by frequent and disheartening reactions, moves irresistibly in the direction of universal security and freedom. From the standpoint of the Jewish religion, ethical purpose does not emerge merely as an incident of social history, but is a directive and creative force."

As Schweid has argued, Kaplan camouflaged his deeply traditional, religious sentiments in scientific garb. Not only did creation have a divine impetus, but the progressive nature of evolution is guaranteed by "the forces for good that inhere in the world and in human nature." Of course, we must distinguish progress from design. Kaplan affirms the former, but endorses the latter only in the most general fashion.

While holding fast to the conviction of an ideal future, as in the foregoing citation, Kaplan nowhere suggests that the path to "universal security and freedom" is preordained. It is precisely in this arena that human freedom, contingency, and what Kaplan calls "spiritual selection" operate.

Open-Ended Reality

Kaplan's theology was greatly influenced by Bergson and John Dewey. Both thinkers understood reality as an open-ended process that has no preordained goal or telos. Evolution, for Kaplan, is necessarily progressive, but teleologically undetermined. Perfection is a moving target because of the creative element in human behavior. Humanity is, quite literally, shaping its future evolution.

Kaplan exploits the idea of emergent evolution, which scientists apply to those properties that do not appear at the level of their constituent parts, such as consciousness, and uses it to describe an empowered humanity taking responsibility for shaping its own evolution.

"Unlike other living creatures [man] must take a hand in his own metamorphosis. He must consciously and deliberately share in the cosmic or divine process which impels him to become fully human.... The nature of man, far from being a finished affair, is still in the making. Just as modern man is an improvement over the caveman, so his continued development may be assumed in the process of emergent evolution." (Kaplan, Religion of Ethical Nationhood: Judaism's Contribution to World Peace)

Kaplan insists that "man is not merely affected by evolutionary change; he participates in the process" (The Meaning of God). While Kaplan's understanding of Judaism demands progress toward some vision of a messianic future, his commitment to pragmatism and pluralism demands that the future be open-ended. Although there is a direction for humanity and the cosmos, there is no unique destiny. Both the path to the future and the particulars of that future are yet undetermined. They depend on human freedom and chance. 

"Progress cannot mean for us today a definitive approach to a static final goal. But there is still a sense in which we can speak of progress. It lies in the perception that evolution has direction. Movements that conform to this direction are progressive; those that obstruct it are reactionary.

Although that progress is not always in a straight line, the course of human history shows that the human race is moving in the direction of enhanced personality and enhanced sociality." (The Meaning of God)

Kaplan distances divine creation and creativity from the biblical account in Genesis. Kaplan, who accepted the tenets of biblical criticism early in his education, explicitly applies the method of functional demythologization to the creation narrative and concludes: "The main purpose of the opening chapter of the Torah is not to give an account of creation but to teach that the world, as God created it, is a fit place for man to achieve his godlikeness, or salvation." (Kaplan, Greater Judaism in the Making)

The creation story is neither about physics nor about metaphysics, but "soterics." Because God created the world "very good," humans can achieve salvation in it.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Shai Cherry

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