Mordecai Kaplan: Accepting Darwinism

The founder of Reconstructionist Judaism takes a pragmatic approach.

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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."

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Shai Cherry

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