Mordecai Kaplan: Founder of Reconstructionist Judaism

An examination of the philosophy of one of the twentieth century's most prominent Jewish thinkers, Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983).

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In Kaplan's frequently reiterated statement, "God is the Power that makes for salvation" or as he sometimes puts it, "God is the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos." For Kaplan, the idea of God must be viewed not metaphysically but functionally, in terms of its effects on human life. "We learn more about God when we say that love is divine than when we say God is love. A veritable transformation takes place. . . .Divinity becomes relevant to authentic experience and therefore takes on a definiteness which is accompanied by an awareness of authentic­ity.” Belief in God stems not from the intellect but from the will to ­live, reflecting the faith that there is enough in the world for man's needs, although not for man's "greeds and lusts." Divinity is that coordinating, integrating factor in nature that makes possible the actualization of jus­tice, truth, and compassion on earth.

Various ambiguities and contradictions in Kaplan's idea of God have been pointed out by his critics, especially that his reference to God as “the sum of forces" calls into question God's unity, and that he refers to God sometimes as a "Power," sometimes as a "process." Whether a divine aspect of the cosmos is as empirically evident as Kaplan assumes has also been challenged.

In response, Kaplan acknowledges the necessity of faith, but he feels that man's "salvational behavior" indicates the influence of a cosmic Godhood, as the behavior of the magnetic needle indicates the magnetism of the earth's poles. Kaplan has proposed that Godhood is a “trans‑natural," "super‑factual," and "super‑experiential" transcendence not infringing on the laws of nature, but constituting a potentiality that transforms the elements of nature into organic wholes greater than the sum of their parts.

Kaplan’s position also implies that God, as one aspect of a pluralistic universe, is limited in power and that nature contains forces that can even thwart God. He admits that natural evil cannot be explained theologically, but moral and social evils (hatred, poverty, war) represent the failure of men to attain complete awareness of the cosmic source of value and to transform the world accordingly.

Kaplan holds that his position is compatible with historic Judaism be­cause of his emphasis on the primacy of peoplehood and Zion and be­cause the divine in Judaism has always been identified with moral value and cosmic purpose. He does insist that the traditional notion of the Jews as a chosen people should be eliminated from Jewish theology and from the liturgy, because no reinterpretation of chosenness, however innocu­ous, can completely dispel the implication that some nations are superior to others.

Instead, Kaplan proposes that every people freely take on a vocation by dedicating itself to those universal values that its history has clarified, thus contributing to the growing richness of human life through "ethical nationhood" and the ideal of a peaceful humanity.

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Robert M. Seltzer

Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College (CUNY).