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Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan as an American Thinker


Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) was one of the most acclaimed representatives of liberal religious thought in America, as well as a luminary of the Jewish community, from the 1920s to the 1970s. In addition to his role as the founder of the Reconstructionist movement and as an interpreter of Judaism, Kaplan charted new pathways in religious naturalism (religious thought rooted in the natural world rather than in supernatural speculation), empirical theology (talk of God grounded in human experience), and process thought (an orientation towards themes of change, relationship and creativity in human existence). In order to assess Rabbi Kaplan’s contribution to Jewish and American religious thought, it is worthwhile to examine the context of what was happening in American Judaism, Protestantism and Catholicism, and in American philosophy and theology, during the first half of the 20th century.

Kaplan was not the first American Jewish spiritual leader determined to bring “Americanism” to Judaism and vice versa. He was preceded in the 19th century by Isaac Mayer Wise, the redoubtable architect of Reform Judaism in the United States. These two leaders shared, in addition to unbelievable energy and assiduousness, unbounded love and commitment to both Judaism and their new country. Wise and Kaplan were both devoted disciples of the “Science of Judaism” and its historical approach to Jewish texts. Both were buoyed by how the freedom and openness of America was transforming Judaism from a despised to a respected faith.

Kaplan and Wise shared common roots in the Haskalah (“Enlightenment”), the Jewish movement for modernization. While Wise, however, was influenced by the German Haskalah's emphasis on rationalism and early German romanticism, Kaplan responded principally to the Eastern European Haskalah with its historicism, nationalism, and commitment to Hebrew and Yiddish culture. Kaplan could also draw from sociological, anthropological and psychological insights that were unavailable to his predecessor. In addition, the Protestant churches that Wise found on his arrival in America in 1846 were primarily engaged in disassociating themselves from their European counterparts in theology and liturgy, while in Kaplan’s day, Protestantism and, to some extent, even Catholicism were preoccupied with the Social Gospel movement and the rise of liberal theology — two developments that brought Christianity into conversation with the secular world and the social sciences.

Kaplan’s call for openness in Judaism became, for him as it had been for Wise, a passion and obsession. Abandonment of traditional Judaism was, for Kaplan, essentially a voluntary severance from whatever comforts and benefits Jews had derived in the past from self-segregation and isolation from general society. The modern world, as he understood it, “demands free intercourse and exchange of ideas and experiences” and renders isolationism and self-segregation “absolutely untenable.” Jews now need to appropriate and integrate into Jewish culture “values found in other cultures that are compatible with Judaism.” Moreover, they need to contribute to other cultures by translating and interpreting their Jewish cultural creations for non-Jews. The separatism of the past must make way for the principle of “otherness.” “Separatism,” Kaplan wrote (Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers, 1958), “is the antithesis of cooperation and results in an ingrown and clannish remoteness which leads to cultural stagnation. Otherness thrives best when accompanied by active cooperation and interaction with neighboring cultures and civilizations and achieves an individuality which is of universal significance.”

Kaplan subsumed what he regarded as the major challenges of the Jews in the modern era under the categories of “nationalism” and “naturalism.” The challenges of nationalism could be met head-on, he believed, by a renewed dedication to Zionism, which he saw as a salvational ideology and not merely a political movement — and by an implementation of democracy in all phases of religion and education. The challenge of naturalism, or the scientific worldview, could likewise be met by the formulation and unabashed endorsement of religious naturalism and a this-worldly interpretation of salvation.

Kaplan’s ideology needs to be viewed in the context of certain emphases in American philosophical thought and religion. These emphases include empiricism, pragmatism, pluralism and tolerance. Kaplan was particularly influenced by such American philosophers as:

  • Josiah Royce and his philosophy of universal loyalty (“So be loyal to your own cause as thereby to serve the cause of universal loyalty”);

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson and his notions of a hospitable universe and of self-reliance as a radically new quality of religiousness (“Self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on God”);

  • William James and his concept of an emerging, growing universe in which growth depended on religion, on not resisting “faith-tendencies,” and on making social responsibility spiritually significant (“Act as if the thing in question were real, and keep acting as if it were real, and it will infallibly end by growing into such a connection with our life that it will become real”);

  • John Dewey, for whom the self-critical and zealous pursuit of democracy was religion, while spirituality was synonymous with being at home in, and as much as possible mastering, the universe (“Any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and enduring value is religious in quality”).

The religious liberals of the early 20th century continued the work of the Enlightenment and led religion into the worlds of modern science, philosophy and history as they sought to free religion from obscurantism and narrowness. They stressed human freedom and creativity and the ability of human beings to do good to others. For these liberal theologians, the establishment of the “kingdom of God” would be the natural, worldly outcome of the historical process. As historian Sidney Ahlstrom has written, “their confidence in the future outran even that of the Enlightenment’s apostles of progress.”

American religious liberalism, in particular, was characterized by ethical passion and a preoccupation with lived religious experience rather than with tradition or imagination. According to Daniel Day Williams (“Tradition and Experience in American Theology” in The Shaping of American Religion, 1961), the five principal aspects of the incorporation of experience into American theology were: 1) “treatment of religious experience as a source of knowledge of God,” 2) “use of religious experience as the sign of vitality in religious faith,” 3) “emphasis on experience as the testing ground for moral character and for the achievement of moral goals,” 4) “the viewing of experience as the field for cooperation among peoples of differing doctrinal persuasions,” and 5) “modernist use of present experience for criticism and interpretation of traditional doctrines and practices.”

Another commentator, Kenneth Cauthen (in The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, 1962), characterizes American religious liberalism as emphasizing the immanence rather than the transcendence of God; the centrality of experience rather than the appeal to external authority; and evolution in nature and dynamism in history rather than a static cosmology and worldview.

While clearly within the broad stream of American religious liberalism, Kaplan, like his Protestant colleague Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975), was critical of certain liberal presuppositions. As radical modernizers, Kaplan and Wieman took the scientific method, empirical fact and prevailing forms of philosophy as their points of departure. They believed that their traditions had to be evaluated in the light of modern science, philosophy, psychology and sociology. Nothing was to be adhered to unless its relevance could be made apparent. For them, God was immanent in cultural evolution, and society was progressively moving toward realization of the kingdom of God, even if such a goal might not be attained in the near future.

Kaplan was also clearly influenced by the Social Gospel movement of American Protestantism. Social Gospel’s fundamental claim was that, in William McGuire King’s words (in Religion and 20th- Century American Intellectual Life, 1989) “the way to a profound personal experience of God in the modern world follows the highway of ‘social religion’” and that “religious self-realization manifests itself as a religious enthusiasm for humanity.” The Social Gospel Movement emphasized both the enrichment of individual personality and the development of democracy. It sought to relate ideas of the Bible and religion to the need for social and economic reform, or “social action,” in American society, and sparked similar tendencies in American Catholicism and Reform Judaism.

In his efforts to anchor religion and values in experience and nature, Kaplan turned to society, community and peoplehood as sources of faith in humanity and democracy as well as in God. Kaplan defined community as “that form of social organization in which the welfare of each is the concern of all, and the life of the whole is the concern of each” (The Future of the American Jew, 1948). According to him, the idea that organic, self-governing communities appeared on the scene of history only as the result of deliberate social contract is incorrect. Rather, human communities, like those of other species, result from natural forces operating in the cosmos as physical and biological laws. “The theory of reciprocal responsibility,” he wrote (in Religion of Ethical Nationhood, 1970), “is the conscious human manifestation of the principle whereby everything in nature is both cause and effect of everything else. [This] corresponds with the universal law of polarity whereby everything in the universe, from the minutest electron to the vastest star, is both self-active and interactive, independent and interdependent.”

To distinguish between political organizations based on the territorial sovereignty of states and the sense of unity among individuals sharing a past, present and future, Kaplan developed the concept of “peoplehood.” “Peoplehood,” he wrote (Judaism without Supernaturalism, 1958), “is that social structure of a society, from the most primitive to the most advanced … which provides … the necessary conditions for salvation, or the self-fulfillment of the individual.” Moreover, “insofar as the self-fulfillment of the human person is inconsistent with total annihilation at death, it calls for some form of immortality. That demand is satisfied through an organically constituted people, with a common history and common destiny that is the sum of all the individual lives which have been and will be identified with it. A people thus provides its individual lives a kind of continuing radiation or anonymous immortality” (Greater Judaism in the Making, 1960).

For Kaplan, the idea underlying democracy is that the interests uniting human beings, if they become truly aware of those interests, are strong enough to ward off the divisive influence of people’s differences. The crucial problem of freedom is how to guard our individuality and the capacity to think for ourselves and yet cooperate with those whose backgrounds, upbringings and outlooks are different from our own. This is an art, said Kaplan, that human beings are slow to learn. Democracy should be conceived as a process of social experimentation by which people are seeking to learn that art and to apply, step by step, the wisdom acquired as a result of such experimentation. That is why the art of free, voluntary cooperation, the ultimate objective of democracy, must constantly be cultivated. Fundamental is the understanding that no matter how human beings may differ, they are all desirous of being free. “To doubt this,” wrote Kaplan (The Future of the American Jew), “is to lose faith in [humanity]. And since faith is God is essentially faith in [God's] power to redeem [humanity], to lose faith in the potentialities of human nature is to lose faith in God as well. The cynicism that surrenders to brute force, as inevitably supreme, is the ultimate atheism.”

Kaplan insisted that democracy is a quality of nationhood. “Under its influence, national solidarity functions as a means of fostering the maximum welfare and collaboration of all who compose the nation,” he wrote (The Future of the American Jew), “regardless of race, color or creed. Such welfare and collaboration presuppose unity in diversity and freedom from oppression and exploitation.” Democracy’s purpose is to have “justice and kindness instead of tyranny and cruelty prevail in all human relationships … to bring under control the inherent tendency of human beings to seek power and to exercise it for its own sake regardless of the harm it does.” Democracy seeks to salvage the freedom of the mind, “to recover the right of every human being to exercise the most divine power which he [or she] possesses, the power of reason” (“Democracy and Zionism” in Foundations of Democracy, 1947).

Kaplan believed that faith in democracy and its possibilities for human living had to be strengthened and deepened. “Democracy must be given the sanction of religion, and the system of education fostered by the democratic state must somehow take cognizance of religious need.” The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, together with the rites of the churches, should not be viewed, he believed, as the only means of teaching redemptive religion; rather, it should be possible to teach the meaning of human life with the aid of American sancta such as the great texts, events and personalities of American history. Schools need not teach any particular conception of God, but merely implant in the children the conviction that “there is a Power in the universe which makes for human self-realization, that every deviation from democracy is fraught with evil consequence and every achievement of true democracy is a moral gain. If our public schools did that,” Kaplan wrote (The Future of the American Jew), “they would be giving a truly religious education to every child,” without violating church-state separation.

Kaplan’s seminal definition of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization, while influenced by sociological trends in the early 20th century, was actually foreshadowed in the work of the heretical American Presbyterian minister, David Swing (1830-1894). Swing recognized the inter-dependence of religion and culture and espoused a religious liberalism that included the notion that if Christianity could not longer be spread as a dogma, it could grow and spread both as a way of life and as a civilization.

Kaplan’s innovative definition underscored his understanding of the centrality of peoplehood in the Jewish religion, as well as his religious naturalist interpretation of the origins and nature of Judaism. That Judaism is a religious civilization, he believed, implies that the survival of the Jewish people depends on its making religion a matter of vital interest. Judaism has to provide a world outlook and a conception of God that can encourage living in a spirit of moral responsibility, honesty, loyalty or love, and creativity. Judaism has to “make [the Jewish] collective experience yield meaning for the enrichment of the life of the individual Jew and for the spiritual greatness of the Jewish people” (Greater Judaism in the Making).

The civilizational definition also makes possible the acceptance of the principles of unity in diversity and continuity in change. It is, moreover, a reminder of the fact that Judaism consists of much that cannot be pigeonholed into the category of “religion,” and that, in modern times, as “paradoxical as it may sound, the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation” (Judaism as a Civilization). Just as life takes precedence over thought, Judaism exists for the sake of the Jewish people rather than the Jewish people existing for the sake of Judaism. In order for Judaism to survive and grow in a world of accelerating change, Kaplan taught, it must be responsive primarily to the internal spiritual needs of its constituency. Thus, his passion for openness prodded him to heed not only the voice of Nature and Nature’s God, but the voice of the living Jewish people.


This piece originally appeared in Reconstructionism Today.

Professor Emeritus, Queens College

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