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The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion Paperback – January 1, 1995
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Kaplan takes the major formulation of his theological approach, "God as the power that makes for salvation," and demonstrates how it can be used to invigorate the Jewish religion in a changing world.
About the Author
Kaplan emigrated to the United States from Lithuania at the age of 8. After graduating from Columbia University in 1902, he was ordained a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he taught for the next 50 years. His attempts to adapt Judaism to the modern world, particularly to the American situation, led to the establishment of a new movement, Reconstructionism. He saw Judaism as representing, first and foremost, a religious civilization and proposed a Jewish theology shaped by Jewish experience and Jewish ethics.
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Before I do any of that, I wish to mention a few items relating to Rabbi A. Heschel. Heschel speaks to me about the joy for my Jewish relationship to God. Having said that, if all I had were the texts of the astonishing Rabbi Heschel, I would not be a Jew. Why? For me, he does not speak to "how I'm allowed to be a Jew". What does that mean? I do not "imagine God" in the manner that Heschel did. Not even close.
This is an admittedly excessive and simplified statement, but one that I will use to succulently contrast Heschel and Kaplan: No modern Jewish theologian appreciated God more fully than Heschel and no modern Jewish theologian viewed God as more vital than Kaplan. I've always believed in God, but I lacked a functional "imagining of God" and a functional "imaging of a relationship with God". 'The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion' presents a nuts and bolts theology directly addressing those two aspects of a Jewish centered life. To leave Kaplan at that, however, would miss out on Kaplan's thesis entirely. Yes, Judaism is a religion of "doing" more that it is one of "believing", BUT it "does" because it "believes", and how it "believes" defines what it "does". True, A Heschel centered Jewish theology or a Kaplan centered Jewish theology would both emphasize the mutuality of God and proper human action. They arrive at that conclusion, however, from different imaginings of God and God's functionality.
Rabbi Kaplan is hardly the first Jew to understand that God cannot be fully imagined. That's a foundational given in Judaism. He was, at least for me, the first Jew that effectively spoke to the VITAL necessity for a valid and authentic imaging of God. That is, one that works. One that has a functionality because it is perceived as authentic in the shadow of modernity. Vulgar readings of Kaplan suggest that he sought to displace the centrality of God in the Jewish experience and replaced it with the false idols of modernity-science. I say NO! His project was a desperate one to "expose" and "affirm" God at the center of Jewish life (Jewish purpose!), AND to concurrently fortify it in such a way that it could weather the storm threats of modernity-science. He did view their relationship as mutually nurturing, but that is hardly an advocacy of replacing one for the other. God is God and science is science. Kaplan never challenged that. What he does challenge in this book is the utility, and ultimately declares as futile, of the lens and modalities through which modern Jewish movements imagine God, relate to God, and "use" God. His view is that they endlessly distort and reduce God to a faith-object void of transformative energy. A God steeped in and celebrated through superstition is an impotent God; a Halloween ghoul that is only good for scaring and bulling; a God worthy of a child's mind.
Kaplan was shaken to his Jewish core by bewilderment over the (then) current and evolving state of affairs within Judaism and elsewhere. He fully critiques the Reform movement (of that period), humanism and mysticism. This book vigorously petitions for a measured and God centered reevaluation of Judaism's ritual practices (more like the reasoning behind each ritual event) as well as its relationship with it sacred texts and treasured traditions. He saw a need for a proper and every evolving re-imagining of God so that God`s functionality can be made accessible to the Jew of today so that Judaism can have a tomorrow.
Kaplan's most perplexing blow to modern Judaism is that a Judaism that is not self-critical, not always in the process of reevaluation and reconstruction is an idolatrous thing. Why? A religion can never privilege itself above God by placing it cultural, institutional and theological(!) imperatives above God. Religion is not about religion; it is about God. Kaplan fully reconciles this with a signature feature of anything Kaplan: Any such project-process of reevaluation must take place in a communal context with community impulses, input and goals. Kaplan is not the "personal God" sort of God advocate that Heschel is.
Kaplan famously rejected an anthropomorphic conception of God, though it would be more constructive to describe him as a "weak God thesis" theologian/advocate rather than a "rejectionist". In the book, he chronicles how the micromanaging control freak/serial mass murderer-baby killer/terrorist in the sky motif of God may have been a viable path to access God's functionality in the past, but that is a path that leads to an addle and dysfunctional religion in the modern era. Kaplan concluded, at this stage in his evolving theology, that the only imagining of God that affords the utility necessary to transform and maintain the Holy, Sacred and Righteous is a functional definition of God. He fully appreciated that this would only represent an aspect of God, but it went to why God is vital and how God should have consequence. Regardless, having left his imaging of God to a functional one, he was obligated to commit to the language of ethics because ethics is the place where a functional definition of God leaves the believer. Kaplan's theology orbits one clause: "Reality is such that...". Each chapter, in turn, completes that clause in a God centered way that always swirling with the language of ethical considerations.
Rabbi Kaplan's knowledge and, more importantly, his understanding of non-mystical Judaism was encyclopedic. His understanding of the fundamental underpinning of mysticism was solid but when it came to Buddhism, or other mystical traditions, he had no clue what he was talking about. That hardly stopped the good Rabbi for weighing in on the subject(s)! Jewish mysticism is in vogue these days, and I view that as a good thing. Jews are increasing asking how, and explicitly exploring how, other mystical traditions can inform their Judaism and make them more fully Jewish. I view that as a good idea. Having said that, I gently suggest that such Jews first read this book. Kaplan's admonishments of mysticism, but also as significant his affirmation(s) of an engaged communal Judaism, are worthy of consideration before one fully commits to the mystical path. Kaplan reminded me that my obligation to God is not to understand God fully, to "drown in God" as the mystics of many traditions like to phrase it, BUT to do my part to nurture a God centered Creation through my "real world" actions and relationships: To affirm, empathize, and heal the Other and receive the same blessings in return. In such a way, a Jew enters into mutuality with God in the process of Creation. Creation, not the monologue of inner imagination, is the site of "God becoming" and the best place to realize a union with God.
Kaplan was a Zionist. He was, in this book, also severely critical of nationalism. Interestingly, Jews of today which are deeply critical of Israel (or the more moderate phrase "critical of its policies", if you prefer) will find an articulate ally in Kaplan. This book was written before the catastrophe of Nazi Germany was fully realized. Kaplan speaks to nationalism broadly in this book, but a sub-text of his reaction(s) to what he sensed developing in Europe is plainly felt. It is uncanny how his critique of nationalism (equating it with idolatry [Pg 147] if taken far enough -which is sadly the case for many today) relates to the current state of affairs regarding Israel's immoral occupation of the Territories and its accompanying immoral oppression and practiced violence of its people -all of whom are our brothers and sisters. Also, in this book, Kaplan voices his opinion on a great many human rights issues. Remember, this book was first published in 1937. History has revealed that his perspectives along these lines were mostly on the correct side of the moral equation. This speaks directly to the clarity of his insights.
How is Kaplan fun? First, while he didn't crack jokes, he did seem to find a singular joy in lathering on sarcasm, which he does often in this book. That's the polite way of putting it. Another way of putting is that he was a wise@$$. I can't count the number of times I found myself laughing only to find myself feeling guilty once I eventually got around to empathizing with the target of one of the Rabbi's zingers! Second, he took every opportunity to go off on a "young people these days" rant. Very cute! Third, Kaplan was a RAVING socialist. The dear man went on forever with this stuff and just when you thought he was done he would return to it three pages later or two chapters later! Such was his era. Long story short, I'm a raving socialist, so this endeared him to me immediately. An interesting quote, "Marx would have been a Prophet only if..."? I don't think that was an offhand comment on his part. Finally, his characterizing of the "homeland Jews" Vs. the Alexandrian Jews of antiquity as provincial bumpkins was as bourgeois elitist as it was funny.
Rabbi Heschel and Rabbi Kaplan each placed a different emphasis within the stream that is contemporary non-Orthodox Judaism. Heschel adored God. He understood God through the subjectivity of his feelings. Truly, he "held God and man in the same breath at the same time". Rabbi Kaplan experienced God through the subjectivities of his cognitions. He reasoned that Judaism was vital, but he also recognized that Judaism was Judaism only in its relationship to God. He explicitly held Judaism and God in the same breath at the same time. They are the same; they are different; they are both fully Jewish. We, as Jews, are blessed by the richness of God in either.