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One of the accusations most frequently leveled against Reconstructionist Judaism is that “Reconstructionists don’t believe in God.” The Reconstructionist idea of God is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of the movement, and that isn’t entirely the fault of its critics. The fact is that, like so many of his ideas, Kaplan’s understanding of God was rather complicated and difficult to grasp, he was constantly fine-tuning it throughout his life in order to meet the challenges of his critics, and the movement as a whole has shifted somewhat since his death.
It’s true that classical Reconstructionism makes some major adjustments to the idea of God that do not sit well with the more traditional theology of some of the other movements. In a nutshell, the problem Kaplan was trying to deal with in his theology was similar to the one he was trying to deal with in his approach to Jewish peoplehood: that of reconciling two worlds with different values and priorities which both have a legitimate claim on the hearts and minds of American Jews. In this case, the two worlds in question were the religious tradition of Judaism and the findings and methodology of modern science. Most Jews alive today, felt Kaplan, were too invested in the scientific worldview to be able to accept the idea of a supernatural God who dispenses reward and punishment, miraculously circumvents the laws of nature and directs history to a predetermined end. Furthermore, contemporary developments in the critical analysis of the Hebrew Bible make it difficult to maintain the thesis that the Torah is a unified text handed down to Moses by God at Sinai, rather than a collection of texts composed at different times in response to various historical and political circumstances and edited together at a later date.
These factors would seem to render what most would consider the “traditional” Jewish conception of God problematic at best. Certainly others in Kaplan’s generation were perfectly willing to reject the idea of God entirely in favor of “ethical culture” founded on purely humanistic principles. Kaplan, however, felt that the idea of God was still necessary to Judaism, albeit in a “reconstructed” form. His solution was to reject those aspects of the traditional conception of God that were incompatible with a modern, scientific worldview while subjecting “the God idea” to a careful functional analysis. An avid student of American pragmatist philosophers such as William James, Kaplan started with the question, “What is the practical difference the God idea makes in the lives of those for whom it is important?” and built up from there.
In practice, this meant abandoning the idea of a personal God who behaves like a more perfect version of a human being and regarding God instead as more like a force or process at work in the world. Kaplan’s God does not transcend nature, looming above and outside the world of our experience, but rather manifests in and through the natural world. At the same time, God is not simply identified with the sum total of what is, as in a pantheistic philosophy, but rather is regarded as the sum total of all the forces at work in the universe which tend toward wholeness, unity and goodness. The classic formation of this principle is that “God is the power in the universe that makes for salvation.” One consequence of this theological stance is that, just as God is not fundamentally separate from nature, so to God is not separate from humanity. Humans contain within themselves some aspect of divinity which becomes manifest when we come together for constructive rather than destructive ends. The proper role of humanity is to act as partners with the Divine in bringing about a more just and peaceful world.
The criticism leveled at Kaplan’s formulation of the God idea came from two directions. On the one hand, Jews coming from a more traditional theological perspective (which included many Reform as well as Orthodox Jews), argued that Kaplan’s conception of God was too anemic and abstract. In removing the personal and supernatural aspects of God, they claimed, he had also removed everything that made God an important and vital force in peoples’ lives. What was the point of a God who does not hear or answer prayer? On the other hand, many atheists, secular humanists and proponents of “ethical culture” were uncomfortable with Kaplan’s insistence on clinging to God language, feeling that the use of the term God, no matter how it is re-interpreted, inevitably leaves the door open to the fundamentalist conception of a supernatural being who issues arbitrary decrees from on high and favors one group of people over another.
By all accounts Kaplan did not consider himself to be primarily a theologian. In talking about God, he was more concerned with developing an idea of the Divine that would resonate with Jews who otherwise might be driven away by the supernatural theology of traditional Judaism than in making dogmatic statements about ultimate reality. He made it clear that his preference would be for people to develop a God idea that worked for them rather than expecting a single theological system to be universally applicable. Nevertheless, he frequently found himself walking a precarious line between the competing worldviews of critics from various denominations for whom his naturalistic theology was off-putting at best. Modern Reconstructionism has evolved in response to the changing cultural and spiritual life of the times, and today there are probably few Reconstructionist rabbis who would agree with everything Kaplan wrote about God. At the same time, there are aspects of his theology that I think hold up very well, and are definitely worth a second look. For more about Kaplan’s ideas on God, I highly recommend The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, which also contains an extended treatment of his approach to the various holidays and festivals of the Jewish calendar.