Mordechai Kaplan was the consummate outsider. In essence, he was unable to fit in with any of the three denominations of Judaism existing in America at the time. Yet at the same time, he never joined the ranks of the unaffiliated Jews. He was as affiliated as they come, lacking only a group to affiliate with. So what did he do to solve this problem? He created his own denomination, a movement he called Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan genuinely believed that all three denominations had gone off course in their approaches to Judaism. In fact, he believed that Jews throughout history had, to some degree, always been off course. According to him, the constant intellectual error of the Jews has been in believing that their religion is an entity that is independent of their history as a people. The classic view has the religion Judaism existing somehow in an intellectual and spiritual vacuum, a set of beliefs that came from ‘outside’, unconnected to the people who practice it. Kaplan rejected this understanding as naïve and incorrect. Judaism, to him, was to be understood as a ‘civilization’ – a product of the millennia of Jewish communal and individual life wherever it may have been lived.
‘Judaism as a Civilization’ – this is the title of his major work that revealed his ideas to the rest of the Jewish world. The fundamental idea was that the collective ‘energy’ of the Jewish people was the real Judaism, and not the beliefs that could be memorized or written down on a wallet-sized card. The beliefs are just a temporary manifestation of that energy. They are not the essence. Those beliefs can and should change with time, as the needs of the times and the new insights gained through experience energize the Jewish people in some new direction. Consequently, no belief is really sacred and fixed, even something as fundamental as God.
Was Kaplan a believer? He can hardly be called an atheist since as he writes constantly about God-awareness and how to attain it. On the other hand, his version of God is certainly not the Biblical God who savors the smell of burnt offerings. In fact, the whole idea of a personal God, complete with feelings and attitudes and a will to run the world in a specific way, was repugnant to him. His God is not necessarily even a being, at least in the classic sense. If that takes Kaplan out of one’s range of acceptable belief, so be it. He formulated his basic ideas about God in a 1936 book called ‘The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion’ (p.26). These ideas are not just about God. They unavoidably touch on the meaning of life.
“…With the development of scientific techniques for the utilization of natural forces, and the revision of our world-outlook in a way that invalidates the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, it is only as the sum of everything in the world that renders life significant and worthwhile – holy - that God can be worshiped by man. God can have no meaning for us apart from truth, goodness, and beauty, interwoven in a pattern of holiness. To believe in God is to reckon with life’s creative forces, tendencies, and potentialities, as forming an organic unity, and as giving meaning to life by virtue of that unity. Life has meaning when it elicits from us the best of which we are capable, and fortifies us against the worst that may befall us. Such meaning reveals itself in our experiences of unity, of creativity, and of worth…”
Kaplan was absolutely sure that the God he could believe in was not an entity as much as a ‘quality’ – it was the sum of all the manifestations of meaning in the world. God could only be sensed through human beings seeking those very qualities of meaning. These qualities - ‘truth, goodness, and beauty, interwoven in a pattern of holiness’, are the true sources of meaning in life. Those three examples are by no means an exhaustive list – they are simply three of the best qualities in which meaning can be found. When we sum up the sources of meaning in life, we get a snapshot of God.
This does not necessarily mean that Kaplan did not believe in any version of the classic God ‘out there’ - the divine being that created the universe and guides it along. He may have retained such a belief or he may not have. The evidence in his writings is ambivalent. For our purposes, it really does not make much of a difference. What is important is his understanding that God, whatever it may actually ‘be’, is manifested in our lives as the quality of meaning.
This alone is a rather remarkable insight. How far back in Jewish history such an insight goes is unclear. Some might say that it is rooted in the Chumash, finding some verse to back up their claim. Others might say that it is a philosophical or mystical belief and find some evidence to back this up. But the bottom line is that Kaplan wrote it and it may very well have originated with him.
It is entirely likely that such an approach to belief in God and the meaning of life could not have been imagined before the 20th century. Prior to then, God’s role was still much more evident in what would eventually be called natural processes. Even Charles Darwin believed in some version of God. It was only with the scientific discoveries of the 20th century and the associated shift in outlook that religious figures began to seriously doubt God’s role in nature and His direct hand in running the world. Science eliminated much of this task, relegating the deity to a ‘god of the gaps’ role – responsible to handle only those things that science hadn’t yet put in the hands of natural law.
With the classic miracle-working God of the Bible being shoved to the back burner, what other avenues existed for God to be found? For many, this was the opportunity to cast God off altogether and to join the ranks of the atheists. For others, like Kaplan, God had to be found elsewhere. Kaplan’s solution was to find God in meaningful experiences. It is in these experiences that we discover something that lays beyond the realm that science can ever hope to take us. Can atoms or molecules explain the feeling of wonder upon sensing the changing of the seasons? Can mathematical equations possibly clarify the beauty of a work of art or a piece of music?
Science advocates the claim that they have answers to all these questions. But does science really have all the answers? Can science really ever hope to pinpoint the reason why so many things that provide no survival benefit whatsoever give us a powerful and undeniable feeling that life truly matters? This question cannot be ignored. It cannot be pushed aside as a ‘just a feeling’ that doesn’t show up on any machine. This feeling appears to be innate to human beings and only the most despondent or the most cynical are able to disregard it. Kaplan is taking that feeling and identifying it as the presence of God. It is simply a matter of taking the most profound and personal sensation – the sensation that life has meaning – and calling it divine. To revere that feeling, to worship it, is to revere and worship God. They are one and the same.
It is interesting that Kaplan doesn’t come out straight and say what the meaning of life actually is. Instead, he uses the elusive term ‘holy’ to sum up the qualities that together generate the feeling that life is indeed worthwhile. Holiness, according to him, is not some mystical state that is accessible only to a select few who are worthy. Nor is it necessarily associated with specific times or places that have somehow been zapped with holiness, whatever that may mean. Holiness is the sense that life is significant, that it actually matters. It is the simple and unsophisticated answer to all those naysayers who keep insisting that it’s just particles and forces all the way down. There is something else. It may not be detectable in some machine like the latest sub-atomic particle they discover, but that doesn’t make it any less real. It is called holiness and it is detectable by all of us at certain times and places.
This would seem to be the royal road to God in an age when God no longer can play His Biblical role of working miracles, rewarding the righteous, and destroying evil. Since that guise frequently doesn’t work in the modern world, there is still another path to find God. It is the path of meaning. God may not be as dramatic in this path. He may not split the sea or sit on a Throne of Glory. But God may be even more accessible through this subtler path. God is the silent voice that speaks in moments of beauty, or the feeling of confidence that accompanies acts of goodness. God is the march of accomplishment and progress, the triumph of the human spirit. The ever-present and sometimes overwhelming sense of meaning is God’s new role. What is the meaning of life? That is for all of us to seek and to find. But if we are sincere and diligent and refuse to take short cuts, the answer that we find may very well be the voice of God speaking to us in a language that we can understand.
Where does one look for meaning in a world that is increasingly inundated with meaninglessness? In the past just getting through life was meaningful. Life was a good deal tougher than it is today and survival alone was an accomplishment. Today, in much of the world, that is simply not the case. Everything is push-button easy and instantly gratifying. It’s all very nice for those who want an easier life, but it comes with a stiff price – life has lost much of its ability to grant us a sense of accomplishment. Machines do everything for us, including most of our thinking. As time goes on, we will only transfer more of our tasks to automation and leave ourselves with less and less. So where should those who seek meaning turn?
There are still plenty of experiences that generate the feeling that life is indeed worthwhile. It is to those activities that the meaning seeker should turn. Look for those activities that have remained untainted by the barrage of meaninglessness that assaults us daily. Kaplan suggests ‘truth, goodness, and beauty’ as a gauge to direct your search. It’s as good a starting point as anywhere else. Those three standards could serve as modern day guides for the perplexed. They may be rare and increasingly unappreciated, but they are still held to be precious by most of the human race. Any one of them, when experienced in genuine form, is holy and should be treated as such.
The search need not be limited to those three guides. Any activity that makes life truly worthwhile meets the modern qualification for holiness. It’s a quality that is in short supply these days so one must look for it in unorthodox places. But it must be sought out. Holiness and meaning do not just ‘happen’. They must be pursued with enthusiasm and diligence. When found, they must be cultivated and treasured. Meaning is not a high or a thrill – it is a way of life, and life is too precious to be rendered meaningless.
Food for Thought
This idea that God is really the sum of all meaningful things in the world is unquestionably fascinating. But at the end of the day, is this God or is it just a feeling?
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