Mordechai Kaplan – God as Meaning ‎

What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 0

			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. ‎
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‎‘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. ‎
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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. ‎
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‎“…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…” ‎
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Analysis ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Practical ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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.   ‎
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Food for Thought ‎
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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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