Atheism in Judaism

Mordecai Kaplan: Jewish atheist

Mordecai Menahem Kaplan was born in Lithuania [in 1881] and brought to the United States at the age of eight. He received his secular education at the College of the City of New York and Columbia University, and his rabbinic degree in 1902 from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Solomon Schechter invited him in 1909 to be principal of the Teachers' Institute of the Seminary; in the next year Kaplan was appointed professor of homiletics in its Rabbinical School, and since then he has held a variety of other post at that institution. Always active as a rabbi and community leader, Kaplan "invented" the idea of the synagogue-center in 1916, when he organized the Jewish Center in Manhattan. After a few years he broke with this group, which would not follow him as his religious views became more liberal, to found the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (in 1922). ...

... His approach, which he named Reconstructionism, was expounded in Judaism as a Civilization , a book which caused a furor when it appeared in 1934. These controversies grew more heated in the next ten years, as several Reconstructionist prayer books appeared, with important deletions from the traditional texts, and as he published a succession of other volumes in exposition of his views. ...

Kaplan's premises are essentially the same as Kallen's, though he is far more involved in religion. For Kallen it is enough to define Judaism as one of many parallel national civilizations; Kaplan regards religion as so characteristic of Jewish experience that he insists on a hyphenated adjective -- religio-national -- as the correct way to describe this particular civilization. Like any complex of rituals and values which make up a way of life, Judaism will survive only if it answers the real needs of men. Hence Kaplan follows Ahad Ha-Am in arguing that a homeland is necessary, where Judaism can become relevant to the modern age by refashioning itself in its own way. Many of the specific ideas which Kaplan upholds -- like his denial of the orthodox concepts of revelation and of the "chosen people," or his affirmation of a theology which is a Jewish version of the "social gospel" -- can be denied, without destroying his Zionist stance.

The Zionist idea: a historical analysis and reader ,
edited and with an introduction by Arthur Hertzberg
(1959; Atheneum/Macmillan NY 1989) p 535-6

see also
Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a civilization: toward a reconstruction of American-Jewish life (Reconstructionist: NY 1957/1981)

re. Jewish/Catholic/cultural/atheists, see Ahad Ha-Am, Sherwin Wine,Graham Greene, Charles Maurras, Miguel de Unamuno and Michael Harrington.

also see soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Who We Are (2/10) - 2.7. What about other movements?

Reconstructionism. At the beginning of this century Conservative Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan asserted that Judaism was a culture rather than a religion. That the rituals we do (keep shabbat, keep kosher) we do because they are part of the culture we grew up in and not because of a divine law set. This meant that G-d, as interpreted in traditional Judaism, was not relevant. As a result, the religion should be practiced much as one practices any other cultural practice. We should keep shabbat and kosher because that is what our culture prescribes, but if our culture matures and discards these practices or creates new one, this is fine too. Additional information may be found in the Reconstructionist Reading List, available at: ftp://israel.nysernet.org/israel/lists/scj-faq/reading-lists/reconstructionist or ftp://rtfm.mit.edu/pub/usenet/news.answers/judaism/reading-lists/reconstructionist

... the important story told of a certain disciple of a rabbi who boasted that he had converted an unbelieving Jew.

"How did you do this?" the rabbi asked. The disciple answered "A poor man knocked at my door and was hungry and asked for food. I welcomed him. Then I said to him 'First we must pray minchah, the afternoon prayers.' We prayed together. And after that I told him 'we pray maariv, the evening prayers.' Then we went to the table but first I told him that he had to wash his hands and recite the blessing, and then to recite the blessing over the bread.

"What happened?" asked the rabbi. "The man fainted and I revived him and we prayed." The rabbi thought and told him, "My son, you have done wrong." "But rabbi he blessed God. What did I do wrong?"

The rabbi said "You should have acted as if there were no God." "But rabbi, that is atheism." The rabbi answered "God created everything for a purpose, atheism is for a purpose. When a person comes to you in need you act as if there is no God in the world, no angel, no heavenly intervention. You act as if there is no one in the world but you yourself." The disciple asked him, "But what about the saving of his soul?" The rabbi answered "Save your soul and his body and not vice-versa."

- Outreach Lecture by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

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created 1jun1996, revised 20mar98     |     comments on this site? tpkunesh@atheisms.info