Kaufman on Kaplan and Process Theology: A Post-Positivist Perspective

by H. A. Alexander

H. A. Alexander is Dean of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Education at the University of Judaism, Los Angeles, CA. He is editor-elect of Religious Education, editor of Philosophy of Education 1992, and the author of numerous articles, including “Science and Spirituality: Tradition and Interpretation in Liberal Education,” which will appear in Curriculum Inquiry.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 200-203, Vol. 20, Number 4, Winter, 1991. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author concludes that Mordecai Kaplan was a positivist and a modernist while Whitehead was one of the earliest post-positivists and post-modernists.

When I was a student at the Hebrew University, Mordecai Kaplan lived in Jerusalem. Always interested in young people, it was his custom to host occasional evenings in his living room with university students. The discussions would meander over a variety of contemporary Jewish issues but in some way always return to some central theme of Kaplan’s thought.

One especially memorable evening was on the first night of Hanukkah. The elderly professor, well into his nineties by this point, began with the candle lighting ceremony after which it is customary to sing the traditional hymn “Rock of Ages.” He spoke with a very slight European accent and sported a goatee which created an air of old world authenticity, at least to a California-born Jew like myself who had been educated primarily in Reform institutions.

After the candles had been lit and we had recited the appropriate blessings he turned to us — we were about 25 students in all — and asked, “Who knows Maoz Tzur — Rock of Ages’?” Wanting to impress, or at least not disappoint, the famous rabbi who seemed to personify traditional Judaism, we all raised our hands. He then scolded us, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you young people today, wasting your time with such gibberish. How many of you actually believe the words of that song? It is so out-dated. How can you sing it if you don’t believe it?”

Kaplan was not known for his tact. There was, for example, a poor young man in Kaplan’s homiletics class at The Jewish Theological Seminary who spent several hours with the learned professor in his office preparing a sermon that was to be delivered in class in a few days. Kaplan became one of the most influential of American Jewish philosophers in part because he was willing to teach homiletics, which many of his colleagues on the faculty considered beneath them. But he did not concern himself with the method of delivery in these classes. Rather he focused on content. He asked his students the same question that he had asked us so many years later: do you believe what you are saying? If not, how can you deliver a sermon on that topic with integrity?

At any rate, the young man in question indeed delivered the sermon in class that he had prepared with Kaplan in his office. Kaplan then proceeded relentlessly to dissect the sermon word by word. By the end of Kaplan’s analysis, the poor young man was devastated. He turned to Kaplan and said, “But Professor, this is the very sermon that we prepared in your office just two days ago. Every ‘t’ is crossed and every ‘i’ is dotted in the same place today as it was then.” Kaplan turned to the young man indignantly and retorted, “But, my good man, I have changed in two days.”

Returning now to my evening with Kaplan, with the slight sting of embarrassment from knowing too much of the wrong Hanukkah ritual still in our hearts, we all sat down sheepishly. The room was crowded. We waited to hear the professor’s words of wisdom. He began as usual with a question. “Who here knows some philosophy?” Now you might expect that by this point we would be a bit chastened by the professor’s scolding from just a few minutes earlier, at least sufficiently so to be more reticent about raising our hands or answering a question that he asked. Indeed, perhaps because they didn’t think that they knew much about philosophy or perhaps because they learned more quickly than some of the rest of us, the vast majority of students were smart enough by this point not to try to impress the old man. A few of us, however, still thinking that we would impress the great philosopher, responded in the affirmative by raising our hands.

By now of course you can predict the response. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you young people today, wasting your time with such gibberish. I studied philosophy at Columbia University, and it was all a lot of nonsense. All of it, except the pragmatists like Dewey.”

I recount these anecdotes not only to give you a sense of the personality of the man who is in some important respects synonymous with American Jewry and who is responsible for conceiving of some of its major institutions, from the once liberal orthodoxy of the Young Israel movement, to the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism, to the very structure of the American synagogue, which he called a synagogue center, to my own institution, The University of Judaism. I recount them also because they speak to the central themes of Dr. Kaufman’s very fine analysis of the relation between Kaplan’s pragmatism and process theology.

First, Kaufman is quite right, as Kaplan’s own testimony suggests, to view Kaplan as a pragmatist. Indeed, the very concept of a “reconstructed God” and a “reconstructed Judaism” may well be taken from Dewey’s 1920 volume Reconstruction in Philosophy. Kaplan’s disdain for academic philosophy probably also derives from its lack of concern for practical consequences. Certainly he was concerned with the consequences of religious faith and played out this concern in his functionalist analysis of divinity as well as in his conception of the ethical ramifications of such faith.

Second, Kaufman is also most certainly correct that Kaplan’s religious pragmatism has much in common with Whitehead’s process theology. Indeed, one of Kaplan’s closest associates during the period in the twenties and early thirties when his theological ideas were taking shape was Max Kadush in. In fact, it was Kadushin more than Kaplan who, in volumes such as The Rabbinic Mind and Organic Thinking: A Study in Rabbinic Thought, set out to understand traditional Judaism in terms of the organic approach that is so characteristic of Whitehead’s metaphysics.

But Kadushin broke with Kaplan over the very sort of naturalism that Kaufman so astutely sees as that which Kaplan’s religious pragmatism and Whitehead’s process theology have in common. At least this is the common wisdom.

Just as Kaplan had too much integrity to sing “Maoz Tzur — Rock of Ages” when he could not believe the words he was singing or to encourage a young rabbi to preach that which he could no longer believe, Kaplan could not countenance a theology that was inconsistent with other facts we know to be true about the cosmos. If our most basic beliefs about the stuff of which nature is made preclude the existence of some other, radically different metaphysical stuff from which a transcendent deity might be made, then we must admit, as an inescapable consequence, that no such transcendent being exists. Yet, if there remains a positive function to belief in such a deity, it must be the case, again inescapably, that this deity is to be accounted for within the confines of the natural order.

And Kaufman has gotten it right once again that it is over this very issue that Kaplan and Whitehead part ways. For Whitehead is prepared to attribute to the God-head the sort of stuff of which “actual entities” are made, and to say of this God stuff that it is distinct from other natural stuff, though not so different as to remove God from the natural order. Unlike Kaplan who identifies God with the creative forces within the universe itself, Whitehead represents God as the “principle of concretion” by means of which actual process takes shape. God is not the process of creation, nor does he or she create actual entities; rather he or she provides the initial impetus for self-creation. Each actual entity, including God, is a particular outcome of ‘creativity,’ which is the process through which the stuff of creation is concretized. God, like everything else, is a process. And process is the stuff of creation. Only God is a particular kind of process, one that plays a unique role in the creation of other processes.

About all of this Kaufman is dead right. Nevertheless, Kaufman does not touch upon a deeper rift between Whitehead and Kaplan, a rift that can explain why, at least to the bereaved, Whitehead’s may be a more worshipful God than Kaplan’s. It may also offer a deeper explanation as to why Kaplan’s loyal friend Kadushin could not follow him into Reconstructionism.

Dr. Kaufman is, of course, aware that Kaplan was deeply influenced by the great founder of Cultural Zionism, Asher Ginzberg, who published under the pen name of Ahad Haam (one of the people). Ginzberg argued that the religious life of the Jewish people was a product of the medieval dispersion of the Jews from their ancestral homeland, and that a renaissance of the Jews in the land of Israel could make possible the revival of a national secular culture that would revolve around Hebrew language.

It was from Ginzberg’s conception of a national Hebrew culture that Kaplan derived his notion of Judaism as a civilization. And it was in response to Ginzberg’s secularism that Kaplan set out to defend Jewish religion. Ginzberg saw the Jewish people moving into a new phase of its existence in the modem period. Having survived their mythical and metaphysical phases, the Jews were moving into a scientific phase. Ginzberg learned this stage theory of cultural development from the French philosopher August Comte, the father of positivism. And it was also from Comte and the cultural milieu that popularized his philosophy of science, that Ginzberg learned his own views on the character of the scientific culture into which the Jewish people was emerging.

It was this naive positivism that Kaplan accepted, rather than, for example, the much more sophisticated views of his philosophical mentor John Dewey, as the basis of his argument for religious naturalism. For, it was Kaplan’s aim to demonstrate that Jewish religion had a function even within the scientific culture into which the Jewish people was said by Ginzberg to have emerged. Thus, Kaufman quite rightly cites Kaplan’s disciple Jack Cohen in defining naturalism as “the disposition to believe that any phenomenon can be explained by appeal to general laws confirmable either by observation or by inference from observation.”

However, by the time he delivered his Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1927 and 1928, upon which Process and Reality was based, Whitehead was already aware of insurmountable difficulties with many empiricist assumptions about the nature of the reality that we are supposed to observe in order to confirm those general laws of which Cohen wrote. He was also aware that efforts by logical positivists like his own student, Bertrand Russell, and members of the Vienna Circle such as Rudolph Carnap, were doomed to failure.

Kaplan’s theology embraced a popular view of the nature of science that would prove ultimately to be indefensible. Whitehead’s theology, on the other hand, stood at the forefront of the attack on the very naive positivism that Kaplan learned from Comte through Ginzberg. Kaplan, in short, was a positivist and a modernist, while Whitehead was one of the earliest post-positivists and post-modernists.

This is the rift that separates Kaplan from Whitehead. And it is this that explains why Kadushin could not follow Kaplan into Reconstnictionism, a theological doctrine even more dominated by naive positivism than the positive-historical school of The Jewish Theological Seminary where they both taught. For like Whitehead and Dewey, Kadushin understood that the concept of organic thinking offered an approach to logic and the foundations of knowledge that was an alternative to the perversions of the sort of blind faith in natural science that had come to dominate the intellectual cultures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; an alternative that did not attempt to devalue science or replace it with a nonrational mysticism, but which did attempt to place scientific thought into a broader cultural context in which other forms of cultural expression such as religious and legal reasoning could play important and non-subservient roles.

It may also be this rift that explains why Whitehead’s God offers greater solace to the mourner. For all of Kaplan’s concern with salvation, he has learned too much optimism from the positivists to account for the many profound failings in human nature and in the rest of nature as well. Life, it often turns out, is not the way it’s supposed to be. If there is such a strong saving force in the natural universe, if in other words God is so good, the mourner wants to know why life is so bad. Of course, the mourner wants to know no less from traditional theology. But that is precisely the point. Kaplan seems to have replaced an absolute truth rooted in metaphysics or even myth with another one rooted in science. But an absolute truth it is nonetheless.

Whitehead, on the other hand, stands at the forefront of a movement that was destined to debunk absolutes in both philosophy and science, in order to grasp the nature of reality with more subtle and flexible intellectual tools. Out of this movement, a vision of the cosmos is emerging that is at once more purposeful, more respectful of the mysteries of nature, and more cognizant of the limitations of the human mind in attempting to comprehend it. This added subtlety lends itself to a sort of humility that is absent in the positivist doctrine and that may be more appealing to the bereaved. On this view, our only response to the mourner may be to say, “I don’t fully understand why life turns out so awfully sometimes, but I am here, and through my presence perhaps you can feel God’s presence as well.”


I came away from my evenings with Kaplan in awe of his intellectual acumen, his encyclopedic knowledge, and most of all of his integrity. But I also came away troubled, troubled by his arrogance. It was as if he had the truth in his pocket, and the rabbis who preceded him somehow didn’t get it. I could never bring myself to believe that in all of Jewish history, so many rabbis who had been so smart about so many other things, could be so stupid theologically. I guess Kadushin could not bring himself to believe that either. I like to think that when Whitehead turned from mathematics to metaphysics, he felt some of these same sorts of doubts from within his own cultural context.