Salvational Zionism and Religious Naturalism in the Thought of Mordecai M. Kaplan

by Emanuel S. Goldsmith

Emanuel S. Goldsmith is Professor of Jewish Studies at Queens College (CUNY), Flushing, NY 11367 and Rabbi of Congregation M’vakshe Derekh in Scarsdale, NY. He co-edited Dynamic Judaism: The Essential Writings of Mordecai M. Kaplan (Fordham University Press, 1991) and The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan (NYU Press, 1990).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 204-210, Vol. 22, Number 4, Winter, 1993. 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 major distinctive contributions of Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) to twentieth-century religious thought is his creative synthesis of modern Jewish nationalism with spiritual naturalism, religious humanism, and process theology.

Among the major distinctive contributions of Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) to twentieth-century religious thought is his creative synthesis of modern Jewish nationalism with spiritual naturalism, religious humanism, and process theology. Kaplan’s earlier published essay (1909) dealt with "Judaism and Nationalism" and his last book, consisting of conversations with existentialist theologian, Arthur A. Cohen, was entitled If Not Now When? Toward a Reconstitution of the Jewish People (1973). During the intervening six decades, Kaplan produced an enormous output of essays, articles and books in which he sought to elucidate the significance of the national element in the Jewish religion and the spiritual components of Jewish identity in the light of new developments in the social sciences, philosophy, and theology. Kaplan read widely in the fields of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and comparative religion, and kept abreast of advances in liberal Protestant as well as Jewish thought. His published writings and voluminous diary exhibit the gropings of an eclectic mind obsessed with the survival and spiritual growth of the Jewish people, American democracy, and the human enterprise as a whole in an era of crisis and opportunity.

Kaplan’s analysis of Jewish nationalism begins with the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, and medieval Jewish theology, while simultaneously freely utilizing modern sociological and philosophical insights. He continuously emphasizes that the essential nature of the Jewish religion derives from the connection established from earliest times between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. In the Genesis narratives, for example, Abraham is depicted neither as a religious philosopher nor as a reformer but as someone whom God "makes his own" and ordains to be the progenitor of a family-nation that would serve as a pilot-people for humanity by keeping God’s way -- the avoidance of violence and the practice of justice under law (Genesis 18:19). To achieve that purpose, the land of Canaan is promised to Abraham’s progeny.

During the years of servitude in Egypt, the Israelites live in a spirit of expectancy -- waiting to be called to their land. Following their liberation, they are compelled to wander in the desert for forty years in order to atone for the grievous sin of accepting the negative report of their own spies concerning the land. The overriding concern of the authors of Deuteronomy is that the Israelites not forfeit their right to the land by improper behavior. The significance of all of the wilderness experiences is brought into focus by pointing out the relation of those experiences to the national destiny of a people dwelling in its own land. Kaplan avers that from the standpoint of the Jewish religion, the reality and destiny of the Jewish people are in fact meaningless unless they are associated with the land.

The Torah or Five Books of Moses may be appropriately regarded as a legal document in which the God of history deeds the land to the Jewish people (FA] 458). In other books of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, "no value is so uniformly interpreted and emphasized as the value of the land in its relation to [the people

of ] Israel" (JC 267). The Prophets, even when stressing God’s sovereignty over all of humanity and his eventual establishment of universal justice, emphasize the role of the land as the place in which international disputes will be settled and the divine word sent forth to all of humanity (Isaiah 2; Micah 4). These ideas are further elaborated in the Talmud and the Midrash, the major sources of traditional Judaism, which teach, for example, that the authentic observance of religious precepts is possible only in the Land of Israel and that only there is it possible for a Jew to have direct communion with God. The natural love of the Judeans or Jews for their ancestral land was thus raised to a high pitch of spiritual fervor by their religious teachers or rabbis who accorded it a central role in the Jewish religion. The land was recalled in virtually ever rite of passage, in the prayers recited following meals, during holiday celebrations, and in every worship service.

In a study of religion and nationalism, Ninian Smart writes that the flow of human events in society and individual life is such that entities that have phenomenological reality and a special shape (independent of whether they have actual existence) impinge upon consciousness and feeling. "A nation is a super- individual that is a phenomenological constant resulting from performative acts in which individuals communicate and pool positively charged substance, including the charged space of territory and the charged story of the past." He concludes that the creation of a national consciousness is a feature of true nationalism and that such a consciousness blends awareness, sentiment, and sacrament (RMN 16, 26, 28). Mordecai Kaplan similarly views the peoplehood or collective identity of the Jews as essentially derived from an intense, intimate, and dignified collective sentiment concerning a specific home-country (JC 264).

Kaplan concedes that at the time the ancient Israelites invaded Canaan, they were subject to the same rapacious instincts that periodically motivated hungry Bedouins to seek fertile territory (NZ 142). But the fact that the land was originally acquired by force was erased from the minds of the biblical writers because of the deeply moral and spiritual heritage which the people of Israel developed there. As its ethical conscience evolved, Israel was embarrassed by the way its forbears had come to possess the land and developed the apologetic rationale for its acquisition later recorded in Scripture. This rationale is expressed, for example, in the idea that Abraham’s descendants would be permitted to enter the land only when the sins of the aboriginal inhabitants were sufficient to justify the latter’s dispossession. It is also found in the threat that the Israelites too would be banished from the land if they conducted themselves improperly inside it (Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:28). According to Kaplan, contemporary religious thought should interpret the story of the land as God’s gift to Israel naturalistically, i.e., as simply a way of expressing the profound attachment of the Israelite to his nation. "Sensing that the land was an instrument used by God in the making of the Jewish people, Jews have apotheosized the land" (NZ 131).

The biblical rationale for Israel’s possession of the land may appear primitive since it is linked to a view of God that limits God’s divinity and love and guidance of humanity to a specific territory. But whatever constricting influence this view may have had on the Jewish religion can have no contemporary relevance in the light of Jewish influence on the rise of Christianity and Islam. If the Jewish religion had inherently been bound to a narrow national and land-bound interpretation, it could not have given rise to those two world religions. In the conscience of humanity, the history of the Jewish people in its own land has come to function as evidence of God’s self-relevation through human history. Judaism, land-rooted in content but universal in form and reference, demonstrates that "it is normal for religions to convert into means of salvation the experiences arising from the social interaction which a common land makes necessary for a people" (NZ 135).

For Kaplan, modern Zionism, both as an ideology and as a movement, represents the quintessential expression of Judaism in modern times. He views it as the only movement capable of salvaging the collective identity of the Jewish people from the melting pot of modern nationalism. Zionism has been vindicated principally because the Jewish people have been given a new lease on life with the establishment of the State of Israel. It has moreover taught Jews to treat Judaism as an all-embracing civilization which can elicit from them "a sense of spiritual rootedness in Eretz Yisrael, a feeling of oneness with the forty-century-old People of Israel, a desire to understand its language and literature, a yearning to cherish its aspirations, and an eagerness to live its way of life, with its mores, laws, and arts" (GIM 394, 451). Zionism is contemporary Judaism in action signifying, above all, that the Jewish people is actively engaged in adjusting itself to the modern world. It is Jewry’s effort "to burst its cerements, step out of its mummified condition and rise out of the valley of dead bones." It is Judaism in modem dress, the Messiah commuting on a jet plane instead of riding a donkey (NZ 174).

A principal reason why Zionism became necessary was the fact that Judaism everywhere was living on the momentum of the past, and that momentum was being rapidly exhausted. Before it was entirely spent, it became imperative to establish a central organ for world Jewry by creating a majority community of Jews which might control all of the vital forces operating in modern life. In addition, the forces of anti-Semitism and materialist secularism threatened the very survival of the body and soul of Jewry. Zionism was the mighty salvational idea that rescued the Jewish people and released unsuspected creative powers that had been dormant for centuries (QJA 410, REN 118).

Zionism constituted Jewish democracy in action insofar as it embraced the following principles: 1. "The reinterpretation of the messianic ideal from that of passive waiting for a supernatural miracle to the exertion of initiative to throw off the yoke of oppression"; 2. "The refusal to regard the dispersion of the Jews as a divinely decreed expiation or a form of divine discipline"; and 3. "The decision to reinstate Jewish nationhood where it might function as a means of securing the maximum welfare and collaboration of all who came within its purview, in keeping with the highest ideals of democracy (FAJ 361). Zionism should therefore be viewed as both a liberation movement and a salvational ideology, provided that salvation be interpreted in a this-worldly, humanistic manner.

The religious significance of Zionism becomes indisputable when one realizes that "to raise the Jews from a disintegrated and fragmented mass of individuals into an organic unity, whether it be the unity of the Jewish people as whole, or any part of it, is to create the conditions that make the Jewish religion possible" (JC 329). Whatever stimulates creative social interaction among Jews correctly belongs to the domain of the Jewish religion since it makes possible the salvation of the Jew. Zionism’s messianic character is evident in its attempt to end the role of the Jews as a ghost-people, to keep Jewry from retaining the status of an unclassifiable entity, and to reactivate the spiritual purpose to which Jews have traditionally considered themselves covenanted (NZ 177).

The primary function of Zionism today is to stimulate Jews in the Diaspora who possess a sense of adventure and are proficient in one or another field of endeavor to come to Israel and contribute to its upbuilding. But it should also motivate those who remain in the Diaspora to perpetuate their Jewish heritage and foster their Jewish group individuality. They should be encouraged to resist the forces which tend to break up minority groups (IWS 165). In order to accomplish these objectives, contemporary Zionism must repudiate its traditional "negation of the Diaspora" and encourage Jewish survival, and spiritual and cultural creativity wherever Jews live. It should cease viewing the Jews exclusively as a land-bound people. It should also forestall the danger of divorcing the future of the Jewish people from the future of the Jewish religion, and strive to have every Jew realize that Judaism seeks both to provide its adherents with a sense of corporate unity and to help them achieve their destiny as human beings (JWS 149). By changing the priorities of classical Zionism, this "New Zionism" would make the reconstitution and reorganization of world Jewry its primary goal, and the security and development of the State of Israel the major means to that end.

While Judaism transcends political and national boundaries, it requires membership in a historic religious and cultural people. Such "peoplehood" provides faith in God as faith that the universe has the necessary resources, and humanity the necessary abilities to achieve its destiny. While providing such faith to Jews everywhere through Judaism, the Jewish people requires the existence of a creative nucleus in its ancient homeland in order for it to maintain itself in the contemporary world (JWS 149). As far as the Jews of the United States are concerned, they should promulgate "an indigenous civic religion for the American people that shall act as a unifying influence, uniting all Americans regardless of race, creed or status, without being authoritative or coercive." They should seek to have incorporated into American practices and institutions such principles of the Jewish religion as the following: 1. "The people of which we are a part should provide the principal experiences on which to base our awareness of God," and 2. "Loyalty to God should be demonstrated mainly by the practice of righteousness in our people’s political, economic and social affairs" (GJM 477f.).

Kaplan maintains that the Jewish religion can and should be divorced from supernaturalism and come to be associated with the natural processes of body and mind. It must encourage freedom of thought and inter- and intra-religious pluralism. The idea that God’s power is manifest essentially in the suspension or abrogation of natural law makes supernaturalism untenable. It should be replaced with a religious naturalist or "transnaturalist" approach. Transnaturalism is an extension of naturalism that discovers God in the fulfillment of human nature rather than in the suspension of the natural order. It deals with phenomena such as mind, personality, purpose, ideas, values and meanings, which materialistic or mechanistic science is incapable of dealing with. It utilizes symbols, myths, poetry, and drama to convey trust in life and in humanity’s ability to overcome the potentialities for evil inherent in heredity, environment, and social conditions. It views such trust as synonymous with belief in God, since Divinity is the aspect of existence that impels humanity to create a better and happier world, and every individual to make the most of his or her own life (REN 75). God is a process or function rather than a being or substance. The biblical conception of God includes the idea of a metamorphosis in human life that will make possible the establishment of the divine kingdom on earth. The purpose of Jewish life is to promote the idea that human metamorphosis can come about only as the end result of ethical nationhood and world peace (REN 114). The way to prevent belief in God from becoming defunct is to invest it once and for all with "rational and communicable thought," establishing a causal connection between believing in God and being a reliable and kindly person (GJM 489).

Kaplan asserts that humanity would not have come into being were it not for the divine grace that reveals itself in human moral responsibility despite all assumed and actual human depravity (GJM 494). Only insofar as we have a sense of moral responsibility are we authentically human and able to personally experience the revelation of God as "the source of whatever truth and value there is to any of the historical or institutional religions" (GJM 496). Indeed, "religion without morals is magic, and morals without religion is expediency" (GJM 495). Conscience, which dictates what we should do and induces remorse for failure, is the "semi-conscious intellectual effort to experience Divinity, without recourse to anthropomorphic terms, rational propositions or mystic ecstasy" (REN 71).

God, the process in human nature identifiable as holiness or transcendence, becomes the power making for salvation in organic human societies which achieve self-consciousness (INNW 38). Since institutional or public religion is a manifestation of group consciousness, the group consciousness and group conscience of ancient Israel constituted its experience of God’s presence (INNW 32). In individual life, institutional religion renders the individual aware of his or her belonging to a particular religion or religious sect. When inspired by a rallying standard such as the name YHWH (meaning "eternality") in ancient Israel, group consciousness inspires group cohesion and encourages efforts aimed at self-perpetuation (INNW 30).

Religion, according to Kaplan, is a three-dimensional process involving Divinity, salvation, and peoplehood. Out of the quest of social groups for an understanding of the connection between specific beliefs and actions, and the reactions of the universe, as well as the meaning of human salvation, religion grows and develops. The conception of salvation determines one’s idea of God as well as what one’s people must do or refrain from doing in order to achieve thc greatest social good. Peoplehood is the societal structure which through government, economy, culture, and religion provides for personal self-fulfillment, a well as for "a kind of continuing radiation or anonymous immortality" after death (GJM 479-80).

By assuming our peoplehood as a dimension of our religion, we Jews have the opportunity of articulating the imperative need of each nation to foster its national individuality as a gift from God, and not as an acquisition of an earthly or demonic power.

A nation must be subject to the same divine laws of social justice and moral responsibility in relation to its own citizens and to other nations as is the individual person. (GJM 488)

Kaplan’s approach to peoplehood would appear to have the support historian Conor Cruise O’Brien, who writes of rationality, self-interest, an pragmatism as insufficient to hold together a society that has lost the common bond of religion. "It seems impossible," he writes, "to conceive of organized society without holy nationalism, since any nationalism that failed to inspire reverence could not be an effective bonding force" (GL 40).

Kaplan’s innovative definition of Judaism as "an evolving religious civilization" illumines his understanding of the centrality of peoplehood in the Jewish religion, as well as his transnaturalist interpretation of the origin and nature of Judaism. That Judaism is a religious civilization implies that the survival of the Jewish people in the Diaspora depends on its making religion a matter of vital interest (GJM 499). The Jewish religion has to provide a world-outlook and conception of God that can encourage living in a spirit of moral responsibility, honesty, loyalty or love, and creativity (PMJE 299f.). Moreover, the civilizational approach to religion enables the adherent to be loyal to his/her faith without pretensions to superiority, and affords a sound basis for interfaith goodwill (GJM 467).

Kaplan believes that different religions result from the fact that each civilization sees in the important elements of its life media through which its people may achieve self-fulfillment or salvation. These sancta include historic events, heroes, institutions, places, and objects to which sanctity is ascribed. In effect, such sancta, the attitude toward life they imply, and the conduct they inspire, constitute the religion of each people and civilization. Describing Judaism as a religious civilization signifies the fact that the Jewish people has consciously sought throughout its history "to make its collective experience yield meaning for the enrichment of the life of the individual Jew and for the spiritual greatness of the Jewish people" (GJM 459-61). The civilizational definition also makes possible the acceptance by Judaism of the principles of unity in diversity and continuity in change. It is moreover a reminder of the fact that Judaism consists of much that cannot be pigeonholed into the category of religion and that in modern times, "paradoxical as it may sound, the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation" (JC 345). In the sense that existence precedes essence and life takes precedence over thought, Judaism exists for the sake of the Jewish people rather than the Jewish people existing for the sake of Judaism

The Torah of Moses aimed at the Jews becoming a people "in the image of God." But all peoples should seek to become peoples in God’s image and thus bring about the dawn of the Messianic age. The life of all nations must be animated by the divine traits of moral responsibility, authenticity or integrity, loyalty or love, and creativity in relation to all of their own members and to other nations as well. "Only then is the individual likely to achieve those traits in relation to all with whom he [or she] is likely to interact" (PMJE 296).

These are the conclusions arrived at through the decisive confluence of salvational Zionism and religious naturalism in our day.



FAJ -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. The Future of the American Jew. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

GJM -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. The Greater Judaism in the Making. New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1960.

GL -- Conor Cruise O’Brien. God Land. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988.

INNW -- Mordecai M. Kaplan and Arthur A. Cohen. If Not Now, When? Toward a Reconstruction of the Jewish People. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.

JC -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. Judaism as a Civilization. New York: Macmillan, 1934.

JWS -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. Judaism Without Supernaturalism. New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958.

NZ -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. A New Zionism. 2nd ed. New York: Herzl Press, 1959.

PMJE -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. The Purpose and Meaning of Jewish Existence. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1964.

QJA -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. Questions Jews Ask. New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1956.

REN -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. The Religion of Ethical Nationhood. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

RMN -- Ninian Smart. "Religion, Myth, and Nationalism." Religion and Politics in the Modern World. Eds. P. H. Merkl and Ninian Smart. New York: New York University Press, 1983.