Radical Theology: Confronting the Crises of Modernity

The findings of modern science and the tragedy of the Holocaust led some Jewish thinkers to redefine God.

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In the second half of the twentieth century, some Jewish thinkers took radical approaches to God and religion. Influenced by the realities of modern science and the experience of the Holocaust, thinkers such as Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) and Richard Rubenstein (b. 1924) redefined God and created theologies that differed greatly from classical Jewish thought. 

Rejecting Supernaturalism

A renowned teacher and rabbi at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Mordecai Kaplan became the founder of the Reconstructionist movement. Believing that modernity demanded a radical revitalization of Judaism, Kaplan argued that while previous generations had used "transvaluation" (transforming the meanings of traditional content) what was now necessary was "revaluation." Revaluation, in Kaplan's system, entails disengaging the most universal, ethical, and humane elements from traditional content and integrating them into a new ideology.

lightning boltIn Judaism as a Civilization and The Meaning of God in Modern Judaism, Kaplan systematically described the kind of reconstruction that Judaism needed. At the center of his thinking is the notion that Judaism is more about culture and peoplehood than it is about religion and faith.

Kaplan rejected many traditional principles of Jewish law and faith and sought to redefine them in ways that would be intellectually, spiritually, and ethically compelling for American Jewry. He embraced modern science and its natural explanations, which--according to Kaplan--necessitated the rejection of belief in supernatural forces, including a supernatural God. Instead of seeing God as supernatural, Kaplan saw God as a force within nature that allows for order and goodness: the power that makes salvation possible.

"God," he writes, "is the sum of all the animating organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos." In another place he speaks of what it means to believe in God: "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."

Kaplan argued that statements about God that conflict with a modern person's experience and intellect must be removed in favor of statements about God that are self-consistent and, "consistent with whatever else we hold to be true."

Kaplan altered traditional approaches to Jewish life to make them cohere with this theology. For example, rather than teaching that one should pray to God for things like sustenance or rain, Kaplan suggested that one should pray with a yearning for the abilities of mind and body and for the attitude and character which will allow a person to engage with the most worthwhile aspects of life, which, "in their totality, spell God."

Similarly, Kaplan saw a place for praising God, and for engaging in ritual, which are part of an effort to articulate a sense of life's worthwhileness and is thus a means of realizing the presence of the divine in daily life. Kaplan stressed the aspects of Judaism and of Jewish ritual that give meaning and unity to the human experience.

The Death of God

Kaplan's major works predate the Holocaust, but for other modern Jewish thinkers the Holocaust is the starting point for radical theology. Richard Rubenstein--also an ordained Conservative rabbi--also argues that one cannot sustain a belief in a supernatural God, not because of the truths of modernity, but because of the events of the Nazi era.

Rubenstein recognized that traditional Judaism asserts that Jewish suffering is the result of Jewish sin. Thus the Holocaust should be explained as an event initiated by God in order to punish the Jews. Rubenstein, however, could not believe in such a God. In his After Auschwitz (1966), Rubenstein wrote: "To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God's purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept."

The reality of Auschwitz created a void where once the Jewish people had experienced God's presence. There is no aspect of post-Holocaust life that is untouched by that reality, neither for the victims nor for those who lived in safety. However this shift in the experience of the world is something that most prefer not to articulate. Even though most Jews continue to go to synagogue for a variety of reasons, "once inside, we are struck dumb by words we can no longer honestly utter. All that we can offer is our reverent and attentive silence before the Divine."

His position, he argues, is not that of the atheist, but rather that of one who lives after the Holocaust, in a world where we know of the death of God. The "thread uniting God and man, Heaven and earth, has been broken." Our current reality is one without any superhuman power, without any Divine pathos, and one in which we have nothing to say about God.

Eventually, however, Rubenstein developed a conception of God that he felt more comfortable with.

In place of the traditional conceptions of God, Rubenstein suggested that we turn to a concept of God as Holy Nothingness. This God--not far off from certain mystical conceptions of God--is entirely without definition, yet is the source of all creation. This God can be found in nature. In fact, God is the order found in nature, which no power can transcend.

In spite of--or as a result of--Rubenstein's rejection of the traditional God, the God he does embrace is nonetheless a source of cosmic order, which underlies all the inexplicable aspects of human experience. God as "nothingness" was something that Rubenstein believed one could accept even after the Holocaust.

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Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi was ordained by the Hebrew Union College?Jewish Institute of Religion and earned her Ph.D. at the Jewish Theological Seminary and serves as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President's Scholar at HUC-JIR. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, Rabbi Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, and their three children.