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."

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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.