Darwin's Jews: Online Reader

Mordecai Kaplan



  1. Introduction
  2. Primary source: 'Spiritual Selection'
  3. Excerpts from other writings
  4. Select bibliography
  5. Discussion forum


1. Introduction ⇧ top

Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) was a Lithuanian-born, Conservative Jewish rabbi, based for much of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, and is probably best known as the founding father of the fourth Jewish denomination, Reconstructionist Judaism. He studied philosophy at Columbia University, where he wrote a master’s thesis on the ethical philosophy of the English Unitarian, Henry Sidgwick; among his tutors was the philosopher of ethical culture, Felix Adler, who had abandoned Judaism. Kaplan was ordained at JTS in 1902, and became a congregational rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue in New York, and a pioneering champion of the idea of the Jewish community centre. Very quickly, he became a target of the Orthodox Jewish community for his progressive ideas. In 1922 he established the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, which distinguished itself from both Orthodoxy and Reform, and he held the first bat mitzvah in the U.S. for his daughter that same year. His time at JTS – and his reception more widely within American Jewry – was a troubled one, not least for the suspicion which his apparently naturalistic, pluralistic conception of God provoked and most famously because of his vision of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization that could be explained in purely natural terms. In large part such views can be explained by the influence of evolutionary theory upon his thought.

Kaplan’s writings from the 1930s onwards manifest an interest in evolution in at least four different although related contexts: Firstly, evolution in the sense of development or change, which he used as a justification for his reconstructionist project, that is, the reform of Conservative Judaism; secondly, evolution as a divine process or principle that brings order out of chaos; thirdly, the biological evolution of man; fourthly, evolution in relation to Social Darwinism, that is, the application of a theoretical framework for organic biology to human society, and in particular the Nazi theories of race competition.

Kaplan did not spend a lot of time on evolutionary theories of organic life per se, but he was interested in human evolution. The evolution of plant and animal life, including human life, by Darwinian natural selection was a given, as far as Kaplan was concerned, although there is no doubt that in his mind natural selection was inadequate to explain human evolution in its entirety or, at least, with regard to those aspects of human evolution that Kaplan was most interested in, namely, the ethics of a community. This led him to develop his theory of ‘spiritual selection’, which added a complementary – and competing – force for selection to the mix of evolutionary pressures shaping human evolution. Kaplan inferred the reality of ‘spiritual selection’ from observing human history. For Kaplan, ‘spiritual selection’ is the evolutionary process or law that relates to progress, especially in the context of the development of a civilizing, morally-ordered society. It represents a kind of harmonization with the principle of moral order that exists more generally in the cosmos (an assumption of many in the ancient world, including especially the Hebrews). This ‘spiritual selection’ is explicitly contrasted by Kaplan with Darwin's natural selection, which generated the raw material from which the human is composed, but from which the human is now freed, potentially, at least.


2. Primary source ⇧ top

Mordecai Kaplan, 'Spiritual Selection' in The Future of the American Jew, 246-255. New York: Macmillan Co., 1948. (read PDF online) [Source: HathiTrust]


3. Excerpts from other writings ⇧ top

Nature is infinite chaos, with all its evils forever being vanquished by creativity, which is God as infinite goodness. [Mordecai Kaplan, The Religion of Ethical Nationhood: Judaism’s Contribution to World Peace (London: Macmillan Company, 1970), 51.] 

[T]he fact is that God does not have to mean to us an absolute being who has planned and decreed every twinge of pain, every act of cruelty, every human sin. It is sufficient that God should mean to us the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos. This is what we understand by God as the creative life of the universe. [Mordecai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (New York: Behrman’s Jewish Book House, 1937), 76.]

Unlike other living creatures [man] must take a hand in his own metamorphosis. He must consciously and deliberately share in the cosmic or divine process which impels him to become fully human… Such creative freedom fulfills the Judeo-Christian doctrine that man was made in the image of God... [Kaplan, The Religion of Ethical Nationhood: Judaism’s Contribution to World Peace, 103-4, 104-5.]

If we analyze the evident fact that the human species evolved from savagery to civilization through the operation of the social instinct, we find that those groups or cultural units survived in which the individual learned to consider his personal existence less valuable than the existence of the group. This habit of behavior without which civilization is inconceivable, has been bred into the very substance of the mental life of humanity by religion. [Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), 334.]

This new development in group religion marks the latest stage in the evolution of man. To achieve salvation man must synthesize his selfhood and otherhood [individuality and society?]… The capacity to play a conscious role in his own evolution is man’s prerogative. Such creative freedom fulfills the Judeo-Christian doctrine that man was made in the image of God… The art of living requires the interaction of a harmonious personality and a cooperative society. Group religion should help man to play a conscious role in his own evolution, to elect self-metamorphosis as his destiny. [Kaplan, The Religion of Ethical Nationhood: Judaism’s Contribution to World Peace, 104-5.]

The term ‘natural selection’ is descriptive of the process by which certain species are able to survive. The term ‘spiritual selection’ may, therefore, be used to describe the process that makes for the survival of human beings. The Ten Commandments, the moral and spiritual laws in action, represent the process that makes for human survival and salvation. [Mordecai Kaplan, The Future of the American Jew (New York: Macmillan Co., 1948), 247-8.]

Whether one thinks of spiritual selection as operating through human reason, or as operating through norms held to be supernaturally revealed, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, its acceptance is a challenge to innate impulses and desires. It demands that these be tamed and brought under control. The physical appetites for food and sex gratification, the derivative drives for power, acquisition, glory, all the sadistic impulses born of the conflicts into which these interests have led men and their pre-human ancestors before them – all these need to be checked, controlled and brought into a pattern of integrated personality and cooperative society, if the conditions of spiritual selection are to be met. Our sages identified these tendencies that needed to be tamed and controlled as the yezer hara or evil inclination, and they very significantly equated this evil inclination with Satan and the Angel of Death. [Baba Batra 16a] [Ibid., 249.]

The ideology of fascism not only accepted as normal and desirable such inequalities as existed among men, but it deliberately conjured up imaginary inequalities for the sake of creating actual inequalities where none existed. It trumped up false theories about strong and weak races, and declared the former must become master races and the latter slave races… Natural selection exalts inequality as a creative principle in human life, whereas the doctrine of spiritual selection sees in the effort to establish equality among men through just laws and the exercise of compassion and kindness an evidence of divine creativity. What differentiates man from the beast is that his nature not only makes for the survival of the fittest, but aims to make the greatest possible number fit to survive. [Ibid., 253]

This [concern not to exaggerate evil in the world] does not mean that we lose sight of the evil in the world. It merely means that we do not permit it to represent for us the essential and ineradicable nature of reality, in whole or in part. We identify the good that we have experienced with that which ought to be, with that we intend, so far as in our power lies, shall be; while the evil becomes identified with what ought not to be and with what we intend, so far as in our power lies, to abolish. The achievement of the good expresses for us, therefore, the direction of our life’s current, while the evil appears as an obstruction which resists the current, but cannot stop it... [T]his deliberate focusing on the good confers on our contemplation of the good the power of making us will the abolition of the evil, while our refusal to focus attention on the evil deprives it of that fascination which enables it to inhibit our pursuit of the good. [Ibid., 236.]

All that religion calls upon us to believe is that the element of helpfulness, kindness and fair play is not limited to man alone but is diffused throughout the natural order. It asks us to obey the moral law in order that we may call to our aid those forces in the world which make for human life and its enhancement. We cannot claim to comprehend why evil should be necessary in the process of world making and development. But in affirming the existence of God, we deny to evil the nature of absoluteness and finality. The very tendency of life to overcome and transcend that evil points to the relativity of evil. As life progresses, the tendency is increasingly reinforced and organized, resulting in the growth of man’s power to eliminate, transform or negate the evil in the world. [Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, 75-6.]


4. Select bibliography ⇧ top

Kaplan, Mordecai. Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life. New York: Schocken Books, 1967.

Kaplan, Mordecai. Judaism without Supernaturalism. The Only Alternative to Orthodoxy and Secularism. New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958.

Kaplan, Mordecai. The Future of the American Jew. New York: Macmillan Co., 1948.

Kaplan, Mordecai. The Greater Judaism in the Making. A Study of the Modern Evolution of Judaism. New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1960.

Kaplan, Mordecai. The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. New York: Behrman's Jewish Book House, 1937.

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

Kaplan, Mordecai. The Religion of Ethical Nationhood: Judaism's Contribution to World Peace. London: Macmillan Company, 1970.

Katz, Steven T. "Mordecai Kaplan's "Judaism as a Civilization": The Legacy of an American Idea." Jewish Social Studies 12, no. 2 (2006): 115-126.

Kaufman, William E. "Mordecai M. Kaplan and Process Theology: Metaphysical and Pragmatic Perspectives." Process Studies 20, no. 4 (1991): 192-203.

Kaufman, William E. The Evolving God in Jewish Process Theology, Jewish Studies. Lewiston, N.Y.; Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

Langton, Daniel R. "God, the Past and Auschwitz: Jewish Holocaust Theologians' Engagement with History." Holocaust Studies 17, no. 1 (2012): 29-62.

Scult, Mel. Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan, American Jewish Civilization Series. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993.

⇪ Home