We identify Kaplan (1881-1983) as a "naturalist," first, because he believes that there is no reality beyond nature. Nature-understood as … the order of all that exists-is simply all there is. But he is a religious naturalist because he views human nature as endowed with an innate religious impulse. Religion flows in a thoroughly natural way out of the everyday, intuitive activities of human beings and their communities, not out of the intervention of any Being from beyond. Human beings are religious, or function religiously, simply because they are human beings.
In Kaplan's view, the natural human impulse toward religion manifests itself less through the individual than through human communities. We are all intuitively social creatures, seeking bonds with other human beings. We group ourselves into extended families that gradually become nations or peoples. In Kaplan's chronology, then, there was first and foremost a Jewish people, and this people then created its own religion. To say that religion is a creation of human beings and their communities in no way implies that religion is a fiction. Kaplan views all of this natural activity as informed by the work of God-not Lamm's supernatural Being, but a "naturalist" God, a God who functions as a process or power within the natural order. It is this God, functioning within us and throughout all of nature, that constitutes our religious impulse. Finally, our human "discovery" of how to live religiously constitutes God's "revelation" to us.
The term "discovery" conveys an entirely different image than "revelation." The latter term emphasizes God's active role. He "reveals." But human beings "discover." We are now in the active role. Kaplan, in fact, insists that these two activities-God's revelation and human discovery-are identical. What we experience as our discovery is God's revelation, which takes place in and through the human mind. In this scheme, human beings play an infinitely more decisive and aggressive role in shaping the content of revelation than they do in Lamm's traditionalist view.
To Kaplan, the experience of revelation is very much akin to other forms of human creativity. When we experience within ourselves, within our social order, or in humanity at large, a striving for ever-growing levels of perfection, when we devise means to reach these levels, and when we are personally impelled to put these means into effect, we have experienced revelation. Kaplan's comprehensive term for all of this activity is "salvation," what the Bible and our liturgy refer to as geulah. Salvation denotes the actualization of all of our values and the elimination of all evils that come in the way of personal and social fulftllment.
Revelation is the process through which we discover how this state is to be brought about. And God is that process within the natural order-and within us (for we are part of the natural order)-that brings these visions to our consciousness and impels us to achieve them. Hence Kaplan's definition of God as "the process (or power) that makes for salvation." Kaplan believed passionately in his naturalist God. That such a God is real, present, and revealed within him was beyond doubt. His act of faith is that this God is also revealed in the world at large. Since we are within the natural order, whatever is present within us is also present in the world beyond us. This God is not a being, not an entity of any kind-certainly not a "personal" God as a traditionalist would understand it. Kaplan argues that just because the word" god" is a substantive in English syntax, we are tempted to view it as referring to an object or entity, just as the words "watch" or "blood cell" refer to objects or entities. But there are syntactic substantives that refer not to objects but to processes or activities. Take the word "mind." "Brain" refers to an entity, but "mind" refers to a form of human activity. It is really an adverb parading as a substantive. When we deliberate, make intelligent choices, or act intentionally, we are exhibiting (or "revealing") that we "have" a mind, or, more accurately, that we are behaving "mindfully." "God" is the same kind of word; it too describes a certain kind of activity, Kaplan's "salvational" activity. When nature exhibits or reveals salvational behavior, it is behaving in a "God-Iy" way, or revealing God within itself. Understood this way, God very much "exists" and is encountered daily by the believer….
If revelation and Torah are processes and outcomes of natural human activity, what makes them unique and authoritative? Kaplan includes artistic creativity, scientific research, the striving for peace, the moral impulse, the search for truth and knowledge - all within the realm of revelation, for they are all forms of salvational activity. This makes revelation easily accessible to our human intellect, a natural and familiar human experience. But it also deprives Torah of the unique hold it has on our lives….
Kaplan …. argues, first, that Torah is unique because it is ours. It is Israel's characteristic and cumulative vision of what a person and the social order can become. True, other communities cherish their own visions as equally divine, even though none has any greater supernatural sanction than any other-as no one community is more or less "chosen" than any other-but every community will cherish its own wisdom as unique and will cling to it as its raison d'etre. Second, Torah differs from other forms of human creativity because it deals with the ultimate questions of human existence: Where do I come from? Why am I here? What meaning does my life experience have? How should I live? Why do I suffer? How do I deal with my guilt? What happens after I die? What makes it distinctive, then, is not its origins but its intrinsic content and its comprehensiveness. Its vision is global, unifying nature and history, and touching every area of individual and communal life, informing the entire pattern with its salvational vision.
Yet the locus of the authority of the Torah has shifted radically, from the supernatural God to the human community, for it is out of Israel's collective life that Torah emerged. Moreover, Israel's original conception of Torah can be recast as Israel's salvational vision is refined. Hence, Jewish belief and practice change as the community changes. What identifies these ever-new formulations as Jewish is simply the fact that they emerge out of the collective life of the Jewish community. Judaism, then, is whatever the Jewish community says it is. Of course, the continuities are genuine and at least as powerful as the changes, but the authority to determine when and what to change lies within the community of people who call themselves Jews.
It is this theoretical framework that gives Kaplan the right to "reconstruct" Judaism for our day: Hence the name Reconstructionism for the movement inspired by Kaplan's teachings. The Jew who wants to enjoy that right will identify with Kaplan's position at the inevitable price of weakening the distinctive power of religious tradition. For one must ask: Who represents the community that makes these changes? Where do our reinterpretations stop? And if, theoretically, anything can qualify as 'Judaism," how seriously can we take Torah and its hold on our lives?
From SACRED FRAGMENTS by NEIL GILLMAN, The Jewish publication Society, Philadelphia. Jerusalem, 1990