“Where’s the beef?” or, “The Theology of Flavor”

Like Maimonides, the 20th century Reconstructionist theologian Mordechai Kaplan believes that we should stop identifying God as a “personal” or “loving” Presence. Simply put:  God does not possesses sentience. Kaplan contends that anthropomorphism is on par with “animistic fetishism.”

Kaplan explains:

“We cannot conceive of God any more as a sort of invisible superman, displaying the same psychological traits as man, but on a greater scale. We cannot think of Him as loving, pitying, rewarding, punishing, etc. Many have therefore abandoned altogether the conception of a personal God, and prefer to think of ultimate reality in terms of force, energy and similar concepts…[1]

… Modern man is able to conceive the godhead only as immanent in the world; man is incapable of entering into a relationship with the supernatural” (emphasis added).[2]

Note the cognitive metaphors Kaplan uses in making his point: conceive, psychological, think. According to Kaplan, there is no Divine Mysterium, nor is there any intimation whatsoever about a God Who is always present when human beings turn to Him in moments of prayer or crisis. In Kaplan’s model of faith, religion always serves the dictates of reason and logic.

We might wonder: Why is this (allegedly) so?

Mystery is annoying to rationalists who insist on neat solutions, precision, and exactitude. Uncertainty, shades of gray, paradoxes all tend to unsettle and beguile a rational mind. Aspects of faith that embrace the symbolic, the intuitive, and the transpersonal are completely excluded from Kaplan’s spiritual world view. There is no joy, humor, no irony, no sense of wonder, or mystery. Nor is there a cadence of poetry; nor is there any kind of radical amazement in Kaplan’s metaphysical system.

Despite his disdain of anthropomorphism, Kaplan does not hesitate using them when describing God as the source of all positive human affections. With a touch of irony, one critic dubbed Kaplan’s theology as “pan-anthropomorphic.”[3] According to Kaplan, God is an amalgam of human virtues— in effect, he has deified “certain aspects of the human personality.”[4] Despite eschewing anthropomorphism, Kaplan feels compelled to utilize familiar religious metaphors when it comes to explaining why God is necessary for human salvation. Kaplan defines the belief in God “as the power that makes for salvation.”

But how does Kaplan define salvation? Salvation is another way of describing how people grow toward their fullest potential. What Kaplan and his followers fail to notice is that any depiction of God as the source of human values is no less anthropomorphic than the traditionalists Kaplan criticized.

It would seem that Kaplan’s opinion is indebted to his older contemporary, John Dewey, who like Kaplan, attempted “to reconstruct” and redefine the meaning of God for his time.[5] One of the criticisms made against Dewey could be applied to Kaplan:

Is not Mr. Dewey, in effect, attempting to exploit the traditional prestige of words that he has emptied of nearly all their traditional meaning? Certainly his religiousness will strike the orthodox as something extremely attenuated, the extract of an extract, having the same relation to old-fashioned religion as beef bouillon poured through a filter has no beef.[6]

Who can forget the brilliant 1984 commercial spearheaded by Wendy’s hamburger restaurants, where actress Clara Pellar looked at a competitor’s hamburger called, “Fluffy Bun,” that consisted of a massive bun with almost no meat. Peller angrily demands, “Where’s the beef?” Well, this catch-phrase has come to signify our disbelief about the substance of an idea, event, or product–or in this case, theology!

The bland analogy of “diluted beef bouillon extract” is more perceptive than Dewey’s critic could have imagined, for the Tanakh characterizes the spiritual life by flavor: טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי־טוֹב יְהוָה “O taste (טַעֲמו = ta`ámû) and see that The LORD is good” (Psa. 34:8). The Hebrew word טָעַם (tä’am) may connote reason, discernment, understanding or flavor.

According to the laws of kashrut, the flavor is typically (but not always) the defining factor whenever there is a questionable substance.[7] If the flavor is excessively diluted, radically altered, or destroyed, the character of a forbidden substance is considered changed. In terms of prohibited food stuffs, the flavor must be intact in order to be considered asur (forbidden.)

As a spiritual metaphor, once faith is purged of all of its taste and sensuality, whatever remains is of negligible value. Faith really has much more of a “noetic” quality, i.e., an “inner knowing,” a kind of intuitive consciousness—direct and immediate access to knowledge beyond what is available to our sensory perception of the world. Where discursive thought ends, that is when the journey of faith begins–and now you know, the rest of the story . . .


[1] Mordechai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (New York: Jewish Reconstruction Press, 1962), 87-88.

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Eliezer Berkowitz, Major Themes in Modern Philosophies of Judaism (New York: Ktav, 1974), 182‑184.

[4] E. Berkowitz, Major Themes in Modern Philosophies of Judaism, op. cit., 182.

[5] According to Dewey, the definition of God should be redefined to stand for all forces in society that bring about an ethical transformation of humanity. “It is this active relation between ideal and actual which I would give the name ‘God.’ I would not insist that the name must be given. There are those who hold that the association of the term with the supernatural are so numerous and close that any use of the word ‘God’ is sure to give rise to misconception and be taken as a concession to traditional ideas” (John Dewey, A Common Faith Later Writings 1925‑1953 edited by Jo Ann Boydston, [Carbondale: IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990], 79‑80). In the same manner, Kaplan attempts a definition of God that can accommodate even the most agnostic point of view.

[6] Cited in James Campbell’s, Understanding Dewey (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1995), 278, n. 20.

[7] See TB Hullin 97a, Shivii’t 7:7, Terumot 10:1, MT Hilchot Ma’acalot Arusot 15:1, Tur Yoreh Deah 81: 1, Sefer Hachinuch Mitzva 368; Hullin 8:30 and Shach Y.D. 95:4.

2 thoughts on ““Where’s the beef?” or, “The Theology of Flavor”

  1. admin says:

    I always thought that the Kosher laws contain a lot of structural depth and symbolism that is too often ignored by the rabbinical students who study Yoreh Deah in preparation for semicha (ordination)

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