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Rabbi Bradley Artson
NHS Scholar in Residence
November 19-21, 2010

Some of Rabbi Artson's articles may be read in the following pdfs:

To read more of Rabbi Artson's articles, click here to go to his Process Theology webpage.

Adapted from remarks on Saturday, January 1, 2011

The beginning of this week’s parasha has a reference to various names of God. At Exodus 6:3, we read:

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known them by My name Y-H-V-H.

Rashi commented on the verse:

“As ‘El Shaddai’” I made promises to them, and, with all of them, I said, “I am El Shaddai.” 
“I did not  make Myself known to them by My name ‘Y-H-V-H’” It doesn’t say, “lo hodati’ (I didn’t make known) but rather “lo nodati” (I did not make Myself known). I was not recognized by them through My attribute of faithfulness, in virtue of which I am called ‘Y-H-V-H,’  faithful to carry out My words. I made promises but had not fulfilled them.”

Rashi’s observation reminds us of the important point which we know from other places, that God appears in different ways to different people and at different times.
I thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to comment on the theology which Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson presented when he spoke on Friday night here: “Almighty? No Way!”  I thought to do that last week, but those of you who were here may remember that I didn’t get that far in my presentation about encountering God.

Here is a very, very, brief summary of Rabbi Artson’s view. The idea that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and infinitely benevolent is impossible, incoherent, self-contradictory. Reflection on the Holocaust gives rise to the most obvious problem with this view, but any evil will do. It is noteworthy that both Rabbi Artson and Rabbi Harold Kushner, who also rejects the conventional view of an almighty God, were moved to reconsider their theology because of serious problems which their children have had.  Rabbi Kushner’s son died young of a rare disease. Rabbi Artson’s son is alive and well, but he has significant life challenges due to his autism.    

Rabbi Artson wrote this, in an article with the same title as his address to us:

During my decade of reckoning with God and coming to terms with Jacob’s autism, I began to develop a different relationship with God and a different understanding God’s relationship to our world.

I now advocate what is called Process Thought, which was first articulated by mathematician/philosopher Alfred North Whitehead … According to Process Thought, everything is in the process of becoming, and every process - you, me, the world, the cosmos, God - is not a substance, a thing, but rather a distinctive pattern of energy that retains some measure of constancy in the midst of change and growth.

It is God who provides the grounds for our creativity, our becoming more connected, more just, more compassionate. It is God, working through Jacob, who allows Jacob to triumph over his autism day by day.

The insights of Process Thought saved my love of God, because instead of looking to God to be the all powerful exception to the rules (the up there/out there Bully in the sky), I started looking to God as the very exemplar of the rules - the One who makes it possible for us to surpass ourselves, the One who inspires us to ever new levels of love and creativity.

I agree with many of the points made by Rabbi Artson, and I have articulated them at one time or another in the synagogue.

1. There is no omnipotent, omniscient, infinitely benevolent, Supreme Being fully present in our experience. Our experience testifies that the forces of good in the universe are, at any given time, limited. Theodicy, “justifying the ways of God to man,” explaining why everything is really for the best, is pointless or even offensive. While there is a major stream of Jewish tradition which holds that everything really is for the best, “Gam zu l’tovah” (This, too, is for the best) as the Talmud (Taanit 21a) says, there is also a stream which takes a different path. I remember hearing an Orthodox rabbi in Israel say, at a Holocaust memorial gathering in the early 70s, “Lo ta-aseh ken Lashem Elokekha,” literally, “Do not do that to the Lord your God,” (Deut. 12:3) but, in that context, “Don’t be a yes-man to God.”

2. There is no creatio ex nihilo (Creation of something from nothing). Even if we accept the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, I would regard the Big Bang as an astronomical phenomenon, not as Divine Creation. I see God’s creative action more in shaping and bringing order to the universe (or in bringing creative disorder, so that something new can come about. One of the traditional melakhot Shabbat  is “hasoter al m’nat livnot” (tearing down in order to build)  Gen. 1:1 does not teach creatio ex nihilo.  Our current Torah translation, based on both traditional Jewish commentaries and modern study, begins, not with the familiar “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” but rather with “When God began to create the heaven and the earth, the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep”.  Similarly, Maimonides, in his great philosophical work The Guide for the Perplexed, wrote that it would be possible to interpret the beginning of the Torah in such a way that matter always existed, with God shaping it (although, in the end, the Rambam comes down in favor of creatio ex nihilo.)

3. God does not control what we do. Nothing is bashert. We act freely, albeit (one hopes) with a consciousness of God’s Presence. I spoke in those terms, for example, once last winter, and I even used the same metaphor for God’s guidance as did Rabbi Artson – that of a GPS, which, if we do not follow its instructions, persistently says “Recalculating” and gives us new instructions for the place where we are.

4. We are God’s partners. There is a well-known Midrash that makes that point with regard to the material world; we acknowledge God as “Hamotzi lehem min ha-aretz,” but, in fact, bread doesn’t come out of the earth. Wheat comes out of the earth (and even that, for the most part, only if we have planted and cared for it) is wheat, and we have to harvest the wheat, grind it into flour, mix it with other ingredients, and bake them to make bread. 

I push the point further. I believe that we are God’s partners when it comes to Revelation. When God said to Abraham, before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do … for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right,” I believe that God was making Abraham His moral partner. Another example of this partnership is found in the Talmud Rosh Hashanah (22a).

Commenting on the words from next week’s parasha, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months,” the Talmud emphasizes the words “for you” to point out that the essential task of establishing the Jewish calendar was entrusted to the Jewish people, in ancient times, to the Bet Din Hagadol.  I believe that we are God’s partners in Redemption through our actions of tikkun olam (making the world a better place) and building, and (now) supporting the State of Israel as a center of Jewish life and a model of social and political justice.

I differ with Rabbi Artson, however, on some points:

1. If I remember correctly, Rabbi Artson said that “God is not a being separate from the universe”.  I believe that that is exactly what God is, totally separate from the universe. The fragmentary and limited manifestations of God which Rabbi Artson sees as God-in-process, I see as manifestations of God. Perhaps they are what the Kabbalists called emanations. Perhaps they are the projection of God’s infinite Being onto the space-time field of our experience, or perhaps they are even a kind of Divine graffiti. There was a bit of folklore from World War II about enigmatic graffiti: “Kilroy was here”. I don’t know what “Kilroy was here” was supposed to mean, but some of the things that I see around me say to me, “God is here”. 

The rabbis of the Talmud often said radical things about God, saying that He joined the Jewish people in exile, that He suffers, that He depends on us, etc.  When they did so, they added the disclaimer “Kiv’yakhol” (so to speak). It seems to me that Rabbi Artson would dispense with the rabbinic “Kiv’yakhol”; I will not.

Now, in that case, it may seem as if the omniscient, omnipotent, infinitely benevolent God has sneaked in through the back door. God may seem to be limited, but He really is omnipotent, etc. That is not so. We really do not know anything about God as He is in Himself, and, when I say that we do not know, I mean that we do not know. There is  precedent for that view in the Kabbalistic concept of Ein sof (the Infinite) and in Maimonides’ Guide.

Now one may ask, “If we do not know anything about God as He is in Himself, then why do we spend so much time – 2 ½ hours on Shabbat, much more on Yom Kippur – talking about Him?”  I believe that the answer is again given in the Guide. Rambam wrote that, really, we should not say anything about God. However, our tradition permits us to say certain things. Now, when I speak of “tradition” here, I am not invoking nostalgia in the manner of Fiddler on the Roof. I believe that our sacred tradition, the whole mainstream, normative, Jewish religious tradition is the best connection between us and God.

Therefore, if the tradition tells us to describe God as “great, mighty, and awesome” (gadol gibbor v’nora), then, in the first place, we should do so. In the second place, we should try to interpret those words in such a way that they make sense.

2. Rabbi Artson wrote,  “God does not judge or condemn us”. I say, “Sure He does. That is one of His major functions.” One of the main things for which I turn to God is an undergirding of the moral order of the universe. Having said this, I have to try to dispel a common confusion about the important subject of reward and punishment.

We have to distinguish between two claims:

1. We are rewarded and punished for what we do. I believe that. It is one of my basic religious beliefs.

2. Everything that happens to us is a reward or punishment for something. I don’t believe that, and let me give you two examples to make the distinction clearer. If I neglect to say minha some day (something which happens occasionally), I will not be struck by lightning. Will anything bad happen to me?

I would say this. I believe that my connection to God is enhanced and strengthened by the discipline of praying three times a day. If I miss a prayer time, then the benefits of that discipline are thrown into question.  Second example: When I was 15 years old, I had to have my appendix taken out.  Did that happen because, in those days, I didn’t keep kosher? No. Whatever the medical reasons are why appendices become inflamed, that is what happened to me.

I believe that, superimposed on the amoral realm of nature, there is a moral order. How do we know whether some experience is to be explained in a natural way or in a moral way? At the moment that it happens, we may not be able to do so, but, as we reflect on our lives over time, we may be able to classify more of our experiences in one way or the other.
It occurs to me that my two problems with Rabbi Artson’s view are linked. He sees God as in the world, with us, and leading collaboratively, so to speak. I don’t mind a certain hierarchy in the universe, so I see God as “above” us and also acting as judge.


Four objections to my view:

  1. If we do not know anything and cannot say anything about God as He is in Himself (as distinct from God’s manifestations, which are more like God as Artson presents Him) then what is the point of saying that there is that extra Being “out there”? There is a philosophical principle called Ockham’s Razor: Entities should not be multiplied without necessity. (Answer: Ockham’s Razor is not an ultimate principle. One may be able to construct a rational view of the universe which doesn’t include a transcendent God, but culture, symbolism, myth, and faith work differently.)

  2. Since God as I understand Him and God as Rabbi Artson understands Him work in pretty much the same way, then what is the difference between the views?  It is metaphysics (something which I was taught to scorn).  It sounds like the controversy between the Eastern and Western Churches: Does the Holy Spirit proceed equally from the Father and the Son (West), or does it proceed from the Father through the Son (East)? What does that mean? Does it make any difference?  (Answer: It may make a difference. See Objections ## 3 and 4 below.  In any case that objection cuts both ways: against my view and against Artson’s)

  3. Perhaps I am not taking evil seriously enough.  There still seem to be some remnants of the omnipotent, omniscient, infinitely benevolent God in my view.  Although I have seen much evil, I haven’t really suffered very much myself. (Answer: I don’t know. I have experienced what I have experienced, and I believe what I believe. How can you measure how seriously I am taking the problem of evil?)

  4. My view, which is influenced by the philosophical view called idealism, shifts some of our attention away from our here-and-now experience. In an extreme form, it becomes what I call “Buddhism” – that our lives are an illusion, and that what we should do is to detach ourselves from all worldly concerns. I strongly reject such a view. I believe that all our human activities and struggles in the world are of the greatest value. Yet, my view, compared to Artson’s, seems to devalue those activities and struggles. (Answer: Once again, I don’t know.  I can understand why someone might think that, but I am just not there.)


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