If you have read any of the “New Atheist” authors, you probably know that they effectively poke fun at concepts of God that have flourished in many religious communities for thousands of years, and are sometimes reflected even in some of the Jewish prayers for High Holidays—namely the notion of a big man in heaven who is highly judgmental and sending down punishments for each time we do something wrong.
Most contemporary religious thinkers say that the god that the New Atheists refute isn’t the god they believe in either. In Beyt Tikkun, we urge people to not get attached to that vision of a God you don’t believe in because the God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist! But then what vision of God do we hold? Well, we say to people here—the very word God may be a problem, if it conjures up old images, so we urge our participants to connect to whatever spiritual reality is real for you. Still, some people say back, “OK, rabbi Lerner, but what vision works for you?”
God is all that is, was and ever will be, and more, plus the aspect of all that is, was and ever will be which makes possible the transformation from “that which is” to “that which can and ought to be.” That “can and ought to be” includes a world based on love, caring, kindness, generosity, joyful celebration with awe wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of the universe, social and economic justice, living in harmony with the earth, and playfully celebrating our freedom and the development of our understanding of ourselves and our world.
But that is not the whole story of God, only the most uniquely Jewish and revolutionary aspect. When Judaism came into existence, it did not have to invent the notion of the world as sacred—that already was common knowledge. Judaism focused on bringing to the world a revelation about an aspect of God that was not adequately known or appreciated—God as the Force that makes for the possibility of transformation and a world based on love and generosity and justice. It took the elohim, the various forces that had been understood to be sacred, and it recognized them as one unified Force, a Force whose essence was freedom, love, justice, transcendence, and compassion—YHVH.
But how does this concept of God connect to the traditional conception of God? Could I be pulling a trick by presenting a God you can believe in, instead of the God you rejected when you were a child? The answer is that within Judaism there has never been a time when one particular articulation of God was universally accepted and definitive of what it is to be Jewish. The concept of God has changed in every historical period, in accord with that age’s dominant cosmological conception. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that we can understand this transformation in Jewish conceptions if we pay attention to the kabbalistic notion of partzufim. In every age God may have different partzufim, ways of becoming known or appearing to human beings. This is not because there are different gods, but because human beings need different forms of representation in different eras.
So long as the world is facing the specific problems of material scarcity and societies in which some human beings dominate others and misrecognize others, with the resulting spiritual crisis I’ve described in Spirit Matters and in The Left Hand of God, this YHVH (force of transformation) aspect of God’s reality is critical for this period of history. When these problems have been solved, when human beings are able to live together in accord with the basic injunctions of Torah (e.g., loving the stranger, seeking justice, pursuing peace, protecting the earth, generously sharing the resources of the planet, and replenishing them, treating everyone with love and kindness and open-hearted generosity), other aspects of God’s reality may become more central to our common agenda and this Jewish YHVH conception of God will then be less significant. But in this historical moment, YHVH is badly needed.
This conception of God being seen differently in different circumstances is reflected in the Torah text itself. God’s name (and the conception the name points to) changes from Genesis to Exodus. God tells Moses that “[I] appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as [El Shadai], but by My name YHVH I made Me not known to them” (Exodus 6:3). El Shadai, the Breasted God, may well have been a more feminine conception that the Jews had available to them in Canaan and which later seemed less appropriate for the harshness of slavery and the struggle for liberation. It was a different way for Jews to represent to themselves who this God was (though I’ve argued that it is precisely this El Shadai feminist conception that is what is most needed in facing the problem of how to overcome the internalization of capitalist values by much of humanity in the 21st century, and hence must be wedded to YHVH in order to accomplish the transformation of our economic and political system that is requisite for the survival of the life-support system of the planet).
. It’s not uncommon for many people today who are otherwise sophisticated to think that they are rejecting the Jewish God when they tell you that they can’t believe in some All-powerful, All-knowing, Unmoved Mover who sits in heaven and sends down blessings or curses according to His mood, and who can be influenced by prayers or sacrifices. It always has been difficult for people to hold on to something so formless and inconceivable, beyond all our categories. Whenever we have tried to talk to and about God, we have ended up using metaphors and language suggested by the societies within which we live. Particularly in prayer, the desire to have something more concrete to which to pray has led to the adoption of language that sometimes pictures God as sitting on a throne, making judgments, interfering in daily life, and having many human aspects, visions that resonated with the patriarchal consciousness of the societies in which we lived. Responding to the authoritarian “power over” visions of reality that emerged when Jews lived under the rule of Pharaohs and emperors like the Persian conquerors who declared themselves the “King of Kings,” Jews embraced a language calling God the King of the King of Kings (in the Aleynu prayer: melech, malchey hamlachim).
Similarly, when Greek and then Roman rule became the norm, Jews began to understand YHVH within the discourse of the then-dominant Hellenistic culture. Two thousand years ago the Jewish philosopher Philo sought to re-conceive God in terms that would fit the dominant Hellenistic paradigms of Greek philosophy, and Medieval Jewish philosophers, including Maimonides, continued in that same direction. The notion of omnipotence or omniscience comes from Hellenistic cultures and their conception of the universe in which the highest good is to be a spirit abstracted from need, emotion, and from the body. Perfection is to be totally unneedy, independent, and self-caused. This might well fit the spirit of primitive or even more evolved commercial or capitalist environments, but it’s not the only possible conception of the highest good.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, my teacher, and mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, demonstrated in The Prophets that this notion of an all-powerful all-knowing, emotionless God is not the Biblical conception of God. The God of the Bible is emotional, passionate, and in need of human beings as partners in the process of “tikkun-ing” (repairing/transforming) the world. To the Greeks, this was a scandal. God had to be complete, perfect, unchanging, transcending the vicissitudes of history. Eventually, many Jews were influenced by Hellenistic thought, and elements of Hellenistic beliefs found their ways into the prayers, the philosophy, and even into the folklore of the Jewish people.
Similarly, in later periods, Christian conceptions (themselves influenced both by Hellenistic and by the Persian-based Mithra religion) were taken up by both popular and high Jewish culture. In patriarchal cultures, the ideal was the all-powerful male, supposedly the embodiment of the God who needs nothing and is self-contained, while women were denigrated because of their neediness, expressed through their emotionality. Moreover, as a powerless and subordinated people, the conception of God as more powerful than the dominant rulers of the world gave Jews a measure of hope that this God could eventually help us overcome the oppressive realities of the world in which we lived. So no wonder there was an appeal to embracing the notion of an all-powerful God.
Yet as the Aleynu prayer, said 3 times daily and enshrined in the Mishnah some 1800 years ago, the goal we sought was “le’takeyn olam be’malchut Shadai,” to transform the world under the rule of the breasted one,” i.e. we were aspiring to the female energy (also referred to elsewhere as Shcechinah) of love, kindness, and compassion (rachamim from the Hebrew word rechem, meaning ‘womb’) becoming the shaping force in reality. And that female energy is not self-contained, but rather is always seeking a partner, always in relationship, and always in need of the other. Heschel talks of God’s need for humanity as part of the path to finish the work of creation and redemption. And though he doesn’t name it as such, I believe that Heschel’s God is YHVH merged with El Shadai, that is, the transformative power now understood as seeking a world of love and generosity, and seeking to be in loving partnership with all of humanity.
With this reintegration of the feminine and masculine energies of God, YHVH becomes the force of transformation that makes possible a world based on love and generosity. But that force does not act with force, it acts through love. Like a mother who sees her children growing up and making mistakes, the mother adopts mothering approaches appropriate to her child’s developmental stage. When the child is in infancy and early childhood, she will act to protect the child, correct its mistakes, and teach the child her own wisdom about what will bring that child safety and happiness. But as the child becomes older and reaches adolescence and beyond, the mother recognizes that respect for the child’s dignity and freedom requires that she can no longer interfere in the child’s life, even when she is certain that the child is making wrong or even disastrous choices. She can continue to put out her teachings, but she can no longer stop the adolescent or adult child from making choices she knows will be hurtful. She may cry as she witnesses the destructive consequences of the grown child’s choices, but she will not try to interfere because even if it were possible to do so, doing so would in effect eliminate that child’s freedom and self-determination, infantilizing and thereby undermining the way that that child was also created in the image of God with the freedom to make its own choices. The partner God seeks in humanity, or possibly in other forms of being evolving on other planets, is one that embodies God’s freedom and hence must be allowed to make its own mistakes. What God can do is simply to continue to put out into the world Her message of the kind of world S/He/It wants to see, a message that gets heard in many different ways by humanity depending on the various ways it is heard through the psychological, intellectual and spiritual frameworks that various parts of humanity have developed and which influence how they hear God’s voice.
One reason many smart and sensitive people have trouble thinking about God is that they imagine God to be a Being who could and should have intervened to lessen the sufferings of the Jews, particularly during the Holocaust, and didn’t. Although they know that they could never really believe in a god of this sort, and though they don’t really believe in this god, they are angry at “him” for not existing, and so won’t allow themselves to know the God that does exist.
There’s every reason to be angry that the world has been so full of hatred and evil, and unredeemable suffering (not just of Jews but of much of humanity), and to the extent that one wants to conceptualize God in terms of a powerfully big spirit in the sky that could have intervened and didn’t, there’s every reason to be angry at this god.
I believe that anyone who wants to give the actually-existing living God a chance needs to first engage in a certain amount of “bitching” at the god they wish existed and who has let them down. By expressing that anger and disappointment that God is not some big patriarch in heaven who intervenes in human life like a big man in heaven would, we can get beyond that vision and then be open to acknowledging the god who does exist, a god who will not intervene and undermine human freedom, a god who at this stage in the evolution of the consciousness of the human race will only repeat Her/His/Its message to anyone who will listen.
Who Is the God Who Does Exist?
On the one hand, God is that about the universe that is what makes possible the transformation of that which is to that which can and ought to be, and the force in the universe which we can experience as calling us to become Her/His/Its partner in healing and transforming the world in accord with its potential to be loving, caring, generous, just, etc. This is an account of how God manifests in our lives. But it doesn’t answer the ontological question, what is this Being, is it a separate being from us, or is it simply a way of describing an aspect of the natural world? I’m committed to saying it is something more, but how do I explain what that more is?
Though I’m sure that my answer, in fact, any answer, is likely to be at least as misleading as accurate because our language has developed to describe and re-identify experiences that we have in daily life, God is a reality that transcends daily life, and its categories, and hence cannot be fully described in its language, just as I cannot fully explain the experiences of mystical, meditational, love, aesthetic and psychedelic experiences, nor recapture in language what is so deeply moving and exciting in these experiences, so I’m unable to really reach through language at the dimension of the holy, the sacred, the awesome and unique experience of God. All the less so, then, can I tell you about what God really IS in Her/His/Its essence? All that I can do is to tell you 2 stories that try to capture in human terms what occasionally helps me to think about what it is that I’m in relationship with when I’m in relationship to God–a Being which transcends our categories.
God is the consciousness of this and all possible universes, and more than that as well. All the actual and possible universes are in this consciousness in the same way that my thoughts are in my body, but not reducible to any part of my body. My body swims in a field of consciousness that both permeates every part of my body and yet extends beyond it, and so do all the actual and possible universes swim in the consciousness that is God.
But consciousness is not some ghostly reality separate from the physical world for one important reason: the whole notion of a physical world, like the notion of consciousness, is a human construct. Our language necessarily dichotomizes and separates reality into distinct elements, but the real world, the universe, and all its dimensions, is never distinct elements. The entirety of all that is has always been related and in relationship to all the rest of what is. The universe is a field of interacting realities that can never be separated from each other except in human categories, and as Continental philosophers have tried to teach us for a long time, in dissecting reality through those categories we also kill it, so that our categories give us access to the dead universe, but rarely except in poetry, music, art, spiritual, religious mystical and psychedelic experience to we get an inkling of what a universe of relationships is really like, and hence what it means to proclaim, as we Jews do several times a day, the oneness of all being and all reality, and then saying that at the end of time, when the world has been Tikkun-ed (transformed, fixed, repaired, mended) not only will God be One (as S/He/It) already is, but Her name will be “One.”
So then saying that God is the consciousness of the universe, thereby trying to help us explain it by using a familiar category, because after all if you are reading this you are already conscious, gives you an idea of Who God Is, or so you think, until you realize that the consciousness that you and I are, in part, is actually a mystery as well. And though scientists have been making a promissory note for a good long time that in just a little bit longer it will be able to tell you what consciousness really is, all that they actually will be able to do is to tell you what are the physical correlates of consciousness. It will never be able to explain the inner subjective experience that we all are. Though sometimes we are encouraged by our dualistic language to say that we “have” experiences, the fuller reality is that we are our experiences which are taking place in and around us, in our physical/emotional/intellectual/spiritual unity that we call “me” or “I.” And this “me” or “I” is intrinsically and always part of an infinity of other physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual unities that together constitute the life force of all the universe(s).
The case for a universe that is intrinsically teleological, not a product of blind physical forces that collide and combine by accident, has recently been bolstered by Thomas Nagel, for whom I served as a teaching assistant at the University of California Berkeley in the mid-1960s. Nagel’s book, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Nagel argues for “a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them” (p. 123).
Nagel himself wants to steer away from the notion of a pre-existing God that makes all this happen, so he goes on to say that “the tendency for life to form may be a basic feature of the natural order, not explained by the non-teleological laws of physics and chemistry. “And once there are being who can respond to value,” Nagel goes on to argue, “the rather different teleology of intentional action becomes part f the historical picture, resulting in the creation of new value. The universe has become not only conscious and aware of itself but capable in some respects of choosing its path into the future—though all three, the consciousness, the knowledge and the choice, are dispersed over a vast crowd of beings, acting both individually and collectively.”(p.124) And Nagel does us a real service by reminding us of “how radical is the difference between the subjective and the objective, and to fall into the error of thinking about the mental in terms taken from our ideas of physical events and processes.” (p. 128).
So one approach we might take is to say that this pre-existing teleological tendency of life to form and to develop consciousness, intentionality, and an awareness of the need to build an ethical world simply is a central part of what we mean by saying God is running the universe and directing its evolution in a particular way. Or we can avoid the potentially scary (to some) similarity of that claim to “creationists” by saying that God evolved as part of this process. My teacher Zalman Schachter Shalomi alludes to this kind of evolution of God when he says that God was “a young God” when S/He/It was involved in the mistakes God made in dealing with humans in the Torah. God is developing along with human beings, and although God was part of the universe from the start, God is becoming self-conscious through us. Or to put it another way, we (and all other self-conscious beings) are the element in the universe through which God is becoming self-conscious.
But the evolution of God in this way is not an accident—it is not a product of the accidental collision of material elements in the cosmic stew. Rather, it is the manifestation of what the universe is tending toward, no matter how many billions of years it may have taken to get here and how many billions more till the consciousness of the universe actually finds its companionship in a self-conscious reality (humanity or some other) capable of being spiritually, ethically, emotionally and intellectually God’s partner and hence the true fulfillment of being “created in the image of God.”
We are not separate from this process of God’s evolution, because God is everything that ever was, is, and will be, and we are in God though God is in us too as in all beings. And God is in constant contact with us. We are to God as a cell in our liver is to our conscious mind. Let’s talk about the liver first. The liver cells, when isolated and put under a microscope and attended to from the standpoint of empirical science, function according to certain biochemical “laws.” Yet they are also alive in a very different way than science can describe—they, like every other cell in our bodies, are constituent elements of a living conscious entity, and thereby have consciousness, albeit the consciousness of a liver cell. They receive and emit messages which are processed by the central nervous system and the brain, and ultimately they are known to our conscious minds. Normally we don’t pay much attention to our liver cells, but when there is deep trouble there (e.g., pain caused by cancer), we become aware of this part of our bodies. Once aware, we can send different messages to the liver. We can, for example, visualize the liver as healthy and functioning, visualize ourselves as sending healing energy to the liver, and sometimes even get empirical proof that this visualization has had an impact on healing the liver (though some scientists will tell us that the exact biochemical changes that were caused by the visualization will eventually be discovered). 5536
The liver cell is part of the liver, which is part of the entire body. It is conscious of the totality of which it is part, but only in the limited way that a liver cell could be conscious. It is part of something larger, it “knows” and responds to that larger something, and it is absolutely dependent on that larger totality. Eventually, like every cell of the body, it will die and be replaced by other cells that have similar functions in relation to the larger body.
Human beings stand in something like this relationship to God. God is the totality of all Being and all existence that ever was, is, or will be, and more than that. At any given moment we are part of God and God is part of us, but we are not all that there is to God, nor is God simply the sum of all physically existing things in the infinite universe, though that is also part of God, just as a given moment of our conscious experience is a part of who we are at that moment, though not all of who we are at that moment and certainly not all of who we are in our totality. Now when the totality of all that was, is, and will be pulsates through our being and constitutes our being, we receive messages from it, but only those messages that we can process given our receptors and our particular level of consciousness.
Just like the liver cell, we intuit and “know” that we are part of some larger totality, that we are serving a purpose in the larger story. But just like the liver cell, we have only a very limited vocabulary for describing what the larger story is, even though we “know” it, can feel it in every ounce of our being, at least when we are not deflected from knowing by certain poisons within our system. 5536
So we are alive in a world that is alive and so too is all of being. The notion of matter as something dead and acted upon by other dead objects misses too much of the reality of the universe. In the past hundred years, we have learned that at the very heart of what we once had thought to be inanimate matter there lies a set of atoms made up of tiny particles, electrons, that move around a nucleus held together by its own energy. Yet when the smaller particles in the nucleus are examined, it became increasingly difficult to talk of particles as anything more than energy fields in which energy “events” seem to happen, and in which particles emerge and disappear back into energy (see my interview with John Cobb in this issue of Tikkun for more about this). Everything that once seemed dead or quiescent or dormant is in fact in some sense alive. The whole way we view the universe, in terms of objects, is a function of the level of complexity of our receptors, which are unable to see at the microscopic level and to reveal the way in which these so-called objects are themselves complex arrangements of energy fields.
We get a fuller picture of reality when we see ourselves as composed of millions of these complex energy fields that are coming into existence and dying, and standing in relationship with trillions of other such energy fields. When the mystics talk about God breathing us and the breath of God traveling through our every pore, we get a language that tries to say that there is no radical division here between the dancer and the dance, between the outer and the inner, between that which is an object and that which apprehends and categorizes objects. The solidity of objects is merely a particular way for a particular being, us, with our limited sensory apparatus, to arrange the flux of energies for the sake of certain survival tasks.
“Wait a second,” you might object. “Energy fields themselves are categories of physical science. So if that’s what consciousness is, then it is still wholly physical and within the scientific paradigm.” Unfortunately, this kind of analysis, no matter how frequently repeated at every attempt to analyze human beings, cannot account for our subjectivity and the inner experience that we have, which is not reducible to energy fields.
What many human beings have discovered, but have been unable to fully articulate using a language developed to describe the empirically observable, is that the universe is pulsating with spiritual energy as well and that every ounce of Being is permeated with and an extension of that spiritual energy. Just as our sensory apparatus is inadequate for capturing the energy forces that are at play in the nuclei of all the cells that constitute the visually observable objects of the world, so too does our conceptual apparatus provide us with inadequate tools or means to apprehend the rich web of spiritual reality in which we and all of Being are embodied.
And yet we have enough hints that most human beings through most of history have been aware of this dimension of reality and have sought to respond to it. We respond through awe, wonder, radical amazement, and celebration—even as we may bemoan our inability to describe it adequately or persuasively to those whose spiritual sensors have been shut off in some way or other.
Now let us for a moment imagine that the entirety of all that which has been, is, and will be is filled with spiritual energy and consciousness of which our own consciousness and our own experience of spirituality are but bare hints, like the intuition or “knowing” that a liver cell might have about the totality of the being of which it is both a constituent part and a receptor of its tasks and messages. When we know in this way, Jews are inclined to respond to what we know by addressing a “Thou.” And this “Thou” has feelings, upsets, and needs.
Is it anything more than a peculiarly human presumption to address that larger totality as a Thou, to imagine it as having personality and emotions?
For a Greek imperialist or a male chauvinist, a god with feelings and needs must be a lesser god. may have felt the need to develop a conception of perfection in which the full being was one that had no needs or emotions, and the Roman centurion may have been trained to distance himself from feelings and needs in order to become the perfect mechanism for world conquest. But why should that influence my concept of God, inspired as it is in part by El Shadai, by the female energy of the universe that understands the human need for others, and be a need of others, as part of the dignity and magnificence of what it is to be a human being?
From the standpoint of the Bible, to be human is both to be created in the image of God and to be in a relationship with God, yearning for God and needing God. And for Jewish mysticism, it is also true of God that S/He/It is in relationship with human beings, needs human beings, cares about human beings, and is in a process that is not yet completed and in which human beings have a partnership role. Not equal partners, but needed partners nevertheless. So being in loving, conscious, freely chosen, joyous relationship and needing to be recognized and responded to is a fundamental ontological reality of the universe, and God is, among other things, that aspect of the universe. Why? No reason. It’s just how it is. Had we been around at the time of the Big Bang, we probably wouldn’t have been aware of this aspect of reality, but the universe that evolved us as conscious, loving, freely choosing beings who wish to be in relationship with the ultimate God of the universe is not a cosmic blunder nor a random act of chance, but the outcome of the process of the evolution of a universe which has always had this potential in it.
From the standpoint of contemporary capitalist mentality (the continuation of Hellenistic thought in the modern period), this is heretical. To be whole and to be healthy is to be able to stand alone. When I did my ph.d. in psychology at the Wright Institute, mental health was often equated with ego autonomy, and any dependence on other people was seen as pathology. Within this capitalist worldview in which the isolated individual consumer is supposed to be the healthy ideal to which we should aspire, needing nothing but what can be easily purchased or transformed into money, the spiritual Force that governs and shapes and creates the universe cannot be a force that stands in need of something else or somebody else!
But what if the fundamental Force shaping the universe, the Force that makes for the possibility of transformation from that which is to that which ought to be, not only makes that possible, but needs that transformation, feels pain of a sort when that transformation is not accomplished, sheds tears for the universe that it is still in pain, feels anger at the ways in which unnecessary pain persists, outrage at the ways in which pain and oppression are ontologized and blamed on God, and compassion for those parts of creation which cannot yet heal themselves?
I understand full well that in talking about spiritual reality in this way I might be seen as merely imposing a particular limited human reality on the universe and God. “The human hunger for family and parenting,” you might argue, “is shaping religious people’s desire to inscribe into the structure of necessity our sad human condition and neediness. Poor humans that they have such a need, rather than be able to look reality coldly in the face, recognize its silence, and cope with that!” I understand this response.
But seeing the universe as cold and unresponsive, seeing the world as mechanistic, or merely governed by impersonal energy systems that have no particular knowledge or caring for us— these too are just human constructs, ways of cutting up a reality based on one orientation and one set of desires and values. They do not contain an “objectively” more compelling argument, although they correspond more closely to the ruling paradigms of our historical epoch.
Another way to put it: The richness of human emotions, the wealth of nuance and excitement that can be generated by human neediness, the depth of love that can be generated by human relationships—these magnificent aspects of reality are likely to be aspects of God as well. Why should God be any less wonderful than human beings?
If one rejects the notions of perfection that come from Hellenistic (and now contemporary patriarchal) thought, and affirms the loving/caring/compassionate (often essentialized as “feminine) energy then one could easily see that attributing emotions, personality, feelings, caring, to the spiritual Being that permeates all of reality is not a put-down or a belittling, but a celebration in God of what we can and ought to honor in human beings. Here, feminist theory and Biblical insight dovetail nicely.
So although talking about a consciousness of the universe or of human beings as in God may make it sound as if I’m embracing a rather lifeless version of panentheism, I’m simultaneously affirming the dimension of God that I learned from Abraham Joshua Heschel, God as the caring, loving being who needs and stands in relationship to all that is and contracted in order to give space to our freedom. And while the language I use then seems to suggest that God had a preexisting plan that was being followed, I actually think that God has been developing and evolving with us and with whatever other self-conscious beings God has also created in other galaxies, since they too are part of God. And if this is only of a zillion universes, then God has been developing along with all of them too and they are also inside God and made possible by the same loving force that needed to contract in order to give freedom to creation to develop in sometimes unpredictable ways. Thus, the second revelation of God in Torah: “YHVH, YHVH, God of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, abounding in Lovingkindness and truth, carrying mercy to the thousands.” That this is a fundamental aspect of the spiritual energy pervading the universe makes the God we are talking about also the God of the Jews. And since I’m reclaiming here El Shadai and merging Her with YHVH, it’s time for affirmative action in theology, which would require that we refer to Her/Him/It from now on as the Goddess!
Still, there is a problem in this conception: it still sounds as if the Goddess of the universe or the multiverse of billions of universes, stands separate from the universe, intending something different from what it is. Are we back into some notion of a conscious designer of the universe who is gently pulling human beings toward a relationship with Her/Him/It.? Well, that is not really what I think is the case.
Instead, think of it this way: there is never any separation between spirit and matter, but that matter itself is a highly problematic category, just a human construct to look at the universe in a way that makes it easiest for us to dominate, manipulate and control it without being weighed down by the ethical and emotional intuitions which most human beings had for most of human history. Those ethical and emotional intuitions experienced the universe as alive, conscious, and feeling pain or pleasure. A universe that is alive in this way is never without consciousness or intentionality. But its intentionality is evolving along with everything else and as part of everything else. The Jewish notion that the universe came into being because God wanted a partner and so created the world and human beings to be that partner does, in my view, hint at a way of thinking about the evolution of the Goddess of the universe Her/Him/It–self. So think of it this way: that the universe has always been evolving from its inception toward higher and higher levels of interconnectedness, consciousness, love, and eventually self-consciousness. And that we humans are a part (not necessarily the whole) of the part of the universe that is God becoming more and more self-conscious, and more and more yearning for loving interconnectedness and consciousness. In this conception, god is never outside us, but we are always inside god, a part of god that is assisting in the evolution of the totality. Each of us is to the God of the universe as one of our memory cells is to our mind and brain—and just as the brain and mind contain the whole history of everything that has happened to us, so too God is the container of the memory of the entire universe—because God is the entirety of the universe and of all previous, contemporary and future universes, which might explain why we have a bit of trouble fully grasping God/Goddess. But that is not a unique situation, because actually we have trouble fully grasping the totality of our most beloved partners, children, parents, and friends. So it is with humility coupled with awe, wonder, and radical amazement that we approach the God of the universe, which is never separate from the universe which is evolving as God evolves. And the evolutionary force of this evolution is in fact the yearning of all being to be more interconnected, conscious, loving, generous, aware, loved, and hence in need that every other being be as fully actualized for all its potential as possible.
Once we get over the notion of ourselves as separate beings and begin to see ourselves as part of the evolution of the totality of the universe, we are able to face the other mind-boggling reality of life, namely, death. We are part of what has always existed, participate in that part of it which is coming to deeper self-consciousness, and will soon lose our individual identity and become again part of the totality of an evolving embodied consciousness which is the totality of the universe as it moves toward greater love, freedom, self-consciousness, playfulness, joyousness, and liberation from the constraints of the past. Just as the universe evolves in its form, so will we, though in death we will no longer be just this one individual consciousness, but will merge with the consciousness of God which is the consciousness of all being evolving toward ever-higher levels of consciousness and love. This is no consolation for those who fiercely want to hold on to their individual consciousness and always be that one being. This need became most intense in class societies where communities broke down and people could no longer see themselves as part of a whole, in part because ruling elites used that language to cover up the fact that what they really wanted was for us to serve their interests, and believe that if we did so we’d be rewarded in a future world (heaven or even hell). And this became ever more ferocious an idea as classs societies became more and more oppressive—hence the idea of an afterlife. But for me, there is an afterlife as there was a before life, but it is not characterized by us retaining ou r individual identities. And yet, our Jewish tradition offers us the comfort of remembering our parents, spouse, children, friends, and to affirm the value and importance of their lives as that value gets refracted through how we personally live.
To honor those who have gone before us, and who still exist but not in the form of their personal identity, we use the traditional words of the Yizkor even though we understand that it reflects an earlier understanding of the separation of individual egos from each other and the prioritizing of their survival as individuals.
Despite Israel’s Oppression of Palestinians: Don’t Give Up on Judaism
Here we are some 3600 years after Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, at the behest of Sarah, sets Isaac and Ishmael into conflict with each by banishing Ishmael. Though God promised the land of canaan to BOTH peoples who descended from Abraham, each people has claimed the land as their own exclusive right. And this has played a role in the conflict that continued this summer in Gaza.
Faced with that conflict, I heard from many young Jews a rather unsettling message: I don’t want to be Jewish or I don’t want people to know that I am Jewish, given what “the Jews” are doing in Israel. Why they asked me, can’t we just be human beings, identifying with the universal needs and struggles of all humanity?
I have to admit I had some sympathy for those feelings. When I watched the Israeli army kill four boys playing in clear sight on a Gaza beach, when I heard of the multiple attempts by the United Nations to give their exact geographical coordinates of the schools and hospitals they were running and using as shelters for civilians to the Israeli army (the IDF) only to find those schools and hospitals shelled or bombed with the killings of many innocent civilians, and when I read reports by progressives Israelis of the pogroms on the streets of Jerusalem, Tel aviv, and other Israeli citizens in which mobs of Jews attacked and beat up anyone they thought “looked like an Arab” in the aftermath of the slaying of 3 Israeli teens living in one of the settlements of the Occupied West Bank territories, and then to hear all of this justified not only by Israeli government officials, but by Jews around the world who rallied to defend every act of the Israeli government, no matter how outrageous, no matter how clearly a violation of human rights, part of me also felt like this is a people that has lost its ethical foundations and is engaged in activities that are likely to generate anti-semitism (and indeed they did) and hatred of Jews around the world by people who never heard of Jews except as the people who are either living in Israel or wildly supporting every action of the Israeli government, actions that they can clearly see as immoral.
Now please don’t tell me that this was merely a response to the kidnapping and murder of 3 boys and Hamas’ thankfully ineffective attempts to send small missiles toward Israeli population centers. I know—in fact, in my first public comments on all this past summer, entitled “Hamas—Stop Bombing Israel” I pointed out that in fact Hamas and the extremists who run the most right-wing government Israel has ever had are in defacto alliance with each other, each taking extremely provocative actions that could be used by the extremists on the other side to justify their actions. Unequivocally then, and now, I condemn Hamas’ attempts to bomb Israelis as repeated violations of human rights and straightforwardly unethical, just as the carnage that followed in which Israel killed some 2,100 Gazans and wounded eight thousand, and destroyed Gazan water and sewage facilities, destroyed most of Gaza’s economic infrastructure, made 1/3 of Gazans homeless because their apartment buildings and homes had been leveled, and guaranteed that the Gazan people, already among the poorest and most suffering from malnutrition because of the Israeli blockade that has been going on for the past seven years, will be facing extremes of poverty and hunger for the next several decades unless they get massive support from the rest of the world, which tends to be long on statements and resolutions, short on delivering real aid to the Palestinian people.
When people tell me that the whole thing was started by Hamas, I have to bite my tongue. Because what does “start it” really mean? There have been moments since Sarah expelled Ishmael when the children of Ishmael were powerless and the ancient Jewish world was oppressive to them. There were moments, in fact, many centuries, when Jews lived under apartheid-like conditions in Arab countries—far better off than in Christian countries where we were periodically murdered, but still in conditions of facing legal discrimination and popular hatred, and this manifested most strongly in the ways that the Arabs of Palestine who later became the Palestinian people did everything they could to prevent Jews from coming to Palestine even when it was we Jews who were the refugees climbing out of the crematoria and gas chambers and murderous concentration camps of Europe and it was the Palestinians who had the power to convince the British to intercept ships of refugees, like the famous boat Exodus, and put us into detention camps in places like Cyprus. And I also know that in creating the state of Israel we Jews jumped from the burning buildings of Europe and landed on the backs of Palestinians. We didn’t mean to do it, we weren’t aiming to hurt them, but we did. And there were some who did explicitly engage in acts to cause terror among Palestinian refugees so that they would flee their homes, including two subsequent Prime Ministers of Israel, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and there was the Israeli army force marching some 80,000 Palesitnians from their homes in the arab towns around what was called Lydda and which now is the vicinity where the ben gurion airport now stands. In all, 800,000 civilians fled, thinking that once the war was over that whoever won would allow them to return to their homes, as international law requires, but which Israel never allowed to happen. And that number has grown to some 3-4 million living in exile, or under Occupation in the west bank or facing the blockade of needed basics in gaza.
So when you ask the question of “who started it?” and don’t include the history from the time of Abraham and sarah sending Hagar and Ishmael into the desert through the time that Israel refused to help the Palestinian Authority in the west bank take over once Israel withdrew its troops but instead defacto turned over all of gaza to be ruled by Hamas, cynically thinking that this would intensify strife between Hamas and the Palesitnian authority, then using that resulting strife as proof that any deal with the PA was meaningless since after all they didn’t represent the Hamas, but then, when the PA tried to reconcile with Hamas in April the Israeli government cancelled all further negotiations and instead arrested hundreds of west bank Hamas activists (even though they knew full well that the group that murdered the 3 teens was not part of Hamas but a rogue group that Hamas had already denounced), and then drone-killed a few Hamas activists in gaza before there was any Hamas bombing of Israeli cities, the question of who started it becomes more complicated and probably meaningless when you are talking about at 3600 year old struggle. I lay all this out in more detail in my book Embracing Israel/Palestine and my basic point here is that both sides have been at fault and both sides have a legitimate story to teach to which we must listen1
Yet my main concern here is not with the details, but rather with the way that Israel has become an idol for Jews, and a religious obligation to support the current government. In synagogues around the world Jews go to pray for the state of Israel, which is described as “the beginning of the flourishing of our redemption,” and Jews who do not support Israel’s activities are accused of being self-hating Jews. This is an inversion of Judaism, the destruction of our tradition which was based on a rebellion against constituted authority and power. In fact, the Bible is filled with prophetic consciousness critiquing the leaders of the Jewish people—you can’t read the books of Samuel and Kings and Chronicles without being impressed with how anti-the Jewish authorities of the time our Bible was and is.
Our Torah tried to teach us that it was not the power of human beings, but the righteousness of moral action prescribed to us by Yud Hey Vav Hey that is what we must trust in. The psalms say “do not trust in the princes, in human beings who have no capacity to deliver real salvation.” We were chosen, according to the biblical account, to tell the world about YHVH and the possibility of transformation from a world of power to a world of love. The rabbis understood it: rabbi Hillel and his famous dictum “don’t to others what it hateful to yourself” and Rabbi Akiba with his message that the key to Torah is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And the Torah makes this clear by repeating more than any other mitzvah or command variants of this one: when you come into your land, do not oppress the stranger, the ger, the Other, as Cat Zavis explained, and just as the ger was Hagar and then her son Ishmael, today it is their descendants the Palestinian people.
But there was always also a counter-narrative, a voice that talked of god not as the voice of compassion and generosity and peace, but as “a man of war” and celebrated the annihilation of the peoples who lived in canaan by the Jews through our conquest of the land. Though this never in fact happened, there never was a conquest, as the archaeologists now assure us, still the story of the conquest and destruction of Jericho and the other cities as part of the counter-narrative of what I call the counter-revolution that led to the initial anarchic reality of the Israelites to be subsumed under a monarchy that under David and Solomon became an imperial force. And it is this counter-narrative that became the inspiration to Zionists and west bank settlers who were rejecting what they saw as the passivity of Jews in the Diaspora who were subject to endless physical assaults in Christian Europe and who never armed themselves, not even when Nazism spread like a plague through much of Europe.
It may be, some might argue, that Israel’s current behavior is the only possible response that a traumatized people can give to its own history of oppression, and the doctrine of “chosenness,” one might argue, has been helpful for allowing Jews to not end up internalizing the demeaning way that we were treated for the past two thousand years in European and Asian and north African societies. But the current reality is that the Jews are no longer the powerless victims we were 70 years ago, and so ideas and traditions and ways of thinking about ourselves like “chosenness” now function to legitimate us as oppressors rather than to rectify internalizing our oppression.
It is at this moment that the solution of abandoning our peoplehood and becoming universalists seems more attractive to some, but not to me. Universalism and particularism have long been set in opposition to each other. Christian theology for much of the past 1700 years was based on portraying the Jews as narrowly self-interested and parochial, as opposed to a Christianity that was universal and not based on any particular people. So Christianity was said to supersede the particularism of Judaism, and Islam made a similar claim about itself. But as Tikkun editorial board member Rabbi Reuven Kimemlan points out in a new book on universalism and particularism, the charge is perplexing. “If Judaism is only for the Jews, then why does the Jewish calendar mark time fro