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How do we articulate a religious vision that embraces evolution and human authorship of Scripture? Drawing on the Jewish mystical traditions of Kabbalah and Hasidism, path-breaking Jewish scholar Arthur Green argues that a neomystical perspective can help us to reframe these realities, so they may yet be viewed as dwelling places of the sacred. In doing so, he rethinks such concepts as God, the origins and meaning of existence, human nature, and revelation to construct a new Judaism for the twenty-first century.
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About the Author
Rabbi Arthur Green is professor and rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA.
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Rethinking God and Tradition
By ARTHUR GREEN
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Arthur Green
All rights reserved.
Y-H-W-H: GOD AND BEING
In the Beginning
I open with a theological assertion. As a religious person I believe that the evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time. It is a tale—perhaps even the tale—in which the divine waits to be discovered. It dwarfs all the other narratives, memories, and images that so preoccupy the mind of religious traditions, including our own. We Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all overinvolved with proclaiming—or questioning—the truth of our own particular stories. Did Moses really receive the Torah from God at Mount Sinai? Did Jesus truly rise from the tomb? Was Muhammad indeed God's chosen messenger? We refine our debates about these forever, each group certain that its own narrative is at the center of universal history. In the modern world, where all these tales are challenged, we work out sophisticated and nonliteralist ways of proclaiming our faith in them. But there is a bigger story, infinitely bigger, and one that we all share. How did we get here, we humans, and where are we going? For more than a century and a half, educated Westerners have understood that this is the tale of evolution. But we religious folk, the great tale-tellers of our respective traditions, have been guarded and cool toward this story and have hesitated to make it our own. The time has come to embrace it and to uncover its sacred dimensions.
I believe that "Creation," or perhaps more neutrally stated, "origins," a topic almost entirely neglected in both Jewish and liberal Christian theology of the past century, must return as a central preoccupation in our own day. This indeed has much to do with the ecological agenda and the key role that religion needs to play in changing our attitudes toward the world within which we humans live. But it also emerges from our society's growing acceptance of scientific explanations—those of the nuclear physicist, the geologist, the evolutionary biologist, and others—for the origins of the world we have inherited. The finality of this acceptance, which I share, seemingly means the end of a long struggle between so-called scientific and religious worldviews. This leaves those of us who speak the language of faith in a peculiar situation. Is there then no connection between the God we know and encounter daily within all existence and the emergence and history of our universe? Does the presence of eternity we feel (whether we call ourselves "believers" or not) when we stand atop great mountains or at the ocean water's edge exist only within our minds? Is our faith nothing more than one of those big mollusk shells we used to put up against our ears, convinced we could hear in them the ocean's roar? Is our certainty of divine presence, so palpable to the religious soul, merely a poetic affirmation, corresponding to nothing in the reality described by science? We accept the scientific account of how we got here, or at least understand that the conversation about that process and its stages lies within the domain of science. Yet we cannot absent God from it entirely. Even if we have left behind the God of childhood, the One who assures and guarantees "fairness" in life, the presence of divinity within nature remains essential to our perception of reality. A God who has no place in the process of "how we got here" is a God who begins in the human mind, a mere idea of God, a post-Kantian construct created to guarantee morality, to assure us of the potential for human goodness, or for some other noble purpose. But that is not God. The One of which I speak here indeed goes back to origins and stands prior to them, though perhaps not in a clearly temporal sense. A God who underlies all being, who is and dwells within (rather than "who controls" or "oversees") the evolutionary process is the One about which—or about "Whom"—we tell the great sacred tale, the story of existence.
I thus insist on the centrality of "Creation," but I do so from the position of one who is not quite a theist, as understood in the classical Western sense. I do not affirm a Being or a Mind that exists separate from the universe and acts upon it intelligently and willfully. This puts me quite far from the contemporary "creationists" or from what is usually understood as "intelligent design" (but see more on this below). My theological position is that of a mystical panentheist, one who believes that God is present throughout all of existence, that Being or Y-H-W-H underlies and unifies all that is. At the same time (and this is panentheism as distinct from pantheism), this whole is mysteriously and infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot be fully known or reduced to its constituent beings. "Transcendence" in the context of such a faith does not refer to a God "out there" or "over there" somewhere beyond the universe, since I do not know the existence of such a "there." Transcendence means rather that God—or Being—is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the depth of that presence. Transcendence thus dwells within immanence. There is no ultimate duality here, no "God and world," no "God, world, and self," only one Being and its many faces. Those who seek consciousness of it come to know that it is indeed eyn sof, without end. There is no end to its unimaginable depth, but so too there is no border, no limit, separating that unfathomable One from anything that is. Infinite Being in every instant flows through all finite beings. "Know this day and set it upon your heart that Y-H-W-H is elohim" (Deut. 4:39)—that God within you is the transcendent. And the verse concludes: "There is nothing else."
By mystical panentheism I mean that this underlying oneness of being is accessible to human experience and reveals itself to humans —indeed, it reveals itself everywhere, always—as the deeper levels of the human mind become open to it. Access to it requires a lifting of veils, a shifting of attention to those inner realms of human consciousness where mystics, and not a few poets, have always chosen to abide. The "radical otherness" of God, so insisted upon by Western theology, is not an ontological otherness but an otherness of perspective. To open one's eyes to God is to see Being—the only Being there is—in a radically different way. Such a unitive view of reality is entirely other (ganz andere, in theological German) from the way we usually see things, yet it is the same reality that is being viewed. I am also one who knows that religious truth belongs to the language of poetry, not discursive prose. I recognize fully and without regret that theology is an art, not a science. We people of faith have nothing we can prove; attempts to do so only diminish what we have to offer. We can only testify, never prove. Our strength lies in grandeur of vision, in an ability to transport the conversation about existence and origins to a deeper plane of thinking. My faith, but also my human experience, tells me that this shift profoundly enhances our understanding of our own lives and of the world in which we live. Opening our minds, and ultimately the mind of our society, to the truth accessible from that inner "place" constitutes our best hope for inspiring change in the way we live on this earth. There is nothing mere about poetic vision.
This point in the discussion calls for a greater clarification of the terms "One," "Being," and "God," which I now appear to be using quite interchangeably. Am I speaking of a "what" or a "who," the reader has a right to ask. Let me answer clearly. When I refer to "God," I mean the inner force of existence itself, that of which one might say: "Being is." I refer to it as the "One" because it is the single unifying substratum of all that is. To speak of Being as a religious person, however, is to speak of it not detachedly, in scientific "objectivity," but rather with full engagement of the self, in love and awe. These two great emotions together characterize the religious mind and, when carried to their fullest, make for our sense of the holy. A religious person is one who perceives or experiences holiness in the encounter with existence; the forms of religious life are intended to evoke this sense of the holy. In a mental state that cannot be fully described in words, such a person hears Being say: "I am." All of our personifications of the One are in response to that inner "hearing."
In biblical language, the "I am" of Sinai is already there behind the first "Let there be" of Genesis. Creation is revelation, as the Kabbalists understood so well. To say it in more neutral terms, we religious types personify Being because we see ourselves as living in relationship to the underlying One. I seek to respond to the "I am" that I have been privileged to hear, to place myself at its service in carrying forth this great mission of the evolving life process. To do so, I choose to personify, to call Being by this ancient name "God." In doing this, I am proclaiming my love and devotion to Being, my readiness to live a life of seeking and responding to its truth. But implied here is also a faith that in some mysterious way Being loves me, that it rejoices for a fleeting instant in dwelling within me, delighting in this unique form that constitutes my existence, as it delights in each of its endlessly diverse manifestations.
Creation: Reframing the Tale
With regard to "Creation," I understand the task of the theologian to be one of reframing, accepting the accounts of origins and natural history offered by the scientific consensus, but helping us to view them in a different way, one that may guide us toward a more profound appreciation of that same reality. The tale of life's origins and development, including its essential building block of natural selection, is well known to us as moderns. But what would it mean to recount that tale with our eyes truly open?
We would understand the entire course of evolution, from the simplest life forms millions of years ago, to the great complexity of the human brain (still now only barely understood), and proceeding onward into the unknown future, to be a meaningful process. There is a One that is ever revealing itself to us within and behind the great diversity of life. That One is Being itself, the constant in the endlessly changing evolutionary parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. But turned around, seen from the perspective of the constantly evolving life energy, evolution can be seen as an ongoing process of revelation or self-manifestation. We discover; it reveals. It reveals; we discover. As the human mind advances (from our point of view), understanding more of the structure, process, and history of the ever-evolving One, we are being given (from its point of view) ever-greater insight into who we are and how we got here.
This ongoing self-disclosure is the result of a deep and mysterious inner drive, the force of Being directed from within, however imperfectly and stumblingly, to manifest itself ever more fully, in ever more diverse, complex, and interesting ways. That has caused it to bring about, in the long and slow course of its evolution, the emergence of a mind that can reflect upon the process, articulate it, and strive toward the life of complete awareness that will fulfill its purpose. Here on this smallish planet in the middle of an otherwise undistinguished galaxy, something so astonishing has taken place that it indeed demands to be called by the biblical term "miracle," rather than by the Greco-Latin "nature," even though the two are pointing to the exact same set of facts. The descendants of one-celled creatures grew and developed, emerged onto dry land, learned survival skills, developed language and thought, until a subset of them could reflect on the nature of this entire process and seek to derive meaning from it.
The coming to be of "higher" or more complex forms of life, and eventually of humanity, is not brought about by the specific and conscious planning of what is sometimes called "intelligent design." But neither is it random and therefore inherently without meaning. It is rather the result of an inbuilt movement within the whole of being, the underlying dynamis of existence striving to be manifest ever more fully in minds that it brings forth and inhabits, through the emergence of increasingly complex and reflective selves. I think of that underlying One in immanent terms, a Being or life force that dwells within the universe and all its forms, rather than a Creator from beyond who forms a world that is "other" and separate from its own Self. This One—the only One that truly is—lies within and behind all the diverse forms of being that have existed since the beginning of time; it is the single Being (as the Hebrew name Y-H-W-H indicates) clothed in each individual being and encompassing them all.
If we could learn to view our biohistory this way, the incredible grandeur of the evolutionary journey would immediately unfold before us. We Jews revere the memory of one Nahshon ben Aminadav, the first person to step into the Sea of Reeds after Israel left Egypt. The sea did not split, the story goes, until he was up to his neck in water. What courage! But what about the courage of the first creature ever to emerge from sea onto dry land? Do we appreciate the magnificence of that moment? Or the first to fly, to take wing into the air? Or the moment (of course each of these is a long, slow process rather than a "moment," but the drama is no less great) when animals were divided from plants, when one sort of being was able take nourishment directly from the soil while another was able to exist without this form of nourishment, developing the mechanism to "feed" on plant, and then animal, life. How is it possible, with all of them descending from the same single-celled creatures?
The incredibly complex interplay of forces and the thick web of mutual dependency among beings are no less amazing than the distance traversed in this long evolutionary journey. The interrelationships between soil, plants, and insects, or those between climate, foliage, and animal life, all leave us breathless as we begin to contemplate them. It is these very intricacies and complexities that have led the religious fundamentalists to hold fast to the claim that there must be a greater intelligence behind it all, that such complexity can only reflect the planning of a supernatural Mind. But they miss the point of the religious moment here. Our task as religious persons is not to offer counterscientific explanations for the origin of life. Our task is to notice, to pay attention to, the incredible wonder of it all, and to find God in that moment of paying attention.
There is indeed something "supernatural" about existence, something entirely out of the ordinary, beyond any easy expectation. But I understand the "supernatural" to reside wholly within the "natural." The difference between them is one of perception, the degree to which our "inner eye" is open. The whole journey is a supernatural one, not because some outside Being made it happen but because Being itself, residing in those simplest and most ancient of life-forms, pushing ever forward, step after simple step, to reach where we are today, continues to elude our complete understanding. The emergence of both bees and blossoms, and the relationship between them, took place over millions of years, step by evolutionary step. How could that have happened? There is an endless ingenuity to this self-manifesting Being, an endless stream of creativity of which we are only the tiniest part. If we do not destroy or do too much irreversible damage to our planet, it will continue to bring forth ever more diverse and creative manifestations long after we are gone.
The poetic reframing of our contemporary tale of origins that I am proposing here might be better understood by reference to a prior example, one with which we happen to have an intimate bond. I refer to the opening chapter of the Hebrew Bible. The authors of Genesis 1 effected a remarkable transformation of the creation myth that existed in their day. The common theology of the ancient Near East, reflected in both Canaanite and Mesopotamian sources, featured the rising up of the primal forces of chaos, represented by Yam and Tiamat, gods of the sea, against the order being imposed by the younger but more powerful sky gods. The defeat of that primordial rebellion was the background of Creation; earth was established upon the carcasses of the vanquished. That tale of uprising and its bloody end, now largely forgotten, was well known to the biblical writers and their audiences. It is reflected in various passages in the prophets, Psalms, and Job, and is subtly hinted at even within the Genesis narrative. But those who wrote Genesis 1 reframed the story completely. Everything was created in harmony, willfully, by a single God who kept saying: "Good! Good!" in response to His creations, giving His blessing to each.
That reshaped tale helped to form and sustain Western civilization for several thousand years. The faith that God loves and affirms Creation provides the moral undergirding for all of Western religion, manifest differently in each of the three dominant faiths. Some believed it naively and literally; others interpreted it and tried to reconcile it with various other ways of thinking. I am suggesting that we need to undertake a similar effort of transformation for our current "Creation" story. Our civilization has been transformed in the past century and a half in no small part by our acceptance of a new series of tales of origin, an account that begins with the Big Bang (which itself may turn out to be myth) and proceeds through the long saga of the origins of our solar system, the geohistory of our planet, the emergence of life, and biological evolution. Nuclear physicists and cosmologists have become the new Kabbalists of our age, speculating in ever more refined ways on the first few seconds of existence much as our mystical sages meditated on the highest triad of the ten divine emanations. The picture that science offers is one of unimaginably violent explosion, of particles hurtling through indescribably vast reaches of space, and only then of the emergence of an order—solar systems, gravity, orbits, air, and water—that makes for the possibility of life's existence. As living things emerge and develop we are again presented with a tale of violent and bloody struggle, that of each species and creature to eat and not be eaten, to strive for its moment at the top of the evolutionary mound of corpses. This story too, I am suggesting, is in need of reformulation by a new and powerful harmonistic vision, one that will allow even the weakest and most threatened of creatures a legitimate place in this world and will call upon us not to wipe it out by careless whim. This is the role of today's religion.
Excerpted from Radical Judaism by ARTHUR GREEN. Copyright © 2010 by Arthur Green. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 Y-H-W-H: God and Being 16
2 Evolution Continues: A Jewish History of "God" 34
3 Torah: Word out of Silence 79
4 Israel: Being Human, Being Jewish 120