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The Cosmos, Oneness and Judaism: Are Pantheism and Panentheism Kosher for Jews?
The psalmist and the skeptic and the prophet and the professor look at the universe in which we find ourselves, see the same stars, feel the warmth of the same sun, hear thunder pealing from the same sky, understand the processes by which nature unfolds in spring, retreats in fall only to regenerate again the following year, and yet often draw different conclusions from the same observable data. So, for instance, in response to the emergence of humankind, a non-theist might merely record the evolutionary data or might, like cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, marvel at the improbability, the mystery, and the grandeur of our existence. (See, e.g., The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford University Press 2000).) The traditional Jewish believer, by contrast, might offer a prayer to the Supreme Being: Blessed are You, sovereign of the universe, who has fashioned us from the dust of the Earth in Your image and breathed our soul into us.
Is there another way, a way to attempt to understand one’s place in the cosmos that is consistent with current scientific knowledge, and yet recognizes the miracle of our presence without dependence on some supernatural being? Is there an approach to the cosmos which might be attractive to many, perhaps most, American Jews who do not believe in the traditional personal God who dominates the Torah, but nevertheless accept the existence of (and may even yearn for) some extraordinary power, force or spirit which pervades all that is? (See Post March 14, 2012) And, if so, is that path kosher?
Let’s consider two possible systems, pantheism and panentheism. The term pantheism comes from two Greek words, pan meaning all and theos meaning God. Literally, then, pantheism is the belief that all is God, that God and the universe are coextensive. This formulation also means that there is no God but the universe.
The word was first used just over three hundred years ago to express the philosophy developed by Baruch Spinoza (1632-77 C.E.), a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish descent who many consider one of the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment in seventeenth century Europe. Spinoza himself did not use the term pantheism, and there is some debate about whether his philosophy was pantheistic. But Spinoza surely did not understand God in the traditional sense of an omniscient, wise or comforting personality, or as a judge who rewards and punishes. Rather, for Spinoza, all things in nature were in God, and God was “the active, eternal, and immutable dimension of nature.” (See Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press 1999), at 187.) Consequently, God did not perform miracles, if by that term one meant events in violation of natural laws. There could be no miracles in that sense, as there was no distinction between nature and God. (See Id. at 275.) Nevertheless, Spinoza was not an atheist. His God was, for him, existing and real, the infinite substance and infinitely perfect. (See Id. at 187.)
Parenthetically, when he was only twenty-three years old, Spinoza was also ex-communicated by the leaders of his Jewish community. The precise reasons for this action are not known, as the order placing Spinoza in cherem, i.e., cursing him and expelling him, did not detail his purported offenses. But it is certainly plausible that his alleged heresies included a rejection of an anthropomorphic God, the divinity of the precepts of the Hebrew Bible and the attribution of the authorship of the text to Moses, each and all of which positions, among others, Spinoza ultimately held and discussed in his writings. (See Id. at 129-38.)
Today, pantheism comes in various forms, some of which are discussed below, but it is characterized by several key concepts including (1) the acceptance and utilization of science and the scientific method and (2) a strong sense, even a spiritual one, of an integrated relationship of all things in the Universe, unencumbered or unenhanced, depending on your view, by a supernatural deity.
To get a flavor of the tenets and tone of modern pantheism, read the following abbreviated version of the Statement of Principles of the World Pantheism Movement (“WPM”):
- We revere and celebrate the Universe as the totality of being, past, present and future. . . . Its overwhelming power, beauty and fundamental mystery compel the deepest human reverence and wonder.
- All matter, energy, and life are an interconnected unity of which we are an inseparable part. . . .
- We are an integral part of Nature, which we should cherish, revere and preserve in all its magnificent beauty and diversity. . . .
- All humans are equal centers of awareness and nature, and all deserve a life of equal dignity and respect. . . .
- There is a single kind of substance, energy/matter, which is vibrant and infinitely creative in all of its forms. Body and mind are indivisibly united.
- We see death as the return to nature of our elements, and the end of our existence as individuals. The forms of “afterlife” available to humans are natural ones . . . .
- We honor reality, and keep our minds open to the evidence of the senses and of science’s unending quest for deeper understanding. . . .
- Every individual has direct access through perception, emotion and meditation to ultimate reality, which is the Universe and Nature. There is no need for mediation by priests, gurus or revealed scripture. . . .
For all of their stress on unity, however, pantheists are themselves by no means unified philosophically. For instance, as indicated in its Statement of Principles, the WPM favors a kind of monistic pantheism, that is, one which recognizes only one type of substance in the universe, substance that science, in particular physics, can describe. Other types of monistic pantheism also allow for only one type of substance, but understand that substance to be mental or spiritual. Dualist pantheism accepts that two kinds of substances exist and interact in the universe.
In addition, pantheists debate whether and how to use God language. While all pantheists reject the notion of a supernatural deity, some pantheists still prefer to use references to God as a means of expressing their beliefs. So, for instance, some pantheists may hold with Spinoza that God and Nature are equivalent, while other pantheists choose to avoid using God language, perhaps thinking that such words are misleading and mask a true understanding of nature and natural phenomena.
Their differences aside, pantheists take a broad view of the universe, and attempt to synthesize logic and reason with awe and wonder. Their cathedral is not a building, but the universe itself. The universe, they say “creates us, preserves us, destroys us. It is deep and old beyond our ability to reach with our senses. It is beautiful beyond our ability to describe in words. It is complex beyond our ability to fully grasp in science.” (See http://www.pantheism.net/paul/index.htm.) (Naturalistic Pantheism 2/4.)
But how exactly does a pantheist relate to the universe? According to the WPM, “with humility, awe, reverence, celebration and the search for deeper understanding,” ways which are and are recognized to be similar to the ways those who believe in a traditional God relate to God. (Id.) Except, as a pantheist would say, “minus the grovelling (sic) worship or the expectation that there is some being out there who can answer our prayers.” (Id.)
If much of this sounds familiar to Jews, apart from the reference to groveling, it should. Jews know a thing or three about oneness.
According to the Torah, as Moshe (Moses) is recapitulating the law for the emerging Israelite nation, he asks the people to pay attention to his words with these: “Sh’ma Yisrael” or “Listen, Israel” (more conventionally, “Hear, O Israel”). “יהוה Eloheinu” (“HaShem/Adonai (is) our God”), he continued, “יהוה echad” (“HaShem/Adonai (is) one”). (See Deut. 6:4.) This call to take heed is, perhaps, not intended to be much more than an interjection in an otherwise dense legal oration, similar to the request to listen immediately prior to the recapitulation. (See Deut. 5:1). Over the centuries, though, the Sh’ma has assumed prime theological importance. We may disagree about what God is, even whether God is, but if God is, then God is one.
But what does that mean? Was Moshe asserting that the Israelite God was Number 1, first among many, or was he saying something else? Certainly, the statement can and has been understood to mean that the Israelite God was a single entity, in contrast to two gods or the multiple gods of nature. In this view, the Sh’ma is an affirmation of monotheism, a pronouncement that the Israelite God was the one and only god, and, conversely, a rejection of polytheism. But, if so, the Sh’ma was redundant, as at least two nearby passages which precede it explicitly state that יהוה (HaShem/Adonai) alone is God, that there is no other. (See Deut. 4:35, 39.)
Moreover, Judith Plaskow, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, has suggested that this view of the “one God who was creator and ruler of the universe” is insufficient, for while it “defines ‘one’ in opposition to ‘many’, . . . it never really specifies what it means to say that God/Adonai/the One who is and will be is one.” (See Hoffman ed., My People’s Prayer Book, Vol. 1 — The Sh’ma and its Blessings, (Jewish Lights 1997) at 98.)
Referencing Judaic scholar Marcia Falk’s understanding of an inclusive and not merely numerical monotheism, Plaskow argues that “Rather than being the chief deity in the pantheon, God includes the qualities and characteristics of the whole pantheon, with nothing remaining outside. God is all in all.” (Id. at 99.) Monotheism, she adds, is about “the capacity to glimpse the One in and through the changing forms of the many, to see the whole in and through its infinite images.” Here she finds “a unity that embraces and contains our diversity and that connects all things to each other.” There is precedent for this encompassing vision. Some scholars have argued that “early Hasidism had profound pantheistic tendencies and that many of its teachers saw God as the vital divine force that suffused every corner of the universe.” (See Nelson, Judaism, Physics and God (Jewish Lights 2005), at 262.) But the record is not clear. (See Freeman, “Pantheism and Judaism” at http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/print/true/aid/1807957/jewish/Pantheism-and-Judaism.)
Some modern commentators appear to share those tendencies. For instance, in a recent essay, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson talks about the “reality of an evolving, emergent, dynamic creation” in which “every natural event is related to every other natural event and to all natural events.” In his creation theology, “it is not God alone who is one. All is one. We are related to each and to all, as is the Creator.” (See Artson, “Revisiting Creation, Natural Events, and Their Emergent Patterns” in The CCAR Journal, The Reform Jewish Quarterly (Winter 2012), at 76.) “We are stardust — we are all stardust,” he writes.
“Life cascades — from the stardust and supernovae that gave our heritage, whose elements comprise our blood, our bones, our skin, our brains, whose electricity powers our nerves and our consciousness. All of the cosmos is our mother/father — we are the descendants and the cousins of galaxies. And we are also the children and brothers and cousins of all living things, without exception. Everything everywhere is an expression of oneness. This is both a scientific fact — inescapable and inspiring — and a theological value — to be is to belong is to be community. Our oneness with all creation impels us to recognize community with all creation. God’s oneness is expressed through creaturely solidarity and passion and compassion for all.” (Id. at 78.)
Similarly, in his search for new metaphors in an age of science, Reform Rabbi David Nelson, currently professor of religion at Bard College, reaches to the Big Bang. He says that “The oneness of God can now be understood as indicating that everything, the totality of being itself, is, in a sense, God. ‘God is one’ may now be taken to mean the ‘God’ is a term that signifies the unity of all existence, a unity rooted in the common origin of all existence in a single point of time, space, and nascent matter.” (See Nelson, above, at 19.) “The very term singularity,” he argues, “which has become a common place of contemporary physics, might be seen as a modern Jewish metaphor for the traditional Jewish idea of oneness.” (Id.)
By singularity, Nelson is referring to the earliest moment in the history of the universe when, according to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, “the temperature, density, and curvature of the universe are all infinite . . . .” (See Hawking, The Grand Design (Bantam Books 2010), at 129.) In plainer words, at its origin according to Einstein, the early universe must have been incredibly small, compact and hot.
But metaphors are tricky things. They are, by their very nature, comparisons to and therefore dependent on an unrelated object. Consequently, if the referenced object changes, then the strength of the metaphor must change as well, and, in some cases, so too must the validity of the metaphor.
Professor Stephan Hawking has been a dominant astrophysicist for the last forty years. His work in 1970 (with Roger Penrose) convinced the scientific community about there being a Big Bang singularity. Subsequently, however, Hawking recanted. (See Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books 1988), at 50-51.) Today Hawking does not dispute the description of our universe at a very young age as small, compact and hot, but argues that the predictive value of Einstein’s theory breaks down at the earliest moment of the origin of our universe so that “it is not correct to carry the big bang picture all the way back to the beginning” by which he means the very beginning, t=0. Rather, quantum theory, which applies in a sub-atomic realm and “in which objects do not have single definite histories,” must be considered. (See The Grand Design, above, at 129, 131, 185.)
Looking back as far as science currently can, Hawking calculates the size of our universe then as a “billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimeter.” (Id. at 131.) University of Michigan physics professor Fred Adams concurs, and notes correctly that this volume “is far too small to fully comprehend.” (See Adams, Origins of Existence (The Free Press 2002), at 45.) Within the first second of the Big Bang process, there was a period of cosmic inflation. Lasting the smallest fraction of a second, perhaps a millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, what became our known universe exploded in size from this infinitesimally small, dense, hot point to something a million trillion trillion times larger. Hawking compares this process of rapid cosmic inflation to a one centimeter diameter coin “suddenly [blowing] up to ten million times the width of the Milky Way.” (Grand Design, above, at 129.) But, of course, the starting size was not a one centimeter coin. Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams describe the result, post-inflation, as “the size of a newborn baby.” (See Primack and Abrams, The View From the Center of the Universe (Riverhead Books 2006) at 186.) Less dramatic, but no less significant, expansion followed and is now accelerating.
Before this period of inflation, though, Hawking’s consideration of quantum theory leads him to claim that there was “a vast landscape of possible universes.” Alluding to one of Einstein’s famous phrases, Hawking writes: “If one were religious, one could say that God really does play dice.” (Grand Design, at 139, 144.)
The point here is not that Nelson’s metaphor fails, but that it (1) demonstrates the risk in appealing to science, especially astrophysics, that is in flux and (2) takes us only so far. (Nelson himself recognizes its limits. See Nelson, above, at 26-32.) All this does not mean that the metaphor is not useful. To the contrary, it is very useful. Nelson’s Big Bang metaphor may not take us to the original quantum event which initiated the universe as we know it, but it takes us to within a split second of that event, and to a moment before we were stardust, before there were stars. It underscores the common source of all beings, of all things. And, to the extent it does, it is of a piece with the tapestry being woven by Plaskow and Artson, with material supplied by Einstein, Spinoza and, in some ways, the biblical authors of the Sh’ma. The intent here is not to label either Nelson, Plaskow or Artson as pantheists, merely to observe that some of what each has written is consistent with classic pantheistic expressions on the interconnectedness of the universe and the notion of the equivalence of God and nature.
Contemporary pantheism, however, often rejects its Spinozan origins, effectively favoring pan over theism and resembling, in the end, a paganism against which Judaism has historically stood. There is, though, a related approach, panentheism, which avoids this problem.
Panentheism does not argue that God is everything, but, rather, that God is in everything. That is, it allows for a God that is, in one or some ways, more than merely the sum of the parts of the universe. This orientation also permits new language to be written by poets about the interconnected unity of energy and matter and life, about humanity’s unique role in the natural scheme of things, yet with room for that unknown force or power or energy or field or whatever it was that preceded inflation in the Big Bang model and all that followed and will follow from that first inflation and then subsequent expansion as our universe continues its journey of evolution.
In the cosmic drama that we have only recently begun to understand, Conservative Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky sees “no religious response to the scope of space and time other than worshipping the Name of Existence—the sacred reality in which we participate, but that utterly transcends our place in the cosmos.” (See Kalmanofsky, “Cosmic Theology and Earthly Religion,” in Jewish Theology in Our Time (Jewish Lights 2011), at 26.) In short, accordingly to Kalmanovsky: “Finding God inhering naturalistically in all things — a theory usually called panentheism — is the only adequate religious response to science.” (Id. at 25.) Note that Kalmanovsky is not saying that there is only one response to science. He is saying that there is only one response which is both religious, that is, which includes some concept of (a) God, and adequate, by which he seems to mean serious in its acceptance of modern science.
Pantheism, maybe, and panentheism, more certainly, seem to provide approaches which not only have authentic Jewish connections but may also appeal to what a substantial number of American Jews claim to believe, even if they do not know the names of the philosophies they have intuitively adopted. If this is so, why haven’t the seminaries and synagogues moved in this direction?
Carl Sagan, an astronomer and writer who died too young in 1996, wrote that “(a) religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.” (Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Random House 1994), at 52.) What are we waiting for?