Something to Believe In

For Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Judaism carries an ancient wisdom while at the same time is constantly renewing itself. The God Artson describes is a God of connection and hope.

by Rabbi Elianna Yolkut

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We read article after article, study after study, decrying the decline of Jewish commitment and connection. We hear that we are at a defining moment in Jewish history: record numbers of Jews marrying out, decreasing synagogue membership, and more people than ever finding themselves distanced from any Jewish commitment. Our days, it seems, are numbered.

In explaining the cause of these developments, there is one aspect of the conversation that is glaringly absent. No one is addressing what might be our greatest challenge: God. Rather we are missing a clearly articulated vision of Judaism that reaches people in the depths of their souls and offers them faith in a loving, compassionate and renewing God who is ever present in times of challenge and who reflects what people know to be true in their life experience. Perhaps the absence of a serious articulation of God is why people are not drawn toward Jewish life and community.

god of becoming 4CRabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, offers a compelling response to this challenge in his new book, God of Becoming and Relationship (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013). He articulates a holistic approach to God and Judaism that may draw in even those with deep doubts. For Artson, Judaism carries an ancient wisdom while at the same time is constantly renewing itself. The God Artson describes is a God of connection and hope.

Artson expounds on what is known as Process Thought and its integration of religion, science, morality and dogma. Process thought refers to both process theology and process philosophy, a school of thought which sees existence, both human and Divine, as dynamic and becoming, or in other words, changing. While there are certain eternal aspects in the universe, such as God’s goodness and our free will, process thought suggests all existence is growing, changing and moving. These ideas set the stage for a new way for people to connect to Jewish theology. We no longer have to check our knowledge and experience at the proverbial Jewish door. Artson directly addresses the contradiction between the God we know and experience in our lives and the God we have been taught about through text and tradition.

Process Theology rises up to meet us in real life. Why do bad things happen to good people? How can the Torah portray a jealous and vengeful God when the God I experience, or the God I seek, is loving and fills me with hope? Why does God care if I observe the mitzvot? Rabbi Artson notes, “A key shift in Process Theology is that God does not exercise coercive power. God exercises persuasive power. Process thinking asserts that God works through persuasion and invitation, through persistently inviting us to make the best possible choices.”

For Artson, the nature of God’s essence is a lure toward goodness. This means at every moment there is God drawing us toward a choice which will manifest goodness in the world. God draws us into a covenant, a relationship in which we constantly are interacting. Artson shatters the constraints that so many layers of history have painted on God. Those who have insisted that God is simple, unchanging and all powerful are no longer in control of how we experience and know God.

Artson reminds us that the rabbis and the Bible portray God as vastly powerful but not as all-powerful. In Jewish texts, we see that God is at times angry, loving, surprised, or repentant. In other words, God changes and is impacted by our behavior. God thus is also “in process.”

It is not only an overarching theology that Rabbi Artson articulates. He also confronts the question of evil and our struggles with disease and illness, natural disaster and global crises. “Understanding God as the pervasive creativity and novelty that permeates all-becoming invites us to stop thinking about the status of evil and to focus instead on how we fight for justice, well-being and compassion.” In this way, evil and suffering are not theological conundrums but instead a lure toward creating a more perfect world.

Our suffering is not because God is punishing us nor is it even within God’s control. In the process view, the world is built and operates with its own inner logic, based on the physics of the universe. God cannot and does not suspend this order.

However, through God’s retraction during creation – a concept much like the Kabbalistic approach known as tzimtzum – space was opened up for human free will. God created space for a developing, growing human agency. Without God’s retraction our choices would no longer be evolving and changing – and no longer our own. God and human beings are both susceptible to surprise, uncertainty and loss. According to Artson, “God is found not in the suspension of nature’s propensities…but rather in the abiding nature of hope and transforming power of love, a power that is persuasive not coercive.” God can be found in our tenacity at facing these moments of change and tragedy, in our strength and courage. The only alternative is stasis – a static world and a static human being.

In any contemporary theological discussion we must address the question of why: Why observe mitzvot? Why pray? Why make the Torah’s commandments a part of our life, and what does it all have to do with God? Artson writes, “Putting God at the center is how Judaism seeks to correct the distortion of our own selfabsorption… This shift of centrality is not about denigrating our uniqueness or worth. Rather, it is about deriving our
value and contentment from our rootedness in relationship, in our connection with each other and all creation.” Each mitzvah is a blueprint for living a life where God’s lure toward goodness is at the heart of what we do. Doing mitzvot is the method by which we remind ourselves that we are in an eternal covenantal relationship with God, with communities ancient and new, and we experience the possibility of a life actualized in meaning and goodness.

In an increasingly complex world, Judaism faces many challenges. God of Becoming and Relationship directly addresses how to use our faith tradition to bring people closer to Jewish life and community. Within that tradition, Artson articulates a God who is responsive and connected, a God who draws us toward the goodness inherent in each of us, a God who is in relationship with each of us. The God he shares is one who reaches toward us in times of sorrow and joy and lures us toward hope and persistence. Artson’s God draws us to a life of renewal and righteousness, toward justice and meaning. In opening up this God to us, Rabbi Artson gives us the capacity to reach out to others seeking a tradition of faith that reflects their real life experience and challenges.

read an online-exclusive excerpt of God of Becoming and Relationship. To purchase God of Becoming and Relationship, click on the book cover image above.

Elianna Yolkut is a Rabbi Without Borders who strives to bring comfort, Jewish wisdom and connection to people at all life stages. Ordained in 2006 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University, she was an adjunct faculty member there while serving as assistant rabbi at Adat Ari El in Valley Village, California.