An Evolving Torah from an Evolving God
In synagogue, congregants kiss the Torah while it is still rolled tight, but the minute we unroll and read from it, many of us begin to feel ambivalence. The Torah has much that is beautiful and moving: Abraham arguing with God not to destroy Sodom; the commands not to mistreat to widow, the orphan, and the poor; love your fellow as yourself. At the same time, the Torah contains much that seems:
Irrelevant—list after list of genealogy, census counts, materials for how to build the Tabernacle.
Bizarre—the red cow ritual, all sorts of impurity laws, detailed instructions for how to deal with skin disease.
Factually Wrong—a creation account that cannot have happened as described, the flooding of the earth in the time of Noah; the idea that Israel’s twelve tribes descend from the twelve sons of one man.
Unethical—the Torah commands the killing of witches; the burning of a priest’s daughter if she fornicates; the genocide of entire peoples (Amalekites and Canaanites).
Indeed, the Torah falls out on the wrong side of several moral issues of importance today: If you were looking for a sustained argument that women are only important when they come into contact with men, you could go to the Torah for support, whose laws are generally addressed to men. If you want to claim that homosexual men should be forbidden to have a sexual relationship, you could go to the Torah for that argument.
If you want to argue that humans have the right to do whatever they want to the earth and its non-human inhabitants, you can find passages to bolster your point as well (Gen 1:26, 9:1–7). If you want to claim that Israel has an undisputable right to the land and does not need to make peace with the Palestinians, the Torah can support that too.
Dogma, Rejection, or Something In Between
Many traditionalists believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, and therefore, describes reality as it actually is. The world was created in six days by a God who allows countless people—including the chosen people—to suffer, and is often outraged over idiosyncratic ritual infractions such as mixing linen and wool, consuming animals that don’t chew their cud, and gathering sticks on the Sabbath.
This God is directly responsible for destroying the world in a flood thousands of years ago and for bringing about the destruction of the people of Israel’s homeland multiple times, for their supposed sinfulness. If that’s the world we actually live in, then it pays to read and memorize this book because the consequences of not doing so are just that severe.
Others take the opposite approach. They affirm that the Torah is simply the product of the Israelite people in its infancy. When faced with the many troubling passages of the book and its mythological take on history and the world, many such readers come to the reasonable conclusion that our time and energy can be used on better things than re-hashing this dusty, old book week after week. We could read classic works of fiction, spend time on the beach with family, or meditate silently at a retreat.
Yet a third group falls out somewhere in between. We too, believe that the Torah is essentially a product of the ancient Israelites, but we return regularly to synagogues, churches, classes or podcasts to hear these ancient words, straining to distill something of value, some transformative and elevating message that we continue to insist can be discerned beneath the cover of this book’s rough exterior. It is a book we refuse to abandon for reasons of intuition more than intellect.
We yearn for something biblical, for a kind of meaning and connection to our past, to the divine, to the world. Indeed, we cherish this puzzling, irritating, inspiring book with veneration, marveling at its ability to hold us together as a people and to change the world, often, though not always, for the better. One framework that can help us make some sense of that stubborn intuition is Process Theology, the belief that God affects and is affected by temporal processes.
Process Theology: A Dynamic Cosmos
God is often depicted as an unchanging Being distinct from the universe, and in complete control of everything that occurs, imposing coercive power while we and the rest of the cosmos are simply passive recipients of whatever this God doles out. This, however, is a projection of human cruelty onto the cosmos, as if God is akin to some giant bully in the sky. Instead, process theology posits that we need to think of God as the human term for the unity and dynamism of the universe, the cosmic companion who permeates all of us and everything.
We live in a universe of dynamic and constant change. We are swirling centers of energy, experiencers of the world and creators of experience, constituting each other’s ecology, and God makes this all possible, facilitating all relating and all connection. How we respond to each other in this dynamic universe is something intuitive, internal, and immediate.
We thrive in a universe that is on the way, be-Derekh, a universe that has been evolving over the last 14 billion years towards greater complexity, emerging into stable-enough solar systems, one at least, has regular reliable seasons and water, allowing the beginnings of self-organizing organic material.
On this world, self-organizing organic material eventually complicated itself such that it developed the ability to move, the ability to maintain an internal environment different than outside its own body (a metabolism), and even the ability to gain energy from the sun itself, whether directly or through other living creatures.
One of our great, great, great, great grandparents tried out dry land, and from that bold explorer, we multiplied all over the globe. Some of our ancestors managed to develop opposable thumbs, binocular vision, and the ability to stand upright. And most human of all, our ancestors developed speech and higher-order thinking.
The dynamic quality of our universe that makes this order out of chaos possible, that brings meaning to meaninglessness, is God. Thus, there is nowhere that isn’t marinating in the divine.
Is the Torah God’s Book or Ours?
With this model of divinity in mind, we reframe how we view the Torah. Instead of the two extremes of “every word is literally spoken by a conscious divine being and is true for all time” or the other extreme of “this collection of myths and outdated rules is merely an example of Iron Age Near Eastern patriarchy,” we can explore its meaning through process theology.
On one hand, the Torah cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant and backwards, because we continue to find too much transformative wisdom in this book. We see it shimmer every Shabbat as we read the weekly parashah. This habitual re-reading isn’t merely a cultural happenstance. It’s tapping into something real, but it comes into the world through us, especially through our engaged re-reading through our own experiences, personalities, and insights.
Instead of reading this book as a transcript that dropped out of the sky, or as an outdated fantasy of our ancient ancestors, let’s assume that our ancestors were tapping into the Torah’s mission in a deep way. That they heard the divine call:
ויקרא כו:יב וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי בְּתוֹכְכֶם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי לְעָם.
Lev 26:12 I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.
Our ancestors listened to this message, not with their physical ears, but with their whole selves. Their encounter with the divine came out in the form of stories and rules, described them in terms of their own understanding at the time, using their own vocabulary and language. Our ancestors translated the directionality of the universe, the yearning of the cosmos for greater love, justice, and connection into words: stories to strip open our hearts, wise imperatives and prohibitions to make sure our step.
They transformed their deepest intuitions and life lessons into narratives and guidelines. And as we inherited these stories and commandments, and reinterpret them through our own prism, they continue to embody and express our existential struggles and our loftiest aspirations. They refashion us in their image. By their light, we see light.
Beyond Factual Truth
Indeed, it makes intuitive sense anyone who reveres the Torah to approach its narratives with this attitude. The quickest way to lose the Godliness in a story is to make its value contingent on whether it really happened or not. Thinking that the only kinds of truths are facts will lead you to miss out on Shakespeare and preschool, romance and goodness, grandchildren and community, and a whole lot of relationships and emotions that can lift us beyond ourselves. Facts are just the structure in which the truth of meaning and significance can express itself, like a dreamcatcher.
The truth of the Torah’s stories is not that Abraham argued with God or he did not; that a Pharaoh drowned in the sea or did not. The truth of these stories is that humans should aspire for justice and feel concern for the fate of the innocent; that the universe arcs towards justice and that eventually pharaohs will be brought down, and abominated slaves will be seen as God’s children. These large truths are much more fundamental than the much smaller historical questions of whether the events reported ever happened.
We can say the same about many of the Torah’s laws. Is it important to ensure honest business practices and to protect widows and orphans because, at some point in the past, God literally told us we should do so? Or do we think of such laws as divine, because in our hearts we know that it is wrong to cheat others, and that it is imperative that we have mercy on the unfortunate and offer them our support?
Reclaiming the Torah’s Divinity
In sum, while the Torah does contain all the problematic material mentioned above and more, it cannot be simply written off as an atrocious, ancient book. Instead, it is our job to learn from the good that the book teaches us. As for the bad: we must continue to develop ways to redeem whatever divine spark can be found in those passages, reapplied in a way that fits with contemporary ethical norms.
This is not a new process; we have been spinning our web of creativity and interpretation around Torah ever since we began spinning the web of Torah itself. In our time, this process of midrashic webspinning has revealed the great women who energize the Torah and who show us a way of walking in the world with power and with dignity and with influence.
Most importantly, we continue to take inspiration from the passages that offer wisdom for contemporary times. We notice that the Torah tells us to leave the land fallow every seven years, and every seven times seven years, and we think about how to protect the earth in our own day and age of over-farming, thus reclaiming the deep earth wisdom pulsating in this book. The Torah tells us that we must pay the worker on the same day as their labor, and give everyone a seventh day of rest, and we say, “Sounds like we could use a labor movement.”
This book has been the great-great-grandmother of every social justice movement in human history because people knew that the book was better than our theology. The ideas with which we approached this book drive many wounded people away, and they make another sector of people to take fundamentalist stances, to force our morals to be in line with ancient mores. But if we approach this book in a process theology manner, with all that we are and all that we know, then it leaves us with much to discuss, much to learn, and even more to discover.
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June 20, 2023
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Dr. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. A member of the Philosophy Department, he is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He is also Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. He is a frequent contributor for the Forward, Times of Israel, a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, and is the author of numerous books, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit (2015). www.bradartson.com.
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