Beginning with the 17th century, Judaism, perhaps following the trend that had been shaking up Christianity, went through a theological revolution. The historical reasons for this revolution are debatable and beyond the scope of this project, but the results are not. Prior to this time, it is almost impossible to find serious Jewish scholarship that does not follow some path of traditional Judaism. It might be mystical, it might be philosophical, it might be Talmudic, it may even be straight out of the Bible, but it will almost invariably have some basis in what can be called traditional Judaism, or in more recent years, Orthodox. Though non-Orthodox Jews hate to acknowledge it, prior to about 1600, for all practical purposes Orthodox was the only game in town.
This does not mean that everybody was observant. We have no records to show what percentage of Jews was keeping Halacha or studying Torah on a regular basis. For all we know, half the Jews in any given region were not the least bit observant. But, if that was the case, the rabbis, who have left the bulk of the written records, don’t make much mention of it. There were plenty of apostates, to both Christianity and Islam, some forced and others of their own volition. But as far as we know only one Jew ever went down the lonely path of rejecting religion altogether and abandoning the belief in God. That exception was the celebrated case of the 1st and 2nd century rabbi, Elisha ben Abuya, a heretic with somewhat uncertain leanings. It is probably safe to say that a) he abandoned his belief in the Jewish God, and b) his case was extremely unique.
This all changed in the 17th century. For what may have been the first time, Jews were venturing down that forbidden road and enshrining their beliefs in a systematic form. The first bold steps involved abandoning belief in the personal version of God found in the Bible. A personal God has two primary characteristics: He has a personality (usually depicted as male), and He plays a direct interventionist part in the world, the Jewish nation, and the lives of individuals. The obvious direction to look as an alternative was pantheism.
Pantheism, which for many Jews has a heretical ring to it, is a surprisingly tempting alternative to traditional Judaism. What is pantheism? In a nutshell, it equated God with everything that exists. Nature is God. God is nature. The universe and God are one and the same thing. Pantheism needn’t have a religious component, but neither is it necessarily antithetical to religion. What is so tempting about pantheism? For one thing, it eliminates, in one fell swoop, the question of how a benevolent God could let so much evil happen in the world. The answer, the pantheists say, is that God doesn’t let anything happen in the world. God is the world, the world is God, and **** happens.
If God is the universe, nature, everything, then what room is there for the Bible, for miracles, for the Chosen People, for messianic prophecies, for God resting on the Sabbath, or a zillion other religious essentials? The pantheists have a simple answer to all this – there is no room for it. They don’t buy into any of that. If this is the case then obviously, they are not traditional Jews. So what are they doing in this survey of Jewish ideas about the meaning of life and the purpose of creation? First and foremost, it is because pantheism was an influential and widespread theology that attracted a good deal of Jews over the last few centuries. Second, it was bastard stepchild of the unlikely union of two of the great medieval Jewish systems of thought – philosophy and mysticism.
How is this so? Philosophy was the forerunner of the scientific outlook. That outlook needed a transition phase before adopting atheism as its calling card. Pantheism was the perfect transition phase. There were stages that this transition went through – pantheism, deism, agnosticism, atheism – but the bottom line is a general trend from belief in a increasingly remote God until that God eventually vanished. Pantheism was an attempt to bring that remote God into the world in a manner that did not conflict with rational thought.
Mysticism, on the other hand, had the goal of making God as present as possible. Immanent is the word mystical theologians like to use for this nearness. Pantheism is the logical conclusion of mysticism. It says that God is near because God is simply nature and the natural world. What could be more mystical than the awareness that a tree is not just a tree but God in disguise? All those angels that drove the forces of nature to do whatever they did were really stages in the evolution of belief in God. Instead of angels, why not just call the whole thing God?
If this is so grounded in Jewish belief then why is it borderline heresy, or even flat out heresy? It is because pantheism lacks the crucial element of a personal God. God is as impersonal as ‘It’ could possibly be, devoid of all anthropomorphic elements. God is just the unemotional forces of nature. There is no reason to worship such a God, since God really does nothing for us and does not sense our devotion. It is easy to see how such a belief ultimately evolved into atheism. What is not so obvious is the direct path from philosophy and mysticism into the transitional stage of pantheism.
The first Jewish scholar of note to venture into these unholy waters was a Dutch descendant of conversos named Baruch Spinoza. He became one of the most influential philosophers of the modern era and one of the most infamous Jews. Among other things, his pantheistic and anti-Orthodox beliefs earned him the dubious reward of excommunication by the Sefaradic community of Amsterdam. This doesn’t seem to have had much direct effect on his personality or on his beliefs, other than perhaps furthering his determination to go against tradition. In spite of his excommunication, or more likely because of it, Spinoza has become one of the best known Jews of modern history.
Following Spinoza, Jewish pantheism leads directly into the world of science. The progression from the philosophical world of Spinoza to the theoretical and experimental world of science was not rapid. Scientific development during the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries was frustratingly slow compared to the 20th century. Within Jewish circles it was even slower. There are almost no well known Jewish scientists whose major work was done before the late 19th century. By around the year 1900 a virtual torrent of Jewish names began to take a major role in the scientific world. Heading this trend, of course, are the two towering figures of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Freud will be a primary player in our section on atheists, so we’ll leave him to later. Einstein represents the scientific conclusion to Spinoza’s pantheism.
Einstein was a scientist first, a thinker second, and a Jew third. No matter how many anecdotes one hears or reads about his attachment to Judaism, at the end of the day it was pretty minimal. As far as religion is concerned it was not minimal, but negative. But this does not mean that he didn’t have a spiritual side. Nor does it mean that he didn’t believe in some concept of a higher being. On the contrary, there are a considerable number of quotes that put that entire question to rest. He wasn’t the least bit religious, at least in a formal ‘organized religion’ manner. But he was a theist – a believer in some version of God. He was a pantheist, whose God was embodied in the equations that revealed the hidden unity underlying all things.
The transitional position of pantheism was doomed from the start, as almost all transitional positions are. It was only a matter of time before the pantheists themselves would go the route of the atheists. If God was no longer a personal Redeemer, and was nothing more than a creator who acted once and then let things run on their own accord by becoming submerged in them, then it was only a matter of time before God was dropped altogether. If God is nature, then why not just call it nature and leave out the God part? This inevitable step led most Jewish (and non-Jewish) scientists to abandon any semblance of belief in God. It led most Jewish writers, artists, politicians, even many rabbis, down this same path. Though Jews were at the forefront of many fields in the 20th century, including science, the arts, social activism, environmentalism, business, and technology, only rarely did God play any role in their activities, and even more rarely were they religious.
What could keep a pantheist holding on to a losing proposition such as belief in some version of God? There is one answer to this question. Those who held on did so because they sensed that letting go was admitting that there is no ultimate purpose to life. It was this final step that they could not take. Meaning in life was what kept them from abandoning ship and joining the atheists.
This anchor was epitomized in the work of a psychologist who may not have agreed to being cast in with the pantheists. His name was Victor Frankl, and he is known for his groundbreaking study on the psychological effects of the drive for meaning, which he called logotherapy. His best-known book, called “Man’s Search for Meaning”, recalls his experiences in concentration camps and the powerful force exerted on the will by seeking meaning amidst the horror. Frankl, though not religious, could not agree with his predecessor Sigmund Freud, that we are nothing but glorified monkeys with human egos and ids. Ultimately, his God was lodged deep in the unconscious mind, but exists nevertheless in some sense. Technically, this is not pantheism. God is the source of meaning, an idea that perhaps overlaps with pantheism.
This route is not a religious path, at least not in the conventional sense. But it can be intensely spiritual, possibly even more so than formal religion with its tendency to rote practice. It was, and still is, an alternative to the various religious avenues that sprang up as Judaism encountered the modern world of the last few centuries. It offers meaning and purpose to those who seek it, while leaving those seekers unencumbered by the bonds of tradition. Does it actually work? Does it really provide meaningful answers to the ultimate questions? Or is it a half-way point for those who cannot believe in the old but are unable to jettison it entirely? If God is everywhere then is God really nowhere? There may be no solid answers to these questions, but the questions themselves are intensely meaningful.
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