In God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Lights, Dec.), Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson presents a fresh articulation of Judaism through the lens of process theology, elucidating a dynamic view of the God of Israel, as well as the deeper meanings of revelation, Jewish law, and religious practice. In process theology, everything is in the process of becoming, and does so in relationship with everything else. Even God’s responses are never fixed, but can change in the context of relationships to people and creation.
What was your religious upbringing like?
I was an atheist throughout my childhood. My parents raised me with strong values of social justice, open inquiry, integrity, and a passion for caring for others, but I grew up thinking religion was for stupid people. My childhood memories of my big classical Reform synagogue were of boredom and pomp—though I have come to appreciate that heritage more as an adult—and my energy went into school, tennis, friends, politics. In college I turned toward religion as a way of integrating all my big questions with my passions.
How did you come to the ”fit” between Judaism and process theology?
There was, on one hand, the findings of science and secular knowledge, and on the other, the stories and practices of Judaism, with each making claims that felt mutually exclusive and incompatible – each by itself leading to unworthy extremes. Secularism leads to a meaning-dissolving skepticism, and religious literalism to a smugness and a callousness, neither of which could I accept. Rereading in the sciences led me to rethink how I view reality, not as static or timeless but as dynamic and interacting. That new approach opened my eyes to the wisdom in Torah and rabbinic literature in a new and deeper way. That process erupted as an “Aha!” moment, walking the streets of Jerusalem one day and realizing that the bully in the sky was no longer part of my vision, that I was encouraged and nurtured by the God who loves and nudges creation toward greater wholeness and goodness.
How has process theology affected the way you experience God and find meaning in your life as a Jew and as a rabbi?
In many ways, with two being primary. I can tell a coherent narrative that locates me and my spiritual quest with the findings of contemporary science, the wisdom of the ages, and the practice of mitzvot in a way that is mutually reinforcing and doesn’t require blinders. The second is its emphasis on “prehension,” the intuitive grasp of God’s invitation, what process theology calls “the lure." I now make time for silence, for sitting and listening, so that I can gain an inner clarity regarding what God is beckoning me toward.
How do other people respond when you present a process theology view of Judaism?
Most contemporary Jews are proto-process people. When I give process talks--on God, prayer, mitzvot, ethics--people come up with tears in their eyes and tell me, “I’ve always thought this but I didn’t know I had permission to think it in Judaism.” I’ve had a stream of Holocaust survivors approach me after a talk and tell me that I was the first rabbi whose theology didn’t make them furious and created space for them, their pain, and their yearning.
How do you hope process theology will refresh contemporary Judaism, including your own Conservative Judaism?
Process theology can make the context of Jewish life visible and positive, creating a path for growth in non-fundamentalist learning, non-exclusive practice, and a thoughtful, deep spiritual life. Process thought can be the missing piece that pulls it together, not only for Conservative Jews, but also for many seeking Jews across the lines of denomination or practice.