What is Conservative Judaism? Part Two—Paradigm Shifts and a God for Grownups

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 4, 2019 / 27 Tevet 5779

Summary: Rabbi Kosak reflects on how the New Horizons spacecraft represents a remarkably flexible human capacity to shed old beliefs so that we can grow. Our desire for new knowledge isn’t limited to space exploration. Jewish beliefs about God show this same flexibility to incorporate new knowledge. As Conservative Jews, we can take special pride in our brave ability to continue that important spiritual work. Here at CNS, some congregants will do just that in the upcoming God for Grown Ups series, starting on January 20th. Enrollment is still open.

What is Conservative Judaism? Part Two—Paradigm Shifts and a God for Grownups

This past week, the New Horizons spacecraft beamed back to earth images of a small icy world, nick-named Ultima Thule. This oblong, “snow-man” shaped object orbits at the edge of our solar system, in the Kuiper Belt. While this 21 mile long rock may not seem impressive on its own, there is something stunning in the human accomplishment. Our species has sent a monitoring device four billion miles from the sun. Traveling more than 30,000 miles an hour, it was still able to take a focused photograph and then send the image back to us on earth. Scientists hope that, as more complex data from Ultima Thule arrives over the next year and a half, they will come to understand more about how our solar system was formed four billion years ago.

There is something humbling in all this. This exploratory mission highlights the best of humanity—our drive to understand, and the technical lengths we will go to deepen our knowledge are beautiful. While practical insights may ultimately be gleaned, as was the case with the technology developed to send people to the moon, the real meaning of this journey lies not in utilitarian outcomes, but in our capacity to wonder. Who are we? How did we get here? In what manner did our neighborhood in the stars come to be?

How profound will the insights from this discovery be? Will something fundamental change in our view of the universe? It’s still too early to know. What we can do, however, is reflect on the handful of individuals, organizations and inventions who have changed history so completely, that it is hard to imagine what things were like before they showed up on the scene.

Before Galileo and Copernicus’s astronomical findings, it was probably pretty natural to imagine that the world was flat and that the sun circled the earth. These assumptions allowed us to believe that we were the center of the universe. After their discoveries, though, we came to see how minuscule we are in the grand scheme of things, and simultaneously marveled at our ability to peer out into the infinite void.

Other inventions changed life so completely that it is hard to remember what life was like before. The agrarian revolution, electricity, antibiotics, and increasingly, artificial intelligence— each has fundamentally altered our perceptions and the very way we live. An older model of society is upended and replaced by something radically new. The philosopher and physicist, Thomas Kuhn, called these revolutions paradigm shifts.

When a paradigm shift is really successful, it forces us to reinterpret all we knew before. Abraham posited monotheism, and that concept changed the world forever. While there are still pagans today, their beliefs exist on the margins, and few people find their world view compelling. That is because it speaks to another time and place that is radically different from our own (As an aside, I do not view Hinduism as a pagan religion, but that is for another discussion).

Yet what the nature of our one God is has also gone through numerous paradigm shifts since the Jewish people arrived on the historical scene. The Biblical image of God varies in important ways from the rabbinic notions, and they in turn are quite different from the depiction of God that Maimonides put forth in his epic work, “Guide for the Perplexed,” in the 12th century.

Indeed, Maimonides’ effort to reconcile the Biblical account of God with Aristotelian philosophy represented one of the most successful paradigm shifts in how Jews, Muslims and Christians continue to view God to this day. In fact, his work was so successful, that many people continue to accept his perspective as the “orthodox” or correct view of God. There is something tragic in that, however, because the deep impulse behind Maimonides’ thinking was to unite contemporary science with religious thought. In other words, while the Maimonidian model still dominates, it doesn’t provide an image of God that many modern Jews can accept. Contemporary science and its paradigm shifts have far surpassed what Maimonides could resolve. Does that mean that monotheism is dead? Not really, although it is what many of today’s atheists would like people to believe. Yet people like Richard Dawkins are primarily atheists vis a vis a medieval understanding of God. A real respect for Maimonides’ effort to understand God would require us to incorporate contemporary science and culture. When one does so, the beliefs of the new atheists fall apart.

In fact, this is exactly what Jewish theology has been busy with. Whether we are discussing the mystical theology of the Kabbalists, Feminist theology of the late 20th theology, or Rabbi Brad Artson’s adoption of process theology, Jewish theologians throughout the ages have tried to present visions of God that exist in harmony with all that we know about the world. This may strike some people as a bit too heady. But the deeper purpose of theology is to allow us to unite our head, heart and spirit so that we can best connect with God.

At its best, this also strikes me as the mission of Conservative Judaism. Our deep belief in truth—as explored last week by looking at our connection to “historical Judaism”—demands that our Judaism and our experience of God is both rational and passionate. Too many Jews, though, haven’t been given the opportunity to explore how our sages and thought leaders have done just this throughout the ages. As a consequence, many of us struggle with how to bring our whole selves into a meaningful connection with God.

Starting on Sunday, January 20th, a group of us will have the opportunity to do just. In our “God for Grown Ups” class, we will see how vastly our ancestors’ conception of God changed over the millennia. The fact that their understanding changed does not mean their faith was less authentic or that they were guilty of apostasy. Rather, it means that they recognized the paradigm shifts of their age. They boldly preserved our faith and refused to diminish God by forcing the Holy One of Blessing to fit an older, less robust depiction of reality.

A willingness to deepen our knowledge of God in the face of new discoveries is a most profound sort of faith. Real faith is not frightened by doubt, but welcomes the insights it yields. A species that is willing to send a ship across four billion miles of lonely space for the sake of more knowledge?!—well, humanity deserves a God of wonder no less remarkable.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D



Shabbat Table Talk

  1. How often do you still wonder about big questions? If you don’t anymore, can you recall when you stopped asking such questions?
  2. Do you know what you believe about God? What are some important aspects to what you believe?
  3. Who first taught you about God? How did they do so? What did they say? Do you still accept that person/s beliefs?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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