Monthly Archives: May 2018

Joshua Shanes responds to Eliyahu Stern on Jewish Materialism

Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. He received his B.A. from the University of Illinois and his Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin. Professor Shanes’s research interests focus on Central and East European Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries, specifically turn-of-the-century Galicia and the rise of Zionism as a counter-movement to the traditional Jewish establishment. Dr. Shanes became the Associate Director of Jewish Studies in Fall 2017. He is the author of Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia (Cambridge University Press, 2014).



Response to Eliyahu Stern

Thank you for the invitation to respond to Eli Stern’s important new book and his interview on your blog. Following your prompt, rather than offering a comprehensive book review, I’ll highlight what I think constitute the most salient contributions of the project, point to some pitfalls that need to be avoided in assessing its value, and then offer some personal reflections on the contemporary implications that Stern raises in his interview.

Non-Territorial Zionism

Historians are particularly prone to choose subjects whose absence from contemporary discourse distorts our understanding of a particularly personal contemporary issue. To this end, for example, frustrated at prevalent myths about Jewish national uniqueness, my first book (Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia) documented how early Zionists engaged in precisely the same national project as their non-Jewish peers, with whom they closely interacted. I traced how Zionists at the end of the last century pursued a radical and secular project to nationalize Jewish identity. The concept of Jews constituting a modern nation that warranted national rights – not a territorial state, but rather national minority rights in Europe – was a tough sell, but eventually won the day.

Stern’s book likewise seems to be countering a contemporary narrative that Zionism has always been a project focused on that particular land and political statehood. Stern is revisionist in this sense, though he acknowledges there are others, such as the Israeli scholar Dimitry Shumsky. I have likewise documented how few early Zionists cared about the actual land of Israel, beyond the mythic value it worked in propaganda. I argued that Zionism is best understood as one of the many innovative models (denominations) of Jewishness competing on the Jewish street following the disintegration of the autonomous community and pre-modern traditional Judaism.

Stern’s new work significantly deepens this story. The key intellectual transformation for Stern was the impact of materialist philosophy discovered by Russian Jews in the 1860s and 1870s, who then blended this worldview with Judaism itself, drawing upon biblical, kabbalistic and Hasidic sources, especially Chabad monism. Their categories, Stern repeats often, were above all “land, labor and bodies.” He contrasts this theology with Western denominations that transformed Judaism into a Protestant model focused on spiritual ideals.

By going back to the materialism that was critical for some Zionists – but not all – we also rediscover the centrality of Diaspora for Zionism itself! The point of “land” was not mythic, but rather practical; where could a healthy Jewish economic existence be assured? Thus it is no surprise that Zionists could support even emigration to the United States, where they saw the material structure to support Jewish national life.

Stern dutifully acknowledges scholars into whose work he is integrating his own contribution, but I notice a tendency of his to claim greater innovation than is warranted. To be sure, this is a critical piece of the puzzle that has been ignored for too long. I believe the argument would be strengthened, not weakened, though by narrowing the claim of his innovation. In a sense, Stern is less discovering something new – although I am not familiar with any work that traces this intellectual pedigree so thoroughly – then returning us to the materialist interests of some early Zionist historians themselves.

Post-war scholarship has trended against such materialist focus, and Stern’s work brings us back to this fundamental transformation of those early decades. He’s telling us that we have overreacted and are missing something important thereby.

When understood this way, it actually opens up new avenues of thinking. For example, my own work proved that Zionists were far more interested in building Jewish national consciousness and securing national minority rights in Diaspora than they were in any state building project in Palestine. This was an inherently secular project, focused above all on this world, not the world to come. Materialism lets us focus on land as a physical space.

Indeed, one of Smolenskin’s most remarkable comments noted the sand quality in Palestine for glass manufacturing, emphasizing it was not the Garden of Eden but an actual place on Earth. Focused on economic viability and healthy bodies. Smolenskin is a great figure to include, as he exemplifies the bridge between the Haskalah and its successor movements in the East, what Israel Bartal and others call the “National Haskalah.” Indeed, I think Stern’s distinction between post-maskilic Jewish materialism and the ideals of the Haskalah itself is overstated at times.

Limits on these Claims

First, any intellectual history bears the challenge of proving influence, both within the intellectual biography of an historical figure, and beyond that elite circle into a broad social movement. In some cases, this can be easily solved by intellectual genealogy. For example, Mordechai Kaplan was clearly quite influenced by his teacher, Joseph Sossnitz, and thus Stern’s argument for connection between the latter and the development of American Jewish notions of peoplehood is quite strong.

Actually, this book serves as a terrific prolegomenon to Noam Pianko’s Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation, perhaps suggesting it wasn’t quite so American after all, as well as Pianko’s earlier work on Kaplan in Zionism and the Roads Not Taken. I note that Stern intends to continue to pursue this line in his future work, which I eagerly await.

But other connections are more tenuous. I don’t recall a single leading Zionist – or Orthodox figure – in my own study of Galicia whose political philosophy connects to Jewish materialism in this way. Their attraction to Zionism came from other influences, although I imagine with this new perspective I will find evidence of it in some cases when I return to look for it. More fundamentally, proving the connection between an intellectual elite and a broad social movement is virtually impossible, even if intellectually exciting to consider.

I will leave it to specialists in Russian intellectual history to evaluate the accuracy of his portrayal of his pantheon, although the book was meticulously documented and is quite persuasive. However, his comments in the book and especially in the interview expanding beyond that elite group to explain the entire spectrum of modern Jewish politics – indeed even just to explain Zionism itself – overreaches to my mind. For example, Stern’s description of Ahad Ha’am as focused on “spiritualizing the idea of Jewish land, labor, and bodies” strikes me as a problematic reading of Ahad Ha’am.

Stern’s work should be used to enrich our understanding of the variant paths of Zionist leaders, rather than seeking to fit them into a single mold. For example, Gideon Shimoni famously distinguished between “disillusioned integrationists” – highly acculturated Jews who came to Zionism after experiencing anti-Semitism – and “modernizing ethnicists,” Jews who came out of a thickly Jewish cultural milieu but sought in Zionism a form of Jewishness that was modern, secular and still felt authentically Jewish. The latter category tended towards models of cultural Zionism that were far more interested in Jewish cultural questions than material existence, while the former tended towards precisely those material issues.

This is the distinction famously made between Theodor Herzl and Ahad Haam, but I found precisely this dichotomy in almost the entire leadership of Galician Zionism in its first decades. So stark was the distinction that a century before Gideon Shimoni ever noticed it, they were already discussing the phenomenon. Modernizing ethnicists were not especially interesting in Jewish materialism, in the Jewish body, and even less so in the Jewish land.

Perhaps the classic Zionist leader from the “disillusioned integrationist” category is Max Nordau, Herzl’s number two, but far more famous in his own day. No discussion of the Zionist obsession with remaking the Jewish body can avoid addressing Nordau and the Zionist Turnbewegung, or gymnastics movement. But even here, I personally don’t see how Nordau and the Jewish Turnbewegung comes out of the Jewish materialists of the 1860s and 70s, rather than the zeitgeist of nationalist sports clubs. In any event, it’s an elephant in the room that needs discussion.

I don’t imagine most of the non-academic readers excited by the implications of Stern’s ideas from the interview will find in the book the exploration that they seek. It is a hardcore technical intellectual history, closely and comprehensively tracing the intellectual development of a dozen key figures and following another dozen slightly less comprehensively. It will be required reading for all specialists. That said, the interview – and to a lesser extent the book itself – does raise some exciting questions:

American Jewry and Modern Orthodoxy

Stern argues that his research proves the “deep spiritual background to [American Jewry’s] progressive character.” The question of the anomalousness of American Jewish political behavior continues to vex specialists. This was immortalized in Milton Himmelfarb’s quip that Jews “earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans”, that is, they maintain a liberal politics despite achieving economic success. Certainly, Stern’s research suggests that the intellectual legacy of Judaism as demanding “fair distribution of the social surplus” and the protection of laborers warrants serious attention. But there are many other factors at play, and this pedigree alone hardly suffices to explain it all.

I am especially interested in Stern’s musing on contemporary Modern Orthodoxy. He cautions us to focus on the economic implications of religious life, as his subjects did 150 years ago. That wealth or the willingness to live off charity are critical aspects of choosing a modern Orthodox life in America is incontrovertible and warrants serious discussion. And this does have political consequences, above all in regards to the endless struggle for private school tuition vouchers.

But Stern’s penchant for broad statements misses the mark. He declared that Orthodox, “vote for Trump for the same reasons that they support school vouchers and day schools; it advances the reproduction of their wealth.” No, this explanation of recent Orthodox voting patterns is avoiding the critical role of Modern Orthodox culture and ideology, and there are many signs that point to this.

First of all, non-Orthodox Jews are not poorer than their Orthodox counterparts. Indeed, with more disposable income they should be even more inclined towards conservative candidates. But they are not. Non-Orthodox Jews voted against Trump in higher numbers than any demographic, besides African-Americans. Moreover, poorer Haredim were more likely to vote for Trump than their modern counterparts.

The economic argument only goes so far. People vote and act against their economic interests all the time. Countless studies have emerged since 2016 documenting that race and racial identity was the most consistent marker of voting patterns in 2016. To ignore Trump’s white nationalist politics – and the studies that demonstrate its effectiveness – is to repeat the mistake of Marxists a century ago who confidently predicted no world war could break out because socialists would prevent it. Instead, even the socialist parties themselves voted for war. Nationalism – tribalism – cannot be reduced merely to economic motivations.

I have written at length elsewhere about the crisis in Orthodoxy today in its embrace of Trump; evidence is widespread, and not just in dark red islands like Boro Park, Flatbush and West Rogers Park.

Thus the Orthodox Union, for example, swooned over Trump – a hate-mongering demagogue – for withdrawing from the Iran agreement. But they had nothing to say about the erosion of CHIP funding; about the deliberate separation of children from their parents *legally* seeking asylum in America; about Mike Pence praising Joe Arpaio as a man of law; or about countless examples of Trump’s hate-mongering, dehumanizing rhetoric, just to name a few examples in the week prior to the Iran decision. The exaltation crested in America and Israel during and after the opening of the embassy office in Jerusalem, a christening ceremony blessed by purveyors of hatred and even anti-Semitism John Hagee and Robert Jeffress.

“Political tribalism has trumped decency,” I wrote at the time of the inauguration, “as Orthodox Jews turned out in droves for a man who ran on xenophobic hatred, gross misogyny, race baiting, calls for violence, ignorance and conspiracy paranoia, an alliance with neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and a narcissistic cult of personality unlike anything in American history.” In the 18 months since that appeared, the situation has sharply deteriorated. And Orthodox support for Trump has sharply increased. It is not an economic issue, even less so than it is for the country as a whole.

Without minimizing the need to address the economic crisis, I believe instead that this moral crisis in Orthodoxy is far more essential to the meaning of Orthodoxy and its future. Our relationship to Trump and Trumpism is the single most important moral issue of our generation, and Orthodoxy is largely failing it. This will have a lasting impact on the meaning of Orthodoxy, as it will on Evangelical Christianity as well. We can’t escape ideology, identity and, yes, racism by focusing on economics and materialism.


I likewise reject explanations focused on Israel, per se, because it too is based on cultural assumptions and selective memory. President Obama, flaws and all, was a solidly pro-Israel president. On a personal level, he was almost certainly the most believing Zionist. (I urge anyone who has not yet seen it to watch his eulogy for Peres, which he personally wrote on the plane to the funeral.) His widespread rejection by the Orthodox reflects a broader American trend of Evangelical politics, to which Orthodoxy is increasingly connected, as well as racialized space of discourse that at least passively believed this black man could not have Israel’s interests at heart.

It also reflects the fact that he was a believing liberal Zionist, and even Jews who profess such ideals are often attacked as anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic. What I wrote last year remains true today: personal attacks, comparisons of the president to Antiochus (and calls for both to be blotted out), explosive vitriol totally divorced from reality, racist attacks, “stab in the back” rhetoric and horrific iconography remain widespread today in many Orthodox circles. This is not about economics; derision of Obama and slavish praise of Trump have become integrated into much of Orthodox religious culture.

Finally, returning briefly to Stern’s reflections on Israel and Zionism. Stern’s observations that the religious fetishization of the land is relatively new are spot on. However, I think he exaggerates the extent to which Zionism was focused on achieving greater economic equality, although that was a goal of the Labor Zionists most responsible for founding the state. The key ultimately was Jewish self-realization, understood in starkly secular terms.

But there is a broader connection between contemporary Zionism and its earliest decades in the nineteenth century, and Stern points to it in demonstrating how his thinkers reconfigure Judaism itself to reflect their materialist ethos. Zionism has always constituted a range of “religious” denominations, forms of Jewishness.

Zionism answers the same basic questions as its Liberal, Haredi, and other competitors: What are a Jew’s essential obligations? What are its most important “holy” days and rituals? Who is a member of the community in good standing and who, by their actions or beliefs, has moved beyond the pale? What texts and traditions are most important and how do you interpret them? What texts and traditions are ancillary and can be discarded? Contemporary rhetoric that outs anti-Zionists – and that term has become quite elastic in the hands of the current Israeli government and its supporters – as “heretics” and “enemies of the Jewish people” reflects this reality.

In any event, I applaud Stern’s call to recognize the economic consequences of a modern religious life and to create spaces, and forms of Judaism, that break this pattern. I would hope that the search for new models of Orthodoxy would consider the moral crises outlined above.

As a religious denomination, Orthodoxy should easily be able to separate from this Judaism of right-wing politics. We supposedly have a world of Torah depth – notions of God’s presence, or at least daily prayer, study and mitzvot – on which to base our Jewish communities and identities. And yet in many communities, the “heresy” of supporting Liberal Zionism – or God forbid advocating for a binational democratic state — brings greater social consequence than outspoken atheism or even openly violating Shabbat. We should be able to build a religious community as committed to the prophets as it is to the Code of Jewish Law Orach Chayim, as committed (as Jewish values) to condemning racism and hate-mongering as it is to learning, as committed to legislation and social policy that protects the vulnerable as it is to shabbes and kashrus observance.

And, finally, a community that does all of this without setting those values aside when it comes to Israel, and without replacing any of those core pillars of Judaism with the civic religion of nationalism, which so easily becomes a form of idol worship, elevating land and stones over people and God. For myself, in any event, it should avoid confusing our relationship to Torah and God from the political goal of Jewish democratic sovereignty. It can recognize the importance of Israel and its legitimacy and avoid demonizing language against Jews that privileges Palestinian sacred narratives over Jewish ones. At the same time, it can understand that project as a secular enterprise without exploiting Jewish symbols and eschatological language out of their original context for secular purposes. And can recognize the validity of competing Palestinian narratives, their right to equal treatment, and the immorality of the occupation.

Scattered communities of Jews approaching this model do exist, although they tend to blend progressive opposition to racism and social injustice with a messianic Zionist theology – and a commitment to Israel’s presence in the West Bank – even more radical than most.

Perhaps academic research such as Eliyahu Stern’s can help us challenge the myths, the sacred narratives, that block us from seeing these possibilities, assuming the community can accept its findings.

I’ll conclude with my final thoughts on why these matters on not just economic but also cultural with a quote from an op-ed that I wrote 18 months ago:

Recently, the iconic Orthodox superstar Mordechai ben David – performing in Jerusalem – shared his joy that the “kushi” would leave the White House, a Hebrew term that in this context best translates as the n-word. The audience cheered, comfortable with the racist slur and blending their rightwing Israeli and American political agendas with their identity as “Orthodox” Jews. The singer assumed (safely) that his audience agreed with the sentiment and with his manner of expressing it. We have work to do.

Interview with Eliyahu Stern- Jewish Materialism.

Several years ago after he finished his book on the Vilna Gaon, Professor Eliyahu Stern thought he was going to write a book about trends in Russian Jewish entry into modernity, a book reflective of a survey course.  There was going to be Mitnagdim and Hasidim as well as Zionist and secular. However, the more time he spent with Russian Jewish ideas, the more he found that the shift in the 19th century was not to secularism and Zionism but to materialism. When Stern found Mitnaged Orthodox rabbis who were Marxists and Darwinists and simultaneously Kabbalists, he knew he was onto something. Therefore, Eliyhau Stern recently wrote a book on this important aspect of Russian Jewry entitled Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s (Yale 2018)

materialism cover

Elli Stern is Associate Professor at Yale University. He received his Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley in 2008 having studied with Daniel Boyarin and Martin Jay. Prior to that, Stern was ordained by RIETS. From 2009-2010 he was Junior William Golding Fellow in the Humanities at Brasenose College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. His first book entitled, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism  (Yale University Press , 2012). He has served as a term member on the Council on Foreign Relations a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and a consultant to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. Most importantly, he now has tenure at Yale. Accordingly, some people should be afraid; he will not suffer fools lightly.

Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s is a tour-de-force of rewriting the history of Russian Jewish thought away from intellectual issues- that parallel Western Europe- such as Enlightenment, haskole, nationalism, secularism, or Zionism- and toward their own 19th century Russian concern with materialism.  The volume shows mastery of Russian and Yiddish sources as well as important bibliographic sleuthing showing how 20th century Zionist editions of 19th century works removed the Russian literature and the materialism and replaced with Zionism

Example of his cast of characters include: Rabbi Isaac Baer Levinsohn (RIBaL) (1788–1860), who should not be situated just in the enlightenment project, rather he should be seen as dealing with questions of economic base and productivity.

The father of Jewish socialist Aharon Shemuel Lieberman (1843–1880), should not be seen as secular but as materialist, in that, he combined the Lurianic Kabbalah of Ramhal (Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto) with Karl Marx, a move of materialism not secularism.

Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz combined Kabbalah with Darwin; the innovation is the materialist turn to Darwin while remain an Orthodox rabbi who wrote Kabbalah.   In someone else’s hand, this might of become a rouges gallery of obscure kabbalists and Jewish scientists, but in Stern’s hands, the book become a major study of the Jewish entrance into modernity.

Why should I care about this materialism? First, it changes the narrative of Russian Jewish modernity.

Second, as an analytic category it has vital uses to explain many diverse aspects of contemporary Jewish life. For example, the best way to explain the difference between the creation of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism is that the former was a cultural middle class project while the latter was a materialist project of jobs and self-sufficiency.

Or one can reframe much of the Russian Jewish immigrant experience as a materialist movement creating Lower East side socialism, or even modern synagogues with names such as Hebrew Alliance or Hebrew Institute were originally aimed to uplift the working class. They do not fit into our current denominational models. It is also worth noting that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan received ordination from the religious Zionist Rabbi Reines and studied with the scientist Darwinist kabbalist Sossnitz allowing for a reconceptualization of the project of early 20th century modernizing rabbis.  Or that the cultural project of Ahad Haam was relying on these prior materialists.

Third, it opens up new ways to read other works. Contemporary historian Jeffrey Veidlinger notes in his Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Indiana, 2009) that the books most read by late 19th century Jews in Jewish public libraries were the materialists Nikolay Chernyshevsky & Dmitrii Pisarev. Zionism, Jewish worker’s movements, the musar movement, Mitnagdut, and early 20th century Hasidism were all responding to Russian materialism. After Stern’s narrative, we can go back to these movements and see what they were responding to in their works.

Stern’s book is however incredibly restrained and terse. The writing is so clipped that one needs to look up the biographic details as well as the philosophic details elsewhere.  A reader unfamiliar with Russian materialists such as Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Dmitrii Pisarev, or Nikolai Dobroliubov would not know the oblique references about Narodism or materialist theories.

And more tragically, the classics of Russian Jewish intellectual life have never been translated into English and are nearly forgotten compared to common knowledge of German Jewish thinkers. The books of Isaac Baer Levensohn, Rashi Fuenn,  or Moshe Leib Lilienblum are unknown today despite their importance in their own time. A reader of translations is sorely needed to create a canon of Russian Jewish intellectual history to correspond to the German one. However, Stern tight prose assumes great familiarity with these works and does not offer introductions or extensive translations.  Stern also does not directly deal with the bigger issues of Werner Sombart or Jews and capitalism.

In order to keep a crisp narrative on materialism, Stern has already spun off two side articles from his research. The first is entitled “Catholic Judaism: The Political Theology of the Nineteenth-Century Russian Jewish Enlightenment” which deals with how Russian Jews – focusing on Levinsohn and Fuenn- defended the Talmud as tradition, the same way Catholics defended their reliance on the teachings of the Church. And the other article is “Marx and the Kabbalah: Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s Materialist Interpretation of Jewish History,” which was removed to be a separate article because he was not writing a history of the Kabbalah in Russia.

This interview concludes with some application by Stern of his ideas to contemporary forms of Modern Orthodox and Zionism. His views on Modern Orthodoxy in Question #10 is meant to challenge those who ignore materialism.


  1. What is the thesis of your book Jewish Materialism? And how does it change the way we see 19th century Russian Jewish history?

The book tries to answer what accounts for Jews’ over-representation in late nineteenth and twentieth century political-economic movements such as Communism, Capitalism, Socialism, and Zionism.

Jewish Materialism argues that before we look at immigration patterns (to Palestine and the United States) class, anti-Semitism or marginality, we need to take into account the way in which Judaism itself in the 1870s was redefined around a new set of categories, namely around land, labor, and bodies. It was this conceptual shift that laid the groundwork for Jews’ involvement in movements ranging from Zionism to Communism to Bundism and in some instances capitalism and minority rights.

Jewish Materialism challenges the narratives of modern Jewish politics and modern Judaism by overcoming the bifurcation of “Judaism” as a religion and “Jew” as a secular political description. Scholars of modern Judaism have largely focused on the way Jewish metaphysics, eschatology, revelation, and ethics were reinterpreted to reflect models put forward by modern Protestant and German idealist thinkers. On the other hand, modern Jewish historians have studied the secular nature of modern Jewish politics and labor movements. This division between Judaism as a set of religious ideas and beliefs and Jews as a secular historical-political category is pronounced in the way the modern Jewish experience is most commonly divided in the American academy between departments of Religious Studies (Judaism) and History (Jews). The new agenda put forward in Jewish Materialism challenges this distinction and in so doing explains the experiences of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Jews more accurately. It also wagers that such an approach will better illuminate the historical underpinnings of the major contemporary markers of Jewish identity in United States and Israel.

Instead of concentrating on Western European lands, where the division between “Jew” and “Judaism” was conceptually developed and economically reified through a set of institutions and practices, Jewish Materialism focuses on the Russian Empire, where these categories were often employed interchangeably. By focusing on Russian Jewish thinkers, the book returns Marx and Darwin’s economic and scientific writings (rather than the various forms of idealism and ethics promulgated by Immanuel Kant and his followers) back to the center of modern Jewish thought. It was in Russian lands where Jews began to read Marx and Darwin through a specifically Jewish lens. Conversely, it reveals the kabbalistic, Hasidic, and biblical sources for today’s supposedly “secular” modern Jewish politics. Jews in Russia read Marx as part of a Jewish prophetic tradition and identified the project of historical materialism as reflecting a new form of tikkun olam.

2)      If your book is about a revolution in the 1870s why do you begin in 1795?

The material condition of Jews living in Russia in the 1870s was a by-product of political events that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1795 the Russian Empire, along with the kingdoms of Prussia and Austria, completed the third and final partition of the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russia acquired large swaths of territory spreading east of the Nieman River and down into Volhynian Ukraine. With its territorial expansion it also gained a number of new religious and ethnic groups. Now, Russia ruled over not only Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Catholics but also over roughly one million Jews. This Jewish community had existed for two hundred years as a corporate entity–a state within a state. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews were allowed to establish their own courts and civic institutions in return for taxes paid by leaders of local Jewish corporations. The corporate leaders negotiated these taxes, as well as the Jews’ legal and residential rights, with the Polish aristocracy. The Polish-Lithuanian Jews did not fit into any preexisting socioeconomic category of the Russian Empire. Their customs, dress, and languages appeared foreign and strange within the largely Christian, agrarian world. Jews were for the most part not agriculturalists. And as Jews they were barred from owning property or joining Christian guilds. The empire struggled to determine how best to rule its new population.

Russia was not the first state to be confronted with a seemingly independent Jewish population. For at least two decades, France and Prussia had been taking decisive steps toward dismantling medieval corporate institutions and assimilating their Jewish populations into new confessional and economic structures. In France and Prussia, Judaism would be increasingly restricted to family law, rituals practiced in the home, and services conducted in the synagogue.

In contrast to their coreligionists in Paris and Berlin, Jews residing in Russian lands in the second half of the nineteenth century remained landlocked, sidelocked, and locked out of major labor markets and state offices. Unlike Jews living in Prussia, France, and Britain, Jews living in the Russian Empire did not experience any material improvement to their lives. In fact, Jews in the Russian Empire were still denied basic access to land and labor markets even late in the nineteenth century. The state identified Jews as a foreign entity. Jews dressed in different clothes from those of other Russian subjects, they worked in circumscribed labor markets, and, for the most part, they resided in designated lands. They were not alone in their polarization: the Russian Empire also discriminated against Catholics and Muslims at various times.

The Russian Empire was not simply unable to provide basic material necessities for Jews well-being; increasingly, it began to appear that it was precisely because Jews were Jews that they were being materially discriminated against. For Jews living in Russia “the Jewish Question” quickly turned into a material question:  Would Jews ever be able to obtain the necessary means for ensuring their survival.

3) What happened in the 1870’s in Russia that warrant the focus of your book?

In the 1870s there was a reevaluation of Judaism through the material & physical world:We can point to at-least three factors.

  1. When the serf population was emancipated in 1861, Jews, for the most part remained circumscribed and limited in their professional options. By the 1870s, the stagnant Jewish population begins to experience the economic repercussions of the emancipation of the Russian serfs. The newly emancipated serfs flooded Jewish handcrafting markets creating a glut of laborers and fierce competition for jobs. Jews began to become acutely aware that being Jewish in Russia meant that you had a limited economic profile.
  2. Jews begin to experience increased physical threats and decreased access to resources. In 1871 the Jews of Odessa suffered a pogrom. Their bodies were being marked and punished for being Jewish. Anti-Semitism was not something social; it was becoming something physical and violent.
  3. Marx’s and Darwin’s writings begin to be translated into Jewish languages in Russia. The reception of Marx among Jews in the 1870s was unique. Marx made Jews see themselves as political actors through their labor. One did not have to be a citizen of State to see oneself as a political actor with the capacity for revolutionary activity. Russian Jews read Darwin through a uniquely Jewish prism and attempted to redefine Judaism through the struggle for survival.

4)      What are the three types of materialism, social, scientific, and practical?

As the Jewish memoirist Pauline Wengeroff remarked, a “whole new set of household words” emerged in the 1870s. These included, “nihilism, materialism, assimilation, Anti-Semitism, and decadence.” The term materialism was used to describe various intellectual movements and likewise, when employed in Jewish contexts materialism meant a range of different things.

Even in the 1860s and 1870s there was no consensus about what the term materialism meant. Scientists, social commentators, economists and philosophers all used the term in multiple and often competing ways. For example, F.A. Lange’s grand work The History of Materialism–praises “scientific materialism” in the context of critiquing L. Büchner’s “philosophical materialism.”  In my work, I explore the various discourses in which the term materialism was employed, using each as a locus of discussion.

For Moses Leib Lilienblum, being a materialist meant promoting “a materialistic perspective on life,” in which social practices and religious institutions were scrutinized according to universal scientific principles of efficiency and utility.

For the Darwinian Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz, it translated into being a proponent of a “materialistic religion” based on reading the Bible and Kabbalah through the works of Darwin and Vogt.

For the Marxists Aaron Shemuel Lieberman and Isaac Kaminer, being a materialist entailed practically transforming the world through a critical analysis of history with “labor being the first principle of life.”  All these social, scientific and practical definitions of materialism circulated throughout Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, often overlapping with monistic and certain strands of positivistic thought. What is unique, however, about this book’s protagonists is the way in which they connected these forms of materialism to their identity as Jews. Their Jewishness was defined by the way they related to physical world, to land, to labor and bodies.

5)      Why do we do we need to know about Lilienblum, Sossnitz, Shur, and Lieberman?

Jewish Materialism addresses people’s biographies only insofar as it illuminates something about their political and intellectual significance.

Moses Leib Lilienblum’s role as the founder of Zionism in Eastern Europe turns on his conversion from a melamed to the political upstart who said “in taten aryin.” His break with the rabbinate and critique of the Jewish enlightenment was based on the fact that in Russia both were equally impotent at helping him to procure the necessary means of survival.

The father of Jewish socialism, Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s embodied the very political revolution he helped to put into motion. His transformation from a husband and supporter of the Russian State to an outlaw and a bisexual occurred while he was turning the pages of Marx’s Capital and Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s 138 Gates of Wisdom. Lieberman’s life expressed in bold relief the radical sexual and political impulses in the kabalistic tradition and allows us to see why the concept of tikkun olam animated Jewish revolutionary activity.

Joseph Leib Sossnitz’s path from Habad Hasidism to proponent of a materialistic religion laid the groundwork for the idea of Jewish peoplehood developed by his American student, Mordechai Kaplan. Sossnitz’s own crisis with Habad’s acosmicism brought him to identify God in nature and to see the Jews as a distinct species.

Finally, the future Communist revolutionary Hasia Shur’s experience of being pelted with stones for taking a Shabbat walk hand in hand with Eliezer Tsukerman provides a window onto the way sexual and social liberation went hand in hand with political liberation.

The book tries to explain why these colorful vignettes in fact reflected a crucial turning point in Jewish politics.

6)      How did this effect Zionism?

Zionism was first and foremost a movement that redefined what it meant to be Jewish: Judaism went from being understood as a religion focused on rituals, reason, and study to a collective identity whose touchstones were the protection of Jewish bodies and the fair and equal distribution of resources. It is for this reason that Leon Pinsker and Judah Leib Levin and even Moses Lilienblum originally saw the immigration of Jews to the United States and Palestine as being part of the same movement. Zionism was not founded on the fetish for a particular parcel of land in the Middle East, it was directed at ensuring Jews physical protection and diversifying their labor profile. For the Jewish materialists, the choice between Palestine and the United States was rather minimal; the viability of one or the other was based on a cold and rational calculation of what option would offer greater forms of material protection and opportunities.

Zionism, as understood by the Jewish materialists, stood in opposition to Orthodox economics and politics: the shuls, yeshivot, hechsherim, and rabbanim, and the idea that Jews should be passive subjects to rulers of the various nation-states and Empires in which they resided. Lilienblum made Jews aware that they were starving because of a religious lifestyle and a set of values that drained their resources, and because of their support for a Tsar who could not adequately protect them.

7)      How have people read Klausner incorrectly?
Joseph Klausner is the scholar who came closest to identifying my thesis, but ultimately he also became the largest stumbling block to my research. Klausner was the first to recognize the novel historical impact Marx and Darwin had on eastern European Jewish thinkers in the 1870s. He knew that the Jewish reception of Marx and Darwin (and for that matter Chernyshevky and Pisarev) had radically changed the way Jews understood Judaism and related to their surroundings.  But Klausner submerged these insights into a broader theory of Zionism.

In his writings Klausner consistently insinuated materialism into ancient Jewish sources making it difficult to see the ways in which the materialist idea emerged in Jewish circles in the 1870s. “What do you mean Jewish materialism is a new idea?” Klausner might say, “look, here it can be found in the Bible!” To be sure, Klausner knew that Marx and Darwin could not be found in the Bible. but due to his own disputes with Marxist Zionists and Bundists, he asserted that the conceptual provenance of Zionism could be traced back to the words of the biblical prophets. It was only a matter of time until the writings of Marx, Darwin, and Chernyshevsky would be passed off by Zionists and Bundists as a form of “biblical messianism.”

In this regard Klausner followed in the footsteps of Asher Ginzburg, Ahad Ha-Am (who followed in the footsteps of Smolenskin). Scholars often forget that Ahad Ha-am’s insistence that Zionism was a spiritual movement was built on the material premise first put forward by Lilienblum and Lieberman via Chernyshevsky, Darwin and Marx. In other words, Ginzburg in the 1880s and 1890s was not secularizing ideas that could be traced back to Hasidic or Biblical sources; rather, he was spiritualizing the idea of Jewish land, labor, and bodies first articulated by the Jewish materialists in the 1870s.

8)      How does this change the way we see the breakdown of the religious world?

This is one the most important claims made in the book: the breakdown of the religious world did not come through what are often identified by scholars’ as a secular Jewish modernity:  the rejection of God and religious reform.

It came through the rejection of Orthodox economics and Jews’ revaluing the physical world. The Jewish materialists explained how the resources Jews were putting into yeshivot, synagogues, schools, and rabbis had come at the expense of protecting their bodies and developing their labor capacities.

As the founder of Zionism, Moses Leib Lilienblum explained in 1871, “[Jews labor profile primarily consisted of] the professions of preaching, religious adjudication, teaching, cantoring, matchmaking, writing, kabbalistics, synagogue work, psalm recitation, prayer recitation, seminary studies, asceticism, those who make their living from dowries, creditors, the fear of heaven and thievery.” Lilienblum’s answer to this problem was not to reform the Jewish soul-changing Jews beliefs reinterpreting Scripture or reforming Jewish rituals–but rather to see the Jewish body—its sustenance, maintenance, and protection—as the primary site of identity and then to ask how Jews might go about healing that body.

9)   Is this a book just about the 1870s, or does it have a message for contemporary Jewry?

The book concludes with a cliffhanger: Lieberman, Smolenskin, and Lilienblum debating the pros and cons of joining Russian revolutionary politics, immigrating to the United States, or traveling to Palestine. This debate, of course, foreshadows the big story of modern Jewish politics and present day debates over identity politics and economics and I touch on some of those issues in the Conclusion.

But for American Jewry, the most important takeaway is the deep spiritual background to its progressive character.

The poverty stricken Russian Jewish immigrants who followed in Lieberman and Winchevsky’s footsteps and arrived on these shores became leaders in progressive, socialist, communist, and other left wing political and economic movements. Inevitably, these movements were directed at rectifying America’s discriminatory economic system. From progressives (such as the future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) to socialists (such as Forward founder and publisher Abraham Cahan) Jews advanced a political agenda for the fair distribution of the social surplus and the protection of citizens’ rights as laborers. “The labor question is and for a long time must be the paramount economic question in this country,” Brandeis once remarked.

Their investment in these movements was not simply an attempt to be American or a rejection of their Jewish backgrounds. It reflected the kinds of sensibilities and assumptions about Judaism that were first outlined by the Jewish materialists. As I have detailed elsewhere, for these thinkers there is a clear line that runs from Luria to Luzzatto’s kabbalah to Lieberman’s Marxism. The American Jewish Left’s employment of Tikkun Olam to describe their commitment to social and economic equality was rooted in a long tradition that runs back to the very first yeshiva bochruim who read Marx in the 1870s and became the founders of Jewish socialism, Zionism and Communism.

10) …And what would the Jewish materialists say about contemporary Modern Orthodoxy?    

Jewish materialists, like Lilienblum and Lieberman, would have chuckled at a recently published 100-page sociological survey on Modern Orthodoxy. Its authors asked participants every ideological, halakhic, and theological question that you could imagine. But they forgot to ask them the most simple and basic question about their own lives: What do you do? What is your profession?

Lilienblum and Lieberman remind us that it is a mistake to examine Orthodoxy’s beliefs and spiritual positions independent of its adherents’ class profile. As I detail in Chapter Two, Lilienblum wanted Jews to realize the full implications of what it meant that religious life was an economic choice.

That means instead of understanding Orthodoxy by asking its adherents about their beliefs regarding God, Jewish law, and Torah U-madda, they should first ask them what kind of labor they perform. The Jewish materialists insist that if we want to understand Orthodoxy, we should not begin with its scholastic debates over the status of philosophy or secular knowledge. Instead we must look at its adherents’ marital patterns, zip codes, and the maintenance of boundaries (membership and conversion) that ensures a certain kind of social economy.

By starting with questions surrounding class, you will be able to better understand the cost of day schools, shul membership, and the adoption of various halakhic stringencies far better than if you begin by asking people if they accept or reject a certain paragraph in Karo’s Code. If the Judaism being promulgated by Modern Orthodoxy costs too much it is not Maimonides or Karo fault; it is because ultimately, Orthodoxy’s adherents are invested in it costing that much and want to ensure that only certain individuals can afford to be Orthodox or Jewish.

Applying Lilienblum’s insights to contemporary Modern Orthodoxy we might entertain the possibility that the high tuition fees at Jewish Day schools exist to enforce a desired socio-economic boundary: to be Modern Orthodox one must be wealthy. We might ask, do the schools ensure that only wealthy people (or those that willing to be charity cases) can be part of that community? To what extent do those who support the study of Torah together with secular subjects (Madda) do so because it costs double and ensures that only people who can afford to pay double can be part of their communities? We need to understand why only wealthy people can convert to Orthodoxy Judaism. Generally speaking, the RCA tries to convert only people that can afford to be Orthodox.

Materially speaking you cannot be part of a Modern Orthodox community and be poor; you cannot identify as a Modern Orthodox family and be working class.  To be sure, sometimes this approach will still fail to explain the full range of people’s behaviors. Checkbooks alone do not fully account for commitments.

Today’s Orthodox, however, in their voting patterns, ideological beliefs, and religious practices, reinforce a very defined class profile. They vote for Trump for the same reasons they support school vouchers and day schools: it advances the reproduction of their wealth.  It is certainly interesting and important to study the ways in which various ideas and beliefs –“love of Israel” and “halakha”—reinforce and shape this class structure. However, what Lilienblum reminds us is that if we want to understand why a group votes the way it votes, educates the way they educate, and resides where it resides (in the wealthiest zip codes in the United States), we need to first see its adherents in material terms. We must look at their labor profile and per capita income, and ask in what ways their cultural institutions and political proclivities support a certain class profile.

Lilienblum would insist: there is no such thing as “a conversion crisis” or “a Day School crisis.”  Instead, he would demand that we ask how the high cost of Day School tuition and conversion reinforce Modern Orthodoxy’s class profile. How many poor Modern Orthodox Jewish families do you know (a net income beneath $25,000)? It is a chutzpah for laypeople and rabbis to blame that on Karo or Maimonides, however it is educational malpractice for scholars and academics to continue to perpetuate these “crises” by ignoring the issue of class when examining Orthodoxy.

Channeling Lilienblum and Lieberman, I find it deeply troubling that Orthodox Jews think it costs so much be Jewish. Every time I go to a Shabbat table in an Orthodox community someone inevitably talks about how expensive it is to be Jewish. Do people really believe that Judaism was meant to be given only to rich people or that Jews are allowed only to engage in a few niche professions. Wasn’t the Torah given to the poor?

Once we understand the class profile of Modern Orthodoxy the next step would be to go about creating a space for Jewish practice that would not be classist.  We should develop forms of Jewish observance and culture that are accessible to civil servants, janitors, artists, and chefs, a Judaism for a public-school teacher or a struggling musician. That means ensuring that whatever is being taught does not require one to be able to pay a fortune or be indebted to the largess of philanthropists. We want an educational system that helps people tap into their full capacities. This does not mean that there will not still be lawyers and accountants; it means ensuring that the Judaism being promoted would be one that reflected the full range of people’s labor abilities.

11)   What is economic Zionism? What does it have to do with contemporary Israel?

Economic Zionism was an antidote to Orthodox economics and imperial politics. It attempted to ensure that people did not need to pay double to be Jewish.

Its goal was to ensure that Jews could explore the full range of their human capacities and protect themselves without recourse to institutions outside of their control. Specifically, economic Zionism promised Jews that they could be observant without necessarily being wealthy or recipients of charity.

From Lilienblum and Pinsker, to Herzl, to Borchov and Ben Gurion, Zionism was first and foremost about ensuring greater forms of economic equality. As Herzl stated in the first sentences of the Jewish State: “It is astonishing how little insight into the science of economics many of the men who move in the midst of active life possess. Hence it is that even Jews faithfully repeat the cry of the Anti-Semites: ‘We depend for sustenance on the nations who are our hosts, and if we had no hosts to support us we should die of starvation.’”

There are deep contradictions between the economic and political programs of the Zionism put forward by the Jewish materialists and that proffered by contemporary Israeli and American Jewish political actors. This is confirmed by other recent studies on related subjects. Most notably, James Loeffler has shown in his work, Rooted Cosmopolitans, the strong ties between the early twentieth-century Minority Rights Movement and early twentieth-century Zionists.  According to Loeffler, Zionism and international law were conceived of, and built, alongside one another as complementary protectors of endangered and oppressed ethnic and racial groups.

Similarly, the Israeli historian Dimitry Shumsky has revealed the way in which Zionist thinkers (from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion) stood in opposition to the fetishizing of land and the nation-state. One of the points that emerge from these new histories of Zionism is the deep discontinuity between much of historical Zionism and contemporary Israeli and American Jewish politics. The latter, unfortunately, is largely based around the fetish of a specific landmass, messianic aspirations, Orthodox economics, and the promotion of capitalistic industry and maximalist definitions of a Jewish nation-state.

It is more than ironic that a movement that was founded on the principle equality and the protection of Jewish bodies has flourished into an Israeli State with one of the highest poverty rates in the Western world.

Likewise, a movement that justified itself through an argument about economic mobility and the fair and equal distribution of resources to all groups of people has given rise to a State that seems incapable of applying the same principles to its Palestinian inhabitants.  Finally, and perhaps most shocking it not only tolerates the economic unproductivity of its Orthodox citizens, it encourages such behavior through a vast network of state-based welfare.   It makes one wonder what if any relationship there is between the current version of the State of Israel to the Zionism of Smolenskin, Lilienblum and Pinsker. But that’s a subject for a different book.

12)   What are your next projects

A small-pamphlet on the relationship between Jewish Orthodoxy and the Right Wing of the Republican Party. A large-scale history of the reception of Marx as a Jew. And I will explore the continuity of the ideas in the book in the formation of 20th century American Jewry.

Interview with Rabbi Bradley Artson on Process Theology

Welcome CESJDS High School- Oct 6th, 2020

What sort of philosophy of God do you have? Theist, Pantheist or an Ultimate Reality or Cosmic Force? Is God all-powerful or limited? Concerned with our daily lives or not? Last week, the Pew foundation released statistics that a third of Americans treat God as a cosmic force and half of America are Biblical theists. These results should not be taken as anything new because much of American religion- from the Deist founding Fathers to the 19th century Transcendentalists, to the 21st century New Age- has always treated God as a cosmic force. However, the more important question is what are the properties of this ultimate reality? Pew, as usual, did not ask any follow up questions to determine the nature of the Ultimate Reality. Is it a disembodied Mind, a theopoetic metaphor for our own best selves or inspiring us with love and justice? Rabbi Bradley Artson has recently developed over several books a Jewish Process theology of love, compassion, and justice to address those who seek a religiously robust Ultimate Reality.

Bradley Artson holds an A.B. Degree from Harvard College, ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary and received his D.H.L. at HUC-JIR in Contemporary Jewish Theology, Artson served as the rabbi of Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo. In 1999, he started at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) where he is currently Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University and University Vice-President. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College at the University of Potsdam in Germany, ordaining Conservative/Masorti rabbis for Europe. Among his many books are the recent works of process theology Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit (Jewish Lights, 2015); God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Lights, 2016).

artson- becoming

Already thirty-three years ago, while still in Rabbinical school, Artson defined his view of God as ethical and simultaneously based on Torah.

Credo – Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson 1985

The two core assertions of  traditional Judaism, assertions  which I cannot prove but upon  which I stake my life:

The first axiom is that God is loving, compassionate, wise, and passionate about justice.

The second is that the Torah and  rabbinic tradition is the preeminent  vehicle for Jews to articulate a sense  of God’s will and to concretize that will in our daily lives and our social  structure.

I refuse to read halakhah or the Torah in such a way that it makes  God seem cruel, nor will I sever the  intimate connection between God’s  will and God’s Torah.  God is just, and halakhah embodies  God’s love and justice.

From these two points, a Torah of compassion and social  justice emerges organically.

Compare this to the other Jewish Gods available in the 1980’s. Some chose a God that demanded an intellectual mastery of a corpus of halakhic books with a concurrent remaking of reality to match the vision of the books, others chose a territorial God on the verge of a messianic return to a Jewish kingdom, and still others chose an experiential and emotional God found in the personal heart. How many would have chosen this moral deity if given a choice?

Artson felt the need to develop a Process Theology of God when his tacitly assumed prior orthodox theistic theology failed, as explained in the interview.

Process theology is a form of theistic naturalism developed by Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) in which God is located in the natural order as a panentheism, ever changing and affected by temporal processes. Unlike traditional theism, God is not all knowing, not all-powerful, not engaged in supernatural acts. God is temporal, mutable, and affected by the world.

To get to today’s views, I am skipping over many subsequent thinkers such as Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000) or Henry Nelson Wieman (d. 1975). In later decades, the theologian John B. Cobb (b. 1925) wrote many works applying these abstract metaphysical ideas to a working practiced religion, religion of prayer and compassion, which emphasizes event, occurrence, or becoming over against substance. Many moderate and progressive members of liberal religion in the United States find Cobb’s view a viable religion. They find it a theology able to preach, teach, and inspire an integration of spirituality, social action, and care for the earth.

In this post-Cobb version, process theology presents a dynamic interdependent universe, congruent with the insights of quantum physics, biology, and the ecological movement. Second, experience is universal, valuable, and variable. Process theologians believe that we live in an organic lived universe in which all things have some level of experience. Third, creativity and freedom are real for God and us. God does not, and cannot, determine the experience of any creature or the future of the planet. God does not determine our lives, have a plan for the details of our lives, or respond to events in our lives. Finally, God is creative-responsive love. God and the world constitute a dynamic synergy of “call and response” in which God inspires and energizes each moment of experience and, conversely, embraces the ongoing history of the universe as part of God’s own experience.

Process theology of the Whitehead variety used to be popular in American liberal rabbinic theology.  In the 1950’s Rabbis Max Kaddushin, Milton Steinberg and Levi A. Olan, and Harry Slominsky were influenced by process theology. Olan was publicly committed to defending in the Jewish journals the concepts of process theology. In later decades, William E. Kaufman and Harold Kushner shared much of this view of a limited divine.  Mordecai Kaplan is famously quoted as defining “God as the power that makes for Salvation.” Whatever Kaplan actually meant by that phrase, Milton Steinberg, a rabbinic theologian sharply and publicly differed with it by affirming a theism, a process theism in which God acts in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, and not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature. He claimed that the universe is dynamic, creative, rational and purposive and contains consciousness: “The entire universe is the outward manifestation of Mind-Energy, of Spirit, or to use the older and better word, of God.” On these older trends, see Jewish Theology and Process Thought eds. Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin (1996); William E. Kaufman, A Question of Faith: An Atheist and a Rabbi Debate the Existence of God and The Case for God.

Rabbi Brad Artson’s position is, in many ways, similar to that of Milton Steinberg but with the influence of Cobb, Clayton, and many later process thinkers who emphasize experience, compassion, and creativity. However, more importantly, Artson is deeply invested in ethics, ritual, and devotional life. When one compares Artson to Steinberg or Levi A. Olan, besides the greater systemization, one sees Artson’s commitment to a life of justice, compassion, and love as well as the importance of prayer, Torah study, and mizvot.

As a coincidence, this week I inherited a copy of Levi A, Olan from an older colleague cleaning out his office.  When perusing the old volume, Olan seems more abstract with a weaker theism, almost deist, allowing only basic universal values. In contrast, Artson’s Torah is robust with many classes, lectures, articles, and dvirei Torah bringing out the ethical meaning of Torah, parasha, or a Rabbinic passage. Artson finds rabbinic texts that support his position and reads them as process theology. This interview is one of the cases where, if I could, I would have redone the interview to focus on Artson’s ethical and Torah views instead of his metaphysics.

Here are three samples of his thinking. Love and Justice, Ethics and Ritual- Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Justice –Passover. For those who want more, Artson has dozens of divrei Torah and videos online.

An earlier version of his process theology was published eight years ago and is still online as a primer for his thought. BA-DEREKH: On The Way —A Presentation of Process Theology. This is a good place to start his thought after reading the interview. There was also a special issue of Conservative Judaism (Vol. 62 No. 1-2 Fall-Winter 2010-2011) dedicated to this preliminary version, comparing his thought to already known entities such as Milton Steinberg, New Age, Kabbalah, and Heschel. There was a solid discussion by Rivon Krygier  “The Force of Bradley Artson’s “Process Theology” and Its Limitations.” Here is a nice excerpt from God of Becoming & Relationship.

When all is said and done, process theologies may have little appeal in broader discourse and all the more so for a Jewish audience. The patriarch of process theology John Cobb was recently asked in an interview: why process theology has gained little traction? Cobb answered “The worldview that dominates most universities excludes both subjects and values a priori… Because this exclusion is a priori, no argument is needed. It is this metaphysics that still runs the world.”

Maybe, but a Jew who does not want a supernatural God but still wants a theism may be happier, and more comfortable, with neo-Hasidic, spinozistic, or New Age conceptions of God, not process theology. In addition, many Jews choose not to believe in theism altogether and prefer a secular humanism. Artson also does not engage the alternatives in a rigorous manner, of why his approach is better than weaker open theisms, than immanence, or than a non-personal God of peoplehood. Other Jews speak of God as a healer of shattered hearts, as having a plan for his people, and as experienced in mysticism. If one already has a theology then one would not be drawn to this. Artson assumes, just like Cobb, that everyone needs a metaphysics, so his is useful and adequate. However, many Jews just do not seek a metaphysics.  And those that do seek metaphysics, may be in the 50% of Americans comfortable with Biblical theism. In addition, his scientific worldview is optimistic, unlike those who sense a forthcoming global catastrophe.

Could there be an Orthodox version of process theology? I have met many Orthodox who interpret their Neo-Hasidic or Kabbalistic worldviews in process terms. But could one make a sustained theory?  (There is already a shallower version of process theology done by a contemporary Orthodox rabbi who adds Tony Robbins to produce a more gnostic New Age Secret Life of God. But he shows his complete lack of seriousness by concluding a 200-page book of process theology by tacking on a disingenuous two page affirmation of Kuzari theism).

In the end, both in this interview and the two recent books, Artson presents a Jewish process theology of God, focusing on the novelty of his process theology ideas of God. However, his ideas would have more traction if he stopped focusing on process theology and instead used these ideas to form a new narrative of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, especially an ethical covenantal narrative of the Jewish people, in which the process ideas are implicit rather than explicit. He should also concern himself more with alternatives to his approach, such as open theism and transcendental theism, and defend his position. He has all the elements of Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness in his books, but they get lost in the novelty of process theology. As a prolific author, Artson may already be writing the needed volume of Jewish narrative.

artson - creation

1) How did you get involved and discover process theology?

I grew up an atheist and turned to belief in God in college as a result of ethical philosophical questions (is morality reducible to majority consensus or is there a ground for what is good?) and then as a result of personal experience of the divine.

My theology was conventional for liberal theology (God was more or less the same God as the Orthodox but didn’t sweat the details quite so much). That carried me through college, working as a legislative aide to the Speaker of the California State Assembly for two years after college, rabbinical school, and into my new congregation in Southern California.

After about 5 years, my wife and I had twins and it soon became clear that my son Jacob struggled with a pretty intense form of autism. That threw my conventional theology (everything happens for a reason; it’s all for the best) into a tailspin. I could no longer affirm those platitudes without betraying my son. For two years, I simply avoided talking to or about God. I never stopped believing in God’s existence; I just felt it was better for both of us if we took a break from each other. But after that time, I needed to confront how this reality was possible: what kind of universe do we live in?

I knew I needed an organized program to see this investigation through, so I enrolled in the doctoral program at Hebrew Union College with Rabbi Dr David Ellenson as my supervisor. My first task was to read broadly in scientific literature to get to know the universe we actually inhabit.

I read in cosmogony, quantum physics, relativity theory, explorations of Dark Energy and Dark Matter, evolutionary biology, cognitive neurobiology, among other areas. I started to develop an understanding that the world isn’t made up of solid components that react against each other externally, but rather is made of recurrent patterns of energy that react both internally by responding to the shifting realities around, and externally by exerting an influence on other patterns of energy.  That means that the universe is profoundly dynamic and relational, and that the divine is not radically separate from creation but permeates creation and impacts it from within (naturally, persuasively). Creation impacts the Divine in the same way.

I was reading a book on different approaches to panentheism (the idea that God and the universe permeate each other but are not reducible to each other) when I came upon a chapter on Process Panentheism and discovered that my invention of Process Thought had been preempted a century earlier by Alfred North Whitehead and others. I started reading Process Theology writings and found a ready fellowship of people who share my core convictions and were personally among the warmest and most encouraging theologian/philosophers I have ever encountered.

2) You speak of the impact of your son Jacob’s struggle with autism on your emerging understanding of Process Theology. How has his autism influenced you?

I’m sure that I am not at all the same person I would otherwise have been. Having Jacob as a son has touched every aspect of my life. In terms of Process Theology, I can think of three areas of particular impact:

(1). Jacob is only moderately verbal, although he is able to type deep and sophisticated thoughts. Process Thought directs our attention deeper than rational, verbal expression, holding our deepest insights as “prehensions.” Jacob lives that reality and he has guided me past our Western obsession with words and analytical critical thought as the only, or primary, road to understanding. Seeing the necessity of knowledge for wisdom, but recognizing that the goal is wisdom, not knowledge, is a gift I got from my son and then found in Process Thought.

(2) I adore my son and see God’s love and generosity in the gift of being his father. Jacob took my commitment to diversity and different ability and vastly deepened it by sharing his life, his struggles and his triumphs every day. Walking through life with him has opened my soul to human and non-human diversity in all its beauty, courage, and resilience.

(3) For Jacob to forge a life of meaning takes such strength, such determination, such refusal to surrender. I see the ways that God is also self-surpassing in my son, as I also see God’s lure to Jacob to join in also being self-surpassing. When Jacob surprised all his doctors and experts by earning a high school diploma and walking across the stage to claim his certificate, I saw the finest example of God’s persuasive power, of listening to the lure, and of naturalist theology capable of gracing us with an additional measure of understanding, courage, and achievement. Jacob says that Torah saved his life, and that Process Theology saved Torah for him. It did for me too.

3) What is Process Theology?

Process Thought understands reality not as the bumping together of solid substances in absolute space and time, but as a cosmos of shimmering particles of energy which interact constantly and eternally. Every creature is really a resilient pattern of interlocking energy, each in a developing process of becoming.

Because “becoming” is concrete and real, and “being” is only a logical abstraction, the distillation of becoming in pure thought, Process Thought focuses on becoming as the central mode of every creature, of all creation, and indeed of the Creator as well.

The universe is recognized to be a series of interacting recurrent energy patterns, but not one that endlessly loops in the same repetitive patterns. Instead, the surprising miracle of our universe is that it seems to generate novelty with each new moment of continuing creation.

Process theology recognizes every “thing” is really a series of events across time, a process, that emerges in relationship. We are each a process, and creation is a process. God is a process, revelation is a process. All emerge in relationship, meaning that no thing can be understood in isolation. Each event has an interiority in which it integrates the reality around it with its own choice about how to proceed. In addition, an exteriority in which it has an impact on the choices of every other event around it.  We are all part of something interactive and dynamic.

In such a worldview, God is not outside the system as some unchanging, eternal abstraction. Instead, God permeates every aspect of becoming, indeed grounds all becoming by inviting us and every level of reality toward our own optimal possibilities. The future remains open, through God’s lure, to our own decisions of how or what we will chose next. God, then, uses a persistent, persuasive power, working in each of us (and all creation at every level) to nudge us toward the best possible outcome. But God’s power is not coercive and not all powerful. God cannot break the rules or unilaterally dictate our choices. Having created and then partnered with this particular cosmos, God is vulnerable to the choices that each of us makes freely as co-creators.

4) Is Process Theology Theist or Panentheist?

Process Thought sees itself as theistic. God has personal and impersonal aspects, eternal and timely manifestations. What most Process thinkers affirm also is that God permeates creation but is not reducible to it (panentheism) and that the two are mutually-influencing. We also reject the notion that God uses coercive power or can break the rules.

Can one ignore God or have a meaningful understanding of life without belief in God? Sure, but ignoring this force doesn’t mean it isn’t a force. One can choose to ignore gravity, but gravity manifests whether we attend to it or not.

Process Thought sees God not just as a character in a novel (with specific lines or actions), but more akin to the presence of the author of a play. Shakespeare, for example is never manifest in particular scenes or as a distinctive personality within one of his plays, nonetheless he permeates the entire drama, every line and as a whole. So, with or without a self-conscious sense of God’s impact or presence, a non-theist lives and moves in a cosmos in which God permeates the entirety of creation and powers its unfolding within and among each of us.

I am a panentheist not a pantheist. A classical theist believes that God is completely separate from the world. I don’t believe that. I believe that the world Is marinating in God, and that God is marinating in the world. If I were a pantheist, I would affirm that God and the world are one and the same.

I believe that both permeate each other, but that there are aspects of God that don’t involve the world, and aspects of the world that don’t involve God. Both have an irreducible reality beyond the other, but both permeate and influence and constrain each other. God influences the world by holding all potentialities, by keeping the future open, by offering lures to each created event, and by forever retaining our choices and all reality. The world influences God by the choices we make, which can either give God pleasure (when we rise to choose the Lure) or pain (when we do not). God’s memory becomes a permanent aspect of God, and it is shaped by our choices and behavior.

5)      How is God relational? How is God loving, caring and wise?

Every reality has an inner aspect (its own self-determination) and an outer aspect (its connection and relationship to the rest of creation. God is no exception: what God shares in common with all creation is a dynamic relationship that responds to the choices and becomings of others, which in turn shapes and constrains divine choices and becomings too.  That means that God influences creation (as I described above) and creation has an impact on God by providing the content of unfolding reality that God will eternally know and remember.

So, God has an internal aspect, choosing how to respond to the newest shiftings of reality. And God has an external aspect, impacting and shaping the Lure that makes our own choosing possible. Because God has timely aspects (ways in which God interacts within time and in the world) and eternal aspects (required by logic to be outside of time), God’s manifestations are beyond our own. One of the ways that God differs from the rest of reality is that God is able to relate to all of creation as a whole (that is part of God’s eternal attributes) and to every entity within creation (as the unifying ground of all becoming), and that God forever holds our choices and journeys in the divine memory (integrating the unfolding our choices into God’s eternal being). Nothing real is ever lost for God.

God’s goodness (love, care, wisdom) is absolute in all frames of reference. God is forever luring us (and all creation) to make the optimal choice facing us at the present moment (optimal in terms of love, experience, compassion, justice). God never gives up on us, never stops offering us the optimal possibility and empowering us to implement that lure if we so choose.

One of the great achievements of Process Theology is to declare that God is a force for good, but not the author of our suffering. As the Book of Genesis recognizes, there was tohu va-vohu (chaos) when God began the work of creation, of inviting the chaos to become cosmos. That chaos always exists, always threatens to destabilize cosmos. And God is always working to bolster the cosmos – the order, patterns, and reliability of creation. God is that force within nature allowing us to thrive, to grow, to surpass ourselves. That is the root of my religious optimism (and of Judaism’s): that our God is a God of righteousness, of justice, of hope. The Holocaust was an eruption of the tohu va-vohu and the outrage of the German nation choosing evil and rejecting the Lure.

6) What is the right way to read the Bible with process theology?

Process thinkers read the Bible as revealing deep wisdom, but not necessarily on the level of literal, historical facts. The stories and guidelines are divine in their insight and capacity to further human thriving, regardless of whether or not they actually happened. In this reading, Process Theology shares a great deal with other non-literalists.

A God who is not outside of time and space is one who can bubble up within human consciousness, removing the false dichotomy of the Bible having to be either God given or a human product. God works in, with and through us. We wrote the Bible together, our ancestors distilling the Lure into words: paradigmatic stories and wise behavioral guidelines that reflect our listening and distillation of a divine/human conversation across generations.

Revelation is the recording of the prehensions (intuition) that God inspires and which, in turn; Israel’s prophets and poets record in writing. That writing is both temporal and involves a series of events across time, making revelation both an ongoing series of punctuated events (the oracles of a particular prophet or the teachings of a particular sage, for example) and also a process that moves through time (hence, the open and ongoing nature of torah sheh be-al peh, the Oral Torah).

7)      How is your approach better than a generic agnosticism or being a “none”? Most Jews don’t care about God and don’t care about any theology, why process theology for these Jews?

One of the fatal challenges of contemporary Jewish thought is the segregation of scientific information and theory from cultural memory and practice. Among today’s Jewish thinkers, Judaism is just a culture, which means it does not help us in relating to the actual physical world, nor to addressing any real existential questions outside of a sophisticated notion of “myth.”

Most people find that approach barren and broken, and I believe that is one powerful reason by so many Jews reject the idea of God or divinity: because it is often presented in contradistinction to (and ignorance of) science. I teach my students that they must cultivate scientific literacy if they hope to be able to say something relevant to the actual world.

Science itself is an ongoing research method and a process of investigation, so it isn’t enough to read up on a field and then stop. Contemporary findings in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, cognitive sciences, to name a few unfold in a dazzling array of new insights and challenges.

I have given this general presentation to research scientists at NIH, who affirmed my scientific claims and descriptions as accurate. Both of my books are grounded in speculating on contemporary scientific data and research, for example the significance of Higgs fields (a relational process) rather than the insignificance of particular Higgs bosons (a thing).

8)      What is gained in your approach compared to other theological views of God?

I think we lose people to Judaism if we can’t provide a single coherent narrative that explains the universe from the beginning to our own cultural emergings and an agenda to make our own future meaningful and worthy. Contemporary people need an integrated description of reality and their place in it and guidance for how to live lives of beauty and purpose. That renewed unified story has to include all we know from the natural and social sciences, which will in turn shape new readings of our tradition and new ways of living that integrate Torah in our communities and our lives.

Process Thought offers several benefits:

(1) It integrates our scientific knowledge with our speculative thought and cultural heritage, Process Thought makes it safe to be rational again, and invites people beyond a false vision of religion as a shortcut around science or science as eviscerating morality. It allows us to know everything we know about the world and to take inspiration from that knowledge.

(2) A God of persuasive power is no longer the bully who torments us or torments our loved ones. That means that theodicy (why bad things happen) is no longer either an intellectual trap or a moral monstrosity that makes religious people blame the victims.

(3) God becomes our cosmic companion, seeking our thriving and making that thriving possible. Just as God is always luring us to an optimal choice and giving us the strength to choose that lure, so we can renew our hope and our strength in the light of this realistic faithfulness,

(4) Finally, a process faithfulness allows us to put our energy into this world: the work of building inclusive compassionate communities, living in harmony with creation, doing the work of justice.

9)      If you say God is our GPS then how does this work? What is gained by process theology that guides our life more than any other non-supernatural approach?

God lures us by an immediate perception or intuition (Whitehead calls that “prehension”) of the optimal next choice for each of us (“lure”). That lure is unique for each one of us, the integration of our own past, personality, character, talents, and possibilities. This is not a specific method, it is a comprehensive explanation of why the future is open, why we have agency and choice, and why some choices allow us to thrive better than others. We can discern the lure through prayer, meditation, therapy, nature, study, mitzvot, and  a host of other paths. They are dipolar too: meaning they are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

What is certain is that we all have the prehension within, and we need training and discipline to be able to discern its content above the clatter and din of modern life. Religion is such a training and discipline; a life of mitzvot can offer such access, if approached with an open heart and a willingness to discern.

Process Theology prioritizes actual events above speculation or conceptions of those events. That prioritizing of real life also elevates a naturalist view of the world, as opposed to a supernatural realm somehow outside of space and time.

Why does that reconfiguration matter? We now know that the cosmos is pretty super all by itself, and it continues to reveal wonders previously unanticipated. Nature itself is super, and wondrous (one might even say, miraculous!). There is neither need nor room for another realm.

10)      It seems you are basically a liberal theologian since you do not take God, Revelation, or reward literally. Are you not just a Jewish Unitarian?

There is a difference between taking something literally and taking it seriously. I affirm that God is real, not simply a useful fiction in my life or our culture. I affirm that God communicates with us and seeks our good (revelation) even if I don’t think that the mechanism God used was dropping a Hebrew book on us around a mountain one day. So, can we clarify: Process thinkers are God lovers, striving always to discern God’s message and God’s will. And we turn to our respective scriptures, to creation, to conscience to distill that message in our own lives and times. That’s pretty religious, isn’t it?


11) Can I just be an ethical ethnic Jew with theology?

I have no need to argue someone out of ethnic Jewishness. But ethnicity doesn’t guide how to live, to rise to what is right, to stand against injustice. So it seems to me a rather trivial goal, one that many contemporary Jews justifiably abandon as marginal. I think many people want to know what is asked of them now, this moment. And they want to live lives of significance and uplift.

Process Thought opens Jewish scriptures (Bible and rabbinics) to help today’s people renew their strength and clarify their life purpose while enlisting the best of today’s knowledge and information into that worthy effort. For others, what it might offer would be a coherent explanation of the cosmos and life that includes what western thought divides up into science, social science, and the humanities. .

12)   You cite the musar masters as process theology, but they used Maimonides and Kabbalah to express and develop hesed.

Finding scattered quotations doesn’t replace the need for a coherent system. And an overarching systemic understanding would then seek instantiation in the insights and sources of a wisdom tradition like Judaism. The metaphysical system of Process can deepen and clarify how a value-concept (to quote Max Kadushin, an early Process influenced rabbi) like hesed works in a way compatible with our scientific and contemporary understandings.

And if that metaphysics is “True” (in the sense of explanatory, predictive, coherent) then we would expect to see multiple Jewish sources that would reinforce its assertions and provide examples of its interpretive utility.

Many have recognized that Aristotle himself was a proto-Process thinker (explaining the world as dynamic, interactive, responsive), and that would entail that the medieval neo-Aristotelians (like Maimonides) also prepare a path that later explicit Process thinkers can extend.

13)   Where do mitzvot fit in to process theology? Your theory of authority of the tradition, a traditional Conservative position, is not itself generated from your process theology. 

In Process approach, the doing of mitzvot as a manifestation of God’s presence and concern would be of greater importance, not less.

Judaism is not reducible to an abstract set of principles, because it has to be lived in actual relationships – between real living entities, between us and other peoples, between humanity and all the earth, between contemporary Jews and Jewish tradition, between Jews and God. Science can inform us about the physical aspects of reality, but the making of meaning is a human action, mediated through culture and character. Hence the humanities are the proper address for that decision making and affirmation. Talmud, in this case, not test tubes.

Of course, bringing a cosmic, Process perspective to our Jewish practice will make that practice more pluralistic and fluid. Some will resonate to a fairly traditional and halakhic Shabbat. Others might discover Shabbat community and connection in a less traditional framework, or outside of any halakhic reference whatsoever. A Process approach won’t adjudicate between these possible Shabbat days, other than to continue to insist that our practice enhance experience, justice, love, relationship (hence, community). The authority of the system is the wisdom the system manifests, not simply how it came to be written down.

14) What is prayer in this approach?

Prayer can engage hope, reminder, struggle. It can be a pouring out of words, song, postures, and crying out. It can be solitary or communal. Maybe the key Process tool here would be to recognize that “prayer” isn’t a thing to be measured against some objective criteria. It is a name we give to range of human activities. People pouring out their hearts, articulating their hopes and pains and aspirations, affirming or smashing assumptions of power, utilizing established liturgies or sitting in silence, dancing to music  or sitting in silence have all been prayer acts in different times and places. I refuse to choose among them.

15) Where do you go beyond Whitehead? What do you take from other Process theologians? Should your readers read them?

One place where I deliberately go beyond Whitehead is to prioritize morality. Whitehead was reacting against the moralistic fundamentalisms of his day, but I think he pushed too far. He correctly saw God as portrayed in Tanakh as moral and the prophets of Israel held an ethical yardstick to their assessment of religious authenticity. We need to restore that priority today as well, so I specify the lure in those terms (love, experience, compassion, justice) to make that moral voice primary.

John Cobb is the living grandfather of Process Thought, and as fine a human being as I have ever met. His introductions to Process Thought (two volumes of Q&As) are worth their weight in gold. Phil Clayton is also a first rate mensch and his scholarship on emergence and on panentheism opened doors for me that I traverse daily. Catherine Keller is my favorite theologian ever! Her audacious heart and her soaring use of English are simply unparalleled. Reaching her book On The Mystery is itself a religious experience. Jay McDaniel has written a great work on the place of animals in a creation theology and a great anthology introducing Process Thought. He has also created a raucous Web site of Processy articles from all faith traditions ( All of these wonderful people have become my treasured colleagues, mentors and friends.

Mordechai Kaplan in his later thinking surpassed his youthful naturalism (a more mechanistic view of nature) into a richer transnaturalism that has more than a few explicit references and hints of Whitehead and Process.  Steinberg and Kadushin also acknowledge the impact of Process thought and manifest it sporadically, but none of these great thinkers addressed themselves in a systemic way to a comprehensive and underlying metaphysics.