Panentheism, by Rabbi Malka Drucker

This sermon is shared as part of a collection of resources linking the Days of Awe with care for our living planet. Stay tuned for others in coming days.

I’ve waited for tonight, the holiest night of the year, the Sabbath of Sabbaths that falls on Shabbat this year, to speak about something that won’t let me rest. What haunts me is not news, and I’d be surprised if anyone in the sanctuary is not as worried as I. On this day of soul repair through making amends, I am called to look honestly at all my relationships, including with the non-human natural world, and I regret that I’ve not paid enough attention.

The shofar blast that woke out of my innocence up came in 1959 from a prophetic social studies teacher who explained obsolescence and how our economy depended upon consumption for its growth. Need was no longer enough; creating desire for the newest gadget rather than gratitude for what we have became the post WWII national goal. We learned about landfills, methane gas, and how plastic would last longer than God.

Although we children had cut our teeth on drop drills that had us frantically dive under our desks to prepare for the possibility of a Soviet attack, the vision of a world covered with discarded eternal objects and barren of natural beauty was even more devastating. By the end of the semester, I looked at colored princess phones as the enemy.

To this day, when I see disposable water bottles, I think of my teacher. I didn’t know that he was talking about our future, the world in which we now uncomfortably live. Although I’ve been recycling bottles, taking canvas bags to the supermarket, and using wax paper instead of Saran wrap for over forty years, I feel no calmer about the health of the planet. I’ve come to understand that it isn’t enough.

We’re still trying to fix things from the outside so we’ll feel better inside; we’re still counting on science and technology to save us with biodegradable plastic and Priuses. But every day I hear about more environmental devastation, and if this is the season for truth, here it how I see it. The reason that we are endangering the planet is because we don’t understand it to be alive, alive as we are alive. We don’t understand our relationship to the world and all its contents as an organism of which we are a part. Living without this awareness is a spiritual crisis that has put us in physical crisis.

This is the season of teshuvah, a turning within to face unpleasant realities, reclaim our highest visions and ideals, and to begin again. Going deep within ourselves takes us from ordinary life. The natural world that we so take for granted provides air, water, ground, upon which to stand, and nourishment for body and soul. The metaphor of earth as the mother is obvious, and when we allow awareness of our radically amazing home, we enter a greater reality that may be called G!d.

This past summer I took my grandchildren to Ruach Ha-Aretz, an ALEPH camp in the redwood forest of Santa Cruz. It was a rustic, lovely Baha’I retreat center and this was the first time I lived so close to the ancient trees. One evening at dinner, eight year-old Solomon asked me what I was learning while they were in camp.

I was taking a class that took place in a grove of trees six feet in diameter that were hundreds of years old. I told him that I had learned that a stand of redwoods was actually one tree connected to an intricate web of roots. We talked about how old the trees were and Solomon said that they were around during the Revolutionary War. The girls who are six and four, sat quietly, and Lesley said that they were as old as the Jewish people. We talked about how the Jewish people were separate but part of one root.

Rabbi Victor Gross asked us how we felt sitting there and whether we felt the trees sensed us. Before I gave him the answer Solomon said, “They do. There was study where they played loud rock music to one tree and Beethoven to another. One tree’s cells shriveled while the other’s expanded.” It is that connection that recognizes the life of the tree that puts us in the God-field.

At such moments, we leave ordinary time and space and come into the relationship of I-Thou that acknowledges the presence of divinity in the other. When this happens, I no longer see the world as other, my candy store to take what I want and expect Someone to restock the shelves forever. Instead I see myself a partner with the world. Independence dissolves into interdependence, and we feel gratitude for what we give as well as receive.

We live in a society that values self-reliance. In recent years, we’ve behaved as if our country is so strong and independent it doesn’t’ need the support of other nations. We’ve built our neighborhoods so that each house is a separate castle and we pay no attention to the waste of resources created by suburban sprawl. The system of growth, dependent upon competition and consumption, has cluttered open land and has destroyed our sense of interdependence and interconnection.

Albert Einstein wrote, “ A hundred times a day I remind myself that my well-being depends on the labor of other [people], living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.” Who sees the women in hairnets and gloves sorting strawberries for the jam on the bread? How we will remind ourselves of this truth of relationship when we live so indifferently to the countless gifts that we receive every day from both the human and non-human parts of the world.
When we look to governments or industries to solve this problem, we grow more worried. The ice cap continues to melt, fingers are pointed after environmental catastrophes, and something in us loses hope for the future. Science and technology won’t save us, either, because they too want to solve the problem in the physical world, not the inner world.

What I’m about to say will surprise you. God will not save the planet, but religion can. The very word suggests the opposite, of course. Whether it evokes irrationality, irrelevant laws, or jihad, we know that, despite its necessity and intention to awaken consciousness and know it as God, religion is dangerous.
It is Consciousness that leads to conscience. Once you become aware that you are here in the present, you recognize that there is only one choice and that is to choose life. In Hebrew, the word for conscience is matzpun. It comes from the root tzafon, which means hidden, and the word for hidden comes from the same root, mitzapen. Conscience is a hidden compass that points you in the right direction.

Religion can point the way to teshuvah, the process of self-examination and self-judgment that has us face what is difficult and moves us towards repair and healing. Sometimes I dream of universal teshuvah around healing the earth. Imagine if everyone heard the cries of all suffering, including the earth. Maybe this is what happened at Sinai and we’ve lost our way. The 24th psalm reminds us that “the earth is Adonai’s”. Although it is a gift, it does not belong to us. We are fellow travelers and stewards of the earth.

Mystics of all traditions have seen the world as a code to reveal God. A recent offering comes from Arthur Green, who has written a book called Radical Judaism. In it, he offers a new vision of Judaism that bravely enters into the most expansive questions and speaks frankly of the difficulty in imagining God “out or up there”.

Rather, he writes of mystical panentheism, which understands that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, including human beings. Pantheism, on the other hand, understands nature and God as identical. Panentheism sees the whole as greater than its parts, and therefore, God is greater that the universe. God, or Being, is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we cannot possibly grasp the depth of that presence.

There is no separation here between world, self, and God, only one Presence with many forms. The transcendent God becomes one with the imminence we feel within. We say, Ain Od Milvado, “There is nothing else but God.” Everyone is capable of this oneness as we learn to remove the veils to know the inner force of existence itself.

Yet we find ourselves without a magic to save us from oil spills and global warming, and the reason for our predicament is that we’ve separated ourselves not only from the living earth but from what animates everything. We are not only destroying the earth by our unconsciousness and indifference, we are destroying our humanity. We have forgotten our name, adam, earthling, comes from adamah, the earth.

The second paragraph of the Shema has is so troubling that some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis have removed it from the liturgy because of its simple description of divine reward and punishment: If you will hear and obey the mitzvoth that I command you this day, to love and serve Adonai your God with all your heart and all your soul, then I will grant the rain for your land in season, rain in autumn and rain in spring. You shall gather in your grain and wine ad oil—I will also provide grass I your fields for cattle—and you shall eat and be satisfied take care lest your heart be tempted, and you stray to serve other gods and bow to them. Then Adonai’s anger will flare up against you, and God will close up the sky so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce. You will quickly disappear from the good land that Adonai is giving you.

When I hear these words in the context of God being present throughout all of existence, it is not a threat but simply quid pro quo. Immoral actions have consequences. It is my choice whether I will listen to the message that how I understand human relationship to the earth will determine the world’s survival. We include it in the service because its essence is the insistence that the world depends upon morality.

I hear these words from Deuteronomy 11 as a shofar blasting me awake to remember that I am in relationship with the natural world. God called out to Adam in the garden, “Ayecka?” Where are you? God calls to us, through environmental disasters, widening gaps between the rich and poor, increasing warfare between nations and peoples, and growing numbness to the problems, “Ayecka?”

I had a recent “Ayecka” moment. The grandchildren and I stopped for dinner on the way home from camp and I ordered swordfish. “Safte, that’s an endangered species,” Solomon said gravely. “Oh, I forgot,”, I said disingenuously. Ayecka. Where was my youthful vigilance about consumption? When I put my appetite next to depleting the fish supply for future generations, the hidden compass pointed to stir fry and tofu.

All who live today are equal shareholders in the health of this planet, and those of us who claim most of the world’s resources must claim our sin.
The High Holidays remind us to choose life, and as sparks of God, we have the wisdom, courage, and power to change our lives so that we are living in loving relationship with the earth. 21st Judaism, with its panentheistic vision of a unifying energy that is in everything in the world and more, embraces an evolving relationship with God through the ancient lens of Kabbalah.

The natural world, of which I am a part, provides me with physical sustenance, serenity, and metaphor to understand and express what cannot be seen. The rabbi poet Edward Feld writes, “As an owl in the desert screams in the night, so I want to be heard, my God. As a thrush cries as danger nears its nest, so we plead that You attend us. The eagle circles round and round, higher and higher, to protect its young; carry us on eagle’s wings and guard us from danger. A dove hovers constantly over its young, never tiring of its task, so let me be nestled in Your care. Spread Your wings, carry me, watch over me. Bring me to Your holy house on eagle’s wings”.

Nature does more than shelter me, it gives me a picture of God.

Please join me this year in showing how much you love God by caring for the earth. Make it a practice to spend time outside each day to talk to the trees, especially thanking the aspens for their fall glory. Teach your children diligently to reduce, re-use, and recycle. May the new year bring us into loving relationship with all that is our world.

Rabbi Malka Drucker, author of more than 20 books, serves on ALEPH’s Advisory Council.