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Pantheism and Judaism

Pantheism and Judaism

The London Controversy

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Question:

Lately, with the environmental movement going mainstream, pantheism is on an upswing in popularity. I don’t mean the cold, rational Spinoza type of pantheism as much as the whole reverence for nature thing, feeling the divinity within every tree and blade of grass, while perceiving that as a harmonious singularity. Many of us see it as a kosher-style return to pagan animism, since we still have a single G‑d, only that we’re finding that G‑d within nature instead of philosophy.

So I guess the question is, can pantheism be kosher?


Response:

Like Solomon the Wise said, "Nothing new under the sun." Let me tell you a story of the Jewish community in London 300 years ago that tells it all:

David Nieto was a brilliant scholar, a wise doctor, a true community leader and a righteous man. But I doubt he knew what he was getting into when he accepted the post as rabbi of the Spanish-Portuguese congregation in London at the dawn of the 18th century. And who knows if he had any idea of the controversy he would spark.

Rabbi Nieto arrived in England to find a country obsessed with science. Sir Isaac Newton had established firm laws of nature, and Sir Robert Boyle was busy enforcing them. Indeed, Mother Nature had taken on a new life all of her own, and was touted as the heir apparent as supreme deity. Taking a cue from the writings of Baruch Spinoza, John Toland had coined the term “pantheism,” challenging the dualist nature of Christianity and proclaiming that nature alone and not G‑d was to be worshipped. The laws of nature were declared to be absolute and fundamental to reality. The old “Abrahamic” G‑d, with all His personal likes and dislikes, was to be retired in favor of a world run by nothing other than “natural law.”

So it happened that one November Shabbat afternoon in 1703, Rabbi Nieto stood on the podium in the grand Bevis Marks Synagogue and addressed the congregation. Something like this:

“Indeed,” he said, “G‑d is nature and nature is none other than G‑d.”

“My beloved brethren, listen to me clearly, and know that what I am going to say is a fundamental belief of our people, as it has been since we were founded. There is no such thing as nature. The word simply does not exist in the Hebrew language. About 500 years ago or so, some people took the word teva and decided to use it to describe what they called the laws of nature. But in truth, no such thing exists. King David writes in his Psalms that G‑d ‘covers the sky with clouds and prepares rain for the ground.’1 Indeed, G‑d is nature, and nature is none other than G‑d.”

At which point one of the most prestigious members of that congregation, Joshua Zarfatti, began to fume. From that day on, he refused to even enter a building in which “the heretic rabbi” stood. “A pantheist in our midst!” he cried, rallying supporters against the rabbi. “We must rid our community of this evil disease!”

Rabbi Nieto did not back off an inch, and actually published his words in a book the following year, which he called Della Divina Providencia. London burned with that controversy until August of 1705, when Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi, esteemed and respected halachic authority of Altona, responded to the congregation’s request to adjudicate the matter. His response came in the form of a letter cosigned by two other rabbinical judges of Altona, and it exonerates Rabbi Nieto entirely.2

Rabbi Ashkenazi cites classic sources to support Nieto, such as the Kuzari of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, where he writes that “G‑d, blessed be He, is the one who is called nature in truth,” since G‑d is the one who (in the words of the Talmud) “nurtures every creature, from the largest horned mammals to the tiniest insects.” He points out that several Kabbalistic works have noted the numerical equivalence of G‑d’s name Elokim and the word used for the nature of things, ha-teva. In sum, he writes, “We must thank the consummate scholar R. David Nieto, whom G‑d preserve, for the sermon he preached to warn the people not to allow themselves to be led away by the opinion of the philosophers who talk about nature, because great injury arises therefrom, and he enlightens the eyes with the true belief, which is that everything comes from the providence of G‑d.”

Was Nieto a pantheist? Certainly not—and he makes that point very clear in his book. His G‑d, the G‑d of Israel, can not be equated with the Creation itself, which He transcends entirely. But neither was Nieto a dualist, nor a deist. G‑d is not separate from nature or the world He has made. Nature is G‑d working in consistent patterns, and limiting Himself, so to speak, to the parameters He has set for each thing.

Within classical Jewish thought, there are many views of how involved G‑d is with His universe. What Rabbi Ashkenazi pointed out is that there is nevertheless a consensus: There is no force of the universe that is not G‑d’s hand, no system that runs independently of Him. Although He transcends all, He nevertheless can be found within all, and within every detail.

In effect, nature is nothing more than G‑d playing within His own game, hiding within each thing He has made, waiting for us to find Him there.


Further Reading:

How Is Chassidic Thought Distinct from Pantheism?

David B. Ruderman, “Jewish Thought in Newtonian England: The Career and Writings of David Nieto (In Memory of Jacob J. Petuchowski),” in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 58 (1992): 193–219. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3622633.

David S. Katz, The Jews in the History of England, 1485–1850 (Clarendon Press, 1994).

FOOTNOTES
1. Psalms 147:8.
2. Teshuvot Chacham Tzvi 18.
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Discussion (26)
September 12, 2014
I am a conservative Jew living in Whitefield, Manchester. The idea of pantheism and its connection with Judaism came to me only a few days ago when I was thinking of life and death and how death seemed to be just a normal part of the process of being and it coming to an end.

It then ocurred to me that as the only things certain in life were death, taxes and sweet and sour chicken, then death itself must be part of G-d's will of course, and part of Him being in everything. Being in everything led me to look at pantheism and then I found you Rabbi.

At the age of 62 being past my prime, and with a Mamma of 98, I find these thoughts comforting
Bryan Slater
Manchester UK
March 17, 2014
what is G-D?
PAN meaning All
Theism: Thee

It is All G-d and it feels therefore that we are being out Sourced even in dialogue. We are then here to sort the wheat from the chaff but from a cosmic POV all utterance therefore comes from The Source.. How deep do you want to go?
ruth housman
marshfield ma
March 15, 2014
anoymous, Mar 13
The "only" difference between them and us? That is a very big difference. How can any normal person look at a tree and say it is G-d? That sounds more like an idol worshipper to me. Or a person who wants to get out of any obligation to G-d, like following the Commandments (Mitzvos).

Such people talk about the Divinity of nature but that is all and it stops there, because if you are worshipping nature you can do whatever you want, but if you are worshiping the One G-d, who created everything, then you have to say thank You.

And once you say thank You, there's an obligation to Him who you are thanking, for giving you your life and this magnificent world.

Yes, of course there is Divinity in all of creation because G-d created it, but it is not Him. He is above it.

It's like saying my children are me. You could find something of me in them, but they are not me and I am not them.
Shoshana
Jerusalem
March 14, 2014
Infinity
Infinity means that everything is G-d but G-d is that and beyond and G-d is an is not because you can not limit Him.
Eduardo
Costa Rica
March 13, 2014
God is All!
Creation is an expression of God, but also part of God. Our ancestors and most indigenous cultures know this innately. The only difference between "Us" and "Them" is that we don't say the Tree IS God, or the Rock IS God, but Divinity is inside them all. The problem with the world is the Failure to see God in all. Nature is used to our disposal because we don't see it possessing Divinity. We are able to kill people because we cannot see Divinity in them. Only when we see GOD in all, will there be universal harmony.
Anonymous
December 11, 2013
Pantheism and Pandeism
It is useful to distinguish Pantheism (God=Universe) from Pandeism (God becomes Universe). Pantheism (the word, not the idea) dates to 1697; Pandeism to 1787. Both ancient today, but the trace of history establishes the delineation.
Anonymous
December 4, 2013
Re: Panentheism?
Panentheism is another nice ism someone came up with in the 19th century to describe many theologies. The more you read the the words of those who thought deeply about G‑d, no matter from which culture, the more you get the sense that this is what they all really believed.

Most of the Jewish philosophers and kabbalists take a very monist approach to G‑d—there is no reality other than His existence. Chabad is sometimes called "radical monism."
Tzvi Freeman
December 4, 2013
Panentheism?
Thank you for this article, Rabbi Freeman, it's certainly extended my reading list!

What Rabbi Nieto described, and what you seem to describe here, is more akin to the notion of panentheism, in which G-D is both imminent and transcendent, the very fabric of Creation but timelessly extended beyond it. It is a belief in which we are permeated with Divinity, governed by Providence, and living in a cosmology which is a part of a much larger Infinite Whole.

I like to think of it as we're all sort of living our lives in the imagination of the Creator.

It's a pretty common thread in many faiths, actually, and has found credence in Christian Gnosticism, Sufism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Zen, the Baha'i Faith, Native America, and - as I'm now discovering - Judaism.

I'm inclined to believe that when I find such repetition in my theosophical wanderings, there's probably something to it!

If nothing else, it IS a beautiful concept.
Daniel Brown
New Orleans
June 7, 2013
Pantheism fully accounts.
In Pantheism, all things are part of our Creator; our Creator has become our Universe to experience existence through the lives which come to inhabit it.
IPS
April 23, 2012
Spinoza
Spinoza was excommunicated not for being a Pantheist, but for refusing to observe the Commandments and for denying their obligatory nature.
fsilber
Memphis, TN
chabadneworleans.com
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