Time for a Panentheistic Revolution: An Ethical Theology of Connectedness

Ready to embrace a spiritual revolution to raise the stakes for our social justice impact?

Most monotheistic approaches suggest that G-d alone created the world but that G-d is separate and to some degree removed from the world. The resulting view is that either the Divine is "isolated" from humanity or humanity is "alienated" from the Divine. Pantheism, an approach that monotheists reject, suggests that G-d is everything (or literally all is in G-d, pan = all, theos = G-d). There is, however, a middle ground called panentheism where everything is still a part of, or in, G-d, yet G-d created everything and is still greater than everything. Among leading rabbinic thinkers of the last few centuries, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook and Rav Shneur Zalman of Lyady most famously embrace this approach.

Panentheism is fundamentally different from Pantheism in that here, nature is merely a limb of a far greater divine Being, and not an equivalence. There is, explains Rav Kook, a higher divine Source. There remains a spiritual ladder which we must try to climb, a metaphysical hierarchy in which Man is towards the bottom. Only by moving up this spiritual ladder and connecting with God can we enrich our egos. [...]Panentheism is a middle ground between Transcendence and Pantheism: everything that is, is in God; however, God is not everything that is.

Here there can be real Divine contact. The self (soul) is not distinct from the G-dly spirit. But it is not just about humans. Nothing in the world is removed from G-dliness.

Oriented this way, how can I harm a human being? how can I kill an animal? how can I destroy nature? When I harm any aspect of existence, I am harming G-d, because all these beings (and even inanimate things) are also a part of the Divine entity. Our goal as religious people must be to enable all of existence to thrive and flourish. Through a theology of panentheism, we elevate the significance of the non-divine in the world, because to some degree it, too, is divine.

An animal, for example, participates in "being," and "being" is itself divine. As humans, we have the opportunity not only to participate in "being" but also to contribute to the enterprise, to be a part of the revelation of being, to participate in holiness.

In a panentheistic worldview, human autonomy is not jeopardized and we need not get bogged down with issues of theodicy and evil, because it is not necessarily the will of G-d that permeates all beings but holy energy and purpose. Human responsibility is not diminished when we embrace that we are embedded within the Divine; rather, our responsibility increases because we realize how much more we must care for and attend to. Nothing is insignificant, and to some degree all matters. When our traditional, monotheistic religious leaders and communities are not always the best exemplars of ethical living, perhaps now is the time for a Jewish panentheistic revolution.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."