Judaism In The Planetary Era

Rethinking a traditional religion

One of the articles in The Next Agenda (IC#19)
Originally published in Autumn 1988 on page 46
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

Nowhere are the paradoxes of cultural change illustrated more vividly than in our religious traditions, which can be both great obstacles and powerful facilitators. In any conceivable transition to a sustainable society they are sure to play a major role. Here’s an example.

Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev visited us last year, and we asked him what Judaism might look like in the planetary era. He recently sent us a copy of this sermon (delivered on Yom Kippur) which he termed “my best answer to date.” He’d enjoy your comments at 16555 Shannon Rd., Los Gatos, CA 95032.

“Nearly fifteen hundred years had come and gone since Moses led the Israelite people through the wilderness. Life in heaven suited him fine, but he began to wonder how his people were faring. So Moses went before the Holy One and asked God for shore leave. God granted his request, and Moses turned around to find himself sitting in the back row of the academy of the great Rabbi Akiba. Initially Moses was excited by the energy and devotion he felt in the room. But then he became distressed. He could not understand what was being said. Nothing!

“Deeply upset, Moses returned to heaven. ‘Dear God, what has happened to my people,’ he said to the Holy One. ‘They have gone astray. I cannot even understand what they are talking about.’ ‘Moses, Moses,’ God answered, ‘a little patience. Go down again and listen some more.’

“So Moses turned around, and once again found himself in the academy of Rabbi Akiba. At that very moment, Rabbi Akiba was explaining the details of a very complicated legal ruling. As before, Moses could not understand the discussion. But then he heard a student ask, ‘Rabbi, how do we know that that is the law?’ And Moses heard Akiba answer, ‘We learned this law from our teacher Moses who received it from God on Mt. Sinai.’ Moses then understood that although much had changed over the centuries, the lineage, that sense of linkage from generation to generation, was still very much intact, all the way back to Sinai. And so Moses returned to heaven content that his people live on.”

This is a bold story told by a daring group of rabbis who lived nearly two thousand years ago. The Roman legion had destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and brutally crushed repeated attempts at rebellion. Jewish people were leaving the land, fleeing from their oppressor. The Rabbis had to make drastic changes in Jewish practice, or a religion which had centered on the Temple and the priesthood would certainly have died out. Those early generations of rabbis were up to the challenge. They developed a new Judaism, a portable Judaism, a Judaism of the book, which the people could carry with them through two thousand years of exile. And then, as we see in this story about Moses and Rabbi Akiba, they anchored their innovations by tying them all the way back to Moses at Sinai. With this story, they reached back, as it were, and got the approval of Moses himself for the daring changes they were forced to make.

I tell you this story because I believe that we live in a parallel time to that of the early Rabbis. We too live at a time of radical cultural change. We look around ourselves, and we realize that the old answers, the old ways, no longer work. The political, economic and social systems which we inherited from the nineteenth century seem ill suited to the challenges which we face as we move into the twenty-first century.

If we will survive, humankind will evolve new ideas and new social structures to meet these challenges. A year ago, this very morning, I addressed myself to what some of these new ideas might be. I spoke about the implications of living on a planet which has become a global village, and I suggested ways in which our social and political institutions could adapt to this emerging reality.

As our secular institutions shift to adjust to this new era, our religious communities must change as well. In times like these, we especially need teachings and rituals which speak to our hearts, which bring healing to our souls. As Jews, we need a Judaism which talks our language and which addresses the challenges of our world. And so, like the Rabbis of old, we must be bold and daring in giving birth to much that is new in Judaism without giving up our linkage to the generations which went before us.

Where do we start? We start with ourselves, with our needs, our yearnings, our passions.


One such passion which many of us feel is the yearning to return to a more intimate relationship with the natural world. We live in a world of buildings and streets and cars, a world filled with human artifice. Down deep in our souls, we yearn for the forests, the mountains and the ocean. There is something lacking in a life lived between four walls. Cut off from the natural world, our lives take on a certain shallowness. Only when we leave the familiarity and the security of our homes behind do we sense the grandeur and mystery of the natural world. When we are cut off from nature, we lose a certain part of ourselves. We forfeit that part of ourselves which can only be experienced when we place ourselves in the midst of God’s creation.

We suffer from our estrangement from the natural world. Mother earth suffers as well. In our distance and insensitivity, we are destroying our planet. Every day, we cut into the great forests, pollute the air and contaminate the seas. We have attained such mastery over nature that we have forgotten that we are a part of nature. We have lost sight of the fact that we are creatures on this planet, not wholly unlike the deer, the fox and the hawk.

We need a religious practice which opens our eyes to see the intricate web of life of which we are a part. We need customs and rituals which connect us, heart and soul, to the birds and the forests and the waters and the mountains.

In Biblical times, a Jew got his or her hands dirty. In thanksgiving or in supplication Jewish people brought their offerings, fruits and grains and animals, to the Temple. While we need not return to animal sacrifices, we can reclaim some of the earth consciousness of our ancestors. The time has come once again for Jews to get dirt under their fingernails in the practice of their religion.

There are many holidays in the Jewish calender which can reconnect us to the natural world. In five days we will be celebrating Sukkot [fall harvest festival]. Let’s go outside for Sukkot. Let’s build sukkahs [traditional temporary harvest booths usually with a roof of palm fronds and decorated with hanging fruits and vegetables] in our back yard, and invite our neighbors to share a meal under the sukkah. Tu, b’shevat, the holiday of the trees, could be celebrated in the forest, clearing away undergrowth or planting new trees. For Passover, we go to the desert and marvel at the wild flowers in bloom. Shavout, the grain harvest, finds us in the fields, appreciating the miracle of God’s bounty.

And we need not wait for special seasons. We can gather to pray in the park, or in the mountains. On Shabbat, we might find ourselves sitting for a long time in some pretty spot. Perhaps a member of our congregation will lead Shabbat nature hikes which will open our minds to see and smell and feel the complex communities of living things that we meet on the trail.

Kashrut, the practice of keeping Kosher, could also benefit from the imprint of an earth-conscious generation. A renewed sensitivity to the natural world would lead us to declare that food which is grown in ways which pollute the earth or which exploit human labor is not kosher. Vegetables laden with pesticides and animals shot full of antibiotics would be avoided in favor of produce which was raised with more respect for the delicate balances of the natural world.

Once we sense the need in our souls and the permission to innovate, many new and powerful ideas will come. We are creatures of this planet. A Judaism of the future will help us reclaim our place within the intricate community of all living things.


A Judaism of the future will also reclaim our intimacy with God. We need to think about God, to feel about God, in new ways. In our traditional prayers we address God as “Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam,” “Lord our God, King of the universe.” The Rabbis who wrote these words were living in Roman times. For them, adonai (lord) and melech (king) carried important meaning. They were asserting that the true ruler of the world was not the Caesar, but God. God was Lord and King, not Caesar. Moreover, in their oppressed condition, they needed to pray to that aspect of God which manifested power. So they prayed to God the Ruler, God the King.

At times we may want to address God as adonai or melech, Lord of the heavens. But we also need to address God as yedidah, as intimate one. We feel a need for a God who embraces, who nurtures, who consoles. Our Rabbis gave a name to this more feminine aspect of God. They called Her Shechinah, which means the one who is close, or Presence.

Adonai, the masculine aspect of the divine, is the Lord of the heavens, the God who transcends the natural world, who stands apart. The Shechinah is the Goddess whose Presence is felt in the world. We can see Her twinkling at us in the morning light. We hear Her singing to us in the song of the bird. The mountains are Her arms of embrace. The rich soil is Her gift of fertility.

The love of Adonai is the stern love of the archetypical father who inspires and challenges and tests. The love of the Shechinah is the embracing love of the mother, whose presence and acceptance and support is given without condition.

Many of you may not have heard about the Shechinah. For generations, this feminine aspect of God played a secondary role to the more masculine Adonai, or Lord. In the Judaism of the future, the Shechinah will be more prominent in our prayers and in our rituals. We will find ways to address God as yedidah, as intimate. We will create ceremonies which celebrate Her Presence in nature. We will create rituals which bring Her close.

As our prayers embrace both aspects of the Eternal, Adonai and Shechinah, the style of our worship will change. Our current emphasis on words will come into balance with other prayer forms: movement and silence and song. The psalmist sang, “kol atzmotai t’hallel yah,” “all my bones sing the praises of the Divine.” And so it will be for us, as we give ourselves over more deeply in prayer, we will move and dance and sing, and we will be still and silent. We will do what we need to do, as we worship both aspects of God, Adonai and Shechinah, as we bring God close.


A third aspect of planetary era Judaism will be social action grounded in spirit. Many of us grew up in synagogues where justice was cherished, but God was never mentioned. The rabbi spoke about Civil Rights and Vietnam, but he did not talk about the inner life. Others of us grew up in more traditional settings, in Orthodox shuls where the Holy One and mitzvahs [commanded religious practices] were on everyone’s lips, but concern for the needy and the oppressed was not. Sadly, neither point of view is particularly Jewish. Our tradition has never countenanced the split between social action and spirit. For Judaism there can be no justice without God, and there can be no godliness without justice. Holiness is found in the pursuit of righteousness.

When we divorce spiritual pursuits from the pursuit of justice, both entities become tainted. I believe that the social action of the 1960s polarized people, creating good guys and bad guys, because our politics lacked the love and understanding of others which come with spiritual sensitivity. Similarly, the idealism of that era soon faded because the passions of the Sixties were not firmly rooted in abiding spiritual values.

More recently we have seen the other extreme, people for whom spirituality means, “I will save my own soul, the world be damned.”

Planetary era Judaism will return to the traditional understanding of social action. There will be no separation between righteousness and holiness. We will bring God close through embracing the needy; we will find spirit present in our hearts as we use our minds and hands to do tikkun olam – to heal the world. To heal the world is to heal ourselves, to heal ourselves is to heal the world. There can be no division, for truly the God who calls us to meditation and prayer and the God who calls us to righteousness is Achad – One.


The fourth aspect of a planetary era Judaism will be a reworking of our understanding of Jews as the chosen people. The Jews are the chosen people . . . and so is every other people on earth. Each people is chosen by God to play its own unique role in history. In the past, Jewish chosenness has carried the connotation of superiority. We alone are chosen.

Actually, Jews have not been alone in thinking that they alone are chosen. To some extent every group maintains its identity by clutching to a certain sense of superiority. Americans and Russians, liberals and conservatives, Northern Californians and Southern Californians, Giants and Dodgers: we all play the good guy/bad guy game. Human beings have always – from our earliest days – thought that way. My tribe is right. Yours is wrong.

As we prepare to enter the twenty-first century, many people begin to realize that the days of the good guy/bad guy game are numbered. In this era of inter-continental missiles and global economies, we can no longer afford such polarization. We all share this planet, and ultimately we will thrive or we will die – together. In the emerging era, each religious, ethnic and national group will be challenged to maintain its own unique identity while at the same time recognizing the worth of every other group.

This challenge, to give up our subtle and oft unspoken sense of superiority, goes to the core of our identity as a people. The Jewish people has played good guys and bad guys from the days of Abraham and the idol worshipers. The idea that we are The Chosen People is written into our sacred texts. We have managed to survive as a small minority surrounded by overwhelming majorities because deep in their hearts many of our people believed that they were God’s chosen.

Perhaps this mentality was necessary when we were forced to live in the ghettos of Christian Europe. But the future demands a different point of view. Our world needs people who can maintain their identity without denigrating others. We need religions that teach that all people are equally beloved by God, that I enhance my specialness by recognizing worth and value in you. A Judaism for the future will respond to the times by strengthening our sense of pride in ourselves while at the same time building bridges of love and understanding to all other peoples.

Earth consciousness, a renewed intimacy with God, social action grounded in spirit, and an awareness that all peoples are chosen – these are four qualities I see emerging in the Judaism of the future. The fifth and final quality I will mention is empowerment. Judaism in the new era will empower each Jew to bring his or her creativity and sensitivity to the task of shaping the Judaism of the future.

Two thousand years ago the changes came from the top. Over a number of generations the Rabbis met their challenge and reshaped Judaism. In our day, we are moving away from hierarchical social structures. The model for the future is not the pyramid, but rather the circle, the community. And so in our day the challenge is not simply for rabbis, but rather for all of us. This Judaism which will meet our new needs will not be fashioned by our rabbinic leadership. New forms, new ideas, new possibilities will emerge from all of us, working together.

As we enter into this New Year, I invite you to join me. I need your help. More accurately, the Jewish people needs your help – your wisdom, your ideas, your creativity. We have important work to do together. Some day relatively soon, Moses and Rabbi Akiba will come down from heaven to see how their people are faring. I pray that they will find much that is new and foreign. I pray that they will be ill at ease, until a student asks “Where does this understanding come from?” and another student answers, “Such is the tradition which our teacher Moses received on Mt. Sinai.”

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