The Power of Perception

Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Vice President, American Jewish University

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson ( has long been a passionate advocate for social justice, human dignity, diversity and inclusion. He wrote a book on Jewish teachings on war, peace and nuclear annihilation in the late 80s, became a leading voice advocating for GLBT marriage and ordination in the 90s, and has published and spoken widely on environmental ethics, special needs inclusion, racial and economic justice, cultural and religious dialogue and cooperation, and working for a just and secure peace for Israel and the Middle East. He is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California in Ojai and Ramah of Northern California in the Bay Area. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. A frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and for the Times of Israel, and a public figure Facebook page with over 60,000 likes, he is the author of 12 books and over 250 articles, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. Married to Elana Artson, they are the proud parents of twins, Jacob and Shira.  Learn more infomation about Rabbi Artson.

posted on June 8, 2009
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

The set-up: Moses instructs twelve spies, one for each of Israel's tribes, to investigate the characteristics of the land the people are about to enter. They travel throughout the land of Israel during the course of forty days, and they return to the camp bearing an enormous load of the fruit of the land. Yet when they return, their testimony is contradictory. On the one hand, they assert that the land is one which "flows with milk and honey," a land bounteous and fertile. On the other hand, they also insist that the people in the land are giants--nefillim--who cause the hearts of those who see them to collapse. Based on the perceived strength of the inhabitants, the spies urge Israel not to occupy the land, despite the assurances of God and of Moses that they would do so successfully. Alone among the spies, Caleb and Joshua assert, with complete faith, that Israel should enter and take the land immediately.

What is striking about the spies' report is the central role of subjectivity in any report of reality. What mattered to them was not a simple compilation of facts, but rather an internal sense of what those facts mean: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." The spies, faced with the sight of fortified cities and armed soldiers, looked at each other. And what they imagined revealed a lack of imagination, a failure of vision. Rather than envisioning themselves as carried by God's promise, sustained by the covenant of Israel, they became overwhelmed by the facts as they appeared on the surface. Caleb, on the other hand, saw the same facts and refused to bow before them. Infused with passion, conviction and Torah, he intended to shape reality to conform to his vision. And his vision was one of a faithful Israel, led by a loving God, occupying the land of its promise. The facts looked glum--they demonstrated just how unlikely Israel's occupation of the land would be. Yet Caleb, with his idealism and his energy, proved to be correct.

The history of the Jewish people is the continuing saga of the power of ideas to alter statistics. One hundred years ago, no one expected traditional forms of Judaism to survive--yet there are now kosher bakeries and butchers flourishing in communities throughout North America, and Conservative and Orthodox trends within Judaism remain strong. In the time of Maimonides (12th Century Egypt), people wrote of the demise of Judaism, only to have their predictions ignored. When the Temple of Solomon was destroyed and the Jews were exiled, few would have expected the survival of our people. Yet we are still thriving, some 2,500 years later. We have witnessed the rise and fall of Egyptians, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, the Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, just to name a few. They rose and fell, and we remain.

As the 20th psalm exults: "They stumble and fall, but we rise and stand firm." That there are still Jews who care about Judaism is a statistical impossibility. Yet we are still here, still passionate and still Jewish. The secret weapon of our survival is our continuing excitement and fascination with our ideas. Passionate about our relationship with God, thrilled with the challenge of doing mitzvot, energized by the values and ethics that form the core of our rich inheritance, we make ourselves eternal by linking our identity to the One who is eternal. The Psalmist explains that "some trust in chariots, others in horses, but we honor the name of the Lord our God." In the process, we show the obsession with "facts" and statistics to be lacking. Through passion and conviction, we mold mere reality to match our vaunted dream.

Shabbat Shalom