Arthur Green- Radical Judaism #1 of 5 posts

There is a new book from Arthur Green that is his mature vision for a Neo-Hasidic Renewal Judaism. I received a review copy as soon as it came out and have been grappling about whether this will be a short quickly review or a very long full study. In his introduction, Green quotes Arnold Eisen as telling Green that he should put out a definite scholarly version of his theology. The actual product is a version that is actually less scholarly and more personal than the prior versions and can serve as an eminently readable introduction to his thought.

In the interim as I continue to write up my own reflections, David Wolpe has put out a very concise and insightful review. Wolpe puts his finger on the pulse of the book as having a renegade provocative 1960’s tone. He also catches how a technical academic scholarly approach glides in Green’s hands into New Age mysticism. Green’s work rejects Biblical theism into a minimal theology of mystical metaphors. Wolpe calls it pantheist and animist but I think there is much more going on. Green’s God would feel comfortable on the shelf with Eliade as a myth and symbol, sacred cyclical time deity.

The view of God of Arthur Green, Michael Lerner, and others has been given a quite cogent philosophic and theological analysis by Michael Silver, A Plausible God: Secular Reflections on Liberal Jewish Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006)

Those of us interested in Kabbalah and Hasidism have a much more complex relationship with Green’s work than does Wolpe because Green’s Tormented Master was one of the first works available in English. Green has had a presence in both the academic and theological use of Hasidism, and the field consists of his students. Nevertheless, many of the original readers of Tormented Master have either moved on to the works by the Breslov Research Institute and no longer turn to academic works or the readers turned to charismatic teachers by Aleph –Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Those of us who teach Polish Hasidism, when dealing with Green’s works have to grapple with when Green is modernizing in a natural way, when he transforms it into his own renewal view, and when he just truncates away an essential element such as Torah study or halakhah.
Continue to post 2 of 5 posts on Arthur Green – here.

March 30, 2010 Rethinking Judaism By Rabbi David Wolpe

Arthur Green, author of “Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition” (Yale University Press, $26), has been working to reimagine Judaism since his early days as a renegade scholar and theologian. The book under review is filled with interesting observations and sources. They are knit together in a neo-Chasidic, kabbalistically infused ’60s activist Judaism that claims Green as one of its pioneers and preeminent spokesmen. To rework a Divine self-description, this book will be persuasive for those to whom it is persuasive. Some will find it a bracing tonic; for others it will be Jewish learning sprinkled with heresy. Can “radical Judaism” speak to people outside the envisioned circle?
Most of Green’s book (a capstone to the trilogy, “Seek My Face, Speak My Name” and “Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow”), is deliberately provocative. “Radical Judaism” should not be the title of a book that soothes. It is accessibly written, although occasionally with a kind of academic-cum-New Age mistiness that some will cherish and others will not: “Just as Y-H-W-H is not a ‘thing’ but refers to the transcendent wholeness of Being that both surpasses and embraces all beings, so is the soul to be seen as the transcendent wholeness of the person, a mysterious essence that is more than the sum of all the characteristics of that person we could ever name.”
Green’s approach is panentheist. God is not a separate Being who created and superintends the world. Rather God is in all things, shot through the fabric of life, but because the system as a whole is greater than its parts, God is also more than the sum of life. If this smacks of a kind of “Avatar”-ish paganism, that charge is one kabbalists have always had to combat. Green insists it is not pagan, as his predecessors always did. He is right; it is not worship of nature; it is rather a deification of the totality of all that is. For moderns, such a theology may be the only possible piety. To a classical taste, while this may not be paganism, it is at least in the animist suburbs.
Green wrests from this premise some very beautiful and inspiring imagery. Speaking of faith, he wisely says, “We can only testify, never prove. Our strength lies in grandeur of vision, in an ability to transport the conversation about existence and origins to a deeper plane of thinking.” This he seeks to do by insisting that we have to reconceive of God and the world. Everything is interdependent, connected and organismic — and together this vast, pulsing reality is what we can augment or diminish by our actions. In the modern world we have learned to look at systems, and his is a sort of systems theology.
For Green, our great task is awareness. The book is divided into classical categories — God, Torah, Israel. Within each, he struggles with the particularity and universality of the tradition. He struggles as well with the need, given a modern audience, to explain traditional concepts before he can offer a revisioning of them.
As one would expect of a leading light of the chavurah and renewal movements, Green’s book is also a call for Jews to be politically activist. Environmentalism, anti-war activities and other traditional causes of the left are seen not as political choices, but as spiritual imperatives. To criticize the book for this is foolish: One can agree or disagree with convictions and still esteem the courage to have them. For Green, a religious position that does not embrace his politics contradicts the heart of his theology of interdependence: As we are all bound together, universalism, environmentalism, radical activism in many areas is a concomitant of theological understanding.
Green writes several times that he hopes non-Jews will take up this book as well. Certainly much of his theology is not “specifically” Jewish: There is no chosenness, for there is no Chooser. Jews have special responsibilities arising from their history; yet other groups do as well. Green reads his beliefs from the sources of Judaism, and does so with deep knowledge and skill, but they are surely not the predominant reading. Other religious traditions can be read to endorse the same conclusions, as he readily acknowledges. Indeed, Green repeatedly encourages Jews to turn to other traditions, East and West, for insights absent or unacknowledged in our own.
In a pluralistic age, readers will have different feelings about such ecumenicism. Some will see it as a great strength; others as a disqualifying weakness. As one whose belief in God is more traditional than Green’s, I remain enlightened and provoked, but ultimately unpersuaded.

4 responses to “Arthur Green- Radical Judaism #1 of 5 posts

  1. I concur- Green’s view of God does seem to be comport with the way in which Eliade stresses hierophanies as establishing the sacred order in the world and rendering a sacred space of sorts, such as in Moshe before the burning bush. I also do see very strong concerns among those you cite- take Green’s view of Shabbat. While he is the first to acknowledge that “Shabbat, the day of holiness and rest, is the central religious institution of the Jewish people,” he views this as independent of any halakhic strictures associated with Shmirat Shabbat and contends that Shabbat is about creating a sacred time and space for consciousness, as opposed to following the lamed -tet melakhot, as evidenced in his 10 commandments of Shabbat, which focus on interpersonal Ich-Du, and psychological elements, and of course, encourage reading Heschel, as opposed to the Rav, who unlike the former, viewed Shabbat as precisely lamed-tet melakhot, as opposed to “an island in time” or any sort of neo-mystical constructions focusing on the dimensions of time and space.

  2. Being of a liberal temperament I can understand Judaism without dogmas. I’ve been around enough to see most Jews think of Judaism as a religion without halacha. And being an old leftie, I personally think of Judaism as without any allegiance to the decisions of the State of Israel. Even the Holocaust philosophically understood is without uniqueness; our blood is not redder than other victims of murder.

    After a while it occurred to me that perhaps Judaism is about being without…a religion without any qualities. But I shied away of such a prospect, color me charedi, because like many others I have a common history, culture, and community with other Jews and a special feeling for these Jews. From which it followed quite naturally, that I favor my people over others, just as I favor my family over others, both in their hopes and dreams as well as in their affliction and woes.

    If we follow this idea of expansion of consciousness, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, where my moral, (not simply prudential) obligations includes obligations to things like rain forests and oceans, and of course endangered species, then the theologically important sense of peoplehood will disappear. From a high enough madreiga I can be in communion with my table. In such a space grandiose ideas of connectedness to a world network taken quite literally seem plausible . We become in the end a religion without definiteness, without walls.

    The CCAR recently recommended that Reform rabbis participate in and perform intermarriages. Most American Jews have been thinking intermarriage is no big deal for some time. I would conjecture Rabbi Green’s theology reinforces these ideas.

    • EJ- I think you are missing the point of what Green and others in his camp emphasize. They do not believe they are weakening the Jewish People or our future, and believe that they are offering a universalistic, reconstructionistic, ethical imperatives-oriented form of Judaism which speaks to contemporary sensibilities and psycho-spiritual yearnings, both from within and outside the tradition. However, I do agree with your claims, although I feel they are irrelevant and not germane to the topic at hand. Yet, the entire gestalt does leave us at the end of the discussion with a dichotomy that will forever characterize religious dialogue and inquiry, a sort of archetypical element in all religions (to borrow from Jung)- the conflict between universalism and particularism. It seems that in our diversity, the question becomes whether this dichotomy influences what we view as acceptable in the realm of ritual and practice. The CCAR views the challenges of particularism and universalism as having a clear manifest effect on practice, and clearly advocates blessing interfaith unions as part of their two-field belief- a) Universalism, and b) Incorporating the demands of the times into their “halakhic” praxis, as a “sha’at dechak” of sorts, for lack of a better term.

      The question is, however, in the theology of Green and his comrades, to what extent does halakha play a role, and how do these thinkers view ritual demands and the notion of being commanded amid their belief that what suits the individual relatively, psychologically, and spiritually can legitimately derive from both Non-Jewish and Jewish sources (although, I always do ask myself how these individuals can legitimately lay claim to a religious system, Hasidism, which itself stresses the importance of halakha and stringency at times, particularism, as in the case of the Tanya, although this is negligible, and in the case of the Polish schools of Ger and others, the necessity of be iyun study of the Talmud). I think it would be safe to say that lomdus and being medakdek in mitzvos are not priorities among Green’s school, just as how I view the Carlebach minyan, a ubiquitous element of Neo-Hasidism, as utilized today, as a disingenuous and halakhically problematic phenomenon.

  3. I have ordered but not yet read Rabbi Green’s book, and everything depends on the details. What I am looking for is a constructive argument that panentheism is connected to a particular moral theory and politics. Just as materialism need not generate a Masrxist view or positing a transcendent God need not require an aristocratic hierarchy, what is it about process theology that ties it to a renewal program?

    I have learnt much from the book by Clayton and Peacocke “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being.” There are so many different interpretations of what panentheist formulas come down to it is no easy matter to evaluate.

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