Landes/ Green debate round 4

Here is next and final round of the Landes-Green Debate. Green responding to Landes. As a side note Landes will be speaking at Hebrew College about theological dialogue int he upcoming week.

I repeat my general directive, if you dont read Modern Jewish thought, then dont comment. Read the letter now. I removed my start of writing comments because I had so much to say. I will post my comments in a later post.

Dear Danny,

I think we are still far from understanding each other. You just don’t get me. Identifying me with Mordecai Kaplan and Richard Rubenstein is way off the mark in terms of how I see myself or self-identify, whom I read, or my relationship with either God or tradition. Kaplan was never an influence on me; I came to JTS the year after he retired and never had the privilege of studying with him. I read Heschel’s God in Search of Man for the first time when I was fifteen, and fell in love. I tried Kaplan a bit later, but found him dry and boring, too prosaic, too American and pragmatist, not the soaring spirit I needed. I did indeed try to align my neo-Heschelian mysticism with aspects of Kaplan’s legacy during my RRC years. That attempt did not succeed very well; just ask the Kaplanians. Yes, of course I share some concerns with Kaplan and greatly respect his honesty in raising them, but our framework for responding to them is quite different. We both want to respond out of the most contemporary and profound understanding of religion. But for him that is the rationalism of Dewey and Durkheim. For me it is the phenomenology and post-critical religiosity of Otto, Eliade, and Peter Berger.

Along with most of the intellectually-oriented JTS students at the time, I was excited when Rubenstein published After Auschwitz in 1966. He had dared to say what many of us were thinking. But I soon realized that his net result was the demise of traditional Judaism, reducing it to nothing more than a psychological tool. My move toward a neo-Hasidic reading of tradition was precisely a response to Rubenstein, not an alliance with him. I needed a Judaism that expressed a spiritual truth, not just religion serving as a crutch with which to get through this absurd life.

It took me many years to say out loud that I am a mystic. In Jewish circles it sounds a bit like proclaiming oneself a tsaddik, which is the farthest thing from my mind. But it is true that as a thinker and as a religious personality, it is only the mystical tradition that has saved Judaism for me. Scholem quotes R. Pinhas of Korzec as thanking God that He created him after the Zohar was revealed, “because the Zohar kept me a Jew.” That is true for me too, regarding both the Zohar and the teachings of the Hasidic masters themselves.

I would love to be able to explain this to you, but find it subtle and difficult. Please, this is not because I underestimate your intellect, but because I have discovered through long experience that there are lots of people, including some very bright ones, who just don’t get it. That is precisely the meaning, I believe, of the cryptic Mishnaic phrase hakham u-mevin mi-da’ato. You need some personal experience of these matters in order to grasp ma’aseh merkavah, or any other mystical teaching. (The Hasidic masters indeed abandoned this sort of elitism, with mixed results. But that’s another story.)

Still, I’m going to try. It has much to do with the fluid borders between “in” and “up,” or between “self” and “Other.” The mystic understands intuitively that there is a point in the inward journey where the individual self, the ego, if you like, is transcended, set aside, obliterated, or whatever (the variations depend on such factors as which mystic, which religion, and which moment). Then a presence, previously impenetrable (hence: “the transcendent”) floods one and alone exists. This may happen to a Maimonidean in the course of progressively shedding attributes and anthropomorphisms in contemplating the divine, as it may happen to a Geronese Kabbalist in the prayerful act of hashavat kol ha-devarim le-havayyatan. For the ba’al ha-Zohar this fading of the individual self seems to have sometimes taken place in the course of ecstatic infatuation with erotic symbolism. In HaBaD Hasidism it took the form of more abstract contemplative language, the realization that sovev and memalei are really one, which is to say that the distinct between “inside” and “outside” disappears. But you get there, of course, by going in, by opening the mind to a deeper (or “higher”) rung of consciousness than that on which ordinary rationality operates. That is the key to the whole thing: realizing that there are multiple inner rungs of mind, and that religious insight comes from a different mental “place” than does the mind with which we usually think. In that sense I understand “Sinai” as a vertical metaphor for an internal event. Indeed, I recall Heschel pleading that: “Torah min ha-Shamayim is not a geographical statement!” (But that is precisely why this writing is so awkward; it is of necessity a translation of such insight, coming from a mental realm beyond ordinary language, into a linguistic tool that belongs to another reality.)

Now let me go in a different direction. I don’t think I said anything in the book about my yihus. On my father’s side, I come from two generations of confirmed atheists. My grandparents, who came to America in 1906, had already rebelled against their own Hasidic upbringing. When I decided to go to Rabbinical School, I got a letter from Grandma Green, which I have saved. Written in her night-school English, it goes like this: “Dear Arthur: I hear you still want to be a rabbi. I would be prouder of you if you would be a teacher and teach people things that are true because if there was a God in the sky he would be shot down by sputnik already.”

I have kept this fine lady in mind over the decades and have tried not to believe in any God who could be shot down by Sputnik, or by grandma. That has meant that the usual depiction of the transcendent One as “residing” somewhere “on the far side of the universe” is gone for me. Yes, I recognize that this puts me at odds with most pre-modern popular Judaism, including lots of Hasidism. But it does not mean that there is no transcendence, only that subtlety must always be maintained when talking about it, that it is not for naught that the Kabbalists called it only Eyn Sof. Yes, most of them described the emergence of the sefirot, constituting the divine persona, as originating from God, not from us, though this question is discussed by later pre-Lurianic Kabbalists, and again in Hasidism, just how much is mi-tsad ha-mekabbelim, etc. There are some points of opening to the notion that the personal God is a projection, though these are quite rare.

I did not mean to give the impression in my book that I think any other sort of theology is “childish.” I have indeed combed the text to try to see where you got that impression. True, I say of my own post-adolescent rebellion that “the pillars of naïve faith had given way” and that I became “a non-believer in the God of my childhood (p. 3).” But that was a personal statement, surely not meant to paint others. Later (p. 71) I say that most modern Jews knew nothing of either the RaMBaM or the Kabbalists, and “what dominated instead was a Judaism of rather simplistic rabbinic faith…most modern Jews thought of God in rather naïve and childlike terms.” I’m afraid this is simply true, my friend, whether we like it or not.

I indeed recognize the possibility and legitimacy of a mature theism, that of a Buber or a Heschel, for example. Especially in the post-Holocaust era (though perhaps always, says the author of Job), it has to live at the knifepoint of confrontation with theodicy. That is not a place I am able to live. I need a theological vision that gives me more room to love and appreciate life and its gifts. No, panentheism does not fully resolve theodicy, but it gives me more room to breathe. If God controls history and a claim is made for personal providence, I will find myself back screaming with young Wiesel (more than Rubenstein) and the post-Holocaust Yiddish poets I love so well.

I usually try hard not to get into polemical battles with modern (pardon the word) Orthodox friends and colleagues, because I have great sympathy for the difficult balancing act of your position, especially given the fierceness of attack from the religious right. But I do find it hard to understand the integrity behind the non-Haredi Orthodox mindset. Somehow I think most of that camp do want to hold onto, or at least pretend to hold onto, a “geographical” sense of min ha-shamayim. This goes with a literalism about revelation, even while knowing, with the university education we all share, that Biblical criticism can’t be dismissed. You accuse me of “exchanging…the focus narratives of Genesis and Exodus for…evolution.” It is not I who have done that; our civilization has. In fact I’m spending all my time these days on reading and translating Hasidic Torah commentaries. But I know that I don’t take any of it as historical truth, and don’t need to pretend otherwise. In order to talk to people outside our narrow circle of lovers of these ancient tales, I do indeed have to find some kedushah in the much more widely shared narrative of evolution. I’m not a bit ashamed of that.

Here I need to tell you a story about a truly transformative experience in my life, one of those moments when my mission became clear. It was about 1970; I was just a few years out of JTS, but making a name as a young rabbi teaching the mystical tradition. Fordham University had “a day of spiritual teaching” and invited me to come. Among the speakers was Swami Sattchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga. Most of the young people in the audience were his disciples, wearing distinctive white robes. I gave a talk about standing before Sinai as inner hearing, being ever-present to the Word, or something like that. Afterwards, a young man in the Swami’s outfit raised his hand and said: “But is that really Judaism? Isn’t Judaism about how God is up the sky with a book open, writing down all the good and bad things you do, and preparing to reward or punish you?” I gave the kid a nice pastoral answer, assuming he was a victim of some Long Island Hebrew School. Afterwards he came up to me quietly and said: “I just want you to know that I quit Torah ve-Da’as a year before semikhah.”

That moment cleansed me of any residual feeling I might have had about not being a “real” Jewish teacher because I hadn’t come from the yeshiva world. Here was higher Jewish education, so-called, and that’s what they were still giving out. And I was looking not so much at him, but at the fifty or more other Jews among the hundred in the Swami’s uniform, asking: “Who will speak to them?” As I said, a formative moment…Much of my life – both in my writing and in the sorts of rabbis I hope to train – has been in response to that young man and the others around him.

From my point of view, I think there is no need to carry this conversation onward. Your challenge has been a stimulating one, though I did take some offense at your tone. Much more significant is the fact that together we have caused a lot of people to do some real thinking. I delight in that collaborative effort and hope you do as well.

Bi-Verakhah, Art

source Jewschool here

3 responses to “Landes/ Green debate round 4

  1. Whatever one may think of his position, and I am not exactly a card carrying member of neo-Chasidus, it is a privilege to have as creative and good a man in our midst as Rabbi Arthur Green.

    Recognizing Green’s great contributions to Jewish life and thought, I remain a non believer. I do not believe our tachlis beolom in this post- Holocaust pre- Apocalypse times is to work towards “fluid borders between “in” and “up,” or between “self” and “Other.” R.D. Laing and others of that period, (ok, I admit it was the sixties,) may have darshened that schizophrenics are on a higher madreiga than prosaic bourgeois people, since they had obliterated their self and their ego. We know he was making a serious mistake. They were psychotic. I don’t agree religious insight comes from a deeper or higher rung of consciousness. I believe it comes from growing up, fully experiencing the various stages of life, trying all the while to get a handle on one’s own life and times. We try over many decades to integrate aspects of our parents and our teachers, their world and ours, and we try to negotiate our own potential against this background of initial endowments, family, community and external reality. Call it a Freudian or a Proustian or an Orthodox life of ever increasing finer discriminations, it is not a matter of rungs of consciousness or merging with others or the world. For better or worse the satisfactions and ecstasies’ Green seeks are pre-Oedipal. For most of us these pleasures are from a garden from which few emerge whole. Better an anthropomorphic God up in the sky, than the regression to a time when we were in some mother- child symbiosis, with the terror of a jealous father somewhere over the horizon. Green the mythmaker, the teacher of the Zohar, is certainly not in a position to depreciate anthropomorphisms.

    Green thinks a God in heaven is a projection, whereas a God inside the body satisfies even the most ardent Feurbachian. Nonsense. The issue of projection is separate from the phenomenological location of the screen. Some Jews project, (the Raavad’s “gedolim vetovim”), some don’t. For most Jews I tend to believe some of these terms carry no clear reference at all, whatever the temporary fleeting ideation, something like the primitive terms in an a priori geometry. The dividing issue between Green and his “naive and childlike” opponents is whether a life devoted to a inner spiritual yenika/ nashing is superior to a grown- up life of many possible goals within the context of a Jewish life.

    The issue in a way is the context, the background against which the chassidic and kabalistic talk stabilize their meanings. There are few living chassidic courts that prioritize mystical merging over a life of intellectual learning of Talmud. Their goal like most of the yeshivas is to create frum, Talmudically literate balebatim. A balebus in a late capitalist fast track world does not in general have the inner stillness and patience to be medabek beshchina and create the infinite yearning for the zivugim necessary to bring the blessings from above into our lowly world. A mincha- mariv yes, a tikun chatzos generally no. We see the straight up Chasidim know how to scale- up their communities across continents and social classes. Whether neo-Chasidus, with far fewer material anchors can create anything similar within their demographic is not at all obvious.

    • I admire Arthur Green, and I found his latest remarks well worth reading. But it was ej’s comment, with its note of authority and experience, that really made me pause and reflect. more, please.

  2. Lawrence Kaplan

    EJ’s thoughtful critique of Art Green calls to mind the Rambam’s warning: First one needs the bread and meat, the discpline of halakhic study and practice; only then can one safely stroll through the pardes of mystical or philosophical contemplation with its promises and dangers.

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