Arthur Green- Judaism for the World

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea. Rabbi Professor Arthur Green, better known by his friends as Art, definitely fits into the first category. He has been working though and reworking his insights in version after version until it feels just right. One can start with his early essays of the 1970’s “The Role of Jewish Mysticism in a Contemporary Theology of Judaism,” Shefa Quarterly, (September 1978) and over the decades see each of his theological books as coming back to the same issues, in the same order, each time grappling from a different mood or venue.  In this volume, we see him breaking the pattern, in that he has reached a mountaintop position of making peace with his view of a God filled universe. This new book Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (Yale UP: 2020) has a heartfelt divine warmth, full of faith and light, not the modernist abyss or struggling of the void of his other works.

I am not sure that Arthur Green needs a biographical introduction, but as a formality. Green is the Irving Brudnick Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College and rector of the Rabbinical School, which he founded in 2004. Basically, he is the head of a non-denominational rabbinical school, which has the most students of any liberal rabbinical school, teaching them, davening with them, and offering himself as role model for Jewish spirituality. In this new book Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (Yale UP: 2020), Art speaks as someone who is now molding others to enter the Rabbinate and Jewish communal life.

The book displays the answers that Art Green finds meaningful after years of calling himself a seeker or a radical. Now, he is the establishment, as the head of one of the America’s rabbinical seminaries offering answers. Beyond that, the book has moved beyond the provincialism of Neo-Hasidism “offering a universal response to the eternal human questions of who we are, why we exist, where we are going, and how to live.” Judaism for the World is a beautiful book giving a direction for finding the divine in life. In many ways, it is the book I would recommend to people as the place where to start with Art Green’s thought.

The book has three parts, homiletically entitled as Soul, Year, and World, corresponding to the Sefer Yetzirah coordinates. The first part, on the inward journey of the soul is where he gives his theological views. We find a presentation of a universal Neo-Hasidism that has moved beyond the Eastern European cultural forms, his views of prayer, love of God, and mitzvot, and excerpts from Green’s forthcoming spiritual commentary on the prayer book. The interview below focuses entirely on the first third of the book. In my opinion, this is where the faith, light, and warmth are located. 

The second part of the book, Year, is a series of essays covering the entire Jewish calendar of holidays. In these, Green reverts to his singsong of his thought process shown in prior books. He starts with the fundamentalism of his teenage years, his leaving it, discovering historic naturalism, in this case Theodore Gaster’s pagan origin of the Jewish holidays, turning to Kabbalah, then Hasidut, then Neo-Hasidut, then moving beyond it to his own contemporary spirituality. He did this at times in the first part also, but overall, the first part gave an impression of Art Green today. Here in section two, however, we must recapitulate his journey as we did in Radical Judaism and his other books. At this point, however, no one thinks Green is 1950’s Orthodoxy, Wissenschaft, or even a literal reading of Hasidism; he does not have to remind us. Green should publish a book just from the material in the first part, without the journey. Just clean pure lines of his current views, which is what I tried to create in this interview.  A book entitled “A Judaism of Love.”

The third part of the book, the largest, does not have the unity of the prior sections, in that it is eleven essays of various strengths. The section opens with two complementary essays on creation theology and the environment. Then, we have several incidental speeches of Green on social issues and American Jewish Life, including one “American Jews after Pittsburgh” and the other an “American Letter to Israel.” These deserve their own discussion on his vision of an ethical liberal Jewish America of values and religiosity, which in his words, runs “countercultural” to political, economic, and ethnic definitions of Judaism.  We are also treated to a twenty-five-page intellectual autobiography, which should be compared to the more direct and detailed sixty-page version that Green gave as testimony to the oral history of the Jewish counter-culture project.

The final essay is a graduation speech to his Rabbinical school (larger incoming class than any other liberal seminary campus), exhorting the new rabbis to have love of God, love of Torah, and love of Israel. It is a speech that should be given to all rabbis. A version of it is available online. This talk shows Arthur Green as a Rabbinic leader and molder of the future of American Jewry.

The rabbi as devotee should begin each day with a prayer of gratitude for the great privilege (and responsibility) of serving as spiritual guide to others. 

Our tradition calls us to a devotional life of great simplicity.  We worship throughout the year by such acts as waving branches, blowing horns, lighting candles, living in huts, eating crackers.  Of course these have to be the right branches, the right horns, the right huts, and the right crackers, each on the proper day of the year.  But they are still acts of utter simplicity, and we must take care that this simplicity not get lost amid the welter of details about how to do them “right.”  They are there to show us how the most ordinary of human deeds may become filled with holiness, invoking God’s presence, causing us to bow down in awe while our hearts fill up with joy.  Openness to this devotional life is essential to the rabbi, as it should be to every Jew, to every human being.

Rabbis are great lovers!  (But I do not recommend that bumper sticker for your synagogue parking lot!)… The Ba ‘al Shem Tov said that his soul had come into the world because of three loves: the love of God, the love of Torah, and the love of all Israel. But the real test of love lies in our ability to generously and unselfishly love people.  Yes, that continues to mean loving Jews in a special way, because that is the community we are here to serve.  There is no being a rabbi without becoming comfortable with that.  We are here to be leaders of the Jewish people.  We are here to stand up for the best of our tradition’s moral teachings, and to guide Jews toward them.  When our community turns away from those values, the failing is ours; we have not succeeded in our role as leaders

For us as Jews, God’s love is manifest in a special way, in the form of teachings.  “You so loved our ancestors,” we say each morning in Ahavah Rabbah, “that You became their Teacher.  Give us that same grace; be our Teacher as well.”  We rabbis, as faithful students of divine teaching, are here to help share it with others, to pass on the teaching – and the love.  God shows us love through the act of teaching.  We spend our lives learning to do the same.  In a sense, love is all we have to offer: our love of God, of Judaism, and of Jews.  The Judaisms motivated by authority, by fear, and by guilt are all gone for most Jews.  All we have is love.  

In sum, this book is an important statement of Green’s theological vision, which at the same time is accessible to the lay reader. Dealing with many themes, the book allows a first time reader of Green to get a solid overview of his thought, his journey, and his personality. As I said above, I would still want a short 65K word book from Green called “A Judaism of Love” with just his current conclusion on divine unity; he would need a strong editor to make it happen.

This interview is part one of two parts. The second part will be on the set of books A New Hasidism discussing his views of Neo-Hasidism, past, present, and future. I will probably give my comments and critiques in a follow-up post.

Rabbi Arthur Green Interview

  1. Can you explain your basic concept of the Oneness of the divine manifest through all things?

From the time I first read (in Hillel Zeitlin) about  a mysterious inner Naught (ayin) that was the substratum of all existence, present  within each extant being, I instinctively knew it to be true.  That is to say that it corresponds to my own inner experience of what reality is, something that has never left me.  If you choose, you may glorify it by such a term as “natural mysticism,” but that feels much too grandiose for me.  I had taken a college course on the pre-Socratics, and had been impressed already then by Thalus’s “All is water.”  When I read just a bit about cosmic origins and the Big Bang, the sense that all matter throughout the universe is “stardust,” all from that same source, moved me deeply. 

The sense that the real work of Judaism, as a spiritual path, was to be “seekers of unity,” dorshey yiḥudekha, immediately linked itself to that sense of discovering and celebrating the underlying oneness of existence.

I believe that there is only One.  Better said: I have glimpses of an inner experience that tells me that there is only One. That One embraces, surrounds, and fills all the infinitely varied forms that existence has taken and ever will take.  We Jews call out that truth twice daily in reciting Shema‘ Yisra’el, “Hear, O Israel.”  “Y-H-W-H is One” means that there is none other. Our daily experience of variety, separate identity, and alienation of self from other renders an incomplete and ultimately misleading picture of reality.

Of course I understood that the personification of that unity, yiḥud, into a God-figure was the work of the collective human mythic imagination, manifest in all its multiple forms.  But is its very animation, the view of that inner One as an active force, also myth?  There I was forced to admit (reading bits of Cassirer, Tillich, Neumann, and others) that the line between the mythic mind and the ancient truth that it seeks to garb in its narrative is quite impossible to draw.  (See #3 below.)

2. Can you explain your ideas of universalizing and de-anthropomorphizing. This is important in that you have moved on from directly accepting Hasidut, even as Neo-hasidut to now a universalizing of the ideas.

From its inception, neo-Hasidism understood the obligation to universalize.  This was present in both of the key founding figures of neo-Hasidism as a religious ideology (as opposed to a literary/artistic trope), Buber and Zeitlin.  It certainly is true of Heschel as well, who (in Zeitlin’s footsteps) is trying to articulate a Jewish phenomenology of what it means to be a religious human being.  I very much stand in their tradition. 

This stands in sharp contrast to the Yitzhak Ginzburgh version of neo-Hasidism, that picks up many of the most awful defensive and chauvinist passages in the Hasidic corpus and extends them into our very different context, where they come out as blatant racism.  Neo-Hasidism, almost by definition, involves selection from within the Hasidic tradition, and the wisdom of that selection process is what makes all the difference.

Regarding de-anthropomorphizing: Living and thinking in our very psychology-soaked era, it was clear to me quite early that all our images of God were human projections.  Discovering that Maimonides already understood this, and that one had to get beyond them in order to establish a pure God-idea (which I then existentially translated into “a true relationship with God”), was liberating to me. 

The little article I did on “The Children in Egypt and the Theophany at the Sea” (1975) was critical in this; there I tried to show that the roots of such an awareness might occasionally be found even in the rabbinic sources.  Once you admit that our images of God depend upon the needs of the hour (“At the sea He appeared to them as a youth; at Sinai as an elder” – בים נראה להם כבחור, בסיני נראה להם כזקן), all the rest follows.The source to which I refer here will be familiar to many readers from its inclusion in the synagogue’s An‘im Zemirot.  Just like the author of that hymn, I have underscored my awareness that this is all “appearance,” I feel free to let my mythic imagination create freely – though I would probably not “re-mythologize” as wildly as he did.

For a long time (some decades, into mid-life), I felt that the projected images were a burden.  In particular, the fixation of Judaism on parental and royal imagery for the divine kept us trapped in an infantile relationship to Y-H-W-H, which I already understood as the breath of all life or the inner spirit of existence itself.  The discovery of that sort of divinity-within-all should be a liberating, exciting, and utterly joyous process/event.  But how can we open ourselves to those emotions, if we are ensconcing that Spirit in the garb of a forbidding, commanding, and guilt-producing father figure?  I look back on my 18 year-old rejection of such a deity as a personal redemption from my own bondage, yetsi’at mitsrayim, and remain ever wary of such religion.

With age, I have becoming more forgiving of the human need to personify, in order to relate in a way that involves heart as well as mind.  I was influenced by my encounter with R. Nahman, who insisted that the spiritual path demands that you burrow through your emotional tangle, in order to uplift and transform that part of you, in contrast to the classic ḤaBaD and Maimonidean position of trying to transcend it and deal directly with the detached contemplative mind. 

I also saw the moral implications of personification (“Just as He is gracious and compassionate, so should you…” etc.) and the need for it in the assertion of Judaism’s core moral claim, that each human being is an image of God.  For that, a degree of personification is required. 

And if one is going to allow for that, do it richly, letting the mythic imagination take its course – as long as you remain aware that that is what you’re doing.  I have found my study of the Zohar tremendously helpful in that.  I can allow the One to manifest as Father and King, as long as it is also manifest as Queen and Mother, as Stream and Lake, as Mountain and Sea, etc. The chapter on the sefirot in my Guide to the Zohar, while written as intellectual history, is also directly tied to my theological project.

The Kabbalist understands the sefirot (read: “symbols”) as a bridge that links and allows for communication between the infinite God and the finite human mind.  So do I.  The seemingly great difference is that they see God as the builder of that bridge, while I think it is a human product.  But when you’re walking across a bridge, the question “Who built this bridge?” is not one you always have to answer.

3. How does divine oneness call us? If God language is personal creation, how to hear the call of the Divine oneness as real?

I do not know a God who speaks in human language.  I recall Heschel, in one of his more Maimonidean moments, saying in class (I am quoting from memory): “What does it mean to say ‘God speaks?’  Does God have a larynx?  Does God have a voice box?”

The essence of revelation, for me, lies in the single word “Where are You?” ayekah, spoken to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, repeated as the “I am,” anokhi, of Sinai.  That word is “spoken,” or “addressed,” to each human being from within, if we open ourselves to hear it.  It is an instinctive call, not unrelated to other instincts, but unique to humans because of the development of the brain, making for the human “soul” as well.  This “voice” says: “Human being! Ben Adam! Who are you?  What are you doing here, for this instant of evolutionary time in which you live?  ‘Whence did you come and where are you going?’  What’s the purpose of it all? Figure it out!”  (For us more complicated and potentially jaded types, that divine command also includes “Defy absurdity!”)

Most human beings spend their lives ignorant of that inner voice, being too busy, struggling for daily bread and psychological survival, to pay it any mind.  Many others live in active flight from it, with its great implied demands.  Religions were created in order to protect us from that voice as well as to make us aware of it, to provide safe and ready-made “answers” to its great question.

All the rest of Torah, both written and oral, ongoing in its evolution to this day, is our Jewish attempt – our version of the great human attempt – to respond to that “Where are you?” and “I am.”

Ah, you will say.  But aren’t you a monist?  Can a monist possibly say that the Torah is human and not divine in origin?  If it is created by the human soul, isn’t that the divine “voice” within the person as well?  How can a monist make such distinctions?

“Yes, you’re right,” I will respond.  There is only One.

4. Can you explain our need for ego transcendence? What is our relationship to the transcendent, awareness-daat?

I remain Heschel’s student, despite my great distance from him on the personhood issue.  Shai Held is right in saying that self-transcendence is a key concept in Heschel, as it is to me. For Heschel, that self-transcendence means submission to the will and moral demand of a personal force.  To me it means submission to a personified oneness and wholeness of Being (Y-H-W-H), of which we are a part.

‘‘Transcendence’’ in the context of my faith does not refer to a God ‘‘out there’’ or ‘‘over there’’ somewhere beyond the universe, since I do not know the existence of such a ‘‘there.’’ Transcendence means rather that Y-H-W-H—or Being—is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the profundity of  that  presence. Transcendence thus dwells within immanence.    Transcendence is first and foremost an epistimological truth, as it mostly is for Maimonides.  I make no ontological claim for it.  There is no ultimate duality here, no ‘‘God and world,’’ no ‘‘God, world, and self,’’ but only one Being and its many faces – including our own.

In some part, it was Zalman Schachter who saved Judaism for me, when he said, so simply: “Judaism is a  devotional path,” in his Yiddish original: Yiddishkeyt is a derekh in avoide.  That devotion was precisely what I was looking for: something higher/deeper to which I could dedicate my life.  “I am a servant of the blessed Holy,” ana ‘avda de-kudsha brikh hu, never fails to touch me.

Devotion and service is what it is all about for us ḥasidim and neo-ḥasidim, for us Heschelians and neo-Heschelians.  To say that back in biblical language: “You shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.”  I stand in the awesome presence of the Cosmic One and say to it: “I am here to serve.”  I even feel called upon by the Cosmic One to serve in awe and in love. Avodat ha-shem itself transcends all theological explanations. Note my literal translation of the Zohar line above.  I seek a life of service to “the blessed Holy,” rather than the more conventional “the Holy One, blessed be He” –which then turns out to be yet another version of the Old Fellow in the sky.

This sense of ego-transcendence is tricky, but of special importance, in my sort of religion.  I understand the discovery of Y-H-W-H as a journey inward, rather than upward.  It is in the deepest heart of the person that the One is revealed.  But I am very much aware that this emphasis on inwardness can end up in a solipsism.  Especially in our very self-gratification-oriented culture, this is a constant danger. 

Bookstores too often have a “spirituality and self-help” section.  But “self-help” is the antithesis of what I mean by spirituality!  The journey inward is to take us to a place where the individual ego-self gives way to the cosmic Self that is manifest within each of us.  It forces us to realize the greater truth that the One I discover within is found in all the others as well.  This is how I read “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Y-H-W-H.”  The demand to love your neighbor comes from your discovery that you are both outward manifestations – I would even say “incarnations” – of the same universal spirit.

5. What is faith? What is the role in faith of being aware and self -articulation to the One?

The distinction between “faith” and “belief” is one I originally learned from reading Buber and Tillich.  Unfortunately, Hebrew lacks a distinction between them; both are rendered by emunah.  In Tormented Master, I already contrasted R. Nahman’s emunah with that of Maimonides.  The RaMBaM meant “credence” in emunah.  “I believe in the following propositions.”  I recognize that “belief” is less certain than “knowledge” that can be rationally demonstrated, but I stand by them anyway.  For R. Nahman, emunah is on the greater, rather than lesser, side of rational knowledge; it is an existential stance, something I can express only with my entire self, and for which I would give my life.  Such faith can never be proven, only witnessed.  The way we live our lives is our testament to that faith.  I have tried.

6. How do we “know God” in prayer.

“Know” doesn’t feel like the right word here.  We pay attention to Y-H-W-H in prayer.  We leave behind the bustle of exterior life and open ourselves to the divine presence that is there within-and-around us always (sovev u-memale), but which we’re usually too preoccupied to notice.  I will repeat here my favorite of the many prayer-insights of Hasidism, one that has stayed with me for a long time.  R. Pinhas of Korzec: “People think you pray to God, but that is not the case.  Rather prayer itself is of the divine essence.”  The words of prayer are the occasion for, the background music to, the opening of the heart. 

Maimonides begins his list of commandments with “knowing God.”  Worship only comes after that.  The Introduction to the Zohar switches the order (if I’m remembering rightly).  Love and awe come first; it is they that lead to da‘at.  The Hasidic Me’or ‘Eynayim, which I have loved, taught, and translated for so many years, makes it clear that from the human point of view, as we ascend the sefirotic ladder, that it is indeed the opening of the heart – especially in prayer – that allows one to come to da‘at, in its full biblical sense.

7. What is your concept of mitzvah, or being commanded by the Oneness of the Divine?

I do believe that there is a divine imperative.  It is completely contained in the word ayekah or anokhi, as discussed above.  That inner voice calls out “Know Me!  Be aware!  See yourself as a tiny link in this great evolutionary journey that I have entered, and do your part!”  A second part of that command is “Share that awareness with others!  Help this awareness to spread through the human community, so that we all discover that we are part of the single Soul!”

We can find nice Jewish language for this (you see how important that quest is for me!) in the Talmudic statement that we only heard two commandments directly from God, mi-pi ha-gevurah, “I am” and “I come to liberate you,” and therefore “Worship nothing else!”  They contain the entire teaching.

All the rest are the great blessing that our tradition, beginning with Moses, created for us, a wonderful set of vessels, kelim, to capture and contain the great light of divine presence.  If you like, you may say that I give precedence to the secondary meaning of mitsvah widely found in Hasidic sources, deriving it from the Aramaic tsavta, “togetherness.”  The mitsvah is a place, moment, occasion, where we have the opportunity to be together with that presence.

Mitsvah is carried out through a process called halakhah, which derives from “walking” and should be understood as a “path,” a way to walk through the world.  I very much regret its transposition into “law.” (Already, in the Septuagint’s rendered of torah, “teaching,” as nomos). Since I do not believe that transgressors of halakhah should be punished, either by God or by man, I cannot think of it as legally binding in the way law is binding. (I refer here to ritual, rather than ethical, obligations).  I understand it as a personal discipline that Jews may choose to take upon themselves to one degree or another, without judgment.  I believe such a discipline is valuable in one’s spiritual path, and I follow a good deal of it, quite happily, but out of loving choice, rather than out of legal obligation.

8. How does divine law become ever fashioned anew?

I understand that fashioning to take place within the ongoing evolutionary process.  This includes cultural and religious, as well as biological, evolution.  As a person who has given much of my life to the handing down of tradition, I hope that my students, and theirs, will receive a Judaism that is richer because of my having been here and added to it for this brief moment of my life.  That is the great privilege of engaging in a living oral tradition, torah shebe-‘al peh

The recognition that 611 of the 613 commandments are of Mosaic  (i.e. human) rather than heavenly origin, implies a chance of fallibility.  Even Moses (or “the biblical authors,” if you prefer) was shaped by the values and attitudes of his day. Because I love the set of tools tradition has given us, I am very loyal to them, and choose to live in accord with patterns they provide.  But there are exceptions to this, when my moral conscience demands.  Thus the Torah’s prescriptions regarding the status of women or with regard to the act of love between two men are no longer in effect in my Torah.  I understand them as reflecting the ethos of the ancient Near Eastern world in which the Torah was created.  So too the awful genocidal writ with regard to the Midianites and all the  prescribed slaughter of the seven Canaanite nations.

You will ask, of course, where this “moral conscience” comes from.  Isn’t it just an introjection of contemporary Western values, which you are then placing on a high pedestal than the Torah?  I reject that argument.  Our sages had a notion that Torah stands on an overriding principle, klal gadol.  Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai debated what it was.  Akiva proposed “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben Azzai objected, preferring “On the day God created humans, He fashioned them in the divine image; male and female he created them.” (TY, Nedarim 6:9; I am assuming he intended the full verse.)  In that case, any other mitsvah needs to pass the test offered by the klal gadol.  Does this practice diminish or degrade the divine image of some group of human beings?  If it does, it simply can’t be Torah.  We are forced to reinterpret those verses, just as Jews have always done.  But I emphasize that this principle must be invoked carefully and conservatively, only when I find no moral alternative.

9. How can a liberal Jew bring back parashat ha-ketoret, and kiur, even Orthodox Jews rarely say them?

WHAT???  You mean there are Jews who call themselves “Orthodox” and do not say the ketoret every day?  I’m SHOCKED!  How DARE they call themselves “Orthodox!” Or, in other words: “Orthodox, Schmorthodox.”  That nomenclature means nothing to me.  Each of us Jews is an heir to the entire tradition.  As heirs, yorshim, we have a right to decide what to do with the traditions we have inherited.  Which ones each of us chooses to keep and pass on, and which ones we either cast aside or leave for others, is up to us.  I believe that each of us adults must take responsibility for our own spiritual lives.  I have come to find daily saying the ketoret meaningful.  I have not found meaning in having my clothes checked for Shaatnez.  Yes, I know that the former is only a late-instituted custom, the latter is a Torah-written commandment, mitsvah de-oraita.  So sue me.  Tell me I’m not Orthodox; I’ll agree.  But don’t tell that I shouldn’t be saying parashat ha-ketoret,  (or even Pitum ha-ketoret which I don’t say – at least in a Rosenzweigian “not yet”), or can’t, because I’m not Orthodox.  Sure I can.

10. People who are close to you have noticed that you seem more traditional in the last few years? Any thoughts?

Yes, it’s true.  Somewhere around age 65, I said to myself “It’s time to grow up.  Enough of adolescent rebellion.  You’re too old for that.” The truth is that I was very deeply wounded by my neurotic and somewhat obsessive attraction to Judaism between the ages of 12 and 18.  A kid from an avowedly secular home, I discovered a book called The Code of Jewish Law, Kitsur Shulḥan ‘Arukh, and judged myself by its standards.  It took me a very long time, indeed several decades, to recover.  When I did, I said “But this is the way you want to live, isn’t it?”  That allowed me to become a rather consistently observant Jew, though doing things my own way.

As I age, gratitude grows as an essential part of my devotional life.  I have now just about completed a commentary on the siddur that I have been working on for over twenty years, and am preparing it for publication.  Some readers of Radical Judaism will be surprised by its pious tone, and I believe that has to do with a mellowing that is related to the aging process.

11. This book is divine warmth, full of faith and light, not the abyss and the void  You seem to have much less of Rav Nachman’s empty void and much less doubt. Have you moved more to a personal God filled universe to replace Rav Nachman’s paradox and void?

Yes, that’s very perceptive.  I wrote about R. Nahman in my 30’s, but then I mostly left him behind.  He was just too “Tormented” to serve as a spiritual guide for.  I also felt that he was implicated in what became Breslov, where the claim is that by crying out and reciting the 10 Psalms every day, you could redeem yourself from sin.  That would be attractive to a personality that was obsessed with sin.  I found that there was a sense of “wallowing” in guilt and atonement – despite all the calls for joy and the promises of redemption– that was an essential component of Breslov.  I wanted no part of it.  Instead, I turned to the Me’or ‘Eynayim, and through him back to the BeSHT, for a much healthier and more holistic sort of Jewish spirituality. The turn from the Void to the “God filled universe” as you so aptly put it, is directly a part of that.

12. Many falsely seek to connect your thought to that of Mordecai Kaplan or even to a naturalism without a God. How are you more a student of Heschel than of anyone else?

For those who don’t know, I was a student of Abraham Joshua Heschel, not Mordecai Kaplan.  Despite the significant degree to which I move beyond Heschel, that very much remains the case.  For Kaplan, as I understand him, religion is at its core a social phenomenon, a society’s way of articulating and keeping faith with its highest values.  Despite Mel Scult’s impressive efforts to present the seeker and poet in Kaplan, I think this socio-civilizational approach, with Jewish peoplehood at the center of the circle, is bedrock Kaplan. 

Bedrock Heschel, for me, are the first hundred pages of God in Search of Man, describing religion as being about the inner life, “depth theology,” as he calls it.  Religion, in this case Judaism, exists in order to offer a set of tools for the cultivation of that inwardness, rather than serving primarily as a social phenomenon or a projection of communal values.  The essential way-stations in Heschel’s inward journey, and mine, are wonder and mystery, awe and love. The Jewish people is an entity that shares this ancient legacy of spiritual language, one that both Hasidism, Heschel’s  entry-place to Judaism, and mine, neo-Hasidism, seek to revive. 

I share with Heschel a concern about the secularization of consciousness in our modern and post-modern world, a loss of the sense of mysterious profundity of life, the loss of values like reverence and humility that are inspired by an openness to that profundity.  I rejoice in the fact that the questions Heschel raises there are universal, reaching far beyond Judaism into an examination of what it means to be a religious human being, in the broadest sense.  I also share his assertion that our response to the perception of divine presence in the world has to an activist one, working to create a human society in which the divine image is respected in every human being, and where malkhut Shaddai will be realized in a way that means shedai le-khol beriotav, the more equal sharing of wealth and resources among the needy.  This is ever more true today, as we face the potential devastation of our planet’s natural resources, due to human greed and over-consumption on the part of us privileged ones. Seeing inwardness and the individual’s quest as the core of religion does not lean toward a turning aside from social responsibility and religion’s great power to transform the world for good.  Toward this goal, alliance with other such progressive religious forces in the world is a necessity, and Heschel took a lead in that as well.

Although I, like Heschel, ground my theology in the testimony of inner experience, I diverge from him precisely on our question for today, reformulated as “What do you mean when you say Y-H-W-H?”  I turn to the Hebrew rather than the English term because I have no particular investment in defending use of the word “G-O-D,” deriving as it does from the Anglo-Saxon version of ancient Germanic tongues, stemming from the language of European paganism.  But the shem havayah does have ultimate meaning for me. My theology may rightly be described as a mystical and monistic panentheism.  While committed to many elements of traditional religious language, I am ultimately a monist;  I seek to understand the Jewish faith in one God as pointing beyond itself toward the ultimate oneness of all being. 

 Heschel needs there to be a divine voice that comes from beyond the mystery, a transcendent declaration of love and call to action.  For him, the ultimate needs to be personal, and vice versa.  He needed that because he feared the indifference of an abstract God. For me, it is from within the ‘av he-‘anan, rather than from beyond it, that I feel myself called.  To say it differently, I believe that there is a deep monistic stream within Jewish mystical thought, one that lies hidden behind the face of the religious personalism that had been inherited from earlier eras.  Ours is an age, I believe, when that understanding of Judaism needs to be taken “out of the closet.”

Recently an undergraduate at Yeshiva University mentioned me to one of his teachers there, asking whether he should read me, and was told: “Green is nothing but Kaplan with a Shtreimel.”  I rather enjoyed that. Just the thought of it…  I imagine that characterization goes back to Rabbi Daniel Landes’ somewhat nasty review of my Radical Judaism.

Hillel Zeitlin once argued that Spinoza saw the world as a machine immutably governed by the laws of nature, but the Ba‘al Shem Tov saw this same world as an ongoing work of art, with God as the Artist/Creator ever fashioning it anew. I stand within this tradition of my Hasidic and neo-Hasidic forebears.

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