Rabbi Shai Held Responds to Rabbi Art Green

Rabbi Prof. Art Green wrote in the first part of my interview with him that his thought remains a student of Heschel, despite his great distance from him on the personhood of God. Green wrote: “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.” Green clearly acknowledges that he is different than Rabbi Shai Held’s presentation of Heschel. (Question #4)

However, for Green, ‘Transcendence’ in the context of his faith “does not refer to a God ‘‘out there’’ or ‘‘over there’’ somewhere beyond the universe… 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.”

In this response, Held offers a few paragraphs to let the reader clearly see this distinction between Green’s immanent monistic divine, which offers self-transcendence from Held’s transcendent personal God who loves us has mercy on us, and demands us to take responsibility.

Rabbi Shai Held is President, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Hadar, where he also directs the Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas. Rabbi Held’s first book, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, was published by Indiana University Press in 2013; The Heart of Torah, a collection of essays on the Torah in two volumes, was published by JPS in 2017. (I interviewed Held on his Heschel book -here and on his Torah studies- here and a decade ago as one of my first interviews in 2011.)

Held declares: “I am not God and God is not me, but I am summoned to be God’s servant.”  In addition, “God is personal, but God is not just some version of us.  For one thing, God loves in a way that no human being can comprehend, let alone completely emulate.”  Faith in a personal God lets the believer know that “we are loved regardless of what we do or accomplish in this lifetime.”

On one hand, Held’s response has resonance with the distinction between the prophetic and the mystical in Friedrich Heiler and Karl Barth, on the other hand it pushes us to look at Heschel’s theology more closely. Beyond that it opens a window on the many views of God within Judaism, letting us ask if a personalist Jewish conception of God who loves and shows mercy has more in common with a personalist reader of scripture in other faiths while an immanent view of God in Judaism may have more in common with believers in divine immanence in other traditions. This may be so even if two Jewish perspectives share a common Biblical and Rabbinical canon since readings of the text are capacious and can reflect different relgious imaginations.  Alternately, I can use the Hindu terminology that I used in Part II  of my interview with Green, that Green is an advaitan position looking for self-realization while Held is a dvaitan position looking for a relationship with the Lord in love and responsibility.  

This debate among colleagues provides a clear teaching moment for opening up theological discussion about God, religious language, and the use of religious texts.

Rabbi Shai Held responds to Rabbi Prof. Art Green

Rabbi Art Green gives us glimpses into his theology and spiritual life with admirable lucidity.   I take this opportunity to share some questions and hesitations about Art’s approach.

“It has been clearly shown to you,” says the book of Devarim, “that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside [the Lord]” (Deuteronomy 4:35).  For Devarim, the words ein od milvado are a declaration of monotheism (or of something approaching it).  If other passages focus on God being the only god Israel may worship, this verse seems to insist that God is the only god– period.  God alone is God.  Nothing but God is God.

Some of the mystics Green most admires turned this verse on its head.  What they heard in the Torah’s words is that there is that “The Lord is alone is God; there is nothing besides [the Lord].”  There is nothing that is not God.  It is important to notice what an inversion this represents.  For the Bible, God is God and nothing else is God; for [some of] the mystics, everything is God.  These are two diametrically opposed conceptions of the fundamental reality of the universe: Is God the creator of the World, or is the world in some sense a panentheistic part of God?

Green writes: “I believe that there is only One.  Better said: I have glimpses of an inner experience that tells me that there is only One.”  

Let me contrast my own view: “I believe that there are always two.  Better said: I have glimpses of an inner experience that tells me that I am commanded by, and obligated to, that which is not me.”

Art writes that the question of Ayekah, where are you, is “‘addressed’ to each human being from within.”  This may be so, but for the Bible and the Talmudic Sages, and in my own experience, that question is also addressed to us from without, by the Kadosh Barukh Hu (The Blessed Holy One).

It seems to me that at bottom what we have here are competing intuitions.  Green is convinced that his intuition is correct; since the first time he read Hillel Zeitlin, he tells us, he “knew” the truth of his own intuition of what is ultimate.

I readily admit that I do not share Art’s confidence.  I do not “know” that my intuition of twoness, of commanded-ness, of interpersonal obligation, is true.  I perceive the world as such, move through the world as if it were true, but I do not know it to be so.  Living as I do after Kant, how could I?  

I share with Green his commitment to what he calls “the cultivation of… inwardness,” but I would add, no less (and probably more), the commitment to the cultivation of responsiveness.  I am not you and you are not me, but I am responsible for you and you for me.  I am not God and God is not me, but I am summoned to be God’s servant. 

It is this crucial aspect of what Heschel is doing in the first part of God in Search of Man that Green seems to leave behind: the way that wonder is a path to responsiveness to that which is not us.  Intrinsic to the experience of wonder, Heschel writes, is the sense that we are “being asked the ultimate question… In spite of our pride, in spite of our acquisitiveness, we are driven by an awareness that something is asked of us.”  As he explains in Man is Not Alone, for Heschel wonder is interwoven with a sense of indebtedness: “How shall we ever reciprocate for breathing and thinking, for sight and hearing, for love and achievement?”  Reciprocity, needless to say, involves otherness.  We are grateful to Someone, namely God, who is neither ourselves nor the world as a whole, but a genuine Other.

Art seems to think that believing in a personal God entails being imprisoned by a “forbidding, commanding, and guilt-producing father figure.”  I find this portrayal sad, as it does not reflect my experience of the KBH at all.  Believing in a personal God can mean being liberated by a loving, commanding, and unfathomably forgiving Parent/Lover.   When the prophet Isaiah declares that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are nor our thoughts, Rabbi David Kimchi explains that while human beings struggle to forget what we forgave, God forgives completely and bears no grudges.

Faith in a personal God can mean knowing (feeling, sensing) that we matter, regardless of what we do or accomplish in this lifetime; it can mean knowing (feeling, sensing) that we are loved regardless of what we do or accomplish in this lifetime (haviv adam she-nivra be-tzelem—Avot 3:14).  When Green writes of the personal God, we get no sense of that God’s immense, immeasurable love and compassion (hesed and rahamim).  No biblical verses are quoted more often within Tanakh itself than Exodus 34:6-7, which speaks of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness.”  Instead, we get only the guilt felt as a young adult.

I have great respect for Art, who first opened the vast treasures of Hassidut to me, and whom I am proud to number among my friends and teachers.  But I do not think it is fair or helpful to juxtapose the best and most sophisticated version of one’s own worldview with a cardboard caricature of others’.  I believe in a personal God, but I do not worship what Art calls “the Old Fellow in the sky.”   God is personal but God is not just some version of us.  For one thing, God loves in a way that no human being can comprehend, let alone completely emulate.  The prophet Hosea draws a stark and breathtaking contrast between God and humanity: whereas we sometimes (understandably) give up on each other, God never gives up on us: “How can I make you like Admah, render you like Zevoiim?  I have had a change of heart; all My tenderness is stirred.  I will not act on my wrath, will not turn to destroy Ephraim.  For I am God, not man…” (Hosea 11:8-9).

It is also unhelpful, I think, to describe a thinker like Heschel as “needing” God to be personal any more than it would be fair to characterize Green as “needing” God to be internal.  Heschel experienced and thought of God in this way, and Green experiences and thinks about God in another.  The interesting question, I think, is just how and whether these two ways of encountering or experiencing God can be brought into fruitful conversation with one another.

The idea of coming between a student and his teacher is not particularly appealing to me, especially when that student (Art) is also my teacher.  But I find myself thinking that Heschel would regard the theology Green offers not as neo-Heschelian but as anti-Heschelian.  For Heschel, loyal student of the Bible that he was, that God is personal was enormously important.  That God loves widows and orphans, that God is appalled by cruelty and injustice, that God is angry at callousness indifference– this was everything to Heschel.  Heschel was committed to covenant, and covenant always includes two partners.  They can love one another, bond with one another– but they always remain separate.  “The culmination of prophetic fellowship with God,” he writes, “is insight and unanimity—not union.”  Heschel explicitly contrasts his own view with the pantheistic approach; for him, “Nature is not a part of God but rather a fulfillment of [God’s] will.”

Heschel was clear that the prophet always experienced two partners (even when he sympathized with God’s pathos).   “Prophecy,” he writes, “is a confrontation.   God is God, and man is man; the two may meet, but never merge.  There is a fellowship, but never a fusion.”  Following Genesis 1, he insisted that the world is not God and God is not the world.  God and Being are not the same.  God is the Source of being, the borei olam.

There is much more to say about the differences between Art’s position and my own.  There is the question of theological method and the extent to which we do or do not regard the biblical and Rabbinic canons as normative for our theological projects; there is the question of what role nostalgia plays for each of us in remaining committed to religious (and liturgical) language that may not reflect our theological worldviews; and, of course, there is the question of how these serious and substantial theological differences do or do not manifest themselves in religious practice.  I hope we can pursue those conversations in due time.

I am grateful to Art for mentioning my work on Heschel, and I am grateful to Alan Brill for giving me a chance to respond to Art’s ideas.  May this mahloket be le-shem shamayim and may it serve lehagdil Torah uleha’adirah.  

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