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.
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.