Arthur Green at HUC-JIR/New York Graduation

Rabbi Arthur Green, Ph.D., Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion and Rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, presented the Graduation address at HUC-JIR/New York’s Graduation Ceremonies.

Some interesting points from his talk. First, Green gives his sense of nationalism.

First, we see ourselves as leaders of the Jewish people. We believe in ‘am yisra’el, a historic community that proudly bears an ancient national identity, one expressed in culture, language, memory, and attachment to an ancient and now-renewed homeland. Claims current in some post-Zionist circles that Jewish national identity is a nineteenth-century invention are as inaccurate as they are pernicious. Anyone who has ever opened a Jewish prayerbook (and indeed that may exclude some who assert these claims) will realize that we have seen ourselves as yisra’el ‘amekha, “Your people Israel,” for a great many centuries. Reform Judaism did well to rescind its demurral from that consensus many decades ago. We bear a deep connection to Jews around the world, including the State of Israel, as we do to Jews of past and future generations.

This means that we want to survive as a distinct ethnic as well as religious community. That will be an uphill struggle in this country, where non-racially defined minorities are unrecognized, where the price of white skin (that most of us still bear, though that is happily changing) has been an expectation of assimilation. We are an open religious and ethnic community, gladly embracing converts, welcoming them and their children to share fully in our collective national identity. This means language, text, culture, history, and all the rest, along with religion, the sacred calendar, and the Jewish life-cycle. To this end I believe that every synagogue needs to become an active bet midrash, house of study, where basic Hebrew, Jewish texts in translation, and great Jewish books, films, and works of art are actively taught, shared, and discussed. As a Jew deeply committed to prayer, I will nevertheless rejoice when the American synagogue comes to be known first as an active, bustling center of learning, where prayer services are also held on Shabbat, rather than as a temple for prayers on Shabbat, mostly closed on weekdays. Think about this when you lie down and when you rise up, when you design buildings and when you hire staff.

Second after discussing the role of rabbi as pastor, teacher, and halakhic rav, Green discusses the need to be a rebbe and inflame the community with spirituality of what he calls “the essence of a universalized Hasidic teaching.” It is quite a relevant list (1) mindfulness of God’s presence (2) Serve God in all your ways (3) Joy and wholeness-not guilt and bondage (4) The need for an inner life (5) The need to work on oneself.

I am a neo-Hasidic Jew. It is the teachings of Hasidism that have kept me at home, choosing to cultivate our Jewish spiritual garden rather than turning elsewhere for sustenance, like so many others of my generation. Hasidism is a revival movement within Judaism, as distinct from a movement for religious reform. Revivalists generally are not interested in changing the forms of religion. It’s just that the spark has gone out of them and needs to be re-lit. Jews are like knishes, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav is quoted as saying. The ingredients are all the same, but I prefer the hot ones. Since you are New Yorkers, even the non-Jews among you know what a cold knish might taste like. Reform movements dabbled with changing the forms – let’s start with organ music and sermons in proper German or English, for example. Let’s all turn to page 23 and rise together. But somewhere the fire began to go out. Now we reformers and post-reformers are struggling toward revival. Fortunately we have the legacy of Hasidism to help us. I want to summarize the essence of a universalized Hasidic teaching as I would adapt it for today, using a few phrases taken directly from the sources, with just brief comment.

1) Galut ve-ge’ulat ha-da’at. The true exile is that of the mind. Mindfulness, making ourselves aware of God’s presence within us and around us is the beginning of redemption.

2) ‘Avodat ha-shem be-khol ha-ofanim. God needs to be served in every way. Everything we do, see, encounter in life is an opportunity for serving God. Do not restrict your Judaism to the synagogue or times of prayer and study. Live in intimacy with nature, with family, with others you love. Seek out work in which you find fulfillment; a life, not just a livelihood. Help others to do the same. In all of these, see the divine presence flowing through and uniting them. Raise up sparks through all you do.

3) ‘Ivdu et ha-shem be-simhah. Serve God in joy. The spiritual life requires wholeness, self-acceptance, freedom. It must not become a burden or a source of oppression. Avoid religion based on guilt. Use spiritual awareness to help people become more free, to be liberated from their own inner forms of bondage. Y-H-W-H brought you forth from Egypt to become your God. That process of becoming never ends, so you have to keep coming out of Egypt. Make sure your faith is helping you do that, not holding you back from it.

4) Dirshu et ha-nekudah ha-penimit. Seek out the innermost point. Religion’s message is that every person can have an inner life. This requires cultivation, toward which we use the tradition. Shabbat, prayer, meditation, mitsvot, spiritual friendship and direction, are all tools toward this end. There is more to life than our profane and over-commercialized surroundings tell us. The addiction to “success,” the most prevalent drug within our community, can leave you as empty as any other addiction. Get a life. The mishkan or dwelling-place of God is there within your heart. Just take the time and have the courage to open that door. Always look deeper, beyond the surface – in yourself, in others, in the world, and in the Torah.

5) Arbetn oif zikh. To be a hasid is to work on yourself. We are imperfect beings. That is the way we were made. God was not happy just being praised by a chorus of angels. Real flesh-and-blood humans, struggling with temptation, doubt, with the daily struggle to survive, with mortality and all the pain and loss along the way – if these creatures could sing to God, that would really be something! It’s a beautiful goal, but not an easy one. It requires work, including honest struggle, every day. It demands tikkun ha-middot, improving all those qualities that make us human, the same ones that make us potentially God’s image on earth. Each day we work on doing it a little better – or least not worse.

These are the teachings. I say to you as I say to myself: Don’t be so afraid of being a rebbe that you avoid sharing them with those around you. They need to hear them, and they need you to be their bearer. Read Full Version Here

This is a much clearer document than his Radical Judaism and conveys a broader picture of his thought than the book. Any thoughts? Where would someone Centrist Orthodox go for Arbetn oif zikh? Could one have the hectic upper-middle class professional life required by Centrist Orthodoxy and still seek mindfulness of God’s presence (without resorting to emotionalism and aestheticism)?

3 responses to “Arthur Green at HUC-JIR/New York Graduation

  1. I wonder if Green is aware of his repackaging of the tropes of the pastorate and the contemporary relevance of the pastorate post Foucault. Or if its just nice drash.

  2. thanks for this

  3. I was present at the speech as I received a DD, honoris causa at the ceremony. Green’s speech was well-received by the rabbis and other Jewish professionals present. My family thought it was too long! But it was really addressed to rabbis.

    I found it interesting that David Ellenson mentioned that this was the first honorary degree Art Green has ever received. I actually find that astonishing. I also found it politically interesting that HUC choose to honor him in this way given the challenge of non-denominational seminaries like Hebrew College to HUC and JTS. It’s common for HUC and JTS to honor each other’s faculty but this is a horse of a different color.

    It was also interesting to me that Ellenson called Shelly Zimmerman up to present the master’s degree to the student cantor at the shul which Zimmerman serves. I guess he is now rehabilitated.

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