IT IS A PARADOX THAT FOR A people who claim to have introduced monotheism to the world, the Jews have produced very few theologians.
Many of those who may be defined as such often found themselves at odds with the mainstream community: Philo, Maimonides and Spinoza to name but three. In more recent times, weighty figures such as Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Avraham Heschel and Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik might be added to this brief list. These are thinkers who have tried to articulate a coherent philosophy behind Judaism’s complex amalgam of beliefs, historical experiences and existential concerns.Among contemporaries, Arthur Green must surely be ranked in the forefront as a major theological thinker, although some might query his legitimacy to speak in the name of no more than a fraction of the Jewish religious community. When he visited Israel recently, in part to promote his latest book “Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition,” he spoke at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem as well as to The Jerusalem Report about his concerns for the future of Judaism.
Stating his belief that “theology is an art, not a science,” he nevertheless embraces the scientific discoveries of the modern world – particularly the evolutionary hypothesis which for him offers, as he told me, “the greatest possible drama of an ever-unfolding, evolving universe, continuously revealing the creator’s work. What an incredible story! It is a process that moves forward by two simple mechanisms – natural selection and mutation.
Yet for all its simplicity it moves dynamically in the direction of greater complexity and diversity. Moreover, it is something that is still ongoing. We should never forget that we, too, were once sea creatures. We can only marvel at the fish which stepped out of the water and realized that he could flourish on dry land. Today, only the most fundamentalist of believers hold that the world is 5,771 years old.”
The attempt to deny the modern world is for Green a fruitless, Canute-like exercise: “Over the past 150 years or so,” he told the overflowing audience at the Hartman Institute, “the major religions in the West have fought two battles. One is that of Darwinism and evolution. The second one was biblical criticism and this did not affect our perception of the Torah, except perhaps for the fundamentalists.
I think both these battles have been well and truly lost. Evolution has been accepted by thinking people throughout the world: to believe otherwise is to live with one’s head in the sand. Similarly, biblical criticism has now become a normal part of the way most of us look at texts. What I’m trying to do is to work with evolution and to deal with biblical texts in an appropriate way. The best tradition we have for doing this is the mystical one, because it puts those questions in a different framework – and it doesn’t depend on the literal truth.”
THE FIRST PART OF HIS NEW book is all about searching for a religious language that does justice to this sense of an ever-evolving universe, a world that is God-driven rather than one abandoned to chaos. At his lecture, he quoted the opening of his book which summarizes this major theme: “I open with a theological assertion.
As a religious person I believe that the evolution of the species is the greatest sacred drama of all time. It is a tale – perhaps the tale – in which the divine waits to be discovered. It dwarfs all other narratives... including our own... there is a bigger story, infinitely bigger and one that we all share.
“How did we get here, we humans, and where are we going? For more than a century and a half, educated Westerners have understood that this is the tale of evolution. But we religious folk... have been guarded and cool towards this story and have hesitated to make it our own. The time has come to embrace it and uncover its sacred dimension.”
Green’s theology, however, does not embrace the so-called thesis of Intelligent Design, which like its 18th-century predecessor, views the universe as an expression of a creator in the same way as the existence of a watch implies a watchmaker. “Such a model,” observes Green, “cannot account for the problematic of theodicy, or explain the carcasses of creatures that have fallen by the wayside on the path of evolution.”
On the other hand, despite the massive shifts in human consciousness that have marked the modern world, people seem to have retained the need for religion, even if not in the classical sense of the word.
Green confesses to feeling this same impulse. “With all my analytical passion, I found that I still had a need for God – to sing to, to fight with, to pray to and so forth. Even the Holocaust has apparently not quenched this thirst.”
Green’s response to this predicament lies within. In “Radical Judaism” he notes: “I weigh up the option of existence (havaye in Hebrew) with the experience of God (y’hveh). Rabbi Nachman of Breslov calls existence the truth of an empty universe, the phrase he uses is hallal pnui. But, he says, there is a deeper truth – emet le’amito – which takes us beyond the emptiness. It is here, beyond the void, that we discover God and to a great extent ourselves.”
The search for a meaningful God starts with language itself: “We make a mistake when we consider the word for God as a noun.
I prefer to experience him as a verb, as being itself – ehye asher ehye – I shall be what I shall be. God is the utterly elusive oneness of being. I believe this being wants to be revealed, and manifest itself through an ever greater evolution of consciousness. It calls to us to flourish and to multiply. But this ‘call’ does not have a language. He calls, and we provide the words.”
DESPITE THE ABSTRACTsounding arguments, Green’s theology has practical implications: “The divine call,” he writes, “asks us what are we doing to promote evolution? Perhaps more than ever today, we must ask ourselves how to sustain our planet. In the face of grossly irresponsible governments this has to be our number one priority. In order for our planet to survive we must change our behavior radically.
“If we ask further what we as religious Jews can do, then I believe we can tap into a mythical level that precedes language and which challenges our hearts and obligates us towards the appropriate deeds.”
Green refers to one of his own teachers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and suggests that people read the first 100 pages of his classic “God in Search of Man.” In these pages Heschel spells out the intimate connection between humankind and the creator, to the point of interdependency. There, too, he defines a prophet as one who sees God as a partner.
Listening to Green explaining his view, one becomes aware of how rarely Orthodox Jews address the key issue of the deity’s identity, preferring to focus on issues of halakha or sociology.
“I think that’s a sickness,” says Green. “A lot of it is pretense – as if we just bracket the question of God and the giving of the Torah on Sinai as issues that are outside our purvey. It offers us a picture of Judaism as a lovely religion.
But the main ingredient is missing! “That’s why I was drawn to Hasidism and kabbala. They understood that the purpose of the Torah and mitzvot is the clinging to God (dvekut); without this the whole thing is a sham. A central tenet of Hasidism is that everything we call Torah is essentially just a means to an end; when it becomes an end-initself it is avoda zara – idolatry. The practice and details of halakha turn Judaism dangerously into a form of idolatry.”
For Green, the essential Judaism asks God’s first question to Adam – ayekha – where are you? “Judaism,” he told his audience, “has to expand your mind and your heart. Our deeds have to be those that sustain the planet. We have to think universally. I am really a religious universalist. I don’t believe we alone are heirs to The Truth and that no other tradition has it. Judaism is a language – and it is a language for expressing a universal truth. I love that language – I am very committed to it. It’s the language I speak. But I don’t think it can claim an exclusiveness.
This truth is also expressed in other languages.
We have different values, different emphases, but we have what to offer to the conversation.”
ALL THIS TALK OF GOD IN HIS latest book – the last in a trilogy on theology – is perhaps surprising given Green’s background. As he describes it to me: “My father was a militant atheist, my mother was more traditional but went along with my father.
“After my mother died, when I was 11, I began to spend much time with my Yiddishspeaking European-born grandparents. Even before this, I was attracted to the synagogue, the grandeur and mystery of its liturgy, the drama of its sacred calendar, and the infinite beauty of the Hebrew language. This drove me towards Orthodoxy, or at least a modern version of it.
“But at age 18, I walked away from it, I could no longer believe in it. At Brandeis I became a Yiddishist. I tried on the masks of secular Judaism, only to discover that I really was religious and that my questions were essentially religious ones.”
He counts himself as being extremely fortunate with his teachers – Joachim Prinz in his home community in New Jersey, Nahum Glatzer and Alexander Altmann at Brandeis, and Avraham Heschel and others at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Simultaneously, he was reading Nietzsche, Kafka, Camus, Sartre – writers who were confronting the emptiness of the universe in the wake of the “death of God.” It was hardly surprising that he emerged as a non-conventional believer. “I couldn’t believe in the conventional God of tradition.”
At about the age of 20, he discovered Hasidism and kabbala, not through the traditional channels but through the writings of Hillel Zeitlin, who flourished in Europe before the rise of Nazism. “Zeitlin spoke directly to my heart,” Green recalls, “ever since, and I have struggled with his questions, central of which is how can an intelligent modern person also be a mystic?” He sees in his own struggle in the context of the time in which he lives: “For 200 years, the modern world really believed in the religion of progress and science.
In the middle of the 20th century that ‘religion’ suffered a crisis: Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The faith in science – the belief that it could resolve all issues – declined sharply. This led to a search for spiritual values. We suddenly ‘discovered’ Tibetan mountain tops, kabbala, yoga. We invited gurus to speak to us – maybe they had some ancient wisdom that modernity had forgotten. But in post-modern religion, the rules are different. We all have some access to the great wisdom and we can learn from each other; it’s no longer that if my religion is true then yours is false. This is no zero-sum game. It’s a whole different approach, a sort of spiritual openness.
“However, as soon as you open yourself to post-modern religion, it turns out that there are corners of pre-modern religion that never quite ended. So the pre-moderns say: ‘Welcome back – you realized that this modernity was a lot of nonsense – let’s rebuild the 18th century.’ But this is incorrect.
You cannot build the future by returning to the past – not in regard to women, or the style of leadership. The pre-modern world collapsed for good reasons. The Jews fled the shtetl for good reasons – not just because of the suppression by the goyim but because of the oppressiveness of what Jewish society had become – including the over-regulation of halakha; it was too much, and Jews fled it for freedom. To return to the 18th century is simply an escape from freedom, as Erich Fromm termed it.”
IF RETURNING TO THE PAST CANnot supply the answer, what of the movement that sought to overthrow the old ways and replace it with a new Judaism – Zionism? Green, who lives in Boston, where he heads the Hebrew College that trains the next generation of community rabbis, is clearly attached to Israel, and devotes the last third of his book to the spiritual implications of the state: “I still believe in the Jewish people. But I believe it is a covenantal community – it has a purpose. We are not just a physical community – I oppose attempts by the Zionists to ‘normalize’ the Jewish people. I think we are not supposed to be ‘normal.’ We are still a people forged at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Even though Mt. Sinai is not literal for me – it holds no historical claim – but it stands for me for our covenant – and for me that says that we are a holy people and a nation of priests. We stand for certain values, not just for what’s good for the Jews, but for values that are universal. These values are very much being tested now that we have a Jewish State, and on this test we’re not doing so well.
“The Israelis I identify with are the Israelis on the Zionist left, Rabbis for Human Rights and so on. Israel has to be democratic, and not just for Jews. I believe in the state, though not the messianic implication of the state. As a state it has to respect the best parts of the Jewish tradition, which includes the idea that humankind was made in the image of God, and respect for the other – for the stranger; I don’t think these would change if I was living here.”
And looking at his own pilgrimage – now half a century in developing – what sort of Jew did he think he was? “I’m a Yohanan ben Zakai Jew who asked for the sages of Yavne – in order to continue and develop Judaism – as opposed to Rabbi Akiva who supported Bar Kokhba. As then, I don’t think these are messianic times. The Christians said that, Chabad says that today. Gush Emunim acts in the light of these beliefs. These are messianic Jews. Our job is to keep a little light burning, and to nurture human values.”
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