Rabbi Art Green (still) believes Hasidic ideas are key to modern Judaism

Green spoke with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in August about his forthcoming book, how Hasidic Jews became conservatives.

Ultra-Orthodox residents walk through of the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, August 2020 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Ultra-Orthodox residents walk through of the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, August 2020
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Rabbi Art Green is a scholar of worldwide renown, the author of dozens of books, one of the world’s leading experts on Hasidic Judaism and perhaps the only person ever to lead two different American rabbinical schools. Currently, he serves as rector of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

But he’s also a self-described seeker, preoccupied for decades now with crafting a Jewish spiritual vocabulary that can speak to modern Jews living in liberal Western societies. At 79, Green believes that vocabulary can be found in neo-Hasidism, an updated version of practices associated with the Jewish revivalist movement that swept Eastern Europe in the 17th century.

In January, Stanford University Press will publish “The Light of the Eyes,” Green’s translation of a series of Torah discourses by Rabbi Menahem Nahdiasum of Chernobyl, an 18th-century Hasidic master also known as the Me’or Aynayim. Later this month, Green will be offering his first public class on Zoom based on the book.

Green spoke with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in August about his forthcoming book, how Hasidic Jews became conservatives and the spiritual wisdom necessary to cope with a roiling political environment.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JTA: I feel like every conversation that I have now needs to begin with a five- or 10-minute session on how we’re all holding up. So: How are you holding up?

Green: So, I’m holding up. I live alone. I’m a widower, my wife’s gone three years now. And doing this alone is not completely easy. You know, I did most of it in Israel. I went to Israel for the winter and I wound up staying six months because of the corona. From Israel, I was teaching five days a week on Zoom, and that kept me going. Coming back to America was somewhat hard because people here are palpably more scared than people there. I had gotten into this for several months without feeling a lot of fear, and suddenly I felt people really frightened. And I’m sort of having to come to terms — not so much with my fear, but with their fear. I think I’m more afraid of Trump stealing the election right now than I am afraid of dying of COVID.

We’ll come back to Trump in a bit. But I wonder, since these sorts of ultimate questions are on so many people’s minds right now, if you can talk a bit about what is on yours. You’re 79 and have been active and teaching in the Jewish world for over five decades. Are you thinking about your legacy? What’s driving your work today?

Of course, I’m thinking about legacy. I’m going to turn 80 this year. How can you not think about legacy? But the last 10 years have been a very interesting period. When I turned 70, I saw the biblical verse staring me in the face that says: “The days of our lives are 70.” I said to myself, what else do you still want to get done while you can? And the answer was a whole lot. These have been the most productive 10 years of my life. In terms of writing and thinking, and producing and creating, I would say this has been a very big decade for me. And I hope I have another one.

At some point early in my career I looked around and said, “Is there going to be a Jewish future? Is there anybody who’s going to read this stuff that I’m writing about the Jewish past? We have to write something that will help create a future.” And around that point, I left the university for the first time and went to a rabbinical school. And that move was also a shift from just writing scholarship to writing theology and saying, what kind of Jewish language would be meaningful to people in the West? And that’s still the question: How do we create a Jewish religious language that is compelling, that is intellectually honest, and that is meaningful to people. To keep this to keep this great tradition alive and creative in the age in which we live. And that’s still a question I’m still writing around in various ways.

At the risk of reducing a lifetime of work to a single word, your answer seems to be: Hasidism.

I was saved for Judaism by discovering Hasidism. I discovered early Hasidic thought when I was 20 years old. Somebody gave me an essay by Hillel Zeitlin about Hasidic thought and I said, “This will be my religious language the rest of my life.” And I have been trying to retool Hasidism in some ways. How does this work in an age when we believe in evolution and we believe the planet is 13 billion years old and all kinds of other things that the people who wrote these texts didn’t believe? We do not check our intellectual baggage at the door when we come to Judaism. So how do we find meaning in premodern texts?

I’m not a person who believes that the premodern tradition became outdated in 1780 or 1800, and now we just work as modern or postmodern Jews. I live in a very deep living connection to premodern Jewish authors. I spend all my time reading kabbalistic and Hasidic sources. But at the same time, I do ask these very contemporary questions about them.

What is there specifically in this tradition that you think answers the modern Jewish quest for meaning?

There is a combination of abstract thought and religious passion that can live together. Some people think that religious passion only works if you have an entirely personal relationship to an entirely personal God. Somebody you talk to, somebody you have a relationship very much like the relationship of a parent or a king or a friend. And the Hasidic masters created a kind of abstract Jewish theology, based on Kabbalah but simplified, made accessible. And you understand God not as something other, but something of which you are a part, of which we are all a part. There’s a kind of universal embrace of divinity that underlies Hasidism. At the same time, there’s intimacy and there’s passion.

One of those Hasidic masters is the subject of a book of yours that will be coming out in a few months — “The Light of the Eyes,” or Me’or Aynayim in Hebrew, a translation of a Hasidic work by the Chernobyl rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Nahum Twersky. What attracts you to this work in particular?

I love the Me’or Aynayim. It’s a different face of Hasidism than people see today. People who look at Hasidism today experience three kinds of Hasidism. There’s Chabad, which is very much worldly, messianically oriented. Do more mitzvahs and that will bring the redemption closer. There’s Breslov, which is also redemption-centered — have faith in me, have faith in Rebbe Nachman and he will save you. And then there’s Satmar, which is Hasidism as traditionalism. Do it exactly the same way as they did it in the 18th century.

The kind of Hasidism of [the founder of the Hasidic movement] the Baal Shem Tov, which is loving and gentle and forgiving and world-embracing, that kind of Hasidism has somehow gotten lost. And the Me’or Aynayim is one of its best spokesmen. So I want to use the Me’or Aynayim in some ways to bring that gentle kind of Hasidism back into the world. You can serve God in everything you do, you find sparks of holiness everywhere, all of life is about seeking out divinity wherever you find it and raising it up and making it one again.

The Me’or Aynayim is not an ascetic. He’s a very earthy guy and really believed that holiness was to be found everywhere. And if you punish yourself, you were denying God because God is in everything — all your thoughts and all your deeds. Within the 18th-century Jewish context, he was a kind of free-spirited person, which isn’t to say that he was careless about the law at all. But it was a love of life and a love of normal earthy human beings that motivated him, and in trying to find a spirituality that would work for such people.

I suspect many people will not recognize this brand of Hasidism.

Hasidism went through very big changes. It began as a movement of radical innovation. And remember the Hasidim were condemned by the great rabbis in the 18th century. They were persecuted. But by the turn of the 19th century, the rabbis and the Hasidim both looked around and they saw a much more dangerous enemy on the horizon: modernity or haskalah [Jewish enlightenment]. And the rabbis and the Hasidim made peace with one another to fight this common enemy called the modern world.

The Hasidim were thrilled by that because they would not be persecuted anymore. They agreed to be the tip of the spear in the battle against haskalah. And that’s when Hasidism moved from being a movement of radical rebirth and renewal to an ultraconservative force. And Chernobyl was right there with the rest of them. By the second generation of Chernobyl, they’re already turning far to the right and becoming very different. Some of the spirit is still alive. You can still see it in a farbrengen [Hasidic gathering], the spontaneity and the charisma. There’s still a radiance about Hasidism that I think plain old-fashioned Litvishe [haredi Orthodox] Judaism doesn’t have. But that radiance is very much reined in by this ultra-tight concern with praxis.

That kind of extremism was very far from the Baal Shem Tov and the Me’or Aynayim. These were people who wanted an intense spiritual life. At the same time, they wanted to raise families and therefore have to support those families and live in this world. And so it’s a very worldly kind of spirituality for people who want both. And since I’m one of those people, I have fallen in love with it, as you can tell. And this is about sharing that love.

Do you think most modern Jews today are looking for an intense spiritual life?

No, of course not. That’s why I created rabbinical schools, because I believe in finding people who are serious about it. They will go out, they will have to beat their heads against a wall and find a couple of people in each of those congregations who also take it seriously. What I have to say is not for everybody, but there are lots of seekers among Jews. I love and I’m heartbroken by the huge number of Jewish seekers who have turned elsewhere. Some of the very best books on spirituality in the past 50 years have been written by Buddhists with names like Kornfeld and Salzberg and Boorstein. I feel a great sadness about those people. I don’t blame them in the slightest. It’s not their fault. It’s our fault as Jewish educators that here were such profound seekers. And they couldn’t find anything interesting or attractive in Judaism. That’s our failure.

Liberal Jewish leaders have been banging their heads against this problem for a long time. What’s the answer?

We will be in the future, I believe, a much smaller community. I look around to the grandchildren of my first cousins, most of whom are no longer Jews. And that’s even on the more traditional side of the family. My father’s side of the family, who were pretty secular, they’re almost completely gone. And I think so I think we are a shrinking community.

On the other hand, I think there will remain a core in the liberal community who care about learning, who care about Jewish knowledge, more than people did before. Now getting those learners also to engage in a regular praxis is not completely easy. Getting people to do things in a really disciplined way, in a regular way, a daily sacred practice, whether it’s called davening or meditation, it’s hard. It’s hard to get people to make commitments. Outside the haredi community, even in the Modern Orthodox world, everybody knows I’m choosing to do this. You could get off an airplane in another city and go do whatever you want, eat whatever you want, and so on, without anybody knowing. It’s all a matter of personal discipline. And I think spiritual life does need regularity and discipline. I’ve become a pretty steadily observant Jew after many years of ambivalence about it. But convincing people to take on that discipline — you can only do that retail, not wholesale. I can’t do it by any arguments that will convince people in a book. That’s why rabbis are involved in the retail business. And Jews have been good at retail for a long time.

But it will be small groups. I continue writing because I know that people are still reading it. But if you ask me if what I have to say is going to save all of Jews and bring everybody back? No, I don’t have such pretenses.

Let’s turn to politics for a moment. We’re in a moment now when politics seems to suffuse every part of our culture. You’re not an apolitical person — recently you published a response to Peter Beinart’s call for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this time when the political divide is so wide that it extends even to what the warring factions accept as truth, how can we reconcile the spiritual impulse toward unity with the need for political action in an ever more fractious culture?

One has to be careful about those narrow spaces and remember that the people on the other side of the argument also need love and also deserve to be loved. And some of them are in those places we consider ridiculous because they need love. Even the president of the United States sometimes that can happen to. And I’m not saying he’s easy to love, but we Jews have learned for a long time that sometimes we have neighbors who are very hard to love.

A core piece of Torah for me is the controversy of Rabbi Akiva and his friend Ben Azzai about klal gadol ba-Torah, what’s the most basic rule of Torah? Rabbi Akiva said the most basic rule of Torah is love your neighbor as yourself. And Ben Azzai said, I know something bigger than that. And that is when God created human beings, he created the male and female each one in his image. The image of God, tzelem Elohim, is the most basic principle.

I think their argument is about two things. I think Ben Azzai is saying to Akiva, watch out. Love your neighbor as yourself can be narrowed. It can mean only your Jewish neighbor, only your frum neighbor, only your Satmar neighbor. When you see it goes back to God creating humans in God’s image, that of necessity includes everybody.

But also, love is a very hard thing to demand. We Jews know what it is to have lousy neighbors, and they’re not always very lovable. But even if you can’t love them, treat them as though they are created in God’s image. Every human being deserves to be treated like that, even the ones I find unlovable. So I’m a Ben Azzai guy.

Listen, I don’t believe in a God who governs history and makes that war happen and cures cancer. That’s not my kind of God. But if I look around at the world, I see that just at the moment when the world is recovering from this terrible blow of colonialism, the Jews, after suffering a blow where a third of the Jews are slaughtered, get put in this position where, in order to survive, they wind up establishing a state that much of the world sees as neocolonial. Is that not a moment where you say this is where our tradition is being challenged? Of course, we’re not colonialists, because we have no other country to go back to. But this challenge, to be involved in the most intractable of ethnic conflicts when the whole world needs to learn how to solve ethnic conflicts, maybe we were put there for some reason. I don’t want to say an act of God did this to us, but maybe there is some meaning in the fact that we are in this situation. And that’s our spiritual task, to figure it out, to figure out how to be human and how to treat the other as human in a situation that’s so hard and painful and fraught.

Is there an American analogue to that?

There is a vision of America that some of the founding fathers had and it was a rather beautiful vision. I think life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not completely far from tzelem elohim. And that has to be extended to as many people as you can. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness didn’t count women, it didn’t count Black people. Tzelem elohim didn’t count gay people. And because they weren’t treated like tzelem elohim, we delegitimized their love lives so much that their love lives became compulsive and ugly and underground. That the whole gay and lesbian community has rediscovered marriage and partnership and loving relationships is such a magnificent thing to behold in our age. And that’s because they were accorded decency. Look how much they leapt into it.

How do we extend this to more people? Yes, it means immigrants. I think we have to have immigration laws. I’m not a wide open borders person. I believe in national entities. But treating people like human beings and not putting children in cages — that’s pretty basic humanity to me. These are not just liberal values, these are Jewish values. It’s not that I’m adjusting Judaism to liberalism as I’m adjusting Judaism to a deeper Judaism. And if Ben Azzai tells me that tzelem elohim is the very basis of the Torah, then I have to say if some other part of the Torah doesn’t confirm tzelem elohim for as many people as possible in as many moments as possible, it has to be reinterpreted in terms of tzelem elohim, because that’s the klal gadol, that’s the most basic rule.