March 30, 2010
Where do we, boots thick in the modern muddle, turn to understand our faith? Some traditionalists stand athwart the contemporary world and insist that ancient convictions and practices are all that is required; new knowledge does not demand a revision of tradition. Others, surveying a world in which social hierarchies are gone and religious traditions develop historically, where we have learned that different traditions have similar stories and powerful insights and science has upended many classical convictions, are persuaded that we must understand Torah in a new way.
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.