(Re) Reading Radicalism: Reading Reviews of Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
March 10, 2011

When books were published in the good old days, readers (and authors) had to patiently wait for reviews to appear. Newspapers were often first, followed by popular and then scholarly journals. In all three cases, the review literature was limited in scope and slow in coming. In today’s web-based media, reviews of a book often appear before one receives their pre-ordered copy from Amazon. By the time you actually read the book you may have had the opportunity to read dozens of reviews on websites, personal blogs and endless talkbacks from the Upper West Side to Wasilla. As a result, today we have a “review literature” that is distinct from the book under review.

Given the lack of quality control, a malady web-civilization has yet to resolve, many of these reviews are worthless. Yet some, like those under examination here, are quite astute yet tell us more about the reviewers and the communities they live in (and sometimes lead) than the books they read. Sometimes a book ignites a spark, or strikes a nerve, not solely due to its content but the way it challenges convention and pushes us outside our collective comfort zone. Such is the case with Arthur Green’s final installment of his theological trilogy, Radial Judaism.

The first installment of Green’s theological trilogy is Seek My Face, Speak My Name. The second is EHYEH: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow. The final segment is Radical Judaism which appeared in 2010. Seek My Face is written as a theological confession. Its structure is almost aphoristic, sometimes impressionistic, and it is seemingly meant more as inspirational reading than the presentation of a systematic theology. By itself it does not give its critical reader enough to extrapolate a theological system. But it does set the parameters of Green’s theological project in a way that makes room for the two books that follow. EHYEH fills an important lacuna in Seek My Face in that here Green challenges the reader with his rendering of the kabbalistic tradition (more implied than explicit in Seek May Face) and its radical interpretation according to his neo-Hasidic or New Age version of Kabbalah. In it we find the building blocks of Seek My Face.

In EHYEH Green has much to say about the concept of Oneness that filters through his entire theological project. This Oneness, in the form of what he sometimes calls “mystical pantheism” sometimes “panentheism” sometimes “religious humanism” (these terms all need to be fleshed out) are illustrations of Green’s grappling with a concept of Oneness that is not fettered by the confines of classical monotheism. That is, the One that is not a unity apart from the world but the All that pervades both but is not contained by the world. In this sense, Radical Judaism represents the maturation of Green’s theological project. It is here that his first book’s more impressionistic theology is combined with his neo-Hasidic reading of Kabbalah in the second to produce a programmatic world-view for a future Judaism.

Radical Judaism has evoked more attention than Green’s previous books because in it Green has finally “come out” and made his case for what I think is a full-blown post-monotheistic Judaism. This is not new. In many ways Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has been writing about such a Judaism for years, yet exposure to Schachter-Shalomi’s work among the Jewish intellegensia and the mainstream has been limited in part because his writing style is geared more toward New Age Jewish practitioners and seekers and because he intentionally chooses not to publish with university presses. Schachter-Shalomi and Green’s work are not identical by any means yet both “radicalize” monotheism to the point of rupture.

Radical Judaism is nothing less than a call to re-envision the Jewish God and, by extension, Jewish practice and belief. This is not new although previous attempts, from Maimonides to the Zohar, the Baal Shem Tov, Ahad ha-Am, and even Martin Buber, did so without the openly claiming to undermine what preceded them. Even Ahad Ha-Am and Buber, both quite radical in their assessment of Judaism, still maintained that their positions were extensions of previous traditional threads. Living in the era of New Age religion (a movement Green never openly identifies with but one that I believe informs his entire project) Green, among others, has less need to tie his radicalism to the past.

There are three basic claims in Green’s book:
a notion of God that is not personal;
a notion of mitzvot that are not commanded (since Green’s God is not a commanding God);
and a notion of peoplehood that is beyond ethnos, that is, is not limited by birth.

Green calls himself a “mystical panentheist,” a “religious humanist,” and a “secular Zionist.” The ostensible incongruities in these three identities are explained in numerous ways throughout the book. He defines “mystical panentheism” as “this underlying oneness of being [that] is accessible to human experience and reveals itself to human – indeed, it reveals itself everywhere, always – as the deeper levels of the human mind become open to it.” (18). The notion of divine transcendence that stands at the epicenter of biblical monotheism and allows for everything from revelation to divine election (choseness) is erased. Panentheists, as opposed to pantheists, believe in a divine that is more than the sum of its parts but the “more,” that which is transcendent, has no intrinsic value.

For Green, the divine is actualized as an unarticulated “call” to every individual reminiscent of Gershom Scholem’s famous quip that revelation is significant but meaningless. It does not choose nor command. In fact, it may not even exist in any discernable way. Previous Jewish panentheists such as the sixteenth-century kabbalist Moses Cordovero or the early Habad theologians who developed what is known in scholarly parlance as acosmism, make similar suggestions. However, both lived very much inside what we may call anachronistically “orthodoxy” and thus never overtly took their metaphysical positions to their logical (perhaps heretical) conclusions. Both loosely used the concept of “paradox” to answer the question as to how a God who is inextricably intertwined with nature can also be a God utterly distinct from it. I suggest that maintaining the theological categories of “transcendent” and “immanent” as co-existing in a paradox also enables the categories of “universal” and “particular” to survive the humanistic critique of Judaism in modernity. When one collapses, as it does in Green’s Radical Judaism, the other is soon to follow. It is here where true “radicalism” begins.

Green’s “religious humanism” is an expression of his belief in the efficacy of human action (and not divine fiat) to change the world and his rejection of the opaque distinction between Israel and the world that stands as a cornerstone of biblical religion. Green is surely not the first to make this move but he does so in a way that makes early twenty-first century Jews who are threatened with “survival” not via anti-Semitism but rather assimilation, rather nervous. While not a naïve universalist, Green expands his notion of “Israel” to an almost metaphorical dimension. “Israel” includes all those with whom Green shares a spiritual journey (132). “Israel, wrestler with God,” he says, “is too big a name to belong to a single people.” (139). This too is not wholly new, as I will suggest below, but in our time it seems to cede too much for a progressive Jewish community hanging on to a diminishing multiculturalism and the emergence of post-ethnic society where ethnicity no longer plays a central role of communal identity.

Green’s “secular Zionism” simply suggests that for him the nation-state of Israel is a reality that has no messianic – and I would extend this to say, theological - significance. This may seem odd for a “God-intoxicated” man but his point is well-taken. He argues, largely by implication, that the rise of radical religious Zionism and its sympathizers (even those who are un-believers, and I would also include Christian Zionists) is in large part due to the theological underpinnings of contemporary Zionism which make its ostensible struggle for normalization improbable. Green’s attempt to be a “religious” Jew and “secular” Zionist is not new either. Yeshayahu Liebowitz made a similar claim and Gershom Scholem often warned against the danger of founding Zionism on theological principles.

While not saying so outright, the three reviews under discussion are all keenly aware of the “radical” nature of Green’s theological project I outlined above and all three have deep misgivings about buying a ticket on Green’s Magical Mystery Tour. Yet all three are intrigued because they realize that the Jewish community has reached a theological impasse but does not yet have the tools to take Judaism to a new phase. The return to Orthodoxy in the Baal Teshuva Movement in the 1970’s and 80’s has waned, Zionism and Jewish nationalism are alive but theologically moribund, the focus on the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and the negative Judaism it produces cannot procure a healthy Judaism for the future, and the move from multiculturalism to globalization and post-ethnicity presents serious challenges to Jewish particularism and peoplehood. Green’s post-monotheistic Radical Judaism is surely not the only alternative, nor is it necessarily the best, but at least it presents its case in a cogent manner and, perhaps as a result, brings out the best, and worst, in its readers.

Daniel Landes Daniel Landes, “Hidden Master,” Jewish Review of Books, Fall 2010

Daniel Landes is a founder of Pardes, one of the most progressive Orthodox yeshivot in Israel, a co-ed institution that has done more than most in breaking down Orthodox barriers of gender exclusion and exposing young Jews to modern critical methods in the study of classical texts. In its heyday Pardes was on the margins. Now it is closer to the center. But today the battle-lines have changed. Incremental change has produced a generation that desires more radical solutions. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last. Landes might not want to go there. That is totally legitimate. But his critique is coming from a world, and utilizing a method, many of Green’s readers have already rejected.

Landes’ “Hidden Master” is a troubling, and troubled, critique of Green’s Radical Judaism. Whatever one may make of Green’s “mystical panentheism,” I think Landes misses the mark on numerous counts. First, he uses the term “Judaism” (he writes, “how remote from Judaism his mystical pantheism may seem to his readers…”) as if “Judaism” is a static category. He then takes this essentialist model - never defined because it can’t be - and shows how Green’s theology is foreign to it.

While Landes uses the tripartite model of “God, Torah, Israel” as his definition of “Judaism” (Green uses this model as well) and attempts to show how Green undermines each component, he does not acknowledge the expansive (and even arguably heretical) ways these terms were understood in the Jewish mystical tradition that is the foundation of Green’s theology. Hence the reader has no real way to evaluate Green in light of the classical kabbalistic sources he claims as his inspiration.

Landes’ claim to discover Green’s hidden master in Mordecai Kaplan seems a bit odd, even given Green’s ostensible repudiation of Kaplan’s influence. Even if we can trace Green’s panentheism to Kaplan’s Spinozism, which itself may or may not have been rooted in Spinoza’s theology, it was not totally foreign to other “Jewish” notions of God, for example, the panentheism of Moses Cordovero or the acosmism of early Habad. Yet both remain part of the Jewish theological canon. The fact that Cordovero and Habad have been refracted through Orthodox lenses and thus survived the fate of heresy should not deter us from examining their doctrines on their own terms. In short, neither Kaplan nor Green’s theology is categorically different than those that have been accepted within tradition, albeit both Kaplan and Green take these theological positions further and alter Jewish practice and belief in light of those conclusions. While the alteration of Jewish practice may indeed be a legitimate source of criticism, we should not be overly convinced that the Orthodox readings of previous masters are the only, or even best, readings of earlier theological innovations. I think, however, that Landes’ invocation of Kaplan may be more banal. He may simply be using Kaplan as an attempt to discount Green’s authenticity. If so, I’m afraid this will only work for those already convinced.

Landes would be more convincing if he left claims of influence behind and instead focused more on his argument that Green’s God is not a “personal God.” I think he is right about that. What we must ask, however, is whether Judaism “requires” a personal God? Is Maimonides’ Active Intellect a personal God? Is the Zohar’s Eyn Sof a personal God according to Landes? And what about the “fleshy” God of Orthodox theologian Michael Wyschogrod in his Body of Faith? Maybe Wyschogrod’s God it too personal? The Jewish God is personal but the incarnated Christian God is too personal. I think the personal God axiom of contemporary Orthodox theology is somewhat overblown and disingenuous. Jewish philosophers and mystics throughout history - both traditional and heretical - have struggled mightily with this idea. Green’s impersonal God may come as a shock to some who have not ventured beyond the confines of “traditional” Jewish education but as an educator and scholar Landes knows better. Or he should.

On the question of the Jewish people, Landes laments Green’s acknowledgment that fellow seekers, wherever they are found, are comrades in a search for meaning and thus constitute, for him, a spiritual community. Landes is especially concerned that Green uses the term “Jew” to describe this community of seekers, even if the members of that community do not describe themselves as “Jewish.” I understand Green’s position here to be a creative reading of the Talmudic dictum “whoever repudiates idolatry is call a Yehudi.” (b.T. Megillah 13a). One may certainly disagree with this expansive, even overextended, reading of an opaque talmudic dictum (most commentators don’t really know what the Talmud means here) but does it constitute blasphemy? Did Jews always have ironclad criteria of Jewishness? Shaye Cohen, hardly a radical, in his The Beginning of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties seems to think otherwise.

What did Maimonides and Bahya Ibn Pakuda think of their Muslim companions in philosophy and Sufi mysticism? No, they did not call them “Jews” but, as Menahem Kellner shows in his work on Maimonides, they arguably felt more akin to them than fellow Jews who did not share their intellectual and spiritual project. And what might they have thought had they lived in a pluralistic society? Is it categorically different than Green’s assertion?

Finally, the most troubling part of Landes’ review is the way he slips from Israel as “the Jew” (God, Torah, Israel) to Israel as the state. For Landes, it appears, the necessity of granting the State for Israel a key role in any Jewish discourse is so axiomatic that a contemporary theology that has little or no interest in the Jewish nation-state is beyond the pale. Would Landes then also dismiss as illegitimate anti-Zionist theologies such as Satmar and classical Reform, or Diaspora nationalists such as Simon Dubnow (1860-1941), anti-statist Zionists such as Simon Rawidowicz (1897-1957), or the contemporary Hasidic master Shalom Noah Barzofsky of Slonim (d. 2000) who wrote about exile as a positive criteria for Jewish flourishing; physically, mentally, and spiritually? Are all of these thinkers and discourses invalid because they have little for no room for the State of Israel? Landes’ apparent belief that the “Israel” of God, Torah, Israel refers to a nation-state is, to me, as theologically radical as anything in Green’s Radical Judaism.

David Wolpe David Wolpe, “Rethinking Judaism,” The Jewish Journal, March 20, 2010

David Wolpe’s “Rethinking Judaism” can be called a sympathetic rejection of Green’s work, an exercise in passive-aggressive writing. One should notice the subtlety in the title of Wolpe’s review. The sub-title of Green’s Radical Judaism is “Rethinking God and Tradition,” that is, I assume, within Judaism. Wolpe’s subversive midrash reads “Rethinking Judaism,” not ceding Green’s claim that his theology is Judaism at all!

In reading the review one senses two things: First, Wolpe’s education at JTS which includes with an inbred skepticism of the mystic (Green is also a product of JTS but one of its wayward children). I say this with no malice. I happily lived inside those walls for many years. Second, Wolpe’s vocation as a congregational rabbi colors his response. In some way I felt Wolpe was writing his review for his synagogue bulletin. He offers an interesting and insightful thumb-nail sketch of Green’s basic theological parameters. He explains why Green’s “panentheism” is not pagan, that is, why it is not prohibited in toto. And he acknowledges that Green’s struggle is “our” struggle (“Within each [category, God Torah. Israel] he struggles with the particularity and universality of the tradition.”). Distinguishing Green’s panentheism from paganism gestures back to earlier attempts to equate pantheism with paganism, or idolatry. If God is nature than why not worship nature as God. Of course, ancient pagans weren’t pantheists and philosophical pantheists like Spinoza weren’t worshipping anything. For Wolpe the point is rhetorical: Green is presenting us with something that both is, and is not, Judaism. It is not “pagan” but not wholly “Jewish” either.

This still leaves open the possibility of taking Green’s option seriously. There Wolpe shuts the door. First, he brilliantly pushes the non-Jew, an American Jewish red button issue, to the front by writing, “Green writes several times that he hopes non-Jews will take up this book as well.” “Take up this book”? Does this mean adopt its practices? Become Jews? Live Green’s “Judaism” as non-Jews? Wolpe follows this with “Certainly much of his theology is not ‘specifically’ Jewish.” I am not sure how to read the quotes around “specifically.” I assume he means not “only” Jewish which would mean that Green’s theology is not really “Judaism,” it has both Jewish and non-Jewish roots. In short, it is syncretistic. And even its Jewish roots, Wolpe continues, “are surely not the predominant reading.” [italics added]. This is enough to scare off any potential seeker with an investment in either “Judaism” or ethnic Jewishness, or afraid that his/her grandchildren will no longer be “Jews.” This includes most of non-Orthodox American Jewry. If Wolpe sees Green’s theology as outside the norms of Judaism, does that mean that he is advocating a normative Judaism? If so, he needs to tell us what it is. But I don’t think he is. I think his point is more subtle.

What makes Green’s theology not the predominant reading for Wolpe? Is it the fact that it is not “specifically” Jewish, that it not only contains non-Jewish elements but it does so openly and even invites non-Jews to become part of its project. Distinguishing between Jew from non-Jew and Judaism from non-Jewish religions has been a central theme in much of American Judaism after the advent of pluralism. It is precisely because the differences are becoming ever-more subtle and ethnic Jewishness ever more precarious, that rabbis are adamant about stressing separation whenever possible. For Wolpe, the “radicality” of Green’s theology is the way he openly erases or at least attenuates the very distinctions that insure Jewish distinctiveness in a society of acceptance.

While I can sympathize with Wolpe’s rabbinic concerns, as a student of Jewish history he knows that syncretism has been around for a long time, sometimes conscious, sometimes not. There is no real categorical distinction between a theology that is “normative” and one that is “syncretistic,” that is, adapts and includes ideas from the outside. I think his unwillingness to admit that lies at the root of his being “unpersuaded” by Green. Wolpe’s rejection appears to me more about congregational rather than theological concerns.

Mainstream American Judaism, even the Judaism most Jews do not believe in or practice, is actually quite conservative. It envisions itself as participating in a project one might call “Judaism - the up-grade,” living a “tradition” (however imagined) that is adapted to the present. Green begins with the presupposition that no substantive distinction exists between normative and syncretism regarding theology and the question is all about the elasticity of the community to accept a theological alternative. His alternative is openly heretical (not that heresy wasn’t also a part of Jewish normativity) and that frightens American Jews, even or especially progressive one’s like Wolpe. Here Green is a student of Solomon Schechter’s “Catholic Israel.” Jews largely determine the parameters of any normative Judaism. “Predominant readings” exist only in retrospect.

The non-Jew is the lynchpin in Wolpe’s ultimate rejection of Green’s alternative. Assimilated American Jews are anxious enough about their proximity to non-Jews; culturally, spiritually, even familially. Assimilation produces its own unique paranoia. Wolpe is too much of a progressive and free-thinking intellectual to declare Green’s theology un-Jewish. Rather, he claims it is not “only” Jewish. But isn’t that almost saying the same thing? It is “outside” the sphere of complete “Judaism.” And there are no guarantees once you cross that border.

Yehudah Mirsky
Yehudah Mirsky, “The God of the Kabbalists,” Jewish Ideas Daily, September 29, 2010

Yehuda Mirsky is an American-trained scholar and public intellectual who presently works at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Before writing a dissertation on the early life of R. Abraham Kook at Harvard, he worked for the State Department during the first Clinton administration. Mirsky writes regularly for Jewish Ideas Daily and for other Jewish and general publications on topical and historical issues.

Mirsky’s review is the most subtle and complicated of the three discussed here. He begins his review of Green’s Radical Judaism (which is combined with a review of Michael Fishbane’s Spiritual Attunement) in Jewish Ideas Daily a hypothesis as to why Kabbalah and, by extension Green, has become so au courante, so intriguing and thus worth taking seriously. His theory is based on the notion that “scientific world-views have proved themselves ill-equipped to explain or speak to either the highest or the darkest impulses of humanity.”

I am not convinced this is true today. Atheist societies based on these scientific world-views are growing all over the West. Is there something categorically different about our world from those before us? Every generation seems to make this claim which makes it unconvincing. I would say, rather, that there were always seekers and always skeptics, I assume even among the cave-men. Kabbalah is not better or more comforting than science nor does it offer a comprehensive world-view. It offers a compelling albeit incomplete system. It does not finally solve the riddle of human existence, even for the believer. Rather, for the seeker, both Jew and non-Jew, Kabbalah’s popularity might be more a combination of American multiculturalism, the fetishiziation of ‘authenticity’ (think about the 1972 T.V. adaptation of Alex Haley’s “Roots” and the cultural tidal wave it produced) and the acceptance of Jews and Judaism as a normative, even privileged, part of society. All this, and more, has resulted in, among other things, Kabbalah becoming a major template in Western spirituality, particularly in the US and Israel. Kabbalah is in fashion today more because of the acceptance of Judaism in America combined with America’s New Age sensibilities than any spiritual crisis initiated by scientism.

One of the byproducts of the success of the American Diaspora (and in some way Israel has benefited from this as well) is that Kabbalah is no longer the exclusive property of the Jews (this was, of course true in other historical period such as the Italian Renaissance). What difference does my assessment of Kabbalah’s popularity make in relation to Mirsky’s? It seems to me that there are two fathers of Green’s Radical Judaism. The first comes from tradition (Judaism) the source of its textual sources; the second from New Age Religion that compels it into new and experimental theological territory. While New Age is not a term Green’s uses to identify himself (as opposed to Zalman Schachter-Shalomi for whom New Age is an operative term) I believe it is the spirit of the New Age phenomenon that made Green’s Radical Judaism possible and enabled it to be as honest and unapologetic as it is.

Mirsky gets the point. Green’s Radical Judaism is not biblical monotheism. He acknowledges Green’s allegiance to traditional sources, even distinguishing Green’s theology from existentialism and nihilism. Yet Mirsky cannot drink the Kool-Aid because it is a theology that does not have sufficient room for national survival, both physical and spiritual. As a Jewish nationalist and Zionist, for Mirsky the question of national existence and collective flourishing stands at the center of any viable Jewish theology. Here one can see Kook’s deep influence on his thinking. While Green is not oblivious to these concerns, for him they are not central. Buber was able to get away with his highly personalistic existentialist theology of “I and Thou” because he also had an equally developed commitment to Zionism. And while Green’s teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel did not have a theology deeply wed to Jewish nationalism, nor was Zionism a central part of this teaching, late in his life wrote a somewhat idiosyncratic book Israel: An Echo of Eternity (1967) that adapted his theology to the question of national existence. Green’s theology does not contain the seeds of any nationalistic adaptation. And his notion of the collective is not limited to biological Israel. Green’s consciousness is far more global than either Buber or Heschel. This, I suggest, is also the fact that Green is a child of the New Age phenomenon.

Mirsky posits that Green’s spiritual globalism might revert back to an old defunct moral universalism (he writes, “can we truly ground moral commands in the absence of a commander?”). He might be right. And perhaps his strongest critique is asking how Green’s theology can answer the very real and challenging moral dilemmas of our age. But many Jews adopted Kant’s principles of a universal law - questioning particularity, revelation, and a “moral commander” - and molded Judaism around it. In fact, one could argue that this is a philosophical cornerstone of Modern Jewish thought. Why is Green’s voyage outside Jewish ethnic exceptionalism categorically different from Mordecai Kaplan or the practice of many in the Reform movement? To posit that human beings need a divine commander to be moral agents accepts a kind of Jewish-Barthianism that is surely legitimate but hardly definitive.

Mirsky astutely concludes his review by posing a moral challenge. Can Green’s project “prove capable of engaging with the most inescapable feature of Western religion: the ability to turn to the universe and say, ‘You’, in the second-person singular?”. That is, can it maintain an intimate yet distinct relationship with the “universe” and, we are to assume, the force that brings it into being? This is a great question and one which Green has not yet answered but I think he surely could. But if Mirsky thinks that Green’s theology contains elements that can resolve other pressing problems in the contemporary Jewish world, problems such as insularity, xenophobia, exceptionalism, and perennial victimhood, let him buy a ticket and work on the ship to make it better suited to answer that question. The enlightened Jewish nationalism to which Mirsky ascribes has not brought us any closer to the humanistic ideals it originally professed. Quite the opposite.

These three reviews illustrate three levels of anxiety Jews feel about their theological future. The anxiety is not really about Green’s proposal as much as the realization that something must be done to create a theologically-relevant Judaism and no one really knows what to do. Mirsky’s questions about “survival” and the ever-present threat of the dissolution of the particular are well-placed and Green and others need to address them seriously. Wolpe’s anxiety about syncretism and the un-Jewishness of contemporary Radical Judaism is an instantiation of what I have called the paranoia of assimilation. If Judaism cannot learn to live with this syncretism, that is, with the normalization of un-Jewishness in its Judaism, it may be doomed. In America, Jews have learned to live comfortably with non-Jews in productive and mutually respectful ways. The next step may be learning to make the borders of Judaism more permeable. Landes seems to be threatened by everything that stands outside his own imaginative “Judaism.” This is not to deny that some of his criticisms are well-placed. Radical Judaism surely has its flaws. It is to say, rather, that Green is not the issue here. What is at issue is considering a critique of tradition that cannot be hermeneutically and apologetically read back into tradition.

A Jew once wrote, “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land. And don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughter are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand, for the times they are a changin’.” Was it Moses? Yohanan ben Zakkai? The Baal Shem Tov? Ahad ha Am? Or maybe it was someone who was channeling all four.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com