Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Review of Dr. Arthur Green's newest book, Radical Judaism

Anyone with an inquiring mind and a serious interest in contemporary religious thought will want to read Rabbi Arthur Green’s new book , Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2010). Green is currently Rector and Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Boston.  He is a highly respected scholar, author, and a superb teacher. Although well known for his popular publications on spirituality, Green’s academic writings and teaching have focused upon Kabbalah and Hasidut, Hasidism, the treasures of Jewish mysticism.  He is a self-described mystic, indeed, a neo-Hasid. Yet in Radical Judaism, Green set out “to write theology in the age of Darwin,” an enterprise that one would think is not grist for a mystic’s mill.  But Green is a realist, and so he confronts the world as it is, stripped of ghosts, goblins, angels, and devils, and even of supernatural intervention.  That’s a tall order indeed, and Green is up to the challenge.

Unlike much mystical writing, this “little” (165 pages) book is clearly and engagingly written, not only because Green is a fine, careful writer, but because it is an expansion of the Franz Rosenzweig Lectures he presented at Yale University in 2006.  At each step of the way Green explains why he asks the questions he poses and the meaning of the language he uses to answer them. The scope of those questions and the profundity of the answers, drawing as they do upon a deep knowledge of Judaism and a full awareness of the global reach of contemporary religious discourse, are wide and deep. The chapter headings demonstrate that breadth. Green begins by discussing “Y-H_W-H: God and Being” and then presents a “Jewish History of God” that is, of the Jewish descriptors of God as they  changed over the millennia. Then he moves on to a discussion of Torah and Israel. In no sense is this a “little book.” On the contrary, it is “theology for theologians.” The Jewish people, and perhaps thinkers in other religions, badly need such a work. 

The title, Radical Judaism, is apt.  For Green begins by accepting a whole series of beliefs that many contemporary rabbis share, but often only among themselves, and that are different from those implied in our prayers and in much of our religious discussion.

He denies that virtues are rewarded and sins punished, as we imagine people who are “really religious” believe. Rather, he says, life is often harsh and arbitrary, as after the Holocaust, Jews (and anyone intimately acquainted with serious illness and death) know in their bones.  (Green apparently eschews the notion that reward and punishment are meted out after death.) He accepts that Israel’s place is among the nations, rather than elevated above them. He is a fervent admirer of the Torah and its manifold interpretations through which the Jewish people has understood and adapted it over the millennia, but he bluntly states that it is a human creation. Nevertheless, he calls upon Jews to hear the clarion call, “Ayekah,” “where are you?”  that the Torah sounds. It demands that we shape our lives, not just adopt a pleasant lifestyle, that we not only do justice and love mercy but also recognize the “tzelem,” the image of common origin that the Torah and science both teach and that is apparent in the form and substance of all our fellow humans.  

First and foremost, however, Green accepts the scientific “tale of origins.” More, he is inspired by it. He writes:
“As a religious person, I believe that the evolution of 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 the other narratives, memories, and images, including our own” (p. 16)(emphasis in original). [1]

Green is not referring to biological evolution alone but to the “history of our universe,” the prevailing scientific cosmology.  Indeed, the book begins with an unequivocal acceptance of science and its methods. Not only has “our society”--by which he means educated, thinking, religious people everywhere--accepted the scientific revolution, but this acceptance is a moral imperative. Humans are threatening to destroy the planet, Green recognizes, and argues that religion has “a key role to play” in “changing our attitudes toward the world in which we humans live.  Unlike politicians and pundits, religious leaders and the institutions they lead typically view the world from the perspective of all humankind and millennia and therefore ought be more responsive to global imperatives. 

Green’s religious response to science is unique and very exciting. Green’s theology rings true indeed because ultimately it is empirical, as is science. He is a mystic, after all, and believes that experience of the One, the God in which the universe is contained, is the prime purpose and unique character of religion, not just Judaism but of all religions. The mystical encounter, the unique take on reality that lies behind the various ways in which mystics have envisioned and encountered God, starting with the Torah’s personal God, continuing through the lover of humankind of the “Song of Songs” and certain other Jewish sources, through the Kabbalists’ sephirot and eyn sof  and the Hasidic simplification of them, are all ultimately experiential,   Green has explained So, too,  is the modern tale of origins. In a similar clear but closely reasoned fashion, Green  has explained  the other two central foci of Judaism--Torah, and Israel.  

This is a breathtaking accomplishment, whose roots in the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel are apparent and explicit, for Heschel was Green’s teacher and initial inspiration. Strangely, since Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, is usually seen as Heschel’s opponent, Green has also embraced some of Kaplan’s most important teachings. The basic project of Radical Judaism is to take the best of modern science, Western Civilization, if you will,  and meld it with our people’s religious experience to bring about a new, guided evolution to enliven our future. That evolution, Green argues, is badly needed to enable Judaism better to serve the Jewish people and perhaps the world. Green, however,  ends up hoping for the emergence of multiple new forms of Judaism. Remarkably, despite Green’s often critical stance toward Israeli politics, he is especially hopeful that new Jewish religious forms will bloom there, where the people, or many of them, are living in both civilizations. In this sense Green’s stance is like Kaplan’s.  

I cannot do justice here to the lyrical and complex forms in which Green has spelled out his brilliant and satisfying reworking of God and our tradition in Radical Judaism. If others respond to this work as I have it may well constitute the basis of a whole new conversation among us, and possibly with our Christian neighbors who have demonstrated an interest in the interface between science and their religion that has so far been lacking among us Jews.  That’s essential, in this reviewer’s eyes, to a badly needed renaissance of non-orthodox, Jewish religious life.

[1] This reviewer is the president of The Institute for Science and Judaism. The conviction that “the divine waits to be discovered” in the world science reveals (but of course not exclusively there) is a fundamental tenet of the Institute’s work.

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