A vision of God for the twenty-first century

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg on the neo-Chasidic ideas of ‘one of the most important contemporary religious thinkers’, Rabbi Arthur Green

August 12, 2010

Radical Judaism – Rethinking God and Tradition
Arthur Green
Yale University Press, £16.50

One might have thought that in this hectic world of constant crises and urgent moral dilemmas there were better things to do than theology. Why waste time thinking about God?

Paul Tillich, who survived the trenches of the First World War and became perhaps the most eminent Protestant theologian of the 20th century, would have disagreed. He described faith as "the state of being ultimately concerned" and observed that we all have such concerns, be they religions, or the idols of nationalism or success. What we believe defines our values; therefore it matters. The God or gods we put our faith in quietly determine the course of our life, even if we have not clarified to ourselves who or what they are. Therefore, if we care about what it is for which we ultimately live, theology matters.

Arthur Green is a scholar of Jewish mysticism; Radical Judaism is the third in a series of compelling and accessible books which express his understanding of what it means to be a committed Jew today. He is also the rector of the Boston Hebrew College, a unique post-denominational centre for training rabbis.

Although a modest man, he is unafraid of breaking conventions and challenging received ideas, especially about God and Torah. His scholarship, openness and awareness of the urgency of the hour place him among the most important contemporary religious thinkers. "Our future, and that of our planet is in our hands," he writes, "Such a time cries out for leadership, for covenant, and for mitzvah, all of them expanded and redefined for this hour." How does he, and how might we, reconfigure not just mitzvah but what we mean by the three core concerns of Jewish existence, God, Torah and Israel?

Green finds his God not as an indescribable "other" up in heaven, who nevertheless intervenes in human history and controls our destiny. Like many, he ceased in his youth to believe in such a deity. Yet he remained a religious man, a believer who discovered God in the inner depths, within all life. "My theological position is that of a mystical panentheist, one who believes that God is present throughout all of existence."

American Chasid

● Born in Newark, New Jersey, 1941, Rabbi Arthur Green (right) was a founder of the chavurah movement in the 1960s, creating what he called "shteibls for non-Orthodox Jews".
● His scholarly works include studies of the Chasidic masters such as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.
● Books such as Ehyeh; A Kabbalah for Tomorrow have established him as one of the leading writers on contemporary Jewish spirituality.

Panentheism, a doctrine popular in certain Chasidic circles, and Green describes himself as a neo-Chasid, understands God to be both within all existence and transcendent beyond all being. When all life as we know it is over, God will remain, the ultimate One, alone. Yet in the here and now "every creature and every form of life is a garbing of the divine presence". This has immediate moral implications: "The way in which we treat them and relate to them is the ultimate testing ground of our own religious consciousness."

Green regards God's challenge to Adam and Eve as the ultimate religious question: Ayekah: Where are you? "Where are you in helping Me to carry this project [of creation] forward?"

His call "for Jewish panentheism to step out of the closet" may not sound the most compelling of invitations. But it is the most urgent possible summons to understand all life as divine, to treat it with reverence and to change the way we live. Religions, as Green notes, have become, perhaps surprisingly, steadily more powerful in the modern world. But is this power being used ethically, for the benefit of all creation?

Torah, he says, is our way of "reshaping mystery into meaning, of rendering the Silence articulate". At its heart is God's call to humanity, "a wordless calling forth within us that says: 'Know me!' 'Wake up!' 'Be aware!' 'I am Y-H-W-H your God'."

Everything else is a reaction created within historical and cultural contexts to that essential question, that key mitzvah. The text and the commentaries around it are "an unending conversation among generations of Jews" as to how to fashion our response. Hence, says Green, "To the question 'Are the mitzvot divine or human?' I can only answer, 'Yes'." This is one of a very few slightly irritating moments in the book. Should he not have written "Both"?

But perhaps Green's point is that the endless focus on whether God or humans wrote the Torah misses the essential, overriding issue: how are we answering God's urgent "Where are you"? Are we continuing to destroy the world, or will the recognition of the divinity within it finally convince us to change the way we live?

Green would also regard as small-minded the unceasing controversy over who is a Jew. The bigger question is "who is Israel" today. While defending the importance of our survival as a distinct covenanted community, and the importance of the Land of Israel for Jews, he asks: "Who is my Israel?" - adding that he has "more in common with strugglers and seekers of other faiths than … with either the narrowly and triumphally religious or the secular and materialistic elements within my own Jewish community". His work is a call for a wider spiritual and ethical alliance.

Have we as Jews forgotten our true mission? The "old halachic rule book" frustrates Green, raising "the spectre of a civilisation fallen victim to obsessive compulsion".

Yet Green's Judaism is rooted deeply in Chasidic spirituality, in the intense awareness of the presence of God within and beyond all life. Can this yet save us?

He summarises his argument in a single sentence: "The deep inner oneness of all being, manifest in silence, but flowing into sacred speech, is accessible to the seeking human heart, leading us to transformative action."

Jonathan Wittenberg is rabbi of the New North London (Masorti) Synagogue

Last updated: 11:17am, August 12 2010