Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition
By Arthur Green
Yale University Press, 208 pages, $26
‘I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in,” Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal, wrote many years ago. Reb Zalman was responding to an imagined atheist, or perhaps an alienated Jew — someone with a spiritual bent but who was unable to accept traditional God-language and beliefs. The implication: that it’s possible to have a meaningful Jewish religious practice without them.
This is not a new claim. In the 18th century, German Romantic theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher boldly claimed that true religion had more in common with the “cultured despisers” of the church than with its faithful adherents. The agnostics, he wrote, were more authentically religious than the pious. And in the 12th century, Moses Maimonides made a similar claim, denying the literal truth of the Bible in favor of an allegorical, philosophical reading of it, and critiquing those who took it literally.
Rabbi Arthur Green has, in the last three decades, been an important heir to this august lineage, and he makes his clearest and boldest case yet in his new book, “Radical Judaism.” Today, however, the despisers of religion are not so cultured: Green has in his sights popular “neo-atheists” such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who construct a straw-man fundamentalism, identify it with all religion in general and then set the effigy aflame. This, as has been noted in these pages, is poppycock, yet it is poppycock that has appealed to many of the liberals with whom Green finds common cause, particularly in our era of Islamic fundamentalism and the New Christian Right. Progressive religionists like Green (and myself) are increasingly asked to choose between a cold secularism and an all-too-hot traditionalism.
In refusing this choice, “Radical Judaism” constructs a theology devoid of the personalistic creator God, free of Jewish ethnocentrism and dogma. Like the Reconstructionism of which Green was once a representative, it may not find a wide audience in the pews. But for reflective Jewish adults who care about theology, it is a valuable contribution.
“Radical Judaism” refuses to make compromises: between science and religion, say, or traditional ethics and contemporary mores. Instead, Green’s general attitude is to accept the progress of knowledge and then see how it informs a progressive religious consciousness. In the first part of the book, for example, Green not only accepts evolution as true, but enlists it as an ally. “As a religious person I believe that the evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time,” he says at the beginning of the first chapter. “It is a tale — perhaps even the tale — in which the divine waits to be discovered.” Green sees evolution as a kind of trajectory of consciousness, a sweep of mega-history from inanimate matter to living things to, ultimately, a consciousness able to reflect upon the sweep of evolutionary history itself.
Where is “God” in all this? Green professes a deep ambivalence about the very word. “The question seemed to be whether we post-naïve seekers dare to use ‘God’ anymore, and what we might — or might not — mean by it, while remaining personally and intellectually honest,” Green writes in the introduction. What Green does with the term is define it differently from most traditionalists: “For me God is not an intellectual proposition but rather the ground of life itself. It is the name I give to the reality I encounter” in religious, mystical experience, as well as in reflection on the miracles of life and drama of evolution.
So, too, with Torah and Israel. Since Green’s panentheistic God is essentially “a silent God,” Green understands Torah as essentially a human response to a primal, unspoken question, namely: “[T]he silently spoken divine ‘Where are you?’” The mitzvot, in turn, “are sacred forms, bearing the special potential for encounter with the One, a truth not diminished by our acceptance that they are all of human origin.” And in place of the Chosen People, Green adopts a familiar and familial definition of Jewish peoplehood — we are family. Jews may have some special role as a “light unto the nations,” but if so, it is only by dint of shared history, not Divine election or the superiority of Jewish ideas.
Again and again, Green, like Maimonides, at once preserves religious language and empties it of its traditional content. What, for example, is the soul? Not what you think it is:
[S]oul as I understand it is precisely not an entity, any more than ‘God’ is an entity. Just as Y-H-W-H is not a ‘thing’ but refers to the transcendent wholeness of Being that both surpasses and embraces all things, 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 that we could ever name.
In other words, it’s there, but there’s no there, there. Indeed, throughout “Radical Judaism,” Green wants to have his theological/ontological cake and eat it, too. There is a God, but God is not an entity; God is the “transcendent wholeness of Being.” There is a Torah that is important, but its text is wholly human, even if its inspiration is somehow Divine.
I don’t mean this as a criticism, though. First, if we take seriously Green’s thesis that religious consciousness, like everything else, meaningfully evolves in time, then old concepts and old definitions must be shed as part of that process. We don’t prop up the 6th century’s normative definitions of the universe, or women, or the origins of disease; why should we maintain its conceptions of God, Torah and Israel? Indeed, maybe the reason so many Jews leave the fold after age 13 is that our religious concepts remain so adolescent.
Second, Green’s innovations are strengthened by his ambivalence. At one point, he writes, “I challenge myself yet again, as I do frequently, asking whether my mystical language is not merely an obfuscation of my disbelief.” I love these passages. As someone who considers himself a student and fellow traveler of Green (our books both claim to be “radical” and present similar theological viewpoints), I, too, despise the certitude, condescension and necessary ignorance of religionists who think they have all the answers. That Green is up front about these doubts and makes them part of his theological statement, to me strengthens rather than weakens his case.
Indeed, while Green may wonder if he lacks the faith of our fathers, some readers may wonder why he bothers with Jewish religion at all. What is the reason for keeping up the edifice of religious life if the foundations are reset in this way?
There are several obvious answers: the majesty of the ancient tradition, its usefulness in teaching ethics and marking life transitions, not to mention the emotional bonds we feel with its cultural trappings, myths, stories, even recipes. Who knows — maybe, despite Green’s soul-skepticism, there’s a special spark in the yiddishe neshama , the Jewish soul, after all.
Yet the real reason seems at once more simple, and more profound. At the very beginning of “Radical Judaism,” Green identifies himself not as a Jewish believer, but as a Jewish seeker. “I am a deeply religious person, one easily moved by the power of sacred language, rites and symbols.” This quality is a gift — to us all, as Green has now produced some of the best Jewish theology of our time — but also a conundrum, as it alienates him from most of the best minds of our generation. It’s as if Green is stuck with religion, and with Judaism in particular.
“I still consider the sacred to be the most important and meaningful definition of human life,” he writes. “Still” — as in, still, despite the scientific challenges, which we accept and do not attempt to rebuff; still, despite the changes in ethics and cosmology, which we applaud and do not attempt to undo; and still, despite the scorn of the skeptic and the unreflective zeal of the believer, twin evils which perhaps this short book can help to combat.
Jay Michaelson is a columnist for the Forward. He also writes for the Huffington Post, Tikkun and The Jerusalem Post among other publications.