Monday, January 17, 2011

Beshalah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_01_10_archive/html, as well as January 2008, February 2009, and January 2010.

Song of the Soul and Song of the Community

This Shabbat the story of the Exodus reaches its culmination in the Splitting of the Red (or Reed) Sea and the great Song sung by the children of Israel upon seeing their enemies drown and no longer able to oppress them. This song is generally regarded as the paradigm for religious song and poetry in Judaism. It is the first occasion on which the community sings out to God, in praise and thanksgiving, in wonder and in awe.

There are many types of song and of prayer in Judaism—songs and prayers of the individual soul, alone in its yearnings and, on occasion, its travails; songs of praise of Knesset Yisrael, marking moments of great joy and exaltation in its history—of which this Song of the Sea is surely the model; and cries of help, calling out for deliverance in times of shared distress.

The Book of Psalms is itself divided into these two types: the vast majority of the psalms in the first three books of the Psalter, Pss 1-89, are individual prayers in times of trouble; the second part of the Psalter—i.e., Books IV and V (Pss 90-150)—are by and large hymns of rejoicing and thanksgiving, and are mostly couched in the plural. Indeed, these form the core of the liturgy for such occasions as the Hallel recited on festive days, the daily Pesukei de-Zimra, and Kabbalat Shabbat.

There are also expressions of joy and gratitude on the part of the individual: thus, in the days of the Temple an individual might bring a thanksgiving offering, korban todah, when saved from a perilous plight; today, he recites Birkat ha-Gomel before a minyan; and he may make a se’udat hoda’ah, a meal of thanksgiving sharing his joy and relief with his friends and fellows. David’s hymn to God upon being “delivered ing him from all his enemies round about” (2 Samuel 22=Psalm 18), and Hannah’s song of gratitude upon knowing that she would be blessed with a child (1 Samuel 2:1-10), are but a few examples of personal hymns of thanksgiving in the people.

On the other hand, there is also the institution of Ta’anit Tzibbur—of public fast days in times of collective trouble—drought, pestilence, warfare or pogrom—devoted to prayer, fasting, and repentance by the community or the nation as a whole. This day culminates in a public prayer service held in the town square, prayer of a special type known as tze’akah—crying out to God in anguish and pain. Interestingly, we are told that the whole complex of ta’anit tzibbur at a time of collective trouble creates a spiritual reality, a receptivity on the part of God, that for the individual exists only during the Ten Days of Repentance.

The Hallel itself reflects the tension between the individual and collective mode: although formally defined as an obligation of each individual, it is ideally recited by the community as a whole, marking great moments in its history—moments of deliverance, moments in which the footsteps of the Divine were tangibly felt. “On eighteen days of the year one reads the Hallel (קורין את ההלל),” the verb “reads” being couched in the plural. In ancient days, its recitation was modeled after the Song of the Sea, recited antiphonally: the leader says each verse, and the congregation responds. “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song…”— the midrash portrays Moses as reciting each verse, and the people repeating after him. A passage in Tractate Sukkah, at 38b, mentions various different customs: reciting it in unison; antiphonally, responding to each verse with the word Halleluyah; repeating each verse; etc. The manner in which we recite the Hallel today is designed to present at least brief examples of each of these approaches (see both Rashi and Tosafot ad loc., s.v. hilkheta gevirta).

In the synagogue generally there is a certain tension between individual and communal expression. The old tradition of hazanut often focused upon the virtuoso performance of an individual—the cantor. On the other hand, today, in more and more synagogues, particularly those with a more youthful crowd (though I am now a hoary-haired grandfather, my own predilection also runs in that direction), there is a revival of communal singing, and many flock to prayer leaders who know how to open the gates of song for all. This was one of the many contributions to Jewish life of R. Shlomo Carlebach, which his followers and those inspired by him try to emulate. But not only Shlomo: the type of synagogue created in Israel by the religious halutzim was also marked by a new kind of melody—more joyous and uplifting, without the melancholy of the Galut or the overly ornate flourishes of the old-style hazan. Such was already the style in the synagogues of Hakibbutz Hadati, in the yeshivot hesder and in B’nai Akiva, and in many ordinary neighborhood synagogues.

It should be noted that the function of the leader (Hazan, Shaliah Tzibbur, Ba’al Tefillah—each word ahs a slightly different connotation), virtuoso as he may be, is not to engage in his own personal prayer, but to lead the public and to say the prayers on behalf of the public; historically, this function was almost a technical one, hearkening back to a world in which not everyone owned a Siddur. The Shatz, who knew the text or could improvise, recites them for everybody. (We must remember that, from a historical perspective, the ubiquity and universal availability of books began practically “yesterday”: Gutenberg introduced moveable type less than six centuries ago, in 1452; the first Hebrew book was slightly later—in Italy during the 1470’s, according to scholar Mordechai Glatzer. Thus, the seminal ages of Jewish creativity—of the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Geonim, the rishonim, were all an age of manuscripts, by nature available only to the very few.)

As for public prayer itself: what is it, exactly? Is it merely a gathering in which all the individuals gather to recite their prayers on their own behalf, the Hazan serving a function only for those who are inarticulate and cannot worship for themselves? Or is it something more—namely, an act of worship by the community as a unit, analogous to the daily sacrifices in the Temple after which some say it is modeled?

I shall conclude with a beautiful passage from Rav Kook, “the Four-Part Song,” dealing with the different levels and kinds of song, and their ultimate unity:

There is one who sings the song of his soul, discovering in his soul everything—utter spiritual fulfillment.

There is one who sings the song of his people. Emerging from the private circle of his soul—not expansive enough, not yet tranquil—he strives for fierce heights, clinging to the entire community of Israel in tender love. Together with her, he sings her song, feels her anguish, delights in her hopes….

Then there is one whose soul expands until it extends beyond the border of Israel, singing the song of humanity…

Then there is one who expands even further until he unites with all of existence, with all creatures, with all worlds, singing a song unto them all.

And there is one who ascends with all these songs in unison —the song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the cosmos—resounding together, blending in harmony, circulating the sap of life, the sound of holy joy. —Rav Avraham Yitzhak Ha-Kohen Kook, Orot ha-Kodesh (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1985), Vol II: 444-445; English translation from The Essential Kabbalah, Daniel Matt (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 154


A Response to Daniel Landes’ Review of Art Green‘s Radical Judaism

There has recently been some controversy surrounding Art Green’s new book, Radical Judaism, in which he presents his theology in a systematic way, and a highly critical review thereof, by Daniel Landes of Pardes Institute, published in the newly founded journal, The Jewish Review of Books. The following is my own letter to the editor concerning that review, followed by some additional comments that did not appear in the original letter. For Landes’ review, see; for other responses to the review, see

Daniel Landes “The Secret Master” (JRB #3, Autumn 2010) is a surprisingly harsh review of one of the more interesting books on Jewish theology to have come along in recent years, Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (New Haven–London: Yale University Press, 2010). In this review, Landes accuses Green of propunding a concept of God bearing “little or no real relationship to the God of Israel.” He dwells at considerable length on his assertion that the real roots of Green’s theology are to be found in Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstuctionism, and adds that it is doomed to failure because “it is boring. … There is no actual God with whom one can have a relationship. The God of the Bible and the Rabbis [and of Hasidism, as he notes elsewhere] asks, entreats, and demands, and is saddened when His people fall short….” Green’s God, by contrast, being an abstraction, is one with whom it is impossible to have any relationship.

There is a great deal that could be said about this review, but I will focus on three central points:

Without doubt, the most radical idea in Green’s book is the identification of God with the totality of Being itself, what he calls “mystical panentheism,” with particular emphasis on the ongoing force of evolution of the universe, leading to ever new and more advanced forms. Such a God is a-personal, and as such a far cry from the God of the Bible, or for that matter from the familiar, intimate God of the Sages, and even more so of the Hasidic masters, for whom God is depicted as a personality, passionately engaged with humankind in general, and with the people of Israel in particular. The God of tradition is a God who intervenes in history to redeem His people, who reveals Himself and His Law, and whose seeming indifference during times of trials and exile is a cause for wonder and dismay, and theological pondering.

But the issue of personhood was in fact one of the central issues with which medieval Jewish thought concerned itself. With the emergence of a certain type of Greek-influenced, abstract, systematic thinking, the issue of Divine personhood became a central concern of Jewish theology. Maimonides’ entire oeuvre may be read as an attempt to reconcile an abstract notion of God, who is a perfect unity, an unmoved mover, a First Cause who is without body, without passion, without action—in brief, a Neo-Aristotelian God—with the Jewish sources. His life project, which was only partly fulfilled—mostly in Book I of the Guide and in the Introduction to Perek Helek—was to write a commentary on both Torah and Rabbinic aggadah reinterpreting the very concrete, personal language of those texts in philosophically acceptable, coherent terms, constantly stressing that all of God’s actions and passions are metaphors, not actual descriptions of what God is—and often finding himself engaging in intellectual somersaults to do so. For him, the Rabbinic aphorism, “The Torah spoke in the language of human beings,” became a central guiding principle.

In like fashion, the very different approach of Zohar and Kabbalah present a God whom one is hard put to describe in personalistic terms. While the Zohar itself is a meandering, unsystematic work—a “mystical midrash”—the various books of 14th and 15th century Spanish Kabbalah that follow, such as Gikatilla’s Sh’aarei Orah, extrapolate from the plethora of symbols and images of the Zohar a rather abstract, utterly transcendent, a-personal God, beyond the capacity of human understanding, not all that different from that of Maimonides. The central point is that personhood is less an inherent attribute of God, and more a linguistic or conceptual tool to convey some hint of the mystery of God within the limits of human comprehension.

I would submit that Green stands solidly within this tradition, with the inevitable changes in style to be expected from one steeped in the modern rather than the medieval universe of discourse. Hence his lengthy chapter devoted to a “Jewish history of God,” is not merely window-dressing for a neo-paganism, but a valid attempt to “demonstrate the indigenous roots” of his approach.

Secondly, Landes devotes considerable space to the thesis that Green’s “hidden master” is Mordecai Kaplan. Admittedly, there are some interesting parallels that could be drawn between some of Green’s formulations and those of Kaplan—as Landes in fact does. But theology, I believe, is more an art than it is an exact science, and the music may be more important than the words. Green is not only a scholar of Kabbalah and Hasidism, but a mystic, a person who has tried to translate the insights of these rather esoteric schools and, if we are to take him at his word, his own insights gained from certain highly personal experiences, into language comprehensible to his reader. In that sense, he is worlds apart from Kaplan: to Green, it is precisely the mystery and the sense of wonder that is important (in this he is very much like Heschel!), and less the conceptual formulation. Hence the use of symbolic and even mythic language is needed to convey insights that cannot be adequately conveyed in ordinary discursive language. Kaplan, by contrast, was a thorough-going rationalist, a product of American philosophical empiricism and pragmatism and of the sociological interpretation of the function of religion à la John Dewey and Emile Durkheim; his Reconstructionism was an attempt to reinvent Judaism in a modality that would suit the scientific and rationalistic mood of the first half of the twentieth century. Green came to maturity after the mid-century mark, in a rather different age, at a time when many young people were reacting to a rationalism that had ended up in Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and were busy rediscovering the non-rational component of the human heritage.

If one is seeking hidden roots, or more correctly unintended parallels, to Green’s evolutionary interest, I would suggest looking to Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit scholar and philosopher whose theology emphasized the unfolding of the cosmos (“Noosphere,” in his lexicon) in ever greater complexity as a manifestation of the Divine telos.

But beyond that, it seems to me that there is something improper in claiming to know better than the person himself who his “real” master is. Green has repeatedly declared that he felt the greatest affinity—emotionally and spiritually—towards Heschel; he certainly found little inspiration or common language with the Talmudists who were the dominant force at the Seminary in his day. Perhaps we need to define what it means to be a ”disciple” of a given person. A disciple studies with his master for a number of years, absorbs his teaching, may even serve him in a personal manner—but ultimately the student matures and becomes a teacher in his own right (see b. Sanhedrin 5a for the concept of talmid she-higi’a le-hora’ah)—certainly after his master’s death, when there is no other option (Heschel died when Green was in his early 30’s)—and may begin to develop his own path, his own way of doing things, and his own system of thought. Green is not a carbon copy of Heschel, but he shares a certain mood and sensibility (again, with adjustments for the radical difference in background between pre-WWII Europe and post-war America), and attempts to translate the core of his teacher’s message, as he sees it, for his own milieu and to his own community of fellows and students. Intellectual history is filled with examples of disciples who differ from their master, such as Freud and Jung (only in the present case without the acrimony of that pair).

Kaplan, by contrast, was never an important figure in Green’s thinking. Green studied at JTS in the 1960s, at a time when Kaplan had already left the Seminary faculty. Living in New York, he no doubt heard him speak publicly and read his books, but Kaplan did not shape his thinking; Green has never written anything significant about Kaplan’s thought but has, as Landes correctly observes, devoted a great deal of time and effort to his “three Warsaw mystics”: he has published a volume of selected translations from the Sefat Emet, with his own commentary; a similar volume on Hillel Zeitlin is forthcoming; and Heschel looms large in his writing and teaching. As for Green’s involvement in the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical Seminary: this began as an accident of propinquity (he was teaching at UPenn in Philadelphia), and Green always differed with what he refers to as the “Orthodox Reconstructionists” or Kaplanians on the faculty (all this happened, by the way, well after Kaplan’s death.)

Finally, a few words about halakhah. The author of this letter, like Landes, is a practicing Orthodox Jew; as such, I also take exception to Green’s approach to halakhah. Indeed, in this important respect his Judaism is not the same as my Judaism. I am troubled by what seems, in many circles, to be the elevation of individual autonomy to a central principle, almost an unquestioned axiom. In the case of Green, this is moderated by his recognition, somewhat late in life, of “the need for submission to God as a part of religious devotion” (Seek My Face, Speak My Name, p. 133). But the total absence of any obligatory guiding principles, a kind of religious anarchy, seems built into the very structure of Jewish Renewal, and is indeed troubling.

The question is: What is one to do with all this? Green represents a certain not uncommon type of modern Jew: one who loves the tradition, who lives his life with the rhythm of celebration of Shabbat and festivals, but who cannot accept the halakhah in a systematic way. From my own friendship with Green over a period of more than forty years,[*] I can safely say that, were he able to accept the halakhic system in a manner consistent with what he sees as his own intellectual integrity, he would do so—but he cannot. While he is of course far more erudite and articulate than them, in this respect he is representative of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of intelligent and educated Jewish laymen. The story of modern Jewish thought is not only the story of those who stand four-square within the tradition, but as much—and maybe even more so—of those who must piece together “sacred fragments” (à la Neil Gillman).

More than once Landes hints that this path is not one that contributes to Jewish survival. But it is precisely at this point that, donning the cap davka of the Orthodox rabbi, I wish to ask what I see as perhaps the most crucial question of communal policy for traditional Jews such as Landes and myself, people who pride ourselves in belonging to the more liberal, open-minded school within Orthodoxy: What kind of future do we envision? Is the future to be one of pluralism, in which there is room for a variety of opinions and even of praxis within the Jewish people? Or does the future belong to Orthodox triumphalism—a movement that seems to be gaining momentum in the Jewish world today—and the eventual division of the Jewish people into two peoples, the pietists gradually excluding the eirev rav of those who are not fully committed to halakhah? There are strident voices calling for the latter; increasingly, the tone of “official” religion in the State of Israel is determined by the Haredi leaders who are the uncrowned Rabbinic authorities to whose rulings the Chief Rabbis submit. I would like to believe that the Jewish world in which my granddaughters will live will have room for Green and his ilk.

Some Afterthoughts

1. In thinking about Landes’ critique of Green, I was reminded of a small incident that occurred eight or ten years ago, when Green gave a talk at Yakar about his own approach to Jewish spirituality; to the dilemma of the modern man who seeks a spiritual path and life, but is not prepared to jettison everything he has learned in the secular world; and about why Hasidic texts are nevertheless important to him in this quest. One of the members of the audience, a tall man in late middle age wearing a cloth hat and an Abe Lincoln style beard, whom I knew slightly as an Orthodox Jew steeped in the thought of Rav Soloveitchik, seemed puzzled. After the lecture he raised his hand and asked a question, which went something like this: If the speaker doesn’t believe in the literal revelation of the Torah and the obligation to fulfill the mitzvot, then does he believe in God, and in what sense? And why does he bother with all this Jewish religious stuff anyway—Shabbat, prayer, studying Torah texts, etc.? Art answered, with utter simplicity, in a tone verging on naivete: leit atar panuy mineh, “There is no place empty of Him.” At that moment I felt that an answer had been given, not from the position of the scholar or from that of standard Rabbinic apologetics, but from a place of utterly simple religious faith.

If there is fault to be found in Green’s writing this book, it lies in this: that, in allowing “Jewish panentheism to come out of the closet, as it were,” he has ignored the traditional advice of the mystics (and of m. Haggigah 2.1) not to discuss such matters openly, for the reason that they are bound to be misunderstood by the masses of readers or listeners. This is one meaning of the adage, leit mahshavah tefisa beih kelal, “No [human] thought can apprehend Him at all!” Mystical teaching, the mystical mind-set, is so different from the normative religious mind-set, and from that of contemporary “main-stream” Orthodoxy, in which God is conceived as King, who is Creator and Lawgiver and Judge and Redeemer; so alien, that it may be mistaken by many for a kind of atheism! This, I think, is the root of Landes’ error, and it may be that Green has opened himself to such misunderstanding by writing this book in the way that he did! (But then, as a modern man, he wears the two hats of professor-scholar-theologian, and of mystic—so he almost had to)

2. Landes makes one remark that bordered on the offensive, as well as being factually incorrect. In discussing Green’s approach to halakhah generally, and a passage in which he discuses adultery and sexual norms in particular, Landes suggests that what he wrote here was “an effort to counter the problem of sexual mischief that has arisen from time to time in the spiritual precincts of Renewal or Neo-Hasidic Judaism with which Green is well acquainted.” In formulating matters thusly, he is clearly implying that sexual misbehavior is a phenomenon found particularly in Jewish Renewal or “Neo-Hasidic Judaism.” Yet anyone with eyes to see who has followed events of recent years knows that such problems have reared their heads in Orthodox circles, in both Israel and the United States, and no doubt elsewhere, on at least half a dozen well-publicized occasions.

Specifically, I would note that the most scandalous and well-publicized sexual scandal involving Jewish New Age circles involved a man who began his career as an Orthodox rabbi. After being forced to leave a well-heeled Orthodox pulpit in Florida upon being caught in an improper relationship with a female congregant, he moved on to serve as rabbi of a West Bank settlement in Israel; only thereafter, around the turn of the millennium, did he turn to New Age Judaism; he has now reinvented himself yet again as a non-denominational New Age teacher. (A real pluralist!)

But the more important point is that sexuality is an essential part of the human condition, and as such is often problematic; whatever approach one adopts, whether puritanism, hedonism, or anywhere between these two extremes, it is bound to cause trouble for some people. One would do well to recall the comment of Rambam, that “There is no community [of Jews], at any time, in which there were not some people who were licentious in matters of arayot and forbidden intercourse. And they also said, ‘The majority [are guilty] of theft (!), the minority of arayot, and all are guilty of “dust” of evil speech.” (Issurei Biah 22.19).

3. As mentioned, in the area of halakhah, I part company with Green in significant way. I suggested that the core issue here is that of individual autonomy vs. heteronomy. I plan to return to this issue soon; meanwhile, see my two-part essay at HY XI: Bamidbar & Shavuot (=Archives– May 2010 [Aggadah]).

For my personal tribute to Green on the occasion of his 68th birthday, see HY X: Vayakhel-Pekudei (Supplemwnt) =


Blogger rbarenblat said...

Is the future to be one of pluralism, in which there is room for a variety of opinions and even of praxis within the Jewish people? Or does the future belong to Orthodox triumphalism—a movement that seems to be gaining momentum in the Jewish world today—and the eventual division of the Jewish people into two peoples, the pietists gradually excluding the eirev rav of those who are not fully committed to halakhah? There are strident voices calling for the latter; increasingly, the tone of “official” religion in the State of Israel is determined by the Haredi leaders who are the uncrowned Rabbinic authorities to whose rulings the Chief Rabbis submit. I would like to believe that the Jewish world in which my granddaughters will live will have room for Green and his ilk.

Kein yehi ratzon!

Thanks for sharing your response to Landes' review; I was also troubled by the review, and find in your response much that helps me clarify my own response.

9:48 AM  

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