Radical Judaism

Tonight I went to a lecture by Rabbi Arthur Green, professor and rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and author of Radical Judaism. As soon as I got home, I typed up everything I could remember. I post it here:

During the twentieth century, traditional religion fought and lost two great battles against modernity. These were the battles against Darwinism and against Biblical criticism. These battles are over, and what we are left with is a level of consciousness that has to confront the radical awareness that God is not there. But if this is Emet, there is also Emet L’Amito, and that is the even deeper level of consciousness that says that nonetheless, God is there. How do we live with and make sense of that double consciousness, in light of the strides made by both evolution and Biblical criticism?

Evolution takes us to the subject of creation, which was the focus of medieval theology and the theology of the Zohar. But throughout the past hundred years, Jews have been primarily concerned with providence (is God there?) and authority (why listen to Him?). We moderns must realize that creation is every bit as essential to our theology, if not more. We speak often of Nachshon ben Aminadav, the first Israelite to jump into the Red Sea — but what about the first organism to come out of the sea, and try to make its life on land? Evolution is the greatest sacred drama of all time. The question we must ask ourselves is what do religious people have to offer to this drama? As religious people, we understand that creation is the ongoing inbuilt desire in God to reveal itself to its many forms. Creation is the push towards greater diversity and greater complexity. Greater diversity means greater beauty, and greater complexity means greater consciousness. This greater consciousness pushes towards beings who are ever more aware of God. This notion of God is both immanent and transcendent, but its transcendence is a part of its immanence. We access the transcendent God when we realize that God is present in every moment in such a profound way that we will never be able to grasp it. Transcendence is thus the elusiveness of immanence.

We must strive to access a God that is both immanent and transcendent so that we can be partners in creation. Heschel spoke of being partners in creation, but when we say this today we speak with much more urgency. To be partners in creation is to take responsibility for the future of the planet. We live in an age of great environmental responsibility. We will need to change human behavior in massive ways, making drastic transitions in our lifestyle if we want to ensure the future of humanity. We would like to think that in another 100,000 years, the human beings of the future will be as ashamed at the terribly misguided decisions that we have made as we are ashamed of our chimpanzee ancestors.

In terms of Biblical criticism, we must recognize that yes, the Torah is human; but yes, the Torah is divine. The first question that God asks man in the Bible is Ayeka, where are you. This is the same divine voice that continues to call out to us. But it calls out in a language beyond words; it is we who create the words. The Torah that preceded creation contained nothing other than the name of God, Yud Hey Vav Hey, which is just vowels, just aspirated breath from a time before language existed. It is we who add the consonants. God spoke the first two commandments, Ehyeh and Lo Yihyeh (both plays on the divine name), and then Moshe translated the rest. This process of translating the divine call into words is a sacred process, which is why Torah is sacred. At the same time, though, we must remember Heschel’s answer to the question: Is the prophet an active partner in prophecy, or is he an empty vessel for the divine voice? Heschel answered the former. But if so, then the prophet is fallible, and is shaped by the constraints and conventions of his age. Prophecy (i.e. Torah) is a partly human creation, with all the limitations of any human creation. Sometimes we have to object to it, because it is antithetical to the values of our own age, which are ever-evolving. We must remember that it is we human beings who brought God into language, but that in bringing God into language, we ourselves were transformed. This is the Sfat Emet’s midrash on
את ה’ האמרת היום…וה’ האמירך היום
At Sinai human beings spoke God into words. And so yes, I believe in the covenant at Sinai, even though I believe that it was our idea. Sinai is essential language for me; it is a key element of my spiritual life, and of our spiritual language as Jews, regardless of whether or not it happened historically. We must not forget that when Moses took blood and dashed it on the people in Exodus 24, he was not doing so because God had told him to. This blood covenant was Moses’ invention for the sake of binding the people to God. And so the human impulse to create ritual is encoded in our divinely inspired human text.

The subject of ritual brings me to the subject of Mitzvah. A Mitzvah is a man-made opportunity for encountering the divine. Davening with tefillin is a reminder to stop for a moment in our fast-paced cyber-wired lives to listen to the call of Ayeka. Tefillin, like Shabbat, is a sign and reminder to heed the divine call. Unfortunately, we sometimes get so involved in doing the reminders that we forget what it is that we are supposed to remember. The rabbis thought that if they told us to say one hundred brachot every day, they would ensure that we live each day with a consciousness of God. But Jews are smart. They found a way of forgetting God even with one hundred blessings. They became so obsessed with counting the blessings that they forgot Who it is they are meant to be blessing.

Of course, Judaism is not the only response to the divine. All religions are human creations in response to the divine call. Is Judaism better than all the others? I wouldn’t say that. But I consider it a privilege to be born into a small religion that has such a great tradition, and I want to be part of developing and updating that tradition. I believe that Jews have some specific things to say that no other tradition says as well. Shabbat is one of the great gifts of Judaism to humanity. I’d love to be able to give it to the world, if I could first give it to the Jews again. And then there is the notion of being created in the image of God, one of the most important ideas that Judaism has to offer. Who would have thought that having a Jewish state would call this fundamental religious notion so much into question? We Jews have not done a good job of spreading the notion of Tzelem Elokim in the last 65years. This is not a political lecture, but given our track record, it will be very hard to convince the world that Tzelem Elokim is a fundamental idea of our tradition.

You ask me how to know which mitzvot to follow, and how to find a Jewish practice that works for you. To this I say: Learn a lot, try a lot of experiments, and take responsibility for your own Neshama. Theology is an art, not a science. We religious people have nothing we can prove, but proving and disproving is not a chessboard I am interested in playing on. I believe that religion takes place in the realm of the imagination, that realm which allows us to open our minds to music and poetry and to deeper levels of reality. Our job is to bring evolution and science to that realm of poetry. To do so we must silence ourselves to hear the Ayeka, and seek out ever richer and more vibrant language in which to translate the divine call into the language of human beings.

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