Culture, Identity, Politics, Religion

Pardes/Hebrew College Theology Throwdown

(Full disclosure – I’m currently a student in a joint Pardes/Hebrew College MA program)
So, R’ Daniel Landes, Pardes Rosh Yeshiva, published this review of R’ Art Green’s new book, Radical Judaism. I’m not going to excerpt it, because you should just go read the whole thing.
Here’s a leaked response from R’ Green:
To the editor:
Rabbi Daniel Landes’ da’ mah she-tashiv (“Know what to answer the heretic”) approach to my Radical Judaism, protecting innocents from “the dangers lurking in the rhetoric that Green and like-minded thinkers employ,” represents a theological bankruptcy lurking in traditional Jewish circles. The forces of religion fought two great battles in the twentieth century, one against evolution and the other, taken more seriously by Jews, against Biblical criticism. It lost them both, quite decisively. These defeats, plus the Holocaust, are real parts of the baggage that any intellectually honest Jewish theology must confront. My book is an attempt to create a viable Judaism in the face of those realities. Landes may choose to live in a closed circle that pretends these uncomfortable facts do not exist, continuing to play by the old theological rules. For Jews living outside those circles, such an approach does not work. He should know; many of his students are among them.
Who is the “God of Israel” Landes is so proud to champion? The God of Numbers 31, telling Moses to slaughter the Midianites? The “compassionate Father” of our rabbinic prayers? Would Landes accept the God of Maimonides’ Guide as “the God of Israel?” Or the God of the Zohar? The longest single chapter of my book is precisely about the evolution of our understanding of God, a process that has never ended. Landes passes over the obvious evolution and variety of Jewish views of God as though they did not exist. But a freezing of theological thought in the face of contemporary challenges is precisely what we do not need. It is just as threatening to living Judaism as is the freezing of halakhah.
Indeed Mordecai Kaplan understood that much of Judaism’s vigor lay in its ability to grow and evolve. But so did Rav Kook, whose theological writing has always attracted me more than Kaplan’s. I am amused that Landes finds Kaplan to be my “hidden master” at this late point in my career. Where was he when I could have used him to shore up my Kaplanian credentials? While Kaplan’s style may at times be trying, to dismiss his theology as simply “boring” is beneath the dignity of response. Kaplan at least tells you openly and honestly what he means by “God.” I respect this and try to do the same. In some areas the divergence between us may be more in affect than in substance. But in matters of the heart that makes all the difference.
The nasty attack on Jewish Renewal is also unworthy of Landes. He picks out my comment on the seventh commandment (I say clearly that I am reading the ten as a guide for teachers) to remind his readers of the sexual misdeeds of some leaders in that movement. I suggest he beware of calling the kettle black. I have not seen that the high fences of halakhah have been terribly successful of late at helping some Orthodox teachers to defeat temptation, either sexual or financial.
The high point of my annoyance is Landes’ claim that I offer “no doctrine of ahavat Yisrael.” This book is written entirely in the spirit of love for both Judaism and Jews. Why else would I make the effort? Landes is unhappy that I admit openly my deep alienation from “the narrowly and triumphally religious” within our community. Honesty can sting. My claim to be “a religious Jew but a secular Zionist” is also intentionally distorted for polemical purposes. I meant simply that I remain committed to the vision of a Jewish and democratic state (There – I have signed my loyalty oath!) while according it no messianic significance. Has that gotten too hard to understand?
Landes lines up with the late Sam Dresner and others in expressing an overweaning fear of anything that smacks of pantheism, celebrating God within nature, or an underlying sense of universal religiosity. But it is precisely this sort of religion that I believe humanity most urgently needs in this century, when our collective survival as a species is so threatened. I am here to teach a Jewish version of it, one relying deeply on our own sources and bearing our values, but without making an exclusive truth claim for Judaism. I rejoice that the deepest religious truths are known to men and women of many cultures, clothed in the garments of both east and west. See Malachai 1:11.
Mostly I am saddened and disappointed that Landes reads me this way. He is, after all, the director of Pardes Institute. Surely that worthy institution was so-named by its founders for the association of “pardes” with the multiple ways in which Jewish sources can be read and interpreted. It has claimed for decades to champion intellectual pluralism under the cloak of behavioral conformity. Heresy hunting does not befit its leader.
Arthur Green

8 thoughts on “Pardes/Hebrew College Theology Throwdown

  1. So, having read Green’s book, I think his biggest failing is his teleological understanding of evolution. This idea, of the evolution of the God idea, is really the fulcrum of his work. It is also why Landes sees this work as overly optimistic. The funny thing is, Green doesn’t need teleological evolution, just change over time expressing the ever shifting diversity of the unity. With that tweak I would submit that Green’s theology can be a compelling framework for the post-modern Jew.
    Other than that, Green’s critique of Landes is spot on. Landes (and orthodoxy in general) do not have plausible theologies that can deal with the destruction of our childlike visions of God as the big man upstairs. Green is working to create a viable, believable, post-modern theology, and for that he should be commended. Take a look at his books, both this new one and “Seek My Face.” You will not be disapointed.

  2. I agree with CoA’s statement that Green’s respones is spot on but I want to suggest a larger problem which undermines the intellectual/spiritual pursuit at hand here.
    The biggest problem with Landes critique is that he wrote the review. The fact that he is both Orthodox and the RY of Pardes offers too much fuel for writing off his critiques. If someone like Steven Kepnes or Peter Ochs had written the review or even someone like Rachel Shabbat Beit-Halachmi or even Aryeh Cohen, you would have heard 80% of the same critique. The fact is, Green’s “post-modern” God lacks the personal element that many people across the spectrum of Judaism desire.
    I will also add that I think posing this as a pardes/hebrew college throwdown misses the boat. Lets bring some sanity back into the conversation for a moment. It’s not a throwdown, its a theological discussion. If there isn’t theological debate in the Jewish world we might as well throw away the Talmud (and the Bible if we hold by Yisrael Knohl – who is awesome).

    1. jladi writes:
      The fact is, Green’s “post-modern” God lacks the personal element that many people across the spectrum of Judaism desire.
      But the open admission (even by Landes) that God is what we desire it to be is the most postmodern of all!

  3. From the review:
    “Green admits, ‘(partly in sadness!) that it no longer suffices for me to limit my sense of spiritual fellowship to those who fall within the ethnic boundaries that history has given us.’ He is, indeed, prepared to say:
    ‘I have more in common with seekers and strugglers of other faiths than I do with either the narrowly and triumphally religious as the secular and materialistic elements within my own community.'”
    So Green and I are “disturbing” because we feel more affinity with Rumi and Kierkegaard than with Bernie Madoff and Baruch Goldstein? I find the logic of the reviewer’s position (ethnicity trumps spiritual consciousness) to be what’s disturbing. Holiness is a matter of soulcraft, not accident of birth.

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