Culture, Religion

The Last of the Landes/Green Debate (Perhaps)

As we’ve posted before, R. Art Green and R. Danny Landes have been having quite an intense back-and-forth debate about theology and other things over the last few months.
To recap: Last year, R. Art Green published a book, and R. Daniel Landes wrote a critical review of it in the Jewish Review of books. Green then responded to the review, and Landes responded to the response (on the same link). Green’s next response appeared here in Jewschool, and Landes responded on his own blog.
This is rumored to be the last installment, by Green

Dear Danny,
I think we are still far from understanding each other. You just don’t get me. Identifying me with Mordecai Kaplan and Richard Rubenstein is way off the mark in terms of how I see myself or self-identify, whom I read, or my relationship with either God or tradition. Kaplan was never an influence on me; I came to JTS the year after he retired and never had the privilege of studying with him. I read Heschel’s God in Search of Man for the first time when I was fifteen, and fell in love. I tried Kaplan a bit later, but found him dry and boring, too prosaic, too American and pragmatist, not the soaring spirit I needed. I did indeed try to align my neo-Heschelian mysticism with aspects of Kaplan’s legacy during my RRC years. That attempt did not succeed very well; just ask the Kaplanians. Yes, of course I share some concerns with Kaplan and greatly respect his honesty in raising them, but our framework for responding to them is quite different. We both want to respond out of the most contemporary and profound understanding of religion. But for him that is the rationalism of Dewey and Durkheim. For me it is the phenomenology and post-critical religiosity of Otto, Eliade, and Peter Berger.
Along with most of the intellectually-oriented JTS students at the time, I was excited when Rubenstein published After Auschwitz in 1966. He had dared to say what many of us were thinking. But I soon realized that his net result was the demise of traditional Judaism, reducing it to nothing more than a psychological tool. My move toward a neo-Hasidic reading of tradition was precisely a response to Rubenstein, not an alliance with him. I needed a Judaism that expressed a spiritual truth, not just religion serving as a crutch with which to get through this absurd life.
It took me many years to say out loud that I am a mystic. In Jewish circles it sounds a bit like proclaiming oneself a tsaddik, which is the farthest thing from my mind. But it is true that as a thinker and as a religious personality, it is only the mystical tradition that has saved Judaism for me. Scholem quotes R. Pinhas of Korzec as thanking God that He created him after the Zohar was revealed, “because the Zohar kept me a Jew.” That is true for me too, regarding both the Zohar and the teachings of the Hasidic masters themselves.
I would love to be able to explain this to you, but find it subtle and difficult. Please, this is not because I underestimate your intellect, but because I have discovered through long experience that there are lots of people, including some very bright ones, who just don’t get it. That is precisely the meaning, I believe, of the cryptic Mishnaic phrase hakham u-mevin mi-da’ato. You need some personal experience of these matters in order to grasp ma’aseh merkavah, or any other mystical teaching. (The Hasidic masters indeed abandoned this sort of elitism, with mixed results. But that’s another story.)
Still, I’m going to try. It has much to do with the fluid borders between “in” and “up,” or between “self” and “Other.” The mystic understands intuitively that there is a point in the inward journey where the individual self, the ego, if you like, is transcended, set aside, obliterated, or whatever (the variations depend on such factors as which mystic, which religion, and which moment). Then a presence, previously impenetrable (hence: “the transcendent”) floods one and alone exists. This may happen to a Maimonidean in the course of progressively shedding attributes and anthropomorphisms in contemplating the divine, as it may happen to a Geronese Kabbalist in the prayerful act of hashavat kol ha-devarim le-havayyatan. For the ba’al ha-Zohar this fading of the individual self seems to have sometimes taken place in the course of ecstatic infatuation with erotic symbolism. In HaBaD Hasidism it took the form of more abstract contemplative language, the realization that sovev and memalei are really one, which is to say that the distinct between “inside” and “outside” disappears. But you get there, of course, by going in, by opening the mind to a deeper (or “higher”) rung of consciousness than that on which ordinary rationality operates. That is the key to the whole thing: realizing that there are multiple inner rungs of mind, and that religious insight comes from a different mental “place” than does the mind with which we usually think. In that sense I understand “Sinai” as a vertical metaphor for an internal event. Indeed, I recall Heschel pleading that: “Torah min ha-Shamayim is not a geographical statement!” (But that is precisely why this writing is so awkward; it is of necessity a translation of such insight, coming from a mental realm beyond ordinary language, into a linguistic tool that belongs to another reality.)
Now let me go in a different direction. I don’t think I said anything in the book about my yihus. On my father’s side, I come from two generations of confirmed atheists. My grandparents, who came to America in 1906, had already rebelled against their own Hasidic upbringing. When I decided to go to Rabbinical School, I got a letter from Grandma Green, which I have saved. Written in her night-school English, it goes like this: “Dear Arthur: I hear you still want to be a rabbi. I would be prouder of you if you would be a teacher and teach people things that are true because if there was a God in the sky he would be shot down by sputnik already.”
I have kept this fine lady in mind over the decades and have tried not to believe in any God who could be shot down by Sputnik, or by grandma. That has meant that the usual depiction of the transcendent One as “residing” somewhere “on the far side of the universe” is gone for me. Yes, I recognize that this puts me at odds with most pre-modern popular Judaism, including lots of Hasidism. But it does not mean that there is no transcendence, only that subtlety must always be maintained when talking about it, that it is not for naught that the Kabbalists called it only Eyn Sof. Yes, most of them described the emergence of the sefirot, constituting the divine persona, as originating from God, not from us, though this question is discussed by later pre-Lurianic Kabbalists, and again in Hasidism, just how much is mi-tsad ha-mekabbelim, etc. There are some points of opening to the notion that the personal God is a projection, though these are quite rare.
I did not mean to give the impression in my book that I think any other sort of theology is “childish.” I have indeed combed the text to try to see where you got that impression. True, I say of my own post-adolescent rebellion that “the pillars of naïve faith had given way” and that I became “a non-believer in the God of my childhood (p. 3).” But that was a personal statement, surely not meant to paint others. Later (p. 71) I say that most modern Jews knew nothing of either the RaMBaM or the Kabbalists, and “what dominated instead was a Judaism of rather simplistic rabbinic faith…most modern Jews thought of God in rather naïve and childlike terms.” I’m afraid this is simply true, my friend, whether we like it or not.
I indeed recognize the possibility and legitimacy of a mature theism, that of a Buber or a Heschel, for example. Especially in the post-Holocaust era (though perhaps always, says the author of Job), it has to live at the knifepoint of confrontation with theodicy. That is not a place I am able to live. I need a theological vision that gives me more room to love and appreciate life and its gifts. No, panentheism does not fully resolve theodicy, but it gives me more room to breathe. If God controls history and a claim is made for personal providence, I will find myself back screaming with young Wiesel (more than Rubenstein) and the post-Holocaust Yiddish poets I love so well.
I usually try hard not to get into polemical battles with modern (pardon the word) Orthodox friends and colleagues, because I have great sympathy for the difficult balancing act of your position, especially given the fierceness of attack from the religious right. But I do find it hard to understand the integrity behind the non-Haredi Orthodox mindset. Somehow I think most of that camp do want to hold onto, or at least pretend to hold onto, a “geographical” sense of min ha-shamayim. This goes with a literalism about revelation, even while knowing, with the university education we all share, that Biblical criticism can’t be dismissed. You accuse me of “exchanging…the focus narratives of Genesis and Exodus for…evolution.” It is not I who have done that; our civilization has. In fact I’m spending all my time these days on reading and translating Hasidic Torah commentaries. But I know that I don’t take any of it as historical truth, and don’t need to pretend otherwise. In order to talk to people outside our narrow circle of lovers of these ancient tales, I do indeed have to find some kedushah in the much more widely shared narrative of evolution. I’m not a bit ashamed of that.
Here I need to tell you a story about a truly transformative experience in my life, one of those moments when my mission became clear. It was about 1970; I was just a few years out of JTS, but making a name as a young rabbi teaching the mystical tradition. Fordham University had “a day of spiritual teaching” and invited me to come. Among the speakers was Swami Sattchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga. Most of the young people in the audience were his disciples, wearing distinctive white robes. I gave a talk about standing before Sinai as inner hearing, being ever-present to the Word, or something like that. Afterwards, a young man in the Swami’s outfit raised his hand and said: “But is that really Judaism? Isn’t Judaism about how God is up the sky with a book open, writing down all the good and bad things you do, and preparing to reward or punish you?” I gave the kid a nice pastoral answer, assuming he was a victim of some Long Island Hebrew School. Afterwards he came up to me quietly and said: “I just want you to know that I quit Torah ve-Da’as a year before semikhah.”
That moment cleansed me of any residual feeling I might have had about not being a “real” Jewish teacher because I hadn’t come from the yeshiva world. Here was higher Jewish education, so-called, and that’s what they were still giving out. And I was looking not so much at him, but at the fifty or more other Jews among the hundred in the Swami’s uniform, asking: “Who will speak to them?” As I said, a formative moment…Much of my life – both in my writing and in the sorts of rabbis I hope to train – has been in response to that young man and the others around him.
From my point of view, I think there is no need to carry this conversation onward. Your challenge has been a stimulating one, though I did take some offense at your tone. Much more significant is the fact that together we have caused a lot of people to do some real thinking. I delight in that collaborative effort and hope you do as well.
Bi-Verakhah, Art

13 thoughts on “The Last of the Landes/Green Debate (Perhaps)

  1. Just out of curiosity, how many of you have studied, are studying or are interested in studying chassidic texts? By “studied”, I mean in the traditional chavrusah fashion, with someone who knows more than you. Although, if you reach for Likutei Amarim to help resolve your spiritual dilemmas, without any prior instruction, all the more power to you.

  2. @ML Good point. YWN is much pithier.
    @victor “of you” does this refer to the current comment providers or are you hinting at some vague unknown collective that may or may not be reading this post?
    I have not studied Tanya, nor have I studied it in ChevruTah. I have learned with a small group chevruta-style in which most knew more than I, but we did not study Sichos or anything of that nature.

  3. @SG and ML
    “I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God.” —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik

  4. @SL Neither said anything even remotely pointed. An expression of boredom, short or long, over a topic is not Loshon Hara, nor is ML’s mildly snarky response.
    Green’s explanation is interesting. I would rather have a mystic teaching my kids at Hebrew school than Geveret Steinberg. I’d rather they get less history and more inspiration. More meaning.

  5. @Victor: I”m not sure whom your question is aimed at, but if it is at JS contributors, I can assure you that I’ve spent every Friday for the last 7 years studying various Chasidic works for three-four hours (Before that, I was studying full time, with an against my will immersion in chasidut and kabbalism – on top of my regular studies) with a rav who grew up Lubavitch (but isn’t currently. He has published about 26 books on chasidut and an assortment of other things, though. We don’t do Tanya).
    I’m currently studying Noam Elimelech, whom I find interesting, although I don’t really like the chasidic personality oriented chasidut (I far prefer the Prysucher dynasty who approaches things less as “Do as I do to find God,” and more as “let me help you find out how you should do” It will probably surprise no one to read that I consider myself a Kotsker, since the old grouch -I say that lovingly- was a whip for truth above all). I started rabbinical school calling myself a Maimonidean (NOT a mystic) but within two days the (then) assistant dean told me I was a chasid, even if I didn’t know it yet.
    Although I spent a lot of effort denying it, chasidut seems to keep walking around my feet rubbing against my ankles, and every time I try to take a step away, I trip over it – then it walks up and bats me on the nose with a fuzzy paw. Sometimes the claws are out a little.
    Because of that, I have some sympathy for Green, but I have to say – not a lot. I think that whole crowd likes to make things too easy. Mysticism shouldn’t be easy; it should be hard, and people should run away from it as fast as they can. The ones who run are the only ones I trust, because they aren’t really, deep down, trying to be swami-gurus who love adulation more than truth.
    There, will that do?

  6. Damn it, KRG, this is what you should be writing about, not your stupid little irrelevant twitches about Israel. You’re like one who could drill pearls and polish gems but works at mopping the floor. Try, please.

  7. @Victor: Oh, Victor, You’re so charming. A girl could just faint. I’m not sure that anyone would be particularly interested in my memoirs….
    BTW, my uncle was a diamond setter – it’s not all that glamorous. Plus, if I don’t wash the floors, they get pretty gross.

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