Friday, October 25, 2013

Can Rabbi Art Green Save Judaism?

A few weeks ago, a study was released by the Pew Research Center, and it offered all sorts of bad news about the Jewish world. And, it also spawned a seemingly endless stream of reaction from that same Jewish world. Some see it as a sign of impending disaster. Some see it as a technically flawed study*. Some see it as a potentially interesting data point, but nothing all that new, actually.

* I can't find the link right now, but the argument was, basically, that Pew compared current data to a 10-year-old study that used extremely different methodology. Therefore, any downward trend that it claims to find is extremely suspect.

Rabbi Arthur Green had a slightly different reaction, and it will surprise no one who knows me that I find it compelling. For those who don't know, for years, and with increasing intensity in the past few years, Rabbi Green has been constructing a fairly radical vision of Judaism. It's one which I find intensely compelling and which, quite frankly, has become the single largest piece of my own religious foundation. So, I'm clearly biased when I read his reaction to Pew. But, the upshot is that he thinks that his vision of Judaism might be the answer to the challenge posed by the report.

Rabbi Green's theology, and the Judaism which flows from it, is doggedly rationalist, and it's intensely Universalist. And, Green believes that it offers a version of Judaism which could potentially speak to the millions of Jews who find that a more classic theology, and religion, no longer fits them. Essentially, he's claiming that it's no surprise that university educated Jews who are fully integrated into the Modern world aren't impressed with Judaism which is based in a supernatural God, exclusivist claims to the truth and so on. If we can just offer them something which is spiritually compelling, while at the same time 100% consonant with the world around them, maybe they'll come back.

I deeply, deeply hope that he's right. I'll admit that I doubt he is–at least to the degree to which we might really hope. Even Green admits that his new theology isn't going to completely reverse the seeming flood of Jews who are leaving Judaism. Personally, I wonder if his theology/Religion would even appeal to enough people to significantly impact the Jewish world. I'd like to think it might, but that seems incredibly optimistic.

But, ultimately, I base my religious belief and practice not on what I think will be most popular, or most effective in drawing in the masses. I base my religious belief and practice on what I find to be true and holy. And, I don't think I've ever come across anything that feels more true and holy than the God which Green describes with such passion and clarity.

Whatever you think about its potential impact on the wider Jewish world, Green's article is worth reading if only because it offers a wonderful synopsis of his outlook:
Mystical religion by its very nature shifts the focus of attention away from the positive/historical and inward toward the devotional/experiential. The question is not: “Do you believe that God created the world, and when?” but rather “Do you encounter a divine presence in the natural world around you?” and “What does that encounter call upon you to do?” We are not concerned with “Did Israel hear God’s word at Sinai, and how much of the Torah was given there?” but rather “Can you feel yourself standing before the mountain as you hear the words of Torah?” The “events” of Israel’s sacred narrative are read here as myth rather than history, but their voice is made more powerful rather than less as they call forth deep personal engagement and commitment. The God of this religion is not the commanding Other who rules over history, but rather the still, small voice from within that calls upon us to open our hearts and turn our lives toward goodness, even in the face of terrible human evil and the inexplicable reality of nature’s indifference to our individual human plight. This sort of new mystical or Neo-Hasidic piety turns toward the natural world as a source of inspiration, seeing existence itself as an object of wonder and devotion. It finds the miraculous in daily life and tends to focus its religious energy on the building and celebration of human community.
It's interesting —I was recently talking to a colleague who describes himself as completely rational, and followed that up by saying that the mere mention of anything "mystical" shuts him right down. "Mystical," to him, equals "non-rational." That certainly isn't a minority view. To most people, "mystical" means wacky New Age spirituality. Well, I'm fairly proud (arrogant?) of my own rationalist credentials, and I can't find a single thing that Art Green says which doesn't pass muster for me, in terms of his rationality. For me, Green describes a God and a Judaism which are deeply, profoundly powerful, and which challenge, but never ask me to deny, my mind.

I don't know that Green's Radical Judaism, or his radical Judaism, can really change the world, or even the Jewish world. But, it's had a heck of an impact on mine.

Check out the article, and tell me if you agree.

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