Art Green in Utah

During the second day of the “Why Be Jewish?” conference, Art Green taught several passages from the Sefat Emet and tried to chart out a modern Jewish spiritualism that borrows from mystical sources.

Perhaps the best part of the session was Green’s sharing of his personal religious journey. Born into a fiercely secular family, Green became observant in high school before going to Brandeis University. During Green’s first year at Brandeis he was influenced by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who was serving his first and only year as a Hillel rabbi and the pre-Renewal, still-Lubavitch Zalman Schachter, who Yitz brought in to speak.

Eventually, however, Green abandoned his newfound frumkeit, but later he discovered: “I was no longer a believer, but I was still a religious person.”

When he decided to go to rabbinical school, Green’s secular grandmother sent him a letter, with the following message: “I heard you still want to be a rabbi. I’d be prouder of you if you were a teacher and taught people things that were true.”

Green went on to talk about how we was introduced to Hasidism by A.J. Heschel. Amazingly, at the time, the Jewish Theological Seminary was still so much under the spell of German rationalism that Heschel was only allowed to teach Hasidism if he did it on his own time.

And while Green is very much a student of Hasidic spirituality, this conflict resonates for him too. “The continuum from Orthodox to Reform never interested me,” he said. “But the continuum from maskil to hasid is very important to me.” Indeed, Green was particularly articulate about the challenge of living a Jewish spiritual life while embracing critical scholarship, which historicizes religion and reveals its social construction.

Green’s modern spirituality is based on mystical traditions that see God in the self and the natural world. “I’m a pretty frank pantheist or panantheist,” he said.

He also noted a major challenge for contemporary neo-Hasidism.

“Hasidism originally existed within the constraints of halakha, which allowed it to be theologically radical.” Neo-Hasidism exists, to a certain extent, outside the realm of strict Jewish law. So what are its restraints?


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