Still Singing at Sinai

April 1, 2014
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In a conversation with Rabbi Arthur Green a number of years ago, he remarked that our religious views differed by only a couple of inches. He and I both understood the textual reference; he was referring to the distance separating the upper and lower chasms according to the Talmud — or, in other words, the distance between heaven and hell. Green is a panentheist, holding a worldview that subscribes to the notion that God is in everything. I subscribe to agnosticism, a materialist worldview that doubts if God exists in anything, or in any form. Rather than seeking a relationship with the enigmatic divine, I derive my world of meaning from text and poetry, as well as from celebration, family, and friendships. The difference between us is akin to what Green focuses on in his essay — namely, the notion of spirituality. I laud Green for making spirituality a valid self-definition for many Jews, but, as a textual scholar, Green may share some of my dismay that many who self-define as spiritual are not cognizant of the textual fount from which their spiritualism springs forth.

This is perhaps apparent in what Green identifies as a main weakness of his — the danger of superficiality: “Perhaps the greatest challenge to such an approach is the question: ‘Is it serious?’ … Or is their alleged spirituality perhaps just another personal experience they wish to taste, somewhat lightly, thank you, as part of their endless quest for self-indulgence…?’”

My question is: Why dismiss the Judaism that is tried and tested and that has endured for centuries? Why exchange that Judaism for an untested approach that locates the sacred in a personal encounter with an amorphous divine rather than in our rich and varied textual tradition?

As a traditional Jew who has embraced both Charles Darwin and Julius Wellhausen, I find it troubling that, according to Green, “…traditional religion decisively lost both of these battles.” Green dismisses a traditional Judaism that is non-Darwinian, that sees the Exodus as historic (rather than mythic), and that feels anchored by halakhah (Jewish law) and texts. Yet, as Green freely admits, his neo-Hasidism has no anchor of this sort (his substitutes, such as a commitment to preserve the natural world, are laudable, but they do not serve the same anchoring function).

Traditional Judaism is coherent, vibrant, and expanding (in terms of sheer numbers). At a time when assimilation and secularism are on the rise, the growth of this sector can’t be attributed simply to birthrate. Rather, we also attribute its growth to the hold of authentic and enduring Jewish texts and traditions. Although biblical criticism (my own bread and butter) has challenged the historicity of most of the Torah, and science has successfully disputed the notion that the world is 6,000 years old, traditional Jews who believe in the Torah’s veracity are not self-delusional. Rather, they exercise a selective blindness, something we all “suffer” from. To live a halakhically prescribed Judaism in the modern world reflects a preference for an internal coherence of a worldview built upon explicit expectations, established authorities, and an extraordinary wealth of literature and poetry. Perhaps the foundational ideas don’t accord with modern science, but what does that matter, so long as it provides communities and individuals with a meaningful structure by which to live their lives? Green’s Neo-Hassidism “suffers” from selective blindness, too; it prefers “encountering a divine presence in the natural world” to deriving meaning and practice from texts and traditions. To me, this is a rather large oversight in relation to a religion that has been primarily textual for upward of 2,000 years.

As a (Mordecai) Kaplanian, I see Green’s Judaism as valid (though I am skeptical that it can function as a blueprint for the future). But I do not think it supersedes halakhic Judaism or any other type of Judaism — my own included — in the face of modernity. In my own Jewish practice, I do not stand at Sinai; I define myself in relation to Sinai. Like the popular atheist writer Alain de Botton, I consciously emphasize the elements of Jewish law and tradition that I find compelling, and I interpret our tradition through humanist values. I have written humanist liturgy informed by the great agnostic poets Hayim Nahman Bialik, Yehuda Amichai, and Avraham Ben-Yitzchak, always striving with the Bible and rabbinic literature, but focusing on the human condition. I am an apikores (a heretic) in the learned tradition of Ecclesiastes, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Baruch Spinoza. I am a scholar well-informed about Jewish texts, yet constantly doubting. I have my place in traditional Judaism, a place with which I am content, and it is not a spiritual place. My sense of transcendence is the aesthetic pleasure I derive from reading a sublime poem with layers of meaning and allusion, chanting from the Torah with a scythe-like precision, watching the sun setting over the ocean, or feeling intense love for my child. As Amichai, Israel’s poet laureate, once wrote in “The Jews”:

“And what about God? Once we sang ‘There is no God like ours,’ now we sing, ‘There is no God of ours.’ But we sing. We still sing.”

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Tzemah Yoreh, a resident at CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning, earned his doctorate in Bible from the Hebrew University in 2004. His books include The First Book of God and The Humanist Prayer Omnibus.

1 Comment

  1. What is the difference between self-delusion and selective blindness? (I’m not saying that we don’t all do it…)

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