Who is Art Green and what is so radical about all of this?” whispered the woman in the audience at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
She was among a group of people listening to three rabbis discuss Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (2010).
“Art Green” is neo-hasidist Rabbi Arthur Green, a prominent Jewish spiritual thinker and scholar of Hasidism. And while his book may contain what to scholars is a major departure from traditional concepts, the lay people in attendance perhaps recognized his humanist ideas as already familiar (see sidebar).
What might have been radical to some of the 60 people in attendance was that they represented three different denominations of Jews learning together. The discussion was led by area rabbis Francine Roston of the Conservative Congregation Beth El in South Orange, Matthew Gewirtz of the Reform Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, and Elliott Tepperman of the Reconstructionist Bnai Keshet in Montclair.
The last two have studied with Green, a Newark native and former dean and president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and all three were inspired independently by the book last summer and referred to it in their High Holy Day sermons.
The three rabbis regularly study together. Green’s book, said Roston, “ended up inspiring each of us in different ways.” That led them to offer adult education courses on the book at their respective congregations and to include one session that would bring all three congregations together in a single space.
Their comments at the March 3 event elicited the sometimes nuanced and sometimes wide differences among their movements.
“One part of why this is so compelling is that this actually presents the God I believe in,” said Tepperman, as the three offered their personal takes on Green’s philosophy.
Gewirtz was equally effusive. “To really get the religious moment, to really get that we are part of this huge system called God, we have to be willing to become vulnerable,” said Gewirtz. “We have to be willing to be quiet. We have to be willing to be non-judgmental, we have to be willing…to be present in the experience.”
But Roston, the Conservative rabbi, was less embracing of the full message.
While she acknowledged that Green’s perspective was “uplifting” because he offers a theory that speaks to “our desire for a resolution between science and faith,” she also said, “My trouble is, God, according to Rabbi Green, is all immanence” — that is, is revealed in aspects of the material world. “There’s no vertical metaphor. I want to hear God calling.”
The three quickly became enmeshed in a conversation about Roston’s “trouble” that reflected the comfort level that comes from their frequent interaction.
The rabbis also offered different takes on being commanded — and who is doing the commanding.
Tepperman, the Reconstructionist, said he feels commanded by community and tradition, but not by God.
Gewirtz, the Reform rabbi, spoke of a movement that encourages the practice of the mitzvot but does not consider them binding.
And Roston, whose movement considers itself “halachic,” or based on Jewish law, embraced the idea that with regard to mitzvot, Conservative Jews inevitably prioritize their observance of commandments.
“There are the ones we are performing, and the ones we are not yet performing but should be performing,” she said, pointing out that in not performing them, they consider themselves to be sinning.
While the rabbis offered different perspectives, they said they hoped the class would offer a place to come together in exploration of certain questions.
“The questions and challenges posed by this book are relevant for the future of Judaism,” said Tepperman after the event, “and feel like the core questions of what it means to be Jewish in this real world of multiple and shifting identities.”
Roston added, “I took away from the session a sense of excitement that we share common questions and quests with our fellow Jews.”
So did many audience members.
“We don’t often talk to each other on a religious level,” said Phyllis Sorkin of Livingston, a member of B’nai Jeshurun. “We see each other socially sometimes, but not in a religious way. I think we get hung up on law — whether we keep kosher or not, and whether there’s a lot of Hebrew in the siddur or not. I think it’s not often that we talk about God, which we did tonight, and there was a wholeness and a oneness to that discussion about God, which was really good.”
She added, “There was community here, and that was really important.”