Art Green at CCAR: Theology as Personal Story

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Art Green spoke this morning at the CCAR, which was (along with being in Boston and seeing classmates) the biggest draw for me. I’ve been studying his works–both his theological works and his books on chasidut–since I was in college.

He started by pointing out the delicacy of speaking as someone outside the movement, which reminded me of Heschel’s speech to the CCAR in the 1950s. While that speech was not particularly well received, I would argue that this one was something of a no-brainer. As Green himself pointed out, the Jewish people has decided that there is something worth learning about from Chasidic and Kabbalistic sources, We no longer live in a day where people speak of ‘mainstream’ Judaism in order to define it strictly as ethical monotheism nor to exclude the more ecstatic or metaphorical elements of the tradition.

For Green, the question is not whether there is something of value in the mystical tradition—the question is how to do it carefully and creatively…And he spoke of the need for rabbis to have a theological stance: what is your unique window into Judaism that you can share with laypeople? And the Need to have personal piety, which is not a common phenomenon in our congregants lives…
Jewish life mostly orbit around life-cycle. Rabbis are expected to meet Jews in such moments with empathy, Rabbi must be seen as genuine: indeed professionalism can be seen as slick.We must find nourishment otherwise the well will run quickly dry.

These words could have been delivered by my teacher Rick Sarason, who often spoke of the importance of developing text skills and a relationship with the tradition that would inure us against burnout. And as Green articulated, cultivating the spiritual life is a survival skill.

I won’t recap the whole speech: much of it you’ll find in his books, especially “Radical Judaism”, though it’s worth reflecting on his closing words. He emphasized the idea that Personal theology requires the PERSON: we give God the greatest gift we know how to give, our HUMANITY.
Then he quoted both the Apter Rebbe and his descendant, Abraham Joshua Heschel. First the Apter: What does God ask of you? (Mah=45, 45=Adam). What does God ask of you? To be a person. A Mensch? Or to be the image of Man from Ezekiel.

Then, Heschel: Why is the Torah obsessed with graven images? God DOES have an image—US. You cannot make God’s image, you can only BE God’s image.

Gratitude is the beginning of religious consciousness. Then, to activate the source of divinity within ourselves. Discovering that generosity of spirit is our natural state of being. There is a way of giving back to the one who gives us life. We receive and we give back. Kol Haneshamah tehallel ya: all breath returns to thank and give praise. God looks into us and finds a mirror: divinity reflected back, offered by each of us in our own way. Each of us brings back our own portrait of the king. We are the image of God because we contain a font of divinity.