A. Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name, Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson: 1992, xxv + 267 pages. *

 

This sensitive book is an extended meditation on the Tetragrammaton set within one of the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Throughout, those who know Green can hear him speaking while, at the same time, they can hear strong echoes of the kabbalah, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Mordecai Kaplan, and the field of the history of religions. In a classic division, Green writes about God, creation, revelation, and redemption.

In the section on God, Green teaches that all language is metaphor yet we need some language (42). He then develops the polarities of sovev and memale (God embraces yet fills all reality), being and becoming (God is both, not just being), lover-spouse and father-king (with emphasis on the former as a more fruitful set of metaphors given the post-holocaust and pro-feminist nature of the current human situation), and male and female (God is both, not just male) (8-9, 19, 39-41). He also develops fully the metaphors of personhood, divine image, and face (25-35): "A Jewish path to oneness can only be one that leads through human intimacy" (27). The goal is to overcome all dualities and language in order to experience oneness (42). Life must be lived in faithfulness to such moments (43).

In the section on creation, Green teaches that evolution is the new story of creation. It is a religious drama similar to the birth of the universe as envisioned in mystical Judaism (54, 61, 71, 93). According to the kabbalah, God Godself evolves through a process of hiding / veiling / garbing called tsimtsum (63-5); the same is true of the physical universe. It follows that "[t]he immortal and eternal seeks to be known by its opposite, the mortal and temporal ... In order to be God's `other,' we have to be all that the eternal One is not: transitory, corporeal, mortal" (66). Thus, "[c]ontemplation ... is an act of nursing at the divine breast" (62). Green goes on to list the first five commandments as they follow from his theology: be aware of the divine presence; treat every human being as an embodiment of the divine image; observe the Sabbath as a testimony to creation; `work and guard' the garden of creation that has been given us, including the possibility of vegetarianism rooted not in ascetic practice but in life-affirmation; and be caring toward others even when that involves pain and suffering (78-94).

In the section on revelation, Green teaches that "the One-become-word in the human mind" (101) is a process in which the divine and human voices are intertwined (103). Revelation reveals only the possibility of revelation; it is we who give form to the divine voice; revelation is not an event but an ongoing process (113-7, 119, 126, 147). Sinai is the symbol, the first Jewish attempt to embody the divine word (112, 124). God does not command, except in a subjective sense (128); nonetheless, submission to the divine is a religious virtue (132). Green also confronts the issue of chosenness head on: it is we, not God, who chose (120-2, 133).

In the final section on redemption, Green teaches that redemption is a teshuva, a returning home (157-63, 170). But it is also an act which saves (redeems) God (177). Jewish tradition contains a "chaos of messianic dreams" which have as their subliminal teaching that one should not take the details too seriously. The messiah is the symbol of our hopes, but the messianic process does not culminate in one person. Rather, the messiah comes at the end of the messianic process, not at the beginning; i.e., it is we who bring about the messianic age: "Rather than messiah redeeming us, we redeem messiah" (187). The messianic vision must be universalized to include all humanity and, indeed, the planet itself (182-7).

And then there are the miscellaneous insights: that the second tablets lasted longer than the first because humans were involved in preparing them (173), that the calls of the shofar signal the move from wholeness to brokenness to deep fragmentation and back to wholeness (174), and that the separation of life from knowledge led to the separation of good from evil (163).

Throughout, Green has accomplished three enormous tasks: First, he has been able to echo strongly the tradition of kabbalah-Heschel-Buber: that God is ineffable yet we must use some language; that we must live faithfully to the moments of our experience of God; that God's self-limitation is essential to understanding God and the evolution of the universe; that revelation is a receiving but also a refracting and transmitting of the divine energy; that messianism is a gathering of the divine sparks available to all; and that Shekhinah (the female aspect of God) is in exile with us and in need of redemption together with the messiah and all of creation. At the same time, Green has been able to echo strongly the tradition of Kaplan and the history of religions: that women's images of God must be respected; that evolution is our story of creation; that actions which "feel compellingly right" are sanctified in each age and become the "will" of God as well as an expression of our spiritual selves (88); the narratizing of insight by story-myth; biocentrism; that a new halakha can only come from a new aggada; that revelation is not an event but a process in which the life-force of the universe manifests itself; that personalist language about God is projection (120); that chosennes is of us, not of God; that God does not command specific mitsvot; that the messiah is a symbol; that home includes the earth; and that only universal messianism makes sense. To hear these two traditions woven into a whole is both exciting and spiritually uplifting.

Second, Green has been able to show that many problems that seem new are really old problems with solutions evolved centuries ago: the limits of personalist language when used of God, the emanationist-evolutionary view of God's self-generation and creation, that the text is a product of human effort (115-6 on the maximalists and the minimalists), and that the modern rebellion against waiting for the messiah was prefigured by the kabbalists.

Third, Green has managed to be learned without being imposing (the footnotes are veiled from the reader), poetic and evocative without being maudlin, and modern and late medieval without being confused. On the whole, Green has given us a spiritual (kabbalistic) reading of a very modern (process) theology, contradictory though that may seem.

My problems with Green's theology are five: [1] Green keeps returning to oneness and to union as the ultimate experience, religiously and personally. I am not sure I agree. I'm not sure we ever achieve oneness or union with another human being, much less with God. We achieve acceptance; we attain approval -- in greater or lesser degrees. The more we give, the more we receive; and vica versa; but we do not merge with the O/other. [2] Green favors mystical language over personalist language, taking the latter as secondary, as (necessary) projection. Again, I am not sure I agree. God reveals Godself both in the language of holiness and in the language of human personality. The latter is at least as important as the former; maybe moreso as it is more readily comprehensible. I know that this move contradicts the accumulated philosophical and kabbalistic tradition, but personalist language is not chiefly projection (though it is also that); it is primary theological language. Green needs, therefore, to wrestle with God in more directly personalist terms.

[3] Green has bracketed the holocaust as a theological topic. He admits that it undermines the centrality of the doctrine of providence, but more needs to be said. [4] Green, in his modernity, does not accept chosenness. Scandalous as that teaching has always been, it is central to Jewish self-understanding as Kaplan and the Reconstructionist movement found out. Why cannot chosenness be part of tsimtsum, i.e., why cannot God's choosing of the Jews be part of God's contraction into reality? It would not seem a difficult move. Finally [5], the insights about the limitation of language and the contact with the infinite as the core of religion were available to the medievals too. Why did they not reach the same modernist conclusions as Green? True, autonomy was not a positive value in their heteronomous and patriarchal society. True too, there probably would have been social consequences had they reached such conclusions. Yet I think the real reason was that the originating events of creation, revelation, and redemption were qualitatively (or at least, quantitatively) different from the analogous events in their own religious lives. Creation was discontinuous with evolution, no matter how subtlely conceived; revelation was discontinuous with creativity and prophecy, no matter how sophisticated the theory; and redemption was discontinuous with religious praxis, no matter how involved the praxis. For the pre-moderns, the primary events of religious consciousness were different, special. Green's theology loses this difference, though perhaps he gains more in other areas.

Still, when one forces oneself to ask, what do I believe, one must come very close to Green. When one confronts oneself and asks, what am I willing to affirm, one must take Green's neo-kabbalistic modernism very seriously. This is the achievement of this book and it will remain a challenge to sensitive and intellectual religious souls for a long time.

 

* Appeared in Modern Theology, 9:2 (April: 1993) 223-25.

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