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January 08, 1988 - Image 88

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-01-08

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90 FRIDAY, JANUARY 8, 1988

Unorthodox Rabbi Leads
Movement To New Age



ew York — At first
glance, the recent in-
auguration of Rabbi
Arthur Green as president of
the Reconstructionist Rab-
binical College might seem
like a study in Jewish irony.
Reconstructionism, after
all, is the Jewish religious
trend that most prides itself
on its rationalist, modernist
foundations. Green, on the
other hand, is described in
the rabbinical college's of-
ficial biography as "a scholar
in the field of mysticism and
Reconstructionists practice
an eclectic brand of Judaism
shaped by the rationalist
teachings of the late
Mordecai Kaplan, author of
such classics as Judaism as a
Civilization and Judaism
Without Supernaturalism.
Green, 46, who joined the
Philadelphia seminary as
dean in 1980, is the author of
numerous books and articles
whose titles are filled with
words like "spirituality" and
"mysticism." His best-known
work is the landmark study of
an enigmatic Chasidic rebbe,
Tormented Master: A Life of
Rabbi Nahman of Bratslay.
How, then, did Art Green
come to Reconstructionism —
and Reconstructionism to Art
The conflict, Green ven-
tured cautiously, is more ap-
parent than real. He saw true
Reconstructionism as "a com-
mitment to an ongoing • pro-
cess where we openly re-
examine all the basic ques-
tions. We Reconstructionists
are Jews with more questions
than answers."
Warming up to the topic —
he conceded he is more com-
fortable talking about ideas
than about himself — Green
continued: "Contemporary
Judaism has to define itself
from the ground up. What is
God? What is revelation?
What are we doing here?
Beginning from the ground
up. That's keeping faith with
Kaplan, even if the answers
we reach are different from
Kaplan's 1930s-style ra-
tionalism, Green said, was
essentially a product of its
time, a response to the
modern world. But moder-
nism is not what it used to be.
"Have you heard anyone
say he was an atheist lately?
I haven't. The people I talk to
say things like, 'I don't know
what you mean by God.'

There's a new kind of
spiritual vocabulary that's
become current in the last 20
years, that was quite alien to
Kaplan," Green noted.
He speaks with a good deal
of authority when he
discusses American Jewry's
post-1960s spiritual flux. As
the person who in 1968
established the very first
"New Age" chavurah —
Chavurat Shalom of Boston —
Green is as likely a candidate
as anyone for the title of
founder of the Jewish
"I was a newly ordained
rabbi from the (Conservative)
Jewish Theological
Seminary," he recalled. "I was
a graduate student, kind of
living on the economic
margins with a fellowship at
Brandeis (University). Chav-

"I'm convinced
vegetarianism is
the right kashrut
for our age."

urat Shalom was a kind of
full-time job for which I didn't
get paid — teaching, running
the place, meeting people,
fostering a community.
In 1973, faced with the im-
pending completion of his
Ph.D. and the need to feed a
young family, Green left his
little community and moved
to Philadelphia, where he
joined the faculty of the
University of Pennsylvania.
Then, in 1980, came the call
from the 12-year-old
Reconstructionist college in
the Philadelphia suburbs. He
jumped at it.
"It gave me the chance to
return to a small community,"
he said. "It's an opportunity
to have another round in my
life with the issue of combin-
ing community and Jewish
The twin themes of learn-
ing and community have
been Green's passion since
childhood. "I read (Conser-
vative theologian Abraham
Joshua) Heschel cover-to-
cover at age 14 or 15," Green
said. "It was the most impor-
tant reading I'd ever done. It
was a major inspiration. At
age 16 I started reading
(Israel mystical novelist
Shmuel Yosef) Agnon in
Hebrew and fell in love. I
became a romantic Zionist.
When I was in college, I
started reading Chasidic
sources and fell in love with
them. It was a spiritual and

intellectual love of the
Although he is careful to
distinguish between studying
the mystics and being one, a
bit of probing reveals that his
passion is more than scholar-
ly. Take his hobby, for
"I'm a glass collector," he
said. "I've always been a col-
lector — stamps as a child,
Hebrew books — but the ma-
jor collection of my life is ear-
ly glass oil-lighting lamps
from the whaling era.
"The combination of glass
and light — it has a relation-
ship, I guess, to my mystical
side. You take sand and blow
it up, and make beautiful
glass things out of it. Then,
when the light passes
through it, it takes on new
life. Imagine it — it's alchemy
that works. It's probably the
mystic in me!"

spiritual bent comes out as
well in his Jewish observance.
Showing his Conservative
roots, he continues to observe
the Sabbath and keep kosher
— but with a twist.
"I'm becoming convinced
that vegetarianism is the
right kashrut for our age," he
said. "I think halachah
(Jewish law) tries to
discourage the eating of meat
by drawing fences around it.
I would like to see the
Reconstructionist movement
considering vegetarianism as
a form of kashrut for today."
As to whether the move-
ment is ready to accept such
new ideas, Green appeared
confident. "Reconstruc-
tionism is changing," Green
said, "and I am part of the
process of change."
In some ways, the
Reconstructionist movement
Green joined in 1980 was in
a process of being reborn.
Originally meant by Kaplan
as a call for Jews to rise above
sectarian divisions, Recon-
structionism had found itself
stuck for years in a role that
some ironically called "the
fourth of Judaism's three
After three decades of
struggling to establish itself,
the movement had some
10,000 members — compared
to about a million each for Or-
thodoxy, Conservatism and
Reform. The founding of the
college in 1968, however,
created a revolution: It began
turning out a cadre of young
leaders committed to
Reconstructionist ideology.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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