DATE December 13, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
Interview: Arthur Green discusses the Jewish mystical tradition of
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Kabbalah has been in the news because several celebrities have been
studying this tradition of Jewish mysticism. Some scholars have mixed
feelings about the Kabbalah's new popularity, saying that pop Kabbalah doesn't
accurately represent the depth and complexity of this tradition. We invited a
scholar who has been studying Kabbalah for over 40 years. Arthur Green is
dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School--he's on leave from his position
as a professor of Jewish thought at Brandeis University--and is former
president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He's the author of
several books about Jewish mysticism. The latest are "Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for
Tomorrow" and "A Guide to the Zohar." The Zohar is the medieval compendium of
Jewish mystical texts.
Green writes, `Kabbalah teaches that there is a secret unity of being hidden
within the multiplicity and diversity of life.' I asked him to introduce us
0000 Professor ARTHUR GREEN: Kabbalah is the ancient Jewish mystical doctrine. It's a kind of theosophy or a kind of mystical way of understanding the structure of the universe. Kabbalah first emerges in writings around the 12th century, and the great literature of Kabbalah was created in the centuries after that. It's a way of seeing the universe completely in the structure of God. The Kabbalists are rather traditional Jews in practice, but their theology is quite radical. They
believe that God is the underlying structure of being. Scratch the surface of the world, and you will discover the deep inner structure which is God, so that God underlies in his presence in all things. It is that kind of, you might call it, theosophical mysticism or mystical contemplation of the nature of being. That is the essence of Kabbalah.
55 GROSS: AND THAT IDEA THAT SCRATCH THE SURFACE OF ANYTHING AND IT REVEALS GOD IS ALSO CONNECTED TO THE KABBALISTIC UNDERSTANDING OF CREATION.
Prof. GREEN: That's right. The relationship between God and the world, you
see, is not the relationship of creator and creature, the way it generally is
seen in Western religion, but rather is the relationship of surface appearance
and deep structure. So you--and so God flows into being, God flows into the
world. So, therefore, if you uncover the surface appearance of all things,
whether it's the world or `the tradition,' the Torah, by the way, you will
discover that inner underlying presence of God.
135 GROSS: ISN'T THERE A KABBALISTIC STORY ABOUT CREATION BEING BASICALLY A
VESSEL THAT'S CRACKED OPEN?
Prof. GREEN: What you're thinking of is the story of the breaking of the
vessels. When the divine light was sent into the world, when the divine
energy radiated into physical being, it was so bright, that physical being
couldn't stand it. So the vessels in which the divine light was sent forth
broke upon entering the atmosphere, we would say in our terms, and shattered
into a thousand pieces. And then the light of God came to be scattered
through the world in the form of sparks. We have to redeem those sparks; we
have to uncover the sparks, which are hidden by the shards of the broken
vessels. But those sparks are likely to be found everywhere. The point is
you never know where a spark of divine light is to be found. So you work your
way through life by uncovering the shards and lifting up the sparks and
bringing them back to their source.
232 GROSS: NOW I THINK STUDYING KABBALAH WAS SUPPOSED TO BE RESERVED FOR MEN, MARRIED MEN, EDUCATED MEN OVER 40. WHY?
Prof. GREEN: Well, it certainly was. Kabbalah, you have to understand, was a
kind of elite science, and in the Middle Ages it was seen as a science. And
the idea that Kabbalah study was dangerous was well known already in ancient
times. The Talmud tells a frightening story, for example, of a young boy who
studied--who meditated on the first chapter of Ezekiel, which is the great
vision of the divine carriage, which becomes then the basis of a lot of
Kabbalistic thought. And a thunderbolt came out of heaven and struck him,
which means, of course, that he went mad or became deranged somehow. There is
something about abstract contemplation of the nature of being, the nature of
God. For people who take it very seriously and aren't emotionally mature
enough to handle it, that can be dangerous.
So the idea that you're married, that you have studied the Talmud already,
which is a very grounded, legal-type, earthbound study, these things hold you
down enough so that you'll be able to enter flights of imagination and flights
of fancy and not be carried away, not be destroyed.
Women were, indeed, excluded from it because the Jewish religious language was
largely shared among men who had access to education that women didn't have in
premodern times. But there's a popular form of Kabbalah known as Hasidism,
which has its roots in a revival movement in the 18th century. And Hasidism
was quite controversial in its day because it sought to give the secrets of
Kabbalah to ordinary, unlettered people. The great rabbis of the day opposed
it, but ultimately Hasidism won that victory.
419 GROSS: NOW WASN'T THERE ALSO A PROHIBITION AGAINST STUDYING KABBALAH BECAUSE OF THE EROTIC IMAGERY IN IT?
Prof. GREEN: Well, that was part of the idea, yes. You see, you want to talk
to human beings about intimacy. How do we understand intimacy? What's the
language of intimacy that we know best? How do you say God is closer to you
than your own heart? You talk about the relationships of men and women. You
talk about human intimacy. That's what we know. But I think that Judaism
became, especially in the Middle Ages, a bit afraid of that erotic imagery.
The imagery of Eros didn't come into the prayer book, for example. In the
prayer book, which most Jews know, God is regularly described as father and
king but almost never as lover. It took the Kabbalists to bring the language
of lover and spouse back into the vocabulary of Judaism, and when they did so,
it was in an esoteric context. You didn't say that to everybody because
people might misunderstand it. There was always a fear of cheapening, that
somebody would degrade the relationship with God by getting a cheap kick out
of it. And so they were careful not to spread that kind of language to too
531 GROSS: I HOPE IT DOESN'T SOUND LIKE I'M ASKING YOU THIS TO GET A CHEAP
Prof. GREEN: I'm sure not.
GROSS: ...WHAT IS AN EXAMPLE OF THE EROTIC LANGUAGE THAT IS USED IN THE
Prof. GREEN: Oh, there is a wide variety. The elements of God in the Zohar
contain both male and female, and she has to be aroused from her slumber in
order to be ready to be united with her spouse. And the faithful of Israel,
as they pray through the Shekinah, through this feminine presence, stir the
waters within her to arouse her, so that she awakens her lover, and he becomes
aroused to come to her and enter her in perfect union. And then all the
worlds flow together, and the divine bounty comes down into this world through
the union of male and female, which is described in completely sexual terms,
in coital terms: `He enters her and brings the blessings of divine grace to
her' and so on. You couldn't imagine more fully erotic language, though
always, of course, very much in a sacred context.
By the way, the Kabbalists who use this erotic language, at the same time, are
quite extreme in their prohibitions around sexual behavior among human beings.
Even within the Jewish tradition, they tended to take the most extremely
aesthetic views while their spiritual life or spiritual fantasy life was
filled with erotic imagery. It's a very interesting paradox.
706 GROSS: NOW HOW DOES THIS, YOU KNOW, KABBALISTIC VIEW OF THE MALE AND THE FEMALE AFFECT THE MORE EARTHLY UNDERSTANDING OF, LIKE, MEN AND WOMEN'S, YOU KNOW, GENDER ROLES? 'CAUSE, LIKE, YOU MENTIONED HASIDISM EARLIER AS BEING A KIND OF--AN APPROACH TO KABBALAH AND MYSTICISM. BUT IN THE HASIDIC WORLD, TODAY ANYWAYS, ROLE MODELS FOR MEN AND WOMEN ARE VERY, VERY TIGHTLY DEFINED.
Prof. GREEN: Yes. All of Kabbalah was created within a traditional Jewish
society primarily in the Near East, by the way, where the role of women was
very much subservient. And it was created primarily by men and for the
religious imaginations of men. Women generally did not read the Kabbalistic
texts. However, the Kabbalist has an obligation, not only a Jewish legal
obligation but a spiritual obligation, to enter into the active union with his
wife in a holy way. And that act, which they did ideally on Friday night,
which was the time of the holy Sabbath when the cosmic forces also
united--that act was a kind of earthly re-enactment of something going on in
the divine sphere, and, therefore, the act of physical union becomes an act of
spiritual union as well.
Were the women ever told this? Were the women full participants in this, or
was this just something in the minds of their husbands? We have rare
documentation about that. There's one text I treasure very much from the city
of Sphatt(ph), of Safad, in Israel in the 16th century, which says that on
Friday afternoons as the Sabbath began, men and women, husbands and wives,
would go together into the ritual bath to prepare themselves, so that their
minds would be dedicated to the same place, and they would, therefore, bring
forth holy souls in their active union. That's a rare example, I would say,
of a sense that men and women were part of this enterprise together, but that
is more the exception than the rule, to be sure, in classical Jewish practice.
As people are rediscovering this material today, of course, one of the first
questions you ask is: Now that women are studying this material alongside men
and together with men, how will the nature of the symbolism have to change and
evolve? And I'm sure it will.
929 GROSS: MY GUEST IS ARTHUR GREEN. HE'S DEAN OF THE HEBREW COLLEGE RABBINICAL SCHOOL AND AUTHOR OF SEVERAL BOOKS ABOUT KABBALAH, THE TRADITION OF JEWISH MYSTICISM. WE'LL TALK MORE AFTER A BREAK. THIS IS FRESH AIR.
940 (Soundbite of music)
1011 GROSS: MY GUEST IS ARTHUR GREEN. HE'S DEAN OF THE HEBREW COLLEGE RABBINICAL SCHOOL AND AUTHOR OF SEVERAL BOOKS ABOUT KABBALAH, THE TRADITION OF JEWISH MYSTICISM.
1020 WHY DO YOU THINK THAT JUDAISM IS SUCH A KIND OF BOOK-ORIENTED OR SCHOLARLY ORIENTED RELIGION?
Prof. GREEN: It has been that way for a very long time. It was actually the
Muslims who first referred to the Jews as `the people of the book,' and
they were very accurate in that description. Judaism, remember, is a religion
that says, `The Word of God, the presence of God, comes to us in the form of
word, comes to us in the Torah.' In Christianity, the Word becomes flesh in
the person of Jesus. In Judaism, the Word remains word, and therefore
involvement with God is involvement with language, involvement with words.
Remember, we are the people who have a mythology that God created the world
through speaking. Other ancient peoples talked about how the gods copulated
and created the world or God took dust and created the world. In the legend
of Genesis, God said, `Let there be light, and there was light.'
Words are infinitely important in the Jewish spiritual mentality, and I think
that has everything to do with such diverse outcomes as the nature of Kabbalah
and the psyche of modern Jews, who are very much, even if alienated from
tradition--very often people of words, people who are close to plays with
language and deeper understandings of language. That's very typical of what
you might call Jewish mentality.
1150 GROSS: THERE ARE MANY WAYS IN WHICH THE KABBALAH'S IMAGERY AND ITS
COMPREHENSION OF LIFE AND GOD IS DIFFERENT FROM THE HEBREW BIBLE'S, THE OLD TESTAMENT. LET'S LOOK AT SOME OF THOSE WAYS. YOU MENTIONED THAT--THE IDEA OF GOD CREATING THE HEAVEN AND EARTH IN SEVEN DAYS, AS DESCRIBED IN THE BIBLE, IS NOT SOMETHING THAT THE KABBALISTS BELIEVE. THE KABBALISTIC LITERATURE ALSO TALKS ABOUT ANGELS AND DEMONS STRUGGLING. WHAT ARE THOSE STORIES LIKE, AND WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?
Prof. GREEN: Well, please understand the Kabbalist would never say that he
doesn't believe in God creating the world in seven days. Of course he
believes it, but you have to understand it in a deeper way. The seven days
stand for something. The seven days represent here seven aspects of the
divine self, and each of them is manifest in a certain energy of God. And
those energies are each referred to as a day; therefore, the temporal language
of seven days really is symbolic of something that transcends time and is a
reflection of the inner nature of the Godhead. You see, there is never a
rejection of the prior tradition. There is, rather, a reinterpretation and
adapting of the prior tradition.
But the Kabbalists are very much concerned with what I will call levels of
consciousness. That's really the key to understanding Kabbalah. The mind has
many levels of consciousness that can be present at once. And you need to
move from one level of mind to a deeper one and then to yet a deeper one
beyond that. One of those would be called by the Kabbalists the world of the
angels. Now they portray these worlds in vertical terms. They say, `It's
our physical world. There's a world above it, which is the world of the
angels. There's a world beyond that, which is the world in which the presence
of God dwells.'
But I have come to understand all of that vertical language, what I call the
vertical metaphor in religion--God lives up there in the heavens, and we live
down here on Earth--I've come to understand all of that vertical language as
better interpreted internally. You're really not talking about a journey up.
You're talking about a journey inward, into deeper levels of the mind. So as
you enter into a certain deeper level of mind, you feel what I would call a
sense of angelic presence. You sense the glory. You, as it were, hear the
angelic chorus singing `Holy, holy, holy' to God, which is the essential act
of the angels proclaiming divine holiness. And it's really a way of talking
about opening up deeper levels of mind to religious perception, and that, in
some sense, is what the Kabbalistic enterprise is all about.
1445 GROSS: NOW...
Prof. GREEN: Am I being too metaphysical here? Am I going too far?
GROSS: WELL, I THINK THAT WOULD BE HARD TO AVOID, WOULDN'T THAT BE?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: HAVE TO BE METAPHYSICAL WHEN TALKING ABOUT A MYSTICAL PRACTICE.
Prof. GREEN: Please tell me if you think I'm being too abstract for the
listener or taking this to...
GROSS: WELL, LET ME...
Prof. GREEN: ...too high a level, then tell me.
GROSS: NO, LET ME SAY SOMETHING HERE. I THINK, YOU KNOW, IT'S SUCH A VERY
KIND OF A METAPHORIC AND SCHOLARLY AND HISTORICAL SUBJECT, THE SUBJECT OF
KABBALAH, THE JEWISH APPROACH TO MYSTICISM, AND YET IT'S BECOME A KIND OF
POPULARIZED ALMOST SELF-HELP APPROACH FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE NOW. I MEAN, WE READ ABOUT IT IN ALL THE, YOU KNOW, PEOPLE MAGAZINE KIND OF PLACES ABOUT, YOU KNOW, MADONNA. BARBRA STREISAND--I DON'T KNOW IF SHE STILL IS BUT WAS STUDYING KABBALAH. YOU KNOW, OTHER CELEBRITIES--I THINK ELIZABETH TAYLOR. SO, YOU KNOW, IT'S HARD TO KIND OF FIGURE OUT FROM WHAT YOU'RE SAYING WHAT MAKES THIS, LIKE, THE POP RELIGION OF THE MOMENT.
Prof. GREEN: (Laughs) Yes, it's hard for me to understand sometimes...
GROSS: OR THE POP PRACTICE OF THE MOMENT, YEAH.
Prof. GREEN: It's hard for me to understand it sometimes, too, Terry. I
marvel at it because most of the people involved in this pop practice have
little idea of what Kabbalah is really about and have little appreciation of
the profundity of it. I'm afraid the word Kabbalah has become a popular word,
and it's used by people who want to market a kind of self-help and
self-appreciation kind of approach to life with a thin veneer of Kabbalistic
language over it and also using what I consider some of the less attractive
aspects of the Kabbalistic tradition; that is to say a certain amount of
belief in the power of holy men, the power of blessings, the power of holy
That, to me, has--that's always accompanied the Kabbalistic tradition, but I
consider that to be the more trivial or superficial form of Kabbalah. And
it's precisely the kind of thing that moderns shouldn't be attracted to and
that thinking modern people would be turned away from. And it's that very
aspect of Kabbalah--belief in holy men, touching holy books, saying--reciting
holy letters, even though you don't understand them--it's that kind of thing
that has been marketed as a kind of pop approach to Kabbalah. And I think it
has detracted from the serious adventure of entering into Kabbalah for those
who are ready to make the deeper commitment. I don't think it's been helpful.
GROSS: Now let me...
Prof. GREEN: It's very hard to know because, on the one hand, I fully agree
that I want to make this tradition more accessible to people. It has been
kept too inaccessible and too hidden away. In some ways, you understand, when
Jews entered the modern world about 200 years ago, they were embarrassed by
the mystical tradition and sought to turn aside from it. They said, `That's
not mainstream Judaism.' Now people are trying to reclaim it for the
mainstream, and that's very positive. The question of how to reclaim it and
make it accessible without watering it down and making it trivial is, really,
the question before us.
1751 GROSS: WHEN I INTERVIEWED MADONNA, SOMETHING THAT WE GOT A LOT OF REACTION TO, IT--I HAD ASKED HER IF SHE HAD OR HAD PLANNED TO CONVERT TO JUDAISM, NOW THAT SHE'S STUDYING KABBALAH. AND SHE SAID, `OH, NO.' AND SHE DOESN'TâSHE SAID SHE DIDN'T SEE KABBALAH AS NECESSARILY RELATED TO THE JEWISH RELIGION; THAT IT EXISTED INDEPENDENT OF THAT. AND I WAS WONDERING YOUR REACTION TO THAT...
Prof. GREEN: Well...
GROSS: ...THAT SHE SAW IT MORE AS A KIND OF GENERAL PHILOSOPHY THAN AS A PART OF JEWISH RELIGION.
Prof. GREEN: ...she's not completely wrong, I have to say. Though Kabbalah
was created completely within Judaism, there has been serious interest in
Kabbalah on the part of Christians for something like 400 years. Already in
the 16th century, people were having Kabbalistic books translated into Latin,
so that non-Jews could study them. And the whole Western occultist tradition,
that which is known as theosophy and the kinds of things that you find at
occult bookstores--Madame Blavatsky's "Theosophical Society"--and so on--all
of that is based on a partial knowledge of Kabbalah. So there have been
non-Jews interested in Kabbalah for a very long time, and in some ways,
Madonna is within that tradition. And you can't deny the legitimacy of that.
That's all right. Kabbalah is a kind of philosophy that should be accessible
to non-Jews as well as Jews.
The problem is that the symbolic language of Kabbalah cannot really be
appreciated unless you know the forms of Judaism. And I would say unless you
are an insider to those forms, you can't really understand what the language
of the Kabbalistic secrets is if you're not privy to the inner language of
Judaism. So I think...
1937 GROSS: WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT KABBALISTIC SECRETS, WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
Prof. GREEN: The Kabbalistic way of saying that everything we encounter,
whether in nature or in Scripture, is a way to come into the presence of God.
You can find the presence of God everywhere if you can somehow unlock the
puzzle of what it means to encounter that which is before you.
2008 GROSS: ARTHUR GREEN IS THE DEAN OF THE HEBREW COLLEGE RABBINICAL SCHOOL. HIS BOOKS INCLUDE "A GUIDE TO THE ZOHAR" AND "EHYEH: A KABBALAH FOR TOMORROW." HE'LL BE BACK IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE SHOW. I'M TERRY GROSS, AND THIS IS FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Coming up, more on the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah and why,
in Judaism, God is unnameable. We continue our conversation with theologian
Arthur Green. Also, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Tom Wolfe's new
novel, "I Am Charlotte Simmons."
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Arthur Green. He's the
author of several books about the tradition of Jewish mysticism known as
cabala. His latest books are "Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow" and "A Guide
to the Zohar." "The Zohar" is the medieval compendium of mystical Jewish
texts. Green is dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School and is on leave
from his position as Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University.
One of the beliefs in Judaism is that God's name is unknowable or unsayable.
Prof. GREEN: Yes.
GROSS: How is it said as a substitute for what you can't say?
Prof. GREEN: Well, there are several ways of saying that, 'cause there are
substitutes of substitutes. The name of--the four-letter name of God, the
Hebrew letters (Hebrew spoken), we're not supposed to pronounce. We really
don't know how they are pronounced. They are mistransliterated as Jehovah.
That's the name of God that comes in English, but that's...
GROSS: Or Yahweh?
Prof. GREEN: That's just a misreading. Yes. But exactly how that name was
originally pronounced, we don't know. And the tradition says that only the
high priest, as he entered into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement,
was allowed to pronounce that name aloud. And when he pronounced that name,
all the people in the courtyard would fall on their faces, because they were
so moved by hearing the great name of God.
So we don't know what that name is supposed to sound like. We substitute for
it the word Adonai, which means `My Lord,' in prayer. When we use the name of
God in prayer, we don't really say the name of God, the four-letter name, we
say `Adonai,' `my Lord,' instead of it. But in conversation, we're not even
supposed to say that. So pious Jews says `Hashem.' They just say, `the
name.' `Blessed is God, the name.' And you are supposed to then meditate on
the name, think of the name as you say that circumlocution for it.
The idea is, of course, that the name of God is somehow the essence of God.
If you understand the name, you will understand what God is. Those four
letters, by the way, those four letters, (Hebrew spoken), the name of God,
really come from the verb `to be.' They're a kind of impossible configuration
of the verb `to be.' It's as though the name of God were really saying, `is,
was, will be' all at once. It's past, present and future all at once. And it
means something like, `That which transcends time, that which is, was and will
be all in the same moment.' That's really what the mysterious name of God
means in Hebrew, and the Bible already knows that. The Bible already
understands the name that way.
GROSS: You know, as you've been describing, in the cabalistic vision,
everything is God. Everything in the universe is a manifestation of God. And
then, of course, the obvious question is: Well, if everything's a
manifestation of God, how do you account for evil, or is there no evil or--so
let me ask you that impossible question which you couldn't possibly answer,
but maybe you can begin to say something about how cabalistic thought handles
Prof. GREEN: If I resolve the problem of evil for you, then we will have an,
GROSS: We got a few minutes.
Prof. GREEN: ...successful conversation.
GROSS: Give it a shot.
Prof. GREEN: Well, let's--in talking about evil from the point of view of
cabala, first, let me distinguish two things. Evil is not the same as
tragedy. There are things that happen in this world: disease, natural
disasters, accidents, terrible things that happen to people, which are very
sad but are not evil. Some people think the problem of evil is about `Why do
the innocent get cancer?' or `Why do children die of starvation?' Children
dying of starvation might be evil if there are people who have excesses of
food, like us Americans, and don't share it with them. That you might call
But evil is a human act. Evil involves human malice. Human malice, human
flagrant disregard for the needs of others, lack of caring, wickedness, that's
what I call evil. And evil only exists within the human realm. I don't know
evil in nature. Evil exists within the human realm. The question is: If we
human beings are, indeed, the image of God, which our tradition says, and we
contain the divine soul within us, how do we become evil? Why is the
possibility of evil there in human beings?
Now you have to understand that I am a modern person. And though I'm very
much a student of cabala and attracted to cabala, I also believe, for example,
in evolution. So I turn the question of evil toward the evolution of species
and say, `Why did it have to be that we had to evolve in a struggle that was
so much dog-eat-dog, there was so much competition among species, that was so
aggressively patterned? Why did it have to be that we, in order to stand
today on top of the mound of evolutionary--the evolutionary mound of corpses
where all the species that weren't as smart or weren't as beautiful have died
out and other species came to replace them? Why did evolution have to happen
in that aggressive, competitive way?' That's what I don't understand. If I
blame God for some aspect of evil, I think it's for that aspect of human
nature, for the aggression and the violence that we discover inside human
Now where does that aggression and violence come from? From my point of view,
it comes mostly from our fears and the defenses we build up around ourselves,
because we are frightened in this world. In the language of those defenses
often externalized, we accuse other people of being our enemies, of being
dangerous, of being out to get us. And then we kind of build fortresses
against them. Some of those fortresses contain stereotypes and reasons for
hating them, so we hate them because they're Jews or because they're black or
because they're gay or because they're different or because they're something
else. And we then turn all our potential for human bitterness against them.
GROSS: Well, what--I don't know if the cabalists have an answer for this, but
if--you know, I mean, the cabalists believe that God is in everything, you
know, beneath the surface you will find God...
Prof. GREEN: Yes.
GROSS: ...in everything and every--in everything. So...
Prof. GREEN: Even in the soul of the greatest sinner, by the way.
GROSS: OK, but it's--but the premise of this mystical belief is that it's
hidden, and it takes a lot of discipline and prayer and study and
understanding and years and years and years to see this hidden manifestation
of God that is beneath the surface of everything. So, I mean, another
question would be: Why does it need to be so hidden? How would cabalists
Prof. GREEN: There were two Hasidic masters who were asked, `What does it
mean to be a Hasid? What's the real work of Hasidism' One of them said, `A
Hasid is a person who understands that all is God, all is God. That's the
essence of Hasidism. That's the essential teaching, everything else is
commentary.' Another one was asked, `What does it mean to be a Hasid?' He
said, `To work on yourself. Working on yourself is what it's all about.' Now
if you can ask the question: If all is God, what's the work? Why isn't this
just sort of a Timothy Leary tune in, turn on, drop out? Why do you have to
work at it? What's the struggle?
All is God, but it's all hidden, and it's all hidden, because people aren't
prepared for the great light that is contained in that insight that all is
God. We are meant to live in this world. We're meant to remain creatures of
this world, to do--to live in the body, to produce new generations, to raise
children, to teach, to pass on a tradition. In order to do those things, we
have to sustain ourselves and, therefore, work in the world and earn money in
order to put bread on the table. All those kinds of things require us to be
very earthly creatures, and we couldn't do that if we saw the great light
that's contained in `all is God.' We wouldn't stay here. We would climb the
mountaintop, perhaps, and go there. We would retreat into a kind of lost
place of ecstasy, and that's not what we're supposed to do in the world. We
are wanted to be in this world and to continue life, and therefore, it has to
be kept hidden, and yet it has to be revealed for those of us who seek it with
all our energies.
One of the Hasidic masters says that God has done us the favor of making the
divine presence absolutely invisible to us until we turn the full light of all
of our resources on it, and then we can find it.
GROSS: You know, in Buddhism, there's a concept of enlightenment, and, you
know, you meditate, you study Zen cones, you do all kinds of things. And it's
a kind of path to pursuing enlightenment. And until you've reached that
state, you are more caught in earthliness and in being bound to the more
trivial aspects of life. And I'm wondering, like, when you study cabala, is
there a similar notion that there is this point where you have reached
enlightenment and, you know, the presence of God beneath the surface of things
becomes more clear? Is there this kind of level that some people reach and
other people don't?
Prof. GREEN: No, I can say rather clearly, the Jewish tradition doesn't
believe in that. The Jewish mystics talk about moments of great
understanding, but even the person who has reached the most profound levels
can fall and can have moments of smallness or moments of ordinary mind where
all of those insights go away and have to be discovered again. The image of
Isaac redigging the wells that his father, Abraham, had dug--the wells became
stuffed up, and he had to redig them--becomes very important in the
discussions of this. There is no sense of permanent enlightenment and from
there on, you can never sin or you can never misperceive God. On the
contrary. You climb the mountain, you get to the heights of Mt. Sinai, but
then there are also valleys and ordinary days when you lose that
consciousness. And that seems to be the pattern that the Jewish experience
generally talks about.
It may be because we were not a monastic tradition, we didn't have monks who
then retreated into the mountaintop, they had the answer. But it rather
became moments of enlightenment and moments of ordinary mind go back and
forth. `The life force ebbs and flows,' the Hasidic masters like to say.
There's an energy of God, there's a life force that surges into you, but it
comes and goes.
GROSS: My guest is Arthur Green. He's dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical
School and author of several books about cabala, the tradition of Jewish
mysticism. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Arthur Green, and he's dean of
the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and professor of Jewish thought at
Brandeis University. We're talking about cabala which is the Jewish approach
to a mystical understanding of the world, and he's written extensively about
Now one of the things you've done was write an introduction for a new
translation of the Zohar, the main text of cabalistic thinking. The
translation was done by Daniel Matt. And I want to read something that he's
said about your work. He's said that you've rescued cabala from
fundamentalists on the one hand and from faddists on the other. Now we've
talked a little bit about how cabala has become a fad. What is the
fundamentalist approach to cabala?
Prof. GREEN: Yes, there is a reading of cabala that understands it all,
literally, that sees the structure of the universe that I mentioned. The
structure is called the 10 sefirot or the 10 primal numbers, the 10
manifestations of divine energy. It understands all of these things
literally. In my book, "A Guide to the Zohar," which is the longer version of
the introduction to Matt's work, I try to spell out how this has to be
understood as metaphor. And metaphoric understanding and literal
understanding are not the same thing. The traditional cabalist doesn't know
the distinction between them very well and understands that both the biblical
text and also the text of the Zohar as being absolutely literally true.
In a certain way, you have to say that cabala is a form of medieval science,
something like alchemy or astrology. And those, of course, were disproven by
experimental science at the beginning of the 17th or 18th centuries and have
been kind of relics of history ever since then. If you look at cabala
literally, I think you have to see it as an interesting historic relic. The
question is: Did this medieval science have some deep insight, contain some
deep insight into the nature of the human mind? If I want to study the
origins of matter at this point, I would probably turn to a physicist rather
than a cabalist. But if I want to understand the intricacies of the human
mind and the nature of human consciousness, I might very well turn to the
cabalist along with some other mystics, because they've spent many centuries
involved in uncovering the deeper levels of human mind.
GROSS: How did you first start studying mysticism?
Prof. GREEN: Well, I was a 20-year-old college senior. I had been through a
highly orthodox period in my own religious life, a highly orthodox Judaism. I
had rejected it and decided I didn't believe in God, and I'd become a
secularist for a while. But I discovered, when I was about 20 that even
though I no longer believed literally, as I once had, I was a deeply religious
person, and my questions were spiritual questions.
I was fortunate. I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University. There was a
wonderful professor named Alexander Altman of sainted memory. He was a
British professor, a German-Jewish professor, came from England to the United
States, I believe in 1958 or '59, and he taught the very first course on
cabala that was taught anywhere in North American university. And all of
us--I was a student in that first class. And all of us who study cabala here
in America, in the university, are Altman's students, and so he was a great
influence. A dear friend and mentor was Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov Schacter,
who was raised as a Lubavitch Hasid and left the world of Lubavitch and
brought the world of Hasidism and cabala to many people outside that closed
universe, and I studied with him.
But it was primarily by reading the texts on my own. I fell in love, Terry.
I fell in love with the literature of cabala and with the religious language
of cabala when I was a young man. I've been living in that romance for more
than 40 years now. You know, for us Jews, 40-year journeys are significant,
because it's like 40 years wandering through the wilderness. So these 40
years, I have lived with that language and have found that it is the language
of my own soul, and have developed my own spiritual journey around the love of
that language and the love of the cabalistic texts which I have now taught to
several generations of students.
GROSS: You're the dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and a
Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University. You're immersed in the
scholarly texts of Judaism. From your point of view, what do you make of how
religion seems to have entered politics in a new way or in a larger way than
before and how many voters reported that, you know, quote, "values" were the
most important issues for them? What's your take on this?
Prof. GREEN: I'm both heartened and disturbed by it, Terry. I'm glad to
hear people are concerned about values, and I'm glad to hear that people are
asking religious questions in our society. America is a deeply religious
society, and that's something that hasn't gone away. And I'm not terribly
surprised by it.
However, I'm very upset that people think of having values applying only to
the right wing. People who are liberal religious, teachers like myself--I
consider myself religious liberal, and I'm not at all ashamed of that
word--we, too, have values. We have very deep values; values, for example,
about every human being created in the image of God. That's an absolute
value. And because each human being is in the image of God, and each human
being is unique, you can't apply generalizations: This is permitted, and this
is forbidden to human situations. You can't judge a person, the Talmud says,
until you stand in that person's place. That's a value. That's an absolute
value. That's a religious value, caring for each individual in his/her own
So when you come to something like gay marriage, for example, or when you come
to many of the difficult issues being decided today, I think it's absolutely
wrong and it's frightening to hear people say that only the right has values.
Those of us on the religious left also have very deeply held values. We have
to make that clear. And those values aren't values that shift in the wind, as
some people tried to say in this last election. Those are very seriously held
value position, and we obviously have to make those clearer to people and make
those more apparent, because the idea that only the far right, only
ultraconservatives have values is a complete distortion. On the contrary, I
feel that many of the claims of value on the right are, in fact, masking other
kinds of self-interest.
GROSS: We're recording this interview during Hanukkah. What does that
holiday mean to you?
Prof. GREEN: Well, it's a time of light. Remember, Hanukkah is a festival
of lights. It historically commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the
Hellenists, over the Seleucid Empire that tried to outlaw Judaism some 2,100
or 2,200 years ago, I guess. But in fact, it is rooted in an earlier
festival, probably. It celebrates light in the winter. There are times of
darkness that people go through, political times of darkness, spiritual times
of darkness, times of personal crisis in their lives that lead them into
darkness. The idea that in a time of darkness, you set forth candles and
begin adding lights, and you add more light every night. Hillel taught that
you add another light to the menorah every night to show that in times of
greatest darkness, we perform the act of adding light to the world, and light
increases until it becomes the final night of full light, a full set of
lights. It's we who have the responsibility to light the candles. It's we
who have the responsibility to bring light into a dark world. That, I think,
is its real message.
GROSS: Well, Arthur Green, I wish you a happy Hanukkah, and I thank you so
much for talking with us.
Prof. GREEN: Thank you. Happy Hanukkah to you and to one and all.
GROSS: Arthur Green is the dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. His
books include "A Guide to the Zohar" and "Ehyeh: A Kabbalah or Tomorrow."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Tom Wolfe's new novel. This is FRESH AIR.
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