- A Response to Steven Kepnes
NOTE: Conservative Judaism 65:4 (Summer 2014) contained a review essay by Steven Kepnes entitled “God Is One, All Else Is Many: A Critique of Green and Artson.” Rabbi Arthur Green responds to the essay as follows.
A REPONSE TO STEVEN KEPNES
Steven Kepnes, a philosophy professor at Colgate University, has some advice for what he sees as a flailing Conservative Movement. Define yourselves around a theological agenda, he says. Instead of just staking out the territory between Orthodoxy and Reform on such halakhic issues as women’s empowerment and personal status, take up the cudgels against the “New Age” Jewish theologies of Arthur Green and Brad Artson, where the connection of faith to Jewish practice is “extremely attenuated and weak.” A robust Conservative (and conservative!) defense of the theological language of the siddur, buttressed by Maimonides, will be just what the doctor ordered.
Of course Kepnes has every right to say that authentic Jewish theology is that of the siddur, without any fancy reinterpretations. (I know that theology well, and I discuss it in the second chapter of my Radical Judaism, which is the subject of his broadside.) His position strikes me as reminiscent of that of Rabbi Moshe Taku, a thirteenth-century Ashkenazic intellectual who vociferously opposed the new ways of thinking represented by both Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah. “Gimme that old time religion” is a tempting stance. I, for one, have no objection to a Judaism based on the faith of the siddur, with just a couple of small exceptions. The problem is that insistence on it excludes all those who have difficulty believing it, myself included. The many positive responses to my book that I have received over the past four years tell me that I am not unique in that difficulty. I don’t think you’d want to read all those nice people out of Conservative Judaism. Not much of a growth strategy, I’d say.
There are some things that are frankly annoying in this review. As a well-trained philosopher, Kepnes should know how to read carefully, and to read a text in its entirety. He has not displayed great skill in either of those realms in this review. To begin with, after saying correctly that “they do not explicitly associate themselves with New Age Judaism,” he then goes on to repeatedly link Artson and me to that term (I stopped counting at ten times). Let me say clearly that “I am not, and never have been, a member of” the New Age. In fact I had long arguments with my dear (and much missed!) friend and [End Page 161] mentor Reb Zalman Schachter about this question. He was a believer in the Aquarian revolution; I was not. I am not a New Age Jew, just an aging Jew—and that is nothing new. I suspect that this “guilt by association” with the New Agers is a cheap way of refusing to engage seriously with what I have to say, and I find that annoying in a philosopher. Kepnes should also know that my association with Reconstructionism ended a couple of decades ago. I know virtually nothing about “native American paganism” or yoga, and shamefully little about “the Hindu Vedas” or Buddhism, all of which Kepnes seems to think are my true sources of inspiration. Nonsense.
I am affiliated with no Jewish denomination, quite happily so. I am, however, quite clearly and openly, a neo-Ḥasidic Jew. (I owe much gratitude to the Conservative Movement, whose institutions trained me, but I came to feel many years ago that this was not a proper ideological fit.) I spend most of my intellectual time studying, teaching, translating, and pondering Ḥasidic texts written in the late eighteenth century. I read these, of course, as a contemporary American Jew, and ask what meaning they can have for us, how we might render their essential teaching accessible and palatable to tweny-first century seekers, among whom I count myself. A neoḤasidic Jew, to my mind, is one who says that the spiritual revolution within Judaism undertaken by the early Ḥasidic masters, mostly aborted by the need to battle modernity, has important...