Review of Arthur Green's Well of Living Insight: Comments on the Siddur
Daf by Hannah Altman
It is true of book reviews, as of juries, that they be-
come harder to assemble in proportion as their
object is better known. Arthur Green is a towering
figure of liberal diasporic Judaism—author of six-
teen books (of which this siddur commentary,
Well of Living Insight, is the sixteenth) and trans=
lator and editor of many more, in addition to his long legacy of journal and magazine articles, speeches and lectures, and decades of teaching and mentorship. Green can no longer release a new work except into an intellectual and cultural milieu that he himself has shaped in profound ways, and it would be equally impossible to find a reviewer to come to that work who did not already have some kind of opinion on his thought. My opinion of Green’s oeuvre is—like that of so many others—very high, which actually makes Well of Living Insight somewhat harder to approach, for it is a marked departure from much of his prior writing.
Green’s reputation as a meticulous scholar of Hasidism was established with his very first book, Tormented Master, in 1979, and has held even while he has become, perhaps, better known for his lucid and innovative works of devotional spirituality, such as 2010’s Radical Judaism. Well of Living Insight goes beyond that, however. As Green writes in the introduction: “It is by far the most personal book I have written, since its entire goal is to share with you the process of my own inner life, as I respond to the sacred words of Torah and tefillah and the personal call I hear in them” (p. 18). The tone is informal and conversational, and themes move freely, like currents of a brook that shift with its channel and occasionally swirl back on themselves as they strike and are redirected by some particularly firm-set stone in the liturgical riverbed.
On one level, this makes the book very approachable. It is easy to be drawn into (imagined) conversation with this more personal side of Green, and the candor of his reflections is attractive. At the same time, that casualness can—in certain places—make the content less reachable for new readers. Occasionally, Green employs terms or references from Hasidic teaching that, while likely to be familiar to a Gashmius reader, might not be readily understood by a friend you would gift this book to. Much of the commentary is in plain language, but it is not an introductory text. For an already devoted reader of Green, this volume is a treasure trove in understanding the application of his thought to Jewish liturgy—and, indeed, to practice more broadly—on a granular level. For someone knowledgeable in Hasidism and Jewish mysticism, it could be a gentle and unique introduction to the distinctiveness of Green’s perspective. It is not, however, a place to start someone’s reading list if they are new to this branch of Jewish tradition.
The intimate nature of this book is also the source of its other great limitation. Out of all Green’s works, this one is perhaps the least responsive to the societal context into which it emerges. This is not a book of instruction tailored to its prospective students, but a disclosure of one man’s personal legacy of “wrestling” with the liturgy. The questions it dwells on are the questions Green has asked of Jewish tradition—questions whose focus and depth have been determined by the course of Green’s life. As I read, however, I am keenly aware of how the broader contexts of Jewish life have changed since Green first began formulating the key themes of his larger body of work (a change that has been driven, in part, by the tremendous influence that his own work has had), and I find myself asking whether these are still the questions that occupy contemporary readers.
Some examples are straightforward. Throughout the text, Green stresses the compatibility of Jewish thought with modern evolutionary theory. Through much of the twentieth century—in which Green grew up and established his career—this was a live debate. As an “elder millennial,” however, I don’t personally know anyone outside of some Haredi circles (in which Green’s work is seen as problematic for other reasons anyway) who has given this a second thought. Both the validity of evolutionary theory and its compatibility with contemporary Judaism are simply assumed.
Likewise, Green is careful to highlight every point at which the liturgy supports a more universal reading that affirms God’s care and concern for all of humanity. This is a response to a kind of ethnic chauvinism found in some aspects of Hasidic tradition that Green has often criticized, but in the liberal diasporic communities I come from—and which, I dare say, are most likely to take up this book—it would scarcely occur to most people to read the siddur any more narrowly on this point than Green does. Whether God loves the gentiles too is not a question that keeps us up at night.
Elsewhere, the questions remain relevant, but the depth of their treatment has not kept pace with broader societal conversations. Green comes out forcefully for the equality of women and the need for our full inclusion in Jewish learning and discourse, but his handling of the liturgy does not distinguish where traditional uses of feminine pronouns or imagery might function as true, egalitarian representation, versus reinforcements of conventional hierarchies. In noting Hasidic teaching on prayer being “for the sake of shekhinah,” for example, Green bolds and italicizes the pronoun in “She is in need of our help in prayer” (p. 36), as though the word were itself an affirmation. This does nothing to note the way the source text deploys feminine imagery selectively where God is (metaphorically) depicted as dependent on the action of a (conventionally male) Hasid.
Similarly, Green affirms the dignity of gays and lesbians and condemns our marginalization in Jewish religious life. This stand, however, does not translate into any clear critique of the heteronormativity of the siddur. At one point, treating the exhortation “May God’s great name increase!”, Green grapples with what it might mean to increase the infinite. He turns to the Hasidic idea that every soul is a letter in the divine name and suggests that every death is then a diminishment—that “The wholeness of Torah is threatened by each loss.” In answer to this, he exhorts “May there be more generations of human souls that carry God’s name within them! May they fulfill the great promise that comes with renewed life. The holy name is constantly being rewritten by the birth of new souls . . . I put my faith in that sacred and unceasing process” (p. 164). These are Green’s words, but they echo a very traditional pro-natal theme of Jewish literature that is precisely one of the elements that now require new interpretation and context.
This kind of exhortation, while beautiful in its intent, can read very differently for someone who (like myself) has received the sarcastic congratulations of online trolls for “carrying on Hitler’s work” by being sterilized in the course of gender-affirming care. I don’t doubt that Green supports inclusive readings around this theme (such as those readings many queer Jews have made from the precedent of Sanhedrin 19b), just as I don’t doubt that he is familiar with the deeper feminist critiques of the liturgy that have, over the course of the last several decades, emerged from the work of pioneering women rabbis and scholars. But the influence of these does not appear clearly in Well. That is not a criticism of Green, whose track record in lending his voice to support progressive and feminist critiques and causes in Jewish discourse speaks for itself; it is only an observation of a potential incongruity between the kinds of questions that Green brings to the text, and those which might seem more pressing to many prospective readers.
If the commentary in Well leaves me feeling a little unseen in some places, however, there is one place it leaves me feeling too seen in a way that highlights a more fundamental mismatch between Green’s approach to the siddur and what I had hoped for in opening the book. As noted, Green is often concerned to head off potential ethnocentrism and emphasize universalist aspects of the liturgy, which at one point leads him to suggest that:
We come to accept this claim [of Jewish “chosenness”] . . . because . . . Abraham’s descendents carry through the world a particular iteration of faith, along with its values, stories, texts, traditions, liturgy, and all the rest. We who are shaped by those are the legacy of Abraham . . . The choosing of Abraham, ultimately, is our choosing. That is why Jews by choice are an especially valued part of the children of Abraham. (p. 86)
I am a “Jew by choice,” which makes me many things, but “especially valued” isn’t supposed to be one of them. Jewish tradition offers a variety of different precedents, sometimes mutually incompatible, regarding the understanding and treatment of converts, and this review is not the place to engage in fine points of halakha. In modern times, however, the general tendency has been to follow the Talmud, Maimonides, and other authorities who stressed the lack of distinction between the convert and other Jews (e.g. Yevamot 3) and treated reminding us of our status as a form of lashon hara (Bava Metzia 58b). That this remains the mainstream understanding is reflected in a recent survey of Israeli Jews that asked if converts join “the Jewish people,” “the Jewish religion,” or “both.” A two-thirds majority responded for either “the Jewish people” or “both,” suggesting that the primary accent falls, for those respondents, on peoplehood rather than religious observance.
Green’s suggestion that I can be “especially valued” is a consequence of his seeming to hold a somewhat different, less compartmentalized view of Jewish identity—one that effectively re-analyzes Israel as a confessional community:
My own inadequate way of responding to all this [discomfort with the idea of “chosenness”] is a subtle but crucial change in one letter of the blessing. I say mi-kelal ’ammim instead of mi-kol ha-’ammim, “who has chosen to take us out of the category of ‘nations,’” rather than “from among all nations.” Yes, we became an exception to the rule, defining ourselves by the covenant of Sinai rather than by ethnicity alone. We are not just descendents of our father Abraham; we are those who stand every day before Mount Sinai and affirm our willingness to respond collectively to the call of Y-H-W-H by living as a holy people. . . . In our day . . . this verse [“Save us from amidst the nations”] takes on a different meaning. “Save us from becoming too much like those nations!” Save us from the temptation of being a “normal” people, one satisfied just by defending its own welfare and territory, seeking only power and prosperity. This is not the “holy nation and kingdom of priests” that we signed up to be at the foot of Mount Sinai. (pp. 57, 67)
The irony is that this eagerness to see us not made a “normal” nation risks making us instead a “normal” religion—a voluntary association of shared religious practice. The same perspective that can make me, in one moment, “especially valued” can, in the blink of an eye, then make me “just [a] descendent of our father Abraham . . . like all the nations.” This is not a distinction that need trouble a deeply devotional Jew like Green, who often writes as though the value of a connection with God were self-evident, and it is Jewish tradition and identity that have to find new ways of articulating their importance and justifying their role in the life of the (post)modern devotee. As Green explains in his introduction:
I was twenty years old when I came to the conclusion that while I could not consider myself a believer in any traditional sense that I knew, I was still a religious person. This means that my questions were still religious questions, even if I had rejected all the old answers. I was in search of a truth that would explain to me what I am doing in this life: why I was born, why I am slated to die, and what I am supposed to do with that period between the two. It also means that I understood instinctively that the answer needed to be a devotional one. . . . It was then that I became exposed to the teachings of mystical Judaism, an awareness that truly “saved” the tradition for me. (p. 17)
This conviction of the obvious necessity of relationship with God runs through much of neo-Hasidic thought, and I have read it before in many formulations. As a young adult, I was profoundly influenced by Martin Buber’s I and Thou, in which he asserts so matter-of-factly: “That you need God more than anything, you know at all times in your heart.” Still, it is possible to play a kind of double-game with words like these—with the distinction that Buber drew between “religion” and “religiosity.” For him, the departure from normative halakhic observance was always a sacrifice of the “religion” to the “religiosity”—an attempt to reach behind the social convention, towards the spiritual insight that had given it birth. Rebuked once for failing to attend synagogue even on Yom Kippur, he excused himself on the grounds that “It is more difficult for me not to observe Yom Kippur than it would be to observe it.” Within such ambiguities, it is possible to read much of Buber, as well as other writers, as one would like to have them.
It is, perhaps, a credit to Green’s deep sincerity and passionate straightforwardness that, in reading him, I feel forced to reckon with what I believe—and don’t believe—more clearly. In Green’s view, it is “a simplistic either/or of personified theism versus atheism . . . [that] has been an unnecessary barrier that kept two or three generations of seekers at arm’s length from their tradition. The ‘I don’t believe in God’ of so many Jews (and other westerners) is often really ‘I don’t believe in the God of my childhood fantasy, and I’ve never been given anything to take its place’” (p. 17). Precisely because he is so direct about his project of displacing a simplistic view of God with the more nuanced, sophisticated understanding that infuses so much of Hasidic thought, there is no room for the reader to hide any more attenuated conception under or behind it. His conception of God is subtle and multifaceted, but it remains intensely devotional, and absolutely lies at the heart of his conception of Judaism and, with it, Jewish identity. In looking at reviews of the book posted online, it is evident that this approach is new to many of Green’s readers and has profoundly changed the way they relate to the siddur.
I am not one of them, however, and neither are many millennial or Gen Z Jews I know. In part precisely because Green’s work has been so influential, and in part because it emerged alongside a wider generational project that saw so many mid-twentieth-century Jews studying with Buddhist and Hindu teachers, tapping older Hasidic sources, and engaging in ecumenical dialogue with Christian (and other) colleagues (who were often part of the same Zeitgeist, reinventing monistic and panentheistic approaches to spirituality rooted in their own traditions of mysticism), these ideas are not new to me or to many others my age and younger. Nonetheless, self-reported religious identification has dropped steadily for decades, alongside membership in religious institutions. As it happens, I am a member of a (Reform) synagogue, but I don’t go there to talk to God. I go to remember an Israeli woman whose kindness changed my life. I go to celebrate and to mourn with members of a community that shares my values and cultural touchstones. I go to feel Hebrew on my tongue and be quickened by it. I go to stand in fellowship with my people all over the world, and to add my voice to the chorus wishing shalom al kol yisrael.
So why have I opened Green’s book(s) in the first place? Why Buber’s? What does the siddur of (neo-)Hasidic spirituality mean to me? I did not come to it looking for God. I came looking for the memory of the European diaspora, for the living traces of Yiddish, for the repositories of folk tradition that still bear the subtle marks of queer Ashkenazi lives and hold the memories of Ashkenazi women’s culture, too often preserved only in the interstices of men’s religious writing. I came—not unlike the Jewish socialists who fashioned the haggadah for their “Red Seder” out of the traditional liturgy—seeking inspiration for a secular life that remains distinctively Jewish. As a translator of Yiddish poetry, I try to rescue something of secular Jewish literature both from and for those to whom Yiddish is no longer intelligible. I keep turning to neo-Hasidic thought in hope that someone will find a way to rescue something of Jewish religious literature both from and for those of us to whom God is no longer meaningful.
Green and I rejected the same set of old answers. What separates us is his conviction that his questions have remained religious questions, and my strong suspicion that mine have become worldly ones (though, for those of you who speak Yiddish, I dare say they are still vokhedike fragn, rather than mere vokhedike frages–worldly, but still meaningful). As I set Green’s book down, I am left wondering which kind of question—how to find God in the words of the siddur, or what to find in the siddur when God is gone—is now the more common. That is what will ultimately determine the value of Well of Living Insight—and will ultimately decide whether its insights are, indeed, living.
Many reviewers so far have certainly believed that they are, and assured their readers that this book will change the way they daven. On Friday, however, I will go to my synagogue, and I don’t think I will daven any differently. I will open the siddur, and I will read, and I will sing, and I don’t think the song will have changed for me. But I will have thought more deeply about the words in my own way, and I will feel a little surer of where I stand with them, and I will remember Green’s assurance that:
The mitsvah of talmud torah, which is often said to be equal to all others combined, is an obligation of engagement. . . . It does not differentiate between . . . those who see themselves as utterly pious and those discussing the text in a supposedly “secular” context. They are all equally fulfilling the mitsvah . . . The only way not to fulfill this mitsvah is to become indifferent, disengaged, or to give up on the sense that our traditional sources, however reinterpreted, have anything to teach us. (p. 55)
And in this way, perhaps, I too will have drunk from the Well.
Reyzl Grace is a poet, essayist, and translator whose work--in both English and Yiddish--is informed by her experiences as a world traveler, a student of theology, and a transsexual woman. She was a finalist for the 2023 Jewish Women's Poetry Prize as well as a Pushcart nominee, serves as an editor for both Psaltery & Lyre and Cordella Magazine, and has bylines in So to Speak, Room, the Heymish zine, and the Times of Israel, among other publications. Her kehilla is a Reform synagogue in Minnesota, where she works as a teen services librarian in a public library.