Jonah Mac Gelfand
What does it actually mean when someone says they are “neo-Hasidic?” Most broadly, neo-Hasidism refers to anyone who is not sociologically part of a Hasidic community but engages with Hasidic texts and practices in an attempt to access its unique spirituality. Although this tendency manifests all along the spectrum of Jewish identity—from Orthodox to Reform to secular—we can generally observe two large camps in the American neo-Hasidic world today. On one side is its manifestation in the Modern Orthodox world, where spirituality is helping to rekindle traditional observance. For this camp, the “hows” of neo-Hasidism are clearer, since it is expressed within the religious structures of normative Orthodoxy. The other side of this rift is neo-Hasidism’s manifestation in the liberal, non-Orthodox world. In this camp, the actual lived reality of neo-Hasidism is less clear; what does it mean to incorporate Hasidic spirituality into a life outside of traditional observance? One person who has spent the last half-century thinking and teaching about this question is Rabbi Arthur Green.
Self-identifying as a “neo-Hasidic heterodox traditionalist,” Green teaches a scholarship-informed and universalized Jewish spirituality that resists syncretism by grounding itself in Hasidism. He simultaneously distances himself from the traditional conception of halakha as obligatory by stating that “although I am quite traditionally observant, I am well aware of my freedom of decision in choosing to live that way.” This unique notion of halakha is grounded in a deep engagement with, and internalization of, Hasidic teachings that result in a restructured conception of “obligation.” Yet, although his theology is radical, by putting his writings in conversation with traditional Hasidic sources, we will trace how he considers his re-presentations to be Hasidism’s direct continuation and legitimate heir.
To do this, first we will explore Green’s neo-Hasidism’s relationship with halakha. Then we will look specifically at his reformulation of obligation and its grounding in panentheism. Lastly, we will trace his theological rationales by analyzing his commentary on primary Hasidic sources. The result will be a thorough analysis of one substantive neo-Hasidic theology of obligation (note that this is a neo-Hasidic theology of obligation, not the) in the hopes that it supports other people’s practical engagement with neo-Hasidism, including the more traditional and halakha-bound kind.
To understand Green’s practice, we must first understand where his ideas were forged. He was ordained by the Conservative Movement, where he studied extensively with Abraham Joshua Heschel, earned his PhD from Brandeis University, taught at multiple academic institutions, helped found the Havurah Movement, led the Reconstructionist movement for about a decade, and, most recently, helped found and is currently rector at Hebrew College’s pluralistic rabbinical school. These experiences, in conversation with what he calls an unhealthy compulsion towards—and subsequent break with—traditional Orthodoxy in his youth, all inform his current heterodox conception of halakha. Before diving into his theology of obligation and its justification, we need to understand how Green sees Hasidism’s and neo-Hasidism’s relationships with halakha as inherently different.
Wearing the Garment Lightly
Despite what early anti-Hasidic polemics would have us believe, Hasidism has always been a fully halakhic movement. Although famous for radical re-interpretations of the theories behind halakha, Hasidim always ultimately adhered to the system (albeit with small changes to things like prayer time and the knives used in kosher slaughter). This became even more so the case after the movement’s turn towards traditionalism, which eventually crystallized into ultra-Orthodoxy. But what of Green’s style of neo-Hasidism, which positions itself outside of the realm of traditional halakhic obligation?
One of Green’s students puts it well when he says that Green “wears the garment of halakha somewhat lightly.” Green justifies this leniency by explaining that “Hasidism developed among people who were already observant, so they didn’t have [this] issue. But neo-Hasidism begins with the spiritual journey, begins with the seeker and that seeker’s finding a response to [their] quest in the heart-language of Judaism.” This distinction between normative halakha and “the spiritual journey” arises out of the ultimate centrality of the individual’s “seeker” experience in Green’s thought. Each practitioner must come to their own conclusions about how they want to “practice” neo-Hasidism. Green refuses to provide a how-to. So, if he doesn’t see mitzvot as inherently obligatory, then what exactly are they, and why do we perform them?
To answer this, we must ask the question that has always been central to theologizing the mitzvot: were they given by God on Sinai? And if so, does that mean that we are obligated to fulfill them? Judaism over the centuries and contemporary Orthodoxy would answer affirmatively to both of the previous statements, while much of modern liberal Judaism would either assert the human origin of these time-worn rituals—and thus their position beyond the realm of obligation—or at least diverge from the traditional legalistic dogma of Sinaitic revelation. Green walks an interesting middle ground between these two broad viewpoints in his Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (2020), asserting that “it is indeed the divine voice that has called forth these forms from within the creative reservoir of our people’s faith… The forms themselves have emerged—and continue to emerge—from our collective effort to hear and respond to the divine voice.”
This is to say that the origin of the mitzvot is in Divinity but their manifestation into the world is through the refracting prism of human experience and creativity. Put simply, humans created the mitzvot in response to the Divine presence they felt around them. This gives rise to another question: if they are human inventions, then why are they holy? Green explains that their holiness comes not from a top-down, commanding God, but from the accumulated loving-intention that thousands of years of Jews have put into their engagement with these rituals. He goes on to assert that “God does not ‘give us’ the words of Torah, but God is to be found within them … [and] we marvel before the power that the ancient teachings have to stir our hearts.”
In sum, Green understands the mitzvot as a series of human-made practices that arose as a response to the presence of Divinity, whose holiness is due not to their Divine origin, but instead to the accumulated love and intention of generations of engagement. This is obviously very different from the classic understanding of halakha as a divine “law” that must be followed unswervingly, since it was given by God. Green differentiates between this “law” and his preferred re-formulation of “discipline”:
Discipline is a regimen that I voluntarily take upon myself. I live up to it, or I don’t; the responsibility is only to myself. Law is an institution imposed by authority, external or internal, upon a society and its members. If something is law, its violators will be—or at least should be—punished.
This quote encompasses Green’s halakha very succinctly: a freely chosen spiritual path that provides the bumpers needed to live a spiritual life.
If Green does not see the mitzvot in the traditional framework, we must ask: where does that leave the practitioner? Should we rip off our kippot and eat a cheeseburger according to Green? Far from it! Green’s conception of halakha still frames it as an “obligation” in some capacity, just not the traditional, legal one. If halakha is normally construed as classical music, wherein beauty occurs by virtue of learning the rules, practicing, and playing according to what’s written, Green moves it to the world of jazz, wherein one learns the rules rigorously, but reserves the right to diverge from them when the moment strikes. Importantly, these divergences are not an affront to tradition but are meant to enhance its beauty. Like music theory to a jazz musician, halakha “still has a hold on us: not a binding hold of law, but a hold the way one’s deepest and most ancient psyche continues to have a powerful grasp on a person’s actions throughout life.”
By virtue of their amassed holiness (which Green assures us is “real holiness”), and our generationally accumulated disposition towards their fulfillment, the mitzvot “call” for our engagement—but that engagement must be freely given without any thought of punishment. Our “marvel[ing] before the power that the ancient teachings have to stir our hearts” is where the “hold on us” comes from—a connection to the past, not a legal obligation to a covenant.
As we will see below, this position is not arrived at in a vacuum, but instead is steeped in tradition and represents the commandment which Green holds up above all others: Torah study. Although he believes in the importance of personal decision, he asserts that divergences should stem from an informed engagement with the sources and not mere disdain for the rules. Importantly, for Green, non-adherence to certain halakhot comes from a moral stance. Most notably, this includes the Torah’s heteronormativity and its discussion of non-Jews. Green explains that any mitzvah must first pass the test of “Does this practice diminish or degrade the divine image of some group of human beings? If it does, it simply can’t be Torah.” Having said that, he believes that this decision should be “invoked carefully and conservatively, only when [one] find[s] no moral alternative.”
Circling back to his distinction between Hasidism’s emergence within halakha and neo-Hasidism’s emergence outside of it, Green explains that in the period of Hasidism’s birth, halakha was “also the way most people did live, just as [a] matter of course.” But today, it is no longer a “given” that modern Jews would be halakhic in the first place. Therefore, Green’s neo-Hasidic engagement with halakha is a conscious nod to tradition, and is “first and foremost, because that’s the way Jews live.”
This quote beautifully summarizes Green’s conception: the holiness of a mitzvah is real inasmuch as it is born from the loving devotion of generations of Jews, not from the watchful eye of a legislating Deity. Therefore, modern engagement should be from a love of the former, rather than a fear of the latter. Green says, “I love that way of life, a way of ‘walking toward God,’ hence I choose to live it.” Like with all loving relationships, its perpetuation is a decision that must be made every day, uncoerced. Green says that “I will freely decide—often, but not consistently—to live a rather traditional Jewish life, but it is vital to me that I am the one making that decision. … The choices I make are my own; only the God who dwells within my heart knows how wisely or not I have chosen.” This reference to an indwelling Divine shines light on Green’s panentheistic theology that undergirds this whole discussion.
Looking In, Not Up
Most simply, Green looks for God in rather than up. Drawing on the rabbinic tradition that Abraham observed halakha before Sinai, Green explains, “He knew it from seeking within.” That Abraham’s halakhic observance was a result of his inward glance provides grounding for Green’s understanding of God more broadly. In an interview with Alan Brill, he explains:
I believe that there is only One. Better said: I have glimpses of an inner experience that tells me that there is only One. That One embraces, surrounds, and fills all the infinitely varied forms that existence has taken and ever will take. We Jews call out that truth twice daily in reciting Shema’ Yisra’el, “Hear, O Israel.” “Y-H-W-H is One” means that there is none other. Our daily experience of variety, separate identity, and alienation of self from others renders an incomplete and ultimately misleading picture of reality.
In classic mystical manner, Green explains that our ever-diversifying world is in truth the unfolding of a Divine Unity garbing itself in multiplicity. In our current creation myth of the Big Bang, this is the primordial point (the One) exploding outward and creating the universe and all its contents out of the same matter that was once contained within it (the garbing of the One in multiplicity). Green asserts that, during this process, the One “calls out” to us to be known, and this is that “call” to which halakha responds. It is not a verbal “call” in any sense of the word, but a “calling out” from the innermost dimension of Being.
The use of this word “Being” also holds a special place in Green’s conception of God. In Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (2010), he describes Divinity as “a constant stretching forth of Y-H-W-H (“Being”) in the endless adventure of becoming HWYH (the Hebrew word for “being” or “existence”).” Through this wordplay, Green presents God as the very nature of Being, and our interactions with God as our tapping into the world’s inner essence.
Similarly, Green sees revelation in fully psychologized terms that are accessible always and to everyone. In his newest book, he explains that,
We are seeking a more fully internalized version of that foot-of-the-mountain experience, one in which Sinai is a vertical metaphor for an inner event. The journey “up the mountain” is in fact a journey to a “higher” rung of consciousness. That “higher,” in our contemporary parlance, needs to be rendered as a deeper truth than that of ordinary perception or reason. The “heaven” that is its goal exists within the human soul.
Translating spatial language into psychological/spiritual language is the centerpiece of Green’s neo-Hasidic theology, and helps scaffold our above discussion of the mitzvot. If Divinity is accessed by looking inward, then the human origin of the mitzvot is less problematic: they were created as a response to the “call” of the in-dwelling Presence. Anyone able to cultivate the proper “internal glance” finds a piece of the One waiting for them. It is important to note here that Green is aware of the danger of this inward glance in our “very self-gratification-orientated culture.” He distances himself from “self-help” by asserting that spirituality is not about fixing yourself, but about waking up to the One. This is another way in which Green presents obligation: our tuning into the One is required in response to God’s “calling out.” We are not doing it just for ourselves.
And yet, halakha is only one half of responding to this call; the other half is prayer. Despite his rejection of the traditional Father/King of the prayerbook on a philosophical level, Green reserves the right to personalize the Divine in moments of religious praxis. After all, it is hard to call out to an undifferentiated Unity in times of crisis. Declaring that “religion is all about intimacy,” Green believes that it is necessary to personify it, since “love is relational.” Having said that, this construction of God-as-Other (the “Atah” of the traditional blessings formulation, Barukh Atah [Blessed are You]) is still merely a bridge to the One. Both his “Barukh Atah” chapter in Judaism for the World and Steven Gotlib’s article explain this fruitful tension at length. With all this in place, the final piece of the puzzle for understanding Green’s theory of obligation is his use of Hasidic theology to present his innovations as necessary.
Revelation: According to Each Generation’s Needs
By mining a Hasidic approach that re-theorizes revelation, Green shows why he considers his reconceptualization of halakha as not only permissible, but in fact an obligation in our generation. To understand this claim, we will briefly explore the writings of two of Green’s favorite Hasidic rebbes, Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl and Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev.
Although the specifics differ in each of his sermons, generally speaking R. Menahem Nahum teaches that Moses was not passively receiving the Torah, but was—to use Green’s student Ariel Evan Mayse’s words—“actively summoning the Torah from the divine mind and creatively shaping it through words.” This is a unique framing of the talmudic assertion that the Torah includes all future innovations (Megillah 19b). The passage is traditionally interpreted conservatively: it seems to suggest that revelation was an all-encompassing top-down event that included everything the Rabbis would someday introduce. But in R. Menahem Nahum’s reading, the exegete is not uncovering pre-existing Torah, but “translat[ing] the ineffable Divine into language, through the process of developing unique exegesis.” This inverted reading of the passage presents Torah as constantly unfolding, thereby suggesting that it is still unfolding today. Not only this, but the unfolding occurs by virtue of active engagement. These two assertions lead to the widespread Hasidic claim that each generation must reinterpret Torah to fit its new context.
It is already clear from our exploration that Green sees himself as a new iteration of this creative impulse. Prime evidence of this can be found in an anthology of Hasidic sources that Green put together with three of his students, entitled Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table (2013). This two-part series provides a unique window into Green’s thinking, for two reasons: first, the fact that he picked a particular source means that he considered it important, and second, each source includes original commentary. Therefore, if we see the original Hasidic texts as the “A source,” and Green’s theology as the “C source,” then this anthology provides a “B source” that actively wrestles with the question of “what can this mean for our generation?”
For example, after a sermon by R. Levi Yitzhak on Parashat Vayakhel that concludes with the familiar assertion that each generation must develop novel exegesis, Green’s commentary states:
If the building of the Tabernacle is indeed parallel to the creation of heaven and earth, as the sages teach, it must have the same open-ended quality, leaving room for the participation and partnership of new minds as they arise in each generation. It is only a short stretch to say that in this teaching Levi Yitshak understands that both the natural order and human civilization are in a constant state of evolution and the sacred forms of religion must evolve with them.
Here Green makes it clear that he sees the logical conclusion of R. Levi Yitzhak’s thinking to be the evolution of religious praxis. His above reformulation of halakha therefore can be understood as not only permitted, but theologically necessary. It is a religious imperative to change religious practice as time goes on.
Although Green admits that this conclusion is a bit of a “stretch,” we can look to his commentary on another of R. Levi Yitzhak’s sermons to understand why he feels comfortable making that assertion. The rebbe’s original remarks on Parashat Terumah read as follows:
… This is what Scripture means when it says: “Like all that I show you”—according to your framework of prophecy, so should the tabernacle and vessels be. Then Scripture adds: “and thus shall you do”—for all generations. This means that in every generation, when you want to build the Temple, the structure should be in accord with the prophecy that is attained at that time.
Green follows this up by commenting,
In this and similar passages, the early Hasidic masters make a bold claim for their right, even their need, to innovate in the realm of spiritual praxis… Interestingly, this theoretical assertion was never used to justify large-scale praxis change, and later generations of leaders shifted the movement toward an ultra-conservative stance. But these passages remain a part of the Hasidic legacy. How might they be reinvoked today, in a different age?
This use of ‘reinvoking’ is very significant. Here Green argues that, while historically, Hasidim adhered to traditional halakha and never reimagined it, their exegeses that afford the possibility of radical reformulation can (must?) now be taken up by those Jews who do not feel traditionally beholden to halakha. This presents neo-Hasidism as not only a novel religious movement, but as a necessary step in the unfolding of revelation.
Now that we have explored some of Green’s views on halakha and tradition, we might wonder: why does he go through the trouble at all? Why justify his heterodoxy through tradition? And how is that relevant to other neo-Hasidim today? The answer to these questions resides in his reasoning for adhering to traditional religious praxis: it’s just “the way Jews live.” His engagement with mitzvot does not come from a place of rote, top-down obligation, but instead from the choice to engage in the traditions of his ancestors knowingly and lovingly. This model of loving and meaningful engagement can be taken up by other neo-Hasidim trying to figure out their relationship with halakha, even if they do not wish to go as far as Green in reevaluating the nature of obligation or rejecting certain mitzvot.
Green admits that his traditionalism often surprises readers of his theology, but he ensures them that it took him fifty years of searching to arrive at his current practice. Although he hopes that his example will help speed up that process for others, he is quick to remind us that each seeker must find what works best for them. He admits that he still doesn’t “have the same halakhic of-course-I’m-going-to-do-it” attitude of other Jews, and that’s okay. For Green, authentic and individual spirituality will always come before all else. In fact, when I recently asked him directly about a specific piece of neo-Hasidic practice, he smiled and responded, “Go figure it out. I’m not that guy.”
If nothing else, Green teaches that each individual must arrive at their path alone. In his interview on the Judaism Unbound podcast, Green explains that,
I do not know a God who personally watches to see whether I am observing the commandments or not observing the commandments. No. The commandments to me are a gift that the tradition has given me for disciplining and regularizing my spiritual life. I choose to accept them insofar as they work to enhance that spiritual life. Because the tradition has lots of experience and lots of wisdom, I find myself open to hearing from it.
Significantly, although Green lives within this reconceptualized traditional framework, he neither prescribes it for his students nor condemns others who have a more traditional relationship with halakha. His only caveat is that we must construct our practice from within the tradition: not from a place of “I want to do less,” but from a place of “I want to engage more deeply.” This model provides a starting point for the next generation of neo-Hasidic seekers to explore their own relationships with halakha and Hasidism.
 Arthur Green, Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2020), p. 23.
 Ibid., p. 24.
 This essay is in no way attempting to standardize neo-Hasidic praxis, but rather to shed light on one of its formulations. For alternative framings of neo-Hasidic halakha, see Ariel Evan Mayse’s Orthodox exploration in “Neo-Hasidism and Halakhah: The Duties of Intimacy and the Law of the Heart,” in A New Hasidism: Branches, ed. Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse (Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society, 2019) pp. 155–223, and for a Jewish Renewal perspective see Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Daniel Siegel, Integral Halakhah: Transcending and Including (Victoria, Trafford Publishing, 2007).
 For the reader familiar with classical trends in Hasidic scholarship, this sentence might seem surprising given discussions of the potential antinomianism of Hasidism. Recent scholarship has shown that early Hasidism’s alleged antinomianism is not so clear-cut. For a full exploration of this, see Levi Cooper, “Jewish Law in the Beit Midrash of Hasidism,” in Diné Israel, Volume 34 (2020) (5781), pp. 51-110.
 For one source in which Green briefly explores this history (and relates it to neo-Hasidism), see his “Afterward” in Hasidism: A New History, eds. David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Braun, Uriel Gelman, Samuel C. Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv and Marcin Wodziński (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017), pp. 807-811.
 Ariel Mayse, “Arthur Green: An Intellectual Portrait,” in Arthur Green: Hasidism for Tomorrow, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron W. Hughes, The Brill Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers (Boston, Brill, 2015), p. 38.
 Green’s comments in Jordan Schuster, “A Closing Conversation with the Editors,” in A New Hasidism: Branches, p. 435.
 This construction of a binary is slightly simplistic, since there are strands of modern liberal Judaism which do uphold the necessity of fulfilling halakha. This can be seen in the Conservative movement’s understanding of halakha as socially constructed and yet still obligated, and Modern Orthodoxy’s willingness to join in certain liberal tendencies while still adhering to a traditional formulation of the doctrine of the Torah being given on Sinai. How these nuances manifest in the world of neo-Hasidism merit further exploration.
 Green, Judaism for the World, p. 32.
 Arthur Green, “Road Back to Sinai: The Post-Critical Seeker,” in Arthur Green: Hasidism for Tomorrow, p. 157.
 Green, Judaism for the World, p. 49.
 Ibid., p. 30.
 Green, “Road Back to Sinai,” p. 152.
 Alan Brill, “Arthur Green – Judaism for the World,” The Book of Doctrines and Opinions (blog), February 18, 2021. https://kavvanah.blog/2021/02/18/arthur-green-judaism-for-the-world/.
 Brill, “Arthur Green – Judaism for the World.”
 Green, Judaism for the World, p. 25.
 Ibid., p. 26.
 Ibid. This is a classic play on halakha’s root associations of “to walk.”
 Green, “Road Back to Sinai,” pp. 158-9.
 Green, Judaism for the World, p. 172.
 Brill, “Arthur Green – Judaism for the World.”
 More precisely, this primordial point would be associated with the potential contained within the sefirah hokhmah rather than the Primordial Nothingness of Ein Sof that existed even before that point. For more on this topic, see the book by Green’s old friend Daniel Matt entitled God & the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science & Spirituality (Woodstock, Jewish Lights Publication, 1996). For Green’s own exploration of evolutionary biology through the lens of spirituality, see his Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010).
 Green, Radical Judaism, p. 24.
 Green, Judaism for the World, p. 172.
 Brill, “Arthur Green – Judaism for the World.” Simultaneously, Green asserts that this turning inward to the ultimate Oneness of Being leads directly to the realm of interpersonal ethics. A full exploration of this is beyond the confines of our topic, but can be explored in his Judaism for the World, particularly in Part 3, “World: Living in God’s Creation.”
 Rabbi David Ingber in conversation with Arthur Green, “Confessions of a Longtime Seeker,” from Kehilat Romemu’s Second Inaugural Scholar-in-Residence Series in 2018, 26:58-31:00. Recording available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7_dWe0iPAA.
 The following sources are not being presented as specific source texts for Green’s theological processing. They were chosen from the Hasidic corpus to provide evidence that his ideas are grounded in tradition. Having said that, Green’s affinity for these thinkers can be seen in his many publications focusing on them. See particularly Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, The Light of the Eyes: Homilies on the Torah, trans. Arthur Green (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021) and Green’s new Defender of the Faithful: The Life and Thought of Rabbi Levi Yitshak of Berdychiv (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2022).
 Ariel Evan Mayse, “The Voices of Moses: Theologies of Revelation in an Early Hasidic Circle,” Harvard Theological Review 112, No. 1 (January 2019), p. 111.
 For Green’s scholarly exploration of how this idea manifests in the writings of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, see Green, Defender of the Faithful, 191-200. In this chapter, Green briefly compares how R. Levi Yitzhak’s understanding fits into the broader Hasidic conception of reinterpreting Torah for each generation.
 Kedushat Levi on Parashat Vayakhel, in Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table (Volume 1), ed. Arthur Green, Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse, and Or N. Rose (Woodstock, VT, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), p. 238 (emphasis mine). As per endnote 30, for Green’s full scholarly exploration of Levi Yitzhak’s idea of reinterpreting Torah for each generation, see Green, Defender of the Faithful, pp. 191-200.
 Kedushat Levi on Parashat Terumah in Speaking Torah, pp. 218-219.
 Green, Speaking Torah, p. 219 (emphasis mine).
 Green’s remarks in Jordan Schuster, “A Closing Conversation,” pp. 431-439.
 Judaism Unbound, Episode 133 – “God Is One” (podcast). Judaism Unbound, 2018, 27:35-28:07.