Interview with Prof. Tamar Ross on Revelation-Round Two

Here is a second installment of discussing Tamar Ross’s view of revelation- see here and here. In some ways this one is the clearest and the last one was diffuse. The last interview introduced her ideas by first starting with the modern problem of revelation, then a swim through an assortment of philosophy- modernism and post-modernism, fideism and indeterminacy, liberal and orthodoxy– then we receive an answer, and finally we conclude with how Rav Kook made all this possible.

This interview proceeds in the opposite direction and better lets us evaluate her thought paragraph by paragraph. She starts with her experience of many years of teaching Kabbalah and Rav Kook, then the kabbalistic view of revelation, and only then the application to today. Now, if you buy into her mystical approach and her reading of Rav Kook, you can see clearly if her extension flow or not.

Ross photo

Prof. Ross is Professor Emeritus of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s Yeshiva in Jerusalem. One of her major fields was the writings of Rav Kook. Her specific focus was teasing out the great modernist vision of Orot Hakodesh.

She synthesized the evolutionary modernist statements of Rav Kook that exhorted his readers to understand that just as we have in the past evolved beyond ancient concepts to medieval Maimonidean rationalism, we now have to evolve to modern concepts. Just as people used to think the sun went around the earth but since Copernican revolution we see the earth going around the sun, so too we have to accept the modern revolutions in politics, society, and philosophy. Just as we used to follow Aristotle, now we follow Kant and Hegel.

For Rav Kook, the Torah is above the thought of any given era and can accommodate itself in any theory of a given age. In fact, Rav Kook states that from the divine perspective both truth and heresy are equally limiting categories. In her reading, Rav Kook following Maimonides, teaches that there is an inner core to the Torah that is clothed in the language of the era. Humans are evolving in the concepts they use to understand the world. For Ross, Rav Kook is daring, dazzling, lofty, and rising to the modern challenges.

This approach to Rav Kook is unlike the national essentialist reading of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook or the dialectic ethicist of the Second Aliyah captured by Yehudah Mirsky. For more on Tamar Ross’ approach, see her articles on truth, here and here or on toleration.

Mysticism in the United States is usually defined using William James as an experience, for Ross mysticism mean kabbalah, here specifically the monism and panentheism worldviews of the 19th century Jewish thinkers, Chabad, Mitnagdut, and Rav Kook. And she follows, Scholem’s understanding of the progressive revelation in the Shelah, as found in “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism.” (cf. Heschel or Idel)

These interviews resulted from the Oxford Summer Institute for Modern and Contemporary Judaism, convened by Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel of Oxford and Prof. Adam Ferziger of Bar-Ilan.

1) What is mysticism?
This term is used, of course, in many contexts, to denote a variety of traditions and practices. The sense in which I use it here refers to a view which assumes the existence of an absolute, all-encompassing, monolithic and infinite unity (i.e., the Ein-sof) that transcends all particularist definitions and perceptions

2) What is Revelation for the Mystic?
The mystic tradition does not support an understanding of revelation as the eruption of a transcendent force into a reality that is other than itself. It is rather the culmination of a new constellation of forces from within that reality. According to the mystic tradition, God is not a person or an object that exercises agency upon the world from without. Our personalist conception is not to be belittled; it is a necessary pointer to that which in essence leaves no room for distinction between subject and object, or between the perceiver and the object of his perception. In accordance with this understanding, revelation is a vision of the totality that is grasped by a particular aspect of it in a new light.

So long as we experience ourselves as separate, independent beings, some measure of personalist God-talk must be maintained. We therefore speak, according to the mystic, “as if” God imposed His will upon us from without. But because the divine will is infinite, the meaning of revelation is also infinite, varying from generation to generation, building upon and modifying previous understandings in accordance with the never-ending give and take between its various elements.

3) What is your Dynamic View of Revelation?
A dynamic view of revelation is not my invention. It is a well-established strand in Jewish tradition. The stipulation of the Sages that “the Torah is not in Heaven” already recognizes the importance of human interaction with the text in establishing its ultimate meaning, and appears to foster a spirit of pluralism as well. This is evident in the rabbinic declaration that “there are seventy faces to Torah” and in the story of the heavenly voice that mediated the conflicting legal opinions of the Schools of Hillel and Shammai by proclaiming that both “these and these are the words of the living God.”

In acknowledging the human factor that led to plurality when interpreting the received tradition, the Rabbis understood God as attaching religious value to human participation in the process of deliberation and the overcoming of ambiguities. This breadth of understanding on their part is evident again in their interest in preserving minority opinions as an essential part of the canon, even when the law was determined otherwise.

Further support for a more dynamic understanding of revelation that blurs the boundaries between the divine word and the human interpreter can be found in various aggadot, in kabbalistic literature, in the writings of biblical commentators, halakhists, and especially in the drashot of many of the Hassidic masters, who do not pose God and His word as utterly distinct and separate from the flow of history and human subjectivity. Viewed collectively, these more fluid conceptions of Torah presents the Sinai revelation of God’s word as the initiator of a series of revelations in the form of inspired interpretations throughout the ages. The ideal meaning of the Sinaitic revelation is eked out only with these accumulated interpretations. The various strata are then absorbed as an integral part of the primary text, expanding upon and sometimes even transforming its original meaning, while forever remaining rooted in its precise language and frames of reference.

Aside from avoiding gross anthropomorphisms, if we are to understand God’s word as conveying a message for all generations, its transmission cannot be limited to a one-time event, but must be understood as a process.

This process began with the formal canonization of the Torah and its acceptance by the Jewish people as the primary filter through which the authorized beliefs and practices of Judaism are determined. It continues, however, with the cumulative interpretations that accrue to this text, inevitably informing and altering its meaning in light of the ever-changing historical contexts in which it is read. Viewed religiously, these contexts – no less than the original text – may likewise be regarded as an ongoing revelation of the divine word, constantly refining its meaning in light of new surrounding circumstances. As a result, the Torah can be understood as all human (in terms of its literary and historical genesis) and all divine (in terms of its origin, value and significance) at one and the same time.

4) How does Rav Kook offer a more fluid view of revelation?
Many elements in R. Kook’s theology revive fluid understandings of revelation that were developed in pre-modern times. His immersion in the mystic tradition and its panentheistic image of God discourages positing God and His word as distinct from the flow of history and natural morality. It also leads him to a view of truth which is remarkably sympathetic to the postmodern critique of sterile, fixed, and universal truths that purport to reflect a neutral and objective view “from nowhere”, and to celebrate conflict as a trigger to spiritual advancement.

While R. Kook did not set out these elements of his thought in the form of a systematic theology of revelation, a response that resonates various strands of his thought has greater chance of success in a religious community that finds it difficult to view subservience to halakha as the be-all and end-all of its spiritual existence, and is more invested in developing an inclusive majority culture than in preserving denominational borders.

Indeed, a hallmark of R. Kook’s positive attitude to secularism is the understanding that revolutionary and ostensibly destructive developments in the world of ideas are the most significant tools of all, for these are a clear indication that humanity has outgrown more primitive forms of spirituality and is ready for a new, more sublime level.

Taken in this spirit, we might conclude that even the challenges of biblical criticism in our day can be regarded as a rare privilege and a new revelation of the divine will. Divine providence itself has orchestrated the rise of serious problems with Torah as history so as to lead us, and all of humankind with us, to a new and more subtle understanding of the relationship between divine intent and human interpretation. We do not doubt God when we walk through this threshold. We are listening to God as we go forward, for this too was from God.

The revolutionary shift from the conventional understanding of truth as corresponding to some objective reality “out there” also has significant parallels in R. Kook’s writings, which reveal a remarkably tentative attitude to religious truth-claims. R. Kook’s skepticism is founded on the presumption of an inbuilt contradiction between finite human perceptions and God’s monolithic all-encompassing infinity that transcends all definitions and distinctions.

Although he employs the metaphysical vocabulary of tradition, the authority of revelation does not derive on his formulation from the “fact” that God gave us the Torah, but rather on strength of “kabbalat ha-umma” – i.e., the willingness of the Jewish people to accept it as such. Even the notion of divine providence appears to be a “necessary truth”, useful for developing our urge for the absolute, rather than a “true truth” that exists independent of human needs.

5) What, then, might be a viable view of revelation for today?
At the first stage, when viewing revelation from within tradition, we must try to achieve an understanding that is as coherent as possible on its own terms. This is accomplished by breaking down the distinction between divine speech and natural historic process and recognizing that God does not speak through vocal chords but through the orchestration of history and the evolution of human understanding that develops in its wake.

Viewing our internal religious talk from a more universal perspective, however, leads to a second, more radical, stage in the development of a contemporary theology of revelation. Appropriating some of the insights of postmodern theory regarding language and its uses, we now understand that equating professions of belief in divine revelation with factual descriptions entails a misconception of the role of such statements in the religious context. It is this misconception that has led to the bankruptcy of a modernist Torah u-madda approach which regards religion as a rival source of knowledge vying with science on the same ball-park.

Instead, we now understand that the primary concern of such statements is not to discuss facts or establish history, but rather to function on an entirely different plane – establishing a system of symbols and “picture” of reality that legitimate our most basic patterns of thought, feeling and behavior, and signaling to our co-religionists that we share the same ultimate loyalties.

6) What is the meaning and significance of revelation, according to this view?
The conclusion we must now reach is that the meaning and significance of the belief in revelation, divine accommodation, and all religious doctrine making metaphysical claims, is best understood in light of its function in the life of the believer. The “truth” of such beliefs is vindicated not by appeal to external evidence or re-interpretation, but on the basis of their ability to inculcate spiritually meaningful attitudes and values, reinforcing the particular form of life upon which such attitudes and values are predicated.

The obvious appeal of this understanding is that it evades the convoluted appeals that modern liberals continue to make to supernatural events despite the fact that these do not withstand historical scrutiny. It also avoids the dubious ontological status of claims of communication with a transcendent force that is by definition beyond grasp and beyond human experience. The difficulty of this understanding for the self-aware believer who adopts it consciously, is the problem of negotiating between his internal religious vocabulary and his more sophisticated awareness of its limitations. Can I remove my philosophical cap when praying and put it on again when theologizing? And can such flip-flopping guarantee the rigorous halakhic commitment that characterizes Orthodoxy and the traditional way of life? As God-seekers, we yearn for a sense that life points toward a greater goal, that we are seeking answers that are not merely our, and are larger than our own minds.

7) So how does such an understanding of revelation differ from a secular naturalistic view?
On surface, a functionalist approach to revelation may lend itself to reductionist allegations. A skeptic might easily contend that all that such talk amounts to is the imposition of a vacuous gloss of religious instrumentalism over what is ultimately no more than a secular naturalistic view. In experiential terms, however, there is a world of difference, beyond semantics, for the believer who adopts a religious vocabulary that grounds the meaning of revelation and its various interpretations on the assumption of an infinite metaphysical source.

For one thing, in the mind of such a believer, the realm of the possible is never exhausted. Within every naturalistic explanation lurks the potential for a further extension. In the words of Harav Kook ,) בקדושה אין גוזמא במציאותin holiness [i.e., God's reality], there is no exaggeration). Today’s miracle is tomorrow’s reality, for in essence, כל המדומה ואפשר בציור – הוא באמת מצוי (all that is imaginable actually does exist). The existing natural order can never have the last word. Its ostensible rigidity and determinism can always lead to something else. On such a view, wonder can be preserved.

Secondly, the secular postmodernist who rejects metaphysics and the notion of universal truth altogether regards all choices as random selections from an arbitrary collection of isolated and unconnected viewpoints, whose relative worth can be understood or assessed only from within their own partial terms. In the words of Hazal, by contrast, conflicting opinions are all valid because “all of them are given from one shepherd”.

Thirdly, on this view, a functionalist criterion need not be regarded as irrelevant to truth. For Rav Kook, the fact that revelation produces a form of life that “works” in the sense of promoting human flourishing is precisely the proof of its validity, because it enables us to replicate the existence of a perfect and Infinite Being in finite terms that make existential sense for us.

8) To ask a question in the language of Marc Shapiro: Are there limits to Orthodox theology? How do we explain to people that your approach is “within” Orthodoxy?
Orthodox theology is a theology that supports the Orthodox way of life, relates to its traditions, and expresses itself in Orthodoxy’s distinctively halakhic terms. What is “in” or “out” is not something that can be decisively defined in accordance with some pre-determined knock-down drag out formula. The test is pragmatic – the degree of its effectiveness in providing a conceptual framework that facilitates identification with the community of the halakhically committed, its key concepts, attitudes and hierarchy of values. The forms that such a theology takes will vary in accordance with the cultural/historical circumstances, often allowing for the tenuous co-existence of several models side-by-side which bear differing degrees of mutual tolerance or acceptance. But the blurring of distinctions between the divine and the human in revelation surely does not lack respectable traditional precedents.

9) If authors such as diverse as Reb Zalman and Michael Fishbane are seeking to return us to God language because we have lost God language, then why are you moving us to naturalism? Is it because their audience is the US and yours is a religious Israel?

I am not promoting a move away from God language. However, just as the medieval rationalist philosophers, as epitomized by the Rambam, generated a radical about-face from the biblical concept of God that nurtures Jewish theology to the present day, Modern Orthodoxy, in the turn from modernist to postmodern notions of truth, may now be on the brink of a similarly radical revolution in Jewish thought, which involves imaging God as a force encompassing nature, rather than its antithesis.
Such a revolution does not obviate the importance of popular religion, and the traditional God-talk characterizing simple straightforward yirat shamayim. The vision of God as outside ourselves may be crucial to the experience of prayer as a dialogic activity. The notion of divine providence may be as necessary to the development of human morality and social responsibility as policing is to the preservation of law and order. And the image of a God who stands over and above creation may be invaluable for developing the sense of a metaphysical entity that is more than the projection of our subjective desires.

On the other hand, there may be justice in the claim that there is greater call for a more comprehensive and nuanced attunement to the sacred in Israel than in religious circles in the States. In the U.S., Modern Orthodox identity is closely bound up with organizational affiliations and adherence to a distinctly urban and middle-class life-style. Theology is not a great concern. Because Jewish life in Israel is all-encompassing, it is more difficult to cordon God off in the synagogue, and distance our understanding of Torah and our ritual practices from natural morality and broader intellectual, political, and spiritual interests.
Moreover, because much of Modern Orthodoxy here functions independently of the rabbinate, and includes a higher proportion of educated laity confident in their ability to make ideological judgments on their own, they have little compunction in drawing inspiration from less bourgeois thinkers that are not strictly identified with them denominationally. This includes figures both on their left (such as Heschel, Zalman Schechter and Rosenzweig) and on their right (such as R. Nachman of Bratzlav, and other bona fide representatives of Hassidic spiritualism).

Interview with James Kugel round 3- The Kingly Sanctuary

James Kugel has written a new book, The Kingly Sanctuary, a short volume explaining his views on the Bible, Oral tradition, and Judaism. While based on his earlier writings, he is clearly answering many of the questions he has received in the last few years from his troubled religious readers. The book is currently available only as an e-book; a hard-copy paperback is due out in another few weeks. It is a fun read and between that and this interview all your questions about Kugel’s views will be hopefully answered.


This interview is third in a series of interviews with Kugel on this blog. The first one is here and the second one is here. There seems to be a greater clarity and a much greater role for an independent act of faith in the commanding voice of revelation than the first interview or in the appendix to his 2007 book. Kugel seems to deny this change in his articulation, yet greater readers than I such as Marilynne Robinson also read his book as I did, far from the positions in this interview.

In short, here is as an introduction to this interview for those trying to follow the discussion. Prof James Kugel was a professor of Bible, Second Temple literature, and Midrash at Harvard and Bar Ilan universities (he’s now retired from both)., He started off by writing an award winning book on The Idea of Biblical Poetry, then began to concentrate on Judaism in the Second Temple period and, in particular, the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is not an archeologist or historian of the ancient Near East such as professors David Carr or Jacob Wright (Read their interviews to see the difference).

Kugel wrote another book (How to Read the Bible) in which he contrasts traditional Jewish and Christian understandings of the Bible, which were based on ancient interpretations and traditions not found in the text itself, with the modern critical approach, which seeks to uncover the original meaning of different parts of the Bible by studying them in terms of their original historical setting and incorporating everything that archaeologists, Assyriologists, Egyptologists, and others have discovered about the world of the Bible. He personally advocates the former approach as the only appropriate one within a Jewish framework. But many of his readers found his outsider’s presentation (in that he is not a Biblical source critic) of the critical method as cogent, convincing, and more attractive than Jewish midrash. Think of a believing philosophy professor who is better in his lectures at presenting atheism than belief.

In this current interview (and book), we have a clear confessional acceptance of revelation that is entirely separate from modern Biblical study. Now, the divine sound of revelation breaks through and commands the Jews to serve Him. Now, the Bible is a work of teaching us how to serve God, albeit as known through the historic text and its interpreters.

He wears at least four hats and keeps them quite separate. He can encapsulate the work of the Biblical historians, he can then change his hat and describe his own beliefs, he can be a critical scholar of Second Temple traditions, and he can explain the modern rise of Bible as literature. I see this interview as finally answering all our queries on Kugel’s Biblical positions. But now we are opening up a whole new set of questions on the nature of Judaism’s oral tradition. Are we back to discussing the theological positions of Shadal, Krochmal, and IH Weiss on the Oral Law?

As noted in the first interview, Kugel did not realize that not just high school students but much of the observant community including its leaders and authors lack the requisite exposure to historical thinking and critical studies. He also cannot begin to address those lacking a good humanities education. Before commenting on the blog, I invite my readers who fall into the latter category and think revelation can be proved to peruse the writings of Hume, Hobbs, and Kant on religion, or a good introduction to the philosophy of religion.

1) What is revelation? What do you mean when you say that Judaism without revelation is impossible because it virtually denies God ?

The term revelation refers to God appearing to, and/or speaking to, human beings, just as the Torah recounts. I’ve always believed these are real encounters, as I tried to show in an earlier book of mine, The God of Old (so anyone who wants a longer account of things should look there).

I know that there are people who wish to claim that the Torah, or all of Scripture, is simply a human creation, because God does not, or cannot, actually speak to human beings. To me this seems a contradiction in terms. Without a God who can, and did, speak to humans, Judaism makes no sense.

2) How much of the Torah was given at Sinai?

As most Jews know, there are two classical assertions about the Torah’s origins, known by the shorthand expressions Torah mi-Sinai (i.e., the Torah was given at a particular time and place, that is, at Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt) and Torah min ha-Shamayim, that the Torah was given to Israel by God. (The word Shamayim, “Heaven,” is a common way of saying “God” in rabbinic Hebrew, as in the phrase yir’at Shamayim, “the fear of God,” Malkhut Shamayim, “God’s kingship,” and similar expressions.)

I’ve never denied either of these formulations (I’ve always said that I’m not out to create a new form of Judaism, just trying to live with the old one). But I should point out that of these two classical assertions, only the second one—Torah min ha-Shamayim—is a weight-bearing member in the structure of Judaism (see thus its mention Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).

On this our rabbis were quite clear: anyone who says that the whole Torah came from God except for such-and-such a verse, claiming instead that it was introduced by Moses on his own authority—to such a person apply the words of Num 15:31, “For he has impugned the word of the Lord and violated His commandment” (b. Sanhedrin 99a).

In other words, the role of Moses in transmitting the Torah to Israel was simply that of a go-between: the fact that he was the go-between and not someone else had no bearing on the Torah’s content. The same of course is true of the place involved. Sinai’s actual location was so unimportant to our rabbis that no one today knows where it really was—we’re not even sure that it was located somewhere in the Sinai peninsula, which was so named because of a much later theory that that is where the mountain was.

The thing that does matter is that the Torah came from God, that is, Torah min ha-Shamayim. This is absolutely essential. At the same time, as many people have pointed out, this is a claim that is not subject to proof or refutation. The Torah is made of words, and words don’t come with little flags attached to them, identifying this word as of divine origin and that one as merely human.

To put it another way, Torah min ha-Shamayim is an article of faith. That is why no biblical scholar I have ever heard of has said that modern research proves that this or that part of the Bible did not come from God; this is just not subject to scientific verification. Either you believe it or you don’t. I do.

3) So is the Torah just Divine inspiration?

I don’t know what “just Divine inspiration” means. The Tanakh presents different pictures of how prophecy works. Most often, God is said to speak to prophets, but it is not clear how exactly this happens—or what happens next. Bil‘am was undeniably a prophet, but he seems to have turned whatever he heard from God into what the Torah calls meshalim, couplets apparently of his own composition that sound a lot like biblical poetry. God at times showed Jeremiah or other prophets images or pictures, and then asked them, “What do you see?” (Spinoza made much of this, sliding the Latin word imaginatio from “mental image” to “imagination” in our sense.)

On the other hand, Philo of Alexandria, an otherwise rational Alexandrian Jew of the first century, said that when God speaks to prophets, He takes over their minds completely, so that when they recover from their prophetic trance, they don’t know what they said or what it means.

As I said before, I believe that God speaks to human beings; but not being a prophet myself, I’m really not sure what this is like. Something tells me it’s not a matter of words traveling on sound waves through the air that separates God’s mouth from the prophet’s ear. If you object to this by reminding me that the Torah itself says that God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow” (Exod 33:11), I would say that this is an expression of what the Torah says elsewhere (Num 12:7-8, Deut 34:10-12), that there never was a prophet like Moses—no one else reached his degree of closeness to God. But I don’t think I would push this into being a literal description.

(People often ask in this connection about Maimonides’ eighth principle and his assertion that “we believe that the entire Torah presently in our possession is the one given to Moses our master…Moses was like a scribe writing from dictation.” Everyone in Maimonides’ day knew precisely what he was talking about, though it has subsequently been forgotten and his meaning distorted. What he had in mind was the Islamic doctrine of tahrif, “distortion,” namely, the claim that while Moses had gotten the true Torah, it had been distorted by Ezra the scribe, so that the Jews no longer had the correct text. This claim Maimonides rightly rejected; but he was also careful to say that it all came from God “in the manner that is metaphorically called ‘speaking.’” That is to say, it really wasn’t words moving on sound waves through the air.)

In fact, I would give the same answer that Albert Abbadi, the protagonist of my new book The Kingly Sanctuary, gives to Judd when the latter insists that the Torah must be factual history because it was “written by the finger of God” (Exod 31:18): “I see,” Abbadi says. “It is, whatever else it is, necessarily factual. Then perhaps you will explain to me in what sense God has a finger, as factually reported the verse you just cited.”

4) How is the Bible not history? If it is not history, then why in How to Read the Bible did you seem to treat it as history? Your readers are confused.

The Bible certainly recounts historical events, but merely relating history is never the point. Here I am hesitant to use any kind of analogy, especially a literary one, since I’ve been arguing against the appropriateness of such analogies since I wrote an article called “The Bible as Literature” more than thirty years ago. So I don’t think that the Tanakh is like Shakespeare.

But I would say this: Shakespeare’s Hamlet may be based on a certain obscure Danish ruler named “Amleth,” whose story was told in the medieval chronicle Deeds of the Danes by Saxo Grammaticus, but most people don’t read or see the play Hamlet in order to find out what really happened to the historical Amleth. Same with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the real events surrounding the assassination of a Roman tyrant by the same name in the first century BCE. It is in this sense, too, that the Bible is not merely relating history.

My readers are confused? I suppose some of them are. But the whole point of How to Read the Bible was to argue against the approach of modern biblical scholarship, with its systematic exclusion of the great exegetical traditions that have accompanied the Torah from the start, as well as against modern scholarship’s relentless focus instead on “what really happened,” that is, the historical events underlying biblical texts. In chapter after chapter, I contrasted what modern scholars have discovered about “what really happened” —much of it carried out with great insight and skill, let it be said—to the way in which the Bible had been read and understood by both Jews and Christians for centuries and centuries before.

These two approaches, I said, are fundamentally incompatible, and their incompatibility has put lots of modern Protestants in particular in a bind. In order to make this argument, of course, I had to give my readers an extended look at how modern scholarship works and what it has figured out; nor did I hide my admiration for some of its practitioners and what they have been able to do. But the incompatibility remains.

For Jews, I went on to say, the solution to this problem is clear, since it has always been in place: our Torah is not about “what really happened” and is not limited to the words on the page alone. Rather, ours is the Torah as it was explained and expounded by the rabbis of Talmud and midrash, a great, multiform text that combines the written words, the torah she-bikhtav, with the oral traditions explaining their meaning, the torah she-be‘al peh. It is as concerned with “what really happened” as Hamlet is with “Amleth.” Still confused? I can’t put it more clearly than that.

5) Wasn’t the Bible changed during Beit Sheni (the Second Temple Period)?

This is an important question, since the answer says something fundamental about the significance of divine revelation in Judaism. Interestingly, this is a subject on which modern biblical scholarship does have something to say.
Biblical scholars have demonstrated over the last two centuries that many books in the Tanakh have undergone a lengthy process of editing and supplementation. (Actually, part of this insight goes back far earlier: for example, the great medieval biblicist Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that the later chapters of the book of Isaiah, starting with chapter 40, did not come from the biblical prophet Isaiah, who lived in the eighth century BCE; they seem to presume a historical setting toward the end of the Babylonian exile, or perhaps still later.)

Thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now know that the book of Jeremiah circulated in at least two different editions in Second Temple times; the one that Jews translated into Greek in the late third or early second century BCE (the so-called Septuagint edition) is considerably shorter—by about eight chapters’ worth—than our current Hebrew text, and the order of the chapters is different from ours. Through careful examination, scholars have come to similar conclusions about quite a few books in the Bible. In fact, we can sometimes see this process of revision and supplementation continuing in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The obvious question that this raises is: How dare they? How dare someone come along and take a sacred text, one that had been preserved for centuries, and start fiddling with its contents?

If we could ask an ancient prophet or sage how he dared to change this or that piece of Scripture, I think I know some of the reasons he might give: “There was an apparent inconsistency between what it says here and what it says there—so I had to clarify things”; “Ordinary people wouldn’t understand this particular word/place-name/historical reference”; “I had to highlight what is really important in the prophet’s words for us nowadays”; or sometimes, “Our sages just don’t think that way anymore,” or “We don’t do that anymore.” But this in turn tells us something basic about the idea of divinely given Scripture in biblical times. It was divine, but not unalterable. I don’t believe there is any other way to construe the evidence.

6) But how can that be? Do you mean they just had a different idea of what was permitted, a different set of “rules of the game”?

This touches on what is really the main point. I think that there is, and always has been, something very basic in Judaism, so basic that we tend not to talk about it—it’s just obvious. But it deserves to be said here. The whole idea of Judaism (I suppose one has to be over the age of 60 to start off a sentence this way) is that we can come close to God by doing His bidding, that is, by keeping His commandments. This is what Judaism is all about—what is called in Hebrew avodat ha-Shem, the service of God. This may sound like some theological abstraction, but it underlies everything religious Jews do every day, from the birkhot ha-shahar that they say first thing in the morning until the keriyat Shema that they before going to sleep at night. Avodat ha-Shem is the whole purpose for which the Torah was given to Israel: to set out a detailed list of actions, great and small, to be done throughout our daily lives, 613 concrete do’s and don’ts that bring us closer to God.

But precisely because avodat ha-Shem is so important, our rabbis did not hesitate to add to those 613 commandments, fleshing out the details and sometimes promulgating what are called mitzvot de-rabbanan, commandments transmitted on the authority of the rabbis alone. This interest in fleshing things out is what stands behind every page of Gemara, and for that matter, every paragraph of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah or Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Arukh. And in the end it is why we are not fundamentalists or literalists: even the apparent sense of a verse in the Torah is sometimes expanded or modified in the interest of avodat ha-Shem, serving God more fully.

Of course, there have always been people who are bothered by this fact, and I understand why. They want to claim that everything comes from God—not only the Torah and the rest of Tanakh, but the entire Mishnah and Tosefta, all the give-and-take of the two Talmuds, all of midrash, the decisions of Geonim, everything that Rashi said, and so on, right down to the teshuvot of R. Moshe Feinstein ztz’’l.

I know where this desire to attribute everything to God comes from, but I think it’s quite wrong-headed: at some point ordinary human beings, or extraordinary ones, have to enter the process. In fact, this is a basic principle (a kelal gadol, I would say) in Judaism: what starts in heaven eventually has to come down to earth, or, as the rabbis said, Lo ba-shamayim hi, the Torah started out in heaven, but it is no longer up there. Even in the days of Hazal (the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud), the Torah was held to have been given over to human interpreters, human poskim, human authorities. And our rabbis were not bothered by this handoff; it was central to their whole view of Torah and avodat ha-Shem.

I mentioned one concrete example of this in my new book, The Kingly Sanctuary. Various sorts of calendars were used by Jews in Second Temple times. One was based on the Babylonian calendar, in which each month began with the new moon and ended 29 or 30 days later, at the end of the lunar cycle. Twelve lunar months make for 354 days per year, so this calendar required an extra month to be intercalated at irregular intervals. Exactly when each month began was determined by human observation, just as when that extra month was to be added was originally decided on an ad hoc basis by human beings, specifically by a board of experts learned in these matters.

But there was another Jewish calendar, used by the Dead Sea Scrolls community and others in Second Temple times. It was based on the solar year of 365 and a quarter days. Month had no connection with the lunar cycle (just as our September or January don’t). They were arbitrary units of 30 days apiece, making for 360 days over 12 months; another 5 or 6 days were interspersed and/or added in some other way to bring the total into equilibrium with the solar year.

Which calendar was better? Both could certainly claim to be the “right” calendar: after all, the Torah nowhere tells us which sort of calendar to use. (Supporters of the sun-based calendar actually claimed that the biblical chronology of the flood supported their case—see Genesis 7:11 and 8:3-4). In any case, one could certainly say about the sun-based calendar that, in a sense, it came straight from Heaven, since it required no human intermediaries: no two witnesses testifying that they saw the new moon, as in our Hebrew calendar, no intercalating a second Adar, no human intervention at all. So why not adopt it?

But Hazal actually gloried in the other calendar and our human role in determining the months. That is why we say on every Rosh Hodesh: “Blessed are You…who established the laws of Rosh Hodesh for them [Israel]; blessed are You who have sanctified Israel [that is, given us this sacred task of determining] the new months.” In fact, because we exercise this function, we also determine the days on which the festivals in various months will occur; we even determine the most sacred day in the year, the day on which people will fast on Yom Kippur (see on this Mishnah Rosh ha-Shanah 2:8-9). So here too: what starts in heaven ends up in human hands. I can’t think of a more striking example of this “handoff” from divine authority to human beings. And just as it is with the calendar, so is it with the other things I mentioned.

7) How do you feel about the website “” and its contributors, some of whom claim your book, How to Read the Bible, as their inspiration?

Not great. Of course I know some of the people involved in this website, and I have nothing against them personally. But my position is exactly the opposite of theirs: they seem to believe that there is some possible way to reconcile modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism, and I have always said that these two are irreconcilable. Traditional Judaism and modern scholarship have completely different approaches to the text, different notions of what it is for and why we study it—in fact, they don’t even agree on what the Torah is, since ours consists of both the written Torah, the torah she-bikhtav, and the orally transmitted torah she-be‘al peh. So trying to blend these two approaches inevitably results in apologetics and, I’m afraid, sometimes leads to plain intellectual dishonesty: “I’ll take this part of modern scholarship because it suits my purposes, but I’ll never mention that part, because it doesn’t.” The way to proceed is to recognize that our Torah is the Torah as explained by Hazal. Its meaning is not up for grabs or subject to new insights from archaeology or modern scholarship; it already has its definitive interpretation in Talmud and midrash. This is its meaning.

8) Tell me about your new book, The Kingly Sanctuary. Why did you write it?

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a kind of general introduction to Judaism called On Being a Jew. It took the form of a conversation between two Jews, an older, knowledgeable fellow (a Syrian banker named Albert Abbadi) and a younger man (Judd Lewis) who, although born a Jew, really knew nothing. By the end of the book Judd at least knows some of the basics of Judaism and decides to go to yeshiva in Israel to learn more.

I always had in mind to write a sequel, and that’s the new book. Judd has been learning in yeshiva for four years, and now he has a whole new agenda of questions to work through. One thing that pushed me to write this book now is all the emails and letters I’ve gotten since How to Read the Bible came out. Many of my correspondents are frum Jews who are troubled by modern biblical scholarship; in fact, some of them are yeshiva students themselves, and their questions go way beyond just modern biblical scholarship to things that are even more basic. So I thought it was time to go back to my old notes and bring out this next volume.

9) I saw in one place in their conversation that Judd tells Albert Abbadi that his explanations are doing more to tear down Orthodox Judaism than to build it up. I’m sure some in the Orthodox world would agree.

Well, Abbadi was a somewhat idiosyncratic expositor of Judaism, as he himself admitted. But the issues he talks about are real issues, even if some people would rather not hear about them. And he was also very smart—so I think his ideas are worth listening to.

10) You talk about him as if he were a real person.

He was, as I explain at the end of the book. And the young fellow, Judd, is in a lot of ways me at the age of 25 or so—though I’d like to think I wasn’t quite that dumb sometimes.

11) Your book begins by explaining the history of religion from primitive man to polytheism to monotheism; why did you start that way?

Isn’t that the way that the Rambam begins? Adam in the Garden of Eden didn’t need to have God explained to him: He was right there, and Adam heard “the sound of the Lord God walking in the Garden.” But beginning with Early Man was important for another reason. Human beings started off small; for them, the presence of God was overarching and overwhelming. People in the modern West have lost this sense of their own smallness, so we have to learn how to get there again. I think that’s what Abbadi was out to explain.

12) What’s the “kingly sanctuary” exactly? Why did you call the book that?

The central image in my earlier book, On Being a Jew, was the mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary that the Israelites carried around with them for forty years in the wilderness. The central image of this one is the great Jerusalem temple, built by King Solomon—hence, the Kingly Sanctuary. It represents a way of conceiving of Judaism that is different from the one associated with the mishkan.

Interview about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach with Natan Ophir

Most people who even briefly knew Reb Shlomo Carlebach understood that he had a multifarious life with many interesting turns. Natan Ophir (Offenbacher) has recently published a chronology of the events in the life of Reb Shlomo called Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy(Urim Press, 2013).garnered from an exhaustive range of interviews making it the first place to look in order to know about these twists and turns. The book is best on people, place, and dates and at many points reads like an almanac.

The book does not seek to push to understand his personality, mission, or contradictions of his persona. It mentions Reb Shlomo’s dark side but quickly moves on to other topics. The interviews are most thorough when dealing with Orthodox youth influenced by him in the 1950’s and least complete when discussing his connections to the Greenwich Village music scene or his connection to the Israeli world of the Chasidic Song Festival. It also does not interview bystanders or outsiders to gain context. One would not get from the book a sense of what it was like to live at the House of Love and Prayer or at Moshav Me’or Modiin. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a description of how his Torah changed over the decades or how the seven hour wedding ceremony was slowly created. Did I say that it reads like an almanac at many places?


In the interview below with the author, I tried to bring out some of the themes of the book in a more analytic way that in the book.

1) How did you come to write the book?
I first met Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach at his shul on Shemini Atzeret in 1969. My family had moved from Philadelphia to Manhattan, just two blocks away from the Carlebach Shul. At the time, I was a student at Yeshiva University and did not really appreciate what I perceived then as a “Hippie Rabbi”.

Only many years later, when my son became a Carlebach Hasid, set up a Carlebach band, and named his second son Hod Shlomo for Reb Shlomo, that I began to take a real interest in the life and legacy of Reb Shlomo. The more I researched the more I became fascinated by a Rabbi whose influence was quite remarkable.

If I was writing the book again I would write it a little differently. I would try to condense some of the events and the laudatory stories so that the book can read more like an objective academic biography. Maybe I would try and put these into an appendix with a list of places and dates where he appeared.

2) What was the most meaningful thing that you found out about Reb Shlomo?
I was surprised to discover the extent of influence of Reb Shlomo on so many different types of people from Jewish Renewal to haredim. Even just last week when I was visiting New York, I encountered people who vividly described how they had been close friends and some had even been “adopted” by Reb Shlomo.
If I were to narrow down Shlomo’s legacy to one word that would capsulize a key message of his approach to life it would be “Empathy”. Shlomo’s dynamo was “empathy”, a genuine attempt at appreciating other people and bringing out their best….Everyone is Best of the Best, Holy Brother, Holy Sister, holy everyone… If you ask how can that be possible when there is so much sin, evildoing and lowliness? The answer is in his Beshtian type stories of the Hidden Tzadik, the lamed vav zadikim and their leader who all disguise themselves.

3) Can you detail and explain his relationship with Michael Steinhardt?

Michael Steinhardt played a key role in financially supporting Reb Shlomo at three junctures – 1963, 1967 and 1971. Steinhardt graduated the Wharton School at the age of 19. In 1960, he went to a Carlebach concert and was “enthralled by the joy of Rabbi Carlebach’s singing”, and struck up a personal friendship. In 1963, he set up a company called The Shabbos Express to help Shlomo channel his talents in a professional business-like manner. However, Shlomo’s new managers were unable to dictate new habits and the company folded.

When the Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967, there was a news blackout from Israel. Arab sources claimed that the Israeli Air Force had been destroyed, the oil reserves in Haifa were on fire, and Arab forces were outside of Tel Aviv. At an impromptu rally at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza on June 6, 1967, Reb Shlomo got up on a truck, led the crowd in a mournful El Maleh Rahamim, and then broke down in tears. Steinhardt:

I’ll never forget his crying on that June night. After the rally was over, I went to him, and I asked what I can do for you. He said I want to go to Israel. So I paid for his ticket. Somehow, he managed to get on the next flight and soon was at the Kotel and visiting the wounded in the hospitals.

Michael became a supporter of the Carlebach Shul. Each year, from 1967 through 1971, he would place a full page ad in the annual Kehillath Jacob Synagogue High Holiday bulletin.

Michael recalled how his first date with Judith (his wife to be) took place at the home of Reb Shlomo (apparently on motzei Yom Kippur, 1967). Half a year later, Reb Shlomo was one of the two officiating Rabbis at their wedding.

Finally, in 1971, Michael was one of three benefactors who committed to pay the monthly mortgage to finance the purchase of the second House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco.

4. How did Shlomo change between the decades?
1950-1954 Chabad Meshulach: Beginning December 10, 1949, Shlomo becomes an outreach emissary for Chabad. After the RaYaTZ dies on January 28, 1950, he works on behalf of the 7th Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel, whom he deeply admired. Later, he was to portray himself as having been the Rebbe’s “right hand man”. In 1951, he began learning English in a Columbia University program and in 1954 he receives rabbinic ordination from R. Yitzhak Hutner. By 1955, he had left Chabad and embarked upon his own unique path.

1955–1959: a guitar playing Orthodox Rabbi: In May 1954 Shlomo meets David Ross, producer of The Dybbuk, and is hired as Hasidic advisor for the play where the rehearsals take place in Greenwich Village. He sees how one of the actors uses his guitar and decides to try it himself. He studies guitar with Anita Sheer who transcribes his songs and encourages him to perform. Shlomo begins to perform at clubs in the Village and connects to folk singers such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Peter Yarrow, and Phil Ochs. In 1956–1957, he serves as a weekend Rabbi in Dorothy, Atlantic County, New Jersey and begins to try out his musical compositions. He meets with religious youth in Brooklyn basements and entertains in the summers in Catskills hotels and soon has a devoted following of young religious students who encourage him to develop a professional musical career and help him set up a record company. The formative year towards producing a record is when he works as a youth director at Congregation Tpheris Israel, St. Louis, Missouri (Oct. 1958–June 1959). The youth help him in selecting the songs which are then recorded on his first record. Soon, Reb Shlomo establishes his reputation as the first Orthodox guitar playing Rabbi.

1959–1966: Shlomo’s musical career takes off with five LPs and six European Trips
with his first two LP records, June 1959, Songs of My Soul, produced by Zimra, Shlomo’s record company and Sing My Heart in 1960. His first trip to Israel was in August 1959.
In 1963, his third LP, At the Village Gate is produced by Vanguard Records, and marks the first time that a religious Jewish artist produces an album with a major American record company. By 1964, this was his eighth visit to Israel. His most famous song, “Am Yisrael Chai,” was created in April 1965 as the anthem for the SSSJ – Student Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. In 1965, he produces his fourth LP, In the Palace of the King, and his fifth LP, Wake Up World. By 1965, he had been on six trips around the world entertaining from Rotterdam to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Rome.

1966-1968 Rabbi for the Hippie Counter-Culture Generation
Several events in 1966-1968 wrought new directions in Shlomo’s life. On the July 4th weekend of 1966 at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, Shlomo discovered his calling in life as the only Orthodox Rabbi who could effectively reach out to a hippie generation. At the outbreak of the Six Day War in June 1967, he flew to Israel to be with the soldiers. A year later, his record entitled I Heard the Wall Singing added to the post-war fervency. The death of his father on December 23, 1967 created a void and Shlomo was expected to assume Rabbinical leadership of his father’s shul, Kehillath Jacob. Although, he did lead the services regularly on the High Holidays, it was not easy for him to be anything like a full time Rabbi at the Manhattan shul when other challenges were beckoning. In May 1968, he established the first House of Love and Prayer (HLP) and created a Jewish commune at the peak of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture in San Francisco.

1968-1979 Maturation of an outreach career
In mid-life, ages 43-54, Shlomo had a major impact on hundreds of close followers and on several communities. His 1972 marriage to Neila and the birth of his two daughters created some basic form of family life in Manhattan and then by 1978 in Toronto. However, Reb Shlomo was not a person who could be limited, and he continued traveling around the world extensively.

1980–1994, Last Years
The year 1980 was a difficult time period for Reb Shlomo, and the decade of the 1980s had its ups and downs. However, outstanding peak experiences include his trips in to Poland (January, 1-10, 1989 and June 1992) and to the Soviet Union (September 7–27, 1989). In these trips, not only did he reach out to Jews, but to thousands of non-Jews as well, and his post Holocaust message of forgiveness and love was most extraordinary. Shlomo’s last concert tour was in October 11-18, 1994 in England. He suffered his fatal heart attack in LaGuardia Airport on October 20, 1994.

5) Can you touch on why much of Shlomo’s Torah had Holocaust themes?
Reb Shlomo responded to the Holocaust by stressing how every individual can become God’s partner in fixing the world and replace anger with love and joy: “After the Holocaust it’s so easy to be angry at the world, and it’s so easy to condemn the world. But we have to continue to love the world. The most important thing today every person has to do is to cleanse their hearts from anger, and fill the heart with a lot of joy” In the concert hall in Bielsko Biala, Poland, in 1989, Reb Shlomo asked how can we “repair the hate of the past?” His answer: “Only by filling ourselves with absolute and complete love and joy.”
Shlomo explained his decision to leave Lakewood yeshiva in order to devote himself to a Chabad outreach mission to save the lost Jewish souls and make up for all those who perished in the Holocaust. In one of Reb Shlomo’s most famous stories, “The last Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto”, the child asks a fifth question, “Will we be alive next year and make a Seder?” The father replies, “I do not know if you or I will be alive next year to make a Seder. but somehow, somewhere in this world, there will be a Jew who will remain alive, and that Jew will be making a Seder.” Shlomo adds: we are all “the remaining Jew”, and each Seder is our own individual gift to that brave father who gave over to his son the faith that Od Avinu Chai, Am Yisrael Chai.

This theme of historical perpetuity and replacement was pronounced in February, 1971, when Reb Shlomo promised: “My theory is that six million Jews who died in the Holocaust have come back as today’s young people. Let’s not lose them again”.
Moshe Waldoks reflected recently: “I was a 10-year old boy in 1959 when Shlomo came to my yeshiva in Brooklyn, the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway. Reb Shlomo Carlebach was important because he gave us permission to sing after the Shoah. The Shoah was still very raw and it was Shlomo who taught us to sing in renewed joyous Hasidic melody”. Similarly, Eli Schlossberg was 9 years old in 1959 was later to reminisce how Shlomo restarted musical simcha after the Holocaust – “Klal Yisrael had stopped singing, and now Shlomo was teaching our youth how to sing once again”.

Some of Shlomo’s tunes reflect his post Holocaust response. “Gam Ki Elech” (Psalms 23:4) – “Even as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…” was first sung in the wake of the Yom Kippur war. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau describes how he had often hosted R. Shlomo in Tel Aviv, and Shlomo once said to him: “Rav Yisrael, you are a child of the Holocaust. I want to sing a special tune for you,” and then he composed a melody Gam Ki Elech. Following that, Shlomo’s album, The Children of Jewish Song Sing Ani Maamin, was released in 1975.

In his eulogy at the Carlebach Shul before Shlomo’s burial, Moshe Rothkopf described how R. Shlomo would warmly greet everyone who came to his shul because “he felt that after the Holocaust every Yid is a miracle. He wanted us to go out and hug and kiss every miracle.”

6) What did you find about the sexual allegations?
There are several stories circulating, which, if true, would indicate that Shlomo acted ‘inappropriately’. However, the challenge is to find concrete evidence for ‘sexual abuse’. One obstacle is that the negative stories are reported anonymously making them difficult to verify. Secondly, events of a few decades ago are problematic to reconstruct based on oral memories.

A decade and a half have passed since the allegations were first publicized in the Lilith magazine. Since then, strangely enough, no one has published any substantially verified new material. If the stories were indeed true, one would expect that someone would be willing to present certifiable evidence.

(The answer to question 6 does not reflect the opinion of this blog and should be taken as solely reflecting Ophir’s view.)

7) It seems his best years according to your book were his 1957-1961 years of visiting shuls, NCSY, summer camps. Can you describe that period for shlomo and for his audience?

I don’t know if ‘best years’ is a good definition, but yes, there was something magical and promising about 1957-1959 when he began choosing the songs, and his fans encouraged him to prepare his first record. His audience was a natural fit – mostly modern Orthodox. Shlomo’s own personal outreach then was done through his organization T.S.G.G (pronounced TASGIG), an acronym for Taste And See God Is Good based on Psalms 34:9. Thus, for example, on December 25, 1957, T.S.G.G. organized a “Chanukah Festival” at Riverside Plaza Hotel, near the Carlebach Shul, and on March 16, 1958, a “Purim Song Festival” at Hotel Diplomat on W43rd Street. Here Shlomo was accompanied by a 5 man band, one of whom was Kalman Kinnory. It was Kinnory as a recording engineer who ensured that Shlomo record his first two songs professionally, Haneshama Lach in 1958 and Borchi Nafshi in 1959.

8) You paint Shlomo as sad and an outcast in the 1980′s. Why?
In 1980, at age 55, his life changed. His mother died and he became divorced. Suddenly, he seemed rather alone. His two little daughters were with their mother in Toronto most of the time. It was a sad time when idealistic concepts of family life seemed to have dissipated. And he was having various health issues from heart problems to serious back aches.

I don’t think that he was more of an ‘outcast’ in 1980 than in earlier times, but he was definitely now out in the world without the parental base that had played such an essential role until then. I do know that the “loneliness” had its impact in those years.

9) Much of Shlomo’s message was about an inner self or imagining all is good and healed. Do you have any thoughts on the psychology of that message for Shlomo?

Shlomo felt that the emotions that you have mentioned (love, joy, and healing) were being unfairly trumped by proste frumkeit, and his message took on a utopian vision of a world that would be healed and filled with empathy and brotherhood. This was pronounced with fervour in his encounters with the New Age Movements. In Vancouver at the World Symposium for Humanity, November 27–December 4, 1976, Shlomo reinterprets the story of Cain’s murder of Abel, and admits that throughout history, and especially in the Holocaust, the Cains of the world murdered their brothers Abel. But in the future, there will be a resurrection and the brothers will be reconciled. The audience composed of various New Age Movements all joined with Shlomo swaying in a trance-like state of ecstasy and fraternity.

Shlomo was keenly aware of the pain and suffering that he encountered but his message of how we can all work together to bring the Great Day when all of creation will sing in harmony was not only a product of the New Age idealism but it was also a reworking of Messianic themes inherent within Judaism. It is no coincidence that his reaction to the 1967 miraculous victory and imminent sight of Divine Redemption coincided with his view that the spiritual question of the holy hippelach of the late 1960s was part of a Divine Plan to soon fulfil the Messianic vision. In tune with the counterculture of the late 1960s, Shlomo was very critical of the Establishment and accused them of emphasizing a rote practice and lacking true spirituality, love and joy.

Shlomo projected an ideal future world within easy reach. In that he was not only following Jewish messianic ideas and Hasidic interpretations, but also he was cognizant of the utopian New Age ideas of gurus and swamis such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Satchidananda and Timothy Leary. Shlomo however, sang “the whole world is waiting to sing a song of Shabbos”.

Shlomo described the hippies as a new generation of young people who hear the Divine melody but “don’t know the words.” Shlomo’s thesis was that the world would be fixed when the older generation listens to the hippies’ melody, and simultaneously “these inspired young people” learn some of the traditional words.

Hindu pictures at an Exhibition

I am still trying to find my voice in writing up the theological contents of my India trip; let me try my hand at something more local in the same style that I was writing about India. (too wordy? Makes it readable? Unreadable?) This post is still a tentative work in progress.

There is a wonderful exhibit that opened when I first returned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century.” Museums are one of the key components in the creation of the middle class public sphere. The world’s treasures are no longer available only to royalty, rather since the invention of the museum, everyone can be uplifted by the exhibits as well as learn and debate their meaning. They control the way the public looks at history and are simultaneously an amusement for the family. In this case, for those not privileged to have a grant to travel to India and see the material objects of Eastern religions in their own culture, the exhibit offer a chance to expose people as well as mold their understanding of Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Met museum is located on museum mile on Fifth Ave, one of the densest concentrations of cultural institutions in the world, with a single entrance to the museum in the middle of a four block long building. The entrance has a monumental grand stone staircase almost half a block wide and a grand three story entrance. Outside in front of the staircase are a half dozen hotdog/gyro trucks with the most expensive vendor permits in the city at almost a quarter of a million dollars each, for the right to sell hot dogs. Just three blocks away the permits cost half that amount. Think of how many people buy hot dogs and sodas in a year to make this profitable for half a dozen trucks. It also shows what an institution the Metropolitan Museum is for the area.

Upon entering the museum those who visiting every few years wait on long lines for entry and treat this as a special trip in their lives. Those with annual membership enter by showing their card, immediately receiving tickets without waiting. The latter group also tends to avoid the grand front pavilions and go to the elevators in back to reach their destination of a special exhibit.

The Hindu-Buddhist exhibit was on the second floor in the same recessed serpentine exhibit room used for many other special exhibits (for pictures see here and here.) It was kept dark except for the lights on the objects. This separation from everything else marks these objects as art and sculptures removing them from their original religious context. But can we so easily convert statues of gods into art objects? Would a display of tefillin in an exhibition of Greco-Roman leather work remove their religious nature? In many museums in India they have a tough time getting the patrons not to leave flower or incense offerings at the statues, some even want to light votive candles before the statues. Even at the Rubin museum of Himalayan art on 17th Street, there were patrons who did not keep art and devotion separate and left offerings at the statue of Ganesh.

Since exhibits color how people view religions, I have a problem with these exhibits of Indian art from the Gupta and Chola periods (320 to 1000CE). These early centuries produced some of the most spectacular highly ornate art and were a high point of military power for Hindu kingdoms. However, we have very little knowledge of what those statutes meant to those who worshipped. They do not correspond to the sacred texts from either before or after. Nor do they even correspond to classic sutras being written during this time period. Even when the images of Hinduism are from a bas-relief on a Temple, most of these classical Temples are of historical interest and not currently used.

Book publishers love putting these early images on the cover of books leading many if not most people in the West to think that this pantheon of gods is still worshiped and the worship is still in the form of 1500 years ago. Many Westerners will be adamant since these were the illustrations to their paper book books on Hinduism, hence they know what goes on today.

During those years the collective word Hinduism was not even invented. There were separate religions of the worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Durga and others religions with separate festivals, ritual books, and theologies. Placing everything in a single room creates a sense of hodgepodge image of the foreign religion. In addition, there were many pieces of Hindu-Buddhist yakshas- little nature spirits – similar to Gaelic nature spirits before Christianity- giving an image of the religion that is far from contemporary concerns.

Furthermore, most of the pieces in the display were from outside lintels or display pieces in royal buildings. The exhibit did not distinguish between temples and royal buildings since its narrow goal was to show Indian influence in South East Asia. The museum had big decorative lions on display with palace Buddhas, with scenes of the life of the gods, with actual Temple gods. The depiction of the gods on building ornamentation is not the same as actual Temple practice. For example, do Christians worship the gargoyles, griffins, and unicorns used as building ornamentation? Are all the scenes from Ovid or baroque passions found in museums reflective of the theology of the chapel? Do New Yorker’s place altars next to Patience and Fortitude, the lions in front of the New York public library?

Finally, those that were actual Temple deities should have been clothed and fully dressed to preserve the dignity that Hinduism gives its temple statues. Unlike the Greco-Roman statue that celebrated the body, especially the nude form, the Hindu statue is symbolic and non-representational with extra body parts and symbolic ornamentation to tell a story. Temple deities once consecrated are meant to be dressed every day as worship. Luckily, most of the statues had broken pieces and a chipped or broken image loses its status as deities in Hinduism.

Here is a way to put it in Jewish terms. Jews do not make representations of images for worship. But what if they did? What if a curator put together an exhibit of the Biblical image of a golden calf, Helios mosaic synagogue images, relics from the Jewish Temples in Onias and Elephantine, together with images of birds heads from the haggadah and Polish synagogue lions. What would you think? Would you think that Jews worship the synagogue lions?

In addition, if Jews did visual arts for worship, Jews would have to deal with the remains of statues to the shekhinah or the kavod. When Yehudah Halevi tells us to visualize the shekhinah during prayer what would the image had looked like if we made images? What would a devotional image of the body of God from the Song of Glory look like? So would such an exhibit reflect current Jewish thought? [Jews in late antiquity and early middle ages described in their texts zaddikim as having halos of light around their heads, but without the painted images or sculpted figures few know of our similar imagery with the rest of the West.]

There was a decorative statue from Cambodia of Kalkin, the form of Vishnu that will appear at the end of time on a white horse. He will amass an army of those few pious souls remaining and will destroy all demons and sins in the world. This eschatology of a final battle is much closer to our Western messianic and Armageddon battles than our images of Hinduism, yet the visual alone does not convey the meaning.

Notice the row of mediators on this relic cover below. Even some of the most ordinary Buddhist art has depictions of rows of mediators.

Another special exhibit in the museum was by a nineteenth century French sculpture who sought to capture all the realism of the human body as sculpted by Michelangelo. His sculpture had realistic eyes that seem to be real and watching you. In contrast, India sculpture is always ideal or devotional. The eyes were intentionally blank on the statues that were used in worship because they get painted on to consecrate the statue. The Buddhas had eyes half shut to show that one has to look not just outward but also inward. Only the protective/decorative lions and dragons had ordinary eyes since they were not objects of worship.

There is a very similar exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art on the import of Indian image into south East Asia which does not have as extravagant pieces but it is much better curated, limiting itself to devotional pieces.

On leaving the museum on a street proceeding out from the front stairs was the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, an NYU gallery hosting an incredibly important exhibit Copper Age Art from Israel of items from the Copper Age 4000 BCE from what is now the land of Israel. These pieces made between the Neolithic and Bronze age offer an insight in the gods and burial practices of the land 2000 years before the date ascribed to the Patriarchs. When we see this exhibit we know to keep its contents separate from Israelite religion and certainly from Judaism. But if so, then why do people treat Indian archaeology from the Vedic period as if it reflects contemporary Hinduism? And when we see statues of Ugarit or Sumerian style found in what is now Israel, we know it does not reflect the group that became Judaism but we do not make the same distinctions when at exhibit of items from the Indus valley.

Are the book cover designers at fault for causing us to blur historic ages, or maybe various museum exhibits?

Can one talk about Religion in 300 words?

Between 2009 – 2011 when I was working on book manuscripts, I posted 24 times a month, lots of small posts and news clips. I submitted the manuscript in 2011 so I went back to research, grant writing, and Fulbright year abroad. Therefore, between 2011-2014, my posts have been limited to a handful a month and gotten much longer, usually magazine length. Well, I am now working on a manuscript again. So I back online. I will start posting things I read again. As of now, I do not plan on posting the small stuff on Facebook, but if people would like that then let me know-maybe a separate page.

The AP has sent a memo to relgion journalists to limit their stories to 300-500 words. But can any religion story be explained in so few words?It seems that unless people are already within one group and know the people involved that it limits stories to organizational teams and rooting for one side. It removes all tradition, doctrine, text, and spiritual quest from religion. Everything is now either good news or bad news. The blog GetReligion which is dedicated to watching how the press handles religion flags this point.

Here’s the story as reported by The Washington Post:

Citing a “sea of bloated mid-level copy,” Associated Press Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano last week instructed fellow editors at the wire service to limit most “daily, bylined digest stories” to a length of between 300 and 500 words. Top stories from each state, Carovillano directed, should hit the 500 to 700-word range, and the “top global stories” may exceed 700 words but must still be “tightly written and edited.”

Carovillano’s memo itself references the driving force behind the limits: “Our members do not have the resources to trim the excess to fit shrinking news holes,” notes the editor.

Paul Colford, a spokesman for AP, notes that a “common concern” among AP members and subscribers is that stories are too long. In recent months, says Colford, the wire service has been trimming stories in Europe and the outcome has been “successful.”

Noting that the memo encouraged AP reporters to “consider using alternative story forms either to break out details from longer stories, or in lieu of a traditional text story,” a Poynter Institute blogger quipped: So is AP getting into the listicle business?

Here at GetReligion, we often critique stories that seem incomplete and lacking in basic context and details. Often, those stories run 800 to 1,200 words. But what happens when a journalist has only 300 to 500 words to tell a complicated religion story? Is that even possible?

Can a news organization report fairly and fully on, say, a same-sex marriage lawsuit or a doctrinal debate or a faith affiliation survey in that amount of space? Can it even pretend to?

source GetReligion

Interview with Yehudah Mirsky about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Years ago, when I was at Yeshiva College after I had already read the available English books about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as well as the meager translations, I decided it was time to turn to his Hebrew works. Fortuitous for me was that the person who lived across the hall from me in the dorm was future Brandeis professor, Yehuda Mirsky. He recommended that I start with Eder Hayakar-Ikvei h’Tzon (excellent translation of much of it here), which contains Kook’s early clarion call that we live in a unique age,in which the youth will not continue the archaic ways; Times are changing and new solutions are needed.

The same Yehudah Mirsky now guides all of us in his recently written book, the only introduction to Kook’s life entitled, Rav Kook Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2014). Mirsky is currently an Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies as well as affiliated with the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He served in the U.S. State Department’s human rights bureau has lived in Israel for the past decade, and has contributed to the New Republic, the Economist, and many other publications.

Even though many have heard of Rabbi Kook, English readers have had little exposure to the actual complexity of his thought. Most of the translations into English were done in the mid-20th century by RIETS graduates who studied with Kook’s student Moshe Seidel at Yeshiva University and who went on to respond to the changes of modernity by building the Conservative Movement (Ben-Zion Bokser, and Jacob Agus). On the other hand, the writings produced in mid-twentieth Israel stressed that Kook wanted to “renew the old and sanctify the new’ through Religious Zionism of secular education, poetry, imagination, state building, and a modern worldview (Zvi Yaron).

Even for those who read Hebrew, his ideas were elusive. After the 1967 War, Rav Kook was presented in the works constructed by his son, Zvi Yehudah (such as Orot) as stressing the organic bond of the Jewish soul to the land, the glories of war, messianic politics, and nullification of the exile. In contrast, the more Modern Orthodox world stressed Orot Hakodeh, edited by the Nazir David Cohen, in which worked out Rav Kook’s positions on faith, heresy, kefira, tolerance, and science (such as Benjamin Ish Shalom, for a good overview of this angle read the VBM classes).

Recently, Rav Kook’s original notebooks, Shemonah Kevatzim were published, from which the other works were constructed. In addition, other manuscripts, mystical diaries, and Kook’s early articles have also been recently published wherein he reveals himself to be a Haredi who struggled with the spirit of modern philosophy, someone who rejected secular education in school but eagerly met regularly with secular authors, someone who liked the free-spirited thinking of the Religious Kibbutz movement but opposed their halakhic leniencies and as someone who wants a religious Zionism but vehemently fought against the institutions and social vision of the Mizrachi party.

Now, Mirsky offers us a comprehensive yet concise biography.We still await a comprehensive book on Rav Kook’s thought.

This post is already very long but one should also find time to read Mirsky’s ideas about the staying power of Orthodoxy and Orthodox Feminism.


1) Can you tell me about your new book?
Rav Kook is an immensely significant and compelling figure, at the very least one of the most important Jewish thinkers and public figures of modern time. His life is a sacred history of the most powerful and contradictory currents of modern Judaism. And yet he’s hardly known in the English speaking world, including among students of religion.

State Department colleagues of mine who spent years working on settlements, peace process etc. have never heard of him – and thus never thought of settlers as anything other than Bible-thumping nationalist fundamentalists. American Jewish intellectuals know almost nothing about him (other than “he was the vegetarian, right” – though only sort of, or “that fascist?”), rabbis and educators know only the vaguest things and even Orthodox Jews know very little about him – though they are curious. And even reasonably well-informed people have little idea just how hard-fought the internal history of Zionism in general, and religious Zionism in particular, have been.

So I tried here to fill that gap, with a book length essay about Rav Kook’s life, thought and times, that would be meaningful both to learned readers like you and to people whose knowledge of Judaism comes from book reviews in the New Yorker.

I tried to write in a style that would strike a balance critical distance and empathetic understanding. And because it was so short, I had to make every sentence count.

2) What do you do with the dominant interpretation of Rav Kook as messianic militarism via his son Rabbi Zvi Yehudah and Hardal.

In some ways this is THE question here.

Our interpretive choices as readers, especially as engaged and committed readers, are also moral choices. My moral choice here is to try and do justice to the man, understand him as best I can, trying to convey the very great weight of moral and spiritual authority he rightly brings down to the present – while at the same time choosing not to use his deeply essentialized ideas about the land of Israel and the Jewish people, by which those entities are in some ways removed from the world and can, in the exercise of their selfhood do no wrong, as guides for political life in the present.

Rav Zvi Yehudah and his disciples have chosen otherwise – to read him as a corpus that can brook no contradiction, and to take those essentialized readings of Eretz Yisrael and Knesset Yisrael as guides for action in the present day. I believe that doing so will in the end lead to bad results, and to cruelty, whether intentionally inflicted or not. Which is not to get the Palestinians and Israel’s other antagonists off the hook for the bad things they have done. As Rav Amital taught us, life is complicated, but that complexity is not an excuse from trying to think things through.

Now, Allan Nadler in his smart and bracing piece in the Jewish Review of Books argues that I let Rav Kook too easily off the hook – in that his ideas, to Allan’s mind, lead directly to those of Rav Zvi Yehudah – as well as arguing that while I do present a nuanced and critical view, I left out some of Rav Kook’s less congenial or even disturbing rulings and pronouncements. As far as the latter goes, as I said, I wrote this book for a wider audience, and assumed that what I had in there already was shocking enough to liberal sensibilities, and that adding more would have kept general readers from trying to understand what was so compelling about this man and why he’s so significant. (In Hebrew I tend to write a bit more freely.)

As for the first point – yes, mystical metaphysics, messianism and absolutist thinking make for dangerous politics. Allan’s points here are well-taken, necessary and refreshing.

And as I say repeatedly in the book, Rav Kook’s powerful spiritual and theological understandings were uncoupled from a concrete understanding of politics; and he was regularly very naïve . But choosing to use that mystical metaphysics as a basis for politics in a modern state, one that arose nearly fifteen years after his death, is a choice. It wasn’t historically inevitable – nothing is. It certainly wasn’t an obvious choice after the Holocaust.

It’s worth remembering that Rav Kook was hardly studied for years, and Religious Zionists were politically moderate until 1967. The war radically shifted so many people’s perceptions – that, and then the apocalyptic atmosphere of the Yom Kippur War, coupled with the Religious Zionist youth rebellion against the hegemony of Mapai, is what truly led to his teachings being turned into a political doctrine.

In a sense it was then that Scholem’s amazing prophecies in his incredible letter to Rosenzweig, about the summoning of the ghosts of the past with terrible violence, finally came to pass.

I have to say that one of the things that writing this book did was give me greater personal sympathy for Rav Zvi Yehudah as someone grappling with an unimaginably large fatherly shadow in darker historical circumstances than his father could have imagined. It was a terrible predicament, that yielded tragic results. I say these critical things without triumphalism and with sadness. There are reasons why I have devoted so many years of my life to Rav Kook’s life and thought and one of them is love. But love does not in and of itself answer our moral questions, or tell us how to avoid injustice.

Yoske Achituv z’l, who deserves to be better known (whose passing you noted here and see my tribute )– struck, I think, just the right balance in writing about Rav Kook with both reverence and criticism. Yoske wrote about the need for “Religious Zionism Without Illusions,” a humbler, and I think more life-giving, dispensation (akin to what I’ve called “tragic liberalism”). There needs to be some way to mix the extraordinary vitality, passion and holiness with which Rav Kook electrifies our religious lives, while respecting the inevitable compromises, and necessary limitations on self-expression, limitations imposed above all by the real needs and sufferings of others, here in this world.

3) What was your relation to Rav Amital?
In many ways, all of this begins with him. I owe him so much, and Rav Kook is just one part of it.
Like many Modern Orthodox kids, I grew up with this vague sense of Rav Kook as a culture hero. In addition to hearing this at home (though surprisingly not often, given how deeply, I came to learn later on, my grandfather had been shaped by him).

The culture hero for us was, of course, the Rav, and for me it was also my father z’l and his literary humanist inflection of Modern Orthodoxy.

I arrived at the Gush for Elul zman in 1978 and was immediately drawn to Rav Amital and deeply fortunate, blessed actually, to be, so to speak, gathered in by him. He was immensely supportive and understanding, while being challenging at the same time. I once asked Rav Steinsaltz to sum up how he saw Rav Amital and he said “he built human beings, hu banah anashim”.

Via Rav Amital I encountered Rav Kook as this thinker and figure who simply shifted the ground under your feet by saying that all the things that concern you – about theology, ethics, politics, history, art, culture, your own personal and spiritual life, including your doubts, criticisms, questions – all of it is from God and all part of the greater spiritual life of the world. That was at one and the same time immensely empowering and immensely healing.

I was worthy (zokheh) (a word I don’t use lightly) to spend much time and have many conversations with Rav Amital, up to just a few weeks before his death. About him I could go on, and on. I guess for now, I’ll keep it at this: I was one of the students who followed the same political trajectory as he. I arrived at those conclusions independently but his going in that direction too was deeply meaningful. The night in early 1983 in which I heard him criticize Gush Emunim, Peace Now and Arik Sharon as all forms of false messianism, was one of the most powerfully formative moments of my life.

In looking at Rav Amital’s approach as an interpreter of Rav Kook, there are, I think it fair to say, two major elements. First, the interpretive key, the compelling leitmotif, of the vast Rav Kook corpus as a whole, is ethics. The second is that Rav Kook was a human being, and human beings can be wrong and make mistakes. As Rav Amital often said, Rabbi Akiva’s greatness is undiminished and his power within the tradition undimmed, even by his having been wrong about Bar Kochba, and, according to Hazal, he was.

As time went by, the Shoah loomed larger and larger for Rav Amital and he had an increasingly hard time with Rav Kook’s relentless optimism, all the more with Rav Zvi Yehudah’s belief that he could read God’s mind. Rav Amital, let’s recall, had smuggled Rav Neriah’s Mishnat Ha-Rav into the labor camp where he’d been imprisoned and that book had helped him survive. His willingness to go on thinking and rethinking until the end was, to my mind, a mark of incredible integrity and courage.

4) What is the role of the ethical and “natural or ingrained ethics” (musar tivii) in Rav Kook’s thought?
Rav Amital often pointed out that the single most often used word in the corps is “musar.” But what it means, is complicated. In one passage, (Shemonah Kevatzim 1:683, Orot Ha-Kodesh, vol. 3, p. 19) Rav Kook lists no fewer than fifteen categories, or rubrics, of musar: Divine, revealed, of faith, natural, virtue ethics, personal relative to collective, educational and familial, practical relative to theoretical, historical relative to contemporary, ideal morals of the future, and the last – the morals of the spiritual communion (kibbutz), greater than all the others.
What unites them all for him, I think, is that musar is how God’s heavenly light manifests in human action. Without it, our relations to God are abstract, ethereal, un-centered. But ethics require the corresponding knowledge that God’s light is that which holds the world and from which all flows (or makif). Ethics, if not enacted with the sense that it is rooted in the very order of being, will inevitably decay and decline.There is in that set of ideas, a powerful way of thinking about religious ethics.

As for natural ethics, musar tivii, recall that For Rav Kook nature is itself imbued with divine energy, striving upward. And so natural morality, basic moral intuitions are God-given, and the foundation for a larger moral project – whose ultimate goal is for Rav Kook the very dissolution of the categories of body and soul, and with it the need to choose goodness from within a divided self.

My sense for now is that that dissolution may be something attainable by very rare individuals (think of Rav Aryeh Levine). And the re-embodiment of Judaism is, as Rav Kook understood, a key and immensely significant part of the Zionist revolution. But taking the dissolution of body and soul as a collective prescription for the here and now – and especially for politics – it’s a recipe for disaster. And I don’t think Rav Kook meant it in his time for the masses.

5) What was Rav Kook’s relationship to Christianity?
One of the things I emphasize in my book is his response to Christianity, particularly in the context of World War I. (Indeed, I recognize that devoting an entire chapter to the comparatively short period of July 1914-August 1919 is far from an obvious choice but to me it somehow was clear from the outset that was what I had to do, there was just no way to do it otherwise.)

In Shemonah Kevatzim we can now see just when – and where – various reflections of his were written, and we immediately see that his most critical comments about Christianity were written during World War I — or should we say “The Great War” since that’s what it was, not just in Western nomenclature until World War Two, but in his canon forever after, since editions of Orot simply reprinted over and over his sections on “Ha-Milchamah” – which was clearly WWI to readers of the first edition, in 1920, but not at all clear to readers later on.

In many ways he blamed WWI on the Church and in particular on the doctrines of “render unto Caesar” and of antinomianism, which to his mind, taken together, lead to what he calls a ‘half-way despair’ in which rather than believing you can change the world for the better through the world’s own inherent goodness (for him, the Jewish view) or despairing of the vanities of the world as a whole (how he understood Buddhism, which he respected on those terms), in Christianity you half-heartedly to moralize a world you don’t really believe in, draining religion of real moral power and yielding the worst of all results.

Now a few things are interesting here – first, he directs much more rhetorical fire at Christianity than at another more obvious culprit of the war, namely nationalism.

Second, while he’s very harsh about the Church throughout, at other points in his life, especially in earlier years, he has favorable things to say about Jesus, whom he regards as a powerful spiritual figure (one who perhaps had real Messianic potential) who let his elan vital get the better of him.

Third – and perhaps where these two points come together, I suspect he inveighed so strongly against Christianity precisely because he himself felt the pull of antinomianism, in his longings to move beyond the law to a rich fullness of being, and felt the pull of love that dissolves all boundaries.
Remember, for him the ultimate goal was nothing less than the dissolution of the boundaries of body and soul. And yet, for me at least, his not going all the way with those thoughts but remaining tied to the law is one of the most attractive things about him. That dialectic of structure and anti-structure which courses so powerfully through him, and I think through us.

Much of his critique of Christianity is rooted precisely in the sense that it has fatally attempted to vault over the law into oceanic love, before its time, and the results have been catastrophic.

6) How is Rav Kook’s thought relevant for American Jewry?
In many ways it’s not –but that’s a function of my general sense that US and Israeli Jewry inhabit two truly different worlds. I know I’m being overly flip, but that is to remind us to acknowledge the huge gaps – which also play out in key differences between Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism, which are about different challenges and questions.

That being said, I do think he points to seeing, or better using Kabbalah as a way of accepting that we live in a world characterized by very real differences, and that there are ways of seeing these differences as dialectically engaging and enriching one another. Of course that doesn’t work all the way through, and when it comes to moral issues we do have to choose. But I find it helpful that he thinks of a universe structured like a series of rivers, each with its own certain path, in its own sluices. All of human culture, Jewish and non-Jewish, Rav Kook considers as an effort to overcome the alienation we find in ourselves, and to have faith in God as a fount of ultimate self-realization for every one, is powerful and healing.

Another thing that American Jews stand to benefit from is exposure to the sheer intensity and vast aspiration of Rav Kook, as well as the other figures I discuss, like Gordon and Brenner. In America we trade off spiritual intensity for civic peace, and it’s in many ways a good bargain. But we need to be reminded of people who took responsibility for their historical moment and their own moral and spiritual lives, amid the chaos of modernity, with a seriousness of purpose we can scarcely imagine.

I think the biggest potential contribution, certainly for American Jews, is his thinking on living in a pluralized society. People see pluralism as this wishy-washy split-the-difference kind of thing where they don’t really take strong opinions on anything (except for where they do but won’t admit it, e.g. about material prosperity or basic civic assumptions of American life). Rav Kook offers a vision of pluralism grounded in real commitments that you’re willing to fight for and in a faith that God ultimately underwrites the integrity of honest commitments and the faith that there will be peace in the end. That is something that American Jews could learn from.

In my own life, for instance, in the years that I was actively engaged in the struggle against Mehadrin public transportation bus lines in Israel, I drew strength from this vision of Rav Kook’s and actively sought to understand my Haredi opponents on the issue, not just to learn where they were coming from, but to learn what it was that they genuinely had to teach me.

Also, I was deeply gratified that the first review of the book to appear was by Rabbi Jack Bieler on takeaways for American Jewish educators (and Orthodox educators in particular).

7) One gets a sense from your narrative that he if he was alive today in the US he would be Lakewood Haredi (Not Modern Orthodox) but meeting regularly with Reb Zalman, Art Green, Joanthan Foer, and Tova Mirvis. Is that a correct assessment?

You left out Dylan!
You’re very on to something here. It’s fair to say he would have appreciated a lot about Modern Orthodoxy – and yet, it does seem to this observer at least, in its deeply bourgeois character, its tamping down of subjectivity, expression, in its not seeing inner freedom as a religious value, to be well afield of what he had in mind. He wanted the religious life, in a deep way, to be wild.

8) What is your next project?
I am considering a serious project on re-examining some core assumptions of the enterprise of human rights, in terms of law, politics, and, yes, theology. This was what was in my mind when I left the State Department back in 1997, and it’s been kicking around with me since. The effort to moralize politics that goes by the name of ‘human rights’ is a precious and terribly important thing, whose present conceptual foundations, I fear, will be unable to sustain it for long. ‘Human rights’ may be the wrong term to capture what it is we’re trying to do.

But first I do want to go back and publish my dissertation, which as you know is a different sort of work, a full bore academic monograph, 500 typescript pages on Rav Kook’s first decades, before his aliyah in 1904, which receive a mere 35 pages in the present book. I like to think of it as “Rav Kook: The Motown Years.”

I have of course at times asked myself, how is it that here I am in my early 50s still trying to figure out what Rav Kook thought in his early twenties? The answer is that there are some figures and thinkers who are worth that effort, who repay our efforts to learn about and understand them in ways that go far beyond themselves, and I do truly believe that he is one of them.

Adin Steinsaltz-My Rebbe

Sometimes I like reading hagiography, currently called sacred narrative, such as saint, zaddik, or mystic tales, not because of the historical truth or the miracles but because they sometimes reflect a worldview better than explicit statements . Adin Steinsaltz in his new book My Rebbe (Maggid Press, 2014) gives a completely romantic ahistorical account of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that is a good read and offers a few gems of insight. The book is written as a form of world wisdom literature so that it can be excerpted in general spirituality magazines on myth and story such as Parabola, to which Steinsaltz is a frequent contributor.

The book is a human exploration stressing the universal aspects of the Rebbe as a spiritual hero- for example think of the books on Rumi or Francis of Assisi, or one of the romantic retellings of the Baal Shem Tov, with chapters with titles like lover of common people, wagon driver stories, mysticism, and humble beginnings. So too, this book is only loosely arranged chronologically, it is more of a topical arrangement -leadership, adulation, shlichus, outreach, nurturing, farbrengen, politics. The chapters try and capture a human essence of the soul as a personal reflection of Steinsaltz’s relation with the Rebbe. The book goes out of its way to quote Non-Jewish and non-Orthodox sources and combines that with culling fanciful gems from the oral histories. One important note is that Steinsaltz is a non-messianic, a non “meshichist.”

Compared to other books on the Rebbe, this one is smooth, clear, and lacking all local color, the same way Steinsaltz retold Rav Nachman’s tales without any Eastern European detail. This is the exact opposite of the wonderful book by Sue Fishkoff, The Rebbe’s Army which is filled with local color, real stories, and gritty journalistic details. I am sure that those vested in historical study of Chabad will jump to criticize this book with a vengeance but history and documents are beside the point of a sacred narrative of a saint. More importantly, Joseph Telushkin just released what is claimed to be the definite biography of the Rebbe- we shall see the reaction to that book in the upcoming weeks.


The book tells some good stories and reveals much about Steinsaltz as image creator. Steinsaltz describes Isaiah Leibowitz on the Rebbe and gives a ridiculous story taken from the oral reminiscences about Rav Soloveitchik and the Rebbe.

‘I knew him [the Rebbe], but he [later] went crazy.’ The caustic comment was typical of Leibowitz, but in Berlin they were on good terms.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik recalled that he once rescued the rebbe-to-be from jail. It was the joyous day of Purim, and the Rebbe observing the usual practice of the holiday – was on the Humboldt University campus, somewhat tipsy. Climbing onto a chair, Menachem Mendel began to speak loudly about religious observance and the meaning of the holiday. Holding a public event without a permit was illegal, and he was promptly arrested for creating a public disturbance. A man on the scene, a respected physician, telephoned Rabbi Soloveitchik and said something about Schneerson being in jail. After securing his release, Rabbi Soloveitchik joked with Menachem Mendel, telling him that he could now become a rebbe. He had been imprisoned as all of the Lubavitcher rebbes had once been.

With a Disney talent for painting evil villains who are predestined to be defeated, Steinsaltz depicted Rabbi Gurary, the family member who was passed over to become Rebbe.

Unlike Rabbi Gurary, who was the official head of the schools, the Rebbe’s relationship with the students was personal.
Barry carefully chose the books he took; he did not hurriedly scoop them off a shelf by chance. Because Barry was not a collector himself, he had an ally in Rabbi Chaim Lieberman, one of the former rebbe’s followers who had never fully accepted the new rebbe. He was the librarian who pointed him to the most valuable books. Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak had not left any valuable personal property – goods, real estate or money – after his passing, except for these books. Many were first editions, rare and important works. Barry must have needed the money; within the first two years, he sold over one hundred books.

Steinsaltz captures the nature of the Rebbe’s messages, and conversations with the Rebbe for a wide audience.

For Rebbe Menachem Mendel, however, stories were a kind of scientific instrument, only useful as they would impart lessons. He did not fill his stories with emotional detail and character analysis. Instead, each story he told had a purpose and a point. When King Midas touched everyday things, they turned to gold. When the Rebbe touched a story, it turned into a lesson.

Chabad’s adulation of the Rebbe is unusual even among the Chasidic movements. In our times, movie stars and rock idols are similarly adored. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, extraordinary individuals were considered geniuses, and sometimes their personae even defined a period. Voltaire is perhaps the best example of such a figure; Goethe is another.

The Rebbe would never flatter. He was always polite and considerate– yet always spoke with authority. He spoke to everyone as a royal personage would speak: polite, attentive and considerate, yet without lowering himself to any extent. Whether he agreed or disagreed with his distinguished guests, he would express his own opinion. The Rebbe was courteous to everyone. In personal meetings, his politeness – which had nobility about it – was particularly remarkable. His courtesy was widely perceived as a true, unguarded expression of his personality.

So what went on in the private conversations with the Rebbe or in yechidus? What did he advise? Did the advise work?

The Rebbe was always optimistic, and would guide the petitioner to try and see things in this way. When people asked how to repair their misdeeds, he would offer them ways to correct and improve. Mainly he would encourage them to think less about the past, and more of the future, encouraging them to increase their good deeds and focus on positive action. To a woman who despaired and wrote that “all is bad in my life,” the Rebbe responded: “In this world, good and bad are mixed together. One has to choose what to emphasize, what to look at…. In our lives, there are always two ways to see the good that happens to us or the opposite. For us who have a firm belief in the superiority and eternity of the spiritual, the good always wins over the bad. That which is good is everlasting, unlike the bad.”

The Rebbe used to quote Rebbe Shmuel, the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, who urged people to jump a hurdle rather than go under it – to go the harder way.

Even when the Rebbe’s advice was followed, things still did not always work out well. That can happen. With so many questions and answers involved, it is likely that some of the outcomes will be unsatisfactory no matter how obedient the participants. That the Rebbe’s advice might fail certainly did not seem to deter any of his Chasidim, just as it does not deter people who go to a doctor for medical advice. However, a rigorous assessment of the Rebbe’s advice is beyond my capability.
We often wondered what was the source of his advice – besides his experience. His answers often depended on common sense or obvious vast knowledge, but from time to time his answers were inexplicable and seemed to be drawn from another wellspring. A partial answer may be that he served as a channel – sometimes consciously, sometimes not – of the world beyond our daily reality, touching on the transcendent.

[Reform rabbi from South Orange, NJ] Rabbi Herbert Weiner once told me that he asked the Rebbe, “How is it that you can give advice?” The Rebbe answered, “People come to me and complain that the gate is locked and the way is closed before them. They do not know that they carry the key with them. All I have to do is to turn the key in the lock and open the closed door.”

An important part of the Rebbe’s teachings was his acceptance of many aspects of the 1950’s emphasis on Americanism and democracy as well as his acceptance of civil society and even civil religion. His writings defend equality and more striking Steinsaltz says he supported American law. Compare this to his current followers who has endless appeals, litigation and cries of Anti-Semitism to defend their severe crimes.

The Rebbe believed that governments’ monies should be spent on quality of life and not on weapons of war. The injustice of the income disparity – the great gap between rich and poor – was not an unfortunate economic byproduct but a universal issue.

The Rebbe referred to the United States as a malchut shel chesed, a “benevolent society.” It is true that the Rebbe was grateful to the country that had saved the life of his family. Beyond the personal, however, the Rebbe saw the country as a force of good in the world. While he did not approve of every aspect of American life and government policy, he always spoke about the nation with deep appreciation. The Rebbe valued the legal and civil fairness of the United States, the equal opportunity to all its citizens, and the equality that Jews enjoy under the law.

For the Rebbe, America was a nation of great moral character, characterized by a strong religious bent. Since America treats all its citizens with decency and equality, the Rebbe emphasized that every Jew is bound by Jewish law to uphold the laws of the land – and not to subvert, let alone break them. For this reason he refused to protect his Chasidim or others who had been caught breaking American laws.

The Rebbe also saw the United States as a true supporter of Jews and the Jewish state. More than once, he commented that the source of problems in America’s relationship with the State of Israel lay in Israeli errors in judgment: Israeli political leaders often misjudge the strength of American support.


Here is an interesting section. In the Freidman/Heilman work they speculated that the young Rabbi Schneerson was a man who “must be feeling desperate in his anxiety, loneliness, confusion and survivor guilt, whose prospects are unclear, looking for a way out, an answer from God.” Here we have that isolated hypothetical passage turned into a theory of the Rebbe as the Lonely Man of Faith.

The Rebbe’s loneliness was perhaps inevitable. Those who had once been his peers, workmates and colleagues became his subordinates and Chasidim. Although their relationships continued, these were no longer ordinary friendships. Having assumed the responsibility of solving his Chasidim’s personal problems, he could no longer talk to them as an equal. This created an existential choice for loneliness, which might even be termed “aloneness.” From his deep relationship with his family, we know he had the capacity of intimacy with others. Yet, in the official role that consumed his life, it could not be expressed.

What about the stories of supernatural precognition? Steinsaltz does not give us lots of colorful stories of people coming to the Rebbe and him saving them against all odds. Rather, we get a universal call to the possibility of Enlightenment and prophecy within all of us.

Those with the gift of ruach hakodesh describe it as a kind of sight-seeing, perceiving or experiencing things that are physically or tempo¬rarily at a distance. In the nineteenth century, the second and the third rebbes of the Komarno dynasty described their experiences of ruach hakodesh in the book, The Scroll of Secrets. Both state that they had this ability since a very young age. Given only someone’s name, the Kom¬arno rebbes could provide a full physical description of a person whom they had never met.

A college student once had the temerity to ask the Rebbe if he had supernatural powers. The Rebbe answered that these powers are within the grasp of every Jew. The ability to control nature and to rise above it comes from a devout and complete adherence to God’s will, from the observance of mitzvot and the study of Torah. Each of us can rise above our situation. The question before us, the Rebbe continued, is whether we have the determination and the commitment to reach our potential.

Finally, what about the messianism? Steinsaltz portrays the Rebbe as concerned with the topic since his youth, that he did not see himself as the mashiach, and that his followers are now adrift and forlorn.

From childhood, the Rebbe had dreams about the coming of the Mashiach. In a letter to Israel’s second president, Yitchak Ben-Zvi, the Rebbe wrote: “From the day I went to cheder [religious primary school] and even before, the picture of the final redemption started forming in my mind – the redemption of the Jews from their last exile, a redemption in such a way that through it will be understood the sufferings of exile, the decrees and the destruction….”

At a 1991 farbrengen, just a few months before his first stroke, some of the Chasidim began a song which clearly named the Rebbe as Mashiach. The Rebbe stopped them quickly and said, “I cannot leave here now, but after hearing such a claim I should leave this room as a protest.”

We may think of the famous Walt Whitman poem about Abraham Lincoln: “O Captain, My Captain.” But for Chabad the situation has been more perilous; the Rebbe’s ship has not reached port. It has not come to rest at the end of its intended course. While in the middle of the sea, it lost its captain.

Rabbincal Council of America conference 1986 – the last reign of the pulpit rabbis

The year was 1986, Rabbi Binyamin Walfish was head of the RCA and former head of the RCA Rabbi Gilbert Klapperman was head of the Synagogue Council of America (including Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis). The issue which was to occupy them for several years was the lack of a successor for Rav Soloveitchik and no potential prospects. Three months after this conference they created a law committee but left the chronically infirm Rav Solvoeitchik as its head. The following year’s conference in 1987 was a debate about what Rav Soloveitchik had meant in various decrees and a bemoaning of not having anyone to resolve issues anymore. Artscroll bothered them a lot. I include the entire article as read by OCR software. (Photos are both Rabbi Walfish)

RCA struggles to carve out centrist Orthodox stand – Long Island Jewish World Feb 14-20, 1986-Larry Yudelson

Even as participants in the Rabbincal Council of America’s midwinter conference struggled with the question of dialogue with non-Orthodox colleagues off to the left. they were looking regularly over their shoulders towards the Orthodox right. Indeed, much of the conference shaped up as a forum for defining and staking out a position of “centrist Orthodoxy” by the RCA in the face of the apparent ascendancy of Orthodox fundamentalism.

Whether the RCA can work with the non-Orthodox on questions of basic Jewish identity depends on whether it can resist pressures against such contact from the right.


Several speakers at the conference attacked rightwing Orthodoxy, but despite the rhetoric, many members of the RCA acknowledged the Orthodox right’s influence.

The distinctive tenets of the RCA were implicit in the conference theme of “Initiative and Innovations Within the Parameter of Halacha”: a rejection of the 19th century Orthodox maxim that “anything new is prohibited by the Torah,” and a firm acceptance that any charge must take place within, and not against, the framework of halacha.

Rabbi Tobias Roth, from Long Branch, N.J.. distinguished centrist Orthodoxy from Reform and Conservative. who ‘ legislate without halacha” and from right- wing Orthodoxy which, he said, made political and social issues such as siting on a board of rabbis with non-Orthodox rabbis, into matters of halacha. He decried the right wing “tendency for fundamentalism, which is encouraging the separation of the observant and the non-observant,””Even within Orthodoxy,” he continued, “the only bridges are unidirectional, leading to stringency in observance.”

Centrism No Compromise
Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa, Ontario called for the RCA to “become much more aggressive in the ideology it espouses.”

“The middle of the road should not be looked at as a compromise,’ he said

He took the right-wing to task for what he charged was its growing distancing from the State of Israel He asked why the modern Orthodox tolerate statements from Orthodox circles that “we’re not anti-Israel we’re just against the Israeli government,” when claims from anti-Semites that they’re “just anti-Zionist” are rightly protested.

“We’ve capitulated on our own domain,” he said, noting that a yeshiva shows religiosity by not doing anything on Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).

“Any ideology that doesn’t recognize the State of Israel should be fought very aggressively,” he said. Bulka cited the popular ArtScroll series of Jewish books as an example where the right’s approach is tolerated. The new ArtScroll siddur, he said, omits the prayer for the State of Israel; a translation of an Israeli halachic work eliminates references to the religious Zionist leader Rabbi Abraham Kook; and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the RCA’s halachic authority, is never quoted in their anthologies of Bible commentaries.

“I’m not saying we should boycott ArtScroll,” he said. “But we should say, we represent the Torah community too. What right do they have to say that the ideology of the RCA has to be excluded from the realm of legitimate interpretation.”

He criticized what he called “terror tactics” that are used to decide matters of halacha. “Great luminaries, halachic masters, are threatened and cajoled by the yeshiva world. It ends up distorting the halachic process.”

Bulka further attacked the right for its parochial reaction to events in Israel.
“When tragedy involves someone from the religious segment of the community, immediately there are prayers in yeshivas and public outcries. But if it’s someone non-observant, there’s a strange silence whim the religious community,” he charged.

Roshei Yeshiva Too influential
Rabbi Yossi Adler of Teaneck, called on the centrist Orthodox to win back the educated Orthodox community from the roshei yeshiva or yeshiva heads, who, he said, indoctrinate their students not to respect synagogue rabbis.

He asked why the RCA held the conference isolated in the Catskills. saying the public should know that innovative changes can be made within the parameters of halacha.

[Rabbi Jacob] Rubinstein echoed that view, decrying the “myopic” and “irresponsible” view that there are no so such things as innovation in halacha.

In an interview after the conference, Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, executive vice president of the RCA, said that “a major problem in Jewish life today is that roshei yeshiva have become poskim (decisors of halacha).”

In the European communities, he said, the community rabbi decided halacha. Roshei yeshiva, he said, don’t have a good perspective on the problems of the community.

“This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask your rebbe questions on the laws of kashrut or Shabbat,” Walfish said. But he distinguished between relying on a teacher for the fine points of halacha arid for answering sociopolitical questions “where halacha is not involved.”

According to Walfish, “the younger element (of the RCA) is more dependent on the roshei yeshiva.”

RCA Israel Excutive Team 3

Orthodox Stringency
In his session on “Halacha Confronts a Changing Society.” Rabbi David Berger, a professor of Jewish History at City University of New York, discussed a change in the direction of halachic decisions in the modern period when the Jewish People divided between observant and nonobservant Jews

One reaction, he said, was greater strictness. The rabbis feared that if they gave the increasingly rebellious community a finger, they would take a hand.

And ironically, he said, the pressure for leniency decreased as those pressing for leniency split off from Orthodoxy. No longer would ordinary people, burdened by a halachic decision. return to the rabbi h hi in pain. They would just walk away from the Orthodox community.

Because of the voluntary nature of Jewish observance in the modern era, those who cared about halacha cared strongly enough to accept stringent opinions, said Berger. Even when Reform Jews were right in the technical halachic sense, he said, some Orthodox rabbis argued for inflexibility as a matter of public policy.

Today, the question of women’s prayer groups, he said, in a certain sense falls into this category. The condemnation is “a public policy decision based on a judgment of the consequences of this particular step.”

“It’s explicit in the discussion,” he said. “It’s couched in halachic, or quasi-halachic terminology, but it’s really a public policy issue.”

“Someone who reacts positively towards the religious complaints of Jewish feminists is more likely to be lenient,” he said.

Rabbi Lookstein on Social Orthodoxy

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the Senior Rabbi of KJ reflected on the article written by his congregant on social Orthodoxy. (Everything below is his words and the sermon is complete w/o editing.)

This past Shabbat morning, I delivered a sermon entitled The Rise of ‘Social Orthodoxy:’ Is it Good or Bad for the Jews? The sermon responded to a recently published article in Commentary by KJ Member Jay Lefkowitz, entitled The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account… Jay’s article elicited a great deal of interest and some criticism. I devoted my sermon to the article, to some unjustified criticism which came to my attention, and to my own reactions to Jay’s excellently researched and analytic description of a very important phenomenon in Orthodox Jewish life.
Haskel Lookstein

The Rise of ‘Social Orthodoxy:’ Is it Good or Bad for the Jews?
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
Parashat Kedoshim
April 26, 2014

The Jewish community, and particularly the Orthodox Jewish community, owes a debt of gratitude to our member, Jay Lefkowitz, for opening a conversation on a phenomenon that has existed for quite some time and that is growing in numbers and influence in America and, perhaps, in Israel as well. Jay calls it “Social Orthodoxy.” It could be described as “cultural Orthodoxy” or “communal Orthodoxy.” He describes a committed Jewish life that doesn’t rely on God or a divinely authored, authoritative Halakha for inspiration or obligation. No one is being obligated to do anything. Social Orthodox Jews are developing what might be described as a voluntary commitment to behave in a religious way as a manifestation of their commitment to the Jewish people, to a 4,000 year old history, to Zionism, and to Jewish culture. All of this is expressed through serious, religious practice including Shabbat, Yom Tov, prayer, tefillin, kashrut and other forms of observance. As he writes: “And so for me, and I imagine for many others like me, the key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity. This way of life makes the social Orthodox Jew part of the Jewish people and the sweep of Jewish history in a very powerful and fulfilling way.”

Jay freely admits in this article that he – and, no doubt, many other social Orthodox Jews – who act like religious people, who speak like religious people and who look like religious people, do not really relate to God or to the divine authority that lies behind a life of mitzvot.

He graphically describes this phenomenon in a conversation about religion which he had with a devout Catholic friend as a young adult. He writes: “When I explained (to my friend) that I was an observant Jew and began each day by reciting the morning prayers, but wasn’t really sure how God fit into my life, he was perplexed. When I admitted that these theological questions didn’t really occupy much of my attention and certainly weren’t particularly germane to my life as an observant Jew, he became agitated. And when I told him that I certainly wasn’t sure if Jewish law was divine or simply the result of two millennia of rabbinical interpretations, he threw up his hands and said: ‘How can you do everything you do, and live a life with so many restrictions and so many obligations, if you don’t even believe in God?’”

When I read this exchange I had a déjà vu experience. It was about sixty years ago that I had an extended debate with Jay’s father, my tennis opponent of almost seventy years (we have played about 500 sets over these years and Jerry Lefkowitz is narrowly ahead of me by something like 251 to 249).

The debate took place in my parents’ living room on a Shabbat afternoon. Jerry was explaining exactly the kind of life that his son and daughter-in-law and their children live today, a life to which he subscribed: observant, deeply engaged in Jewish culture and Zionism, committed to Hebrew literacy, but without a firm belief in God or Halakha.

I remember saying to him that I couldn’t understand why he accepted upon himself so many restrictions and rules if there was no divine authority behind them. I said that if I didn’t believe in God and a divinely based Halakha, then I would go inside to my bedroom in the middle of Shabbat and take out my pack of cigarettes and light up a cigarette. Why should I deprive myself of such pleasure if there are really no compelling rules about Shabbat? Jerry’s answer was that he keeps Shabbat because that’s part of being a Jew and uniting with Jewish culture and history over thousands of years. I found that position perplexing.

I have to admit that over the years I have come to feel that Jerry and his wife, Myrna, had a point. Part of the proof of the validity of that point is their children and grandchildren, specifically, Jay and Elena and their three children and the life that they lead.

So, clearly, what Jay describes as Social Orthodoxy is good for the Jews. It keeps many Jews together and on the derech, so to speak.

But I am still troubled by some of the concerns that I had sixty years ago. Those concerns were highlighted in an analysis of the Haggadah by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, which he published recently in YU’s publication “Passover to Go.” Focusing on the question of the rasha – the skeptic son – in the Haggadah, “What is this avoda,” Rabbi Sacks identified the question of the skeptic son as the Talmud Yerushalmi explains it, when it translates the word avoda as tircha – hard work or bother. The Talmud says that the rasha is asking a question about the Passover sacrifice. Why all this bother and effort? Why this plethora of rules about a festival sacrifice? The Ritva (a medieval commentator who never experienced the Passover sacrifice) focuses on the seder itself and suggests that the rasha is asking: “Why is it necessary to go through this whole tedious Haggadah before getting to the meal? Why can’t we just sit down and eat? Why go through the whole effort of telling the story in so many ways about the exodus from Egypt and the progress of the Jewish people from idol worshipping to the service of one God? Let’s just eat!”

In truth, as Rabbi Sacks suggests, Judaism does require tremendous effort. It is a system of detailed attention to religious practice in Shabbat, kashrut, nidah and mikveh and a myriad of other responsibilities. Who needs all this, asks the rasha!

In fact, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist leaders tried to keep Jews close to Judaism by easing the requirements and giving Jews the opportunity to be less restricted and restrained in Shabbat, kashrut, taharat hamishpacha and other ritual performances. What happened was that, rather than keeping Jews closer to tradition, the lessening of demands led Jews to move further and further away from Judaism, the opposite of what was the intention of the leaders.

Interestingly, what are the holidays that non-Orthodox Jews celebrate in the largest numbers? They are the holidays that require the biggest effort: fasting on Yom Kippur and celebrating the seder and Pesach. Apparently, Rabbi Saks suggest, Jews find meaning in the effort which the rasha rejects. This should not be surprising. Anything worthwhile is achieved through effort and struggle: becoming an artist, a musician, a scholar, a doctor, lawyer or financier. Why should religion not require tircha – effort?

The real question that Jay raises for the Orthodox Jew is the question of sustainability. Can Social Orthodoxy actually produce generations of committed Jews? How is Jewish history, Jewish culture and commitment to Jewish people-hood going to demand of me and my descendants the kind of avoda – effort and consistency – that is required of a committed Jew? Doesn’t such effort and consistency rest on a foundation of God, a divinely authored Halakha and, therefore, a required set of observances, not just a reasoned, voluntary performance of rituals? If it is the latter, why not allow driving to shul on Shabbat; why does one need a blech on the stove for Shabbat? Can’t one have a meaningful Shabbat without a blech? And why require a mechitza during worship? Can’t one have an inspirational davening without separating men from women?

These are serious questions which are not easily answered by reason and logic and a desire to be part of the Jewish people and 4,000 years of Jewish history. The Orthodox or Halakhic Jew – answers them by saying: all of these are required by Jewish law. They may or may not enhance our religious experience, but they are obligations which are part of the Halakhic system to which we subscribe.

It isn’t that we fear a thunderbolt hurled by God at us if we fail to perform a mitzvah or if we commit a sin. But there is something compelling about a life of Torah and mitzvot when one feels that such a life is based upon a divinely ordained system.

Many of today’s Social Orthodox Jews have sustained their commitment beyond a first generation. Jay and Elena Lefkowitz and their children are a case in point. They lead a highly committed Jewish life in our community, impelled by deeply ingrained cultural, historical and social forces. And yet: will those forces, divorced from a divine, Halakhic imperative, have a lasting power for the Orthodox community as a whole? Will the children and grandchildren of today’s Social Orthodox be able to answer the Haggadah’s question: Why exert all this effort and all this expense and this whole avoda and undertake this detailed, comprehensive and demanding way of life?

That troubling question remains. On the answer to it depends the survival and sustainability of a sanctified Jewish way of life, a life in which Jay Lefkowitz and all of us so passionately believe.


I was looking for an article about early 20th century Orthodoxy and in the process I found the following article on Jewish Hobos. I have especially selected the paragraphs that deal with religious life and Orthodox hobos. The article was written in 1928 and the problem of homeless vagabonds got worse in the 1930’s. Does anyone still remember Red Skelton’s character Freddie the Freeloader? Many rabbinical sermons of the 1950’s exhorted the congregation by claiming that a Jewish way of life prevents one from becoming a hobo or Bowery bum. As late as the 1970’s Jewish English still had the phrase trombernick as for someone vagabond, undisciplined or even for a hippie. Notice how the homeless think they can judge a community’s customs or have a self-perception as defenders of the faith. Also notice the tone of the author, which would not be accepted in social science today.


Cities with old orthodox constituencies like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, attract religious itinerant mendicants in the practice of making regular week-end visits. They attend the synagogues to pray for departed souls at so much a prayer, deliver lectures (droshes) and pass judgment on differences concerning various religious customs and observances. In return they are invited by the members of the synagogue to their homes for the Friday evening meal or to dinner following the Saturday morning services. Some of the religious travelers possess vast knowledge in their specific field and an excellent oratorical delivery, but many of them are rabbis who are ignorant of the Law, melamdim (teachers) who know nothing about pedagogy, and chazanim (cantors) who cannot sing.

They consider themselves entitled to reduced transportation rates and an unqualified welcome by the local hachnosas orchim, and usually do receive special attention. They generally shun the offices of case working agencies and prefer contributions from private individuals, benevolent aid societies made up of members from their home towns, and friendly orthodox synagogues in the poor sections of the city. In their journeys to small communities they occasionally do strike desirable jobs and settle down, but such examples are rare, indeed.

To meet the above situation Dr. Bogen has suggested that “a better organization of our synagogues, an absolute refusal to permit the traveler the use of the pulpit unless by previous engagement through a central agency, are possible ways to reduce the number who are dependent upon charity. Then the situation will be easily controlled and the traveling chazan will be considered just as legitimate a proposition.

They will search telephone books for a “noch” (hachnosas orchim), a Jewish shelter for transients, or a “pay station” (a social agency or central almsgiving society). If there is no established “pay station” in town, he feels at liberty to work “factories” (synagogues where collections might be made), store keepers whose names end in “stein,” “baum” or “berg,” and, of course, junk dealers of any nationality, a never failing source.

No wonder the Jewish hobo prefers the “noch” with its simple precept not to make oneself too well known to the janitor or caretaker. Wise old beggars have sometimes manipulated a two- and even three month extension of time at a hachnosas orchim, a feat quite impossible at a publicly maintained lodging house. “You know how it is,” explained one experienced schnorrer,”with Yiddin you can always come to terms.” Another young hobo, an habitué of the Bowery, lacking “two bits” (25c) for a “flop,”refused to associate with the”goyim” and bums at the city shelter and requested permission to stayat the hachnosas orchim, pronouncing that difficult name flawlessly, though unable to utter another Hebrew word. There are “nochs” famous throughout Jewish hobohemia for their abundant fare on the High Holidays, particularly on Passover.

Your Gentile hobo loses hope, fills his stomach with rotten liquor at every opportunity, and shoots needles into his arms to relieve his aching heart. The Jewish tramp will take refuge in metaphysics or “riddles,” as he calls it, break up a game of dice to which he is not adapted, and start a poker game instead.

Sex perversion is generally frowned upon by Jewish hoboes, although they freely indulge their normal desires in the cheapest brothels where they never once fail to admonish an inhabitant of their own faith for her disgraceful profession.

At one such party I caught notice of a “trombenick” clandestinely tugging carrots from his pockets, unwilling to participate in the prize dish because it was not kosher, as he declared to me later
Many a young fellow has been hounded out of home for his laziness or queerness. There may be a marriageable daughter at home, or a son about to enter an honorable profession, when it becomes essential to sacrifice the pariah to the road rather than jeopardize the social ambitions of the other members of the family.

Many a runaway lad will discover the Bowery, that Alsatian den of misery and despair. Only recently a boy of fifteen who had refused to “leigen t’filin,” told me how he had lived on the Bowery during his entire absence from home and associated with the human riff-raff who make that street their winter headquarters.

One pitiful old vagabond called himself the “Defender of the Jewish Faith,” and so offensive were his letters to public men that he was finally held for observation and sent to a state institution.

Close observation of the homeless, their examination by competent psychiatrists, have indicated that a large number of them are either mentally unbalanced or of defective intelligence.

The writer fervently hopes that his interest in this human debris will be retained at least until the time when opportunity will enable him to make a national comprehensive study to disclose more fully their character and needs, shedding light on the possible diminution of their number.
Full text here.

Interview with Yael Unterman, The Hidden of Things –her new book of short stories

In my current pursuit of all knowledgeable Jewish reflections on Hinduism, I went searching for contact information for Rabbi Dr. Alan Unterman who years ago had written on the interface of the two faiths. In the process, I came into contact with his daughter the fascinating author Yael Unterman. Most of my readers know her from her award finalist book, the over 600 page labor of love Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar. Moving from non-fiction to fiction, Unterman has a recently published book of short stories about Orthodox singles life The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing.

Hidden of Things

She is also coming to town for some speaking engagements At “Love in a Time of Conflict – Contemporary Fiction Set in Jerusalem.” She will speak with fellow author Ruchama King Feuerman (author of In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist) Next week Tues May 6th, 8 PM, at the Carlebach shul, 305 W 79th St, NY. Entrance $25-$35 includes a signed copy of both books. Yael will also be scholar in residence in the Carlebach shul over the weekend of 2nd-3rd May. Yael can be contacted, and her books ordered, through her website

The first eight questions of the interview are on her new book and in the last few questions I made her return to her earlier book on Nehama Leibowitz.

1) Why is your book called The Hidden of Things?
I am quite obsessed with what is hidden and what is revealed in our lives. This is true for the interpersonal level, in terms of interactions and dress, and for the media, in terms of revealing of secrets and lack of boundaries.

Today’s cultural climate does not reward modesty and reticence, with all the talk shows and candid memoirs and therapeutic language that pervade the air; but on the other hand, the professed values of traditional Jewish society can fall too far along the other extreme, leaving too much unsaid, sometimes to terrible effect.

I am prone to chronically wondering to what extent God is revealed to us today, is there ongoing revelation in every moment, and if so how can we make ourselves sensitive to receiving the divine, or is it all concealed within the tzimtzum through which we were created?

The act of writing a book reveals things ordinarily hidden from view – the nuances of characters’ private feelings and motivations. Writing such as this can resonate with the hidden inner parts of the readers, who might have previously believed themselves completely alone in certain thoughts or feelings that you, the author, have now articulated – and that’s liberating.

2) Why do you call yourself “unorthodox orthodox”?
It implies that freethinking and individualism is allowed, even within Orthodoxy. Generally the label “modern orthodox” does not seem to sufficiently cover who I am, so I like to add something to it to spice it up – calling myself, for example, “Neo-Hasidic postmodern Orthodox” or “Paradox” (the latter slightly tongue-in-cheek!).

People seem to need labels, which can be helpful when trying to ascertain the existence of common assumptions; and the fact remains that I have held onto the label “Orthodox”, while some friends of mine have jettisoned it altogether. Nevertheless such brandings also divide, constrain and mislead. I live in that tension, between embracing and rejecting labels. I have even called myself “Post-denominational Orthodox”, which is nonsense logically, but expresses how I feel.

3) What is the role of Orthodoxy and social criticism of the Orthodox in your writings?
I write about Jewish and universal topics, aiming at a wide range of readers. But my characters do tend to belong to the modern Orthodox world; for it is there that the most interesting creative tensions and clashes occur, leading to inner drama, angst and growth, the materials that spawn my writing.

As to the social criticism – to my mind, the best critics are those who are deeply in love with a system and yet don’t relinquish their critical minds. I reject one-dimensional writing about religious life, preferring to present a range of people whose attitude towards religion diverge and who are more nuanced and individual.

I am interested in books that present faith struggles in an intelligent fashion (e.g. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, a convert to Judaism – a book that had a profound effect on my theological outlook). I’m bored by criticism of Orthodoxy from outsiders or from bitter former insiders; Orthodoxy easily lends itself to being a punching bag and target of ridicule if one wishes to, you don’t have to be clever to do that. My hope is that my critical voice might be used as a springboard for positive change from within. And that my love for traditional Judaism comes through in equal measure.

4) Who are your models in general literature or in contemporary Orthodox literature?
I learned a lot about the short story form from the materials presented during my MA in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University – authors such as Babel, Mansfield, Gogol and Joyce. I also admire excellent science fiction writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Orson Scott Card, and the aforementioned Mary Doria Russell.

In terms of good Orthodox literature (a small, through growing, category) I find Potok compelling, and I like to read my contemporaries Tova Mirvis and Ruchama King Feuerman, as well as Naomi Regan and other lesser-known Orthodox writers (such as Rabbi Shlomo Wexler who authored The Daughters Victorious, on the Bnot Zelophchad story). In general I believe and hope that Orthodox writing, if we can get past certain moralistic tendencies and a lot of bad writing in the community, will develop to a more sophisticated, imaginative, daring mode.

5) What should we be reading in Orthodox literature right now?
Ruchama King Feuerman’s In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist was nominated finalist in the 2014 National Jewish Book Awards (I am doing a joint book event with her– see above for details). There are many new authors, most of whom I have not yet had a chance to read, and this is an exciting time of emergence for this population.

In Hebrew, I highly recommend Emunah Elon’s novel Bemuflah Mimeni, a delicate, moving modern version of the Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan story, with a Sliding Doors theme. Additionally, Michael Schonfeld has written Hahok Lemeniyat Habedidut, overlapping with some of my themes around singles and loneliness.
My story “Dateline Manhattan 2029” presents a dystopian future in which the gedolim enact a series of rules in the 600-page volume Ozer Dalim to address the so-called “shidduch crisis”, including mandatory parties, dating coaches, singles ghettoes and more. Intriguingly enough, Schonfeld presents a similar idea, whereby in Israel of 2020, the Knesset is considering passing laws penalizing singles.

6) Does your book fall into the chick-lit genre?
There is a resemblance, but I wouldn’t use that category per se for my book overall; despite much humour and light-heartedness, it’s ultimately darker and more layered and symbolic writing than this genre allows.

I do engage with issues concerning modern womanhood: relationships, emotions, self-image, etc; and my female characters support each other through traumas such as broken relationships, the Intifada and the challenges faced by English-speaking immigrants to Israel. Yet the themes of spiritual search and longing are also present for men, and my stories featuring male protagonists. I’m even rejecting to a large degree the prerequisite chick lit/Hollywood happy ending – the neat conclusions (engagements/ marriages) I included were actually at my publisher’s insistence, and they come in the form of a play, such that my characters are a bit like puppets. Still, we Jews do believe in happy endings (see Kohelet and Iyov) so I am glad they are there to give hope and joy.

7) More than one rabbi has proposed that Orthodox writers should submit their work to them for an halakhic OK. How would you respond?
My gut reaction is a no – I prefer self-censorship and would hate for this to become another area where a kashrut symbol is necessary. Having said that, kashrut in its best sense is a service to the consumer to inform about standards and indicate what is inside, like movie ratings. Book ratings by an objective body might not be such a bad thing.

I did have one haredi reader who objected to the language employed by some of my characters, remaining unmoved by my argument that manner of speech was true to the characters, or my defense of my integrity as a writer (I offered to refund her money…) Had there been a rating system, my book would likely have gotten a PG, (not a G or U) and then she would have known in advance not to buy it.

8 ) How is the writing of literature for you an expression of your religious life?
In a course at Bar-Ilan University with Professor Susan Handelman entitled “Religion and Literature”, I discovered that literature carries a great deal of spirituality, where spirituality implies connection with self, others and God.
As an author, you hold your readers in your hands for a significant number of hours, often consecutively – something few rabbis can boast. You get to choose where to take the reader: the illuminative moment, the high drama, the laughter, the tears, the surprise twist. A good writer’s voice enters the reader’s head and lingers there even once the book is closed.

So I feel that through my book I can provide relaxation and pleasure – badly needed in today’s hectic world – and oneg Shabbat, in the words of more than one reader. I can also aspire to teach Torah in vivid ways; to exercise the reader’s faculty of empathy for unfortunate others, or make those who are the unfortunate ones feel validated and less alone; and even to awaken the yearning for G-d. Personally when I finish a good book, I sigh and feel that the world is a wonderful place and I am in love with G-d’s creation. Hopefully some of my readers will feel the same.

9) How did you come to write your first book Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Urim, 2009 – National Jewish Book Award finalist)?
In 1998, Tzvi Mauer of Urim Publications envisioned printing Modern Jewish Lives, a series of biographies of great Orthodox personalities whose open and un-stereotypical nature meant that the more right-wing Orthodox printing houses would not touch them with a ten-foot pole. I was privileged to be commissioned, though young and inexperienced, to write the book intended to launch this series (I say ‘intended’ because the project took ten years instead of the projected two – a combination of Nehama Leibowitz’s multi-faceted nature and long life, and my perfectionism – and it ended up third in the series instead of first).

The act of documenting someone else’s work, though, is one requiring tremendous amounts of self-effacement, which is a trait I aspire to but in which I do not naturally excel. By the end it was somewhat draining I was very ready to put it behind me and turn to the words, ideas and characters that were bursting to be born from my own mind..

10) What do you admire most and not-admire about Nehama Leibowitz?
Despite all of her talents, erudition and fame, Nehama remained a very warm, caring, genuine, unpretentious and modest person who spoke her truth and kept to her moral standards. She innovated without trumpeting it about, and was dedicated to Torah. She was a mensch, nurturing others, but also courageous and true to herself – for example, she married her uncle when she was just 25 and he 54 years of age. She did this against the wishes of everyone around her, including her family.

Nehama’s teaching style was quite forceful and rigid in many ways, and I don’t think she was able to truly hear everything her students wished to bring into the class, if it did not fall within her perspective. Indeed, I don’t believe Nehama would have understood the kinds of issues I want to raise, had I been her student. I see myself as a person with 21st century consciousness, while Nehama was a person of her time, of the 20th century, and would have been unwilling or unable to follow me to the places I wished to go. This saddens me, both personally and also in terms of the limitations it places on her work.

She also did not change very much throughout her life, teaching the same Torah throughout, while I am a person of change. And lastly, she tended to reject religious experience in favor of doing mitzvot as the fundamental of Jewish living. A rationalist, most likely influenced by her family – father, husband and brother – she did not incorporate Hasidic or kabbalistic teachings, aside from the rare piece of Zohar, in her work. For me, these two corpuses carry traditional Judaism into the postmodern age, and resonate deeply. Hence, their absence is a lacuna, though Nehama’s passion and poetry do a lot to make up for it.

I guess, if I am to answer honestly, my greatest fear is that despite my own love of teaching Torah and making it vivid, Nehama would not have understood or approved of me. I would not have met her high standards and my existential questions would have been classified as unnecessary navel-gazing, an act she did very little of. This, along with her shutting the door on biblical criticism, freed up lots of energy for bringing people to love Torah.

Questioning and doubt sometimes seem to me like spilling precious energy on the ground, Onan style. Yet I cannot help my existential bent. Ultimately I am different from her and have to be authentic to myself. My second book, and any meaning and pleasure it gives to people, would not have been written by Nehama Leibowitz. We each have our unique path to take in life.

11) Can you say something about Nehama’s poetics?
For the most part, Nehama’s approach closely approximated the methodology of the New Critics, an approach to literature spearheaded by T.S. Eliot and others. They read the text closely, and were interested only in what was written and not in its historical background.

Nehama’s goal was to counteract the habit of “reading the Bible like a madly galloping war-horse,” to force the reader to slow down, pay attention to nuance, structure, layers, word order, tone and rhythm. For her, one small detail might contain an entire philosophy or a crucial moral point. No repetition was redundant – indeed, a favorite tool of hers was to undertake thorough comparisons of two texts that appear to overlap, checking similarities and differences. The literary context was also all-important for this type of reading.

Nehama disliked biblical criticism, believing it to be with riddled with ignorance and anti-Semitism, and only quoted critical scholars on rare occasion. She was extreme in her rejection of realia, namely the archeological, anthropological, geographical, zoological, and botanical aspects of biblical research, and in this differed from – and argued vociferously with – some of her Orthodox colleagues in later years, most prominently Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun. Reportedly though, towards the end of her life she openly wondered if she had been too extreme in her stance.

Tirupati, the Temple at Tirumala, and tonsuring source of some Sheitel Hair

Back in 2004, when I received a call from a known rabbi in Har Nof asking about how the hair in Tirupati, India was offered, I never expected to be actually visiting a decade later the sacred mountain of Tirumala, near Tirupati. The Rabbi was unsuccessfully attempting to avert the expected panic that would ensue when the hair used in the wigs wore by Orthodox women was declared forbidden because of its origin in a Hindu Temple. (For those unfamiliar with this unusual story see here, here, and here) The rabbi’s questions were limited to whether it was similar to rabbinic conceptions of Greco-Roman sacrifice and the Rabbi took the Talmud as a guide to contemporary Indian practice. Visiting the actual mountaintop offers a broader vista on many levels. My observations are in the context of the wig controversy.


Tirumala is fittingly at the top of a mountain as it translates to literally a sacred hill or high place. About three quarters of a mile up, one finds the the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple and the nearest town in the valley is called Tirupati. It is the most visited pilgrimage place on earth, receiving more visitors a year than the Vatican or Mecca. To put it into numbers, the site receives about 156 million visitors a year averaging out to be about 60, 000 on an ordinary day and hundreds of thousands on a festival. Until recently, it was also the wealthiest religious institution, maintaining an annual budget of $167 million USD. The actual wealth is unknown but generally thought to be much greater than the Vatican’s.

During my stay in the city of a thousand temples, Kanchipuram, a town three and a half hours south of Tirumala, I observed a mini-celebration in the town center organized to noisily fete a group of male pilgrims who were beginning their four day walk to Tirumala. While I did not walk with them, I was able to travel by car on well-paved back roads to reach the temple, which was about 138 km (86 mi) from my starting destination.

My local journey at a hotel in Tirupati (16 miles away) that offered check-in based on 24 hour units since the overwhelming majority of the guests people were flying in to visit the Temple for a few hours and then fly out. How does one choose the hour in which one makes the holy pilgrimage for those who can pay the extra fees for immediate entry? The hotel had a full time horoscope prognostigtian and, on the telephone, a direct call button right next to the room service and concierge buttons. The roll of horoscopes in Indian culture is not given much attention in the West but it is ever-present and further makes me think that I am walking into Abraham ibn Ezra’s astrological world.

The ride up Tirumala Hill is straight up, 980 above sea level. The temple itself is located on a big plateau, about 10.33 square miles (27 km2) total in area. It comprises seven peaks and has a permanent population of 18 000. The road up has overlook points and breakdown areas and emergency crews ready on hand.

When you arrive at the top, you enter a several mile area of housing such as dormitories, motels, bungalows, and apartments, all structures reaching three stories. Also on the mountain top are playgrounds, concessions, a deer park, free medical clinics, and programs to help the deaf, blind, or handicapped. There is a shuttle bus taking pilgrims around the area. The mountaintop city is almost like a large state college dormitory complex or fairgrounds or even 1970s detached buildings shopping mall, grey, utilitarian, and urban planned. Below is an aerial view of the whole area
panoramic view

Also on the mountaintop is a ring of semi-decent looking hotels, more clinics, and more activities for kids. This outer-ring area also has a wonderful museum with an amazing collection, nicely curated showing artifacts from the history of the Temple mount, ancient religious objects, and Temple life. Imagine if Jerusalem had never been conquered and never lost anything to war and could therefore display 2500 years of artifacts. The long display case containing a millennium of musical instruments in another museum could have been an entire exhibition room.

On the other side of the circle is an Indian bazaar with wide avenues about five blocks by two blocks selling religious pictures and statues to take home, souvenir devotional objects, and pietistic chapbooks. They also sold children’s toys, especially big stuffed animals; there seems to be a custom to buy one for your children so that they enjoy the trip. There are also food concessions ranging from restaurants to pushcarts. There are also pietistic performances, when I was there men were singing bhakti hymns in Telugu on a small bandstand. The college students making pilgrimage discovered the tackiest item being sold was a winter scarf that when wrapped around one’s head made one look like the halo bands on the Temple statue. Running down the center of the bazaar avenue is a sitting area covered by a high corrugated metal roof for sun and rain protection where people took naps or ate meals.

The next area on the mountain top was the holier Temple region, flanked on either end by the gopuram (the large tower that marks a south Indian Temple area) inside was a large campus sized fenced center that has that includes all the ancillary buildings to the Temple. This area is surrounded by the graded metal holding pens to be used on days of extreme visitation.
Also included in this area is a large bakery of sweets with long lines dominated the first section. Each person who visits the Temple gets a token for two sweet laddu as prasadam which has divine blessing from the deity and they can buy more at the bakery.

Then, there was a large block long holy water tank as found in most South Indian temples, partly a symbolic beauty of the pool, part a place to bath before visiting the Temple, and in this case a roped off area as a kiddie pool. Hindu purity law is similar to Karaite Jewish law and a pool of water is sufficient for purity. It bordered onto a large open square with a stage for artistic performances at one end with a copy of the sacred statue inside the Temple.

To the right was the rather modest, double story golden Temple, the goal of everyone’s pilgrimage the Sri Venkateswara temple, dedicated to the Lord Venkateswara Swamy (also called Sri Balaji). The temple is surrounded by metal lattice grating in several concentric circles creating a labyrinth holding pen for tens of thousands of visitors waiting the requisite 5-10 hours to get into the Temple. For those foreigners who want to enter, one must sign a form that one believes in the deity, they have also now insisted that one can only enter wearing traditional clothes of sari for women- dhoti and bare chest for men. Tamil scriptures say that one can only attain atonement at this Temple. (Tamil religion is more about grace, merit, atonement, and penance than the misplaced stylized Western discussions of Hinduism theology.)

For Hindus, this has become the abode of God, the place where one can directly see the divine, the closest most will ever get to a religious epiphany of the true Supreme Being. Originally, the Temple was a Tamil holy site to Venkateswara, identified by the important 11th century religious theologian Ramanuja as another incarnation of Vishnu, now treated both as a separate deity for adoption as one’s personal representation for personal worship (Ishtava) and as the place to see an epiphany of the Divine behind all specific deities. Ramanuja taught that there is only one Supreme Being and the plurality of manifestations is only images. For Ramanuja, images are not just a human concession or a means or see the divine through a glass darkly but the very thing that allows one to come to the divine. The Bhagavad Gita (XI) describes a scene where Arjuna asks to see God glory (as in Exodus), here at Tirumala it is theoretically everyone’s chance. However, when crowded, the devotee may only get a three to four second vision.

The time in the Temple is exclusively for the vision of the statue. If one wants to offer personal prayers and make personal offerings, there is a place in the center courtyard to offer the traditional camphor flame, incense, flowers, and to make sacrifices of coconuts. See the photo below and notice that the tonsuring building is the white building about two blocks in the background.

The tonsuring building is a white brick building like a 1960s government or school building modified to be open for tonsuring and bathing. One enters it from the bazaar area and it is on the border between the bazaar and the Temple area as a preparation for going further into the temple compound. This building also has the queuing metal grating in which people sat and hawked soap, toothbrushes, shampoo or even little kits- like a mikveh kit. Inside the building, Men are milling about soaping their hair before the tonsure, mothers are hovering over the haircuts of their sons, and people are waiting for friends. On the left hand side of my view was another corridor with men semi-dressed washing, showering, and bathing in preparation for the Temple visit. Those who have had tonsuring have the treat of bathing in hot water, a luxury in India.

Men came into the building wearing their everyday clothes, started to disrobe to soap up their hair, had their hair shorn, and then went next door to wash, groom, and bath. They emerged wearing purified and wearing white dhotis; the virtuous gave their clothes away to the mendicants. Unfortunately, the layout of the building and the transformation of the men into shaved uniform wearing devotees made my Jewish eyes occasionally flash images of head shearing and showering upon entry to a concentration camp. The next step for the men in this case was to walk to the locker building to deposit their shoes and belongings in order to enter the long Temple queue barefoot and pure.

barbers- tirumala
As to the question of the relationship of sacrifice and tonsure: in a simple answer, they are not related. There are none of the signs of Hindu worship:, either camphor, incense, bell, or fruit. There are no statues or images of the divine. No Hindu ever worships wearing shoes, even shower shoes. For all religious homes, one takes off shoes before entering because they have a shrine in the home, this also applies to university rooms or businesses that have shrines. One would not make invocations or chants with shoes on. (See shoes in picture below.)These points are not dependent and language, translation, or regional difference. Pre-schoolers are already trained how to make offerings or worship. No local, regardless of education level, would confuse worship and tonsuring.

What is the meaning of tonsuring? Tonsuring show one’s love for the Gods by washing away one’s past and starting anew. In some cases, someone with a closely shaved head is practicing celibacy. The hair is a symbolic offering of one’s beauty, and in return, one expects blessing. Tonsure can also be used for punishing people for severe crimes as well as a sign of giving up false-ego. According to the rules of the Vedas, the Chudakarana (tonsuring of hair) should be performed either in the first or the third year of the male child as a form of consecration. In Northern India, tonsuring is limited to auspicious occasions. One of the graduate students shaved his head as a morning ritual for his grandmother. It is not uncommon to tonsure the head of a child after the death of a parent. The corpse, too, often receives the tonsure after death. A professor took her daughter to Tirumala for tonsuring as a way of creating an egalitarian equivalent to the boys’ ritual. In the Dharmashastra, Widows are required to tonsure. In Southern India, tonsuring is common as a regular form of votive piety done on a regular basis. Many Southern Indian temples have buildings for regular head shaving. In one city, I found the tonsuring building away from the Temple tucked amidst the concession stands. I bought Diet Coke in the next concession while watching.

Why tonsure at Tirumala? It is custom to make vows that are fulfilled at Tirupati. Vows are done partly because the religious life is filled with votive donations especially to be healed from illness, for children, or as thanks. And partly one makes vows as a spiritual preparation for entering the Temple sanctuary. Among the contemporary votive offerings includes the most popular walking up the 11km footpath to ascend the mountain especially among those in their late teens and twenties (your luggage meets you at the top). Angapradakshinam is when pilgrims lie prostrate, and then roll around the temple, chanting the Lord’s name. Tulabharam is offering one’s weight in coins or other items such as gold, bananas, or sugar candy. Tulabharam is generally performed for children. Tonsuring is in the Kalyana Katta building described above but for the wealthier there are barbers set up in the hilltop hotels and guest cottages at the start of the hilltop so that they can bath and get dressed in their hotel rooms. Niluvudopidi is offering to the Lord the ornaments, etc., that one is wearing when one takes the vow. The biggest source of income for the Temple is from those who directly donate gold, jewels, or money; giving is meritorious. The museum exhibited older forms of vows such as committing to wearing shoes that are a bed of nails while ascending the mountain.

For those who want more information, there are many firsthand accounts in books and online here and here and instructions for pilgrimage.

In a pair of scholarly articles by Benjamin Fleming and Annette Yoshiko Reed, the question they pose is: what happens when Hinduism is confronted by someone who never heard about Hindu categories? According to this article, the rabbis paid “great attention to the details of the Hindu practices, but they interpreted them in conjunction with laws about Greco-Roman religion in the Mishnah and Talmud.” They did not understand that tonsuring is not the same as darshan (vision of a deity) or an offering to a god, and that the cutting of hair can be likened to the washing of dirt from the body. They also did not understand that barbering is not a temple ritual since it is done by low caste barbers—not Brahmins. The rabbis did not ask questions about the entire pilgrimage process to the Tirupati Temple complex or what is done as part of the pilgrimage. In fact, one rabbi imagined he saw the hair actually brought as an offering and thought he was the only one acute to notice that the priest was sneaking the hair out to sell. Another rabbi thought that the stainless steel collection drum was a deity that was being feed.

In both articles, there was the prior assumption that this practice is idolatry; the only question is whether there was an offering. “The pilgrims were asked: If your intention is to give a present why do you cut it here and therefore have to wait for hours in a queue? Why don’t you cut it at home and send it to the God?” They received answers that it is more virtuous not to cut it at home therefore “we want to cut it here because here we are in a holy place[ . . .] and the idol loves our hair.” So they concluded it was forbidden. Eventually, this first thought was overruled with more information.” Leniencies to wear the hair were found by a variety of rabbis; some of their reasoning was based on the barber’s lack of intention for worship, on the tonsuring as a non-ritual act as defined in Greco-Roman terms and on the lack of probability that one has the Temple hair in one’s wig.

Fleming and Reed wrote:

Perhaps most striking, in this regard, may be the manner in which the halakhic discourse about avodah zarah has served to efface the structural and ritual similarities between Jewish and Hindu practices surrounding the cutting of hair, precisely by virtue of the selective appeal to the cultic practice of the Jewish past (i.e., sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple) as the model for the interpretation of non-Jewish ritual practice in the present. Tacit—perhaps already in the Mishnah—is the effacement of the very possibility of any parallels between avodah zarah and contemporary Jewish practice. “Hindu Hair and Jewish Halakha,” Studies in Religion (2011)

As noted above, there is no offering or placing near the murti (statue) that was two blocks away and surrounded by fences and security. And, as Fleming and Reed note, it is worth studying why the rabbis worldview assumed that eye-witnesses, academics, and Brahmins were not telling them the truth. And that even if they the experts were telling the truth, they assumed that the average, unsophisticated worshipper confused bathhouse and Temple, as if an unlettered Jew in the shtetl would not be able to tell mikveh from synagogue or yizkor candle from menorah. The rabbis assumed that the average person could not tell the difference between a votive and sacrifice as if these practices were some ad-hoc rituals whose performance was not deeply embedded in the ritual practice of daily life or that the pilgrimage process would be confusing to its practitioners. In addition, they did not realize utilizing a Hindi speaking translator to communicate to Tamil and Telugu speakers and to translate from there into broken English would not be able to translate terms properly.

Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple2

The Chief Brahmin at the Temple has a doctorate in molecular biology. The approach is more old time Torah uMadda of becoming a Rabbi Dr. than you would have imagined. His sons all have graduate degrees and the finances of the Temple are administered by people who have MBAs. Temple Hinduism is about following the ritual procedure as proscribed in the Agamic books as interpreted by experts. These works have generally not been translated into English and the rituals are not the same as the primordial Veda or dharmashastra texts which, in contrast, have been translated in Western introductory books. For those trying to understand Hinduism the discussion is about observance of the ritual as interpreted by experts, closer to halakhah then hasidut. The Chief Brahmin explains why the elaborate Temple ritual is for the benefit of the laity. Below are some quotes:

Dr. A.V. Ramana Dikshitulu is the head Priest at the Balaji temple in Tirupati . He holds a doctorate in molecular biology and is an inimitable authority on the Agamas”, the crucially important Vedic scriptures.

Can you please describe the “Vaikhanasa Agama” and explain why it is important?
All of the Agamas elucidate the science of ritual but the “Vaikhanasa Agama” is unique in that it gives more detail concerning the performance of ritual, both in the temple and in the home . The “Vaikhanasa Agama,” written by Sage Vikhanasa, is one of four main “Vaishnava Agamas.” The “Vaikhasana Agama” exists in two parts: the first part deals with rituals that are done in the temple and to the Deity whereas the second part deals with purification ceremonies that a priest must undergo in order to qualify to serve in the temple.

The temple rituals are designed to keep the laymen’s physical senses satisfied. This is done by making the process personal.
It describes how the Deity is treated as we would like to be treated ourselves. He is put to sleep at night and awakened in the morning. He is given a bath and dressed in fine silks, jeweled ornaments and fragrant flowers . He is fed a variety of fine foods. Finally, he is carried in grand procession around the temple. As we all know, the dearest thing to man is man. We know God will be happy if we do for Him what we would do for ourselves.

Although the “Vaikhanasa Agama” is available to be read by anyone who knows Sanskrit, it is not easily understood, even by Sanskrit scholars, because of its coded language. The verses have double meanings; the valuable inner meanings can only be perceived by those who meditate deeply upon the verses . Even then, only those at a certain level of spiritual evolution can grasp the deepest meaning. We conduct workshops to stimulate this understanding in our Priests.

Are the principles of the “Vaikhanasa Agama ” to be implemented only by Priests?
This Agama is for people who have no other purpose on Earth but to worship Lord Vishnu. Yes, it is for Priests– Priests who will take up no other vocation. Take me, for example. I am a doctor in molecular biology. Yet, I am a Priest. My elder son is an expert in computers and has a college degree in finance and marketing. My second son is an electrical engineer, and my third son is a bio-chemist. Yet they are also Priests. Like me, they serve here in the Balaji temple in Tirumala.
From your perspective as a priest, how may devotees receive their greatest benefit from a pilgrimage to Tirumala?
If we pray to such a powerful Lord as Balaji for minor things like a promotion, a transfer, a seat in medical college or a marriage proposal, it is possible that these wishes will be granted. But making such requests is like asking for a spoonful of water from an ocean. There is something so much greater to be had here: spiritual evolution. Through the ages, man has evolved both technically and spiritually. However, further spiritual evolution must now take place, for man is still spiritually primitive. It is natural during this Kali Yuga (age of darkness) that we be more attracted to worldly pleasures and ignore spiritual pursuits. To have even a preliminary understanding of the spiritual path during these difficult times depends largely upon one’s personal ” karmas .” These are “karmas” brought over from previous births. Read the rest of the interview here.

Teaching in Banaras

Indian academia is booming; every department in every university is gaining faculty members. New dormitories are popping up all over campuses. At Banares Hindu University alone, 650 new faculty members are being hired. IT, Bio-medical Technology, Engineering, and Medicine have the most new positions, yet even majors such as Philosophy, Dance, and Peace Studies are each gaining several new faculty members. If there is an Indian national out there with a specialty in Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah, then he or she would be almost guaranteed a position. Currently, the Indian universities only have a few Political Scientists whom are familiar with Israel studies, but there are no faculty members whom are well versed in Jewish philosophy And because of this rarity, the institution would be quick to snatch up a specialist. (There is one odd Indian professor in a regional college who gives academic talks that summarize his newspaper clippings on the Indian-Israel relationship or newspaper human interest stories about the remaining Jews in India). Below is a picture of the building that houses the department of Philosophy & Religion, as well as the Psychology department.

BHU philosophy

This month is application month. Tens of thousands of applicants descended on the campus to try for admissions. They make journeys from small towns hoping to change their futures by rising out of the working class and becoming a civil servant or even a doctor or IT worker. In philosophy and history, about 850 apply in each field to be BA freshmen, only about fifty are accepted as students. The ratios are worse in the sciences.

The spring semester in India officially starts in the first week of January but in the north, it is the winter season and still cold and clammy with 40 degree temperature. So every day, the instructors come in and decide if there will be classes that day or if the weather still too cold. No one will ever say that we start mid-month or that there is no class tomorrow as they would at a western institution; rather, every department goes through this ritual on a daily basis to decide it is still too cold.

The language of instruction is English as is the one universal language for the diverse student body. My Indian Hindu class included Thai and Cambodian Buddhists monks, a Cambodian woman, two Tibetans, a native of Ladakh whose native tongue was Ladakhian, an Indian convert to Christianity, as well as a “Western” Australian son of a minister. The campus, as the largest in South East Asia, has many students from Thailand and Cambodia. Thailand contributes a large annual fee to cover all the Thai students and their needs. There is also a special dormitory just for Thai Buddhist monks.

In January, there was a student strike with the cancellation of classes for the day because they raised tuition by over 300% for next year. Bonfires were lit and various objects thrown at officials in protest. (I did not directly enter the crowd and watch because the State dept gave us Fulbrighters a warning to not stand in the sidelines of even seemingly peaceful protests. From behind the barricades, I could see that this protest already had gas masks and possibly tear gas. Here is someone else’s report.)

strike at BHU. all gates are closed. unable to egress or enter…students protesting on rise of tuition by 5x. but many of them are just joining the wall to be loud and boisterous…. Issues: teachers not teaching their classes, not announcing when they will not be attending yet demanding we be on time, lack of planned syllabus and homework, lack of clean bathrooms in hostels.

Now here is the punch line- they were going to raise tuition from 480 Rupees to 1500 Rupees which is US $7.73 to $24.15. This small amount, by American standards, was enough to start a protest. The university gave in by the early afternoon. (For the dormitory and daily hot lunch they pay 2000 Rupees a semester, about 32 American Dollars.)

The Philosophy and Religion department teaches the classic philosophic works of Hinduism and Buddhism under the rubric of Indian philosophy and focusing specifically in Nyaya, Vedanta, Brahma Sutra, Buddhist Yogacara as well as logic and Western thought. Classes treat each Indian approach as a separate worldview, a darshan, and they treat Plato, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Rawls the same way as separate worldviews. There is little analysis or theory. The large faculty is predominately from old Brahmin families. Saryupareen Brahmins with one Buddhist from an untouchable background and one Christian woman from a tribal background. The Social Science department was only a little more diverse.

I taught Judaism- as part of a course on Western religions- and Comparative Religion- both required courses. The Judaism course provided an inside into how India views Judaism. As noted in previous blog posts, the Indian people know Judaism mainly from Christian, anti-Judaism citations or as the religion of Leviticus. At the start of the course, I was repeatedly asked questions like: You got rid of animal sacrifices due to the 19th and 20th century reformers? Was it a 10th century revivalist who taught you to stop doing sacrifices? Did you substitute a coconut, the way some Hindu communities do? I downplayed this line of thinking to avoid leading into the New Testament and started with mizvot, Sinai, Oral law, and Rabbinical Judaism. I also had the professor who normally teaches the course sit in on every lesson taking copious notes for his future lectures.

The class saw Maimonides as part of the Yogic tradition in that for Maimonides one overcomes the ignorance and drives of the natural condition through intellectual training. They related to blessings and names of God as magical mantras. (Jews tend to misuse use the word “mantra” which is a word that has power with the concept of japa- the reputation of a word for devotion.) They liked Kabbalah as dualistic dvaiata Vedanta like Madhva and dislike Hasidut as emotionalism that cannot liberate. Like the ibn Ezra, they treated ritual and mussar statements as scientific. And in the Yogic tradition, debated Maimonides, Nahmanides, and Emergence of Ethical Man on the fallen state that we need to raise ourselves from. They went right for the verse that Adam was only permitted vegetation and saw the ideal even in the Bible as vegetarianism the way Albo read the verse. They liked all the 20th century thinkers especially Rav Kook and Heschel. The professor who sat in on the class proclaimed about how the Humash is different than other scriptures in that here it is “God in search of Man.”

The required Comparative Religion course was a bit trickier to teach. The textbook was an inverse of a Christian colonial approach. The British books proved the superiority of Christianity over Hinduism and the goal of the Hindu version was to prove the superiority of Hinduism over Christianity, which was better at offering liberation. All the other religions of the world, Judaism Included, were not seen as contenders. The last chapter of the book was on whether we can all agree to become one religion. The book’s perspective left it as a problem since there is not enough commonality, people won’t accept a religion that is not theirs, and no one will accept a new religion. I started with that chapter and explained that is not how we do comparative religion, philosophy, or theology in the West. In principle, we do not compare theologies to create a new religion. It gave me a chance to explain the new no-reductive approaches of the theology of other religions.

In general, their book was 19th century approach of looking for the essence of each religion in 8-10 statements and then comparing the supposed essences. The book had no interest in manifestation. For example, one the essence of Judaism or Islam was defined, then the actual texts of the Talmud or Koran/Hadith play no role in the discussion; they could even be seen as irrelevant to the essence.

I went about my own way and started with William James, Mircea Eliade, and Western views of mysticism. In this approach, I learned how they see religion. For example, they rejected James idea of religion and mysticism as a personal feeling done alone to the alone. For them, one requires a guru to teach you how to control your body and mind and one needs to submit to an ashram and to practice the classical techniques.

At one point, I spoke to the PHD philosophy students about how to do research and develop a thesis; some of them had been my friends ever since. One Friday, one of the PhD students came up to me to say that he is dropping out of the program and moving to Delhi. Why? He is very uncomfortable around women and cannot talk to them. He says he grew up in a home of strict separation of the sexes which was very strict about what each sex says to the other, even sibling do not cross the line. So like Raj on the Big Bang theory he cannot talk to women one to one.

Well on this particular Friday he asked a girl to marry him and she said no. The girl is doing a PhD is philosophy and the boy was doing a PhD in philosophy just to be near her. He says he has loved her for three years already but never took her out on a date or a private cup of coffee n campus. He did not really speak to her and never told her about his attraction for three years. After years of silence, instead of asking her on a date or out to coffee, he approaches her with “I have been madly in love with you for three years and will you marry me.“ He says he really didn’t want to do philosophy but it kept him close to her. He feels he wasted three years and will now go to Delhi and sit for the civil servant exam. I would have thought he was pulling my leg as a prank if I did not know the students involved or did not keep abreast of his transfer process.

I was asked many times over the course of my time India what my views on Hitler are. They ask: “What do I think of Hitler?” These students have no context of Western or Jewish history, have never heard of Anti-Semitism except as 19th century Christian and German Aryan truths about the Jew. Few adhere in a meaningful way to the ideas of human rights, crimes against humanity, or genocide. For them, Hitler was just a ruthless leader who defended Germany against her enemies and who took a semi-feudal country having trouble adjusting to modernity and drafted the populous into building factories, autobahn, and cars for all. All virtues in today’s India and Mein Kampf is for sale at every train station. Their question and curiosity is based in innocence.

From their perspective, there are always genocides. The Chinese do not make their loss of six million civilians by the Japanese into the center of their story. Or, for example, I asked the two Cambodia Buddhist monks whom were enrolled in the program how did they revive Buddhism after the killing fields of the late 1970’s when 2-3 million were killed, especially the monks. They answered that the Khmer Rouge destroyed everything but some of the monks fled to Vietnam and returned after the war to rebuild the religion and rebuild the monasteries. They are doing very well and are already the second generation after the destruction. Many spend their late adolescence in the monastery and are ordained as monks at 20 and then become laymen except for those who either become officiates or academics. These two monks studying for an MA saw their story as a triumph of survival over the forces of destruction.

Saraswati Day:report from BHU on women and ritual

I have been too busy lately to blog because for this month I am teaching at Benares Hindu University two college classes a day, four times a week. Today we had off from teaching because it is the anniversary of the school’s founding in 1916 on the auspicious day of Saraswati day. On this day, also called Saraswati Puja, Hindus worship their devi Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music, art and culture. Students, educational institutions seek the blessings of mother goddess so that they can attain enlightenment through knowledge in their chosen field. Originally, I was going to write about my teaching but in this day dedicated to education, the knowledge of women’s ritual education was discussed.

There is a Sanskrit college for girls in Varanasi founded in 1971 to give women access to the sacred texts but it seems they developed in their ideas and now for the last eight years have been giving full training to be Hindu Brahmin Temple officiating clergy. Their training last for ten years to be as rigorous as any men’s program. They enter the program of study around the ages of 9-11 and finish a decade later with a BA or MA. They get up at 4 AM and keep the full monastic Brahmin life of prayer, meditation, sacrifice and training in ritual as well as a full secular studies curriculum. They have little or no contact with the outside world, no radio, no TV, no movie night. They wanted to create a program as intense as the best of the men’s programs. They follow all the strict Brahmin Orthodox rules and they live as a right leaning Orthodoxy. To add to this, they also study archery, swords, daggers, javeline, and horse riding similar to the martial arts monks.

But in the last five years, they have started to advocate the adoption of traditionally male prayer rituals, especially the wearing of the sacred thread, it is like a talit worn by all Orthodox male Brahmins to show their status.It it given at at imitation ceremony similar to bar-mizvah. It was always a male ritual garment and now the women are starting to wear them. The arguments are familiar ones:Can a women keep her body clean? What of her childrearing role? Were there women in history who wore them? What did the original text say?

The local head of the main Temple wrote a public letter stating that Hinduism doesn’t permit women to wear the holy thread, chant the Veda, lead ritual, or become priests. There is a debate on the topic in articles and online. But the President of the Temple Trust of the same main Temple, the equivalent of President of the board of that Temple attends their graduation ceremonies and defends them. (I guess I should be glad I cant read the rhetorical wars in Hindi on their websites. But maybe we should translate our blog posts into Hindi for them?)

For the students, the day begins early at dawn with prayers

The Transformation of Tradition

For thousands of years, religious decree barred women from entering temples and chanting or listening to mantras. The law was scripted by Manu… A strict section of the Brahminical order interpreted Manusmriti, the laws of Manu, as gospel. They quote Manu to provide credence to their claim: “For women, no sacramental rite is performed with sacred texts.

Women destitute of strength and knowledge of the Vedas are as impure as falsehood itself” and that “there is no ritual for Vedic verses for women”. Some even equate women with shudras, the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy, and say that molten lead should be poured into women”s ears should they hear the Vedas.

All that has been turned on its head at Shri Jigyasu Smarak Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya, a Sanskrit college for girls in Varanasi. Manu”s 5,000-yearold law is being challenged here, where almost a hundred girls sit down to perform havans [fire offerings] while chanting Vedic hymns every morning. The college is a unique centre of Sanskrit teaching exclusively for girls where they are taught to practice all the 16 sanskaras (sanctifying or purificatory rites).

“Some pundits had cleverly crafted “stri-suradau nadhi yatam, iti shruti” (it”s said that women and Sudras can”t recite and listen to Vedas) and inserted it in holy scriptures,” says Acharya Nandita Shastri, a senior teacher at the college.

They are taught to perform all important Hindu rites, from vivah to antyeshti.It then became a divine order. We teach the correct Hindu scriptures which nowhere say that women can”t recite mantras or lead pujas.”

The school was founded in 1971 by Sanskrit scholar, Acharya Dr Pranja Devi, and his sister Medha Devi, the current principal. It started as a pathshala (primary school) with just four students in a small house. Their efforts to change the way the scriptures are interpreted have been praised by Brahmins themselves. Professor Somnath Tripathi, who teaches ancient history at Varanasi”s Sampurnananda Sanskrit University which conducts the examinations of the college, rejects the belief that only male Brahmins have the right to recite mantras.

What the scriptures preached was yagna and jajman, one who pays for religious services to a priest or a Brahmin. Also, the concept of karmakanda (religious rites) was non-existent in ancient writings. “Since Sanskrit was in the hands of Brahmins, they followed Manusmriti and imposed it on others as they deemed fit. Besides, with the emergence of shankaracharyas, Manusmriti was strengthened and karmakanda was institutionalised in the 9th and 10th centuries,” says Tripathi.

The girl students are often called to perform Hindu religious rites ranging from karmakanda, antyeshti (funeral), vivah (wedding), shanti yagna (for peace), grih pravesh (entering a new home) and naamkaran (naming ceremony for a child). They are also leading a quiet movement to perform upnayam (sacred thread ceremony) for women as per ancient practices. In today”s times, only Brahmins can conduct such a ceremony.

Here is another article 090724042737_mahilapandit-1

Shloka lessons to break temple glass ceiling

“The institution has so far produced about 25 women scholars, at least 12 of whom are engaged as priests in Hyderabad. They perform pujas at community events and at home,” says Nandanam Satyam Arya, the coordinator.

The institute was set up by Acharya Prajnadevi, who rebelled against the Brahminical order that denied women the wisdom of the Vedas. She vowed to follow the paths of ancient women scholars like Gargi and Maitrayee.

But grooming priests isn’t the only objective. “It’s not our goal only to produce women priests. Imparting a thorough knowledge of the Vedas and Sanskrit shlokas is important, too. But it’s the women who want to be priests. And, we find nothing wrong with it,” Arya says.

Kaumandi, Tejaswini’s classmate from Nepal, already has her own take on what it takes to be a Brahmin. “Brahmins aren’t just born, they are made, too.” Her teacher, Suryadevi Chaturveda, smiles approvingly. “She’s right. Brahmins have to learn and grow in a proper culture to be known as one,” says the 40-year-old.

Predictably, Panini Mahavidyalaya’s efforts have raised the hackles of conservative Brahmin leaders. Batuknath Prasad Shastri, a senior priest at Viswanath Temple, has written to teachers at the institute saying Hinduism doesn’t permit women to wear the holy thread, recite shlokas, pronounce Om and perform yoga. And, in no way does it allow them to become priests. “It is not wise to let women work as priests for they have handicaps in carrying out pujas,” Shastri argued.

The response, some made through journals, has been more than quick. “We have sent Shastri rejoinders, which have been printed in a Sanskrit magazine. We have told him that if women have some handicaps, so do men. They also fall ill and might become impure not to be able to perform puja,” Suryadevi said.

Yet Another source

Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya is a boarding Sanskrit school for girls, mostly from upper bramin class. Education is free but donations are welcomed. There are about 80 girls from the age of 8 till 20 live and study at this school. The school is categorised as a Gurukula type where students live under the instructions and care of a Guru as the centre of the community, doing concentrated study for years and form a particular school of thought, but historically and corresponding to the level of education it received the name ‘Mahavidyalaya’ which is equivalent to college.

Students receive titles of ‘shastry’ and ‘acharya’ after completing their education and are allowed to pass the exams and have official diplomas from Sampurnand Sanskrit University in Varanasi.

Thus, on the one hand, this gurukula follows tradition, that is rules and injunctions of traditional Brahmanical education, but those were meant for men only, so on the other hand, it is almost a revolutionary step towards education and empowerment of women. Girls here learn to perform vedic fire ritual as well as traditional sixteen Hindu sanskar (initiations) and even more interestingly, they are allowed to perform the sanskars for other bramins.

Still it remains fascinating how the ides are practically realized in real life and what is the future of the schools of this type? There are few schools which provide high quality Sanskrit education for women. It seems to remain an ambitious experiment but a successful one.

On their fighting talents

Archery, swords, daggers, javeline, lathi, horse riding girls of this Gurukul have kept alive the ancient methods of war games and at the same time are overshadowing modern world with their self defence skills that also includes karate and martial arts.

Dharmavati Arya, a student, has won accolades in the field of archery. Her calm nature and depth of knowledge in her eyes do not give even a clue that this young girl has mastered archery at national level. She was recently invited by Tata Archery Academy, Jamshedpur, for advanced training in the sport at international level. “I can hit the object with my arrow by looking at the object in the mirror (this act was practiced by Arjun of Mahabharat),” says 22-year-old Dharmavati.

“By the time girls reach 18-20 years, they know all the warfares. As the Gurukul is based on Agra Shishya Shiksha Pranali (seniors teaching juniors), they pass on the knowlegde to the little girls and in this way we revise our art,”

“Girls here do not panic while walking alone on roads and when trapped in problematic situations. Instead, they fight hard and emerge victorious.I believe it is very important to have these skills in this times when we do not know who might turn out to be our enemy,” added Priti.

An Interview with Rabbi Yehuda Brandes of Beit Morasha

Last month, I reviewed and summarized the new book by Rabbi Yehuda Brandes, head of the beit midrash at Beit Morasha, called Human Rights: The Dialectic between “Image of God” and “Holy Nation. יהודה ברנדס, יהדות וזכויות אדם

This month we feature an interview. Rabbi Brandes is noted for his treating aggadah as normative and as part of the holistic study of the Talmud. Now, he turns to the problem of integrating human rights and halakhah. Brandes claims the decision making process behind the pesak is always values based, aggadah and mahshavah based. Judaism is about values, and deciding between values. Hence both poles in the tension are part of the law – universal and particular, feminist and non-feminist, democratic and anti-democratic. Yes, humanism, human rights, feminism are in the halakhic texts as well as their opposites. This is the principle of Elu veElu. Halakhah itself is a value (and aggadah) driven enterprise.

1) What was your innovation of your books Aggadah leMaasah and Mada Toratekhah?
The book illustrates that aggadah has a substantive role in the shaping of halakhah. Agadah is not merely a lull in halakhic discourse, nor is it merely a supplement of ideological and moral aspects. Rather, beyond all that the ancillary roles, aggadah? in two primary capacities. First, it helps our understanding of the ideas underlying the halakha, thus framing the course of the halakhic discussion. Second, it creates the tiny details of Talmudic thinking and halakhah , which the language of halakha is not refined enough to address. In English, you call this fine-tuning.

In my work on tractate Ketuvot, “Mada Toratekhah” I worked with typical halakhic sugyot with the goal of revealing, through close study, their ideological and philosophical underpinnings. There’s no fundamental difference between Aggadah le-Maaseh and Mada Toratekhah in terms of the goal of connecting halakha and aggadah. However, in Aggadah le-Maaseh I chose specific sugyot that incorporate classic aggadic texts within the larger halakhic discourse. In my study on Ketuvot, I showed my method on halakhic sugyot. (I have written on other tractates that have not yet published, though some are available on the Beit Morashah website and that of R. Adin Steinsaltz).

2) What is the role of academic works in Torah ? What is the role of non-orthodox thinkers like Buber in our Torah study? How should we be using academic Talmud ?
Maimonides established the principle: “Hear (i.e. accept) truth from whoever speaks it.” (Introduction, Commentary on Avot). In recent generations, many new tools have been developed for understanding and interpreting the Torah. Some have external, foreign, and even anti-Semitic sources. Nevertheless, the contribution of disciplines such as philology, history, literature, and philosophy to Torah study cannot be underestimated, and we must never relinquish these tools that have been made available to us. We can understand the opposition of our coreligionists to any sort of external scholarship; they are afraid of its negative aspects. Yet we must accept the responsibility of separating the wheat from the chaff, so that all Torah scholars can have access to these innovative methodologies and the possibilities they offer us.

The academic study of Talmud is not different than other academic fields in its important contributions to the study of Torah. The utilization of academic Talmud is widespread and becoming more accepted in Torah circles. Its contribution starts with the use of manuscripts and modern critical editions of texts, as well as turning our attention to the historical context of the formation of halakhah and its commentary. A philological analysis is faithful to the approach of classical sources. In addition, one should distinguish between substantive research and theoretically based research that may reflect other worldviews, rendering it less valuable.

3) How does pesak reflect belief and is not just objective? Why is deciding a halakha (hachra’ah) not just deciding between written statements?
Anyone who is closely familiar with halakhic literature and personalities, especially with our greatest poskim, knows that they are not technicians who just tally up the sources available to them. Even when there are rules for “paskening”, one must choose which of these rules to employ. This is why when two poskim are presented with similar questions under similar circumstances, we shouldn’t be surprised when they arrive at different rulings. Dispute stems from the fact that each posek assigns a different weight to the various elements of psak. These differences can originate in several factors – often differences of ideology.

Beliefs and opinions (emunot ve-deot) are the major motivations in the considerations of a posek. For example, the ideological divide on the meaning of Zionism and the Zionist State influences on the positions of the legal deciders in every realm of halakhah- shimitah, prayer, conversion, kashrut, army, and the economics of the individual and the entire state. The relationship to general culture or even technology creates divisions in pesak. In the world of Torah, there is a difference between the pesak of Hasidim to that of “Mitnagdim,” between a pesak that relies on kabbalah and one that does not, and many other similar distinctions. One of the central topics that I explain in my course on “Considerations in Pesak” is the place of haskafic positions that motivate the poskim in their teshuvot.

4) How does your approach relate to that of Rabbis Eliezer Berkovits and Daniel Sperber?

I’m honored that you’d put me alongside those two giants. I’m only familiar with R. Berkowitz through his writings; his works on halakha are very close to my heart. It is a shame that his halakhic teachings are not more widely known. People prefer to quote from R. Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man, which is not the figure of a classic posek, over the works of R. Berkowitz, who describes the methods of our great poskim. I’ve had the great privilege of getting to know R. Sperber personally here in Jerusalem, and I am also well acquainted with his rabbinic and scholarly writings. It seems that our most significant differences are not substantive, but rather relate to external forms: R. Berkowitz wrote philosophy, R. Sperber writes more on Rabbinic material culture, halakha and Jewish custom, whereas I try, both in my teachings and my writings, to focus on interpreting the Talmud.

5) How do we determine what are the values of Hazal since there is no list in Hazal?

The absence of a list doesn’t imply a free-for-all. As we know, the idea of dogmatic Jewish beliefs is a late arrival, attributed to medieval sages. Yet, it is clear that at the time of Haz”al, they too had their own catalog of faiths and beliefs. Some were explicated and formalized in the siddur. The vast majority were taught throughout the corpus of rabbinic literature. I think that our living tradition has preserved these quite well, including ideas that were later subject to mahlokot and different approaches. The fact that there is disagreement over them in no way negates the fact that Haz”al held an organized system of faiths and beliefs, just as mahlokot in halakha do not undermine the halakhic system or our commitment towards it.

There are ideas appearing in Haz”al that were later excluded from the mainstream of our philosophical tradition, as is the case in halakha. To some extent this leaves us with more choice, because we can rely on those ideas within Haz”al that did not find a central place in Jewish thought, even though they are legitimate and worthy beliefs.
Halakhic figures in every generation found ways to revive ideas and halakhot that were excluded from the mainstream and not in practical use for many generations. It is understood that this is a careful and measured process- not to be done as a revolution- that relies on the living tradition that continues the way of the Aharonim until today.

6) What do you see as the role of feminism in today’s Torah?

Deliberation about questions of feminism take place on three major planes:
A. Women are human beings, created in God’s image, with capabilities that are no less than those of men, and sometimes even greater. Yet they are not “equal” in the simple sense of the concept. Men are men and women are women. It has not yet been determined which differences are essential and which differences are social/cultural, which differences are desirable and welcome, and which should be jettisoned. These are some of the most fascinating challenges of our age. As usual, there are a range of answers between the radical and conservative extremes.

B. There has been a significant change in the status of women in modern society. This change stems from various factors, for example: health, economics, education, technology, etc. This change inevitably leads to changes in lifestyle, law, and of course halakha. Like the debate taking place on the first plane, this is no simple task and challenge: identifying what must be changed and amended and what must be preserved and reinforced. The conflict between various types of feminism and various types of conservatism will ultimately lead to a new cultural construction, of which halakha will be a part. Some of these changes have already taken place before our very eyes, even in some of the most conservative circles – women entering the world of Torah study, for example. Some are still a long way off, hard to integrate, and perhaps even undesirable.

C. The question of feminism is often simply a subsection or particular application of much broader questions: conservatism vs. innovation; the degree to which theology is subject to sociology and historical context; modes of creative interpretation of Scripture and rabbinic literature from Hazal until today; the essence and purpose of man; theological conceptions; etc. The urgency of addressing these questions is the third challenge posed to us by feminist thought.
All of these issues already appear in Hazal, in varying degrees of clarity and salience. The status of woman as a human being, created in the image of God, and endowed with virtues, are quite explicit in Hazal. Social and cultural changes demand that we develop the less obvious layers, as has been done in the realm of halakha. The laws of electricity on Shabbat are not explicit in the Talmud, but nobody thinks that using electricity on Shabbat goes against Hazal. This is the art of traditional exegesis and the vitality of the Oral Law.

If the Gaon Rav Soloveitchik zt”l had assumed that we have to only follow the mesorah of the last generation in matters of beliefs and opinions, then he would have not joined Mizrachi and we would not be privileged to have the drasha “Joseph and his Brothers” included in Five Derashot.

7) What do you say to someone who thinks the halakha is formal, objective, and not values driven?
I would tell him to start studying halakha seriously – not from digests and certainly not from the media. He should not be swayed by what is written about it – not by its enemies and not by its allies. He should study each sugya from the Mishna and Gemara through the Shulchan Arukh, and then from the Shulchan Arukh until today. He should pay special attention to what happens in the responsa literature. He need not become familiar with the entire corpus of halakha; it is sufficient to take 2-3 sample sugyot and master it from top to bottom. Of course, it is important that he learn? it thoroughly, not by means of someone who will limit his view to specific selected? points from within the whole complex. He should pay attention to the weight the poskim give to changes that stem from differences in time, place, and culture. In truth, there is not a single responsum in which one does not see change and innovation. Had there been no innovation, there would be no responsum; the answerer would simply refer the questioner to a ruling in a halakhic code. Anyone who has ever seriously encountered the modus operandi of a posek can relate to halakha differently.

I find it truly hard to understand how a Talmid Hakham and man of halakhah can claim that halakhah is entirely formal if they were not engaging in religious polemic in which it is customary to go to an extreme position even if it is not exact. As a lamdan, halakhic formalism is not possible. One can easily prove this.

8) Why do you reject the approach that see Torah ve-Avodah or Torah u-Mada as combining opposites, one as Torah and one as outside liberalism? How do you see that they are both part of Torah?

Each of your questions demands at least one semester-long course. In general, adopting external ideas is not done unless a robust foundation can be found for it internally. Had there been no long Jewish history of engagement with Mada or labor, it would have been difficult for these movements to find a place within the world of traditional Judaism. Since we have an ancient tradition of scientific enrichment and an ancient tradition of going to work, the new can be contained within the old. Much has been written about the status of Mada in Tannaitic era and among the Spanish Rishonim, and about the importance and virtue of labor in our ancient and new (in every sense of the word!) sources. I do not think there is any need to elaborate.

9) Doesn’t the approach of the Hazon Ish as formal and not based on values, presented by Benny Brown, go against your approach?

I can answer this question in two ways. One way is to say that, indeed, the Hazon Ish represents a different approach, but thank God there are enough gedolim upon whom we can base our approach. This would be the polite thing to do, but it is incorrect. In my opinion, it is easy to demonstrate that halakha and ideology are combined even in the world of the Hazon Ish. I do not think my friend, Dr. Benny Brown, would disagree. Take, for example, his attitude toward the State of Israel, or toward secularists and secularism. Is it conceivable that he derived his attitudes toward hilonim (as those to whom the sanctions pertaining to heretics do not apply) or the state (as an entity with no religious significance) solely by analyzing talmudic/halakhic sources, devoid of all influence from an ideology-driven worldview?

10) Of all the challenges that you presented in your book, which one are the most crucial for our times? Why?
With regard to the Jewish future in Israel and the Diaspora, it seems that he most important thing is to make all parts of Torah accessible to all Jews. R. Saadia Gaon averred that “our nation is not a nation without its Torah.” This principle has not changed, in my opinion. The Torah is the basis of Jewish identity, whether intellectually, in terms of knowledge and study, or practically, in terms of action and existence. It is also crucial both for continued Jewish existence in the Diaspora and for the State of Israel’s progress toward becoming a Jewish state, not just the state of the Jews.

Translated by Elli Sacks and Elli Fischer