Five Year Anniversary of this Blog

I never thought that I would still be doing this after five years. At the time I started this blog I was working on deadline for my book Judaism and Other Religions. My “About” page was about my working on deadline. Now, that book is about to finally be released in reasonably priced paperback by November. (Order now, the price drops further right before it comes out)

The posts that get the most hits are those about the community and not those about books, alas. Unless the post is an interview with someone infamous.

Currently, most of the serious discussion has moved to Facebook and away from the comments. Time will help how much longer I keep comments. I do miss the first years of the blog when I posted 18-24 posts a month, each only a short paragraph or two letting my friends know what I was reading. Now they are all full articles but they bypass what I am reading. Onward.


Interview with Prof. Samuel Heilman

Whenever there is a story about Orthodoxy in the newspapers, we have grown accustomed to the article including a quote or two from Prof. Samuel Heilman giving his viewpoint on the event. For many readers, his understanding or evaluation of Orthodoxy has become the lens into Orthodoxy. Yet within the community, many do not agree with his assessments -to put it mildly.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of Erving Goffman. He became the first full time sociologist of Orthodoxy. Here is his website.


First, a little background. The father of American Jewish sociology was Marshall Sklare whose studies on Jews in suburbia defined a generation . Sklare documented the 1950’s concern of Jewish identity despite the lack of Jewish religious observance.. Sklare’s most relevant book for this discussion was his 1955 classic, Conservative Judaism: an American Religious Movement. In the book Sklare described Orthodox Judaism in America as a “case study in institutional decay.”  Orthodoxy was associated in most people’s minds with the teaming masses of non-American immigrants who were mostly poor and illiterate. Sklare devote a section to the large number of unobservant Orthodox.

Sklare focuses on the acculturation of Jews based on place of settlement and considered synagogue an ethnic church acculturation. Decades ago, the sociologist Nathan Glatzer commented about Sklare “And this gives rise to sociology’s special weakness—what to do about ideas, what to do about what people think they believe?” This remains the question for many believers when they read sociology.

The first serious sociology work on Orthodoxy was the 1965 essay by  Charles Liebman, Orthodoxy in American Life which showed that Orthodoxy was still alive. Liebman used the sociological distinction between a Church attitude, which fosters a broad leeway of practices of beliefs, as opposed to the sectarian approach, which prescribes consistency and isolation. For Liebman, modern Orthodoxy of the post-WWII era, was a Church form of religion; Ultra-Orthodoxy was inward focused as a sect. As a sociologist, he was weak in religious ideology and openly thought it counted little.

Both Sklare and Leibman followed Seymour Martin Lipset who set our American approach of surveys and predictions for political races and both followed the Chicago school of sociology that focused on urban acculturation. The Chicago school followed Mead, who coined the term “symbolic interactionism” to describe how people act toward things based on social interaction and then modified through interpretation

Prof. Samuel Heilman adds to this an anthropological element based on the work of Erving Goffman, who in 1959 published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman  also uses symbolic interactionism but also introduced the theory of dramaturgical analysis which asserts that all individuals aim to create a specific impression of themselves in the minds of other people Goffman holds that when an individual comes in contact with another person, he attempts to control or guide the impression that the other person will form of him, by altering his own setting, appearance and manner. At the same time, the person that the individual is interacting with attempts to form an impression of, and obtain information about, the individual.

Prof. Heilman’s first book  Synagogue Life: A Study in Symbolic Interaction (1976) portrayed the noisy social camaraderie. at the core of an Orthodox synagogue. The book consciously avoids ideology and texts study and is not social history. Many confuse sociology with social history, if one wants the later then people had to wait 25 years until  Etan Diamond’s 2000 book. Already in his early work, Heilman assumes that combining modernity and Orthodoxy is a hybrid and the approach leads its members to compartmentalize the two halves. It definitely described correctly the modern Orthodox synagogue of the 1960’s and 1970’s, but it did not describe the swirl of debates about synthesis by those who taught at YU or in the pages of Tradition.  In the book, Torah study is done for social interaction, not for cognitive or lumdanut reasons. Here is Heilman’s fine article Constructing Orthodoxy (1981), which shows how a sociologist looks at reinterpretation, synthesis, transformation and ignoring of data by the community.

A very clean example of Heilman’s sociology is “The Importance of Residence” (2002). He shows that whereas most of American Jewry  is weakening its ties to residence, Orthodoxy in contrast is creating strong ties to neighborhoods. However, the article is about residence patterns not the social media gossip and hock about different neighborhoods.

Samuel Heilman and Steven M. Cohen wrote a very good book Cosmopolitans and Parochials: Modern Orthodox Jews in America (1989) about Modern Orthodox congregations, of which an except is available as “Ritual Variation among Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States” (1986). The article shows that “Ritual practices which inhibit integration and are perceived to be of low religious / symbolic importance” are more likely to be neglected. In short, that ordinary people will skip minor fasts or be lax in observance. Torah uMadda types were up in arms questioning the choice of congregations and the method involved, and instead limited Modern Orthodoxy to a strictly observant heroic philosophic Modern Orthodoxy that excludes actual demographics. However, sociology and ideology are not the same thing.

Sliding to the Right:The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy (2006), however, was too broad in considering YU, Centrism and even older views of Rav Soloveitchik as sliding Haredi, a unified fundamentalist mindset spanning from YU to Williiamsburg, The book was influenced by the mid-1990’s Fundamentalism project (see below in interview). It did not see the stronger religion of Centrism as its own unique entity that does not slide to Belz or Satmar.  It was also problematic in still using a 1970 criteria by seeing college as a sign of Modern Orthodoxy when what I term “Engaged Yeshivish” had rates of college not much lower than Modern Orthodox neighborhoods. A Lakewood graduate who goes to law school does not become old-time modern. The frame analysis was cast too broadly.  (Personally, I view much of the recent changes using insights drawn from the study of Evangelicals who live modern Evangelical lives).

Finally, Heilman’s recent continuing work done together with Menachem Friedman on Chabad in The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson is about self-presentation and social interactions. It discussed the life of the Rebbe and the sociology of shlichus. It did not provide what people wanted in terms of engagement with ideas and ideology, or the insider baseball, or the broader social history. The recent Chabad sponsored hagiography with footnotes, as if to show the account is factual or even possible, is clearly rejected by the book.  Speculation on minor details in the book, especially of the Rebbe’s early life, does take away from the book. It leaves the Chabad critics ample room to dismiss the book by arguing about the smaller points. Once again, the goal was not theology or even a biography based on publications and speeches. In addition, the reception of his recent books is deeply connected to the  tone of his op-eds, responses to critics, and social media comments.

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 your sociological method?

I do not use a single methodology.  When I work as a social anthropologist and ethnographer, I tend to favor participant-observation: learning by watching while doing, a method I learned from my teachers, the late Erving Goffman and Renee Fox, both of whom largely taught me while I was at the University of Pennsylvania how to turn myself into an instrument, a kind of living camera.  This is better than simple observation and recording for it allows one also to share in the subjective experience of the people I am learning about, and it often enables me to ask more informed questions or notice things I would otherwise miss.  To be sure there are limits on any researcher’s participation but because I am a Jew and to some extent Orthodox and many of those I have been studying share some of that culture, I bring a degree of cultural competence and insider’s understanding – verstehen, as Max Weber called it – to my task that other researchers might not.

I have written about this process in a paper and later turned it into an afterword in the second edition of my Synagogue Life, in which I explore the role of native-as-stranger (the insider or partial insider looking at the world reflexively) in contrast to the more common social anthropological approach of stranger-as-native.  I argue that it is easier to learn the disciplines of social science than to become a cultural insider and therefore the idea of a Jew studying other Jews (and an Orthodox one among other Orthodox) might offer more or at least different insights  than a New Yorker studying the people of Samoa (as for example Margaret Mead did).  Still, I realize there are limits to participation as well as to reflexivity and therefore I write copious field notes, inscribe my understanding of what I observe and participate in and then –constantly re-read my account of what I have seen and look for patterns, juxtapositions, themes, etc.  Often I realize much later the significance and full character of what I earlier witnessed.

My teachers Goffman and Fox, who were largely ignorant of their Jewish heritage and did not know a lot about Jews, taught me all this; I contributed the Jewish cultural understanding.  Their questions about some basic Jewish things I examined taught me to always try to decipher and articulate what I took for granted and to look at the familiar in a new way.  In that sense their lack of knowledge about the Jews I studied was precisely what forced me to look more deeply and I have done that ever since, imagining I am still explaining things to them and people like them.

I note as many details as I can – for these are not trifles.  In the process, I learn about myself as well as the people I observe. I try to suspend my own values – put them on the shelf – in order to see things from the perspective of the people I am among.  It is all a complex business, and it takes time, lots of time.  I also consult with others, interview, use archival materials, press reports (where available), and examine material artifacts, use recordings, photos.  But as I have pointed out elsewhere, I agree with the late Clifford Geertz, understanding a culture is more like reading a poem, with ellipses, and often undefined words than it is like reading a set of instructions.

When I do other sorts of sociology, I may use surveys (as I did for my books Cosmopolitans and Parochials as well as Portrait of American Jewry), interpret demographic materials, read press reports, and do more classic social science.  Then the job is turning this sort of material into a narrative that is comprehensible to a broad audience but still informed by hard data.  I may do secondary analysis of the work of others, informed by history and guided by new perspectives.

2)     What is the difference between sociology and the amateur shul or blog schmoozing?  

The difference between sociology and shul schmoozing I suppose is the difference between composing music and whistling a tune.  Both are musical efforts but one is structured, practiced, informed by a discipline and modeled on other work, while the whistler just repeats something heard, and often only in the most simple way. To whistle the tunes of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony is not to play it as written, though there is some similarity.  To be sure, Dvorak built the symphony around folk tunes that people sung or whistled (and maybe that’s why it is much loved) but he added complexity and saw connections between such tunes and the symphonic form.   A good composer can make the complex seem simple and effortless, but anyone who looks at the score and understands what went into it knows how much work it was.

In that way, I can take shul anecdotes and behavior (and did in my Synagogue Life) or the conduct of shul lernen (as I did in The People of the Book or The Gate Behind the Wall) and contextualize and interpret these behaviors in order to see and explain how they fit together and what they say about people that they themselves may not realize (as the whistlers of the folk tunes may not have seen the symphonic possibilities that Dvorak did) and build a narrative structure and explanatory framework.  But in the end,as Dvorak and I both hope, people can appreciate and learn from what we have done without seeing the hard and complex work that went into making it.  So what I write may seem simple to insiders (and often it is) but there’s a complex scaffolding that holds it all together and frames it so that I am often making the strange familiar for outsiders and the familiar strange for insiders. Making the difficult look easy is the art I try to practice.

Many of the native “Samoans” I study believe that they alone understand best the entire meaning of their behavior.  Moreover, as Orthodoxy has flirted with fundamentalism and its insistence on seeing things in black and white rather than more nuanced ways, it often assumes that you have to be one to know one, and that one is either ‘with us or against us.’  That makes the kind of work I do very hard to explain to contemporary Orthodox Jews of all stripes.   Again and again I am asked to ‘prove’ my orthodoxy or simply defined as ‘anti-Orthodox,’ usually by the more fundamentalist elements who believe that regardless of who I am and how I do my work, I must be either for or against them.  Or, as an article about me in a haredi magazine was entitled, “Professor Samuel Heilman, the Man who Loves to Hate Us.”  In these criticisms, the line between studying and boosting Orthodoxy seems to be lost.

3)     Have you integrated any of the new methods in your work?

Anyone who has read my work can see a development and change over time.  My Defenders of the Faith, which adapted the work of Levi-Strauss in his Triste Tropiques to my own travels into the heart of haredi ‘darkness’  is certainly a huge change from the way I organized my first book around the work of Clifford Geertz and his Interpretations of Culture.  My work in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences project on fundamentalism, which included a number of scholars of other religions, was a group effort to find ‘family resemblances’ among different religious fundamentalisms clearly informed my Sliding to the Right.  My work on death in When a Jew Dies and Death, Bereavement and Mourning, drew on a broad and developing literature of death studies and anthropological views of death applying these to Jewish custom and practice as well as my own experiences as a bereaved son.  That book that blended autobiography with social anthropology was extremely innovative – maybe that’s why it won a National Jewish Book Award.

4) Do you still use the concept of Fundamentalism that drove the 1990’s Fundamentalist project?

Anyone who has read my work in the Fundamentalist Project knows that I spent much time explaining how that term did not really perfectly characterize the Jews about whom I was writing.  But their behavior and beliefs did display ‘family resemblances” with those who have been characterized by this term.  They all responded to rapid change and uncertainty by fighting against that change, which they see as history having gone awry and see themselves as trying to put history right again.

They all argue modern society and culture, particularly secular and modern Western culture, are corrupting and have failed to deliver on their grand promises of a better life. They all reject the modern west’s assertion of its supremacy and see Western influence as an ingested toxin. They all tend toward a Manichean or dualistic stance, asserting there are good and bad ways to live. You are with us or against us. If you are with us, we share a real solidarity and if not, we are ready to fight against you.

They argue in favor of absolute truths, often drawn from what they view as a sacred and inerrant text, and seek to impose these on the public square: everyone must do it our way. They are often apocalyptic or messianic, seeing an end to history whose character they claim to know and which they believe will favor them.  They tend to be intolerant and anti-pluralist, commonly anti-democratic. Our way and truth must be everyone’s truth and way. They generally reject the supremacy of personal autonomy and rationality in favor of received authority. They tend to subordinate women to men, and engage in selective retrieval from the tradition according with their ideological and political needs of the culture war against adversaries.   Call it fundamentalism or something else, these are common elements and characteristics of some of those on the religious right whom I have studied and written about.

5) Why are you singled out with being anti-frum and out to attack Orthodoxy more than other scholars of Orthodoxy?

I think I am singled out because many in the media turn to me and I tend to be quoted more often.  I also may be more outspoken in having written editorials than some of the other scholars. Generally, however, the criticism comes from those who are fundamentalist-like for whom the world is Manichean.

Although those who know me realize that I am quite observant personally it is easier for those who don’t to simply mark me as one who is the enemy.  It is too complicated for those in the fundamentalist world to see that someone can be personally religiously observant but still view one’s world reflexively and even critically.  The native-as-stranger approach necessarily means that in some sense one does become estranged from one’s native habitat, one has stopped completely ‘going native’.  Yet to my critics, they assume wrongly that estrangement and a critical distance means hatred and opposition.

This is the same attitude taken by those who opposed the people and questioned the patriotism of those who protested war or the lack of civil rights for all in the American 1960s or those who question policies of the political right wing in Israel today.  They are called names, defined as anti-patriotic and enemies. Of course they are not.

6)     How do you respond to the criticism of Marvin Schick of your book Slide to the Right?

Marvin Schick admitted he never read the book before he criticized it.  Marvin Schick is impossible to explain.  I think he is trapped in Manichean thinking.  I have told him this.  But mostly I see him in shul in Jerusalem at the daily minyan where we daven next to each other, and in spite of the way I gathered information for my Synagogue Life, I don’t like to talk in shul or during the davenen .

7) Why do Chabad followers get so upset about your book on the Rebbe? How do you respond to their critiques?

In writing The Rebbe, my co-author Menachem Friedman and I tried to take a man whose followers had turned him into a false messiah and turn him back into a real human being.  We did not write a hagiography or a book that cited the ‘miracles’ that many of his followers attribute to him.  We tried to show how he changed his life and orientation and in the process rebuilt Chabad into an outreach machine, in the process radically reforming it.  The Hasidim believe their Rebbe is special and was always destined to be a Rebbe.

We see him as someone who remade himself and turned what was once a very cerebral, even Litvish, Hasidism into a movement which has dumbed down its message in order to be the form of Judaism-lite that all Jews can practice, to make Judaism all about joy and goodness, and easy.  I think they don’t like that insight.

But people who have actually read our book (and unfortunately most Chabadnik’s have not) come away with a very positive view of the Rebbe and Lubavitchers.  They are impressed that a man who lead a relatively small sect and was for at least twenty-five years in many ways peripheral to Hasidic life and concerned during the first half of his life with his own career and sought privacy could reinvent himself and his movement in such a way that even people who know nothing about Hasidism or Orthodoxy have heard of him and Chabad. And those who follow him are slowly but steadily seeking to become the inheritors of Judaism and its definitive protectors.

Our readers think we have demystified the Rebbe and his movement (and I think that’s why the book won a National Jewish Book Award). To the Manicheans, however, one either praises him or damns him. Since our book is not a paean of praise, they believe it must be a book of falsehood and calumny.  It isn’t.  I value Chabad; the shluchim do wondrous things out of a sense of mission.  But they are real people and their Rebbe was too.  For those who think he was Messiah, such a conclusion is heresy.

8)  What role does the Holocaust play in your thinking about contemporary Jewish life?

I am the only child of two Holocaust survivors.  My parents never ceased to talk about their experiences, and it shaped them and me.  I am a survivor of survivors, and feel it every day of my life.  My parents were Schindler Jews, but they – and especially my mother – had reservations about Schindler.  God saved them, she said, not Schindler.  But of course that raises the question of who was responsible for the evil.  Still if my parents’ religious faith survived the Holocaust, my own would have to survive the post-Holocaust.  As a child of survivors, I tend to expect catastrophe and also feel a personal responsibility for Jewish continuity.  I expect that is part of the reason I have focused on understanding Jews.  It has also made it important for me to be a Zionist and live as much as possible in Israel.  But the Holocaust is still too fresh for me to fully understand how it has influenced me.  I can say that my four sons, two of whom live in Israel and have served in the Israeli army and wife think it is built into the fabric of who I am. But you’d do better asking them how it has affected me.

9)  What is most important for the future of Jewish identity?

Jewish identity is dependent on Jews being among, living with, and sharing the destiny of Jewish people.  Those who don’t share this existential neighborhood and consciousness do not play a significant role in Jewish identity.  So the most important thing is creating and enlarging the Jewish street, the Jewish community.  I see that as the essential contribution of Israel and other smaller Jewish communities and it is why I believe the future of Jewry will be mostly written there not in the wider Diaspora.

That is not to say I believe the Diaspora has nothing to offer.  Indeed, the real contribution of Diaspora life is its ability to allow Jews to borrow and adapt elements in their host cultures for Jewish use.  That is where non-insular and contrapuntist modern Jewish life (from the Reform and Reconstructionist to the modern Orthodox) has a contribution to make.  Still as a minority, all Jewish culture and identity will always be a hybrid.  Even in Israel, that great concentration of Jewish life, kibbutz galuyot, the outside world seeps in and affects Jewish identity.  Jews, however, who live surrounded only by non-Jews will not adapt their surroundings into Jewish identity; they will inevitably assimilate.

10)  As a sociologist, you look at community and practice, not texts and theology. Can they be separated in the case of Orthodoxy?

Most Orthodox Jews have never really figured out their theology.  In all events, as a social anthropologist, I look at what people do and infer their beliefs from what they do.  I claim no particular expertise about the texts or the theology.  From what I’ve read, for example, the theology of Maimonides as expressed in the Guide for the Perplexed seems pretty far from the religiously right wing Orthodoxy I’ve observed, except for his creationism.  In any case, I am a believer in the Talmudic dictum, “puk hazi” Go out and see what the people are doing.  It’s too bad most of the rabbis don’t do that.  They could use a little more sociology to add to their textual knowledge.

Passage to India

I was this week’s featured cover story in the Jewish Standard. I have to thank Reb Yudel for an amazing job in his write up. The content was based on my many blog posts reporting on India. Let me know what topics would be especially interesting to develop for a general reader. The article was unable to include anything about my trip to the Temple of Tirumali that I blogged and the hair tonsuring and it did not discuss sacrifice. For those who want the original article with the wonderful photographs taken by Rabbi Robert Carroll who came to visit me, see the link here.

Local academic finds Jewish parallels in Hindu university

Larry Yudelson *Cover Story
Jewish Standard  29 August 2014

Dr. Alan Brill of Teaneck faced his students.

The classroom reminded him of British Mandate era buildings in Jerusalem. It obviously had been built in the 1940s, or at least refurbished then. All the desks had inkwells.

Among the students earnestly taking notes were three Buddhist monks from Cambodia wearing orange robes; two Tibetans, one of whom looked like a Sherpa in his yak-wool vest; an Australian Christian dressed like a hippie trying to dress like an Indian, and several Indians dressed in modern clothing. Up front, wearing a traditional long golden coat, was the professor of Hindu religion and philosophy who normally taught this course. He was particularly diligent in his note-taking.

The day’s topic was the Bible.

And then came a question that highlighted both the vast gulf between Indian and Jew, and the commonalities between Indian and Jewish religion:

“Do Jews still sacrifice animals?”

That’s not a hard question for Dr. Brill, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, to answer.

In fact, there are probably few Christians in America who don’t know that Jews stopped sacrificing animals nearly two thousand years ago.

But in India, the question made perfect sense. After all, in Indian, animal sacrifices only ended in the early 20th century.

The question was emblematic of Dr. Brill’s six-month stay in India — a place where Judaism doesn’t register on the religious awareness of even the most educated, but where people’s intensely religious lives — full of household ritual, frequent prayers and hand washings, and elaborate food regulations — makes it in some ways much closer to Judaism than Christianity.

passage to india

Dr. Brill was in India on sabbatical from Seton Hall University, where he teaches in the department of Jewish-Christian studies. He was based in the graduate school of religion and philosophy at Banaras Hindu University in the city of Varanasi, where he had a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship, courtesy of the U.S. State Department.

The interactions between Dr. Brill and his students embodied an encounter between two ancient religious traditions that have had relatively little interaction. (Dr. Brill was able to catalog those encounters — many consisting simply of medieval rabbis responding to reports of Indian religion in Arabic writings — in just one chapter of his 2012 book, “Judaism and World Religions.”)

Dr. Brill taught an introduction to Judaism course as part of the Introduction to Western Religions course required of graduate students in the religion school. Even the course’s usual instructor had never heard of Talmud or midrash, Dr. Brill said. And he too was surprised to learn that Jews long ago stopped bringing animal sacrifices, that the practice wasn’t ended by Judaism’s 19th century Reform movement as it has been by India’s 19th century religious reformers.

Wait. Animal sacrifices? Aren’t Hindus vegetarians?

Yes and no.

India is a big place With 1.2 billion people, it is the second most populous country on earth. Unlike China, the most populous, religion has not been repressed there. Instead, in India it flourishes. As of the 2001 census, 80 percent of Indians are Hindu; 13 percent Muslim (making India the country with the world’s third largest Muslim population), and the rest mostly divided between Christianity, a Western import, and the homegrown religions of Sikkhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. But what is called “Hinduism” by the West and the Indian national census is really a collection of related religious traditions with common roots and practices but great differences that are recognized by individual practitioners.

Dr. Brill compares it to someone who sees Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as essentially one religion. (He met many people like that in India.) After all, the three monotheistic religions share the same theology of one God who created the world and rewards and punishes sinners; and they share many religious figures, such as Abraham and Moses.

In reality, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are at least three religions — and the closer you look at any one them, the less monolithic is appears to be. (Is the difference between Reform and Orthodox Judaism significant? How about the difference between Chabad and Satmar?)

All the more so in India — with its more than 1,500 languages, representing myriad distinct ethnic groups.

“Almost any obscure Hindu sect has more members than there are Jews,” said Dr. Brill. That includes one group, dating back to the 13th century, that pretty much adopts a Jewish-style theology of pure monotheism.

“The most important thing I learned is not to trust any of the generalizations, stereotypes, or almost anything written in American popular literature,” Dr. Brill said. “Even the most basic things that come on a Google search are incorrect.”

One example: “The same way Jews are not still directly practicing the religion described in Leviticus, no Hindu is practicing the religions of the Vedic texts directly. They’ve had dozens of points of changes. Like any other religion, they’re practicing 20th century versions of it.”

Banaras Hindu University is, as its name implies, a religious college — as are, in their way, Seton Hall and Dr. Brill’s alma mater, Yeshiva University. But unlike the two small New York-area institutions, Banaras University is huge, boasting 20,000 students. It is in one of India’s holiest cities, on the banks of the sacred Ganges river, the city of a million residents that draws three million pilgrims each year — many with the belief that dying in the holy city, or being cremated on the shores of the Ganges, will prove auspicious.

Dr. Brill uses an Israeli metaphor. “It’s like Bar Ilan University” — a modern Orthodox institution — “but located within Bnai Brak,” an ultra-Orthodox center. In that metaphor, Dr. Brill likens his alien presence to a Swedish Lutheran living in Bnai Brak.

Another difference between the Indian institution and the American religious colleges: Conferences at Yeshiva University and Seton Hall don’t open with ceremonial offerings to busts of their founding presidents.

But Dr. Brill found plenty of ways in which Banaras reminded him of YU.

There were the pious students who kissed their sacred Sanskrit texts, like yeshiva students kissing their Bibles or Talmuds. Some went further and also kissed their Sanskrit dictionaries, an extension of the realm of holiness Dr. Brill also has seen in Jewish circles.

The pious students also paused at the doorway to touch the floor — reminiscent of the YU students who would kiss the mezuzah on the door jamb.

The two holiday calendars posted on Banaras University’s website point to India’s religious diversity. The first records 17 days on which the campus is closed, including Christmas and Good Friday; four Muslim holidays whose exact date is subject to change depending on when the new moon is sighted; national holidays like Independence Day and Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, and several Hindu holy days. A second page offers 39 secondary holidays. Employees can choose two to observe.

But an observant Jew seeking to take off the 13 traditional Jewish holidays would be met with understanding, Dr. Brill believes. “They would be fine with it. There are many more regional holidays that are not on the list,” but for which practitioners take off.

“Hindus do not have a Sabbath but they have at least one festival every 10 days,” he said.

Dr. Brill has begun to write a book “that in some way explains the contours of Hinduism for Judaism, or lets both of the religions look at each other, the similarities and differences.” (This will follow his soon-to-be-completed history of Modern Orthodox Judaism from 1800 to 2000; his first book on interfaith topics, “Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding,” is coming out in paperback this fall.)

With that in mind, he was particularly keen to find out how his classes on Judaism would resonate with the Indian students.

He was thrilled to see them catch on to subtle points.

When the students read Genesis, “they all said, ‘Look! Adam was originally a vegetarian.’”

Another time, a professor sitting in on his class called out, “Oh, this is God in search of man!”

The Indian had unwittingly used Abraham Joshua Heschel’s phrase to summarize the Jewish Bible, where God speaks to humankind in a manner that contrasts starkly with the gods in Hindu scripture, who speak only to each other.

And both the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis and the philosophy of Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed earned the high praise of being “yogic.”

“For them, yogic is not the exercise part,” Dr. Brill said. “It’s how you go from falsehood and false consciousness to regaining the truth through correcting your mind and your habits. Yoga for them is a process by which you elevate the falsehood of the human condition through philosophy, through correct ethics, and also meditation and physical discipline.” The Hebrew translation for yogic is mussar, he added.

The Indian students found that some of the most esoteric ideas of Judaism were the easiest for them to grasp.

“Theoretical kabbalistic discussions of whether God is separate from the world, whether the world is all God, and how God infuses the world — anything that sounds scholastic,” Dr. Brill said. “That’s what they spent their time studying. Subtle points of how does emanation work. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from a Hindu or a Buddhist point of view. They could have three other courses all on that topic.

“Some of the things that seem least Christian about Judaism make the most sense to Hindus. Both Judaism and Hinduism have the same set of questions.”

To take one example from the kitchen: “Both Jews and Hindus know that mushrooms don’t fit into the category of vegetables. The Hindus I was with don’t eat them. Jews say a different blessing before eating them. The actual practice is different, but there’s a certain common way of thinking, of always doing a taxonomy and creating a rule from it.

“There was a court case in India recently where the judge ruled that Hinduism is a way of life, not a religion — the same way as many Jews see themselves. Hinduism gives us a template for us as Jews to see what we’re doing, as opposed to the Christian concept of religion.”

Dr. Brill found that the Hindu practice of vegetarianism varied in different parts of India— much as does observance of kashrut in different parts of Israel.

“In Jerusalem, not only is everything kosher, but everything is under good certification,” he said. “The majority of the country is keeping traditional dietary practices, even if not so strictly. But there are cities that are secular and ignore it entirely.

“Vegetarianism is seen as the traditional practice in India,” he continued. Most people who live in Veranasi, where he was based, are vegetarian. “In the modern cities, there’s quite a bit of meat-eating. In the completely secular parts, it doesn’t exist.”

But just as most Israelis avoid pork, in India, “even those who eat meat tend to avoid cow.”

The result is that the most prestigious restaurant chain is KFC — because many Indians feel comfortable eating American fried chicken. McDonald’s is seen as less prestigious. In India, the chain has modified its menu; instead of serving beef burgers, it serves veggie burgers, chicken burgers, and burgers made out of cheese.

While Benaras is a coeducational institution, unlike Yeshiva College, still men and women cannot touch. When there was a school performance, “it was very much like a yeshiva day school play. One could profitably compare how to do shomer negiah dramatics in both faiths,” he said, using the Hebrew phrase for those who observe the traditional Jewish ban on unrelated males and females touching each other.

“The lead male role in the play was given to a girl, so that she could touch and hug the heroine. A minor male role was performed by an actual male student, but the rest of the individual roles were women. The men served as a dance troupe, acting out selected events in the narrative,” he said. “And like at a day school, there was the awkward ending when the female students only received flowers and a shawl from the female dean and the male students from the male dean.

“If the school was traditional, old-time Brahman, there would have been no mixing allowed. If it was fully modern then it would not have been a question” — that is likely the case at India’s secular universities. Instead, they try to walk the same tightrope as their modern Orthodox counterparts.

A few words about Hinduism, monotheism, and idolatry.

Judaism takes great pride in not worshiping idols. It’s right there at the beginning of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

And the psalms of Hallel are full of mockery. “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not.”

It’s not a surprise, then, that Jews are discomfited by Hindu religion, with its devotional statues and images dedicated to Krishna, Vishnu, and myriads of other less prominent deities.

According to Dr. Brill, no matter how much ancient Indian religion resembled the idolatry condemned by the Torah, by the time rabbis first discussed Hindu beliefs in the middle ages, they were responding to reports filtered through monotheistic Islam, whose empires stood at the borders of India or ruled portions of it. In Judeo-Arabic translations of Hindu texts, “deities” was translated as “angels.”

At the same time, Hindu theology had undergone its own theological shifts.

As a result, by the time of the first official encounters between Jewish and Hindu leaders — a 2007 summit in Delhi featuring Israeli Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger — the two sides could sign a declaration that “Their respective traditions teach that there is one supreme being who is the ultimate reality, who has created this world in its blessed diversity, and who has communicated divine ways of action for humanity, for different peoples in different times and places.” In a follow-up meeting in 2008, the declaration went further: “It is recognized that the one supreme being, both in its formless and manifest aspects, has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. This does not mean that Hindus worship ‘gods’ and ‘idols.’ The Hindu relates to only the one supreme being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation.”

If you ask an Indian about the image of a deity, whether in their home or in a temple, “they would say the image is just the way to direct your heart,” Dr. Brill said. “Everyone understand these are just representations.” .

He added that Western views of Indian religion aren’t helped by the choices made by the graphic designers, who tend to put images of dancing gods on the covers of books about Hinduism.

“Those are actually decorations on the outside of buildings, not the actual ones used in worship,” he said. “Imagine if we took pictures of lions on the outsides of the Torah ark or zodiacs from old synagogues, and put them on the cover of a book about Judaism.”

But these questions about monotheism and idolatry “are seen as incredibly judgmental and provincial by most Indians,” because they start the conversation by comparing Indian religion to Western conceptions, Dr. Brill said. Indians want Westerners to recognize “how much their focus is on a personal God; on how much they too want to get grace or repent before God. They resent how Western textbooks don’t present them as concerned with charity, good deeds, helping one another, and family life, and how much they’re doing all that to help gain God’s merit or love.”

Of all of Dr. Brill’s encounters with Hinduism in India, probably the most alien was the death ritual. Like Jews seeking to be buried in Jerusalem, people come from across India to Veranasi and the Ganges with their dead. Rather than being buried, the bodies are burned. Cremation “has very exact rules,” Dr. Brill said.

Another major difference ties into the diversity and its origins.

On his blog at, Dr. Brill imagined a hypothetical world in which Judaism had followed a Hindu-like path from biblical times.

“Imagine if, instead of saying there has to be one Temple in Jerusalem, the response to Jereboam was to say, ‘It’s a great idea! Maybe we should have a separate temple every day’s journey through the country,’” he said. “Imagine if Elijah and the priests of Ba’al said, ‘There’s only one God over everything. Why are we fighting?’

“It’s completely against Judaism, but to their way of thinking, everyone’s heart is in the right place.”

Dr. Brill believes the biggest impact of his teaching on the Indians he met was cultural. “They had never really thought of Judaism, of where it fits in,” he said. “They only knew it through Christian or anti-Semitic eyes, through Shylock or Mein Kampf.”

Indians know far less about Judaism than do American Christians, even those American Christians who have never met a Jew before. At first, Dr. Brill found that ignorance to be shocking.

“So, what do you think about Hitler” turns out to be a common conversation opener.

“They have no knowledge of World War II,” he said. “It’s like you would ask someone from the former Communist bloc what it was like under Stalin, without meaning any personal offense. They only know Hitler as a strong leader. They fought for the British, but their World War II ran through Burma and Indochina.”

For these future religious teachers and religious leaders studying at Benaras, “The whole course of Jewish history and our self-conception as a people, the Holocaust, Israel — that didn’t register. These sort of questions they put in the history department. They tend to think of religion in the abstract.

“They do have a great interest in learning about Israel,” Dr. Brill said. “The Jewish organizations have a great deal to gain in creating a teaching guide about Judaism and about Israel for the Indians.”


The One-Percent Solution –Modern Orthodoxy

I just finished reading the Mosaic e-zine series on Modern Orthodoxy. It was well done, especially the initial essay of Jack Wertheimer, “Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?” I have been asked for my comments by various friends. My comments here are based on his initial essay and none of the subsequent posts substantively change my concerns. I am not arguing for any side or essay, so do not over read. (Treat this as a first draft. )

on the move

Basically, we are talking about a very small number of Jews. According to Jack Wertheimer’s reading of the Pew Study, there are only 168,000 adult Modern Orthodox Jews, most of them baby boomers and senior citizens.  At best, we have 30,000- 35,000, maybe much less, in the bracket of college age through millennial. (Feel free to correct the math.)  In addition, among those between the ages of thirty and forty-nine who have been raised Modern Orthodox, fully 44 percent have moved religiously leftward; among those between eighteen and twenty-nine, 29 percent no longer identify as Orthodox.

Most of the discussion was about ideological issues; however ideological debates are a sign of vitality.  Almost any intellectual circle of the last 200 years involved thousands and not more. But to ask a question about survival, the key issues are probably demographic.

Is there enough younger Modern Orthodox Jews for endogamy only among themselves? If not, which community are their spouses coming from? Are they marrying those who grew up in a liberal movement willing to keep a kosher home or are they marrying those raised in a yeshivish home that are willing to be a bit more modern?  The original  Breuer’s community dissipated its ideology through marriage and residence patterns.  Can such a small number as Modern Orthodoxy keep out broader influences? Unlikely. 

When discussing survival, are there enough members to maintain the current Modern Orthodox institutions? We know from Protestants groups that those that own property and institutions survive better than those who do not. But which groups and people in this small number hold the money and the institutions? Those arguing for a split: have they already calculated who is going to pay the bills? If you look at those on the boards of the Modern Orthodox institutions, which side on they are?

Conversely, and more importantly, there needs to be institutions to cater to the millennial and younger. Do they have the institutions that they need? You read every week about the likes and dislikes of millennials, hipsters, gen y and gen z. Are the institutions still catering to the baby boomers and gen x and ignoring those in their twenties?

Are there enough institutions and leadership in the neighborhoods that younger Modern Orthodox Jews are moving to? Much of the demographic loss of the Conservative movement was the demographic movement out of the Northeast and out of working class neighborhoods towards the South and West and to wealthier areas. For those not Modern Orthodox moving home, are there enough institutions in the new areas? For example, the hottest neighborhood for young Jewish couples is Brownstone Brooklyn and it distinctly does not have a strong enough Modern Orthodox presence compared to the Upper West Side leading to attrition from Modern orthodoxy. (However, as I type this Rabbi Ysoscher Katz will now be a pulpit rabbi in Park Slope, this is more significant for demographics than just one pulpit). In general, there is a return back to the gentrified cities from suburbia. Will there be Modern Orthodox resources?

 Looking at it from the other direction, many of the Modern Orthodox congregations in less affluent neighborhoods became more Yeshivish in the 1990’s.  As I have noted before, the Pew statistics show that one must currently be in the top 6-7% of American income to be Modern Orthodox. What will become of the less affluent Modern Orthodox suburban neighborhoods and those who move out of affluent Modern Orthodoxy for financial reasons, where are they going?  Modern orthodoxy in the South and West deserve their own discussion, most of those looking at the community are New York centered or Boston to DC centered.(Poster above from an OU career fair encouraging people to move away from NY, this migration will have unintended consequences).

Then there are many other significant factors that will shape the community in the future. To take a small example, Norman Lamm molded the new heroic centrism through the unacknowledged affirmative action for YU students to be accepted into AECOM, creating a strong core of Modern Orthodox physicians. Now, Touro has acquired a medical school and is quietly embarking on the same process, while YU has probably lost tight control of AECOM.  In the 1980’s philosophic discussions by Modern Orthodoxy gave way to medical ethics as a response. What are the conceptual responses to the new fields of the 21st century?

No one mentioned the vast influence of popular culture on contemporary Modern Orthodox rabbis who show relevance that way. That may be an ideological divide of the future from those who see it as lacking Torah. 

Where will those looking for healing and pop psych turn? What about the influence on Modern Orthodoxy of the decline of Evangelical religion and the turn towards spirituality? What about those who feel overwhelmed by their secular lives and want purity before God?

The ideological debates in Modern Orthodoxy were framed by the articles as internal to the US. What is the current role of Israeli religious ideas? Are the liberal writings of the New Religious Zionists changing American Modern Orthodox Jews? Will the widespread use of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s halakhic works lead to the adoption of his ideology also?

Prof Wertheimer got the data absolutely correct that the break in the community does not run between two institutions, rather within each institution. A solid percentage of RIETS graduate are quite liberal and even more so on the college level, while not everyone at YCT is liberal or even in favor of partnership minyanim. The divide is greater than the given institutions. The vast majority of IRF members are YU graduates; those involved in the tefillin controversy and the smicha student at a partnership minyan was at YU. YU actually has greater number of graduates, especially in the millennial and younger, that have gone liberal, are GLBT rights advocates, or push for a liberal agenda.  This topic should not be pigeonholed into institutions. Whereas Wertheimer got it correct that the division is within the schools, social media likes clean boxes and places everything on the handful of people at YCT and not YU. Yet, the majority of those on both sides of the debate share the same synagogues, day schools, summer camps, and gap year programs in Israel. This is not two echo chambers, rather two sides of one organization.

More importantly, there is wide spread grassroots support for the idea of an Open Orthodoxy.  A solid plurality of the Modern Orthodox world would want to be Open Orthodox as a vote of protest. Among the many things they want are included social inclusion, social justice, aesthetics, spirituality, academics, or just the same but without the judgmental attitude and provincialism. People who have never met anyone from YCT or IRF are calling themselves Open Orthodoxy. It is becoming a catch-all for college students who want to separate themselves from their parents and older siblings, for social Orthodox, as well as for empty nesters who are leading more expansive lives. 

Now to the major point, there is not a single partnership minyan affiliated with any Orthodox synagogue, either connected with YU or YCT. It is laity driven. Many of the partnership minyanim post on their websites that they are open-orthodox but they are not sanctioned by anyone in YU or YCT. The practice of the laity is not based on statements from YCT or their advocating for partnership minyanim.  Just like my prior posts on Sweatpants Judaism, Social Orthodoxy, or Half Shabbos from three years ago, the laity is stretching its practice without concern for either side of the ideological debates. The 40% of Modern Orthodoxy college students who have attended a partnership minyan are not looking to either side for a blessing or permission. Even at the height of the debates at the start of 2014, I was invited by email to two local private partnership minyanim, neither had any rabbinic blessing, and I received notice of two new out of town partnership minyanim that were just formed by the laity in reaction to the debates.

In the early 1990’s the newspapers started writing that Modern Orthodox meant lax in mizvot, Chaim Waxman and others responded by stating clearly that philosophic modern Orthodox is rigorous in observance and should not be lumped with sociological modern Orthodox. The clarification was quickly accepted. There is no clarification right now about the differences between laity driven Open Orthodox and the IRF vision. If they wrote such a clarification, it would also be quickly welcomed. I have had people tell me, including, or especially, some of the new modern Yeshivish bloggers that they thought YCT, JOFA and the are one, that they thought that they are teaching Biblical criticism at YCT, and that YCT is an advocacy group for women wearing tefillin and partnership minyanim. They honestly do not know that YCT is just Gemara and shiurim in halakhah culminating in Yoreh Deah. They neither sponsor the liberal innovations as an institution, and they do not have academic courses in Bible or Talmud, as YU does. Those who went on to gain notoriety had their graduate degrees from elsewhere.

In general, there is too much talk of ideology and too many assumptions about the role of ideology in social dynamics. I invite people to read the articles in the Jewish journals between 1960-1963, when they were filled with speculations if the Conservative movement could survive a split. They pointed out how having both Orthodox Halakhic scholars on one side and Reconstructionists on the other side was going to kill the movement. Then when both extremes broke in 1962,  few of the laity were even aware of the break nor did it play a role in the immense growth of the Conservative movement in the late 1960’s and 1970’s to become 60% of American Jewry. (Orthodoxy rapidly declined from 60% in 1950, to 22% in 1960 to 9% in 1970; now we trumpet growths back up to 11% as world-changing). The decisions in the field by pulpit rabbis played a bigger role than any real or imagined ideological decision.  

There is a bigger issue that was correctly noted by some of the articles, which is, of the lack of leadership and the lack of a leader that everyone could rally around.  The debates of August 2013-April 2014 on tefillin and partnership minyanim show that there are different leadership models out there. Many of the baby-boomers educated before the gap-year phenomena do not look to Roshei Yeshiva or feel beholden to them. They look to pulpit rabbis. Those whose spiritual formation occurred in Israel and then their formation continued with their Rosh Yeshiva upon return cannot see any other place to look for authority. Many of those below a certain age, now feel alienated from the worldview of these same Roshei Yeshiva and also do not look to them.  During the controversies, I personally refrained from making a single comment; rather I kept asking various threads on Facebook about what was the core of the controversy. What emerged were two clear opposing views of leadership. (I saved the threads to analyze later). Those two positions consisted of those that deferred to Roshei yeshiva and those who did not.

Avery Dulles in his Model of the Church discusses the Catholic approaches to religious leadership, and his analysis can be applied with some modifications to other hierarchical traditional groups.  One side clearly put their trust in Roshei Yeshiva and looked to them for legitimation, guidance, and authority. They emphasize hierarchy, correct beliefs and practices and authority.

Those who were on the other side of these debates had three of Dulles other categories. Some saw Jewish leadership as community based with a pulpit rabbi in charge who can lead the community and respond to their needs. Judaism is defined by the community. This group values the activism and flexibility of pulpit rabbis over Roshei Yeshiva. A claim about who has mastered more of the sacred texts does not matter if your question is who is responding to the community. 

Others, invoked Hasidic texts about the infinite of Torah and our need to respond to the personal call of the Divine. Torah is not in the community leaders of whether variety but in our souls.  Finally, there were those who argue for a democratic community of learners who make their own decisions based on their own education. They consult with Rabbis as teachers and resource people, not for authority or decisions.  The major leadership category of Dulles that the community did not display was rabbi as servant looking to help the common people, as in the older neo-Hasidic tales. 

One major observation of the rhetoric of this past year was the binary split in which one side argued for submission and the other side argued for openness. Prior forms of modern Orthodoxy from 1800 and onward always sought to take the best of culture. To display to oneself and others that one has a reasonable faith then one need to combine the best of both cultures. Modern Orthodoxy accommodates by reinterpreting tradition in light of contemporary values, understanding contemporary values in light of tradition, or it compartmentalizes. On a deeper level, there is dialectic, oscillation or synthesis between revelation and reason, revelation and man’s conscious, of authority and human feeling, reason, and morals. Modern Orthodoxy seeks to always be located in a conceptual middle. (Even if it is only a few percent of the population.) In order to claim to have the best of both worlds then one has to display to the world and at least convince the Modern Orthodox community that it is moral, tolerant, enlightened, modernist, sophisticated, educated, or any other modern value seen as positive.

However, much of the public fight over the last half year has been one side asking for submission and obedience and the other side arguing for openness. Neither side is using the classic Modern Orthodox formula of synthesis, dialectic, or tension.

Finally, the essays seemed to be Baby Boomers defending their view of Modern Orthodoxy against the Gen X’s Centrist vision of Modern Orthodoxy.  One gets a feeling that the gen x may be blinded by fighting against the baby boomers for the rest of their lives, leaving them unable to see the twenty something’s younger than them. Or to frame it by decades, just as certain Baby Boomer Modern Orthodoxy authors still define Modern Orthodoxy as the early 1970’s and have proclaimed the death of Modern Orthodoxy since 1983, I fear that certain younger authors will always be cheering for the more Yeshivish turn around in the late 1990’s despite further changes in the community.

The entire ideological debate may have much less relevance to those under 35. I can think of several up and coming under 35 Jewish writers who may frame the whole discussion entirely differently, without a reference to these older debates.(Picture below from the Salute to Israel parade, which now functions as a Modern Orthodoxy pride day.)

israel day parade

Will Modern Orthodoxy Survive? Modern Orthodoxy is both terminable and interminable. All constructions of modern Orthodoxy are culturally situated and ever bound to a specific time. Even a single version consists of many trends, sub-movements, and cultural shifts. All varieties of modern Orthodoxies have commonalities based on ideology, people, institutions, and texts, yet they are all terminable in that the resources, concerns, needs, and connections to other movements are all tied to a specific era. In our modern age, these constructions change regularly and rapidly, not that there is any specific need to respond to change, to assume any agency to change, or even to accept the changes. One can personally continue to argue for a given ideology, but often one finds that it is hard to hold back time. There will no longer be a mass migration of near-illiterate peasant Russian Jews, nor will there likely be a need again for a response to the high modernism of Kant, Freud, or Existentialism; however, the need for articulate ideologies will remain an interminable need for religious communities. Modernism and mid-20th century modern Orthodoxy may be gone, but, we can see that each era with their own ideology offers the needed construction for its community.

Social Orthodoxy or Sweatpants Orthodoxy? Inclusion and Deviance on a College Campus

Modern Orthodox communities function as a web of useful social support and a satisfying sense of social belonging. But what are the boundaries of the community and how does it handles deviance?

An important contribution to the discussion is the recent Sociology BA thesis (May 2014) done at Brandeis University by Philip Gallagher entitles “When the Schmaltz Hits the Fan: How Modern Orthodox Jewish college students  include a fringe population and negotiate a paradox of community.”


Academic sociology is not the same as the popular use of the word sociology for a collection of anecdotes held together by association and worldview. Gallagher, in contrast, as an academic sociologist in training started with a clear social theory of Durkheim that social groups become weakened and lose their function when there are many who do not play by the rules. According to French sociologist Emile Durkheim, the social group would have a functional need to exclude deviants and would use the dividing line for its own self-definition. The deviant act then, creates a sense of mutuality among the people of a community by supplying a focus for group feeling and draws attention to those values which constitute the “collective conscience” of the community.

One see the Durkheim approach on social media, but Gallagher shows that Durkheim’s approach to deviance is not the reality among college students. In fact, one can be a deviant and play a large social role.

Gallagher as an outsider to MO(Modern Orthodoxy), noticed that many members of the group freely eat out or did not keep many rituals. In the thesis he explores the question: how can one be non-observant and still part of the MO community and how can the group maintain its cohesion. The answer that he found was that the community adheres by social cohesion and not ritual cohesion. MO practice is as pliable as sweatpants allowing for greater and lesser observance.  

In the thesis, Gallagher notes that the MO “are rather insular. They are apart and communal, living together, eating together, learning together, and praying together. Someone who is not in the community and has superficial knowledge of its activities might view it as foreign.” The thesis was born “one conversation on a Sunday evening when a friend of  mine, who was well-integrated in the campus Orthodox community but less observant, decided to order sushi from a non-Kosher restaurant for delivery to campus… From there, I began to wonder how Orthodox Jews choose to follow or ignore Jewish law  and how those decisions impacted their religious community?

For the sociology background, in the 1960’s and 1970’s college used to lead to a loss of religious belonging especially since for most they were first generation students. In contrast in the 21st century, sociologists find that the university can help students develop a stronger religious practice. “Recent research has shown that a college education does not impact students’ underlying religious values but rather their religious practice and ritual. A study by Uecker, Regnerus, and Vaaler found that college education on the whole did not negatively impact students’ religious  values. Specifically, the authors wrote that “young adults are vastly more likely to curb their attendance at religious services than to alter how important they say religion is in their life,” and it is primarily those “respondents who did not go to college who exhibit the highest rates of diminished religiosity.” 

The students interviewed in this study live in MO enclaves, attended the famous day schools of Manhattan, Riverdale and Brookline, went to summer camp and gap year. Not surprisingly, “many of the students interviewed expressed similar patterns of religiosity within their household. The family identified as Orthodox but may not stringently observe the laws of Kashrut and  Shabbos, as Orthodox families are largely expected to do. This type of behavior sets a more  individualized and lenient standard for religious practice among children of the households, one with which they may be most comfortable.” There has been much less of a shift to the right that its proponents and critics think.

 “The families, who may not have stringently observed Jewish law, worked to create an image to the larger community of strict religious observance.  Activities inside the home that violate the Sabbath, such as turning on lights or watching television, are accepted because they were out of the public eye. Driving, an activity that takes place outside the home and can be seen by neighbors, is avoided. Such regular behavior inside a family can create a standard of religious observance along the lines of “it’s okay to break laws if no one  sees.” I see similar observance patterns here among their parents in NJ.

The gap year is not necessarily a game changer, he found that “gap years experiences could be categorized into three main groups among my respondents: they became more religious in practice, they became more involved in Jewish learning, or they were unaffected by the experience.” He makes a valuable distinction between Jewish learning and ritual observance; they are two different groups.

Gallagher notes how the MO affinities grow from enclave to its first expansion and shuffling of networks during the Gap Year and a second shuffling at college. Students arrive with this vast and comfortable network. “Even if an Orthodox student… decides that he or she wants to distance himself from religion, he or she will still find himself within the Orthodox social network. It is a very easy network to connect with upon  first arriving on campus, and many students may include themselves in the Orthodox social network in the first semesters of college simply because it is culturally familiar or because they have friends who are a part of it.” Students speak with older MO peers before choosing to attend a specific college so even upon arrival they are already connected.

Gallagher labels one group on campus as  “liberal Orthodox Jews” who consider themselves to be fully observant but may hold more progressive ideologies or interpretations of halacha.” Another group he identifies  as “traditional Orthodox Jews” are fastidious in their  practice and consider themselves to be fully observant. And a third group as “Fringe MO” who do not attend or work within the community but are still included.

His thesis showed that within the MO community on campus “the social hierarchy is largely divorced from religious observance. In other words, it is  possible to be popular within the Orthodox campus community without being religious. It is possible to be popular and command social influence within the community without necessarily being stringent in  religious practice. This divorce between social hierarchy and religious observance is evidenced by the  election of less-religious students to the Board of the MO Organization. This is similar to the broader MO world in which board members of schools and synagogues or those that set community agenda are not correlated with observance.

From my findings in this college community, I found that being “Orthodox” largely consisted of growing up in an Orthodox community, participating in the Orthodox social network, and continuing to affiliate with the Orthodox denomination and ideology. Orthodox practice was, interestingly, not a prime concern. Thus, identification with Orthodox ideology and engagement in Orthodox practice were divorced concepts.

The title of “Fringe” “is privately given to students who may not follow communal norms of religious observance but are still included within the community. The title functions as a mechanism to include those students by labeling them as part” of MO  but also identify them as different and “on the fringe” of the community.”  The term fringe “allows the community to include students who, through religious dissociation, may not be inclined to include themselves either religious (prayer services, for instance) or social (group events organized by the organization).”

“The less-observant students mentioned don’t qualify as “religious individualists.” Robert Bellah et al. write that criticism of both religious belief and religious institutions are very common among religious individualists.” The fringe MO  “merely did not practice all of the rituals or follow Jewish law with the same rigor as their more stringent peers. A more proper name for them might be “religious disconnects.” However there is no outright hostility between the two camps in the community

“By tolerating the religious practices of less-observant Orthodox students and creating a space for them,” the MO community “sets for itself  broader standards of acceptable religious practice. The entire mechanism helps keep students in the community who may be tempted to move away from Orthodox Judaism during their college years.” There is an ideal of “refraining from judging their peers.” and striving to reach that tolerant ideal.

In the process of avoiding external judgments of peers breaking Jewish law, the students interviewed very frequently, instead, legitimized religiously-illicit behavior with language of  being in “different places.”

Such language allows  students to take a step back from their own practice to contextualize their own practice within the diversity that exists in their community. However, it also indicates an attitude of tolerance, as oppose to acceptance. The idea of being in “different places” harks back to a “live and let live”  philosophy; Orthodox students attempt to withhold individual judgment on their peers and simply coexist in peace without engaging with the fact that people observe the religion in different ways…Being tolerant of that diversity is, therefore, being presented as a virtue, while openly expressing disapproval of that diversity is frowned upon.


Deviations, therefore, are seen as struggles along the way to meeting that standard  instead of meeting a completely different, lower standard. Once it is believed that everyone is  striving for that same religious standard, it is easier to include everyone in the community  regardless of the stringency of their current religious practice. In reality, everyone is not striving for that same religious standard.

Returning to the discussion of the fringe group, to be a part of it an individual must be connected to the MO social network and be well-acquainted with members of the community.” This allows those who are not keeping kosher and Shabbat and not attending services or events to be included in the MO community. This label allows the MO to manage the different approaches to life through inclusion at a distance. Interestingly, Gallagher notes that students may also be Fringe by being “religiously stringent but socially disconnected.”

By designating those students as “fringe,” it recognizes their choice to lessen their engagement with the BOO community and also serves to identify them as not following certain social or religious communal norms… I want to note that students who begin to drift from traditional practice are not simultaneously drifting from ideology. The vast majority of students who admitted to violating certain components of halacha still identified with Orthodox Jewish ideology.

Fringe members still subscribe to the belief system of MO Judaism and the observance of Orthodox ritual in theory. In contrast, if one is observant of kashrut and Shabbat but adopting a different, more liberal Jewish ideology then one is out of the community, but if one does not keep kosher one could still be an active member of the MO community. The Orthodox divide from Conservative and other liberal movements is wide even for the fringe, lenient, and liberal.  The Conservative rabbi on campus is barely accepted as a source of knowledge let alone authority.

One of his interviewees said “when I grow up, I want to be shomer Shabbat and shomer Kashrut.” But he notes “when does that start?”

His conclusion:

 I find myself thinking of this as “sweatpants Orthodoxy,” in that Jewish practice is like wearing a pair of pants. Modern Orthodox Judaism is a snug pair of jeans: comfortable but without much room for gaining or loosing weight. The type of pants in an Orthodox campus community, however, may be more like sweatpants. As one becomes “out-of-shape” with their ritual practice, the sweatpants expand and continue to fit. Upon graduation, the student can get back in-shape and the sweatpants contract following their increasing level of observance. Thus, having broader standards may allow for experimentation and individuation during college years and permit students, through the sweatpants model, to resume practice later on.

He discusses a group of students connected socially to the MO community that have been hosting parties with music and dancing… each Friday night. One of his interviewees acknowledged that her friends still often attend these parties, they do affirm their discomfort together with the setting and recognize that it does not align well with their values of religious observance. Gallagher notes that his interviewees have a tension but they definitively have not resolved the tension. “The pressure to move away from strict observance of Jewish law does not necessarily come from outside the Orthodox community but often from inside by other Orthodox students who are still part of the community despite being minimally observant.” Respondents also expressed a desire to avoid causing embarrassment for or appearing to cast judgment on the hosts of the party. The social pressures and social criteria for inclusion win out over the religious pressures.

In detail, the observant students are motivated to prioritize their social relationships over strict religious observance despite their discomfort with it. The paradox of community exists here between the students observing Shabbat to their standards but desiring to spend time with friends in a less-observant environment. Party attendees prioritize the social-end of the paradox, which helps legitimize the less-religious environment and include the Fringe hosts within the Orthodox community.

What of the campus rabbis? Students prefer those they are close with. “Many respondents expressed appreciation for the work of the JLIC couple and others on-campus but made clear a partiality for their home rabbi, a rabbi from their gap year in Israel, or a parent.”  One student explained “that he merely wants to practice Orthodoxy the same way his family does, and his mother is a reliable source of advice for practicing to that standard.”  The student explained: “She’s well-versed in how I want to be when I’m older. Like, I don’t want some crazy observant response. I just want what we do,”

 In addition, most Fringe MO students “whose engagement with the community is largely social” do not relate to the JLI emphasis on ritual and religion. Those who are not as engaged with traditional religious practice and learning but part of the Mo community would be better with different programming.

As a sociologist, he notes surveys of the Jewish community only look at  five key  Jewish rituals, attending a Passover seder, lighting Hanukkah candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, lighting Shabbat candles, and keeping a Kosher home. Each ritual had a compliance rate among Orthodox Jewish respondents of at least 95%, with the exception of lighting Shabbat candles, which only had 91%.  However to gather data on MO one needs to ask about kosher out of the home, how they keep Shabbat, or saying daily prayers and blessings.

Gallagher’s concludes: “Orthodoxy is evolving at a very fast pace, especially with the development of Open Orthodoxy, a new movement within Orthodoxy committed to ideological flexibility and partnership minyans, in which women can read from the Torah and lead certain sections of the prayer service.”  The diversity of religious practice within MO will almost certainly grow and the meaning of Fringe  in the community will change. “Inclusion will be of paramount importance…”

My tentative points taken from this:

*There is no need to even mention God, religious experience, devotion, or spirituality; the operative factors are community values, commitment, and belonging.

*Much of this inclusion of social Orthodoxy also goes on in the major synagogues and institutions and their boards.

*Historians and sociologists need to speak to laity more and not just interview Rabbis.

* Much of the changes to Modern Orthodoxy are driven by the laity who is way more deviant than even the most liberal YCT rabbi who is still in the system. The Open Orthodoxy trend is sweeping laity without necessary having any rabbinic approval. It is similar to the Conservative movement laity and Modern Orthodox laity of 1955 that was way more lenient than anything that could have been at the time Rabbinic sanctioned.

* Practice is not necessarily decided by a posek, rather by a person they are personally close to or use as a role model. 

* There has been much less of a shift to the right that its proponents and critics think. Late 40’s and 50’s parents produced children similar to themselves in religiosity.

* There are three groups: those that define themselves though study, those that define themselves by ritual observance and those that are entirely social. While an ideal assumes that study and scrupulousness go together, it may not be reality.  Now, we have those that want a daily halacha or ten minutes of halacha as a shiur, and those who want a challenging text. Pulpit rabbis, however, may have to, or may already be, catering to those who have entirely pop culture and social interests.

* There are many more families than we acknowledge that may not be observing Jewish law, yet they work to create an image to the larger community of strict religious observance.  They do activities inside the home that violate the Sabbath, such as turning on lights or watching television, which are accepted because they were out of the public eye. Driving is not socially OK.

* This tolerance toward deviance and very broad tent inclusion is the opposite of what we see on much of the social media. (I will return to this in another post.)

* Unlike the Baby Boomer’s who wanted to be individuals, unique, hippies, disestablishmentarians who lived in the moment. Here there are no Kotzkers or Kierkeguardians.

* The line between Modern Orthodoxy and members of the Conservative movement is hard and one of the few things that actually are deviant.

* The historian Prof. Adam Ferziger described in his research how 19th century Orthodoxy was open as an enclave but maintained a hierarchical culture in which some were seen as keeping the tradition better than others. Hence only the top of the hierarchy could have public roles. Here we see a breakdown of the hierarchy in which we accept everyone as “being in a different place.”

Any thoughts? Those who work on Campus, does it ring true? 

An Interview with Steven Bayme of the AJC

The AJC (American Jewish Committee) was known for decades as supporting the complete integration of Jews in America, as exemplified by its white shoe leadership under Joseph Proskauer and Jacob Blaustein. The best example of their approach is the Blaustein- Ben Gurion agreement, included in the widely used documentary history book Jew in the Modern World. Blaustein believed that the view of the Jew as doomed to hostility and lack of integration was irrelevant to the robust Jewish community in the U.S. In exchange for American Jewish support for the new state, Ben-Gurion was forced to acknowledge that the State of Israel spoke only for its own citizens and that Jews in other countries had no political obligation to the State of Israel. Ben-Gurion gave public recognition that the future of Israel depended on not damaging the health and security of American Jews. (For more info- see here, here, and here.) The AJC changed its direction to traditional values and away from universalism under the leadership of Steven Bayme as head of its American Jewry desk.

Fifteen years ago in 1999, Steven Bayme was included in the Jewish Daily Forward’s Forward Fifty with the following description.

Of all the recent transformations sweeping the American‑Jewish landscape, none is more startling than the transformation of American Jewish Committee from liberal voice of an assimilationist Jewish elite into its current stance as a crusader for old‑time religion, advocating Jewish day schooling and a full‑bore war against interfaith marriage. The man behind the transformation is AJCommittee’s director of Jewish Communal Affairs, Steven Bayme. Mr. Bayme, has emerged in recent years as the nation’s most visible advocate of the circle‑the‑wagons “inreach” approach toward intermarriage, which opposes reaching out to welcome interfaith families. He sees intermarriage as a disaster that could result in a net loss of up to one million Jews in the next generation, and he’s marshaled the considerable resources of AJCommittee to his cause, staging prestigious conferences and issuing publications like last year’s “Statement on Jewish Education,” which put the organization, once the champion of “Americanization” of Jewish immigrants, squarely behind Jewish day schools as “the primary if not sole solution” to assimilation. Himself a product of the Modern Orthodox Maimonides High School in Boston, Mr. Bayme looks to Orthodoxy as a model of a community willing to “undergo any sacrifice and pay any price — financially, culturally, or even familially [sic] — in order to provide quality Jewish education for its young.”


According to his writings, Bayme came to this position after seeing the 1990 Jewish Population study which showed high rates of intermarriage. (See here and here.) Demography created ideology, the way to fight assimilation is old-time religion despite the immense changes in American religion or the firm sociological data on the shift to seeking one’s own path requiring a response of outreach, relevance, and renewal.

In Bayme’s view we are to focus on the committed core. We can already write off from Judaism Jon Stewart, Bob Dylan, Joel and Ethan Coen, Senator Al Franken, Aly Reisman, and Adam Sandler. And we can still save infrequent synagogue members Senator Chuck Schumer, Chief Justice Elana Kagen, and Sasha Baron Cohen if only they would attend the Wexner training or Bardin-Brandeis or similar programs that teach traditional Jewish values.

Jews who claim to be “just Jewish” or “cultural Jews” or who only attend synagogue for the High holy days are not significant for him for the maintenance of Jewish continuity.:”Occasional ritualism is a part of civil Judaism of post-World War II,” Bayme says. “After the war, the symbols of the Holocaust and Israel could sustain Jewish life, even for the marginally religious. But these symbols are “not powerful enough to sustain us into the next century,” he adds. And the third symbol, ritual involvement [of the high holidays], “is too occasional to make much of a difference.”

Bayme as stated in his own responses below has many critics who think he is writing off the majority of American Jewry (see here for one and here is another). Since he has no interest in reaching out to non-committed Jews who wont play by his rules or accept his tenets, he is credited by his critics with helping the decimation of American Jewry, and with directly causing the decline of the Conservative movement by counseling them to stick to the past and not to fund new ideas. He rejected renewal, post-ethnic, and syncretic Jewry or efforts to integrate them. For him, journals like Jewcy were just pandering. He is used to being called by liberal outreach programs as “hard-hearted reactionaries, “mean-spirited”, or simply out of touch with communal needs.”

The other major formative event for Bayme’s approach is his commitment to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg as the epitome and model for Modern Orthodoxy. In a recent Jewish Week article, Steve Bayme gushed about the recent Oxford Summer Institute for Modern and Contemporary Judaism discussion of Greenberg’s ideas, convened by Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel of University of Oxford and Prof. Adam Ferziger of Bar-Ilan University. For him, Greenberg’s approach is the standard to judge Orthodoxy. Hence, my research has shown that Bayme has the unique distinction of being the very first author to complain about the death of Modern Orthodoxy in 1983 as it retreated before what he considered the almost Haredi world of Centrism .

Since then he has repeatedly argued that “Modern Orthodoxy needed to recover its intellectual verve and independence, and engage cultural issues such as Biblical criticism, Jewish education, ethical treatment of non-Jews, gender equality, and relations with the non-Orthodox movements.” He considers the YU “Talmud faculty as isolationist” and “that Y.U. remained an Eastern European-style Yeshiva by day with a number of college courses attached to it by night. More broadly, the gulf between a Talmud faculty that perceived secular education as, at best, necessary for earning a living but otherwise a diversion from Torah.”

Full disclosure, many years ago he was my Professor for the Yeshiva College required Jewish History class. The class debate was lively and intense since the class was made up of the first years of American hesder students and those who shifted from a more liberal approach to Judaism to the renewed Centrism. His approach clearly shows the generational gap, hence I personally do not identify with his perspective. Even if you disagree with his views or are on the opposite side of the issues, this interview offers great insight into the Jewish Establishment or the over 65 years of age traditional insular NY Jewish world shown in the pages of the Jewish Week.

Interview with Steven Bayme

1)Tell me about the committee you formed with Dov Zakheim to make changes in Israeli marriage law?

We are forming a coalition of individuals and Jewish organizations both here and in Israel to create alternatives to the laws governing personal status matters, particularly marriage, divorce, and conversion to Judaism. We believe the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate in this area inflicts real harm on individuals and the Jewish people, for example those wishing to convert to Judaism but cannot meet the stringent tests imposed by the Rabbinate. Our long-term objective is to create a broad-based initiative to advocate for religious freedom and equality, notably with respect to issues of personal status, as a means of strengthening Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state that assures its ties with global Jewry. Attenuated ties between American Jewry and Israel may impact negatively upon U.S. support for Israel. As a result, there is also a national security dimension to this initiative as well.

In the short-term we are focusing on the question of civil marriage. Jewish law, as is well known, forbids certain categories of marriages, e.g. between a kohen and a divorcee. By contrast, a modern democratic state does not seek to regulate whom one may marry. For Israel the solution would appear to lie in one of several bills currently before the Knesset allowing for civil marriages (or civil unions). Conversion, of course, may represent a greater challenge and one of greater significance for American Jewry, but, in the short-term, we feel that civil marriage is an idea whose time has come.

2)How do you characterize Modern Orthodoxy as you conceive it and as epitomized by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg?

Yitz Greenberg in the 1960s articulated a most compelling vision for Modern Orthodoxy through his courses at Yeshiva University and through his involvement with Yavneh, the Orthodox collegiate organization. The vision included social activism on behalf of both particularistic and universalistic causes, educational reform within Orthodox institutions through introduction of new courses and programs embodying synthesis, including but not limited to Biblical criticism, engagement with serious non-Orthodox religious leaders and thinkers, Jewish-Christian dialogue, and limited but significant halachic changes. Although this agenda has evolved over the decades, especially with respect to Jewish feminism, it remains a statement of Modern Orthodoxy that is both bold and unapologetic and a clarion call for Modern Orthodoxy to work out its own independent destiny.

The beauty of Modern Orthodoxy lies in the synthesis of Judaic tradition and modern culture. That entails the excitement of exploring in-depth two very different value systems, analyzing where they complement, where they contradict, and where they co-exist with one another. The agenda for Modern Orthodoxy I define as four-fold:

1. Secular education and academic scholarship are both valuable in themselves and illuminating of Jewish texts and tradition. This vision of secular education represents a sharp break with Haredi Orthodoxy, which limits the permissibility of secular education to providing skills necessary to earning a living and become a “learner-earner”. Similarly, it breaks with Hirschian Orthodoxy that underscores the value of secular knowledge and science but not for the purposes of understanding Judaism, thereby rejecting critical study of Bible and Rabbinics.

2. Cooperation with the non-Orthodox movements will enhance the Jewish people, and those movements have much to teach all Jews, including the Orthodox. Religious pluralism serves as a brake upon religious extremism and provides diverse entry points and connections to Judaic heritage. To be sure, the yeshiva world does seek to be inclusive of all Jews, particularly through its kiruv programs. The concept of pluralism, goes much further in that it not only acknowledges the fact of religious diversity, it perceives actual value in that different Jews will find different avenues for Jewish religious expression.

3. The State of Israel constitutes a fundamental challenge and laboratory to work out the relevance of Jewish tradition in the modern culture. Unfortunately, Modern Orthodoxy in Israel has been “hijacked” by Gush Emunim, the West Bank settlers’ movement.

4. Feminism and gender equality. Orthodox Jewish feminists stood their ground and did not surrender to right-wing opposition. The RIETS Five issued a proclamation against women’s tefilla groupings back in 1985. At a time when the authority of roshei yeshiva has increased, and much of Modern Orthodoxy lost its verve and independence, Orthodox feminists refused to cede their ground, and the number of women’s tefilla groupings has increased exponentially since then. We are currently witnessing a similar phenomenon in the growth of partnership minyanim.

5. To be sure, there are signs of an incipient and robust Modern Orthodoxy in Israel-the growth of partnership minyanim and Orthodox academics and public intellectuals practicing critical Jewish scholarship, to take two specific examples.

3)How is it different than Centrism or that of your Centrist critics? Be specific.

I objected to the word “Centrism” because it replaced the notion of synthesis of Judaism and modern culture with a vague almost geographical statement that we are neither haredi nor Yitz Greenberg and the Orthodox “Left”, but somewhere in between. Dr. Lamm himself, who coined the term “Centrism”, to his credit admitted that the change in name had been a mistake. “Modern Orthodoxy” connoted distinctive value in modern culture and that Orthodoxy was not only living in the modern world but also was in a position to benefit from the positive values of modernity as well as to critique its excesses.

Dr. David Berger is my revered former professor, a man of outstanding scholarship and impeccable ethical and intellectual integrity. I have signaled to him over the years that I believe he is defining Orthodoxy too narrowly with respect both to Chabad and “Open Orthodoxy”. On “Open Orthodoxy”, I believe Dr. Berger is defining the parameters of Orthodoxy much too narrowly, for example with respect to his complete rejection of “partnership minyanim” that allowed for greater roles for female participation in the services and his complete dismissal of Biblical criticism in so far as it pertains to the books of the Torah. As he put it in his class some 45 years ago, “There is room for deviation to the Right, but (and turning to me personally) there is not too much room on the Left.” So I credit him for the consistency of his thinking and his intellectual honesty, even as I disagree with significant aspects of it. (see here and here)

The roshei yeshiva at YU obviously are not all cut from the same cloth, but leading figures among them have adopted positions in recent years that insulate their students from the broader currents of modernity, isolate them from critical thinking, and, tragically at times have issued extremist statements unbecoming of religious leaders. As one of the most revered of roshei yeshiva put it some years back, in his view no difference existed between Yeshiva University and Ner Israel except that YU makes it easier for students by providing all of its programming within a 6-block radius. Those are hardly Modern Orthodox positions.

Put broadly, Centrism has room for secular education but rejects Biblical scholarship, encourages inclusivity of non-Orthodox Jews but rejects pluralism, fosters women’s education but not equality, and has become subservient to a Haredi Chief Rabbinate on issues related to Israel. All these positions directly contradict what I would call the Modern Orthodox agenda.

4)Wasn’t your vision of Modern Orthodoxy already rejected? Are you not like someone still hoping that George McGovern will be President? Aren’t you, and other baby boomers, just nostalgic for an older vision of modern Orthodoxy?

First, let’s not shed crocodile tears over McGovern’s defeat. I voted for him in 1972 out of opposition to the Vietnam War, but I shudder to think what he would have done had he been President during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Nixon deserved impeachment over Watergate, but let’s not forget he came through for Israel and for us in Oct. 73.

That said, the agenda for revitalizing Modern Orthodoxy is rooted in far more than nostalgia for a bygone era. It is partly a protest against the steady slide to the Right, or as some would put it the “haredization” of contemporary Orthodoxy. Partly it represents a clarion call for change among well-educated Orthodox laity, which finds modern culture to be quite attractive and works to marry it with Judaic tradition.

There are indeed signs of a Modern Orthodox resurgence that are hardly indications only of nostalgia. I have already mentioned Orthodox feminism, particularly in JOFA and partnership minyanim. Other signs include, YCT, the IRF, and, perhaps most importantly the continued presence and power of coeducational high schools
What you may define as nostalgia is my conviction that the vision of Modern Orthodoxy articulated in the 1960s remains compelling for 21st century Jews.

5)How can you write off most of American Jewry as not Jewish enough?

I do not write American Jewry off. My objective at AJC over more than three decades has been to increase the Jewish atmosphere within AJC as a Jewish organization. That entails working with Jews of all stripes and opinions (including Haredi as well as those unaffiliated with synagogues). What I do say, however, is that we need to speak the truth even if it causes pain to individuals. Those leading more intensive Jewish lives are those most likely to see Jewish grandchildren. But unaffiliated Jews, or “Jews of no religion” in the Pew survey, are the most difficult to reach Jewishly and stand at greatest risk of assimilation.

6)How can you reject outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried? Doesn’t your approach limit revival?

Again, I do not reject either the intermarried or outreach to them. I have been misinterpreted here for a very specific reason (which I will explain). But my main point is that the twin values of endogamy, or inmarriage and conversion to Judaism as single best outcome to a mixed marriage largely have been permitted to disappear as articulated values outside the Orthodox community.
As for outreach I favor outreach targeted to those mixed marrieds open to and interested in leading a Jewish life and appropriately designed so as to safeguard the values of inmarriage and conversion to Judaism.
Why have I been misinterpreted here? Outreach advocates insist that we become neutral on inmarriage and conversion so as not to give offense to mixed marrieds. I do not feel we can afford neutrality on these questions and have been outspoken in opposition to these advocates. Therefore I have wrongly been interpreted as a foe of outreach per se.

7)What is your theory of talented tenth or small group of Jews who sustain the community?

I want to see a Jewish leadership that is Judaically rich. Strengthening that core will help create a Jewish community sufficiently compelling that others will wish to join it. Secular Jewish leaders generally are products of first-class American universities. By contrast, their Jewish education has been relatively poor. Wexner programs were designed to create a relatively small cadre of Jewish leaders who were Jewishly literate. The program does send an appropriate message – that Judaic study is a life-long endeavor and we need to enhance the expectations of Jewish leadership in this regard. The great Jewish historian Salo Baron decades ago argued that a relatively small group of 100 rabbis, 100 lay leaders, 100 academics, and 100 communal professionals, who are well-versed in both civilizations could transform the entire ethos of the Jewish community in a positive direction.

8)Isn’t it self-serving to reject most of Orthodoxy and most of liberal Jewry and see yourself (and only a few thousand others) as having a special role?

No, in my vision, heavily indebted to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, the Jewish community is divided into three parts:
1. A core of 20-25% consisting of all Orthodox Jews, committed Conservative and Reform Jews, and Jewish leaders of all stripes;
2. the “Nones”, 22% in the Pew survey, who are largely uncommitted, and, frankly, largely uninterested, and;
3. the great “middles” of Jewish life, the 50-55% who generally want Jewish continuity but are unsure how to realize it.
My vision of strengthening the core targets the great middle and aspires to bring them into the core. Orthodoxy, for example, has inspired many to join the core by being such a compelling and attractive community that others seek to join it.

9)What should the community do with the already-intermarried (whose households now outnumber the in-married in America) or the adult children of intermarried (who now outnumber Jews with two Jewish parents under age 25?

Work towards and hope for the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse. When that is not in the cards, try to hold onto the children and keep the door open for potential future conversion. But we do need to be realistic and realize that in a free society some people will choose not to lead a Jewish life. It is somewhat demeaning to them not to respect those choices and continue to run after them when they have no desire to be chased.

10)As a leader of American Jewry for over 25 years, how do you avoid blame for its sorry state? Do you take any responsibility for your approach as having led to the decline that we are witnessing?

No question that the collapse of the twin norms of endogamy and conversion to Judaism occurred on my watch. I also believe that we focused heavily on the external agenda because you could forge a consensus around questions of anti-Zionism, threats to Israel, anti-Semitism, and terrorism. In contrast, there are no more divisive issues in Jewish life than questions of Jewish identity and education. I have tried to persuade the community that if the internal agenda is neglected, there may not be a critical mass of Jews to defend in future generations, but I do confess failure on that score and acknowledged the failure in a memoir I wrote of my AJC years on my 30th anniversary three years ago.

11)With your views that write off most of American Jewry, similar to Haredi view of a silent Holocaust, shouldn’t you be giving to those who do outreach?

AJC has never specialized in services to individuals. In that sense we cannot be a “kiruv” organization so much as providing opportunities for Jews to become more active and involved, much as we have done through our justly-hailed ACCESS or young leadership program. Beyond that we define ourselves as catalysts for the community and raising public consciousness through our research, analysis, advocacy, and media skills I note that much of the work of outreach admittedly is done by the haredi community. However, its content all too often is remarkably thin or naïve.

12)What is your position on Revelation and Scripture? What makes that Orthodox?

First, let me be clear that I am neither a Biblical scholar nor a theologian. Rather, I am a lay person who has remained fascinated with Biblical scholarship since initially being exposed to it during my high school years at Maimonides in Brookline. Theologically, understanding the context of specific texts enhances our understanding of the meaning of the text both in historical and in contemporary times. I do not think we can pretend that biblical scholarship does not exist or is irrelevant. When historical research and findings contradict truths of inherited tradition, we need to weigh respective claims carefully but with the understanding that the truths of Torah are not dependent upon who wrote the text and whether the facts recorded in it are all factually accurate.

Theologian Franz Rosenzweig understood this almost a full century ago when he argued that if research proved that the Documentary Hypothesis of Wellhausen was correct and that the Samaritans had the better text, our faith would not be shaken in the least. More recently, a Modern Orthodox rabbi on the west coast reminded me that some 30 years ago in class I commented that “I did not accept Purim historically but I did accept it theologically.” In a similar vein, Dr. Norman Lamm in a class on Jewish mysticism some 45 years ago noted that he did not know who wrote the Zohar or when it was written, but regardless, he recognized it as a “great work.” At the time I inquired whether he would apply that position to Scripture itself. Much to my surprise, he responded “Quite possibly, Bayme, quite possibly.”

I believe that something happened at Sinai, the details of it are a mystery, but the Torah as we have it is the record of that encounter between God and the Jewish people. Portions of it may be rooted in different historical records, but that does not make the text less authoritative as a work of theology. What does make it authoritative is that it is the inheritance of the Jewish people-morasha beit yaacov. As a Jew I treasure it greatly and study it regularly. Portions trouble me on ethical grounds, e.g. Amalek, but I long ago chose to historicize those sections as reflecting the morality of the time. In this sense the Torah spoke in a language human beings could hear-e.g. it could not outlaw slavery much as that would make us feel better three millennia later. Last, there are undoubtedly errors of historical fact and chronology in the text, but we need to recall that the Torah is fundamentally a work of law and theology and not a history text or a book of science.

To be sure, there are areas of law that are also troublesome, but here we need recall that Sinai also connoted a hand-off to human beings to continue the process of halachic development. Unfortunately, as Eliezer Berkovits wrote several decades back, that process became frozen and ossified rather than continue into contemporary times.

I do admit that critical study often distances us from the text and with distance can come a loss of reverence. Our first task, educationally, must be to inculcate love and respect for the text as the heritage of the Jewish people. In that sense, it is debatable whether critical study ought to be introduced in high school (although, to be sure, in my case it was, and it only deepened my love and reverence for the text). But serious Modern Orthodox Jewish adults do need to be aware of critical scholarship, and I believe many if not most will profit from understanding the context in which the text originated.

13)Do have anything to share about your teaching at YU?

Teaching at YU, frankly, was the highlight of my professional career. Never did I feel I was accomplishing so much as I did teaching Yeshiva students and, as many former students commented enthusiastically, opening their minds and broadening their outlook. I always felt YU students could easily attend Harvard and their intensive Jewish backgrounds made for wonderful classroom discussions. They were such a joy to teach that in 1979, my last year as a full-time faculty member, the students asked if I would teach a voluntary Sunday evening seminar on modern Jewish thought. Notwithstanding the absence of compensation (and the miserable state of my personal finances at the time), I agreed enthusiastically. My rewards were spiritual in nature knowing that I had challenged students with ideas concerning the meaning of being a Jew in the modern world and the challenges of modern culture to Jewish belief, for example through the writings of Nachman Krochmal.

I am actually to this date still somewhat unclear as to why I was encouraged to leave, aside from the then-stated issues of university finances. When Richard Joel became president I harbored aspirations for returning to an active role. But it quickly became evident to me that Y.U. was not interested in engaging me. I loved teaching elsewhere-JTS, YCT, Queens, and Brandeis-and have built a reasonably successful career at AJC in Jewish public service. But there is no question teaching at YU in the 1970s provided me the greatest satisfaction-a long day of classes left me only exhilarated and eager for more. I left YU with bittersweet emotions, but I have never ceased to value its significance for the future of the Jewish people, notwithstanding our very different visions of that future and the very different roads we have traversed since I left.

Jeroboam, Elijah, Ezra, and Abraham: Hinduism and the Bible

Here is another attempt to conceptualize Hinduism for a Jewish audience. This time in the reverse. How would Hinduisms react to Biblical stories. Help me think this one through- does it work?

Hinduism is really a variety of religions held together in the 20th century by politics and agreed upon commonalities. Hinduism is a “complex, organic, multileveled and sometimes internally inconsistent nature.” Hinduism does not have a “unified system of belief encoded in a declaration of faith, rather an umbrella term comprising the plurality of religious phenomena of India. According to the Supreme Court of India: “Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more”. Hindu family law includes jurisdiction over panentheists, polytheists, monotheists and monists; those that use images and those that reject them.

In short, Hinduism includes the worship of ancient High deity Shiva and also the worship of Incarnations of Vishnu, which were according to historians originally separate cults around Krishna, Ram, and many others. Other regions have a worship of a feminine Kali/Durga. Shiva worship includes the aconic and monotheistic Lingayat as well as wild ascetics. Vishu worship include those who see as Krsna as an incarnation born to save humans through belief in him, as well the duty ethos of the great epics. This is without even discussing Smartism, Ganapatya, Saura or Arya Samaj. These denominations are then divided by 19 separate languages without commonalities. These diverse groups started to see commonality in the middle ages which increased after the 17th century. Yet, as late of the 18th century we still accounts of fights and polemics over who is correct in their worship.

How would you explain the diversity in Western Biblical terms? Here is a little thought experiment. This is not intended to make fun of the Bible or Hinduism. Nor is its goal to subject Hinduism to the Bible. Rather, this is an attempt to explain diversity in a Western context that prefer exclusivity and to divide the world into true/false, believer/pagan. These are hypothetical and are not my beliefs or historically true. But they will help explain why many in India think we still have golden calves.
golden calf

When Jeroboam set up his golden calves in Beth El and Dan we know that the Bible condemned it as unfaithfulness (1 Kings 12). But what if this was the Indian subcontinent? They would have said it was great. People need their shrines and they need more of them. The 20th century author Ramakrishna wrote that India is not a tiny country like the Biblical land so it needs shrines everywhere so that the people can get to them. They would also have had a debate between those who said the images are a concession away from the Vedantic truths and those who said that images are the best path to connecting to the Divine. The latter view became dominant.

Also remember all those further caveats in Deuteronomy about pillars, trees, minor deities, astral deities, and spirits, don’t worry about then too much. Yes, the elite texts are not in favor in much of it and the Temple cult in Jerusalem forbids them but don’t worry about the masses. They will learn slowly, very slowly. So we will tolerate all of their practices as they evolve spiritually. Even golden calves are needed to wean the people away from other forms of worship.

Elijah and the Priests of Baal had a showdown of two competing religions of whose sacrifice will be consumed. What if both sides said:there is only one God in the universe and we are just two separate cults of the same God. So lets put away differences and merge all the cults of the high god Baal into the biblical cult. We already have related languages. All of the various Aram nations will become one religion with you. We will give some deference to Jerusalem but we will be allowed to keep our own cultic practices but model them more like yours. We will also combine our scripture and produces various versions. We will affirm the Biblical universalism of Malachi 1:11 “My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty.” It is all the same God despite different cults, nations, and names.

Not only that we see that Moab, Ammon, and others tribes speak similar languages to you and have similar practices. We should include them also. Now, once we are speaking about linguistic commonality we should really include the Hittites whose language is close to yours. Yes, they have many gods, in fact, they have a thousand gods but they are good at syncretism. Over time, they will become one with us.

Ezra & Alexander the Great
In this hypothetical, Ezra never asked for anyone to put away foreign wives and never sought to limit practice. Rather, he saw strength in including as many different people and practices in his Jerusalem cult. When he read the Torah in public, he brought it to every nation that he could. He asked each group to accept it as best as their culture could. He acknowledged that only the priests truly kept everything. Image if he made the Judean cult as open as Greco- Roman religion.

So imagine that when Alexander the Great conquered Greece, Anatolia, Egypt, and Persia, he integrated all those diverse religions, cults, and languages all under Jerusalem. All sorts of polytheists of the Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian world were now included. They came with their philosophers, oracles, mystery cults, civic polis cults, and with local deities. Some kept their sacred narratives, others merged the Bible and their stories, and other kept two sets of stories. You could always point to the priests and scribes of Jerusalem as the pure faith but there was more complexity from Greece to Persia. Yet, almost no one would be called false or pagan, rather they were folk, masses, or not of the highest religion.

Imagine if the Mishnah was still written from a Jerusalem point of view, and was seen as authoritative. But many parts in this harmonious empire felt no need to study or follow it in practice.

Parting of the Ways
To consider a later century, image that even when Judaism and Christianity divided, it still did not matter. They were still both lumped together. Image if Christianity never became the religion of the Roman Empire and just another offshoot of this complex Jerusalem religion. Both Judaism and Christianity would still be closer to the Jerusalem thinking and practice than the cults of Persia, Egypt or Rome.

Now image that between the 7th-17th centuries all these groups started converging more and developing a common identity as not Muslim. They in the 18th -20th century they were all lumped together by the colonial British (Let’s pretend they had became Druids.) as natives and the new rulers discouraged practices that did not meet their standards. Finally, this region from Greece to Iraq gains liberation as a single country in the middle of the 20th century with a government that is going out of its way to downplay differences and claim everyone is Biblical. They had started creating ideologies of a single identity already in the 19th century, but now they were written into textbooks and law. Hinduism came to be in a similar fashion to my hypothetical Biblical story.

But Judaism did not go that way and between Jereboam and the Mishnah always choose the particularist direction. Judaism was always in theory aconic and even iconoclastic.

Let me tell one more story, the famous story of Abraham shattering the idols of his father Terach. The story is found in all three Abrahamic faiths. Here is a truncated Jewish version. I don’t know if all of it works. Feel free to write more dialogue.

Abraham came to the realization that there is one eternal God in the heaven and the earth greater than any earthly force.
Terah was an idol maker. Once he went to a certain place, and left Abraham to sell in his place. A person would come and wish to buy. [Abraham] asked him: How old are you? And he would reply: I am fifty or sixty years old. And he would say: Woe to that man who is sixty years old and wishes to bow to something that is one day old! And he would be embarrassed and go away.
One time a certain woman came along carrying a dish of fine flour. She said to him: Come and offer this to them. He went and took a rod and broke all the statues, and placed the rod in the hand of the largest one of them.
When his father returned, he said to him: Who did this to them? He said, I cannot lie to you. A certain woman came carrying a dish of fine flour, and said to me: Go offer this to them. I offered it to them: this one said, I will eat first; and that one said, I will eat first. The largest among them got up, took the rod, and broke the others. He [his father] answered him: Why are you making a fool out of me! Do these know [anything]! He replied: Let your ears hear what your mouth says!

My addenda to understand Hinduism

Terach: Are you a moron? The Hindu statues are used to bring the infinite Divine to mind. We need a representation. We can only show true devotion to a human image.

Abraham: But there is only one immaterial God.

Terach: But we live in a sensory material world. That is why the Torah will later give us a Tabernacle. Also God will give physical mizvot. So here we also have statues. Not just you but also Greek philosophers like Xenophanes or the Indian poet Tagore were against images and thought religion was mental, but you don’t see them going around breaking things.

Abraham: But you think they are actually alive!

Terach: Give me a break. They are wood and clay. Only when they are brought to the Temple and consecrated in a special ceremony do they become gods. Now they are still in the workshop. And when they are consecrated they become an access to the divine. They are not robots or with moving parts. Really Abraham, have you ever seen a golden calf move? Your straw man arguments do not work. Do the Cherubim move in the Tabernacle?

Abraham: Yes, They do. They turn towards each other and away from each other.

Terach: Boy you are really anthropomorphic. You better read the Guide for the Perplexed or maybe Shankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutra.

Abraham: But what about the thousands of plaster and clay little idols that Hindus make for home shrines and for stores? Aren’t you worshiping those?

Terach: They serve as reminder and help focus on a specific aspect. They change them regularly. The ones they use for festivals are even throw into the river to show that the image has no intrinsic value. The little ones they leave out in the rain under trees to show that they have no holiness after they are used. You treat many religious objects like tefillin in a more intrinsic manner.

Abraham: But she brought them food to eat. Can they eat?

Terach: She said offer it to them. Tabernacle sacrifices are also offerings. You were the one who says she thought they actually ate. You seem to treat your ritual as pure and assume that they are naïve. If you visit a foreign country, try and assume that the people are on the same level of sophistication as you.

Abraham: But I discovered the God of heaven and earth and everyone else was primitive. I get to correct them. I get to show my elders the right way.

Terach: I cannot wait until you are out of adolescence. But if God ever says to you to offer your son on a mountain, please think about what offering means.

Watching Hindu Sacrifice

I am wandering around a UNESCO world heritage site in Nepal, a paved area of intricately carved temples and shrines which pay homage to a distant historical dynasty which has since become officially long defunct from religious practice. Tourists with cameras are wandering around taking photographs next to the intricately carved shrines. These tourists are continuous accosted by street hustlers, or as they are called “touts,” who are jacks of all trades wandering around seeking to sell trinkets, pickpocket, steal handbags, and act as phony tour guides. I turn away in disappointment from this scene and turn down a side street, a small alley with stalls as common in many open air markets.

About a block down this alley, I smell a horrific smell and sense it is coming from a passage between two buildings leading to a backyard. I proceed to enter and reach an enclosed area to find several men dressed in their finest Nepalesse suits and Dhaka hats watching a worker searing a whole goat with a blow torch. They invite me to sit down on a small wall of cinder blocks and join them. As I watch the goat’s hair burning off and the meat begin to cook, it slowly dawns on me that I am watching the cooking of an offering that was just made serendipitously at one of the shrines. Later, I am going to asked to join in consuming the sacrificial animal, I politely excuse myself by saying that I have someone waiting for me. (For those not squeamish clips of sacrifice- see here and here. )


Animal sacrifice has been out of favor and banned in official vegetarian Indian Hinduism for almost 2000 years, yet is has continued in folk traditions, most notably among the worship of Kali and is conducted during special performances of the original Vedic rituals presented in Brahmin enclaves in South India. It was banned in most of Northern India in the 1950s. However, animal sacrifice is alive and well in Nepal and Bali. All over Nepal exists various forms of sacrificing an animal and then taking the meat home to feast on, small offerings to insure success and atone for sins, as well as large sacrifice festivals where 100’s of thousand animals are sacrificed in a single day. A friend of mine said his Yeshiva-age son was mesmerized in watching the killing process as a way to relate to the Biblical and Talmudic sacrificial precepts, despite the differences in rules.

Now, one of my explicit Fulbright goals in encountering Hindu religions was to look at Hindu ritual that seemingly corresponded to Jewish ritual, karmakanda to mizvot. Hindu-Christian encounter tends to focus on topics such as salvation, but a Jewish-Hindu encounter could look to ritual . As a starting point, both faiths have sacrificial scriptures; almost every Hindu that I met assumed that Jews still perform Leviticus sacrifices and that Jewish folkways still accept the banned practices of Deuteronomy as pillars and sacred groves. For Jews, many assume that contemporary Hindus still follow the Vedic practices and that they can use books that compare Bronze Age to Iron Age Vedic practice as guides for contemporary practice.

However, there was less to compare than I expected. Jews do not offer sacrifices anymore, but still use the sacrifice metaphor for prayer, home table, synagogue, and martyrdom. Hindus also reject animal sacrifice and use the symbol for temple service and home ritual. But Hindus kept the practice of a sacred fire and they kept the practice of agricultural offerings such as fruit and flowers but without the specific details. In some communities, Hindus keep the physical practice and “slaughter” a whole coconut by cracking its head. Hindus have a sense that the fruit and flowers are substitutes for animals while Jews has a sense that prayer is a substitute. Jews have a continuous light, ner tamid, but no sacred fire burning. However, Jews place their sins on a chicken only for Kapparot on Yom Kippur eve (Gaonim and Rashba treated it as an offering outside the temple, therefore forbidden), while in Nepal there are regular voluntary offerings of animal sacrifices.

The only major group that still practices animal sacrifice in India is the worshippers of Kali, who tend to limit it to individual offerings once a year during Duga Puja. There is no blessing from devi if she does not receive blood. (Last year, a newspaper went out of its way to note that it was not just preserved at the local level but also at the University temple by those set on maintaining the tradition, They quote the University priest who says: “In keeping with our custom, on Mahanavami, after the morning puja, we perform animal sacrifice here. This year, around 100 goats will be sacrificed. This number also depends on the number of devotees who come to offer sacrifice.” At another university, the priest said: “A large number of devotees come here to witness the sacrifice every year…” However, in Bengal there is an annual sacrificial slaughter of up to 100,000 turtles. And in Nepal, they have a month long festival every five years where up to 250, 000 animals, mainly water buffalo, are killed in honor of the goddess Gadhimai. (The meat is eventually sold to meat processing companies.)

Scholars such as J. C. Heesterman explain the ideal original Bronze Age Vedic sacrifice as a kingly ritual for power that culminated in a feast and restoration of kingship. Heesterman shows that later Vedic sacrifice all but exclusively stressed the offering in the fire—the element of destruction—at the expense of the other elements. At the same time, sacrifice was turned to the individual sacrificer. The ritual turns in on the individual as “self-sacrificer” who realizes through the internalized knowledge of the ritual the immortal Self. At this point, the sacrifice recedes behind the soul attaining immortality in the atman’s transcendence and unity with the cosmic principle (brahman). No longer is it about maintain the cosmos, now it is about the discovery of the soul. It is worth comparing this to the Talmudic shift to repentance. When one of my visiting Jewish graduate students asked if the original sacrifice was still practiced as a kingly practice without concern for the soul’s transcendence, I answered that no Hindu has thought like that for two thousand years.

The Vedic literature also describes an elaborate horse sacrifice called the Ashvamedha that involved many animals and even bestiality to create a victorious kingdom. 20th century commentaries, such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati, rejected the classical commentaries of the Vedas corruptions “opposed to the real meaning of the Vedas.” He arrives at an entirely symbolic interpretation of the ritual: “An empire is like a horse and the subjects like other inferior animals”. Thus, according to Saraswati, no horse was actually to be slaughtered in the ritual.

There is one Vedic sacrifice ritual still performed by a secluded group of priests in the South and in recent decades, Western scholars led by Fritz Stall have paid for them to perform the ritual and to have it filmed. A temporary shelter is built then a huge falcon is built from consecrated bricks. This bird is the Universal Being. Seventeen specialized priests are required for this most elaborate of Vedic rituals. A sacrifice of 14 goats forms a central part of the early ritual. It involved reciters, chanters, performer of actions, and priests. Stall shows how expensive and complex were the ancient rituals. This ritual is a cosmogonic ritual, in which the cosmic “Man” is ritually sacrificed to re-create the universe yearly.

The Early Buddhists, Jains, and some Upanishads criticized the animal sacrifices made by the Brahmins on account of their corruption in monetary pursuits. It is worth comparing the critique of corrupt sacrifice in Isaiah and other prophets. A Jain sage interprets the Vedic sacrifices as metaphorical: “Body is the altar, mind is the fire blazing with the ghee of knowledge and burning the sacrificial sticks of impurities produced from the tree of karma…”Hindus like Jews see the criticism as only applying to corrupt forms and not as a critique of all ritual and sacrifice. Also, Hinduism does not accept treating the ritual law as an allegory and Jews reject when Christians do the same.

Hindus study and recite the Vedic rules of ancient sacrifice as a replacement to doing them similar to the way the Talmud see the study of sacrificial law as a replacement for their performance. Also, Hinduism sees sacrifice as about merit and getting to heaven, not maintaining cosmos or kingship. Swami Prabhupada, of Iskcon wrote introducing the more recent doctrines: “Although animal killing in a sacrifice is recommended in the Vedic literature, the animal is not considered to be killed… the animal is given a new animal life after being killed in the sacrifice, and sometimes the animal is promoted immediately to the human form of life.”

For centuries, these rituals have been explained at home and in school as performed for the benefit of the performer. This sacrifice has the power to influence energies and provide blessing for your earthly life, they have the power of fulfilling the desires of the aspirants. More commonly, they are explained in terms of addressing human emotions like fear, stress, confidence, and happiness.

My Western readers should note that Hindus do not actually take their rituals from anything in the Vedic literature. The details come from the vast sea of Agamic literature, larger than Rabbinic literature, which was written between 3rd century BCE to the 8th century CE, the same era as Rabbinic literature. Almost none of it has been translated into English The Agaimic literature is about worship of a divine image and is very theistic, with an occasional panentheistic element. Rituals in the Agamic literature consists of two parts a mental part (tantra) and a performance

The Vedas remain as an inspiration for a sacred fire, in the use of many of its metaphors, and that it generated the ritual rules of the Mimamsa. As a conceptual frame “whoever eats a meal without having performed his sacrifices consumes only sin and does not really eat”

So to summarize for my Western readers, forget whatever you read anything on sacrifice in ancient Vedic India. Today there are fixed temples with Yajna, which are offerings by a Brahmin, Puja is simple offering done daily at home and also at temple ceremonies and large festivals, or to begin a new venture. Puja in its simplified domestic form consists of a diya (sacred lamp) with offerings of flowers/incense/camphor. One brings a simple offering of the heart, that has no intrinsic fixed measure, rather customary rules. The third element is Homa or fire sacrifice at the Temple, clarified butter and other substances are poured into the fire as offering to God, accompanied by Mantras, usually starting with Om. The most widespread homan is Gnaptapy homam at the start of every new endeavor. Prarthana is a prayer with a specific request. It even includes simple prayers like “let us be happy.” They say that in our fallen age, even the giving of money substitutes for sacrifice.

To offer some observations, in Hindu sacrifice, the animal is killed by a direct single motion chop, in contrast in Jewish Temple sacrifice and meat slaughtering the animal is killed in a continuous motion of an across swipe of the knife. The Hindu method would be unacceptable in Jewish law as applying pressure and not cutting (derasa). Brahmin Hinduism does not have a concept of slaughter of meat for ordinary people (Hullin). In many laws they combine the Jewish concepts of purity and holiness into a single category. If eating meat is not pure then there cannot be a holy way of doing it. In Jewish ritual, every sacrifice required sanctification (ḥakdashah), and was to be brought into the court of the sanctuary (haḳrabah), sacrifice to Kali can be done in the yard or at home. In both religions, the animal cannot have a blemish or broken bones.

The four stages of Jewish sacrifice slaughter (sheḥiṭah), receiving the blood (ḳabbalah) carrying the blood to the alter (holakah) sprinkling the blood (zeriḳah). Ancient Vedic texts describe specific placement and carrying processes for the burning. Post-Vedic to contemporary Hindu sacrifice centers entirely on the slaughter. They let the blood spill out or even drink it or bath in it. The inner organs of the animals are then offered upon the altar.

In the south where they use coconuts, voluntary lay sacrifice at Tirupati is of coconuts. In other Temple complexes it is the task of the Brahmin not the lay person to officially crack the coconut with the single smash against a metal rod in the same rapid succession as the goats were killed in Nepal. The coconut water plays the role of blood and is spilled out, leaving the coconut flesh to be eaten by the one who made the offering.

When visiting Mumbai, there is a major Temple to Ganesha, who is seen as responsible for prosperity. The temple is on a side street parallel the freeway and is blocked by traffic guards and scaffolding obscuring the view on the non-descript white building. Wealthy business families dressed in their festive clothes came in a procession of a continuous stream loaded with baskets of fruit to offer to the image. My wife commented that the way people arrived is how she imagined the Temple in Jerusalem, to her it was just like the images of families carrying cornucopias of first fruits to the Temple. They were well dressed in colorful outfits, happy smiling families making a minor pilgrimage entering the line to offer their fruits. They seemed to be in competition for whom could bring the best basket of fruits and flowers.

While on line they watched other families since the offering of the baskets to the priests were broadcast inside and outside on the close circuit TV screens. When they arrived they made the gift and told the Brahmins of the names and birth dates of the entire family. They then stopped at a variety of other minor shrines in the Temple room on the way out. They seemed to leave happy and confident in their certainty of the gift of more prosperity so they went for sweets and special snacks at the restaurants that lined the temple street. No animals, no elaborate ritual, just the simplified urban offerings of the happy middle class.

An Interview with Michael Fishbane

How do we experience God or read religious works in an era of globalization, after modernity, after the hermeneutic turn, and after the modern critiques of religion? Michael Fishbane, the Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago, attempted to deal with these issues in his Sacred Attunements: A Spiritual Theology.” (You may want to print out this post for home reading, it is very long.)

fishbane teaching

Fishbane is currently one of the world’s leading Jewish thinkers whose attempts to create a philosophy of Judaism from contemporary philosophy, in this case hermeneutic theory, makes him a significant major thinker -akin to Buber- whose thought transcends denominational concerns. Hermeneutic theory is one of the major philosophic systems today, therefore I would recommend reading some Hermeneutic theory especially Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and general hermeneutics. There have been academic symposiums on Fishbane’s thought but he has not become a household name. I blogged him when I first read his book here, here, here, and here.

Fishbane is the author or editor of over 20 books including Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel; Garments of Torah. Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics; The Kiss of God: Spiritual Death and Dying in Judaism; The Exegetical Imagination; Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking; and his recent Sacred Attunement. A Jewish Theology (2008). He is the recipient of many scholarly awards.

Fishbane is aware of modernity’s challenges to religion, writing that, “the mirror of the world reflects back to us our willful epistemologies, our suspicion of values, and the rank perversities of the human heart.” (ix) (H/T to Sam Berrin Shonkoff for the following formulations.)

Fishbane recognizes that the classic approach to Jewish theology is no longer viable. The classics of pre-modern Jewish thought tried to reconcile Jewish texts with their own generation’s philosophies, but in today’s intellectual world cannot support synthesis. First, Fishbane explains, there is the “absence in our times of one coherent or compelling worldview.” Second, in the currents of globalization and multiculturalism, “we are affected by diverse sources of cultural value and memory,”

Fishbane identifies the need for a new theological breakthrough. It cannot be a new idea, concept, or theoretical framework. It must be a quality of awareness more than a state of mind, an invitation to the divine more than an answer, an opening to “a throbbing of divine everlastingness” —he presents a theology that is permanently unfinished and open-ended

Fishbane calls for a new breakthrough of mindfulness but in a post-hermeneutic age, he holds that all consciousness involves verbal and hermeneutical constructions. Language, he writes, is “our most primary rationality, giving our minds their most basic mindfulness.” How can we have or trust experience when it is filtered through the lenses of hermeneutical consciousness? Fishbane suggests that the only way to preserve a theology’s integrity is, ironically perhaps, to open it up to the dynamic dissonance of multiplicity, “the multiform diversity of life itself.”

Over a Shabbat dinner table, Fishbane complained to me how his graduate professors were religious in shul but entirely secular in class. He seeks to overcome that dichotomy through shifting to a post-apologetic theological discourse. Fishbane does not seek to explain and justify his fidelity to his faith before a forum of philosophers or other custodians of reason. He suffices with a witness to ‘a journey of spiritual quest’ as embodied in the life of a pious Jew. He even worries about the ways in which his own primary field of Biblical exegesis can end up missing the forest for the trees: neglecting divine reality, while getting caught up in what too easily become pleasurable but soulless word games.

His form of “The beginning of wisdom is fear of God” is sacred attunement, an ability to listen. Fishbane contends that “[t]he capacity to listen with attention and humility is a spiritual beginning … [of] a gradual growth in religious consciousness.” But it is one that is impossible without this initial ethic of listening. He maintains that the practitioner must cultivate a “spiritually pregnant silence” before speaking. But even afterwards: “As the curve of speech bends toward the transcendent, this truth becomes ever more unsayable.”

Fishbane occasionally speaks at the minyan here in Teaneck. The first times he spoke, the questions from the audience afterwards reflected the Lutheran inspired modern Orthodoxy. “We confront God and then recoil.” “We follow the law but do not have God directly in our lives”. “We cannot trust the self” In contrast, Fishbane is comfortable with direct God talk and religious experience without recoil and as a once born optimist he does not have the withdrawal and darkness of the twice born. He assumes that everyone is looking to get in touch with themselves and God. He also assumes that his audience is transparent and psychologically aware in their religious lives.

Since the goal of this project is a hermeneutical one, most of the book is on his views of Torah For him, the four levels of Pardes are the peshat of the everyday, the remez of the theological-legal, the derush philosophical-psychological, and the sod of the mystical. He develops Scholem’s idea of Torah as organism into Torah kelulah: God’s ongoing presence as a hermeneutical process. We have an opening to receive God’s word in everything if we are “attuned” to it. The fullness of Torah Kelulah is unsayable, yet an opening in which God’s creative power issues forth into a manifest universe. The Oral Torah is the ongoing expression and development of the primordial Written Torah. Religious life is in Torah study as reflected, imbibed, and present in the self. This process includes interiorization, centering, and silence.

Fishbane sees that the attunement leads to action and therefore we move quickly from hermeneutics to ethics. The book deals with reasons for the commandments, prayer, Shabbat, and the meaning of tehillim.

These interviews resulted from the Oxford Summer Institute for Modern and Contemporary Judaism at Yarnton convened by Dr. Freud-Kandel of Oxford and Prof. Ferziger of Bar-Ilan. Yet, one modern Orthodox intellectual present called Fishbane’s approach prophetic but not relevant for our real world lives based entirely on sociology and politics.

But this is real world-class contemporary theology in dialogue with contemporary philosophy thinking and within the bounds of contemporary thought. It is not just personal opinion but an opening to fertile rich new lines of thought. Take the time to understand it.

sacred attunment

1) What is Attunement with God? What are your sources for such attunement?
In my book, Sacred Attunement, I am concerned to cultivate modes of spiritual attentiveness. This involves focusing the mind and heart in particular ways – on the entities of existence and ultimately on God. The notion of ‘attunement’ serves this purpose. With respect to these entities, attentiveness to their distinctive qualities (be they persons or features of the world) involves putting oneself into an ongoing resonance with them; and this constant dialogical adjustment, which never appropriates the other, is a matter of self-attunement. With respect to God, the concern is to concentrate on ultimate transcendence, above and beyond the entities of the world; and this spiritual orientation is an attunement of another kind – a mindfulness of God, this being an attitude or disposition totally other that ‘knowing’ or ‘having’ some factual knowledge of Divinity. The self may even rise to a state of awareness of the Divine gift of being, and hold that cognition ‘in mind’. Humble reverence is its emotional valence.

I adapted the term ‘attunement’ from medieval and renaissance sources dealing with the vibration of the soul to ultimate matters; I subsequently found that a related existential usage was developed by Heidegger. My usage is idiosyncratic.

2) How can we use the Bible for gaining consciousness of God after historical criticism?
In religious traditions formed from Scripture, study is a multifaceted means of accessing knowledge of its content, for the sake of its values and practices. Thus the language of Scripture serves various purposes. Towards this end, Judaism has cultivated different modes of textual interpretation; these include the plain-sense of Scripture, its multiple midrashic senses (theological and halakhic), and some allegorical and mystical dimensions. Since all of these types were concerned to understand or apply the content of Scripture to religious life, these modes – singly and together – may provide a resource for contemporary seekers as well. But they will each have to be reinterpreted. For example, we have much to gain from contemporary studies of language and its modes of signification: this may guide us in thinking about how language names and transforms the world, and how it formulates terms of transcendence – through its various metaphors and figures (many of which are rooted in ancient Near Eastern stylistic forms, and cannot be fully appreciated apart from this context).

Midrashic creativity is also a rich source for thinking with Scripture about the mysteries of life and the transcendent claims they may make upon us. Midrash gives us a God-language that is grounded in the Bible, but also allows us to formulate new religious thought. This religious language is itself inflected by components of its historical environment (and many midrashic parables, which imagine God in human terms, are influenced by Roman figures and scenes).
I would add that many contemporaries also find in the meditative interpretations of the Bible as recorded in the Zohar a profound fund of verbal elements for imagining God in cosmic terms, or in the service of meditations that transcend language altogether (and knowing that some of these features also derive from Neoplatonism does not diminish their value, but may help us to better understand our own mystical texts).

Study of the Bible can therefore foster diverse forms of God-consciousness and attention to ultimate matters; and a critical understanding of its historical features may prove beneficial – both in their own right, and as they impact our contemporary lives. I therefore have no problem with historical criticism of any sort. We are historically situated beings, and all that we have created through acts of the spirit and the imagination are historically inflected – this includes the Torah, which we have through the agency of Moses and Tradition.

Historical criticism can enhance our sense of the myriad ways Jewish spiritual life (both theology and practice) has developed or changed over time, through ongoing biblical interpretation, and even stimulate new creativity. It is therefore a spiritual resource in every sense. Historical criticism respects the specificity of the literary works. Our appropriation of them is no less situated and historical.

In so many ways, the study of the Bible may inculcate new theologies or religious consciousness; and in doing it may put the interpreter in mind of God in diverse ways. As moderns (not unlike our forebears) we live with a conglomerate of theological figures; and in ritual moments (be they the study of different passages, or the recitation of different psalms in prayer) we move from image to image without any need for systematization or harmonization. We are their living coherence.

3) What does Sinai and the event at Sinai mean? How is Sinai an ever present reality? What happened to Biblical criticism?

Sinai is a foundational moment for Scripture and for Judaism. It is a cultural pivot, insofar as it mediates the founding event of the covenant and the onset of a commitment to certain values and acts. From Sinai on, the Jewish people have been devoted to God’s absolute transcendence – beyond all images and forms; and to a Torah and its related traditions which teach the inviolable character of life and its sanctification. Scripture places that event in an axial position, and Tradition has affirmed that every moment of its study can renew that event in consciousness as a living entity. Sinai was not merely a historical ‘then’, but may be an ever-present ‘now’; and thus the old event of Sinai can be revived anew, in ongoing ways. And just as Jews are repeatedly enjoined to see themselves ‘as if’ they came out of Egypt, every day, so too are we enjoined to see ourselves as standing at Sinai in the everyday: each moment being a modality of ongoing divine instruction which we may hear and do.

In this way, a person is attuned to the possibilities presented at each and every moment. For a Jew to live theologically, with Sinai in mind, is to live with this mindset. Biblical criticism is but one vector into the ancient moment of the ‘happening of Sinai’ and its literary transformations. These records are part of the formation of Scripture that radiates from Sinai, and has become sacred for Jews. If we suppress or elide the voices of the past, we become tone-deaf to primary accounts of our precious legacy.

4) You wrote about a “communal moment” at Sinai, but isn’t your approach very individualistic?

Every reading of Scripture is an individual event, even as it also participates in a communal paradigm; similarly, every religious action is performed by an individual, even as worshippers are part of a larger congregation or community of believers. The same holds true for the founding moment. The event of Sinai is portrayed in Scripture as a communal and collective moment (We shall do and we shall hear); but since antiquity many different midrashic passages reinterpret the literary traditions in the Book of Exodus, or other Scriptural passages linked to Sinai, with the individual aspect of this event. In some cases, each person was asked if they were individually committed to all the Torah and all its subsequent Traditions; in other ones, we learn that different persons received and understood the revelation according to their particular ability or capacity.
My book strives to renew the theological spirit of modern Jews. It therefore addresses them personally and individually; hence the particular tone I have taken throughout. But the renewal of Jews means the renewal of Judaism, which cannot be transformed without them; and thus the ultimate context for my work is the entire Jewish community. The individual and the communal are therefore intertwined.

5) Can one separate serving God from specific cultural forms? How is theological thinking a basis for action, and how do the mitzvot bring thoughts to action?

I do not understand how one can serve God separate from specific cultural forms – be those verbal or silent, public performances or private thoughts. This is true for all religions, and is distinctively so for Judaism. Moreover, because of this vital interconnection, the ritual forms used by the worshipper shape consciousness in different ways, and the ways one serves God enact distinctive God-forms for the culture and persons involved. Acts of thanksgiving or petition come to mind, as do deeds of charity and blessing. Each involves a distinct image or mode of Divinity. We incorporate these various modalities through our ritual gestures and in the vocabulary of our prayers (referring to God as the one “who” does thus and so). This said, I would still suggest that serving God through various cultural forms may include a theological disposition that can transcend them all, insofar as a person performs these actions with God in mind – a God who is transcendent to the specific actions and even the God-mindedness involved.

All activities may become occasions for such a God-consciousness, when recognizing in and through all our actions the God-given reality that challenges us to service and celebration. Each ‘Sinaitic moment’ obligates us to hear and do – to respond to our Divine destiny as creatures through the forms Torah and Tradition have prescribed. These are not restrictive obligations, but ones that are mind-expanding. They call upon us to enact our freedom in service to these duties; hence we discover our freedom through our obligations to God. This is the way I understand the great mishnaic watchword that interprets the laws “inscribed upon the tablets” (harut ‘al ha-luhot) as modalities of “freedom” commanded through them (herut ‘al ha-luhot). Thus this intersection of freedom and obligations transcends the dichotomy of autonomy and heteronomy (inner-directedness vs. external rules). I do what I must do for the sake of the fulfillment of who I am and may freely become as a moral and spiritual person.

6) What is the role of the ever changing reasons for the commandments?

When one speaks of the ‘reasons for the commandments’ one thinks primarily of constructing meanings that serve one’s spiritual destiny and intellectual integrity. These reasons have changed over time – and there is evidence for this process already in the Bible – since people are ever trying to live with meaning and honesty, and trying to find in the commandments a higher purpose (or justification) for their religious behavior or attitudes. This purpose often accords with their hierarchy of values at any time – a hierarchy that emerges from Scripture and the Tradition, but also from external philosophical values reincorporated into it. The changing ‘reasons’ attest to our changing historical situations and our desire to justify the quality and character of our religious lives. Finding reasons for the commandments offers opportunities for such reflection, and for integrating what we value from the world at large into our daily religious lives. This process keeps us spiritually alert and morally honest.

7) What is the difference between the Adamic Self and the Mosaic Self?
When I use the designations ‘Adamic Self’ and ‘Mosaic Self’ in my book, I am concerned to highlight the difference between two ways of being in the world: the term Adamic Self refers to ourselves as natural beings, who share mortal characteristics and a world destiny with all creatures of flesh and blood (it thus has a universal component); whereas the term Mosaic Self refers to us Jews as religious beings, who share the specific spiritual path charted by Moses our teacher and his historic heirs (it thus has a particularistic component).
Our religious lives are both embedded within, and develop from, our condition as creatures of the earth – and we must never lose track of this alignment. But our universal creaturehood is also culturally marked and inflected, and we choose this as self-conscious religious persons. This choice is exemplified by Moses himself, who turned from his natural condition as a shepherd, to engage his spiritual destiny. In Scripture this is a paradigmatic moment; and this challenge confronts each of us – our turning to religious choices and spiritual destiny is something we ourselves are ever called upon to do. And so, just as we must always be aware of our natural ground as creatures, so must we try to be simultaneously conscious of the religious challenges that give us opportunities to transform our naturalness. This is a mentality to be cultivated and lived on a daily basis.

8) Your work is so pious and God-centered that most who share your sense of the sacred would not have a historicist consciousness? How do you bring the two together?
To be a Jew is constantly to stand at Sinai and choose to accept the life tasks that present themselves. Our Jewish Tradition has powerful means for shaping our consciousness and attitudes, and for guiding them towards action in the world. It is essential to live with alert attunement to these tasks and what they require of us at every moment. This is a demanding requirement; so is the God-mindedness related to it. To be God-centered is therefore not to be self-centered; it is rather to be engaged in self-transcendence through attunement to the presentations of the world, as they present themselves.

This is not a theological attitude that transcends the world for some metaphysical domain, or is free of the nitty-gritty that stains things and our frail moral purposes. It is a theological disposition that is historically situated, with all the contingencies and complications that go with that posture. Hence our historical factuality is fundamental and cannot be escaped, if we are spiritually honest; and to be critical and analytical by degrees is not a stultification of our God-centeredness, but a way that we may monitor ourselves and our attunements to existence at every moment. Living in this way, is a type of ‘avodah be-gashmiyut – a service of God in and through our embodiment. Ultimately, I believe, it is a ‘sacred attunement’.

9) Do you have an ‘ontological presupposition’ of sorts about the existence of God and of Sinai?
This is a weighty question, and needs to be sorted out at several levels. The primary ontological given that one has to reckon with as a human being is the totality of existence that impinges upon our lives, and demands (or calls us to) a response. We answer with attempts to live meaningful lives: to name things rightly and for good ends; to act rightly and for high-minded purposes; and to do all this in ways that reduce harm and increase goodness.
This is part of our natural lives within a mystery that ever exceeds us – call it ‘super-natural’, if you wish. Oriented to this all-encompassing mystery, we humbly direct our consciousness to what we name ‘God’ – meaning by this word a culturally inflected limit-term, which exceeds all our cognitive and passionate presuppositions. And this limit includes all of our theological presuppositions about God, be these ever so sophisticated or naive.
Religious philosophy and mysticism have always cautioned us to beware of thinking that God is a being like other beings, or even a supreme Being, since God is wholly Other than anything our anthropomorphic presuppositions may suppose; contemporary philosophical and theological thought has reinforced this caution and the dangers of mental idolatries.

But if our ontological nature as human beings is something we are potentially cognizant of, this requires us, so to speak, ‘to know before Whom one stands’, and to live a life consonant with such a God-inspired humility: one that seeks the good and the sanctification of all life from within the standpoint of our mortal frailty. Sinai calls upon us, as a Voice of destiny, to heed these values: to have no god but God before us at all times, to smash idols of every sort, and to respect human and material boundaries.

For this reason we may perhaps say that Sinai is an ontological reality that calls us, through the unfolding realities of tradition and interpretation, to hear what must be heard and to do what must be done. It is a cultural presupposition that directs our minds and lives beyond ontology, to God as absolute transcendence, and absolutely transcendent to all being.

10) What are the philosophical challenges of theology, metaphysics or hermeneutics today?
Every person must start from their own particular life situation, knowledge, and proclivities. There is no set of philosophical challenges that address all minds, or in the same way. This said, we are all aware that our small universe is part of infinities beyond our comprehension, and that its peril and fate is both related to but far exceeds our intentions and our destiny. And this must give pause to the hubris of our various theological, metaphysical, or hermeneutical assertions.

Modern thought has produced volumes that stress our cognitive and interpretative limits (for any number of epistemological reasons), or the limitations of our situated perspectives (for phenomenological reasons) – even as our scientific capacities challenge the constraints we have imposed. We must therefore determine to live with self-conscious humility and with a consciousness of our moral responsibilities – both for ourselves and our planet.

Hermeneutical thought, in particular, has brought home in incontrovertible ways that we use language within certain ‘horizons of understanding’, and that it shapes human consciousness and social realities. Language is a creative force to be used or abused – both for the forms of thought produced and the forms of life which underpin them.

These considerations also affect our religious and theological lives. The issue of religious language is a challenge, as it has always been (since the sages in the Midrash or philosophers like Philo). Once again, we are perplexed. What terms should we use for God, and what is their status? Are the images of God to be understood as theological propositions, or as figures that direct consciousness towards non-conceptual references?

And, more practically: how can we use or develop a theological language that fits with both our tradition and with intellectual frontiers our tradition has never confronted? These and related topics have particular import for the practice of our religious lives. Within ever-expanding horizons that may include the respect for and awareness of different religions and theologies and philosophies (including literatures depicting diverse worldviews), we must repeatedly determine how to formulate and sustain compelling motivations for our traditional behaviors.

These are great challenges. Taking them in hand, we must not retreat before this vast horizon into naive fundamentalism or narrow traditionalism; or dilute our basic values within some indeterminate universal dimension. A stance of open steadfastness (open to the world yet steadfast in a thoughtful commitment to traditional forms of life and value) will require will power and good will. But despite the confusions and tensions these issues engender, we still have local tasks to perform – which compel us without doubt; and face the reality of other persons (both religious compatriots and fellow creatures) and the imperatives they impose – calling us to hear and do what we can, as best we can. Such demands are perhaps sufficient for the day, and help ground our lives, otherwise depleted of much metaphysical certainty.

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.