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 became Druids.) as natives and who discouraged practices that did not meet their standards. Finally, this region from Greece to Iraq gains liberation as a single country in the mod 20th century with a government that is going out of its way to downplay differences and claim everyone is Biblical. They started creating ideologies of a single identity already in the 19th century. Hinduism came to be in a similar fashion to my hypothetical Biblical story.

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 be 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.

Adin Steinsaltz-My Rebbe

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RCA Israel Excutive Team 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Lookstein on Social Orthodoxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden of Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fleming and Reed wrote:

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

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

Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple2

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

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

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

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

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

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