Shaivism to an Outsider

I will begin to answer some of the basic questions about Hinduism that I have been asked by my readers from the start. What do they believe and how does it contrast with Judaism? I will present these basic posts over several months to allow for feedback. (So, therefore next week, I return to blogging about Jewish Orthodoxy and/or Jewish-Christian encounter.)

Hinduism is a variety of denominations and from a Western and more specifically Jewish perspective can even be seen as separate religions in term of both theology and practice. There are the classic major denominational rubrics of Hinduism consisting of Saivism, Vaishnivites, Shaktism, and Smarta as well as the current denominations that one would find in the US like BAPS, Sai Baba, Iskcon , or Sri Chinmoy. I cannot repeat enough that you cannot know anything about Hinduism from the few ancient texts that might have been in your introduction to religion course. We will look first at Saivism.

I lived in a city dedicated to Shiva and on a campus with a major Shiva temple in the center of campus and I was there for the major festival of Mahashivarati. I will come back to the personal stories in a follow-up post. I am treading carefully since this is someone else’s religion. I am not claiming any special knowledge. This is a guide for outsiders, especially my Jewish readership, that will avoid the typical American academic approach. This is specifically a first draft. I will revise this as needed.


Saivism presents itself as the world’s oldest religion, the roots of Siva worship back more than 8,000 years to the advanced Indus Valley civilization. Many aspect of this religion are Dravidian pre-dating any Aryan or Vedic understandings. Historians date the religion to have been formed between 200 BCE to 100 CE, and fully recognized as a branch of Hinduism during the early Gupta period (c. 320 CE). This corresponds roughly to the same era as the Rabbinic scribes and Tannaim. Shaivism is the second largest branch of Hinduism, with over 198,000,000 adherents worldwide. A note on spelling: the pronunciation of Saivism and Siva is with a Sh as if it is written Shaivism. Usually the S has an accent to indicate the SH sound. Since this post is cut and pasted from dozens of sources, it was hard to be consistent here.

The worship is to Shiva as the central deity, a monotheism combined with panentheism, similar to mystical Judaism. Siva is portrayed by Saivites as the compassionate One present everywhere and offering grace or liberation to those who serve Him. “The Lord is one. He is the supreme of all existences and pervades all….He is kindness and love. His kindness is bestowed upon the suffering souls through the medium of His grace.” Shiva is the ultimate reality endowed with omniscience, omnipotence, independence, freedom from sin, benevolence, blissfulness, and purity. Shaivites hold that Lord Shiva performs five actions – creation, preservation, dissolution, concealing grace, and revealing grace.

Saivism sees Siva as a personal God neither male nor female. He is pure love and compassion, immanent and transcendent, pleased by human purity and spiritual practice. There is no incarnations or avatars as in Vaishnavism, no embodied male deity like Krishna since that would make the divine corporeal. On the other hand, they reject the Smartism approach that the divine is impersonal Oneness and the personal deities (Ishvara) are only a concession or a needed instrument.
Saivism does not encourage worship of minor deities. If any benefit is derived by worshipping them, it is only a temporary psychological benefit that will becomes a hindrance to spiritual progress. Whatever historical antecedent of many gods that had once existed has been reduced to all being attributes of Siva.

For spiritual progress and to earn Siva’s Grace, Saivism encourages everyone to develop good qualities such a love to all beings and to imitate Lord Siva who is seen as a personification of wisdom, love, and all good qualities. Here is a theistic hymn to Shiva as Lord of Heaven and Earth as well as personal god.The Lord is beyond all laws of heaven and earth but at the same time he is very near

Oh God Shiva, Oh remover of all problems, Oh personification of truth,
Oh all knower, Oh holy god who lives in every one’s heart,
Oh God who blesses with all types of wealth, Oh friend of people devoted to you,
A lustrous good morning to you, Oh my Lord of the universe.

The foundational text of Shaivism is the Svetasvatara Upanishad (work s such as the Bhagavad Gita are primarily for Vaishnavites). Here is one of the key verses about the lord sustaining the world, while the soul is bound in this world but freed by knowing the divine.

The whole world is the perishable and imperishable, the manifest and the unmanifest joined together —the Lord supports it all. The self (atman) who is not the lord, remains bound because of enjoying. By knowing the divine, one is released from all restriction.

Shaivism make use of rational proofs for the existence of God found in the Indian philosophers. From a Jewish perspective they are not far from Islam, except they have universal reincarnation. The major difference is that the infinite Siva emanates and maintains the world personified by his consort Shakti- who is not considered a separate god from Siva. One could compare Shakti to the real of the kavod, the sefirot, the celestial hierarchy of the medieval Jewish cosmologies. (Christian comparative works treat Shakti as the Logos). In many ways, they fit the category of Tosfot or the Rama in that they worship the God of creation along with an association with other aspects (shituf). Or it can be better understood through the more expansive version of R. Yakov Emden who frames it as accepting an absolute God, a god of gods and not just having intermediaries.

The second major difference is that divine blessings, divine providence, the gift of wisdom, and the gift of children are personified by devas such as Ganesha or Parvati. The store keepers selling clay idols in town as well as everyone on campus was quick to remind me that these cannot be referred to as separate gods if one is a Shivite rather they are devas. A term already translated by medieval Jews when they looked at Hindu religions as angels. Today, they would not be seen as gods or medieval angels, rather personified attributes. In actual practice for the last 200 years, they have been presented in basic works as allegories of ethical struggles, similar to the way S.R. Hirsch, Hertz, or Baeck read prior texts as ethical. [This is unlike the Smarta, with an Absolute above all forms.]

Shaivas often pray to Ganesha for worldly things, reserving prayers to Shiva for worship and asking for spiritual insight, help and advancement. Thus they might ask Ganesha for help in preparing and taking an exam, but ask Shiva to help us see our true spiritual nature.

The final, and for many, the main distinction is the extensive use of images.

Siva in His inherent form is formless. He is manifested in three ways, form without a body, form with body, and form both with and without body. The image of Siva Linga is symbolic of the last category, which is the intermediate stage between the other two.
For the first category, Śaiva texts describe Śiva, the highest aspect of reality, as a stainless void, “One who sees one entity as it really is sees all entities as they really are. One entity has the (same) innate nature as all entities, and all entities have the same innate nature as any single entity.”

The second way with a pictured image, representation of deities is where it is unlike Judaism but do not turn the image into an incarnation or shituf. It is a symbolic image that is not used in Temple worship, the linga is used. Some groups such as the Lingayatism, do not use the images (see below).
In the pictured image, Siva is seated on Nandi, his bull mount, the perfect devotee, Lord Siva holds japa beads and the trident, symbol of love-wisdom-action, and offers blessings of protection and fearlessness. Mount Kailas, His sacred Himalayan abode, represents the pinnacle of consciousness. Shiva has a crescent moon on his head. He is said to be fair like camphor or like an ice clad mountain. He wears five serpents and a garland of skulls as ornaments. Shiva is usually depicted facing the south. His trident, like almost all other forms in Hinduism, can be understood as the symbolism of the unity of three worlds that a human faces – his inside world, his immediate world, and the broader overall world. Shiva is often depicted with a third eye, with which he burned Desire (Kāma) to ashes. When Shiva loses his temper, his third eye opens to reduce most things to ashes. Shiva smears his body with ashes said to represent the end of all material existence.

The third category is the image of Sivalingam, Linga (Sanskrit for “symbol”) is the form in which he is most commonly worshipped and is often the most often misinterpreted symbol. Basically, it is a natural stone or natural pillar. American Temples in the West use beautiful crystals and boulders, many Hindus use an oval or egg shaped polished stone or painted oval figure. From a Biblical perspective, it is a pillar such as used in Genesis and then forbidden to Jews in Deuteronomy. Linga that have formed naturally are some of the most auspicious forms.


Many of the forms are that of a phallic symbol, and is usually the main object of worship in Shaivite temples. The linga is a simple stylized phallus that nearly always rests on pedestal of a stylized yoni, or female sex organ. Together, the linga and yoni represent the power of creative energy and fertility.The linga’s form began to be conventualized during the Gupta period, so that in later periods its original phallic realism was to a considerable degree lost. There are precise rules of proportion to be followed for the height, width, and curvature of the top. Variations include the mukhalinga, with one to five faces of Shiva carved on its sides and top, and the lingodbhavamurti, a South Indian form that shows Siva emerging out of a fiery superiority over Vishnu and Brahma. Some lingas are topped with a cobra, symbolizing the kundalini chakra located at the base of the spine.
Another image of Shiva is the Nataraja, on Western book covers it is probably the most iconic image of Hinduism. Nataraja is Shiva as the multi-armed Lord of the Dance. This image pictures Shiva in the dance of creation, preservation and destruction. In this multi-armed form Shiva holds a drum in one hand, representing creation, the fire of destruction in another. One of his right arms is in the gesture meaning “no fear”, signaling preservation. His fourth arm is held in an elephant trunk like posture, alluding to Ganesha, the removal of obstacles, again showing help and preservation to all people. Dancing Siva is expressive of the highly evolved arts and culture. The art of Siva is extensive but not generally used in Temple worship.

dance of shiva

Four types of Shaivism
Even within this one denomination of Shaivism, there are many subdivisions with major theological distinction. I will present four. Lingayats who do not use images or accept reincarnation, Saiva Siddhanta who want God to free their souls, Kashmir Shaivsm which is a monism, and the Ascetic Shaivism.
Lingayats (also know as Virashaivas)
Lingayatism established in 12th century by social reformer Basavanna makes several departures from mainstream Hinduism. It propounds monotheism and avoid images. It only worships Lord Shiva in the form of linga or Ishtalinga. an oval-shaped emblem symbolizing the absolute reality, It is worn on the body by a cord hung around the neck. They were sold in the campus bookstore.

They also bury the dead rather than cremate them. It also rejects the authority of the Vedas, the caste system and some Hindu beliefs such as reincarnation and karma,


Major Concepts of Saiva Siddhanta
The Saiva Siddhanta School is one of the most ancient schools of Saivism, currently popular mostly in the south.
The three fundamental concepts of this ideology are the divine, the soul, and the bonds of existence. Saiva Siddhanta believes in the three eternal entities of God, Soul and Bondage. These are called Pati, Pasu and Pasam respectively. Pati means Lord (of the souls) who is God. Pasam means bondage of the soul. Pasu means that which is under bondage. All things known and perceived are included in these three categories.

According to Saiva Siddhanta God is one, Souls are many. No two persons or beings are alike, every living being has a personal soul of its own. Bondage consists of three impurities called Anava, Karma, and Maya. God, soul and the bondage are all eternal and real. It has a personal doctrine, (as opposed to the advaita idea that all souls and God are ultimately one). The version of Brahmanism that R. Saadiah is familiar with seems to be some form of this, an eternal creation, with the world as bondage.

Siva is the ultimate and supreme reality, omniscient, omnipresent and unbound. He is Pati, the primal being and the supreme deity. Siva alone is the efficient cause of all creation, evolution, preservation, concealment and dissolution. He brings forth the worlds and their beings through his dynamic power, Shakti.
Anavam is the cause of all inherent negative qualities of the soul, ego, ignorance, hatred, etc. Like tarnish on copper, or the husk on wheat, it has a natural association with the soul. Anavam is spoken of only in Saiva Siddhanta and not in any other Indian philosophies. (Only Jewish adherents of Musar or those who follow medieval ethics of Maimonides have this a major concern of life)

Karma or binding action is the second impurity. It binds the soul to the consequences of its actions. Actions done from a self-less perspective do not bind the soul to the world. But actions done with an egoistic attitude, driven by ones desires, are binding.

Maya, the third impurity, binds the souls (jivas) to the sense objects through desires and ignorance. It is the first cause of all material things. It is real, and not an illusion as in Vedanta philosophy. To perform any karma or action, material objects such as the physical body and worldly things are required. These are created by God from maya. This is akin to a potter making pots from the clay. The physical body is made from maya and given to bind the soul. Modern Siddhanta literature compares maya to the Big Bang theory, in which the universe had an origin from a ‘cosmic egg’ and expanded to the present state. It is an expanding Universe.

The purpose of maya is two fold. First, to subject the souls (jivas) to the conditions of material existence and help them acquire sensory knowledge and material knowledge.

Second, to prepare them for final liberation by subjecting them to the laws of karma and helping them discriminate between right actions and wrong actions so that they can gain merit by doing right actions and avoiding wrong actions.
This is of course a long and tedious process and the souls (jivas) have to spend many lives before they feel the need to work for their liberation.

The difference from Judaism is that Rabbinic Judaism see that we have good and evil inclination, and that both are needed. All is not self-less and free of desire in that without it, a human being would never marry, beget children, build a house, or engage in trade (Gen. R. 9:7). It is only when it gets out of hand that it becomes the cause of harm. An effective antidote is the study and observance of Torah (cf. Kid. 30b). Greatness does not necessarily render a human being immune from the power of the evil inclination, which manifests itself in such traits as vindictiveness and avarice (Sif. Deut. 33), anger (Shab. 105b), and vanity (Gen. R. 22:6). In fact, the greater the man, the stronger are such tendencies apt to be in him. Maimonides’ reading of the garden of Eden of the fall into desire from pure soul is closer to this perspective.

Obligations and Liberation
In this life of maya, the soul evolves through karma and reincarnation from the instinctive-intellectual sphere into virtuous and moral living, then into temple worship and devotion, followed by internalized worship, or yoga, and its meditative disciplines. Union with God Siva comes through the grace of the satguru and culminates in the soul’s maturity in the state of jnana, or wisdom. In contrast, most Vaishnavites believe that religion is the performance of bhakti
In Saiva Siddhanta true liberation is a gift from God and the result of his direct intervention. The soul learns true and false through maya, basically theoretical knowledge or lower knowledge. In every birth, the soul, through its action, gains experience, and through experience gains knowledge. It does not help them to transcend their conditioned minds and experience their true consciousness. It is only when Lord Siva bestows his grace upon them and comes to them in the form of a personal guru.

Liberation is made in four progressive stages of belief and practice called charya, kriya, yoga and jnana.
The path of charya involves serving Lord Siva in a temple or religious place by performing tasks.
The path of kriya involves performing devotional tasks such as worshipping Siva , singing devotional songs, reciting the mantras, narrating stories about Siva or doing personal service to Siva like a son does to his father.
The path of yoga involves practicing yoga exercises (asanas) and meditation and contemplation (dhyana). By following this path one gets an opportunity to live constantly in the company of Siva and become his spiritual companion.
The path of knowledge is the fourth path, considered the most direct path. The other three are actually considered inferior to it. On this path, jnana or knowledge is the mean to become aware of their true Siva consciousness.

After liberation, the liberated soul knows that its intrinsic nature is that of Siva but that it is not Siva or the Supreme Self. Thus in its liberated state it continues to experience some form of duality, while enjoying Siva (pati) consciousness as its true consciousness free from all bonds (pasas).
Judaism spends most of its efforts on the two lower paths, but Maimonides, Kabbalah, and parts of Hasidut focus on the higher two paths. As Alon Goshen-Gottstein pointed out, the learning done in an ashram is as if we had a program of all Kabbalah and Hasidut.

In Saivism, the soul needs to perfect itself and then it merits liberation. In contrast, rabbinic texts allow greater moral latitude and laxity because the Jewish God in Rabbinic literature is ever patient, ever forgiving, long-suffering, and even takes bribes. Here too, the Maimonidean world-to-come based on knowledge and conjunction is closer to Hinduism. Also Kabbalists such as R. Azriel of Gerona and the Ramak share this spiritualization.

Kashmir Shavism
Kashmīr Śaivism: codified by Vasugupta (ca 800), is mildly theistic, but intensely monistic school, a well-known branch is Pratyabhijñā . Besides having ordinary traditional worshippers it is attractive to foreign outsiders and many intellectuals as a form of Hinduism similar to monistic immanence and identity of humans with God as found in Hasidut. I hear there are currently several Israeli Kabbalah scholars looking into the similarities.

The central thesis of this philosophy is that everything is Shiva, absolute consciousness, and it is possible to re-cognize this fundamental reality and be freed from limitations and immersed in bliss.

Thus, the slave (pasu – the human condition) becomes the master (pati – the divine condition), a self-realization that God is within one’s own soul. It believes that all reality, including Shiva and Shakti, is mirrored in the human soul and that recognizing this image is the means of liberation. This is like acknowledging that the sefort or the higher unity are states of the soul- Think of Rav Zadok Hakohen, Komarno, or the Mittler. The inner core of a person is consciousness which is identical with Shiva

Unlike Advaitan teachings in Kashmir Shaivism, God has volition, reality and maya are real, humans souls are limited, and yoga is a tool not a an end or method unto itself

Shavite Asceticism
Shavism has long been connected with rigorous asceticism. Many yogis, ashram, and holy men are shavites. They go beyond the personal relationship with the Lord who will liberate them by living a life beyond the categories of life and death. Well known are the naked ascetic Nagas. These form of Shaivism is almost the opposite of the aforementioned householder form of good deeds and knowledge leading to liberation. The ascetics are living to show that they are already above the world.
Prominent are the Aghori who deliberately contravene moral norms. They engage in unsavory activity– ghastly acts to show they are outside the realm of the house holder such as eating their food from a human skull, or covering their body with ashes of the dead, Do not conflate this version with the householder version described above.

This aspect contributes to the colorful folk religion and memorable street life of a Saivism event. It also colors events such major events- the last one had 12 million people attend- as the Kumbh Mela, the event every four years when the ascetics recruit.


Sahivites downplay the ancient Vedic canon in favor of later and for them more profound works, leaving the Western reader in the dark about their religion. There are extensive Shaivite Agamas of 28 volumes, a collection of provides instructions for the worship of Shiva. There principal collections of sacred narrative are the Shiva Purana, the Linga Purana, the Skanda Purana, Also many hymns and devotional books.

The first known guru of Saiva Siddhanta tradition was Nandinatha, (c. 250 BC Kashmir. He left behind a compilation of twenty-six Sanskrit verses called the Nandikesvara Kasika, in which he laid down the basic tenets of Saiva Siddhanta school. Tirumular, who composed Tirumandiram in Tamil and introduced the Nandinatha tradition to the people of southern India. He was instrumental in making Saivism popular in the south by emphasizing the devotional aspect. The 11th century AD Tirumurai is an authoritative source of Saiva Siddhanta literature.

Tirumular’s work was carried forward by subsequent devotional saints such as Appar, Sundarar, Sambandhar, whose works are preserved in Tevaram (the first seven volumes of the Tirumurai, the twelve-volume collection of Tamil Śaiva devotional poetry.) These saints moved from place to place and temple to temple, singing the glory of Siva and making Saivism a popular movement
Nayanars were a group of 63 saints (also saint poets) in the 6th to 8th century- Tamils saints writings are more important than your western religion book

Manikkavacakar, who came after these great saints, contributed substantially to the popularity and theology of Saiva Siddhanta school in the south. His work is preserved in the collection of poems known as Tiruvasagam.There are also the lives of the Saiva saints Periyapuranum, and Umapati’s Shivaprakasham (“Lights on Shiva”) in the 14th century.

Unless you have read selections from this Tamil literature then you have not read anything relevant for the Shaivite religion.

Finally, Western interest was to try and make Hinduism into Christianity. Many Western books include a discussion of the Trimurti, somehow implying that the Hindus worship multiple gods this can be understood as similar to the Christian Trinity.
The Trimūrti is an image of Siva as three faced, as three forms of the same God in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver and Shiva the destroyer or transformer. They are personified attributes. There are very few places in Indian literature where the Trimurti is mentioned. In fact the parallel is not very close, and the Hindu trinity, unlike the Trinity of Christianity, never really “caught on”. The other forms of Hinduism such as Vaishnavism generally do not accept the Trimurti concept at all. It is many know from unique archeological sites such as the 7th century, Trimurti Cave , alight atop a steep cliff, in Mahabalipuram. The theologies of these sites do not reflect current Hinduism, even if they make great book covers.

Dovid Sears review of Yoel Glick- Part 2

Part II Living The Life of Jewish Meditation by Yoel Glick – part 2
Reviewed by Dovid Sears

For Part I of this book review, click here.

This might seem a little off-subject in a book about meditation, but given the this-worldly drift of Judaism and the vast corpus of Talmudic law (which Rabbi Glick studied under Rav Soloveitchik), there might have been some mention of the need to integrate nistar, the “inner” and mystical dimension of Judaism, with nigleh, the “outer” practices of Torah study, the mitzvot and addressing our worldly responsibilities. The latter too have a mystical side. As early Chassidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib Hakohen points out in Or Gannuz la-Tzaddikim: “And it was when the Ark set forth… And when it rested… This alludes to two forms of divine service, action and contemplation. And each accomplishes its own tikkunim (spiritual corrections)…”

There is a kind of “meditation in action” that goes along with all of the mitzvot, as the elaborate kavannot (mystical intentions) of the Arizal’s indicate. Indeed, Chassidic tradition has it that the Baal Shem Tov employed kavannot of his own devising for even such mundane activities as smoking his pipe. Since the Creator is omnipresent, and the “koach ha-po’el bi-nifal” (i.e., the Creator’s power imbues every speck of creation), even our most ordinary actions contain a potential for the holy. This is an area of Jewish spirituality that Living Jewish Meditation mentions only in passing, but which deserves far more attention. For this is where the symbiosis of nigleh and nistar is most evident.

The late Rabbi Avraham Yurevitch, a prominent halakhic authority and Chassidic kabbalist in the Toldos Aharon community of Jerusalem, includes this in a discussion of mystical practice in his Darkei ha-Hasagah (p. 203):

“Also regarding the mitzvot, there are two strata: 1) internal and 2) external. The externality of the mitzvah is the basic act of the mitzvah, while the internality of the mitzvah is the matter of the kavanah [intention with which it is performed]. And a mitzvah lacking in kavanah is like a body without a soul. Surely there is no possibility of developing spirituality from the physical act of the mitzvah; rather, one must ensure that the act of the mitzvah will affect the consciousness of the person—that the mitzvah transforms the person’s state of mind, so that it leaves the category of shevirah (alienation; “brokenness,” corresponding to the Shattering of the Vessels in Lurianic kabbalah) and enters the category of tikkun. This is attained by preparing “vessels” that are fit to come to a state of nullification to the Blessed One [i.e., through one’s spiritual preparations]…”

While Yoel’s quotes from non-Jewish mystics are well-chosen and often moving, I must mention that I fail to see what place there is in a book about Jewish meditation for Ramakrishna’s claim that he and his inner circle were reincarnations of Jesus and the original Christians (mentioned on p. 214). With all due respect to both Ramakrishna and righteous Christians, the Indian mystic’s identification with a sect that rejected Chazal, deemed the “Law” passé, deified their leader, and whose scriptures were piously read aloud while their medieval co-religionists burned Jews alive in the town square is not very endearing to Jewish readers with any consciousness of our history. (I imagine that Ramakrishna had little or no awareness of any of this. And if he was a reincarnation of Jesus, I hope that he told his followers to lay off the Jews this time around.)

photo (c) D. Sears

In conclusion, Living Jewish Meditation is a clear and well-written volume that should speak to any Jewish seeker who has explored Eastern wisdom and who now wishes to enter the path of the Jewish mystics. It is intelligently structured and eminently usable. And one immediately senses that Yoel Glick’s words come from the heart and from “living the life” of Jewish (and non-Jewish) meditation.

But frankly, the book is a sort of Parah Adumah – the Red Heifer used in the Holy Temple, the ashes of which would “purify the impure” (those rendered tamei, or ritually impure through contact with the dead) but “defile the pure” (those who performed the rite of purification). For those Jews who have never ventured into other religious teachings and spiritual disciples, there is no need for this synthesis. The term “kabbalah” means “that which has been received,” and our traditions both exoteric and esoteric have been preserved in their purity, from master to disciple, by our tzaddikim vi-anshei ma’aseh, those who bear and actually personify these ancient traditions. To be sure, Jewish meditation is still a somewhat “secret” tradition, but it is nevertheless alive and well if one is willing to search diligently for it.

photo (c) D. Sears

Postscript: The Quest for Enlightenment

  1. Is there currently a Jewish realized being who is teaching meditation that we can learn from?

YG: Sadly, there is not. We are producing lots of wonderful scholars and even the occasional spiritual genius, but no enlightened beings. Enlightened beings and those who seek to attain that state are the soul of a religion. It is time for us to admit that we have a problem, instead of just saying how good we are at this worldly activity.

In his interview on this blog, Rabbi Glick bluntly states that there are no “realized beings” or “enlightened” teachers in the Jewish world today. This strikes me as a presumptuous remark from a person who does not strike me as a presumptuous man. First of all, who knows? And second of all, what do we mean by “enlightened?”

This term is usually associated with various Eastern religions, which don’t all conceive enlightenment the same way. In Judaism, our tradition speaks of da’at (knowledge, or da’at elyon (sublime knowledge), or “seeing the World to Come in one’s lifetime” (as in Berakhot 17a). These terms seem to approximate the enlightenment concept, but even then, their meanings are not entirely clear.

However, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s description of the goal of hitbodedut-meditation does seem to fit the bill. In Likutey Moharan I, 52 (“Hanei’or Ba-laylah”),  he speaks of hitbodedut, which is an inner path of self-examination and personal prayer, conducted alone and ideally in the fields or forests at night, and how one may systematically work through and transmute all of one’s negative emotions and traits. The goal of this process is to annihilate the very root of ego that lies at the core of all negativity and thus realize the “chiyyuv ha-metiziyut,” the “Imperative Existent” (a term apparently borrowed from the Rambam—see B. Naor’s essay in the appendix of Shir Na’im: A Song of Delight, Orot 2006), more loosely translated as the Divine “Essence of Reality.” This does seem to parallel the enlightenment experience described by at least some Eastern mystics.

As for “who’s who” among the Jewish enlightened, I surely can’t say, and neither can Rabbi Glick. But we have had many awesome tzaddikim, even in our benighted times, who were and are known for behaviors understood to be signs of spiritual elevation, and even for their ruach ha-kodesh (divine inspiration) and knowledge of hidden things. It is troubling to hear that such a baal mevakesh, an obviously sincere spiritual seeker, could live in Jerusalem for years but not succeed in finding such tzaddikim; rather, he needed to leave the Holy Land and sit at the feet of Hindu and Buddhist teachers in Europe in order to realize his spiritual goals. I have immense respect for all sorts of teachers and do not deny that truth and beauty may be found in many quarters. But Yoel’s professed inability to find Jewish teachers of sufficiently high caliber and his woeful conclusion about enlightenment ratings of those he encountered invites the saying of Chazal: “If someone tells you that they tried but did not succeed, don’t believe them!” (Megillah 6b). It is true that most contemporary rabbis and teachers of Torah are not on that lofty rung—but isn’t that inevitably the case? Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai stated, “I have seen bnei aliyah (‘people who are up there’), and they are few” (Sukkah 45b). And he was a Tanna, a sage of the Mishnah. One who seeks one of those rare teachers must be willing to keep searching and not give up, like the Viceroy in Rabbi Nachman’s story “The Lost Princess.” Even when the three giants in the seemingly endless wasteland tell him to give up and go home, he stubbornly perseveres.

Yoel mentions that his primary Jewish teacher, even during his time at YU, was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who gave him semichah. It is well-known that Shlomo revered all tzaddikim, past and present, and had close relationships with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Gedaliah Kenig of Breslov, the previous and present Amshinover Rebbes, and many others. He especially loved to tell stories, often accompanied by his melodies, of the tzaddikim of old, whom he surely saw as possessing higher consciousness, and indeed as “larger than life” – zikhronam liverakha. I’m sure that Yoel shares these sentiments, despite his remarks above.

In my own life I have witnessed some astounding examples of “matters that stand in the heights of the universe,” devarim ha-omdim be-rumo shel olam, from my teacher, Rav Elazar Mordechai Kenig, leader of the Breslov kehillah in Tsfat. I have swapped such stories with a close friend and neighbor who has had some profound encounters with the previous and present Amshinover Rebbes in Bnei Brak. There are countless testimonies about the wondrous powers – and the even more extraordinary human virtues – of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zatzal. Friends who grew up in Williamsburg have regaled me with tales of the holiness, compassion and piety of Reb Hershele of Spinka, zatzal, whom I was privileged to meet privately some thirty years ago. I have heard the same kinds of things about the Rimnitzer Rebbe, zatzal, and the Skulener Rebbe, zatzal. Another friend who was a close disciple of Reb Osher Freund, zatzal, could speak for days on end of his saintly mentor’s devotions to the Creator and kindness to all those who sought his help, spiritually or materially. And the list goes on.

There are still respected figures in the Chassidic world who teach meditation (hitbodedut, or hitbonenut, or whatever they may call the forms of meditation they practice), including Rabbi Yitzchak Moshe Ehrlanger of Jerusalem, author of the encyclopedic multi-volume Sheva Einayim on these subjects; Rabbi Meir Yehudah Yurevitch, leader of the “Vitebsk” chaburah in Jerusalem and son of the late Rabbi Avraham Yurevitch, zatzal (some of whose teachings have been published as Arvat Nachal, which includes the above-mentioned Darkei ha-Hasagah on mystical practice, pp. 184-212); Breslov teacher Rabbi Avraham Zvi Kluger of Jerusalem, author of Yichud HaHitbodedut; among others. Also the late Sefardic kabbalist Rabbi Shmuel Darzi, zatzal. Again, the “enlightenment” or degree of enlightenment of these individuals is unknown, and I don’t believe that they are infallible (which in any case is not the way we view tzaddikim—even the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and Moses himself were not infallible); but surely they are all people of spiritual stature.

I am not so familiar with who’s who in Lubavitch today, but early on Chabad developed an intellectual form of meditation or contemplation which is outlined in the Mittler Rebbe’s Ner Mitzvah vi-Torah Ohr/ Kuntres ha-Hitbonenut and other works. Given the centrality of “ein ode milvado” (the nondual doctrine of that “God is everything, and everything is God”—yet the Creator transcends creation entirely) in Chabad teachings and the methods the Chabad Rebbes forged for the attainment of its realization, there must be people who have mastered them and who teach them today.

photo (c) D. Sears

One may ask: Why isn’t there greater emphasis on the quest for enlightenment—da’at, sekhel, hasagah or whatever term we may use for it—in Judaism as compared with Hinduism and Buddhism? This is what bothers Yoel Glick, and I sympathize with his feelings. The relative obscurity of the goal of inner transformation (especially as described above in our citations from the Baal Shem Tov and other early Chassidic masters) in the Jewish world today is due to a variety of factors. One answer might be that first and foremost, the Torah wants our avodah, our divine service, whether in Torah study or performance of the mitzvot and good deeds or prayer—even if in terms of higher consciousness we often “can’t see the forest through the trees.” And this task is meant for all, not just a mystical elite. Perhaps we can read this into the verse: “I was senseless and ignorant; I was a beast before You—yet I am with You continually…” (Psalms 72:23-24). Yet, the kabbalists explain, our avodah in Torah and mitzvot is what cleanses and perfects the soul and ultimately the entire world (particularly when it is an avodah tamah, a “complete service” in the sense of being carried out with the proper kavanot). Hence, this is our great collective spiritual task and our focal point. And when as a result of such labors in the Torah and mitzvot, or due to meditation and contemplation, or simply a divine gift, the Jew experiences a spiritual ascent, the rest of creation ascends as well (Likutey Moharan I, 52 s.v. “im kol ha-olam”; 234 s.v. “aliyat ha-olamot”).

Dovid Sears review of Yoel Glick- Part I

I have been an acquaintance of Reb Dovid Sears for many years. Here he pens a review of Yoel Glick’s recent book Living The Life of Jewish Meditation. Below is part I offering a few choice opening words and then provide Jewish texts parallel the Hindu ones cited by Glick. In Part II, Sears will offer a few critiques including a deep questioning of Glick’s neglect of Jewish teachers.

Living The Life of Jewish Meditation by Yoel Glick 
Reviewed by Dovid Sears

Dovid Sears is an author/translator, Breslov teacher and visual artist. He founded the Breslov Center of New York in 1997 under the aegis of Rav Kenig of Tsfat, and is the creator of the Solitude-Hisbodedus website, an online archive on Jewish meditation. His books include Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition (1998); The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism (2002, about to be republished through Amazon); The Breslov Pirkey Avot (2012); and many others. His latest book is The Water Castle (Breslov Research Institute 2014). -The photos below are Sear’s.

photo (c) D. Sears

When I was asked me to review Yoel Glick’s new guide to Jewish meditation for this blog, I must admit that I didn’t expect much. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. While boldly eclectic in its synthesis of Indian mysticism and its Jewish mystical core, this is not just another New Age mishmash. Yoel Glick has done his homework and produced a worthwhile book. Plus he speaks as a genuine practitioner and also as a rabbi who in his youth studied at YU. But his spiritual quest has taken him far and wide.

Although this was supposed to be a book review, I’d rather confine myself to commenting on a few random points that caught my attention. I’ll also pass on discussing perennialism and mystical pluralism. These views, as conditioned by the author’s study of Advaita Vedanta, are reflected throughout the book, but especially in the Introduction, Chapter 12 (“Two Paths to the Supreme”) and “The Protective Influence of the Divine Kingdom” (pp. 196-187). To religious Jewish readers, this is probably the most controversial issue in Yoel Glick’s book—because what he has written is indeed a synthesis of ideas and practices, albeit with a Jewish core. And he segues from Shankara to Rumi to the Baal Shem on the turn of a rupee.

The particular combination of mystical teachings presented here seems to reflect the author’s personal journey, and does not attempt to be comprehensive or academic. Again, Yoel is a practitioner who is speaking to kindred spirits—of whom there are more than a few these days. On the one hand, more traditional Orthodox readers (myself among them) would fault him for his Hindu, Buddhist and to a lesser extent, Christian, Sufi and other referents, particularly when there are similar quotes from Jewish masters (and from the range of Chassidic and Kabbalistic texts the author cites, I think he knows those Jewish sources). Chazal state, “If someone tells you that other nations possess wisdom, believe him. If someone tells you that other nations have the Torah, do not believe him” (Eikhah Rabbah). Accordingly, in presenting the Torah’s teachings, we need have no recourse to other religious traditions, whatever their merits may be. On the other hand, Yoel Glick’s meditation manual is not a mainstream book for mainstream readers, and his quotes from other forms of mysticism will speak to many contemporary seekers. It seems that Yoel elected to go this way because these diverse religious thinkers are among his own teachers, whether through personal relationships or through their writings, and this is how he “hears the music.”

Perhaps a few more parallel sources deserve mention (although this is another one of those seemingly endless tasks, and I’m only mentioning what immediately comes to mind). If Yoel had wished to do so, he could have used such teachings in the place of a number of those taken from other traditions.

I must add that I’m listing these additional Jewish sources matter-of-factly, but when I first came across many of them, they knocked me off my feet!

Glick 22: “The rousing of our will is founded upon a tangible awareness of the truth of our innate divinity.” Then Yoel quotes Swami Chidananda: “To be like God is the natural ability of every individual soul. The ability to shine as God—sublime and radiant—is the natural heritage of one and all.”

Compare: Rav Moshe Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah, the classic 16th century kabbalistic ethical treatise on emulating the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy (“yud-gimmel mechilin de-rachamey”) and the ten sefirot in both our inner work and our relations with others. This emulation of God is only possible because we are all created in the “Divine Image.”

Glick 26-27: The Tibetan yogi Milarepa on “wrong intention” (which in his case involved the use of sorcery during his youth):

Compare: Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that his master the Arizal stood opposed to the use of “kabbalah ma’asiyut,” meaning the sort of kabbalistic “white magic” found in various medieval writings (e.g., see Shaarey Kedushah, beginning)—and needless to say actual sorcery, which is a Torah prohibition. The most obvious reason for the Arizal’s opposition to kabbalah ma’asiyut would be the spiritual dangers involved, but it may also be because this is a sidetrack for those on the spiritual path.

According to Chassidism, the risks of “wrong intention” are described in even more subtle ways. For example: “Many attempted to emulate Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, but were not successful” (Berakhot 35b). The Baal Shem Tov taught: They wanted to mortify themselves in order to reach the level of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai—and that it why they were not successful. One’s intent in divine service should be to gratify the Creator alone, not to attain madreigot (spiritual levels or powers) (Tzava’at ha-RIVaSH 47).

The Mittler Rebbe of Lubavitch stressed that even to seek religious ecstasy as a goal unto itself is a form of ego-gratification; rather ecstasy must always be a natural, uncontrived by-product of contemplation (Kuntres ha-Hitpa’alut).

Glick 36-37: Anagarika Munindra’s taught: ““If the rock-breaker strikes the stone ninety-nine times and it doesn’t break, yet it breaks on the hundredth strike, were the first ninety-nine wasted? Perhaps all ninety-nine strikes were needed before the stone would break, but at the ninety-ninth strike you may feel like you are making no progress at all.”

Compare: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s analogy of the “hundred year tree” that shows no signs of growth until after a century it suddenly explodes into full bloom. Sometimes we need to build a “komah sheleimah,” a complete spiritual structure, before we can see the results of our long and arduous efforts (Likutey Moharan II, 48).

Glick 38: Swami Ashokananda advocates “serene strength”: “Balanced strength is the true strength. It is like the serene surface of a calm lake. It goes deep, deep. One feels one can give oneself to it and be held securely. If necessary, serene strength can raise waves mountain high.”

Compare: The Gemara (Shabbat 77b) tells how Rabbi Zeira asked Rabbi Yehuda, “Why is the antenna of the locust soft?” The second sage replied, “Because it lives in the willows, and if its antenna were hard, it would snap when it strikes the wood, blinding the locust—because as Rabbi Shmuel taught, the locust’s vision depends upon its antennae.” Similarly in Ta’anit 20b, Chazal observe that one should always be “soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar.” In describing the “serene strength” that one must cultivate in dealing with the ups and downs of life and the difficult conundrums that beset us, Rabbi Natan cites these sources; see Likutey Halakhot, Hil. Eruvey Techumin, Halakhah 6.

Glick 46: “Breathing: The Rhythm of Life” presents the breath as a meditative focal point.

Compare:  “the long breath” that “fills all lacks,” as discussed in Likutey Moharan I, 60; and the confluence between the prajna-like cosmic breath and the “krekhtz” or sigh in Likutey Moharan I, 8.

Glick 50: yogic meditation on chakras and their parallel with sefirot:

Compare: the Komarno Rebbe’s meditation on the array of Divine Names and sefirot as corresponding to the human form in Heikhal ha-Berakhah (also mentioned below). I once translated a small excerpt from his collected meditations and posted it here. Alan Brill has already noted these Tantric and kabalistic parallels, as posted here.

Glick 52: mantras and formal prayer texts:

Compare: The Baal Shem Tov teaches that in uttering the words of prayer, one must concentrate in order to create a yichud (unification) with each word. This creates a bond with the Shekhinah, since all holy speech is an expression of the Shekhinah (see Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Noach, “Amud HaTefillah”).

Rabbi Nachman also describes how each letter and word of prayer begs the one who utters it to not forget it; yet one must continue praying and not remain stationary. Therefore, one must make “echad,” a unity of the entire prayer—so that paradoxically, one both continues to add more letters and words, but never leaves the preceding letters and words behind. See Likutey Moharan I, 65 (which Rabbi Glick mentions elsewhere in his book).

Glick 55: the role of music in spiritual practice:

Compare: the Rambam’s association of music with prophecy in Mishneh Torah, Yesodey ha-Torah 7:4; also Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi in Kuzari, Ma’amar II, 50. In this spirit, the Baal Shem Tov praised music as a vehicle for deveykut, cleaving to God. He expounds on the verse, “When the musician played (kinagen ha-menagen), the hand of God came upon him” (II Kings 3:15). That is, when the musician plays “like an instrument (kinagen ha-menagen),” unselfconsciously and with no self-serving motives, then “the hand of God will rest upon him.”

Rabbi Nachman describes singing and chanting in prayer as creating “radiant garments for the Shekhinah”; Likutey Moharan I, 42. Also see Lesson 237 about Levi, neginah and deveykut. Contemporary Rabbi Shmuel Stern, who is both a Rosh Yeshivah and composer-musician, has written an entire volume on music and mysticism, “Shir Binah.”

Glick 58: Ramana Maharshi on the Self and “making room”: “They fill the mind with all sorts of impressions and then say there is no room for the Self in it. If all the false ideas and impressions are swept away and thrown out, what remains is a feeling of plenty and that is the Self itself. Then there will be no such thing as a separate ‘I’; it will be a state of egolessness.”

Compare: In addition to the Breslov sources Yoel brings, there is a related (although somewhat different) teaching in Likutey Moharan I, 110, on not “corporealizing” (hagshamah) the Torah one learns by approaching it as “me” getting “information.” Then the information “takes up space.” However, when one learns for the sake of the One who gave the Torah, the new information won’t displace the old, because none of it occupies space. (The way Rabbi Nachman proposes in that lesson to overcome the tendency to corporealize is through fasting.)

Both teachings above regard the ego as the root of the problem. Rabbi Aharon of Karlin cites the The Baal Shem Tov as having taught, “If not for his ego, a person would apprehend [Godliness] like the Tannaim and Amoraim” (Beit Aharon, “Seder ha-Yom”).

photo (c) D. Sears

Glick 64: meditative visualization:

Compare: Sichot HaRan 62 (which I translated in “The Tree That Stands Beyond Space,” pp. 60-61, as “Thought is Potent”). There, Rabbi Nachman discuses how intense concentration can enable one to achieve a desired goal—even to the point of making something happen in the world through concentration alone. He also applies this principle to the attainment of one’s goals in Torah study.

Glick 83-84: As they sit beside a pool, Sri Ramakrishna tells his disciple, “Look at the fish. Meditating on the formless God is like swimming joyfully like these fish, in the Ocean of Bliss and Consciousness.”

Compare: the Baal Shem Tov’s metaphor of a pearl diver for one who meditatively prays: The diver who must hold his breath as he submerges himself in the sea; yet it is not enough to remain underwater—he must search for pearls. These are the words of prayer one utters in an expanded state of consciousness. The same principal also extends to Torah study and all religious acts in light of the realization that in truth, everything is Godliness. See Ohr ha-Gannuz la-Tzaddikim, Mattot (which I translated in The Path of the Baal Shem Tov, pp. 26-27). (The most conspicuous difference between the two teachings seems to be that the Baal Shem Tov addresses “meditation in action” re. prayer and other forms of avodah; see Part II.)

Glick 141: “Remembering” / Sufism, Rumi / zkhir:

Compare: Rabbi Nachman’s concept of “remembering the World to Come”—which alludes to the Divine Oneness that transcends the world of our ordinary, time-bound experience; see Likutey Moharan I, 54.

Glick 142: Ramana Maharshi: “When the harmonium … is being played there is a constant note that is called the sruti. Along with that, other notes also come out. If the ear is fixed on this note that is constant, then, while listening to the other notes, that original note cannot be forgotten. Actually, that first note gives strength to all the other notes.”

Compare: Likutey Moharan I, 22, on Direct Sound and Echo, upon which Rabbi Natan elaborates in Likutey Halakhot, Hil. Periyah ve-Rivyah, Halakhah 3, sec. 19 and 21 (translated in the Breslov Pirkey Avot, Part II, as “Sound and Echo,” “Listening to the Unheard Sound,” and “Ten Types of Song,” pp. 329-331).

It is likely that, as in Indian music, the drone is used to evoke a sense of the mystical “one note” in some early Chassidic niggunim, such as the Maggid of Mezeritch’s melody (“Maggid”) that Andy Statman recorded on his Shanachie CD, “Music of the Jewish Mystics,” and also “Reb Michel Zlotchover’s Niggun” on the live recording of his Bremen Concert, “On Air” (Tradition and Moderne).

Glick 144: Yoel quotes the verse “Hashem tzilkha,” G-d is your shadow. The Baal Shem Tov also expounds on this verse, although in a different sense: that whatever we do is “shadowed” by G-d: “God is your shadow…” (Psalms 121:4). When a person treats another in this lowly world with love and virtue, the Supernal King treats him the same way—like a shadow. Whenever a person moves, so does his shadow. Thus does the Creator relate to man. Thus it is written, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself (kamokha), I am God” (Leviticus 19:18)—that is, “kamokha,” as you show love, “so do I, God” (Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Kedoshim 21).

Glick 152-153: equanimity:

Compare: To the best of my knowledge, the term hishta’avut (equanimity) is not used until prior to the Rishonim, but I think the same concept is found in the Gemara (Berakhot 60b). There, Chazal expound on the verse, “When [God is revealed as] Y-H-V-H, I will praise His word; [when God is revealed as] ELoHYM I will praise His word” (Psalms 56:1). That is, whether we experience God’s mercy (Y-H-V-H) or judgement (ELoHYM), we should respond the same way—with praise. Rabbi Nachman cites this Gemara in Likutey Moharan I, 33, which deals with finding the “good days” within the “bad days,” i.e., the nondual within duality.

The Baal Shem Tov relates hishta’avut to the verse, “I have placed (shiviti, which may be homiletically related to hishta’avut) God before myself always” (Psalms 16:8). Whatever happens, one should say, “Does this not come from the Blessed One? If so, should it not be acceptable to me?” (Tzava’at ha-Rivash 2). (Prior to the Chassidic movement, hishta’avut is mentioned in Chovot ha-Levavot, Me’irat Einayim, Reishit Chokhmah, and Maggid Mesharim, among other sources.) Rabbi Avraham Maimonides, the Rambam’s son, also discusses this concept in his classic Sefer HaMaspik le-Ovdey Hashem.

Glick 175: “Perhaps the greatest of the inner changes that emerge after union is the ability to see through the Universal Mind of God … In this state of union with the Mind of God, the whole world and all of the heavens are in the grasp of these transcendental actors.”

Compare: Likutey Moharan I, 61 on the consciousness of the tzaddik as one with Chokhmah Ila’ah (Supernal Wisdom), which he also describes as the sekhel ha-kollel, all-encompassing or universal mind. Similarly, in L”M II, 72, he speaks of the moach ha-kollel, which seems to be the same thing; see there. Rabbi Nachman discusses the concepts of “Torat Hashem” (invoking Psalms 1:20 and ma’amarey Chazal from both the Bavli and Yerushalmi) and “tefillat Hashem” (as in Isaiah 56:7) in the sense of the individual becoming a vehicle for the Divine through Torah study and prayer (Likutey Moharan I, 22, sec. 10)

Glick 181: “realized souls” and universality:

Compare: These terms seem to parallel many teachings about the souls of the tzaddikim, particularly those of the highest level. In modern times, Rav Kook is distinguished for giving voice to such universality. For example:

“Great souls cannot dissociate themselves from the most universal concerns. All they desire and aspire for is the universal good, universal in its comprehensiveness, universal in its full width, height and depth… The higher unification, in which everything finds its completion, rests on the influence of the knowledge of God and the love of God, from which it necessarily derives, to the extent that one has embraced it. When the knowledge of God is suffused by a great love, when it is pervaded by its true illumination, according to the capacity of each soul to receive it, there radiates from its absolute light a love for the world, for all worlds, for all creatures, on all levels of their being. A love for all existence fills the hearts of the good and kindly ones among creatures, and among humans. They yearn for the happiness of all, they hope that all may know light and joy. They draw into themselves the love for all existence, differentiated into its many forms of being, from the higher love for God, from the love of absolute and total perfection in the Cause of all, who created and sustains everything” (translated by Ben Zion Bokser in his Paulist Press anthology, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, “Lights of Holiness,” pp. 226-228 / Orot HaKodesh, Vol. II, pp. 456 457)

Similar sentiments may be found in the writings of Rav Kook’s contemporary and friend, Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, author of the “Sulam” translation of the Zohar, Talmud Esser Sefirot, and other important kabbalistic works.

As for specific meditative techniques, Yoel might have added the one at the end of Rav Chaim Vital’s Shaarey Kedushah, sec. 3, for attaining ruach ha-kodesh, which was posted on the Solitude-Hisbodedus website, as translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

Or see the expanded version in Sefer HaBris, Chelek II, Maamar 8 and Maamar 11 (in the section of the book about the mysteries of prophecy). Yet these meditations would be inappropriate for those who have not prepared and perfected themselves according to the extremely demanding instructions in the main part of Shaarey Kedushah. (Which is probably why the Lubavitcher Rebbe – unlike Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan – did not recommend Kabbalistic meditation for the masses, but only meditation as a therapeutic aid and a relaxation technique.

Many of the visualizations in Living Jewish Meditation are the author’s creations, although based on traditional sources and concepts (as in the section “Meditation on the Name”). For those who can understand their intricate kabbalistic meanings, there is an entire volume of such meditations (in Hebrew) printed in large type designed for actual practitioners in Rabbi Eliyahu Ovadiah’s Be’er Eliyahu: Achdut Ha-Olamot, derived from mystical writings of the Komarno Rebbe found in Heikhal ha-Berakhah. However, this is not for beginners. What Rabbi Glick has accomplished is that he has simplified such methods in order to create Jewish meditative techniques with an “open admissions policy.”

photo (c) D. Sears

Ritual Wrist Washing

For several months, I sat one day a week ending drafts of chapters of a book while facing the hand washing station in a local establishment. I noticed what seemed to me like a new phenomenon.  People were doing the Jewish ritual hand washing by only pouring the water on their wrists or occasionally they cupped their hands and poured the water into their palms and then tossed it. The correct approach is pour the water on the fingers or to make sure they are included.

handwashing correct

Traditional Jewish hand washing before the eating of bread is to imitate the priestly washing of hands in the temple. The fingers need to have a specific measure of water poured on them in order to purify them.  As a praiseworthy greater act, one washes up to the wrists. Hands are then held upward to prevent impure water falling on the fingers. This washing is in distinction to the alternating washing done in the morning or at a cemetery.

What I watch was a steady tend of people pouring the water solely on their wrists and the fingers remaining dry or only some of the fingers getting wet.  Or they poured the water into a cupped palm in which some of the fingers only became wet by the splash. What is up with that?

When I noticed the phenomena, I started to look at the people. I have no specific tallies but the Israelis wash their hands correctly. The younger Americans quickly splashed water on their wrists. Has anyone else seen this? Is it because of the large number of incorrect web images? For example, see here at MyJewish Learning.


Or are people learning from irrelevant pictures?

hand wash incorrect

 Hindu Tantra and Kabbalistic Judaism

There are lots of websites attempting to create parallels between kabbalah and American Tantric chakras. These sites take a chart of ten sefirot and combine it with the new age chakra chart. These chakra charts are part of a modern Western appropriation of Hindu ideas as Western Tantra. They owe their origin to John Woodroffe (1865–1936), writing about tantra under the pen name Arthur Avalon. And from the 1970’s onward tantra became in the Western new age literature the essence of Hinduism as well as a guide to good sex. But let us turn to the historical forms. This is a first attempt and may undergo changes.


The chart above is entirely Western Orientalism. In actual Hinduism, an intention to a higher realm or visualization while performing a ritual is tantra; when a kabbalist intends that a ritual reaches a sefirah that is a similar activity.

Tantra is the name given by scholars to a style of meditation and ritual in which they are combined. The term Tantra literally means woven because in the practice of tantric intentions one is weaving together a religious action with a specific intention. A tantric intention goes beyond the simple intention that one is doing the required ritual in relation to the divine as an intentional act (kamata) or as a commanded act  (samkalpa).  In tantra, one has to have a specific intention during a ritual to a vision or higher realm.

Therefore, when a Jewish text wants one have an intention that goes beyond intention to do a mizvah, a kavvanah for a mitzvah for a sefirah such as the shekhinah or tiferet, it is a form of tantra since it requires one to weave a specific religious action with a specific intention.

The real definition of Tantra, however, is the practices contained in the vast Agamic literature; Tantra is another name for the Agamic literature that contains the basic Temple ritual and daily worship rituals that most Hindu denominations use. Hindu Temples do not follow the Vedas or even the Sutras, rather they follow this vast corpus called the Agamic literature that contains both ritual and intentions.  Most of these works have not been translated into English. There are over 60 major tractates of Agamic literature from the 2nd to 10th centuries- roughly co-terminus with the Talmud, more than all the earlier Hindu texts combined, and hundreds, if not more, of minor tractates.

Trying to understand Hindu ritual without the Agamic literature is like going into a contemporary American synagogue and trying to understand the service using just Leviticus. The Agamic literature has four major realms (1) the rules of Temple buildings (2) ritual worship (3) philosophy of worship (4) the new requirements of intentionality. The word Tantra is used for the latter rules of intentionality.

This post is connected to two related posts that I am working on simultaneously, visualizing in Hinduism and the theism of Shaivism from a Jewish perspective. Visualization and theism are needed to fully integrate this post.

Tantra comes in two main forms. A mainstream traditional form, that is used by ordinary men and women, called the right handed path, requiring a specific vision or intention while performing a ritual.

The second form is used by ascetics, antinomians, lay movements and forgotten cults called the left handed path, which may involve violating mainstream practice by eating meat, drinking alcohol, or impure sex. The latter was picked up by Western Tantra a hundred years ago and now new-age Americans create Tantric sex manuals. But the overwhelming majority of Tantra is just the equivalent of kabbalistic intentions. Some texts call these two forms the outer and inner paths, or limit the term tantra to Shakti Tantra while calling mainstream Vaishnavite Pañcaratra or Shaivite tantra as just ordinary practice.

Shaivism yantra

The leading scholar of Tantra, David Gordon White of the University of California seeking to capture the essence of tantra offers the following definition: “Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.”

As a list of features:  ritual worship of deities, mantras, visualization of and identification with a deity, ritual use of maṇḍalas, Analogical thinking (including microcosmic or macrocosmic correlation), and the channeling of negative mental states

Tantra can apply to any act when the two aspects of consciousness and matter are combined – purusha and prakriti or their personified forms Siva and Shakti. Tantra works by natural means, based on the Indian system of Samkhya, in which man and nature are separate. At liberation the self becomes distinct from nature and realizes itself to have the divine qualities of Siva but ontologically distinct

Moshe Idel, retired professor of Kabbalah at the Hebrew University, presented the theosophic kabbalah of the sefirot as a series of enchanted chains or a realm of a mesocosmos envisioned between humans and the infinite divine. Medieval pietists studied kabbalah to know how to perform worship and ritual acts with proper intentions and visualizations.  The goal was to theurgiclaly unite malkhut and tiferet as male and female  or to combine other aspects of divine energy. Sometimes the goal was to bring down energy and power (ruhaniyut) and other times the goal was to cleave to the Divine. Idel showed how kabbalists used circles, colors, visualized divine names, microcosmos in their practice.

Idel distinguishes between the magical-ecstatic kabbalah that seeks power and experience  from the  theosophic kabbalah that seeks union with the divine. In a similar manner the anthropologist Geoffrey Samuels- distinguishes between those tantra intentions that give power and pleasure in the higher worlds as opposed to those that help with liberation.

A unity of the Tetragrammaton and Lordship, better known as a unity of tiferet and malkhut is similar to a union of Siva and Shakti. This intention finds its latter institution as the prefatory statement before ritual in a post –Lurianic world Leshem yichud Kudsha Brich-hu u’Shekhinteh “In order to unify the Holy One Blessed be He and his Shekhinah.”

A yihud is similar to the common tantric preface to worship of the need to unify Shiva and Shakti, where the ritual performer unifies the great deity Shiva and His consort Shakti, the male and feminine principles.  I must note at this point that most followers of Shavism, consider this unity two parts of the same divine. There is only one single theism centered on Shiva and all consorts, family members, and entourage are considered aspects of the one god Shiva. I will come back to explain this in a latter post.  So they are asking for the unification of the male and female  divine energies as mapped out on a celestial realm, with microcosm correspondences on the body and the ritual.

Tantra converts ritual into acts that change the cosmos and require an intention to effect the unity, so too Kabbalah converts mitzvot into mysteries. The concept that “God needs human worship” (avodah tzorech gevoha) is basic for Nahmanides, Bahye and later Nefesh HaHayyim.  For example, Sefer Ha-Bahir: Why is [a sacrifice] called a korban? Because it brings close [mekarev] the forms of the holy powers… And why is it called a “pleasant smell”?… “Pleasant” [nihoah] is nothing other than descent, thus it is said, ‘and he descended’ {Lev. 9:22]

Visualization of light and flames

An example of tantric meditation on light is Jayakhya Samhita.  Similar to Kabbalistic meditation, the practitioner should see the image as the size of the world, glowing and it is to be done while saying the appropriate mantra

Meditating on the god whose form is flames, whose splendor is like a thousand suns, covered with millions of flames, spewing flames from his mouth, [the practitioner] should fill the entire universe up to the World of Brahma with that [visualization]. He should flood the directions, making them blaze with the splendor of his mantra, and meditate upon the entire circle of the earth baked, like a clay pot, by the fire of his mantra,  [The practitioner] should join the five letters…] in sequence together with five other letters.

Compare the Jewish kabbalist Isaac of Acco 13th Century-Meirat Eynayim

You should constantly keep the letters of the Divine Name in your mind as if they were in front of you, written in a book with Torah (Ashurit) script.  Each letter should appear infinitely large…………..When you depict the letters of the Divine Name in this manner, your mind’s eye should be directed toward the Infinite Being (Ein Sof). .. Your gazing and thought should be as one. This  is the mystery of true attachment..  You may ask why one should bind this thoughts to the Tetragrammaton more than any other name.  The reason is that this Name is the cause of causes and the source of all sources.  Included in it are all things, from Keter to the lowliest gnat.  Blessed be the Name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.

The tantric meditation cited above Jayakhya Samhita continues with a promise of lack of sickness or death. It shows that even after cleaving to the infinite the soul is distinct, as in Kabbalah.

Having made [himself] indistinguishable from him [the Lord], the soul is the agent of undiminished action. In this way he has produced a body that is supreme in liberation and enjoyment, having the appearance of pure crystal, bereft of old age and death.

The Body

One of the leading experts on the normative tantra, Gavin Flood, in his book The Tantric Body explains tantra as the weaving together of the  material and mental and through this practice that may involve yoga, ritual, reading, visualization- the body is formed into a pattern. Flood finds the one thing that tanrtras have in common is that they are read on the body, all share “entextualization of the body” They also work by placing desire in the service of the ritual word to gain  power and  energy.

The Sixteenth Century Rabbi Hayim Vital describes a unification (yihud) that treats the limbs of the body as corresponding with the ten sefirot of Kabbalah. One visualizes and focuses on an image of ten versions of the Divine name that vary based on ten vowel signs. These names correspond in his system to the cosmology of ten sefirot and the human body. If accomplished correctly, then one gains supernal merit, powers, and blessing. Esoteric practices such as Lurianic Yihudim are near identical to the Hindu concept of Tantra, where one visualizes unities that bring divine energy into the human microcosm.

Chaim Vital  who writes in his Shaarei Kedushah about the true body as the spiritual body. “It is understood by discerning people that a person’s body is not the actual person; the body is merely a garment the soul wears… The same way that a tailor will make physical garment in the shape of a body, G-d similarly made the body, which is the garment of the soul, in the shape of a soul, with 248 limbs and 365 tendons … (corresponding to) 248 spiritual limbs and 365 spiritual tendons… (Or prior to this in the Zohar II, p. 162b)

Chart of 16 different meditations- corresponding to mantras and 15 days of lunar month.



Vedic practice like to make charts, Mandalas, concentric circles and a god’s eye map of reality. Śrī Vidyā   is a Hindu Tantric religious system devoted to the Goddess as Lalitā Tripurasundarī (“Beautiful Goddess of the Three Cities”).In the principally Shakta theology of Śrī Vidyā the goddess is supreme, worshiped in the form of a mystical diagram (yantra), a central focus and ritual object composed of nine intersecting triangles, called the Sri Yantra or śrīcakra. The nine realms are further arranged as 43 smaller triangles with a boundary of eight levels.  While having none of the same numbers as the kabbalah, it is still a similar path of meditative focus and visualizations.The divisions and sub-divisions are similar in idea to kavvanot of Safed, with sefirot within sefirot.

sri meru yantra

Guru Worship and Hasidic Rebbes

I am not going to deal in this post with the vast range of Bengali and Kashmir tantra, but I do want to include one of the tantra made famous as one of Arthur Avalon’s 1916 translations of Shakti Tantra.

This one is called Secrets from the Kularnava Tantra (c1150) teaches a tantra of guru devotion in which the guru is like a deep well from which one can and should draw forth wisdom and blessings, taking advantage of his rare presence to advance oneself on the spiritual path.   The scripture opens with a single question posed by Shakti, the Mother of the universe, as to how all souls may attain release from sorrow, ignorance and birth. The theistic singular God Lord Siva answers, speaking out the verses of the Kularnava Tantra stating that one can only be liberated through the guru and that  the devotee should worship the guru’s feet.

Lord Siva said: There is One Real. Call it Siva. All embodied souls, jivas, all the born creatures, are portions of Me, like sparks of the fire. But human birth is the most important, for it is then that one becomes awake, aware of his state of bondage and the necessity of release. It is then that one is in a position to take steps for his liberation from bondage’s hold.

Humans have a self-will and are not totally subject to the impulses of nature, as are other creatures. The world you reach after the physical body is shed is determined by the level of consciousness reached while in the body. So, as long as the body lasts, exert yourself towards the goal of Liberation

All fear of distress, grief, avarice, delusion and bewilderment exist only as long as one does not take refuge in the satguru. All wanderings in the ocean of births, called samsara, fraught with grief and impurity, last as long as one has no devotion to a holy Sivaguru.

Worship of The Holy Feet- The uninitiated may wonder why the feet of holy ones are so reverently worshiped in the Hindu faith. According to tradition, the totality of the satguru is contained within his feet. All nerve currents terminate there. The vital points of every organ of his bodies inner astral, inner mental and soul are there. Touch the feet and we touch the spiritual master. Mystics teach that the big toe on the left foot exudes the most grace. ..

The connection and binding of oneself to the Zaddik is essential to the Hasidic movement. The visualizing of the Rebbe as a practice starts in the earliest Hasidic texts such as the 18th century Yosher Divrei Emet by Meshulam Feivish and continues into the 21st century as a practice in both Satmar and Lubavitch.  However Hasidim, as far as I know, do not especially seek to touch the Rebbe’s feet.

To take one example of these practice, let us look at  Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, who, similar to a Guru,  is the source of connection and referred to as the nachal novea mekor chochma – ”the flowing river, source of wisdom” [Proverbs 18:4]

The essential reason we travel to the true tzaddikim is in order to merit to teshuvah—to return to God—whatever our circumstances may be. However, if someone travels or goes to a Rebbe for any self-serving reason, such as to receive from him some sort of prestige or public position, he utterly fails to draw close to the tzaddik; for he is traveling there for his own glory. Rather, the essence of drawing close to the tzaddik is when one’s intention is for God alone—so that the tzaddik may draw him closer to God and bring him back from the spiritual straits into which he has fallen. (Reb Noson of Breslov, Likutey Halakhos, Hil. Shabbos 7:21 (abridged) Translated by Dovid Sears)

Reb Noson of Breslov (Likutey Tefilos II, 28) pleas for a leader who will be an aspect of Moses to redeem the people since they cannot do it themselves.

Let us know which path to follow in search of a true leader such as Moses. Owing to our profound lowliness and weakness today, when the inner light of our faces no longer shines, no one can help us except that exceptional master and true leader who will be an aspect of Moses our teacher, one who will also be able to illuminate us with holy perceptions so that we might reach the true goal, which is to know and perceive You through the entire panorama of Creation.

Cultural Integration

Historian of Tantra David White states that Tantra was the predominant religious paradigm for over a millennium- divination of the body. Tantra influenced bhakti, popular religion, devotionalism and Vaishnavism completely blurring the lines between tantra and non-tantra. So too, Kabbalah was the predominant religious paradigm that influenced the Jewish liturgy, the performance of the rituals and the worldview of Judaism.

Interview with Yoel Glick – Part 2

This part 2 of the interview with Rabbi Yoel Glick. This part deals with the big questions of Vedanta philosophy and revelation. Please read it thoughtfully and offer comments.There are many original ideas here.  Part I is here.

Rabbi Yoel Glick just released a book  Living the Life of Jewish Meditation: A Comprehensive Guide to Practice and Experience. The book is billed as  a “comprehensive guide to meditation as a way of life draws on the knowledge of the East to vitalize and illuminate traditional Jewish practices in a whole new way.”  Glick will be on a speaking tour to promote his book-Here is an updated final schedule.

glick book

13)      You present Judaism as the Adavitan Vedanta view of Sankara. Why? Isn’t Hasidut closer to the non-Advaitan view of Ramannuja or the view of Madhva?

The comparison I make in the book between Hasidut and Advaita is not about two philosophical systems, but about two approaches to God. When we look at Hasidut and Advaita as two approaches to God experience, then there is a lot of similarity to their methodology, to their understanding of the inner processes that need to take place, and to their perception of the nature of the obstacles which stand in the way of achieving our spiritual goal.

The key link between these two approaches is their understanding of the need for the annihilation of the ego. Both approaches recognize that it is only by annihilating the little self that the big Self will be revealed. This is their common experience and the crucial idea in their teachings.

For example, Rebbe Yissaschar Baer of Zlotochov’s innovative reading of Deut. 5:5 “I stand between you and God” poignantly expresses this point. It is our “I”, our ego, the Zlotochover declares, that stands between God and us. If we want to bind ourselves to God, then we need to get rid of the ego.

Following a similar line of thinking, the Maggid of Mezertich compares the process of binding oneself to God to the process of joining two pieces of silver. All imperfections and dross must be removed from the two pieces, he explains, or they will not join together and become one. Similarly, if we want to join with God, he warns, there must be nothing separating us from Him. This removal of our “I” is necessary, he continues, because just as a seed needs to completely dissolve in the earth in order to bring out the power of a tree which is hidden within it, so our lower self needs to be completely obliterated for the full potential of the Divine Self within us to be revealed.

The passage from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov on bitul that I quote in the book concretizes this idea even further. He speaks of the need to go through a process of spiritual death in order to bind ourselves with God. He suggests that we actually visualize the death process – that we shut our eyes, close our mouth, and imagine we are dead.

These teachings parallel the Advaitic teaching that it is our identification with the body, the mind and the ego that prevents our true Divine Self from being revealed. If we can reach back to the source of the “I am the body” idea, then the ego will disappear and the presence of the Self will automatically be revealed.

The Hasidic methodology also parallels that of Advaita. Rebbe Nachman’s description of the simulated death experience of self-nullification (bitul) closely resembles Sri Ramana Maharshi’s description of the simulated death experience that preceded his own non-dual Self-realization.

So we have a common identification of the problem: the mind, the ego or lower self. A common explanation of the goal: reaching the state of Ayin (Nothingness), and immersion in the Ein Sof – the Unbounded Oneness of the Self. And a similar method of achieving the objective:  bitul or annihilation of the lower self by stopping all thoughts, by surrendering to God, or by going through an inner death. So even though there are differences in the philosophical systems of these two spiritual doctrines, they have similar approaches and share many concepts in common.

14) To most people, Hasidut and Advaita appear to have completely different conceptions of this worldly reality. How do you understand this?

The philosophical systems of Hasidut and Advaita are less distant than it would at first seem. The determining issue is how we understand the Advaitic teaching that this world is an illusion.

When Sri Ramana Maharshi was asked whether Sankara really meant that the whole world is an illusion, he replied that as long as we perceive of the world that we see with our physical eyes as reality, then we are taking an illusion for reality. However, once we see everything in the world as a manifestation of Brahman or God, then the world and everything in it is real.

An analogy Advaitans often use to explain this truth is a desert mirage. As long as we are at a distance from the source of the mirage, we think that the mirage is real. However, once we approach the source, we see that the mirage was only an illusion and all that really exists is the desert sand. The sand itself, however, certainly is and always was real. In fact, it is a quality inherent in the sand which created the illusion of the mirage that we mistook for something that was real.

The idea that the outer world which we see with our physical eyes is not a true reality is common among many Hasidic teachers. In one of his teachings, the Baal Shem Tov states “one must be so bound with God that the main thing he sees is God – that his principal vision should not be of this world, and then God through the world, rather God should be the principal thing that he sees. And such a person will merit that the husks will fall away from him, because these husks create a darkness and separation between man and God, and block the eye or sight of a person’s mind from seeing God.”

Here the Baal Shem clearly states that we should see God as reality and not the physical world. Further, he states that if we strive to see God in everything, then the husks (klipot) – will fall off from us. And what are the klipot but the outer shell or form of this material world which covers the inner Divine reality.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov also puts strong emphasis on this point. In one of his teachings he tells us that we must always remember and be conscious of the next world, otherwise will fall prey to the power of illusion that covers this world. He urges us to firmly turn our gaze away from this world and to strive to only see the one true reality. To see this reality, he explains, we need to shut our eyes to the vision of this world. We accomplish this goal by habituating ourselves to go through a constant process of bitul or nullification of the outer reality, in the same way that we place a finger before our eyes in order to block out an unwanted view.

An even stronger statement of the unreality of this world comes from Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Commenting on Deuteronomy 4:39, “Know this day and take unto your heart that the Lord is God; in the heavens above and upon the earth below, there is nothing else”, the Kotzker explains that this verse comes to tell us that there is no reality to the things of this world other than the Divinity that is in them. All that we see with our physical eyes, he declares, is an illusion and does not really exist. God alone is the one true reality.

Nor is this teaching of the unreality of this world restricted to Hasidut. It has a powerful antecedent in the teaching of Chazal that the next world is the true world (olam haemet) and in the Zohar that this world is a false world, (olmah deshakrah) –a world of lies and illusion that is not real. So although the predominant view in Hasidut is the viewpoint of duality that focuses on sanctifying this life and this world, there is also a significant strand of thought within the tradition that questions the truth and reality of this world and everything that belongs to it, even if it may not be as radical in its total negation of this world as is pure Advaita.

15) How can you exhort us to simply assert, “I want to be one with God, or like the Vedantists we can exclaim, “Om Tat Sat—I Am That.”?

My principle perspective on the relationship between Judaism and Hinduism is not that of a scholar or theologian, but of a spiritual teacher who is trying to help seekers build a living relationship with God. The realm I deal with is the realm of experience. And so the connections I make are based upon the nature of inner experience.

This is the reason I use the Vedantic phrase “Om Tat Sat” as an affirmation in the book. OM Tat Sat is not a philosophical statement, it is a meditation technique. When a Vedantist says “Om Tat Sat – I am That”, he is striving to transcend his limited physical awareness. He is trying to identify himself with That which is Infinite and Eternal. This is the experience I am seeking to connect the reader to in the book.

I could have used the Kabbalisitic language of “I have a spark of God inside me” or “I am a spark of the Ein Sof” instead of “OM Tat Sat” as my affirmation, but I decided that using Om Tat Sat would be more effective. Incorporating Om Tat Sat with other more Jewish affirmations provides the meditator with a fresh way to reflect upon and understand our traditional phrases. It enables him to access the underlying reality that these phrases are meant to convey.

After all, religion does not begin with philosophy and dogma. It begins with a powerful transcendent experience that an individual then tries to put into words. His or her description of the experience will reflect their background, knowledge and time period. But it is the living experience which is at the heart of what they are trying to convey. And it is this experience that we want to access. All the rest is only a poor substitute for a true Divine encounter.

16) Is revelation content-less then?

There are several levels to the answer to this question. Let us explore them one by one.

The Experience of Revelation

First of all, there is the issue of the experience of revelation itself. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that the revelation of prophecy is beyond the capacity of the human mind to consciously hold. Therefore, in the moment of revelation, the separate self of the prophet is blown away and his actual experience is unknowable and indescribable. Only after he returns to physical consciousness is he able to integrate the experience and then try to put it into words. This is why so many of the prophetic experiences are written in allegory or poetic images. Otherwise, they could not be grasped.

The one exception, according to Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, is Moshe. Moshe was the only prophet who was able to remain conscious even during the moment of revelation. He literally could talk face to face with God.

In this sense, then, revelation is contentless. That is, it transcends any structure that the human mind can hold.

Processing the Revelation by the Human Mind

The second issue involves the processing of a revelation by the human mind. No matter who the instrument is, they can only integrate ideas into their physical consciousness based upon the world that they know. Whatever God may reveal to them, they must understand it with their human mind and brain.

We see this truth expressed by the Midrash, in relation to the instructions that Moshe received for building the Mishkan and its vessels. When God describes to Moshe how to build the menorah, the Midrash tells us, Moshe was unable to comprehend what the menorah looked like until God showed him an image of a menorah made out of fire, and then he understood.

According to this midrash, it was the limitations of Moshe’s physical mind/brain that got in the way of Moshe understanding the appearance of the menorah. He simply lacked the capacity to assimilate the initial image in his consciousness. The situation is the same for every person who receives a revelation. We cannot possibly understand something that we have no vessel for comprehending. And we can only describe an experience according to the images and memories that are stored in our brain.

For example, if God had shown Moshe a computer and then explained it to him, Moshe’s understanding of what he had seen would have been limited by the nature of his own experience and the development of his mind. He could never have understood what a computer is as we do. He simply did not have the same foundation of knowledge that is available to us today.

Our experience is the basis of our understanding of reality. It is the lens through which we see the world.

Revelation in Each Generation

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, once again provides further elucidation on this point. Exodus 25:8-9 states: “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, the pattern of the Tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall you make it.” Rashi comments on the words “even so shall you make it” – so shall you make it throughout the generations. The Ramban and Tosefot challenge Rashi. How can this be so, they say? We know for a fact that Shlomo hamlekh made the altar of the Temple different than the altar of the Mishkan.

The answer to their question, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak explains, lies in the nature of revelation. Each generation and its prophet reach up into the higher realms and bring down a vision and spiritual power into the world. The Mishkan is the name the Torah gives to the spiritual vessel that they construct to hold this vision and energies. Each generation constructs a “Mishkan” according to the pattern and image that was shown to its prophet, thereby creating a spiritual vessel appropriate to their own generation.

When Rashi says: “so you shall do throughout the generations”, he does not mean that we should build the Mishkan exactly like Moshe did, but rather, like Moshe and the Children of Israel did in the desert, we should build the Mishkan that is appropriate to our generation and the vision of the prophet of our times. Therefore, Moshe built the altar in his day according to the vision he received, and Shlomo did the same in his day.

Transmitting Revelation that Goes Beyond Content

This teaching opens the door to a fascinating conception of revelation in Judaism. Not only is the traditional teaching being passed down from generation to generation, there is also a revelation that is received that goes beyond the information contained in the texts. There is a spiritual vibration, a higher wisdom that we plug into in each generation. This transcendent revelation is then translated into words and ideas by those individuals who have been given the spiritual mission of transmitting the Divine vision, the “builders of the Mishkan” in our time.

The Ari calls this greater revelation the supernal Torah. The supernal Torah is the source of all knowledge and wisdom within the Godhead. It is the blueprint for the world and the foundation of Creation. The written Torah that we have is only a small fragment of its infinite reality.

The revelation we receive of the supernal Torah is determined by our capacity to penetrate into its hidden realm. As the Maggid of Mezeritch teaches: “The Torah is clothed in all the worlds, in each world it is clothed in accordance with what that world is… And the tzaddikim, when they rise above body consciousness, can touch this Torah, each one according to his level… the higher the world he binds himself to, the greater the expansion of his understanding of the Torah will be, and the farther away from its source, the greater the contraction of the Torah.”

Revelation, then, is both with and without content. It is a spiritual experience that transcends all words and forms, as well as a direct transmission of profound insights and eternal truths. It is at once the unfolding of a whole world and also a sublime and inexpressible mystery.

17) Do you think this is a world of lies (alma dishikra) or an illusion? Do we tolerate suffering?

Answer: My view of life is encapsulated in the Ari’s dual concepts of shevirat hakalim – the shattering of the vessels, and tikkun olam – the repair of the world. As a result of this shattering, everything in this world is a mixture of light and darkness, good and evil, joy and sorrow, success and failure. Everything in our world is broken; nothing can be complete or whole.

So the first imperative is for us to realize the brokenness of our world. We need to open our eyes to the suffering that is all around us, to see the fragmented nature of people’s lives.  We need to accept the truth of the imperfection and sadness in our world.

There is also the possibility of tikkun or repair.  We accomplish this task by first discovering the spark of light within ourselves, and then fanning its flame until it becomes a spiritual blaze. We discover our own divinity by diving deep within through prayer and meditation. We fan its flame by developing within ourselves the Divine attributes of love, compassion and generosity, of wisdom, courage and faith.

We then use the power of these virtues to repair the world. We work to relieve the suffering of others. We strive to bring comfort where there is sorrow, joy where there is sadness, compassion where there is helplessness, strength where there is weakness, and hope where there is despair..

I see people with all of their faults, yet I strive to love them nonetheless. I see the world with all its cruelty and thoughtlessness, but I do not let the darkness obscure its tremendous beauty and wonder. I rejoice in the great diversity of life and being that is all around me. I am awed by the magnificent interconnectedness that binds us all together as one.

Interview with Yoel Glick-Part One

Once upon a time there was a magical place in the old city of Jerusalem that seemed like an entrance into a wizard’s den. The place had tall windows and offered classes, talks, and celebrations but it seemed more like a gathering of special people in a Tolkein Middle Earth party.  I had no idea about the place, and I did not really know its organizer, other than it was worth reading their wall flyers of classes to see if I wanted to drop by to attend one. My last visit was in 1987 when I heard the singing of a tisch happening from outside the window and I entered for a while. A quarter of a century later the insidious intrusion of social media knowing your searches- in this case Hinduism and Judaism- reconnected me to Yoel Glick.

glick book

Rabbi Yoel Glick received his BA from the University of Toronto and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University in New York, as well as from the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He is a teacher of Jewish meditation and spiritual wisdom. Glick just released a book  Living the Life of Jewish Meditation: A Comprehensive Guide to Practice and Experience. The book is billed as  a “comprehensive guide to meditation as a way of life draws on the knowledge of the East to vitalize and illuminate traditional Jewish practices in a whole new way.”  Glick will be on a speaking tour to promote his book (schedule here) to promote his book.

In a word, his approach is an Advaitan Vedanta reading of Judaism. The book looks to the non-duality of Neo-Hindu gurus such as Ramana Maharshi to discuss silence, knowledge and ecstasy.  His approach is unlike the technique and ritual approach of Aryeh Kaplan who looked to Transcendental Meditation and Asian meditation techniques to explain prophecy but lacked the basics of meditation practice. On the other hand, Glick is more grounded in revelation, providence, and fixed ritual than the non-dualism of Jay Michaelson.

Glick maintains a website called Daat Elyon, which he defines as follows:

Kabbalah texts speak of two types of knowledge: daat elyon, the higher knowledge, and daat tachton, the lower knowledge. Daat tachton relates to intellectual ideas, facts, and figures. Daat elyon is a direct experience where we merge with the object of our investigation, and comprehend its true nature as it exists in the Mind of God. Daat Elyon lies at the heart of the inner life. It is the catalyst underlying all spiritual evolution and growth.

Glick offers essays and divrei Torah under six headings: (1) Meditation and Prayer  (2)Thought of the Day (3)Spiritual Wisdom (4)Universal Vision (5) Self-Transformation (6)Life of Service (7) Holydays. Many of them are quite funky and almost all of them are juxtapositions of Vedanta and Hasidut.

Here is an excerpt from his piece on God’s presence

In God’s presence, we are saturated with an incredible joy. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that the joy of God’s presence is greater than any physical joy.  It is a joy that only grows and deepens over time. Sri Ramakrishna spoke of spiritual joy as an all-encompassing, all-embracing bliss that permeates every pore of our being.

When Sri Ramakrishna was in a state of Divine ecstasy, he would stagger about like a drunkard, reeling from the intoxication, unable to even hold up his body cloth. When the Baal Shem was flooded with Divine light, not only would he be uplifted, so would all of his Hasidim. In fact, the whole of his community would be filled with unbounded joy.

Here is an excerpt on silence:

Sri Ramana Maharshi teaches:“Silence is the true spiritual instruction. It is the perfect spiritual instruction. It is suited only for the most advanced seeker. The others are unable to draw full inspiration from it. Therefore they require words to explain the Truth. But Truth is beyond words. It does not admit of explanation. All that is possible to do is only to indicate it. How is that to be done?”

The Truth is infinite like its source. How do we get a glimpse of this eternal teaching? The Torah is the expression of God’s truth and we have been contemplating it for thirty-five hundred years.  Thousands of words of wisdom have emerged out of the teachings of the Torah and thousands more are yet to come.

Rabbi Akiva, who was one of the greatest expounders of the Torah, states in the Ethics of the Fathers: “a fence for wisdom is silence” (3:13) The Baal Shem explains that silence is a fence for wisdom because silence takes us into our inner reality. Through silence we can reach up beyond all words and forms into the world of pure thought. In this supernal realm, we can contact the truth directly at its source. We can see the truth as it is engraved in the Universal Mind of God.

Glick’s approach is more honest than the many who teach Buddhism or Evangelical Christianity but claim it is pure Torah.  This interview will be in two parts. Part One is a general discussion and Part Two is a more specific Vedantantic-Hasidic view of reality and revelation 

1)      Can you explain Hokhmat Halev?

Hokmat HaLev was founded in 1983 and closed its doors in 1987. (It was officially an institute only for 1984-1986.) Over the years, the institute went through several different incarnations. It began as a fulltime yeshiva for students of all backgrounds, morphed into a center for Jewish studies, and ended its life as a center for Jewish meditation and the study of spiritual wisdom.

The most incredible thing about Hokhmat HaLev was the eclectic group of people who taught and studied there. We had Gedalia Fleer, Yehudah Gellman , Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Pinchas Giller, and other dynamic teachers on our staff. Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman were regular guests. Yitzchak Ginsburg taught at Hokhmat Halev from time to time. Pinchas Pelli and his wife Penina also taught and were involved. Danny Matt was a teacher for a short while.

And then there was our extraordinary student body. We had students from all of the different Baal Teshuvah yeshivas in Yerushalayim, from Moshav Modi’in, even students from the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley. Many prominent leaders in Jewish spirituality and interfaith work today were students at Hokhmat Halev. David Cooper, Avram Davis, Yossi Klein Halevi and Yehezkel Landau, to name but a few.

Our curriculum was also quite unconventional. We taught Chumash, Tanach, Mishnah, and Gemara to both men and women. And we also taught them Hasidut, Rav Kook, Kabbalah, and Jewish meditation.

Every day the yeshiva was packed with people. The shiurim on Likutei Maharan that Reb Gedalia gave attracted students from all over the city and all walks of life. Yehudah Gellman’s teachings on Rav Kook electrified his audience. I can honestly say that I have never heard anything remotely comparable before or after. We would learn, sing and dance until late into the night. In all ways, Hokhmat Halev was a unique place; there was nothing like it anywhere in the world.

 2) How does this book and your spiritual path relate to your YU training?

Obviously, my YU training did not play a major role in writing this work. However, I can say that YU gave me the skills for analyzing the Jewish texts to discover the depth of meaning in their words. My time learning with Rav Soloveitchik gave me profound insight into the workings of Halacha and the breadth and depth of its outlook. It made me realize that Judaism was about much deeper concerns that what appeared on the Gemara page. It made me recognize that we are selling Judaism short when we present Halacha and Torah from only a narrow point of view.

At the same time, I was always an outsider at YU. During my years at YU, I lived on the upper West side three blocks down from the Carlebach shul. The shul was the real focus of my life. I was there with Shlomo Carlebach and his chevreh as much as possible.  So I was leading a double life in NY. Throughout my stay in NY, I moved back and forth between these two worlds, and the different realities and ideals they embodied.
3)      You write about the need to “use the wisdom of the East to shed light on Jewish texts and practices.” Are you worried about syncretism?

I believe that there is an exaggerated fear of syncretism. Judaism has always been influenced by other traditions and incorporated their ideas into our own religion. Chazal drew on the rules of logic from the Greeks. The Rambam drew on the principles of Aristotelean philosophy. Bahye Ibn Pekuda was strongly influenced by Sufi teaching. And so on throughout the generations.  So I see myself as part of an honorable Jewish tradition of incorporating ideas from other religions into our own religion. This integration of ideas from outside of Judaism is not just an artificial imposition of foreign concepts on an authentic tradition, a “dressing up” of Eastern thought as Judaism. The teachings I bring deeply align with streams of thought within our own tradition. In fact, I believe that they reflect an approach to Judaism that has existed ever since Biblical times.

4) Why is Indian meditation only wisdom and not Torah?

In the context of the modern world, our understanding of the teaching that there is wisdom among the nations but no Torah needs to be reassessed. For example, in the Torah, Moses tells the people “For what nation is there so great, that has God so near to them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon Him for? And what nation is there so great, that has statues and judgments so righteous as all this Torah, which I set before you this day?” [Deuteronomy 4, 6-8] Even a few hundred years ago this statement may have seemed self-evident.

Today, however, we have to answer this rhetorical question by admitting that there are other nations to whom God has given teachings as righteous and inspiring as the Torah. The Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, the Dhammapada of the Buddhists, and many other texts all provide teaching with profound wisdom and moral righteousness. Today, we have to admit that there is not just wisdom but Torah among the nations. The Torah is God’s special revelation to the Jewish people. A gift made no less meaningful or significant by the acknowledgement of the gifts God has given to His other children.

5) Why do you have no problem making analogies to Hinduism?

When most Jews think of Hinduism they think of the idol worship described in the Torah, people bowing down to rock and stone and thinking they are God. When modern-day Hindus hear this they laugh at our ignorance. A modern Hindu has no doubt that there is one God over all, and the deities in their homes and temples are symbols of the many different faces of that One Supreme Being. Besides, the part of Hinduism I refer to in the majority of cases is Vedanta. Vedanta is a sublime philosophy that teaches the underlying unity of Being and the essential oneness of everything that exists. The Hindus see God in both the form and the formless. I have no trouble quoting its principals and teachings.

6)      What is not in book that should be? Why?

There is a lot of material available on Jewish meditation that I have not included in the book, many different Jewish meditation systems that I have not touched upon. This was a conscious decision on my part. I believe that many forms of traditional Jewish meditation are too intricate and complex, especially for the majority of today’s Jews who lack a strong background in traditional learning. There also is no overall system of understanding these techniques, no science of Jewish meditation. In my book, I have tried to provide techniques that are simple, direct and more accessible to today’s Jewish seekers.

7)      Are you strict in your daily practice like in an ashram?

I try to bring a contemplative consciousness into everything I think, say and do. I have a daily schedule that includes meditation, prayer, chanting, contemplation and a lot of study and reflection on sacred text. I also work to keep up the remembrance of God at all times. In fact, it was in order to be able to live such a life that I moved to a small village in the south of France in the first place.

When I have the opportunity to go to shul, I strive to maintain a God-centered focus the whole time I am in synagogue. I prepare for shul like I am preparing to meet God. I come to shul after first meditating at home. I work on awakening love and devotion in my heart as I walk along the way. Once I enter the shul, I sit in a quiet corner on my own, cover my head with my tallit and go inward in prayer.  I strive to bring the power of silence and stillness into the synagogue. I strive to bring awareness into my prayer space.

Above all else, I constantly work on myself, on all aspects of my personality. I strive to develop the Divine virtues of compassion, generosity and wisdom. I try to walk in the world with humility, integrity and equanimity. My spiritual life is a continually unfolding process. I look toward the ultimate goal at every moment of every day.

8) Why should Jews read your book and not Eastern teachers?

My book is not a book of Eastern teaching. It is essentially a Jewish book. My meditations draw on Rabbinic teachings, concepts from the Kabbalah and Hasidism. They incorporate traditional prayers, Divine Names and other Jewish symbols and rituals. Judaism is my main source of inspiration. It is the language I speak and the life that I live. At the same time, I draw much insight from Hinduism and Buddhism. And I think that seeing Judaism through the lens of the Eastern teachings breathes new life into the Jewish sources. I believe that we have drifted far away from the original intention of Judaism. These insights from the East provide us with a way of returning to the source of the Jewish path.

When most people read the Tanach, they find it difficult to relate to the stories of the Avot and the Neviim. These stories do not seem to pertain to anything within the Jewish world that they live in. I myself only began to understand the stories in the Bible after I went to India. The lives of the forefathers and prophets are more like the life of sadhus in an ashram than the life of students in a yeshiva. My visits to Indian ashrams made the Biblical stories come alive. The intense spiritual training and total focus on God experience that exists in an ashram represents an ideal that is very much needed in Judaism.

In this regard, it is important to understand that the central purpose of my book is meant to provide seekers with a way to live Judaism as a serious spiritual path where the focus is on God and on inner experience. This inner experience then becomes the engine which drives all of our Jewish life and practices. Inner experience infuses our Judaism with spiritual vitality. It empowers us to become effective instruments for Divine service in the world.

9) Is there currently a Jewish realized being who is teaching meditation that we can learn from?

Sadly, there is not. We are producing lots of wonderful scholars and even the occasional spiritual genius but no enlightened beings. Enlightened beings and those who seek to attain that state are the soul of a religion. It is time for us to admit that we have a problem, instead of just saying how good we are at this worldly activity.

10)    Most assume that it is not our tradition to focus on reigning in one’s mind or building ashrams to overcome ego and seek non-attachment.

Judaism is a tradition with a multitude of different approaches to God. The teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and many other Hasidic teachers make clear that there indeed is a strong focus on controlling the mind and overcoming the ego in some parts of the tradition. Even in the Ethics of the Fathers you can find multiple passages that speak about the need to control the mind and overcome the ego. In terms of Judaism and ecstatic experience, there are numerous Jewish sources that detail such experiences.

At the same time, I would like to make clear that I am not promoting ecstasy and enthusiasm as the goal of practice. On the contrary, I am trying to show that the spiritual life is serious work that takes enormous effort and commitment. The goal indeed is an elevated state of consciousness. A person who has conquered his mind is incredibly focused, directed, aware and present in every moment. In my book I outline the signs of a realized soul. These signs include integrity, equanimity, tremendous courage and profound inner peace among other attributes.

11) What do you say do someone who says meditation is not needed or that they say meditation is long, slow, and boring?

On one hand, meditation is not for everybody. But if you are looking for the experience of God’s living presence then meditation is the fast track to get there. I also think meditation is the path of the future. It takes us to a completely different type of relationship with God/the Higher Power/the transcendent Reality. It is the right path for the development of human consciousness in our time.

Today, our outer reality extends from the sub atomic to the giant galaxies on the outer edge of the universe. Our inner reality extends into the conscious, subconscious and superconscious dimensions of the mind. Our minds have been trained to expand and stretch outward. We are wired for meditation and contemplation.

For those who think of meditation is slow and boring, all I can say is that there is no greater adventure than the exploration of our inner reality; there is no more exciting journey than the journey of the soul.
12) Most Jews see meditation as vipassana . How are you different?

My book primary follows an approach to meditation that is Jewish and Hindu rather than Buddhist. The Hindu and Jewish traditions have much more in common in their approach to God, the spiritual realm and spiritual life. Hinduism and Judaism are both personal approaches to God. Both religions speak about different aspects of God, describe complex heavenly realms, and portray a myriad of celestial beings. Both traditions believe in the power of prayer to affect the higher worlds.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is an impersonal approach to God. It does not believe in the existence of God or an individual soul.

At the same time, the concept of mindfulness plays an important role in my book. This is why the book is called “Living the Life of Jewish Meditation”, because meditation is about walking in the world with mindfulness and awareness.  Mindfulness and a still mind are the foundation of all meditation practice.

Interview to be continued on Sunday with a discussion of Vedanta and Judaism

Fasting in Hinduism and Judaism

Here is an appropriate thought about fasting for post-Yom Kippur.; My Sukkah is already up.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi observed a strict religious fast during his trip to the United States. In keeping with the habits of a lifetime, Modi restricted himself to a “liquid diet” throughout the nine day Navratri festival. He only drank  lemonade with some honey and a cup of tea every day. Some Hindus restrict their diet to fruit and vegetables while spurning meat, eggs, onions and garlic. Others, like Modi, a strict vegetarian, do not eat solid food at all. Mr. Modi described the fast as “a source of strength, power and inspiration.”

Fasting in Hinduism indicates the denial of the physical needs of the body for the sake of spiritual gains. According to the scriptures, fasting helps create an attunement with the Absolute by establishing a harmonious relationship between the body and the soul. This is thought to be imperative for the well being of a human being as it nourishes both his/her physical and spiritual demands. In Hinduism, “When the stomach is full, the intellect begins to sleep. Wisdom becomes mute and the parts of the body restrain from acts of righteousness.”

modi fasting

Fasting in Judaism in Biblical times, was instituted as a sign of mourning (I Sam. xxxi. 13; II Sam. i. 12), or when danger threatened (II Sam. xii. 16; comp. I Kings xxi. 27). Esther fasted before meeting the King. During the Second Temple period, daily or biweekly fastings were practiced by many for reasons of asceticism.  The Talmud views fasting as an appeal to God in times of trouble and this is it codified in Maimonides.

Many other fasts, in memory of Biblical history were added in the course of time, a full list of which is given at the end of Megillat Ta’anit. These were not regarded as obligatory anymore. There is a list given in Shulḥan ‘Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 580, 2, as follows. Here are some of the lesser known fasts.

First of Nisan: the sons of Aaron were destroyed in the Tabernacle.; Tenth of Nisan: Miriam the prophetess died; the well that followed the Israelites in the wilderness disappeared; Twenty-sixth of Nisan: Joshua the son of Nun died.

Tenth of Iyyar: Eli the high priest and his two sons died, and the Ark was captured by the Philistines. Twenty-ninth of Iyyar: Samuel the prophet died.Twenty-fifth of Sivan: R. Simeon son of Gamaliel, R. Ishmael son of Elisha, and R. Ḥanina the superior (segan) of the priests were executed..First of Ab: Aaron the high priest died. Eighteenth of Ab: the western light was extinguished in the time of Ahaz.  Sixth (seventh) of Marḥeshvan: Nebuchadnezzar blinded King Zedekiah after he had slaughtered the latter’s children in his presence.Twenty-third of Shevaṭ: the Israelites gathered to war with the tribe of Benjamin (Judges xx.).

Notice how much Second Temple devotion was tied to reliving the Bible as an event and empathizing with each and every story. The historical element continues in later centuries, for example Polish Jews fasted on the twentieth of Sivan on account of the atrocities committed in 1648 by the Cossacks. These are all historic and not like the concern with auspicious times and spiritual focus of the Hindu fasts.

Hindus fast on certain days of the month such as Purnima (full moon) and Ekadasi (the 11th day of the fortnight). Ekadasi fasting is common for all the Hindus. Ekadasi means 11th day. It comes twice a month: 11th day from the new moon and 11th day from the full moon. Another famous fasting is Sankata Hara Chathurthy i.e. fourth day after the full moon. Hindus fast themselves till moon rise. They eat after seeing the crescent moon.

With some Ekadashi, a full fast is required, for others  only once at midday. Another common kind of fast is to forego taking cereals, legumes, grains and/or both, when only fruits are eaten. Hindu fasting has no strict rules. But most of them are from dawn to dusk. They don’t eat any cooked food in the morning. They have milk and fruits in the day time. Nowadays coffee and tea have replaced milk which has no religious sanction. Some people don’t take anything other than water.

Certain days of the week is also marked for fasting, depending on individual choices and on one’s god and goddess. Hindus all over India observe fasts on festivals  Generally speaking, Hindu fasting means skipping the big meal of the day and sticking to light food during night.

Andal, the famous Tamil Vaishnavite woman saint, says in her poem Thiruppavai: “Girls avoid butter and milk on fast days; girls don’t put make ups on those days; they don’t decorate their hair with flowers and they avoid hairdo, they do avoid gossips, but think only about god. In short, fasting is a step towards god.

Yet, Judaism used to have an extensive fasting practice which is currently only done on a few occasions and even then it is reduced to triteness by big meals before and after, along with greetings of an easy fast that rob the fasting of any embodied or aspirational element.   Fasting was the penance of choice and translation of teshuva in Ashkenaz for a millennium.

In preparation for the High Holidays I reread the section from Rabbi Moshe Ibn Makir’s Sedar Hayom  (late 16th century and source of our Kabbalat Shabbat) and Rabbi Efraim Zalman Margoliot’s Matteh Efrayim (early 19th century), in these we see spiritual fasting (see as base Sh. Ar., OḤ, 581:2).

There was a widespread custom to fast all ten days of repentance, and Rabbi Yosel Karo’s custom to fast for the festival of Rosh Hashanah itself.  Even more interesting was the widespread acceptance that those seeking to turn to God in the month Elul should fast as many days as possible.

But what used to be similar to the Hindu approach was the discussion of how does one go about fasting for all of Elul. Ibn Makir writes that some fast, others fast by eating only one meal a day, or by eating lightly. The goal is spiritual preparation and focus on God.

In addition, between the 16th and 20th centuries, traditional piety also encouraged one to fast an additional six more days, the first Monday and Thursday, and the following Monday after Passover and Sukkot.  Also men fasted  ShOVaVIM TaT (initial letters of eight consecutive weekly Pentateuch portions starting with Shemot which are eight Thursdays of the winter months of an intercalated year).

And the day before the new moon each month was Yom Kippur Katan, on which many communities fasted and recited a special liturgy. The anniversary of the death of one’s father or mother was also a fast day, for non-Hasidim.

A typical rabbi following the required fasts, including the circle around Rav Kook or many Hasidic courts, would have fasted between 14- 60 extra fast days a year.   And for many ordinary people, the goal was to eat sparsely on these many fast days.  It was sliding scale similar to Hindu practice.

There were even more austere customs of fasting every Monday and Thursday in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, of the burning of the Torah. Some pious Jews fasted every Friday, so as to partake of the Sabbath meal with a hearty appetite (ib. 249, 3, Mishnah Berurah says at least to avoid meat and wine).

Today, most Jews only fast one day a year, and most Orthodox Jews begrudgingly fast five days a year and reject the Shulchan Arukh. Even when fasting they seem to follow the routine of comedian Louis C.K by complaining of their hunger and that they are starving.  As he says: “Some people say I’m starving. That’s offensive. Don’t say that… Because some people are [really] starving and they don’t say it.”

For Hindus, fasting is a major part of their spirituality. Fasting in Sanskrit is called upavaasa, meaning the attainment of close mental proximity with the Lord. For them, certain food types make our minds dull and agitated. Hence on certain days man decides to save time and conserve his energy by eating either simple, light food or totally abstaining from eating so that his mind becomes alert and pure. The mind, otherwise pre-occupied by the thought of food, now entertains noble thoughts and stays with the Lord. Since it is a self-imposed form of discipline it is usually adhered to with joy.

By eating a purer quality of food and regulating food consumption, one can ensure a pure heart, long life, cheerful spirit, strength, health, happiness and delight. Good and pure food promotes a peaceful—not agitated—mind, which is needed to see the Truth as the Truth.

Bahye Ibn Pakuda and many kabbalists advocate a turn from this world of physical pleasure to be able to fulfill the duties of the heart, knowledge of the Truth and closeness to God. One could describe their practices as Yogic.

So current Jewish practice and Hindu practice as typified by Modi have little in common. There was more commonality between the 12th and 19th centuries.

But it seems there is a new convergence. Last week there was an ad in an Indian newspaper for a restaurant in India that will serve a gourmand feast that fulfills all the rules and regulations of those who fast from legumes, grains, and potatoes (as well as meat, fish, and eggs) on certain days. The advertisement boasted how the devout “who are fasting can undertake a spiritual gourmet journey.” This way the faithful “do not feel complete abstinence.” Is there any greater convergence with contemporary Orthodox Judaism?

Ritual Details

During Diwali, the festival of lights, I took a nighttime boat ride on the Ganges River to watch all the different festive activities on the various ghats. The boat was chartered by a group of Sanskrit scholars of European origin and they brought along local Sanskrit scholars and a dozen European and American graduate students as well as the extended family of the boat owner.  As scholars they wanted to get past the 3 km of presentations done for sake of the tourists and out to the ends of the river where the traditional practices took place. In the chilly evening of moon light, we floated past each ghat, each gaudily strewn in electric lights, each having its own temple and cultural personality. Those in the boat translated for me the songs and chants we heard, letting me know what was Sanskrit, what was Hindi, what was traditional and what was the textual sources.


In the midst of the lights and sights of the shore illuminating the darkness of the river, I turned to one of the local Sanskrit scholars and asked: What happens when they make a mistake in the performance of the ritual? What happens if they make a mistake in the chanting  or one of the lamps go out or if they do not light the correct number of lamps?

The Christian graduate student sitting next to me says: don’t make fun, your ridiculous. However, the Sanskrit scholar said they would have to perform a special ritual to correct the mistake.  They don’t usually make mistakes because they are all well trained, but when they do it would require an offering. However, not a major one since the mistake was unintentional.

Hinduism treats ritual mistakes as needing atonement and distinguishes between types of mistakes and the intention of the mistake.  In contrast, if one makes a mistake in a Catholic Mass, one just repeats or corrects the mistake. Even if one spills the chalice, the concern is desecration of the wine and its retrieval, not with needing atonement for doing the ritual wrong. However, Hinduism and Judaism are concerned with the exact practice of the rituals or else it is considered a mistake.

There is an old joke of a Jewish child visiting Catholic neighbors and upon seeing the Christmas tree got thrown out of the house.  The Catholic father went to complain to Jewish boy’s father saying “He saw our Christmas tree and started making fun.” “Really, what did he say?” continued the Jewish father. The Catholic father replied: “He saw our tree and started asking all sorts of ridiculous questions – which kinds of pine trees can be used for a Christmas tree? What’s the minimum required height?  How close to the window does it need to be?   What if the electricity goes out? Do too many decorations render it unfit?  What if it’s under a neighbor’s balcony?!”

The joke would be lost in Banaras where rituals need to be done in very specific ways. The priest must light either 51 or 101 flames or else the ritual is not valid, the lights have to be of a specific kind, they have to be pure, the area needs to be pure, the chants must be exact and the gestures and motions of waving the lamps must be the exact sequence or else one has not fulfilled the ritual.

Everything used in ritual needs to be consecrated and purified or else it destroys the ritual. Hindu ritual distinguishes between items unusable due to impurity as opposed to those that have a defect, similar to the distinctions in Jewish law between a neveilah and a terefah. An animal that is a nevelah imparts ritual impurity, whereas a defective terefah from an improper slaughtering does not.

One could also have a productive Hindu-Jewish discussion about feces and ritual. The Talmud and the Shastras both bans rituals around human and cat feces, but neither one worries about cow droppings since they do not smell. Neither one influenced the other one; rather the logic of not doing ritual around smells creates a parallel.

Both worry about animals dying or running away between consecration and offering. Both worry about being touched by an impurity while doing a ritual. Both worry about little creepy things running by and creating impurity. The list of impurities from a human body has a great overlap because the human body only produces a finite number of emissions, flows, and liquids. However, Hinduism is much stricter about ordinary salvia.

I am not sure how to account for both seeing leprosy/skin disease as a divine punishment.

Within the karmakanda, there are two types of sins – those done intentional and those done unintentional (kamata or jnana vs akamata or ajnana) (the Hebrew equivalents would be mazid and shogeg). The unintentional sin can be undone with a recitation but intention sinning places the Brahmin outside society and possibly impure until the sin is corrected.

In addition, all Hindu ritual must be done with intention. Similar to a classic Jewish distinction between intention for a command and intention about meaning and the divine, here the intention required is Samkalpa (Also spelled Sankalpa) meaning “resolve” or “intention,” as in the intention to achieve the desired goal.

A person practices Samkalpa where before the performance of a ritual they vow to perform a particular practice- specifying length of time, time of day, place, etc. Although this need to vow in advance of a practice initially referred only to a spiritual practice, this has been extended in contemporary language to any such vow that requires a regular practice, such as a vow to regularly exercise. As in Judaism, vows must be verbalized and formulated precisely to show intention.

In the later Purva-Mimamsa, especially the writings of Jaimini (4th century CE– Talmudic era) the efficacy of a sacrifice depends entirely on the correct performance and not on anything external.  Neither intention for act nor intention for the gods matters. For Jaimini, sacrifice is an end in itself for world-sustaining and needs the needs correct performance of the priest – any ritual lapses are dangerous. If one omits a syllable is making a hole in the cosmos, it sinks the heaven bound ship. Even a mistake in the pronunciation has opposite effect.

And as we know from Synagogue rules, if you recite the verse wrong it invalidates certain prayers and even if you use the wrong pronunciation or accent that change the meaning of a verse it invalidates the ritual.

A major difference between the two faiths is that the karmakanda does not have a word or concept of guilt. The language is one avoiding punishment, or avoiding the vice of dishonorable or the sense of shame. We see the classic distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures. Hasidic texts are also shame oriented and not guilt oriented.

By the 8th -9th centuries CE Epic Mahabharata, were there is a greater internal sense of sin, which by the 20th century is developed into a range of internal senses of wrong doing.  In the Mahabharata, unlike the Mimamsa, a direct relationship with a theistic  God who watches what you do and knows your heart. “Thy heart is a witness to the truth or falsehood… You think that you alone have knowledge of your action. But you do not know that the Ancient, Omniscient one (Narayana) lives in your heart? He knows all your sins, and you sin in His presence. (Section LXXIV, Sambhava Parva) Juxtapose this to thinking about God’s knowledge of your sins on the Jewish High holy days.

So what do you do for ritual mistakes in Brahmin texts? As stated in the 500 BCE Katyayana Srauta sutra: Rules for the Vedic sacrifices XXV.1.1 “for mishaps in rituals there is ritual atonement.” Prayascitti  is the concept of ritual atonement, a ritual act which has the purpose of removing any mistake.

For a minor mistake, then one needs to recite the purana –sukta or the “bhur, bhuvah, and sveh” or the gayatri mantra. For major ones there is an additional sin offering. In general in contemporary services, there is an extra Aarti (a waving of lamps and chant ritual)  is performed after Hindus finish  prayers or auspicious rituals. It is performed to rectify any mistakes made during the whole process and is seen as a completion of the process.

For ordinary modern householders, if they are doubtful what to do, or think  they have made a mistake, then a theist Vaishnavites is likely to chant Hare Krsna, Hare Rama. The modern theology is less ritualistic in orientation since, like in the Bible one is told not to fear. “Krsna shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear” (Bhagavad-gita 18.66)

Other methods used in later era for sins in general include confession, repentance, breath control, austerity, gifts to religious institutions. and pilgrimages.

Pilgrimages to holy places were originally not very prominent but become more popular at a later time. Today it is one of the major religious activities. Compare it to American Orthodox Jews frequently flying to Israel.  Originally one’s role as a householder was more important than going on pilgrimages, and pilgramage was a special case. Today, it becomes a family event with family penances such as hair tonsuring.

If one does decide to donate to a Temple or feed the poor as a penance then one has to do it as an oath (Vratas), similar to the way Judaism considers pledge as oaths, and requires the acceptance of an oath.  Think of a Kol Nidrei appeal.

Adjusting to the times, new penances were made. Already in the BCE era, it was stated that “brahmans who have studied dharmaśāstra should prescribe a penance appropriate to the age, the time and the strength of the sinner; one should not prescribe an observance that will cause great distress to the sinner.” This has continued to this day. Just as Jews this season of repentance do not role in the gravel, or fast according to Hasedei Ashkenaz, or even  go to a ritual bath for purity, so too contemporary penances are updated. Now a vow of money is preferred in both faiths.

As a side point, the same works on sacrifice that deal with ritual mistakes and corrections, the Kalpa Vedanga 5th cent BCE, also contain the geometry of altars along with mathematical deductions for the geometry. Works corresponding to the Rabbinic tractate middot (measurements) with the measurements of building a Temple. However, the India version also contains real mathematical works that through the Arabic because our number system that replaced Roman Numerals. They had all four forms of arithmetic, the zero, geometry including squaring the circle and visa-versa, the Pythagorian theorem and estimations for pi.

Another side point is that ethnographers point out how different families and groups fight over who gets which honors in the ritual and who has what share and which ethnic liturgy is used. A Temple or ghat can be sacred to competing groups with different rules and pronunciations.  Except for the purists, different pronunciations, hymn choices and order of offerings are tolerated as non-mistakes. Yet, the house of worship politics is about who gets to be, or whose priests get to be, in charge for which service or part of service.

By the time the boat made its way back to our starting point after a full night on the river, almost all the boatmen and the tourist trade had ended.  The festivities were over. Concession lights were being closed. I walk from shore to the quiet dark streets punctuated by kids setting off fire-works at a distance. Auto-rickshaws were all home for the night. I coaxed a bicycle rickshaw driver to get me home by first accepting to only go as far the gate of the university and then once there he agreed to take me the extra kilometers home.  Store keepers swept in front of their stores by kerosene lamps and moonlight.

But the required festival electric lights were still burning in homes– since the required amount of time of the lights, according to most Hindu practice was to burn until midnight, some expected the lights to remain lit until day break. In the terms of the kindling of the lamps several hours earlier, most lit their lamps when the stars appeared but it was still considered acceptable to light one’s candles until midnight but not any time afterward. Think of the rules for lighting hannukah lamps.  Two weeks later, I explained to my house maid (who spoke no English) to leave my burning Hannukah candles alone based on this analogy of needed to remain burning from sunset to midnight . She understood the concept.

Five Year Anniversary of this Blog

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

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

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


Interview with Prof. Samuel Heilman

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1)     What is your sociological method?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passage to India

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

Local academic finds Jewish parallels in Hindu university

Larry Yudelson *Cover Story
Jewish Standard  29 August 2014

Dr. Alan Brill of Teaneck faced his students.

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

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

The day’s topic was the Bible.

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

“Do Jews still sacrifice animals?”

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

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

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

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

passage to india

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

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

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

Wait. Animal sacrifices? Aren’t Hindus vegetarians?

Yes and no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few words about Hinduism, monotheism, and idolatry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another major difference ties into the diversity and its origins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The One-Percent Solution –Modern Orthodoxy

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

on the move

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

israel day parade

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

His conclusion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My tentative points taken from this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Steven Bayme of the AJC

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Steven Bayme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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