Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on Experience, Consciousness, and Method

In this post, we will look at Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s views on consciousness, experience, and visionary mental images. His broad view of altered states of consciousness incorporated 4-D and 5-D space, hallucinogens, and learning to form steady mental images. In his discussion of forming a mental golem, he puts many of these ideas together.  He also describes the goal as seeking spiritual energy though mizvot or through attaining the non-verbal consciousness of hokhmah. His discussion of Ezekiel incorporates many of his broad views on the topic of consciousness incorporating removing the static of the mind, sensory deprivation, the flood of past memories, bright light, and then the state of nothingness and synesthesia.  Finally, we discuss his rejection of non-Jewish meditation even as he is busy mastering books about it and we conclude with his willing to re-script the Kabbalah for women.

This is part VI in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- see Part IPart II, Part III , Part IV and Part V for prior biographic discussion much of which has already been incorporated into Wikipedia.

aryeh kaplan pic
(Oil painting by Rabbi Kaplan)

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan during one of his classes mentions how as a child he saw colors when people spoke, a common altered state of consciousness called synesthesia. In his book Jewish Meditation, he mentions his own eureka moment of figuring out a physics problem while taking a bath, and elsewhere he discusses how he uses “rebbono shel olam” as a mantra (he really meant japa). All of these, Kaplan called meditation. In general, he called any altered states of consciousness, synesthesia, telepathy, psychic powers, hypnosis, and opening the door of perception as meditation. Mediation is not mindfulness but the higher states of consciousness.

This is similar to the classic Moody Blues album, In Search of a Lost Chord (1968) where the lost chord of meditation is about attaining a higher state of consciousness, which includes music, art, LSD, philosophy, spiritual states, Eastern religion, and visualization.  Writing with a sense of this counter culture, Kaplan proclaimed that his works on meditation is only to be practiced by those pure and elevated. Yet, “we are living now in a time of breaking barriers. Everything that people always assumed to be impossible is becoming possible in our time. God may be teaching us a very important lesson with this: we are capable of doing things we never thought possible.” (Innerspace 167) Our age needs to know about the higher wisdom, the lost chord.

Kaplan treats Kabbalah as a meditative state, by which he means an altered state of consciousness. This generally means, for Kaplan, the ability to form mental images, whether in physics or kabbalah. Hence, his discussion of visualizing the divine name in his book Jewish Meditation becomes a synecdoche for a wide range of mental imagining.

The previous section explained how to use the letter arrays together with the divine Name as a meditative device.  One of the manifestations of higher meditative states (as well as some drug-induced states) is hallucinogens, where one can voluntarily form mental images.  These mental images appear to be real and substantial.  When a person is in a normal state of consciousness, he may be able to form mental images, but they are weak, transient, and blurred by mental static.  In contrast, the images formed in a meditative state appear solid, substantial, and real. (Sefer Yetzirah 133)

Kaplan’s works repeatedly refer to hallucinogens, which he does not primarily mean drugs, even though they are mentioned, but the ability to reach these states of forming images. He even asks at the start of Meditation and the Bible, whether prophecy is due to hallucinogens. Kaplan claims hallucinogens give the ability to “voluntarily form mental images.” For Kaplan, forming images is best done in a meditative state

However, when Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was teaching Sefer Yetzirah, he said of the images of the kabbalah “it’s like tripping on LSD, grooving on black. If you do not have familiarity with these states of consciousness, then you wont understand what I am saying .” Several of those attending the class called out that they had familiarity. (taped class with psychologists – Jan 22, 1979). . Then, in such a state, one can imagine arrays of letters and divine names.

Jeffrey Kripal, the Rice University scholar of religion describes the approach to religion of the Romanian scholar of religion, Ioan Couliano (d. 1991) who taught at University of Chicago,  in ways very similar to Kaplan’s approach. For Couliano, the study of these practices has to be done from within, which means the leaving of three dimensional space toward four dimensions and beyond, these phenomenon brake our normal categories of time and space, leading us to the fantastic, complex, and strange. Kaplan consistently described kabbalah as five dimensional space and giving powers

The study of Kabbalah is a study of consciousness not a study of cultural texts, hence Kaplan gathered around him a core group of psychologists to understand these texts, not textual scholars or rabbinic scholars. And his method was to read a passage in a Kabbalistic text and translate it into terms of psychological and paranormal consciousness without seeking to contextualize that passage in the rest of the medieval kabbalistic book or in other kabalistic books.  His working assumption is that the original fantastic prophetic meanings were lost and the only way to find them was by discussing the passage with people who knew about consciousness.

Kaplan found the texts of the Sefer Yetzirah, Rabbi Abrhaam Abulafia, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Isaac of Acco and Hayyim Vital’s Shaar Ruah Hakodesh and Shaar Gilgulim as most valuable for this project. He did not find early kabbalists or much of the theosophic kabbalah as spiritual. Surprisingly, he did not find Chabad as mystical or meditative because, in his opinion, it had no higher wisdom or working with spiritual energy. In his classes, he claims to be able to derive all of Zoharic from Sefer Yetziarah. He also said in one of his 1979 classes that he had not looked at the Ari’s Etz Hayyim since 1970.

Golem of the Mind

The prime example of a meditative use of imagery is the creation of a golem. Moshe Idel in his book, Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid describes how for members of the ecstatic school of Kabbalah, most notably Abraham Abulafia, the creation of the golem was a mental act of creation. Kaplan uses the ideas of Abulafia and applies them to texts elsewhere that took the creation of the Golem literally, such as Rabbi Eleazar of Worms. Kaplan uses this imaginary approach of Abulafia to describe the creation of mental images, the most important one being a golem, which he identifies with the astral body, as described by Eleazar of Worms and Hayyim Vital. Kaplan actually gives instructions for this process based on his idea that hokhmah is non-verbal and binah is verbal and confused. One enters the real of Nothingness at the height of hokhmah, there one can create things.  The magical is a sign of entering the higher states of consciousness.

It is out of this Tohu, this state of confused Binah consciousness, that one must create a palpable image.  There are many images that can be produced, but the most common is the mental Golem, the astral body.  The initiate thus “forms palpable substance (mamash) out of chaos.”  This implies attaining a state of Chakhmah consciousness.  The Kabbalists thus note that the word Golem has a numerical value of 73, the same as that of Chokhmah. In the process one visualizes the sefirtot by a process of carving hem in one’s mind as a form of visible air. Notice again the point that I am making that he treats the word meditation as the activity of carving sefirot in the mind.  The golem is the background for the carving of the sefirot.

In order to accomplish this, one must enter fully into the realm of Nothingness.  This is the highest level of Chakhmah consciousness, bordering on Keter.  One therefore begins with “nonexistence,” which is Nothingness.

When one reaches this level, he can actually make something “that actually is” (yeshno) or “existence.”  He can actually bring about results in the universe of Asiyah, which can then be reflected in the physical world.  In making a Golem, this would correspond to the state of consciousness required before the metal image could be imposed on the clay, bringing it to life. (Sefer Yetzirah 134)

]It is in this state of consciousness that one can visualize the Sefirot as “great pillars.”  One “carves” them out, this meaning that the image of the Sefirah is seen separately, totally filling the consciousness.  Even though the Sefirot are totally ineffable and indescribable, when a person is in this state of consciousness, he can “carve” them out.  They are then perceived as solid pillars, made of transparent air.  Like the air, the Sefirot are still invisible, but in this state of consciousness, even the air can become visible. (Sefer yetzirah 135 )

For Kaplan, in this process of visualization, one mentally forms each of the 22 part of the body culminating in putting them together as a golem. Kaplan thinks the ultimate goal is to combine the 22 visualizations into a full body. Notice that he turns Abulafia and Eleazar of Worms into a sense that these are instructions for today and he describes how to do it. One carves letters int he mind, the way he descbied carving the Tetragrammaton in other places in his writings. He concludes with the potential for still creating a physical golem.

He used each of the 22 letters to form a mental image of a different part of the body.  Each part of the body can thus be formed separately.  The ability to complete separate parts, however, does not prove mastery of the method of Sefer Yetzirah.  The final proof of mastery is the ability to assemble all these 22 objects into a single body.

This is the process of completing a mental Golem.  The initiate must not only form all the parts, but he must actually assemble them.  This means that while he is engaged in the meditation to create one part, he must not lose his mental image of the parts that he formed earlier.  As each part of the image is formed, it must be retained in the mind, with subsequent images added to it, part by part.  The amount of mental discipline, as well as the advanced nature of the meditative technique required for this, is virtually beyond description.

The creation of a mental Golem is therefore a culmination of the arts of Sefer Yetzirah, as well as a test to determine if one has mastered them.  This did not involve the actual creation of a physical Golem, sine this was only done on very special occasions. (Sefer Yetzirah 136)

For many, Kaplan’s writings were an Orthodox version of Moshe Idel’s ideas about Abulafia’s views.  Kaplan clearly did not rely on Idel because of the older and inferior texts used and the many weak readings of Abulafia in Kaplan. But an example of a an Abulafia truism, quoted in the name of Kaplan, is that for Kaplan similar to Abulafia and Idel divides “the kabbalah is divided into three categories, the theoretical, the meditative, and the magical.”  Thereby rejecting Scholem’s focus on the symbolic sefirot. Once again note the definition of meditation used by Kaplan, “meditative kabblah deals with the use of divine names, letter permutations, and similar methods to reach higher states of consciousness, and as such, comprises a kind of yoga.” (Sefer Yetzirah ix) But Kaplan delivers excitement for his readers through also using descriptions similar to the Tibetan material about an astral body made in mental visualization described by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (1935).

Spiritual Energy

In general, Kaplan is looking for the power and spiritual energy of the Kabbalah, the way that 1950’s American books on Indian thought picked out the passages on kundalini and chakras. When he was writing, the then current English writings on kabbalah did not emphasized these aspect of spiritual energy at all. For example, Kaplan notes that the position of uplifted hands played an important role in the priestly blessing. As a source, he gives the Bahir, which explains “that the reason for this is because the ten uplifted fingers parallel the ten sefirot and can therefore draw spiritual energy from them. This same position is also used by Rabbi Abraham Abulafia…”  (Meditation and the Bible, 70).  Elsewhere, he reiterates this as  “raised hands to focus spiritual energy.” He translates the theurgy and concern for sefirot into a more generic “spiritual energy”  moving quickly from sefirot to meditative kabbalah allowing the reader to think of kundalini or tai chi.

This is also the way Kaplan paints Rabbi Isaac Luria. “Very often, the Ari used to take a passage from the Zohar and meditate on it, perhaps repeating it over and over like a mantra, until the inner meaning was revealed to him.” (6) Kaplan skips from Abulafia and Rabbi Isaac of Acco to the writings of Rabbi Hayyim Vital, with little attention to the Zohar and theosophic Kabbalah which he finds too poetic and too anthropomorphic, but he credits this poetry to our not understanding its secrets. For him, Zohar is only poetry without the Ari. “The Ari’s teaching could be called the atomic theory of the Zohar: everything begins to make sense. One can go deeper and deeper, as far as the human mind can delve, and it will always yield new treasures. “(6)

Even the concept of sefirot, or the sefirah of malkhut, he makes into spiritual energy. Based on a passage in the Pseudo Raavad (Yosef ben shalom Ashkenazi) commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, he considered the word sefirot and the Livnat haSapir under the divine throne as based on the jewel sapphire, which is the jewel of the third eye, where humans can see visions.

Reaching Non-Verbal Consciousness

In all of his discussions, he accepts the known opinion of Aldous Huxley that the goal of altered states of consciousness is to remove all the noise of everyday life blocking the higher wisdom, a super normal perspective. The goal is to get to non verbal hokhmah consciousness that is higher than verbal binah consciousness.

Try for a moment to stop thinking.  You remain completely conscious, but there are not verbal thoughts in your mind.  If you are an average person, you may be able to maintain such a state for a few seconds, but immediately your mind begins to verbalize the experience.  You might say to yourself, “I am not thinking of anything.”  But as soon as you do this, of course, you actually are thinking of something.

For those few second, however, you have experience nonverbal Chakhmah consciousness.  If you work at this exercise, you can gradually learn how to extend the time in which you are in this state.  It is like a heavy pendulum, the longer you push it back and forth, the further it will swing.  Similarly, the more you learn to oscillate between verbal Binah consciousness and nonverbal Chakhmah consciousness, the deeper you will reach into the latter, and the longer you will be able to maintain this state. (Sefer Yetzirah 40)

It is very difficult to experience pure, nonverbal thought.  As soon as a person attempts to clear his mind of thought, he immediately begins to think, “Now I am not thinking of anything.”  The state of Wisdom or Chakhmah consciousness is one of pure nonverbal thought, which is very difficult to attain.

It is in an attempt to attain the state of Chakhmah consciousness that the various meditative methods are used.  Thus, mantra meditation attempts to clear the mind of reverie by filling it with the repeated words of the mantra.  Similarly, contemplation pursues the same goal by filling the mind with the contemplated object. (Sefer Yetzirah 39)

Theosophic Kabbalah is really about consciousness of knowing the harmony or resonance of sefirot and the word.  He gives a method or path of meditation-magic. First one binds oneself to the object, then one perceives its spiritual nature and evaluates the object.

When a person has an awareness of the Sefirot, he can then “examine” anything in creation and determine the Sefirah to which it pertains.  As he becomes proficient in doing this, he can use various things to strengthen his attachment to their associated Sefirah.  When the Sefer Yetzirah was first written, each individual had to do this on his own.  Now, however, there are many lists which associate various things and ideas with their appropriate Sefirot, and these can be used as aides in binding oneself to them.

The Sefer Yetzirah is also indicating here that when a person perceives the true spiritual nature of a thing, he also elevates that thing spiritually.  “Standing” refers to such elevation.  The expression, “make each thing stand” therefore says that when one “probes from them,” he elevates the thing that he probes. (Sefer Yetzirah 40-41)

kaplan-ncsy 1975-shelly lang
(At a 1975 NCSY Shabbaton with Shelly Lang)

Turn on, Tune in, and become a Prophet

One has to go within to activate one’s neural equipment in order to become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness. One needs to “Turn on” to the higher consciousness, and then one is to “Tune in” to interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. He reflects Aldrous Huxley description of the need to “Turn on and Tune in” (using Leary’s phrase).

Meditation does two things: it relaxes the mind’s reactions to all external stimuli and thus quiets down all the internal thought processes and normal reverie. In an ordinary state of consciousness the mind is filled with static. If you wish to see this static, just close your eyes for a few minutes. You will see a rapidly changing series of superimposed images which constitute a steady stream of internal stimuli. As long as you are seeing and hearing your own reveries, as long as you are talking to yourself, you are not going to hear God’s voice.  You have to quiet down all the mind’s internal messages to itself, which is a very difficult undertaking…

This is like trying to get a very weak radio signal and picking up a lot of static. If you have a good radio, you can tune it, cut down the static, and pick up a clear signal. Similarly, high-level meditation requires that you first eliminate all mental static. You may then be able to pick up a very faint signal that you cannot really hear. The next step is to carefully start tuning up the volume. Now imagine what will happen if your mind is not controllable yet when you turn up the volume. You will get your signal…the static will actually cause a devastating shock. (Innerspace 149-150)

Kaplan gave classes on the opening chapter of Ezekiel based on this approach. “Ezekiel saw five things: a storm wind, a great cloud, a fire, a Glow and Chasmal. According to the Zohar, the first four were Klipot, husks or barriers that Ezekiel had to experience before getting the vision. (Innerspace 149). For Kaplan, the storm wind is the aforementioned static.

The cloud  is sensory deprivation and the deautomation of complete focus. The psychologists Charles Tart and Arthur Deikamn were in their research working on these states in the 1960’’s.

“You have to quiet your mind even more. What do you see, then, when you get rid of all internal stimuli and quiet down the mind completely? Nothing, A very frightening nothing, an empty nothing.” “A sensory deprivation that is amplified a million times. You feel this overwhelming frightening nothingness.” (Innerspace 151)

It has been said that the best way to describe absolute nothingness is to speak of it as “what you see behind your head.”  Since vision does not exist in the back of the head, what one sees there is absolute nothingness.  If I ask you what you see behind your head, you answer that you see nothing.  Contemplating on what one sees behind one’s head is therefore a good way to learn how to visualize absolute nothingness. (Innerspace 89)

The fire is the experience of being flooded by all of one’s past memories; once again ideas based on Huxley.

Imagine you start feeling a closeness to God and realize that God knows everything about you and everything you ever did.  You are standing naked before God, with your memory wide open, completely transparent, without any jamming mechanism or reducing valve to diminish its force.  You remember everything you every did and see it in a new light.  You see it in the light of the unshaded spirit, or, if you will, in God’s own light that shines from one end of creation to the other.  The memory of every good deed will be the sublimest of pleasures and most delightful bliss imaginable. (Innerspace 151)

But your memory will also be open to all the things of which you are ashamed.  The wrongs you committed burn; they are very painful, but it is worse than physical pain.  It is not even like a psychological pain that you could hide or run away from.  There is no possibility of rationalization, no dismissing it, no escaping it.  It is a pain that is there. (Innerspace 152)

The glow is according to Kaplan, a brilliant black light

Imagine a black that is as vivid as a blinding sun.  Now in an ordinary state of consciousness you could not imagine it.  In a meditative state you can.  You can imagine a black that becomes deeper and deeper and glows and radiates and becomes blindingly bright. (152)

Finally, the vision of the Chasmal  is the speaking silence of the top of hokhmah, which is keter as a speaking silence  or the often discussed synesthesia, or the Buddhist Nothingness, (which I discussed in the last post). Most discussions place synesthesia at a lower stage of consciousness, but Kaplan places it at top. He situates his own childhood experience as within the prophetic.

Meditative Mathematics

A completely different form of meditative experience are his forays into the visualization of complex analysis in math, his discussions of the topological concept of a Rieman Sphere. As a given throughout his writings, Kaplan assumed that the Kabbalah was up to date about the physical world and working with five dimensional space, in practice four dimensional. Math problems and topology were treated as meditations and a vital form of forming mental images.

When we view the Sefirot as being ten directions in a five-dimensional continuum, we can also interpret this in another manner.  Every pair of Sefirot defines an infinite line, extended infinitely in both directions.  The end points of such an infinite line, however, come together and meet once again in the “point at infinity.”  This is a fact recognized by mathematicians, and considerable use of the “point at infinity” is found in complex analysis, the calculus of complex numbers.

In our three-dimensional continuum, we can likewise extend all lines outward infinitely.  The end points of all these lines would then be an infinite sphere surrounding all space.  However, each opposing pair of lines would meet at the point at infinity, and therefore, all ongoing times must meet at this point. Thus, in one sense, the entire three-dimensional space continuum can be seen as surrounded by an infinite sphere.  In another sense, however, this entire infinite sphere can also be represented by a single point- the point at infinity.  A point, however, is infinitely small.  Thus the point at infinity can be seen as being both infinitely large and infinitely small at the same time. (Sefer Yetzirah 58- 59)

One can use this as a meditation.  Try to imagine the sphere at infinity and the point at infinity, and attempt to perceive how they are actually one.  You will then see that your usual conception of space and extension are not as simple as you believe. (Sefer Yetzirah 59)

Other Religions and Meditation

Kaplan was adamant and unyielding to all those who asked him about TM and other Eastern techniques that they were “foreign worship” (avodah zara).

Kaplan, however, saw the practices of other faiths as deriving form Judaism. He popularized the statement of Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (17th century Amsterdam) that the gifts of Abraham to his concubines were the Asian religions. He thought that the ancient Canaanite practice of worshiping a sacred grove or asherah was based on the Kabbalistic tree. Or that Rav Hai Gaon’s statement that the hekhalot were done by placing one’s ead between one’s legs became the ancient pagan worship of dust.

Realizing the importance of the tree symbolism in prophetic meditations, the idolaters attempted to emulate it. They actually planted trees which would serve as the object of their meditations and visions…. Through such Asherah trees, they hoped to ascend the spiritual Tree, which they most probably saw as the Tree of Life.” (107) In his speculative etymologies, Ashera is from the root shur- to see or have a vision of the tree.  “This ‘tree’ is often said to refer to the entire array of the Sefirot…ascending through this array plays a key role in prophetic meditation.”

“We often find counterparts of prophetic methods in idolatrous practices, since in many cases, the idolaters attempted to emulate the prophetic schools. A possible hint that this position was used among the idolatrous prophets is found in the Talmudic teaching that certain pagan Arabs used to “bow down to the dust of the feet….However, it would appear that some pagans viewed the prophetic position, where the great mystics sat with their head between their knees, and assumed that they were contemplating their toes, or the like. They adopted this practice and it gradually degenerated to the worship of the “dust of their feet.” (71)

Yet, Kaplan held that “Idolatrous and other occult practices often shed light on the prophetic methods.” (Innerspace 109, 115). Hence, he often used books about practices in other religions to figure out Jewish practices. We read books about Asian religions to reclaim Jewish practices which were primary.


Finally, Perle Besserman, one of his long time students, and the one who promoted him for his radio and TV interviews, asked him about the role of gender in these experiences in that it always was a male mystic who identified with the male zeir anpin making love to female shekinah. Kaplan answered that after we figure out the visualizations for men, we can figure out a useful visualization for females. It should be noted, that in the 1970’s, Kaplan was one of the few teachers within the Orthodox world who regularly taught women and encouraged them to study the Talmud, Oral law, and Kabbalah.

As a side point, Perle was among the cadre of his students who complained that Kaplan was more interested in theory than meditative practice, that he was not teaching meditation rather explaining Ezekiel. She therefore  returned to Eastern practices becoming a Buddhist practitioner and teacher.

Judging from the overtly sexual language reminiscent of a Tibetan tantra text, I noted that the Sefer Bahir seemed to suggest that the union of male and female sefirot not only be visualized but literally enacted in sexual intercourse. Informing Aryeh that I was uncomfortable with the idea of a female Kabbalist visualizing herself reflected in the “great bearded male continence” and making love to her husband in the form of the shekhinah, I asked if there was a way we might re-configure Rabbi Nehumiah’s meditation for women.

“Sure,” Aryeh replied. “But it’ll have to wait until we’ve deciphered all the meditations in their original form first.” (Perle Besserman, A New Kabbalah for Women 73)


Kaplan interprets the four elements of medieval thought- fire, water, air, and earth-in modern terms. Fire is the electromagnetic force, water is the strong nuclear force of mesons, air is the weak nuclear force, and earth is gravity. For him, these, in turn, correspond to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton. The forces of physics are the meditative forces. (Sefer Yetzirah 145-146). How does he make such leaps of connection?

This is not just our question, but was already a question when he was giving the classes. When discussing the Kabbalisitic image of the “Black Fire” of the Torah, Kaplan explained it as a black hole of negative energy. To which, one of the psychologists in the class asked: “Where are you finding this in the text?”

In the next class this question comes up again to which he answers with a verbal wink. Kaplan defined the sefirot as a three-dimensional spatial continuum of spiritual, time, and space implying that our goal is to get to the four dimension.  After this definition, he was asked: “Is that your own original analysis? To which Rabbi Kaplan answered: “A little bit  …. But it is Sefer Yetzirah”

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s God

To continue with the discussion of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s method, we turn to his view of God.  In these passages we see Kaplan portray God as computer system, as a cloud containing the data of our memories, and as a system of providence in which God does not reveal himself. God is also portrayed as an abstract principle similar to math. But ultimately, he thinks God is beyond our categories, similar to Buddhist Nothingness, and is only know through an expansion of consciousness. Should we follow his method and take the medieval philosophy and Kabbalah and adapts them for 21st century cosmology. Kaplan remains a theist with the traditional attributes of God including volition, but he uses computers, consciousness, and Buddhism to explain God instead of Aristotle or Kant.

This is part V in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- see Part IPart II, Part III  and Part IV for prior biographic discussion much of which has already been incorporated into Wikipedia. There will be Part VI within the next two weeks.

if you were god

I listened to the audio of the classes on which the book Sefer Yetzirah was based. In the discussion, he defined meditation as an expansion of consciousness, alternately he said “I believe that meditation is the channeling of the spiritual energy.” This expansion of consciousness is not mystical or intellectual but a third item called expansion of consciousness. That consciousness give the adept knowledge of God.

In the tapes, he discussed the Rabbi Elazar of Worms, Sodei Razaya meditation I discussed in the last post. comparing Sodei razaya to complex analysis in calculus, where according to him, infinite lines come together. At that point of infinite, there is insight. He compares it to the expansion of consciousness in  Zen Buddhism when is hit by one’s teacher.  One of the people in the class said this consciousness is like the force from Star Wars. Kaplan added it is was similar to hypnosis and they discussed the bio-feedback levels. Kaplan quoted in the discussion to explain consciousness Alan Watts, Andrew Greeley’s book on Ecstasy and Aldous Huxley.

Huxley’s two essays appear as a single book “The Doors of Perception”  “Heaven and Hell”, they both played a major role in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s thinking. Whereas most Jews who learned to meditation in the 1970’s tended to mean practices like TM or Zen, Kaplan definition of meditation was about opening to a higher consciousness, a unified state bringing everything together allowing a new insight into reality, an opening of windows to a deeper understanding. In various places, Kaplan used the word meditation as a synonym for mysticism, magic, and altered states of consciousness.  But the fact that he talked about meditation was enough for many in the 1970’s even if he did not teach meditation techniques beyond visualize letter, rebono shel olam and the slow shema. His practice was basic but letting people know about the extent of advanced texts and the potential within Torah was eye opening.

Before I go further, I must point out that Huxley points out that the way to maintain this consciousness with human relations, chores, charity, and compassion is by the right living and constant attention shown in the religious life, properly understood.  For Huxley, “Ideally, everyone should be able to find self-transcendence in some form of pure or applied religion.”  This seems to be an influence on Kaplan’s view of mizvot.

I am also finding that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s NCSY pamphlet “The Real You” is predominantly based on Aldrous Huxley’s Door of Perception /Heaven and Hell discussion of mescaline and consciousness opening. It seems the strategy was that we are going to keep kids off of drugs by saying they can have altered states of consciousness, synestheia, and opening their door of perception by knowing about Kabbalah. Huxley sees our minds as holding more data than we are aware of and the goal is to attain a higher consciousness to gain access to these levels of self.

In his pamphlet, The Real You, Kaplan asks the big questions about the soul and afterlife. Few ask those questions in Orthodoxy and fewer give cogent answers.

Here we see Kaplan’s contribution of reading and translating Kabbalah into modern cosmology. In this case, the nature of our souls as presented by R. Hayyim Vital is entirely digested and explained that for our era when the medieval kabbalah means that our minds are computers and God is the backup of the data.  In 2018 terms, our minds are mother boards that can be removed from one computer and placed into another one keeping the data intact. God is the cloud where we keep our data.  So that after we die, God holds our memory and personal identity the way the cloud holds your data after your devise dies. In everything that follows in this blog post, ask yourself if you think that was a good way to put medieval cosmology into 20th century terms. If he had lived longer, he probably would have loved string theory.

Kaplan turns reincarnation and gilgul into more modern theory of memory. This definition allowed him to completely reject Indian forms of reincarnation because those do not keep your memory and personality intact.  He was adamant to reject the opinions of those students coming to his classes with a more TM universal sense of soul that reincarnates without memory and personality. Kaplan, in contrast, argues that Judaism is about personality.  Since we are memory, Kaplan found it useful to explain heaven and hell as based on confronting our memories of past events, similar to Huxley.

A brain transplant raises enough questions. How about a memory transfer?


What happens then when a person dies?  God does not forget, and therefore all of this information continues to exist, at least in God’s memory.

(An allusion to this is also found in the Kaballah. Gan Eden or Paradise is said to exist in the sefirah of Binah — the divine understanding. This may well be related to the concept of memory. Souls, on the other hand, are conceived in the sefirah of Daas — knowledge. One may say that while we live, we exist in God’s knowledge; after death we exist in His memory.)

This sum total of the human personality existing in God’s memory is what lives on even after man dies…


In “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley quotes Prof. C.D. Broad’s comments on this. He says that every person is capable of remembering everything that has ever happened to him. He is able to perceive everything that surrounds him. However, if all this information poured into our minds at once, it would overwhelm us. So the function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us and prevent us from being overwhelmed and confused by the vast amount of information that impinges upon our sense organs. They shut out most of what we perceive and remember. All that would confound us is eliminated and only the small, special selection that is useful is allowed to remain.

Huxley explains that our mind has powers of perception and concentration that we cannot even begin to imagine. But our main business is to survive at all costs. To make survival possible, all of our mind’s capabilities must be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain.

Much of what we know about this static is a result of research done with drugs that eliminate it. According to a number of authorities, this is precisely how the psychedelic drugs work.

The disembodied soul spends much of its time learning how to focus. It is now seeing without physical eyes, using some process which we do not even have the vocabulary to describe. The Kabbalists call this frightening process Kaf HaKela

If God is guarantor of memory, a form of a data cloud, then where does a theory of God fit into all of this? For Kaplan, God wanted to bestow goodness on the world through letting human have freedom and make moral judgement on their own. Hence, he had to hide himself, only operating the world by means of the Kabbalist system of four world and sefirot.

If we were to imagine the spiritual domain, therefore, it could be described as an infinitely huge spiritual computer. This computer is programmed to fulfill God’s one ultimate purpose of bestowing good upon his creation. The main difference between the spiritual domain and a computer is that the components of the former consist of intelligent, sensitive, spiritual beings. (Innerspace 8)

Below, God is portrayed as computer, specifically as a computer feedback system where God as the highest world of Atzilut is the CPU and the lower divine worlds are the memory, program, and peripheral equipment of the computer. Providence works only through this Star Trek type deity. Yet, if you read the passage slowly, you will see that Kaplan is, in his mind, working with Ramchal’s Derech Hashem, a volume he had translated a few years before.

A computer system can provide us with an analogy to the constant interplay between the spiritual and the physical.  The programmer sitting at the console corresponds to the “Man” of Atzilut.  The CPU, Central Processing Unit, is the brain and memory bank of the computer, corresponding to Beriyah, the world of thought.  Suppose that the computer is programmed to control traffic lights throughout a large metropolitan area.  Transmission lines would then be coming out of the CPU, connecting it to traffic lights all over the city.  These transmission lines correspond to the universe of Yetzirah.  The traffic lights themselves are the peripheral equipment.  These lights correspond to the world of Asiyah, controlling traffic in the physical world.

We mentioned that the relationship between the physical and the spiritual is always dynamic.  Accordingly, God’s providential direction of the universe never ceases.  He is always acting in the world, guiding events based on our actions.  In effect, therefore, this is a “two-way” process with a built-in feedback loop to allow for changes in programming.  On the one hand, God is directing an ongoing input into the universe, irregardless of our actions.  On the other hand, God looks at what we do, judges it, and puts into the universe what He decides is appropriate relative to what we do.

In our model of the computer, the peripheral equipment will also contain this feedback loop.  On the one hand, the traffic lights are programmed to control traffic automatically.  On the other, sensors will record traffic flow.  For example, if the traffic on one street is blocked, the sensors will detect this, giving rise to a green-light command from the CPU to get the traffic flowing again. (Innerspace 34)


Later in the same volume, we are offered contrasting views of God. The first, God as Being to whom we relate to personally as an at of anthropomorphism. The second is God as an ever present immaterial Principle, the same way 1+1=2. A principle valid everywhere that avoids anthropomorphism and exists outside of time and space.  This is a God of mathematics. Kaplan concludes, that God as Principle is also inexact and only a mental construct. Instead, Kaplan seeks an image of God via meditation as a ground of existence. God is only know in this higher state of consciousness between verbal and non-verbal. Here is where computers meet Huxley and Buddhism.

We can speak of God as the Creator of the universe, thus conceiving of Him as a “Being.”  On the other hand, we can speak of God as the creative Force that gives existence to the universe, thus conceiving of Him as an abstract “Principle.”  The main thing that characterizes God as a being is that we can relate to Him personally. When we view God as the Creator and Master of the universe we are ascribing anthropomorphic concepts to Him that are most fitting to an omnipotent sentient being. (Innerspace 98)

The main thing that characterizes a principle, on the other hand, is that there is no place where it does not exist. This is like taking a mathematical principle such as 1+1=2. This simple equation is a good example of something that does not exist in space, and yet, at the same time, exists everywhere.

For many reasons, therefore, it would be useful to think of God as a principle rather than a being.  For one thing, it would make it readily understandable how He exists outside of space and time and yet fills all space and time.  For another, an idea such as this breaks down the stereotyped anthropomorphic concepts that people have about God. (Innerspace 98)

Actually, both “principle” and “being” are approximations that we use because the mind has no categories into which it can place God It may be that third, intermediate category would be a better approximation, but the mind has no example of it. Nevertheless, through meditation, one can gain a glimmer of the nature of this third category.  This involves a deliberate oscillation between verbal and non-verbal states of consciousness.  It is alluded to in the Sefer Yetzirah’s statement that one should emulate the living angels (Chayot) who are constantly “running and returning” (Ezekiel 1:14). (98-99)

Thus, when we commune with God, it is as if we are in touch with existence itself, but at the same time speaking to it as if it were a being to whom we can relate. Still, we realize that God is more than this. He is the infinite Being and absolute Principle that allows existence to be. (Innerspace 99)

Even within this system, we have still cannot grasp this God who is beyond our understanding, called  Atik Yomin, the Ancient of Days. We only know the lower  aspect of the divine called Arikh Anpin, the Long Face of mercy and compassion

Even if we say that God can place restraints on Himself, we still have an unknown will that transcends our understanding why He is placing restraints on Himself.

In essence, therefore, we see that God’s will has two aspects in relation to us.  On the one hand, we cannot fathom God’s will because it originates at a level that completely transcends our logic.  This is the level of Atik Yomin, the Ancient of Days, which is totally unknown and goes back before anything can be thought of.  On the other hand, there is a part of God’s will that operates through logic.  This involves God’s constricting His will so that man can have some understanding of Him.  This is the level of Arikh Anpin, the Long Face of mercy and compassion. (Innerspace, 100)

Kaplan identified this unknown aspect of God who is beyond our understanding with the Buddhist concept of Nothingness. He said that the ideas of Ayin and Effes was Nothingness. He did this years before Daniel C Matt wrote a famous article making that equation. Kaplan’s sources were books on Zen Buddhism, where the Nothingness is the emptiness of satori, a higher consciousness. He did not seem to know Theravada Buddhism.

As the text notes, this represents the unity that preceded the concept of number.  It introduces a device very much like Zen koan, asking, “Before one, what do you count”?  What is the number that precedes all number?

Both the point at infinity and the koan are meant to train the mind to visualize absolute nothingness.  The Ari notes that Keter, the highest of the Sefirot, is often designated by the word Ayin, meaning “nothing.”  The Infinite Being, the level above Keter, cannot even be designated by this word.  The only word that can be used is Effes, which, according to the Ari, denotes a nothingness that thought (Binah) cannot grasp at all. (Sefer Yetzirah 89)

As in many places in his book, the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria was used to explain a word in Sefer Yetzirah and the entire Kabbalistic concept needs to be grounded in modern categories.

Rabbi Kaplan was strict to keep his entire discussion within a rational framework of Saadiah’s and Maimonides’ rational theology of avoidance of anthropomorphisms. God does not sit as we do, rather sitting means God lowers his providential power to interact with the world.

As discussed earlier (1:4), when we speak of God as “sitting,” it means that He is lowering His essence so as to be concerned with His creation.  His Throne is the object upon which He sits, and hence, it denotes the vehicle of such lowering and concern.

While “sitting” is a lowering that one does on one’s own initiative, prostrating oneself and bowing is a lowering that one does because of a higher power.  The tools of God’s concern are the Sefirot, since it is through them that He directs the universe.  As a result of the concept of God’s Throne, the Sefirot must also lower their essence and interact with the lower world.  The Sefer Yetzirah therefore says, “before His Throne they prostrate themselves.” (56)

These quotes are from his Kabbalistic works. For his more popular views, see As if you were God and Handbook of Jewish Thought




Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan – Creating 20th Century Jewish Meditation

This is part IV in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- see Part I, Part II, and Part III for prior biographic discussion much of which has already been incorporated into Wikipedia. There will be Parts V and Part VI within the next two weeks, maybe even later this week.

How did Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan take an obscure medieval Ashkenaz description of the Godhead and turn it into a meditative practice of infinite space similar to the 1960’s understanding of meditation? Answer: The same way Swami Vivekananda took the medieval Kurma Purana and turned it into modern meditation about sitting straight and focusing. Should we follow his method and take the plethora of kabbalsitic texts published by scholars and adapt them as 21st century meditation? What if this had been the path into modernity for Judaism the way it was for Neo-Hinduism? What if the Reform and Orthodox movements of 1910 had turned to transcendental idealism to create a meditative Torah?

SY- cover

Kaplan’s approach to producing a Jewish meditation is what he calls the “practice of verbal archaeology.”  He assumes the prophets were meditating to reach prophecy, which basically stopped after Ezekiel. Now, one can only do verbal archaeology by looking at meaning of words as translated in older commentaries which may preserve the true meaning. (Meditation and the Bible). Among the older commentaries are the works of the Kabbalists.

The early 13th century Sodei Razaya by Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (also called Rokeach) describes God’s Glory and the limitless Creator above. Within the book are a few paragraphs about the infinite of the Creator and the need to direct our hearts to the ten limitless dimensions when addressing God. They are the Sublime, depth, above and below, east west, north, south, past, future, good, evil), a spatial approach to God, rather than the more familiar scholastic philosophers who discuss God’s essence and attributes. The next paragraph after the ten dimensions moves quickly to the relevant point that God does not appear to us as these limitless dimensions but rather as the ever changing shekhinah. Most academic scholarship focuses either on the abstractness of the Creator or on visualizing the shekhinah/kavod. In contrast, Kaplan turns the presentation of the creator into a meditation on Infinite Space. I specifically choose this passage rather than the hundreds of other possible passages in Aryeh Kaplan because it shows the gap between the scholarly reading of a cryptic text and Kaplan’s reading.

The creator has no limit, boundary or appearance. If He possessed a limit the way every creature has limits, how could he be in the midst of all and not be touched by all…

Every blessing requires one to think in one’s heart for intention to Our Father in Heaven. To consider the unity of the ten directions and there is no other. By what means? Consider the sublime (lit. above) without giving end to ones thoughts. Rather, think of the creator as sublime (above) and none else and the impossibility of understanding Him. Similarly, below into the depth, the depth who can fathom, and none else. He is impossible to understand.

Think of the expanses of the sky and below as well as the directions of east, west, north and south. Think about before the world from the beginning until the end [lemaaleh]. Do not place a limit to your thoughts that you think about the creator. Rather, He exists from the primordial past until now, there is none other. Similarly, for the end of days, from now until forever.

Begin thinking from the beginning of time without limit to your thought except He is God and there is none else. Similarly, for the ends of the depth of good and depths of bad, which show beneficence to the good and to destroy the bad. To exist in exaltedness and variations. The creator is completely desire and filled with knowledge and power.

We find changes in the Shekhinah [appearing] sometimes as a young man and sometimes as an old man. Know that the reason is because the Kavod (glory) appears to the prophets according to the needs of the moment.   (Sodei Razaya 40-41)

Aryeh Kaplan in his book Sefer Yetzirah turns these intentions to the infinite Creator- Father in Heaven into mental and nonverbal meditations on infinite.  The Sefer Yetzirah speaks of depths of the world in Mishanh 1:5. Kaplan identifies those depths with the Kabbalistic sefirot and with the depths described by Rabbi Eleazar of Worms.

Kaplan converts Eleazar of Worms into meditation by adding the imperative “to picture” and the instructions about letting “the mind travel.” Kaplan in his introduction to the book wrote that he is translating the book as statements but that he really feels all statements of Sefer Yetzirah are imperatives. He also places the ten dimensions as a temporal sequence. He also removes reference to this as done at the time of prayer or to the personified Father in Heaven.”

The Sefer Yetzirah does not speak of directions, but of depths, an idea that if difficult to understand and far from one’s comprehension, is also said to be deep….

Although the depths of these directions is infinite, it can be described mentally. The first technique involves verbal thought… Gradually, then, once can learn to depict these infinite depths non-verbally.

The first exercise is to try to depict the “depth of beginning.” Attempt to picture an infinity of time on the past. Let the mind travel back to a moment ago, and an hour ago, a day ago, a year ago, continuing until you reach a level where you are trying to imagine an infinity ago. Then do the same with regard to the future.

The next exercise involves trying to imagine good and infinite evil. The limits are pure ideas, which cannot be verbalized.

Finally, one must imagine the limits of the spacial [sic] dimensions. One must perceive the height of the sky and beyond the sky. The depth of the earth and beyond the earth.

In this manner, one gradually trains the mind to depict the infinite.  (48-9)

These exercises are actually described by R. Eliezer of Wormes [sic] (355 ftnt 112)

Kaplan took an obscure medieval text and made it sound like a 20th century meditative path.

His idiom was contemporary for the 1970’s in which the higher states of meditation were about infinite space. The American scholar, Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman in his pioneering works on meditation portrayed meditation “the need for the meditator to retrain his attention” not the softer forms of mindfulness currently practiced. Goleman also focused on Buddhist meditation on infinite space as starting in the 5th level of Buddhist meditation.

Just as important, Anagarika Brahmacari Govinda in his Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (New York : Samuel Weiser, Inc., [1958, 1975] p. 117 also portrays this infinite space. This was not the era of meditation as mindfulness, rather meditation was considered as great acts of mental focus.

However, Kaplan did not actually teach these techniques in his classes nor did he practice them. He did not create a meditative school. Most of those who came to him because they were interested in Asian meditative techniques returned to their Hindu and Buddhist teachers, even among some of his closest students. His accomplishment was presenting texts only known by scholars and only discussed in their harder to find articles in the public domain. And for the last forty years, English language books on Jewish spirituality are indebted in his popular presentations and adaptations.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s method of popularizing obscure and cryptic texts, for example taking a 13th century text and presenting it in 20th century terms should be seen as part of broader methods. Instead of contextualizing that maneuver in the culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s, where NCSY meets TM,  his texts are similar to the work of Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu teacher who revolutionized the way the West thought of Hinduism with his appearance at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions. Vivekananda’s works took millennium old texts and breathed new life into them by creating a modern method of meditation. He argued that Hinduism is not temple worship to statues but a modern cultivation of the mind, an activity eminently progressive form of New Thought and philosophic idealism. Largely because of him, we use the words mantra and yoga in English. Almost anything taught by today’s Ashram leaders is based on Vivekanada’s method of modernizing prior texts.

Vivekananda took a few pages of the medieval work Kurma Purana, a long work of legend, mythology, geography, pilgrimage, and theology, as his base by which to abstract a system of meditation. According to the Kurma Purana, yoga (which in this context means meditation as purifying the mind) gives knowledge and identity with God.  Here is the medieval version.

From yoga comes knowledge; knowledge, again, helps the yogi to obtain freedom. He who combines in himself both yoga and knowledge─with him the Lord is pleased. Those who practice maha-yoga [meditation on the Self] either once a day, or twice, or thrice, or always─know them to be gods. Yoga is divided into two parts: one is called abhava-yoga, and the other, maha-yoga. That in which one’s self is meditated upon as a void and without qualities is called abhava-yoga. That in which one sees one’s self as blissful, bereft of all impurities, and as one with God is called maha-yoga. (Quoted in Raja-Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda)

Vivekanada turns the medieval work into directions for modern people by telling them to sit straight, have positive thoughts, chant a mantra, visualize space, flames, one’s heart, and God. Rather than a medieval language we have a modern physics language of “makes one’s mind a channel for thought waves.”

Sit in a straight posture. The next thing to do is to send a current of holy thought to all creation. Mentally repeat: “Let all beings be happy; let all beings be peaceful; let all beings be blissful.” So do to the east, south, north, and west. The more you practice this, the better you will feel. You will find at last that the easiest way to make ourselves healthy is to see that others are healthy, and the easiest way to make ourselves happy is to see that others are happy.

Another meditation is given: Think of a space in your heart, and think that in the midst of that space a flame is burning. Think of that flame as your own soul. Inside the flame is another effulgent light, and that is the Soul of your soul, God. Meditate upon that in the heart.

Then the wise man should meditate upon the luminous, benign form of the Lord…Then he must meditate upon his oneness with the luminous form of the Lord.  Lastly, he must let the form vanish and meditate upon the Atman. (591, 620)

Meditation is cultivating a single thought reminiscent of the subject of meditation by repeating it over and over again. By following the same method and concentrating on the same subject at the same center of consciousness, that single thought becomes a giant thought-wave. In course of time the mind develops a channel for that thought-wave and the practice becomes effortless. No practice, however mechanical or intermittent, is ever lost.

Kaplan used the language of mantra and meditation that Vivekanada bequeathed to the English language. Many of these same adaptation techniques in his translations of a medieval text were done by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.

Now imagine, if Kaplan had lived in 1900 and wrote works against Western and Eastern European Jewry arguing that a modern Judaism should be meditative and about the elevation of the mind. Further imagine if he had established in 1910 dozens of meditation centers and centers for Jewish Innerspace or a modern denomination of meditation. If he had done this, then we would now know Judaism as a meditation religion. Modern Jewish thought might have been about consciousness and mind cultivation.

However, Kaplan himself would have not actually done this since he did not practice or teach the meditations, such as the one above. He would as part of a public presentation teach his audience to say the shema slowly, to visualize the divine name, and/or repeat ribono shel olam. But the 1000’s of meditations in his work, he did not practice or teach as meditative paths. If he had not died, he would have been more interested in string theory in the kabbalah than a Jewish ashram.

Now let us return to Kaplan’s interest in visualizing the infinite where verbal and non-verbal meet. As noted above, much of this comes from the psychologist Goleman and Lama Anagarika Govinda’s work on Tibetan Buddhism. But was the latter a valid source of meditative knowledge? Why did Kaplan gravitate to that work? Lama Anagarika Govinda (1898-1985), polymath scholar, mystic, writer, painter and poet, was not a real lama, rather a German philosopher and artist who moved in India and thought Buddhism was the path to enlightening our minds and leading to creativity. Govinda thought Buddhism was the best form of German Lebensphilosophie “philosophy of life” to produce a superior person.

Govinda wrote essays on the relationship of time and space and the need to reach a point of infinite space above these categories. For Govinda, “all the powers and faculties of the universe are within us, unless we have activated them through practice or made them accessible through training they will never become realities that influence our life.” He wanted us to combine the potentials of the unconscious mind or depth conscious mind with that of our rational conscious mind.  For him, “as little as we can live by the intellect alone, can we live by the “unconscious” alone.” For Govinda, meditation means “putting ourselves into a state of intuitive receptiveness, in which the gates of the past and the present are open to the mind’s eye. “

The above foray into Vivekananda and Govinda offer a basis for understanding Kaplan’s amazing adaptation of Rabbi Eleazar of Worms. Hoever, Kaplan has many more influences including Aldrous Huxley, Charles Tart, Werner Heisenberg, Sir John Woodroffe, and W. Y. Evans-Wentz.

Academic scholarship in its discussions of Ashkenaz Piety and early kabbalah translate many passages about contemplative visualization done in that era. The soul must visually imagine or think about the creator, the glory and images of sacred space.

If we were to continue Kaplan’s method, how would we modernize these other passages? Here are some passages from E. Wolfson’s Through a Speculum that Shines- Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism, Princeton University Press, 1994. How would Kaplan have read them as imperatives and as about cultivating the mind?  Kaplan did not read texts as visions, he did not a visionary path but one of internalization and mental contemplations. Kaplan also removed as much as possible any anthropomorphism or direct visions of God. So, if we wanted to apply his method, how would he have scripted the following texts?

Eleazar of Worms,

A person should not think only about the glory that appears opposite the exalted throne but rather about the Creator of all who manifests His glory to those who are righteous in their hearts, for He is one and nothing resembles Him, blessed be He, and thus He ‘is near to all who call Him’ (Ps., 145-18).

The Creator is outside the images (mar’ot) and within them..

Since it is written ‘For I fill both heaven and earth’ (Jer. 23-24), why does one need to pray in a Synagogue or in the Temple? Yet, there is a place in which the Holy One, blessed be He, shows the created glory to the prophet according to the need of the hour. One might ask- how can one bow down to something created? And consider these verses- It is written, ‘For I granted many visions, and through the prophets was imaged’ (Hosea 12-11)… Rather the [vision] is nothing but a wonderful image (dimyon) and it appears as if he actually saw but it is nothing but a strong image. It is written, ‘upon this semblance of a throne there was the semblance of a human form’ (Ezek. 1-26); so too here [in the case of Isaiah] it is only an image.

Two responses to Rabbi Shai Held- Prof Sam Fleischacker and Rabbi Zach Truboff  

Welcome back after the holidays. Before Rosh Hashanah, I posted an exceptionally good interview with Rabbi Shai Held on his moral musar as shown in his Biblical commentary- Torah of the Heart. A Torah of chesed- compassion, gratitude, responsibility, respect for others, loving the stranger,and hearing the pain of others. Rabbi Shai Held presented a journey to develop our moral character until we are ethical beings like Abraham. Here are two responses to the interview. I wanted to post the responses before Sukkot for continuity but it was not to be.


The two responses both appreciate the turn to ethics and musar but have opposite premises about the nature of ethics.

The first response of Prof Sam Fleischacker, who has posted on this blog before, agrees with Held’s message but wants a more rigorous grappling with the philosophic issues.  (1) What is the role of justice in the system? He is especially emphasizing the cold role of law, din, and justice. (2) Why Jewish love of fellow? Every great teacher has a similar message, so what resources does Judaism offer to make us good that other traditions do not. (3) How can we overcome self-deception? How can we move from knowing what to do to actually doing it?

The second response of Rabbi Zach Truboff lauds Held as grounding morality in a covenantal theology of God’s love thereby rejecting a purely autonomous ethic. Truboff also likes the emphasis on gratitude, lovingkindness, and a renewal of moral language. However, Truboff finds that there are times where Held’s approach downplays Divine command and the land of Israel, both themes of his own teachers.


#1 Response of Prof Sam Fleischacker

I am very sympathetic to Rabbi Held’s project.  I have argued in my own work that, as Held puts it, “Torah without ethics is not Torah at all, but … Torah that’s only ethics is … incomplete” (that’s the core idea in my Divine Teaching and the Way of the World and The Good and the Good Book, discussed here and here on this blog).  I also agree whole-heartedly that this aspect of Torah tends to be missing from (Orthodox) day-schools and yeshivot today, which “accentuate the particular to such an extent that the universal human [is] often lost.”  Held brings out the universal beautifully and he has a gift for close readings that unearth rich and subtle implications:  his use of Ibn Ezra on Exodus 22:21-3, and interpretation of Ezekiel 29:3, in the interview, are especially nice examples of this.

My own local rabbi has also been using Held’s commentaries in his drashot:  a terrific one on the word tzur, for God, in Haazinu formed the basis of his talk recently. From what I heard, and from the readings in the interview, I look very much forward to acquiring and using The Heart of Torah.

But there were places in the interview where I felt a deeper grappling with the tradition of non-Jewish moral philosophy could be helpful.  Below are some examples.

1) Held talks in the interview about our duties to the poor and the stranger entirely in terms of chesed:  love, kindness, compassion — the warm, emotional virtues.  What happened to justice — the cold, rational virtue that can sometimes lead to far more comprehensive and effective ways of helping people on the margins of society than any warm feelings towards them?  In his lectures on ethics, Immanuel Kant writes that giving alms to the poor “flatters the giver’s pride” while “demeaning” those to whom the alms are given, adding that beneficence to others should “be commended as a debt we owe, [rather] than as a piece of kindness and generosity.”  I’ve always found this admonition very powerful.  It makes clear, among other things, that we owe aid to poor and oppressed people whom we don’t particularly like as well as to the ones who touch our heartstrings.  (For a fascinating non-Kantian version of this thought, see Sarah Pessin’s critique of a politics of love at https://politicaltheology.com/americas-love-problem/).  Perhaps we could say that helping people out of justice is a form of love (chesed), but it’s probably better to distinguish din from chesed and appreciate the great moral value of the former as well as the latter.

2) Held is understandably annoyed by people who respond to his teachings by saying, “So, basically, you’re saying I should be a good person.”  But I’d like to hear more about how he means to fend off this dismissive reaction.  In the interview, we are given some wonderful readings of texts, but at the end of the day, they all seem to say, “Be loving” (or at most:  “Devote yourself to a loving God, which will enable you to be loving.”)  And if that is the end of the story, a dismissive shrug seems not inappropriate.

To be sure, it’s highly intriguing to present Judaism as centered around love:  that’s how we Jews usually think of other religions, not our own.  But by the same token, Judaism is hardly the only religion or philosophy that teaches the importance of love.  Christianity teaches it, and Buddhism teaches it, and Frances Hutcheson and Gandhi taught it.  What is distinctive about Judaism that should lead Jews, or anyone else, to turn to it for a message of love?  Why bother with Torah as a source for such a teaching, rather than just cultivating a kind heart — or turning to the Gospels or Gandhian satyagraha?

In a way, this is one instance of a larger problem faced by all moral teachers, whether in a religious or a philosophical context:  how do we make what we have to say interesting?  The most important ethical prescriptions are fairly obvious, after all.  Don’t deceive;  don’t be violent;  be kind;  help those in distress.  None of this is exactly news.  What is interesting, what is deeply disturbing, is that we all, regularly, fail to live up to these prescriptions — often rationalizing our failings to ourselves rather than correcting them.  Why do we do this?  How can we stop doing it?  What can a text or tradition teach us that will help us carry out the duties that we all know we should carry out?  If Held can answer these questions, he will do us a great service.  Telling us just what we ought to do, by contrast, is not very exciting.

3) One issue that can make a moral teaching interesting is the way it deals with the issue of self-deception — a pervasive source of our failure to live up to the demands of morality.  (“I don’t need to be honest to him,” I tell myself, “He did _______ to me”, where the blank is filled in with a self-serving description of a harm that I have blown up into an excuse for bad behavior.)  Self-deception is also a particular danger for moral philosophers themselves.  All too easily, we who teach morality convince ourselves that the fact that we talk a good game is enough to excuse us from actually behaving in decent fashion to the people around us.

That said, there are fascinating discussions of self-deception in moral philosophy.  Søren Kierkegaard makes the danger that one’s teaching will come apart from one’s life a central theme of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript.  Before him, Bishop Butler gave two wonderful sermons on self-deception (one of these focused on Balaam) and Adam Smith devoted a brilliant chapter to it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Kant also makes illuminating remarks on it and I think it is an subterranean, but crucial, theme of Plato’s Republic.  I’m curious about whether Held takes up this theme, and if so, how.  There are characters in the Torah who seem to exemplify self-deception:  Pharaoh, of course (see, especially, Exodus 10:7-11, for a paradigm of bad behavior rationalized as good), and perhaps also Korach and Dathan and Abiram.  It would be interesting to see if the Torah’s way of dealing with self-deception contributes to a distinctive moral philosophy — and a moral philosophy that helps us actually carry out our duties rather than telling us simply what they are.


#2 Response of Rabbi Zach Truboff  

The German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant vehemently argued that the moral law was not be found in Divine revelation or religious traditions, rather was accessible to any rational agent. An act was good if it could be applied universally. Kant had little use for the

God of the Bible who commands subservience. Once it could be shown that morality was not dependent on religion, doors were opened even wider for those who wanted to abandon traditional Judaism.

Shai Held often cites a statement coined by Michael Wyschograd that the story of Judaism in the last two centuries is predominantly a “Judaism of self-liquidation” (Body of Faith, 181).  If the most important aspect of Judaism is its ethical message and that message can be found outside of religion, then why would one remain committed to outdated religious beliefs and practices? If anything, Wyschograd argues, modern thinkers assert that the “liberation from God constitutes the purification of the ethical. The ethics of religion it is maintained, is an ethics of punishment. But without God, the ethical is obeyed for its own sake, and this is surely a higher stage of the ethical” (181).

Even for those who ostensibly choose to remain committed to Judaism, Kant’s shadow lingers.

However, a Jewish theology authentically rooted in the Bible’s world view must by necessity push back against the revolution initiated by Kant.

The Biblical narrative repeatedly shows us that God can never be divorced from the good. Held’s shows that the story of the Torah begins with a God of life who creates human beings in His own image and affirms their unconditional dignity. Most importantly, the God of life is also a God of love who chooses to share His love with the descendants of Abraham. God’s love means “we are asked to love God in return. More than that, we are asked to love those who God loves: the neighbor and the stranger” (xxx). The Bible singles out God’s love for the vulnerable and oppressed, asking us to do the same.

The moral imperative created by God’s love is not limited only to the life of the individual but rather penetrates all aspects of society. For the God of love, there can be no separation between the moral and religious realms. Rather, “To embrace the covenant between God and Israel is to be summoned to embody the good and the holy” (xxix). God’s love is also essential to understanding that the good must always be at the heart of Torah.

Held cites the midrash, which emphatically states that, “The beginning of the Torah is lovingkindness, the middle of the Torah is lovingkindness, and the end of the Torah is lovingkindness” (296). The Torah begins with God clothing Abraham and Sara after exiling them from the Garden of Eden and it ends with God burying Moses after his death. In the middle, God visits Avraham while he is in need of healing after undergoing circumcision.  In effect, this expresses the idea that “The very essence of Torah, the sages thus insist, is a God of love and kindness who calls Israel to love and kindness” (296).

Deeply aware that such statements often end up as little more than empty platitudes, Held instead argues that it must be read as a radical challenge to all those who hold the study of Torah to be among the highest of Judaism’s ideals.  With powerful prose, he explains:

“Torah can elicit staggering degrees of goodness and generosity of spirit; it can motivate us to love when hate seems much easier, to care for the pain of others when indifference seems the surer path. But Torah can also be made to serve the opposite ends: It can serve to deepen selfishness and self-involvement; it can be cited to bolster chauvinism and cultivate hate… The Torah we learn and teach should help us become kinder, more generous, more empathic and willing to give; if it merely buttresses our biases and hardens our hearts, then it is simply not Torah” (298).

Mussar and Middot

Throughout nearly every essay in The Heart of Torah, Held contemplates various ways in which the Bible helps point us towards moral transformation. Held’s focus on ethics has coincided with a renewed interest in Mussar by many segments of the American Jewish community. At a time when most Jews lack a common moral language, an emphasis on character enables a broader discourse that transcends denominational boundaries.

Held draws inspiration from the Biblical interpretations of the Mussar masters famous for their harsh critique of traditional Jewish practice. For example, when God demands of Moshe that Israel must be annihilated for the sin of the Golden Calf, God highlights the stiff-necked character of the Jewish people even more than the transgression of idol worship (Exodus 32:9-10). Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka, explains that, “From here we see that defect in character is even worse than a defect in action- more serious even than a grave sin like idolatry” (203-204). According to Held, “What Finkel is suggesting- in the most dramatic possible terms- is that Judaism is concerned not just with what we do, but also with who we are. Jewish ethics is focused not just on conduct but also on character. From a Jewish perspective, character matters, and the cultivation of good character lies at the heart of religious life” (204).

Held returns often to the idea of gratitude. For the Bible, gratitude is fundamental to the religious personality. Unlike other attributes, it is inherently relational and therefore is always directed towards another, whether it be our fellow human beings or God.

I found myself particularly drawn to a close reading that he offers of the narrative of Leah, a reading that  illustrates the complexity and significance of gratitude. Held is aware that it is all too easy to see Leah as a pathetic character in the context of the narratives of Bereshit. Despite the knowledge that she was not chosen by her husband, she still yearns for his love. It is her hope that by providing him children, she will finally win Jacob’s affection.

Held cites a strange Talmudic claim that until this moment no human being had truly expressed authentic gratitude. He explains that this makes sense if we recognize that Leah’s gratitude is unique because it is accompanied by terrible disappointment. With the birth of Judah, she has come to the conclusion that Jacob will never love her as she desires. Nevertheless, in the midst of her pain she has also come to recognize with gratitude the good she has experienced.

From her example, Held draws an important lesson, one that resonates with me more and more as the years pass.

“Disappointment need not preclude gratitude, and nor need gratitude crowd out the very real possibility of disappointment. Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other, but rather makes space- indeed, seeks to teach us to make space- for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience. Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness” (63).

Can the God of Love also be a God of Law?

A focus on “loving the stranger” and character can be morally uplifting, but does the Bible have anything to say about the role of Jewish law in moral life?

For a religious thinker such as Held who focuses on the idea of covenant, it is surprising that command is minimally addressed in his essays. Held’s call for a return to a God centered morality is to be lauded, but one must question whether such an approach is even possible without repeatedly emphasizing that the God who loves is also the God who commands.

For Held, God’s love is so foundational to the covenant that it precedes and at times takes priority over and above God’s commandments.

However, Held’s own teacher, Jon D. Levenson, makes clear that the love of God can never be separated from obedience to God’s commands. After carefully analyzing a series of Biblical verses that describe the Jewish people’s love for God, Levenson explains that “’Those who love [the Lord],” it would seem, are synonymous with those who “keep His commandments’… Love, so understood, is not an emotion, not a feeling, but a cover term for acts of obedient service” (The Love of God, 4).

Levenson also turns to the writings of Franz Rosenzweig to show that on an existential level, God’s love can never be separated from a sense of command that accompanies it.  Rosenzweig asks: “Can love then be commanded? Is love not a matter of fate and of being deeply touched, and if it is indeed free, is it not sheerly a free gift? (Galli, 190.) Rosenzweig answers with the following: “Yes, of course, love cannot be commanded; not third party can do so, but the One can. The commandment of love is not an alien commandment; it is nothing other than the voice of love itself” (Galli, 191.)

Levenson writes that “love makes man com[e] out of the boundaries of his ego.” (Levenson, 190.) We live at a time when a rampant culture of social media combines with a pervasive philosophy of radical individualism to trap so many within the walls of their own ego.  We would do well to remember the ways in which Divine love at the heart of the covenant serves not only to inspire us but also engenders a sense of command that can help us transcend our selfishness.

Covenantal Morality and the Land of Israel

One particular line of thought also deserves further development within Held’s writing. As stated by Prof. Alan Brill in his original interview, there are times when Held’s philosophy seems to “desiccate the elements of historical narrative and collective nationalism from the Biblical text.”

It is hard to claim that love is at the heart of covenant without also making clear that the Land of Israel is an essential part of it as well.

This is clearly the case from even just a straightforward reading of the Torah in which the land of Israel serves as both a symbol and guarantee of God’s covenantal relationship with the Jewish people. However, this is also true on a philosophical level as well.

In the words of Yitz Greenberg, another mentor of Held’s, “God calls his covenantal people into existence to serve as a paradigm and witness to the true nature of and destiny of human life… This people needs land, security, health; it is affected by war, drought, death; it must meet the challenges and temptations of existence as best as it can” (Land, People, and Faith: A Dialectical Theology, 62.) In the end, Held’s Biblical theology of morality tends to focus on the individual, and in doing so, ignores the ways in which the Jewish people’s collective moral development is rooted in the attempt to build a just and moral society together in the Promised Land.

What exactly is to be found at the heart of Torah?

Held’s essays are full of penetrating insights into the Biblical text, and his covenantal vision of God’s love is a perspective that many will find stirring. However, there is an additional reason that makes “The Heart of Torah” a compelling work, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that his own philosophical and theological explorations of the Biblical text are at the end of the day an attempt at “finding my own acute problems and questions, my own torturing anxieties and fears, my own inspiriting hopes and aspirations in the story of Biblical heroes. The detection of one’s own self in Biblical man is an exciting experience… It is a redemptive and enhancing awareness” (4). Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words remind us that while God and morality may be found at the heart of Torah, we must also find ourselves there as well.

Shai Held’s essays retain a quality rarely found in most contemporary Jewish scholarship, because they are infused with his own fears, his dilemmas, his hopes, and his dreams. Reading his writings is an exciting experience, and if it helps nudge even just a few to open their hearts a little wider to both God and the good, it is perhaps a redemptive one as well.

Interview with Shai Held- The Heart of Torah

“The world is built on chesed” (Psalm 89:3), best translated when dealing with Jewish thought as loving-kindness, or a loving approach towards other people. Maharal (d. 1609) sees our acts of chesed as flowing from the chesed shown to us by God. This is made a principle teaching of musar teachers of Judaism, especially those including Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in his Miktav mi-Eliyahu and Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky in his Netivot Shalom. The emphasis is that it is not enough to do acts of chesed, but one must be a chesed personality.

Rabbi Dr. Shai Held considers that chesed as love and kindness is the core of his Biblical message, along with the corollaries of gratitude and responsibility toward others.  The “heart of Torah,” of the Torah and of all religion is “about softening our hearts and learning to care.” To present these ideas, Held has recently published a two volume set, The Heart of Torah, Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and ExodusThe Heart of Torah, Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy both (The Jewish Publication Society, 2017). Shai Held is President, Dean. and Chair in Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute. Rabbi Held has twice graced this blog with interviews. Seven years ago, he was interviewed as an introduction to Hadar and then in 2013 he was interviewed about his book Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence. Much that I could say in this introduction was already covered in the prior interviews.


In the interview below, I treated the book less as a Biblical commentary and more as a musar book exhorting us to lead a life of showing chesed. The two volumes allowed Held to work out his moral vision. I tried to capture that moral vision in the interview. In many ways, I see this work of Held’s as a midpoint on the theoological way to his next book to be published by Farrar, Straus, &Giroux (forthcoming in two years) about the centrality of love in Jewish theology, spirituality, and ethics. For Held, Judaism is, at heart, a story about a God of love who summons us to lead lives of love.

How do you know that one has this obligation of showing chesed? For Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, these imperatives are known through reason and intuition,  for the Musar masters, following Maharal, these imperatives are a divine decree of how the world is structured, and for the Religious Zionist Moshe Unna, they are a conscious choice to read the texts in a moral, rather than immoral way. Held accepts all of these approaches in his moral theory.

Another major point in the ethical theory in the book, similar to the musar masters use of Maharal, is that God’s love for Israel is not on account of Abraham or Israel’s merits but is “pure grace.” God chooses humanity, Abraham, or Israel as an act of giving of himself. In addition, biblical chosenness requires a higher degree of demand, accountability and moral responsibility.  In Held’s reading, that choosiness in the Biblical message is not limited to Jews, rather it extends to humanity.

In addition, Held emphasizes the dialectic of God’s as both transcendent and immanent. God is known in both forms. But he does not work with the midrashic-kabbalictic-musar dialectic of din and rahamin, judgment and mercy,  and hate and love. His vision is on the love. At points, the volumes can be sermonic and moralistic as a work of musar homilies. But he is motivated by a sincere quest to restore the concern with chessed to the Jewish community. The reader should also be aware that the style of the writing is of long independent essays with footnotes, to scholarship, to Christian theologians, and to many commentaries. The work is not short paragraphs to read in synagogue, but something to savor on the long Friday nights of the winter.

Chesed is not just volunteering for a synagogue chesed project or writing a check. For Held, chesed is an entire approach to life. One is to be like Abraham, an embodiment of chesed. When one hears about events in the news, or government policy, or the affliction of contemporary poor and afflicted then one should respond from the responsibility of living a life of chesed.

In this book, when Held writes about society, the discussion in this book goes to the ideal Edenic society and not the realistic politics in our 21st century American long after Eden. In our after Eden American life, Held affirms that attacks on “other people’s humanity is by definition an assault on God.”  Nevertheless, this book with its emphasis on a Biblically mandated concept of human dignity lets the reader understand the basis behind his reactions to contemporary American politics. This is how to respond to God’s gift to us by showing responsibility to act with chesed. Held certainly has an ideal communal project, but his political vision is best known from his public actions and posts on social media.

If one wanted an Existential reading of the weekly Torah portion, then one turns to Martin Buber. If one wants a psychoanalytic literary reading, one turns to Aviva Zorenberg, If one want a Neo-Hasidic reading, one turns to Arthur Green (among others). If you want a reading about continuity of a covenant people, one looks at Jonathan Sacks. But if one wants a modern ethical reading, this is the book.

In the amusing picture below featured in the local paper, Held is portrayed as balancing in his thought the works of Rabbis Heschel and Soloveitchik. After this book, we should add a third picture to the image showing him also balancing the musar masters. Held’s book is an appropriate book to buy for the High Holy Days and then to be used throughout the rest of the year.  Or at least, print out this long interview to read during this penitential period.We can certainly use a moral vision.

(Larry Yudelson/Graphics: Jerry Szubin/The New Jersey Jewish Standard)

1)      What is the role of Hesed and Compassion in the Chumash?

I have always been struck by one particular law in parashat Mishpatim.  The Torah declares: “If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets” (Exodus 22:25).  So far, so good– a concrete law aimed at protecting the impoverished borrower.  But what follows is unexpected, and frankly stunning: “It is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin.  In what else shell he sleep?” (22:26).

Rather than just laying down the law, the Torah makes an emotional appeal– understand the predicament of the poor and respond in ways that reflect that understanding.  This is not the kind of language that one would expect to find in a dry code of law.  It’s as if the Torah can’t contain itself, can’t limit itself to delineating the laws.  It is unwilling just to demand that we act in ways that are sensitive to the plight of the needy; it wants more from us, and so it reaches in and makes a claim on our emotional life, on our inner world: you have to care about people, even and especially those who are powerless, and all too often forgotten and neglected.

The same type of emotional logic animates the prohibition on oppressing the ger, or stranger/sojourner, in Mishpatim: “You shall not oppress the ger,” says the Torah, “for you know what it feels like to be a ger.” Why so?  “Because you yourselves were gerim in the land of Egypt” (23:9).  Here again we are commanded not just to avoid oppressing the stranger, but also to avoid doing so at least in part with a deep understanding of the experience he or she is presently enduring.  (As Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi notes, it’s important to be clear: the experience of suffering in Egypt is not the source of the law.  After all, no one can legitimately say, “Well, I wasn’t a stranger in Egypt, therefore this prohibition does not apply to me.”  Rather, I think, our experience– or better, the way we choose to remember our experience– intensifies a moral obligation that is always already in place.)

What we see in both these laws, and in many other places in the Torah, is a commitment to compassion as a virtue, as a disposition integrating both emotion and action.  If we care for people but do nothing for them, then our care is not really care.  Conversely, if we act on people’s behalf but feel nothing for them, we have done concrete good (returned their garment, treated them with dignity), but we have not yet reached the Torah’s ideal of integrating emotion and action.

The same will be true in Rabbinic texts where the mitzvah to walk in God’s ways is interpreted both in terms of virtues/character traits– “just as God is merciful, so too should you be merciful, etc.– Sifre Devarim, Ekev 49), and in terms of actions– “just as God clothes the naked, visits the sick, etc. so too must you clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. (Sotah 14a).  As Rambam notes in Sefer HaMitzvot (Aseh #8), we are bidden to emulate God both in concrete actions and in “noble attributes.”

Ultimately, from a religious perspective, compassion becomes a kind of ethos, a way of carrying ourselves in the world and responding to other people in moments of suffering and vulnerability.  The fact that the Sages call this walking in God’s ways points to its enormous importance but also to its difficulty– growing in compassion and the capacity/willingness/eagerness to be present with others when they suffer is the task of a lifetime.  And there is no higher form of serving God than this.

2)      What is the role of human responsibility in the chumash?

I think the answer to this question is wonderfully encapsulated in another law from parashat Mishpatim:  “You (plural) shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.  If you (singular) do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you (plural) to the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (Exodus 22:21-23).  Ibn Ezra was struck by an obvious grammatical anomaly in the text: why do the verses move back and forth between addressing Israel in the plural and addressing the individual oppressor in the singular?  His answer is at once arresting and daunting: the Torah wants to teach us that the legal status of those who witness oppression and keep silent is equivalent to the legal status of those who commit the oppression themselves.

Put in more contemporary language, the Torah wants to teach us that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.  If we see cruelty and abuse and we do nothing about it, then we too are implicated in the crime.  (Imagine how differently we would all live if we truly took what Ibn Ezra is saying to heart.)  In other words, we are responsible even we ourselves do not directly participate in the oppression.

This is true all the more so, presumably, when we ourselves behave in ways that are unacceptable.  As I show in the book, Bereishit repeatedly holds characters accountable and exacts retribution from them when they act in problematic ways.  Perhaps most famously and powerfully, Yaakov pays for his act of deceit (taking the blessing from his brother by deceiving his father) doubly– when Lavan deceives him into marrying a woman he does not love, and when his brothers deceive him into believing his beloved son is dead.  As the Mishnah puts it, “A person is always responsible/accountable [for their actions]” (Bava Kamma 2:6).

3)      What is the role of gratitude?

One of the most fundamental intuitions a religious person has, I think, is the sense that none of us did anything– none of us could ever have done anything– to earn the gifts of life and consciousness.  As the Rambam, following R. Saadia Gaon, notes, the existence of the world is entirely an unearned gift, as a hesed or grace, that which we receive although we did nothing to deserve it (See Guide 3:53).  The urge to worship and serve God begins, very often, with the realization that we did not create ourselves (Bereishit Rabbah 100:1, following the ketiv of Psalm 100:3, “[God] created us, and not we ourselves.” ) Perhaps not surprisingly, according to the book of Yehezkel, Pharaoh, the great biblical villain, brazenly declares that he did indeed create himself—see Ezekiel 29:3 (The Hebrew “ani asitini” can be rendered either as “I created it [the Nile] for myself” or as “I created myself.”

Why is this so important?  Because the religious person begins with an awareness of how much she has been given, and therefore of how much she owes.  It is not a coincidence that for the past several hundred years, Jews have begun their day with the first word we utter being ”grateful” (modeh, or modah).

The main point about gratitude, as I understand it, is that it is not just a feeling that I have that I’m glad that x or y happened.  Gratitude is constituted, in part, by an urge to repay or pay forward what the giver (or Giver) has given to us.

As Rav Yitzhak Hutner wonderfully puts it, when someone does an act of hesed for us, a seed of hesed is planted within us, and if it is allowed to flourish and blossom properly, it cannot but elicit more hesed from us.  In other words, hesed flows through the world, from God to us and onward to others.  To borrow an image from Maharal, we must not become dams that impede the onward flow of God’s gifts.  That’s why, as I’ve argued in the Heart of Torah and as I argue at greater length in the book I’m currently writing, from a Jewish perspective gratitude and generosity are inextricably intertwined.

4)      Your commentary seems almost a musar book about compassion gratitude, and responsibility.Do you have a worked out moral path or path of growth behind your exegesis?

I don’t think I yet have a worked out moral path in the way I suspect you have in mind.  What I have, so far at least, is a series of mandates that have the potential to help us grow kinder, more compassionate, and more generous.

That includes things like cultivating gratitude through awareness of breath (if you find it hard to access gratitude, notice your next inhalation and ask, who made that?– see Rabbi Levi in Bereishit Rabbah 14:11).  It includes working to restore the flow so that gratitude becomes generosity, and asking ourselves on a regular basis what it is within us that blocks or impedes the onward flow of Hashem’s hesed.  It is also crucial to develop an awareness of our own suffering and wounds so that we do not inflict them upon others (I take “you know what it feels like to be a stranger” not just in the indicative but also an imperative).  We also have to learn to sit with fear so that we don’t flee opportunities to be with people in their pain.  More generally, we have to believe, in our guts and not just in our minds, that we are in part authors of our own character, shapers of our stories who decide what to learn from past experiences, etc.

I think a lot of one of the ideas attributed to the Kotzker: we are forbidden to ever see ourselves as finished products.  We are capable of growing in love and kindness.  Yalkut Reuveni offers an beautiful reading of the idea that God wants to create us “in our image, after our likeness.”  God creates us in God’s image (tzelem), he says, but whether we become a likeness (demut) is in our own hands.  That is not a bad description of the spiritual life as a whole: a journey from tzelem, which is a fact, to demut, which is a project, a task, and an aspiration.

5)   How is Torah an ethical challenge?

We learn from Tanakh that God loves widows, orphans, and strangers.  God sees those whom other tend to neglect, or worse, exploit.  (Recall what Hagar, “oppressed” by Sarah– Genesis 16:6– calls God: “You are the God who sees me.”)  To worship a God who loves the vulnerable is to strive to love the vulnerable ourselves.

One of my greatest anxieties as a religious person is that I don’t know whether I’ve ever truly served this God, the God who loves the weak and downtrodden and summons me to do the same.  And since I want to love God and serve God, I have to strive to do just that, hard as it is, demanding as it is, unpopular as it might make me in some quarters.

And then there’s the mitzvah of walking in God’s ways.  The God of Torah asks us to live lives of hesed, of love and kindness and compassionate presence with others.

Every once in a while, when I teach sources about this aspiration, someone will try to blow it off with a platitude like “So, basically, you’re saying I should be a good person.”  But this is a profoundly cynical response, one that indicates an unwillingness to really hear the challenge Torah lays down before us.

In a world suffused with suffering, are we committed to visiting the sick and comforting the mourners even when it’s inconvenient, or tiring, and even when it scares us?  In Ashrei (Psalm 145) we say that “God is good to all” and “God’s mercy is upon us all.”  We usually take that to mean that God is merciful to all of God’s creations, but in a stunning passage in Bereishit Rabbah it is taken differently:  God is good to all, and God has given of God’s capacity for mercy to all of us, so that we are capable of treating others with compassion.

As Musar teachers like Rabbi Yehezkel Levenstein teach, that is real devekut, or cleaving to God.  We attach ourselves to God’s mercy and become merciful ourselves.  Needless to say, this is far more demanding than “be a good person.”

6)   Can Judaism be reduced to ethics?

I think morality and concern for others is at the heart of religious life, but it most certainly does not exhaust it.   The idea that Judaism is ultimately only about ethics is a distortion of Torah (I admit I much prefer it to some other common distortions of Torah, but it is still a distortion).  In the long run a Judaism that is only about ethics, even radicalized ethics, is an assimilatory, self-liquidating Judaism

But I want to be clear here: the answer is not to swing to the other pole.  Michael Wyschogrod writes at one point that “ethics is the Judaism of the assimilated.”  Well yes, but (as he well knew) it is also at the heart of the Judaism of Moshe Rabbeinu, of Amos and Hoshea, and of Rabbi Akiva and the Rambam.   Torah without ethics is not Torah at all.  But Torah that’s only ethics is an incomplete Torah too.  We have to live inside that tension, not attempt to dissolve it.

7)      Can you explain God’s love and the relationship of love to Torah?

Rabbi Akiva teaches that every human being is beloved simply because we were created in the image of God.  Note: we are loved by God before we do or accomplish anything in the world.  God creates us, cares about us, wants us to flourish, and has expectations of us.  We don’t earn God’s love; rather, we strive to live up to it.

This idea has revolutionary implications.  First, if we are, all of us, loved by God, then we don’t need to spend our lives competing and comparing ourselves with others.  We can cultivate an ayin tovah, a generous eye, and we can avoid envy and schadenfreude, because other people’s successes don’t undermine us or call our worth into question.  In other words, having a sense of being loved by God enables us to more fully fulfill the mitzvah of ahavat ha-rei’a, loving our neighbor.

Judaism has always treasured the life of the mind, and the Beit Midrash has accordingly been one of the centers of our religious life as a people.  But without developing the heart, without growing our capacity for compassion, and love, and mercy, we will be humanly stunted, and hence our Torah will be, at best, a distorted reflection of God’s Torah.  Remember: Hazal say that “the beginning and end of Torah is love and kindness” and this is a statement of what Torah is truly for, and what it’s ultimately about.  A God who loves us summons us to live lives of love.

8) What is the role of anxiety, anguish, and struggle in the religious life?

Torah is about relationship with God, and yet our world can appear totally godless.  One of the reasons I fell in love with Tanakh is that it is so honest about the tension—it often feels like a chasm– between the story it tells about the world, on the one hand, and much of what we experience, on the other.  Faced with enormous, unbearable suffering, Tanakh does not revert to a “gam zu le-tovah (this too is for the good) theology” but instead protests and screams.  One psalm tells us that the Guardian of Israel does not sleep, yet another laments, “Wake up!  Why do you sleep, O Lord?!”  The anguish of that psalmist is part of biblical faith, and it is part of our lives.

In the modern world, our questions are not new, but some of the answers we are willing to consider are.  Writhing in pain, the author of Psalm 44, for example, could ask why God had forgotten God’s people; when we writhe similarly, the possibility that there is just nobody out there looms real to most of us.  We fear not only that God has abandoned us, but that the sky might be empty, as it were, that there might not be a God at all.   And so our anxiety and anguish has a different texture than the anxiety and anguish of ages past.

9)      How can moderns without a yeshiva background love Torah? What do you say to those contemporary Jews who think Torah study is only for the day school educated?

I almost never talk to Jews about learning Torah.  What I attempt to do instead is to invite them into the conversation itself, ask them to experience being inside the conversation rather than standing outside it and looking in on it (or looking down at it).  It’s like the difference between hearing a friend describe someone he thinks you should meet and actually meeting them.  The latter is so much more real, and so much more powerful.  That, and that alone, gives you a real sense of what Torah is.

There have been occasions when a day school-educated Jew has asked me, with some condescension, whether I really believe it’s possible to learn Torah with Jews who have little or no Jewish textual education.  And my answer is that as long as you have a heart, a soul, and a mind, you can learn Torah.  Now, the deeper you want to go, the more you have to learn the language (both literally and metaphorically), but you can encounter Torah and be transformed by it without that too.  And conversely, by the way, you can spend years in a Beit Midrash and not really learn Torah in the sense that I mean it, with a truly open heart and a truly open mind.  Recall the well-known quip of the Kotzker, “I know how many times you’ve been through shas, but how many times has it been through you?”

When I learn with Jews who do not have vast background in Jewish learning, one of my hopes that they will each catch at least a brief glimpse of heaven from the Torah and that will inspire them to want to make Torah more deeply their own.

10)      What is the role of your quotes from scholarship and history of the Ancient Near East, if in the end you always give a modern ethical reading?

Well, first, I think there are theological and ethical dimensions of the text which we cannot fully understand without considering its ancient Near Eastern context.  For a long time, I kicked and screamed against this position, but now it seems obviously correct to me.

Let’s return to Genesis 1 for a moment.  The Torah teaches that we are all created in God’s image.  But a look at the context reveals the idea in all its revolutionary glory.  In other places in the ancient Near East, it is the king of a society who is created in the image of the god that that society worships.  That means, in part, that he is destined from creation to mediate God’s blessings to everyone else, and to rule over them.  The Torah comes along and says, It is not the king who is created in God’s image, it is every human being on the face of the earth.  This is a radical democratization of an ancient notion and what it means is that we are all royalty, all kings and queens, and that none of us is destined from creation to rule over the rest of us.

This also translates to the realm of moral responsibility.  In much of the ancient world, it is the king who is responsible to look out for the widow and the orphan.  But in Tanakh moral responsibility is democratized– you and I too are responsible for the fate of the downtrodden.

The same democratization takes place in terms of the Jewish people.  Instead of the king alone being God’s son– see Psalm 2 for a biblical reflection of this idea– all of Israel are now considered God’s children– banim atem.

I would also add– and I mean this sincerely– that I don’t set out looking for a modern ethical reading.  I set out to read, to learn, to struggle with the text.  Very often, that process leads me to, and leaves me with, a modern ethical challenge.  But that’s not because I care about ethics but because Torah does.  Now, I am not naive– I realize that we bring who we are and what we care about to our encounter with Torah and that these exert great influence on what we find there.  But I still think a certain kind of integrity and radical openness in reading is necessary.  Otherwise, why bother reading at all?

11)      Can you explain your use of Moshe Unna concept of Jewish humanism?

Moshe Unna (1902-1989) was a fascinating person, a visionary of a kind of religious Zionism that has largely and tragically now passed from the world.  He was a Member of Knesset from the NRP and a founder of the religious peace movement (it’s more or less impossible to imagine such a combination today).

In addition, he was a serious educator and educational theorist.  He worried that Torah could be interpreted in all kinds of different ways, some that would sanctify God’s name and others that would desecrate it.  More concretely, he believed that Torah sources could be marshaled to demand love and justice and moral goodness but also that they could be used to legitimate hatred and bigotry and every form of cruelty.  We know from the Talmud that Torah can be an elixir of life but that it can just as easily become a deathly poison (Yoma 72b).

But Unna felt that as inheritors of tradition we need to be conscious of our moral commitments as we go about interpreting sources.  Without that, we will open the door to all kinds of barbarism being perpetrated in our name, and even worse, in the name of God and God’s Torah.   So he stated, without equivocation or apology, that those who interpret Torah ought to be committed to a kind of Jewish humanism– a commitment to the dignity, worth, and moral standing of every human being, and a resolve to interpret Torah accordingly.

Unna’s formulation is stark and powerful, but it also dovetails with the ideas of many other Jewish thinkers.  He was not a Kookian but Rav Kook also talked about how yirat shamayim must never lead you to act in ways that you know are inhumane and immoral; yirat shamayim that leads you to act less morally than you’d have acted without it is what he calls yirat shamayim pesulah, an illegitimate fear of God.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Unna on almost every conceivable issue, argues similarly that we needed Avraham before Moshe because without a prior commitment to hesed and moral goodness (Avraham), Torah (Moshe) would be a dangerous and potentially even toxic thing.

I think about Unna’s ideas often as I read sources, because I believe we are mandated to ask ourselves at all times: are we reading in the most humane, compassionate ways we can?  This is not a secular import to tradition– far from it, I think it’s the natural consequence of believing that we interpret in order to serve a God of love, hesed, and moral goodness.

12) You seem to desiccate the elements of historical narrative and collective nationalism from the Biblical text. Is this intentional?

That’s an interesting question and one that I’ve struggled with myself as I look back on the 101 essays that make up the book. Consciously or not, my goal was to find something striking about the text that would leave people with a non-cliché challenge of some sort– an action to take, a new way to think, a feeling to cultivate, or whatever.  That ended up yielding a fairly ethical approach rather than a historical or national one.  It’s not that I don’t think the latter two are important– quite the contrary; it’s that given the nature of the project I was engaged in, they ended up taking a backseat.

I am increasingly drawn to and preoccupied with questions of moral philosophy. Universal questions- about compassion, and gratitude, and the quest for a more just, equitable society- tend to end up front and center, while some of the more particularistic pieces of Jewish theology, which are in fact crucial to me, end up getting short shrift.  This a problem I feel I need to attend to in my writing and thinking.

Autobiographically, I’ve come to realize that I am still seeking to make space for some of the things I felt were missing from my own religious education.   Some of the schools I attended– day schools, yeshivot in Israel, etc.– accentuated the particular to such an extent that the universal human was often lost.  (I also witnessed no small measure of explicit racism in various yeshivot.)  When I came to understand over time just how distorted a picture of Jewish theology that really is, I set out to highlight some of those more submerged themes.  Yet, most of my teaching takes place within the American Jewish community, which presently struggles with too much emphasize on universalism so that the particular threatens to become submerged (a trend of which I have been extremely critical).  That requires some re-calibrating on my part, I think.

13)   Which are your favorite Jewish sources to use?

In terms of classical commentaries, I’ve always felt somewhat more drawn to Talmudic and midrashic elaborations of biblical stories than I have to medieval commentaries. I regularly consult and learn from the latter, but the midrashic openness, playfulness, willingness to look at a problem from multiple angles simultaneously and to flirt with the theologically outlandish make the latter more compelling to me.  I could happily spend my life just reading Bereishit and Bereishit Rabbah together. Ruth and Ruth Rabbah is another stunningly provocative pair.

I love the moments when classical commentators discuss ethical issues. So, for example, Radak on Genesis 16:6, where (in the wake of Ramban) he argues that when we finally have the power to cause suffering to someone who has hurt us, the ethical ideal is to refrain; or Ibn Ezra’s insistence that the purpose of Torah is to “straighten out our emotions,” or his claim about innocent bystanders that I mentioned above, etc.

I find myself frequently coming back to the commentaries of Abravanel, Netziv, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Malbim. In terms of Musar, my interests (reflected more in my current book project than in The Heart of Torah) are in more recent musar figures:  R. Eliyahu Lopian, R. Yehezkel Levenstein, R. Chaim Friedlander, and R, Shlomo Wolbe.  In all kinds of ways, I inhabit a very different universe from theirs, but I consistently learn a lot from them and feel challenged by them to grow as a person and as a Jew.

Interview with Leon Wiener Dow- The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law

Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929), one of the most original Jewish thinkers of the modern period, writes in a 1927 letter about the need to be present, a form of “here I am” in the eternal “now” of one’s own individual standpoint, but the standpoint remains that of an individual human being. One does not transcend her individual, finite standpoint in order to attain a standpoint that would pretend to be Absolute. A person, according to Rosenzweig, does not “have to take out his own eyes in order to see right.” It is no doubt true that a person’s eyes limit his perspective, but it would be an act of idiocy to poke out one’s eyes in order to see properly.” How would this play out in halakhah? What would a halakhah of an individualized standpoint look like?

These are some of the questions that animate the writings of Leon Wiener Dow, a research fellow and member of the faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He received his BA from Princeton University, his MA in Jewish thought from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, private rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Professor David Hartman, and a PhD in philosophy from Bar-Ilan University. Wiener Dow recently wrote two complimentary books. The first, based on his PhD thesis, U’vlekhtekha Va’derekh (Hebrew, Bar Ilan University Press, 2017) constructs an approach to halakha based on the thought of Franz Rosenzweig, then compares Rosenzweig to prior halakhic approaches and to Hasidut. His concurrent English book, The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law (Palgrave Macmillan in 2017) is a personal meditation on living a life of seeing the halakhic life as an individualized path.

The going

Rosenzweig wrote in a letter that he had intended to write a book on the halakhah, but his paralysis and early death kept him from the project. Leon Wiener Dow develops the statements in Rosenzweig’s earlier works upon which to construct a theory of halakha. For Wiener-Dow, the “now” is the lynchpin of the life of mitzvot. The Divine did not give us the Torah in the past; but rather gives us Torah: now, at this very moment, in the present. The aspiration of halakhah is to transform the laws into the performance of mizvot in the moment, where we hear the voice of the commander. The transition from the halakha to the mitzvah, from an institutionalized norm of the past to a commandment issuing forth right now, is dependent upon me, upon my ability to hear the command.

Torah is instruction, and is only wisdom if it is lived out. At the same time, the Torah is Torat hayim in the deeper sense of being connected to life, which means that it has at its base a resolute vitality. The ongoing development of halakha – which includes it reaching into new, previously-uninhabited places – is fundamentally an invitation to address ourselves to the Divine.

Our performative actions are not only testimony to the Divine, they are invocations, allowing the Divine to enter into our midst. For Wiener-Dow, if that’s not ultimately what the halakha is after, then it becomes nothing other than folklore. In addition, living a halakhic life requires anticipating how others will view my actions. I must assume full responsibility for by my actions and the community’s perception of them. Finally, with a nod to Polish Hasidut, he wants us to acknowledge the potentially positive role of sin in cleansing a religiosity of excessive certitude. If you hold open the possibility of error – and of learning from error as part of one’s service to the Divine, new religious possibilities abound.

Nevertheless, Wiener-Dow acknowledges that his thoughts are meditations on Rosenzweig and not the great German thinker himself. Rosenzweig’s journey was outside-in. He coupled passion with an unwavering commitment to honesty and authenticity. He showed the possibility of finding one’s way to the tradition in a manner that is spiritually rigorous without entailing compromise in one’s integrity. For Wiener-Dow, to those already in the center, he offers insights regarding the nature and telos of halakha that often someone who comes from outside the system is uniquely qualified to do.

Wiener- Dow’s books are part of a larger turn to Franz Rosenzweig within the Israeli Religious Zionist world. His works were available in Hebrew as part of heritage of the German- Jewish Neo-Orthodox educators who moved to Israel but eclipsed in recent decades. Rav Shagar in his own thought and in his students helped bring Rosenzweig in the Hesder yeshiva beit midrash. And recently, Mechon Herzog of Herzog College in Alon Shevut published a guide to Rosenzweig for yeshiva students: Omer ṿa-esh : sheʻarim le-haguto ule-ḥayaṿ shel Franz Rosenzweig = Utterance and fire : pathways to the thought and life of Franz Rosenzweig By Ehud Neeman, edited by Eitan Abromowitz (Mechon Herzog, 2016). These new Israeli readings emphasize the role of halakhah, minhag, love of God, prayer, and living a religious life. One should not confuse the American readings of Rosenzweig with this religious reading. These new works let us see Rosenzweig afresh as a religious thinker and a thinker offering an individualism outside of Hasidism, yet complementing it.

Wiener Dow’s The Going opens with a person narrative of his religious journey, letting us see his move from the synagogue based ritual world of American Conservative congregational life to the halakhic life of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism. This journey to a progressive halakhic life serves well as a counter balance to those who journeyed to right-wing Orthodox positions. The book also has summary of main points at the end of each sections. The book consisting of a biographic narrative and a few short chapters with highlight boxes seemed more of a Jewish Lights publication than Palgrave-Macmillan, it is a slim volume, almost a very large article of an individual vision. Because his goal was personal, he intentionally was not directly engaged in historical analysis or history of ideas, at times, therefore, the volumes falter in these dichromic elements. But overall is this is a highly original theological work offering many new insights and potential for future avenues of halakhic thought. He is selling his books here. 


1)      Explain how and why you choose to focus on the path–the going, the life of Torah, the life of action in community?

Torah is instruction, and the minute that it loses that telos, it has become something else. It may be wisdom, but only of the applied kind, only if it is lived out. We cannot imagine someone who is גדול בתורה, gadol baTorah, but who fails to live according to its dictates. A great doctor may well smoke; someone great in Torah must be great in deed.

At the same time, the Torah is תורת חיים – Torat hayim not just in the sense of a Torah that needs to be lived out in life, but also in the deeper sense of being connected to life, which means that it has at its base a resolute vitality. It is attentive to, and nurtured by, time. We must understand the Torah’s ‘eternity’ – should we choose to embrace that concept – in a way that does not suggest immutability. Quite the opposite; it’s ‘eternity’ is the constancy of the flow of its relevance and applicability .

The halakha “speaks” in two senses: it allows the individual to express through outward action a divine truth that would otherwise remain sealed in the silent chamber of theological discourse; and it allows the formation of the community of individuals that gathers itself around, and devotes itself to, this commitment to the Divine.

2)      How are we always addressing the divine in halakhah?

What does it mean to take seriously a (blessing) bracha, when we address the Divine as “you”? It can only mean that we are making an effort to bring the action that we are about to effectuate into the context of a life in which we place our actions in relationship to the Divine.

When the rabbis of the Talmud ask (Shabbat 23a), “Where did the Divine command us to light the Hannukah candles or to read the Purim Megilla?” – people often read that as an opening for discussing rabbinic authority. It is that, but it gets at something more fundamental. The real issue is their bold willingness to claim that they hear divine command.

Put otherwise, the rabbis are suggesting that the ongoing development of halakha – which includes it reaching into new, previously-uninhabited places – is fundamentally an invitation to address ourselves to the Divine.

3)      If we cannot speak directly about the divine then how does halakhah as action help?

We can address the Divine directly but talking about the Divine we cannot do and is destined for failure.  Action manages to express that which lies beyond words. We can articulate our beliefs verbally, but our lived lives give expression to our commitments in a more profound, precise, and convincing way than our mouths can articulate. If that is true in general, it is especially true in the realm of theology, where words prove so inadequate.

We sometimes forget this and fall into trying to talk about the Divine. But as Gabriel Marcel said, “When we speak of God, it is not of God we speak.” Maimonides’ negative theology grapples with the same challenge. And, I would submit, the very essence of the halakha as a form of religious praxis is predicated upon the same aspiration: to allow action to express and realize religious truth in a way that language cannot.

The halakha is deed, so it offers an avenue to respond to the Divine rather than to talk about it. That is the halakha’s fundamental, unspoken insight: the Torah may speak, but the halakha does, and through this doing it manages to express truths and commitments that escape that area enclosed by the word.

But there’s another important and related way in which the halakha allows us to do what words can’t say. Community is created not through shared belief, but through shared action. We become we by sharing praxis.

The formation of community is crucial to this discussion because one of the deepest insights of Jewish theology is that kedusha, holiness, is fundamentally a communal endeavor. The Torah is uninterested in the individual’s spiritual fulfillment, except and insofar as it is part of a communal aspiration.

So the halakha, by design, brings together these two areas where action does what words cannot: in responding to the Divine and in the creation of community.

4)      How is Kiddush Hashem the pillar of halakhic endeavor?

The overarching and underlying injunction of the Torah is to live a life of kedusha, holiness; that is how we fulfill the commandment, repeated three times daily, to love the Divine.  But how do we do that, asks the Talmud (BT Yoma 86a).

The answer it gives is as profound as it is theologically shocking. We love the Divine by acting in our daily lives in a way that is exemplary and inspirational to the people who see us. If our actions cause an observer to ask: “Where did that person learn Torah? Who were that person’s parents and teachers?” – then, according to this stunning passage, we have caused that person to love the Divine. This inspiration constitutes loving the Divine. According to this model, therefore, holiness is not some ontological entity that can be measured by an external standard; rather, it is a quality emergent from – and determined by – the way in which our behavior is evaluated by those who surround us.

So living a halakhic life is our effort to realize and make manifest the divine presence in the world, to testify to its presence. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai gives this idea radical expression in the Pesikta deRav Kahana (12 6): “If you are my witnesses, said God, then I am God, and if you are not my witnesses then it would seem [כביכול] that I am not God.” The models of binding law of halakhah have, at their very root, theological aspiration.

In that sense, our performative actions are not only testimony to the Divine, they are invocations, allowing the Divine to enter into our midst. If that’s not ultimately what the halakha is after, then it becomes nothing other than folklore.

5)      How do we each have to write our own sefer Torah?

Taking the Torah seriously as a spiritual typology demands that we realize that it tells a Jewish story that begins with the first commandment to Abraham, “lekh lekha” – “Go forth!” or, put colloquially: “Get Going!” No less significantly, the Torah ends before the people of Israel enter the Land of Israel. I’m not talking politics. Rather, I’m suggesting that the ultimate meta-halakhic command is to be on the way. It is surely not coincidence that Jewish law is “halakha” – going.

The bookends of our journey are birth and death, and each of our actions is the Torah that we speak in the form of deed. We speak Torah to our children through our mouths, but the most effective speech we have, the most effective Torah we teach, is through our deeds.

The high holiday image of sefer haHayim, the Book of Life, is a once-a-year effort to push us to take seriously our deeds. But the rigor of the halakha demands that we live that once-a-year consciousness in our daily grind, week-in and week-out. The daily minutiae of the halakhic life, how we conduct ourselves when we walk on the streets and enter our workplaces, and leading all the way to the inner attitude with which we go to sleep: all of this affords opportunity – and demand – to live a life of holiness.

6)      What is the role of the community and debate within the community in this endeavor?

One of the deepest impulses of the halakha is that kedusha, holiness, is fundamentally a communal endeavor. The halakha rebels against the mystical model of constructing a religious life by eloping with the Divine and, in essence, turning one’s back on the world. Devarim she-biKedusha – matters of holiness – are reserved for moments in which a quorum, or community, is present out of conviction that there are possibilities – and commands – of holiness that open up only in the context of community

But the halakhic community never achieves fruition, and this for two reasons.

First, there is never just one halakhic community: from the Mishna in Hagiga 2:2, we know that the halakha is predicated on maḥloket. When Menahem agrees with Hillel – they send out Menahem and bring in Shammai. This commitment to maḥloket is borne of a deep sense of how we get at truth, and how we live it out. Because Hillel and Shammai each has a following, a community of adherents who follow their leads, it is through the disparate interpretations and divergently-lived lives that the broader halakhic community is formed, but it is a community riddled with disagreement.

But there’s a second way, as well, in which “the” halakhic community never exists, at least not in some ideal or pristine version. Even within a given halakhic community, there exists an unresolvable tension between the individual and the community. There are moments of principled dissent; gaps between the community’s norm and the adherence (or lack thereof) of some of the individuals in that community; and struggles between the understanding of the posek (halakhic arbiter) and the practice of the community.

What’s remarkable is that the halakha views these disagreements – those within each halakhic community and, no less, those between halakhic communities – positively. Because we are trying to live out an infinite divine command in a partial, fractured world, any expression, every discrete action, will be partial. And yet, viewed expansively, the argument-in-deed expresses a higher unity, pointing to a divine oneness that lies beyond this world.

7)      What is the role of maarit ayin (how an observance appears)?

Mar’it Ayin – what I call ocular community – gets a bad rap. With mar’it ayin, the question that concerns us is how our actions are perceived, how we are viewed by others. In its lower form, we’re submitted to a sense of unfair judgment by others, and, on our end, we are concerned only with what others think of us.

But at a deeper level, mar’it ayin comes to remind us that our actions have a presence in this world and an influence on it irrespective of our intention. Contra Kant, what is paramount is not our intention, but rather our discrete actions.

Mar’it Ayin is predicated on a deep understanding of community as local – both time-specific and place-specific. My actions will be judged not in some abstract, universal fashion – but by particular people who view it in a particular time and space. Here, too, the contrast to Kant is instructive: the halakha views actions not through a lens of universality but through a lens of specificity.

Living a halakhic life requires that I somehow internalize a third eye, anticipating how others will view my actions. I must assume full responsibility for by my actions and the community’s perception of them, for the communal norm is affected by my adherence or disobedience. Every action and every inaction somehow amalgamate to form communal norm and standard.

8)      How is your approach different than Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man?

Let me begin by contrasting my approach to halakha with Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man. First, Soloveitchik posits a religious prototype, an almost mythical religious figure that the halakha forms. The first chapter of The Going describes my own journey to and within the halakha. That is a very important difference, and it’s not merely stylistic. A philosophical and theological ravine runs between the two works. I do not speak of an ideal “Halakhic Man” but rather of, and from within, my own experience of the halakha. I prefer to spend my efforts carving away at the human experience of the command.

Second, Soloveitchik views the halakha as a kind of principled, a priori phenomenon through which halakhic man approaches the manifest world. This is what allows halakhic man– upon seeing a beautiful sunset – to focus not on the sheer and awesome beauty of the moment but rather on the fact that he has yet to fulfill his obligation of the afternoon prayers. I find that passage – and indeed, the way in which Soloveitchik’s halakha wedges between the human being and the world – problematic. The halakha, as I understand it, is the way we live in this world, not an a priori yardstick with which we approach reality.

Third, and intimately related to the previous points, the halakha that Soloveitchik paints is a magnificently grand edifice, with mathematically-determined proportions and design. Soloveitchik has a strong affinity for math. I, by contrast, focus on – and hold in the highest regard – the halakha’s lack of unanimity; the existence of mahloket, disagreement, deep in the heart of the system; its markedly unsystematic nature; and the sprawling way in which the rabbis allow the halakha to ooze into and out of daily existence. He likes it neat; I like it messy. Here, too, what’s at stake is not a difference in taste or style, but a deep disagreement about the telos of the halakha.

9) How do your ideas relate to those of your teacher David Hartman?

There are, no doubt, certain affinities between my approach and that of my rabbi and teacher, David Hartman. Hartman would often point out that he titled his major work A Living Covenant, rather than The Living Covenant, for he wanted to acknowledge the possibility of other paths.

However, where we depart is in Hartman’s repeated insistence – odd as this may seem – to avoid theology. In a certain sense, he was a product of the American pragmatist tradition, so he was interested in staking out what he called a “covenantal anthropology,” avoiding metaphysics and ontology and sticking with a more measurable, empirical standard: what kind of person does this religious system fashion? That, for Hartman, was the touchstone of Torah and halakhic life: What kind of person does it breed?

For me, too, this is a question of paramount import: it touches upon what Rosenzweig called “verification” of our theological truth. But there is an undeniably theological moment that leads to our actions, and we do ourselves – and the halakha – a disservice by overlooking that moment. This experience of the Divine offers what Rosenzweig calls, referring to prayer, “orientation”: it grounds us and sets us on our way. Through our action we articulate our belief and our theological encounter. Halakhic commitment requires a willingness on our part to take drag our theological intimacy into the broad daylight of a lived life. But we have to be willing to acknowledge the centrality of that theological thrust – and to find some way, however inadequate, to articulate it.

10)      What is your reading of Rosenzweig’s “Not yet” —“Edayin Lo”?

Anyone who knows something about Rosenzweig’s Jewish path is familiar with his statement that he does “not yet” don tefillin.

This is commonly understood to indicate that Rosenzweig was a typical ba’al teshuva who was on a steady path of incremental, increased observance, and that his answer of “not yet” indicates that it is only a matter of time before he will begin to lay tefillin. Yet there’s a depth to his use of the phrase “not yet” that usually goes unappreciated.

Rosenzweig isn’t merely saying that he’s on a path of becoming more observant, but that he has yet to begin donning tefillin because he’s been busy koshering his kitchen for the first time and has yet to make it to the sofer stam to buy his first set of tefillin. Rather, he’s demanding that all religious observance be actively, mindfully assumed. At that moment the halakha (Gesetz) becomes commandment (Gebot): I hear the divine command that, merely moments ago, lay quietly and unassumingly in the nexus of laws that were merely “on the books”.

One of the major claims that I make in my book U’velkhtekha Va’derekh – is that “not yet” plays a very significant role in Rosenzweig’s system of philosophy, which I will explain briefly here.

For the individual who encounters the Divine, only to discover his own need of the love of the Divine, the soul issues forth a “defiant ‘I am still here’” (das stolze Dennoch). Concerned lest she lose her individuality, she asserts her freedom with this defiance. The religious moment of standing in the presence of the Divine – what Levinas called, in referring to Judaism, “beyond freedom” – requires a relinquishing of this defiance. At one level, then, the “not yet” of tefillin is the “I’m still autonomous” of the undeveloped personality; he stands in stubborn refusal to live a life of heteronomy.

At a second level, the “not yet” refers to the world as a whole, for it has yet to be redeemed. The love of the Divine has yet to infuse every corner of creation – such that even if the world has redemptive moments, each of them has an edge which indicates that redemption has yet to come – it is “not yet” here. The “not yet” of tefillin connects to this deeper religious typology, as well, for it places my own process of being on the way to the world’s process.

Without going in too deep, it’s important to add two things. Rosenzweig claims that Christianity is about being eternally on the way, whereas Judaism has already achieved eternity and brings it into time. Thus when I suggest that the “not yet” points to the fact that the world has not yet achieved full redemption, we need to qualify that statement: Judaism (and the individual Jew) may have infused time with moments of redemption, but it has not spread to all of humanity and to the entire world.

Second, I need to add one important qualification about the “not yet” of tefillin. As my teacher Rabbi Professor Yehoyada Amir of Hebrew Union College pointed out to me, the “not yet” has another side. Had Rosenzweig regularly donned tefillin and been asked if he does so, he might respond by saying, “Yes, I still do.”

That is, the process could be reversed; taking time seriously entails taking seriously the possibility of change. That is – it would be a misunderstanding to think of observance – or indeed redemption itself – as a clear process of progression.

11)   What was Rosenzweig’s attitude toward halakhah?

Upon the opening of the Lehrhaus in Frankfurt, Rosenzweig introduced an old-new form of Torah learning. “It is a learning in reverse order,” he wrote. “A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way around:  from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah. That is the sign of the time. It is the sign of the time because it is the mark of the [people] of the time.”

The same is true with his journey to halakha: it was outside-in. But that should not be mistaken for ambivalence. He observed halakha the way he taught Torah: by coupling passion with an unwavering commitment to honesty and authenticity.

Might that weaken his standing as a teacher of Torah or halakha? I would argue the exact opposite: namely, that part of his greatness and much of his insight stem from his biography. His journey from the periphery to the center benefits both audiences, those on the periphery and those in the center. To those on the periphery, he testifies as to the possibility of finding one’s way to the tradition in a manner that is spiritually rigorous without entailing compromise in one’s integrity. To those in the center, he offers insights regarding the nature and telos of halakha that often someone who comes from outside the system is uniquely qualified to do.

12)   Why is the letter to Dr. Joseph Prager so important for his view of halakha?

Rosenzweig’s letter to Joseph Prager in July 1925 manages to put in about ten lines some of the most significant things that can be said about tradition and authenticity in our context of living after modernity.

His basic claim is that the halakha does not need a Reform Movement in order to effectuate change because it has, built within, a self-corrective mechanism: the ability or inability of the constituent members of the halakhic community to observe its dictates. Classical Reform distills Judaism down to a number of sacred, prophetic, guiding principles, subsuming all halakha to these principle’s dictates. This top-down approach causes a naturally-sprawling, defiant Judaism to lose its inner power. Judaism becomes a pale version of the guiding moral commitments of the day.

So what is a Jew who cannot live an Orthodox, halakhic life to do? Rosenzweig suggests to Joseph Prager that he must “set up tent” outside of the building of halakha. The protection over her head will not be identical to the roof that the halakha provides, and yet, the placement of the tent across from the entry to the world of halakha indicates that this non-halakhic Jew continues to live her life in relationship to normative communal life. Over time, avers Rosenzweig, as more and more tents are erected on its front lawn, the building of halakha may well move. That is the self-reform that characterizes the halakha: it never fully excludes those Jews who live according to their own ability and who insist upon maintaining relationship with the communal norm.

13)   What is the “now” in the life of mizvot according to Rosenzweig?

The “now” is the lynchpin of the life of mitzvot. It is the moment in which the halakhah (Gesetz) becomes mitzvah (Gebot), when the law assumes its lifeforce and becomes command. This happens in the present moment. The Divine did not give us the Torah in the past; but rather gives us Torah: now, at this very moment, in the present. So, too, in the life of mitzvot: the command isn’t a relic of the past, but rather it can be heard in the present.

In many ways, the highest aspiration of the halakha as a system and a way of life is to transform its laws into commandments – for in them, and only in them – can we decipher the voice of the commander, the presence of the Divine. To the extent that we are able to hear the commanding voice of the Divine, the halakha will become mitzva.

Note that the transition from the halakha to the mitzva, from an institutionalized norm of the past to a commandment issuing forth right now, is dependent upon me, upon my ability to hear the command. With religious sensitivity and with philosophical precision, Rosenzweig points to the irreducible centrality of the individual in the life of the halakha. Kabbalat ‘ol mitzvot, the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments, is a constant process that the individual must undergo; without it, there may be an issuing forth of command by the Divine, but there is no one on the receiving end.

It is important to add that Rosenzweig’s emphasis on the present moment in the life of mitzvot has a highly-esteemed lineage within the halakhic tradition. As I argue in my book U’velekhtekha VaDerekh, Hazal’s entire corpus is dependent upon this idea – namely, that the meaning of Torah continues to be revealed, today.

Rosenzweig couples the “here” and “now” in the spiritual life is more akin to hinenei – “Here I am,” spoken by Adam as well as by Abraham. It points to an attentiveness and alertness, as well as a willingness to respond to a call, resting upon the fulness of personality and experience.

As he writes in a letter in 1927, it is no doubt true that a person’s eyes limit his perspective, but it would be an act of idiocy to poke out one’s eyes in order to see properly. We have no vantage point other than our own.

This image of Rosenzweig’s echoes Rava’s famous dictum (BT Bava Batra 130b), “The judge has only what his eyes can see.” Rava is preparing his students for how to issue judgment after he dies, and he refuses adamantly to allow them to recycle his judgments. They need to make the judgments new, and they need to make them theirs, emergent from their vantage point.

14)   What is the role of sin in the religious life?

Not all sins were created equal – let’s begin with that axiom. Some are so severe that we are commanded to die rather than commit them. But if we can limit this discussion to certain, less deleterious kinds of sin, I would say that sin can have a very positive role in the religious life.

As a parent and an educator, it’s clear to me that there is a uniquely powerful form of growth that takes place in overstepping a boundary and in making mistakes. It’s not exactly that I want my children to disregard me or slip up, but I do want them to benefit from that thick knowledge and understanding that only comes from misstep.

This is equally true for religious life. That’s why Reish Lakish suggests (BT Yoma 86b) that one’s intentional sins can become a source of merit!  Rabbi Zadok of Lublin combines this teaching with another Talmudic teaching (BT Brakhot 34b) that the ba’al teshuva – the person who has committed a sin but undergone a process of reformation and transformation – arrives at a higher level than the tzaddik gamur, the righteous person who never sinned. R’ Zadok explains that the sin itself is transformed into a merit in that the ba’al teshuva has an option unavailable to the person who never sinned.

Not acknowledging this potentially positive role of sin fashions a religiosity of excessive certitude – about where the line lay, about what the is the right understanding of the divine command. If you hold open the possibility of error – and of learning from error as part of one’s service to the Divine, new religious possibilities abound.

Isaac Nahman Steinberg’s My Socialist Ani Maamin “Mayne Socialistisher Ani Ma’amin.”

In 1917, Isaac Nahman Steinberg, a representative of the Socialist-Revolutionary party joined the coalition socialist government and was appointed by Lenin as the commissar of justice. Steinberg once derailed a council meeting of people’s commissars headed by Lenin by forcing a recess so he could daven mincha — putting him in direct conflict with the Bolsheviks and ultimately landed him in prison. Besides this vignette of his frumkeit, Steinberg penned a Yiddish work of his Socialist beliefs “My Socialist Ani Maamin” “Mayne Socialistisher Ani Ma’amin.”

(A picture of the council meeting where Steinberg broke to daven mincha)

In this work, just translated from the Yiddish by Hayyim Rothman, Isaac Nachman Steinberg seeks to awaken the eternal voice of moral consciousness. For him, the economy is destroying relationships, feeling, and natural forms of life; we are subservient to production and technology. Instead, we have to envision an ideal world as it should be; we have to be guided by our moral consciousness and inner voice. By achieving this ideal, there will be a renewal at all levels, individual, national, humanitarian, universal – it is hard not to hear the parallel Rav Kook’s four-part song. Steinberg advocated an anarchistic socialism, the socialism restores the family, mutuality, and deep feeling, while the anarchism restores our individuality. As you read this, think of all the references to the socialists in the recently published early writings of Rav Kook while he was still in Russia.

(Isaac Nachman Steinberg)

This translation was done by Hayyim Rothman who is a Fulbright postdoctoral scholar at Bar Ilan University. Rothman was awarded a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellowship to pursue his research project titled “No Kings but the Lord: Varieties of Jewish Religious Anarchism” at Bar Ilan University. This research looks at late 19th and early twentieth century Jewish religious anarchists influenced by Tolstoy and other anarchistic trends including Judah-Leyb Don-Yahiya, Abraham-Judah Heyn, and Nathan Hofshi, and in the past I have corresponded with Rothman about Rabbi Shmuel Alexandrov, Volozhin graduate anarchist and correspondent with Rav Kook. Rotman does not approach these thinkers as a historian, rather as a thinker armed with a PhD in philosophy from Boston College where he focused on Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Neo-Marxist thinkers. Hayyim is an ordained rabbi with a degree from BRGS. Currently, Hayyim is at work on a book-length study of Jewish religious anarchism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Rothman provides the following biographic sketch of Steinberg as well as the translation.
(I.N. Steinberg)

Isaac Nahman Steinberg (1888-1957) was born in the Latvian city of Dvinsk to a highly learned religious mitnagdic family that traced its lineage to R. Moses Isserles (the Rema). Tutored at home because attendance at government schools would mean violating the Sabbath, Steinberg excelled in both secular and religious subjects. He attended gymnasium in far away Kazan, Tartarstan where state antisemitism was less rigid and it was possible to obtain medical waivers to avoid exams on the Sabbath. During this time — and especially in Parnu, Estonia, where he completed his final year of gymnasium — Steinberg continued his intensive talmudic studies with a series of rabbis and scholars; most notably, Zalman Baruch Yehoshua-Heschel Rabinkow, a ilui and libertarian socialist better known for having tutored Erich Fromm in Talmud. It was also during this period (and likely under Rabinkow’s influence) that Steinberg forged more formal links (his initial exposure had come much earlier) with the Narodnik folk-socialist movement and its inheritor, the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) party.

Upon graduating, Steinberg matriculated at the University of Moscow as a student of jurisprudence and joined the Socialist-Revolutionary party, taking leadership roles on campus. For these activities, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Bolshaya Lubyanka prison. Besides donning tefillin and praying while other prisoners enjoyed their limited recreation time. Steinberg’s piety is attested to by the socialist passover seder he held there, and especially by the fact that he delayed his own release on account of the fact that this would have required signing paperwork on yom tov, only relenting when instructed to do so (due to concerns of pikuah nefesh) by the beyt din of Moscow. Steinberg was subsequently exiled to Germany where, at Heidelberg, he completed — with the support of Rabinkow, who followed him there from Russia — his J.D. with a dissertation on criminal law in the talmud and also continued as a prominent figure in the Socialist-Revolutionary party. In 1910, he returned to Moscow, where he became a criminal advocate and played an active role in the Jewish intellectual life of the city. In 1917, as a representative of the Left-Socialist-Revolutionary, Steinberg joined the coalition socialist government and was appointed commissar of justice. In this role, he resisted Bolshevik efforts to undermine the rule of law and embrace state-terror in the name of the revolution — i.e. party-power consolidation.

Upon release, Steinberg fled Russia with his family and resettled in Germany. There, he composed a play entitled Der Veg fun Feyn (The Thorny Path), a semi-autobiographical piece dealing with the moral questions raised by the Russian revolution, for which he won the prestigious Bremen prize (more on his literary contributions later). After this time, he remained active in the Left-Socialist-Revolutionary movement, but also began taking a more active role in exclusively Jewish organizations. Most prominently, the Jewish Territorialist Organization — a movement that once competed with Zionism and which was recently written about by Gur Alroey in Zionism without Zion — over which he eventually assumed leadership and to which he dedicated the rest of his life. After a short period in England, Steinberg resettled in New York City, where he died in 1957.

Steinberg was prolific writer and among his many non-fiction works he composed Maximalism in der Yiddisher Velt, in which he translates the political vision of the Left- Socialist-Revolutionary into Jewish life. I assume Rothman is translated selections from this work.

proletariat arise
(USSR, Yiddish, 1929 “Proletariat in all countries, arise!”)

Steinberg, I.N. “Mayne Socialistisher Ani Ma’amin.” Fraye Arbeter Shtime. January 29, 1932. P. 2
A pdf of the file is here Socialist Declaration of Faith

[Starts by talking about the wonders of the modern world, but then points out contradictions]

The tremendous progress of the economy has enslaved working people to economic organization and to machine technology. In consequence of the economic process, relations between men are not transparent; they are almost mystifying. Due to its international character, every step of this process leads to the deepest human suffering in the most diverse places. Whether the economic process is governed by private capitalist trusts, or by state-Bolshevik institutions, the working man stands helpless before powers above him.Technology has enabled man to conquer nature, but it has also robbed men of the capacity for simple, natural forms of life. To the detriment of both [man and nature], nature itself has been technologized. Art represents and colors, writes and sings of the beauty of nature and man. Yet, it is unable to conceal the ugliness, the shame, and the dirt of the social condition in which millions upon millions of people live and die… The working man casts about in a world full of dangers: unemployment, competition, war, pogroms, zealous embitterment, and moral chaos.

Opposed to the world as it is, the mind poses a world as it should be. Moral consciousness rises above the surface of the prevailing society and formulates for itself the unadulterated (umboygzame) and absolute demands of an ideal. Thus, the mind considers the eternal voice of humanity, the voice that does not allow itself to be drawn into the elemental flow of history, and which bears in itself the activism of human action. Some say “even the mind was born in [the process of] human evolution, it too must have a social and historical source.” But such arguments ignore the most important thing: that there lives in man a voice that… steps forth like a warrior (straynger moner) against the laws of history, that — by the force of suffering and joy, drives man to actively realize his spirit. Only thanks to this spirit is the natural history of mankind transformed into human history.

Above all, the moral ideal longs for the liberation of humanity. In every new historical epoch, this striving assumes a new social visage (partsuf). One must certainly take note of the social face of the ideal during the period of capitalist downfall (untergung). In my mind, one must seek a union between the two great revolutionary doctrines of our time: socialism and anarchism. With great force, socialism emphasizes the idea of human mutuality (tsuzamengebundkayt), community (gezelshaftlekhkayt). With deep feeling (hush), anarchism expresses the idea of the freedom of the human individual. Yet, there is a danger in the force with which socialism dedicates itself to the strong union of science and society on the one hand and, on the other, also a danger in dividing men from one another in the name of anarchist freedom. Neither the social utility in socialism, nor the personal force of rebellion in anarchism are alone sufficient to build up a new society. The ‘equality’ of the former system, and the ‘freedom’ of the latter, must be united in the name of human love and happiness (liebe un friede), in the name of a society of brotherhood in which both ideas find their creative renaissance, having then flowed from a common source.

Striving and fighting for such an idea cannot be split into two unequal parts, the program maximum and the program minimum — the maximum shining (like the ideal) with the most regal colors on the white heaven of the future, the minimum, a prosaic… compromising life-program. This division of the ideal from life, of sacred from secular, destroys the holism (gantskayt) of the fighter — for his fight is, in substance, maximalist. Obviously, one may not, even for a moment, weaken the striving to better and beautify daily life. Rather, one must always have in view the distinction between charity work and the fight for redemption. The great achievement of the socialist movement (in all its forms) in relation to the life of the working man is, in substance, not different than a system of social philanthropy. The redemption idea permeates not one of its achievements so long as the giver and the receiver — consciously or not — continue to live in the present social world.

The social image of a free society consists, in my view, in three types of organs: [those governing] production, consumption, and men in general. All men who produce — be it material or intellectual goods — must be united in a production-association (local, central, international but on a federation foundation) in which they decide everything related to their creative work. But the same men are also consumers of social goods. As consumers, they must unite in consumer associations that decide as to the necessity of the, or some, products, articulating the needs of various social circles, controlling and protecting the productive work from one-sidedness and patriotism. The branches of production and consumption associations regulate the circulation of the free social organism. But the highest task of society, the question of its moral and cultural-philosophical fortune, is determined not only on the basis of production and consumption. They must be determined in arenas wherein man feels himself holistically, as an individual (an indivisible unity) who constantly revises the whole order, or the first tendencies of his social life in general. If the established order of production and consumption is static, the man in a free society must guarantee the possibility of a lively dynamic. If society is built on a system of certain and fundamental needs, the free man must also be able to review and to change the tablets of these needs.

Thus, in today’s struggle for freedom, there are two primary objectives: striving for the social reorganization of humanity, and concern for the inner, spiritual and moral needs of man. The many struggles of today can be regarded as reformist or rebellious movements, or as revolutionary אומוועלצונגען (earthquakes?). They remain stuck in reform as long as one deals in the technical-organizational changes that, in substance, affirm the old society. Fighters become social rebels when, like the Bolsheviks, they institute fundamental changes in the economic structure of the old society, but at the same time create a new statist society of violence. The fight is lifted to the level of a socialist revolutionary only when it also brings about the spiritual transformation of the fighters themselves.

The historical mission of the social revolutionary consists in the revolutionization of society and of the individual. The prime objective of a lively socialist movement consists in the flowing together of both streams of revolutionization such that each of them is nourished by the other. In the external battle, the revolutionaries cast off present political forms of formal state democracy so as to facilitate the rule of the working and creative man. The revolutionaries are not pleased with apparently peaceful means of struggle — those of pacifist monks who see the unbearable pain of the oppressed, their spiritual and זיילישע slavery, and let the oppressed wait until the new society is peacefully revealed. This means suppressing pain and painful feelings that are awakened in their moral consciousness. The violent means that the revolution uses are tamed (געמילדערט) and געהאמעלן by this same moral consciousness of human pain and cruelty that lives in the revolutionary — herein lies the distinction between violence and terror. In the end, the revolutionary strives that in the motives, the fields, and in the great economic centers of capitalism, the worker and the peasant should systematically take over control and guidance of the economic process.

In the inner struggle, the revolutionary also strives for the sole rule of the moral idea of struggle. Above all temporal economic, political, and national motives, he raises himself to the idea. This leads him to the realization that even economics, production, proletarian power, national pride, and so on are nothing more than the ways and means to the united life-goal: brotherhood. That this goal should shine through humanity, the revolutionary work must penetrate every cell of individual, intimate life: the family and the education of children, relations between men and women, between coworkers and between friends, the hierarchical relations within associations, parties, and unions. A cultural bond must uproot motives of dominion and submission among men. So that the moral idea of the future should, even today, break its way through, the fighting man must zealously avoid being enchanted by the requirements of technology: civilization, luxury, fashion — these distractions (farvaylungen) of capitalist society. Socialism is actually trying to free itself from material need and slavery. But in no way is it a material striving. Because socialism wants to free the fettered, zealous powers of enslaved men, [men] must not fear [the] primitive material comportment of humanity. So long as modern socialism is taken with the treasures of modern civilization, it cannot take man over into the new world. It remains chained to the old world.

Who can wage the awesome historical battle to lead man into a new era? The workers, the enslaved, the suffering masses of humanity — they are the first to feel the call of the objective. Moral consciousness is fitting to be awakened in them and to be transformed into an active force — this, due to the difficult condition in which they live and suffer. Therefor, the socialist movement is, above all, a proletarian movement. But not every proletarian movement is socialist. They become so only when the economic and zealous feelings of the working man are purified by the fire of moral protest, preparedness for sacrificial struggle, for understanding and yearning for human brotherhood; when the working class war is fundamentally a war for humanity. Naturally, the goal of socialism is not to raise the worker in dominion over men but, rather, to free and elevate the man in the worker. The natural partners of the worker are the laboring peasant and all other classes that are trodden and made to suffer by the present society, that yearn for the just life.

The present world economic crisis, and also that for socialism, has shaken the broadest groups of the people and spread despair. Under the difficult clap of the capitalist world order, the tumultuous radiance of what came of Bolshevism, the victory shouts of the fascist camps, it appears to them that the flame of socialism has been extinguished. This impression is an error. Only the false flames of faux socialism have been extinguished. The more disappointed in its external forms people become, all the more must the suffering man of history — especially youth — listen to the hidden depth of the soul. In these depths, he will rediscover the sources of his moral and socialist striving. In these fresh sources will he immerse his worn-out (tsuhitsen on farumten) vision and with fresh powers begin his march to the highest goal of history. In this renewal of the moral idea of socialism, some degraded walls between socialist parties and directions will fall. In this renewal, [socialism] will sprout again, beginning with brotherly relations among workers within one people, and ultimately among workers of all peoples internationally.

A guarantee of the triumph of the revolutionary idea in the future: this is the eternal voice of moral consciousness. Standing in its service and realizing its demands — this will cause more than one heart to beat.