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.

held-cover

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.

HeldDoubleHandedVer21
(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. 

dow-heb

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.”

revolutionary1
(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.

steinberg2
(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.
steinberg1
(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.

My meeting with Hocaefendi Fethullah Gülen

This week I was privileged to spend the night at the Pennsylvania compound of Fethullah Gülen, the Sufi influenced Turkish modernist. I had two sessions to ask him questions in front of his followers and was allowed to sit in on his evening meeting with followers as well as attend his two-hour class for his disciples in the morning. I am trying to formulate what people, especially my Jewish readers would want to know about the meeting, so these are first thoughts. I am writing up my observations with the eye of an observant Jewish and trying at points to explain Gulen’s ideas in Jewish terms.

Gulen is an Islamic modernist with a large following around the world and he founded the Hizmat movement whose motto is about service to others. This discussion will be limited to the religious and theological aspects. I will not be discussing the political elements of his life or dramatic events in other countries; I do not have first-hand knowledge of those. I will focus on his modern religion. If you want to compare this report to others then I recommend the reports of Prof. Mark Juergensmeyer, Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Prof Pim Valkenberg and a 2013 Atlantic Interview.

Gulen1

Part I – The Class

Visiting clergy-rabbis, priests, and ministers-usually only attend his evening public meeting with followers; few attend or report on his class. Therefore, I will start first with a discussion of his class. I will return to my discussions with him afterwards.

The setting is a modern style masjid on the 2nd floor inside a rustic Pennsylvania building. The room is tastefully modern, solid red and white clothes. The masjid has built- in cushioned seats around the perimeter of a room the size of half a ballroom. The central floor is open for prayer. There are nine mini cupola with modern Turkish floral patterns.

Gulen is called by his students Hocaefendi (Master Teacher), an honorary title of respect. Hocaefendi sits on one of the cushioned chairs on the perimeter. He is surrounded by about 35 disciples sitting on the floor who are spending 3-11 years studying in his compound while doing graduate degrees elsewhere, often in interfaith. (One at Seton Hall, several at Hartford Seminary, Niagara University, University of Scranton, and Moravian College.

All the disciples have small tabletop book lecterns (shtenders) on the floor, which open up in a V shape., a few have larger lecterns that require them to sit in a chair, and three of the students have laptops which they are using to search online databases for hadith and other sources that allude the rest of the group. Except for sitting on the floor, it seems like a higher Talmud shiur in its group dynamics. Gulen leans back on the cushions absorbed in listening to the person reading the designated text. He comments as needed, goes off into explanation based on talks he has given in the past, and answers questions.

Around the perimeter sits the older members of the compound, scholars, authors, and managers, as well as about 25 guests, members of the movement, mainly businessmen, who are visiting with their families to connect to their religious teacher. I sit on the perimeter with a mathematician who translates for me the Turkish discussion. Throughout, Gulen is relaxed and everyone knows his role. Much of it is public discussion like a Jewish Rosh Yeshiva sitting at a table with students. Those listening talk in his presence, but at no point did he need tell them to quiet down. People could explain things to me without whispering.

Similar to a Christian clergy person visiting an advanced Talmudic shiur, my attendance at this class is as an outside observer, more attune to generalities, atmosphere, and sensibility than to the finer points of the discussion.

The class consists of three parts, Sufism, Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), and a variable third part which today was Al-Ghazzali’s section on humility and arrogance from the Ihye Ulam al-Din. The texts were projected onto a screen for the guests to follow along. The students all had copies of the book

The first third was a selection from Said Nursi (1876-1960) was a Kurdish Islamic modernist who founded the nondenominational Nur Movement (Nurҫuluk), which advocated for a reinterpretation of Islam according to the needs of a modern society, an attempt to reconcile Islam with constitutionalism. He believed that change would only come through the cultivation of a new mindset.

In 1907 he began advocating for the creation of an academic curriculum integrating religious and secular sciences, with modern pedagogy. Nursi accepted many Sufi ideas and integrated Sufi books but did not advocate a new Sufi order or the need to be on a Sufi path. The Gülen Movement of Fethüllah Gülen emerged from this background.

The text read from Nursi dealt with not treating the Quran literally, one should know that examples are used to illustrate points and in other places they are only allegories or parabolic knowledge. Nursi is rejecting the Salafi literalists in principle and adding also a certain amount of Sufi spiritualization.

The next passage from Nursi that we read in class, discussed the principle of Islamic fiqh called “the people who came before us” (shar’u man qablana). According to this principle the laws of previous heavenly religions are also Islamic as long as they do not contradict with the essence and essentials of Islam. The text also discussed the Sunnah based on material from Judaism and Christianity, the Isra’illiyat material. Some people who were previously Jewish or Christian embraced Islam brought with them their previous concepts and beliefs, which in turn, also entered Islam and Muslim teachings. However, some of this previous information should be considered wrong and thus irreconcilable with the essentials of Islam. But the material which does not contradict Islam can be integrated into Islamic teachings. Many strict interpretations in other Islamic schools reject entirely the Jewish material as unreliable Sunnah, Nursi said to accept them. They are reliable as religious truth as long as they do not contradict the truths of Islam. Gulen did not discuss this because I was there, rather it just fell out in the material they were covering.

The second text was from a Turkish primer of Fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence with Sufi influence. Here too it bore a more modernist and more liberal orthodox style in its interpretation of Islamic law. The work presented the fact that there were many interpretations of Islamic law. One needs to go back to the Sunnah and figure out the appropriate interpretation. Rather than rely on the stringent later interpretations, one goes back to the original texts. It also rejected authoritarian reading. On the other hand, the fiqh book rejected the historical research of Ignác Goldziher (1850 -1921) who rejected the reliability of the Sunnah.

In his interpretation of this fiqh text, Gulen repeated stressed that the actions of Muhammad are more than his words. Mohammed was man of action and law is about the proper action (not unlike Gulen himself.) Gulen said that some of Mohammed’s decisions were made based on prior practice, [Jewish & Christian] and it is to be relied upon. His prophetic teachings parallels with the previous religions.

In addition, oral tradition in Judaism affected Hadith tradition in Islam. Gulen also said the uniqueness of Hadith tradition lies on its strong chains of tradition and methodology

The third text was Al Ghazzali’s Ihya Ulum Al-Din the section on arrogance. Here it was part moralism and part Sufism of not boasting, serving others, and to be humble. Preachers have to prepare and practice their sermons and not be so arrogant to just speak without preparing. Preachers much be concerned with people not self-glory. On this Gulen went off in a flourish of saying many of those out there today are arrogant and interested in self-glory. I tried asking to those sitting next to me, which preachers does he like, but did not get a response. Afterwards, I was told that Gulen mostly refers to the preachers under the influence of politicians. Such preachers talk according to the will of politicians rather that the will of God. Gulen has refers to them many times.

When Ghazzali wrote of not being proud of one’s spiritual level, one of the disciples in the room asked: What if someone cannot reach God or spiritual levels but is devoted in action, is that good? Gulen answered that it is better. Once again, he shows his interest in action as typified by the name of his movement Hizmat – service. I am told that it is likely that when they finish Ghazzali on arrogance, this third section of the lecture will be replaced with Ibn al-Arabi to compare.

gulen-banner
Chief Rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, left, gives a vase as gift to Islamic spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, right, during his visit to Istanbul on Feb. 25, 1998. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)

Part II The Visit and Reception

Let me now return to the beginning of the story. I arrived at Gulen’s compound in the woods. After a brief tour of the grounds and my insisting that I do not need to be taken to my room in the guesthouse to unpack, I am taken to the masjid inside on the second floor of a four level building. Visitors and disciples fill the perimeter of the room reciting Quran as part of the pre-dusk prayer preparations. After ten minutes, they stop reciting and everyone faces Gulen, who is sitting in a chair in the back of the room directly opposite where he sits when giving class. Since I know the time of sunset for Jewish prayer, I knew it was not Muslim prayer time yet.

I see Gulen had a receiving line in front of him and he is giving out Turkish candy bars to all the children visiting with their families. He gives them a smile and a nod of a blessing. Similar to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. A few adults are also given candy.

I am ushered in to sit parallel to Gulen. I expected to meet him in his study later in the evening as described in several other accounts of clergy meeting him. Instead, I am meeting him in the masjid before the full attendance. There is a microphone and this quickly takes on protocol that is more formal. I am formally introduced to him, even though I have already been vetted. It is announced who I am, my biography as rabbi, professor, and author is recited. Everyone moves to sit in a semi-circle around Gulan and myself. I present him with copies of my books on interfaith, which I had wrapped together in a thick bright ribbon as a gift. He tells the translator, who is one of my graduate students, that he will place them in his personal library. Later that evening, I do see them in his personal study with several other books he received as gifts.

Gulen receives visiting clergy every week, so the question and answer session is someone stylized because I have already read what he answered to others and he expected my first round of questions. I ask him about creating stronger relations with the Jewish community. He has a ready mini talk that he has obviously given before. Nevertheless, it is good that he rehearses it and that the assembled audience hears it. The response touched on the Ottoman Empire accepting the Spanish exiles, historic ups and downs of Jewish-Muslim relation, he acknowledges the Holocaust, he mentions that he has met chief rabbis of Israel, of Turkey and various Jewish organizations, and regrets the unfortunate role that contemporary politics and political sides are playing in today’s relationship.

He concludes with a refrain that he used to answer many question for the two days I was there, “it is going to take time.” Whenever he was asked about creating proper Muslim schools, or committed Muslims in the US, or full cultural dialogue, he answered it will take time or he answered give it 2-3 generations.

How to improve Jewish-Muslim relations? His answer: it will take time; the same way Jewish –Christian dialogue took time.

When asked a follow-up question about greater knowledge of Judaism for his followers, he answered that there is an American Imam of Turkish background, who has been involved in Jewish-Muslim encounter and visiting Israeli Jewish institutions, who has spoken to his followers. I get a sense that this has not been done recently or often.

Now that the formal questions about the Jewish community are done, I get to the questions that let me understand his current goals. He has always wanted to engage the modern world by accepting democracy, science, Western knowledge, and cultural diversity. He wants a modernist Islam. But his method has changed from before.

In order to accomplish this for this decade, he currently sends his disciples to study interfaith for their master’s degree. Afterwards they can study psychology, social work, or a doctorate in Islamic studies. In a similar manner, in the era of 1950’s -1960’s modern Orthodoxy, there was a modernist ideal of a doctorate in philosophy, or English or history. In addition, for the Conservative movement and all three Germany Jewish seminaries, there was an ideal of academic study of Judaism to be modern. For the current disciples of Gulen the ideal is a degree in interfaith studies.

Hence, I asked Gulen: What does he want his disciples to learn in these programs? How does he want them to use the interfaith knowledge? As their teacher, what does he want them to gain from my classes? He answered that they should figure it out for themselves.

This emphasis on self-knowledge and autonomy in decision-making comes from his Sufi influences, from Said Nusri, and from various shards of Kant and Existentialism that he has picked up. But, for me this question shows his true beliefs about Judaism and Christianity. In many ways more important than directly asking him about Judaism.

There are still skeptics out there who question Gulen’s sincerity in interfaith. Maybe he is just being political and apologetic. Maybe it is just symbolic. However, if you take your best and brightest and tell them to study interfaith, the way modern Orthodox once wanted philosophic study, then you actually see a value in the synthesis. When he says that his disciples will figure things out for themselves, he is basically letting rabbis, priests, and reverends, influence how his students see the world. The interfaith is not for show but an act of modernism. On the interfaith, he is leaving it to the students to develop new theologies of other religions. Hence, I will influence those at Seton Hall and others will influence those at Hartford Seminary.

This answer of his is also the best answer to those enemies of his who dredge up his attacks of Judaism and Christianity from his former days as a preacher in Eastern Turkey. Before he immigrated to the US, Gulen spent years as a preacher in rural Eastern Turkey. When one reads those sermons, they are only mildly modern. Yes, science, democracy, the West, and interfaith are good, but these modern things are not too good and they have many bad sides. After immigrating, he became much more liberal. Some of Gulen’s entourage was expecting me ask about these early writings, and preemptively told me how much he changed.

But with my knowledge of the Jewish community and the Enlightenment, his trajectory made sense. Back in Turkey, he was rejecting Salafi influence that said men and women couldn’t be in the same room or the same car. His leniency in the old country, similar to a modern Haredi, was to allow men and women to talk to each other from separate couches. Now he allows his disciples to attend co-ed colleges. In Turkey, he had little knowledge of Jews and Christians outside of traditional texts. Then he started doing interfaith and made it an ideal for his students, as a way of opening up minds.

When he said that his disciples would figure out, it means he sincerely wants them to be open to possibilities. He is not concerned with his earlier pre-immigration views. These disciples will be the ones to determine what the future direction of the movement holds.

When I ask, what should I tell the Jewish community about my visit? He answers: “you are smart- you will figure it out.” This is a standard answer of his to many question.

When asked later in the evening about how to bring religion to his community and create a modern but religious Islam, he also answered, “It will take several generations.” At this point, he is looking to the future, behind his lifetime.

The repeated themes in his answers are (1) It will take generations, (2)Decide for yourself (3) There is wisdom from other sources outside Islam and (4) that there should be dialogue between cultures and religions, dialogue meaning personal friendships and contacts.

We broke for late supper, a light meal of fruits, yogurt and vegetables. (I had my own food in my bag in case this was a meat meal.) I had a chance to sit with the visitors and hear their stories of immigration to the US, their building their businesses, and their relations with local Jewish communities.

After dinner, Gulen has a daily 45-minute audience with his followers in his more intimate study, a room the size of a living room. I had originally expected to be introduced to him here and to converse with him here, as most visitors had.

He is, however, running late, so I am ushered into a nearby anteroom, the study of his personal physician and lifelong assistant. Here are a half dozen scholars and authors sitting on the couches waiting for the evening to start. We were there for about 20 minutes, in which time they passed around dates, water, and the obligatory Turkish perfume for men, a vestige of Ottoman culture.

During this time, one of those in the room, a sociologist involved with the movement who documents its activities, preemptively gave answers to the usual criticisms of Gulen. I already knew these answers from the web. Why does he edit his earlier book and remove whole pages? Answer: He changed his views and became more liberal when he got to America. He was speaking to backwards provincial Eastern Turkey in these earlier sermons. What about his nasty statements about Jews and Christians, why do we remove them? Answer: he did not know better then. He was coming out of a conservative and reactionary community where even saying that Western culture has merits was questioned.

One of the people in the room receives a text message that Gulen is ready and we walk down the hall to a rectangular living room with bookshelves lining the wall on both ends. He chair with side table is at one end and a big screen video is at the other. To my embarrassment, Gulen insisted that I sit in his own chair. I tried to decline saying that he needs the back support in the chair and footrest, but he persisted, so there I was in his seat before 40 of followers.

I asked him questions for about another 15 minutes, some of them related to before but with greater consultation with my graduate student who is one of his disciples, who was sitting at my feet. (Yeah, I know, the hierarchical sitting arrangements are foreign to Americans. I got more accustomed to them in India where I was treated as a Brahmin Professor).

Since the graduate student had taken my course on theology of other religions, and he himself could not place Gulen into the theological categories. We asked him: is he is an inclusivist, universalist, or pluralist. The student explaining the fuller categories in Turkish. Gulen answered that it is about meeting people on a personal level, not worked out theology.

I asked him about maintaining religion amidst the distractions of the long hours of having a well-paying career in the US, combined with distractions of popular culture, the internet, and university life. For this one, I spoke directly to the assembled, and received many knowing nods and smiles from them. Gulen quickly replied that many Christian leaders ask him this same question. Despite this, Gulen’s answer returned to an earlier era of traditionalism as opposed to modernity. He said technology, education are good, if you use them for a good purpose. Just make sure not to be fundamentalist or secular. You will figure it out.

After a bit of back and forth on these themes, I tell him that I am done with my questions. I move out of his chair to a chair next his special chair. I expected him to return to his own seat but he did not. At this point, he give me as a gift a pair of plush Ascot slippers to wear in the building. Islamic law allows slippers in cases where one must take off one’s shoes.

To continue the evening, a video is shown of a Turkish singer lamenting the strain of life as a sacrifice, just like Abraham and asking for God’s forgiveness.

Gulan gives musar (Ethical reproach in Judaism) for the next quarter hour on the need to overcome life’s struggles and sacrifices. All the Quranic figures of Abraham and Moses had to struggle. They also all had to migrate to new countries. Yet, look how much they accomplished. The migration and sacrifice was part of God’s plan. We need forgiveness, which God’s mercy and patient endurance in our lives, and in imitation of God so too you show others tolerance, forgiveness and serve them with action. Much of this talk on suffering, sacrifice, and surviving hardships and migration had a Shver tsu zayn a yid sound to it, but here is was the difficulties of being part of the Hizmat movement. The talk left those assembled with a charge and a mission to serve others as part of the hizmat movement.

Gulen opens the floor for questions and is asked by the visiting businessmen a few basic questions about the meaning of various Quranic stories. The session ends with one of his assistants, reading off from his phone the many difficulties and difficult triumphs of the Hizmet movement around the world. Finally, a closing exhortation to serve others.

A legal points of interest to Jewish readers. I asked my graduate student why could I wear slippers in the masjid, are they not shoes? Do they have a criteria for what is a shoe? I was told that the criteria is whether it is leather or not. The law comes from the Isra’iliyyat material of the Jewish law of shoes, which many consider as not binding.. I was told there are now leniencies to wear running shoes or deck shoes if not made of leather. But out of custom and tradition, everyone still takes off their shoes no matter what they are made out of. However, a learned scholar knows otherwise. Slippers are fine because they are designed never to wear outside. They are only indoor shoes, hence not considered shoes.

Part III  Islam

As stated above, Gulen is called by his students Hocaefendi (Master Teacher), an honorary title of respect.  Gulen has no tariqa, no Sufi order, and he does want to be one a murshid, a leader or a Sufi leader. The movement was formed during the decades when the Turkish government banned all formal tariqa. Therefore, his movement functioned as a Romantic modern appropriation, a Neo-Sufism. It has no zhikr, no initiations, and no dance.

Our goal is to communicate what You have taught us to those whose hearts are sick as our hearts are, and whose minds are barren…. We have made mistakes, but we have made them while seeking You and trying to guide others… O Ruler of my heart. To the Ruler belongs the Royal manner that befits Him…If You forgive us, we should wish to study the book of Your universe anew so as to pay attention to the voices that tell of You. We should wish to witness the signs of Your Existence, and to be enraptured by the songs about You, so that we may reach Your holy realm. By your Graciousness, assist those in need! (Gulen)

They do tell stories of the devotion in times of old and have art work of dancing Sufis in their living rooms. They are like Heschel, or Samuel Dresner (Heschel’s early student) or the psychologist Abraham Twerski or even the Lubavitch Rebbe’s Essence of Chassidus. It is a Neo-Sufism about ethical musar, helping others, showing devotion, and working on community. The message of the Hizmat society consists of “All is based on love” so serve people. Gulen is called by his followers a Rumi for a Neo-Sufi modern age. “Love is one of the most subtle blessings that the All Merciful One has bestowed upon humanity. It exists in everyone like a seed.”

Fethullah Gulen is a liberal Hanafi imam when it comes to law, (think of Rav Uziel or Rav Nissim- a study of the relationship of Jewish pesak and Islamic modernism is a desideratum). In one of his books he has a chapter on the many early 20th century Islamic modernists who influenced him including Muhammed Hamdi Yazır, Ferit Kam, Babanzade Ahmed Naim and Ahmad Hilmi of Filibe. (This is a diverse list akin to a Jewish list that included C. N. Bialek and Rabbis Hayyim Hirschenson, Solomon Schechter, Shmuel Hayyim Landau, and Bernard Revel.) Here is an Oxford MA thesis on his Modernism. 

The movement still relies heavily on ethnic immigrant identity – it is “tradition” like American Jewry circa 1930 – rather than educating them to higher levels of knowledge. They will use a few basic legal guidebooks and not worry about the details.

Members of the movement chose to keep daily worship or not. Hizmet does not intervene with personal matters. Gulen himself encourages people to pray prescribed prayers in Masjid or eat halal foods whenever possible. However, Hizmet does not reject those who do not do pray or not eat halal foods. Those are personal matters and in Gulen’s philosophy worship is expression of the relationship “between man and Allah” nobody can enter between them. The movement has those who in Jewish terms would be Modern Orthodox, it has those who would be old –time Conservative, and those who are not that observant but the observance they do not keep is traditional.   Hocaefendi’s position is that he does not judge people on their devotions. He accepts everybody regardless of their level.

Are they like the Conservative movement of the 1940’s – traditionalists following accepted practices of the people? Are they a romantic modernism as their base a universal reading of Sufism as tolerance, love, and intercultural understanding? Are they Modern Orthodox for their insistence on women covering their hair and everyone only eating OU kosher as their halal– both inside and outside the home? The range of practice varies from those who will not trust airline food as being Halal to others who will eat everything out. Are they like the former European Orthodox community kehillot of Einheits gemeinde- communautés consistoriales?

The movement produces a modernized Islam that keeps the commandments but has little to do with the vast corpus of Islamic works as studied in a traditional madrassa. For the laity, the only Islamic teaching that they study are the writings of Fethelulah Gulen, who defines Islam as love, tolerance, interfaith and cultural dialogue, science, and caring for others.

They are lenient in the practical keeping of Islamic law in many aspects. For example, if you are busy with work and school, then you do not need to pray in a masjid. College students are exempt during their busy school years and it is sufficient if they pray privately. Men will shake women’s hands in a business context.

The role of women in the movement will hit them hard in the next half century. Currently, women are excluded from the classes and the evening audiences with Gulen. At the retreat center, the women eat first and then the men to avoid comingling. Surprisingly, or not, one of the few items of Islamic law they are strict about is women covering their hair. I was told “most women in the movement have conservative background thus even before embracing the movement they used to cover their heads. There are other women in the movement who stay unhijabbed as they were before any affiliation to the movement.” However, I did not see any women in the movement without a hijab either in Pennsylvania or Turkey. There is no standard code of women’s clothing. However, Gulen stresses in his sermons modesty in women’s clothing.

My colleague  Prof. Pim Valkenberg, who wrote a book on the Hizmat movement, had a different experiences than mine.  He has have met women in the Hizmet movement who did not wear a veil, both in Turkey and in Washington D.C. and even though they are a minority he never got the impression that they were seen as maybe less good examples. I have seen quite a few examples of veiled and non-veiled women working together. Gülen has been quoted to say that the veil is a personal matter and it does not make one a good Muslimina.

The masjid has a separate women’s gallery, what Jews would call a mechitza, with a thickly woven wooden lattice allowing women to peak through the lattices like in Hasidic Synagogues. There was also a second floor balcony women’s section with one way glass, the men only saw a mirror. This is a strict interpretation of Islamic law on the need for a separation. In some of their schools, men and women are separated, but there is no physical division.

When Gulan gave his morning lecture, there was one women with her teenage daughter in the women’s section. I sat right in front of them on the other side of the partition. Whatever the mother expected in woman’s learning, what would the daughter want for herself and her daughters in the future? Will it be enough to be allowed to quietly sit in the back of a men’s class?

The events the Hizmat organization holds for outsiders- the non-Muslims who attend Hizmat events- the diners, public forums, and trips are co-ed. They have a distinction between insiders and outsiders.

The movement is lay driven and always regionally organized. They have set up summer camps, afterschool programs, and gap year programs for their members to instill Islam in their children. Each regional center is independent and makes its own material or independently decides what to use.

Gulen is official the mujahid (posek, rabbi) of the community but that is more as honorary title of respect than reality. Therefore, what do they do for having a mujahid in each community. I emailed someone this question and he answered ” throughout the communities in different places the decisions are taken on the basis of consultation( shurah). An example would be the boards members of the cultural or dialogue centers. Thus when new issues arise they are discussed by the members of the communities” They do it by committee as a ritual committee.

In this, they seem more 1930’s Jewish immigrant community than a modern denomination. These members on the committees do not have advanced training but they have done some studying like the reverends, shamashim, and old-timers who acted as rabbis in Jewish immigrant communities. I assume that at most, they have a year of training or they went to an Islamic High School.

Gulen himself writes about consultation “There may not be always unanimity (ijma’) in consultation. However, in a case where there is no general concurrence or consensus of opinion and decision amongst those present, the decision is taken and people act according to the opinion and conviction of the majority.”

Already in 20th century secular Turkey, the traditional madrassas were abolished as part of “Atatürk’s reforms”. Instead they created an alternative, the İmam Hatip school is a secondary education institution to train government employed imams. A similar process went on in soviet central Asia. They taught skills of running a mosque and basic Arabic and laws, but without the legal structure and traditionalism Islam was from textbooks. (There were similar such schools created by the Russian Tsar and the Austro-Hungarian Empire for Jews, a way to create government employed rabbis without rabbinic authority.) Gulen schools that taught Islam in Turkey, before the recent political events, followed this model.
The textbook on fiqh that Gulen taught when I visited was a book produced by a professor for these schools. It is like studying Menachem Alon’s Mishpat Ivri along with Mamonides’ Mishneh Torah in lieu of a traditional beit midrash. (As side points of which I do not have first-hand knowledge, Erdogan has allowed more right wing instructors into these school in Turkey. )

Right now they don’t turn outside the community, so in the future they may turn outside for legal guidance or some of their disciples will find themselves the premature gedolim of the community. What will be their religion when the ethnic identity wears off and they have to form their own American Islam?

Most of those in the US in 2018 chose the Hizmat movement as their path over secularism or more fundamentalist versions of Islam. They are successful in the broader Ottoman countries of the Balkans and Cental Asia. Now, as they set up centers all over the US and beyond, they will be the Islam in town for many others, the place to go for festivals, Islamic after school and camps for the kids, and for Islamic single sex dorm houses on college campuses.

Similar to Chabad, the very message is to go out and serve other, build institutions, build connections with people. They are both trans-national religions of the age of globalization taking over by showing up. They currently have 2 million students in 1000 schools in 40 countries including Japan, Australia, Germany, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia. (Salafi dawah is more about building Mosques and staffing them with Salafi preachers and Salafi books). The majority of their current publishing is, after Turkish, in English followed by German as their second language along with thirty other languages including Spanish, Urdu, Chinese, Indonesian, Polish, Thai, and Bosnian. Right now, they are mainly publishing in English and German. The next generation will definitely switch to vernaculars from Turkish

Synthesis 
If one advocates the combining of secular studies and Islam, then what are the parameters? If the goal is to combine democracy with Islam and tolerance and Islam, then what does one do with prior texts, especially those that take a harder line? If the goal is to combine interfaith and Islam, then where are the lines?

If a college student who grew up in the Hizmat movement looks to get guidance on these question and finds it lacking, he will look to authors such as the very liberal Sunnism of UCLA Prof, Khaled M. Abou el Fadl or Emory Prof. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, who advocates a secular state for Islam. Alternately, they could like the answers of a variety of feminist or progressive Muslims. I am sure others will say we cannot go any further than Gulen did and reject change.

Since each disciple is given independence and each center is both independent and lay driven, this will naturally create greater diversity and multiple approaches in the future. It will also cause some to look for new leadership.

Disciples can question his ideas among themselves but do not do it to him. They can easily say to me, that they follow something else or don’t agree with his reading. The class had questions addressed to him but not a questioning of him. Those were left as comments among themselves. They wanted Gulen’s wisdom of how to apply this text in terms of service and modernity. They were not really looking for lamdanut or peshat (analysis or close reading) but his religious views. (No one questioned the Lubavitcher Rebbe or Rav Shlomo Carlebach about their quotes from Maimonides, it was not the purpose of the talk, which was charismatic).

He is telling them to rely on his charismatic message and to refer to his writings. They are publishing his writings and distributing them. There is no heir and no succession plan. Each community is led by its own lay board. As of now, they do not have standardized textbooks or uniform classes for summer camps and after-school programs. But his writings embrace a charge of educating the youth without a clear direction of implementation into the complexity of democracy, human rights, science, education, or interfaith. They are only now beginning to discover the lack of depth, but Gulen encourages them to be their own people and that they can differ with him

Future
As I noted eight years ago in my blog discussions with various members of the movement. I talk to a 21-year-old economic major who describes how the movement took Islam from the folkways and tradition in his small town and made it into a religion. Now the religion of Islam that he follows is by conscious choice and he sees that it can be treated as Turkish-Islamic culture. This would sound like a religion of self-conscious Orthodoxy, the Jacob Katz thesis on Orthodoxy. Their own newspaper quoted anthropologist Ruth Benedict that “Our faith in the present dies out long before our faith in the future.” They are a transition that is still taking place in which the plausibility structure of the past has died and the Gulen movement offers the potential of a future plausibility structure that works.

Another vignette: I am speaking to an 18-year-old recent graduate of the Gulen boarding prep school in CT. He explains to me how Islam was not part of the curriculum but they have prayer and chaplains. He tells me that he is going to study Political Science and pre-law in a major Midwestern mega-university. What will his Islam be without any book knowledge?

A third vignette: I am speaking to a 50-year-old organizer in one of the centers. Someone shows him a keychain and asks: what is written on it? He says he thinks the first Surah of the Koran but that he cannot translate it and would need to look up its meaning. Since the first Surah is known to every school child who learns Koran-and even to any Jewish studies teacher who has ever taught the second Surah because of its Judaic sources- what do I make of his lack of knowledge of the Koran? it is not hard to remember.

In general, they say to trust one’s own heart in religion. Don’t be a hypocrite and try to be sincere in your practice. They have created an Islam of knowledge of the basic rules and Mosque etiquette but no real learning of Islamic sources. They say to trust the heart for matters of interpretation. Imams, kadis, and scary sources of authority do not play a role in their thinking.

How can I evaluate if the next generation will return to sources of authority and which ones they will choose? Strict ones, progressive ones, Sufi ones, legalistic ones. When asked about restrictive fatwas, salafi interpretation or about Islamic reformers, they tend to shrug it off and say: Don’t question others or engage in polemics- love all – don’t fight with the right or the left.

What happens when the kids open the books of these other trend? Is this a viable long term movement. Will the second and third generation either follow Hanson’s law and move towards Islamist  or Fundamentalism or completely assimilate, or a majority becoming something like a liberal progressive Islam once they are financially established. What does our experience as American Jews (or American Catholics) show?

Interview with Batsheva Goldman-Ida-Hasidic Art & the Kabbalah

The presentation of history using objects is currently the trend in many books and exhibits. There are books on the history of a given topic in 8, 10, or 50 objects. For example, I recently saw an exhibit on the history of Frankfort am Main with 100 objects.

Scholars in religious studies are also turning to material culture, where they apply anthropology, art history, performance studies, and aesthetics in the investigation of belief in everyday practices. They look at the images, objects and spaces of religious devotion and the sensations and feelings that are the medium of experience. The new questions include those of embodiment, sensation, space, and performance. Here is a podcast on the topic of material religion.

In a new book, Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah (2018) by Batsheva Goldman-Ida, she connects material culture and Hasidism, the textual world of Kabbalah meets the art exhibit. In several ways, this is the best book I have seen on Hasidism in many years. This may seem like hyperbole but for teaching and understanding the movement, the new book Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah gives a new angle of access to Eastern European life.

Batsheva Goldman-Ida, Ph.D. (2008), The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is Curator of Special Projects at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and specializes in visual culture, especially in the early modern period. Born in Boston, MA, she studied Decorative Arts in New York at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum and Parsons School of Design, then studied Jewish thought at Hebrew University.

hasidic art

In the past, Jewish ceremonial art was treated as decorative and functional. This book, in contrast, explicitly investigates the symbolism and theological meanings of the objects. It is as if we merged the studies of Moshe Idel with art history. Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah presents eight case studies, almost as exhibits, of manuscripts, ritual objects and folk art developed by Hasidic masters in the mid-eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries. Goldman-Ida investigates the sources for the items in the Zohar, German Pietism, Safed Kabbalah and Hasidism. She shows Kabbalah embodied in material culture, not just as abstract ideas.  In addition, we are treated to discussions of magical theory from James Fraser and on the subjective experience of the user at the moment of ritual using the theories of Wolfgang Iser, Gaston Bachelard, and Walter Benjamin.”

Goldman-Ida  also curated a recent exhibit and catalog Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulafia, Dada, Lettrism (Tel Aviv Museum of Art 2016), which juxtaposes the medieval mystic with early modern innovators of linguistic mysticism as well as contemporary performance artists.

The book shows that the concern with liturgical objects as used in the life of the Hasidic court was built into the theology and fabric of Hasidism. The concern with special garments, crafted ritual objects, and folk arts were part and parcel of the movement. So too, the 19th century movement focused on objects blessed by the Rebbe or used by him, which then had magical powers. There was no pristine point where the movement was not involved in how one dressed, how one performed a ritual, or how one prayed. All of this concern for objects was part of a Hasidic imagination of divine immanence. Tobacco pipes, drinking cups, and synagogue art were all infused with a quest to serve God through physical objects, what we would now call material culture.

Everyone acknowledges that foods such as borsht, pirogies, stuffed cabbage and pączki were Eastern European foods, eaten by Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants alike. About foods there is little debate, except for the occasional squabble in historical cookbooks about who contributed the food item to the region. But when discussing Jewish liturgical material culture-such as Purim groggers, wimples, or havdalah sets with Polish eagles – there is a deep reluctance to admit that one can learn the most about the history of these items by studying the non-Jewish folk arts of the region. For a good example of contextualizing a Jewish object, see the award winning essay by David Zvi Kalman, The Strange and Violent History of the Ordinary Grogger.

Batsheva Goldman-Ida’s book shows how the Hasidic movement used the material culture, the arts, the crafts and craftsmen’s of the wider culture. They took the designs of Germany, Austria, Poland, and Russian and made them their own. It was never a mystery to Jews of the era that these crafts were also done by the non-Jews surrounding them. Hasidim were embedded in their broader culture as much as acculturated Italian or British Jews. Hasidic arts were embedded in the world around them

However, Hasidism made the arts their own. They connected the objects to Kabbalistic and Hasidic thought, or broader Jewish ritual themes, or to a special status of the Rebbe.  Silver tableware used by German non-Jews or by wealthy German court Jews became symbolic seder plates or kiddish cups. Sometimes the difference for the Jewish version was in method, such as the woven silver brocade made on a special loom and not by hand.

There is an old Yiddish phrase, translated as “know your poritz,”- know the Polish noble (Polish pan or Hebrew- Yiddish poritz) for whom you work because your relationship with him determines your life and livelihood.  In the arts, this book also shows that they knew the arts of the non-Jewish superior, in that, Hasidic art used models from the wealthy nobility and life of the princely court, not the church or its chalices or church liturgical objects. The Hasidic court was to be like the royal court, showing kingship and royalty, especially in the court of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin and his descendants. The book left me with the question of: why further East did they turn to Russian folk arts? The book also shows that some of the same arts were shared with Non-Hasidic Jews, for example in Prague.

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art curated a costume exhibit of Catholic inspired clothing. On the walls, the curation cited the 2000 book by sociologist Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Imagination. Greely defined this imagination as referring to the Catholic viewpoint that God is present in the whole of creation and within human beings whereby material things and human beings are channels and sources of God’s grace. God is present in the world discloses Himself in and through creation. According to Greely, the Protestants on the other hand, assume a God who is radically absent from the world. Which is Judaism? Batsheva Goldman- Ida clearly shows that the Hasidic imagination finds God manifest in material objects as part of serving God through corporeality and that no place is devoid of God.

I would be delighted to have similar books combining kabbalah and the arts for the Jews in Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, or  especially Morocco. Three years ago, I interviewed Marc Michael Epstein about his book Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Michael Epstein (along with many contributors), where he also weaves together Jewish thought with Jewish art.

The book is a 450 page gold mine of the Hasidic theological imagination expressed in material culture. This wonderful book reads like a curated exhibit moving from object to object based on the eight representative objects. Reading it makes one feel as if one spent several days wandering around a well-curated special exhibit on the topic. However, if you want to have a sense of chronology and regional differences then it would be profitable to read it a second time to piece together the historical narrative.The book is worth reading more than once for a new way of seeing the movement. Similar to a return walk through a well-curated museum exhibit a second or third  time to collect the details.

The major flaw of the book rested with the regrettable cost of the book at $165, I look forward to a reasonably priced paperback edition. Another issue is that the book came out as a monograph book size at  6.1 x 9.2 inches when it should have been a coffee table book size 9.5 x 11.8 inches to display properly the abundant photographs and illustrations. If you can get a hold of the book despite the price, then read and work it into your courses on Hasidism and into your thinking about the movement.

All pictures are property of Batsheva Ida Goldman and copyrighted© . I thank her for use of the pictures. 

  1. How did you get started in this project?

The project began gradually. When I first approached the university, I came with an idea to combine Jewish studies, especially Jewish thought, with the study of objects. It was a long process. I had to first complete art history studies through the MA, and only on a doctoral level could I concentrate on my initial interest in the symbolism behind Jewish objects.

On a personal level, I had a direct connection through my brother-in-law to a Hasidic dynastic family, whom I joined for holidays such as the Passover Seder. As Assistant Curator of Judaica at the Israel Museum from 1977 to 81, and through inventorying the collection, I became very familiar with the field of Jewish ritual objects.

As an art historian, I looked for symbolic Jewish art, while most viewed those objects as solely functional. I felt this was a new field, a last frontier of Jewish art. What I love about the early Hasidic traditions is their creativity in thought and action, and I wanted to discuss the subjective experience of the user.

jul03_38 close up
(King David dressed in Hasidic garb)

2) Why is there an emphasis on material culture in Hasidism?

Hasidic objects are important because Hasidim have an inclination to raise up mundane or everyday objects not considered under the category of tashmishai kedusha (sacred objects) or tashmishei mitzvah (ceremonial objects) under Halacha, and attribute to them higher levels of sanctity (pp. 7, 395; BT Megillah 26b)); this is called ma’alin be’koshesh (raising the level of sanctity).

In this category are most of the objects presented in the book, since in these objects Hasidim were able to be creative and invest the objects with Kabbalistic and Hasidic significance. These include the Prayer Book, the Kiddush Cup, the Seder Plate, the Sabbath Lamp, the Atara, the Shmire (amulets), even the Pipe and the Rebbe’s Chair. My point in my research is that these are not to be presented solely as functional, rather as theological and symbolic.

The reason behind this radical move of investing objects with holiness is rooted in a general Hasidic approach to worship through the mundane, also called Avodah be’Gashmiut (Worship through Corporeality) (pp. 389-391). This approach was very much part of early Hasidism and is generally attributed to the Baal Shem Tov.

We have two approaches to beauty in Hasidism. The first approach of the Baal Shem Tov insisted on actually focusing and seeing the letters in the Siddur and through this intent gaze – by a direct encounter with the material world – to experience the Divine.

In contrast, the Maggid of Miedzyrzecz chose a different path, of cognition – upon seeing a beautiful object, to reflect on the Divine source of that object and hence encounter the Divine (pp. 5-6).  In both cases, the true beauty is that of the Divine.

Among the Hasidic followers, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonnye, the scribe of the Baal Shem Tov, and his son Rabbi Shimshon of Rashkov, who wrote the Siddur I describe below, both felt strongly about following the Besht’s direct encounter.

Others, such as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, a disciple of the Maggid, continued on to a more rarified, conceptual standpoint. However, rather than a strong dispute, I think the third and fourth generations of Hasidim chose a combination of the two approaches.

3) What is the concept of hidur mizvah as a Hasidic concept of beauty?

The concept of hiddur mitzvah is closer to that of kavod (respect) (p. 3) and relates to the user and to his approach to the ritual object that as part of the commandment should be a respectful one.

The Hasidim use a more emotional and extreme term of hibbuv mitzvah (liking or loving the commandment as a term of endearment), so, when leaving the Sukkah, they kiss the coverings as if they were a mezuzah. This also refers back to the user and his approach, rather than to the object itself.

Unlike the Maggid of Miedzyrzecz conceptual thought of the Divine source, here it is a general idea that hiddur mitzvah and hibuv mitzvah as describing a person’s approach of respect or emotional ecstasy respectively  to a ritual object

There is also the concept of pe’er (grandeur or splendor), which is used to describe the extra-large size of, for example, the atara on the tallit of the Rebbe (p. 241).

This, in turn, when applied to the Ruzhin dynasty and its related Chernobyl dynasty, refers to their status as a royal family – derekh malchut (the Royal Way; also possibly carrying more complex connotations to the tenth and lowest sphere of Malchut). The Ruzhin dynasty traces its ancestry back to King David (p. 390-91), and this sense of royalty is expressed in all the ritual objects, buildings and furnishings, costume, etc. In all of these, the finest workmanship and materials are used (gold, silver, velvet, silk, etc.) as befitting royalty.

4)      What are the different shapes of Kiddush cups and what do they signify?

The most important Kiddush cup is the Epl-Becher (apple-shaped beaker), whose form was designed by the Maggid of Miedzyrzecz, according to Hasidic tradition. The apple-form is symbolic of the Shekhinah (also called: the Assembly of Israel), as the “rose among thorns” which is “surrounded by five petals” as depicted in the opening page of the Zohar,

HyperFocal: 0

The Hasid is requested to hold the cup upright in his right hand (equivalent to the sefirah Hesed or Compassion) with all five fingers; and the “orchard of the holy apples” referred to in the Ari’s Sabbath hymn (p. 102). The apple-shaped cup stands on a winding chain with generally three leaves and a trefoil base. Over time, the petals underneath the cup were multiplied to 13 corresponding to the 13 attributes of Mercy and to 26 petals, corresponding to the name of God. The finial on the cover is sometimes in the form of an olive and other times in the form of a dove with outspread wings, both referring to the Assembly of Israel.

A second kind of cup relates to the Hasidic custom of Tikkun, which has become a familiar custom in general, that is, to recite Kiddush on Sabbath morning from a shot glass or small beaker for whiskey or alcohol (Schnapps) (p. 312; Fig. 133, p. 313). The original custom was to greet a new member or share a simcha with a ceremonial drink and wish a le’chayyim (to Life).

The third Hasidic Kiddush cup is of no particular size or shape (being sufficient to hold 150 ml). However, it relates to a unique Hasidic custom since it is forged or melted down from Shmire coins blessed by the Rebbe and treasured as talismans, mainly among the Ruzhin and Chernobyl dynasties, and their related branches.

5)      How was Hasidic material culture affected by non-Jewish
material cultural? Did they follow German, Polish or Russian folk arts and crafts?

The non-Jewish Austrian and German Courts were an influence on the Hasidic art in the ornamentation of silver and gold objects.

The use of figurative scenes reflects the influence of the Russian Lubok or folk print, which featured figures and texts and were distributed widely.

The carved wood decoration on the Chair of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav on the one hand reflects Polish or Russian (now Ukrainian) folk art motifs of the flowerpot, for example, but also motifs from the Empire style (pp. 355-356). However, whereas the Ukrainian folk art is highly geometrical, the Hasidic wood carving of Reb Nahman’s chair is symmetrical, with motifs paired, but much less rigid in design. The chair shares motifs with Ukrainian folk art, but although symmetrical, is much less geometrical displaying more rounded forms.

_MG_9480

An interesting trend in Hasidic appropriation is the tendency to use materials from the urban or city folk in terms of costume, headgear or objects rather than look to the church and the clergy.

This availability of visual materials from the surroundings is best explained by the scholar of the Yiddish Language Max Weinreich, who explained that the difference between Jewishness and non-Jewishness was in the “combination of the ingredients.”

There are two axes – the horizontal plane of the society around them and the vertical plane of past generations and tradition. “There is no marked attempt at horizontal legitimization in Ashkenaz. It identifies itself vertically, with previous generations of Jews.” (See pp. 381-2).

The apple form of the abovementioned Epl-becher, for example, is a smaller version of a type of non-Jewish naturalistic domestic cup designed by Albrecht Durer in the 16th century (pp. 87-92, Fig. 29, p. 90). It should be noted that a domestic silver cup was chosen rather than a Church chalice.
The Chernobyl and Ruzhin Seder plates, although they hold attributes of the Kabbalah in its design and reflect Hasidic life in their figurative scenes, are similar in size to 18th century large pieces of dinnerware of the period among European royalty

Bildnis des Joseph Hölzl
German table silver similar to those used for Seder plate

6)   What is a Henglaykhter? What does it mean and why was it popular?

The Henglaykhter (hanging lamp) is used for the Sabbath and was designed by the Lelov Rebbe Elazar Menchem Mendel Biderman, after he came to Eretz Israel in 1851. Its three levels of metal rings with apertures for shallow glass dishes echoes the diagrams of the ten sefirot with an upper level of 3, middle level of 6 and the lowest – a single ring for Malchut. It is simple to make of low grade metal rings and glass, yet it provides a very real vehicle for contemplation of the ten heavenly sefirot. Later on, a more elaborate one of 26 glass vessels was made, echoing the more complex parzufim diagrams.

Fig 89 Henglaykhter, Jerusalem 1979

The Henglaykhter is ingenious since it combines a Middle Eastern prototype of the hanging glass lamp with the Ashkenazi six to eight armed Judenstern, a hanging Sabbath lamp used from the Middle Ages in Europe. The original prototype was Islamic – ubiquitous throughout the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century but already in use in the Byzantine period but now combined with European Jewish lamps. In this way, the Hasidim were able to create new objects that built on their familiarity with their Ashkenazi background.

From the time of the Ari and later the Shelah (16th century), the custom spread to kindle 7 lights for the Sabbath corresponding to the seven heavenly spheres used to create the world, and then 10 lights for all of them (the three highest are considered to be in another realm).

7)   How were prayer shawls and atarot used as art?

The atarot (collars on the prayer shawls) in Eastern Europe were made among many Hasidic groups in the 19th and early 20th century using a unique Jewish technique of braiding silver thread on a loom, similar to bobbin lace. According to Milton Sonday, the textile expert from the Cooper Hewitt Museum, this is a uniquely Jewish technique. It emulates the couched and laid thick gilt embroidery found in  German or Austrian church vestments and Parokhot Torah Art Canopies for example in the synagogue, from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The silver braid was also used for gilt bonnets among Jews and Gentile women in the 18th century. The uniquely Jewish Shpanier loom was a Jewish response as a way to emulate these more elaborate bonnets and collars, without resorting to non-Jewish hand embroidery.

Fig 112 COLOR Yosef Greenwald spanier SAM_1860

The designs were various and related to the Hasidic dynasties. For examples, Ruzhin had a rosette and Sasow had a heart-shape. There was even the unlikely find of a Star of David found among the designs.

The Magen David Star of David was used in Prague in the 16th century. However, it became a national symbol – a Zionist emblem – only in the latter half of the 19th century. The Hasidim were on the whole firmly for making Aliyah but not all identified with the Zionist movement. So, the Star of David on an Atara seems to represent a Zionist background, which is unusual.

These atarot were made especially large and decorative for the Rebbe, who also had a narrow braided strip around the waist. The atara-makers produced these also for those outside of Hasidism, for example, for the Chief Rabbi of Prague or Warsaw, and even sent gilt collars to Paris! Hasidic women used the same technique and the same designs to decorate their Sabbath bonnets (sterntichel)

8)   How did the seder plate take on extra Hasidic meaning?

When the Chernobyl or the Ruzhin-Sadigora Rebbes designed and ordered the design of a silver Seder plate, there were already similar Seder plates from Austria and Germany in the 19th century with a platter on the top for the Seder foods and three drawers for the matzot. The combination plate is typical of Ashkenaz, but the Kabbalistic attributions to the parts of the plate are only found among the Hasidim.

Fig 54a COLOR Peshkan Seder plate frontIMG_9525

For the Rebbe all parts of the plate and the plate as a whole were given Kabbalistic significance. The platter with the six Seder foods were arranged according to the Ari in two triangle shapes, and corresponded to six of the seven lower sefirot. The three matzot refer to the three upper heavenly spheres. The plate as a whole was considered to be the lowest sphere malchut, symbolized by a small crown on top

This elaborate Seder plate is a combination object typical of Western Europe especially Germany and Austria, similar to the combination havadalah spice box which was combined with a candle holder. This plate which holds the matzas and the top part is the Seder plate with the symbolic foods.  The three-fold matzah napkin or porcelain and metal Seder plates continued to be in use even in this period among Jews and other Hasidim.

In Hasidic thought, hesed is always on the right, and all things move from left to right toward hesed to mitigate the gevurah or din with hesed, lovingkindness.

Noteboard: The diagram on page 178 has a problem. (The publisher did not agree to correct the diagram– but please simply switch the right and left. The Shank-bone and the Haroset should be on the right. I explain it properly on the previous page, 277. Please forgive me this mistake.)

9) Why was smoking, pipes, and snuffboxes important for Hasidic art?

Any object connected with the Rebbe is considered by the Hasidim to be precious. Many would only touch them after immersing oneself in the mikveh (ritual bath). For this reason, pipes or snuffboxes used by them are considered special. Later in the 19th century, smoking was associated with raising the divine sparks, a necessarily delicate act of tikkun according to the Lurianic doctrine of the Ari.

There is no special design here. Only the idea that a mundane and not especially healthy habit was uplifted through a conceptual relation to the object 1) as something the Rebbe had; and 2) related to the incense in the Temple.

10)      How do images lead to ecstasy or communion with God?

The ritual objects are used in real time, held with the sense of touch, utilizing other senses, and with a prayer or song said or sung in connection with them, intensify the ecstatic experience. (p.3).The combination of a text that is spiritual or otherworldly with concrete actions combines to create a magnified experience.

Moreover, the gaps between the actions, words and objects – gaps in space and gaps in the text itself – are completed by the user while enacting the ritual. The user is thus an active participant who brings the different aspects together and so feels as if entering a sacred time. The sacred is experienced as a kind of reality that is above time. The texts provide a context outside of time while the objects and ritual enacted in real time provide a context of reality.

11)   What is the role of magic in Hasidic art?

In Hasidism, the mystical and magical are intertwined – the ecstatic and the theurgic. The Baal Shem Tov who was a leading figure for the Hasidim began as a writer of amulets and talismans, inherent in the very name Master of the Divine Name. Regarding the shmire coin blessed by the Rebbe, it clearly seems to be sympathetic magic (magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the influence  sought.) However, the experience for the Hasid of meeting the Rebbe is on a very high spiritual plane.

There are two kinds of sympathetic magic as defined by James Frazer: involving direct touch (contagious); and influencing an action from afar (homeopathic or imitative). The Shmire coin is both. The Rebbe holds it (direct touch) but a Hasid can also receive one for a friend and bring the friend’s contribution or pidyon to the Rebbe (thus acts from afar). That is why I bring in a discussion of Marcel Mauss who explains that a person who brings a gift also gives over part of him or herself. (See p. 341). The Hasidic Rebbes also understood it in this way. That a blessing can only be made effectively when the Rebbe has possession in some way of part of the person, or has interiorized that person. Often other gifts are given to the Rebbe with the intention that they will be blessed, including ritual objects and also Siddurim prayer books.

Silver objects made of melted-down Shmire coins retain the same magical (or protective) nature. So there are soup tureens (See p. 310), Kiddush cups, even Torah crowns, etc. made from these coins. And there are many amulets written on parchment or metal that are used by Hasidim.

12) How were some of the printing houses producing beautiful books?

The son (Moshe Shapira) and later grandsons (Shmuel Avraham Abba and Pinhas) of the Rebbe Pinchas of Korets (Korzec) established a Hasidic printing press in Slavuta (from 1791-1835)   Their frontispieces are known for their beauty with red (and black) print on tinted blue or pink paper and open spaces on the page.

FIg 21b COLOR crop Menahem Mendel EE.011.019
(Hasidic manuscript from the GFC Collection, Tel Aviv)

In addition, Hasidim illustrated manuscripts, on paper or vellum, were produced within the Hasidic communities  This follows on the 18th century Bohemian and Moravian revival of manuscript illumination and illustration that served the Court Jews and other wealthy families, often copying the script of printed editions out of Amsterdam and this was encouraged within the Hasidic court, especially in the Sadigora court. Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin’s grandson (son of Rabbi Shalom Yosef Friedman) and the son-in-law of Rabbi Avraham Yaakov of Sadigura – Nahum Dov Ber Friedman of Sadigora had an amazing library of these illuminated manuscripts.

The illumination of hand-written manuscripts was a tradition in mid-18th century Central Europe (Prague, Bohemia, and Vienna, also Moravia, and parts of Germany like Hamburg). The Hasidim continued this tradition in the 19th century. The revival of manuscripts followed the very popular printed books and prayer books done in Amsterdam with a unique font that was used in printing there. It gained a reputation and the scribes would be proud to emulate the printed font in their manuscripts, so they called it “Amsterdam script.” The manuscript editions were generally made for Court Jews, and the Hasidic Rebbes especially of the Ruzhin-Sadigora and Chernobyl groups sought to have a similar royal lifestyle also expressed in their manuscript books. A kind of prestige item.

13) What is the role of the ilan hagadol in Hasidic art?

The Ilan ha’Gadol is a diagram of the ten sefirot according to the Lurianic doctrine of the parzufim (Countenances of God), spiraling down from the Ein Sof (Infinite One) and encircling the light of the Ein Sof as it penetrates the world. Such diagrams from the 18th and 19th century served as ways to understand the intricate Safed Kabbalistic contemplation. The Ilanot are a kind of map to explain the cosmography of the Lurianic doctrine. The contemplation comes when the various names of the Sefirot and the names of God are incorporated into the liturgy of the Siddur.

Fig 95 Ilan Hakodesh 028.012.016_008
(Ilan ha’Gadol, GFC Collection, Tel Aviv)

14)      How were prayer books used for contemplation?
The symbolic illustrations of the early Hasidic Lurianic Siddur Hechal Ha’Besht of Avraham Shimshon of Rashkov, the son of Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, show the Sabbath table and Mikvah in a realistic, figurative way – following on the concept of Worship through Corporeality and according to the approach of early Hasidism to focus on the mundane

Generally, in Lurianic Siddurim, there are diagrams of the mikveh or the order of the 12 hallahs Sabbath loaves on the Sabbath table. The diagrams help the reader in organizing his kavanot or yihudim meditations while praying.

In the early Hasidic Siddur, however, instead of a diagram you have an actual depiction of a mikveh with an attempt to show depth or 3D and a depiction of an actual table with a table cloth and actual looking hallahs on the table. This idea of showing real objects expresses the Besht’s concept of “worship through corporeality.” In this way, even the Lurianic theosophy is brought before the worshipper in concrete terms as an image of a real object in the real world.
The Hasidim incorporated the Lurianic kavanot (contemplation) of the Ari of Safed from the writing of Hayyim Vital into their Ashkenazi prayer books, preferring, following the Ari, to use the Sephardi liturgy (13-15). For example, the Sabbath morning service follows the use of Lurianic kavanot to move the sefirot through the Four Worlds to the highest sefra of Keter, recited during the Kedushah by way of the Hechalot (Palaces), which are related to different paragraphs, such as the preliminary paragraphs to the Shema Yisrael prayer, and the Kaddish de’Rabanan (pp. 57-63). The symbolic drawings of the Hechalot and the angels of the Kedusha prayer (p. 35-36) aided the Hasid to contemplate or visualize this Lurianic contemplation.

Similar to other diagrams found in Lurianic Siddurs, the seven Hechalot (palaces) of the stages in prayer are generally shown as diagrams. However, in the early Hasidic siddur, the images are a quarter of the page, very large and ornamented, often with a significant number of motifs that carry a Kabbalistic significance.

Thank you to Rebbe Dr. Yisrael Ben-Shalom Friedman

One of the Rebbes who assisted me and passed away last year, was Dr. Yisrael Ben-Shalom Friedman (1923-2017) of blessed memory, a scion of the Buhush and Peshkan dynasties related to the Ruzhiner Rebbe.

Upon visiting him at Kibbutz Saad where he then lived, we were walking down a path and in his quiet voice he was explaining something to me. I do not remember what he said, but as he talked I began to see around me every detail of nature, and even the dots on the neck of a pigeon we passed, and hear the sounds around in a new way.  Of course, the story is told of the Baal Shem Tov and Reb Aryeh Leib of Polnoye, the Preacher, who wanted to learn the language of the animals. (Shivhei HaBesht [Rubinstein Edition, Jerusalem 1992], 298-300 (in Hebrew); but it really happened to me.

Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman responds to Rabbi Barry Kornblau

This essay is the fourth in a series. The first was Rabbi Barry Kornblau on the position of the RCA and the second was by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz on finding holiness with his Modern Chassidic approach, the third was by Shlomit Metz-Poolat Esq on Sanctity as an Observant LGBTQ Jew.

Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman is a practicing psychotherapist and teacher, has taught in various yeshiva’s and was rabbi and director of the Yakar Center in Tel-Aviv. He was a Ra”m at Yeshivat Hakotel and Yeshivat Hesder Othniel and taught at Siach Yitzhak Hesder Yeshiva. He has produced four widely popular albums of his musical compositions, and is currently working on his book of essays on the Torah.

I once received a phone call asking about Rav Shagar and LGBTQ issues. The rabbi phoning me asked: now that Rav Shagar is available in English he will certainly have the appropriate full leniencies for the gay community. I tried explaining to this person, that that is not what Rav Shagar is about, he is not American liberal Orthodox. This response essay by Rabbi Engelman, a student of Rav Shagar since the 1980’s, shows the difference in approaches between my caller and the the potentialities of Rav Shagar’s ideas.

Rabbi Engelman is primarily concerned with the question of how do we build lives of sanctity and holiness? Just being a member of the Orthodox community does not grant holiness, and certainly not sexual holiness.  We need to develop a theology of the body, of holiness, and of sexuality that will help us grow. The approach is closer to that of Catholic moral teaching of the body in Pope Benedict’s students or in Pope Francis’ recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family). This need for a theology of the body that includes heterosexuality, before further discussion is show in many current Israeli volumes on marriage. To take one example, Rabbi Yakov Nagan of Othniel, a student of both Rav Shagar and Rav Froman as well as Rav Lichtenstien, gave lectures this year on the Zohar as a source for holiness in relationship.  The Zohar is not part of the American Orthodox canon, let alone a source of aspirational ethics. This is not what my caller was hoping to gain.

More notably from this essay, Rabbi Engelman objects to rabbis as gatekeepers to the private clubhouse of Orthodoxy. It infantilized the congregation and it demeans the rabbi to a guard instead of a teacher. He considers it a form of magical thinking that pronounces people sanctified with words, or through membership in the club. They are confusing the path with its goal, similar to confusing membership in the gym with attaining athletic abilities. Engelman notes how this approach implies rabbis have a special knowledge and status by virtue of being rabbis. Some Orthodox gay or lesbian people actually like the rabbi as gatekeeper and Orthodoxy as a club, they just want to be included in the club. They are deeply hurt by their exclusion but are perfectly willing to follow the rabbis as guards as long as the rabbis let them in as LGBTQ.

In contrast, Rabbi Engelman’s vision is one of embracing doubts and struggles with the rabbi functioning as a midwife to attaining holiness and an educator for those in the community to discern what God wants from them. He rejects the certainty of who is closer to God and sanctity that Orthodoxy asserts. For Rabbi Engelman, no one can say who is closer to God. And for him “it is a problem that people consider matters of spirit and holiness as quantifiable.”

Holiness is not limited to those in a suburban marriage. Both gay and straight marriage, those celibate, and sexuality in general needs personal discernment. The psychological and sociological world we live in is not the same as that of the past. Engelman is a therapist who works with LGBT patients and recognizes a limit of the sources of our legal decisions.  For him, the rabbinate is similar to the therapist, or the Socratic teacher, helping the person work through issues. This is different from Rabbi Ysoscher Katz response who sees the rabbi as a caring rebbe offering pastoral advice.

Rather than emotional care, Rabbi Engelman asks: how do we become holy? How do we attain the lofty heights of being a servant of God, a title ascribed to Moses, Joshua, and the Messiah. To be a servant of God is one of life long hard work, not “given freely to anyone who will simply tow the Orthodox party line” Rabbi Engelman finds the discussion lacking practical steps toward holiness and certainly, lacking the lifelong struggle to attain such heights.

Years ago, I thought, somewhat facetiously, that this Orthodox thinking produced people who thought they got entrance into the world-to-come just by affording a mortgage in Teaneck without any need to engage in Torah or work on themselves in mizvot and middot (character traits) for the rest of their lives. Rabbi Engelman asked it in the opposite direction, as a positive question. Even in a heterosexual marriage, let alone a same sex relationship, who are our guides to help in discernment for this lifelong work of attaining sanctity, especially regarding sexuality?

yehoshua2

On Sanctity and Sexuality

Reading the title of the RCA’s statement, as presented by Rabbi Barry Kornblau, I thought: What a breath of fresh air, what a brave step, that rabbis are prepared to relate to these crucial aspects of Judaism. It is hard to imagine Judaism without certain concepts, such as brit (covenant), faith, Torah min hashamayim (revelation), and kedusha (sanctity) is certainly a concept without which one cannot imagine Yiddishkeit.

Is there anyone who does not desire kedusha? Every day we say Asher Kideshanu BeMitzvosav, and we pray constantly Kadsheinu Bemitzvotecha – both meaning sanctify us with Your Commandments. The area of sexuality is always a thorny one to discuss as Torah. In its broader sense it encompasses our very being since Gan Eden, and so I expected and hoped to read rabbinic advise on how to make our lives holier. How disappointing to find ne’er a word on this in the whole declaration.

A famous rabbi once stated “Unmarried Orthodox” is an oxymoron. He was not casting aspersions at the level of observance of any singles or divorced observant Jews, only stating what for many of them is clear – that there is only one (real, legitimate, true) way to be Orthodox – and that is: Married. He was but expressing what many unmarried people know and feel – הן אני עץ יבש’ “God has separated me from His people, Yea, I am a dry tree”. In my work as a communal rabbi, and as psychotherapist I meet Orthodox men and women who feel ostracized. It is subtle. No one, God forbid, rejects them from the community, but they are aware that ‘the community’ means the married couples and families.

Sometimes it is blatant, as when shuls give discounts to couples and families; sometimes it is more subtle, a feeling given from the lack of invitations. But beyond this, and deep-rooted in the fabric of most communities is the feeling that as things stand – Judaism is a ‘family religion’, one tailored primarily for families, whether laws of Shabbat, festivals, mourning or, of course, modesty (tzniut).

As a Rosh-Yeshiva once said to me: “Ravina and Rav Ashi, Rambam, Shulchan-Aruch, even Mishneh-Berurah, never imagined a society in which many people, even a majority, would not be married by the age of 20”. All Orthodox Jewish thinking till 50 years ago, Halachic or theological, is the thinking of married men. Even though this may have no practical ramifications – this needs to be recognized, recognized as a limit of the sources of our legal decisions (pesikah).

Unmarried people who earnestly seek closeness to Hashem through the path of Torah and Halacha – and I have been privileged with meeting many such people – repeatedly come up against a ‘glass ceiling’ of how much a part of an Orthodox community they can be. Of course, we believe that standing before God all are equal, that HaShem does not ask “First of all – are you married?” But communities themselves still have a way-to-go so as to catch up with their maker in this aspect, and unmarried people do feel outsiders. In addition, paradoxically – LGBT’s desire that their “marriages” be recognized by the Orthodox community is an expression of their desire to belong davka to the Orthodox community. Needless to say, such recognition cannot be expected from the Orthodox rabbinate, but the question of how to relate to such people who seek to live their relationships within orthodox communities – to these the document relates.

Most notably, it relegates rabbis to the role of gatekeepers. Their role and the role of community rabbis is to surround their communities with a fence, to guard the safety of their Kehilah (community), to affirm firm boundaries. As I see it – it is sad when rabbis see their role as gatekeepers rather than as educators. One cannot be both, to the degree that one is a gatekeeper one is not an educator, time spent doing one is time not spent educating, not spent inspiring people. A case could be made for their role being to educate people to keep and create boundaries. Everyone needs laws and boundaries, these are what parents are expected to educate their children to know and live, a healthy person is one who keeps laws and respects law. But it is sad when parents think that the only thing they have to teach their children are rules and regulations, rather than values and faith (emunah) and ideals and love of HaShem (love of God) and kedusha (sanctity) , and sad when teachers believe that this is their primary role.

Such an attitude seems to express lack of faith. Not necessarily a lack in the faith of the rabbis themselves in Torah, but their lack of faith in congregant’s firmness of belief and keeping of the commandments (Shemirat Torah uMitzvot) as coming from deep conviction and commitment, based on a sense of love of HaShem and Brit. They seem to believe that their congregants need their borders affirmed and strengthened: Strengthening and reaffirmation of boundaries and laws is always a result of inability to teach and educate people to act from within the boundaries.

 

Of course, it can be said that this is missing the point: The real problems are those facing the institution of marriage. Marriage, and structure of the traditional family in general, is indeed in a crisis, and some would say that recognition of LGBT’s endangers the value of the traditional family intrinsically, but also as the only true way of Avodat HaShem (serving God). Although I firmly question this theory.

As a therapist who works with Orthodox gay patients, I have yet to meet anyone who consciously chose to be gay. My work with such patients’ is just like my work with anyone else,  amongst other aspects, which is to facilitate them hearing their own unique voice and desire, all expressions of which are extraneous to the soul, actions not essence, to be able to make whatever choices they make from within themselves, not from habit or societal pressures. What I often hear is the depths of their yearning, like most people, for deep committed loving partnership, and that these be recognized as such; rather than choosing a Queer position of distain for any such institutions, they too want matrimony, and the continuity of this form is important to them too.

Such an attitude of the part of the Rabbinate is itself a problem, in their relating  to marriage as both a crucial institution and an endangered one. I believe it is neither. And I hope that no-one would doubt that Ben-Azzai who famously declined marriage and was one of the “Four who entered Paradise” together with R Akiva was treading the path to saintliness, as did many righteous Torah giants.  Indeed, many sages such as Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon and down to our times lived monastic lives and were married only in name.

Marriage is a path, Mitzvot are a path, Torah is a path to kindness and closeness to Hashem and to sanctity. There are no guarantees. There are no promises that such a path will bring those who walk it to their goals. However, ascertaining that whoever walks on a certain path has attained its goal is akin to saying that one who walks on the running track is a marathon runner.This is the severe mistake that those who wrote this statement make – confusing the path with its goal, and thinking that one can attain sanctity simply by denotation.

No one can really believe that simply by getting or being married one is, or becomes, holy. No Torah book that I know of ever imagined anyone making such a disastrous mistake. קדושים תהיו  – You shall be holy – is an instruction for everyone forever. One can only hope that this mistake is an innocent one.It is a problem that people consider matters of spirit and holiness as quantifiable

Perhaps, to strengthen marriage and family values, the writers of the statement thought to provide this encouragement: “Look!” they say, “You’re holy, sanctified by matrimony, by home and hearth and having your nuclear family. You can be proud of this (another Jewish value), and it needs to be protected from those who would – no less! – defile it with their imperfection and difference”. However, calling someone, an athlete never even made him or her healthier, let alone athlete, and describing something as sanctified does not make it holy.

To return to my previous point – it saddens me to discover again how so many rabbis see their primary goal as gate keeping, as delineating what may and may not, should and should not be done. Many rabbis used to see their main role as inspiring people and facilitating their closeness to Hashem through the mitzvot, sort of marriage counselors for one’s relationship with Hashem. Few vocations are higher than being an educator – why aspire for less? True – little in the traditional rabbinic training teaches rabbis how to inspire and empower people; this certainly needs to be addressed.

However, even in allowing rabbis leeway in decisions re LGBT the RCA position as presented by Rabbi Kornblau is still setting the role of rabbis as that of gatekeeper (shomrei hah-homot). A rabbi as teacher can do so much more than that! I felt this way ever since I taught in Yeshivat HaKotel, later at Othniel, and afterwards as a community rabbi: That my job was NOT to tell people what to do but to discuss the issue at hand, explain the Sugya and various aspects, so that a person can work hard to decide what Hashem wants specifically from them.

Midrash Shmuel writes הספיקות עשו את האנשים חכמים  Doubts make people wise. Why deny a person the opportunity to be wise? When a person deliberates what Hashem wants from them – they are very close to God in that deliberation. Similarly – a rabbi can discuss various aspects and sensitivities with the community and let them decide what rules to adopt. Is this not a higher vocation than telling people what to do?

These words in the RCA document struck me:

For every Jew, striving for and achieving sanctity require sacrifice and life-long effort. The limitations of the human condition often result in our failing to accomplish what we seek; we often must settle for partial victories and for the need to try again in the future. We believe that the effort, pain, and sacrifice we each invest in this struggle bring the potential for great personal fulfillment and ultimate Divine reward. Such lifelong struggles and yearnings towards sanctity are the summom bonum of religious life.

I would be so very grateful – maybe even inspired! – to read of the sacrifice and effort, settling for partial victories and life-long struggles that the writers of this document attest to having to go through in their life. Is it that they gave up running multi-million dollar corporations? Was it not playing sports or performing concerts on Shabbat?

I have been privileged to know many rabbis whom I highly respect. Very few of them have made sacrifices different from those made by any professional, such as outstanding academics or dedicated artists. Yet such people do not necessarily think that their sacrifices accord them privileges, or make their lives more ‘lishmah” (for the sake of heaven) than that of other people.

It seems that some rabbis labor under the illusion that their training gives them access to some knowledge superior to other’s. Tosafot certainly did not think so. The Talmud stated: “I (a talmid hakham) am a creature and my friend (the ignoramus/Am HaAretz) is a creature” (Berachot 17a) Tosafot write on that line: “This means: He has a heart like mine to discern between good and bad.” Of course the person unlearned in Torah does not know Torah, Talmud, Halakha etc, but, according to Tosafot, he is able to discern no less than the talmid hakham (scholar) between what is right and what is wrong. Is not helping another person deal with doubt and make choices the highest of vocations? Can rabbis not apply this approach of helping people with discernment choices also be done with communities?

I suspect that the lives of these rabbis being similar to that of the vast majority of orthodox Jews for whom orthodox heterosexual married life is a pleasure which demands few sacrifices, is what makes it easy to expect sacrifice from others. However, even were their lives to have demanded sacrifice from them, I am reminded of Nietzsche’s famous words: Self-sacrifice is what makes it easy to sacrifice others without feeling guilt.

Similarly, in Rabbi Kornblau’s article: Repeatedly he mentions servant of God “eved Hashem” “avdei Hashem”. Is it that simple? All that is needed is to be (heterosexually monogamously) married and Pronto! One is a servant of God!

How has it come to be that this highest of accolades, ascribed to Moshe Rabeinu and to Joshua, one by which Isaiah denotes the messiah, is so easily bandied around and given freely to anyone who will simply tow the Orthodox party line? I assume that the addressees of this statement are people who desire to serve HaShem, and it is to this desire that the words are aimed, at telling them that you, by keeping strict boundaries, are and will be sanctified. But how did this come around that people allow themselves to thus see themselves, as servants of God with such ease?

(For accuracy’s sake: The Maharal in Gur Aryeh does say that while we are all commanded קדושים תהיו –  to become more and more holy,  we are all already קדושים – Holy by virtue of not eating all types of insects. Perhaps it would be better to agree on this inclusive minimum requirement to merit the title given in the essay).

This talk of sanctity in sexuality – before looking into other’s sanctity I would ask whether any of the writers of this paper, in their own sexuality, experience sanctity and in what ways? Have there been any directives how heterosexual relationships can be sanctified?

Is naming something ‘Holy’ enough and no awareness is needed? All denotations of holiness in Halacha, whether of people, places, objects, or food, have practical implications. Does calling marital relationships “sanctified” make them so? As a rabbi of a community, I was repeatedly challenged by congregants to be explicit, not just use words but also expand on precisely how Orthodoxy may be an experience of The Holy. We are not priests who sprinkle holy water on people and pronounce them sanctified, but I fear we may often do something similar, just replacing water with words.

Finally: There used to be one place of service of God that required the most stringent purifications to enter. Not only gentiles, but also any impure Israelite was not allowed to enter the temple and, sometimes (depending on type of Tum’ah) even parts of the surrounding areas on the Temple Mount. Punishment for transgression could be as severe as excision (karet). Yet, nowhere in the Talmud or other Halacha literature do we find that there were guards positioned to make sure that forbidden people would not enter Temple precincts. Even though the prohibition was severe, – much more severe than any entrance by any ‘forbidden’ person could be today – a prohibition that central parts of Yom-Kippur service were to atone for, yet responsibility for this was left in the hands of each individual.

Indeed, the Talmud tells of a gentile who managed to eat of a Korban Pesach (Pesachim 3b). Would this not be a more beautiful model for our shul’s – places where everyone is welcomed and no gatekeepers guard the gates, where the central focus indeed is on service of God, on depth and sublimity of prayer rather than worrying next to whom one is sitting and who is in or out? Can we not try to make our synagogues akin to the Temple?

Shlomit Metz-Poolat Esq. responds to Rabbi Kornblau on LBGTQ in the Modern Orthodox community.

Protestant congregations across the United States are facing congregational splits from confronting the issues around LGBTQ issues. There are hundreds of articles in the last few years on how the Presbyterians, Mennonites, Lutherans, and Episcopalians are dealing with the issue in their congregations, for example here, here, here, here, here, and here, Even ostensibly conservative groups such as the Mennonites have to avoid congregational splits over LGBTQ issues.

At this point, there are professional consultants that help congregations avoid splits and many books and articles on the topic. Most of the advice given is that the split starts at the top with the clergy and board. Church splits do not happen suddenly and without warning. There are usually signs of impending disaster. LGBTQ issues are usually connected to other issues of authority and organization. Leaders, if they wanted, should have taken the proper steps to protect the church. Does the clergy worry more about the image of the purity of the congregation and its doctrinal correctness or about division in the Church? The leadership has to ask which bothers or grieves them more the division or the lack of purity. If leadership draw lines in the sand or asserts their theological agenda, then the church splits. However even if there is a split, all is not lost. One can conceive of the split as a needed break between conservative and liberal elements within the community and still have the two congregations work together on bigger communal issues or you can conceive the break as creating two unreconcilable groups. They advise the former.  They also advise that God and God’s will is greater than any clergy or leadership.

The same tensions are currently found in Jewish Modern Orthodox congregations. This essay is to hear from a person who actually bears the pain and real life misery of these theoretical discussions. Much of the discussion below is on her alienation from her beloved congregation, the birth of a split in a congregation, and the assumptions made by rabbinic leadership. The essay focuses on how in real life the LGBTQ congregant is stigmatized with assumptions.

This essay is the third in a series. The first was Rabbi Barry Kornblau on the position of the RCA and the second was by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz on finding holiness with his Modern Chassidic approach.

Shlomit Metz-Poolat Esq. is the President and Founder of Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael, a Modern Orthodox and inclusive synagogue on Long Island, which was a split in the community. She is a career legal prosecutor. She studied at Hebrew University, The Oxford Centre for Post Graduate Hebrew Studies, and Brooklyn College. Shlomit received her law degree from Hofstra Law School (1998).

Shlomit spoke on a panel at the RCA’s (Rabbinical Council of America) conference in 2016 on the necessity for inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the Orthodox world, and the impact that exclusion has caused to that community.She has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community blogging about her efforts at The Blogs: The Time of Israel and raising her daughter, along with her partner of thirteen years, within her Modern Orthodox community.

Shlomit

Practicing Sanctity as an Observant LGBTQ Jew

In 2016, the RCA issued its statement on homosexuality and its place, or really lack thereof, in the observant world. The resolution entitled “Principled and Pastoral Reflections on Sanctity and Sexuality” was a direct reaction to concerns over the legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states and the consequence of western ideals pushing up against halakha. It concluded with the following disturbing statements:

Complying with the Torah’s sexual structures can be challenging for many. We recognize that these strictures provide no permitted outlet for those with homosexual desire, thereby creating the extraordinary demand of lifelong abstinence as well as the absence of companionate love. Although some overcome these and other challenges, we deeply empathize with those who face them.

Particularly because we recognize that homosexuals often leave the Orthodox community, we are inspired by and have tremendous respect for those who seek to remain loyal to God, Torah and the pursuit of sanctity in their lives. Each of us must encourage and support all members of our families and communities to shape lives imbued with the fullness of Torah and holiness.

The essence of these words is clear. Comply, practice abstinence and remain alone while we have empathy for you. And if you choose to leave Orthodoxy, we recognize that it is because you choose to violate halacha and have no place for God, Torah or sanctity in your homosexual life. That is the message sent, as I see it. But I will not leave it at that and will elucidate further.

The fundamental problem with the resolution is twofold:

First, its premise does not begin with providing LGBTQ Jews with the benefit of the doubt. Instead, there is an assumption that LGBTQ Jews automatically violate halacha when they declare that they are LGBTQ. It absolutely sexualizes the LGBTQ Jew with the belief that declaring oneself as LGBTQ is a declaration of “I violate halacha” when it comes to sex. In citing Rav Lichtenstein’s zt”l point of LGBTQ Jews marching in the Israeli Day Parade as akin to Sabbath violators wanting to march – I say this most respectfully – Sabbath violators make a choice – we do not when it comes to being LGBTQ.

It may be desirous to remain neutral on the nature vs. nurture argument, but it is simply embarrassing in the face of what science and psychology know today about the LGBTQ condition. In fact, I would argue, that no one would choose to be gay (and observant) and go through the pain inflicted on us by rabbis, family, and community members who learn that we are LGBTQ.

Indeed, LGBTQ Jews who march in the parade in support of the state of Israel – do so with the knowledge and support for the fact that Israel is a democratic country, a haven for all Jews, and a safe place for Jews who are LGBTQ. They march in recognition of the Israeli courts that have ruled to protect LGBTQ rights in many circumstances, including within the realm of family law and while serving in the IDF. LGBTQ Jews march to show their existence, so others will not feel alone, to show a love for Israel, and march with gratitude for its moral position of recognizing that LGBTQ lives matter too.

LGBTQ Jews who march do not hold signs that say: “we are nashim mesolelot” or “I commit mishkav zachar” and as such, most respectfully, that position must fall because we are simply prejudged as violators of halakha. In fact, we too “seek to remain loyal to God, Torah and the pursuit of sanctity” in our lives, but as LGBTQ Jews. The two are not incompatible.

Second, the position that there is admiration “for Torah observant homosexuals living with the ‘extraordinary demand of lifelong abstinence as well as the absence of companionate love’” is inherently dangerous and in fact, is a death knell for us. That is wonderful for rabbis that they can stand by and admire the celibate, lonely LGBTQ Jew and hold him or her on a pedestal, but at what cost? And the answer is, the spilling of blood. Their words are directly related to the suicide rates among the LGBTQ Jews; for we cannot survive alone without the support of our families, rabbis and communities.

In surviving this predicament, I choose to turn to the words of Hashem – “it is not good for man to be alone.” So, to those who tell us to remain celibate, or closeted I simply say that your words are akin to killing us – because Hashem’s words are greater than those of any person.

So, Rabbi Kornblau turns to the privacy argument – “Obvious and unstated: a homosexual who keeps his/her desires and actions entirely private is treated as any other synagogue member.” Really, this is a clear euphemism for “the closet.” There is a reason that the word for closet in Hebrew is the same as the word for coffin (aron).

I am sure that if rabbis search within themselves, they would agree that marital relationships are not all about sex. Do these rabbis not have physical contact with their wives without leading to sex, not make financial and health decisions together without leading to sex, care for each other in sickness and in health without leading to sex? And long after age has taken over our bodies, when sex is lessened or disappears, are their souls lonely? No, they are not, because they each have a helpmate (ezer kenegdo).They have “companionate love,” something the RCA is hoping to deny us, based on a complete oversexualization of us and a lack of understanding of how we truly wish to live Torah lives as LGBTQ Jews.

Not viewing us as beings greater than our carnal sexual relationships completely ignores our existential ones. I return to the example of the sabbath violators. Why find a halakhic tool such as tinnok shenishba to allow the sabbath violators in your midst, with the belief that one day there is hope that they will embrace halacha and the rules of shabbat? Why not do say the same for us, even if you are alleging that we are engaged in impermissible sexual acts? We too will come around. Again, that presupposes and pre-judges that declaring oneself LGBTQ is akin to saying, “I violate halacha.”

The sad reality is, that homosexuals are not restricted “in proportion” to their “synagogue’s similar restrictions upon other violators of halacha.” In my own community, we have convicted felons, individuals who are arrested for visiting prostitutes, commit adultery, sabbath violators whose funds are happily accepted, and kashrut violators who happily post their pictures of their treif meals on social media. All of them are welcomed into the community shuls, lose no ceremonial rights and continue their existence as equal members of the community. Not one of them has been summarily removed. Whereas my membership was removed and where I was not permitted to join any other shuls This directive on proportionality, quite frankly, is a pipe dream.

Looking further into the resolution I noticed the following phrase “Undeterred by contemporary norms and practices that often profane sexuality, we emphasize the sanctity of the sexual component of human nature, which best thrives in privacy and modesty.” Why is the LGBTQ Jew not granted the same level of modesty (tzniut) and privacy? Why are married men and women given the benefit of the doubt that they comport with sexually permissible acts and keep hilchot niddah, while the LGBTQ Jew is assumed to violate halacha?

What is clear to me, is that rabbis know little of our daily existence, our struggles and our hopes and dreams to practice the only Judaism we know and love. “You can’t be  outwardly gay” leaves no room for discussion.

The fact that rabbis think we can approach them with the most shameful of secrets is laughable, at most times. Indeed, there is not only perceived, but real hostility, exhibited by rabbis towards members of our LGBTQ observant community. And since, like much of the Jewish world, that is a small world, word of such acts spread very quickly and simply adds to our fears. Frankly, making most rabbis unapproachable for us.

Additionally, when someone says, “Rabbi, what is the halacha in this case?” – what are they really saying to the rabbi? I propose that rabbis understand that the fundamental question behind the actual one being asked is: “What does Hashem want me to do in this case?” So please recognize and understand that your answer is one in which people searching for the correct way to practice halacha, are actually asking each learned rabbi, please speak in the name of God. At that realization, I, if I was a rabbi, I would be trembling before God; I would be thinking of the phrase “know before whom you stand” before I open my mouth. And I would choose my words very, very carefully. Unfortunately, that is not done and the hostilities from those we turn to are not perceived, they are real.

With that in mind, the position that the resolution was written “from the perspective of synagogue rabbis” with its center being a “guideline relating to homosexuality in a communal synagogue setting” is flawed at best and dangerous at worst. The variation of rabbis amongst the congregations of the US are as plentiful as the variations among all human beings. The statement leaves a clear message for each individual rabbi to do what they want in their shul. Therein lies the danger. There is no unified position on how to treat the LGBTQ Jew in their midst and so we are at the mercy of the whims of imperfect men, some who are homophobic, some who are unkind, some who are merciful, some who are uncomfortable, and some who are focused on maintaining their positions, fearing an outcry should any of their stands be taken as supportive of LGBTQ Jews.

And finally, as to the argument that Rabbi Kornblau puts forth regarding “family values” and his concern for the destruction of our civilization, I simply say, most respectfully –such language has been used in the extreme to further white supremacist ideals, to prevent marriage between blacks and whites, and today is the language used by those preaching homophobia. Again, simply seeing us as sexual beings who allegedly violate halacha, by equating our statement of being an LGBTQ person, with someone who does not wish to be an eved Hashem, and thus incapable of establishing a Jewish and observant home with Torah values, I simply say – join us for a Shabbos.

Personally, I can only say that America has improved since Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges, and I am grateful for that change. I have a dear family friend, who married a black convert, and they raise two beautiful frum little girls. Their “family values” are beautiful ones. I married my partner in a civil ceremony, recognizing that there is no such thing as halakhic gay marriage, and the sky has not fallen, my community has not crumbled, and in fact, ask those around us – we are building a beautiful, progressive and inclusive shul in our home town, living observant lives, and raising our observant child.

The sad reality of this debate is that I do not see a place where these two opposing views will meet. What I do see, is that you are encouraging Modern Orthodoxy to split in two. In a progressive approach to Modern Orthodoxy, women are not only seen but heard, agunot are freed, converts are supported and accepted, and LGBTQ Jews are included. I prefer that to live in that world, though I am sad to see that you are encouraging splitting the community into two. Despite that, I have hope that as we each practice Torah and mizvot, we will continue to treat each other with the mutual respect and dignity deserved by all of Hashem’s creatures.

My Journey

In the summer of 2014, I learned firsthand what it was like to contend with the power of the rabbinate. My journey began with my removal from a shul membership I had belonged to for nineteen years. I was not called to a Beis Din, let alone a rabbi’s office, or before a shul board. I was not informed of my “crimes” or even so much as told of any issue. I learned of my removal only after I had called the treasurer of our shul, asking for a membership bill that I thought he had simply forgotten to mail out. Instead, I was told to call the Rabbi. I knew something was up and so I did call.

Soon after, I met with the Rabbi, along with my partner, and was told, or rather accused, of publicly and intentionally flaunting my gayness. I had hyphenated my name and, despite being careful not to use it on any shul notices, or announcements, I had inadvertently posted my name to the shul cloud directory when I had signed up, as instructed by the shul.

Had I known I could opt out of the directory, I would have done so in compliance with the Rabbi’s wishes that my hyphenated name not appear on shul documents (other than my private tax receipts which the Rabbi had agreed to for my accountant). So, my unintentional error was accused of being done intentionally. I told the Rabbi in no uncertain terms that it was unintentional. He did not believe me and accused me of hyphenating my name to make a statement.

I was never asked before decisions were made about my membership, or rabbis were contacted at YU via the associate Rabbi, what my intentions were when I hyphenated my name; I was simply accused with no one to complain to because all was conducted in secrecy and behind my back.

In fact, I still do not know how was the question posed? Were their facts presented in my favor, or were all questions based on assumptions of intentionality on my part? Because the reality is something very different. I had taken my partner’s name not with the intent of flaunting my gayness, but rather with the intent of seeking safety under the law. However, I quickly learned from some insiders that the board had met in secret, with the Rabbis of our shul, discussing accusations based on false information. An alleged wedding ceremony and party two years earlier (2012), allegedly held at my home, had been discussed as another flaunting of my gayness. Too bad no inquiry of me was made as I would have been able to discuss the truth.

The truth being that I quietly, without frum community members present, except for my best friend, married my partner in a civil ceremony in a judge’s chambers to protect our home, assets and medical decisions from family members who under DOMA (still the law in 2012) would have greater right to those than my partner or I would have for each other in those arenas.

The alleged wedding party was in fact a Lechayim and a post construction house warming party, ten days after my civil ceremony. We were very careful not to call it a wedding or marriage reception. In fact, I still refer to her as my partner, recognizing the unease I may cause others in the frum world by referring to her as my wife. We were simply grateful to create a home filled with a love of Torah, Jewish values, such as kashrut, shabbat and hachnasat orchim; a place for sanctity, despite our sexuality.

The worst thing in all of this is that it came on the heels of our applying to Modern Orthodox high schools for our daughter. A task that became ominous and replete with emotional upheaval. At one point, at the open house of the school I wished my daughter to attend, I burst into tears worrying that rabbis out there would punish my child and prevent her from obtaining a truly Orthodox education; something I could not live with. The emotional toll was immense. I do not remember a more stressful time in my life than that first year after I was removed as a member from a shul I had loved and helped build.

Thus, I have the same problem when the resolution declared that “sensitive questions relating to the yeshiva and Jewish day school education of children being raised by homosexual partners” should be left “to rabbis and others who run such institutions.” Why? Why leave that decision to the whim of rabbis or homophobic board members who don’t want their child sitting next to the LGBTQ’s kid? Are we a people that support the punishment of innocent children for the alleged sins of their fathers and mothers? Thank God, in the end, a rabbi issued a halachik heter for our daughter to enter a Modern Orthodox high school, recognizing that she was an observant child who had only known a yeshiva education and should not be prevented from continuing that education. Those are our “family values.”

Why not issue a resolution that states that Jewish observant children, who are not born into the “normative institution through which men become fathers, women become mothers” are still “children created and loved” by their parents, mother and mother, father  and father, passing on the Torah tradition “from generation to generation?”

Do these rabbis actually mean that the laws of kashrut, shabbat, family and community minhagim, halachot relating to pesach, tefillin, tzitzit, lighting of shabbat candles, celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah, giving tzedakah, learning of Torah, gathering around the Shabbos and Yom Tov tables, dedicating oneself to the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, to the mitzva of kiddbud Av v’Em, to kvod zkeneim, to kvod habriyot, all must be lessened because our families do not look like the traditional heteronormative Jewish families?

So to all those pulpit rabbis who signed on to this resolution and who stand in front of their congregants each week speaking about the fate of the world we live in I say – to all those who hope to rally their congregants to do acts of chessed, acts of Kiddush Hashem, acts of kindness, acts of Ahavat Yisrael, acts that unite us as a people rather than tear us asunder, acts that bring light into the world not darkness – this is your time.

You just simply have to love your fellow Jew enough to see it. It is called kavod habriyot. We do not ask for anyone’s blessing. We do not ask for a change to halacha. We do not ask for a statement declaring whether this is right or wrong. We simply ask for you to love us. The way the Torah commands each of us – “love your neighbor.”

I recognize that in the Modern Orthodox Jewish world we are trying to find a way to fit a square peg into a round hole. I suggest that it is not that difficult. All you need, is a little love – Ahavat Yisrael. But know that love for one’s fellow Jews, is a platitude – one that is easy to follow when the Jew is like you. The real test of Ahavat Yisrael is in loving those that are different from you. Embracing, the single person, the widow, the orphan, the aguna, the convert, and even me – the LGBTQ observant Jew.

I am confident that as a people we will find a way to move in the right direction, guided by Ahavat Yisrael. I believe it simply by the fact that I could never have imagined a day when the RCA would have invited someone like me, and other LGBTQ Jews, to sit on a panel and  speak to their Rabbis, about our struggle to remain in the observant world. The fact that there are Rabbis in the RCA willing to do  so, gives me hope that bridges will be built. Turning to halakha, guided by love, we will succeed in finding a place for every Jew.

Judaism has three protected classes, the ger (the convert), the yatom (the orphan) and the almanah (the widow); ones most in need of protection, inclusion, and compassion. We in the LGBTQ community are like all of them: we are the “stranger” among you, even if we are from within you, we are the “orphan” as we are often orphaned by our families who abandon us, and we are the “widow,” who is the epitome of loneliness, when rabbis and members of the community exclude us. I ask each rabbi reading this to protect us, include us, and have compassion for us. Build communities with us and practice “family values” that are rooted in Ahavat Yisrael, for we cannot afford as an observant community to lose even one of us. Every one of our lives matter. Please practice and preach that, for in doing so you will be committing acts of pikuach nefesh – so that we may all live to practice Hashem’s mitzvot and find sanctity even in our sexuality.