Interview with Miriam Feldmann Kaye – Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age

Anthony Giddens, the world-renowned sociologist divides Western modernity into three periods, the enlightenment, modernism, and late modernity. The Enlightenment as the first form of modernity, characterized by the 18th and 19th centuries’ attempt to turn towards literacy, reason, science, and autonomy, as well as the fight against the old regime and traditionalism. Modernism, the second form of modernity, is the enthusiastic embrace of the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ turn to urbanization, individuality, and new understandings of humanity and society. The goal was to cultivate a religion that grapples with modernist challenges and accounts for individuality. Modernist expert knowledge— such as science or the university— during this period was authoritative. Late modernity, the third form of modernity, was a loss of trust in the expert authority of modernity, which resulted in the emergence of multiple forms of authority while also embracing the new materialism and post-secularism. We are in the later age. Some who emphasize philosophy and theory call this period last period postmodernism, a period that sees the limits of modernism. and its universal visions.

Among those using this philosophic language is the recent book by Miriam Feldmann Kaye, Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age ( Liverpool University Press in association with  Library of Jewish Civilization, 2019), a short but smart book encouraging us to simultaneously expand our horizons and those of contemporary Jewish theology. Miriam Feldmann Kaye, a recipient of the Cambridge Theological Studies Prize, holds a BA from Cambridge University, MA from the University of London, and PhD in Jewish History from Haifa University.  She is currently a Teaching Fellow at Bar Ilan University. She recently completed a Lady Davis Post-Doctoral Fellowship, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She also teaches in the MA program for Jewish Education at the School of Education, the Hebrew University. She is Founding Director of the Israel branch of the Faith and Belief Forum (formerly the Three Faiths Forum).

Feldmann Kaye’s book seeks to make philosophy and theological meaning from the writings of Rabbi Shagar and Prof Tamar Ross. She seeks to rescue them from sociological explanations grounded in changes in Israeli culture, and instead, sees them as directions for Jewish thought in the post-modern age, postmodern in the broad sense of general philosophic trend after modernity.  

[For interested in Tamar Ross’ ideas see my interview here (also here and here), for those interested in Rav Shagar, I have 19 posts- see here and here for the end of my many posts and here and here that directly relate to his postmodernism. For those who want the sociological approach to these thinkers, see my review of Smadar Cherlow’s book here.]

Feldmann Kaye’s method is to first present the theological tenor of the current age, followed by showing how Rabbi Shagar and Prof Ross fit into this age, then to give examples and directions for expanding these ideas.  Feldmann Kaye is comfortable contextualizing her subjects in postmodern thinkers even if the subjects themselves have not read them.  If Wittgenstein is important in the 21st century, and her two thinkers fit into this trend of Wittgenstein, then she can offer other thinkers and ideas – such as by Paul Ricoeur, W. V. O. Quine, or Martin Heidegger- to amplify and develop the idea.  This method would be akin to discussing the Existential Age of Buber, Sartre and Camus, then showing that Heschel and Soloveitchik should be contextualized as Existentialists, and concluding with ideas from Tillich, Maritain, or Rahner.

All her discussion points to Feldmann Kaye’s own “visionary theology” bursting out between the lines of the book never articulated, even with my coaxing for this interview. She has sympathy for the post-secular 21st century ideas of Richard Kearney’s anantheism and Jean Luc Marion’s saturated event. She wants to open up to a theology “which does not rely on an ultimate and singular truth, but posits instead that the notion of a multiplicity of truths.” For Feldmann-Kaye “The implications are twofold: firstly, since faith does not lend itself to scientific verification, it becomes difficult to justify a preference for one’s own world view or way of life. Second, if such truths are perceived as culturally particular social constructs, their prime function is limited to defining communal boundaries.”  I heard part of it at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in 2017.  I hope to hear more.

The book focuses on three specific themes in their thought, (1) Cultural Particularism, (2) Language, and (3) Revelation.

In 1979, Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, a work acknowledging that the era of modernism and existentialism had ended. In its place, Lyotard offered skepticism about universalizing theories and a rejection of universals and metanarratives. Feldmann Kaye relies heavily on this seminal work to define the philosophic climate of our era.

The first, cultural particularism is Feldmann Kaye’s way of saying that there are only local religious truths; no longer do thinkers have to respond to modernist universals of authority and knowledge. Rav Shagar has an approach of being at home in the study hall and one finds one’s truth in the study hall, while Prof Ross has an approach of working within the particularistic canon of Kabbalah, Hasidut, and Rav Kook. Feldmann Kaye does not discuss the biographic element that Rav Shagar and Tamar Ross were friends and talked to each about theology. Nor does it discuss their specific personal uses of Hasidut, Rather, her book discusses the relationship of kabbalah and postmodernism in the thought of Sanford Drob and the role of truth in Heidegger.

The concept Feldmann Kaye focusses on is that of language and especially of Lyotard’s reading of Wittgenstein. Lyotard (mis)used Wittgenstein’s phrase “private language” to mean that there are no longer universal truths. She shows how Rav Shagar and Prof. Ross each have a sense of a private language and she discusses parallels in Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard, more Heidegger.  I wish she had been more analytic here since Wittgenstein is subject to many interpretations by theologians. Evangelical and Fundamentalists read Wittgenstein as interpreted by the scholar DZ Phillips as a fideism, a dogmatic private language in which the gospels are a private language not subject to any alien methods. In contrast, the scholar Norman Malcolm reads Wittgenstein as only allowing an act of faith since we cannot have any certain knowledge. But I believe Prof Ross is closer to a third reading, in which language is the rules of a game or the grammar.

Finally, Feldmann Kaye’s third topic is revelation based on these ideas of truth and language. She shows that Prof Ross accepts an idea of progressive revelation, a metaphysical idea of the unfolding of the truth, which she based on Kabbalah and Hasidut. But rather than discuss the Ross’ feminist application of this view of revelation, Feldmann Kaye opens up the discussion to Paul Ricoeur’s theory of interpretation. Rav Shagar uses the language of the study hall and treats the ongoing creativity of the Torah scholar in what he calls lamdanut as revelation.  

There will be posted a few responses to this interview in order to generate some discussion. I will return with some clarifications and some of my own views on the topics after the responses. We should thank Miriam Feldmann Kaye for opening this discussion with her smart book Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age about the importance of contemporary thought for Jewish thology. In the meantime, this is a good chance to read, if you have never read it, Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition a dated period piece and then jump to the 21st century by reading Richard Kearney’s Anatheism: Returning to God After God  (2011) to get a sense of how the secular ideas of postmodernism are used by 21st century religious theologians including Miriam Feldmann Kaye.

  1. Are you actually discussing postmodernism?

The thinkers I deal with Rabbi Shagar and Tamar Ross grapple with late 20th century modernist thought continuing to read current thought through to the current era. Rabbi Shagar joins several Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century who engaged with the existentialist movement, Ross with analytic engagement. Both of them grapple with Rav Kook, joining the ranks of some of the most significant theologians in contemporary times.

It would be reductionist to call them ‘postmodern thinkers’. I have clarified this important point – that the majority of thinkers I deal with, reject the term “postmodern”, and especially the label of “postmodern thinker”, and I have tried to respect this throughout. They are not just postmodern thinkers, but rather, draw on a breadth and a depth of contemporary philosophical movements.

In fact, I am not dependent on the term ‘postmodernism’ and would not have been opposed to using in the title the term “twenty-first century Jewish philosophy”, or even more specifically, contemporary. In the way in which I have used it, postmodernism refers to the temporal era of the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century A period after modernity – literally post-modern- in which we see the limits of modernity. In its most basic sense, postmodernism embodies a critique of different elements of modernity.

Having said that, taking sensitivities into account, I am not afraid of the term postmodern, and neither to use the word relativism, and believe that these words and concepts must challenge and draw us in as much as they repel us.

I do not think that postmodernism immediately signals relativism – it is important and preferable to separate between the two, and challenge the ambivalence towards the term. In the more lenient use of the word ‘postmodern’ in this book, I draw attention to what is meant by using this frame of Jewish thinkers who engage with postmodern philosophy.

2. Is ambivalence towards Postmodernism justified?

I want to address the ambivalence towards the term postmodern. Postmodernism is a contentious word which is easily associated, by some, with a nihilistic relativism. The outlooks it espouses indeed reflect a breakdown of ultimate truths and values.

I actually identify with the hesitation surrounding the term, and have sought to break down the fear in a way that theologians have done for centuries with surrounding cultural movements which have seemed, and which have been, strongly at odds, with the worldview that one seeks to maintain.

This is why I decided to change the title of the book, initially, “Jewish Theology in a Postmodern Age”, to “Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age”. This change frames the purpose of the book – Jewish theology engages with its contemporaneous philosophical trends, and the volume addresses profound development of what will, in my view, become an immersion in the areas of intellectual creativity that the postmodern age has begun to offer. It must be understood as an enigma which demands our attention and as a challenge to thought, rather than a corrosive problem which must be destroyed.

The change in the book was made to highlight the distinctions between postmodern philosophy and Jewish thought, and to reflect the nature of the book which is a philosophical quest to understand the parameters of a new conversation.

In light of this, theology takes an active role engaging in that conversation where postmodernism as a worldview might be constructive, as well as destructive, to contemporary Jewish philosophical debate.

I made clear in the outset of the book, that my aim has not been to defend postmodernism – rather, to examine its various themes, as a negotiation with diverse elements of Jewish thought in the twenty-first century. This means leveraging what philosophy of religion became towards the end of the twentieth century – existentialist, dialogical, pragmatic, and following how these ideas develop into the new century. In this sense the main question becomes whether and how Jewish thought which can function and be compelling, in today’s world.

This change reflects my approach towards the thinkers I deal with: their engagement with issues of the day, does not necessarily class them as postmodern thinkers. Rather, I have written about their thinking as addressing certain issues that postmodern philosophy raises, and the acute questions it raises.

3. Why is it important to approach Rabbi Shagar’s and Tamar Ross’ thought from a philosophical viewpoint?

One of the main characteristics of the book, has been to set aside sociological analyses of both Shagar and Ross. My own academic training has been in the field of philosophy of religion.

This forms the backdrop for my intense engagement with Shagar and Ross. It is the lens through which I examine numerous texts. I probe their thinking, asking the critical questions of contemporary times, from a Jewish perspective. I specifically analyse Shagar’s later engagement with non-Jewish continental philosophers, even if he did not read them, which is so important, in my view, for understanding the true contribution he makes to contemporary Jewish thought. I am interested in the epistemological and linguistic contributions that Ross makes to Jewish philosophy, seeing feminism as a case in point, rather than as the central objective.

In Israel, some of the discussion around the yeshiva world of Shagar is associated with New Age and the pop-Hasidut of contemporary “spirituality”. Much continues to be written on this topic. Suffice it to say, there is more than meets the eye to this neo-Hasidic thinking, which actually calls for an understanding of the roles of Hasidut and Kabbalah in postmodern theology.

4. What are Rabbi Shagar’s and Prof Tamar Ross’s main contributions?

Ross and Shagar are engaging in an original dialogue about culture, language, revelation.

They both demand a revision of the concept of Torah and revelation for a postmodern age. Shagar and Ross are two of the first thinkers to reconceptualise revelation on terms which do not get caught in the issues of modernity.  Although in the book I deal with their thinking in parallel, I draw points of reference for comparison and contrast.

The book shows how this dialogue is representative of the sort of discussion seeking to engage which strands of contemporary philosophy will be most accepted in contemporary Jewish thought. In this way, we are offered an unusual insight into how they firstly recognise, and secondly handle postmodern ideas. This forms the basis for an analytical consideration of how internal Jewish theological ideas are interpreted in this age.

5. What is Cultural Particularism?

The book is split into three main conceptual sections: cultural particularism, language and revelation.

“Cultural particularism’” is a central feature of postmodernism.I use this term to refer to the position which states that our understanding and interaction with the world is contingent upon culture.

According to radical interpretations of cultural particularism, the category of objectivity is limited altogether, and only multiple different perspectives based on local perceptions and interpretations, each anchored in a specific cultural context, hold water.

Furthermore, in these interpretations the notion of objectivity is a figment of our philosophical imagination, itself conceived through the lenses of our respective cultures.

In my book, I analyse the impact of this contentious theory specifically in the realm of religion. Firstly, postmodern theology regards religion as a particularistic endeavour, fundamentally rooted in cultural idiosyncrasies. As a result, it downplays the modernist quest for universal truth and objectivity outside one’s culture. Secondly, truth claims no longer purport to represent absolute, universal, and justifiable statements about the world. A radical postmodernist world view conceives of an individual’s values and beliefs as a drop in an ocean of culturally-accepted norms.

This shift in thinking carries far-reaching implications in the domain of Jewish theology. Currently, most Jewish religious responses to the challenge of cultural particularism have come, perhaps inevitably, from a generation of thinkers who have found themselves in a transitional period between modernity and postmodernism. Even though philosophically they accept the notion of multiple truths, they still dread the ethical and practical implications of relativism.

6. How does Rav Shagar deal with Cultural Particularism?

In discussing their treatment of the problem of multiple truths and relativism, I show how their arguments facilitate the acceptance of a multiplicity of truth-claims. Nevertheless, I underscore a persistent refusal on their behalf to what they view to be a ‘collapse’ into a relativism according to which one’s own faith holds nothing truer than that of others.

Shagar appropriates cultural particularism by rendering truth subject to a cultural context. He rejects the idea of a fixed, monolithic truth as little more than an artificial, human construct.The way he envisions the community ‘playing’ a sophisticated language game allows for a degree of freedom and human creativity rarely observed in traditional circles.

Cultural particularism, the deconstruction of the universal, of the monolithic, is linked to Shagar’s notion of Beit’iut  -“home-ness” shorashiut – “rootedness”. The philosophical ‘home’ is the starting point of theology, rather than an empirically decided universal standpoint. Beitiut is an example that Shagar uses for cultural particularism. Religious meaning is where the home is. The starting point for ‘doing’ philosophy is not a neutral or objective standpoint – rather it begins and necessarily must remain, in the particularist context called ‘home’.

In Shagar’s discussion on Shabbat and the Hindu ritual of Samadhi, he draws comparisons between the spirituality of these two states of existence. The home is the contextual and therefore conceptual starting point, which I delineate as cultural particularism.

Given the role of immersion in contextual community, often described as a socially constructed community, collective discourses are what inform practice and conversation around its meaning. The individual does not operate in a theological vacuum, as he or she did prior to these times, even in times where existentialism was most prominent in religious discourse – wherein the personal experience affected and was effected by one’s own religious experience – the ennui or malaise of the age.

7. How does Prof Tamar Ross deal with Cultural Particularism?

Tamar Ross views local religious truths as valuable precisely because they are relative to a particular group. She uses this relativism to put forward a non-empirical, kabbalistic, metaphysical truth, and in so doing, endeavours to redeem relativism from its negative connotations. She affirms the relative nature of each religion, and claims that such a conception of religious truth permeates the history of Jewish thought

 Ross, like Shagar, dismisses the self as the frame of reference for determining reality. She reaches this conclusion by exploring the implications of a Kookian, Hasidic conception of the divine as a singular unity, which converge with the postmodern breakdown of subjective and objective.

Having internalized the epistemological uncertainty characteristic of the postmodern critique.

Ross seeks to establish a sound ground for religious knowledge. She turns for that reason to non-foundationalism, a contemporary epistemological position that justifies truth-claims not on the basis of their purported grounding in some neutral or objective source of knowledge, but on the degree to which they cohere with other beliefs and opinions. This attitude she contrasts favourably against any sort of radical postmodern relativism, which turns the rejection of absolute truth into nihilism and anarchy on the simplistic assessment that all truth-claims are of equal value. Instead of establishing the truth-value of a proposition against the background of an objective, metaphysical source, non-foundationalists rely on intersubjective agreement within the wider community

Ross similarly takes Kook’s innovative and non-traditional theology as an inspiring model. She describes him as ‘wise to be suspicious of all claims to absolute truth, or to any direct and perfect correspondence between our perceptions and ontological reality’. Indeed, she identifies with his scepticism and notes that such a feeling ultimately leads to ‘a fundamental shift in the expectations surrounding traditional theological claims’.

However, for her, cultural particularism, does justify one’s ability to posit a belief of ‘truth’, without believing that this constitutes the only truth. From an analytic philosophy perspective if a truth is subjective, then it is not Truth.

From the perspective of continental thought, it is evident that this misses the point. It is perspectival. This forms the demand for postmodern deconstruction of the notion of Truth altogether, linking to the ‘inter-subjectivity’ of Heidegger amongst others.

8. Is Cultural Particularism relativism?

There is a question asked of Shagar: if cultural particularism defines the starting point, the all-pervasive contextualisation of language and culture have the potential to relativize values as a whole.

We find a response to this question in Ross’ discussion of the self through Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam- even if it was not used by Shagar or Ross. Analytic (behaviouralist or neopragmatic) theories of language, propounded by Rorty, Putnam and Quine, is the idea that language it holds meaning insofar as it means something to the one who uses or understands that language. In other words, a metaphysical being or essence is not assumed when using such language. How is this constructive in philosophy of religion? Because the distinctions between language as ‘true’ or ‘false’ need not bother us so much anymore. Philosophy has moved on from these questions, and this gives us the opportunity to reconsider a Jewish theory of language. I have said many times, that this is not necessarily a new idea, but the response to it, in the relevant discourse, is highly original. 

For Ross, this reading deepens the question as to how mysticism should be understood. If not given to neo Hasidic spirituality, how should mysticism be interpreted on the philosophical level? Empirically or allegorically? In response to the theory of cultural particularism and relativism, she responds by questioning the role that truth claims play, rather than their supposed abstract metaphysical essence.  

Shagar addressed the issue through an interpretation of Slavoj Zizek’s reading of Jacques Lacan, and the idea of chosenness. Shagar provides us with a unique reading of this sort of discourse, interspersed with interpretations of Hasidut, and its relevance to this new thinking. 

Ultimately Shagar bequeaths to us a “hierarchy of truth”, rather than an acceptance of the zero sum game that some modern vs. postmodern debates seem to embody.

I critique all these responses concerning the limitations as to how far Jewish thinkers can go in cultural particularism without falling into relativism. I end this section with a broader observation that the deconstruction of universalism, plays an ethical role in its breakdown of the fallacious belief in ‘one truth fits all’.

9. How do both thinkers deal with language in a postmodern age?

If language cannot describe anything beyond itself, how can any statement be true? Do beliefs serve any purpose if they do not express something true about the world? According to postmodern theory, each culturally particular community functions according to its own semantic and linguistic system, similar to Martin Heidegger’s “intra-worldly” and Ross’ “inter-subjectivity”.

For Tamar Ross, certain aspects of this new postmodern philosophy of religion become fundamental in examining what we mean when we use theological language. To give three examples, Francois Lyotard claimed that meaning is contingent on its context. For Rorty, language serves the claim of different collectives, and in this sense is functional. Jurgen Habermas and others view this in a constructive way – how does meaning arise in a particular cultural context?

Wittgenstein’s theory of the “language game” is utilised at various points in constructing postmodern positions, by Shagar and Ross.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of ”language games” is often held up as his flagship contribution to the philosophy of language. However, his idea of ‘Forms of Life’ is critical in studying a contemporary Jewish consideration of religious language. It is in fact far more telling of the nature of religion today, and how language functions as a theological tool in our communities.

Thus, the role of Wittgensteinian thought must be reconsidered. It is at this point where the role of language comes in. Ross in a way, clears the path for what Shagar means when he speaks of revelation.

10. Does Language affect Reality?

Before the advent of postmodernism, philosophers generally viewed language as concordant with reality. In other words, they assumed that the words, phrases, and sentences we use correspond to the objects in the world that we purport to describe. This assumption that a ‘signifier’ (most notably, in speech) necessarily relates to a specific ‘signified’ is known as ‘correspondence theory’. Philosophers of language, in turn, seek to investigate the nature of this relation. They consider, among other questions, whether and how language reflects reality. This is known as ‘the problem of language’.

For Shagar, language illustrates, and manifests itself through, reality. It is the nature of reality, which changes, together with that of language. According to Jean Baudrillard, the very nature of reality alters according to the cultural-linguistic turn. I discuss his theory of semiotics as coinciding with theological interpretations of reality.

Shagar wrote about Baudrillard, combining his thinking on the nature of reality with mysticism. This led Shagar to an analysis of the role of mystical language as descriptive of reality, without having to be understood as empirically historic. Semiotics is the study of signs. It relies on the fact that our understanding of society comes through ‘signification’ (signs) which are referred to by language and in the media, but that do not exist in and of themselves. Hence language and cultural rituals symbolize, but do not embody, reality.

Today’s world is full of ‘signs’. Although we may not be fully aware of them, these signs surround us, and effectively build up what Baudrillard terms a simulated ‘hyper-reality’. Facebook and Twitter, for example, create an artificial, simulated social existence. Virtual exchanges on the cyberspace—on our smartphones and computers—allow individuals to bypass reality. It is crucial to recognize that a simulated reality is not a false reality. It means that we are aware of the factors that make our reality what it is. Shagar turns to Baudrillard to reconfigure the role of language in postmodern religion. His position is original on two accounts: it acknowledges the problem of language, and in response, re-envisages it as a network of signs that help the religious community generate its own simulated reality.To him, the language of the community serves to engender, rather than merely refer to, the religious values of its adherents.

The way Shagar is able to accommodate these positions is by relying on the Jewish mystical tradition. He employs concepts drawn most notably from Lurianic kabbalah and Bratslav hasidism to draw out a theological discourse that comprises both postmodern linguistic elements and traditional ones.

Through Ross we arrive at a fascinating, and distinct treatment of the language in her interest in the structures and types of language available to us. For her, the metaphor is instrumental in opening a world of reality which might lend themselves to, as she says, “direct intimations of the Divine”,

 For Jacques Derrida, we find that metaphors can express truths with more power than any literal statement. For language is poetic, and imaginative, rather than literal. So, literal statements about empirical facts on which religious claims might be made, are in fact, lacking in their potential for describing a reality far beyond what is imaginable, and therefore more fitting to the sort of dialogue that we have. The purposes of language in the realm of theology, are less to describe factual events, and more to create and sustain a phenomenologically compelling image of the world as it is true to us. In this sense, we move further away from the language game as a problem for theology.

11. How do the chapters on culture and language lead to a new approach to revelation?

The first two chapters bring together a new approach to Torah min Hashamayim ‘ (loosely ‘translated’ as Torah from Heaven) wherein the ‘text’ responds to the issues raised in the two previous chapters. Torah min hashamayim (Torah from Heaven) is released from modern ongoing debates of science vs religion. Denominations as being formed around responses to these questions. Certain Jewish communities, particular in the diaspora, retain this question as the overall arbiter of what is meant by Jewish thought. Moreover, it is applied to aspects of Jewish practice.

Ross’ epistemology is her idea of cumulative revelation – where Torah min Hashamayim is understood as a perpetually unfolding reality, manifesting itself in the lives of those who live by it. Shagar’s position is not dissimilar – but expressed in a more yeshiva-style way, wherein truths and meaning in Torah are unravelled through Lamdanut  – ultimately a theory of interpretation and hermeneutics. Torah inherently refers to and embodies continual revelation. For both, Torah min Hashamayim is a continual, ongoing, dynamic process, accompanied by upholders of the faith via halakhic debate and praxis, and engagement with textual exegesis and its intersections with the ruach – spirit – of the world around us. The will of God is continually discovered in each generation. Neither position is necessarily ‘postmodern’ but it is expressed in language of the cultural-linguistic turn. So, the “life of the text” as Mikhail Bakhtin argues, presents a solicitation of the text within and outside of a language game, reaching out beyond this world to an unspeakable reality – necessarily undetermined (“deferred” according to Derrida) in postmodern theory.

The book compares Tamar Ross to Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the “conflict of interpretations” and its meaning in a textually generative community. Linguistic interpretative techniques are esoteric in their nature, pulled out of a static existenceand given a life of their own, in a dynamic, living process. Similarly, for Shagar, Lamdanut, does not constitute a language game, but a reaching out for a reality, generating its genuineness as a phenomenological community. Lamdanut and biblical and Talmudic interpretation, represents a grappling with the text which fits with the notion of postmodern hermeneutic activity as part of the continuing manifestation of oral Torah. It is here that Covenant becomes the immense and intense engagement in this process, in its various manifestations.

12. How is phenomenology important to this thinking about revelation?

The phenomenological movement of the 1920’s sought to explore the philosophical articulation of human experience. Edmund Husserl, and later, Martin Heidegger, put forward the claim that experience happens with human existence, rather than as separate from it. Whilst it was others who were to apply this to religion, it has come to provide a different and more useful way of considering religious language and the experience around linguistic dialogue. Experience is a key component of how religious meaning and truth are understood. Religious phenomena include the sense of the miraculous, the encounter with a striking text, or the sensation of transcendence at a holy site. It is the community as phenomenological discourse, which accepts upon itself the ultimate link to and connection with Torah.

Revelation as “perpetual revelation” is a development on the acceptance of the ideas of cultural particularism and language. Revelation and the language through which it is understood and experienced, depend on the nature of reality.

Torah min Hashamayim becomes the primary cultural particularist, linguistic conduit, for religious experience, rather one that works against it. Study is itself done through language and Torah is transmitted from Moses to Sinai in our very textual and dialogic activity. This is one of the main points that we arrive at in postmodern Jewish theology.

 And it is this that I have termed Visionary Theology – an embryonic model for Jewish thought today.

The methodology reflects the objective, which is to weave together postmodern and Jewish thinking side by side, rather than as conflicting opposites.  I place Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault alongside Jewish thinkers in speaking about the first step of my claim – cultural particularism. Much of contemporary Christian post-metaphysical theology deals similar themes, such as that of Jean-Luc Marion and Richard Kearney – an area of theology which I continue to research.

I have put forward the case for their opening up to a Visionary Theology which does not rely on an ultimate and singular truth, but posits instead that the notion of a multiplicity of truths as compatible with Judaism.

The implications are twofold: firstly, since faith does not lend itself to scientific verification, it becomes difficult to justify a preference for one’s own world view or way of life. Second, if such truths are perceived as culturally particular social constructs, their prime function is limited to defining communal boundaries.

Teaching in Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia or How I spent my Summer Vacation

This past summer I taught a graduate course in comparative mysticism at University Gadjah Mada in their Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java in Indonesia. In addition, and maybe more significantly, I spoke at a variety of Islamic colleges (& Christian and Hindu colleges). Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world and it is the largest Islamic country in the world. 

The goal was to bring them a knowledge of Judaism in order to clear up misconceptions and to foster a more receptive attitude to Judaism. I was sponsored by Gadjah Mada University and by the AJC-API for the University teaching and by Gadjah Mada and the regional Islamic colleges for my travel to give talks.

University Gadjah Mada is the major center for the study of religion in Indonesia and is the feeder school producing the faculty of the Indonesian Islamic colleges. I stayed in a lovley guest house a mile from the university and walked to work each day down the main shopping avenue.

In my class, I covered contemporary approaches to mysticism such as Michel de Certeau, Jeffrey Kripal, and Amy Hollywood, then the theory was applied to mystical texts from the Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions.  I taught a course in mysticism since it complements the Indonesia emphasis on mysticism as a main rubric for self-understanding of their own religion and as an easy way to introduce Judaism into the curriculum since I spent about 40% of the classes discussing Judaism. I was specifically brought to introduce the Judaism into this major graduate program of religion, which because of its status as a feeder school producing MA’s and Phd’s who go into administration and teaching in Islamic colleges.

Indonesia is predominately an easy-going hybrid Islam oriented more toward local traditions of the arts and devotion than law. By their own estimates, no more than 25% of my classroom prayed daily, let alone five times a day. They said it was between them and God. They said they all fasted during Ramadan but did not go to prayers.

They like Sufism but are not into Sufi saints or graves. They read the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra about the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) in which all of creation is a manifestation of the divine. But they also accepted as meaningful to their Indonesia Islam the universal Sufism of the West, including Inayat Khan, Idries Shah and Robert Frager. This acceptance of western universal Sufism by Indonesian is similar to going to Monsey NY and finding the Chassidim reading Buber.

My syllabus included the Jewish Sufism of Bahye, Ovadiah ben Avraham ben Maimonies, Isaac of Acco, and Eliyahu deVidas as a bridge topic to show a Judaism that was similar to their Islam before I turned to the Zohar and Hasidism. We also covered Christian Kabbalah as a hybrid form of Kabbalah because their own conceptions of religion are about hybridity.

Indonesia was founded on the motto of “unity in diversity” and has Pancasila as an official ideology in which one must accept one God, revelation through a prophet and scripture. The government has determined that the six official religions that follow this are Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. It is a world where Muslim acknowledge Hindus and Buddhists as having one God and where conversely Hindus and Buddhists see themselves as having one God, revelation, and scripture.

Pancasila was legally mandated from the founding of the state until 20 years ago. Now, it is still accepted but has many interpretations and variants. How much it is social policy as opposed to theology is debated; one finds explanations of this as a policy of social cohesion and for others it is a liberal and tolerant reading of Islamic theology. The country uses the phrase “God almighty” in official events to refer to all six religions.

The Islamic focus on tawhid- divine unity remains in place but also includes the other religions. Tribal religion is treated as culture and folkways- not as theology or religion- so those practices can be integrated into any of the six. The tribes were basically made to pick one of the faith for their identity cards, Depending on the region they chose Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. 

Jews are not included in this list anymore since there are not many Jews in Indonesia. They were briefly included at the founding of the state before they emigrated to Australia and the U.S. There is a trend of recent conversions to Judaism clustered in several cities, which deserves its own discussion. (In the meantime, read the two articles here and here)

There are also Muslim who study Hebrew and Jewish books as Judeophiles. Many of the latter reached out to me before I arrived when they read the announcement of my arriving.

My own host professor at the university and co-instructor is one of these Judeophiles. He is Christian, teaches Judaism, and has been on The Brandeis Schusterman program for Israel studies. He even translated Heschel’s The Sabbath into Indonesian and could not find a publisher because there was no market.

However as I write this, I note that Americans tend to know little about Indonesia and few college students study Indonesian. Sufism is a good way to introduce Indonesian Islam before I speak directly about the Islamic colleges.

Indonesian Sufism

The East Java city of Kediri is on the site of an 8th century Hindu city and is now an Islamic factory town, known as the headquarters of the leading brand of Indonesian cigarettes, mainly clove cigarettes. When I visited Kediri to speak in an Islamic college, my hosts graciously took me to the shrine of Sufi Sheykh Sulaiman Al-Wasil Syamsudin. The shrine is downtown right near the bus station and main hotel owned by the cigarette company.


In the 12th century, Sheykh Al-Wasil Syamsudin brought Sufism and Islamic teaching to Kediri in East Java from Persia. His Sufism included astrology and fortune-telling. In the 16th century, a Chinese Buddhist style enclosure was built around his tomb with Hindu and Buddhist temple ornamentation. The shire has an actual inscription about his work in old Javanese. The tomb is in the middle of a small graveyard. Around the graveyard is a mosque, community cemetery and concessions for Islamic ritual objects.

When I visited at ten PM there were only two men reciting Quran as a remembrance of God near the tomb and another two or three women behind a curtain. There is no set ritual to be done there. Outside the shrine, there were a few tables with literature from the various local Sufi organizations who venerate the shrine. Finally, as in Turkey, there were shops for sweetened Turkish style coffee in glasses.

Around the shrine, one sees items of the broader syncretic faith of Java. These include a mural of the Chinese goddess of the sea on the wall of one of the shrine’s building, Javanese Gamelan instruments, holy water for ritual in the Hindu style., and a “Cambodian tree” as a place to pray for marriage (like Amukah in the Galilee). This syncretism is characteristic of traditional Javanese Islam; one that does not worry about purity, legalism, or other faiths. This syncretism was important for me to see with my own eyes.

Clifford Geertz, the important anthropologist, considering true Islam as centered on law (fiqh) based on his knowledge of Islam in Morocco, and therefore saw Javanese Islam as an Islamic veneer over Javanese traditional religion. More recent scholars such as Mark Woodward reverses it and makes Islam as the primary religious category, which uses the local cultural blend of a Hindu-Buddhist-animist practices as ways to be Muslim.

Sufism is an alternate fundamental mode of Islam that is alternative to the version we know based on law. This is the primary mode of Islam in the Islam of Kediri. The Quran and Hadith are read in Sufi terms. It is strictly Muslim, in that, Muslims use Islamic prayer modes and chant Quran, Javanese Hindus and Christians do not. But Islam is embedded in Javanese culture. For greater detail, consult the experts on Indonesian Islam who have produced a vast secondary literature.

This Sufi Islam that accepts the practices of the local Javanese culture is rather mellow, pluralistic, irenic, and accepting of its cultural setting. In addition, Java also has many nominal Muslims, without Islamic practice or knowledge. I will talk more about it when I discusses the colleges that I visited and people I had personal discussion with about Islam. But it is important to note how mellow is their tradition flavor of Islam. One of my colleagues at the University, recently wrote a paper showing how Islam is compatible with animism. A paper that is border line between empirical observation and creating a progressive 21st century Islamic political theology that embraces tribal religions.

Since I taught mysticism, I found out quickly from both my classroom students, and subsequently from readings, that Indonesian Sufism and mysticism to them is not the sublime unitive mystical experience of William James or an inner meaning as described by the classic books on Arabic and Persian Sufism. Rather they used the word mysticism for any religious experience or connection to religious or ritual forces. The terms in Indonesia are kebatinan, which in class they used for any religious experience and kepercayaan for relgious faith.

Ritual done by Sufis is seen as having powers and blessings. And Sufi leaders, for their followers, have supernatural powers. People want the blessing (Karamat) and become Sufis. For Geertz, this was a native Javanese animism with an Islamic veneer and for current trends it is clearly Islamic Sufism making use of local language and practices.

There are many Sufi groups in the city of Kediri. The major groups recruit the male adolescents at the Islamic boarding schools and are traditional quoting Al Ghazali and requiring the following of Islamic precepts. However, there are others ranging from those that include women and children, to those that recruit through social media for outreach, and there are those that primarily cater to addicts and criminals. Some allow non-Muslims to attend. Some of them only meet at the shrine and not in a mosque because the nominal Muslims do not feel comfortable in the normative in the Mosque.

In general, the Sufi directive is that everything one does should be for God, “Le- allah” and one should think of god in all you do. Similar to the parallel concepts in Hasidut and Neo-Hasidut. According to the books about Kediri Sufism, even for the traditional groups, they assume if something is not forbidden in the Quran then it is permitted.

They do not relate to stringency of later generations. Most of the Sufi groups care little about later Arabic fatwas or later fiqh. I received similar answers from the Muslim graduate students in my classroom or local Muslims in Jogja (Yogyakarta). If you asked them about how they relate to anti-Christian (or Jewish or Hindu) writings of the medieval ibn Taymiyyah (or other conservative Islamic thinkers), they answered that it is not Hadith and does not apply to them or that they are not Salafi so he does not matter.

Finally, I wanted to take my entire University class to a Sufi dhikr or visit a tarikah since as a group of university liberals they had never been. They may have personal theologies based on Ibn Arabi or Mulla Sadra, but no actual pietistic practice or exposure. But my hectic lecturing schedule outside of the university precluded the visit. Next time.

Islamic Colleges

Besides teaching graduate school at the university, I traveled to speak about Judaism in several Islamic colleges around the country. The goal was to give them familiarity with Judaism.

Many Indonesian attend religious colleges- Christian, Hindu or Islamic- funded by the state and subject to state supervision. They are generally BA institutions; students go to the secular universities for graduate school. The Islamic colleges teach Islam in a college social-science style. They have a mandatory freshman course in Islamic religion and culture. The rest of the courses are part of the various majors. A history major can take history of Islam, a sociology major can take a course on Islamic sociology, an education major can take courses on Islamic education. Even a college that has a major in Islamic law, offers courses of a historic-social nature such as “Rise of the Salafi in the Modern Era.” The overall approach to their Islam is to rely on the Indonesian tolerant culturally embedded form and to study in a historic manner.

In some ways, one can compare their Islam to ideas of a tolerant “Catholic Israel” historic form of Judaism with deep respect for folkways and using their own clear thinking about the classic texts over the stringent interpretations made in later centuries. The heads of these Islamic colleges ideally have graduate degrees from places like the center of religious studies at the secular Gadjah Mada University where I taught. These deans, and department heads have the responsibility for the formation of a tolerant Islam in their institutions.

In each Islamic college, I began my talk by introducing myself and my religious background as a Jewish American, a rabbi, and a professor. And in each place, I created opening connection by recounting how the medieval Fatimid traders who originally brought Islam to Indonesia included Jews among the traders. We have responsa from the Cairo Genizah permitting wives back home in Egypt to remarry after Indonesian shipwrecks. Indonesians understood these as analogous to the similar fatwa permitting remarriage for the Muslim traders. But they also understood that Jews were on the Fatimid trading ships as part of what Marshall Hodgson called the Islamic Caliphate; the Jews were part of the diversity of Islamic Egypt in many ways similar to my culturally belonging to the US.

The first part of the talk was an introduction to Judaism as similar in structure to Islam in unity of God, prayer, and the other pillars of Islam. I also showed similarity in dietary practices, circumcision, and other rituals. Then, I repeated those ideas in a historic manner mentioning Talmud, hadith, kalam, Maimonides, shaariah, fatwas, responsa and Jewish sufis.

Then, I gave a brief overview of Jews under medieval Islam, both symbiosis and tension. I included famous contrasts such as the high that Shmuel Hanagid reached and then the pogrom against his son. I continued the history briefly survey the decline of the Jewish-Muslim relationship under colonialism and the rise of nationalism. I transitioned to contemporary interfaith efforts of Muslim organizations as well as very briefly mentioning the basic terms of 21st century interfaith and intercommunal relations.

Finally, I concluded with the story of one of my current Muslim Seton Hall students. He came to the program wanting to know about interfaith and Christianity, and through the course of his study decided that he wants to become a professor of Judaism in a Muslim country. He is currently working on a PhD on medieval Jewish texts. I concluded with his story as an exhortation for them to encounter Jews and study Judaism.

The students ostensibly know English as part of their HS and college education, but in all the school I used a translator stopping after every idea. In the first school, the translator only helped with some words and summarized a few ideas. By the last school, I sat with the translator the night before and went over the entire talk.

The content of the talk was not original. It included the texts from the two chapters on Islam from my book Judaism and World Religions, articles and handouts from Rabbi Prof Reuven Firestone, and speeches from Rabbi David Rosen. For the first talk, not knowing what the students would be interested in discussing in the questions and answers, I brought lots of pages with me. A whole stack. For the next talk, I just brought the script of the talk.

The reaction was better than anyone expected. I was told to anticipate 30-50 students showing up in each school. Instead I had attendance numbers like 200 in Manado and 160 in Kediri. They were excited beforehand and afterwards to meet a Jewish scholar. There was sincere appreciation for opening new vistas. After one of the times that I spoke, a female student came up to me saying: “You give really good dawah,” using the Arabic phrase for outreach or calling to God.

They had never heard any of this material before. They did not really know the basics of Judaism, the history of Jews under Islam, or met a Jew. In some ways, and I don’t say this to flatter myself, it was like Swami Vivekananda speaking at the Parliament of World Religions (1893) to introduce Hinduism, when his audience knew nothing about Hinduism, or at best, just knew it as paganism. I do not know the stereotypes that they had before the lecture since there was no before the lecture survey and Jews are not a big topic for discussion.

I was repeatedly warned to prepare for abrasive questions from the students about Palestine/Israel. In each case I was told to brace myself. But these questions never came. Maybe they were just polite. Maybe I seemed more of a cleric than a politician, the same way one would not ask a Swami from the Vedanta society about Indian national politics. I assume that I was perceived as more religious knowledge so no political questions. Or maybe they themselves do not associate their Islamic practice in anyway with the politics of Arabia, Pakistan and Syria, or even their own governments actions to suppress rebellions. Alternately as one Christian pastor involved in seminary education told me “Israel is a Christian country” and he did not understand the existence of post-Jesus Jews.

Instead, I was asked by the students in each school about the normal concerns of contemporary college students. The questions of the students were: Judaism and LGBT, Judaism and feminism or woman’s rights, is internet good for religion, and what is the role of the internet in fostering peace or violence. They did ask about overcoming social media hatred about Middle East conflicts. They also asked about Jewish dietary laws and the exact times of Jewish prayer. They wanted PowerPoint images of Jewish ritual objects, tallit, tfillin, head coverings, synagogues, Jews from different lands. I regret not having prepared such a display.

They had little interest in the theological questions of Moses vs Mohamed, or the nature of Jewish scripture, or even Quranic passages. They already have a basic respect and tolerance for other faiths as part of their curriculum.


Since the Indonesian constitution states that “the nation is based upon belief in one supreme God.” The first tenet of the country’s national ideology, Pancasila, declares a required belief in one God, revelation and scripture, which is fulfilled by accepting Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism. There would be an automatic sense that we all worship one God and one sticks to one’s tradition. This basic equivalence of faiths as political theology allows them to easily add Judaism to their accepted religions. They have all studied this in high school as part of civics or civil religion.

The Islamic colleges seek to go beyond the mandated course and offer a required course in world religions as part of their goal of creating a tolerant Islam. They actively dismiss the hardline exclusive readings of Islam produced in other countries. So, my audiences knew something about Judaism from the chapters in introductions to world religions books of Huston Smith and Ninian Smart. Those 1960’s classics present Judaism as essentialized, without medieval history, and as a religion outside politics. They have the other world faiths discussed in Ninian Smart in Indonesia, so I was the novelty of meeting a believer in faith they never met before.

There are few books in Indonesian exclusively on Judaism, some of the few books available are Abba Eban, My People and a work by a Dutch Christian. This Fall 2019, one of the Islamic colleges will be introducing a new course focusing on Judaism. I have a copy of the textbook that the teacher produced; it builds on the categories of Ninian Smart. I also met students who are studying Hebrew and came to the event in t-shirts embossed with Shalom in Hebrew.

After each talk, I would be surrounded by dozens of students wanting to take a selfie with me. Indonesia is a very big Instagram country. There are hundreds of pictures on Instagram of me with young female in a jilbab (Indonesian name for hijab) students. The jilbabs are an interested facet of Indonesian Islamic life. They were generally not worn in the 1980’s and returned in the 21st century as part of the self-identity of the younger generation. The head covering by the young generation absolutely drives crazy many of the baby boomer age Muslims who feel their children are getting too religious. Yet, this young generation is more educated, open, and tolerant.

There is a vast literature on how the young feel the jilbab is essential to their Islam and how at the same time they are more likely than the previous generation to write dissertations on eco-feminism or greater feminist rights. Part of the current acceptance of the jilbab is that they are now in bright colors, vivid patterns and serve as bold fashion accessories. More than half of my graduate classroom was female. From what I hear, that is a major change from 15 years ago.

On the other hand, most of these same women wanted to shake my hand and then put their arm around me for the selfie. I asked many of them: Is touching a member of the opposite sex permitted. I have been in other Muslim counties where it clearly was not permitted, even in non-Salafi ones. Each woman gave the same basic answer. “We are not Salafi” so we touch. Salafi functions as a pejorative in the language of the college students for those too strict in the law or those who invoke a fatwa made in the Arab lands. They have their own identity as traditional Indonesian Muslims.

There are 100’s of these selfies with students on Instagram

What about Salafi Islam? Isn’t it taking over?

Some of my readers may remember that Bali was bombed in 2002 by Jemaah Islamiyah, a violent Islamist group.  But the government has been banning, imprisoning, and expelling radical Islamic forces. Those convicted in relation to the bombings were sentenced to death.

On the other hand, the NYT considers the younger generation of feminists and phd students who wear a jilbob as a right-wing turn. However, it is a truism around the world that the younger generation of Orthodox of any faith who are more educated than their parents have a greater return to textual practice as part a transition from traditionalism to a text-based religion. And Indonesia has had religious parties that have wanted more Islam in the country since it founding 1945, but they want an Indonesia Islam.

Recently, there was a wonderful article by Muhammad Sani Umar &  Mark Woodward, “The Izala effect: unintended consequences of Salafi radicalism in Indonesia and Nigeria” in Contemporary Islam. In the article they “argue that the Salafi religious and cultural agendas are incompatible with Islam as understood by a vast majority of Muslims in these regions.” They see the extreme Islam as inauthentic compared to their version. The Salafi seek to ban the cultural Sufi world of poetry, music, performance and that drives the Indonesian to totally reject the Salafi.  The Salafi want to introduce Arabic culture and people are proud of their Indonesian culture, so the Salafi are obviously false. They show that Indonesians associate all forms of Salafi- Wahhabism with violence and terrorism.

To return the opening discussion of how does Indonesian Islam accept Hinduism and Confucianism as a unified monotheistic God of tawhid. Indonesians study the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra who are monists and  define tawhid as the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) that denies an ontological distinction between Allah and creation because all of it pre-existed in the mind of Allah prior to the moment of creation. All of creation is a manifestation of the divine; we experience the divine in all things. Since  Salafis reject these propositions, then from an Indonesian perspective they do not have the proper Islamic worldview. 

My students certainly had these mystical perspectives and their parents certainly went to Sufi shrines. Hence, they are compelled to reject Salafis. Arabic beards and robes do not make the Muslim, rather the unity of God in the heart.

Plato, in the Republic wrote “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.” Here the converse is true. The Indonesian commitment to Gamelan music and ritual performances  means the extremism is not accepted. I am not an ethnomusicologist and did not pay the same attention to music as to religion. However, gamelan music is taught to children. People told me that their relatives taught it to them as children or they went to Sunday school for gamelan music.  One Sunday morning, standing before an open-side building design, I watched such a class for 30 kids. I even met some American ex-pats who were sending their girl – age six to the Sunday gamelan class. People shows off to me that they could play. But outside of the classes or special festivals and events, I heard little of it on any island. Even the masjid in Kediri had a set up for playing gamelan music in the mosque.

Nevertheless, yes, 2019 Indonesia is stricter than 1999 Indonesia. Alcohol and porn are banned on Java as an act of upholding Islamic values- but that does not mean they want other aspects of the law or the undoing of religious diversity.

Do not confuse Java with Aech on the northern tip of Sumatra, which follows Sharia. I did not visit it and it functions, in many ways, as its own region. I also was not in Papua or the Maluku islands.

In addition, do not confuse Islamic popularism in politics with Islam as a religion. Indonesia has its share of Islamic versions of Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and Bezalel Smotrich, below the threshold but making lots of noise. But they are not Bnai Brak Haredim, so too the Islamic popularists are not Haredim.

For example, there is preacher at as a masjid on/near the campus of University Gadjah Mada who advocates an ethno-national Islam of wanting to exclude Christians and Hindus from teaching and living together, but it has little connection to Islamic observance or knowledge of Islam. The same ethno-nationals may not pray Islamic prayers or follow Islamic law. It mainly attracts the formerly secular and those in the natural sciences. The strictly observant Muslims are products of Islamic boarding schools and are more politically tolerant than these ethno-nationals. The University’s administration counters the ethno-national Islam by giving greater voice to the graduates of the Islamic boarding school system who can read Arabic and know the Islamic religion.

Finally, seventeen years ago in 2002, was the last time the university had a visiting professor of Judaism, Rebecca T. Alpert of Temple U. In her own account of her time in Indonesia, she remarked how people thought she was crazy to go to a Muslim country. Now, it is common to meet fellow ex-pat Jews in Dubai, in Turkey, and elsewhere. Also she notes how she learned of how the Biblical stories are portrayed in the Quran in this visit. Now there are Jewish professors of Islam and Christianity as well as Muslim and Christian professors of Judaism. The age of globalization creates a field of greater travel for interfaith work, and in the 21st century there is greater Jewish-Islamic encounter and knowledge of one another. My trip did not have the surprise element but is all part of today’s interfaith work.

10 Years of the Blog

I started the blog 10 years ago 9/11/2009. Still Here.

 


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Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen- Be, Become, Bless

Rabbi Yakov Nagen’s new book Be, Become, Bless (Magid, 2019) is a delightful and thoughtful series of talks on the weekly Torah portion closing the gap between Torah and Indian religion and thought. The book came out six years ago in Hebrew Lehitorer Le’Yom Hadash and has been translated and reedited for an English audience.

Nagen who has visited India as part of the bigger wave of 30,000-40, 000 Israelis who visit India each year. This gap-year in India has had a profound impact on Israeli youth, who seek to find some of the same spiritual values and ennobling aspiration of Asian religions in the Judaism they return to in Israel. It is common to see Religious Zionist youth with Hindu and Buddhist works and it is common for them to attempt an integration of meditation, visualization, yoga, or monism into their Judaism.

Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen (formerly Genack) studied at Sha’alvim Yeshiva, Har Etzion Yeshiva, and RIETS. He obtained his BA, MA and ordination from Yeshiva University and has Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His PhD on Rabbinic thought was the basis for his book on Tractate Sukkah —Water, Creation and Divinity: Sukkot in the Philosophy of Halacha [Hebrew] (Giluy 2008); The Soul of the Mishna – a literary reading and search for meaning [Hebrew] (Dvir, 2016). Nagen is a leading rabbinical figure in interfaith encounters with Palestinians in the Holy Land. He has organized prayer vigils bringing together Israelis and Palestinians against religiously motivated violence. Currently, he is Ra”M in Yeshivat Othniel allowing him full Rav Shagar inspired freedom to ask new question. Nagen was a friend and student of Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa, well known for his emphasis on interfaith and peace. There will be a part II to this interview where we discuss his views on Rabbinic thought and Interfaith.

Nagen is responding to this turn to India by helping his readers see commonalities between the two faith. They are not in contradiction, rather complimentary. Nagen’s basic rubric is the distinction between Doing and Being.

Doing is the active life of accomplishment, looking to the future, and building society. Being is the activity of living in the moment, accepting the depth of the inner life, and the silence of meditation. Nagen acknowledges that it has taken a turn to India for Jews to rediscover Being. However, Nagen repeatedly points out in his classes and in this book that a Jewish spiritual path combines both Being and Doing.

The point of his book is that is OK to turn East, it is fine for the turn to Hinduism and Buddhism to return us to this inner point. His innovation is that once we rediscover this quality of Being, we rediscover that it was all along with Judaism, and we can return to Jewish texts. He acknowledges that it was not found in the immediately prior era of Brisk and Yeshiva learning, but it is found in the breath of Judaism. The turn to India should lead us back to the depths of our own tradition, Kabbalah, Hasidut, and even a spiritual reading of Rabbinic texts.  The goal is not to knock Asian religions as lacking, rather they have something to teach us and we need to return with this new emphasis and reintegrate it into our lived Torah.

Even though we are seeking spirituality, orthodox Neo-Hassidism is not the approach. we need to work out our own forms of be here now – to embrace our 21st century life. What does it mean to see God in all things in our contemporary lives? How are all things in God? A world where everything is a manifestation of the divine and we should come to appreciate it. We need a Torah spirituality that gives us compassion like the Buddhists or love like the Christians and a spiritual acceptance of others. Much of Neo-Chassidism obscures the spirituality by focusing on jargon, externals, particularism, and romanticism. A positive example of how to read texts how to present spiritual ideas powerfully and simply is Eckhart Tolle. We can use his method to present Jewish spirituality just as clearly and powerfully. Yet, always seeking to reground it in the Jewish commitment to mizvot and worldly activity.

I am not sure all of his groundings of East in West work, for example his grounding of OM in Shalom or his grounding of Buddha in Moses may be a bit too speculative. In addition, Nagen focuses on the East and Being in a way that does not really differentiate Jains, Buddhists, the many varieties of Hindus, and Sikhs, he just treats them all as Indian spirituality. He discusses Hinduism and Taoism in the same paragraph. Nagen’s homilies do not offer anything to someone who wants to learn Eastern thought. He does not have sustained exposure to Eastern thought but neither do the Israelis who have been to India that he is speaking to during shiur. However, he does open Torah themes that others have never opened up. He is the next generation after Rabbis Shagar and Froman pointing to a more experiential Torah.

Ten years ago, Rosh Yeshiva Elchanan Nir at Siah Yitzhak edited From India Till Here, [Hebrew] (Rubin Mass, Jerusalem, 2006) presenting accounts of Israeli religious Jews visiting India to see its spirituality. And six years ago Rabbi Yoel Glick wrote a Hindu inflected insights into the weekly Torah reading Living the Life of Jewish Meditationfor interviews see here and here . Now are also the years for the first academic comparisons of the to faiths Dharma and Halacha: Comparative Studies in Hindu-Jewish Philosophy and Religion edited by Theodor and Greenberg (2018), the two works by Rabbi Dr Alon Goshein Gottstein, Same God, Other God (2015); The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism (2016)- discussed in interviews here and here, the forthcoming work by Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber and my own soon to be released Rabbi on The Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter (2019)

Nagen’s spirituality is based on meditative quiet, existential depth, and sincere awe of the compassion and goodness he sees in Asian religions. More than a decade ago, American scholars of congregational spirituality divided spirituality into four types: (1) working out the cosmos and the game plan for reality;  (2) emotional enthusiasm (3) contemplation and inner self; (4) the giving of oneself in helping others. Nagen is unique against a backdrop of Orthodox emphasis on types one and two, much dancing and/or kabbalistic esotericism, he offers us “Being” the third option of an Eastern inflected spirituality of the inner self combined with “Doing” the compassion for all beings and reality.

Be, Being, Bless (Magid, 2019) is an enjoyable read, which offers new vista into the meeting of Eastern spirituality with Judaism. The book’s arrangement as Torah commentary on the weekly section of the Torah makes it into a delightful choice to read on the Sabbath or take to synagogue. The book allows us to journey with Rabbi Nagen as he shares his own experiences, which he uses to develop his creative integrative path. At the same time, he provides a Torah role model for this generation of seekers. We have a Rosh Yeshiva sharing the journey East with his students and coming back enriched and transformed. He is the Rosh Yeshiva who says that it is not only OK, but enriching. I would recommend for all those looking for a path of integration of Indian spirituality and Judaism.

רישיקש 004

Interview with Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagan- Be, Become, Bless

1) What is spirituality?

Spirituality is an emphasis on the emotional, imaginative and experiential elements.  Spirituality is a search for meaning in life in which there is a sense that there is more to life than what is visible and familiar. It aspires to be transformative to how life is lived and experienced. In the context of religious life, it is the thirst for a direct connection to God and to experience the divine. Its praxis includes a greater focus on prayer that is spontaneous and personal prayer, not only verbal prayer but also connecting to God through music, art and meditative techniques.

Much of the Jewish literature which deals directly with these issues are Chassidut and Kabbalah. Understandably, the resurgence of Jewish spirituality is often referred to as neo-Chassidut. However, I feel this is a problematic term as is creates a very particular historical and cultural frame of reference for this phenomenon. Instead I see spirituality as a vital and fundamental impulse at the heart of Judaism and indeed of religion in general.

I find that the use of the broader term of spirituality facilities encompassing a broader range of ideas and sources, especially those outside of Judaism.  I find it leads to less using labels and jargon and thus challenges us to use a language of life itself and demand of the ideas to have inherent meaning.

In contrast, I consider the Chassidic masters of the 18th century thought the 20th century not as starting points for today, rather as records of the significant expressions of this impulse in prior ages. By not using hassidut and its historical context as  the point of reference, allows to focus on the inner essence and not externalities. Thus, I do not recommend returning  to clothing characterizing a certain context, nor do I seek a cult of personality relating to masters such as Rav Nachman.

2)  How did you turn to spirituality?

One could argue that the materiel success of our generation frees us from focusing on basic survival needs and opens us to the bigger questions of life and its meaning.

On a personal note, however, it was an opposite path which brought me to focus on spirituality. The formative insights in the book emerged in response to painful and traumatic events, primarily of the second Intifada (2000 – 2005) in which many close friends and students were killed, this is what pushed me and others to question life and to search.

When my student Avi Sabag was killed by terrorists half a year after his marriage, one of the most oppressing thoughts was the disparity between how hard it is to build a life, how much parents worked raising him, how much his teachers invested in him, and how much the person himself worked to build. I saw how easy it is to destroy. While being consumed by this thought suddenly, I realized that there is another way to look at life, not as a series of progressive steps, but to see each part, each day as an end it itself. I eulogized Avi as having lived few years but many days, thousands of days of rejoicing in the blessings of life and bringing blessings to others. Each day of life is a fulfillment and world in its own, and the challenge of life is found in how I lived today.

This insight evolved into a practice that I have done for many years – I begin each class by saying the Hebrew date, to recall that it is unique, never was and never will return, which pushes my consciousness to focus on today. I then add the verse “This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice in it (Tehillim 118:24) to direct my consciousness to see life itself as a blessing. Only later I discovered this focus on living the present as theme in Breslov Chassidut and in Eastern spirituality.

This return to spirituality is much more pronounced in Israel than in the United States. I see this in the context of exile and redemption. The Talmud (Berachot 8a)  teaches that after the destruction of the Temple, “all God has in the world is the four amot of Halacha”. This reflects a tragic limitation of the sphere of divinity in life. In many of his writings, Rav Kook saw the essential spiritual significance of the return of the Jewish people to Israel, as a return of religiosity to the totality of life of which is what spirituality strives to fulfill. In a similar vein I once heard Rav Shagar give a lecture about why Briskers’ have a conflict with Zionism.  Zionism he argued is about the return of the Jewish people to history and life, Brisk see the divinity of Torah and Halacha as being above and therefore detached from life and time.

3) How is God present in the world and how is everything in God?

When my children were four and six years old, they had a conversation at home about the relationship between God and humanity. Noa returned from kindergarten and declared that God is in heaven. Hillel replied, “God is everywhere – in the mountains and in the sea and in heaven too. I will explain it to you: Do you see how our house surrounds us and we are inside it? God is like our house. Later I discovered that the simile my son chose to explain that the world is within God appears in the ancient kabbalistic work The Bahir (1:14): “Why is the letter bet closed on all sides and open in the front? This teaches us that it is the house (bayit) of the world. God is the place of the world, and the world is not His place.”

This is not just an abstract idea. Kabbalah teaches us that God is present in everything: in life, in humanity, and in humanity’s relationship with the world and all living creatures. If we open ourselves up to this way of thinking, it will change the basic consciousness mediating our experience of reality. It is an insight that teaches us to open our eyes and hearts to the light and goodness in the world and in humanity, to love life and consider it a blessing, to understand that there is a principle that unifies everything.

4) What is the distinction between doing and being?

Jawaharlal Nehru, former prime minister of India, described the cultural divide between east and west as what is the fundamental question of life – for the west it is “what to do?”, for the east “what to be?”

The difference between “doing” and “being,” in this intercultural comparison, is the difference between wanting to change reality through action and the capacity to accept reality as is, between orientation toward the future and a recognition of the present. Existentially speaking, it is the difference between defining oneself in relation to the question “What do I do?” and the question “Who am I?”.

A central thesis in my book is that the land of Israel is at the crossroads of East and West, a geographical-historical fact that carries profound spiritual implications. Judaism contains ideas that are generally identified with Eastern religions, along with ideas that underpin Western thinking. Judaism’s grand spiritual message is the synthesis of these disparate elements, an outlook that unifies “being” and “doing.” One obvious reflection of this is the structure of the Jewish week, six day of doing and one day, shabbat, of being.

The terms “being” and “doing” are not extraneous to the Torah – they appear in the text itself. In the first description of Creation, the Torah relates a story of action. Humanity is made in God’s image, and its purpose is to rule over the world.  In describing the purpose of Creation, the Torah uses the word “laasot,” meaning “to do” (2:3). The second story, in contrast, describes an existential experience of “being”: humankind is portrayed as living in harmony with nature in the Garden of Eden, and the purpose of its creation is given as “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). In the first description, the relationship between Adam and his wife is outward-facing – they are charged with changing reality by being fruitful and multiplying, enjoined to procreate so as to dominate the world. But in the second narrative, the relationship faces inward, and rather than multiply, the male and the female coalesce: “…and [he] shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (2:24). Together, a man and a woman are the answer to human solitude, and being in union is the pinnacle of their relationship.

The Torah relates the creation of the world twice: chapter 1 of Genesis divides it into seven days, while the telling in chapter 2 focuses on Man in the Garden. This repetition is the basis of Rav Soloveitchik’s essay The Lonely Man of Faith of two archetypes of Humanity. I suggest an alternative reading to that of Rav Soloveitchik that considers the difference between the stories as an expression of the gap between a life approach of “doing” and a life approach of “being.”

5)What do we gain by looking to India? What does it have to teach?

First allow me to preface by saying that I see it as a positive and not a problem when Jews and Judaism are blessed to learn from others.

I know that there are those who always will try to find a source for everything in ancient Jewish sources to make it “kosher” or will try to claim, based on the Zohar, that Eastern spirituality emanates from the gifts that Abraham gave to the children of the concubines who went East. (Genesis 25:6). However, if one truly believes that God is the source of all life and that there is a spark of the divine in all things and ideas, then what should count is not is it Jewish or from a Jewish book but is it an expression of the divine. Furthermore, the vision of unity that stems from this belief sees a value of connecting to the divine in all things.

The dynamics of giving and receiving is a powerful way to connect to the potential of the divine in the world. Once, on a hilltop in India, I thought of a Drash on the name of God, the tetragrammaton. The first letter, Yud, in Kabbalah reflects giving, the second letter, Heh, receiving, the third Vav is the letter of connection and the fourth, Heh, is the letter of teshuvah, return. In the encounter between Judaism and the world there are four blessing, the blessing to give, the blessing to receive, the blessing to connect and finally I belief that a Judaism in deep dialogue and connection to the world will lead to teshuva, return, of those who have strayed afar.

For me the value of exposure to the East is less about learning new ideas, rather the value is the simplicity and directness with which the basic ideas of spirituality are presented, especially the concepts of Nondualism and Being. This is something that we can learn from and what I try to implement in my book.

Professor Shalom Rosenberg at the beginning of his book “Good and Evil in Jewish Thought” brings the anecdote from the beginning of “The Little Prince”, about the Turkish astronomer who finds the planet of the little prince. At first, he is not taken seriously because of his strange garb. When Ataturk takes control of Turkey and has all wear modern attire, the astronomer after changing his clothes is finally listened to. So too, the Eastern garment for spiritual ideas makes them more effective in gaining our attention. Our goal is not to use the Eastern garment, rather to learn from the East how to use more accessible, familiar and not arcane language to discuss spirituality; we need to a language that is lived in.

I must point out that some of the systems of Eastern spirituality are one-dimensional, believing that one technique or one idea, is enough to be a gateway to awakening. However, I see this as a gross limitation of life and reality, on the other it is very effective to convey that particular idea.

For example, Eckhart Tolle’s best seller “The Power of Now” focuses on the significance of being present in the present. The fact that he sees this as end all allows him to convey this idea very powerfully and passionately. However, this exclusivity I see as very problematic, I once heard a tape of his being cynical of people who go to Africa to help the poor as futile, being that what really would uplift life is learning to live the Now. With my students I teach Tolle but also present the limitations of his approach.

6) How is your approach about accepting the other?

One of the chapters of the book, was originally titled “God is in other people”, My translator, Elie Leshem, very cleverly changed that to “God is other people” as a play on Sartre statement that “Hell is other people”.  I discuss the Zohar conception that giving to the other is giving to God because God is in the other. The first time in the Zohar that the doctrine of broken vessels is mentioned, is the context of people with broken lives who are the broken vessels of God’s divinity.

This idea of the divine in each of us goes back to the fundamental statement about the nature of humanity in the Torah, that we are all created “in the image of God.”

Rav Kook begins his book “For the Perplexed of the Generation” with the statement – “Humanity is created in the image of God, this is the essence of the entire Torah” I certainly see this as the fundamental idea of the Kabbala, including the Zohar and the Ari, especially their stress on the Partzum of God.

7) What is your connection of OM and shalom?

The similarities between Om and Shalom are apparent. Shalom includes the Om, and both refer to the divine. Within Judaism not only Shalom (Leviticus Rabba 9:9) but Om is a name of God according to th Sitrei Torah of the Zohar (Zohar Vayera 108b- it lists 70 letter combinations each to be considered a name of God- in this case alef vav mem).

Both “Om” and “shalom” connote oneness and harmony. Therefore, they are used to summarize and conclude: “Om” often appears at the end of sacred texts, such as in Hinduism’s Upanishads. The word “shalom,” too, concludes many prayers, including the Grace after Meals (“The Lord will bless His people with peace”), Amida (“Who blesses His people Israel with peace”), and the Priestly Blessing (“and give thee peace”). In talmudic and mishnaic literature, many tractates are concluded with Shalom.

However, what I find most significant and fascinating is how these similarities  highlight the differences between them.

The following insight originated while I was preparing for a lecture to be given at the Boombamela – a week long New Age shanti festival held during Pesach on a beach near Ashdod which in its heyday attracted tens of thousands. I thought to talk about similarities  between Om and Shalom, but realized how this missed the point and the message that I wanted to convey to the people there.

Shalom incorporate the Om but is not limited by it:  According to Sefer Yetzira (The Book of Creation) at the root of language are three “mother” letters – alefmem, and shin – each of which represents a different element of creation: mem stands for water, shin for fire, and alef for air (Yetzira 3:4). The three elements reflect the dialectic between fire and water, with air symbolizing the synthesis between them (2:1). The Zohar (Vayikra 12b) notes that “shalom,” begins with the letter shin and ends with the letter mem. The shin, it explains, represents fire (esh), while the mem represents water (mayim). Shalom is the capacity to encompass those binary opposites. The duality between fire and water is symbolic for the duality of doing and being and of western civilization and eastern spirituality.

For example, in the foundational text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, water is likened to the Tao itself (the indefinable, infinite principle that underlies and sustains all of creation). The book praises water and its attributes – nothing is as soft and yielding as water, which is yet strong enough to overcome and wear away that which is hard. Consequently, the Tao advocates inaction (Wu wei), a passive approach to reality. Many other Eastern traditions also teach that enlightenment is attained by accepting reality and “flowing” into it, a process that takes place mostly in one’s psyche, irrespective of action. The sound of the “Om” rises up from the water.

Western culture is founded on fire. The calendar is derived from the solar year, and the Christian Sabbath is Sunday, the day of the sun. Greek mythology, which, in many respects, remains to this day the foundational mythology of the West, associates the dawn of civilization – the very possibility of creation and progress – with Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity. Fire symbolizes the active principle, that which imposes its will upon reality. Dynamism, the will to effect change in the world, and the desire for progress – these are the foundations of Western society.

8) What are the fundamental differences between Judaism and Eastern religions?

I would start with the differences in the conception of the divine. The classical conception of God in Judaism and the other Abrahamic religions are based mostly on dualism, meaning a clear differentiation between the divine and the earthly. Creator and creation exist independently of one another – a distinctness that enables dialogue. God created the world, He steers it and acts upon it; man talks and prays to Him, and examines His ways in an effort to learn from Him and obey Him. The individual can maintain a real relationship with God, with room for feelings such as love and hate, fear and anger. These religions cast God in human terms, as Father, Lover, and Brother.

The Eastern religions, in contrast, are non-dualistic. They consider God and the world to be one, and their religious experience is an awakening to the oneness underlying everything (Brahman, or “infinite expansion,” in Hinduism, and “emptiness” in Buddhism).

My friend the late Rabbi Menachem Froman used to relate an anecdote that illustrates the difference between the two outlooks. During the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Israel, the Dalai Lama took part in an interfaith conference by the Sea of Galilee. It was a drought year, and Rabbi Froman, who also attended the conference, convinced the other religious leaders to join him in a prayer for rain. They all stood together – rabbis, sheiks, and priests – and prayed  for rain. But the Dalai Lama whispered to Rabbi Froman that he did not believe “in this kind of thing.” I mention this anecdote in the book. But what I don’t mention as I didn’t want to move the focus from the essential point, was that the next day there was pouring rain!

The difference between the two approaches is the essential starting point of the great divide presented in my book between “being” and “doing.” In a world where everything is one, humanity’s purpose is to reveal the unity underlying reality, which to the naked eye seemingly comprises endless disparate elements. However, when God is conceived as being outside the cosmos and acting upon it, the individual’s challenge is to act and strive to rectify reality.

Judaism incorporates a synthesis between doing and being,  the conception of the divine incorporates these two conceptions of God.

Rav Kook presents this approach in his Shemona Kevatzim (1:65). In the overt level of reality, God is distinct from the world and maintains a relationship with it, but on a deeper, more concealed level, all is one; everything is divine. The sources of “overt” Judaism, including the Bible, Talmud, and halakha, deal mostly with a personal God, while Jewish mysticism – Kabbala and Hasidism – is concerned with the inner Torah, with uncovering the divine in all of reality.

The complex relationship between God and the world can be likened to the love between a man and a woman. In order for there to be a loving relationship, each must reserve a place in their lives and their personalities that is separate from the other. It is only from such a place that they can emerge, love, and carry on a relationship. At the same time, each aspires to feel, even within that separate space, a sense of unity and shared experience with the other. A great example of this ideal is Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who – as the famous story goes – went with his wife to the doctor and complained, “My wife’s leg hurts us.”

9) You advocate the cultivation of compassion,  Isnt that Buddhist and not Jewish?

I am happy that Buddhists cultivate compassion. However, I protest the assumption I often hear expressed, consciously or unconsciously, that once a world religion or culture is identified with a value however significant and authentic it is can become almost taboo for Jews.

Similarly, concerning human rights, there are circles in which you can be accused of in influenced by western values, which they consider in opposition to Jewish values.

To say “God love you” can elicit a response “that sounds very Christian”. But it is Biblical and part of Torah. I am not defined by the negation of what defines the other. Compassion is Buddhist, it is Jewish, it is Divine.

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10) What lesson do we learn from the Sikh temple in Amritsar?

The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the holiest site in  Sikhism. As Sikhism is a purely monotheistic religion, this was the only Temple I entered while in India. For 2000 year we don’t have a Mikdash, the Golden Temple can give a taste that helps us grasp the experience of Mikdash. However, as in all my encounters with the east, was struck not only by the similarities to – but also the differences from.

The Jewish and Sikh temples are similar not only in what is conspicuously absent from them – idols – but also in terms of their content. The Golden Temple houses the original Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, just as the ark in the heart of the ancient Jewish Temple contained the Stone Tablets of Moses and the first Torah scroll, written by Moses. At the center of the Sikh temple, an old man in white vestments sits and reads from the Guru Granth Sahib, surrounded by a group of elders, also clothed in white, who play music. This recalls the atmosphere in the Temple, in terms of both the white vestments of the ministers and the musical instruments, which in Jerusalem were played by the Levites.

I was impressed especially with the eating rituals in the Golden Temple. Every visitor, upon entering, receives a helping of food. The ritual has a moral implication: everyone eats together. The ritual reminded me of the eating of the burnt offerings in the Jewish Temple. When it comes to the Pascal lamb for example, all Jews eat the same sacrifice in the same place, in a national meal meant to drive home the fact that we are all free.

Another similarity is the welcoming atmosphere it both temples: the Golden Temple is open from all four directions and features a hostel for non-Sikh guests. Those are expressions of an openness to all of humanity that echoes Isaiah’s prophecy about the future Temple: “For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:7). Indeed, already during the dedication of the First Temple, King Solomon asks God to heed the prayers of “the stranger that is not of Thy people Israel” (I Kings 8:41–43).

Yet, alongside the many similarities between the two temples, there are also differences. The Temple in Jerusalem occupies a far more central role in Jewish life – including thousands of years of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and yearning for it to be rebuilt – than the Golden Temple does in the Sikh religion, where it is of relatively minor importance.

Perhaps the difference stems from the varying meanings associated with the temple in the two religions. Sikhism does not contain a concept of sanctity of place and time. The significance of the Golden Temple is an expression of the fact that it houses the religion’s original scripture. The absence of discrete holiness – such as in time or place – stems inter alia from the idea that God is everywhere. Although Judaism, too, believes that no place is devoid of His presence, it retains an idea of sanctity of place. Judaism believes there are special sites that facilitate intimacy and an encounter between human and divine.

It is due to this conception of holiness that the Temple is designed in a manner that is at once welcoming and removed and exclusive. The Temple is open on one side to all – women and men, Jews and gentiles alike – and all are allowed to bring offerings, but the farther in one progresses, the more stringent the demands. Entry into the heikhal, the main sanctuary, is contingent on special physical and spiritual preparation, and there are places where one is forbidden from entering. In the encounter with the divine there is a constant dance between revelation and concealment, a running and returning (ratzo vashov).

If holiness is to dwell within a secular world, there is need for boundaries and separation. Thresholds are there to awaken our sense of the sacred.

11) How can we compare Moses and Buddha?

The similarity in the arcs of their lives is clear: both begin as princes in the royal palace, both leave their sheltered lifestyle behind after encountering the suffering and pain of existence, and both eventually become spiritual teachers. But there are further parallels between them that highlight a fundamental difference.

Buddhist tradition tells of the four sights, a series of encounters that Siddhartha Gautama has enroute to his enlightenment, when he leaves the palace and becomes the Buddha. The first encounter is with an old man, the second is with a sick person, and the third is with a dead body. Through these encounters, he comes to the realization that human existence is steeped in pain and suffering. Finally, Siddhartha meets a man who grapples with his suffering by practicing asceticism, and from him draws hope that the problem of suffering is not insoluble. In the wake of that meeting, Siddhartha devotes his life to sharing his insights with others.

Moses, too, has a series of four encounters after emerging from Pharaoh’s palace. As with the first three sights of the Buddha, Moses encounters human suffering three times: an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man, a Hebrew man beating his comrade, and a group of shepherds denying the daughters of Yitro access to a well. Yet Moses, unlike the Buddha, intervenes to right the injustices he encounters. In the fourth encounter, which is parallel to the Buddha’s meeting with the monk, God reveals Himself to Moses. That encounter, too, revolves around the issue of injustice, and concludes with Moses taking upon himself the mission of returning to his people and rescuing them from bondage. He thus devotes himself to a life of action, of “doing.”

12) How does this turn to spirituality and the East affect my role at Rav in the Yeshiva Otniel?

In order to obtain an inner an inner balance between spirituality and halakhah, I asked the Yeshiva to allow me to be the Rosh Kollel Halacha for a number of years so that my primary endeavor would be the nitty gritty of halachot.

I ultimately realized that this balancing must be a day-to-day challenge, not merely a topic for an occasional talk.  I mentioned earlier that for many years, I have begun each class with my students by noting the date and then adding the verse, “This is the day that God has made; we will rejoice in it” (Ps. 118:24), thereby expressing the perspective that life itself is a blessing and that joy is to be found in recognizing this reality. At some point I realized that this is creating an imbalance and I searched for a way to end each class to correct this. After a long search I found the solution, a close each class the last verse of Ecclesiastes together: “The end of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of man” (Ecc.11:13).

I once heard Dr. Micha Goodman compare the relationship between spirituality and religion to that of love and marriage. Spirituality without religion is like love without marriage.  Religion without spirituality is like marriage without love.  Following Goodman’s analogy, I would add that we must be careful that the discourse of spirituality will be of love that inspires marriage and not of love that makes marriage seem unnecessary.  Here I see the danger of neo-Sabbateanism promoted by certain New Age gurus, such as Ohad Ezrahi, who are explicitly antinomian. My hope and belief is that spiritual focusing on mitzvot will lead to greater observance and give an opening to expose many to Jewish practice. Time and time again I tell my students that this is the challenge. Spirituality not replacing commitment but empowering each other.

Interview: Nathaniel Berman, Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar

Biblical texts contain the great myth of evil dragon. “Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers …” (Ezekiel 29:3) The evil is not a separate power, rather a force to be conquered. Thirteenth century Castilian Kabbalistic texts develop this into a separate realm of evil that is parallel the side of holiness. This becomes one of the major dividing lines between Castilian approach to Kabbalah compared to the Geronesse approach where the evil dragon is an allegory for the privation of the good. The Castilians, as an act of shocking revelation, present this evil realm as a high mystery.

In the Zohar,“Rabbi Shimon said, ‘Now it is fitting to reveal mysteries cleaving above and below.’”   ( Matt, Pritzker Zohar 2, page 34a), which Matt explains in his footnote that “these are mysteries of the demonic powers, who are rooted in the divine realm and branch out below.”Furthermore,“Rabbi Shimon said, The Companions study the account of Creation”–that is, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis–“and comprehend it, but few know how to allude thereby to the Mystery of the Great Dragon.”  That mystery, he says, has been shared with “those fathomers who know the mysteries of their Lord.” The Mystery of the Great Dragon is the shadow side of the Biblical Creation story, hinted at between the lines of creation and understood by those who can comprehend.

To this topic, we have a fine new monograph by Nathaniel Berman, Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar: the “Other Side” of Kabbalah (Leiden: Brill, 2018). Berman is the Rahel Varnhagen Professor of International Affairs, Law, and Modern Culture in Brown University’s Religious Studies Department. A graduate of Yale College, Harvard Law School, and his PhD in Jewish Studies from University College London.

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This book is one of dozen books on the Zohar that came out in 2017-2018, each one making a significant contribution.  This voluminous amount of scholarship is still being absorbed by specialists; this is my second interview on this scholarship, see here for Eitan Fishbane’s book.

If Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby saw this Zoharic myth of evil as relevant for their early 20th century era of breakdown, but with clear sides of good and evil. Berman find the myth useful for our age of evil, in which the sides are ambiguous.

According to the Zohar, evil has diverse sources. (1) Evil is like the bark of a tree of emanation: it is a husk or shell in which lower dimensions of existing things are encased. In this context, evil is understood as a waste product of all organic process—it is compared to bad blood, foul water, dross after gold has been refined and the dregs of wine. (2) These evil powers came into being through the supra‑abundant growth of the sefirah of Judgment (Din) when it separated from the sefirah of Compassion (Rahamim). (3) Human sin continually strengthened this realm. However, correct actions, and avoidance of sin, allow man’s to separate them.

Berman picks up the discussion at this point by showing that these categories are more ambivalent tan prior presentations. For Berman, the evil is specifically proximate to the good. He shows cases of needed nearness of the two realms and cases where they are intertwined. Tishby famously saw the evil as dross needing a purgation and catharsis from the good. Scholem was more ambivalent, seeing the possibility of a Jungian integration of the shadow side in order to attain individualization. In contrast, Berman finds both good and evil belated products of striving to differentiate from the undifferentiated primordial being.

To explain this primordial undifferentiated oneness, Berman turns to Julia Kristeva’s concept of  “Abjection”, which is Kristeva’s word for this “breaking away.” It comprises the subject’s “earliest attempts to release the hold of the maternal entity even before existing outside of her …. a violent, clumsy breaking away, forever stalked by the risk of falling back under the sway of a power as sheltering as it is smothering.”  The maternal body begins to be distanced even before the subject who does the distancing comes into being.  That which is thus “abjected” becomes invested with an intensely negative valence, even disgust. For Berman, that ambiguity and multi-valence of the mother in the coming to be of human subjectively is the very language that can be used to describe the relationship of the sitra ahara and the sefirot.

Berman treats myth as etiological and literary. Julia Kristeva treats them as a symptom. This Incredible Need to Believe  (Columbia University Press, 2009) which is available online here. Kristeva as a post-secular and post-Lacan thinker assumes that we can never escape the psychological necessity for religion as a medium to work out our hidden recesses. We need to acknowledge the powerful and ineradicable need to believe and to use the mythology of belief. If we deny this need, we risk the destructive return of the repressed. Kristeva thinks human beings are constituted by an incredible need to believe, to live in the realms of symbolism, mythology and mystical experience. For her, to be capable of speech is to be capable of symbolic discourse, and symbolic discourse is characterized by a profound need to believe. (Conversely for Rav Shagar, the wild mythic realm of Rav Nachman reconnects us the sacred.)

To return to the discussion of the sitra ahara, the evil side, as the primordial undifferentiated, for Berman, pace Kristeva, we have undifferentiated positive and negative evaluation of the mother. However, Kristeva does not just label it as “abjected.” Rather, she shows how this points to the  fundamental exclusion of woman from the linguistic order.  in Kristeva’s opinion, the abjection of women has been the cause of the separation of the sexes, and the relegation of woman to the silent ‘Other’ of the Symbolic and society, keeping men to command a world based on science and rational authority. Kristeva’s Lacanian Imaginary order, associated with the feminine language of the unconscious is a world of illusion, duality, deception, and surfaces. Women were portrayed as sorcerer, witches, and hysterics. Berman’s book does not particularity discuss Kristeva’s rich analysis of the feminine to paint a richer sitra ahara. In addition, Kristeva’s interpretation of Adam and Eve would have fit the book’s thesis.

Berman treats Zoharic myths as etiological, as explaining our perceived world, rather than as a symptom of our psyche as Kristeva presents myths. Of all my interviews, this is the first one that seemed to call out for a psychoanalytic reading, maybe because the interview itself was personal or that the use of the myth seemed a symptom. Berman’s narrative includes a casting off of a symbolic registry of Orthodoxy before a mythic world of evil, a Holocaust survivor as material image with inherent undifferentiated good and evil, and in turn, a world of very real evil.

Unlike the Buddhist mediator, for whom evil comes from desire. According to Berman, evil is real. For Paul Ricœur, in his classic Symbolism of Evil, we do not have an existential sense of evil and then pick our root metaphor to explain the evil in the world. Rather, we are born into our metaphor though our religion.  Ricoeur assumes the Jewish metaphor is missing the mark, Christianity fall of man,  Zoroastrian dualism, Buddhist illusion- and we see the world through the religious root metaphor. This interview clearly shows Berman’s root metaphor as Zoharic rather than Ricoeur’s choices.

Berman’s book was honored by Yehudah Liebes who wrote a response, which is especially noted in that Liebes is not a fan of English. The review offers a nice insight into Liebes’ own approach to the Zohar, as well as showing how much more there is to be done on these topics especially the personality of the shekhinah. Berman’s book is a important for placing the holiness-demonic dualism at the very beginning of divine auto-genesis. Especially, his discussion of rhetorical elements, such as anaphora and structural homology,within the Zoharic library. Personally, I would now want to see Berman’s reading of the Zohar compared to Catherine Keller’s 21st century use of the same Kabbalaistic ideas of tohu-chaos to construct a positive appreciation of chaos and materiality of the divine.

The book is unfortunately extremely high priced even for an academic monograph, which will limit is readership drastically. It is also a technical work, concerned with literary distinctions and arguing for his readings of the Zohar. However, I have heard Berman in several popular venues such as the various Limmud conferences, where he gives and excellent dynamic presentation of his points in a lively psychological manner. Berman oral presentations are wonderful for bringing the listener into the mythic-poetic world.  (Here is one at Drisha) This book shows Berman as an admirable Virgil leading us on a tour of the demonic realm of the Zohar, offering poetics, psychology, mythology, and current anxieties.

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Interview:Nathaniel Berman, Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar

1) Why do you call the Zohar a work of “poetic mythology”?

The strand of Zoharic writing upon which I focus consists of mythical portrayals of the divine and demonic realms, written with a literary audacity and virtuosity akin to poetry, language-bending, syntax defying, avant-garde.

Zoharic mythology includes dramas of divine and diabolical personae, male and female, engaging with each other through love and hatred, desire and repulsion, grace and judgment. It portrays a world in which there is nothing, neither plant nor animal, heaven nor earth, ocean nor land, star nor planet, that does not symbolize, or rather embody, some archetype or persona. Zoharic mythology includes wars of a God with a Great Dragon, seduction of a divine Woman by a diabolical Serpent and of a divine Man by the diabolical Lilith.

Earlier scholars, most prominently, Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby, focused on explicating the Zohar’s doctrine. My work participates in a wave of recent scholarship focusing on literary approaches to the Zohar, often associated with Hebrew University Professor Yehuda Liebes. From this perspective, passages that might seem simply internally contradictory from a doctrinal perspective prove to be elaborate, self-reflective, paradoxical literary masterpieces.

In order to appreciate the Zohar as mythology, one must exercise one’s own mythological imagination, seeking to envision, not merely analyze, its extraordinary, often scandalous, portrayals!

2) Why is the demonic important in the Zohar?

“Few are those who know how to allude to the Work of Creation through the mystery of the Great Dragon” (Zohar II:34b).

In pronouncements like these, the Zoharic authors proclaim the greater profundity, difficulty, and secrecy of those who engage with the demonic “Other Side” [sitra aḥra], the abode of the Great Dragon, as well as the “Side of Holiness,” the abode of the divine Creator.

The elaborate Zoharic mythology of a cosmos split between divine and demonic narrates features of life of which we are all aware, however painful it may be to acknowledge them. Our world, as one can verify by experience, is teeming with divergent forces, sometimes harmonious, sometimes conflictual, sometimes beautiful, sometimes repulsive. The Zoharic writers confront this teeming reality by constructing elaborate mythologies of divine/demonic relations – relations of both absolute antagonism and profound intimacy between the two realms.

The Zoharic use of the apparently neutral phrase, “the Other Side,” as the most common appellation for the demonic suggests that the demonic is “Other” to the divine, but also that it is another “Side” of a whole. The phrase suggests an inextricable relationship between the two “Sides” and a drive for unification that is as powerful as that for conflict.

At a human level, the Zohar’s mythology of divine/demonic relations also provides a profound way of addressing a phenomenon that affects us all every day, the manifold and ambivalent relations between Self and Other, whether on the inter-personal, national, ethnic, or gendered planes.

3) How does the Zohar portray the split cosmos of divine and demonic through etiological myths?

“Etiology” literally means the “study of causes.” An etiological myth starts with features of the world as we know it, and then tells an origin story that culminates in those features: a “back-story,” as it were. Zoharic etiological myths focus on features of our world that our rational ideas and/or conventional theological doctrines find unacceptable. These myths do not provide a theological explanation for those features of the world; they do not seek to reassure us by denying or justifying those features. On the contrary, they often make the theological quandary, or even scandal, much worse. They confront the reality of those features unflinchingly, refuse to engage in theological apologetics, and often prescribe ritual practices by which human beings can heal the world’s ruptures.

A clear example of a Zoharic etiological myth: one passage begins by portraying Rabbi Shimon, the Zohar’s chief sage, lamenting the inverted, unjust state of the world, particularly the degraded state of the people of Israel, subjugated by the other nations. He then proceeds to spin his myth, encapsulated in its opening lines, “the King has cast the Queen away from Him and inserted the Bondwoman in Her place” (Zohar III:69a). In Zoharic mythology, the King is the central male divine persona, the blessed Holy One. The Queen is his true consort, the Shekhinah. The Bondwoman is the Shekhinah’s demonic counterpart, Lilith.

This dalliance of the male God with the diabolical female provides a back-story for the inverted state of the world. It does not resolve the theological quandary implicit in the problem that launched Rabbi Shimon’s narrative. On the contrary, for a theologian, the lust of the male God for a transgressive mate is something like the ultimate scandal. Nonetheless, the mythological scandal, the desire of the blessed Holy One for Lilith, also contains a hint of a redemptive drive: the aspiration for unification between divine and demonic, Self and Other.

4) How did the prior Castilian kabbalists develop this mythology?

Gershom Scholem bestowed the appellation “Castilian Gnostics” upon certain 13th century Spanish kabbalists who were particularly interested in the demonic – the most well-known of whom were Yitsḥak Ha-Kohen and Moshe of Burgos.
Yitsḥak Ha-Kohen and Moshe of Burgos wrote short treatises portraying a demonic dimension of the cosmos parallel to the divine dimension: the “Left Emanation” or “Left Column.” These treatises also opened up a path to integrating an array of ancient myths of the demonic – from Jewish and non-Jewish sources – into the emerging kabbalistic imagination. The complex Zoharic portrayals of Sama’el and Lilith, ancient figures who emerge transformed in kabbalistic myth as a diabolical couple, the chief Devil and Deviless, are elaborate extensions of themes in the writings of the “Castilian Gnostics.”
Zoharic portrayals of Dragons also draw on the “Castilian Gnostics.” From a broader perspective, these reptilian creatures emerge from centuries, even millennia, of Jewish and Near Eastern mythology. The Zoharic portrayals draw on, among other sources, the verses describing the Leviathan in Psalms and Job and the “Taninim” in Genesis 1. The latter term has been variously translated as whales, crocodiles, sea monsters, and so on – but their Zoharic portrayals are best understood as those of Dragons, denizens of the demonic realm, at times personifications of the Devils Sama’el and Lilith.

An intriguing feature inherited from the “Castilian Gnostics” is that the demonic Dragons are doubled by divine Dragons. This twinning relationship between the divine and demonic is one of the symptoms of Zoharic ambivalence towards the split cosmos.

5) How does the Zohar use the two literary techniques of anaphora and structural homology to present the two sides of divine and demonic?

My analysis proceeds on two axes: rhetoric and ontology

My rhetorical analysis looks at the literary techniques the texts use to construct a cosmos split between the two “Sides.” One of the principal such techniques employed by the Zoharic writers is “anaphora.”

Anaphora consists of the repetition of the first words of consecutive phrases, clauses, or sentences. The Zohar frequently employs the anaphora “there is … and …. there is …”, with each “there is” followed by an identical noun, to construct the divine/demonic split – for example, “there is a field – and – there is a field” (Zohar I:122a). While the consecutive phrases in such anaphoras are identical, the Zohar’s deployment of them signifies that they refer to opposed entities or personae. In the “there is a field” anaphora, these two antagonists are the Shekhinah, the central female divine persona, and Her mortal adversary, Lilith. This literary technique thus yields two antagonistic personae who are nonetheless identical linguistically.

At the ontological level, the Zohar posits identical structures on each “Side,” a feature I call “structural homology.” Both the divine and demonic “Sides” contain ten Sefirot, seven “breaths” (corresponding to the seven lower Sefirot), three “knots” (corresponding to the left, right, and central columns of each realm), seven “palaces” [Hekhalot], male and female personae in conjugal relationships, and so on.

The rhetorical and ontological twinning between the divine and demonic realms constructs an objectively ambivalent cosmos, in which divine and demonic are absolute enemies and yet often indistinguishable – suggesting a deeply rooted subjective ambivalence of the Zoharic writers to the Other Side.

6) Why use Kristeva’s concept of abjection to explain the demonic?

I believe that underlying Zoharic portrayals of the split cosmos lies a rather startling, even shocking myth: the divine and demonic realms of the cosmos both emerge from a primordial, inchoate indifferentiation. I note that others, including Yehuda Liebes, already pointed in this direction.I have employed the work of Kristeva as a way of elucidating the consequences of this myth for the emergence of the two realms.

I recall that the opposed realms include structures (such as the kabbalistic “Sefirot”) and personae (such as the divine blessed Holy One and his female consort, the Shekhinah, as well as the diabolical couple Sama’el and Lilith). While the dramatic vicissitudes of these personae constitute much of the focus of Zoharic mythology, their emergence from a primordially shared inchoate origin presents one of its most radical features.

How is one to understand the emergence of these personae? They cannot be created in the conventional theological sense, for any Creator would be one of those very personae whose origin we are seeking. Rather, Zoharic texts portraying the emergence of their central personae present one of the most puzzling paradoxes of the literature: a subject-less striving for a separate identity. In order to gain insight into these Zoharic texts, I turned to the work of Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst and literary theorist, whose work has long fascinated me.

Kristeva locates the emergence of the human self in the inchoate strivings of the infant for independence from its mother. She portrays “the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be.” It comprises the subject’s “earliest attempts to release the hold of the maternal entity even before existing outside of her …. a violent, clumsy breaking away, forever stalked by the risk of falling back under the sway of a power as sheltering as it is smothering.” “Abjection” is Kristeva’s word for this “breaking away,” in which the maternal body begins to be distanced even before the subject who does the distancing comes into being. That which is thus “abjected” becomes invested with an intensely negative valence, even disgust.

Kristeva’s portrayals of subject-formation-though-abjection are uncannily reminiscent of Zoharic texts about the emergence of divine and demonic personae from the primordial indifferentiation – and provide a powerful way of appreciating both their antagonism and their secret kinship.

I caution that I try not to “apply” Kristeva’s ideas to Zoharic texts, but to find productive and uncanny parallels between them – parallels that help illuminate both.

7) Where do you differ from Isaiah Tishby?

I often refer to Tishby’s essay on the Zoharic Other Side as a foil for my own approach. Tishby argues that there are two different strands in Zoharic writing on the relationship between divine and demonic.

One is a dualistic strand, in which the two “Sides” stand in radical antagonism to each other. In this strand, the Other Side is structurally homologous to the divine, geographically remote, and fundamentally different in essence. The other strand is marked, in Tishby’s words, by “restrictions” on this dualism. In this strand, the Other Side consists of a set of concentric circles around the divine, rather than a set of independent, homologous structures. In this strand, the demonic is thus geographically proximate to the divine. Indeed, in this strand, the Other Side can even serve as an ally of the divine.

“And, again, I stress that in order to understand these images, one must embrace the mythological genre, and give free rein to one’s visionary powers!”

Tishby’s exposition, however useful, is inadequate as a grid for reading Zoharic texts. Zoharic writers freely mix elements from both of these models, weaving them together in literary texts that foreground startling, phenomenally impossible, juxtapositions of images. Such features would be defects in a text aiming at expressing coherent conceptual models – but are the glory of an audacious literary work.

An example: one Zoharic text depicts the Other Side as comprised of ten Sefirot, homologous to the ten divine Sefirot – and declares that this antagonist to the divine “clings to the slime of the fingernail” of the Shekhinah, the latter associated with the tenth of the divine Sefirot (Zohar III:70a). This text thus portrays the demonic as both homologous to the divine and proximate to it – as well as depicting the demonic as perched precariously on an insubstantial aspect of its divine enemy. Inducing meditation on this paradoxical and scandalous image was, I believe, the author’s goal – not the presentation of a consistent metaphysical doctrine.

8) Can you apply this to the myth of creation?

Zoharic writers re-cast the story of Creation in Genesis as one of divine unfolding, an elaborate emanation of the divine being. While this perspective makes possible a profound appreciation of the world as imbued with the divine, it simultaneously makes far more acute the theological problem entailed in the existence of conflict and evil.

Scholem and Tishby cast the Zoharic, and later Lurianic, understanding of these issues in terms of a myth of divine catharsis – a Greek term whose literal meaning signifies purification or purgation. The God who unfolds Himself through the emanation of the cosmos was seeking to get rid of unwanted elements within Himself. These unwanted elements first emerge as inchoate refuse and then consolidate into the structures and personae of the Other Side.

The myth of catharsis is shocking theologically because it posits a God beset by impurities within His own being. Perhaps even more shocking is this God’s seeming inability to rid Himself of those impurities, the necessity for Him to engage in a never-ending series of attempts at purgation.

I think, however, that the idea of catharsis in Scholem and Tishby emerges from an appropriation of a variety of classic sources, which, moreover, differ among themselves: Plato, Aristotle, Freud, and so on. Among the many crucial questions their use of catharsis leaves open is this: if God is a coherent (even perfect) being prior to catharsis, why does He experience certain elements within Himself as unwanted or alien?

My reading of Zoharic texts reveals a very different myth. The personal God, the God with a distinct, bounded identity, does not stand as the initiator of the story but emerges as the outcome of the story – much as human identity emerges over time. The Zoharic divine subject, like the human subject described by Kristeva, does not pre-exist the struggle with inassimilable elements. On the contrary, this struggle is the pre-condition for the establishment of a bounded subject.

Kristeva’s portrayal of abjection powerfully illuminates this interminable struggle. The (divine or human) subject’s struggle to be rid of impurities, of inassimilable elements, is, by its nature, always provisional and ultimately pyrrhic – for those elements and the subject bear a primordial kinship to each other. The divine Self and its demonic Other are both belated products of strivings to differentiate from the undifferentiated primordial being.

9) Should the demonic be treated with respect or cast out?

Zoharic writers foresee two opposite fates for the Other Side: integration into the divine and annihilation by the divine. Scholem declared long ago that these opposite fates are equally “plausible” within the discourse of the Zohar. One finds these opposite fates throughout the Zohar, often in close textual proximity to each other. In one text, the Zohar stages this opposition as a debate between two of its key sages (Zohar II:203b).
This textual coexistence of opposed fates underscores one of the pervasive themes of my book: the ambivalence of the Zoharic cosmos.

10) What do we gain by using the paradox of abjection and crystallization? How do you apply it to the Zohar passage, elaborating on the first three verses in Genesis, portraying the transition from “slime” to “tohu” to “mighty” wind?

I read a mysterious, poetic, and evocative passage, the “snow-in-water” passage, as paradigmatic for the Zoharic vision of primordial cosmic processes. The passage begins (Zohar I:16a):

“And the earth was Tohu [KJV: without form] and Bohu [KJV: void]” (Genesis1:2). “Was,” precisely – before this. Snow in water: slime issues forth from it, from the force of snow in water. And a harsh fire strikes it. And there is refuse in it. And it becomes “Tohu”: the dwelling place of slime, the nest of refuse. “And Bohu”: a sifting/selecting/clarifying (beriru) that was sifted/selected/clarified (de-itberir) from within the refuse. And it was settled in it.

While I cannot reproduce here the long analysis I give in the book, I note that this passage is a mythological elaboration of the movement from the first to the third verses of Genesis, revealing the mythical events concealed in the enigmatic second verse. In Genesis, we see a movement from the seemingly perfect creation of heaven and earth in the first verse, to an unsettling scene of chaos, darkness, and a confrontation of Elohim and the abyss in the second verse, to the creation of light in the third. The Zohar’s snow-in-water passage recasts this textual movement mythically, in ways that strikingly resemble aspects of Kristeva’s portrayals.

The “snow-in-water” passage moves from a placid scene of primordial harmony (“snow in water”), to a seemingly inexplicable discharge of inchoate, repulsive stuff (“slime issues forth from it”), to a consolidation of that inchoate stuff through a series of berurin (siftings/selections/clarifications). By the end of this lengthy passage, the slime has consolidated into formidable demonic entities, the “great mighty wind,” “earthquake,” and “fire” of Elijah’s Horeb vision (1 Kings 19:11). This entire process, for the Zoharic writer, lurks in the second verse of Genesis.

Only after this “sifting/selecting/clarification” of the seeming primordial harmony between opposites, and the emergence of consolidated demonic entities, can the Creation of the divine cosmos take place, the emanation of the light portrayed in the third verse.

The short imagistic evocation at the beginning of this passage is paradigmatic for the kinds of processes I elucidate throughout the book, with the help of Kristeva: the inevitably simultaneous emergence of divine and demonic, the initiation of processes of abjection (the “issuing forth” of “slime”) even before the emergence of a subject, the inference that the roots of both divine and demonic lurk in the state of primordial indifferentiation – and, implicitly, the endless pyrrhic struggle to separate or reintegrate them.

11) Why is divine anger paradigmatic of the myth of the demonic?

The theme of anger may be the most accessible entrée for many people into the mythology of the demonic. People often encounter anger as a fearsome force of mythical proportions. Most of us have had the experience of being overwhelmed by anger, an experience aptly described as “being possessed by anger,” often followed by “I don’t know what came over me!” This experience of being possessed by something alien to ourselves is rather uncanny – and even those not mythologically inclined might see how one can be led into myths of the demonic in order to narrate what has taken place. At the same time, we experience anger as an appropriate response to injustice against ourselves and others.

On the religious plane, divine anger poses a seemingly insuperable dilemma. Even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible discloses a God who is prone to anger, an anger that often exceeds all bounds. The Bible often associates anger with fire: a pervasive verb to depict divine anger is the “scorching of the nose” [ḥaron af]. That “scorching” at times leads to the literal unleashing of destructive fire, indiscriminate in its targets (e.g., Numbers 11:1). What “possesses” this God, a God of mercy and justice, that transforms Him into a fire-breathing Dragon?

Zoharic myth associates anger with the swelling up of the “left side” of the divine, the side associated with judgment and might (Gevurah). Ideally, divine judgment and might come into balance with divine grace and love (Ḥesed), the attributes of the “right side.” If, however, the left side becomes dissociated from the right side, the divine personality fragments and anger hypostasizes. Zoharic myth sees such moments of the hypertrophy of divine anger as one of the key origins of the demonic – specifically, of the chief diabolical personae, Sama’el and Lilith. These figures emerge as the key unintended consequences of an unleashed divine anger.

12) What is the importance of confusion of the realms of the divine and demonic by means of a demonic “impersonation” of the divine and “enclothing” of the divine by the demonic ?

One of the main themes of the book is that the literary techniques used to construct a cosmos split between divine and demonic also undermine that very distinction. Such techniques include the portrayal of divine and demonic entities as linguistic and phenomenal twins. Divine and demonic personae as portrayed as continually engaged in intimate relations. Zoharic writers portray these relations in vivid and, again, theologically shocking images. Divine and demonic personae are depicted as born from the same gestational processes taking place in the “Supernal Mother” (Ima Ila’ah); divine and demonic personae are depicted as engaged in nurturing, “suckling” relationships (yenikah) with each other; divine and demonic personae are depicted as engaged in sexual relationships with each other. One consequence of these diverse processes is a variety of divine/demonic confusions.

A particularly dangerous set of phenomena are portrayed in myths that I call “aggressive enclothing” and “impersonation.” These phenomena are emphasized in the Tikkune Ha-Zohar and Ra’ya Mehemna, two anonymous works written slightly after the bulk of the Zoharic literature.

Such myths portray assaults by a demonic entity or persona, which take the form of “enclothing” a divine core with a demonic exterior. This “enclothing” results in a capture of the divine by the demonic and the emergence of an entity which is an ontological mixture of the two.

These kabbalistic myths draw on far older rabbinic tales of “talking idols.” Those tales depict two notorious idol-makers, Jeroboam and Nebuchadnezzar, placing the divine name in statues, enabling the latter to proclaim, “I am the Lord thy God.” Even in the rabbinic tales, the perverse phenomena are not merely magicians’ illusions, but emerge from the real subordination of a divine power to the nefarious purposes of a wicked human being. In the kabbalistic re-appropriation of these tales, it is the demonic itself which assaults the divine with its aggressive acts of enclothing.

The danger of confusion posed by aggressive enclothing becomes most acute when it is combined with the twinning phenomena I described earlier. If the entity doing the enclothing is indistinguishable from that which is enclothed, the task of telling divine from demonic, good from evil, becomes almost impossible.

A world in which such impersonation becomes pervasive is a horrifying prospect: the difference between good and evil, friend and foe, God and the Devil, becomes impossible to determine with certainty. Self and Other are at their most antagonistic, and yet at their most indistinguishable. Such a vision is, in fact, the stuff from which many a fictional tale of horror is made; it also corresponds to the terrifying existential dilemmas portrayed by many a modern philosopher.

And yet: the etiology provided by Zoharic mythology of this horrifying vision also hints that such a world is but one step away from redemption. Zoharic mythology shows that the possibility of a world of simulacra lies in the shared origins, desires, and sustenance of divine and demonic. These twins are locked in lethal embrace precisely because of their tragic cognitive and ontological separation, a separation with a history, a reversible history. The aggressive mirroring or even coercive amalgamation of divine and demonic may prove to be a monstrous, reified form of the primordial indifferentiation out of which they both emerge, and thus a promise of redemption in grotesque form.

13) Why is the demonic important to you? And to all of us?
I believe that no one with a moral conscience or emotional sensitivity can fail to experience the world as a place of deep rupture, as well as a place of aspirations for harmony. I grew up in a community of Holocaust survivors, during the brutal American war in Vietnam. The question, “how could an omnipotent, benevolent, God permit evil?” pervaded the air I breathed. From a young age, I found the answers provided by Modern Orthodoxy, in which I was educated, to be unpersuasive, deflective, and, at times, morally unacceptable: answers such as “if you only you were God, you’d see it was all for the best,” or “the question is not ‘where was God?’ but ‘where was Man?’.” Mythological dualism seems to me a much more honest, much more realistic response to the world than a rationalist monism. And even if one is not inclined to mythology, one must still account for the impulses that drive human beings to good and evil, to conflict and reconciliation, to domination and love. It is not insignificant that Freud, for example, was an instinctual dualist, even if his dualism took shifting forms.

Ultimately, I see the Zoharic literature on the divine/demonic relationship as a grand poetic mythology of the relationship between Self and Other. I portrayed its contemporary relevance in the Introduction:

The relationship to the “Other” – ethnic, racial, sexual, religious, unconscious – is the central challenge of our time. From the bloody wars that ravage the planet to the “culture wars” of academia, from parliaments to the streets, from theological walls between religious denominations to concrete walls between countries, from divided families to divided selves, the contemporary world seems in a veritable state of hysteria about alterity. Embrace or exclude? Efface difference or respect it? Protect or crush? Celebrate or ignore? Repress or express? …This book is about the poetic mythology of Otherness in the Zoharic tradition in kabbalah.

14) Do you encourage people to worry about the sexual demonic and the danger of seminal emission? What you treat as mythopoesis is what turns some off to the Kabbalah since they were taught it as literally dangerous during their adolescent years.

The question of “literalness” haunts the reception of all mythological, perhaps all religious, texts. Coercive religious authorities have enforced repressive sexual rules on those under their control using these myths. It should go without saying that I wholeheartedly disapprove of this repression.

The Zohar continues an ancient trend within the Jewish tradition, as well as world mythology, of associating divine creativity with human procreativity. Kabbalists understood the human capacity to produce new life through sexual reproduction as an earthly correlate of analogous divine capacities. The kabbalists gave this correspondence a distinctively mythical turn by envisioning divine Creation as a product of sexual relations between divine personae. Moreover, in relation to the themes of my book, they went further: proper sexual relations among divine personae yield holy creations, while improper sexual relations, especially between divine and demonic personae, yield unholy creations.

This latter theme is a projection into the divine/demonic realm of the story in rabbinic literature about the begetting of demons by Adam and Eve – as a result, the rabbis taught, of their copulation with demonic beings during the period of their sexual separation after the sin in the Garden.

What meaning do I find in these myths? I think most of us recognize that sexuality and love are powerful forces in our lives. I think most of us believe that sincere, honest, and ethical engagement with those forces provide the most vital, even holiest, experiences the human condition offers. I think most of us believe that insincere, dishonest, and reckless engagement with those forces provide the deadliest, unholiest experiences. How we distinguish among those different kinds of experiences, however, is likely to differ radically among us.

15) Your moral compass is unclear to me as a reader. You enjoy the etiological myth as to the closeness of the divine to the demonic to explain the unexplained evil in the world. Yet, your gut cries out against evil such as the Holocaust. Doesn’t your Zohar reading seem to make a needed place for evil?

This question goes to the core of an ambivalence that pervades the Zoharic literature, as well as my own book. Zoharic writing constructs a cosmos split between divine and demonic, but in such a way that the very techniques that construct that split also undermine it. The Zoharic writers fiercely present the split as absolutely real, and yet also present it in such a way that the two poles of that split mimic each other, desire each other, sustain each other, prove to have a common origin. The Zoharic writers, I believe, live within that paradox.

There is no Archimedean point from which to present such a paradox when one is living inside it. Unlike some later kabbalistic writers, the Zoharic writings that I analyze neither present the demonic as merely an illusion nor as simply something to be annihilated. These Zoharic passages present the split in the cosmos as a painful rupture in reality, but also as something they long to overcome. An overcoming that requires real struggle, perhaps eons of real struggle, on the religious, ethical, and personal planes.

As a result of the kinds of complex, confusing dynamics I have described here, it is not always clear how to proceed in that struggle. Indeed, I often disagree with the particular judgments the Zoharic writers made in their struggles – particularly concerning relations with non-Jews and gender issues. Evil is real, all-too-real, in the Zoharic vision – as it is in our world – and evil must be fought. And yet, one must never lose sight of a redeemed world, in which the elements in the divine (or proto-divine) that gave rise to evil must be re-embraced into a harmonious whole. The Zohar is a dualistic mythology with a monistic eschatology (and genesis).

What could be more relevant to a world, our world, beset by seemingly iron-clad oppositions, yet in which dreams of a future harmony seem like our only hope?

Interview with Prof Eric Lawee about his new book on Rashi’s Commentary 

The Bible and the Talmud are certainly the two classic texts of Judaism. But what would be the third classic text? Prof Moshe Idel, says the obvious choice is the Zohar as the third classic text. This would certainly be true for the world of 21st century academic study of Judaism. However, there is another obvious choice: Rashi’s commentaries, [the acronym of the name of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 – 1105)] who wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Bible and the Talmud, which has shaped Jewish thinking for a millennium. Yet, unlike the dozen books on the Zohar, which appeared last year, Rashi as a figure of Jewish intellectual history has not been given his due in historical scholarship. To remedy this lack, Eric Lawee has produced a wonderful new book Rashi’s ‘Commentary on the Torah’: Canonization and Resistance in the Reception of a Jewish Classic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 

rashi book

Eric Lawee is Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University where he specializes in Jewish biblical interpretation in medieval and modern times. He holds the Weiser Chair for Research into Medieval Jewish Biblical Interpretation and directs Bar-Ilan’s Institute for Jewish Bible Interpretation. His doctorate was from Prof Isadore Twersky at Harvard University. His first book, Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition: Defense, Dissent, and Dialogue (2001), won a Canadian Jewish Book Award and was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award.

This new book Rashi’s ‘Commentary on the Torah’:  (tablet of contents here)  treats Rashi as figure in Jewish intellectual history, fielding major questions such as the nature of the Rashi text, its reception, and his critics. Lawee summaries much of the Rashi scholarship of Avraham Grossman, Yisrael Ta-Shma, and Elazar Touitou who contextualize Rashi as a text without a critical edition, as open in scribal editions, and as having 10% or more as comments by other’s hands than Rashi’s.

Unlike the widely known literary method on Nechama Leibowitz, who credited every comment as having an antecedent question based on textual irregularities, a historical perspective yields a text with a clear medieval European context and that many of the comments were to give a midrashic worldview that fit Rashi’s medieval theology. In other words, Rashi is not a neutral baseline of the meaning of the text, rather a painter of an 11th century theological world, as fabulous and as supernatural as other texts of its time.

One of Rashi’s key themes was the defense of Judaism against the idolatrous Christian worldview. In addition, to give a theology of the special chosenness of the Jewish people and the miracles done for them.  Philosophically and scientifically informed commentaries written in other geocultural centers found Rashi lacking. They saw magic, supernaturalism, and lack of rationality. Lawee does not detail the theology of Rashi in a topical manner, rather as an unfolding of history showing how Rashi became accepted despite detractors. Hence, there is no direct discussion on topics such as Rashi’s belief in Divine corporeality. No longer are the rationalists the innovators; rather both the scientifically educated and those without such education are both contextualized.  Lawee made creative use of his Maimonidean training under Prof Twersky to produce this dialectic reading of the medieval tradition.

The biggest novelty of the book is Lawee’s presentation of the rational critics of Rashi: Eleazar Ashkenazi, a 14th-century Maimonidean; Pseudo-Rabad, who also probably wrote in the 14th century. (his attack on Rashi was so harsh that a later reader mutilated the sole surviving manuscript of his work, crossing out Pseudo-Rabad’s harshest expressions); and  Aaron Aboulrabi, a 15th-century offshoot of the Sefardic exegetical tradition. The Mediterranean Levantine readers saw Rashi as an exegete who lacked basic skills and who propounded a version of Judaism they deemed distorted, or even dangerous. One is not expecting there to be Biblical commentaries who found Rashi “ridiculous” or exemplifying a “girl’s fantasies,” or giving the “drash of a dolt”.

Eventually, Rashi was not only accepted but became a staple of Jewish education with claims that nearly 300 commentaries were  written on his commentary. The book also deals with how Rashi’s readers soften Rashi’s views by harmonizing them with the more rational scientific view. They would remove the radical difference of Rashi’s view from their own. A method still done today when 21st century Jews read medieval texts. People do not want Rashi to sound too close to Sefer Hasidim. 

After finishing this book, one feels that one has just put down a great piece of scholarship. A book that is deserving of its forthcoming awards. One that will now be on the reading list of every Jewish educator who teaches Rashi and on the reading list of every graduate student. The years put into this project show in the wonderful final product. The book is almost 500 pages, almost 270 pages of texts and 200 pages of footnotes. In some ways, that is the one drawback to the book. Those who have already read some of the antecedent literature will best understand much of this massive summary of earlier scholarship, especially on the text and early reception. The chapter on the early reception moved at a breakneck speed, a tad too fast to absorb even though I have read the prior literature. This book is groundbreaking for opening up new avenues of research on Rashi’s thought, on medieval intellectual trends, and on the exegetic imagination.

Interview with Prof Eric Lawee about his new book on Rashi

1)      Who is Rashi & what is his Commentary on the Torah

Solomon ben Isaac (1040–1105)—also known as Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi—is one of post-talmudic Judaism’s towering figures. His stature owes to the fact that, astonishingly, he managed to write the classic commentaries on the two classic books of Judaism: the Bible, especially the Torah; and the Babylonian Talmud. His Commentary on the Torah stands out as the most widely studied and influential Hebrew Bible commentary ever composed. It has decisively shaped Jews’ perceptions of their faith’s foundational documents. Its readers have included all strata of Jewish society: young and old, scholars and lay persons, men and women. Contemporary biblical commentator Avivah Zornberg offers a vivid metaphor to help give a sense of the Commentary’s fate: it was “absorbed into the bloodstream of Jewish culture.”

2) Is there a critical edition of Rashi? Is there a unified text?

There is no critical edition of the Commentary. Indeed, no medieval Jewish work experienced as many textual fluctuations as the Commentary. This has led scholars to grapple with the difficulty of establishing any final version of the Commentary in light of numerous variant witnesses and the lack of an autograph manuscript.

The reasons for the variations are many, some common to medieval texts and some more uniquely applicable to Rashi’s work in particular. There were, of course, scribal errors and conjectural emendations of the work. In the period of the work’s transmission in manuscript, there were also elisions of Rashi’s text with jottings placed in the margins of various copies that were incorporated, as if Rashi wrote them, into later versions. Rashi is also remarkable for his effort to refine and revise his interpretations over time, sometimes due to new discoveries but on occasion simply as part of an effort to make his work more “user-friendly” (by, say, relocating a comment to a new location). The Commentary proves to be an extreme case of what Israel Ta-Shma calls “the open book.” By this he means a tendency of medieval authors to circulate different versions of a work in unfinished form. Ta-Shma compares this to computerized databases which are refreshed to give the user a summary of data known at the time of the latest updating.

An example of an addition, this one amazingly late, is a famous expression Rashi puts in the mouth of Jacob at the time of a fraught encounter that he has with his older brother Esau. Rashi has the patriarch say: “I dwelled with the wicked Laban [my uncle], yet I observed the 613 commandments and did not learn from his evil ways.” The comment begins to appear in the Commentary only a half-millennium after Rashi ceased putting pen to paper, in printed versions of his work.

3) What percentage of the text is probably Rashi?

Scholars can’t agree and the issue enters us into a thicket of methodological dispute.

A common idea, espoused for example by Abraham Grossman, is that about 90 percent of the version in use today actually left Rashi’s pen but some scholars would say this estimate is too high. Among them is Elazar Touitou, who argues that one can only be certain that a comment is original if it appears in all good manuscripts, requiring a painstaking comparison of many manuscripts to allow one to spot the “non-Rashi” comments embedded in the text.

Grossman promotes the virtues of a particular manuscript now found in Leipzig. It is increasingly seen by many scholars as the best if not uniquely definitive witness of the Commentary due to its association with Rashi’s close pupil, Shemaiah. For me, the textual issue was not central since my book focuses on the Commentary’s reception. What counts in such a study, or so I suggest, is that a comment was received as a genuine part of Rashi’s interpretation of the Torah by a later reader or migrated as such to a particular locale, circulating as what “Rashi said.”

4)      What is the role of midrash in his commentary? Why is it not closure?

The most striking feature of Rashi’s reading of the Bible is its mixture of what Rashi calls peshuto shel miqra and the classical midrashic expositions.

Peshuto shel miqra is an elusive term often rendered as “biblical plain sense” or the “contextual” interpretation. Classical midrashic expositions that Rashi routinely drew often have an exegetically fanciful character that put them at a far remove from the plain sense.

As for the exact role played by midrash in Rashi’s work, it is complex and, to this day, hotly debated. On one level, Rashi uses midrashim to address countless ever-so-slight “surface irregularities” (a usage of James Kugel) in scripture such as apparent redundancies.

On another level, midrash infuses his Commentary with a profusion of theological ideas and elements of pastoral reassurance. For example, despite a medieval world divided between the “cross” and the “crescent” in which Jews lived under either Christians or Muslims as a tiny minority, and at times a persecuted one (Rashi’s lifetime coincides with the violent assaults on German Jewish communities during the First Crusade of 1096), Rashi frequently reassures his reader via his midrashic teachings that God’s love for Israel is eternal and that the Jews remain, despite the evidence, the “chosen people.”

In terms of closure (or, really, lack thereof), here are two points to consider. First, Rashi does not explain the meaning of the midrashim that he adduces, leaving readers to ponder their purport. Second, these midrashim comprise an elusive and allusive way to teach one’s message whose constituents remained pliably open to interpretation, and sometimes begged for it. This being so, the Commentary has a capacity to generate a successive unfolding of meaning as the divine word is refracted through Rashi’s commentary and, in turn, the varied lenses worn by his diverse readers.

5) What was the role of science and external wisdom (or the lack thereof) in the debates concerning Rashi?

Throughout the Middle Ages, as today, Jewish scholars (and of course many others) debated the relationship between religion and reason, or faith and science. Some saw science, what was sometimes called “external wisdom,” as incompatible with Judaism—or worse, highly subversive of it. Others, most famously Moses Maimonides, insisted that human perfection consisted primarily of the perfection of the intellect and that mastery of sciences was the royal road to spiritual achievement.

Rashi, living in an Ashkenazic cultural setting, was oblivious to such sciences, and his rationalist critics could lament or even excoriate his scientific ignorance. Yet Rashi could also be heralded by those suspicious of intellectualist ideas and aspirations. To give an example, we hear from followers of Maimonides that in a major intercommunal controversy over rationalism in the 1230s traditionalists opposed to rationalism issued a remarkable fiat. It proclaimed that acceptance of Rashi’s interpretations of classical (biblical and talmudic) texts was a binding precept of Judaism! One such follower responds: if some wish to declare Rashi their sole “beloved,” so be it, just as long as these self-appointed “princes and judges” do not foist this choice on others “without our consent.”

To speak in these terms is to emphasize a side of the Commentary that has received short shrift: its role as a source of ideas in Jewish intellectual history. Rashi’s careful selection and at times decisive reformulation of midrash shaped perceptions of the Torah’s teachings.

I think one reason Rashi’s enormous impact on this score has been obscured is his use of the commentary genre. People tend to assume a work that looks back to an earlier text is a “mere” commentary, with no ideas of its own. The Commentary was, of course, a commentary meant to expound the Torah, but it can also be seen as an important work of Jewish thought that is true to the texture of classical Jewish thinking which, as Michael Fishbane puts it, takes the form of an ongoing exegetical process in which ideas “arise hermeneutically.”

6)      Can you briefly summarize his reception in the various medieval Jewish communities?

Over the course of the Middle Ages the Commentary attained its status as the closest thing Judaism has to a canonical commentary on scripture. In the end, the Commentary endured: in Jewish education, in the synagogue, in sermons, and in the public square. Along the way to acceptance, the commentary saw a wide range of responses by individual writers and communities that I trace in several chapters of my book.

In Rashi’s native Franco-German (Ashkenazic) realm, there was initial criticism, most notably by his own grandson Samuel ben Meir, also known as Rashbam, of Rashi’s overly midrashic interpretive approach. This dissipated somewhat in following generations and over time it was replaced by evermore intense study of Rashi and increasingly submissive reverence for him.

In Spain, the Commentary became a classic, but not without reservations. The most important and complex figure is Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), an astonishingly multifaceted communal leader and sage who also wrote a commentary on the Torah. In that work, Rashi’s place was central, with Nahmanides citing the Commentary in an estimated 40 percent of his own comments.

One scholar writes that Nahmanides is for the most part favorably disposed to Rashi’s commentary but this judgment is more than a little facile. His generally respectful tone notwithstanding, Nahmanides often criticizes Rashi, especially for his frequent failure to uncover the true biblical “plain sense.” Later writers were quite attuned to Nahmanides’ trenchant criticisms of Rashi and sought to rebut them.

7) How did Spanish commentaries bring Rashi in step with Sefardic teachings?

Spain sees another significant trend that enabled the Commentary to be “naturalized” there. Problematic elements in the work were read by Spanish scholars in ways that put them in step with Sefardic teachings and sensibilities. This development is writ large in many Spanish commentaries on the Commentary (such works are often called “supercommentaries”) written by a large number of now largely forgotten scholars whose voices I recover in the book (e.g., Samuel Almosnino, Moses ibn Gabbai).

To give an example, Rashi cites a strange midrash to explain Adam’s cry of “This one at last is bone of my bones” (Gen 2:23). The midrash ascribes serial acts of bestiality to Adam. In the case of many Spanish supercommentators on Rashi as well as several more famous Sefardic Torah commentators, like Isaac Arama and Isaac Abarbanel, the notion of actual sexual congress between the first model of humanity and animals was impossible to accept. But rather than reject the midrash that Rashi made famous, their refusal to take the midrash literally paves the way for a new interpretation that takes Adam’s mating with beasts as a metaphor for an act of cognitive discernment as he probed each animal’s nature in his quest to find a fitting soulmate. In this way a strange midrash that Rashi cites without compunction, one that Sefardic readers found implausible or repellent in its literal sense, is made to conjure a noetic act that imbues the midrash, and thence the Commentary, with deep meaning.

8) Was there dissent or resistance to Rashi?

Not everywhere did the Commentary attain primacy in the Middle Ages. In many cases there was indifference but my book also focusses a lot on centers of Jewish learning, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, where Abraham ibn Ezra is the exegetical hero, not Rashi. One startling finding, treated in the three chapters that comprise part 2 of the book, is the phenomenon of hitherto unknown harsh resistance to the Commentary by those whom I call “Rashi’s resisting readers.” Three main figures are discussed from this veritable Babel of conflicting Jewish intellectual and literary expressions.

One is Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Natan Ha-Bavli, a 14th-century Maimonidean whose work, copied in Crete in the early fifteenth century, was plundered by the Nazis and has only recently been recovered.

The second is an anonymous writer whom I call Pseudo-Rabad, who also probably wrote in the 14th century. His attack on Rashi was so harsh that a later reader mutilated the sole surviving manuscript of his work, crossing out Pseudo-Rabad’s harshest expressions. (The cover image of my book depicts the results of this literary violence.)

A third critic was Aaron Aboulrabi, a 15th-century offshoot of the Sefardic exegetical tradition who wandered the Mediterranean and claims to have engaged in a discussion in Rome about the tabernacle cherubs with a pope and his cardinals.

So the critics are a colorful bunch but they are also serious scholars whose engagement with the Commentary brings to the fore competing Jewish visions regarding interpretive method, the status of midrash, scripture as a repository of scientific teaching, and more.

9)      Why did scholars situated in the Eastern Mediterranean show resistance to Rashi?

Why this region provided such salubrious soil for Rashi criticism is not entirely clear but in the book I posit a number of factors. One is the region’s status as a Jewish multicultural mecca where wildly divergent ideas arrived from abroad and generated intrareligious conflict. Rashi became a target, especially for rationalists who saw in him an exegete who lacked basic skills and who propounded a version of Judaism they deemed distorted, or even dangerous. Another, though this one remains to be investigated, is the apparent lack of outstanding rabbinic authorities in the East who could suppress dissident expressions such as those found in the writings of the resisting readers. Another possible contextual element is the high degree of Jewish mobility in the East, which may have created a space for more unfettered expression. Not rooted in any place, certain scholars may have felt free to speak their minds about Rashi and even write without fear of reprisal—or in the knowledge that a safe haven on another Aegean island was not far away.

10) What was the critique of Eliezer Ashkenazi? Why was Rashi considered “ridiculous and risible” in his eyes?

Ashkenazi criticizes Rashi from the perspective of an uncompromising rationalism that frequently views midrashic interpretations in the Commentary as misguided and that finds Rashi propounding a scandalously unscientific understanding of the Torah.

An example is a midrash cited by Rashi to explain the assertion that “all flesh (kol basar) had corrupted its ways on earth” (Gen 6:12). According to Rashi, the corruption involved “all flesh” just as the Torah says, including the subhuman creatures. Specifically, Rashi asserts that “even domestic animals, beasts, and birds cohabited with those not of their own kind.” By implication, then, the fauna shared responsibility with humankind for the depravity that had evoked the divinely wrought flood.

Eleazar objects to the midrash on the fauna’s sins for multiple reasons. First, inter-special breeding is an act no more unnatural for animals than the more frequently attested behavior of conspecific mating or promiscuity. Second, it is untenable that the destruction of the fauna reflected a sin since animals lack a capacity for “choice,” hence are devoid of a capacity for moral (or immoral) action. To these scientific claims Eleazar adds that individual animals are not subject to individual divine providence and thence reward and punishment. Rashi’s exposition, opposed as it is to demonstrated scientific truth and what Eleazar takes to be “Judaism 101,” has to be rejected.

But there is rejection and then there is rejection. Here is where  “ridiculousness and risibility,” a phrase that appears in the title of my chapter on Eleazar, comes in. About Rashi’s idea of the “sins of the fauna” Eleazar says: one can only “laugh at the derash that every species paired with a species not of its kind.” He also calls the idea “ridiculousness and risibility.” In so doing, he hearkens to the manner in which he refers to Rashi, which is by way of his patronymic “Isaac / Yiṣḥaq”— a name that summons the laughter associated with the biblical Isaac (Gen 17:17, 18:12, 21:6). In short, Eleazar deploys ridicule as a weapon in order to undermine the one whom he calls “Ha-Yitzhaqi.”

In so doing, I suggest that Eleazar anticipates advocates of modern Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries who criticized orthodoxy. Leo Strauss casts the latter as figures who “had to laugh orthodoxy out of the position from which it could not be driven by any other means.” Eleazar cultivates this sort of subversive laughter to delegitimize the Commentary.

11)      What does the critique or comments of Abraham Kirimi show?

Kirimi is a 14th-century Crimean Torah commentator who displays plain sense sensibilities and a rationalist outlook. His approach to Rashi shows that criticism of the Commentary did not have to be an all-or-nothing affair. Kirimi can praise midrashim of Rashi in one line and tell his reader in the next one to “pay no heed to Rashi’s words” since they lack grounding in the method of plain sense interpretation.

An example that shows his critical side concerns Lamech’s polygamy (Gen 4:19–24). Rashi cites a midrash that had Lamech opt for an exploitative division of labor, with one wife for breeding and the other for nonprocreative sexual gratification. Rashi takes the name of the second wife, Zillah, to allude to her role as an object of Lamech’s self-indulgence: “she would always sit in his shadow (ṣilo).” But Kirimi rejects such wobbly midrashic readings that derive meaning from names in this way, asking: “[W]ho can fathom the meaning of every name?”

Kirimi also points to another trend mentioned above: valorization of Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides, at Rashi’s expense. In this way, he is one of many who figures in an overarching theme of the book; namely, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides as Rashi’s opposite numbers in a competition for canonical supremacy in a late medieval struggle for Judaism’s soul. This phenomenon is attested in many Mediterranean seats of Jewish learning. In the end, the Commentary’s Judaism emerged triumphant.

12) What was the critique of Rashi by the author whom you call Pseudo Rabad? How was it part of a broader critique of Rabbinic Midrash?

The figure whom I call Pseudo-Rabad authored the most concentrated assault on Rashi’s biblical scholarship in the annals of Jewish literature. It comes down under the title Book of Strictures in which Rabbi Abraham ben David Censured Our Rabbi Solomon the Frenchman. Pseudo-Rabad’s varied formulae of condemnation stand in a class all their own, forming a steady a drumbeat of disparagement in which Rashi is repeatedly said to have “erred,” “blundered,” or worse.

Pseudo-Rabad criticizes the Commentary by contrasting it with an understanding of scripture grounded in canons of plain sense interpretation and steeped in rational criteria of credibility. For example, showing his strong anti-magical spirit, Pseudo-Rabad negates a midrash adduced by Rashi that has Moses killing the Egyptian who struck a Hebrew slave by pronouncing the Tetragrammaton. Implied by the midrash was divine authorization for the slaying in a manner that subdued all moral qualms. Though presumably based in theological opposition, the point of attack is, in the first instance, exegetical.

Pseudo-Rabad denies any prompt for this reading, although midrashists find such a hint in a strange response to Moses by the Hebrew maltreating his brother: “Do you say to kill me?” (Exod 2:14). The implication is that the Hebrew anticipated an end similar to that experienced by the taskmaster, not through physical force but through deployment of the divine name. To bolster his view that the Egyptian’s demise was effected naturally, Pseudo-Rabad notes Moses’ effort to hide the crime by burying the victim. Such an expedient born of fear would, he implies, have been unnecessary if the killing was achieved through supernatural means.

13)      What should we make of the fact Aaron Aboulrabi of Sicily speaks of midrashim of Rashi as “girl’s fantasies” but also as “sweet midrash”?

Aboulrabi can express wildly divergent views of Rashi’s midrashim. On one hand, he does not scruple to hurl invective at “the Straight One,” as he calls Rashi, and at Rashi’s rabbinic forerunners. Yet if he shares the incapacity for prevarication characteristic of Eleazar Ashkenazi and Pseudo-Rabad, Aboulrabi is also open to appreciation of Rashi’s interpretive successes and can, in rare instances, go so far as to speak of “sweet” fruits of the midrashic hermeneutic.

Aaron Aboulrabi evaluates the Commentary on the basis of its consonance with the scriptural plain sense and frequently finds it wanting. He also promotes an approach nourished by considerations of plausibility. Take God’s command to Moses to write “all the words of this Torah” on stones to be erected after the Israelites cross the Jordan (Deut 27:8). Rashi, on the authority of the Mishnah, contended that the Torah was engraved on the stones in “seventy languages.” Sensing, like others before him, a major logistical challenge, Aboulrabi assesses that only “fundamentals of the Torah,” the commandments in a bare litany, appeared, since “not even a thousand stones could encompass” the Torah in its entirety (let alone in seventy languages).

14)   What were Aboulrabi’s criticisms of “drash of a barbarian” and “drash of a dolt”? Why, in his opinion, did the Commentary not always cast biblical figures accurately?

Aboulrabi mocks a midrash that purports to explain the report that the Egyptian Pharaoh went down to the Nile in the morning (Exod 7:15). Rashi says it was because he claimed divinity and tried to hide his need to relieve himself. Aboulrabi calls this “the derash of a dolt,” asking: had Pharaoh no way to relieve himself in a concealed place such that he had to go down to the river? Here is a straightforward rejection of a midrash of Rashi on the grounds that it lacks logic.

Aboulrabi’s disdain for midrashim reaches a crescendo in his handling of the sensitive issue of sins or moral failings of biblical heroes. Rashi tends to justify seemingly problematic words or deeds of such heroes. Aboulrabi is willing to see them more at “eye level” (as modern Hebrew usage has it).

In dealing with conduct apparently unbecoming of biblical greats, medieval exegetes juggle various factors including the plain meaning of the text, the educational value of defending the Jewish people’s ancestors, and findings in the rabbinic record. As the Middle Ages wore on, new factors arose, including a surprising tendency of some Christian polemicists to paint unflattering images of Israel’s ancestors in order to excoriate their Jewish posterity.

Aboulrabi can finds the black-and-white evaluations of biblical figures that often appear in the Commentary severely lacking. Among instances where Aboulrabi impugns such an evaluation, Jacob’s conduct in procuring his father’s blessing stands out. Where Jacob told Isaac “I am Esau, your firstborn” (Gen 27:19), Rashi configures his meaning by dividing this utterance into two and having Jacob add mental reservations as needed: “I am the one who brings [food] to you and Esau he is your first-born.”

To Aboulrabi, it is clear that Jacob’s reply “was a lie” and Rashi’s midrashic artifice of twisting words to preserve their technical veracity “full of wind.” It violates the main principle of human communication—that the aim of speech is to convey truth to another. It is the auditor’s understanding that is determinative in assessing truthful speech in such cases, not some sly equivocation or mental reservation on the part of the speaker. Needless to say, this is not exactly traditionalist Jewish fare, not least because, as always, it is Rashi’s interpretation that has become known among Jewish readers over the ages.

15)   What was the critique of Allilot devarim? What was the book?

Sefer ‘Alilot devarim (Book of Accusations) is a peculiar specimen of late medieval Jewish rationalism. The earliest manuscript dates from 1468 but it may have been written as much as a century or so earlier. Like Pseudo-Rabad, it is written under a penname: “Rabbi Palmon ben Pelet,” described as “a son of ‘Anonymous,’ who married a daughter of ‘So-and-So.’” Its author puts satirical genius in the service of exposure of the obscurantism that, in his view, had come to degrade Jewish life in post-talmudic times. As part of his critique, the author claims that Rashi’s biblical commentaries in general, and Commentary in particular, distance Jews from rationality. Indeed, he insists that the Commentary effects confusion “with respect to the perfection of souls.” In writing those words, he must have had in mind the intellectualist vision of human perfection promoted by his hero, Maimonides.

16)   What role did the commentators such as Elijah Mizrahi play in Rashi’s triumph?

Many factors commended the Commentary, even leaving aside its author’s status as a towering scholar and singular reputation as the foremost commentator on the Talmud. The Commentary explained the Torah in concise and digestible glosses. It provided a more or less continuous running account of the Torah’s narratives and laws where many later commentators glossed the Torah only intermittently. It offered an exposition of the Torah basically in harmony with the authoritative rabbinic corpora, and more. No other commentator could compete on these scores.

One mechanism for the Commentary’s triumph was the extraordinary number of commentaries that it attracted, with the most famous that of the sixteenth-century Ottoman rabbi Elijah Mizrahi, who passed away in 1526. How the phenomenon of commentary promotes a work is a large question but the most basic way is in selecting a text as an object of exposition, thereby potentially initiating or confirming a process of canonization. More important than the number of commentaries is what the enduring succession of glosses—which continues down to the present—betokens; namely, the Commentary’s capacity for sustaining ongoing reading in a way that is of the essence in mechanics of canonization in rabbinic Judaism.

The Rabbi and the Buddhist Monk

“All mystics speak the same language, for they come from the same country,” declares Rabbi Shmuel Braun. There is a mystic reality greater than any religion. This is the position of perennialism or perennial wisdom, a perspective in spirituality that views all of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single core or origin from which all doctrine has grown.

Rabbi Shmuel Braun  is a Chabad educated rabbi who has been teaching Chassidus around the NY-NJ area.  In this video, he is having a conversation with Ajahn Sona, abbot of the Birken Forest Buddhist Monastery. Braun is, by his own admission, a perrennialist.  He states that all of the world’s religions are about seeking the core of religion the oneness and non-duality of reality.

Rabbi Braun originally studied at Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem eventually found his spiritual home in Chabad. Now as a Modern Orthodox Chassidic, he looks to wider religious horizons including Buddhism.

In this sweet discussion with the Buddhist Abbot, Rabbi Braun does not actually discuss Buddhism or any commonalities of faith. Rather, he focuses the discussion on the realm where all religions are the same. He calls this the realm of Pre-Faith, with explicit Heschel influence.  “We are all united in silence.” “We are all the same inside.” “Language is confining.” “God is beyond language.” For him, there is no name for God, all the names of God are just human attempts to speak of God.

Since God is beyond language and reason, the way to God is by mean of meditation. Judaism is about practice of the mizvot. We do mizvot to bring the infinite divine into our world. But also a reaching up to the infinite, the eyn sof. The words “boundless” and “infinite” are the same words used to describe Buddhist Nirvana showing their commonality. Buddhism is just this universal truth. Braun generally sounds more Vedanta than Buddhist. God is not a being or an existant, rather God is existence itself.

In the Second Temple period, according to Braun, everyone meditated but the techniques were lost due to the Anti-Semitic persecution of exile. But we have tefillah to guide us; we should treat prayer as meditative. But we were not let with clear instructions.  He knew of the writings of the Piesetzna Rebbe on stilling the mind, but how does one connect to it? He found the answer in classes by Rabbi Dovid Weiss, who gives classes in Israel on Vipassana for Orthodox Jews.  Weiss openly labels his class as Vipassana and even has approbations from Hardal rabbis. (see Rabbi Weiss’s interview with Tomer Persico.) Weiss’s classes turned him onto meditation.

Personally, I am not a perennialist, but this is still a sweet video.  Forty years ago, these positions of Buddhist –Jewish encounter would have been seen as part of Jewish Renewal, influenced by Reb Zalman, or really pushing the traditional envelope. See for example, Harold Heifetz, Zen and Hasidism : The Similarities between Two Spiritual Disciplines (1978) or even Harold Kasimow’s Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha (2003). Now, it has made itself at home even in the Haredi world. Tomer Persico in his various articles has shown the influence of Buddhist meditation on diverse Haredi rabbis, including Rabbi Erez Moshe Doron, Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Kluger, Rabbi Itchie Mayer Morgenstern, and the aforementioned Rabbi Dovid Weiss. I dealt with Rabbi Avraham Yurovitch,

Braun stresses that many Jews are attracted to Buddhism, and we need to allow Jews (he adds- “and all people”) to feel God.  Therefore, we need to bring some of the Buddhist teachings to help the contemporary Jew.  Braun is one of at least a half dozen NY-NJ Chabad trained figures seeking a following for their spirituality teachings. The others give classes, write books, make podcasts and have tisches. So too Braun, who is seeking to found an organization called SOUL- Seekers of Unity and Love – to be beyond religion and teach the ineffable source of all religions – the mystery and transcendence beyond anything we can speak or articulate.  We wish him mazal and auspicious good fortune.