Interview with William Kolbrener- The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik

What would a literary critical approach look like if applied to Orthodox Jewish texts? What if the texts chosen for a critical theory treatment were the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-93)? William Kolbrener attempts such a reading in The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (Indiana UP, 2016), using psychoanalysis, gender, and 17th century literature to read Soloveitchik as a literary text.


William Kolbrener is professor of literature at Bar Ilan University, and was educated at Oxford (MA) and Columbia University (BA, PhD.).  His first book was Milton’s Warring Angels: A Study of Critical Engagements, (Cambridge University Press, 1996). His current work  The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is an application of his literary studies to a contemporary Jewish thinker. Despite writing on Soloveitchik, his classes at Bar Ilan University are currently populated mainly Arab students, both Muslim and Christian. He has also recently started writing in the public forum at Haaretz on timely topics such as “The Moral Failure of pro-Trump Orthodox Jews” and “The Cartoon God of Israel’s Settler Rabbis.”

In this new volume, Kolbrener paints Soloveitchik as an irreconcilably torn personality and as a complex pluralist.  Soloveitchik writings, in this reading, become texts of pluralism, creativity, modernity, and self-creation, instead of the more popular presentation of his writings as geometric, analytic, and halakhic. Kolbrener admits that his method as a literary critic, allows him to interpret freely outside of Soloveitchik’s original meaning and context. He is certainly not attempting a conventional archival based biography. Hence, Soloveitchik, using critical theory, becomes a window on contemporary pluralism, gender studies, and psychoanalysis, not the more often used Centrist Orthodox lens of mesorah, submission, and anti-feminism.

Kolbrener deeply admires John Milton’s religious vision, which combines religious commitment and intellectual freedom.  Counted among his other literary heroes are Mary Astell, 18th century author who combined Tory politics, and conservative religion with a proto-feminist vision. He also admires John Donne’s use of comparisons and paradox. Kolbrener finds all of these intense poetics of synthesis and complexity resonating with the writings of Rabbi Soloveitchik.

(For insights into Kolbrener and his method, here is an illustrative Youtube lecture of his on Milton and Milton’s midrash. I would recommend comparing Kolbrener’s synthesis of complexity to the synthesis of “two worlds” of the poet Yehoshua November.)

Kolbrener also draws on recent psychoanalytic authors, Adam Phillips, for example, who writes about ‘voices in the plural,’ to illuminate the sometimes conflicting voices in Soloveitchik. The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, as another example, points out how melancholy moderns, failure to capture the essence of the Real (associated for her, with the feminine) leads to embracing the compensation of the masculine Law (language, culture, law).

The Last Rabbi focuses on a vignette that Soloveitchik shares in And From There You Shall Seek, in which he recounts that as a child, Soloveitchik was torn between the rational intellectualism of his father and the emotional support offered by his mother. According to Kolbrener, Soloveitchik idealizes the halakhic man who relies exclusively on reason and Talmudic study.

Yet, Soloveitchik cannot fully accept his father’s masculinity and for this reason, he runs into the arms of his consoling mother who provides an outlet for his emotive self. It is with his mother that he finds “sympathy in the presence of the feminine”. The imagery of Soloveitchik running back and forth between his father and mother, according to Kolbrener, reverberates throughout his theological teachings. Soloveitchik confronted a constant psychological need to choose between his father and his mother.

Kolbrener’s own narrative arc moves from secular graduate student to living a haredi life in Israel, and now a tempered modernity writing about Modern Orthodox thinkers.

When he was a graduate student, Kolbrener fell in love with the religious writings of John Milton and Mary Astell, which led him to discover Ultra- Orthodox Judaism as a fulfillment of his religious quest.

Only when I began to study Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic re-writing of Genesis, did it to occur to me that being religious was not a sign of neurosis or flaky otherworldliness. In graduate school at Oxford and later at Columbia, for me and many of my fellow Jewish students, Milton was a safe way, without the risk of embarrassment, of experiencing the poetry of a religious sensibility. In earnest discussions of Christian redemptive history, the relationship between free will and divine providence, I lived, through Milton, the possibility of religious engagement.

Kolbrener was deeply bothered by the weight of the modern age, which represents a loss of a common set of shared languages, with the growth of individual subjectivity leading to the loss of opportunity for meaningful community. Ultra-Orthodoxy was the rediscovery of a community of a shared language and meaningful community.

But the Haredi world was not the return to John Milton’s world of community. “Over years of living in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and studying in their institutions, I realized that the fantasy of an isolated community with a single set of impervious languages was just that, a fantasy.  Communities are porous: the Haredi world in many ways is  – whether recognized or not – in conversation with the surrounding secular world.” In addition, Kolbrener was surprised to discover that they lacked the essential need for creativity and self-creation. Instead, they were fundamentalists expecting rigid conformity to social norms and having inability to tolerate complexity thereby reducing knowledge to a single and absolute meaning.

In a subsequent narrative turn, Rabbi Solovetichik and his son-in-law Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein offered Kolbrener his needed creativity and self-creation. They offered a cure for the potential fundamentalism of Orthodoxy, in that they celebrate complexity, pluralism, and self-creation. Nevertheless, here too he discovered that ideals, as Kolbrener understood them, of Torah uMadda were ever receding aspirations.   Kolbroner wrote a piece on Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s ideal of the synthesis of Torah and literature, finding it precarious. Not that Kolbrener was, God forbid, questioning the indispensable need for literature and critical theory, rather that the path of synthesis was not a safe reproducible method.

When I first became religious, I thought that Judaism and literature were incommensurable, their synthesis impossible, in any case, entailing too many risks.   Today, I still think ‘synthesis’ is an overly optimistic goal, but also understand that without taking the ‘risk’ – of reading literature and philosophy – Judaism itself would become, for me, an impoverished thing.

Kolbrener does indeed take this risk of synthesis by reading The Lonely Man of Faith as a confessional diary. His captivating analysis of Soloveitchik’s psyche is projected and speculative, yet it offers a complex synthesis of contemporary critical theory and Torah.  Kolbrener has an uncanny ability for projection of ideas onto a religious system, followed by idealization and personal identity with the object of idealization, and eventual melancholy when it does not live up to his projections.  This fascinating journey merging the personal, the interpretive, and the community offers us not a return to the pre-modern shared language and community, rather a methodology of taking risks to live in a fragmented subjective interpretive age.


1)   What were you hoping for in the study of the Soloveitchik tradition?

I first encountered Soloveitchik’s work in graduate school while working for my PhD in English Literature.  I had never considered taking Judaism seriously – as an intellectual enterprise – until I read Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind, both written during the 1940s. Soloveitchik’s advocacy of methodological pluralism (or what he describes as different interpretive perspectives) seemed to anticipate so much of the critical theory that I was then studying at Columbia.

Unlike my professors in the academy, and strangely for me, Soloveitchik was able to advocate this pluralism in the context of both belief and commitment.  Pursuing my interest in theories of interpretation, I went on to write several articles on pluralism in the Talmud and in Soloveitchik’s works.  Several years back, I decided to put together a volume on pluralism and interpretation – a composite collection of those early articles.

The book that I found I was not able to write would have reflected the ideals of an earlier integrated self, mirroring the integrated image of Soloveitchik and the tradition of which he was said – especially by his students – to be the foremost modern exemplar.  But re-reading Soloveitchik, instead of dialectic – the word so often invoked by students to describe Soloveitchik’s thought – I found contradiction. Instead of continuity between the Talmudic tradition and Soloveitchik, I saw rupture. My elegiac tone in The Last Rabbi, is for a pluralism not fully pursued.

 2) What is your melancholy or disillusion with the Soloveitchik tradition?

Rabbinic interpretation performs, what I call following Freud, a hermeneutics of mourning, producing, in the face of loss or death, multiple possibilities of meaning. This version of interpretation acknowledges loss, indeed recognizes loss as intrinsic to the process of tradition, always offering partial interpretations in the plural.

Soloveitchik’s mourning, however, resembles more ‘melancholy,’ as Freud described it, where the devastation of loss (for Soloveitchik, personal, historical, existential) leads to a desire for a full compensation for loss. Unlike Talmudic ‘mourning’ which accommodates difference and merely good-enough interpretations, Soloveitchik’s ‘melancholy’ interpretive perspective shows him vacillating between a knowledge imagined as full conquest and the despairing realization that such knowledge is tragically insufficient.

Ironically, Soloveitchik acknowledges multiplicity in his ethics (the multiplicity of different perspectives) and in his conception of repentance (the multiplicity of different psychic voices or agencies); but in his representation of the Talmudic tradition, he usually emphasizes the certainty of a singular voice.

A further irony in his work: while Soloveitchik embraces the innovations of quantum physics to justify methodological pluralism, when it comes to justifying the interpretive perspective of halakhic man, he relies on older Newtonian conceptions of science and scientific truth. The melancholy, but still optimistic, tone of my book is for Soloveitchik’s abandonment of a pluralism that he cultivated in so many other realms, but not in his representations of Talmudic interpretation.

3)    How is Soloveitchik a self-construction but also a failure?

Soloveitchik writes in Halakhic Man of what he considers to be the primary Jewish imperative, for man to ‘create himself.’  From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s philosophical writings serve as a kind of spiritual memoir, the means by which he creates himself through writing.  Halakhic Man, for example, is about his father, his uncle, but also himself, as he at once declares allegiance to his ancestors, but also asserts independence from some of the traditions they represent. Repentance or teshuva is critical for Soloveitchik – throughout his works – as a form of story-telling about the self, one which allows for constant self-critique and continued self-construction.

Recognition of failure plays an important role in Soloveitchik’s emotional journey, and in the stories he tells about himself.  Where in childhood memories, failure is embarrassing even shameful, later in his life, both failure and suffering, are transformed, becoming retroactively a mark of distinction, indeed of existential chosenness.

By contrast, the older halakhic man – from whom he distinguishes himself – does not pursue the emotional life, and only sees failure as devastating loss.  Soloveitchik, however, through with a particular kind of memory – a ‘timeless event memory,’ what he calls both ‘blessing and curse,’ associated with the feminine – pursues his own story of self-creation.  In the end, Soloveitchik emphasizes existential authenticity, failure and suffering, the preconditions for ethical success, and full personal development.

4)    What does your title “last rabbi” mean?

Soloveitchik came to America in the early thirties when many Orthodox leaders in Europe forbade it: if you want to live a religious life, they said, you had better stay put. In this sense, Soloveitchik was one of the first rabbis in 20th century America, certainly the foremost innovator in Jewish thought and practice. To achieve this, Soloveitchik had to embody the traditions that his father represented, but also to create, innovate. In my reading, Soloveitchik has to kill off his father – in a version of his oedipal battle with his forbearers – to become fully himself, that is, a new version of the halakhic man who incorporates within his psyche, the ‘Torah of the heart’ associated not only with Brisk masculinity, but also with the feminine.

Indeed, I call him ‘last rabbi’ because of this self-perceived (and self-represented) failure as a teacher, his ostensible inability to communicate that ‘Torah of the heart.’  While engaging his students intellectually, he was not able, he confesses, to solicit ‘growth on the experiential plane,’ nor to bestow his ‘personal warmth on them.’ That is, Soloveitchik may have emphasized creativity and self-creation to such an extent, become so much the individual that he transformed himself into the last rabbi. Though perhaps Soloveitchik’s representation of his own failure implies as well a disappointment with his students who were unable to receive his personal legacy.

From my literary perspective, Soloveitchik in the Jewish tradition shows an emphasis on subjectivity that I first encountered reading John Milton, the great individualist of the English Renaissance, described by one literary critic as ‘a Church of one, a sect unto himself.’  Milton spent the last days of his life, however, as he writes in Paradise Lost ‘in darkness and solitude.’ Soloveitchik of course defines himself in similar solitary terms towards in his late writings.  Soloveitchik, however traces his ‘lonely and forlorn’ sensibility to the Biblical figure of Moses, who lived out, according to him, in obviously autobiographical terms, ‘the tragedy of the teacher who is too great for his disciples.’

5)      What is the importance of Milton for your thinking?

While still in graduate school, I wrote my first scholarly article on Areopagitica, Milton’s 1644 tract against censorship.  Looking back now, I can see how it anticipates my subsequent research into questions of modernity, community and interpretation.

In Areopagitica, written, at the beginning of the English Civil War against Parliamentary policy to re-institute royalist publication policies, Milton argues against censorship, while also elaborating his ideal for the perfect republic, a commonwealth in which different perspectives and opinions multiply. Milton imagines a community strengthened through discourse, a political ‘discordia concors’ – or discordant harmony – where differences, or what he calls brotherly ‘dissimilitudes’ preserve the whole.

Aharon Lichtenstein, Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, often wrote often about the emotional power of Milton’s poetry. For me, Milton’s Areopagitica has always been most resonant, preparing me to understand a parallel ‘discordia concors’ of rabbinic thinking, where difference – encapsulated in the phrase about rabbinic disputes ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ – is essential to the dynamics of a vibrant interpretive community.

6)      What is the importance of Mary Astell for your thinking?

Mary Astell was an 18th century Tory proto-feminist, a descriptive phrase which might be construed as an oxymoron.  Astell was conservative in both her political and theological thinking: she embraced church ritual and royal authority in a time of dissent, arguing vigorously for older models of government and community. With those commitments, however, she was also among the first writers to articulate a program for education and rights for women – pointing out the corruption of a masculine culture that excluded women from the public sphere.

Astell’s simultaneous emphasis on a conservative theology with an emphasis on individual agency provides an antecedent parallel to Soloveitchik.  But more than that, Astell’s methodology – reading gender as a marker of historical change – provides a methodological precedent for The Last Rabbi.  Astell understands modernity after 1649 in relationship to the impoverishment of masculinity (as well as a concomitant abandonment of the feminine). Soloveitchik’s embodiment of a certain version of the masculine – what I call ‘Brisk masculinity’ – marks him in my readings as a ‘melancholy modern,’ a distinction he shares with others like Freud and Walter Benjamin. From the point of view of psychoanalysis and Astell’s gender-inflected historical analysis, Soloveitchik emerges in my book as a fraught figure with his ambivalent affinities to masculine and feminine (as well as the paternal and maternal) impacting his representation of cognition, interpretation, and tradition.

7)      Why do you think of your book on Soloveitchik – with its emphasis on pluralism, gender, and psychoanalysis – as an outgrowth of your earlier work on Milton, Astell and psychoanalysis?

When, as an undergraduate I began to explore questions of pluralism, interpretation and community, I did so within the context of Western, particularly, Christian thought.  My study of Milton and the discord of the English Revolution – and his version of an idealized commonwealth in Areopagitica – had prepared me to better understand the rabbinic pluralism of the Talmud.

My work on the eighteenth-century proto-feminist Mary Astell – with her emphasis on the relationship between concepts of gender and the modern – allowed me to see the importance of gender roles in Soloveitchik’s family reminiscences, and how they impacted his conceptions of interpretation.  My more recent interest in psychoanalysis has enabled me to see how Soloveitchik’s representation of trauma – both personal and historical – came to inform both his conceptions of interpretation and ethics.  Further, from a psychoanalytic perspective, Soloveitchik’s work was charged, I argue in The Last Rabbi, even from its beginnings, with an anxiety about Freud, and the attempt to distinguish his own ‘halakhic’ project from that of the founder of psychoanalysis.

One plan for my future personal memoir would be structured in relationship to the literary and philosophical texts that most influenced me. Reading Milton marked the personal discovery of the theological languages that were never made compelling to me in the Long Island Hebrew School of the 1970s.  In many ways – and perhaps this is a paradox – my Jewish commitments emerged from my scholarly engagements with Christianity.  Reading Astell, again from a scholarly perspective, marked a personal awakening, to the importance of gender and particularly the feminine (in the world of the Haredi yeshiva, I bracketed, or perhaps even repressed, questions of gender).  Further, Astell showed me, as did Milton, that religious commitment and a commitment to individual freedom are not incommensurable.  My engagement with Freud – and especially the neo-Freudians Jonathan Lear and Adam Phillips – started as a personal inventory that turned into my book Open Minded Torah, but then helped inform the methodology of The Last Rabbi.

I should also add that Soloveitchik would occupy a central chapter in that hypothetical memoir – for only through reading his writings did I realize that Judaism did not have to be watered-down, apologetic and clichéd.  Indeed, reading Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind showed me that Jewish languages could be as nuanced, sophisticated and complex as the languages I was encountering in graduate school.  No matter how critical the methodology of The Last Rabbi, it is largely because of Soloveitchik and his students that I am the person I am today.

8)   Does modern mean Niebuhr, Cassirer, and Dostoevsky which are  Soloveitchik’s own historical canon and context or is it your canon of Adam Adam Philips, H. G. Gadamer, and Quintin Skinner?  

My book takes the risk of placing myself both inside and outside of Soloveitchik’s hermeneutic circle.  There is a part of me, privileged, grateful to be inside the circle that still reveres the figure referred to as ‘the Rav.’ But the literary critic in me, outside of the hermeneutic circle – never exposed to the charismatic brilliance of Soloveitchik’s presence – elicits a different more complicated, even divided, figure.

The hermeneutics of suspicion should never be a starting point for any kind of study of texts, but it can complement different interpretive approaches. Adam Phillips, for example, a British psychoanalyst, who writes about ‘voices in the plural,’ provides an external set of language for reading the sometimes conflicting voices in Soloveitchik, who himself embodies many of the ‘types’ about which he writes: ‘halakhic man,’ ‘lonely man,’ ‘homo religiosus.’  Soloveitchik marshalled dozens (even hundreds) of different voices to explain Jewish thought; I aspire to a similar methodology in reading Soloveitchik’s work.  Moreover, Phillips recent literary biography of Freud, ‘Becoming Freud,’ became a model for The Last Rabbi – which charts Soloveitchik’s own drive towards individuation in relation to his predecessors as he becomes ‘The Rav.’

Hans Georg Gadamer, one of the founders of contemporary hermeneutics, and Quentin Skinner, a leading historian in the Cambridge School, are an odd couple in themselves.  But for me the former, who typically emphasizes the role of subjectivity in interpretation, and the latter, who emphasizes intention and objectivity, provide a productive gloss when read together on Soloveitchik – who throughout his life was interested in breaking down the often rigid distinction between subject and object.

For Soloveitchik the exclusive emphasis on subjectivity led to the extremes of either relativism or fascism. The belief in objectivity, by contrast, for Soloveitchik, was just an illusion, leading to misunderstandings about the nature of both knowledge and interpretation.

Gadamer and Skinner, like Phillips, provide a set of external tools for showing how, for Soloveitchik (like many of the quantum physicists whom he celebrates in Halakhic Mind) subjective perspectives or constructs are indispensable in eliciting the truth of the object.

9)       How can you psychoanalyze Soloveitchik from a vignette? 

The psychotherapist Christopher Bollas writes of ‘small details of the past’ that are resonant with unexplored, even unconsciously unintended, meanings.  Soloveitchik’s reminiscences of his family living room in Pruzhna can be simply appreciated, as some suggest, as a charming account of the family dynamics of Soloveitchik’s extraordinary rabbinic family.  From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s memories of his youthful self simply provide two accounts of his father’s approach to study.  In the first ‘Rabbi Moses’ confronts an interpretive problem raised by Maimonides and solves it; in the second, however, faced with a parallel interpretive problem, he fails.

From the psychoanalytic perspective that I adopt, however, the young Joseph’s response to his father’s interpretive endeavors (as well as his mother’s response) help to elaborate his future representations of both gender and interpretation.  In the first instance, when his father resolves the interpretive crux, he is described, in unambivalent terms as triumphant, a man of conquest (indeed parallel to the description of the typological halakhic man whose knowledge is achieved through a process of acquisition and conquest).

The young Joseph, who conceives himself in these stories as standing apart from the gathering of young men in his grandfather’s study, runs off to his mother’s room, to share the triumph of his father.  In Joseph’s eyes, his victorious father Rabbi Moses rescues ‘Moses ben Maimon,’ and by extension the prophet Moses, an intergenerational conquest, allowing for the continuation of Jewish tradition.

The heroic version of the conquest of Rabbi Moses has its opposite in the account of his father’s interpretive failure – which is treated as a near catastrophe by both Joseph and the gathered men.  Subsequent to this, the young Joseph is figured as sitting on a bed together with Maimonides, together crying, with the boy again running to his mother’s room, but this time for consolation.  She tells Joseph that one day he may surpass his father, but that in the meanwhile, he should learn to live with uncertainty.

Soloveitchik’s later representations of interpretation, in my reading, emerge from out of the reference points established in these earlier stories.  For Soloveitchik, like for his father in his grandfather’s living room, interpretation means either absolute conquest or utter failure, anticipating the vacillation between triumph and melancholy prevalent in his later works.

Only in the feminine realm, outside of the gathering of men and their legal discourse, is the young Joseph able to express uncertainty as well as emotion. Throughout his writings, Soloveitchik’s conceives of interpretation as an all-or-nothing affair – interpretation as total conquest, or completely ineffective in the face of a resistant world. The feminine, by contrast, allows for the expression of uncertainty, and promises comfort outside of the strict and often uncompromising realm of interpretation associated with his ancestors.

Soloveitchik tells his story, not in the traditional terms of autobiography, but often in relationship to the masculine and feminine, and the different, contradictory values that they represent.  Much like Adam Phillips sees Freud in his recent biography, I see Soloveitchik as both ‘scientific thinker’ attached to the rigorous methods of Brisk learning, but also ‘radical skeptic’ as he charts a course away from ‘halakhic men,’ a path only made possible through his detour through his mother’s room and the feminine.

10)  How do you understand midrash or “midrashic poetry” using John Donne, Quentin Skinner and Hans Georg Gadamer?

John Donne helps in understanding the homiletic method of R. Elazar – for both embrace a poetic stance that elicits unexpected resemblances in both world and texts.

Donne went out of fashion for generations because critics like Samuel Johnson felt that the metaphors in Donne’s poems were inappropriate over-the-top, and the forceful yoking together of unconnected realms, such as compasses and lovers or sex and religion. Donne, in suggesting such comparisons, emerges, when read sympathetically, as the great poet of paradox.

Elazar as interpreter elicits the paradoxical poetry of the divine word. When R. Elazar reads a verse from Ecclesiastes – the subject of chapter 2 of my book – he pulls out multiple and seemingly contradictory meanings, where the Torah is compared to both ‘nails’ and ‘flowers,’ inorganic and organic matter, seen as both temporal and eternal. Reading R. Elazar through the lens of Donnean poetry shows the Biblical verse asserting paradox, a metaphysical conceit avante la letter, creating a poetry in which opposites are both asserted and maintained. In my readings, midrash should be read as Wittgenstein conceived of poetry, ‘the highest form of philosophy’ – rendered only in philosophical language as impoverished paraphrase.

Wittgenstein once wrote that poetry is the highest form of philosophy, that poetic insights can only be paraphrased through different – sometimes contrary – philosophical perspectives.

I turn to the Gadamer who emphasizes subjectivity in interpretation, and the historian Quentin Skinner, who by contrast emphasizes original intention to help explain midrash and the poetics of rabbinic dispute. The dual emphasis on objective intention and subjective perspectives – Skinner and Gadamer -help provide a philosophical gloss on the paradoxical divine pronouncement ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ – in which different subjects elicit opposed but still valid perspectives on the divine law. Indeed, a method combining Skinner’s injunction to be receptive to the text, with the Gadamerian emphasis on interpretation as a creative act provides a corollary to R. Elazar’s assumptions about the ideal interpreter, both passive and active, receptive and creative.

11)   How do you use Kristeva and Winnicott to understand Soloveitchik?

Throughout his writings, Soloveitchik writes about loss: for him, even the greatest quantum scientists acknowledge with ‘despair’ that their conceptions only approximate reality, never getting to its essence. The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva associates this outlook with melancholy moderns, where failure to capture the essence of the Real (associated for her, with the feminine) leads to embracing the compensation of the masculine Law (language, culture, law).

From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s yearning for a full connection with the Real, often associated for him with the comforts of the feminine and the maternal, leads to an always ambivalent embrace of the Law.  Kristeva’s Law for Soloveitchik, the halakha, is only partially satisfying, indeed, manifests itself as opposed to the feminine – impersonal, dry and even punishing. Soloveitchik in the end chooses the Law of his father, quite literally, though he remains ambivalent about the stringencies and exclusions of the law, as well as the feminine and the experience of existential union it offers.

The memory of a pre-linguistic union with the feminine, as the child psychologist D.W. Winnicott explains, lingers in the adult psyche as an echo of a lost feeling of existential wholeness. That echo always remains for Soloveitchik, as a possibility both tempting and potentially dangerous, promising organic unity, but threatening to undermine his agency, and subsume him entirely.

12) How has  repentance (teshuva)  and self-creation been critical in your own life & thinking?

In his poem, ‘The Hollow Men,’ T. S. Eliot laments ‘20 years largely wasted,’ referring perhaps to two decades of an attitude born by a religious pursuit (he became an Anglican in the 1920s) –  which he after came to regret.

My own life narrative – in retrospect – may look like a reverse version of modern Jewish history: where modernity is a progressive narrative of reform and enlightenment, my narrative began in the university, and ended, or perhaps looked like it was going to end, in a kollel in Mea Shearim.

Mine however was not a story that included body-snatching outreach rabbis at the Western Wall, but my decision to be part of the ultra-orthodox world was educated, informed by my readings of Western literature and philosophy.  Not T. S. Eliot’s poetry, but his essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ was a major influence, asserting that being part of a tradition involved, ‘a constant surrender,’ a ‘continual self-sacrifice.’

Gaining entrance to the world of Jewish ‘tradition,’ required, I thought, only an unequivocal and uncompromising immersion in Talmudic languages  At the same time, I was reading the historian of science Thomas Kuhn who wrote about the incommensurability of different worldviews, how religious and enlightenment paradigms were necessarily in conflict with one another.

As a result, coming to Jerusalem in the early 1990s, I saw Western and Jewish worlds as opposed, even antagonistic, and thought the best way to be part of the latter tradition was a kind of surrender to it.

Over years of living in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and studying in their institutions, I realized that the fantasy of an isolated community with a single set of impervious languages was just that, a fantasy.  Communities are porous: the Haredi world in many ways is  – whether recognized or not – in conversation with the surrounding secular world.

Further though tradition does require receptivity, even surrender of a sort (an obviously over-stated ideal of the ultra-orthodox world in which conformity to social norms is such a powerful force), it also requires, indeed is founded upon, as Soloveitchik always emphasizes, creativity.  The Brisk Haredi world, I found, values the ‘hiddush’ in the Beit Midrash, but there only; for Soloveitchik, by contrast, the highest realization of creativity is the creation of the self.

Part of the challenge of the modern world, I think, is breaking out of the manic oscillation between authority and personal freedom, finding not so much a middle ground, but a balance, however fraught, between the two.

I hope I don’t show the same unhealthy zeal and close-mindedness of an earlier self, I also don’t consider those years ‘wasted,’ no more so than I think the years of skeptical questioning in the university wasted.  Living with modernity, I have come to realize, means combining skepticism and commitment, however difficult that may be.


Adam Afterman Interview-Mystical Union in Judaism  

What is Kabbalah? Are you still having trouble understanding how it came to be? This post may help you. In short, kabbalah is the name given to the 13th century texts which were able to synthesize ancient Jewish theosophy images and visions with medieval  philosophic language and conceptual framework.. The visions of God in the Aggadah with its angels, divine names, and images of the Divine chariot are retold in the fixed organized system based on medieval cosmology and philosophy, especially mystical union.

The work of Professor Adam Afterman, chair of the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel Aviv University is dedicated to this synthetic process of ancient Jewish visions and philosophic mystical language.  His Ph.D was from Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2008) , and he serves as a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His most recent excellent book:And They Shall Be One Flesh: On the Language of Mystical Union in Judaism(Leiden: Brill, 2016) is on this subject providing a wonderful overview of the issues of this synthesis along with a lucid exposition of the texts on mystical union in Judaism.  (Unfortunately, it is not available at a reasonably priced edition).


Now, that the senior scholars of Kabbalah, Moshe Idel and Yehuda Leibes has both retired, there is a new generation of scholars of Kabbalah chairing the departments and who have recently put out works (and were kind enough to send me copies).  I expect this interview with Prof Afterman to be the first of a series.

For those who still need a little more background about his project, let us look at the well-known Talmudic passage.

It was taught: Rabbi Yishmael b. Elisha said: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akatriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Yishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied:” May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou may deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice!’ And He nodded to me with His head. (TB Berachot 7a)

In the eyes of a traditional medieval thinker concerned with the divine, this text provided information that God has a right and left side and has a part that appears in visions called Akatriel. It also describes how prayer affects God and if read with aspiration to follow the Talmudic exemplar, it encourages one to seek visions similar to those of Rabbi Yishmael.  When these ideas met Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, and Sufi mystical language then the vision and prayer takes on sharper contours of sefirot and mystical union, which we now call kabbalah, in that, it preserves as a revived tradition the ancient descriptions of God.

Much of 13th century kabbalistic texts written were commentaries on the commandments or on prayer.  The kabbalists saw reality as a chain of Being, what Moshe Idel calls an enchanted chain. The goal of prayer and the commandments were to activate this chain or to merge with it.

Adam Afterman’s first book, based on his dissertation,  was on an anonymous 13th century guide to mystical visualizations to be done during prayer that combines many separate strands of mystical language. Then he published several articles on Rabbinic esoteric traditions concerning prayer including enclothing God during prayer, visualizations of the Temple, the knot of tefillin, and various other antecedents to medieval kabbalah. This new book teases out the various languages of union separating the Rabbinic era texts from those exposed to philosophic language.

Afterman’s approach is disjunctive, viewing the world of Rabbinic Judaism as distinct from medieval Judaism. He considers the new philosophic language of mystical union as making medieval spirituality into a separate new project, unlike Idel who sees continuity with the Rabbinic sources. Yet, Afterman’s own studies on Rabbinic ideas and techniques and their use in Kabbalah shows continuity in esoteric matters not related to mystical union.  Alternately, Afterman finds the Zohar as closer to Rabbinic ideals than medieval philosophic ideals because it does not have mystical union.

Afterman separates out the approaches of different Kabbalists including Rabbi Isaac the Blind, Yaakov Bar Sheshet, Abraham Abulaifa, parts of the Zohar corpus and Isaac of Akko. The book has a long first section devoted to the synthesis of the Bible and philosophy among Middle-Platonists such as Philo of Alexandria. Afterman shows the integration of philosophy and esotericism, more than one would understand form popular works on the topic.

A note on terminology. The original Greek word mysticism meant mystery, related to the idea of secret (sod). The word emerged in the 20th century as a broad category for all forms of Oneness with the Divine, including visions, emotional enthusiasm, letter magic, feelings of intoxication, cosmic consciousness, and contemplation. All of these diverse phenomena were identified and conflated with each other and with reaching a oneness with God, a unio mystica, During the 20th century, there were theological debates about whether this was the essence of religion or totally opposed to religion, and about whether Judaism had this peak experience.

Afterman adeptly separates out the concept of union in Philo of Alexandria from rabbinic esoteric practices and both from later medieval developments.  Afterman carefully defines and differentiates the nature of union of each text. Therefore, the book could have avoided the overarching term mysticism altogether thereby producing a cleaner work.

The next stage in this analysis would be to analyze within given thinkers the complexity of the identities with the divine. The next question: how do the parts of prayer, various festivals or calendar of holidays generate different experiences and different instructions? Finally, it is a shame that Isaac of Acre’s, Ozar Hayyim is still in manuscript since it is a very important work.Someone should produce an edited text.

The interview is much longer than I generally post. But, I left the length since these interviews have become regular assignments on many syllabi and this one is a nice summery of many issues and also because his book is not readily accessible.


  1. How is communion with God a medieval innovation in Jewish thought?

The ideal of contemplative or mystical communion with God, I argue, is an innovation of medieval trends of Judaism all functioning under the influence of Hellenistic-Muslim theology and philosophy and in particular Neoplatonism. This innovation goes along with the transformation of Judaism into a religion of love – the two usually go together as intensified and realized love of God is reached through spiritual communion with God.

Although the terms and commandments to love and “cleave” to God are biblical, their spiritual interpretation was articulated first only in medieval Judaism with the important exception of the first century Jewish philosopher Philo.

Philo represents in many ways a form of Judaism that is very different from rabbinical Judaism of his time and in fact quite similar to medieval Judaism – but instead of synthesizing Judaism with Neoplatonism, he offered a synthesis with middle Platonism.

The two biblical commandments – “to cleave to the Lord” and “to love the Lord” that become the main axis of medieval Judaism, both for the philosophers and mystics. The synthesis of Judaism with Plato or Aristotle gives birth to a religion that is fundamentally different from the Judaism of the rabbis in the Talmud. I view this as fundamental revolution in which rabbinic Judaism after encountering forms of Hellenistic philosophy (medieval forms of Platonism and Aristotelianism) transformed into a religion of spiritual love and mystical communion and union with God. These are fundamentally new religious values and perhaps experiences were projected back into the biblical terminology of “devequt” and “love”.

In contrast, the Talmud and Mishnah created a religion that did not emphasize spiritual and abstract forms of religious perfection and indeed did not allow or demand the human to spiritually love God and practically denied the possibility to actually “cleave” to Him. The rabbis rather emphasized the communal and physical aspects of the religious life. Rabbinical Judaism is not in any way a spiritual religion, rabbinical Judaism transforms into a spiritual religion much later with medieval Jewish thought and even more so in kabbalah.

I view the question of union with God as part of this fundamental change in Judaism and that is way I consider, kabbalah to be ultimately a medieval phenomenon and not an ancient or rabbinic phenomena; this is in contrast to Moshe Idel, Gershom Scholem and Yehuda Liebes.

2) How is the approach to union found in the Kabbalah different than that of Philo of Alexandria?

Mystical union for Philo is the ultimate experience of coming close to God, standing in his “place” or becoming one with him. This experience is the most intimate experience of friendship with God, achieved by the movement of the human soul that not only escapes the body but also transcends the created world in order to stand where God does.

This might sound as a contradiction how can union be a form of intimacy? That’s exactly why Scholem argued that Judaism is a religion of intimacy therefore it cannot allow for full mystical union, which by definition does not allow some kind of gap or “space” for intimacy. I argue that some Jews did not recognize such contradiction in terms; in fact for Philo union is the ultimate form of intimacy.

Within philosophical kabbalah with a philosophical God i.e. static abstract and transcendent God- for example Abraham Abulafia and his ecstatic kabbalah. Mystical union is achieved through a radical and rather violent move of the human soul or intellect that breaks free from the body and material existence and becomes one with God and eternal life.

In classic sefirotic kabbalah uniting with God is part of a more complex and richer movement of acting upon the Godhead, unifying it, or participating in its inner dynamics of union and only then uniting with the united Godhead or the core of the Godhead the Tetragrammaton. In this sense that main trend of kabbalah developed a much more complex religious path in which union is a component in a complex dynamic in which the Godhead itself must first unite in itself before the mystic can unite into that unity. The integration in to the Godhead is part of a dynamics that serves God and not only man!

3) What is new in your approach to mystical oneness (henōsis) in Philo of Alexandria?

Most scholars deny that Philo developed a theme of mystical union with God (See David Winston and Andrew Louth) rather they think that there is only a mediated return to God via and through the Logos or an ecstasy. I read Philo as a union with the personal God, the same God we are commanded to “love” and yet at the same time to develop a direct relationship, unmediated union with the God of Abraham etc.

My hidush (insight) was very simple indeed – I checked all the places Philo refers to the biblical commandment to “cleave” or “unite” to God. I found several discussions that if you read them together it is possible I argue to reconstruct a theory of mystical union as the fulfillment of a commandment given to the Jews – and this practice is somewhat different from all the other discussions about visionary mysticism and logos based mysticism in Philo.

Thus I argue that mystical union as a theistic ideal grew out of the synthesis of middle Platonism and the Greek Torah, as a natural and logic outcome of philosophical monotheism itself. Once you develop the idea that religious perfection and love is to come close and transform into God– the religious ideal of becoming one with the One becomes the most fundamental religious experience and ideal or religious perfection.

This has not been presented this way although Idel and McGinn have pointed out that Philo does promote some form of union and that he stands at the background of the henōsis tradition in Neo-Platonism, which later impacted all three monotheistic traditions creating the ideal of western mysticism as the union with the One God.

Most text books grant Plotinus the credit of being the first to articulate the idea of mystical union without its theistic values and without the mystery of encountering a persona.

In contrast, Plotinus’ experience of the One is a “philosophical ecstasy” in which one experiences the absolute One but not the God of that one must love.  I claim that mystical union is a Jewish idea, the result of a synthesis between middle Platonism and the Greek Bible- the biblical verses calling upon Israel to “cleave” and “love”, a monotheistic idea that is the natural outcome of theological monotheism.

4) What is Ancient Jewish mysticism?

In ancient forms of Jewish mysticism the encounter with God is through mystical vision and gnosis, through translation to paradise or the higher mythical realms. Ancient Jewish mysticism was through ideals such as apotheosis and theosis, enthronement and coronation. All of them indicate a form of transformation and even participation in Gods being and hierarchy of power but still part of a mythical setting, not abstract and spiritual “enough” to allow for mystical integration to take part. In these ancient settings mysticism is about empowerment and ascension in knowledge as participating in the divine power and knowledge – but no mystic or angel integrates himself into God Himself!

On this, I follow Elliot Wolfson who makes a clear distinction between forms of mystical henōsis and other forms of ancient Jewish mysticism. My study explores how medieval Jewish mysticism interprets and uses the ancient forms of vocabulary and symbolism in its new setting. For example the idea of apotheosis of Enoch into the arch angel Metatron is now understood as a form of mystical integration in an abstract spiritual and in fact internalized form.

Other symbols such as coronation that symbolized a transformation in hierarchy are now interpreted in terms of cleaving or uniting to the mystical light. Another idea is the midrashic idea that the patriarchs served as a “chariot” to God (based upon the biblical theme that God raised “above” Abraham and Jacob) – now in the mystical tradition of integration, in which, man and God integrate. God can even now dwell in the perfected person the same way He dwelled in the patriarchs.

5) How does Maimonides influence early Kabbalah?

Maimonides more than any other medieval Jewish thinker was instrumental in the development of forms of mystical paths that end in mystical union.

Maimonides internalized into his vision of Judaism the basic Aristotelian formula of knowledge and union, which was used to explain contemplative transformation of the human intellect into an angelic intellect or to explain of the human agent can become a metaphysical agent – then this was adopted further to explain how the human agent can integrate or assimilate into the Godhead.

The idea of spiritual transformation in this life leads to integration into spiritual realms associated with the world to come and eventually with the Godhead itself. The noetic mechanism of Maimonides helped the kabbalist explain how a human can integrate into God and how God may integrate in to the human.

I must stress that I don’t think Maimonides himself was a mystic! And I don’t think he thought that man can unite with God! But Maimonides developed a worldview that divided the universe into two realms – the material and the non-material metaphysical realm. The metaphysical realm is considered to be unified in itself as pure thought. Thus the religious path that leads us from material existence to noetic existence as angels – is at the same time a movement from multiplicity to unity a transformation from the corporal to the union of intellect.

6) What was mystical union in early Kabbalah?

In thirteen-century kabbalah we find the development of two mystical axis. (1) An axis of human integration into God through the human thought and another spiritual components that can cleave, integrate and unite with specific elements in the Godhead– usually the divine wisdom. (2)The opposite dynamics of the integration of the divine in to the human psyche, body and flesh.

The dynamics of mystical integration, where the divine and the human are living not separately but integrally– the human on a collective basis as the Jewish people (the “Assembly of Israel”) and on a personal basis (the kabbalist or mystics) participate in the inner life of the divine.

The fact that the Jewish collective was consider now to be a fundamental organ of the Godhead explains mythically the idea that the Jewish people are part of the divine, the participate in the divine life, affect it, experience it and integrate into it on different levels sometimes on a unitive basis. Gershom Scholem identified that the two key terms of early kabbalah are “devequt” and “kavvanah” meaning mystical integration\union and theurgy through intention respectively.  They are both part of a mystical life mediated through a by the commandments and the Torah.

The early kabbalists of the 13th century developed the idea of uniting with God through several philosophic forms.

First, in Neoplatonist forms of kabbalah human thought and will are capable of uniting with their divine correspondences, the Divine Thought and Will. In turn, the human agent can then tap into Gods Will or Thought act upon it, help the divine integrate itself, and draw light from the higher forms of the Godhead to the lower forms or vessels of the Godhead. At the same time, the union allows for divine energy in the form of light to descend from the divine to the human.

Second, the neo Aristotelian language of “knowledge as union” (via Maimonides) explained how integration might lead to union even in the life.

Later Sufi images further enriched the path of integration and mystical union towards the end of the thirteen century.

Kabbalah developed there are two fundamental vectors: the integration of man into God–and the opposite integration or embodiment of the divine into the human.

Isaac the Blind, the first kabbalist in Europe in the 1190’s, used Neoplatonic ideas to develop a theory of contemplative union of the human thought with the divine wisdom. Then the contemplative unified the divine components and concluded by drawing down light into man, The performance of any ritual and blessing that mentions the Tetragrammaton, allows cleaving to it, uniting to it and then drawing it down to the concrete realms.

One of his students Jacob Bar Sheshet  writing in the middle of the thirteen century drew on Judah Halevy’s Kuzari to develop a different trend of mystical embodiment – that of the human becoming a vessel for the Tetragrammaton to dwell in – as a level of union.

7) What was unique about Isaac of Acre?

Isaac of Acre (late thirteenth century), synthesized different trends of kabbalah including the ecstatic kabbalah of his teacher R. Nathan, philosophical discourse of union through knowledge and also powerful Sufi images. These diverse strands allows Isaac of Acre to present the most articulated descriptions of mystical union in classic kabbalah.

For example he describes the moment of unio mystica as following:

On that day, I saw the secret of the fire that consumes fire. The secret of fire is Form, and the consuming here is when one thing is swallowed by another, and “[man] shall cleave to his wife becoming one flesh”(Gen. 2:24). The intellectualizing Hasid allows his soul to ascend and to properly cleave to the Divine Secret, which cleaves to her and swallows her [the soul]. […]

The secret of this consumption is the true devequt. If the soul is consumed it will consume, […] i.e. if she will pursue the Intellegibilia she will perceive them and they will be held and engraved [upon her]. Truly the secret of consumption.

Of this consumption and devequt it is said [Ps. 34:9] “taste and see that God is good”. [The soul shall] cleave to the Divine intellect and He will cleave to her- for more than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse (BT Pesahim 112). She and the Intellect become one entity, as one who pours a pitcher of water into a flowing spring, all becoming one entity. This is the secret intention of our Rabbis of blessed memory when they said: “Enoch is Metatron”, which is the secret of “a fire that consumes a fire”.(Ozar Hayyim, fol. 111a see: Afterman, And they Shall Be, pp. 177-178).

Here we find images and symbols enriched with Sufi symbols of unio mystica such as the drowning and swallowing. “His soul shall cleave to Ein Sof and will return to the complete universal (klali gamur) after being particular when she was imprisoned in her vessel. She will return to become universal in her true secret source.” (Isaac of Acre, Ozar Hayyim, fol. 112a)

What’s new in my analysis is that I put together all of the elements that he uses about reaching union while still in the body. This is a rather rare and very risky state, acknowledged as possible by the theological system of Nahmanides and his followers, typified by the ascent of Enoch into an archangel Metatron. Following Nahmanides, Isaac saw mystical union as achievable in the life at the risk of mystical death.

Also following the ecstatic  Kabbalist R. Nathan he thinks that the union of man and God provides a fuller Being that before i.e. that God desires the union no less than human and that the result of the union of man and God is more than just God himself.

8) What are the types of mystical union in the Zohar?

There exist a major dispute among scholars about the mystical nature of the Zohar.

On the one hand, we have Melila H. Eshed and Moshe Idel who consider the Zohar as a relatively mild form of mystical path not promoting ecstatic and unitive forms of mysticism. The Zohar does not use “strong” techniques and does not describe ecstatic and unitive moments. In addition, the Zohar does not employ philosophical phrases of “knowledge as union” that was so common and important in other kabbalists. In fact the Zohar almost does not use the language of “devequt” in a mystical sense. The mystical path of the Zohar is rather mild and especially not ecstatic and not unitive.

The Zohar continues the rabbinic and ancient forms of mysticism that did not promote integrative mysticism, yet at the same time it does promote a complicated theory of integration – most clearly on the collective level where the “assembly of Israel” is now, at times, untied with the Godhead.  In addition, the individuals of Israel integrate, to different extents, into the Godhead. This integration leads to the participation in the inner light and holy spirit descending from above on the collective being of Israel and into each one of Israel..

Eliot Wolfson reads the Zohar as describing powerful mystical forms of integration leading indeed to mystical union. He reads the theosophical dynamics of union within the divine as referring also to human processes that describe parallel human process of integration.

The best example to discuss the issue is the way that the Zohar perceives the Shabbat as a special time in which the Godhead undergoes a dramatic change, it unifies itself and the collective of Israel are part of this unification, they participate and unite with the mystery of the one that is undergoing every Shabbat evening.

The question is this: when the Zohar describes the Godhead unifies into the secret of the One on Shabbat evening – does this indicate that the Jewish people participate, experience, or even become one with this state?

The following Zoharic source known as “Kegavanah” incorporated in the Hasidic “qabalat Shabbat” is very representative both of the participatory modus and of the embodied manner in which unification is taking place:

The Mystery of Sabbath: She is the Sabbath – united in mystery of the one, so that mystery of the one may settle upon Her. At the beginning of the prayer of Shabbat evening (maariv) the Holy Throne is united in mystery of the one, arrayed for the supernal Holy King to rest upon Her. When Sabbath enters She unites and separates from the “Other Side”, all judgments removed from Her. She remains unified in the holy radiance, adorned with many crowns for the Holy King. All powers of wrath and masters of judgment all flee; no other power reigns in all the worlds. Her face shines with supernal radiance, and She is adorned below by the Holy People, all of whom are adorned with new souls.     (Zohar Terumah, 2:135b, my translation)

The time of the arrival of Sabbath is depicted first not as an event of a unification but as a process of separation, an overcoming of a state of being grasped by “the Other Side”, a process that is concomitant with the prayer for the entrance of the Sabbath. Only once this movement of separation is completed can the mystery of the One “settle upon her” – that is, upon the Shekhinah, who is identified with the Sabbath – and allow for a rejuvenation that is taking place by the adorning with new souls of the congregation of the Holy People and a descent of an effluence from the supernal source.

The initial integration of the collective of the “assembly of Israel” into the Godhead that takes part every Shabbat allows for the collective to participate in the mystery of the One. This is symbolized by the crown and Holy Spirit that adorn each of the individuals, which function now on a higher level of unity and integration with the Godhead than throughout the six days of the week. The crown and the Holy Spirit, or the additional soul received on Shabbat, is an ontological extension of the mystery of the One bestowed by the higher elements of the Godhead on to the feminine Shekhinah, which is identified with the community of Israel. In that way, all of Israel on a collective basis participates in the inner union and unity of the godhead. In the latter part of the passage, the Zohar explain that the Holy Spirit is the extension of the point of union and unification, the mystery of the One that is the Shabbat.

I argue that on Shabbat and other unique times the collective of Israel is partially integrated into the Godhead– this is symbolized through the union of the feminine persona of the assembly of Israel that “unites” with God. The result is spiritual or mystical integration of the divine into Israel experienced as the Holy Spirit descending unto the people of Israel.

On the Sabbath, the dynamics of “theosophical union” i.e. union taking part in side the Godhead apply to kabbalist symbolically through the crown of light that is on his head and the Holy Spirit that is enveloping him.

Primarily the dynamics of union in the Zohar apply to the Godhead and not to the human realm. Wolfson does not accept this distinction in the Zohar and considers all dynamics above in the Godhead reflect and participate in those below.  I believe that this is true only sometimes when the Godhead absorbs the assembly of Israel then they are part of the Godhead and experience the dynamics of union above – other times they witness those dynamics from distance.

9) Is your book just a defense of Idel’s challenge to Scholem on Unio Mystica?

I hope not! The question is not if there is Mystical Union in Judaism (you have shown it also in your book Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin) but in what ways was this idea and practice developed in Jewish sources. How did Jews articulate the language the phrases and symbols to refer to such idea? How did they transform ancient forms of mysticism into the medieval forms of integrated mysticism of cleaving and union?

By the way, there are many people that continue arguing about this not willing to accept that this idea, ideal and experience is expressed in Jewish sources.

My method was to forget about the theological debate if and why “Judaism” can or not allow union and examine what different Jews actually wrote about the topic. My focus is on the language, that express the idea that man unties with God or with the Godhead. I say if a Jew writes that he united with God. I believe him and have no desire to interpret him differently. I’m not interested in trying the define the difference between Christian and Jewish mysticism by articulating a false criteria – I mean that Christians unite and Jews only reach partial dynamic communion, as Scholem argued.

I said if some Jew chooses to write about his integration with God using unitive vocabulary I will follow up on that. I’m interested what does he mean? Personally I have no problem with such claims and much of my work is to demonstrate that such claims for union are not necessarily pantheistic – and even if they are so what?

Idel and others started by opening a new perspective on the place of union as a theological apriori criteria (see also what Idel wrote in his first chapter of his book Enchanted Chains) and I offer a systematic investigation into the topic.  I’m trying to investigate further the ways the kabbalist talked about mystical union and integration with God in the body (embodiment and even incarnation), the language they used, the symbols the used (like the kiss and crown).

I wrote it primarily out of personal interest and I needed to investigate this matter – especially because of what I read and knew about Hasidism and Kabbalah. I wrote on earlier article on dvekut and my interest grew from there.

The fact that Scholem wrote that there categorically no unio mystica- but I came from a place that thought there is unio mystica – so this contradiction I found worth investigating even though some of my conclusions might be similar to Idel’s and Wolfson’s ideas.

I focused in this study on both the dynamics of human integration into God and the opposite integration of God into man at the extremes of both dynamics when both become unitive.  I found that the Jewish sources are loaded with unitive experiences and expression much more than I imagined at the beginning. I’m writing now about 16th century kabbalah and the same is true – I view Judaism now as a religion of union or unitive integration with God promoting this idea freely without almost any constraints or objections.

In a way, because Jews were much less theologically orientated they felt rather free to write about union with God without sensing it to be problematic. They had less constraints upon their thinking so they could easily develop unitive practices without feeling they are doing something wrong.

It was only much later under the influence of the great Jewish philosopher Herman Cohen that Jewish intelligentsia started to think that union with God cannot be a Jewish idea or experience exactly differing Judaism from Christianity. For Cohen, such language leads to Spinoza’s pantheism- defined by them as the theological borderline for Jewish heresy.

The sources themselves tell us a totally different story- that Judaism is the religion of union – that the desire for union with God is a natural outcome of monotheism and the development of integrative ideals of love and devequt.

10) Do you strive for mystical union? Why is this important to you?

Personally I’m not a mystic but a scholar of Jewish literature. I’m personally very interested in “radical” forms of religious mysticism.  I view myself as focusing on the mystical moments and mystical vocabulary and imagery in the Jewish literature. One can focus on many other elements in this literature.

The idea of mystical integration and fusion between man and God I think is the most exciting idea that exists in all religions I mean what is more exciting than the idea that man and God can fuse or integrate and even unite? I view most of kabbalah and Hasidism as exploring this idea. I’m interested in all forms of integration unitive or not – and there is wide spectrum and I’m now investigating some forms of mystical embodiment that are not qualified necessarily as unitive.

In addition the fact that my father the poet Allen B. Afterman Z”L was a kabbalist and mystic very much interested in the phenomena of mystical union (see his poetic exposition of kabbalah  Kabbalah and Consciousness in which he dedicated an entire chapter to mystical union.) did have its impact on me – and that’s natural.

11) Can you tell me about the prayer technique of the anonymous 13th century work that you edited.

The text I analyzed and offered a critical edition is a unique synthesis of ecstatic techniques of letter permutation with prayer, as the content of prayer. The anonymous text was written around 1250 in Spain and it’s an ecstatic manual to the prayers. It is rather similar to Abraham Abulafia’s mystical techniques which are not part of the prayer – here they are used as mystical manual for the performance of the daily liturgy in which the mystic uses a very sophisticated technique of letter permutation during the daily prayer leading to ecstatic experiences.

The anonymous 13th century kabbalist used a neural ecstatic technique as a prayer technique to draw down power, light and voice in the human consciousness and into the world. The practice leads to the revelation of angels and divine lights and voices.

The work foreshadows the later synthesis in the sixteen-century between ecstatic kabbalah and prayer and other forms of kabbalah like the Zohar were possible from the beginning- Abulafia represents only one possibility in the history of ecstatic kabbalah.

This commentary is a very important example of how early kabbalists added on to the daily liturgy mystical practices, associating them with a rabbinic term of kavvanah (intention) and the biblical tern of devequt (cleaving to God).

12) Why was Enclothing God important for the development of Jewish prayer?

There is a very ancient Jewish tradition that views God as enclothed with clothes of lights and colors in particular the color of the rainbow. God’s revelation was in in light and colors as is prayer. For them, collective prayer affects God’s appearance. When he receives prayer he becomes luminous. His appearance reflects his relationship with his people.

Later a fundamental step was taken in which the energy of prayer, which is the voice of prayer of the community of Israel transforms into lights and colors thereby clothing God. In a third phase, the collective spiritual of Israel becomes those cloths, in particular the crown and the tefilin that are on God reflecting his erotic relationship with his people. A classic example of the mutual crowning of Israel as a collective and God is to be found in Shir hakavod (Hymn of Glory) and is fundamental in the Zohar and kabbalah.

13) How was the myth of the knot of God’s tefilin important for early Kabbalah?

The knot represented the fundamental Kabbalistic notion that God is a halachic agent: based upon BT Brachot describing God putting on tefilin, tallit and praying. They envisioned God performing the rituals and not only demonstrating their details to Moses. These ideas were then used as by the medieval kabbalist to show that the commandments are divine. They are not only given by God, but they are also performed by God.

In addition, the Godhead contains the commandments and the Torah in their spiritualized
form. Given to the Jewish people as an extension of God they are now the main vehicle to connect or integrate with God. Reaching God through the commandmentsis a fundamental insight articulated by the Bahir and followed by the early Kabbalists.

God’s wearing tefilin is the heart of Moses’ personal revelation on the mountain. At the most intense moment in which the prophet tried to comprehend the divine nature he experienced the commandments. This becomes symbolic of the apotheosis of the Torah and the commandments into the Godhead. Moses that desired to view God’s face viewed the knot of the tefilin instead. The knot is the visible icon of the invisible God.

14) What was the technique of envisioning of the Merkavah?

In the body of literature known as Hechalot and Merkavah there are many techniques and practices used to induce trance and elevate the human agent to participate in the heavenly liturgy undergoing at the same time.

Generally speaking Merkavah mysticism and liturgy go hand in hand in context, technique and content. I mean by this that reciting a prayer, a poem, was considered as a main technique to ascend to heaven and then participate in the heavenly liturgy.

It seems that by chanting the same songs that the angels are singing at the same time in heaven the transports the mystic to participate together or in communion with the angels. Many of these prayers were memorized by the mystics that heard them in heaven and then introduced them into the daily liturgy. In all of the Jewish world besides the rabbis for example in the apocrypha, in Qumran, in Hechalot and Ashkenazi forms of Judaism and later forms of medieval Jewish spirituality there is fundamental link between visionary mysticism and prayer.

In the Talmud, the rabbis instituted the formal public liturgy and made all efforts to create a non-mystical prayer. They severed the link between Merkavah and prayer in both ways – when the rabbis write about entering the Pardes of Merkavah speculations there is almost no mention of prayer and prayer itself is almost totally detached from Merkavah mysticism. The qedusha, the sanctum is considered as a kind of compromise of the rabbis with the mystical circles to give something, some form of recognition of the heavenly liturgy but again without any mystical inclinations.

In my article I examined two rabbinic discussions that nevertheless suggest some “lost” contact between some technique of envisioning the chariot or Merkavah speculations and prayer.

I suggest that the discussions in BT Brachot 21b and Mishnah Megilah 4:6  reflect a practice of contemplative envision of the chariot during the public prayer while citing the qedushah (sanctum) There was some sort of mystical practice of contemplation of the chariot practiced in the content of reading the qedusha in the public institutionalized prayer.

Rabbi Shagar- Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age

Rabbi Shagar (d. 2007), was a Torah scholar and a contemporary religious thinker who left a deep mark on the educators and students of the last generation. Here is a translation of one of his  essays called “Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age” which is chapter 1 in his book Kelim Shevurim: Torah ṿe-Tziyonut-Datit bi-Sevivah Posṭ-modernit : derashot (Broken Vessels: Torah and Religious Zionism in Postmodernity) (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Śiaḥ Yitsḥaḳ, (2003). This essay is translated here for the first time into English. It is available below as a blog post and as a Word document. Print this out and read it over the next week.

The translation was beautifully done by Rabbi Roy Feldman, rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob, Albany NY. Rabbi Feldman received rabbinic ordination from the RIETS and from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.  A graduate of Columbia University and he studied at Yeshivat Petach Tikva in Israel.   If anyone else has made personal translations of essays by Rav Shagar, I would be glad to post them. (Also if you find errors in this translation, please let me know).

In the last few months, I posted two other essays by Rav Shagar in translation (Hanukah and postmodernism) and have had several posts on his postmodernism. I have several other translations of Rav Shagar essays coming that are still in the pipeline.

shagar photo

To understand this essay on what Shagar calls post-modernism, it is important to bear in mind the difference between Post-modernity and Postmodernism. Post-modernity is the sense of our era when there is a breakdown of modernism. In contrast, Postmodernism is a specific moment in 20th century thought when the assumptions of modernism- in philosophy, art, architecture and literature- gave way to the post-modern assumptions.  Post-modernity is a sense of an age, a zeitgeist. postmodernism is a philosophic movement, similar to Pragmatism, Existentialism, and Kantian. The former is spirit of the age, the latter is an academic movement with a canon.

Postmodernity, the contemporary cultural era of the last 25 years is a breakdown of the objectivity of modernism, there is a questioning of rationality, science, ethics, progress, and secularism.

Postmodernism, the philosophy, deals with the current theoretical issues in hermeneutics, cultural theory, literary theory, psychology, and social science.

During the modern era, in both the phases of Enlightenment and Modernism, Judaism had to agresively defend itself against secularism especially those who thought religion is outdated, but the defense to be effective had to be on the turf of modernity. Rabbi Soloveitchik dealt with modernism as a philosophy, discussing Kantianism, and Existentialism. He did not generally discuss the cultural mood of modernity; however there were scores of books with titles on Jews and modernity dealing with the mood of modernity

In the era of postmodernity, when all values are questioned and there is no longer belief in progress and rationality, religion has come back with vengeance. Evangelicals, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews can all say that the modern critiques of religion do not really exist, or do not have to be taken seriously. Many 21st century religious works present the modern critiques of religion as just personal editorial opinions, which can be easily dismissed by believers. They can also cite popular critiques of academia as affirmations that they don’t have to answer the critiques of modernity. Orthodox op-ed writers are part of post-modernity in that they think the Orthodox perspective trumps Hume, Locke, and Kant, but at the same time they grab whatever they like in modern science, psychology or sociology. But these anti-intellectual religious figures are part of postmodernity, they are not postmodern.

Rav Shagar deals with postmodernity as a cultural social moment and not as a philosophy of postmodernism. He also uses the term post-modernism to mean postmodernity and with a dash between post and modern, contra US style.

Rav Shagar opens his article quoting a Hebrew University sociology professor, an archetype of the challenges of this era, as saying that we cannot condemn honor killing by a Druze clan since that would be subjecting them to Western liberal values rather than respecting their own values.  (There are sociologists who present such views such as Saba Mahmood who justify burkas, honor killings and polygamy as a critique of the secular-liberal assumptions by which some people hold such movements to account).

Shagar uses this topic to explain how in the Post-modern world there are no universal values. In his caricature of post-modernism, he states that they hold the impossibility of condemning honor killing since it would be just another act of “European white male” hegemony.  So he asks, when do I abandon my relativism for moral values?

Soft Justice

Shagar introduces a distinction from the important philosopher Richard Rorty  ofSoft Justice”. We may no longer be able to ground our ethical distinctions in foundational moral realism, yet we believe in ethics even though it is not absolute. For Rorty, we do not discover the truth of our beliefs, rather they are an invention and self creation.

Shagar asks: If we have soft justice, then can also have soft religion?

He gives a political application. The left says religious Zionist can never achieve peace because of its foundational absolute claims of homeland and Holy Land  To which Shagar asks: What do we do with the Religious Zionist claim if there is no absolute truth and religion is nothing but language games?

Here is the crux behind most of his writings. What do we do when we realize that the absolute claims of Merkaz haRav, Religious Zionism, Gush-Brisker halakhah, and the Kuzari cannot be affirmed in a post-modern age?

As in many of his essays, the sections end on a question.

The Contradiction of Experience

Shagar turns the essay to several of Rav Nachman of Breslov ideas: (1) in this world we always have problems without answers. (2) that we live with an unresolved  paradox of the absence of God in the world and that His glory fills the earth (3) that the world is a contradiction of experience – tzimzum, contractions, un explained suffering.

As a good point of contrast, Art Green in all his books used these same Rav Nachman building blocks to say that we live in a world of modernist doubt and silence from God. We are disconnected from the theistic God of the past, now we consider God as a spiritual voice in our inner selves, as well as a panentheism of God in the world. We may not have belief in the modern age but we still have spirituality.  Green states clearly that, after the modernism of Darwin, Freud, Wellhausen and the tragedy of the Holocaust,we cannot believe  in theism anymore only a panenetheism,

In contrast, Shagar will use these passages to create a postmodernity view, a way to live after cultural relativism.

The Right to be Silent

Shagar asks: How  does Rav Nachman realted to postmodernism? To which he answers with his thematic statement that post-modern means to “have no answers.”  Which he takes to mean no grand narrative or foundational knowledge.

Hence, he asks: Can we ban unethical murder in honor killings and impose our ethical values. To which he answers: I trust my human finite truth.  We can trust our own personal judgments. My truth exists as a personal revelation of God; God exists in everything including my personal truth. We are all seekers for a path. God and ethics are part of our personal existential quests.

Here is where Shagar goes off the post-modern rails and returns to Existentialism as we noted in prior blog posts. For a post-modern, we have no access to the self, everything, including the self, is decentered in signs and constructions.   The personal self is a constructed category in postmodernism.

As a modern Existentialist, Shagar in the next paragraph proclaims that a personal truth is so valid that I can be willing to devote myself my life to the personal meaning and even kill and die for it.  The fact that we cannot substantiate our values and can always doubt our values should not hinder our faith This is Existentialism 101, from an introduction class on Sartre who says the exact same thing in his Existentialism as a Humanism (1946). But whereas the modernist Sartre placed the emphasis on the firmness of decision-making, personal resolution, and commitment. Shagar places the emphasis on silence, contradiction, and the inability to have an absolute. A Postmodernism form of Existentialism.

For Sarte, there are no universals because we are isolated beings thrown toward our own finite existences and ultimate deaths. In contrast, for Shagar, there are no answers because the narrative of truth has broken down as described in Lyotard. Meaning, for him, the religious Zionist narrative has broken down.

Why stop an honor killing?  Because we still believe eternal value to goodness. Yet, this value is based on faith, our personal revelation and paradox.

Shagar even reads Maimonides based on this framework.  Maimonides write that God has no final goal for the world after creation. God is unknown and not known through history. This is clearly a rejection of the Rabbi Kook and Religious Zionist view of god’s plan for history. In Shagar’s hands, Maimonides’ negative theology becomes post-modern; Maimonides’ unknowability of God is explained as no meaning  or grand narrative or even meaninglessness.

Positive Faithful Pluralism

What is the difference between secular “postmodern pluralism” as presented by the Hebrew University professor, and our aspiration to a religious “faithful pluralism”? The former has no divine inspiration and the latter has divine inspiration.

A faithful pluralism will still use the modernist metaphor of discovery but acknowledge the believer has contradictory personal revelations. Shagar elevates and glorifies personal religious decisions as a form of divine revelation.

Our personal decisions are substantive creation of Torah. It is not an empty game of post-modernism, rather the religious person opens himself up to the possibility of creation and revelation. (I need someone to translate one of his essays on mesirat nefesh and emunah, an important category of his).

In a “Postmodern Faithful Pluralism”, the encountering of a diversity of believers and non-believers with contradictory positions will not weaken the believers faith. Rather, it will strengthen the faith. Furthermore, similar to Hasidim, we find God in everything. The awareness of contradictions makes us more sensitive, moral, and modest.  We see our boundaries.

Nobody’s faith is preferable to another’s faith. We all have our faith and individual inspiration allowing this diversity to strengthen human fraternity. “Postmodern pluralism denounces the violence of the “enlightened individual” who tries to coerce his values on reality and also that of the believer who wants to impose his faith on the whole world.”

Hence, the religious man is not a primitive being rather one who possesses a genuine option for human existence. (I am not sure if this line is more reminiscent of Rav Soloveithcik’s defense of the dignity of Halkahic man or a defense of cultural relativism).

A student of mine, who is now  a major pulpit rabbi, recently reminded me why was I less interested in Rav Shagar when this book first came out in 2003.  First, I lean more to classical moral realism of Saadiah Gaon, Maimonides, or Rav Kook. Second, the way to overcome fundamentalism is not with treating relativism as revelation but with returning to a rational culture that can temper religion. Scholars of fundamentalism such as Oliver Roy (II, III, IV) point out that fundamentalism thrives on the hollowing out of mainstream culture as immoral and relativistic. His answer is to strengthen the moderate rational cultural world with multiple sources of truth including both religious and secular  Third, as a professor of religion/theology I prefer the more rigorous postmodern philosophy-  Foucault, Lacan, Bauman, Caputo -than the pop postmodernism. The philosophers have religious responses by Christians akin to what Rav Soloveitchik attempted with modernism. Finally, I think Shagar’s post-modernism in the 2013 volume is better worked out than this 2003 essay.



Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age (here)

From Kelim Shevurim: Torah ṿe-Tziyonut-Datit bi-Sevivah Posṭ-modernit : derashot  (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Śiaḥ Yitsḥaḳ, (2003). Part I, chapter 1. Translated by  Roy Feldman

 Judaism and Postmodernism

There are countless articles appearing about the murder of Ikhlas Knaan in her home in the Druse quarter of Kfar Ramah in the Galilee region.  The murderer was her brother, a regular service soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, fifteen years younger than his victim. . .  Her family hinted that it was dissatisfied with her lifestyle and activities in the United States; it was even less satisfied with her manner of dress and self-expression while she was in Israel. I offered to write an editorial in the Opinion section of HaAretz discussing the cultural context that could allow, and at times even require, a man to kill a woman in his family.  My offer was gladly accepted.  The essay deals with what I term, “The Liberal Dilemma.”  On the one hand, murdering women contradicts our value of the sanctity of human life; on the other hand, interfering in the world of a different group and imposing dominant group’s values on the minority’s culture contradicts the liberal tendency to leave alone those who do not bother us, and to respect them.  Viewing the other as exotic—as cultured, but part of a different culture, long ago replaced the alternative, paternalistic view of the White cultured European.

I have selected the above excerpts from an essay by Danny Rabinowitz, of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Hebrew University.  Rabinowitz attempts to present a point of view from which one can understand the murder as it was committed for the sake of “family honor.”  He was surprised by the raging responses he received from feminists and others who opposed the notion that he would even consider justifying a cultural context in which such a murder could take place.

The attacks come first and foremost against my propriety; and to a certain extent against the propriety of traditional anthropology to offer coherent and functional explanations for shocking phenomena.  Many of the critics assume that there is a connection between investigating for the sake of explanation legitimizing a crime and its culprit.

The discussion highlights the dilemma of the postmodern world, a world that cannot talk about “universal values” because, as far as it is concerned, such values do not exist.  Truth does not exist, and “the truth” surely does not exist.  In this world, “truth” is a social construct—it is only “politics of truth,” as Nietzsche explained: “Values and their changes are related to increases in the power of those positing the values.”

What can we do in such a world?  Must the Knesset, for instance, impose laws on the Druse to prevent these murders, blood redemption, or other traditions that seem immoral to us?  Our moral values oblige us to prevent and eradicate such shocking phenomena from happening, but our historical, sociological, and anthropological consciousness teaches us that, from the Druse point of view, the murderer not only defended his society and its moral values—but he did the right thing.  As a man of values, can I ignore the second point of view, a critical approach that rejects the imposition of “European White Male” values on a world that seems primitive to his condescending eyes?

This story highlights more than anything the fact that the central question of “values in the postmodern world” is the question of limits: At what point do I abandon my relativist awareness in exchange for my moral values?  There are values for which even the most extreme relativist—enlightened to and fully aware of the fact that all values are relative and contextual– would put his foot down, rebel, and declare: “That’s IT!”  If not, we would arrive at a paradox, as Rabinowitz himself explains in his essay:

English city governments with large communities of people of African descent, specifically those that customarily circumcise babies and young girls, face a difficult dilemma.  The citizens (in this case Muslims), who possess inexorable electoral power, demanded that their practical religious needs be included in the list of surgeries covered by the state health insurance. . .  Thus, they would save a great deal of money and prevent the inherent danger of circumcising their daughters without any medical attention or hygienic conditions, and most importantly– they would have the opportunity to openly maintain their culture and traditions in their glory.  At least one city has added this operation to its list of surgeries that are subsidized by public funding.

Similarly, we must ask, what is our position regarding the burning of Indian widows?  From our point of view, this is the most despicable of immoral acts, but the Indian man believes he is doing the widow a great favor.  The perplexed postmodernist has a predicament:  He will object to the phenomenon, but he can also see the Indian man’s perspective.  As far as he is concerned, the notion of a general moral decree, one devoid of a socio-cultural context, is baseless.

The Postmodern Solution: “Soft Justice”

If so, what is justice in a relativist world?  David Gurevitz has coined an apt phrase: “Soft Justice.”  Again, we do not expect complete justice which, as we have established, does not exist; our expectations are lowered to a soft, local justice, that is derived through discourse and consent among people.  There are many models of “soft justice,” but they are all characterized by conceding the pretense of absolute rulings.  Nonetheless, as Gurevitz remarks, soft justice has its own boundaries; it is guided by non-relativistic rules, namely, the dogmatic belief in human rationality without which fruitful discussion and consent are impossible.  These values are formulated in terms different from those of traditional justice.  Richard Rorty, a contemporary American philosopher, suggests just that: we must abandon the metaphor of discovery, and adopt instead a metaphor of self-creation and self-founding.  The metaphor of discovery causes man to believe he has discovered “the truth,” and there is therefore no room for other truths.  The metaphor of invention and self-creation, on the other hand, encourages the outlook that each value is produced from and by its society, and, if so, it does not contradict values of other societies.  Only through such compromise can we have harmony within a society and outside it.

In this context, we develop a fascinating question: Is it possible that, like “soft justice,” we can also have “soft religion,” or are faith and religion naturally forced into decisive truths?

In order to achieve peace, the secular left says, we must abandon our traditional sense of “home.”  Only the cosmopolitan, who feels at home everywhere in the world, can bring peace.   Religious Zionist society, therefore, is incapable of establishing peace: concepts of “homeland,” “my home,” necessarily displace the Other, and lead to a perpetual struggle.  Therefore, says the left, in order to achieve peace, we must abandon—even through suffering—the sense of home, and stop thinking in terms of “homeland” in order to prevent the constant spilling of blood.  Religious Zionism, says the left, can never achieve peace, since the belief in “homeland” and the “holy land” lead to an unending conflict.  Nevertheless, the connection the left makes between the “social revolution” and the question of peace cannot be severed so simply.

Is a Religious Zionist solution, one that does not give up and resort to Haredi insularity, possible?  How can we establish truths in a world that no longer believes in them and maintains that the concept of “truth” in and of itself no longer exists, that discourse cannot represent reality and is simply composed of “language-games?”

The Contradiction of Existence

I would like to claim that this problem is unresolvable; its source is a ‘programming failure’ of the human experience.  Furthermore, understanding this failure and its role as an origin opens a religious option far more exciting than the accepted one.

In one of his famous teachings, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav teaches that there is a contradiction at the core of the human experience.  He terms this phenomenon, “problems that have no answer.”  Rebbe Nachman opens the teaching with the assertion that “the Blessed Lord created the world in light of his mercifulness since he wanted to reveal his mercifulness, and if not for the creation of the world—on whom would he have mercy?”

This is a difficult assertion.  On such an assertion, Yehuda Amichai wrote: “If God were not full of mercy, there would be more mercy in the world.”  If God had created the world as better, He would not need to have mercy on us, nor would we on Him.

To my understanding, Rebbe Nachman is not claiming that God created the world to have an object for his mercy; rather, the creation itself, its resonance, that which it reveals, is mercy.  He is not discussing mercy as a concrete status; mercy is embedded in the contradiction of experience, specifically the human experience (and they come to include the concrete expression of suffering).  Rebbe Nachman explains this rift as the concept of tzimtzum (lit. “constriction”) in the Kabbalah.

According to him, tzimtzum is a paradox: On the one hand, in order for a world to exist, God must disappear from the world.  On the other hand, a Godless reality opposes the infiniteness of God, for the concept of God’s unity comes not only to negate cooperation, but also to assert that there is no entity other than He, for “His glory fills the earth.”  And so, Rebbe Nachman continues:

And so tzimtzum, the contraction of empty space, we cannot understand or deduce until the future.  For we must say two opposites, existence and nothingness, for the empty space exists through the tzimtzum, that God, as it were, contracted his Godliness from there, and there is apparently no Godliness there, for if it were not so, it would not be empty, and all is infinite, and there is no room whatsoever for the creation of the world; truthfully, however, there is certainly Godliness even there, since there is surely no life without Him, and so we cannot have any element or aspect of empty space until the future…

Reality in general, and the human experience specifically, is absurd, but absurdity is an abyss, and it itself is the origin of the great mercy at the heart of creation.

The Right to be Silent

How is this related to postmodernism?  The postmodern contradiction is one of the problems that Rebbe Nachman said “have no answer.”

Let us return to the morality example we discussed earlier: Do we have the right to interfere and impose our moral values on the Druse murdering the young woman?  As we have said, the possibility of reflective observation, that places all matters in their context and in their place, always exists and we may not escape it.  However, in the end, I am indeed human, finite, with my own truth, and I believe in that truth, and I cannot and will not deny it.

Rebbe Nachman’s notion of tzimtzum is latent in this paradox.  My truth, indeed, exists as a revelation of God.  God exists in everything—“leit atar patur minei,” say the hassidim.  It’s translation: “There is nothing from which God is absent,” including the existential and ethical domains, and so, they exhibit certainty.  We can always pose the question: do other people not have other values?  But this possibility should not destroy the notion that a certainty exists which I would not renounce, in truth, I am willing to devote myself to it, to die for it or even to kill for it.

How can both of these ideas exist together?  Rebbe Nachman recommends silence.  He cites the midrash in which Moses asks about Rabbi Akiva’s destiny: “Is that Torah, and is that its reward?”  And he is answered, “Be silent; this is how we advance thought.”  In other words, the solution is not found at the theoretical level; the solution is a response, or, to be precise, abstention.  Abstention which is not evasion but rather a unique response to a human situation that knows itself and rejects the denial of any of its components.

The fact that we cannot substantiate our values, and that we can always doubt them, should not hinder our faith.  Rebbe Nachman’s greatness lies in his ability to turn problems into devotion.  Take for example the unjust event we have described: if any of us were to encounter this situation, he would not sit aside and allow the Druse to murder his sister.  He would implement any measure necessary—including killing—in order to prevent the murder of the young woman.  But why?  Rebbe Nachman teaches that we can respond to these questions, questions of faith, in three ways: (1) a positive response, (2) a negative response, and (3) not asking the question in the first place.  There are questions that cannot be answered, and there is no need to answer them.  That is faith, paradoxical as it is (and Rebbe Nachman was correct to express paradox), and as such its strength and intensity are hidden.

Such a response answers not only the question of moral values, but we can broaden it to the general question of human existence: Everyone asks himself whether his life has value.  If he helps someone—even if that day he was to die, and the person whom he helped would also die, and nothing would be left, we still believe that there is eternal value to such actions.  Similarly, Rebbe Nachman knows that the final questions, the metaphysical questions, are beyond the capacity of language.  Unlike the postmodernist, however, who concludes from this that they lack meaning, that they are “nonsense” as Wittgenstein claims derisively (and maybe even despairingly), for Rebbe Nachman, this knowledge opens the possibility of faith.  He knows, as many before him also knew, that absolutes deviate from the “language games” possible in a given language, and that silence is a human potential no smaller than speech.  In effect, only a meaningless environment can create true meaning.  Maimonides writes that God does not have one absolute, final goal—that exists only in the world, after its creation, and not outside it.  God is One unto Himself, and that is also the nature of faith.

Positive Faithful Pluralism

The difference between faithful pluralism and postmodern pluralism is the difference between relativism which lacks inspiration and relativism which is open to inspiration, between the claim that the postmodern game is an empty one and a stance that ascribes meaning to it.  Faithful pluralism does not hesitate to use the metaphor of “discovery.”  Even if it knows that there are many different and even contradictory “revelations,” these contradictions do not paralyze it.  It would certainly admit that “truth” is a social construct, but it is still a substantive creation and not simply an empty game.  Am I willing to open myself to the possibility of this creation, and to see within it divine inspiration, full of faith, even if I am aware of other possibilities?

We therefore arrive at Positive Faithful Pluralism.  Encountering different types of believers and nonbelievers will not weaken my faith, it will strengthen it.  Like the hasidim, I will be able to recognize the Godliness in everything.  The theological question of “which faith is preferable” loses meaning in the postmodern world, however, this does not disrupt my allegiance my Jewish heritage.  What remains is the existence of faith and inspiration, and these serve to strengthen human fraternity.

This will not eliminate the possibility to have faith and to live ourselves, but know to set boundaries.  The awareness of contradictions will balance us and make us more sensitive, moral, and modest.  The Muslim will remain Muslim and will live in his faith, but if he also adopts for himself the western perspective and is reflective and rational, he will be able to accept me as a Jew.  And, certainly, vice versa—the Jew…

Only then can fraternity be created.  Postmodern pluralism denounces the violence of the “enlightened individual” who tries to coerce his values on reality, and also that of the believer who wants to impose his faith on the entire world.  The faithful individual will be forced to adapt a rational but uncertain approach, without hurting his faith; so too, the others must relate to the religious man not as a primitive being, but rather, as one who possesses a genuine option for human existence.

The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox (MO) Community-Ruvie

I know many intermarried couples where one member of the couple is Jewish; they live on my block, they are students, and they are friends. I also have many formerly Orthodox Jewish day school students who are currently married to non-Jewish spouses.

I once asked a leading Jewish sociologist involved in producing some of the recent surveys –and currently placing his bets on Orthodoxy-: How many Orthodox Jews are intermarrying? His answer was that they are no-longer Orthodox so he has no such statistic. How about how many day school graduates have intermarried? To which he answered that he does not deal with such statistics. As I have discussed before, most surveys are barometers of the moment without taking into account historical or longitudinal trends.

However, from my class lists from the 1990’s, I have a rough anecdotal sense that about 7-8% of my former students from committed day schools living in the center of Jewish life have intermarried.  Someone at an Orthodox Forum circa 2000 raised the point and independently came up with a similar percentage.

(Chava introducing Tevye to  Fyedka- Fiddler on the Roof)

Today’s post is a guest post by Ruvie, an Orthodox parent whose son intermarried.   I met this person at a dinner in support of a Hesder Yeshiva; we are talking about a committed family, highly affiliated and associated with a halakhic approach, who asks questions to Roshei Yeshiva. Ruvie has appeared on this blog in the past when he was working through his son leaving Orthodoxy in a post entitled Being a Supportive Parent to a Child Who Leaves Orthodoxy. 

This post is intellectualized rather than direct first-hand account of his personal reactions, finding solace in engaging in armchair theorizing as a means to come to grips with his disappointment. I know several of the other Orthodox parents whom Ruvie mentions that are dealing with children who have recently entered a mixed marriage. This is not about blame and little could have been different since these were highly committed families. From my observations and from the anecdotes in this post, the Modern Orthodox marrying out is done relatively equally by men and women.

This post is not about cases with full Orthodox conversion. If we included those, which are now quite common, then we have an perspective of even greater exogamy.

As a basis, here is an encyclopedia survey on intermarriage among Jews in the United States. For a broader perspective that summarizes much of the field, I recommend Robert Wuthnow, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity (2007). In chapter nine, Wuthnow makes a number of important summary observations. Wuthnow finds that such couples tend to deemphasize the doctrinal aspects that differentiate their faiths and embrace the view that religions are essentially cultural traditions rooted in personal biography and private opinion. He also notes that mixed-married couples understand that their childhood more traditional clergy will not perform a mixed-marriage, but they do not care since there are plenty of progressive clergy who will.

Wuthnow also notes that in many cases religiosity and mixed-marriage are, in many cases, two separate variables. An American can be religious and still intermarry and vica -versa, a nominal affiliate can be firmly against mixed marriages. The latter is a social sense of group identity and the former is one’s religious commitment. Group identity and religious identity are separate variables.

In practical terms that means that, a non-committed, non-affiliated young Jew in Brooklyn or Baltimore is statistically likely to adhere to endogamy, while the exogamy trend is strong for a Jew in the South-West or Pacific Northwest even if raised Orthodox.

My reader should also grasp that for many today Passover and Easter or Yom Kippur and Christmas are not mutually contradictory. One can be a Jew and a Christian –or a Jew and a Hindu –without a sense of contradiction. They are not seen by many Jews (and Christians or Hindus) as competing narratives. There are programs that capture to “being both” and even an after-school program that teaches both Christianity and Judaism.

In addition, mixed marriages are often not the confrontation of unknowns from Philip Roth novels or old-time sitcoms. Both sides are likely to know much about the other faith and feel comfortable in keeping both. They have been working or socializing together for years. In mixed marriages, the non-Jewish spouse may be the one in charge of making the Passover Seder, taking the children to synagogue, or even teaching Hebrew school. As a starting point, I recommend Jennifer A. Thompson. Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism. (New Brunswick:Rutgers University Press, 2014) and  Keren McGinity, Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014). Both books treat the claim that intermarriage poses the greatest threat to the American Jewish community as bombastic rhetoric.

For a historically sense before contemporary US, here are some older statistics from the start of the 20th century.

During 1900 in Prussia there were 4,799 Jews who married Jewesses, and 474 Jews and Jewesses who married outside their faith (“Zeitschrift für Preussische Statistik,” 1902, p. 216). … Berlin, where in 1899 there were 621 Jewish marriages as against 229 intermarriages (“Statistisches Jahrbuch,” 1902, p. 61). New South Wales.. there were 781 who had married Jews or Jewesses, as against 686 who had married outside the faith (“Census of New South Wales 1901, Bulletin No. 14”).

Finally, here is a recent first-person account by a formerly Modern Orthodox, highly affiliated day school graduate describing his first experiences of Christmas.

This year marked my third Christmas in Europe…  That first year, like an Orthodox teen nibbling on the edge of a Big Mac just to see what the fuss was about, I played Charlie Brown’s Christmas album over and over again…I tried leading my in laws in a rendition of The First Noel, which they found a bit too religious for their taste.

Ordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic, even if it has not yet reached the rabbis. Similar to the belated discover of the high attrition rate in Modern Orthodox in the last few years, this too needs to be acknowledged.


(RSN1-may11) “Interfaith Marriage Grows,” Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen.

Guest Post by Ruvie
The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox (MO) Community

Last year I penned an article describing the issues (emotional and practical) of a parent with a child leaving orthodoxy (here). Last month, my son, married a non-Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage lead by a liberal Rabbi. I participated along with my family in the ceremony.

I am aware of 5 families in my observant MO circle of friends that have dealt with interfaith marriages in the last eighteen months. Among these families: all the children (28-32 yr. olds) were bright successful students who attended 12 year of yeshiva day school, plus many also spent a gap year in Israel. The parents are in stable long term marriages of 28 plus years. The families are all observant – shomer shabbat, kashrut, and taharat hamishpacha. This was/is an emotionally trying time for all families. All parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt. I will address my personal feelings at the end of article.

This is something new and growing in the MO community.Are my personal anecdotes a rarity or a growing trend that is rapidly emerging when increasing numbers of children of Modern Orthodox families grow up and decide not to continue Orthodox life?

There are no statistics in the recent Pew report (or any other survey) for this phenomenon. One advisor to the Pew report thought that a 10% number for MO intermarriage would not surprise him. He estimated the range could vary between 5-20%.

Regardless of the statistics, many in our community have the subjective sense that something is changing. An issue which not long ago was never discussed, whether or not it was actually occurring, or was regarded as a problem only for others, now has a growing place on the communal agenda. What has changed, why, and what can we do about it?

Personal Theories

In discussion with friends numerous theories were offered.

  1. Is it the next step in a community where increasing numbers of grown children of MO families decides not to continue Orthodox life. It seems that the identity fashioning they receive in MO schools and at home is very tightly tied to just ritual observance. Perhaps the Hareidi subliminal view of all or nothing worldview seeped into the 21st century MO and once our children become non-religious, the hierarchy of forbidden actions go by the wayside.
  2. A sociologist/Rabbi opines: “Basically, Jews were one of the most reviled white ethnic group at the start of the 20th century…. America, in short, would not accept the Jews — not into social clubs, nor neighborhoods, nor boards nor colleges. This kept intermarriage rates low.  If Jews wanted to intermarry, it’s not like America was deeply interested in them doing so.

This changed in the 1960s.  Jews went to college in record numbers.  A young person leaves their home, their family network, their local shul and neighborhood for an artificial community. In that place Jews meet a lot of gentiles and form new social networks.  After the 1960s, America is also more meritocratic for a time.

By the dawn of the 21st century, Jews are the most beloved ethnic group.  The Gores, the Clintons, the Trumps all married Jews or became Jews.  Jews ran for the presidency.  Jews are more than 30% of every elite group in the US except the military.  America has said yes to the Jews, and Jews have responded by intermarrying.”

3. Our children identify with Judaism in a different way than previous generations. They pick and choose their individual identity. More importantly the non-Jew/gentile is no longer viewed as “the other”. They see little difference between themselves and the non-Jew. The belief, by both parents and children, is that all humans are fundamentally alike — that there is no ontological difference between Jew and non-Jew accepted. Ethically and culturally they are very similar. Most importantly, the change in America to acceptance in the last 30 years.

Fifty plus years ago, Jews who wanted to assimilate and join another culture (or acceptance in it – leaving their Judaism behind) intermarried. Today, our youth feel they are not leaving their religion with intermarriage. We no longer just inherit our identity but also construct it as well. They pick and choose what traditions to observe or not and what defines their Judaism. They are proud of their heritage and are not trying to hide it. Intermarriage is no longer the third rail for many. It should be noted that Jewish intermarriage rate is similar to other ethnic groups which has also risen in the last few decades.

4. With the passing of time and the growth of a gulf between American Jews and Israel, the Holocaust and Zionism are no longer the major magnet foci for Jewish identity in America individually and communal. This is especially true for millennials.

I initially rejected this theory for modern orthodoxy given the inculcation of our children received all year long (home, Day School, camps, gap year in Israel as well as numerous visits)  for the love of the State of Israel and reverence and continuing references to the Shoah (Yom Hashoah, Tisha B’av, and other events as constant reminders who we are directly connected to: Western Europe Jewry). Of the families at least two parents are children of survivors who were close to their grandchildren who are intermarrying.

Independently, a psychiatrist friend opined that the Holocaust and the State of Israel no longer have the emotional hold on the psyche of the community as of our generation. Yes, it is taught and emphasized much more than the non-orthodox world but only we were in the generation of Eichmann and Holocaust deniers (my brother was born in Bergen-Belsen). We lived through the anxiety of the 1967 and 1973 wars when the state could have been destroyed. Today’s generation sees these significant events as given history that they discuss in school (like the biblical Exodus and the destruction of the temple) which is more part of our collective history and memory than individual association which is more detached emotionally on the personal level because of time.

5. We raised our children with rules unlike those of our parents; we instilled a sense of freedom and respect for their personal decisions. They responded in kind and we are left baffled as to why they didn’t continue to think like us.

Navigating the Terrain – A Parent’s View

While there are many possible reasons for the current phenomenon of interfaith relationships and marriage, the challenging issue is finding a way to deal with this situation at hand. Learning more about the root causes may offer insights for leaders on the communal level but families in short term need tools and resources in helping them navigate these waters.

How should we cope with this as parents, friends and as a community? How do we engage, participate, and publicize in our reality? Are there red lines or limits to what we can accept as observant Jews (Is this an individual choice that varies)? As parents? Can we balance the tensions or is it DOA?

There is a certain taboo about this subject that no longer exists today in discussing controversial topics in orthodoxy like homosexuality and abandoning orthodoxy (OTD – Off the Derech – or XO ex-orthodox). There are many articles published and discussions from the pulpit on these topics but not one on MO and interfaith marriage.  In December 2015 there was a symposium with Orthodox Rabbis on intermarriage in America  – no names of Rabbis were published nor media exposure to details – Rabbis are afraid to be publicly associated with this topic. Parents are reluctant to talk to friends, Rabbis, and extended family. They first are embarrassed and in denial then hope and pray it goes away as a phase not wanting to alienate their children- or they fight and alienate their children.

On a personal level, for myself and others, there was a certain amount of: shame in being in this situation – didn’t discuss with my closest friends until later, anger at our ourselves (as failures) and our educational system, confusion – how could this have happened and where is my allegiance – son, family, community and Judaism?and lastly a certain amount of guilt.

One friend claimed that 10 years ago she would have blamed the parent 100% for this outcome and now she has to look in the mirror and realizes that until you are in the situation it’s never so black and white.

Of the five couples – two met in college and three many years later. Most of the couples have been together for a minimum of 3 years. On gender: two men and three women are non-Jewsh.

Four out of five couples are married already. In four out of the five couples (one I am not sure about) there has been on-going conversion discussions. One conversion occurred before marriage. Two had private civil ceremonies with receptions at a later date and two had a chupah or Jewish style ceremony (with other cultures incorporated) and receptions. All were relatively small affairs (max in the low 100s).

Each family has their own story with specific issues and yet there is commonality among all. All the children were already not religious for many years. Some of the questions/issues: What kind of wedding ceremony does one have, if one at all? Is there an interest in converting? What kind of future home do you envision? What role does Judaism play in the couple’s future? Parents have a role to play if they listen and offer suggestions without making absolute demands. Children are willing to listen to their parents’ concerns and adjust but that does not mean adopting all suggestions.

In our situation, I referred my son to a friend/Rabbi knowledgeable in this area and after meeting the couple referred him to a Rabbi willing to officiate in an interfaith marriage (after meeting the couple). The couple and the referred Rabbi together devised the ceremony.  I was asked to bless the couple under the chupah via birkat kohanim. My daughter read a section from Megilat Ruth. A friend of the bride began the ceremony singing a Yiddish love poem in Yiddish and later in the ceremony sang Lecha Dodi/Boee Kallah to Leonard Cohen’s Hallejuah. The mother of bride (former opera singer) sang an Aria from Eicha and father also blessed the couple. A friend read a passage from Shira HaShirim and the couple exchanged vows.

After the ceremony, the Rabbi explained privately to me that he informed the couple that for religious reasons there is no cup of wine nor blessings (including sheva berachot) nor halakhic Ketubah in this ceremony because of Jewish law. The Rabbi sang In Eshkachech Yerushalayim (If I forget thee, O Jerusalem) and the glass was broken at the end of the ceremony

While attending a Judaism class, recommended by the Rabbi, she decided to convert at some future date and the Rabbi offered to sponsor her for a Conservative conversion. They searched and found a synagogue to join and attend.

Prior to the wedding my son requested me to affix a mezuzah on his apartment door (he had rejected my offer when he originally moved in to his apartment).Post wedding my son texted my wife asking where he can tovel his new dishes.

Where are the red lines? Are there limits of what parents are willing to accept?  Of course but I think I have not crossed that Rubicon. My son’s happiness and ascent from loneliness is an important factor in the equation. I realize that being supportive leads to possible normalization of interfaith marriage. As a parent the best interest and wellbeing of my child supersedes other considerations that are communal in nature.

Will Orthodoxy reach out and offer help and guidance to families? Will other denominations grappling with the topic fill the void? Many Orthodox parents have no resources at their disposal to help them navigate – they are uncomfortable with their local Rabbi for many reasons. How many know the parameters of conversion or giyur k’halakha (conversion according to Jewish Law – Orthodox vs the recent adopted stringency), zera yisrael issues (those with Jewish linage, but not technically Jewish), or bedieved (after the fact) conversions? Which Rabbis will publicly stretch out their hands to help and risk being ostracized or previous conversions annulled?  Who in Orthodoxy can they turn to in a “time of action” (et la’asot) situation?

In my previous blog post, I recalled a conversation with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on those that abandon Orthodoxy. He said: “The days of sitting shiva for those that leave are long over – it is a failed policy.” He believed the door must remain open with a willingness for conversation. There is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Lets begin now.

“Teach your children well, Their father’s hell did slowly go by, And feed them on your dreams The one they picks, the one you’ll know by. Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry, So just look at them and sigh And know they love you.” Crosby Stills Nash and Young

Yehoshua November Interview – Two Worlds Exist

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

When I teach the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya (Likutei Amarim) I display a bumper sticker with the above quote attributed to Chardin to illustrate how we live in two worlds, a material and Godly. But what does that mean? The Orthodox, Chabad influenced, singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman in his song Impermanent Things treats the world as transitory and weighing us down from our spiritual soaring. “All these impermanent things Oh how they fool me dominate and rule me They keep me waiting here forever”.  In contrast to that dualism, the recent volume Two Worlds Exist by the local Teaneck Chabad poet Yehoshua November elicits the tension of our living rich emotional and sensory lives and at the same time knowing that we are called to a higher understanding of reality. For November, the human experience deserves a poetic snapshot of the depth of human experience, while letting the light of the spiritual shine in through the cracks.

Yehoshua November’s poetry has been celebrated in many newspaper interviews and excerpts in poetry journals, even garnering the success of having his poems published in The New York Times, Prairie SchoonerThe SunVirginia Quarterly Review, and on National Public Radio.  November teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro College. His first poetry collection, God’s Optimism, won the MSR Poetry Book Award and was named a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. November’s recent second book of poems, Two Worlds Exist, (Orison Books, 2016) is a gem of religious poetry.

The Soul In A Body

is like an old Russian immigrant
looking out his apartment’s only window.
Yes, yes, he says.
The landlord printed my name in block letters
on the lobby directory
decades ago.
All correspondence
has been forwarded to this address.
But I am not from here. I am not
from here at all.

Most of this publicity concerned his poetics or the exceptionality of an Orthodox Jewish poet. This interview focuses on theological matters. The title of the recent second book of poems, Two Worlds Exist, points to his Chabad vision of living in the material world and at the same time acknowledging the higher divine world.  Influenced by the Lubavitvcher Rebbe concept of the highest essence of divinity is found in this world, November mediates between the messiness of real life with its losses, loves, and mundane events with a real presence of the higher life of the divine. “I think it’s important to explore how most people, even if they look as if everything is in order, are facing challenges. Art that doesn’t express conflict always falls flat because it’s not true to human experience.”

To contextualize this in Chabad thought, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab presented a theology of religious experience and personal revelation. In contrast, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught a paradoxical theology of the everyday, in which the lowest is really the highest, finding the divine essence in our meaningful existences. November follows the Rebbe.


What is noticeable in November’s poems, and also in his own self-understanding, is that we are not seeking divinity as a revelation, peak experience, or moment of transcendence to burst forth in life, as does Rainer Maria Rilke. Rather, the other world of the divine shines in our understanding of our complex lives.

When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?

“Two Worlds Exist”

On the other hand, November does not follow Gerard Manley Hopkins in seeking a mystical immanence, in transfigured ordinary life. Hopkins experienced what he called “inscape” beyond the surface of things, seeing God even in the most troubled events of our life. November lives his untransformed material life, yet his personal experience of it is transformed by acknowledging a higher realm.  November also avoids the existential subjectivism and memory of Yehudah Amichai.

November credits his early influence to Leonard Cohen’s poetry. Yet he avoids Cohen’s dark Sabbatian theology of human desire, rebellion, and standing as a sinner before God, but as noted above he also generally avoids Cohen’s quest for revelatory moments.

Several interviews noted the paucity of poetic imagination and creativity in the Orthodox Jewish world, attributing it to a cultural shunning of poetics to which November responded that the real issue is a lack of emotional range and connecting the heart to Jewish texts.

The lack of poetry in the Orthodox community is not necessarily a poetry issue per se, but an issue of creativity or inspiration. The true Jewish way is to be in full command of the mind and the heart and to use both in the service of God. Overall, Orthodox Jews could improve in the area of the heart, which may be connected to the dearth of poetry. And if there is sometimes a disconnect between what we read in the texts and our real lives, poetry is a good place to explore that, a place to bridge the gap and figure things out.

November embraces a religious faith can be compatible with a poetry of deep feeling of religious doubt and uncertainty as real options.

A Jew is supposed to trust in God, but this too comes against the backdrop, against the possibility, of doing otherwise. This is what makes faith meaningful. Secular audiences are skeptical about religious poetry because they are skeptical about religious life in general, believing it’s less thoughtful or too simplistic, a kind of mindless surrender that wipes away life’s problems, at least on an intellectual level. If a religious poet is honest, however, if he or she can represent the challenges and humanity of religious life, a secular audience should be able to relate, as long as that audience is open to reading it in the first place.


The Purpose of this World (From his first volume God’s Optimism)

When some Jews cannot explain the sorrow of their lives
they take a vow of atheism.
Then everywhere they go,
they curse the God they don’t believe exists.
But why, why don’t they grab Him by the lapels,
pull His formless body down into this lowly world,
and make Him explain.
After all, this is the purpose of creation–
to make this coarse realm a dwelling place
for His presence.

His second volume presents more complex religious imagery, such as his long poem “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah” which depicts the self-consciousness and shame of the men who became Orthodox, but now have to live with their tattoos “It may be easy to want to suppress or stigmatize the whole scene because tattoos are forbidden according to Jewish law, but in the poem I try to take the opposite angle and shine a light on this particular moment as one of great sacrifice and courage. For November, “It’s the human embarrassment that makes their sacrifice so meaningful. And thinking about how God must appreciate their efforts makes Judaism, as a whole, more real and touching for me.”

Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah

Sometimes you see them in the dressing area of the ritual bath,
young bearded men unbuttoning their white shirts,
slipping out of their black trousers, until, standing entirely naked,
they are betrayed by the tattoos of their past life:
a ring of fire climbing up a leg, an eagle whose feathery wing span spreads the width of the chest,
or worse, the scripted name of a woman other than one’s wife.
Then, holding only a towel, they begin, once more, the walk past the others in the dressing room:
the rabbi they will soon sit before in Talmud class,
men with the last names of the first chasidic families
almost everyone, devout since birth.
And with each step, they curse the poverty
that keeps the dark ink etched in their skin,
until, finally, they descend the stairs of the purifying water,
and, beneath the translucent liquid,
appear, once again, like the next man,
who, in all this days, has probably never made a sacrifice as endearing to God.

I also strongly recommend his poem  “At the Request of the Organization for Jewish Prisoners” depicting a visit of Chabad rabbinical students to a prison, depicting the tension between their lofty aspirations and the visit of a women in a “tight dress”  arriving for a  conjugal visit with a prisoner.

Another poem from his second volume captures the tension and sadness of the religious life rather than certainty and even when one is asking for certainty.


Before the Silent Prayer,
some slip the hood of their prayer shawls
over their heads,
so that even among many worshipers
they are alone with God.

Primo Levi wrote about the sadness of
“a cart horse, shut between two shafts
and unable even to look sideways … ”

Let me be like those pious ones
or that horse,
so that, even amidst a crowd,
no other crosses the threshold
of my dreaming.

Watching him read his own poem here and for more about Yehoshua November, I recommend the following three interviews at the Forward,The Jewish Standard and surprisingly Jewish Action had an Hasidic MFA interview him.

1)      Which poets influenced you?

When I was younger, in college and high school, I was drawn to the work of Leonard Cohen and other lyrical poets such Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda. For a time, I read Cohen almost exclusively.  I loved his lyricism and authoritative, almost prophetic voice.  His tropes and sense of consequence are Biblical, but often, the subject matter is secular.  I suppose I identified with this duality, having grown up in a traditional home that also prized literature, art, and popular culture.  G-d was against the backdrop of everything—a booming voice heard from a distance (and from up close in synagogue and in Torah classes at school), but daily life was lived out playing baseball, watching T.V., and listening to secular music.

Above all, when I was single, I was drawn to Cohen’s poems about love and relationships. In these poems, confounding factors render the relationships impossible, but Cohen often implies a kind of mystical chord continues to connect the two parties despite their parting. After some tough breakups, I suppose these poems spoke to me; they also implied—though it never actually seems to happen in Cohen’s work–a long-term fated love would emerge.

When I married just after college and settled into life’s daily rhythms, Cohen’s complicated love poems and tendency toward chaos did not seem to speak as directly to my predicament. I felt like his poems—and maybe I superimposed this on them—were not about finding meaning in or celebrating ordinary life but were always gesturing toward a kind of modern romanticism—waiting for the next transcendent moment (whether it be spiritual or erotic) or exalting the current one.  Ultimately, though his darker or graphic impulses probably go unrepresented in my poems, I’m sure his sense of spiritual longing and insistence on meaning has left a mark on my work.

Also, I read and continue to read my teachers from college and grad school. Often, they attempted to ground me in narrative work and poems that took contemporary details and family history as their props or centerpieces.  For instance, when I was an undergrad at SUNY Binghamton, Maria Gillan, the daughter of Italian immigrants, pushed me to write about my family upbringing and culture.  In graduate school, Tony Hoagland, a poet whom I was studying under, would tell me I needed to insert a microwave into my poems. Like many young poets, I wanted to be a kind of Universalist, to write poems that would be read throughout the ages and sail beyond the edges of what could be articulated or known.  To accomplish this, I believed I needed to avoid the particulars of my specific time period or tradition. Though my work from that era did include Jewish references, they were the sort of allusions that situated the speaker of the poems—figuratively, and sometimes literally—as a figure afloat in Chagall’s village sky—a time and place so distant and lovely it seemed never to have existed at all.

In graduate school, one of my teachers introduced me to the work of the Pulitzer Prize- winning poet Louis Simpson, who was born in the early 1920s, to a Russian Jewish mother and Scottish father. Some of Simpson’s poetry focuses on his Russian ancestry, painting vivid pictures of mundane life in Volhynia and elsewhere. The voice, too, is often conversational. I think reading these Simpson poems helped shift my focus from lyrical poetry to work that tells a story and isn’t necessarily trying to dazzle the reader via language.

In recent years, I’ve been reading Sharon Olds, a well-known American poet, whose most recent book, Stag’s Leap, heartbreakingly chronicles the end of her 30 year marriage.   Her narrative, confessional slant makes her work accessible and compelling to my students in Intro to Creative Writing, many of whom take the class to fulfill a requirement.
2)      Are there non-Jewish spiritual poets that influence you?

For a long time now, I’ve been reading the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, (born Lvov, Poland, 1945), and became an important member of “The New Wave’” of Polish poets in the late 1960s. His work is often more abstract than mine, but I am drawn to how he combines the mysterious with the particulars of history, philosophy, and European culture. And his most recent book often touches on his childhood and his parents.

I’d have to consider Zagajewski the poet I return to most often. I first heard him read in Pittsburgh, when I was in grad school. A few years ago, he came to Rutgers for a reading, and I met him and gave him my first book. He’s a very humble and generous man, despite being one of the giants of contemporary poetry.  I often share his work with my students, and, through email, he’s answered questions I’ve had about his poems.

I also like the poetry of Marie Howe, former Poet Laureate of New York State.  Her work blends the mundane and spiritual in surprising ways, and her language is precise and elegant but also plain-spoken, especially in her collection What the Living Do. Though I don’t think she considers herself a believer, she grew up in a very large Catholic family, and New Testament allusions are present in much of her work. I’d say Zagajewski and Howe are spiritual poets.  I also admire the work of Li-Young Lee, a poet born in Indonesia, in 1957, to Chinese political exiles. Though initially a physician, Lee’s father later became a Presbyterian minister when he relocated his family to America. Much of Lee’s work describes his childhood and his father’s influence on his life.

And I’m in touch with two other Orthodox Jewish poets, David Caplan and Eve Grubin, whose poetry I read often. David Caplan, who’s also a poetry scholar, was instrumental in helping me shape Two Worlds Exist.  As a poet familiar with Chassidic thought, he has been an amazing resource for me, providing suggestions both in terms of craft and content, especially when questions concerning incorporation of difficult Chassidic concepts came up in the book.

3)      How are you/we living in two worlds? How does that influence your poetry?

Chabad  speaks of two simultaneous realities, referred to as the Hidden World (Alma Daiskasya) and the Revealed World (Alma Daisgalya).  In a sense, the Hidden World corresponds to the spiritual realities which I discuss at greater length below. Chassidic thought compares the Hidden World to the life forms that exist in the sea, covered over by water.  Sea life is, generally, so dependent on its life source—water—it could be said to have no separate sense of selfhood. So too, the spiritual realities remain bathed in so much Divine light—their source—that they do not experience themselves as Other, as separate from G-d.

In contrast, the Revealed world is the reality we see, physical life as we experience it.  Here, we stand out as independent from our source; we perceive ourselves as separate from G-d.  Not covered over by or swallowed in Divine light, we are revealed. However, the Jewish mystical tradition posits that this perception is inaccurate: it argues that, at each moment, G-d re-speaks all of creation, including our physical world, back into existence. Just as He did at the beginning of time. Divine speech is embedded in and constantly revivifies the Revealed World, which mistakenly takes its tentative existence as autonomous.

It is, of course, one thing to be familiar with the idea that the Divine resides beneath the physical curtain of the world. It is another to remember this as one goes through daily life. And it’s especially difficult to believe in when one suffers or feels he or she is trying to do what’s right but failing. You might say much of the poetry in my new collection moves back and forth in motion with the tug-of-war between the mystical claim of Divine unity underlying our days and the world’s surface appearance of randomness.

In a less spiritual sense, teaching in university and trying to live as a Chassid obviously entails a life in two worlds as well.  Before I left yeshiva and returned to academia, I happened to meet Professor Yitzchok Bloch, a Chabad Chassid and philosophy professor.  At one point, much to the approval of the yeshiva faculty and his Lubavitch peers, Bloch attempted to abandon his graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard to learn in yeshiva in Crown Heights. However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent him back to Harvard. Looking back on his career, Bloch said, in a sense, he always felt misunderstood in academia because Chassidic culture was foreign to his colleagues, but he also felt misunderstood in the Chassidic community because very few understood what his work as a philosophy professor entailed. Sometimes I, too, feel I have fallen into the gap between two worlds, but there is also a strong sense that my Chassidic life significantly enriches my poetry, and that my poetry provides a space for me to process my efforts to live as a Chassid. In this sense, the two worlds pleasantly overlap.  Also, that my rabbis pushed me to return to poetry helped me see Judaism as much more expansive and encompassing than I had imagined it to be earlier in my life.

4)      How does Chassidus speak to you?

Chassidus emphasizes physical life, or at least combining the physical and spiritual.  I think this kind of world-embracing theology is healthy and comprehensive. It addresses the conditions of life in a body and explains Judaism’s non-ascetic leanings (marriage, physical commandments, etc).  I always felt somewhat alienated from the thinking that Judaism is all about getting a reward in the afterlife.  It sounded kind of like a video game, a philosophy that doesn’t speak to the here and now; it also seemed to breed a holier-than-thou mentality.  It was refreshing to learn that kind of thinking was at odds with Chassidus.

Some of the points I note below concerning Essence and Revelation relate to this. According to Chassidus, the afterlife falls into the Revelation category; it involves experiencing G-d as He “suits up” into a spiritual persona:  In the afterlife, souls experience luminous lessons in hands-on mysticism. In this life, we have G-d’s Essence.  According to Chassidus, this explains why the deceased envy the living and their ability to do mitzvot, G-d’s commandments, which can be performed only in this world.

I’m also moved by the Chassidic emphasis on our unconditional connection to G-d. According to Chassidus, to live and feel this connection, and to fulfill our purpose of sanctifying the mundane, we must adhere to tradition.  But even when we abandon tradition–and, therefore, tarnish the outer layers of our connection—Chassidic thought posits that an unconditional, deeper bond with G-d remains undiminished.

5)      How does Chassidus help your imagery?

I think my studies in Chassidus–in which I encounter mystical images, terminology, and conceptual frameworks–add another layer to my work.  It infuses my poems with a kind of tension or binary, as I mentioned earlier.   After I sent my new book to the poet Tony Hoagland, he wrote me a postcard in which he describes this tension quite well. As he puts it, the book demonstrates a “simultaneous allegiance…to traditional spirituality and the difficulties and paradoxes of contemporary life; the poems insistently bring scriptural idealism into contact with realism, and they seem to insist that we cannot live the one without the paradoxical, sometimes contradictory, presence of the other.”

I think the juxtaposition of these two types of images represents an attempt to hold the teachings I’m studying up against the life I’m actually living. Perhaps it’s an attempt to blend the theoretical with the actual. I want these teachings to speak to me; poetry can serve as the bridge between study and the life that is lived when the books are closed.

6) How do you understand and apply the Chassidic idea of the divine dwelling below (dirah bathahtonim)?
Dirah Btachtonim is the Midrashic principle that G-d desires “a dwelling place in the lowest realm.”  Chabad Chassidus understands this to mean G-d created all of existence, the higher worlds and this physical one, because He desires “to be present” in our physical world.  The home “or dwelling place” metaphor implies Essence, for, in one’s home, one behaves as he or she truly is. And G-d is His “true self” here in our world. (I elaborate on this a bit later, in discussing Essence and Revelation).

In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe suggests that when the Midrash states G-d wants to dwell in the lowest realm, it means we—as G-d’s ambassadors—are charged with spiritualizing material existence by employing it in the service of G-d. The Alter Rebbe adds that G-d wants to dwell in “the lowest of the low.” In other words, in our doubts, darkest moments, greatest failings—those conditions basic to the life of a soul in a body. Somehow, we must redeem and elevate these experiences. We must infuse them with the Divine.

Similarly, poetry tends to provide unflinching renderings of life’s difficulties as they are.  Not as a prayer for salvation. Rather, as an assertion that the imperfect has a kind of perfection to it.  Holiness filtered through the messy human experience.  This appears to be a theme contemporary poetry and the Dirah Btachtonim theology share. I would venture to say this thinking informed–inspired me to publish–some of the very personal, sadder poems in my second collection.

Furthermore, inviting struggles and imperfections into my work provides me—and hopefully my readers—with the potential to see Judaism as more real, as something that speaks to us in our flawed human context.   And reciprocally, tension, struggle, and conflict make for meaningful art. “Light that comes out of darkness” is a term used in Chassidus but is also a good description of the moment in many poems when the speaker finds redemption through or in a conflict rather than via transcending or negating it.

7)      Which Hasidic works do you still study? Why?

I try to study Chassidus every day.  Each morning, before prayers, I learn with a few friends. We tend to focus on the discourses of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which represent the most fleshed out last link in the evolution of Dirah Bitachtonim theology.

For me, at least, the Rebbe’s discourses speak most directly to our condition. So often, even as they highlight the imperative of Torah study and prayer, his teachings emphasize that an equal—or greater—connection to G-d is possible outside the synagogue, in living our mundane lives with Divine purpose.  Of all the Chabad Rebbeim, he seems to have spent the most time with his Chassidim, explaining Chassidus and Dirah Bitachtonim in direct and accessible language. The 39 volumes of Likkutei Sichot record some of his many talks. It would be interesting to delve into other Chassidus as well, but the Chabad body of work is so vast, unified, and sequential, I feel there isn’t enough time to do it justice.

8)      What is your distinction between revelation and essence? 

In simplest terms, Essence, or Atzmut, refers to G-d as He exists unto Himself, beyond all definitions, parameters, or categorizations. Here, even the terms “infinite” or “spiritual” prove inadequate in that G-d transcends equally the physical and spiritual, the finite and infinite.

(Often Chabad Chassidus takes this logic to its extreme, suggesting that G-d’s engagement within our finite frame reflects His true unlimitedness, His transcendence of infinity. As one discourse puts it, certainly, “G-d is higher than nature,” but He is also “higher than higher than nature.”  He is not locked in transcendence).

As noted, Essence refers to G-d as He exists beyond all limitations.  Thus, an act that combines two opposites—such as a union between physicality and spirituality—bears the mark of G-d’s Essence.  For, only G-d’s Essence, which remains locked in neither the limitations of physicality or spirituality, can unify the two opposites. Chassidus points to the performance of a mitzvah, a Divine command, as an example of this kind of Essence phenomenon: When the command is performed, a Divine light flows down from above, leaving the physical object used in the act infused with holiness.

Ultimately, Essence breaks all categories. It combines opposites and complicates all definitions.

In contrast, the term revelation (giloyim)refers to how G-d expresses Himself according to the makeup of His audience, how He packages Himself and manifests, especially in the higher, spiritual worlds.  Each of these worlds receives a different measure of revelation according to its capacity to hold light. This is G-d not as He is unto Himself, but G-d acting within the spiritual parameters and expectations of the particular environment.  In the upper worlds, revelation (knowledge of G-d) is the defining characteristic; it’s the weather up there.

However, according to Chassidic thought, this physical world is the realm most closely linked to G-d’s Essence. As noted, only Essence can balance opposites, physical and spiritual, and this Essence paradox occurs solely in our physical realm.

In addition, G-d’s Essence is unknowable and unchanging. And these two qualities characterize G-d’s presence in our world.  In contrast, His behavior in the higher realms is marked by change (diminishment of light from one spiritual world to the next) and revelation, non-Essence qualities.

In this world, we experience no gradations in the magnitude of light—usually, we experience no light at all—because, here, G-d is simply being His unchanging and unknowable self.  In this physical life, we may suffer a lack of spiritual revelation, but in the un-heavenly, ordinary moment, G-d’s Essence is most accessible.

Interestingly, when a miracle occurs, and G-d reveals Himself to us, the Essence dynamic recedes into the background, and this world takes on the status of the worlds of revelation.  G-d pervades all of creation, of course.  However, it was from a space higher than and prior to creation–from within His Essence—that G-d desired a home in the lowest realm.  (The upper worlds largely serve as a sort of ladder leading down to this lowest point). And so our physical world bears traces of and is more deeply rooted in Essence than are the higher realms.  As the ancient mystical work Sefer Yetzirah puts it, “The beginning is wedged in the end.”

9) How does this distinction of essence and revelation apply to poetry?

I think this theology, which points decidedly earthward, aligns with many of the impulses behind contemporary poetry, and certainly with my own work.  One might say an absence of spirituality characterizes much of contemporary poetry because many of today’s poets eschew religion; at the same time, contemporary poets do, quite often, attribute a kind of luminescence to—they shine an intense light on—ordinary experience, insisting it has something to teach us.  Perhaps, in some sort of secular way, this parallels the mitzvah dynamic noted above—where spiritual and ordinary conjoin.  Indeed, locating transcendence or light in the mundane appears to be a chief ambition of many contemporary poets. Just look at the lines of praise on the back of any recent volume of poetry. Or perhaps contemporary poetry’s emphasis on the ordinary, the non-illuminated, as opposed to the transcendent, reflects a kind of Essence instinct.

Though I can’t say I’m always conscious of it, knowledge of the Essence/Revelation dialectic probably informs my work and may distinguish my poetry from that of other spiritual poets, especially Jewish ones. Here, I’m thinking, for example, of the spiritual work featured in journals of contemporary Jewish poetry, such as Poetica. To me, it seems many Jewish spiritual poets reach upward toward infinity and transcendence–the realm of revelations, you might say—and their language, correspondingly, tends toward musicality and abstraction.   In contrast, my language may come across as plain spoken and hint at or reference a Divine presence behind the details of daily life.

Often, those unfamiliar with my poetry assume it will read like prayers, calling out to G-d above.  They are surprised to find the poems usually entail human narratives locating or struggling with G-d below.
10)   How does your spiritual vision of two worlds exist against the backdrop of very non-Hasidic Modern Orthodox Teaneck?

Based on what I have experienced, the Modern Orthodox synagogues here have been very warm; a number of them have invited me to give readings or talks. I have many wonderful neighbors in Teaneck who are supportive of my poetry and interested in discussing Chassidus. I’d say Chabad and Modern Orthodox overlap in several key areas. Both believe in the authenticity of the Oral and Written Torah, and both demonstrate a level of openness toward the larger world. For a Chabad Chassid, this openness is likely an outgrowth of the Dirah Bitachtonim ideology, which posits that the sanctification of the mundane—and in some cases the secular—is the purpose of creation.

If anything, living in Teaneck has forced me to question and own my identity as a Chabad Chassid. No one is expecting me to uphold Chabad customs or to learn Chassidus here, so I need to rely on my own initiative. Also, I teach Chassidus classes at the Chabad House. In this role, I’ve had the opportunity to deepen and clarify my understanding of Chassidus in a way that I had not experienced when I lived in Morristown, a Chabad yeshiva community.

11)  How do you relate/respond to the deep atheism and anger at God within contemporary Jewish literary circles?

Concerning my first book, a reviewer in the Reform Jewish Quarterly wrote that the poetry was that of an innocent individual yet to encounter many of life’s struggles. We’ll have to see what happens as November ages. I understand where the reviewer was coming from, and I think my second book does more to engage with some of the darkness (but not anger) you mention, especially the title poem.

I think people deal with their doubts and difficulties in different ways.  When G-d/the world does something terrible to me, I’m more overwhelmed and speechless than I am angry.  That said, I don’t think that, today, I could write the way I did in my first book. I think my new collection doesn’t answer questions or give advice—it simply asks questions and shares experiences.

When I was younger and first getting into Chassidc life, I did feel somewhat disappointed by the agnosticism that characterized the contemporary Jewish literary scene (and larger literary culture, for that matter), but this was probably because, at that time, I was diving headlong into a new lifestyle and, seemingly, cutting my ties with the old one: after I finished my M.F.A. in poetry, I enrolled in a Chabad yeshiva in N.J. and didn’t concern myself with poetry for a few years. Like most of us, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized life is more complex; so many of us shoulder complicated histories.

Yet, secular contemporary poets have a lot to teach us about living with deeper consciousness. So often, they point out what others tend to overlook. A poem in Two Worlds Exist, “Contemporary Poets,” touches on this. Habituation—boredom with familiar life—may be one of the greatest sources of displeasure today. Poetry’s celebration of ordinary individuals and quotidian experiences can re-center us to a more appreciative sensibility.

As I’ve noted, I see some important points of overlap between Chassidus and poetry, even while many poets are atheists. And ultimately, it was my rabbis and Chassidic thought that compelled me to choose a career as a poet and not a rabbi.  If anything, attempting to live as a Chasid and a poet in the larger world has enriched my life as a Jew and a writer, making both more meaningful and erasing, in a sense, the secular/Divine divide I felt throughout my college and grads school years.

Interview with Richard A. Cohen on Levinas and Spinoza

Thirty years ago I was a graduate student reading the newly published translation of Emmanuel Levinas’ Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (1985) while standing against the door at the end of the dirty subway car on a southbound 1 train. In the midst of my reading, I pause to read the short biography blurb of the translator Richard A. Cohen. I pondered how fortunate he was to study with Emmanuel Levinas and how far his world seems from the Jewish Studies world of Hebrew University. In subsequent years, I read many of his fine translations of Levinas’ writing. Recently, after my interview with Robert Erlewine, Richard contacted me offering me his works and online conversation about Levinas.


Richard A. Cohen is certainly one of the world’s preeminent Levinas scholars as well as one of his devoted English translators. Cohen is Professor of Philosophy, and served as Chair of Department of Jewish Thought, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York.

Prof. Cohen is author of several books on Levinas including: Levinasian Meditations: Ethics, Philosophy and Religion.(Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2010); Ethics, Exegesis and Philosophy: Interpretation After Levinas. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001 and Elevations: The Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). His prolific number of translations include:  New Talmudic Readings by Emmanuel Levinas. (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1999). His most recent work is Out of Control: Confrontations between Spinoza and Levinas (2016) to which this interview dedicates several questions. And Cohen wanted me to mention that he is a member of the Young Israel of Greater Buffalo

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century and certainly one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the era. Richard A. Cohen as an expositor emphasizes the Jewish element in Levinas’ thought presenting Levinas as in line with Jewish contours of thought. Levinas was a practicing Jew who from 1947-1961 was the director of the Ecole Normale Israelite Orientale, a Jewish day school which was part of the Alliance Israelite Orientale, an educational organization for Jewish communities in France and French Africa. From 1961 to his death he held ever more prestigious academic positions. Starting in 1957, he organized annual public lectures to revive Jewish thought in France together with Rabbi Yehuda Léon Askénazi (also known as Manitou) and Prof. Andre Nehar.

Before turning to Cohen, a short précis of Levinas’ intellectual thrust is in order. According to Levinas, I must accept my relationship with and responsibility toward the Other in order to escape isolation and solipsism and become fully myself. Yet, this relation is not something that comes into existence because I have chosen or initiated it. It had to be there already so that I could be in a position to choose. I have never not been in relation to someone other than myself. It is this relation with the Other that makes possible and gives rise to my very consciousness. The presence of the Other—with its implicit call to responsibility and service—thus brings me fully into being, reveals to me my separation from what is other, hollows out my interiority, initiates discourse, and makes possible a world I have in common with the Other. The relation of the “I” and “the Other” is not self-contained, but calls me to service—not only to the Other before me, but to all other Others, thereby creating the whole of social life.

Therefore, Levinas is against the stream of modern Jewish religious thought as currently preached which emphasizes my personal commitment to Torah, my need to construct the self through repentance and coming to God, or the isolation of the modern self.. Levinas openly rejects Neo-Hasidic experience as self-serving, a false totality concerned with the self and a false sense of reality compared to the responsibility before the Other. And on the recent posts to this blog, Levinas has little in common with Rav Shagar’s mid-20th century concern with authenticity, individuality, and personal expression.

For Levinas, expecting God to help others or save the innocent makes God into a primitive dispenser of favors or a magician, rather we should seek a mature faith and accept personal responsibility for the suffering of the world.

What is the meaning of the suffering of the innocent? Does it not witness to a world without God, to an earth where only man determines the measure of good and evil?… This would also be the healthiest response for all those who until now have believed in a rather primitive God who awards prizes, imposes sanctions, or pardons mistakes, and who, in His goodness, treats people like perpetual children. But what kind of limited spirit, what kind of strange magician did you project as the inhabitant of your heaven – you who today state that heaven is deserted?

An adult’s God reveals Himself precisely in the emptiness of the child’s heaven. That is the moment when God withdraws Himself from the world and veils His countenance… The just person’s suffering for the sake of a justice that fails to triumph is concretely lived out in the form of Judaism.

We have to accept our infinite responsibility toward the world even though we know we cannot solve all the world’s problems. I have infinite moral responsibility for the suffering in the world, for the suffering in Syria, for morality in the United States, and for those who work and live around me.

Richard A. Cohen in all his many works and in this interview shows his great ability to render the thought of Levinas in a clear and concise manner.  Cohen’s writing removes the very Gaelic feel to Levinas whose writing are filled with technical coinages such as  “il y a”,  jouissance, substitution, or exorbitant. Cohen writes like an American instructor in ethics, in plain English and with distinct concepts.. Cohen also avoids many of the academic arguments of interpretation or of scholarship in order to render a clear presentation,

Cohen’s style is to write his books as a series of contrasts of “Levinas and X” so that his chapters are Levinas and Buber, Levinas and Spinoza, Levinas and Ricœur, Levinas and Rosenzweig. An ideal format for upper undergraduates and masters’ students thinking about topics. Cohen rises in each case to take sides and defend the thought of his master Levinas. Beyond the scope of this interview, Richard Cohen distances Levinas from the thought of Jacque Derrida, in that both Levinas was not strongly influenced by Derrida and that they diverge in their thinking.

Levinas’ religious thought has not caught on among United States Jews outside of academia except as out of context quotes making him into a musar thinker, pluralist, or moralist. I can think of many reasons why this is so, but as you read the interview with Richard Cohen, ask yourself if this can be taught in your community. The interview with Cohen stresses Levinas as a Biblical Humanist.

(Richard Cohen perusing 1st ed. 1677, Latin Spinoza, Opera Posthuma)

1)      Why is Levinas important? Why does he deserve more attention than other Jewish thinkers?

Levinas is a Jewish thinker of the first rank, and, if I may put it this way, of the “old school.”  That is to say, born in 1906 his childhood was spent in Kovno, Lithuania.  And then he went to France for a university degree.  His family, like almost all Litvaks, was murdered by the Nazis.  After his war imprisonment, Levinas became director of a AIU Jewish school in Paris, studied under the hidden Talmudic master known to his French students as “Monsieur Chouchani” [pronounced “Shoshani”] and eventually was invited to become a university professor of philosophy, finally at the Sorbonne.   Throughout his adult life he published articles and books of philosophy and Jewish thought, without any rupture between the two.,

So what I mean by “old school” is not simply, as one might mistakenly think, that he was from the “old country,” but rather that he was learned both by experience and training in Judaism and in the larger culture of the world at large.  I am thinking here of Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s lament – all too justified it seems to me – about how isolated and ignorant the post-war Yeshivah world has become in relation to the larger world and the cultural and intellectual heritage of the West.  My more limited point, however, is that this is not the case with Levinas, who truly knew both worlds, and was a Jewish thinker of the very first rank.

Given the fragmentation and ignorance in the Jewish world today, one might also say that Levinas is perhaps more important for the contribution his thinking makes to a certain context, a certain intellectual world, than for his most basic message itself.  His basic message, stripped to its core, is actually quite familiar even if it is all too often unheeded: be kind to others, create a just society.  Certainly this fundamental Torah teaching is also a universal ethical teaching recognized everywhere.   The aboriginal peoples of Australia did not await Mount Sinai to know that murder is evil and lying wrong.  To be sure, Judaism has made these ethical teachings central, and has created a way, halakha – to ensure their instantiation in all life’s endeavors and registers.

What make Levinas’s thought special, however, is that with the utmost intellectual and spiritual refinement he brings forth this teaching – the primacy of ethics – to challenge the heart of what has often, especially in the West (and within some quarters of Judaism itself), been taken to be a higher calling, namely, the call to know, to knowledge and contemplation.

Levinas is important in this critical enterprise – and this is key – because he launches his challenge not by retreating to indefensible and hence debilitating dualist premises, whether gnostic, Platonic or neo-Platonic. Rather, Levinas is a post-Kantian or contemporary thinker, which is to say – contra all the dualisms which tempt a dogmatic or so-called “religious” thought – that he sees in the body, language and time not obstacles to truth and goodness, but the means to their very possibility.  This also aligns with Judaism’s well-known this-worldliness, its rabbinic heritage of making the broad moral imperatives of the Bible concrete, real, rules of everyday life.  Goodness, then, enacted by and for human beings who suffer death and aging, who suffer wounds and wants, who speak and are heard or are silenced, is for Levinas the highest priority and the source of intelligibility itself – and he teaches this lesson to the most sophisticated of thinkers today.

2)      What is Mature Faith according to Levinas?

Levinas does indeed distinguish between what he calls “adult religion” and mythological consciousness, which is not only prone to superstition and error but more fundamentally is morally irresponsible, passing real obligations onto a divinity conceived in the manner of bargaining with Zeus.

The kingship and fatherhood of God for Levinas appear in the unsurpassable moral responsibility of each human being in the face of another.  This difference between adult and childish religion is one that Kant already recognized, namely, that adult religion is mature precisely because it fully recognizes the primacy of ethics, that the religious person is not religious because he or she genuflects to gain favor with Deity, or holds “authorized” beliefs (dogmas) or performs prescribed rituals, but because he or she strives relentlessly to be a moral person and to make the world a more just place for everyone.

Of course, as the Jewish prophets taught, to make morality and justice the measure of true religion does not at all mean discarding certain character traits, beliefs or rituals.  It does mean, however, grasping their real purpose.

The purpose of Judaism for Jews is to produce not good Jews but good human beings – and good human beings who are Jewish are good Jews.  The mission of Judaism to the world at large is to produce a good and just humanity.  Levinas would agree.   Closeness to God is nothing other than this: kindness toward others, a just world for all. Need I quote Micah?   Unfortunately all too many people prefer the irresponsibility of children, to have Daddy tell them what to do, to obey orders, as if such formalism were all that God demands.  Childhood is one thing; adulthood – bar mitzvah – is another.  No wonder, then, that in his many commentaries to Aggadic portions of the Talmud, Levinas discovers always and precisely the call to moral responsibility and the call to justice in all the Jewish texts, beliefs, rituals, and stories.   For Levinas ethics is not a nice gloss on Judaism: it is Judaism at its best and nothing less – let us hope – will satisfy the good Jew.

3)      How does Levinas differ from Spinoza on truth vs goodness?

This is the topic of my last book: Out of Control: Confrontations between Spinoza and Levinas.  One would probably not be exaggerating to say that globalization is itself part of the heritage of Spinozism.

Spinoza witnessed firsthand the beginning of what subsequently became the earth shattering change, the paradigm shift represented by the rise of modern science.  Modern science, in contrast to all previous knowledge, was strictly quantitative, formal-mathematical, analytical and causally oriented.   Or to put this negatively, for the sake of its kind of knowing it rejected what the philosophers had called “final causality,” i.e., reality understood in terms of goals, ends, and purposes.  Modern science cannot say what water is for, its purpose, but it knows that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen in a ratio of H2O.

The basic components of the universe are not Hebrew letters, as some Kabbalists may have thought, but atoms.  When we distinguish God and creation, we can place the Ten Commandments as representative of the first, but the Periodic Table as representative of the second.  But there is a problem, it seems that the latter does not recognize the former – and such is Spinoza’s deliberate thesis.  Not ethics and science, but science is ethics.  No wonder he called his one truly philosophical book Ethics: the measurable real is all there is, and it is “best” because it is the only world.  All talk of morality, then, of good and evil, of justice and injustice, is simply the talk of ignoramuses, non-scientists, fools buffeted about by their bodily desires and emotions.

Obviously, then, modern science as Spinoza understood it stands in conflict with previous religious notions of Providence, of God’s Will, of righteousness and morality and justice.  Science grasps reality without any such notions, and indeed finds such notions – of will, freedom, purpose, goodness – false and deceptive, nothing more than anthropomorphic projections, no more truthful than animism, indicative of humankind in its ignorant immaturity.   In a word, Spinoza took modern science to heart, made it an absolute.

Today this path, however erroneous and destructive, of science and nothing but science – is what is called “positivism,” and it is perhaps the dominant intellectual worldview of the educated elite.   For anyone who has thought seriously about it, however, it is clearly reductive, leaving much that is significant and important about our world out of its picture, and in the process demeaning what it cannot reduce to its limited form of rationality.

This exclusivity is not harmless, however.  Indeed, it is a dangerous exclusion because what science leaves out does not go away, and when it is excluded from reason it comes back, sad to say, as unreason, in monstrous forms. In other words, if one does not properly grasp the true nature and limits of science, if one makes science supreme in all things, all the rest will come back in the most unreasonable forms. So there is nothing “ivory tower” about misunderstanding the standing of modern science.

Levinas, for whom intelligibility is based first in goodness, of course rejects Spinoza’s positivism.  He considers Spinozism to be at the “antipodes” of his thought, because it denies the humanity of the human, denies freedom and transcendence, in its effort to assimilate humanity to the rest of nature.  So Levinas’s great antagonist, one might say, is Spinoza and Spinozism.

4)      What is prophecy for Levinas and Spinoza?

Prophecy for Spinoza is no more than a vivacious imagination coupled with persuasive rhetoric.   Like all products of imagination, it does not contain truth.  Prophets do no more than interfere in politics, causing harm.  Spinoza despite his alleged modernity thinks that “words and images” actually hinder, indeed prevent truth.  Truth is the mind thinking itself, hence with no need to communicate, and indeed insofar as the truth is the intelligibility of One Substance, without anyone to speak to.

Levinas is also not satisfied to limit prophecy to the biblical prophets, because for Levinas it is far more exalted.  Indeed, for Levinas prophecy represents the basic character of all human communication.  Not in the sense that humans like the biblical prophets are able to predict the future, but in the sense that communication is always an elevation rising to transcendence, to goodness.  For Levinas intelligibility arises not in the mind in communion with itself, thought thinking thought, but like chavusa in a Yeshiva it arises in human conversation, discussion, one person speaking to another, what Levinas calls “the saying of the said.”

The first “word” of such intelligibility is one that is not actually said but is nonetheless the condition of all speech and truth: shema, “listen,” hear,” because one must first hear the other person, listen to the other before one can grasp, understand, evaluate  what he or she says.  So for Levinas all speaking is “prophetic” in this sense, attending to the other’s expression, conditioned by respect, by the moral transcendence of the other person.

Levinas takes creation seriously, and takes most seriously the transcendence of the other person, which lies at the root of all multiplicity, especially the multiple readings of the Torah, one for each person, each one of which is necessary as humans approach Torah truth.  The Torah, Jewish tradition teaches, was given to 600,000 Jews, in 4 registers of interpretation, and to the 70 nations as well.  The math is obvious: there are at least 158,000,000 legitimate – divinely expressed – readings of Torah, lacking any one of which the Torah is not complete.  And this as we know is really only the beginning of the math.

5)      Why is the book called “Out of Control” in its comparison of Levinas and Spinoza?

Perhaps it is a title a bit too clever, but the point is that not irresponsibility, wildness, letting go, what we usually think of as “out of control,” but responsibility, caring for the other, putting the other before myself, that such moral responsiveness is what is truly out of the control of all systems and institutions of control, from legislation to norms, from causal systems to linguistic rules.  It is illogical to put the other first.  It cannot be reduced to a calculus of self-interest and benefits.  Ethics is not an economics.  So the idea behind the title, “out of control,” is to re-appropriate this expression from its usual epistemic or aesthetic sense – the madman, the artist, the eccentric, the rebel – and acknowledge that the one event truly most out of control, indeed entirely out of control, is responsibility, the moral responsibility one person takes for another.  This is the radical thesis which the title of my book names and its arguments support.

According to “control” – epistemic and political – we are reduced to sequences of causes or reasons, or fit into categories, systems of genus and species, are Americans or French or Russians; allies or enemies or neutral; educated or uneducated; observant or unobservant; Sephardi or Ashkenazi; Misnaged or Chassidic; or we are Christian or Muslim, or Canadian or Eskimo.  But moral obligation, the responsibility one person takes for another, transcends – breaks out of – all these categories of identity control.

Responsibility fissures our identity, putting the self into question as the for-the-other before-myself of responsibility.  One who is responsible does not choose, but is chosen.  I am responsible for you whether you are my friend or enemy, whether you are Jewish or not, whether you are white or black, whether you care for me or hate me.  There are no prior contracts to contain such a responsibility – they burst upon me, shatter me, demand of me.  Such is moral command: the other comes first, I must obey first.  N’ase v’nishma.  To acknowledge human relations based in this manner means putting the “out of control” – ethical demand – at the root of intelligibility, and not the other way around.

To be sure, moral responsibility, which means caring for another, giving to the other, providing food, clothing, shelter, education, entertainment, medical care, company, etc., also demands justice, a concern for all others, including those who are not present.  Justice requires knowledge and institutions, precisely control.  So a great deal of what is normally thought of as control is genuinely necessary: laws, courts, police, schools, army, highways, hospitals, and the like, everything needed to produce and maintain a just society, a society of plenty rather than poverty.  Nevertheless, we must never forget that all of these universal systems, if they are not to lose their humanity, if they are not to put administration above those to whom they administer, at bottom serve the singularity of moral life, to enable me to be responsible for you.  Justice with a human face, that alone is justice.  Thus the “out of control” is not anything esoteric or crazy, except for evil persons.

My book shows that Spinoza, contrary to “popular opinion” (in this case including scholarly opinion) does not represent a Jewish outlook.  In the history of philosophy and even more broadly in all the cultured circles of the West, Spinoza is usually taken to be representative of Judaism. Certainly it is true that Spinoza writes extensively about Jewish topics, and has a clear mastery of Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible.  Nonetheless, I believe we can hardly fault the rabbis of 17th century Amsterdam who excommunicated Spinoza: he is not only not representative of Judaism, which is to say he does not fully grasp what Judaism is about, he is positively antagonistic toward Jews and Judaism.  He abhors the ancient Jews, who are but “slaves” and “ignoramuses.”  He hates the rabbis, whose biblical interpretations he considers “mad,” “ravings,” and “malicious.”

6)      What is Levinas’ Biblical humanism? How does he define love thy neighbor?

Levinas distinguishes between secular humanism and biblical humanism because the latter is based in radical transcendence, irreducible otherness, while the former is not, is projective, and finally closes in upon itself in an arbitrary or historical immanence.  Thus for Levinas the goodness which is the ultimate purpose of each person, each Jew, of Judaism and humanity as a whole, is properly “holy,” and Levinas uses this term.

Judaism and ethics are thus holy in Rashi’s sense of “separation,” but here in the context of Levinas meaning a response to the transcendence of the other person as moral height.  Responsibility arises in the priority of the other’s suffering over my own, being put into question by the other who I cannot reduce to another myself, hence a shattering of the complacency of my own identity in helping the other, giving more than I am really able but striving nonetheless to give all I can.  Thus the other appears as a surplus, a disturbance, an otherness unassimilable to  my own syntheses but raising me to higher responsibilities.  This separation is holiness: not physical, not ontological, not epistemological or aesthetic, but ethical – a moral demand.  God is the demand that I love my neighbor more than myself, that I dedicate myself to justice for all – such is the passing of the most Desirable, the Most High, indeed, the Holy One Blessed be He.  It was Martin Buber who coined the term “biblical humanism,” but it serves Levinas’s thought quite well.

Again, let me accentuate that Levinas it not trying to “gloss” Judaism with an “ethical interpretation,” as if Judaism were really something else, as if God were a real person, an entity, and Levinas would “improve” it with ethical language.  No, the deepest meaning of Judaism, of its texts, written and oral, its rituals, halakha, of the One God, indeed all of it in all its details, is precisely nothing other than ways to goodness, pathways to goodness, morality between one and another, and justice for all.  Is this not the exalted test – of Abraham, of God – in the Akeda, holding God himself, as it were, to His own Justice, God who cannot condone the slaughter of innocents?  Read with adult eyes, no longer as children, but as sons and daughters of the mitzvot, everything in the Bible, the Talmud, all the words of our sages teach precise this.

Levinas’s ethics is not new, but a renewal – because ethics must constantly be renewed.  Levinas shows the contemporary sensibility how each and every aspect of Judaism, all of it, is a call to moral goodness and a call to justice.  The height of God is the height of goodness and justice.

7)      What is justice for Levinas?

Justice is a society where one can be moral without fault.   I will give a brief explanation because I am not trying to be enigmatic.  To be moral, as I have indicated, is to alleviate the suffering of the other.  It arises in the first person singular, me responsible for you.  But your suffering is infinite, in the sense that each of us is finite, mortal, vulnerable, with physical needs, for air, food, clothing, shelter and the like; medical needs in case of illness or injury; psychological and sociological needs for self-esteem, honor and respect and the like, and the list goes on without end.  If I feed you today, you will be hungry again tomorrow.  No one can ever satisfy even one person despite the most total devotion.

Levinas even calls moral responsibility “maternal,” like a pregnancy, the other in oneself, carrying the other… and who can do this for more than a handful of others and really for only one other one at a time?  But the burden is even heavier, more difficult.

Let us imagine I have some food and I am facing a hungry person.  From a moral point of view, I will give this food to that other person – such is moral obligation, to alleviate the hunger of the one who faces me.  I give all to the other, without even thinking of myself – what a moral person I am!  But the other person, however hungry, is not the only hungry person in the world.  By giving all the food to the hungry person who faces me, by being as moral as I can possibly be, I am at the same time denying food to the hungry persons who are not proximate.  So my act of morality creates injustice, feeding one person leaves others unfed.  What a conundrum: goodness creates injustice.

Thus from out of morality itself comes the call to rectify its own excess.  Morality demands justice: not simply the for-the-other of morality but the for-all-others of justice, to care for those “near and far.”  Morality, though infinite, is not enough: at once I must be moral and just – this is not so easy, indeed nothing is more difficult.  To be sure, justice is guided by morality: what I want to provide for all is what I want to provide for the one who faces me: to alleviate specific suffering, tailoring my aid to the needs of the others, first of all the other’s material needs, food, clothing, shelter, medical care.

Levinas explicitly appropriates an expression he takes from the Mussar giant Rabbi Israel Salanter: “The material needs of the other are my spiritual needs.”  In other words, Levinas is not deceived by the high sounding but abstract “rights” of bourgeois liberalism.  Yes, the other should have “free speech,” “free press,” “free assembly,” well and good.  But the other must also be fed, clothed, housed, medically treated, educated, and the like.  Moral obligations are concrete, real, material, not beautiful ideas.  The first demand of justice, Levinas has said, is for food.

Justice is thus the rectification of morality in a pluralist world.  To be sure, just as morality is “impossible,” meaning I can never fully satisfy the needs of even one person, so too is justice impossible, meaning that I presently know not how to set up a just society in which everyone can be moral without fault.  Levinas thus admits and indeed celebrates the “infinity” of morality, and the “utopian” or “messianic” character of justice.  Anything less would be to reduce the transcendence of goodness to the immanence of being; or to say this more simply, it would be to let ethics off the hook, converting the “ought” to the “is,” – stripping the world of its holiness – which really means to eliminate ethics altogether.  For this reason too one can say that God “is” justice, or better that God is the inescapable demand for justice, that the true transcendence, the transcendence that calls upon us and raises us to our highest stature, and at the same time demands more, above our highest, higher than the highest, is the call to justice, which is always a call for more justice.  Justice, Levinas has said, is never just enough.  In this way God is beyond, indeed above being.

8)   How is Levinas different than Maimonides, especially on ethics and justice?

Maimonides is a medieval thinker and Levinas is a contemporary thinker.  In this context, to be contemporary means taking seriously the body, language and time, not as barriers to what is ultimate but as part and parcel of the absolute.  Body, language and time are not merely ladders, to be discarded, on the path to God; they are the human way of coming close to God – angels going up and down.  To be sure, the Absolute “ab-solves” itself, as Levinas says, meaning that God is not being but transcendence, not the real but the good.

Torah too is for humans: the good only occurs not despite embodiment, language and temporality, but because of them, in the midst of them, by way of them.  Nevertheless, owing to his situation, because he is caught up in the theological premises of medieval thinking, even if in his case they are Jewish rather than Christian or Muslim, I do not think that Maimonides is fully able to share this contemporaneity with Levinas.

Despite so much in Maimonides that is fully immersed in the hustle-bustle and flesh and blood of the created world, i.e., which is so characteristically “Jewish,” with feet on the ground, “pots and pans,” “carnal,”– in his most philosophical moments he remains caught in theology, which is to say, caught in the intellectual conundrums set by ancient thought, originating with Greek and Asian metaphysics.

9)   Prior Jewish thinkers emphasize character, virtue, and self-cultivation, for examples Maimonides, & Rabbi S.R. Hirsch. Why does Levinas critique these ideas? In fact, much of your presentation of Levinas’ critique of Paul Ricœur’s thought could just as well be about Maimonides or Hirsch

This is a huge topic.  We would have to first make clear what exactly Maimonides and Hirsch are saying about character, virtue and self-cultivation.  On the face of it, no ethical thinker would oppose these, and Levinas certainly does not.  But if you are right about their views being similar to Paul Ricoeur’s, then let me speak about Levinas and Ricoeur.  Levinas’ critique of Ricoeur – who was his friend and colleague – is an argument about the priority of self-esteem in relation to respect for the other, an argument therefore about what comes first in the ethical: me or the other.

For Levinas respect precedes self-esteem, being for-the-other is the main thing, getting honor or self-esteem or happiness from such behavior is secondary and in a certain sense entirely accidental.  If a person for whatever reason gets no pleasure, no happiness, and no self-esteem from behaving morally toward others – that is of no importance.  The greatest deeds in the world are for the most part unknown. The desire to be good, a character oriented toward goodness, is good, to be sure, but, as Levinas says: “No one is good voluntarily.”  The other is an imposition – better than my own self-interests, to be sure, but as such not my pleasure or satisfaction.

Levinas does not propose a eudemonistic ethics, an ethics concerned with the happiness obtained by moral agency.  Ethics for Levinas is not a cost-benefit analysis, not a tactic or strategy in the path to self-fulfillment.   Levinas does not say “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which seems to give priority to self-love, but rather “Love your neighbor is yourself,” which thinks moral agency as self-sacrifice, as a rising above selfishness, even the satisfaction of self-esteem.  What is of primary importance, in other words, is the happiness of the other person.  I sacrifice myself for the other’s happiness – that is morality for Levinas.  To be sure, as an embodied being I know pleasures, the enjoyment of good food, fine clothes, for instance, the advantages of spending money, and the like.

But for Levinas these self-satisfactions precisely enable me to understand the suffering of the other.  Giving money is a sacrifice because I would rather keep it.  Giving food to others is a sacrifice because I enjoy eating myself.  Such is one of the great lessons of Yom Kippur.  Levinas has described moral responsibility as a taking of food from one’s own mouth and giving it to the other.

Indeed, for Levinas the ultimate structure of ethics, of moral responsibility, is “dying for… the other.”  Certainly no one wants to make such a sacrifice, but certainly too, this is the ultimate structure of morality, of the for-the-other before oneself, and those who have made it – kiddush Hashem – are moral martyrs.  Let us hope it does not come to that.

10)   Why does Levinas reject love as a basis of ethics.

Generally, Levinas shies away from the term “love” I think for two reasons.  One, the most obvious, is the way this word has been used in Christian discourse.  There it seems to mean an effusive charity and forgiveness toward the other independent of justice, so that Christians, or more precisely some Christians, in America (such is my experience), are often inclined in the name of “love” to care more for the perpetrators of crime and injustice without due consideration for the victims of those same crimes and injustice.

These are themes that Rabbi Leo Baeck addressed more broadly with regard to the nature and contrast between Jewish and Christian ethics and outlook in his 1938 book entitled Judaism and Christianity.  In this book Baeck characterizes Christian spirituality as “sentimental,” prone to good feelings, in contrast to the disciplined spirituality of Jewish “law,” “ritual” and behavior with its intellectual sobriety.

I think Levinas avoids the term “love,” then, because he is very much aware of the rigor and sobriety of Judaism, especially manifest in Talmud and the rabbinic tradition of interpretation built thereupon, but no less evident in the rigor and sobriety of his own writings and philosophy.

The second reason he avoids the term is its vagueness.  For Levinas love is primarily a familial and erotic term, between husband and wife, parents and children.   Ethics for Levinas is neither familial nor tribal, nor a sentiment or feeling, though it includes sentiment and feeling.  The moral agent suffers for the suffering of the other, true, but the moral agent also alleviates the other’s suffering – my suffering is not enough, the other’s suffering comes first, it is an imperative for me.  Moral obligation arises in an alertness to the needs of the other, a wakefulness, an awakening by the other arousing my responsibility to and for the other, and ultimately to and for all others.

But the other solicits infinitely, without end, without conclusion, so I can never do enough.  This does not debilitate my moral responsiveness, however, but spurs it on.  Such is the high exigency of the “ought.”  For this reason Levinas puts “bad conscience” above “good conscience,” because no one has fulfilled their moral obligations or the demands of justice – there is always better and more to do.  Perhaps one could call such stringency and obligation “love,” if one understands this term correctly; the issue is not a matter of semantics, but of giving.

11)   Given that the program you designed at Buffalo focuses on Jewish thought, how do you sees the relationship between Jewish thought/philosophy and Jewish Studies in general?

My answer may surprise you.  Earlier I indicated that Levinas’s thought is contemporary while Maimonides, for instance, is medieval, meaning that Maimonides inherited and was tripped up by certain dualisms from the ancient past (soul/body, mind/matter, spirit/matter, etc.), caught in theological difficulties which Levinas was able to avoid.   I stand by this claim.

But at the same time we must recognize that the Jewish tradition for the most part did not adopt the gnostic and dualist presuppositions which permeated and split Greek thought.  So the Jewish tradition, for instance, did not separate soul from body or body from soul, and hence did not obsess over the immortality of the one and the corruption of the other, as did Christian theologians, nor did it expend much intellectual energy on the split between heaven, hell and earth and the inscrutability of their relations.

Christianity is a theological religion, doctrinal, a matter of belief; Judaism is not.  This said, it follows that the Jewish tradition as a whole – including Maimonides – is much closer to what I have called Levinas’s contemporaneity, for it has very well appreciated the integral unity of mind/body, spirit/matter and spirit/letter.  It is, as I have said above, and speaking quite positively, a “carnal” religion, if I may alter the valence in which Christians used this term to denigrate Judaism.

So, my “surprising” conclusion is that what I am calling the contemporary period of the West, in which Levinas is a major voice, should be open and ready to appreciate rabbinic thinking.  Indeed, I will go further: today, our time, is the epoch of Jewish thought as genuine thinking, thinking beyond dualisms, thinking creation in its reality and integrity without flight into fantastic other-worlds or immaterial souls.  For the first time, in other words, the world is ready for Jewish thought as thought itself and not some parochial second cousin.  Concreteness, this-worldliness, human measure, has always been the strength of Jewish thinking, its hardheadedness, as it were, its sobriety, its famous worldliness.  It seems to me that now the world at large, or at least the Western world which had been dominated by ancient Greek and Christian dualisms, has finally caught up.  So for the first time Jewish thought, because it has been at it much longer, and is far more developed in this style of thinking, can be the leader and guide of a global thought, a truly contemporary appreciation for an integral reality, based – such of course is Levinas’s fundamental view – on the primacy of ethics, of the “ought” over the “is.”

It is all the sadder then, that the Yeshiva world, just when it faces a world never more capable of being receptive to Jewish teachings, seems ever more intent on closing its doors, retreating, remaining willfully ignorant of the science, literature, culture, in sum the spiritual heritage of the non-Jewish world which cannot distract it but surely can enrich it.  Would the Yeshiva world really become impoverished reading Shakespeare?  Just as the non-Jewish world is more prepared than ever for Jewish thinking, Orthodox Jewish thinking is turning away from it – it is a terrible and twisted mistake, for both worlds, so it seems to me.

Levinas was able to speak to the entire world not despite his Jewishness but because of it.  He did not reduce Judaism to an abstract and artificial universality, but found in its most particular words and deeds, in the density of its righteous this-worldliness, the universal, openness to all and everything.   “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.”  This too could be Levinas’s motto.  He wrote philosophical treatises and published “Talmudic Readings,” he lectured in his synagogue on Shabbat and taught in the academic halls of the Sorbonne, without altering his teaching, because his teaching was so quintessentially Jewish that it was a teaching for the whole world.

So today, to answer your question, the Department of Jewish Thought at the University at Buffalo sees itself at the same time as a fount of the Humanities, indeed, as the foundation of the entire College of Arts and Sciences, and hence as the foundation of the entire university, of Higher Education, if this way of putting it does not sound too pretentious.

Never before has the world needed Jewish Studies more, because the world is finally waking up to its grandeur, turning from its time-worn escapisms.   Now is not the time for Jews to turn their backs to the world.  Quite the reverse, now more than ever is the world ready and in need of Jewish thinking.  Without demanding that others convert to Judaism as a religious community, Jewish thought is the thinking of all humankind, each tradition in its own idiom, to be sure, following its own specific heritage – but united in striving for goodness and justice.  Judaism does not demand reductive conformity but harmony, of interpretations – which is the Talmudic way – without erasing their differences.  Levinas’s thought is rigorous, demanding and all-embracing, at once human, humane and holy, for Jews and for everyone, at the highest levels of intelligibility.

Rav Shagar on Hanukah in English Translation

In honor of Kislev, I post Rabbi Shagar on Hanukah. It will give everyone a chance to read it in advance.  Rabbi Shagar (d. 2007), was a Torah scholar and a contemporary religious thinker left a deep mark on the educators and students of the generation.

This essay “Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul” is a discussion of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s discourse on the candles of Hanukah, from R. Shagar’s discourses on Hanukah, To Illuminate the Openings (להאיר את הפתחים)  (Machon Kitve ha-Rav Shagar: Efrat, 2014), 53-6.

The translation was done in first draft by Rabbi Josh Rosenfeld, a RIETS graduate who was a lone soldier in the IDF through the Second Lebanon War. He is the assistant rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogues and is on the Judaic Studies Faculty at SAR High School. It was first posted last year on a different blog and has been repurposed and completely revived and reedited for this blog. If anyone else has made personal translations of essays by Rav Shagar, I would be glad to post them. (Also if you find errors in this translation, please let me know).


In my past blog posts, we have discussed his approach to Torah study, his post modernism, watched a TV documentary about his life and his views of a return to traditionalism away from method and ideology. Recently, we looked at his essay on post-modernism. We also looked at how Smadar Cherlow portrayed the post- Rabbi Shagar turn.

This discourse-essay has three parts moving us from an acknowledgement of modern autonomy in part one, then presents a humanism of an embedded lived narrative in part two and concludes with a defense of full obedience to mizvot using post-modern terms.

In the first part, Rav Shagar sets the problem as a tension between the fixed halakhah and the need for authenticity and religious experience as found in Hasidut. This is standard neo-Hasidic fare of treating Hasidut as a romanticism.  The essay asks: If God is infinite, then how can we come to God by mean of the mizvot, which are finite and limiting. Also if Hasidut teaches us the value of personal religious experience and autonomy, then how can we settle for fixed rules and obedience? Ideally, in an existential reading of observance, we need to have the subjective and objective come together as fixed rules and intention, as both external performance and interior affect, halakhah and kavvanah. But, unlike the 20th century answers, Rabbi Shagar states that we lack the strength for this ideal approach, and cannot live like that, therefore we need the Shulkhan Arukh as fixed halakhah. As a side point, he mentions that those striving for autonomy lack etiquette, showing that he is thinking hippie not modernist.

The second part of the essay is the most original in which he reframes the question of meaning away from autonomy and experience toward living a meaningful life consisting of many embodied moments. Rabbi Shagar invokes an experiential payoff for mizvot. The same way our life is made up of many physical acts and events that have no intrinsic value by themselves, rather the totality of our lives creates meaning. He has shifted the term “meaning” from authenticity to a meaningful life. (The lived experience as we find in authors such as Marilynne Robinson or Anna Marie Quindlen).

In part two, Hasidut shows how the infinite is channeled in the physical tangible garments and conduits of mizvot, which are the lived events that make up our lives. He answered the opening question of the essay on how can physical mizvot lead to the infinite by stating that mitzvot are garments and vessels of light, which allow us to find our experience.

The third part of the discourse shows his creativity in application of his ideas to the Hasidic text and from the Hasidic text. In the third part, Rav Shagar, writes that mizvot are not just subjective symbols, rather they are God’s infinite meaning, specifically they are how God lives out his manifestation in the physical world. Habad has always taught that God dwells in the lower realms,(dirah batahtonim)  which he connects to both Leibowitz’s idea of pure obedience and to post-modernism.

The essential question at the start of the third section is: If religion is just the way we give meaning to our lives then is it just a subjective system? (For a post-secular answer see Julia Kristeva below).

Rabbi Shagar answers that the mizvot are objective in that they reflect God’s need for meaning, hence he needs the embodied mizvot to allow his manifestation.

Using the ideas of the French psychoanalytic thinker, Jacques Lacan (d.1981) whose language was important for post-structural thinking, Rabbi Shagar applies the contemporary language to Hasidic texts. On one foot, Lacan thought religion is entirely our subjectivity, in order to cover up our psychic wounds and holes using the ”imaginary” and the “symbolic”. Lacan labels as “imaginary” the stabilizing fictions that covers up a lack or hole. Lacan labels as “symbolic” all the social structures from language to law which we use to stabilize “reality.” The symbolic carves up the world into language, but in doing so, must always leave something out. The “Real” is precisely what is “left out” after the symbolic cuts up the world. An excess that resists symbolization. Sometimes the Real, “erupts” in the symbolic order causing a traumatic event. Rabbi Shagar responds to the implicit relativism by claiming, using hasidut, that the symbolic realm of mizvot are God’s need, His signification and symbolic realm.

For Rabbi Shagar, when the Admor of Chabad wrote that mitzvot are not just a garment of Divine light but Divine itself, it is a symbolization of divine need. Mitzvot therefore have no social or human aspects.

He connects the human experiential aspects presented in the first two parts of the discourse and the symbolization of the Infinite Divine in the third part to the Chabad text. In the language of Chabad, these two parts are the garment and encompassing (makifim) of Divine light. However, the important point is that since the lower is higher in Chabad, then the aspect of lower encompassing (makifim) in the mizvot is actually the highest access to divinity.

Rabbi Shagar concludes that mizvot have no reason since they are God’s need and God’s symbolization, not ours. We cannot psychoanalyze God to know his reasons. Therefore, halakhah is a closed system, without external referents to ethics, a conceptual system, or our human meaning. This conclusion moves the reader far from the ideas in part one but without erasing the existentialism thrust of part one. In our post-modern age, there is no longer any grand narrative or justification of Torah and mizvot. The infinite is now only know in the finite mizvot.  In other essays, Rabbi Shagar, connects this idea with Rav Nachman of Breslov’s idea of the mystical void without meaning and with Lyotard’s postmodernism of no grand narrative.

As an aside in a footnote, Rav Shagar sees an unlikely parallel between his thought and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, however Chabad texts would disagree in that that emphasize personal experience and the Lacan language in which mizvot are the return of the Divine repressed, as the Real, is foreign to modernist volitional religion.

Rav Shagar allowed his listener to use post-modern language but without a collapse of meaning or subjectivity since everything is guaranteed by God whose mitzvot we follow. Mizvot are not our human imaginal for the Real but God’s. He also still uses the the modernist ideas of individuality and autonomy.

For those who really wanted to probe the questions of the third part of the essay, I recommend Julia Kristeva’s wonderful first essay in her book This Incredible Need to Believe By Julia Kristeva, (Columbia University Press, 2009) part of which is available online here. Kristeva as a post-secular and post-Lacan thinker responds to Lacan by writing that we can never escape the psychological necessity for religion as a medium to work out our hidden recesses. In other works, she shows this process in various mystical thinkers emphasizing their psychic melancholia, horror, and desire.

Kristeva assume “religion” to be self-evident, and to be a matter of belief, which for Kristeva means “to give one’s heart, one’s vital force in expectation of a reward” (p. 4). This reward comes in two “prereligious” forms in the psychoanalytic narrative. The first is the “oceanic feeling” to which Freud famously had no access—the ego’s ecstatic dissolution into the universe, which recalls her infantile union with the maternal body (pp. 7–8). The second is the child’s “primary identification” with the father, whose recognition individuates her by pulling her out of the mystic-maternal sea (p. 10). These two stages correspond to the two stages in Lacan and, by extension, are found in Rav Shagar’s thought.

For Kristeva, her understanding of belief offers resources for a new humanism, in which humanism and atheism need to be willing to engage with religion and acknowledge the powerful and ineradicable need to believe.  If we deny it we risk the destructive return of the repressed. Kristeva’s position is not simply affirming the traditional conservative view that we need a return to faith or a new synthesis of faith and reason or as a ground of morals. For her, it’s not that God exists or does not exist, so too the clash  between religious and non-religious constituencies is superficial. Kristeva thinks human beings are constituted by an incredible need to believe, a drive to believe, to have faith or trust in reality in some powerful and ideal sense, and this is tied up with our existence as speaking beings. To be capable of speech is to be capable of symbolic discourse, and symbolic discourse is characterized by a profound need to believe

In the end, like Rabbi Shagar, Kristeva has two points grounding her system. She thinks the need to believe is rooted in the signifying potentiality of this father of pre-history, this guarantor of symbolic meaning. Second, the contents of any belief structure, any orthodoxy, mark an attempt to contain the potentiality, that ensues from this experience of ecstasy. As a psychoanalyst, religion re-forges for Kristeva an “access to the sacred,” but by way of the secular. In an opposite manner, as a Rosh Yeshiva, the secular meaning of our lives and the need to engage in the wider world, forges for Rav Shagar a connection with the sacred.  As Shagar wrote elsewhere: “the transition from a ‘Religion of Truth’ to a ‘Religion of Belief’ is the most profound point of Post-Modernism.”

shagar photo

“Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul” (link has essay for easy downloading) from To Illuminate the Openings (להאיר את הפתחים)  (Machon Kitve ha-Rav Shagar: Efrat, 2014), 53-6. First draft was by Josh Rosenfeld and second draft by Alan Brill. I thank Rabbi Rosenfled for letting me freely reedit his earlier translation from the Seforim blog.

“Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul”

The Soul and the Commandment

There is a well-known custom of many Hasidic rabbis on Hanukah to sit by the lit candles and to contemplate them, sometimes for hours. This meditation immerses the spirit and allows the psyche to open up to a whole host of imaginings, discoveries, thoughts, and emotions, which subsequently blossom into, what Chabad thought formulates as, the “words of the living God”. Therefore, looking at the physical entity is instructive. The candle and its light are crucial elements in the explanation of the meditation upon the candlelight.

For example, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi  (1745-1812; henceforth, Admor ha-Zaken) distinguishes between two different types of light emanating from the candle: The fact of the matter is that the candle consists of both the oil and the wick [producing] two types of light: a darkened light directly on the wick, and the clarified white light. (Torah Or, Miketz 33a)

This differentiation serves as a springboard for a discourse upon two pathways in religious life. It is possible, to a certain extent, to posit that the discourse is the product of the Admor ha-Zaken’s own meditation upon the different colors of light in the candle’s flame, and without that, there would be no discourse to speak of.

 The motif of the candle, especially the imaginings it conjures, are a frequent theme in scripture and in rabbinic writing – mitzvah candle; candle of the soul; candle of God. Thereby, leading many Hasidic discourses to seek explanations of the relationship between the soul, the commandments, and God. Most importantly, in our study of the discourse of the Admor ha-Zaken, we will encounter the tension between the godly and the commanded – the infinitude of the divine as opposed to the borders, limits, and finitude of the system of commandments.

However, prior to doing so, we will focus our attention for a moment on the tension between the soul and the commandment – the internal spiritual life of the believer relative to the externalized performance of the commandment.

The emergence of Hasidism brought to the fore the following challenge: does the fact of an increased individual emphasis upon internal spiritual life mean that a person will, of necessity, distance himself from the practical framework of halakha? In a different formulation, does the focus of Hasidism upon the ‘soul-candle’ mean that the light of the ‘commandment-candle’ will be dimmed?

The tension between the two is clear: one’s obligation to do specific things affixed to specific times stands in opposition to one’s attunement with and attention to their own inner voice. Our own eyes see, and not just in connection with Jewish religious life, that when one follows his own personal truth, he does not behave according to the dictates and accepted norms of society at large. For example, one who desires to be ‘more authentic’ may be less polite, as the rules of etiquette are seen as external social constructions that dull one’s inner life. Similarly, for this type of individual, when it comes to halakha, it will be approached and understood as a system that holds him back from his own truth, and not only that, but it sometimes will be perceived as a lie. From a halakhic point of view, he must pray at specifically ordained times, but in his heart of hearts he knows that right now his prayers will not be fully sincere, but rather just going through the motions. Must this individual now answer the external call to prayer, or should they rather hold fast to their inner calling, thereby relaxing the connection to the outer halakhic reality?

In truth, this question has yet another dimension with which we may be able to sharpen our understanding – the chasm between objective and subjective experience.

Should an individual seek out the truth through their own subjective experience, or should they rather find it in the absolutist objective realm of reality? Once a person apprehends the truth as a construction of their own subjective internal experience, the concept of truth loses its totality and becomes relativized. Truth instead becomes dependent upon one’s specific perspective, their emotions, feelings, and personal experiences. In this sense, halakha is identified with the absolute and fixed sphere of reality – within which God commanded us, and this type of relativism is untenable in relation to it.

It is possible to argue that the ideal state is when the internal, personal truth is parallel with the objective, external truth.[1] The meaning of this situation is that on one hand, the individual’s internal life burns strongly, and because of this his sense of obligation to this inwardness  is unassailable. This leads to a perspective where the inner life is understood as objective reality, absolute. A person in this type of situation loses their sense of relativity and their inner directives obtain the strength of an outside command, possessing no less force of obligation or truth.

The problem with the situation within which we live is that our inner lives lack strength and force. Our inner lives are prone to ups and downs, steps forward and back. Because of the dullness of our internal lives, they are susceptible to all kinds of outside influences, and thus there is a subsequent lack of authenticity. This is the reason the Shulhan Arukh – not internal spirituality – is the basis for our religious obligations, as the absolute cornerstone of our lives.

To be sure, divine truth is revealed on a number of different levels and planes in our lives. An individual is forbidden to think that truth is obtainable only in one dimension, either in the internal or external life alone. An encompassing, total reality takes both our internal and external lives into account and unifies them. However, in our incomplete, non-ideal reality, to every dimension and perspective there are benefits and detriments, in which we ignore either at our own peril. To this end, our rabbis taught us that we must serve God through both fear and love: and so Hazal said, serve out of fear, serve out of love.[2]

Admor ha-Zaken

Until now, we have seen the tension between the mitzvah candle and the neshamah (soul) candle, to wit – the conflict between the formal halakhic system and the unmediated spirituality sought by Hasidism, a spirituality that nevertheless has as a central prerequisite the authenticity of action. Thus, authenticity stands in opposition to the fact that the believer stands commanded to perform certain actions at appointed, limited times.

In his discourse for Hanukkah, Admor ha-Zaken deals with yet another tension addressed by Hasidism, especially in the system of Habad Hasidism: What is the connection of physical actions – the performance of the commandments – with the metaphysical, spiritual payoff that they are supposed to engender, such as an attainment of closeness with God?

Furthermore, the commandments, as they are sensed and experienced through action, are part of the world of tangibility [יש] – the finite and created human reality. Therefore, what connection can these have with faith in the divine infinity?

As it appears to me, the movement of the Admor ha-Zaken is a dialectical approach. On the one hand, he presents the commandments in a strictly utilitarian manner without any truly inherent value, but on the other, this very physicality of the commandments in our reality that which accords to them their roots in the pure divine will:

It is written: ‘A mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is Light.’ The mitzvot are called ‘candle.’ And it is also written: ‘the candle of God is the soul of man’, that the soul is called ‘candle’. The Zohar explained that the mitzvot are called ‘garments’… and in order to be fully clothed, the soul must fulfill all 613 mitzvot… The soul’s garments… are explained as boundless illuminations… for there are countless understandings of the light and the glow, which is an emanation of the infinite light, Blessed be He…

The delights that derive from the infinite light, which is the source of all delights, are without end. Similarly, we perceive with our senses… that physical delights are also without measure, for there are infinite ways to experience pleasure… Because of this, the soul as an aspect of the finite is unable to fully apprehend the revelation of this glow, which is the very being of the divine, except through a garment – a filter – [The soul] is only able to receive the light and the glow through that garment and filter. (Torah Or, Miketz, 32d)

The soul requires ‘garments’, for without these garments and filters, there is no comprehension. I will try to explain what I mean here. For example, when we speak of an eternal remembrance of a person’s life, are we talking about transcribing the details of a person’s life, as if entering a transcription of reporter’s notes into a computer? Of course not! All these moments of a person’s life are mere garments, a medium for the real that occurred in them. This real is not something specific, not a definable factor, but rather is the thing that grants meaning to the content of those experiences, even though it itself is undefinable.[3] Thus, ‘eternal life’ is life that retains with it the meaning of these experiences – something which can never be quantified or simply entered into a computer.

This undefinable thing that grants meaning, and is the life-force to everything else, is what Admor ha-Zaken calls the ‘glow of the infinite light’. It is not simply ‘meaning’, but rather the ‘meaning of all meaning’. In the discourse before us, as well as in other discourses of his, Admor ha-Zaken draws a connection and equivalence between this glow and the delight and pleasure that in our world always appears via a medium, some physical object. Pleasure will never materialize in this world in its pure state – like delight in the earthly realm that always devolves from something outside it, like when we take pleasure in some delicious food or in the study of some wisdom. (R. Schneur Zalman Likkutei Torah, addenda to Parshat Vayikra, 52a)

If so, the commandments are garments through which our world obtains its substance, existence, and meaning. In the language of Admor ha-Zaken, the commandments act as a conduit for the infinite light to penetrate into our world. That is to say, the commandments as an entire system of life form a space within which a person may experience the Eros of true meaning. Through them, an individual may feel alive, that is sensations of satisfaction, excitement, longing, the joy of commandment, and intimacy – all these we may incorporate metonymically into the word ‘light’ or ‘holiness’, that which Admor ha-Zaken would call ‘delight’ or ‘pleasure’.

In order for this light to be apprehended, it must be arrayed in the outer garments of the commandments. This is to say, that the commandments themselves are not the essence of the light and delight, nor are they the meaningful point of existence, but rather only a garment, that receives its light only by dint of the subjective experience of holiness and pleasure felt through it.As Admor ha-Zaken explains in the discourse we are studying:

Behold, it is not the way of the divine infinite light to be infused in the mitzvot unless it is through… the Godly soul itself that performs the mitzvah, and thereby draws forth through them a revelation of the divine infinite light. As it is written: “that the individual shall perform them” – the individual makes them into mitzvot, in drawing forth through them the infinite light. (Torah Or, Miketz.33c)

The Source of the Commandments

To be sure, it is possible to say that any way of life or cultural system is but a garment for the infinite light, in that, the system bears the weight of the meaning of life and the essence of reality. An individual experiences his or her life through cultural constructs and the social systems – especially the most critical ones such as love, longing, lower and higher fears, loyalty, etc. All these things grant to life meaning and purpose, something we would not trade for anything.

Hasidic thought recognizes this truth as related to the fact that the world was created through “ten utterances” through which the divine light is revealed even without a specifically religious language, such as the Ten Commandments. Yet according to Admor ha-Zaken, there remains a difference between these [human] systems and the system of the commandments, even if the commandments are a ‘human system’, in that, they devolved into [a human form] from their ideal original rootedness in the infinite reality.

At this point, Admor ha-Zaken ceases to see the commandments as merely a garment or tool alone, but rather that they themselves represent constitute a direct encounter with the presence of the divine in our reality. This is to say that the commandments are a system meant to signify and symbolize the infinite itself.[4] They do not simply give expression to it, but direct us to it as well.

How do the commandments symbolize? As a system, they point to the divine will itself, as a closed system, without determination or purpose. One might even say that the symbol does not signify something that we are meant to understand, but rather that the signified is incomprehensibility itself, the ‘void within the void’.

In order to understand these things, we must pay attention to the distinction that Admor ha-Zaken makes between “the infinite light” and the “essential will of the infinite light”.

It is impossible for the essential will of the infinite light to be revealed to any created being, unless that divine will is embodied in some physical act, which are the performance of the mitzvah… The root of the mitzvot is very lofty, rooted in the uppermost realms of the supernal crown, keter… until it devolves into our realm through physical actions and things, tzitzit and sukkah, specifically in these things that the divine will is revealed, as‘the final in action is first in thought’.  In action, heaven was [created] first… but in thought, physicality came first… for the light is revealed from the aspect of divinity that encompasses all realms…

Thus the performance of mitzvot, whose roots lie in this encompassing aspect of divinity – the supernal keter – cannot be expressed below in the aspect of ‘inner light’, but rather must find their expression in exterior, physical actions, as it is well known that that which in its essence is loftier and elevated falls to the deeper depths.

Therefore, through the performance of mitzvot, there is created a covering, an encompassing screen, so that through the mitzvot the [soul] may be able to delight in the delight of the infinite light…    (Torah Or, Miketz. pp. 32d-33a)

Admor ha-Zaken presents the commandments as having a dual character. As a garment, they are only a vessel through which the infinite divine light finds expression. They are the delight of the soul, holiness in which all that is perceived is as the essence of this world. The commandments themselves are not the inner aspect of life but rather a medium for this interiority.

On the other hand, Admor ha-Zaken identifies them with the ‘encompassing’ lights (makifim, מקיפים); a reality that cannot be truly apprehended or experienced within ours. The root of the commandments are as vessels, conduits of a reality beyond ours – ‘the essential will of the infinite light’.

This idea shows a classic HaBaD teaching, which Admor ha-Zaken formulates thusly: that which in its essence is loftier and elevated falls to the deeper depths. We locate the root of the commandments, which in reality are purely utilitarian and without their own essential, inherent meaning, in the very essence and core of the divine.

The claim of Admor ha-Zaken is that the source of the commandments is to be found in the divine will itself. The meaning of the commandments is not resolved through adhering to some system of rules, some ethical or moral ideal, or some historical-progressive idea through which they were conceived.[5] In the most simple sense, God wanted commandments, and through this there developed a system with meaning and sense, which we might call wisdom, but that system does not fully define the Will of the creator, nor is it necessary in the absolute sense.

In the aforementioned discourse, Admor ha-Zaken teaches that the actual final action precedes the first thought, which explains and gives the action meaning. In actuality, the physical performance of the commandments is connected to the Divine Will. This warrants it to be done this particular way and not differently, without any humanly discernible reason.

This is the way of the Divine Will, to desire without dependence upon any externally motivating factor. One might say that since they are grounded in the Divine Will, the commandments as such signify a degree of arbitrariness and happenstance.[6]  The commandments serve as a reminder of the ultimate unknowability of the Divine Will that tautologically ‘desires because it desires’.

This is also the reason why the commandments primarily take the form of actions and not intentions. As actions, the commandments manifest themselves as closed and sealed deeds, their meanings not easily teased out nor defined by the meanings attached to them. Ultimately, there is just the light and the delight that we are able to attain through it.

[1] Thus a reduce conflict between the soul-life and the practical-life. See further torah no. 33 in Lectures on Likkutei Moharan vol. 1, 295-310; torah no. 6, 68.

[2] Commentary of R. Ovadia Bartenura on the Mishnah, Avot 1:3. I will point out, however, that it is basically impossible to impose upon someone a completely external commandment. Therefore, even the ability to follow an external command is a matter of personal prerogative, related to the realm of personal freedom. This is to say that the internality of a person itself transitions between many different phases – sometimes appearing as the freedom to be unfree, limited, and inauthentic.

[3] We must differentiate between ‘sense’ and ‘meaning’ [English in the original; JR]. As we shall soon see, ‘the glow of the infinite’ is what gives ‘sense’ to ‘meaning’. ‘Sense’ is completely attached to the level of content – words, actions, situations. ‘Meaning’ is the internal, animating force behind these, granting these things spiritual ‘weight’.

[4] This may be likened to the Lacanian idea of the real.

[5] The position of the Admor ha-Zaken here parallels in a certain sense the positions of Yeshayahu Leibowitz with regards to the commandments. JR- See further R. Shagar, “Faith and Language According to the Admor ha-Zaken of Habad”, Nehalekh b’Regesh, pp. 175-178.

[6] See R. Shagar, Pur hu ha-Goral; 32-37

© Josh Rosenfeld & Alan Brill 2016. All Rights Reserved. Do not use or republish in part or whole without prior permission.

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1905- In Commemoration of 250 Years of Jews in the US.

Jews have lived in prosperity and security in the United States for 362 years. American Jews have felt a special gratefulness for the opportunities of American life. This year, I offer a 1905 service for the Sabbath before Thanksgiving written by Rev H. Pereira Mendes of the Spanish- Portuguese synagogue of NY. The prayer and its sentiment may be needed more than ever this year as a reminder of our best aspirations for this country.

“O Lord, look down from Thy holy habitation from heaven and bless this Republic.. May it advance from strength to strength and continue to be a refuge for all who seek its shelter… May they be ever mindful that the blessings of liberty are safeguarded by obedience to law…”

A few years ago I posted the Thanksgiving service from the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue of NY from 1945. Then I posted the service from Kehilath Jeshurun 1940 and prayer from Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. Lookstein’s prayer was exceptionally universal and was picked up by several widely read online sites as a wonderful universal prayer- ideal for Thanksgiving reading.

This year, I am posting the service and prayer for the Sabbath before Thanksgiving that was offered in Carnegie Hall at a special convocation to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in the United States.

The event was a broad community event with parallel events in many cities such as Boston and Philadelphia.  Rev Pereira Mendes lead the service and his prayer is below . His sermon exhorted his listeners not to give up their Judaism in the midst of the American acceptance. Rev Pereira Mendes spoke on a Judaism of reverence, righteousness and responsibility.  Newspaper reporter were asked not to write during he service since it was the Sabbath. The mayors of NYC and Philadelphia attended as did former President Grover Cleveland, a letter was sent to be read by President Theodore Roosevelt.

There was also a Reform service at Temple Emanu-El with a more naturalistic prayer by Rev Joseph Silverman. There was also a large celebration at the Savoy hotel for the wealthy donors. The volume has a superb speech on integration in the US by Sephardic Dr. Solomon Soils-Cohen, whose family settled in the United Stated in colonial times.  The volume is available on online in many forms.

(medal issued in commemoration of the event)



ORDER OF SERVICE (To be recited, before the return of the Scroll, of the Law to the Ark)

  1. HYMN. (To be chosen by the Congregation)
  2. PSALM CVII. (To be read in response by the Minister and, the Congregation)
  3. PSALM CXVIII. Verses 1-24. (To be chanted, by the Reader and Choir)

O Lord, our God, God of our fathers, Ruler of nations, we worship Thee and praise Thy Name for Thy mercy and for Thy truth. On this day of our rejoicing we will make mention of Thy loving kindness according to all that Thou hast bestowed on us and we will proclaim Thy great goodness toward the house of Israel. For Thou didst say, Surely they are My people, children that will not deal falsely; so Thou hast been our Savior

Throughout the past ages Thou hast carried Israel as on eagles’ wings. From the bondage of Egypt, through the trials of the wilderness, Thou didst bring us and didst plant us in the land which Thou didst choose. In the sorrows of Babylon, Thy love and pity redeemed us; and when dispersed in every land, Thy Divine presence accompanied us in every affliction. Yea, when we passed through the waters, Thou wast with us, and through the rivers, they did not overflow us; when we walked through fire, we were not burned. From nation to nation Thou didst lead us, until the hand of the oppressor was weakened and the day of human rights began to dawn. Wherever we found a resting place, and built Thee a sanctuary, Thou didst dwell in our midst, and cleaving unto Thee, O Lord, we are alive this day’

We thank Thee that Thou hast sustained us unto this day, and that in the fullness of Thy mercy Thou hast vouchsafed to us of the seed of Israel a soil on which to grow strong in freedom and in fidelity to Thy truth. Thou hast opened unto us this blessed haven of our beloved land. Everlasting God, in whose eyes a thousand years are as yesterday which is past and as a watch of the night, we lift up our hearts in gratitude to Thee, in that two hundred and fifty years ago Thou didst guide a little band of Israel’s children who, . seeking freedom to worship Thee, found it in a land which, with Thy blessing, became a refuge of freedom and justice for the oppressed of all peoples. We thank Thee that our lot has fallen in pleasant places. Verily, O Lord God of Israel, Thou hast given rest unto Thy people, rest from our sorrow’, and from the hard bondage wherein we were made to serve.

O Lord, look down from Thy holy habitation from heaven and bless this Republic. Preserve it in the liberty which has been proclaimed in the land, and in the righteousness which is its foundation. Bless it with prosperity and peace. May it advance from strength to strength and continue to be a refuge for all who seek its shelter. Imbue all its citizens with a spirit of loyalty to its ideals. May they be ever mindful that the blessings of liberty are safeguarded by obedience to law, and that the prosperity of the nation rests upon trust in Thy goodness and reverence for Thy commandments.

Bless the President and his counselors, the judges, lawgivers, and executives of our county. Put forth upon them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and the spirit of might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. May America become a light to all peoples, teaching the world that righteousness exalteth a nation.

Our Father in Heaven, Who lovest all nations, all men are Thy children. Thou dost apportion tasks to peoples according to their gifts of mind and heart. But all, are revealing Thy marvelous plans for mankind. May the day speedily dawn when Thy kingdom will be established on earth, when nations shall learn war no more, when peace shall be the crowning reward of a world redeemed by justice, and all men shall know Thee, from the greatest unto the least.

Then shall loving kindness and truth meet, righteousness and peace kiss each other, truth spring forth from earth and righteousness look down from heaven. May all hearts serve Thee with one accord and recognize that Thou art One and Thy Name is One.



Prof Isaac Chavel responds to Rabbi Jack Bieler

Most of the responses to my blog post on Rabbi Jack Bieler’s new book on Facebook postulated the historical and sociological shifts in society as the cause moving the community away from ethics, Torah uMadda, and a humanistic Torah towards our current climate where they do not matter, as if morals and humanism are just passing fads of the 1950’s to 1970’s.

In addition, I received the following response by email from Prof Isaac Chavel who is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and member of the Doctoral Faculty in mathematics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. in Mathematics at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, Yeshiva University and S’micha form Rabbi Yisrael Ze’ev Gustman zt”l, Ramailis Yeshiva Netzach Israel, Brooklyn, NY (which moved to Jerusalem).


Dear Prof Brill,

I have read with great interest your interview with Rabbi Jack Bieler, as well as his 2008 article from which you extracted a number of key statements of principles. My view on these educational issues is that of a client, namely, through the years I have been a student in a Hebrew Day School, and a parent and grandparent (I still have three grandchildren in K–12) of children in Modern Orthodox schools.

There is hardly a sentiment expressed by Rabbi Bieler with which I disagree. In fact, they are all extremely admirable. But I would like to comment on their contending with the realities on the ground.

On Rabbi Bieler’s remarks about guarding against isolationist tendencies: If a couple invests economically (that includes real estate, food, schooling), socially, and emotionally to live the Modern Orthodox life we live, it is hard to realistically expect that a sense of uniqueness and, hopefully, excellence will not emerge from such a family life. With nothing intended, such a singular life-style produces a certain exclusivity by the very excellence it aspires to and achieves. Decency, respect, and compassion, for others are sure to be taught in the home and the school, but do not be surprised – especially, if everyone with whom children interact are from our own Modern Orthodox society – if we get unexpected results when our students emerge from our cocoon. To illustrate at a small-scale anecdotal level: I recall that in my day, nearly all our general studies teachers were non-Orthodox, Jew or Gentile; so we had to learn at a very early stage to interact properly with people who were not our own. When I met such people later on, outside my own environment, there was no break with my previous experience. So maybe the current emphasis on general studies teachers who are Orthodox, and thereby can serve as “role models,” comes with an unintended price

Why did Torah im Derekh Eretz, fail? The original ideology presupposed a broad society of educated and cultured people in European civilization. That has been gone for quite awhile, now. For one thing, the kind of education envisioned in the ideology of Torah im Derekh Eretz required mastery of foreign languages. Those university departments, along with classical civilization departments, have been dwindling – if not closing – throughout the United States for four decades. For another, history and literature departments have been politicized by the progressive polemic against the white, male, Eurocentric culture. (That includes, of course, the Founding Fathers of the United States.) My guess is that, today, any university professor casually referring to a classical text, or to Milton, Locke, and James, would be met with blank stares unless in an advanced literature class – the same as students’ blank stares, years ago, when Rav Lichtenstein, zt”l mentioned such authors. As to music, to take a another example, symphonies and operas across the country are under the same pressures as traditional humanities departments. The popular music culture of the past fifty years is not the high culture imagined by Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch in his time, nor by the remaining Torah im Derekh Eretz advocates of our time.

Our current university students are caught in an almost intolerable situation. The humanities and the sciences – beyond medicine and technological uses of the computer sciences and engineering – that were broadly attractive to my generation and the one following, are no longer attractive. So the choice is either the multicultural polemic against the West that has overtaken the universities, or the retreat to professional-prep curricula. Is it small wonder that Torah im Derekh Eretz has failed, and students “have taken a rightward turn?”

Why did Torah u’Madda fail to carry the day? Most people do not live philosophically driven lives. Orthodox Jews are, first and foremost, traditional. When I grew up, Orthodoxy was neither a philosophy nor an ideology. It basically meant being observant of the mitzvot, in contrast to the Conservative and Reform. What has morphed into Modern Orthodoxy today was, back then, ba’ale-batish–no ideological/philosophical pretenses attached. Modern Orthodox ideology currently focuses on the legal (halakhic), historical, and philosophical/spiritual aspects of Judaism to provide an answer to the contemporary situation. But current discussions studiously ignore the anthropology, the mythic structure of the personality – imbedded in one’s DNA from birth, as it were – bequeathed by a tradition of about 3500 years starting with Avraham Avinu, and by the founding myth of peoplehood some 210 years later, the Exodus from Egypt.

Modern life, indeed, challenges the traditional one as it emphasizes among other matters the individual at the expense of, in our case, the covenantal community. But, unless educational and developmental emphases strengthen the traditional life at the anthropological level, the tradition will devolve willy-nilly to a cultural option, to a lifestyle choice, parallel to the spirit of Rabbi Bieler’s remarks about Rabbi Shagar’s post-modernism.

Moreover, contemporary economic pressures mitigate against the luxury of a philosophically driven life. Just do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the cost of 14 years of K–13 (13 represents the year in Israel) of instruction, along with summer camps, elevated cost-of-living with regard to food and real estate. After that, it cannot be realistically expected that many parents have the time and energy to articulate a philosophy of life for themselves and to their children.

Also, traditional Torah study of the halakhah, that kind of limud haTorah b’omekin which Rav Soloveitchik zt”l found religious inspiration, is not part of the Modern Orthodox religious ethos – even if contending with the data of the halakhah is integral to its social program. So Rabbi Bieler’s disappointment, with  those in Yeshiva University’s cultural orbit who did not respond to the Rov’s philosophical endeavors, has its mirror-image disappointment on the other side of the cultural divide in Modern Orthodoxy.

Lip-service is definitely given in Modern Orthodoxy to mastery of texts, and no small amount of effort goes into them. But there is no question that students emerge from a K–13 education without fluent mastery of the two languages of the tradition – Hebrew and Aramaic. One can take a course in a foreign language at a university, and at 3 hrs/week and 15 weeks/semester, for 4 semesters, and command the language up to, say, some elementary poetry in those two years. But how many students emerge from 14 years of  Modern Orthodox education able to study a masekhta, with gemara and Rashi, on their own or with chevrusa without an English translation with commentary? How many students are comfortable studying Chumash with the classical commentaries? Let’s make it easier. How many students interested in TaNaKH will read the Israeli hesder books, for example, those written in accessible Hebrew by Rabbis Yoel Bin-Nun, Yuval Cherlow, and Elchanan Samet, rather than wait for the English translations to appear? One must ask, in addition, as to how much higher the percentage among those who attended Yeshiva University after high school. Walk into a Modern Orthodox synagogue Shabbat morning, and survey people’s reading material a.k.a.“survival kits” (that in itself is for another discussion). How much will be in Hebrew and how much in English?

In the discussion of philosophical commitment to Modern Orthodoxy, you excerpted from Rabbi Bieler’s article the following assumption:

The awareness that participation within general human society will entail encountering manifold situations that are not clearly delineated within the Codes of Jewish law and other primary texts of our tradition. Therefore in order for the Modern Orthodox Jew to act consistently in accordance with Jewish values and tradition in situations that are either unprecedented or where he does not have the time to be able to direct inquiries to halakhic authorities, he will have to possess a sense of not only how to carry out individual Commandments, but also the overall philosophy, theology and worldview that underlie these Commandments, which in turn will develop within him an almost instinctual awareness as to how to act Jewishly a times when no authoritative religious guidance is available to him.

In all candor, the current skill set in the foundational texts among current students – not just the data, but the process and intuition as well – is insufficient for any significant percentage to have developed beyond their formal instruction to achieve “an almost instinctual awareness as to how to act Jewishly a times when no authoritative religious guidance is available.” Rabbi Bieler has set a very high bar, and it is most important that he articulated it; but is it extremely difficult to imagine its realization beyond few exceptional adult individuals in our current religious culture.

Our educators, even with the very best of intentions, especially if they take to heart Rabbi Bieler’s shopping list, are simply overwhelmed by what they aim to accomplish. But for decades, now, Modern Orthodox education has devolved to prep-education for admission to the best universities, with the Jewish studies dedicated to giving students the wherewithal to remain loyal to the tradition upon entry to the wider world. This is not an indictment; it is what I see “on the ground.” When successful, this is no small achievement, and our educators can take genuine pride and satisfaction in their work. But the intellectual and spiritual creativity of the moment seem to be in society at large, and Modern Orthodox education is responding in the best way it can. Cherry-picking the sources of the TaNaKH, ChaZaL, and the rest of the literature that speak to the current situation is just that – current, at best. My sense is that there is a loss of  faith in the capacity of the classical texts of the tradition – the “sophisticated” as well as the “unsophisticated” sources – to inspire; that until such faith returns with the wherewithal to indeed inspire, Modern Orthodoxy will not be able to produce an ethic and ethos from within that genuinely produces the integration of particularist and universalist sensibilities to which it aspires.

Jack Bieler – The Great Principle of the Torah and discussion of Dov Weiss, Rav Shagar, Jewish Education, and Modern Orthodoxy

I received my copy of Rabbi Jack Bieler’s delightful new book The Great Principle of the Torah (Kodesh Press, 2016) in the spring but did not review it at the time because the content was not sufficient for a long review, fitting in with this blog’s current style.  However, when I posted my Interview with Dov Weiss on arguing with God, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a response from Bieler. In the interim, I also received a response from Bieler concerning my Rav Shagar post. Together with quotes from his articles, it produced a fine post.

This post will be somewhat different than my ordinary post in that I will be more explicit in direct comments as a form of internal dialogue between ideal and reality and between different modes of thinking about religion and culture.  I am not aiming to critique Rabbi Bieler in any way, rather to work out in public some of the issues about Modern Orthodoxy. I have known Rabbi Bieler as an email confrere for almost fifteen years since the days of  the defunct EDAH. One can use this post as an insight into what one person from the Torah uMadda era envisioned. One can also use the post to evaluate why the intellectual and moral approach did not garner wide support leading to it being replaced by progressive social inclusion, halakhah as a closed discourse, community building and outreach, and popular culture- in both its open and right wing forms.  By the fourth question, we have Bieler’s own elegy for a path not taken.

Rabbi Jack Bieler founded Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, MD in 1990, where he served as spiritual leader until his retirement in 2015. He received ordination from Yeshiva University and was a faculty member of Yeshivat Ramaz and the Berman Hebrew Academy. He has a website that is worth reading for his archive of articles. In addition, he sends out a daily dvar Torah article on his blog.

In The Great Principle of the Torah, Rabbi Jack Bieler works from a fundamental belief in moral imperatives as the driving force in Judaism. This book deals with seven statements from the Talmud and presents the rabbinic positions on each principle together with further sources in the Biblical commentators, medieval and modern Jewish thought and connections to the Torah readings. In most of the chapters he also offers pedagogic advice and charts.


The seven principles are:
1. Love they neighbor- Hillel’s opinion that “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” This is a variation of the biblical: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
2. Universalism- Ben Azzai focused on the biblical statement “This is the book of the generations of man in the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him.”
3. The concept of ever more concise Principles- prophet Habakkuk wrote “But the righteous shall live by his faith.”
4. Everyday Consciousness -Bar Kappa’s “In all your ways know him and he will direct your paths.”
5. Pleasantness and Peace- Rabbi Joseph “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.”
6. Loving-kindness- Rabbi Yehudah emphasized kindness, for one who denies it “denies the most fundamental principle.”
7. Lawfulness- Rabbi Elazar said: “The entire Torah is based upon justice.”

These principles are not to be seen as random quotes from the Aggadah, rather fundamental directives that, according to Bieler, should color one’s entire approach to Judaism above and beyond the halakhic or ritual obligations.

In the chapter on  Rabbi Joseph’s principle “the whole of the Law is also for the purpose of promoting peace, Bieler even considers whether Judaism’s legal character is an obstacle to pleasantness and peace. The chapter concludes by cautioning that “it is necessary for Jewish leaders to make absolutely certain that before they make a pronouncement that could have negative social consequences, they have exhausted all legitimate options to render a more inclusive or humane decision.”

Bieler concludes that the value of these principles is more in the reflection on what is involved in a Jewish religious life than in determining the application of principle, their study becomes more of an act of helping his students attain moral maturity than providing set answers. The book belongs in every Jewish high school and middle school library as well as in the synagogue; it is a goldmine for creating lesson plans and homiletic materials. I would have loved a book like this twenty-five years ago when I taught high school, where it would have been integrated into my Talmud and Bible lesson plans for the year.

Bieler’s thought is a synthesis of old school Torah uMadda with elements of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, musar movement, and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, along with Lawrence Kohlberg, Robert Alter, Bibliodrama, and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Those who still envision the possibilities of an educated and observant Jewish life should definitely buy the book and read it over a weekend for a vacation to an Orthodoxy that spoke of “meta-principles” and ethical vision. The book is stimulating and fruitful while at the same time returning to basics.

Now for my dialectic. Why did this approach not catch on? There contents and message of this book are similar to Rabbi Yuval Cherlow’s  recent work on the need for human dignity and ethics ias well as developing a Torah humanism and Cherlow based his approach on the same principles. Bieler’s book may even be better grounded in the sources.

I do think that part of the answer for lack of resonance is that Rabbi Cherlow is in the newspapers and public functions every week dealing with a contemporary social and political questions. Torah uMadda and Hirsch’s TIDYism were  theologies for educators to develop virtue in their students and did not have a strong enough social element. For example, one does not see American Modern Orthodox leadership having much to say about the serious ethical issues of our day. In addition, there has been a shift to looking for fixed halakhic resolutions, rather than using a Hirschian or Kohlberg oriented moral training.  Why the professional community wanted this halakhic approach over the other is a bigger discussion.

Finally, there might have been a sense of the correctness on the part of the advocates of the Torah uMadda approach that did not feel the need to sell itself. For example, this book seems to be lecture notes for a high school class without concern for 21st century presentation. There are long textual quotes, separate discussions in the notes, and no index, as well as a lack of ethical discussion geared for an adult who is not an educator.

In order to further the discussion, let us turn to the email response I received from Rabbi Bieler after the post by Dov Weiss. (The question and answer format was added for the blog post.) In the response, one sees a Torah Umadda that seeks to integrate Jewish history and Jewish texts but without historicism and without considering different texts as alternatives to our presentism. At the same time this approach, assumes that Torah is sophisticated and moral, without leaving a way to directly confront or condemn the overwhelming amount of non-ethical and unsophisticated forms of Torah.

  1. How do you see a tension between academics and the classroom concerning the recent book by Dov Weiss?

Reading the book review and interview with Dov Weiss on the occasion of the publication of Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), in which evolving depictions of the Divine are attributed to various collections of Rabbinic literature written in different epochs, once again raised in my mind a conundrum that probably confounds at least some Orthodox Jewish day school educators and community Rabbis like myself.

I would just suggest that a less untraditional approach to “God’s erring and having to change His mind” would be a modeling of Divine Reevaluation or Self-Reckoning that could serve man well as a moral lesson.

In that sense,  Pesikta Rabbati, piska 44 on “Shuva Yisrael” describing God as having to model as an exemplar case of repentance (teshuva) that can be used in educationally  in order to encourage fearful Israel to emulate His example.

Rabbi Yosef Yehudah Bloch in Shiurei Da’at suggests, based on Rashi (Genesis 1:1), that the image in midrash of Divine repentance (teshuva) manifests that the workings of the world were recalibrated when man came on the scene, from the exclusive province of attribute of judgement (middat hadin), to the addition and precedence of the attribute of mercy (middat harachamim). This is a less radical approach than that advanced by Dov Weiss, but may be a point of view that will allow broad-minded traditionalists to “dance at both weddings,” at least for a little while longer.

For this very reason, I suggest a Katuv HaShlishi HaMachria Beineihem (fig., a third approach that can ameliorate the two extreme alternatives delineated above) as a means to resolve the tension.

Rabbinic sources themselves discuss a certain “plasticity” when it comes to how God intends to be viewed, not only in different historical contexts, but even during the same period of time. The various Names associated with and descriptions of God indicate how at different times, cGod deliberately assumes different modalities in His dealings with the world and mankind, e.g., a) “Elokim”—law and justice; b) “Yud-Keh-Vav-Keh” (the Tetragrammaton)—kindness and mercy; c) “ShaKai”—omnipotence; d) “Keil Kana”—jealous and vindictive; d) “Man of War”—Exodus 15:3; e) “Groom”—Jeremiah 2:2, etc.

To my mind, these varied guises constitute formats deliberately chosen by God in order to suit a particular time and place, rather than merely terminology attributed to Him by man due to fundamental changes in human beings’ conditions and attitudes, thereby allowing a more traditional, and nevertheless complex and sophisticated approach to thinking about God.

Consequently, with respect to a book like Dov Weiss’s volume, in the words of Michael Rosenak, the traditionalist will necessarily have to “translate” concepts from the world of academia into terminology and assumptions that will be appropriate for the traditional premises of the world that he inhabits.

2) What is the tension of academic and classroom understandings of texts?

As a serious student and teacher of Rabbinic sources, I feel responsible to familiarize myself with the state of research in the field. Yet at the same time, since I am not a university academic, I find myself wondering about the extent to which I can justify incorporating contemporary initiatives and discoveries within my presentations in the Modern Orthodox day school classroom and synagogue Beit Midrash, when presenting such material potentially could have adverse effects on the beliefs of my students.

Such concerns have been in the back of my mind for some time, but became starkly delineated at a conference that I attended several years ago.  In 2008, the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish education at Brandeis University, hosted a series of presentations entitled “Teaching Rabbinic Literature,” part of a project called “The Initiative on Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy in Jewish Studies.”

I clearly recall the point at which it became very obvious to me that there exists a significant difference in approach of the university and the day school, regarding research, learning and teaching.

At a session devoted to liturgy, when, following a most stimulating talk addressing the Biblical and Rabbinic sources that contributed to a particular prayer, the academic presenter was asked during the question-and-answer period, “How can we incorporate these ideas in our day school context where prayer is approached as an important part of students’ experiential educational experience?” The frank and direct response given by the scholar was: “My students’ religious outlook is not my concern and therefore I have nothing to say in this regard.”

Both the day school teacher and synagogue educator, as part of their job definitions, per force must take into consideration the manner in which students are likely to respond religiously to what is being taught. While I am not advocating that day school curricula and synagogue course material be deliberately made misrepresentative of contemporary thinking and research offered by experts in the field, to be indifferent to the ultimate effects of what is presented is, at least in my opinion, is inappropriate and even irresponsible for practitioners like myself.

Since I did not begin my Jewish education until my freshman year at Yeshiva College, I remember observing a similar dilemma with respect to how Judaic and general studies were being presented.   While certain educators modeled by their personal examples how Jewish thought and practice were able to not only co-exist with, but even complement the premises underlying general studies, there were virtually no curricular contexts in which these two subject areas were directly and formally brought to bear upon one another. Consequently, students, who were required to enroll in both Judaic and general studies courses, more often than not were left to their own devices to try to resolve what they often experienced as the “cognitive dissonance” between the ideas to which they were exposed first in the morning during Judaic studies, and then over the course of each afternoon, when general studies were pursued.

Those heavily involved in the humanities, as I was, acutely experienced the conflict of such assumptions. Some students dealt with the clashing postulates with which they were continually bombarded by engaging in strenuous exercises of compartmentalization, or what Erving Goffman has elegantly referred to as “dimming the lights.” Some students allowed one subject area to assume overriding precedence over the other, reducing the potentially challenging educational experience offered at Yeshiva U. to a monolithic one, comprised of either the “Yeshiva” or the “University.”

Other students grappled with the conflicts head-on, with many of these eventually giving up on the idea that the two realms could coexist within their minds and outlooks.

I felt then, and have continued to believe throughout my career in day school education and the synagogue rabbinate, that students and congregants must not only honestly be presented with such conflicts, but also with strategies for the resolution of at least some of the issues raised.

It seems to me that a similar process occurs for those who wish to remain informed regarding the state of a field like Rabbinic thought, but who are at the same time are concerned that their students and congregants will be unable to understand how to reconcile the apparent “dissonance” that almost inevitably arises when the frame of reference for ideas is a historical one that has resulted in significant changes regarding how God is perceived and described by human beings over time.

3) Response to Rabbi Shagar’s essay on Postmodernism

My most fundamental concern with this chapter is what I consider an internal contradiction with respect to the terms that ShaGaR employs. On the one hand, he defines post-Modernity as a position “that denies that certitude is possible” as well as legitimizing “the freedom of the individual to establish himself and his values” (p. 2). But then he states that the key to a constructive approach to religion now entails an honest “accepting the yoke of Heaven” (p. 4).

If one cannot be certain of the components of a system, and he believes that he can establish any sort of identity and values for himself, then doesn’t the idea of “accepting the yoke of Heaven” become absurd? If one cannot be sure of the idea that Torah originates with some type of objective Revelation at Sinai of both a Written and Oral Tradition, what “yoke” becomes relevant? If one defines for himself whatever it is that he feels is sincere and freely accepted, then instead of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation in favor of the Revealed Will of some Higher Power that has seemed to go hand-in-hand with the religious lifestyle, a solipsistic system is substituted which one somehow has become convinced is synonymous with the Will of Heaven. Perhaps ShaGaR understands “the yoke of Heaven” differently; I would very much be interested in understanding what this connotes within his thinking.

Secondly, his invocation of Rav Kook as someone who “attempted to come to terms with modern culture” (p. 2), drawing upon “mysticism as the seed of religion” (p. 6) is certainly evocative, but, in my opinion, fails to take into consideration that R. Kook was at the same time a firm Halachist who could even be said to have tended towards the Chumra (stringency) end of the spectrum of staking out Halachic positions. I have long thought that this objective structure supplied an anchor to R. Kook that served as a check-and-balance to his profoundly creative and original ventures into trying to hammer out new approaches to religious observance and a relationship with God. It seems to me that based upon ShaGaR’s definitions of the premises of post-Modernity, such a dialectic is not possible.

Thirdly, in two contexts, ShaGaR references critics who have claimed that his approach will engender “nihilism” (p. 2, 5). While I agree that in the purest context, a disavowal of standard ideology in favor of striving to develop a personal, sincere relationship with God would be ideal and the furthest thing from nihilistic, it seems to me that an unavoidable nihilistic result would be to reduce the observant community as a whole, fractured as it might be currently, to an even looser collection of individuals who each possess a unique and “boutique” perspective on Jewish observance.

Finally, the “devil is always in the details” and ShaGaR mentions as an educational means for addressing the issues he raises in a post-Modern world, a Chassidic existential position (p. 3), and Haredi education “built from identity and not ideology” (p. 4). Diagnosing a problem is one thing; addressing how to effectively cope with it and even use it to improve what currently exists is quite another, and I for one would be very curious to learn why and how he feels such approaches could make a significant difference.

4) Why do you think Torah uMadda lost in hearts and minds of the congregants?  What could have been done differently that might have changed the trajectory of Modern Orthodox history?

At the outset, I think that it is important to acknowledge that there are numerous reasons why Torah u’Madda has failed to capture the imaginations of contemporary American Modern Orthodoxy. Depending upon the frame of reference that one prefers, sociological, historical, psychological, epistemological, and theological reasons could all be brought to bear. Perhaps, as in so many areas of human existence, in order to gain as complete a picture as possible—an “eclectic” must be assembled comprised of the accounts of different individuals who each will be able to develop his/her own particular perspective regarding  the issue at hand.

Having spent my working life as a religious educator in day schools and synagogues, I tend to view this, and many other issues, both religious and secular, in educational terms, once again realizing that my figurative “myopia” in this regard can’t possibly capture all of the dimensions of the issue being considered.

Consequently, I have tended in my own thinking to attribute the ultimate failure of Torah u’Madda to the inability of Modern Orthodoxy’s key educational institutions, Yeshiva University in particular, to self-consciously produce individuals committed to such an outlook and who are aspiring to leadership and influence in the community’s key institutions, i.e., its synagogues and day schools.

Over the years, I have not found there to be a significant group of fellow-travelers who personally strive to model a Torah u’Madda philosophy in their professional and personal lives. While at times specific individuals have emerged from the community’s schooling system who exemplify a Torah u’Madda approach, there never have been enough of them who by serving as community Rabbis and day school teachers, could by their examples and teaching, influence a broad swath of people to become committed to such an outlook. One can argue that charismatic teachers and Rabbis cannot be made to order; however, I believe that, at least currently, neither thought has been given nor concerted effort made to encourage the production of a critical mass of such individuals who in turn would be able to set a tone for both professionals and laymen presently referring to themselves as Modern Orthodox.

In another educational vein, even the structure by which Jewish education is delivered, beginning when subject areas are departmentalized in Jewish day schools, usually during Middle School years, countermands the development of a Torah u’Madda approach. Torah u’Madda is by definition an interdisciplinary approach, whereby elements of Jewish tradition and general studies are brought to bear upon one another. However, over the course of a departmentalized school day, not only are, e.g., English and TaNaCh, History and Talmud, Hebrew language and French, Mathematics and Jewish thought, usually presented in splendid isolation from one another, but even the subjects within the Judaic studies and general studies curriculum are rarely allowed to interact within the classroom. While occasionally, some teachers may personally be conversant with “both sides of the curriculum,” the need to cover ground in the highly pressurized context of a double curriculum educational setting, usually precludes them from regularly incorporating “outside” ideas and thoughts into the classroom context.

Extra-curricular activities and experiences in youth groups and summer camps have focused upon affective rather than cognitive aspects of Jewish thinking, and therefore have not promoted a Tora U’Madda outlook.

Returning to the post-secondary educational scene, as well as the training of future congregational Rabbis and day school teachers, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Z”L, a powerful exemplar of Torah u’Mada both by personal example as well in his teaching and writing, once commented that university education for many Modern Orthodox Jews has become the study of “sophisticated plumbing,” I.e., vocational training rather than an exploration and quest to better understand the human condition. Such a relatively narrow approach to the college learning experience, was clearly evident to me with respect to many of R. Aharon’s own Talmud students. During the time that I was a member of his Talmud class as an undergraduate at Yeshiva during 1968-9, Rav Aharon would often quote from various classical literary sources during the course of his presentations, something that I particularly admired, but also felt did not “register” all that much with most of my fellow students.

The essential dismissal of his citations from, e.g., Milton, Locke and James, took on even sharper focus, when, during a Sabbatical in Israel twenty years later, I attended his weekly Shiurim at the Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, a Kollel for YU Semicha students (candidates for Rabbinic ordination). When R. Aharon would, as his wont, cite some great secular thinker, I noted that the students would often look at one another and smile, saying, things like “There he goes again,” in a respectful, but clearly dismissive fashion. To my mind, this indicated that while they deeply respected and recognized R. Aharon’s extraordinary breadth of knowledge and powers of analysis, it was his Torah erudition that they cared about, not the dimension of his thinking regarding the giants of Western culture, which I certainly continue to believe, contributed mightily to his overall spiritual personality and Weltanschaung.

I believe that a similar phenomenon could be observed with respect to R. Aharon’s father-in-law, R. Soloveitchik, Z”L.  The Rav’s broad understanding of subject areas that included philosophy, literature, and theology were never broached within the context of the Semicha classes that I attended, and one only became apprised of the extent of his familiarity with these subject areas while listening to various talks that he gave to other groups, or reading particular sets of his writings.

If even the students exposed to great individuals like the Rav and R. Aharon, were inspired to emulate only their Torah learning, but not also their broad familiarity with secular ideas and culture, it seems to me that it should not come as a surprise why Torah uMadda has not become the sine qua none of Modern Orthodox American Jewry.

[AB- site editor] Now my dialectic kicks in again. I wonder how this might have been the fault of the Torah uMadda followers themselves? In the 1990’s, there were several score of rabbis and teachers who advocated Torah uMadda ready to ascend to the leadership positions that they assumed were destined to be theirs. What happened? Were they too introvert and cerebral? Were they just lacking political and leadership skills? Was the Torah that they were teaching irrelevant? Or did they just think that the future was already theirs so they did not have to fight for spiritual control of the community? I know many rabbis who are not comfortable with either the current YU Orthodoxy or with Open Orthodoxy and yearn for their 1986 or 1994 Torah uMadda vision. Do the answers above give clues to the change?

Modern Orthodox Jewish Education (my voice)

Maybe Jack Bieler’s article below may help. It is his 2008 “Vision of a Modern Orthodox Jewish Education” (Mandel Leadership Institute) where he offers an ideal vision of a day school education. I would like my readers who are educators to read it.  It is a wonderful essay that did not get the attention it deserved. First, he advocates an integrated approach like Hirsch’s Frankfort HS, in which the general studies teachers such as biology, English, and history are able to be religious Jews who can model integration. Second, education should be a midwifing of the students to find their own selves and voices, not worksheets and memorization.

Bieler gives eight aspirations of an integrated education that includes moral education, God in our lives, religion as part of broader culture and civilization, contribution to the quality of the wider culture, the need for spiritual reflection, to understand that answers will not come from fixed halakha but from creating an  overall philosophy, theology and worldview that will develop within the student an almost instinctual awareness as to how to act, reflection on rote practice, and to combat the natural human tendency to differentiate oneself from other- both Jewish and non-Jewish- through constantly being on guard against socially disruptive isolationist tendencies. The list is part Hirschian, part Victorian, and part similar to the vision of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  This is a great list that educators should think about.

Bieler advocates directly dealing with the question of theology, faith, morality, issues raised in the Guide of the Perplexed, and religious experience to which he suggests to integrate the sociology, psychology and history of religion in general and poetic literature exploring the relationship between God and man and the nature of authority. He also advises to bring in the arts and media, contemporary issues, and moral education. This is different than those who want to talk about how the Modern Orthodox greats of the past read Western books; this is an approach for integration in the future.  (Also notice how different this vision of education is than the recent turn to Neo-Chassidus, outreach, enthusiasm and emotionalism).

5) Vision of a Modern Orthodox Jewish Education (Bieler’s voice- selections from a 34 page article)

[M]ost Modern Orthodox institutions inherently are more likely to be figuratively “schizophrenic” and literally compartmentalized with respect to their educational vision. Asserting that equal attention must be paid to both Judaic and general studies has proven to be extremely problematic from the perspective of some if not all stake-holders in these institutions, i.e., subject matter specialists, teachers, students and the general community. To find educational theorists, instructors, students and parent bodies who embody and adhere to the educational ideal referred to as Torah uMadda (Torah and Knowledge/Science) and Torah Im Derech Eretz (Torah and the ways of the World) has not only proven difficult in the past, but has become increasingly so as religious movements in general have taken a rightward turn.

My favorite metaphor describing a teacher’s role in the educational process is “midwifery.” The underlying assumption driving such a metaphor is that the educational process is essentially student-centered. The teacher’s primary preoccupation is to help the student find himself, his voice, his aptitude, his passion in religious and secular disciplines and activities. To achieve such an aim, the instructor must undertake to expose his disciple to all sorts of materials and ways of thinking in order that the student can ultimately discover what “resonates” within him, what will elicit within himself a powerful response and substantive intellectual curiosity, how he might become drawn to maximize his own unique potential, talents and skill set.

A philosophical commitment to Modern Orthodoxy from my perspective includes the following assumptions:

  1. a) an awareness of an ongoing, personal involvement with God in both our individual lives as well as in all aspects of human history;
  2. b) the sensibility that Judaism is part and parcel of the broadest possible understanding and conceptualization of human civilization and therefore by definition can be harmonized, at least to some degree, with many, if not most, of its widely-held perspectives and values;
  3. c) the assumption that human beings while not inherently inclined to act evilly, nevertheless require explicit moral guidance and development in order for them to transcend natural human self-absorption and self-interest in order to rise to the highest levels of personal spiritual idealism and interpersonal altruism;
  4. d) the belief that even an observant Jew must strive to make a significant contribution to the general quality of life of his fellow citizens, including members of non-Jewish society;
  5. e) the premise that specifically because all human beings, including observant Jews, are intended to participate in a meaningful manner within the greater society, they will be exposed and attracted to innumerable activities that can potentially easily sidetrack them from devoting appropriate time to the sort of spiritual reflection and growth that would allow them to realize their spiritual potentials.
  6. f) the awareness that participation within general human society will entail encountering manifold situations that are not clearly delineated within the Codes of Jewish law and other primary texts of our tradition. Therefore in order for the Modern Orthodox Jew to act consistently in accordance with Jewish values and tradition in situations that are either unprecedented or where he does not have the time to be able to direct inquiries to Halachic authorities, he will have to possess a sense of not only how to carry out individual Commandments, but also the overall philosophy, theology and worldview that underlie these Commandments, which in turn will develop within him an almost instinctual awareness as to how to act Jewishly a times when no authoritative religious guidance is available to him;
  7. g) the concern that because traditional Jewish observance consists of behaviors that often entail daily multiple repetitions, in order for the individual to maintain a sense of freshness and vitality with respect to his religious practices, it is important for him to strive to constantly reflect upon these practices, seeking new insights, perspectives and intents in order that at least internally and spiritually, each repetition will ideally constitute a constantly rejuvenating and evolving approach to expressing one’s commitment to the Divine;and
  8. h) the realization that in order to combat the natural human tendency to differentiate oneself from others in order to achieve distinctiveness and a personal sense of identity, traditional Jews often perceive their religious observance as setting themselves apart not only from non-Jews, but also from their less observant co-religionists. Since Modern Orthodoxy emphasizes the value of recognizing the commonality that Jews share in terms of their history, origins and values, regardless of religious orientation, it becomes necessary to constantly be on guard against socially disruptive isolationist tendencies that would create barriers between the members of the Jewish people;

Examples of such interdisciplinary, integrated issues might include:

  1. The sociology, psychology and history of religion in general and Judaism in particular;
  2. Poetic literature of various cultures exploring the relationship between God and man;
  3. Theories regarding Creation, Intelligent Design and evolution;
  4. The implications of the concept of infinity from religious, mathematical, philosophical and scientific perspectives;
  5. The history of authority and kingship in religious and general thought. humanistic study of the highest order. Examples of such materials might include:
  6. Biblical, Midrashic and Talmudic depictions of general human nature as well as individuals who either rose or fell when confronted by existential moral dilemmas;
  7. Literature that foreshadowed, was produced or influenced by the Mussar Movement;
  8. Classics of world literature, historical accounts and diaries, as well as contemporary media such as film, music, drama, TV programs, etc. in which situations present themselves that are morally challenging;
  9. The depiction of contemporary events in the press, on the internet, in journals that center on ethical conundrums;
  10. Inviting religious personalities to make presentations regarding the moral issues that they have had to deal with in their professional lives, as well as the types of problem-solving in which they had to engage in order to attempt to resolve these challenges.

Judaism and Post-Modernity –Rabbi Shagar in English Translation

Rabbi Shagar (d. 2007), was a Torah scholar and a contemporary religious thinker left a deep mark on the educators and students of the last generation. Here is one of his major essays Judaism and-Post Modernism, the last essay in the work Luhot ve Shivrei Luhut (Tablets and Broken Tablets: Jewish Thought in the Age of Post-Modernism) (Yediot-Sifrei Hemed, 2013) 440- 428. The talk was given on Nisan 19, 2004 – during the intermediate days of Passover.This essay is translated for the first time into English. It is available below as a blog post and as a Word document. Print this out and read it over the next week.

The translation was done by Rabbi Moshe Simkovich, who was the Founding Head of School and Dean of Judaic Studies at Stern Hebrew High School in Philadelphia (now Kohelet YHS), and taught for many years at Maimonides School in Boston. He also served as a congregational Rabbi in Newton, MA.  A graduate of the University of Chicago. If anyone else has made personal translations of essays by Rav Shagar, I would be glad to post them. (Also if you find errors in this translation, please let me know).


Rabbi Shagar established Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak, in Efrat and was the head of the establishment until his death. Starting in the early 1980’s he was a dominant figure in the Jerusalem rabbinic world, first at Yeshivat HaKotel, then he established the yeshiva “Shefa” together with him Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Rabbi Menachem Froman. The yeshivah established the high school yeshiva Makor Haim. He was then head of the Beit Midrash of Beit Morasha.

In my past blog posts, we have discussed his approach to Torah study, his post modernism, watched a TV documentary about his life and his views of a return to traditionalism away from method and ideology. We also looked at how Smadar Cherlow portrayed the post- Rabbi Shagar turn.

Here we return to his post-modernism by looking at his own words, an eight -page essay where he explained what he means by postmodernism.

Before I start, I must note that Rav Shagar described himself for several decades as a Hasidic existentialist approach. And in the recent work by his colleague Rabbi Yair Dreifus, Touching the Heart [Hebrew] (2013) about Shagar’s approach, he also portrays him as a Hasidic existentialist.

Yet, Rav Shagar did read David Gurevitz, Post-Modernism: Culture and Literature at the end of the 20th Century (Dvir, 1997), a general work applying post-modernism to Israeli literature such as Etgar Keret and the Hebrew translation of Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (Hebrew translation, 1999) and adapted the language as his own to describe the prior twenty years of his thinking.

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home (Bob Dylan)

And if you want to be free, be free
Cause there’s a million things to be
You know that there are  (Cat Stevens/Yusef Islam)

In the essay below, Rav Shagar celebrates the virtues of autonomy, individualism, choosing one’s own life path and to seek one’s own answers. He sees this as inevitable in that we live in an age where there is a breakdown of the hierarchical and patriarchal society and we encourage kids to be themselves. He encourage the individualism we know from most of the 20th century from John Dewey’s educational works to the TVshow by Marlo Thomas, Free to be You and Me (1972). We now have the freedom the create our own reality, to decide whom we marry and accept to responsibility for our life choices.

This is not post-modernism in which we are socially constructed, or bound by language and epistemic ruptures, or disseminating based on language, or “a religion without religion,” or a religion noted by its absence, or making it immanent in the shopping mall and media. Shagar is good old-fashioned existentialist, pragmatist, and romantic with an emphasis on autonomy.

Yet, he is post-modern in a limited sense of having no grand narrative, no foundations, and no metaphysics.  He writes:

I am of the opinion that postmodernism and deconstructionism constitute a ‘shattering of the vessels’ (שבירת הכלים).  Yet this very shattering grants us wide ranging freedom, and as far as religion goes – freedom to believe, even without absolute proofs and evidence.

For him, “belief is found in life not ideology.” Shagar writes: “the transition from a ‘Religion of Truth’ to a ‘Religion of Belief’ is the most profound point of Post-Modernism.” For Shagar, “the departure from Egypt not just as an historic event, but rather as a paradigm for every generation; a leaving of restraints behind, a breaking of the world’s boundaries and oppression.

There’s nothin’ wrong with lovin’ who you are
She said, ’cause He made you perfect, babe
… I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way  (Lady Gaga)

How do we do teshuvah (repentance)? Rabbi Soloveitchik viewed repentance as an existential act of self-creation. For Rabbi Shagar, the first question we need to ask is: to where can we return? There is no direction to return. For us, repentance is the radical acceptance of the self.

We were born this way, and we should accept God’s creation of individual difference.  Shagar lets you accept yourself and your personal turns and struggles and individuality.  Post-moderns deconstruct the self, Rav Shagar like Lady Gaga advocates a total acceptance of the self.  We need to embrace our Freedom, personal choice, and existential choices.

Shagar’s vision is to see this as a constructive moment for exciting new faith options. Just as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook challenged the status quo with new ideas and new ways of seeing things, we should embrace this opportunity. Tolerance for others and those who challenge us is a good thing for creative encounter.

For most modernists, including The Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik and Kierkegaard – one comes down from the peak moment of the religious experience and then channel the experience into an acceptance of the yoke of heaven and the ordinary life.

For Rabbi Shagar, however, the peak moment is “authenticity, as readiness to be myself.” One then comes down and accepts “the yoke of Heaven” butit is through the “wholehearted acceptance of this independence as a divine fiat, not as chance.” One understands that “there is no instant of authenticity, and so it is a more difficult freedom.

He advocates a mystical option as a solution of our era. He quotes Rabv Kook and Gershom Scholem that “mysticism is the seed of religion.”  In mysticism, there “is real potential for a religiosity of intimacy, of a strong passionate position in regards to the Infinite, the very position searched for by Rav Kook… This is my religiosity.

“We were born sick”, you heard them say it
My church offers no absolutes (Take Me to Church by Hozier)

Even in this essay, Rabbi Shagar has a strong critique of system. He points to the excesses of Religious Zionism, and to young adults  who give up their religiosity upon discovering that the truths of the yeshiva do not stand up to the university and secular culture.

The fundamentalism of the Religious Zionist position with its fixed answers leads to a breakdown into those who chose the Haredi side by becoming Hardal (haredi leumi) and those who become part of the Conservative movement. Religious Zionism has become downtrodden by its own ideological stances.

Those who went into the Hesder yeshivot overburdened their life’s with ideology- which is a fixed statue and hardened structure. In addition, looking over one’s shoulder at the observance of others is a sign of estrangement and shows an inability to relate to one’s essence.

In the tradition of liberal pluralism of the West, Rabbi Shagar is against religious coercion.

My pluralism does not remain within the walls of the study hall; it is wider.  Yet I hold to it without thereby saying all is acceptable; I am not passive, holding back from opposing things that are off-limits.  At the same time, and I say this deliberately, I have no need to disqualify things that are not within my circle.  I can be true to my faith, live, die, and kill by its authority, and in so doing I do not have a need to create a hierarchy of beliefs crowning mine above all; who is better or worse is a question without substance.

One should not insult or even be patronizing toward non-Orthodox, they are not “captive children” but thinking and informed adults. He distinguishes between his public beliefs and his private personal views, therefore we have to understand the role of Reform conversions and marriages, as well as civil marriage.

I’ve conquered my past
The future is here at last
I stand at the entrance to a new world I can see.
The ruins to the right of me
Will soon have lost sight of me. (U2 –Love, Rescue Me)

This essay ends on a high note looking toward the future.

I am enthusiastic.  I see something deep and great transpiring now.  Amongst the young I see personalities that did not exist when I was young, young men and women with great spiritual devotion, deep religiosity, not empty-headed nor caught in fantasy – rather, individuals who are quite sober, mature, reflective.  They have a form of charisma and religious devotion, very real, that didn’t exist when I was their age.  Neither I nor others amongst my generation had it.  I foresee in the footsteps of Postmodernism and in the ‘New Age Culture’ that comes on its heels, an entry point to a new world, one in which there will occur a real change in human consciousness.  This change will also bring societal changes, greater social justice, and much deeper interpersonal relationships.  A world where the divine presence will be tangible.

Rabbi Shagar, regardless of the philosophic label, allows a generation to accept the complexities of the modern world without looking for a resolution. His thought made space for questioning and the liberating acceptance of the possibility of alternatives. They are not going back to the ideological certainties of the past, but look to create new approaches.



I am concerned that my involvement with Postmodernism may have been unduly delayed, that is, too late to fully realize the opportunity for a real revitalization of our religious world.  Passover, the Jewish Festival of Freedom, teaches us not to force matters, but we also must not push matters off.  From my perspective, one of the problems of the Torah world is that out of concern for forcing matters, all too often we act too late, and the ramifications are tragic.

I do not intend to sanctify Postmodernism, and I do not wish to hide from its problems.  However, the Postmodernism position is not at all marginal; it exerts its influence throughout society.  We must come to terms with it.  One can observe the influence of Postmodernism even in the relationship of children to their parents and teachers – a small child might contact the police if his father beats him, and if his teacher tells him something he will not hesitate to tell him how he thinks differently.  The relativistic mindset is already embedded in the basic personality structures of children.

The influence of Postmodernism is also recognizable in the religious community. It is particularly so in the younger generation, as is readily apparent from the perspective of its popular repercussions.  One could argue that the loss of authority, nihilism, and the instability was due to the ideological excesses that characterize Religious Zionism.

True, seminaries and yeshivot hesder thrive and increase, but are most young adults there?  How many of the young complete army service, skip through the universities, and remain true to Religious Zionism?  What of the phenomena of secularity that apparently is here to stay?  And in general, what of the ‘good youth’ who complete yeshiva and enter university?  More than once I have heard of students, even those who studied in more ‘open’ yeshivot, who complain: ‘They misled me in yeshiva!’  When they came to university they encountered a different worldview, a secular culture that they testify forced them to totally reconsider the worldview as taught in the yeshiva.

Indeed, there were those who foresaw that the confrontation between Torah and Western Culture would tear the religious community up, splitting it into a Conservative camp, and a Haredi or Haredi-Zionist camps (חרד”ל); one could claim we see that very thing before us now.  From my point of view, the problem has not one but two sides, i.e. as evidenced by the Haredi-Zionist phenomena.  In some of the yeshivot, there is missed opportunity – a slide of the Religious Zionist perspective towards inflexible fundamentalism.  This is at variance from the blend that we aspire to; to be rooted in the land in its deepest and simplest manifestation, while at the same time to be rooted in universalistic-modern values.  These Neo-Haredi do not return to the prevailing Haredi stance, which has its own natural flow and whose essence is self-evident to its followers.  It is precisely because these Haredim are of the modern rather than the traditionalist world, and yet are taken aback by the ramifications of their ideology, that their strict reverence creates a new sort of Haredi. I must tell you this form of Haredi scares me.  It seems dangerous because of the identity it creates, not to mention its impact upon the communal and political levels.  I identify this breaking up of Religious Zionism with the impact of Postmodernism. In response to the multi-faceted Postmodernist challenge, some give in to modern culture, and some throw up defenses against it.

In the face of this reality, what I wanted to do is, as Rav Kook said, ‘build a palace of faith beyond apostasy (כפירה)’, i.e. to recognize this situation and not to settle for its mere internalization as is, or its rejection.  I would rather see how it can help build a new level of faith based on our reality, whatever the difficulty.  I will not hide my conviction that in this situation there are exciting faith options, ones that I believe are superior to classical or modern options.

Moreover, and here I make an audacious leap, I see myself like someone grasping the hems of Rav Kook’s cloak in his coming to terms with the era’s movements.  I don’t mean to compare myself to Rav Kook, I am dust under his feet.  But if you wish to follow his path you must learn from his example, have the bravery to clarify and come to terms with modern culture and the times, as well as stand up to the critics of your approach.

Truly, one should not forget that the Rav’s ideas also raised serious challenges.  More than once critics claimed that his way was appropriate for those on his high level, but not for people at large.  For example, the Gerrer Rebbe, the ‘Imrei Emes’, after critiquing Rav Kook, spoke about him in glowing terms, but held that his way was not suited for the general public.  Rav Haim Sonnenfeld criticized Rav Kook’s tolerance and opposed his ‘impatience for the end’ (messianic hopes).

Still and all, these were classic attacks, resisting all who had breakthroughs.  Whenever we have to consider change, we are filled with doubts and fears.  The new portends destruction of the old, and forces us to separate from old good familiar ways.  But if we wish to contend with the questions raised by changing times – modern in Rav Kook’s times, postmodern in ours – we have no alternative.  Even if we don’t want to confront the times, we are forced to do so.  Thus, as Rav Nachman [of Breslov] says, we must adopt a position based on the power of holiness and must say things heretofore deemed unacceptable, even though it contradicts earlier approaches.

Postmodernism does not have a standard definition, and many have written about this.  Many Postmodernists themselves resist a clear definition of their perspective, as in principle they oppose definitions.  For the sake of our discussions Postmodernism can be characterized as a position that holds truth to be a function of societal cultural constructs, and thus denies that certitude is possible, Post-modernism can also be characterized as a radical striving for freedom, i.e. the freedom of the individual to establish himself and his values.

There are educators, perhaps the majority, who denigrate Postmodernism as absolutely worthless, seeing in it dissolution, nihilism, and the breakdown of societal framework.  Others can accept limited aspects – as a critique that awakens us to the falsity and limitations under which we exist, or as it expands the pluralistic horizons of our education- not as negative phenomena, but as an in-house inner critique. Yet, I believe there is a more radical critique here.

I am of the opinion that postmodernism and deconstructionism constitute a ‘shattering of the vessels’ (שבירת הכלים).  Yet this very shattering grants us wide ranging freedom, and as far as religion goes – freedom to believe, even without absolute proofs and evidence.

The Hassidim understood the departure from Egypt not just as an historic event, but rather as a paradigm for every generation; a leaving of restraints behind, a breaking of the world’s boundaries and oppression.  In this sense postmodernism is a departure from these limitations in its most radical sense.

In relationship to this conception I would like to emphasize a few points.

My friend Rabbi Yehuda Brandes opposes the classical and widespread trend to base Jewish Philosophy curricula on the assumption that faith can be rationally demonstrated.  His opposition is based on the premise that a young student who is not philosophically adept, in the framework of the spiritual cultural world in which he exists, will not incorporate these proofs.

In its place he recommends a Hassidic Existentialist position – to attempt to show the student a point which he too can believe in – assuming no one to be a total nihilist.  It is our job to clarify, or to help the student clarify, that point of absolute truth which he too believes.  Once this entry point to belief has been brought to light, one can move on, perhaps expand his domain of belief, and make a place there for additional beliefs.

The reader should be careful not to misunderstand this exposition as a call to no longer attempt philosophical proofs that support faith; the mood of our times must come to terms with any suggested change along these lines. Just as a philosophical or historical proof will hold little interest for our youth, similarly an existential proof will likely not be accepted.  Why?  Because faith, by definition, cannot be conclusively proven.  The very pursuit of a sturdy viewpoint, with reliable support for faith, undermines it.

I attempted to demonstrate this very point in my book “Kelim Nishbarim” (Broken Vessels).  We must free ourselves from seeing discussions of faith as providing reliable support, something to hang on to.  Faith is its own category – I can pray to God, I can be part of the faith, I can identify myself as a believer – but once someone brings ‘proof’ for faith, I am no longer a ‘believer’.  Proof and faith are mutually exclusive.  Bringing a proof to me does not make me a believer.  A proof of that sort is like a gun pointed at my head, and it cannot influence my inner being.

Here is where I see the constructive role of Postmodernism.  Postmodernism typically leads down the road to nihilism, relativism, to a loss of a point of reference, to no longer being able to validate faith; yet it can lead us to discussions of faith (rather than just about faith), and free us to pray.

This postmodernist world, in my humble opinion, opens the door to a much higher level of belief.  What drives my thoughts of God is not the idea of God’s great omnipotence, but rather that God is not ‘a thing’; God is the absolute pure, the fulfilled seeking, the infinite; as Maimonides says ‘the Omnipresent but not of the world’.  The ‘devekut’ (cleaving or intense spirituality) that this recognition generates flows from our understanding that divinity and belief are not truly accessible to language and objects  This understanding releases us from our daily preoccupations, allows us to enter into the world of belief and prayer, and thus brings us to devekut (cleaving to God), deeper faith, and great dedication.  Thus, I contend that we should release faith and religiosity from the objective-philosophical domain of facts, as faith is not something that one can really verbally express.  In this manner Postmodernism can create faith based on freedom, faith that is based on personal choice, on a decision.  Such a freedom is of course terrible and difficult, with a feeling of the earth quaking beneath us.  Thus, Sartre spoke about how the individual is condemned to freedom, but we must overcome this ominous predicament, and train ourselves to a radical freedom that entails deciding to accept the heavenly yoke.

This point is particularly important for adherents of the Religious-Zionist movement, so downtrodden by ideological stances. One could characterize the previous generation as the generation of Baalei-Teshuva (returnees to faith).  In that generation religion was not a given, deeply rooted, as in the Haredi world.  The gap between faith and the Baal-Teshuva was bridged through ideology, which responded to contradictions between traditional Judaism and the values and lifestyle of modern life.  However, ideology and faith are not identical; ideology is like a statue, a picture, a hardened structure, and doesn’t have the sense of the infinite that characterizes faith in the divine.  The Midrash says that God is truth, because God lives.  Belief is found in life, not in ideology or philosophy.

Postmodernism’s sharp opposition to ideologies dispels the Religious-Zionist community’s extreme emphasis on ideology, bringing it back to a Living Torah.  From this perspective one can learn from Haredi, which at its best is built from identity and not ideology, which changes the Jewish world into something self-evident.  We need an education that fosters accepting Heaven’s yoke in its highest conceptualization, reforming our existing religious world into a world that confidently affirms itself without constantly looking over its shoulder.  Ideology often is a sign of estrangement, of an inability to relate to one’s essence and all its ramifications. Thus a sensitive and open pedagogy (that yet maintains certain connections) characteristic of the Haredi world, should be an important central ingredient in our education.

In my opinion, the transition from a ‘Religion of Truth’ to a ‘Religion of Belief’ is the most profound point of Post-Modernism.

From a pedagogical standpoint, instead of speaking about ‘the Truth’, which in the Postmodernist conception has a pejorative connotation, let us speak of ‘accepting the yoke of Heaven’.  This is something altogether different.  Our truest difficulty is to accept the yoke of Heaven; to accept responsibility.  An example from married life:  A man could fall in love with a particular woman, but in order to get married he must do something further – he must (mindfully) decide to get married.  A person can be married many years without coming to the conclusion that this is the woman with whom he wishes to spend his entire life.   It is the same in the domain of faith, and in the domain of values.  In all these domains there are needs to make a decisive move to accept the yoke of Heaven.  This decision is a paradoxical move. It is not based on arguments and proofs, but rather on the readiness of the person to become obligated, and to trust in the values that due to his decision become obligatory and absolute.

Here a beautiful Chabad teaching is worth consideration.  Chabad distinguishes between Passover where the departure from Egypt is at its heart, and the Counting of the Omer.  The departure from Egypt is inspirational, redemptive, and filled with love, as expressed in the Song of Songs which we read on Passover.  But as usually happens, when we descend back into our mundane routine world, enthusiasm dissipates.  An individual cannot base his life on passion, redemption, and inspiration, of the theme of departing Egypt, which Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi indeed recommended to be the anchor for faith.  Thus, we need the ritual of Counting the Omer in which we accept the yoke of Heaven – readiness to serve without such illuminations.

One can explain these two stages; illumination and accepting Heaven’s yoke, in a different way.

The emancipation of leaving Egypt is freedom as independence, authenticity, as readiness to be myself; it is the primary freedom.  The second freedom, accepting the yoke of Heaven, is the wholehearted acceptance of this independence as a divine fiat, not as chance.  In contrast to the first decision, there is no instant of authenticity, and so it is a more difficult freedom.

Indeed, from the pedagogical angle it is difficult to create a sensitivity to independence,  to the divine point within us.  To some of our youth this independence is nothing but chance and relativism.  They will claim that they are faithful, but only because they were brought up that way. If they were brought up somewhere else they would have grown into different people, perhaps not faithful.  Of course such an attitude weakens the possibility to hand down tradition, to enter into the Torah world empowered and with conviction.  This difficulty of having a self-confident identity is an effect of the inability to have confidence in any foundational point outside of oneself.

Besides the claim that Postmodernism can purify and free us to believe, in Broken Vessels I argued that all told, a decision to believe is based on the person himself.  Belief in truly begins with us.  Accepting the yoke of Heaven begins from the point of the absolute incomprehensible void, and this is difficult since this commitment in itself is prone to be understood as nihilistic.  Indeed, it has been said that both the apikorus (non-believer) and faithful refer to the ‘void’, but the believer refers to the ‘holy void’.  The ‘unholy void’ of Postmodernism can flip and become the ‘holy void’ which the Kabbalists speak of, and from which they derived their closeness to the divine. The task I set for myself in my book was a description of this phenomena.  I think that in this manner, the problem itself is potentially the source of its solution.

Emphatically, I do not take lightly the possibility that Postmodernism can lead to nihilism.  It not only disparages the idea of truth and the ability to prove, but also challenges the whole concept of religious norms, values, and ethics, seeing in them societal repression.  It identifies those things which we perceive as givens in our reality as social constructs.  Yet, in so doing it enables radical freedom, and it is this very freedom that scares religious people.  To me, the answer to this fear is the understanding that a construct may be specifically empowered, such as what came into being via the six days of creation, or that descended from Sinai. It all depends upon the ability to accept the yoke, to decide.  We must not fear freedom.  I am not party to the fear that in a world of unlimited possibilities, a world where belief itself is possible, where a decision – and not logical proof nor society – determines belief, that we will abandon religion. I am not party to the fear that without a campaign built on constraints, pressures, and compulsion, our youth will run away.  I myself am not tied into a social network for security – normative or otherwise – in order to fulfill mitzvoth.  We need to believe in ourselves and to believe in the Only One.

I was not surprised by the reactions to my book, neither by the opposition to it, nor its popularity, nor by the intensity of the responses.  I am not interested in the consensus, and there is no doubt that the critiques and stands expressed in the book are likely to shake many convictions.  This was indeed my goal; shaking Religious-Zionist thinking from its dogmatism.

Nevertheless, I was very frustrated because the essential message of the book was missed and misunderstood.  This is the mystical option that Postmodernism enables, precisely because of the deconstruction that comes in its wake and its strong critique of the rationalist position.  As Rav Kook taught in a multitude of places, mysticism is the seed of religion.  Scholars such as Gershom Scholem held the same from their perspectives.  Here is real potential for a religiosity of intimacy, of a strong passionate position in regards to the Infinite, the very position searched for by Rav Kook and his students the Nazir and Rav Charlap.  This is my religiosity.

From here we move on to an additional basic point, with emphasis on the social context.

Does Postmodernism lead to a passive ethical relativism?  I think not.  Here too fine distinctions must be made between tolerance and pluralism (I do not think of these words as pejoratives) of the right sort – a sort of openness; and of an improper sort – one might call it dissoluteness.  Dissoluteness connotes a direction that holds nothing true,  I can accept anything.  In contrast, openness can be a higher perspective – absolute commitment to my truth, but with the capacity to recognize other’s truths.  I need not think my house is the best; it is enough to know it is my house.  The important question, once again, is the question of acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, the question of the integrity of my beliefs, the question of whether I believe absolutely.

Thus, I hold a complex position in regards to distinguishing pluralism from relativism. Even though under certain circumstances I can understand the perspective of one person coming to kill another, I will do what I can to prevent him from sacrificing someone, and if I have no choice I will bring about his death.  That is what God wants of me.  If someone comes and asks me – ‘Why don’t you figure out what God wants from us?’ – I would answer that it is not my problem.  I am not to be held accountable for this question!  The question I do ask myself is not about what is universally true, but rather a more intimate question – ‘What does God want from you?’  This question is in the forefront of my awareness in the here and now, and with this there can also be a strong and deep stand based on my values and faith, one that in extreme situations can go the limit, even risking self-sacrifice, or sacrificing another.

I will provide an example that expresses this pluralistic position in regards to the relationship of religion and state.  I am not in favor of Reform conversion nor civil marriage.  However, when we wish to lead a state, there is a great difference between a personal position and a public stance; and the question of whether to impose one’s faith upon others is inevitable.  I do not have to denigrate all other positions in order to promulgate my own.  My pluralism allows me sensitivity to diverse cultures.  I believe the Messiah will come and that everyone one will return, but from my point of view this conviction is not relevant to the state’s laws.  In the same way, I cannot establish the relationship to secular Jews on the basis of the paternalistic principle of ‘tinok shenishba’ (“a captive child” without Jewish connection is given the benefit of the doubt in regards to culpability) – the secular person would not accept such a characterization, and truth be told I do not see him as a ‘tinok shenishba’ in the classical understanding of the term.  On the contrary, it seems to me that if we want to retain some measure of religious character in the state, some minimal unifying national force, and no less important – the opening up of the religious community, we must begin with a pluralistic perspective.  This approach should be considered in regards to the proposals about the issues above as of late, such as the proposal for couples in regards to civil marriage.

Is it legitimate to bring such complex positions before the public?  When we first established Yeshivat Mekor Haim, there were those who said that students should first undergo the regular course of yeshiva studies, and only then should be taught the more complex approaches we were bringing.  They claimed: ‘If you present them to a young student, without yeshiva preparation, you will destroy him.’  No doubt, there is some truth to this claim.  Certainly a student must be taught in a conducive relatable manner, and it is a challenge to teach a student to grasp matters this way.  Pedagogy according to the belief system of the Rishonim, who grasped such matters via metaphysics, gives an initial degree of protection, creates a house.  Only after that is taught does it make sense to introduce the approach I am suggesting.  Parenthetically, I would like to say that I by no means endorse the Postmodernist claim that one should forego the house, forego being at home.  On the contrary!  I would like to see how one could build a house in a landless world, how one could come to being at home in a world of (unstructured) freedom.

Withal, I do not think we should hold off the Postmodernist critique for only the mature; beyond any doubt a good pedagogy for youth will enable the building of a home base for him/her along with an independent identity.  This indeed is our pedagogical goal; but its basis must be, once again, a basis built on life and not on ideology.  Seder night is a model for this; the experiences of seder night are in-depth experiences that create a youth’s identity; augmented by its smells and flavors, by the aura that passes amongst everyone.  It is there that the deep foundational structure of religious identity exists.  If one does not have that, it is very difficult to build deep and flowing belief.

How you educate a young person determines his/her possibilities later. If you teach him/her like the Griz (הגרי”ז סולובייציק), who stood with his son at the window and pointed at the people who stood in line at the Edison Theater saying: “They are asses, camels…” you cannot impose on such an outlook another outlook that is more pluralistic.  Therefore it is all important to continue the discussion of the best education for the young.  One might begin with a relatively conservative education, even Haredi in some aspects along the lines which we have discussed, but one must carefully cultivate openness, and build a structure of faith on the basis of identity, of life, of a natural flow, and not on the basis of self-estrangement and ideology.  One must start training early towards religious responsibility, towards acceptance of the yoke of Heaven by choice and self-recognition, and not rely on compulsion and authority.

I have not given up.  On the contrary, I am enthusiastic.  I see something deep and great transpiring now.  Amongst the young I see personalities that did not exist when I was young, young men and women with great spiritual devotion, deep religiosity, not empty-headed nor caught in fantasy – rather, individuals who are quite sober, mature, reflective.  They have a form of charisma and religious devotion, very real, that didn’t exist when I was their age.  Neither I nor others amongst my generation had it.  I foresee in the footsteps of Postmodernism and in the ‘New Age Culture’ that comes on its heels, an entry point to a new world, one in which there will occur a real change in human consciousness.  This change will also bring societal changes, greater social justice, and much deeper interpersonal relationships.  A world where the divine presence will be tangible.

© Alan Brill & Moshe Simkovitch 2016. All Rights Reserved. Do not use or republish in part or whole without prior permission.

Interview with Joel Hecker- Pritzker Zohar volume 11

The Zohar is a collection of over 32 different works with slightly different theologies and literary styles. Volume 11 of the new Pritzker editions is a collection of smaller works, including later pieces of Midrash ha-Neelam, and the Matnitin.

The new volume, Volume 11 was translated, edited and annotated by Joel Hecker, Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, who was ordained by RIETS and a PhD from NYU.  Professor Hecker said that his approach to annotation is toward greater annotation, an arc already started in the latter volumes by Daniel C. Matt. Hecker also offers greater discussion of halakhic issues in his annotations.

Hecker’s approach to translation was to follow Matt’s lead, but to my ear he placed more emphasis on the poetics of retaining alliteration, use of synonyms, and the general sound and feel of the texts. The volume is a hefty 800 pages, so I have not yet worked though the translation- -it only arrived yesterday—however, even from the sample of passages that I looked at, they were marvelous in their capturing the original.

joel Hecker.jpg
(Photo Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

Come and See: There is an Aramaic Zohar above and a Pritzker English Zohar below.  The Zohar above and the Zohar below are perfectly balanced. When the Zohar descends into American Jewish culture, it needs to put on the garment of this world. If the Zohar did not put on a garment befitting this culture, the work could not endure in this world and the world could not endure them. Happy are they who look at Zohar properly! As wine must sit in a jar, so Zohar must sit in this garment. Hecker’s translation and annotation allows one to reference back to original text, allowing one to remember that these words are garments for the original printed Zohar.

My interview with the translator of the first nine volumes- Daniel C. Matt is here. For my review of one of the volumes and Melila Heller-Eshed’s work, see here. For a general interview with Joel Hecker in the  Philadelphia Inquirer  see here.

A little historical background will help in reading this volume. This volume contains several sections of the Zohar called Midrash ha-Neelam, which are separate in language and theology than the main body of the Zohar. They have a Hebrew core and an Aramaic overlay, they mainly concern the soul and other allegorical topics, rather than sefirot, and the named scholars are unlike the Zohar. The works use Neoplatonic philosophic language and philosophic terminology. The Midrash ha-Neelam offer a sense of how 13th century Castilian Jews integrated the Heikhalot and early esotericism with the scholastic philosophic traditions.

In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Yaakov Emden considered these sections separate and earlier than the rest of the corpus. In 1926, Gershom Scholem speculated in his inaugural lecture at Hebrew University, that these texts were earlier than the rest of the Zohar. Scholem completely buried this article and never referred to it; he considered these sections from Moses deLeon. Samuel Belkin, (1957) argued that there were Philonic elements in the work, which received a long critique from R.J. Z. Werblowsky (1960).

Current range for the origin of the Midrash ha-Neelam is between 1250 as an allegorical precursor to the Zohar to 1280 as part of De Leon’s large oeuvre, the opposite positions of belong to Ronit Meroz and  Nathan Wolski.

Ah… but all this is only background. Pritzker Zohar Volume 11 contains a selection of later texts that are modeled on Midrash ha-Neelam. They are post-Zohar and before the 14th century Tikkune Zohar, and combine philosophic allegory with kabbalistic sefirot. They also have significant amounts of reworked later Midrash such as Eichah Rabbah or the short works of Batei Midrashot.

What is the origin of these later texts?  1250 and then additions in 1280? All 1280? How many strata? Was there an Aramaic overlay on Hebrew original or mixed language right from the start. Were they written by several people? Who were they? What did they think they were doing? Did they relate to one another?

Current Hebrew University thinking is to speak of an “intermediate layer” or a “middle layer” of the Zohar corpus written between the Zohar and the Tikkunim. They can currently fudge the issue by placing many short works that have no clear category into this basket.

An example of one of these works included in the volume is Midrash haNeelam on the book of Ruth. It was originally published as a separate volume independently of the Zohar and then was added later to the printed edition of the Zohar Hadash, which was extra material not included in the first printing.  Elimelekh, Naomi, Ruth, & Orpah, are mapped onto four different aspects of soul (as often happens in Midrash ha-Ne’lam al ha-Torah). However, here those identifications were simultaneously mapped onto the tetragrammaton, with explicit reference to Father, Mother, Son, Daughter.

 “Corresponding to this: Naomi—נשמה (neshamah), holy soul. Elimelech—נשמתא לנשמתא (nishmeta le-nishmeta), soul of soul. Mahlon—רוח השכלית (ruah ha-sikhlit), intellectual spirit. Ruth—נפש השכלית (nefesh ha-sikhlit), intellectual soul. Chilion—רוח הבהמיות (ruah ha-behemi’ut), animal spirit.

“Of this Solomon said Who knows if רוח (ruah), the spirit, of man ascends on high and רוח (ruah), the spirit, of a beast descends into earth? (Ecclesiastes 3:21). Ruah of man—Mahlon. Bestial ruah—Chilion, from the left side. Bestial nefesh—Orpah, stiff-necked, from the left side. Thus Chilion—his name was not remembered in Israel.” (Zohar Hadash 78b).

Others works in this volume are the Matnitin and the Tosefta which present themselves as an earlier strata corresponding to the Talmudic Mishnah. In these works, we have a reworking of an ethos of the Heikhalot into a dramatic heightened style, almost poetic, awakening the reader to the visionary and hidden. I have always been quite fond of these sections and have always thought they would make a good volume of visionary poetry.  They echo Sefer Yetzirah and other early works. Rabbi Moses Cordovero considered these works as primary keys to opening up the rest of the Zohar and that they may be the earliest part of the Idrot texts.

Try reading this passage aloud:

Matnitin. “Will of the deed, clusters of faith! A voice—voice of voices—arousing above and below. Open-eyed we were. Sphere above, rotating toward diverse sides. A voice intones, arousing, “Awaken sleepy, slumbering ones, with sleep in their sockets, who do not know to look and do not see! Stopped-up ears, lethargic hearts, they sleep and do not know. The Torah stands before them, yet they pay no heed, and do not know upon what they gaze; who look but do not see. The Torah sends forth voices, ‘Look, foolish ones! Open your eyes and understand!’ Yet none pays heed, and none inclines his ear! How long shall you remain in the darkness of your desires? Look and understand, and the shining light will be revealed to you!” Zohar 1:161b (Vol. 11, pp. 542-43)

If you read it aloud then you saw the contribution of Hecker’s concern with poetics and the sound of the text. Here is a section of Tosefta to read aloud:

We were close by, heard a voice concatenating above, downward, spreading throughout the world. A voice smashing mountains, shattering mighty rocks, gargantuan whirlwinds ascending, our ears patulous. Proclaiming in undulations: “Thorn-prick to slumberers, torpor in their sockets, subsisting in their subsistence.

The King speaks! Avoid inebriation, gatekeepers! The ruler of numerous troops is stationed in his place! All are insensate, unaware that the book is open, names recorded. Zohar 1:121a (Vol. 11, pp. 608-9).

This project will be finished with a final volume in a few months. The Pritzker Zohar will be known in future decades as one of the great Judaica projects of our era, whose immense contribution with be evident in the upcoming years as rabbis start to teach and integrate these texts.

Several decades ago, Prof. Rivka Shatz-Uffenheimer of Hebrew University envisioned a Zohar project of dividing the corpus between many scholars to analyze its content. Maybe the completion of these volumes would be good time to renew the project in the United States and divide the 12 volumes among 40-50 scholars who would elucidate its meanings and treasures. However this time, since the volumes are in English, maybe invite poets, theologians, cultural theorists, and comparative students of mysticism, along with midrash, and Jewish thought scholars to open up the text.

1) What is Midrash ha-Ne’lam?

Midrash ha-Ne’lam is from the earliest stratum of Zoharic writing, first appearing in the early 1280’s.  Midrash ha-Ne’lam is written in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic, and those two different languages reflect greater interests in allegory and kabbalistic symbolism, respectively.  The allegorical readings here are often spiritualized readings of biblical characters as stand-ins for different parts of the human soul and psyche.

Shifra Asulin has argued that the kabbalistically-inflected Aramaic material was written and woven in to an older allegorical Hebrew text of Midrash ha-Ne’lam.

Scribes and printers sometimes attached the title Midrash ha-Ne’lam to other texts. Rabbi Yaakov Emden, the first person to engage in extensive critical analysis of the Zohar, tried to delineate its parameters using careful methodological criteria; he refers to one Zoharic section as “not from the true Zohar, but rather typical of formulations from the Midrash ha-Ne’lam” (Mitpahat Sefarim, 21).

Volume 11 contains sections that have received the label Midrash ha-Ne’lamShir ha-Shirim, Rut, and Eikhah—but they do not necessarily match the model of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on the Torah.

Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Shir ha-Shirim may be a fragment of a larger work, now lost, and it bears some of the characteristics typical of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on the Torah: multiple rabbinic figures; mix of Hebrew and Aramaic; allegorical interpretations; and with only slight use of kabbalistic symbolism.

  1. How does Midrash ha-Ne’lam fit into the formation of the Zohar?

Gershom Scholem argued that the entire Zohar was written by Moshe de Leon, a prolific 13th century kabbalist, including the earliest strata of the Zohar to the latest—from the work called Midrash ha-Ne’lam through the sections called the Idrot—even though many difficulties remained with this broad-brush thesis.

In the late 1980’s Yehudah Liebes, one of our generation’s foremost academic Zohar experts concluded that while Moshe de Leon may have been the primary author of the Zoharic compendium, he also served as editor, incorporating the works of others with whom he did not necessarily agree.

And for some time this new approach was adopted by scholarly consensus. Over the last decade there have been three primary responses to Liebes’ thesis.

Some scholars, many of them Liebes’ Hebrew University students, fine-tuned his argument, suggesting that there is another stratum of Zoharic literature. While the old topography of the Zohar’s textual composition had three stages—1. Midrash ha-Ne’lam; 2. Epic Layer of the Zohar (Zohar on the Torah); 3. Tiqqunei Zohar & Ra’aya Mehemna—according to the new scheme another layer intervened between numbers 2 & 3, and this came to be called the mediating or middle layer, i.e. the stratum written after most of the Zohar had been written.

To speak historically, we currently use a basic four-part scheme of authorship:

  1. Midrash ha-Ne’lam on the Torah;
  2. Epic Layer of the Zohar (Meroz’s name for guf ha-Zohar);
  3. a mediating period before Tiqqunei Zohar and Raya Mehemna, containing parts of Saba of Mishpatim, Yanoqa, Zohar Shir ha-Shirim, Idrot, Sifra di-Tseni’uta, Matnitin, Tosefta (and more);
  4. Tiqqunei Zohar and Raya Mehemna.

A second response to Liebes’ thesis has been pushed primarily by Ronit Meroz through careful study of Zoharic manuscripts in comparison with other contemporary (14th century) kabbalists. She has suggested that Sitrei Torah came from the pen of Rabbi Yaakov Shatz, and that large sections of Zohar Hadash came from Rabbi Yosef Angelet. These assignations are intriguing but probably require further investigation. The possibility remains that the Zohar texts and their “sister” texts may have had a source in common rather than originating from the same author.

A third response has been that of Daniel Abrams who argues that the Zohar is more a collection of literary phenomena bearing accretions and losses evolving over centuries into the anthology now called Zohar. For Abrams, Zoharic authorship is chimerical, and the best we can hope for is to observe trends of development over time through assiduous examination of the manuscripts.

The scholarship of Yehuda Liebes and Ronit Meroz has been very helpful in tracking down textual affinities between texts that appear in the printed Zohar and works written by kabbalists living in the late 13th-early 14th century.

Affinities may not prove authorship, however, and may demonstrate a relationship of source and target, or perhaps only that these authors and the Zohar as it emerges both drew on similar sources.

Even then, since the earliest identified manuscript that contains substantial Zoharic material was written at the beginning of the 15th century (and owned by Sabbatai Zevi!), there is at least 100 years of redaction before we have substantial amounts of Zoharic texts.

While there is little doubt that much of the conceptual and literary work would have been written in the decades between, say, 1280 and 1310, what existed at that time is like a black box buried at the bottom of the sea, or a rumored lost train carrying a fortune in gold lost in mountainous regions of Eastern Europe.

3) How was Midrash ha-Ne’lam Ruth originally considered a separate book?

Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut was first printed under the titles Yesod Shirim and Tapuhei Zahav (Thiengen 1559) without any reference to the Zoharic corpus. While the frontispiece of one of the first two printings (Cremona 1558) referred to Midrash Rut, only small parts of the work appear there. Ultimately it was published in 1658 in Zohar Hadash under the title Midrash ha-Ne’lam Rut.

MhN Rut is a shaggy dog of a text. I have often thought of it as a duffle bag into which all kinds of materials could be stuffed; indeed, this says something about the nature of redaction of kabbalistic texts in general.

MhN Rut cannot be said to have a clear message, per se. Many rabbis are quoted in it, which is a feature of Midrash ha-Ne’lam in general, without the central figure of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his cohort. It has stories about dreams, long passages about the various compartments of hell and the details of the tortures that go on there; it contains one of the versions of the popular story of the Tanna and the Restless Dead, a story that inspired the practice of children reciting Kaddish (and other parts of the liturgy) after a parent’s death.

The story enjoyed wide circulation in over forty versions in medieval folktales, liturgical works, midrash, ethical literature, and Kabbalah, but its best known source is from medieval Ashkenaz, where dreams and the fear of hell are frequent tropes.

It is interested in the nature of the soul. And, of course, there is a fair amount of allegorical and kabbalistic interpretation of the story of Ruth.

Noteworthy in Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut is the reliance on late, small midrashim published by Jellinek and Eisenstein. Much of the material regarding Geihinnom draws upon Masekhet Geihinnom, Masekhet Hibbut ha-Qever; on the fetus it gleans from Seder Yetsirat ha-Vlad; and on the martyrology from Heikhalot literature, but also from Elleh Ezkerah.

It is one of the ironies of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut that while the biblical Book of Ruth is classically treated as a story of conversion and of a non-Jewish woman’s dedication to the people of Israel and their God, this section of the Zohar demonstrates its ambivalence and hostility toward non-Jews, and Christians and Muslims in particular. The Zohar’s ethnocentrism and xenophobia is prominently on display here.

4)      Describe Midrash ha-Ne’lam Lamentations.

Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Eikhah is a beautiful, pathos-filled work that stands alone, but it was not published independently as was the case with MhN, Rut. The first part of the work is structured as dueling claims to greater suffering between the residents of Jerusalem and the residents of Bavel. The debate follows a trope established in a piyyut written by Solomon ibn Gabirol between two fictional wives of Israel, each suffering neglect. Here the winner will claim the right to offer a eulogy for Jerusalem after Her destruction.

The work draws on Eikhah Rabbah, but has a light overlay of kabbalistic symbolism, focusing on the absence of both the blessed Holy One, signifying Tif’eret, who abandoned the people of Israel, but Shekhinah too is absent.

It draws upon Eikhah Rabbah’s famous midrash that describes Rachel crying from her tomb in Bethlehem, refusing to be consoled over her children’s exile and suffering. While MhN, Eikhah strikes the same emotional tones as Eikhah Rabbah, the artistic skill of the authorship lies in the rereading of rabbinic midrash that seamlessly retrojects kabbalistic myth into the earlier material; or, put differently, elaborates literarily the mythos that is quietly embedded within the rabbinic texts.

5)   What are your differences in translation from those of Daniel Matt?

One of the aims of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition was to maintain stylistic consistency throughout the 12 volumes and, indeed, originally Daniel Matt was originally hired to do all twelve—but Nathan Wolski and I were hired so that the project would be completed before 2022. While the careful reader can detect stylistic changes over the course of the nine volumes written by Daniel Matt, there is impressive consistency. Nathan and I were charged with the task of trying to sustain that consistency and I found little temptation to fiddle with a winning formula. That said, here and there one can find idiosyncratic divergences, particularly in my commentary.

I received rabbinical training at Yeshiva University and, as a result, there were times where I chased down halakhic issues that were of interest to me.

For example, I was interested in the issue of the three words that are repeated at the end of the Shema, as treated in Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut. Midrash Tanhuma on Tazri’a teaches that there are 248 words in the liturgical Shema, corresponding to the 248 limbs of the human body.

Bracketing the anatomical question, any brash 5th grader would challenge this teaching, noting that there are in fact only 245 words contained in the Shema’s three paragraphs. Hasidei Ashkenaz were deeply interested in numerical aspects of the liturgy and, confronted by this apparent contradiction, suggested that one could say the three words El Melekh Ne’eman, a putative expansion of the word Amen, after the blessing before the Shema and immediately preceding the Shema. Thus is the numerical discrepancy resolved.

We do not know about the pervasiveness of this innovative practice, but both Ramban and Rashba felt called upon to object, emphasizing that reciting these words, even if they are only an expansion of the “acronym Amen” constitute an impermissible interruption between the blessing before the Shema and the recital act itself. They did not propose any other solution to the problem, apparently indicating a lack of concern for the midrash’s inaccuracy.

The battle over this issue did not subside, however, and a passage in the printed version of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut offered a unique solution: repeat the last two words of the Shema (Adonai Eloheikhem) plus the first word of the subsequent blessing (Emet). Yet another solution had been offered, however, and that was to repeat the last three words of the Shema (Ani Adonai Eloheikhem).

Medieval Spanish Talmud commentators and poskim in the late 13th and early 14th centuries quarreled over this issue (as documented by Israel Ta-Shma). From my examination of Zohar manuscripts and consideration of variants in the different works of Moses de León that dealt with the same issue, I concluded that the Zohar’s original position was to repeat the words ani YHVH Eloheikhem (the “losing” position in halakhic history), and that scribes subsequently “corrected” the Zohar in light of the emerging halakhah.

I believe that I have also differed slightly from Matt in terms of some key word choices and emphases. Thus I was more likely to translate yir’ah as “fear” rather than “awe.” Similarly, I often characterized kabbalistic interests as “pious” rather than “spiritual.”

6)      What Poetic principles do you follow in your translation?

Following Danny Matt’s model for the series, I have tried to produce a translation that is both “literal yet poetic.” The translator’s line between replicating the feel of a foreign language and rebirthing the text in a different vernacular is inevitably individual and sometimes fuzzy. One of the problems in creating a translation is that there is no such thing as a word-for-word translation. No two languages correspond so neatly that one could pull off this feat.

A recent estimate puts the numbers of words and roots in the Zohar at roughly 6,000, while the average North American with a graduate school education has close to ten times that number in her vocabulary. Indeed, Gershom Scholem wrote that “It remains to be added that the author’s vocabulary is extremely limited, so that one never escapes a feeling of surprise at his ability to express so much with the aid of so little” (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 163–65).

While the Zohar does not feel flat-footed, if one were to reproduce its iterative quality in English, the result would feel pedestrian. Many words are repeated but with subtle (and not-so-subtle) nuances and variations; the richness of English can reproduce these distinctions using different words.

Thus in Daniel Matt’s working dictionary for his volumes of the translation (an enormously helpful tool), he lists almost forty words or phrases to translate the root ahd (or ahid, itahid) whose simple meaning is “grasp” or “hold.” Similarly, the root qym (“exist, stand, abide”) in its various forms has well over one hundred possible entries, as does slq (“rise, ascend, depart, disappear”).

7) Can you give examples of your poetics?

Some of the poetic moves that I have adopted include the following:

  1. Dash—Often replaces words such as אינון (“they”) or  דא(“this”) or אלין (“these”). This move compresses and tightens the English text, providing more punch.
  1. Exclamation marks—The dialogue of the Zohar’s fictional kabbalists is frequently punctuated with expressions of astonishment, delight, and dismay. The addition of this simple punctuation mark accentuates the literary experience and emphasizes the affective tone of the text’s characters.
  1. Elimination of the definite article yields compactness, poetry, personification, and mythicization.
  1. An attempt to reproduce alliteration or patterns of repetition where possible.

Alliteration and repetition are frequent literary features in the Zohar. Sometimes there is a greater literary payoff by mimicking the Aramaic repetitions in English, and sometimes a better effect is achieved through varying the terms. Using alliteration in the English (“power and potency”) is a poetic act that provides some of the feel of the text even if it is not a precise echo of the specific sounds.

Commenting on Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1:16), the author of Zohar Shir ha-Shirim (63b) writes: “Its flame flares momentarily, flickering. Sparkles revolve, one shimmer entering the other.”

Sometimes a term carries two possible meanings and I opted to use two terms rather than simply one to convey the meaning. Thus (Zohar Hadash, Shir ha-Shirim 63c) as “When he approached her later and Seth was born, the world became stabilized and fragrant with the righteous and saintly ones who came into the world afterward.” The root bsm carries both senses of “stabilized” or “established” and “fragrant.” Danny Matt has translated this term as “fragrantly firm,” but that didn’t work for me.

As to repetition, sometimes I opted to translate the same term with multiple words as a way of enhancing the experience. I translated a passage in Zohar Hadash, Shir ha-Shirim 62c as follows: “Come and see. When Israel are righteous, the supernal Throne of Glory ascends in teeming delight, in an abundance of love, higher and higher… All worlds are saturated, blessed, and sanctified with a profusion of blessings, brimming with sanctities. Then the blessed Holy One rejoices with them in total rapture.” Here, I have translated the word kamah in four different ways (teeming, abundant, profusion, brimming) as a way of capturing the plenitude that the language itself suggests.

And yet at other times the repetition works well: “In this manner, The Song of Songs of Solomon, ascending in bliss, descending in bliss, joining in bliss—all the worlds in bliss.” Repeating the word “bliss” (bliss, bliss, bliss, bliss) has its own sensual qualities.

8)      Why is Zohar Song of Songs important and special?

Following Rabbi Akiva’s famous statement in Mishnah Yadayim (3:5) that “All of scripture is holy, but Song of Songs is holy of holies,” Jewish traditions have treated the love song as an allegory for love that transcends the love of young lovers, as an allegory for the love between God and Israel; love between the individual soul and God; and in kabbalah, as a symbol for the love between the masculine and feminine potencies of Divinity. It is hard to overstate the pervasive influence of the Song of Songs on the Zohar as a whole, as the Song’s themes suffuse the Zoharic corpus.

The Zohar on the Song of Songs represents the Zoharic authorship in its most mature phase—masterful in exegetical craft, soaring in its rhetoric. As noted above, the Zohar on the Song of Songs contains material that is similar to the interests of the later strata of the Zohar, Raya Mehemna and Tiqqunei Zohar (specifically the letter mysticism). It also appears to be familiar with some of the Zohar’s favorite themes, and re-renders them skillfully.

The literary framework for much of the text is an exchange of mystical homilies between Rabbi Shimon son of Yohai and the prophet Elijah, running a sustained commentary on Song of Songs 1:1–11. For many of the first homilies, each speaker demonstrates a thematic consistency: Rabbi Shim’on’s teachings are about ascent (within the sefirot or of the individual soul), while Elijah’s deal with the ruptures caused by the presence of the demonic Other Side, human transgression, and the ways in which evil is overcome and harmony restored.

Much of the latter part of this large work transposes the romance of the Song onto the exalted plane of masculine and feminine letters that are the fundaments of reality, with an overarching theme in both speakers concerning the restoration of linguistic and divine harmony.

In this text, as in much of the Zohar, the demonic Other Side is a personification of the current of evil and judgment that runs through humanity and the world. Evil is understood (in strong contrast to Maimonides) as a real force in humanity, but also as a celestial force, corresponding to Divinity though inferior in stature. This modified dualism has anthropological consequences, raising the stakes that appear in Bahya ibn Paquda’s Hovot ha-Levavot, in which every human action is a step toward holiness or sin. For the Zohar, these fateful steps result in one abiding in one dimension of reality or another—the holy or the demonic. This dualism has metaphysical significance as well, inasmuch as it calls for a recasting of the Neoplatonic approaches that were popular at the time.

9)   What are the Matnitin and Tosefta?

The Matnitin (“Our Mishnah”) and Tosefta (“Addenda”) sections of the Zohar corpus consist mostly of anonymous enigmatic revelations. These two sections have different names, but are identical in style, imagery, and tone. Their primary interests are the process of emanation; the development of the soul; and the role of the forces of judgment and evil.

These striking, compact passages, often have oracular, hortatory voices that call upon sleeping humanity to awaken from their spiritual slumber in order to learn the esoteric truths of Torah and God’s inner being. Their style is terse, dramatic, and at times rhythmic, suggesting that some of them may have been chanted to induce mystical consciousness.

Matnitin and Tosefta show strong familiarity with a range of Zoharic themes, and this led R. Yaakov Emden first, and then later Scholem and Tishby to characterize them as early compositions—just as the terse style of the Mishnah leads to the expansive discussions of the Gemara. I agree with Daniel Abrams’ position that it is more likely that the authors wrote them with many Zoharic texts before them.

The use of neologisms in these sections heightens their sense of mystery and allure—often derived from Greek, Latin, Persian, or Arabic—and made these sections the most fun to translate. Several examples:

  1. “Glow of ten flowing streams” renders קוזטיפא דהרדינא עשרא דאפקותא (qoztifa de-ha-redina asara de-afquta), (V206, 331a). The neologism qoztifa apparently implies projection or flow. See the expression קסטיפא דשמשא (qastifa de-shimsha), “ray of the sun” (Zohar 3:283b); and the Arabic root qdf, “to throw.” The word רדינא (redina), or perhaps הרדינא (hardina), is utterly cryptic and probably a corruption, but it may derive from the root רדי (rdy), “flow, liquefy.”
  2. “Lusters” renders קסטורין (qastorin) (Zohar 1:232b), apparently derived from קסיטרא (qasitra) and Greek kassiteros, “tin.” “Constricted caissons” renders טסקורי קמיטין (tasqurei qemitin); alternatively, “furrowed forms” or “tautened templates.” The strange word tasqurei appears nowhere else in the Zohar, or classical or medieval rabbinic literature. The author may have in mind the other Zoharic neologism טסקוסאי (tasqosa’ei) on Zohar 2:234b where טסקוסאי (tasqosa’ei) is linked with Targum Yonatan, Ezekiel 43:10: טקוסיה (tiqquseih), “its pattern” (recorded in Bei’ur ha-Millim ha-Zarot as טסקוסטיה [tisqusteih]), deriving from Greek taxis, “arrangement, order.”
  3. I translated קולפי בסיכתא (qulfei de-sikketa) (1:232a) as “nail-studded (or flanged, spiked) clubs.” The singular form קולפא (qulpa), “club,” derives from the Persian kūpāl, “club, lance.”

10)    What is the Sitrei Torah?

Sitrei Torah is the title given to a collection of Zohar passages from the later period that are mostly connected to the book of Genesis, but the title is also sometimes used in manuscripts and by early commentators to refer to texts that appear without that title elsewhere. In other words, it is a somewhat generic title that is applied somewhat randomly. A central focus of these passages is the power of the demonic Other Side.

11)   Why should we study Zohar?

The Zohar has charmed its readers because of its literary richness, its acute midrashic eye, and for the lush interlacing of Tanakh, midrash, halakhah, aggadah, medieval philosophy, and kabbalah. It is a poetic, visionary masterpiece whose system—both structured and fluid—offers shining religious homilies. Encompassing the entirety of Judaism, its narratives and mysterious characters confer a quality of both mystery and familiarity, and an aura of authenticity even as it is endlessly creative.  The flow from one set of symbols is seductive, and induces in the reader a desire to participate in its associative process.

For today’s spiritual seeker, Hasidut is often more accessible because it is more expressly psychological, and has usually dropped the arcana of sefirot, angels, demonic forces, etc. Each spiritual seeker, of course, will find the practices, texts, and forms of contemplation best suited to her or him.

12)   How does the Zohar influence your spiritual life?

The Zohar strongly informs my spirituality and the religious intentions that I bring to my Torah study, prayer, and observance of mitsvot, but I do not regard myself as a mystic. The religious imaginaire supplied by the Zohar fills my brain, but it is not the only constellation that guides me. And yet, a large tetragrammaton graces the door of my study serving as a focus for visualization during davenning, inspired by my study of the Zohar.

When I first read through the entire Zohar in the early 90’s, I would spend hours every morning reading large chunks of text. Then I would take a walk down the block to Riverside Park and everything appeared differently: sun, sky, birds, trees, etc. all carried symbolic weight, having become portals onto Divinity itself.

After several months of immersion in the Zohar’s letter mysticism, I received an aliyah at shul. Nothing mystical occurred, but my relationship to those letters, parchment, and the entire text had been transformed, and I was filled with reverence and awe.

13)   What do you do with the nasty parts of the Zohar?

When saying kaddish after my father died several years ago, I thought frequently about the Zohar’s injunctions to say Kaddish and other public rituals to save the deceased from Hell, along with the Zohar’s extensive descriptions of the various compartments and sufferings of Hell. Literal readings of those texts have no purchase on my religious thinking. While I feel deeply religious, my academic training, extending back to a B.A. in English Literature at the University of Toronto, has inculcated in me a ironic distance between me and any text.  Moreover, I am aware that any and all texts I read are filtered through my own subjectivity, and through the broad range of Jewish religious texts with which I have spent time.

Smadar Cherlow- Who Moved My Judaism: Judaism Post-Modernism, and Contemporary Spirituality

In 1964, Bob Dylan sang Times are a Changing reflecting the growing tide of youth wanting a different world than that of their elders. Five years later in 1969, Theodore Roszak published his classic work The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition explaining how the younger generation was a counterculture to excepted values. Roszak found common ground between political radicals, hippie dropouts and the Beatles by aptly linking Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, Allen Ginsberg and Paul Goodman. In all of them, Roszak found a rejection of what he calls the technocracy–the regime of corporate and technological expertise that dominates industrial society.” This revolt was credited with reaching into the very meaning of life, sanity, reality, and cultural values.  Roszak was more a participant writing a manifesto than an abstract scholar, his work introduced a kaleidoscope of what was being read on many college campuses while at the same time offer a compelling vision of the entire movement for his readers.

Smadar Cherlow recently published Who Moved My Judaism: Judaism Post-Modernism, and Contemporary Spirituality [Hebrew] (Resling, 2016) showing the growing tide of change in the Religious Zionist community, comparing it to the American counter-culture. The book offers guidance for navigating these new trends, and like Roszak it is part reporting and part advocacy.

She herself recounts in interviews how she attended Gush Emunim rallies in the 1970’s and over time under the influence of Rabbi Menachem Froman and Rabbi Shagar came to her new position as advocate for a new religiosity. In short, the world of Gush Emunim, especially the Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook worldview broke down. She calls this breakdown post-modernism because of the loss of the grand narrative and she sees it replaced by a new spirituality.


The chapters of the book originate as independent talks given at Religious Zionist conferences and public forums. Cherlow acknowledges her dual role of academic observer of these trends and participant formulating an ideology,

Cherlow’s prior book presented Rav Abraham Isaac Kook as a mystic in touch with God who thought he had prophecy and a mission from God.  In the debate around her thesis, including a critic by Rav Yoel Bin-Nun. She declared that she gives more deference to personal experience over philosophy and thought, personally and in her reading of texts.

The vision of this book concerns the current prominent Hesder yeshivot in which the students spend at least half of the day studying Kabbalah, Hasidut, Jewish thought, midrash, meditation and prayer, academic books in Jewish studies and Western thought helpful to understand God and religion such as Plato and Spinoza Afternoon study time could be entirely Tania, Rav Nachman, and Lurianic Writings. Night time study can be Jewish Sufism, Feldenkrais, Franz Rosenzweig, and poetry writing. They can display their copies of Buddhist works next to their copies of Maimonides and have ponytails, dress in funky clothes, walk barefoot and plan their trips to India. These trends are not isolated phenomena in that even those attending the Yeshivot Ha-Kav, those strictly keeping to the Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook approach spend time visiting their friends and classmates in the spirituality yeshivot.

In order to make sense of this new phenomenon, I can recommend nothing better than the first chapter of Smadar Cherlow’s book. The chapter offers phantasmagorical and impressionist display of these new trends.  The chapter answers the basic questions that an observer would have on the new spirituality and it has extensive resources in the footnotes This chapter should serve as a basis for any further discussion because its strong intuitive weave from an insiders perspective of this new type of yeshiva.

In chapter one, Cherlow describes the importance of the beit midrash (study hall) as the crucial place of spiritual formation and religious life. Quoting Levinas, she claims that there is a level where we love Torah more than God, or at least our first commitment is to the life of the Beit Midrash, the life of the yeshiva.

But in the post-modern era there are no truth claims to this activity, or at least one cannot ask for truth claims or justifications; there is no grand narrative. Building on the Rabbinic homily of “we will do as prior to we will listen” becomes a greater commitment to observance and the life of Torah study than any justification or systematic theology.

Yet, we all seek personal meaning and experience as primary in our lives. Rav Shagar taught us to treat the study hall in a multi-perspective way of different styles of learning, bringing academic and contemporary topics as well as mysticism. The texts studied have changed, the purpose of learning has changed and the style has changed. (see my prior post on Rav Shagar  & Torah Study)

She writes that now we spend much of the day in the new Yeshivot studying Zohar, hasidut, song, midrash, philosophy, and poetry. We seek an embodied spirituality that includes sessions of body movement and Feldenkrais Method in order to repair impaired connections between the brain and body and so improve our psychological state. We also have sessions devoted marriage therapy especially to Imago Therapy created by Harville Hendrix in his 1988 book, Getting the Love You Want, A Guide for Couples.

The new yeshivot are built in a circle to show that we are a collective not a hierarchy. The learning is more dialogical and a conversation. It is therapeutic and transformative. These new yeshivot follow Martin Buber’s ideas of mutuality between participants seeking an I-thou relationship in all interactions.

They encourage free reading of Bible, Talmud and Midrash without any commentators. How does the text speak to you? What to you hear in the text? How do you apply it?

In both Breslov Hasidic texts and Izbitzer Hasidic texts, there are passages that said that there are new innovations in Torah every day. The goal in the new Yeshivot  is to hear them and write them. You have to have an intimate relationship with the text, an eros toward the text, so that it will speak to you. There are now  musar lectures in these yeshivot about the need to  get the text to speak to you. In turn, the lectures (shiurim) of the Rabbis are to be psychotherapeutic. They are to offer what people need psychologically, with a free play of language and ideas.

The new Beit midrash embraces mediation and new age practices. They eagerly read and follow the writings of the renewal rabbi, Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi and his followers. She praises Rabbi Dov Zinger who teaches meditative and spiritual practices to aid prayer in his Beit Midrash leHitchadshut. And she points out that the schools accept that the guys with have long hair, and pony tails, and earrings.

Cherlow asks: If we do all these things and follow Reb Zalmann then how is our approach not renewal or new age? She answers because we stay in the beit midrash, that it is the importance of the beit midrash and texts to ground us and give us context. We remain a beit midrash movement focused on learning Talmud and halakhah and the study is done under trained Rabbis. We are learning Talmudic texts but we can also pray on a topic or turn a text into a prayer.

She asks: Is it still Torah study?

Cherlow answers that the study method of Volozhin Lamdanut was a modernist project of rationality to make Torah study scientific and analytic, the goal was to make Torah methodical, rational and orderly. Now in the era of New age – Post-Modern world, we use different language and have different goals. Learning now is more an act of playfulness and a language game. Today Torah study is more similar to the multi-vocal subversive play of the Carnivalesque as presented by a Bakhtin, an open performance, speaking in different registries and different languages.   It is now the New Age as presented by the academic work by Paul Heelas who describes it as “an eclectic hotch-potch of beliefs, practices, and ways of life” which are put together in radically individual and democratic ways.

She says that one can see this change in Torah as is a change of era between modern and post-modern or if one does not accept a change of era then it is two different games with different completely different rules.

Is this major change progress or a regression?

Cherlow notes that for the world of Yeshivat Har Etzion and those it influenced, this is clearly a regression. Amnon Bazak wrote an article, or maybe a screed if you disagree, rejecting all these changes, their method and their results.  But Cherlow responds that this new method is transformational and gives greater meaning to Torah. We change Torah in different times. In this new method of learning Torah for our era, we are creating a transformative new self.

Chapter one has an important appendix on the importance of Rav Shagar for this new method.

In Smadar Cherlow’s encapsulation, Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik taught his students not to look for meaning and Rav Shagar changed everything by telling his students to look for meaning.  This quest for meaning and religious experience may seem close to the Hasidic quest for God but Rav Shagar helped us realize that the actual historical phenomena and practices of Hasidism as well as the current Haredi Hasidic community is not a path for the religious Zionist world which embraces the world. This is a new Post-Modern & New Age theology not another form of Neo-Hasidism; Americans take note.

She tells the story of the early Hasidic master Zusha who never got to actually learn Gemara since the moment he started to read Tractate Berachot which open with the words “From when can we recite the Shema?”   he would immediately ask: ‘From When’  means that God makes requests on us. So he would then ponder: What does God want from us in life?  Cherlow answers that there is a fine line between too much focus on meaning and too little focus. We are coming to correct a lack of focus on meaning.

To find meaning we turn to the wider world and a wider grasp of the world. We try to talk less and experiment and pray more. Sometimes Feldenkrais, sometimes Rav Nachman, sometimes song, and other times current events. The goal is to foster a different relationship with students that is more open in order let them find their own path.

Rav Kook responded to modernity and now we respond to post-modernity.  Rav Kook’s idea of a new Torah of the land of Israel (Torat Eretz Yisrael)  for our time means to incorporate love, play , and imagination. She returns to this topic in Chapter 5 where she explains how we need to replace Rav Kook with Rav Nachman in our studies. And we need to be open in our approach, not judgmental.

All that was in chapter one. It may not reflect any one Yeshiva and it may not be an anthropological description of what you would see in these yeshivot, but it captures an ethos.

I will briefly look at the other chapters which are specific stand-alone papers.

Chapter 2 deals with prayer after modernity.  Modernity killed prayer but Postmodernity brought prayer back. Modern man was like Prometheus challenging God with his belief in his own powers, in response religion was about the divine sanction for human accomplishment and at the same time it sought to overcome alienation from God. In contrast, in the postmodern period we look to Rav Nachman to turn completely to God. We now have new forms of prayer, we have integrated meditation and we call out to God from the heart in our own words.

Chapter 3 deals with messianism. Zionism was a great messianic project. Now we no longer sense that God is controlling history or that we live in a messianic age. We now live in an age of the eclipse of God as described by Martin Buber and we have no grand history or theodicy after Auschwitz as taught by Emmanuel Levinas. We no longer have a national sense and national redemption as taught by of Rav Kook. Rather, we now seek a mystical self-liberation.

Yet, she acknowledges that some in the community still have a messianic sense. However, rather than continue the older messianism of Rav Kook, they seek a radical apocalyptic messianism in active quest of the end of time, seeking to bring the end through their own hands such as Rav Yitzhak Ginzburgh. For Cherlow, Ginsburgh’s fusion of Chabad messianism with settler messianism is extremely potent. They aspire to make Israel into a Jewish monarchy as a return to its ancient glory. Believers must commit themselves to act on behalf of the “wholeness of the land of Israel” and awaken mystical-messianic sparks by their actions. Those actions must include violence against the Amalekite enemy. Required actions also include “revenge” as a means to making the King Messiah live and hastening the coming of his kingdom.

Chapter 4 entitled “From Prometheus to Badulina charts the transition from modernist goal of changing the world to the new age idea of changing ourselves.

She says we now live in a new age of post modernism, post science, and post collective, quoting the aforementioned Paul Heelas on the New Age which she connects to Post-modernism. Rav Shagar offers us a new age of authenticity and individuality (Both of which are classic modernist tropes.)

We are given a glimpse here into Cherlow’s litany of books that are currently being read including Tal ben Shahar on happiness, James Redford, Celestial Prophecy on the change of human consciousness, Jack Kornfeld on creating an engaged and ethical Buddhist meditation practice, the Existentialism of Buber, and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s paradign shift.

Today, we believe in fantasy, the irrational, expecting an apocalyptic appearance of the messiah, traveling to Uman, or seeking personal liberation. Crucial to this chapter is a little book from 1999 called Badolina by Gabi Nitzan which caught the sensibilities of a generation in Israel. Nitzan, once one of Israel’s most promising young journalists who then dropped out and moved to India

Badolina is the story of a kingdom without laws, without politics, without marriage and without wars. Every resident of Badulina can be the next king. And everyone is brought up on the belief that there are only two ways to live in this world: as a king or as a victim. By projecting their best thoughts and fantasies outward, Badolina’s residents can use mind over matter and transform reality. The national motto of Badolina – “Better be well and happy than sick and miserable.” So people choose to be happy.

The story line follows a visit to Israel by the king and queen of Badolina, who try to teach Israelis to stop seeing themselves as victims and begin taking responsibility for their lives. If you crave a gourmet meal while wandering in the desert, wish and it will happen; if you want peace in the Middle East, let go of your fears and allow your optimism to create it.

She says that not all of this is good illuminating it by quoting various critics: the critique of neo-liberal consumer capitalism from the Israeli author Gadi Taub (2002), the  critique of the American 1970’s from the classic work by Christopher Lasch The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979) and the critique of contemporary spirituality Jeremy R Carrette, Selling Spirituality (2004).

She compares all of this to the American 1960’s Age of Aquarius. But is it similar to Roszak description of the counterculture?

We see a problematic pattern here among Israeli authors on New Age and Post-Modernism. Whereas we in the United States do not consider the spirituality of the 30’s 60’s 70’s, 80’s. 90’s and 00’s as all the same proto -new age and proto-post modernism, most Israeli authors have a clean before and after, the nation building collective modernism of Zionism and Rav Kook’s Religious Zionism transformed into a new age post modernism of individualism.

But, no educated American would consider Buber, Kafka, Freud, or pop-psych as postmodernism. In addition, we in the United States do not associate spiritual optimistic anti-scientific new age thinking with our age of globalization and media technology.

In fact, British- American culture threw off the world of post-Hegelian idealism before WWI with William James, Franz Boas, James Joyce and Virginia Wolff. It then had many decades of modernism.  In contrast, Religious Zionist culture labels the 19th century modernism including the 20th century rationalists but they place all 20th century romantics and Existentialists with the post-modernists.

And as I have noted elsewhere, many Israelis consider everything 1960-2016 as New Age based on the abstractions in Paul Heelas The New Age Movement. The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (1996) which characterized the New Age movement as “an eclectic hotch-potch of beliefs, practices, and ways of life” which can be identified as a singular phenomenon through their use of “the same (or very similar) lingua franca to do with the human (and planetary) condition and how it can be transformed”. For an academic treatment of New Age in Israel with a sensitivity to sociological method and local concerns, one should see the dissertation and articles of Marianna Ruah-Midbar.

Concerning Post-Modernism, for Cherlow it seems to hinge on Lyotatd’s saying the grand narrative has broken, which in their case means the Rav Kook narrative broke. But they certainly do not accept in any way the death of self, the construction of reality, or the turn to text over self. Nor would one confuse Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard with anything New Age. One of the work’s most egregious misunderstandings of the book is thinking that Foucault would only consider political authors like Rabbi Y. Ginzburgh as concerned with power, when in fact his critique is that everything ever written including this book is about power.

In the 1960’s, the American counter culture as described by Roszak was about running from centaurs to safety, the best minds were being driven mad by the establishment and studied “Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah….”; they sought out alternative realities in India, Jerusalem, and Naropa.

Here in these new yeshivot, we do not have a fleeing mad from a perceived dying civilization, they love the yeshiva and they love learning. Rather, They are a turn to plurality and individualism after idealism. No one is taking over a campus and demanding change of the teachers.

This was a slow change, done over 25 years, led by the students and friends of Rav Shagar and Rav Froman, who since the 1980’s slowly changed yeshivot. The students of the two illustrious Rabbis are already mature teachers in their own right. Even institutions such as Migdal Oz, the woman’s program associated with Yeshivat Har Etzion brings in many of these authors, thinkers, and speakers in order to expose the students to the new trends.

Popular American outreach and pulpit rabbis can teach motivational literature, pop psych , New Age, and Evangelical ideas as eternal Torah,  and still be conservative religiously. Here too, they are still in the study hall (beit midrash). Besides, even a local Orthodox synagogue here in NJ has started weekly Feldenkrais, in lieu of the more traditional zumba classes.

Currently, there is a new generations of yeshiva teachers who grew up entirely in this system. They are now giving their own yeshiva lectures and training a new generation. I await to see what they produce.

7 Years of the Blog

This week marks the seventh year of this blog. I started in 2009 writing a book as a mean of staying focused while writing books, now it has become a regular activity. Much has changed in those years. When I started, it was still the tail end of the great age of blogging in which I had a small group of readers but they refreshed several times a day to see if there were any new comments. The age of comments and trolls is over. Now, the posts are articles to be discussed on Facebook or in real life.  Then, I had a few hundred readers but thousands of daily hits from this small group, now I have thousands of readers who come by only once a week to print out my posts to read over the weekend.


For the first years, I used to post almost every day, about 18-24 times a month. Now, I only post about 3 major posts a month. The posts went from short 100-200 word observations to the current 4000 word articles.  Then even if I discussed a book, I did it over five to six posts. Now, I post 1600 words about a book and have another 3000-word interview with the author. I was surprised to run into two very different people who work this past year, who both missed my short 24 times a month observations. (Without my short observations, we would have never had the media frenzy about halfShabbos.)

The age of comments and trolls is over. Now, the posts are articles to be discussed on Facebook or in real life.

I eagerly welcome guest posts entirely written by others or people who volunteer for a review and interview. Authors regularly contact me about their books.  Feel free to contact me and I will let you know if it fits, or does not fit, into the parameters of the blog. Most importantly, do not write to others promising them posts on my blog.  I have had nudniks I dont know offer blog posts to people and then I have to explain to the person contacted that I dont know the person and that the blog is not an uncurated soapbox like Time of Israel.

But I generally only post in the fields of theology, philosophy, and their cultural embeddedness in social forms.  I do not post on Bible, Talmud, Halakhah, Law, Politics or History except if the work is theological or conceptual, for example, I had an entire series of Biblical posts that set out current theological thinking on origins of the Bible. I am not interested in op-eds or in the many people traveling around speaking on Bible/Talmud as literature.

I am interested in people working on conceptual and theoretical topics or involved in ideological debates. If interested, then please contact me. Be prepared for a style sheet of this blog- such as the need to translate all terms so my worldwide readers of other faiths will understand or that it has to be edited to be read on a smart phone.

My review interviews are on the syllabi in many college courses so you will need to present the ideas in a way appropriate for this audience.  (I recently received a book review by an academic where the author opens up by saying he knows nothing about the topic, then summarizes wiki, and concludes by saying he does not really understand it but since it is a friend of his then buy and read the book. It was not posted.)

I have had many posts on theological issues of Bible, Rabbinics, Maimonides, Zohar, and Modern Jewish thought. I had much less on Hasidism than I thought I would. I have been asked by several of those interviewed to publish the interview as a book. I am likely to get to it in another two years and it would be arranged topically, so I will probably fill in some of the gaps in the above major topics and leave the minor topics for a potential sequel.

I no longer repost articles about religion from elsewhere on the web. I do however clip them for personal use. I do not have the energy to make a list of links every week. I am sure there is some plug-in that will allow me to just clip and post them to a side bar. However, I need a way to offer 50-100 words of comments. If you know of one, then let me know. More importantly, my 100 word observations of life are the biggest loss such as half-shabbos, post-Orthodoxy, and the Christian connections of Jewish outreach in direct appropriation of method.

Besides, at this point everyone knows how much contemporary Judaism, including orthodoxy is embedded in a variety of cultural weaves with popular culture, evangelical religion, and consumerism.

There are some very good websites that are now available include the web journals Marginalia and Aeon and the podcasts History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, offering wonderful podcasts on introduction to philosophy. I would take especial note of Homebrewed Christianity, a website of post-Evangelicals who are leaving the rigid categories that were raised within to create a homebrewed personal theology. They have had interviews with many contemporary theologians with discussions of how it applies to our lives. They are especially strong on process theology, theistic post-modernism, and moving beyond inerrancy and literalism.

This year I included youtube video and media as part of my academic syllabi, maybe I should find a way to include podcasts or vlogs of either 2 minutes or 28 minutes. Thoughts? I know that mine will not be as entertaining as Lipa Schmeltzer’s.

I am also interested in updating my platform. any thoughts?

There are many posts that I wrote that for one reason or another never got posted. I have first drafts that never get posted- the rise of Pesach Sheni, the World Parliament of Religions, Visit by Cardinal Turkson, and those leaving observance in the 19th century.  I also have not finished my page with links to lectures of mine around the web. In the meantime, look at older lectures at YUTorah.

As a side point, don’t forget to invite me to speak in your community as a scholar in residence.  (or buy my books).

I did post about several other milestones of the blog. My fourth year anniversary post has links to the best of the early years. My first year anniversary was an early reflection.

My posts with the all-time highest number of readers during the week after posting were two: my observations of Orthodoxy in the Pew, which I posted the day the Pew was released and my guest post from Rabbi Ysoscher Katz based on his Limmud-NY talk.

Then there are those posts with large residual readership, especially those dealing with Islam. The post on the Jewish Sufi Dervishes 1922 and the Interview with Elisha Russ-Fishbane — Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt: A Study of Abraham Maimonides and His Circle have a constant audience overseas. The latter post was translated in to French by another blog.

 Beyond some of the posts already mentioned, for 2016, the most read posts were:

Interview with Daniel C. Matt – translator of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar,

Nefesh HaTzimtzum, Avinoam Fraenkel and his translation of Nefesh HaChaim,

Interview with Menachem Kellner- They Too are Called Human,

Rav Soloveitchik on the Guide of the Perplexed-edited by Lawrence Kaplan.

For 2015, the most read posts were:

Interview with Adam Ferziger, Beyond Sectarianism

Open Orthodox Haggadah- Shmuel Hertzfeld

Being a Supportive Parent to Child who leaves Orthodoxy- Guest Post by Ruvie

For 2014, the most read posts were:

Sweatpants Orthodoxy

One Percent Solution-Modern Orthodoxy  

Interview James Kugel – Round Three

Those most enjoyed and appreciated by my readers based on contacting me  or personally mentioning it to me are my first few posts from India, my Rav Shagar posts and here, and my Aryeh Kaplan biography posts.

Interview with Dov Weiss, Pious Irreverence Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism

In the Pulitzer prize winning book God: A Biography (1996) by Jack Miles, he presents the different personalities of God depicted in the Bible ranging from the God who walks in the garden to the God who makes promises of universal redemption.  Miles’ work went beyond images of God to actually discuss God’s biography, His nature, motivation and changes over time. But what if we carried the discussion further into the Rabbinic period? What would be a biography of God in Midrash?

To answer these questions, we can now turn to the important new book by Dov Weiss, Pious Irreverence Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism (University of Penn Press, 2016). Weiss is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He completed his PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School and has rabbinic ordination from RIETS. The book Pious Irreverence is a wonderful addition to works on Rabbinic thought, both thoughtful and well thought through study showing the biography of God in Midrashic literature from the early Midrash of the tannaim to the late midrash of the Tanhuma, from a perfect deity with whom one cannot protest to one who is close to humans, accepts protest from those wronged, and acknowledges mistakes. Throughout the book, Weiss adeptly compares the rabbinic material to the contemporary Christian works.  His answers in the interview below are one of the best of anyone I have interviewed in terms of clarity and fullness of answer to the questions.


Weiss’s work focusses on the later Midrashic Tanhuma-Yelamdanu literature, which is found in the various works called Tanhuma and in other works such as Numbers Rabbah, Deuteronomy Rabbah, and Pesikta Rabbati. These works offer a different Rabbinic voice on many issues than that other midrashim.

Tanḥuma-Yelammedenu texts generally commence with a halakhic proem that poses a simple question of Jewish law, often introduced with the phrase “Let our master teach us (רבנו ילמדנו) “(Yelammedenu). These teachings often cite Rabbi Tanhuma, a fourth-century sage, they are also designated as the Tanhuma midrashim.

Contemporary scholarship generally follows the form critical conclusions of Marc Bregman, who argues that the Tanhuma_Yelammedanu literature developed in several developmental strata. (1) An early 5th century Palestine stratum that contains a large amount of Galilean Aramaic as well as Greek and Latin loan words, and is roughly contemporaneous with the Jerusalem Talmud and the classical midrashim such as Leviticus Rabbah and Genesis Rabbah. (2) A 6th-7th century stratum from the end of Byzantine rule in Palestine. Unlike the early stratum, it avoids Galilean Aramaic wherever possible, replacing it with Hebrew. (3) A stratum added after the Islamic conquest, which eliminated much of the Greek and Latin loan words. TY texts of this period consist of the standard edition of Midrash Tanḥuma (probably redacted in Babylonia), and the Buber edition of Midrash Tanḥuma (probably redacted in Europe).

Another repository of these traditions Numbers Rabbah, has been extensively studied by Hananel Mack  who dates the work to the early medieval era in Provence contemporaneous with the germination of Kabbalistic Midrash. Tanhuma literature also marks the beginning of the rabbinic “rewritten Bible” genre that finds its apogee in the 8th century Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer. Weiss clearly goes beyond these concerns of form and history in order to carving out a separate space for the unique images and theology of the Tanhuma-Yelammedanu literature.

The early days of this blog circa 2009-2010, when my posts were short 200 words observations of life and liturgy, had many posts on Jewish theology of the era of 600-1000 CE. I did this partially because much of the holiday liturgy, the avodah of Yom Kippur, and the piyyutim of Kallir are part of this era, partially because of the rich alternative theology these texts offer to many current views, and partially because much of this theology is proto-Zohar.  If one cannot discuss the strata of the book Tanhuma, then one cannot begin to discuss the formation of the Zohar.

Weiss shows that God in the Tanhuma-Yelammedanu literature becomes humanized and shares a life of Torah with Jews. God even goes into exile with the Jewish people, and needs redemption by Israel and through history. God recognizes that His past act or decision does not comport with the moral ideal and makes a concession of his fault; God is able to concede and thereby acknowledge faults and mistakes. In the book, Weiss astutely connects the ability to argue with God with the Greek philosophic concept of parrhesia, the task to speak out openly and frankly, as presented by Foucault.

As a surprise results, Weiss shows that the early Christian God, despite the Incarnation, is less “human” and more incorporeal and perfect than the humanized rabbinic God who imitates the life of His people.

The humanized Rabbinic God fills multiple roles within society at once. Thus, God is the metaphorical slave owner, king, father, mother, judge, husband, wife, friend, and sibling. Unlike Hellenistic religions that posit a system of “polytheistic anthropomorphism,” where each god assumes a distinct role within society, in Rabbinic thought the various persona of God are all attached to a single God, a “monotheistic anthropomorphism.” Rabbinic texts depict a polymorphous God: for example, appearing to Israel as a “warrior doing battle” at the Red Sea and an “old man full of mercy” at Sinai, this corpus makes these depictions even more human and diverse.

Weiss acknowledges that the original theological problem which bothered him was that of God’s justice and arguing with God in 20th century thought. The theology of arguing with God was widespread in late 20th Century Post-Holocaust Judaism, which often celebrates arguments with God.  This contemporary concern led Weiss back to the roots of this concept in Tanhuma. After all his research, in the interview below Weiss distances the Tanhuma from the 20th century version.  In the Tanhuma those who argued with God felt close to a humanized God who lives among them and thought the arguments were part of the Biblical tradition, while the 20th versions feel themselves distant from God, and feel that they live in a fractured world alienated from God.  Personally, I think that some elements of the 20th century versions have more elements common to the hatred of God, the misotheism of the pagan critics of the Jewish God than a continuity of the Tanhuma.

Weiss’ work is deeply indebted to the rich theology of Michael Fishbane, his doctoral adviser, who moved from his earlier decades of historical studies in Bible and Midrash to his recent articulation of explicit theological concerns. (See our interview with Fishbane here.) Specifically, Weiss himself oscillates between both sides of Fishbane’s long career. The opening of the book frames the topic within the 20th century post-holocaust theological topic of arguing with God, then Weiss spends the majority of the book on the historic-literary topic of arguing with God in prior rabbinic writings, and from there broadens out into the rhetorical analysis and theology of God in the Tanhuma-Yelammedanu literature. The moral concern becomes historic and literary then returns as theology.  The book could easily be complemented by another work focused on a philosophic-theological analysis of the humanized God in comparison to other conceptions of God.

If we look to earlier theological approaches, we find that Abraham Joshua Heschel already cited and developed some of this material, calling God “a most moved mover”. Heschel wrote theological works advocating this humanized God, or at least that Rabbi Akiva’s approach would view God this way. Heschel used many of these Tanhuma-Yelammedanu texts to argue that the Jewish approach to God is a God of pathos, but Heschel was more than reluctant to argue with God or assign fault to God, even after the Holocaust. Heschel was also not interested in differentiating separating out different historical periods.

Arthur Marmorstein’s studies of rabbinic thought argued for the importance of Divine immanence, but argued that the tannaim had to defend the existence of an ethically infallible God to counter the Marcionite heresy that viewed the Hebrew Bible’s God as ruthless and unjust. Ephraim Urbach preferred a rational view of God and rereads much of this material to fit his preconceived ideas of a rational and ethical transcendent God.

Most dissertations turned into a book spend many pages reviewing the prior literature, Weiss’ book is so rich and full that he does not feel the need for this convention. Yet, as I read Weiss’ book, I kept thinking that I would have wanted it twenty pages longer through the inclusion of three pages in each chapter summarizing what past luminaries in the study of Rabbinic thought wrote so as to highlight his own innovations as well as making the book a better teaching tool.

In sum, Pious Irreverence Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism is a pioneering work presenting a excellent historic-literary exposition of the theology of Tanhuma-Yelammdenu and will greatly contribute to discussions of Jewish thought. Jack Miles actually adds Midrash and Maimonides to his syllabus for his course based on his book: God: A Biography. The exposition of Midrashic material collected in this book would significantly enhance his course and our our courses.

I now await someone to devote books to other topics in the remarkable Tanhuma-Yelammedanu literature such as mitzvot and ritual, the body and asceticism, the exile of God, as well as the proto-kabbalistic elements.

  1. Why did you choose this topic?

I have been interested in the topic of protesting God for many years. In my twenties, Torah stories about God troubled me. In the holiest of Jewish texts, God is at times portrayed as a hateful, wrathful and unethical character. I had many sleepless nights wondering: how could God kill almost every human life in Noah’s generation? How could God demand that the Israelites annihilate every person – including women and children –of the seven indigenous nations living in the Land of Israel? How could God declare in the Ten Commandments that He would punish children for the sins of the parents? In short, how could I worship such a God? I could not raise these types of questions at Yeshiva University because, there, criticizing God was deemed an act of heresy.  I subsequently studied Midrash (late antique Jewish interpretation of the Torah) at the University of Chicago and was amazed at the audacity of the rabbis from late antiquity.

In roughly one hundred and fifty instances, the pious rabbis irreverently challenged God. I finally felt comforted; I was not alone.   The ancient rabbis were also struggling with what they read in the Torah, and many of them legitimized — and sometimes even celebrated — the act of theological protest. When encountering these daring rabbinic texts and recognizing the paucity of scholarship on this material, I knew that I had found the topic of my first book.

  1. What is the innovation of the book?

Pious Irreverence is the first academic book to comprehensively treat the topic of protesting God and it opposition in ancient Judaism.

The book traces and explains, for the first time, the emergence of anti-protest traditions in both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. I argue that rabbinic and early Christian anti-protestors adopted different ways to explain how heroic biblical protestors such as Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and Job launched their protests of God with seeming impunity.

Second, the book isolates the emergence of pro-protest Jewish traditions in the third-century, and offers explanations as to why a similar pro-protest position never surfaces in early Christianity. The six and seventh-century rabbinic Midrashim called “Tanhuma-Yelammedenu” radicalize earlier pro-protest traditions, and then I offer historical, cultural, and literary reasons to account for this intensification.

Third, and most controversially, Pious Irreverence argues that many of these rabbinic protests — particularly in Tanhuma-Yelammedenu texts –rely on the theological premise that God is not morally perfect and, thus, God’s goodness does not necessarily need to be defended in the face of biblical accounts of unethical divine action.

  1. Why did you choose to work in the Tanhuma literature?

I began studying Midrash — book by book in historical sequence. During this time, I encountered pre-Tanhuma rabbinic teachings in Genesis Rabbah and Lamentations Rabbah that were theologically bold, but none of them compared to the daring encounters between biblical characters and God portrayed in the Tanhuma-Yelammedenu (TY) Midrashim. In these texts, the theme of theological protest takes center stage, and God is said, at times, to admit His moral failures. I quickly realized that nothing had been written on the distinctive theological features of Tanhuma Midrash, as scholars had focuses exclusively on questions of Tanhuma form rather than content.

I rely on the findings of Prof Marc Bregman who dates the majority of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu material to the sixth or seventh century CE, allowing me to successfully highlight the distinctiveness of the Tanhuma Midrashim by comparing them to earlier pre-Tanhuma texts.

  1. Is God morally perfect?

Late Antique Christian theology (second to fifth century CE) reflects a high degree of cultural integration between early Christianity and Greco-Roman philosophy. As a result, in early Christian thought, God (the Father) is not only conceived of as unchanging and incorporeal, but also as morally perfect. Any biblical text to the contrary must be reinterpreted. And, although the tannaim (early rabbis ca. second-century CE) were not culturally integrated in Greco-Roman philosophy, they too were also adamant that God is infallible and morally perfect. As a result, both groups declared that it would be entirely absurd — and sinful — to argue with God.

The bold notion that God is fallible and not morally-perfect — and therefore protesting God might be legitimate — surfaces in amoraic literature (fifth century CE), and appears most starkly in post-amoraic rabbinic literature (sixth-seventh century CE). In these latter texts, we read of biblical heroes teaching or counseling God to adopt a more ethical approach to governing the world. Strikingly, God accedes to these moral critiques and challenges, declaring that the contentious encounter has caused Him to adopt a new moral position. In these midrashim, God’s apparent capitulation is transformative and substantial, expressing an essential change in God’s moral compass. They reflect an ongoing and fundamental change in God’s attitude toward His governance of the world, rather than a one-time concessional act of divine mercy as we have in the Hebrew Bible or earlier rabbinic texts.

5)     How do you build upon the work of Moshe Halbertal?

Moshe Halbertal in his Interpretive Revolutions in the Making: Values as Factors in the Halakhic Midrashim (Hebrew) argues that many second- and third-century sages consciously drew on their (own) ethical values as a guide when interpreting, or better put, reinterpreting Torah law. Through this process, they neutralized morally problematic divine decrees. The rabbis assumed that God – the author of biblical law – is perfectly moral and righteous, therefore, every Biblical law must reflect a sound moral position.  According to Halbertal, these rabbis believed that human moral intuition, with the help of other Torah texts, could access that perfect divine morality. Thus, the rabbis did not see themselves as imposing their own values upon biblical law, but rather imposing the perfect moral values of a just and moral God who authored the Torah laws.

Halbertal’s work focuses on exegetical laws, while my work treats exegetical narratives. This shift of genre, from law to narrative, is necessary as the legal material does not fully open up the depth of the rabbinic ethical and interpretive universe.

Aggadah, presents a different type of rabbinic response. Instead of defending God’s actions or laws (as Halbertal’s rabbis do), other sages — particularly in the late rabbinic period — challenge problematic divine actions and laws by placing an ethical critique of God into the mouth of biblical characters. Rather than assuming a morally perfect God and, because of it, embarking on a charitable reinterpretation, this alternate midrashic approach questions the very assumption that God conforms to the ethical ideal. This radical ancient Jewish approach is reflected not in rabbinic law, but in a number of rabbinic retellings of biblical stories where the rabbis generate a protest to express their discomfort with a divine action. Although not always solving the moral-theological dilemma, it allows the rabbis to freely voice their frustrations, ambivalences and uncertainties.

6)      How are the Rabbis both in favor and against protest?

The idea of debating God was itself a matter of debate in the rabbinic period.

The early rabbis (also known as “the tannaim”), Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eleazer chief among them, explicitly prohibited Jews from critiquing or challenging God. These voices emphasize the absurdity of challenging a morally perfect deity or, alternatively, decry the disrespect shown to the Creator with such a defiant act.

By contrast, some rabbis beginning in the post-tannaitic period validated or even encouraged arguing with God. Their support, however, is generally not explicit. They do not use their own voices to express their views. Rather, they place complaints and accusations against God into the mouths of biblical figures in their literary elaborations on the biblical narrative. Later rabbinic works contain over one hundred and fifty such instances (especially in the Tanhuma Midrashim). In the majority of these instances, the rabbis do not portray God admonishing the challenger. Indeed, at times God even welcomes the challenge, implying that these late rabbis sanction such daring confrontations.

We also have a third, mediating, rabbinic position: some types of challenges to God are permitted, others prohibited. For example, one sage distinguishes between different tones of the challenge: Was the challenge articulated as a question, suggestion, or accusation? Other rabbis distinguish between different topics of the protest: Was the protest waged for the sake of the protester herself or a third party? And, finally, some rabbis distinguish between the religious standing of the protestor: does he or she have a privileged and close relationship with God, akin to a family member or friend, or not?

7)      What is the role of court room scenes, prayers and parables in these protests?

The rabbis often use lawsuits, prayers, or parables to frame their exegetical protests. These literary contexts accomplish two things. First, it intensifies the challenge. Labeling the protest as a “prayer” or a “legal defense” legitimates the daring speech, thereby granting greater flexibility and leeway for the challenger to radicalize his formulations. Parables, too, as David Stern has argued, have the rhetorical force of heightening the complaint as they draw on real-life imagery. Conversely, these literary framings and contexts also provide religious shelter for the irreverent content. Prayers are conceived as pious acts; courtroom procedures grant litigants greater freedom to offer up their best defense. And parables provide sufficient textual distancing when their sharpest critiques only appear in the mashal (the fictional referent) proper.

8)      How do the rabbis respond the critiques of the Biblical God by anti-Biblical Christians and pagans?

“Heretical” Christian groups, such as the Marcionites and select Gnostics – as well as pagan intellectuals, waged attacks against the Old Testament and the Old Testament God in the first centuries of the Common Era. Specifically, the second-century Christian dualist Marcion of Sinope (85–160 ce) and his followers critiqued the God of the Hebrew Bible for His anger, hubris, a penchant for war. Some Gnostics, like the authors of Testimony of Truth, The Secret Book According to John and the Revelation of Adam, similarly sought to denigrate the Old Testament God by highlighting His injustices, such as punishing children for the sins of the parents. In these works, God is described as a “malicious envier,” or “Saklas” (Satan). Other Gnostics, more moderately, such as Ptolemy in his Letter to Flora, describe the God of the Hebrew Bible as “imperfect” for commanding an imperfect law. Around the same time, the pagan Platonist Celsus, criticized the Hebrew Bible for its all-too-human and childish depiction of God, and for God’s arrogance, God’s problematic decision to imbue humanity with the Evil Inclination, and God’s “arbitrary destruction of the world.” In the third and fourth centuries, similar critiques were leveled against the Old Testament God from the pagan philosopher Porphyry (234–305), the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate (331-363), and from the Manicheans, a neo-Gnostic group with whom Augustine spent so much ink refuting in his commentary to Genesis.

The rabbis responded to these types of ethical critiques of the biblical God in one of three ways. 1) They could ignore the specific moral problem and simply prohibit Jews from expressing critiques towards God. The logic here is that any admission or hint of divine error or injustice would only bolster the audacious charges of the “heretics”. This position, championed by Rabbi Akiva, adamantly re-affirmed that God is morally perfect.  2) They could consciously reinterpret the problematic biblical verse(s) so as to align the Torah with moral sensibilities. Moshe Halbertal highlighted this rabbinic response.3) The rabbis could place challenges or critiques of God into the mouth of a biblical character — when they retell the biblical story — to express their own struggles, ambivalences, and discomforts with morally troubling divine acts.

Indeed, this response provides a literary safe space for the sages to express their frustrations with God who, at times, acts capriciously, arbitrarily, and without due mercy. This act of ventriloquism does not solve the moral problem, but it does provide a cathartic outlet for the sages to work through their theological-moral anxieties. In fact, many of the specific moral critiques launched by Marcion, Celsus, and Porphyry reappear with striking similarity in late midrashic texts. This third response occupies center stage in my book.

9)  How is God humanized in Rabbinic Literature?

In Scripture, YHWH is conceived as having humanlike limbs and organs such as arms, eyes, and legs, and humanlike emotions such as love, anger, regret, and jealousy. Rabbinic literature expands the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic field by having God assume humanlike roles.

In the Hebrew Bible, God only saves or punishes Israel. Rabbi Akiva and other sages, by contrast, also imagine God, the shekhinah, to be “in exile” with His people and also, until the redemptive moment, in physical bondage with them. As the Israelites experience suffering, so does the rabbinic God. Similarly, post-tannaitic sages imagine God as lamenting uncontrollably over Israel’s exile and the Temple’s destruction. Here, the rabbis anchor this striking divine image by reading Scripture counterintuitively and decontextually, transforming the crying figure of a human prophet, such as Jeremiah, or a personified figure, such as Zion, into God.

Other examples of rabbinic humanization include God laughing, dancing with sages, studying and teaching Torah in the house of study, observing halakhah, engaging in matchmaking, and spending His free time playing with mythic sea-monsters. We also have dozens of midrashic texts detailing God’s physical features, such as His clothing and crown. God even rides a horse and kisses the walls of the Temple and His most beloved human followers.

What function did this anthropomorphic intensification serve the rabbis? It would be fair to conjecture that, in the context of Judaism in late antiquity, where Jews had neither the Temple nor political power, the rabbis were driven to emphasize the intimate bond that God continues to have with Israel. To humanize God was to make God “disarmingly familiar” (a term taken from David Stern), to feel His closeness, and to impress upon Israel that, appearances to the contrary, God had not abandoned them. Put simply, by intensifying and radicalizing the anthropomorphic biblical imagery, the rabbis effectively minimized the divide between God and humanity. God was, indeed, one of them.

This increased intimacy between God and humanity provided fertile theological grounds for the rabbis to support and generate protests against God. For in this context, protest would not disrupt or disrespect the human-divine hierarchical structure.

As a central expression of this hierarchical flattening, many midrashim depict God as Israel’s “brother” or “friend.” In these relational analogies, the vertical hierarchy between God and humanity is downplayed, and the horizontal relationship between God and humanity is accentuated. And, as Moshe Halbertal has demonstrated, the rabbinic God at times assumes a weaker position in the human-divine imagery. Halbertal notes: “The singular contribution that the midrash makes to textual anthropomorphic theology is through the depiction of social spaces in which the accepted biblical authority relationships are reversed and in which God takes the place expected of man. God is the slave, the student, the judged, the wife, and the one who is redeemed from suffering.”

Conversely, humans assume, at times, the more powerful role of husband, parent, creditor, judge, and master. In these moments, the sages boldly invert the traditional and standard biblical analogy between God and humanity in which God assumes the superior position in the relational hierarchy.

Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that critiques of God in late rabbinic culture were not deemed, at least by many, as an act of irreverence or as a threat to Jewish piety and worship. If anything, the very production of these confrontations might function as a method by which the rabbis demonstrate and reconfirm God’s unique intimacy with Israel and its treasured leaders.

10)  What is the doctrine of divine concession to His own mistakes?

Late rabbinic literature tends to be more open to the bold notion that God makes mistakes. In many Tanhuma-Yelammedenu texts, while God is portrayed as fundamentally good and just, He does not always make the correct ethical choice.

To be sure, the authors of these late midrashim do not proclaim the imperfection of God as a maxim or normative teaching (e.g., “Rabbi X says: God sometimes does not judge or act appropriately”). Such a blatant statement would be too radical and subversive for any pious Jew to make. Yet this theological assumption—of divine moral imperfection—could be accessed by analyzing how some late sages depict God in their numerous retellings of select biblical narratives. More specifically, the notion that God is morally imperfect at times can be assumed when late midrashim have God regret a decision or when they have God concede an ethical critique leveled by a biblical hero. In both these instances—whether unprovoked regret or a provoked concession, God recognizes that His past act or decision does not comport with the moral ideal. It is thus within exegetical narratives—rather than doctrinal maxims—that we can unearth the living theology of the late rabbis. In these texts, the humanization of God reaches its most extreme expression: God is human-like with regard to His moral character. As human beings regret and err, so does God.

In late rabbinic tradition, conceptions of God are presented in narrative form and show the interpretive imagination of their authors. Indeed, the living theological voice of the rabbis emerges more through rewritten biblical narratives than through normative or propositional formulations. While these unsystematic theologies are significant, they likely were not constructed for the purposes of theology. Other pedagogical, textual, cultural, or literary dimensions and pressures might have fueled the production of these remarkable narratives, such as the wish to communicate divine love, humility, and intimacy; the need to solve scriptural problems; the development of literary forms; or the desire to produce dramatic and entertaining narratives for the synagogue crowds.

As the character of God would have been treated with utmost seriousness, these depictions of the divine should not be regarded as mere literary conceits but as reflecting a bold religious sensibility. The authors of these aggadot would not have sacrificed their foundational religious commitments—their conceptions of God—on the altar of literary form, rhetorical drama, or exegetical cohesiveness.

11)   How are you indebted to Michael Fishbane’s work?

If I may, let me begin to answer this question with a personal note: At Yeshiva University’s seminary (RIETS), I studied rabbinics with great minds, but their dogmatic inflexibility and circumscribed methodology — focusing exclusively on Jewish law and relying solely on the anti-historical Brisker approach – ultimately left me spiritually and intellectually unfulfilled. Prof. Michael Fishbane, my PhD advisor, opened up new vistas of Torah scholarship: the recognition that Judaism has evolved over time – in content and form; the central place of Jewish myth and mythmaking in our sacred literature; and, most importantly, how Judaism is fundamentally an interpretive tradition – that is, everything is grounded in a reading, or re-reading, of the Hebrew Bible. There is no doubt that Fishbane’s influence pervades much of Pious Irreverence, probably more than I am even aware.

Fishbane sought to break Maimonides’ philosophical hold on rabbinic theology. Reading talmudic and midrashic texts without the guiding hand of Maimonides, he has shown that many rabbis of old conceived of God as an changing, mythical, and corporeal deity who is a player in the world’s events rather than merely its determiner. In these moments of divine transformation, God not only affects humans via His decisions but, like the mythic gods of antiquity, God is also deeply affected by the actions of humans. Fishbane has shown that the rabbinic God is not an unchanging, transcendent, and omnipotent being like the God of Maimonides, but a highly protean and vulnerable God who seeks and yearns for acts of human righteousness to solidify His power.

12)      Why did confrontation become a legitimate way to approach God in Judaism, but not in Christianity?

Johann Baptist Metz (1928–), a German Catholic theologian, places the blame squarely on Augustine of Hippo (354–430). According to Metz, Marcion’s penchant critiques of the creator-God drove Augustine to adopt a theology that exonerated the creator-God from all human suffering. Augustine accomplished this, for Metz, with his theology of original sin. By attributing world suffering to humanity’s inherent sinfulness, Augustine “silenced” the “theodicy question” and subsequently “anaesthetized” the “eschatological questioning of God.” No guilt whatsoever could be placed on God, as “guilty humanity alone” ought to be viewed as “responsible for this history of suffering.” Departing from Augustine, Metz expresses hope that the Christian community could return to embrace the aggressive prayers of Israel as found in Job, the Psalms, and Lamentations.

In addition, three factors ought to be considered when reflecting on this Jewish-Christian divide. First, at the core of Christian theology is the image of Christ suffering on the cross. Here, divine suffering is not merely one theological dictum out of many, as in early rabbinic literature, but an image that stands at the center of Christian thought. Accordingly, the motif of challenging God in response to human suffering would naturally seem strange and out of place. Indeed, for many Christian thinkers, experiencing pain is not a theological problem but an experiential ideal.

Second, the rabbinic openness to challenging God is fueled and nurtured by their humanization of God. For many sages, not only does God have body, but God is also morally imperfect and bound by Jewish law. By contrast, in early Christian thought, the humanization of God is, counterintuitively, less intense. The Christian God, of course, becomes incarnate in human flesh, however, the Christian God, in most respects, is less “human” than the rabbinic God. Specifically, in patristic thought, God the Father is incorporeal, morally perfect and, as lawmaker, not bound by any laws. These theological contrasts, I would argue, are a direct result of the different degrees of cultural integration with Greco-Roman philosophy. One could argue that, contra the early Church, the rabbinic rejection of philosophy ultimately paved the way for the rabbinic endorsement of theological protest.

Third, it would not be an overgeneralization to state that, throughout the generations, Jews have suffered at the hands of their enemies more than Christians have (notwithstanding early Christian persecution under the Roman Empire). As a consequence, Jewish powerlessness and victimization naturally played a role in igniting the flames of the protest motif within the Jewish tradition. In addition, as a people with no political power, Jews could more easily critique power.

13)   How is the approach of the Tanhuma literature different than the 20th century ideas of arguing with God?

Three key differences:

  1. The authors of Tanhuma Midrashim who challenge God do not do so in their own name. Rather, after “discovering” textual support within the words of Torah itself, they place critiques of God into the mouths of biblical heroes. Twentieth-century protest theologians, by contrast, typically protest God directly and explicitly.
  2. In the Tanhuma confrontational texts, God responds to the critiques because the encounter occurs in “biblical” prophetic times (according to the rabbis). God can thus be portrayed as responding and conceding error. By contrast, twentieth-centuries protest theologians, such as David Blumenthal and Elie Wiesel, are not privy to the divine response.
  3. In the Tanhuma confrontational texts, the authors are driven by an ethically problematic divine action or command within the Torah narrative. By contrast, twentieth-century theologians are typically driven to protest by the reality of a fractured world and the traumatic events happening in their own day, most prominently the Holocaust.

14)   What is your next project?

I am writing a book on the Jewish (and Christian) reception of the famous – and morally problematic – maxim in the Ten Commandments that “God visits the sins of the parents onto the children…until the fourth generation.” [Exodus 20:5] This doctrine has posed an obvious moral dilemma: Why should one person suffer for the sins committed by another? Are children not independent from their parents? Does this method of divine providence correspond with a loving, fair and just deity?