Eitan Fishbane on The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar

For admirers of the Zohar, the work is a delight to study. What is the attraction of this work?  It opens the reader into a Judaism of great possibilities- possibilities of mysticism, of visions, of the afterlife, of prayer, and of creatively reworked midrashim. Much of the joy of reading comes from following the band of mystics as they wander the countryside encountering supernal beings and revealing a hidden reality. Many have noted in passing the medieval courtly background to these stories- the maiden in the tower, the heroic suitor, spending a night in a secluded castle, or an unexpected teller of tales-, which provides vivid color and richness to the drama. We now have to thank Eitan Fishbane for writing a guide to reading the Zohar as medieval literature, as a mystical narrative.

Eitan Fishbane is associate professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). His earlier book As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist (Stanford University Press, 2009 ) explored the mystical thought of Isaac ben Samuel of Akko especially prayer, meditative concentration, mental intention and chains of authority. His recent book, The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar (Oxford University Press, 2018) is a masterpiece of opening up the Zohar to literary analysis including characterization, dramatic speech, structural framing.

fishbane- book

The 2017-2018 academic year was a bumper crop for Zohar studies producing ten serious studies on the Zohar, each one making a significant innovative contribution. Future studies of the Zohar will never be the same and the field will now start from a very different place than before. The works are so extensive that I have still not gone through this new shelf of books; actually not a shelf but a guilt inducing pile on my floor. Among the recent books are  Melila Hellner-Eshed’s Seekers of the Face : the Secrets of the Idra-Rabba (The Great Assembly) of the Zohar [Hebrew] (2017), Ronit Meroz’s The Spiritual Biography of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai–An Analysis of the Zohar’s Textual Components [Hebrew] (2018), Oded Yisraeli, Temple Portals: Studies in Aggadah and Midrash in the Zohar [English edition], and Yonatan Benarroch’s Sava and Yanuka : God, the Son, and the Messiah in Zoharic Narratives [Hebrew] (2018). (For my 2016 interviews with Joel Hecker and Daniel C. Matt on translating the Pritzker edition of the Zohar, see here and here.)

Nevertheless, Fishbane’s study stands out for the moving of the study of the Zohar from the provincial realm of Jewish thought to the wider realm of medieval literature and Andalusian history. The book is innovative for letting us see what we always knew, that the Zohar tells a good story. Fishbane contextualizes the Zohar in its Castilian  milieu showing influence and parallel with Jewish and non-Jewish works such as Yehudah Al-Harizi’s Takhkemoni, Yitzhak Ibn Sahulah’s Meshal Kadmonim , Alfanso X of Castille’s sponsoring of the collection Cantigas de Santa Maria and Juan Ruiz’s Libro se Buen Amor.

Treating the Zohar as literature was already implicit in Peter Cole’s amazing anthology The Poetry of Kabbalah (Yale University Press, 2014) and in David Stern & Mark Jay Minsky’s Rabbinic Fantasies (1990). However, Fishbane sets it forth as a sustained study of literary criticism.

The book’s topics include: Zohar as a classical work, the role of performance and theatricality in the Zohar, as well as gestures and drama. This drama relies on a magic realism of sheltering trees, astounding cave discoveries, spirit birds, and magical herbs. In each of these, Fishbane analyses structural flow, rhetorical devices, and time sequence. He also used the method of narrative ethics to explain the role of ethics in the Zohar in which the ethic comes from the narrative and not from Kabbalistic symbolism. The book’s chapters have a clear, and sometimes heavy, didactic element in which he explains the literary term and quotes from literary critics who define the term before applying the terms to the Zohar.

The highlight of the book are the last two chapters correlating the poetics of the Zohar with both Jewish and Christian Spanish literature. He relied on this context earlier in the book when he compares the theatricality of the Zohar to the symbolic importance of gestures in medieval Christian liturgical drama and when he discussed the symbolism of the rose. I do however wonder whether the last chapters should have been placed in the beginning. First, give me the Spanish context and then show how each stylistic trait fits into this context, rather than detailing many stylistic traits and then surprising the reader by showing that is a medieval Spanish style.

Fishbane’s book is limited to the section of the Zohar that scholars colloquially called “guf haZohar.” This section is the product of a few circles of kabbalists working over a period of several decades in the late thirteenth century, possibly as a Castilian fellowship. His analysis does not include the over thirty other parts of the Zoharic corpus including the heihhalot, matnitin, Tikkune Zohar, Sitrei Otiot, or Idra. Fishbane says that he hopes to treat some of these other sections in a possible sequel.

The book deserves big congratulations. It is a well-done important book, a significant piece of scholarship, a game changer in Zohar studies. The book will change the manner in which Zohar will be taught in American universities and in adult education classes. I enjoyed reading it, so will your students. Woe to those who think this book is a mere monograph, happy are those who seen the great value in this book.

  1. Why do you like the Zohar? 

I find the Zohar to be endlessly fascinating, intellectually exciting, aesthetically and spiritually alluring. Like so many others, I have been drawn to this magnetic text since the earliest days of my studies and continue to return to it as a great work that reflects the summit of Jewish spiritual creativity and theological imagination.

There is much depth and beauty in these philosophical texts, but the Zohar speaks to the spiritual and theological yearnings of the poetic soul. Just as those of a certain artistic and spiritual bent turn to poetry instead of the more analytic nature of prose, so too does the Zohar beat with the pulse of spiritual artistry, brushing against the borders of the ineffable and the sublime in religious thought and experience.

2) Where are you differing from prior scholarship on the Zohar as literature?

This book is the first full-scale attempt to study the Zohar through methodologies inspired by literary and aesthetic criticism, notable — in part — as an effort to elucidate the text as a work of literary art. I think it is fair to say that no one has attempted or accomplished this prior to The Art of Mystical Narrative.

To be sure, there have been article-length efforts in this direction, and the work of Yehudah Liebes certainly pioneered the emphasis upon the crucial importance of the story of R. Shimon and his circle as the heart of the Zohar.

However, there is a great difference between work that explores the zoharic story and doing for the Zohar what Alter and Sternberg did for the Hebrew Bible, or what Kugel, Stern, Rubenstein (or Hasan-Rokem, Levinson, and Wimpfheimer) did for rabbinic literature.  I developed a multifaceted literary studies methodology for reading the Zohar and this, I suggest, is the innovative contribution of my work.

3) How does the Zohar compare to the Hebrew literature of its time?

One of the key new contributions of the book is my attempt to locate zoharic narrative within the broader landscape of medieval Iberian fiction and poetry, both Jewish and Christian. I specifically focus on the structural form of the frame-tale as a literary device in this time and place.

Isaac Ibn Sahula (b. 1244) wrote two separate works which embody the twin literary concerns of the Zohar, prose narrative and kabbalah. The first was his rhymed prose narrative, entitled Meshal ha-Kadmoni, and the other an explicitly kabbalistic commentary on the Song of Songs. But other key Jewish works compared in the book that seem similar to the Zohar include the Tahkemoni of Yehudah Al-Harizi and the Sefer Sha’ashuim of Joseph Ibn Zabara.

Though consideration of various thematic and structural criteria, I show how our understanding of the Zohar is enriched by considering it as a literary work that employs techniques and conventions of related contemporary non-mystical texts.

4) How does the Zohar compare to the general literature of its time?

Two non-Jewish parallels that I consider as influences on the Zohar are the Libro de Buen Amor (The Book of Good Love) of Juan Ruiz, and the Cantigas de Santa Maria of King Alfonso X El Sabio. Based on my literary analysis of select passages and parallels in the Zohar, I argue that the Zohar appears to have absorbed key features that were part of the larger folkloric and textual culture of this time and place.

One striking example is the source of the famous zoharic advocating against accepting the pure literalism of the Torah (where the wise are advised to look beneath the garments of Torah, and even within her body to the mystical soul of Torah). The source is the the prologue of Juan Ruiz to the Libro de Buen Amor, wherein the author exhorts his reader not to think that his book, which tells tales of seemingly crude lust and debauchery is truly only about the literal kind of lust that it appears to be. In truth the book is meant to teach figuratively about the mystery of divine love.

Ruiz puts it in the following way (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 400-401):

Do not think that this is a book of foolish nonsense (Non cuidedes que es libro de necio devaneo), and do not take as a joke anything that I recite in it, for, just as good money can be stowed in a worthless purse, so in an ugly-looking book lies wisdom that is not uncomely (assí en feo libro yaze saber non feo).

The fennel seed, on the outside blacker than a cooking pot, is very white inside, whiter than ermine; white meal lies within black covering (blanca farina yaze so negra cobertera); sweet white sugar lies inside the humble sugarcane.

Under the thorn lies the rose (So la espina yaze la rosa), a noble flower; in ugly letters lies the wisdom of a great teacher (en fea letra yaze saber de grand dotor)…, under a bad cloak lies good love (assí so mal tabardo yaze el buen amor).

Because the beginning and root of all good is the Holy Virgin Mary, therefore I, Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita, first of all composed a song about her seven Joys…” (Willis, ed., Juan Ruiz, Libro de Buen Amor, pp. 14–15)

In Chapter 6 (The Art of Mystical Narrative, p. 403), I compare these remarks with the much discussed zoharic passage about literalism and mystical meaning in interpreting the Torah. These include lines such as:

“Those fools, when they see someone in a good-looking garment, look no further”;

“Fools of the world look only at that garment, the story of Torah”; and

“Whoever thinks that the garment is the real Torah and not something else, may his spirit expire! He will have no share in the world that is coming!” (Zohar 3:152a)

5) What is the role of dramatization in the Zohar?

One of my core arguments in the book is that the stories of the Zohar are a kind of dramatic literature. In the process of speaking mystical secrets and encountering one another, the characters enact a near-theatrical mode of expression, performing their deep ambivalence and excitement over the disclosure of hidden matters.

The Zohar depicts performative fictional scenes as the context in which the homiletical mysticism is delivered and received. This dramatic element should be seen in the larger context of medieval frame-narratives—a convention of the intersecting literary worlds into which the Zohar was born.

6) What is the role of gestures?

A key aspect of this performative literature is the varied use of physical gestures to express emotion as well as to mark the rhythm and boundaries of different scenes and moments in the narrative. Such gestures include weeping, prostration, kissing, the raising and laying on of hands, sitting, standing, and walking.

Moshe Barasch studied “the language of gesture” among medieval visual artists— particularly in the paintings of the late thirteenth- and early fourteenth- century Italian master Giotto di Bondone (1266/7–1337). Barasch considered the ways in which medieval painters and sculptors utilized similar types of dramatic gesture that were employed in the Christian mystery plays of the period: forms of physical movement that often had to substitute for the spoken word, given that the majority of audience members would view the performance from a significant distance and without a set stage. This gave rise to a cluster of well-established, even stereotypical, gestures that could be interpreted by the audience from afar. Barasch develops the argument that Giotto is representative of dominant sociocultural views, around the year 1300, regarding the potent meaning of gestures in several intersecting realms of social relations, ritual performance, and literary imagination.

Perhaps most applicable to our present inquiry into the zoharic use of gesture, however, is Barasch’s observation— filtered somewhat through later Renaissance characterizations of Giotto’s work—that what “is striking about Giotto’s gestures is not only the aesthetic quality of variety, but their ability to show the figure’s inner life.”

Gestures in the Zohar frequently signify and dramatize interior emotional states; the authors of the Zohar utilize physical expression in their characters to communicate or reveal some inner thought or feeling that the narrators typically will not articulate in an omniscient fashion.” (86) And consider the following representative passage from the Zohar itself:

“R. Elazar came forth, placed his head between the knees of his father and told the story. R. Shimon became afraid and wept. R. Shimon wept and said: “From what I have heard, I too fear the Holy One blessed be He!” He raised his hands to his head and exclaimed: “How is it that you have merited to see R. Hamnuna Sava, Light of the Torah, face to face, and yet I have not merited it!” He fell on his face and saw [R. Hamnuna] uprooting mountains and lighting candles in the palace of the King Messiah.”(Zohar 1:7b)

7) How does soliloquy, embedded performance, and setting replace narration?

Like other literary dramatists the authors of the Zohar use the rhetorical device of dramatic monologue or soliloquy to convey the interiority of thought and emotion without inserting omniscient narration. More common than hearing a third-person narrator say, “character so-and-so felt or thought…,” a character will erupt in a monologue — much like a Shakespearean soliloquy uttered as audible interior thought — to communicate his own inner process and feeling.

The theatrics of disclosure, relations among the disciples, as well as the rhetoric of reverence for the master—all of these are realized by the narrator through a cluster of compositional techniques, each of which is effected through the use of dramatic monologue and dialogue. As the disciples encounter one another on their pedestrian journeys through the Galilean roads, and even more so, when they come before the master (R. Shimon) to receive the disclosure of kabbalistic wisdom, they exclaim about the overwhelming character of these secrets, the elevating and terrifying power involved in hearing their revelation.

Through the representation of dramatic speech, the zoharic narrators construct character intent; the modalities of monologue and dialogue serve as indirect methods for the authors to convey subtext and the interiority of emotion to the reader. (p57)

8) What is the role of encounters on the road?

Most of the Zohar’s narrative action takes place on the road of the characters’ journey through a fictionalized ancient Galilee in quest of mystical wisdom. Along this path, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his disciples will often encounter a person whom they hastily judge to be a simpleton and devoid of any mystical wisdom that they might receive. This expectation is generally turned on its head in a narrative process that I refer to as the poetics of recognition. This dramatic uncovering of true character locates the Zohar in the literary landscape of its time and place, where non-mystical storytellers also frequently utilize this literary motif.

As we see in the following passage from the Zohar:

“R. Hiyya and R. Yosi were walking in the desert. . . . After a while, they saw a man who was approaching with a load in front of him. R. Hiyya said: “Let’s walk on. Perhaps this man is a Gentile or an ignoramus, and it is forbidden to join with him on the way.” R. Yosi said: “Let’s sit here and see if perhaps he is a great man.”

After a while he passed before them and said: “In roughness of crossing, the cluster of this companionship is essential!9 I know another way—let’s turn away from this one. I must tell you so that I am not guilty before you, so that I do not violate what is written (Lev. 19:14): Before the blind you shall not place a stumbling block. For you are like blind men on the road, and you shouldn’t endanger your lives.” R. Yosi said: “Blessed is the Compassionate One that we waited here!” (Zohar 2:49a–49b)

In this instance, R. Hiyya’s initial skepticism is proven to be hasty and inaccurate, for the mysterious stranger turns out to be a wise man who is also able to save the mystical companions from danger on the road. As the text continues in the voice of R. Yosi:

“Didn’t I tell you that he is a great man?”

He opened and said (Prov. 3:13): “Happy is the person who finds wisdom, the person who attains understanding. Happy is the person who finds wisdom—like me, who found you and came to know a word of wisdom from you.

The person who attains understanding— like me, who waited for you, to join with you. This is the person for whom the Holy One blessed be He prepares, on the road, the face of Shekhinah. About this it is written (Prov. 4:18): The path of the righteous is like gleaming light, shining ever brighter until full day.”

9) What is the role of the rose in the Zohar? How does that compare to medieval literature?

The rose in the Zohar typically symbolizes Shekhinah, the tenth of the divine sefirot. In the Zohar characters encounter roses in their travels, leading to theological reflections. In the book, I discuss evocative comparative correlations to the symbolism of the rose in broader medieval literature, including in the class work, Roman de la Rose. One textual case from the Zohar is particularly instructive (Art of Mystical Narrative, p. 173):

He who wanders among the roses. (Song 2:!6) Just as this rose is red and its waters are white, so too does the Holy One blessed be He conduct His world from the Attribute of Judgment to the Attribute of Compassion. And it is written (Is. 1:18): If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow.

Abba was walking along the road, and with him was R. Yizḥaq. As they were walking, they happened upon some roses. Abba took one in his hands and walked on. R. Yosi met them, and said: “Surely Shekhinah is here, and I see that what is in R. Abba’s hands [is there] to teach great wisdom. For I know that R. Abba did not take this [rose] but for to show wisdom.” Abba said: “Sit, my son. Sit.” They sat. R. Abba inhaled the smell from that rose and said: “Surely the world’s existence depends upon scent! For we have seen that the soul’s existence [also] depends upon scent. And this [is the reason for the inhalation of the aroma of ] the myrtle [leaves] at the departure of Shabbat.”

He opened and said (Song 2:16): “My beloved is mine, and I am his—he who wanders among the roses. Who caused it to be that I am my beloved’s and that my beloved is mine? It is because He conducts His world through roses.

Just as the rose has a scent—it is red, and when it is distilled it turns to white, and still its scent never alters—so too does the Holy One blessed be He conduct His world in this way. For was this not the case, the sinner could not endure. The sinner is called ‘red,’ as it is said (Is. 1:18): If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow.” (Zohar 2:20a)

As I note in my analysis of this passage:

The characters who are presented in this passage serve to dramatize the process of metaphysical discovery within the structures and forms of the physical realm—through their interaction and speech they theatricalize the hermeneutical claims made in a homiletical voice on either side of the narrative piece. In this respect, the con- tents of the fiction and the exegesis are clearly integrated; R. Abba’s reflection on the cosmic meaning latent in the color and aroma of the rose fleshes out and clarifies the interpretive argument.

10) How is Zohar magical realism and personified nature?

Supernatural happenings in the world are represented as though they are perfectly normal and even realistic phenomena. At the very least, however, the authors of the Zohar believed that the world inhabited by R. Shimon and his disciples was an enchanted one — where, for example, a character wandering in the desert happens upon a gargantuan tree with a cave opening at its base. This opening reveals steps leading into a mysterious underworld overseen by a magical guardian, leading into a pathway of countless trees where souls fly on their way to the Garden of Eden.

The Zohar is indeed populated with such supernatural realia- magic, magic birds, especially eagles, spirit guides, magic herbs, creating an ambience of enchanted and mysterious spirituality and otherworldly sensation

Encounters with nature play a key role in the literary and mystical imagination of the zoharic authors. For the Zohar, the natural elements of the earthly realm refract higher mysteries about Divinity, and the wandering movement of the text is situated in the outdoor setting of the natural world.

For example, R. Shimon and his disciples are located beneath the shade of a tree on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and through a series of associations this mundane experience leads to rumination upon the supernal tree of life in the Divine Garden of Eden, to a sefirah represented by the royal pavilion (Apiryon) built by King Solomon from the cedars of Lebanon. Nature functions as a symbolic allusion to the supernatural; the physical points the mystic to the metaphysical.

11) What is the tension of road/cave or quests/stability?

The narratives of the Zohar are marked by the ongoing quest of the road, by the recurrent motif of mobility. This is interspersed with moments of pause and stillness, whether sitting in a field to pray or study, or entering a cave only to discover a hidden mystical manuscript therein.

In some cases, this newly discovered manuscript is imbued with heavenly magic and secrecy, erupting into fire and flying away from their hands upon reading it.

We also see several scenes where the zoharic characters stop for the night in a roadside inn — a phenomenon that was relatively widespread in late thirteenth century Spain, especially in light of recent royal edicts to provide such lodging to travelers. These nights spent at an inn also often prove to be times of mystical discovery in the depths of the night.

12)   If this is the Zohar, then why read Zohar instead of Lord of Rings, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones?

Certainly, it is a unique literary world unto itself, which is not reducible to these later instances of fantastic storytelling. But it does share certain features with the magical classics you mention here, the creation of a paranormal universe in which characters are transported beyond the bounds of our normal expectations within natural law.

13)      How is forgiveness portrayed? How is it a form of narrative ethics?

The Zohar gives the theme of idealized forgiveness is given a prominent place. The authors of the Zohar tell the tale of a character who experiences miraculous divine intervention, saving his life, because of his high virtue in always forgiving others for any wrong they may have committed against him. The Zohar compares this character to the biblical persona of Joseph who was called a righteous man precisely because of his ability to forgive his brothers for the grievous wrong they committed against him. Through this exemplum narrative, the reader of the text is guided toward the virtue of radical empathy and love, modalities of artistic evocation that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has shown to be the foundations of moral instruction. In the language of the Zohar (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 287-290):

“Rabbi Abba was sitting at the gateway of the gate of Lod. He saw a man come and sit in a dugout in a mound of earth. He was weary from the road, so he sat and fell asleep there. Meanwhile, [Rabbi Abba] saw a snake that was moving toward [the man].

Out came a honey badger, oozing an excretion, and killed it. When the man awoke, he saw that snake dead before him. He stood up, just as that dugout collapsed into the depths below, and he was saved.

Rabbi Abba came forward to him and said: “Tell me what you do, for behold the Holy Blessed One has performed these two miracles for you! It wasn’t for nothing !” The man said to him: “All my days, no person in the world ever did me evil without my reconciling with him and forgiving him.

And if I could not reconcile with him, I would not climb into bed until I forgave him and all those who hurt me. All of my days I never cared about the evil that they did to me. Not only that, but from that day on, I strive to do good to them.”

Rabbi Abba wept and said: “The deeds of this one are even greater than those of Joseph! As for Joseph, they were surely his brothers, and he had to have compassion for them. But what this one has done is greater than Joseph! It is fitting that the Holy Blessed One performs miracle upon miracle for him!” (Zohar 1:201b)

Narrative ethics is a mode of discourse in which a moral ideal is portrayed through story, often serving to stir understanding and compassion in the reader, helping her to realize how she ought to behave. As Martha Nussbaum has argued, art holds the power to evoke such ethical guidance in a way that philosophical analysis cannot. Art may move us to regard our fellow human beings with love and empathy. The Zohar too partakes of this widespread genre, and it is through its storytelling that the mystics often convey their highest moral ideals — conceptions of value and virtue that are, for them anyway, inextricable from mystical theology.

14)      How is hospitality portrayed?

Hospitality is a revered virtue, dramatized in the Zohar through exemplary narratives and then textured with homilies of mystical-moral midrash. In one remarkable instance (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 317-321), which is actually the source of our contemporary use of the term ushpizin (guests) for the sukkah, the Zohar tells the story of R. Hamnuna Sava who would invoke the presence of the divine sefirot into his sukkah.

Rav Hamnuna Sava, when he would enter the sukkah, he would rejoice and stand inside at the opening, and say: ‘Let us invite the Guests!’ He would set the table, stand on his feet, recite a blessing, and say: In sukkot you shall dwell, O seven days. Sit, exalted Guests, sit! Sit, Guests of faith, sit!

He would raise his hands in joy and say: ‘Happy is our portion, happy is the portion of Israel!’ For YHVH’s portion is His people, Jacob His own allotment (Deut. 32:9). Then he would sit.” (Zohar 3:103b)

The narrator adds, however, that it is imperative that one who invites these divine forces into his sukkah must give their portion of physical food to the actual human poor in his community, that he must provide a place for the hungry at his own sukkah table. The impoverished person here serves as the embodied form of divine presence, and the Zohar is clear that such charity and hospitality is necessary for the divine guests to remain in his sukkah.

For one who has a portion in the holy seed sits in the shade of faith to receive guests; to rejoice in this world and in the world that is coming. Nevertheless, he must bring joy to the poor. And what is the reason for this? Because the portion of those Guests whom he has invited belongs to the poor.

And he who sits in this shade of faith, inviting those supernal Guests, Guests of Faith, but doesn’t give [the poor] their portion, [the supernal Guests] all get up and leave him, saying (Prov. 23:6): Do not eat the bread of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies.

It follows that the table he has set is his own, and not that of the Holy One blessed be He. About him it is written (Malachi 2:3): I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festivals. Your festivals, and not My festivals. Woe to that person when those Guests of Faith get up from his table!” (Zohar 3:103b–104a)

 

Hipster Hasidic Pop-Art

Two years ago, I spoke at Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (VLJI) on contemporary spirituality about the use of pop-psych and contemporary non-Jewish spirituality in American Orthodox Jewish spirituality.  I presented a range from  Aryeh Kaplan’s use of Huxley to Abraham Twerski’s 12 step and self esteem psychology to those Orthodox spirituality books of the 21st century who are using Anne Lamont, Tony Robbins, and various new age concepts.

One of the attendees at the conference was Noa Lea Cohn, an Israeli graduate student in art history who wanted to apply my research to her field of contemporary orthodox art. I sent her a half dozen emails of bibliography on various aspects of the topic. In turn, she asked me to write an introduction for an exhibition catalog of a show she was curating on Hasidic pop -art as part of the Jerusalem Biennale called “Popthodox / Black Humor.”  

She called the exhibition Black Humor after the Israeli slang expression for the ultra-Orthodox, who are called “blacks” for the dominant color of their clothes, and exposes for the first time a new pop art genre called Pophoddox. The exhibition  wanted to show a two-way view: interior and exterior. The exhibition’s artists “use introspective, inner humor that belongs to the public in which they belong to the thin nuances within it. On the other hand, humor enables them to direct an external critical eye on themselves” as a “self-conscious stranger.”For her, it showed the sociological processes taking place under the radar in ultra-Orthodox society.

I was already familiar with several of the artists and already actually had a prepared lecture with a handout with some of the art as part of my Hasidut class.  Below was my short entry in the exhibition catalog. (There were several other entries more concerned with the art itself.)

Hipster Hasidic Pop-Art –Alan Brill

The Baal Shem Tov taught that the Creator is found in all things and that one should serve God in all of one’s ways. Hence, some Hasidic groups, especially Chabad, encourage their followers to use their God-given talents to serve the Almighty. Following this expansive view, some contemporary Orthodox artists serve God through creativity and individuality.

Contemporary Hasidism is not outside of culture nor does it have to bridge the worlds of art and Orthodoxy. Rather, Orthodoxy is embedded in the wider culture around it. One should not conceive of Chabad adherents as otherworldly nineteenth-century mystics, unfamiliar with technology and new ideas. Rather they are media savvy enough to create advertisements, appear on Oprah, and host non-Jewish Hollywood stars in their fundraisers. Hasidim walk the same streets, buy the same consumer goods, and use the Internet as everyone else. Media, graphic design, and popular culture are everywhere in their daily lives.

In recent years with Chabad’s strong emphasis on outreach, its adherents have become masters at using popular culture to bring in unaffiliated Jews. They might almost be considered another form of modern Orthodoxy in that they adopt a modern sense of urban life, media use, and material culture. In order to reach people they have created a rich world of popular psychology, motivational posters, graphic design, and cool evenings devoted to the cutting edge in food, eyeglasses, or design. Many young Chabad Hasidim work in web design or online marketing, so they are well aware of recent trends and are conversant with Photoshop.

One does not have to go to art school to learn about the official pop art of the 1960s. Rather, people with open eyes appreciate the graphic designs that are all around them. The famous designs of the 1960s of Milton Glazer, Peter Max, and Robert Indiana continue to inspire artistic descendants to create pop art on packaging, on housewares, on children’s toys, and on city streets. In living their embedded life in the vibrancy of New York City, Chabad Hasidim are exposed to the pop styles of Keith Haring, David Hockney, and Barbara Kruger. From daily life, they know of the commercialized images of commodified art such as famous cartoon characters, as well as the pop use of them.

Strictly religious cultures create an interest inversion: the more religious it is, the more a particular group has to create its own art. The paradox is that the more the Orthodox community becomes part of an open society, the more it partakes of the general secular culture, and the more it experiences its own sectarianism. When this happens, it must descend into the realm of popular culture in order to produce more accessible products for the Orthodox community.[1]

Since the 1990s there has been a trans-Atlantic hipster subculture of young creatives who distinguish themselves by their quest for authenticity, especially in material culture, as well as by a lifestyle distinguished by its rejection of mass produced consumerism.[2] Journalists noted a subtrend of cross acculturation of Chabad Hasidism and hipster subculture in which the former were seen to adopt various cultural affinities similar to the local hipster subculture.[3] In the hipster Hasidic pop art trend, they have given up the more sentimental and romantic images of dancing Hasidim done as illustrative realism in favor of depicting their authentic lives with the contemporary popular culture they live within

Those in the world of Hasidic hipster religious pop art do not think that art has to have an overt outreach message and be adaptable for a worship service. Rather, they strive for emotional vibrancy and honesty. In this approach, there is a need to be able to see eyn od milvado, all things as connected to God, as a total celebration of Judaism. Many young Orthodox Jews note “there is nothing besides Him” as their religion on Facebook. The question is not whether or not pop art should be used to convey a religious message; rather anything can be used, as long as one believes it will lead to authenticity and commitment.

This is part of the larger trend of religion and religious art around them. Just as Hasidim appeal to finding God in all things, contemporary hipster Evangelicals appeal to the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the riches of art, even art that does not line up with their theology. Many Evangelical pastors are following the lead of hipster trendsetters blurring the lines of cool and religion.

Evangelicals want to leave behind the early decades when, owing to their sole focus on outreach, religious art was fuddy-duddy, kitsch, and unconcerned with broader trends. They are even ironic about these earlier trends. Now they can portray Christian images as pop art with hipster sensibility. Conversely, they offer a redemptive gesture toward the objects of the recent past, in this case pop art.[4]

Hipster Christian pop art culture makes extensive use of the hipster interpretive tool of irony and suspicion of popular mainstream culture, thereby allowing multiple perspectives. For some, this is a path for moving out of the constraining community. For others it is a limited rebellion against conservative elements. Hipster Christianity sends mixed signals.[5]

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The Hasidic pop art in this exhibit shows a similar spectrum from the colorful to the mild rebellion to the critique of the system. Some use the art as a criticism of their social limits and some are already pointing outward toward new lives. They are not all inside the system; rather, there are those who are completely in the system, those who have minor adaptations to the system, and others who are already looking at the community with a sense of distance.

On the one hand, we have Moully with his goal of showing that Hasidim are not homogeneous and that they can appreciate color and pop art. His emphasis is on individuality and creativity. Moully was even featured on a program featuring Oprah’s exploration of the Hasidic community of Crown Heights in 2012. Her religious teachings of individual spiritual journey are filtering down into Orthodoxy. (Notice the Individuality of the Orange Socks.)

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On the other hand, we have those who use their art for more sustained social criticism. Shai Azouly shows the incongruity of Hasidic life with many ordinary aspects of daily living even when not prescribed by religious law or tradition. The Hasid with a well-coiffed poodle highlights a contradiction between the community’s aesthetic and social practices and the wider world, while his image of Hasidim gathered around a museum exhibition of a dinosaur illuminates the problematics in the Hasidic intellectual world.

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In a similar perspective, Yiddy Lebowits draws attention to professions that are currently not associated with being Hasidic, such as doctor, fireman, astronaut, or tai chi instructor. The art allows one to push against the current aspirational limits of the community.

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We see a very different approach in the bricolage of Yom Tov Blumenthal, who portrays a football player as getting his power from Kabbalah, as indicated by the magical emblems all over his uniform. The image plays with the meaning of power and strength: does strength actually come from religious ritual or can this ritual be compared to secular strength.

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Finally, Anshie Kagan’s defining “Hashem is here” with the digital icon of a pinpoint in the way places are defined on a GPS or foursquare is highly insightful for its misplaced concreteness and irony, which leads us to reconsider what it means when we say God is here.

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In the work of all of these artists, the use of pop designs allows for an isolated individual image without background or landscape. In many ways, this is a reflection of the artists themselves grappling with issues beyond their Hasidic backgrounds. In the absence of meta-narratives, atomized individuals follow media inspired mini-trends. The show thrives on the fact that nothing is black and white. Even when it is ironic, it acknowledges that there is also a post-ironic.

Postmodern religion, including much of Chabad, accepts its role as a commodity more than as authentic spirituality. But the semi-ironic gives place for the non-commodified change in people’s lives. The pop art leads to utopian change through its use of irony, immanence, and individuality. The art re-establishes a critical distance between the individual and his society, and recognizes the need for an examination of the material condition of the religious life. Popular culture plays, and will continue to play, an increasing role in Orthodoxy, as one needs products that relate to the first-person journey through life.

[1] Many of these ideas are further developed in Alan Brill, “The Emerging Popular Culture and the Centrist Community,” in Developing a Jewish Perspective on Culture. Ed. by Yehuda Sarna. (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2014) 16–66.

[2] Bjørn Schiermer, “Late-Modern Hipsters: New Tendencies in Popular Culture,” Acta Sociologica 57:2 (October 8, 2013) 167–181; Linton Weeks, “The Hipsterfication of America” (November 17, 2011) https://www.npr.org/2011/11/16/142387490/the-hipsterfication-of-america (accessed October 12, 2018).

[3] Nicole Greenfield, “Birth of Hipster Hasidism?” Religion Dispatches (February 2, 2012).

[4] James Bielo, Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity (New York: NYU Press, 2011), showed how the quest for authenticity of the 1960s counterculture fed into the turn to Evangelical Christianity in later decades. There is a similar connection in Judaism.

[5] Brett McCracken, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2010).

Nick Rynerson, “The Problem with Writing Off ‘Un-Christian’ Art,” MAR 12, 2013 christandpopculture.com (accessed October 12, 2018).

Interview with Daniel Reiser –  Imagery Techniques in Modern Jewish Mysticism

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piacetzna (1889-1943), also known as the “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto” left behind a series of books on educating teenagers and newly married men, a diary of his Holocaust sermons, and variety of visualization techniques that he used in his work to create a modern Chassidus in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman emphasized the use of imagination and vision within Torah. We are to imagine the events in the weekly Torah study as if we are there and with vivid imagery, we imagine the Biblical stories in sermons, we use the vivid element of the midrash to teach and we are to engage in specific techniques of visualization to achieve closeness to God. We can even, if needed, image God for praying. This visionary quality is what gives his tragic Holocaust sermons delivered in the Warsaw ghetto such pathos. Daniel Reiser wrote his dissertation and subsequent book on these visionary meditations. The book was translated last year.

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Dr. Daniel Reiser is the director of the Department of Jewish Thought at Herzog Academic College and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious and Spiritual studies at Zefat Academic College. He received his PhD in Jewish Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

His book Imagery Techniques in Modern Jewish Mysticism (deGruyter, 2018)   analyzes and describes the development and aspects of imagery techniques. In Reiser’s opinion these techniques, in contrast to linguistic techniques in medieval Kabbalah and in contrast to early Hasidism, have all the characteristics of a full screenplay, a long and complicated plot woven together from many scenes. Reiser compares Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira’s techniques to those of his contemporary Menachem Eckstein and to Musar visualization techniques. The Hebrew edition won The World Union of Jewish Studies Matanel Prize for the best book  in Jewish Thought published during the years 2013-2014.  Here is the Table of Contents.

Reiser’s work on Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira visualization lead to his editing of a new edition of the Warsaw ghetto sermons.

To return to the visualization method of the Piesetzna, he exhorted his students not to limit oneself to one’s first image, rather to cultivate an entire imagery approach to Torah. “Train yourself to expand your thinking, and relate all that you know about the Temple” to your mental image of the Temple. One should think that this Temple image is “the place where God’s Presence can literally be seen and which the Torah commands us to visit three times a year. Why? In order to behold the countenance of the Lord God of hosts.”

These visualization of the themes of prayer and of the weekly Torah study are a continuous activity.  The Piesetzna advocates: “even at times other than the regular prayers, it is recommended that a person practice such imagery, so that when it is time to pray, he will be able to conjure such an image immediately… Even in your spare time, think of such images, so that when you are at prayer it will be as though you are standing in the Temple, etc. Thus, when you come to pray, it will be easier to arouse fervor within yourself.

Rather than a Judaism of emotions, volition, or intellect, neo-chassidic enthusiasm, submission to the law, or conceptual analysis of Torah, here we have a fourth option. A Torah of the imagination. Reiser shows how this Torah of the imagination is linked to a renewal of prophecy in early 20th century Jewish thought.

Reiser, however, does not deal with the basics of Kalonymous Kalman’s thought, presupposing his reader knows them already. He also does not address the full life and corpus of the Piesetzna limiting himself to his techniques. For those unfamiliar with the corpus of the Piesetzna, I highly recommend the book by Ron Wacks available in Hebrew as Lahavat Eish Kodesh and in English as 36 online lessons on the VBM.

This blog has dealt with many of these issues before including Tomer Persico’s broad survey book on Jewish meditation and Menachem Ekstein’s visualization techniques. I also published observations when I returned from a conference on meditation (here and here) and have dealt with Aryeh Kaplan in three posts.  There is still much to write about the Piesetzna and there are several fine unpublished dissertations on his spirituality.

Unfortunately, the English edition of the book costs a fortune therefore the causal English readers will likely rely on the popular and much less reliable presentations on this topic. One final note, the book is very Israeli. It focuses on tracing the ideas to prior texts.It is very unlike current approaches in contemplation studies which are interdisciplinary explorations of psychology, neuroscience and comparative religion.  American graduate programs also integrate practice, critical subjectivity, and character development, this thesis is very rational. For an example of the American approach, see here.

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  1. How did you get interested in Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira?

When I was 21, I went into a store of old and used books in Jerusalem. I saw a small booklet there, at a cost of 1 NIS. It was written on it The Obligation of the Students, Warsaw 1932. The year and location and of course the price drew my attention and caused me to buy the book. I was then drawn to the author’s unique language, full of pathos and ethos. That was the beginning.

Subsequently, it was not easy to get the rest of his books but with the help of a friend I acquired the book “Hachsharat Ha’avrechim” and his other books. I immediately saw that this was an unusual figure, full of spirit and relevant. And the rest was history.

2. What is Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s conception of prophecy?

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira associates imagery exercises done in contemporary times with prophecy. Practicing guided imagery develops a new internal sense, and with that new talent people will be able to gain prophecy.

According to the Shapira, biblical prophecy has two sides to it, the personal and the social. The Prophet has an individual personal attachment to God. However, at the same time his influence has an impact on the surrounding society. His interest in prophecy is both – personal and to influence others to seek prophecy.

The essence of prophecy is a constant cleaving with God, which makes it possible for man to achieve Holy Spirit. Kalonomous Kalman describes this in terms of light: the prophet is filled with the “light of God.” He thus serves as a projector for the dissemination of light to society, which is “full of splendor, they radiate brightness” (El Adon).

Since the prophet is filled with light, he wants to bring it to the people, to let it radiate. Biblical prophecy bring a message to society which is its radiation. It is not a personal enlightenment as in Buddhism. but always with a message. One can call it Jewish spiritual enlightenment or Jewish prophecy in that it always has a social message. Yorem Jacobson assumed this was also true about early Hasidism.

3. What is the role of imagination in Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s thought?

For Kalonymous Kalman Shapira imagination has 2 roles: (1) To prepare man for prophecy (2) To empower any religious experience, that is, to transform any normative religious experience into a more powerful experience which is called a mystical experience.

Similar to the role of hot pepper placed in food to enhance its taste so is imaginative imagery added to other experiences such as Torah study, prayer, dance and music and makes them an experience of contact with the divinity.

4. What role does imagination play for Rabbi Shapira in Torah and prayer?

Shapira stresses that Torah study is not just intellectual and informative learning. Imagery makes learning experiential. Anyone who imagines that he lives far away from his father for many years and suddenly receives an envelope with a letter from his father will obviously be moved and shaken when he opens the envelope and then reads the letter eagerly, over and over again. Thus, one who imagines that learning Talmud is to receive a love letter from God, then all his learning will be full of experience. He will have more motivation to learn. In other words, the imaginative faculty enables empowering Torah learning from an intellectual act to an experiential one.

The same applies to prayer. Institutional prayer is routine and sometimes boring – imagination can “light” it and make it relevant. You cannot compare those who say routinely and banally “And we will be our descendants … We all know your name and learn your Torah for its own sake,” to those who say this while they imagine their children one by one and plead that they will continue their parent’s tradition.

5. How did Kalonymous Kalman Shapira come to these ideas?

Good question. The first role of imagination, namely, the preparation of the prophecy, is based on medieval Jewish philosophy, and especially on Maimonides, who discusses in the Guide for the Perplexed the vital and central role of the “imaginative faculty” in the phenomena of prophecy. Maimonides spoke only theoretically while Shapira offered practical exercises to realize this vision.

The second role of imagination in the empowerment of a religious experience – I do not know – it seems original. Although Rabbi Shapira based his techniques on early Kabbalah and Hasidism, his enormous project – the addition of imagination to every action and religious action – is original and has no serious precedents.

In prior centuries, we can only find traces of such an emphasis on imagination in Abulafia’s school of Kabbalah, which use linguistic imagery techniques, where you imagine the Hebrew letters and different linguistic variations.

At the beginning of Hasidism, we find similar imagery techniques. However, they are characterized by being limited to one short scene such as imagining oneself jumping into the fire to die a maryrs death, by R. Elimelech of Lizhensk.  I am not aware of full imagery techniques of an entire imagined script, as Shapira developed. (In my opinion, a script that is not inferior to a modern full movie).

6) What role does imagination play in his meditation techniques?

Shapira’s Imagery exercises are meditation! (I define meditation as a human effort to reach an experience of divine presence). This is not the current [Vipassana] Buddhist type of meditation of emptying the consciousness but a meditation of mind filling, which has strong roots in Judaism, as Tomer Persico showed in his book on Jewish meditation.

Yet even with antecedents in Jewish meditation practice Shapira is unique in his approach. He brought the imagery exercises in Judaism to a highpoint beyond any antecedents. We mentioned above that he developed very long imaginative exercises similar to a cinema script, which was never done before him. In this he was groundbreaking.

He also has imagery exercises that I would call sub-categories of prophecy, but not a direct prophecy. In these exercises one imagines God in one way or another and thus man demonstrates and presents God in his private life. (See #7)

7)      Why does Shapira allow one to visual God? What does God look like?

Shapira permits in one case an imaginal corporealization of God. He even uses halakhic terminology in order to grant halakhic justification to the practice.

 A person, who is in such a situation at the beginning of his growth and expansion of his thought, can rely on the Rabad (Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières), who comments that a physical being who utilizes images, may visualize this…  As for you, as a member of the fraternity, in a time of distress you should visualize yourself standing before the Throne of Glory, praying and beseeching from God like a son who cries and pleads before his father(Benei Maḥshavah Ṭovah, 18-20).

Mostly Shapira does not go that far in this visualization and prefers not to imagine God as an image but rather uses – what I call – imaginal substitutions. For example, he suggested contemplating the heavens and similar entities as a barrier separating prayer from God. By doing so, one can indirectly turn to God and stand before him, without needing to directly engage with the problem of corporealization of God. Or he encourages visualize the Holy Name of the tetragrammaton, which is an old technique that goes back to the Hekhalot literature.

Shapira radically pointed out quite radically a visualization of God, an insight that Rabbi Kook also insisted on.

Even though an error in divine matters is very damaging, nevertheless, the primary aspect of the damage,which is drawn from the flawed concepts, is not actualized, to the point that one who has [these flawed conceptions] is to have a soul-death (mitat ha-neshamah), only when he actualizes [them] in deed … However, as long as the matter is in an abstract form, this is not a fundamental heresy (aqirah). And in this we are close to R. Abraham ben David’s reasoning, in which he objected to Maimonides’ calling someone who believes in God’s corporeality a heretic (min).We can agree that as long as the man who corporealizes does not make an idol or [a physical] image, behold, he has not completed his thought, and it still remains in the company of the spirit, which is not able to be considered heresy and a departure from religion. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, Shemonah Qevaṣim (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2004), 1:8–9

The Torah forbids the making of a statue/icon – an actual action and object but they do not reject the use of mental images. Imagination is permitted because it is abstract and is not really a materialization of God. Shapira permits to imagine God as light, and stresses that his halachic permission is just post factum for those who need it to pray more deliberately (with Kavvanah) but should not be used ideally.

 8) What do you like most about Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira? 

I like his honesty. He shares with the reader his dilemmas, which he does not hide, and his difficulties. This type of writing is not too common in Jewish-Orthodox writings. In addition, dealing intensively with prophecy surprised me – especially in the 20th century and especially the desire to renew it – and not just for elite individuals, but he designated and assigned prophesy also for simple people.

9)      What are the imagery techniques in Menachem Ekstein’s writings?

In 1921 a short Hebrew book was published in Vienna, entitled Tena’ei HaNefesh LeHasagat HeHasidut [Mental Conditions for Achieving Hasidism] by Rabbi Menachem Ekstein (1884-1942). The author was a Dzików Hasid, from Rzesów in the center of western Galicia, who immigrated to Vienna following World War I. The reader will immediately notice that modern issues of psychology, such as self-awareness, split mind, and complex, daring “guided imagery” exercises, appear and play a central role in this book.

Ekstein’s imagery exercises are a kind of an astral journey in which a person imagines himself flying in the sky and wandering through the world and seeing everything from above – continents, states, animals, seas and lakes and humans. These exercises are very universal and very long.

At first sight they do not seem to have any religious aspects, however they are intended to bring the person to an experience of integration with creation, and creation is presented as a reflection of God.

In addition, he develops Ratso va-Shov (running and returning) exercises in which the person imagines something, enters it psychologically and then imagines the opposite. For example: a person imagines the great joy of a wedding and as in a good dream he really experiences the joy and the love. Then suddenly he imagines the opposite – the couple divorcing, with great anger and bitterness. These exercises are designed by Ekstein to develop full control over our feelings. When a person wants, then he is happy and when he wants, he is sad.

10)      What are the musar techniques in the Lithuanian Yeshivot? How are they different than Shapira’s?

In the Musar movement, Imagery techniques were used, but not for the purpose of attaining adherence to God or achieving an experience of religious amazement, but rather for developing concern and fear from “the great and terrible day of judgment.”

Israel Lipkin of Salant (1810-1883), the founder of the Musar movement said:

The wicked know that their path leads to death, but they have fat on their kidneys that prevents that realization from entering their hearts… . And it can only be established through the expansion of the soul’s ecstasy, expanding the idea through sensory imagery, (Israel Lipkin, Or Yisra’el, ed. I. Blazer (1900), 29 (letter 7).

The imagery techniques revolve around the imagery of death. A person imagines his bitter end and therefore distanced himself from sin and idleness.

Lipkin’s student, R. Simḥah Zissel (Broida) Ziv (1824-1898), also emphasized this and taught the use of visual contemplation for the obtainment of fear, “for fear is built upon images (ṣiyurim);”

He shall remember the day of his death’ that our sages spoke of… meaning, he shall remember a [visual] depiction (ṣiyur) of the day of his death, and so shall he visualize all types of sufferings, how much he will suffer for transgressing the laws of the Torah, and this is very beneficial for being cautious of sin.  (Ḥokhmah u-Musar (1957), 383; 56-57)

Nevertheless, it is possible to find in the Musar movement more positive elements – such as creating a religious impression in the human psyche and deepening living faith. Already Lipkin called on several occasions for the use of the imaginative faculty in connection to experience in general, and excitement in learning in particular, “[One should] learn with burning lips, with a proper idea, a broad imagination (be-ṣiyur) broadening all matters, and bring within him proximate images, until the heart will become impassioned, to whatever degree.”(Or Yisra’el, 22).

11)   What have you found of similarities to mesmerism and modern psychology such as Théodule-Armand Ribot 1839-1916 in Eastern European visualization techniques?

Mesmerism was the name given by German doctor Franz Mesmer in the 18th century to what he believed to be an invisible natural force, “supernal fluid” (“fluidum”),  possessed by all living things. He believed that by controlling this fluid he can heal physical and psychological illnesses. In addition, he held of the existence of a hidden power that exists in the world and passes from one person to another and allows one person’s unconscious to influence another (“suggestion”).

The French psychologist Theodola-Armand Ribot (1839-1916) published essays on the creative imagination in 1900 (Essai sur l’imagination créatrice, translated into Hebrew in 1921). His model of “creative imagination” in which imagination creates the world around us rather than vice versa in which the world molds our imagination. Usually a person sees a certain reality and then imagines it. For example, in many dreams a person dreams of events that he has seen and experiences in his life. That is, imagination is an imitation of reality. However, the “creative imagination” model maintains that in some cases imagination precedes reality and that man can imagine something that he has never actually seen. For example, No one has actually seen an angel in real life and then described it using his imagination. Rather the imagination is primary, it creates the angel.  In this case, a vision of an angel is not imitating reality but rather creating it! we write about angels we pain them etc. and this reality is drawn from the imagination.

These ideas French and German ideas clearly appear in Menachem Ekstein’s doctrine. By using these concepts, Rabbi Yekutiel Aryeh Kamelhor, Ekstein’s Rabbi and teacher, explains the “elevation of the Soul,” (Aliyat Neshama) which is the phenomenon described in the Baal Shem Tov’s famous letter which he wrote to Israel (in 1744) to his brother-in-law. In that letter the Baal Shem Tov describes the elevation of his soul to the upper spiritual worlds – what he saw and what he heard.

Hasidic Jews had access to these ideas via their precis in M. A. Zilbershtrom, “Ha-Hipnaṭizmos,” (Hypnotism) in Kenneset ha-Gedolah, ed. Yiṣḥaq Sovelski (Warsaw: Ḥayyim Kelter, 1889), 41-56. In this Hebrew article, Zilbershtrom delineates the history of hypnosis, beginning with Franz Mesmer until its current state.

Natan Ophir has shown an interesting similarity between Shapira’s silencing technique and elements found in the “self-remembering” teachings of Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1949) and his pupil Peter Demianovich Ouspensky (1878–1947). But in my book, I disagreed with these parallels since I consider Gurdjieff’s method as having phenomenological differences and I did not see direct influence. Yet, it was an interesting possibility.

12)   Do you practice these techniques? Do you teach people these techniques?

No. My students at Zefat Academic College complain to me, asking: how can I write about imagery techniques with great enthusiasm without practicing them? They say it’s like writing about love without experiencing love. My answer is that they may be right, but I am not perfect. It just does not suit me. I am too rational to practice imagery or any other kind of meditation. I’m a kind of a “Litvak” who is interested in Hasidism. I find in Hasidism amazing psychological insights, but I am not the type seeking for emotional experiences and therefore I am far from any kind of spiritual journeys.

13)   How does your approach differ from others who have written on Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira?

Zvi Leshem dealt with the full range of the practices of Shapira. He dealt with the imagery of the Piaseczner, along with other practices such as melody, drinking alcohol, dance, etc. However, I did not relate to imagery as another practice alongside other practices, but rather as a practice that adds to all other practices, similar to hot pepper that you add to other things and empower their own taste. I applied the concept of “empowerment”, which I learned from Jess Hollenbeck’s studies. To empower any religious experience, that is, to transform any normative religious experience into a more powerful experience which is called a mystical experience.

14) How did you move from the imagery techniques to work on Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira’s Holocaust writings?  Do you find the Holocaust work just as satisfying as the visualization writing?

I came to it accidentally!! I went to the Jewish archives in Warsaw to examine his mystical writings written before the Holocaust, and then I saw that the printing edition of his sermons from the time of the Holocaust was unreliable. So, I understood that a new edition was needed. Believe me, I did not really enjoy working on it, but I have done it in order to have a revised and reliable edition as the author would want it to be.

Dealing with these sermons was heartbreaking and tormenting for me. I do not recommend this for anyone. Writing about visualization was uplifting but dealing with the Holocaust was the opposite. In spite of this fact – without any rational explanation – I cannot escape research of the Holocaust. The more I run away from it the more it chases me. I found more and more materials dealing with the holocaust that I must publish, and I am asked to referee papers in Holocaust studies and etc.

 

 

Tomer Persico Responds to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Here is the third of a series of responses to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s Biblical centered Judaism that converges with Christian Zionists. The first response by Rabbi Arie Folger was here.  The second response was by Nechemia Stern and the third is by Tomer Persico.

Tomer Persico is the Koret Visiting Assistant Professor of Jewish and Israel Studies, Dept. of Near Eastern Studies, Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, Center for Jewish Studies at U. C. Berkeley, and Shalom Hartman Institute Bay Area Scholar in Residence. He is also the author of  Jewish Meditation: The Development of Spiritual Practices in Contemporary Judaism [Hebrew] which we dedicated two long blogs to an interview about his book – Part I and Part II

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Evangelical Christian Zionists 

The Jewish Religious-Zionist and Evangelical-Zionist romance is heartwarming. After two millennia of a tense, at times absolutely deadly, relationship, it is certainly a comfort to see the hatchet buried and old bygones be bygones. As is well known, a lively romance includes a subtle play of revealing and concealment. I do however believe that Rabbi Wolicki has invested a bit too much on the concealing side. He is certainly right when he says that “there are many different kinds of Christian Zionists”, and indeed, many of them are not deeply invested in end-time predictions and visions of the coming Armageddon. And yes, most of Christian Zionism is about being a part of the simple fulfillment of the words of biblical prophets on the return of the people of Israel to their promised land.

But when he states that “Christian Zionists [don’t] think about the Book of Revelations end game nearly as much as Jews think they do” it’s important to understand which Christian Zionists we are talking about. If we’re talking about the many volunteers working in different centers in settlements in Judea and Samaria, that might be true. But if we are talking about their leaders, it is false in at least a few important examples.

Let’s take two prominent Christian Zionist leaders – the ones that President Trump chose to speak at the inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem: Pastors John C. Hagee and Robert James Jeffress Jr.. Hagee is founder and chairman of the Christians United for Israel organization, and Jeffress is a passionate supporter of Israel and Israel’s right-wing government.

Both have also written quite a lot about what they foresee in Israel’s future. In his 2015 book (whose sub-headline did not age well) Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning, Jeffress writs that “There is a Millennium coming. Jesus is going to sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem”. Based on the bible Jeffress predicts that “a future invasion of Israel by certain nations to the north and east of Israel” and insists that “It won’t be long now”.

Hagee strikes a similar tune. According to his 2006 book Jerusalem Countdown “The final battle for Jerusalem is about to begin. Every day in the media you are watching the gathering storm over the State of Israel”. Hagee is much more detailed then Jeffress. He predicts a “nuclear showdown with Iran”, aided by Russia, that will “sweep the world toward Armageddon”. Some of the Jews in Israel will be saved, some not. All shall be free from their “spiritual blindness […] concerning the identity of Jesus Christ as Messiah”, as Christ will be descending from heaven. “I believe”, Hagee sums up, “that my generation will live to see Him sitting on the throne of King David on the Temple Mount in the city of Jerusalem.”

These are very clear words. Both Jeffress and Hagee expect the terrible war of Armageddon quite soon, and the Jewish people to become quite Christian. It is one thing to say that notwithstanding a few theological disagreements we, as Jews, appreciate the support of these generous Christians and agree to delay the argument over the exact scenario of the End of Days to the end of days. It is another thing to pass over these disagreements and present a harmonious picture of a mutual messianic path and/or vision. No such mutual path or vision exists.

Rabbi Wolicki writes that “there is a lot more talk of the Christian beliefs in rapture and the millennial kingdom from Jews who are suspicious of Christian motives than there is among Christian Zionists”, but I think that two whole books on the rapture and the millennial kingdom from two central Christian Zionist figures is not something we can brush gently under the rug.

One last thing. Rabbi Wolicki says that he “categorically reject[s] the notion that Islam believes in the same God as we do”, and that only Jews and Christians actually believe in the same God. But Pastor Jeffress differs. In the book mentioned above he writes that “As followers of Christ, we do not share a ‘generic’ God with other religions […] Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in one God, but not in the one, true God. All three believe in one God, but not in the same God.” It seems others can play this triumphalist game.

Now, I’m not going to deny Rabbi Wolicki’s main point on this subject: yes, Muslims do not take the Hebrew Bible to be a canonized text the way Christians do. But perhaps our objective should be finding what’s mutual between the religious traditions, not what they’re antagonistic about, and certainly not bicker about who’s got the best God. The latter path is taken by those who wish to keep the antagonism alive, and it’s a pity that our Christian friends are that kind of people.

Nehemia Stern responds to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Here is the second of a series of responses to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s Biblical centered Judaism that converges with Christian Zionists. The first response by Rabbi Arie Folger was here. 

Nehemia Stern has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University. His research focuses on contemporary forms of Jewish religious Zionism in Israel. Currently he is a Post-Doctoral Fellow and Adjunct lecturer in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ariel University in Samaria. We featured on the blog Dr. Stern’s MA thesis on Post-Orthodoxy and the changes of 21st century Orthodoxy in 2010 and the thesis is now available online

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In a recent article of Stern’s, he showed how the direct turn to the Bible in Religious Zionist circles is parallel the early Zionist turn. The Bible is now being used as a direct source to debate conscientious objection to military service in which “Biblical texts are often intimately intertwined in particular social and political contexts that are “publically manipulated, pushed and pulled by different social actors.” In his article, Stern compares the Israeli use of the Bible to the work of James Bielo in his studies of the Evangelical community in which Bielo shows the “social life of the Scriptures’” (2009). Working off his ethnographic studies of Christian Evangelical Bible study groups, Bielo argues that “the social life of the Bible” is not simply a matter of reading and exegesis but includes various forms of action in the world’ (2009, 160).

In his response below, Stern offer a variety of directions to think about this Evangelical and Religious Zionist convergence.

Christian and Jewish Religious Zionism: Between an ‘Oy Gevalt’ and a ‘Hallelujah’

By Nehemia Stern

Jews have been debating the fine line between ‘inter-faith’ and ‘intra-faith’ relations with Christianity since about the time Saul (later Paul) saw the light and fell to the ground on his way to Damascus. Currently, with the establishment and flourishing of the State of Israel, and the return of the Jewish People to their native lands, a conversation that was perhaps cut off prematurely has since reemerged, and with renewed vigor.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki forcefully argues that the relationship between Christian Zionism and Jewish religious Zionism is an intra-faith one that “expands upon common points of faith and builds the relationship around what is shared”.   According to Wolicki, what is shared between Christian and Jewish religious Zionism is not necessarily a similar theological attempt to “understand and systematize” our understanding of God, but rather a focus on some of the same foundational Biblical and prophetic texts. Both Jewish religious Zionists in Israel and Evangelical Christian Zionists share similar ways of interpreting scriptural lessons as well as “the role that people of faith play in historical processes”. The return of Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel is the precondition for this ‘intra-faith’ relationship.

As an anthropologist of religion who has specifically focused on religious Zionism in Israel, I have to ask: when does a close resemblance between two faiths turn into something uncomfortably familiar? Anthropologists love cross-cultural observations, so I’d like to make a few.

Both Christian and Jewish religious Zionists see in the reestablishment of Jewish statehood after 2000 years of exile a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. For Jewish religious Zionists this return creates an opportunity to refocus educational and religious attention to the biblical text itself. Rabbi Wolicki used the phrase Bible-believing invoking a Protestant sense of sola scriptura. Similar to evangelical Christians (and Martin Luther’s scriptural return), some Jewish religious Zionists directly engage with biblical stories and biblical characters in ways that sometimes marginalize accepted rabbinic tradition. In contemporary Israel this technique is called Tanach b’gova einayim or reading the Bible at eye level- reading the Bible outside of the traditional commentaries. Here the faults and foibles of characters like Jacob, Samson, or David are critical in understanding the Bible’s moral, social, or political lessons. This technique is controversial among some Jewish religious Zionists precisely because it forces the classical medieval biblical interpretations of Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra etc. to take second place to a straightforward reading of scripture.

In a recent academic article of mine titled The Social Life of the Samson Saga in Israeli Religious Zionist Rabbinic Discourse, I demonstrated how various groups of religious Zionists debate their own contemporary political differences through their interpretations of the Biblical tales of Samson. These ‘eye level’ interpretations I argued, are a textual method through which religious Zionists debate not just the narrative of Samson itself but also the very current political and moral questions surrounding issues like personal vengeance towards Palestinians, assimilation, and sexual impropriety. The social life of passages of the Bible becomes a means by which to justify or critique the violence of  Israel’s contemporary Hilltop Youth. For example, a minor textual difference in how the Meforshim (the classical medieval Rabbinic commentators) read Samson’s final call for vengeance in Judges 16:28 can be used by more modern observers to justify violent acts of personal vengeance against Palestinians just as they can also serve as the basis for more statist responses to terror.

Evangelical Christians generally share a similar relationship with Biblical texts. They too seek an unmitigated experience of the Bible centering on a straightforward reading of the text itself.  Their readings of the first few chapters of Genesis for example resonate with just as much political force in political debates surrounding issues of abortion, stem cells, or even educational funding for evolution studies. And I dare say, the consequences of these interpretations can sometimes be just as violent.

Indeed, the relationship between Evangelical Christianity and Religious Zionism may run even deeper than modes of biblical interpretation.  As Rabbi Wolicki noted “the largest most vocal group” of Christian Zionists are dispensationalists. Dispensationalism isn’t a sect, a religious movement, or a denomination. Dispensationalism is a way of reading the Bible and interpreting history (which itself is always a way of commenting on the present and of predicting the future).  In a nutshell, dispensationalism offers a progressive understanding of God’s role in the salvation of humanity, in which the end time is slowly revealed. Redemption becomes a gradually unfolding process that is divided into epochs or dispensations. In each, God presents humanity with a different road to salvation toward the end time.  Humanity fails to fully realize the opportunity, is punished, which in turn begins a new dispensation.

For dispensationalists, the Jewish people are the agents through which this end-time process is meant to unfold, yet their specific contribution to salvation is up for debate. For some Christian dispensationalists, the Jewish rejection of Jesus’ messiahship critically hindered the ultimate redemption. At the same time, God’s original covenant with Abraham (and thus the Jews) was never nullified, making both the Jews and the Church two distinct and theologically legitimate entities. Whether or not ultimate the end-time salvation requires Jewish conversion is left vague for some evangelical Christians.

Those conversant with religious Zionist thought -especially as expounded by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, his son Tzvi Yehuda, and their many contemporary disciples – might see something familiar here. This messianic brand of Israeli religious Zionism views the drama of redemption (which admittedly, is somewhat different from ‘salvation’) as an overarching mystical and historical process. My favorite example of this kind of thinking can be seen in how Rav Abraham Isaac Kook gave historical, ethical, and redemptive significance to the mass slaughters of the First World War. As he wrote in the Lights of War, a collection of notes published in the years following the conflict;

We were thrown out of world politics by a force that had within it an inner will, until such a happy time when it would be possible to administer a kingdom without evil and barbarity. This is the era that we are hoping for. It is obvious that in order to achieve it, we have to awaken with all our strength, and use all the means that the era brings. Everything is in the hand of the creator, but the delay is necessary, for our souls are sick of the terrible sins of the kingdoms in this era. And now the time has come, it is very close. The world is becoming sweetened, and we can already prepare ourselves for that moment when we can manage our kingdom on the foundations of Goodness, Wisdom, Righteousness, and the clarified illumination of the divine.

For Rav Kook, the forceful exile of the Jewish People was one stage in a larger mystical and ethical drama. It allowed the renaissance of Jewish nationalism to occur at a time where the violence and barbarity that characterized the trenches of WWI, were coming to an end. Much like Woodrow Wilson’s ‘the war to end all wars’, the naivete of this prediction, doesn’t take away from its theological and ethical force. What Rav Kook is implying here, is that the Jewish People slowly move through a series of mystical and moral stages which ultimately lead to nothing less than world redemption. The reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is the precondition for this process.

Interestingly for religious Zionists in the Kookian mode, the role of non-Jews is just as ambiguous as that of Jews for dispensationalists. Where do the nations of the world (including Palestinians) fit into the grand process of redemption?  For Rav Kook were the vast casualty lists, the blight of war in general, or of Sin itself, just an unfortunate means to a better future? Can violence and suffering be so easily sanctified? For many religious Zionists these are open question with real world political implications.

Rabbi Wolicki was certainly consistent in questioning Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik’s non-messianic “interpretation of the State of Israel and the ingathering of exiles”. In contrast, mystical and messianic religious Zionism in the framework of Rav Kook offers a vision of redemption that is structurally quite similar to Christian Zionist dispensationalism. Rav Soloveitchik was extremely skeptical of these sorts of progressive messianic redemptive claims. For him, the State of Israel was less an outcome of mystical messianism than it was a pragmatic expression of a renewed Jewish power and political presence after the Holocaust – which itself was a sign of God’s continued love for his people.

Indeed, in my anthropological fieldwork I met many mystical and messianic religious Zionist rabbinic figures in Israel who criticized this aspect of Rav Soloveitchik’s thought. They felt his philosophy simply did not offer an uplifting worldly vision – something they were so used to hearing in Rav Kook’s thought. In their view how could one not see a progressively redemptive message in the Jewish drama of the twentieth century? These religious Zionist debates between followers of the ideologies of Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik, are really two modes of viewing God’s hand in the tragedies and triumphs of his people in the 20th century, and they play themselves out in Rabbi Wolicki’s worldview expressed in his interview.  It is curious though, that many who support a closer theological relationship between Christian Zionism and Religious Zionism come out of an American Modern Orthodox context, where Rav Soloveitchik’s skepticism towards messianic Zionism (and inter-faith dialogue) simply cannot be ignored.

Little ethnographic research has been done on how religious Zionists in Israel reflect on the similarities between themselves and evangelical Christianity. It is possible that some religious Zionists have intuited echoes of this intra-faith paradigm and these similarities have aroused a healthy debate regarding the relationship between Evangelical Christianity and religious Zionist communities in Judea and Samaria.

Not all mystical and messianic religious Zionists are as enthused by the close relationship – both pragmatic and philosophical – between their own communities and the many evangelical Christians who visit and volunteer within their West Bank communities. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the Ateret Cohanim Rabbinic seminary for example has forbidden accepting monetary donations from Christian organizations writing that, “It is there ticket into the nation of Israel to convert us”. Indeed, Rabbi Aviner went further and claimed that American Evangelical Christians who support Israel politically, also “love our souls, and want to bring us to them. Politics – yes. Business – yes. Friendship – no. Money – no.”

Conversely, in 2011, a hilltop community adjacent to the settlement of Har Bracha, objected to the presence of Evangelical Christian volunteers living and working within their neighborhood. The Rabbi of that settlement, Eliezer Melamed however, has come out in support of these volunteers. “Judaism does not intend to cancel or destroy other religions but to raise them up to the source of Israel [presumably a universal kind of divinity] …there is a process of transcendence that has not been seen yet in Christianity. Therefore, with all of the necessary caution, it is our spiritual and moral duty to relate to this process in the most positive manner possible”.

There is this great scene in the Frisco Kid, where Gene Wilder playing Rabbi Avram Belinski had just escaped from being accosted and robbed by two highwayman. He’s wandering around tired, lost and hungry in the wilderness. Suddenly in the distance he sees a group of farmers wearing black hats and long black frock coats. He runs towards them shouting “Landsmen! Landsmen!”. A they embrace and begin to speak a similar Germanic language that is unintelligible to both, he sees a book with a cross. With an “Oy Gevalt”, Reb Avram promptly faints. Sometimes that which seems most familiar can also feel the most threatening.

Jewish and Christian religious Zionists share certain political goals and have a common outlook on social and cultural life both in the United States and in Israel. It’s only natural that an alliance advancing conservative principles and policy goals would form between the two. But the relationship that Rabbi Wolicki describes as “intra-faith” is a world apart from this kind of policy pragmatism.  While he doesn’t like talking theology’, what he is actually describing are two extremely similar theological modes of understanding the divine role in the universe. It’s understandable that this might be worrying to some Orthodox Jews

I think there is much to be gained from a deeper engagement with Christian Zionism and with Christianity in general. Yet, I would however just like to offer a word of anthropological warning. Cultural dialogue is never a one-way street. It’s somewhat naïve to think that religious Zionists can open up ‘yeshivas’ for evangelical Christians, give presentations at churches, invite volunteers to live and work within Jewish communities without being at all being influenced by Evangelical Christianity. It’s never a one-way street.

Recently, a Neo-Hasidic research contact of mine in a Northern West Bank Settlement posted a Facebook status where he came out in favor of wishing Christians a ‘Merry Christmas’. “There is a brotherhood between us, and this shouldn’t alarm us”, he wrote. “I am happy to wish them a happy holiday, full of joy and brotherhood. That together we will move the entire world towards the eternal divine values of respect for others, love of man, and that we will defeat the darkness that covers the earth”. In this case who would object to the common values of respect and love for one’s fellow man? And what religious person would deny that these values have their source in some spark of divinity?

But here lies the catch. This formulation of common divine values assumes a common understanding of divinity. There is and will be increasing Christian influence from these Jewish- Christian contacts and commonalities. I’m not entirely sure that Israeli religious Zionism is ready for the immense repercussions that will come out of this. Religious Zionism can’t expect to influence, without something being reciprocated or transformed. What are we risking when our dialogue with Evangelical Christianity moves beyond pragmatism and beyond even abstract cross-cultural curiosity, to touch upon the experience of faith itself? Our answer might necessitate a little bit more of Reb Avram’s “Oy Gevalt”.

Rabbi Arie Folger Responds to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Here is the first of a series of responses to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s Biblical centered Judaism that converges with Christian Zionists. Read the original interview first.

Rabbi Arie Folger is the Chief Rabbi of Vienna since 2016, prior to that he was rabbi of the Israelitische Gemeinde Basel in Switzerland since the beginning of 2003 and various other congregations including Munich and Frankfort.  Rabbi Folger’s semicha is from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He also earned an MBA at New York University. Folger is heavily involved in Jewish-Christian interfaith work and could be considered Orthodoxy’s point man on the topic. My introduction will give some of his prior statements in order to contextualize his response to Rabbi Wolicki.

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Between Rome and Jerusalem

Folger was a major force in the drafting and editing on the 2017 Orthodoxy response to Nostrae Aetate Between Jerusalem and Rome Reflections on 50 Years of Nostra Aetate, a document that has not gotten enough publicity in the Orthodoxy community. Folger was appointed  by the Standing Committee of the Conference of European Rabbis to chair the committee and draft the document, with significant input from committee members. From the inception, the goal was to include also the RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. It is the first such documents signed by major Orthodox rabbinic organizations. (Here is the document and here is his statement on how the document came to about). I was hoping to blog about it but never got to it.

The document has a strong Hirschian universalism of a single human family but God chose the Jews to be alight unto the nations. At the same time, it works to stay with the guidelines of Rav Soloveitchik. According to Rabbi Folger, the document was directly inspired by Sforno and Rav Menachem Leibtag on “You shall be a kingdom of priests”  as well as Rav Hirsch’s view on what the original Divine plan for humanity

The most important paragraph of the entire document is in the middle. When the document acknowledges that after fifty years, they are willing to acknowledge that it was not a stealth act of mission, rather a sincere change in the Church. Now they are our friends whom we share tolerance, respect, and solidarity.

They declare a new fraternal relationship with Catholics despite theological differences. “Therefore We Declare despite the irreconcilable theological differences, we Jews view Catholics as our partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security.”

The  Hirschian sense that Jews are a light unto the nations which does not mean that all good is done or taught by Jews, rather that Jews have to foster humanity’s appreciation and their own performance of “holiness, morality, and piety.” Meaning that there can be holiness and piety among the Catholics and we should appreciate it.

The document at three points affirms the inclusivism of the medieval thinkers, that we share common beliefs Creation, Exodus, and the Bible and in another place in this short document it says we share the Bible and the idea of an ultimate redemption. “We acknowledge that this fraternity cannot sweep away our doctrinal differences;   it   does,   rather,   reinforce   genuine   mutual   positive dispositions towards fundamental values that we share, including but not limited to reverence for the Hebrew Bible.”

The next paragraph has a different language and instead of using the concept of “values we share” uses the word “common beliefs in the divine origin of the Torah.”  “Despite profound theological differences, Catholics and Jews share common beliefs in the Divine origin of the Torah and in the idea of an ultimate redemption, and now, also, in the affirmation that religions must use moral behavior and religious education — not war, coercion, or social pressure — to influence and inspire.”

However, the document reaffirms doctrinal differences that Rabbi Wolicki elides. Folger’s document on behalf of Orthodoxy writes: The theological differences between Judaism and Christianity are profound. The core beliefs of Christianity that center on the person of “Jesus as the Messiah “and the embodiment of the “second person of a triune God” create an irreconcilable separation from Judaism.

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI article in Communio

This past summer July 2018, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI article in Communio that created ambiguities. Rabbi Folger became the Jewish community’s voice in response. Folger wrote an article entitles  Danger for the dialogue? [Published in Jüdische Allgemeine, July 19, 2018.]  The part needed for this interview is when the Emeritus Pope wrote that: “Insofar as Jews and Christians interpret the Torah differently and live their laws differently, this is due to other readings and theologies, but both are committed to the text.” Meaning that we share the Bible but interpret it differently, as if both are valid options. A progressive view for a head of the Catholic Church.

However, Folger responded: “This reinterpretation is neither acceptable nor meaningful to Jews nor does it correspond to Halacha. We are two different, independent faith communities. And yet we profess our brotherhood together…An important principle of interreligious dialogue is that we recognize each other’s autonomy and respect our respective boundaries.” This paragraph is the crux of the difference between Rabbis Wolicki and Folger.

And he reiterated that: “even in the sentences from the Vatican that are the most favorable to Jews, there is always talk of the covenant of Abraham and never of the covenant of Moses or of the covenant on Sinai. “

Emeritus Pope Benedict responded to Rabbi Folger about the need to talk theology not for the purpose of convincing one another but for understanding. He wants Christians to share christological interpretations of the Bible not because he hopes we will accept them, but because he hopes we will understand them.  Benedict states that we will not agree with each other until the end of history.  That is a major admission from a conservative Catholic theologian. As difficult as it is for him to commit not to missionize Jews, he found the words to do exactly that.

Rabbi Folger responded: “We share common values, ​​and both respect the Hebrew Bible. Even if we interpret several passages differently, we have a common foundation here.”

But acknowledge the importance of a dialogue of understanding between the faiths.

Although, as a student of several of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s students, I have much greater affinity for your third point (to engage the moral sensitivities of society and to better protect religious people and their religious freedom) than for theological dialogue, which Rav Soloveitchik rejected, I find your invitation to pursue a more modest goal potentially more appealing, since you do not advocate a dialogue in which we try to convince each other but a dialogue to understand each other

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(Rabbi Folger and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn)

Let’s Continue to Respect (and Recognize) Difference

I thank Rabbi Prof. Brill for letting me respond to a recent interview he conducted with Rabbi Wolicki, in which the latter professes a far greater openness towards interfaith prayer and towards Christians than Orthodoxy is comfortable with. Indeed, while I consider some of his ideas daring and even worthwhile, I must object to other ideas of his. (As a little aside I should add that I have never met Rabbi Wolicki, nor do I know his organization. I am engaging the issues purely on the intellectual merit as they were stated in the interview published on the blog.)

Interfaith Prayer

Rabbi Wolicki disagrees with the Orthodox aversion to interfaith prayers. Wolicki feels that we should revise our aversion to interfaith prayer. He is particularly keen to hold prayer assemblies with Christian and chant psalms together. To buttress this approach, he cites Maimonides that when the Beit haMikdash (the Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) stood, we were bidden to accept sacrifices not just from Jews, but from all people, including idolaters, along with citing a decision by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein allowing participation in neutral prayer in public school as long as the prayers were not camouflaged Christian texts.

I beg to differ. Wolicki conflates two different issues. When the Rambam writes about gentiles, even idol worshippers making offerings, he is not talking about an interfaith service. Even Rav Moshe, who discusses common neutral prayer in a setting in which participation is unavoidable, is not discussing an interfaith service. What people object to in an interfaith service, is that representatives of various faiths lead prayers, either solo or a public group. Interfaith prayer is generally less particularistic than what each faith would do on its own, a stripped down of forms particular to any specific faith. It is either still deeply connected to the different faith communities involved, or it is so bland as to no longer be recognizable as prayer.”

Let me restate that in more practical terms. I am quite involved in interfaith action and I oppose interfaith prayer. However, ever since becoming a senior rabbi sixteen years ago, I have consistently participated in prayer with gentiles, simply because gentiles also visit synagogues and some of them join with us in prayer. Sometimes clergy of other faiths, including but not limited to Catholic and Evangelical clergy, have visited synagogues where I have served and they have joined in to prayers as well. (My policy as to whether they may do so only in neutral garb or also in clerical attire differs based on event and based on what synagogue we are talking about, though mostly they attended in neutral clothing).

But all those cases were about gentiles joining in in Jewish prayer not a joint service. That is precisely what the Rambam writes about when discussing the offerings of gentiles. Gentiles may offer sacrifices in the Temple regardless of whether they are already monotheists or are idol worshippers, but when they bring such sacrifices, they do so on the halakhic terms of the Jewish Temple service, and though for close to two thousand years the Temple lays in ruins, when they join in with Jewish prayer, at least outwardly they do so according to halakhic decorum.

The kind of interfaith prayer we oppose, however, is one which each group offers its own prayers, or the leaders of each confession acts in turn as prayer leader, or we simply each demonstrate what prayer in our respective faiths looks like. Let’s face it, can you imagine the Rambam supporting a Hindu priest to act as the Kohen in our Beit haMikdash? How about a fully robed Cardinal as chazan for Mussaf? No? Didn’t think so, either. The Cardinals I know and with whom I have broken bread and shared a podium aren’t running to invite me to run the mass, either, nor to recite the Kedusha of Mussaf in church.

Wolicki will surely reply that the only kind of interfaith prayer he suggests accepting is one where the texts are shared such as Psalms and the setting neutral. Still, he’s having the gentiles as full participants, surely with leadership roles. That is patently not what the Rambam had in mind.

But I can offer him an alternative. Let him invite the gentiles to shul to silently join in with the public in the silent Jewish recitation of Pesukei deZimra. And I suggest that we open this experience to all gentiles, not just to Christians. (I share with him the expectation that Christians will be more likely to want to take up this offer, for some of the reasons he stated, namely that we share a holy text – even when we disagree how to read it – and we share some foundational values based on that shared text).

Christian Zionists

Rabbi Wolicki thinks that Christian Zionists’ support for Israel isn’t conditioned on their desire to usher about the Second Coming, nor is it in his opinion conditioned upon a desire to bring about the conditions that will make masses of Jews accept Jesus as savior, but it is rather what we may term in a good way a naive appreciation for the Hebrew Bible, which both Christians and Jews see as the embodiment of the Word of G-d. According to Wolicki, it is their love of Scripture and their conviction that the Bible is true and relevant that makes them support Israel and Jews, and they do so unconditionally, with no ulterior motives.

To that I may say that I have met a lot of fine Christians of various denominations who fill the above description of Christian Zionists, who simply celebrate the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and have no afterthoughts. But I also met numerous other Christians who see this as a sign that they must step up their missionary activity. Even mainline churches that openly disavow mission to Jews still support church organizations that either directly or indirectly missionize Jews. The same Protestant and Evangelical groups that profess an undifferentiated love of Jews and Israel also fund Messianic Jews & Jews for Jesus either directly or (usually) a little less directly.

There is a reason that in the statement Between Jerusalem and Rome, we played up the statement of the Catholic Church’s Papal Committee on Religious Relations with the Jews disavowing missionizing Jews, because (a) it is a major achievement in our relationship with the Catholic Church, and (b) because we want other Christians to listen and understand what a truly respectful relationship entails.

Thus we wrote:

In its recent reflections on Nostra Aetate, “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” the Pontifical Commission  … proclaimed that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” Though the Catholic Church has not disavowed witnessing to Jews, we understand that it has nonetheless shown understanding and sensitivity towards deeply held Jewish sensibilities, and distanced itself from active mission to Jews.

And:

We ordinarily refrain from expressing expectations regarding other faith communities’ doctrines. However, certain kinds of doctrines cause real suffering; those Christian doctrines, rituals and teachings that express negative attitudes toward Jews and Judaism do inspire and nurture anti-Semitism. Therefore, to extend the amicable relations and common causes cultivated between Catholics and Jews as a result of Nostra Aetate, we call upon all Christian denominations that have not yet done so to follow the example of the Catholic Church and excise anti-Semitism from their liturgy and doctrines, to end the active mission to Jews, and to work towards a better world hand-in-hand with us, the Jewish people.

And frankly, though achieving support for Israel is important, I am not willing to do that at the cost of endangering Jews’ spiritual well-being. Giving missionaries more opportunities to prey on Jews, or just emboldening them by making them feel they are conquering more ground, is simply out of the question. Or as I put it sometimes, we have excellent relationships with some faith groups, but there are also numerous faith groups out there who either don’t like us, or love us too much.

On the other hand, probably like Wollicki, I am not bothered by Christians not adopting a dual theology. I do not engage in interfaith work to create a single warm and fuzzy common religion, but rather insist on respecting our respective differences. Some differences cannot be bridged. I refer you to the Document Between Jerusalem and Rome for some key unbridgeable differences between Judaism and Christianity. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI listed a few others in his famous summer 2018 paper, Gnade und Berufung ohne Reue (Grace and Calling with no Regret).

We highlighted that:

The theological differences between Judaism and Christianity are profound. The core beliefs of Christianity that center on the person of “Jesus as the Messiah“ and the embodiment of the “second person of a triune God” create an irreconcilable separation from Judaism. The history of Jewish martyrdom in Christian Europe serves as tragic testimony to the devotion and tenacity with which Jews resisted beliefs incompatible with their ancient and eternal faith, which requires absolute fidelity to both the Written and Oral Torah. Despite those profound differences, some of Judaism’s highest authorities have asserted that Christians maintain a special status because they worship the Creator of Heaven and Earth Who liberated the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage and Who exercises providence over all creation.

The doctrinal differences are essential and cannot be debated or negotiated; their meaning and importance belong to the internal deliberations of the respective faith communities. Judaism, drawing its particularity from its received Tradition, going back to the days of its glorious prophets and particularly to the Revelation at Sinai, will forever remain loyal to its principles, laws and eternal teachings.  Furthermore, our interfaith discussions are informed by the profound insights of such great Jewish thinkers as Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik,  Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, and many others, who eloquently argued that the religious experience is a private one which can often only be truly understood within the framework of its own faith community.

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI highlighted what is often termed Fulfillment Theology, the claim that Jesus fulfilled certain precepts of the Torah in such a way that they should now be fulfilled in a christological manner. Thus, Christians see the sacrificial service of the Beit haMikdash as being metamorphosed by the Crucifixion and now applying to Jesus. Needless to say, we Jews have no use for such reinterpretations. Indeed, in his letter to me, Benedict / Ratzinger acknowledged that he won’t convince Judaism to accept such readings as legitimate, and only wants to share them so we can understand how Christians see themselves, but without expectation of Jews granting legitimacy to christological readings.

When faced with the reality that most Evangelicals still hew to Replacement Theology, Wolicki bemoans that “the world of Christian academia is a problem.” He believes that many Christians would be open to a different theology that is less antagonistic to Jews and Israel. Wolicki also points out that many Christians hold an intermediate position – alas one we still take issue with – that does not agree that Jews were somehow superseded, but yet find that in many individual aspects of the Law, Christological understandings have superseded the Jewish understandings. In Rabbi Wolicki’s opinion, meeting live Jews and hearing us explain our positions will humanize Jews in their eyes and open up the possibility that they move away from Replacement Theology and even that they minimize the impact and extent of their Fulfillment Theology.

Here I am with Wollicki. Rejecting Replacement Theology and promoting instead a Fulfillment Theology is exactly the kind of thinking Benedict XVI / Joseph Ratzinger proclaimed in his summer 2018 essay.

I responded to Benedict in a private communication that was eventually published by Communio in German, French and some other language editions (the latest I obtained was in Slovenian), I did not take issue with his fulfillment theology, because I understand how difficult it is for the church to justify theologically that Jews have their own eternal and unbroken covenant with G-d. Even as I obviously disagree with the christological interpretation, I understand that Christians need to find a way to make their new philosemitic attitude be justified in terms of ancient scriptures and to make theological sense.

I only took issue in my earlier article Gefahr für den Dialog? (A Danger for Dialogue?) in the Jüdische Allgemeine with Benedict / Ratzinger’s desire to share christological readings with Jews, a desire he moderated in his letter to me.

Even as Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope emeritus, staked out claims I cannot agree with, he formulated them that way so as to fight against the legitimacy of replacement theology. In turn, I respect certain interfaith boundaries that prevent me from getting too involved in lecturing Christians how to understand their own theology. The only exception I make is for the kind of replacement theology that has practical consequences of fostering antisemitism.  Replacement Theology has birthed quite a lot of antisemitism throughout the ages, which expressed itself in violent ways, in deligitimization of Jews and Judaism (and now of Israel) and in missionizing Jews.

Hence, I am supportive of Wolicki’s reaching out to seminaries so they meet live Jews, get to talk to them and sensitizing them to the ravages of religiously motivated delegitimization of Jews and Judaism throughout the ages. Based on what Wollicki writes about his efforts at having Christians meet Jews, I have no issue with this aspect and even applaud the effort.

However, Wolicki puts in my opinion too much stock in the belief to Evangelicals that Scripture is more important than theology. To a particular segment of Evangelicals, that may be true, but other Evangelicals think very differently.

Rabbinic literature and Theology
When asked how he wants to read the Bible regarding the State of Israel, Wolicki not only sees in the modern state an affirmation of G-d’s eternal covenant with the Jewish People and particularly an affirmation of the covenant regarding the Holy Land, but rather as the definite onset of the Messianic Era. In order to be so sure and consider us so far along into the Messianic Era, Wolicki explicitly disregards the arguments from Jewish theology and Rabbinic Literature.

Rabbi Wollicki is clear in his wanting us to read Tanach without taking the writings of Rabbinic literature and Jewish thought into account. Protestants do that, but sola scriptura isn’t a particularly Jewish attitude. Our thought wasn’t suspended in a vacuum between the concluding canonization of Tanach and the establishment of the State of Israel. We instead have Mesorah, the tradition.

Rav Soloveitchik argues in his relevant homily “Two Banks of the River” in Chamesh Derashot (in English The Rav Speaks) that we constantly risk substituting new ideas for what has faithfully remained with us and nourished us and kept us existing as a community for thousands of years. But discarding the old for the new isn’t what we traditionally faithful Jews do. Instead, as Rav Soloveitchik writes, we build bridges between the two banks of the river, or try to.

Wollicki rejects the relevance and the appropriateness of engaging in theology, including the traditional categories of  hashkafa, machshava, aggada etc. But Rav Soloveitchik is more important than ever.

On the role of miracles in our lives, Wolicki proclaims that “a miracle is a deviation from the laws of nature for God’s purposes. … What’s trickier is identifying those contemporary events that qualify. … The role of miracles is what we choose it to be.” Here, too, in general terms, I am with Wollicki. There are miracles and we are often blinding ourselves before their existence.

But this raises thorny theological issues such as, what do we expect a miracle to be like I don’t like the excessive emphasis on the supernatural quality of miracles. But I am basing myself on Rabbinic thought and Jewish theology.

On the contrary, the miracles performed by Moshe, Eliyahu and Elisha are unique, unlike other prophets. Maimonides states, it is not miracles that convinced our ancestors; prophecy did. Clearly miracles are not reasons to believe, but they are reasons to be thankful and can serve the purpose to breaking non-belief.

Wolicki considers atheism to be very similar to paganism, in that both consider us subservient to forces of nature and find discussions about morality and virtue irrelevant to this relationship with nature. I agree. Right and wrong are a product of ethical monotheism. G-d being the one and only power and expecting us humans to act in a certain manner is what made a universal morality possible. This is a Torah teaching, something we spread in the world. My teacher, Rabbi J. David Bleich, likes to emphasize that atheism possesses some of the very same problems are paganism, for both are kofer be’ikar.

Biblical Partners
Wolicki thinks Christians are our biblical partners with whom we are to rebuild the world in accordance with the biblical blueprint, even though they read the bible as modulated by the New Testament and end up reading Tanach often very differently than we do. I agree that we have a special relationship with Christians, but I cannot see how the extent to which Wolicki wants to take this special relationship makes any sense.

In my conversations with Catholic bishops, cardinals and theologians, I have found that they agreed with my analysis (actually David Berger’s), that for all their rejection of superssessionism and their profession of acceptance of Jews’ eternal covenant with G-d, there are limits to how far they go. They only ever accept such matters that they can successfully incorporate theologically. For example, they profess that the covenant of Abraham is eternal, but they are almost entirely quiet about the covenant of Moses or Sinai.

I’d expect Orthodox Jewish thinkers to be no less aware of the limits of how far we can reasonably go. Christians share with us the veneration of Tanach as the Word of G-d, but we fundamentally disagree how to read it. Christians share with us a number of biblical values and draw inspiration from some of the same stories. We both agree that there is one G-d, Creator of heaven and earth and Who took the People of Israel out of Egypt.

But we disagree as to the nature of G-d, whether He would or could ever be incarnate in the flesh, and these are among the unbridgeable differences between our faiths. We call the Catholics in Between Jerusalem and Rome “our partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security.” But we are not going to be building the Beit haMikdash together.

Wolicki believes that his attempt to get Christians to recognize G-d’s ongoing covenant with the Jewish People and to get them to praise Him for the miracles of the Return to Zion would be appreciated by Rambam, were he alive today. To buttress his argument, he cites the passage where Rambam says that Christianity and Islam, though wrong about many theological truths, are nonetheless playing an important role in preparing all of humanity to accept monotheism and the truth of Torah.

I see no significant problem with the above. However, Wolicki, and I will of course disagree how to fulfill the ideas in this section.  As we write in Between Jerusalem and Rome:

As God chose Avraham, and subsequently Yitzchak and Yaakov, He entrusted them with a dual mission: to found the nation of Israel that would inherit, settle and establish a model society in the holy, promised land of Israel, all while serving as a source of light for all mankind.

Islam
I must disagree about his portrayal of Islam. Whether or not Islam believes in the same G-d as we do, is a halakhic question, to be analyzed with halakhic tools and methodology. The poskim disagree with Wolicki.

Wolicki, however, cannot bring himself to see anything positive in Islam. I beg to differ. Just because some or many Muslims adhere to their own kind of replacement theology and just because some or many see themselves as in conflict with Jews over the sovereignty over the Holy Land, does not mean that they are devoid of positive impact.

Maimonides’ positive attitude towards Muslims is because Rambam believes theology to be very important. Their theology is closer to Judaism, especially their view of God. His hope was apparently that Islamic theology would spread understandings that would lead to people rejecting some aspects of Christian theology, thereby bringing people closer to Jewish theology. Just like Rambam expected Christian respect for the Hebrew bible to make people more receptive to the Hebrew Bible’s message.

Wolicki reads Psalms as poetry, as holy poetry, and finds that by approaching Psalms that way, he can access additional layers of meaning. I agree. When I worked on the RCA Siddur, we approached Tehillim pretty much the same way. We drew on Rav Hirsch and Malbim, but also on Daat Mikra and the luminaries of Michlelet Herzog. But we always checked with our Jewish theology, with our Mesorah, to make sure we do not mistakenly go out on a limb.

Explaining Judaism to Christians 
In reaching out to Christians to make them discover Jews and revise any negative attitudes they may have, Wolicki “don’t spend much time or energy explaining Judaism. That’s not my goal. … the goal is really to connect over what we share.” I do not think it is possible to be “making Christians think differently and more respectfully of Jews and Judaism” without explaining how we Jews read the Bible, which is absolutely through the lens of our living and uninterrupted interpretive tradition and its legal application through Talmud and Halacha.  On account of the Rambam cited above, I only reluctantly discuss the Oral Law, which is a corpus that is not held in common by Jews and Christians, but some of it must be shared to allow them to become acquainted with who we are and what we stand for.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I want to highlight the importance of theology. It is all to easy to get high on account of some positive development in Christian theology and exegesis that appreciated some Jewish insights or respects some Jewish sensibilities. But by ignoring the real differences between different faiths, we neither respect each other properly, nor do we do our own faith justice. In the process, we also fail to maximize the potential of the interfaith relationship, which lies not in some warm and fuzzy ecumenism, but rather in using a strong vector for living out our common values for the betterment of society. Rather than deceive myself by singing psalms together in the mistaken belief that this is what Rambam meant regarding accepting sacrifices from gentiles, I much rather fight poverty, fight for religious freedom, defend the rights to shechita, mila, freedom of access to worship and freedom for religious education, fight for peace, against potentially violent religious extremism and against secularist prejudices against religious people.

Interview with Rabbi Pesach Wolicki of CJCUC –Cup of Salvation

Three years ago, I read an op-ed By Rabbi Pesach Wolicki justifying the creation of a joint Jewish -Christian liturgical service “The Day to Praise,” an event where Christians were invited into an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem to partake in a Hallel service to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut.  The service was conducted by members of the Jewish community affiliated with the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) under the auspices of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. The op-ed fully clarified their approach. Wolicki in the following years wrote more op-eds on related topics including an op-ed justifying a Christmas tree in the Haifa University cafeteria.  I found them a wonderful resource clearly explained for use in an interfaith context.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Wolicki published a book on the Hallel Psalms (113-118) as a theology for Jewish-Christian understanding entitled Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise. The book discusses an approach to religion of praise and worship for all that God does in our lives. Prof. Brad Young of Oral Roberts University wrote a glowing review. “It is the praise given for the miraculous deliverance at Passover and now for the establishment of the State of Israel. It is meaningful for the Christian community because it is connected to the hymn sung at the Last Supper.”

This interview has elicited several responses. The first of which is by Rabbi Arie Folger- here  The second by Dr. Nechemia Stern is here.  And the third response is by Tomer Persico.

wolicki -cup

I enjoyed Wolicki’s book and consider his approach as important as an exemplar of one of the new models of Religious Zionist/Modern Orthodox thinking. Many are concerned with the Modern Orthodox ideology of this decade of the culture wars, gender issues,  or Neo-Chassidus, however there is a large contingent  turning to a direct reading of the Bible for its prophecies of return to the land. They are creating Jewish Bibles modeled after the Scofield Bible with the prophecies in a different color, they are creating a yeshiva for Christian Zionists with a full schedule of classes, and they are creating joint projects in the West Bank. including some staffed by Christians. One of Wolicki’s colleagues at the CJCUC, David Nekrutman recently did a degree at the fervently Evangelical Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma on the Holy Spirit guiding our Biblical ancestors. And of course, there is the Christian edition of the Jerusalem Post geared for Evangelicals.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as the Associate Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding & Cooperation, CJCUC along with David Nekrutman, the Executive Director. He attended York University and his ordination is from the Chief Rabbinate. Prior to joining CJCUC, Rabbi Wolicki served for twelve years as Dean of Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah, a post secondary program. Previously, Rabbi Wolicki served as a communal rabbi in the Orthodox synagogues in Fairfield, Connecticut and Newport News, Virginia.  He was raised in Montreal, where his father Rabbi Yosef Wolicki served as a pulpit rabbi. Rabbi Wolicki and his wife Kate live in Beth Shemesh with their eight children.

Wolicki is part of The Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation a division of Ohr Torah Stone. CJCUC’s activities include lectures and Bible studies with visiting Christian tour groups. They do about 150 of these per year. They also visit churches and seminaries throughout the world. These visits usually involve a Bible study or talk relating to the State of Israel. They also host leadership trips to Israel. They also act as  advocates on behalf of the Christian minority in Israel. This includes speaking out in the media when Christians and Christian sites are vandalized by Jews, and by writing op-eds designed to sensitize the Israeli population to the Christian minority. And most notably they host a major “Day to Praise” worship event on Yom Haatzmaut every year at which Jews and Christians come together to sing Hallel and celebrate the State of Israel.

The CJCUC produces a podcast called Cup of Salvation and I recommend starting with this overview podcast from last year on their view of Jewish-Christian relations. 

The interview accidentally did not include a discussion of the basic premise that Rabbi Wolicki accepts that Avodah Zarah- foreign worship “as it pertains to Jews is different from what constitutes Avodah Zarah for a non-Jew.  The normative position of Halacha is that Christianity is not forbidden Avodah Zara for non Jews according to Tosafot, the Rema, and the Shach.” For the Rema, when they refer to G-d, they mean G-d. Hence, for Wolicki Christianity is not foreign worship, Yet, he notes “that these opinions were rendered centuries ago. Christian theology and doctrine have developed significantly since the Rema’s time.

Wolicki’s defense of the Christmas tree said that for the sake of argument even if Christianity is pure idolatry form the standpoint of Jewish law, why would it be forbidden to sit and eat in the presence of a Christmas tree?” Jewish law only prohibits benefiting from Icons and idols that are worshiped, or items used as adornment, or used in worship.  For Wolicki, “A Christmas tree is neither worshiped nor does it serve any function in the context of worship. It is not an icon representing the deity and it does not adorn any idol.”

Despite all this sincerity and effort, Rabbi Wolicki has been the object of attacks in the newspapers by Rabbis who see these activities as idolatrous. “The Day to Praise” Hallel service was “branded by one Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem as” a worship that “sickens his stomach” and a “strange fire.” To which Wolicki politely responds that

Given the 2000 year history of Church antagonism to the Jewish people, the shock of Christians coming into synagogue to partake in a service understandably evokes powerful visceral responses. Many people had the gut reaction that this must be wrong and that there certainly must be some Halacha prohibiting it. The consensus among those critical of the event is that inasmuch as Christianity is Avodah Zarah it is forbidden to pray with together with Christians. Others simply said that interfaith prayer is generally forbidden without even inquiring about or even being willing to hear what exactly was done at the event. Some accused me of blurring the lines between Jews and Christians, which could lead to assimilation, as well as endorsing and enabling Christian evangelizing of Jews.

Wolicki own position shows the commonality of the two Biblical faiths. This is a new era. The 20th century produced many works on their differences and lack of commonality including Abba Hillel Silver, Leo Baeck, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Emmanuel Levinas, and Rabbi Soloveitchik.  In my childhood, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits’ rejection of Christianity was widespread in which “Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity, and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.” Wolicki is important as an Orthodox exemplar of this new era, a change from opposites to commonality.

The return to the Bible has had many forms in the modern era. The Reform movement returned to a Biblical prophetic ethical monotheism, the secular Zionists read the Bible as a cultural treasure and in praise of realistic politics of battles, heroes, and strategy, and the Enlightenment read the Bible as a model of language and poetry. I cannot emphasize enough how much this interview is reflective of a return to the Bible as a Biblical form of religious Zionism that I see growing in Modern Orthodoxy with its treating Israeli history as miraculous and a fulfillment of prophecy in a way akin to Christian Zionism,. This view of living in a millenarian end time focused on a Biblical understanding of the Israeli state is growing.

I am not comfortable with this worldview that almost seems a different religion than my Judaism. I live in a world of Jewish theology in tradition, an overarching rabbinic culture of Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah, of continuity of community and interpretation, as well as many ways of knowing God besides scripture. His rejection of eight hundred years of Maimonides interpretation in favor of excluding Islam is perplexing. The hermeneutical certainty of an author who claims in the interview to love semiotics and Russian formalism is naive. But his speaking regularly to Christians without reference to the Talmud, halakhah or post-Biblical Judaism is against the grain of my role as to informing non-Jews of the Rabbinic tradition and its differences from Christianity. If anyone wants to write a sustained intellectual response, then please contact me.

The interview below presented so much more than I anticipated. I expected a discussion of how to accept Christianity in a post- reconciliation era in which the discussion would focus on a universal commonality or a focus of Christmas trees and other cultural symbols. I also expected a précis of the book on how to read the Psalms as describing a living force in our lives and history. Based on Wolicki’s op-eds, I expected an updated version of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who considered  that the family celebration of Christmas eve should be recognized by Jews as an “echo of Jewish bliss” (Echo jüdische Seligkeit) and not problematic to a Jew with a solid Jewish education. (Jeschurun 4. Jahrgang (1858), 399).

Instead, I received a fully worked out Biblical worldview, which dismisses post-Biblical Jewish thought and experience.  Wolicki presented a Biblical centered worldview of fulfillment of God’s promises, miracles, personal prayer, and  deep relationship to Evangelical forms of Christianity, even to the point of explicitly considering the relationship to Christian Zionism as an intra-religious discussion more than an inter-religious one.

1) Why are you in favor of interfaith prayer? What should that prayer consist of?

Let’s start with the end of the story. For every Bible believing Jew the ultimate goal is the redemption of the world. This redemption is described differently by different prophets, but the basic idea is the same. In Isaiah’s words, the goal is to reach a state wherein “knowledge of God covers the earth as water covers the sea,” or in the words of Zephaniah, when “all are calling on the name of the Lord and serving Him shoulder to shoulder.” The goal is for the entirety of humanity believing in and worshipping the same God – the God of Israel. That’s the game that we’re playing.

Joining in prayer with those who are not Jewish is not a deviation from our mission. In its ideal form, it represents the realization of that mission.

The question, then, is whether or not we embrace expressions or realizations of this idea that are, from a Jewish theological perspective, imperfect and incomplete. Is the complete cleansing of gentile theology of any hint of anything problematic from a Jewish perspective a precondition for shared worship?

Rav Moshe Feinstein has a fascinating responsum on the subject of gentile prayer. The question asked of him was whether or not it is permissible for Jewish students attending public school to participate in the prayers that are recited in school together with the general population of non-Jewish students. He makes the case that it is a mitzvah for non-Jews to pray, inasmuch as it is a basic expression of faith in God in which they are obligated. Hence, so long as the liturgy being recited is not overtly Christian, there is no problem whatsoever with the joint prayer. He states that the nature of the belief on the mind of the gentile as opposed to the Jew during that shared prayer is of no concern to us. Rav Moshe prohibits the joint prayer only in a case when the liturgy was composed in a specifically Christian manner. Neither is he concerned with problematic appearances – mar’it ayin – as he states, “Jews are not suspected of praying to other gods.”

In this responsum, Rav Moshe was discussing a prayer that was composed by gentiles in a gentile context. So why would there be an issue for Jews and gentiles to praise God together using the text of Psalms or a liturgy composed by Jews for the occasion and conducted in a context controlled and orchestrated by Jews?

This responsum reminded me of the Rambam’s ruling in Mishne Torah regarding sacrifices. When discussing offerings in the Temple that are permitted to be brought by non-Jews, Rambam explicitly states that a non-Jew may bring an offering “even if he is an idol worshiper.” Meaning that regardless of how one would define Christianity, regardless of one’s position on the status of Christianity as avodah zarah, were the Temple to be rebuilt today, there would be no problem for Christians to offer their sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.

When I speak to Jewish audiences about my work, I often quote that Rambam and ask them a simple question. I say to them, “You pray every day for the Temple to be rebuilt. Are you prepared for the Temple to be rebuilt? Are you prepared to come to Jerusalem to bring an offering and find busloads of Christian tourists lining up to bring their offerings? Are you prepared for the vast majority of people worshipping in the Temple being non-Jews?”

Isaiah spoke of the Temple as a ‘house of prayer for all nations.’ Isaiah knew that there are a lot more of them than there are of us. If you have a problem with this, you have a problem with Isaiah.”  Now obviously, Jews and gentiles do not bring the same offerings and are not doing the same things in the temple, but then, neither are Kohanim (priests) and non-Kohanim.

The Jewish people are called upon to be a “kingdom of priests.” If we are the kingdom of priests, who is the flock? I think that Jews are uncomfortable with this aspect of our identity. I think that this is a result of so many centuries of circling the wagons and carefully passing the baton of survival to the next generation. We forgot who we really are.

Rav Moshe was dealing with a prayer in schools. He wasn’t concerned about what definition of God the gentile students had on their minds, so long as the prayer was not overtly Christian. What about a worship service set by Jews, framed by rabbis, led by them? What about a prayer for a shared purpose?

We conduct joint Christian and Jewish praise and worship events on Yom Haatzmaut. There is separate seating and everyone wears head coverings. The format of the event is as follows: a short explanatory dvar Torah on the Psalm was given by a Jew, a Christian read the Psalm in English or Spanish, followed by a musical interlude referencing the Psalm. Six psalms, six divrei Torah, and six songs, with Rabbi Riskin opening and concluding the service with messages stressing the importance of Christian support of Israel and the miracle of the State of Israel in our lifetime.

Both the Jews and the Christians in the room are there for the same reason. All present see the State of Israel as the work of God in fulfillment of the Biblical promise to return His people Israel to their land. All present are praising the God who made those promises for the same reason on the same day. The words they are using are from Psalms. What’s more, one of those Psalms explicitly speaks of “all nations and all peoples” praising God for his abundant kindness to Israel. Frankly, I am surprised by Jews who have a problem with it.

2) Are your views of politics similar to the Christian Zionist pre-millennial dispensation? For both you and them, the messianic events are starting now and we encourage an active role and a dominionism.

Christian Zionists and Jewish Religious Zionists share a definition of the modern State of Israel. Deuteronomy 28-30 describes a lengthy dispersion of Israel followed by an unprecedented return to the land where they will become “more numerous and more prosperous than [their] ancestors.” Recognition that these are no longer prophecies of the future but describe the reality of Jewish history in our time is the basis for any shared view of politics.

The UW Madison historian Dan Hummel touched on this in his excellent essay published by Aeon. The Christian Zionist – Jewish Religious Zionist relationship is not really an interfaith relationship in the traditional understanding of the term. It’s not a relationship based on the liberal idea of tolerance for and acceptance of the value of the difference of the other’s faith system. It’s more of an intra-faith relationship; it seeks and expands upon common points of faith and builds the relationship around what is shared. My understanding is that Christian Zionism is not primarily a political movement. It’s a theological redefinition of Christianity which leads directly to a Bible based Zionism which then produces political activity.

It’s funny, there is a lot more talk of the Christian beliefs in rapture and the millennial kingdom from Jews who are suspicious of Christian motives than there is among Christian Zionists. Christian Zionism is a lot simpler than people make it out to be. God has kept His promises to Israel. The modern State of Israel is the embodiment of that, hence prior supersessionist theology must be mistaken.

What follows from that is a desire to be on board with what is happening with Israel. I don’t think that Christian Zionists think about the Book of Revelations end game nearly as much as Jews think they do. Christian Zionists, as a group, are much more drawn to the Hebrew Bible than their fellow Christians.

I should point out that not all Christian Zionists are pre-millenial dispensationalists. Yes, that’s the largest most vocal group, but there are many different kinds of Christian Zionists. I speak to traditional Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, even Catholics who would call themselves Christian Zionists. They work through the theological issues differently from the stereotypical Evangelical flag waving Zionist. It’s in this more traditional Christian world that I believe there is the most work to be done developing support for Israel. The theological and social issues are different, but there is a lot of depth to their search for answers. For all thinking Christians in virtually all denominations, the State of Israel filled with millions of Jews from every corner of the earth is a theological challenge that must be faced. I believe that Jewish participation in that journey is critical to steering it in a positive direction.

To answer your question directly, yes. We have a similar framework of understanding the reality of Israel today and the role that people of faith play in historical processes. To me, the real question is for those Jews who profess faith in the God of the Bible but do not share this view. Do they not take the prophecies of the restoration of Israel seriously? Do they think that the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 30 is not underway?

I think that many people of faith are afraid of eschatology. I think that many see eschatological thinking as quaint at best, delusional at worst, especially among my friends in the more intellectual Orthodox Jewish community.

3) How do you see following the Bible regarding the State of Israel?

I believe that the issue lies at the heart of the divide between those who recognize the State of Israel as the fulfillment of God’s Biblical promises to Israel and those who do not.

When those people of faith who do not embrace the State of Israel as a fulfillment of God’s Biblical promises make their case, what arguments do they make? They say that it can’t be the redemption because of X or Y in the Rabbinic literature or in Jewish thought. They point out that it makes no sense. For example, “How could the redemption come through non-believing Sabbath violators?” They don’t make their case based on scripture. They reject the eschatological view because it does not sit well theologically.

In contrast, listen to religious Zionists. The case is primarily a Biblical and prophetic one. They’ll directly quote Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Zechariah; regardless of logical flaws that would seem to mitigate against it.

In the more modern Orthodox camp there is a weight given Rav Soloveichik’s interpretation of the State of Israel and the ingathering of exiles, which is very problematic. I refer to his discomfort with identifying the state in Biblically redemptive terms. Rav Soloveichik passed away 25 years ago. He wrote his opinions on the state decades before that. A lot has happened; a lot of prosperity, a lot more population growth. Are we bound by an interpretation of the current reality based on a perspective from close to seventy years ago? Must we turn every perspective from great theologians of the past into an unassailable axiom?

It’s the same on the Christian side, in which, they argue from theology. Paul called God’s continued relationship with Israel a mystery, but supersessionists think they have it all figured out. They laugh at Christian Zionists for being theological simpletons. They’re not simpletons. They see things through a scriptural rather than theological lens. So, what do you do when historical processes seem to be clearly fulfilling Biblical prophecy and it upsets the apple-cart of your theology? Do you reinterpret the events in a way that compromises the integrity of scripture to keep your theology intact or do you revisit your theology because of what God is doing on earth? Is Biblical prophecy subservient to theology or the other way around?

Intellectual people think in terms of theology. But what is theology? Theology is the human attempt to understand, explain, and systematize God. But God is not a theologian. God does not speak that language. God communicates with us in two ways; prophecy and history – what He says and what He does. Theology tries to take everything that God says and does and make sense of it. But here’s the problem. God never promised us that we can figure Him out. In fact, He says just the opposite. “My thoughts are not your thoughts; My ways are not your ways,” doesn’t mean simply that God knows things that He hasn’t told us yet. It means that His ways and thoughts – what He does and what He says – are to some degree incomprehensible to us. At the very least, they are beyond our full understanding. To my Christian friends I make this point by quoting Augustine’s definition of theology; faith seeking understanding. We delude ourselves when we start thinking that theology is more than that; that we have achieved certainty.

On the Jewish side, we ought to remember that the rabbinic idea of lo bashamayim hi – it is not in heaven – refers only to matters of Jewish law. God is not bound by our theology. Why not just look at reality and ask, which opinion in chazal looks like it’s playing out? We don’t get to pasken on the course of history.

4) Most Evangelicals like Oral Roberts University still assume an exclusivist position that salvation is only through Christ as a personal savior, they still hold a replacement theology that when Jesus came, he replaced Judaism, and that Jews are still responsible for the crucifixion.  How can you ignore that and have you made any progress in their changing their views?

The world of Christian academia is a problem. There has been a fair amount of media attention given to polls that indicate that younger generation Evangelicals are less inclined to be pro-Israel. Many think it’s because of the influence of mainstream media and popular culture. I disagree. These same younger Evangelicals are still Republicans and are still pro-life. Those views are not from mainstream media.

A few years ago, we started noticing that the Christian Zionist community was aging. A standard stereotype that we found was that we’d go into a church and the senior pastor, typically in his 50s or 60s, would be staunchly pro-Israel. His younger associate pastor, on the other hand, a recent seminary graduate, would be more stand-offish in the relationship. We did some research. We collected the reading lists for the theology departments of 100 Evangelical seminaries. What we found was that even in the Evangelical world, even in denominations that we would think would be the pro-Israel soft spot, the reading lists were dominated by replacement theology. Jews don’t realize that whether or not a Christian is going to be pro-Israel is not primarily a political question. It’s theological.

We have since made it a priority to try to develop relationships with as many seminaries as we can. I regularly lecture at Evangelical seminaries where they will let me in. Thankfully, as an Orthodox rabbi who knows how to speak to Christians, I am an exotic creature. So, they are usually happy to have me.

The relationship is where it begins. I know this may sound strange to Jews. Why would someone change their theology based on a relationship? Well, it matters a lot. Supersessionist thinking is not taught in this direct “God is done with the Jews. We’ve replaced them” kind of way. It’s more subtle than that.

They don’t call it replacement or supersessionism. They call it fulfillment; that Jesus fulfilled the Torah and therefore the law is no longer binding. They don’t talk too much about Judaism. This subtlety is important. It leaves the door open for nuances and modifications in their thinking. Most importantly, when I speak and teach a piece of Scripture, sharing insights from the original Hebrew, with the professor giving me respect, it changes the way those students see Jews and Judaism.

At CJCUC we just began a very important program. Part of our research revealed that the vast majority of Christian academics teaching theology and Bible have never been to Israel. They have never come face to face with the realities on the ground. It’s impossible to overstate how critical a visit to Israel is in changing a Christian’s thinking about Israel and the Jewish people. We decided to start bringing these academics to Israel. These are the people who are training the next generation of pastors and leaders. In January 2019 we will host our first group. Besides seeing the important Biblical sites, they will be meeting with numerous leading Jewish scholars. Not to mention, that our staff will be with them, developing those personal relationships throughout the trip.

Is the theology taught in the classroom a problem? Yes. But in the end of the day, Scripture is more important to most Evangelicals in the pews than theology.

5) What is a personal relationship with God?

I love this question. As a Jew who spends a lot of time with Christians, I find myself discussing this issue quite often. I also love the question because no Christian would ever ask it. It’s a very Jewish question.

I think the best guidebook for our relationship with God in all of its facets is Psalms. Elation, theological contemplation, suffering, praise, nationalism, fear, love; the entire range of thoughts and emotions relating to God is expressed in Psalms.

To keep things simple, we live our lives of faith in different dimensions; thought and emotion, fear and love. These different dimensions require balance. We have a personal dimension to our faith; our prayer experience, our own private struggles, our own personal moral standing before God, our own mortality; these are things that concern every person of faith.

At the same time, we have a broader context in which we connect with God. History, covenantal relationship to the nation of Israel, the repairing of the world to bring all humanity to knowledge of God. There is a universal mission and goal.

You can count the lines in our daily liturgy that speak in the singular on one hand. Everything is about we, the Jewish people. There’s very little personal. But it’s all over Psalms. Read elohai netzor recited after the Amidah three times a day. It’s deeply personal. The danger in all of this is that for so many Jews there is very little development of a personal relationship. And we need it.

6) What is the role of miracles in our lives?

What is a miracle? A miracle is a deviation from the laws of nature for God’s purposes. That’s the easy part. What’s trickier is identifying those contemporary events that qualify.

I remember during the 1991 Gulf War when the scuds were raining down on Israel there was a lot of talk of miracles. There was a news item on Israeli TV that I’ll never forget. A building in Tel Aviv, or thereabouts, was hit by a missile. The building was mostly destroyed. But there was one piece of the building that somehow was untouched. There was an elderly woman who had not made it to the bomb shelter who was in that part of the building at the time. She came away without a scratch. She was not a religious woman. She made that abundantly clear. When asked on camera for her reaction to what happened she was adamant. “Zeh lo nes! Zeh LO NES!” She was insistent that this was not a miracle. It gave new meaning to the rabbinic dictum, ain baal hanes maker beniso (the one who benefits from a miracle does not recognize the miracle) – in other words, the last one to recognize a miracle is the one that it’s happening to.

And this is the key to answering your question. The role of miracles is what we choose it to be. Here again, the more intellectual set gets uncomfortable. Miracles in Tanach? Fine. Miracles in our lives, in modern Israel, in the history of the last 100 years? Skepticism. As long as it’s not too close to home people are more willing to embrace God’s actual activity in the world. It’s almost as if so much of the Modern Orthodox intellectual set is really Spinoza in orientation with an allowance for an inner spiritual life  of neo-Chasidism. But a God who is actually alive and active in history? Not so much.

7) How is atheism and secular culture the new paganism?

In the introductory essay to the classic academic work on the Ancient Near-East, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, Henri Frankfort described the difference between the ancient pagan and the modern secularist. Ancients and moderns alike see man as “imbedded in nature and dependent upon cosmic forces.” The difference between them, in Frankfort’s words, is that, “for modern, scientific man the phenomenal world is primarily an ‘It’; for ancient man it is a ‘Thou’.” Later in the book, John Wilson and Thorkild Jakobsen make the point that the concepts of morality and ethics as we know them – the idea that there is an objective “right” and a “wrong” – did not come into being until very late in the game in ancient cultures. The relationship with the gods – the governing forces – was one of crass pragmatism. If I do this and this, my crops will grow and the gods will leave me alone. If I do that, they will be angry and there will be suffering. “Right” and “wrong” were really just about what is practically wise or orderly vs. what was ineffective or chaotic.

This is the crux of the issue. Are we subservient to the forces of nature; forces that do not seek our well-being and do not direct the course of history? Or are we in a worshipful relationship with a God who has a plan, who loves humanity, and has endowed us with the ability to master nature for higher purposes; a God whose traits we seek to emulate?

Today, it’s no longer the “Thou” of the pagan gods, but the world view is essentially the same. It ends up in the same place. The forces of nature are all that there is. These forces neither care about us nor do they imply any moral necessities; only pragmatic ones.

8) Does your book teach a universalism in which all the nations work to build God’s kingdom or is there a special relationship with Christianity to the exclusion of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhists, or Agnostic-secular Westerners?

I believe that there is a special relationship with Christianity. I don’t see how there can be a place for non-Biblical faiths in the building of God’s kingdom as described by Zechariah, “And the Lord (YHVH) shall be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord (YHVH) shall be one and His name shall be one.” If someone professes belief in a god other than the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, how are we partners in building His kingdom?

I categorically reject the notion that Islam believes in the same God as we do. I think the explanation is quite straightforward. What do we know about God? How do we define Him? We are not a faith system based on some Aristotelian derivation of the concept of a Higher power. We have never actually seen God face to face. Our religion is based, first and foremost, on the authority of Scripture. We know Him through Scripture. If I say something about God – what He said or what He wants from us – that contradicts Scripture, then I am wrong. Outside of the scripture we have no description of God.

It follows that a religious system that rejects our text cannot claim to believe in the same god as we do.

Sure, they can say it, but it’s meaningless. Muslims and Jews believe in the same God. Really? But my book has God doing, wanting, and saying A, B, and C and their book has Allah doing, wanting, and saying X, Y, and Z. How is that the same God? Again, we only define and derive who God is by what He told us about Himself. If you have a different list, it’s not the same God.

The fact that Muslims assume that Allah is the God of the Bible – a theological position taken by Muhammad – does not obligate me to accept their assumptions. Let’s say, for example that someone decided that Zeus is actually the only god, and guess what? – he’s the same god as the Jews worship, I would never accept that.

This is where the relationship with Christianity is different and more complicated. We share the Bible with Christianity. Christians, like Jews, believe that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired. They share our belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Sinai, or Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel.

9) How is this supported by Maimonides? Isn’t your reading against the grain of others?

Quite frankly, I don’t think that what I said represents a Maimonidean way of thinking. Maimonides saw theology as primary, not necessarily Scripture. He pretty much says this in the Guide. At the same time, while Maimonides is certainly the most famous and most studied Jewish theologian, much of mainstream Jewish theology is decidedly not Maimonidean. Accordingly, while I wouldn’t claim that my thoughts on Islam are consistent with the Rambam that does not inherently invalidate my thinking.

That said, it is certainly worthwhile to look at this issue through the lens of Maimonides. I believe that even in his writings on Christianity and Islam there are nuances that are often overlooked.

Of course, theologically speaking for the Rambam, Judaism is closer to Islam than it is to Christianity. Rambam ruled unequivocally that Christianity is avodah zarah and that Islam is not, distancing Christianity from Judaism in a way that is not applicable to Islam.

But the Rambam discusses Christianity and Islam in other contexts apart from their theology. For example, in Mishneh Torah Hilchot Melachim ch. 11, Rambam famously discusses Jesus and Christianity. After explaining why Jesus was clearly not the Jewish Messiah, he goes on to say that despite the disaster that Christianity brought upon the Jewish people in the past, the purpose of Christianity and Islam are,

“solely in order to pave the path for the king Messiah and to repair the entire world to serve Hashem together… How so? The entire world has now been filled with the concept of the Messiah, the concepts of the Torah, and the concepts of the commandments. These matters have spread to the most distant lands and to many primitive nations.”

Whenever I share this passage with a Jewish audience, I get surprised reactions. People are aware that the Rambam held Christianity to be idolatrous. They find it counter-intuitive that he would say that a religion that is avodah zarah exists “solely in order to pave the path for the king Messiah.” But this passage is not about theology. We make a mistake if we conflate theology and eschatology. The Rambam clearly had no problem putting Islam and Christianity on equal footing eschatologically regardless of the fact that one is idolatrous and the other is not.

I believe that this same conflation is in play when people read the well known responsum of the Rambam permitting teaching “the commandments and commentaries” – mitzvoth uperushim – to Christians while prohibiting such teaching to Muslims. The Rambam is not talking about theological closeness. He’s talking about how productive or counter-productive such teaching would be. These are not the same thing.

His reasoning is fascinating. Since Christians share a faith in the authenticity of our Bible, there is a possibility that they will respect what they are being taught as an explanation of the text. Perhaps it will open their eyes to a new understanding and bring them closer to us. Muslims, on the other hand, do not share our scripture and therefore will reject anything that differs from their own beliefs. There is nothing to gain in the process.

In this specific context, whether a religion is idolatrous or not is, frankly, irrelevant to the ruling of the Rambam. He’s talking about effectiveness in helping to cleanse these religions of their mistakes.  Since Christians respect and share faith in our Bible, there is more to be gained in the teaching. What the Rambam is saying is that even though Islam is closer to us theologically, Christianity is closer to us Scripturally. So, when it comes to teaching Scripture there is greater chance for positive effect than there is with Muslims.

To put what I see as a special relationship with Christianity another way, Psalms 126 and 117 both speak of multitudes among the nations praising the God of Israel for restoring the nation of Israel to our land. Why and how would there be multitudes among the nations who would praise our God for that? How would they even know about Him? Why would they see our in-gathering as the fulfillment of a divine promise? Obviously, the premise is that they must know about Him and His promises to us. Well, here we are. We’ve been restored.

The exile is winding down and sure enough, there are multitudes among the nations that praise the God of Israel for restoring us to our land. And it isn’t multitudes of Buddhists, Muslims, or Noahides. It’s Christians. I think that if the Rambam were alive to see this he would say, “That’s exactly what I had in mind.” I know he included Islam as playing a similar role as Christianity, but he didn’t explain how that works. He did refer to the spreading of the Bible, obviously referring to the Christian role. How the Muslims “pave the path” for the Messiah is less clear to me.

10) What is the meaning of the Psalms?

Psalms was written with prophetic inspiration. These are not just the personal laments, prayers, and praises of individuals. They speak a universal language for all people in all times. When there are Psalms that are overtly eschatological, they are painting a picture for all the generations to come of what the end game looks like. The history in Psalms is a description not of the events themselves but of the human reaction to the great unfolding of God’s plan. Psalms describes our experience in faith of what God does in our lives and in the world.

What is uniquely me about the book is the analysis of Psalms as coherent poetry. I have always loved studying Psalms and always felt that the classical commentaries did the Psalms a disservice by using basically the same exegetical approach that they use for the rest of Scripture. Psalms is a very different book.

Psalms are poems. They are meant as poems and ought to be treated as poems. Most commentaries ignore this fact. For example, when an unusual word is chosen over the more common alternative, all of the classical commentaries will be satisfied by simply making it clear that the word means what it does. Not one of the traditional commentaries that I found address the simple question, “Why was this word chosen over the more common word? What nuances does this word carry from its other uses?” These are poetry questions. Poetry assumes multiple layers of association in the choice of words. It assumes a certain flow of ideas from beginning to middle to end of a poem. None of these issues are addressed by the classical commentaries. The Malbim and Rav Hirsch approach these issues at times but not consistently or thoroughly.

I was a literature major. I enjoyed the classes that most literature majors hate; literary criticism, semiotics – I loved that stuff. I particularly connected with the approach of the Russian formalists and their emphasis on both seeking repeating motifs and divorcing the text from writer’s intent. Interestingly, Rav Kook, in his brilliant introduction to Ein Ayah makes the case for this approach to Aggadata. My approach to exegesis was profoundly affected by this part of my education.

11) The Christian Zionists know almost nothing about the Talmud, Rabbinic Judaism, and halakhah. Is there any goal of correcting this lack or pointing out our differences?

I don’t spend much time or energy explaining Judaism. That’s not my goal. When I am asked a question or am faced with a misconception, I respond. But the goal is really to connect over what we share; to recognize that we share a lot more than anyone on either side realizes. Along with that is the goal of helping Christians to think differently and more respectfully of Jews and Judaism.  I think that this is an important objective.

Over and over again, I have seen how the inclination to proselytize Jews is weakened the more they build a relationship of respect with Jews. When a Christian begins seeing us as a source of teaching, as an authority that they want to learn from, it makes it much more difficult for them to keep thinking that they need to change me. In many cases, the relationship challenges them and I consider that a good thing.