In His Image –An Interview with Rabbi Yuval Cherlow

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow (Hebrew wiki) thinks there is a need for developing greater sensitivity to the new social and economic issues not legislated by halakhah by turning to ethical literature (mussar) and non-legal rabbinic literature (aggadah). Under these new conditions, “social sensitivities become more significant… If we can only build on this sensitivity, we can create a more just world.”

As a statement of this need for greater awareness of the need for a religious Zionist humanism, he has recently issued a new book called In His Image: The Image of God in Man (Maggid Press, 2016). The blurb for the book exhorts us that  “at a time when religion is distorted to crush, belittle, and negate Man, when personal responsibility is replaced by passive faith, and human endeavor is deemed unworthy, This book “seeks to reinstate on of the fundamental truths of Judaism: the creation of Man in the image of God.” The book “explores the significance of Man’s divine image, and its radical halakhic, ethical, psychological, and existential implications.” Cherlow argues that “Judaism is based on the profound glorification of Man, his strengths and freedoms, rights and responsibilities. A manifesto of Jewish humanism.”

The book is a direct presentation of his moral vision in a volume that should be in every day school and synagogue. We have snippets of his views on society, marriage, interpersonal relations, and moral responsibility. The book is not philosophic or literary like the works of Jonathan Sacks, rather straightforward and geared for ordinary people. The interview below conveys the overarching message but without the dozens of presented cases of the book.


Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a leading Religious Zionist educator, ethicist and activist, was inspired to get involved in social causes following the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. After Rabin’s assassination, however, “I understood that something critical happened and that we should get involved.”

Cherlow thinks that rabbis “must communicate with society at large, not only our community. Communication means that we have to listen, not to come with the attitude that we know everything. There needs to be real dialogue.”

He was one of the founder of the rabbinic group Tzohar. Cherlow is also active in the Takana forum, which confronts sexual abuse in the Religious Zionist community. Cherlow is passionate about organ donation, inspired by his sister, who at the age of 65 recently donated a kidney and saved a life.

He is active in various aspects of contemporary ethics of media, medical, war, social concerns and economics. He composed a prayer for the welfare of the people of Syria and suggested that Israel take in Syrian refugees. Cherlow has argues for workers’ rights and a living wage for workers. He invokes the Biblical story of Sodom as showing a value for today, in that, some “insisted on preserving their high quality of living to such an extent that they established a principle not to let the poor and homeless reside in their city.” He is also for saving the environment. For him the failure to protect the environment “exposes a society driven by consumerism and greed.”

Born in 1957 to parents who made Aliyah in 1949 from Massachusetts, Cherlow was raised in Herzliya Pituach, north of Tel Aviv. He served as a major in the Reserves and studied at Merkaz Harav and Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Rabbi Cherlow is head of Yeshivat Orot Shaul in Raanana, founded in 2013- a successor to his prior yeshiva in Petach Tikvah- a yeshivat hesder, which combines Torah study with service in the IDF. The Yeshiva combines traditional, in-depth study of Gemara and commentaries with an emphasis on discovering the relevance of the Gemara to the personal life of the student, ethics and social responsibility.  This focus, along with classes in Tanach, Jewish Philosophy and Chassidut, and an environment that encourages personal expression, exploration and creativity allows each student to identify his own path in divine service.

(As a side note, a senior Talmud instructor at a major elite Jerusalem high school recently said to me that the overwhelming majority of the students were planning on attending one of three hesder programs: those that wanted modern Orthodoxy chose Rabbi Cherlow’s Orot Shaul, those wanting intense learning chose Yerucham, and those who wanted spirituality and experience choose Tekoa).

This work is direct and conveys an ethical message and it is geared for English speakers. But for those interested in the depth and development of Cherlow’s thought, I recommend his first two books. His first book VeErastikh li Leolam (1994 reprinted 2003), his first book asks: what is the religious image of a person in a time of national rebirth?  And, since there is a wide gap between the modern age and traditional reality- what is the nature of this gap? How do we explain the changes to ourselves?  Cherlow asks the same question as Ramhal (R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, 1707-1747), “what does God wants from us?” But for Cherlow, Ramhal’s 18th century answer and our answer cannot, and must not, be the same. We no longer reside in a world where we live for the world to come

His second book Torat Eretz Israel leOr Mishnat Harieiah  (Yeshivat Hagolan 1997) seeks to define a renewed Torah of the land of Israel (Torat Eretz Yisroel) for the new era. Specifically, how do we balance the concern for the current age with the eternity of the Torah?

In that work, Cherlow gives his four basic ideals of Torah study. (1)Prophetic Torah study is found in the Kuzari’s prophetic Judaism, and Raavad’s claim to have holy spirit (ruah hakodesh) in the beit medrash. When Rav Kook called for the renewal of prophecy, he did not mean actual prophecy but a prophecy method through listening to the inner call, and illuminations of the soul. New visions do not mean innovations but to remove the partitions and blinders of the exile.

(2) Torah study needs to include all human faculties – imagination, desire, feelings, volition-  to brings together the complexities of a person. The goal of Torah study is to become a different type of person, one who is complete and all-inclusive. Cherlow advocates the cultivation of spontaneous intuitions or revelations- to integrate more intuition, than logic. In an intuitive approach, we need to know that we never have certainty about Torah since the infinite source of Torah is never grasped. And thereby, the most important lesson is that one needs to accept that Torah is entirely estimations, even the secrets of Torah are only approximation not absolutes.

(3) Torah has inner meaning, as Bahye ibn Pakudah taught that we need duties of the heart and not just of the limbs. This inner meaning includes reasons for commandments, ethical demands and inner states. Therefore, the study of Torah needs to include Tanakh, Jewish thought, and Kabbalah, to include the duties of the heart.

(4) We have to acknowledge that we currently live in an age of age of national renewal and that must change the way we study Torah. At the destruction of the temple, Torah became confined to the four cubits of halakhah (Berakhot 8), but at this time of national renewal Torah needs to be about expansion.

This current work In His Image:The Image of God in Man (Maggid, 2016) written twenty years after his first book now presents the basic ideas of a seasoned rabbi who gives over his straight message for his listeners. The work is based on the Hebrew edition but has been significantly reworked and rewritten for the English edition.

At the same time that Rabbi Cherlow published this book, Rabbi Yehuda Brandes the current head of Mechon Hertzog College at Har-Etzion published a similar but complimentary work that covers many of the same issues called  Human Rights: The Dialectic between “Image of God” and “Holy Nation. I discussed the work here and interviewed Rabbi Brandes here.

This book In his Image, however, is marred by a very poor translation from someone who knows English words but not usage or syntax. For example, the Hebrew phrase was “Ha-ideologiah shel Torat Eretz Yisrael” was rendered as ” The Torah of Israel’s ideology.”  We discussed the work in a study circle at my home and the group found many passages of fractured structure. Maggid Press, who also publish Jonathan Sacks and Adin Steinsaltz, should have done a better job.


  1. What is the Image of God?

No expression is more wondrous than Image of God (tzelem Elohim). There is something frightening about telling ourselves that we are created in the image of God. This becomes even more complicated because we believe that God has no body or image. Moreover, we know our weaknesses and faults and to describe ourselves as created in the image of God seems presumptuous and arrogant.

Nevertheless, by saying Image of God we assert that we believe that God created us with special strengths, with a role to protect and develop the Divine creation and manage it according to moral and religious norms. The main similarity between us and the Almighty is the deep faith that we have free choice and are able to both distinguish between good and bad, wrong and right, as well as choose good and reject that which is bad. This is one of the most profound human qualities, which characterizes the singular uniqueness of man. Integrity serves as the compass for our conducting ourselves in the world.

The assertion that we are created in the image of God guides us to examine whether the deed we want to do is tuned to moral principles and is not just a function of base, primitive interests. Technology deals with the question of what we are capable of doing. Ethics deals with what we should do.

2) How is Orthodox Judaism abandoning the Image of God?

An integral component of the valued image of the religious person is self-submission, a sense of lowliness, and the constant reminder of man’s weaknesses. All these are deeply rooted in the entire Torah literature. Already in the Bible (Tanach) we find Abraham stating “I am but dust and ashes”, King David stating “I am a worm and not a man”; the 13th century Letter of Nahmanides (Iggeret HaRamban) commands one to constantly live in a sense of humility and personal wretchedness. That is all true and one should be aware of one’s faults, weaknesses, deficient status within creation etc.

The problem is that attention is given solely to these aspects creating a very jarring disregard of the other aspects of the human person who is worthy in the eyes of God. Abraham, for example, indeed claimed that he was “dust and ashes”. Yet, he made moral claims, even against God; he led war maneuvers against the four kings and his identity is as a man striving for justice and law; King David was a king – he led battles and wars, moral stances, ethical discussions with God etc. In all these, Jewish leaders realized the full scope of their inherent image of God (tzelem Elohim), through courage, wisdom, strength, creation, greatness and creativity.

The problem is not with self-submission, but that other important aspects of the human persona are ignored. When a movement is created within us that also exalts the image of man, that has faith in his ethical and intellectual worlds, that believes it is just as significant to develop his physical, emotional and intellectual capabilities – an entire world of creativity, empowerment, heightened spirit and mainly a sanctification of God’s name, will be opened up to Torah and Halacha adherents.

3) Why is the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the American Constitution important to the Torah world?

Torah is the contact point of man and God’s word. Therefore, it is fascinating to examine what happens when an evil, corrupt, egocentric and aggressive person comes into contact with the Torah. Often, the Torah is able to change his character, refine it and bring it closer to the Master of the Universe and to the complete figure of man. However, frequently, the opposite happens, and the meeting with God and his Torah actually makes one an even worse person, more evil, his faith intensifying his negative qualities. The Sages were very much aware of this and stated that Torah can become the elixir of death and not just that of life. In our times, we know of many movements that carry the name of God, but flood the world with murder, wickedness and cruelty. This informs us of the great danger that lurks for all.

History teaches us that ideological movements risk having their ideologies dazzle them, blinding them to the rights of people and to the image of God intrinsic to them. Therefore, it is critical to protect human rights as well as the basic foundation of man’s dignity and existence.

The Torah itself commands us to do so. It teaches us, from the start, that all people were created in God’s image (b’tzelem); it demands that the entire world be moral, and expresses it in the Seven Noahide Laws; and mainly – it orders us, as part of the commandment to remember the Exodus, to remember that we were slaves, and for that reason we must form an alliance of solidarity with the exploited all over the world. This already appears in the reason given for the commandment of Shabbat, in the Ten Commandments.

Thus, the UN Declaration of Human Rights fits in well with this movement. It stands to reason that were we ourselves to articulate it – there would have been differences, in light of Judaism’s special perception of man and God’s image within him. However, its very existence is an integral part of striving for a more moral world, and one, it follows, that goes more in the path of God.

4) Is there dialogue between Torah and Reality?

Dialogue is constant. By the very fact that the Written Law (Torah she’bichtav) takes place within history, within the real and human world, we learn that this dialogue has been happening all along. Sometimes it is a dialogue of opposition (fighting idolatry); sometimes it is one of partnership (Yitro), but it does take place.

This dialogue continues throughout the entire history of Oral law (Torah she’be’al pe). Can one observe the Jewish greats during the Spanish Diaspora without noticing the dialogue they had with Aristotle, Plato, Sufi Islam etc.? Is it possible to not see the dialogue in our times between the world that surrounds us and Judaism, in all of its shades, including that which wishes to isolate itself and claim that it is not engaged in such dialogue?

Of course, there are different levels of dialogue. I strongly believe that dialogue should be entered bearing a stable, significant backbone, and believing that Torah has a special message for the world in which we live; I believe that one has to be extremely careful about dialogues in which the discourse takes place on a purely “politically correct” level, and in which honest, sincere messages are not said; I believe that care has to be taken to not lose the unique Torah-true, Jewish identity. Nevertheless, such dialogue does take place, whether one wishes and aims for it or not, and whether one is interested in it or not.

5) What is the role of moral sensitivity in Torah?

The greatest articulator of the necessity of engaging with morality was Nahmanides, who taught that a person can formally observe all the Torah commandments and still remain a scoundrel (naval birshut ha’Torah). This possibility exists due to the fact that no legal system – of whatever kind – is able to define morality and introduce it into a carefully-formulated normative system. One’s ethical behavior is based, first and foremost, on one’s “ethical intelligence”, and that is the most fundamental basis for one’s moral character.

I encounter this daily, given the two hats that I wear. The first, central one – the rabbinic hat – acquaints me, not infrequently, with people who are strictly observant about every clause in the Shulchan Aruch, but are basically corrupt people. For example, they do not view the value of decency as a basis for any kind of consideration, believing that if something is not halachically forbidden – then it is both moral and ethical. The Sages were already aware of this, when they revealed to us the behavior of Noach’s peers, who, they maintained, would steal only less than a a penny’s worth (shve pruta)i.e., a steady theft of a sum of money that is under the radar of Halacha. Formally – they observed the law; however, they were corrupt.

I also wear a second hat. I specialize in ethics and serve on different types of ethical committees in Israel, from the Supreme Helsinki Committee for Genetic Medical experiments on humans and other bio-ethical committees, to being a member of the presidium of the Israel Press Council, and lately even published a book that compiles short online answers in these matters. In the ethical world, I clearly differentiate between those who only wish to keep the letter of the law and those whose behavior aims for moral values, which are the basis for proper human behavior.

An example that just recently became public in Israel: It turns out that government and bank officials, entrusted with realizing and selling the assets of defaulting borrowers, purchased these very houses themselves, at very low prices. There is no law that prohibits this, but this is a corrupt thing to do!

Not to mention sexual abuse perpetrated by religious officials, which was also not forbidden by law (since it involved two adults, between which there was no authority-based relationship) and which, shamefully, took place. This is the reason I was among the founders of the Takana Forum ( that dealt with it. Lately, the law has been changed in Israel, but naturally, that, too, does not solve all problems.

6) How do we live with duality in the world and ourselves?

Truthfully, I don’t see any other way. I don’t know of a one-dimensional option. The world God created is so complex and contains so many, varied truths. It contains lovingkindness and judgment, man and woman, Israel and the nations, holiness and secularity, body and spirit and countless other components. How, then, can one think of monolithic reality?

The declaration, Shema Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Echad, contradicts idolatry. In the idolatrous world, every power had a god of its own and one could choose one of the gods and surrender himself to it. We believe in one God, who is the God of the entire world, and the source of the different ideas that exist in the world. We are not permitted to choose one of them, and neglect the one that contrasts it. Consequently, dualism is the only option. There are, of course, different forms of dualism: power struggles, checks and balances, partnership, dialectic movement from one end to the other and many more possibilities. Yet, every attempt to place belief into one, single framework and to present one single idea – is a type of modern idolatry, which totally contradicts the Jewish world.

7) How should we avoid other-worldly forces that reject our role in the world?

The Torah teaches that we operate within the world. Although we believe in miracles, and sometimes even expect them, that is not the political policy that is accepted in Judaism, and in the words of Ramban, “for the Torah will not rely in all of its paths on miracles.” Hence, we are required to build an army, political systems, economic frameworks, a world of medicine etc. in order to operate in the proper manners (derech eretz) of the Torah.

In contrast, the spiritual world of complete trust (bitachon), is presented by the Hazon Ish in his book Emunah U’Bitachon (Faith and Trust).

However, we have no contract with God and He did not promise us that things will be good. We must, as mentioned, operate in the world in the fashion in which the world operates. What we get from the quality of bitachon (trust) is the awareness that everything is possible, and even when it seems that all is lost, we remember that the Master of the Universe is the leader of the world and He has the ability to determine how things turn out. Therefore, we do not despair even in difficult hours and deal with hardships out of deep faith in God.

8) How do we give greater attention to physical pleasures yet balance faith and the physical life?

Note that we don’t find even one place in the Torah that negates the body, its pleasures and human satisfaction. The Torah describes the beauty of our holy fathers, their wealth and power, and views all these as very positive elements. And it deals with them in no small measure. The Torah perceives man as a coherent figure and not as one who is constantly struggling between his physical and spiritual self. At the same time, it does not refrain from warning of the dangers to which physical pleasure can lead. The Torah is not fearful. It teaches us to accept all the good there is in the world and to strive for it, but not to be addicted to it, to be connected to that which is good in an appropriate way and to always remember that there are more important things beyond it.

We, too, have to conduct ourselves this way. To see all the good that exists in the world as something with which we have a connection, and which merits contact, and which makes our life in this world more pleasurable. At the same time, we must constantly remember that it is a part of the overall picture. For that reason, we must not make it the single foundation of our life. There are also laws that pertain to the many physical aspects: Kashrut laws that apply to the gastronomical pleasure; Hilchot Arayot that deal with sexual connections; Dinei Mamonot that deal with wealth etc. It is, obviously, important to remember that some of the commandments pertaining to pleasure obligate us to look after others, and not to consider ourselves alone.

9) How do we work toward equality, universalism and ecology?

First, we have to internalize the fact that these values are deeply rooted in Torah. There is no total identity between these values and Torah (for example, the Torah often mentions “You shall have one manner of law”, which emphasizes equality, but at the same time, it contains many mitzvot which distinguish between Israel and the nations), yet, there are many parallels. For that reason, we must cooperate with all who advance these foundations.

We need to include ecology in our Halachic considerations – for example, pesticides make it possible to eat leafy greens without bugs, but they are very harmful to health and the environment; the commandment of settling the Land of Israel, which also considers the importance of wild animals and open spaces (I am a director in The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which is the largest ecological  body in Israel) etc.. We must develop unique legislation regarding refugees, which takes into account both the capabilities of the State of Israel and our obligation to prevent assimilation in Israel itself, but is also influenced by the commandment to remember our Exodus from Egypt, which requires us to remember what was done to us and be careful to not do the same to others etc. etc. I believe that it is precisely this deep and complex approach which must guide the State of Israel and not extreme approaches in either direction.

 10) How should we relate to the Holocaust and the State of Israel as part of world events?

Two movements must grow from the Holocaust that greatly strengthen each other.

The first movement is one for the resilience of the State of Israel and for turning it into the safest place in the world for Jews. The scar etched in us by the Holocaust obligates us to never fully rely on anybody in the world, and to maintain a political and national entity in which we defend ourselves. I wish to emphasize that I don’t mean an isolated state, but one which engages the world, in the manner that enlightened countries do. However, its primal basis is the concern the safety of its citizens and the safety of the Jewish people the world over. It is very important to greatly strengthen the State of Israel and to be careful about taking risks, that if turn out to be failures – will bring about great destruction to the existential foundation of the Jewish people.

The second movement is the realization that we must partner with the entire world in fortifying those elements that fight against the very possibility of repeating the Holocaust. First and foremost, this should be done by promoting a world in which human rights, individual freedom, human dignity and life, are the fundamental principle that underlies any government. But that is not enough. There is a need to cultivate free media, accessible to everyone, which thereby does not enable processes to take place in the dark; opposition must be cultivated everywhere too, so that there is never excess power accumulated in one place; we need to be participate in international solidarity wherever wrongdoing is perpetrated on ethnic groups etc.

The Torah itself teaches us about the great dangers that are innate to power. In Parashat Hamelech it instructs us that danger lurks for the king, among other things, of “his heart be(ing) lifted above his brethren” (Deuteronomy 17, 20), meaning that the power he yields will corrupt his responsibility for the fate of his citizens. It is important to emphasize: The Torah did not say that due to these dangers there should be no kingdom. Much importance is attributed to power and strength, manifested in a stable, strong rule. Simultaneously, the Torah did not ignore the great risks present in monarchy, and for that reason it ordered the restriction of the power of dominion, in various ways. In Biblical times, this restriction was expressed differently than it is today, but this restriction is vital.

Moreover, the Torah does not grant the king exclusive reign. In the Torah’s set of laws, there are additional public functions – the kohen (priest), the judge and the prophet – and we did not learn the principle of separation of powers from Montesquieu, but from the existence of additional ruling bodies. As viewed by the Torah, even today we need institutions which limit the ruling power, and until we return to the days of prophecy and priesthood, it is very important to us that there be “substitutions” for these institutions.



Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar by Geoffrey D. Claussen

“Man wants to achieve greatness overnight, and he wants to sleep well that night too.”– Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, Alter of Kelm

“Most of us, myself included, let ourselves off the hook too easily in our moral lives.” – Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen

The leading musar teacher Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv of the late 19th century was deeply troubled as he walked along the main road in his town of Kelm, which had been paved by the king’s prisoners sentenced to slave labor. He would  be troubled by their suffering.  “How can people walk calmly through this place,” he wondered, “when people suffered so much and invested their blood and sweat?” Today in 2016, we have labor injustices, workers mistreated and much of the cheap merchandise that we buy is produced by slave labor. But do we have any authoritative traditional Jewish voice that makes Jews sensitive to these sufferings?

Geoffrey D. Claussen, professor at Elon College turns our attention to the moral sensitivity training musar of Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv with his dissertation turned into a book, Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar, which will be issued in paperback next month. The work gives the American college reader a thought introduction to musar in the context of the study of moral philosophy (introductory chapter here).

musar cover

In the late, nineteenth century, the musar movement  found by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin (Salanter; 1810–1883) promoted educational changes that flourished among the elite of rabbinic Lithuanian Jewry, showing that intellectual mastery of Talmudic texts is not enough nor are scrupulous ritual observance or emotional prayer going to help create a meaningful leader, teacher, and rabbi. One needed to work on one’s character  in order to develop moral compassion to the world around them. This musar approach infused the late nineteenth century Lithuanian yeshivot, giving them their severe litvak qualities of self-discipline, self-scrutiny, and moral sensitivity.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv Broida (1824–1898), also known as the Alter of Kelm (the Elder of Kelm), one of the foremost students of Rabbi Salanter and one of the early leaders of the Musar movement who founded and director the Kelem Talmud Torah (1866–1876) and later in Grubin (1876–1886). His outstanding students went on to spread his method, included Rabbis Yitzchak Blazer, Naftali Amsterdam,  and Eliezer Gordon. .

These Talmud Torahs aimed at young adolescents- thirteen and fourteen-year-olds- devoted much of daily study at the Talmud Torah to the study of Musar, while comparatively little time was devoted to the conventional study of Talmud. Rabbi Ziv also introduced general subjects such as geography, mathematics, and Russian into the Talmud Torah curriculum for three hours a day, in order to allow for “better living” and “a better understanding of religious teachings as well.”

With the closure of the Grobin Talmud Torah, the focus of his work shifted back to Kelm, which now regained its former prominence. Rabbi Ziv, the alter of Kelm established a group that was known as Devek Tov comprising his foremost students. There he delivered his discourses eventually edited by his students.

Rabbi Ziv’s discourses emphasized how people are depraved at heart seeking self-interest similar to a Calvinist emphasis on human depravity. Yet, unlike the Protestants seeing a divine grace as the only solution, musar taught that the use of one’s God wisdom ability to grow in wisdom would give one the tools to raise oneself to goodness and we can overcome our blindness to moral concerns Rabbi Ziv encourage the cultivate of the fundamental character trait of lovingkindness to all people: How can you help them? How do you empathize with them? How can you see them as good or potentially good?   The musar approach, which is behaviorist at core, required visualization, introspection and check lists.

As a way of creating character, the Alter of Kelm focused on having a rightly order life. He once came into the school and saw that in the row of galoshes that had been lined up outside the study hall, one of the pair of galoshes was not in line with the others. In light of the event, he dedicated an entire sermon to the need for order.

The windows that faced the street in the study hall were never opened in order to prevent distractions. A noise was once heard outside the study hall. One of the students opened the window and looked out to see what was happening. Rabbi Ziv commented that he did not see that there was any possibility that that student so easily distracted would become an accomplished person (Think of our media, snark, and FB age of distraction).

As in contemporary Japan, the yeshiva did not hire a custodian in that the students had to clean their own dormitory and classroom in order to learn discipline.

The Aler of Kelm also instituted a five-minute seder, for which the students were required to come in specially for five minutes. The sole purpose was to accustom the students to value time and concentrate their thoughts quickly.

Rabbi Ziv taught that the whole world is a classroom where one can learn to improve one’s character and increase one’s belief in God. Rabbi Ziv would frequently quote Socrates, who said that “true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

An example of his ethical teaching is his homily on why Betzalel  was worthy to build the Tabernacle, of which his answer is that Betzalel was filled with  compassion and kindness, and had no inner harshness, whatsoever. The Tabernacle was the place where God revealed His compassion and forgiveness, so it had to be built by someone who had those traits.

The alter of Kelm posted this notice to the Door of the Kelm Talmud Torah before the High Holidays on the importance of spending the holidays working on love of one’s fellow. If you hate someone, then you are fundamentally denying God’s kingship over all rather creating a self-serving division in which you deny God’s kingship from people whom you do not like.

Therefore there is an obligation upon us, prior to the Day of Judgment (may it come upon us for good), to occupy ourselves during the entire year with the positive commandment “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) And through this there will be unity among the subjects of the Blessed Lord, and [God’s] Kingship will come into our hands well . . .

But if (God forbid) the sin of hating people is on our hands, how can we not be ashamed and disgraced to be speaking lies . . . when we ask [in prayer for God to] “rule over the entire world, in Your glory”? We have not prepared ourselves to do what is essential for maintaining the kingdom of heaven in power over us . . . And so we must accept upon ourselves the work of loving people and of unity.

And, if we merit a community that is immersed in this work during the entire year, who can measure the greatness of the merit for us and for the entire world? No one should say that this work is too difficult.

It is good to set aside a place for thinking of this matter every day during prayer. (Translation by Claussen from here.)

Yet,  we need to find out how to adapt this musar for today due to its ascetic or at least puritanical tendencies. For example,  Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein related that the Alter happily lost his sense of taste for a period of ten years since taste is one of the principal means of indulging and seeking pleasure, which is liable to hinder a progress. So God helps his righteousness through arranging special circumstances for them. Levenstein continues by pointing out that in contrast,  in the disembodied spiritual realm unlike the physical there is no immediate pleasure is experienced.  Musar was also highly anti- haskole, anti-modern, and very behaviorally manipulative of the adolescents in its charge.

Geoffrey Claussen has written a wonderful introduction to the world of Kelm musar able to be assigned in a college classroom, which focuses on philosophic questions of morals and ethics. What is the role of wisdom? What is compassion? How does one train a person for morality? I find that my students responded well to Claussen’s focus on morals presented in comparison and contrast with Aristotle, Maimonides,  and Kant. He offers many fine translations of passages and explains to a college audience the value in Rabbi Ziv of Kelm. This work is innocent of any yeshivishness or old world Litvak connection, nor does concern itself with any  insider baseball details of who studied under whom. The book also does not seek to do Russian archival work on the history. Claussen articles after his dissertation are even better in  using the Alter of Kelm in application to contemporary ethical issues, articles available online include: love and empathy, work and wealth,  the dangers of extremism,  compassion for animals, and war.  The article on love and empathy is a concise and fruitful place to see Claussen’s ability to explain and engage in moral reasoning.

In our self- centered age where religion, especially traditional forms of Judaism are expected to give one a fixed moral order through ritual observance, tribal politics, and community identity, musar’s quest for character development has fallen on hard times.


1)      According to Simhah Zissel, what is human nature?

Simhah Zissel describes human beings as naturally inclined to selfishness, cruelty, and pride—to being, in the language of Genesis 6, “simply evil, all the time.”  But he also sees human beings having great potential, given their creation in the image of God, to develop lovingkindness and other virtues through musar, the cultivation of moral discipline.

To cultivate such discipline, one needs wisdom about the depravity of human beings, and also wisdom about human potential.  But merely understanding these two aspects of human nature is insufficient; Simhah Zissel also thinks that one must engage in tremendous efforts so that wisdom can bring discipline (musar) into one’s heart.

2) How are we depraved?

Simhah Zissel thinks that all human beings have “sick souls,” as we are always at risk for acting in depraved ways, and we are always in need of “physicians” (that is, musar masters who understand human psychology) who can help us to identify and manage our sickness.  Such physicians may prescribe a variety of therapies to help their patients; Simhah Zissel and the supervisors who worked with him at the Talmud Torah guided some students, for example, to give particular attention to lovingkindness, and others to give particular attention to their observance of Shabbat.

Simhah Zissel’s closest students joined him in setting aside every tenth day for making special efforts to overcome negative inclinations; they each committed, for example, to find three opportunities to overcome their desires on that tenth day, not to engage in idle talk on that day, and to meditate with appropriate intention on one’s eating during that day.

Simhah Zissel saw all people as tending towards evil and therefore in need of continually guarding against destructive appetites. At the same time that his writings emphasize this inevitable sickness, though, they often also emphasize the potential greatness of human beings.

Even as Simhah Zissel indicates that human beings can never be perfect, he holds out the ideal that human beings should strive to perfect their character traits, always seeking to emulate the ultimate goodness of divine lovingkindness.  He thinks that we all need tremendous dedication to the work of musar—the work of cultivating character— not only because we need to overcome our depravity but also because we are called to strive towards the highest possible ideals.

3) What is practical wisdom?

The particular virtue of “practical wisdom,” gained through experience, is also necessary for figuring out how virtues should find expression for diverse human beings in diverse circumstances.  Thus, for example, Simhah Zissel speaks of the importance of seeking to alleviate suffering in the world, and he urges his students to focus on understanding and responding to the legitimate needs of others.

How should one implement these ideals?  Sometimes, his writings give clear advice on how practical wisdom should guide his students forward.

But his writings suggest that individuals often will have to figure out for themselves how to apply general principles in particular circumstances.  Many questions cannot be easily answered.  When should one focus on one’s immediate community and when on more distant communities?  When should one proceed gently and when should one act harshly?  How should one take care to rebuke those who seem to act wrongly without being overly condescending and proud?  Practical wisdom, gained through continued study and continued learning from experience, is the virtue that will need to be employed in answering these questions in varied circumstances.

4)      What is proper virtue?

Virtues are excellent, stable dispositions, such as lovingkindness, humility, equanimity, reverence, or practical wisdom.  They are acquired through habit and affirmed by choice.  In Simhah Zissel’s view, virtues can emerge to the degree that one’s reason transforms one’s appetites, emotions, and imagination.

Virtues can be cultivated through many different kinds of activities, whether putting on tefillin, observing Shabbat, performing deeds of compassion, contemplating the day of one’s death, or meditating with empathy on the suffering of others.  Even everyday business activities can help to produce virtue, when carried out in a spirit of justice and lovingkindness.  A brief meditation before using money (“I know that my mind is inclined to covet profit; given this, I must constantly beware and strengthen myself so that I do not distort Torah law”) or when asked for a loan from someone in poverty (“see yourself as if you are the poor person, and see whether it would be good for you if the lender refrained from lending”) can help.  But cultivating virtues will never be easy.

Simhah Zissel suggests that even if one can develop somewhat stable virtues, the ideal of full virtue can never be attained by human beings.  Full virtue is divine, and it seems that even the best of human beings—even the greatest of rabbis, even prophets—will always fall short of the divine ideal of perfect, stable virtue, even as all human beings are called to strive towards that ideal.   Even those who seem to have acquired real virtue will struggle to maintain it, because problematic emotions and desires will inevitably resurface.

5)   What is the role of love and compassion? Is it really love of the sinner if he paints the sinner as a wild beast?

Love and compassion stand at the center of Simhah Zissel’s moral vision, and he emphasizes the need to engage in the difficult work of cultivating deep empathy within one’s soul so that one can truly fulfill the commandment to “love one’s fellow as oneself”—as naturally and spontaneously as we typically love ourselves and care for that which is ours.  Thus, for example, Simhah Zissel describes the ideal of feeding all who are hungry with the same commitment that we ordinarily show to our own families.

Since we privilege ourselves and those dear to us over others despite the commandment not to do so, inappropriate levels of love for ourselves and that which is ours constantly compete with love for the other. And so Simhah Zissel sees “self-love” as a central obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s commandment to love.

He also sees the commandment as requiring both attention to the physical needs of others and also to their spiritual needs—showing empathy for their moral situation, even seeking to love sinners and to help them to overcome their vices.  Yes, that includes caring for those sinners who seem like “wild beasts.”

Sometimes the sinners whom Simhah Zissel condemns are, say, non-traditionalist Jews whom he saw as threatening the piety of traditionalist Jewish society.  In this condemnation, I see a kind of self-righteousness at work, the kind of self-righteousness that characterizes many of us when we feel threatened.

Simhah Zissel could surely have done better in living up to the ideals of love that he espoused—his stress on the need to see the good in everyone, his concern that reproof of others may be easily motivated by self-love, his argument that love requires seeking to truly understand the perspectives of others.  But even if I think he struggled to live up to his ideals, I admire not only the ideals but also the way that Simhah Zissel aspired to be critical of himself and to find ways in which he too could improve his own character.

6)  Can you give the reader a really good teaching of Simhah Zissel’s that will touch the readers soul?

I love the way that Simhah Zissel tells the narrative of Moses’s transformation from a prince in Pharaoh’s palace to a prophet, and I think that it well illustrates Simhah Zissel’s conception of how Musar practice can be transformative.

He imagines Moses “seeing the sufferings” of Israel (Ex. 2:11) as a process of Moses meditating on the suffering of the slaves, keeping their experiences before his eyes and feeling their pain “as if he himself was in such pain.”  Moses comes to “share the burden” of the slaves—to feel the burdens of the slaves weighing upon his own shoulders, and to do what he can to alleviate those burdens. When he then flees to Midian, Moses also feels the sufferings of Jethro’s daughters, sharing their burden and seeking to protect them; as he comes to work as a shepherd, he feels the suffering of his sheep, sharing their burden and seeking to care for them; as he encounters God in a burning bush, he feels God’s suffering and is called to reduce it by bringing Israel out of slavery and by conveying the Torah to them.

Moses is, here, a musarnik, attentive to the needs of all who are in need (his own people, other human beings, non-human animals, and God), and he takes the time to cultivate the meditative state of mind that makes this attention possible.

7)       What is new in your book- that is not already in prior works?

Dov Katz describes Simhah Zissel’s life and thought in his study of the Musar movement (Tenu’at Ha-Musar), but whereas Katz takes a traditional approach, I seek to take a more critical approach.  I also offer a more philosophical analysis of Simhah Zissel’s moral vision, and in taking this approach I build on  Tamar Ross’s dissertation, a dissertation that does outstanding work in analyzing the thought of a range of Musar movement figures (Israel Salanter, Joseph Bloch, Yerucham Levovitz, Yosef Yozel Horowitz, and Eliyahu Dessler, along with Simhah Zissel).  I accept Ross’s analysis of Simhah Zissel as a thinker who respects autonomous human reasoning and as a “semi-consequentialist”—one who thinks that not seeking personal satisfaction in fact yields the greatest satisfaction.

I explore and expand on these ideas, but I also focus much of my attention elsewhere.  I give particular attention to Simhah Zissel’s conception of love as a virtue and his concerns about the difficulty of cultivating and sustaining proper love for others.

I also give substantial attention to his discourse surrounding philosophy and philosophers in general, and Aristotle in particular.  And I find using Aristotelian categories to be particularly productive for analyzing Simhah Zissel’s thought, especially in light of his own interest in Aristotle.

8)       How did he use Aristotle yet differ with him? How does he at the same time mock the philosophers and at the same time claim to be their heir?

Simhah Zissel’s general conception of virtue is highly Aristotelian, and at times he makes it clear that he has learned from Aristotle’s writings directly.  When he explains the concept of practical wisdom, for example, he refers his readers to Book 6 of Aristotle’s Ethics.  As he discusses his conceptions of virtue and human happiness, he periodically notes that he is following the approach of Aristotle or, more generally, “the approach of the philosophers.”

Simhah Zissel sometimes depicts Aristotle as a kind of musar master—Alexander of Macedon’s “special teacher for musar,” as he puts it at one point.  He celebrates other philosophers as well, for example depicting Socrates as precisely the kind of sage praised by the Talmud (a sage who is better described as a “disciple of the sages” because he is always learning).  And Simhah Zissel also offers particular praise to the German neo-Orthodox Jews whom he saw as appreciating the path of the philosophers (and the importance of general studies in Jewish schools) more than his fellow Russian Jews did.

But sometimes when he praises Aristotle, he quickly pivots in order to point out that Aristotle was overly focused on self-love, or that Aristotle—because he didn’t have access to the perfectly rational Torah—lacked many insights that are familiar to all Jews.  Simhah Zissel clearly wanted his students to admire certain characteristics of the philosophers, but he also clearly wanted them to see the superiority of the path of the Torah over all other paths.

I should also note that there are substantive differences between Simhah Zissel’s teachings and those of Aristotle.  For example, Aristotle does not think that human beings are naturally inclined to evil, as Simhah Zissel did.   Simhah Zissel sees the human soul as fundamentally “sick,” and he sees virtue as far more fragile than Aristotle (or Maimonides) did.  For Aristotle, character traits can be quite stable; Aristotle did not think that people of real virtue need to constantly beware that they will act viciously.  For Simhah Zissel, by contrast, one’s evil inclination can always rise up to challenge whatever stability one might achieve, sometimes producing surprising behavior.  The person who consistently acts with generosity in giving charity, for example, may suddenly revert to inexplicable miserliness and cruelty in certain situations, perhaps sparked by something rooted in his or her subconscious from a young age.  For Simhah Zissel, even the most virtuous of people need to be on guard against this kind of possibility.

9)      How is he authoritarian and anti-modern?

Dov Katz suggests that Simhah Zissel often downplayed his authority—for example, refusing to let his students address him with the title of “rabbi,” or gladly welcoming the insults and accusations of others.

But he clearly had a strongly authoritarian side, setting up a yeshiva with a system of “supervisors” who would watch over students and carefully look for signs of their moral development or moral weakness, expelling students who challenged the yeshiva’s orthodoxy.  The Talmud Torahs that Simhah Zissel led were clearly designed as insular institutions that could protect and preserve traditionalist values and Orthodox dogmas  and keep out modernity. Simhah Zissel’s writings are often quite dogmatic. I do think that this takes away from his message; I argue that in my book that Simhah Zissel could have better exemplified the values of humility, self-criticism and philosophical reasoning that he claims to have championed.

10)      Does he see all rabbis as tainted by their own moral vices?  Even the rabbis of the Talmud? If he acknowledges that the Talmudic rabbis were tainted then does that make contemporary gedolim higher than many rabbi of the Talmud?

Simhah Zissel indicates that most rabbis are not fit to be rabbis, because—as he learned from Israel Salanter—a rabbi “needs to perfect his character traits” in order to make legal judgments that convey God’s perfectly rational and loving will.  It is clear that, in his view, even the greatest sages always need to work on their character traits, and are always in danger of letting their appetites overcome their rational capacities—“even the best of them can revert to being reborn with a cruel nature.”  Even the sages of the Talmud are not called “sages,” but are called “the disciples of the sages” (talmidei hakhamim) because they are always seeking to learn and to improve.  Even Moses lacked complete wisdom, such that he needed to be rebuked by his father-in-law Jethro.

Still, Moses was as close to perfection as anyone can be, and the laws he transmitted were ultimately to be obeyed on pain of death; the Talmudic rabbis were qualified to articulate God’s will precisely because they had improved their character traits to a tremendous degree.

Would a contemporary musar master who nearly perfected his character traits be on the level of the Talmudic rabbis, or even on the level of prophets?  This seems to be the implication of Simhah Zissel’s teachings, and later students of his Kelm Talmud Torah—most prominently, Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler—certainly emphasized that true musar masters were uniquely qualified to convey the truth (da’as Torah) and were to be obeyed just as prophets must be obeyed.  Simhah Zissel does not convey the same confidence that any contemporary rabbi could reach this level, but he certainly holds it out as a theoretical possibility.

11)    How do you use Simhah Zissel’s message of the Golden Calf incident as a modern message showing the need to not be stiff necked rather self-critical?

Simhah Zissel notes that God condemns Israel after their worship of the Golden Calf above all for their stiff-neckedness—as Simhah Zissel understands it, their inability to accept criticism, to change, and to grow.  The people of Israel were fixed in their habits, convinced of their own righteousness, unable to accept truths that contradicted their own experiences.  Studying the Golden Calf story, Simhah Zissel thinks, should inspire us to turn away from the assumptions to which we have been habituated.

I deeply appreciate how Simhah Zissel sees this story—and so many other stories in the Torah—as a story that can remind us of our own fixed assumptions and the ways in which we could be more open-minded and self-critical.  But it’s also important to me to recognize the limits to Simhah Zissel’s own ability to be self-critical.

I end my book by reflecting on Simhah Zissel’s inability to question assumptions about the perfection of the Torah as he understands it.  I do think that a better model of musar would acknowledge the imperfections of the traditions to which we are heir—studying those traditions critically can help to make one more open to criticism, less convinced of one’s righteousness, less fixed in one’s assumptions.

As I suggested in a recent essay on this theme, not only questioning oneself in light of authoritative traditions but also considering critical questions about how those traditions have been constructed and their authors’ particular interests can be an important way “to accept criticism, to change, and to grow.”

12) There seems to be a revival of musar around JTS and some Conservative rabbis, can you describe this revival?

I wouldn’t say that such a revival is widespread, but there have been significant efforts by a number of teachers and institutions that have generated interest among Conservative rabbis in musar practice (involving the disciplined attention to character traits) based on models from the 19th century Musar movement.  My teacher Rabbi Ira Stone taught at JTS for a number of years and promoted a vision of musar practice there (and subsequently at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and now through his Mussar Leadership Program).  Stone’s model of musar practice and his focus on lovingkindness are very much grounded in Simhah Zissel’s teachings, though he has developed an alternative, non-orthodox theological framework that draws on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.

Another influential musar teacher for Conservative rabbis and lay leaders has been Rabbi Shmuel (Richard) Lewis, who for a decade held weekly musar lectures and dialogues with students at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he was Rosh Yeshiva, focused on inspiring students to greater piety.  Rabbi Amy Eilberg has been teaching musar practice in a variety of contexts, and has developed a model of musar practice focused on conflict resolution in her book From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace.  JTS has also received funding to support musar practice at the Seminary through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Tikkun Middot Project (funded by the John Templeton Foundation).  And while the Mussar Institute led by Alan Morinis has taught Musar practice to a wide range of Jews, with particular success in the Reform movement, they are also sponsoring a workshop later this month specifically to train Conservative rabbis committed to bringing musar groups to their communities. I don’t think, though, that at this point such groups are any more widespread in Conservative than in Reform, Reconstructionist, or other non-Orthodox contexts.

13)   Do you think this is really a message for American Conservative Jews who are basically tribal and at the same time not virtuous, without a sense of depravity, and without a need to work on themselves?

When I’ve described a “revival” of non-Orthodox interest in the legacy of the Musar movement in America, I’ve tried emphasize that this revival is small, counter-cultural, and unlikely to spread widely.  That’s especially true among aging American Conservative Jews whose Jewish identity is expressed in largely tribal terms and who are not eager to commit to years of slow and disciplined critical introspection.  Nor will this path be appealing to younger Jews who are only interested in nonjudgmental forms of spirituality.  And there’s certainly no appetite among American Jews of any stripe for the sort of 19th century Musar that emphasizes human depravity and the need for submission to authority.

But it’s not surprising to me that many younger rabbis, who do see Jewish tradition as a path towards love and moral sensitivity and who appreciate the value of disciplined practice, are disproportionately attracted to aspects of the Musar movement’s legacy.  And it’s not surprising to see some broader interest among non-Orthodox American Jews, especially among those who are interested in forms of Jewish spirituality focused on individual transformation that can happen outside of conventional Jewish communal settings.

14)   What are his ideas on wealth and how can they be used as both self-centered prosperity gospel by Daniel Lapin and for liberal love of others by American Jewish World Service.

Simhah Zissel devotes considerable attention to the importance of developing qualities of empathy and responsibility towards those in need, and the writings and practices he advocates can serve as a source of inspiration for many contemporary Jews focused on alleviating poverty.  American Jewish World Service, for example, has a curriculum for a ten-month service-learning program (for recent American college graduates and young professionals) that asks students to engage in musar work focused on different character traits over the course of the program; for the trait of responsibility, it asks students to reflect on Simhah Zissel’s teachings on responsibility.

Simhah Zissel’s writings also stress the ways in which business activity and gaining wealth can be morally dangerous—typically a source of pride, greed, dishonesty, distraction, a lack of concern for other people, and a lack of trust in God. They show some appreciation of commerce, however, as a potential arena for lovingkindness and not just as a necessary evil.  I’ve been struck by the resonances between some of his language about lovingkindness in business and some similar language used by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the contemporary American conservative political activist and business consultant, in his claims about how the Jewish tradition supports making money as a businessperson.  Lapin’s family’s origins are with the Kelm school of Musar that Simhah Zissel founded, and Lapin echoes his forebears with his stress on cultivating virtues and seeing commerce as an arena for love.

But his confidence that business is “inherently moral” is antithetical to Simhah Zissel’s stress on the inherent dangers of business activity.  I think that Lapin’s writings offer an interesting example of how musar can be transformed by American Orthodox Jews in a new cultural setting that unabashedly revels in material prosperity.

Philosophic Religion, Popular Polytheism, and Foreign Worship

As I finish writing up my thoughts on the Jewish -Hindu encounter, I will be offering a few tentative posts to get feedback (email or FB). For those who did not read the earlier posts, this is part of a bigger project. For some examples of the the prior posts, see here, here,  here, here, here and here and the feature article here. As stated in some of those prior posts: this post is not meant as a critique of either religion.

When I present lectures on the Hindu-Jewish encounter in Jewish venues, I inevitably hear from the audience that everything I say is only about the narrow elite Hindus who are like Westerners. However, they claim that the masses have no knowledge of any of these Hindu philosophies. The audience has never been to India, has never read or studied about the topic, and generally, is not socially connected to practitioners of Hinduism. Yet, the listeners are persistent in their stereotypes. Where does this widespread prejudice of assuming Hindus are primitive come from?


The short answer is that this approach is derived from English philosopher, David Hume and the thinkers of his era. It was copied in various mainstream books until the 20th century and promoted a distinction between popular and philosophic religions. Hume presents an evolution towards Protestantism, beginning with the first people being polytheists and then ritual legalists, culminating in Christianity.

Hume considers the basis of polytheism is “not the beauty and order we discover in the works of nature, as that leads us to genuine theism.” Rather, polytheism is a religion that responds directly to the human hopes, fears, and misery caused by weather, illness, and wars. “When human beings are in a more primitive and backward state of society,” we find that the “ignorant multitude conceives of these unknown causes as depending on invisible, intelligent agents who they may influence by means of prayers and sacrifice. By this means, human beings hope to control what they do not understand” by means of many gods.

Hume thinks that “As a result of this process, the world becomes populated with human-like invisible, intelligent powers that are objects of worship.” But is this not the concern of every religion?  Hume answers, no, in that polytheism does not concern itself with the abstract question concerning the origin or supreme government of the universe. For him, primitive people who are struggling for their daily survival do not have time to speculate about philosophy or our idea of God (Natural History of Religion, 4.2).

Hume sees two tiers of religion, the intellectuals and the common people, in which the common people are driven by fears and anxieties to accept forces beyond their control and slip into polytheism.

What does this have to do with Hinduism, in that much of it also applies to uneducated Jews and Christians? The application of Hume’s line of thought was made by eighteenth century authors on Hinduism. Sir William Jones (1746 –1794), for example, was an Anglo-Welsh philologist, a judge on the Supreme Court of in Bengal, and a scholar of ancient India. He was particularly known for his invention of the idea of Indo-European languages and wrote six volumes on Hinduism considering it locked into its infancy. It once had a magnificent past, but it did not progress yielding a degenerate present.

Jones explicitly compares the Hindus to the Jews as both stuck in their development to an ancient age of needing rituals. Jones writes: “Hindus are like the Israelites who needed rituals and ceremonies because of their childlikeness. With the full manhood of Christianity these rituals become superfluous.” So modern Jews should be careful about accepting the Hindu side of this pejorative statement, since much of the same applies to Judaism.

The 19th century Bengali Renaissance accepted Hume’s distinction and the colonial gaze of these books distinguishing the philosophic parts of the Hindu religion from the popular superstition. During this same era, Judaism refashioned itself so as to meet this rationalist and Protestant challenge creating Reform and aesthetic Orthodoxy.

This approach was further aided by Max Muller, the German Sanskritist and translator of the Hindu volumes in the series, Sacred Books of the East, who had never actually been to India, sought a rational meaning in the Vedas which he considered Aryan and philosophic as opposed to the popular Hindu religion of the last 2,500 years, which he considered degenerate and primitive. His focus on the ancient classics at the expense of medieval and modern Hinduism is the core of many religion textbooks to this day. Like Jones, Muller saw Christianity as the highest expression of religion to the detriment of Judaism and Hinduism.

This view became standardized in introduction to religion textbooks such as L.S.S. O’Malley’s 1935 work, Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses. O’Malley writes:

The differences between the beliefs and practices of the cultured classes and those of the masses, mostly unlettered villagers, are so great that they almost seem to be differences of kind rather than of degree. The religion of the latter has few of the higher spiritual conceptions of Hinduism and represents in the main its lower side. A mixture of orthodox Hinduism and of that primitive form of religion which is known as animism, it combines Brahmanical rites and observances with the fetishism of lower cults.

Notice that the elite Brahminical works as well as the medieval theological works are listed as primitive in contrast to the modern Neo-Hindu approaches.  In contrast, my stay at Banares Hindu University concerned the so called “primitive” Brahmimical works, especially as they are similar to Jewish works.

Between the 16th to 19th centuries Jews were also generally considered pagan in their rituals, so much so, that Jewish practice was used to understand Native American practices and other newly discovered peoples. Let us not forget, in our discussion, the visit of Samuel Pepys, English naval administrator who is now most famous for his 1663 diary entry, detailing his visit to a synagogue for Simchat Torah. Pepys saw Judaism as brutish and primitive, the way contemporary Westerners have viewed Hindu festivals:

But, Lord! To see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.

The philosopher G. F. W. Hegel following Hume saw Judaism as mediation between primitive religion and Christianity having aspects of both.


Jewish ritual was only excluded from the primitive in the twentieth century. James G. Frazer in his classic work The Golden Bough (1890) placed the rituals of Biblical religion amidst primitive polytheism. Originally, Semitic scholar, Robinson Smith, in an 1880 article discussed totemism and animal worship among the Hebrews. However, later he switched and kept the Biblical religion separate from the primate, treating many statements as mere metaphor. In 1951, the Biblical scholar H Frankfort wrote that scholars should no run to create parallels between the Ancient Near East and the Bible, almost repudiating the connection in Western culture.

shabot 6000

Foreign Worship

Is Hume’s concept of polytheism and the Jewish concept of foreign worship (avodah zarah) the same? In a word: No. Polytheism is about being primitive, magical, and behind the evolutionary curve, a Protestant pejorative. The Jewish halakhic category of foreign worship deals with a mistake that leads people from a primordial natural theism to a form of worship using representation. Among the first to use the term polytheism was John Selden in 1619 who applied it as well to ancient Hebrews.

The most common definition of the Jewish concept of foreign worship is that of the medieval commentator Rashi, who considers the prohibition as referring as using images. Judaism remains without images and statues, compared to its iconography-heavy religions of Christianity and certainly Hinduism.

If we turn to Maimonides, we see foreign worship as a categorical mistake of logic and of one’s following imagination instead of reason.  He presents the use of images in worship as only having started in the era of Enosh, the first son of Seth who figures in the generations of Adam in the book Genesis.

In the days of Enosh, the people fell into gross error, and the counsel of the wise men of the generation became foolish. Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error was as follows: Since God, they said, created these stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified, and honor should be rendered them.


They began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech, and prostrated themselves before them – their purpose, according to their perverse notions, being to attain the Creator’s will. This was the root of idolatry, and this is what the idolaters, who knew its fundamentals, said. They did not however maintain that there was no God except the particular star.

Foreign Worship  is born of a confusion growing from this fact that stars and astral bodies govern the world and the proper way to worship the one true God. It is a category mistake followed by a second mistake about needing Temples, ritual and sacrifice. The foreign worship is the misdirected quest to fulfill God’s will and to grant Him honor through ritual to these forces regardless of good intention.

Maimonides continues his presentation by explaining how this view of Biblical history plays itself out as a restriction on Jewish practice:

The essence of the commandment of foreign worship is not to worship any creation, not an angel, a sphere, or a star, one of the four elements, nor any entity created from them. Even if the person worshiping knows that the Lord is the God, but nevertheless serves the creation in the manner in which Enosh and the people of his generation worshiped originally.

Worshiping another being is what constitutes foreign worship.  Jews do not use any intermediary, angels, or natural force in their worship . Most traditional Jews accept this definition, albeit traditional Jews have always had appeals to angels as part of the liturgy that seems to violate this approach. In contrast, for Hindus, the images are the only ways to reach the Absolute infinite divine, in that a sensory image is needed to focus human worship, while for Jews images are a category error.

Let us contrast Hume to Maimonides in their concepts of incorrect worship of the divine. Maimonides thought that monotheism came first and turning to other beings  came second as a mistake; for Hume it was the other way around.  People are primitive until they evolve into enlightened reason.

To Maimonides view, Hindus could easily retort that he is mistaken on the nature of their Hindu worship, but to Hume the only response would be to claim to be philosophic as did the Neo-Vedanta modernists. The Jewish concept of foreign worship is about the concept of the divine and the role played by the imagination. While the non-Jewish English word polytheism is about a primitive state of humanity that could not conceptualize the divine.

Maimonides argues that we ought to endeavor to imitate God as much as it is possible for a human being. In imitating God, we will be drawn towards greater human perfection which may eventually result in knowledge of God and becoming like God. However, to Hume one is not seeking to obtain knowledge of God or to imitate God, rather to be rational in an Enlightenment sense.

How does Maimonides see the Jewish non-philosophers? Maimonides claims the Bible is written in a way that all men are capable of understanding even prior to their philosophic training. (Guide I: 26, 56). According to Maimonides, “the Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man,” in order that everyone has exposure to correct views, therefore the multitude ought to be instructed as to the perfection of God in terms using only the external, sense of the words.  Elsewhere he claims that people ought to be “made to accept on traditional authority the belief that God is not a body; and that there is absolutely no likeness in any respect whatever between Him and the things created by Him. (Guide I: 35, 80).

Maimonides, similar to Saadyah, could have no problem with theist versions of Nyaya, Mimamsa, and Yoga, and could theoretically find a way to accept many forms of Vedanta. The fundamental divide in the two religions from a Maimonidean perspective comes down to three key differences, the first being the proper method of worship. For Hindus, imagination, sight, sense, and aesthetics are essential to proper worship. Jews in theory do not embellish worship with the senses.

Second, the Maimonidean philosophic religion aimed for the elite gives it a lack of tolerance toward lay devotion or any vestigial forms of ancient religion so a Maimonidean would even have problems with Jewish folk practices.  Hindus have huge amounts of tolerance toward lay devotion and popular conceptions.

Third, Hindus use images and intermediaries in their worship as a proper means to bring the person to God. Maimonides rejects this, but Nahmanides’ approach of limiting the eschewing of images only to Jews is more productive in that it allows non-Jews to have images. Rashba, Nahmanides’s student, states that worship is not considered foreign worship provided one has not lost sight of God, who is the ultimate source of power and governance behind the lower forces.

Polytheism implied an evolution to the truth of Christianity. The traditional Jewish category of foreign worship in practice is more  about erecting boundaries in relation as to what a Jew is allowed to do than a theological position.

During the colonial era, Chief Rabbi of Britain Joseph H. Hertz (1872–1946) combined Hume with a universal tolerance. He states that the heathens were not held responsible for a false conception of God and “were judged by God purely by their moral life.”  For Hertz, “a primitive stage of religious belief” can still form “part of God’s guidance of humanity.” Even in their primitive version, [they] are serving the one true God (Malachi. 1:11) “Even the heathen nations that worship the heavenly hosts pay tribute to a Supreme Being, and in this way honor My name; and the offerings which they thus present (indirectly) unto Me are animated by a pure spirit, God looking to the heart of the worshipper.”

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, editor of a modern edition of the Talmud, takes other religions at their word as theists and considers the high culture philosophic version as the correct version.  First, he assumes that “Hinduism and Buddhism are sufficiently monotheistic in principle for moral Hindus and Buddhists to enter the gentile’s gate into heaven.” For Steinsaltz, “the compromises made or tolerated by the world’s major religions as ways of rendering essentially monotheistic theologies easier in practice for large populations of adherents.” So a theist Shavite, or a Vaishnavite would fall under Jewish monotheism.

At the same time, however, Steinsaltz, while still following Hume, writes that “the less than absolutely monotheistic folk beliefs” of Hindus are taken in Jewish law to be violations of the monotheistic principles of those religions.  Folk believes “are only problematic internally – solely within the discourse of another religion about its own believers. Such violations do not affect what Judaism has to say that religion.” Once the other religion is deemed sufficiently theistic then they are not foreign worship despite their folk belief since Jewish law cannot be violated “by Hindus since Jewish law does not apply to them.”


Folk Religion

What is the religion of the folk in the villages? There are two main Western books on village Hinduism. Lawrence Babb’s Divine Hierarchy and the subsequent C.J. Fuller’s The Camphor Flame.

In contrast to Western speculation from afar based on Hume, Lawrence Babb, an academic specialist on Hinduism who did field work in a small village, calls this distinction between philosophic Hinduism and primitive Hinduism into question. Babb notes that before he entered the field, his Western education taught him to distinguish between the great tradition of the relatively few and the little tradition of the unreflective masses. In contrast, his field work showed that the two elements are complimentary and that the Sanskrit high tradition plays an important role in defining the local traditions while the local traditions define how the high tradition would be performed in a given location.

Babb specifically shows how ordinary villagers have internalized a hierarchy of behaviors with philosophic theologies behind them showing they know both the high and low levels of their relgion. A prime example is found in the ubiquitous knowledge of different types of temples differentiating the high culture of the Brahmins, who serve in the temple and have fixed liturgy from the folk in their own local temples who know that in their own local temples they themselves can perform rituals and worship lower devas. For these people, no god can be so demanding as to exclude their own worshipers from their altars. Local devas and temples are less strict about purity, procedure, and chants than Brahmin temples but there remain a known hierarchal differences between a temple with a Brahmin priest and those without.  Deities of the high culture are seen as responsible for the social order unlike smaller local ones who handle smallpox and fertility. According to Babb:

The Hindu pantheon is a fluid array of supernatural beings and tends to alter in form as one context is replaced by another. In some contexts particular deities are seen as discrete entities, but under other circumstances deities merge with one another and their characteristics blend. At the most abstract level differentiation disappears altogether, as is suggested in the frequently heard Hindu truism that “all gods are one.

Major deities may have a village, local or little version who hears personal concerns. Great theistic god(s) with general powers over the cosmos, are normally thought to be distant from mundane problems of ordinary people. For that reason, Hindus rarely ask them for help.” All towns have a goddess to pray to for fertility, marriage, and smallpox even though she irrelevantly assumes different names.  The high theist god (s) are known by the people but are seen as abstract and distant in both feeling and in their pure rituals. But the local devas are kept featureless so that tales and theology return to the high culture.

The high Sanskrit culture and the culture of the ordinary villager are not separate or discrete from each other; they are merely differences of style or dialect, different modes of expression saying the same thing. Even complex theologies of metaphysics, philosophy and emanations are chanted in the vernacular or carved into the images in the walls of the Temples.

For the religion within contemporary urban slums, the more practical needs of daily life predominate over formal temple ritual. They stress the feminine Shakti elements in religion that are concerned with fertility, childbirth, health and family. Ordinary people pray for worldly ends and individual needs in the same way all urban poor worry about money, relationship and health in their religion. Jews and Christins who fret about illness and money also turn to practices that address these issues.  And like graffiti and hip hop, urban poor create their own original art and stories and songs that catch on among the elite as part of modern popular culture.


Benjamin Brown on Halakhic Labor Law: Statist or Democratic?

One of my favorite articles by Prof. Benjamin Brown of Hebrew University has recently been translated and revised. It was first given in 2006 and here it is online a decade later with more documentation.  “Trade Unions, Strikes, and the Renewal of Halakhic Labor Law: Ideologies in the Rulings of Rabbis Kook, Uziel, and Feinstein”

In the article, Brown asks how the three ideologies in the early 20th century: Socialism, Statism and Democracy played themselves out in halakhic labor law. He specifically focuses on how Rabbis Kook and Uziel in Israel followed the statist-fascist direction of the Revisionists and Italian nationalism, while Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in the United States followed democratic thinking.

Brown asks: Why the difference and concludes that it was cultural-historical differences between the United States and Israel.

Brown focuses on his binary ideological categories but what if he started with cultural-historical categories and gave an historical development? His footnotes give ample material for such an approach. For example, we can show that American Orthodoxy in the 1930’s and 40’s was concerned with labor and labor rights, Orthodoxy in the 1960’s was concerned with democracy and the individual, and Orthodoxy  in the 1990’s was interested with supply side and conservative economics.

The question is where does that leave us in our age- where right and left- seem to be writing for top 6% of wealth and for the upper middle class? Who will be the halakhic leaders for the middle and lower middle class, and even for Orthodox workers?

Finally, if we say that religious views mold us, then how do these different economic positions mold different communities socially and politically?

To contextualize the article itself, Brown’s starting approach is based on Karl Mannheim’s (1923)view of ideology  as a worldview that determines the way we read a text or define a situation.  In contrast, in the US, we are more likely to start with Clifford Geertz (1973) who took issue with considering ideology as determining a situation. Rather, all ideology is embedded in a cultural construction that bears the meaning, symbolism, and moral order of the society.  Brown concluded the article by turning to the cultural rather than starting there.

For ease of reading, the paragraphs below are cut from Brown’s essay. Only the quotes from the repsonsa literature are blocked off as quotes.  At the end of the piece, I have a little ending section on Rabbi S. Z. Shragai.


Precursors in Europe: Rabbis Against Labor

In the 1870s, the authorities demanded that rabbis preach against workers’ movements and denounce their subversive elements; the rabbis, usually adopting a submissive approach towards the “Kingdom,” complied.  It appears, however, that even when the state was not directly involved in the employee-employer relations, the rabbis took the side of the employers… when a worker’s strike broke out in the Edelstein cigarette factory in Vilna, the local preacher (maggid) came out in a sermon against the strikers—and this was not an isolated incident. Similarly… halakhic rulings issued by the rabbis often tended to minimize the legal liability of the employer towards the employee.

[I]n the entire literature of the Jewish workers’ movement all these religious types were presented as haters of the worker and the revolution; but in general the rabbis indeed subscribed to the rule “a rabbi respects the wealthy” [a pun based on B. Eruvin 86a].

A similar line was also followed by Gershon Bacon concerning Agudat Yisrael’s lack of interest in social questions. In his opinion, one of the reasons for this was that “the leadership cadre of Aguda consisted mostly of wealthy communal notables and venerable rabbis, both of a decidedly conservative bent.”

Torah veAvodah

During the 1930s, we witness the initial awakening of rabbinic writing in the field of labor law. Articles and books, both halakhic and quasi-halakhic, began to appear. Some of them dealt with, among other things, the right to unionize and the right to strike. In 1933, Rabbi Kook issued an oral responsum on this matter that was published in the journal Netivah of Hapoel HaMizrachi and subsequently referenced repeatedly.

In 1934, Rabbi Yekutiel Aryeh Kamelhar published a short article on the topic in the one-time bulletin Torah vaAvodah (Torah and Labor).3 Books on the subject were soon published: in 1935, Rabbi Chaim Zev Reines of the United States published his book of rabbinic scholarship The Worker in Scripture and Talmud.  In 1935, Rabbi Moshe Findling of the Land of Israel published his pioneering halakhic work Tehukat haAvodah (The Constitution of Labor) contained a concise and clear summary of the halakhic laws of labor. Rabbi Baruch Schlichter (Yashar) published in 1947 a digest of useful halakhah, in which he had already included two chapters on labor law. In 1947, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Bick published his short book Mishnat HaPoalim (The Doctrine of Workers), which was written while he was in the Land of Israel but only published years after he immigrated to the United States; this work had five responsa concerning labor laws.

Rabbis Findling and Bick did not adhere to the traditional halakhic line, which outlawed strikes in a more or less categorical manner. Rather, they recognized the halakhic legitimacy of the workers’ struggles. Rabbi Findling’s formulation in this matter is instructive and beneficial in reflecting the change that has gradually broken through in the rabbinic world since the time of the responsum by Rabbi Aryeh Leibush Lifshitz banning strikes. At the outset, Rabbi Findling presents the traditional halakhic line, accompanied by critiques of the Marxist position that was opposed to it:

To cease working without the consent of the employer, we find no permission in Jewish law, . . . and even less to prevent other workers, whose work conditions were agreed upon in a contract, from doing their job. The concept of “strike” was established in the terminology of Marxism, rooted in the unilateral dictatorship of the proletariat. No objective law in the world can accept it, and certainly not the Torah, which is the true law

On the other hand, we must not close our eyes to the reality that forced the workers to use the means of striking to protect their vital interests. Therefore our duty—not because of any defense for either side, but to find the truth of our Holy Torah—is to seek legal ways to have the workers reach the desired benefit, without discarding the path of law and morality. Therefore . . . we would like to mention two legal ways to permit halting the work in necessary circumstances.

Rabbi Findling unhesitatingly refers to the right to strike as a legitimate and lawful measure. In this spirit, he writes that one of the objectives of the trade union, which is recognized as legitimate according to halakhah, is to

force workers into a general strike, if the employers do not agree even to their minimum demands.” And this is so in order “not to leave the worker isolated and unaided and to protect himself and his vital interests . . . and attain respect and fair wages for his work even if employers might thereby incur losses.

It is interesting to note that at least three of the responsa on this topic came as replies to the query of one person, Akiva Egozi…

The responsa regarding the right to strike as a whole were also almost all issued in reply to the query of one person—Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Shragai. Three of the responsa concerning the right to strike and the right of unionization owe their existence to a member of Hapoel HaMizrachi movement, Shlomo Zalman Shragai. Shragai, public activist and author, addressed these questions to Rabbi Kook, who was then serving as the Chief Rabbi for Eretz Israel, and he published both of his oral responsa in the journal Netivah in 1933.About five years later, in 1938, he again took up this issue with Rabbi Uziel on behalf of the Hapoel HaMizrachi organization… In 1945, we also find a further query by Shragai concerning the same question, this time to Rabbi Eliezer Y. Waldenberg, author of Tzitz Eliezer.

Mizrachi Truck

The Corporatist Model

The corporatist model was accepted by the Revisionist movement. Ze’ev Jabotinsky studied in Rome under one of the fathers of the fascist corporatist theory, Arturo Labriola, and was influenced by him. He believed in the importance of private capital for the construction of the land while negating the principle of class struggle. He held the conviction that national aspirations were supposed to unite all classes (“monism”). Settling labor disputes, he held, must be done through boards of “national arbitration”—the revisionist model that corresponded to the corporations.

Shragai asked Rabbi Kook: “What is the halakhic law regarding strikes aimed at preserving existing labor conditions and strikes aimed to improve them?” According to the text in Netivah, the Chief Rabbi replied:

A strike is permitted for the objective of forcing the employer to appear in a rabbinic court (beit din) or to enforce a court decision in connection with a contentious dispute, be it to preserve the workers’ conditions or to better them. As a result of this it is clear that in all disputes of this type the workers must summon the employer to a rabbinic court with a claim, [and] if the employer refuses, it is the right of the workers to call a strike, even without any special consent from the court to such a call, which accords with the legal reasoning of the later poskim.  Of course, it is permitted to require that such conflict will not be adjudicated in an ordinary rabbinic court but in a court of broad panel, consisting of rabbis noted for their Torah prowess and proficiency, and well versed in issues of life and labor.

An examination of this responsum teaches that Rabbi Kook did not allow strikes to enable free bargaining, by which the parties would determine their rights and duties through the accepted power games. The final authority was the court that Rabbi Kook now offered to set up. Striking was intended to enforce attendance at the beit din or to enforce compliance with its rulings but not to achieve economic goals per se. The language of the text emphasizes the dispensations—“a strike is permitted,” “it is permitted”—but, practically speaking, the requisite conditions made it fairly limited.

It is easy to see that the arrangement Rabbi Kook suggested here is the system of national arbitration of the type which Jabotinsky had supported, and also the General Zionists at the outset of their movement. The basic approach embodied in this model is, as already noted, the concept of the organic unity of the nation, which finds its expression in the state.

The Responsum of Rabbi Uziel

In my humble opinion it appears that in general striking is not allowed and not desirable, neither for the worker nor for the employer. [Not] for the worker— because each day of striking from productive work is a day lost of life, and the Torah commanded about obligations of working. . . . And not for the employer—because any construction or industrial labor, let alone planting, that would not be done and completed within the proper season falls into the category of permanent loss, not just because the time was lost but also because of the damage that results from it to the work-process material.

Make a deduction from the law governing a workman who withdraws from his work in the middle of his contractual employment time: although in principle the workman can retract even in the middle of the day, based on the biblical verse “For unto me the children of Israel are servants” [meaning] “they are My servants—but not servants to servants” (B. Baba Kamma 116 and B. Baba Metzia 77), the law is decided that, if loss would result, the worker could not withdraw ([Shulhan Arukh] Hoshen Mishpat section 333, paragraph 8).

According to prevailing labor conditions, at present it is clear to me that any delay in the work of agriculture or industrial production or construction causes enormous losses that cannot be later restored. . . . In view of all the above considerations it is obvious that strikes or work lockouts are not desirable in themselves and cause losses to the worker or to the owner on the grounds of the law absolving liability for indirect damages.

This source, which was cited by almost all the halakhists who discussed the issue of striking, is problematic largely because it deals with the right of the worker to cancel his labor contract totally, while a strike is not the breaking of a labor relationship but an attempt to achieve better conditions within the framework of this relationship. This crucial flaw, which Rabbi Waldenberg pointed out in his responsum of 1945.

Rabbi Uziel explains:

The rationale for this law is that no trade organization can be objective in its decisions but only subjective, and their own self-interest blinds them from seeing the employer’s point of view. Moreover, the existence of one organization leads to the establishment of another to counter it, and they [both] do not limit themselves to their [direct] interests; and so the constant clashing between the two sides—the workers and the employers—never stops, and is followed by blind resistance and constant mutual hostility.

In the spirit of this understanding he suggested, to establish a distinguished court (beit din), assembled of members fluent in Torah law and academics proficient in the field of economics and societal market conditions, so they jointly enact a detailed labor legislation, and afterwards appoint permanent judges to adjudicate on the basis of this legislation all the conflicts that occur between the workers concerning the proper division of fair labor among themselves, and settle disputes between the workers and employers concerning their mutual relationships.” Rabbi Uziel supported this idea with the Talmudic requirement of a “distinguished man’s” consent.

It is almost needless to add that the court suggested by Rabbi Uziel has never been established. Israeli workers today, even Orthodox, may strike without asking permission from any judiciary, and if the conflict is brought to court, it will be the Labor Court, established by the secular law in 1969, that will adjudicate the case according to secular law and without any rabbinic involvement. Workers and employers can bring their case to a rabbinical court only in the form of arbitration, based on mutual consent.

Despite Rabbi Uziel’s reliance on Jewish traditional sources, and possibly due to internal tensions that arise from this reliance, it is difficult not to notice that he practically adopts the corporative model, which we saw with the fascist thinkers and subsequently with the revisionist thinkers.Rabbi Uziel, who had a clear humanist bent, was disinclined to fascism. But he was a man open to the intellectual winds of the time, and it is reasonable to assume that he had absorbed corporatism through the agency of the revisionists.

He continues at length about the halakhah giving the worker “the legal right to organize and establish beneficial regulations for his society, which would anchor a fair and just division of labor among its members and achieve a respectable treatment and a fair wage for his work.”

He wanted to see the workers’ organization establish “cultural institutions to enrich the scientific and artistic education [of the worker] and his Torah knowledge, medical institutions and recreation places to renew his strength exploited by work and heal wounds caused by it.” He even saw the worker’s organization as the responsible body for the pension insurance of the worker—“to create a savings fund for old age and for disabilities”—a norm that would exempt the employer from that responsibility.

Thus, it is abundantly clear that Rabbi Uziel did not negate the right to strike because of a lack of solidarity with the workers or to protect the interests of the employers. The element that attracted him to the corporative model was most likely the element of harmonious concord, and the idea that it is possible to solve labor relations issues through brotherhood and national unity beyond any class interest. This way of thinking integrated into his broader Zionist viewpoints, which placed the unity of the nation as a supreme value,and his aspiration to see all segments of the public joining in the enterprise of the national revival.

Rabbi Uziel does not want to see workers on strike, since strikes are detrimental to the process of “nation-building.” But also he does not want to see workers fired, since this also causes similar harm. What he would like to see is an idyllic situation free of conflict. Indeed, Rabbi Uziel’s quasi-corporative model was nourished by exaggerated optimism, if not naiveté. At its base stands an organic approach to national unity, which seeks to keep aggressive measures distant from both sides.


Rabbi Feinstein & Democracy

Rabbi Feinstein began his responsum of 1951 with decisive words, expressing unequivocal support for the freedom to unionize and the freedom to strike:

Concerning the associations of workers called “unions,” which make regulations, determine set wages, prevent employers from firing them, and help each other through strikes and similar means for their benefit, I do not see any shade of prohibition; on the contrary, we see moreover that they are allowed even to make terms contrary to the set halakhic law… they are allowed to impose sanctions for enforcing their terms and even cause damage [to a person who violates them]

but in matters which are not against the law, such as to determine wages and to help each other—there is no need at all for the consent of a sage, for the matter is like all business arrangements and ordinary partnerships.

Thus, in passing, Rabbi Feinstein ruled that striking is not against the halakhah—a problematic claim in traditional thinking about labor relations

In his responsum of 1954, Rabbi Feinstein deals with the question of the majority rule and the applicability of regulations on non-unionized workers. From a close reading of the language of the Shulhan Arukh he concludes that the resolutions of a trade union do not require the unanimous consent of its members, and hence “it is obvious that they require [only] a majority.” He stresses that a clear majority is needed, and the voice of one half is insufficient.

The possibility of requiring a full consensus, as in ordinary partnerships, was not raised even as a rejected supposition.

In the following text, Rabbi Feinstein seems to go even further, as he referred not only to the majority of union members, but to that of all the workers in the same trade, including those that are not unionized.

Rabbi Feinstein seems to have been forced to abandon the rules of the partnership model and to adopt those generally associated with the beit din model. In essence, he grabs the rope by both its ends: he is ready to take any “gains” from each model, but he not prepared to pay the “prices” enveloped in them. The author of Igrot Moshe did all this without giving thought to the theoretical problem of the model that substantiates the authority of the union. His explanation is a patchwork from the two approaches put together. In reference to the consent of the “distinguished man” and to joint unionization with non-Jews, he is content with the contractual approach, but in reference to the power to impose its orders he favors the authority approach.

[AB- below is a famous paragraph from Rav Moshe Feinstein]

This clearly shows the great advantage of the United States: And so the government of the United States—that already 150 years ago established in its constitution not to promote any faith or ideology but let each person do as he wills while the government only watches that no one swallow up his fellow—does God’s will. It is by that right that the United States has prospered and become great during this time period. And we are obligated to pray for them [for the United States and its government], that God send them success in all that they undertake. In light of these words, it is no wonder that Rabbi Feinstein saw the United States as the “Kingdom of Grace.”


abolish slavery

Brown’s Conclusions

[T]he poskim developed the halakhic models which in their eyes were best suited to regulate labor relations, and thus absorbed the right of unionization and the right of modern strikes into Jewish law. The modern world posed three main models for such regulation: the communist model, the liberal-democratic model, and the corporative model.

However, Rabbis Kook and Uziel remained still closer to the conceptions of the traditional, pre-modern labor laws, and adhered (with certain internal contradiction) to the model that saw labor relations in terms of rental relationships. Consequently, they saw the striking worker as one who breaches the work contract and damages the employer. Rabbi Feinstein, in contrast, was clearly closest to the concept of modern labor laws

In terms of the ideological context, Rabbis Kook and Uziel adopted a corporative model quite close to the one that was advocated by the Revisionists in the Land of Israel (and the fascist theorists in Italy), while Rabbi Feinstein adopted a distinctly liberal model, which corresponds to the arrangement that was established in most Western democratic countries

What is the root of the differences between the authorities under discussion? Two possible explanations are available. The first explanation, historical-cultural, is that the differences in the opinions of the halakhic authorities stem from differences in personal and social background among the three personalities: Rabbis Kook and Uziel acted in the emerging Zionist yishuv in the Land of Israel, with ideological commitment to the values of building the land through labor and with a strong aspiration to unite the various camps into a nation. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein acted in a capitalist country in which labor was perceived primarily as a means for the welfare of the individual and less as a national value, and labor relations crossed the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews.

My Excursus on Rabbi S. Z. Shragai

Rabbi S.Z. Shragai, a rabbinic scholar, first mayor of Jerusalem, and head of religious Workers Party  was one of the major ideologues of Torah ve Avodah. He was the one who asked the questions about to Rabbi Kook, Uziel and Walenberg. He is also responsible in general for many of the questions about the government and Knesset to Rabbis Uziel and Waldenberg. His approach highlights the difference in genealogy between Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy

For Shragai, Torah ve Avodah as Religious Zionism meant a literal and orienting return to labor and manual productivity against the imperfect bourgeois life. Unlike other socialisms, it is a spiritual revival, a new moral vision, and mutual aid and concern for one another.We wont need police for maintaining property because our connection to personal property will wither. Labor has to organize so that the conditions of labor allow one to live properly, as the Torah says: “you shall live by them.”

Our main relationship  to the political parties is economic in order to provide freedom and equality. By bettering the individual we lead to a national restoration. Torah ve Avodah means a restoration of a Torah state that has application to the modern life of the worker building for the freedom of self-determination. We need Torah “of religiosity not of religion.” We don’t ask about the role of religion in modern life because all of life, especially the worker’s life, needs to be infused with religiosity. We need Rabbis who know about barns and stables and we need to study the agricultural sciences to figure out how to live as a Torah observant laborer.

Unlike the communists for whom the problem of society is a structural problem of state economic inequality, for Torah ve Avodah the solution is for an individual to directly realize justice in society by returning directly to a life of labor. Judaism does not need organized labor rather, labor is a form of musar and an ethical path.

Shragai was from a Radzhin family, and based on Polish Hasidism envisioned an individualistic Kotzker Rebbe approach to Torah in which  physical labor was a mystical unity of the Holy One Blessed Be He and the Shekhinah, which would revive Judaism as a living Biblical relationship with God. Shragai followed the Izbitzer Rebbe in which the  inner point of every Jew shows that their flaws and sins are only external but the inward nature remain ever pure; even the heretic is doing God’s will. (More on Shragai for the Hebrew reader).

Religion, Polls, and Judaism: Robert Wuthnow’s Inventing American Religion

People are daily bombarded with polls about the presidential primaries giving targeted information about which ethnic group is voting for which candidate. We understand that over the course of months opinions will change. More importantly, we don’t assume the results work over years and decades. When in 1988 Republican George H.W. Bush beat Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in the polls (and in the actual election), people did not go around saying that the future is all Republican or that the Democratic Party is dying. When a mere eight years later in 1996 when Democrat Bill Clinton beat Republican Bob Dole in the polls, people did not go around saying the reverse that the future is all Democrat or that the Republican Party is dying.

However when it comes to polls about religion, we find pundits, editorials, and ordinary people assuming that any given trend will continue without accounting for changing times, swings in cultural, shifts in religious patterns, maturation of those polled, or the narrowness of the original question. Almost all the discussions of the future of Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, the Pew study, Renewal, or assimilation are predicated on assuming that the answer to binary questions at a given point in time can be predictive.

Eighteen years ago, the Israeli demographer of the Jewish people Sergio DellaPergola when asked about the future trends of Orthodoxy, started his discussion by reminding his reader that no demographic data can predict the future since the data is not stable. There are always earthquakes and floods, wars and disease, economic depressions and social mobility.  Imagine if you did a poll in 1910 of the Jewish community, and you were going to base the future on it. You would be encouraging people to move to Poland. However in the 21st century, we have a trend of Jewish demographers and journalists who preach based on the assumption of long time stability. In actually, nothing is ever stable and the future will likely not look like the past.

In order to set the record straight about the problem with polls, especially the PEW polls, Robert Wuthnow professor of sociology and director of its center for the study of religion at Princeton University wrote the important work Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith Oxford University Press (October 1, 2015). The book came out last year and seems not to have influenced Jewish discussion, that is, yet.  I posted about a previous book of Wuthnow- The God Problem- here.

This post has many long direct quotes from online reviews that are not indented or noted because this post started as teaching notes to myself, which I only afterwards decided to post as a blog post. The most important source was the interview by Andrew Aghapour at Religion Dispatches, but there were about a half dozen others.


American relgion

Wuthnow’s recent book is a broadside against how polling is done today. Well-known groups like Gallup, Pew, and Barna through their religion polling, are complicit, he says, in giving birth to a slippery thing called “American religion.”

According to Wuthnow:  Broad commercial polling began in the 1930s, when George Gallup, Sr. paid for polls by getting a couple hundred newspapers to pay for his columns. Religion was something that was of personal interest to him, but the pieces about religion would simply occur at holiday time. Church leaders were skeptical. What does it mean to say that 95% of the public believe in God? That doesn’t tell us much of anything.

[However, in 1976 when Jimmy Carter achieved election to the Presidency polls wanted to know the number of Americans who were evangelicals. George Gallup, Jr. had the answer, because he’d asked questions in his polls about whether people considered themselves born again, had ever had a born-again experience, what they believed about the Bible, whether they considered themselves Evangelicals, and so forth.Gallup said there might be 50 million American who are evangelicals, and journalists ran with that. It was a much higher number than had been assumed before.

In addition to changing the numbers, polling also changed political perception by implying  that evangelicals were a voting bloc. That made sense to journalists because Catholics were a voting bloc for John F. Kennedy in 1960—so surely evangelicals must have been a voting bloc for Jimmy Carter. That wasn’t the case at all. Some of the leading, most powerful, influential evangelical leaders were actually for Gerald Ford. There was a lot of diversity among evangelicals themselves that got masked by being lumped together in the polls as if they were all the same thing.

The way they got the much larger figure of 50 million was basically inventing a new question that said something to the effect of, “Have you ever had a born-again religious experience, or something similar to a religious awakening?” And that was pretty much it.

 And so in 1978, Christianity Today, a leading periodical for evangelicals, paid Gallup to do a big survey and in addition to just asking the born-again question, they asked questions about belief in the Bible, belief in Jesus, and intent on converting others. As a result, Gallup revised its estimate downward, to less than 30 million. The notion of a politically focused evangelical upsurge might have been more an artifact of bad polling than an actual phenomenon in the history of American religion. If exact wording of what you want to know is not included then you never know the real answer.

As a response Evangelical sponsored Barnea polls asked a different set of question showing the contradictions of American religion. Americans prayed  but in their own styles and they believed in bible without any knowledge of it.  But mainly they distracted by material and family needs. This knowledge led to the panic that since families are spending less time together, families are dissolving. So we need to campaign since 1990 for family values.

The Pew surveys were founded 2000 offering a centralized location and centralized database for polls.


Today’s most controversial polling trend is the rise of the “Nones”—those who indicate religious non-affiliation in surveys by selecting “none of the above.” Nones seem to have jumped from a stable 6-8% of the population during the 1970s and 1980s to, in recent years, 16-20%. The real question is, “What exactly is going on?” And there appear to be several conclusions.

First, many of the Nones still claim to believe in God, occasionally attend religious services; hardly any of them identify clearly as atheist. So they may be, for some reason, identifying themselves as non-religious even though they still believe. We also know from some of the surveys that they identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” meaning that somehow they’re interested in God and spirituality, and existential questions of life and death, but are turned off by organized religion.

Second, the political climate of the religious right of the last 15 years has become so publicly identified with conservative politics, that people who were formerly willing to say, “I’m religious” in [denominational] terms are now saying, “You know what, I just don’t want to have anything to do with it.” That’s a hard story for many of us to believe, but there does seem to be pretty good data supporting it, as part of the story at least.

Third is that the studies that actually ask a person the same question a year or two later are finding that individuals change their minds a lot. One paper identifies at least half of the Nones as “Liminals,” people who are trying to decide, on the cusp of making up their mind. You ask them one year, and they say “I’m non-religious,” you ask them the same question the next year and they’ll say they’re religious and they’ll tell you what kind of religion they are. Or [vice-versa].

Now this may be characteristic of the times in which we live—people are uncertain about who they are, about what they think religiously—but it also challenges how we think about polls. Polls have always assumed that whatever a person says is reliable, and that they really mean it and stick with it.

When Robert Putnam wrote his important work Age of Grace (2012), he returned to many of his interviewees after a year to see how they changed their minds to attend stability

Current trends see the crisis of Nones as created by polls and only 10% may be stable in that position, the rest are betwixt and between.  Also when you go back and check many of those who claimed to be following “some other religion” like Buddhism a year later, only 35 % are still with it


Why are they not to be completely relied upon? Polls are measuring answers to questions that are not very thoughtful, because polls are hastily done by telephone rather than in person.

Poll numbers being reported may be in the general ballpark correct, but probably can’t be interpreted very precisely in terms of the small trends that are being reported. For instance, if somebody reports that American religion is declining because church attendance is down a percentage point this year from last year, one should not pay much attention to that.

Secondly, pay attention, skeptically, to the way the headline describes the data. So once again, let’s imagine that the church attendance rate is lower this year than last year, let’s say it’s two or three percent lower all of a sudden. Unfortunately, the headline say that religion is “on the skids” or that “America is losing its faith”! That’s more the journalist’s or the editor’s fault than the pollster’s fault.

Third, always remember that the polls have a very low response rate. Most of the polls, whether about religion or politics, have an eight percent response rate now. It means that ninety-two percent of the people who should have been contacted for it to be a representative poll are not there, and we don’t know what they would have said, and so we’re only making guesses. The guesses could be wrong, and often are wrong.

From Wuthnow’s vantage at Princeton, he says that even when we are reassured that a poll is trustworthy, for example, TIME claiming to be 3% off, it is really more like 20 % off. Even then much of it is echo chambers and people responding to the way the question is asked.

Such a low response rate almost invalidates the data. There are other ways of drawing sample data and then weighing it.  The sociologist Rodney Stark quipped that we were taught that you need at least an 85% sample to be a valid survey now 9% is considered valid. Why can academics and governments get 70% samples and pollsters 9%?

One of the biggest problems today invalidating many polls is that most data skewers older or even elderly since polls rely on land line telephones and most people under 50 do not use landlines anymore.

We also have the problem of micro studies done by religious groups themselves such as of those that only survey their graduates which are self-selecting and have no follow up. (Think of some of the studies done by Orthodox intuitions).

In short, American religion is volunteeristic, fuzzy and not mutually exclusive, so binary questions do not work. The polls remove all theological questions.

Fluctuations in results of a poll could occur within just months based on events in the news. The way the media frames a question and then a poll based on the media creates answers to questions that do not reflect the depth of religious life.  Even questions about abortion among Catholics who oppose abortion could get a 20% difference based on the design of the survey. In 2012, polls showed that 80% of Evangelicals had pre-marital sex, but when asked to define themselves as believing in the inerrancy of the bible and attend church we get a statistic of only 44%. Which is it 80% or 44%?

Today, most people do not trust pollsters and will not answer their phone calls? In 1995, 65% thought htta it was in their best interest to answer surveys and now it has declined to 33%.

A proper method was shown in the 1993 classic by Wade Roof Clark Generation of Seekers  where he worked with a scale of   affirmation ranging from active identification, mild identification, minimal identification, and none at all. During any period of social or theological innovation some are highly involved, other have heard of it or attend a lecture, and many have not heard of it of missed it. Also there are many individuals who reject a given trend or have their own person views outside of the thinking of an era. Few people are interested in the current trends every era. Most people remain connected to the thinking of their years of formation and according to the famous saying ‘Many people die at twenty five and aren’t buried until they are seventy five.’

Finally, remember that where political polls have occasional checkpoints—elections actually happen, and pollsters can [subsequently] adjust weighting factors so that the data are closer next time—with religion questions, they don’t have anything like that. So if we hear that x percentage of the public is not really Catholic even though they say they are, or x percentage of the public like the Pope or they don’t like the Pope, we can only ask ourselves, “Well, does that make sense with what we know from other sources, and from talking with our neighbors?”

Polls can produce inconsistent, and sometimes baffling, representations of American belief. They also range in accuracy, from sophisticated sociological surveys to thinly veiled propaganda

Whereas the accuracy of political polling is ultimately held accountable by election results, religion is much more problematic to measure. Religion polls today regularly report on the demise of faith in North America, yet nearly a century ago 91 percent of poll respondents said they believed in God, compared to the 92 percent who said the same in a Pew poll just a few years ago.

Why do we listen?

The main reason religion polling gets so much funding, Wuthnow argues, and the main reason it gets reported on, is that it has consequences for American electoral politics.

“What would we lose if we didn’t have Pew kinds of surveys? Frankly, not much,” he added. For most people who work in polling or media or politics, this probably sounds like an extreme position, and it is. The polling industry is not going away. Wuthnow’s proposed alternative—“an occasional survey that was really well-done, even if it costs a million dollars”—may be rosy sounding, but it’s almost certainly impractical in today’s quickly churning public sphere.

Another way to put it: Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life. Facts like church attendance are much easier to trade than messy views about actually beleifs and commitments, or  the nature of sin, or whether people have literal soul mates. A question about who a person might vote for is relatively straightforward. A question about whether he or she believes in heaven or an afterlife is not.

For example: African Americans are only somewhat more likely than white Americans to go to religious services every week; if that’s the test of religiosity used in a poll, black and white faith may not seem so different. But in a large national study, Wuthnow found, black respondents spent much more time than white respondents at the services they attended. They also expressed their faith in different ways, like praying for fellow congregants.

Wuthnow points out that television coverage, recent articles, and debates can affect religious survey results. Similar to the ever fluctuating approval rating of religious leader, it says little about religious life

Pew’s international polls about attitudes toward the United States in Muslim countries, one Middle East specialist writing in Foreign Policy wrote: “The polls are one dimensional and filled with panic” (p. 149).These criticisms, and others Wuthnow offers, call into question the value of surveys conducted as “must-get-the-findings-out-there-quickly!” polls. Wuthnow quotes Darren Sherkat, who goes further: Polling is conducted by whores who violate every scientific convention that social scientists developed to make sure that polling would indeed produce high quality results. … Worse yet, indifference towards high quality data is infiltrating the social sciences (p. 149).

Nevertheless, Wuthnow admits the perception of an evangelical surge, though exaggerated by questionable polling, was and is an actual phenomenon.

Jewy in Wuthnow

Wuthnow notes that the studies overplay change. That means more are not abandoning religion and more are not Orthodoxy. As JJ Goldberg pointed out the recent Pew claims that Jews abandoning religion rose from from 7% in 2000 to 22 % in 2013.  But Wuthnow quotes Goldberg who points out that when compared to 1990 data – it was then 20%. Also many Jews who are connected in a weak or negligible way then find points in their lives when they are more connected.

In addition, Wuthnow notes that the Pew was biased for white Protestants values who attend church. Hence, they had a panic over the those who do not attend services. He notes that   Afro-Americans tend to pray at home rather than attend a service. He also notes that Jews and Muslims have all sort so all sorts of bodily rituals and avoidances that were not covered in the questions. When asked about attendance at services, they excluded weddings, funerals, and High Holy Day attendance.

The survey was also biased about having religions that can be separated by ethnicity and culture, even though many transmit their religions via ethnicity. One can have a strong Italian, Greek, Nigerian, or Gujarati identity and eat ethnic foods and go to cultural, artistic, and political events of that ethnic group and the religions is a tacit element of the ethnicity without houses of worship.

There are many connected to Jewish culture who read Jewish books and papers, go to Jewish arts events and have what they think are sufficient Jewish practices that sustain them. They don’t really survey Aipac Judaism, Holocaust remembrance Jews. A Pew survey cannot measure Jewish pride and tribalism along with the dozens of ways Jews maintain a connection. The survey also focuses on the very Protestant question of individual attendance at house of worship, rather than membership in the house of worship.

Wuthnow notes that the recent Pew went out of its way to raise the Jewish responses from 9%to  16% He does note that most polls only include 25-30 Jews making them almost irrelevant to assess the community.


I gave one post to the Pew the day that it came out just clipping out what it said about Orthodoxy. (It was the most hits that the blog ever received.)  I did another post a  week later about not predicting history. Here we go with another one on the upshot of the Pew. By this point everyone is using it to say the sky is falling and whatever their point of view is it seems the PEW proves it.

My first observation is that Orthodoxy has assimilated the language of what Wuthnow calls “American Religion.” Torah consists of polls, metrics and election predictions rather than looking at Torah, Sages, and the holy. Rav Soloveitchik spoke about the importance of “the remnant of the scribes” keeping the tradition alive. We used to count scholars and books or the subjective feel of piety of Yom Kippur or the love of Torah. Now, Orthodox papers start articles about percentage points like it was an election. The very essence and self-understanding of Orthodoxy has changed with the times. Now Orthodoxy understands itself as another object subject to polls.

Second, the poll did not say Orthodox won just that it went up two percentage points. When it declined from 60% to 9% (1950-1970) that was significant, slight rises are not. Also the numbers of Orthodox polled were still low and lumped together the divergent categories of Chabad, Heimish Hasidic and yeshivish in to one group. (Oy, what can you do with outsiders!) Like the newspaper headlines that say “religion on the skids”  or “all of American will be Mormon in another decade,” the use of the Pew by Orthodoxy has shown a terrible innumeracy. Nor is the Conservative movement dying, another act of innumeracy. They just shed their nominal members and the congregations in NE towns that no longer have Jewish populations. They lost 35%-55% like Orthodoxy did earlier in the century. This is against the background of the the decline of mainline Churches, for example Episcopalian Church now to 14% of the US from its 1950’s high.

Third, who fits into a category? The same way the number of Evangelicals can be less than half depending on the questions that you ask, so too in the Jewish case they asked denominational identification. If you did follow-up questions then they may no longer be included in your definition  of your Orthodox denomination

Fourth, simple questions do not lead to a good indication of the movement. Did they ask: how often do you learn Torah? What Torah do you learn? How long is your daily morning prayer?  Do you say Psalms? Use a mikvah? Feel alienated from your rabbis? Attend tu beshevat seder? Do you like Rav Nachman of Breslov or Maimonides better? If it had these questions then we might know something about the denomination.

Fifth, there need to be follow-up with the same people. Lives are always in flux.

Sixth, some of the same pundits and sociologist, who themselves are not-Orthodox, are now using the Pew to say that the Orthodox are successful in growth and stability and the Orthodox should serve as a model. Let me remind you that the same sociologists lauded the Conservative movement 20 years ago for its growth and stability. They advised the Conservative movement that outreach was not needed because we can assume that religion is stable. They predicted the future from the 1990 surevys and were wrong. They are giving the same precious advice now about Orthodoxy. Wuthnow reminds us that religion in America is always moving and changing in which nothing is stable. Whoever answers people needs and has their communities respond to changes in economics and social mobility gains adherents. When most of the Nones seek a meaning affiliation as they get older, who will be there answering their needs?

But in fact, what Pew shows is that there are more engaged Jews, more synagogue members, more folks doing traditional Jewish things today than compared to 1990.

Finally, we have never predicted the upheavals of a century in advance. Earthquakes, plague, wars, and economic crashes are always with us.

Any other thoughts?


Rav Soloveitchik on the Guide of the Perplexed-edited by Lawrence Kaplan

When Rabbi Soloveitchik arrived at Yeshiva University he gave classes for two decades on philosophic topics.  In these lectures, we see Soloveitchik as the graduate of the University of Berlin in philosophy and as the former student in the Berlin Rabbinical seminary (for a year). Soloveitchik gave great weight to future rabbis having training in philosophy and having a master’s degree in Jewish Studies.

Did you ever want to know what Rabbi Soloveitchik’s early philosophy lectures were like? Did you ever wish to have been able to attend them? Here is your chance.

We now have a record of one of those early courses, edited thanks to the hard work of Lawrence Kaplan professor at Magill University, who was the official translator for Halakhic Man.  The new volumes is called  Maimonides – Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Lectures on the Guide of the Perplexed (Urim Publications). The work is based on  a complete set of notes, taken by Rabbi Gerald (Yaakov) Homnick. The original notes consisted of two five spiral notebooks of 375 pages and 224 pages.  For the philosophic reader of Soloveitchik, these are interesting and exciting lectures bringing many scattered ideas into one place. Kaplan provides a wonderful introductory essay setting out and explaining the ideas in the lectures.

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In this volume we see Soloveitchik in his use of Isaac Husik, David Neumark  and Leo Roth to help him understand the texts of Jewish thought, and his reliance on the modern thought of Hume, Spinoza, and Bertrand Russell. We see him giving out an academic reading list to start and engage with university Jewish studies.

Soloveitchik was originally planning on writing his dissertation on Maimonides but that did not work out so instead he switched advisers to work on Hermann Cohen. But what did he plan to discuss in the original medieval dissertation? This work gives the reader a sense of what he would have written since Soloveitchik incubated his ideas for decades and remained for decades with the direction of his earliest thoughts. It seems to have been a modern reading and defense of Maimonides.

Hermann Cohen’s modern reading of Maimonides as ethical and Platonic was instrumental in the 20th century return to Maimonides and especially Soloveitchik’s understanding of Maimonides. This lectures in this volume show how Soloveitchik both used and differed with Cohen. However, the citations from Cohen in the original lectures were telegraphed, in that, Cohen was not available in English at the time and Soloveitchik was just giving the gist to audience that had not read him. This makes it harder for those who have not read Cohen recently.

Kaplan notes that Soloveitchik’s readings of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Aquinas are “highly controversial” meaning that they are less confrontations with the texts of those thinkers and more the reception and rejection as found in early 20th century thinkers. His German Professors considered idealism as superseding the classics and Russell considered science and positivism as superseding the ancient. For these works, Maimonides was relegated to the medieval bin. Soloveitchik was going to save the great eagle.

In addition, the 19th century Jewish interpreters saw Maimonides as an abstract Aristotelian philosopher, and, if anything relevant, closer to Reform than Orthodoxy. The scholar George Y. Kohler showed that at the Berlin seminary they were quite ambivalent about Maimonides. In addition, the instructor in Jewish thought Isaiah Wohlgemuth at the seminary leaned in his teaching towards considering faith as absurdity- Tertullian meets Kierkegaard and Scheler.

So the point of these lectures, and probably the unwritten dissertation, was to show the continuous relevance of philosophy for the understanding of Torah and the relevance of Maimonides. The goal was also to show the importance of Torah study for Maimonides despite the explicit vision in the Guide. Much of this agenda was later set out and popularized by Soloveitchik’s students David Hartman and Isidore Twersky.

Soloveitchik sought to move the reading of Maimonides from the practical Aristotelian approach to a German idealistic higher ethic of imitating God.  According to Kaplan’s notes this reading is not really Maimonides’ own thought.

One of the bigger unexpected formulations of this volume is Soloveitchik’s presentation of a pantheistic view of God as the hesed (mercy or caritas) behind creation. As in many idealists where the world is fundamentally mental or immaterial, the world is in God -in some ways the real is the rational- but he sets this within a theistic scheme .

This pantheism led Soloveitchik to think that aspiring Torah scholars should attain a cosmic-intellectual experience and thereby identify with the world through their minds.

There lectures discuss the ascent from ecstatic prophet to the higher cosmic prophetic experience. For Soloveitchik, the goal of cosmic-intellectual prophecy is to surrender to God beyond words to an inexpressible point.

Soloveitchik distinguishes between two levels in the observance of halakhah. A lower approach where halakhah concerns obedience, duties and practical law; at this level ethics are instrumental. There is a second higher level of identifying with God and thereby with the cosmos. In the lower level there is obedience to a normative halakhah which is distinctly and qualitatively lower than having a cosmic intellectual experience where the divine is internalized as a prophetic experience in which one reaches the pinnacle of human existence.

Soloveitchik declares that halakhah is not about “how to” rather in its ideal state it is about merging into cosmos via cosmic experience to reach a higher truth into reality. (This ideal is quite unlike the way many today conceive of Soloveitchik).

Kaplan notes that these lectures present an innovative theory of fear, in which fear at that moment of cosmic consciousness generates a recoil thereby returning us to the halakhah and norms. After love and identity with God, one recoils in distance, submission and returns to the external norm.

For Soloveitchik concern for others and responsibility for fellows as hesed is the inclusion of the other in the cosmic vision. Just as God is inclusive of the world and knows the world because it is part of Him, the Talmud scholar knows about people through his universal understanding.

Kaplan points out how this is completely the opposite of Jewish thinkers such as Levinas where you actually confront the other and through the face of a real other person gains moral obligation.  (I am certain that Soloveitchik pantheistic-Idealist view of ethics will elicit some comments. )

Rav Soloveichik’s speaking style often consisted in sentence fragments and repetition of phrases, especially a repetition to return to where he left off, after a side interjection. Many times one did not know the relationship of the return to the interjection. Was it in agreement or disagreement? Unfortunately, I am not sure if this edition solved the problem in that there were many dangling sentences and lines that the reader would be unclear if it agreed or disagreed with the prior line. In addition, many of the lines in this book needed an explanatory footnote especially those concerning idealism and Hermann Cohen.  But despite these caveats, for the philosophic reader of Soloveitchik, we once again owe Kaplan gratitude for his fine work. We should also thank him for this extensive interview analyzing many of the most important issues in the work.

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  1. What is new in this work?

From the point of view of form, these lectures are certainly new, since until now we have never had an essay of Rav Soloveitchik [henceforth, “the Rav”], much less a book, devoted to an analysis of the Guide. But from the point of view of content, the matter is not so clear After all, the Rav discusses certain themes from the Guide at length in Halakhic Man, Halakhic Mind, and U-Vikashtem mi-Sham (And from There You Shall Seek). Also, another very important discussion of the Guide can be found in his Yiddish Teshuvah Derashah (Discourse on Repentance), “Yahid ve-Tzibbur” (“Individual and Community”) in his Yiddish volume of Essays and Discourses. The truth is that if combines what the Rav says in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham with what he says in “Yahid ve-Tzibbur,” you get much—not all—of the basic outline of the argument of these lectures. Still, there are a number of   new elements.

One point obvious, while, in another sense, new is that while the Rav in all his essays displays a great openness to scientific and philosophic thought, he never explicitly justifies such openness. In these lectures, however, the Rav finally justified his practices.  The Rav notes that Maimonides believes that non-Jews could also reach the high religious level of “serving the Lord continually.” In this connection he observes that Bahya often cites “pietists,” who turn out to be non-Jews, and similarly cites Arabic philosophers and Church Fathers. He goes on to cite Maimonides’ famous statement  “Accept the truth from whoever said it.” He also cites a passage from the Laws of the Sanctification of the New Moon to the same effect, and concludes “Maimonides is clear…we do not care who the author is.”

There are, however, three entirely new elements. First, in the lectures the Rav presents his basic argument as a response to the claim of medieval commentators on the Guide and, in the modern period, of Heinrich Graetz that Maimonides considers Halakhah (Jewish law), both its study and practice, as secondary to philosophy.

Second, though in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham the Rav maintains that according to Maimonides, “The existence of the world [is] not only caused by God, but [is] also rooted in Him,” he carefully avoids any use there of the word “pantheism.” In the lectures, by contrast, he does speak of Maimonides’ pantheism—to be sure, with certain important qualifications.  Third, the penultimate section of the book on Yirat ha-Shem, the fear of the Lord, is, to my knowledge, new, and, in important ways, it goes against what he states both in Halakhic Man and in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham.

2) Could you elaborate on the claim that Maimonides considers Halakhah as secondary to philosophy? How does R. Soloveitchik counter this approach?

This is an old objection to Maimonides. The claim is that Maimonides follows Aristotle in maintaining that knowledge is superior to morality, both moral virtue and moral action, and, furthermore, in arguing that only intellectual knowledge possesses intrinsic value, while morality possesses only instrumental worth, serving only as a steppingstone to attaining intellectual perfection. From this it would follow that Halakhah, dealing with action, is of lesser worth than science, and that Talmud Torah, that is, the study of Halakhah, is inferior to the study of the sciences.  The Rav—inaccurately by the way—quotes Graetz as stating that Maimonides in the Guide “sneered at halakhic scholarship.”

The Rav counters this objection by claiming that Maimonides distinguishes between two stages of ethics: pre-theoretical ethics, ethical action that precedes knowledge of the universe and God, and post-theoretical ethics, ethical action that follows upon knowledge of the universe and God. Pre-theoretical ethics is indeed inferior to theory and purely instrumental; however, post-theoretical ethics is ethics as the imitation of God’s divine attributes of action of Hesed (Loving Kindness), Mishpat, (Justice), and Tzedakah (Righteousness), the ethics referred to at the very end of the Guide, and this stage of ethics constitutes the individual’s highest perfection.

3) It sounds as if here Soloveitchik is just following Hermann Cohen.

The Rav, as he himself admits, takes the basic distinction between pre-theoretical ethics and post- theoretical ethics from Hermann Cohen, but his understanding of the imitation of the divine attributes of action involved in post-theoretical ethics differs from Cohen.

Cohen, following Kant’s thought, distinguishes sharply between practical and theoretical reason, ethics and the natural order, “is” and “ought.” For Cohen, God’s attributes of action do not belong to the realm of causality, but to that of purpose; they are not grounded in nature, but simply serve as models for human action.

What Cohen keeps apart, the Rav—and here he is, in my view and the view of others, for example, Avi Ravitzky and Dov Schwartz, more faithful to the historical Maimonides—brings together.  For the Rav, the main divine attribute of action is Hesed, God’s abundant lovingkindness, His “practicing beneficence toward one who has no right” to such beneficence. The prime example of Hesed, for Maimonides, is the creation of the world.  This act of creation is both an ethical act, whereby God freely wills the world into existence, and an ontological act, an overflow of divine being, whereby God brings the world into being by thinking it.  However, the Rav goes beyond what Maimonides states explicitly by maintaining that the deepest meaning of God’s Hesed is that he not only confers existence upon the world, but continuously sustains it by including the existence of reality as whole in His order of existence.

4) Is this the basis of Soloveitchik’s claim that Maimonides is a pantheist?

Yes. The Rav denies that Maimonides affirms substantive     pantheism, that is, in terms of substance there are two orders: a finite order, all reality other than God; and an infinite order, God Himself.

But he maintains that Maimonides was an ontological pantheist, inasmuch as God included the existence of reality as whole in His order of existence.  Actually—I did not make this point in my Introduction—I wonder whether the Rav might have done better to refer to Maimonides as a panentheist. Thus the Rav concludes that Maimonides agrees with the seventeenth century French Catholic philosopher, Malebranche that ontically the world exists in God, which is exactly what panentheism (All-in-God) means.

5) Why do you think that Soloveitchik felt it was so important to make this claim of pantheism?

I am not sure, but I believe it is may be motivated by his conception of what true human Hesed is. That is, formally, the Rav begins by articulating Maimonides’ conception of divine Hesed, and then maintains that human Hesed has to imitate and therefore resemble divine Hesed. But I wonder whether the Rav’s thought, in truth, proceeded in the opposite direction, that is, he began with a conception of what true human Hesed is, and then projected that conception back onto divine Hesed.

Anyway, the Rav’s argument is as follows. We can only grasp the divine Hesed and only imitate it through knowing the world in which that Hesed is manifest.  It is in this sense that the highest stage of ethics is post-theoretical, for it is based upon and follows from the knowledge of God attained through the knowledge of the cosmos. To spell this out, since God created and sustains the world through knowing it, when man knows the world, whether through philosophical knowledge or prophetic knowledge, he and God unite together, since they both have the same object—the world– as their object of thought.

More than that—and here the Rav’s interpretation of Maimonides follows that of Solomon Maimon, though, strangely enough, the Rav never cites Maimon in these lectures—in man’s every act of knowledge his finite intellect unites with the infinite divine intellect which constantly and uninterruptedly knows everything. Here, the Rav maintains, we find another type of pantheism in Maimonides, intellectual pantheism, the union of man’s finite intellect with God’s infinite intellect in the act of human knowledge.

But the real point, and, as I said, I think the motivation of all this, is that after this intellectual union with God, man first internalizes the all-embracing divine Hesed, and then imitates that Hesed in the sense that he not only helps and confers benefits upon all who are in need, but, rather, in God-like fashion, he invites them to share in, to participate in his own existence, including them in his own order of being.

Here I would contrast the Rav with Levinas. Hesed, for the Rav, is not extended to the other qua other, as Levinas would have it; but, to the contrary, it is extended to the other because he is not other, because I have made him part of myself, of my own existence. What is truly ethical is not acknowledging the otherness of individuals I interact with, but identifying with them.  And this, to repeat, constitutes the true imitation of God.

So I believe–this is yet another point I did not make in my introduction—that the Rav’s pantheistic or panentheistic reading of Maimonides’ view regarding God’s relationship to the world is motivated by what he perceives as its ethical payoff.

6) Is Soloveitchik, then, claiming that for Maimonides there is no direct knowledge of God?

Indeed, the Rav denies that for Maimonides there can be direct knowledge of God. In this way Maimonides differs, say, from Rav Kook, for whom the highest knowledge of God derives from the soul’s direct love of God as the highest good, a love not mediated through nature. As the Rav clearly says, for Maimonides the only way to know God is through knowledge of the world.

Three times in the lectures the Rav cites Maimonides’ statement in Guide 1:34 that “there is no way to apprehend [God] except through the things He has made.” Similarly, the Rav appears to understand Maimonides’ citing in Guide 3:51 the rabbinic statement that “Ben Zoma is still outside” to mean that Ben Zoma tried to attain direct knowledge of God without intellectually cognizing the universe.  To repeat, it can’t be done.

7) What is the relationship for Maimonides, as Soloveitchik understands it, between philosophical and prophetic knowledge?

For Soloveitchik, as stated earlier, when man knows the world, whether through philosophical knowledge or prophetic knowledge, he and God unite together.

As the Rav’s understands it, Maimonides’ view is that prophetic knowledge builds on philosophical knowledge, that is on the scientific knowledge of the cosmos. Or, as the Rav phrases it, first we have the pre-theoretical normative-halakhic experience, that is, the halakhic experience that precedes knowledge of the cosmos, then the cosmic-intellectual experience, and finally, building on and going beyond that cosmic-intellectual experience, the ecstatic–prophetic experience.

Sometimes the Rav emphasizes the difference between prophetic knowledge and philosophical knowledge, sometimes he blurs the distinction between the two. But there seem to be three features that characterize the ecstatic–prophetic experience as opposed to the cosmic-intellectual experience: intuition, vision, and self-surrender. The key point seems to be that while the cosmic-intellectual experience brings the individual into intellectual contact with God, the ecstatic–prophetic experience brings one into personal contact with God.

The way I understand this—the Rav never states this explicitly—is as follows. God created the world by an act of free will, and, as such, His relationship with the world is a voluntary one, and the connection between Himself and man is an ethical one. But God also created the world by an act of thought, in which case God’s relationship with man is primarily intellectual and ontological.

Ultimately these are two sides of the same coin, for, in Maimonides’ view, God’s will and wisdom are one. Still—again, this is my formulation of the Rav’s view—the philosopher who unites with God solely through the intellect focuses on God’s wisdom, on God as pure intellect, while the prophet who, in addition to uniting with God intellectually, also connects with Him via intuition, vision, and self- surrender, focuses on the personal God, whose creation of the world is a free ethical act.

8) Does Soloveitchik deprecate philosophic thought, at least in comparison to prophetic knowledge?

To an extent. But while the Rav refers to Maimonides’ alleged belief in “the insufficiency of the cosmic-intellectual experience,” nevertheless, in the Rav’s view, Maimonides is firm in affirming that this experience is a necessary stage in arriving at the ecstatic–prophetic experience.  The Rav could not be clearer that for Maimonides there is no bypassing the scientific knowledge of the cosmos.

 9) How would you answer someone who says that this book sets up each problem as goyish philosophy as opposed to Maimonides and that Maimonides is really a halakhic position? Ostensibly, this work rejects both Aristotle and Kant on most issues, leaving Maimonides as unique and as halakhic?
With reference to the Rav’s playing up Maimonides’ differences with Aristotle and (a-chronologically) with Kant, as I and other scholars have noted, one can broadly divide interpreters of Maimonides into two camps: the radicals who minimize the differences between Maimonides and the philosophers (particularly Aristotle), sometimes going so far as to deny that there are any differences; and the traditionalists, who emphasize these differences. The Rav clearly belongs in the traditionalist camp.

Still, though the Rav devotes an entire chapter to contrasting Aristotle and Maimonides, we must not forget that regarding the issue of the necessity for scientific knowledge of the cosmos, and regarding the conception of God as the unity of intellect, the subject of intellection, and the object of intellection the Rav forthrightly acknowledges that Maimonides follows in Aristotle’s wake.

I think that what the Rav objected to most in Aristotle, Plotinus, and
Spinoza was that for them God’s relationship with the world and man is one of necessity. (I am not sure if the Rav is correct about Plotinus, but this is a long story.) They, thereby, negate the possibility of an ethical relationship between God and man, which, as stated above, is possible only if God’s creation of the world was a free and therefore an ethical act. Again we see the ethical motif coming to the fore.  Perhaps in this respect, the Rav reflects the influence of Kant.

10) Is the ecstatic–prophetic experience the same thing for Soloveitchik as revelation? Does he have multiple conceptions of Maimonides’ view of revelation?

Actually, the Rav contrasts the ecstatic-prophetic experience with prophecy and revelation proper, what the Rav refers to as “apocalyptic prophecy.” To cite the lectures: “The Prophetic-Ecstatic experience… is not the apocalyptic moment of prophecy he describes in the latter chapters of Book 2 of the Guide. That moment of prophecy, where God bestows upon man a prophetic revelation, is an act of grace on God’s part. The Prophetic-Ecstatic type of prophecy that Maimonides speaks about in Guide 3:51 can be obtained by all.

In sum, there are two types of prophecy:  The apocalyptic moment of prophecy is granted to the individual by God; the Prophetic-Ecstatic experience is a state of mind.”

Another indication that the ecstatic-prophetic experience is not to be identified with prophecy proper is that sometimes the Rav refers to the ecstatic-prophetic experience as the ecstatic-mystic experience.  This is part of the emphasis in all the Rav’s works not so much on theology, but on human experience, human states of consciousness. Nevertheless, I actually think there is some basis here for the Rav’s distinction in Maimonides’ texts, though it is not so clear and neat as he would have it.

In U-Vikashtem mi-Sham, when the Rav refers to the revelational experience he is referring to “apocalyptic prophecy,” which, for him, is a supernatural phenomenon.So U-Vikashtem and the lectures are operating on two different planes. Actually, I think that, contra the Rav, all prophecy, for Maimonides is natural, but, again, that is a long story. (For Kaplan’s understanding of revelation in Maimonides – see his prior post on Maimonides on Mosaic revelation. )

Still, there may be an important difference between the lectures and U-Vikashtem. In the lectures, where the Rav speaks as an expositor of Maimonides, it is clear that no prophet, not even Moses, can bypass the cosmic-intellectual experience. In U-Vikashtem, where the Rav, though citing Maimonides, speaks in his own name, the revelational religious experience is discontinuous with what he refers to as the rational religious experience.

11) How does this respond to the objection that even if Maimonides did not “sneer at halakhic scholarship,” nevertheless in his view the study of Halakhah, is inferior to the study of the sciences.

The Rav, like a good “Brisker,” a practitioner and devotee of the analytic school of Talmud study, sharply distinguishes between the practical study of Halakhah, study in order to know how to perform the norm properly, and the conceptual and theoretical study of the Halakhah, lomdus. He grants that Maimonides deprecates the significance of the practical study of Halakhah, inasmuch as it belongs to the pre-theoretical, normative-halakhic, stage of religious experience, and, indeed, possesses only the instrumental value of enabling one to perform the commandments properly.

However, he argues that Maimonides would view lomdus, the theoretical study of the Halakhah, if carried out “in conjunction with the cosmic experience (science),” as providing a cosmic-ethical experience parallel to the cosmic-ethical experience attained in the study of the cosmos. Indeed, he claims that when Maimonides in Guide 3:52 states that the knowledge of the de‘ot, “the opinions the Torah teaches us” leads to the love of God,  he is referring not only to theoretical, metaphysical knowledge, but also to the theoretical understanding of the Halakhah.

This claim in my view lacks any textual basis in Maimonides. Still, perhaps the Rav might view his reading of Maimonides as a legitimate “updating” of Maimonides’ position.  Thus, as a number of scholars, including myself, have argued, Maimonides in the Guide appears to suggest, albeit not explicitly, that understanding the reasons for the commandments, that is, the divine wisdom inherent in the commandments, leads to the love of God. The Rav might argue that given that Maimonides’ view of nature was teleological, he viewed the wisdom inherent in the commandments in teleological terms, and thus focused in the Guide on ta‘amei  ha-mitovot, the purpose and aim of the commandments.

However, as the Rav often pointed out, modern science, as a result of the Galilean-Newtonian revolution, no longer views nature as teleological.   Rather the rationality found in nature is that of the abstract quantitative laws that parallel and thus serve to explain the particular, qualitative, natural phenomena. Following from this, the wisdom found in the commandments would not be their purpose, but the abstract legal principles that underlie the particular laws, i.e. lomdus!

But coming back to Maimonides himself, presumably, Maimonides, according to the Rav’s understanding, would not view the lomdus of Rav Hayyim Brisker, the Rav’s grandfather and the founder of the analytic school, as significant, since Rav Hayyim never studied science, and thus should be classified as one of the talmudiyyim, the unphilosophical jurists, to whom Maimonides refers in deprecating fashion in Guide 3:51, but he would approve of the Rav’s lomdus. This obviously is my own extrapolation.

12) How is Soloveitchik’s discussion of the fear of the Lord, (Yirat ha-Shem) original, and how does it goes against what he states elsewhere?

The Rav’s take on the fear of God is, in my view, the most innovative part of the lectures. In U-Vikashtem, the Rav’s discussion of the love and fear of God follows, I would say, a Mishneh Torah model. That is, in the Mishneh Torah, his great code of Jewish Law, Maimonides discusses the love and fear of God, where fear follows love, in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2, and both are necessary. However, in Laws of Repentance 10:3 he only discusses the befitting love of God and does not mention fear. The Rav—questionably, I believe—understands this to mean that the love and fear of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2 refer to a lower form of religious experience, Hidammut, imitation of God, but at the highest level of religious experience, Devekut, cleaving to God, there is only love and no fear, as Maimonides supposedly suggests in Laws of Repentance 10:3.

The Rav’s discussion of the love and fear of God in the lectures follows, I would say, a Guide model—not surprising, since these are lectures on the Guide—and differs from his discussion in U-Vikashtem in three ways. First, as I already noted, in the lectures, according to the Rav’s reading of the Guide, imitation of God does not precede but follows upon Devekut or union with God. Second, in the Guide Maimonides discusses love in Guide 3:51 and fear in 3:52, and in the conclusion of 3:52 he sums up his discussion by speaking first of love, then of fear. As the Rav, correctly I believe, understands it, fear here is the last word, and, unlike the alleged implication from Laws of Repentance 10:3, is indispensable.

The Rav notes that in Guide 3:52 Maimonides links fear with the “actions prescribed by the Law,” or, to use the Rav’s terminology, the mitzvot ma‘asiyyot, by which the Rav seems to have in mind rituals, such as—the example is his—tzitizit (ritual fringes). How is fear connected the “actions prescribed by the Law”? The Rav links Maimonides’ discussion of fear of God in Guide 3:52 with his discussion in the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2. There Maimonides states that while love of God is the drive to know God and unite with Him, in the fear of God the individual becomes aware of his lowliness and immediately “nirta le-ahorav,” recoils backward. Thus fear reopens the gap between God and man that love or union had closed up. In this way—and this is the Rav’s main point— fear fulfills a halakhic function. Via the love of God, via uniting with Him, the individual internalizes the Law. But the danger is that by internalizing the Law the binding force of the norm will fade away. Fear, by reinstating the distance between man and God, “rehabilitates the norm,” the performance of the law on the practical level. That is, only a heteronomous norm, only a norm imposed upon man from the outside retains its force and binding authority. And this, concludes the Rav, is the meaning of the link that Maimonides in the Guide 3:52 establishes between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law.”

Here we come to the third difference between the lectures and U-Vikashtem mi-Sham, and, I would add, Halakhic Man.  In the latter essays the highest religious level that halakhic man or the man of God reaches is precisely the love of God and consequently the autonomous internalization of the laws; but in the lectures internalization must be followed by externalization, autonomy by heteronomy. Of course, in the essays the Rav speaks in his own name; in the lectures as an expositor of Maimonides. Are we to conclude that the Rav’s exposition of Maimonides in these lectures is more “halakhic” and less “philosophic” than the Rav’s own philosophy?

I should add that while this reading of the link in Guide 3:52 between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law” is very ingenious and provocative, it is exceptionally hard to maintain that it is what Maimonides had in mind. The Rav’s attempt to understand Maimonides’ discussion of fear in Guide 3:52 in light of his discussion of fear in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2 fails, in my view, to convince.  For in Guide 3:52 Maimonides sees the fear of God as being connected not with distance from God, as he does in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2, but, to the contrary, with God’s constant presence, with, to use Moshe Halbertal’s phrase, the individual’s sense of constantly being scrutinized by God. How, in fact, then, Maimonides understands the link in Guide 3:52 between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law” remains to be established, but whatever it turns out to be, it is not what the Rav had in mind.

13) You pointed to a number of places where you argued that is it difficult to uphold Soloveitchik’s interpretation as what Maimonides actually meant. Do you think this is true for Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide more generally?

While I think that the Rav’s understanding of the cosmic-intellectual experience in Maimonides, with its focus on the cognition of the cosmos and man uniting with God through the intellect is true to the spirit of Maimonides, I think the way he attempts to broaden and deepen this concept and argue that in the ecstatic-prophetic stage the total individual establishes personal contact with God is a modernizing reading that is much too existentialist for my tastes.

Negatively speaking, the presentation of Maimonides in the lectures differs from more recent interpretations of Maimonides by the almost complete absence in it of any concern for Maimonides’ political thought and, as well, with the almost complete lack of any concern for the hermeneutic aspect of the Guide, for the Guide as a reading of both Scripture and the rabbinic tradition.

This last point is ironic, for the lectures begin with a lengthy analysis of why Maimonides began the Guide with the verse “In the name of God, the Lord of the world” (Gen. 21:33).  In that connection, the Rav very presciently observes that Maimonides “in quoting a verse… casts off philosophic routine and jargon, and we can gain a more intimate glimpse of him. Maimonides’ citations of biblical verses and rabbinic midrashim throw new light on his thought.”  Prof. James Diamond couldn’t have said it better! But, alas, the Rav does not follow up on this insight.

Schlissel Challah and the Relief of Anxiety

This is one of my old-time style posts with rambling freehand observations about the culture around me. By the end of it Schlissel Challah will have connections to presidential elections, Dunkin Donuts, baseball, and right-left Orthodoxy debates.

For those who do not know, in recent years there has been a revival of the folk practice of baking a key into Challah (Schlissel Challah) during the week after Passover as a charm to insure successful livelihood. In short, I will treat the ritual as an act done to relieve the anxiety for making a good livelihood because people are very concerned about paying their bills and making a living especially after the economic downturn.  But, at the same time it is connected to the trend of challah baking parties and contemporary spirituality.  This post is not about the Hasidic community or  those who were doing it thirty years ago. It is only about the progress of the custom in the modern community. The post is a work in progress subject to change and to later be integrated into other posts (comments  via FB).

Malinowski in Teaneck

For more than decade, I have wanted to do an article entitled “Malinowski in Teaneck.” This is just the tip of the iceberg of many related observations on this topic.

Already fifteen years ago, I was taking note of the huge amount of magical acts, healing practices, segulot, and rituals to affect bad situation that took place among the modern Orthodox Jews of Bergen county. Keeping track and documenting of the magical practices was easy through the local community shul list serve, currently at over 14,000 members, where invitations to practices were openly posted.

The famed anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski  (d. 1884-1942) wrote seminal articles in the 1920’s and 1930’s showing that people turn to magic when they are doing everything right but things are still coming out wrong.  For example, when a person did everything right in one’s farming or fishing, but one still had well-placed anxiety about this year’s harvest since life is never certain. One released the tension through magical practices. One did magical practices to ensure a good catch even though you still knew it was based on skill and hard work because life remains fragile and contingent.

My original intention was to post about the magic practices by those in Teaneck stricken by illness. Last decade there was a boom in these new practices. They know they have to go to doctors and specialists, along with second and third medical opinions; they know it depends on modern science and the best procedures. But when that fails they turn to magic to deal with the anxiety about the failure and that they have exhausted all possible means. In addition, in their minds they did everything right religiously, they went to the right gap year programs, they followed the rules for social and professional success-s o they are left the question: why did this happen? The halakhic universe of duty and obligations does not address their anxiety. Telling them it is nonsense or forbidden is beside the point in relieving anxiety and fear. They will just seek the relief elsewhere.

According to Malinowski:

Wherever there are situations of danger or uncertainty, rift between ideals and realities, or human crisis and resulting in anxiety and fear, religion and magic steps in and attempts to resolve, mediate and/or lessen, and provides chart and procedural knowledge to give order and control.

He must admit that neither his knowledge nor his most painstaking efforts are a warranty of success. Something unaccountable usually enters and baffles his anticipations…Man feels that he can do something to wrestle with that mysterious element or force, to help and abet his luck.

There are no peoples however primitive without religion and magic. Nor are there, it must be added at one, any savage races lacking in either the scientific attitude, or in science, though this lack has been frequently attributed to them.

Malinowski wrote that: “Magic therefore, far from being primitive science, is the outgrowth of clear recognition that science has its limits and that a human mind and human skill are at times impotent.”  These practices are non-pseudo- science; people know what they have to do rationally.  Rather, they are means to deal with the frustrations of real life.  Malinowski confirms the Talmud when it says: “Most sailors are pious, He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea,” (Mish. Kid. iv. 14).

Magic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge or in his powers of practical control and yet has to continue in his pursuit. Forsaken by his knowledge, balled by the results of his experience, unable to apply any effective technical skill, he realizes his impotence. Yet his desire grips him only the more strongly. His fears and hopes, his general anxiety, produce state of unstable equilibrium in his organism by which he is driven to some sort of vicarious activity.

Malinowski still acknowledges the rituals of social order and heightened tension but some are the result of psychological anxieties. What he is rejecting it the approaches of E. B. Tylor who developed the evolutionary scheme where people need to be taught to move past their superstitious past based on a lack of knowledge of science and accept the rational world of science.  For Tylor, magic is attempt of bad science cause-effect For Malinowski, magic reduces anxiety and is integrated within proper knowledge of procedures for success, hence it is still part of the life of modern scientific people.

According to Malinowski, the ritual eases stress, mental conflict and possible psychic disintegration. In addition, magic serves not only as an integrative force to the individual but also as an organizing force to society when the stress is collective.

Most practitioners of anxiety magic are middle-class professionals. To take a noticeable case that has been subject to several studies is the great American pastime of baseball . Most baseball players , similar to Talmudic sailors, engage in various magical practices because one can still have bad days despite their training, hard work, and skills.  They engage in many magical rituals to relieve the stress of winning. They are not following Hasidic customs or pagan practices; they are not ignoring their training or thinking that is all they need. Rather, they are attaching their hope and fear onto a practice.

Schlissel Challah and Segulah

Now to the segulah of Schlissel Challah, which is to either bake a key into a challah, or to form the challah in the shape of a key for the first Shabbat after Passover . The key is supposed to allow the opening of the gates of heaven for money and making a living. The custom has early 19th century roots in a custom of the Ukrainian Hasidic Rebbes, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz and Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, popularly known as the Apter Rebbe (d. 1825).  (For the current Ultra-Orthodox debate on the topic, see here.)

In addition, there ae scores of practices involving the connections of the sacredness of the twelve loaves  of show-bread, the manna in the desert and sacred eating go back to Second Temple times and are further developed in Midrash and Zohar. These themes have not been emphasized in recent history.

Segulot are the Jewish magical and folk charm and remedy practices, of which there are thousands.  Some date back to Second Temple times and the tradition of using them continued unabated through two millennium of Jewish life. They collected in large volumes with names like Sefer HaSegulot, Sefer Ha-Refuʾah Ve-HaSegulah, and Sefer haZekhirah. The Talmud advises that Psalm 91 wards off mazikin (evil spirits or demons), the priestly blessing has been seen as having healing powers since antiquity, and there are dozens to help retrieve lost objects, prevent fire, remember Torah, to use as love potions, or ward off wild beasts.

In the early 20th century, the most common practices were to ensure a successful pregnancy, to ward off small pox, and to prevent croup, crib death, and other dangers to infants.  Every child’s room had a talisman to ward off childhood illness. With the rise of modern medicine they receeded from common practice.   But the practices returned in the twenty first century.  Much of it is due to the loss of faith in progress and science conquering all. A current sociologist notes that there has been more magic in the West in the last 35 years than the entire 200 years prior in the age of Enlightenment


So why Schlissel Challah?

Shaping challah into seasonal shapes was a regular family practice in the old county as part of weekly baking. Ukrainian Jews shaped the challah before Yom Kippur in the image of birds for an ascent and that sins should fly away, they shaped them into a hand for Hoshanah Rabbah for our fate to be sealed, a key for Iyyar in that the manna stopped falling, and a ladder for Shavuot for a ladder to heaven (and sulam numerically equals Sinai).

Of all the varied traditions of baking, only the custom of the challah in the shape of the key returned about 12 years ago as a quaint custom but caught on about five years ago. It became widespread 2011-2012 and continues to be mainstreamed.  Of all the various Challah customs, this one was specially chosen and the others ignored because of the anxiety about making a living.

All of the well-rehearsed discussions of the high cost of Orthodox living show the anxiety about making a living, This ritual acknowledges the very unspoken knowledge of people unemployed or underemployed or have lost their homes.There is a real anxiety about making a living even among those with good jobs. The Presidential primaries have certainly shown a mass popular anxiety about economics.

I must point out that this is not a general turn to Hasidic customs. People are not picking up the very traditional and pious ritual practice of celebrating the seventh day of Passover as a holiday of God’s power, despite the hundreds of sources nor are dozens of other post-passover segulot.

Challah and Home

But why choose Challah? The contemporary books of segulot list many practices to insure a livelihood and most of them can also be given Hasidic approbation.

Segulot for making a living include sharpening knives for the Sabbath, buying a new knife for Rosh Hashanah, putting Havdalah wine into one’s pockets, letting Havdalah wine overflow in abundance, and not to throw out any bread. The table and Rosh Hashanah are the locations where the anxiety places itself out.

The most famous practice as quoted in the Shulchan Aruch is to say with intention the section on the giving of the manna every day after prayers, a practice fallen in observance.

Rather, we pick something home based and originally gendered as a woman’s activity. The anthropologist Tamar El-Or in an article  “A Temple in Your Kitchen” notes the treating of the separation of challah at home as a Temple service, as a special new collective ritual activity beyond just the need to make weekly bread

She argues that there is currently an inversion in the categories associated with the Temple sacrifice: “The placement of the Temple and the kitchen side by side in the public hafrashat hallah ceremony challenges the division between the public and the private, between male and female…” The Biblical commandment of sacrifice meant to be carried out in the public space of the Temple, moves into the home. “Instead of a private act accomplished by each woman inside her house, the ceremony offers a public spiritual event.”

The renaissance of hafrashat hallah is an “event.” A halakhic practice… has been refashioned to suit contemporary audiences. It has become a celebration of womanhood, an opportunity to shop, to pray, and to learn new recipes. The mass hafrashat hallah ceremonies are policing entertainments, fun targeted toward education and discipline, and a good traded in a bustling and competitive spiritual market. These ceremonies mark a gendered old-new realm of action and a creative initiative within the teshuvah industry.

In the busy schedule of America, this is a chance to create a home ritual in the context of the recent return to cooking and being a foodie. The baking of shlissel challah is an artisanal endeavor and part of the new custom of the large challah-baking events, which I see as a related phenomenon). Far fewer people bake or cook consistently compared to a half a century ago but they like episodic cooking and baking. The bread is not baked out of necessity rather a sense of do it yourself.

This leads to the ritual being picked up on Kosher cooking and Jewish family interests blogs  even for a wider Jewish audience who do not have the anxieties. It becomes a once a year nice Jewish home activity. The internet has played a tremendous role in the rapid spread of this custom in the wider community, which in turn normalizes the activity.

Some make claims that this is a return of chassdic custom but as stated above they made special challot many times in the year since they had to bake every week. And there are thousands of other chassidc customs that modern orthodoxy is ignoring.  I even have found several who say this is a way to reconnect to almost world of Europe in that it cannot be a “coincidence that Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day, falls around the time of the shlissel challah.”  They are using the Chassidc label to create an aura of authenticity to a do- it-yourself artisan activity.

The custom also points to the role of women in needing to generate income and take on the struggles of the family.


There is another element -the new found binary relationship between Chometz and Passover. A clear demarcation of donut and matzah.

In our age of Passover plenty and also weekly plenty, few are looking forward to the Passover treats. Rather we like our routines.  No, I should say that we love our routines. There is a new widespread folk ritual in local modern Orthodoxy of specifically going to Dunkin Donuts for one last Coolatta  and donut, or to the bagel store for one last everything bagel with a smear. You see the new Jewish ritual of waiting in the long lines at Dunkin Donuts, then- because one would not go home to a clean home –sitting with the little kids on the curb in a strip mall or walking in circles around the block as one eats one’s last leaven bread.

On the other side of the holiday,  the transition back to normal life after Passover  is an anticlimax and involves a great deal of work in returning the house to the normal non-Passover dishes. People need a transitional ritual of a return to leavened bread and what could be a better practice than baking challah.

Most busy people ran back to work and had little sense of closure so challah is a treat after two weeks without fresh bread.


I received this week from two rabbis statements of the meaning of the ritual for their congregants in both cases the message is connecting to God.

The first one addressed the critics of the ritual and the second one made a spiritual case for it.  “I think if you are the kind of Jew who thinks – ‘what does working have to do with earning a living, G-d will provide, especially if I do shisel chalah?’ – then they you should NOT do it. But if you are the kind of Jew who thinks ‘What does God have to do with earning a living, I have a great job?’ then you should do it!”

The second one said the purpose was  spiritual engagement . One takes something mundane and elevates  it to a higher level. The Biblical, Rabbinic and Hasidic sources connecting  this challah making to a form of self-sufficiency and helping others as part of a community. The key message is how to improve our connection with the HaKadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One Blessed be He)and use this as a moment to be spiritually engaged.

The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah teaches us that on Pesach we are judged on how much grain we will have for the coming year. The Apter Rebbe connects this to the Shabbos after Pesach to wit baking the challah in the sharp of a key. When Israel finally arrived in the land  after Pesach the manna stopped and they ate from the produce of the land. It was at that point that they had to make their own food . So the Apter Rebbe said now they had to move from passivity and complete reliance on Hashem to actually being productive with the ability to create things and support things and move towards self-sufficiency. Parnassa then means taking the wheat and making the bread-taking what G d gives us and then in partnership building on that.

The Forward posted a nice piece on the topic similar to the second rabbi based on the need for self-sufficiency. It concluded:

The movement from manna to bread, the movement from Egypt to Israel and the movement from Passover to Shavuot are all linked through the commitment to human activity. I’m putting a key on my challah this Shabbat to remind myself of that moment, that first communal moment where we stopped waiting for bread to fall from the skies and started making it ourselves — and perhaps to remind myself that the keys to those gates may be in my hands.

Another homily was found on the Aish HaTorah website in the name of Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller. It should be noted that during her long and successful career she contributed to making many long forgotten midrashim,  wild aggadah, and kabbalistic legends into mainstream Torah. She makes ordinary activities fraught with spiritual meaning.  The reader should notice in this excerpt of a long article how she moves from the universal to the feminine and then to why this is not idolatry.

Everything is in its essence holy, kodesh, and always will be. God gives us permission to use His world for a “mundane, chol” purpose, under one condition: that we preserve its holy essence…”Ordinary” life has a holy source, and it is our responsibility to use it well. This is especially true in regard to bread. Nothing is more “ordinary” than eating. Yet on an intuitive level we can connect to the mystic energy of the earth itself while making bread, in its feel and texture. It is meant to touch us deeply, and halacha (literally, “the way to walk”) tells us how use its power well.

Humans, as a combination of body and soul, flour and water, are like a dough.

The Shlah explains that everything we observe in this world has a spiritual parallel…  The Torah is telling us that while bread alone may sustain the body, it is the word of God — concealed within the physical properties of the bread — that sustains one’s soul. And separating challah initiates this process of spiritual nurture.

It is instructive to note that in the biblical text (Numbers ch. 15), the mitzvah of challah is juxtaposed to the laws prohibiting idol worship. What possible connection exists between uplifting bread and polytheism? The nature of idol worship is to see the Creator as being removed from His creations… By taking challah, we are saying that God is here! He is the source of our souls, bodies, and the forces that sustain them. He is One, and nothing is separate from His transcendental unity.

Our matriarch Sarah achieved this level in her own lifetime. The Talmud tells us that her bread stayed fresh from Friday to Friday. The life force that she was able to identify — the Shechinah presence of God — did not depart. In her role as matriarch, Sarah laid the foundations for the future of every Jewish woman’s spiritual journey. God allowed her to experience a miracle week after week — leaving an indelible imprint not just on her, but on each of her future descendants.

In the last few days there have been posts from Reconstructionist rabbis and new age-Chabad rabbis and cooking blogs all giving spiritual and symbolic interpretations of the new practice.

The Best of Physicians is destined for Gehenna

The same Talmudic passage above the piety of sailors (and baseball players) continues by decrying  that “the best of physicians is destined for Gehenna.” Why? The most common answer is because they see their lives as not dependent on God. They trust their skill and personal talents to solve problems without seeing anything higher.

The public face of Modern Orthodoxy is very professional and ordered -trusting in its skill as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and IT personal to solve problems.  Their religion is very self-sufficient and not magical. But how does this play in an era of spirituality and placing greater emphasis on the spiritual self over the organizational?

Ordinary people, for whom the anxieties of life are the traditional concerns of “children, health, and livelihood” still turn to divine help. They need something to relate to their fears and hopes against a backdrop of the age of spirituality. For them the magic and supernatural and the possibility of faith remains a concern. For many, if not most, ordinary people, religion is about having God in their lives life.

As a side observation, last decade there was a local synagogue based drive for better prayer  leading to the distribution of an Orthodox book that said that the way to pray is to ask for all your personal needs to God: health, children, job stress, cooking stress, laundry stress, computer problems, burnt food.  It had follow-up by speakers teaching the same points. One turns to in order to solve daily problems. In a ritualized world, it was inevitable to generate ritual. This was one of the many moments of the last decade that laid the groundwork for seeing God in one’s daily problems.

It is interesting to note that members of both the right and left of the Orthodoxy world unite in having written articles condemning the practice as superstition  For them, their deep anxiety is over the boundaries and purity of Orthodox. The left is anxious  about the perceived right wing distortion of Orthodoxy and the right is worried about the left wing distortion of Orthodoxy. For both of them, the practice of turning to God does not relate to their concern for the future of Orthodoxy.  And for both of them it does taint their rational visions of a legal centered Orthodoxy that keeps direct experience of God out of their lives.

The critics mistakenly think  that the performer of segulot is practicing bad science and superstition in the nineteenth century patronizing way of telling the natives that their practices were just bad science. It also similar to the 19th century works ascribing Jewish rituals such as dietary laws to bad science.

The same 19th century anthropologists such as Tylor and Frazer cited to show the cross-cultural phenomena of such practices also showed the pagan superstitious totemistic sources of tefillin, shofar, and four species. Many books of the early twentieth century use these arguments to show that all Jewish ritual is just pagan. The current Orthodox critics are selectively using sources that undercut the very roots of any observance.  There are magical aspects to spilling drops of wine at the seder and many other practices.

The critics think that the person baking a key in the challah needs to be demeaned by being told that if they want a job they should learn to polish their resume or get job training. They are oblivious to the need for the relief of anxieties of making enough of a livelihood done in a spiritual content.

But more importantly, every modern Orthodoxy article and sermon viewed it as a holiday of self-sufficiency or as only symbolic. They are not using it as magic, just a nice shape of challah. The critics are projecting magical thinking onto others when those who do it only treat it as a symbol, and even a symbol of self-sufficiency.

In addition, many of the critics have a clear sense of mansplaning against gendered women’s challah practices and practices outside of communal synagogue life.

In the end, I do not think one needs to accept all the functionalism of Malinowski and almost no one takes it as primitive science the ways the critics portray it. All we have is a ritual of challah baking, new women’s customs, and using the mundane a a way to turn to God, nice for families, and a special event of challah after Passover done in an age of anxiety.

h/t and deep thank you to all those who responded to my FB call as I was writing this Thursday night.

Interview with Daniel C. Matt – translator of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar

In a striking image, the Zohar compares the Torah to a princess sequestered in a palace tower. The student of Torah is her lover seeking her to reveal herself from the window showing her reciprocal love. The lover’s does catch a fleeting vision, a personal and private revelation of her secrets stirring his heart. A mystical approach to Torah yearns for this love and personal revelation.

This may be compared to a beloved maiden, beautiful in form and appearance, concealed secretly in her palace. She has a single lover unknown to anyone—except to her, surreptitiously. Out of the love that he feels for her, this lover passes by her gate constantly, lifting his eyes to every side. Knowing that her lover is constantly circling her gate, what does she do? She opens a little window in that secret place where she is, reveals her face to her lover, and quickly withdraws, concealing herself. None of those near the lover even sees or notices, only the lover, and his inner being and heart and soul go out to her. He knows that out of love for him she revealed herself for a moment to arouse him.

So it is with words of Torah: she only reveals herself to her lover. Torah knows that one who is wise of heart circles her gate every day. What does she do? She reveals her face to him from the palace and beckons to him with a hint, then swiftly withdraws to her place, hiding away. None of those there knows or notices—he alone does, and his inner being and heart and soul follows her. Thus Torah reveals and conceals herself, approaching her lover lovingly to arouse love with him.

A reader could understand this in a technical sense of a ritual to connect to the sefirah of malkhut/shekhinah but for many it is the mystical lyrical aspect of the passage that attracts readers. ” The scholar Michael Fishbane, wrote that the Zohar “pulses with the desire for God on every page.”

For those who cherish the work, Professor Daniel C. Matt has done an invaluable service in translating the Zohar into a vibrant glowing English, thereby setting a benchmark for translations  for contemporary Jewish culture. His Pritzker Edition published by Stanford University Press is easy to use and the website has samples and a full Hebrew/Aramaic text to download.

zohar cover

The Zohar as printed in the 16th century is a five volume set (3 volumes of Zohar, Tikkune Zohar, and Zohar Hadash) of over thirty separate books including the non-Kabbalistic allegorical Midrash Haneelam from the early 13th century, the 14th century Tikkune Zohar, the especially esoteric Idrot and Sitrei Torah by Rabbi Yakov Shatz. It also contains fragments and pieces of Ashkenaz esotericism, Bahir, and a work on palmistry. The work also has 14th century passages from Rabbi Yosef of Hamadan and his contemporaries, whose authorship was already noted in the traditional commentaries.  These works differ in language, protagonist, esoteric ideas, use of midrash, and especially religious worldview.

The part of the Zohar beautifully translated by Daniel C. Matt is the main narrative section of the first three volume.  The 9 English volumes cover 85% of the 3 Aramaic volumes of the standard edition(s) of the Zohar (except for sections such as Midrash ha-Ne’lam, Matnitin, Tosefta, Sitrei Torah, and Heikhalot, which are included in the English volumes 10-12, and Ra’aya Meheimna, which will not be translated.

(As a side point, the Soncino English translation (1934) was almost unusable, inadequate in both translation and passages covered. The Soncino actually selected as a translator a Volozhin Yeshiva alumna who had already converted to Christianity).

The contemporary attraction for the Zohar is in the narrative section whose passages offer the attractive merits of literary stories, heightened language, love of God, and deeper levels of reality. The work is a mystical midrash in which a circle of kabbalists travel and reveal secrets as they expound the verses of the Bible. The narrative invites the reader to share its vision by using the phrase “come and see’ (ta hazai), in place of the Talmud’s “come and hear.” Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby focused on the doctrine of the sefirot, but later academic readers look at the entire package of midrashic-literary-mystical-kabbalistic weave. The other parts of the corpus do not have these qualities. Current trends find multiple hands and opinions even in the narrative sections leading to seeing the work as a group effort. There is no early complete manuscript of the Zohar (and there never was. For more information, see my 2010 Forward review of Daniel Matt & Melila Hellner-Eshed, and some of my prior blog posts- here and here).

The narrative section reworks older materials into something new. For examples a Zohar section may quote two pieces of Genesis Rabbah then a piece of Tanhuma and/or Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer followed by a piece of Gerona Kabbalah and conclude with Rabbi Shimon presenting the position of Castillian Kabbalah. All of it set within a narrative story with rhetorical questions and vivid imagery. The Zohar reworks minor midrashim such as Midrash Wayissa’u, a story of the sons of Jacob warring against their enemies and Midrash Peṭirat Mosheh, on the death of Moses. It also has knowledge of various Second Temple period Pseudepigrapha books whether via midrash or some subterranean tradition. Nevertheless, none of these antecedents are the medieval sefirotic chart.

For those who are not acquainted with kabbalistic literature, there are dozens of seminal kabbalistic works. If one wanted to be informed about the world of the sefirot one would likely start with the Sha’arei Orah, by Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, if one wanted to study the Gerona school then one would start with the works of Rabbis Azriel and Ezra of Gerona or one could study Nahmanides’ French tradition. One could even look at the texts as diverse as Moses ben Jacob from Kiev’s compilation Shushan Sodot or the Byzantium work Sefer Hatemunah. The Zohar is far from the summary or summation of the kabbalah and its many schools. (For those who want an introduction, see my YUTorah introductory lectures on the Kabbalah).

The Zohar had admirers and imitators at the start of the 14th century including Yosef Angelet and David b. Yehudah Hahasid, and it was quoted by Bahye and Recanati, however it was not the classic until the Spanish exiles in the 16th century who turned it into a canonical text by writing commentaries on the recently published text and then building elaborate systems using the Zohar as the basis. It generated ritual gestures such as Kabbalat Shabbat and inviting guests into the sukkah as well as the Yeshiva ideal of studying Torah day and night. In the 17th century, it was applied in a mechanical ritual manner (10 pieces of Chometz, 10 items on the Seder plate, 100 shofar blasts).At the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century, people study the narrative parts of the Zohar for its beauty and mystical worldview.

Those who are carefully reading through the volumes page by page will not agree with every decision made in the volumes, one can question some of his decisions of which Zoharic book a passage belongs to, as well as not always agreeing with his translation and commentary. At some points, Matt follows one commentator over another without citing the important alternate understanding. These points aside, Daniel C. Matt has done the Jewish community a tremendous service in his translation Below is a my interview with him and afterwards  I received a selection from his autobiographic essay.

1)      Why did you decide to make a composite text rather than a
stemma with variants? What were your criteria to choose which variant to use?

There is no complete manuscript of what we now call the Zohar, nor did such a manuscript ever exist, because the Zohar was composed over a long period of time by different authors. At first, I thought that I would translate from one of the standard printed editions and simply consult manuscripts when I encountered difficult passages. However, I soon discovered that the manuscripts (especially the older and more reliable ones) preserved numerous better readings. So I decided to reconstruct the Aramaic text based on those superior readings. There is undoubtedly a subjective element in choosing variants, but I came to trust certain older manuscripts. It is often possible to see how later scribes added material to the text, and I scraped away such later additions.

2)      Why did you include the Matnitin and Idrot if your goal was to
limit the volumes to “guf haZohar”?

The Zohar: Pritzker Edition includes many sections of the Zohar, not just what is called Guf ha-Zohar (The Body of the Zohar). This latter term refers primarily to the running commentary on the Torah, which is translated in Vols. 1–9. Certain other sections of the Zohar are also included in these nine volumes, such as Sava de-Mishpatim, the Idrot, Rav Metivta, Yanuqa. Many of the older manuscripts record the Matnitin as one unit, rather than how they appear in the printed editions (scattered throughout the Zohar), and we decided to follow the older manuscripts. We did not translate either Tiqqunei ha-Zohar or Ra’aya Meheimna, which were composed later as Zoharic imitations.

3)      Are you consistent in the words used to translate a
Hebrew/Aramaic term? For example, is tiqqun always translated as
enhancement? How did you come to translate alma de-atei the way you did? Why is heizu rendered as visionary mirror, rather than one or the other?

It would be a grave mistake to always translate Zoharic terms consistently. As I proceeded in my work, I composed a Zohar dictionary so that I could keep track of various possible nuances for the Zohar’s unique brand of Aramaic. For the root tqn, for example, I listed over fifty possible English equivalents, including “to mend, repair, refine, enhance, improve, prepare, correct, rectify, perfect, restore, arrange, array, adorn, establish.” I used the rendering “enhancement” only for certain passages in the Idrot describing the features (and curlicues) of the divine beard.

The rabbinic term alma de-atei is often translated as “the world-to-come,” but I usually render it as “the world that is coming,” in order to emphasize the eternal present. In the Zohar this term often alludes to the Divine Mother, Binah, who is constantly flowing. In the words of Rabbi Shim’on, “That river flowing forth is called Alma de-Atei, the World that is Coming—coming constantly and never ceasing” (Zohar 3:290b, Idra Zuta).

Occasionally I combine two possible meanings of a Zoharic term in order to convey its range of meaning. For example, the Aramaic word heizu means “vision, appearance,” but in the Zohar it also signifies “mirror,” based on the Hebrew word mar’ah (which can mean both “vision” and “mirror”).

4)      What are some of your most inventive words and hardest words that you used in your translation? 

One of the most charming—and frustrating—features of the Zohar is its frequent use of neologisms (invented words). The authors like to switch around letters of Talmudic terms or occasionally play with Spanish words.

One newly coined word is tiqla. In various contexts, this can mean “scale, hollow of the hand, fist, potter’s wheel, and water clock.” This last sense refers to a device described in ancient and medieval scientific literature, which in the Zohar functions as an alarm clock, calibrated to wake kabbalists at precisely midnight for the ritual stud of Torah. A similar device was employed in Christian monasteries to rouse monks for their vigils. How appropriate to invent a word in order to describe an invention!

The Zohar describes the primordial source of emanation as botsina de-qardinuta. The word botsina means “lamp.” The word qardinuta recalls a phrase in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 7a): hittei qurdanaita, “wheat from Kurdistan,” which, according to Rashi, is very hard. The Zohar may also be playing here with qadrinuta, “darkness.” I sometimes rendered botsina de-qardinuta as “a lamp of impenetrable darkness.” More recently, I chose “the
Lamp of Adamantine Darkness.” As the paradoxical names suggests, the potent brilliance of this primordial source overwhelms comprehension.

Many mystics record similar paradoxical images: “a ray of divine darkness” (Dionysius, Mystical Theology); “the luminous darkness” (Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses); “the black light” (Iranian Sufism). In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides writes: “We are dazzled by His beauty, and He is hidden from us because of the intensity with which He becomes manifest, just as the sun is hidden to eyes too weak to apprehend it.”

5)      What was the biggest surprise that you found in the many year

One surprise was the playfulness of the Zohar and its sense of humor. According to Rabbi Shim’on, a bit of foolishness can stimulate wisdom. In the section called Yanuqa (The Child), two rabbis encounter a little boy who is a wunderkind—and also a bit of a rascal. He alternates between amazing the rabbis and teasing them, impressing and then challenging (or stumping) them. This child prodigy spouts wisdom, spiced with humor.

I used to try and figure out what the Zohar “meant.” Now I prefer to let the rich language wash over me and through me, allowing it to uplift, confound, or transform me.

6)      Many people want to know: How does the Zohar influence your
spiritual life? Do you keep a mystical journal? Are you a mystic?

I don’t keep a journal. I don’t have visions. The Zohar enriches my life by teaching me not to be content with how things appear on the surface, by stimulating me to delve more deeply. I look for the divine spark in the people I encounter, in the phenomena of the natural world, and in everyday life, moment by moment. I am a mystic in the sense that I feel the oneness of all existence, the wondrous interplay of matter and energy.

7)      Why should we study Zohar? What does its  creative imagination of God offer?

In interpreting the Bible, the Zohar is willing to ask daring questions. Going beyond traditional midrash, the Zohar employs radical creativity to make us question our current assumptions about life, about ourselves, about God and spirituality. It moves through the Torah verse by verse, asking probing, challenging questions. As the Zohar says, “God is known and grasped to the degree that one opens the gates of imagination,” so it’s up to our imaginative faculty to understand reality, or the reality of God.

The Zohar is a celebration of creativity—it shows how the Torah endlessly unfolds in meaning. Jacob ben-Sheshet Gerondi, a 13th-century kabbalist, said it’s a mitzvah for every wise person to innovate in Torah according to his capacity. That’s refreshing because you often hear the traditional notion: to accept what’s been handed down or to learn from the master because you’re not able to create on your own. But ben-Sheshet says (after conveying one of his innovations), “If I hadn’t invented it in my mind I would say that this was transmitted to Moses at Mt. Sinai.” He’s aware that his interpretation is new, but he thinks it harmonizes with the ultimate source of tradition—his creative discovery itself is somehow deeply connected to an ancient mainstream. An essential component of all creativity is tapping into something deeper than your normal state of mind.

We all know that near the beginning of Genesis there’s the famous story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s clear that God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden. But the Zohar asks, “Who expelled whom?” It turns out, according to the Zohar’s radical re-reading of the biblical verse, that Adam expelled Shekhinah from the Garden!

This seems impossible, almost heretical or laughable. But the Zohar may be implying that we’re still in the Garden, although we don’t realize it because we’ve lost touch with the spiritual dimension of life. On a personal level, each of us becomes alienated by excluding the Divine from our lives. The Zohar challenges us to reconnect with God, to invite Her back into our lives, to rediscover intimacy with Her.

Ultimately, God is Ein Sof (the Infinite). In a striking interpretation, the Zohar construes the opening words of Genesis not as “In the beginning God created,” but rather “With beginning, It [that is, Ein Sof] created God.” To me, this implies that all our normal names for God are inadequate. What we call “God” is puny, compared to the ultimate divine reality.

8)      What do you like about the Idrot?

The Idrot present a detailed description of the divine anatomy, especially the divine head, face, and beard. This may be, in part, a response and reaction to Maimonides, who insisted on eliminating all anthropomorphic descriptions of God. But there is much more to the Idrot. In the Idra Rabba (The Great Assembly), there is a state of emergency, because due to human misconduct, the world is vulnerable to divine wrath. Rabbi Shim’on and his Companions set out on a dangerous mission to restore the balance in the upper worlds and to stimulate a radiant flow from the compassionate aspect of God, which can soothe the irascible divine force and thereby save the world.

In the Idra Zuta (The Small Assembly), Rabbi Shim’on is about to die, and he reveals profound mysteries. He concludes with a detailed description—graphic yet cryptic—of the union of the divine couple. As he departs from this world, he assumes the role of the Divine Male, uniting ecstatically with Shekhinah. Thus Rabbi Shim’on’s death becomes a joyous occasion, and a celestial voice announces his wedding celebration.

In the recent Zohar conference in Israel I read selections from Idra Zuta because I wanted the listeners to appreciate the dramatic power of this rich narrative.

9)      What do you do with the dualism and demonology of the Zohar- do you find it offensive? What do you do with the nasty parts of the Zohar such as the severe condemnation of masturbation? Many are deeply scarred by the effect of those passages.

The Zohar often describes the conflict between the divine and demonic forces. The demonic realm is called Sitra Ahra (the Other Side). This name can be understood as reflecting the terrifying nature of the demonic sphere—as if it cannot even be accorded a real name, but is just referred to as “Other.” However, this designation can also imply that evil is simply the “shadow side” of good, that you can’t have one without the other. We only recognize light because there is also darkness; we only recognize good because there is also evil. Ultimately, both good and evil originate within God. If there is a balance between the divine polar opposites, goodness flows into the world. If there is an imbalance, evil can lash out, wreaking havoc. Human behavior affects the divine balance, contributing to the manifestation of either good or evil.

I’m not offended by the demonology of the Zohar. I see it as an expression of human fear.

I don’t deny that the Zohar includes “nasty” elements. This masterpiece of Kabbalah is often lyrical and inspiring, but being composed in medieval times, it naturally reflects a medieval mentality, including aspects of chauvinism, misogyny, superstition, and various attitudes that we know find antiquated or harmful. To me, Kabbalah is a great resource for contemporary spirituality; but we should approach it with a critical mind; we should not accept all of its teachings as ultimate truth.


10)  How do you relate to the various theories of recent scholars
that think that there is no fixed original text, rather the continual
accretion of material?

Certainly the Zohar, as we now know it, never existed as a single continuous text. Rather, it is the product of centuries of compilation and editing, which was proceeded by an extended period of composition by various authors. However, by consulting and comparing early manuscripts, it is possible to scrape away from the standard printed editions centuries of scribal accretion and at least come closer to a more “original” text, section by section.

11)  How do you relate to the various theories of recent scholars
that trace ideas back to earlier midrashic and Second Temple sources?

Although the Zohar was composed in medieval times, it is clearly based on numerous earlier sources, primarily various midrashim and the Talmud. Among the midrashim, we find particular influence of Pirqei de-Rabbi Eli’ezer, Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, and Bereshit Rabbah. The Zohar itself is a type of midrash, while sometimes it also an experiment in medieval fiction. The genius of the authors lies in their ability to use the earlier material to compose a more spiritual midrash, stimulating the reader to expand his consciousness, challenging the normal workings of the mind.

12)  How do you explain the different mindset of Rabbi Moshe de León from the Zohar? Do you have any new explanation of why Ramdal rejects opinions that are affirmed in the Zohar?

It is very interesting to compare the Zohar with the Hebrew writings of Ramdal (Rabbi Moses de León), in which he admits being the author. In these Hebrew compositions, Moses de León makes free use of the Zohar, often translating or paraphrasing Zoharic passages and introducing them with formula such as: “As the ancient ones have said….” He is completely fluent in the Zohar and seems to be promoting the “ancient” material for a wider public. He often explicates Zoharic symbolism. It is easy to conclude that the author of these Hebrew books is himself the composer of large sections of the Zohar.

On the other hand, his Hebrew writing lacks the lyrical power, creativity, and playfulness of the Zohar. This can be explained partly by the fact that in these Hebrew writings, Moses de León is working within his normal state of consciousness, whereas in the Zohar he has shed this persona and taken on the identity of ancient sages. This switch apparently liberates his poetic instinct and enables him to create a unique, otherworldly masterpiece.

Moses de León was certainly not the sole author of the Zohar. Most likely, he did not express the Zoharic opinions that he rejects in his Hebrew writings.

13)  How does the universalism of mysticism relate to the very particular ritual focus of the Zohar? Why Zohar rather than Vedanta or Buddhism?

There are many similarities between mystical teachings of the various world religions: God as the oneness of it all, the goal of reuniting the apparently separate self with this divine oneness, the potency of the divine word and of human meditation. While the insights are frequently similar, or even identical, each religion expresses these insights through the unique forms of its own tradition and culture. A Jew should explore and appreciate the wisdom of his own tradition, while also being open to other spiritual teachings.

However, while the insights are frequently similar, or even identical, the mystics of each religion express these insights through the unique forms of their own tradition and culture. More basically, the particular forms and practices of one’s religion provide pathways to experience mystical states and discover mystical truths. For example, a Jewish mystic finds God through Torah, the celebration of Shabbat, and the mindful observance of other mitsvot.

In certain mystical traditions, one sees the desire to leave the material realm, to seek seclusion and to focus on meditation. Although there is a rich stream of kabbalistic meditation practices, Jewish mysticism emphasizes life in this world and cooperation with others. Participation in the community remains vital, for example, davening in a minyan. In general, the regimen of Torah and the mitsvot helps the individual to stay rooted.

14) How can we apply Kabbalah to modern day Judaism?

I don’t recommend that we become complete kabbalists. Rather, we should draw on the spiritual insights of Kabbalah in order to enrich our spiritual lives. We can reimagine God as the energy that animates all of life. We can balance the patriarchal depictions of God with the feminine imagery of Shekhinah. In our prayer services, we can focus on the mystical implications of verses such as “In Your light we see light,” or “Taste and see that God is good.” Furthermore, we can make room for moments of contemplative silence within prayer. This will help us comprehend and experience the profound verse in Psalm 65: “To You, silence is praise.”


Selections from an Autobiographical Essay

My interest in Kabbalah and the Zohar certainly has something to do with the fact that my father, Hershel Matt, was a rabbi. He never urged me to delve into Jewish mysticism; on the contrary, he was somewhat suspicious of mysticism and always insisted on maintaining the gap between human and divine. But he conveyed and embodied an intense spirituality, and this undoubtedly inspired me to search for the mystical element within Judaism.

The writings of Martin Buber introduced me to Hasidic tales and teachings. In my undergraduate years at Brandeis University, I took a Hillel course in Hasidic texts taught by Arthur Green. These texts often quoted phrases or lines from the Zohar, which intrigued me. Then, during my junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I began delving into Zohar. Realizing that I had only one year in Jerusalem, I took a course in Beginning Zohar and simultaneously another one in Advanced Zohar. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the latter, but that didn’t matter so much because I was also overwhelmed by the former! Overwhelmed, but also captivated.

Returning to Brandeis, I completed my B.A. in 1972. I  returned to my alma mater for graduate work in Kabbalah, under the direction of Alexander Altmann. My Ph.D. dissertation consisted of a critical edition and analysis of Sefer Mar’ot ha-Tsove’ot (The Book of Mirrors), written by David ben Yehudah he-Hasid, a thirteenth-fourteenth century kabbalist. I chose this text because it contains the earliest extensive Hebrew translations of passages from the Aramaic text of the Zohar.

I discussed the choice of my dissertation topic with Gershom Scholem when I served as his teaching assistant at Boston University in 1975, and he encouraged me to proceed with it. I recall someone telling me around this time that a doctoral student should be very careful in selecting his topic, since this will likely determine the focus of his entire academic career. I chafed at that notion and responded, “Not necessarily so!” Little did I know then how translating the Zohar would enthrall me.

During these years (early-to-mid 1970s), I was a member of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass. I still cherish the wonderful friendships, rich learning, and inspired davening that I experienced there.

Soon after receiving my Ph.D., Art Green invited me to compose a volume on the Zohar for the Classics of Western Spirituality. After selecting approximately 2 percent of the immense body of the Zohar, I proceeded to translate and annotate these passages. My intent was to demonstrate how the Zohar expounds Scripture creatively: applying the ancient biblical narrative to personal spiritual quest, and imagining (or, at times, recovering) mythic layers of meaning.

I recall someone asking me, “When are you going to translate the other 98 percent of the Zohar?”But I had other projects in mind.

Subsequently, I became interested in the subject of negative theology. The kabbalists describe the ultimate stage of Divinity as Ayin, “Nothingness,” or “No-thingness.” This paradoxical term implies not an absence, but rather a divine fullness that escapes description and language: God is beyond what we normally call “being.” After publishing “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness in Jewish Mysticism,” I later compared the Jewish notion of ayin to Meister Eckhart’s teachings on Nichts and the Buddhist concept of sunyata (“Varieties of Mystical Nothingness: Jewish, Christian and Buddhist”).

In the mid-1990s, I was invited by HarperCollins to produce a volume entitled The Essential Kabbalah. For this project, I composed annotated translations of Hebrew and Aramaic passages culled from several dozen significant texts ranging from the second to the twentieth centuries. The translations are grouped into themes such as: Ein Sof (God as Infinity), the Sefirot (Divine Qualities), Creation, Meditation and Mystical Experience, Torah, and Living in the Material World. This book has been translated into six languages including a Hebrew edition (Lev ha-Qabbalah).

I spent several years working on a book entitled God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony between Science and Spirituality. Here I do not make the simplistic claim that kabbalists somehow knew what Stephen Hawking and others would eventually discover. Rather, I explore several parallels between scientific cosmology and Kabbalah, such as the creative vacuum state and the notion of fertile mystical nothingness, or broken symmetry and the kabbalistic theory of “the breaking of the vessels.” Given that the theory of the Big Bang has become our contemporary Creation story, I seek to outline a “new-ancient” theology, drawing especially on the kabbalistic idea of God as the energy animating all of existence. A revised edition of God and the Big Bang is about to appear, incorporating some of the recent discoveries in cosmology.

In 1995, I was approached by the Pritzker family of Chicago, who invited me to take on the immense project of composing an annotated translation of the Zohar. I was simultaneously thrilled and overwhelmed by this opportunity. After wrestling with the offer for some time, I decided to translate a short section of the Zohar to see how it felt; but I poured myself into the experiment so intensely, day after day, that I was left drained, exhausted, and discouraged. How could I keep this up for years? I reluctantly resolved to decline the offer, but finally agreed to at least meet with the woman who had conceived the idea: Margot Pritzker. I expressed my hesitation to her, and told her that the project could take twelve to fifteen years—to which she responded, “You’re not scaring me!” Somehow, at that moment, I was won over, and decided to plunge in.

I began working on the translation in 1997 in Berkeley (while on sabbatical). Between 2004-14, Stanford University Press published eight volumes of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, and last month Volume 9 appeared, concluding the Zohar’s main commentary on the Torah. Two other Zohar scholars are composing Volumes 10–12, which will include various other sections of the Zohar.

3 Responses to Miriam Kosman-Haredi Feminist- Miriam Gedwiser, Shira Wolowsky, and Gene Matanky

To continue the discussion of gender from the interview with Miriam Kosman. In my last post, I refrained from including various interesting issues in the introduction. For example, Dr. Mendel Hirsch, building on the thought of his father Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, wrote that today all learning should be from the feminine perspective of home, children, and family and not the traditional learning. Alternately, Rav Shagar stated that the original open-ended Talmudic discussion was a feminine style and that in  he post-modern age we need to return – away from the closed and definitive male Yeshiva style – back to a women’s discourse. On a very different level, in 1535, Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, received a message from his Maggid, his angelic visitor, that his wife had a male soul of a great Talmudic scholar that had to return as a female in order to learn charity and sharing.

To directly return to the last blog post, many commented in the typical manner of second wave feminists who say to third wave feminists: How can you do theory when there are still glass ceiling to break. yet, I received three different and complimentary replies that go beyond that complaint. The first by Miriam Gedwiser Esq. is perspective of asking how this would apply to her life. The second by Professor Shira Wolosky accepted the use of gender categories in her studies of literature but still finds Kosman’s approach lacking. Finally, Gene Matansky points out how the contemporary theory of Judith Butler and Daniel Boyarin is different than Kosman’s complimentary position.

gender_quizMiriam Gedwiser is a faculty member at Drisha. She has a BA from the University of Chicago in the History and Philosophy of Science and a JD from NYU School of Law. She studied in the Drisha Scholars Circle as well as at other programs in Israel and Boston. She practiced commercial litigation at a large law firm, and completed a judicial clerkship in the Southern District of New York.

Miriam Kosman’s work, or something like it, could potentially open up a discourse that could be fruitful for the circles I inhabit (let’s call it, for identification purposes only, Modern Orthodoxy). The status quo seems to be that we must all affirm that “halakhah sees men and women differently” – but then tread on eggshells when attempting to conceptualize those differences in any way, and more often than not avoid such conceptualization all together.

The result of this avoidance in coeducational settings, further, is not neutrality. When girls and boys are together for everything in school, the Modern Orthodox impulse seems to teach everyone a Judaism that centers on communal prayer and Torah study. No one talks about what happens when you graduate and move to a neighborhood where the women’s section is locked during the week and the Torah classes are for men only. Nor do they talk about what happens for the decade (or so) when “going to shul” for many women actually means “going to Tot Tefillah.”

Partly because of the assumption of this traditionally male perspective, and partly for reasons endemic to the American professional classes from which Modern Orthodoxy draws so heavily, domestic tasks, and anything stereotypically feminine, are sometimes denigrated; Challah baking generates eyerolls.

So the work of creating the cyclical experiences of the Jewish week and year is largely ignored. The laws of pesach are a topic for halakhah class, but the work of making pesach, the thing women learned from their mothers, is in practice frequently outsourced in whole or part.

The closest we sometimes get to an alternative is a male rosh yeshiva speaking about tznius (modesty). Framing the broadly “internal” values of femininity in terms of tznius may be intended to lift tznius beyond the realm of four-inch skirt rulers and collarbone-effacing diagrams. But, for a large portion of the audience it serves less to uplift than to taint any larger ideas being proposed.

Any discourse about gender differences that is going to succeed for women like me, then, should (a) include women’s voices, (b) provide a frame that does not reduce to “tznius,” and (c) provide a way of thinking about, and valuing, the parts of the mesorah (tradition) that have historically been delegated mostly to women.

Kosman in many ways fits this bill. She makes an emphatic case for a male-female dichotomy that centers the affirmative virtues of the feminine side, and she vigorously upholds equality as the ideal.

Yet it is on the level of the practical, as-applied implications that Kosman strikes me as far from complete. A book on gender and Judaism is interesting to me to the extent that it explains what needs explaining, and here I feel that Kosman is only a very beginning.

What needs explaining is not the abstract differences between “metaphors” of feminine and masculine – though those can be of interest, much as a discourse on din vs. rahamim, or hesed vs. gevurah would be. Rather, the question of gender dichotomy is pressing because of how it plays out in the realities of women and men doing mitzvot and learning Torah. Kosman recognizes as much in her book when she moves back and forth seamlessly between the conceptual framework and practical examples such as the blessings in the morning and at the wedding canopy.

Even a theoretical presentation, then, should shed light on real-life tensions. For me, the two main tensions are: (1) Tensions between gendered halakhot and the religious aspirations of many women – (aspirations often generated by their own Orthodox education!). The bridge does not need to be practical (women can now do XYZ!), but it needs to name the problem and then offer a way of either acting or thinking differently that lowers the level of dissonance. (2) Tensions between the gender hierarchy that I think is clear in many traditional texts, and the self-understanding of contemporary women that we are, in Kosman’s words, “equal.”

Here, too, naming the problem is key, at least for me.
First, at the level of halakhah, Kosman speaks of feminine and masculine archetypes as “metaphors” and acknowledges that the distribution of natural “circle” or “arrow” inclinations does not map onto gender. But living according to halakhah is not a metaphor.

Her answer seems to be that halakhah demands that people consciously activate their masculine or feminine potentials according to the dictates of their bodies. “Judaism,” Kosman says, “has an interest in making sure each of these poles remains alive and kicking in our world.” I think I agree. But I remain unconvinced that assigning people to a “feminine” or “masculine” pole is either the best or only way to ensure that both poles continue to have power in the world – especially if, as Kosman agrees, we resist the notion that “men and women are necessarily essentially different.”

Indeed, Kosman herself notes that the two poles emerge in non-gendered dynamics, such as the tension between Shabbat and the rest of the week, the mindset of prayer, or the different spiritual profiles of different communities. What Kosman presents as an ex-ante justification for gendered halakhot, then, strikes me as, at best, an ex-post explanation. And it is an explanation much more likely to “work” for those already bought in than for those who experience a secular world where gender is not the most fundamental distinction between humans.

On the second question-the hierarchy implicit in traditional texts, Kosman states axiomatically that “the ultimate goal is mutuality and equality,” though also that “the circle/female represents the higher level.” For her, this is the message of the Torah, and history is moving toward a time when both “circle” and “arrow” agree with her.

The weight of rabbinic literature does not support Kosman’s claims of “equality,” and certainly not her assertion that “the female voice always represents the voice of truth agitating under the surface.” If so, can these claims go beyond convincing women with vested interests, and convince Torah-literate men as well? Or are the women in the position of the husband in an old joke who lets his wife make “small decisions” like who his friends are and where he works, as long as he can make the big decisions like whether their family supports the balanced budget amendment.

Relatedly, if the very nature of “circle” values is fluidity, and anything coercive is “arrow,” how can women effect change in a man’s world? I would love to see an exploration, for example, of whether a desire to include women in leadership roles while technically complying with prohibitions on public leadership (serarah) might lead to new models of (less hierarchical) communal leadership.
Circle/feminine approaches cannot, by definition, push hard enough to be taken seriously without giving up their essence. Kosman seems to rely on God to move men toward greater recognition of equality, but accepting this answer requires a lot of faith in her paradigm to begin with.

Kosman does address the question of leadership roles for women:: “The question is what price do we pay as a culture by saying that publicly endorsed- leadership is the only worthwhile kind of influence? Or that if you don’t have an official title or a public persona you don’t exist?”

This was one of the many places where I felt that she was speaking to a different reality than mine. From where I sit, “we” have already basically conceded that public roles are the important roles, and now we are just arguing about who can be important. The Modern Orthodox thought leaders who argue against certain public roles for women have generally failed to offer a compelling vision of what the important, affirmative, nonpublic roles for women actually are and why they are incompatible with public positions. So while I wholeheartedly agree that we need to make space for other models of influence, I come at it more from a position of rebuilding than preserving. And in the mixed-gender universe I inhabit, it seems counterproductive to limit that reconstruction by biological sex.

As a question of style, I didn’t always feel like the intended audience for Circle, Arrow, Spiral (CAS), which contains hundreds of endnotes with rabbinic source material, in Hebrew, while at the same time defining basic terms like “tanakh” in the main text. The body of the text veers too close, at times, to unsupported pop-psychological assertions for my tastes. At the same time there is a refreshing candor, and the footnotes bring in a surprisingly (if also irregularly) broad array of texts and authors – from Maharal to Soloveitchik to Feyerabend, with a guest appearance by Yertle the Turtle.

Ultimately I think Kosman lost me in her first answer, where she highlighted woman’s “mission of being ‘the other’ ‘kneged’.” I do, actually, see a big part of the Torah’s message as a call to remain critical and contrarian about many dominant cultural assumptions. But that critical distance is not the end in itself, but rather enables an authentic role as ovdei Hashem (servant of God), or am segulah (chosen nation). The male-female relationship is not “mutual and equal” so long as women are expected to experience ourselves primarily as “other.” I also want to be able to live in my own skin.

Shira Wolosky (Ph.D. Princeton University) was an Associate Professor of English at Yale before moving to the Hebrew University, where she is Professor of English and American Literature. Her books include Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War; Language Mysticism; The Art of Poetry; Feminist Theory Across Disciplines: Feminist Community; Poetry and Public Discourse, Among other awards, she has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow at the Princeton and the Israel Institutes for Advanced Studies, a Tikvah fellow at NYU Law School, and a Drue Heinz Visiting Professor at Oxford. Prof. Wolosky uses feminist theory and asks questions of gender and women’s space in her literary studies.  For example of her studies of the poetry of Jewish women- see here and here. 

The question of gender remains one of the most challenging within society, both secular and religious.  Does the desire for equality mean erasing all difference? In what way can gender be respected in its difference yet not undermine respect, justice, and dignity?  Both secular and religious societies use norms to enforce inequalities that may not be inherent or necessary according to the values they themselves are committed to and desire to uphold.

Miriam Kosman is a voice of feminine difference, following the work of Gilligan, Miller, and Held.  Her appeal to ‘feminine values’ is I think an important recognition of how the lives women have led have indeed embodied many of the highest commitments of Judaism.  That women have in fact been fundamental builders of community is something that has rarely been recognized, with the notion that women remain in the ‘private’ sphere while men act in the ‘public’ one concealing the work women have traditionally performed to build community and care for its members: the child, the elderly, the sick, the orphan, the male.

In my book Feminist Theory Across Disciplines: Feminist Community and American Women’s Poetry, I have argued that raising children is itself a public service, a foundation of community without which society itself cannot survive.  This is dramatically visible in the stunning drop in birth rates that has followed the elevation of the ‘individual’ as a free being without obligations to others.  Judaism, as a life in community, has always valued many of the activities that women traditionally have performed, in terms of care and responsibility for others and for each other.

Kosman does not, however, either solve or really address how some of the practices within Jewish traditional communities restrict women and undermine the justice and dignity Judaism is committed to.

I wholeheartedly agree that ‘feminine’ values are indeed Jewish ones that should be embraced by both genders, that feminine voices have been a vital  critical correction  against the atomistic individualism that threatens community in the Western world.  Such a critical view of the sale of the self to materialism, the pursuit of selfhood at the cost of relationship to others, which ultimately also impoverishes the self, has been a continuous pressure in women’s writing.

Women have been barred from almost every public forum.  They have not been priests, ministers or rabbis, journalists or professors, lawyers or judges, politicians or witnesses.  Literature has served as one of the few arenas in which women’s gained public voices, although even this became possible only after women achieved education, something that came very late in both the secular and religious worlds (although the history of Jewish women’s literacy is still to be written).

These voices, however, have in fact not been very much heard through the history of Jewish life.  This is of course true of every other society as well.  The revolution of recognizing gender as a central category of analysis, of recovering, exploring, and attending women’s viewpoints and voices, is very recent.  For practicing Jews, the relation of gender to tradition must be, I think, cautious and delicate.  One cannot be traditional by throwing over tradition.  Change must proceed within the discourses, norms and forms of Jewish heritage and life.  Kosman very much respects this caution, affirming the value of both Jewish tradition and feminist recognition.

Furthermore, her sense of the reality of the body as a condition of human existence in this world I think is an important one: that “gender technically exists on a continuum, we live in a physical world and the body that G-d gave us is the medium through which our soul interacts with the world.”  But again: how do we not attempt to escape our body and yet also not let it define who we are?  Something contemporary culture, with its idolatry of beauty and youth, sorely attempts.

Nevertheless, Kosman pretty much leaves Jewish gender practices as they are, in ways that border on the apologetic.  I think that her claim that “by using the fact that one is born into a male or female body to channel men in a particular direction and women in another, Judaism makes use of the most stable and objective standard to maintain tension between the two poles” evades issues of gender inequality even where traditional discourses can be appealed to.  This of course involves Agunoth, but also women as Torah authorities, women as being seen and heard in public fora, and other issues so prominent among those who are committed both to tradition and to feminist justice.

There is I think a strong relationship between Jewish and feminist values, as I have explored in my article “The Lonely Woman of Faith,” taking feminism to mean the lives women have lived in devotion to others as an enrichment of the self; although this should not be one sided to women, but should also, as Kosman writes, be the values of men; while women, too, should have opportunities to pursue projects that develop their talents, combining creativity with contribution in Jewish as in other spheres of life.  To say this, however, is to live inside the question of gender and justice, not to offer easy answers.


Gene Matanky is currently finishing his degree at Herzog College, Alon Sh’vut and has an interest in Jewish thought and gender theory. He plans on beginning a master’s degree in Jewish thought in the following year. Currently he translates Jewish academic works.

From the interview it is apparent that Kosman has a firm grasp of different types of feminist thought and uses them positively when examining Judaism. This response is not in any way meant to undermine this point. A very interesting aspect of Kosman’s work is that she integrates many “outside” viewpoints in her discussion of gender in Judaism. The fact that she doesn’t only base her opinion on strictly “Jewish” sources is a positive development within Orthodox Judaism. Her radical opinion that, “the female voice always represents the voice of truth agitating under the surface” may even be subversive, to say the least.

In this response I would like to explore her position in regard to gender essentialism.  Kosman states in regards to essentialism, “Actually, I have a very strong aversion to the idea that men and women are necessarily essentially different. Instead, I see the two forces as archetypes for different ways of interacting.” From this answer it appears that Kosman equates gender essentialism with the view that biological sex is correlated with gender identity, however, gender essentialism is not only expressed in this biological form.

Gender essentialism is the view that femininity and masculinity have essential (and unchanging) characteristics. For instance, in kabbalah, “As complex as kabbalistic symbolism can be, the issue of gender is surprisingly simple: Male and female are correlated consistently with the activity of projection and the passivity of restriction.” (Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being, p. 95), meaning that the essence of masculinity is activeness and the essence of femininity is passiveness (or as Kosman writes, “The arrow is doing, the circle is being.”).

Her essentialistic stance is prominent in her discussion of transgender, noting how in prayer one must enter a mode of “feminine being” and that positive time commandments require a “masculine mode of being”. This is reminiscent of “gender reversal” that the kabbalist undertakes. When he is receiving from the Shekhinah he is engendered as female, but when he arouses the Shekhinah to unite with Tif’eret he is engendered as male. This view of gender is essentialistic and as scholars have shown it is precisely through this essentialism that the gender reversal is possible.

Another area in which her essentialism may be noted is in her discussion of the Maccabees. She writes that “as Jews, we have generally valued the feminine prototype over the male one.” She continues by contrasting the Jewish men sitting in caves and learning Torah with the “strong Greek army.” Arguing against this  “feminine” perception of the Jewish man, Daniel Boyarin, building on Judith Butler’s work, has shown in Carnal Israel and Unheroic Conduct that masculinity in Judaism has been constructed differently than Hellenistic masculinity and Western masculinity, and that Torah learning is a form of masculine performance. Due to Kosman’s essentialist views in this case she characterizes Torah learning as a feminine activity, which is not the case within Judaism, where Torah learning, until recently, was an only-male activity. In this area it makes much more sense to use Boyarin’s Butler-influenced view of constructed gender.

In addition, I question Kosman’s conception of difference. Due to her rejection of the postmodern trend of “negating any unitary standpoint,” her notion of the masculine and feminine is complementary. She writes, “I feel like the female force always represents immanence and not transcendence—to me greatness in a woman would be more of a greatness of spirit than a greatness of intellect,” as well as, “hassidut, which put a big emphasis on meditative prayer, joy, dance and submission to a Rebbi– can be seen as a more ‘feminine’ approach to Judaism. Others, like the very rational, analytic ‘Yeshivish’ approach seem to set a value on the more confrontational, independent minded ‘masculine’ mode.” In both of these quotations masculine and feminine are complementary, feminine/ immanence/ mysticism/ spirit, in contrast to masculine/ transcendence/ rational/ intelligence. The issue is that there is no true difference here.

As Levinas stated in regards to the Hegelian synthesis, an antithesis that can be combined with a thesis to produce a synthesis, was never truly different, true difference cannot be inferred from the ‘same’. In Kosman’s rendering of gender difference, the feminine is merely the opposite of the masculine. Therefore we must also examine Kosman’s synthesis and see what role the masculine and feminine play in it.

The passage in which the synthesis/spiral is dealt with is in her discussion of Gan Eden and the World to Come. She writes that creation and redemption are characterized by the feminine, yet this world is characterized by the masculine. It is important to note that the past and future (both temporalities that are absent) are feminine, while the present is masculine. Although she writes that the present world must be tempered by the feminine, it is clear the masculine is the more powerful one in the equation. Therefore it appears that although the feminine acts on the masculine by making it into a spiral like form, this form resembles the arrow more than the circle.

I think it would be helpful to contrast Kosman’s formulation with that of some poststructuralist feminist thinkers. Luce Irigaray’s conception of a feminine language is not complementary to “masculine” language, rather it threatens it. The same can be said of Julia Kristeva’s conception of the semiotic chōra – an indeterminate space that refuses symbolic representation. Kristeva takes the word chōra from Plato’s Timaeus, in which he defines it as a maternal receptacle. For the purpose of this discussion what is important to note is that the chōra is not complementary to the symbolic, but rather prevents the subject from firming a “fixed identity”. Although these thinkers may disagree with each other, they all seek to formulate the feminine as a constructed absolute difference.

According to Elliot Wolfson, a formulation of gender difference can be found, in the eschatological vision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson. As he writes in Open Secret, the feminine is not reabsorbed into the masculine within Ḥabad’s conception of tiqqun (reparation), but rather both the feminine and masculine remain in a non-synthesized form and in a non-hierarchal formulation. It should be noted that Schneerson’s view of gender is not constructed, but essentialistic, however due to the essence of the Infinite being conceived as that which cannot be reified, the essences of masculinity and femininity in their “repaired” state are also indeterminate and therefore are not complementary.

Kosman’s view and formulation of gender is an important and positive step within Orthodox Judaism and in many ways is anything, but traditional. However, in regards to her relation to gender essentialism, in my opinion, her view of gender is essentialistic as well as complementary. Due to the importance of gender difference, I think that poststructuralist thinkers should be seriously engaged within the interpretations of Jewish texts.

Interview with Miriam Kosman: Haredi Feminist Thinker

Female and male dichotomies are common in the modern apologetics of Haredi world. Many scholars have noted the importance in the rhetoric of outreach Orthodoxy of Carol Gilligan’s A Different Voice (1982), in that she offered a gendered view of reality. But what if the use of gender categories went beyond window dressing through intense study by a Haredi author? What if a Haredi author actually mastered recent third-wave difference feminism using these recent works as a source of a new religious worldview?

In a new book Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism, Miriam Kosman actually does just that; she uses feminist theory to work out a Torah worldview. Miriam grew up in Baltimore on Yeshiva lane as daughter of Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, the former longtime mashgiach ruchani of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. She is the mother of eleven children and  has lived for 32 years in a haredi community in B’nei Brak, married to a Rosh Yeshiva.  Despite these bona fide Haredi credentials, Kosman started an MA in Bar Ilan five years ago, taking courses in philosophy and feminist theory, and is now working on her doctorate.


Kosman’s book Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism clearly started as an apologetic work in style but as the book progresses the reader finds entire subsections grappling with third-wave feminism, footnotes to Camille Pagllia, and seriously fluid gender ideas, by the end we find themes that would be progressive by any standard. A free excerpt of the apologetic section is available online at her website.  But she is continuing her studies and writing, hoping to write a more universal version of her ideas as well as a doctorate on feminist metaphors in Jewish texts. In the interim, this interview reflects her current thinking about gender categories.

This interview was long in gestation. In the interim, one of my former students independently came to the same conclusions about the novelty of the book and wrote a widely circulated review in the Forward.

As this interview shows, Kosman is not simple gender essentialism or complementarianism, in which each sex has specific roles to play. She starts with the obvious dichotomy of men as arrows and women as circles making one fear for the apologetics, then swerves into the idea of the spiral, in which both genders needs to acknowledge the other elements and work in harmony as individualized gender fluidity, even making space for transgendered identities.  As the author grew in her knowledge while writing the book, the book incorporated more third and fourth wave feminism.

The following is a widespread typology of feminism. The First Wave (Approximately 1840–1920) of feminism grew out of the movement to abolish slavery, and then turned to women’s rights, suffrage, white slavery,  and child labor. These feminists changed our culture through dress reform, birth control, and granting to women the right to own property, get divorced, be educated, keep their income and inheritance, and retain custody of their children.

The Second Wave (Approximately 1960–1988) was the women’s liberation movement (the preferred term of this band of feminists) whose goal was equality and having equal access to domains that had been exclusive to men. Second Wave feminists demonstrated that, given the opportunity or necessity, women could do what men did. These feminists declared that they were the experts—not male doctors, religious leaders, fathers, or husbands—when it came to abortion, rape, pregnancy, and female sexuality. They created language and resources for atrocities once just called “life”—such as date rape, domestic abuse, and illegal abortion. They lobbied for laws and court decisions to strike down legal inequality.

The Third Wave (Approximately 1988–2010) grew out of an enormous cultural shift. By the late 1980s, a cohort of women and men who’d been raised with the gains, theories, flaws, and backlash of the feminist movement were beginning to come of age. Whether or not these individual men and women were raised by self-described feminists—or called themselves feminists—they were living lives changed by feminism. For example, Kosman in her role as a public teacher of Torah, a new role, benefited from the advances in society as a whole.

Scholarship on women’s studies, feminist studies, masculinity studies, and queer studies became prolific generating theorists rather than activists. Third wave is about giving women options and not forcing all women toward egalitarianism. As part of this wave, Post-structuralist feminists see the binaries of male and female as constructs. Some develop difference feminism further and others seek to go beyond them with new ideas of gender.   (See Daniel Boyarin and Judith Butler).

For the typical feminist, the constructs were created to maintain the power of dominant groups. In contrast Kosman, despite following this trend toward theory, sees the binaries as a step in Hashem’s plan to create an ideal society followed by Hashem’s vision of greater fluidity. Her Orthodox approach is not to seek new narratives, rather to reread the old, so too she does not seek new rituals, rather a new  set of reasons for the commandments.

The Fourth Wave (Approximately 2008–Onward) was a critical mass of younger feminists shaped by the 1980s backlash, Take Our Daughters to Work Day initiatives, of the ’90s, and 9/11.

Kosman follows a movement called “difference feminism” – developed in the 1980s, in part as a reaction to popular “equality feminism”, which emphasized the similarities between women and men in order to argue for equal treatment for women. Difference feminism, although it still aimed at equality between men and women, emphasized the differences between men and women and argued that identicality or sameness is not necessary in order for men and women, and masculine and feminine values, to be treated equally. Difference feminism holds that gender-neutrality harmed women “either by impelling them to imitate men, or by neglecting women’s distinctive contributions.

After reader her writings, one becomes certain that the authors of the approbations –from Roshei Yeshiva in Gateshead and Ner Israel, as well as from rabbis opposed to secular studies and their evil influence– had no idea what is written in the book or her ideas.  Even her more modern Yeshivish promoters probably would be surprised by the interview below.  And even one of her well-meaning friends wrote an embarrassingly ill-informed review stating that the work shows how “kabbalah refutes feminism.”

Similar to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan or Rabbi Abraham Twersky, her writings will serve as a conduit for the integration into the Haredi world of ideas formerly seen as beyond the pale.  Because of her affiliations, she has an appropriation from the outreach organization Ner LeElef despite the quotations from sources as wide spread as Nietzsche and the Buddha. Yet, she noticeably uses secular feminist authors to enhance Torah ideas unlike those fearful of feminist and secular books. In addition, unlike the well-known typical apologetics, she envisions a future of new understandings, new roles for women, fluidity of categories, and speaks of the neglect of the women’s voice in Orthodoxy.

Kosman openly relies on the difference feminism as an “ethics of care” such as Carol Gilligan and Virginia Held, the politics of difference by Iris Young, and feminist psychoanalysts Nancy Chodorow and Jean Baker Miller. She uses socially conservative Catharine MacKinnon who asks the legal and political questions, for whom gender is constitutively constructed with reference to changing social factors

These citations are not window dressing, rather the core of Kosman’s grappling, which thereby brings us to her uniqueness.  One is hard pressed to find discussions, or even citations, of these feminist thinkers among Modern Orthodox authors and community advocates who are generally pragmatically oriented toward (or against) egalitarianism.  They are still following the second wave as reflected in the pioneer feminism of Judith Plaskow, accepted by all liberal Jewish denominations. Plaskow wrote “Jewish feminism is praxis-oriented. Its goal is to move Jewish religious law, history, practice, and communal institutions in the direction of the full inclusion of women.”

But what about comments on the vast amount of feminist theory taught on every campus including Bar Ilan, do we ever hear gender concepts and feminist concepts of self discussed?  Kosman is a kaleidoscope of difference feminism theology sliding toward fluidity.

In order to encourage further conversation, I have invited several respondents to comment on the interview-  Read three responses here.

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1. What is feminism? Which works on feminism do you find useful?

I see the beginning of feminism as the stirrings of the female voice. . The first stage was where women had to reinstate herself as equal.   Writers on that note like Simone De Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, espoused the view that there was nothing intrinsically different about women and that any difference between the sexes were a result of socialization or cultural construction.  This parallels the stage where women had to reinstate herself as equal—if she so chose to she could be as capable, intelligent, abstract, forceful, creative, etc. as he was.

This was a necessary stage. But once a level of practical equality was achieved, feminist thinkers were open to exploring differences.

To me this is the more interesting stage where woman comes into her own, and her mission of being “the other” ‘kneged’. What is the voice that she brings? In what way is she not like a man? The feminist thought that I get the most out of are the wide swath of feminist thinkers—heterogeneous and irreducible to each other—but who share the common denominator of a critical interest in what differentiates the specifically feminine.  Some of them see the differences rooted in culture, others in biology or early life experience, but they share a willingness to name and analyze specifically feminine traits, as well as to explore the possible social, ethical, ecological, moral and philosophical ramifications of a feminine perspective.  I think these thinkers have been transformative, casting new light on basically every area of human activity.

One obvious example is the works of gender feminists like Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, and Sara Ruddick as well as Virginia Held who focused on differences in approach to morality. But also postmodern feminists like  Luce Irigaray, who see the human body in more metaphoric terms. I found writers like Nancy Chodorow who look at Freudian psychology with a new lens, offered fascinating insights into the difference between boys and girls psychosocial development, . I also got a lot of out of feminist epistemologists—just having different types of knowing put into words, their emphasis on the  relationship between the knower and the knowee, the importance of gathering numerous standpoints.

I very much resonated with eco-feminst ideas about an approach to nature which is based on mutual respect and interdependence—and not on conquering and exploiting.  I found it stretches the applicability of the particularly feminine way of being and interacting to every aspect of life.

On the other hand, , the postmodern trend in feminism  to  dismantle all the “grand narratives” by negating any unitary standpoint at all,  effectively opens the door to any definition and    I am not the first to point out that opening the door to every definition also erases the concept of definition completely.   So today, I think the challenge might be not to get lost just in the female perspective. The male voice of hierarchy needs to be a player also.  Everything is not relative; everything is not in the eyes of the beholder.  Holiness implies impurity, good implies bad, etc.  The goal is synthesis between the two voices.

  1. How can a Torah perspective use these feminist works?

To me these works have been invaluable in bringing the feminine into sharp focus. Reading them emphasizes the power of words and the ability to name things.   Until you know how to call something you don’t even really know it exists.  Insights about aspects of femininity and the ramifications of this way of looking at things have opened up avenues of thought that were completely new to me.   From a very personal perspective, I have found that often my understanding  of Torah has been enriched by outside sources.  Often they have made me aware of nuances and depth in Torah that I would never have even noticed without it.

One example that comes to mind is something I recently read by Iris Young about the difference between touch and sight. One is interactive—you can’t touch without being touched—and one is objectifying, there is the object and the subject.  After reading that insight in her works I began to pick up on references to what different senses represent that I would have just missed before.

  1. How does feminism apply to your thinking?

It underlines the importance of a ‘different voice’. Every thing changes when you look at it from a different angle.  There is an element of imbalance without a female standpoint. Understanding and articulating that voice makes the voice stronger and more of a presence in making the world more human . It is  very easy to betray that voice in the ‘male oriented’ world we live in.

Because I look at the feminine as a metaphor for a way of doing and being, and see it as representing a higher way of being, a lot of the practical ramifications or activist agendas of feminist thought  just roll off me. It is interesting how an idea, once expressed belongs to the world and is no longer owned by the thinker—I am sure many feminists I quote would totally disagree with my conclusions, but their insights can support many different perspectives.

In my book I talk about humanity’s progress towards perfection in which the female voice always represents the voice of truth agitating under the surface but there are various stages of development.

Woman’s curse after gan eden was ‘you will yearn for him and he will rule over you’. People forget that a curse  is not a good thing.  It is a description of reality after the sin–a painful reality– that we would want to change if we could. The reality for women was: you will yearn for him: for relationship, exclusivity, intimacy and closeness but the male approach will rule; the focus will be on conquest, progress, aquisition, etc.

  1. Should frum Jews be scared of feminist writings?

I think there is what to be scared of, but interestingly, it is not the issues of gender roles that people usually worry about.

First of all, I think most of us are blissfully unaware of the extent to which feminist thought has already infiltrated our consciousness—because many of the changes wrought go way beyond the typical gender issues.

More challenging to my way of thinking are issues like the interaction between power and knowledge, the toppling of hierarchy, and the questioning of the possibility  of objectivity  all of which  present challenges to traditional thought.  And as is usually the case in post modernity, good and evil are all mixed up.  There is a lot that feels right—and Jewish—in a feminine way of looking at things.

You always need both a male and a female voice.  The male voice brings the holding power of the absolute, and the female voice brings the dynamic, fluid voice of human reality. Each one without the other is terrifying. The male voice alone creates a rigid, narrow, closed, authoritarian world view, and the female voice alone creates an amorphous, fluid river to nowhere.  I see Judaism as an entire system that seeks to engage both these aspects.

5. Can you explain you three image shapes in your title and their value?

The idea is that the arrow represents a male energy and force. It connotes progress, action, force, productivity, constant striving to have more and get more. The circle represents the female force which symbolizes the idea of wholeness, harmony and relationship. The arrow is doing, the circle is being.

The ideal in Judaism is the spiral which is a synthesis of these two forces. We want to progress, advance, do and accomplish but we want to do it in a holistic way without turning ourselves into a caricature of ourselves, where we are very advanced in one area and very retarded in other areas.  By the way, the circle/arrow/spiral model is not original.

There are many examples of this spiral in the whole structure of Judaism. One classic one is the dynamic between Shabbat and the days of the week. The days of the week would be a male/arrow–progressing, accomplishing, doing.  Shabbat would be a circle/female–being, reveling in the experience, etc. The spiral would be the synthesis between the two:  the building and accomplishing we do during the days of the week creates  the person we bring to the relationship of ‘being’ on Shabbat, and the experience of Shabbat sends us out to our work week from a higher place.

Synthesis is the first theme of the book.  The second theme is that the circle/female represents the higher level.   Gan Eden was a world characterized by a feminine/ circle voice, and the World to Come is also a feminine/circle  world.   So to draw the diagram correctly there would have to be a circle at the bottom of the spiral and a circle on the top.   In the meantime we are in a male world (and we need to balance that with the feminine in a spiral like form).

I believe that as we get closer to the time of perfection, the circle voice needs to get stronger. I see feminism in this context. The circle voice is gaining much more influence.  The challenge is to stay true to that voice and not run after the arrow. It is a fine line, because in our current reality, the arrow is also crucial to the synthesis

  1. What is the female voice and how has it been suppressed?

The female voice is the one that calls for reciprocal mutual relationship.  It sees the process as the goal—meaning it sees greater importance in how you get there than that you got there—the relationships you develop on your way up, not that you make it to the top. The female voice is not interested in status or hierarchy. It zeroes in on authentic, real, immanent reality. It sees the whole world as interconnected and interdependent and every situation as a dialogue.

Our world is characterized by a constant struggle between that female voice and the male voice that puts the emphasis on autonomy, independence, status, accomplishment, end results, etc.  There are midrashic sources  for the idea tht that  every day of creation hides within it another enactment of this  battle between the male and female force–and the male force won the battle every time. But it didn’t win the war—the female voice continues to agitate under the surface and as we get closer to a time of perfection it is getting louder and more influential  in every sphere.

7. You discuss gender separately than biology and point out that the people of Israel can be feminine and so too Jewish males as female. Can you explain that point?

First of all, I see the whole concept of male and female as metaphorical and for this reason it is pretty fluid.  The Jewish people are feminine towards G-d like in Song of Songs, and this might refer to attributes like receptivity, longing, accepting influence, etc.  Obviously this would apply to the males as well.

But there is a much deeper point.  My whole thesis is that when G-d said ‘it is not good for man to be alone, I will make a helpmate opposite him’ he was saying that the male always needs a female as a counterpoint to him.  The female always represents the other, the one who is not mainstream who stands outside and offers an alternative.  So I see that as a statement about the world in general.  The mainstream is male and the female is the other; the one who needs to constantly pull the rest of the world in a direction of health.

And if you think about it,  as Jews, we have generally valued the feminine prototype over the male one.  Jewish male heroes over the centuries were never particularly masculine and certainly not macho. Look at the Chanukah story, a bunch of men sitting around in a cave learning Torah, and the strong Greek army with their elephant tanks and military strength. Even today, what we often choose to praise about a rabbi or great person is their sensitivity—their ability to care, to feel and even to cry.  Crying is not macho, but a Jew who doesn’t know how to cry—in davening, or over other people’s suffering, is in big trouble.

This fluidity between the two poles is very important because the ultimate goal is mutuality and equality. The first verse in Song of Songs talks about a kiss—which is reciprocal—one of the main themes of my book is that real relationship creates a reciprocal flow where hierarchy is less relevant.   On a certain level, the lines between who is the influencer and who is the influencee become blurred.

  1. Are you just a return to Essentialism?

Actually, I have a very strong aversion to the idea that men and women are necessarily essentially different. Instead, I see the two forces as archetypes for different ways of interacting, which once understood can be consciously chosen or activated. Interestingly being born a female in no way guarantees an understanding of or an affiliation with feminine (circle) values and virtues (and vice versa). In fact, I think that femininity is a conscious choice—and as representative of an ideal in Judaism is often incumbent on men as well as women. Notice that not only the woman is compared to the moon, but the Jewish people are as well

In my experience, an essentialist approach, that claims women are like this and men are like that, at the end of the day, always paints itself into the corner. We are just too complex as human beings to be pigeonholed in any way and there is so many other axis of comparison—level and type of intelligence, interests, social standing, country of origin, familial background—that one wonders how much weight gender should even play in the equation.

I always think about the young newly married man at one of those marriage classes, shrinking into the corner because he is the type who yearns for a high level emotional relationship with his wife, but is married to a matter of fact, down to earth practical type, who can’t for the life of her understand what he wants to talk about so much.

On a completely different note, I have found Virginia Held’s comparison of Western society’s approach to birth and death to be very helpful to me in navigating the fine line that divides the  attempt to define the feminine from essentialism. Held points out that while death has often been cast as distinctly human—how a person dies is often seen as the defining feature of life— birth is seen as a natural, unconscious   biological event. Held attributes this distinction to the fact that men were the authors of our culture, and from a male perspective, birth is viewed as a kind of pre-human period,  a necessary stage to go through before men step into their privileged role as completely autonomous beings.

But birth does not just happen to the one being born. There is another active player here, and Held points out that how one gives birth, why one gives birth and, even,  if one gives birth—are just as much defining features of humanity as is how one dies, what one dies for, and how the knowledge of  death affects your life.

This insight helped me to get beyond  the concern that using biology as a model to delineate differences  would end up pigeonholing men and women  into cramped boxes—as it has so many times in history.  Held’s essay helped me to see that a conceptual framework of gender  based on the physical model  may—paradoxically allow woman to redeem her physiological experiences from the fog of  “nature” and free her to consciously choose to align or not align herself with a particularly feminine way of being. We are human when we use our intellect, our awareness, and our very souls to decide the influence that physicality will have on who we are as people.

It is important for me to note, that this “theology  of gender” is not about insisting that men and women are different because they have different types of  brains, or trying to prove that women are good at multi-tasking and men not so much. This is an understanding that there are two pulses that animate our existence, and that Judaism—the ultimate goal of which is synthesis—has an interest in making sure each of these poles remains alive and kicking in our world.

 9) How would you approach transgender orientations?

The idea of feeling connection to more than one gender, on some level, does define  the life of a Jew—who is consistently stretched in both directions. Prayer and Shabbat, for example, require entering into a female mode of being, which is applicable to men and women; the positive commandments require discipline and action—metaphorically male traits– from both men and women.

There are also some fascinating sources which lend themselves to a discussion of whether gender is as firmly entrenched as one might think.  One source that comes to mind is a  Talmudic discussion of whether there is any point in praying for a child to be born a particular sex after the first forty days of pregnancy (when presumably the sex is already decided). According to the opinion that holds that prayer can change the fetus’s sex, being born male or female may be less rigid than we might think.

At the same time, even if gender technically exists on a continuum, we live in a physical world and the body that G-d gave us is the medium through which our soul interacts with the world.  Speculating whether we have a “male” or “female” soul, is like the oft-heard discussion among  mystically inclined folks about whether any of us is a reincarnation.  While it may make for interesting discussion , practically there is little relevance to the discussion. We are still required to get up every morning and keep the mitzvot that are incumbent on us right here in our prosaic world whose borders are the physical, tangible world in which we live. I think the same kind of approach would apply here.

One of the painful aspects of being human is having to fit the enormity of our souls into our physical bodies and one of the challenging aspects of Judaism is fitting the vastness of our spiritual yearning in to the circumscription of halacha. Yet, as in any other creative endeavor, it is specifically the narrow straits that becomes the conduit—the  instrument, if you will– through which the music of our soul makes access with the world.

On another level, by using the fact that one is born into a male or female body to channel men in a particular direction and women in another, Judaism makes use of the most stable and objective standard to maintain tension between the two poles.

At the same time, in day to day life there is an allowance for  a wide spectrum of expression. It is interesting to note that various subcultures within the Orthodox world—for example some types of hassidut, which put a big emphasis on meditative prayer, joy, dance and submission to a Rebbi– can be seen as a more ‘feminine’ approach to Judaism.  Others, like the very rational, analytic ‘Yeshivish’ approach seem to valuate the more confrontational, independent minded ‘masculine’ mode.  People—both men and women—tend to gravitate towards streams within Judaism that resonate with their natural inclinations. These two forces are existentially constitutive elements within every human being, at the same time, the reality of our physical selves create the borders and limits of that fluidity.


 10) Can you give some more examples of how you use feminist authors?

In the context of this interview, I would point to the work of Jean Baker Miller, a feminist thinker and psychologist trained in psychoanalysis. In her ground-breaking book Towards a New Psychology of Women, she points out that ever since Freud, we have been engaged in uncovering the feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability that lurk beneath the surface.   In an insight which, to my mind, really pulls the rug out from under some of our received notions about the human psyche, she wonders if perhaps the reason so much effort is needed to dig up those very human experiences is specifically because of the excellent campaign job that Western society has done, in both forcing men to disassociate from vulnerability, as well as in projecting vulnerability on to women and children.

It is easy to see how women, who are encouraged to cultivate exactly those traits which society derides, might be at a disadvantage.  Miller points out, however, that the real victim of this dichotomy is the male oriented culture in which we live, which is being deprived of exactly the traits that a person needs to access the most meaningful and pleasurable of human experiences.

In an intriguing twist, Miller points out that growth, development and progress itself are dependent on vulnerability.  This is because growth is always measured in terms of  not-there-yet;; you are always looking towards a goal which you can  never be sure you will actually reach.  Breaking through current barriers to a higher level of being, is one of the most exciting qualities of being human but it requires the courage to accept vulnerability.

Jean Baker Miller’s vision, which resonates with me, is that as the feminine voice gets stronger, we can pluck vulnerability out of the corner to which it has been relegated and instead place it front and center stage as humanity’s most defining feature.  Instead of schlepping along these feelings for the rest of humanity, perhaps women can be the facilitators for others to move away from the alienation, which is the curse of modern society, towards connection.

11. What about women who took Torah learning upon themselves as individuals?

One of the ideas I point out in the book is that one of the obvious differences in Halacha between men and women is their obligation to Torah learning.  Men’s obligation is more demanding and more objective. Woman’s obligation has fluctuated over the centuries, but especially after the Chafetz Chaim’s psak, using the language of my book it can be formulated as ‘women need to learn as much Torah as they need to keep within in the ‘circle’ of the relationship with G-d’.   So, historically there were women who didn’t know how to read and write and yet Hashem was a major presence in their live, and on the other hand, there were women who were great Torah sages.

I personally have friends who rarely open a book and friends who spend a lot of time learning.  I don’t necessarily admire a lot of Torah knowledge in a woman—I don’t look at the Torah learning for a woman as an ideal in and of itself.

For me, personally., Torah learning  is crucial, not only in order to stay in the circle, but  because much of the joy of the circle would not be accessible to me without learning. But I see very clearly that for a lot of women that is not the case.  If  a woman is intellectual, then she will probably have to learn Torah in order to feel  close to Hashem. But I feel like the female force always represents immanence and not transcendence—to me greatness  in a woman would be more of a greatness of spirit than a greatness of intellect..

12. How do you differ from those Jewish Feminists, and even Orthodox ones, who think that after feminism we have to change the narrative, evolve and see patriarchy in the Bible and Talmud?

In many ways. .  Firstly, I do not see Jewish gender conceptions as problems that need correction. On the contrary, understanding the value of the dance between these two  primal forces upends the idea that gender difference represents a flawed, chauvinistic approach that needs to be updated. To me, adopting a flat egalitarianism robs us all of the richness, depth and insight that gender difference can yield.

While there is a lot of room for fluidity for individuals who don’t fit the system—I recently picked up a pamphlet in a Hassidic shul and was extremely surprised to see that the lead article was about their late rebbitzin whom, it was discovered after her death, had donned  tzitzit every day– as a whole,  I see value in women upholding one side of the story and men the other.

For example, the question is obviously not can a woman be a public leader? Obviously she can. There is no reason to insist that a particular woman could not become as great a Torah scholar or public leader as a particular man could. The question is what price do we pay as a culture by saying that publicly endorsed- leadership is the only worthwhile kind of influence?  Or that if you don’t have an official title or a public persona you don’t exist?  Do we honestly want to move women—who are the last bastion of internality– into that public-accolades-arena?

I do see women’s growing prominence as a positive thing, and I want that to continue. My ideal is for the woman’s voice to influence and impact society through transforming the way in which people think and approach life. Primarily focusing on an external equality between the genders ultimately devalues many of the gifts that women have to offer.

Interview with Rabbi Michael Harris – Faith Without Fear

What does Modern Orthodoxy look like across the pond over in London? How would the Torah uMadda Journal or Orthodox Forum sound outside of the original American context? One can get a sense from reading the new book by Rabbi Dr. Michael J Harris Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy (hc available pb due in May). Faith without Fear vividly conveys the important religious issues that are on the mind of Michael Harris, a leading Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi and Cambridge don. Harris presents an overview of contemporary debates within Modern Orthodoxy and then offers his own perspective, one man’s Judaism.

harris cover

Rabbi Dr Michael Harris studied at Ma’ale Adumim, Machon Harry Fischel and Yeshivat HaMivtar in Efrat. He holds rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel;  his first degree in philosophy from Cambridge University, Masters from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem., and Ph.D in philosophy from the University of London. Rabbi Harris became Rabbi of the Hampstead Synagogue in 1995.(The historic synagogue is located in bastion of downtown wealthy liberalism and its past rabbis included Raymond Apple and Norman Solomon.)  He is an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge.  And as his bio notes: “When unable to find sufficient aggravation within the Anglo-Jewish community, Rabbi Harris seeks it in his capacity as a proud, card-carrying member of Chelsea Football Club.”

His father was Cyril K. Harris, Chief Rabbi of The Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa from 1987 to 2004, before that he held pulpits in London for 30 years.  His son, Michael grew up as part of the old-time United Synagogue.  He is still an advocate of a broad tent synagogue and a Rabbi needing a doctorate in philosophy as essential for a sophisticated rabbinate.

Harris thinks that Modern Orthodoxy must have the courage to be modern and to be secure enough to not submit to the rival Haredi world. Hence Harris addresses issues with Orthodoxy that he feels others are afraid to publicly tackle from a modern perspective. The work is a summary and evaluation of current answers written for a British community and will not be new for an American audience. His six topics for a modern Orthodoxy are (1)A need to reject the encroachment of Haredi views (2) a support for increasing women’s roles (3)superstition and kabbalah (4)Torah mi Sinai (5) messianism and messianic politics, and (6) other religions.

British modern Orthodoxy is currently converging in certain aspects with United States modern Orthodoxy. Originally, a hundred years ago they were quite different.   American modern Orthodoxy tended to be low-church and led by the recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. In contrast, the British United Synagogue was high church movement funded by the wealthy to have  Victorian Anglican Catholic sensibilities.  The seminary that they established- Jews College-  was modeled in its curriculum on Western European model seminaries and structured by Rabbi Hertz to follow his alma mater JTS of America and over the decades it was staffed by graduates of both JTS of Breslau and Berlin Hildesheimer.  They originally did not have Eastern European attitudes or patterns of study.

On the other hand, they also lacked the immense influence of Mordechai Kaplan on modern Orthodoxy in that their synagogues remained high church rather than a community center with a pool, men’s and women’s club, social hall, and suburban values. They avoided the divide between Orthodoxy and Conservative that defined the American landscape.  The majority of congregants in United Synagogue congregations defined themselves as traditional.   Imagine, if the majority of traditional and right wing Conservative congregations of the 20th century remained in the Orthodox rubric.

I have blogged in the past about Herbert Loewe, Abraham Cohen and Isidore Epstein who operated using the Victorian model, It was  Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits who sought to bring the United Synagogue more into line with Modern Orthodoxy.

However, currently, according to the  2015 United Synagogue Strategic Review, their own self-study, they are losing 1000 members a year of their meager 80, 000 members since the old-time traditionalists Jews are increasingly moving to define themselves as just Jewish. Of United Synagogue members,  23% keep Shabbat and 73% separate meat and milk at home and only 36% avoid non- kosher meat when eating out, in addition 60 % of the congregations are in areas of declining Jewish  population. (The report also noted that Kiruv organization rabbis make more money than synagogue rabbis.)

The report encourages synagogues to become community oriented focusing on families and children, become warmer, more outreach, to become welcoming and more inclusive, reach out to former members, and to have more cultural events.

At the same time, there is within congregations a tension between those who want to continue the broad tent model and those who advocate making the synagogue focused more only on the Orthodox (which over time would shrink the membership  to a mere fraction of its current numbers.)

Rabbi Michael Harris was one of the few Orthodox rabbi who has attended Limmud and has attended since  1994. His view is for stronger Orthodox rabbinic participation at Limmud with  Orthodox rabbis at Limmud in larger numbers. He has written against those who think Limmud as a “rejection of all that is precious to Orthodox Judaism.” Harris  has also written concerning those who ban Limmud: “ I struggle to understand how rabbonim, however senior and respected, can claim to know the mind of HaShem concerning Limmud – a claim that could legitimately be made only by a prophet…  I struggle to understand a simplistic Manichean view of the world in which haredi Orthodoxy is the sole, direct and simple continuation of Torah miSinai and every other contemporary form of Judaism is deluded. “ Hence Harris’s book is offering a British alternative to those “rabbis who deliberately live lives totally secluded from the mainstream British Jewish community. One doubts whether they understand that community, let alone Limmud.”

Harris’ view may have already been stated in the United States- it almost reads like a series of EDAH  (a”h) lectures-  but he is writing for his British audience.  He also has taken pen in reaction to rabbis who in submission to the Beth Din has stopped allowing women to carry a Sefer Torah.  For Harris, “if rabbis are not permitted to rule on such issues in their own synagogues, we risk – as I have said in previous such instances – the infantilisation of the United Synagogue rabbinate. “

He has also been outspoken on women’s roles in the synagogue. In Harris’ opinion, “the momentum towards greater empowerment of women in our religious and communal life is unstoppable. That is the good news. The bad news is that US  [United Synagogue] members who would like to see principled movement and development in this area will likely have to go outside the United Synagogue to find it. “

And they have found it by starting a branch of JOFA in the UK and Rabbi Harris invited a Maharat student studying in the Maharat program in NY  to give lectures and has appointed her as Scholar-In Residence.  This was condemned obliquely by the current Chief Rabbi Mirvis  as a call not to invite “inappropriate speakers” but the newspaper wrote “Michael Harris, of course, has long been the flagbearer for modern Orthodoxy within the United Synagogue…” We have come full circle with an apparent convergence of modern Orthodoxy between the two countries on selected issues. This book points out those issues.


  1. Why should Modern Orthodoxy have faith without Fear? Why is there so much fear in Modern Orthodoxy?

Modern Orthodoxy should have faith without fear because the challenges confronting Orthodoxy in modernity, such as the welcome revolution in the status of women in society and our knowledge of the Ancient Near East, have to be met and not avoided if we are to have an Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually and morally compelling. We also need faith without fear in privileging certain strands of our tradition over others – for example Maimonidean universalism over kabbalistic essentialism and noble messianic visions over vengeful ones.

Further, Modern Orthodoxy has no reason not to be self-confident rather than diffident vis-a-vis Haredi Orthodoxy. There is no such thing as a contemporary form of Judaism which constitutes a seamless continuation of pre-modern Jewish tradition. The changes brought about by modernity have made that impossible. What can be done is to try and continue pre-modern traditional Judaism as faithfully as possible in the modern world, and Modern Orthodoxy has at least as much claim to be doing that as Haredi Orthodoxy, which in some respects, perhaps most obviously the doctrine of “da’as Torah”, has introduced phenomena which were not a feature of historical Jewish tradition.

I think that much of the fear in Modern Orthodoxy comes from an inferiority complex and the unspoken feeling that Charedi Orthodoxy is somehow more authentic. That inferiority complex is, as I have tried to explain above, misguided, but it is unhelpfully bolstered by what seems to be the sociological fact that more Jews who identify with Modern Orthodoxy are lax about mitzvah observance in some areas than are haredi Jews. There ought of course to be no difference between Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews on e.g. the details of Shabbat, kashrut or taharat hamishpacha observance. There may be ideological difference over some chumrot, but when it comes to punctiliousness in observing Halakhah, there is no ideological difference and ought to be no sociological difference.

It is crucial to note that perceived ‘leniency’ for ideological reasons is no less ‘frum’ than Haredi stringency. As the Seridei Eish points out in his famous responsum on Bat Mitzvah, those who are in favour of celebrating Bat Mitzvah are no less concerned about the continuity of Jewish faith and tradition than those who oppose such celebration.

2) How does British United Synagogue differ from American Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy?

The lay membership of the British United Synagogue is much more varied. Its synagogues contain haredi Jews (although not a large number, and by no means in every Shul), Jews who are Modern Orthodox in the American sense, Jews who are not and would not claim to be fully Shabbat– or kashrut-observant but who are strongly traditional, and a large proportion of non-observant Jews who just want to belong to an Orthodox Shul for their own lifecycle events and for the High Holydays. My impression is that American Modern Orthodox communities, certainly in the greater New York area, are much more homogeneous in profile, religious observance and ideology.  The rabbinate of the United Synagogue also seems to be more diverse than that of American Modern Orthodoxy, comprising haredi (with a particularly marked Chabad presence) and Modern Orthodox, with the haredi rabbis probably in the majority. The ideology of the United Synagogue is also deliberately not specifically Modern Orthodox despite the organisation containing several Modern Orthodox rabbis and many Modern Orthodox congregants.

3) What is the divide between Haredi  and Modern Orthodoxy? Why should Modern Orthodoxy resist Haredi influence?

There is a deep divide of mindset and Weltanschauung. Modern Orthodoxy’s mindset is much more rationalist (as opposed to mystical) and scientific than that of Haredi Orthodoxy. Moreover, Modern Orthodoxy views the modern world as something to be engaged with, albeit critically, rather than as something to be shut out, in most respects, as far as possible.

At the level of specific though major issues there are of course further important divides. These issues include the religious significance of the State of Israel (as opposed to the religious significance of Eretz Yisrael which is agreed by both camps), the role and status of women in Judaism, secular studies, particularly the humanities and philosophy, modern scientific understandings of the universe, rabbinic authority versus personal autonomy, and universalistic versus particularistic emphases.

Modern Orthodoxy should resist Haredi influence at the ideological level because its own ideology is (at the least) every bit as legitimate as Haredi ideology as a faithful attempt to continue millennial Jewish tradition in the modern world, and from a Modern Orthodox perspective, many fundamental Haredi positions are deeply mistaken – for example, its failure to appreciate the religious significance of Zionism and the State of Israel. Haredi influence towards punctiliousness (though not necessarily stringencies), intensity and enthusiasm in the observance of mitzvot is however salutary, and I think that both communities would actually benefit from more dialogue and interaction.

4) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward the role of women and toward feminism?

Modern Orthodoxy should view feminism as an essentially positive phenomenon. Beneath all its varieties and manifestations, the core values of feminism are values that Modern Orthodoxy views or should view as being at the heart of Judaism – the fundamental equality of men and women, justice and human dignity. This is what some Orthodox critics of feminism miss when they talk of feminism as alien to traditional Judaism or as a passing fad.

Modern Orthodoxy should work towards enhancing the role of women in Jewish religious and communal life. There is still much work to be done and we should not take refuge in the apologetic idea that men and women already have equal though different roles. Expanding the role of women should be done in a way which is halakhically rigorous and faithful to traditional halakhic texts and methodology, and at a pace which allows the global Modern Orthodox community to sense continuity with rather than a radical break from previous generations of halakhically observant Jews. But I think that within those parameters, much positive development is possible  – witness, to take just one obvious and central example, the wonderful growth, both quantitative and qualitative, of  women’s Torah study (in parts of the haredi world as well as the Modern Orthodox world) in recent decades. This phenomenon has greatly strengthened rather than weakened Orthodoxy.

Similar developments are possible in many other areas once we accept the insight of gedolim such as the Chafetz Chaim and the Seridei Eish who taught us that sometimes the ‘frumest’ response is not ‘no change, ever’ but rather recognising radically altered social circumstances and accommodating them in a responsible halakhic way.

5) How can you go against the chief rabbi on women’s issues? Why did you invite a Maharat?

I do not ‘go against the Chief Rabbi’ on women’s issues. I have expressed disagreement with some initiatives in some shuls being stopped when I believed they should not have been stopped.  That is healthy debate. It is perfectly possible to accept the Chief Rabbi’s authority while expressing polite disagreement.

Dina Brawer, who is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, is Scholar in Residence for the current Jewish/academic year at our Shul, where she continues to deliver superb shiurim and attract large audiences from both our own and neighbouring communities. The aim is to have a different woman scholar in residence at our Shul every year in order to further encourage women’s Torah scholarship. Dina is a local and fine scholar and was an obvious choice, and there was no opposition whatsoever to her appointment in our Shul. The onus is on those outside our Shul who unsuccessfully opposed the appointment to explain why an Orthodox woman scholar with whom some may disagree on particular issues should have been denied a platform to give valuable shiurim on non-contentious topics. To my mind, their position reflects a lack of intellectual and religious self-confidence.

6) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Kabbalah, mysticism, and magic?

Jewish mystical traditions pose a fascinating challenge for Modern Orthodoxy. The Modern Orthodox mindset is rationalistic as opposed to mystical and so mysticism tends to be marginalised or ignored. But there is much in our mystical traditions that can enrich the spiritual world of the Modern Orthodox Jew – prayers, Torah commentaries, practices such as meditation. Rav Kook is fascinating here because he holds out the intriguing possibility that distinctively Modern Orthodox positions like a positive attitude to Zionism or evolution can actually be grounded in our best-known mystical tradition, Kabbalah.

At the same time, some aspects of Kabbalah, in particular, present severe difficulties for Modern Orthodox Jews. Essentialism, whether applied to men and women or Jews and non-Jews – the idea of deep, intrinsic differences which make one sex or one group radically superior to a (sometimes literally demonised) other – has to be jettisoned by any plausible Modern Orthodox ethics. One strategy here is, as consistently advocated by Menachem Kellner, to take Maimonides as our guide in rejecting essentialism and to privilege his deep universalism.

Regarding magic, we should follow Me’iri in adopting naturalistic interpretations.

7) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Biblical criticism?

The first thing is to be prepared to face the challenges posed by Biblical criticism and, more broadly, academic biblical scholarship and not simply to try and hide from them, as most of the haredi world and much of our own Modern Orthodox world tends to do. The conclusions of Biblical criticism are easily available on the internet, encountered by many of our kids at college, and familiar to many educated people in our community. It is not possible to ignore them, and much more importantly it is intellectually dishonest to do so. The Maharal’s beautiful passage at the end of Be’er Hagolah about the courage to take on intellectual challenges to our faith and strengthen and refine our faith through our encounter with them is the only feasible model for Modern Orthodoxy in the area of Biblical criticism as in other areas.

The next step is to analyse academic biblical studies into its relevant component parts and to respond appropriately. Lower Biblical Criticism is unproblematic and even religiously salutary, as argued by Rav Chaim Hirschensohn and others. Regarding Higher Criticism or the Documentary Hypotheses, my view is that Modern Orthodoxy does not need to and should not follow the approach of (for example) Rabbis Louis Jacobs and accept the view of the Torah as a composite document. The underlying assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis and its many contemporary versions can be coherently questioned.

To my mind, the most serious challenge to Orthodoxy from contemporary academic biblical scholarship comes from our modern knowledge of the Ancient Near East. In particular, close similarities to the wording of verses of the Torah in texts such as the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Eshnunna, which predate the traditional date of the Giving of the Torah, need to be explained.

I suggest that a way of addressing this issue is to draw on the Byzantine midrashic tradition highlighted by Rav Amnon Bazak in his book Ad Hayom Hazeh but not applied by him to this challenge. This tradition posits an alternative to the model of the Torah as totally ‘dictated’ word-for-word by God to Moses and allows Moses a greater role in the formulation of some verses in the Torah. It seems to make more sense that Moses might draw on existing legal texts in faithfully formulating in words the Divine content of certain laws than to say that God ‘dictated’ to Moses using almost the precise language of other ancient Near Eastern law codes. This proposal may be unconventional, but I believe it is fully compatible with Orthodox belief in the Divinity of the Torah. It may have sounded very strange to many people in previous generations, but they simply did not have the knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern texts that is easily available to us today.

8) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Messianism?

Messianic hopes are of course an important part of traditional Jewish belief and very much reflected in our liturgy. But Modern Orthodoxy needs in my view to think more about the nature of the Messianic era that we pray for and not restrict its interest in messianism to debates about whether the religious significance of the State of Israel should be construed in messianic or non-messianic categories. There are radically differing conceptions of the messianic era in our sources and in particular in our medieval rabbinic literature. Maimonides’ conception, for example, is very naturalistic: the messianic world will resemble the present world in many respects. A good representative of the other major medieval trend is Abarbanel, whose messianism is apocalyptic, viewing the messianic world as essentially a miraculous new world built on the ruins of this one.

I don’t think that Modern Orthodoxy necessarily need privilege the naturalistic over the apocalyptic vision in all respects. What is wrong with a world in which wolves literally live peacefully with lambs, even though Maimonides sees this as only a metaphor? But where Modern Orthodoxy does have to choose which messianic vision to endorse is when it comes to the ethical arena. Medieval apocalyptic messianism sometimes went with anticipation of the humiliation or even annihilation of the non-Jewish world. Modern Orthodoxy’s messianic vision needs to privilege those strands in our tradition which look forward to a messianic future of universal peace, justice and harmony.

9) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Other Faiths?

I believe that Modern Orthodoxy should resist a strong pluralism which views Judaism and other faiths as equally true, so that, for example, Judaism is true for Jews, Christianity for Christians and Islam for Muslims. There is a more moderate but still valuable kind of pluralism suggested by Me’iri according to which we validate the self-understanding of other religions as religions without accepting all their truth-claims as being on a par with our own.  Believing in the truth of the core claims of our own faith is also perfectly compatible with a positive attitude towards other faiths.

As a religious Jew who believes that Judaism is right and Christianity (for example) wrong on the messianism of Jesus and the relative status of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, I can still and should still accept that Christianity teaches a great deal of moral truth, that it brings blessing to the lives of many individuals and communities who adhere to it, and indeed that it strengthens the moral fabric of many contemporary societies, including the Western ones in which we live. We should also be open to what other faiths and their literatures can teach us – for example, as Jerome Gellman suggests, by their ability to convey shared truths in a particularly powerful way.

10) Was it OK to have mixed choirs in United Synagogue synagogues?  

No, it was not OK, mostly in my view because it involved men and women sitting together in services. My Shul, Hampstead, famously had a mixed choir for longer than most other synagogues (it disbanded many years before I became the rabbi, I hasten to add). [They removed the mixed choir in 1987]  Mixed choirs in United Synagogues were a reflection (though by no means the most serious) of precisely the somewhat lax attitude to some areas of Halakhah that does Modern Orthodoxy no favours and has nothing to do with its ideology.

11) Do major rabbis need a PhD? Why is it important? How has a PhD helped in the Rabbinate?

I think that rabbis of major congregations need to be at least as well secularly educated as their congregants. A PhD isn’t the only way of trying to achieve this goal but it is one way of helping to attain it. Having a PhD and more importantly having ongoing academic interests has been invaluable to me in the rabbinate because the teaching side of the rabbinic role, and the academic research and teaching, feed off each other and are mutually enriching in ways which are productive not just for me but I hope for my congregants as well. To give just one example, working recently on an academic paper on aspects of the interface between treatments of the problem of evil in Chazal and in contemporary philosophy of religion at the same time as teaching an adult education course on the same topic in my shul enhanced both projects. Among other things, the academic project lent another dimension to what I could present to my congregants and forced me to do this in a way that was hopefully clear and accessible to non-specialists, while my congregants’ questions and discussion sharpened my thinking on the academic project.

12) What should the criteria for membership in an Orthodox synagogue?

I have had various ideological battles with colleagues in the United Synagogue over the years. But for me the United Synagogue has got something right that is absolutely fundamental. It is this: although its shuls are Orthodox, with Orthodox rabbis, mechitzot and davening, the only criterion for membership is that one is halakhically Jewish. It upsets me to hear of shuls where one has to be shomer mitzvoth in order to be a member. What is the point, in the contemporary Jewish world where so many Jews need encouragement and support in their Jewish lives, of shomrei mitzvot setting up their own homogeneous shuls and just looking after themselves? Yet this seems to be such a widespread phenomenon in the Orthodox community globally – homogeneous Shuls, even homogeneous yishuvim or neighbourhoods in Israel. The most noble way of running an Orthodox shul is to open it to every Jew. With all the difficulties it entails, that is the best way of fulfilling our responsibilities to the Jewish people as a whole.

Interview with Menachem Kellner- They Too are Called Human: Gentiles in the Eyes of Maimonides

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) teaches the universal doctrine that God began humanity by creating an individual human being, Adam, “to teach that if anyone destroy a single soul from humankind, Scripture charges him as though he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves a single soul from humankind, Scripture credits him as though he had saved a whole world.” However, at a later date, the text of this Mishnah was revised to be particularistic, so that many editions currently read that Adam was created alone “to teach that if anyone destroy a single soul from Israel… and whoever saves a single soul from Israel…” A universal teaching has thus been transformed to a particularist view valuing Jewish life, rather than the value of all human life.

Kellner cover again

Menachem Kellner has devoted the last decades to writing a series of books defending the universal voice in Judaism. Kellner currently teaches Jewish philosophy at Shalem College, integrating Western and Jewish texts, after having spent thirty years teaching at the University of Haifa, where he held the Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Chair of Jewish Religious Thought. For more information, I interviewed him in the past on his views of belief and his friend Prof. James Diamond wrote a  detailed  laudatory intellectual biography of Kellner. 

Kellner has authored nineteen books most of them devoted to his project of advocating that Maimonides’ rationalist universalism should serve as the ideal for contemporary modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionist life.

Recently, he has written They Too are Called Human: Gentiles in the Eyes of Maimonides [In Hebrew] arguing that Maimonides was convinced that Jewish doctrine teaches that there is no essential difference between Israel and the other nations of the world. For Kellner, the distortion of Maimonides by later Rabbis is a tragic distortion, the differences between the nations and Israel, are solely at the level of laws, of history, of destiny. The work is a presentation of the universalism on Maimonides showing the reader the proof texts for such a thesis and answering those who read the texts in different way focusing on three texts in the Mishnah Torah, Foundation of the Torah 1:1-6, Sabbatical Year 13:12-13; Kings 12:5.   Much of this discussion has already appeared in his articles and has been debated  in the field. See  Table of Contents in English here.  The work was published by Bar Ilan Press as part of very good series on Jewish thought.

Orthodox Jewish universalism is not new. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and his son Dr. Mendel Hirsch advocated a Romantic brotherhood of mankind, (see the  volume  Humanism and Judaism by Mendel Hirsch), but the Hirschian approach is not followed anymore. Moshe Unna (1902–1989) brought a universal position to the Mizrachi Worker’s party and the Mafdal, arguing for liberal democracy as a pillar of Jewish humanism, but that too has been eclipsed (see the fine article by Moshe Hellinger and this book).

Orthodox Maimonidean scholars such as Isadore Twersky already pointed out how Maimonides was always careful to distinguish the universal elements in philosophy and religion from the particular legal aspect. Hence, there is an Aristotelian ethic of the wise available to all to follow the ethical mean and the particular Jewish ethic for select Jews of the saint to go to an extreme against anger or pride. Or that the Mishnah Torah distinguishes between the universal knowledge of a first cause divinity and the specifics of accepting the prophecy of Moses. Yet, Maimonides wrote in his letter to R. Samuel ibn Tibbon, that Aristotle had reached the highest level of perfection available to human beings short of prophecy, placing the philosopher above almost all Jews.

Even the Yemenite rationalist scholar Rabbi Yosef Qafiḥ (Kapach) (1917 –2000) made these distinctions in his fine editions of the medieval Jewish rational classics. But a serious reading of these essential works in their philosophic context has been obscured by contemporary Rabbis in their misquotations of Maimonides.

This latter point motivated Kellner, who is upset by the turn among religious Jews towards particularism with its concurrent preaching of irrationality, essentialism, and dogmatism. Hence, as expressed in his preface, his works are an explicit polemic against these positions and the rabbis who hold them, in that, he considers these particularistic thoughts, to capture his rather colloquial style, fakrimt, farfallen, farblonjet, farfoilt, farshlugginner, as well as dangerous.

In prior works, Kellner directly condemned the rabbis who are anti-science and in favor of superstition by showing that Maimonides advocated science and condemned superstition. When rabbis speak of the essentialist metaphysical nature of ritual, land, Torah, and Jews, Kellner responds by showing that Maimonides treated all these as instrumental, sociological, and based their value toward human perfection.

To emphasize his point for the contemporary reader, Kellner even creates an ahistoric dichotomy of mystic irrational essentialists and anti-mystical universal rationalists. Out of bounds of the discussion would be the Universalism of mystic essentialism of Rav Kook who wrote, “The love for Israel entails a love for all humankind” since he would fall into the wrong side of the dichotomy.

On the other hand, when Maimonides seemingly supports a dogmatic or doctrinal position, Kellner sharply rejects Maimonides claiming that Maimonides view of belief was an alien import. In many other cases, Kellner rejects Maimonidean intellectualism favoring Buber’s definition of faith, Hermann Cohen’s ethics, a greater role for the emotional, and a defense of the secular defenders of the State of Israel.

Kellner is highly selective in his reading of Maimonides avoiding the mystical, illuminationist, and pietistic elements of the great rationalist’s thought. He also generally avoids the skeptical aspects of Maimonides’ thought especially where he points out the limits of knowledge and the naturalistic Maimonides who follows Farabi. The Islamic naturalists Farabi, ibn Sina and  ibn Bajjah all have universalist conceptions in which the contemplative of any faith community is higher than the law abiding practitioners of specific faiths. Kellner does not explain why Maimonides reveals his similar position only in Guide III:51.

One of Menachem Kellner’s model for a Jewish Universalism, he even organized a conference to honor him, is Leon Roth, the first Chair in Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1928).  Roth also spent many years uncovering their universal significance for human life. He constantly accentuates the basic features of equality stating: “The children of earth are envisaged as one family. There is by nature no such thing as caste or class, no differentiation by blood or descent. Human equality is thus a primary fact”.  For Roth, Judaism must remain true to its universalistic origins.

Yet, for Roth universalism required one to not forget the universalism in the practical realm. Therefore, Roth resigned his position in 1948 and returned to Britain because of the wanton killing of civilians and by the treatment of refugees following the fighting in 1947-8 along with the lack of condemnation among the general Israeli population. Roth’s reading of the Jewish texts led him to advocate the establishment of a bi-national political entity with complete equality of rights between Jews and Palestinians. Kellner, however, is firmly committed to his own form of particularism, the moral superiority of Judaism in fulfilling universal values, albeit, without the essentialism. He seeks to correct false opinions, but is not concerned with creating imperatives or calls to action.

Michael Waltzer, in a very perceptive article on Jewish universalism, with a greater sense of the complexity of the tradition, wrote:

Orthodox Jews (not all of them, but many) uphold what they take to be the true understanding of divine election and halakhic [Jewish law] order against the ever-encroaching forces of Western culture. They are resolutely opposed to universalism, at least in its secular philosophical and political versions. They have little use for the idea of human rights or for the claims that are made in its name

Kellner seeks to correct this problem of Orthodoxy with a his defense of universalism in Orthodoxy but he does not offer ethical demands and moral vistas like Unna, or Emmanuel Levinas. Confirming Walzer’s analysis that the “universalism from within traditional Judaism ” does not attempt a grand philosophic universalism, rather “what might be called a “low-flying” universalism; that is, one worked out in close contact with the political landscape. Its crucial moral perception is the existence of other nations as moral and legal agents.” For Walzer, “this acknowledgement of the others derives from Jewish particularism; it is, so to speak, the turning outward of a particularist perspective.”

In many ways, it is precisely Kellner’s commitment to changing a particular moral landscape using particularistic texts in order to find a greater space for non-Jews as moral and intellectual agents within a specific Orthodox context that makes him the philosopher of universalism and rationality who feels responsible to write his very readable and erudite books, especial his most recent They Too Are called Human: Gentiles in the Eyes of Maimonides, in order to change the agenda from within.

Kellner headshot

  1. What is the thesis of your book?

Simply put: Judaism is both universalist and particularist and Maimonides was a universalist in the sense that he thought that all human beings are equally made in the image of God and that there is no essential difference between Jews as such and non-Jews as such. When I was working on the book a close and beloved relative asked me what I was working on. When I told him, he asked, in obvious amazement: “Do you really believe that?!”

2) According to Maimonides, what is Image of God (Tzelem Elokim)?

Maimonides thinks it is human intellectual abilities. The image of God is that which distinguishes human beings from animals (but not Jews from non-Jews!). I personally do not think that the Torah means only intellect, although I certainly think that intellect is part of the mix.

All humans can show holiness by reaching out to God intellectually (largely by studying God’s creation after having achieved a high level of moral perfection). Mizvot are a God-given tool to achieve that moral perfection, but, like all tools, are not irreplaceable. Otherwise, Maimonides could never have said, as he did in his letter to R. Samuel ibn Tibbon, that Aristotle had reached the highest level of perfection available to human beings short of prophecy.

3) How do the presentations of  pollution, evil inclination, and snake (zuhama, yetzer hara and nahash) show that Maimonides does not maintain that there is an essential difference between Jews and non-Jews?

We find in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 22b) a statement to the effect that all human beings were polluted by the snake which had sex with Eve. That “original sin ” pollution was removed from Israel at Sinai. One could, of course, read this to teach that by accepting the Torah the Jewish people were made different from and superior to other nations, Maharal does assume this.

But it makes as much sense to read it as teaching that the Torah removes the pollution.  Jews are not better than non-Jews per se, but we were expected to behave better. That, in effect, is how Maimonides reads the passage in the Guide (II.30), that correct thinking removes the pollution.

The snake in the Garden of Eden story symbolizes the very active imagination with which human beings are endowed; this imagination often leads us astray. This tendency to allow the imagination to confuse us is symbolized by the “pollution.” The Torah helps us to avoid the mistakes to which we are otherwise prone. By the way, Maimonides finds the simple sense of this passage in Avodah Zarah to be “abhorrent” (Guide, II.30).

4)  What is the pillar of wisdom (hokhmah) and why is it important if it does not lead to conjunction, overflow, or union?

Maimonides opens his Mishneh Torah  by stating: yesod ha-yesodot ve-amud ha-hokhmot leyda she-yesh sham matzui rishon. Following R. Isaac Abravanel, I translate that as follows: “The foundation of all [religious] foundations is the axiom on which all the sciences are based, to wit:  to know that there is a Prime Existent.”

I spend 4 chapters of my new book explaining the sentence, but perhaps it would be sufficient here to cite Abravanel’s complaint about it:

Why in the Sefer ha-Madda did Maimonides write of the first principle that it was ‘the foundation of all foundations and the pillar of the sciences’ when he should have said, ‘one of the foundations’, not ‘the foundation of all foundations’? Of what concern is it of ours whether or not this foundation is the pillar of gentile sciences, which are not of the Children of Israel (1 Kings 9:20)?” [Abravanel, Rosh Amanah, ch. 5]

Abravanel correctly understood Maimonides to be here importing [“Gentile”] science into the very heart of Torah. Maimonides did this in the context of a particular philosophical understanding of the nature of human intellect and its crucial role in achieving and maintaining contact with God. Abrabanel noticed that Maimonides claims that the “secrets” of the Torah, is a science open in principle to all human beings, study of which is a positive commandment.

While no one today accepts the philosophical underpinnings of Maimonides’ system, we should still ask ourselves: should we not seek to emphasize the sapiens part of our being homo sapiens? Should we not take advantage of one of the important parts of our makeup that distinguishes us from other animals? Indeed, since Maimonidean orthodoxy can never be simply orthopraxy, or social orthodoxy, not to examine the theological underpinnings of our behavior is, in effect, to behave like a robot.

5) Should we be as intellectually elitist as Maimonides? Are the mentally challenged like simians, as stated by medieval rationalists, and therefore will not get the world to come? Is stupid Judaism without wisdom not Judaism?

Let me make one thing clear. Once my wife complained about Maimonides’ elitism, blaming me for it. It did no good to explain that I was simply teaching what he said, without agreeing with it. In order to preserve shalom bayit (peace in the home) I hung a list of Maimonides’ mistakes on the door to our fridge. The first of those related to his intellectual elitism.

Since no one knows what it actually means to earn a share in the world to come, I am not about to express an opinion about who gets in and who does not. One thing, however, is clear: stupid Judaism, contra Maimonides, is still Judaism. Were that not the case, we would have to exclude a huge number of Jews (some of them quite prominent) from Judaism.

6) How did Rav Elchanan Wasserman get Maimonides incorrect?

In one of the chapters of my book I criticize  the way in which Reb Elhanan Wasserman, hy”d, presented Maimonides. Once, when I was much youngerI got into a lot of trouble by telling someone near and dear to me (who then practiced and still now practices a religion which I consider to be close to Judaism) that Reb Elhanan was an unsophisticated philosopher. My interlocutor replied by chasing me with a baseball bat around the yeshiva building in which this conversation took place. One can hardly blame Reb Elhanan for reading Maimonides as if he were a Yiddish-speaking yeshiva-head – otherwise, how could he take him seriously?

But, to judge him more charitably, it may be that Reb Elhanan, who was at one and the same time a very smart and obviously leaned man and also extremely intolerant of modernity and of Zionism, understood what Maimonides actually taught, but wanted to save him from himself as it were, or, at the very least, make sure that those raised to see Maimonides as a paragon of Jewish learning and of Jewish thought were not damaged by exposure to his actual ideas.

Reb Elhanan read Maimonides as if Maimonides had not read and been influenced by Aristotle and al-Farabi, among many others. This was not the way in which the RaN and Hasdai Crescas read Maimonides; they were unflummoxed by the fact that Maimonides got many important things wrong about Judaism (according to them), but it is the way in which much of the “yeshiva world” reads him to this day. BTW, were Maimonides to address us today, my best guess is that he would not tell us to read contemporary philosophers, but to study physics.

7) What is the problem with those who see an essential difference between Jews and Non-Jews?

What is the problem with those who see an essential difference between Jews and non-Jews? In the preface to my new book I discuss three examples of Judaic particularism: the disgusting, insane views put forward by the authors of the infamous Sefer Torah Ha-Melekh, the more moderate view of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, and the even more moderate view of Rabbi Herschel Schachter.

In contrast to Maimonides,  Rabbi Aviner follows Judah Halevi in claiming that the Jews are the chosen people because only they could have become the chosen people: Israel received the Torah at Sinai because no other nation could have received it. R. Aviner adds to this Halevi base ideas culled from Kabbalistic sources. Channeling, as it were, the Or ha-Hayyim ha-Kadosh (on Lev 20:26), for example, he writes (in a work addressed to IDF recruits!) that the difference between a dead gentile and a live gentile is not as great as the difference between a dead Jew and a live Jew. One would think that rabbis would have learned a certain measure of restraint in light of all that has transpired here in Israel over the last 20 years (since the assassination of Yizhak Rabin, z”l), but it seems that rabbinic irresponsibility knows few bounds.

In a more moderate vein, Rabbi Herschel Schachter of YU seems to misinterpret Avot III.14 in order to maintain that while all humans are created in the image of God, Jews are more created in the image of God. I have no idea what that could possibly mean. This appears to be a theological novum in Judaism, designed to moderate the hard-edged particularism of earlier authorities so as to make it more acceptable to contemporary ears. It does not work.

There are several problems with these views. Anyone raised on the US Declaration of Independence will find them abhorrent, since they maintain that all humans are not created equal. Of course, that will not bother anyone who rejects the idea that “all humans are created equal.” Perhaps the fact that these views go against the peshat of the opening chapters of the Torah that, everyone is created in the image of God, might give some people a moment’s pause.

But since, as Maimonides said, “the gates of interpretation are never closed,” there are many ways that one can get around the fact that the views on this issue espoused by Rabbis Aviner and Schachter fly in the face of explicit teachings of the Torah.

There is also, of course, the slight problem that the idea that Jews are in some innate way superior to non-Jews is simply false. There is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim, and plenty of counter-examples. Just last week, Michal Fruman, who was wounded in an Arab knife attack, was quoted in the Makor Rishon newspaper as saying that the Arab ambulance driver who took her to the hospital was much more sensitive and caring than many Jews she knows.

I realize that the fact that I also find the view to be immoral is not likely to carry much weight.

8) If a Jew must not believe anything and there is not one Jewish opinion, then why pick your approach over essentialist approaches other than person taste or moral taste?

 My argument in Must a Jew Believe Anything? is not that Jews may believe anything they please, and that there is no such thing as incorrect Jewish beliefs. Rather, I argue that belief in Judaism is best construed as fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty, trustworthiness, etc., in short, belief in as opposed to belief that.

Obviously in order to be loyal to God in traditional Judaism one must hold certain statements to be true – that God exists and knows us, that the Jews are God’s chosen people, that the mizvot are obligatory, etc.- but until the Middle Ages no one tried to get clear on what precisely those statements actually mean, and no one used the category of heresy in that context.  Just think of what kofer ba-ikkar (denying the principle) means in the Passover Haggadah – not heresy, but distancing oneself from the Jewish people .

The Jewish tradition encompasses a wide variety of views on a bewildering array of issues. Simply put, Judaism is both universalist and particularist.  As much as I would personally prefer that the particularist views were not part of the Jewish tradition, I cannot wipe them away, as most of those whose Judaism is only particularist do with the views with which they disagree.

In a recent article (Hakirah vol. 16, pp. 47-76), Rabbi Hanan Balk critically analyzed views of rishonim and aharonim about non-Jews which I find both distressful and distasteful. As much as I would personally prefer that the views catalogued by Rabbi Hanan Balk were not part of the Jewish tradition, I cannot wipe them away, as most of those whose Judaism is only particularist do with the views with which they disagree. But in actual fact, the Jewish tradition encompasses a wide variety of views on a bewildering array of issues.

I do not have the hutzpah to say that essentialist rishonim and aharonim are heretics. Rather, such views represent a particular strand of Judaism which does exist even if I prefer that it did not. This strand, I am convinced, is a reaction to a long history of tribulations. The messianic dream of Judaism as found in Maimonides’ writings (and elsewhere) represents another strand, one, I hold, to be truer to the teachings of Torah and the Talmudic Rabbis..

 9) Is the revelation at Sinai just human knowledge from Moses’ intellect?

I am a conservative interpreter of Maimonides. Thus, I read him as teaching that the revelation at Sinai was more than Moses tapping into the wisdom of the cosmos, as it were, and translating what he understood in that fashion into the mythic, figurative language in which he wrote the Torah. (Compare this alternate approach.)

10) What will non-Jews believe in the world to come?

My current understanding  about what Maimonides thought about Gentiles in the messianic era is somewhat fluid. I am not sure that he himself knew. After all, questions of universalism and particularism are important to us, but probably aroused much less interest in the Middle Ages. It is even likely that Maimonides never asked himself if he was a universalist or a particularist. The language was not even available to him. Thus, for example, while the notion of divine providence is central to the Torah, there was no word in any Jewish language for that idea till ibn Tibbon made it up (hashgahah).

But, for whatever it is worth, I am convinced that for Maimonides the distinction between Jew and Gentile (if it remains) will be much less important in the messianic era than it is today. Perhaps he thought that all Gentiles would become Jewish, or perhaps he felt that all humans would become Abrahamic monotheists without mizvot (and before any reader has a heart attack allow me to point out that even Nahmanides thought that the Torah only applied during “zman Torah” -the era of Torah- which would end with the coming of the Messiah). I guess we will have to wait and see.

 11) How are you universalist? You  may reject essentialists but you give little guidance about contemporary non-Jews, current oppressed people, or interfaith and multi-culturalism?

I am a Maimonidean universalist (as I understand him) in the following way: I believe that what human beings share in common is more important than what divides us.  Unlike Maimonides I am not a rabbi and I do not pasken (decide) halakhah concerning other religions.

I am a proud Jewish nationalist and think that of all the world’s religions, Judaism is the least bizarre, knowing full well that if I had been born and raised a Hindu I would probably think that about Hinduism (if one is allowed to use that term). Basically, I would just like people to get along.

But, I also do not believe that there is any such thing as a human being without a culture – it will be a long time before nation-states wither away.  A propos Jewish nationalism, it is a category error to think that nationalism is inconsistent with universalism (especially as used in this discussion). Nationalism need not be chauvinism. Maimonides himself was very proud, not only of Torah, but also of the Jewish people. While I disagree with Jewish non-Zionists (such as my respected teacher, Steven Schwarzschild, z”l, or my many loved Haredi relatives), I do not think that their views are illegitimate, only wrong. This in contrast to Jewish supporters of BDS, who are either foolish, or evil, or both.

12) As an intellectual fan of Leon Roth’s universalism, what do you make of his universal concern for the mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs in 1947-1948?

Leon Roth was a thoroughly admirable human being, and certainly a man of principle. I agree with idealists that if we do not use the ideal in order to judge the real we will never advance to the ideal – how could I think otherwise, both as a Jew and as a student of the late (and deeply missed) Steven Schwarzschild?

But I am also enough of a realist to realize that in a world in which only one side of a conflict  seeks to realize the ideal, while the other side ignores it, the first side is likely to end up dead. Leon Roth and the other members of Brit Shalom represented the highest ideals of Judaism, but as has been demonstrated time and time again, they had next to no one to talk to on the other side. I personally would have preferred that he remain in Israel to fight the good fight, but can hardly judge him on that, and have no right to do so. I furthermore admire his apparent unwillingness to allow his critique of Israeli policy to  be used by enemies of Israel.

13) Is Israel is more moral than other nations? Is that universal?

I do not believe that Jews are more moral than Gentiles. I do believe that Torah is superior to other systems, and that people who actually live according to the dictates of Torah are more likely to be moral than those who do not. However, I have met far too many deeply moral Gentiles of many different persuasions (most emphatically including atheists) and too many immoral Jews (including many who think that they represent “Torah true” Judaism) to believe that Jews are more moral than Gentiles.

I certainly do not believe that mastery of Talmud makes one a better person. It is one of the myths I grew up with, and it took me a long time to realize that it is precisely that – a myth. There are simply too many blatant counter-examples. Stating the main point of my new book and of this discussion, I follow Maimonides in holding the Torah to be a challenge, not an endowment. “You should be Holy “ (Kedoshim tihiyu) is not a declaration or a promise, but a commandment.

If by “Israel” in your question you mean the State of Israel, then, while I have intense criticism of much of what we do here, I do indeed feel that we are more moral than other nations. Certainly, compared to the way in which the United States and its allies wage war we are remarkably restrained, and concerned to minimize “collateral damage” (despite what our enemies and fellow travelers maintain).

14)  Why be Jewish according to Maimonides or as a Maimonidean?

If one believes that God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people, then of course remaining Jewish fulfills God’s will. Maimonides thought that the choice of the Jews was God’s backup plan, after the original Abrahamic covenant proved itself to be incapable of maintaining ethical monotheism (and yes, I know where the term comes from) in the Egyptian environment.

There are other reasons why people might choose to remain Jewish, but, as I have pointed out on several occasions, the reasons must be serious: it turns out that the choice of European Jews in the Nineteenth Century to remain Jewish ended up condemning many, many of their descendents to death at the hands of Nazis. Given the truly frightening rise of anti-Semitism in our world,  and the way in which it infects those whom one would expect to know better, I think it is obvious that one should have a stronger reason than sentiment or stubbornness to remain Jewish.

15) Shouldn’t the Roshei Yeshiva decide what is Jewish thought?

A good friend of mine likes to say about a prominent Rosh Yeshiva, “he knows so much more than he understands.” Mastering huge swaths of Talmudic literature does not a theologian make. It is also a category mistake to think that one can “pasken” theology as one “paskens” halakhah

You can ask Maimonides about that – his oft-repeated criticism of his rabbinic colleagues for misunderstanding the basic teachings of the Torah is quite withering (introduction to Helek, beginning of Treatise on Resurrection, etc.).

As the late and deeply lamented Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein pointed out, most of today’s so-called gedolim cannot write a sentence in correct Hebrew, and I add, even understand the grammatical points made by Rashi in his commentary to the Torah.

16) What of Maimonides-Laws of Mourning 3: 3?

A clever reader pointed out that the title of my new book, They Too are Called Human is odd since Maimonides actually follows R. Shimon bar Yohai in deciding that the laws concerning ritual impurity in an enclosed space (tum’ah be-ohel) do not obtain with respect to the bodies of deceased non-Jews (“Laws Concerning Mourning,” III.3). While this is technically correct, it is beside the point, since Maimonides is careful not to cite R. Shimon bar Yohai’s reason for his decision (that non-Jews are not called human).

Let it be further noted that since the Middle Ages at least it has been suggested that R. Shimon himself may have only been making a technical point about the laws of ritual impurity, without making any claims about the humanity (or lack thereof) of non-Jews. However, if it was R. Shimon’s intention to deny the full humanity of non-Jews, then, as argued in my book in detail, Maimonides certainly did not agree with him. Nor did he think that tum’ah is an actual characteristic of impure entities. He goes to great trouble (in Guide III.47 and elsewhere) to argue that ritual purity and impurity are halakhic, institutional distinctions only.

Interview with Elisha Russ-Fishbane — Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt: A Study of Abraham Maimonides and His Circle

Islam is essential to the future of Judaism.  Such a sentiment is not a modern political statement but the thinking of the thirteenth century Jewish leader Rabbi Abraham the son of Maimonides. Abraham thought that thirteenth century Judaism was in decline compared to the classical age of the Bible and Talmud and that it could only be restored by following contemporary Islamic practices, which in his mind, are reflective of original Jewish practices. He used his leadership, as best as he could, to create a pietistic revival seeking Sufi inspired divine illumination and contemplative prophecy.

sufi book cover

Elisha Russ-Fishbane, assistant professor at NYU recently wrote a study Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt: A Study of Abraham Maimonides and His Times on the fascinating Jewish leader Abraham Maimonides. Russ-Fishbane revisits the Arabic documents from the Cairo Genizah reading them afresh to give greater accuracy and detail in presenting the views of Abraham Maimonides. He relies on the prior work from Naftali Wieder, Paul Fenton and others, but subjects each document and fragment to a renewed scrutiny to offer us a wonderful rich account of this major figure in Jewish history. The monograph is fascinating and has many never before translated passages and excels in situating Abraham in his broader Egyptian context.

Abu-l Muna Ibrahim the son of Musa ibn Maymon, better known in English as Abraham Maimonides (1186-1237) was the only son of the famed Maimonides. Abraham became leader of Egyptian Jewry at age 18 after the death of his father in 1204 and officially ascended to the position of Ra’is (Nagid) in 1213 He was close to Muslim authorities and the Ayyubid Government, and became physician to Saladin’s brother  al-Malik al-Kamal. Abraham was described by a Muslim contemporary as tall and lean with refined speech and pleasant manners.

General knowledge already in our history books about Abraham Maimonides focus on his defense of his father in the 1232 Maimonidean controversy, in which, he shows that religious rationalism and treating the Bible as metaphor are the true Jewish positions while the anti- Maimonideans have fallen prey to the spurious beliefs, under the influence of Christianity, to anti-philosophic and anti-rational positions and read the Bible as anthropomorphism.

Abraham is also known from his great and very large work Kitāb Kifāyah al-`Ābidīn (A Comprehensive Guide for the Servants of God). The original was a voluminous 2500, of which we only have several extent sections, but those sections themselves are almost full treatises. The most famous section in the wider Jewish world is his essay on the aggadic sections of the Talmud (printed as Maamar al odot derashot Hazal)  where he treats the Talmudic stories as didactic allegory not based on a tradition, rather human insights, and they certainly they do not contain any truths about science or medicine. Paul Fenton, leading scholar of the era, insightfully states that in this work Abraham moved from his father prescriptive mode to a descriptive mode explaining the spiritual significance of Judaism in the same manner as al-Ghazzali did for Islam.

Many already know of Abraham Maimonides’ proposed changes to synagogue practice to enhance piety and bring the service more in line with Islamic piety. These practices include the washing of hands and feet before prayer, knelling in synagogue and arrangement in orderly rows like in a Mosque, full prostration when the Jewish custom is to bow, and prostration at the end of every Psalm in pesukei dezimra (pre-shema verses of praise) or paragraph of the Shema and raising one’s hands heavenward at the start of each paragraph.

Needless to say, that ordinary congregants of his time would not want such change or piety, hence leading families complained and even protested to the sultan that he was introducing “unlawful changes,” which is a serious charge in Islamic jurisprudence. In response, one Genizah letter states that Abraham produced two hundred letters of support in one controversy, which was the majority of the men in the community.  (What would this controversy have been in the age of social media?)

Ayyubid Context

Abraham’s Sufism as not a lone voice but part of bigger trends. Nathan Hofer, a scholar of medieval Sufism, documents how after the fall of the Fatimid Empire in 1177, the new Sunni polity under the Ayyubids “founded and funded hospices to attract foreign Sufis to Egypt.” This lead to local charismatic Sufi masters appearing throughout Egypt and organized Sufi brotherhoods emerging in the urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria.

Russ-Fishbane is to be thanked for finally putting together Abraham’s pietistic aspirations and the cadre of other spiritual seekers in an era of growing Sufi piety. “For Abraham Maimonides, Judaism was at a crisis point, a spiritual nadir in its age-old exile.” Jewish revival was to be found in piety similar to the practices of the Sufis.

These pietists around Abraham saw themselves as bearers of a religious mission and harbingers of a spiritual revival. The pious individual ought to pursue an inner path to communion with God and the cultivation of regular fasting and solitary prayer under the guidance of an experienced guide and in fellowship with a spiritual fraternity. Pietists adorned themselves with special articles of clothing and encouraged chant and music in worship.

jewish dervishes (Jewish-Sufi clothes from 1922 Iran —the post about this picture receives more hits than any other post on this blog).

Pietists emphasized inner ‘states’ of consciousness (known as maqāmāt), and spoke of an intellectual-mystical enlightenment as prophetic attainment, thereby combining Maimonidean philosophy and Sufi mysticism. They used the language of luminescence in which the devotee was said to receive an influx of radiance (known as ishrāq al-anwār), a perception or vision of reality beyond the world of the senses.

For the Pietists, Post Talmudic practice reflects an exilic accreditation and decline that can only be restored by restoring the Jewish doctrines that are preserved in Islam but lost in exilic Judaism


Like his father, Abraham vigorously affirmed Islam’s status as a pure monotheistic religion that exerted a positive influence on Jews, encouraging them to maintain the purity of its faith against lack of piety and against the literalism of the Christian world.  Beyond this, Abraham, considered Islam as both foretold by the Bible and affirmed by divine providence.  (Compare this to those Jews today who see a divine providence to Christianity.)

The well-known talmudic law prohibited Jews from imitating the ways of the gentiles (known as hukkat or hukkot ha-goyim) according to Abraham did not apply to the contemporary Muslims.

Abraham’s view according to Russ-Fishbane: “Muslims and Christians pray and give charity, and no Jew would ever dream of banning such activities simply because they are also gentile practices.  Why, he asked, should it be any different when considering practices like prostration and kneeling that were no less authentically Jewish than they were Islamic?”


Pietist spirituality was gradually eclipsed by the path of Kabbalah, especially after the Safed revival, but continued for two hundred years in Egypt lead by five more generations of Maimonides descendants and is still practiced into the Nineteenth century among Jews in Iraq and Iran.

Despite Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt: A Study of Abraham Maimonides and His Times being a wonderful book as a detailed reader of genizah documents, the book at many points lacks any overview for the general reader of the life, times, and issues needed to understand and evaluate Abraham’s contribution. The monograph dives right into precise readings without always telling the reader why a point is important. For that, one should first read Paul Fenton’s introduction to the work of Abraham’s son Ovadiah (1228-1265) Treatise of the Pool where one would gain an overview as well as the recent article by Mordechai Friedman, and, for fun, the popularist articles of Tom Block based on Fenton’s research here and here).

Returning to close this post on this pietistic ethos, Ovadiah son of Abraham son of Maimonides (1228-1265) in his Treatise of the Pool invites his pious reader to “imagine a certain person who, possessing a very old pool, desires to cleanse the latter of dirt and mire and to restore it.” Ovadiah considers this “an allegory alluding to the purification, cleansing and purging of the heart, the correction of its defects and failings and its being emptied of all but the Most High.” If one properly purifies the heart, then one will “progress therein until thou attains an even higher state which man’s tongue is incapable of describing.”


1) What was the Sufi influence on Abraham Maimonides?

Abraham Maimonides could not help but be influenced by Sufism (Islamic mysticism), in that piety and spirituality in medieval Jewish culture of the Near East and North Africa was saturated with the core ideals of Sufism.

The idea that the individual ought to pursue an inner path to communion with God, the emphasis on elevating the spirit over bodily desires (otherwise known as asceticism), the cultivation of regular fasting and solitary prayer – were widely cherished ideals among all religious groups of the medieval Islamic world.

Historians of Jewish philosophy often consider it remarkable that the (only) son of the great Maimonides – considered a champion of rationalism and moderation over against mysticism and asceticism – would so blatantly stray from his father’s course and choose the mysticism of Sufism over the sober ideals of philosophy.  The truth, as usual, is much more complicated.

Philosophy, in its medieval guise, was no less dedicated to a personal liberation from physical attachments than its Sufi counterpart.  Mysticism, for its part, did not always entail a rejection of reason.  In practical terms, Jewish philosophers and mystics of the medieval Islamic world advocated a way of life that was remarkably similar in orientation.

Moses Maimonides was a case in point.  His famous principle of moderation, known as the golden mean, has often been interpreted as a rejection of asceticism.  In fact, it is more accurately a rejection of asceticism for those who do not understand its true goals, not a blanket condemnation.  Abraham Maimonides, for his part, designated the ascetic life an “elevated path” suited only for those who have adopted the general calling of pietism, or hasidut, not for the Jewish masses.

In my book, I argue against a ‘rejectionist’ reading of Abraham Maimonides.  While Abraham was not loath to disagree with his father when he believed it justified (which he did on several occasions), he understood the path of pietism as the logical extension of the core principles of his father’s doctrine.  That said, Abraham made far more extensive use of Sufism’s spiritual terminology than his father ever did (although there is consensus that the latter was not devoid of a modest Sufi vocabulary of his own).  Even more meaningfully, Abraham embraced concrete Sufi practices within his own pietist circle and openly praised his Muslim counterparts, at times holding them up as a model for his own community.

2) How did Abraham justify these adaptations?

While many Jewish intellectuals in the medieval Near East had, for more than two centuries, openly embraced Arabic literature and thought as a model for Jews, Sufism was different.  As popular as Sufi pietism was among Muslims and minorities alike, for Jews to acknowledge as much could be viewed as a betrayal of the Jewish tradition.  After all, Arabic letters and ideas did not pose a challenge to the Jewish religious establishment.  The Arabic intelligentsia and literati did not represent the Islamic faith and were not infrequently cast as heretics by their own religious leaders.  Sufism, by contrast, was by the thirteenth century an entrenched element of Islamic religious life from Persia to the Maghreb.  How could a Jewish religious authority accept key Sufi rites for emulation within the Jewish community?

The answer goes to the heart of my argument in the book: that Islam was, paradoxically, essential to Abraham Maimonides’ vision of Judaism.  Make no mistake, this was no postmodern vision of a pluralistic Judaism.

For Abraham, and for his followers, there was but one true faith.  But that does not mean that Judaism, in their view, was monolithic.  Abraham carefully distinguished between the authoritative religion of Israel, as enshrined in biblical and talmudic law, and what he called “exilic” practices, filled with problematic accretions to, and eliminations of, authentic Judaism.

In Abraham’s view, Islam borrowed heavily from original Jewish doctrines and rites (including such varied examples as monotheism and prostration), at the same time that Jews began to neglect many of their own traditions due to the hardships of the exile.

Herein lies the rub.  For Abraham Maimonides, Judaism was at a crisis point, a spiritual nadir in its age-old exile.  As he saw it, nothing short of a religious revival and a return to the abandoned roots of the religion could lift the Jews from the morass of exile and hasten the redemption.  Abraham envisioned his brand of hasidut as an essential part of that revival.

If Islam (Sufism included) had incorporated a number of those lost traditions, the path to Jewish revival – and the path to messianic redemption – required a profound engagement with the religion of Islam.  The result was a unique combination of inner Jewish traditionalism and an openness to the wisdom of a foreign religion.

 3) How did it express itself in devotional practices?

The movement of hasidim in Egypt was decidedly practical in orientation. Egyptian Jewish pietism had very little taste for metaphysical speculation about the nature of God or the universe.  Here, too, we see the footprint of Sufism.

The dominant models of Islamic mysticism to which Jews were exposed and which were adapted by the hasidim, emphasized inner ‘states’ of consciousness (known as maqāmāt), on the one hand, and a regimen of ascetic discipline and regular meditation, on the one other.  Both the Muslim mystics and their Jewish counterparts described the inner states and the outer regimen as a journey (sulūk or maslak), undertaken by the individual wayfarer (sālik), under the guidance of an experienced guide and in fellowship with a spiritual fraternity.  Abraham Maimonides extended the same language to the culmination of the path (described as a communion of the soul with the divine), which he aptly called ‘arrival’ (wuūl).

Because of their focus on praxis, the Egyptian pietists developed a sometimes fractious relationship with the larger Jewish community, parts of which viewed their reforms as a heretical imitation of Islam.

Pietists practiced forms of solitary meditation, adorned themselves with special articles of clothing, encouraged chant and music in worship, cultivated master-disciple relationships both as individuals and as fellowship circles – all of which were familiar features of Sufi mysticism and were viewed by their adversaries as an alien importation.  In spite of vigorous efforts by Abraham and his colleagues to defend each of these reforms as original to Judaism, they were embroiled in a variety of controversies, all of which left a trail in the Cairo Genizah.

4) How did it express itself in liturgical synagogue life? 

The Sufi-inflected regimen of asceticism and meditation, as remarkable as it is, was only the beginning of the Jewish pietist vision.  As the leader of the entire Jewish community, Abraham Maimonides hoped that the pietist movement would become the vanguard of a much larger religious revival among his fellow Jews.  For example, he promoted the idea (never realized) of pietists serving as permanent fixtures in the synagogue, available at any time for religious guidance and acting as spiritual mentors to other seekers.

Even more significant was a series of devotional reforms he hoped would be accepted in synagogue life.  These include changes to key rites and postures of worship, such as the washing of hands and feet before prayer, prostrating when bowing, kneeling when sitting, reorienting the worshipers from sitting around the walls of the synagogue to sitting in orderly rows, and facing Jerusalem during the entirety of the prayer service.  All of these bear the clear mark of the Islamic environment, more than any other Jewish movement before or after it.

The fact that prostration in worship was also practiced by Muslims was no more of a problem than the fact that facing Jerusalem in worship was also practiced by Christians.

The previous consensus among scholars was that Abraham instituted these reforms willy-nilly into Egyptian synagogues.  My own position in the book is that the evidence actually points in the opposite direction.  In other words, Abraham never actually imposed these devotional reforms on the Jewish community and we can establish for a fact (based on Genizah and other documents) that no synagogue ever adopted them.

The pietists did embrace them and were witnessed kneeling and prostrating both at fixed points in the service and even spontaneously when the spirit moved them.  But, as Abraham testifies in a responsum, they observed such practices when praying in private residences (including his own) but were careful to refrain from them when visiting the main synagogues, in conformity with communal norms.

Abraham Maimonides spilled much ink responding to his critics one by one (all, alas, anonymous), all in the effort at public persuasion, but to no avail.  He even bitterly observed that one of his father’s synagogue reforms had been accepted in spite of the fact that it lacked similar precedent in biblical or talmudic law.  (The reform in question was Maimonides’ removal of the silent ‘amidah during sabbath and festival prayers.  Worshipers who could were to pray in tandem with the hazzan.  The rationale for the change was the perceived desecration of God’s name caused by members of the synagogue talking loudly during the hazzan’s repetition.  The reform remained in place in Egypt until the sixteenth century.)

While we lack critical details on how much of the community supported or opposed Abraham’s efforts, one Genizah letter tells us that Abraham easily produced two hundred letters of support in one controversy, which our source tells us was the majority of the men in the community.

We also hear, importantly, that Abraham was criticized for welcoming women into his pietist prayer circles, mirroring the presence of women’s sections in the main synagogues but somewhat surprising given the intimate nature of these circles.

All of the evidence indicates that the chief opposition to the hasidim came from rival rabbinic figures, who disputed the legitimacy of the reforms, and certain communal judges.

5) Did Jews go to Sufi mosques? At that time, did they did do dhikr with Muslims?

We do have a report in the Genizah of a fourteenth-century Egyptian Jew who spent quite a bit of time with a local Sufi shaikh.  We learn about this from the Jew’s wife, who bitterly complained to the head of the Jewish community (who happened to be Abraham Maimonides’ great-grandson and an avowed pietist in his own right), and pleaded with him to bring her husband out of the mosque and back home.

There may have been other cases like this (there is plenty of evidence of Sufi proselytizing), but if there were they haven’t been preserved.  For his part, Abraham tells us that he witnessed key Sufi rites, although he does not tell us where.  He does not disclose information on any personal contacts he had with Sufi leaders, although it is highly unlikely that he did not have any.  He wrote of conversations he had with Muslim scholars and, given his interest in Sufi matters, we have every reason to believe that he was in conversation with Sufi shaikhs, even if this did not lead him into a mosque per se.

The Genizah preserves numerous examples of Sufi works copied by Jews during this period, some transliterated into Judaeo-Arabic and others in their original orthography, but none of them tell us who their owners were or where they obtained the originals.

Did Jew participate in dhikr sessions with Muslims?  Apart from the fourteenth-century letter from the disgruntled wife, there is no evidence of this.  But, given how prominent dhikr sessions were (and continue to be) for Sufis, it stands to reason that Jewish pietists at the very least adopted a similar rite.  The truth is that, while a number of pietist writers used the term dhikr to refer to a practice of calling God to mind (its literal meaning), they did not create a formal communal dhikr session in imitation of their Sufi counterparts.

This is actually not as surprising as it sounds.  After all, the pietists did not consider themselves to be imitating Sufism but reviving ancient Jewish practices long ago neglected by Jews and adopted by Muslims.  Given that they could discover no parallel practice in the classical Jewish sources, they saw no reason to adopt it wholesale from Islam.  But if dhikr as a form of meditative chant of the divine names was not incorporated by the pietists, dhikr as meditative recollection of the divine most certainly was, if not in collective fashion at least in solitude (known as khalwah).

6) How did he view Islam? And why did Hukkat Hagoyim not apply to Islam?

Like his father, Abraham vigorously affirmed Islam’s status as a monotheistic religion.  In a couple of ways, however, he went even beyond his father in his praise of Islamic monotheism.  It is true that, in his view, Islam derived its own monotheism directly from Judaism.

Yet he did not hesitate to declare to his fellow Jews that, in his day, it was Islam that exerted a positive influence on Jews, encouraging them to maintain the purity of its faith.  His proof was to compare Jewish faith in Islamic lands with that in Christendom.  While no Jew anywhere in the Islamic world, he chided, would dare question the fundamentals of the faith for fear of being the object of ridicule, a number of Jews in Europe did fall prey to spurious beliefs, under what he considered the less than salutary influence of Christianity in its anthropomorphic thinking.

Affirming Islam’s status as monotheistic had yet another consequence.  A well-known talmudic law prohibited Jews from imitating the ways of the gentiles (known as hukkat or hukkot ha-goyim).

Abraham understood the scope of this talmudic ban to be limited exclusively to idolaters.  Given that Islam was not idolatrous, any Islamic practices embraced by the pietists technically did not fall under the ban.

What is more, Abraham argued, there are good reasons to apply this ban with caution.  Muslims and Christians pray and give charity, and no Jew would ever dream of banning such activities simply because they are also gentile practices.  Why, he asked, should it be any different when considering practices like prostration and kneeling that were no less authentically Jewish than they were Islamic?

7) What is Abraham’s paradoxical concept of the Divine Blessing to Islam?

Jews from the second temple period and onward associated the Arabs with the descendants of the biblical Ishmael, a tradition eventually accepted among the Arabs themselves.  This would become all the more significant when, by the seventh century, the Arabs and Ishmael became associated with the world’s newest religion.  Genesis 16:10 records the divine blessing of the progeny of Hagar (mother of Ishmael) with the following words: “I shall greatly increase your descendants and they shall be too numerous to count.”  Applying the traditional Jewish association between Ishmael and the Arabs, Moses Maimonides, in his interpretation of this verse, confined the application of this blessing to the future size of the Arab nation.

Abraham, in a subtle twist, preferred to read the divine blessing as referring not to the number of Arabs but to the religion of Islam per se, which on this reading was both foretold and affirmed by divine providence.

Yet, stunningly, Abraham’s vision of Islam did not end there.  He imagined Israel and Ishmael to be locked in a spiritual combat of epic proportions, mirrored by their different fortunes on the world stage.  When Israel was meritorious, he argued, Ishmael’s role was kept in check.  When, however, Israel experienced a spiritual decline and was cast into exile, Ishmael’s fortunes would in turn begin to rise.  This was not unlike the talmudic tradition of an inverse relationship between the fortune of Israel and that of Edom, later repeated and expanded by some medieval writers in Christian Europe.

Abraham Maimonides is the only writer known to me to apply this same narrative to the relationship between the children of Isaac and Ishmael.

All of this puts Abraham’s contention that Islam adopted core Jewish beliefs and practices, many of which were neglected by the Jews in the course of their exile, into greater relief.  In Abraham’s rendering, the narrative of the inverse fortunes of Israel and Ishmael takes on messianic overtones.  Only when, in the midst of their exile, Jews return to their neglected traditions will they experience an end to their sufferings and the onset of redemption.  The paradox?  The Jews must now relearn those original elements of their religion from Islam.

Tom Block powerpoint

8) Why was Abraham striving for prophecy. What does it mean to be a prophet?

The Egyptian pietist movement referred to itself as the ‘path of the disciples of the prophets,’ which is to say that they envisioned prophecy as the object of their spiritual striving (the culmination of the path, to use the Sufi language of the spiritual journey).  In a creative blend of Maimonidean philosophy and Sufi mysticism, the pietists spoke of this culmination in terms of an intellectual-mystical enlightenment, achieved through a process of self-discipline and solitary meditation.  This enlightenment, in their view, was nothing short of prophetic attainment, reflecting their belief that a return of prophecy to the people of Israel was within their reach.

In the worldview advanced by Moses Maimonides and carried into practice by his son, there was an intimate connection between the renewal of prophecy and the onset of redemption.  Abraham and his fellow pietists saw their role as helping to bring an end to the exile and stimulating the ultimate redemption of Israel.  It is most likely for this reason that neither Abraham nor any of his colleagues harbored messianic fantasies of their own.  They imagined themselves to play a pivotal role in the religious revival required for messianic redemption, without making promises or predictions as to when the awaited end would come.

9) What is the experience of luminescence?

Prophetic attainment, as it was understood by the pietists, did not end with its connection to messianic times.  In line with another tradition of Maimonides, they conceived of prophecy as the ultimate intellectual-spiritual attainment possible for humanity.  It was not the ethical-religious mission of an inspired preacher conveying the words of God, as it typically functioned in biblical accounts of the ancient prophets of Israel.  Prophecy in its pietist context was a decidedly individual objective and (in so far as glimpses of it were attained by the pietists) played itself out primarily in individual experiences.  Abraham no doubt envisioned the pietists as bearers of a religious mission and harbingers of a spiritual revival, but their first and primary objective as ‘disciples of the prophets’ was the perfection of their own humanity as individuals pursuing their personal journey on the path.

The hasidim described the prophetic experience by means of concrete images – some borrowed from Sufism, others from rabbinic Judaism.  At times they used the language of luminescence (in the sense of enlightenment).  The devotee was said to receive an influx of radiance (known as ishrāq al-anwār), a perception or vision of reality beyond the world of the senses.  To someone familiar with the history of Sufism, the parallel to the concurrent Sufi school of illuminationism is quite striking, although the parallel does not extend far beyond the common imagery.

What is less evident is the fact that the language of illumination also appears in Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, a text of great importance for the pietists.  The linguistic connection to his father’s Guide was not accidental for Abraham.  For both men, the path to enlightenment was intellectual contemplation, during which the intellect was purified of its worldly sensation in order to catch a glimpse of the divine reality.

The goal of solitary meditation, for Abraham, was to rid the mind of all attachments and desires, allowing it to commune with God unimpeded – metaphorically speaking, to darken the outer senses so as to allow for an inner radiance, a taste (to use another of his images) of the world to come.  What made Abraham’s approach innovative was less the content than the implementation and institutionalization of the prophetic ideal.  The goal was to create a reproducible ‘path’ (i.e. the pietist regimen of asceticism, prayer, solitude, and contemplation) by which any devotee could make progress toward the ultimate ‘arrival’ of prophetic enlightenment.

10) Why did this approach seem to not leave a lasting impression?

Despite Abraham Maimonides’ public support of the movement in his capacity as head of Egyptian Jewry, pietism aroused considerable controversy in his lifetime – occasionally dividing family members and friends, as our Genizah sources testify – and continued to be a source of contention after his death in 1237.

Some of Abraham’s pietist colleagues: Abraham ibn Abi’l-Rabi’ (sometimes known as Abraham he-Hasid, which has caused confusion with Abraham Maimonides, who was also occasionally referred to by the same epithet!) and his brother, Joseph – the two brothers were referred to as leaders of the nascent movement before Abraham Maimonides’ rise to prominence.  Another one we know by name was Hananel b. Samuel, who was Abraham Maimonides’ father-in-law.  Some of the most interesting pietist tracts that survive in the Genizah do not preserve their authors’ names.  We also hear about pietist prayer circles both in Fustat and Alexandria, but unfortunately most of the practitioners remain anonymous.

Some Jews, including descendants of the Maimonidean house, remained committed to the ideals of pietism for several generations and parts of Abraham’s classic work (called the Compendium for the Servants of God, or Kifāyat al-‘abidīn in Judaeo-Arabic) were still cited into the eighteenth century among Jews of the Arab world.  Sadly, however, much of the work (which covered a wide range of Jewish law and ethics) was not cited and not preserved.  This, in itself, was a consequence of the great controversy it stirred already in its author’s lifetime.

Another reason for the limited reach of Egyptian pietism was because of the language barrier.  Unlike the Judaeo-Arabic works of Moses Maimonides and others before him, Abraham’s writings were not translated into Hebrew until modern times.

A final consideration for its limited duration even within the Islamic world was its timely competition.  Pietist spirituality was gradually eclipsed by the powerful pull of Kabbalah, which has continued to be the dominant form of mystical piety prevalent among Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews to this day.

11) What is innovative in your book?

The fascinating world of Egyptian Jewish pietism has been discussed off and on by a number of pioneering scholars over the years, from Naphtali Wieder to Shlomo Dov Goitein to Paul Fenton.  (Full disclosure: the latter was and remains an important mentor of mine in this field.)

As important as the contribution of these and other scholars continues to be, much work remained to be done in order to produce a comprehensive account of the movement – its historical foundations, its social and economic make-up, controversies and reactions within the community, its intellectual background (including its debt to Moses Maimonides), the nature of its spiritual agenda, its messianic aspirations, and its paradoxical relationship to Islam.  My work made extensive use of Cairo Genizah documents, allowing for greater historical detail and less recourse to speculation in my reconstruction of events.

While thoroughly imbued with Jewish text and tradition, pietist practitioners were unapologetic in their respect (at times, even admiration) for the good found in the Islamic religion.  Abraham acknowledged that Islam has had a salutary influence on Jewish belief and could yet play a meaningful role in the refinement of Jewish practice.  Here, as elsewhere, Abraham drew from the well of his father, who famously wrote in his Eight Chapters: “Be attentive to truth, no matter who utters it.”

Nefesh HaTzimtzum, Avinoam Fraenkel and his translation of Nefesh HaChaim

The famed Yeshiva Etz Hayyim in Volozhin  (founded 1803) stands as an emblem of complete devotion to Torah study. According to Prof. Imamnuel Etkes, the yeshiva had three principle qualities when administered by Rabbi Hayim (d.1821). First, the Yeshiva in Volozhin studied Torah round the clock in mishmarot (watches or shifts) of study because the study of Torah maintains the world. Second, they had an uncompromising approach to the true and simple meaning of the text of the Talmud, avoiding pilpul. Third, was the value of fear of God (yirat hashem) defined as control of one’s passions, Kabbalah, and devotion.  Rabbi Hayim wrote his work Nefesh Hahayim The Living Soul presenting this path.

Nefesh Hatzimzum

Nefesh Hahayim should have been translated into English decades ago as a Torah classic, instead it had to wait until 2015 for its first serious translation by Avinoam Fraenkel, a Hi-Tech professional with rabbinical ordination, currently working as a product manager for a global business management software company. The translation entitled Nefesh HaTzimzum is published in two full volumes for a staggering 1600 pages.  The first volume contains facing Hebrew and English pages as well as copious notes, explanations and an analytic index. The second volume has an entire book presenting Fraenkel’s theory of the concept of Divine tzimzum. It also has 400 pages of translations of almost all related texts written by the Vilna Gaon, Hayyim of Volozhin, Zundel of Salant. These ancillary texts are invaluable for any study of Nefesh Hahhayim.

The work is a labor of love by the translator and its shows. It is a wonderful translation and commentary on a difficult text showing his attention to detail and concern with educating the reader. The new translation should be owned by anyone truly interested in the world of the Mitnaggdim, Lithuanian Kabbalah, or Yeshivish ideologies. I highly recommend the two volumes and they belong in every Jewish library of classic texts. The book has sources, indices, outlines, and background resources forever changing the study of the work. Fraenkel deserves a thank you for his readable and well annotated volume.  I would recommend Nefesh HaTzimzum for both classroom and yeshiva.

The two volumes focus on Rabbi Hayyim’s doctrine of tzimzum and that is why Fraenkel names the two volumes Nefesh Hatzimzum, in that he assumes that this is the major focus of the work. More striking is that according to Fraenkel, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi and Hayyim of Volozhim basically taught the same doctrine of Tzimzum and that the greats of the last two hundred years were mistaken in thinking that they seriously differed. To prove this point, the second volume has a 360 page presentation, a book unto itself, on Tzimzum and the world of the malbush. Translating the copious sources from Rabbis Immanuel HaiRikki, Yosef Ergas and Solomon Elyashiv  in this exposition by itself is a major achievement increasing the texts of kabbalah available in English.

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin’s  Nefesh HaHayim consists of four official parts and an extra unnumbered section.  The first part gives the book its title, in that it shows the amazing power of the human soul to affect the higher worlds. Man is said to be in the image of God, in that he affects the cosmos the way the Divine does.  Mizvot draw down the Divine light and blessing and an influx of supernal holiness. Mizvot maintain the divine realm giving strength the sefirot.  Thought is given precedence over action or emotion.

The second part is on the importance of the words of prayer and that one’s words should cleave above. Prayer should be done to give blessing above in the sefirotic realm and to draw down blessing from above.  R. Hayyim also presents a doctrine in that every word of prayer has deep secrets instituted by the Men of the Great Assembly.

The third part is on tzimzum delineating how the infinite Divine relates to the finite world.  The divine as revealed powers of the Divine name animates the world. However humans cannot access the infinite reaches of the divine, or even the divine in the natural realm around us, rather only the divine as manifest in Torah and mizvot.

The fourth part is on the greatness of Torah study. Torah study does not require a religious experience or emotional enthusiasm.  Torah is divine speech that animates the world. Most of the time, those who open the book only know selected passages in the fourth part.

In addition, there is an unnumbered extra section offering a critique of Hasidic ecstasy and their emphasis of enthusiasm over correct performance of mizvot. While many saw the celebratory nature of Hasidic worship as dangerously reminiscent of Sabbatian excesses. The Vilna Gaon considered Hasidim to be heretics in their doctrine of immanence of God in all things.

In contrast to Hasidism, Nefesh HaHayyim situates Torah study over prayer and piety (not that it rejects those aspects).The most famous idea from Nefesh HaHayyim is the need to continuously learn Torah day and night. The traditional understanding of the need for Torah study as typified by Maimonides defines Torah study as the ability to teach and transmit, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch defines the need to be involved in Torah day and night as applying Torah to one’s home and family. Here in the Nefesh Hahayim, the definition to learn is measured in time, mandating that one actually maximize the time one learns because one’s learning because of its effect on the cosmos. Most contemporary Yeshiva students do not know that the source for this idea is the Zohar, not the Talmud, as developed by various 17-18th century pietistic works .

In the Volozhin yeshiva, students studied for on the average of approximately three to five years, sometime between the age of thirteen and nineteen, then in most cases off to work. They studied individually, not in chavruta study partners,  mastering several Tractates on Talmudic civil law.  Attendance at the lectures by Rabbi Hayim was optional. They did not study to be rabbis or even to be ordained as a rabbi, for that one would have to go elsewhere., rather for the pure study in the belief that study itself was important. Surprisingly, they did not follow the course of study outline in the Nefesh HaHayyim advocating the inclusion of Halakhic Midrash, Yerushalmi, and Midrash.

The widespread availability of the  Nefesh Hahayyim will correct the widespread mistaken view that he, and Mitnaggdim, advocated Talmud study without concurrent emphasis on kabbalah, musar, and worship. I am glad the second volume has a translation of Rabbi Zundel of Salant, Tract on Prayer, because it shows what was actually practiced for prayer in Volozhin.

The Nefesh HaHayim has not played a large role in American Jewry or in the corpus of the scholar of mysticism Gershom Scholem.  However, the work was translated into French  in 1986 by Benno Gross and has played a large role in the modern French thought; where it is used to derive create Jewish ideas of cybernetics and semiotics.  In several of his essays, Emamnuel Levinas uses Nefesh HaHayyim to present the idea of needed to transcend the self for infinite confrontation with Divine will as opposed to what he considers the self-obsession of Neo-Hasidism.


Fraenkel’s volumes, however, totally avoids anything academic or scholarly, or even historic.  The volumes focus entirely on the Lurianic writings, hence, explicit citations of Rabbi Moses Cordovero and medieval Kabbalists are not treated, the influence of Ramchal is minimized, and the book lacks almost any historical context. I will leave it to others to provide a list of words that could have possibly had better translations, especially since a scholarly translation of the Nefesh Hahayim is planned from Harvard University Press (together with Tel Aviv University Press) as part of the the Hackmey Hebrew Classical Library. But in the meantime, this work is a great resource.

For Fraenkel, the secret of tzimzum is treated as a profound puzzle whose elegant solution is to be worked out with a chevruta. However, he relies heavily on the thought and writings of Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv  (1841- 1926) and his Sha’arei Leshem Shevo V’Achlama. Fraenkel properly rejects the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mistaken identification of the position of the Vilna Gaon with that of the 18th century kabbalist Immanuel Hai Rikki (who took tzimzum literally) and he equally rejects the approach of R. Yosef Ergas (who treats tzimzum as metaphor). In general, the late 18th and 19th century Eastern European positions agree that  tzimzum is not true withdrawal or not occurring in the essence of God. But they differ on the role of acosmism, the access of the divine in the world, later day revelations, and what an individual can experience. Fraenkel’s harmonizing approach dissolves accepted differences.

The volume has no recognition of the scholarly work of Imamnuel Etkes, Mordechai Pachter, Tamar Ross, and now a wide cast of articles by younger scholars such as Ron Wacks showing the differences between  Rabbi Schnuer Zalman and Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, between the Rabbi Hayyim and Rabbi Elyashiv’s Leshem, and between the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Isaac Luria. Raphael Shuchat  recently edited an entire issue of the journal Daat on the topic of Lithuanian Kabbalah offering insight into the field and offering the reader bibliography in the footnotes. Elsewhere, Eliezer Baumgarten wrote an insightful article showing that the original plan of the Nefesh Hahayim was a triad of mizvot, prayer, and Torah study as a response to Hasidism, while the section on Tzimzum was needed only as an appendix for the other chapters.

1) What is your background in Kabbalah?

My first exposure to the world of Kabbalah was my introduction to Chabad, Sefer HaTanya and the concept of Tzimtzum at age 15. Since then the Chassidic classics in general and Sefer HaTanya in particular, have been a main area of personal focus for the last 34 years. This background exposed me to many Kabbalistic concepts which I researched further over the years and it provided me with a strong basis with which to approach study of Nefesh HaChaim.

In contrast to Sefer HaTanya and the Chassidic classics in general, Nefesh HaChaim is a unique work which substantiates every statement it makes by referencing many traditional Jewish sources in general, and Kabbalistic sources in particular. As a result, the highly structured presentation of Nefesh HaChaim itself is a gateway into the highly unstructured world of Kabbalah. Having now studied Nefesh HaChaim for many years, I discovered that it can only be properly understood by diving deeply into and beyond the sources that it references, and this process has, perhaps more than anything else, given me a point of entry into the diversity of Kabbalistic thought.

2) What motivated you to undertake this project?

There are many factors which inspired me to take on this project. A primary driver among others was a burning desire to more deeply understand answers to critical philosophical questions about life after my father’s sudden passing when I was an impressionable 15 year old.

The primary triggers for it were however practical ones. This project was born 5 years ago, when in preparation for regular study sessions with a study partner, I started preparing detailed outlines of Nefesh HaChaim. In constructing these, I discovered a new way of learning Torah that I had not personally previously encountered and when completed I was enthused to continue with this approach to Torah study by extending the detailed outlines to become a full blown translation and commentary. This became the single most intense and satisfying form of Torah study that I had ever experienced, as it was no longer acceptable to get the gist of what was going on and I had to understand the meaning and implications of every single word employed by Nefesh HaChaim.

After completing an initial draft of the translation, the project just naturally progressed as I had to continue my new found method of Torah study. I researched and translated all of R. Chaim Volozhin’s published writings which shed light on Nefesh HaChaim and on completion subsequently started to write about the concept of Tzimtzum which I identified as crucial.

Looking back, after a very humble start, this project progressed and transformed naturally beyond anything I would have ever dreamed possible. In retrospect, I can palpably see the hand of Divine Guidance which spoon-fed me with critical pieces of information at the specific times I needed to absorb them without being overloaded by them. Had I planned the end result at the outset, I am sure this project would never have happened. If you would have told me five years ago that it would end up becoming a Nefesh HaTzimtzum, I would have simply dismissed such a thought with hearty laughter.


3) How did you know when you were correct about the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum?

Having entered into the Kabbalistic world from Chabad, it was natural for me to first look at the Chabad resources explaining the concept of Tzimtzum. A primary resource for this was a well-known letter, penned by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l in 1939 which delineates a 4 position approach to the concept and presents a picture of stark contrast between the views of the Vilna Gaon, the Baal HaTanya and Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.

When I started writing about Tzimtzum I had no basis to question the validity of this letter and used it as a primary source to explain what I understood then to be the positions of difference on the subject. This was to the extent that I even constructed an elaborate chart presenting the differences between Nefesh Hachaim and Sefer HaTanya as a result of this understanding.

By the time I had finished this, it transpired that I had written a book on the subject. Although I felt the presentation of difference was correct at the time, I was deeply bothered by the apparent fundamentally different positions between the Mitnagdim and the Chassidim. How could this be? How could the primary concept in Kabbalah, upon which all of the rest of the Kabbalah is based, be subject to such dramatically different interpretation?

To my mind it wasn’t that they were just different views within the boundaries of Judaism (which is how most approach this difference without properly thinking it through), but that difference over this principle of Tzimtzum has to result in different fundamental approaches to viewing Judaism – and this made me extremely uncomfortable.

It was then that through the quirks of Divine Providence, I was introduced to Rabbi Moshe Schatz and started learning with him. About a year after meeting him, during a marathon study session which lasted for 11 hours straight, I watched him suddenly be inspired with a new comprehensive understanding of the various positions on Tzimtzum, one that was generally consistent with both the Mitnagdic and Chassidic worlds. I immediately appreciated its truth and understood its implications, realizing that I had to rewrite my entire exposition on Tzimtzum from scratch as it was then obvious to me that there was no fundamental difference of opinion whatsoever between the Vilna Gaon and the Baal HaTanya.

I then spent the next 3 months rewriting my entire Tzimtzum thesis. It was an extremely painful process as I had to prove to myself that a 180 degree change in my view was indeed justified every step of the way and that it truly agreed with all the details I had amassed. I knew that it was correct when, using the lens of the new understanding, I could clearly see that it was consistently true everywhere I looked across Kabbalistic writings in general and the writings of Chassidut, the Vilna Gaon and the Nefesh HaChaim in particular.

I additionally knew it was correct as having previously held by and invested so much in attempting to understand the positions of difference, I could also now see and fully explain the extensive flaws in that understanding. It was also logically satisfying as it did not make sense in any way whatsoever to suggest that Chassidut had blazed a new separate trail to mainstream Judaism, which in effect is the implication of stating that there were positions of difference.

4) Your essay erases the Chassidic–Mitnagdic divide. How are they saying the same things?

The key point is that the Vilna Gaon, like the Chassidic masters, saw that the arena within which the Tzimtzum process occurred as only being in the level of malchut of any world level, including that of the highest level called the Ein Sof. The level of malchut is the lowest part of any world level and in fact is in a different dimension to it. This means that any change in the level of malchut of any world level as a result of the Tzimtzum process, does not impact the world level itself in any way. Therefore the first instance of the Tzimtzum process which occurred in the level of malchut of the Ein Sof, did not impact the Ein Sof in any way. Therefore, by extension, the Tzimtzum process does not change God in any way.

Once this is understood, key statements in the Vilna Gaon’s writings can be related to properly and in particular, it becomes very clear that when the Vilna Gaon refers to a removal of God as a result of the Tzimtzum process he is only referring to the removal occurring within the level of malchut, leaving all the levels above malchut intact and unchanged in any way.

On further study I also realized that key parts of likkutim (collected writings) of the Vilna Gaon and his students were also to be understood in this way. One prominent follower and expositor of the path of the Vilna Gaon is the Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv (1841- 1926), author of the Leshem Shevo V’Achlama, who was revered by the Chafetz Chaim and the Chazon Ish and was referred to by his student, R. Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, as “the greatest Kabbalist of the generation”. Amazingly, the Leshem, who notwithstanding the fact that he very strongly expresses his position in the historic debate on Tzimtzum which appears to be very much against the general Chassidic camp, on careful analysis of what he actually says on the topic it is abundantly clear that he most definitely agrees with the Chassidic understanding.

5) How did people not see this for 200 years, only to be discovered by you? Are you questioning those who came before you?

Most people, including some very great individuals, have been severely misled and confused by a smokescreen of difference which was contributed to by two key factors. Firstly, by terminology used by some key Kabbalists, whose historic context was misunderstood. Secondly, by a famous letter forged in the name of the Baal HaTanya which explained the Vilna Gaon’s position on Tzimtzum as arguing with the view of Chassidut.

Those who were severely misled spanned the entire Mitnagdic-Chassidic divide for the last two centuries and more recently included no less than the last Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Yoel Kluft, a prominent Mitnagdic Kabbalist who was the head of the Haifa Bet Din. They also included all positions that I had seen in the academic world, where most would present convoluted theories built on an inaccurate perception of difference around the concept of Tzimtzum.

However, not all were misled. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, among many other prominent individuals, understood that the argument between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim was not about the fundamental principles of Judaism. He wrote on the topic of Tzimtzum in 1938 that “in this generation in which there is a need to unite…it is fitting to publicize the fact that there are no differences of opinion in the essence of these issues”.

Unfortunately however, those who were severely misled, such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his 1939 letter mentioned above which was responding to Rabbi Dessler’s position, were much more vocal and their voice became the mainstream view which misinformed both the Jewish World and also the academic world.

6)  What do you make of the dozens of authors who wrote about the difference between the two approaches?

This is explained by the Kabbalistic concept of “The Exile of the Torah”. As God, the Torah and the Jewish People are Kabbalistically referred to as being in Unity, therefore just as the Jewish People are in exile, so too is the Torah. This means that there is confusion and difference of opinion over all Torah concepts. It is the reason why there is so much debate and difference between the positions of our Rabbis over every conceivable minute detail of both the revealed parts of the Torah, such as Talmudic law, and also of the inner deeper parts of the Torah, Kabbalistic thought.

While the Jewish People is in exile and until the times of the Messiah, difference in all areas of Jewish Law and Thought will prevail, however as we draw closer to the times of Messiah, many of these areas will be gradually clarified. Ultimately in the times of the Messiah, there will be a “New Torah”, as the Vilna Gaon puts it, meaning that it will be new to us as a result of it having been fully clarified from all confusion and doubt.

The confusion of dozens of authors on the topic of Tzimtzum was therefore meant to be and has no bearing whatsoever on the stature of those individuals who were caught out by it. The current clarification of this topic is just a very small part of an enormous historic process.

7) What happened to the Ramak, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero? The Lithuanian Kabbalistic literature at many points clearly labels the views of the Vilna Gaon and R. Hayyim as the Ramak, you make that disappear.

My understanding is that there is no contradiction between the Ramak and the Arizal. In many respects the Ramak is a stepping stone to advance to the Arizal. The Ramak deals with the conceptual concept of difference of perspective as denoted by what is referred to as the World of Tohu and the concept of the sefirot. In contrast the Arizal builds on this and additionally deals with the concept of a unified perspective as denoted by what is referred to as the World of Tikun and the unity and wholeness of the concept of partzuf. The sefirot and partzuf views are not contradictory; they are just different ways of viewing the same underlying reality.

It is very clear that the Vilna Gaon and R. Chaim are both heavily invested in the concept of partzuf and the Arizal’s Kabbalah as evidenced, e.g. from the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Sifra DeTzniyuta and Sefer Yetzirah. I would very respectfully suggest that those who differentiate the Ramak as a separate school which is distinct from the Arizal lack the bigger picture.

It is of interest to note that among a number of sources to support this there is a comment of R. Chaim Vital in his Sefer Hahizyonot (Mosad Harav Kook, 1954, entry 17, p.57) which describes a dream where he sees and questions the Ramak about the true path of the Kabbalah between him and the path of the Arizal.  The Ramak answers him saying “the 2 paths are true but my path is the simple one for those entering into this Wisdom and the path of your master [the Arizal] is the inner and main one. I also now only study your master’s way in the [world] above”.

Avinoam at Aish                                Avinoam Fraenkel speaking at Aish-LA

8) What happened to the Likkutim of the Vilna Gaon, many of them are clearly relevant to understand your sefer? Is your sefer, in the end, just according to the Leshem?

Of the Likkutim of the Vilna Gaon, the most important one which relates to the concept of Tzimtzum is arguably the one dealing with this topic which is published at the end of the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Sifra DeTzniyuta. While many misunderstood this piece, on carefully reading it, it is very clear that it also only relates to the removal by the Tzimtzum process exclusively occurring in the level of malchut (as mentioned above). This is demonstrated in my Tzimtzum exposition where a detailed explanation is provided of how the Lubavitcher Rebbe misunderstood this piece.

In connection with the Leshem, I specifically chose to begin my Tzimtzum exposition with his explanation for two reasons. Firstly, because he provides the single most in-depth and extensive explanation of the Tzimtzum process that I have ever seen. Secondly, as mentioned above, as a result of explicit statements that he makes he was historically thought to have taken a strong anti-Chassidic approach to this topic and by fleshing out the detail of his explanation it becomes crystal clear that what he says is identical to the Baal HaTanya’s approach even though it seems that he may have personally thought otherwise. If I have done my job properly, anyone reading through my Tzimtzum exposition in detail should clearly see that the Leshem, Vilna Gaon, R. Chaim and the Baal HaTanya all very much independently entirely agree with each other.

9) What value does this have in a technological age? How do you relate this cosmology to the one that you work with in technology?

The process of coming out of exile in the run up to the imminent Messianic times as mentioned above, involves the clarification of all aspects of the Torah as the Torah also comes out of exile. The Leshem explains that every piece of information in this world, whether it is a new insight in Torah or even details of the scientific understanding of the world around us, has its specific time to be revealed. Until that designated time for each topic, confusion reigns and there is a lack of clarity.

It is common in the history of science for a topic to be suddenly discovered simultaneously and independently by a number of individuals. The concept of Tzimtzum is no different. Every concept, both in Torah and of the natural world around us has its designated time for reaching clarity, and it appears that we have now reached the time for the clarification of a major part of the concept of Tzimtzum.

As we progress towards Messianic times, the Zohar famously predicted that there will be progressive explosive growth in both Kabbalistic and scientific knowledge from around 1840. The current clarification of the concept of Tzimtzum together with an increasing momentum in the awareness of general Kabbalistic thought is therefore no accident. So too, it is no accident that there is an explosion in our understanding of the world around us in this technological and information age.

The technological revolution has caused a tectonic shift in the way mankind views the world over the last 170 years or so. Working full time, as I do, in the burgeoning world of Israeli Hi-Tech, it is amazing to see first-hand, the wildly disproportionate contribution that the Jewish People in their Israeli homeland, the “Start-Up Nation”, is making to this accelerating process of wider technological development across the world stage – which is also no accident. The most significant part of the changes that are occurring is within human awareness of the nature of the world around us which has been enabled through scientific and technological advancement.

The development of a proper and deeper understanding of Kabbalistic thought also drives human awareness allowing mankind to be in tune with the nature of the Divine reality all around us. As the Zohar highlights, these areas of awareness are intrinsically interlinked and go hand in hand with one another. The increasing awareness of the nature of the world around us automatically provides tools for more deeply understanding the Kabbalah. As demonstrated in detail at the end of my Tzimtzum exposition, the Vilna Gaon’s outlook is that proper engagement in the scientific and technological understanding of the world around us as it develops, is a pre-requisite to be able to properly relate to and understand the inner depths of Torah and Kabbalistic thought as the world draws ever closer to Messianic times.

Interview with Rabbi David Wolpe

David Wolpe, the senior rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles is consistently ranked as one of the top rabbis in the United States.  His congregation attracts a thousand worshippers on a Shabbat morning and at its peak his Friday night service attracted 1500. He is the author of a many books and contributes short columns to many national media sources. I know him as the busy public celebrity who has had debates with several of the new atheists and through his active online presence with tens of thousands of follower. But in his books, his real message is found in how he sits with a friend undergoing chemotherapy, discusses faith with adolescents, or comforts a congregant going through tough times.

wolpe headshot

What is behind his great success and what can we learn from him? I came to do this interview via Twitter, in that Rabbi Wolpe paid me the honor of recommending my blog to someone else on Twitter, “good interview, excellent blog” to which I responded: “would you like an interview?” But as I prepared this interview, I found less of an exchange of ideas and more of a person. Unlike other rabbis whom I have interviewed, David Wolpe came across without any cynicism, point to prove, or need to argue. He speaks from his heart.

Rabbi David Wolpe is a leader who feels a deep affinity to King David as shown in his recent David: The Divided Heart (Jewish Lives). But King David now lives in successful suburban America where his congregants are creative and prosperous, but at the same time fissured and flawed. Wolpe portrays David as self-confident, sensitive, and gentle, and that David’s connection to God often seems more stable that his difficulties with people. In Wolpe’s presentation, King David has an enlarged vision that others cannot see, he can envision possibilities.


“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Inside all of us is a life of the spirit that needs cultivating.  A Chabad Rabbi may give a similar message by quoting the first chapter of Tanya about how we all have a divine soul. Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai, in contrast, quotes Teilhard and offers the message without the certainty of metaphysics.

Recently Wolpe posted “What is a Rabbi at her or his best? A spiritual midwife helping others bring forth their deepest selves.” Wolpe’s goal is to support people to cultivate the spiritual self by using the insights of Judaism.

Why Faith Matter? asks Rabbi David Wolpe in his book of the same title where he answers the challenges of the new atheists, the conflict of religion with science, and the continued relevance of religion. He writes: “Faith begins with a question:”Who are you?” He answers: “Love of this world, of one another, is the sole hope in an age when we can destroy the world many times over. Faith when “not blind or bigoted” pushes us to be better, to give more of ourselves, to glimpses of transcendence scattered throughout our lives. He is not going to convince the skeptic or the under-educated.

In this book, we see David Wolpe, philosophy major and philosophy instructor meet the atheism of Bertram Russel, stand with a chemotherapy patient, confront the meaninglessness of the Holocaust, and acknowledge the lack of definitive proofs for God. Wolpe is in favor of honest doubt, uncertainty, and limitations of knowledge. He does not allow any turns to a false certainty, even those of the existential who preaches an existential leap. Rather, we are left with our very human lives that surprises and challenges us, to which we respond with hope and striving for transcendence. The volume can be put on the shelf with one’s copies of Rick Warren, Mitch Albom, and Marilynne Robinson.

Wolpe’s popular book Why be Jewish? answers the title question with a variety of heart felt thoughts grouped under three headings: to grow in soul, join a people, and seek God. The first reason to be Jewish is “to grow in soul.” There is a mystery within us; we have deeper levels to reach in our lives, but many people only open a few doors of their soul. Judaism allows one to open many more. Judaism’s central teaching is that we are all in the image of God; we each have great potential and responsibility.

The second reason to be Jewish is to join a people to be part of an amazing history, a surviving people, and to connect to our land of Israel. As part of the Jewish people you gain a system for realizing truth; one gains the enduring wisdom of the Torah and the power of the Torah for our survival.  The third reason is to seek God. But we should be aware of the limits of human language to grasp God. We access God through living as the Talmud shows involved in human affairs and to rise above our baser instincts. God is felt, spoken to, listened to.

Note that Wolpe is a critic of the trend of spirituality without religion:

Do you like feeling good without having to act on your feeling? … Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world. Religions create aid organizations… To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good.

Being religious does not mean you have to agree with all the positions and practices of your own group; I don’t even hold with everything done in my own synagogue, and I’m the Rabbi. But it does mean testing yourself in the arena of others. [I]nstitutions are also the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions.

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Covenantal Judaism

Rabbi Wolpe is not your grandfather’s Conservative Rabbi. The Conservative movement of the Northeast formulated in the 1950’s responded to the working class moving to suburbia and has noticeably declined rapidly. The Northeastern establishment of the Conservative movement even voted against outreach twenty years ago, thinking there would be natural continuity. There are still twice as many Conservative Jews as there are Orthodox, some of it in decline, some of it in a status quo, and other parts growing stronger and bigger.

Yet, there is a generation of new Conservative Rabbis with new ideas, new approaches, and most importantly new locations in the West.  Wolpe is one of the new approaches. There are even Orthodox rabbis who teach Wolpe’s ideas in their own congregations. Wolpe hosts events to draw people into the congregation including high profile debates and public forums.

In 1998, Wolpe and singer-songwriter Craig Taubman pioneered using contemporary music for the Shabbat-eve musical service called Friday Night Live that offered worship song  mixing traditional prayers with new tunes. Attendance soon soared from 300 worshippers to a peak of about 1,500. Until this point, the use of instruments on Shabbat within the Conservative movement, was limited despite the 1958 allowance of organs and a 1970 opinion permitting guitars and other instruments.

In a move taken from the Rick Warren playbook, Wolpe and Taubman stepped down to give the program to a younger cadre of leadership.

Wolpe’s views on the future of the Conservative movement are easily accessible through his 2005 essay on Covenantal Judaism, his 2007 reiteration, and his recent 2015 essay on Relational Judaism. Judaism should not be stuck in prior centuries slavishly following prior opinion. The wisdom of our age contributes to the ongoing unfolding of Torah, which he now terms a  “Judaism of Relationships.”

Covenantal Judaism. That is our philosophy and should be our name. Renaming heralds our rejuvenation. We believe in an ongoing dialogue with God. Not everything significant has already been said, nor is the modern world uniquely wise. Our task goes beyond mere clarification of the old or reflexive reverence for the new. As with a friendship, we cherish the past but are not limited to its formulations or assumptions. Venerating the teachings of Maimonides does not negate that tomorrow, with the tools of modern study, a new Rambam may arise. The Judaism of relationship. Covenantal Judaism. Such is our creed, our dogma, our gift.

Covenantal Judaism holds aloft the ideal of dialogue with God, with other Jews of all movements, and with the non-Jewish world. In holding each of these as sacred we stand in a unique position in Jewish life. Ritual is language, part of the way we speak to other Jews and to God. Learning, ancient and modern, is essential to sustain the eternal dialogue. “I have been given the power,” said the Kotzker Rebbe, “to resurrect the dead. But I choose a harder task — to resurrect the living!” Resurrection of passion, of faith, of community requires not the touch of the Divine, but the touch of another human being.

The Covenant and Jewish Law: The overriding commandment of Covenantal Judaism is to be in relationship with each other and with God. The more halacha (Jewish law) we “speak,” the more full and rich the relationship. Our faith is neither a checklist nor a simple formula. It is a proclamation and a path.

Jewish authenticity is not measured by the number of specific actions one performs but the quality of the relationships expressed through those actions. Recall what the Torah says of Moses: In praising our greatest leader, The Torah does not recount that he performed the most mitzvot of anyone who ever lived, or even that his ethics exceeded all others. We are told that Moses saw God “panim el panim” face to face. The merit of Moses is in the unparalleled relationship he had with Israel and with God.

In Wolpe’s view, the goal is to strike a middle position between past and present. We dare not permit it to turn into a fossilized faith or a sacrifice to the seductions of modernity. In a different interview, he commented:

RW: I think that it’s very hard for people at the same time to feel the tradition that has deep roots and divine and yet understand how much of it is a product of human creativity. That’s a difficult balance so; it’s easier to think, it’s all G-d or its only people. And if it’s only people then I can discard it anyway I want. If it’s all G-d then I can never ever think of changing no matter how much the modern world may demand it. But I believe that Conservative Judaism represents this idea of ongoing dialogue between people and G-d and just like friendship many many important things are said but there’s always a possibility to say a new thing. So for me that’s the most exciting wonderful model, but I understand that it’s a model that for some people is difficult because it puts all of your life in a sort of dynamic balance so you can’t rest in one place too easily.

When Wolpe speaks of his commitment to academic scholarship, it does not mean that he is an academic scholar, or gives Wissenschaft lectures. Rather that is a signal that he acknowledges that the Jewish classic texts are part of the ongoing human relationship with the divine.

Wolpe does not want to be frozen in the 1950’s conservative motto of “tradition and change” in which a rabbi adapted the old to the current life in suburbia. Wolpe comments that “Tradition and change is actually not a slogan; it is a paradox,” Wolpe said. “It says: We stand for two exactly opposite things. We are the oxymoronic movement.” In its place he offers a defining motto of what a rabbi should be doing, that is, to be “centered on relationship: with other Jews, with the non-Jewish world, and espousing a continuing and growing relationship with God.”

Where do the trends of halakhic egalitarianism and the Seminary tradition of the academic study of Talmud fit into this vision? You can answer by asking how these activities help in relating to God, sitting with a sick congregant, or raising the status of Judaism in the wider world.


As stated above Rabbi Wolpe does not seek to recreate the 1950’s Conservative movement, but he also does not accept the triumphalist myth within Orthodoxy. Most of the recent small growth of Orthodoxy still leaves the Conservative movement as twice its size. Most of the turn to Orthodoxy, he ascribes to the world-wide turn in the last few decades to fundamentalist religions. Rather Wolpe thinks that as “the intellectual pressures of Western society increase” on Orthodox society, “you will see a gradual defection from fundamentalism.” He opines the possibility that “unbeknownst to all these yeshivot – they are training the next generations of Conservative Jews. It has happened before and it may happen again.”

Let us turn to his review of former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to see where the dividing line lies and why he thinks the Conservative movement will prevail. Wolpe cites that Sacks praises pluralism in nations outside of Judaism, but only tolerates Orthodoxy within Judaism.  For Wolpe, this is not a logical argument, rather obedience to a fundamentalist position. Preaching pluralism to the world and denying it at home.

With this dubious stroke, Sacks decides that one people cannot sustain internal variety. But this is a conclusion that both Jewish history and much of Jewish philosophy, with its plurality of incompatible views, flatly contradicts. Moreover, it is a conclusion that I suspect he would be unwilling to apply to others. Can there be no pluralism among the French, Indians, or Serbs? Can there be no multiple forms of Chinese Confucianism? Only on Orthodox premises—God told us we must be this way—are Jews bound to reject pluralism. But then our obligation to act in a certain manner does not stem from the fact that Judaism is “the religion of a particular people.” Rather, the sticking point is God’s will. Presuming to outlaw other interpretations on the basis of one reading of God’s will— God does not wish us to be non-Orthodox Jews— is an ancient, venerable practice, but not much of a concession to the dignity of difference.

In addition, Wolpe praises Sacks as a wonderful wordsmith but ignores the serious intellectual questions of our age or to modern academic disciplines. Sacks cannot be an apologist for Judaism to those leaving Judaism because he ignores the real challenges.

More important than his occasional susceptibility to platitudes is the fact that Sacks fails to do justice to the challenges presented by the modern study of religion. He appears never to risk a straightforward reckoning with biblical criticism. Sacks has been quoted as harshly attacking those who deny the Mosaic authorship of the Torah. But since modern criticism is the standard approach in virtually every non-Evangelical or non-Orthodox university in the Western world, it cannot be simply dismissed out of hand. For a thinker preoccupied with the widespread Jewish abandonment of tradition, ignoring the intellectual impact of comparative religion, history, archeology, textual criticism, and science leaves a gaping hole in the middle of his discourse.

I repeat, Wolpe is not  interested in giving classes based on scholarship and his sermons may be more God centered than Sacks. Wolpe’s book on David was not critical but it acknowledged that the text and all the interpretations came from human struggles.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Wolpe answers the question: Why Do People Become Orthodox? He answers “ The three principal, positive reasons why I believe people choose to be Orthodox: community, coherence and connection [to the Divine will]. In that discussion, Wolpe distinguishes Orthodoxy from Conservative Judaism as the distinction between Kabbalistic theurgy to perform God’s expressed will as opposed to therapeutic encouragement.

The kabbalistic, theurgic amplification is that performing the mitzvah can make a difference to (or in) God’s self. How pale, by comparison, is the dutiful liberal explanation that the mitzvoth will make you a more sensitive person, a more caring person, someone closer to the history and destiny of your people. Of what power is such therapeutic encouragement beside God’s expressed will?

Wolpe backhandedly and with self-depreciation clearly defines the liberal position as cultivation of the self, compassion, and connection to Jews, rather than submission to a Divine will.

1)      One of your main focuses is God in one’s life: What is faith and trust in God?

As I have gotten older my notion of God has gotten more abstract.  When I wrote Healer of Shattered Heart(1990) I was very taken by the midrashic idea of God.  Heschel’s God of pathos – direct, immediate, whose love and embrace are boundless – is powerfully present in rabbinic sources.  It spoke to me and speaks to me.

I still find it beautiful and emotionally compelling.  Increasingly however, I believe we are completely incapable of truly grasping anything real about God. A two year old cannot understand an adult, or even understand what he does not understanding.  The gulf between God and us is immeasurably greater than that between an adult and a two year old. So I come to God less through intellection than through a sense of living in harmony with that great mystery.

And therefore trust is for me trust in something I cannot understand but Who endows the world with wonder, souls with spark and life ultimately with its deepest meaning.

2)      What are the ways we come to God?

We come to God in almost every way – through study, ritual, nature, contemplation, music, relationship.  Individuals have different lodestars.  I love books, but others will find more God in a leaf of a tree than the leaf of a manuscript.  I’ve come to think of religious tradition as a well marked path to get to the destination of both community and Divine Presence.  Judaism can show you endless ways to get there, conflicting ways at times, but the ultimate embrace of God reconciles all the incommensurables.  Some guidelines are firmer than others of course; some beliefs or behaviors take you out of the tradition.  But its boundaries are far wider than once thought.

3)       What is the active role of God in our lives?

God’s role is not a supernatural interventionist but a strength and a guide, an enduring relationship and a deep spur and comfort.  I am skeptical of the God who responds to prayers by changing the world and like very much Leon de Modena’s (early 17th Century Italian darshan) analogy of the man standing on the shore watching someone pull his boat to the dock.  If you were mistaken about mechanics and motion, says Medina, you might think he is pulling the shore to his boat.  Similarly, when we pray we think we are changing God, but we are actually pulling ourselves closer – changing ourselves.

Of course, I cannot know.  Do I rule out God’s intervention?  Of course not.  But if it happens, I believe it is on a meta level — there is a design in history but it is large enough to accommodate many different details that are a result of free choice. That is unsatisfying to those who wish to prove – or disprove – God’s direct cause and effect. But when I had cancer and was receiving chemo, I could not ascribe to God the mechanistic answer to prayer that would respond to me, because I was praying, but not heal the guy in bed four, who neglected his prayers.  So I am content to believe that any intervention is mysterious, if it is real.  In this my orientation is from Buber: what God wants from us is presence, and that is what we should seek from God – not goods, but God’s presence.

4)      What role do specific ritual mizvot play in your life?

Mitzvot are the language we speak to God.  Just as gestures, signs and symbols are part of human communication, they are part of theological communication.  When we light Shabbat candles, it is an age old sign; not only a connection to our ancestors, but something we are saying to God.  So for me the greater mitzvah is to expand and deepen communication, which is more compelling than the command to a single act or observance.

Like my father before me, I am not a ritually oriented person. By that I mean that rituals are often hard for me to sustain, even though I find them nourishing.  My life is more ritually embroidered than most conservative jews, and Shabbat and Kashrut (since I am a vegetarian in any case) and prayer are integral to my normal routine.  Yet they serve as powerful reminders that to stay ‘in touch’ is sometimes a yoke as well as a joy.

My favorite single mitzvah is to recite the modeh ani each morning.  Gratitude is the foundational religious emotion, and to awaken to a new day fills me with appreciation for the restoration of my life and soul.

5)      What is the role of Torah study in your life and that of your congregation?

These days I read more than I study, and generally study ‘for use’ – to prepare derashot and writings and classes.  Not entirely, but mostly. I teach a couple of classes, including a Thursday morning Torah class,  a monthly lunch which this year is focused on topics in the Talmud, and am planning to start a Shabbat morning parasha class during the first hour of shul.

In the congregation there are study groups of various kinds, havurot and Sunday morning Torah study and so forth.  Yet the practice of regular study is one of the things that non-Orthodox Judaism has been weak in for the past decades.  It is a major failing, and in this as in many other things we could learn from our Orthodox sisters and brothers.

6)      Why do you avoid the trends toward Neo-Hasidism, pantheism and renewal?

 Theologically I am deeply drawn to insights that are psychologically oriented.  Most of the notable modern theologians – particularly Heschel and Soloveitchik – write in this mode.  As a lover of literature (had I not been a Rabbi I would have been an English Professor) I am drawn to literary analysis of the Bible, and find in Midrash and modern literary analysis great theological nourishment.  Additionally, I find my Jewish readings enriched by my favorite non-Jewish writers, particularly Emerson, who is an endless well of provocative thoughts. The writings of certain great modern Rabbis, like Israel Leventhal and Milton Steinberg, are particularly dear to me and I hope will not be forgotten.

In high school I was enamored of Bertrand Russell and also read quite a bit of Walter Kaufman, a self-proclaimed ‘heretic’ who was also thoughtful and deep and influential in his day.  Although I believe I outgrew that world view, they oriented me to look for the slightly skeptical but surprising take on theological matters. So I find the slightly astringent (and now sadly neglected) Maurice Samuel and Arthur Cohen worth rereading. But mostly I am drawn to parshanut (Midrash is after all a species of parshanut) and Radal on Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer or the remarkably productive, perspicacious Torah Temimah (his commentary, Tosefet Bracha, is extraordinary) are ever surprising stimulants.

In my own mind I do not so much avoid Neo-Hasidism and renewal, as choose selectively those bits that serve my own theological bent.  So I have taken from classical Hasidic literature (especially the Kotzker, whom I think a remarkable religious genius, if a profoundly troubled human being) and use books like Itturei Torah quite a bit.  But although I read and appreciate Art Green and R. Zalman and the school(s) they represent, my father’s family has roots in Lithuania.  Perhaps I am too much of a Litvak soul; Heschel and Buber speak profoundly to me in different ways, but their ‘Hasidut’ such as it is, is mediated by a profoundly intellectual approach.  I find that more compelling.

7)      You portray King David’s life as the messy but creative life of lover, husband, fugitive, king, sinner, father, caretaker, one that is  fissured and flawed. You paint him as living in the real world. Is that the way you see life?

One of the reasons I was so drawn to King David is that my appreciation for human frailty grows year by year.  I tell younger people that you think you will figure life out as you get older but the opposite, in some sense, actually happens.  The world gets more confusing.  Not because you know less, but the puzzle gets bigger.  You weigh more factors.  Lines are less clear cut.

King David was an astonishingly gifted and astonishingly flawed person.  One of the greatest characters of history, outsized, lasting.  I see his enormity as a model that we, in our lesser ways, reproduce without being aware of it.  The Greeks used to say that whatever road of life you took you found Plato on the way back.  I might similarly say that whatever sin you commit or blessing you bestow, David got there first.  In that sense working on his life consolidated and deepened my view of how human beings work.

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8)      In 2005, you wrote a programmatic essay about your vision for the Conservative movement. What do you think of that essay today? essay?

One thing I believe I was right on is that Judaism needs a public voice.  I was once silenced in a meeting of Jewish leaders on the question of how to revive Judaism.  I kept saying “media, media media.”  I told them it was a shame that only Christian preachers spoke on television.  This was before Facebook and social media in general and I was concerned that Jewish kids were not confronted with powerful role models.  I still think the absence of rabbinic and Jewish voices in public discourse – not political, but public – is a lack that we need to remedy.

But I am someone who is almost constitutionally incapable of seeing one side of the issue.  Invariably I find merit in the other side.  I am bad, in this sense, at being single minded.  So even though I argue vigorously (convincing myself, as a rule, in the process), I am well aware of the dialectic of debate in our tradition and I find the dogmatically certain an astonishment, and sometimes a little worrisome.

10)   What is your advice for the Conservative movement?

I see the Conservative movement as the movement in Judaism that is most centered on relationship: with other Jews, with the non-Jewish world, and espousing a continuing and growing relationship with God. I find that compelling and that is why many years ago I suggested the name “covenantal” in place of “Conservative” for our movement.

Additionally I think of CJ as a movement suffering from a lack of self-definition.  When it was a big tent movement people did not want to define it for fear of losing those at the edges of the tent.  But mushy movements are not growing ones.  So I still believe that a single centralized vision is essential.  And it should be a combined effort of all the organizational braches – the rabbinical schools and assembly, the United Synagogue and with input from laity around the country.  The very process of such reexamination will create dynamism, I believe, that will lead to other and better things.

But I believe deeply in its potential.  Conservative Judaism takes modern scholarship seriously and is not afraid of its insights.  It believes that in relationship (hence another suggestion, relational Judaism) is the secret of our continuity.  Community is our keystone.  And I believe that Conservative Judaism motivates people to see the larger Jewish picture.  Just yesterday one member of my synagogue became President of the Federation and another member became campaign chair.  That’s not a coincidence.  Conservative Judaism at its best pushes people not only intellectually but communally and encourages them to think beyond their boundaries.  It is, or should be, the commitment of a thinking Jew in the modern world.

12)   What did you personally learn from the Exodus controversy in 2001? What does that say about the bifurcation from scholarship even in the liberal world?

What Exodus controversy?

Oh, THAT Exodus controversy.  Well, I learned one thing that I put into practice when I announced that we would be performing same sex marriages.  Before I made the latter announcement I did a series of classes to prepare people.  I think for the Exodus I did insufficient preparation.  But it does demonstrate that what we study and what we preach are often at odds with each other.  Even today when I say something about the Passover story people will say “How can you say that when you question if it happened” (for the record, I never said it didn’t, just that it was uncertain and did not happen the way the Bible depicts it.)

My answer to that is that spiritual memory and historical memory are not identical and religion, if it is to move forward both academically and communally, has to acknowledge those divisions.

13)   What advice do you have for young  rabbis?

Young Rabbis.  Don’t let your sense of mission interfere with your evaluation of your own gifts.  Create the kind of rabbinate that you are good at and your congregants will appreciate you.  If you are pastoral, don’t take a place where they put a premium on speaking; if detached, don’t look for a place where there needs to be a lot of hand holding; if your dream is song and dance and joy, make sure the community is open to your vision.  A mismatch in Rabi and shul is very painful, because unlike other professions, when people criticize a Rabbi they are commenting less on a specific skill than on his or her personality and it is painful.

Two ways of thinking about what you do.  A Rabbi is a spiritual midwife.  We help others give birth to the spiritual drives that exist within them.  And our message is, like a quarterback in football, thrown a little ahead of the receiver.  In time the congregant will (if it is done right) grow into the message, rather than grow out of it.  It is like the Kotzker’s insight about why we say in the shema “al levavecha” – these words should be “on your heart” rather than “in your heart.”  He taught that hearts are not always open, but if you put the words there, in time the heart will soften and they will sink in.

All in all, it is an extraordinary and rewarding calling.  You get more positive reinforcement in a week than most people get in a year.  Ok, you also get more criticism in a week than most do in a year.  But let me close by telling you what two different Rabbis told me when I was starting out.  One said, “Only go into this if you love Jews.” He was right.  But I do, very deeply.  And another told me that he never felt he was wasting his time; the work matters.  As he said, very memorably, no matter how difficult the day, you can get into bed thinking, “it was for God, Torah and Israel.” Be strong, have courage and good luck.

Addenda from an op-ed
When asked about how to deal with tragedy, Wolpe answered in a way that encapsulates his entire view of the tradition of Judaism.

  1. In the face of death, religion maintains that life is meaningful. Not only because of the belief that human beings never fully disappear, but because it teaches that this pageant, with all its pain and anguish, need never resolve into despair. Life still matters; we always matter.
  2. A religious community provides comfort and help. Long after others have forgotten, the congregation will be there, with everything from meals to a shoulder to a prayer.
  3. God is called “Zochair Kol Hanishkachot”— the One who remembers everything forgotten. In the community too, we read the yahrtzeit notices years, sometimes decades later. We do not let the memory of those we loved slip away.
  4. The long tradition reminds us that others have suffered and endured before us. The bereaved can turn to Job and Ecclesiastes for theology and wisdom; to Aaron and David and Sarah and Naomi for the companionship of those who have lost; to the Rabbis for endless, anguished and deep reflections on the fleetingness of life, the meaning of faith, the promise that is the leitmotif of religious life.  Nothing erases pain; nothing wipes away loss. But a kehilla kedosha, a sacred community, is the beginning of healing our hearts.