Rabbi Yakov Nagen Interview part 2- Torah Study, Zohar, and Interfaith

Here is the second part to our interview with Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen (formerly Genack) he is Ra”M in Yeshivat Othniel.  (Part 1 is here) This one comes after his successful American book tour.

This second part presents the topics that some consider Nagen’s greatest contribution, his approaches to Torah study. Much of this interview pertains to his book  —Water, Creation and Divinity: Sukkot in the Philosophy of Halacha [Hebrew] (Giluy 2008, forthcoming in English) as well as his interfaith encounters with Palestinians in the Holy Land.

Rabbi Nagen is part of the trend that coalesced starting in the 1980’s around, but not limited to, Rabbi Shagar z”l. The rabbis sought to move beyond learning in a formal manner to learning for meaning. One can compare Rabbi Nagen to others in this approach including Rabbis Dryfus, Dov Zinger, and Yehudah Brandes. For all of them, there are many methods of learning and many approaches to study Talmud. We should not be locked into a single method. (See the discussion in Rabbi Yuval Cherlow’s book on Torat Eretz Yisrael, 1998).

Rav Nagen’s emphasis is on the integration of Aggadah into the study of Talmud and into halakhah. Below are some examples pertaining to Sukkah and Arba Minim. I am not sure how clear they are to  someone who has not studied the tractate.

With great hyperbole, back in 2000 Rabbi Yuval Cherlow declared Rav Nagen as the new Rabbi Soloveitchik for our time in that the latter brought Kant and Existentialism into Torah and Rav Nagen is bringing comparative religion. While clearly and embarrassingly overstated, it does show a world of Roshei Yeshiva who see methods of learning as changing and as open to the wider world.

Rav Nagen also has integrated study of Zohar into his Talmud shiur. They do not study it as a side activity of knowing the world of the sefirot. Rather, Rabbi Nagan uses it to teach about contemporary relationship and to derive new customs. For example, he encourages his students to say when dating: “For the sake of the unification between the Holy Blessed One and His Shechinah” and that couples should say the evening shema together. A burst of new ritual creativity worthy of 16th century Safed.

Finally, this interview is his discussion of his work with local Palestinians and his visit to Al-Azhar University to share a common belief in one God. Nagen was a friend and student of Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa z”l, well known for his emphasis on interfaith and peace.

Torah study

1)       How does your Beit midrash seek meaning and spirituality beyond the more analytic Litvish approaches?

I think what is most exciting about Beit Midrash is its constantly evolving dynamic nature. When the Litvish approach was first developed in the late 19th and 20th century, it was an innovation. Rav Chaim Volozhin in Nefesh Hachaim stressed  Torah Lishmah, for its own sake.

I see the methodologies that I use not as replacements but further developments.  Classical lamdanot focused on a conceptional analysis that is often deliberately formalist and abstract. Distinctions in Brisk deal with defining the “What” and not asking the “Why.” For me there were two distinct phases of my development beyond classical lamdanot.    

A major thesis of Rav Shagar’s book “Uvetorato yahaga”  is his distinction between two basic approaches to the relationship between Torah and life- Brisker abstraction and his approach of meaning.

The first, the Brisker approach, views the Torah as divine and eternal in which the Torah is abstract and autonomous, and thereby disjoint from life and reality. The Torah being alienated from the nature flow of life is, in most aspects, a Brisker dogma and ideal. They created a closed language of lamdanut, denigration of “baalabatish” reasoning, and seeing a divide between how people think and how the Torah thinks. They view the Torah as devoid of emotional or human elements, thus claiming that the mitzvot lack reasons.  

The approach that Rav Shgar propounds, is one in which Torah can illuminate life’s questions and challenges. One creates a linkage between the flow of life and the Torah. Is God’s will manifested exclusively within the realm of halakha, or can God be found within life itself? The return to Eretz Yisrael and the fact that they live as part of Medinat Yisrael has led many in the Dati Leumi community in Israel to choose the latter approach.

2) How did you personally find Meaning beyond Abstraction?

In the first stage, while still a student as Yeshivat Har Etzion, I began working on an approach to “Halakhic thought” (machshevat Ha-Halakha), which remains conceptional but is more philosophic than classical lamdanut. The articles I wrote then eventually evolved into my doctorate “Sukkot in Rabbinical Thought – Motifs the Halacha of Sukkot in Talmudic Literature”.

In 1997, a later stage in my development, I joined the Beit midrash of Otniel founded by Rav Shagar’s students where there is a stress on seeking meaning. A meaning which finds existential and personal significance.

To give a short example of how I apply the differences: the default chakira in classical lamdanut it to asking whether “cheftza or gavra“, is it in the object or the person. In contrast, in my class it’s often the distinction explained in my book between “Doing” and “Being”, an action or a state of mind. Recently in Yeshiva we studied the mitzva of Tefillin, and I argued, based on both the Biblical sources and halachot, that the fundamental difference between the Tefillin of the head to that of the arm is that the first is sanctifying our “Being” and the latter our “Doing”. These are concepts that touch on life and opened discussions about what and how tefillin can transform.

3)   Is there a connection between the Aggada and Halacha?   

Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook often cited the Hatam Sofer that mixing Halacha and Aggada is forbidden as a forbidden mixture (kilayim). Indeed, Halacha and Aggada are distinct genres. Lack of recognizing of the uniqueness of each can lead to a mishmash.

However there is an organic connection between that makes each essential to understand the other, in which the proper integration can bring a deeper understanding of both. 

As a friend of mine pointed out, Kilayim itself isn’t a blanket prohibition, the clothes of the kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash were made of kilayim. For the record allow me to point out, the original quote of the Hatam Sofer dealt not with halacha and Aggada but rather with mixing halacha and kabbalah.

Rav Zvi Yehuda’s statement diametrically the opposite of statements by his father, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who has issued the most vocal call to integrate Halacha and Aggada.

I begin my book on Sukkah by quoting Rav Kook from Orot Hakoda 1:25  “The Halacha and the Aggada must unite with one another….”.  When my efforts on the interplay of Halacha and Aggada were challenged by a colleague who quoted to me Rav Zvi Yehuda about kilayim, I countered by the quote from Orot Hakodesh. To which my critic responded: “No, no. you don’t understand, in Orot Hakodesh it  is referring to an abstract truth in the upper worlds, not something connected to the reality that we are living in.”

Rav Kook the father is motivated by his holistic and nondualist worldview that seeks to uncover the One underlying all with a connection between Halacha and Kabbala,  I would view this connection as based not only on theological but on academic, literary and historical grounds.  As Yonah Frankel, a pioneer in the study of Aggada and midrash. has pointed out, all of our sources from the Sages contain both Halakha and Aggada – the Bavli, Yerushalmi, Midrashei Halakha and, to a lesser extent, the Mishna and Tosefta. Furthermore, the same sages engaged in both genres

The idea that Halakha and Aggada are unrelated would belie all we have learnt from anthropology and comparative religion – rituals have significance and meaning and often reflect a value system. The burden of proof is on anyone who would argue that Judaism is the exception.  Yair Lorberbaum, in his book, Image of God has a marvelous chapter on the relationship between Halacha and Aggada in the Sages.

4) How do you see this relationship between Aggada and Halacha  in the context of your work ?

The field of the relation of Halacha to Aggada is relatively new.. In my doctorate  and book on Sukkot, I grapple with this challenge of working in a new field, but there is still a long road ahead. In my work the focus would be best called “machshevat Ha-Halakha“. I study the halakhic for its ideas based on its sources, definitions, literary structure, and contexts within the back and forth of the halakhic discussion.

In addition, through my doctoral work, I was exposed to additional fields that contributed to my research. The study of ritual and symbolism in anthropology and comparative religion, can lead to insight into Halacha. This method does not necessarily lead to “parallel-mania” between Judaism and other traditions. Often, quite the opposite results – comparison highlights what is unique about Judaism.

5) How does this apply to learning Sukkah? Can you offer examples?

 The Aggada  in Sukka 11b brings an opinion that the Sukkah parallels the Divine clouds that encompassed the Jewish people in the desert. The meaning and scope of the idea is uncovered by studying the halachic parameters of Sukkah.

In Tannaic sources eating in the Sukkah is compared to eating of Korbonot(Mishna Sukka 2:6), and other laws derived from the seven days in which Aaron and his sons lived in the Mishkan during the process of its consecration (Sefra Emor 17).

In the Amoraim the Sukkah emerges as an abode of the divine, highlighted through its connection to the Kodesh Kedoshim, the inner sanctuary. The minimum size of the Sukkah is derived from the lowest level that the Shechina manifested above the Ark, or from the size of the space between the Ark and the wings of the Cherubs above it.  The intricate sugya in which these  laws appear is in fact examining the relationship between heaven and earth (Sukka 4b – 5b).

Looking at the totality of the halacha calls us to see also the theme of Sukka as the home during the course of Sukkot. Rav Yuval Cherlow once told me that in wake of my approach of Sukka as Temple, I presumably would identify with the position that frowns on marital relations in the Sukkah. I argued that the whole point of the interplay between the Sukka as Temple or as home, is a vision to connect the home and life to the holy, and the sukkah encompassing life and not dividing it, as Tosphot points out (Sukka 43b), in the mikdash it is forbidden to sleep, whereas on Sukkot one is obligated to sleep in the Sukka.

6) What insights can you offer about the Araba Minim?

I see the Arba minim as both reflecting the divine and as a sacrifice.

I point out that Rabbi Akiva’s halachic opinion that there is only one of each Min, is reflective of his approach that each of the Arba Minim is a symbolic representative of the divine, thus one of each. An interesting historical point made by Professor Sperber is that the coins from the Bar Kochba revolt have a picture of the Arba Minim in accordance with Rabbi Akiva’s approach, which reflects the tradition that he was the Rabbi of Bar Kochba.

The dominant approach, however, in the Mishna and Talmud relates to the Arba Minim with many of the parameters and categories of sacrifices The Aggada explicitly makes the comparison between Arba Minim, and sacrifice.

Both of these approaches to Arba Minim, as representing the divine or as sacrifice fit well with the above conception of Sukka as Temple. In general Sukkot is the primarily holiday of the Temple. Sukkot is the time in which Solomon dedicated the Temple. I argue that the nightly celebration in the Temple, Simchat beit hashoava, is a reenactment of the events and ceremonies behind the story of the Temple, such as David’s wild dancing in front of the ark as a procession leads it to Jerusalem. In the future too, the time that humanity comes to the Temple is designated as Sukkot (Zecharia 14).  


7)       What is the role of Raphael Patai and Mircea Eliade in your work?

Patai was a pioneer in  comparing Jewish ritual and those of ancient cultures and religions. Ideas of each person being a microcosm, and of the Temple microcosm. The cosmic significance of the water libations is illuminated by the parallels he brings. One flaw is that he notes similarities but what often is most interesting to me are the differences.

More significant for me was the work of Eliade, to which Professor Moshe Idel, who together with Professor Moshe Halbertal was my doctoral mentor, encouraged me to study.Eliade, who was one of the twentieth century’s foremost scholars of religion, contrasted two different approaches to time: the cosmological and the historical. In the cosmological model, time is cyclical: what was is what will be. Time flows backward, in a constant, recurring return to a mythical age. This conception of time is derived from, among other things, the phenomena of the natural world, which repeat every year without fail. For instance, in the spring the flora bloom, during the year the plants dry out, and in the following spring they grow anew. Eliade contrasts this conception, which pervades the pagan world, with the historical view of history instilled by Judaism. According to which time and the world are always marching forward.

The importance of the historical approach in Judaism lies in the fact that it makes room for morality and values. Were that not the case, nothing could change, and man’s actions would be meaningless. Eliade himself, it bears noting, identified with the cosmological model: as a fascist and an anti-Semite, he was not much enamored of the historical approach.

In my book on Sukkot, I argue that the Jewish tradition did not supersede the cosmological approach, but rather added to it, maintaining a unique synthesis between the cosmic and the historical. Sukkot has both historical components, in the context of the story of life in the desert and cosmic in terms of the renewal and return to nature, a theme that also appears through laws of sukkot.

8) What is the goal of Torah study from a universalistic perspective?

 I believe that the role of Torah study for the Jewish people is so fundamental, touching on our deepest identity, essence, and destiny. My universalism leads to a greater emphasis on the significance of Torah study. As I don’t see the Jewish people as having different DNA or different soul as non-Jews, but rather as sharing a common humanity and image of God  (tselem Elohim), therefore it is the Torah that makes us unique,  who we are and who we can become. The blessing we say on the Torah “God…who has chosen us from all the nations and given us the Torah” tells us that it is the Torah that gives us our status. The richer, deeper and more significant the Torah is, the more we grow. As a result, to fulfill our role I see the value in reaching new realms, and see openness to the world as opening up pathways to this expansion of Torah.

This belief reflects for me my hashkafa (worldview) of Modern Orthodoxy. Openness to the world has a value and but also a price. I see the challenge and obligation of Modern Orthodoxy as working to ensure that the price we pay for our exposure to the outside world to be justified by the ways we are blessed by this engagement.

Another reason why universalism leads to this imperative is the vision of the Jewish people as continuing to  contribute to humanity through the venue of Torah – in the words of Isaiah 2:3 “From Zion will go forth Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem” . This challenges us to develop a Torah that can speak to humanity as a whole and be transformative for their lives and for their connection to God.

Interfaith Work

9)    Why do you engage in interfaith work with local Palestinian imams and sheikhs? What is accomplished?

The return of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisroel, and the birth of a Jewish State is not the end of the story but the beginning. After two thousand years of untold suffering and determination, we have a moral responsibility to create a state that will realize a vision that justifies this journey of the Jewish people. We need to heal the relations between the Jewish people and humanity, and to connect with other followers of God in order to serve him from a place of connection and brotherhood. The state gives us an imperative to try to make the other into a brother.

More and more it is recognized in Israel the significance of religion in reaching these ends, including even the political. The great insight of Rav Menachem Froman, my friend and mentor, was that if religion is part of the problem, then it will have to be part of the solution. Belief in God has the power to separate people, but it also has the power to connect them.  For those who believe that the other worships a different God, faith will drive a wedge between the two parties. However, for those who believe that we both love, cherish, and pray to the same God, belief will only draw us closer together.

When it comes to Judaism and Islam, the two primary religions in the conflict, their theology binds far more than it divides. Jewish rabbinic literature values Islam for its belief in the unity of one God. In the Koran, Islam grants a special status to Jews as “Ahlul Kitab” – People of the Book. However, while these theological tenets may lay the foundation in principle, peaceful relations between peoples can and will only be built through direct encounter, through laying down the bricks one at a time. The work comes through real life meetings between persons of different faiths, opportunities to acknowledge and encounter the Other’s religious and ethnic identity.

For years I have been active in interfaith meetings both in Israel proper and the West Bank, largely under the auspices of two organizations – the Abrahamic Reunion (AR) and the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA).  I see the power of these sessions as twofold. First, such meetings have the power to change what the attendees think about the Other. Second, and perhaps more significantly, these encounters take those truths one already knows cerebrally and brings them down from the head to the heart, turning them into a living existential reality.

Human connections alone cannot be a substitute for political solutions, but they create fertile ground for solutions to develop and ultimately flourish. These connections can help ensure success of any future resolution and open up new possibilities to finding an optimal solution for all parties.

10) Why did you visit Al Azhar in Egypt?

On several occasions, I hosted my friend Dr. Omer Salem at Yeshivat Otniel who lectured to our students. At one point he offered to host me in Cairo at his University, Al Azhar University. Al Azhar was founded more than a thousand years ago and is one of Sunni Islam’s most important institutions. I realized that there is ongoing debate in Egypt about who are the Jewish people and thought that be going there an ability to impact on this discussion, so together with Dr. Joseph Ringel and Rebecca Abramson (a haredi journalist) we set out for Cairo.

Omer wrote his doctorate at Al Azhar University, on the topic of the status of Jews and Judaism according to Islam. This is the same topic that the former Grand Imam of Al Azhar Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, wrote his thesis, on Ahlul Kitab, the people of the book.  They however reached opposite conclusions. According to Tantawy, Islam has a negative attitude toward the Jews.  

“[The] Qur’an describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e. killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness … only a minority of the Jews keep their word. … [A]ll Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims, the bad ones do not.” 

In contrast, Omer took the opposite approach and saw as what he believes is the positive conception of the Jews in Koran as the key to reconciliation in the Middle East as he argues in his book, The Missing Peace: The Role of Religion in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

There are, however, Jewish believers with whom Islam has no problem. Surah 3 says that there is ‘a party of the people of the Scripture [who] stand for the right, they recite the Verses of Allah during the hours of the night, prostrating themselves in prayer.’ The Quran praises the Jews for obeying the Torah.”

 “[If your ways are pleasing to Allah], even your enemies will become your lovers. Remember that you are the chosen people. You may doubt that Islam appreciates and respects the Jews, but when Muslims ruled the world they were the protectors of the Jews. My vision is to restore this attitude. I want to say to my Muslim brothers and sisters: You are not the enemies of the Jews, you are their protectors.” 

11) Who did you meet with while at Al-Azhar University ?

We met with some of the professors there.

Dr. Bakr Zaki Awad, the dean of the School of Theology whose specialty is the relationship between the Torah, the New Testament and the Quran, yet he had never met a rabbi in his life. He had a lot of powerful questions to raise about Judaism. One issue he raised was that Muslims want everyone to be Muslims, but Jews don’t seem to care who becomes Jewish. He saw this as Jewish antipathy towards other people. I told him that the Torah starts with our common humanity in the story of Adam, where we are told that all of humanity is created in the image of God. Judaism sees itself as having a role to play in the story of humanity, but not that everyone should be Jewish. Our role is to awaken certain values and a connection from God to humanity, which we see for example in the seven Noahide laws. We see in Islam a fulfillment of that vision.

When we visited the University of Fayum where we met another professor of Omers’. When he heard we were Jewish, he told us a very sweet story:

One day someone came and knocked on the gate of the palace identifying himself as the brother of the Caliph. The visitor is ushered in, but the Caliph isn’t able to recognize his brother. The Caliph asks, “Are you my brother through my mother?” “No” is the reply. “Are you my brother through my father?” Again the answer in negative. The caliph continues to think and finally asks again, “Are you my brother in Islam?” The visitor answers, “I am not a Muslim. ”“So how are you my brother?” asks the Caliph. “I am your brother as all of us are children of Adam and Eve.” The Caliph responds: “You are right. I will treat you as my brother to demonstrate this to the world.”

Integrating Zohar into our Lives

12)       Why is Zohar study important for today’s yeshiva?

 I mentioned in the previous interview Rav Kook opening statement to “For the Perplexed of the Generation”– “That Humanity is created in the image of God,

this is the essence of the entire Torah” I see the connection of the human and the divine as the fundamental idea of the Kabbala, the heart of which is the Zohar.  I see the power of this concept as sanctifying and empowering all human life and interpersonal relations as well as human endeavors.

13) How do your current shiurim on Zohar focus on love in the Zohar?

The love songs of Shiur HaShirim between the male and the female, which is in the words of Rabbi Akiva, the holy of the holiest (Mishna Yadaim 3:5), is an allegory, but the question is for what? The traditional answer is for the love between God and the Jewish people. Within the teachings of Rabbi Akiva it is clear that the realm of the divine includes also the earthly love between man and wife (Sotah 17).

The Zohar adds a third dimension to these love songs, as the love and yearning within the realm of the divine, between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and the Shekhinah. What is critical and often missed is the dynamics and interrelation between these three dimensions. Or as I tell my students that before going on a date to say “For the sake of the unification between the Holy Blessed One and His Shechinah “”לשם ייחוד קודשה בריך הוא ושכינתיה .

Often passages that the commentators see as abstracting dealing within the divine realm, I will ask what this could means when actualized in the human realm and applied to our interpersonal lives..

There is a beautiful teaching in the Zohar at the beginning of  Shir HaSHirim, that a kiss of love has four spirits, ruchot,  in it. It can be explained abstractly about the interaction between heavenly sefirot but also as an insight our interpersonal relations.  Two people in a relationship are really four spirits. Each person has their own individuality but in time each encompasses something of the other, and gives it a new form, thus in a relationship there are four spirits connect.

Another teaching in the Zohar on love is in Parshat Teruma that the source of the four letter name of God, the tetragrammaton is the very similar four letter Hebrew word, Ahava, love, which the Zohar states the letters of which  “above and below are dependent” (Zohar Teruma 146a). So love increase God’s presence.

14)    Explain how do you think the Zohar wants us to do Shema as a couple?

The earliest time of Shema in the morning is when there is enough light for one to see his friend (Shulchan Arukh 58a).  Rav Reem HaKohen once explained that the reason is that Shema is accepting God’s majesty upon us and in Judaism, as by Sinai, this should not be done alone but with others.

My first thought was that the corollary should be that at night, the Shema said before going to sleep should be said with ones’ spouse.  I later discovered many passages in the Zohar stressing the great unity of Shema is the unity between male and female. For example the Zohar terumah (133b) says that the first phrase “shema…ehad” is the inner unity of the groom, the second “Baruch….Voed” is the bride entering modestly into the huppah and thus this is said in a whisper. Or “all mitzot each reflect either the masculine or of the feminine, the exception being Shema which is unity as thus has both (Zohar Hadash Ruth 110a)  The explicit meaning of these passages is that this is about the unity between those aspects of the divine, but in my approach to Zohar I see this as actualized also in the partnership of a couple together accepting God.

Rabbi on the Ganges- New Book

My new book arrived on October 31st (Lexington Books). It is an account of my time in India combined with an introduction to Hinduism for Jews. My audience is the Jewish world and I go through many major aspects of Hinduism and explain them in Jewish terms.

One of my major points is that you cannot compare 21st century Judaism to 5th century BCE Hinduism. Contemporary Jews are not practicing sacrifice, fighting molekh or marrying off their minor daughters, rather following a contemporary application. Similarly, American Hindus have define themselves as a theistic worship as embedded in Temples that function as American style social centers with youth groups, social halls, and Sunday school. You have to compare like to like.

A second one of my major points is the vast variety of forms of Hinduism and Hindu thinkers. One cannot make sweeping generalizations about the many religions and denominations that coalesced in the 17th century to be called Hinduism. There are more members of any minor Hindu sect than there are Jews in the world. There are 1.15 Billion Hindus. There are many theologies.

Third, please top judging them without any knowledge or based on 2 lectures in an intro to religion class or a google search. They do not like being judged with Western eyes or by those who make them exotic. Also, please immediately stop assuming they are too simple to understand their own religion.

I did not deal with the halakhic issues, I will leave that to Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber and others.

I am already working on several other books and applying for grants to write them.

When I posed this a few days ago on Facebook, someone half jokingly and half seriously asked:who is going to do the author interview with me and who will be the respondent?

The book arrived on October 31 and is available via the publisher Lexington Books. I apologize about hard cover price but my contract explicitly stipulated that it goes into paperback in 12 months. There is a 30% off coupon below- valid until 12/31. Unfortunately, Amazon offered 30% off the book back in April when it had no cover, no blurbs, and no description. But Lexington Books is offering a discount. The paperback should be out by December 2020.

Hardback: ISBN 978-1-4985-9708-1    October 2019 Regular price: $95.00/£65.00  After discount: $66.50/£45.50
ebook: ISBN 978-1-4985-9709-8   October 2019 Regular price: $90.00/£60.00  After discount: $63.00/£42.00

30% DiscountTo get discount, use code LEX30AUTH19 when ordering.

In North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean you can also

  Call Toll Free: 1-800-462-6420  Email: orders@rowman.com

Outside the Americas and Caribbean, you can also

  Call: +44 (0) 1752 202301 Email: orders.uk@rowman.com

*May not be combined with other offers and discounts, valid until 12/31/2019.

EASIEST WAY TO ORDER WORLDWIDE: USE OUR WEBSITE https://Rowman.com/Lexington

*All orders from individuals must be prepaid. Prices are subject to change without notice. Shipping charges and sales tax will be added where applicable.For email or phone orders, provide the promo code LEX30AUTH19 for the 30% discount in your communication.

Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter is the first work to engage the new terrain of Hindu-Jewish religious encounter.

The book offers understanding into points of contact between the two religions of Hinduism and Judaism. Providing an important comparative account, the work illuminates key ideas and practices within the traditions, surfacing commonalities between the jnana and Torah study, karmakanda and Jewish ritual, and between the different Hindu philosophic schools and Jewish thought and mysticism, along with meditation and the life of prayer and Kabbalah and creating dialogue around ritual, mediation, worship, and dietary restrictions. The goal of the book is not only to unfold the content of these faith traditions but also to create a religious encounter marked by mutual and reciprocal understanding and openness. 

This work is the best comparative analysis ever of Jewish and Hindu philosophy and religious thought. Brill knows his Jewish sources impeccably, and with skilled observations of daily life and engaging dialogues with Hindu thinkers and texts, we accompany him on his journey. This is a groundbreaking dialogue, and through Brill’s appreciative eyes Hindus and Jews will come to understand both the other and themselves in a new way. It has my highest recommendation.
— Nathan Katz, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Florida International University

The late Swami Dayananda Saraswati declared Hinduism and Judaism to be the two fountainheads of Religion in our world—the one of the Abrahamic traditions and the other of the Dharmic religions. Yet for the most part in the course of history, the two have remained foreign to one another.

In recent times this has changed dramatically, not least of all reflected in the fact that India is frequently the preferred destination of young Israeli Jews. However serious attempts to understand the religious world of the other have been rare. Alan Brill’s book is an impressive pioneering work in this regard and will enable those familiar with Jewish teaching to gain a serious comprehensive understanding of Hindu religious thought, practice, and devotion. Moreover the clarity and insights he provides will enlighten not only Jews, but all those who wish to gain understanding of the rich wisdom and forms of Hindu religious life.
— Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs, AJC

Brill succeeds in juxtaposing a comprehensive introduction to Hindu history, thought, and practice with personal reflections drawn from his experiences in India. A Highly readable contribution to the growing field of Indo-Judaic studies, and an invitation to further Hindu-Jewish dialogue.
— Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Endowed Chair of Religion, Rollins College

Rabbi, professor, traveler, storyteller, spiritual seeker, all of these roles have woven together to enable an outstanding achievement: Alan Brill’s Rabbi on the Ganges. This book serves both as an introduction to Hinduism and also as a comparative study of Hinduism and Judaism. Brill has an ability to sift between the essential and the trivial that allows this introduction to be significant and meaningful, exploring the history of Hinduism and its variety of denominations and philosophies.

Despite the enormous amount of information, the book doesn’t feel dense but rather very readable. In terms of the comparison to Judaism, there are insights both relating to the rituals and practices of these religions but also the deep spiritual teaching. Brill also shows parallel developments in both religions, such as regarding the status of women and responses to modernity.

One of the most significant messages of the book is showing how the contemporary Jewish view of Hinduism is based on a Hinduism of antiquity rather than the Hinduism of today. For me, this book has been transformative, and I believe that it will form a basis for a fruitful relationship between Judaism and Hinduism.
— Rabbi Yakov Nagen, senior educator Otniel Yeshiva

Aryeh Kaplan on Evolution- A Missing Chapter of The Handbook of Jewish Thought

In honor of Bereshit, here is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on reading Genesis as presenting the truths of 20th century science, as discussing a world 2 billion years old with humans as existing for 25,000 years.

This is part VII in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- for biography see Part IPart II, Part III, for Kabbalah see Part IV  Part V  and Part VI Much of the prior biographic discussion has already been incorporated into Wikipedia.

Kaplan (right side) at an NCSY Shabbaton

Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought has become a classic of synthesizing the classic positions of Jewish thought into an order fashion both an introductory guide and simultaneously a reference book

Below is a pdf of a full chapter of Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought left out of the published work because he presents evolution as part of the basic tenets of Judaism. The already typeset chapter has an editor’s note across the top asking if the chapter is “fixable” and “true kosher”? There is also an editor’s note that dates the chapter to 1968 when Kaplan was leading a Conservative congregation in Dover NJ.

The Handbook of Jewish Thought was published in two volumes, the first, containing 13 chapters, appeared in the author’s lifetime in 1979. The second volume edited by Avraham Sutton, was published posthumously in 1992. This volume has 25 chapters. While the first volume had no introduction from the author, the second volume contains the following statement:

The bulk of the present volume is from the author’s original 1967- 1969 manuscript that consisted of 40 chapters. Thirteen of these chapters were prepared for publication by Rabbi  Kaplan himself and published in 1979 as the Handbook of Jewish thought – Volume I. It is clear that the remaining chapters were set aside with the thought of eventually preparing them for publication. Of these remaining chapters, 25 are presented here

Despite the assertion that the first volume was called “volume 1”, no such statement is to be found in the original Handbook of Jewish thought.

Quick arithmetic – 13 (volume 1) and 25 (volume 2) indicates that 2 chapters of the original 40 were suppressed. In the end, they – Moznayim – or the Kaplan family concluded to leave these chapters out of the book.  Generally, the works published by Moznayim are much more circumspect than the audio recording of his lectures. Here is an extreme case.

Moznayim assigned people to edit Kaplan’s writings  or tapes of his lectures who were not there at the lectures or had left for other teachers years before.

I thank Rabbi Ari Kahn for providing access by sending me the pdf of this gem. If someone has the final – 40th chapter – I would love to see it.

Evolution      

Kaplan is explicit in his affirmation of evolution in this piece.

In the first three paragraphs, he states that the creation account in Genesis is not literal and not science but narrated to teach the history of Israel. He believes that new concepts in science are always being discovered beyond the limited science known in the Biblical and rabbinical era.  We are, according to Kaplan, to continuously interpret the Biblical text according to currently available knowledge.

Even though the explicit text is to narrate Israel’s history, nevertheless Kaplan states that the scientific knowledge is hinted at in the Masoretic text through “subtle variations”. In addition, we have traditions that aid in our discovering the scientific truth in the text. Maimonides and other medieval commentators interpreted the text based on Aristotle. Maimonides in his Guide II:29 explains how he would be willing to read texts based on current science. Similarly, Kaplan footnotes Ramchal in his commentary of the Aggadot.

Kaplan considers the creation of the universe as billions of years ago when there was the initial creation as the creation of matter as well as the initial creation of time/space. The creation at the start of Genesis was billions of years ago according to Kaplan, even if the Torah does not explicitly state it.

Kaplan explicitly rejects the 19th century Gosse theory, a theory that the world only appears to be older because God created it that way. Kaplan writes: “God does not mislead humans by making the world appear older.” Many of the members of the Association of Orthodox Scientists of his era did accept Gosse as did the Lubavitcher Rebbe.   

Kaplan defines the creation with the date of 3761 BCE as only the date when Adam (the new being with intelligence) was created. The world itself is billions of years old and various species of men, including Neanderthals and Homo Erectus, pre-date this created Adam.  People generally assume the creation of the world, creation of men, and creation of the intelligent descendants of Adam occurred at the same time; Kaplan differentiates these events.

Neanderthal- Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis

The metaphoric sixth day was only when Adam was created in Divine thought as the plan for creation, not the actual date of his creation- see below on Kaplan’s acknowledging humanoids before Adam. (Berakhot 61b  Eruvin 18a)

Kaplan makes a general statement that the “time of creation is not essential to our thought.” He proves this from a citation in Yehuda Halevi’s  Kuzari,1:60-61”

Al Khazari: Does it not weaken thy belief if thou art told that the Indians have antiquities and buildings which they consider to be millions of years old?” To which the Rabbi in the dialogue answers: “The Rabbi: It would, indeed, weaken my belief had they a fixed form of religion, or a book concerning which a multitude of people held the same opinion, and in which no historical discrepancy could be found. Such a book, however, does not exist.”

Kaplan takes this to mean that Halevi would only be bothered if they had a form of religion accepted by the multitude with discrepancy, but not about the claim concerning civilization and ancient books.

Kaplan states that nature does not change so we accept radioactive dating; the method is valid to establish definitively that the world is billions of years old. In this, he rejects the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s opinion that radioactive dating is not valid because nature changes.  Kaplan has certainty that science works without caveats and if the method of radioactive dating of fossils show that they are millions of years old then they are millions of years old. They are not animals killed in the Biblical flood but creatures who lived billions of years ago.

In footnote number 12, Kaplan states that each of God’s years is 365,242 of ours yielding a world age of two billion years, which is not the current scientific age of 13.8 billions of years.

In contrast, in his later writings and talks, most notably his 1979 essay on evolution, he comes up with a 15 billion year date for the universe based on Isaac the Blind, a date closer to the scientific view. For more on his later calculation, see Ari Kahn, Explorations: In-depth Analysis of the Weekly Parashah Through the Prism of Rabbinic Perspective (Brooklyn: Targum press, 2001).

In this early passage in the Handbook and its notes he does not cite Isaac of Acco. At this point, it seems he did not yet have a copy of Isaac of Acco or he might have had a citation but did not have the full sefer or did not fully study it yet. Isaac’s Sefer Meirat Eynayim was not yet published; it was published in 1974. And Isaac’s important Otzar Hayyim still remains in manuscript. Kaplan write that he obtained the photocopy of the manuscript of Otzar Hayyim in the 1970’s circa 1976. If in 1968 he did not have the manuscript yet, and he only photocopied it after he started publicly teaching Kabbalahthen he might have been relying on an older work of scholarship that cited it. Alternately, he might have been creative enough to develop the Rashi on his own to reach 2 billion. (see footnote 12 below)  

Kaplan explains that God did not really verbalize in the creation of the world, rather God speaks means the impression of will upon matter thereby giving it a new property. God speech involves modulating creation to desired results.  (There is already a sense here of Kaplan’s later focus on mental acts – meditation). Kaplan in his spiritualizing of the text successfully manages to be deeply Maimonidean and Nahmanidean at the same time. He can cite simultaneously Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed on how locutions such as “God spoke”, “God’s mouth” or “God spoke to Moses” are anthropomorphic and not to be taken literally. Simultaneously, Kaplan appeals to Ramban 1:3 in that Divine will impressed upon the primordial matter of hiyuli, God is not literally speaking but engaged in the coming to be of the lower hypostatic element, which in turn will create the world. Kaplan foreshadows his later thought and treats kabbalah in a non-literal manner.

 (In Castilian Kabbalistic language, this would be keter affecting hokhmah. Later Orthodox attempts to harmonize Biblical create and science used Ramban’s concept of primordial matter in a literal manner as an allusion to the Big Bang theory).

Kaplan further spiritualizes the process so the steps of creation did not happen at the stated time, just that the prerequisites for God’s goal was complete even though the actual goal would not manifest until later (15:8)

Kaplan explains the phrase “it was good” to mean the completion of something essential for the evolution of the universe, destruction of prior worlds means evolution to something higher.  The world is evolving to higher stages. The destruction of prior world does not mean there were prior worlds just that lower forms of this world. (15:9) (He cites Maharal Beer Hagolah 39b)

Days of Creation

What was the light created on the first day before the creation of planets? For Kaplan the light on the first day is the electromagnetic force in matter responsible for all chemical and physical properties, without the electromagnetic force the world is chaos and void.  

What was created on the second day? It was when God set the matter of the first day into Euclidean four-dimensional space-time matrix. (15:12).

On the third day, God created the gravitational force. The “gathering of the waters” is not about swamps and sea but the “warping of matter” and the creation of phenomena that follow non-Euclidian geometry. It was also the physio-chemical properties of matter needed for plant life, (15:13)

On the fourth day, God initiated the process by which matter would condense into galaxies, starts and planets,” which is the completion of inorganic matter.

On the fifth day, God started the process by which organic matter and life came to be.

On the important 6th day of creation, God created the evolutionary potential of higher mammals and primitive man. Nothing was actually created on the 6th day, rather the evolutionary potential of the development of higher mammals from lower mammals was designated. After the 6th day, God allows world to develop by itself – without intelligent design- solely through the natural evolution. Just as the geological evolution of crystals grow naturally over millions of years from natural processes, so too the evolution of animals is the same way. The unfolding properties for mammals and eventually man is in the natural order.

Man, known to paleontologists as later stages of homo sapiens, already had mental and physical capabilities about 25,000 years ago according to Kaplan’s scheme. (In 1979, he extends this to 100,000 years ago).

However, it was only 6000 years that man was given a divine soul. This was a new level of wisdom and inventiveness to allow for cultural evolution through invention, metallurgy, animal husbandry, ship sailing (15:22). Actual paleontologists place this Chalcolithic period, the period of new wisdom, as between 11,000 to 6000 years ago. Kaplan acknowledges that species change and that even man evolves as shown by his vestigial tail.

Hence, the seven days of creation are as follows:

Day 1 Electromagnetic force

Day 2 4-D space/time matrix

Day 3 Warping of matter, beyond Euclidian space

Day 4 Inorganic matter

Day 5 Organic matter and life

Day 6 Evolutionary potential of higher mammals and primitive man.

Kaplan explains his own method of not treating the words literally, rather as allegories for scientific principles. Water, sky, and light are all allegorical terms for the unfolding of the scientific cosmos because the scientific terms were unknown in ancient times. (15:10) As he wrote earlier in the chapter, according to Maimonides the words used as not intrinsic but subject to interpretation and according to Nahmanides, these terms refer to divine unfolding of the cosmos not physical objects.

In many ways, Kaplan approach to science is similar to Nahmanides’ concept of remez, in which scientific concepts are alluded to in the Torah. Both Kaplan and Nahmanides read the allusions in the Torah to science, psychology, and powers of the soul.

Nahmanides in his introduction to the Torah wrote: “God informed Moses first of the manner of the creation of heaven and earth and all their hosts… together with an account of the four forces in the lower world, minerals, vegetation, animal, and the rational soul. With regard to all of these matters Moses our teacher was apprised, and all of it was written in the Torah, explicitly or by implication.” (For more about Nahmanides, see Oded, Yisraeli, The Kabbalistic Remez and Its Status in Naḥmanides’ Commentary on the Torah. The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy. 24. (2016)1-30)

Miriam Feldmann Kaye Responds to the Responses

Welcome back after the holidays. Before the holidays, we discussed the new book by Miriam Feldmann Kaye and had three responses from Levi Morrow, Zohar Atkins, and Claire R. Sufrin.

The interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye- here, the first response was by Levi Morrow- here, the second was by Zohar Atkins- here and the third was by Claire R. Sufrin-here.In her final word to response, Feldmann Kaye seeks to disaffirm and negate their specific comments.

At the end of her response, Feldmann Kaye positively affirms that we are called again to respond to the “plentiful array of intersections beyond postmodern thinking and Jewish philosophy. Profound responses to these deeply philosophical questions, are well on their way, and many more rest on the horizon.” Personally, I look forward to these imminent profound responses.

Miriam Feldmann Kaye – Response

Thank you to Prof. Brill for hosting some of the critical questions of our times. This blog pioneers contemporary Jewish thought, encouraging new Jewish philosophical and literary knowledge and engagement. The nature of this particular conversation reflects a heated discussion of the array of intersections beyond postmodern thinking and Jewish philosophy. These responses partially epitomise the ambivalence towards the term ‘postmodernism’. Although, expressions of this stance deserve to be addressed with a deeper, content-based, and respectful nature, of critique. 

What is apparent in this discussion typifies religious approaches towards cutting-edge theology. In a positive sense, it also exemplifies engagement with these ideas. The particular focus here is on my book, and an analysis of the theologies of Rav Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) and Professor Tamar Ross, but it is about a far broader picture of engagement with postmodern thinking, drawing on the wealth of writings of other Jewish thinkers. It is about the ability of Jewish thinking to cope with, or amalgamate, ideas from contemporary philosophy.

Before I address each response, there are two points which I stated in the interview, that I will emphasise to avoid some of the apparent confusion:

  1. It is not my purpose to champion or to defend postmodernism. This seems to be an important point to state, and to set aside some confusion. This allows us, or should have allowed us, to go beyond the debate of who is for and against; who agrees and who disagrees; who affiliates and who does not. The book addresses the ways in which, and the extents to which, ideas in postmodern discourse, are integrated into new thinking on contemporary Jewish philosophy. This includes discussions of the limitations of postmodern discourse in propounding a robust Jewish theology for today’s age.
  2. I continue to take care not to class any of the numerous thinkers I deal with, as proponents of ’postmodernism’’. Throughout the book, I analyse Prof Ross’ and Rav Shagar’s ambivalence towards issues that postmodernism raises. This is not a simple zero sum game and needs to be addressed in accordance to these fine distinctions.

Connected or unconnected to this, the first two presented responses potentially discard a great opportunity for a public conversation on the deeper issues at stake.

The first response, written by Levi Morrow, would have had many of his issues answered in the previous interview, which it seems was only partially related to, as illustrated in the following ways:

Morrow critiques what is plainly a philosophical analysis of Rav Shagar, stating that “there is something fundamentally strange about trying to identify Rav Shagar with a given philosophical stream”.

However, this is precisely the way in which Jewish philosophy has functioned and flourished for centuries: Philo and his integration of Platonic and Socratic philosophy; Rambam’s engagement with Aristotle; Maimon and Mendelssohn’s engagement with Enlightenment ideas; Rosenzweig, Buber and Levinas’ engagement with phenomenology and existentialism.

The consideration of future Jewish thought becomes the natural task – and the consideration of Rav Shagar and Prof Ross as amongst these thinkers, brings to the fore the issues of today – including Hasidut, neo-pragmatism, Kabbalah, phenomenology, semiotics and late twentieth-century hermeneutical trends. This is hardly ‘’strange’’.

What is strange is that he states that my book, which deals with philosophical elements of Rav Shagar’s philosophy presents a “depiction of Rav Shagar [which] cannot serve to introduce new readers to his theology’’. It in fact does provide readers with philosophical insights into the thought of Rav Shagar. This simplification seems to be based on a mistaken understanding of the book as an introduction to Rav Shagar’s life.

Rav Shagar is indeed recognised for his total commitment to and deep engagement with the national-religious Yeshiva world, from Kerem B’Yavneh, Mekor Haim, to Bet Morasha, to Siach as his intellectual ‘’home’’. His writing is steeped in Torah learning, and, as his works are published, presents an ever-developing search for the mystical interpretations of religious-Zionism of Rav Kook.

At the same time, Rav Shagar was also a Jewish theologian, and I invite others to recognize him as such. His home bookshelf attests to his readings of Wittgenstein, Althusser and others, alongside R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady. In his later years, he was comparing the thought of Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav with Derrida, Barthes and Lyotard. And so, I re-state that Rav Shagar was a theologian addressing postmodern thought at the same time as his immersion in the Yeshiva world – the same way in which philosophers over the course of Jewish history have also been. 

This encounter between both worlds is an important part of this discourse in its entirety. In this case, I analyse Rav Shagar’s Lamdanut through the lens of phenomenology. Another example is that his interpretations of Hasidut, are analysed within the framework of the philosophy of language.

Neither Morrow, nor Atkins give hardly a mention to Prof. Ross, who is critical to the discussion, at the very least in the way that Rav Shagar’s thinking is framed. Readers might have expected at least one informed comment of Prof. Ross as unique in her synthesised works on Rambam, and Rav Kook which simultaneously address the meaning of religious language, and its epistemological significance. Neither of the first two respondents take this crucial comparative element into account – which ultimately suggests a misunderstanding of the thematic nature of the book.  

Unfortunately, Morrow’s response descends into nit-picking. He finds certain footnotes – of which there are hundreds in the book – to be ‘’unhelpful’’ and another as ‘’frustrating’’ and another as ‘’insane’’. In addition to this sort of language, he writes about the book as “misleading’’, and certain paragraphs which are apparently ‘’lacking’’, and ‘’absent’’.

His list of referencing publication dates is weakened by his statement that my dissertation was, over a period of time, ‘’converted by the publisher’’. Is he unaware, or taking away from the fact that I wrote the book? The content and style of this critique could be understood as begging the question as to what is really bothering him about the book. 

However, he completes his response by lauding my ‘’visionary theology’’. He writes that this work is ‘’excellent’’ and ‘’constructive’’ which is ‘’deeply in tune with both Jewish mysticism and the power of religious language’’. He also recommends that book ‘’call[s] for us to do much the same’’. Given his erudite readings and initial work of the translations of Rav Shagar’s work, one might have expected him to offer a more respectful response.

The second response was written by Atkins. In his comments he seems to be missing elements of the subject that were explicated in the book, and the interview, which I’ve re-stated above.

Atkins’ response begins with what seems to be a description of postmodernism which he implies forms the main argument of both my interview and book.  He then begins to critique postmodernism, and it becomes apparent, that he is offering a metaphor for an engagement with postmodernism, namely my own, with this sceptical critique. He blurs the boundaries between his criticism of postmodernism and between my writing, wherein it is implicit that the two are inseparable.

Atkins considers my use of philosophers – including Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray – as superficial ‘’name-dropping’’ and ‘’miming authority’’ – comparing it to the listing of names of women objectified in a degrading gangster sexualised rap song. This inappropriate comparison raises the question as to what he is really suggesting? Is the problem that philosophers are listed together as representative of philosophical movements? Or is he offering a critique of postmodern literature? Or is he critiquing the ongoing misogyny in popular culture, and beyond? This would have been an interesting, albeit, misplaced debate had it not been for the derogatory tone – which continues far beyond this paragraph. His response was then unsurprisingly censored by Prof Brill himself.  

In a continued reading of his piece, he repeatedly implies that I am out to ‘’defend’’ postmodernism. One example of this is his critique of Derrida for whom, he writes, “performance is the point, that there is nothing besides the rhetoric”. Again, it is probably based on the presumption that the book is putting forward an unapologetic defence of postmodernism.

He further states that I am the ‘’expositor’’ of Prof. Ross and Rav Shagar. This is mistaken, in the same way that a scholar of Rambam is not necessarily a logician, and a researcher of Kierkegaard is not necessarily a Christian existentialist. In addition to this, unexplained responses to a multifaceted discipline are rife: “a tease’’ – with no explanation as to what this means here; “none of the views espoused by Feldmann Kaye…”; and, ‘’none reflect a deep phenomenological experience’’. These are simplifications of a far more complex discourse.

His call for a methodological deconstruction of postmodernism itself is engaging. I might too have taken interest in his discussion on Heidegger and Derrida, had he not made repeated generalisations of my interview, making the starting point of the discussion difficult to ascertain.

However, with all of this, he is “grateful to Miriam Feldmann Kaye for introducing the question of postmodernism into the contemporary discussion of Jewish thought and theology”.

In the meantime, since publication, both respondents have sent me private apologies.

The third response was written by Claire R. Sufrin. It was, relatively, a more thoughtful and engaging response – not just because it came across in a respectful manner but because she offers important reflections. I note that she hadn’t read my book though she does have the decency to say so.

In response to Sufrin’s point on Prof. Ross as a forerunner in the religious feminist movement, please see the introduction to my book where I determine her ground-breaking work on feminism to be a case in point of her broader concerns in philosophy of epistemology and revelation.

The question of how new the subject, can first be answered of postmodernism as a movement itself. In its various formations, it can be said to go back to the mid-twentieth century, alongside, or offshoots of, and manifestations of, contemporaneous trends. This is because postmodernism constitutes a discursive model of engagement, way beyond  philosophy and religion.

Postmodern discourse is now appropriated in the fields of law, architecture, literature and Political studies (even within Israel).  These fields engage with the questions of how far postmodern discourse serves to reframe the very questions asked in these fields of study. Some of the central perspectives offered by postmodernism comprise issues such as non-binary and beyond binary theories of post-structuralism, post-colonialism, aesthetics, gender theory as well as meta-ethics. In the realm of religion, ‘postmodern theology’ has been developed by Christian theologians for the last two decades.  

In the introduction to my book, I suggest that the subject be approached thematically, rather than by addressing totalised chronological movements of ‘’modernism’’ and ‘’postmodernism’’. What can be said though, is that we are at the transition between modern and postmodern thought, reflecting the changes in the trends with which we are surrounded.

I am however intrigued by Sufrin’s question as to why the book is referred to as new. I can think of at least ten thinkers, some based in Israel and some based outside of Israel, who deal with aspects of postmodernism, who include Kepnes, Handelman, Wolfson, Govrin and Ofrat. In addition to these thinkers, we also now witness postmodern Jewish exegetical approaches to other aspects of scholarship, such as of rabbinic literature, feminism, and so on.

As a whole, we witness a glimpse into different approaches towards postmodern ideas. We are called again to respond to the issues to hand, and to join the substantive, heated discussion, about how Jewish thinkers respond to the critical issues of our times – and to the plentiful array of intersections beyond postmodern thinking and Jewish philosophy. Profound responses to these deeply philosophical questions, are well on their way, and many more rest on the horizon.

Claire E. Sufrin responds to Miriam Feldman Kaye

This is the third response to the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye- here, the first response was by Levi Morrow- here, the second was by Zohar Atkins- here. I was expected direct engagement with the book; the conversation about the book is important to have. If you read it and have a knowledgeable response then please PM me.

Claire E. Sufrin is Associate Professor of Instruction and Assistant Director of Jewish Studies at the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies. Her research and teaching interests include modern Jewish thought, religion and literature, and American Judaism.

Sufrin thinks that we still need to confront Lyotard because he was observing something he observed. Her comments focus in several ways on why the Orthodox focus on “pluralism of multiple religious faiths” and not “the plurality within Judaism and Jewish thought” In addition, why describe Feldmann Kaye as the first when there are antecedents? Finally, is the definition of postmodernism used by Feldmann-Kaye focused on an Israeli Orthodox definition. Sufrin’s substantive comment on the treatment of Tamar Ross is the role of legal theorist Robert Cover for Ross, rather than postmodernism.

Claire E. Sufrin – Response

I want to start by thanking Professor Brill for inviting me to comment on his conversation with Miriam Feldmann Kaye. His invitation and then even more so the record of the Feldmann Kaye-Brill conversation led me to order a copy of her book and to wait for it with anticipation. (It is not yet in my university’s library system.) Alas, I am still waiting at the mailbox, and the original deadline I agreed upon with Brill has come and gone. So I offer what follows below with the caveat that I am responding to the interview as well as to the comments offered by my colleagues but that I have not yet read Feldmann Kaye’s book. As a result, I intend my contribution to this forum not to be a review of Feldmann Kaye’s work so much as a list of ideas and questions that I will bring to her text when it does finally arrive.

Postmodernism

I agree that with Zohar Atkins that the term post-modernism is inherently slippery. Especially if it refers to a “mood” rather than a distinct movement. I appreciate the genealogy Atkins has constructed of skepticism and other distinguishing characteristics of post-modernism.

He is certainly right that Lyotard’s claim that post-modernity is the end of grand-narratives is itself a grand narrative. But I don’t think that that structural problem should distract us from Lyotard’s claim. We need to read Lyotard as responding to and trying to describe a change he was seeing in the world around him. This is true even if he was himself still struggling to leave a modernist paradigm behind him.

Yet, Post-modernism was a small blip on the screen of modernity, rather than a new screen altogether. My way of measuring this is inelegant but still must reflect something: when I was an undergraduate in the late 90s, the term post-modernism was everywhere. One of my friends joked at one point that she needed to take a course on the western classics in her senior year, given all the time she’d spent deconstructing those classics in every other class up until then. And yet, when I survey the undergraduates I teach, they rarely have heard the term post-modernism or the name Derrida.

Postmodernism and Judaism

What about post-modernism makes it threatening to Judaism? If Lyotard’s definition is right—and I generally think that it is and find it useful in my research and teaching—then postmodernism is threatening because Judaism is built on a grand narrative. That’s easy enough. But which sort of pluralism (another word for “no grand narrative is allowed to reign supreme”) is more threatening—the pluralism of multiple religious faiths? Or the plurality within Judaism and Jewish thought?

Another point that may or may not be related: why do the other blog posts treat Feldmann Kaye as the first Jewish thinker to wrestle with post-modernity when the subtitle of Eugene Borowitz’s Renewing the Covenant (published in 1991) is “A Theology for the Postmodern Jew.” Surely there are other examples as well. [siteowner note- think of Marc Alain Ouaknin & Michal Govrin as Orthodox examples of postmodernists]

Borowitz, of course, wrote as a liberal Jew, a leading figure in the Reform Movement. Does Feldmann Kaye acknowledge his book? Can post-modernism be a starting point for conversation between liberal and traditional Jewish theologians? If not, why is Wittgenstein a more comfortable conversation partner than Borowitz?

If Levi Morrow is right and the “postmodernism” that Feldmann Kaye has in mind is liberal individualism (something I’d suggest we should associate with modernism, not post-modernism) and “what comes after and/or attacks the ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook.” This is a definition specific to a community within Orthodoxy.

If Morrow is right, there are a few questions I’d like ask: first and foremost, what is the audience of this book? If it is other Orthodox figures—perhaps Ross herself or followers of the now-deceased Shagar—then to interrogate her use of the term “postmodernism” seems to miss the point.

Tamar Ross and Postmodernism

Unlike the other reviewers, I know Tamar Ross’s work fairly well and I have a deep appreciation for what she tries to do in Expanding the Palace of Torah, even as I am not sure she is entirely successful.

To me, the heart of Ross’s work is not her use of Wittgenstein or others I might label “postmodern.” Rather, the importance of her work lies in two other places.

One is her claim that revelation is continually unfolding, a claim she bases on her reading of Rav Kook and prior Kabbalists and Hasidic thinkers.

The other important aspect of her work is her engagement with feminism, with other feminist Jewish theologians such as Judith Plaskow and Rachel Adler, and with Robert Cover’s legal theory. (Disclosure: I’ve written about Cover as a source of feminist theology elsewhere.) There is a real struggle in this book to find a way for feminism and Orthodoxy to somehow make sense together. Like Adler, Ross takes feminist Jewish theology to the next level of complexity and intellectual integrity, beyond earlier works by Judith Plaskow and Blu Greenberg, which were more focused on disrupting the status quo and highlighting the exclusion of women from Jewish history, thought, and community (if not more).

Is Ross postmodern? It’s not a term I would have applied to her; if Morrow is correct about the definition that Feldmann Kaye is assuming, then it applies to her insofar as she is an interpreter of Kook. But what does that get us? Perhaps Feldman Kaye’s book is best understood as a book about Kook’s legacy; but that does not appear from the interview to be the way in which she understands it. I look forward to reading the text and deciding for myself. I am grateful already to Feldmann Kaye, however, for engaging with Ross and giving her work the attention it deserves. To all those who have participated in the formal conversation on this blog and in other fora such as Brill’s facebook page by saying “I have not read Ross but…” I hope that this will lead you to pick up her book and take its claims quite seriously.

Zohar Atkins responds to Miriam Feldmann-Kaye

This is the second response the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye- here, the first response was by Levi Morrow- here.

Rabbi Dr. Zohar Atkins (here and here) is the founder of Etz Hasadeh and a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a DPhil in Theology from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and semikha from JTS. He is the author of a philosophic work An Ethical and Theological Appropriation of Heidegger’s Critique of Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and a book of poetry Nineveh (Carcanet, 2019). He is the author of a weekly d’var Torah newsletter: tinyletter.com/etzhasadeh

His organization Etz Hasadeh  is both an emergent community oriented around the existential study of Jewish texts, philosophy, and poetry, and a lab for rethinking the field of Jewish education writ large. We promote the development of personalized, psychologically inflected, existential meaning-making skills. Etz Hasadeh offers an intervention in the way Tanakah and Rabbinic literature are taught and studied, clearing the way for a ​poetic ​approach to learning that empowers students to engage ancient images and ideas as metaphors for the challenges of contemporary life.

In this response essay, Zohar Atkins has several points. First, and easiest to grasp, is that the term postmodernism is difficult to define and may ultimately be more of a mood than a theory. Second, and more substantively, Torah is about continuity, tradition, mesorah, and grounded readings, not skepticism and the limits of knowledge. Therefore, to Atkin’s ear much of the discussion of consensus, self-acceptance, and progressive revelation sound like 19th century opinions of the followers of Zechariah Frankel.

Third, postmodernism is clearly not Existentialism, and Franz Rosenzweig already rejected the early 20th century idea of living “as if” as inauthentic. Fourth, he finds problems with Feldmann-Kaye’s use of Heidegger who rejected humanism and instead sought an opening to truth, an unconcealing of Being allowing us to think.  

Atkins does try to explain the use of postmodernism as a way of saying “God wants us to be incapable of finding God. Postmodernism is just another name for Galut Edom, the Roman Exile.” Yet, he concludes that: “these flights of poetic fancy are not postmodern, they are fundamentalist, mythic.” For Atkins, postmodernism has to treat every myth as an idol. Atkins defines the task of the contemporary religious philosopher to live “shuttling back and forth” with “an agon with myth for philosophy and an agon with philosophy for myth. Postmodern theology, thus, is a relishing of myth and a relishing of demythologization, yet it is an endeavor that, to me, seems like it can only be idiosyncratic, and a source of great dissonance.”

Finally, Atkins considers thinking “a form of avodah, is a holy, religious task” in which engagement with postmodern thought is necessary. He appreciated the “effort to amplify and beatify Torah (yagdil Torah v’adir),” by placing “it in conversation with the wisdom and insights of other traditions,” in this case postmodernism.  He is deeply committed to the horizons of our lived Torah. For him, “Torah should speak to everything we know, love, and experience.”

Concerning Postmodernism and Jewish Thought-Zohar Atkins

Defining Postmodernism

Postmodernism is notoriously—though perhaps appropriately—difficult to define.
Is it a school of thought? A literary style propounded by a set of thinkers, writers, artists (often French)? A worldview rooted in skepticism so radical it always becomes its own object of critique? An aesthetic that fuses avant-garde and pop, a la Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara, John Cage, and Lady Gaga? A historical epoch dating to 1968? A fancy or pretentious synonym for contemporary? A way of saying modernism mamash  (really modernism)? 


If postmodernism is defined as an aversion to fixed labels and determinacy, is there any purchase to the term—l’shitato—according to its own standards, or is it a self-cancelling term, like a witness who comes before a court and says, “I am an unreliable witness”? Perhaps it is impossible to write about postmodernism; “one cannot look upon its face and live.”


If I were postmodern, I cannot be said to have an identity; rather identity is something I perform. There is no self, just presentation. To be a subject is to be a prisoner of the social order; my name-dropping does not actually refer to thinkers out there in the world, but only to the act of citation itself, a gesture, a miming of authority. In this sense, the string of proper names, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, is no different than those found in, say, a song with many names in the lyrics.

One reason for the confusion is that one of postmodernism’s chief proponents, Jean Francois Lyotard, defined (paradoxically) the postmodern condition as the end of “grand narratives.” Yet in so doing, Lyotard set up his own grand narrative, in which modernism was said to be naive and postmodernism was presented as the end of history. In this way, postmodernism’s self-representation is no different than the bombastic pronouncements of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Hegel’s Absolute Spirit; I suppose the main difference is the way in which these earlier iterations still aspired at some ideal, whereas postmodernism aspired to pursue with one hand what it took away with the other.

If Derrida has become a poster child for postmodernism, then perhaps what distinguishes postmodern thought from its critical antecedents is less its content than its mood, the mood of disenchantment, levity, comedy, neurosis, anti-messianism; or as Derrida put it “messianism without messianicity.”

Postmodernism and Judaism 

When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the Roman Emperor Vespasian for a yeshiva in Yavneh (Gittin 56b) he exchanged politically doomed Temple-based Judaism for a new paradigm of Jewish life. Sometimes postmodernism is presented in this way.

Yet if rabbinic Judaism saw itself as continuous with its historical past, and still, at times, looked nostalgically to the figure of the Temple in its fantasies, postmodernists emphasized and venerated rupture, as implied in their prefix “post-”. Never mind that the slogan of literary modernism was “make it new” (Ezra Pound, translating an ancient Confucian sage); never mind that montage and irony and indeterminacy and ambiguity were already important conceits before postmodernism became a cultural shibboleth. Never mind that skepticism is an ancient tradition, that subjectivism took off with Descartes, that pragmatism was a Neo-Kantian idea already popularized by William James in the 19th century, or that the so-called “linguistic turn” can be traced to Wittgenstein, a modernist, if not earlier to Herder, Schlegel, and the romantic movement?

The ubiquity and unclarity of the term postmodern means that it often does more harm than help when appended to another term such as “Jewish thought” or “Jewish theology.” Does postmodern Jewish thought mean thought that is influenced by postmodern thinkers, thought that simply occurs in a historic period known as postmodern, or thought that is treated by critics as having the worst signature features of postmodern writing, namely, convolution, sophistry, relativism, a “retreat from judgment” (Arendt), etc.? The term is so contested that it is probably better just to say what one means than make appeal to this proper name; though one thing shared by postmoderns through their debt to Quintillian, Schlegel, and Kierkegaard, is that it is impossible to say what one means; to think we can is to commit the “intentional fallacy.” “There is nothing outside the text” (Derrida).

Even here, though, postmodern analysis proves no different than its modernist antecedents; for whether the analysis is structuralist or post-structuralist, Freudian or Foucauldian, the point is that the interpreter, and not the text itself, holds the key to its interpretation. In some ways this posture is quite compatible with a certain understanding of oral Torah, whereby the meaning of the written Torah falls to the rabbis rather than, say, the karaites, historians, or philologists. At the same time, the sages of the Talmud still sought to ground their arguments in a reading of verses from the Written Torah, and subsequently, in the precedent readings of earlier sages.

I am not an expert in the thought of Tamar Ross or Rav Shagar, yet I am a great admirer of anyone who, in an effort to amplify and beatify Torah (yagdil Torah v’adir), places it in conversation with the wisdom and insights of other traditions; Torah should speak to everything we know, love, and experience. And even if Western thought is a kind of Exile, we should take comfort in knowing that “the divine presence goes into Exile with us.” Whether Ross, Shagar, and their expositor, Miriam Feldmann Kaye, succeed or fail, we should applaud their effort at kiddush hashem, of sanctifying (the Jewish) God. They follow the example of Maimonides, who said that if Aristotle’s thought were true, the Torah would have to be read in light of Aristotelian philosophy, and whose thought was, for a time, accused of being heretical until it became a dominant school of Jewish thought. 

The irony and self-contradiction of a postmodern Torah, however, is the way in which it challenges the commonsense view of truth. How can the critique of truth itself be true? What is meant by “truth”?

Reading Feldmann Kaye’s interview, my impression is that she/Ross regards postmodernism in a positive light as the doctrine that truth is decided through intersubjective agreement. To me, though, that’s not postmodernism at all, but positivism, and I don’t see how it’s much different than the historicist view established by the Conservative movement in the 19th century. Perhaps the fundamental claim that revelation is ongoing, is culturally rooted, is emergent, is not different in kind, but only in degree, from the ideas of Zechariah Frankel. Majority rules is not postmodern, its just liberal. Minhag yisrael halachah hi (the customs of Israel are legally binding)—is no different than Vox populi Vox Dei or Rousseau’s theory of the general will. We find the norm of law by consensus in the Talmud; but law is not truth; and saying there are many truths a la postmodernism is different than saying we can’t know the one truth; the former is an ontological claim, while the later is an epistemological one.

For non-specialists for whom the above sounds rather dense, let’s just put it this way, Franz Rosenzweig criticizes the view that truth is decided by human will as “as if thinking,” a form of theological hedging whereby the non-believer says that the only way to live a good life is to act as if God exists. If postmodern Jewish theology is “as if” thinking, is Pascal’s wager 2.0, I find it weak. If postmodern theology just means existentialist religiosity, it’s both hardly new, and hardly radical. Kierkegaard and Rebbe Nachman share the view that one cannot have certain knowledge of anything, yet this self-skepticism becomes a tool for motivating a leap of faith that, unsurprisingly, is outwardly quite submissive to dogma and the protocols of religious observance. The only thing that distinguishes a religious existentialist and a regular eved hashem is the existentialist’s emphasis on interiority.

Non-Foundationalism 

Feldmann Kaye invokes non-foundationalism as a hallmark of both postmodern thought and postmodern Jewish thought, yet ends up defining it in a foundationalist way as the agreement of people on what the truth is. 

For Heidegger, truth is “unconcealment,” not social reality, which he sometimes derides as “hearsay” in Being and Time, nor is truth some kind of individual experience a la the romantics. Meanwhile, for Nietzsche, truth is perspectival, yet it is the task of strong artists and thinkers to will their truth into existence by exercising a will to power; consensus is for the herd of half-dead unoriginals who are still too bound up with “slave morality,” whether they be religious fundamentalists or bourgeois secularists (or, as we now see in our day, bourgeois, religious fundamentalists). Heidegger is a non-foundationalist insofar as he rejects systematic thought based on first principles, yet the reason for this rejection is not because he is skeptic, but because he believes foundationalism is ontologically impoverished, does not enable us to properly think, and therefore, flourish. 

If non-foundationalism means we keep the Torah “simply because” we are thrown into a heritage, rather than because we have good rational reasons and justifications that can withstand critical (Western) enquiry, this is a kind of honest, modest, and yet Rube-Goldbergish way of utilizing academic thinkers to basically follow in the footsteps of Rebbe Nachman’s simpleton (see the story “chacham and tam”). It’s good therapy for people who are born into a thick knowledge of and commitment to Jewish life, but it is unlikely to win any one over; perhaps this is its virtue—it’s anti-patronizing, nice, polite pc liberalism. I happen to be a slave to God and you happen not to be, but, hey, these are both just lifestyles we inherited from our families. 

If you believe that God revealed everything to Moses, all the oral law, and all the principles for expounding it, it is very difficult to make sense of the story in Menachot 29b in which Moses sits, confused, in the back of R. Akiva’s classroom. If Rabbi Akiva is so great, Moses asks, why wasn’t the Torah given to him? “Be quiet. Such did it come to me.” 

One might be tempted to ask, similarly, why God did not reveal postmodern thought to Moses; why did God wait for our generation to reveal postmodern philosophy? To ask such a question, though, is to go crazy, for it is the kind of question that postmodern thought forbids asking with a straight face (it is somehow less absurd to ask why God waited to reveal relativity theory to Einstein). 

On the other hand, if we translate it into metaphysical terms, we can say that God wants us to be incapable of finding God. Postmodernism is just another name for Galut Edom, the Roman Exile. But these flights of poetic fancy are not postmodern, they are fundamentalist, mythic. Postmodernism is monotheistic insofar as it treats every myth as an idol, even the myths of Sinai and the myths of an unbroken mesorah. My shuttling back and forth represents not postmodern theology, but an agon with myth for philosophy and an agon with philosophy for myth. Philosophy sought to defang myth; religion is the submission to it. To be a religious philosopher is to defang and submit at once, to make a myth of defanging while defanging it. Postmodern theology, thus, is a relishing of myth and a relishing of demythologization, yet it is an endeavor that, to me, seems like it can only be idiosyncratic, and a source of great dissonance. If I were an amora, I would suggest that this dissonance is divinely prescribed, that philosophy corresponds to the first set of (broken) tablets and myth to the second (whole) set, both of which were kept in the ark together. And if I were an amora (playing Abaye to my own Rava) I would counter, and say the first set refers to myth while the second set refers to philosophy. Teiku.

Use of Heidegger and Derrida in the Interview 

Feldmann Kaye’s invocation of Heidegger is a tease; little besides the name Heidegger is given to us that suggests what a Heideggerian approach to revelation could involve, but even if there were, it is arguable whether Heidegger can be called postmodern. He is certainly viewed that way, negatively by Allan Bloom and positively by Richard Rorty. I have no doubt that Heidegger has much to contribute to contemporary Jewish life and thought, but none of the views espoused by Feldmann Kaye in the name of Shagar and Ross fit Heidegger’s thought too well, and none reflect a deep phenomenological influence; the value of cultural particularism is not unique to Heidegger and Heidegger would have eviscerated terms like “culture” and “experience” as remaining caught in a retrograde metaphysics of “humanism.”

When you compare Derrida to Heidegger, besides the linguistic and political differences, you find a tonal difference. Heidegger’s mood is heroic, tragic, messianic; Derrida’s is playful, jestful, cerebral. Heidegger and Derrida are both gnomic writers; yet one senses with Heidegger that he has something serious to say; with Derrida, one senses that the performance is the point, that there is nothing besides the rhetoric. In Heidegger, rhetoric serves the purpose of thought. In Derrida, one feels, there is nothing besides rhetoric. Derrida scholars can disagree; Heidegger reads as a reluctant spiritual Master, as a thinker. Derrida reads as a comedian, as Aristophanes to Heidegger’s Socrates, which isn’t to say Derrida isn’t serious or that there isn’t a seriousness to his jocularity, or that he doesn’t have something to say. Still, one never feels levity reading terms like Seinsfrage, GeworfenheitErschlossenheitdie Frage nach dem Technik; meanwhile, Derrida’s essays seem haughtily pitched to deflate everything of its gravity, as if any form of seriousness were somehow in danger of becoming an instrument of fascism. One can certainly make the argument that Heidegger is postmodern or else presages postmodern thought, yet his aesthetic—even when playful, even when self-questioning—has a devotional quality to it. We should consider whether postmodern Jewish thought and life require us to be jesters in the Derridean mold or pietist in the Heideggerian one. In the end, the issue of postmodernism might be one of tone and aesthetics more than content (after all, postmodernism can also be framed as a privileging of form and frame over content, e.g., “the medium is the message.”)

Conclusion 

For those of us who aspire to think, who believe it is of the utmost import, and who, as Jews, or as religious folk, believe that thinking is a form of avodah, is a holy, religious task, engagement with postmodern thought is necessary. It may be necessary even as a Jacob’s ladder we climb and then kick away. I don’t believe postmodern thought often succeeds in “thinking,” yet I believe it helps us spot the ways in which we are not yet thinking, and this humility is needed today, not just for ethical and political reasons, but also for spiritual ones. To know that one is not yet thinking, is this not the awe of heaven?

I am grateful to Miriam Feldmann Kaye for introducing the question of postmodernism into the contemporary discussion of Jewish thought and theology, not because I believe postmodernism can save Jewish life or thought (I’m not sure any doctrine, even an anti-doctrinaire one could do this), but because the question of how to live a sincere, elevated, responsible, pious Jewish life that is critical, self-critical, and open-minded, is upon us.

Levi Morrow- Response to Miriam Feldmann-Kaye’s use of Rav Shagar

This is the first in a sequence of responses to the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye about her book Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age. The second response is by Zohar Atkins- here.

The review deals with Feldmann-Kaye’s use of the writings of Rav Shagar. Morrow is pursuing a graduate degree on the writings of Rav Shagar so he has the passion of a graduate student in his vigorous comments. He rejects the ridged division of Rav Shagar into periods (such as “traditional,” “existentialist,” and “postmodern,”  Yet he still works with the division to note that an early homily based on the Maharal should not be used as postmodern, and to note that Rav Shagar has explicit Existential essays in the spirit of Sartre. Morrow points out how the book needed to update its 2002 references since the majority of the writing were published since that date. Finally, Morrow returns us the Israeli sociological meaning of postmodern as post Rav Kook’s religious national project in order to point out that Rav Shagar himself remained in the Yeshiva, taught Torah and was not aiming to be a postmodern, even when he read those works.

Levi Morrow is a Masters student at Tel Aviv University, and is writing his thesis on Rav Shagar and Franz Rosenzweig. He has translated a forthcoming book of Rav Shagar’s holiday derashot, as well as many of the teachings and poems of Rav Shagar’s friend and colleague Rav Menachem Froman. Levi teaches Jewish Philosophy in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

A Postmodern Theology from the Writings of Rav Shagar?

Dr. Miriam Feldmann Kaye’s Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age focuses primarily on Rav Shagar and Dr. Tamar Ross. Is it meant to introduce their respective theologies to the reader as examples of postmodern Jewish theology? Or is it meant to use them as resources for the author and readers’ own theologies? A close reading of the book indicates that the latter is more correct, that constructive theology takes precedence to historical scholarship.

Understanding Rav Shagar’s Context

I can’t speak to the depiction of Ross’s theology, but the depiction of Rav Shagar cannot serve to introduce new readers to his theology. The focus on Postmodernism renders it at best partial, and in some cases actually misleading in understanding the thought of Rav Shagar. A few examples will suffice.

In discussing the idea of cultural particularism and the historical conditioning of the subject, Feldmann Kaye quotes from Shagar’s Panekha Avakesh, a collection of derashot on the parashah from when he was interim Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Hakotel in 1982-83. Feldmann Kaye states:

Shagar’s conception of cultural particularism relies on a forceful alienation and negation of the self, which leads to an all-encompassing awareness of the influence of one’s surroundings. He acknowledges the strong parallels between postmodernism and hasidic introspection… With the self utterly nullified, the individual is no longer subject to delusions. She can look into herself as if she were a perfect limpid vessel and finally appreciate who she is and, indeed, the extent to which her identity and character are the result of a host of conditioning factors. (JTPA, 34; emphasis added)

However, the text she references doesn’t mention Postmodernism or Hasidism, and misses the source of the self-negation in the writings of the Maharal. Rav Shagar stresses the importance of negating the active, egoistic self, as well as purifying the self from urges and desires, in favor of a return to the “source” and “root” of the person, which enables recognition of divine truth (Panekha Avakesh, 62-63). There are many types of self-negation, and in some places Rav Shagar does connect it to the historical conditioning of individual identity and character (see, for example, Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, 52). Here, however, he’s talking about a pious duty to cleanse the self of desires and of ego in order to connect to a person’s divine source and gain a divine understanding of truth.

 I’m not of the opinion that his thought can be neatly divided into periods (such as “traditional,” “existentialist,” and “postmodern,” as I’ve heard suggested), but there’s clearly some truth to it. His early texts (and Panekha Avakesh is the earliest of his published teachings!) simply don’t reflect postmodern themes and ideas, which would make some sense as he doesn’t seem to have read them yet. Some of the same concerns may exist throughout, but the changing forms these concerns take is important. Rav Shagar talks about negation of the self, bittul, from his earliest texts to his latest. In the former, this means humility, purification of the self, and connection to the source. In the latter, it means recognizing the divine nature of the self exactly as it is (Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, 419).

Sartre and Existentialism

Another example of the value of a closer reading arises in a discussion of freedom. Feldmann Kaye discusses an essay called “Freedom and Holiness” from the book Kelim Shevurim (a lightly edited version appears in the later Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, and it was translated into English in Faith Shattered and Restored), and remarks that

Shagar guides his readers away from the existentialist idea of freedom as individual autonomy. He takes Jean-Paul Sartre to task by arguing that his understanding of the concept leads inevitably to nihilism or fatalism… Shagar takes exception to Sartre’s understanding of the self. The latter lays the burden of freedom on the individual, placing on her shoulders the onus to choose her own essence and thereby devise the ‘project’ that is her existence. Sartre saw the self as the sole arbiter of values. Shagar, however, criticizes such a conception of freedom on the basis that it leads to anarchy, and proposes instead to shift the burden for formulating truth claims onto the community… he qualifies his own version as ‘mystical freedom,’ that is, an inspired freedom derived from ‘the unity of the human and the divine’ which enables the community of Israel to shape its own set of truths ex nihilo (or in mystical terms as yesh me’ayin). (JTPA, 40-41)

The problem here is that Rav Shagar is actually aiming at a version of freedom closer to Sartre than to any other thinker he mentions, a “Sartre Plus” model rather than a rejection of Sartre (this is eminently clear from the essay, but also from similar texts such as Passover derashot on freedom in Zeman Shel Herut, 163-168, 169-178, and an essay on the self in Nahalekh Baragesh, 139-146). In the essay, Rav Shagar catalogues models of freedom, including that of the Tanakh, the Rambam, Rav Kook, and Sartre. Of all of them, Sartre is the only one who believes that freedom means the ability to create values, and this is what Rav Shagar wants to embrace.

Rav Shagar’s problem with Sartre is that Sartre, he says, thinks human creations can never be meaningful because they can never transcend their creator and gain a sense of absoluteness, meaning that a person can never commit to values that she herself created. He solves this by paradoxically identifying human creation with divine revelation. After a person creates their own values, they should paradoxically see them as divine values to which they must commit. Living a life of “covenant” (“berit”), Rav Shagar says, means seeing our freely-made choices as inevitabilities, like a person seeing their freely-chosen spouse as the only person they could possibly have married. This is Rav Shagar’s “Sartre-Plus” model of freedom.

Moreover, the emphasis on community that Feldmann Kaye sees in the essay is almost entirely lacking. The discussion of the concept of freedom in Tanakh mentions that the “subject” with whose freedom Tanakh is concerned is the nation, not the individual, and I can see Feldmann Kaye could construe that toward a postmodern cultural particularism. However, that concept is nowhere to be found in the section on “mystical freedom,” or the passages on Rambam or Rav Kook, for that matter. The emphasis is on the individual and her ability to make creative choices, and the essay concludes with a discussion of how modern man (ha’adam ha’akhshavi, which if I would most accurately translate as “the contemporary individual,” but that begs my conclusion) possesses an image of God on the level of ayin, nothingness, a liberating non-essentialism that allows them the ability to create ex nihilo.

Updating the References

On a more technical note, I want to briefly address the issue of references. JTPA is a revised version of Feldmann Kaye’s 2012 PhD dissertation, and it has been excellently converted by the publisher into a more popularly accessible book. One area that did not receive enough attention in the intervening years, however, was the references to Rav Shagar’s writings. Many volumes of his writings have been published since then, and referencing (nevermind quoting) them would certainly have enriched the book, but they are almost entirely absent (with the exception of She’erit Ha’emunah). Just to give one example, her discussions of both cultural particularlism and linguistic determinism would be greatly enhanced by Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah derashah “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” Faith Shattered and Restored,” 41-65, published in Hebrew as “Halakhah, Halikhah, Ve’emunah,” Le’ha’ir Et HaPetahim, 158-186.

Additionally, many of the references may have made sense in 2012, but the publishing since then has made them confusing. For example, there are references to “Broken Vessels, vol. 2,” a non-existent second volume of Kelim Shevurim. For someone well versed in the editors’ footnotes to Rav Shagar’s writings from before it was published in 2013, this is clearly Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, which the editors sometimes referenced as a forthcoming, expanded, second edition of Kelim Shevurim. However, for anyone not so versed, the reference is unhelpful (this also means that the correct pagination could have been tracked down, and wasn’t). Similarly, there is the essay “My Faith” which has been published twice, in Hebrew and English (Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 407-426; Faith Shattered and Restored, 21-39), but which in 2012 was an unpublished file available only to those in the know. Feldmann Kaye’s reference to the text demonstrates just how thorough her PhD was, but the lack of an updated reference, referring to either of the essay’s two versions, is frustrating.

Is Rav Shagar a Postmodern?

By way of conclusion, I would return to more substantive issues Is Rav Shagar a Postmodernist, or a thinker who deals with Postmodernity? ( cf. JTPA, 35) He is certainly the latter; perhaps he is sometimes the former, but he is also so much more than that. It is a shame that so much of the discussion about him revolves solely around his interest in Postmodernism. He was a constructive theologian as a Rosh Yeshiva, deeply in tune with the cultural and religious shifts his community was undergoing, and he marshalled the best of the Jewish tradition and his readings of non-Jewish philosophy to respond appropriately.

As with the first example in this review based on the Maharal, there are of  many more postmodern counterexamples from Rav Shagar’s writings. In one text, he explicitly denies the ability of a person to create ex nihilo, instead celebrating the bricolage of creating something new out of something else (See She’erit Ha’emunah, 24). But that itself is exactly the point. There is so much in the writings of Rav Shagar, which are quite rich and full of theological explorations, that make it reductionist to consider them only from a postmodern perspective. Rav Shagar was a born-and-raised Kookian Religious Zionist, a Post-Kookian Religious Zionist, a brilliant talmudist, a driving force in Religious Zionism’s Hasidic revolution, an existentialist, and yes, a postmodernist as well. Appreciating all of the different voices that emerge from his writings requires care and precision, something I find somewhat lacking in Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age.

Furthermore, the matter of Postmodernism quickly becomes a question of what we, and Rav Shagar, mean by it. Tomer Persico and Alan Brill have  shown how Religious Zionist opponents of “Postmodernism” and Rav Shagar himself define postmodernism as liberal individualism. For all of them, “Postmodernism” is what comes after and/or attacks the ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, a category that can include a lot more than what people typically call “Postmodernism” such as Buber, Sartre, and Rav Nachman.

It’s not incidental that Rav Shagar’s “postmodernism” is shaped by his Jewish theological context. He spent his whole life in the yeshivah system, never attending university, and was not shy about his unfaithful, ahistorical readings of secular philosophical texts: “We aren’t committed to ‘scientific,’ faithful-to-the-original, readings of Western or Eastern philosophy” (Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 132-133).

On some level, there’s something fundamentally strange about trying to identify Rav Shagar with a given philosophical stream, while he was so self-conscious and explicit about appropriating a variety of such streams for his own theological ends. Understanding Rav Shagar requires paying close attention not to his affiliations but to his appropriations, the way his readings of non-Jewish texts constructively shape both those texts and his understanding of Judaism, “the external light and the internal vessel.”(ibid.).

JTPA is an excellent constructive work, one that attempts to delineate specifically postmodern issues for theology, and then proposes methods for dealing with them through readings of Rav Shagar and Dr. Ross. Feldmann Kaye’s call for a “visionary theology,” one deeply in tune with both Jewish mysticism and the power of religious language, is a call for us to do much the same.