Monthly Archives: January 2010

Happiness, Salinger, and Popular Religion.

Rav Soloveitchik in his famous footnote number four in Halakhic Man spends over  two pages decrying the seeking of happiness and solace through religion. For him, true religion is about psychic upheavals, pangs, and torments from anxiety, anguish and tension. He claims that those who seek the stillness of peace and tranquility are non-Orthodox Jews and are “Typical of this attitudes the Christian Science movement.”  Leaving aside the empiricism of this statement, he would not be sanguine about the current Orthodox emphasis on instant happiness through Torah, outreach by promising happiness, or the goal of producing studies to show the happiness quotient of Orthodoxy.

In today’s NYT, there is a review of recent literature that critiques happiness. The quotes speak for themselves on the happiness industry as silly. There are five basic principles of a benign happiness that would apply to the followers of any denomination or Church. And that true happiness is a fleeting emotion related to the peaks of the transient not to a warm bed, friends, and a job.

Smart people often talk trash about happiness, and worse than trash about books on happiness, and they have been doing so for centuries — just as long as other people have been pursuing happiness and writing books about it. The fashion is to bemoan happiness studies and positive psychology as being the work not of the Devil (the Devil is kind of cool), but of morons. “

In “Bright-Sided,” Barbara Ehrenreich recently looked with dismay at what she views as the industry of happiness, a culture bludgeoned by insistent — even aggressive — good cheer.

We could canvass Gore, Rubin, Gilbert, the Dalai Lama and the many authors on the happier.com Web site and produce the Fundamentally Sound, Sure-Fire Top Five Components of Happiness: (1) Be in possession of the basics — food, shelter, good health, safety. (2) Get enough sleep. (3) Have relationships that matter to you. (4) Take compassionate care of others and of yourself. (5) Have work or an interest that engages you.

The real problem with happiness is neither its pursuers nor their books; it’s happiness itself. Happiness is like beauty: part of its glory lies in its transience. It is deep but often brief (as Frost would have it), and much great prose and poetry make note of this. Frank Kermode wrote, “It seems there is a sort of calamity built into the texture of life.” To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies.

In honor of Salinger’s death, many tributes have been placed on the web. (I am still waiting for an Abrahm Sutzkever tribute with content.) Fifty years ago, a theologically oriented literary critic noted that the success of J. D. Salinger was to offer us the torments of hell that we can enjoy. Salinger’s characters rejected the cant of society including its petty views of happiness for a more exquisite torment of those who truly hope.

The literary critic Donald Barr wrote “Saints, Pilgrims and Artists” for Commonweal more than fifty years ago, in 1957, but its analysis remains sharp and insightful

Most of Salinger’s work, therefore, is about those who think they are in hell, a place where the soul suffers according to its qualities, and without escape.

Ordinarily, we all are interested in hell. Ten people have read and enjoyed the Inferno for every one who has read the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. It is fun; like looking at real estate, it gives us a sense of our own possibilities. But Salinger’s hell is different. It is hell for the good, who can feel pain, who really love or hope to love. On the gate of this hell we do not read the words, “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.” Hope is not abandoned here—hope is the implement of torture, hope deferred. We identify ourselves both with the victims and the devils. And it is not strange real estate. It is home.

Salinger wrote in the 1950′s. Hudnut-Beumler in his Looking for God in the Suburbs: The Religion of the American Dream and Its Critics. 1945-1965 points out the role of solace and happiness in 1950’s religion and the importance of the jeremiads against it by the intellectuals.

In 1946 Rabbi Joshua Liebman, a leading Reform rabbi promised happiness through organized religion in his best seller Peace of Mind, which reached #1 on the NYT charts.  In the 1950′s, many Churches took his advice. As did most modern Orthodox rabbis  in the RCA who wrote definitive books on the Jewish Way in Love and Marriage or in Death and Mourning. Happiness and psychological well-being was promised as the immediate reward of the rituals.

We have just lived through a period similar to the 1950′s, with simple answers and projected resolutions of all problems through organized religion. Barbara Ehrenreich and Amy Bloom now and Salinger and Rav Soloveitchik in the 1950’s, remind us that there is more to religion than simplistic quotients of happiness.

Vattimo and Theology

There is a new series by Continuum Book that engages contemporary philosophy from a theological perspective. Adorno and Theology, Wittgenstein and Theology, Habermas and Theology,  Girard and Theology, Zizek and Theology. They are also offering new readings for the 21st century of Kant and Theology, Hegel and Theology, Kierkegaard and Theology. Most of them look good and will surely engage discussion.

This past week, I went to a book signing for Vattimo and Theology- Thomas Guarino

There is little good material on Gianni Vattimo in English but here is a book review in English and here is Vattimo’s blog (in Italian- Columbia UP has a link to the blog embedded in a translation program).

Vattimo translated Gadaemer into Italian, and took hermeneutics to a Nietzsche influenced extreme. Everything is just interpretation, there is no truth in the text.

Now, how can a catholic priest teaching in a conservative seminary use an atheist, nihilist, gay, anti-clerical, anti-revelation thinker as a basis for a book? The approach not to take is to call this is heresy and forbidden and violates what we were taught. So what does that leave? One can show how other contemporary theologians have rejected his thought. (There is an article in Modern Theology- that does that)  Or one can take Vattimo’s positive points and re-graft them onto tradition.

Instead the author of the new book attempted the following two approaches. One can use it as a self-corrective for how tradition is currently being presented. One can use it to understand what current intellectuals are thinking so that one can respond to the issues of our age

Some of the points in the book:

Cardinal Ratzinger – decried the dictatorship of Relativism, Vattimo argued against Ratzinger that dogmatic claims are the bigger problem and let’s have charitable tolerance.

Secularism, in the post-religious sense, should not be decried but treated as a chance to practice the weak virtues of charity-love without dogma and as a vibrant fruit of religion. Religion has been kept out of the public sphere, but now that it is weakened, it should be brought back into the public sphere.

Vattimo says “I believe that I believe” – meaning that I have faith in the human concept of belief not in an object of believe. So whereas the Enlightenment taught we cant know the truth of religion, Vattimo argues that “faith” is the acceptance that one is heir to a library of the textual tradition of faith and to a socio-cultural world of religion. Modern rationalist liberals want to treat religion as symbolism, or metaphor. In contrast, Vattimo has faith in faith so he takes religion at face values but know that there is nothing behind it. There is no one meaning, all is a fable, all is interpretation, there is no truth out side the cave.

  • “It is only thanks to God that I’m an atheist”
  • “I believe that I believe” (credere di credere)

Guardino argues that this is not theologically sound. We need for revelation, and belief but Vattimo gives us an insight into our age. Guardino best line: “Vattimo makes cultural liberals look like scholastic divines”

Vattimo recites the Latin prayers from the Roman Breviary three times a day, and he says it is not because he believes but as an acceptance of tradition. There was a wide range of opinions what to make of that behavior. Does that give him a weak faith? Does ritual without a traditional sense of faith count? What would Jews make of this ritual behavior?

Unfortunately, we have nothing similar from the Jewish community. We do not have a series like this. There is little Jewish theological engagement since the early 1960’s, except among a few academics. Why cant Jews put out a series like this?

We spend all our time discussing bad ideology about our denominations, maybe responses to actual philosophers might better clarify our beliefs? Maybe a Reform and Orthodox response to Vattimo might teach us more than a rehashing of denominational generalities.

What can Jews learn from Vattimo? Does it reflect our congregants state of faith? How would we respond to Vattimo? What corrective does it offer us?

How would an Orthodox author successful learn from a heretic?

As a side point: It is interesting to watch the major philosopher of our age Jurgern Habermas learning to use Twitter.

Update: Jürgen Habermas says he’s not on Twitter

Over the last several days there has been considerable hubbub around the fact that pioneering media theorist Jürgen Habermas might have signed up for Twitter as @JHabermas. This would be “important if true”, as Jay Rosen put it. Intrigued, I tracked him down through the University of Frankfurt. I succeeded in getting him on the phone at his home in Sternburg, and asked him if he was on Twitter. He said,

No, no, no. This is somebody else. This is a mis-use of my name.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

1980’s and the coining of the term post-orthodox

I first heard the term post-orthodox in the mid 1980’s. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s some people chose to attend the new resurgent Orthodox institutions and pick Orthodoxy as their religious choice. They were part of a small elite group that first attended the new after HS year in Israel programs, first learned to speak of a halakhic universe, and first accepted Torah uMadda. Whereas many of their peers still thought of Orthodoxy as the urban ethnic traditionalism that still looked backwards to a Yiddish orthodoxy, they were a new vanguard of an upper-middle class educated triumphalist Orthodoxy.

By the mid-1980’s, however, there was already a minority group that went oops!! What did we do?  They wanted out. The word post-orthodox meant that in the sorting hat of the 1980′s they chose to be orthodox and they were already over that ill fated decision. The term did not catch on because most people who used the term, with time, left orthodoxy for other denominations. A variety of authors used the term post-orthodox in the late 1980’s But only a very small number of tortured souls kept the drama going for decades. The most famous of those who kept the drama going for years is Rebecca Goldstein, who even moved to Teaneck and then to Highland Park before checking out.  There is a review of her new book in Today’s NYT.

Seltzer’s rebellions — rejecting Orthodox Judaism, shrugging off the influence of a controlling mentor, and coming up with a theory for the meaning of life and love that excludes supernatural agency — mirror Goldstein’s own. These preoccupations recur throughout her work. In her 1983 novel “The Mind-Body Problem,” she wrote of a dishy lapsed Modern Orthodox Jewish philosophy student who ditched faith for scholarship, then tried to acquire genius by marrying one.

Even in her nonfiction, like “Betraying Spinoza” (2006), a study of the famous philosopher who was ejected from Amsterdam’s Jewish community for his heretical views, she merged her personal history with her idol’s. Now almost 60, Goldstein remains fascinated by the codes and beliefs she absorbed in her Orthodox girlhood and continues to transmit her defiance and doubts to her characters.

Goldstein shows that philosophers and scholars may construct as many proofs or disproofs of divinity as they like. But to people of faith such questions remain as inarguable as the persistence of kugel.

Her 1983 novel “The Mind-Body Problem” presented most of her frustrations with Orthodoxy and her fantasies of life outside of Orthodoxy. Yet, since Orthodoxy was still growing in institutional strength and social capital, her critiques were waved off as bad personal experience.  Or at best, it offered glimpse into some of the more risqué parts of Upper West Side Modern Orthodox life. – the occasional sin, libidinal encounters, and philosophic doubt was socially within the bounds of a society created by collective Shabbat meals. But the term post-orthodoxy disappeared because either one chose to move to an orthodox neighborhood or one did not. Religion was in vogue for the next 25 years. and why gripe about things when all is going well?

As an aside, in the 1990’s, the term had a brief life when those who had been trained as Orthodox and who taught Kabbalah and Hasidut gravitated to the Renewal movement and New Age worlds. They could claim to offer the best of the “secrets” of the Kabbalah but in a freer, eclectic, non-traditional,  post-Orthodox way.

In both of these cases it referred to isolated individuals, not to a mood or social change, and certainly not to anything in liberal modern Orthodoxy.

Update- But neither of these two prior uses has much to do with the current sense that seems, at least to me,  as similar to the phrase post-evangelical. A moment that will have diverse sociological implications. In the current version there is a sense that the last 25 years are over, and that for those of gen y – millennials orthodoxy has lost its former coolness, people are seeking to create new definitions and/or ignoring current ones,  and that the last 25 years is treated in a more limited and humble way accepting its strengths and faults.  Time will tell what it brings in all directions.  But I dont see it as connected to baby-boomer liberalism. Even among the Evangelicals, it is used by diverse groups including those who have opted out, those who have created the more spirit driven Emergent Church, those mainline Evangelicals who have started new projects, and as a name for a new era that would also include the opposition.  And now back to philosophy. I will report on Habermas and Theology next week.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Akdamot from Beit Morasha- Call for Papers on Religious Experience

ה’ אלוהי אתה?! (ישעיה כה,א)|
דבקות כמיהה וניכור בחוויה הדתית

קול קורא למאמרים

למרות היותה מושג חמקמק מהווה החוויה הדתית מרכיב נפשי בסיסי בחייו של האדם המאמין והלא מאמין כאחד.

לקראת גליון כ”ה של אקדמות העתיד לראות אור לקראת החגים אשר יציין גם י”ג שנים להופעת כתב העת אנו מזמינים את הציבור לשלוח למערכת מאמרים פרי מחקרם והגותם העוסקים בהיבטים שונים של החוויה הדתית מנקודות מבט שונות.

אורך המאמרים לא יעלה על 7000 מילה (כולל הערות שוליים).|
המועד האחרון למשלוח המאמרים הוא א’ באייר התש”ע (15.4.10).|
כתובת למשלוח: press@bmj.org.il

Heschel’s Heavenly Torah- Lost in Translation

In the Fall issue of Modern Judaism 29/3 October 2009, there is a devastating review of Gordon Tucker’s translation of Heschel’s Heavenly Torah in which he claims the original meaning of Heschel is lost in translation. He seems to be bending over backwards not to be scathing,but his bottom line is that Tucker omitted paragraphs essential for arguments, manipulated the material to make Heschel seem like a pluralist, and even worse, he inserted his own pluralist editorial comments into the text of Heschel without any indication that these are not Heschel’s words.

Haber also claims that Heschel sought to determine a correct position in Aggadah, that he uses traditional phrases like “principles of faith,” that he often follows Rabbi Akiva and Tucker will present Heschel as following Rabbi Yishmael when he really was following Rabbi Akiva.. The worst is that in the crucial section on Maimonides position on Torah from Sinai, Tucker added his own explanation at the expanse of Heschel’s own words. Therefore, I must correct what I wrote in my own review of Heschel, based on the English translation, that the discussion of Maimonides was “not theology or halakhic,” what I need to say is that Tucker’s additions are the problem.

Lost In Translation: Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “Heavenly Torah”—A Review Essay- Gedalia Haber

Although Heschel is aware of the plurality of opinions shared by the Sages, I found that he nevertheless strives to determine which opinion is correct, according to its compatibility with the simple meaning of the biblical text (Peshuto shel Mikra).However, when I compared certain words and phrases in Tucker’s translation to Heschel’s original text, to my surprise, I discovered that Heschel’s intent was often obscured or omitted entirely.

In the pages that follow I shall demonstrate a few basic differences between “my Heschel” and “Tucker’s Heschel.” … This juxtaposition will reveal critical areas where Heschel’s intent has been altered, and will retrieve “lost” ideas that were omitted or adapted in Tucker’s work. This will help to reconsider the question of Heschel’s views regarding religious pluralism and the diversity of opinions characteristic of Aggadah.

Heschel’s explicit parallel between Jewish law and Jewish thought is omitted in Tucker’s translation, and all that remains is the dichotomy between Halacha and matters beyond Halacha….Tucker does not translate this passage, although it seems that Heschel is stating a fundamental principle.

Tucker’s translation undermines Heschel’s certainty, and while it may render Heschel’s ambitious claim more digestible, at the same time it reverses Heschel’s opinion completely.

Another example of Heschel’s decisive attitude toward Aggadic material is his discussion of R. Akiva’s view regarding revelation. According to Heschel, R. Akiva claimed that Moses ascended to heaven in order to receive the Torah. Heschel claims that “this matter of the ascent of a mortal to heaven is very important in the Torah of faith. Judaism demands that man should acknowledge his place. A basic rule in Israel: ‘God is in heaven, and you are on earth’ [. . .].

The phrase “Torah of faith” should be understood as the doctrine of faith, since the context is “Judaism’s demand” of man. However, Tucker subverts Heschel’s intention by transforming Heschel’s prescriptive, dogmatic style into a historical, descriptive one: “The theme of human ascent to heaven is of great importance in the study of religion, but Judaism demands that humans should know their place. Israel lives by the rule: “God is in heaven, and you are on earth.”4

Heschel’s critique of Maimonides’ view of Torah from Heaven is the climax of TMS II,… Although Tucker retains Heschel’s title (“Maimonides’ Ruling”), he transforms Heschel’s discussion from a Halachic attack on Maimonides to a criticism of Maimonides’ “perfectionist” attitude. Tucker’s version does read that “Maimonides came down on the more stringent side,” but Tucker adds an interjection which is not present in the original text: “Is such perfectionism possible?”.Tucker proceeds to omit the phrase ‘if the Halacha is established according to the Sifrei,’ and shifts Heschel’s Halachic polemic to the realm of criticism of the high “standard” that Maimonides set for us.

I disagree with his claim that Heschel is promoting the more pluralistic exegesis of the Yishmaelian School.

What is the meaning of Heschel’s critique? Alan Brill rightfully points out that in Heschel’s discussion of rabbinic sources in TMS, “there is no historical change or driving force to history.” Heschel holds an ahistorical conception of Jewish thought. Contrary to the view that Jewish thought and practice developed in certain directions, and what was once considered legitimate might be considered heretical today (and vice versa), Heschel claims that there is a unity between generations. However, this lenient or  liberal view is not pluralistic, and it does not leave room for Maimonides’ “perfectionist attitude.” Heschel sees it as the objective truth, which demands submission.

Tucker comments on this that the “halachic pluralism” implied by the Talmud is a “long established fact,”…However, Heschel restricts this pluralism one paragraph later and states:

The Divine Voice declares: “These and these are [both] the words of the living God, but Halacha is established according to the school of Hillel.” Many students who have not studied sufficiently have regarded this saying according to the rule: “split the sentence”; they took its beginning and ignored its ending [. . .] as if the world were chaotic. As if permission had been granted for each person to build an altar for himself.

Moreover, is the power of every scholar equal to the power of Hillel and Shammai or R. Akiva and R. Yishmael? Is an innkeeper’s wife equal to wife of a priest? Does the trivial discussion of idlers compare to the complete Torah of the forefathers? Many scholars who have not studied sufficiently cannot be considered laymen anymore but did not reach the level of the great [rabbis]. “

These omissions and rewordings obscure what Heschel tried to convey and are barriers between Heschel’s thought and the English reader…However, as I have shown, Tucker eliminates fundamental passages and phrases without commenting on their absence. I believe the message they convey is no petty matter.

Jewish Meditation 1995-2005

Here is an account from The Forward that parallels what I have seen in the field. In the early and mid nineties there was a great desire for the technical aspects of meditation and Jewish meditation. Then, after only 5 years it started broadening into all forms of spirituality especially musical forms and emotional healing. And finally right before our eyes, it all stops around 2005. People started coming to a class listed as Jewish meditation and assumed that it has something to do with guitars, bongos and chanting. In 1995, people wanted meditation and came with Zen or Vipasssana backgrounds and then flash it was gone by 2005, leaving revivalism in its wake.

Even the local Buddhist center here in NJ, gave daily and weekly meditation classes in 2000 and now only offers a once a month introduction to Happiness, saving any serious meditation instruction for biannual retreats.

Chochmat HaLev came to life in the 1990s… One of these teachers, Rabbi Avram Davis, proposed creating a Jewish meditation center that could be a community resource…. Chochmat HaLev was launched, first as a series of classes in 1992 to 1993, and then as a nonprofit organization in 1995… In focusing on Jewish meditation, Gefen and Davis were at the forefront of a wave of interest in training a generation of Jewish “spiritual leaders,” who could bring meditation to their own congregations and lead meditation retreats and workshops for nonaffiliated Jews. So in addition to holding its own retreats and workshops, Chochmat pioneered a year-long leadership program with an initial cohort of 40 students.

Something happened on the communal meditation cushion, however. Joined by their interest in Jewish spirituality, the initial group felt a desire to pray together — a development that took Gefen by surprise. Davis, however, had thought of offering services from the beginning, because for him, Jewish meditation could exist only as part of a larger practice.

From the start, Davis led Chochmat’s services, distinguished by the constant thrum of a six-piece band composed of guitar, bass, drum set, keyboards and vocalists, its musical direction owed in equal parts to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, American rock and Moroccan beats. During a typical service, continuing today, participants dance in the aisles, clap, stomp their feet and sway with hands in the air, in an atmosphere most reminiscent of evangelical rapture

From 2000 to 2005, Chochmat HaLev functioned much like a cross between an institute for Jewish spirituality and an independent minyan.  Holding these two very different organizations together was a tight-knit, supportive community.

The year 2005 marked a crisis for Chochmat. The meditation school had essentially vanished. Aside from one year-long distance-learning program, the school was not offering more classes than an active synagogue. And because of its regular religious services, Chochmat was no longer seen as a non-denominational resource center: Its original mission was gone.

In 2005, the Chochmat board decided to become a functioning synagogue, and Avram Davis chose to leave.

Full version

Now Jewish meditation is once again for the few.People still do visualizations – part motivational part Neo-hasidic as a way to get psyched or as a means of bringing a moment of silence or a visualization into a regular service.  People are very sympathetic, “lets do it for a few minutes or a mini-course” and then let’s move on.

More on the year 2000 from the same author.

The year 2000 would see the establishment of the New York-based Institute of Jewish Spirituality, a Jewish meditation center run by Rabbi Sheila Pelz Weinberg; Makor Or, a San Francisco-based center founded by Rabbi Alan Lew (z’’l) and Norman Fischer; as well as a new emphasis on meditation at Elat Chayyim under Rabbi Jeff Roth and a burst of books on the topic (among them books by Gefen and Davis).

Ten years ago there was a meditation moment.

UPDATE – see the detailed rundown by Len Moskowitz in the Comments section. The comment shows that there is no diminution.
Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Tu bShevat Seder -with Text

One year on tu b’shevat someone (a second career retiree) brought Rav Soloveitchik some bokser before shiur. After chuckling, Rav Soloveitchik told a story about how Rabbi DZ Hoffman would ask on his oral semikha exams – where is Tu bshevat in the shulkan arukh? (ANS-tahanun). Then someone (I don’t remember who) mentioned that Rav Kook on is exams would ask: what to do when you fnd a mistake in the Torah during Torah-reading?

Tu bshevat generated a piyyut for the amidah – found in the Cairo Genizah and is mentioned already by the Maharil in the 15th century. But by the end of the 17th century, in grand baroque age, the holiday generated a detailed seder of collecting 30 fruits. (There is a ton of painfully incorrect history about Tu bShevat on the web)

Twenty years ago, it was still hard to collect 30 fruits. But with the revolution in eating habits and the opening of new markets (Fairway, Whole Foods) one can now collect 30 fruits with ease. In 19th century Russia, even mid-summer one could with great difficulty only collect half the number.

It has made a come-back in certain circles. The seder will probably remain limited in its practitioners for a variety of reasons.

1] To collect 30 fruits based a set typology is a very tactile, crunchy, foody, techie activity. Most American Orthodox Jews don’t regularly shop for papaya, fresh lychees, gooseberries, dragon fruit,  guavas, tamarind fruit, hickory nuts, and kumquats.

2] The seder assumes that one is comfortable with Zohar as one’s table talk. In America, this limits it to academics, Renewal Jews, Neo-Hasidim, and Moroccans.

3] The seder is a performance ritual. Most modern orthodox Jews have a difficult time with ritual. performance. Watch them struggle to get into hoshanot.

4] One has to have a visionary and narrative religion.

5] One has to have a meaningful understanding, beyond rationalism and irrationalism, of tikkunim, theurgy, magic, and religious cause and effect.

6] When you are told that Rav Kook avoided onions because they are all kelipot – it must resonate with you. .

Once, when Rav Abraham Kook was walking in the fields, lost deep in thought, the young student with him inadvertently plucked a leaf off a branch. Rav Kook was visibly shaken by this act, and turning to his companion he said gently, “Believe me when I tell you I never simply pluck a leaf or a blade of grass or any living thing, unless I have to.” He explained further, “Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song and breathing forth a secret of the divine mystery of the Creation.” For the first time the young student understood what it means to show compassion to all creatures. (Wisdom of the Mystics)

For those emailing me requesting sources:

Here is the traditional Pri Etz Hadar in English. This is the entire Seder- go for this.

Hillel Collegiate shortened version

A Chabad crib sheet

A nice article- with footnotes Tu Bishvat in Contemporary Rabbinical Literature

Reb Shlomo on Tu Bshevat

Excursus on Hemdat Yamim.The printed edition of the seder comes from the beautiful work Hemdat Yamim, which teaches the “customs of Safed” in a first person narrative, pretending to be a 16th century person from Safed. .According to current research, the work includes quotes of various Kabbalist customs from 1550 to 1715 from a variety of kabbalistic groups in Jerusalem, Safed, Italy, Turkey, Greece, and Amsterdam. Much of this material was attributed to the Ari, since anything based on Safed must be Ari. In this 150 period, there are over 300 little minhag books of Safed custom. Hemdat Yamin has many of them and collates them for us. To do any serious work on these customs one has to really be prepared to look at a large number of these books.

Isaiah Tishby places the editor in the circle of Kabbalists from Smyrna, and Benayahu attributed it to one member of the group, Israel Yaakov Al Ghazi, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.

The book mixes customs based on Cordovero, Luria, Azikiri, ibn Makir, the Peri Hadash of Amsterdam, Nathan of Gaza and others. A recent article by Moshe Fogel in JSJT, shows that even if it has Sabbatian hymns written by Nathan of Gaza (such as the Atkinah Seudata for Yom Tov), it has no explicit Sabbatian theology or belief in Shabbati Zevi. And for those following Lithuanian tradition,  both the Gra and Haayim of Volozhin accepted Hemdat Yamim.

(Think of using a potential Sabbatian custom as similar to the tune to Birkat Hamazon sung today in every Day School, which was commissioned by Mordechai Kaplan. It does not make those schools into Reconstructionist ideologically. It only shows that there are cultural overlaps and that one is part of a larger set of concerns called American Jewry. )

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World: Rambam as Cosmopolitan-Updated

There is a new book Sarah Stroumsa: Maimonides in His World Princeton University Press  2009. I await my copy to arrive and for the reviews to start appearing. In the meantime, in her first chapter she describes the Islamic Mediterranean culture in which Maimonides worked and which she will use as the framework for her book. She paints Maimonides as the end of an era of Arabic-Jewish integration.

In this approach, she is similar to the method of Steven Wasserstrom, Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis under Early Islam. Between the 8th and 12th centuries, Jewish culture was tied up in Shiia and Ismaeli thought, in the formation of hadith collections, and Islamic legal schools, in the machinations of Caliphs, in Arabic poetics, and Islamic science.  Maimonides thoughts as he wrote them, were not the start of something new, rather the final summery, reflection, and synthesis of a different age. She credits this approach to S. D. Goitoin and others.

In this approach, the Maimonides of his time is different than the Maimonides of thirty years after his death and then the subsequent use in the Beit Midrash. The former Maimonides spoke and read Arabic and Berber, had Muslim colleagues, and needs to be situated in a world of Farabi, Ibn Sina, ibn Bajjah and the fiqh of Al Ghazzali and debates between Hanafi and Maliki schools of law, and the Ismaeli Qadi al- Nu man’s “Pillars of Islam.” In many aspects, Maimonides was quite conservative compared to the religious options his age. In contrast, the Maimonides of the Beit Midrash is a about a European reception of his works in Hebrew. In Provence, Maimonides was read with Hebrew translations of Farabi, and ibn Sina, but the original world has been lost.

First Chapter as pdf

The “Mediterranean culture” that shaped Maimonides had, of course,  produced other Jewish leaders and scholars. It is interesting to compare  Maimonides to another “Mediterranean thinker” of impressive stature, Saadia ben Yosef Fayyumi, alias Saadia Gaon (d. 942).80 Like Maimonides’, Saadia’s thought was shaped by his education, travels, readings, and personal encounters, and included the legacy of different schools
and religious communities. Like Maimonides’, Saadia’s originality lies in  his ability to integrate these diverse sources of influence into a coherent Jewish thought, speaking the universal cultural language of his time while  yet remaining entirely Jewish. The differences between the tenth-century  Saadia and the twelfth- century Maimonides are not only differences of  personality. The distinctive characters of their respective “cultural Mediterraneans” reflect the turning point in the twelfth century. Both Saadia and Maimonides can be seen as high- water marks of the Jewish Mediterranean society. Saadia, in the tenth century, marks the consolidation and coming of age of the Judaeo- Arabic Mediterranean culture. Maimonides, at the close of the twelfth century, marks the turning of the tide, the end of an era: the beginning of the waning of Islamic culture, the rise of Europe an intellectual power, and, as part of this process, the great shift occurring within the Jewish world.

In modern parlance, he could  perhaps be called “cosmopolitan,” that is, a person who belongs to more  than one of the subcultures that together form the world in which he  lives.

Even some of his famous statements in his commentary on the Mishnah reflect the world in which he lived and book that were known to his readers.

Ibn  Qutayba (d. 889), a traditional Muslim scholar, wrote an anthology of edifying material for the state secretaries, in the introduction to which we find him quoting the Prophet Muhammad’s learned cousin, Ibn Abbas, who had said: “Take wisdom from whomever you may hear it, for wisdom can come from the non- wise.”

Update:

I thank my reader Jeff for pointing me to a recent book review by David Burrell at NDPR- here. In general I recommend highly David Burrell’s Knowing The Unknowable God as an easy to read introduction to the trajectory of Farabi-Maimonides-Aquinas.

Burrell chose the same passage, which I chose, from the first chapter to illustrate her approach. According to Burrell’s summary of Stroumsa, in the chapters which I have not read yet—Maimonides was influenced by the Fundamentalist Almohad world of his youth, including his view of the unity of God, his definition of a leader, and his messainism. But unlike the Islamic world where jurist and philosophers were not the same social roles,  Maimonides in his rarely-found dual role could offer a more creative synthesis of fundamentalism and philosophy. Strousma finds a serious Ibn Sina influence on Maimonides’ vision of perfection as contemplative and erotic and ecstatic. She finds this is one of the places where Maimonides own religious belief is found.

She also attributes the Letter on resurrection to the Almohad heresy hunting against those falasifa who deny resurrection. (I thought for years that Bernard Septimus’ work on the resurrection controversy using only Jewish sources was barking up the wrong tree for similar reasons, any introductory work on medieval Islamic thought mentions the Islamic controversy on resurrection at the end of the 12th century.)

She suggests that Maimonides’ “identifying true monotheism with a noncorporeal perception of God” aligns him with Ibn Tumart’s school of thought (71). It is especially “Maimonides’ overall perception of the role of the ruler that is modeled according to Almohad thought” (77). In particular, his “depiction of the Messiah is characterized by an overwhelming insistence on his military role” (78). Yet it is here that we must recall that

the status of Maimonides within his own community was strikingly different from that of the Muslim philosophers of his generation within  their society[. Indeed], as the spiritual leader of a minority group, [he] could feel, perhaps more than a Muslim philosopher marginalized in the court, that he was able to shape the minds of his flock, [leaving] him, paradoxically, more freedom to adopt Almohad ideology than that left to his Muslim counterparts (79).

Chapter five, “A Critical Mind”, on Maimonides as scientist gives Stroumsa has :”a particular fascination for his obloquy towards pseudo-science, which he labels “ravings”

The chapter crowning the study, “‘From Moses to Moses’: Maimonides’ Vision of Perfection”, begins by comparing the Rambam’s concerns with those of Avicenna,… “the Guide gives us a glimpse of a positive description of Maimonides’ understanding of paradise.”

Commenting on this unusual use of evocative language by the Rambam, Stroumsa proposes (and I would concur) that “his description of the bliss of the perfect souls rings with the exultation and rapture of the believer” (164).

Maimonides’ own Treatise on Resurrection has elicited contentious commentary… Yet in the light of his clear predilection for immortality of soul, one wonders why Maimonides should insist, as he does in his ‘creed’, on obligatory belief in the resurrection of the dead. Stroumsa cuts the Gordian knot by suggesting that

in instituting a list of legally binding dogmas that define the boundaries of Judaism, [he] followed the example of the Almohads, [and especially of] their source of inspiration, Ghazali, who counted the denial of the resurrection as one of the marks of the philosophers’ heresy.

Post Orthodoxy and Post Evangelicalism again

Since many did feel there is something to the comparison between Post-evangelical and Post-Orthodoxy, I will continue exploring it a bit more.

Sometimes there are moments that capture a certain feeling. 1946-7 was the feeling of the returning GI not going back to his hometown. 1959-was the threat of nuclear attack, 1968 was the sexual revolution and the counter-culture, and 1984 was the year of the Yuppie.None of these moments create a denomination they affect all denominations. The returning GI’s created all the suburban congregations of all denominations.

And the social mood of the returning GI’s- should not be quickly conflated with Film Noir and French Existentialism of the same years. Different trends and mood can occur at the same time.

This year is a sense of the post-Evangelical era. (There is also post-Mormonism)  It may not really kick-in for another few years. (The same way that those people who watch MadMen are able to see that things are unraveling toward the late 1960’s.) Evangelical religion was driven back by a variety of things such as the Scopes trial and Elmer Gantry in 1926. It retreated and then in the 1950’s wanted to be modern, educated and relevant. It wanted to show that it does not have to be seen as backwards, rather it should be seen as intellectual and modern. It started growing again as a reaction to the 1970’s. By the 1990’s they were seen as mainstream. They could show themselves as doctors, lawyers, and politicians; they are no longer backward.

Traditional Orthodoxy was Yiddish speaking and seen as not modern, not scientific, not family oriented, not democratic, not educated. Post WWII Modern Orthodoxy responded to these limits with concern for the modern. Then, with the return to religion in the 1980’s, Centrist Orthodoxy embraced conservative positions on social and cultural issues combined with an identification with Yuppie values (The latter point itself is big and important topic). And like the new Evangelicals, it effaced history and had a non sacramental approach (mizvot no longer change the worlds and performance is not cultivated). It shared a dispensational eschatology with evangelicals, Biblical promises are happening now but only as applied to Israel.

To return to the original Post-Evangelical post. The Christian Blogger IM in his post What Do I Mean by Post-Evangelical? August 7, 2006 notes some the history outlined above. He notes that Evangelicals were “Attempting, and largely failing, to establish a non-fundamentalist identity.” He offers a variety of thought of new turns of thought including: there is more possibilities in the classic texts and more relevant interpretations than currently taught; the boundaries of in and out matter less and the current boundary may not be true, creed is important but it is not to be used in an authoritarian way, show respect to those of other denominations; interpretation only occurs in a complex human matrix; the meaning does not fall from the sky in a magical or timeless way; He also notes that he does not worry if some post-evangelicals are heretical or out of step- it will sort itself out over time. He states that the clergy’s role is not to define who is right and wrong. We need to return to the sources and to the spirit (experience, prophecy, intuition).

We must be aware that there is far more in the Bible than the Reformation dealt with, and that many of our problems today are addressed by those hitherto unnoticed or undeveloped aspects of the Bible.

Those who want to bang the drum for a 450-year old tradition are dooming themselves to irrelevance. Our only concern is to avoid being beat up by them as they thrash about in their death-throes. I mean that I do not recognize the boundary lines of American evangelicalism as the boundary lines of true Christianity. I mean that creeds and confessions have positive and defining roles, but do not function as popes and unassailable authorities.

I mean that it has become virtually impossible to practice any form of Christian community that does not interact in some way with the larger church in history and reality. (I salute those who attempt to practice pure forms of fundamentalism, etc. They have my respect.) I mean that I do not share the hostility and suspicion of all things Catholic or catholic that is endemic to evangelicalism. I mean that I recognize that Christian belief emerges from a matrix of the text of Holy Scripture, the history of interpretation, cultural and sub-cultural presuppositions, the use of reason, the place of experience, the wisdom of the teachers of the larger church and the work of the Holy Spirit in revealing more light. I embrace this more complex understanding of Christian belief as part of the great stream of Christian existence, and I reject any notions that Christian belief falls from the sky as a magic book that exists apart from other components of human experience.

I mean that words like “postmodern,” “emerging” and “missional” are in the process of being defined and filled with meaning, and are not to be ridiculed and rejected out of hand because some who use them are out of step or even heretical.

I mean that I reject the idea that the primary role of a minister is to define other Christians as wrong. . I mean that the death of evangelicalism opens the door for a return to the sources…I mean that our reverence for previous epochs and events in church history must be tempered with an awareness that the work of the Holy Spirit in the church continues, and what was believed in the past is not immune from the light that may break forth in the ongoing present.

Full version here.

And in the article on the Emergent Church that I posted here “The Emergent Church and Orthodoxy” the author listed at least four points worth considering: Prophecy, greater focus on worship and ritual, not being worried about boundaries, and liberal politics.

I ask the Gen-Y/Millennials out there: How do they see themselves different than Centrism? What do they think are the sins and excesses of Centrism?

I ask again: How much of this is applicable to changes within Orthodoxy? Does it sound familiar? Are their differences? Is this change inevitable? Which of these will change Orthodoxy more and which will change it less?

If I wanted I could collect the Facebook answers to the info line “Religious Views” to show that something is up. I have hundreds of examples of those raised Orthodox defining themselves in all sorts of convoluted ways. Don’t worry I will not do it, but a such a listing of self-identifications bespeaks a mood.

Remember, this is a moment or a mood – not an ideology or denomination. Post-evangelical is like Yuppie or returning GI – a set of values that will play itself out in a variety of diverse ways. How will these winds blow over the face of traditional practice? What will be the VARIED responses? I await details from those in the field.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Hybrid Orthodoxy: American religion and sexuality

Orthodox graduate students are comfortable speaking of the influence of Greek ideas on Judaism, and will even homiletically explain it as zeh leumat zeh (that Jewish ideas correspond to the outside world.) And they are comfortable with their treating the Guide of Perplexed as Aristotelian (even if Maimonides himself thought the content was Torat Moshe). But most are not as comfortable situating twentieth century Judaism in those terms.

My online reader feed of web sources contains material from many faiths and they often reports on the same events occurring in several communities, within several months of the other communities and sometimes within weeks or even days. For example, having a gay speaker come to speak to the community and then the follow-up issues has occurred in many Evangelical colleges in the last year. Here is a story of a gay Christian speaking to an Evangelical college. I am not interested in the GLBT issues or the “Torah view” or identical “Christian view.”

I am interested in what is the conception of history that makes this possible? How do we formulate the way Jews are cultural embedded with Christians in America. What is the cultural construction? What is the hybrid? Why does the issue arise in the same months? Why does it get resolved by having a panel? Why are the arguments on both sides the same? Why does the institution react the same way on both sides?  Why does the negative reaction seen similar to the Christian response rather than the traditional Jewish language and practices of tikkunim? When Anglicans, Episcopalians, the Conservative movement within Judaism all debate the same points within a 2 year span, it seems natural. But when Orthodox Jews and Evangelicals do the same thing within months, as they do, is it just as natural?

01/11/2010 – Jonathan Odell A gay Christian speaks to fundamentalists

Last year I got a call from an administrator at a Midwestern seminary with a reputation for its “take no prisoners” conservative theology. He had permission to conduct a series of seminars on hot-button issues like abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage. His plan was to bring in a succession of speakers, one to take the pro side of an issue, followed by a second to present the opposing view.  I took a deep breath. I knew what was coming next. “We want you to take the pro side on homosexuality,” he said.

“Yippee,” I thought. “I get to argue for Satan.” So I asked him, “Why me?” Why me indeed…. Several years earlier I had given a reading on the same campus. It was from my novel. But I hadn’t come out as gay then, only as a Baptist.

“Actually,” the caller said, “I had heard you were gay before you showed up.” He told me that when the dean found out I was coming, he had done his best to cancel my reading. I had not known at the time that my gay presence was sufficient to cause a scandal. What would happen if I were to actually talk about it?

The administrator pleaded his case. “I want you to come here not only because you’re gay, but because you’re religious. You’ve obviously held on to your spiritual beliefs.” I didn’t tell him I’d been able to retain my faith by steering clear of the hateful fundamentalists that universities like his turned out. Instead, I lied and told him I’d think about it.

His reaction afterwards

I’m here because whether I like it or not, you are in my life and I need to somehow make peace with that part of my life.”

But something interesting happened next, during the Q and A. The questions were not the ones I had expected. Instead, students asked thoughtfully about my life and my struggle with religion. “How do you as a gay man experience the presence of Christ in your life?” “How do you handle Christians who reject you without knowing your story?” “If your parents had not accepted you, what do you think you would have done?”

I would like to say everybody involved went on to live happily ever after, but life doesn’t work that way. A few professors whose students were at the session complained to the dean about my being allowed to speak. Some of the seminarians attending the session decided to push for a campus support group for friends of the GLBT community. The dean, alarmed, charged a committee to create a list of faculty and students who challenged the institution’s policy on homosexuality.

Read the full version here.

I am only interested in how we explain this culturally and historically. Is the historic process any different than Centrism’s adoption of supply-side economics and moral majority rhetoric during the Reagan era? Is this any different than everyone responding to premarital sexuality in 1966-1970? Those are the years when the youth groups started having sessions on the tensions and difficulties of keeping “negiah” where everyone gets to state their difficulties in keeping the prohibition. And the thousand year tradition of a “pot of filth” became a “hedge of roses” (find the article by Jonah Steinberg online for more details.

How does the hybrid of Judaism and American religion work?

Moshe Kline and the Structured Mishnah

The 1980′s and 1990′s attracted many original minds to Jerusalem. One of them, Moshe Kline, part-time real estate developer, devoted himself to a Torah lishmah quest for the structure of Mishnah. I was always intrigued by anyone who can discuss Leo Strauss, Maharal, and Mishnah in one sentence. My interest was originally the Maharal angle. But, I have had many colleagues who use Kline’s structured approach to the Mishnah in teaching HS or adult education.

An introductory lecture presenting his discovery and method as delivered to Talmoodists is available here.
Having this chart in front of you will help in understanding the lecture.
An article capturing his original insight based on Maharal is available here.
The website has his articles on Bible and his complete printable color-coded Mishnah. If you want to discuss the method then please read the above articles first. Here is the home page of the website with tabs for articles on Torah and Mishnah.

He recently stopped by on a cold wintry NY day and answered a few questions.

1] What was your discovery about the Mishnah?

The original goal of my Mishnah project was to determine the principles according to which chapters of Mishnah were organized. In order to uncover these rules, it was first necessary to identify the components of chapters. The differing divisions into mishnayot (Bavli, Yerushalmi, various printings of the Mishnah) are all late and extraneous to the text. So I began going through the Mishnah dividing the chapters into components according to literary indicators.
Early on, I realized that the chapters were actually composed with two levels of division, a fact which is totally disguised by the common division into linearly-divided mishnayot. This was the key to the discovery that the chapters were composed as non-linear texts which could be visualized and understood as tables.
The chapters of the Mishnah were formatted according to a paradigm that resembles a table. I then set out each chapter in a visual format consistent with its inner literary structure. The discovery of the literary structure of the chapter leads to an approach to the study of the chapter as a coherent construct rather that a collection of loosely connected laws.

2] Who has supported it?

My edition of the Mishnah was accepted for publication by BGU Press on recommendation of Shamma Friedman and Daniel Boyarin. I have also received encouragement from David Weiss Halivni and Shlomo Zalman Havlin. Since I made it available online (chaver.com) about ten years ago, I have lost track of how many people actually use it. Currently people are downloading about 20-30 copies of the full text per day. In addition, several hundred individual chapters are accessed every day. So I guess a lot of people are using it.

3] What did you learn from Leo Strauss about reading a text?

Although I cite Persecution and the Art of Writing, and see the Mishnah as an exoteric/esoteric text, I learned how to read during four years of the great-books program at St. John’s College. (Strauss retired to St. John’s as scholar in residence.) The most important element of this education, relevant to my research, is the requirement to read primary texts without commentary. This made me uncomfortable with the traditional Jewish approach to its foundational texts, i.e. that they could not be approached without commentaries. I was also influenced by the fact that the historical approach was anathema at St. John’s. Consequently, my work is neither “traditional” nor academic/historical.

4] What did you gain from Maharal?

The Maharal opened the door for me to see the Mishnah as a coherent composition, primarily through his exposition of the pairs in the first chapter of Avot. He made it clear that this structure was to be read as a philosophic composition rather than a loose compilation of aphorisms.

5] What did you learn from Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou)?

From Manitou I learned first and foremost to trust in myself and my St. John’s training. After we studied Maharal together for a period of several months, I began to see other parts of Avot as literary constructs, in addition to the pairs in the first chapter. Manitou then told me that he had received a tradition that the whole of the Mishnah used to be studied in the way that I was beginning to read Avot. However, several generations ago this knowledge had been lost. He asked me to restore this knowledge by identifying the literary structure of the Mishnah. He was sure that the “kabbala” was embedded in the formal structure, or in his words, that the Mishnah was constructed according to the “kabbala”. However, he instructed me to avoid reference to this in my work, and limit myself to literary analysis. Monitou gave me my life’s work, which has now gone farther than he envisioned.

6] What are you current Bible projects?

I am preparing a structured edition of the Torah which is similar to my edition of the Mishnah. In the meantime, I have published articles on Leviticus. Jacob Milgrom has become my mentor in biblical studies. I am also finishing an article on the link between the structure of the Torah and the structure of the Mishnah. In it, I demonstrate that Rabbi had an esoteric tradition regarding the literary formatting of the Torah which he applied to the composition of the Mishnah.

The paradigm can be seen in the first chapter of the Torah through the six days of creation. We all are familiar with the parallels between days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6. These parallels actually divide the days into two parallel cycles of three days each, 1-3 and 4-6. What is less known, is that the cycles differ from each other in a fixed manner. The days of the first cycle contain creations that are unique, separated, named and motionless (Straus). The days of the second cycle contain groups of multiple, unnamed, moving creations: stars, fish, etc. By arranging the six days in a table containing two columns, the two cycles, and three rows, the paired days, you get a visual representation of the structure underlying the six days of creation. Each individual day is a function of the intersection of two planning lines, its column and its row. “Reading” the text according to this structure reveals the underlying metaphysics of the creation.

7] How does your approach differ from the literary approaches to Bible and Mishnah that are being produced by Machon Herzog?
My specific focus is on the division into the structural literary units and the additional meanings that are made available by the identification of these larger units.

Chief Rabbi di Segni on the Jewish Catholic Encounter

Interviews with Chief Rabbi di Segni  from January 12, and 14.

In an interview with Reuters ahead of this Sunday’s visit, Rabbi Riccardo di Segni also said he hoped the event would help combat hostility towards the Jewish world and intolerance of any religion.

INTERVIEW – Only God can judge Pius XII on Jews – chief rabbi

By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) – Only God can judge whether wartime Pope Pius XII did enough to save Jews and whether he should have spoken out more forcefully against the Holocaust, the rabbi who will host Pope Benedict first visit to Rome’s synagogue said.

Di Segni was asked about a Vatican official who defended Pius — who became pope on the eve of World War Two — from accusations he turned a blind eye to the Holocaust.

“I think that it can be morally dangerous and, religiously speaking, dangerous to say that the will of God is to be silent and not to say a word in front of the suffering of the people,” Di Segni said, speaking in English.

“So let us be careful and let us not (look for) a way of absolving people. I think only God may understand if people have done His will righteously, not us,” he said.”Religion now has a tremendous responsibility in bringing either war or peace to the world. So a signal of peace and friendship starting here from Rome could be very important,” he said.

“As Jews we want to say very strongly that any kind of hatred against difference, and not only against the Jews, has to be banned, has to be condemned,” he said.

Another Interview in Catholic News Service

Rome rabbi says pope’s visit shows commitment to dialogue
Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi, told Catholic News Service there is “a solid basis” for positive relations, but “with a storm every now and then.”

“Times have changed,” the rabbi said. “Many things have been achieved; other things still need to be done. The path, the Jewish-Catholic encounter, is terribly complicated. It is not a smooth road leading onward, but it is one continually filled with stumbling blocks. The visit of a pope to the synagogue should demonstrate that beyond the stumbling blocks there is a substantial desire to communicate with each other and resolve problems.”
As is often the case, he said, “it’s hardest to establish good relations with the person closest to you.”

Side point on Bnei Akiva

Bnei Akiva’s local representatives said they decided to participate after hesitation and followed the advice of Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, who said that the visit was a sign that Pope Benedict wanted to “continue the dialogue.” He advised Bnei Akiva that the pope should be “respected as a king.”

Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni (1949-) the current chief rabbi of Rome offers a unique take on the dialogue. He assumes that both sides accept exclusivism, so to go forward we have to affirm pluralism. Ever the gadfly, di Segni writes that the Jewish tradition follows the exclusivist and anti-Christian counter-gospel narrative of Toldot Yeshu,  on which he wrote his doctorate and then published as a book. For di Segni, Christians must recognize that the derogatory exclusivism Toldot Yeshu is the Jewish tradition, and this corresponds to the anti-Jewish narrative of traditional Christianity. He ponders that the Christian Trinity may actually be idolatry and violates the Noahite law that requires monotheism. If Christians violate this law, according to deSegni, they will not find salvation and are, furthermore, deserving of death in this world.

Noahite laws may be incumbent on gentiles as a form of general revelation but, Segni asks, if we took that seriously then wouldn’t we would have to be missionizing for these laws? So too, Christians if they should take their own faith seriously, should advocate missionizing.  Rabbi de Segni proposes therefore that both sides call a moratorium on truth claims and missionizing. It is not that either side should actually give up their truth claims, or their exclusivism, or to stop hoping for the conversion of the other, but simply a practical moratorium, a practical pluralism.

The real problem is not so much the Church’s conviction of the necessity for the Jews to be saved by means of Jesus. The real issue is what is done with that conviction. If we were to apply the system of Noahide laws to the latter, we would have to do everything possible in order that the Noahides observe them—including the law dealing with the prohibition against worship of other gods. Each person would have to become a missionary of the pure faith…

On the Jewish side, this movement would have to be matched by an affirmation of the principle that faith in Jesus (understood: on the part of Christians, not Jews ) is not incompatible with the worship of the one and only God. This is a principle which has been accepted in authoritative traditions within Judaism, but which would have to become more prevalent and accepted by the majority. From this would have to follow, on the part of Jews, a greater understanding of Christian Spirituality.

Moses Maimonides, in the rules he gives for kings in his treatise (Chapter 11), after having denounced the invalidity of faith in Jesus, nevertheless formulated an interpretation of the providential significance of the spread of Christianity, “to prepare the road for the king-Messiah, and to help the whole world become accustomed to serving God together, as it is said, ‘At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord’” (Zeph. 3:9).

Perhaps the parallel suggests the solution, which cannot be immediate but eschatological. Each of us has the right to hope that the other will acknowledge that there is true faith in us, but we allow for that to unfold over a long period, which is beyond our control.

Read full version here

Rabbi De Segni argues that we keep our particular truth claims but suspend acting on them until the end time. Since we have no common ground for discussion if we put our truth claims first, let us avoid the question and deal with ethics and practical matters.He frames questions as an exclusivist and then answers as a pluralist. Unlike other thinkers, De Segni values diversity over dignity, he emphasizes religious exclusivism and prejudice and then calls for charity.

Rabbi de Segni does work toward theological charity by building on Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s acceptance of Jesus as a great teacher who did not want to harm Judaism, and therefore legitimate for the gentiles since

In the end what counts is human responsibility. In the human realm, both faiths are called by God to work in the world.

As he left the ark, Noah received the assurance that humanity would never again be entirely destroyed by God. Now, however this risk still exists—not destruction by a divine hand, but by a human hand with no guarantees other than our own responsibility, which we (especially as religious) cannot escape. Commitments and facts must come before forms and ceremonies. This is the authentic message of the prophets, which we recognize as a common source, and the comfort promised by the divine mercy will recall once more the waters of Noah, no longer as a sign of destruction, but as a sign of protections. As the prophet Isaiah says (54:9): “This is like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you.”

di Segni sates that there is no need for Jews to change their current prayer because they have already been censored, but he claims that they were self-censored.

Jewish prayers have already been self-censored, centuries ago,” Di Segni informed the prelate in a communiqué. “What has been brought to our attention once more is a history of polemics which goes back thousands of years, concerning which some clarifications are in order. Anyone can hear for themselves the prayers which Jews recite today, and they can easily be verified, even in translation,” Di Segni emphasized. “The essential fact,” he added, “is that today no reference to Christians exists in our prayers, which, among other things, have been the object of repeated interventions of censoring and self-censoring. The Hebrew texts were changed centuries ago.
full version here

Di Segni thinks that dialogue is important but he does not think that Judaism can change through dialogue. “There has been notable theological progress in Christian theology’s view of Judaism” However, “reciprocity at the theological level does not exist,” the rabbi said. “Among politicians there can be discussions that lead to a solution, not so among theologians.” “Christianity is born from Judaism and, with notable efforts, can introduce elements of Jewish spirituality,” he said. “The contrary is not possible.”

Side Point: Rabbi David Rosen in Haaratz on the poor behavior of Jews toward the Vatican.

Israel’s behavior toward the Vatican over the past 15 years has been “outrageous,” one of the figures behind the 1994 establishment of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Vatican City told Haaretz last week. “Any [other] country would have threatened to withdraw its ambassador long ago over Israel’s failure to honor agreements,” Rabbi David Rosen said.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill · All Rights Reserved

The Bahir, The Shepherd of Hermas, and Kabbalah

Once upon a time when Prof Twersky of Harvard was holding conferences on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, someone commented to me that we need conferences on the 7th, 8th, and 9th, centuries. There is a sense that much would be gained if you put those that work on Kabbalah and those that work on late midrash in a room together, new connections would be found.  Some have noted in my Zohar review the passing references to Philo of Alexandria and Shiite thought.  What I could not include in the Forward review is any discussion of the use of extended narrative of late antiquity in these Zohar volumes such as the role of Sefer Hayashar - Chronicle of Yerachmiel nor the history of the traditions of Moses as king and warrior in Ethiopia from the Chronicle of Moses. Nor did I mention the alchemy. Much of this was already noted by Moses Gaster, Louis Ginzburg, Adolphe Jellinek and others.

What the Pritzker edition lacks is any greater context than early Andalusian Kabbalah. When Midrash is added to the footnotes it is from CD-Rom and Margaliot’s comments on the Zohar not as an actual useful comparison.  Or when there is a footnote to the messianic battles of Nistarot of Rabbi Shimon – the footnote does not make one aware of the half a dozen different versions composed over 500 years  or which version does the Zohar seem to know. The version in Jellinek? the one edited by Bernard Lewis? Nor are the sources in Ashkenaz material sufficiently noted.

Yet,  there are the connections that allude almost anyone in Jewish studies. For example, At this year’s SBL there was a paper on The Shepard of Hermes and thanks to a write up on Mystical Politics, there was a tentative connection to the Kabbalah.

The third paper in the session was “The Tower as Divine Body: Visions and Theurgy in the Shepherd of Hermas,” presented by Franklin Trammell. The abstract of his paper reads:

Behind some of the visions and teachings in the Shepherd of Hermas lies the notion of a direct correspondence between the heart of the righteous and the androgynous divine body. This body is presented by Hermas as a sevenfold Tower that is in the process of being (re)built by (re)incorporating the feminine Ecclesia. Members of the Ecclesia, who are pure of heart, are clothed with twelve virgins and receive the seal of the Son of God, representing the female and male aspects of the body. They then affect the reintegration of this female aspect, being built into the eschatological Tower as a part of her. Hermas’ law of purity therefore plays an incredibly important theurgic role. In identifying the Tower with the Ecclesia, itself implicitly assimilated in the text to Sophia, the author portrays those who do not sin after baptism as participating in the (re)unification of pre-existent Wisdom. It is this process along with elements related to it that shares affinities with later Jewish mystical sources.

I found this talk fascinating, especially since I’ve never read the Shepherd of Hermas. I found particularly interesting the possible connections to Sefer ha-Bahir that he mentioned.

What is the Shepard of Hermes?From wiki

The Shepherd of Hermas (sometimes just called The Shepherd) is a Christian literary work of the second century, considered a valuable book by many Christians, and considered canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers. The Shepherd had great authority in the second and third centuries.

Here is the text and an Intro.

Shlomo Pines and other have noted the early references to Kabbalistic esotericsm in Patristics. But few look to works to books left out of Patristics like the Shepard of Hermes. Theses books give  insight into the thought of centuries like the second century, where we know little of the rabbinic worldview outside of the Tannaic works.

Critical Theory and Religion

An interesting find on the consistently superb blog Mirror of Justice, written by two dozen law professors teaching at Catholic law schools.

The Cambridge professor of theology,  Denys Turner, has noted “in much continental philosophy, from Heidegger to Levinas and Derrida, it is  acknowledged, with varying degrees of unease at having to concede the point, that the predicaments of our culture have an ineradicably theological character.” Back in 2004, Paul Griffiths made a similar point in a First Things essay, titled “Christ and Critical Theory,” which explores the Christian yearning of the likes of Lyotard, Badio, Eagleton (then a disaffected post-marxist), and Zizek.

If one takes the Crits to be involved with a philosophical engagement with difference, then their connection to a form of Christianity has been noted by theologians for some time. Points of contact exist between apophatic religion and the philosophical concern for difference, religious skepticism, and lived experience. Apophaticism is a via negativa approach to the divine where God is nameless because, in the words of Meister Eckhardt, “no one can say anything or understand anything about him.” The Crits, in their veneration of difference, negate the hegemonic traditions, thus leaving a space for apophasia, since positive namings of God are a part of the negated tradition.

What remains paramount for the Crits is experience. The lived experience of moral sentiments substitute for rational discourse, since such discourse is viewed as hopelessly rooted in authoritative traditions of moral reason that must be de-centered. Some, such as de Lubac, Balthasar, (and recently Pickstock and Millbank), see a genealogy for this in Ockham’s nominalism–the separation of language from reality.

What would any of this mean for Judaism? Can any of this turn be used to create an ethical turn and moral sentiments toward love, fear, hospitality, and engaging the other?

Why Read The Zohar?

From this week’s issue of The Forward
Why Read the Zohar? By Alan Brill

(The Forward made a few rearrangements at the 11th hr, this was the version as of 2 days ago. Read this one)

For an alternate view to that of Melila Heller-Eshed, see the view of Daniel Abrams discussed 2 months ago here..

Demystifying Kabbalah For English Readers
By Alan Brill Published January 13, 2010, issue of January 22, 2010

The Zohar 5: Pritzker Edition, Volume Five (With Translation and Commentary)
Translated by Daniel C. Matt, Stanford University Press (Pritzker edition), 656 pages

A River Flows From Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar
By Melila Hellner-Eshed Stanford University Press, 488 pages, $60.00.

The Pritzker translation of the Zohar into English by Daniel Matt — the fifth volume of which has just appeared — should be greeted as a major cultural event. Yet, the publication of each volume has typically produced tiresome book reviews on the ownership of the word Kabbalah, comparing the academic approach of Gershom Scholem to Madonna’s New Age approach. The reviews do not answer the basic question: Why read the Zohar? Nor do they explain why the Zohar speaks to our age more than the myriad other kabbalistic works.

Melila Hellner-Eshed, in her book, “A River Flows From Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar,” provides an indispensible work that, finally, explains why the Zohar is an important and alluring work for our time. Susan Sontag taught readers to ask not what the art means, but rather “how it is what it is.” Hellner-Eshed follows Sontag and seeks to offer an experiential aesthetic of the Zohar.

Hellner-Eshed’s book is comparatively easy to read, despite being a scholarly work that assumes the reader has already read the terse prose of Scholem. Her work offers the nonacademic a chance to see the current state of Kabbalah study at Hebrew University among the students of Yehuda Liebes and Moshe Idel.

Liebes, who was Hellner-Eshed’s dissertation supervisor, claims that the Zohar was produced by a group similar to the group of mystics described in it. Accepting this approach, she muses “Who is this Rabbi Shimon who emerges from the quill of the Zohar’s composers?” Is he fictitious, or a legendary embellishment of a real historical person? Or maybe he represents the authors’ ideal figure? To these questions, she concludes: “There are of course no easy answers to these questions and perhaps this is as it ought to be.”

Hellner-Eshed’s book seeks to capture the life of the group of companions around Shimon, the stories of their wanderings and journeys, their study of Torah as a mystical quest and, finally, a description of their mystical experience. The book needs to be read cover to cover and then reread to integrate the concluding descriptions of mysticism back into the stories. This is because stories, experience and wisdom are not separate commodities for the kabbalists.

In Hellner-Eshed’s presentation, the companions around Shimon spend their time revealing the secrets of the Torah to each other as a collective form of mysticism. Instead of the usual reductionist discussion of sefirot (emanations of God), we are shown how the Holy Spirit pulsates within the companions of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. We also meet wondrous characters — old man, young child, donkey driver — who reveal ancient secrets to the companions.

The Zohar’s name originates in the biblical verse: “The enlightened will shine like the brilliance (zohar) of the sky…” (Daniel 12:3). Hellner-Eshed shows how the image of light is used to indicate the presence of a God in the Bible and in rabbinic literature. The Zohar, in turn, expands the metaphor to include variegated colors and mixings of shades, and combines light metaphors with those of fragrance and fluidity. Her own book draws its title from another of the Zohar’s central images, the superabundant divine plenty portrayed as “a river [that] flows from Eden.” Hellner-Eshed does not treat this imagery as mere metaphor, rather as a description of the mystic life of the companions engaged in nocturnal entrance into the Garden of Eden. When there is an awakening by the mystics below, then there is a parallel awakening from above, shown as a river of divine plenty.

The Zohar portrays the experience of God as ecstatic delight through kissing, embracing and even intercourse. Hellner-Eshed’s original conclusion is that the mysticism of the Zohar describes the experience to be like a wave of water or A scent, where one enters into a period of heightened consciousness, sensuous pleasure, altered time frame and intuition of the secrets. According to Hellner-Eshed, there are three mystical states in the Zohar: when one drifts in and out; when one is “in the zone,” like a dancer or sprinter, and white light — a deep mythic level in which one enters into being itself. One can — using the terminology of less poetic scholars — call them shekhinah, tiferet and keter, but after Hellner-Eshed’s evocative exposition, that would show a tin ear for the drama.

Hellner-Eshed claims that the Zohar’s style is deliberately exaggerated and rhythmic to capture the experiential mood through trails of sensations and emotions. The rhythm of the Zohar offers many voices in which each sage continues and further develops the thought of the prior speaker. Hellner-Eshed compares the Zohar narrative to a jazz jam session, where a common melodic theme performed by the ensemble branches into solo improvisations that build to greater surprise, complexity and crescendo — the more virtuosity, the more wonderful and surprising the innovations.

One of her conclusions is, “The genius of the Zohar as a book lies precisely in its ability to capture the life of the experiences in Rabbi Shimon’s circle.” And thereby, according to Hellner-Eshed, it draws the reader into the mystical journey. She boldly claims that an academic attempt to understand the text should coincide properly with the attempt to induce a mystical experience.

What percentage of the Zohar fits Hellner-Eshed’s description? For that, we have to turn to the actual text of the Zohar. The Zohar corpus as published in the 16th century contains many reworked texts of ancient and medieval materials; there is certainly a large chunk of the Zohar that portrays the grand epic story of Shimon and his companions, but there are many segments that do not.

The fourth volume of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar (2007) was a diverse volume containing many texts that do not fit the model. It included a paraphrase of Philo of Alexandria’s ban on abortion, a Shiite style apocalypse of a messiah who is hidden in heaven, citations of 12th-century Ashkenazic theology, and selections from the rewritten biblical narrative of late antiquity.

The newly published fifth volume of the Pritzker Zohar exemplifies Hellner-Eshed’s thesis in the delightful story of the Old Man of Mishpatim, who teaches though riddles and paradox and then explains them with a chivalrous story of a damsel in the castle who reveals herself only to the worthy kabbalist. But is also contains the terse and bombastic Book of Concealment, which describes the primordial world before emanation. Hellner-Eshed does not explain how the latter gnomic work fits with her selections. In addition, Hellner-Eshed’s biggest lack is that her work does not discuss the huge number of Zohar passages about mitzvahs, Halacha, rituals or pietistic life, all of which are admirably represented in Matt’s new volume.

Armed with these books, one can now begin to appreciate a cultural and religious treasure of Judaism. No journalist or book reviewer should write about Kabbalah again without first reading Hellner-Eshed. Her work steers the English reader between the Scylla of Kabbalah as technical sefirot and the Charybdis of Kabbalah as the personalized New Age spirituality. Hellner-Eshed’s work treats the Zohar as a mystical fantasy in which the Knights of the Round Table are rabbis living in an eroticized Middle Earth and spurred to great deeds by their love of the damsel Shechinah. Then, the beautifully edited Pritzker translation allows the interested reader to travel on these mystical journeys, yet still return home safely.