Monthly Archives: July 2010

Love the Stranger- Sam Fleischacker

Who is the Stranger today?
This weeks’ dvar Torah from Uri l’Tzedek offers us a return to the universalism of Hermann Cohen. Paam, once upon a time Herman Cnohen was an accepted part of a Rabbinic education, Mosad Harav Kook kashered him up and translated him, Akiva Simon and Harold Fisch debated which verses to use for Jewish universalism and Rav Soloveitchik did his degree on him. (And we get chief rabbis Sacks quoting him without citation.)

Samuel Fleischacker a professor at the University of Illinois offers us an expanded definition that seeks to overcome ethnocentrism. Hermann Cohen taught that we should judge a person’s ethics by how we relate to the economically and socially downtrodden. It is easy to pride ourselves on our ethic of helping our own community and building one’s own enclave. But what of those not part of the community, especially those who work for us or we live among?

Parshat Eikev by Samuel Fleischacker

This week we are commanded to love the “stranger.” (10:19) Who is this stranger? Halakha tells us that it is the convert. This is disappointing, if we are looking in the Torah for signs of concern for humanity in general, and it seems a clear stretch of the verse. For what 10:19 tells us, more precisely, is to love the stranger “because you were strangers in Egypt.” This echoes two verses in Mishpatim (Ex 22:20 and 23:9), which warn us against oppressing the stranger and note that we “know the soul of the stranger” from our experience in Egypt. We were, however, certainly not converts in Egypt. Rather, in knowing the soul of the stranger from our experience in Egypt, we know a generally human kind of suffering. P’shat in these verses would seem to demand that we not oppress non-Jews, should we ever rule over them as the Egyptians did over us.

And that supreme Being presumably cares about all sorts of strangers, not just converts to Judaism. Verses 18-19 indicate that we are to emulate this sort of love, to care about all humanity as God does.

Indeed, the Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen suggested that it is only in loving the stranger that we fully express our monotheism. We understand God as truly the ruler of the entire universe, creator and guardian of all humankind, only when we recognize Him as the God of the stranger and not just of our kin. Loving the stranger is the most difficult of loves, the greatest challenge to our inclination to limit our concerns to the people and social system we know. But to care just about what we know is to worship ourselves, and to limit God to a being who takes care of the Jews is idolatry. True monotheism, a true recognition of God as source of or ruler over the entire universe, requires us to see God in the unfamiliar, the alien, as well as the familiar — in the complete outsider and not just in our neighbors.

In practice this means, for Jews in Israel, seeing God in the Palestinians, and for Jews here in America, seeing God in the Latina/os and other immigrants who work in our restaurants and stores and homes.
The God of gods… stands with all these people against their oppressors just as He stood with us in Egypt, cares for them as He does for us, and is ready to deliver them, as he does col adam, from one who is stronger than them, even when that stronger person is a Jew.
We were not delivered from Egypt to set up another ethnocentric system that oppresses outsiders.
We were delivered, instead, precisely to spread the message that the true God cares for all humanity (that is how we become a “holy nation”). And that requires that we understand “love the stranger” broadly and richly: not just in legal terms but in the expansive terms that allow us to mirror God’s own love, and help bring about God’s own justice.
Full Version Here

A new blog with criticism of the Statement on Principles

Please continue to think about the last post “Quarreling with Orthodoxy” on what would be in a book to respond to post-orthodoxy and how would you address the problems. The Evangelicals in their discussions are showing that you wont solve the problems through more paternalistic liberalism or apologetics. The Evangelicals are showing in their struggles that one needs to properly name the problem, and then not to fix things with a repair kit but to offer a new vision combined with a return to basics.
A recent attempt for liberal tolerance for the issues in the community is last week’s Statement on Principles on Homosexuality. It was certainly needed to alleviate the suicide, depression, and self-hatred caused by a community that demands a single social aspiration and complete internalization of an external rule.

However, here is a new blog by two Orthodox women, both straight, grappling with the statements. I do not agree with many of their points. I am more catholic in many senses and do not think solutions will come via identity politics. But they raise the issues about liberal tolerance, hence they apply named themselves Accidental Radical.
I do know that whenever I am engaged in interfaith encounters and the other side starts with a declaration that we are all in the image of God and hence they would never do anything Anti-Semitic, then I know there will be no discussion of past Antisemitic acts, nor any plans to educate the laity, nor any apology, nor any commitments for the future since they already respect all humans.

Accidental radical
Blogger #1- Svara

I strongly applaud the efforts of those who wrote and signed the statement, as it is a necessary and long overdue acknowledgment of the undeniable presence of homosexual individuals within the Orthodox community.

However, when I reached item three, I was a bit surprised. “ Halakhah sees heterosexual marriage as the ideal model and sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression. The sensitivity and understanding we properly express for human beings with other sexual orientations does not diminish our commitment to that principle.”

We try to be accommodating, we even spew apologetics from time to time. But we continue to stand firm on our most important principle of all – that halacha says homosexual encounters are a big no-no, and there is nothing to be done about this reality.

I am a proud Orthodox Jew. I tend to run in more modern circles, and am occasionally met with confused looks when I proclaim my identity – people wonder how could I so readily align myself with a community that is perceived to be backwards in its approach to women, gays, tax responsibilities, etc.
But my admiration of the strength and devotion of the Orthodox community, particularly in its commitment to halacha, has always trumped all of these problems that we have.

After all, if I am such a proud Orthodox Jew, shouldn’t I applaud this statement? Shouldn’t it be fundamental to any Orthodox approach?
I refuse to condemn homosexuality in any form.

In essence, what the statement does is tell the Orthodox community that we should not explicitly support our gay congregants, family, or friends’ homosexual relationships because they are not halachically valid, but if you so desire, when they want to come to shul or the family barbecue, with or without their partners and/or children, we should welcome them with open arms. I suppose my issue with this construct is that it continues to place the burden of blame for violating halacha on the shoulders of these gay individuals. We tell them that they’re violating halacha, but if they choose to do so (after all, is it really a choice to want to have a partner in life?), we won’t blame them for it. I just wonder if at any point the Orthodox community will explicitly grapple with the contradiction of halacha and our (independent?) moral instincts.

(In a similar vein, will we ever acknowledge that expecting Orthodox singles to be shomer negiah until they marry in their late 20s or early 30s is absurd? Because currently, many frum Orthodox singles in their 20s are “hooking up” on the side while pretending to be shomer negiah at shul, and this lifestyle is becoming increasingly widespread.) Will we ever stop handling these tricky questions by simply turning the other cheek, and instead step up and recognize how deeply this naive approach is hurting anyone who isn’t a married heterosexual Jew?

Blogger #2-Cashia
It bemoans me that the conversation on homosexuality needs to begin where this document does. Do we truly need to be reminded that all human beings are, well, human? Must we be told that we are prohibited from embarrassing, harassing or demeaning anyone?
It is an egotism to believe that we have the power to decide which aveirot are more severe than others. Who are we to proclaim that those who cheat on their taxes, those who treat others improperly, those who keep kosher homes but eat non-kosher in secret (perhaps I should add those who are shomer negiah in public but “hooking up” in private) are still worthy to be members of our community and receive honors, but those who have homosexual inclinations, or are in a homosexual relationship, do not deserve those same rights?

But I am conflicted by one of Svara’s points: “I just wonder if at any point the Orthodox community will explicitly grapple with the contradiction of halacha and our (independent?) moral instincts.” I wonder if this is the fear that permeates the Orthodox community which makes us so much quicker to condemn homosexuality and not kick out of our communities individuals who are convicted of attempted murder or child molestation: does halakha contradict our moral instincts?

My instinct is to answer a resounding no. But I have certainly felt that contradiction at times, this time being no exception.
I have many questions and no answers. But I will continue to grapple with these questions. Because I do not believe halakha offers us simple answers. But I do believe it has answers. And if those answers contradict my “(independent) moral instincts,” perhaps that is G-d’s way of telling me that I have not yet found the correct answers. And so we must continue to seek

For the Full Version- see here

Quarreling with Orthodoxy- more post-orthodoxy

Here is a book review from internetmonk.com, the blog from which I first adapted the term post-evangelical to post-orthodox. The problems of emphasis on body count and any technique or argument is good is it makes someone religious are obvious in the Orthodox community. The sentimentality and materialism of the community are standard critiques of Orthodoxy. His first problem of provincialism takes a bit more imagination to understand. Provincialism means that Orthodoxy means following the opinions of Teaneck, Riverdale, or YU and not the full gamut of the tradition. It also means that Orthodoxy is following the social enclave and mores of frum neighborhoods more than following God. The blog notes that now we need a book of solutions.

From internetmonk: A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church

By Chaplain Mike
Warren Cole Smith’s book, A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church has a title with which I resonate. If you’ve been reading Internet Monk for any length of time, you’ll know that we describe ourselves in two ways: We are evangelicals. We’re having struggles with the church. We are engaged in a critique of the church which bears Jesus’ name. We have become convinced that it is not very Jesus-shaped these days.

Many of us call ourselves “post-evangelical”—that is, we no longer feel comfortable within the system known as the American evangelical church.
In this book, Warren Cole Smith sets forth the question many of us are asking: What is it about evangelical theology or evangelical practice that is both so appealing and so troubling? (p.8 )

One of the great contributions Smith makes is that he gives names to the chains that bind us in cultural captivity. These are:
The New Provincialism: Evangelicalism has so cut itself off from history and Biblical and church tradition that, “the evangelical church risks ceasing to be a Christian church at all.” (p. 60)

The Triumph of Sentimentality: “Sentimentality is the result of our unwillingness to realign our desires with the reality of the world, but rather to remake the world in accordance with our desires” (p. 67). Having rejected history and our theological legacy, today’s evangelicalism is all about creating an alternate reality—through highly efficient, full-service megachurches, through technologically-generated “worship experiences,” through therapeutic, positive-thinking, and prosperity-Gospel preaching.

The Christian-Industrial Complex: The “Christian market” has expanded so dramatically over the past generation, that a vast industry has grown up to supply products to satisfy its desires. It’s the American way. Now, many aspects of church life are driven by target marketing rather than by theologically-informed, pastorally-sensitive ordained and accountable leaders.

Body-Count Evangelism: As any evangelical will tell you—size matters. Smith shows how today’s evangelicalism, fueled by such trends as the growth of the parachurch movement, has bought fully into the revivalist tradition with its emphasis on numbers, scale, and spectacle.

The Great Stereopticon: Rejecting the long understood fact that “the medium is the message,” evangelicalism has adopted the philosophy that any means is OK as long as one is communicating the right message. However, as Smith observes, “When you change the medium, you change the message, whether you intend to or not and though the words remain exactly the same. It is a lesson the evangelical church has not yet learned.”

I would love to see Warren Cole Smith write a second book for us—A Lover’s Proposal for the Evangelical Church—in which he might flesh out these suggestive ideas and help guide evangelicalism back to a more Jesus-shaped way.

From the Amazon review
Smith argues that we evangelicals are just as prone to being power-hungry, materialistic and being builders of our own empires as anybody else, to the detriment of community.
Evangelicals are also often guilty of a new provincialism. Provincialism usually means our outlook is narrowly determined by our small localized setting. For evangelicals, our narrowness is due to being stuck only in the “now.”

Now how would we solve each of these? What would be the chapters of the book about orthodoxy?

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Rabbi Ethan Tucker at Davar

A variety of Shabbat conversations and statements.

Conversation #1
Person #1 to me- We were discussing at lunch your opinion that Orthodoxy is about to change rapidly. Some of the people did not see it.
Me- Here we are at an event where an egalitarian rabbi is invited to teach in an Orthodox Teaneck institution and the people in this room are encouraging their kids to go to Hadar.
Person #1 – Oh, I see.

Conversation #2
Person #2 (educator in Beit Shemesh) You cant believe how Haredi Beit Shemesh has become. And it is amazing that the American Olim are going along with it.
Me- Is that what everyone expected when they moved there 20 years?
Person #2 – I don’t know, actually no they did not. They came as YU orthodoxy and now they are all Haredi, send their kids to Haredi schools and even the “modern” ones steer toward haredi. It seems they really just drifted and did not know what was going on.
Me- Why?
Person #2 It seems they did not realize how much they were new immigrants in a foreign country. They did not know the ideologies, they were out of the loop, and they lived in their expectation of presenting Yu of the 1980’s not israeli reality. Now their kids are either dat’lash or Haredi. They did not realize how much their kids would see them as immigrant foreigners who have little to teach. The system corrected the kids despite the deviance of the parents.

Ethan Tucker
If you are keeping mizvot only as an act of submission then they don’t trust the values of the Talmud and it is no different than someone who rejects the halakhah. If someone says the Talmud is against modern values and rejects the halakhah they are saying the halakhah rubs against human moral sense. But if you have an orthodoxy that emphasizes “teleological suspension of the ethical” or submission even if the halakhah feels intuitively wrong they are also showing that the Halakhah violates their natural feelings and their natural ethical sensibility. Both sides are the same, only that one side choices ethics over halakhah while the other side choices halakhah over ethics. We need a reading of Hazal that makes sense to us and the world. “For this is your wisdom, and understanding in the sight of nations.” The approach of submission shows that orthodoxy is alienated from the values of the halakhah, they can only be cynical, skeptical, estranged. (AB- ironic also)

Rabbi Tucker recounted that he was at Gush for five weeks and while there he hear a story praising the role of submission in the case of a couple where they discover one is a kohen and the other is a convert. The magid shiur emphasized repeatedly the need for submission to the halakhah. Then I knew this place is not for me. … Instead it could have been presented as the importance of preserving zera kohen as a sign of true lineage of Israel; it could have been a discussion of what is a kohen today to let me know Hazal’s values. Instead the story assumed that the listener is alienated from Hazal and can only submit despite his better sense.
For more on Rabbi Tucker- see this prior post.

Found at Mincha
When I went to get my stashed copy of the new Sifri Zuta, I found a full printout of the orthopraxrabbiblog. This group usually buys books hardcover and does not have web printouts lying around. They also dont keep up on the Orthodox blogs.

Only Zaddikim can Save us

I just read an article about Catholicism that with only a few changes could apply to Judaism. Everyday we read about people disillusioned with the financial, moral, and political scandals in the community. There are not many great rabbis that are not involved in scandals. Almost (not all) any Orthodox rabbi of authority has web pages dedicated to his scandals. Even though the defenders will argue otherwise, the rabbinate is more associated with misuse of power than role models of Torah lives. Many have been turned off by fundamentalist interpretations of the Torah. Yet, greater cultural engagement – history, philosophy, social science- wont bring people back. Vague mottos for modern Orthodoxy that do not require actual aspiration will not help. We need a real sense of before and after. We are proud of the materialism and careerism of Centrism without discussing the cultural trade offs. At best, there is moralism about a specific fetishized practices, but no core drive for values. This article thinks that only a new set of saints will help. New zaddikim are needed to enliven people and to show value. People I know have wanted a new mussar movement for a long time- maybe that can help. But real mussar is foreign. The early Hasidic Rebbes helped revive Ukrainian Jewry from its community decadence only to have their grandchildren be caught themselves in the morase. Telling Hasidic Torah wearing a bekeshe wont save us from moral decadence and misuse of funds, power, and authority.
What would a Jewish saint of the 21st century look like? What moral problems would be addressed? What virtues would be preached? What sort of saint could, or would, be followed in suburbia?

Only the Saints Can Save Us– J. Peter Nixon is an award-winning Catholic writer whose work has appeared in America, Commonweal, U.S. Catholic, and elsewhere

As Ross Douthat noted in a recent essay in the Atlantic, this was the year when the clerical sexual abuse crisis truly became global, reaching even into the Vatican itself. Douthat observed that “for millions in Europe and America, Catholicism is probably permanently associated with sexual scandal, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Most of the solutions offered are unlikely to have much of an impact. The liberal path of greater rapprochement between Church and culture has not proven successful for those denominations that have tried it. But an embittered and joyless defense of orthodoxy — the kind on display in far too many quarters of the Catholic internet — repels far more people than it attracts.

Our children and grandchildren are abandoning the faith because they perceive — rightly — that its demands are at fundamental variance with the lives we have prepared them to lead. We have raised them to seek lives characterized by material comfort, sexual fulfillment, and freedom from any obligations that they have not personally chosen. Should it surprise us that they fail to take seriously our claims to follow one who embraced poverty, chastity, and obedience to the will of God?

A revival of the Church in our time will require believers who are willing to take risks on behalf of the Gospel. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Cardinal Law, rather than retiring to his sinecure in Rome, had instead made a penitential journey to Haiti and lived out his days in a hospital cleaning toilets and picking maggots from the wounds of street people. Some might have seen such a penance as inadequate to the offense, but it could not have been dismissed as an empty gesture.

The future of the Church is not in the hands of its leaders, whose exhortations seem increasingly to fall on deaf ears… In the end, it is only the saints who can save us.

Marilynne Robinson and the Emergence of Ethical Man post 3 of 3

Marilynne Robinson claims in Absence of Mind that we overcome the materialist worldview of T.H. Huxley (exemplifying the new atheists) by appreciating the deeper sense within us. I started thinking that I have heard this before Yes indeed, it is the basic position of Rabbi Soloveitchik in the Emergence of Ethical Man. We need to overcome the materialism and selfishness of Huxley’s worldview by accepting the Divine command and emerge as moral beings.

Robinson is at the forefront of changing the popular image of Calvinism Calvinist defender Jonathan Edwards’s description of man as a “loathsome insect” held over the fire of Hell by God, such a task seems ripe and even overdue. In all of her works Robinson moves the emphasis to Calvin’s idea of a God given religious consciousness. We can sense where our life has gone astray and needs the word of God.

Such warring against historical miscomprehension, however, while effectively waged by Robinson, is not the main task of her essay. Instead, she seeks to describe the religious and spiritual experience of perception in Calvin’s theology, the experience by which seeing the world leads to loving it, and witnessing mankind brings about acknowledgment of man’s infinite beauty and potential. For Robinson, “wickedness is not the only inhabitant of man’s soul. There also reside stores and stores of grace, beauty, and holiness, stores that shine forth when we truly and lovingly look at our fellow man. Created in the image of God, mankind is filled with his divine presence; it is only in comparison with this potential for sanctity and goodness that Calvin so painfully denounces man’s wickedness.” – for more on her Calvinism-see here.

According to Robinson, we have to overcome a material bestial life and learn to appreciate our life stories filled with a wide ethical range of sin and beauty. In her novels, from what I have been told, we find ourselves confronted by God’s vision of human life.

Rabbi Soloveitchik starts with the same need to overcome the scientific materialism and amoral selfishness of Huxley, he also starts with the same Protestant pessimism about human nature in its natural state. So, his solution is the need to accept the divine command of being in the image of God and accept moral responsibility for our actions. Unlike Robinson for whom this is a natural faculty, Soloveitchik treats it as “a redemptive sacrificial act” or as a need to be “confronted by God’s revelation.” We need revelation of Genesis to give meaning to our lives. We rise from our nasty brutish existence to a life of morality and intellectual integrity. He presents this rise from materialism to ethical existence in several works including The Emergence of Ethical Man, Confrontation, Kol Dodi Dofek (in shortened form), and in Ubekashtem MeSham. We gain meaning to our suffering and cognitive gestures through revelation and then as Jews we have a double confrontation in that we also have a second confrontation with God in which we are transformed into the Jewish community of Torah.

Soloveitchik lacks a natural faculty but requires a revelation; this form of revelation is called a dialectic theory. All revelation is about how God communicates with humanity. A dialectic theory concerns itself with how we are redeemed from natural existence; it is not about receiving a corpus of doctrine. Nothing can be known in a dialectic approach without revelation so revelation is about one’s basic anthropology. (for more info google Karl Barth and revelation)

As a side point, much of the blog world not trained in theology is not used to distinguishing between revelation and Torah from Sinai. The former is where the divine breaks into the human condition and the latter is the Jewish concept of what occurred at Sinai. Rabbi Soloveitchik was always interested in the former – how we go from materialism to ethical and then to halakhic. He clearly writes that he was not interested in apologetics about the latter. The former was the more serious question.

Marilynne Robinson reminds us why revelation is the more important question. How do we understand human existence that helps us transcend skepticism, materialism, and man’s brutish nature? She answers with a God given sense of the sublime and Rabbi Soloveithcik answers with a double confrontation of man before the Divine.

As a useful contrast, David Novak in Azure set up the problem the same way but offers a different answer. Novak offer a single confrontation. Like Soloveitchik, we no longer use natural theology to know God as a first cause or His involvement in the natural order. We only know God as the commander who creates our moral standards. Novak answers the skeptics and materialists by saying, of course as modern we cannot compete with you and do natural theology that gives values to the natural order. Instead, we have to acknowledge the commander and know that he gives us a natural law to guide us. Whereas Soloveitchik has a double confrontation – our universal meaning in life and then our obedience in halakhah. Novak has a single confrontation and our universal moral sense of natural law should be used to generate a natural law halakhah.

We could say that statements about God are not scientific hypotheses at all, since we are not speaking of God as a cause operating within the natural order, which is the sole order about which natural science can speak with any cogency. And, even when we do speak of God as the creator of the universe and all it contains, we are not speaking of a God whose existence has been inferred from human experience of orderly nature. Instead, we are speaking of a God who commands our community, through his historical revelation to our community, to acknowledge his creation of that natural order in which our historical relationship with him takes place.

A neo-Hasid sees God glory in all things, and does not worry about the science. None of the three thinkers, however, allows nature to prove anything because then the materialists and skeptics win. Today, only fundamentalists conflate religion and science. These are not the only three approaches but Marilynne Robinson has given us a angle to bring together several dialectic thinkers.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Interview with James Kugel in il Sussidiario

In your book On Being a Jew you make an argument in support of the value of orthodoxy. What is orthodoxy? What value does it have for contemporary people and societies?

I suppose orthodoxy in general can refer to all sorts of things – sticking to tradition (and, hence, a reluctance or unwillingness to change); fundamentalism or literalism, especially in regard to Scripture; a devotion to established doctrines and rituals, and along with this a certain mistrust of spontaneity or the lack of framework. Any of these can be valuable or harmful in contemporary societies – sometimes both at the same time. I think one of the things that orthodoxy in religion provides is a feeling of stability and continuity, and of belonging to something ongoing that is bigger than oneself.

Speaking in particular of the Jewish situation: Jewish orthodoxy is a broad topic. What is it? Who are the authors of the official line? Who are your points of reference?

Strictly speaking, Orthodox Judaism is a modern invention. This term was first used in the early nineteenth century as a rallying cry against Reform Judaism and the other forces that threatened traditional Jewish ways of worship and Jewish self-definition. But in a broader sense, Orthodoxy today sees itself as the heir to centuries and centuries of earlier tradition; it is the form of Judaism today that most directly and meaningfully continues the Judaism of the ages.

In this sense, its “authors” are the classical texts of Judaism: the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and later codifications of Jewish law. Since Judaism is all about serving God and occupying oneself with doing the things that God commanded, these texts are crucial for Orthodox Jews. They try to keep all the laws of ritual and ethical behavior scrupulously – this is sometimes a point of distinction between them and other Jews.

But the “who” of Orthodox Judaism is not an easy matter to define.

Today, the old Orthodoxy (sometimes styled “modern Orthodoxy”) continues, but the line between it and the Haredim has been somewhat blurred. What is more, the rise of the state of Israel, along with the entrance of non-European, Sephardic Jews into the broader religious picture in Israel, has made this matter of “who” far more complicated than it used to be.

Critics of organized religion assert that religion has been a cause, at least ostensibly, of war and division. Indeed, much of the world is involved in a war now that is, in many ways, a religious one. How do you think orthodoxy stands up to this charge?

It depends whose orthodoxy you mean. I do not think that there are many conflicts currently going on that could be blamed on Christian orthodoxy. Jewish orthodoxy, I am sorry to say, is not an entirely innocent bystander in the current crisis in the Middle East, but I hardly think that it is a main factor.

What do you think of Zionism as a project, and what does that have to do with your view of orthodoxy? Do you see the Jewish state as a Messianic project and expression of orthodoxy?

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It began in earnest in the nineteenth century. Its original aim was to allow Jews to settle in the multi-national, multi-cultural Ottoman empire, along various tracts of land purchased in parts of Palestine, the Jews’ historic homeland. This movement soon came to focus on the hope for a Jewish state,

As for the role of Jewish orthodoxy in Zionism, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was rather negligible; Zionism was an overwhelmingly secular movement. As its goals came closer to realization, however, religious Jews found it more congenial, and especially following the Six Day War in 1967, many such Jews saw Israel as nothing less than the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and even the forerunner of Messianic redemption.

I personally support the state of Israel – I am an Israeli citizen and have lived there for more than twenty years – but I am a bit uncomfortable with the identification of the state with any eschatology, Orthodox or otherwise. I’m glad Israel exists, but I await somewhat nervously the judgment of history.

Full version here

dont forget h/t

Three personal announcements

1] My book has sold out its first edition but the publisher wont meet to discuss paperback until 12 months from publication. So no paperback until late Fall 2011. Both Barnes & Noble and Amazon have it at $57. If you come to my home or school then I have copies for 12 dollars less.

2] If anyone is interested in taking graduate courses with me in NJ (Monday and Tuesday eve) then contact me by personal email. If you are in any way an educator (including most clergy) then it is full scholarship. I should have posted this in the Spring so if you are interested then email ASAP. At least one person comes in from NYC and one from Phila.

3] If anyone is interested in a guest post and has something appropriate, then email me.

Marilynne Robinson and James Kugel 2 of 3 posts

Several months ago, I posted a critique of Kugel.

Well lo and behold Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind has a similar critique in her book pp 24-29. I was not expecting to find it here. Robinson had the same sense that I did that Kugel’s book was equally non-humanistic.

Robinson’s version of the critique is that Kugel assigns “primitively” on the Bible, “this most seminal text”  Kugel states that all meaning in the book is eisegetical and that any lessons for our life would be greeted by the Biblical authors with incomprehension. The book is not even religion but etiology for political and social realities.

In contrast, Robinson declares that no one would be reading the Bible today if it did not have what to teach.

Kugel states that books from Mesopotamia like Gilgamesh written 3000 years ago has no messages-so too the Bible has no messages

Robinson writes that: on the contrary, Gilgamesh is one of the great stories of human civilization and its quest for immortality is eternal. There was brilliance to Babylonia. “The low estimate of Babylonia becomes the basis for a lowered estimate of the Hebrew Bible – the modernist declension.” Gilgamesh is not part of a religious canon and does not have exegesis and is still a great contribution to civilization

Robinson says that China, India, and Greece all have ancient works that allow us glimpses into how humanity deals with theodicy, anthropology, and catastrophe. If the Upanishads, Gilgamesh, and Homer have what to teach then so does the Bible

In this case, Robinson claims that we can learn from the monotheistic changes to the story. We cant assume Gilgamesh was just patched into Genesis and no one noticed the plagiarism- It was reworked to teach a specific message.

She thinks that Kugel assumes ancients had no culture and he has a low estimate of their creativity.

Kugel backs himself into the same false dichotomy as the fundamentalists and the new atheists. For Kugel, if the Bible is not that of the Scribes and their midrashic traditions, where texts are read intertextually and contemporaneously, then it is not religion.

Robinson also points out the conceit of moderns to think they are first to notice the ancient near east background in the bIble and the use of Gilgamesh. Grotius used Biblical similarities to Gilgamesh to argue for truth of Bible because they provided external confirmation!! She says, of course Moses used the fables and religions of antiquity – so what?

She concludes that Kugel’s claim that anyone who disagrees with him is dishonest is a modernist goal of showing others wrong. His need or anyone’s need for debunking the past as an urgent crusade without concern for the wealth of pre-modern knowledge, she rejects simply as a conceit.

Absence of Mind- Marilynne Robinson 1 of 3 posts

Friends recommended that I read Marilynne Robinson’s writings, especially her Pulitzer winning novels. She is touted as a master craftsmith of the written word, theological believer, and creating her own form of Neo-Calvinism. So I decided to pick up her recent response to the skeptics.

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, by Marilynne Robinson, Yale 158 pages

The book is her answer to the new atheists in which she argues that we have humanism, subjective self, and human experience. She does not respond to their claims as much as say that there is more to the world. She claims that they are creating a lack of mind, a lack of self. And that they are only creating a “para-scientific literature”

She quotes Dennett’s definition of religion “as about social systems avow with a belief in a supernatural agent.” Dennett is not talking about private religion, religious experience, religion as meaning in life or creation of moral order. Maimonidean rationalism, Buberian dialogue, and new age renewal is not religion for Dennett.

Robinson shows that the problem of materialism, scientism, and behaviorism are not new problems. She claims that the Materialist position is separated from the wealth of human insight. The subjective human mind is what gives us knowledge of the human experience.

She opens her book with a description of how scientists feel a sense of discovery, accomplishment, and fulfillment when they solve a scientific problem. From a human point of view, science is not just facts in a text book.

She is an advocate of the writings of William James and his radical empiricism. And treats the new atheists as rejecting James. She reduces much of their materialism and the selfish gene to the nineteenth arguments of T. H. Huxley. (more on this in later post- post #3) And she uses Freud as her example of psychological reductionism.She finds ever new ways of showing that these new writings do not add anything to the debate of the last two centuries. (Except that a generation of science trained religious fundamentalists are discovering them for a first time. They trade the absolute claims of their material religious fundamentalism for a secular version.)

She thinks they are bypassing Donne, Bach, the Sufi poets and Socrates. She considers as essential to human life metaphysics, imagination, human experience, and in turn these are to be considered a revelation from God

Even in the social realm, she finds their obsession with Fundamentalists misleading. She asks: what of the religion of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or her own cultured Calvinism?  She does accept  from the new atheists that some of the fundamnetalists were equally bad for the soul since they are just as materialist and not concerned with the self as the new atheists.  They are also obscurantist and anti-education. She suggests and I agree, “that some of the new atheism is a reaction to militant religious fundamentalism.”

She agrees with Harvard popularize of science Stephen Gould, that religion and science have nothing to do with each other. Gould used to be assigned at YU and the subject of frequent public lectures by the Bio dept.

Pinker considers that religion offers the answers to the ultimate questions, but since the ultimate questions are unanswerable then we dismiss the whole activity. To this  she answers, no, no, no. Questions that are deemed unanswerable has driven the thoughts of humanity. The history of civilization  answers these questions in ever new answers and forms. From the Library at Alexandria  to the Library of Congress we have collections that enrich our lives- ideas, texts, human experiences, quests for meaning.

She is defiantly preaching the choir. She assumes her reader has read, or at least can read, Grotius, Calvin, Spenser, Emerson, Jung, Searle and Putnam. Those who cannot are the very materialists swayed by the new rhetoric. And those who defend against the new atheists through materialist apologetics and trying to refute scientific method wont find comfort here either.  Religion is not in the scientific realm. Yet, Robinison as a committed non-liberal Calvinist does point in the direction that future discussions of a viable religion position needs to take.

Quotes from reviews:

Robinson makes a strong, unapologetic case, not for mystery but for self-respect.

We look in the mirror, Marilynne Robinson writes in “Absence of Mind,” and we see an untrustworthy, self-interested creature with an untrustworthy mind. No wonder a philosopher such as Tolle, for instance, who offers the idea that we aren’t so bad after all, that we have a right to believe in the value of experience and the mystery of the universe, might be clung to like a floe that a polar bear has finally found to rest upon.

Winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Gilead,” Robinson in this new nonfiction work questions the authority of science, not its methods, which she sees as evidence for the capacity and beauty of the human mind. She is annoyed by the arrogance of modernist thought, which has entrapped us for so many generations: “After Darwin, after Nietzsche, after Freud, after structuralism and post-structuralism, after Crick and Watson and the death of God, some assumptions were to be regarded as fixed and inevitable and others as exposed for all time and for all purposes as naïve and untenable.”

Robinson, however, affirms her own “very high estimate of human nature”: “We have had a place in the universe since it occurred to the first of our species to ask what our place might be.”

But positivism and modernist thought have had the opposite effect: They encourage the “exclusion of felt life”: We are discouraged from making explanations about our place in the universe. Subjectivity is not allowed; instead, there is what Robinson calls an “absence of mind.”

Guardian Review by Karen Armstrong

Washington Post Review

Yehuda Amichai on Jerusalem- for tisha be-av

If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Then let my right be forgotten.
Let my right be forgotten, and my left remember.
Let my left remember, and your right close
And your mouth open near the gate.

I shall remember Jerusalem
And forget the forest — my love will remember,
Will open her hair, will close my window,
will forget my right,
Will forget my left.

If the west wind does not come
I’ll never forgive the walls,
Or the sea, or myself.
Should my right forget
My left shall forgive,
I shall forget all water,
I shall forget my mother.

If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Let my blood be forgotten.
I shall touch your forehead,
Forget my own,
My voice change
For the second and last time
To the most terrible of voices —
Or silence.

Let the memorial hill remember

Let the memorial hill remember instead of me,
that’s what it’s here for. Let the par in-memory-of remember,
let the street that’s-named-for remember,
let the well-known building remember,
let the synagogue that’s named after God remember
let the rolling Torah scroll remember, let the prayer
for the memory of the dead remember. Let the flags remember
those multicolored shrouds of history: the bodies they wrapped
have long since turned to dust. Let the dust remember.
Let the dung remember at the gate. Let the afterbirth remember.
Let the beasts of the field and birds of the heavens eat and remember.
Let all of them remember so that I can rest.

A Touch of Grace:

At times Jerusalem is a city of knives,
And even the hopes for peace are sharp enough to slice into
The harsh reality and they become dulled or broken.
The church bells try so hard to ring out calm, round tones,
But they become heavy like a pestle pounding on a mortar,
Heavy, muffled, downtrodding voices. And the cantor
And the muezzin try to sing sweetly
But in the end the sharp wail bursts forth:
O Lord, God of us all, The Lord is One
One, one, one, one.
(The Hebrew word for “one” also means “sharp” in Hebrew)

Love of the Land
by Yehuda Amichai / Translated by Linda Zisquit

And the land is divided
into districts of memory and regions of hope,
and the residents mingle with each other,
like people returning from a wedding
with those returning from a funeral.

And the land isn’t divided into war zones and peace zones.
And whoever digs a trench against cannon shells,
will return and lie in it with his girl,
if he lives till peace comes.

And the land is pretty.
Even surrounding enemies decorate it
with weapons shining in the sun
like beads on a neck.

And the lands a package-land:
and its well-tied and everything is in it,
and its tightly bound
and the strings sometimes hurt.

The land is very small
and I can contain it inside me.
The erosion of the land also erodes my rest
and the level of the Kinneret is always on my mind.
Therefore I am able to feel it entirely
by shutting an eye: sea-valley-mountain.
And therefore I am able to remember
all that’s happened in it
at once, like a person remembering
his entire life at the moment of death.

Poem #12 Eicha

“How doth the city sit solitary,” the prophet
lamented over Jerusalem.

If Jerusalem is a woman, does she know desire?
When she cries out, is it from pleasure
or pain? What is the secret of her appeal?
When does she open her gates willingly and when is it rape?

All her lovers abandon her, leaving her
with the wages of love necklaces earrings,
towers and houses of prayer
in the English, Italian, Russian, Greek, Arab styles,
wood and stone, turrets and gables, wrought-iron gates,
rings of gold and silver, riots of color. They all give her
something to remember her by, then abandon her.

I would have liked to talk to her again, but I lost her
among the dancers. Dance is total abandon.
Jerusalem sees only the skies above her
and whoever sees only the skies above–not
the face of her lover–truly does lie solitary,
sit solitary, stand solitary, and dance all alone.

“Songs of Zion the Beautiful #21”

Jerusalem’s a place where everyone remembers he’s forgotten something
but doesn’t remember what it is.
And for the sake of remembering I wear my father’s face over mine.
This is the city where my dream-containers fill up like a diver’s oxygen tanks.
Its holiness sometimes turns into love.
And the questions that are asked in these hills
are the same as they’ve always been: “Have you
seen my sheep?” “Have you seen my shepherd?”
And the door of my house stands open
like a tomb where someone was resurrected.

Relativism Debated

We had a nice debate going between Kevin and Arie on relativism. Here was the original discussion that got me interested. It was on the Legal blog Mirror of Justice between July 2 and July 10. Here are some of the positions. There were thousands of words on the topic. These are some of the less semantic and less technical responces. I must note that Leslie Green himself tweeted the discussion here. I alternate blockquote and italics to differentiate. I did not write any of the material below.

Green inadvertently affirms the future Pope’s thesis when he argues that we do have minimum moral standards and that they are determined by the ever changing whims the majority. To this country bumpkin, that sure sounds like relativism. But, what do I know? Michael S

The point that Pope Benedict is trying to communicate, I believe, is that many people, including many influential people, appeal (sometimes only implicitly, but sometimes quite explicitly) to relativism in the face of demanding moral claims. People want to do what they want to do. As the socially liberal movie maker Woody Allen famously said, “the heart wants what the heart wants.” So, when morality gets in the way, many are tempted to say (sincerely enough, even if often inconsistently) that morality lacks any objective basis. Robert George

The serious disagreement between Pope Benedict and Robby (and Catholic moral-theological traditionalists generally) on the one side, and some Catholic moral-theological dissidents on the other, with respect to the issue of same-sex sexual conduct, is a disagreement about the requirements of human well-being. This is a disagreement between two groups neither of whom is relativist (or subjectivist), both of whom are fiercely anti-relativist. Michael Perry

When I was young, innocent, and hopeful, a conversation broke out among several friends and myself about the old ‘Nazis marching in Skokie’ case, which I had read about in connection with a history of the ACLU. Some of my friends, with whom I was inclined to agree, thought if fitting for the city to prohibit the march. Other friends, with whom I was inclined to disagree, argued that the prohibition was a violation of the Nazis’ First Amendment rights. I recall feeling great irritation with this latter observation, and I said as much. It just couldn’t be licit, I thought…For in ‘tolerating everything’ one would be tolerating, among other things, intolerance — toleration’s contrary.

I hit upon a tentative solution that I later recognized to have been a primitive grope in the direction of Kripke’s response to the Epimenides (the ‘paradox of the liar’). The Epimenides, as many here will recall, is the paradox occasioned by a statement’s apparent self-denial — a statement of the form ‘this statement is false.’ The putative paradox stems from the statement’s being false if it is true, and true if it is false — assuming, of course, that it must be one or the other and not both. (That assumption turns out to be false.)
Now intuitively, Kripke’s response to paradoxes of this form, if I’m remembering it rightly, involves distinguishing between what he calls ‘grounded’ and ‘ungrounded’ statements. A grounded statement, again if I recall this correctly, is about something other than a statement. It’s about dogs, or cats, or what ever, anything other than statements. So long as you have one of those, then any statement about that statement, or about a statement about the statement about the (grounded) statement, or … , will itself be grounded as well. Otherwise, not. If one then stipulates that only a grounded statement is possessed of a truth value, one defuses the Epimenides by observing that the self-denying proposition in question is ungrounded, hence possessed of no truth value at all, true or false, hence not paradoxical in the ‘both true and false’ sense.

Now my own youthful proto-Kripkean response to the ‘tolerance’ conundrum worked in much the same way as Kripke’s response to the Epimenides: ‘Tolerance,’ I speculated, always carried what I then called a sort of ‘argument place’ with it. It always implicates what the grammarians call a ‘direct object.’ One does not simply ‘tolerate.’ One ‘tolerates x,’ or ‘tolerates y,’ etc. Further, assuming some x that it is right to tolerate and wrong not to tolerate, it surely will often be right not to tolerate intolerance of that x. At any rate it will need not be incoherent to deny toleration to such instances of intolerance.

Now, how does this bear on the conversation here? I think in this way: There seems to be much intolerance afoot in some quarters, for example, of girls and women who wish to participate on equal terms with boys and men in educational and vocational settings. My guess is that most of us in ‘the West,’ be we generally ‘leftward’- or ‘rightward’-leaning where political questions are concerned, agree that instances of this form of intolerance are not to be tolerated, either as an ethical or as a legal matter. And there is no incoherence, nor need there be any bigotry or relativism, in any such judgment.

All of us, ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘in between,’ who find sexism of the specified type intolerable are simply taking a universally applicable human right seriously — ‘absolutely’ seriously. We are not thinking as ‘bigots’ or ‘relativists.’ And we might even be right, moreover, in some cases, to describe certain instances of the particular form of intolerance itself as bigoted or relativist — if prompted or defended, say, by reference to a putatively relevant ‘fundamental difference’ between women and men, or to a putative ‘religious’ or ‘cultural’ right to subordinate women.

There are some, for example, who appear to take sexual orientation to be more a matter of behavior or ‘lifestyle choice’ than of genetically determined or deeply-psychologically-rooted identity. There are others who appear to see things the other way round.

To those who see sexual orientation as merely a ‘lifestyle choice,’ by contrast, it will sometimes be tempting, again in careless moments, to view defenders of ‘gay rights’ or ‘gay marriage’ as ‘relativists.’ For it will sometimes seem to them, again prior to reflection, that their opponents think ‘anything goes’ where behavior and ‘lifestyle choice’ are concerned. But in fact bigotry and relativism are apt to be neither here nor there in these cases. For in fact most on both sides will be absolutists about moral and ethical matters, and in agreement that it is ethically wrongful to view persons as subordinate on the basis of ineluctable attributes.

And it is only by keeping one’s eye on the real ball — that is, by fixing attention on the act or attribute in question — that we keep the door open to real progress. I fear that labeling, as ‘bigots’ or ‘relativists,’ those who view the ball differently than we do is, all too often, an indicator that our eyes have strayed from the ball, and that the discussion has accordingly become ungrounded. Posted by Robert Hockett

Dictatorship of Relativism

Last month on the BBC there was an all-star discussion of Cardinal Ratzinger’s phrase “Dictatorship of Relativism.” Discussants included the philosophers Simon Blackburn and Stephen Wang, Archbishop Williams, and members of Parliament. Williams was even keel and noted how fundamentalism and relativism are flip sides of each other – both are absolute and close down discussion. Williams also noted how easily people move from fundamentalism to non-belief.

However, Leslie Green Professor of Philosophy of Law, Balliol College, Cambridge launched into a biting critique seeing that those who throw around the word skepticism are scapegoating ones anxieties. The Nazis blamed the Jews, the Pope blamed the relativists. This is important because many Rabbis use buzz words like relativist, following zeitgeist, or post-modern in the same way to designate whatever they don’t like. Green also denies that people are relativist or that they think anything goes. Finally, he asks how much should we tolerate the demands of religious groups that go against public welfare? He offers a note that religious groups are good at arguing from pseudo-sociological data.

On the blogs that I read this interview has been generating much discussion. I will give some of the conflicting reactions in a later post- along with more of my comments. But in the meantime, if you got a chance to enter the discussion- What would you say after Leslie Green?

In April 2005 Joseph Ratzinger, the most powerful
theologian in the Roman Catholic Church, delivered a homily to the cardinals preparing for the conclave that was to elect him Pope.

RATZINGER (Source: Vatican Radio): Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are
building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

WILLIAMS: To the extent I think that people are a bit threatened and a bit impatient about real engagement and argument, then the odd thing is that fundamentalism is the mirror image of a kind of
inflexible relativism. People want the arguments to be over. Just as the relativist or the junior official in the Foreign Office – we want the arguments to be over, let’s just you know treat everyone equally
– so the fundamentalist says I want the arguments to be over. And what one philosopher who matters quite a lot to me said about thelabour and the patience and the pain of real thinking just disappears.

GREEN: In the 1930s, in Germany, anything that was bad in the eyes of the German state – 32, 39 – was caused by who? The Jews. Why? They didn’t like the Jews. America – 1952, 55. Anything that
was bad in America was caused by well who? The Communists. Well why? Because they didn’t like the Communists. And so now here we are – 2005. Benedict I of course invents this concept of the dictatorship of relativism. There’s a bunch/clutch of bad things
happening and he doesn’t like them. Who’s it caused by? Caused by the relativists, you know.

GREEN: No-one in this country or in America or in Europe thinks that anything goes. So let’s take sexual morality. Sadly, to my way of thinking, since there’s so much that’s rich and important in Catholic moral theology, the Church has transformed itself into a
kind of fertility cult, so that what it really cares about now is making sure that you know men aren’t having sex with men and nobody’s having abortions and there are no condoms in the JCR around the corner here and that there aren’t any divorces. Well even in a fairly liberal, tolerant sexual morality, there’s nobody
that argues that anything goes. The people that Pope Benedict deplores don’t think that rape is okay, and they certainly don’tthink that the sexual abuse of children is okay. Everybody agrees
there is a bottom line minimum to which we all must conform. And the thing is of course that some folks disagree about where theminimums should be drawn. That’s democracy.

GREEN: So that if I can say well I’m a member of a church and the view in my church happens to be that all children have to participate in animal
sacrifice and so we’re not allowing children to be adopted out to families that don’t tolerate the sacrifice of rams on the full moon every month – we would say “No, this is preposterous” even although it’s only a sheep. Now people can disagree about this, and obviously many religious people disagree because they have very firm – dare I say – absolutist, fundamentalist and mostly uninformed views about the nature of human sexuality that are overlain on top of their religious views. They’re entitled to those.
But if you’re providing a service to the public – you’re not talking about your little congregation, you’re
talking about the fates of children, their welfare and their wellbeing – you have an obligation to respect the minimum.

Rav Morgenstern on Komarno

For an earlier posting on Rav Morgenstern’s teaching of meditation –see here

The Komarno Rebbe has yet to merit a scholarly treatment or even a Wikipedia entry.
In the meantime you can read about his uncle Tzvi Hirsh of Zidichov or a general overview at the Komarno article. You can also read
Turn Aside from Evil and Do Good: An Introduction and a Way to the Tree of Life, by Zevi Hirsch Eichenstein, translation and introduction by Louis Jacobs,

I remember when Moshe Idel offered Komarno as an undergraduate seminar, there were only four of us in the room- two undergraduates, myself, and another YU grad. Idel spend most of his time showing how the autobiography-diary can be used to unpack discussions about experience. In the diary, he writes “I did” and in his theoretical writings he writes “One should” or “It was done by some.” Idel also pointed out that the three most erudite Kabbalists among Hasidic rebbes were the Komarno, Hayim of Chernowitz, and the Koznitzer.

The Komaro wrote dozens of works and at least ten of them major works, a commentary on the Zohar –Zohar Hai, a commentary on Humash- Heikhal Ha-Berachah, a mystical diary, commentaries on Mizvot, on mishneh, and much more. The Komarno Rebbe practiced the Lurianic-Vital Yihudim, actively sought the presence of the shekhinah, and had conversations with deceased saints. His introduction to Humash mentions how Moshe received an out of body ex-static experience. His was a Hasidism of doing, a religious life of performing yihudim, tikuniim, and segulot. He and his uncle had a special disdain for Chabad because they turned chasidus into a form of hakirah- philosophic investigation.

When I received two shiurim from Rav Morgenstern on Komarno I was pleased and looked forward to studying them. They are based on his shiur in Yiddish 8 pm on Tuesday nights – ohalei yosef #4. On other nights he gives shiur on Breslov, Ashlag, and Chabad. The shiurim are ostensively on Netiv Mitzvotekha by the Komarno rebbe. From the nature of shiur one gets a sense that it is to relative beginners who want a smattering of all things in Kabbalah. He reads a passage in Komarno and then proceeds to tell his listener what it means in the Ramak, Ramchal, Baal ha-Tanya, Rav Nahman, and Ashlag. Mostly, it is Chabad material- he turns Komarno sodot into theoretical discussions of the higher and lower unity, tzimzum, egul ve yosher. It is the very approach that Komarno warns against.

He does discuss how according to Komarno mitzvoth have deep secrets leading to devekus, but he connects it to theoretical discussions from Chabad rather than the hands -on Kabbalistic approach that uses Chayyim Vital’s Shaar Ha-Mizvot and Shaar Hakavvanot
Yihudah tataah is defined as sensing that nothing is random – all things that occur are part of Hashem’s plan. We need to feel God’s omnipresence in our lives and that everything is providence.
Rav Morgenstern repeatedly quotes Ramchal and Nefesh Hahayyim- that all of this is mashal and it is all from our human perspective. This is quite non-Komarno.

Shiur Two is on sweetening of judgment (hamtakat hadinim) Rav Morgenstern emphasizes our sins and less the cosmic judgments from the shvirah.
In this shiur he defines the path of the Besht as devekut, emunah, and yichud. The first is the secrets of the commandments, the second is see that all is providence, and the third is meditation. This is not the way most groups define the Besht. Compare any introduction to the Besht to see the difference.
The major new point here is the emphasis on working on Emunah – this places Rav Morgenstern in a set with Rav Moshe Wolfson, and Rabbi Itamar Schwartz –there are require emunah more than knowledge of kabbalah or religious experience . Not a quietist negation of the self and only think about God as usually taught in Hasidut rather a goal to believe that all is God and His providence.

I recommend as a baseline for understanding the recent material Benjamin Brown – Initial Faith and Final Faith – Three 20th Century Haredi Thinkers’ Concepts of Faith [1998] (Hebrew) Akdamot 4 where he deals with the Hazon Ish, the Rebbe Riyatz, Miktav MiEliyahu, Chofets Chaim and others.

Rav Morgenstern explains the Shema as teaching that God is an eyn sof; that is exactly the sort of Chabad approach avoided in the original call to follow the Arizal.
Rav Morgenstern explains yihudim as Letters of the divine name serving as a symbol or parable for Hashem. He then adds his own interest, “So too light…most ephemeral thing.” On p 15 we get one of his give aways that he has read a meditation manual when he writes that one needs to reign in one thoughts and stop them from flitting from one subject to another – one needs to learn to focus.

The Komarno states that he explained a topic fully in Notzer Hessed, but Rav Morgenstern’s shiur does not give the parallel material.
Rav Morgenstern’s message is that Those who learn deep secrets of the torah are confronted with trials and tribulations. We should see all suffering as divine providence (It is interesting that he is willing to return to this in a post holocaust world.)

The end of the second shiur has a full page based on Ashlag’s shamati. He quotes Ramchal Tikkunim Hadashim on the concept of providential mishpat – but does not discuss the counter balance of melukhah.
He concludes that our main worship is to reveal Divinity as taught by Tanya.
If one wants a shiur closer to the text of Komarno, I have been told that several of the einiklach give shiur including R. Netanel Safrin in J-M.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Exorcisms of Personality Traits and Hidden Scandal

There was an article in last week’s SIGHTINGS about exorcism and sexual orientation.

Those who seek a rational religion decry exorcism as the height of superstition, they say that they are nonsense and this should be obvious to all. But to academic students of religion, exorcisms are easily explained as the intersection of two principles: externalization and anxiety. Whereas the modern era especially the 20th century glorified the autonomous self those who turn to exorcism externalize their problems.

In the 16th and 17th century, with the fall of the medieval world- faults were projected externally. In the late 20th century, externalization as demons returned
What happens if there is a personal problem that needs to be dealt with. If one cherishes autonomy then changing ones actions requires a Freudian insight, an existential acceptance of one’s actions, a behavioral stopping of harmful behaviors. But many in the last few decades do not find comfort in the concept of autonomy- they want to put themselves into the hands of a higher force – think of 12 step or Belevavi Mishkan Evneh- many figures in 21st century piety teach that one is to relinquish autonomy. If one does not accept responsibility for one’s faults then one projects it externally as a demon.

The second factor is the anxiety of what cannot be expressed in ordinary words because of social constraints. In the 16th century sexual sins such as adultery and sodomy with boys could be expressed in an exorcism that in an embarrassing confession. Today, there are many topics like sexual orientation that cannot be openly discussed in religious circles and exorcism steps in to fill the function of allowing one to speak about those off limits topics.

On the topic, I highly Michael Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (Broadway Books, 2001).

So what about Rav Batzri’s exorcisms in Israel? The first one from a decade ago was entirely a staged act but it showed that people in development towns did not think they could be responsible anymore nor that the State of Israel would solve their social problems. His second mass public exorcism showed the end of autonomous modernity for his followers. And it showed that his followers were burdened with more social problems than they could discuss. The more recent one on a phone call to Brazil where he said “demon leave” was not a joke or irrational. There was a need for an externalized sin to be brought to light.

Once I presented some of the 16th century texts in a Shabbat class. The editor of the Jewish Week who was in attendance said that he was an exorcist because he brought topics to light that the community would not articulate. (He had recently published his article on Lanner.) In many ways he was indeed an exorcist, at least from a functional point of view.

But now blogs are filling the second of these two functional variables. Since the American orthodox community cannot openly discuss lack of belief and lack of observance, nor can they discuss the religious implications of molestations, or sexual and financial scandals, they can do so anonymously on blogs. For those without the computer savvy, an exorcism performs some of same functions as a confession or scandal blog. Even if you do not accept the “magical” aspects of an exorcism, the functional elements are quite rational.

(On externalization – Some in the community project much of their personal anxiety onto Israeli politics. As one local rabbi said before a yom tov: I know that many of you are not sad when your parents die and it is easy to push mourning off for after the holiday, on the other hand many of you cannot stop your angry and mourning the situation in Israel. But this is another story.)

Here is this week’s Sightings on the topic showing that the difficulties for Pentacostals to deal with sexual orientation leads to exorcisms.

Modern Exorcism: Trading Autonomy for Demonology — Joseph Laycock

Last month, a feature in the online magazine Details told the story of Kevin Robinson, a gay teenager from Connecticut. Brought up in a Pentecostal household, Kevin first came out to his family when he was sixteen. His mother, refusing to accept homosexuality as a natural sexual orientation, convinced Kevin to undergo a series of exorcisms to expunge the demons that church members believed were causing his homosexual desire. After the tenth exorcism – which was particularly brutal and degrading – Kevin and his mother finally came to accept his sexual orientation. Now twenty, Kevin still expresses difficulty reconciling his faith with his gay identity.

Numerous modern “deliverance ministries” perform rituals to cast demons out of homosexuals. Last June, a shocking youtube video of such an exorcism by Manifested Glory Ministries attracted national news. In the video, charismatic prophetess Patricia McKinney discerns that a teenager has “a homosexual demon.” What ensues is a frantic twenty-minute ordeal during which the teen writhes on the floor in a near seizure. Church members eventually induce vomiting by squeezing the boy’s abdomen. Vomiting, interpreted as evil leaving the body, has become the sine qua non in the cultural “script” of modern exorcism – a practice that is, needless to say, highly controversial. Even Christian ministries who preach that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and a sin have censured these exorcisms, arguing that they are dangerous. And the majority of gays who undergo these rites are minors, leading some to suggest that this is a form of child abuse.

But exorcism is actually on the rise and may be more common in America than ever before. In 2008 the Pew Research Center found that seventy percent of respondents believe that demons are active in the world.

The Ritual Romanum, written in 1614 under Pope Paul V, consolidated popular forms of exorcism into a formal rite. This brought exorcism under the direct control of the church hierarchy and in the modern era the rite increasingly became a relic.
However, in the 1970s, there was a resurgence of exorcism and quasi-exorcism among evangelical Protestants and charismatic Catholics. These modern practices, often called “deliverance ministries” rather than exorcism, usually occur outside of ecclesiastic authority.

Until the twentieth century, the quintessential case of possession was…an alternate personality, a total lack of socialization, and supernatural abilities.

Instead, they are usually aspects of the person’s normal personality that are deemed demonic. McKinney explained, “You have the alcohol spirit. You have the crack cocaine spirit. You have the adulterous spirit. Everything carries a spirit.” David Frankfurter describes demonology as “the mapping of misfortune onto the environment.” Any trait or behavior including homosexuality, eating disorders, and infidelity can now be attributed to demons rather than natural proclivities or rational choice. Indeed, this seems to be the most appealing aspect of deliverance ministries: When all behavior is ascribed to the influence of demons, there is no one who cannot be exonerated.

While researching his book American Exorcism, Michael Cuneo encountered women whose husbands had diagnosed them as having “a demon of willfulness.” He was even diagnosed as harboring demons himself. Within this system, humans seem to lose all autonomy; instead, individuality is entirely the product of the various demons possessing us.

But “outsourcing” our inner struggles to exorcists comes with a cost. By forfeiting responsibility for our behavior, we also forfeit our right to define ourselves as individuals, and we become vulnerable to the abuse doled out by Kevin’s last exorcist. Perhaps this exchange, in which both responsibility and autonomy are forfeited, is the true “deal with devil.”

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved