Monthly Archives: November 2010

Should Non-Liberals be Allowed to Study Bible in Public?

Most people who study the Bible are in some way motivated by their belief in the book. Years ago, the academy was the domain of the liberal positions and those more conservative and literal kept away. Now the conservatives feel free to attend academic conference. In fact, they now make up a good percentage of scholars. Below are two blog posts, one by a liberal Jew and the other by an Evangelical. The first, at Mystical Politics, decries all the Evangelicals and Mormons at the SBL, while the second, at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, welcomes the diversity. Any thoughts?

SBL – an increasingly confessional Christian scholarly society?
Upon reflection about this year’s SBL annual meeting, aside from my own pleasant experiences of meeting friends and going to intellectually stimulating panel sessions, there were also things that bothered me about the conference. Ron Hendel, earlier this year, wrote a cri de coeur against what he saw as the increasingly confessional (especially conservative evangelical Protestant) and less critical approach to biblical scholarship at the SBL. (It was published in Biblical Archaeology Review and is available at his website for download – I was skeptical of his critique, because that was not how I experienced the SBL…This year I noticed a marked difference – the increased presence of explicitly confessional panel sessions at the SBL, usually organized by outside groups. In the program book I noticed sessions organized by the Society for Pentecostal Studies, the Society of Christian Ethics, the Institute for Biblical Research (six total sessions), the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and the Academy of Homiletics. The Academy of Homiletics held nine panels on Friday and two on Saturday.

The first meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research, their annual lecture and reception, was held on Friday evening. N.T. Wright, of the University of St. Andrews, gave the annual lecture, on “The Kingdom and the Cross,” which was preceded by “scripture reading and prayer,” led by Helene Dallaire of Denver Seminary. The reception was sponsored by the InterVarsity Press. If I had been interested in hearing Wright’s lecture, I would have been made very uncomfortable by the explicitly confessional nature of the session.

The group’s website ( describes its mission: “The Institute for Biblical Research, Incorporated (IBR) is an organization of evangelical Christian scholars with specialties in Old and New Testament and in ancillary disciplines. Its vision is to foster excellence in the pursuit of Biblical Studies within a faith environment. The achievement of this goal is sought primarily by organizing annual conferences, conducting seminars and workshops, and by sponsoring academic publications in the various fields of biblical research. IBR’s conferences, seminars and workshops are open to the public and its publications are available for purchase.”

The Society for Pentecostal Studies sponsored four sessions. On Saturday, their 1:00 p.m. session was on “Charismatic perspectives on the Hebrew Bible.” Their 1:00 p.m. session on Sunday was a book review of “Filled with the Spirit” by John R. Levinson. Their Monday 9:00 am session was on “Pentecostal-Charismatic Hermeneutics.” The Monday 1:00 p.m. session was “Charismatic Perspectives on the New Testament.” Judging purely from the session titles, the point seemed to be to give an explicitly Pentecostal perspective on various biblical books – not from the perspective of one studying about Pentecostalism, but of people utilizing their own Pentecostal faith to interpret the Bible.

In my view, it is essential to the mission of the SBL to be a scholarly society where the religious commitment of scholars is irrelevant to their participation in any panel discussion at the annual meeting. I would be just as opposed to separate tracks of programming organized by a Jewish group that required a commitment to traditional Judaism as I am to the tracks of programming that now exist that appear to be limited to evangelical Protestants or Pentecostals. I think it is time for the SBL to dissociate itself from such groups and reaffirm its commitment to scriptural study beyond confessional boundaries. Read the Rest Here and see the comments.

Is SBL an organization dedicated to the propagation of evangelical Christianity?
[M]y experience of the SBL has been very positive. In the years that I have gone to the annual meetings I have seen Jews, Christians, people of other religions, and people without any religious belief or practice cooperating in the study of texts in a way that once would have been impossible. It was not necessary to be a Christian, or pretend to be one, in order to be an active participant in discussions at the SBL. Will this continue to be true?

SBL is an alienating place if you are “out” in a cultural sense rather than “in.” Maybe you don’t mind a liberal Prot ambiance, because you are, without realizing it, a liberal Prot yourself at some level. But this evangelical Prot ambiance is too much.
Oh, for a society for the rest of us. Where people don’t take it for granted that you know about B. B. Warfield and have read the latest volume by N. T. Wright.

It is my second if not my first nature to imagine that it is rather angst-provoking to go to SBL and be surrounded by clean-cut Southern Baptist seminary students who might easily be semper fidelis Marines if they dropped about 20 lbs. As for Mormons, how dare they even show up given that their founder in an obvious fraud? As for Pentecostals, those people who handle snakes and roll in the pews, everyone knows that the only good Pentecostal is a recovering Pentecostal.

Once upon a time, SBL was a society the majority of whose members were liberal Prots who knew how to make liberal Jews and liberal Catholics feel at home. All others, even if they were welcome in theory, were not so welcome in practice. Now, SBL is something else, a better, more representative, but far more contradictory thing. Can’t we all just get along? Read the rest here.

Allen Brill of Rolex

For those arriving here looking for the funeral and death announcement of Allen Brill, President of Rolex. I express sympathy for the mourners but the Alan Brill of this blog is not the person you are looking for and has no connection to the deceased. The author of this blog is alive and well and cannot afford a Rolex.

Google Allen Brill with the words Rolex and CEO.

From today’s NYT
BRILL–Allen. With great sadness, Tourneau mourns the passing and loss of our friend and colleague, Allen Brill, President and CEO of Rolex Watch USA. Allen was an exceptional leader, a distinguished gentleman and a true visionary, who will be profoundly missed. We extend our deepest condolences and sympathies to the Brill family during this most difficult time and to Allen’s extended family at Rolex, including the countless associates and colleagues whose lives he touched.

If you want to leave condolence messages, this is not the place. I have no connection to the deceased. Here is the online place for condolence messages. Please take note that this blog has nothing to do with the deceased.

Pope Benedict and Other Religions

The attitude of Nostra Aetate toward other religions was that they were human quests toward the transcendent. A similar approach was contained in Rav Soloveitchiks’ u-Bekashtem meSham.

This new document by Pope Benedict, acknowledges that Muslims “adore the one God,” a phrase crafted to avoid acknowledging their prophecy and revelation. He also acknowledges that they use “countless Biblical figures, symbols, and themes” without acknowledging any revelation on their part.. On Eastern religions, he acknowledges a Catholic respect for them, as well as an acknowledgment of their concern for the transcendental, family, and ethics. Pope Benedict sets these ideas amidst a vision of our age as one of globalization and the need for religion to work toward universal fraternity, especially since every faith has some form of the love of God and neighbor.

The new point in this apostolic epistle is the following line in which he says that one can recognize in Eastern religions admirable religious traits. “ in Buddhism, respect for life, contemplation, silence, simplicity; in Hinduism, the sense of the sacred, sacrifice and fasting; and again, in Confucianism, family and social values.” The Hindus immediately applauded this statement that moved them from a human quest for transcendence to having religious wisdom, in which there are things that westerners can both learn from, admire, and emulate in Indian religions. The ability to meditate, have silent retreat, and even the desire for sacrifice are recognized as positive methods. The value is not just the existential human quest, but also the conclusions reached and the methods developed.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein at the 2009 Har Etzion dinner gave a discourse for over an hour on the Bhagavad Gita (I assume it was somewhat of a regression but he mentions the work in several of his essays.) Rav Lichtenstein mainly focused on the karma yoga aspects (not the bhakti or jnana). Don’t worry about right action without worry for results, that the ben Torah should have equinimity toward life and the need for self-control , discipline, and freedom from attachment. He could have quoted Bahye’s Hovot Halevavot or Reshit Hokhmah, yet his source text of choice was a theistic reading of the Bhagavad Gita.

“To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction”(2.47)
“Fixed in yoga, do thy work, O Winner of wealth (Arjuna), abandoning attachment, with an even mind in success and failure, for evenness of mind is called yoga”(2.48)
“With the body, with the mind, with the intellect, even merely with the senses, the Yogis perform action toward self-purification, having abandoned attachment. He who is disciplined in Yoga, having abandoned the fruit of action, attains steady peace.

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits and other Rabbis used to appreciate the theism of the work and quote it in their works. And Rav Aharon used to mention often the closeness in approach of Judaism to Confucianism as religions of duty, tradition, and maintaining the social order. (if anyone has a printed source for that, let me know)

The question now is can we develop an appreciation for wisdom among the other religions similar to what was implicit in Rav Lichtenstein? Several of the commenters on this blog, in the yoga discussions, alternate between allowing in Buddhist ideas along with the meditation without dealing with the fact that Jewish theology differs from Buddhism, and then flip to stating that everything was already in Chabad or Abraham ben Maimon. Can we learn from Pope Benedict to acknowledge that they have a virtuous practice of contemplation and silence, not found in Judaism. We can acknowledge it in Jewish terms as “wisdom among the gentiles” but then say it needs a Jewish theological understanding? To say that: accepting Jewish revelation allows one to take anything from Eastern thought as kosher Judaism that way one uses an Indian recipe for shabbat, a bit disingenuous. Acknowledge that there is a wisdom there. But also then watch where one has picked up a different theology.

What else can we learn from this recent Vatican document about approaching other religions? (for the tyros, dont confuse a unilateral theology of other relgion with dialogue.)

Judaism is already treated as sharing revelation and covenant with Christians, a common Judeo-Christian heritage, so it is elsewhere in the document. Rav Soloveitchik arguing against a theological Judeo-Christian heritage, only a cultural commonality, as well as the fact that Judaism is not linked to any other faith community. Michael Wyschogrod advocates a theological commonality with Christianity similar to Pope Benedict. Do Jews think we should privilege Christianity over other religions? As time moves on- will we treat all religions equally or will we be closer to one more than other? Islam? Hinduism?

The Word Of God And Interreligious Dialogue (Selections)

Nowadays the quickened pace of globalization makes it possible for people of different cultures and religions to be in closer contact. This represents a providential opportunity for demonstrating how authentic religiosity can foster relationships of universal fraternity. Today, in our frequently secularized societies, it is very important that the religions be capable of fostering a mentality that sees Almighty God as the foundation of all good, the inexhaustible source of the moral life, and the bulwark of a profound sense of universal brotherhood.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, one finds a moving witness to God’s love for all peoples: in the covenant with Noah he joins them in one great embrace symbolized by the “bow in the clouds” (Gen 9:13,14,16) and, according to the words of the prophets, he desires to gather them into a single universal family (cf. Is 2:2ff; 42:6; 66:18-21; Jer 4:2; Ps 47). Evidence of a close connection between a relationship with God and the ethics of love for everyone is found in many great religious traditions.

Dialogue between Christians and Muslims

Among the various religions the Church also looks with respect to Muslims, who adore the one God.They look to Abraham and worship God above all through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. We acknowledge that the Islamic tradition includes countless biblical figures, symbols and themes.
Dialogue with other religions

Frequently we note a consonance with values expressed also in their religious books, such as, in Buddhism, respect for life, contemplation, silence, simplicity; in Hinduism, the sense of the sacred, sacrifice and fasting; and again, in Confucianism, family and social values. We are also gratified to find in other religious experiences a genuine concern for the transcendence of God, acknowledged as Creator, as well as respect for life, marriage and the family, and a strong sense of solidarity.

Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?

2. From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.

Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination.

David Nirenberg on Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in his World from LRB

David Nirenberg wrote a thoughtful full length review of Sarah Stroumsa’s recent work Maimonides in his World, Princeton University Press, 2010 in November LRB. This blog has already had a discussion of the book and link to the first chapter. We have also discussed David Nirenberg on Medieval Jewish-Muslim relations.

The essay is about Nirenberg’s interest in how to situate Jews in medieval Islam. He develops the themes of the multiple aspects of Maimonides’ work and how much they are based on his Islamic milieu. Maimonides in Nirenberg’s hands is a radical theologian seeing much of scripture as an accommodation to the masses and that philosophers should keep their true philosophic views secret, yet false beliefs held by the masses could be changed by sword. In a word, open-minded toward toward philosophy and science, yet situated as an intolerant fundamentalist, an Almohad follower of Ibn Rushd. Nirenberg then offers reflections on how we retrograde images onto medieval civilization and was the society in which Maimonides worked really open-minded. It is a long review, here are some selections.

Maimonides’ discovery of what would eventually be called ‘historicism’ would, in the very long run, help shake the study of scripture to its foundations. Yet his goal was not to demolish the divine word, but rather to bring our understanding of that word into harmony with the other things we know about the world. According to Maimonides, the basic error of theology is that it wants to ‘consider how being ought to be in order that it should furnish a proof for the correctness of a particular opinion, or at least should not refute it’. Seekers after truth should instead attempt to ‘conform in our premises to the appearance of that which exists’. He thought Aristotle was wrong to believe that the universe was eternal, a belief that, if true, ‘destroys the law’, and ‘gives the lie to every miracle’. But, he insisted, if Aristotle’s belief were some day proved, then he too would interpret scripture to conform with Aristotle.

The RaMBaM, meanwhile, appears to have had a very different project. He writes in a self-consciously archaic Hebrew reminiscent of the Mishnah, the ancient (second century ad) core of rabbinic Judaism from which the Talmud later developed. His codification of that Judaism is dogmatic, and he articulates, in his Commentary on the Mishnah, the closest thing rabbinic Judaism has to a credo: the 13 ‘articles of faith’ that bind all Jews, even ‘children, women, stupid ones, and those of defective natural disposition’. Some of these principles, such as belief in the resurrection, sit uneasily with what Maimonides elsewhere presents as rational philosophical truths.

Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker is, among other things, a critical engagement with Strauss’s view. Sarah Stroumsa insists that ‘the Straussian dichotomy of esoteric versus exoteric writing does not do justice to Maimonides’ context-sensitive rhetoric.’

Stroumsa admits that her argument depends on a series of assumptions, first that Maimonides was ‘generally familiar with major books of his period’ published by Muslim theologians and philosophers. Moreover, a philosopher who was so fully immersed in Islamic philosophy and used it to shape his own could not disengage himself from Islamic culture when he delved into other kinds of intellectual activity, be it exegesis, theology or polemics. My assumption is therefore that, in writing on Jewish law, for example, Maimonides was not only toeing the line of Rabbinic, Gaonic tradition, but also bringing to bear the influence of his non-Jewish cultural context.…He used, she argues, a ‘double linguistic and textual register’, and ‘even when he writes in Hebrew, his philosophical frame of reference is that of Arabic philosophy.’

This innovative ‘fundamentalism’, according to Stroumsa, bears a strong resemblance to that put forward in the writings of Ibn Tumart, the founder of an Islamic movement that arose among the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains in the early 12th century. Ibn Tumart attacked what he saw as the anthropomorphising and polytheistic tendencies of Islam in his day; the treatises he wrote were designed to provide his followers with the prophetic foundations for the pure monotheistic beliefs and practices incumbent on every Muslim, uncluttered by the later disputes of the learned. The Almohad movement he inspired – from the Arabic al-Muwahhidun, meaning the ‘proclaimers of God’s one-ness’ – swept to power throughout North Africa and Muslim Spain. The Almohads, unlike nearly all their predecessors in the history of Islam, did not tolerate the presence of Jews and Christians on their territory.

Many Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians fled to the northern Christian kingdoms. Others, like Maimonides’ family, accepted forced conversion to Islam and began a long series of displacements or exiles. The family seems to have spent 12 years wandering from city to city in Muslim Spain before settling for five years in Fez, where, according to a Muslim biographer, Maimonides learned the Quran by heart and studied Islamic law. He then escaped the Almohads’ orbit, moving briefly to Palestine and then to Egypt, where he could live openly as a Jew.

His journey through these multiple Islams, Stroumsa maintains, enabled Maimonides to create his singular approach to religious teaching. From the Greek philosophical tradition transmitted by his Muslim and Christian predecessors he learned that God teaches humanity by stages, accommodating his message to the capacities of those whom he addresses. Maimonides referred to this strategy – sometimes called the ‘doctrine of accommodation’ – by the Arabic word talat.t.uf, which means ‘shrewdness in the service of loving kindness’.

From his Cordoban Muslim contemporary Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes) he learned that scripture ‘speaks in different ways to the three levels of society: the multitudes, the theologians and the philosophers, and that the spiritual leader or philosopher should try to follow this model’.
And from the Almohads he learned that some of what the multitudes can’t be taught by reason, they can be taught by credo: hence the ‘fundamentalist’ style of his commentaries on the Torah.

But although he learned from Islamic philosophy, Maimonides was not a Muslim. He was the religious leader of a small and stateless community, and didn’t have a highly elaborated world of rival authorities to answer to. This meant that he could go much further than a Muslim like Averroes, even to the point of treating the ancient texts of his religion as the product of human history:

For Stroumsa, this is not a symptom of a split personality or a split text, but rather the product of a coherent if highly idiosyncratic system of thought.

The space between ‘intellectual openness’ and ‘tolerant image’ is not very well defined, and partiality is encoded in the argument. No reader will finish this book with any doubts about Maimonides’ ‘intellectual openness’, but that of ‘his world’ is much less clear, especially since for Stroumsa a key aspect of that world is the rise of the Almohad movement, which deliberately crushed, through conquest, forced conversion and mass exile, the pluralist traditions of the western Mediterranean Islamic world. To speak of Maimonides as the product of the ‘relative intellectual openness’ of the world he was forced to flee makes sense in more or less the same way that we might speak of the ‘relative intellectual openness’ of the liberal German world whose collapse drove Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem into exile.

From The London Review of Books, November 1, 2010

Thanksgiving services–Beth Wenger on Jewish American Heritage

Tomorrow starts my holiday weekend, so I probably (or hopefully) will not be as close to the computer as usual. I still have a few posts, mainly about Pope Benedict that need to get posted this week to get me to summarize the material for professional purposes. I even have an eight grade day school reunion this week. There were several long posts last week, too many for some to read, the break will give everyone a chance to catch up. In the meantime here is some Thanksgiving material.

Give thanks to the Lord, who is good, whose love endures forever. —Psalm 118:1

Last year, I posted the Thanksgiving Day service as done in the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. (I know there is a page missing from the pdf., if you have it then please forward it.) This year, this was an interfaith service at the Hampton Synagogue. Here is the service of Psalms and responsive readings and here is a description of what occurred. Here is the program. (Also take note of the new blog …VaAni B’Sof HaMizrach written by a former elder of the Protocols blog.)

Below is a nice review of Beth S. Wenger’s recent book on Americanism and democracy. In Poland, we created myths of our relationship to Polish nobility, in contrast in Bratslavia the Hatam Sofer saw himself as a medieval serf of the Royal chamber, owned by King. But here in the US, we painted ourselves as part of the original melting pot and as a religion of democracy. In America, we saw ourselves as part of the ideals of America. There are lots of great Thanksgiving sermons out there if anyone wants to send me some from

History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage by Beth S. Wenger Princeton University Press, Review by By Robert Rockaway

When I attended Hebrew school, growing up in Detroit after World War II, my peers and I were taught that Judaism and America shared similar democratic values; that America’s early Puritan settlers had been inspired by the Hebrew Bible; that a Jew, Haym Salomon, had bankrolled America’s war for independence; and that the Spanish navigator Christopher Columbus had connections to Jews and Judaism. The notion that Jews and their heritage had played a key role in America’s founding fascinated us, and we uncritically accepted these stories as true. They inspired us and became part of our identity as Jews and Americans.

Years later, when I was in college, I understood that while biblical Judaism contains great moral and ethical values, Judaism and democracy are not necessarily compatible.

The concept that Judaism and American democracy share the same set of values was an idea fashioned by American Jews. Beth Wenger, an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, has written the first full-length study that explains how and why American Jews manufactured and perpetuated the view that the Jewish religion and culture were compatible with America’s democratic ideals. Utilizing a wealth of primary and secondary sources, Wenger demonstrates that by the end of the 19th century, American Jews formulated this idea to demonstrate that Jews belonged in the United States and that from the nation’s beginning, they had been unequivocally and organically part and parcel of America’s social and cultural fabric.

Wenger shows that this was no conspiracy hatched by a select group of Jewish leaders, but something that evolved over time, as generations of Jews acculturated and adjusted to life in the United States. She writes: “Through fledgling historical societies, from the pulpit, and within emerging Jewish organizations,” as well as “through individual reflection and talks around the dinner table,” American Jews sought meaning for their experience in America. Wenger cites the philosopher Horace Kallen, the Zionist leader and future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, philanthropist Oscar Straus, and Reform Rabbi Emil Hirsch as playing key roles in American Jewish efforts to manufacture a collective history in the United States. Ultimately, they and others “produced definitions of what the United States meant for Jews as well as what Jews meant to the United States.” Through the narratives they created, “Jews wrote America into Jewish history and Jews into American history.” Although democratic ideals and Jewish ideals don’t always overlap, the idea persisted for generations and became a part of the American Jewish heritage and the effort to convince the host society that Jews belonged.

Although Jews in Poland, France and Germany had also devised myths to explain how they came to live in those countries, the American environment offered something different from what Jews had experienced in Europe. America lacked a medieval past and legacy of Jewish persecution. Jews in America never experienced mass expulsions or violent pogroms. The federal government never passed any law that specifically targeted Jews. The United States offered them citizenship without any prolonged debate over emancipation. Separation of church and state meant that Jews enjoyed freedom of religion and freedom from religion. No religious test to hold political office on the federal level meant that they could run and be elected congressmen, senators and even president. As a result, American Jews were fond of exclaiming that “America is different.”

Similarly, Jewish leaders used American holidays and America’s two most hallowed presidents to emphasize the intimate connection between Jewish and American ideals. They compared July 4 (the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776 ) to Passover
Read the rest here

Millennials entering their 30’s

I recently noticed a list serve group with a description similar to the one below. (Changes in wording were made to protect their privacy. If any of the organizers of the list serve want further changes or corrections then contact me by email.)

A Support Group for Former “Day School Q” Students Who Lead Alternative Lives:

Did you go to Orthodox “Day School Q”? But are you also, say, gay, a cross dresser, a sex worker, a heretic? Are you married to a gentile? Did you marry a gentile of the same sex? Have you written for porno magazines? Do you refer to yourself as Conservative and have the courage to think for yourself? Would the principal Rabbi Q be ashamed of you? Yes, Great! Then come join us!
(If you’re completely religious, married with kids, spent a Israel before college and still study Talmud to this day, basically the ideal product of day school, but are friends with all us apikorsim, then you are also welcome.

The school is a flagship Modern Orthodox day school and this online list serve group is predominately for the graduate of the 1990’s, those who finished college as gen y millennials. Currently they have either just reached or are in their early thirties. “They have a solid plurality of former students who share their experiences about identity and are beginning to reflect on each other’s journeys. One member of the group has indicated to me that there is a large diversity among the members in their level of observance within or outside of Orthodoxy, in the types of families that they have created, and in their political and philosophical views. Their intermarriage rate (including those that converted to Judaism for the marriage) is not yet known since many are still happily single. (In the 2000 NJPS study, day school graduates had a 7% rate).”

I must note that these same classes produced a higher than average number of Jewish educators- several years in Israel, YU through smicha, and then rebbe in day school. What they called the day school ideal.

I asked one of the members of the group whom I am friendly with to try to explain or to account for—why your era/years produced so many interesting souls – unconventional and not in the ordinary box. I received the following response. (slightly edited)

I think that there is something particular about my period since many of us are the last offspring of the baby boom generation (the end of the 1950s Middle Class American Dream); we lived in the time of post-USSR Jewish immigration to the U.S. in the 1990s and with that the beginning of a new capitalized and globalized world post-cold war; and maybe we had more social class diversity because there were more scholarships at the time (this is a guess). In any case, it made up a somewhat alternative group within a homogenous community.

Also, I think there is also something to the crisis of postmodernity playing out in the 1990s that added on other interesting factors that made people clash with traditional institutions in a way that was more vibrant and also destructive.

People in their late 20s and 30s are now coming out more in NY, Baltimore and all over about abuse from Orthodox yeshivas. This is also happening in the Catholic world, and I don’t think that it is a coincidence. Whether it’s physical, sexual or emotional, young adults around the world are speaking out. I think that many of us realize that the old model of family/shul/community needs to be reinvented.

There were few people who saw that a transition period was coming up for Modern Orthodoxy and with that a big identity crisis for all of us. I guess that our generation happened to come into adulthood just as these old definitions were dying out, or at least I would hope so.

I am ready for a new cycle in the world since the last period has been so destructive. Sadly I don’t think that things are getting better. We just need to find some sort of space for taking care of one another and hold out the storm. Maybe many of us know what we don’t want and are finding that there isn’t a space yet for what we would like to see in the world. Some people believe that it can be created; I am pretty skeptical but am at least enjoying the diversity that’s coming to the surface in all of our stories.

This is a group of the best and brightest. Some of the goof-off’s who hated studying Torah are the ones who remained Orthodox. It is not those who needed to be exposed to correct doctrine or practice, since it includes offspring from Gemara teachers, the rabbim. Their parents were not especially lax or cynical.

Notice that according to this member’s explanation, Orthodox was not an emotionally safe place. (I know for others then and now, religion is a safe refuge from the outside.) They felt it as unsafe. They already sensed that the old was dying 15 years go. Student’s identity is formed by the end of high school, so don’t blame it on college. The problem is not modern Orthodoxy since if needed; I can produce a similar overview of a Yeshivish school. Their principal has been complaining for decades about the twin “corrosive influences” of thinking for oneself and eating dairy without kashrut supervision.” That is probably not the cause.

Here is a thought experiment for the Jewish educators out there. Picture your class of 25 students. If it has a similar demography of this class, then picture 1 of the 25 as gay or lesbian, 2 of them as marrying non-Jews (who may or may not convert), 5 of them giving up Judaism entirely and 5 of them leaving Orthodoxy for another denomination. Assume that these may be your best and brightest. Would this change what you teach? Would it change how you relate to your students? If you were a principal would it change who you hired? There are no easy answers because you may also have in the same classroom a significant number of students for whom the very definition of their religion and commitment to Orthodoxy is moral certitude, absolute values and rejection of the relativism of the outside world. (For more on this group- see my post on Christian Rock and kiruv) I cannot comment on the students currently in high school who will be “gen z” obsessed with texting. Time will tell if they follow those who are half a generation older than them.

Any official organization want to start doing long term studies of day school graduates for variables besides assimilation? If so, contact me offline. Don’t be concerned with which school this is describing. My point is not to castigate the school or the graduates.

Most educators and those reading this, myself included, are within the religious parameters and cannot see the outside perspective of those who left. When you leave comments know that this is about real people, so of whom will be reading this. Know that you may have little insight into the other side other than this 400 word email.

David Biale Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought

Once upon a time, Jewish secularists wrote about creating a Jewish identity moving past the older religious versions. This included most Hebrew and Yiddish authors, most important Zionists, and the American Jewish establishment, think of Chaim Zhitlovsky, Theodore Herzl, and Louis Brandeis. There are famous essays by Irving Howe, and Yehuda Bauer advocating a Jewish humanism, ethics without the classic texts. Now we have a recent work by David Biale offering the opposite, a Jewish secularism that claims the classic texts including The Bible, Rabbi Meir, Maimonides, and Zohar as part of a dialectic that created Elisha ben Avuyah, Shabbati Zevi, Spinoza and modern Jewish secular identity.

The Posen Foundation has been giving money for courses and books on Jewish secularism. The creators of the foundation were tired of all the emphasis on Judaism as a religion. Most major universities have been recipients and now have major professors offering courses on Jewish secular thought. This volume is one of the first volumes coming out under this aegis.

My perspective is what would be the correct religious response. A sanctimonious answer about the need for God, revelation, mizvot is not what is needed. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, there many traditional and non traditional responses to Jewish secularism. In responding to secularists, Eliezer Berkovits and Heschel were at their finest. (However, the essays by Rabbis Lichtenstein and Wurzburger were not, they were better at delineating themselves from liberal Judaism.) Will Herberg and others argued the need for religion. Thoughts? How would you respond to Biale?

In this volume, Biale discusses those theories (Weber, Schmitt, Blumenberg) of how medieval Christianity served as a basis for modern secularism, he offers a Jewish version of these theories. A traditionalist on first reading would claim as Lowith describes, the illegitimacy of the modern age. But where does one go with that? John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy as the the 21st century need to go back to medieval thought?

Biale shows how God, Torah, and Israel are reinterpreted for the modern age. He does include the secular Zionists and secular authors, but with the amount of weight he gives Kabbalah, Shababti Zevi and Ahad Haam this begins to feel more like a liberal theology, similar to Arthur Green. Would the two of them reject each other? Is the major difference between them Occam’s razor toward pantheism, the enjoyment of prayer and holidays, or something more? This seems like a theology of secular academic Jewish studies.
And what happened to the good old-fashioned humanism?

From the Blurb

Not in the Heavens traces the rise of Jewish secularism through the visionary writers and thinkers who led its development. Spanning the rich history of Judaism from the Bible to today, David Biale shows how the secular tradition these visionaries created is a uniquely Jewish one, and how the emergence of Jewish secularism was not merely a response to modernity but arose from forces long at play within Judaism itself.

Biale explores how ancient Hebrew books like Job, Song of Songs, and Esther downplay or even exclude God altogether, and how Spinoza, inspired by medieval Jewish philosophy, recast the biblical God in the role of nature and stripped the Torah of its revelatory status to instead read scripture as a historical and cultural text. Biale examines the influential Jewish thinkers who followed in Spinoza’s secularizing footsteps, such as Salomon Maimon, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. He tells the stories of those who also took their cues from medieval Jewish mysticism in their revolts against tradition, including Hayim Nahman Bialik, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Kafka. And he looks at Zionists like David Ben-Gurion and other secular political thinkers who recast Israel and the Bible in modern terms of race, nationalism, and the state.

Not in the Heavens demonstrates how these many Jewish paths to secularism were dependent, in complex and paradoxical ways, on the very religious traditions they were rejecting, and examines the legacy and meaning of Jewish secularism today.

“Although religious Jews have always anticipated spending ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ others have preferred to tarry, as it were, ‘this year in Tel Aviv,’ the symbolic capital of secular Jewry. This is their story, told by a master Jewish historian with erudition, sympathy, and full awareness of the ironies that tie both destinations–and the destinies of religious and secular Jews–inextricably together.”–Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley

Quotes from the Introduction available online:

I want to argue that Jewish secularism was a revolt grounded in the tradition it rejected. The relationship between the premodern and the modern, in which the first is associated with religion and the second with the secular, remains one of the most fraught for students of religion. According to a common master narrative of the Enlightenment, also sometimes called “the secularization theory,” modernity represented a total rupture with the past as innovation was privileged over tradition, science over superstition, rationalism over faith.

In recent years, this dichotomous break has come under new scrutiny, especially given the persistence of religion in the modern world.

Karl Löwith proposed that the secular idea of progress owes much to the secularization of Christian apocalypticism. And Carl Schmitt argued that modern “political theology” secularized the power of a transcendent God in the power of the state.If these scholars found the origins of modernity primarily in medieval Catholicism, Peter L. Berger, building on Max Weber, suggested that the roots of the secular lay rather in Protestantism, which had shrunk the medieval realm of the sacred and created a heaven empty of angels.11 Berger also observed that this Protestant move, in turn, had its roots in Old Testament monotheism, since the ancient Israelites had already banned the gods from the world: monotheism thus became the first step toward secularization.

In this book, I will argue that Jewish secularism is a tradition that has its own unique characteristics grounded in part in its premodern sources.

Jewish secularists typically reject the idea that Judaism has an essence. The past is no more harmonious or homogeneous than the present, and indeed, the secularist insistence on the pluralism of the past can serve as an argument for pluralism in the present. Nevertheless, I will argue that these three originally medieval categories provided the questions to which secular thinkers responded with new answers. To quote Hans Blumenberg, “the [modern] philosophy of history is an attempt to answer a medieval question with the means available to a post-medieval age.”

The chapters that follow are therefore organized around the categories of God, Torah, and Israel. Each chapter starts by examining how the traditional categories might have contained in a nutshell the source of their later secularizations. In chapter 1, we will see how the God of the Bible lost his personality in the philosophy of Moses Maimonides and then became nature in the renderings of Spinoza and his disciples. The medieval Kabbalah provided the source for another modern vision of God, as “nothingness” or “void.” And, finally, paganism suggested another alternative to the God of tradition. In chapter 2, we turn to secular readings of the Bible, but first pausing to observe how the Bible itself and some of its medieval interpreters already prepared the ground for such readings. Stripped of its status as revelation, the Bible now emerged as a historical, cultural, or nationalist text. Chapters 3 and 4 treat the final category, Israel. Chapter 3 concerns itself with the new definitions of Israel as a nation, a definition that has its roots in earlier Jewish history. But the way secular thinkers shaped this definition was equally grounded in modern ideas: race, nationality, and the state. Chapter 4 turns to another way of defining the traditional category of Israel: history, language, and culture. Culture in particular is a modern concept that, in the hands of Jewish secularists, comes to take the place of religion.

Jewish secularism may be seen as the attempt to fashion a countertradition, an alternative to Judaism as a religion that has its own intellectual lineage.
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