Monthly Archives: January 2011

Is this Beit Midrash on a Razors Edge or in a Tower: Danny Landes in Tikkun

As a 25th anniversary special, Tikkun magazine asked several people about tikkun today. One of them Rabbi Danny Landes who was in the very first issue of Tikkun writing on halakhic tikkun. Landes is an advocate of an egalitarian non-denominational beit midrash. Now, 25 years later he views his approach as a corrective for Orthodoxy that “drives the Orthodox sane.” He wants the classic beit midrash to be saved “from systemic parochialism, chosen irrelevancy, and sought-after faux elitism.” Yet, the same beit midrash must avoid liberal thinking that would severe it from the tradition.

But is that true? Is an open beit midrash really just on a narrow ridge? It is severed from the Orthodox world of pesak and politics, and it is severed from the thinking of bestsellers such as Radical Judaism. Can one be non-denominational in Tikkun and quite denominational in Jewish Review of Books? Does this non-denominationalism have a location outside their walls?

Is it an escape from the outside real-world Orthodoxy without changing the outside world? Is it Jewish Week Orthodoxy? If it has no egalitarian minyan then is it non-denominational ? If you claim you are the real and the truth but don’t go outside does it do a tikkun?

Landes describes the process of learning as the exciting dynamic world of Chevruta study but doesn’t that approach fade as one spends years engaged in Talmud study. Landes describes how “the discussions get dizzier as firm ground vanishes, and funnier as study partners turn cartwheels in the air the closer their chavrutah comes to getting it.” But people trying to deal with contemporary issues memorize commentaries instead of doing argumentative cartwheels in thin air. Rather, they do CD-Rom searches of responsa. His vision of the hard-one argument is compelling if compared to “unapproachable and definitionally unassailable shmoos” but aren’t the Pardes videos commenting on world politics just that?

So where is “this tikkun of the Jews, of the world, of our sacred Torah?” If “It’s a far cry from an ex cathedra shtender (lectern)” does it actually engage to perform a tikkun for the imagined demagogue?

No real criticism here. Just some first thoughts and reactions.

Passionate Midrash by Daniel Landes
My tikkun practice is the care and feeding of, and participation in, an ever-changing yet eternal organism — the Pardes Beit Midrash. This noisy study hall for a diverse crowd of intense, wisecracking, basically brilliant Torah students is a threefold tikkun: it’s a traditional form that transforms students, allowing the secular to access the Tradition; the Reform to become literate; the Conservative, passionate; and the Neo-Hasidic to gain textual traction; and it drives the Orthodox sane. Yes, we drive them sane. Second, the Pardes Beit Midrash is transformational in that its participants quickly shed this silly, slimy lizard skin of denominationalism, being too busy learning to fill the time proclaiming. Finally, it transforms the classic Beit Midrash, saving it from systemic parochialism, chosen irrelevancy, and sought-after faux elitism.

At its center are text and method. Text is Torah, especially the hard stuff: commentaries, Mishnah, Talmud, and Codes — untranslated and uncensored. The method is straight-on attack in chavrutah (learning in pairs), utilizing classic and new-fangled approaches. Two to three students sweat the small stuff in the context of others doing the same, until peshat, the illusive “plain” meaning, is nailed. Easier said. Given the multilayered dynamics, a text within a text with infinite regress/progress, a variety of moral issues which are taken seriously, and the chavrutah relations, the discussions get dizzier as firm ground vanishes, and funnier as study partners turn cartwheels in the air the closer their chavrutah comes to getting it. Interesting things happen. One makes the argument presented in the text, offering a logical explanation. Soon white-hot heat is generated as the resistant chavrutah turns from pleasing partner into implacable foe, as he or she breaks the argument — it’s wrong; nonsensical! Then, suddenly, mid-fight you discover that your chavrutah is actually correct; indeed, as you explain: more right than they know! And you prove it triumphantly! Inevitably the startled partner silently rethinks, turns around and rejects his own line of argument and argues ferociously for your first line of reasoning. The Great Switcheroo has been effected. Sides swap, positions permeate each other, and students and teachers switch roles. The discussion moves magically from peshat to meaning. And this volatile meaning — subject to dialectical ascents to the heights and perilous drops into the abyss — is hard-won and enlightening. It’s a far cry from an ex cathedra shtender (lectern) delivered from unapproachable and definitionally unassailable shmoos or from a clever “I had a thought” derived really not at all from any verse or source as ironically delivered in a Shabbat minyan.
No, it’s hard-won, and I see it happen around me, every day. And then, once again, as a witness I believe that it’s not a slogan: this tikkun of the Jews, of the world, of our sacred Torah, is possible and actually present.

Rabbi Daniel Landes is Rosh HaYeshiva of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He wrote on Halakhic Tikkun in Tikkun magazine’s inaugural issue.

Miscellaneous

1] The Chabad rabbi who does medical ethics wrote to me and will give me more information next week. There will be some more posts on palliative care.

2] Many people have been sending me various interesting links and information. Thank you and please continue to do it. However, since I receive so much information from diverse sources, please tell me why you think this is interesting or important. Give me an angle to approach it. Pitch me a story and give a good lede. Write an introductory paragraph.

3] If you are entering a conversation with me then give me an email or contact info to make my life easier. If you are already quoting a discussion that occurred at the closed Orthodox Forum, and you have an IP address that exactly points to your current pulpit, then you long ago lost your anonymity.

4] I am still getting a steady flow of readers to the half shabbos posts.

5] To continue the discussion of Rawls and the creation of a fair Judaism that does not deny the humanity of others, I will do some posts on Richard B. Miller, Terror, Religion, and Liberal Thought (Columbia UP 2010). So AS and EJ you can have a chance to read it before I post.

6]I will be reviewing for a newspaper Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life edited by by Lawrence Fine and Eitan Fishbane and or N. Rose, so if anyone has any good insights, then please let me know.

Palliative Care Conversation

I recently met an Orthodox palliative care nurse working on the West Coast who discussed the implications of her work.

She discussed how various stages 4-5 cancers are already about choosing a good death rather than the power of doctors to keep one alive. Does one want to die from a narcotic shot after having lots of tubes inserted or does one want a non-invasive death? (We already discussed some of these issues here.)

She claimed that 20% 25% of all cases would not get into a brain stem death or heart death situation if there was more palliative care. On the other hand, she said that the organs of those who die from aggressive cancers are never used for organ transplants, they always inform those who do transplants of the deaths and they are never chosen. (These are her statistics; I cannot verify them. I am neither doctor nor medical ethicist).

She mentioned that Orthodox Jews are the biggest believers in the medical model that things can always be solved even when it is empirical that a stage 5 cancer cannot be helped. And that the Rabbis are playing doctor rather than chaplain.

I was surprised when she discussed a Chabad seminar in medical ethics that she attended and she said it was great. It was given by a Chabad rabbi who is in the forefront of knowledge of palliative care. The rabbi discussed palliative care cancer patients as terefah and had a real empirical based category of goses. She compared this with the NY orthodox rabbis who have a 1965 image of medicine based on Dr Kildare who can solve everything. (For those too young to remember, Dr Kildare was a TV show in which the doctor always knew best and more medical treatments were always good things.) Now we live in a world where people tell the joke “why do they seal the coffin? To stop the doctors from continuing to administer the profitable chemotherapy.”

The nurse compared the lack of knowledge of the Yeshivish and Centrist rabbis to this Chabad rabbi. She did not remember his name and I could not find it online in any combination of the words Chabad, medical, rabbi, seminar. I do want to know who it is and if Chabad is developing their own medical ethics. I had never heard that Chabad was getting into original medical ethics. If anyone knows, then let me know. She found this Chabad rabbi relevant with real categories of terefah and goses, which acknowledge that we all die.

She compared this with the local rabbis who when consulted on end life care insist on painful procedures that bring no benefit. She told a story of an Orthodox woman who said “her husband was good so he cannot die. He did everything right he cannot die.” When I asked her how does she explain it, at first she would not answer the question and then only answered it with my repeat of the question. She said that the Orthodox (in this case referring to a Engaged Yeshivish or Centrist Orthodoxy) are more irrational than other patients. They have a complete dependence on a certain life, and the woman with the dying husband was dependent on husband. No contingency, no sense of end of life.

Finally, she noted the increasing convergence with Catholics positions, for example that food and hydration is necessary. And both need more actual knowledge of the end process of each specific disease or end life situation. (See my prior post here on the convergence).

Philo-palin, Hillel Halkin and the phrase Blood Libel

In last weeks’ Forward, Hillel Halkin attributes the phrase “blood libel” to the influence of the Encyclopedia Judiaca (1971). Originally I thought that his column supported one of my prior posts, which showed that the spelling of the word Kabbalah was based on the influence of the EJ.

In order make a decent blog post, I checked Google Ngram and discovered that the change of terminology was 1966-1970. Halkin was wrong again and was more concerned with his political agenda to show the influence of Jabotinsky and Israel than any love of words. With even more wonderful Google technology, I turned to Google Books and found that the books that changed from blood accusation to blood libel were all American volumes. This list included the new volume of Salo Baron, the translation of Dubnov, Dan Ben–Amotz, In Praise of the Baal Shen Tov, Joseph Blau of Columbia’s Varieties of Modern Judaism, the translation of Zinberg, as well as Midstream and Tradition. It is time for a more philological approach to the study of Jewish words.

Here is Halkin’s genealogy:

Although the blood libel itself — that is, the accusation that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood for ritual purposes, especially for the baking of Passover matzos — is an old one going back at least to the Middle Ages, “blood libel” as an English expression is quite recent. The 1905 Jewish Encyclopedia covered the subject under “Blood Accusation”; and in Volume IV of his monumental “Social and Religious History of the Jews,” published in 1957, renowned historian Salo Baron wrote, too, of “the fateful popular invention which was permanently to envenom the relations between Jews and Christians in many lands: the so-called ‘blood accusation.’” In the pages that followed, Baron did not once use the term “blood libel.” The Catholic scholar Edward Flannery, for his part, in his 1965 history of anti-Semitism, “The Anguish of the Jews,” referred to “the ritual murder libel,” also calling it “the ritual murder charge” and “the ritual murder calumny.” “Blood libel” is nowhere to be found in Flannery’s book, either.

The 1971 Encyclopedia Judaica, on the other hand, has a lengthy entry under “Blood Libel,” written by the Hebrew University professor of Jewish history Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson. It would appear, in fact, to have been this article that introduced the term in English, into which it was translated from the Hebrew expression alilat dam, dam meaning “blood” and alila “libel” or “slander.” Traceable to the 17th-century Egyptian-Jewish chronicler Yosef ben Yitzhak Sambari, who first used it in his history of medieval Jewry, “Sefer Divrei Yosef,” alilat dam has been for hundreds of years the standard Hebrew way of saying “blood accusation” or “ritual murder charge.” Presumably, the editors of the Encyclopedia Judaica preferred it in English because a libel is by definition false whereas an accusation or charge may be true, and presumably, too, this was the reason that “blood libel” quickly caught on among historians writing in English and soon displaced its rivals completely.

And here is the Ngram showing that by 1971 the majority of the shift had occurred already.

Daniel Landes responds to Arthur Green’s response.

Arthur Green responded to Daniel Landes’ review of his book in the Jewish Review of Books- see here. Now, Landes responds to the response. Unfortunately, Landes still ponders if Green rhetoric is unsophisticated. But to Landes’ credit, he apologizes associating sexual scandal with Renewal Judaism and using that to tarnish Green by association. And Landes calls himself committed to pluralism, I guess not to alienate his Pardes consistency, but it is not the pluralism of which Green speaks. For my own take on Green, I unfortunately spread it out over five posts so few piece them together. Here are three of them- here, here, and here.

Daniel Landes Responds:

According to Arthur Green, “the story of evolution, including the ongoing evolution of humanity, is bigger than all the distinctions between religions and their myths.” But he struggles to find meaning within this cold process. In Radical Judaism, he writes:

If we could learn to view our biohistory this way, the incredible grandeur of the evolutionary journey would immediately unfold before us. We Jews revere the memory of one Nahshon ben Aminadav, the first person to step into the Sea of Reeds . . . What courage! But what about the courage of the first creature ever to emerge from sea onto dry land? Do we appreciate the magnificence of that moment?

Let’s set aside the question of whether this is a sophisticated way to think about evolutionary history (it isn’t), and note how quick Green is to personify nature. Perhaps it is because his God (like Mordecai Kaplan’s) has been divested of all personality.

Green asks rhetorically whether I would accept the God of Maimonides’ Guide or of the Zohar. They are, of course, two radically different conceptions, but both assert a divine transcendence that Green flatly denies and grapple with the problem of divine-human interaction. I understand Green’s fascination with Rav Kook, a true panentheist, but underlying Rav Kook’s theology is the shimmering energy of the All-existing within God. As the ground of being, God validates and uplifts nature. Kook’s God is neither dead nor asleep: He is free to plunge into life and history.

In short, Green is right to point out that the tradition of Jewish thinking about God has a history, but, as he acknowledges, he has given up playing by the “old theological rules” of this tradition. Why, then, all the righteous indignation when a reviewer points out that this is precisely what he is doing? His disdain is also hard to understand. The relational God of Israel is, after all, the one affirmed by his teacher Abraham J. Heschel as well as by Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, author of the Sefat Emet and another key figure for Green. As for the fish, all I can say is that, given Green’s neo-Hasidism, I hope that at least it was a herring or nice sable.

Green writes that the “high point of his annoyance” with me is in my contention that he presents a theology that has no doctrine of ahavat Yisrael, and then goes on to assert that he loves Jews and supports the State of Israel. I never asked for a loyalty oath or doubted Green’s love of his fellow Jew. But neither of these adds up to a doctrine. In his book it would appear that he would replace simple Jews—if they have the wrong politics or a backward spirituality—with a member of Green’s “extended faith community” (“my Israel”) who is not Jewish but who shares his journey. My point was that ahavat Yisrael is about empirical (one might almost say carnal) Jews, an actual living community. But ahavat Yisrael also cuts both ways. Tradition leads me to maintain—as difficult as it might be to fathom from these exchanges—that Green and I are inextricably bound to (and stuck with) each other.

When I invited Green to lecture here at Pardes, the discussion in our beit midrash was frank and vigorous, but there was nothing that smacked of censure. Similarly, in my review, I argued that he was deeply, theologically wrong, but Green’s letter notwithstanding I did not call him a heretic (a word I don’t use). Pluralism does not preclude criticism.

Finally, I owe Green an apology. He is, of course, right that the Renewal movement is not the only one that has been beset by sexual scandal, and I did not mean to suggest otherwise. I hope that the Orthodox world has at least begun to learn that denial serves no one well, and that the “high walls of halakha” are sometimes breached by those who ought to maintain them. I suggest that the Renewal movement might learn, nonetheless, of the indispensability of law in curbing human temptation.

Ramhal as expressing 18th century Enlightenment values

Yoni Garb has a article attempting to contextualize Ramhal in 18th century Italian Enlightenment and Garb wants to use the writings of his students such as Valle whose works were recently published. “R. Joseph Spinner, a senior kabbalist working at a Jerusalem yeshiva, has published twenty-five meticulous editions of Valle’s works.”
Garb focuses on the tikkunim with Valle commentary. He presents Ramhal’s prophetic vision that we need new tikkunim for our new era that focus on the shekhinah and the three lower worlds.

Garb culls out the use of the words effort, human work, politico as reflecting 18th century values. Valle comes across as strongly anti-Christian but fascinated with Christianity. [As a side point by the site owner, there is a Kabbalah Centre lecturer who presents Valle as teaching that Jesus brought Kabbalah for the gentiles!!!]

The article itself says it does not have the time to show the similarity to labor and power in 18th century thought, so I am left with a sense of “show me” with evidence and do not just tell to trust you. He uses some of the same data in another article to create an affinity to Vico. In addition, labor and work as performed by the magical powers of smoking a cigarette does not have enlightenment overtones of productivity. How the attendance at medical school by angelic mandate combines with magical practice is the Enlightenment concept of work needs to be culturally described as to where it fits into the eighteenth century, especially since Garb rejects considering Valle as counter-Enlightenment.

The Circle of Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto in Its Eighteenth-Century Context Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 44, no. 2 (2011) Pp. 189–202.

One of the goals of this essay is to deepen further our appreciation of the role of the circle, especially the part played by Luzzatto’s close associate, R. Moshe David Valle (1696–1777).Valle was the subject of some preliminary studies by Scholem’s student Isaiah Tishby, whose writings on Luzzatto and his circle recently have been issued in a revised English edition. However, Tishby’s work on Valle was limited by his exclusive focus on the issue of messianism (On Tishby’s approach see the prior posts.)

The other— admittedly more speculative, yet methodologically essential—is to consider the influence of general eighteenth-century culture, especially that of the Italian Enlightenment or Illuminismo, a term which parallels the Illuminatio mentioned explicitly and approvingly in Valle’s Italian book.10 I shall follow the latter course here by demonstrating the importance of two of the keywords of the century and of modernity in general—“labor” and “power”—in the writings of both Luzzatto and Valle.

In the space of one month in 1729, Luzzatto composed a work in Zoharic Aramaic that he described variously as “Seventy Rectifications” [Shiv‘im Tiqqunim] or “New Rectifications” [Tiqqunim Hadashim], comprising seventy alternative interpretations of the last verse of Deuteronomy (and thus of the Pentateuch). According to Luzzatto’s perception, this work was inspired, or even dictated, by the powers revealed to him following his famous formative mystical experience in 1727, including the spirits of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah.

The seventy tiqqunim are a central theme for the messianic project of Luzzatto’s circle. The fourteenth-century classic, Tiqqunei Ha-Zohar, whose style Luzzatto consciously imitated, offers seventy commentaries on the first verse of the Torah, while both Luzzatto and Valle, in a parallel work, commented on the last verse of the Torah: “And for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.” In the theurgical hermeneutics of the circle, the very act of commentary on a sacred text supports the rectification of the supernal worlds and the concomitant advancement of the messianic process. Thus, while the multiple medieval commentaries on the biblical verses emended the higher reaches of the divine world of emanation [’atzilut], those composed in the circle were intended to complete the process of rectification by building the lowest of the divine Sefirot or emanations, the attribute of kingdom (also known as the feminine Shekhina).

A second goal was to further draw down the influx of this attribute into the three lower, nondivine worlds of the Kabbalistic cosmos. This second goal reflects the general translation of the Kabbalistic myth into this-worldly terms, which are primarily political, as indicated by the focus on the attribute of kingdom. As Luzzatto put it in a letter to his erstwhile teacher, R. Isaiah Bassan, explaining the rationale of the composition of his second set of tiqqunim: “a great place was left to me [by the famous sixteenth-century master R. Yitzhaq Luria], the matter of the connection of the worlds and the way of the leadership [hanhaga], and its revelation from the [divine world of] emanation to the material worlds.”

As he radically states elsewhere, the merit of the forefathers no longer holds in the Exile, and thus they are “sleeping.” The new rectification shall be performed instead by the two Messiahs and by Moses,

Labor, then, is the path to redemption, and as we read in another of Valle’s biblical commentaries, the nature of redemption is a transformation of labor. His interpretation of the Exodus, as brought about through the power of Moses, is that the Jews became a nation through the transition from the “difficult and bitter” human labor to the “good and sweet” divine labor. This opposition of the human and the divine realms should be compared to a highly important passage in Valle’s commentary on Psalms, in which he contrasts the false counsels of human politics (using the Italian word politica) to the divine origin of the counsel of the Torah, as taken by David, the model king (and, like Moses, a personal model for Moshe David Valle). The preoccupation with the building of the Shekhina through the power and labor of the two Messiahs and Moses is indeed the identifying theme of Valle’s writing in the period of his work with Luzzatto’s circle, which ended with the latter’s 1735 departure from Italy in the wake of the controversy.

Valle ascribes the need for effort in study to the spiritual warfare against the “husk,” or evil power, of the biblical nation of Amalek, which was empowered by the “coming of the Christian [netzer]” (punning ‘amal [effort] and Amalek).

Valle clearly ascribes the need for extensive labor to his own period, or “later generations,” which for him are the “footsteps of the Messiah” alluded to in the Talmud. In one striking passage, he relates this development to the increase in tobacco smoking. Valle regarded smoking, at least for himself as arch-“sifter,”as a tool for empowerment in the labor of contemplation and warfare with the powers of evil, as well as for sifting sparks of holiness in a more literal sense.

One should note that this view of the commandments and their dependence on Adam’s sin has a slightly antinomian or Pauline flavor, which could possibly be ascribed to a perhaps unconscious Christian influence.

Although I cannot elaborate on this theme within the present study, the issues of labor and power are as closely related in the general thought of the period as they are in the discourse of Luzzatto’s circle. Here one may appeal to two central authorities on modern intellectual history: Peter Gay regards “power” as one of two words which sum up Enlightenment thought; while Michel Foucault, albeit discussing a later century, writes that the “binding of man to labor” should be rightly regarded as political, rather than merely economic—“a linkage brought about by power.” In the case of eighteenth-century Italy, one should note the centrality and interplay of these themes in the writings of Giambattista Vico, Luzzatto’s contemporary and the best-known early modern Italian political thinker.
(The similarities between Luzzatto and Vico are discussed in Jonathan Garb, “The Political Model in Modern Kabbalah: A Study of Ramhal and His Intellectual Surroundings,” Avi Be‘Ezri, ed. B. Brown, M. Lorberbaum, Y. Stern and A. Rosenak (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center and Israel Democracy Institute, forthcoming) [Hebrew])

Based on an angelic revelation, he sanctioned his favored student R. Yekutiel Gordon’s pursuit of a medical degree at the University of Padua. Valle’s own medical degree earned him the appellation “the physician” in the correspondence of the circle, and medical and anatomical issues indeed feature prominently in the first volume of his compilations. As two leading writers on the Enlightenment, Foucault and Gay, claimed in very different ways, medicine can be seen as a model for Enlightenment philosophy.

Obviously, openness to the non-Jewish world, even at a time of relatively benevolent treatment, does not imply a positive attitude toward that world. One of Valle’s early works is an anti-Christian polemic in the vernacular; its explicit references to the Christian faith, as well as some of his stronger critiques, are rendered in Hebrew in order to bypass censorship. Alongside this critique, however, Valle’s writings display remarkable interest in the details of Christian practice. Italy, one may say, occupies a unique place in the cultural history of modern Kabbalah.

The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer reprinted

People tend to imagine Eastern European Hasidism as existing as some circle of modern new age spiirtualists sitting around discussing Kabbalah. A few years ago, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern wrote an excellent article arguing for a greater sense of history, folklore, and ordinary people in the study of Hasidism; he sharply argued that the star-struck study of Hasidism does not spend enough time in the study of earthly Hasidism.

Turning to Polish Hasidism, in the era of Kotzk, Izbica, and Gur, those who are not historians can gain a sense of the era by reading the newly-reissued The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer. Poland modernized with trains and factories between 1840-1860, and then was subject to Russian taxation after 1860. The Jews were almost all immigrants from other regions, litvaks, galitzianers, daitchers and entering the new era of productivity. Over time Jews settled in the suburbs of larger cities, Kotzk, Tomoshav, Alexsander, Gur. Singer presents older Hasidim as cruel factory owners who went to Hasidic courts, the younger Hasidic generation as raised in the seemliness of modern urban life-gambling, brothels, and fighting. And then the 20th century generation leaving Hasidism. Singer was no longer religious but was stuck in that felt that neither secularism or Hasidism had solutions. If one can see beyond Singer’s pro-labor bias and know that he is no longer Hasidic, then one gets a window into the later part of the era not available elsewhere. He preserves many details of ordinary life even if his plot development is biased.

The book has a new introduction by ex-orthodox secularist Rebecca Goldstein, who notes the gender gap, the avarice, the regional differences and the fatalism.- available here and here.

The conquest of Dinele, who becomes Diana as her husband becomes Max, partly explains the rivalry of the brothers. Dinele had hoped that the arranged marriage forced upon her by her wealthy Hasidic parents would yield her the romantic figure of Jacob Bunem as a husband rather than his obnoxious brother. Like many Polish girls, even from Hasidic households, Dinele had been sent to study at a secular Gymnasium, where she had been a great favorite of her Gentile friends, and she finds the ways of the Hasidic men, even her own father and brothers, boorish, degrading, and alarming. (I remember my own father telling me how this rift in the sensibilities of Jewish girls and boys, brought about by their very different educations, was creating societal difficulties in the Poland he had grown up in, the worldly girls turning up their noses at the relatively uncouth yeshiva boys their fathers chose for them. Ironically, it was precisely because, as girls, their education mattered so little that the comparatively affluent among them were shunted off to Gymnasia, the smattering of kultur meant to make them more marriageable.)

Both Lodz, the manufacturing and commercial center of Poland, and Simha Meir, its would-be king, present a face of capitalism so disfigured by cunning, greed, and ruthlessness that the reader has no trouble imagining the author as a young man running off to Russia to witness the glories of Bolshevism for himself. Even Simha Meir’s father-in-law, Haim Alter, a warm if weak man, an ardent Hasid who hires only Jewish workers in his factory, is, as an owner, an unrepentent exploiter. He claps his soft hands to the Hasidic tunes that his weavers sing as they work, but he pays them so little that the candles he makes them pay for out of pocket as they work their intolerably long hours represent a major drain on their resources. If anything, Haim Alter emerges as even more despicable than Simha Meir, owing to the smarmy pieties with which he coats his avarice. These are capitalists as an ardent communist might render them—portraits rendered in vitriol.

In one brief passage, a little masterpiece of the twisty tergiversations of self-deception, Nissan comes close to rethinking his politics. A demonstration planned for May Day has gone disastrously wrong. The workers, drunk and dangerous, quickly transition from humiliating a hated factory overseer to targeting specifically Jewish factory owners, and from there to beating up random Jews, who are fellow workers, their comrades by class. What was meant to be a demonstration of proletarian solidarity turns into a full-fledged pogrom—heads bashed, women violated, with the Polish authorities cynically waiting it out until the rage is spent. Stunned by grief and guilt at having aroused passions whose outcome he had not foreseen, Nissan briefly considers whether his presuppositions might be faulty:

Like his pious father, whose faith in the Messiah nullified all contemporary suffering, Nissan reaffirmed his faith in the validity of his ideals and pushed aside all negative thought.
If fatalism hangs heavily over all the action of The Brothers Ashkenazi, it hangs particularly heavily over the Jews

I. J. Singer does not exclude Jews from his cynical reading of human nature. In one section of The Brothers Ashkenazi, he mercilessly portrays the Jews of Lodz succumbing to their own instincts for xenophobia, quickly assembling prejudices toward the Muscovite Jews who pour into their city after Czar Alexander III exiles them from their homes. These Moscow refugees are more sophisticated than the Polish Jews, and are dubbed “Litvaks,” meaning those who come from Lithuania, even though they are not from Lithuania. Apparently, in Lodz, “Litvak” is something of an insult. The two groups quickly get to work dredging up enough differences to support their mutual disapproval.

Traditional Lodz Jews were outraged. The elder Litvaks wore short gabardines, derbies, and fedoras. The younger were clean-shaven. They didn’t sway at prayer. They were more like gypsies than Jews. It was rumored that they could cast spells. When a Litvak moved into a house, all those who could afford to moved out. The Lodz men wouldn’t include a Litvak in a quorum. The Lodz women wouldn’t lend a pot to a Litvak neighbor lest she render it impure.

The book was first reviewed in the NYT and The Nation in 1936. Adam Kirsch, who is unfamiliar with the material, still offered at the Tablet these insights such as “Singer’s method in The Brothers Ashkenazi is to drop his protagonists into this bubbling cauldron and document the changes that result.”

In 1936, two novels dominated the New York Times bestseller list. The first was Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, a panoramic, melodramatic historical novel that would shortly become a classic movie and that has never been out of print. The other was The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer, which has never been made into a movie and has gone in and out of print periodically over the years.

The novel’s vantage point on this crisis is the city of Lodz, sometimes called the Manchester of Poland. In the late 19th century, Lodz was transformed from a small village to an international capital of the textile industry—an industry dominated by Jewish manufacturers, merchants, and laborers. Singer captures this reckless, explosive growth in a cinematic sequence in the novel’s first pages: “Seemingly overnight the houses already standing sprouted additional stories, annexes, wings, extensions, ells, attics, and garrets to accommodate the flow of newcomers … like a torrent overflowing its banks, the Jews smashed down all barriers set up to exclude them.” Singer’s method in The Brothers Ashkenazi is to drop his protagonists into this bubbling cauldron and document the changes that result.

The patriarch of the Ashkenazi dynasty, Abraham Hersh, gets rich as the chief salesman for the Gentile-owned manufacturing firm of Huntze. Just as he is an employee of capitalists rather than a capitalist himself, he seems to be in the new Lodz without being of it: He remains a traditional Hasid, spending as much time as possible at the court of his rebbe. He uses his wealth to do mitzvot like buying Passover supplies for the poor and ransoming Jewish prisoners.

Finally, here is the real historical account as read by few readers of Kotzk and Izbitz from Urbanization, Capitalism, and Cosmopolitanism: Four Novels and a Film on Jews in the Polish City of Lódz Delphine Bechtel. Prooftexts. Bloomington: 2006. Vol. 26, Iss. 1/2;

Lódz is a crossroad. The city was under the rule of the Russian Empire. At first, the cotton industry had been introduced there to serve the interests of the Russian market; production, however, was in the hands of Germans, Jews, and a number of Poles. The Jewish merchants mostly came from Russia. Remember the scene in the theater: when people hear that such and such has become bankrupt in Odessa, the breakdown is immediate in Lódz. The cotton itself was coming from Turkmenistan. But slowly, American cotton flooded the market, transiting through Hamburg. The situation of such a city has something fascinating. It is Metropolis, a cosmopolitan Metropolis.”

Urban multiethnicity in Central and Eastern Europe has been a highly distincative feature of this region, although the phenomenon has only been rediscovered by academic researchers in the last two decades. Nonetheless, cities such as Prague, L’viv (Lemberg, Lwów), Chernivitsi (Czernowitz), Bratislava (Pressburg, Pozsony), or Gdaðsk (Danzig) have formed living examples of shared history and crossa cultural fertilization for centuries, though this feature has often gone unnoticed. Nazi ethnic cleansing and genocide, followed by years of officially monoethnic, Communist controlled states behind the Iron Curtain, had seemingly driven their multifarious past existences into oblivion.

Lódz, located 120 km southwest of Warsaw and accurately dubbed “Polish Manchester,” was promoted by tsarist decree in 1820 from an obscure village with 767 inhabitants to a “factory city,” the center of the capitalist textile industry of the Polish Kingdom, soon to serve the vast Russian market. Most towns in east Central Europe developed in the Middle Ages through the combined skills of German craft workers and Jewish merchants, who often formed the core urban population while facing a predominantly Slavic peasantry. But in Lódz, this development was forced upon the city belatedly, in a programmatic and swift way that turned the city into an unquestionable symbol for hasty urbanization, rabid capitalism, and cosmopolitanism. German settlers, including skilled weavers and masters of cotton mills from Saxony or Bohemia, were encouraged to settle there, followed by Polish villagers as well as Jewish artisans and petty merchants. Each of these groups was lured into the “promised land” to provide mass, cheap labor. The town attracted newcomers like a magnet, and grew like a mushroom, on sand, swamp, and peat bog.

This hasty foundation resulted in a gigantic population boom: the total number of inhabitants rose to 314,000 in 1897, and again to 506,100 in 1913. At the same time, the Jewish population rose from 259 in 1820 (representing 33.8 percent of the total) to 92,400 in 1897 (29.4 percent) and 171,900 in 1913 (34 percent).

Joseph Weiler interviewed in NCR

Weiler is the Orthodox Jewish attorney who recently defended the displaying of crosses before the European Court of Human Rights. See my prior blog post on the trial. It is a great interview. In a forthcoming book, he claims that Jews did indeed put Jesus to death as a false prophet based on Deut 13, thereby showed their loyalty to their covenant. Jews should take responsibility but not guilt for the crucifixion. I more then leery about the entire approach, and do not like the social implications at all, but I will wait to read the book. As noted in the comments at the source, it seems his Orthodoxy allows him to speak entirely from a religious perspective and not be concerned about the contingencies of history- specifically those Jews killed as Christ -killers. Here are some selections:

Tackling taboos on Jews and Christians, the cross and deicide
By John L Allen Jr Created Jan 21, 2011
Fascinating characters have always populated the landscape of Jewish-Catholic relations, but even in that milieu it’s tough to find a more intriguing personality these days than Joseph Weiler. A South-African born legal scholar and the son of a Latvian rabbi, Weiler is considered a leading expert on European constitutional law. From his perch at the NYU Law School, of all places, he edits the ultra-prestigious European Journal of International Law, and it would be easier to list the elite European universities from which he doesn’t hold honorary doctorates.

We’re talking about a deeply faithful Orthodox Jew, the father of a large Jewish family in the Bronx which keeps kosher and strictly observes the Sabbath. Yet in 2003, Weiler published the best-selling book A Christian Europe, pleading for the European Union to embrace its Christian heritage. Sporting a kippah, Weiler also recently stood before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights to defend Italy’s right to display the crucifix in public school classrooms. He took the case pro bono — arguing that forcing Italy to take down the cross would be a blow not against Christianity, but against pluralism.

In a forthcoming book on the trial, he’ll try to persuade fellow Jews that their efforts over 2,000 years to reject the charge of deicide have been misplaced. In a sense that Weiler carefully unpacks, he says “the Jews” did indeed put Jesus to death, and they were doing exactly what the Lord expected. (His aim is to offer a reading of the trial that renders both Jewish and Christian responses consistent with Scripture — a project, he readily admits, destined to stir fierce reactions on both sides.)

* * *
In November 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the display of crucifixes in Italian classrooms violates religious freedom,

When the original decision came out, I was shocked by the weakness and the perfunctory nature of the reasoning. I wrote an editorial in the European Journal of International Law, saying that no matter what position you take on the outcome, it’s an embarrassing decision. I was also contemptuous of the way the Italian government argued the case. They claimed that the cross is not a religious symbol, it’s a national symbol. Apart from being dishonest, that was bad strategy, because it was very easy for the chamber to say it’s obviously a religious symbol.

My editorial made the rounds. When Italy decided to go to the Grand Chamber, a group of other states decided to join the case. I was invited to a meeting in Strasbourg where they discussed strategy. They asked if I would represent them, and to their surprise, I said I would as long as I did it pro-bono. I did not want anybody to say that this Jew will defend the cross, will do anything, just for money.

What was your pitch?
I said that one should go on the attack, arguing that removing the cross is actually illiberal. Allowing the cross is the liberal position, the pluralist position, because Europe has both a France and a Britain. France is an officially secular state, but in Britain the national anthem is “God Save the Queen” and the Queen is the head of the Church of England. Every picture of the Queen in a British classroom is both a national and a religious symbol.

What reaction have you received from the Jewish world?
I got an enormous amount of hate mail. I’ve had very harsh reactions, especially from the European Jewish community in Italy, France, Germany and elsewhere. How can the son of a “Lithuanian rabbi” do this? Very often they’ll say, you don’t know what the real church is like, let me tell you this story and that story. At bottom, the question was, ‘How can an observant Jew defend the cross?’
You don’t understand yourself to be defending Christianity but defending pluralism?

That’s it. In my book A Christian Europe, I said that if the preamble to the European constitution had only made reference to the Christian roots of Europe, and not to the traditions of Athens and the French Revolution, I would have written in defense of the latter. People have asked me a million times how a practicing Jew can defend a reference to Christian roots in the European constitution, and I’ve said that I’m not a practicing Jew in this context. I’m a practicing constitutionalist. I’m a practicing pluralist.

Speaking of the burden of the past, your new book is on the trial of Jesus. What point do you want to make?
I want to make three points. My first thesis is that the trial of Jesus has not been appreciated sufficiently as the bedrock of Western sensibilities about justice.

In the Biblical story, Jesus is defined as the most abject enemy of society. He’s the Osama bin Laden, the enemy who threatens the entire nation. Yet at the same time he’s the Son of God, he’s divinity. He is put on trial, and into our collective consciousness is written the imperative: ‘Nobody is so abject that he doesn’t deserve a trial, and nobody is so exalted that he can be excused from a trial.’

There’s a second element. For generations, people have protested the injustice of the trial.
Rule number two, therefore, is that the trial has to be fair. We don’t accept kangaroo trials, we don’t accept perjury, and we don’t accept tampering with witnesses.

What’s the second thesis?
In my research I discovered there’s actually no theology of the trial, and that’s the heart of the matter.
For the Christian narrative to work, Jesus has to die blameless, innocent, the Paschal lamb. If we were writing the story ourselves, as opposed to something we receive from God, it actually would be much better if Caiaphas had just sent somebody in the middle of the night to stick a spear into Jesus. He could still have been buried, resurrected, etc., but there would be no question about his innocence and blamelessness. He would be the perfect martyr. So you really have to ask: Why a trial?

I believe Deuteronomy chapter 13, verses 1-5, is the key.
It’s an extraordinarily strange thing. The first verse says, ‘This is my law. You will not add to it and you will not detract from it, forever.’ Then it says that if one day a prophet or a dreamer should come to you giving ‘signs and wonders’ … that’s code in scripture for somebody sent by God. So, if a prophet giving signs and wonders comes along and says to stray away from God, not to follow his law, you have to know that I’m testing you. This is the theologically baffling part: I am putting you to the test, and you must resist. Even though it’s a prophet, even though it’s signs and wonders which means it comes from God, you must put this man to death.

From a legal point of view, it’s a remarkable thing. God ties his hands to the mast. He says this is a law forever, and puts in place a device that will stop even Him from changing the law. (That does not compromise his omnipotence, because otherwise he would not be able to make an eternal promise). My thesis is that Jesus is the person referred to in Deuteronomy.

He is the one sent by God working signs and wonders, whom the Jews were supposed to kill?
There’s a deep theological challenge which Christianity really has not faced. If Jesus has to die innocently, someone has to kill him unjustly. This is very disturbing if you take the Bible seriously. It should offend the reader, because it means that for God to realize his design it depends on somebody going against God’s will.

In the trial, God achieves two things in one stroke. It’s a trial of the Jews, to remind the Jews that they have their covenant and their salvation lies in it. It’s also a trial of Jesus, in which he dies innocently because in that way he expiates the sins of everybody else. His death is the way of redemption for the world. At the end of the day, according to this vision, everybody is following the path of God.

For Christians, the difficult theological position is this: They have to accept that the covenant with the Jews endures to the end of days. John Paul II once said whimsically that God does not make covenants in vain. This means accepting that the Jews have their covenant, apart from the message of Christ.

What’s the third thesis?
Why the shift of responsibility from the cross to the trial? That’s what the culture has done. It’s shifted the responsibility for the death of Jesus away from an execution by the Romans to a finding of guilt by the Jews. The reason in my view is not directly deicide. It is the steadfast rejection of Christ by the Jews, before and after the Crucifixion. It’s not easy to condemn a people who faithfully stick to a covenant whom God himself proclaimed as eternal, so deicide comes in handy.
I’ve studied Nostra Aetate [the Vatican II document on relations with Judaism] very, very carefully.

Basically it says that not everyone at the time of Jesus, and certainly nobody ever after, was complicit in what the Jewish leadership did. Therefore, because we don’t believe in collective punishment and collective guilt, “the Jews” should not be held responsible. The startling thing is that by absolving the Jews, [the bishops] were also absolving themselves. They also say, in the very same statement, that despite the fact we have held the Jews responsible for 2,000 years, and because of that so many Jews were put on the stake … hey guys, there’s no collective guilt, no collective responsibility, so don’t blame us either.

That is one reason why I believe that John Paul II was one of the most impressive moral persons of our epoch. He never took that position. He said, ‘I’ve got something to say I’m sorry for.’ Not personally, of course … the man saved Jews during the Second World War. There are moving, moving stories. But representing the church, he said I’m not going to just rely on ‘no collective responsibility.’ There is something here to apologize for.

In the book, I say that as a Jew I don’t want to be “absolved” either. We have to differentiate between guilt and responsibility. I want to be able to say, yes, we Jews put Christ to death, because that’s what the Lord required us to do.

I can imagine a Jew saying: We spent 2,000 years trying to escape the charge of deicide, and here you are embracing it.
A good Christian-Jewish dialogue should not involve one side having to deny its core identity, which for Jews is the eternal covenant — Chukat Olam. I would say, if you just open the Talmud to the Sanhedrin tractate, it’s clear. Jesus came along and we put him to death, as we were required to do. The Romans are not even mentioned. The only difference between the Talmud and me is that they said Jesus was guilty of incitement, which is a reference to Deuteronomy 13, verse six onwards. That tractate is written at a time when the Talmud is the enemy of the church, and they don’t want to give Jesus the dignity of being a prophet sent by God.

Do you expect to get more criticism from Christians or from Jews?

I will get it the most from that segment of the observant Jewish community where anything positive you have to say about Christianity is somehow anathema. Make no mistake — I am no ‘Jews for Christ.’ I abhor that. But even as an observant Jew, it is not for me to exclude any possible plan the Holy One, Blessed Be He, may have had for the rest of the nations.
I think Christians will be either dismissive or will take it very, very seriously… I beg the reader of this interview to wait for the full text — it is nuanced, careful, and respectful.
Read the Rest Here

Conference on Jewish Lamdanut

There is an annual conference at Van Leer on the philosophy of halakhah. This year they issued the call for papers earlier than usual. So far, they have had conferences on Yeshaya Leibowitz, Rav Soloveitchik, Philosophy of Halakhah, Ideology and Halakhah, Conservative Judaism an Halakhah, Halakhah as an Emotional Event, and now this one. It is an academic conference, so many of the papers from Centrists are not accepted. After one of the earlier conferences, a senior RIETS rabbi told said to me, in a somewhat relativist way, about why no one in NY cared about the conferences: “they talk to their friends and we talk to those we are comfortable to.” Before one of the early conferences, a known Centrist speaker wanted to determine who should speak based his list of acceptable Centrist speakers. Van Leer responded by saying “You make yourself stupid” and showed him the door.
Which of the proposed list of questions are great questions? Which questions should be there?

Joel Osteen will be in Israel- talks about Judaism

The LA Jewish Journal has an exclusive interview with Pastor Joel Osteen about his upcoming pro-Israel performance at the Jerusalem Theater. Joel Osteen is one of the leading American preachers on TV every night. He preaches that God cares about you and wants you to have wealth, a better self, your dreams fulfilled, and a good life. Jews should take note that even though Osteen is an Evangelical, his views are almost Unitarian for their lack of doctrine or dogma. In addition, Joel Osteen is very popular in my Centrist Orthodox neighborhood; people watch him on TV and know his sermons. He generally uses Hebrew scripture in a narrative reading. If God has made promises to Abraham, then they apply to all believers out there. You too have been promised to be numerous, blessed, wealth and to have everything. His religion is so light and his message of prosperity so in tune with suburban Orthodoxy that he is a model rabbi. I hear more discussion of Osteen’s sermons than those of the local Rabbis. On the hand, he is condemned by the more doctrinal Christians as a false prophet, a phony, and a disbeliever. And he has been interviewed on national TV to defend his view from charges of opportunism.

To show how far the current Evangelical gospel of prosperity has come, Osteen starts off his interview by saying that Jesus is basically a force within all of us, including Jews. He interprets God saves us as God has given us the potential to believe in ourselves and fulfill our goals. He likes the Jewish tradition and has given up eating pork, but not 100%. He even has respect for Hindu even thought they have different beliefs. He has a non-judgmental, non-patronizing, open and embracing attitude to other religions.

Osteen states that he presents his Christians principles at each show so all who want to can accept them. But his Christian messages is pretty universal and without a sense of missionary urgency.
The interview has his hallmark themes, including that God has a plan for everyone and if we trust in God he will help us with everything we ever wanted in life. When asked why Evangelicals are doing well, he answers that people do not want denominations or ideology; they want a hopeful positive life. “We all face difficulties in our health, our marriages, our finances, and our message is: God can help you in these areas. (I do think that certain parts of Orthodoxy are rapidly heading in this direction).

Joel Osteen, Israel and the Jews: an exclusive Q&A By JewishJournal.com

Saying they want to “show solidarity with the nation of Israel and the Jewish people,” mega-pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen will bring their musical, charismatic brand of Christianity to Israel. The Osteens announced they will hold to hold “A Historic Night of Hope” at the Jerusalem Theater on Thursday, February 3 at 7:00 pm. The event will be broadcast around the world by the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). While in Israel, the Osteens will meet with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as a tour of the Holy Land.
________________________________________
Rabbi Naomi Levy: I watched an interview you did with Larry King. I was so amazed when you said Jews can indeed go to heaven, and then I saw that you later took heat for it, and you rephrased yourself. Is it wrong to believe that people who don’t believe in Jesus have a place with God and have a place in heaven?
Pastor Joel Osteen: Sure. You know, to me it’s up to every person. I mean, what the Scripture teaches is that Jesus came so that we could have salvation through him.

NL: I saw another video where you spoke about how you’ve stopped eating pork, and I’m curious if you’ve taken on other aspects of being kosher.
JO: I just see that in the Scripture as well. I don’t always follow it 100 percent. But I appreciate the Jewish tradition and what’s in the Scripture, what it says about it.

JO: You know, I try to encourage people to believe for the best, but that God will always give you the strength to make it through and faith is all about trust. … Yesterday I prayed for a family. They had a little girl that had cancer and she’s in a wheelchair. You know, our prayer is that she’s going to live every day that God’s planned out for her. I hope it’s until she’s 90 years old. I don’t know if it will be, but I also pray that God gives these parents strength, and they get to that place of trust to say, ‘OK, God, I believe you’re in control of my life, that you have a plan for my little girl and a plan for my life.’ I think when you come back to that place of trust to believe that there’s something bigger than yourself, that’s what gives you the faith and strength to move on.

NL: Why do you think the mainline churches are losing members right now, and churches like your own are growing?
JO: I think that these days people are not as interested in being, whether it’s Baptist or Methodist or some denomination. They’re interested in churches that are relevant and practical and help them live their life better, and I’m not saying that the other ones don’t, but I think that the churches that I see growing are teaching you how to forgive and how to have a good attitude and how to love one another and practical things that help people. … I mean, I can guess that it’s positive, it’s hopeful. We all face difficulties in our health, our marriages, our finances, and our message is: God can help you in these areas. He can give you strength like we talked about. I think that’s part of the message that people, I hope they walk away saying, ‘You know what, I can be better, I can overcome this addiction, I can make it through another day.’

NL: When you speak to Jews, is your goal to say, ‘And now that you’ve come this far it’s time to embrace Jesus,’ or can a Jew remain a steadfast Jew and learn from you?
JO: I think anybody can learn. I put what we believe as Christians at the end of almost every broadcast and every service, but I just don’t believe in forcing anything down anybody’s throat. I believe it’s the spirit on the inside that reveals who we’re supposed to be. So I give that opportunity, but maybe this is a better way to put it: I don’t look down on anybody because they don’t believe just like me. … I’ve spent a lot of time in India with my father, and those were loving, kind people to us, very caring. They were Hindus, they don’t believe like we do, but I don’t look down on them. They know my faith, I know theirs, and I always let my light shine, but I’m not going to force anybody. I don’t think you’re supposed to go forcing something down somebody’s throat. Read the rest here.

Rome’s Orthodox Chief Rabbi: Jews and Catholics Are Brothers

Interview With Riccardo Di Segni
By Giancarlo Giojelli

(For background on Rabbi di Segni and his positions, see this prior post- be sure to scroll down in the prior post.)

ROME, JAN. 18, 2011 The 22nd annual Jewish-Christian dialogue day was held in Italy on Monday. The religious leaders continued with a program that began in 2005 to focus on the Ten Commandments.
The annual Jan. 17 event began in 1990 sponsored by the Italian bishops’ conference and Jewish leaders.
This year, the discussion turned to the Commandment: Honor your father and your mother.

For the occasion, ZENIT is publishing an Italian Radio and Television (RAI) interview with the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni.

Q: Then, what does it mean to be brothers? Do Christians and Jews have a common Father and Mother?

Di Segni: The whole of humanity has a father and a mother in common if there is meaning in the story of the Bible that the whole of humanity derives from Adam and then from Noah, all of us must acknowledge we have a common predecessor so no one can say — our texts say this — he is superior to another, because we have a common origin. In this sense, the whole of humanity is brotherhood. Then there are three human groups linked more closely and undoubtedly the link that exists between Jews and Christians is a link of particular closeness, which can be represented under the image of brotherhood, with all the ups and downs that can exist in brotherhood.

Q: The word dialogue can have a strong or weak meaning. There can be, let us say, a diplomatic dialogue, which does not affect life, and a dialogue that involves and changes the person. The relationship between man and God in the Bible is often a dramatic dialogue. Hence, what is the dialogue between Christians and Jews?

Di Segni: I would say that it is a necessity that we cannot avoid, even if, as experience shows, it is a difficult experience because it must overcome a whole series of obstacles placed by history, by theology and by everyday life. The fact that it is difficult, however, must not exempt one from addressing it, having also a minimum of hope and a minimum of serenity that something good will come out of it.

Q: You lived John Paul II’s visits to the synagogue and last year you received Benedict XVI. What do you make of those meetings?

Di Segni: They were different visits. Different because of the time and the personality. The first was an epochal event, which marked a turn in history, symbolically. The second was an event of confirmation of a line. It is in these events … but the last was not an event in which everything went peacefully, there was a whole backdrop of controversies and I insisted much that in any case it take place because I believe that what it leaves is the sensation that beyond that which divides there are common elements and common obligations, above all the common obligation to walk together, which we cannot shun. Arriving at the synagogue, Benedict XVI paused before the stone that remembers the deported Roman Jews.

Q: How do Italians who are in contact with other cultures, who live in other parts of the world, live the relationship between the great monotheistic religions?

Di Segni: To go around the world is a great lesson to understand the differences. Today, Italy is free from provincialism, the human landscape we see walking through the streets of any Italian city is very changed from what it was 20 years ago. It is essential to know the differences to understand that humanity does not stop with someone who has a face like mine but that we must understand, above all, that there are these differences, and then learn to live together.

Q: Is diversity a danger or a richness?

Di Segni: Difference must be a richness.

Q: The prophet Zechariah and also Isaiah, if I’m not mistaken, speaks of a day in which Jews and Gentiles will eat together on the feast of Sukkot, which recalls the pilgrimage in the desert. Is this common table only a utopia or a prophecy that in some way already operates in the present?

Di Segni: Judaism lives from utopia and hence the fact that it is a utopia does not mean that it won’t take place but that instead it must take place and in our prayers we confirm the concept that nothing that has been said by the mouth of the prophets has failed and therefore sooner or later it must be fulfilled. In some way some little thing is happening but it is still a long way away.

Q: The desert is still long?

Di Segni: Yes. However, the situation of the desert could be an ideal situation.

Full Version here.

Hasidism and the Natural World

The Romantic approach to Hasidism takes metaphysical statements projected onto nature and turns then into aesthetic statements about nature itself. For example, seeing God in all things which is about a mental state of devotion is understood by Romantic readers as meaning that Hasidim appreciated nature. Jay Michaelson has a long analytic article showing that this is not so; Hasidic panentheism does not lead to any appreciation of the natural order. Unfortunately, this was the analytic reading of texts that was sorely lacking in his last book. After this article, I am left with the question:Will Jay relinquish Hasidism since it is not world embracing or will he develop a new Jewish metaphysics?

Hasidism and “Nature”: Negation and Affirmation By Jay Michaelson

As regards the natural world, Hasidic texts offer a range of theological and practical options, from the nature mysticism of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav to panentheistic theologies which depict God as immanent in (and yet concealed by) the natural world.
Would the early Hasidic masters be environmentalists? To ask such a question is, of course, anachronistic, yet to pose this anachronistic question is a useful entry point for exploring more general Hasidic attitudes towards the status not only of the “natural” world as we conceive it today, but the created cosmos as such.
I want to suggest here that we can discern four distinct models of the relationships to what in contemporary parlance – though not to the Hasidim – is known as “nature,”

The Shoemaker: Non-specific immanentism as a form of world-negation

R. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye quotes a story of the Baal Shem Tov that depicts the mystical hero Enoch as being a shoemaker who “united the Holy one, blessed be He and his Shechinah, by each and every [act of] sewing.” Regardless of the “deed” in question, uniting deed and thought effects a supernal union.

Initially, this view seems to be highly world-affirming, and highly radical. It makes every act important, as in the Hasidic story of the hasid who went to the Maggid of Mezrich not to learn some esoteric aspect of Kabbalah or learned insight into the Torah, but to see “how he tied his shoes.” This story has been used by Buber and others to suggest that the Hasidim were not interested in supernal realms and abstract mysteries but in the existential realms of the day-to-and here-and-now.

And yet, at the same time, the “shoemaker view” includes too much to be of use for environmentalism per se. Shoes or shoelaces are no more and no less useful than forests and rivers; this form of panentheism collapses into an apathy regarding what we today would call the “natural world” as against anything else. Moreover, Hasidic sources are ambivalent as to what, exactly, is meant by the yichudim in the Enoch story. Surely it is not a mindfulness-like attention to the texture of the shoes and the stitches. More likely it is utilizing the material object as a means to attain some spiritual insight or experience. Enoch is holding the shoes, but he is thinking of supernal spheres.
But if any action can be done with devotion, then what matters is that devotion, not the context of the action. Phenomenal features of the natural world, be they forests or parking lots, are unimportant, because all are equally valid gateways to God.

The Tanya: Nondual acosmism as an intermediate, but unsatisfying, position

One of the most pregnant equations in Hasidic quasi-environmental thought is R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s quotation of the Zohar that Elohim is numerically equivalent to Hateva. Yet R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya presents an ontological worldview which essentially holds that everything we think of as yesh (something) is actually ayin (nothing) and that which is ayin is really the only true existent.

However, the Tanya is not purely acosmic, in the sense that it does not deny the reality of the world but envisions yesh as the “body” and ayin as the “soul.” The dichotomies of this aspect of the Tanya may be presented as:
tzimtzum / or (uncontracted light)
gevurah / hesed
elohim / YHVH
hateva/immanent / transcendent
olam/maalim (covering) / ne’elam (that which is covered)
what seems to be yesh / what seems to be ayin
actually ayin / actually Yesh

What is critical to understand is that everything on the left covers what is on the right, but also in some way reveals it. First, there can be no existence without tzimtzum, according to the Tanya, so the left column is not merely the “bad stuff” from which the gnostic wants to get away – the left column is an integral, and real, element of the dialectic of existence. Second, and relatedly, the left column is not “unreal,” although I there is considerable unclarity on this point that leaves room for the possibility that R. Schneur Zalman believes the world is a “dream,” like his Vedantin counterparts. I think we can say, though, that although the tzimtzum is only a condition of the Ultimate, and not the Ultimate itself, it is still a real condition. The world is in a state of tzimtzum
Elohim is a mask, not just a veil, and masks reveal, even as they conceal.

The Beautiful Woman: Specific contemplation as a form of world-affirmation

R. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye tells a story of a humble man who meditates with great emotional longing on the image of a beautiful woman. Though his motives at first are purely carnal, he eventually separates himself from the corporeal aspects of this longing and unites with God. This story has its echo in the Maggid of Mezrich’s advice on dealing with distracting thoughts: rather than banish them from the mind, the Maggid advises taking the thought to its “root” – a beautiful woman, for example, is the aspect of tiferet.

Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that the “beautiful woman” view does value the aesthetic qualities of the object of contemplation. Unlike the shoemaker, the hasid in the beautiful woman case is in some ways interested in the actual “structure” of the woman, at least insofar as it leads him to meditate on more sublime matters. This is hardly environmentalism, but it could be a start.

The Song of the Grass: Simple Devotionalism as Ecological Foundation?

Lastly, then, we turn to R. Nachman of Bratzlav. So far, we have seen three distinct Hasidic approaches to the “natural world”: first, that any form can be used for contemplation, a car as well as a cheetah; second, that while the contours of ‘nature’ reveal as well as conceal, they are not those of ‘nature’ in our contemporary sense; and third, that beautiful forms may be better than non-beautiful ones for proper intellection.

R. Nachman has a few isolated, but by now famous in Neo-Hasidic circles, passages in which he rhapsodizes about the beauty of the natural world and the efficacy of using natural settings for meditation: blades of grass sing a song to God, meditation should be done in fields to partake in their beauty, et cetera. (See e.g. Sichot HaRan #98, #144, #227)

If the goal of the shoemaker story was to show that a complete heart, lev shalem, is what is needed to attain the ultimate goal, let us remember that for R. Nachman, ein lev shalem k’lev shavur, there is no pure/complete heart like a broken heart. And for the heart to break, there must be action. There must be an actual giving of money, an actual trip to the rebbe, and above all, an actual cry. This means that the contours of the material world matter essentially for the spiritual world. That a field brings more joy than a basement is relevant, because the emotional journey of the mystic is relevant.

Without the challenges of the outside world, this psychomachia could not take place. There must be something to push against, a challenge to fight against, or else there can be no challenge, and thus no religious value. For R. Nachman, unlike the shoemaker, there must be real difficulties in the actual making of the actual shoes. Correspondingly, R. Nachman will be more willing to use “natural” objects to attain joyfulness.. If it is a shoe, it is a shoe. If it is a beautiful field, it is a beautiful field.

R. Nachman is precisely the Hasidic master who had the least to do with nondualism, panentheism, and immanentism – all of which are popular with neo-Hasidim. Precisely the Hasidic outlier who didn’t see “God in all things” turns out to generate the best religio-mystical foundation for an affirmation of the natural world.

But what today’s popularizers miss is that “seeing God everywhere” does not offer a reason to preserve the trees and streams. At some intermediate level, natural settings are important for spiritual experiences. Yet at an advanced level, seeing God everywhere means that God is also in the parking lots and shopping malls.

As we have seen in actual Hasidic communities, the belief that God is everywhere goes quite well with a total disregard for the material world, and, at the very least, a lot of littering. Focused on a higher beauty, many Hasidim pay little attention to the “lower” forms. Our ecological consciousness must come from elsewhere.
Read the rest here, I excerpted less than half.

Peter Berger discovers Contemporary Judaism

The famous sociologist Peter Berger is retired but still blogs about religious ideas that catch his eye. Berger, in his classic The Sacred Canopy (1967) explained how Eastern European immigrants to the US, lost their shtetl sacred canopy and thereby replaced their old faith with the pluralism of America. Now everyone as moderns is autonomous and makes decisions that create a personal functional sacred canopy. The major thing that one gets from the book is that we are all now conscious of our ability to choose and choose we must. Nothing is destiny or compelling us anymore.
In this blog post, it seems that Berger has just discovered that post 1967 Judaism with its emphasis on Holocaust and Zionism as well as the renewed vigor of Orthodoxy uses the language of destiny, compelled by community and God, and not choice.

I occasionally pick up The Jerusalem Post at the famous out-of-town newspaper kiosk on Harvard Square (for ongoing news about the Middle East I rely on its very informative sister publication The Jerusalem Report). In the current international edition my attention was immediately grabbed by a big advertisement on the very first page of the paper. The headline of the ad reads “Jews in America… Wake Up! Anti-Semitism is Raising its Ugly Head Once Again”

There is an intrinsic tension between destiny and choice in that definition. In traditional Judaism to be a Jew is a destiny grounded in God’s covenant with the people of Israel – the individual does not choose to enter into this covenant, but is bound to it by the fact of birth. The Jews have not chosen God; He has chosen them.

But as more and more Jews entered the mainstream of American society a world of choices opened up to them. Willy-nilly they became part of the turbulent pluralism of this society. Of course they could choose to belong to a traditional Jewish community that continued to affirm the destiny of belonging to the people of the Covenant – but, paradoxically, this affirmation of destiny is itself chosen, no longer to be taken for granted. The individual can certainly choose what kind of Judaism to affiliate with – America has produced the historically unparalleled phenomenon of a whole emporium of Jewish denominations (a profoundly American term). The individual can also choose to be a secular Jew, or choose any number of non-Jewish religious affiliations (not only Christian ones – a surprising number of American Buddhists are of Jewish origin), or for that matter choose to be religiously unaffiliated and ethnically vague. And all these choices are protected by law, understood as rights by the larger culture (“it’s a free country!”), and solemnly legitimated by the democratic ideology of the American republic.

Jewish identity as destiny is also affirmed by reference to the Holocaust and to the state of Israel. There are problems with both references. While remembrance of the Holocaust can be seen as a moral duty (I agree with this), the very horror of these events can have the opposite effect – namely, the effect of wanting to have nothing to do with it. Ruth Wisse, who teaches Yiddish literature at Harvard, expressed her uneasiness with the spread of Holocaust studies in American academia by questioning whether young people should relate to Jewish history by focusing on its most terrible period. As to grounding Jewish identity in solidarity with the state of Israel, the taken-for-granted character of this identity will be most plausibly maintained to the degree that Israel conforms to the idealistic aspirations of the Zionist vision. Many American Jews have had difficulties with this vision in the decades since the triumphant Israeli victory in the 1967 war.

It seems to me that the assertion, that anti-Semitism is inexorable and ubiquitous, occupies a strategic place in any effort to make Jewish identity a matter of destiny rather than choice. If even in America a recurrence of Nazi-like anti-Semitism is likely or unavoidable, Jewish identity is indeed a matter of destiny from which there is no escape.

It is always perilous to anchor an identity in a definition of the situation which goes against the empirical realities. It seems to me that Jewish identity, whether understood in religious or ethnic terms, should not deny the choices made possible by American pluralism – and indeed should affirm the value of freedom by which these choices are legitimated. The long history of Judaism and of Jewish culture provides ample resources for making plausible a choice for Jewish identity. To see America today through the lens of Germany in the 1930s is a delusion – a thoroughly counter-productive one.

Could this change? Of course it could. Every catastrophe is possible. But it would be extremely foolish to pretend that a possible catastrophe is now happening or is about to happen, and even more foolish to act on the pretense. Put differently, hypochondria is not a good method of health care.

Quite a few years ago I was on a panel with a prominent American rabbi. I don’t recall what the panel was about. All I recall is a brief exchange I had with the rabbi. He said that he was telling his children that the Holocaust could happen in America. He turned to me and asked whether I thought that he was paranoid. I replied that, on the contrary, he was not paranoid enough. He could only imagine being killed because he is a Jew. Depending on circumstances, he might be killed because he is an American, or a bourgeois, or white. I did not add that he might well be doing psychological damage to his children. I don’t remember whether or how he responded. Read his entire post here.

US Orthodoxy and fear of the arts

Jerusalem Post article – A bit overstated but it has a point. There are some Orthodox Jews who do go into music and art, and there are kippot at Lincoln Center – it is not all or nothing. We have to distinguish between the two points the author is making- that few Orthodox kids go into the arts and that the community is philistine and wedded to pop culture.
His answer about courage is not the issue; his answer about risk aversion seems more to the point. Anyone who wants certainty in values, certainty in religion, and certainty in society-which are the reasons many choose Orthodoxy- would want certainty in the rest of their lives. But why the be philistine? There are many European orthodox in the Hirschian tradition, that are even more stiff and certain but appreciate the arts.
It is not the shomer shabbat question because in Israel they have founded Orthodox art and music HS’s and one can attend the arts on other days of the week. And if there was talent and desire, then people would find a way.

Guest Columnist: US Orthodoxy and fear of the arts
By JJ GROSS 14/01/2011
How can a society that crams the classes of law schools and medical schools barely yield a single poet or painter?

After making aliya last March, I started taking clarinet lessons at the Academy of Music and Dance, this country’s answer to Juilliard. Unsurprisingly, my instructor, Gadi, is a graduate student at the academy. What might surprise my friends in New York – as it did me – was his kippa.

In New York, one cannot find an Orthodox teacher at a serious conservatory. In fact, the likelihood of finding a classically trained Orthodox clarinetist in the Big Apple hovers at about zero.

As the weeks progressed, I realized that Gadi was hardly an anomaly. At the academy I noticed young kippa-wearing violinists, cellists, pianists and more. And surely there were at least as many Orthodox young women.

In fact, music is not the only art in which Orthodox Israelis are represented. Here one finds Orthodox painters, filmmakers, composers, writers and poets. In America? Forget about it! A celebrated fiction writer who is also a rosh yeshiva? In America, unthinkable. Here there’s Haim Sabato.

What’s more, Israel boasts a boys yeshiva-music high school, an Orthodox girls art high school, an Orthodox film school, and even a haredi classical conservatory for girls – not to mention myriad observant students at major art academies.

The hermetic absence of Orthodox Americans in the arts has long troubled me. There has never been a society without its quota of creative spirits. African tribes, barbarians in medieval Europe, aborigines in New Zealand, Indians in Central America have always had their dancers, musicians, artists and storytellers. Orthodox Jews in America? Nada.

Art is not a luxury. It is a necessary vitamin, if not our oxygen.

Indeed, both the modern Orthodox and the yeshivish borrow their celebratory and liturgical music exclusively from the hassidic world. And one often finds hassidic paintings on modern Orthodox walls. Kitsch? Maybe. But still.

How can a society that crams the classes of law schools and medical schools barely yield a single poet or painter? One explanation must be the prohibitive cost of being religious in America. The price of admission to Orthodox society for a family of four is a combined household income in the top 2%.

Understandably, Orthodox parents steer their children into lucrative professions rather than encouraging them to do what they love (and I include the sciences as well). The word “muse” is not part of their vocabulary. Even the rabbinate and Jewish pedagogy are spurned by the best and brightest, as these do not pay enough to make Jewish life affordable. It shows in the quality of American rabbis and day-school teachers who, with a few noteworthy exceptions, are distressingly average.

I believe the answer is courage. Diaspora Jews are not blessed with a surfeit of courage. They are geniuses at risk aversion. They choose safety in numbers, safety in professions, safety in neighborhoods, safety in the cars they drive. None ride motorcycles.

Choosing painting over law, music over medical school, writing over banking takes courage. One chooses an art because it is a passion, not because it comes with a guarantee.

American Orthodox teens are fast-tracked into college and narrow-tracked into law school or dental school… And if their gift is playing oboe or videography, they don’t have frightened parents and gutless pedagogues weaning them into life with a safety net.

The writer an advertising creative director who made aliya in March. His son, who preceded him, is a lieutenant in the IDF. Read entire article here.

More Popular Culture, Two Books and SNL

I just submitted my overdue Maharal paper from the 2009 conference and now continue on my examination of popular culture. and rock and roll Orthodoxy.

1] Rodney Clapp’s ‘Border Crossings affirms that and that forays into other areas of public culture (across “borders”) should be undertaken first and foremost as Christians. Popular culture has gone mainstream in the US and religion has been swept up into popular culture American evangelicals have got to stop being so rational and seemingly intellectual, it wont reach anyone. It assumes people we disagree with are “benighted or ill-intentioned.” He says the plan of identifying with American culture leaves no alternative if it fails. Clapp instead wants greater emphasis on community and worship and less on individual belief or individual practice.
What about the future? Clapp wants greater involvement in culture but as religious people.What does a film or jazz piece teach? How does it help our journey?

Any thoughts on the application of this to orthodoxy? It seems higher education as in Mada is opposed to Torah, but popular culture seems to be synthesized well with Torah. Can we make any of Torah as counter popular culture?

Rodney Clapp’s ‘Border Crossings’ says that everything evangelicals think they know about American culture is wrong.
For this baby boomer, it’s jarring, and a little unsettling, to see Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child, Part II” being used to sell a truck. Wasn’t rock and roll–at least the good stuff–supposed to be about maintaining a critical distance from corruptive influences such as the marketplace?
American evangelicalism (specifically, the white suburban variety) is even more captive in this regard than is the music of Hendrix.
Christians should work at being an alternative to the “technologically-oriented” and “consumer-based” mainstream culture.

According to Clapp, evangelicals believe that Christian truths are “available to rationally able, well-intended individuals quite apart from any particular tradition or social context.” It may be hard to believe in our post-”Inherit the Wind” world, but evangelical faith is indeed dominated by a kind of rationalism, which says that the content of evangelical faith is expressed in propositions supposedly accessible to any “well-intended individual.” The Bible is a sort of instruction manual, albeit one sometimes more difficult to interpret than what comes with Ikea furniture.

Clapp is saying that almost everything American evangelicals know about relating to their non-evangelical contemporaries is wrong, or at least outdated. Other Americans share neither their spiritual aspirations nor their moral reasoning. Sticking to the “foundationalist” script is not only unproductive, it’s counterproductive. Why? Because in addition to assuming something about your interlocutor that isn’t true, it “inclines us towards believing that those who disagree are necessarily benighted or ill-intentioned.”

Evangelical faith places huge emphasis on the individual and the idea of a personal relationship with God. And the less said about liturgy, the better.
With no real sense of what it means to be the church–what Christians call an ecclesiology–evangelicals depend on being American–and Americans being Christian–as their sole source of a corporate identity. Little wonder so much of the “religious right’s” rhetoric is characterized by fear and sense of crisis. There’s no plan “B.”
Full review here.

2] Another Book on the topic- this one argues that youth leaders should strive for something deeper than entertainment.
In Growing Souls Mark Yaconelli reaches beyond the tendency for youth pastors to make ministry to adolescents an exercise in entertainment. He believes both adolescents and those who work with them are longing for “deeper, more authentic forms of … discipleship” but that traditional approaches don’t cultivate this

3] Finally, I wish to discuss the SNL sketch from last night.
The sketch opened and closed with a nice shot of Park East Synagogue. The sketch itself made fun of the 1980’s Bar Mizvah’s that were all Bar and no Torah. Garish Bar Mitzvah’s of entertainment, hiring Hollywood stars, sports figures, rock musicians, wild themes and high budgets. Nick Kroll, better known as the caveman of Geico commercials, helped produce a humorous documentary book on the topic a few years ago, Bar Mizvah Disco.

25 years later these bar mizvah’s seems not religious, garish and devoid of Torah and spirituality- everything that made people leave their suburban and predominately Conservative congregations. But at the same time, these events kept people in the synagogue, they served to show the relevance of Judaism.If people were into ostentatious wealth, then they found a way to keep it in the synagogue.

The NYT wrote about the book in 2005:

During this period, Mr. Neuman said, “the country clubs that used to not want to have us as members want us as members.” So the proud new members of the Cadillac-driving gentry began organizing religious ceremonies around “enduring American themes,” he continued..”

“Part of the move to the suburbs is seen as a step to being more integrated with your non-Jewish neighbors,” Dr. Shandler said. “It’s not just a family celebration. It becomes a kind of mega birthday party. Parents are using this as a social occasion, so their business associates and neighbors get invited to the celebration.

Now to what I really want to ask. Here is the SNL clip making fun of one of these Bar-Mitzvah. The father in the skit says that we do tis because we can afford it and to entertain the guests. Meaning that they see that Jews don’t have to be excluded, they can have everything in popular culture. How is this different than a Rock and Roll Shabbaton? In both there are rock performers instead of Torah. If you answer kiruv and getting people into shul, I can say the same thing about the 1980’s bar mitzvah. People wanted to be part of these suburban Jewish centers because it allowed to do the things that interested them. Both assumed that once in the door the rabbi would teach them more about Judaism. So what is the difference?