Monthly Archives: January 2011

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

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.