Monthly Archives: March 2011

The editors of The Jewish Mystical Tradition respond to the JID review

Hopefully, last post on this topic. Help me think though my introduction. Any thoughts on my philology/spirituality distinction?

The response of the editors points out correctly that the volume is far from monolithic or representative of renewal. (There is also a response by Tepper to this response.)It faults Tepper with ignoring the articles on mizvot and viewing the book as antinomian. Tepper also mistakenly confuses the authors with almost everything in the US. It seems like Tepper should learn about the American scene, let him visit Aleph – Alliance for Jewish Renewal and then National Havurah Committee (NHC) and finally the independent minyanim. I think JTS would be surprised at Tepper’s crediting Green’s students with egalitarianism. Finally, Tepper should say hello to Michael Lerner to hear about the progressive end of things.

However neither side is getting the Hasidic issue. Are they Hasidic? Tepper claims that they are not Hasidic and Hasidic is not self-help. To this, the editors write that Hasidut is personal growth and that they are aware that they are changing the Hasidic text for modern sensibilities.

In my view of things, the recent usages of hasidut are not just a modernization but also an appropriation into a new context of spirituality, in which functionality is the criteria. That is not a fault –only the lack of historic awareness that precludes a real discussion of spirituality.

To use a recent definition of spirituality comparing it to magic, divination, or even psychological techniques that are outside of religion.

Spirituality belongs to a category of human phenomena that overlaps with, but is not identical to, religion. Like magic, luck, and divination, spirituality may be defined as attitudes and practices dedicated to transcending undesirable states of being without relying on formal religious institutions to get the job done. What sets spirituality out in this category of pragmatic procedures, at least in the modern world, is its characteristic concern for a self seeking to be free of encumbrances.

The editors claim that the Hasidic terms gadlut katnut, and hishtavut are about personal growth and transformation so they are not reading something foreign into the text. They are aware of later interpretation as taught in a history of ideas class, so this is another chain in the history of ideas. My point is that interpretive transformation is not the same as functional transformations. Tracing ideas of the Ari to Vital to Hai Rikki to Ashlag is history of ideas. Trying to understand why Americans like the Kabbalah Centre is already the study of contemporary religion and spirituality in its functional sense. In the latter case, one turns less to Gershom Scholem and Art Green and more to the sociologists Wuthnow and Ammerman. The ideas has been converted into a new category of spirituality.

The editors claim that their panentheism is that of Besht and Alter Rebbe, yet they seem not to see that that their panentheism is part of the world of Jay Michaelson’s panentheism. It is less about raising sparks and projecting metaphysics onto the world and more Gaia, Ramakrishna, or Buddhism non-duality.
Asking someone why he likes a Buddhist text in translation and out of its original monastic context – the answer that you get wont be the simple reading of the Buddhist text, it will be functional; it will answer why? not the question of what the text says? The problem here is the blurring the historical and spiritual candle at two ends.

As the Immanent Frame commented on the new series from Princeton University Press:

For many years, Religious Studies was defined as a hermeneutical discipline based upon great texts, but the typical disciplinary approach was to treat the texts as hermetic, self-contained wholes upon which the scholar expounds and expands. With this series, however, we are witnessing a new willingness on the part of scholars in Religious Studies to approach the dynamic relationship between theological treatises and their social environments, between texts and contexts, as it were.

Tepper claims it is not peshat and they answer that they are updating classic ideas. However, it does not matter if the peshat line is crossed since they are not updating as much as applying to create a functional spirituality like our contemporary paperback Buddhist. They are trained as professors to teach the textual philological activity but they are not trained in the social environment and usages they make of the text. And they are not self-aware they their interpretation is one of the dozens possible in the current spiritual marketplace.

When Hasidut becomes 12 step in Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s hands it also crosses the same line. Twerski is not destroying Judaism even when he directly quotes Romanticised and New Age Hasidism. The goal to understand Twerski is to compare him to other usages of the Hasidic texts. I have a lecture that I give sometimes where the same passage of Hasidut is used to justify 12 step, expressive writing therapy, song, solitary meditation and post-modern acceptance of the self. To compare these Hasidic texts is not to ask which is closer to the peshat, none of them are. The goal is to take out and compare them to the various studies of contemporary seekers, spirituality, new age, personal religion, and moral temperance.

Alban’s Institute (which creates spirituality materials for Houses of worship) works with four types spirituality and has a functional sense of know your congregation. Alben’s shows how to preach the same passage differently to different spirituality. Here we have a lack of self-awareness of the author’s spiritual path.

The dividing line may actually lie between Art Green and his students. Green still speaks of Otto and Eliade so his spirituality of sacred time is embedded in his scholarship. Those following Green have a two step process of giving half their essays to explaining the 18th century and then the second half of their essays in a specific modality of the dozens of contemporary spirituality options.

Thoughts on this intro? The more discussion now, the quicker I can move on from this topic.

The Jewish Mystical Tradition Past & Present: A Response to Aryeh Tepper
By: Lawrence Fine, Eitan Fishbane, and Or Rose

As the editors of Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life, we feel compelled to respond to Aryeh Tepper’s recent review of our anthology because of his gross mischaracterization of the volume and his unnuanced presentation of the Jewish mystical tradition past and present.

To begin with, Mr. Tepper describes the anthology as if it were the work of a homogenous group of contributors affiliated with the Jewish Renewal Movement. This is incorrect. While it might be convenient to lump all of these people into one group for the sake of attack, it does not accurately reflect who they actually are. In doing so, not only does Tepper misrepresent the identities of many contributors but he also fails to acknowledge that they articulate different views on important issues of exegesis, religious praxis, and theology. Of course, even those contributors affiliated with Jewish Renewal do not speak in monolithic terms.

The volume is designed to provide the English reader with a range of Hasidic and kabbalistic sources (many translated here for the first time), accompanied by commentaries that both elucidate the meaning of the primary texts in their own terms and explore the potential significance of these teachings for Jewish life today. We chose this structure because, like many classical Jewish books, it offers the reader the opportunity to engage in a dynamic conversation with multiple voices on the page—the original mystical commentator, the contemporary translator/interpreter, and the many other sources invoked by both writers.

One of Tepper’s criticisms of the book is that the contributors employ language from New Age culture about personal growth and transformation that is foreign to classical Jewish mystical discourse. The issue is much more complex and interesting than he states. The kabbalists, and especially the Hasidic masters, do speak at great length about the inner life of the devotee. Terms like gadlut (“greatness” of mind), hishtavut (“equanimity”), and shiflut (“lowliness” or humility) are all a part of the Hasidic lexicon. It was for this reason that Gershom Scholem once described Hasidism as the “psychologization of Kabbalah.”

Contemporary writers will naturally draw on language from other fields to help articulate the meaning of these older (and often multivalent) mystical terms in their original contexts and in the process of adapting these expressions for use today. Here the Hasidic masters are actually an interesting model for us, as they invested several inherited religious terms with new meanings. One need only compare the use of the term tzimtzum (“contraction” or self-limitation) in Lurianic Kabbalah to early Hasidism for a fascinating instance of this phenomenon. The contributors to our volume are all aware of the complicated nature of translation, interpretation, and adaptation, and have sought to address these issues in thoughtful and creative ways.

Related to this point is Tepper’s statement that our contributors too readily adopt a theological perspective of divine immanence in which “everyone’s life is understood to be already suffused with the ‘always-flowing force of light and energy.’” He then accuses them of making the individual “the measure of all things.” In response, we wish to say that if Tepper is unhappy with the description of divine light or energy coursing through all of life, he should take it up with the Ba‘al Shem Tov and countless Jewish mystics who preceded and followed him. Divine immanence (often spoken of in Hasidic texts within a panentheistic framework) is perhaps the most significant teaching of the spiritual founder of Hasidism. As several scholars have noted, this form of spiritual empowerment was one of the keys to the success of the Hasidic movement. It must also be said that this teaching of radical immanence does not lead the Hasidic masters or our contributors to a solipsistic celebration of the human “I,” and certainly not to a position of complacency and relativism in which there is no imperative to grow. It is for this reason that so many of the primary texts and commentaries in the volume deal with the importance of spiritual discernment and the cultivation of ethical values.

Tepper seems most exercised by the implications of this depersonalized theological language for the status of the mitzvot, and he argues that the contributors to our volume do not articulate substantive answers to this problem. As Tepper writes, “the real difficulty arises when you consider how an ‘always flowing force of light and energy’ can issue commandments.” He goes on to say that while past Jewish thinkers have addressed this issue in a variety of sophisticated ways, the contributors to Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life evade the issue of religious authority, settling for “piously vague” language. Once again Tepper chooses to make a sweeping claim, failing to acknowledge that the writers articulate different views of God (including variations of immanentism) as well as Jewish law and praxis. There are contributions that explore the concepts of revelation and prophecy, halakhah and antinomianism, and others on prayer, Shabbat, and intentionality in ritual observance.

It seems that Tepper has glossed over these contributions to suit his underlying agenda: to demonstrate that today’s post-denominational Jewish seeker will lap up “spiritual vitality” with a dabbler’s superficiality and indifference to the source, so long as it serves the aim of spiritual enrichment. He claims that our volume is a manifestation of this phenomenon. That Tepper equates this tendency with post-denominationalism is an absurd generalization that suggests his ignorance of the nuances of contemporary Jewish life. Furthermore, since when does denominational affiliation ensure spiritual depth and a serious and reflective engagement in Jewish life and practice? Need we also remind the reviewer that several of the contributors to this volume are actually leaders and prominent members of different denominations! We also strongly object to the notion that all those who search for spiritual vibrancy drawing on a range of different sources have no regard for the ways in which such ideas and practices accord with the foundational texts, concepts, and rituals of the tradition. This is a deeply problematic assertion about today’s Jewish seeker and one that ignores the fact that Jews have been adapting ideas and behaviors from different intellectual and religious sources for centuries.

Tepper chastises one of our contributors for hubristically celebrating the radical “egalitarian impulse” in the Jewish Renewal Movement. What this writer does celebrate is the willingness of pioneering figures like Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Arthur Green to weave together teachings from Kabbalah and Hasidism with other intellectual, ethical, and spiritual sources to live meaningful and responsible Jewish lives. Despite the reviewer’s claim, neither of these individuals nor any of the contributors to this volume call for a wholesale adoption of “progressive” American values; what they are all trying to do is fashion lives of holiness based on the insights of the Jewish mystical tradition in conversation with other Jewish and non-Jewish sources of wisdom—including important lessons from egalitarian movements like feminism and multiculturalism, and from other religious traditions.

Tepper describes this “impulse” as being “fundamentally at odds” with the “heart of Jewish tradition” without actually saying anything about why this is so or what constitutes Judaism’s core.

Finally, Tepper is very quick to describe the writings in the anthology as “shallow,” “cloying,” and the like. We strongly disagree with this characterization. Having reviewed every submission to the volume, we believe that the writers all deal in thoughtful and sensitive ways with the sources they have selected to interpret. The reviewer’s description of the collection as “spirituality lite” is gratuitous to say the least. To present the contributions of highly sophisticated and learned individuals such as Mimi Feigelson, Michael Fishbane, Shai Held, Melila Hellner-Eshed, Shaul Magid, and Daniel Matt (to name but a few of the contributors) in such a condescending and dismissive manner is to egregiously distort the contents of the volume. Further, such language does not help advance a productive conversation about issues that are important to us and to the reviewer

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JEWISH MYSTICISM AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

It is getting harder and harder to get a book review to press before the web controversy starts. I was sent the book in mid-Feb for an end of March publication of a review. I wrote a first draft of a review. In the interim, it was reviewed negatively in JID and both the editor of the volume and the author of the review have been in contact with me. I tried to revise my review to say that a cultural battle was raging linking the book to everything new, But I couldn’t make the revision work or make a broader context work. Anyway, the editors of the volume will be responding themselves in JID to the review.

In addition, Tomer Persico wrote on his blog a wonderful review centering on the essay by Ron Margolin that was further deepening the discussion before my meager review could get to press.

So here is my review. In earlier drafts, the names of more authors were mentioned- but they were taken out to save space. The Forward added the title.

A Tribute to a Great Spirit
By Alan Brill
Published March 30, 2011, issue of April 08, 2011.

JEWISH MYSTICISM AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE: CLASSICAL TEXTS, CONTEMPORARY REFLECTIONS
Lawrence Fine, Eitan Fishbane, and Or N. Rose
Jewish Lights 256 pgs. $24.99

We may consider ourselves fortunate to have the many personal reflections on mystical texts offered in tribute to Arthur Green, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. “Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections” contains 26 essays, each consisting of a translated Hasidic text accompanied by a spiritual reflection. Arthur Green taught two generations of graduate students how to read Hasidic texts and produce from them approaches to contemporary spirituality. Here, his students go forth, continuing the path he has laid out for them.

The book’s title reflects the fact that mysticism naturally generates comments on traditional Jewish religious life. “It is, however, important to emphasize that the mystical dimensions of Judaism do not separate easily, if at all, from the traditional structures of the religion,” write the editors. This volume presents the academic study of mystical texts as a resource for those practicing traditional customs incorporated with 21st century spirituality. It also presents a wide range of authors from America and Israel who share neither communal nor theological associations, so that few generalizations can be made.

Reading in the mystical classics is a traditional way of contemplating one’s inner religious life. Many literary greats have produced gems motivated by the mystics. The striking quality of this volume is the unfortunate underlying assumption that if one teaches graduate studies in Jewish mysticism, one can create spirituality because one knows the philology of the mystical texts. The book could be called “Spirituality and the Graduate Seminar.” Some of the essays, especially those by non-academics, did not need the translated Hasidic text in order to discuss spirituality. Conversely, for those academics who sought to provide background information and explicate a Hasidic text, the spiritual message was woefully underdeveloped.

The book was edited as a collection of explicated texts for the beginner, yet many of the essays leave terms and ideas unexplained.

Most people, moreover, seeking Jewish spirituality want non-academic teachers — such as Renewal teachers, real Hasidic rebbes or those who lead ecstatic worship — for the same reason that people who want Buddhist spirituality do not want academic lectures on the history of a Tibetan text and would rather meditate or read Shambala Sun, a leading Buddhist magazine.

There is a further issue with the project: What does “contemporary” mean here? The authors represent a wide variety of different and unrelated approaches of the past 40 years, as if all roads of contemporary spirituality are the same, or at least have their roots in the Hasidic texts. The book may be a tribute to Arthur Green, but each author writes from his or her own unique perspective.

One group of authors advocates spirituality through aesthetic contemplations. For living a Jewish life, they recommend first reading a snippet of a classic text of spirituality and using it as springboard for a personal reflection. Some of these contributions are noteworthy. Jonathan Slater contemplates compassion, reminiscent of Buddhist compassion meditations; Chava Weissler translates an Eastern European women’s tekhina (or petitionary prayer) as a model for contemporary personal prayer; and Ethan Fishbane proposes contemplating a Hasidic teaching every week before lighting Sabbath candles.

Other authors treat the reader to short excerpts from their much larger projects. Award-winning author and rabbi Lawrence Kushner instructs the reader to embrace the messiness of daily life and grow by facing new situations. Nancy Flam suggests that we work on wholeness and a seamless life of connection. Short pieces by Gordon Tucker, Michael Fishbane and Sheila Peltz Weinberg basically present selections from their own volumes.

Some essays reflect an academic offering in an informal adult education setting. Daniel Matt discusses how he finds meaning in the Zohar’s approach to evil, while Melila Eshed-Hendler explains prayer in the Zohar and Ron Margolin teaches how to overcome the metaphysical dualism in the Hasidic text and take a message of mitzvoth as connection to God.

My favorite essay in this volume is by Shai Held, who presents the teachings of the Slonimer Rebbe (who died in 2000). In the 1990s, the Rebbe spoke about how contemporary religious people do not have religious experiences anymore, therefore this cannot be the sole criteria for religiosity. Held asks whether this means that people who cannot count on regular religious experiences may need a regular discipline, such as halakha, to maintain their religious identity.

Some of the essays are bothered by authenticity and attempt to explain the author’s own relationship to the Hasidic text. Many of the authors seem to accept a romantic view of Hasidism, without having a feel for living Hasidim, and accept that the true transmission of Hasidic learning and lineage takes place in the seminar room. They conflate their own observations on the Hasidic text with the continuity of Hasidism.

Because of its diversity, this book should not be treated as representative of Jewish renewal, neo-Hasidism or even Art Green’s teachings. Green, for one, teaches a radical view of God, in which God is no longer envisioned as a patriarchal Biblical image but rather as present in the inner self. This panentheistic view is toned down by Green’s students and friends. These academics struggle with serious doubts about the existence of God but nonetheless still seek to recapture, in their inner voice, belief in the great and mighty God.

After reading this volume, one may ascribe Arthur Green’s success more to his own charisma and theological insight than to a reproducible method. Nevertheless, reading this book is like attending a variety of classes at Limmud, in which one gains a wonderful overview of how an eclectic group of teachers find contemporary meaning in what they teach.

Alan Brill is the Cooperman/Ross Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering, Seton Hall University, and author of “Judaism and Other Religions” (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010).

Erosion – beyond Post-Orthodox

Post Orthodox is so 2009. Back then people who were socialized in the orthodox world, orthodox institutions, and orthodox ideas were discovering that they they find it intellectually, culturally, aesthetically, and politically limited. Hence they saw themselves as post-orthodox.
Here are the original posts- here, here, here and about six more posts that treated specific issues.

Now, if the orthodox community continues to follow the post-evangelicals trends then the post-orthodox are not splinting to be a liberal part of orthodoxy, (only some ideologues are staying to be the liberal flank). They are simply eroding. Those who stayed as liberals may have the least in common with those who erosion made them leave. Some are finding new homes in renewal, reform, and conservative but most have just given up and dont care. They are open about their lack of observance, not to their parents but certainly to their friends. (I think for many it is still 2009 and they will move in the next decade.) The first Evangelical below notes that they have just left in the last 3 years and the second Evangelical notes that if someone develops liberal politics they will leave their denomination.

Does any of this sound like the younger post-Orthodox? Have they now found new homes and made their piece with non-affiliation or non-observance?They may no longer be a post-orthodox moment, everyone is starting their new lives. The liberal flank of Orthodoxy like ‘Rob Bell evangelicalism” may already be considered those who still cleave to Orthodoxy and may understand post-orthodoxy the least.
Richard J. Mouw, the Conservative Evangelical has already stated that Rob Bell may be wrong but is still part of the Evangelical camp. (on Rob Bell see here)

Evangelicalism Won’t Split, It’s Eroding
By Jonathan D. Fitzgerald On March 17, 2011 •
Over at Tony Campolo’s “Red Letter Christians” blog, Jimmy Spencer sees the release of Love Wins as signalling an imminent split in Protestant evangelicalism. It’s the old people, who tend to be reformed, along with their young recruits, against the rest of us young folks, as Spencer sees it. And though he rightly identifies the opposing factions, I think he may have missed something.
The “huge shift” he is waiting for is already happening.
But, I can see why he might have missed it; it’s not a split at all. It is more like an erosion. Those of us along the edges are simply sliding off the side into, well, all kinds of things. Some of us turn to Catholicism, others to mainline denominations. Some tumble into Episcopal or Anglican churches, others stay at their evangelical churches but choose not to identify as such. And, sadly, some slide off the edge into nothing at all.
I don’t think there will be any more of a marked change than this. A loosely gathered group of people who have never been able to agree on a name let alone the particulars of theology don’t split, they erode. And erosion doesn’t happen once and then it’s over, it’s an ongoing process.
We are in the midst of the erosion. Enjoy the slide
From Here

By Alisa Harris On March 18, 2011 •
Yesterday, Fitz argued that evangelicalism won’t split because it’s eroding instead. I agree, and I would add that this erosion factors heavily into the debate over whether young evangelicals are staying conservative or shifting to the left.
First, the overall evangelical retention rate has declined, especially among young adults.
Second, a fascinating finding suggests that politics drives our choice of religion instead of religion deciding our politics.

Also, “misfits”—“liberal churchgoers and unchurched conservatives”—are more likely to change their religion than change their politics. The evidence “strongly suggests,” the authors say, that “politics is driving religious conversion.”

So what happens when a young evangelical becomes a liberal? Does she stick with the extremely uncomfortable identity of evangelical liberal, or does she decide to go to a church that doesn’t harangue her about her convictions? Evidence suggests she’ll switch churches. Thus, polls of self-identified evangelicals that purport to show them staying conservative are roundly unconvincing, because if you’ve done much shifting, you’ve probably also shifted out of the overwhelmingly politically conservative evangelical church. By only questioning people who call themselves evangelicals, polls like this miss the very people who are doing the shifting.

So is evangelicalism eroding? The retention rate among the young suggests it is, perhaps because evangelicalism has become irrevocably linked to politics they no longer embrace.
When we equate faith with a certain political ideology—or, to use the Christian conservative vernacular, equate our faith with a certain “worldview” that always entails a political ideology—we are not entering into a deeper exploration of faith but reducing faith to the political. And when your politics change, as politics do, you find there’s nothing left to your faith. from here

Moew’s new found re-acceptance of his liberal flank that preaches a generous Orthodoxy, he will accept those who have someone to rely on and seems to have Christian version of Albo’s line of thinking. Moew brings a story about a 1960’s professor who assumed Socrates was saved. Not the most orthodox thought, but no need to write him out of Evangelicalism for it. Leave these decisions to God. At this point, the liberals are Moew’s loyal opposition.

I have received many responses to my comments on Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins—responses both to the brief remarks by me quoted in USA Today, and to the longer piece I posted here explaining my endorsement of Rob’s book.

But I do want to say more here about “generous orthodoxy.” In my role as president of an evangelical school that brings together folks from many theological traditions

A case in point: suppose someone at Fuller denies the doctrine of the “intermediate state,” insisting that after death the believer continues to be “with the Lord” as someone whom the Lord still loves and will raise up on Resurrection Day—but that the time between death and resurrection is not one of a continuing conscious state.

Is that orthodox? I would say so, in the broad orthodoxy sense. People can quote Luther in support of that view, as well as many Anabaptist thinkers.

As a Calvinist Christian, though, I hold myself in my own theology to the stricter standards of the Reformed confessions, to which I subscribe.

Or a simpler case: To insist on adult baptism by immersion is within the bounds of Evangelical orthodoxy. But it is not within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy.

Back to Rob Bell. I find nothing in his Love Wins book that violates the standards of a broad Evangelical orthodoxy.

First principle: People with defective theologies can go to heaven.

Second principle: We have good reasons to allow some mystery about who will be “in” and who will be “out” in the end.

Even on the strictest standards of Calvinist orthodoxy to which I hold myself accountable, then, I find some room to hang a little loose on the exact populations of heaven and hell.

But when I began teaching at Calvin College in the late 1960s, folks were still talking about a debate that had taken place over the claim of William Harry Jellema—a revered philosophy teacher at the school in earlier days—that Socrates would show up in heaven. In those days the Christian Reformed Church was not easy on heretics. But the church never called him to account for his views. I’m not sure about the Socrates case myself. But I am happy to leave such cases to the judgment of a sovereign God who—Westminster again—“worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth.” Full version here

Eisen at RA convention via Twitter- no more academic departments & some Magen Tzedek news

I try and get some work done and someone emails me a good post– JTS is getting rid of departments? Hmm…

Eisen: Ending all JTS academic departments as of Aug 1-replaced w/interdisciplinary courses and faculty clusters #RAconvLV

Eisen: no more dichotomy between Wissenshaft and spirituality #RAconvLV

Eisen: New course combinations, in service of producing the best future leaders for the Jewish community #RAconvLV

Eisen: There will no longer be academic departments in JTS. It has not served the needs of an integrated curriculum. #RAconvLV

Eisen: We need to reach out to individuals who are going to modern orthodox synagogues but think of themselves as Conservative #RAconvLV

#RAconvLV The OU will allow the Magen Tzedek to be along their kosher symbol on packages
Rabbi Genack of OU will work together with Magen Tzedek

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna on Creative Judaism

A funny thing happened on the way to this week’s Orthodox Forum devoted to culture and Orthodoxy, the organizer of the Forum for whom creativity is his theological vision did not present his own views at the Forum. Rather, he presented them at the JewishWeek.

Creative Judaism
Newsweek recently ran a cover story on the crisis of creativity in America. To understand the Jewish perspective, JInsider asked Rabbi Yehuda Sarna to explain how our tradition promotes and fosters our creative self. Sarna has earned a following in the college community for his thoughtful leadership as Rabbi for the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU and University Chaplain. He is a 2009 Jewish Week “36 under 36” change maker.

God the Artist
We often forget that God’s first identity in the Torah is as an artist. He experiments, gives life to lifeless matter, deems His work-in-progress success – then failure, gets down on Himself, and comes to terms with the fact that He cannot control that which He has made. The absolute first step in becoming like God is experiencing the tormenting rhythm of creativity.

Inner Creativity
Having studied in yeshiva for years, I assumed that the rules of Judaism came to construct and animate religious experience. “Do this act now with that object and you will experience a spiritual moment.” I thought of a Jew as a golem (a lifeless body) that Judaism served to animate. My first exchanges with NYU arts students tore this understanding apart. One dance student said to me, “My inner life is chaotically creative and spiritual already. What I find in Judaism are rules to tame, control, channel, or mature my inner creativity, just like the rules of dance. Rules are necessary, even if they are absolutely arbitrary, and sometimes they are necessarily arbitrary.” I left the conversation feeling like I was not yet ready for Jewish law because I had not cultivated my inner creativity to the point where it needed to be channeled.

Fostering Creativity
Kill the words. That’s what many actors are taught. Reading is not acting. If you don’t want the words to betray you, to lead you to believe that just by saying them you are somehow in character, then you first need to say them so many times that they become meaningless to you. Now the real work begins. Become the character and breathe life into the words. For many of us, the words are long dead. Sometimes we feel like that’s a problem, but it’s actually a critical step in the creative process. It’s only once the words of prayer, the Talmud, or a ceremony are buried that they can be born.

Our challenge is that modernity has coached us to believe that Judaism is a science that offers formulaic instructions with the ingredients of thought, speech and action. The truth is Judaism is an art – with rules – that depends on our creativity, sincerity and presence. We’ve lost, to a large extent, the ability to cultivate these middot “in-house” and we must learn them from the great artists. As the eminent sociologist of religion, Robert Wuthnow, states “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that artists are becoming the most important theologians of our day.”

Torah and Creativity
Rabbi Nahman of Breslav would deliver Torah sermons orally. On occasion, when he would write them down, the ideas emerged on paper differently than he had spoken them. When his students complained, not knowing which iteration was authentic, he said that they both were. “The Torah concept was different when it came time for me to write it.” Newness is not extraneous to the Torah; it is part of its vitality. Medieval philosophers thought that the Torah would be considered imperfect if it could change. Some Hasidic masters thought the exact opposite: if the Torah didn’t grow, receiving new life and definition, then something must be wrong.

Two great luminaries of the 20th century stand apart from their peers in their understanding of creativity. Rav Kook emphasized the visual experience. He strongly supported the nationalistic impulse to establish art schools and museums. He is quoted as deeming Rembrandt “a saint” and endowed with divine talents. In fact, the acronym of his name (Re-a-yah) means vision.

The second is Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel understood Judaism as a musical – not visual – experience. Vision for Heschel was associated with a religion of space; Judaism is a religion of time, which means listening. He likens mitzvah performance numerous times to performing a score. No wonder he married a concert pianist.

The path for us, following in their footsteps, is not to scientize their approaches but to find the artistic sensibility we are passionate about, cultivate our creativity in it, and breathe new life into our Judaism.

Landes/ Green debate round 4

Here is next and final round of the Landes-Green Debate. Green responding to Landes. As a side note Landes will be speaking at Hebrew College about theological dialogue int he upcoming week.

I repeat my general directive, if you dont read Modern Jewish thought, then dont comment. Read the letter now. I removed my start of writing comments because I had so much to say. I will post my comments in a later post.

Dear Danny,

I think we are still far from understanding each other. You just don’t get me. Identifying me with Mordecai Kaplan and Richard Rubenstein is way off the mark in terms of how I see myself or self-identify, whom I read, or my relationship with either God or tradition. Kaplan was never an influence on me; I came to JTS the year after he retired and never had the privilege of studying with him. I read Heschel’s God in Search of Man for the first time when I was fifteen, and fell in love. I tried Kaplan a bit later, but found him dry and boring, too prosaic, too American and pragmatist, not the soaring spirit I needed. I did indeed try to align my neo-Heschelian mysticism with aspects of Kaplan’s legacy during my RRC years. That attempt did not succeed very well; just ask the Kaplanians. Yes, of course I share some concerns with Kaplan and greatly respect his honesty in raising them, but our framework for responding to them is quite different. We both want to respond out of the most contemporary and profound understanding of religion. But for him that is the rationalism of Dewey and Durkheim. For me it is the phenomenology and post-critical religiosity of Otto, Eliade, and Peter Berger.

Along with most of the intellectually-oriented JTS students at the time, I was excited when Rubenstein published After Auschwitz in 1966. He had dared to say what many of us were thinking. But I soon realized that his net result was the demise of traditional Judaism, reducing it to nothing more than a psychological tool. My move toward a neo-Hasidic reading of tradition was precisely a response to Rubenstein, not an alliance with him. I needed a Judaism that expressed a spiritual truth, not just religion serving as a crutch with which to get through this absurd life.

It took me many years to say out loud that I am a mystic. In Jewish circles it sounds a bit like proclaiming oneself a tsaddik, which is the farthest thing from my mind. But it is true that as a thinker and as a religious personality, it is only the mystical tradition that has saved Judaism for me. Scholem quotes R. Pinhas of Korzec as thanking God that He created him after the Zohar was revealed, “because the Zohar kept me a Jew.” That is true for me too, regarding both the Zohar and the teachings of the Hasidic masters themselves.

I would love to be able to explain this to you, but find it subtle and difficult. Please, this is not because I underestimate your intellect, but because I have discovered through long experience that there are lots of people, including some very bright ones, who just don’t get it. That is precisely the meaning, I believe, of the cryptic Mishnaic phrase hakham u-mevin mi-da’ato. You need some personal experience of these matters in order to grasp ma’aseh merkavah, or any other mystical teaching. (The Hasidic masters indeed abandoned this sort of elitism, with mixed results. But that’s another story.)

Still, I’m going to try. It has much to do with the fluid borders between “in” and “up,” or between “self” and “Other.” The mystic understands intuitively that there is a point in the inward journey where the individual self, the ego, if you like, is transcended, set aside, obliterated, or whatever (the variations depend on such factors as which mystic, which religion, and which moment). Then a presence, previously impenetrable (hence: “the transcendent”) floods one and alone exists. This may happen to a Maimonidean in the course of progressively shedding attributes and anthropomorphisms in contemplating the divine, as it may happen to a Geronese Kabbalist in the prayerful act of hashavat kol ha-devarim le-havayyatan. For the ba’al ha-Zohar this fading of the individual self seems to have sometimes taken place in the course of ecstatic infatuation with erotic symbolism. In HaBaD Hasidism it took the form of more abstract contemplative language, the realization that sovev and memalei are really one, which is to say that the distinct between “inside” and “outside” disappears. But you get there, of course, by going in, by opening the mind to a deeper (or “higher”) rung of consciousness than that on which ordinary rationality operates. That is the key to the whole thing: realizing that there are multiple inner rungs of mind, and that religious insight comes from a different mental “place” than does the mind with which we usually think. In that sense I understand “Sinai” as a vertical metaphor for an internal event. Indeed, I recall Heschel pleading that: “Torah min ha-Shamayim is not a geographical statement!” (But that is precisely why this writing is so awkward; it is of necessity a translation of such insight, coming from a mental realm beyond ordinary language, into a linguistic tool that belongs to another reality.)

Now let me go in a different direction. I don’t think I said anything in the book about my yihus. On my father’s side, I come from two generations of confirmed atheists. My grandparents, who came to America in 1906, had already rebelled against their own Hasidic upbringing. When I decided to go to Rabbinical School, I got a letter from Grandma Green, which I have saved. Written in her night-school English, it goes like this: “Dear Arthur: I hear you still want to be a rabbi. I would be prouder of you if you would be a teacher and teach people things that are true because if there was a God in the sky he would be shot down by sputnik already.”

I have kept this fine lady in mind over the decades and have tried not to believe in any God who could be shot down by Sputnik, or by grandma. That has meant that the usual depiction of the transcendent One as “residing” somewhere “on the far side of the universe” is gone for me. Yes, I recognize that this puts me at odds with most pre-modern popular Judaism, including lots of Hasidism. But it does not mean that there is no transcendence, only that subtlety must always be maintained when talking about it, that it is not for naught that the Kabbalists called it only Eyn Sof. Yes, most of them described the emergence of the sefirot, constituting the divine persona, as originating from God, not from us, though this question is discussed by later pre-Lurianic Kabbalists, and again in Hasidism, just how much is mi-tsad ha-mekabbelim, etc. There are some points of opening to the notion that the personal God is a projection, though these are quite rare.

I did not mean to give the impression in my book that I think any other sort of theology is “childish.” I have indeed combed the text to try to see where you got that impression. True, I say of my own post-adolescent rebellion that “the pillars of naïve faith had given way” and that I became “a non-believer in the God of my childhood (p. 3).” But that was a personal statement, surely not meant to paint others. Later (p. 71) I say that most modern Jews knew nothing of either the RaMBaM or the Kabbalists, and “what dominated instead was a Judaism of rather simplistic rabbinic faith…most modern Jews thought of God in rather naïve and childlike terms.” I’m afraid this is simply true, my friend, whether we like it or not.

I indeed recognize the possibility and legitimacy of a mature theism, that of a Buber or a Heschel, for example. Especially in the post-Holocaust era (though perhaps always, says the author of Job), it has to live at the knifepoint of confrontation with theodicy. That is not a place I am able to live. I need a theological vision that gives me more room to love and appreciate life and its gifts. No, panentheism does not fully resolve theodicy, but it gives me more room to breathe. If God controls history and a claim is made for personal providence, I will find myself back screaming with young Wiesel (more than Rubenstein) and the post-Holocaust Yiddish poets I love so well.

I usually try hard not to get into polemical battles with modern (pardon the word) Orthodox friends and colleagues, because I have great sympathy for the difficult balancing act of your position, especially given the fierceness of attack from the religious right. But I do find it hard to understand the integrity behind the non-Haredi Orthodox mindset. Somehow I think most of that camp do want to hold onto, or at least pretend to hold onto, a “geographical” sense of min ha-shamayim. This goes with a literalism about revelation, even while knowing, with the university education we all share, that Biblical criticism can’t be dismissed. You accuse me of “exchanging…the focus narratives of Genesis and Exodus for…evolution.” It is not I who have done that; our civilization has. In fact I’m spending all my time these days on reading and translating Hasidic Torah commentaries. But I know that I don’t take any of it as historical truth, and don’t need to pretend otherwise. In order to talk to people outside our narrow circle of lovers of these ancient tales, I do indeed have to find some kedushah in the much more widely shared narrative of evolution. I’m not a bit ashamed of that.

Here I need to tell you a story about a truly transformative experience in my life, one of those moments when my mission became clear. It was about 1970; I was just a few years out of JTS, but making a name as a young rabbi teaching the mystical tradition. Fordham University had “a day of spiritual teaching” and invited me to come. Among the speakers was Swami Sattchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga. Most of the young people in the audience were his disciples, wearing distinctive white robes. I gave a talk about standing before Sinai as inner hearing, being ever-present to the Word, or something like that. Afterwards, a young man in the Swami’s outfit raised his hand and said: “But is that really Judaism? Isn’t Judaism about how God is up the sky with a book open, writing down all the good and bad things you do, and preparing to reward or punish you?” I gave the kid a nice pastoral answer, assuming he was a victim of some Long Island Hebrew School. Afterwards he came up to me quietly and said: “I just want you to know that I quit Torah ve-Da’as a year before semikhah.”

That moment cleansed me of any residual feeling I might have had about not being a “real” Jewish teacher because I hadn’t come from the yeshiva world. Here was higher Jewish education, so-called, and that’s what they were still giving out. And I was looking not so much at him, but at the fifty or more other Jews among the hundred in the Swami’s uniform, asking: “Who will speak to them?” As I said, a formative moment…Much of my life – both in my writing and in the sorts of rabbis I hope to train – has been in response to that young man and the others around him.

From my point of view, I think there is no need to carry this conversation onward. Your challenge has been a stimulating one, though I did take some offense at your tone. Much more significant is the fact that together we have caused a lot of people to do some real thinking. I delight in that collaborative effort and hope you do as well.

Bi-Verakhah, Art

source Jewschool here

Dialogue with Atheists

The Vatican is starting a series of dialogues with secularism and atheism. The goal is not apologetic or to refute skeptic rather to place the concerns of faith, revelation, and tradition into secular discourse. This grows out of the dialogue between Cardinal Ratzinger and social theorist Jurgen Habermas which enriched both sides. Habermas formulated his theories of post-secularization and Cardinal Ratzinger learned how to write for a secular social science audience.

Let’s imagine a Orthodox Jewish equivalent. Let’s say their would be a dialogue of Orthodoxy with secular thought at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and Berkeley. Who would represent Orthodoxy if Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was not available? (And Rav Aharon Lichtenstein is not of debating age.) What would be the topic? Could any of this be possible? Who would debate non-Jewish scholars like Habermas or Sen? I think we would be sunk.
Would this dialogue be different than with another faith? Would both sides make theological compromises?
What would Orthodoxy have to gain in dignity? in honor? in credibility?

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A new Vatican initiative to promote dialogue between believers and atheists debuted with a two-day event on Thursday and Friday (March 24-25) in Paris.

“Religion, Light and Common Reason” was the theme of seminars sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture at various locations in the French capital, including Paris-Sorbonne University and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“The church does not see itself as an island cut off from the world … Dialogue is thus a question of principle for her,” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi told the French newspaper La Croix. “We are aware that the great challenge is not atheism but indifference, which is much more dangerous.”

The events were scheduled to conclude with a party for youth in the courtyard of the Cathedral of Notre Dame on Friday evening (March 25), featuring an appearance via video by Pope Benedict XVI, followed by prayer and meditation inside the cathedral.

The initiative, called “Courtyard of the Gentiles,” takes its name from a section of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem accessible to non-Jews, which Benedict has used as a metaphor for dialogue between Catholics and non-believers.