Monthly Archives: April 2011

How did God get invented? Answer to a Six year old

This appeared last week. What would your rabbi answer? What would an ideal rabbi answer?

A six-year-old Scottish girl named Lulu wrote a letter to God: “To God, How did you get invented?” Lulu’s father, who is not a believer, sent her letter to various church leaders: the Scottish Episcopal Church (no reply), the Presbyterians (no reply), and the Scottish Catholics (who sent a theologically complex reply). He also sent it to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent the following letter in reply:

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected. Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – … – to help them get closer to what I’m really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan

But what the letter also tells us is that the Archbishop took the trouble to write a really thoughtful message – unmistakably his work and not that of a secretary – to a little girl. “Well done, Rowan!” was the reaction of Alex Renton’s mother, and I agree.

Original in The Telegraph h/t and edited version from here.

I Just Pass on the Matzah

I had a conversation this week with a 52 year old Yeshiva College graduate, who is firmly committed to Orthodoxy and even hangs around his Orthodox shul to always be available to make a minyan or help the rabbi.

He said that he was glad to get back to eating bread and cookies and along the way mentioned that any matza upsets his stomach and that he avoids matza meal all Passover. I asked what do you do for the seder? I was expecting an answer on the relative merits of spelt or oats. He answered “I do nothing. When the matza is passed, I just pass on the matza. I just keep passing it. I have not eaten matza for 8 years already.”

Whenever there is a survey done of ritual practice in Orthodox synagogues and you usually get results like 92% eat matzah on Passover, 93% fast on Yom Kippur. I generally ascribed the non-observant percentage to the elderly, infirm, adolescent and college rebellion, divorce, and psychological stress. This is the first time I heard from an unwavering Modern Orthodox shul regular who is not gluten intolerant in any way and has no medical condition that “I just pass on the matzah.”

Mormons and Orthodox Judaism Part II

After my last post on Mormons and Orthodoxy, Mark Paredes the Mormon author of the column “Jews and Mormons” emailed me with encouragement. Mark seems to be a one man quest for Jewish-Mormon encounter.

Mark’s Wiki bio offers the following hurricane of productive activity.

Mark Paredes is the author of the “Middle East Matters” column for the Deseret News and the “Jews and Mormons” blog for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. He served as a U.S. diplomat at the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv from 1994-1996 and the U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara, Mexico from 1991-1993. He also worked as the press attaché for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, the National Director of Hispanic Outreach for the American Jewish Congress, and the Executive Director of the Western Region of the ZOA.

Jewish-Mormon encounter seems to be his special passion. A few weeks ago, he spoke at the Orthodox minyan at Harvard and the event was one of the best received that they ran all year, and got a glowing write-up by one of the participants in The Crimson, who dubbed it “one of the most profound interfaith events I’ve ever attended on this campus” due to its refusal to sidestep difficult issues, and cast it as a model for substantive interfaith work.

In the spirit of his passion, Mark answered a few questions about the Orthodox-Mormon encounter. Personally, I am fascinated by how a religion that accepts that there are many gods, accepts that god was a person who later became divine, has a wife, and that God has a body could be embraced by Orthodoxy. The obvious answer is that the common ground of family values, conservative politics, and banning gay marriage overcomes little things like the principles of faith. It even has them discussing their conflicting Abrahamic covenants.

Read on and then feel free to ask good questions that will open up the discussion. If I read Mark’s passion correctly, he will be checking the comments here eager to reply.

1] Which Orthodox rabbis are you friendly with or impressed with? why?
Rather than list specific rabbis, I’d prefer to list organizations with which I have worked. The OU, Agudath Israel, The Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance, Jews for Judaism, the Sephardic Educational Center, Harvard Hillel and many LA-area Orthodox synagogues all have rabbis whom I know and admire. Last summer I conducted an especially meaningful dialogue with a Montreal Orthodox rabbi. I am very impressed by their dedication to Torah-based Judaism and Jewish values, and the way in which they use their influence both to strengthen their own communities and to work with people of faith to improve the world. I have attended OU seminars and lectures on kashrut laws and dina d’malchuta dina, welcomed the collaboration of the OU and Agudath Israel with Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and Evangelicals to pass Proposition 8 in California, attended a luncheon sponsored by Jews for Judaism, taken a Torah class from an inspired SEC rabbi, and conducted a town hall meeting on gay marriage at a leading Orthodox shul.

2] What theological topics do you talk with them?

It’s hard to identify a common theme to my religious discussions with Orthodox rabbis. Together we’ve explored many topics: the obligations associated with the Abrahamic covenant, what it means to be created b’tselem, whether dina d’malchuta dina can ever trump Torah law, whether evil was divinely created, the role of Satan in Jewish thought, why certain prohibitions are contained in the Noahide Laws, and why religious Jews and Mormons wear sacred garments.

Two weeks ago, I had the distinct honor of giving the D’var Torah to the Orthodox minyan at Harvard University. After discussing lepers and cleansing, I thanked the Orthodox for standing for morality and Torah values in a world that sorely needs them. I’ll never forget this experience.

3] Why is Mormon-Orthodox Jewish dialogue important?

Mormons generally consider the Orthodox to be Jews who take G-d and their religion seriously. We have enormous respect for people who believe that the Hebrew Bible is a divine book, and that this knowledge obligates us to act in certain ways. On a personal level, I have found that Orthodox Jews are usually much more knowledgeable about their own faith than their Reform and Conservative counterparts.

Given that Mormons believe that they are modern-day Israelites and that their theology is far more complete than other Christian belief systems on the Abrahamic covenant, chosenness and Israel, the prophetic tradition, etc., it’s only natural that they would seek to dialogue with Jews who look to Judaism, not secular liberalism, for enlightenment on these questions.

The LDS Church as a whole is interested in working with other faiths in two areas: humanitarian aid and promoting religious freedom. At the grass roots level, however, Mormons love Jews, Judaism, and Israel, and any attempt by the Orthodox to engage in dialogue with us would be warmly welcomed.

4] Do the Orthodox rabbis ever learn about Mormonism and its doctrines?

I’ve fielded many questions from Orthodox rabbis on LDS beliefs and practice. On one occasion the local LDS Church’s public affairs committee invited a group of LA-based rabbis to visit the temple in Draper, Utah, before it was dedicated. An Orthodox rabbi was in the group, and he was very appreciative of the chance to learn more about our sacred rituals.

5] If there is one message that would give an Orthodox audience?

Mormons have enormous respect for Judaism and Jews, and we have more to say to religious Jews than do other Christians.

6] Where do you see the most divergence?
Mormons have temples, revelation through prophets, and the priesthood. We consider them to be both necessary and irreplaceable. When we read the Hebrew Bible, we see a pattern of G-d calling prophets, giving them His word, and the sending them to transmit it to the masses.

There are no authorized dissenting voices in the Torah. Therefore, when a Mormon reads the Talmud, with its quarreling rabbis and multiple interpretations of scriptural passages, it’s difficult for him to accept the rabbinic/Talmudic tradition as being a continuation of temple-based Judaism. For us, there can’t be a prophetic tradition without prophets.

7] Is there any advice that you would give someone who is not used to encounter with Mormons.
Mormons do not believe that Jews and others who reject Jesus Christ as the Savior are going to hell. [For us the deadline for accepting G-d’s truths is not death, but the olam ha-ba]. Finally, there is no room in LDS doctrine for replacement theology. The Abrahamic covenant is at the center of our temple worship, and children born to couples who have been “sealed” in our temples are said to be “born in the [Abrahamic] covenant.” To be sure, our definition of that covenant is more expansive than the Jewish one, but the idea that the Abrahamic covenant has been replaced by something else is antithetical to our beliefs. Does the covenant still apply to Jews? Yes. Are they keeping all of its requirements? That would make for a fascinating dialogue topic.

8] One of the student organizers of your talk at Harvard emailed me after the event to inform me about it. But he added “My only regret is that we ran out of time before we could ask about the Mormon corporeal conception of God… many Orthodox rabbis may not be aware of the problematic Avodah Zarah-esque (idolatrous) natures of many LDS theological tenets.” How would you respond to this student statement?

Site editor--For those not acquainted with Mormon belief about God, here is a neutral BBC article on the topic.
• God is not of another species
• God is an exalted, perfected man
• God has a physical body
• There is more than one God
• Human beings have the potential to become like God
• The Godhead consists of 3 separate and distinct beings, united in purpose
• Mormons believe that God is immortal and that God was once a man.
• God the Father is a being called Elohim, who was once a man like present day human beings, but who lived on another planet.
• Over time this man made himself perfect and became God, with a knowledge of everything, and the power to do anything.
• Jesus Christ is the first-born spirit child of God. He was the literal, biological Son of God, and of Mary
• They believe that after the resurrection, Jesus visited America, where he taught and performed miracles.

Answer- Instead of waxing indignant like some Christians do when they discover that the Talmud regards them as idolaters (I tend to think that the rabbanim were targeting the Roman-era Christians who were persecuting them under the guise of religion, but I digress), I’ve found that it’s easier to simply explain what we believe and let Jews come to their own conclusions. The BBC link is accurate, but a little perspective is needed.

For Jews, the concept of covenant Israel begins at Sinai. For Mormons, it is an eternal covenant that began in the pre-earth life when we lived with G-d and will continue into the eternities. We believe that the first covenant Israelite, the first “Mormon” if you will, was Adam. We also believe that all of the early patriarchs (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham) held G-d’s priesthood and taught true worship of Him. In other words, we don’t believe that worship of the true G-d began with Abraham Avinu, though it may have been restored by him. While Jews tend to dismiss pre-Abrahamic concepts of G-d as idolatrous or benighted, Mormons see the ancient Near Eastern belief in a council of Gods reflected in the Hebrew Bible.

In Genesis 1:26, for example, we see the plural “us” used by G-d and we learn that we are created b’tselem, which Mormons interpret literally. Psalm 82:1 is another scripture that resonates with us.

We do believe that G-d is an exalted, perfected man who is the Father of our spirits. He is married to an exalted, perfected woman, and we are their spirit children. In LDS teaching, we are all literally brothers and sisters of G-d. We lived with our heavenly parents before we came to earth, and b’ezrat Hashem we’ll live with them in the olam ha-ba.

Mormons reject the concept of the Trinity, choosing instead to believe in three distinct divine members of a Godhead headed by G-d our Father.

One clarification is needed for the BBC article, one which may allay some avodah zarah concerns. Although we believe that there is more than one god, we only pray to our Heavenly Father (in the name of Jesus). In our modern scriptures, we learn that Abraham is now an Exalted Man who “Sitteth Upon His Throne,” but we do not worship Abraham.

Our relationship to G-d and other gods is analogous to a child/parent relationship: there may be many fathers walking the earth, but a child has only one dad that he recognizes as such.

Please let me know if you need more information. Clarity is always more important than agreement when it comes to interfaith dialogue, and this is especially true with respect to our concept of the divine.

Top Rabbis, Interview with Abigail Pogrebin, and Open Orthodoxy

The fifth installment of Daily Beast- Newsweek’s Top Rabbis list appeared last week. The co-creators were Michael Lynton —Sony Pictures chairman and CEO, and Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of Time Warner Inc. Neither one seems knowledgeable or qualified to make such a list and Los Angeles is not known for culture. This year they brought in journalist Abigail Pogrebin, former 60 Minutes producer and author of Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. She helped edit Lynton and Ginsberg’s brainchild. Where the prior lists seemed all wrong, this one has its finger on something correct—media is the medium.

James Hunter in his latest book (discussed here) asked: why religious groups do not change American culture if they are so prevalent and dedicated? His answer is that they do not play in the big leagues and confine themselves to their parochial culture. This list lets us know who is playing in the media league. And for many rabbis in the coming decade reaching people will involve media, social media, networking, and preaching to those in power. Since Jews have reached the highest levels of society in the last years and the greatest acceptance in society of any group then this public media faith may be the way of the future for those who want to influence society. CLAL is now training rabbis to use the media and preach to general America culture as a whole what it calls “rabbis without borders.”

But what about the list? Is this order indicative of anything? Others have done excellent jobs of fisking prior lists – here, here, and here.
My angle is to look at the trends and not to look at the ranking at all and more importantly, not to look at the names. Not more than 25 actually belong on the list. The other 25 could have been interchanged with other names. But the trends are correct.

What are the trends?
Chabad represents authentic tradition to most Jews and most American Jews have some involvement with Chabad. Jews in Reform Temples eagerly await their shmura matzah from the local shaliach. In the public’s eye Chabad is mainstream Orthodox and has pushed most other forms of Orthodoxy out of the picture.

Denominational Rabbis are insulted that the Kabbalah Centre is on the list but the Kabbalah Centre, Aish, Chabad, and many other groups besides the major denominations have great influence over Jewish life.

If you are involved in an indie minyan then you are “in” this year. It does not matter which rabbi was honored.
If you are involved in Joshua Venture then you are honored.
If you are connected to the game changing foundations then you are on the list such as Bronfman, or Wexner. If the Jim Joseph Foundation had a rabbi in charge it would have been on the list, while if Wexner loses its Rabbinic director then it is off the list.

The list rewards interfaith work, involvement in politics, and those that criticize the system.

The list rewards anyone who is bringing change rather than having accomplished it. The prime case is that Rick Jacobs is on the list and Eric Yoffie is off even though Yoffie had another successful year of leadership. Something akin to the Obama peace prize.

Those proclaimed by the list are the members of the RVI who criticized the status quo of the Reform movement and seek to lead Reform into new terrains of the 21st century. But at this point, they are only critique not accomplishment. The list rewarded those who criticized the Conservative movement, even if the solution will not necessary come from those figures who issued the critiques. And it heavily rewarded Open Orthodoxy. This is a good chance for some of my readers to know what is going on in other movements. Go download their speeches and critiques. If Reform and modern Orthodoxy remade themselves in the 1980’s into success stories from their nadir, it pays to watch who emerges from the new Conservative and Reform initiates.
Many of the rabbis share the religious message of Oprah, the gospel of prosperity and individual growth. Religion relates to one’s own narrative. Many of the rabbis have appeared on TV or written plays or other forms of media.

Who are the intellectuals and authors that have broad appeal? David Wolpe, David Saperstein, Jospeh Telushkin, Jill Jacobs, and Arthur Green. The emphasis is on social justice, ethics, a narrative sense of religion. Note that Green is credited with environmentalism and pacifism, more ethics than pantheistic metaphysics. There needs to be more rabbis to step into the mass market book niche. More rabbis should be able to successfully have a public debate besides Wolpe. On the other hand, I wish someone more learned and bookish rabbis could learn to have an impact with their ideas.
Reb Zalman has been issuing a book every few months and is taking on a new following.
My readership does not first think of organizational rabbis or even synagogue rabbis but teachers of Torah in the broadest sense- Rabbis Green, Dorff, and Schachter.

And of course the first Rabbah is mentioned as an exemplar the way Sally Priesand was a celebrity as the first American female rabbi.

From this list, one sees that Open Orthodoxy has won the media war. American Jewry has accepted it and cheers it on. Returning to my point above from James Hunter, Open Orthodoxy may have lost the blog wars and the YI wars but blogs and the RCA are considered provincial and not competing in the main cultural arena. In the major cultural arena as defined by Hunter, Open Orthodoxy seems to have won.

But from where I sit and type, Open Orthodoxy seems to have few applicants and ever fewer strong applicants. It is struggling for legitimacy and is not getting major positions. Am I too far away? Too close? I dont see the change. And I found the choices idiosyncratic. The list is written as if there is a tidal wave of YCT rabbis reaching major pulpits. So I decided to directly ask one of the authors of the list who wrote a recent article on Avi Weiss.

Last year, the third member of the evaluation team Abigail Pogrebin befriended me on Facebook. Now what are Facebook friends for, if not for quick interviews on what they write? (For example, Peter Beinart on his Orthodoxy.)

1] I know that you wrote an article on Avi Weiss. Your list is heavily slanted in its Orthodoxy section to Open Orthodoxy.

It’s true that my reporting for the Avi Weiss story for New York Magazine made us more familiar with the leading figures in Open Orthodoxy but we didn’t decide to include them because we favor their philosophy necessarily — more because they’re clearly at the vanguard of a significant movement that both balances Orthodox requirements and re-envisions Orthodox learning and ritual. Avi Weiss and Sara Hurwitz were already on the list last year so there were some new additions, as was YU’s Hershel Schachter, who is as far from Open Orthodoxy as they come. It should also be noted that Schachter entered the list higher than Hurwitz and Linzer.

One thing that we think is important, is that it’s very significant that we put Krinsky first. So to those who feel that “true” Orthodoxy got short shrift, no ranking gets greater notice than the number one slot.

2] Do you think they have that much influence? And on whom?
I think there’s no question that YCT is having real influence because its graduates are going to some of the nation’s most prominent Hillels, shuls, and organizations –and they’re bringing their new approach to Orthodoxy with them. If you look at the job placement list of YCT’s graduates the last ten years, I think you’ll see what I mean. These rabbis are going to some of the top positions in Jewish leadership and clergy and they’ll have an impact on their students and congregations. I think there’s no question that many Orthodox Jews– who feel the old models are too fixed —have been responsive, despite the discomfort and criticism of others who think Open Orthodoxy isn’t Orthodoxy.

3] How did you pick the open and modern orthodox rabbis? It seemed arbitrary.
There are obviously too many rabbis to include — in every denomination — but we chose the rabbis on the front lines of this reinterpretation of Orthodoxy who have been most on our radar over the last year. Part of the goal of the list is to tell readers what is happening in the Jewish world in terms of new ideas and leadership– no matter how controversial.

Editorial distance is important because we aim to include rabbis who meet our criteria, whether we “like” them or not.

4] Does the list offer any insight in your mind to the future of the Reform and Conservative movements?
Absolutely, we think the list reveals the internal tensions and dissatisfaction in both movements. Peter Rubinstein’s Rabbinic Vision Initiative, which was launched in the last year to very strong reactions — positive and negative — represents a bold questioning of the URJ’s effectiveness and relevance, and involved the participation of several rabbis on our list, who have some of the largest Reform synagogues in the country, namely Rick Jacobs, Steven Leder — who almost quit the URJ because he’s been so frustrated, David Stern, and Stephen Pearce.
As is well known, the Conservative movement is also doing some serious soul-searching, since many of its leaders feel its definition and virtues have become perilously unclear. See especially Ed Feinstein, who sounded the alarm at the recent convention in Las Vegas, David Wolpe — who has said that Conservative Judaism needs a definition it can fit on a bumper sticker, and Julie Schonfeld — head of Rabbinical Assembly — who is taking this precarious moment extremely seriously as she travels the country to hear from 400 of her movements rabbis to try to address the malaise.

5] Do you have any criteria for what is Judaism?
That’s a very interesting question and obviously more complex than I can answer succinctly, but basically I think we know that we’re recognizing Jewish leadership in the pulpit, the seminary, and in organizations, but we’re not listing people according to observance or whether they’re meeting some standard of what it means to be A Good Jew, or an “authentic” or “Halachic Jew.” When most Jews think of “Judaism,” they think of the religious practice itself — not just worship but study of Torah and Talmud, observing Kashrut, Mitzvot, etc. I don’t think we’d ever begin to list people according to some standard of an authentic Jewish life.

6] What do you keep getting asked?
Why weren’t more women on the list? (Although many reporters have noted there were twice the number as last year — see Marc Tracy in Tablet, Debra Nussbaum Cohen in the Forward, and The Jewish Week)– and I would just like to remind those critics that 13 our of 50 women amounts to 26%, which exceeds the proportion of women in the rabbinate. We still want the list to reflect the reality of Jewish leadership, which doesn’t mean to suggest we don’t know there are plenty of other influential women rabbis doing significant, important work.

One side note from the list is that Rav Schachter is only being documented by his critics similar to the way the Hatam Sofer was only documented by those who opposed him. The Hatam Sofer was a strong leader of his rabbinical followers and offered appropriate leadership for his communities. But since his followers could only write hagiography we only hear the side of those authors with whom he differed. So too Rabbi Schachter is showing up in the history books as an opponent of people he disagrees with and not for his own sake. It is unfortunate that he is unlikely to produce a student to write a critical analysis.

If offered to fly out to LAX to work on next years list, I have in mind 2-3 Centrist and Yeshivish names that could be added to the list. In the meantime- Which Orthodox Rabbis have a national effect on all of America’s Jewry?

OK- now all those who emailed me that you wanted me to post on this topic, here is your chance to comment and discuss.

Happy and Kosher Passover holiday

At this point when I see that my readership has all but disappeared for the holiday, I wish everyone a zissen pesach, a joyous and kosher holiday.

I do have new posts written which will go up on Thursday/Friday. Should I post my thoughts on the top 50 rabbis or let it go?
I post my comments on this year’s 2011 Haggadot after Passover.

For some prior posts.

Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Haggadah (This should have gotten comments)
Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi on Pour out thy Wrath
Pour out thy Love Upon the Nations and Miriam at the Seder-Updated (On Bloch’s forgery and that everyone even Rabbi Jonathan Sacks uses it.)
Haggadot 2010

And from elsewhere: Here are 42 traditional Haggadot, most from Eastern Europe of the 17th to the early 20th century. For those who think they are the tradition, spend some time with Shelah Hagadah or the Munkatz Haggadah.

Interview with Naftali Loewenthal at Lubavitch News Serivce

The full interview by Baila Olidort of Naftali Loewenthal is a long 8000 words, read the full interview here. Below are some excerpts. Here we have another baby-boomer who dropped out- lived in the woods- came back via Chasidut- chose between Breslov and Chabad- and became a teacher of Hasidism. Note also that he had the chance to learn with Rav Futerfas.

Naftali Loewenthal caught my interest about twenty years ago when his book, Communicating the Infinite, was issued by Chicago University Press. The Chabad Chasid, a Ph.D in Jewish history who wrote his dissertation on the second Chabad Rebbe at University College London, lectures on topics such as Hasidism and Modernity, Gender in Orthodoxy, Science in Chassidic Thought in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UCL.

With his own interests in art, poetry and music, Naftali explored Chabad Chasidism as a young scholar in search of sustaining truths. A father of eleven children, Naftali is widely appreciated as a teacher of Chabad Chasidism—its texts and its applied ideals and values. Naftali lives in London with his wife Kate-Miriam, who holds an emeritus Chair of Psychology at London University and currently lectures at New York University in London.

Naftali Loewenthal: I come from a mixture of Yekkish (German) Jews who were very much under the Hirschian influence—my father’s family, and Chasidic Jews on my mother’s side.
After school I began studying psychology at University College London—the first Godless university in England, set up on agnostic and humanistic principles.
But I dropped out in my first year there because I didn’t want the falseness of academia. I decided I wanted to be a writer. This was around 1967. I was in my early 20s. My wife and I were living a very solitary life in the mountains above Bethesda, North Wales.

How did you get interested in Chassidism?
Well, in my first year at UCL, I took a course with Professor Yossi Weiss.
Weiss was fascinated by Rabbi Nachman of Braslav, so that sparked my own interest in Braslav and I began to learn Likkutei Moharan. Later when I was spending a semester studying at Hebrew U, I met Rabbi Gedaliah Koenig, a prominent Braslav teacher, and studied with him three times a week in his home in Mea Shearim. At that time also, my family in Jerusalem would often take me to the tisch of the Beis Yisroel, the Gerer Rebbe.

At that time, did you meet any other significant Chabad Chassidim?
Well, a very important figure in London Lubavitch at that time was the legendary Reb Mendel Futerfas. During my Summer vacation of 1969, for a period of a few weeks, I would meet with him early in the morning and we would study Likkutei Torah and sometimes Tanya. His approach was not overtly to try to make me a Lubavitcher, it was to help me become a Chasid. He felt that everyone has to be a Chasid, because if you’re not a Chasid, then who is your Rebbe?

You yourself are your own Rebbe—and mechanically you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, because you don’t have any outer objective reality to measure yourself by, you are your own Rebbe.
So everyone has a Rebbe—either the Rebbe is their own ego, or they have a Rebbe of some kind. From Reb Mendel I understood that you need a Rebbe—that was an important step for me.
Reb Mendel is still referred to today as a model Chasid. He sat in Soviet prisons for almost a decade.
Yes, and he once said to me, “a lot of people were very unhappy in lager [prison camp].”
That was the statement—I felt this was an incredibly significant point of reality in terms of what life is about, what being a human being is—broader even than being a Jew. In my juvenile mind—to “live” was what I wanted to do, and I saw Reb Mendel as a person who was living. He described his nine years in lager as “a long farbrengen without mashke”—that was his experience of it.

Another wonderful figure in London at that time was Rabbi Meir Gurkow. He was very old, and found it hard to walk all the way to Lubavitch House. So he would daven in a little shtiebl next door to where he lived. Well, it just happened, by Divine Providence, that this was the shtiebl where we davened before we began going to Lubavitch. On Shabbos at Shalosh Se’udos he would give a drosho, which I now know was probably from Likkutei Torah. I didn’t understand a word, but it was somehow radiant!
At this time… our second daughter was born, at which point I spent the time in Jerusalem which I mentioned earlier, and got involved with Braslav.
When I returned to England I actually began collecting money for Braslav, for a building complex, a Shikun, which Reb Gedalia wanted to build in Safed.

How do you reconcile the need to assert individuality, with the lifestyle of a Chasid?
It is a challenge, I would say it is called pnimius, inwardness. A pnimiusdig Chasid is totally an individual and at the same time totally attuned and connected to the Rebbe. His individuality is expressed in his or her unique perspective on the world.
When you consider the corpus of Chabad Chasidut, you find that you are dealing with something that is bli gvul, or infinite. Communicating or integrating such content means that you are attempting to fit the infinite into our finite, individual personalities. And that will express itself in distinctly individualistic ways in each person.

In that way, no two Chasidim are the same—they are each their own charismatic guide and character, and each will understand the same Chasidic discourse in very different ways. Over the years, working closely with Rabbis Lew, Zvi Telsner and Faivish Vogel, the individualistic side of Chabad Chasidic thought was strongly emphasized. Each of those three people would look at a topic or a problem in a somewhat different way. Rabbi Vogel, for example, can embrace modernistic and individualistic perspectives while at the same time sensing the purist, traditionalist dimension.

The idea of individualism in Chasidism is very important to me—it’s part of the lecture course I give, and the book I am currently writing. I see it in the values and the inwardness of a Chasid, of the way he might bare his own private experience after a few hours of contemplative prayer, and allows others access to that, often in a farbrengen that follows, on a Shabbat afternoon.
What he chooses to share, his discovery from his contemplative prayer experience will be very different from his fellow Chasid. I’ve seen this many times where some of the Chasidic greats spent time in contemplative prayer, and would then come down to “farbreng,” and you could feel the “richness” of the exploration..

When did you meet the Rebbe for the first time?
After two years of writing long letters in Hebrew to the Rebbe, in the Summer of 1973 I went to Crown Heights for the first time for a month. My question to the Rebbe in yechidus –[private audience] was, should I go working on my Ph.D, or should I do a smicha –rabbinical ordination—at Jews College, or should I go into business.
The yechidus with him lasted nine minutes, and when I came out, I remember thinking that the Rebbe lets you see as much of yourself as you can bear.

The ego is a monster—the Rebbe holds up a mirror to you, so you see your own coarseness but not too much of it, because otherwise you’d turn to stone, it would have a paralyzing effect. Yet at the same time, I felt the Rebbe activates a kind of detonator, releasing your own potential.
The Rebbe advised me to go on with my Ph.D.

You are now working on another with a curious title.
Yes, I’m calling it Hippy in the Mikva: The Chabad Paradigm in a World of Change.
After I completed the book, I began changing the ways I thought about Chabad. I began thinking of a more general and universal way of expressing what Chabad is really about. I thought in terms of “drawing the infinite into the finite.” In a way, that is a more general way to describe “communication.” But an essential aspect of that process concerns the borders of the finite. That’s where I began to think of deconstruction as the paradigm—the see the borders that there are between, for example, the individual and the divine, between the individual soul and body, between the Jew and the community, and then to deconstruct those borders—to find a way to open those borders without being destructive.

That’s the great challenge which the Chasidic movement as a whole from the Baal Shem Tov, and Chabad in particular, is emphasizing in its communication of Chasidic thought.
And the Mitteler Rebbe did this—he communicated Chasidut to the widest reach, in terms of the society he was facing. Of course, our Rebbe took all this further in a most remarkable way. But in the process there are some barriers that have to be lifted, or made porous, and in that process there might be danger, or someone might think there is danger. Hence the controversial nature of Chasidism in its early years, and Chabad today, which continues the early deconstructive essence of Chasidism.

You are a mentor to so many people. What do you tell them about how to understand the idea of Divine Providence in evaluating their own lives, mistakes, bad choices they’ve made, and believing that none of it is coincidental?

I believe that you’ve got to see the world as a chess game which G-d sets up for you. Whatever moves you made in the past are all part of the situation as it is now, and the spotlight is on you. You are the master of your own destiny—and it is not a matter of regretting the past or fears of the future.
As the Rebbe said in a Maamar of Purim, 1957, the point is to come to a place beyond ordinary rational knowledge where you are able to act in the right way, whether avoiding bad or doing good, because you are operating from your own essence. Of course, you are guided by the Torah and the Code of Jewish Law. But your knowledge of the halachah is a channel for that which is beyond knowledge, the essence. That essence is the Yechidah, the innermost part of the soul, the point at which the individual joins with Yachid, the Infinite Divine. Full interview Here.

An interview with Prof Zachary J. Braiterman

Blogs can reconnect a person with people whom they have not spoken to in years. I recently received a note from Prof Zachary Braiterman that he enjoys the blog and he agreed to an interview. We come from opposite directions and this makes for an interesting meeting point. In this interview, there is a good sense of how a secularist perceives of revelation and religion. Maybe if you ask good questions, he might show up to answer queries.

Prof Braiterman teaches modern Jewish philosophy at Syracuse University- specializing in German Jewish Thought. He is the author of (God) After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought which deals with Rubenstein and Berkovits. He is also the author of The Shape of Revelation: Aesthetics and Modern Jewish Thought “In his new book, [Braiterman] brilliantly traces the parallels between modern Jewish religious thought as epitomized by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, and contemporaneous trends in visual art as exemplified by Kandinsky, Klee, and Franz Marc.” He also has a superb article on Rav Soloveitchik “Joseph Soloveitchik and Immanuel Kant’s Mitzvah-Aesthetic,” AJS Review (25:1, 2000-2001).

1]As a specialist in modern German Jewish thought, what value do the German Jewish thinkers have for non-academics?

The German Jewish tradition that dominated modern Jewish thought (the tradition of Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig) is clearly dated, maybe outdated. It is modern and modernist, not postmodern. In my estimation, its pseudo-prophetic focus on transcendence and immediacy seems overstated and melodramatic. It does not really focus on ordinary life, democratic politics, technology, mediated culture, and science. The whole style, the tone and affect, are no longer ours at the start of a new century. Talmud has more to say to me now than Bible, although a colleague of mind has put her finger on the biblical wisdom tradition as a resource for contemporary Jewish thought. This would get us back to another German Jew –the liberal and gregarious Moses Mendelssohn.

But these Germans still grab the attention of my students and make sense to them, and to me.

I think it’s because of the “art” and artfulness they bring to Judaism and Jewish culture. The German Jews –all of them, including S.R. Hirsch– were committed to “Bildung,” the formation of character and culture through the arts (poetry, theater, music, painting). And by the way, I would also remind you that Soloveitchik and Heschel were also “German,” having trained there in philosophy. In contrast, contemporary American Jewish thought looks dull and shapeless, without the verve which the Germans enjoyed. Even when we Americans try to get arty, it doesn’t work, because our taste in art is not up-to-date. (Michael Wyschogrod, another “German,” makes this point in The Body of Faith)

2] Your book is called The Shape of Revelation and it explores the overlap between revelation and aesthetic form from the perspective of Judaism. What is the relationship of aesthetics and revelation for Buber-Rosenzweig? What is the aesthetic revelation of Buber-Rosenzweig?

First of all, there’s no such thing as “aesthetic revelation.” And yet revelation is aesthetic insofar as it is organized by and/or to the senses. By “aesthetic,” I mean more than the beautiful and the sublime, not that I would preclude them entirely. But more important is what one early theorist identified as “the science of perception.”

Revelation refers to that event or those events that take shape between God, the human person, and human persons, and uncovered through the senses. In the history of religions, accounts of revelation are shaped in vision, as visual experience, but to this one should add hearing and one could add touch, smell, and taste. In Judaism too.

In more traditional pictures, revelation is marked by thick and often ornate (legal, doctrinal) contents. For Buber and Rosenzweig, the encounter with God was shaped along the contours, primarily of German Expressionism. Think of the expressionist woodcut, painting, or poem –the wild-eyed prophets, the unnatural color, the strong erotic tonalities, the drive towards death and redemption; and most interestingly by “the spiritual in art” as practiced by Kandinsky, Klee, and Franz Marc, especially by abstract art. For Buber and Rosenzweig, the content of revelation is reduced to the event of revelation itself, the appearance of the presence of God, and to the claims that this makes on the human person and persons.

About revelation, all they can say is “something happens to the human person” that forms a part of but does not fully belong to the time-space continuum, and which fundamentally re-orients human subjectivity in its light.

3] Why call it revelation if it is not the traditional meaning of revelation? Who would it speak to?
I guess I’d call it revelation because I don’t know what else to call it. Revelation is revelation. It’s not “just” aesthetic –or psychological, or sociological. Buber-Rosenzweig spoke to God’s reality in the world. For some this might not provide enough content.

Lots of people don’t take to abstract art, or might like abstract art without wanting it in religion. But, the minimum of truth claims speaks to people like me who are
[1] both skeptical regarding dogmatic assertions of religious faith and traditional claims to religious authority, and [2] also open to religion and to spirituality.

There is a simplicity, grandeur, and coherence in this type of picture that intensifies consciousness, like blinding light or a painting by Mark Rothko. Is it Jewish? As I read him, Buber never rejected form per se, just dead form. Jewish thought, speech, and acts were the garbs through which he and Rosenzweig saw this light.

4] As one of secular Jewish background, what do you think of the future of Jewish secularism? Do you like projects such as David Biale’s attempt at theology of Jewish secularism?

As an ideological, anti-religious platform, Jewish secular-ism is a dead dog. But as a worldly
life-habit, I think most Jews today remain secular. Indeed, it probably means that almost all Jews, religious or not, live under conditions of secularity. This means [1] slipping out from under the necessary and final control of rabbinic authority, [2] turning Torah and mitzvoth into folkways for those repelled by or indifferent to religion, but not to Jewishness, [3] turning Jewish belief and religious practice into spirituality for the spiritual seekers, and [4] interest in the arts and pop culture.

In all this, I follow Charles Taylor. According to Taylor, secularity does not ipso facto reject religion. In “a secular age,” religion may not constitute a privileged social default-setting. It does, however, represent one live option, among other, non-religious ones. Or as per Rawls, religion represents one type of “comprehensive community” that participates in the larger project of “political liberalism,” alongside other types of comprehensive communities. Or as per Jakobsen and Pellegrini, rather than exclude religion tout court, secularism actually makes new forms of religious life possible.

Taylor’s point, by the way, is very much in line with Biale’s thinking, for whom religion is a formative part of Jewish culture.

5] Why do you like Eliezer Berkovits as a thinker?

In my estimation, Berkovits made all sorts of claims about “authentic Judaism,” which on the surface I find quite obnoxious. But what he regarded as “authentic Judaism” was really quite stunning for me as a liberal Jew. He was genuinely open to doubt and anger about God and providence. More than anything, it seems to me that Berkovits thought was based first and foremost on deep commitments to ahavat and klal Yisrael. As an empiricist (his dissertation was on Hume), Berkovits was sensitive to lived-life, not simply concepts and constructs.

6] Do you feel closed out of Orthodox or Rabbinic discourse? Does that affect your view of Jewish studies?

In my scholarship and university teaching, Orthodoxy represents one possible subject-position regarding religion and culture in the modern period. Some of its manifestations strike me as coherent, others less so. This is also true of liberalism.

Ideologically, what concerns me is the tendency towards trying to own Judaism coupled with the tendency towards sectarian enclavism. From this I feel completely shut out. In Israel, as I see it, the problem is particularly problematic. In the U.S. it matters less. I would also like to think that, like any system, orthodoxy is open and multivalent.

Personally and intellectually, I’ve always felt welcome in those orthodox circles that have been open to me. I admire the warm facility and easy fluidity with Jewish things. I’d point to formative encounters growing up in Baltimore, as well as interactions with colleagues and students in the U.S. and in Israel.

As for rabbinic discourse, it depends what you mean. I’m most familiar with midrash which now interests me less than the Bavli, which interests me a lot. I’m drawn to a formal approach to Torah which is this-worldly, framed around very plastic, theoretical notions of space and objects, and spatial relations; less driven by necessity, and open to pushing out the limits of theoretical possibility.
Kabbalah gives me the willies.

7] What are you working on now? why?

Two projects, one on aesthetics of classical German Jewish liberalism. I’ll start with Mendelssohn in the 18th century, and move on through Geiger and maybe Graetz to Hermann Cohen at the start of the 20th.

For all its faults, liberalism still seems to me to be the most coherent way to conceive and organize modern Jewish culture and religion. As I see it, liberal Judaism was best able to articulate a place for religion in the new secular order of things. (If only it could make that place more robust. There’s the rub, yes? and my attraction to orthodoxy.)

Clearly, my conception of liberalism is idiosyncratic. For me liberalism is more than comprehensive secularism, atomistic individualism, and cold reason. What draws me to classical German Jewish liberalism is the combination of ideas, sentiment, imagination, and style. I am particularly interested in the bourgeois articulation and interaction between three (not two!) kinds of space: public space, domestic space, and the civic space of synagogue life, which is an in-between kind of place mediating between the public and private.

The other project is on postmodern Jewish religion in which I will look to the determination of religious thought and practice by images and the imagination, simulacra and virtuality. Instead of approaching the image as a “symbol” referring to some unknowable external reality, I want with this project to explore the “truth,” force, or place of religion and holiness within the image itself. I’m basing it on the Bavli and Baudrillard.

8] What sort of philosophic preparation would you recommend for someone interested in Jewish thought?

[1] Deep, ongoing engagement in Jewish thought and texts (with the Schottenstein Talmud and Matt’s Zohar translation, liberal Jews no longer have an excuse to claim ignorance).
[2] Getting lost in thinkers and theoretical fields outside Judaism. Start with the history of continental thought, but get into the current moment (aesthetics, critical theory, ecology, gender, media, political theory, pragmatism, Wittgenstein).

9] Do you see yourself as a follower of Buber or a post-modern? why?
I’m still with Buber, whom I like better than Rosenzweig. He’s less pretentious, more fluid and genuine. I like him because he’s modern.
I guess I’m also postmodern, although in general I prefer the term “contemporary.” I don’t care much for Levinas, Marion, or religious Derrida. Their concepts strike me as weirdly static (the other, gift, the impossible, messianicity without messinainism). I loved the Derrida of deconstruction, and Deleuze for the animating volatility they bring to concepts and structures.