Monthly Archives: August 2011

An Interview with Michah Gottlieb: Moses Mendelssohn as a Guide for Orthodoxy

Michah Gottlieb is Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Previously he taught at Brown University. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Indiana University (2003) under the direction of Frederick C. Beiser, one of the leading experts on 18th and 19th century German thought. Gottlieb earned his M.A. in Judaic Studies, New York University; B.A., McGill University.

Gottlieb recently wrote Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theological-Political Thought, Oxford University Press, 2011
and Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible (editor), University Press of New England, 2011

Thirty years ago, Mendelssohn did not seem fresh or interesting because Jews acknowledged that we need tolerance, civil liberties, and rights. As an emigrant community, we acknowledged that we were the heirs of American tolerance. We wanted to be part of democratic America by fighting the intolerant Communists. We also wanted to keep religion and politics separate since based on our European experience that mixture would always lead to the removal of our rights. But with the rise of the religious right in the US and Israel, we now are accustomed to hearing voices that want to mix religion and politics or that do not see the pressing need for tolerance, rights, and liberties. In this new climate, Mendelssohn has taken on new meaning.

Mendelssohn envisioned the removal of irrational dogma and superstition from religion. And the avoidance of using dogma as a litmus test for inclusion or to create boundaries and exclusions. In the last thirty, years we have witnessed more irrationality than the 200 years prior. The Enlightenment project was firmly in place between 1780 until 1980; now we have a return of the magical and dogmatic thinking of the early eighteenth century. We also now have a return to mixing Rabbinic authority with dogmatic criteria of belief.

Many Orthodox considered Mendelssohn was a role model. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of German Neo-Orthodoxy, praised Mendelssohn as ‘a most brilliant and respected personality whose commanding influence has dominated developments to this day.’ Isaac Hirsch, the latter’s son called Mendelssohn “one of the sages of the world, one of the teachers of truth…For us Moses Mendelssohn will always remain the great and noble Jew.” Zev Yaavetz, the secretary for Religious Zionism founder Isaac Reines, is explicit in his seeking to model the movement on Mendelssohn. In the post WWII period, many modern Orthodox rabbis – Belkin, Jung, Agus, Sol Roth, Jacobovits,-wrote articles on how Orthodoxy was tolerant, already assuming the triumph of Mendelssohn on issues of tolerance, for example see Milton Konvitz.

Alexander Altmann, the biographer of Mendelssohn and Orthodox rabbi who studied at the Berlin Seminary, cast the German philosopher in a heroic bronze as exemplar for our own religious lives. It is worth noting that Altmann, following Mendelssohn, considered philosophy and mysticism as opposites, even in his graduate program. For those who do not know anything about Mendelssohn except the misinformation on the web, start with one of the two biographies, Altmann or Feiner or this entry on his philosophy.

Gottlieb who attended Haredi yeshivot in Israel and self-designates his affiliation as “liberal orthodox” returns us to this exemplar Mendelssohn. For those who have not seen his book, Gottlieb sets up two poles in recent scholarship. David Sorkin’s book on Mendelssohn paints the German scholar as a traditionalist, who similar to his contemporary Catholics returning to scholasticism, Mendelssohn returned to medieval thought, what Sorkin calls “Andalusian tradition.” Allan Arkush’s book paints Mendelssohn as a deist who has not worked out the tensions of his system or more pointedly Arkush claims that Mendelssohn actively seeks to hide these tensions. Gottlieb stakes out his thesis that Mendelssohn was creating a modern form of Orthodoxy that uses the best of G. W. Leibnitz and Christian Wolf. The later two thinkers asserted that the truths of religion and philosophy cannot contradict each other, since reason and faith are both “gifts of God.”

1. Why is Mendelssohn relevant to America today?
Mendelssohn is the Jewish thinker closest in spirit to the American founders. His masterwork, Jerusalem was written in 1783 six years after the Declaration of Independence and is grounded in very similar enlightenment principles. His final footnote in Jerusalem even refers to events in the young US congress.

Mendelssohn is relevant to contemporary American discourse about religion and politics because his life and thought call into question many commonly held polarities such as secular vs. religious or America first vs. multiculturalism. He was committed to values that we often call “secular” such as the pursuit of individual happiness in this world, tolerance, and respect for religious diversity, but he saw these values as deriving from religious principles. Similarly, he combined multiple commitments: to Jews and Judaism as an observant Jew, a fighter for Jewish civil rights, and one who sought to revive living knowledge of Hebrew; to the German nation, as one who sought to revitalize German culture and literature: and to humanity as a whole in his concern with upholding individual freedom and dignity. I believe that Mendelssohn’s complex identifications and commitments open up new paths for thinking about religion, secularism, nationalism, and identity.

If I may add a little plug, there will be a public symposium Sunday September 18th at the Center for Jewish History entitled: “Continuing the Conversation: Moses Mendelssohn and the Legacy of the Enlightenment” that will explore these questions.

2. Why should Mendelssohn be important for Modern Orthodoxy?

Modern Orthodoxy typically seeks models to legitimate its project. It has frequently looked to the Maimonides because of his vast Talmudic and halakhic expertise, his synthesizing Judaism with science and philosophy, and his active career as a physician. However, in my view the central dilemmas facing modern Orthodoxy are not whether having a career is legitimate or how to reconcile the Torah with science, but rather with how to square commitment to Torah and halakha with democratic principles such as tolerance, diversity, and individual rights. Maimonides has no concept of human rights and he does not deem tolerance a value. Thus he rules that one who does not perfect his intellect is not truly a human being; that a Jew without proper belief is not an Israelite, but a heretic whom one is commanded to hate and kill; and that one is not permitted to save a dying Gentile.

In contrast, Mendelssohn seeks to show that religious diversity, tolerance, and respect for human rights are Jewish values. For this reason, the slogan “From Moses to Moses there never arose one as great as Moses” was applied to him even in his own life. Mendelssohn addressed perplexities that Maimonides could not even conceive.

Simon Rawidowicz once said that Mendelssohn was unique among German Jewish thinkers. On the one hand, he was widely hailed as one of the greatest philosophers of the German Enlightenment in his lifetime. At the same time, he was a talmid hakham who conducted a high-level halakhic correspondence with Rabbi Ya’akov Emden. To put it in perspective, this would be as if Karl Marx had debated Tosafot with the Netziv or as if Rav Soloveitchik were a phenomenologist philosopher on par with Husserl or Heidegger.

3. Why has Mendelssohn’s had such a bad reputation? Why do people see him falsely?

I believe that a confluence of two factors have caused this. First, many Zionists, most notably Peretz Smolenskin hated Mendelssohn because they saw him as the father of the maskilic dream that Jews could be respected equal citizens in Gentile states. With rising anti-Jewish agitation in the second half of the nineteenth century, many east European maskilim, concluded that Mendelssohn’s philosophy was bankrupt and that Zionism was the only solution to the Jewish problem. Smolenskin accused Mendelssohn of removing the nationalist element from Judaism.

At the same time, some nineteenth century Ultra-Orthodox Jewish thinkers blamed Mendelssohn for the general decline in Jewish religious observance and increasing assimilation, which they saw as caused by the haskalah. Both Zionists and Orthodox Jews pointed to the conversion of four of Mendelssohn’s six children as evidence of the corruption of his thought. Their arguments seemed to receive irrefutable historical confirmation from the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel. A sophisticated, learned, and enormously influential example of this approach in the American Jewish context is Michael Meyer’s 1967 The Origin of the Modern Jew, which is essentially an extended (albeit polite) polemic against Mendelssohn. One should remember that Meyer is a Reform scholar.

I think that most Jews today see liberal democracy as beneficial for the Jews. The thesis that Zionism is the definitive solution to anti-Semitism is made more questionable by the day.

Furthermore, most people are not Hegelian idealists who believe that the validity of an idea can be measured by later history. History is complex, messy and filled with contingency and surprises. An idea that may seem dead at one period may suddenly be revived later.

The perils of judging a thinker’s ideas by the fate of their descendants is illustrated vividly by considering the case of the two Rabbis most strongly opposed to Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur, Rabbi Raphael Cohen the chief Rabbi of the triple community of Hamburg-Altona-Wandsbeck and Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, the Nodah Beyehudah, Prague’s chief Rabbi. Rabbi Cohen’s most famous grandson was Gabriel Riesser a fighter for Jewish emancipation in the 19th century who was also a leading Reform Jew. The Nodah Beyehudah’s grandson Moses Landau was a Maskil who in 1836 published a 20 volume edition of Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur with his own commentary. What does then does this say about Rabbi Cohen and the Nodah Beyehudah?

4. The Enlightenment project has taken a beating in recent decades. Universal reason is seen as a chimera in recent thought. Do you have thoughts on the beating?

To my mind, the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment is increasingly a spent force. One problem is that postmodernism was used to justify political programs such as multiculturalism, which claimed to give equal respect to minorities, but in fact created segregated communities in which resentment built and religious extremism flourished. I think that the postmodern critique of rational standards of truth has had very grave social, political, and ethical consequences. It has given intellectual legitimacy to all sorts of fanatical, intolerant worldviews in the name of tolerance. If we are going to inhabit a common world, then we need to have a common language and common standards for judging values and ideologies. Reason is still our best hope.

5. Who are your favorite 20th century thinkers and why?

I believe that once one has internalized historical consciousness there is no going back. My favorite thinkers are those who use exacting historical scholarship built upon deep knowledge of languages and texts, to address contemporary theological and political questions. Leo Strauss, especially in his early work, is a model of such an approach and I have enormous respect for his work although I reject most of his conclusions. In many ways my book on Mendelssohn is an extended argument with Strauss. I also admire Isaiah Berlin who was a more talented synthesizer of ideas than Strauss, but to my mind not as careful a reader of texts. Ernst Cassirer, especially his book on the Enlightenment, is another favorite of mine.

The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice- Yaacob Dweck

There is a new book on the critique of Kabbalah by Leon Modena situating the work in its 17th century context.
Yaacob Dweck, The Scandal of Kabbalah:Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice (Princeton University Press, 2011)

From the Blurb

The Scandal of Kabbalah is the first book about the origins of a culture war that began in early modern Europe and continues to this day: the debate between kabbalists and their critics on the nature of Judaism and the meaning of religious tradition.

Drawing on a range of previously unexamined sources, this book tells the story of the first criticism of Kabbalah, Ari Nohem, written by Leon Modena in Venice in 1639. In this scathing indictment of Venetian Jews who had embraced Kabbalah as an authentic form of ancient esotericism, Modena proved the recent origins of Kabbalah and sought to convince his readers to return to the spiritualized rationalism of Maimonides.

Dweck situates Modena in the 17th century world in which Kabbalah was the all encompassing focus of traditional culture and how Modena was part of a bigger trend of subjecting classics to historical scrutiny. Dweck points out how int he 17th cnetury both manuscripts and books were in play. Dweck notes that Scholem viewed himself as the first critical human sit toward kabbalah and did not discuss his antecedents in figures such as Modena. Personally, I am interested in the last chapter on the reception of the work in the 19th century.

From The Introduction

Leon Modena’s world was inundated with Kabbalah. his greatest student, Joseph hamiz, his beloved son-in-law, Jacob levi, his cousin, Aaron Berekhya of Modena, and his aged mentor, Menahem azariah da fano, were all passionate devotees. with his Venetian colleagues and with foreign visi¬tors, with his rivals and inside his own family, Modena encountered Kab¬balah at every turn. whether reading in the cacophony of his overcrowded home or celebrating a circumcision, Modena confronted Kabbalah as a vital force in Jewish life.

Modena criticized Kabbalah to diminish its status, not to destroy it. he paid kabbalists the devastating compliment of taking their arguments seriously and refuting them one by one. To the claim that Kabbalah represented an ancient esoteric tradition dating back to Moses at Sinai, Modena responded with a systematic analy¬sis of the historical origins of kabbalistic texts. he sought to distinguish between Kabbalah and the oral Torah, a concept that he maintained did have its origins in revelation. Kabbalah and its core documents, he demon¬strated, had emerged only in the late Middle ages.

Kabbalists maintained that belief in the sefirot constituted a crucial element of Jewish faith and branded as heretics anyone who denied their centrality to Judaism. Modena repudiated this claim and leveled a severe countercharge of his own: after an examination of the sefirot as a concept, he concluded that it pointed to a plurality within God similar to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

But Ari Nohem was hardly a detached quest for truth. Much as it was a counterhistory, it was also a countertheology. Modena explicitly addressed his epistolary treatise to his student hamiz, a kabbalist and philosopher who had studied medicine at the university of Padua and had been Mode¬na’s disciple for many years.36 he attempted to persuade hamiz, whom he loved like a son, to abandon his assiduous devotion to Kabbalah and to return to the Guide of the Perplexed.

I seek to answer a basic question in the study of early modern Jewish history: what did it mean to oppose Kabbalah in the very period when it had come to dominate Jewish life?

This book challenges this scholarly emphasis on rupture as characteris¬tic of the turn toward the modern. Several of the elements that ostensibly constitute modern Judaism are clearly present in Modena’s treatment of Kabbalah in the early seventeenth century: a critical attitude toward sacred texts and their origins, a skepticism about received wisdom and doctrine, and an acute awareness of the difference between the Jewish past and the Jewish present.

In highlighting these factors, i do not wish to argue that modern Juda¬ism originated in the ghetto of Venice or to cast Modena as the first mod¬ern Jew.
Ari Nohem offers a telling and dis¬tinctly Jewish example of the marriage between textual criticism and reli¬gious dissent that characterized so much of european intellectual life in the early seventeenth century. whether or not one relies on a historical model of crisis for this period, european intellectuals in the decades before and after Modena wrote Ari Nohem subjected almost all certitudes—religious, theological, scientific—to sustained skepticism.47 The products of their thought were electrifying. By the time Modena composed Ari Nohem, his slightly elder contemporary isaac Casaubon (1559–1614) had demolished the antiquity of much of renaissance ancient theology. Casaubon proved that the Sibylline oracles and the hermetic corpus were late antique forg¬eries rather than works contemporary to the Bible.48 Modena’s Ari Nohem did much the same for the core texts of Kabbalah, the Jewish component of ancient theology. when viewed cumulatively, Casaubon’s and Modena’s work stripped many of the core texts that had constituted ancient theol¬ogy in the renaissance of their pretensions to antiquity.

Building upon these arguments, i reposition the history of Ari Nohem at the juncture between print and manuscript. The story of Modena’s book— both its composition and its later circulation—offers a vivid example of the persistence of manuscript production well into the age of print.

While Modena was keenly aware of the power of the printed word, many of his own writings, particularly his polemical works, circulated in manu¬script throughout the early modern period. This phenomenon was hardly unique to Modena and constitutes a principal feature of written culture in early modern Venice.56 for a number of reasons—fear of censorship, threat of persecution, desire to maintain proximity to a reader—an author might articulate a given argument in manuscript rather than in print. Modena understood print as a public medium that he could not completely control; he wanted to proclaim his arguments, but not too loudly.
Building upon these arguments, i reposition the history of Ari Nohem at the juncture between print and manuscript. The story of Modena’s book— both its composition and its later circulation—offers a vivid example of the persistence of manuscript production well into the age of print.

For all the lurid details it offers about Modena’s gambling habits, dysfunctional marriage, and failing health, Hayyei Yehudah offers little if any insight into his thought.

Modena’s criticism and its subsequent history constituted some of the very ruins evoked by Scholem at the outset of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, ruins that Scholem himself recovered with such magnificent and ruthless efficiency in the construction of his own narrative. Ari Nohem and its history were profoundly inconvenient to the integrity of Scholem’s story. it undercut two of the central and contradictory claims upon which he built his scholarly edifice: the marginality of Kabbalah and its ostensible neglect as the subject of critical inquiry. Scholem was of two minds about the place of Kabbalah within Judaism: at times he insisted upon Kabbalah as a vibrant but subterranean force within Jewish history; at other times he insisted on its absolute centrality. But he was piercingly clear about its neglect as an academic subject before he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Sefer ha-Bahir.

I wish to be clear about what i am not doing: Modena was not Scholem in Baroque Venice. in one of his late pieces, Scholem perceptively pointed to Reuchlin as his intellectual ancestor.80 Scholem may not have been a kabbalist, as he repeatedly insisted, but like Reuchlin before him he was clearly sympathetic to Kabbalah. for all his insight, Modena lacked such sympathy.

Chapter 7, by contrast, reconstructs the competing efforts of a group of scholars in the early nineteenth century, including isaac reggio, Solomon rosenthal, and Julius fürst, to print the first edition of Ari Nohem. it turns to the mixed reception given to the work by two nineteenth-century kabbalists, elijah Benamozegh and isaac haver wildmann. Read the Rest of the Introduction Here.

Christian Smith on Biblicism (and halakhah)

A mere 13 years ago, Christian Smith wrote American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. That was the book that explained why people were becoming Evangelical and Orthodox Jews in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It also explained how modern and engaged Evangelicals are not the same as Fundamentalists. It allowed one to differentiate Centrist Orthodoxy, Engaged Yeshivish Orthodoxy, Kiruv, and Chabad from old-time Ultra-Orthodoxy and from liberalism. It rejected as non –empirical both secularization theory and those nostalgic for old time 1950’s Orthodoxy.

Six years ago, he published Soul Searching: The Religious And Spiritual Lives Of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press,2005 read by many Orthodox educators. Several mehanchim offered in 2008-2009 to lend me their copies as a way of showing me they are in the know. And in 2009, he wrote the book about twenty somethings – that led to articles in the Jewish papers last year about the new affiliating patterns of college and post-college students, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. Oxford University Press. Smith just issued a new book and if the reception of his other books are any indication, it will be much discussed in the newspapers next year and the year after. The new book is The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, in which he deals with the hopelessly un-intellectual and non-empirical way that religious texts are dealt with in evangelical circles.

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. When he wrote the prior volumes, he was a committed Evangelical teaching in a religious setting. Recently, he converted to Catholicism because he believes in a more complex tradition; he also just published a book on his conversion. So his book will have a greater knee-jerk rejection by less thoughtful Protestants.

Smith opens his book stating that his book is not an attack on authority or the Bible and that he is not a skeptic nor a liberal so he will not be referring to them. He is writing is within the non-liberal spectrum of the religious community. “The goal of the book is not to detract from the plausibility, reliability, or authority of the Christian faith or from scripture.”

He identifies a number of traits that he calls Biblicism and finds them lacking. Jews should not get caught up on the fact that Evangelicals have a high view of the Bible while Orthodox Jews use the interpretive tradition of the Talmud and Halakhah because most of his comments apply equally well to the way the halakhah is used by Orthodoxy and the Orthodox high view of the Talmud. If it helps you – substitute the word Talmudism, Halakhah or Hazalicism for the word Biblicism. Or think of his book as if called “Halakhah made Impossible.” Judaism and Christianity are not the same, an Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism are not the same – so there are differences that we should note. But the commonalities of group think, fighting liberalism, and lack of self-awareness are similar (see below for details).

Here are his basic tenets of this univocal approach.

• Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the detail of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
• Total Representation: The Bible (or halakhah) represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humans, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
• Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to belief and life are contained in the Bible (halakhah).
• Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible (halakhah) in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
• Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts (and Rabbbinic and halakhic tetxs) is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
• Solo Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical (halakhic) text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible (halakhah)from scratch.
• Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible (halakhah)on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
• Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid at every other time..
• Handbook Model: The Bible (halakhah) teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.
Smith understands that this is not a “formal” position held by evangelicals, and that different people and groups hold and emphasize various aspects of these points differently.

Smith sees that Biblicists minimize differences between people, texts, and interpretations. – Most “real” believers all believe the same thing, due to error they may disagree slightly. Smith says that is wrong.

Evangelicals turn necessity into virtue and they create books like “four views on x belief” or “the debate between r and s on that belief. Jews do the Rashi-Rambam or the Rambam-Ramban debate. For Smith, even that is illusory, there are way more opinions out there, the reception of texts has greater variance, and there are wide debates over the meaning of a text. On important matters the texts and tradition are not “clear, consistent, or univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned most highly skilled readers to come to an agreement…: That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever present reality.” We have massive fragmentation of opinions. The fact that believers have worked for centuries to sort through these differences does not change empirical reality.

Many of those Biblicists establishing certainty are doing it with pre-interpretive assumptions not supported by any univocal text. They debate divergences constantly but assume the other side is just wrong or influenced by sociology. They never realize there may be other readings of the tradition. They do not connect the social splitting, factionalism, and controversies to the very complexity of the tradition. When divergent groups come together it is because they found common ground and avoiding discussing secondary issues.

What of thinking that the Divine word is so complex and multidimensional that it is greater than one interpretation, but there is a higher synthesis? It does not take away from the interpretive pluralism of the text.

Can there be so many misreads by others if the text is harmonious and self-sufficient? According to Smith, what are the common causes of routinely divergent readings? Texts have a vast array of terms, concepts, genres, styles, narratives and statements. Then the reader applies paradigms, essential themes, and organizing frameworks to create a single statement. Biblicist groups ignore leftover texts and think the left over texts can be explained away if rightly understood. Biblicists contend that there is really only one meaning and it is found in the words.
Smith argues for a multi-vocality, polyseme of meaning, diversity, and divisions. Multiple possible meanings are NOT from reader’s subjectivity, but rather the texts give rise to more than one possibility and that there is more than one (or even more then 3,4, 5) legitimate interpretations.

Smith shows that the goal of Evangelicals (and Orthodox Jews ) and their Biblicism was to resist liberalism

Texts are read through common sense realism treating texts as a realistic picture of the world. Meaning is from collecting facts and texts are treated as if religious texts were the same as civil engineering or gardening. Words are seen as offering direct meaning.

This Evangelical reading works because people live in “small worlds,” echo chambers of their own denomination. The more homogeneous the social network, the more the given position is taken for granted.

Biblicists can give sermons on scripture’s view of dating, the economy, TV, or childrearing without any self-awareness that the conenction between the tetx and contemporary reality was not explicit in the text. They do not acknowledge the large amount of outside information they brought to bear in their interpenetration and the latitude of interpretation from the same tetxs.

In addition, Smith thinks that people establish their religious group identities and priorities through establishing difference. Organizations thrive on competition and rivalry; skirmishes and conflicts generate energy. Therefore they don’t take the substantive claims and positions of the other group seriously. Groups blatantly ignore texts and passages used by other groups to cheer their own position. And in the rhetoric of America, they make arbitrary determination of another group’s cultural relativism.

These are some highlights of the first half of the book, which deals with data and sociology. The second half tries to offer solutions from a religious perspective and to think theologically. Maybe I might deal with some of the second half.

Any thoughts on the application of this book to Judaism? Is Talmud or halakhah in contemporary hands different?

Evangelical Center for Jewish Studies

Since there are over 40 centers of Judaism-Christian Studies, mainly at Catholic and Lutheran institutions. I was waiting for an Evangelical college to open a center, especially with all the interest in Christian Zionism. Or if Rabbi Riskin was looking for a dialogue partner, he needed to set up such a center with Evangelicals. It turns out that one started two years ago. The Center for Judaic Studies was established in 2009 at Liberty University, which was founded by Jerry Falwell, with Randall Price as its director. Judaism for them is part of their Christian Zionist vision.

Liberty University’s late founder and chancellor Dr. Jerry Falwell had a vision for a school that would promote the recognition that Israel and the Jewish people are part of God’s global will. As a Christian Zionist, Dr. Falwell was both lauded by the Jewish community for his unqualified support for the Jewish state and feared for his uncompromising evangelical commitment (which they rightly interpreted as calling for Jewish conversion to Christ).

The need for the Center for Judaic Studies is both biblical and practical. Biblically, the divine program revealed in scripture is centered on Israel and the importance of the Jewish mission (the choice of one people to bless the rest of mankind). The proclamation of the Gospel to the Jewish people is bound up in the very nature of the gospel itself: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).

The theological perspective of the Center for Judaic Studies conforms to and upholds the Liberty University statement of faith. It also upholds the biblical teaching that the Abrahamic Covenant with the Jewish people (Genesis 12:3) has continuing validity, while understanding that both Jew and Gentile share in the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant made with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31) and inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah (Hebrews 9:15).

The director Randell Price has an earned PhD and appears to be like an OU or Targum type scholar. He has credible books like an introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls in simple language, apologetic books that present Biblical Archeology that only present the data that supports the Bible and none of the data that does not, as well as not very academic works seeing the Bible played out in Israeli politics.

One blogger picked up on the last element as non-academic. But does that effect the rest of his scholarship at the center? So I decided to look at his online syllabi and his course list.

The courses in Jewish History and Israeli History are like the reading lists of an old rabbi, using the textbooks of the 1960’s as the basis along with some very new material such as Post-Zionism and cultural history, as well as arbitrary biographies. I have had to evaluate worse syllabi from Jewish schools.

Biblical Archeology is, as to be expected, highly conservative and apologetic running the gambit from K. Kitchen to William Dever.

The course on Antisemitism seems to lay the blame at the Catholic Church and disassociates Evangelicals from their Lutheran and Huguenot ancestry as well as skipping over Protestant and Evangelical Antisemitism in the US. But it may be worth it for assignments worth one quarter of their grade to accept that Antisemitism must be stopped and in their other reading to learn that there is no Biblical support for Antisemitism. They read works like Barry Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007, which assumes that Armageddon is coming and Jews will not convert until after the battle so respect them now by fighting Antisemitism.

Is this good for the Jews? Should I take it seriously? Should I contact them and offer to help their students continue their education in Judaic Studies?
Ah, but it might start something serious if one of the graduates of this Center for Judaic Studies would graduate to an MA in Jewish Studies from an accredited program or spent a year at Hebrew University…

Tisha BeAv Evening

Synagogue was packed tightly – no empty seats and all aisles filed- at least 500 in attendance. It was a big Orthodox synagogue where the head of the OU and head of the CJF attend. This post only reflects the crowded corner in which I sat and the people around me. People seemed to be there to fulfill the formal requirement to hear Eicha, less so to lament.

The synagogue had set out all their kiddie chairs from play groups and nursery and many people brought their own little kiddie chairs. When I last attended Eicha at this synagogue two years ago, there were no kiddie chairs. I am told that they put them out for the first time last year. This second year many people brought their own.

The mood was set by the fall of the stock market and people came in bewailing their investments.

The rabbi of the congregation deserves regard for knowing his congregation. He proclaimed that hurban is tragedy, the holocaust is tragedy, tragedy is death nad massacre, mothers eating their children is tragedy. Downgrading of the US from AAA to AA or a dip in the stock market is not. I thought it was good and appropriate talk by the rabbi. But others near me thought: no! it is a tragedy.

The rabbi said that of course we know that we cannot add or change the liturgy but on Tisha beAv we are lenient. He then recited a kinah for Gilad Shalit before we started.

He also said Ashkenazim need a kinah for the expulsion from Spain. He distributed the kinah from the Isaac Lesser’s Sefardi Kinot dedicated to the expulsion from Spain that will be recited in the day but discussed tonight in a shiur after kinot. I think the origin of this custom was one of the web based kinot from 2005 or 2006.

The Rabbi concluded that special miracle of the Jewish people is that no matter how bad the tragedy or how devastating the destruction they continue to call out and pray to Hashem.

As we waited to start a person across from me- forties, tanned, polo shirt and jeans- kept leaning over to the person to my left and offered the following thoughts in short bobbing outbursts.

Ya, gotta kill him,
Gotta get rid of him.
After today, he needs to be gone.
Obama needs to be killed
Before he runs off to Puerto Rico
I hear he is getting dread locks
And if he gets re-elected it is time to pack our bags because he is socialist and will do whatever he wants.
And you better stay dry and sell everything in the morning.

During Eicha the person to the right of me was on his iphone. He checked his email during the first chapter, his feeds during the second chapter. He put his iphone away for the third chapter, but took it out again for chapters 4 and 5 to recheck his email and feeds.

Many older men left after Eicha before kinot, they said that they are not into kinot and had already filled their requirement.

When kinot started many stood up and remained standing for kinot- it seems they confused kinot with selichot and have forgotten what to do.

Unlike during Eicha, many checked their email during kinot. On the way out, one of those who was on his blackberry throughout kinot said to his friend who started to speak to him: “It is tisha beAV- we should not speak”

Many of the women wore jewelry – expensive necklaces, bracelets and earrings-not usually worn on Tisha beAv. This was even by people who come to synagogue every week and cover their hair. Everyone had non-leather shoes.

Outside on the way to the car, a father, who has been coming to synagogue all his life, asks his two teenage sons- “Did the Rabbi say that all the kinot tonight were all to commemorate the expulsion from Spain?

Sparta as reflective of the era?

Books generally become translated when there is an assumed readership in the new language. Buddhism into English for Americans who are interested in spirituality, Talmud into Japanese, Chinese and Korean for Buddhists interested in Protestant capitalism. Latin Classics when Britain saw itself as a stoic military empire.
Recently, I received an email that Irvin D Yalom was being translated in Hebrew made perfect sense. Israel is just discovering the world of therapy and personal problems as shown in the TV show BaTipul -In Treatment. Yalom is one of the premiere practitioners of Existential analysis and group therapy, so he needs to be translated decades after his integration in the US. But at the end of last week, I got an email that they had just translated into Hebrew Plutarch’s Sparta and Xenophon’s Spartan Society, published as two volumes. Why now? There are so many other classics that have not been translated. Does it say something?
In addition, it seems dependent on the Penguin paperback since Plutarch wrote “Lives Of The Noble Grecians And Romans” and Penguin culled out four of the lives and culled out the “sayings” from the other lives.
Is there a reason that Israeli’s would want Sparta sayings now?

Rabbi di Segni creates interfaith situation again

In anticipation of October’s grand interfaith day of prayer in Assisi, Cardinal Koch points out of each faith has high holy days of repentance and atonement. This was appropriate background since the Assisi day does not consist of dialogue but of parallel prayer in separate spaces. So Koch’s message was that we all have commonalities. Rabbi di Segni complained when the Cardinal said that Jews have Yom Kippur for atonement and Christians have Easter and the Cross. This was similar to the way Pope Benedict compare Passover and Easter when visiting Park East Synagogue. In Koch’s speech, di Segni hears a supersessionalist fulfillment scheme, but Koch thought he was presenting parallels. In general, di Segni has idiosyncratic views as an exclusivist believer in Toldot Yeshu who believes in dialogue -see the prior post- and where Jews and Christians have a link of particular closeness.
This commonality has yet to fully be integrated, since during the time of patristics and rabbinics, parallels meant one was correct and one was incorrect, as sibling rivalry. Now, it is just comparative charts.
For those who have not been following, Cardinal Koch replaced Cardinal Kasper as liaison to the Jewish People. He will be making his first major speech on Jewish-Christian Relations at my place on Oct 30. There will be an open-to the public lecture and a closed discussion.

La Stampa 07/28/2011
Assisi: Controversy breaks out between Jews and Christians over religious symbols
The Holy See’s official newspaper, “L’Osservatore Romano” has reported a heated argument between Cardinal Koch and Riccardo di Segni, following the rabbi’s contest of a comparison between the Cross and Yom Kippur

“If the terms of this dialogue are based on Christians leading the Jews towards the path of the Cross, then what is the point of dialogue? What is the point of Assisi?” Rome’s head rabbi, Riccardo di Segni wrote in “L’Osservatore Romano”, warning that those who encourage dialogue between Catholics and Jews should avoid comparing symbols that the two faiths simply do not share.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican dicastery for ecumenical dialogue, made a comparison between the Christian Cross and the Jewish celebration of atonement, known as Yom Kippur, which did not go down well with Rome’s head rabbi, Riccardo di Segni.

What sparked the confrontation was an article written by Cardinal Koch on last 7 July, and published by the Holy See’s newspaper, on the different meanings of the Interreligious Day of prayer for Peace due to take place in Assisi on 27 October this year. In the article, the Swiss cardinal said that Jesus’ Cross “stands over us as the eternal and universal Yom Kippur does,” and “therefore, Jesus’ Cross does not stand as an obstacle to interreligious dialogue; rather, it points to the right path that Jews and Christians (…) above all, should follow, in a deep, inner reconciliation, in order to spread peace and justice in the world.”

According to di Segni, however, “he ends on a message of the shared objectives of peace and justice.” “Although [these words] are inspired by a sense of fraternity and good will, if they are not explained further, could lead to Christians not knowing where the limit is in terms of fostering dialogue.” In particular, di Segni contested Koch’s suggestion that “Jewish interlocutors should let themselves be guided by symbols they do not share. Especially when these symbols are presented as substitutions, with the added value of rites and symbols that the person speaking believes in.”

“Christian believers, Rome’s head rabbi explained, may very well believe that the Cross can substitute the day of Kippur permanently and universally, but if they really wish to engage in a respectful dialogue with Jewish people who in turn believe that Kippur has an equally universal and permanent value, they should not propose their own beliefs and Christian interpretations as indicative of the “right path” for Jews to follow.

“Because the, he continued, there is a risk of going back into theology of substitution turf, with the Cross becoming an obstacle. The Christian-Jewish dialogue inevitably runs this risk, because the idea of Jewish promises being fulfilled is at the basis of Christian faith; therefore the affirmation made by Christianity implicitly involves the idea of integration and of being above the Jewish faith.”

Di Segni added that “the language of dialogue must be a common language and parties must share in the same project. “If the terms of this dialogue are based on Christians leading the Jews towards the path of the Cross, then what is the point of dialogue? What is the point of Assisi?”

Cardinal Koch replied that “he was not suggesting that Christ’s Cross should substitute Yom Kippur, even though Christians see a permanent and universal Yom Kippur in the Cross.” The question, however, “is certainly not an obstacle to the efforts of Christians and Jews, in their expression of mutual respect for each other’s faiths, in promoting peace and reconciliation, joining each other in the walk towards Assisi.”

Why should a Jew care about Ramadan?

Ramadan Karim to my Muslim readers (I have some regular Muslim readers.)

Ramadan this year corresponds to the Hebrew month of Av. There is an interesting blog Jihadi Jew, by a Breslov Baal Teshuvah who teaches in a community day school, who asks the question: Why should a Jew care about Ramadan? He discusses why he is comfortable wishing Ramadan greeting when he is quite uncomfortable and has compunctions about Christmas. Ramadan is not Hukkat Hagoyim, the ways of the gentiles because the message of Ramadan is about Jewish values and that the Koran already acknowledged this.

I have no such qualms about saying “Ramadan Mubarak!” On the contrary, I hunt down nifty e-cards on the internet. I even include personalized messages. In person, I give handshakes, hugs (or for women- a decorous nod) and those words come easily, “Ramadan Mubarak” a Blessed Ramadan! I keep a mental Ramadan countdown. I get enthusiastic. It is admittedly very weird for a Jewish guy. It is even weirder for an observant Jewish guy. I get that.

Ramadan is very “Jewish.” In Ramadan, we have a practice that promotes monotheistic worship in the world while employing practices that are specifically endorsed by Jewish tradition (prayer, fasting, charity and ethical restraint). The continuity of Ramadan with previous Jewish practice is actually acknowledged by the Qur’an itself. Even the Qur’an says it’s very “Jewish.”

O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God.
- 2:183 (Muhummad Asad trans.)

“Those before you.” That would be US. Indeed there are obvious parallels to specific and well-known Jewish practices. The dedication of the month of Elul as a period of repentance and spiritual focus and the standard Sephardic practice of doing special early morning selichot (“forgiveness”) prayers for the 40 day period from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kipppur is a clear parallel to the Muslim practice. That this period corresponds to the period in which Moses received the Torah is paralleled by Ramadan’s commemoration of the receiving of the Qur’an. Similarly there are fasting practices associated with this period in the Jewish year for the 10 days of repentance. There is even a kabalistic custom… to refrain from food during the daytime for the entire 40-day period (Shabbat and Rosh Hashana exempted). The Qur’an’s comment that the practice of Ramadan is based on previous practice can and should be taken at face value. Ramadan has Jewish roots.

Ramadan also supports Jewish values. Perhaps most important is the intention of Ramadan as laid out in the Qur’an “the awareness of G-d.” It is precisely the awareness of G-d which the Tur explains is the absolute purpose of the entirety of Jewish practice. There is no worthier goal for a human being and it makes sense that we would support others in their attempts to achieve it through prayer and fasting, means which are so clearly approved by our own tradition.

Ramadan also has a deeper ethical dimension. A hadith relates this as follows.

Abu Huraira related that the Prophet said: If a person does not avoid false talk and false conduct during the fast, then Allah does not care if he abstains from food and drink (Bukhari, Muslim).

Indeed the great Muslim theologian Imam al-Ghazali divides fasting into two dimensions: ordinary and special fasting.

Ordinary fasting means abstaining from food, drink and sexual satisfaction.
Special Fasting means keeping one’s ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet — and all other organs — free from sin.

Ramadan is a time for developing emotional and impulse control.

Ultimately, Ramadan is part of a process of repentance (taubah / teshuvah) of facing oneself, altering ones behavior and facing G-d to ask for forgiveness of sins from G-d in His infinite mercy. It is all about returning to G-d after our own self-imposed alienation knowing that he will accept us if we are sincere.

In a well-known hadith relates G-d’s address to mankind,

O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.
Hadith Qudsi 34 (Tirmidhi , Sahih)

The message of the greatnesses and far-reaching consequences of this return to G-d is again familiar enough to Jews. The Talmud (Yoma 86b) in a beautiful litany of the greatness of repentance writes:

Rav Meir used to say Great is repentance, that because of an individual who repents, the entire world is forgiven, as the verse says (Hoshea 14:5) I will rectify their waywardness, I will love them gratuitously, for My anger has turned away from them.

In a broken world, desperately in need of redemption, I don’t know whose repentance is going to tip the scales. If my warm “Ramadan Kareem!” or my warm “Ramadan Mubarak!” or my little e-card encourages a moment of genuine return to G-d, if it inspires a Muslim friend to be good and to do good, I make myself into a partner in their holy endeavor. As a result, all of us, Jews and Muslims reap the benefits of a more peaceful world that better reflects the glory of the One true G-d. Read the Rest Here.

For those Jews wanting to know more about Ramadan, Here is an article on the spirituality and here is one on etiquette.

Here is a related post that I once ran on Passover Seder Through Muslim Eyes.

Islamophobes dont bother commenting!!

Agnon’s “Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law

Seventeen years ago, Agnon’ s classic work on the giving of the Torah was finally translated into English.
S. Y. Agnon, Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law translated by Michael Swirsky (Jewish Publication Society, 1994). Originally published in Hebrew as “Atem Re’item” by Schocken Books, 1959

But it is out of print and sold few copies. In another month, there will be more copies of my recent book floating around that this classic.

I wonder why?

Is it just a bad marketing job by JPS?

Agnon’s Days of Awe for the high holy days remains in print and widely used. Is it that American Jewry cares about the High Holidays and not Shavuot?

Is it that American Jews have no interest in rabbinics that emphasized the event of Sinai? Is it because Agnon is not liberal or Orthodox? Is it because Modernity and Orthodoxy have each eroded our attitude to reading the Sages? The Sages cared about the event of Sinai where the earth shook, mountains flew, and eyesight was given to the blind more than infallibly, reliability or relevance. Does concern with contemporary doctrinal formulation overturn the very words of the Rabbis?

As the introduction by Judah Goldin put it, Agnon was concerned with “Geist not Zeitgeist,” he wanted to capture the spirit of the Rabbis not to contextualize them historically. (That is the same way the Hebrew reviews are treating Benny Lau’s works).

The book is not arranged chronologically rather by the unfolding of the event, eyesight to the blind, synesthesia, our eternal love relationship with God, and how everyone understood the revelation according to their capacity- separate understandings for young & old, wise & foolish, pregnant & infirm. (The insane were healed.)

The Hebrew title of the book is Atem Reitem –You saw! You saw, you were eyewitnesses, for Agnon all Jews have an immediacy of Sinai For him, Jewish thinking about God must include a discussion of the experience of Sinai (not the reliability).

In the author’s “The making of this book,” he describes that the book is based on the four levels of meaning” “The words of the Torah are both revealed and hidden, and however much one examines them one never penetrates more than a small part of their mystery.”

“I have cited only the words of believers in God, concerning whom, and concerning the like of whom, it is said, “That which the veteran scholar shall someday teach… was already told to Moses at Sinai” (PT Peah 2). —Bialek was counted among the believers.

Agnon quotes approvingly the introduction to Bava Kama by Rabbi Shlomo Luria (late 16th century), the Maharasha that Sinai produces contradictory conclusions. Each person seeing and comprehending in an individualistic way.

The sages in their study of the text drew different and sometimes contradictory conclusions, either through the exercise of logic or on the basis of tradition handed down from Moses to Sinai, one to another.
All souls were at Mt Sinai and received through forty nine conduits… heavenly voices they not only heard but also saw. And all Israel saw the voices, meaning the proclamations disseminated through the conduits, each seeing through his own conduit according to his ability to comprehend and according to the capacity of his higher soul to be elevated or diminished, one widely differing from another.

The original purpose of the famous introduction was to reject the wave of codification that the Shulkhan Arukh was ushering in. Luria wanted [qualified] rabbis to go back to the text afresh and use their own logic and their won traditions because Sinai itself, with its synesthesia, fiery letters, and effects on the soul, could not be pinned down. Agnon makes it his individualistic reception of revelation, sharing the romantic and individualistic concerns of Rav Zadok, Rav Kook, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Pisetzna, Gershom Scholem, and Hillel Zeitlein.

He cites Isaiah Horowitz’s Shnei Luhot Habrit, that the Torah has 600, 000 interpretations, corresponding to the 600, 000 souls each of whom received one interpretation as his portion.

Agnon confesses that “each day, I personally fulfilled the commandment to remember the Sinai Event.”
He states that “throughout my work I kept in mind the injunction of the Guide of the Perplexed that it is not proper to break through the bounds and say too much about the secrets of Mt Sinai… for it is among the hidden aspects of the Torah.”

Maybe Agnon was not claimed because neither Orthodoxy nor Liberal positions, nor scholars emphasize Agnon’s sources? For Aggadah through living eyes, he used Damesek ELiezer 1880, Torah Temimah 1904, Torah shelemah by MM Kasher 1954, Yefeh Eynaim 1880; For collections of Aggadah he used Yalkut Reuveni 170, Yalkut Eliezer 1864-71, Bialek –Rawnitzki Sefer haAggadah 1948; and for Kabbalistic Midrash he used Mekor Hokhmah Yissakher Baer 1611, Maftekhot haZohar 1744.

The only serious review that Agnon’s book received was by a Sefardi Rabbi in LA, who also contributed to a teacher’s guide for using Agnon in day schools.

As a side point, Judah Goldin the editor of the volume notes how Agnon breaks up of verses in each section. Many years ago, Prof Zussman of Hebrew University taught an “undergraduate” class on the midrashim of Mt Sinai. Now, Zussman’s goal at the start of every semester was to have 4-5 students left in the class by scaring off all non Tal-mood-ists. He would give on the first classes major assignments like read through many Rabbinic works and check all variant versions, until the roster descended from 35 to 5 students. Anyway, one semester he offered midrashim on Mt Sinai and assigned the first class to look at a list of 30 midrash collections and find out when they thought Har Sinai ended? Exodus 20 Verse 21? The whole chapter? All of Mishpatim? Exodus 25? Beyond? It was a good lesson in method. Agnon obviously reflected his Midrashic sources.

But to return to the original question: Why did Agnon on Sinai not catch on like his work on the high holy days?