Monthly Archives: September 2011

Peter Berger on Habermas’ Religion

In a recent blog post, Peter Berger shows his disdain for Jurgen Habermas since the 1960’s. Habermas advocates rational public discourse in the public sphere, similar to Mendelssohn. Habermas originally thought the public sphere needed to be denuded of relgion and therefore rejected religion to thinking it plays a great role in our immoral capitalist age. (Similar to Jonathan Sacks or Tony Blair). In the last decade, Habermas jettisons his Enlightenment heritage and thinks reason itself comes from religion. Yet, Habermas does not believe in any of it. The liberal Protestant Berger who seeks transcendence and meaning has open disdain for such a position.

What Happens when a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God?
Peter Berger

Society is the social science journal superbly edited by Jonathan Imber. In its fall issue it carries an article by Philippe Portier (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris), entitled “Religion and Democracy in the Thought of Juergen Habermas”. Coincidentally, in a recent issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Habermas is on a list of German celebrity intellectuals who pop up continuously in the media.

Habermas has been a public intellectual (a more polite term for celebrity) for a very long time. I have never been terribly interested in Habermas, but the coincidence made me think about him. Portier’s article does tell an intriguing story. It might be called a man-bites-dog story.

Habermas is exactly my age. Our paths crossed briefly in the 1960s, when he was a visiting professor in the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, where I was then teaching. We did not particularly take to each other. I was put off by both his leftist politics and his ponderous philosophical language. (German philosophers, no matter where located on the ideological spectrum, vie with each other in producing texts which are comprehensible only to a small group of initiates.) I also sensed a certain professorial arrogance. I remember reading a response by Habermas to a critic, limited to the statement that he refused to discuss with an individual who quoted Hegel from a secondary source.

In 1981 Habermas published his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action , a strong endorsement of reason as the foundation of public life in a democracy. He retired from his professorship in 1993, but not from his role as an active advocate of Enlightenment rationality. It is debatable how far his more recent work still continues under a neo-Marxist theoretical umbrella. His views on religion have shifted considerably.

Portier distinguishes three phases in Habermas’ treatment of religion.
In phase one, lasting up to the early 1980s, he still viewed religion as an “alienating reality”, a tool of domination for the powerful. In good Marxist tradition, he thought that religion would eventually disappear, as modern society comes to be based on “communicative rationality” and no longer needs the old irrational illusions.

In phase two, roughly 1985-2000, this anti-religious animus is muted. Religion now is seen as unlikely to disappear, because many people (though presumably not Habermas) continue to need its consolations. The public sphere, however, must be exclusively dominated by rationality. Religion must be relegated to private life. One could say that in this phase, at least in the matter of religion, Habermas graduated from Marxism to the French ideal of laicite—the public life of the republic kept antiseptically clean of religious contamination.

Phase three is more interesting. As of the late 1990s Habermas’ view of religion is more benign. Religion is now seen as having a useful public function, quite apart from its private consolations. The “colonization” of society by “turbo-capitalism” (nice term—I don’t know if Habermas coined it) has created a cultural crisis and has undermined the solidarity without which democratic rationality cannot function. We are now moving into a “post-secular society”, which can make good use of the “moral intuition” that religion still supplies. Following in the footsteps of Ernst Bloch and other neo-Marxist philo-Godders, Habermas also credits Biblical religion, Judaism and Christianity, for having driven out magical thinking (here there is an echo of Max Weber’s idea of “ the disenchantment of the world”), and for having laid the foundations of individual autonomy and rights.

Habermas developed these ideas in a number of publications and media interviews. The most interesting source (not discussed by Portier in the article) is a 2007 publication by a Catholic press, The Dialectics of Secularization . It is a conversation between Habermas and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (at the time of this exchange head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, subsequently Pope Benedict XVI). Habermas here gives credit to Christianity for being the purveyor of a universal egalitarianism and for an openness to reason, thus continuing to provide moral substance for democracy. Not surprisingly, Ratzinger agreed.

Habermas has looked at the world and concluded that secularization theory—that is, the thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion—does not fit the facts of the matter. Beyond this acknowledgement of the empirical reality of the contemporary world, Habermas admits the historical roots in Biblical religion of modern individualism, and he thinks that this connection is still operative today. Yet, when all is said and done, Habermas now has a positive view of religion (at least in its Judaeo-Christian version) for utilitarian reasons: Religion, whether true or not, is socially useful.

Any sociologist will agree that religion, true or not, is useful for the solidarity and moral consensus of society. The problem is that this utility depends on at least some people actually believing that there is the supernatural reality that religion affirms. The utility ceases when nobody believes this anymore.

Edward Gibbon, in chapter 2 of his famous history of the decline of the Roman Empire, has this to say: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful”. When you cross the philosopher with the magistrate, you get Habermas. Read the Rest Here.

An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists From David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen

It seems like almost yesterday when, back in 2004, the official Jewish establishment was still debating whether to bed down with the Evangelical Christian Zionists. At this point, it is taken as given that the Christian Zionists and the Jewish establishment work together. Below are selections from a manifesto written by the authors of the mainstream Evangelical textbook on ethics with institutional support (The equivalent of Rabbis Bleich or Dorff, depending on your movement.) We knew that pre-millennial dispensation was out in Evangelical thought but now even the one-sided literal Zionism is out. The authors think the promise to Abraham applies to all his descendents, not just Isaac. They affirm that even with the conquest of Joshua other nations still lived in the country. They think God wants justice and possession of the land is conditional on Jews being just. God can easily cause another nation, like Iran, to punish Israel. Christian Zionism has to be more complex and seek justice for the Palestinians.

The manifesto was under-reported in the news but as leading ethicists in their community expect this statement to be studied by all future clergy. (If you want to discuss the politics, then do that on your own blog.) Any thoughts on the religious shift? On the Biblical shift?
For my Jewish readers who have not read the rebukes of the Torah but want to understand the idea that the Land is conditional should consult Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith. (Fortress Press, 1977, 2002). Brueggemann himself moved in the last year from staunchly Zionist to ambivalent.

An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists
From David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen
September 19, 2011

This Christian version of Zionism matters deeply, not just because theology intrinsically matters, but because it is overwhelmingly clear that American evangelical-fundamentalist Christian Zionism affects US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians in distressing ways.

Not to put too fine a point on it, we wish to claim here that the prevailing version of American Christian Zionism—that is, your belief system—underwrites theft of Palestinian land and oppression of Palestinian people, helps create the conditions for an explosion of violence, and pushes US policy in a destructive direction that violates our nation’s commitment to universal human rights. In all of these, American Christian Zionism as it currently stands is sinful and produces sin. We write as evangelical Christians committed lifelong to Israel’s security, and we are seriously worried about your support for policies that violate biblical warnings about injustice and may lead to the outcome you most fear—serious harm to or even destruction of Israel.

We write as evangelicals to you, our fellow evangelicals. On the shared basis of biblical authority, we ask you to reconsider your interpretation of Scripture, for the sake of God, humanity, the United States, and, yes, Israel itself, the Land and People we both love.

I A Question of (Whose) Holy Land
We acknowledge that your evangelical-fundamentalist American Christian Zionism (henceforth simply “Christian Zionism”) is a product of a Christian community that loves and reads the Bible.

Both now and in the past, whenever Christian Zionism emerges its essential origin is simply Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament. Our love of the Bible takes Christians into the pages of the Old Testament; there we cannot help but discover the centrality of a Promised Land for the Jewish people.

As devoted Christians, we share this love of the sacred lands of the biblical tradition with all who hold such love. We think that love of the Holy Land is far better than indifference to it. And both of us, as students of the long and terrible history of Christian anti-Semitism, which culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust, far prefer a strong sense of Christian kinship with the Jewish people and their historic homeland than the centuries-long Christian pattern of theological disdain and even hatred that so long predominated. The question then becomes not whether to love “Israel”—understood as the People and the Land—but how best to do so. We think this is a question that you will understand and want to answer properly, as we do.

But the promise looks very different if we take seriously all of the offspring of Abraham. Genesis 15:4-5 has God taking Abram outside and telling him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the heavens. Genesis 17:4, probably the pivotal text, has God saying to Abraham: “This is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Many nations, a multitude of nations; many offspring, many kings—read Genesis 17 again and see the plural nouns here.

Close readers of Scripture will know that in fact Abraham did become the father of many nations. With Sarah he became the father of Isaac and the ancestor of all in his line, via Jacob and Esau. With Hagar he became the father of Ishmael and all in his line. And with the long-forgotten Keturah (Gen. 25:1) he became the father of Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. The Old Testament clearly positions Abraham as the father/ancestor of not only the Jewish people but of a vast number of other peoples, all scattered through the territories promised in Genesis 15.

Christians, even those who know their Bibles well, tend to think of the book of Joshua as containing the (bloody) fulfillment of the promise of the whole Land to Israel—the entire land is conquered by war, and then divided up among the tribes. A close reading shows that the Hebrew tribes shared the land for centuries with other groups, and that even when tribes were assigned certain portions of land, they didn’t necessarily control every square inch of it. The point is obvious later when it comes to the challenge posed by the Philistines. It is not an overstatement to say that the Israelite/Hebrew/Jewish people never had exclusive possession of the Holy Land, regardless of whatever divine promises they or we believe that they received.

II Those Who Do Justice Keep Their Land
Israel’s prophets repeatedly warned that God’s covenant promise of the land was conditional on her moral performance. In particular, the prophets warned that, in keeping with the stipulations of the Law, Israel would be judged by her treatment of the aliens in the land, of the poor, the widows, and the orphans.

The 7th/6th century BC prophet Jeremiah sounded such themes consistently. We see it in Jeremiah 6:6-8: “This city must be punished; it is filled with oppression…Violence and destruction resound in her…Take warning, O Jerusalem, or I will turn away from you and make your land desolate so no one can live in it.” Jeremiah 7 is a hugely important passage, in which the prophet warns the complacent worshippers at the seemingly impregnable Temple that it and they would be ruined if they did not “amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (Jer 7:3).

At a theological level, we are claiming that even if one accepts a) a divine promise of land to the Jewish people as recorded in scripture, b) a belief that this promise extends even to this day, and c) the modern state of Israel as, in part, God’s gracious fulfillment of this promise, one must also say d) the Bible, in the prophetic writings, also teaches that persistent injustice on the part of Israel has evoked, and still can bring, God’s judgment, which can extend even to war and exile. Israel’s remaining in the land depends on Israel’s now doing justice to Palestinians and making peace with its Arab neighbors that surround Israel.
Indeed, Jesus, as prophet and Savior, also prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed because they did not know the practices that make for peace (Lk 19:41-44). And Jerusalem was destroyed, 40 years later. Do you not fear that it could happen again? Does not your love of Israel make you want to do all you can to prevent that from happening? And yet your actions actually make it more likely to happen!

III The Holy Land on the Precipice
Any visitor to this tortured Holy Land who avoids a sanitized Christian tour and actually visits with Palestinians, actually stands in the shadow of the Separation Wall, actually sees what military occupation looks and feels like, cannot but tremble at these biblical words of warning.
We are not Old Testament prophets, nor do we pretend to see the future. But we have seen enough to claim that the occupation practices of the modern state of Israel are a direct violation of the most basic biblical moral principles.

We genuinely fear that someday someone or some nation inflamed with resentment at the seemingly eternal Israeli subjugation of the Palestinian people will “make your land desolate so no one can live in it” (Jer 6:8). That sounds like a nuclear bomb. Have you heard of Mahmoud Ahmedinijad?

We will leave it to God to sort out with the Jewish people of the modern state of Israel the very complex terms of his covenant with them. But we cannot remain silent about the vast array of American Christians who support the most repressive and unjust Israeli policies in the name of Holy Land and a Holy God.

We plead with you, our brothers and sisters, to find a better way, a more biblical way, to love Israel. Love Israel enough to oppose rather than support actions that violate God’s clearly revealed moral will.

David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics, Mercer University
Glen H. Stassen, Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary
Drs. Gushee and Stassen are co-authors of “Kingdom Ethics” (InterVarsity Press) and are members of the board of directors of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.
Read The Full Manifesto Here.

Anti-Intellectual Populism and Relgious Self-Understanding

There is a new book out The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age that shows the intense anti-expert populism of contemporary religion. Evangelicals today (and many Orthodox Jews) reject experts in history, education, philosophy,literature, psychology, and sociology. They think that each person can decide for themselves based on their religious education and common sense. Hence, they demonize the experts as subjective and not needed. They create religious versions of psychology, philosophy, or history that have little to do with the actual fields. Ministers and Rabbis are credited with the ability to decide science, philosophy or history.

There is a general distrust of university credentials, academic study, or expertise. They do not even grasp basic vocabulary or method. Some do not even understanding what they read, willfully misreading, or not realizing that their feeble attempt at intellectualism is really populist anti-intellectualism.Evangelicals (and Orthodox) have a post modern spin on truth as personal or to be decided based on faith. Whereas the issue in the 1950’s was pro-college or anti-college, now the issue is how to get the needed college degree without attaining a higher education or just enough of a higher education to pretend that one can be the expert.

The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, by Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson. The book is an exploration of intellectual authority within evangelicalism, a seemingly insular world in which, according to Stephens and Giberson, the teachings of dubiously credentialed leaders are favored over the word of secular experts in the arts and sciences. We invited Stephens and Giberson, who each have roots in evangelicalism, to answer a few questions about evangelical truth and its place in American life.

Q: Recent observers, including Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker, regard statements like Michele Bachmann’s endorsement of evangelical historian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer as anomalous or bizarre. But you argue that huge numbers of Americans embrace ideas like these. Can you explain how beliefs that appear extreme to outside observers can seem mainstream to their Evangelical adherents?
Many of the extreme and puzzling beliefs of evangelicals—like dinosaurs being contemporary with humans—are beliefs that they are raised with. Trusted but uninformed authorities in evangelical churches and religious schools present these ideas to laypeople and ministers so often and so convincingly that many grow up accepting them as obviously true.

Q: In The Anointed, you discuss knowledge authorities in diverse fields—history, evolutionary science, and psychology, among other domains. What threads connect these figures?
There are two threads that run through our Anointed authorities. The first is an appealing “Christianizing” of the ideas. David Barton “Christianizes” American history; Ken Ham “Christianizes” the science of our origins; James Dobson “Christianizes” social science, including the definition of the family. The “Christianizing” of these ideas, by default, undermines the credibility of secular ideas that might challenge the positions promoted by the Anointed leaders.
The second thread is old-fashioned American anti-intellectual populism. Barton, Ham, Dobson, and other Anointed leaders tend to make no effort to engage the fields they claim to represent. Barton never subjects his claims about American history to peer review in a journal. Ken Ham and James Dobson do no scientific research. In the secular world ideas get vetted in the academy through peer review in technical journals; then they appear in serious but more popular outlets; and then finally they might get discussed on the radio. The ideas of the Anointed cut out all these middlemen and appear immediately on the radio or television.

Q: What does the embrace of figures like the ones you describe in The Anointed mean for America?
The resulting widespread distrust of the scientific community—often portrayed as atheistic, anti-religious, ideological—undermines the credibility of everything the scientific community says, including its conclusions about climate change, the dangers of fracking, the importance of ecosystems, the need for vaccinating children, and so on. Read the Rest Here.

Here is a promo video for a guide to help one make sure one remains above the experts.

Philip K Dick and Abraham Abulafia


Dear Charles,
April 23, 1979
This is to let you know that after four years of research and work I have
finally finished my new novel VALIS for Bantam. In the writing I collaborated
with the spirit of the 13th century Jewish Kabbalist Abraham ben Samuel
Abulafia who seizes control of me from time to time,
as circumstances require.
Hope all is well with you.
Philip K Dick

p. 225, The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick: 1977-1979, ed. Don Herron, Underwood Books, 1993.

posted by Avi Solomon

Random Hebrew College Rabbinical Student

I was just up in Boston visiting Hebrew College. I discovered that they have a special Elul zeman to prepare for Rosh HaShanah in awe, contemplation, and renewal. They follow the sefardi custom and have long semi-mandatory selihot at 7:30 every morning in Elul with musical accompaniment. Some of the rabbinical students seek to continue this in their pulpits. This is another answer to my query on Rosh Hodesh Elul.

I spoke to one random student about his future plans as a rabbi.

He said that he would like to start a center where Jews can come for music, art, meditation, study, prayer, and various other methods of accessing their spirituality. The vision is not to produce a synagogue because he says that his generation is turned off by synagogues. This would be a place where you can have your Jewish needs met.
He said that he wants to start with everyone’s natural interests- music, art, sports, and food- and present them in a Jewish context.

I asked him: Why present it as Jewish? Do I really need Torah to go to a Phish concert or a Patriots game?
The Rabbinical student enthusiastically said yes!! We need the font of creativity, vision, tradition, soulfulness, meaning, and growth of a person that Torah offers. He effused that Torah is essential for us to make the most of those experiences. In these we experience our transcendence and self.

I asked: So what is Torah? He said Torah is the 2500-2000 year tradition of the aspirations of individual Jews- their own struggles, their contexts, their accomplishments. It is the language of the Jewish soul for dealing with the growth of a person. It is an organizational and development language of the Jewish soul.

I ask: What of the texts? He answered that they are an amazing record of the Jewish soul through the ages. They are the way to track who and what we are as Jews, as humans, where we’ve been, and where we want to go.

At first, I thought wow this is different. Then I remembered a similar sentiment by a RIETS student.

A Shabbat Tent At Phish Concert
Wednesday, June 29, 2011 Josh Fleet

The “Shabbat Tent” will provide a space for Jewish and other Phish fans to experience the Sabbath the way they want to experience it. The best part? Fans get to combine a love of music with a love of Shabbat.

The Shabbat Tent organization, which came out of an informal gathering at a Phish festival in 1999 and has set up tents from California to Florida and all points in between, does not do kiruv, or religous outreach.
“There’s no sort of, ‘You have to behave like an Orthodox Jew, you have to behave like a Renewal Jew,’” Adam Weinberg said.

Practically, the Tent will provide a vegan Friday night dinner for 300 to 500, a Saturday kiddush, a third meal for 200 to 300 people and continuous snacks. There will be a Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat, Torah reading on Saturday and Havdalah.

Avi Lichtshein, a 24-year-old rabbinical student at Yeshivah University and avid Phish fan, was one of the first to contact Bookstein about bringing Shabbat Tent to SuperBall. He wanted to channel two of his passions – Phish and Judaism – but he was worried about Shabbat observance. After getting the go-ahead from Bookstein, Lichtschein contacted donors and friends in his hometown of Teaneck, N.J. to help raise the more than $10,000 needed to run a successful Tent.

“I believe that Jews are drawn to transcendent collective experiences,” Bookstein said. “It started 3,500 years ago in the Sinai desert, and it’s continued throughout our history.”

Historically, the major Jewish festivals were times of mass pilgrimage and camping — and music. So it’s not surprising that Jews are drawn to this in great numbers, because it is so much a part of being Jewish to want to connect and transcend with others.

The beauty of Shabbat Tent is being able to get into theological discussions about Judaism and then to slip into analytical conversations about Phish – to simultaneously debate texts and sets. Read the rest here.

An Interview with Rabbi Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held is Co-Founder, Rosh Yeshiva, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. Before that, he served for six years as Scholar-in-Residence at Kehilat Hadar in New York City, and taught both theology and Halakha at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Shai has a PhD from Harvard University with a dissertation on A J Heschel; his main academic interests are in modern thought and Religious Zionism. His canon of authors he admires consists of Rabbis Reines, Kook, Unterman, Reines, Heschel, Soloveitchik, Hartman, and Greenberg.

Two weeks ago, he penned the following op-ed advocating a humanistic religious Zionism based on Rabbis Unna and Kook and that the Torah has humanistic and non-humanistic interpretations. It seems to encapsulate his views.

Speaking in 1945, Orthodox Zionist leader Moshe Unna made an impassioned case for what he called “Jewish humanism.” Unna was calling not for humanism in the sense of putting human beings rather than God at the center of the universe – a view no religious thinker could embrace – but rather humanism in the sense of an uncompromising commitment to universal human well-being and mutual responsibility. Humanistic ideals, Unna emphasized, are inherently universalistic; they are, he said, “moral and cultural values that generate a commitment to the world and to humanity.”

Unna concluded his talk with a courageous declaration:…”It is crucial to emphasize the word ‘humanism.’ It is not enough simply to say ‘according to the Torah,’ because from the Torah many different things can be learned. ‘The Torah has 70 faces,’ and one can even learn from it the obligation to commit acts of terrorism … The word ‘humanism,’ therefore, comes to explain and clarify which values from among those values found in our literature we seek to internalize in our educational system.” What Unna was saying is that we cannot pretend to derive our values from a simple, straightforward reading of Torah, since Torah contains multitudes, and can be read as advocating universal humanism, on the one hand, and radically particularistic chauvinism, on the other

The world is not divided between those who read selectively and those who don’t. It is more accurate to say that the real division is between those who acknowledge that they read selectively, and those who do not – or who, given their assumptions, simply cannot. Read the Rest Here.

Rabbi Held also composed the widely circulated prayer after the Asian Tsunami

Ruler of Creation, Master of the world:
Have mercy on all those who are suffering from the raging waters and the storming waves. Have compassion on Your creatures –
Look, O Lord, and see their distress; Listen, God, and hear their cries.
Strengthen the hands of those who would bring relief, comfort the mourners, Heal, please, the wounded.
Grant us wisdom and discernment to know our obligations,
and open our hearts so that we may extend our hands to the devastated.
Bless us so that we may walk in Your ways,
“compassionate ones, children of compassionate ones.”
Grant us the will and the wisdom to prevent further disaster and death;
Prevent plague from descending upon Your earth, and fulfill Your words,
“Never again shall there be another flood to destroy the earth.”
Amen. So may it be your will.

From my outside perspective, it seems Held finds the Conservative movement unable to support a text-based beit midrash culture, but finds much of contemporary Orthodoxy overly dogmatic and belligerent. I asked him a few questions to clarify his position and received the following interview below. I wanted him to speak about his views of Rabbinic authority, but he demurred, wanting to avoid what he considers overheated polemics in which he thinks no one is persuaded by positions they don’t already agree with. Held reflects the part of Jewish community that wants an halakhic alternative to the perceived negative image of Orthodoxy (as he portrayed in his article on Rav Unna,) a community that Held thinks is predominately hermeneutically closed and increasingly oblivious to moral challenges. He did not want to discuss the topics directly, hence the broader discussion below. Questions to Rabbi Held should be kept polite and educated.

1) People are always asking about the denomination affiliation of Hadar, can you help clarify it for us?

To be honest, I find questions about denominational affiliation unhelpful and unnecessarily confining. I am often reminded of something Professor Heschel one said. Asked whether he considered himself Orthodox or Conservative, he replied: “I am not a noun in search of an adjective.” Now, we know there are many people for whom denominations are extremely important and even constitutive of their identity, and we respect that– but that is not who and what we are. We are a community and an institution that is oriented around Torah and Mitzvot and trying to discern what it is that God wants from us, as Jews and as human beings. We are proud to have students who come from a range of backgrounds who have nonetheless found their way to a shared vision and language of a committed, practicing Jewish life in the contemporary world.

I am not interested in being boxed into some small sliver “between Conservative and Orthodox.” I am not sure it’s helpful in this day and age to cut up the Jewish world that way, and I don’t want to live in some small ideological enclave, hermetically sealed from the passions and insights of the rest of the Jewish world. I am not sectarian: I want to speak to, and learn from, a broader swath of the Jewish world.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that among students at Hadar who identify with a denomination, more think of themselves as Orthodox than as anything else.

The mode of learning we are committed to at Hadar means believing both that Torah is Divine and that there is also wisdom and insight to be gained in and from the broader world. It is a mode of learning and of being religious that does not ask us to check either our minds or our moral intuitions at the door, and that learns from people rather than just seeking to convert or be mekarev them. It’s extremely important to us to take hold of Torah in such a way that I am always open to the possibility of learning from the person in front of me, and to revising my understandings in light of that encounter. In our world, there are a whole array of questions– theological, ethical, and Halakhic– that are open-ended, complex, and elusive; we are far more interested in complexity than in wedge issues and litmus tests. God is far greater and more expansive than the self-appointed arbiters of authenticity usually assume.

Also, I’m really not sure I know what the words Orthodox and Conservative mean in this day and age. Does Orthodox refer to Satmar or to Zvi Yehudah? Does it refer to the Bratzlav of Shuvu Banim, the legal formalism of R. Bleich or the dynamic Halakha in the tradition of Rav Uziel and Rav Hayyim David Halevy, the Misnagdic yeshiva world of Rav Eliyashiv or the post-modern neo-Hasidus of Rav Shagar? How much does this catch-all word “Orthodox” really tell us?

2) Explain your vision of Mechon Hadar.
First, we wanted to create an institution of learning that is truly intellectually open, that takes secular culture and Western philosophy and academic Jewish studies seriously, but never forgets that it is, first and last, a religious institution, a Mekom Torah, that teaches the Divine Torah. Second, we wanted to build a community that is unapologetically egalitarian, that is committed to women and men participating equally in both Torah and Tefillah, but without thereby diluting religious passion. Egalitarianism as an authentic and unabashed understanding of what it means to take Tzelem Elohim seriously in the modern world. Third, we wanted to build a place of learning that taught and embodied the notion that the culmination of the religious life is the commitment to hesed– Vehalakhta BiDerakhav as a commitment both to concrete actions (The Gemara in Sotah) and to the cultivation of virtue (Midrash Sifre Devarim). (That’s why every student who is at the yeshiva for longer than a week becomes a volunteer at the local senior citizens’ home– not as an extracurricular activity of some sort, but as one of the culminating features of what it means to learn Torah.)

3. What has your study of Heschel taught you?

I have tremendous reverence for him, and see it as an enormous privilege to have spent years studying one of the true giants of the spirit. I’ll mention just a few ways he’s impacted me here:
1) Heschel’s genius, in my view, is that he sought to couple Halevi’s personalism with Rambam’s universalism– he spoke of a God who cares, who is deeply personal, and/but who loves all of humanity and not just the Jewish people. For Rambam, the central event in Jewish theology is creation; worshipping the God of creation enables Rambam to be a universalist of sorts. R. Yehudah Halevi, in contrast, worships the God of history, Exodus and Sinai. The strength of this approach is that Halevi maintains a God who cares, who is involved in human life, and who can be engaged personally; the strength of Rambam is his universalism. I use the Rambam-Halevi dichotomy not so much as a historical claim, but more as a heuristic one similar to the distinction Rabbi David Hartman has drawn again and again over the years.

2) Another important lesson I learned from Heschel– and it has been extremely important to me from the time I was in yeshiva until the present day– is the impassioned rejection of what he famously termed “pan-Halakhism,” the idea that Judaism simply is Halakha. Heschel never tired of showing that such an approach is both spiritually deadening and false to the sources of Jewish tradition. One who claims to have Halakha but not Aggada in fact has neither. Religious behaviorism (think of Leibowitz, for example) is a falsification of Torah and its preoccupation with the duties of the heart, the cultivation of virtue, and the importance of theology and (traditionally) metaphysics.

3) Heschel’s critique of modernity (and here there are obvious echoes of Heidegger) is essentially that modern people are focused on what he calls “expediency,” or using the world for our own ends. Torah, in contrast, asks us not just to manipulate but also to appreciate; the best antidote to a culture of expediency is a return to wonder. For Heschel, then, Torah’s preoccupation with wonder is not an esthetic concern, but a radically ethical one– unless we can overcome our propensity to turn everything (and everyone) into a tool for our own benefit, we will eventually bring the world to total destruction and devastation. The animating principle of Jewish ethics and spirituality is the quest for self-transcendence– that is, the realization that I am not the center of the universe, and that “something is asked of us.” One of the primary and paradoxical meanings of self-transcendence, by the way, is that we find the meaning of our lives by getting over ourselves; I find my own purpose by dedicating myself to a purpose that is far greater and more enduring than myself.

4. How has the thought of Rav Soloveitchik influenced your thought?

R. Soloveitchik’s preoccupation with human agency and creativity has been enormously influential for me; his utter rejection of quietism and passivity helped me see the Jewish tradition and the life of faith in new and deeper ways. The notion that we are called upon to be authors of our own destiny, and that we have a distinct purpose assigned to us by God. In addition, the notion of being an agent, being active and rejecting passivity, gave me incredibly inspiring theological language in which to understand Zionism, without the messianic overlay that has led to such theological, political, and moral difficulty.

I find R. Soloveitchik’s idea of prayer as self-redemption masterful– first, he shifts the center of gravity away from “what will God do in response to my prayer”” to “what will ideally happen to me in the very act of praying before God?” And second, he introduces the extremely powerful and challenging notion that speech equals dignity– and even more radically, that it equals redemption (ge’ulat hayahid). It’s also an amazing display of hermeneutical virtuosity– weaving an extremely compelling theological idea out of an ostensibly straightforward Halakhic source (the obligation lismokh geulah litefilah).

5. Besides Heschel and Soloveitchik, which Jewish thinkers influenced you?

R. Yitz Greenberg’s insistence that we take the infinite dignity of every human being seriously and that we bring this Torah with us as we stare at a broken and pain-ridden world is something I carry with me every day of my life– it’s part of what I mean when I talk about refusing to purchase our faith by shutting our eyes to the world. Adderabba, what it means to have faith is to live with the chasm between what Judaism teaches– the infinite value of every human being, and reality as we face it– life is cheap and human beings are expendable. Living with that tension is at the very heart of a life of authentic faith.

Martin Buber in many ways anticipates and critiques the narcissism of a great deal of contemporary spirituality. This is part of what he means when he emphasizes “encounter” rather than “experience”– whereas the former is about me and an other, the latter is ultimately only about me and my own inner world. The way I like to describe this is that much of the time in human relationships there is no me and you, there is only “me and the way you make me feel.” In that case, I may flatter myself that I am having deep spiritual experiences, but in fact I am only pleasuring myself (see Buber’s “Religion as Presence” lectures). In some ways, Rav Amital’s critique of some aspects of neo-Hasidism is an obvious parallel.

6. Which Non-Jewish thinkers influenced you?

My decades-long engagement with Christian theology has taught how important it is for theology to talk and be about love. To be clear: it is not because this is a Christian importation into Judaism, but because it lies at the very heart of Torah itself, and yet somehow (American?) Jews have lost the ability to talk about it, and presumably to feel it. The daily liturgy is fundamentally about a claim that God loves us and has therefore given us Torah (Ahavah Rabbah Ahavtanu) and that we are then called upon to reciprocate that love (VeAhavta). I like to think of Torah as about three loves– love of God, love of neighbor, and love of the stranger. We need to become far less abashed about internalizing and teaching this language. After all, Rabbi Akiva tells us straight out that “God loves you” (Haviv Adam Shenivra Betzelem).

One enduring interest is the work of the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, who insists that there is no secular pre-religious reality (no ungraced nature), but that human beings are always already oriented towards the transcendent. There are really interesting parallels in this regard between his thought and Heschel’s.

I have also been deeply influenced by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose clarity about mindfulness and what it entails has been an enormous challenge and comfort to me in my own life, and whose words have also shaped my understanding of what it means to be a teacher and a pastor. His words have also enabled me to see things in Jewish sources, especially but not exclusively Hasidic ones, that I had missed before (the extent of Rebbe Nachman’s emphasis on kindness to oneself, for example).

7. What are your thoughts on Pluralism?
The more I studied Christian theology over the years, the more I took it seriously, the harder I realized pluralistic theology really is. I want to emphasize that I am opposed to cheap and easily purchased versions of pluralism that effectively say that all religions are at bottom the same. There is a sad propensity among many liberal thinkers ironically to flatten and efface difference in the name of celebrating it. I say this not out of disrespect for Christianity, but on the contrary, out of deep respect for it: I want to take theological and metaphysical claims seriously rather than simply eliding them.

To my mind, the deepest problem with the pluralism of thinkers such as John Hick is the presumption that he has a “view from nowhere” (his, you might say, is a “pluralism from nowhere”), that he can stand outside and above all particular religious traditions and point to the universal core they all purportedly share. I share most contemporary philosophers’ suspicion of the plausibility of such a view. More, as a religious person, I’m more interested in what people can find ways to embrace while standing inside of their own religious traditions, rather than presuming to transcend them. I worry about a pluralism that ends up making a claim virtually no actual believer would recognize, let alone embrace.

Dance of Love

I have been super busy preparing for a public lecture to a tough academic crowd. And I am on hiatus from editing until I receive my manuscript back from my editor, so my blogging has been light.It was a nice semi-vacation from my computer.

In the meantime, I got a nice shout-out (and email) from David Wolpe

The Dance Of Love
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
David Wolpe

The Talmud in Ta’anit envisions the “future dance of the righteous.” In Alan Brill’s book “Thinking God,” about Rabbi Zadok of Lublin, he quotes Rabbi Zadok’s beautiful comment on this passage:

“The future dance of the righteous” is because the dancing occurs in a circle in which all are equal. … When everything is complete, then one will not need effort to love in one’s heart the creation because then loving creation will be as natural as loving parts of one’s own body.”

A dance expanding the body beyond itself, so that we are swept up in something larger, is the ideal — to gradually expand the circle of our love so that it embraces all of God’s creation. One day we will cherish everything as we cherish our very selves.

Such universality is not possible for a human being to realize now, in this partial and fragmented world. But Rabbi Zadok reminds us to hold out the image of the dance in which the upright heart will also be an all-encompassing heart. He reminds us that at the core of our tradition there is a deep, wild, wondrous vision of the possibilities of love.

Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow his teachings at