Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Hasidic Tale Revisited

Justin Jaron Lewis. Imagining Holiness: Classic Hasidic Tales in Modern Times. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009. x + 351 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-3519-0.
Gedalyah Nigal. The Hasidic Tale. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008. viii + 383 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-904113-07-2.

Reviewed by Alan Brill (Seton Hall University)
Published on H-Judaic (November, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman

The Hasidic Tale Revisited pdf here

Martin Buber created a genre called the “Hasidic Tale,” which consisted of folktales told of Hasidic rabbis teaching the hallowing of the everyday and living in the ineffable moment. In his important book Imagining Holiness, Justin Jaron Lewis argues against the very existence of such a genre. In the past, critics of Buber took issue mainly with his romantic rereading of the stories. In contrast, Lewis points out that the correct genre was “praises of rabbis and holy men,” a genre of hagiography that incorporated stories and teachings of non-Hasidic rabbinic figures, including Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Rabbi Shlomo Luria, the Vilna Gaon, and other halakhic greats.Lewis shows that these stories do not reflect folk wisdom or the ineffable moment. Rather, they spring from a world that Lewis could refer to as “Hasidic-maskil.” The authors were communal rabbis raised in the Talmudic world of Gur, Belz, and Satmar who practiced scrupulous ritual performance, but who read Haskole, Yiddish, and German literature on the side.

Lewis focuses on two authors whose works served as major sources for Buber. Rabbi Israel Berger, born in 1855, served as rabbi in Bucharest and Rabbi Abraham Hayim Simhah Bunem Michelson, born in 1886, served as rabbi in Plotzk. Both served on rabbinic courts and had to deal with rapid secularization, fractional differences, and relinquishment of observance among youth raised in traditional communities. Rather than focus solely on traditional values, their books both resisted and mediated modernity, positioned Hasidism as authentic even as they integrated modern themes, and were part of a literature for the rabbinic class that incorporated modern literacy trends. Berger even took liberties to occasionally explicitly mention such Enlightened books as Eliezer Zweifel’s Shalom al Yisrael (Peace in Israel [1873]) and Aron Marcus’s German volume Der Chassidismus (Hassidism [1901]). Lewis approvingly cites Karl Erich Grozinger, who argues that the source of the stories is pre-Hasidic folklore; therefore, the stories can still address broader cultural themes

The first part of Lewis’s book, consisting of thirty-five pages of translated, selected, and explained stories and poems, would have better served as an appendix. The second part consists of a discussion of previous scholarly literature on historical, literary, and editorial questions on Hasidic tales asked by Gershon Scholem, Jospeh Dan, Chone Shmurek, David Assaf, Gedalyah Nigal, and others. The basic thesis of the book is that these stories were literary constructs portraying the way the authors imagined holiness. They convey an imaginary sense of unity among the Jewish rabbinic leadership and suggest overcoming ideological difference. The stories clearly had a very different status than holy books. They were the popular literature of a disempowered minority, not true folklore nor scholarship. The same stories could be told, or imagined, about different rebbes because there was a single ideal of the holiness. It is only in later generations of retellings that there is an emphasis on the individuality of each rebbe.

As authors, both began publishing at the start of the twentieth century. And the motivation seems to have been financial. There was a market among the newly literate for popular literature. Lewis compares it to the penny literature or chapbooks in England and India, where the masses consumed poorly edited tales of murder and the supernatural. Here too, the Hasidic tale has blurred lines of vulgar Yiddish literature (shund), romance, and Hasidic teachings. Berger and Michelson solicited their rabbinic acquaintances to mail them stories of great rabbis to be printed. The editors did not concern themselves with prior publication of the stories or modernist elements added to the collected stories. Lewis notes that both authors were still writing from this perspective despite the major ideological changes of their era. They were looking backwards to the older order, the great era of oligarchic, rabbinic families and not to the new answers of Zionists, Bundists, the civil rights party, or communists.

Lewis considers stories that denigrate enlightened Jews or that strain credibility in the use of unbelievable miracles as proof that the stories still addressed a religiously observant audience. In contrast, we should consider how similar miracle tales served Catholics as nostalgia points for modernizing believers eager to affirm that they still believed in miracles despite dropping religious practice or adopting a scientific worldview that precludes miracles. In this case, the miracle tale spoke to the Jews who wanted to show that their secularism was not as a brazen skeptic rather as one who retains yiddishkeit (Jewishness) in their hearts.

This introduction is followed by eight short chapters on themes useful for dispelling the genre of Hasidic stories, overcoming myths of Hasidic culture as equalitarian, this-worldly, or anti-rabbinic. Lewis offers three chapters showing the importance of Torah study, halakhah, and the rabbinic orthodox culture for the stories. He also shows that the stories are vehement in their denouncement of the nonreligious and the nonobservant. He spends four chapters showing that rabbis are not similar to Buber’s portrayal of them as life affirming and living in the present moment. In Hasidic stories, materiality or corporeality (gashmius) “is one of the most negatively laden words” (p. 207). It is “a particular kind of engagement with material existence, aiming for transformation of one’s sensory being, in line with a profoundly vertical, hierarchal cosmology and a judgmental stance toward human activities and emotions” (p. 263).

Hasidic rabbis are portrayed as using food for magical and supernatural purposes. They sought an otherworldly purity and engaged in “bodily action which produce[d] a physical result through mysterious means” (p. 215). Since the Hasidic stories model themselves on Talmudic tales, it was natural for Lewis to make use of Daniel Boyarin’s method for explaining them.

Lewis points out that the stories portray a male-dominated world in which women were of a lower order. In the same vein, the attitude in the stories toward non-Jews was hostile and dismissive. It is important to note also that “the Hasidic imagination accepts some level of cruelty to children” (p. 253). In addition, Lewis shows that Hasidic rebbes acted toward each other with anger, spite, rivalry, and controversy.

One of the more interesting chapters in this section includes stories reflecting on anxiety about circumcision and the views of it as dangerous. They dealt with their doubts and tensions about circumcision, which could scarcely be expressed openly in Hasidic culture through stories. Lewis cites anthropologists who claim stories can express doubts in a community without causing a religious crisis.

Lewis’s book is a valuable study, however, as a revised dissertation there is little follow-up on the many ideas proposed in the book. Lewis works from a folkloric perspective and, unfortunately, does not have the background in the thick forest of Polish Orthodox rabbinic culture to fully and accurately document his ideas. These same authors wrote responsa and sermons, and were engaged in community work at the rabbinic court.

In contrast to Lewis’s work, Nigal’s book The Hasidic Tale has the needed erudition in Eastern European culture and can also provide parallels in earlier Jewish literature. Nigal, emeritus professor at Bar-Ilan University, has already edited several annotated editions of early twentieth-century collections of Hasidic tales. His book was originally published in Hebrew (2005) and expanded into an English edition.

The majority of the work is the index card collection of a senior scholar who has clearly devoted his life to the topic, combing the treasures of the Jewish National and University Library. The minutia in the text even includes discussions of how the copies are bound together in the Jerusalem National library. The introduction on the nature of Hasidic storytelling and chapter 1, which is concerned with the history of the Hasidic story, are the sole theoretical sections of the large book.

In the introduction, Nigal devotes himself to defining the genre of Hasidic tales. He defines the innovation of the Hasidic tale as “the first Jewish literary genre to focus on exemplary individuals and their followers” (p. 1). These stories are about the Hasidic zaddik, who is held in sanctified status by the masses for his ability to help simple folk. For Nigal, the important parts of these stories are the wondrous acts and powers of the rebbe. Simple people come with a problem and it is thus solved by the zaddik. These stories brought hope to the common people who could not see a way out of their predicaments. Tales about Hasidic leaders and their mystical powers attracted followers to the Hasidic court and maintained their devotion. Since the focus is on the rebbe, the stories contain no landscape or nature. They do, however, contain universal human desires and a quest for returning wonder to those skeptical of the rebbes.

In general, Nigal leaves it to the early twentieth-century editors of the volumes to provide their own internal definitions. The editors thought these volumes of stories contained profound ideas, caused repentance, strengthened the service of God, and fortified belief in miracles. Nigal cites those editors who rejected any connection of these stories to the haskole (Enlightenment) or Yiddish literature, and those who even rejected seeing an analogous collection process. Yet he also cites Abraham Hazan, the collector of Breslov traditions, who stated about the other early twentieth-century collections that “most of the stories were told while drinking wine with the teller standing between the third and fourth cup–nine parts are false” (p. 69). Nigal simply cites the criticism and does not investigate or weigh claims about stories because “it is difficult to identify innovations” (p. 75). Nigal seems to favor the explanation given by the twentieth-century editor, Menachem Mendel Bodek, that these stories offer a remedy for sadness, giving hope and solace to those suffering economic or social calamity.

The first chapter is on the history of the Hasidic tale. Rather than viewing the stories as an urban literary invention, Nigal sees an ideology already implicit in early Hasidism of the holiness of mundane talk, preachers using parables, and the influence of the stories of the Besht and Rav Nahman. Nigal also emphasizes the stories told in the courts of Rizhin, and Komarno, as well as the reliability of the modern genre created by Michael Levi Rodkinsohn (Frumkin). Nigal casts his net wider among twentieth-century collectors than Lewis by including among others Menachem Mendel Sofer, Berger, Michelson, Abraham Isaac Sobelman, Shlomo Gavriel Rosenberg, and Aaron Walden. Nigal leaves out biographies of the editors and bibliography of tales from Chabad and Breslov even though he freely cites them in the notes.

Nigal repeatedly writes that he takes these stories as true, especially if the editors stated that they personally heard it. Nigal takes these professions of veracity at face value, then proceeds to provide copious references showing the parallels and almost word-for-word similarities in Midrashic texts, Sefer Hasidim (The Book of the Pious), Maaseh Books (Judeo-German books of tales), Christian folktales, tales of Isaac Luria, or Yiddish literature. He acknowledges direct and indirect influence of narrative material from Jewish and non-Jewish sources, but he does not think that this deflects from their veracity. Nigal ignores his own footnotes on the percentage of stories told about non-Hasidic rabbis in these collections.

The majority of the book consists of thematic studies reflecting the social reality. Chapter 2 is on the prophetic powers of the zaddik. Chapter 3 is on matchmakers, marriage, and collecting for bridal dowries. Chapter 4 is on the blessing of having children including the difficulties of labor, and chapter 5 is on agunot, women chained by the abandonment of their husbands. The other fifteen chapters are on topics as diverse as the life of sin, illness, the dead and transmigrations, apostasy, converts, ritual slaughterers, hidden zaddikim, and Elijah. Since Nigal likes these stories and trusts these stories, he relies on the later retellings and topical arrangements of S. Y. Zevin and S. A. Horodetsky without seeing any methodological problems.

On a negative note about the usually fine job done by Littman Library, Nigal’s volume is an exception. In a word-processing age, there was no excuse for having over twenty pages of additions to the original footnotes of the Hebrew edition as an appendix. They should have been cut and pasted into the correct location.

Both volumes are valuable contributions needed to make an assessment of Hasidic stories. Lewis considers the stories as literary creations and Nigal considers them authentic. Nigal accepts Buber’s category of the Hasidic story but leaves us with a more pious version, whereas Lewis completely shatters the category. Lewis directly takes issue with Nigal who rarefies out the stories from these books and does not mention that these collections also contained magic spells, personal letters, sermonic material, halakhah, and events in the community.

Jack Zipes, an important scholar of folklore cited by neither author, thought that tales reflect the conditions, ideas, tastes, and values of the societies in which they were created. They show the ideals and utopias to which they aspired and they “reveal the gaps between truth and falsehood in our immediate society.”[1] The stories of the holy ones, the Hasidic tales, are still an untapped gold mine for those seeking to understand Eastern European Jewish society and more so for their imagined utopias. To truly evaluate Hasidic stories, more books will need to be written on the subject.


[1]. Jack Zipes, “The Changing Function of the Fairy Tale,” The Lion and the Unicorn 12, no. 2 (December 1988): 29.

Boredom, the 1970’s, and Religious Culture

Last spring a book came out about the history of boredom entitled BOREDOM: A Lively History by Peter Toohey. The reviews in the NYT and elsewhere mainly dealt with the coming to be of the word and its usages in earlier centuries as a form of melancholia, as ennui, or as repetition. But this week the NYT reported on an academic paper at a local conference on the topic of intellectual history that showed how the usage of the word spiked in the 1970’s and that the meaning meant something not interesting enough for one to do. Until the 1970’s no one said “how do we prevent our employees from getting bored?’ How do we prevent school kids from getting bored?” When you were in a situation of duty or requirement then one did what one was supposed to do.
The purpose of the NYT article and the academic lists on which I saw it was to cheer the return to intellectual history of contextualizing popular and influential books. The return to intellectual history was why it caught my eye but the discussion of boredom is more significant. My historian sources are also pointing out that historians are beginning to turn to the 1970’s and its culture.

I did my own google books search (as well as Ngram) and found that in its pedestrian usages it meant impatience, like boredom due to a delayed train. When it is used in Horton Hears a Who in mid-century, it means impatience with the speck. In philosophic literature it meant ennui. Our usage of it is a post-1950’s usage when authors like Erich Fromm brought European thought of ennui to mass America situational repetition. The word boredom was also used by sociologists of suburbia like Herbert Ganz. In the 1970’s it spikes in its usage. We start finding statements advocating not to be bored at work or not to be bored in ones marriage. And if you are, then leave them. The term boredom was part of a wave of bad popular-psych of the era that encouraged people never to be bored. If things are not going your way then life is too short to stay there. Work-psychologists, marriage therapists, and toy makers all started solving the problem of boredom. Boredom was seen as leading to drugs, cults, and divorce. By 2011, every preschooler knows how to whine “I’m bored.” In order to overcome boredom prior ages spoke of hard work, character, or the sin of acadia.

Now what about religion? Starting in the late 1970’s we find sermons on the problem of people bored in shul and in the 1980’s we find books. Before that we have discussions on the meaning of synagogue for modern man or how the yetzar hara makes you want to leave shul. Boredom is not an valid excuse or concern. The connection the word synagogue and boredom before 1980 included Jacob Neusner, Dennis Prager, reports of the AJC and Bnai Brith and Jospeh Heller of Catch-22 fame and the cult leader Osho. (Modechai Kaplan uses the word in the context of new music so it wont have sameness not it the context of participants). People did not think that you walked away from boredom, rather only from irrelevance.

By the early 1980’s we find a second tier discovering boredom in the synagogue, Sam Heilman, Reuven Bulka, and the Jewish magazines. I found one Orthodox rabbi in a suburban congregation adamant in claiming that the youth in his synagogue and day school are not bored. I attended the school for a year so I consider this an amusing find. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, we have an entire literature of outreach and kiruv works showing their zeitgeist by addressing synagogue boredom through explaining the service or giving tips on greater involvement.

The mussar approach to overcome such feeling which they considered laziness was habituation and motivating one’s inner emotions either through sermon and song or hell-fire images. Ramchal starts with the need for alacrity and scrupulousness. Rav Soloveitchik uses the word in the Existential sense of ennui and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his last book of 1966 speaks only of the boredom of old-age and the need for a higher purpose not senior-center activities. Lots of Polish Hasidism is translated as if the original spoke of boredom and not achieving greatness.

A quick search shows that only since about 2003 have books about congregational life written by upbeat clergy and not sociologists have considered the need to have a section on boredom. We now have religious pop-psych books by congregation professionals explaining this “perennial problem of the laity with boredom,” unaware of recent boredom is as a concern. These upbeat versions take boredom as a natural part of life, not something only with us for a few decades and with changing meaning. It is not worth it to discuss how these post-2003 versions (mis)use their sources. In the post-2003 versions we are no longer worried about defection or encouraging one to leave.

For an interesting example of how the concept changes, in the recent work The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World by Elana Maryles Sztokman, she discusses how men are bored in synagogue, they are not really into prayer and they have spiritually bored lives seek refuge in cerebral pursuits of the the sermon, Torah study, and reading. This is part of the recent post-2003 trend to accept boredom as a issue to deal with on a regular basis. Men learning in shul is not explained as a habituation toward study or a lack of habituation in prayer. Nor is their a call for revival, either kiruv or renewal movement, as in the 1980’s. And unlike the 1980’s, the rabbi no longer get blamed for irrelevance.

There are probably lots of other applications to the religious literature of our age. Any other good examples or avenues of the effect of the concept of boredom on the religion of our age? How else has Judaism been constructed around boredom in the last 30 years that was not there beforehand?

American Buddhism facing generational shift

There is a really nice article about the generational shift in American Buddhism. The younger generation is more DIY and catering to people’s needs. They also dont see a need to live a sever life in a monastery as part of their training. The gen-x backlashed against the baby-boomer’s spirituality. The older generation were an elite that sought Enlightenment, the younger generation create a wellness and solution for stress.The article is longer and has a nice video by three elders reluctantly acknowledging the change.

American Buddhism facing generational shift
By Rachel Zell, Associated Press, July 17, 2011

The meditation hall, also used as a meeting space, is where the luminaries of Buddhism in the West recently gathered to debate.
The issue they were facing had been percolating for years on blogs, in Buddhist magazines and on the sidelines of spiritual retreats. It often played out as a clash of elders versus young people, the preservers of spiritual depth versus the alleged purveyors of “Buddhism-lite.” Organizers of the gathering wanted the finger-pointing to end. The future of American Buddhism was at stake, they said.
So on a sweltering day at the Garrison Institute, a Buddhist retreat overlooking the Hudson River, the baby boomers who had popularized the tradition in the West met with younger leaders to tackle their differences.

“How can those of us who were pioneers in the ’60s and ’70s, support them without getting in their way and let them know that they have our blessings and support?” said Jack Kornfield, a prominent Buddhist teacher who helped introduce mindfulness, or insight, meditation to the U.S. four decades ago.

Buddhism in America is at a crossroads. The best-known Buddhist leaders, mostly white converts who emerged from the counterculture and protest movements of the Vietnam era, are nearing retirement or dying. Charlotte Joko Beck, a pioneer of Zen practice in America, passed away in June.

The next generation of teachers is pushing in new directions, shaped by the do-it-yourself ethos of the Internet age and a desire to make Buddhism more accessible. Informal study groups are in; organizing around a single teacher is out. Unsettled elders worry that the changes could go too far and lose touch with tradition.

“It seems to be one of the facts of life right now, not only in Buddhism, but in religion in general: it’s about mixing and matching,” said Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a longtime Zen priest, scholar and poet affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center. “The freedom people feel that they have to experiment — how do you prevent that from becoming consumerist or completely superficial or dangerous?”
In Asia, monastics generally lead Buddhism in roles shaped partly by their monarchical societies; in the U.S., the teachers are mostly lay people. Beyond the Dalai Lama, Buddhism is best known in the United States not for any particular clergyman, ritual or liturgy, but through mindfulness-based stress reduction, which adapts strategies from vipassana, or insight medi tation.

Yet, a vein of conservatism runs through American Buddhist communities.

Many American Buddhist pioneers spent a decade or more studying with masters in Thailand, India, Burma and Nepal before returning home to take on students. On their websites, U.S. teachers post photos of themselves as young women in saris, or young men draped in robes, their heads cleanly shaven, on the steps of overseas monasteries. They are handing over leadership to the first convert Buddhist generation that was trained almost entirely in the West.

“The prior generation was modeled after the monastic model, where the old guy was the abbot,” said the Rev. Jay Rinsen Weik, a recently ordained Zen priest, who leads the Toledo Zen Center in Ohio with his wife, Karen, who is also a Zen priest. “The last generation suffered from not being able to distinguish the personality of the guy and his dharma (teachings).”

For younger Americans, spending several years cloistered abroad, absorbing the cultural traditions of another country, seems not only unnecessary but counterproductive for reaching Westerners. Spring Washam, 37, a founding teacher of the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, which has brought Buddhism to poorer, more diverse neighborhoods, said the attendees at her center want support, connection and friendship.

“These people want to be happy in their lives,” Washam said. “They’re not going to be monastics.”

One of the most startling developments for elders has been the formation of the Dharma Punx, who participated in the conference. The relatively new, popular movement mixes punk rock-inspired rebellion and Buddhism, seeing both as seeking freedom from suffering. Amid the grey hair and muted clothes of the attendees, the Dharma Punx stood out, with their tattoo-covered arms and T-shirts the color of traffic cones. The movement emerged from the work of Noah Levine, the son of American Buddhist author Stephen Levine. The younger Levine rediscovered Buddhism after a troubled youth; he and his colleagues have built a reputation for successfully bringing Buddhist practices into juvenile detention centers — a sign of the social activism that young Buddhists tie to their meditation practice.

“I’m all about adaptability,” said Vinny Ferraro, a Dharma Punx teacher, who said it would make no sense for him to “go off to a cave” and meditate for years.

“What attracts people is relevance,” he said. “Youth is suffering. These are prime suffering years, but I need it in my language.”
Whatever the elders think of these new approaches, they know they need the energy young innovators are bringing to the communities.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, few twenty- and thirty somethings took up Buddhism. Leaders attributed the problem to a 1980s’ backlash against spiritual seeking and society’s focus in that era on accumulating wealth. (One Western convert at the Garrison Institute, who became a Tibetan monk, said that when he wore his robes in North America in the 1980s, he was treated like “a nut case.”)

Lobbying and Religion in America

For some religion is a private affair or one done in devotion to textual study, but increasingly religious identity is connected to lobbying in Washington. I have mentioned many times that in a single row in synagogue – one can find one person interested in halkhic minutia in their life, another into Rav Nachman and a third interested in Lobbying in Washington.The three congregants have three different moral orders to their religion. This article is an indication that many of the significant clergy in our decade are into lobbying and politicking. I see many Roshei Yeshiva comfortable in this role as well as many pulpit rabbis – their commitment shares much with Archbishop Dolan’s political lobbying.

Religion-related lobby groups thrive in Washington, grew 5 times in 40 years
The number of religion-related lobbying groups in Washington has grown five-fold in the past 40 years, with their spending reaching almost $400 million annually, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life latest study showed. It identified 212 groups, up from 158 a decade ago and 40 in 1970.
Their collective budgets for lobbing efforts in Washington were estimated at $390 million a year. For 131 of the groups for which data could be obtained, median spending was $890,000 in 2009, down from $970,000 the year before.
Forty groups accounted for the bulk of the spending, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which spent nearly $88 million in 2008, the last year for which data was provided.
Also in 2008, the Family Research Council spent $14 million and the American Jewish Committee $13 million.
In 2009, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spent $27 million, Concerned Women for America $13 million, Bread for the World $11 million, the National Right to Life Committee $11 million and the Home School Legal Defense Association $11 million.
Issues the various groups lobbied on included support of Israel, church-state issues, and religious rights.
The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life said in the report on Monday that other topics were bioethics, abortion, capital punishment, and end-of-life and family-marriage issues. Many of the groups also addressed international issues such as poverty.

Keeping Faith: Martha Himmelfarb & The Rhodes Scholar

The Princetonian had two interesting articles this week. One an interview with Prof. Martha Himmelfarb and tha nnouncement of the Rhodes scholarchip to Miriam Rosenbaum

The following is the third installment of “Keeping Faith,” a six-part series of conversations between politics professor Robert George and University professors of various faiths.

Published: Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Martha Himmelfarb is a religion professor and practicing Jew. Her work focuses on religion in late antiquity, in particular the Jewish and Christian traditions.

RG: The Holocaust certainly caused some Christians as well as some Jews to lose faith in God. People asked, “How could a loving God permit such a thing to occur?” For others, it deepened their faith, especially the witness of those who risked their own lives to help. What’s your sense of what it means to Jews today?

MH: That’s a really interesting question. Let me just give you an example of something that I think has changed. The High Holiday Prayer Book that we’ve used on campus at the Conservative services for many years includes a section on the Day of Atonement, the martyrology section, that traditionally involved reading an account of the Roman Rabbi Akiva and the other Jewish martyrs killed by the Romans under Hadrian.

RG: Yes, I know it well from attending the services.

MH: So you could imagine that that wasn’t necessarily the most meaningful thing to 20th-century Jews.

RG: Because it’s so distant?

MH: Yes, in part. I think after the Holocaust, people felt, we’ve really experienced something so recently that shouldn’t we somehow incorporate it into the synagogue service? And the attempts to do that, while completely understandable, were often so heavy-handed. To me, Judaism is a living tradition that has beautiful things to offer, and we shouldn’t be invoking persecution and death to explain why it’s meaningful. Having said that, I also have to say, it’s this great, irreducible tragedy that, as you say, raises the most profound questions. I was talking a couple of minutes ago about the emergence of the state of Israel so soon after the Holocaust. And this has been interpreted as kind of a narrative of death and resurrection. There is certainly something to that. On the other hand, I must also say that it’s dangerous to view any kind of political state in messianic terms. Part of the problem with viewing the state of Israel as the first flowering of redemption is that it suggests also that the Holocaust was somehow part of the plan of redemption.

RG: In your own Jewish life, how do you understand and experience the idea of the Jews as God’s chosen people? Some people see this as chauvinistic, but it certainly isn’t meant to be.

MH: According to the prophets, being chosen means being held to a higher standard. Ideally, you set some kind of example. So the prophets give you resources for thinking about it in a way that emphasizes responsibility rather than privilege. I certainly feel privileged, lucky and sometimes I would say blessed to have been born into a tradition that I think is so rich and nourishing. I suspect, had I been born into some other tradition, I would have found resources in that one that were very beautiful also. I guess, let me just say, the flip side of Jewish particularism is that it actually makes a lot of room for everybody else, which is to say God picked Jews to be this way, but it doesn’t mean that other people shouldn’t be the way that they are. So I guess that’s one view.

RG: But Judaism is not a relativistic religion either, is it? There is, for example, the prayer that looks forward to the day when all nations will recognize the God of Israel and worship Him alone.

MH: Actually, that’s the concluding prayer of every service daily. Yes, the teaching is that on that day he will be one and his name will be one. So he will be the God of everybody on that day. It is an eschatological teaching.

RG: And somehow the chosenness of the Jewish people as it’s presented, at least in the prayer book, seems to have something to do with that day’s coming, that the Jewish example — being “a light unto the Gentiles,” as Isaiah says — is crucial to the rest of the world.

MH: I think that’s right. And perhaps it’s a bit imperialistic that, in the end, everybody will sort of get it and join up. But it’s a very strong strand in the Bible’s thought.

RG: Martha, could we shift to the question of messianism, the Jewish messianic hope? What does it mean to look forward to the coming of the Messiah?

MH: I have to say, I find that a very hard one. I suppose that’s because I’m a bit of a pessimist. I feel it as a very distant hope.

RG: Something too good to be true?

MH: Well, I guess we could ask: Which is more contrary to reason, that God will bring his Messiah at the end of days or that human beings will get there by themselves? It’s probably less contrary to reason than to say that God will bring a Messiah at the end of days. But that horizon, I must say, I find a difficult one. I guess the thing that I find myself worrying about is, will there be Jews 200, 300 years from now? And where is Judaism going? And this is maybe a particularly worrying topic for an American Jew like me, who doesn’t belong in the orthodox world but still embraces religious observance.

RG: Well, that takes us to the question of assimilation.

MH: Absolutely. My grandmother, who never belonged to a synagogue, once said all her friends were Jewish because those were just the people they knew. So here was a woman, the beginning part of the 20th century, who was kind of purposely secular. But everybody she knew was Jewish. Today, some very observant Jewish students at Princeton have a wide range of non-Jewish friends. It took a generation or two for Jews to become fully mainstream in America, but it is the beauty of America that it’s never had anything like the anti-Semitism there was in Europe. Has there been prejudice? Sure, but not on the same scale.

RG: As you know, I was a great admirer of your father, [Jewish sociographer] Milton Himmelfarb, who influenced my own thought, especially on issues of religion and society. He severely criticized the once-prevalent notion that the secularization of the larger society would be in the best interests of the Jews. He thought that, in America, Jews would do better when religion generally flourished.

MH: Yes, he did have a kind of optimism, which I keep reminding myself about, a love for America and really an optimism about the Jewish future in America, even with all the difficulties.

RG: He was also concerned that secularization would have the effect of secularizing Jews, not just everybody else. Now there does seem to be some of that happening. But there also seems to be a revival of interest in Judaism as a religion that offers a relationship with God. You see it here at Princeton and among Jewish young people generally.

MH: It’s part of a larger phenomenon. People thought there was no way to reverse secularization. It turned out they were profoundly wrong. The Jewish case is distinctive, but I think it does certainly need to be understood as part of that larger picture that includes Christians and Muslims and perhaps others as well.

RG: Final question, Martha. You, as a professional scholar, study Judaism. And it’s also your personal religious faith and practice. Does that ever create a tension?

MH: Well, when you study ancient Judaism, a lot of the other people studying it are Jews, and probably the rest of them are Christians, more or less. So everybody, if you want, is bringing some kind of personal baggage. I do hope that I’m able to engage in scholarly work in as objective a way as possible. Studying the Jews is just very fascinating and fulfilling to me. I hope that, nonetheless, I’m able to do it in a way that doesn’t reflect a particular agenda. Read the Rest Here.

The other story in the same issue was a presentation of this year’s award winners include Rosenbaum who comes from an Orthodox family.

Rosenbaum is a student in the Wilson School interested in health equity and healthcare policy. Coming from the Bronx, N.Y., Rosenbaum grew up in an orthodox Jewish community. Her religious background has informed her scholarly and extracurricular pursuits, which revolve around topics of ethics.

On campus, she is president of SHARE and was a co-chair of the Religious Life Council, Princeton’s interfaith dialogue group. After she graduates, she plans to study bioethics for two years at Oxford, then return to the University to pursue a master’s degree in public affairs.

Rosenbaum said that she hopes she will be able to use the ethics training and economic public affairs training she will receive at Oxford to “be an advocate for populations that are generally marginalized.”

Some of the questions she wants to explore include “what you fund, and what do you not fund, specifically what happens with marginalized populations that often are the most expensive — the elderly and the disabled,” she explained.

Wilson School visiting professor Hugh Price, who worked with Rosenbaum in his task force last year, praised Rosenbaum’s passion for learning and her devotion to topics that interest her.

“I think what’s really striking is her search for knowledge and how she goes above and beyond the call of duty to understand and research issues, read materials that aren’t required for the course, and attend symposia that are not part of the curriculum of the course,” he said in an email. “She even reads the New England Journal of Medicine in her spare time, which is quite remarkable.” Read the Rest Here

Moshe Idel on Ars Combinatoria

Moshe Idel gave a interesting series of lectures last winter on the power of language, specifically arts combinatoria, a ability to create a universal knowledge from language. The audio was recently posted. The second lecture on Derrida, Eco, and Culiano give insight into Idel himself. Idel’s use of a single line of Derrida to show affinity to his own project is an old theme for him. But new is Idel’s highlighting that Culiano at the end of his life turned from the study of phenomena to theory, with an implication that this lecture of his was his own turn to theory. These “theory lectures” seem to have already been implicit in his recent work on Kabbalah in Italy.

But were these three thinkers his inspiration right from the start in the 1980’s? It seems they were, but not explicitly. Does anyone remember any relevant passages? If Idel now lists himself and Kabbalah as the study of (the power of) language and magic- Is this a change or implicit already in his PhD? His work from a few years ago Absorbing Perfections still used the words mysticism and esotericism. Can we reread the entire Idel project as disconnected from mysticism and see that it was originally language and magic (as well as esotericism and ecstatic techniques)?

Idel’s first self-written book was the published version of his dissertation on Abulafia where he wrote as an opening paragraph:

The method for attaining wisdom proposed by Abulafia as an alternative to philosophical speculation is essentially a linguistic one.Language is conceived by him as a universe in itself, which yields aricher and superior domain for contemplation than does the natural world

He was telling us right from the start that he is concerned with language as a means to wisdom. Can his project be re-read as knowledge through language? As a side point, am I the only one bothered that Idel ignores how Leibnitz criticized the medieval attempts as arbitrary and not scientific, while Idel glides from the modern to the medieval without a break?

In the same recent lecture Idel claimed that history and causality is over-rated; there are other sources of knowledge. He dismisses Thomas Kuhn & Feyerabend for not recognizing the role of Ars Combinatoria, the recombination of letters as a valid source of knowledge. Eco and Derrida through their interest in ars combinatoria have transcended the Enlightenment interest in science and “clear and distinct ideas.” Idel applauds this. Unlike the limited knowledge offered by theosophic kabbalah such as the Zohar or Ari, or the limited knowledge offered through science, the knowledge of the magical recombination of letters contains all the knowledge of the universe.This would explain why he has never attempted any historical narrative or intellectual history. But it also seems to assume that Idel thinks contemporary readers will resonate with Abulafia, or at least Idel’s books, since Eco is on the best-seller list. And if Eco if read itis because people are beyond history and science.

Lecture 1:
“Sefer Yetzirah and its Commentaries: A major source for ars combinatoria”
Tuesday 8 February 2011, 5 pm, at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford.

Lecture 2:
“Ars Combinatoria in Modern Times: Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, and Ioan P. Culianu”
Wednesday 9 February 2011, 8pm, at the David Patterson Seminar at Yarnton Manor.

Lecture 3:
“The Transition of Ars Combinatoria from Kabbalah to European Culture:
Ramon Llull, Pseudo-Llull, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola”
Thursday 10 February 2011, 5 pm, at Merton College.

Museum Exhibit on Mysticism

In the Rietbeg Museum in Zurich they are having an exhibit on mysticism, including Jewish mysticism. The website has lots of uploaded pictures and video, however only some of them have English subtitles.

23 SEPTEMBER 2011 TO 15 JANUARY 2012
The Museum Rietberg is proud to present the world’s first culturally comparative exhibition on mysticism.

This elusive religious phenomenon will be illustrated by the example of forty male and female mystics: their lives and writings demonstrate just how richly varied spiritual experience can be. The mystics chosen for the exhibition come from the great religions of the world – Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity – and span the period from the 6th century BC until the 19th century.

Here are two of the Jewish exhibits, the one for the Besht has the same display as the Ramak.


Some of the other one’s that are interesting is the little film for Dionysios THE AREOPAGITE and the recording of Rumi in Persian.

H/T AviSolo