Monthly Archives: December 2011

Daniel Boyarin and Orthodoxy: An Interview

Here is a little Chanukah fun- a freylekhn Khannike.

Daniel Boyarin is currently one of the most renowned academic Talmudists and sits in the Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture, Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley.

Boyarin’s Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, (1990) opens with a contextualization as an Orthodox Jew and his Sparks of the Logos: Essays in Midrashic Hermeneutics, (2003) has on the back cover a claim of correcting modern Orthodox culture. I had not been able to figure out what he meant since then. I did not want to be in suspense any longer, so, I decided to ask him a few questions.

Boyarin’s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) has changed the discourse in the scholarship of the first centuries of Jewish Christian divide and his forthcoming The Jewish Gospels (2012) will create waves of discussion. These works are part of a vast discussion in America, Europe, and Israel. I find myself discussion this aspect of his work wherever I go. The scholarship informs religious discourse.

Boyarin’s work in Border Lines has served the role of shaking up habitual ways of working and thinking in the Jewish-Christian default line. But his views on Orthodoxy and especially the role of gender and politics do not have the same effect. The end of his answer in question 2 reflects my hesitations about his influence from the periphery of Berkeley on the dominant Orthodox hegemonic discourse of NY and Jerusalem.

1) You wrote in Intertextuality “I believe in and am comfortable … with the discourse of Orthodox Judaism” Can you explain some of your belief? Is Orthodoxy just a discourse without rabbinic power?

For me, discourse means precisely speech with power, so the discourse of Orthodox Judaism means precisely rabbinic power. In matters of halakha, whenever a question arises, I consult our mara deatra.. I have never been attracted to notions of deliberate halakhic change but have always thought that the slow evolutionary processes by which certain social changes take place within the structure of halakha has maintained a richness, groundedness, and sense of deep connection between what we do and what we have been commanded to do. In this sense, I am most comfortable, as I have said, with the discourse of orthodoxy.

But, for us, discourse also means speech per se, language, the text and thus Talmud Torah I’m not sure I would have survived in a culture/religion for which study was not central. For me, study is the most significant aspect of my liturgical life, as well. Perhaps the most important thing I would want to say about myself in this context to express again my deep love for the Talmud (all of classical rabbinic literature, to be sure, but especially the Bavli). One of the things that moves me most about study of the past is speaking with the dead, as Stephen Greenblatt once put it. The Talmud affords such a rich opportunity to speak with the dead owing precisely to its jumble of halakha, aggada, and even more than that that it’s like stepping into an ancient bazaar and being present with the folks living then, but these are our folks, our fathers and mothers, with whom we are speaking.

2) In Sparks of the Logos you seek “a rabbinic Judaism that would not manifest some of the deleterious social ideologies and practices that modern Orthodox Judaism generally does” What are those ideologies and practices?

I’m trying (or rather I was; I’ve given up a bit) to imagine an orthodoxy that would be free of the ethnocentrism and even racism that characterizes so much of contemporary orthodox language and political practice and one that would be as radically committed to economic justice for all as the Rabbis themselves. I don’t want to get into a political discussion here but, for me, as hinted below, Zionism does not seem like a traditional or historically orthodox solution to the problems of the Jews (although I will grant that it may have been necessary in some sense as well). The vulgarization and chauvinism that are so characteristic of so much of orthodox speech and practice today are hardly “Torah true” לפי עניות דעתי, and I think most orthodox leaders before the war saw it that way too.

I don’t want to be critical of others so much as to represent what I would have hoped for in my life (much more than I achieved), namely to demonstrate a practice of Torah and of Mitsvos that would authentically enable my own radical political commitments to social, economic, and ethnic solidarity and equality without making me marginalize myself within the orthodox community to which I felt so committed at the time. I feel that I have failed in several ways to live out this, perhaps naïve, original commitment, that I am neither as radical, nor as orthodox, in the end, as I had hoped to be. On the other hand, I am less certain than you are that Carnal Israel, at least, has had as little effect on understandings of gender within the traditional Orthodox community as you think and, perhaps, Unheroic Conduct, as well.

3) In several places you have offered a radical orthodoxy by going back the roots. Could there be a yeshiva or seminary of your radical orthodoxy?

A yeshiva or rabbinical seminary would look just like any other one but, on my lights, we would be looking to redirect some of the conversations that take place between us and our Torah about justice, not picking and choosing (otherwise it wouldn’t be orthodox in any sense) but emphasizing perhaps elements that are less emphasized today and soft-pedaling others; this would be more in line, I feel, with the ethical practices of Hazal themselves. While I find that Hazal not infrequently reflect, naturally, their own times and political conditions, there is always a striving for the highest of ethical standards, not only the bounds of the halakha, to fairness to other people, that sometimes seems to get lost among some modern orthodox interpreters of Yiddishkayt. To me, the radicality, the rootedness would be in the constant attention to the question: What does G-d want from me, from us, right now?

4) You offer Bertha Pappenheim the committed Orthodox feminist as a model for an alternative Orthodoxy, but her writings and actions produced a vehement reaction from Orthodoxy. Isn’t she by definition the opposite side of the border since the rabbis rejected her? (Most historians treat her as Anna O. who became an outspoken feminist but treat her Orthodoxy as beside the point or despite her work.)

Rabbi Shlomo Nobel and the Alexanderer Rebbe both supported her enthusiastically. I rest my case. I have written explicitly on the ways that I find that her orthodoxy was neither beside the point or despite her work. Some rabbis of the time, most of them were (with good reason) terrified at the negative attention that her work might bring to “The Jews,” through her exposure of the practices of some Jews who were capturing Jewish girls for foreign brothels. These two great rabbis from very different walks of life understood that the elimination of this horrific practice and other gross injustices perpetrated in Jewish life of the time against girls and women was obligatory and could not wait for “permission” from the anti-Semites, ימח שמם.

Pappenheim’s “orthodoxy” was, in large part, defined—and this is against the views of most other scholars who were hostile to it—by her understanding that these practices were absolutely against the Torah and not in cahoots with it חס ושלום. This insight on her part and the fact that it was supported by such eminences—and, of course, I am closer to Rabbi Nobel זצ”ל in my own style of life than to the Rebbe זצ”ל—provided me with a model of a commitment to radical social change while hewing closely, as close as my own יצר would let me, to learning and practicing the Torah. It gets harder and harder over the decades.

5) Do you have any favorite Orthodox thinker of the last 150 years?

The Satmerer Rebbe, זצ”ל. I am deeply resonant with the view of the Satmar Rav that the oath “not to arise as a wall” לא לעלות בחומה meant that Jews were not to seek temporal sovereignty until the Messiah comes.

6) You tell the story that in 1985 when you taught a summer course at YU’s BRGS you opened the first class announcing that “here you can mention that Torah is from Sinai.” What did this mean?

Without going into theology, I meant that we read the text both as a unity (which does not mean that it does not incorporate much tension) and also as written not only for its time but for all time in some profound and challenging sense. Some of the other teachers were so invested in being critical and scholarly that they were somehow (from my humble perspective) missing the point somewhat which is to learn Torah in a scholarly way and not to dismantle it for historicistic purposes. My teacher, Prof. Lieberman ז”ל said once that study in the university and study in the Yeshiva were the same thing.

7) Do you incorporate any Christian practice into your Judaism?

I don’t incorporate any Christian practice into my Judaism although I do study early Christian texts with a great deal of enthusiasm and pleasure at one direction that some Jews went in. And I don’t think the Gospels in themselves represent any departure from traditional Judaism, at any rate, no more than that of some Lubavitcher Hasidim. They represent one more historical grasp by some Jews at a Messiah. According to my interpretation of the Gospels, Jesus is never portrayed as abrogating the Torah, kashrut or the Sabbath at all.

Data points for Dec 2011

Here is some date from two just released demographics. The first is an Avi Chai report by Marvin Schick who shows that there has only been a modest downturn in day school enrollment despite the economic downturn. One less Centrist school and very small increase – less than population growth. A very small downturn in Modem Orthodox  schools. And the biggest change in Solomon Schecters.

Dr. Marvin Schick has collected and provided enrollment data for schools outside the yeshiva world and Chassidic sectors.

Group # Schools2010 # Schools2011 Enrollment2010 Enrollment2011 %Change
Centrist Orthodox 66 65 18454 18776 1.70%
Community 95 91 19918 19417 -2.50%
Modern Orthodox 83 83 30252 29766 -1.60%
Reform 15 15 4266 4222 -1.00%
Solomon Schechter 44 43 11786 11338 -3.80%
TOTAL 303 297 84676 83519 -1.40%

The second new data points come from The North American Jewish Data Bank has released their latest estimates of the U.S. Jewish population (6,588,000). The full report is here. One item that struck my eye is actual data on the economic downturn as it applies to Baltimore Jews. It does not sound good. A smaller note of the survey is that they found the least antisemitism in Palm Beach and Middlesex county, NJ.

Of respondents in Baltimore, 10% reported that, economically, they are well off; 10% have extra money; 47% are comfortable; 30% are just managing to make ends meet; and 3% cannot make ends meet. The 67% who are well off, have extra money, or are comfortable compares to 80% three  years ago. 12% of households earn an annual household income
below 200% of the Federal poverty levels, and 43% of respondents reported a negative
impact of the recent economic downturn

“Religion without God” – Dworkin’s Einstein Lectures

Professor Ronald Dworkin, the leading legal theoritician of our time, (New York University) gave three lectures last week, first at NYU and then at the University of Bern, Switzerland on his new book on religion. His thesis is that without God, we still “have an innate, inescapable responsibility to make something valuable of their lives and that the natural universe is gloriously, mysteriously wonderful.” Einstein himself still used the word God as a Spinoza-based metaphor similar to his contemporaries. The first lecture seems a return to early twentieth thought of John Dewey and William Ernest Hocking but with out the need for the word God anymore.  Dewey (1859–1952),took a functional approach to religion in that it provided a humanistic social collective. God is the “unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and to action.”  Hocking (1873–1966)  in his The Meaning of God in Human Experience (1912),  stressed the idea of religion as a quest for righteousness by cosmic demand, and as the finding of meaning in human experience.  His third lecture is the innovation in the application of this universal morality to global issues and international court cases.

1. Einstein’s Worship
2. Faith and Physics
3. Religion without God

See the three lecture videos here.
Further information here.
For the Full text of the NYU talks as a pdf – here
Abstract:
“For most people religion means a belief in a god. But Albert Einstein said that he was both an atheist and a deeply religious man. Millions of ordinary people seem to have the same thought: they say that though they don’t believe in a god they do believe in something “bigger than us.” In these lectures I argue that these claims are not linguistic contradictions, as they are often taken to be, but fundamental insights into what a religion really is.

A religious attitude involves moral and cosmic convictions beyond simply a belief in god: that people have an innate, inescapable responsibility to make something valuable of their lives and that the natural universe is gloriously, mysteriously wonderful. Religious people accept such convictions as matters of faith rather than evidence and as personality-defining creeds that play a pervasive role in their lives.

In these lectures I argue that a belief in god is not only not essential to the religious attitude but is actually irrelevant to that attitude. The existence or non-existence of a god does not even bear on the question of people’s intrinsic ethical responsibility or their glorification of the universe. I do not argue either for or against the existence of a god, but only that a god’s existence can make no difference to the truth of religious values. If a god exists, perhaps he can send people to Heaven or Hell. But he cannot create right answers to moral questions or instill the universe with a glory it would not otherwise have.

How, then, can we defend a religious attitude if we cannot rely on a god? In the first lecture I offer a godless argument that moral and ethical values are objectively real: They do not depend on god, but neither are they just subjective or relative to cultures. They are objective and universal. In the second lecture I concentrate on Einstein’s own religion: his bewitchment by the universe. What kind of beauty might the vast universe be thought to hold – what analogy to more familiar sources of beauty is most suggestive? I propose that the beauty basic physicists really hope to find is the beauty of a powerful, profound mathematical proof. Godly religions insist that though god explains everything his own existence need not be explained because he necessarily exists. Religious atheists like Einstein have, I believe, a parallel faith: that when a unifying theory of everything is found it will be not only simple but, in the way of mathematics, inevitable. They dream of a new kind of necessity: cosmic necessity.

In the third lecture, I consider the moral and political consequences of fully recognizing godless religion. Constitutions and international treaties across the world declare a right to religious freedom. We must understand this to protect godless as well as godly religions, and this important extension requires complex adjustments in human rights practice. It requires a difficult but indispensible distinction between personal questions about the nature and value of human life, which people must be allowed to decide for themselves, and questions of justice that a community must answer collectively. I end the three lectures by examining, in that light, a variety of controversial topics: state-supported religion, harmful religious rituals, homosexuality, abortion, and the banning of crucifixes, headscarves, burkas or minarets in public places.”

The abstract and information was taken from  Political Theory – Habermas and Rawls

never again? North Korea’s concentration camps

Please do not talk to me about the Holocaust ushering in a new era or that old covenants need to be renewed after the Holocaust. Also please do not tell me that never again means anything but that the Jews are now safe. In the Congo, 5.4 million have just been killed. but the reports of what goes on in North Korea are devastating. Let not play whose suffering is most unique.

From Get Religion

Apparently the people of North Korea aren’t just starving, they’re subjected to racist and nationalistic propaganda and are confused about their relative position in the world. The food bags countries send them are said to be given to Kim Jong-il out of respect and terror.

I’m reminded of this old piece in The Guardian about the torture chambers Kim’s regime ran:

In the remote north-eastern corner of North Korea, close to the border of Russia and China, is Haengyong. Hidden away in the mountains, this remote town is home to Camp 22 – North Korea’s largest concentration camp, where thousands of men, women and children accused of political crimes are held.

Now, it is claimed, it is also where thousands die each year and where prison guards stamp on the necks of babies born to prisoners to kill them.

The piece goes through the first-hand testimonies from defectors about execution and torture, including gas chambers with chemical experiments run on humans. It tells of whole families put in glass chambers and gassed while scientists take notes.

This is difficult to read, but here are some anecdotes from a worker and prisoner:

He explains how he had believed this treatment was justified. ‘At the time I felt that they thoroughly deserved such a death. Because all of us were led to believe that all the bad things that were happening to North Korea were their fault; that we were poor, divided and not making progress as a country.

‘It would be a total lie for me to say I feel sympathetic about the children dying such a painful death. Under the society and the regime I was in at the time, I only felt that they were the enemies. So I felt no sympathy or pity for them at all.’

His testimony is backed up by Soon Ok-lee, who was imprisoned for seven years. ‘An officer ordered me to select 50 healthy female prisoners,’ she said. ‘One of the guards handed me a basket full of soaked cabbage, told me not to eat it but to give it to the 50 women. I gave them out and heard a scream from those who had eaten them. They were all screaming and vomiting blood. All who ate the cabbage leaves started violently vomiting blood and screaming with pain. It was hell. In less than 20 minutes they were quite dead.’

No one knows how many prisoners were held in various centers but one camp alone held 50,000. And why?

Most are imprisoned because their relatives are believed to be critical of the regime. Many are Christians, a religion believed by Kim Jong-il to be one of the greatest threats to his power. According to the dictator, not only is a suspected dissident arrested but also three generations of his family are imprisoned, to root out the bad blood and seed of dissent.

Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said: ‘For too long the horrendous suffering of the people of North Korea, especially those imprisoned in unspeakably barbaric prison camps, has been met with silence … It is imperative that the international community does not continue to turn a blind eye to these atrocities which should weigh heavily on the world’s conscience.’

But the fact of North Korea’s existence and the horrific suffering its people have endured — psychologically, physically and spiritually — is staggering.

Religion as a Chain of Memory – Daniele Hervieu-Leger

When rabbis or religious institutions mention the word history what they really mean is historical memory, how the history is used to construct a contemporary religious position. Popular accounts of Jewish history have precious little history and original content, rather they only use selected pieces of memory by which to understand current reality. The study of Jewish history in its tradition building function, therefore, is not historiography but the study of “Collective Memory.” So I was glad to see the recent anthology Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, Daniel Levy, eds. The Collective Memory Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xviii + 497 pp. It will become the new starting point as the basic textbook in the field surveying several dozen works from the 1920’s to today focussing on the creation of this new field in the last 20 years and its application to religion and the memory of the Holocaust. The seminal work was Maurice Halbwachs’s 1925 study, Social Frameworks of Memory and collective memory became a field with British sociologist Paul Connerton’s landmark analysis, How Societies Remember(1989). Jews discussions seem to have became frozen with Yerushalmi’s mention of Halbwachs in Zakhor, but an entire new approach to religious history has arisen.

Oliver Roy relies on this literature, especially Religion as a Chain of Memory – Daniele Hervieu-Leger (French edition, 1993). Reading the book has been on my to do list for a while, so after my four posts about Roy, (here, here, here, and here) it was a good tie in.

According to Hervieu-Leger, modern societies define religion by a chain of belief– a tradition, a chain of memory, an envisioned past. There is no longer a direct experience of God or the creation of hierophantic moments. In the modern era, many have trouble relating to the chain of tradition. When one is successful, then one has religion.

In the current era – belief has two elements: the personal experiential element which was called in 1990’s “the sacred”, and now is called the “spiritual” based on experience; and the “religious” element based on the tradition and memory. To say that one is spiritual but not religious or religious but not spiritual is to grasp only one pole of religion. Organized religion when it is successful is about constructing a sense of tradition and tie in with the past. This divide causes current forms of “religion” to be rationalized in the Weber sense of no longer having presence of the divine, now pastors, rabbis, and priest follow abstract rules.

The point of her reflections is that religion today means collective memory and the goal is that, when successful, it is mobilized and is the normative. The collective memory regulates and transcends the individual memory

This functions not just in the classic ritual such as the Passover seder but also in a variety of cultural, political and contemporary moments. For example, specific memories of the Holocaust, state of Israel, Eastern European Jewry, and the formation of one’s denomination is bound up with this collective memory called religion.

Hervieu-Leger points out the crumbling of former religious memory which was tied to the local and agricultural in modern societies. Some of it undergoes homogenization and for others there is a sense of fragmentation. Movement creates loss of memory and the need for new memory, rural to urban, country to country. Collective memory is tied to place- some of us are ruptured from Eastern European roots, but then also removed from earlier places of settlement. Movement of people to new enclaves creates a need for new collective memories.

Collective memories can be pre-existent the person, for example to be told by a follower of Rav Kook that one’s soul and memory is tied up in the land of Israel preexists actual memories. The collective memory transcends the individual- pre-exists even the visit to the land.

She thinks that there has been a gradual loss of the personal god and metaphorization or symbolization of all religious objects. In the chain of religion the links are horizontal through time and vertical toward metaphysics. This symbolization allows material objects to create memory and they can be most effective with sales and product tie-ins. There is a need for the objects to be emblems objects that bring that past to memory. Think of dancing Hasidim in living room paintings in secular Jewish homes or the huge amount of stuff that people bring back from Israel to create a new memory.

She quotes Dominique Schnapper, which was in turn used by Roy, that symbols are no longer meaning but a sign of belonging. In the most advanced societies, religious symbols are now entirely social and organizational demarcation.

Hervieu-Leger cites Certeau on how signs and practices are broken, signs can wander off or become scattered.

Those who enter in a religion as a convert or baal teshuvah show a different chain of memory and a greater purity that is outside of the prior social memory. The sectarian is modernizing by dissolving the actual tradition. This dissolving of society allows greater ecclesiasticism, transferring memory of the tradition to the clergy. Since one now wills oneself religious, this creates infinite possibilities for constructed memory. She discusses BT’s in 1970’s who sought not just a return but a new identity rejecting their past and assuming a counter cultural return to the tradition of an imagined Europe- a culture they felt that missed in their own up bring. The second wave of BT’s sought a way to change from life in the secular world and a change in their own lives.They constructed many alternate and personal memories of the past, hasidism, litvish, or even an imagined but inaccurate vision of modern Orthodoxy.

Notice how the memory of medieval Ashkenaz favored by many mid twentieth century thinkers, Baron, Katz, Finkelstein, Agus, Assaf, has faded. Current research by Robert Chazen is not making a cultural splash because Ashkenaz is not the focus of the current constructed chain of tradition. Neither is the constructed memory of the Shtetl used much anymore.

In modern Orthodox circles, some look for historical memory to Maimonides and Nahamnides, or a romanticized Volozhin, other to the religious Zionist project, others have as their memory the Hatam Sofer’s rejection of Reform and others their memory goes only as far back as their buying a Rinat Yisrael Siddur when they spent a few months in Israel in the 1970s’s. Some look back to eastern Europe and the power of the local rabbi other look at the same people and see the lack of power and need for accommodation. Rabbi Belkin used to invoke Philo of Alexandria, Maimonides, Spanish-Portuguese, and Mendelsohn/ Hirsch/Shadal.
Currently, Hasidism, Breslov, and the Besht are used by many for a bewildering variety of forms of chains of tradition. Art Green and others have created collective memories of Neo-Hasidism.
So what periods and figures does everyone use in their collective memory? Do they work? Why?
Didn’t Kurtzer win the Brandeis “Next Big Idea” with a plan for reworking Jewish cultural memory into something usable?

And I return to Certeau’s questions about signs that wander off or become scattered. What the criteria when these new collectives memories has swerved too far from a course?

Holy Ignorance- Oliver Roy part IV

continued from here Part III

The book opens with a variety of thoughts on holy ignorance that were used as a setting but were not developed. So I come back to them last. Roy points out the role of philology, history, and logic and how they have been jettisoned in the age of holy ignorance. He mentioned his exasperation that people would listen to people pontificating pre-Bacon ideas. What happened to the need for empiricism, method, and drawing logical inference?
(The historian of the Evangelical movements, George Marsden placed the use of Baconian method as the dividing line between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, but noted that the latter stopped there without any further theory). Roy notes how event he use of Baconian method has slipped. One should note all the rabbis in recent years who question not just science, but political science, sociology, history, and economics. They say scholars are all just opinion without method (and not because they read Gadamer). They get up and give sermons on things of which they know little and create vague undefined ideas or they just assume that everything in the world is an ideological sermon. Another means of this is to turn everything into metaphor or religious symbol in which their “system” overrides method.

Roy finds a string desire in the new religion to kill the old man. He also discovers a greater sense that man is a tabula rasa and religious groups will fill in the child or convert with everything he needs to know. There is less of an acknowledgement of tradtion and upbringing.Religion proclaims itself above culture and cannot be touched by the historian or anthropologist.

How does this new religion relate to other symbolic systems? Iron wall? Can we interrupt table tennis with halleluiah- I have been saved? What should we make of it?
His point is that there has been no secular eradication of religion. Rather, religion has given up on culture and now appears as pure religion.

We used to have a Jewish atheist or intellectual believer as opposite forms of accommodation with culture.
New trend is to see secular culture as pagan not secular. Therefore the space of accommodation disappears. If one is an atheist then one is more likely to give up one’s Judaism and if one is religious there is less of a desire for synthesis.
Now religious purity based on a religious marker that can be tailored for the needs of the market.
Religion now focuses on same things as secular society- self-affirmation, lifestyle, fulfillment, and happiness.
This process of deculturation removes original context and original language leading to pop culture evangelical and pop culture orthodoxy.
Deculturation undoes Thomist and Maimonidean synthesis of religion and culture.

In Roy’s perspective, converts (and BT’s) are nomads without cultural pressures.

One of his big conclusions is that he thinks that Talal Asad is wrong- the market standardizes and that today the standard is a conversion to relgion.
For Roy, religion is only a religion when it disassociates from culture. Most Romans and medievals treated worship was an act of practice not of belief. This is also true for the Jewish communities.(28)

He give an interesting example of Halloween. In prior decades the candy giving was treated as “profane” as having no value and no redeemable holiness but also no unholiness. Now, he see a greater trend to considering it as “pagan” and needing to be shunned.

In sum, he sees a shift from light to the word and cultural mission to accomplish to a group sense of the purity of insiders and the infidelity and pagan outsiders.

As a side note, the modern Religious Zionist Rabbi Chaim Navon has an article in todays’ Haaretz claiming that the secular have also become more extreme. As I went to sleep last night, my FB feed was quickly becoming filled with dozens of responses showing that decades ago the Zionists were proudly working on Yom Kippur as atheists and there was soft-core European style on Israeli TV, yet the religious Zionists thought the goal was to have a synthesis.

Hitchens, Atheism, and Rav Kook

With all the recent eulogies of militant atheist Christopher Hitchens by many religious people, it is a good time to ask the question of the value of atheism for the religious soul? Many religious people were more impressed and placed themselves in dialogue with Hitchens than with sanctimonious religious followers. Many fine religious works were written as a response and new defense of religion. Religious blogs and journals are devoting more space to his eulogy than to those of religious figures.
How do we explain this influence?
Rav Kook thought God needs atheism.”Because atheism cleanses the dross of ‘petty religion,’ the narrowness and provincialism of established Jewish religion that frequently becomes arrogant, rigid and judgmental. We need these people, these atheists, whom seek to befriend.”

Do we still have a theory that allows us to see a value in atheism? Rav Kook was happy to see late 19th century atheism wake up the simple Jewish masses because they had primitive views and they needed to evolve. You lose a few souls but the nation gains a purified idea of God. But what would Rav Kook have said about the primitive views of the 1990′s? Without the evolutionary sense of moving from peasant to modern world then what would he say about our current crop of vulgar believers who became vulgar atheists based on reading the new atheists? Rav Kook assumes that there would be an advancement in perception, in a Piaget or Kohlberg sense. He did not assume that they would remain un-evolved. What is being provided to these simple people who smashed their idols?
Are Jewish thinkers acknowledging that God as a supernatural force is dangerous for the community the way Rav Kook did?
Most of the best books written in response to the new atheism pointed out that the faith of Augustine, Calvin, Schleirermacher, or Kierkegaard was not the crude view of the atheists. Do we need a Jewish version? And for who? Those who already read books, can already read the best books. But the primitive believers who became primitive atheists still dont know how to read. I have no evolutionary belief that they will evolve.

And what about the darkness of atheism itself- what would be a current way to explain that it has a force for the good? Thoughts?

From the VBM

When the heretic smashes his “idols”, his preconceived notion of God, his activities are accompanied by danger. A concept of God has been shattered – and it must eventually be rebuilt. This brings the momentum of a religious community to a halt. Instead of continuing to climb ever higher on their pathway to spiritual uplifting, the religious community must now rethink its direction, as well as its confidence.

While the heretic is unable to destroy God, his arguments and critiques destroy the normative systems and patterns of belief. The heretic rejects the precepts and commandments of Torah and thereby brings into question any redeeming value that they appear to have. These commandments are the religious community’s guideposts for spiritual growth, and the heretic weakens them, if he does not destroy them completely.

Rav Kook, however, argues that a positive spark does emanate from the depths of the non-believer’s arguments. The non-believer challenges the religious man’s concept of the Divine, forcing the religious man to re-assess his perceptions. Not only does this strengthen the religious community by demanding a re-evaluation, it is also necessary for the community’s continued development. Since God is a priori undefinable, the religious community’s perceptions of the Divine, and their consequent behavior, must constantly be revised. Hence heresy, “kefira,” is the only dark force capable of contributing to world perfection

Confronting God can be an enjoyable and enriching experience for Man. However, if a person’s confrontation is based on a misconception of God, this can lead to crisis. This crisis may eventually result in a denial of God’s existence.
God is commonly described as a Supernatural Force. It is this common perception of God which R. Kook believes to be erroneous and thus dangerous.

For those who want to see some of the religious appreciations of Hitchens-see
Commonweal
American Thinker
Baptist Press
Christianity Today This Evangelical one in Christianity Today is exceptional good, but the Baptist News has a good closing:

I would like to see the dialogue of Christian apologetics move from Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris into our houses, diners, and local community centers,” Stetzer wrote. “The AP news wire will not be abuzz with the passing of the atheist in your neighborhood, but your heart ought hurt for them. I am grateful for evangelical scholars who have engaged New Atheism with the level of intellectual commitment the movement deserves. But for most of us, we ought to concern ourselves with and grieve over the debates that war in the minds of our families, friends, and coworkers.

Bizarre Defense of Kierkegaard in Danish Newspaper

As reported in an earlier blog post from February 2011, a recent book came out by Peter Tudvad exposing Soren Kierkegaard’s antisemitism. Now, in the official Lutheran newspaper in Denmark, there is a defense that even tries to absolve Luther of the charge and in doing so relies on stereotypes of the Jews as well as comparing the crucifixion to Hitler. We have to thank the blog Piety on Kierkegaard for keeping us informed. The author of the blog writes here:

Just when you thought the debate surrounding Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier på antisemitismens vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010), had probably died down, it’s actually flared up again. Ole Jørgensen published what has got to be the most bizarre defense of Kierkegaard yet. Jørgensen’s article, “Sjusk med ord. Søren Kierkegaard var ikke antisemit” (Linguistic carelessness. Kierkegaard was not an anti-Semite) appeared in Monday’s edition of Kristeligt Dagblad (Christian daily news). The title might lead one to suppose that Kristeligt Dagblad is a relatively obscure paper. It isn’t. Remember, Denmark has a state church. The Danish Lutheran Church is the official church of the Danish people. This undoubtedly explains why Jørgensen took it upon himself to defend not only Kierkegaard, but also Martin Luther against the charge of anti-Semitism. Luther, he asserts, merely “chastens the Jews in his book On the Jews and their Lies.” One might be tempted to conclude from that remark that Jørgensen hasn’t actually read Luther (or Tudvad either since Tudvad quotes extensively from Luther’s works where they bear on the Jews).

What is clear, however, is that Jørgensen has what one could charitably call a rather idiosyncratic understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitism. He observes, for example, that far from being an anti-Semite, “Kierkegaard even had a Jew in his employ for several years: Israel Levin, who […] was thus able to advance himself, in the manner Jews are so good at, both economically and socially.” That is, Jørgensen apparently does not see the generalization that Jews are particularly good at advancing themselves economically and socially as in any way anti-Semitic, which is bizarre given such a generalization buys into stereotypes concerning Jews and money, and that there is hardly a worse crime in the eyes of the Danes than social climbing.

Jørgensen observes that “[o]ne should use some other word than ‘anti-Semitism’” to apply to Kierkegaard. “[I]t was more Kierkegaard’s [religious] zeal,” he continues, “that led him to rein in [lægge mundbidslet på] these occasionally mischievous [frække] Jews.”

It wasn’t merely Kierkegaard, or even Luther, who felt it necessary, according to Jørgensen, to “rein in,” or “chasten” the Jews. Christ himself, observes Jørgensen, “pulls no punches” (lægges der virkelig ikke fingre imellem) when he “says to the Jews: ‘You are of your father the devil and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and a father of lies’” (John 8:44).

“See how closely,” asserts Jørgensen, “lies and murder are connected with each other–both with the Jews and with Hitler. The lies of the Jews crucified Christ. Hitler’s lies murdered six million Jews.” How could anyone trot out the stereotype of the Jews as “Christ killers” (a stereotype so offensive that even the pope was forced recently to officially repudiate it) in an article that purports to defend someone, anyone, against the charge of anti-Semitism?

Concludes Jørgensen, “That’s a careless us of language and an [attempt to] exploit Kierkegaard’s good name for personal gain.” That is, Kierkegaard was no more an anti-Semite than Luther was, or than Jørgense’s “careless use of language” make him appear to be.

Read the Rest Here 

Kiryas Joel- scholarly work in progress

David N. Myers, professor at UCLA together with Nomi M. Stolzenberg of the USC Law School are writing a book on Kiryas Joel. A precis or excerpt came out this week and it looks good. It is interesting how many readers did not understand the excerpt compelling them to retell it in simpler language to dispel assumptions of advocacy or critique. Their major point, and it is quite correct, is “that Kiryas Joel represents a decidedly American strain of communitarianism, marked by difference and segregation, we were describing an ironic and surprising feature of American legal and political history.” In the old country, hamlets or more proverbially shtetls were generally half non-Jewish and dependent on the provincial prince and the peasants. But here in the US, reflecting American freedom of religion and isolated compounds they have created the all-Jewish town. The irony is that their ability for isolation from non-Jews reflects American values and how America legally protects the Amish.

A number of readers’ comments suggest to us that a key point in our recent post, “Theocracy in America?” may have been misunderstood. When we wrote that Kiryas Joel represents a decidedly American strain of communitarianism, marked by difference and segregation, we were describing an ironic and surprising feature of American legal and political history. We were not prescribing or condoning the kind of blurring of religious and political lines of authority that we notice in Kiryas Joel. Nor were we making the opposite normative claim, namely, that the establishment of the Village is necessarily in violation of the fundamental principles of liberty and equality that guide American law.

Our aim is not to take sides in the bitter dispute between the establishment faction and the dissidents in Kiryas Joel. Rather, it is to see the community as part of a broader legal-political phenomenon, of a piece with the same system that has permitted significant levels of racial and economic segregation to take rise in American society. This is what makes Kiryas Joel such an interesting case: it shines a spotlight on features of America, and the constitutional values “for which America stands,” that many Americans consciously disavow. That there is an establishment faction in the Village associated with Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum that exercises heavy-handed control over political, legal and religious affairs is not in dispute. That there are a variety of dissident groups who seek to challenge that control and gain a measure of autonomy over their own religious affairs is not in dispute either. What is less clear, counter-intuitive as it may be, is that a religiously homogenous municipality that answers to a guiding religious authority is illegal under the American Constitution.

It is important to recall that Kiryas Joel came about when a group of individuals purchased property in Orange County, N.Y. According to New York State law, “a territory of 500 or more inhabitants may incorporate” as a village if it so chooses. There is no litmus test about political belief or religious practice involved in this state regulation, simply the requirement of five hundred people. The rapid shift from a group of private citizens to a Hasidic public square in Kiryas Joel was thus executed in full compliance with the law. This is one of the reasons for our intentionally ironic claim that Kiryas Joel, a community of Satmar Hasidic Jews, is “as American as apple pie.”

It is the latter question that engaged us in our initial post. What we maintained then and reiterate now is that the claim that Kiryas Joel is a theocracy and thus in violation of American law is more complicated than meets the eye. The very features of the community that are deemed by its critics to be disturbing (its self-segregation and its illiberal culture) and the mechanisms whereby the community has secured those features (primarily through the acquisition of private property and the exercise of private property rights) are not as abnormal as we might think. Ironically enough, they may well be typical in the long course of American history. We offer this assessment neither in praise nor in condemnation, but in the name of historical and legal elucidation.

To be sure, the term “theocracy” is a loaded one in contemporary political discourse, largely because it is most commonly used to conjure up the fear of a radical, nuclear-tipped Islamic polity. The courts, certainly, have not given any fixed meaning to the term, and it remains unclear just what a “theocracy” is, let alone when, if ever, theocratic government is proscribed. What is clear is that American constitutional law does not necessarily condemn the establishment of governments by, for and of a particular (illiberal, religious) sub-community. American courts have repeatedly approved the formation of private self-governing enclaves by religiously homogeneous communities. Kiryas Joel thus falls into a long American tradition of robust support for religious sub-communities, a tradition that enables private communities to form and then, once formed, to translate their private power into political power. Judicial respect for the autonomy of religious sub-communities has been expressed in a number of important decisions, most notably, the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), in which the Supreme Court affirmed the right of the Amish to protect their insular, communitarian and pervasively religious way of life by not sending their children to school.
Read the Rest Here.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Vatican Radio

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks was on Vatican Radio this week after his meeting with the Pope. Sacks is quite chipper about the future of British Jewry, the wonderful relations between Orthodox and liberal Jews in Britain, and the prospects for a two-state Middle East peace. In this interview, when asked if his interfaith views are Orthodox – he grounds his interfaith pluralism in the righteous non-Jews of the Bible (a shift from his book). His new point in this interview is that Jews have to love and forgive others, including the Catholic church. And that we are to treat them with the assumption that they love us. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that when the pope stated “his belief in our shared belief in the God of Abraham, our shared commitment to the Ten Commandments,” that Sacks did not say that we follow Torat Moshe and not the Pauline “faith of Abraham” and Jews don’t separate the ten commandments from the rest of Torah. It seems, he acquiesced to the religious language of the Catholics.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, met with Pope Benedict on Monday to discuss interfaith relations and their common concern for the decline of spiritual values within European culture.

I’d like to ask you about your conversation with the Pope this morning – this was your 2nd meeting after you welcomed him to the interfaith meeting in Twickenham last September?

I had been asked to welcome him on behalf of the non-Christian faiths in Britain and it was actually a very moving encounter, I think we felt that something had happened at the moment and it was, you know, a sharing of faith across the boundaries and it was very moving. The Pope at the time told me he wanted to deepen that relationship so I felt this visit was a way of moving that a step further.

In the Jewish community we do not feel marginalized, we find more and more people coming to synagogue, more and more parents wanting to send their children to Jewish schools and the impression is growing that there is something lacking in the wider secular culture when all that matters is “what I am, what I spend, what I buy, what I earn” instead of “what I am” and I think parents are beginning to say we “don’t want that for our children, we want our children to learn about a much older and more spacious heritage”.

Were you able to discuss the current state of Jewish-Christian relations with the Pope today?

Well the Pope himself raised it and continually wanted to know how was that state of relationship in Britain, where in fact of course it’s as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world. He also wanted to know, just to reaffirm, his belief in our shared belief in the god of Abraham, our shared commitment to the Ten Commandments and our shared belief that society must have a spiritual dimension.

You’ve written a lot about interfaith relations, notably in your book ‘The Dignity of Difference’, yet in trying to reach out to other faiths you’ve been accused of heresy against traditional Orthodox teachings – what do you say to your accusers about the truth to be found in other religions?

Well, what is absolutely clear from the Bible is that you have some very godly individuals who are not part of the Abrahamic covenant. Famously you have Melchizedek, the contemporary of Abraham who is called by the Bible “the priest of the most high God”, you have Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite priest, and, my favorite of all, which is Pharaoh’s daughter who, at great risk to herself, saves the young Moses. Without a Pharaoh’s daughter there wouldn’t be a Moses, so the Bible is not partisan at all in the way it sees righteousness and godliness. It sees it in all sorts of places.

Jewish attitudes towards the Catholic Church also seem to be divided with some applauding Benedict and John Paul before him for implementing the spirit of Nostra Aetate – others still seem to see the Church only in terms of the possible beatification of Pius XII and a perceived failure to apologise for not speaking out enough against the Holocaust?

My view is axiomatic and fundamental. The God of love and forgiveness created humanity in love and forgiveness, and asks of us to love and forgive others. And that is the attitude I bring to Jewish-Christian relations. And I hope it’s the attitude Christians bring to that same relationship. We recognize the extraordinary about-turn that occurred in the Catholic Church at really the inspiration and depth of compassion of Pope John XXIII, which set in motion the process that culminated in Vatican II, the result of which is that Jews and Catholics, having been estranged for many centuries, now meet again today as cherished and respected friends. You would find it hard to find a transition like that in the whole of European history. So I see the hope vastly outweighing the anxieties, and the good news vastly exceeding the bad.

Divisions between Liberal and Orthodox, reformists and traditionalists, in Judaism as well as within the Christian Churches, sometimes seem as damaging as the tensions between the different faiths – do you see an increasing polarisation within the Jewish world?

No, in Britain we have actually solved the problem, and we had to solve the problem because we cannot make peace with the world if we cannot make peace among ourselves. And when relationships got a little tense, some fifteen years ago, I sat down and said to myself “we have to develop fundamental principals of a relationship that has integrity.” In the end I formulated two principals – and they work. Number one: on all matters that affect us as Jews, regardless of our religious denomination we will work together regardless of our religious denomination. On all matters that touch on our differences, we will agree to differ, but with respect. The result of which is that orthodox and non-orthodox Jews in Britain are closer together today than they were at any other time, Of course, a famous Jew, Abba Eban, once said “we’re the people who can’t take yes for an answer”. So there are some people who have not quite caught up with reality, but the fact is that for the first time in history, I, as an orthodox chief rabbi, sit together with reform and liberal rabbis as joint presidents of the Council of Christians and Jews, and on inter-faith matters, as in all matters that touch on our common fate, we work together.

How much do you see the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the heart of these other problems in the Middle East and even behind the rise in anti-Semitism?

I refuse to accept that for one simple reason, and I tell this to my Muslim friends and I tell this to my friends of all faiths: we must be sending a message of coexistence from Europe to the Middle East. We must not allow ourselves to import a message of conflict from the Middle East to Europe. If the already difficult situation between Israelis and Palestinians is difficult enough in itself, that the whole of Europe should be made a proxy battle field for that conflict will not bring peace but on the contrary will devastate the outstandingly good relations that exist between the faiths in Europe.

The political process seems to be in stalemate there – do you see any signs of hope for an end to the conflict?

There is still a genuine majority on both sides in favor of a two state solution. And although the political process may have reached a momentary stalemate, as it seems to have done, nonetheless the underlying attitudes on both sides embolden my hope to believe that a peaceful settlement is possible and will be reached.

You’ve said you’ll be stepping down from your job in 2013 – what do your see as your most significant success over the years, what would you most like to be remembered for?

We tried to do three things and I think we succeeded. First, I made a pledge that we would increase the level and depth of Jewish education. And we have seen in twenty years the percentage of Jewish children at Jewish day-schools go-up from around 25-30% to nearly 70%. So we’ve built more Jewish day-schools in the last twenty years than at any previous time in our over 350 year history.

And finally, I took it on myself, as far as I could by just doing it, to allow the Jewish voice to be heard in the public square. I believe that Jews should not simply keep to themselves, we should seek to be a voice in the conversation of humankind, in fact I define Judaism as the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind. The British public has been quite extraordinarily warm in welcoming that sharing of Jewish wisdom and I believe we are all enriched when the great faiths share their wisdom with those of any faiths and those of none.
read the rest here

Oliver Roy, Holy Ignorance – Part III

Roy quotes Bishop Roland Minnerath that entire swatches of Christianity are undergoing pseudo morphosis. A term from mineralogy where the minerals are changing only on the outside.
In this case, there is an outer casting of Christian words, rites and symbols but inside the mystery of God is absent. The core and soul of contemporary religion, and by this he means the committed engaged members are in their heart post-modern irrational, speaking of gnosis, sects, and new age. But no interest in God as transcendental creator and redeemer. (131) No shortage of Orthodox parallels.

For Roy, the current approach contains the loss of religious certainty since there is no culture to appeal to for norms, so that means that at any moment the legitimacy of a particular practice can be called into question. Now religious practices are no longer embedded in the surrounding culture – they have to be reinforced, imposed and explained. General culture, and even the culture of religious individuals is always disbelief. (134) We cannot trust general culture because it is the source of the immoralities of feminism and gays rights.

The Sociological believer is no longer recognized. Everyone now is born again, or takes the faith on as a personal acceptance. Roy deals with how conversion has gotten stricter in Islam. In the past one just affirms the Islamic faith and in good faith accepts that one is a Muslim. Now, it involves tests by imams on one’s beliefs and one’s standards of behavior. (136)

Everything is now them and us. There are no more sociological Christians, or sociological Orthodox Jews.
Personal faith must be declared and worn as a badge.

For Roy, Catholics seek to maintain culture, and evangelicals and Salafi Muslims ignore culture and create a holy ignorance. Orthodox Judaism seems to have both aspects.
Society always has romance, but in the past the distinction was good and bad representations. Now, it is faith as opposed to culture, precluding romance.

There is now established a minority separatist vision. The minority discourse is now explicit.- Don’t touch my community- they are adopting a communitarian attitude not one of reaching out.

Roy cites a 2007 article in the Yated apologizing for a prior article encouraging Jews to come together because we can never come together or have friendship with Non-Haredi Jews.
Roy cites the Noah Feldman case- were most of the articles written as a reaction were about safe guarding the Modern Orthodox community from slander rather than defending religious principles. (141)

“Everywhere defending the group’s identity and values takes precedence over social and pastoral concerns.” There is no participation in social service events because of the secular and liberal faiths that attend. People learn that the demarcation from the non-Orthodox counts more than performance of the rituals and prayer, and counts more than caring for people. (139)

Roy concludes that we now have faith communities that would not have been understood in the past. (142)
In the 1940’s -1950’s religions considered entering culture as a kind of vocation. They sought secular dress, had few complaints about culture, and taught that the goal was for religion to enter the profane. Since, now there is nothing positive in the profane culture, therefore one needs religious markers to separate those religious from this profane culture. Synthesis of religion and culture has given way to a separatist religious culture.
Roy shows that there is now a suspicion of religious knowledge itself and knowledge can distract from true faith. There is a greater emphasis now on revivalism, on emotions, and on the irrational.

As an interesting question, Roy asks how can all these believers who took on religions as a personal decision pass it on to the their children? How can the children of BT’s pass it on to the their kids?
Obliviously, the answer is that the kids need to be raised as part of a bigger stable culture bigger than the enthusiasm of the parent. Kids needs to be mainstreamed.
But what of the enthusiasm that the parents had? What if the kids contextualize their parent’s decision as just another fad of the 1970’s or 1980s?
Answer- the parents and community attempt reconnection, have calls for reconnection, and seek revival. The community creates new cultural markers of religious popular culture, such as religious rock, retreat weekends, religious videos. But Roy thinks that they are confusing cultural markers with culture. Instead, we have holy ignorance without real culture just popular culture. SO it wont work.
But what happens when the new generation loses their faith after having Holy ignorant parents? Roy claims that the younger generation that does not have the passion and personal commitment have a loss of faith and loss of observance without becoming socially integrated secular people. They remain in the religious culture because they have little connection to secular culture. (11-12)

Oliver Roy and same sex marriages.

In my last post Oliver Roy, Holy Ignorance Part II, I presented how Roy thinks that we have lost a sense of deviance. Roy cites the case of the community that acknowledges that the Church cannot permit married priests. That it wont change and wont ever change. Nevertheless, they want to keep their married priest because they love him as a pastor. Deviance reflects what people actually do, even as they at the same time want nothing to change.Even though I only posted on Roy earlier this week, I was reminded of it by a comment on a FB post in the midst of the discussion of same-sex marriages yesterday. I saw someone post on FB the following comment about “grey area” and asked permission to post it:

I have a friend who got his Flatbush Chassidishe rebbe to quietly witness and officiate a document between him and his “man friend” that was a slightly different thing from a ketuba. Gray area is out there, it’s just that the mainstream doesn’t want anyone to know about it It wasn’t a gay wedding. it probably happened in the rabbi’s study. It was very quiet and wasn’t an actual ketuba– some other similar document that was halachically binding.

Which got me thinking: There has been a noticeable greater acceptance over the last few years of same-sex couples here in this NJ bastion of Centrist Orthodoxy. There are openly same-sex couples who attend Orthodox shuls as a couple and accept Shabbat invites as a couple. So who did their commitment ceremonies? I assume they had a ceremony, so someone officiated.

Roy’s basic thesis is that secularism is great for religion because if secularism is seen as responsible for same-sex marriages then religious enthusiasm is all about creating a boundary to preserve one’s religious purity. The greater the general society is obsessed with items deemed pagan by the religious like sexual issues, the greater religion triumphs as a boundary creating response. Roy thinks that without the sense of transcendence then there is no other response to the secular. These boundary issues are now used as the sign of purity of community and who to write out of the community and are more important than prayer, study, or kindness. (128-129) Other violations like abuse, theft, and dishonestly are not seen as coming from secularism, so they cannot be used as a boundary issue. There is a begged premise that single sex marriage is from the pagan secular culture, and can therefore be used to show purity.

Pastors or CEO’s as Rabbis?

There has been a trend in the last 7-8 years to encourage Orthodox rabbis to be CEO’s of the congregation, get an MBA, learn how to control boards and build the metrics of your congregation. On the other hand, many of those who become pulpit rabbis in prior years who survived were “nice guys” they served as chaplains, visited the sick, counseled families, and maintained the status quo. The first group seeks power and eats smaller people for breakfast and the latter group is there as a family friend. Neither group seeks innovations in Judaism or Torah. They are two different sets of skills. In the recent Christianity Today, the major Evangelical magazine, one of the editors penned a nice push-back. Best line: “many clergy are fascinated with the idea that they can be leaders and entrepreneurs. These are the people our culture admires most”

Why We Need More ‘Chaplains’ and Fewer Leaders
What’s a pastor for?
Mark Galli | posted 12/01/2011 10:41AM

In my email recently came another list of suggestions on how to tell if your church is healthy. The warning signs of a sick church were lack of outreach ministries, increasing dropout rate, church conflict, little corporate prayer, and finally, the pastor has become a chaplain.
It’s becoming increasingly common to infer that when a pastor becomes a “chaplain,” the church is in trouble.

A Chaplain pastor is “wired for peace, harmony, and pastoral care. This is the type of pastor that has been produced by seminaries for several decades, though a few … a very few … seminaries are retooling. Chaplain pastors eschew change and value status quo. They don’t want to stir the waters; rather, they want to bring healing to hurting souls.” And if that weren’t bad enough, “Chaplain pastors don’t grow churches. In fact, a Chaplain pastor will hasten a congregation’s demise because they tend to focus on those within the congregation rather than in bringing new converts….”

We find ourselves in an odd period of church history when many people have become so used to large, impersonal institutions that they want that in their church as well.

A chaplain at a hospital or in the military is clearly not the highest ranking member of the institution, clearly not the person in charge of running things. The chaplain’s job is defined by service—service to the institution’s needs and goals, service to the individuals who come for spiritual help. The chaplain prays for people in distress, administers sacraments to those in need, leads worship for those desperate for God. In short, the chaplain is at the beck and call of those who are hurting for God. He’s not his own man.

There’s no mistaking a chaplain for an entrepreneurial leader, a catalyst for growth. No, the chaplain is unmistakably a servant.
In an increasingly secular, capitalist culture, it’s understandable that so many clergy are fascinated with the idea that they can be leaders and entrepreneurs. These are the people our culture admires most

When I was a pastor, I felt I gained more credibility with my church board—composed of mostly business people—when I could wax eloquent about the church’s “decadal growth” and the need to “target a young demographic” and create “revenue models” that would “ensure long-term stability” for the church.
Such is the culture we live in, where successful business people seem to enjoy really important work, and pastors, if they are not careful, will be chaplains, mere servants.
* * *
Eugene Peterson put it this way in The Contemplative Pastor: “The primary language of the cure of souls … is conversation and prayer. Being a pastor means learning to use language in which personal uniqueness is enhanced and individual sanctity recognized and respected. It is a language that is unhurried, unforced, unexcited—the leisurely language of friends and lovers, which is also the language of prayer.”

But the times I remember most, the times when my troubled soul has been most deeply affected and moved—outside of preaching and receiving the sacraments—have been when my pastor acted like a chaplain. When he pulled me aside in the narthex, put his arm around me, and prayed with me about some matter. When he visited me in the hospital. When in unhurried conversation I felt less alone, because I knew in a deeper way that God was present.
Some say that pastoral moments like these are like germs, and if we let such moments take over, they’ll make the church sick. I beg to differ. During such moments, the church is never more healthy. Read the Rest Here.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He also blogs at http://www.markgalli.com.

Kellner on Micah Goodman’s Maimonides

Menachem Kellner has a negative review on H-Net of the Maimonides interpretation by Michah Goodman of Ein Prat in his Sodotav shel Moreh ha-Nevukhim (Secrets of the Guide of the Perplexed) (Or Yehuda: Dvir, 2010). And speculates from his very outside perspective why this may appeal to an Israeli generation looking for spirituality. The first half of the review is an irrelevant chatty view of the diversity of approaches to the Rambam.

Who is the Maimonides presented by Goodman? He is a Maimonides who has no “grand narrative,” a Maimonides for whom God is the greatest threat to religion, a Jewish thinker for whom the Torah comes to serve as therapy–the main aim of the Torah according to Goodman’s Maimonides is to heal human beings, not to grant them philosophic certainty, since there can be no certainty about the central doctrines of religion (the nature or even existence of God, creation, providence and human suffering, among others). For Goodman’s Maimonides the Torah is only divine in the sense that Moses understood the nature of reality better than any previous human. For the Midrash, God looked into the Torah in order to create the world, while for Goodman Moses, as it were, looked into the mind of God in order to write the Torah.

The upshot of all this is to place human beings firmly at the center of philosophic attention (the culmination of a process which began with Descartes’ cogito–which is one of the many reasons I have trouble reading Maimonides in the same way that Goodman does). Goodman’s Maimonidean hero inherits all the roles traditionally ascribed to God, designing his/her own life, world, and consciousness. This heroic (Nietszchian?) human also takes control of the Torah, the text of which is no longer authoritative, since the interpreter takes control of the text. For Goodman, Maimonides no longer guides the reader out of perplexity; rather, he accompanies the reader on the route to perplexity (since only the philosophically unsophisticated individual can confront God and the cosmos without perplexity). Only the self-deluded think they have achieved certainty, and self-delusion is the greatest sin; hence, one assumes, for Goodman’s Maimonides–and quite clearly for Goodman himself–enlightenment of a certain type (acknowledging what Albert Camus would have called the absurd nature of the universe) is the highest virtue. Maimonides, who single-handedly created Jewish dogmatics, is presented as the greatest opponent of what Goodman calls the “dogmatic trap” (thinking you know what you cannot know).

Throughout this stimulating book Goodman uses language which, I fear, misleads many of his readers. He uses terms such as eros, sod, pardes, maskil, and expressions, such as the “redemptive character of knowledge,” and “spiritual journeys,” all of which mean very specific (and limited) things in a Maimonidean context, but which to a contemporary reader carry with them heavy overtones of Kabbalah. I am confident that Goodman does not mean to mislead, and equally confident that that is precisely what happens–and reading Maimonides in this mildly Kabbalistic key may be part of the explanation for the book’s success.

So, what sort of Maimonides does Goodman present to his reader? Simply put, a postmodernist, anti-Leibowitzian Maimonides (it is only after two-thirds of the book have passed that Goodman lets this cat explicitly out of the bag, insisting that his book is meant to save the true Maimonides from what one might call the hypermodernist reading of Yeshayahu Leibowitz). Leibowitz (1903-94), Israel’s most prominent pubic intellectual during the last third of the twentieth century, attributed to Maimonides (with some degree of justification) a Judaism in which God is entirely at the center, the Torah does not at all serve the needs of human beings (since it fundamentally involves a demand to live a holy, God-centered life, and has no binding theology). In Goodman’s presentation, we have a Maimonides for whom “the quest for certainty”–which, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel, motivated R. Sa’adia Gaon and subsequent medieval Jewish philosophers (emphatically including Maimonides)–is replaced with a quest for perplexity. In reading Maimonides in this fashion Goodman understands and presents him in terms appropriate to much of the contemporary weltanschauung. This is certainly one of the reasons for the book’s great success.

But there is more going on here than this. Sitting in shul this week I noticed a young man, recently married (and who has chosen to defer army service to spend more time in yeshiva), reciting the amidah prayer with his tallit over his head (rare in our circles) and with every indication of profound involvement in his prayer. Looking up from reading Micah Goodman’s book during the recitation of An’im Zemirot, one of the most “spiritual” passages in the liturgy, I noticed that this young man was also reading–a volume of Talmud. It struck me that standard Israeli Orthodoxy has no answer for a person seeking spiritual fulfillment: it is not that Orthodox Jews are necessarily spiritually unfulfilled, but that the spiritual fulfillment they find would be unrecognizable to anyone who looks for sublimity in mystically inspired poems like An’im Zemirot, rather than in abstruse Talmudic discussions.

Anyone familiar with Israel today is struck by the huge variety of alternative “spiritualities” on offer. These reflect a deep yearning for meaning on the part of many Israelis. Some satisfy this need by dropping out in Southeast Asia; others through adoption of Jewish Orthodoxy, including the eccentricity of Bratzlav; and yet others through the many varieties of non-standard religions which now dot the Israeli landscape. Indeed, my own university (Haifa) is running a huge conference (for the third year in a row) on new religious phenomena in Israel. Goodman’s Maimonides–skeptical, almost agnostic, latudinarian in consequence if not in intent, and therapeutic–taps into this yearning. Micah Goodman’s Maimonides is not my Maimonides, but his Maimonides certainly demonstrates the perennial significance of the Great Eagle for Jews (and perhaps, for Judaism). Read the Rest here.

Holy Ignorance part II

This post is continued from Part I here. I will start from the middle of the book where he deals with the change to religion even when embedded in a territorial enclave. This thread will be 4-5 posts. I am delighted to have Prof. Ferziger reading along to help discuss whether Roy’s theories match the Orthodox community. My comments are limited to the American community. So after reading it, does it apply to Orthodoxy? Which parts?

Roy thinks that in the 1970s-1980’s there was a turn to religion that could be considered a mass conversion, people re-affirmed their faith. People now become reborn, re-committed, and choose to stay religious even when their peers or siblings did not. In the Jewish case, people become Orthodox as choosing Orthodox over their Conservative upbringing, as BT, as actual converts, and as finding the Shabbos table or the learning appealing. The category of sociological believer disappeared for those who became religious. No longer were you Orthodox just because your parents belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. (It may be returning and I will deal with that in a later post.)

Roy thinks that there are four elements to religion and culture: religious markers, norms, religiosity, and theology.
Religious Markers are movable sign that show one’s allegiance to one group and rejection of another. Many of the debates of dress code or whose kosher supervision are demarcation of one’s community.
Norms are the ethics, morals, and values. Roy discusses how in the 19th century – even when France was becoming atheistic – the Christian and secular schools had the same basic values. There was a convergence on sexual abstinence, hard work and discipline. Now we have divergent values on sexuality where abstinence is no longer preached in secular culture, so sexuality becomes the marker of secular versus religious communities. The marker is more important than actual statistics. A secular math major is more likely abstinent than the revivalist teen who is likely to have children out of wedlock.
Religiosity is the lived inner world of religious feeling and the way believers define themselves with outside world. Threat of the outside or need for salvation. Are they separatist, good neighbor or humanistic.
Theology- are the beliefs, doctrines, laws, and edicts as passed down by the millennium as they are discussed in the classic books, interpretive communities are created and texts are interpreted. For Roy, most of the flashpoints and controversial issues discussed are not in the theology/halakhah group but in the religious marker group. Specific practices are isolated and used to demarcate, when they never had that function in the past.

Roy thinks that culture always has the marginal and deviances. Even religious communities had the misfits, the fools, the brothel, the period of carnival, homosexual behavior, and addiction. There were always outlets for mockery without upsetting system, places and times to sin without questioning the bigger system. The community, diocese or kehillah knew that it needed to be managed not restricted. People were also not expected to police the private life. Hypo-crisy is the sense of a low critical sense of the margins was always tolerated.

Roy’s new point is that the new religious societies of the last few decades suppress the marginal elements and deviations – they seek a purity of standard because one has converted or joined the group. If one did not want to keep the rules then one did not have to join. According to Roy, therefore the new communities , if they stay the way they are, are permanently instable because there will always be deviants. On the simple level- the meme of half-shabbos went viral because Orthodox Jews assumed or fantasied that once they choice to be frum then all future decedents will share their 1975 or 1990 moment of commitment to purity. Roy has more to say: “the conviction that all members of a society must explicitly share one belief system is absurd and can only result in permanent coercion.” If one is seeking purity then there will be doubt and suspicion of other people. Traditional society avoided an all or nothing approach by accepting sin. Think of the mussar books or Rav Nahman. One can no longer give a sermon that everyone is sinner even though that is the reality, but because we focus on religious marker of belonging or exclusion. There is a greater Calvinism even in Orthodox Judaism in that one is either saved or not; I cannot give a speech calling everyone a sinner or a sheketz anymore and preach that mussar is the means to right oneself. Sin is only outside the religious community. And virtue is only in the community. (111)

Roy thinks that secularization by itself does not change values. Even if one loses one’s belief then one can continue to have the same values. Roy thinks that this recent wave of religion has lead to an exculturation – when the religious no longer identify with the surrounding culture. It is no longer a place of synthesis but of fighting to keep the values of culture out.

In the past, the religious and the secular as well as the government shared values of a good life, good neighbors, educated and prosperous community. Roy arguing from his area of expertise shows how Islamic law did not negate the well-being of the social, intellectual, and economic realms. Islamic rulers reigned in shaariah by restricting it in certain areas, giving it loose interpretations, and by modeling it on and working with western law. In contrast, the new demand for shaariah is an abstraction w/o history and culture and without the actual working of community and law. You can say the law is whatever you want when it has no direct application to ruling a country. Islamic law becomes an alternative value system to outside pagan culture; a religious marker and not a religious law. If a religious law does not have a common horizon with society in a synthesis way then it is a religious marker and alternative value system. Much of this has similarities to the new formulations of halakhah. (113-115)

This return to religion separates religion and culture and creates religious markers isolated from any historical context, and a sharp break of believers and non-believers. Roy argues that real religion was never pure or isolated. Secular, other faiths, and deviants could define terms and give expression to religious words. The Jewish Enlightenment, Jewish literature, academia, and romantic appropriations were all once readily accepted. The meanings of Jewish thought, Halakhah, Hasidism, Midrash, or Talmud were defined by Buber, Agnon, Scholem, Yerushalmi, Idel or Menachem Alon- now there is a trend to limit the true meaning to those in the religious camp. They own the words. They can even ban the other side from using their proprietary words. For example Muslims in Malaysia are banning the use of the word Allah by Christians and Buddhists even though it was a linguistic or cultural use. I am sure that many Orthodox would ban the use of words such as halakhah by Reform Jews and they would not, if they knew, want to get their Hasidism from Buber. (118-119)

Chastity and abstinence were the religious norm in the Middle Ages and therefore the actual transgressions were a marginal problem because they did not challenge the system. People who transgressed knew they were deviants. In contrast, in the contemporary era sexuality is now a positive value for everyone. The ideals of marriage have changed for everyone and media and the internet keeps culture and religion on the same page. So in this current world, the Catholic Church’s voice and the haredi voice is inaudible. Therefore they are incongruent with current values against asceticism and abstinence. Roy claims that what used to be on the margins is now out in public. People display and coming out about their sexual orientation, there are pressure groups for acceptance of people’s orientations, and a shrinking of the private sphere.

Currently, people demand acceptance of their individuality and authenticity of their decisions. The same argument used by contemporary religion to argue for its acceptance. On the questions of the new sexual ethic and gay marriage, religion blames the pagan culture-it blames materialism, pornography, and selfish pleasure. In contrast, Roy argues that this is a fallout from the split of culture and religion, therefore the scandal is permanent. There is no realm of deviance in religion anymore to tolerate these changes, religious society always had its sinners. So when there are religious markers against sexuality or gay marriage they appear not as references from a past culture or the glory of noble traditions rather, they appear as dictates from a religious hierarchy devoid of pedagogy.

Roy gives two cases: The first case is that of a rural priest with family, which is clearly against the Church’s celibacy laws. But the local parishioners were all in favor of keeping him as their clergy because he was good at the job, they wanted an allowance for deviance. His second case are chastity rings or vows of abstinence that do not and cannot work to attain purity because of the gap of religion and the new culture.

On a more controversial note, Roy sees the problem of gay marriage not as a result of secularism but of religion’s removal of culture, there is no longer any realm for deviance. According to Roy, homosexuality made one of the greatest cultural shifts. It went from criminalized in the 1960’s to currently protected and to consider rejection of it as hate speech. It is now out in the open so this new religious world cannot assimilate it so it becomes a major religious marker. There are homophobic campaigns and anti-feminist campaigns. (125-6) These become the major signs of us versus them and religious demarcation. They are now used a the sign of purity of community more than prayer, study, or kindness. (128-129)

On a completely different note, Roy cites an Italian proverb that “a translator is a traitor” Judiasm has similar quotes on translation as kissing through a veil. Roy thinks that the new religiosity loves translation because it allows one to dodge the historical and cultural resonances of the text. The sacred text is now outside the cultural realm. Historical, linguistic, and literary knowledge is unnecessary if one has the correct religious purity of doctrine. The cultural realm of the clarity of writing is lost. In addition, one can portray past eras of history as entirely in conformity with the current vision of religious purity. (138)

To be continued in Part III