Monthly Archives: February 2012

Rabbis and Revolution- Michael L. Miller

One of the best academic books of 2010 was Michael L. Miller’s Rabbis and Revolution: The Jews of Moravia in the Age of Emancipation (Stanford University Press). It is an excellent political history of Moravian Jewry in the nineteenth century. Miller takes the well-trodden account of Enlightenment, Edict of Tolerance, and quest for Emancipation in Germanic lands and uses remarkable attention to detail to make it fresh. The book ends with the attainment of Emancipation and its immediate aftermath by Moravian Jews. As a second focus of the book, Miller fixes his sights on Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who was chief rabbi of Moravia in Nikolsburg during the fight for Emancipation.

Miller paints a vivid picture of life without Emancipation. Jews were subjected to numerous restrictions including the familiant laws of 1726 -1727 which only granted rights for a first born to marry, all other siblings had to marry clandestinely or to the new lands of Hungary to get married. They were 30% tailors, as well as glaziers and butchers, but most were traders. There were very limited numbers of stores or property and rental rights for Jews . Many Jews were village merchants and peddlers, which lead to a degradation of Jewish life. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch lamented how husbands and wives were always on road with their children elsewhere, they were not together even for holidays.

The Edict of Tolerance mandated elementary school with a curriculum of math, geography, German literature, and Enlightenment morality of universalism and productivity. Many Jewish schools in the Enlightenment spirit were set up. And Rabbinic figures such as Rabbi Eybeschutz, Landau, and Horowitz accepted this moderate haskalah. In Moravia, Mendelsohn’s approach worked. There was no anti- rabbinism among the Enlightened. And more importantly, there was no bunker mentality as developed in Hungary, western aesthetics were accepted, secular studies were the norm, along with the study of Hebrew and medieval works such as Albo. Chief Rabbi Banet treated these fields as extra-Talmudic accompaniments (parperaot le torah). Day schools had secular subjects but left Torah as traditional study with the addition of Bible and Hebrew. The Jewish studies was not put in the hands of anti-rabbinic approaches. In Moravia, even the maskilim remained in fold and were not connected to anti-rabbinic reformist tendencies. Banet’s successor Rabbi Nechimias Tribitsch was more reluctant to accept the Enlightement and was leading the rabbinate into a decline. Rabbi Hirsch was chosen as a modernist arriving to restore the glory to the Rabbinate.

Miller paints a nice picture of the modernizing rabbinic advocates of Enlightenment and Emancipation such as Hirsch. And has a nice presentation of the debates between Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch and Hirsch Fassel. They shared similar views of education and enlightenment and both firmly rejected the pre-Enlightenment Yeshiva approach to education but differed they over Jewish practice. Fassel criticizes Hirsch for including in his Horev the kabbalistic custom to look at one’s fingernails at havdalah and for maintaining the Shulkhan Arukh’s requirement to give oneself lashes before Yom Kippur. We see Hirsch at his best in his use of kabbalistic customs, not as a kabbalist, but as an anti-kabbalist who has a good phenomenological sense of synagogue ritual, like Franz Rosenzweig. (Hirsch displayed this same ritual sense in his first year in Frankfort where he almost lost the job for instituting Simhat Torah hakafot at night. He converted a Safed pietistic custom from a theurgic rectification to a children’s holiday of circling the synagogue for sweets.) Hirsch even allowed noisemaking on purim.

In contrast, Fassel wanted to abolish anything irrational and non- Talmudic and he wanted customs abolished if the acceptance was accidental, not universally accepted, or the conditions changed. (For example he abolished kitniyot in 1846 as rabbi of Prossnitz). Fassel is immortalized in Jewish literature as calling, in the course of this debate, Hirsch a siddur-lamdan and not a Rabbinic scholar.

Hirsch focused his efforts on synagogue reform in the spirit of the Enlightenment. He demanded that synagogue attendees wear clean clothes, prayer in unison, wear clean prayer shawls and not bring children under five into the synagogue. Hirsh modeled his service after his friend and colleague the Reformer Isaac Manheimer who devised what became known as the Vienna rite. The service was to have a male choir, the bimah moved up front, weddings in synagogue , and sermons in German. Manheimer created a Unity Prayerbook (Einheitsgebetbuch) of 1840. Manheimer, who preached in German and recited the poetry of Schiller, Lessing, and Goethe in his sermons, was close to Hirsch’s own aesthetic approach. Hirsch implemented an Enlightenment aesthetic of oratory, choirs, decorum, clerical gowns, patriotism, and the use of musical instruments for non-service special events. The lines not to cross were prayer in the vernacular (which was not a problem in Catholic Moravia), no organ during the regular service, and no liturgical change.

In this middle period of Nikolsburg, we see Hirsch working with and friendly with mild Refomers, working with the entire community (gemminde) and willing to follow the practices of Refomers and the Enlightenment. He did not share the prohibitions of the followers of the Hatam Sofer for adopting changes or copying the ways of the Reformers. As chief Rabbi, Hirsch even wanted to institute a modern scholarly seminary based on the seminary in Padua, eventually Rabbi Hildesheimer fulfilled this need for Germanic lands. (Even in Frankfort, Hirsch did not create any form of yeshiva and is best remembered for discussions with rabbinical students about German poetry).

As chief Rabbi, Hirsch sent his synagogue reforms to be posted in front of every synagogue which elicited much bad will. He was seen by the smaller communities as autocratic. And with an ironic twist to Hirsch claim of Orthodoxy as allowing one to realize Schiller’s aesthetic education for freedom, Hirsch was seen by the smaller communities as taking away freedom and was cast as the tyrant Gessler of Schiller’s William Tell.

Noah H. Rosenbloom claimed that sources to discuss Hirsch’s involvement in the events of the the 1848 revolution are sketchy. Miller, in contrast, documents in great detail how “Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his capacity as Moravian Chief Rabbi, was actively involved in nearly every stage of the struggle for Jewish emancipation from the outbreak of the revolution in March 1848 until the attainment of emancipation in March 1849… Hirsch was expected to oversee not only the religious and educational needs of his Moravian Jewish flock, but also their political needs.” Hence, Hirsch was one of the first modern rabbis whose authority derived not only from talmudic erudition, but also from his university education and his ability to serve as political leader of his community in the fight for Jewish rights. In both Oldenburg (1831- 1841) and Emden (1841- 1847), Hirsch had served as a political intermediary between the government and the small German Jewish communities.

Miller collected many of the primary documents in this political battle. On 20 March 1848, in a broadside addressed to “our Christian brethren,” Hirsch adumbrated the basic political philosophy that would guide him through the revolution: the Jews must be emancipated with the Christians as equal citizens, not separately as Jew.

Speak with us, for us and on behalf of us! Show that justice has become a reality in your bosom; show that you want to blot out the indignity of centuries, not just the indignity that you have suffered; no, also the indignity forgive [me] – that you have inflicted! Show that you recognize us as brothers just as we recognize you as brothers, and that you are not capable of enjoying your own rights as long as just one fellow brother still has to complain before God’ s throne that his right to be a human among humans, a citizen among citizens has been denied and trampled on God’ s earth.

Hirsch called for the creation of a unified Committee for Moravian Jewry as a kind of cohesive lobbying organization.

Throughout April 1848, “much criticism had been leveled at Samson Raphael Hirsch and Moravia’ s ‘modern rabbis Hirsch Fassel, Abraham Schmiedl, Moritz Duschak, and Abraham Neuda for their relative inactivity in the political sphere. As chief rabbi and presumptive leader of Moravian Jewry, Samson Raphael Hirsch received the bruntof the criticism – especially after a Sabbath sermon delivered in Nikolsburg in mid-April. As reported in several Jewish newspapers, Hirsch preached that only strict observance of religious rituals would save the Jews from the ‘swelling torrent’ of the times. In a traditional formulation correlating religious laxity with divine punishment, Hirsch called on Jewish women to cover their hair, reprimanded Jewish men for shaving with razors, and warned both sexes against drinking Christian wine

Hirsch served as a deputy in the Moravian Diet and worked closely with his Reform Rabbi friend Isaac Mannheimer a deputy in the more influential Austrian Reichstag. Hirsch delivered no dramatic speeches on the floor of the Diet, Yet he proved himself to be an impassioned advocate of Jewish rights in his behind-the-scenes interactions with Moravian Governor Leopold Graf Lazansk. Hirsch and Mannheimer kept a regular correspondence of politics and friendship from September1848 until March 1849, which is being prepared for publication.

In Miller’s opinion, Hirsch distinguished himself more as a champion of Jewish rights than as an expositor of Jewish law. And Hirsch’s autocratic approach lead to a breakdown of the chief rabbi’s authority as head of the community (gemeinde)authority replacing it with independent synagogues and greater lay decision making. This already foreshadows Hirsch’s later dislike of consensus and working with a geminde.

Miller also ponders a question that has always bothered me: Why do we have no Hasidism in Moravia if the disciple of the Magid of Mezerich Reb Shmelke was rosh yeshiva in Nikolsberg? Furthermore, many Hasidic leaders spent their time in the Yeshiva, including Moshe Leib Sassov, the Hozeh Jacob Isaac of Lublin, The Koznitzer Magid and Kalever rebbi. Why did not nothing rub off on the population? Miller summarizes the answers as follows. Chone Shmurek thinks that the linguistic difference between Moravian Yiddish and Galician Yiddish were an insurmountable divide. Gershon Hundret credited the rise of Hasidism to an adolescent youth culture seeking rebellion and religious experience and Moravia had an aging population. Michael Silber thinks that Moravians already had deep Frankist roots and were therefore weary of even newer spiritualism. And Miller adds without negating the other interpretations is that Shmelke was too somber and ascetic to lead a pneumatic revivalist group.

My biggest complaint about the book is that in many cases I wanted more. Miller mentions many rabbis in the smaller communities who wrote important works about whom I wanted to know more. Miler mentions how by 1829 – there was only one yeshiva left in the region from the dozens that were there sixty years prior. I wanted to know the small decremental decisions by which parents and local rabbis lost interest in yeshivot for their children. Miller covered how Herz Homberg’s catechism Bene Zion was too liberal and that later Moravia rabbis wrote more traditional versions even if they “viewed Jewish catechisms with deep suspicion.” They considered Jewish catechisms by their nature aiming to distill religion to its essence without an appreciation for the slow study of Jewish texts. Yet, this method of religious indoctrination was the way the majority of Western European Jews gained their religion, and their Orthodoxy. These study of these works remains a desideratum. Finally, I wanted translations of many of the important texts in the volume as an appendix. I know a handout of the Hirsch-Fassel debate or the political sermons would make the era come alive in the classroom.

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Leora Batnitzky’s How Judaism Became a Religion as reviewed by Jon Levenson

What happens when a professor of Jewish philosophy has to teach the historic survey of Jews in the modern era? They turn it into a semi-philosophic course by posing a philosophic question to examine as they move through the historical narrative. But do you publish the notes of your survey course?

Leora Batnitzky of Princeton University wrote How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to  Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2011) covered the historical narrative of modernity and used the philosophic question of how Judaism became a religion in the modern Protestant sense of the word. For Batnitzky, Mendelssohn removed the coercive body politic from Judaism and she returned to that time bound definition throughout the book even when discussing Eastern European Jewry, Zionism or American Jewry. Jon Levenson reviews the success of the book. I have selected Levenson’s discussion of the political aspects of Graetz and of Reform social action.

Levenson uses the second half of the review to ponder some of the bigger questions. What does it mean to be modern?  It is surely not just the temporality of living in the 19th or 20th centuries. Levenson takes issue with Jacob Katz’s treating Orthodoxy as entirely modern because it is self –consciously orthodox. There is a level where the Catholic church and Orthodoxy are less innovations than Unitarian universals. So he is baffled that Batnitzky calls Hirsch “the most modern of modern Judaisms.” Levenson invites us to begin to think about how traditional thinkers set up part of their thought as authentic, traditional, organic, set up other parts as modern, and in the middle employ a wide range of hermenutical and cultural tools to divide their positions into many parts. For example, Levenson corrected Batnitzky in that Rav Soloveitchik’s thought is dialectical, religion is public, communal, and corporate even as faith is non-communicable, Protestant, and private. Read his section on Hirsch below and answer Ernesto Laclau’s question: Were we ever modern? Why do say that? Would Jose Casenova or Asad see modern religion as privatized?

What Are They?: Modernity and Jewish Self-understanding- Jon Levenson
Commonweal February 24, 2012

Even apart from the thoroughgoing traditionalists (about  whom more later), reactions to Reform came swiftly. Henrich Graetz (1817–91), the greatest Jewish historian of the time (and perhaps ever), believed that traditional law was essential to the identity and survival of the Jews. “Judaism is not a religion of the individual,” he wrote, “but of the community.  That actually means that Judaism, in the strict sense of the word, is not even a religion…but rather a constitution for a body politic.” It cannot therefore be reduced to an abstraction like monotheism or anything so vaporous as morality divorced from history and normative tradition. Indeed, it is the study of history that discloses the spiritual power of Judaism and the Jewish people and the deep continuities between ostensibly diverse periods. In Roman Catholicism, perhaps  an analogy to John Henry Newman, Graetz’s contemporary, would be in order. In Judaism, his continuity lies with what in Germany was called the Positive-Historical School and in America, Conservative Judaism, which has traditionally put great emphasis on history and peoplehood, less on the particularities of observance, and almost none on theology.

Unfortunately, Batnitzky’s use of the term “political” is sometimes problematic. One difficulty with it is that the liberal positions that descend from Mendelssohn are not without a political agenda of their own. In the case of American Reform Judaism, for example, theological liberalism has long correlated with an activist agenda in support of “progressive” causes; more recently,  it has correlated with advocacy of positions on issues like  abortion and homosexual behavior that are at odds with the classical rabbinic teachings. This is not apolitical. It may, rather, be hyperpolitical, for it allows a new sociopolitical vision to displace the traditional religious norm

Sometimes, when Batnitzky writes “political,” she seems to mean “communal” or “corporate.” Whatever one calls it, the frame within which she views the many modern Jewish thinkers she discusses necessarily constricts her vision and requires her to give short shrift to important dimensions of their thought.

At times, I found myself wondering whether Batnitzky’s framework has not led her to judgments that are too quick and too sweeping, as when she claims that Soloveitchik (1903–93), the towering figure in Modern Orthodoxy in the twentieth century, “implicitly affirms a Protestant idea that religion is private and individual.”

Beyond her difficulties with Soloveitchik, Batnitzky seems generally averse to the more traditional religious responses to emancipation and too eager to make the highly dubious claim that Orthodoxy is as much “a modern invention” as the other varieties of Judaism in modern times. Noting, for example, the successful effort of Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–88), leader of the Orthodox community in Frankfurt, “to establish a separate community by seceding from the Jewish community recognized by the state,” she concludes that “Hirsch makes Judaism more like the Christianity of his time…relegating itself to private, confessional status”  and thus “leaves room…for a kind of religious pluralism,  despite his disdain for Jews who are not Orthodox.” But in Hirsch’s mind, the basis for the authentic Jewish community lies in something not private but public, not confessional but objectively historical—the revelation of the Torah and the normativity of its rabbinic interpretation. As he puts it, “the Law of God that Moses brought down to us…is also the only standard for testing a Jewish community to see whether it is truly Jewish.” This is as far from religious pluralism as one can get. That the adherents of the traditional law and theology in Hirsch’s time found themselves in a novel situation with the emergence of organized alternatives, can be readily granted, and so can the fact that some rather untraditional and historically inaccurate notes can be seen in his writing. But none of this justifies Batnitzky’s claim that “Hirsch’s Orthodoxy is…the most modern of modern Judaisms.”

For Batnitzky, the mere fact that a community exist in, and responds to, the modern world makes it “a modern invention” and even “modernity’s child.” Perhaps an analogy to Christianity can clarify the weakness in this way of seeing things. It is obvious that the Roman Catholic Church has changed dramatically over the centuries, especially in the past two. Modernity has clearly altered it—if not in its dogmatic core, then certainly in its apologetic strategies, institutional structures, and political relationships. But would it be reasonable to say that Roman Catholicism is therefore every bit as much a creature of modernity as, say, Unitarian Universalism? The historical reality in both the Christian and the Jewish cases calls for a subtler and more nuanced analysis, one that recognizes that modernization occurs across a spectrum and the past, to one degree or another, lives on in the present.

Daniel Davies, Method and Metaphysics in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

There is a new book on Maimonides that treats Maimonides’ Guide as a work whose intention is to show a reader a method of combining scripture and philosophy and purposefully leaving the questions open without an answer. The secret of the Guide is not philosophy to be kept from the scriptural masses or the secret of a specific answer, rather the open ended nature of the entire intellectual endeavor, even the interpretation of scripture is open ended. Maimonides takes the dialectic arguments of kalam and shows how to do it it better after reading the falasifa. Doing theology better means not to settle on simple answers. The new book does not focus on the metaphysical problem one at a time but takes in the entire project. I like the idea.

For example on the opinions of creation and prophecy, rather than debate the articles of Davidson, Kaplan, Harvey, Ivry, and Seeskin on how to line up the positions in  Guide part II, Davies says that Maimonides does not have an answer only a method. Davies accepts the article by Malino that Maimonides has no answer to creation because of the methodological limits and makes it a paradigm for the entire book. This is somewhat similar to the way Prof G Sermonetta presented the Guide commentary of the 13th century R. Yehudah Romano, as open ended interpretation. (Maybe, echoes of Albert the Great)

Davies also steers clear of Guttman’s Neoplatonic understanding of Maimonides on the Divine as well as the Aristotelianism of Davidison to read Maimonides as already pointing in Thomistic directions.  When  I get to teach using the volume, I will have a better sense of it.

Daniel Davies, Method and Metaphysics in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, Oxford University Press, 2011, 215pp., $65.00 (hbk),

Reviewed byJohn Inglis, University of Dayton

Davies does this is to move the focus beyond single issues. For example, in order to offer a fuller picture of the Guide, Davies devotes chapters to issues regarding the eternity of creation, necessity, negative theology, divine existence, divine knowledge, and a cosmologically important vision of Ezekiel. This widening of the discussion marks a significant difference from other approaches, but Davies has another card up his sleeve. Extending recent work on dialectic, he shifts the locus of contradiction to contemporary tensions between common opinions, many rooted in scripture, rather than contradictions grounded in shielding philosophical demonstration.

Davies argues that Maimonides challenges readers to consider completing claims that lie outside of demonstration, frequently based on the Torah. On this reading, Maimonides constructs a dialectical presentation across different topics in order to prepare active readers “to test” various opinions themselves. Since these issues often involve opinions rooted in the Torah, the task is to become skilled at untangling apparent contradictions and this requires extensive philosophical training and dexterity.

A longstanding difference lies between those who see Maimonides’s Guide as a philosophical break from earlier exegetical works and those who do not. By locating the seventh type of contradiction in claims often based on scripture and not on philosophical demonstration, Davies avoids both poles of this dilemma.

On Davies’s interpretation, the Guide remains philosophically and religiously important, because physics and metaphysics can approximate the inner meaning of the Torah. On this reading, Maimonides counsels exegetes in the Guide of the Perplexed to go beyond the face value of scripture by using philosophy to understand that to which scripture alludes. For ordinary people who lack philosophical training, a more literal reading of the Law provides a guide for the practical life.

One important issue taken to involve contradiction is the question whether Maimonides sides with the Torah on the creation of the world in time, or with Plato’s view of matter being eternal. In the not so distant past, historians presented Maimonides as a critic of Plato’s view and as adhering to the scriptural account that the world began to exist in time. But Maimonides also praises Plato for arguing that only matter and not the world is eternal (Maimonides 1995, p. 115). Shifting the focus to Maimonides’s praise for Plato works against his support for the view of the Torah that God created the world with a beginning in time. Should we read Maimonides as building contradictions into his text in order to mislead the orthodox, or is something else going on here? Maimonides also appears at one point to side with Aristotle over the Torah. For example, Davies considers Jonathan Malino’s argument that a careful reading of Maimonides lends support to the view that he in fact agrees with Aristotle that the world itself is eternal (pp. 31-32).

Many scholars dispute which philosopher it is that Maimonides thought got it right, but this is not Davies’s project. Neither does he argue that Maimonides sides with every opinion rooted in the Torah. Instead, Davies proposes that Maimonides trains philosophical exegetes to mine truth hidden in the Torah.

In the central chapters of the book, Davies widens his scope to consider positive and negative attribution in order to clarify that negative attribution does not contradict divine knowledge of particulars (pp. 54-55).

Davies offers a careful account of Maimonides’s account of the bounded nature of individual things and the good that results (pp. 73-77). A thing exists to the degree that it is good, and it does not exist to the degree to which it lacks the fullness of the good. Maimonides denies that God is limited in this way. Since creaturely existence implies limitation, Maimonides argues it is not accurate to apply existence to the divine in any positive sense. It is more accurate to deny of the divine the limitations of creaturely existence. Therefore, through negation we can reason out ways in which the divine does not exist under limitation. In this sense, God does not exist as creatures do, the sort of view that led Julius Guttmann to deny that Maimonides affirms divine perfections in any positive sense (p. 56). Davies counters this interpretation with the claim that while Maimonides is concerned in his Guide to sketch limitations on human knowledge, he does not deny positive attributes of the divine.

Davies’s challenge is to work up an account of Maimonides’s view of the uncreated existence of the divine that does not involve negation (pp. 79-80).

From Maimonides’s perspective of what human beings can know, Guttmann might have a point after all. Davies notes this difficulty when stating that since our words for Maimonides are so completely bound up with the limitations of the created order, we can speak only with “absolute equivocation” about the perfections of the divine (p. 82). But this view of human understanding does not threaten Davies’s point that Maimonides affirms positive perfections in the divine including existence, even if he is unclear regarding what this amounts to. There need be no contradiction between a reliance on negative attribution in human understanding and affirming positive attributes of the divine. Davies’s contribution is to construct arguments for how this works for Maimonides, arguments that Maimonides alludes to and often does not spell out.

In his conclusion, Davies presents the Guide not as a work of philosophical contradictions calculated to hide truth from the uneducated, but as a work for religious and intellectual training. He argues that there is no gulf between religion and philosophy for Maimonides as they are “mutually complementary” to one another (p. 157). Read the rest here.

Sarah Hammerschlag, The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought, Reviewed by Jonathan Judaken

Are Jews a perpetual outsider, “other” or stranger? Are Jews rootless individuals or communal? We have an important new book exploring the theme of Jew as outsider in French Jewish and non-Jewish thought and a great review of that book by an expert on Sarte’s Zionism. There are other, less focused, reviews out there, but this one captures both the value and limits of Hammerschlag’s volume. I was going to post this last month and did not get to it.

Sarah Hammerschlag, The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought, University of Chicago Press, 2010, 298pp., $25.00 (pbk).

Reviewed by Jonathan Judaken, Rhodes College

Sarah Hammerschlag’s The Figural Jew offers an insightful new interpretation of how a cluster of postwar French thinkers (Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, and Jacques Derrida) represented Jews and Judaism in their thought. To do so, she zeros in on the figure of the wandering Jew. Ahasverus, an icon of the medieval Christian imagination…
The Wandering Jew embodies the figure of the Jew as nomad, stranger, outsider: the uprooted. As such, Ahasverus represents the antithesis of the French nation. This is true for both the universalist Republican legacy of the enlightenment that emancipated Jews in the French Revolution and for the integral nationalist tradition that stems from Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras.

Hammerschlag seeks to explain how, over the course of postwar French thought, the trope of the wandering Jew, which once served as a quintessentially anti-Semitic icon, was revalorized. Here is her narrative in a nutshell: it began with Sartre’s celebration of an existentialist conception of Self as diasporic. Levinas buttressed this notion with a moral gloss. Blanchot gave Levinas a literary twist that emphasized the figurative elements of the trope. Derrida then gave full play to the self-conscious tropological deployment of the Jew.

For Hammerschlag, there are three key aims to following the trail of the wandering Jew in postwar French thought:
First, to show how Sartre and Levinas mined the resources of anti-Semitism and exploited them in order to define an ideal that could be differentiated from both nostalgic nationalism and the rhetoric of universalizing humanism. What is generated in the process is a figural Jew, an archetype for a new kind of difference in particularity whose function is to suggest that there is a positive moral valence to resisting the discourse of belonging that dominates both the universalist and the particularist versions of political identity (18, emphasis added).

The second aim is to show that in the self-referentiality that figurative discourse entails — that in pointing to Jews as figural — Sartre, Levinas, Blanchot, and Derrida, along with their deconstructive ilk, avoid repeating the dynamics of exclusivity and anti-Semitism through their repetition of Jewish tropes. I will say more about this below.

Hammerschlag rightly praises the central strand of Sartre’s Réflexions, which argues that Jewishness is represented as an intensification of the existentialist’s choice. The Jew is rootless; he is a stranger; he is defined and determined by the gaze of the other. The existentialist hero embraces his circumstances and the freedom and responsibility that exist therein. He does not flee; he chooses and engages. The Jew, as the stranger, as a ‘type who has nothing, no homeland,’ has a function like Kafka’s hero (93).

To her detriment, however, Hammerschlag does not consider Sartre’s long and sustained defense of Zionism and Israel. From 1948 through to his final days, Sartre was an articulate defender of Zionism as a Jewish liberation movement. In one of many statements that make the same point again and again, he wrote:

I will never abandon this constantly threatened country [Israel] whose existence ought not to be put into question. . . . I know that my stance earns me the enmity of certain Arabs who cannot understand that one is able to be at the same time for Israel and for them (Jean-Paul Sartre, “Ce que Jean-Paul Sartre avait dit à ‘Tribune Juive'”).

Sartre laid the philosophical ground for this position in his Réflexions sur la questions juive, where he insisted that Zionism represented one form of Jewish authenticity. Wrote Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew:

he may also be led by his choice of authenticity to seek the creation of a Jewish nation [nation juive] possessing its own soil and autonomy; he may persuade himself that Jewish authenticity demands that the Jew [Juif] be sustained by a Jewish national community [communauté israélite].

Does not the stance that Sartre took on Israel and Zionism force us to question Hammerschlag’s reading of the figural Jew in his work?[1]

A similar complaint can be made about her interpretation of Levinas. Since what Levinas presents for Hammerschlag is “a philosophy of uprootedness” (119), she is critical of the ambivalence in Levinas’ own position on the State of Israel (see 161, for example). She is troubled as well by the legacy of some of his followers, like Benny Lévy, whose Judaism was defined by a return to orthodox forms of communal ritual observance (see 163, for example).

Lévy complained in his last work, Être juif, that Levinas had too often emphasized the universalist trace in his writings about Jews. Part of what attracted Lévy, the former leader of the French Maoists, to Levinas’s thought was his references to the authority of the Talmud and Halachah (Jewish Law) in his Jewish writings. Clearly entailed by this form of Judaism (in all its permutations) is communal observance: the daily ritual life of Jewish prayer, the shared study of Jewish texts, holy days, and adherence to the ceremonies of the Jewish life cycle.

To cite only one reference of countless in which Levinas calls for revivifying Jewish communal life, we can turn to his essay, “How is Judaism Possible?” In it, he surveys a set of communal institutions that can help revitalize the Jewish community, including new types of Jewish schools, youth movements, Jewish studies in the academy, yeshivot integrated into a Jewish higher-education system, and the State of Israel as a prod to Jewish community building:

The community needs truths that generate life. It needs a doctrinal and philosophical teaching that can be given on the level of cultivated minds. This teaching . . . can be created only by the community itself. It must be sustained, if need be provoked, at all events co-ordinated and unified. Pluralist tendencies do not exclude the unity of the institution in which they might be grouped (“How is Judaism Possible? in Difficult Liberty, 251).

How then do these twin issues of Sartre’s and Levinas’ defense of Israel and Zionism, coupled with Levinas’ advocacy of Jewish communal life sustained by rabbinic Judaism square with Hammerschlag’s rendition of the story of the figural Jew? Clearly Sartre and Levinas were both advocates of modes of Jewish communal life that do not always neatly tear apart the mythic and the figurative.

Glossing these incongruities, in the end, Hammerschlag hangs her hat on a specific deconstructive trajectory that her book rightly celebrates:

First appearing in Blanchot’s texts, and later developed in various directions by Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Georgio Agamben are visions of community that refuse both the universalizing and the particularizing options. What all these figures have inherited from Blanchot is a resistance to and suspicion of communal fusion, a suspicion, that is, of the modes of identification that bind people to a group, whether through territory, language, culture or ethnicity (263).

The risk is that her radically immanent readings, attentive to the deconstructive thrust of her argument, miss the contextual specifics that led Sartre and Levinas to make the claims in their work that augur against Hammerschlag’s reading of that work.

Indeed, without the broader context as an indicator of how writers understand the meaning of the word Juif, I remain unsure about how one disentangles the mythic from the figurative use of images of Jews and Judaism. Barrès clearly recognized that the Jew in his texts were “figural.” He was aware that “Jew” or “Jewish” could be deployed as an adjective that embodied a whole complex of forces. He said so. The texts of Shakespeare and Augustine and St. Paul suggest the same thing. So whether writers recycle myths about Jews and Judaism or creatively disrupt these figures of exclusion depends a great deal on not only what they said, but also how they said it, and crucially in what contextual frame.

What Hammerschlag misses, however, is the anomaly that perplexes some of those interpreters. What in the body of Sartre’s thought enabled him to both critique racial essentialism and reiterate anti-Semitic tropes of Jews and Judaism? How could the thinker whose core insight is “existence precedes essence” himself trot out essentialist stereotypes of Jews and Judaism?
[1] See Jonathan Judaken, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question: Anti-antisemitism and the Politics of the French Intellectual, Nebraska, 2006, chapters 4 and 8. Read the rest of the long Review Here.

Redemption through Judaism: A Shabbat Guest of Frankist Lineage

The Research of Pawel Maciejko’s The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement 1755-1816 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) set out in clear terms in the course of events that created the Frankest movement and sustained it into the nineteenth century. (My blog post on the book here.)

Frankism is a known part of Polish history when a group of Jews converted into Catholicism and entered the lower nobility (szlachta) and gained title and land. They accepted a spirituality that transcends any one religion. Maciejko claims that in the nineteenth century they became a “mutual aid society” lacking much of the original doctrinal elements. From this article, it seems that Jewish conversion to enter the nobility between 1764-1788 also included many non-Frankist Jews and they later intermarried with Frankist families. Conversion into the nobility allowed many wealthy Jews advantages for land ownership, having serfs, and legal securities.

Recently, however, I had a guest for a Shabbat meal who was a descendent of a Frankist family. He has had an Orthodox conversion years ago. This is not a common occurrence, so I asked a few questions. He recounts how his mother spoke often about kabbalah. As a young child, he asked his mother if they were Frankists, telling his mother that he asks because no other Catholic families discuss Kabbalah as their legacy. His mom repeatedly answered No! they were not. When he grew older, one day his mother turned around in the car and said that yes indeed! they were Frankists. My guest, however, notes the family’s gentry name on the aforementioned list of non-Frankist conversions.

My guest remembers that his mother spoke often about kabbalah- but it was actually a midrashic reading of Genesis emphasizing the magical qualities of the Garden of Eden, angels, and the original state of nature. For example, according to midrash fruit trees originally tasted like the fruit they produce. Everything created was originally holy. The most explicit Kabbalistic doctrine was that God had to contract (tzimzum) to make a place for human actions.

In general after the Romantic era, non-Jewish Polish gentry saw themselves in Biblical terms . And in his words: “Almost at every Polish home I know people would talk about the fact that Jewish nation is special and chosen – that comes from romantic vision that Polish nation is the Christ of the nations or like Jewish People because of it’s suffering and unique history.” For examples, think of Henry Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis

However, the telling sign of Jewish lineage in this case was the magical power of the Hebrew Language and greater emphasis on the Old Testament. The mother spoke of the holiness of the Jewish people and the Hebrew language, both extraordinary for a supposed Catholic family. She spoke less in the way of Poles as the chosen Israelites and more about a separate people.

They kept no Jewish ritual, except for some vague acknowledgment of Friday night. She kept a separate pot for warming milk and would not use meat pot but would put butter on meat.

Unlike the typical Polish devotion to the humanity of Christ and the sacred heart, in this family Jesus was portrayed as a religious Jew – practicing and teaching Judaism- and as part of the Rabbis. Jesus taught a doctrine of the need for each of us to rebel against organized religion.

There was a general concern for dreams and spirituality. Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish spiritual author, whom Jews consider to be of Frankist descent, was a family favorite.

The gentry had deep ambivalence and mood swings on the subject of Jews or those of Jewish heritage. My guest said:” In my family they were afraid to be connected with the Jewish People both in religious and in national sense. At this same time there was feeling that something is lost, a sense of disconnection and secrets.” Polish Romanticism with its mixture of facts and fiction, history and sensibility, and the Bible with mysticism had many Jewish elements real and imagined. The Romanticism simultaneously painted Poles in Biblical terms, acknowledged Jewish elements in blood and culture, had a romantic spirituality with “kabbalistic” elements, and also had an exclusion of real Jews. To be of actual Jewish lineage created a surreptitious sense of dislocation.

There was an emphasis on gentry etiquette rules in order to maintain honor and keep separate from the peasants.

During WWII, the Nazis shipped most members of the non-Jewish lower nobility and intellectuals to work camps and most of the older gentry families, along with those of Frankist lineage, were killed in Polish uprising in Warsaw. His grandfather was repeated checked the Nazi to see if he was circumcised, he wasn’t and had paper as gentry.

My guest did not know of any ethnographic studies on late twentieth century Frankists families the way there are studies about the Donmeh. The closest we have is Mateusz Miesus (1938). Polacy–Chrześcijanie pochodzenia żydowskiego, who pointed out as many Catholic Poles of Jewish origins in order to show that Jews are not a separate race.

For those looking for some Frankist tisch Torah,the entire work of over 400 pages translated is available here- Yakov Frank, (1978) Sayings of Yakov Frank. Harris Lenowitz (trans.).
For articles on conversion as a means to enter the gentry and not as the libertine interpretation of Gershom Scholem, see Abraham Duker, “Polish Frankism’s Duration: From Cabbalistic Judaism to Roman Catholicism and from Jewishness to Polishness,” Jewish Social Studies 25 (1963): 288–301; Abraham Duker, “Frankism as a Movement of Polish-Jewish Synthesis,” in Tolerance and Movements of Religious Dissent in Eastern Europe, ed. Béla Király (Boulder, Colo., 1975).

(siteowner- some of the non-historical details have been changed to preserve this person’s privacy.)

Updates:
I received an email about another similar case.
In addition, Pawel Maciejko commented “I know quite a few people from well known Frankist families in Poland. All of them were told by their parents about the FACT that they come from Frankist families. But I have never met anyone in whose family some specifically Frankist tenets or traditions were preserved. In other words, none of them knows anything of Frankism (or of Judaism, for that matter), unless they independently learned about it from academic publications. As for your guest, it is interesting what he says about his mother keeping a separate pot for milk. The late Avraham Duker has some great stuff about descendants of Jewish (not necessarily Frankist) converts in Poland preserving some vestiges of kashrut for dozens or even hundreds of years. Finally, as for the Polish nobility, what you are saying is generally true, but is not linked to Romanticism. Already in the late 16th century you have families of szlachta who trace their genealogies back to King David. You had ennoblements of Jewish converts long before the Frankists and you had Polish noble families acknowledging their link to the Jews.”

Interview with Menachem Kellner

Last month, I posted an interview with Daniel Boyarin. To which, I received an email from Kellner shocked that I would interview a non-Zionist who supports enemies of Israel and whose rhetoric was putting his family in danger (see below). To which I answered, that Boyarin is currently the doktorvater of several of my most academically successful students. But, how about an interview for your many readers? He agreed.

Menachem Kellner, Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, and Senior Fellow at Merkaz Shalem in Jerusalem, studied philosophy and Jewish philosophy at Washington University (St. Louis) in 1973. Kellner’s Ph.D. dissertation, written under the direction of the late Steven S. Schwarzschild, was on ” Civil Disobedience in Democracy: A Philosophical Justification.” He also studied at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL and at Yeshivat Merkaz Ha-Rav Kook in Jerusalem in the early 60’s.

Kellner’s works include Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism. (London: 2006 Revised paperback edition: 2010.) Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought (Oxford 1986; Hebrew translation, Jerusalem, 1991), Maimonides on Human Perfection (Atlanta, 1990), Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People (Albany, 1992; Serbian translation, Belgrade, 2000), Maimonides on the “Decline of the Generations” and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority (Albany, 1996), Must A Jew Believe Anything? (London, 1999 — a Koret Jewish Book Award finalist; 2nd, expanded edition, 2006); the editor of Contemporary Jewish Ethics (New York, 1978), The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild (Albany, 1990).

Much of the debate around Kellner’s work focuses on his mistitled Must a Jew Believe Anything? It seems from the interview and the new Afterword that the goal of the book was to create greater acceptance of the non-orthodox by removing dogma from the equation. But I am not sure that the strategy worked. Kellner’s response to Daniel Statman in the Afterword shows that the book he wanted to write would have looked like this.

1. Commitment to the peoplehood of Israel (klal yisrael), strong enough to overlook differences.
2. A theory of non- Orthodox peoplehood to account for the traditional mesorati, the masses, and the populous. It would have looked to formulate a democratic Judaism like Rabbi Hirchenson or a view like Rav Amsalam.
3. A vision of peoplehood without ontic status or metaphysical difference, one that can connect with the Jewish past and future.
4. Keeping mizvot as the basis of peoplehood to follow God’s command, and produce a stable and structured society. Mizvot without preconditions of belief or authority. “If they were to forsake me, I should forgive them, for they may yet keep my Torah. For if they should forsake me but keep my Torah, the leaven that is in the Torah will bring them close to me.”
5. Kellner wants a Jewish peoplehood stronger than Torah, personal religious experience, or individual fulfillment. He would have to deflect the claims of those who do not put peoplehood before Torah or individual commitment such as Rav Soloveitchk, Levinas, Rav Nahman, or the Kotzker.
6. For Kellner, Modern Jewry is fractured due to challenge of modernity. The Orthodox leadership has been poor and allowed and encouraged the fracture.
7. Therefore, the use of the Mishnah of Sanhedrin to exclude those who don’t believe is unwise and self-destructive to Jewish peoplehood, even though our modern leaders used it. We should not use categories created to combat against Karaites and Sadducees today to combat Reform and Conservative Jews. We need to reject Rabbinic sectarian thinking.
8. Finally, he has to convince his readers that pluralism is wrong and relativistic. And that his standard is not patronizing to Reform, Conservative, Renewal, traditional, non-zionist, and other Jews who favor pluralism.

It seems that Kellner was motivated by points 1, 6, and 7— and that he thought that if he removed dogma then we have enough to substantiate 2, 4, 5, and 7. Statman pinned it down.

Menachem comments: To reply to these points would involve rewriting the book; it is easily available for people to read and judge for themselves.

If Kellner’s motivation was to stop exclusion of Reform and Conservative Jews, then he seems to have bypassed the actual texts that create the exclusions. All the documents were legal and not dogmatic: from the Hatam Sofer calling Reformers Karaites to Rav Moshe Feinstein calling them minim, halakhic sectarians to Rav Soloveitchik saying that they are outside the halakhic legal tradition.The Hazon Ish was speaking about their lacks of halakhic observance not their lack of dogma. In each case it is the halakhah that decides. If Kellner wanted to be inclusive, then say “God or Torah accepts the mizvot of all Jews.” In email correspondence with Kellner, he stated that all of these cases were motivated by dogma, it was the heresy of Reform or Conservative, not the halakhah. Since the halakhic authors all relied on the precedents against Sadducees and Karaites then they are about dogma. I double checked Rav Moshe for a start and read it as legal not dogmatic. For Kellner, since an ordinary Jew who drives to shul can get an aliyah but a Reform Rabbi cannot makes it about dogma.

My own personal opinion is to side with Saadyah and Bahye on the existence of Duties of the Heart and beyond that my views can be can be gleaned from my long questions such as numbers three, four, six, seven, eight and eleven. I also do find disputes over dogma in Judaism. A social historian may reduce them to politics, paedeia, purity, and power, but that would work just as well regarding Christian heresy hunting. And the leading copied book of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologia was “the book of sales and acquisitions.” I would also recommend historic discussions of what was a sectarian such as Aharon Shemesh. Maimonides has kalam, falasifa, and sufi arguments about dogma which were blurred.

I do not find that belief and dogma were sufficiently defined. I could exclude most Christian texts. And all the followers of “dogmatists” such as Karl Rahner or even Avery Dulles would find the rigid definition foreign. Most academics who follow in the lines of Bourdieu, or Certeau follow Pascal’s statement as understood by Althusser: “kneel and pray, and then you will believe”. For Althusser, beliefs and ideas are the products of social practices, not the reverse. What is ultimately important for Althusser are not the subjective beliefs held in the “minds” of human individuals, but rather the material institutions, rituals, and discourses that produce these beliefs. More importantly, today I was reading a volume about the transition from Evangelicals to Emergents and the author stressed, seriously stressed, that it is invalid to ask “What do Evangelicals Believe? And that the only valid question is: :”What beliefs and practices are the focus of Evangelical interest, whether they agree or not.” Belief or not – you are still of the same discussion.

Finally, Kellner thinks that Boyarin has written himself out of the Jewish community by giving sympathy to the Palestinian cause and drawing an analogy in the loss of faith between the Holocaust and the Occupation. Much as some Christians said that their religion died at Auschwitz, Boyarin fears that “Judaism may be dying at Nablus.” Steven S. Schwarzschild, Kellner adviser was a liberal anti-Zionist of the Reform- ethical variety. However, Kellner rejects Boyarin for, in his words, going beyond mere anti-Zionism by twisting facts, supporting murders and those driven to destroy Israel, as well as his rejection of attacking Hamas. “Daniel Boyarin and the Herd of Independent Minds,” in Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor (eds.), The Jewish Divide Over Israel: Accusers and Defenders (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2006): 167-176.) and here are some online links of Kellner’s politics:
“Israel Reverses Gravity,”; “The War in Lebanon: A View from Haifa,”; “Resisting Falsehood and Protecting Integrity” (Reply to Omar Barghouti, “Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Why the Academic and Cultural Boycott?”); “Israel’s Gaza War: Five Asymmetries.”

1. Your dissertation was on ethics and human rights, what happened to that early interest and writings? Do you recognize the immense role your volume on Jewish ethics had in shifting the field to halakhic ethics?

My dissertation, completed in 1973, was on “Civil Disobedience in Democracy – A Philosophical Justification,” written under the direction of the late Steven S. Schwarzschild at Washington University in St Louis, MO (one of three major influences on my life, the other two being my father, Rabbi Abraham Kellner, z”l, u-tibbadel le-hayyim arukhim ve-tovim, my wife, Jolene S. Kellner). The book you mention, Contemporary Jewish Ethics, grew out of my interest in ethical matters (don’t forget, I am a child of the sixties), out of my teaching religious ethics at the University of Virginia and in consultation with my friend, David M L Olivestone, then editor of the Hebrew Publishing Company. I had no idea that the book had any role, let alone an “immense” one, in shifting the field to halakhic ethics, but I will be sure to tell my wife.

2. What motivated you to write Must a Jew Believe Anything?

Actually, to the best of my recollection, it was
(a) annoyance with the ads the Chief Rabbinate would put in newspapers here in Israel every year before the yamim noraim, warning people not to attend services in Conservative or Reform synagogues. It seemed to me then (and seems to me now) that the Rabbinate would prefer to see secular Israelis spend Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur at the beach or on picnics than in non-Orthodox synagogues.
(b) growing concern over the way in which Orthodoxy, by drawing ever sharper lines of demarcation, pushes Jews away from Torah instead of bringing them closer.
(c) a number of experiences made me realize that the “tinok she-nishba” solution, while well-meaning is deeply patronizing, as well as making very little sense in today’s world.

3. Solomon Schechter and others wrote that Judaism does indeed have theology and dogmas but we have no Council of Nicea for fixed dogma, no dogmatic works, and no inquisition or magisterium. But we do have doctrine. In your afterword, in replying to your critics, you seem to have the same position as Schechter but you label it as “We don’t have to believe rather than “we have dogmas without dogmatisim” Why?

Dogma is a device for determining who is “out”. I think that the demand of the hour is finding ways of keeping Jews “in”.

4. You Maimonides is not Ibn Sina and al Farabi. You seen not to use the intellectualist Neo-Platonism of the Guide of the Perplexed. And both Halevi and Maimonides are reliant on al-Ghazzali and ibn Sina. You seem to have a philosopher’s typology of rational and irrational, natural and supernatural, action or belief that does not correspond to the complexity of the historical data. Are you reading Maimonides thought through the dogmatic lenses of your early work in dogmas in the 14th and 15th century?

Look, you may be right, but you must admit that Rambam invites us to read him in that way. Let me rephrase that. I am writing a book in Hebrew right now, proving (to my complete satisfaction, and, I hope, the satisfaction of my readers) that for Rambam there is no metaphysical, ontological, upfront, innate, etc. difference between Jew and Gentile (as my friend Danny Lasker likes to say, the difference for Rambam is all in the software, not in the hardware). I have been publishing on this for many years; in this new book I address the issue through a very close reading the first, middle, and last halakhot of the Mishneh Torah. The first sentence of the book is: “Maimonides did not know that he was a universalist.” It is obviously the case that we ask questions of Rambam that he may not have asked himself, and we try to follow the implications of his thought to places he may have had no need or interest in getting to (for example: his “proto-feminism”). We are not living in the twelfth century.

5. Does everything boil down to “mymonides” and “yourmonides?”

Hardly; some interpretations make more sense that others, and some are simply ridiculous (for an example, see the discussion in Hakirah 11). I am quite taken with a method proposed by the philosopher Susan Haack (in the context of an argument against epistemological relativism); I see Maimonides’ writings as a kind of crossword puzzle. At any given point in filling out a crossword puzzle, a number of different solutions might satisfy any given hint. But that does not make all solutions equally reasonable. As Haack notes, “How reasonable a crossword entry is depends on how well it is supported by its clue and any already completed entries; how reasonable these other entries are, independent of the entry in question; and how much of the crossword has been completed.” Reading Maimonides as a particularist, for example, demands the revision of a great many already completed entries in the Maimonidean crossword.

6. Rabbinic texts are filled with theological material as read by Schechter, Heschel, and Idel, and the texts of Tanhuma, Pesikta, and Kallir are filled with theological statements. It seems that you are using a 20th century halakhic definition of the rabbis.

Of course there is theological MATERIAL in rabbinic literature ( how could there not be?), but there is no SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY in two sense of the term: (a) an attempt to get clear on the meaning of theological terms (such as “soul”; “free will”; “creation”; “reward and punishment”; “election”) and
(b) there is no attempt to put these (largely inchoate) ideas into any relationship with each other, thus allowing for out and out contradictions, which bother no one. In sum, theology is an answer to questions which did not trouble Hazal one bit.

7. You seem to accept the Buberian distinction between belief and trust and his rejection of dogma, even though you protest that you are not. You accept the rejection of the medieval tradition. I cannot find significant differences between your position and Buber except for the halakhah. Furthermore, you repeat your heavy dependence on Buber in the Irreconcilable Differences? volume, in that case distorting Christianity.

My understanding is that Buber’s distinction is too sharp: Christians also prize trust in God, and Jews do not adopt an “anything goes approach” in matters of belief. But, overall, he is right: emunah means “trust” more than it means “intellectual acquiescence”.

8. You seem heavily dependent on the historical premise that the pressures of modernity causes an intolerance, yet there are lots of 13-18 centuries debates and exclusions over dogma. There were two centuries of Maimonidean debates and then recurrences in 16th- 18th centuries in Poland and Italy. For example, the Gra excommunicated Hasidim because of theology and successfully kept them out of Lita!

It is simply not the case that there “are lots of 13-18 century debates and exclusions over dogma.” As I point out in my book on dogma, Rambam “published” his principles in roughly in 1168 and before 1391 there were next to no “debates and exclusions over dogma.” So, it is hardly surprising that I asked myself why this was the case. Ditto for the lack of “debates and exclusions over dogma” between 1492 and the beginning of the 19th century. As to the Gr”a, you know better than me, but was theology really the main issue between him and the Ba’al ha-Tanya?

9. Are there any orthodox leaders, writers, or thinkers who you follow or inspire you?

Rabbis Marc Angel, Yehudah Amital (z”l), Haim Amsalem, David Bigman, Yuval Cherlow, Edward M. Davis, Ronen Lubitch, Haim Navon, Jonathan Sacks and many others. I am sure that there are others and apologize to those whom I have inadvertently left out.

10. Why have you taken up the case against Torat Hamelekh?

Because:
(a) it is a disgusting book
(b) it adds insult to injury by implying that Rambam would agree with them
(c) it is dangerous, giving rabbinic imprimatur to murderous tendencies

11. It seems that you want your cake and to eat it too, you want to be a universalist but through particularistic texts. You avoid pluralism or non- Jewish texts about universalism for a Jewish universalism in which non-Jews will eventually see their universalism through Judaism. You seem to have a very particularistic universalism?

The following is not a direct answer to your question, but it is a good way to end anyway. It is the closing paragraph of an article of mine in a festschrift coming out in honor of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

While not giving up on the idea that revelation (be it Jewish, Christian, or Muslim) teaches truth in some hard, exclusivist sense, putative addressees of revelation ought to be modest about how much of it they understand, and restrained in the claims they make on behalf of revelation and about adherents of other religions.

Admittedly, it may be easier for a Jew to advance this position than for a Christian or a Muslim. This is so for several reasons. First, until the Middle Ages, at least, Jews sought to understand how God instructs them to inject sanctity into their lives, and paid very little attention to the question of how God expects them to think. Given the notion that the Torah contains many level of meanings, and the profound differences among Jewish thinkers about the nature and content of those meanings, a stance of theological modesty ought to be easier for Jews to maintain than for adherents of more clearly theologically based religions.

Second, given the nature of Jewish-Gentile relations over the last two millennia, Jews had very little reason to look to Gentiles for spiritual enrichment. We, however, live in a different world, and I thank God for that.

Last, Jews, not thinking that one must be Jewish in order to achieve a share in the world to come, have traditionally paid little attention to the beliefs and practices of others. But, having left the ghetto and the mellah, we live in a world very different from that of our forbears and, looking around, discover admirable Gentiles from whom we can learn much. We are no longer alone.

The Lord of all the Universe is not too great to have revealed the Torah to us, but is certainly too great to be captured by our puny understanding of Torah. To claim otherwise is to be guilty of cosmic hubris, and to close ourselves off to the possibility of being enlarged by meetings with others who also seek God and whom God does not ignore.