Monthly Archives: April 2012

Three Hirschian Novelists

When I was writing on other faiths,  I posted often on that topic. Now that I am working on Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy, I keep posting on interesting points in the German Orthodoxy chapter.

Hirschian Orthodoxy like novels about Orthodoxy.  Last year, we discussed those of Hirsch’s daughter Sarah Guggenheim and those of Rabbi Markus Lehrman.  I came across a wonderful article by Michael Brenner, East and West in Orthodox German –Jewish Novels. Leo Baeck Institute Annual 37/1 1992.  In the article, he deals with three authors who, unlike Lehrman , attempted to answer the issues of the day- Selig Schachnowitz, Pinchas Kohn, and Isaac Breuer.  I fleshed the post out with some material from Morgenstern’s book.

Selig Schachnowitz thought the world of urban Frankfort  and its Orthodoxy was ideal. In 1912 novel Luftmenchen, he paints a dystopic vision of Eastern European Jewry. They either have no education or only a Yeshiva education so they are assimilating and becoming communists. The only safe answer for a Yeshiva graduate is to come to the West and become Orthodox. The Russian Talmud bakhur needs to be turned into a civilized human being. Rude students need to be cultivated into Hirschian Orthodoxy, where Yosef Karo, Friedrich von Schiller, and Yehuda Halevi meet. The ideal is to be a successful businessman who keeps the mizvot and marries a day school teacher.  In other works, he anachronistically painted the 18th century as Hirschian and even painted the Hatam Sofer as Hirschian. Schachnowitz was uberHirsch is his writings.

Pinchas Kohn  was a key figure in the birth of the Agudah, anti-Zionist and anti-gemidne. In his 1915 novel he extols the pastoral life of rural Jewry. He yearned for old time 18th century Jewry–pre-Hirsch rural life without culture, refinement, or education. He glorified the magic and superstition of the 18th century Jewish rural life. The genuine Jew does not require German culture, sermons, or seminaries, but is a natural Jew.  He became the editor of the Hirschian Agudah journal.

Isaac Breuer  wrote several novels in the 1920’s were he expresses his disgust with the Hirschian community.  His protagonist criticized their concern with German culture and superficial ritual observance. Breuer paints the Hirschian community as living the same lives as the Reformers; they only differ only in the outer appearance of their lives.

He criticizes the Bourgeois culture of the Hirschian college associations who alternate between beer drinking bouts and Talmud study. He thinks finance and a Torah-true life do not, and can not, go together. He paints Hirsch as against his own will founding a bourgeois Orthodoxy.

For Breuer’s era, Schiller & Goethe had been replaced by crude materialism and nihilism, leaving little to emulate. Besides having anti-Semitic undertones, this new materialism bred skepticism. In addition, the middle class life was requiring more hours and greater commitment, leaving no time for any Torah study.  Breuer blamed it on the decadent superstructure of capitalism.  America was the worst. (AB- think of the Brecht-Weil Opera Mahogany.) He is disgusted by Hirschian materialism where Torah im Derekh Eretz means that on Shavuot people consume great quantities of cheesecake, rather than appreciate revelation.

In the story, Breuer glorifies Ost-Juden, he prefers a society of women and grandmothers to the mechanical observances of the Hirschian businessmen, and he creates a scene where a simple Ost-Juden dairyman teaches the protagonist Talmud in a way that the Hirschain community Rabbi could not.

He painted the opposite of the Hirschian philistinism the even worse community of nomads who need an organization to lead them. He saw the Agudah and Rosenheim as an organizer, a pejorative opposite of the need to be a living organism and people.  Breuer answer is to create a non-capitalist religious Torah state in Zion.

Already, in a 1907 story, an orthodox university student leaves university for a few weeks at home with his extended Hirschian family, a philistine among philistines.  He sees the only ones who care about Zion, anti-semtiism, Torah, ideas, and Sinai are the college Orthodox students. Hirsch in Deut 4:25 had warned against becoming part of the land and Breuer applies it not to Reform but to the Hirschian community.

I am not sure about the other authors, but since Breuer wrote dozens of books and hundreds of essays we can use a new anthology of his untranslated essays.

Jewish Solidarity in the Holocaust?

In last week’s Forward, we read the following in a review of a recent Holocaust encyclopedia.

In the village of Iwaniska, for example, we read with consternation that “Orthodox and liberal Jews continued infighting to such an extent that both groups assisted the Germans by preparing lists of their opponents, whom they claimed were not complying with the German orders.” Ultimately, however, as their situation grew more perilous, younger Jews from this community — contrary to the urging of their Hasidic elders — decided to slip out of the village and hide in bunkers in the forest.

This deep lack of solidarity among Jews is discussed in the important book Tzvetan Todorov’s Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps. The book discusses many of the important points obscured by Elie Wiesel stories. Todorov shows how people did not change immediately in a single “night,” they maintained many ordinary virtues. These ordinary virtues like art, music, religion, helped people survive (as Frankl and Berkovits claimed).

Todorov asks whether it is true the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulags revealed that in extreme situations “all traces of moral life evaporate as men become beasts locked in a merciless struggle for survival”(31–46). However, in his reading of actual survivor testimonies, Todorov says the picture is not that bleak, that there are many examples of inmates helping each other and showing compassion in human relationships despite the inhumane conditions and terror. Survivors point out that survival always depended on the help of others. For example, righteous gentiles who saved Jews were usually husband wife teams, the husband had the virtue of courage to engage in smuggling and defiance and the wife had the virtue of compassion.

Those that survived needed people to help them. But Jews could not automatically rely on other Jews. All Jews were not saints, nor are they sinners for us to judge. People  are complex.(similar to Maus) We are all fragmented human beings.

On the topic of solidarity, Bulgarian non-Jews saw the country’s non-Jews as Bulgarians- showing that solidarity was not Jew vs non-Jew. Todorov says: Solidarity is no more than a quantitative extension of the principal of self interest; it is the selfishness of the collective. Acting with a group doesn’t make you moral to Todorov, but it does in Wiesel’s thought.  (Would you consider the solidarity activities of NYC Jews as moral?)

Todorov, the humanist, asks the difference between humanity and solidarity.  He shows that in troubled times/places, solidarity is important to survive.  But in ordinary times we need humanity not to have a paranoid or vengeful society. In the war, solidarity was important but Bulgarian non-Jews showed it with their Jews. However, Polish or Hungarian Jews had no solidarity at all with French or Greek Jews. They could leave them to die or considered them of little concern.   Wiesel creates this fuzzy idea that all Jews, especially Hasidism had great solidarity the world’s Jews and their suffering.  Todorov shows that none of the eyewitness or survivor stories show that. The secular Jew on a transport with orthodox Jews is left to die.

There are many other important discussions in the work, but the Forward quote clearly brings Todorov to mind.

Chava Weissler: Havurah Neo-Hasidism vs. Renewal

Chava Weissler who is writing a book about Jewish Renewal and was recently interviewed in Zeek. She offers a nice distinction between the cerebral Neo-Hasidism of the Havurah movement with their emphasis on textual study and the ecstatic approach of renewal where even Artscroll is emotionally moving.

CW: I often use the following metaphor: the Havurah movement represents the Misnagdim and the Renewal movement the Hasidim of the Jewish counter-culture. The style of the Havurah movement is more cognitive, and the style of Renewal is more expressive and devotional. Also, the Havurah movement has a deep aversion to the “rebbe” model, while the Renewal movement has seen it as a way into a heightened spirituality.

ZEEK: The Hasidim/Misnagdim analogy is a fascinating one, though I can see how some folks in the Havurah movement might have bones to pick there.

CW: Especially because we saw ourselves as reinstating Hasidism, or parts of it. Some years ago, a well-known Renewal teacher taught at the Havurah Institute. I asked him how he felt it compared to the Kallah and Renewal. And he said, ‘the havurah movement is so unspiritual, it really bothered me… when they have a study class, they go in, open the text, study, close the text and you’re done. When I teach a class, we sit in silence, we open our hearts to the text, we sing a niggun, we study the text, we process what’s happened to us, then we sing another niggun and sit in silence again to receive what we’ve received.’

My havurah friends were outraged that he would say the Havurah movement isn’t spiritual! But it’s a different model of spirituality and also of study. The point of the study is — and this isn’t so true in the higher-level classes, but — the point of the study isn’t primarily intellectual.

ZEEK: I think that in a lot of Renewal retreat experiences, we’re trying to reach people who may not have access to the traditional model. I know that fifteen years ago if someone had handed me an Artscroll I would have been lost. These days I’ll happily daven out of any siddur, because if it’s in a Renewal context, I know there’s going to be a lot of heart even in the most traditional structure.

Rabbi Yosef Blau gives a Yom Haatzmaut D’var Torah at the Encounter Gala

On Yom Haatzmaut Last Year, Rabbi Yosef Blau gave a speech at the gala for Encounter. The Encounter program bring American Jews and Israelis to meet Palestinians in the West Bank- to get to know one another as people. They describe themselves as follows:

While the Jewish commu­nity continues to be one of the most influ­en­tial stake­holders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most American Jews have never met a Palestinian, nor seri­ously encountered Palestinian narratives or perspec­tives. Influential segments of the American Jewish community advo­cate for solu­tions to the conflict and educate the next gener­a­tion about it in complete isola­tion from Palestinian people and claims. This infor­ma­tion vacuum perpet­u­ates our failure to bring about real, viable solu­tions and further­more, research demonstrates that simplistic advo­cacy efforts are driving away our next generation’s engagement with the Jewish community and their commit­ment to Israel.

Underlying all of Encounter’s work is the core belief that inno­v­a­tive strate­gies for peace will be created only when influ­en­tial stake­holders in a conflict have oppor­tu­ni­ties to meet one another, toopen them­selves to previ­ously disre­garded points-of-view, and to develop rela­tion­ships across polit­ical and ideo­log­ical divides.

Rabbi Blau had recently been on one of their trips to the West Bank and describes as his Yom Haatzmaut message what he learned from a Palestinian businessman in Ramallah. Note his conclusion in the last paragraph.

D’var Torah by Rabbi Yosef Blau at the Encounter Gala

Judaism is a complex blend of partic­u­larism and univer­salism. As a Religious Zionist leader, committed to Israel as a Jewish demo­c­ratic state, I felt it impor­tant to learn directly from the Palestinians with whom we share living in the Land of Israel — to broaden my under­standing of the land so central to my passionate and reli­gious concern. Encounter created this opportunity.

I want to share a message of Torah by opening with a corre­spon­dence that I had with a Palestinian leader I met on my trip. After the attacks in Itamar, I exchanged emails with Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American busi­nessman living in Ramallah. We did not always agree, but the dialogue was conducted in a spirit of mutual listening and respect. I wanted to know his response to the massacre. His response captured the danger of demo­nizing an entire popu­la­tion, the impor­tance of seeing our so-called enemies person-by-person and one-by-one. He wrote me that when in 2004–5 the Israeli Defense Forces was bombing Ramallah with F-16s during the second Intifada, he told his young daugh­ters that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was piloting each bomber plane flying over their heads. It was the only way he could think of to convince them that this was not being done by “Jews” or “Israelis”, but rather one indi­vidual political/military figure who was respon­sible. He wanted to teach them to direct their anger at one man and one man only; he refused to allow his daugh­ters to perceive all Israelis as war-mongering and violent.

This message is espe­cially rele­vant today, on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, preceded yesterday by Yom Hazikaron,

Remembrance Day, commem­o­rating those who fell in the wars fought to create and main­tain the state of Israel. How are we guided by our Sages to cele­brate mili­tary victory and Israel’s Independence? What is the Jewish atti­tude toward our adver­saries in a time of war and loss on both sides?After the split­ting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers Moses and the Israelites sang Az Yashir, a song of celebration. According to the Talmud, the angels want to sing as well, but G-d stopped them. “My crea­tures are drowning and you want to sing.” G-d teaches His chil­dren to affirm the humanity and dignity of our adver­saries, even in the face of violence and war.
Our foun­da­tional Biblical story of being freed from slavery sensi­tizes us to the humanity, dignity and suffering of all other human beings. In the context of war and grief, our foun­da­tional commit­ment is most tested and stretched. Many of us begin to reduce the world’s complexity to black-and-white terms. But to do so is to forget G-d’s message that all humans are His crea­tures. Encounter forced me to confront the humanity of those who had been “other”- to inter­nalize their humanity emotionally. This is perhaps one of the greatest expres­sions of this core message of our Torah.

Click here to see a video of the speech and for the introduction he was given by the head of Encounter, Rabbi Miriam Margles.

Any Thoughts on that last paragraph?

Lost Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan part III

Continued from part I and part II.
Ari Kahn has provided another link in Kaplan’s biography, which led to an article that provides everything up to 1965. Now our only gap is 1967-1970. (Ari- Can you ask Fleer about those years?)
Kaplan address a question to Rav Moshe Feinstein when he took a job teaching at the non-orthodox community day school in Louisville, KY. The school was the Eliahu Academy in Louisville, it was the liberal community school, so he could assume his students would come by car on Shabbat. There was also the Orthodox day school called Talmud Torah.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein commented on the Teshuvah
Rav Moshe Feinstein relates to our issue in Igrot Moshe OC vol.I, responsa #98 and #99 (pp. 159-160). Rav Moshe writes [in response to a question (#98) posed by Rav Aryeh Kaplan] that one who invites people who drive on Shabbat to participate in a minyan, transgresses the prohibition “Lifnei iveir lo titein mikhshol” (Do not place a stumbling block in front of the blind) because of his involvement in their Shabbat desecration. He goes a step further in responsum #99 and claims that besides transgressing lifnei iveir, one who invites another to do something that inevitably involves desecration of Shabbat is defined as a “meisit” (one who incites another to sin). For the rest see here

This factoid allowed the following biography to show up in google.

Mason City Globe Gazette , April 3, 1965 

Welcome Rabbi and Mrs Leonard Kaplan Joseph and Ronald

They came from Maryland

Welcome to the Kaplans

Books were an important part of the belongings which Rabbi and Leonard M Kaplan brought with them when they moved to Mason in Februrary.

Not only were there books of general interest religious books scientific books but cook books Mrs Kaplan is a cook book collector

The with children 21 month old Joseph Michael and 10 month old Ronald Myer came from Hyattsville Md when Rabbi Kaplan began his service with the Adas Israel congregation

He is a nuclear physicist as well as a rabbi and was engaged in research in Washington DC.

This is his first pulpit Rabbi Kaplan received his BS degree from the University of Louisville Ky

His theological training was at Yeshiva Torah and Mirrer Ye in New York He was ordained in Israel While in the seminary he taught for a time at Richmond Va and in the Bronx.

Following his ordination he was engaged in religious teaching at Eliahu Academy in Louisville.He accepted position with the US Bureau of Standards in Washington and continued his education as a predoctoral student in research grants from the National Science Foundation and the US Air Force

The Bronx is Rabbi Kaplans hometown Mrs Kaplan is from Marigold Miss..

Reading and photography and making scrapbooks are hobbies with Rabbi Kaplan.

The Orthodox Jew as Intellectual Crank- David Singer

The writings of Rabbi Isaac Breuer and his student Barukh Kurzweil bring to mind an interesting article from twenty years ago on the idea of someone formulating their Orthodoxy as simultaneously sectarian counter-society and at the same time an advocate for secular society. This approach avoids conjunctives and synthesis; it also avoids two complimentary but non-concordant realms. Those two options of synthesis or irreconcilable, we discussed in an earlier post. In this options one goes in both extremes on the same topic- secular literature is demonic but we devote ourselves to it as a religious quest, Zionism is forbidden but we must build up the material base of a Torah state. The article deals with both Kurzweil and Leibowitz, but I have culled out the discussion only about the former. There seem to be a variety of younger Orthodox rabbis who are cultivating forms of this positions.

The Orthodox Jew as Intellectual Crank- David Singer

First Things aug/Sept 1990

The question I want to raise is this: Is the crank element—what I shall hereafter refer to as “crankitude”—that manifests itself in the work of Kurzweil and Leibowitz merely a reflection of personal idiosyncrasy or does it point to something more significant?

At the same time, one cannot help but notice that being a crank helps them to function more effectively as Orthodox thinkers— crankitude provides them with nothing less than a full-fledged intellectual stance. In short, my thesis is that Kurzweil and Leibowitz have elevated personal idiosyncrasy into a stylized cultural response—a response that permits them, at once, to take modernity with full seriousness, but also to reject modernity in the name of Jewish faith.

To better appreciate the nature of the enterprise that Kurzweil and Leibowitz engage in as Orthodox intellectual cranks it would be useful to consider the categories employed by sociologist Peter Berger, the leading academic analyst of the modernization process. Berger argues that religious thinkers have available essentially three types of response to the challenge of modernity: “cognitive retrenchment,” “cognitive bargaining,” and “cognitive surrender.” Cognitive retrenchment is the sectarian option, calling for a conscious rejection of modernity as a dangerous heresy. The thinker taking this position in effect states, as Berger puts it: “The rest of you go climb a tree; we believe this, we know this, and we are going to stick to it. And if this is irrelevant to the rest of you, well, that is just too bad.” In cognitive bargaining, in contrast, “there are two conflicting views of the world and they start to negotiate with each other”; an “attempt is made to arrive at a cognitive compromise.” Finally, there is cognitive surrender, in which, in Berger’s terms, “one simply accepts the fact that the majority is right, then adapts oneself to that point of view.”

Most Orthodox thinkers operating in a modern framework have engaged in one form or another of cognitive bargaining. In sharp contrast, Kurzweil and Leibowitz offer us the model of Orthodox intellectuals managing to combine—in equal measure no less—cognitive surrender and cognitive retrenchment. This, to put it mildly, is an astonishing intellectual feat… at one and the same time, embrace and reject modernity.

On the bibliographical side, it is important to note that only a very small sampling of the writings of Kurzweil and Leibowitz are available outside the Hebrew language. This has begun to change, however, with the appearance of James Diamond’s very fine English-language study Baruch Kurzweil and Modern Hebrew Literature This fact underscores the point that the work of these two Orthodox thinkers, in its origin—though certainly not in its reach—is inseparable from the Israeli context.

Proposition 1: The Orthodox intellectual crank centers his work on a religious problematic defined in rigidly either/or terms.

In Kurzweil’s case, this problematic is the absolute gulf separating the world of pre-modern religious faith from the secular outlook of modernity. For Kurzweil, modern and secular are synonymous, and it is the rise of secularization that has made modernity an age of permanent crisis. The starting point of Kurzweil’s thinking is the assumption, as Diamond puts it, that the “only absolute in human life, human history, and human culture is faith in the living transcendent God.” In the absence of faith—which is what secular modernity has brought about—human existence loses its one sure anchor, opening itself to what Kurzweil variously calls the “void,” the “absurd,” and the “demonic.” (These are key terms in his lexicon.) The meaning of this change, as Kurzweil sees it, is described by Diamond in the following manner:

In this new setting man is thrust into a cosmos bereft of certainty. He lives now not in the presence of God but of the abyss, of Nothing. The individual ego becomes the center and gradually enlarges to fill the void. Man for the first time conceives of himself as an autonomous being who is self-sufficient. There is no transcendent source for values and morality, nothing to hold in check man’s instinctive capacity for self-aggrandizement, hubris, domination and destruction. . . . Now man is utterly alone, beyond all values and all relationships with society or his fellow-men—yet he is unsatisfied. He has lost his soul but failed to gain the world, for the demons are insatiable.

A key element in Kurzweil’s thinking is the notion of “late return,” which occurs when an individual, caught in the web of modernity, seeks to escape his situation by turning back to a life of pristine faith. It is just here, however, that the either/or element comes to the fore, in that Kurzweil takes it for granted that no such return is possible for the vast majority of moderns. Kurzweil is not an evangelist calling for the restoration of religious faith; rather, he is a diagnostician of secular unbelief, describing what he takes to be the permanent condition of modern man. If Kurzweil devoted his career to the study of modern literature, it was because he saw it as offering telling testimony to this very condition.

Kurzweil’s interpretation of modern Hebrew literature is clearly set forth in Our Modern Literature: Continuity or Revolt? In this work, now a classic in the field, he argues decisively for the latter position. The emphasis here is on radical discontinuity, on modern Hebrew literature as a product of secularization and the collapse of religious faith.

 Kurzweil mocks those who fail to see the “difference between the sacral world of traditional Judaism, in which the Divine Torah structures the totality of life activities, and a world which has become secularized in its totality but still preserves individual corners of interest in religious elements and subjects.” The former—the “sacral world of traditional Judaism”—is the domain of the “vision,” while the latter—a “world which has become secularized in its totality”—is the place of the “void.” Modern Hebrew writers, in Kurzweil’s view, sort themselves out most fundamentally by their varying responses to the confrontation with the “void.”

Proposition 2: The Orthodox intellectual crank displays radical openness to key aspects of the modern experience.

In Kurzweil’s case, this is the openness he shows to modern literary expression in all its forms. Far from spurning modern writing as the illicit fruit of the secularization process, Kurzweil lavishes endless attention on it, producing a body of literary criticism that is nothing short of massive. More importantly, it is also first-rate. Kurzweil’s critics are legion, but even the severest of them would have to admit that he was the very model of the engaged literary scholar.

Consider, then, the strange phenomenon of an Orthodox intellectual identifying the realm of heresy and then settling in for the lifelong study of it. A study, moreover, carried out in loving detail and with a considerable amount of imaginative sympathy for the heretics. That certainly is what Kurzweil offers us in his literary criticism, which yielded brilliant analyses of the work of, among others, Bialik, Brenner, Tchernichovsky, Greenberg, and, of course, Agnon. All that Kurzweil asks of his writers is that they testify honestly to the confrontation with the “void” and the “demonic”—wherever that takes them. What he could not abide, however, were attempts at evasion, such as he saw in the younger generation of Israeli writers. Kurzweil took it upon himself—as if. he needed any prodding!—to expose their “snobby immaturity and inflated nothingness.” With a straight face, he declared Amos Oz’s My Michael to be more dangerous to Israel as a nation than all the Arab armies.

Proposition 3: Despite his receptivity to key aspects of modernity, the Orthodox intellectual crank’s ultimate allegiance is to a version of Orthodox Judaism that negates the basic thrust of the modern experience.

In Kurzweil’s case, this is the meta-historical vision of Jewish history advanced by Samson Raphael Hirsch and his grandson Isaac Breuer. Kurzweil first befriended Breuer during his years in Frankfurt, when, in addition to attending the university there, he enrolled in the yeshivah that Hirsch had founded in the nineteenth century.

Breuer affirmed this model as well, but more importantly, he taught Kurzweil to oppose all attempts at the secularization of Jewish life. When Kurzweil argued that “Jewish existence without God is the Absurd with a capital ‘A,’“ he was directly echoing Breuer. More generally, Kurzweil followed the Hirsch-Breuer school in regarding Judaism and the Jewish people as meta-historical realities. In this view. Diamond explains, the Torah is “God-given, a timeless absolute that transcends the limitations of human history. The Jews, therefore, exist for the sake of Judaism; Judaism does not exist for the sake of the Jews.” “Kurzweil’s commitment to a meta-historical fideism,” Diamond rightly concludes, “is antipodal to the perspective [of] most Hebrew literature in the twentieth century.”

It is precisely here that Kurzweil’s famous attacks on Ahad Haam and Gershom Scholem come into the picture. Kurzweil saw these two “arch culprits” aiming at a secularization of Jewish life, an enterprise he saw as nothing short of “demonic.” To struggle within the world of the “void,” as did modern Hebrew writers, was one thing; to establish the “void” as the new foundation for a Jewish life, as did Ahad Haam and Scholem, quite another. Against this tendency, Kurzweil was unsparing in his criticism, referring to the “palpable absurdities of the Ahad Haamist philosophy.”

 This was child’s play, however, compared to his polemic against Scholem, whose sins, in Kurzweil’s view, were threefold. First, he employed historicism as a tool to relativize the Judaic absolute. Second, he assigned “demonic” mysticism a position of importance in the framework of normative Judaism. Third, and most important, he legitimated secular Zionism as an expression native to Jewish history. “There is no more penetrating proof of the absurdity of our time,” Kurzweil railed, “than the fact that Scholem is today the spokesman for Judaism.”

Proposition 4: Crankitude is a coping mechanism that enables the Orthodox intellectual crank to maintain a reasonable equilibrium in a situation of extreme stress.

From everything that I have said thus far about Kurzweil and Leibowitz it should be evident that theirs is not a placid synthesis of Orthodoxy and modernity à la Samson Raphael Hirsch.

 On the contrary, their encounter with modernity is characterized by sharply conflicted feelings, by powerful attraction on the one side and violent rejection on the other. The crucial factor here is the element of simultaneity—the fact that Kurzweil and Leibowitz feel drawn to and repulsed by modernity at one and the same time. It is no exaggeration at all to state that the measure of their attraction is the measure of their repulsion, and vice versa. It is precisely this tension that makes the work of these two Orthodox intellectuals so fascinating, and, I would contend, that accounts for their crankitude.

Rabbi Isaac Breuer on Rabbi SR Hirsch

In the discussion of Rabbi Grunfeld in a prior post, the contrasts with Rabbi Isaac Breuer were not immediately obvious to my readers. To further discussion, Rabbi Isaac Breuer wrote a 15 page essay on the importance of his grandfather Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.  (Jewish Leaders ed. Leo Jung, pp 163-177). The essay does not claim to be Breuer’s views but those of Hirsch.

Breuer paints Hirsch as a revolutionary great man directing history to move forward.  In fact, Breuer declares every great historical personality is a revolutionary figure. True Jewish revolutionaries do not rebel against God’s law but against the material social conditions, which have to be overthrown to change. The revolutionary masters the new conditions – and then break the mold in advance of the rest of his generation.  Other nations may rebel against their religion or law but the Jewish revolution keeps the law as eternal. The law is Divine, not the will of the people. Just as one cannot rebel against the laws of nature we cannot rebel against the Divine law.

Breuer reminds us that at the close of 18th century and start of 19th century there was a change in society with astonishing new modes of living. There was a Renaissance of individualism and granting of rights to the individual. Liberalism, capitalism, and science were each a challenge to the old order.

Mendelssohn was only a puny evolutionary and not a revolutionary who overthrew the system. The old rabbis denounced enlightenment and Emancipation which was futile before the change in the material culture and Reform was an illegitimate incorrect revolution.

According to Breuer, revolutionaries are never theoreticians; they work with facts and proceed with actions. Therefore, Hirsch does not set out a presentation of his views or a justification. He did not even have to articulate or develop his views. And he did not need “far-fetched” halakhic justification.

Breuer removes the conjunctive from Hirsch’s legacy – there was no combining of Torah and Western culture. Hirsch did not try for balance, synthesis or the richness of a fuller education.  According to Breuer,  Hirsch wanted absolute domination of the divine precept over the new tendencies of civilization. There can be no collateral rule, and no tolerance of anything else after the revolution Hirsch took liberalism, capitalism, and science and led them to flames of Torah.

Only his epigones, his second rate imitators turned Torah and Derekh Eretz into byword or motto. There is no time when derekh eretz was not the province of Torah- it is prerequisite for Torah, so there is no need for coordination or synthesis.  (In our contemporary language, everyone is embedded in culture , in the manifestations of that civilization).

What was revolutionary about Rabbi Hirsch was the incomparable courage he displayed in detecting the dwindling of one civilization (derekh eretz), and in grasping the need for a new one…” and then judging it by Torah. He was revolutionary in that he prevailed over centuries old custom which thought of Torah as part of a different derekh eretz. He is to be judged therefore not by his relationship to externals like secular studies or socio-politcal realities but by his revolution.

Hirsch  was not bound to a new derekh eretz or a definite derekh eretz. Hirsch’s new derekh eretz meant a new way of life. His achievement was the “re-conducting” the Jewish people into its own history- the aim of which is no other than the establishment of the Divine state.”

For Breuer, Hirsch was the first national Jew of modern times- before Herzl. The middle ages was a civilization of wailing and suffering- absolute passivity.  Only a small part of human life was used.Hirsch saw the need to create scientists and physicians and businessmen for the operation of the state.  To most people looking at his work with a naked eye, his work in the diaspora (galut) had no connection to Jewish national history. In reality, it was working toward the establishment of a divine state based on divine law on Zion. The spread of Torah over all of life can only exist in a divine state. Hirsch’s vision is a renewal of the ancient proclamation of the Divine sovereignty over Jerusalem and new Jewish individual  with a new many sided derekh eretz under the sole rule of divine precept for the coming divine state.

Breuer acknowledges that what he says does not appear in the vast Hirschian corpus. He finds a hint in one in 19 letters of a restored Torah government.  Breuer sees Hirsch’s Commentary on the Pentateuch as a blueprint is for the coming divine state. It has a history that shows modern decadence stemming from the  Falls of Adam in the misuse of his free choice, Noah’s story shows on cultural decadence, and the story of Babel shows usurped state sovereignty by a collective.-It shows the dangers of universal history without divine precept.  Hirsch’s  explanations of sacrifice, purity, and social law are as blueprint for the state. (AB-On this one he would have to cite examples because the simple reading of these explanation is for the ideal bourgeois life of education, work, and family life. Also notice how much Schopenhauer weltschmertz pessimism Breuer accepts, compared to Grunfeld’s liberalism).

Breuer writes that only fools cold think that those who freed us to perform the divine precepts are could fetter us with German derekh eretz. Hirsch did not accept German culture alongside Torah. If Torah ve derekh eretz was Torah and Western civilization, then if the later fell in WWI there would be a revolt against the combination. Hirsch’s derekh erets is now further revealed in the derekh eretz of the land of Israel. If you view the tragic events of WWI Germany as marking the collapse of Hirsch’s thought – then you don’t know Hirsch. Hirsch was a call for a return to Zion long before our people were ready.

Now the only choice is the materialism of the Zionists, including the Religious Zionism who only look at the material causality or the meta-Historic Divine state. There is no third way. It is either a Divine state as envisioned  by Hirsch’s meta-historic identity or if the materialists win we will need Divine grace.

As one can see from the opening of this essay, Breuer owes a debt to his reading of Marxist texts and theory.  He was so enamored of Marx that he called him the Kant for economic/social theory. Breuer uses direct quotes from the Manifesto and other famous works.  (In contrast, Dayan Grunfeld thought that all a Jew needed was Kant ). He is somewhat of a Leninists in expecting the leaders to be in the vanguard of the nation.  Elsewhere in his writings Breuer writes that the revolution will come from the workers, hence his concern with the Ost-Juden. For Breuer, Marxism as just materialistic- whereas we have a divine service when the revolution comes. At this same time, the Frankfort School was meeting regularly in Frankfort. Leading Orthodox rabbis such as Nechimias Nobel and S B Rabinkow preach a Jewish socialism.

Breuer’s Divine state is a bit more indigestible if it had come to be. On one hand, it is Spengler meets TS Elliot’s Christian culture, but on the other hand Sayyed Qutb uses similar Marxist arguments to bolster an Islamicist revolution against the West.  For more on Breuer’s Marxist background, see Matthias Morgenstern, From Frankfurt to Jerusalem Isaac Breuer and the History of the Secession Dispute in Modern Jewish Orthodoxy; On the warm personal relationship of Breuer and Franz Rosenzweig, both of whom believed in an eternal Israel, were ahistoric, and anti-Zionist , see Rivka Horowitz,  “Exile and Redemption in the Thought of Isaac Breuer,” Tradition 26 (1992)

Breuer’s son became mainstream Mizrachi, albeit of a more Torani variety, teaching German Jewish History at Bar Ilan after a stint teaching in the Horev school in Jerusalem. But Breuer’s thought was continued in the literature department of Bar Ilan by his disciple Barukh Kurzweil who characterized his mentor as abounding in “paradoxes and contradictions.”

Barukh Kurzweil studied at Solomon Breuer’s yeshiva in Frankfurt and the University of Frankfurt. He founded and headed Bar Ilan University’s Department of Hebrew Literature until his death.

Kurzweil saw secular modernity (including secular Zionism) as representing a tragic, fundamental break from the premodern world. Where before the belief in God provided a fundamental absolute of human existence, in the modern world this pillar of human life has disappeared, leaving a “void” that moderns futilely attempt to fill by exalting the individual ego. This discontinuity is reflected in modern Hebrew literature, which lacks the religious foundation of traditional Jewish literature: “The secularism of modern Hebrew literature is a given in that it is for the most part the outgrowth of a spiritual world divested of the primordial certainty in a sacral foundation that envelops all the events of life and measures their value.”  Kurzweil wanted a society grounded in religious values.

Remember Always- First Thought’s on Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory

Outside both the USHMM and Yad Vashem is the statement “Remember Always “ attributed to the Eighteenth century mystic  the Baal Shem Tov. The original statement of the Besht was “Remember God Always.”  The context and purpose of the original was removed.  The source for this change is the writings of Elie Wiesel who sees memory by itself as redemptive.  He considers memory greater than Justice, greater than truth, and restoring the past. Hence the obligation is to remember “always.” But is memory always good?

The Yale theologian Miroslav Volf in his important work The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (2006) notes that many times remembrance elicits a desire for revenge—either on ourselves or on others. Rejecting Wiesel’s simply plea for memory, Volf illustrates with many personals stories that memory is ambiguous; it can be used as a justification to be mean to others, to remain depressed and embittered for life or it even can even lead one to become a perpetrator of evil upon another.

 Volf also points out how memory of a wrong can lead to viewing the world in Manichean terms. “In memory, a wrongdoing often does not remain an isolated stain on the [wrongdoer’s] character…it spreads over and colors his entire character. Must I not try to contain that spreading?” Through merely remembering, we begin falling into a cycle of sadism or masochism under the guise of geopolitical and personal safety.

What Jews need, following Volf, is an approach to memory that is future oriented toward learning the right lessons.  What are the right lesson for survivors and their families, for culture and education, and for morally responding?

For those personally dealing with tragic memories, right remembering involves not allowing traumatic memories to dominate our identity, but reframing those memories for personal healing, having the truth of the traumas acknowledged. We need to avoid the negative use of memory by those who are victimized which perpetuates the evil that is done by the original wrong doers. To prevent an endless cycle of repaying evil for evil, we must seek a way to redeem the memories of what we have suffered at the hands of others.

For those involved in culture or education, the goal is to go beyond the fragility and faultiness of person all memory and seek historical memory through study, inquiry, and teaching. The goal is to seek truth understand the data contained in the documents, archives, and artifacts, then to seek the historical causes. Legends and personal trauma should not replace knowledge in our op-eds, classrooms, and public discussion. We should learn how factually incorrect are almost all of our contemporary analogies to the Holocaust. 

On the moral plane, what does it take to remember for positive effects of justice, rather than destructive effects? How can we utilize traumatic memories as a means of solidarity with victims and as an impetus for protecting victims from further violence?

As a generation that no longer deals directly with survivors, we are not at the mercy of our memories. We are stronger than them in that we play a part in shaping them. Volf likens the totality of our memories to a quilt. What is sewn in and discarded, what is prominently featured on the quilt, and what material constitutes background depends on how we sew our memories together. Memory is not all powerful in forming who we are; we ourselves shape our memories. Survivors needed a fragile memory for its recover of self and dignity, a therapeutic process of their own experience. But those raised in the lap of prosperity and security need memory first of all to be truthful  to the events and then we need it to offer a lesson.

Jews can use the story of the Exodus as a “meta-memory” through which Jews rightly remember. The great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that  Israel’s memories of the Exodus are to serve as the basis for their treatment of aliens and strangers. The Exodus also serves as the basis for a continuity that teaches its past in order to pass it on to the next generation. The meta-memory of Tisha beAv is a memory of the need for restoration and national redemption after tragedy. 

At the same time, more problematic are the texts about memory as a means for vengeance, for example against the Amalekites, urging use to go out and find an Amalelkite to beat up. The answer isn’t how well you teach, it’s how well you’re able to draw the correct lessons. This is where the problem of exemplary memory begins.  Memory translates into action, but how and what we choose to remember maintains a clear relationship to what we do.

Emmanuel Levinas concurs that memory is about our actions not our emotions.  Levinas thinks that the Holocaust has little to do with the perpetual problem of theodicy-why does God allow evil to occur?. The lesson of the Holocaust is that we need to take responsibility for the future. We shouldn’t allow Hitler a posthumous victory by allowing further genocides where people are slaughtered or reduced to a sub-human state. 

Levinas modifies the words of the Holocaust theologian Emil Fackenheim who said the message of absolute evil was that the Jewish people should survive. In contrast, Levinas demands that we need to make sure it does not happen to anyone, anywhere again. Levinas says the true meaning is that we need to take responsibility not to allow a genocide to continue to occur anywhere, always.

We should remember always, but memory without context and purpose may not always be for the good. It is easy to see that our public discussions would benefit from the truth of historical objectivity and greater study.

But how to remember rightly for justice is harder to establish context that will allow us to remember rightly.  How do we read our text for justice and not vengeance?  How do we balance our particular Jewish concerns with our pressing need to stop further genocides? How can we insure that memory is for restoring human dignity and not for making post-traumatic survivors of us all? And most importantly, we should ask ourselves Levinas’  question: how can we move from banal facebook posts that turn genocide into institutionalized cliché to responsibility action.

Dayan Isidor Grunfeld – Three Generations

When someone says they are a follower of the approach of the religious approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, which generation of the approach? Do you want to invoke the humanist synthesis of Hirsch in 1835 or the community leader of 1878? Do you mean the second generation consisting of Hirsch’s children and immediate followers who collected their father’s legacy and wrote popular novels. Do they mean the third generation that studied in the Yeshiva founded Rabbi Solomon Breuer who distinguished between the eternal Torah and the temporal ways of the world, such as Rabbi Isaac Breuer. Or do you mean the fourth generation who sought a return to Eastern European values? In the course of my research I have had a chance to reread Dayan Isidor Grunfeld’s classic work, Three Generations: the influence of Samson Raphael Hirsch on Jewish Life and Thought (1958). In the work, he clearly distinguishes between the first, second, and third generations of Hirschians and, in turn, distinguishes them from the distortions and half-truths of the fourth generation. The book offers valuable insight into the varieties within Hirschian world including Dayan Grunfeld’s own approach. I found it pretty interesting.

Dayan Grunfeld accepts that Mendelsohn was the father of the Jewish side of emancipation who “Entreated his brethren not to buy their political freedom at the cost of their most sacred treasure, the Torah.” And that ”No one can deny or has ever denied the purity of Mendelsohn’s intentions, the integrity of his character, his personal piety and meticulous observance of our Laws.” But the aesthetic and philosophic side of the Bible was presented at the expense of torah sheb’al peh, the oral law which is the soul of the Torah. He showed the world that one can be a strictly observant Jew and yet to be distinguished as the German Plato. The problem was the “and yet;” it was two separate realms and not drawing the aesthetic and philosophic from the Torah itself.

In contrast, Hirsch brought the two realms together when he arose and “declared the alleged antithesis between Torah law and social emancipation to be a false one. He entered the stage…carrying aloft two torches: Torah and Humanism. In his hand the two torches became one.” For Grunfeld, Hirsch brilliantly refuted the arguments against secular studies (see his commentaries on Leviticus 18: 4 and Psalm 119). Mendelsohn did not fight the battles for Enlightenment and Emancipation within the community that follows the oral law by showing the falsity of the separatist claims. For Grunfeld, Hirsch was known as a Biblical commentator, educator, member of Moravian Parliament, preacher of the freedom and dignity of man and philosopher of symbolism of the observances.

Dayyan Grunfeld rejects what he calls the revisionism of Jacob Rosenheim, founder of the Agudat Yisroel, that this was not a compromise. Humanism was not forced on the Jew rather his exclusion from the wider world was forced on the Jew. The estrangement from humanism was not natural so the Jews quickly came back into their own organic state. The highest era of Torah is always from an era of secular studies such as Spain.

Grunfeld presents his own theology of culture as part of explaining the Hirschian legacy.He consistently translates “way of the world” not as secular studies but as civilization. Hence, what is the relationship of Torah and civilization (derekh eretz) in modern historical thinkers? He presents four approaches. Arnold Toynbee consider world history as the relationship of religion and civilization, the latter requiring the former. The opposite approach is embraced by Edmond Gibbon who considers religion as the enemy of civilization. Alternately, “most secular historians consider religion as the chrysalis stage between civilizations.” The third approach considers religion as the core of civilization and when civilization decays it serve for deeper religious thought.

The fourth approach, which Grunfeld considers as “usually disregarded by non-Jewish thinkers, is namely, that true religion and true civilization are identical. The Torah is co-extensive with life in all its manifestations. This is only applicable in its fullest meaning of civilization would be in a Jewish state or an autonomous Jewish community. Grunfeld wrote that because of the decline in Jewish civilization in the 1850’s Hirsch had to deal with the third approach in which “non-Jewish civilization is the material for the realization of Torah.” He could only aspire to the autonomous cultural realm envisioned by the fourth approach. Torah is not just for ideal situations but also needs to be applied to civilization in times of decay like Hirsch’s post 1848 world of the anti-Enlightenment reaction and nnow one hundred years later in our post World War II world of cultural decay of the 1950’s.

Grunfeld reflectively quotes Nikolai Berdyaev’s idea that the Renaissance put man in the center of the universe rejecting the previous medieval other worldliness. But this change destroyed the unity of life and the natural ability to concentrate man’s forces to a spiritual authority. In the modern era, humanism and the study of the classics has taken the place of religion and the concept of a natural man replaced religious man. Currently, science offers unlimited reason as the sole truth and arbiter. Grunfeld aspired to a religious humanism. (AB- In contrast, Isaac Breuer paints a decadent secular culture and a religion above culture is the redemption.For Breuer, Torah is outside of history.)

For Grunfeld, one cannot hold onto a declining or lost civilization. One need to replace one civilization (derekh erets) with the new one. The sovereignty of Torah can, and does, work within any civilization including the new one. Hirsch waged war against the traditionalists who clung to the old civilization. Hirsch is to be compared to Hakham David Nieto who defended the Jewish tradition using the civilization of his era- including ideas close to Deism. So too, we need to come to grips with the main manifestations of the new civilization.

Humanism is a stepping stone to service of God, humanism without a religious basis would debase man and destroy itself. Berdyaev stated that we have a self-destructive dialectic with humanism (cf Hirsch’s Schiller based aesthetic education). We need to understand history and contemporary society. The Egyptian civilization had contempt for human life, the Romans had social oppression and Greece had licentiousness. With Torah we know how to take the best of the civilization. We cultivate our Individualism under divine law. In our civilization we learn that money cannot be idolized over people’s lives.

Chapters two and three recount the second generation of Hirschians. It includes Hirsch own sons- Rabbi Mendel who became the principal of the high school and his other sons who became each became a lawyer, doctor, and businessman respectively. Along with Joseph Guggenheim of Kolin, the son in law of Hirsh, they edited their father’s writings.

The second generation was busy wiring popular works for the increasing number of families choosing to affiliate Orthodox. Since Hirsch stressed that Judaism was to be taught in the home especially at the family table by both parents, they produced popular works, Solomon Carlebach, who wrote A Guide for the Jewish Home; H Ehrmann who wrote on Avot; Josef Nobel, wrote on midrash, Psalms, and haftrot.

It also includes, Mauritis Prins in Holland, Asher Cohn of Basle. The later in his public misgivings caused Herzl to remark at the First Zionist Congress, “Returning to Jewishness comes before returning to the land of the Jews.”

The third generation, lived after WWI and were educated during the era of Rabbi Solomon Breuer; they saw the return to Yeshiva
education. They founded a variety of organizations for the support of Orthodox Jews including the “Free union for the interests of Orthodox Judaism communities” This era witnessed the division of the community into Agudah and Mizrachi, creating two groups in the Hirschian community. This era included major pulpit rabbis like Isaac Unna of Mannheim and Ezra Munk, who were Mizrachi (as well as defender of the Geminde) and Agudah respectively. (AB- Unna is a grandson R. Bamberger, and student of Rabbi Marcus Horowitz both defenders of the Geminde. Implicitly by the absence of a discussion of Isaac Breuer and an incorporation of Unna within the Hirschian tradtion, we see Dayyan Grunfelds’ own sympathies. Grunfeld includes in this era, those integrated into culture such as the lae professor Jekutiel Jacob Neubauer, Herman struck the famous artist and Oscar Wolfsberg (Yeshayah Aviad) the Zionist leader.

Grunfeld also credits this era as producing revisionists like Jacob Rosenheim who saw Hirsch’s defense of secular studies as only a compromise. Isaac Halevy, a popular historian who polemicized against all historians who saw Rabbinic law as a contingent response to its time. And Herman Schwab whose writings give greater continuity with the tradition and gives less credit to modernity.
There were those who served as conduits of Hirschian thought to the Eastern European Jews such as Leo Deutschlander who headed Keren Hatorah and later founded the girls school movement Beis Yakov. Deutschlander wrote books extolling the virtues of German humanism Goethe and the Bible, and Shem ve yefet, an anthology of poetics.

Philip Biberfeld wrote the Universal Jewish history and worked for the Keren haTorah where he translated children’s books including those on Hatam Sofer so people could consume the new genre of rabbinic biography.

In England, Hirschians included Dayan Grossnass, Dayan Julius Jacobowitz and himself. Most notably, it included Rabbi Avigor (Victor) Schonfeld who married Chief Rabbi Hertz’s daughter and argued that today in the 1950’s there is no need for austritt even according to Hirsch because he did it only to separate from Reform influence on Rabbinic leadership. However, here in England where all are orthodox it is not needed even if there are different levels of observance among laity. He founded the Hasmaean HS and instrumental in setting up secondary schools that were both Mizrachi and followed Hirsch. (AB- I don’t see a direct link to Hirsch in his education, but Schonfeld was a close personal friend of Grunfeld.)Other names included in this era- all producing their own spin on the Hirschian legacy include Rabbis Raphael Breuer, Joseph Carlebach, Pinchas Kohn, Saul Kaatz, Avaham Eliyahu Kaplan and Moses Auerbach.

In the Fourth generation, Grunfeld laments “it seems strange to witness this hostile attitude to general education in the descendants of the disciples of Hirsch.” Yet, “the hostile attitude to general education and the consequent narrowing down of the intellectual horizons among some of the spiritual heirs of Hirsch in the fourth generation can easily be explained as a psychological reaction to the ghastly experience of our time which saw the merciless torture and murder of six million of our brethren in the heart of civilized Europe…What is, however,, less understandable, and must be objected to for reasons of historical truth, is the attempt to –re-interpret Hirsch in a way that would fit with this negative attitude to secular education.”Grunfeld acknowledges that some of this shift already occurred in the third generation during the post Kristallnacht era. Already, they emphasized the need to earn a livelihood.

“We must not endanger Jewish Orthodox life by being extricably involved in economic patterns and forms which have had their day and are doomed to die.” No civilization is eternal, they are ever changing. “Atomic energy is the symbol of the new age” The new orthodox baal habayit cannot live like in the shtetl nor can he look backwards to the period before WWI.

Grunfeld nevertheless concludes that 10 periods of Jewish Studies during day school out of 40-45 periods may have not been enough to actualize this vision in people’s lives.

When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by T. M. Luhrmann

Way back in 1997 Jerome Gellman gave a lecture at YU on his then recent book on mysticism and religious experience. The subject of the talk was on the concept of the truth claims of mystical experiences of oneness and noetic insight. But when the questions started, he received questions about from the students about their conversations with God during prayer. I was surprised that for many of them kavvanah was about their daily conversation with God about their daily problems. They had developed a type of experience of God that was unlike prior Hasidut. There is a brand new book by a known scholar T. M. Luhrmann, who tries to explain this phenomena in her new book, “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.”

Luhrmann’s book was recently reviewed in the New Yorker. The article summarizes Luhrmann’s conclusions in her popular work. (for her technical papers- see below.) Talking to God is trained habitual activity and that one must learn to trust the experience. Americans who converse with God view god in very personal terms, not the majesty, awe or judgment of traditional accounts. The lack of probability logic among contemporary believers is widespread in Orthodox circles. Luhrman avoids pathological terminology for the phrase “sensory overloads.”

The United States, as we know, is a very religious country, but the figures still have the power to amaze. Since 1996, according to Gallup polls, between thirty-five and forty-seven per cent of Americans have described themselves as “evangelical” or “born again”; two-thirds mostly or wholly believe that angels and devils are at work in the world.

How do you find this God? First, you train yourself to recognize the evidence of his operation in your life. One Vineyard parishioner, Augusta, described feeling “goosebumps and just warm all over and just very peaceful, and I know that he’s there.” Or if a thought pops into your head that’s not the kind of thought you normally have, and, above all, if it strangely matches something else in your recent experience, that is likely to be God speaking..”

In the second step, worshippers, when they recognize that God is with them, must learn to treat him like an intimate. This injunction, probably more than anything else in Luhrmann’s book, will puzzle readers who were raised in other religious traditions. The Vineyarders have no interest in God as a figure of majesty, or of judgment. They wear shorts and sneakers to church on Sunday.
This casualness carries over to conversations with God. The Vineyarders asked him “for admission to specific colleges, for the healing of specific illness—even, it is true, for specific red convertible cars.” Some Vineyard women had a regular “date night” with Jesus. They would serve a special dinner, set a place for him at the table, chat with him. He guided the Vineyarders every minute of the day.
So the third step is to “develop your heart”—that is, to cultivate the emotions that are appropriate to receiving God’s unconditional love. There are exercises for this, notably, what Luhrmann calls “crying in the presence of God.”

Above all, the congregants cried when they were “prayed over” by their fellows. At the end of the service, if they had troubles, they went over to the “prayer team” standing against a side wall, and the team huddled around them, touched them, and prayed over them, “asking God to make them feel safe, loved, and protected—wrapped in his arms, soothed by his embrace, washed by his forgiveness.” If, under such ministrations, you didn’t cry, this was something you had to explain.

From chapter to chapter, you can’t quite figure out how Luhrmann feels about the Vineyarders’ spiritual project. Occasionally, she allows herself sarcastic remarks—for some of the congregants, she says, the product of prayer is a state of “feel-good blurries”—and she describes some scenes with unmistakably comic intent. At one point, she and another church member, Elaine, go to a Vineyard-sponsored conference called “The Art of Hearing God.” Luhrmann writes, “The leader explained to us that scientists had discovered that if you slow down the sounds a cricket makes, you will find that the cricket is actually singing the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus to Handel’s Messiah. Elaine thought that this was really neat and repeated it to our house group without a trace of irony.” Luhrmann says that Elaine was “almost wantonly uninterested in probabilistic logic.”

The Vineyarders seem to have no theology—they never try to reconcile reason with faith, nor do they try to account for the existence of evil in a world that is, presumably, ruled by a good God. Their solution to suffering, Luhrmann says, is to ignore it. One of her interviewees was crushed by the sudden death of a friend. Her pastor brought this up in the Sunday service. Luhrmann summarizes his response: “That’s the way it is. ‘Creation is beautiful, but it is not safe.’ He called everyday reality ‘broken.’ ‘God is doing something about it. There’s a fix in progress. It will be okay.’ What should you do? Get to know God. ‘Learn to hang out with him now.’”

Not surprisingly, Luhrmann compares the Vineyarders’ beliefs to children’s thought processes. She discusses their views in relation to D. W. Winnicott’s theories about transitional objects. For some evangelicals, she says, God is not unlike a stuffed Snoopy.

She repeatedly reminds us that the majority of them are educated people. One is a medical student, one an economist, a few are lawyers.

Luhrmann warns us against calling the evangelicals’ visions and voices “hallucinations”; that is a psychiatric and, hence, pathologizing term. In her vocabulary, such events are “sensory overrides”—sensory perceptions that override material evidence. She cites evidence that between ten and fifteen per cent of the general population has had such experiences.

She says that the Vineyarders know that their “faith practice”—their date nights with God, their asking him for a red convertible—is, in some measure, playacting. At the same time, they see it as a way of encountering God. She later adds, “The playfulness and paradox of this new religiosity does for Christians what postmodernism, with its doubt-filled, self-aware, playful intellectual style, did for intellectuals. It allows them to waver between the metaphorical and the literal.”

Luhrmann places great emphasis on the hours that they put in, and I think that is not only because this is important to them but because she expects that it will be important to the reader’s view of them. Americans respect hard work. Read the Rest Here.

An Anglican blog with more than a touch of anthropological knowledge responded to the New Yorker article by giving the more technical aspects of why we have sensory overrides, absorption, meditation. Her scientific article is here- download it.

In the 2011 Annual Review of Anthropology, Luhrmann published a primer on sensory overrides or hallucinations. She begins by asking why hallucinations occur: What is happening in the mind? Although there is no firm consensus, most agree that hallucinations are tied to perception and what is known as “reality monitoring.” This perspective views the mind not as a passive recipient of direct stimuli (the Hume-like model), but as an active agent which filters, interprets, and constructs experience from stimuli (the Kant-like model).
…hallucination-like experiences occur not because there is necessarily something wrong with one’s mind, but because one interprets something imagined in the mind as being real in the world. The most plausible mechanism here is that we constantly experience perceptual “breaks,” which we repair below the level of our awareness, either by filling in a perceptual break from its surrounding perceptual field or by interpreting the break with prior knowledge (e.g., the way being told that strange sounds are English can change the way one hears them). Hallucinations probably occur in the process of repair, and the cause is likely more often perceptual bias than perceptual deficit.

Knowing this, Luhrmann identifies three patterns of hallucinations that appear in all societies. The first and most pervasive is Sensory Override, in which people “experience a sensation in the absence of a source to be sensed.” The paradigmatic example is the hearing of a voice even though no one is present or no one has spoken. Although the hearing of non-existent voices is common across cultures and has been attributed to all manner of spirits, gods, ghosts, and other imaginaries, in the US it is often reported by charismatic Christians who believe God is talking. Luhrmann’s research links this experience to an attentional state which dampens external stimuli and amplifies internal arousal:

Absorption is the capacity to become focused on the mind’s object — what humans imagine or see around them — and to allow that focus to increase while diminishing attention to the myriad of everyday distractions that accompany the management of normal life. It is the mental capacity common to trance, hypnosis, dissociation, and much other spiritual experience in which the individual becomes caught up in ideas or images or fascinations.

It is also true that spiritual training may make sensory overrides more likely. Inner sense cultivation — and mental imagery cultivation, in particular — is at the heart of shamanism and is central to many spiritual traditions….[T]wo dominant forms of mental techniques in effect train the human mind to experience the supernatural: techniques that focus attention on the inner senses and those that train attention away from thought and sensation. Examples of the former include shamanism, Tibetan vision meditation, and the Ignatian spiritual exercises; examples of the latter are Zen meditation and Centering Prayer.- from here.

Her cultural observations are featured elsewhere in the science journalism. Americans are reticent to share their hallucinations, but other cultures are quite comfortable with it.

Elsewhere in the world, people openly discuss their hallucinatory experiences. In many non-Western cultures, such as Thailand’s Buddhist society, troubled minds are viewed as open to manipulation by ghosts and other forms of invisible, supernatural energy, Luhrmann says. In an upcoming issue of Religion and Society, Stanford anthropologist Julia Cassaniti and Luhrmann report that Thai college students and villagers often report having had waking nightmares, run-ins with ghosts and other supernatural encounters during periods of personal turmoil.- from here.

Finally, here is Luhrmann in her own voice on why Americans are turning to direct experience. It offers reassurance that their view is correct. This fits in well with the emotionalism and direct experience of the gap-year in Israel in its functional aspect to provide certainty through experience.

Millions and millions of Americans experience themselves as having a personal relationship with God that is as vivid and intimate as a child’s imaginary friend. They go for walks with God. They go on dates with God. Sometimes they set a place at the dinner table for God and sit down across from the place setting to talk things over with Him. Exactly how many Americans have so intimate a relationship is a little hard to determine, but that is the kind of relationship many evangelicals seek. Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life” — more than 25 million copies sold — says that God should be your “best friend.” Dallas Willard, a beloved evangelical author, explains that God’s face-to-face conversations with Moses are the “normal human life God intended for us.” In 2008, the Pew Foundation found that more than a quarter of all Americans said that God had given them a direct revelation.

Why has this way of imagining God become so popular for modern Americans? It is not the first time that God has inflamed the American senses. Over the course of our history, there have been periods when people have sought to experience God intensely and immediately. Historians have called them “great awakenings.” No doubt these yearnings are fueled by different motivations at different times. In this era, the yearning may be fueled by secular doubt. No Christian in America is unaware that there are other Americans who are not Christian, and are not even believers; and that may be unsettling, for the knowledge raises the possibility that one’s own beliefs are hollow. The quest to experience God with personal immediacy may arise out of this climate of doubt, for a God you can feel and hear and talk to can dispel the anxiety raised by a neighbor’s skeptical look.- from here.

David Hartman: From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self

That 70’s Show
Over thirty years ago, I visited an acquaintance for an evening at Ohr Sameach in Jerusalem. He had in his room a book from the yeshiva’s library by David Hartman called Joy and Responsibility (1976). The book was published by Bnai –Brith in conjunction with the newly formed Mechon Hartman. At the time of publication Hartman was still involved in outreach and Shappels and Hamivtar were recent offshoots of his Mechon. Hartman rewrote the book a second time as Israelis and the Jewish Tradition (1990), by that point I was interested in Hasidism and Ohr Sameach would not stock his book since the update contained many new ideas on pluralism, revelation, and halakhah. The book has been rewritten a third time as From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self in which he softens many of his previous statements returning us to the 1970’s.

The new book is a quick read especially if you have read some of Hartman’s prior works. He opens up by reiterating that Christians need to learn to understand how halakhah is the essence of Judaism and that we find our religious joy in the law. Hartman asserts that properly understood, Jews should be attracted to the this-worldly, democratic, and rational world of the halakhah as presented by Maimonides and Rav Soloveitchik. Once again in this book, Hartman returns to his break with Lakewood of the 1960’s by seeking modern philosophy, psychology and science. (It would be worthwhile to compare Hartman to Rav Soloveitchik’s 1978 lecture to Mental Health Professionals for the similaritiies).

I never got around to writing my own opinion on his last work The God Who Hates Lies written in conjunction with Charlie Buckholtz, because I could not grasp it or pin it down. Buckholtz framed it as if Hartman followed Rackman’s pragmatism yet Hartman still loyally follows the method, if not content, of the existential abstractions of Rav Soloveitchik. Buckholtz makes Hartman sound like Heschel’s piety, and he leaves open details of stories that weakens it rather than strengthens it. For example, think of the story in the last book where Hartman declares that a kohen cannot marry his fiancé as unethical. We are left guessing if he constructed a leniency based on Rabbenu Tam (which is what he did as RCA member) or he jettisons halakhah before his ethical voice. I did, however, learn from the last book how many young rabbis in the field are still followers of Hartman.

This book is easy to form an opinion about its contents. In the book, Hartman basically tones down his prior radicalism and his questioning the system. It is a return to the 1970’s. This book could have been used for discussion in the nostalgic Edah organization, since defunct, because it is once again “the courage to be modern and orthodox.” Halakhah can assert itself against the 1950’s and be pluralistic, individualistic, and this-worldly.

The last chapter on universalism and particularism sums up my problem with the book. He discusses the particularism of his Lakewood background and calls for a more open view of gentiles. To which he proffers the solution of Samson Raphael Hirsch. Where are the books authored by your own Machon on the topic? Where are the 25 years of results from your annual interfaith conferences? The book is a return to the 1970’s. Hartman only uses and responds to Urbach, Scholem, and early Fackenheim. But your own institution has produced scholars who have changed the nature of the study Rabbinic thought, you have Idel on the staff, and you have encouraged your students to produce books on pluralism. Where is your own self-reflections on what you have created? All the new institutions in Israel follow your model for teaching halakhah with philosophic questions, did it work? Did you come up with anything beyond Hirsch?

The other chapters have ideas we have seen before. The book advocates a Hartman’s understanding of Soloveitchik’s approach to Halakhah as a basis for all movements and a commitment to a halakhic future of Judaism. The need to translate Torah into a language intelligible by those not part of the closed world of Torah; Torah cannot be just for the few. Even if most Jews do not accept the metaphysics and doctrines of Judaism because one is modern, one can still be part of the process. Instead of focusing on God, focus on our collective responsibility. Focus on Abraham who fought with God to save the people of Sodom, not just the submissive Abraham. Instead of focusing on revelation, focus on the responsibility of the halakhah Instead of Berkovits’ revelation as a paradox of God infinite given to the human finite, we have revelation as showing how finite and limited we are- therefore don’t look for absolutes. (He does not even cite his more strident A Living Covenant in this book.) And redemption is a this-worldly making Israel and the world better through halakhah.

In keeping with his pluralism, Hartman jettisons the sense of certainty that one associates with Orthodoxy. It is his claim that one may believe that halakhic Judaism is the best for oneself, but not necessarily the best for everyone. A healthy Orthodoxy, therefore, should be able to accept and legitimate the “dignified other” among the Jewish people. David Hartman thinks a reapproachment between religion and political liberalism is possible. And unlike his view of Lakewood in the 1960’s as stifling creativity and individuality, Hartman proclaims an individualistic Orthodoxy that works for the good of all Israel.

If we can assume that it is possible for individuals to agree on what they reject, without acknowledging what they affirm, we may be able to create a shared theology of the repudiation of idolatry, without demanding a clearly defined commitment to belief in God. The believer can share common aspirations with the atheist and the agnostic, if all three strive to reject idolatry. This striving can have great significance and far-ranging consequences if the idolatry that is combatted is luring, and constitutes a vital problem to be eradicated (1978, p. 147).

In a review of the 1990 version, Arnie Eisen, current chancellor of JTSA, notes that Hartman does not accept a Biblical Judaism without Rabbinics, nor does he allow Buber, Rosenzweig, or other liberal thinkers to speak for Judaism. Eisen does capture how Hartman rewrites tradition but preserves it content.

Hartman is not willing to say (in my words): “God commanded mizvot on Sinai, so they are binding on every Jew,” or to insist that Judaism offers the finest path to God and the good life, let alone the only path. But he can, and does, say something like this (my words again): “Judaism’s distinctive way of standing before God, fashioned by the rabbis, involves the communal performance of mizvot. Choosing to fulfill our part of the covenant as part of a community, therefore, provides as much intimacy with God and as much moral worth as human beings are privileged to know. Each Jew who chooses not to take on that way of standing before God, in Israel, where community is best accomplished, must give a satisfactory account of why not.”

On the topic of feminism, he footnotes his daughter but makes no use of her work. He argues that for our daughters we cannot return to our bubbis and grandmothers Torah. He uses as his example of a mistaken approach Rav Kook’s banning women from voting as the definitive halakhah. Where is the last forty years?

Hartman articulates the ethical dilemma better than others and acknowledges the difference between himself and the texts:

The problem with attempting to use internal mechanisms within the tradition to resolve moral quandaries is that the moral problematic is never named, much less explicitly critiqued, Engaging authentically with our most sacred book means acknowledging when it arouses our sense of injustice or compassion—and admitting that some of its injunctions may be flawed. ..the tradition cant save itself from itself.”

But for the answer of how to overcome this difference, the problem of difficult texts has been with us for decades and there are many answers. Even on this blog, last week we had Yehuda Gellman arguing, seemingly like Hartman, those immoral texts were divine concession to that era, while Fleishacker preserves the morality of revelation and sees the potholes as part of a system to be maintained even if reinterpreted.

Finally, the title of the book implies Hartman recently moved from defender to critic, rather than forty years ago. I mentioned the title to a friend, who said that this is the theme of forthcoming books. Many who became observant in the 1980’s and 1990’s have moved from defenders to critics after all the immoral behavior within the community, the conversion crisis, and the provincialism of the community. Hartman’s became a critic before the era of Rabbis Eliashiv or Yitzhak Shapira, before the community was used to seeing members arrested for fraud, and before the quest for doctrinal and legal purity started. Hartman’s title implied that he would deal with these issues. What are his answers to these new questions?

IF I have already read the books written at Mechon Hartman by Sagi, Halbertal, Lorberbaum, the Zohar brothers, Rosenak, Knohl, and Achitov, Can I return to the 1970’s questions? This book may be one of the clearest and least controversial presentations of Hartman’s opinions for those looking where to start. But it also highlights how the issues look different in todays papers or after reading the works produced by his own Mechon.

Addenda
Here is a 1991 interview from the Jerusalem Post in which Hartman distinguishes between the tolerant Orthodoxy of the 1930’s and the recent 1950’s immigrant from Europe who created a closed and frightened reaction.

You are an Orthodox rabbi, yet your practice of Orthodoxy is markedly more tolerant than the Orthodoxy to which we are accustomed. Did you have to struggle against the Orthodox milieu in which you were raised in order to attain this tolerance?

Not at all. There is a tolerant stream in Orthodox Judaism and I was raised in it.
Their closedness is rooted firstly in the most ghetto-bound, diversity-fearing streams of Eastern European Orthodoxy and secondly in a traumatized reaction to the genocide of World War II. This turning inward is very different from the pluralistic Orthodox milieu in which I myself was raised in Brooklyn in the ’30s and ’40s.
The climate in which I was raised was pious, but not in the slightest bit fanatical. Brownsville at that time was filled with all forms of Jews: Socialists, Communists, Bundists. There was no ghetto climate of dogmatism and rejection of those who disagreed with one’s views. It was a pluralistic community. We played basketball with Blacks and Italians on the streets. There was no “us and them.” One could learn from and respect everybody. This is the kind of Orthodoxy which is home to me.
– Right. We are talking about a far less fanatical and defensive kind of Orthodoxy. World War II made many Orthodox feel a zealous need to preserve a threatened way of life. There are also Orthodox Sephardim who maintain their tradition’s historic attitude of tolerance.

Rabbi Einhorn’s Sermons

I have not yet responded to the many comments on my prior post about my chat with Rabbi Einhorn ranging from Yehudah’s question on authority to the debate of Neil & Micha on Musar. I will, but first several people have emailed me about some examples of his sermons. Thanks to the files at YUTorah we have examples and from his own Social Sermon Experiment we see that he constructs sermons from discrete parts- story, Torah and joke. They are all good sermonic material. Thoughts?

So from these Neo-Mitnaged sermons, what is the image of the gedolim?

1) I start with the story that the good rabbi quoted both when we met and in an email to illustrate the kind of Torah that he likes- juicy chaps. I mentioned that Rav Soloveitchik would not have considered this activity Torah study. Notice the quoting of the Haredi leader and the complete reversal and undercutting in the telling. The sermon illustrates the poaching and evasion found in popular religion that was discussed by Michel de Certeau- see my prior post on Certeau and Orthodoxy.

On occasion I have the challenging, yet rewarding, task of working with at-risk teens. In one pre-Pesach class I decided to present a possibly contentious interpretation of the Haggadah. I was curious to see how these students would react. The interpretation is that of the brilliant Rav Yoel Teitelbaum ZT”L, the Satmar Rov. The Satmar Rov was known for his sharp wit and tough talk. He raises the question of why we perform the yachatz (breaking the middle matzah) before beginning the maggid (recounting of the story of the Exodus) portion of the Haggadah. The Satmar Rov answers that in order to properly begin a holy endeavor we must first discard all that is bad from our midst. We must break off and cast aside the wicked, the apikores, those that tend to bring us down with their moral failings and lack of Jewish observance.

The moment I shared this thought, I could see the blood of my students reddening. But it was the insight of one student, who we shall call David, that shook my perspective of the Passover Seder. David tends to come off as irreverent, lost, and at times depressed. But at this moment he had reached a level of clarity seldom seen by anyone. He turned to me and with blazing passion in his eyes, he said “I disagree! We do not cast away this broken matzah. In fact, we hide it, protect it, and when the time is right – at the highlight of our Seder – Tzafun, the emergence of the Afikomen, we bring that “discarded” one front and center.” We may need an occasional “time out”, but we are never out of love’s reach.
And together we fell to weeping.
from here.

2) This one is good for Passover but more importantly it is a great lead in for a sermon with the content taken from Rabbi David Wolpe. The Belzer teaches us that we find God in sickness, we find God when we take care of the poor, and we find God when we gather with the family around the table. I would suggest looking at Wolpe’s Why Faith Matters? on the importance of turning to God in health crisis, family, and in social action.

R. Yissachar Dov of Belze suggests a beautiful interpretation. The Gemara in Shabbos 12b says that when we go to visit a sick person, one is able to pray in Aramaic because the Divine Presence is above his or her head and therefore the petitioner does not need a ministering angel to bring the prayer to G-d. The Medrash (Vayikrah Rabbah 34) states – that when a poor person stands at the door, the Divine Presence is there as well. When we say “All those who are hungry come and eat” – Hashem is standing there! G-d is with us at the Seder.— from here

3) Here is a sermon that would serve as a good introduction to Tony Robbins and motivational books. Musar teaches that we need our ego to reach higher levels. And we use our own ego to determine how we help the neighbor. It is musar without the puritanical side, without visualizing how you will burn in gehenna, and without the continuation of the homily on the need to generally break your ego. We have this-worldly growth of ego and community work- the opposite of the original.

Rav Eliyahu Dessler, in a collection of magnificent and creative essays and original letters, asks “why did G-d have to create our Ego so strong?” R. Dessler boldly argues that it is primarily because of our ego that we are able to reach levels of spirituality otherwise unattainable. Our unquenchable thirst for greatness and godliness pushes us beyond our apparent limits. However, left unchecked this ego may go too far. Left unchecked, we may deify ourselves. What keeps us in balance? “Veahavta Leracha Kamocha”, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Meaning, use your ego to first ascertain what we would want for ourselves and in that we can figure out what it is that we must do for our neighbor.— from here

4) Here are selections from a long sermon that combines Bob Dylan with R. Yisrael Salanter and have Rav Dessler. The first thing to note is how Dylan’s religion, who treats his Judaism as ethnicity and follows an Evangelical Christianity, is equated with Orthodoxy. Gabriel’s trumpet of 1 Thessalonians 4:16 is labeled as classic musar. Dylan’s Christian songs License to Kill,” and “Blind Willie McTell,” is linked to the depravity of man and the Vilna Gaon demand for constant progress. The Gra learned day and night without concern for food, family, money, or sleep and in this sermon we have popular American Calvinism.
Rabbi Salanter is presented as about self-improvement without the specifics of the approach in which our imaginations and emotions lead us astray. Rav Dessler is compared to Dylan’s Idiot Wind.

Bob Dylan – The Zemanim they Are a Changin’
The world of Bob Dylan’s songs bring to life a dynamic array of characters, themes, and melodies. But the one constant throughout Bob Dylan’s career, is G-d. While in real life (outside of the printed lyric that is) Bob Dylan’s commitment and connection to Judaism is in some ways mysterious, mercurial, and marginal, as far as his feelings go, Bob Dylan is a religiously inclined individual. He is a man that shows a face interested in the mystical underpinnings of Judaism. He is a man that emerges with ideas that often run congruous to basic Jewish philosophies. He is a man whose yearnings hover surprisingly close to mainstream Orthodox Judaism.

In the 19th Century, Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin, better known as Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, fathered the Mussar movement. This brought a strong and overt focus on ethical development to Judaism. This also meant that one’s flaws were to be highlighted in order to find room for improvement. Maimonides, in his Mishnah Torah, already preempted the overt style of Mussar by noting that the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah was the instrument by which we tell each other – “wake up you sleepers from your slumber.” In the song “Sugar Baby” off of the Love and Theft album, Bob Dylan gives us spiritual council – “Look up, look up – seek your Maker – ‘fore Gabriel blows his horn.” This is classic Mussar – reproach in its most raw form.

One of the most philosophically challenging issues in Jewish philosophy is the issue of Divine Providence, or G-d’s interaction with humans in their present state. Many of our great sages have debated the level and intensity of Divine intervention. Rav Eliyahu Dessler has argued that hashgacha pratis (Divine guidance) can be broken into two components – that which is evident by the external eye and that which is evident by the internal eye. The external eye seems to tell us that this world is controlled by G-d in every sense. Every move we make, every animal that grazes, every flower that wilts is controlled by G-d. Our internal eye lets us feel that we still have some control, G-d lets some things just be. Rav Dessler further develops the reasoning as to why both perspectives are necessary. Bob Dylan is also stranded between this tension of the internal eye and external eye. This duality is clear in several of his songs. Bob Dylan’s apocalyptical “Masters of War” portrays a demagogue that is physically capable and free to cause havoc upon the world. Still, Dylan realizes the eventual “judgment” awaiting the tyrant as he faces a time of reckoning before G-d. “Idiot Wind,” which is a play on the Talmudic concept of a “ruach shuts,” also works within the balance of this fine line between apparent Divine Determinism and Free Will.

What prolific Jewish author can fairly leave out some treatise on personality traits – or what we call Middos? Bob Dylan spends a considerable amount of time weeding out the traits that distance us from both humankind and our Creator. In the haunting “License to Kill,” Dylan preaches – “Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled.” This loaded line has dual meaning; it is both an ode to the Vilna Gaon’s statement of stagnancy – “if you are not going up up you are going down down,” and it is a reference to self pride, Gayva, if you will. Dylan’s distaste for depravity continues in his classic “Blind Willie McTell,” – “well, G-d is in heaven And we all want what’s his but power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.”

Read the rest here

An interview with Professor Samuel Fleischacker

Samuel Fleischacker, Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago. Fleischacker recived his Ph.D. Yale 1989 and works in moral and political philosophy, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of religion. His publications include the award winning On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion (Princeton, 2003), credited as a major work showing that the Adam Smith of the 20th century economists is not that of Adam Smith himself (1st chapter as pdf) and A Short History of Distributive Justice (Harvard, 2004). Recently, he published Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford, 2011) on revelation in general, but from a Jewish perspective. (For those who want to start with the interesting interview-scroll down.)

In his new book, Samuel Fleischacker defends what the Enlightenment called ‘revealed religion’: religions that regard a certain text or oral teaching as sacred, as wholly authoritative over one’s life. At the same time, he maintains that revealed religions stand in danger of corruption or fanaticism unless they are combined with secular scientific practices and a secular morality.

Divine Teaching and the Way of the World argue that the cognitive and moral practices of a society, meaning ethics and science, serve as “way of the world” (his translation of the Hebrew “derech eretz,”) and his motto for the book is “Beautiful is the study of Torah with derech eretz. The ways of the world (derech eretz) allow human beings to work together regardless of their religious differences.

But according to Fleischacker secular ethics and science breaks down when it comes to the question of what we live for, and it is this that revealed religions can illumine. Fleischacker suggests that secular conceptions of why life is worth living are often poorly grounded.

According to an in depth review at NDPR by Yeudah Gellman:

One of Fleischacker’s main theses is that these [morals and science] must be in place before a commitment to a text as revelatory. They must, that is, come to religion already equipped with entrenched secular morality and science. Religion cannot make claims against either.

Next, Fleischacker argues that religion provides something that secularism fails to offer successfully — a telos for the moral life, that which makes living the moral life and life itself meaningful and worthwhile. He rejects as an adequate telos for life knowledge, pleasure, self-flourishing, projectivism (that we ourselves bestow value on our life), and Kantian accounts of worth.

A revelatory text will emphasize moral values beyond what standard morality does, for example, increased concern for widows and orphans. A revelatory text provides telic direction with the category of the “holy,” demanding personal transformation and not only prescribed actions. To say a revelation is “true” for Fleischacker, therefore, is not to refer to its historical reliability or its sound moral teachings. (p. 67) Rather, it is to express trust in one’s telic expectations of it. The text satisfies one’s “telic yearnings.” (p. 308) When a text strikes a person as revelatory, he then has reason to believe in God, for belief in God as the source of the revelation can give the best metaphysical account of the telic truth existing in the text.

Why does he believe the Torah is the word of God? Because it satisfies his “telic yearnings,” the story “rings true” to him ethically.
Since the morality of a text must precede judging it a revelation, Fleischacker knows he must contend with what he calls the Torah’s moral “pockmarks,” Torah passages he deems morally reprehensible. He notes such passages as the Temple ritual of the accused wife, the command to destroy the people of Amalek, and the command to kill a rebellious son, what he calls a “notorious text.”
Here, Fleischacker provides the most intriguing argument in the book. (pp. 327ff.) The moral pockmarks, he says, are an advantage to a revealed text. The moral pockmarks in the Torah protect a Jew from the haughtiness of believing that with the Torah he possesses absolute, perfect truth. Instead, the Jew learns religious humility and tolerance of others. Indeed, the presence of pockmarks calls the Jew to moral and religious responsibility in the task of reinterpretation and furthering progress in the religious life…
Fleischacker focuses especially on systematic problems in Torah legislation, and most especially on what he judges to be sexist, xenophobic, or vengeful passages. His solution is to undertake a reinterpretation of all such passages to bring them into line with secular morality: “If Maimonides can find a non-anthropomorphic God in the Torah, we should have no trouble finding a non-sexist God there as well.” (p. 385) Here Fleischacker refers to Maimonides’ extended argument against an anthropomorphic God in The Guide for the Perplexed. Fleischacker believes that Maimonides’ cleansing of anthropomorphism from the Torah was far more difficult than would be cleansing the Torah from what he takes to be sexist, as well as xenophobic and vengeful passages.

The extensive reinterpretations Fleischacker envisions would cause massive changes in Jewish Law (for example, the nature of Jewish marriage) and thus in the “path” that Fleischacker is supposed to have identified at the start as worthy of his telic expectations.
Fleischacker calls it a “child’s view” to accept a text as revelation on the grounds that it could not have been authored by a human being. (p. 302) He goes on to reason as follows: “If a text or speech really was such that no human being could possibly have composed it, no human being would be able to understand it either (or, therefore, recognize its truth).”

Fleischacker altogether makes too much of an empirical claim that religious believers perceive morality as preceding revelation. Believers will give many reasons for why they take a text as a revelation, including that they sense God or the Holy Spirit speaking to them through this text, that this truth has been handed down through tradition, or that the person who wrote it was not intellectually capable of creating it on his own.

Fleischacker tells the reader that the Orthodox Jewish community has worked quite hard to minimize sexist aspects of the Torah. This is grossly overstated. Only a small segment of that community has attempted to ameliorate the problems for women in Jewish law, and that within a narrow scope of application. Much of Orthodox Judaism has resisted changes or has been indifferent to the possibility of changes in their religious practice

The central idea of the book… deserves to be seriously reckoned as a warranted way of coming to believe in revelation and in God…. Fleischacker’s book should become an object of careful discussion serving for progress in philosophy of religion.

1. Why did you write the book?
I’ve long felt I needed to explain to myself why I continue to be committed to observant Judaism (in my teens and early twenties, I gave myself reasons for this but have rarely since checked to see whether I still find them cogent). I figured that the answers I came up with might be of use to other similarly-situated religious believers. As the Orthodox Jewish world has become more and more conservative, moreover, aligning itself increasingly with the Christian right and its rejection of secular science and morality, I’ve also felt more alienated from it, and worried that an atavistic, thoughtless, and dangerous form of our religion may soon take it over utterly, if liberal voices don’t speak up.

2. What do you think of all the recent “new atheist” books?
I confess I’ve only glanced at them, not read them through. Most seem quite silly to me – with the same sort of shallow understanding of religion that they (rightly) accuse fundamentalists of having of science. Dennett is something of an exception: he’s an antagonist who needs to be reckoned with seriously. The whole debate over theism vs. atheism seems to me not a central Jewish concern: our issues have more to do with the status of sacred texts (my main concern in the book).

3. What is the role of philosophy in your Orthodoxy?
I think philosophy can be helpful to clarifying what we believe – and in particular to making sure that we bear always in mind that God must be a *moral* God, and that that rules out understanding Him as commanding blatantly immoral actions. (That philosophy clarifies the nature of God seems to me also clearly Maimonides’ main concern.) I don’t think philosophy can *ground* our fundamental beliefs.
I should add, though, that I’m not sure I really am an “Orthodox” Jew – I prefer saying “halachic Jew” or just that I am shomer shabbat.

4. What if an Orthodox skeptic objected to your work and say that the position that you label as childish belief is what orthodoxy is about and your philosophic belief is not Orthodox?
I would urge such a skeptic to read the Rambam (and all his followers, and Hirsch and Soloveitchik; and the Ramban and Sfas Emes, for that matter) – what I criticize as “childish” religion is very much what they too all avoid and try to wean us from. But what I call “the child’s view of revelation” is also something that I think has a legitimate place in any religious person’s life. One simply needs to balance it against the understanding that there is no revelation without interpretation: that the process of interpretation is something that God Himself must want us to engage in. This is actually a very Jewish view, and the chapter of my book that elaborates it (“Receiving Revelation,” in Part IV) is not coincidentally the chapter that uses the most Jewish sources.

5.How can you bracket out history and theology from a defense of revelation and Torah at Sinai? Don’t you need to show why it is reasonable to believe in God, and the historicity of the events at Sinai?” By definition does it not need a historic truth claim?

No, I think historic claims can be entirely bracketed from our understanding of Torah as divine – even from what we mean by “Torah from Sinai.” The main point is that the Torah is *authoritative* and that doesn’t need a historic warrant (once again, I’d pull in the Rambam in support of this claim).
Unlike Gelman, I have doubts about whether we have, independently of revelation, a clear, coherent conception of God. My reasons for this are roughly Wittgensteinian: I don’t think the ordinary use of words like “powerful” and “good” allow readily for formations like “all-powerful” and “all-good.” As regards goodness, I’m not even sure our ordinary uses of the term are coherent — a central line of argument in the book raises questions about whether we have a firm grip on what “goodness” means, independently of revelation. If revelation teaches us what makes our lives worth living, as I claim it does, then it teaches us what we mean by “the good” as well, or how we are most likely to find out. But if that is right, then we presumably learn what “God” properly means — if we are theists — from revelation.

6. “How can you bracket out the non-moral “historical pockmarks” of the Torah? How do you respond to Gellman’s suggestion that we read them as tacked on to God’s true words by flawed human authors?”
I don’t bracket out historic pockmarks: I think God wants us to retain our history as we move into the future, and the pockmarks are a way of ensuring that we always do that. We just need to interpret them carefully.
Gellman’s insistence that the revelation is immoral as it stands seems to want to take us back on the well-worn path trodden by liberal Protestants and Reform Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to which real revelation comes to us though autonomous reason or personal experience, and our supposedly sacred texts are inadequate attempts by our ancestors to express that revelation. This path leads one quickly to abandon the notion of a revealed text. If we are going to see our texts as the paths to the highest good, it is essential that we submit in humility to them, and seek a way out of the moral difficulties they pose from within them, rather than writing out bits as “tacked on.”
I argue that while believers tend to point first to the moral content of their revelations, what in fact is most important about those revelations is not something moral: it is a vision of the highest good that complements morality. But visions of this sort pervade a sacred text, rather than being located in particular verses, and are clarified and extended over time by a communal tradition of interpretation. So they can be used to downplay or revise verses that conflict with our way-of-the-world morality — and are so used, in every religious tradition with which I am acquainted.

7. What is your understanding of truth?
I don’t *define* truth, strictly speaking, but stress its use, ordinarily, in contexts in which we urge others to put trust in a statement or speaker. The Torah then is “true” in the sense that it is trustworthy (a trustworthy guide to life).

8. If, according to your book, we need to start with an ethical approach before approaching Torah, then what use is Torah in fighting the immoral world we live in?
What leads people to immorality is not *ignorance* of what is right but selfishness, self-deception, arrogance, and ideologies that feed these evil human drives. The Torah can very much help us struggle against these tendencies in its fierce opposition to idolatry – ultimately, self-worship (projecting your own drives and desires as absolute goods – gods – in place of the one true God) – and many ways of urging us instead to cultivate benevolence and humility (anavah: the great trait of Moshe; we should also remember that the rabbis compare anger to idolatry). The huge mistake we often make, the great yetzer hara that tempts religious people as much as anything, is projecting the evils of our world only outward, on non-Jews or insufficiently religious or loyal Jews, instead of seeing them in everyone, including Orthodox Jews, and working above all on restraining them in ourselves.

9. How would you respond to a frum skeptic that repeats the arguments of Hume, Hobbes and the new atheists, without having any knowledge of philosophy.
Our tradition values knowledge extremely highly: being an am ha-aretz is famously worse than being an epikoros. To anyone who prides himself on his skepticism without having bothered to get to know the religions he’s dismissing, the only answer can be: go and learn.
Far and away the single best recent book on theism and revelation, in my opinion, is Robert Adams’ FINITE AND INFINITE GOODS; I used it a lot. Adams is a Christian philosopher, however (albeit very knowledgeable about Judaism).

10. Can we use Maimonides today?
I think Maimonides *is* dated – his argument for God especially so – and in crucial ways my book opposes his views rather than supporting them (above all, I think the central mental faculty for religious commitment is the imagination, not the understanding: which has a host of consequences that make for a much less austere, more humanistic conception of religion, and a more important role for ritual than he has). But he sets a wonderful model of how one can work to re-interpret basic Jewish texts and ideas in the light of the best philosophy and science of one’s day. Philosophy and science have however changed radically since the 12th century, so a true Maimonidean today should be interpreting our texts and ideas in a very different light. In particular, it’s a mistake – I think – to use any arguments for God other than Kant’s moral one.

11. Do you see the Orthodox community as ethical? If not, does this impact your philosophy?
I see *parts* of the Orthodox community as ethical: certain Orthodox people – rabbis as well as laypeople – have indeed been important moral role models for me. But we have a great and growing problem with deeply immoral attitudes toward non-Jews, which shows up sometimes in contemptuous and inhumane treatment of non-Jewish workers at Orthodox establishments in the US, and – more dramatically and pervasively – in an the unbelievably brutal and unjust treatment that large parts of the Orthodox community in Israel have been inflicting on Palestinians: the greatest crime, I think, that Jews have committed as a community in the past two millennia of our history. As I watch this get worse and worse, with few leading figures speaking out even tepidly against it, I feel my ability to maintain a commitment to halacha becoming extremely strained.

12. What do you think of the relationship of Judaism or Torah to distributive justice? What seems mandated? What is a new idea that can or cannot be applied to Talmudic law? There is a full summary of Fleischacker’s work on distributive justice in this review.

I think that, like members of all other religious traditions, we Jews have learned have from the secular world on this. What I tried to show in my book on distributive justice is that it took people who were moving away from all religious traditions to make clear to all of us that we have a duty to get rid of poverty altogether, if possible, not just to give charity and certainly not to give charity just to members of our own communities. But the Jewish tradition – by giving poor people an enforceable right to certain kinds of tzedakah – came closer to anticipating modern notions of distributive justice than pre-modern Christianity did.
I also think the very powerful idea, which we are about to celebrate, that we need to treat the oppressed and miserable with decency and justice because we were once oppressed ourselves provides a great basis for imagining ourselves into the shoes of the poor rather than dismissing them with the complacent platitudes that come readily to the lips of people who are themselves comfortable (“they drink”; “they don’t take care of their children”; “they have low IQs”).

Fleischacker will be responding to Gellman this Wed at the Pacific APA. Here on the East coast, I would like a 50 page article summarizing for classroom use the almost 600 pages of the book.