Monthly Archives: May 2012

Rare Audio of Gershom Scholem lecturing in 1975

This morning I received an anonymous email from an ip number in Tel Aviv with the only available recording of Gershom Scholem. There is also another single recording in the Israeli broadcasting Authority vaults. But here was the only publically available mp3. It was from a lecture given in 1975, the year that Scholem spent in sabbatical at Boston University, when many of the Brandeis students who entered the field of Kabbalah attending his lectures. This lecture was delivered at the Panarion conference, 1975, an annul Jungian conference held in Los Angeles.

Extremely rare audio of Gershom Scholem lecturing on Kabbalah in 1975:
http://archive.org/details/GershomScholemKabbalah1975LectureAudio

An entry describing a recording of Scholem speaking at any length
http://www.iba.org.il/bet/bet.aspx?type=303&entity=683809&mediaCd=589689

The topic was the Tzelem- the astral body. A talk that Scholem gave 15 years prior at the Eranos conferences and was only available in German at the time of the lecture. One gets a good sense of Scholem in the 90 minutes.

He opens with a two interesting autobiographical statements. First, that research into kabbalah- is research into the hidden recesses of the mind. Second, that Scholem in his turn to kabbalah was searching beyond the Talmud.

It is interesting that even after 60 years in Israel his accent is still entirely German even when pronouncing Hebrew. It is noticeable that he even has no Hebrew accent when pronouncing Hebrew words.

Scholem made a joke that there were so many PhD’’s in mandate Palestine that one would think “Dr” is the Jewish first name . And that no one could evaluate his work before he was hired by Hebrew University, so he was reviwed by a Rabbinical botanist in Hungary who read in Scholem’s edition of the Bahir about male and female palm trees.

He claimed to have an optic memory not an auditory one.

Now to the lecture itself, which Scholem claimed was really two lecture. The first half of the lecture on the personal confrontation with the soul and the second half on Tzelem. One sees how much Scholem was interested in psychological explanations even when not at the Eranos conferences.

Scholem opened up with the opposition of Ibn Latif to kabbalistic psychology and the need for someone in do a study of him. (Ibn latif, Rav Pe’alim, ed. S. Schoenblum, Berlin, 1885, reprinted: Jerusalem, 1970; see also: ed. H. Kasher, Ramat Gan, 1974.)

Scholem quoted from Moshe of Kiev – Shushan Sodot, the following passage from a student of Abulafia. As you read the passage note that Scholem reads the passage as reaching the psychology depth of the soul and Moshe Idel in his work uses the same passage to discuss prophecy, prophetic kabbalah, and visual phenomena.

The wise and illuminated R. Nathan, blessed be his memory, told me ‘Know that the perfection of the secret of prophecy for the prophet is that he should suddenly see the form of his self-standing in front of him. He will then forget his own self and it will disappear from him. And he will see the form of his self in front of him, speaking with him and telling him the future.

Scholem explains it as showing the Kabblah as offering self-knowledge into the depths of the human nature. From a 2012 perspective, it feels funny that he treats the conceptions of the self as a static entity. He is writing pre-Charles Taylor pre- Foucault without any genealogy of the construction of the self. He attributes the differences between the centuries of texts to creativity and imagination, not to the changing constructions of the self.

In the second half of the talk, Scholem presents his article on Tzelem. He acknowledges the universality of the idea of the Astral body. He make a big point that the audience should read Sylvan J. Muldoon, Hereward Carrington,  Projection of the Astral Body (1923) who offer a theosophic approach in line with Madame Blavatsky. Then he traces the history of the astral body from Greek papyri to Iamblicus and from there to the Arabic magical works and Pico.

From there, Scholem discusses the concept of a personal angel, the Zohar need for garments to enter this world, -the haluka derabanan- bodies of light- and the idea of an ethereal robe. He basically treats them as if they are all the same with different imaginative understanding. He finishes up with the soul traveling through the spheres and planets, Dante’s concept of the shadow and the zelem hovering over body. So read the original essay.

I yearn for some historical sense. Scholem jumps from his classical knowledge to the use of the classical material in the kabbalah, then he just sees the synthesis in the 16th century as a synthesis. Looking back, Scholem can use to actually deal with the topic Ginzburg’s discussion of the pneuma, Warburg studies of melancholia, and then some Yates and Brian Vickers. His applying the 20th century sense of self to the 16the century is unnerving.

Peter Schafer responds to Daniel Boyarin.

In the current issue of the New Republic, Princeton Professor and leading authority on early Judaisms Peter Schafer has a critique of Boyarin’s new book. But rather than a discussion of method by two senior scholars, we get Schafer himself acidly writing about Boyarin. “As the younger Talmud professor in the acclaimed Israeli movie Footnote says to his hapless student, “There are many correct and new aspects in your paper—only what is new isn’t correct and what is correct isn’t new.”

Schafer acknowledges that the quest for Jesus as Jew and his Jewish context is the topic of our decade. Long gone are the Lutheran inspired dichotomies of The Rabbis and Jesus. Rather, Christians are eager for these new Jewish insights. “That the historical Jesus was a Jew, that his followers were Jews, and that the Gospels as well as the letters written by the apostle Paul are Jewish writings, firmly embedded in first century C.E. Judaism—all this has become almost commonplace.” Boyarin is part of this larger trend that includes many other authors, both clerical and academic. Schafer himself just released a volume on the topic The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other (Princeton University Press).and this seems like academic rivalry. It seems he agree in the basic thesis but thinks his approach is the better way. I will comment on Schafer’s book when I receive a copy.

Schafer grants that “the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, with scholars outdoing each other in proving the Jewishness of Jesus and the New Testament, and arguing that there is nothing in Jesus’s message as reflected in the New Testament that oversteps the boundaries of what might be expected from the Judaism of his day.” So let’s have a discussion, acknowledging in advance that German scholars and Jewish scholars differ many time due to different methodological considerations.

Instead, Schafer condemns the book with four objections. First, it is not original. Second, he rejects the connection of Boyarin’s Jewish bi-theism with the Trinity, a rejection already made without the cattiness by Moshe Idel. Third, bar-nash of the book of Daniel may actually be hypostatic of the Trinity or at least bi-theism and is not messianic redeemer as Boyarin thought. And finally, the book of Daniel may refer in its lower manifestation to the angelic or heavenly hosts and it may have political elements. Daniel does not just refer to two powers in heaven.

The latter two could have been dealt with as a minor repair as a fellow scholar, with near similar conclusions, amends Boyarin. Boyarin argues his understanding of Daniel based on the role of figures who ride on clouds as well as the Canaanite background to the text. Schafer considers neither strong enough.

The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ By Daniel Boyarin
The most recent voice in this chorus is Daniel Boyarin… announced with great fanfare, that the evolving Christology of the New Testament and the early Church—that is, the idea of Jesus being essentially divine and human, the divine-human Messiah and Son of his Father in heaven—is deeply engrained in the Jewish tradition that preceded the New Testament. Theologians would call this idea “binitarianism,” that is, the notion of two divine figures of equal substance and power, mostly an older and a younger God (or Father and Son).

But for Boyarin this extraordinary claim is not enough. He lets himself be gladly carried away by the assertion that even what theologians call the Trinity (the notion of three divine figures, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) was present among the Jews well before Jesus made his appearance. It is worth quoting this even more audacious claim:

Fortunately, Boyarin forgets about the Holy Spirit and the Trinitarian claim, and focuses instead on the binitarian idea of two divine powers as part and parcel of the pre-Christian Jewish tradition. It must be said at the start that for the reader familiar with the scholarship this notion does not come as a shattering innovation.

Jonathan Z. Smith, who published an English translation of the Prayer, aptly summarized its theological importance: “Rather than the Jews imitating Christological titles, it would appear that the Christians borrowed already existing Jewish terminology.”

Crucial for this claim is his first chapter, which reveals the major assumption on which his book is built—that, paradoxically, the appellation “Son of God” refers to the Messiah as a human king, whereas the appellation “Son of Man,” contrary to what most Christians believe, refers to the divine redeemer, that is, the divine origin of the Messiah.
Yet with a stroke of his pen Boyarin erases all the pre-Christian Jewish traditions in which the Son of God means much more than just a human king, not to mention the New Testament passages—in particular in Paul’s letters, which predate the Gospels—that speak of Jesus as the divine Son of God.

All the relevant pre-Christian Jewish sources as well as the New Testament sources have been exemplarily presented and analyzed by Martin Hengel in his seminal book, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion, published in many editions, of which Boyarin seems unaware.
AS TO THE Son of Man as a divine figure, Boyarin’s main evidence is the famous vision, in the biblical Book of Daniel, of the Ancient of Days and the one like a human being (“Son of Man”) to whom is given dominion, glory, and kingship forever. This vision forms the core of Boyarin’s argument,

Since Daniel tells us that, although “thrones [in the plural] were set in place,” only the Ancient of Days (that is,
God) took his seat, we must conclude, according to Boyarin, that the second throne was reserved for the Son of Man as a second divine figure (in human form)—a younger God enthroned in heaven next to the Ancient of Days as the older God. Having summarized Daniel in such a way, Boyarin arrives at his desired thesis that Daniel’s Son of Man is the Jewish forerunner of Jesus Christ, long before Jesus was born, the divine-human Messiah, “a simile, a God who looks like a human being.” Ultimately, Boyarin assures us, these two divinities “would end up being the first two persons of the Trinity.”

The most likely candidate for those being seated on these thrones, in addition to the Ancient of Days, is the heavenly court that sits in judgment, explicitly referred to in the Daniel text. Moreover, and more importantly, Boyarin cannot avoid noticing that the interpretation of Daniel’s vision given by an angel in the Book of Daniel itself does not go well with his exegesis.

This interpretation by the angel provides the historical background of the vision: the court’s judgment results in the dominion being taken away from the ruthless Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes and given as an everlasting kingdom to the people of Israel (the “holy ones of the Most High”). So what is at stake here in Daniel 7 is the concrete historical situation after 175 B.C.E., with the Seleucid oppression of the Jews and the Maccabean revolt against it, and the question of who is the Son of Man needs to be answered against this historical background.

The Church Fathers would have loved this exegesis, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it can be found somewhere in their voluminous works. But the evidence that Boyarin provides for his peculiar reading of Daniel 7—flatly against the grain of the Biblical text itself—is rather dubious.

In order to prove the divine nature of the Son of Man, he first points to the fact that clouds in the Hebrew Bible are common attributes of divine appearances (theophanies), and that accordingly the Son of Man’s coming on the clouds of heaven elevates him to a divine being.

Boyarin also invokes the Canaanite gods El and Ba‘al, the former being the ancient sky god and the latter his younger associate, whom the Bible tried—not always successfully—to merge into one God in order to accomplish its idea of a strict monotheism. The notion of a duality within God, he argues, is present in the Hebrew Bible itself. Fair enough—nobody would want to disagree with him here: that duality was a condition that the Bible sought not to affirm but to overcome.

Schafer does accept the new understanding of Jesus and the Law but says Boyarin was derivative. On the other hand, Boyarin is to be faulted for not including the Christian influence on Pesiqta Rabbati, the topic of Schafer latest volume.

No serious New Testament scholar would doubt the former part of this argument (Jesus did not want to do away with the laws of kashrut); and the latter part (Jesus quarreled with the Pharisaic concept of ritual purity) is heavily indebted to the work of the young Israeli scholar Yair Furstenberg.

Worse, Boyarin completely ignores the most important evidence of the vicarious suffering of the Messiah Ephraim in rabbinic Judaism, in the midrash Pesiqta Rabbati, where the notion of the Messiah’s vicarious expiatory suffering returns to the Jewish tradition. These texts have been thoroughly discussed in recent scholarship, and it has been argued that they most likely belong to the first half of the seventh century C.E. and may well be a rather late response to the Christian usurpation of the Messiah Jesus’s vicarious suffering. If this interpretation is correct, then there is clearly not a single unbroken line of tradition leading from Isaiah 53 through of all places Daniel 7—to the New Testament and the subsequent rabbinic literature. Instead what we encounter here is the rabbinic re-appropriation of a theme that is firmly embedded in the Hebrew Bible, was usurped by the New Testament Jesus and therefore largely ignored or better suppressed by most rabbis, only to make its way back later into certain strands of rabbinic Judaism.

Finally, Schafer acknowledges the broad discipline area that they agree about. They include: importance of Second temple Judaism, the slow process of the separation of the ways and the creation of a language of Orthodoxy. From my perspective Schafer lacks the transitional theological language of the 3rd and 4th centuries when many Christians were still monarchists, Arians, Sabellians and Subordinationalists. He does not want to essentialize but many Trinitarian positions had much in common with bi-theism. I found on the Amazon site a review of his work that makes the new Schafer volume almost entirely agree with Boyarin’s thesis, except in the above mentioned small points.

Schäfer showcases the binitarian concept, New Testament Christianity, which basically was binitarian (with the Holy Spirit not yet admitted to full partnership). Thus Judaism was not strictly monotheistic, nor was Christianity always trinitarian. Schäfer holds that binitarianism found an important support in the imperial concept, developed by Diocletian at the end of the third century CE, of the Augustus (or chief emperor) assisted by the Caesar (or junior emperor).

And methodologically, he is willing to acknowledge that many of these Second Temple ideas close to Christianity reemerged in kabblalah, yet in a medievalists eyes they were already there in the rabbinic texts. And how he can claim Pesikta as Christian influenced but Kabbalah as authentic Second temple is not sound. Each passage in both collections needs its own genealogy. I await reading his new volume The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other (Princeton University Press).

First and foremost among them is the recognition that Second Temple Judaism offers a much more complex and multifaceted fabric of ideas and thoughts than many Christians and Jews today are prepared to acknowledge. The various Jewish sources and schools (some of them mislabeled as “sects”)—represented by the late books of the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, and indeed the New Testament—are overlapping, often competing, but always legitimate parts of this teeming spiritual culture.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., moreover, a process was set in motion that was geared toward taking stock and distilling some kind of “normative Judaism,” aimed at defining what is  “in” and what is “out,” and thus eliminating trends and directions that were regarded as unwelcome or dangerous

A CONCLUSION strongly suggests itself: if we wish to evaluate “Judaism” and “Christianity” in the first centuries C.E. from a historian’s point of view, we need to stay away from the dogmatic notion of two firmly established religions, the one defined by its ultimate triumph over Judaism after it became the religion of the Christian state—with all its horrible consequences for the Jews—and the other defined by the victory of the rabbis over their enemies from within and from without. In doing so, we will discover that there is no single line or single point in the first centuries of the Christian era that distinguished Judaism and Christianity once and forever. There are several lines and several points.
The binitarian idea of two divine powers does not constitute a definite line of demarcation between the faiths—but the Trinitarian idea of three divine powers does.

The vicarious suffering of the Messiah, or even his death, does not constitute an impassable boundary—but the scandal of his death on the cross, so much emphasized by Paul, does.

And we must not forget a later complication, or irony: some of these “heretical” ideas, suppressed by Talmudic Judaism, would return to Judaism ever more vigorously in what is commonly called Kabbalah.
Read the entire review

Roland Barthes in the NYT

This past Sunday, the first day of Shavuot, Sam Anderson did a fine piece in the NYT on Roland Barthes, the critic. The article presents Barthes as the antecedent of bloggers.

Among the brand-name French theorists of the mid-20th century, Roland Barthes was the fun one… Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he called jouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment

Barthes’s basic idea (although with Barthes it’s always dangerous to reduce things to a basic idea) was that the operation of mass culture is analogous to mythology. He argued that the cultural work previously done by gods and epic sagas — teaching citizens the values of their society, providing a common language — was now being done by film stars and laundry-detergent commercials. In “Mythologies,” his project was to demystify these myths.

He wrote essays about professional wrestling, celebrity weddings, soap advertisements, actors’ publicity photos, trends in children’s toys and an initiative by the president of France to get citizens to drink more milk.
(“If God is really speaking through Dr. Graham’s mouth, it must be acknowledged that God is quite stupid.”) He wrote about plastic. (“It is the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic.”)

The most basic lesson of “Mythologies” is that everything means something, especially things that try to seem beyond meaning.

If 21st-century culture has embraced any of Barthes’s lessons, it is this one. What is the blogosphere if not a Petri dish of amateur semiology — the decoding of everything?

[W]hat angered Barthes more than anything was “common sense,” which he identified as the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, a mode of thought that systematically pretends that complex things are simple, that puzzling things are obvious, that local things are universal — in short, that cultural fantasies shaped by all the dirty contingencies of power and money and history are in fact just the natural order of the universe. The critic’s job, in Barthes’s view, was not to revel in these common-sensical myths but to expose them as fraudulent.The critic had to side with history, not with culture. And history, Barthes insisted, “is not a good bourgeois.”
Read the rest here.

Pretend that complex things are simple. Assert that the puzzling is obvious. Infer that the local is universal. Who does this? The next time you hear that some visible or invisible order of things is “universal” “eternal” or “natural,” remind yourself of Barthes.

And the article closes with a great example of the post-ironic.

Barthes admits to breaking down in tears when he hears a song by Gérard Souzay, a singer he once dismissed in “Mythologies” as the epitome of melodramatic bourgeois art. In this moment of contradiction, he seems very modern, and fully Barthesian.

Moshe Halbertal – On Sacrifice

What is the role of sacrifice in contemporary morals and politics? To answer this question Moshe Halbertal recently wrote a book on sacrifice.

The first part of the book explains that religious sacrifice is for its own sake as obedience or devotion. The second part of the part is on the role of sacrifice in our current world. Halbertal’s view of Biblical and Rabbinic notions seems rather Maimonidean, no appeasement of God, no trades with God quid pro quo, and no effect on God. He toys with the theories of violence of Girard and Bataille but politely returns them to the shelf.

The second part of the book argues that sacrifice of the self has to be valuable for a cause and not as an end in itself. The sacrifice of war has to serve just goals and is not an end in itself. In this, he implicitly differs with Talal Asad’s explanation of suicide bombers or Mussolini’s definition of a nation as one that fights together. Halbertal also claims that in our modern world, chesed is going beyond the self. The ethical demand of the book is that a self-sacrifice for another individual, value, or collective seems key to much of ethical life.

Moshe Halbertal argues that ‘self-transcendence is at the core of human capacity for moral life’. The idea of self-transcendence, or of leaving aside one’s own self-interest and adopting the point of view of the other.. Ahad Haam made altruistic ethics the Christian opposite of the Jewish ethic of consequentialism. Kaufman Kohler limited it to Buddhists and Christians. Usually mesirat nefesh is used in a non-consequential way or a devotional way. Here it seems a little more Kantian than Rawls, and a little bit of Levinas. The book shifts Jewish language from the current use of the word justice to that of sacrifice and hesed. And the prolific John Milbank, the Christian radical Orthodoxy thinker, is writing in this same idiom of self-sacrifice.

Halbertal examines the suicide bomber and the terrorist who doesn’t try to escape punishment because he wants to prove that the aim was worth risking his life. Halbertal claims that this kind of sacrificial transcendence is morally misguided. Legitimate moral demands may, in some cases, require sacrifice, but sacrifice can never legitimize action that would not otherwise be legitimate. Thomas Nagel, says Halbertal’s argument boils down to, “If violent action is right, it’s right without sacrifice. If it’s wrong, sacrifice won’t make it right” and described the paper as a “lucid and original discussion of self-transcendence and its pathologies.”

Halbertal in his own words from his preface, available as a pdf at Princeton UP.

The second part of this book, which is devoted to “sacrificing for,” involves different realms altogether— the political and moral spheres. Self-sacrifice for another individual, value, or collective seems key to much of ethical life and political organization. In Kant’s moral philosophy, as in other moral theories, the core of morality is the capacity to transcend the self along with its drives and interests, and therefore, as Kant formulated it, moral drama resides in the conflict between self-transcendence and self-love. While endorsing the value of self-transcendence, my study of the relationship between self-sacrifice and violence will try to show the way in which misguided self-transcendence has a potential to lead to far greater evils and harms than those that are motivated by excessive self-love. Unraveling the internal relationship between self-transcendence and violence will provide what I believe to be a preferable, deeper account of moral conflict.

War is a realm in which heroic self-sacrifice as well as utter violence and brutality are manifested. In my attempt to probe the relationship between self-transcendence and violence, I will try to demonstrate that the simultaneous occurrence of these two aspects of war is not accidental and that they are intrinsically connected. Focusing on “sacrificing for” will thus lead to investigating the role of sacrifice in war and the function of the state as a sacrificial bond.

Here is a solid review by the great scholar of myth Robert A. Segal, focusing on the first part of the book.

Philosopher Moshe Halbertal distinguishes two kinds of sacrifice: sacrifice to and sacrifice for. Sacrifice “to”, which is older, means a gift, as in the giving of an animal or even a human to a god. This kind of sacrifice is found above all in religion, and Halbertal takes most of his examples from the Hebrew Bible, although lamentably none from Homer and Hesiod.

Sacrifice “for” means self-sacrifice for a cause. It means “giving up…property, comfort, limb, or even life for…children, country, or in order to fulfil an obligation”. This kind of sacrifice is not distinctly religious and can be found in devotion to any cause. Halbertal insists that both types, not just sacrifice “for”, are “noninstrumental”. That is, no reciprocity is expected. After all, what can humans give God in exchange for what they want from God? When a gift becomes a means to an end, sacrifice “to” becomes a crass market exchange.

But Halbertal’s depiction of sacrifice “to” is hard to fathom. First, sacrifices are often demanded by God. Second, even if the two parties are unequal, these sacrifices are still seen as the best human means to secure some goal, such as winning battles and ending disease. In Judges xi, Jephthah vows that he will sacrifice the first living thing to greet him upon his return home if God will grant him victory over the Ammonites.

When Agamemnon is told that he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia in order for the Greek fleet to be able to set sail for Troy, his sacrifice, which is “to” and not “for”, is hardly intended as an end in itself. Furthermore, the Semiticist William Robertson Smith, whom Halbertal discusses, rejects the view of sacrifice as originally one of gift because in his day gift was taken to be a form of expiation of sins.

Halbertal’s analysis of the consequences of sacrifice “for” is most insightful. We innocently assume that self-sacrifice is noble. Committing violence in war for a “just cause” is accepted. But he observes that self-sacrifice can turn the perpetrators of violence into victims, thereby turning self-sacrifice into self-interest. He does not limit himself to suicide bombers and notes that Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac for (not to) God constitutes what Kierkegaard calls the “suspension of the ethical”.

Halbertal warns against the appeal to self-sacrifice in order to justify unjust undertakings. He contrasts Abraham Lincoln’s legitimately justifying the deaths of soldiers for the sake of freedom with George W. Bush’s justifying the continuation of the war in Iraq to finish the task for which so many had already died. Halbertal maintains that it is not self-interest that undermines the morality of war but the opposite: the turning of self-sacrifice into justification for immorality. This is a brilliant book.

From the scholar of the Rabbinic era – Catherine Hezser

Each individual citizen is asked to “sacrifice” part of their property by accepting higher taxes, interest rates, and prices as well as cuts to benefits and pensions. This self-sacrifice is propagated as a contribution to the common good of the respective society, economy, and political system. The terminology of “sacrifice” has a distinct political significance besides its religious connotations in world religions including Judaism and Christianity.

The notions of sacrifice and violence are closely linked. Sacrifice involves violence but is also meant to halt violence and effect purification. A proper victim is chosen to serve as a scapegoat sacrified on behalf of others to placate God or to prevent further retaliation by one’s enemies. The victim serves as a substutite for those who initiated the sacrificial ritual. Sacrificing him is believed to bring about atonement. This idea found its foremost expression in the Christian sacrifice of the son of God to secure atonement for others: “That sacrifice eclipsed all previous ones, making them redundant and void”.

The connection between sacrifice and violence is also evident in the use of the same term for a sacrifice and a crime victim in Hebrew (qorban) and a number of other languages (e.g., German: Opfer; Arabic: adcha). In both cases, the (innocent) victim experiences violence at the hands of others. Early Christianity “merges the crime victim and the sacrifice into the same persona”.

In rabbinic Judaism, which developed after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., other forms of substitution emerged: charity, suffering, and prayer. Rabbis suggested that by supporting the poor on behalf of God, who is seen as ultimately responsible for their well-being, the charity giver is “lending to God” and thereby reversing the dependence relationship between them. In a different way, suffering is seen to affect atonement, since it serves as “a symbolic substitute for the punishment itself”, says Halbertal. He goes on to say that daily prayer “was perceived to achieve the same goals: atonement, and thanking and appeasing God”.

The self-sacrifice of martyrdom constitutes the bridge between the notions of sacrificing to and sacrificing for. The martyr sacrifices his life for the love of God. This understanding of “the martyr as a sacrificial offering” emerged in Judaism from the seventh century onwards only. Sacrifice now also involved “giving up” one’s life (and/or property) for the sake of one’s religious – as well as ethical and political – convictions. A similar notion appears in modern philosophical writings which stress self-transcendence and sacrifice as the basis of morality in contrast to self-preservation and gratification.

Yet in war, this relationship is reversed: soldiers who are ready to sacrifice themselves evince “a form of moral self-deception” assuming “that sacrifice makes something into a good”. Halbertal argues that in certain situations, “self-sacrifice mobilizes crimes that in their magnitude are far greater than those motivated by self-interest”. He refers to the suicide bomber as an example for the connection between self-sacrifice and violence and the reversal of roles between aggressor and victim. Self-sacrifice is therefore potentially dangerous if it is misguided. It can be used towards the common good but also justify crimes and corrupt society. In religious parlance, misguided self-sacrifice constitutes idolatry.
The book presents a good basis for further discussion of the use of sacrifice-related terminology in political and economic discourse. Anyone interested in the continued significance of ancient concepts, ideas, and rituals in modern life and thinking would benefit from reading this book.

Jewish Standard article on my recent book

There is a great three part article in today’s NJ Jewish Standard about my new book. One long article and two full sidebars. I did not write the title. As I explain in the book, I don’t use the word dialogue because I am reflecting entirely from within Jewish texts and not in conversation. I use “theology of other religions” or “models of understanding.” And when I do go to meetings, conferences and interpersonal encounters, I prefer to call it a meeting, or better yet, the Levinas word “hospitality” for the accepting of invites to leave one’s comfort zone and confront the other. And rarely would I appeal to saying “nothing new” since I think contextually and temporally.

Alan Brill: Interfaith dialogue nothing new for Jews
Larry Yudelson Local | World Published: 25 May 2012

The story of how the Dalai Lama encountered the Jewish community in 1990 is well known.

Less known is how the Ashkenazi Jewish community first encountered the Dalai Lama — in a Hebrew-language book published in Europe in 1804, compiled from travelers accounts in English and French.

“Jews then were not as sheltered as we think of them,” says Alan Brill, who quotes from the book, “Meorot Zvi,” in his own book, “Judaism and World Religions: Encountering Christianity, Islam, and Eastern Traditions,” just published by Palgrave Macmillan.

The understanding of Buddhism shown by the author of “Meorot Zvi” is less positive than that of the Jewish religious leaders who traveled to Dharamsala, to meet the current Dalai Lama as recounted in “The Jew and the Lotus” nearly two centuries later. The Meorot Zvi called the senior Tibetan leader of his day the “father of impurity from which all the monks derive their way of crookedness from one of the spirits of impurity.”

This negative Jewish view of Buddhism, however, is only one perspective, and “Judaism and World Religions” aims to catalogue all of them, from a 13th century Jewish physician who accumulated enormous power in the Mongol court and wrote a biography of the Buddha through the differing views of contemporary authors and thinkers.

Buddhism is the subject of only one chapter of this book, which looks at Jewish understandings of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and the whole concept of religion itself.

“Judaism and World Religions” is a sequel to Brill’s previous book, “Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding.” In the earlier book, Brill, a Teaneck resident who holds Seton Hall University’s Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair for Jewish-Christian Studies in honor of Sister Rose Thering, examined different approaches to religions at a more abstract level. Is Judaism the only true religion and all other religions false? Or is Judaism the root of all true religions? Or are all religions true paths to approach God? As could be expected, each of these positions had some support from Jewish thinkers over the ages.

“The first book deals with the fact that we’ve forgotten that we have many universal and inclusive positions, that we share monotheism, and other elements. It’s not a zero sum game. The second book deals with the specifics,” says Brill.

Brill has been an active participant in interfaith dialogue. A Yeshiva University-trained rabbi with a doctorate in religion from Fordham, a Catholic university, Brill has been part of the Jewish delegation in meetings with the Catholic Church — the most formalized and regular interfaith dialogue — but also with meetings with Orthodox Christians, at the Madrid interfaith conference convened by Saudi King Abdullah in 2008, and with ongoing meetings with Hindu religious leaders since 2006.

“The Jews — including the Israeli chief rabbinate — have recognized that Hindus worship a supreme being and are not idolatry,” says Brill.

In his book, Brill shows that this is not a revolutionary departure for Jewish observers of Hinduism.

“A lot of the texts in earlier times conceptualized Hinduism and Buddhism using an Islamic lens. The Muslim world had the trade routes and the borders. Jews were the merchants and doctors and translators.

“The Eastern religions got translated from Arabic into Hebrew, so the 30 thousand million gods of Hinduism get translated as ‘malachim,’ angels, to preserve a monotheistic understanding. They understood almost all Asian theological categories through Judaeo-Islamic philosophy.

“The statues stood in Afghanistan for 800 years peacefully under Islam, because the Buddhists were seen as worshiping one principle, and it’s only the recent Taliban that saw them as a problem.”

Brill was surprised by how much Jewish contact with Buddhists and Hindus his research uncovered.

He was also surprised to discover that the relationship between Judaism and Islam had even more connections than was commonly known.

“We’ve crossed over many more times than we usually conceive of,” he says. “Jews don’t begin to understand the incredible overlaps of law and texts and mysticism between Judaism and Islam.”

On Islam, Brill quotes from what he calls the earliest Jewish responses to the rise of Islam, midrashic works such as “Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer.” He shows how medieval Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides viewed Islam as a theological phenomenon.

“Judaism does not have the same problems with Islam that it has with Christianity, that is, trinity, incarnation, and resurrection,” Brill concludes. “But to envision a Jewish theology of Islam, there are many questions that would need a fresh analysis to move the discussion forward, especially finding a way to read the negative statements about Jews, either conceptually or contextually, in a way that would minimize their effect.”

And he raises some of the questions that he wants Jewish theology to answer regarding Islam, among them, “Can Judaism find a place for Muhammad in Judaism as not a madman” as he was portrayed by Maimonides? “Can we find a place not in the realm of an Islamic polity (dar islam) or in an anti-Islamic polity (dar harb), but walking alongside? Can we have a sense that we worship one God, have common laws, common revelation, and common resurrection?”

Much of the classical Jewish theology on Christianity appeared in Brill’s prior volume. Here, he details contemporary Jewish thinking on Christianity, such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who Brill writes “can serve as a barometer of the inroads of ecumenical thinking about Christianity in many traditional Jewish circles. Riskin’s speeches show that segments of his community are begging to sincerely acknowledge the tremendous strides in Jewish-Christian relation along with post-Holocaust sensitivity to Judaism and the State of Israel.”

For Brill, even after 50 years of formal Catholic-Jewish dialogue, plenty remains on the theological agenda.

“The next question is how do we go forward? We have to break discussions down into much smaller units, starting from the questions of where we overlap, to the other way, where do we diverge?”

Brill says that in thinking about other religions, Jews have to be fair and consistent. “You can’t compare a Christianity from the 14th century to a modern Judaism and then say, behold, they’re opposites.”

“The next question is how do we go forward? We have to break discussions down into much smaller units, starting from the questions of where we overlap, to the other way, where do we diverge?”

Brill says that in thinking about other religions, Jews have to be fair and consistent. “You can’t compare a Christianity from the 14th century to a modern Judaism and then say, behold, they’re opposites.”

Past models of Jewish understanding of Islam

Jews were comfortable enough with Islam that many aspects of medieval Jewish culture were articulated, defined, and systematized under Islam. Knowledge of Arabic linguistics allowed Jews to refine Hebrew as a sister language. Jews followed Arabic and Persian models of poetry, and Jewish law was influenced by Islamic courts and Islamic jurisprudence.

A remarkable indication of the depth of this penetration of Arabic language and culture is the adoption of Islamic terminology to designate even the most sacred notions of the Jewish faith, a fact which has practically no parallel among Ashkenazi Jewry prior to the modern era. For example, the Hebrew Bible would be referred to as the Koran, the halakhah as the shari’a, and Moses as rasul Allah “‘the Apostle of Allah’.”

Siman Tov Melammed (before 1793—- 1823 or 1828, nom de plume Tuvyah) was an Iranian Jewish rabbi, poet, and polemicist. Melammed praises the Sufis for transcending their physical bodies and the habits of ordinary life to become servants of God. They are radiant and contented from their devotion to God and they lead others back to a straight path to God.

Ignatz Goldziher (1850 — 1921), Hungarian orientalist and Orthodox Jew, is certainly the strongest and most unusual advocate for Jewish—-Muslim understanding in the scholarly history; he regarded Judaism and Islam as kindred religions. Despite his status as a Jew, he was allowed to study with Muslim clerics in Al Azhar in Cairo. Goldziher had the utmost admiration for Islam and thought that Islam had evolved into “the only religion which, even in its doctrinal and official formulation, can satisfy philosophical minds.”

“My ideal,” he said, “was to elevate Judaism to a similar rational level.”

For Goldziher, Islam is not simply a sibling religion of Judaism; he urges the Jewish minority in Christian Europe to view Islam as a model for its own development.

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin (1908-1989) was an Orthodox Jewish-German-American writer, scholar, and feminist activist. She co-founded, with her husband, the School of the Jewish Woman in New York in 1933, and in 1939 founded the Jewish Spectator, a quarterly magazine, which she edited for fifty years. She advocated already in 1967, a strong Jewish-Muslim dialogue as the only source of Middle East peace.

“If henceforth Jews will assign to Jewish-Muslim dialogue the importance that is its due, the Arabs, in whose nationalism religion is as important as it is in Jewish nationalism, will eventually — and perhaps sooner than cold-headed realists will dare expect — rediscover that the Jews are their cousins, descendants of Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, who was Isaac’s brother.

“If the young State of Israel is to survive and prosper it must become integrated into the Arab world and be accepted by its neighbors. We believe that with a complete reorientation, especially a muting of the insistent harping on the theme of ‘Israel is an outpost of Western civilization’ the Arab nations would accept Israel on the basis of the kinship which unites Jews and Arabs.”

Starting points for a future theology of Islam

Teaching the importance of Islamic sources in the works of great Jewish thinkers can create an awareness of the possibilities of encounter. This educational process would be an internal Jewish endeavor and could carry important implications. First and foremost, if Jews are taught about the prior integration of the two faiths then there would be greater clarity that the political war between Arabs and Jews is not a faith war. It could promote an understanding that Islam and Judaism can coexist.

The Catholic Church moved from teaching contempt to recognizing Judaism as a living faith. We cannot preclude giving any group in Islam that wants dialogue the chance to change and slowly learn tolerance and respect, especially since it serves their own needs for entering a global economy. We recognize that certain Islamic countries currently have a lack of religious freedom, fund hateful literature, have negative views of Judaism, and fail to recognize the State of Israel.

But we cannot compare their worst comments to our best. Both sides have saints and both sides have advocates of hatred. We must, however, remember heroic figures, such as Sister Rose Thering, who confronted her own church with the anti-Semitism that was being taught in its textbooks and helped bring about an interfaith revolution.

In the interim, we need to give those that seek encounter our support. We must not look to the past and use that to dissuade us from working with our counterparts now and in the future. One must first transcend the past and look to the future, then one must transcend polemical arguments on both sides, and then give precedence to common points. But we can look to the past to see how long it took most Western countries to achieve the liberties of the modern world, and know that it will also take many Muslim countries time to achieve this openness.

Such starting points will allow for a positive future Jewish theology of Islam.

Random Thoughts on the Asifa

I have kept out of the fray and much of this post was written before the asifa but I was way too busy to post my comments due to finals, MA defense et. al.

First, the broader Satmar context: The Hungarian Hasidim are not following some pre-Enlightenment relic, rather a 1950’s product. Reb Yoelish Teitelbaum was important for rebuilding and recreating Hungarian Hasidism after the war by collecting all survivors from all over Galicia and Hungary. According to Poll, Reb Yoilish turned them into petit bourgeois of store keepers, merchants, and American trades. He made them adapt modern medicine, clocks, electricity, bookkeeping, and the way of the modern world so that in regard to “material culture” they were of this world. No more folk medicine, magic, graveyard rituals, or rural Judaism. (If I had more time, I would cite some teshuvot where he says that we dont do things like in the old country.) Since life in America needs a newspaper, he founded one. He taught them the world of apartment life, NYC bureaucracy, voting, and transit. Yes, he was obsessed with stockings and hosiery but that was not his major contribution in life. He also made everyone dress in shtreimel and capote, even if they dressed in work shirts and caps before the war, to look different from the goyim. For a good study of the changes of the 1960’s, see Solomon Poll’s readable 1970 book on Satmar, The Hasidic Community of Williamsburg: A study on the Sociology of Religion. George Kranzler’s book is also good but better yet study Reb Yoiish’s letters and responsa. (Today’s authors waste all their time talking about his politics.). Electrical timers became “shabbos clocks” and modern hospitals needed a new form of bikur holim. He created a community for the 1960’s and now there has been enough social and political to warrant some leadership for guidance for the new challenges. But they lack new leadership.

However, it is important to note that there were 1930’s Eastern European rabbis, even some Agudah members, who were proud that they and their students resisted electricity, light bulbs, telephones, beds, and indoor plumbing. There were strong Luddite and anti-medicine trends before the war. In an alternate history, it would be interesting to imagine that if WWII had not occurred how these Jewish Luddite and Amish thinking groups would have continued and played themselves out.

Satmar Website- For those who remember, there were one or two Satmar websites in 1997-1998, that were competing with Chabad. They were removed after a few months.

On assifos: The traditional term for a gathering was a kenes or yarah kallah. The term seems to have taken on its current meaning sometime in the late 1990’s for gathering by organizations with lay leadership like Yad laAhim, Keren Birchas Shmuel, or Pe’elim. It got transferred to gatherings called by rabbinic leadership in 2005, but already in 2004 Leib Pinter anachronistically used the term in an Artscroll to discuss an Agudah kenes of prewar Europe. Hmm..
We then have in quick succession a number of assifos. See any patterns?

2005 – for bnos yisrael and a good shidduch
2005 against the internet
2005 tzniut
2006 against the internet by Rabbis R. Ephraim Wachsman and R. Mattisyahu Solomon.
2008 – tzniut
2010 – rubashkins [This was Chabad and not Lakewood or Hungarian.]
2011 – heart-death definition of the end of life
2011- anti-eruv
2011 Leiby Kletzky
Fall 2011 – in BMG- before Tishrei banning the internet and smart phones with both Rav Kotler and R. Mattisyahu Solomon
Fall 2011 internet- both R. Mattisyahu Solomon and Skulner Rebbe-
This big asifa was announced then in September and why would you expect different speeches for the larger venue than the originals in sept?
Fall 2011 against internet in Boro Park

R. Mattisyahu Solomon has been concerned for six years. He has been repeating himself for six years. This asfia was just a culmination of a number of asifos. Here is the write-up by Mississippi Fred of the 2006 asifa and if anyone wants I have mp3s of the internal Lakewood Elul 2011 asifa.(Very large zip file- It was sent to me for the halber –shabbos mention). If R. Mattisyahu Solomon has been repeating himself for six years, then why did anyone expect a new message? He said what he had to say in 2006- 2011. Is it his Torah method to consult some psychologists, social workers, and web filter companies to come up with a new message or give a practical message?

How big is 40, 000 and another 10, 000 in another stadium?
The West Indian-American Day Carnival brings together three million merrymakers to the streets of Brooklyn. September 3.
National Puerto Rican Day Parade has nearly two million people. June 11.
NYC Gay PrideFest Parade hosts more than one million participants
The Celebrate Israel day parade which has become the Modern Orthodox pride parade gets over 30, 000.
The March in Washington in 2000 organized by Honelin and Avi Weiss got over 100, 000 (subject to debate how much over 100k)

Evangelicals, Muslims, and others

Ultra- orthodox Jews are not the first to do this. Evangelicals started with stadium gatherings in the 1990’s for men’s problems and for them it is a regular part of their preaching.. However, the better analogies are the large gathering against the internet in Egypt and Turkey, with the same dynamic of being secular states with a minority who want a more sectarian approach. Turkey bans censorship so it will be a self-imposed ban that many are trying to make public. The direct similarity of the worst elements here is to the recent anti- internet rally by Muslims in Indonesia they have a rapidly changing country. There in Indonesia, we talk bans, exclusions, and fighting back. Here is the US, we already have Mormons ready to work together with Orthodox Jews to ban the internet. There really is an issue with the internet that may take a while to find guidelines without censorship. Remember, 1930’s movies had no ratings and then most countries created ratings systems.

A peeve of mine is the absolute Jewish ignorance and making themselves feel better by comparing it to papal infallibility. This should be a complete post but listen up Jews. Papal infallibility only applies for definitions of doctrine promulgated publicly. The only clear example in the 20th century is Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII, 1950, defining the Assumption of Mary. But when the pope speaks privately or even gives a public speech or homily it is not infallible. So too when he issues letters, positions, and statements they are not infallible. And certainly nothing he says about policy, social theory, or sciences is infallible. I repeat there was only one clear case in the 20th century and several disputed ones. Papal Encyclicals, Vatican councils and Magisterium statements are binding as practice because they have authority, not because of infallibility. There are levels of tolerated dissent and debate. But certainly personal Papal opinions do not stifle legitimate discussion.

Now, the new stuff after the asifa itself. I gave into my evil inclination and listened to the event as it happened, however here is a video recording of the event. Things I notice.

There seems to be a new alliance of Lakewood and the Hungarians that has been growing in past years. Nobody thought to discuss the alliance or get separate opinions from Satmar, Belz, and Lakewood. Those most in the know, did not seek to understand how each group related to it.
All speakers spoke a pidgin and the translation from Yiddish to Yiddish was a great display of different language usages.
It did go off the rails the internet filter company was to have had a display or tech-expo, which groups were included was still open days before the event, speeches ran overtime, the language was not coordinated, the order seems to have gotten messed up, R. Ephraim Wachsman was listed as moderator just hours beforehand. Yet, for most it was the chance for an outing, some mussar, a few derashos, and to be reminded of new problems. The language of the destruction of the holy vessels is standard for their sectarian worldview. There is talk of another one next year and yes it still created enough of a buzz for the Haredi world to create guidelines over the course of the coming year.

Since this is a structural change based on many changes since the 1960’s, and based on reading and listening to the prior asifot, I did not think there was one issue of the internet. The issue was change –same-sex marriage, new knowledge and technology, and those pesky Zionists with their Tal bill. The language that the internet is destroying holiness and is animalistic and klipot is standard for items rejected in Satmar. Outsiders were busy pilpulim the implications for a clear answer, but it was basically banned in BMG since Tishrei and in the Hasidic groups- what counts is the version in the takonos.

Great op-ed at the NJJN by Andy Silow-Carrol on why everyone is fixated on this.

But none of this questionable press fully explains the Jewish majority’s fixation on haredim and their sometimes questionable behavior. The truth is that to be a Jew is to identify with other Jews, no matter how their choices or lifestyles differ from your own. We cultivate this sense of peoplehood.
The haredim compound this sense of collective responsibility — and guilt — by looking as they do. The haredi uniform of black hat, black coat, and beard shouts “JEW” in capital letters. Arrest a haredi rabbi and you’re not just indicting a Jew — you’re indicting an archetypical Jew.
But it’s not just misbehavior that fuels our fixation on the fervently Orthodox. For good and bad, the haredim represent a version of Judaism we thought we left behind with the Enlightenment. Jewish success has been associated with Enlightenment values: higher education, scientific inquiry, cultural achievement, freedom of conscience. Jump ahead a century or two and you can add feminism and acceptance of gays and lesbians.
Haredim push buttons among the most and least engaged Jews. Observant Jews who aren’t haredi cannot forgive the “black hats” for suggesting that Torah values and modernity are in conflict. Many observant Jews will say that Torah comes alive only when it encounters the real world and all its shmutz. To drag Jews and their Torah behind a self-made ghetto wall is a hillul Hashem, a desecration of Torah and its real intentions. Read the rest Here

However, what I don’t understand is the great amount of modern Orthodox hostility to the event, even facebook pages making fun. Do you get involved with Satmar takanos in general? Do you discuss the stockings, hair coverings, and mikvah rules? Are you going to tell them your Modern Orthodox posek says you don’t need the stocking so it is OK not to wear them or that your have decided for them that they dont have to wear the “Palm” thickness? Do you regularly make fun of Lakewood for not having the same rules as YU? Shall the modern Orthodox tell Rav M. Solomon that they know better about what is bitul Torah for our age? They are separate communities with separate standards.

There was a nervous need to macht a gelechter fin de asifa. Was it a sense of superiority or anxiety? Provincial narcissism or unreal grandiosity? Do you ever play by the same rules as those communities? Their minhag is not going to bring in tech guys and a psychologist to speech about practical solutions. The patterns of derashos are usually four minutes on the practical topic and the rest is mussar and castigation, its not your style but it is theirs. College and public libraries can be used for good, but then they would not be Hungarian Hasidim but modern. Why is your approach different than a liberal rabbi criticizing an Orthodox conference for their lack of academic and social science knowledge, lack of social responsiveness, lack of the historical setting of a text, and how they can show you how to live a better life as non-Orthodox. When a modern Orthodox rabbi takes a piece of pop-psych from 25 years ago and uses it together with a tangential Rav Soloveitchik story for a major talk to address a social problem, do you want people to groan and make fun? No, because this is your minhag. What gives?

Gershom Scholem Conference at the National Library

Two months ago, there was a conference at the National Library in Israel to commemorate thirty years since the death of Gershom Scholem. The videos are exceptionally high quality in both audio and visual, so one can see the entire pantheon on Hebrew University scholars. Almost all of the presentations were polished and within time limits, not usually Israeli academic traits. Several were mechanical summaries of Scholem’s contribution to a topic or why he took a certain approach. Some of the highlights were:
Yehudah Liebes at his clearest presentation of his philological method applied to “rosh hermenutica demalka” of Zohar 15a. He connected the phrase to idea of Rashbi as author and traced the heroic figure who reveals secrets back to the myth of Orpheus and forward to the writing of Nathan of Gaza and his influence on the writings of the Gra and Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz. He has given these ideas as separate papers, all available online. But here we see him open a text, the way he does in his class.
Moshe Idel showed how Scholem hide his experiential attempts to work practice Abulafia and it only appears in his posthumous diary. As a neat lecture, he showed how Abulafia represented for Scholem diversity in Kabblah and that as he suppressed his interest in Abulafia he also made kabbalah monolithic.
Tzipi Kaufman showed how Scholem’s studies of Hasidut lacked questions about lumdanut, about diverse social roles, and about the importance of gestures and embodied practices.
Shalom Ratzabi showed how Scholem’s Zionism was not innovative in that it was part of the general approach of German Jews; they wanted Zionism to be ethics and religion, but had an aversion to any political element. As Hugo Bergman said- their Zionism is after having mastered Fichte not as fleeing from the uneducated shtetl. For Scholem, using traditional Jewish terms for Zionism would rob them of their ethical dimensions.
Yonatan Meir discusses Scholem’s avoidance of the Yeshivat Mekubalim in Jerusalem- yet shows that he still collected their works. He brought up a topic already started by Idel, that Scholem not only believed that history can only be written about past dead objects but like Walter Benjamim the angel of history leave a path of destruction and we are only left with an ineffable attempt to grasp lost secrets.

Here is the full program.
Here is the Liebes lecture and here are links to all the others.
Liebes maintains an updated website with pdf’s of all his articles. The top bar opens pages that contain full texts of everything he wrote sorted by myth, zohar, ari, classical studies, reviews, and classroom material.