Monthly Archives: October 2012

Axel Schäfer, Countercultural Conservatives

Ever wonder how people who were hippie liberal in the early 1970s became conservative in the 1990s? How do some Shlomo Carlebach followers become Tea Party members or supporting right wing politics? Or how the liberal innovations of the 1960s in religious life become Evangelical? Or even how did the religious right win out over the religious left in the 1990s?

The standard answer to the second question is that people recoiled and retreated from the 1960’s liberalism to the safety of conservatism of Evangelicalism. A recent book by Axel Schäfer titled Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right (Dec. 2011), offers new insights into these questions. He answers both questions with the same answer. The counter culture values became transformed into evangelical religion and therefore it was the same people in both groups and the turn was not recoil from the 1960’s as much as an adaptation. Much of his analysis applies to Centrist Orthodoxy.

Schäfer starts with the conventional approach that the Christian right was a backlash as change of the sixties and seventies, but then argues that if we look at the believers of the 1980s we see continuity. His book makes three points:

First, in the 1980s, conservative Protestants were less about teaching traditional religious concepts and had more conflicting impulses, in fact, they are remarkably modern and worldly in their social world. The world they created mediated between growing worldliness and Biblical piety; conservative Protestants combine moral traditionalism with consumer society, and orthodoxy with therapeutic personal conversions. They were educated Evangelical professionals. They were outwardly worldly yet sought separatist institutions. (Sounds a lot like the Jewish case.)

Second, the Evangelicals were not monolithic—every decision was tentative and ever negotiated. There were liberal and conservative forces within this religious turn and people made allegiances to bolster their positions.

Third, Evangelicals today are not a backlash against 1960s change, rather they have learned to base their own organizational strength, cultural attractiveness, and political efficacy on the style of the 1960s

Among the many important insights in this book, is the discussion how the concept of conversion – including finding God, being born again, or becoming a baal teshuvah- was therapeutic, about personal liberation, and spoke the language of popular psychology, that is—of notions like individualism, choosing one’s own path, but also of materialism and consumerism.
The left and progressives lost because they had too many internal divisions – they spent too much time on defining spiritual mission and the narcissism of small difference. The left was too earnest and against the consumerism. It also was still in favor of intellectual elitism, like the 1960’s liberals, preaching the need for academic and profession training in order to have an opinion.

In contrast, the Religious Right shared with hippies an aversion to liberalism, bureaucracies, and the confines of rationality. The antiestablishment attitude toward the liberal society and Church (or synagogue) created a conflation of libertarian thinking and individual self-expression. The hippie ethic and quest for authenticity became the libertarian ethic of entrepreneurial self-actualization. In Judaism, the shift was delayed for a decade until the shift from producing doctors to creating business people. Both the countercultural and Evangelical revivalism shared emphasis on ecstasy and non-rational systems.

(Think of the defunct organization Edah; it was very rational and not kabbalistic or therapeutic. In contrast kiruv provided ecstasy and self-fulfillment. Edah also still valued the 1950s ideal of Rabbi Dr, which does not speak to a hippie ethos.)

Why did Right Wing religion succeed? (1) it was more accomidationist than traditional religion—it was protean and adapted; (2) It spoke a language of spiritual pluralism and market orientation; (3) It worked on coalition building; (4) It actually hides greater secularization behind its new religiosity; it emphasized certain elements to display its religiosity but secularized many others; and (5) It fit the suburbanization of the era and offered the needed social support. It spoke a world of private schools and careerism.

The new Religious Right ethos was as atomistic individual and volenteeristic in association, we personally choose to return to God’s true path. Everything else in our lives is only contractual since our real covenant is with God.

The counterculture values of love, awareness, and good vibes, inner feelings, divine inspiration, and human relationship were similar enough to Evangelical values of spontaneity, emotionalism, public confession, revival, and conversion. Confession of one’s life story and conversion to a religious life is closer to hippy values than a return to 1950s religion. Both hippies and Evangelicals disliked the older liberalism of institution, rationality, intellect, and hierarchy. Of course, there is the overlap of Christian rock with hippie culture.(See my prior posts on the topic) They also have similar rhetorical styles, organization patterns, and expressive modes.

Both groups believe that one does not need to follow the values of WASP America and therefore, getting into Harvard, the country club, and the white shoe firm are not defined as “making it”. Both the counter culture and the new right denounced the older liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s as less religious and requiring assimilation into a WASP culture. On one hand, the new religion of the right became less religiously sophisticated , but many of the Religious right became lawyers and doctors upwardly mobile and educated in their professions.

Evangelicals were good at infiltrating hippies, so too Kiruv organization were equally as good at infiltrating counter cultural social groups. And for many parents whose children flirted with cults, and Asian religions, the American religious right seemed a better fate.

Schafer shows how Evangelicals who claimed to be entirely traditional and Christain Orthodox in dogma., nevertheless presented themselves in situations of outreach or in public, as a looser, more liberal and fluid approach. One bought into the counter cultural approach shown during outreach and then settled down to gradual adhere to the more conservative versions.

According to Schäfer, in the late 1970s, one would have thought a liberal version of this new ethos would have triumphed—the swing to political right was not forgone conclusion. However, the left was fractured over ideology. The left considered anyone even slightly dissimilar as an outside. if someone on the left strayed one inch to the left of the accepted version of orthodoxy they were considered outsider and equally one step to right placed one as an outside. It did not embrace broad contradictory tent. In contrast the right as typified by Reagan combined biblical religion with new age astrology- conservative values with 12 step thinking. The Right was also much better networking. The right even created a cultural war alliance with allies among Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

The Right was against questioning of theological absolutes and rejected the 1960’s liberalizing tendencies, they sought to create a new neo-fundamentalism but it was in the hands of the ordinary believer who really did not speak theology.

AB- I remember a point in the late 1990s where the complexity of the beit medrash and expert authority gave way to people with just a gap year background arguing from English Torah books they read, public discussions of Jewish thought that formerly used Maimonides and Lonely Man of Faith were replaced by Lawrence Kellerman and vortlach. To apply Schäfer’s approach to the Jewish case, the reason for the success of the right was not a backlash against feminism and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, rather the right were trans denominational reaching out to other groups on the right, they had a new social agenda, they made cultural accommodation. Most importantly, they had the social concerns of suburbia; the concerns of the right transcended the Edah world limited to the concerns of the Upper West Side.

Old time racism and sexism was phased out, which was good however, there was a transition to new forms of blaming welfare moms and those were are deviant from the social world of suburbia

Evangelicals accepted literal Christian doctrine but have no study of doctrine, they accept a literal understanding of topics like virgin birth, resurrection, second coming and inerrancy but treat them as emotional assents, rather than intellectual. One accepts literal forms of dogma when one has one’s emotional conversion without any cognitive content. Theology is acquired in a revivalist conversion not a classroom (think of a kumzitz or ebbing- see my prior post). In the communities, they talk about business ethics or social ethics or sexual ethics reflecting issues of suburbia. Evangelical lack of theology thereby causes adherents to have a greater secularization that can accept respectable hedonism. Family values made more sense to people who did not really understand the concepts of advent and rapture. Rhetorically, they were a return to old-time religion but now the conversation is entirely about self-fulfillment through conversion and to be rightly ordered through family values

AB- I can see that all around me. Try teaching Eliyahu DiVidas Rehsit Hokhmah or Gra on Mishlei to Centrist Jews, the entire other-worldly and metaphysical traditional language is gone. Now, people are self made believer without saints, without kabbalistic musar, and without any of the traditional Jewish puritanism.

What of the conservative economic doctrine? Schäfer shows how they spoke of capitalism as self-reliance (or even as Torah uMAdda)- it hides the careerism, instant gratification, and creation of artificial needs involved. The authenticity and personal liberation derived from the hippie counterculture became cloaks for consumerism. Hippies and evangelicals could both be rebellious against the 1960s Great Society programs as against the true religious tradition of self-reliance, Yet blind to how their own consumerism is against the tradition. They both spoke the language of counter-culture, apocalypse, home-schooling, and crunchy gardening. Both sought to create alternatives to the institutions of the 1960s.

In April of this year, Axel Schäfer put out a sequel to Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right, called Piety and Public Funding: Evangelicals and the State in Modern America which was limited to the economic thought of the aforementioned groups. He answers the question: How is it that some conservative groups are viscerally anti-government even while enjoying the benefits of government funding? How can they support libertarian economic policies, yet taking aggressive advantage of expanded public funding opportunities for religious foreign aid, health care, education, and social welfare. I look forward to reading that one.

Any thoughts? Does it ring true?
How does it apply to Centrism? to Engaged Yeshivish?

Gideon Freudenthal, No Religion Without Idolatry: Mendelssohn’s Jewish Enlightenment

A new book came out on Mendelssohn stressing not his general Enlightenment rationalism, and downplaying his Jewish thought and metaphysics. I took it out as soon as it came into the library. It is quite good. Here is a review of the book from NDPR. As both the book and the review conclude- since religion is about symbols that are not immediately reducible to reason, then there can never be a religion without idolatry. We need the symbols but many will always take them literally.

Gideon Freudenthal, No Religion Without Idolatry: Mendelssohn’s Jewish Enlightenment, University of Notre Dame Press, 2012,
Reviewed by Benjamin Pollock, Michigan State University

In sum, Mendelssohn is not the admittedly important Enlightenment public figure but soft Enlightenment thinker we’ve come to know, who was somehow granted honorary “philosopher” status over the centuries, perhaps as acknowledgement for the fact that he was such a nice Enlightenment guy.

In Freudenthal’s reconstruction, Mendelssohn the philosopher has three basic commitments. He is committed to common sense, or “sound reason,” as the human being’s primary access to necessary truths; he is committed to a notably limited and cautious employment of speculative metaphysics; and he is committed to semiotics as a means of uncovering the ways — and the limitations and dangers inherent to the ways — we articulate and communicate our beliefs and judgments.

The reader who buys into Freudenthal’s new depiction of Mendelssohn reaps considerable philosophical payoff by book’s end. On its basis Freudenthal is able to explain numerous aspects of Mendelssohn’s thought — many of which have remained at best curiosities until now — as part and parcel of a coherent philosophical outlook.

According to Freudenthal, Mendelssohn’s first philosophical loyalty is to sound reason or common sense, through which human beings have access to basic truths necessary for human life. Mendelssohn’s trust in sound reason is the basis for what Freudenthal deems an “optimistic view of human knowledge and reason” (25), according to which rational, empirical, and commonsensical avenues to truth stand in a “wonderful harmony” with one another, and even with the moral and aesthetic goods of human life.

Freudenthal’s second chapter offers a brief sketch of the philosophy of Salomon Maimon, and from this point forward, Maimon serves as Mendelssohn’s foil in the book… By juxtaposing Mendelssohn’s moderate philosophical standpoint, grounded in common sense, to Maimon’s extreme rationalist and skeptical leanings, Freudenthal is able to make a strong case for Mendelssohn’s independence and uniqueness as an Enlightenment thinker.

Mendelssohn finds the essential pillars of natural religion — “the belief in God, providence and the afterlife” — to be accessible to learned and unlearned alike through sound reason or common sense. Moreover, Freudenthal shows, Mendelssohn argues that a religious insider’s assent to the historical truths of a revelatory tradition is based on a “trust” in the authority of the witnesses of that tradition which parallels, on the scale of the particular religious community, the trust in common sense shared by human beings universally. Since it is always reasonable for us to trust our own traditions more than those of others, Freudenthal has Mendelssohn explain, we can equally grant that members of other religious traditions act reasonably in preferring their own historical truths and beliefs. Mendelssohn’s own profession of allegiance to Judaism and yet of tolerance for religious others — for which he has often been maligned as inconsistent or opportunistic — is rooted, Freudenthal elegantly explains, in this “epistemic pluralism” that grasps how trust works in the communal context.

The heart of Freudenthal’s book, chapters four through six, addresses Mendelssohn’s preoccupation with symbolic representation
On Freudenthal’s reading, Mendelssohn understands religious communities as forming around different symbolic systems that represent, firstly, the truths of natural religion, and secondly, the respective defining characteristics of the communities themselves.

Freudenthal explains, a symbol allows us to look through it and to see the transcendent object the symbol stands for. But in the context of religious life, symbols cannot be transparent: the very concreteness of their objectification of divinity is what gives them the power to awaken religious feeling among community members. As Freudenthal adeptly shows, this central problem that Mendelssohn highlights within religious life parallels the problem of linguistic representation that he identified in metaphysics. Just as metaphysicians tend to reify the metaphors through which they direct their sights towards speculative truth, so religious practitioners tend to forget the way religious symbols are meant to point to the divinity that transcends them, and wind up worshiping the symbols themselves instead of the divine. The result? Idolatry.

Idolatry, on Mendelssohn’s view, is an ever-present fixture of religious life. More than any other religious community, however, Judaism, Mendelssohn believes, is equipped to combat idolatry

The first is Mendelssohn’s rather infamous claim that Judaism is not a revealed religion that commands particular beliefs other than in the rational truths of natural religion, but rather is a revealed legislation, whose “ceremonial law” is designed to organize communal practice in such a way as promotes the celebration of and inquiry into the truths of reason. Freudenthal here shows how Mendelssohn’s understanding of Judaism follows directly from his concern with religious symbols. Unlike concrete objects, ceremonial practices “are transient and leave no permanent objects behind that are conducive to idolatry” (138).

He even shows the sin of the golden calf to exemplify, on Mendelssohn’s interpretation, the human tendency to forget the transcendent objects to which linguistic symbols refer, and to treat the symbols themselves as objects of adoration.

The seventh chapter of Freudenthal’s book examines Mendelssohn’s attitude towards idolatrous trends in the Judaism of his own time (see: Kabbalah), and it also brings Mendelssohn’s semiotics to bear on his political philosophy

Mendelssohn is consistent throughout his career in suggesting that a Mosaic constitution in which God alone rules — and in which, therefore, church and state are one and the same — represents the ideal Jewish polity. It is just that since contemporary Judaism no longer lives according to the Mosaic ideal, it must conduct itself differently. The fall from this ideal occurred, Freudenthal shows Mendelssohn held, when the Jewish people called for the establishment of a worldly kingship, preferring a concrete manifestation of political power to divine rule (leading to the anointing of Saul as king). As Freudenthal shows, Mendelssohn thus views the separation of church and state within Judaism as the result of the very same propensity to idolatry that Judaism was intended to combat!

Perhaps most suggestive is the claim that the individual person’s potential for enlightenment in fact depends on the presence of idolatry within her community, without which she would lack the resistance required to spur her to that inquiry which alone would lead her to make knowledge of necessary truths her own. Hence the title of Freudenthal’s book, No Religion without Idolatry, designates, according to Freudenthal, “not only a curse but also a blessing: it is a necessary condition for the ever active quest for truth and enlightenment” (200-1).

Read the Rest Here

Rabbi Dov Linzer on Christian Ethics

Amy Jill-Levine in her talks on anti-Semitism points out how liberal Protestant feminists portray the Old Testament and Judaism as patriarchal and misogynist. In contrast, they portray the New Testament as feminist and empowering in liberating women from Judaism. It is interesting to find a Jewish equivalent portraying Christianity as repressive and Judaism as liberating from oppressive. We find Rabbi Dov Linzer doing just that.

Linzer open his homily with an urban legend started by anti-religious freethinkers that the Catholic Church banned anesthesia in childbirth. It never happened in any way and can be easily fact checked. More importantly, is that the Catholic Church does not really have a curse of Eve.
Christianity has a much bigger rubric for the reading the narrative, they have a Fall of Humanity and Original Sin. They read the story with the New Testament. Except for a few medieval Christian discussions most discussion of Eve’s Curse are Jewish or small Protestant groups who read Genesis on its own. Eve’s Curse is mainly Jewish or Jewish apologetic against the idea. (Try a google search- even many pages deep.) One of my Catholic colleagues said “Anyone using that phrase Curse of Eve” in Catholic circles would be laughed at. It is a well developed Midrashic theme. For the ten curses of eve see Avot de Rabbi Natan , chapter 42.

The homily goes downhill from there. It still has the early 20th century dichotomy between Lutheran emphasis on faith and theology and the Jewish law, Paul’s emphasis on faith and the Jewish emphasis on law. (see Adolf von Harnack, 1899 ) That dichotomy is neither doctrine of Catholic and most Protestants or current Scholarship. Pope Benedict emphasizes the continuity of Jewish ritual, priestly codes, and institutions in the Catholic Church and considers Harnack & Linzer’s approach a heresy. Evangelicals emphasize Deuteronomy with its wrath against those who violate God’s rules and they care more about legislating people’s personal lives than theology. Scholars present a Paul who still observed the law (for a basic summary, see the books What Are They Saying About Paul and the Law? or Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship). As a general point of the emphasis of the two faiths, I could give it a pass but using law/theology to argue for feminism the dichotomy has no force. And the reading of the Aggadah does not prove it.

The theological question of evil Roman governor Titus Arinius Rufus is shockingly identified with the Christian position. In fact, the Romans were against alms to the poor and Early Christians share the Jewish value of helping the poor. (see for early example the Didache and Susan R. Holmaneditor Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society).

The proof that Judaism is action centered and not theological is the story in Bava Batra 10a, but that only works if you completely truncate the story and its context. The Rabbi Akiva story is about earning redemption and being saved from Gehenna; the same concerns as most Christian stories. And Rabbi Akiva wins the debate by arguing that our theology is that we are the children of God- chosen and given providential concern. The rest of the sugya is a gold mine of Rabbinic theology- especially that in the absence of the Temple, which Titus Rufus plowed over, zedakah redeems and plays the role of the Temple sacrifice. It is hard to read that daf as anything but theology.

Next Rav Soloveitchik is used as a proof text for this theology less approach by citing that Rav Soloveitchik idea that we don’t ask to understand a theology of suffering. But that does not mean we don’t ask about other topics. In the same essay, Rav Soloveitchik speaks of the “thematic halakhah” which deals with the theological issues of the Gemara as opposed to the “topical halakhah.”The thematic must grasp reality beyond human action and reach up to the infinite, up to the ideal order. Thematic Halakhah refers to the philosophical and theological motifs of Judaism.

The text from 1 Cor is not any standard reading since the concept of “head” here means source as in head of a river, not head as in rule over. Paul did not relegate women to inferior positions. Women are mentioned in 1 Cor. as deacons apostles and other positions. Linzer did get Eph. 5:22 correct, but any modern Evangelical apologist would not explain it that way.

With this false dichotomy in place, Linzer argues like the liberal Protestants for rectifying patriarchy. Just like we alleviate suffering and use anesthesia we should correct what he calls “male dominance as part of the Torah’s mandate, as part of our halakhic responsibility.”

Parshat Breishit – Eve’s Curse
After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden and are cursed with a life of hard work, pain, and travail… The life that she would nurture in her body, would also only come forth with pain and suffering: “I will terribly sharpen your birth pangs, in pain shall you bear children…” (3:16).

How are we to understand the religious import of these curses? Are these to be understood as a divine decree of how things must be? That is, is it now God’s will that we exert toil in raising crops, that women suffer in childbirth? Or, alternatively, are these curses, a change of the natural order, no doubt, but a change for the worse, a change that – given our mandate to “fill the earth and conquer it,” – it is our responsibility to work to reverse, a broken state of affairs that we must strive to improve, to fix?

This is by no means merely an academic question. If this is to be the divinely decreed state of affairs, then it would be sacrilegious to attempt to reverse it. Indeed, for centuries, the Catholic Church opposed the use of anesthesia in childbirth on just such grounds, that it would counteract the “Curse of Eve”. In fact it was not until 1949 that the Pope finally announced the Church’s withdrawal from this centuries-old opposition.

In contrast, Judaism has never seen a curse, even a Divine one, as an ideal or desired state. It is our mandate to alleviate suffering, and it is our mandate to improve the world and to improve our station within it.

What accounts for the difference between these two approaches? I believe two issues are at stake. The first is the relative emphasis that we place on acts as opposed to theology. The Church, concerned as it is first and foremost with theology, gives the greatest weight to theological concerns around the Divine curse. In a similar fashion, the Roman general asked Rabbi Akiva, “If your God cares for the poor, why does He not provide for them?” (Baba Batra, 10a). The implied answer is – it must be that God does not care for them, that their lot in life is divinely decreed, and thus it is not our responsibility, perhaps it is even religiously wrong, for us to try to help them. Judaism, or more specifically halakha, will have none of this. Whatever we think about this theological question – why the poor are poor – is really immaterial. Theological considerations do not override our halakhic responsibilities. When a person in front of us is in pain, we must act to help that person. Our mandate is to deal not with God, but with the person in front of us.

Rav Soloveitchik has explained that it is for this reason that Judaism has never put an enormous amount of effort on answering the question of theodicy, on explaining how a good God can allow good people to suffer. To try to find an answer to that question, said the Rav, is ultimately to try to come to terms with suffering, to make our peace with suffering. As halakhic Jews, however, we are obligated to not come to terms with suffering. To always see it for what it is in the real world, an evil, and to thus do our upmost to eradicate it.

There has never been any theological opposition to the invention of farming machinery, irrigation technology, modern fertilizers and pesticides, and improved farming techniques. Why, then, is women’s curse treated differently?

Perhaps this difference reflects a particular perspective on women’s status, one that is informed by, or finds support in, the story of the creation of woman. Consider the following two passages in the Christian Testament, attributed to Paul:

“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man… For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Cor. 11:3, 9).

“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” (Eph. 5:22).

The message seems clear (although it is, and has been, debated by various denominations and throughout history). Eve was created from Adam, she is thus secondary and subservient to him. The man is thus the head, the one in control, and it is a wife’s role to submit to the authority of her husband.

Now, in addition to taking its lead from the story of the creation of Even in chapter 2 of Breishit, these passages also echo the other part of the curse of Eve: “and to your husband shall be your desire, and he shall rule over you.” It seems, then, that at least for some denominations of Christianity, during certain historical periods, these approaches were all of one piece. Women were created as secondary and subservient beings. Their curses, then, rather than being something to be overcome, were to be embraced as they reflected and reinforced this status. Her suffering during childbirth, her dependency on her husband, and her submission to his authority all perfectly dovetailed with her role in the social order. Man, in contrast, who stood at the top of the social order, with only God above him, was free to strive to overcome his curse and to take full dominion over the world.

This reading is by no means the only one, nor even the most compelling one. Regarding the creation of woman, it is now commonplace to note that in the first story, that in chapter 1, man and woman were created equally, blessed by God equally and spoken to by God equally. Thus, at the very least, we have two competing stories regarding the status of woman vis-à-vis man. If we attempt to reconcile them, we must make an interpretive choice whether to read the first story in light of the second, as is most commonly done (perhaps informed by the Christian reading), or the opposite, to read the second story in light of the first. This is what the midrash does when it states that the human was originally half man and half woman, and it was not Adam’s, or the human’s rib, but his side, the female half of him, that was separated off to create woman.

But what about “and he will have dominion over you”? Well, let’s remember what we said about suffering in childbirth. This is part of the curse of Eve, this is not the proper state of affairs. If it is our mandate to alleviate the suffering that is part of the nature of childbirth, then, it can also be argued, it is our responsibility to oppose and alleviate the injustice and the suffering that results from a woman’s dependency on man, on a relationship, or on a society, that is based on male dominance. This can also be seen as part of the Torah’s mandate, as part of our halakhic responsibility. Consider some of the mitzvot of the Torah which seem specifically addressed to protecting women from abuse and injustice that was taken for granted in a male-dominated society: “If she proves to displeasing to her master… he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders since he broke faith with her.” (Shemot 21:8). “If he marries another, he shall not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights” (21:10). “And it will be if you shall no longer want her that you shall send her free outright. You must not sell her. Since you had your way with her, you must not enslave her.” (Devarim 21:14).

Eve’s curse. Is it God’s will or is it an evil to overcome? While we may grapple over how to best read the verses and how we theologically approach the concept of a Divine curse, let us never forget that as halakhic Jews it is our mandate to alleviate suffering and to fight injustice wherever we may find it.

[Sephardi Shas] “Orthodox Rabbis for Interfaith”

There is a new interfaith organization out there called “Orthodox Rabbis for Interfaith” with a surprising story, the group is made up entirely of young leadership affiliated with Shas. It seems that for the last three years the United Nations has given money from the Ford Foundation to a group of forty young leaders and rabbis- average age 35- associated with Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef for the purpose of educating them into the basics of Islam, the Middle East peace process, and the Palestinian perspective. They have received lectures, tours, and seminars from academics, Arabs, and the military to broaden their perspectives.

Now that their training has ended, they are fulfilling their promise and bringing what they learned out to the broader Shas community and they are engaging in active interfaith dialogue. They have even started a new organization to get the word of the need for interfaith out to the public. According to the articles they visited the Sheikh Abu Khader Jabari, the Palestinian clan leader of Hebron and discussed topics with the Imams. When asked “How can Jews thank God every morning for not making them a gentile goy?” They answered: “it only applies to the ancient pagan gentiles who worshiped the stars,not to Muslims.” They further relied with a pun “Maariv Aravim ba Hokhmah,” therefore God approves of Islam.
They seem to have a solid Romantic view of the peaceful co-existence of Jews and Muslims through the ages, which they will once again foster as Arab Jews who speak Arabic and share the same values and culture.

They were featured in the recent feature in the holiday magazine of Kav Itonut (parent of religious paper HaShavua) describing their history and activities.- Kav Laitonot.pdf Here is a description of their activities from a Shas publication-Shasnet from 2009 describing the training- here.

Here is a nice documentary on the program and their training.

They recently visited the Trappist monastery in Latrun desecrated with graffiti. And a representative was interviewed on the Israeli talk show “Kirschbaum and London,” where the secular hosts were particularly condescending to religion and toward the Arabs. The secular hosts even called the monastery the “therapeutic” instead of Trappist.

The same organization Interpeace is funding a Master’s degree in conflict resolution for ultra-orthodox women to serve as community organizers. About 40 prominent ultra-orthodox women are now participating in a similar educational programme. Many of the women are leaders within their communities, for example the wife of the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, the daughter of the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel and the wives of two SHAS ministers etc. The Master’s programme is jointly implemented by Interpeace, the Haredi College of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University. Apart from organizing inter-religious encounters, the two year programme teaches English, mediation skills and about the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Youth Con sponsored by the OU- An Underreported Story

This past August the OU sponsored a Youth Conference that included Conservative Rabbis, sponsorship by non-orthodox institutions including JTS, and participation by leading liberal advocates of social action such as Ruth Messinger. This seemed an under-reported story; the reversal of a thirty year trend of insularity. In order to verify that this perception was correct, I emailed three participants for confirmation. They responded over the holidays. Hence, I am only getting to it now.

In the 1980’s, OU Orthodoxy stopped attending events where the other denominations had representatives. This change and the rhetoric created was collected by Jack Wertheimer in his A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America (1993). Wertheimer’s angle was the decline of the Conservative movement as the vital center . More recently, Adam Ferziger documented the breakdown of this divide in paternal situations of kiruv; Orthodoxy feels it can participate in their events and enter liberal institutions in order to teach them. Now we have a return to working together.

The program had a focus on the trendy topics of spirituality, social media, social justice and organizational management. They sought to bring together best practices and have mutual learning. They had Ruth Messinger on social action and equal time to an opponent of social action. They created a rouges gallery of Chabad and JTS, social action and Aish haTorah, 36 under 36 meets AJWS, Camp Ramah and Federation. Session speakers included Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the RJC and Rabbi Yael Buechler a graduate of Jewish Theological Seminary speaking on manicure midrash. Media included the formerly hip JEWCY, the hip G-dcast and general media consultants. Sexuality was discussed by a liberal participant as sexuality, not the Centrist euphemism of “intimacy.”

The program was disproportionally Orthodox but something had changed. Even on youthcon’s own blog we find:“I felt as if no ideas were off limits.”

An anonymous senior NCSY official who was there wrote the following in an email query:

I think Youthcon is an attempt not to solve – the denominational issue – but to ignore it – in light of accomplishing something more important. We are all facing similar challenges in engaging the next generation of youth. Those of us “on the ground” are beginning to see assimilation turn from statistics – to real time numbers issues – in running programming. The well of traditional – but not observant kids – is drying up – and it is becoming increasingly challenging to engage “unaffiliated” Jewish teens. I think youthcon is trying to put aside the denominational issues – and not talk about difference – and not debate and resolve differences – but simply ignore them so that we can share ideas and emerge with new models and approaches. I think the openness is refreshing – and I may not agree with the presence of every speaker – but I am comfortable attending a conference with them for this purpose.

Another person wrote me that he still cringed at some of the talks for their provincialism.

The language of Youth Con is similar to the language used about the Mormon YouthCon and the Baptist YouthCon. New models from the American religious landscape are being used.

In prior posts, we have seen that Rabbi Burg expressed interest in Mormon outreach models and that he reversed the ascetic Nahmanides to express an Eyn Od Milvado” embrace of the world. However, one of my inside sources wrote that Burg was “bringing greater creative vision to the different departments of the OU and pushing them beyond their comfort zones.” If he keeps up this work, Burg may find himself in the list of the Newsweek top 50 rabbis.

I saw an under-reported story but one of those who supplied information thought the most notable part was that “the salmon was great, as was the dessert table.”

Interview with Prof.Jonathan Sarna in Reform Judaism Magazine

There is a very crisp interview with Prof. Sarna in the current issue of Reform Judaism Magazine. He was asked about the change in the younger generation, to which he answered media, sustainability, and think with a start-up mentality. Don’t think central planning agency, rather seed lots of start-up projects. Sarna uses a great phrase “religious recession” for our current era of turning away from religion. The term is generally applied to the turn from religion that occurred in the great depression of the 1930’s, but during the last 2 months has been applied by many media sources to our current era. Sarna observes that the indie minyanim seek to recreate the Israel experience. This would explain some of the phenomena in the pop-culture synagogue programming. As a historian, he concludes with “embrace change.”

Forum for the Future: The Discontinuity of Continuity
an interview with Jonathan Sarna, historian and Brandeis University professor

There is a generational disconnect between elders who grew up before the Internet age and young people who grew up in a post-Internet age. They are in constant “virtual” touch with one another; they read on screen instead of in books; and they can meet their friends on Facebook, so they have no need to meet them at the synagogue or the JCC.

Our children, by contrast, watched that prosperity evaporate. Their question is not “What’s the next big thing?” but “What can we reasonably and responsibly sustain?”

Finally, the new generation approaches problem-solving differently. Since the Progressive era early in the 20th century, the American Jewish community has believed in central planning. We create a multi-year plan to actualize a vision and then follow a predetermined, step-by-step process to get there. Change in this model comes slowly and deliberately. By contrast, today’s young people look at who is at the forefront of change and see nimble start-ups and disruptive technologies. If you have an idea, they believe, you should carry it out—right now. They are not afraid of failure. They understand that in a start-up culture, 90% fail and 10% succeed. What they are not interested in is “continuity.” The people they respect are agents of change, people like Steve Jobs who are not afraid to break things.

I’d say that across the spectrum of North American faiths, we are currently experiencing what may someday become known as the Great Religious Recession. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, mega-churches and tiny temples are all witnessing membership declines as young people shift away from religious institutions.

In contrast, in the 1970s, America’s religions, Judaism included, experienced an “awakening”—an unanticipated religious revival. Everybody at that time knew young people who had become much more religiously committed than their parents… Well, religion is a bit like gravity: what goes up must come down. Every revival is followed by a period of backsliding, and this one is no exception.

When else did we witness backsliding in religiosity in America? The late 1920s and early 1930s could also be considered a period of “Religious Depression.” Looking back, though, the religious recession of the 1920s and ’30s was also driven in part by automotive technology—having a car offered Americans many competing secular things to do on the weekends. My guess is that today, Internet/social media technology is partly driving the current religious recession. Nowadays nobody needs to go to temple to catch up with friends or learn about Judaism.

This generation of native-born American and Canadian Jews is better educated Jewishly than any of its predecessors as a result of day schools, camps, university-based Jewish Studies, and Israel programs. For example, the independent minyan movement has been heavily influenced by Jews who seek a Shabbat worship experience like the ones they enjoyed in Israel, and its standards of learning are higher than those of the 1970s chavurah movement because its leaders are much more Jewishly knowledgeable.

Ultimately, the key for success is to embrace change. The Reform Movement’s continued success is a testament to its ability to change, as seen in its evolving views on bar mitzvah, Israel, ritual, and much more. Now there are new things to be changed in the face of a young generation that challenges the assumptions and norms of its elders. Change will keep us going—if we do it right.

Read the Full interview here.

Prof. Joshua Berman Returns for a Follow-Up Interview on Biblical Law

Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University/Shalem Center spoke again at Davar in Teaneck about his new project of reassessing Biblical source criticism from an academic and Jewish perspective. Berman attended Princeton University, and holds a doctorate in Bible from Bar-Ilan University. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and received his ordination from the Chief Rabbinate.

In December 2011, I interviewed Joshua Berman about Biblical source criticism as it is found today and one should not set up a straw man to refute. A month later, I interviewed one of the world’s experts on Pentateuch source criticism Prof. David Carr about the passing of the Documentary Hypothesis. They both came out great and are worth reading.

This year Prof. Berman tackled the contradictions between the Covenant Code of Exodus and the Deuteronomy Code. Standard scholarship as typified by leading scholars such as Prof. Bernard M. Levinson in Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation (1997) and Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel (2008) views the contradictions are purposeful rejection and replacement in the evolution of a single code. Berman’s view is that the original statements were meant to be exhortations about legal values and not law fixed in details. Hence, the revisions are not in contradiction to the earlier version, rather elaboration and application to the situation at hand. In addition, Berman attempts to contextualizes Deuteronomy in the earlier Hittite and Mesopotamian texts, rather than 7th-8th century Assyrian texts. For those who want some good online samples of Levinson on Dueteromistic law, – see here at the YU/Cardozo website Deuteronomy as the First Constitution(good overview by end of article), and how Deuteronomy rewrites kinship law, slavery law, and use of 8th century Assyrian works. Berman attempts to offer an alternative that provides an earlier date and a continuity between the covenant code of Exodus and Deuteronomy.

I must reiterate for the abecedarian Orthodox reader that contradictions are based on historical reconstruction and historical context based on archaeological and parallel ancient texts. A literary homily that resolves contradictions with drush but without history does not resolve anything.

There is a further agenda emerging from the ongoing work of Prof. Josh Berman, his commitment to historical realism and historical inerrency. There are currently three approaches among those Christian Evangelical authors seeking to grapple with Biblical source criticism. (1)The first is typified by Peter Enns, student of James Kugel, who in his Inspiration and Incarnation (2005) tries to find a way to accept Biblical source criticism. The Bible shows human characteristics. (2) The second approach is typified by James K. Hoffmeier, who argues that one needs to maintain the historical veracity of the text in order to preserve Biblical inerrancy. Hoffmeier is most upset at the approach of Kenton Sparks to which he just edited a volume of refutations called Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? (2012) (3) the third approach typified by Kenton Sparks, in his God’s Word in Human Words (2008) who looks for a middle way and separates God’s will from the text, the way Karl Barth, the Yale school, Brevard Childs, and Catholic Biblical Studies do. Sparks sees the Biblical text as a Divine accommodation to human knowledge of the time in science,history, and culture, but we should be concerned with the Divine message of the text.
Prof. Berman’s approach is firmly in the second group and seeks to defend the historicity of the text.

Berman’s Summary of his Law Talk
Think about how we use the word “law” today in everyday speech: “he upheld the law”; “he broke the law”; “congress amended the law”; “that does not accord with the language of the law.” Implicitly, the notion of law that most of us carry is that “law” is codified law – that is written down by an authority, such as a legislature, or a great authority, such as Maimonides. Most importantly, most people assume that such law—such codified law—has two distinct characteristics: it is exhaustive, so that if an idea or norm is not written in the law, then it doesn’t have any binding status. Second, the law is written in an extremely precise fashion, so that we can scrutinize every word (or, as we say in the yeshiva world “be me-dayek”) for nuance.
Yet, as the great scholar of the history of law, Sir Henry Maine, pointed out in his magnum opus Ancient Laws, such a notion of law existed nowhere in the ancient world. All of our epigraphic evidence from the ancient Near East such as Code of Hammurabi shows this to be true. Law, in ancient times was much more akin to what we all experience in our own homes. Proper conduct at home stems from the totality of the values that we try to inculcate. Exactly what is permitted, and what is prohibited, what the penalty will be for improper conduct is a highly fluid and dynamic process. This is how all ancient societies thought of proper conduct, and hence nowhere do we find even a word for written law, until classical Greece.

In a longer academic piece currently in submission I trace the historical development of the idea of law and explore its implications for the study of what is called “biblical law”.

How does this approach relate to those opinions that maintain that Deuteronomy is a rejection of earlier law in the Torah and seeks to replace it?
Classically, scholars have maintained that Deuteronomy rejects earlier law in the Torah, and was never originally intended to be placed alongside those other formulations. More recently, there has been a move to see Deuteronomy as part of an integral whole with the earlier formulations—not through harmonization, but as a process of interpretation. That term “interpretation” is probably anachronistic, and I would prefer the term “re-application.”

A lot hinges, I would submit humbly, on precisely the questions of legal theory and legal model that a scholar brings to the table in the first place, that I’m trying to elucidate in my current scholarship.

Let me give an example of the difference between the two approaches. The law of the debt servant (‘eved ‘ivri) appears in Exodus 21:1-6 and in Deuteronomy 15:12-18. Deuteronomy adds the stipulation that the master must provide the servant with severance gifts upon his release, so that he may re-establish himself economically. The exclusionist approach maintains that the author of Deuteronomy found the law in Exodus wanting. He rewrote the law in the hopes that it would supersede the law in Exodus, and, indeed that the version in Exodus would be “off the books” as it were, with only the new formulation in Deuteronomy in circulation. The alternative view says that Deuteronomy does not seek to replace the law in Exodus; indeed, the verses in Exodus are not “law”, meaning codified law. Rather, Deuteronomy seeks to update the wisdom contained in the Exodus verses. Deuteronomy, broadly speaking, addresses a situation in which Israel is set to enter the land and acquire wealth and power. The added stipulation in Deuteronomy is part of that agenda.

All of this is quite counter intuitive, but I’ll just point to two interesting set of data that are well explained by this approach. Nowhere in the entire Hebrew Bible do we find a prophet, or a king, or a priest, or a narrator who claims that the law is being performed one way, but really needs to be performed another way. If these so-called law-codes were indeed mutually exclusive we would expect much more explicit debate about practice across the Hebrew Bible. Instead, levirate marriage in Ruth is but an iteration of what Deuteronomy set out, and no one thought that the practice of levirate marriage in Ruth “contravened the codified law of Deuteronomy.”

The other significant data set is the remarks of the great early biblical critics – Spinoza, Astruc, Eichhorn, and Ewald. All saw discrepancies within Pentateuchal narrative, but none made comments about discrepancies in biblical law. De Wette—the first to claim that Josiah’s court authored Deuteronomy—actually has a list comparing law in Exodus and law in Deuteronomy. He lists only five laws that in his mind are at odds with each other. He then provides a much longer list of laws that he finds consistent. All of these writers lived before an age when codified law was the norm, and thus did not perceive the discrepancies that twentieth century scholars of biblical law do. Graf was the first to posit broad discrepancies between laws codes in the Pentateuch – and his magnum opus of 1865 appeared at just the time that codified law was beginning to rule the day. I relate to all this in greater depth in the piece I currently have in submission.

(AB- editor’s note. In this approach there was never a contradiction between Exodus and Deuteronomy, as per the source critics, but at the same time it differs with the approach of Rabbinic Midrashei Halakhah. The sofrim, sages, and then Rabbinic texts find mountains of meaning in the differences in the two texts. For Berman’s approach, Biblical law was fluid and dynamic, but by implication Rabbinic law starting with the sofrim was a change to fixed texts and interpretation.)

Why was Breuer a false direction and why is Cassutto’s scholarship a road for the future?
Rav Mordechai Breuer, z”l, was a learned and pious man, who had the courage to confront the findings of biblical criticism of his age and address them thoughtfully. But I would humbly submit that he was deeply wrong in his approach. With Wellhausen and Gunkel in hand (quite literally – I once heard him say that he would read scripture with Gunkel in hand), he fully adopted the divisions and often micro-splitting that these scholars proposed. Many scholars today have moved away from the classic JEDP documentary hypothesis precisely because of all the imprecision that was involved in forcing it upon the texts of the Pentateuch. R. Breuer thought that by appropriating the major conclusions of higher German criticism, and re-enveloping it within a new semi-mystical construct, he would be able to “rescue”, as he saw it, many traditional youth from the attractiveness of the documentary hypothesis. My experience has been that many of those from within the orthodox community—especially in Israel—who became enamored with R. Breuer’s approach, eventually realized that the original formulations of the German scholars made more sense than R. Breuer’s new theology.

I have always been more enamored by the work of Benno Jacob and particularly of Umberto Cassuto. These were men whose critical scholarship at times could put them at odds with accepted orthodox tenets. But both had a deep belief that somehow this text that we call the Pentateuch or the Torah, could not be divided as simply as many scholars proposed and displayed much more unity than was usually ascribed it in critical circles. Particularly Cassuto believed that many of the “fissures” that are apparent to modern eyes could be re-evaluated with reference to ancient writings and modes of thinking. I’ll give one simple example of this: for well over a century scholars held that the presence of two divine names was ipso facto evidence of two authors with differing theologies. Evidence from the ancient world, however, shows that back then people could refer to the same deity with multiple names, even when it was clear that the composition in hand was the product of a single author.

Not all seeming discrepancies can be resolved that simply, but I do believe that ancient writings and ways of thinking have much to tell about many supposed “fissures” within the biblical text.

One of the biggest fissures exhibited in the Torah concerns the narratives of Deuteronomy 1-11. In wholesale fashion, these seem at odds with the narratives depicting those same events in the other books of the Torah. I believe that there is an important literary precedent for this type of writing, and it is the subject of my forthcoming article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, “Deuteronomy 1-3 and the Hittite Treaty Prologue Tradition.”

Why do you like the work of David Carr and why do you think that he does not live up to his own standard.
David Carr’s most recent book: The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2011) is, as I see it, a milestone in biblical scholarship. Here we have a scholar who insists that those who wish to parse a text and trace the development of a text into its present form must do so solely on the basis of empirical models of textual evolution. While many may pay lip service to that, Carr is the first to doggedly pursue it.
In the book’s first 150 pages he takes all the major known cases of textual evolution from the ancient Near East, and deduces from them a series of highly consistent trends. It is almost shocking that it took until 2011 for a scholar to produce such a work.

Having said that, I found it disappointing that Carr maintain, in the latter half of his book, that Genesis can be divided into neat strands of P and non-P material. Such a process of extended conflation knows no precursor. The example that Carr cites, of the 2nd century work Diatesseron is, to my mind, not applicable. There are many differences between what Tatian did in that work and what we see in Genesis in the conflation of so-called P and non-P material. I can here only relate the most important one, and that is that Tatian conflated the various accounts of the gospels so that he could produce a relatively seamless account of the life of Jesus, one that removed many of the seeming discrepancies that exist in the four accounts of the gospels, taken separately.

The problem with adducing this as a model, as I see it, is that the redactor of P and non-P, according to Carr’s theory, clearly did not act with such an agenda in mind, as too many “fissures” as Carr has labeled them, remain. There are other dissimilarities between Diatesseron and such a conflation theory concerning biblical texts that I hope to pursue in a later work.

What do you think of the debate within Evangelical circles between liberal scholars and conservative scholars?
I am continually fascinated by the manifold ways in which evidence about a biblical passage or archaeological find can be marshaled, and that virtually any narrative can be spun in a convincing way. Before agreeing with a position, therefore, it is critical to read widely and see how others parse the evidence.

Consider perhaps the most sensational finding of recent years, the Qeiyafah ostracon in 2008. (I’m quite partial to this find, in part because the tel is just five minutes from my house.) It is a perfect showcase for the need to read widely on every issue. The osctracon was found at an early 10th century site in the Elah Valley, and contains five lines of writing and some 72 characters.

But what language is it? In a recent piece in BAR, the respected epigraphist, Christopher Rollston surveyed the evidence and concluded, that we just don’t know; the script is clearly proto-Canaanite, but the language could be Hebrew, but it could also be Phoneican, or Canaanite. But then you read the essays contained in Hoffmeier’s recent volume, and another narrative emerges altogether, one that points strongly to Hebrew. Rollston and others are correct that from the perspective of epigraphy the issue is inconclusive. But the picture changes when the ostracon is examined in ethnographic context. Extensive animal remains have been found at Qeiyafah, but no pig bones. Extensive remains of day to day life have been found intact, but no figurines.
We can also note that one of the city gates opens not to one of the four winds, but northeast, toward Jerusalem. When all of this evidence is taken together, no language emerges as a stronger candidate than does Hebrew. Evidence can be parsed in many ways, and in the end, so many issues come down to likelihoods, or probabilities, and not hard and fast proofs.

In your talk you quote Rav Zadok Hakohen’s (1823-1900) idea that Torah is renewed in every generation and that it is not a change but implicit in the original. How do the writings of Rav Zadok help you? Isn’t it anachronistic?

R. Zadok is keenly aware of how much halakhah changed and evolved prior to its codification in the middle ages, and celebrates this process. What he describes has much in common with the “Common-law’ approach to jurisprudence that I think is a very helpful heuristic to understand the evolution of law in the times of the Tanakh. It is through these constructs that R. Zadok is able to recognize that many laws in Deuteronomy stand at odds with the earlier formulations of those laws elsewhere in the Torah. Yet through his understanding of law as other than codified law, he is able to explain how difference can still reflect a process of continuity. This is all very counter-intuitive for us as citizens of the modern state, and indeed, for us as Jews who follow a codified halakhah. It requires a lot of shedding of ingrained notions about what law is.

Is it anachronistic to invoke the British common-law system or the work of a late 19th century Polish rabbi to elucidate Scripture from a critical perspective? Of course it is. But it is no less anachronistic to study those texts through the lens of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin – the early 19th century British fathers of the idea of codified law. And yet, implicitly, this is how much critical study of biblical law is carried out. The point is, when you study a legal text—say the law portions of the Torah—you always have in mind some idea of what law is, and what a legal text is. The question is whether you are critically aware of your assumptions, and whether they are valid. I believe that by examining different historical models, we are better equipped to grapple with the ancient texts. I believe that the writings of the British common-law tradition, (which have parallel in the writings of R. Zadok), are a helpful heuristic aid for understanding the biblical texts.