Monthly Archives: May 2016

Benjamin Brown on Halakhic Labor Law: Statist or Democratic?

One of my favorite articles by Prof. Benjamin Brown of Hebrew University has recently been translated and revised. It was first given in 2006 and here it is online a decade later with more documentation.  “Trade Unions, Strikes, and the Renewal of Halakhic Labor Law: Ideologies in the Rulings of Rabbis Kook, Uziel, and Feinstein”

In the article, Brown asks how the three ideologies in the early 20th century: Socialism, Statism and Democracy played themselves out in halakhic labor law. He specifically focuses on how Rabbis Kook and Uziel in Israel followed the statist-fascist direction of the Revisionists and Italian nationalism, while Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in the United States followed democratic thinking.

Brown asks: Why the difference and concludes that it was cultural-historical differences between the United States and Israel.

Brown focuses on his binary ideological categories but what if he started with cultural-historical categories and gave an historical development? His footnotes give ample material for such an approach. For example, we can show that American Orthodoxy in the 1930’s and 40’s was concerned with labor and labor rights, Orthodoxy in the 1960’s was concerned with democracy and the individual, and Orthodoxy  in the 1990’s was interested with supply side and conservative economics.

The question is where does that leave us in our age- where right and left- seem to be writing for top 6% of wealth and for the upper middle class? Who will be the halakhic leaders for the middle and lower middle class, and even for Orthodox workers?

Finally, if we say that religious views mold us, then how do these different economic positions mold different communities socially and politically?

To contextualize the article itself, Brown’s starting approach is based on Karl Mannheim’s (1923)view of ideology  as a worldview that determines the way we read a text or define a situation.  In contrast, in the US, we are more likely to start with Clifford Geertz (1973) who took issue with considering ideology as determining a situation. Rather, all ideology is embedded in a cultural construction that bears the meaning, symbolism, and moral order of the society.  Brown concluded the article by turning to the cultural rather than starting there.

For ease of reading, the paragraphs below are cut from Brown’s essay. Only the quotes from the repsonsa literature are blocked off as quotes.  At the end of the piece, I have a little ending section on Rabbi S. Z. Shragai.


Precursors in Europe: Rabbis Against Labor

In the 1870s, the authorities demanded that rabbis preach against workers’ movements and denounce their subversive elements; the rabbis, usually adopting a submissive approach towards the “Kingdom,” complied.  It appears, however, that even when the state was not directly involved in the employee-employer relations, the rabbis took the side of the employers… when a worker’s strike broke out in the Edelstein cigarette factory in Vilna, the local preacher (maggid) came out in a sermon against the strikers—and this was not an isolated incident. Similarly… halakhic rulings issued by the rabbis often tended to minimize the legal liability of the employer towards the employee.

[I]n the entire literature of the Jewish workers’ movement all these religious types were presented as haters of the worker and the revolution; but in general the rabbis indeed subscribed to the rule “a rabbi respects the wealthy” [a pun based on B. Eruvin 86a].

A similar line was also followed by Gershon Bacon concerning Agudat Yisrael’s lack of interest in social questions. In his opinion, one of the reasons for this was that “the leadership cadre of Aguda consisted mostly of wealthy communal notables and venerable rabbis, both of a decidedly conservative bent.”

Torah veAvodah

During the 1930s, we witness the initial awakening of rabbinic writing in the field of labor law. Articles and books, both halakhic and quasi-halakhic, began to appear. Some of them dealt with, among other things, the right to unionize and the right to strike. In 1933, Rabbi Kook issued an oral responsum on this matter that was published in the journal Netivah of Hapoel HaMizrachi and subsequently referenced repeatedly.

In 1934, Rabbi Yekutiel Aryeh Kamelhar published a short article on the topic in the one-time bulletin Torah vaAvodah (Torah and Labor).3 Books on the subject were soon published: in 1935, Rabbi Chaim Zev Reines of the United States published his book of rabbinic scholarship The Worker in Scripture and Talmud.  In 1935, Rabbi Moshe Findling of the Land of Israel published his pioneering halakhic work Tehukat haAvodah (The Constitution of Labor) contained a concise and clear summary of the halakhic laws of labor. Rabbi Baruch Schlichter (Yashar) published in 1947 a digest of useful halakhah, in which he had already included two chapters on labor law. In 1947, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Bick published his short book Mishnat HaPoalim (The Doctrine of Workers), which was written while he was in the Land of Israel but only published years after he immigrated to the United States; this work had five responsa concerning labor laws.

Rabbis Findling and Bick did not adhere to the traditional halakhic line, which outlawed strikes in a more or less categorical manner. Rather, they recognized the halakhic legitimacy of the workers’ struggles. Rabbi Findling’s formulation in this matter is instructive and beneficial in reflecting the change that has gradually broken through in the rabbinic world since the time of the responsum by Rabbi Aryeh Leibush Lifshitz banning strikes. At the outset, Rabbi Findling presents the traditional halakhic line, accompanied by critiques of the Marxist position that was opposed to it:

To cease working without the consent of the employer, we find no permission in Jewish law, . . . and even less to prevent other workers, whose work conditions were agreed upon in a contract, from doing their job. The concept of “strike” was established in the terminology of Marxism, rooted in the unilateral dictatorship of the proletariat. No objective law in the world can accept it, and certainly not the Torah, which is the true law

On the other hand, we must not close our eyes to the reality that forced the workers to use the means of striking to protect their vital interests. Therefore our duty—not because of any defense for either side, but to find the truth of our Holy Torah—is to seek legal ways to have the workers reach the desired benefit, without discarding the path of law and morality. Therefore . . . we would like to mention two legal ways to permit halting the work in necessary circumstances.

Rabbi Findling unhesitatingly refers to the right to strike as a legitimate and lawful measure. In this spirit, he writes that one of the objectives of the trade union, which is recognized as legitimate according to halakhah, is to

force workers into a general strike, if the employers do not agree even to their minimum demands.” And this is so in order “not to leave the worker isolated and unaided and to protect himself and his vital interests . . . and attain respect and fair wages for his work even if employers might thereby incur losses.

It is interesting to note that at least three of the responsa on this topic came as replies to the query of one person, Akiva Egozi…

The responsa regarding the right to strike as a whole were also almost all issued in reply to the query of one person—Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Shragai. Three of the responsa concerning the right to strike and the right of unionization owe their existence to a member of Hapoel HaMizrachi movement, Shlomo Zalman Shragai. Shragai, public activist and author, addressed these questions to Rabbi Kook, who was then serving as the Chief Rabbi for Eretz Israel, and he published both of his oral responsa in the journal Netivah in 1933.About five years later, in 1938, he again took up this issue with Rabbi Uziel on behalf of the Hapoel HaMizrachi organization… In 1945, we also find a further query by Shragai concerning the same question, this time to Rabbi Eliezer Y. Waldenberg, author of Tzitz Eliezer.

Mizrachi Truck

The Corporatist Model

The corporatist model was accepted by the Revisionist movement. Ze’ev Jabotinsky studied in Rome under one of the fathers of the fascist corporatist theory, Arturo Labriola, and was influenced by him. He believed in the importance of private capital for the construction of the land while negating the principle of class struggle. He held the conviction that national aspirations were supposed to unite all classes (“monism”). Settling labor disputes, he held, must be done through boards of “national arbitration”—the revisionist model that corresponded to the corporations.

Shragai asked Rabbi Kook: “What is the halakhic law regarding strikes aimed at preserving existing labor conditions and strikes aimed to improve them?” According to the text in Netivah, the Chief Rabbi replied:

A strike is permitted for the objective of forcing the employer to appear in a rabbinic court (beit din) or to enforce a court decision in connection with a contentious dispute, be it to preserve the workers’ conditions or to better them. As a result of this it is clear that in all disputes of this type the workers must summon the employer to a rabbinic court with a claim, [and] if the employer refuses, it is the right of the workers to call a strike, even without any special consent from the court to such a call, which accords with the legal reasoning of the later poskim.  Of course, it is permitted to require that such conflict will not be adjudicated in an ordinary rabbinic court but in a court of broad panel, consisting of rabbis noted for their Torah prowess and proficiency, and well versed in issues of life and labor.

An examination of this responsum teaches that Rabbi Kook did not allow strikes to enable free bargaining, by which the parties would determine their rights and duties through the accepted power games. The final authority was the court that Rabbi Kook now offered to set up. Striking was intended to enforce attendance at the beit din or to enforce compliance with its rulings but not to achieve economic goals per se. The language of the text emphasizes the dispensations—“a strike is permitted,” “it is permitted”—but, practically speaking, the requisite conditions made it fairly limited.

It is easy to see that the arrangement Rabbi Kook suggested here is the system of national arbitration of the type which Jabotinsky had supported, and also the General Zionists at the outset of their movement. The basic approach embodied in this model is, as already noted, the concept of the organic unity of the nation, which finds its expression in the state.

The Responsum of Rabbi Uziel

In my humble opinion it appears that in general striking is not allowed and not desirable, neither for the worker nor for the employer. [Not] for the worker— because each day of striking from productive work is a day lost of life, and the Torah commanded about obligations of working. . . . And not for the employer—because any construction or industrial labor, let alone planting, that would not be done and completed within the proper season falls into the category of permanent loss, not just because the time was lost but also because of the damage that results from it to the work-process material.

Make a deduction from the law governing a workman who withdraws from his work in the middle of his contractual employment time: although in principle the workman can retract even in the middle of the day, based on the biblical verse “For unto me the children of Israel are servants” [meaning] “they are My servants—but not servants to servants” (B. Baba Kamma 116 and B. Baba Metzia 77), the law is decided that, if loss would result, the worker could not withdraw ([Shulhan Arukh] Hoshen Mishpat section 333, paragraph 8).

According to prevailing labor conditions, at present it is clear to me that any delay in the work of agriculture or industrial production or construction causes enormous losses that cannot be later restored. . . . In view of all the above considerations it is obvious that strikes or work lockouts are not desirable in themselves and cause losses to the worker or to the owner on the grounds of the law absolving liability for indirect damages.

This source, which was cited by almost all the halakhists who discussed the issue of striking, is problematic largely because it deals with the right of the worker to cancel his labor contract totally, while a strike is not the breaking of a labor relationship but an attempt to achieve better conditions within the framework of this relationship. This crucial flaw, which Rabbi Waldenberg pointed out in his responsum of 1945.

Rabbi Uziel explains:

The rationale for this law is that no trade organization can be objective in its decisions but only subjective, and their own self-interest blinds them from seeing the employer’s point of view. Moreover, the existence of one organization leads to the establishment of another to counter it, and they [both] do not limit themselves to their [direct] interests; and so the constant clashing between the two sides—the workers and the employers—never stops, and is followed by blind resistance and constant mutual hostility.

In the spirit of this understanding he suggested, to establish a distinguished court (beit din), assembled of members fluent in Torah law and academics proficient in the field of economics and societal market conditions, so they jointly enact a detailed labor legislation, and afterwards appoint permanent judges to adjudicate on the basis of this legislation all the conflicts that occur between the workers concerning the proper division of fair labor among themselves, and settle disputes between the workers and employers concerning their mutual relationships.” Rabbi Uziel supported this idea with the Talmudic requirement of a “distinguished man’s” consent.

It is almost needless to add that the court suggested by Rabbi Uziel has never been established. Israeli workers today, even Orthodox, may strike without asking permission from any judiciary, and if the conflict is brought to court, it will be the Labor Court, established by the secular law in 1969, that will adjudicate the case according to secular law and without any rabbinic involvement. Workers and employers can bring their case to a rabbinical court only in the form of arbitration, based on mutual consent.

Despite Rabbi Uziel’s reliance on Jewish traditional sources, and possibly due to internal tensions that arise from this reliance, it is difficult not to notice that he practically adopts the corporative model, which we saw with the fascist thinkers and subsequently with the revisionist thinkers.Rabbi Uziel, who had a clear humanist bent, was disinclined to fascism. But he was a man open to the intellectual winds of the time, and it is reasonable to assume that he had absorbed corporatism through the agency of the revisionists.

He continues at length about the halakhah giving the worker “the legal right to organize and establish beneficial regulations for his society, which would anchor a fair and just division of labor among its members and achieve a respectable treatment and a fair wage for his work.”

He wanted to see the workers’ organization establish “cultural institutions to enrich the scientific and artistic education [of the worker] and his Torah knowledge, medical institutions and recreation places to renew his strength exploited by work and heal wounds caused by it.” He even saw the worker’s organization as the responsible body for the pension insurance of the worker—“to create a savings fund for old age and for disabilities”—a norm that would exempt the employer from that responsibility.

Thus, it is abundantly clear that Rabbi Uziel did not negate the right to strike because of a lack of solidarity with the workers or to protect the interests of the employers. The element that attracted him to the corporative model was most likely the element of harmonious concord, and the idea that it is possible to solve labor relations issues through brotherhood and national unity beyond any class interest. This way of thinking integrated into his broader Zionist viewpoints, which placed the unity of the nation as a supreme value,and his aspiration to see all segments of the public joining in the enterprise of the national revival.

Rabbi Uziel does not want to see workers on strike, since strikes are detrimental to the process of “nation-building.” But also he does not want to see workers fired, since this also causes similar harm. What he would like to see is an idyllic situation free of conflict. Indeed, Rabbi Uziel’s quasi-corporative model was nourished by exaggerated optimism, if not naiveté. At its base stands an organic approach to national unity, which seeks to keep aggressive measures distant from both sides.


Rabbi Feinstein & Democracy

Rabbi Feinstein began his responsum of 1951 with decisive words, expressing unequivocal support for the freedom to unionize and the freedom to strike:

Concerning the associations of workers called “unions,” which make regulations, determine set wages, prevent employers from firing them, and help each other through strikes and similar means for their benefit, I do not see any shade of prohibition; on the contrary, we see moreover that they are allowed even to make terms contrary to the set halakhic law… they are allowed to impose sanctions for enforcing their terms and even cause damage [to a person who violates them]

but in matters which are not against the law, such as to determine wages and to help each other—there is no need at all for the consent of a sage, for the matter is like all business arrangements and ordinary partnerships.

Thus, in passing, Rabbi Feinstein ruled that striking is not against the halakhah—a problematic claim in traditional thinking about labor relations

In his responsum of 1954, Rabbi Feinstein deals with the question of the majority rule and the applicability of regulations on non-unionized workers. From a close reading of the language of the Shulhan Arukh he concludes that the resolutions of a trade union do not require the unanimous consent of its members, and hence “it is obvious that they require [only] a majority.” He stresses that a clear majority is needed, and the voice of one half is insufficient.

The possibility of requiring a full consensus, as in ordinary partnerships, was not raised even as a rejected supposition.

In the following text, Rabbi Feinstein seems to go even further, as he referred not only to the majority of union members, but to that of all the workers in the same trade, including those that are not unionized.

Rabbi Feinstein seems to have been forced to abandon the rules of the partnership model and to adopt those generally associated with the beit din model. In essence, he grabs the rope by both its ends: he is ready to take any “gains” from each model, but he not prepared to pay the “prices” enveloped in them. The author of Igrot Moshe did all this without giving thought to the theoretical problem of the model that substantiates the authority of the union. His explanation is a patchwork from the two approaches put together. In reference to the consent of the “distinguished man” and to joint unionization with non-Jews, he is content with the contractual approach, but in reference to the power to impose its orders he favors the authority approach.

[AB- below is a famous paragraph from Rav Moshe Feinstein]

This clearly shows the great advantage of the United States: And so the government of the United States—that already 150 years ago established in its constitution not to promote any faith or ideology but let each person do as he wills while the government only watches that no one swallow up his fellow—does God’s will. It is by that right that the United States has prospered and become great during this time period. And we are obligated to pray for them [for the United States and its government], that God send them success in all that they undertake. In light of these words, it is no wonder that Rabbi Feinstein saw the United States as the “Kingdom of Grace.”


abolish slavery

Brown’s Conclusions

[T]he poskim developed the halakhic models which in their eyes were best suited to regulate labor relations, and thus absorbed the right of unionization and the right of modern strikes into Jewish law. The modern world posed three main models for such regulation: the communist model, the liberal-democratic model, and the corporative model.

However, Rabbis Kook and Uziel remained still closer to the conceptions of the traditional, pre-modern labor laws, and adhered (with certain internal contradiction) to the model that saw labor relations in terms of rental relationships. Consequently, they saw the striking worker as one who breaches the work contract and damages the employer. Rabbi Feinstein, in contrast, was clearly closest to the concept of modern labor laws

In terms of the ideological context, Rabbis Kook and Uziel adopted a corporative model quite close to the one that was advocated by the Revisionists in the Land of Israel (and the fascist theorists in Italy), while Rabbi Feinstein adopted a distinctly liberal model, which corresponds to the arrangement that was established in most Western democratic countries

What is the root of the differences between the authorities under discussion? Two possible explanations are available. The first explanation, historical-cultural, is that the differences in the opinions of the halakhic authorities stem from differences in personal and social background among the three personalities: Rabbis Kook and Uziel acted in the emerging Zionist yishuv in the Land of Israel, with ideological commitment to the values of building the land through labor and with a strong aspiration to unite the various camps into a nation. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein acted in a capitalist country in which labor was perceived primarily as a means for the welfare of the individual and less as a national value, and labor relations crossed the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews.

My Excursus on Rabbi S. Z. Shragai

Rabbi S.Z. Shragai, a rabbinic scholar, first mayor of Jerusalem, and head of religious Workers Party  was one of the major ideologues of Torah ve Avodah. He was the one who asked the questions about to Rabbi Kook, Uziel and Walenberg. He is also responsible in general for many of the questions about the government and Knesset to Rabbis Uziel and Waldenberg. His approach highlights the difference in genealogy between Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy

For Shragai, Torah ve Avodah as Religious Zionism meant a literal and orienting return to labor and manual productivity against the imperfect bourgeois life. Unlike other socialisms, it is a spiritual revival, a new moral vision, and mutual aid and concern for one another.We wont need police for maintaining property because our connection to personal property will wither. Labor has to organize so that the conditions of labor allow one to live properly, as the Torah says: “you shall live by them.”

Our main relationship  to the political parties is economic in order to provide freedom and equality. By bettering the individual we lead to a national restoration. Torah ve Avodah means a restoration of a Torah state that has application to the modern life of the worker building for the freedom of self-determination. We need Torah “of religiosity not of religion.” We don’t ask about the role of religion in modern life because all of life, especially the worker’s life, needs to be infused with religiosity. We need Rabbis who know about barns and stables and we need to study the agricultural sciences to figure out how to live as a Torah observant laborer.

Unlike the communists for whom the problem of society is a structural problem of state economic inequality, for Torah ve Avodah the solution is for an individual to directly realize justice in society by returning directly to a life of labor. Judaism does not need organized labor rather, labor is a form of musar and an ethical path.

Shragai was from a Radzhin family, and based on Polish Hasidism envisioned an individualistic Kotzker Rebbe approach to Torah in which  physical labor was a mystical unity of the Holy One Blessed Be He and the Shekhinah, which would revive Judaism as a living Biblical relationship with God. Shragai followed the Izbitzer Rebbe in which the  inner point of every Jew shows that their flaws and sins are only external but the inward nature remain ever pure; even the heretic is doing God’s will. (More on Shragai for the Hebrew reader).

Religion, Polls, and Judaism: Robert Wuthnow’s Inventing American Religion

People are daily bombarded with polls about the presidential primaries giving targeted information about which ethnic group is voting for which candidate. We understand that over the course of months opinions will change. More importantly, we don’t assume the results work over years and decades. When in 1988 Republican George H.W. Bush beat Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in the polls (and in the actual election), people did not go around saying that the future is all Republican or that the Democratic Party is dying. When a mere eight years later in 1996 when Democrat Bill Clinton beat Republican Bob Dole in the polls, people did not go around saying the reverse that the future is all Democrat or that the Republican Party is dying.

However when it comes to polls about religion, we find pundits, editorials, and ordinary people assuming that any given trend will continue without accounting for changing times, swings in cultural, shifts in religious patterns, maturation of those polled, or the narrowness of the original question. Almost all the discussions of the future of Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, the Pew study, Renewal, or assimilation are predicated on assuming that the answer to binary questions at a given point in time can be predictive.

Eighteen years ago, the Israeli demographer of the Jewish people Sergio DellaPergola when asked about the future trends of Orthodoxy, started his discussion by reminding his reader that no demographic data can predict the future since the data is not stable. There are always earthquakes and floods, wars and disease, economic depressions and social mobility.  Imagine if you did a poll in 1910 of the Jewish community, and you were going to base the future on it. You would be encouraging people to move to Poland. However in the 21st century, we have a trend of Jewish demographers and journalists who preach based on the assumption of long time stability. In actually, nothing is ever stable and the future will likely not look like the past.

In order to set the record straight about the problem with polls, especially the PEW polls, Robert Wuthnow professor of sociology and director of its center for the study of religion at Princeton University wrote the important work Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith Oxford University Press (October 1, 2015). The book came out last year and seems not to have influenced Jewish discussion, that is, yet.  I posted about a previous book of Wuthnow- The God Problem- here.

This post has many long direct quotes from online reviews that are not indented or noted because this post started as teaching notes to myself, which I only afterwards decided to post as a blog post. The most important source was the interview by Andrew Aghapour at Religion Dispatches, but there were about a half dozen others.


American relgion

Wuthnow’s recent book is a broadside against how polling is done today. Well-known groups like Gallup, Pew, and Barna through their religion polling, are complicit, he says, in giving birth to a slippery thing called “American religion.”

According to Wuthnow:  Broad commercial polling began in the 1930s, when George Gallup, Sr. paid for polls by getting a couple hundred newspapers to pay for his columns. Religion was something that was of personal interest to him, but the pieces about religion would simply occur at holiday time. Church leaders were skeptical. What does it mean to say that 95% of the public believe in God? That doesn’t tell us much of anything.

[However, in 1976 when Jimmy Carter achieved election to the Presidency polls wanted to know the number of Americans who were evangelicals. George Gallup, Jr. had the answer, because he’d asked questions in his polls about whether people considered themselves born again, had ever had a born-again experience, what they believed about the Bible, whether they considered themselves Evangelicals, and so forth.Gallup said there might be 50 million American who are evangelicals, and journalists ran with that. It was a much higher number than had been assumed before.

In addition to changing the numbers, polling also changed political perception by implying  that evangelicals were a voting bloc. That made sense to journalists because Catholics were a voting bloc for John F. Kennedy in 1960—so surely evangelicals must have been a voting bloc for Jimmy Carter. That wasn’t the case at all. Some of the leading, most powerful, influential evangelical leaders were actually for Gerald Ford. There was a lot of diversity among evangelicals themselves that got masked by being lumped together in the polls as if they were all the same thing.

The way they got the much larger figure of 50 million was basically inventing a new question that said something to the effect of, “Have you ever had a born-again religious experience, or something similar to a religious awakening?” And that was pretty much it.

 And so in 1978, Christianity Today, a leading periodical for evangelicals, paid Gallup to do a big survey and in addition to just asking the born-again question, they asked questions about belief in the Bible, belief in Jesus, and intent on converting others. As a result, Gallup revised its estimate downward, to less than 30 million. The notion of a politically focused evangelical upsurge might have been more an artifact of bad polling than an actual phenomenon in the history of American religion. If exact wording of what you want to know is not included then you never know the real answer.

As a response Evangelical sponsored Barnea polls asked a different set of question showing the contradictions of American religion. Americans prayed  but in their own styles and they believed in bible without any knowledge of it.  But mainly they distracted by material and family needs. This knowledge led to the panic that since families are spending less time together, families are dissolving. So we need to campaign since 1990 for family values.

The Pew surveys were founded 2000 offering a centralized location and centralized database for polls.


Today’s most controversial polling trend is the rise of the “Nones”—those who indicate religious non-affiliation in surveys by selecting “none of the above.” Nones seem to have jumped from a stable 6-8% of the population during the 1970s and 1980s to, in recent years, 16-20%. The real question is, “What exactly is going on?” And there appear to be several conclusions.

First, many of the Nones still claim to believe in God, occasionally attend religious services; hardly any of them identify clearly as atheist. So they may be, for some reason, identifying themselves as non-religious even though they still believe. We also know from some of the surveys that they identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” meaning that somehow they’re interested in God and spirituality, and existential questions of life and death, but are turned off by organized religion.

Second, the political climate of the religious right of the last 15 years has become so publicly identified with conservative politics, that people who were formerly willing to say, “I’m religious” in [denominational] terms are now saying, “You know what, I just don’t want to have anything to do with it.” That’s a hard story for many of us to believe, but there does seem to be pretty good data supporting it, as part of the story at least.

Third is that the studies that actually ask a person the same question a year or two later are finding that individuals change their minds a lot. One paper identifies at least half of the Nones as “Liminals,” people who are trying to decide, on the cusp of making up their mind. You ask them one year, and they say “I’m non-religious,” you ask them the same question the next year and they’ll say they’re religious and they’ll tell you what kind of religion they are. Or [vice-versa].

Now this may be characteristic of the times in which we live—people are uncertain about who they are, about what they think religiously—but it also challenges how we think about polls. Polls have always assumed that whatever a person says is reliable, and that they really mean it and stick with it.

When Robert Putnam wrote his important work Age of Grace (2012), he returned to many of his interviewees after a year to see how they changed their minds to attend stability

Current trends see the crisis of Nones as created by polls and only 10% may be stable in that position, the rest are betwixt and between.  Also when you go back and check many of those who claimed to be following “some other religion” like Buddhism a year later, only 35 % are still with it


Why are they not to be completely relied upon? Polls are measuring answers to questions that are not very thoughtful, because polls are hastily done by telephone rather than in person.

Poll numbers being reported may be in the general ballpark correct, but probably can’t be interpreted very precisely in terms of the small trends that are being reported. For instance, if somebody reports that American religion is declining because church attendance is down a percentage point this year from last year, one should not pay much attention to that.

Secondly, pay attention, skeptically, to the way the headline describes the data. So once again, let’s imagine that the church attendance rate is lower this year than last year, let’s say it’s two or three percent lower all of a sudden. Unfortunately, the headline say that religion is “on the skids” or that “America is losing its faith”! That’s more the journalist’s or the editor’s fault than the pollster’s fault.

Third, always remember that the polls have a very low response rate. Most of the polls, whether about religion or politics, have an eight percent response rate now. It means that ninety-two percent of the people who should have been contacted for it to be a representative poll are not there, and we don’t know what they would have said, and so we’re only making guesses. The guesses could be wrong, and often are wrong.

From Wuthnow’s vantage at Princeton, he says that even when we are reassured that a poll is trustworthy, for example, TIME claiming to be 3% off, it is really more like 20 % off. Even then much of it is echo chambers and people responding to the way the question is asked.

Such a low response rate almost invalidates the data. There are other ways of drawing sample data and then weighing it.  The sociologist Rodney Stark quipped that we were taught that you need at least an 85% sample to be a valid survey now 9% is considered valid. Why can academics and governments get 70% samples and pollsters 9%?

One of the biggest problems today invalidating many polls is that most data skewers older or even elderly since polls rely on land line telephones and most people under 50 do not use landlines anymore.

We also have the problem of micro studies done by religious groups themselves such as of those that only survey their graduates which are self-selecting and have no follow up. (Think of some of the studies done by Orthodox intuitions).

In short, American religion is volunteeristic, fuzzy and not mutually exclusive, so binary questions do not work. The polls remove all theological questions.

Fluctuations in results of a poll could occur within just months based on events in the news. The way the media frames a question and then a poll based on the media creates answers to questions that do not reflect the depth of religious life.  Even questions about abortion among Catholics who oppose abortion could get a 20% difference based on the design of the survey. In 2012, polls showed that 80% of Evangelicals had pre-marital sex, but when asked to define themselves as believing in the inerrancy of the bible and attend church we get a statistic of only 44%. Which is it 80% or 44%?

Today, most people do not trust pollsters and will not answer their phone calls? In 1995, 65% thought htta it was in their best interest to answer surveys and now it has declined to 33%.

A proper method was shown in the 1993 classic by Wade Roof Clark Generation of Seekers  where he worked with a scale of   affirmation ranging from active identification, mild identification, minimal identification, and none at all. During any period of social or theological innovation some are highly involved, other have heard of it or attend a lecture, and many have not heard of it of missed it. Also there are many individuals who reject a given trend or have their own person views outside of the thinking of an era. Few people are interested in the current trends every era. Most people remain connected to the thinking of their years of formation and according to the famous saying ‘Many people die at twenty five and aren’t buried until they are seventy five.’

Finally, remember that where political polls have occasional checkpoints—elections actually happen, and pollsters can [subsequently] adjust weighting factors so that the data are closer next time—with religion questions, they don’t have anything like that. So if we hear that x percentage of the public is not really Catholic even though they say they are, or x percentage of the public like the Pope or they don’t like the Pope, we can only ask ourselves, “Well, does that make sense with what we know from other sources, and from talking with our neighbors?”

Polls can produce inconsistent, and sometimes baffling, representations of American belief. They also range in accuracy, from sophisticated sociological surveys to thinly veiled propaganda

Whereas the accuracy of political polling is ultimately held accountable by election results, religion is much more problematic to measure. Religion polls today regularly report on the demise of faith in North America, yet nearly a century ago 91 percent of poll respondents said they believed in God, compared to the 92 percent who said the same in a Pew poll just a few years ago.

Why do we listen?

The main reason religion polling gets so much funding, Wuthnow argues, and the main reason it gets reported on, is that it has consequences for American electoral politics.

“What would we lose if we didn’t have Pew kinds of surveys? Frankly, not much,” he added. For most people who work in polling or media or politics, this probably sounds like an extreme position, and it is. The polling industry is not going away. Wuthnow’s proposed alternative—“an occasional survey that was really well-done, even if it costs a million dollars”—may be rosy sounding, but it’s almost certainly impractical in today’s quickly churning public sphere.

Another way to put it: Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life. Facts like church attendance are much easier to trade than messy views about actually beleifs and commitments, or  the nature of sin, or whether people have literal soul mates. A question about who a person might vote for is relatively straightforward. A question about whether he or she believes in heaven or an afterlife is not.

For example: African Americans are only somewhat more likely than white Americans to go to religious services every week; if that’s the test of religiosity used in a poll, black and white faith may not seem so different. But in a large national study, Wuthnow found, black respondents spent much more time than white respondents at the services they attended. They also expressed their faith in different ways, like praying for fellow congregants.

Wuthnow points out that television coverage, recent articles, and debates can affect religious survey results. Similar to the ever fluctuating approval rating of religious leader, it says little about religious life

Pew’s international polls about attitudes toward the United States in Muslim countries, one Middle East specialist writing in Foreign Policy wrote: “The polls are one dimensional and filled with panic” (p. 149).These criticisms, and others Wuthnow offers, call into question the value of surveys conducted as “must-get-the-findings-out-there-quickly!” polls. Wuthnow quotes Darren Sherkat, who goes further: Polling is conducted by whores who violate every scientific convention that social scientists developed to make sure that polling would indeed produce high quality results. … Worse yet, indifference towards high quality data is infiltrating the social sciences (p. 149).

Nevertheless, Wuthnow admits the perception of an evangelical surge, though exaggerated by questionable polling, was and is an actual phenomenon.

Jewy in Wuthnow

Wuthnow notes that the studies overplay change. That means more are not abandoning religion and more are not Orthodoxy. As JJ Goldberg pointed out the recent Pew claims that Jews abandoning religion rose from from 7% in 2000 to 22 % in 2013.  But Wuthnow quotes Goldberg who points out that when compared to 1990 data – it was then 20%. Also many Jews who are connected in a weak or negligible way then find points in their lives when they are more connected.

In addition, Wuthnow notes that the Pew was biased for white Protestants values who attend church. Hence, they had a panic over the those who do not attend services. He notes that   Afro-Americans tend to pray at home rather than attend a service. He also notes that Jews and Muslims have all sort so all sorts of bodily rituals and avoidances that were not covered in the questions. When asked about attendance at services, they excluded weddings, funerals, and High Holy Day attendance.

The survey was also biased about having religions that can be separated by ethnicity and culture, even though many transmit their religions via ethnicity. One can have a strong Italian, Greek, Nigerian, or Gujarati identity and eat ethnic foods and go to cultural, artistic, and political events of that ethnic group and the religions is a tacit element of the ethnicity without houses of worship.

There are many connected to Jewish culture who read Jewish books and papers, go to Jewish arts events and have what they think are sufficient Jewish practices that sustain them. They don’t really survey Aipac Judaism, Holocaust remembrance Jews. A Pew survey cannot measure Jewish pride and tribalism along with the dozens of ways Jews maintain a connection. The survey also focuses on the very Protestant question of individual attendance at house of worship, rather than membership in the house of worship.

Wuthnow notes that the recent Pew went out of its way to raise the Jewish responses from 9%to  16% He does note that most polls only include 25-30 Jews making them almost irrelevant to assess the community.


I gave one post to the Pew the day that it came out just clipping out what it said about Orthodoxy. (It was the most hits that the blog ever received.)  I did another post a  week later about not predicting history. Here we go with another one on the upshot of the Pew. By this point everyone is using it to say the sky is falling and whatever their point of view is it seems the PEW proves it.

My first observation is that Orthodoxy has assimilated the language of what Wuthnow calls “American Religion.” Torah consists of polls, metrics and election predictions rather than looking at Torah, Sages, and the holy. Rav Soloveitchik spoke about the importance of “the remnant of the scribes” keeping the tradition alive. We used to count scholars and books or the subjective feel of piety of Yom Kippur or the love of Torah. Now, Orthodox papers start articles about percentage points like it was an election. The very essence and self-understanding of Orthodoxy has changed with the times. Now Orthodoxy understands itself as another object subject to polls.

Second, the poll did not say Orthodox won just that it went up two percentage points. When it declined from 60% to 9% (1950-1970) that was significant, slight rises are not. Also the numbers of Orthodox polled were still low and lumped together the divergent categories of Chabad, Heimish Hasidic and yeshivish in to one group. (Oy, what can you do with outsiders!) Like the newspaper headlines that say “religion on the skids”  or “all of American will be Mormon in another decade,” the use of the Pew by Orthodoxy has shown a terrible innumeracy. Nor is the Conservative movement dying, another act of innumeracy. They just shed their nominal members and the congregations in NE towns that no longer have Jewish populations. They lost 35%-55% like Orthodoxy did earlier in the century. This is against the background of the the decline of mainline Churches, for example Episcopalian Church now to 14% of the US from its 1950’s high.

Third, who fits into a category? The same way the number of Evangelicals can be less than half depending on the questions that you ask, so too in the Jewish case they asked denominational identification. If you did follow-up questions then they may no longer be included in your definition  of your Orthodox denomination

Fourth, simple questions do not lead to a good indication of the movement. Did they ask: how often do you learn Torah? What Torah do you learn? How long is your daily morning prayer?  Do you say Psalms? Use a mikvah? Feel alienated from your rabbis? Attend tu beshevat seder? Do you like Rav Nachman of Breslov or Maimonides better? If it had these questions then we might know something about the denomination.

Fifth, there need to be follow-up with the same people. Lives are always in flux.

Sixth, some of the same pundits and sociologist, who themselves are not-Orthodox, are now using the Pew to say that the Orthodox are successful in growth and stability and the Orthodox should serve as a model. Let me remind you that the same sociologists lauded the Conservative movement 20 years ago for its growth and stability. They advised the Conservative movement that outreach was not needed because we can assume that religion is stable. They predicted the future from the 1990 surevys and were wrong. They are giving the same precious advice now about Orthodoxy. Wuthnow reminds us that religion in America is always moving and changing in which nothing is stable. Whoever answers people needs and has their communities respond to changes in economics and social mobility gains adherents. When most of the Nones seek a meaning affiliation as they get older, who will be there answering their needs?

But in fact, what Pew shows is that there are more engaged Jews, more synagogue members, more folks doing traditional Jewish things today than compared to 1990.

Finally, we have never predicted the upheavals of a century in advance. Earthquakes, plague, wars, and economic crashes are always with us.

Any other thoughts?


Rav Soloveitchik on the Guide of the Perplexed-edited by Lawrence Kaplan

When Rabbi Soloveitchik arrived at Yeshiva University he gave classes for two decades on philosophic topics.  In these lectures, we see Soloveitchik as the graduate of the University of Berlin in philosophy and as the former student in the Berlin Rabbinical seminary (for a year). Soloveitchik gave great weight to future rabbis having training in philosophy and having a master’s degree in Jewish Studies.

Did you ever want to know what Rabbi Soloveitchik’s early philosophy lectures were like? Did you ever wish to have been able to attend them? Here is your chance.

We now have a record of one of those early courses, edited thanks to the hard work of Lawrence Kaplan professor at Magill University, who was the official translator for Halakhic Man.  The new volumes is called  Maimonides – Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Lectures on the Guide of the Perplexed (Urim Publications). The work is based on  a complete set of notes, taken by Rabbi Gerald (Yaakov) Homnick. The original notes consisted of two five spiral notebooks of 375 pages and 224 pages.  For the philosophic reader of Soloveitchik, these are interesting and exciting lectures bringing many scattered ideas into one place. Kaplan provides a wonderful introductory essay setting out and explaining the ideas in the lectures.

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In this volume we see Soloveitchik in his use of Isaac Husik, David Neumark  and Leo Roth to help him understand the texts of Jewish thought, and his reliance on the modern thought of Hume, Spinoza, and Bertrand Russell. We see him giving out an academic reading list to start and engage with university Jewish studies.

Soloveitchik was originally planning on writing his dissertation on Maimonides but that did not work out so instead he switched advisers to work on Hermann Cohen. But what did he plan to discuss in the original medieval dissertation? This work gives the reader a sense of what he would have written since Soloveitchik incubated his ideas for decades and remained for decades with the direction of his earliest thoughts. It seems to have been a modern reading and defense of Maimonides.

Hermann Cohen’s modern reading of Maimonides as ethical and Platonic was instrumental in the 20th century return to Maimonides and especially Soloveitchik’s understanding of Maimonides. This lectures in this volume show how Soloveitchik both used and differed with Cohen. However, the citations from Cohen in the original lectures were telegraphed, in that, Cohen was not available in English at the time and Soloveitchik was just giving the gist to audience that had not read him. This makes it harder for those who have not read Cohen recently.

Kaplan notes that Soloveitchik’s readings of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Aquinas are “highly controversial” meaning that they are less confrontations with the texts of those thinkers and more the reception and rejection as found in early 20th century thinkers. His German Professors considered idealism as superseding the classics and Russell considered science and positivism as superseding the ancient. For these works, Maimonides was relegated to the medieval bin. Soloveitchik was going to save the great eagle.

In addition, the 19th century Jewish interpreters saw Maimonides as an abstract Aristotelian philosopher, and, if anything relevant, closer to Reform than Orthodoxy. The scholar George Y. Kohler showed that at the Berlin seminary they were quite ambivalent about Maimonides. In addition, the instructor in Jewish thought Isaiah Wohlgemuth at the seminary leaned in his teaching towards considering faith as absurdity- Tertullian meets Kierkegaard and Scheler.

So the point of these lectures, and probably the unwritten dissertation, was to show the continuous relevance of philosophy for the understanding of Torah and the relevance of Maimonides. The goal was also to show the importance of Torah study for Maimonides despite the explicit vision in the Guide. Much of this agenda was later set out and popularized by Soloveitchik’s students David Hartman and Isidore Twersky.

Soloveitchik sought to move the reading of Maimonides from the practical Aristotelian approach to a German idealistic higher ethic of imitating God.  According to Kaplan’s notes this reading is not really Maimonides’ own thought.

One of the bigger unexpected formulations of this volume is Soloveitchik’s presentation of a pantheistic view of God as the hesed (mercy or caritas) behind creation. As in many idealists where the world is fundamentally mental or immaterial, the world is in God -in some ways the real is the rational- but he sets this within a theistic scheme .

This pantheism led Soloveitchik to think that aspiring Torah scholars should attain a cosmic-intellectual experience and thereby identify with the world through their minds.

There lectures discuss the ascent from ecstatic prophet to the higher cosmic prophetic experience. For Soloveitchik, the goal of cosmic-intellectual prophecy is to surrender to God beyond words to an inexpressible point.

Soloveitchik distinguishes between two levels in the observance of halakhah. A lower approach where halakhah concerns obedience, duties and practical law; at this level ethics are instrumental. There is a second higher level of identifying with God and thereby with the cosmos. In the lower level there is obedience to a normative halakhah which is distinctly and qualitatively lower than having a cosmic intellectual experience where the divine is internalized as a prophetic experience in which one reaches the pinnacle of human existence.

Soloveitchik declares that halakhah is not about “how to” rather in its ideal state it is about merging into cosmos via cosmic experience to reach a higher truth into reality. (This ideal is quite unlike the way many today conceive of Soloveitchik).

Kaplan notes that these lectures present an innovative theory of fear, in which fear at that moment of cosmic consciousness generates a recoil thereby returning us to the halakhah and norms. After love and identity with God, one recoils in distance, submission and returns to the external norm.

For Soloveitchik concern for others and responsibility for fellows as hesed is the inclusion of the other in the cosmic vision. Just as God is inclusive of the world and knows the world because it is part of Him, the Talmud scholar knows about people through his universal understanding.

Kaplan points out how this is completely the opposite of Jewish thinkers such as Levinas where you actually confront the other and through the face of a real other person gains moral obligation.  (I am certain that Soloveitchik pantheistic-Idealist view of ethics will elicit some comments. )

Rav Soloveichik’s speaking style often consisted in sentence fragments and repetition of phrases, especially a repetition to return to where he left off, after a side interjection. Many times one did not know the relationship of the return to the interjection. Was it in agreement or disagreement? Unfortunately, I am not sure if this edition solved the problem in that there were many dangling sentences and lines that the reader would be unclear if it agreed or disagreed with the prior line. In addition, many of the lines in this book needed an explanatory footnote especially those concerning idealism and Hermann Cohen.  But despite these caveats, for the philosophic reader of Soloveitchik, we once again owe Kaplan gratitude for his fine work. We should also thank him for this extensive interview analyzing many of the most important issues in the work.

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  1. What is new in this work?

From the point of view of form, these lectures are certainly new, since until now we have never had an essay of Rav Soloveitchik [henceforth, “the Rav”], much less a book, devoted to an analysis of the Guide. But from the point of view of content, the matter is not so clear After all, the Rav discusses certain themes from the Guide at length in Halakhic Man, Halakhic Mind, and U-Vikashtem mi-Sham (And from There You Shall Seek). Also, another very important discussion of the Guide can be found in his Yiddish Teshuvah Derashah (Discourse on Repentance), “Yahid ve-Tzibbur” (“Individual and Community”) in his Yiddish volume of Essays and Discourses. The truth is that if combines what the Rav says in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham with what he says in “Yahid ve-Tzibbur,” you get much—not all—of the basic outline of the argument of these lectures. Still, there are a number of   new elements.

One point obvious, while, in another sense, new is that while the Rav in all his essays displays a great openness to scientific and philosophic thought, he never explicitly justifies such openness. In these lectures, however, the Rav finally justified his practices.  The Rav notes that Maimonides believes that non-Jews could also reach the high religious level of “serving the Lord continually.” In this connection he observes that Bahya often cites “pietists,” who turn out to be non-Jews, and similarly cites Arabic philosophers and Church Fathers. He goes on to cite Maimonides’ famous statement  “Accept the truth from whoever said it.” He also cites a passage from the Laws of the Sanctification of the New Moon to the same effect, and concludes “Maimonides is clear…we do not care who the author is.”

There are, however, three entirely new elements. First, in the lectures the Rav presents his basic argument as a response to the claim of medieval commentators on the Guide and, in the modern period, of Heinrich Graetz that Maimonides considers Halakhah (Jewish law), both its study and practice, as secondary to philosophy.

Second, though in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham the Rav maintains that according to Maimonides, “The existence of the world [is] not only caused by God, but [is] also rooted in Him,” he carefully avoids any use there of the word “pantheism.” In the lectures, by contrast, he does speak of Maimonides’ pantheism—to be sure, with certain important qualifications.  Third, the penultimate section of the book on Yirat ha-Shem, the fear of the Lord, is, to my knowledge, new, and, in important ways, it goes against what he states both in Halakhic Man and in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham.

2) Could you elaborate on the claim that Maimonides considers Halakhah as secondary to philosophy? How does R. Soloveitchik counter this approach?

This is an old objection to Maimonides. The claim is that Maimonides follows Aristotle in maintaining that knowledge is superior to morality, both moral virtue and moral action, and, furthermore, in arguing that only intellectual knowledge possesses intrinsic value, while morality possesses only instrumental worth, serving only as a steppingstone to attaining intellectual perfection. From this it would follow that Halakhah, dealing with action, is of lesser worth than science, and that Talmud Torah, that is, the study of Halakhah, is inferior to the study of the sciences.  The Rav—inaccurately by the way—quotes Graetz as stating that Maimonides in the Guide “sneered at halakhic scholarship.”

The Rav counters this objection by claiming that Maimonides distinguishes between two stages of ethics: pre-theoretical ethics, ethical action that precedes knowledge of the universe and God, and post-theoretical ethics, ethical action that follows upon knowledge of the universe and God. Pre-theoretical ethics is indeed inferior to theory and purely instrumental; however, post-theoretical ethics is ethics as the imitation of God’s divine attributes of action of Hesed (Loving Kindness), Mishpat, (Justice), and Tzedakah (Righteousness), the ethics referred to at the very end of the Guide, and this stage of ethics constitutes the individual’s highest perfection.

3) It sounds as if here Soloveitchik is just following Hermann Cohen.

The Rav, as he himself admits, takes the basic distinction between pre-theoretical ethics and post- theoretical ethics from Hermann Cohen, but his understanding of the imitation of the divine attributes of action involved in post-theoretical ethics differs from Cohen.

Cohen, following Kant’s thought, distinguishes sharply between practical and theoretical reason, ethics and the natural order, “is” and “ought.” For Cohen, God’s attributes of action do not belong to the realm of causality, but to that of purpose; they are not grounded in nature, but simply serve as models for human action.

What Cohen keeps apart, the Rav—and here he is, in my view and the view of others, for example, Avi Ravitzky and Dov Schwartz, more faithful to the historical Maimonides—brings together.  For the Rav, the main divine attribute of action is Hesed, God’s abundant lovingkindness, His “practicing beneficence toward one who has no right” to such beneficence. The prime example of Hesed, for Maimonides, is the creation of the world.  This act of creation is both an ethical act, whereby God freely wills the world into existence, and an ontological act, an overflow of divine being, whereby God brings the world into being by thinking it.  However, the Rav goes beyond what Maimonides states explicitly by maintaining that the deepest meaning of God’s Hesed is that he not only confers existence upon the world, but continuously sustains it by including the existence of reality as whole in His order of existence.

4) Is this the basis of Soloveitchik’s claim that Maimonides is a pantheist?

Yes. The Rav denies that Maimonides affirms substantive     pantheism, that is, in terms of substance there are two orders: a finite order, all reality other than God; and an infinite order, God Himself.

But he maintains that Maimonides was an ontological pantheist, inasmuch as God included the existence of reality as whole in His order of existence.  Actually—I did not make this point in my Introduction—I wonder whether the Rav might have done better to refer to Maimonides as a panentheist. Thus the Rav concludes that Maimonides agrees with the seventeenth century French Catholic philosopher, Malebranche that ontically the world exists in God, which is exactly what panentheism (All-in-God) means.

5) Why do you think that Soloveitchik felt it was so important to make this claim of pantheism?

I am not sure, but I believe it is may be motivated by his conception of what true human Hesed is. That is, formally, the Rav begins by articulating Maimonides’ conception of divine Hesed, and then maintains that human Hesed has to imitate and therefore resemble divine Hesed. But I wonder whether the Rav’s thought, in truth, proceeded in the opposite direction, that is, he began with a conception of what true human Hesed is, and then projected that conception back onto divine Hesed.

Anyway, the Rav’s argument is as follows. We can only grasp the divine Hesed and only imitate it through knowing the world in which that Hesed is manifest.  It is in this sense that the highest stage of ethics is post-theoretical, for it is based upon and follows from the knowledge of God attained through the knowledge of the cosmos. To spell this out, since God created and sustains the world through knowing it, when man knows the world, whether through philosophical knowledge or prophetic knowledge, he and God unite together, since they both have the same object—the world– as their object of thought.

More than that—and here the Rav’s interpretation of Maimonides follows that of Solomon Maimon, though, strangely enough, the Rav never cites Maimon in these lectures—in man’s every act of knowledge his finite intellect unites with the infinite divine intellect which constantly and uninterruptedly knows everything. Here, the Rav maintains, we find another type of pantheism in Maimonides, intellectual pantheism, the union of man’s finite intellect with God’s infinite intellect in the act of human knowledge.

But the real point, and, as I said, I think the motivation of all this, is that after this intellectual union with God, man first internalizes the all-embracing divine Hesed, and then imitates that Hesed in the sense that he not only helps and confers benefits upon all who are in need, but, rather, in God-like fashion, he invites them to share in, to participate in his own existence, including them in his own order of being.

Here I would contrast the Rav with Levinas. Hesed, for the Rav, is not extended to the other qua other, as Levinas would have it; but, to the contrary, it is extended to the other because he is not other, because I have made him part of myself, of my own existence. What is truly ethical is not acknowledging the otherness of individuals I interact with, but identifying with them.  And this, to repeat, constitutes the true imitation of God.

So I believe–this is yet another point I did not make in my introduction—that the Rav’s pantheistic or panentheistic reading of Maimonides’ view regarding God’s relationship to the world is motivated by what he perceives as its ethical payoff.

6) Is Soloveitchik, then, claiming that for Maimonides there is no direct knowledge of God?

Indeed, the Rav denies that for Maimonides there can be direct knowledge of God. In this way Maimonides differs, say, from Rav Kook, for whom the highest knowledge of God derives from the soul’s direct love of God as the highest good, a love not mediated through nature. As the Rav clearly says, for Maimonides the only way to know God is through knowledge of the world.

Three times in the lectures the Rav cites Maimonides’ statement in Guide 1:34 that “there is no way to apprehend [God] except through the things He has made.” Similarly, the Rav appears to understand Maimonides’ citing in Guide 3:51 the rabbinic statement that “Ben Zoma is still outside” to mean that Ben Zoma tried to attain direct knowledge of God without intellectually cognizing the universe.  To repeat, it can’t be done.

7) What is the relationship for Maimonides, as Soloveitchik understands it, between philosophical and prophetic knowledge?

For Soloveitchik, as stated earlier, when man knows the world, whether through philosophical knowledge or prophetic knowledge, he and God unite together.

As the Rav’s understands it, Maimonides’ view is that prophetic knowledge builds on philosophical knowledge, that is on the scientific knowledge of the cosmos. Or, as the Rav phrases it, first we have the pre-theoretical normative-halakhic experience, that is, the halakhic experience that precedes knowledge of the cosmos, then the cosmic-intellectual experience, and finally, building on and going beyond that cosmic-intellectual experience, the ecstatic–prophetic experience.

Sometimes the Rav emphasizes the difference between prophetic knowledge and philosophical knowledge, sometimes he blurs the distinction between the two. But there seem to be three features that characterize the ecstatic–prophetic experience as opposed to the cosmic-intellectual experience: intuition, vision, and self-surrender. The key point seems to be that while the cosmic-intellectual experience brings the individual into intellectual contact with God, the ecstatic–prophetic experience brings one into personal contact with God.

The way I understand this—the Rav never states this explicitly—is as follows. God created the world by an act of free will, and, as such, His relationship with the world is a voluntary one, and the connection between Himself and man is an ethical one. But God also created the world by an act of thought, in which case God’s relationship with man is primarily intellectual and ontological.

Ultimately these are two sides of the same coin, for, in Maimonides’ view, God’s will and wisdom are one. Still—again, this is my formulation of the Rav’s view—the philosopher who unites with God solely through the intellect focuses on God’s wisdom, on God as pure intellect, while the prophet who, in addition to uniting with God intellectually, also connects with Him via intuition, vision, and self- surrender, focuses on the personal God, whose creation of the world is a free ethical act.

8) Does Soloveitchik deprecate philosophic thought, at least in comparison to prophetic knowledge?

To an extent. But while the Rav refers to Maimonides’ alleged belief in “the insufficiency of the cosmic-intellectual experience,” nevertheless, in the Rav’s view, Maimonides is firm in affirming that this experience is a necessary stage in arriving at the ecstatic–prophetic experience.  The Rav could not be clearer that for Maimonides there is no bypassing the scientific knowledge of the cosmos.

 9) How would you answer someone who says that this book sets up each problem as goyish philosophy as opposed to Maimonides and that Maimonides is really a halakhic position? Ostensibly, this work rejects both Aristotle and Kant on most issues, leaving Maimonides as unique and as halakhic?
With reference to the Rav’s playing up Maimonides’ differences with Aristotle and (a-chronologically) with Kant, as I and other scholars have noted, one can broadly divide interpreters of Maimonides into two camps: the radicals who minimize the differences between Maimonides and the philosophers (particularly Aristotle), sometimes going so far as to deny that there are any differences; and the traditionalists, who emphasize these differences. The Rav clearly belongs in the traditionalist camp.

Still, though the Rav devotes an entire chapter to contrasting Aristotle and Maimonides, we must not forget that regarding the issue of the necessity for scientific knowledge of the cosmos, and regarding the conception of God as the unity of intellect, the subject of intellection, and the object of intellection the Rav forthrightly acknowledges that Maimonides follows in Aristotle’s wake.

I think that what the Rav objected to most in Aristotle, Plotinus, and
Spinoza was that for them God’s relationship with the world and man is one of necessity. (I am not sure if the Rav is correct about Plotinus, but this is a long story.) They, thereby, negate the possibility of an ethical relationship between God and man, which, as stated above, is possible only if God’s creation of the world was a free and therefore an ethical act. Again we see the ethical motif coming to the fore.  Perhaps in this respect, the Rav reflects the influence of Kant.

10) Is the ecstatic–prophetic experience the same thing for Soloveitchik as revelation? Does he have multiple conceptions of Maimonides’ view of revelation?

Actually, the Rav contrasts the ecstatic-prophetic experience with prophecy and revelation proper, what the Rav refers to as “apocalyptic prophecy.” To cite the lectures: “The Prophetic-Ecstatic experience… is not the apocalyptic moment of prophecy he describes in the latter chapters of Book 2 of the Guide. That moment of prophecy, where God bestows upon man a prophetic revelation, is an act of grace on God’s part. The Prophetic-Ecstatic type of prophecy that Maimonides speaks about in Guide 3:51 can be obtained by all.

In sum, there are two types of prophecy:  The apocalyptic moment of prophecy is granted to the individual by God; the Prophetic-Ecstatic experience is a state of mind.”

Another indication that the ecstatic-prophetic experience is not to be identified with prophecy proper is that sometimes the Rav refers to the ecstatic-prophetic experience as the ecstatic-mystic experience.  This is part of the emphasis in all the Rav’s works not so much on theology, but on human experience, human states of consciousness. Nevertheless, I actually think there is some basis here for the Rav’s distinction in Maimonides’ texts, though it is not so clear and neat as he would have it.

In U-Vikashtem mi-Sham, when the Rav refers to the revelational experience he is referring to “apocalyptic prophecy,” which, for him, is a supernatural phenomenon.So U-Vikashtem and the lectures are operating on two different planes. Actually, I think that, contra the Rav, all prophecy, for Maimonides is natural, but, again, that is a long story. (For Kaplan’s understanding of revelation in Maimonides – see his prior post on Maimonides on Mosaic revelation. )

Still, there may be an important difference between the lectures and U-Vikashtem. In the lectures, where the Rav speaks as an expositor of Maimonides, it is clear that no prophet, not even Moses, can bypass the cosmic-intellectual experience. In U-Vikashtem, where the Rav, though citing Maimonides, speaks in his own name, the revelational religious experience is discontinuous with what he refers to as the rational religious experience.

11) How does this respond to the objection that even if Maimonides did not “sneer at halakhic scholarship,” nevertheless in his view the study of Halakhah, is inferior to the study of the sciences.

The Rav, like a good “Brisker,” a practitioner and devotee of the analytic school of Talmud study, sharply distinguishes between the practical study of Halakhah, study in order to know how to perform the norm properly, and the conceptual and theoretical study of the Halakhah, lomdus. He grants that Maimonides deprecates the significance of the practical study of Halakhah, inasmuch as it belongs to the pre-theoretical, normative-halakhic, stage of religious experience, and, indeed, possesses only the instrumental value of enabling one to perform the commandments properly.

However, he argues that Maimonides would view lomdus, the theoretical study of the Halakhah, if carried out “in conjunction with the cosmic experience (science),” as providing a cosmic-ethical experience parallel to the cosmic-ethical experience attained in the study of the cosmos. Indeed, he claims that when Maimonides in Guide 3:52 states that the knowledge of the de‘ot, “the opinions the Torah teaches us” leads to the love of God,  he is referring not only to theoretical, metaphysical knowledge, but also to the theoretical understanding of the Halakhah.

This claim in my view lacks any textual basis in Maimonides. Still, perhaps the Rav might view his reading of Maimonides as a legitimate “updating” of Maimonides’ position.  Thus, as a number of scholars, including myself, have argued, Maimonides in the Guide appears to suggest, albeit not explicitly, that understanding the reasons for the commandments, that is, the divine wisdom inherent in the commandments, leads to the love of God. The Rav might argue that given that Maimonides’ view of nature was teleological, he viewed the wisdom inherent in the commandments in teleological terms, and thus focused in the Guide on ta‘amei  ha-mitovot, the purpose and aim of the commandments.

However, as the Rav often pointed out, modern science, as a result of the Galilean-Newtonian revolution, no longer views nature as teleological.   Rather the rationality found in nature is that of the abstract quantitative laws that parallel and thus serve to explain the particular, qualitative, natural phenomena. Following from this, the wisdom found in the commandments would not be their purpose, but the abstract legal principles that underlie the particular laws, i.e. lomdus!

But coming back to Maimonides himself, presumably, Maimonides, according to the Rav’s understanding, would not view the lomdus of Rav Hayyim Brisker, the Rav’s grandfather and the founder of the analytic school, as significant, since Rav Hayyim never studied science, and thus should be classified as one of the talmudiyyim, the unphilosophical jurists, to whom Maimonides refers in deprecating fashion in Guide 3:51, but he would approve of the Rav’s lomdus. This obviously is my own extrapolation.

12) How is Soloveitchik’s discussion of the fear of the Lord, (Yirat ha-Shem) original, and how does it goes against what he states elsewhere?

The Rav’s take on the fear of God is, in my view, the most innovative part of the lectures. In U-Vikashtem, the Rav’s discussion of the love and fear of God follows, I would say, a Mishneh Torah model. That is, in the Mishneh Torah, his great code of Jewish Law, Maimonides discusses the love and fear of God, where fear follows love, in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2, and both are necessary. However, in Laws of Repentance 10:3 he only discusses the befitting love of God and does not mention fear. The Rav—questionably, I believe—understands this to mean that the love and fear of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2 refer to a lower form of religious experience, Hidammut, imitation of God, but at the highest level of religious experience, Devekut, cleaving to God, there is only love and no fear, as Maimonides supposedly suggests in Laws of Repentance 10:3.

The Rav’s discussion of the love and fear of God in the lectures follows, I would say, a Guide model—not surprising, since these are lectures on the Guide—and differs from his discussion in U-Vikashtem in three ways. First, as I already noted, in the lectures, according to the Rav’s reading of the Guide, imitation of God does not precede but follows upon Devekut or union with God. Second, in the Guide Maimonides discusses love in Guide 3:51 and fear in 3:52, and in the conclusion of 3:52 he sums up his discussion by speaking first of love, then of fear. As the Rav, correctly I believe, understands it, fear here is the last word, and, unlike the alleged implication from Laws of Repentance 10:3, is indispensable.

The Rav notes that in Guide 3:52 Maimonides links fear with the “actions prescribed by the Law,” or, to use the Rav’s terminology, the mitzvot ma‘asiyyot, by which the Rav seems to have in mind rituals, such as—the example is his—tzitizit (ritual fringes). How is fear connected the “actions prescribed by the Law”? The Rav links Maimonides’ discussion of fear of God in Guide 3:52 with his discussion in the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2. There Maimonides states that while love of God is the drive to know God and unite with Him, in the fear of God the individual becomes aware of his lowliness and immediately “nirta le-ahorav,” recoils backward. Thus fear reopens the gap between God and man that love or union had closed up. In this way—and this is the Rav’s main point— fear fulfills a halakhic function. Via the love of God, via uniting with Him, the individual internalizes the Law. But the danger is that by internalizing the Law the binding force of the norm will fade away. Fear, by reinstating the distance between man and God, “rehabilitates the norm,” the performance of the law on the practical level. That is, only a heteronomous norm, only a norm imposed upon man from the outside retains its force and binding authority. And this, concludes the Rav, is the meaning of the link that Maimonides in the Guide 3:52 establishes between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law.”

Here we come to the third difference between the lectures and U-Vikashtem mi-Sham, and, I would add, Halakhic Man.  In the latter essays the highest religious level that halakhic man or the man of God reaches is precisely the love of God and consequently the autonomous internalization of the laws; but in the lectures internalization must be followed by externalization, autonomy by heteronomy. Of course, in the essays the Rav speaks in his own name; in the lectures as an expositor of Maimonides. Are we to conclude that the Rav’s exposition of Maimonides in these lectures is more “halakhic” and less “philosophic” than the Rav’s own philosophy?

I should add that while this reading of the link in Guide 3:52 between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law” is very ingenious and provocative, it is exceptionally hard to maintain that it is what Maimonides had in mind. The Rav’s attempt to understand Maimonides’ discussion of fear in Guide 3:52 in light of his discussion of fear in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2 fails, in my view, to convince.  For in Guide 3:52 Maimonides sees the fear of God as being connected not with distance from God, as he does in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2, but, to the contrary, with God’s constant presence, with, to use Moshe Halbertal’s phrase, the individual’s sense of constantly being scrutinized by God. How, in fact, then, Maimonides understands the link in Guide 3:52 between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law” remains to be established, but whatever it turns out to be, it is not what the Rav had in mind.

13) You pointed to a number of places where you argued that is it difficult to uphold Soloveitchik’s interpretation as what Maimonides actually meant. Do you think this is true for Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide more generally?

While I think that the Rav’s understanding of the cosmic-intellectual experience in Maimonides, with its focus on the cognition of the cosmos and man uniting with God through the intellect is true to the spirit of Maimonides, I think the way he attempts to broaden and deepen this concept and argue that in the ecstatic-prophetic stage the total individual establishes personal contact with God is a modernizing reading that is much too existentialist for my tastes.

Negatively speaking, the presentation of Maimonides in the lectures differs from more recent interpretations of Maimonides by the almost complete absence in it of any concern for Maimonides’ political thought and, as well, with the almost complete lack of any concern for the hermeneutic aspect of the Guide, for the Guide as a reading of both Scripture and the rabbinic tradition.

This last point is ironic, for the lectures begin with a lengthy analysis of why Maimonides began the Guide with the verse “In the name of God, the Lord of the world” (Gen. 21:33).  In that connection, the Rav very presciently observes that Maimonides “in quoting a verse… casts off philosophic routine and jargon, and we can gain a more intimate glimpse of him. Maimonides’ citations of biblical verses and rabbinic midrashim throw new light on his thought.”  Prof. James Diamond couldn’t have said it better! But, alas, the Rav does not follow up on this insight.

Schlissel Challah and the Relief of Anxiety

This is one of my old-time style posts with rambling freehand observations about the culture around me. By the end of it Schlissel Challah will have connections to presidential elections, Dunkin Donuts, baseball, and right-left Orthodoxy debates.

For those who do not know, in recent years there has been a revival of the folk practice of baking a key into Challah (Schlissel Challah) during the week after Passover as a charm to insure successful livelihood. In short, I will treat the ritual as an act done to relieve the anxiety for making a good livelihood because people are very concerned about paying their bills and making a living especially after the economic downturn.  But, at the same time it is connected to the trend of challah baking parties and contemporary spirituality.  This post is not about the Hasidic community or  those who were doing it thirty years ago. It is only about the progress of the custom in the modern community. The post is a work in progress subject to change and to later be integrated into other posts (comments  via FB).

Malinowski in Teaneck

For more than decade, I have wanted to do an article entitled “Malinowski in Teaneck.” This is just the tip of the iceberg of many related observations on this topic.

Already fifteen years ago, I was taking note of the huge amount of magical acts, healing practices, segulot, and rituals to affect bad situation that took place among the modern Orthodox Jews of Bergen county. Keeping track and documenting of the magical practices was easy through the local community shul list serve, currently at over 14,000 members, where invitations to practices were openly posted.

The famed anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski  (d. 1884-1942) wrote seminal articles in the 1920’s and 1930’s showing that people turn to magic when they are doing everything right but things are still coming out wrong.  For example, when a person did everything right in one’s farming or fishing, but one still had well-placed anxiety about this year’s harvest since life is never certain. One released the tension through magical practices. One did magical practices to ensure a good catch even though you still knew it was based on skill and hard work because life remains fragile and contingent.

My original intention was to post about the magic practices by those in Teaneck stricken by illness. Last decade there was a boom in these new practices. They know they have to go to doctors and specialists, along with second and third medical opinions; they know it depends on modern science and the best procedures. But when that fails they turn to magic to deal with the anxiety about the failure and that they have exhausted all possible means. In addition, in their minds they did everything right religiously, they went to the right gap year programs, they followed the rules for social and professional success-s o they are left the question: why did this happen? The halakhic universe of duty and obligations does not address their anxiety. Telling them it is nonsense or forbidden is beside the point in relieving anxiety and fear. They will just seek the relief elsewhere.

According to Malinowski:

Wherever there are situations of danger or uncertainty, rift between ideals and realities, or human crisis and resulting in anxiety and fear, religion and magic steps in and attempts to resolve, mediate and/or lessen, and provides chart and procedural knowledge to give order and control.

He must admit that neither his knowledge nor his most painstaking efforts are a warranty of success. Something unaccountable usually enters and baffles his anticipations…Man feels that he can do something to wrestle with that mysterious element or force, to help and abet his luck.

There are no peoples however primitive without religion and magic. Nor are there, it must be added at one, any savage races lacking in either the scientific attitude, or in science, though this lack has been frequently attributed to them.

Malinowski wrote that: “Magic therefore, far from being primitive science, is the outgrowth of clear recognition that science has its limits and that a human mind and human skill are at times impotent.”  These practices are non-pseudo- science; people know what they have to do rationally.  Rather, they are means to deal with the frustrations of real life.  Malinowski confirms the Talmud when it says: “Most sailors are pious, He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea,” (Mish. Kid. iv. 14).

Magic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge or in his powers of practical control and yet has to continue in his pursuit. Forsaken by his knowledge, balled by the results of his experience, unable to apply any effective technical skill, he realizes his impotence. Yet his desire grips him only the more strongly. His fears and hopes, his general anxiety, produce state of unstable equilibrium in his organism by which he is driven to some sort of vicarious activity.

Malinowski still acknowledges the rituals of social order and heightened tension but some are the result of psychological anxieties. What he is rejecting it the approaches of E. B. Tylor who developed the evolutionary scheme where people need to be taught to move past their superstitious past based on a lack of knowledge of science and accept the rational world of science.  For Tylor, magic is attempt of bad science cause-effect For Malinowski, magic reduces anxiety and is integrated within proper knowledge of procedures for success, hence it is still part of the life of modern scientific people.

According to Malinowski, the ritual eases stress, mental conflict and possible psychic disintegration. In addition, magic serves not only as an integrative force to the individual but also as an organizing force to society when the stress is collective.

Most practitioners of anxiety magic are middle-class professionals. To take a noticeable case that has been subject to several studies is the great American pastime of baseball . Most baseball players , similar to Talmudic sailors, engage in various magical practices because one can still have bad days despite their training, hard work, and skills.  They engage in many magical rituals to relieve the stress of winning. They are not following Hasidic customs or pagan practices; they are not ignoring their training or thinking that is all they need. Rather, they are attaching their hope and fear onto a practice.

Schlissel Challah and Segulah

Now to the segulah of Schlissel Challah, which is to either bake a key into a challah, or to form the challah in the shape of a key for the first Shabbat after Passover . The key is supposed to allow the opening of the gates of heaven for money and making a living. The custom has early 19th century roots in a custom of the Ukrainian Hasidic Rebbes, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz and Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, popularly known as the Apter Rebbe (d. 1825).  (For the current Ultra-Orthodox debate on the topic, see here.)

In addition, there ae scores of practices involving the connections of the sacredness of the twelve loaves  of show-bread, the manna in the desert and sacred eating go back to Second Temple times and are further developed in Midrash and Zohar. These themes have not been emphasized in recent history.

Segulot are the Jewish magical and folk charm and remedy practices, of which there are thousands.  Some date back to Second Temple times and the tradition of using them continued unabated through two millennium of Jewish life. They collected in large volumes with names like Sefer HaSegulot, Sefer Ha-Refuʾah Ve-HaSegulah, and Sefer haZekhirah. The Talmud advises that Psalm 91 wards off mazikin (evil spirits or demons), the priestly blessing has been seen as having healing powers since antiquity, and there are dozens to help retrieve lost objects, prevent fire, remember Torah, to use as love potions, or ward off wild beasts.

In the early 20th century, the most common practices were to ensure a successful pregnancy, to ward off small pox, and to prevent croup, crib death, and other dangers to infants.  Every child’s room had a talisman to ward off childhood illness. With the rise of modern medicine they receeded from common practice.   But the practices returned in the twenty first century.  Much of it is due to the loss of faith in progress and science conquering all. A current sociologist notes that there has been more magic in the West in the last 35 years than the entire 200 years prior in the age of Enlightenment


So why Schlissel Challah?

Shaping challah into seasonal shapes was a regular family practice in the old county as part of weekly baking. Ukrainian Jews shaped the challah before Yom Kippur in the image of birds for an ascent and that sins should fly away, they shaped them into a hand for Hoshanah Rabbah for our fate to be sealed, a key for Iyyar in that the manna stopped falling, and a ladder for Shavuot for a ladder to heaven (and sulam numerically equals Sinai).

Of all the varied traditions of baking, only the custom of the challah in the shape of the key returned about 12 years ago as a quaint custom but caught on about five years ago. It became widespread 2011-2012 and continues to be mainstreamed.  Of all the various Challah customs, this one was specially chosen and the others ignored because of the anxiety about making a living.

All of the well-rehearsed discussions of the high cost of Orthodox living show the anxiety about making a living, This ritual acknowledges the very unspoken knowledge of people unemployed or underemployed or have lost their homes.There is a real anxiety about making a living even among those with good jobs. The Presidential primaries have certainly shown a mass popular anxiety about economics.

I must point out that this is not a general turn to Hasidic customs. People are not picking up the very traditional and pious ritual practice of celebrating the seventh day of Passover as a holiday of God’s power, despite the hundreds of sources nor are dozens of other post-passover segulot.

Challah and Home

But why choose Challah? The contemporary books of segulot list many practices to insure a livelihood and most of them can also be given Hasidic approbation.

Segulot for making a living include sharpening knives for the Sabbath, buying a new knife for Rosh Hashanah, putting Havdalah wine into one’s pockets, letting Havdalah wine overflow in abundance, and not to throw out any bread. The table and Rosh Hashanah are the locations where the anxiety places itself out.

The most famous practice as quoted in the Shulchan Aruch is to say with intention the section on the giving of the manna every day after prayers, a practice fallen in observance.

Rather, we pick something home based and originally gendered as a woman’s activity. The anthropologist Tamar El-Or in an article  “A Temple in Your Kitchen” notes the treating of the separation of challah at home as a Temple service, as a special new collective ritual activity beyond just the need to make weekly bread

She argues that there is currently an inversion in the categories associated with the Temple sacrifice: “The placement of the Temple and the kitchen side by side in the public hafrashat hallah ceremony challenges the division between the public and the private, between male and female…” The Biblical commandment of sacrifice meant to be carried out in the public space of the Temple, moves into the home. “Instead of a private act accomplished by each woman inside her house, the ceremony offers a public spiritual event.”

The renaissance of hafrashat hallah is an “event.” A halakhic practice… has been refashioned to suit contemporary audiences. It has become a celebration of womanhood, an opportunity to shop, to pray, and to learn new recipes. The mass hafrashat hallah ceremonies are policing entertainments, fun targeted toward education and discipline, and a good traded in a bustling and competitive spiritual market. These ceremonies mark a gendered old-new realm of action and a creative initiative within the teshuvah industry.

In the busy schedule of America, this is a chance to create a home ritual in the context of the recent return to cooking and being a foodie. The baking of shlissel challah is an artisanal endeavor and part of the new custom of the large challah-baking events, which I see as a related phenomenon). Far fewer people bake or cook consistently compared to a half a century ago but they like episodic cooking and baking. The bread is not baked out of necessity rather a sense of do it yourself.

This leads to the ritual being picked up on Kosher cooking and Jewish family interests blogs  even for a wider Jewish audience who do not have the anxieties. It becomes a once a year nice Jewish home activity. The internet has played a tremendous role in the rapid spread of this custom in the wider community, which in turn normalizes the activity.

Some make claims that this is a return of chassdic custom but as stated above they made special challot many times in the year since they had to bake every week. And there are thousands of other chassidc customs that modern orthodoxy is ignoring.  I even have found several who say this is a way to reconnect to almost world of Europe in that it cannot be a “coincidence that Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day, falls around the time of the shlissel challah.”  They are using the Chassidc label to create an aura of authenticity to a do- it-yourself artisan activity.

The custom also points to the role of women in needing to generate income and take on the struggles of the family.


There is another element -the new found binary relationship between Chometz and Passover. A clear demarcation of donut and matzah.

In our age of Passover plenty and also weekly plenty, few are looking forward to the Passover treats. Rather we like our routines.  No, I should say that we love our routines. There is a new widespread folk ritual in local modern Orthodoxy of specifically going to Dunkin Donuts for one last Coolatta  and donut, or to the bagel store for one last everything bagel with a smear. You see the new Jewish ritual of waiting in the long lines at Dunkin Donuts, then- because one would not go home to a clean home –sitting with the little kids on the curb in a strip mall or walking in circles around the block as one eats one’s last leaven bread.

On the other side of the holiday,  the transition back to normal life after Passover  is an anticlimax and involves a great deal of work in returning the house to the normal non-Passover dishes. People need a transitional ritual of a return to leavened bread and what could be a better practice than baking challah.

Most busy people ran back to work and had little sense of closure so challah is a treat after two weeks without fresh bread.


I received this week from two rabbis statements of the meaning of the ritual for their congregants in both cases the message is connecting to God.

The first one addressed the critics of the ritual and the second one made a spiritual case for it.  “I think if you are the kind of Jew who thinks – ‘what does working have to do with earning a living, G-d will provide, especially if I do shisel chalah?’ – then they you should NOT do it. But if you are the kind of Jew who thinks ‘What does God have to do with earning a living, I have a great job?’ then you should do it!”

The second one said the purpose was  spiritual engagement . One takes something mundane and elevates  it to a higher level. The Biblical, Rabbinic and Hasidic sources connecting  this challah making to a form of self-sufficiency and helping others as part of a community. The key message is how to improve our connection with the HaKadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One Blessed be He)and use this as a moment to be spiritually engaged.

The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah teaches us that on Pesach we are judged on how much grain we will have for the coming year. The Apter Rebbe connects this to the Shabbos after Pesach to wit baking the challah in the sharp of a key. When Israel finally arrived in the land  after Pesach the manna stopped and they ate from the produce of the land. It was at that point that they had to make their own food . So the Apter Rebbe said now they had to move from passivity and complete reliance on Hashem to actually being productive with the ability to create things and support things and move towards self-sufficiency. Parnassa then means taking the wheat and making the bread-taking what G d gives us and then in partnership building on that.

The Forward posted a nice piece on the topic similar to the second rabbi based on the need for self-sufficiency. It concluded:

The movement from manna to bread, the movement from Egypt to Israel and the movement from Passover to Shavuot are all linked through the commitment to human activity. I’m putting a key on my challah this Shabbat to remind myself of that moment, that first communal moment where we stopped waiting for bread to fall from the skies and started making it ourselves — and perhaps to remind myself that the keys to those gates may be in my hands.

Another homily was found on the Aish HaTorah website in the name of Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller. It should be noted that during her long and successful career she contributed to making many long forgotten midrashim,  wild aggadah, and kabbalistic legends into mainstream Torah. She makes ordinary activities fraught with spiritual meaning.  The reader should notice in this excerpt of a long article how she moves from the universal to the feminine and then to why this is not idolatry.

Everything is in its essence holy, kodesh, and always will be. God gives us permission to use His world for a “mundane, chol” purpose, under one condition: that we preserve its holy essence…”Ordinary” life has a holy source, and it is our responsibility to use it well. This is especially true in regard to bread. Nothing is more “ordinary” than eating. Yet on an intuitive level we can connect to the mystic energy of the earth itself while making bread, in its feel and texture. It is meant to touch us deeply, and halacha (literally, “the way to walk”) tells us how use its power well.

Humans, as a combination of body and soul, flour and water, are like a dough.

The Shlah explains that everything we observe in this world has a spiritual parallel…  The Torah is telling us that while bread alone may sustain the body, it is the word of God — concealed within the physical properties of the bread — that sustains one’s soul. And separating challah initiates this process of spiritual nurture.

It is instructive to note that in the biblical text (Numbers ch. 15), the mitzvah of challah is juxtaposed to the laws prohibiting idol worship. What possible connection exists between uplifting bread and polytheism? The nature of idol worship is to see the Creator as being removed from His creations… By taking challah, we are saying that God is here! He is the source of our souls, bodies, and the forces that sustain them. He is One, and nothing is separate from His transcendental unity.

Our matriarch Sarah achieved this level in her own lifetime. The Talmud tells us that her bread stayed fresh from Friday to Friday. The life force that she was able to identify — the Shechinah presence of God — did not depart. In her role as matriarch, Sarah laid the foundations for the future of every Jewish woman’s spiritual journey. God allowed her to experience a miracle week after week — leaving an indelible imprint not just on her, but on each of her future descendants.

In the last few days there have been posts from Reconstructionist rabbis and new age-Chabad rabbis and cooking blogs all giving spiritual and symbolic interpretations of the new practice.

The Best of Physicians is destined for Gehenna

The same Talmudic passage above the piety of sailors (and baseball players) continues by decrying  that “the best of physicians is destined for Gehenna.” Why? The most common answer is because they see their lives as not dependent on God. They trust their skill and personal talents to solve problems without seeing anything higher.

The public face of Modern Orthodoxy is very professional and ordered -trusting in its skill as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and IT personal to solve problems.  Their religion is very self-sufficient and not magical. But how does this play in an era of spirituality and placing greater emphasis on the spiritual self over the organizational?

Ordinary people, for whom the anxieties of life are the traditional concerns of “children, health, and livelihood” still turn to divine help. They need something to relate to their fears and hopes against a backdrop of the age of spirituality. For them the magic and supernatural and the possibility of faith remains a concern. For many, if not most, ordinary people, religion is about having God in their lives life.

As a side observation, last decade there was a local synagogue based drive for better prayer  leading to the distribution of an Orthodox book that said that the way to pray is to ask for all your personal needs to God: health, children, job stress, cooking stress, laundry stress, computer problems, burnt food.  It had follow-up by speakers teaching the same points. One turns to in order to solve daily problems. In a ritualized world, it was inevitable to generate ritual. This was one of the many moments of the last decade that laid the groundwork for seeing God in one’s daily problems.

It is interesting to note that members of both the right and left of the Orthodoxy world unite in having written articles condemning the practice as superstition  For them, their deep anxiety is over the boundaries and purity of Orthodox. The left is anxious  about the perceived right wing distortion of Orthodoxy and the right is worried about the left wing distortion of Orthodoxy. For both of them, the practice of turning to God does not relate to their concern for the future of Orthodoxy.  And for both of them it does taint their rational visions of a legal centered Orthodoxy that keeps direct experience of God out of their lives.

The critics mistakenly think  that the performer of segulot is practicing bad science and superstition in the nineteenth century patronizing way of telling the natives that their practices were just bad science. It also similar to the 19th century works ascribing Jewish rituals such as dietary laws to bad science.

The same 19th century anthropologists such as Tylor and Frazer cited to show the cross-cultural phenomena of such practices also showed the pagan superstitious totemistic sources of tefillin, shofar, and four species. Many books of the early twentieth century use these arguments to show that all Jewish ritual is just pagan. The current Orthodox critics are selectively using sources that undercut the very roots of any observance.  There are magical aspects to spilling drops of wine at the seder and many other practices.

The critics think that the person baking a key in the challah needs to be demeaned by being told that if they want a job they should learn to polish their resume or get job training. They are oblivious to the need for the relief of anxieties of making enough of a livelihood done in a spiritual content.

But more importantly, every modern Orthodoxy article and sermon viewed it as a holiday of self-sufficiency or as only symbolic. They are not using it as magic, just a nice shape of challah. The critics are projecting magical thinking onto others when those who do it only treat it as a symbol, and even a symbol of self-sufficiency.

In addition, many of the critics have a clear sense of mansplaning against gendered women’s challah practices and practices outside of communal synagogue life.

In the end, I do not think one needs to accept all the functionalism of Malinowski and almost no one takes it as primitive science the ways the critics portray it. All we have is a ritual of challah baking, new women’s customs, and using the mundane a a way to turn to God, nice for families, and a special event of challah after Passover done in an age of anxiety.

h/t and deep thank you to all those who responded to my FB call as I was writing this Thursday night.