Interview with Elchanan Shilo

Think of the many blogs of the last decade in which an Orthodox person publicly documented his or her loss of faith in Orthodox dogmas and the equally large number of blogs in which people questioned the halakhah. In many of these discussions, the people discussing theology had never read Spinoza, Hobbs, or Hume and without any sense that philosophers disproved the theistic arguments centuries ago or of the corrosive to religion naturalism of the Enlightenment or modernity.. They also argued without any knowledge of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, or modern Jewish philosophy, or any history of Jewish thought.

Elchanan Shilo has a PhD and was trained in Jewish thought, Kabbalah, and Jewish literature, as well as having attended Yeshivat Har Etzion. His first book was The Kabbalah in the works of S. Y. Agnon [Hebrew] (2011) and he has written on Lithuanian Mitnagged Kabbalah, with articles on Rabbi Isaac Haver and Rav Kook. He put out a volume called Yahadut Kiyumit  (May, 2017) [Heb.] a Judaism of Existence, that we can live by. In this book, he tackles all the perennial issues discussed on the blogs. but with PhD.

(The official translation is Existential Judaism, but he uses the word the way Netanyahu uses the word when he says Iran is an Existential threat, meaning directly connected to  existence, not as influence by Camus or Sartre.)

In the volume, we see his loss of faith in Orthodox doctrine and his loss of faith in Orthodox halakhah as well as his attempt to create a new Jewish movement, the same issues as all those American Bloggers, but with a PhD.

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I blogged about Elchanan Shilo’s ideas already seven years ago, when he proposed having a continuous Judaism between religious and secular, in which everyone could work together as part of one community. A noble idea in an age of polarization. That is still a good part of the book.  His article elicited a full response from Rav Dovid Bigman of Yeshivat Maaleh Gilboa.

In his recent book Yahadut Kiyumit, he collects his thoughts and newspaper articles of the last few years into a single volume. The book has been widely received in the Relgious Zionist world included a positive review by Prof. Ron Margolin of Tel Aviv University as well as by Hagai Hoffer.   Here is an hour long youtube interview he did last month about his book. 

The book has two parts. The first part contains his articles about faith from the newspaper in which he moves from his Religious Zionist position to the acceptance of Biblical criticism and the human elements in the Bible, the keeping of mizvot without believing they are commanded by God and a denial of providence because of the Holocaust. Needless to say, he was fired from the religious school (ulpnana) in which he taught becuase of these non-Orthodox ideas. He also rejected the authority of the halakhah because of it attitude toward modern life, legalism, and oppressive laws of personals status. In its place he wants the keeping of Judaism as a voluntary practice, each person taking as they see fit.

Unlike the American bloggers who either leave the fold or want to remain “Orthoprax” (their own self-defining neologism) of full observance despite not believing, Shilo seeks to also reject halakhah. He wants a full spectrum traditionalism without law or belief. Shilo does, however, like Jewish ethno-nationalism.  In many ways, his book has much in common with Yoav Sorek’s The Israeli Covenant (Hebrew), but this book is more about the impossibility of maintaining faith, than a new nationalism. I did not find myself concurring or consenting with the first part of the book. I found it distancing and derivative.

The second part of the book, however, is a contradictory collection of ideas that were quite interesting. They are his personal reflections which he compares to Rav Kook pensées, but to me seems like all so many blog posts or Facebook statuses. They are clearly the best part of the book.  They are all designed to elicit response. If you saw them on Facebook, and you were interested in the topics you would likely be compelled to respond, to amplify, or to reject his thoughts. Here are some selections to give you a taste. Any thoughts on these?

The rhetoric of the using the word “avodah zara” (idolatry) for all sorts of modern phenomena and for other religions is demagoguery and the whole way one can laugh along. Isaiah Leibowitz used this phrase often but one can claim that Leibowitz himself is idolatrous because he does not worship God, rather the halakhah.” (165)

Rav Shagar discusses the Hardal position on women. He says that the negation of the values of modernity is denial of the self…He gives the appearance of being torn. I say “appears” because being broken and including both sides can only exist in the realm of thought.  In the practical realm, one needs to decide and Rav Shagar already decided. He decided against modern values and for the halakhah when there is a conflict between them. He prays in synagogues that exclude women. (162)

[…] Rav Kook’s Kabbalah remained in isolation and its students remained “Lonely men of secrets” but to the outside world he appeared as if the wellsprings burst forth. (188)

Combining the study of Bible in a religious university (Bar Ilan) with liberal a Yeshivat Hesder education, brings on the positive side– aspects of scholarly analysis and critique of things without historicity, on the negative side it brings blindness to the theological aspects of scholarly study. They bring sublime pilpulim to justify the traditional positions and present scholarship as lacking logic. (142)

Dividing society based on praxis – who goes to the beach on Shabbat and who goes to synagogue, or those who do both- is shallow and does not say anything about ones inner life. (144)

The 21st century practice of liberal [Religious Zionist women] to cover their hair symbolically- for example with a bow-has a symbolic function of status similar to a wedding ring, rather than actually covering the hair. (149)

The request of Rav Bigman for the simple Jew to sit and wait for “a new generation of rabbis” more than it changes reality, silences it. The redemption of the people and the return to the land did not come from people who waited. Rather it came from people of action who broke through what was accepted in their time. So too in the halakhic plane, a simple person has to work below without waiting for miracles from above. (154)

What appears in my eyes as God appears to another person as Satan. The God who commanded to kill the one who chopped wood (Numbers 15) is not God in my eyes, rather Satan…. From an external perspective it seems that people who pray together are all worshiping one God, in practice they are all worshiping their own God. What one calls God, the other calls Satan. (178)

I have found many Haredim and Baalei Teshuva, but I have not even one percent as many of those who seek the truth. This is proved by the small number of students in University Bible departments. The number is negligible compared to the  multitude who seek yeshivot. (175)

I want to propose a less radical solution to the conversion problem [in israel] that does not require a conceptual change from the accepted methods of conversion. This solution was told to me by my father Z”L who heard it from Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, afterwards I head it directly from him.

Since infants have no data (awareness), their conversion does not require the acceptance of mizvot, just mikvah and circumcision. Therefore, we need to build permanent mikvaot in courts and hospitals. After every child is born to a couple considered an “Other” in their identity papers, we should do this process. The Rabbinic judge should immerse the child in front of the mother before they leave the hospital, and be registered as a Jew. If it is a male, the parent will also be obligated to circumcise him. This way we solve the problem of conversion… I want to return to the halakhah. The Rambam wrote, pace the Talmud, “We immerse a minor who seeks to convert based upon the guidance of the court. For it is an advantage for a person [to convert]. (Forbidden Relationships 13:7) (189)

Shilo sees his book as a manifesto and his ideas as the start of a new movement. However, I see his book as part of a bigger trend of Israeli traditionalism. I could give an entire course, or create a reader placing Shilo’s book on the shelf with a number of similar works including: Yoav Sorek’s nationalist vision that is conservative socially but religious liberal with Meir Buzaglo’s defense of the Sephardi mesorati position, with Dov Elbaum’s presentation of the tradition for those outside, the studies of mesorati Jews by Yaacov Yadgar, and with Tomer Persico’s religion and spirituality for those coming from the secular perspective.

Yet, Shilo’s thought in the first part of the book most reminds me of the liberal Conservative Mordecai Kaplan influenced authors of the 1940’s and 1950’s- Jacob Agus, Ira Eisenstein, and Milton Steinberg, with an emphasis on peoplehood over dogma or halakhah. There were many articles in the Reconstructionist journal, in its prime, about commandments without a commander. Or see the Israel educator, Mordechai Bar-On, “The Commandments and the Commander” (Reconstructionist, 1977).

I did not find myself in much agreement with Shilo, but his book reflects the debates in Israel today and it is important to note that his book is reviewed within the Religious Zionist world. It is an enjoyable quick read and worth reading, However, while covering similar ground it is not a classic like Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, rather editorials and blog posts.

1)   What is the story of your book

In the second half of the 1990s, I began to write aphorisms – fragments of thoughts, similar to the style of Rabbi Kook, Pascal and Nietzsche. At that time, I considered naming my book: “The Song of Thoughts”.

At the same time, there were parallel processes developing in society such as plans for the establishment of joint religious-secular pre-military preparatory programs.

When I began to write, I felt as if I am a voice calling in the desert. When I finished my writings, I found myself in a new social movement, Called “Israeli-Judaism,” which includes pluralistic Batei Midrash, and pre-military religious-secular preparatory programs, see in this link:http://www.panim.org.il/en/organizations

For many years I was worried that publishing my thoughts could harm my relationship with my workplaces. And that’s exactly what happened. Two days after the publication of my article on Biblical criticism, (“Divine revelation in human text” Makor Rishon 6/19/2009), which edited some of my aphorisms related to this subject into an article; I was notified by telephone that my work at Orot College (a religious college) had ended.  At the Nezer David Institute, that publish the Nazir writings, (a disciple of Rabbi Kook), my work was stopped when I finished publishing the Nazir’s commentary on a book attributed to the Ramhal book Kalach Pitchei Hokhmah. I was told that only if I retracted what I had written in Makor Rishon, I could continue my work. I could not acquiesce to their offer. since I could not go back to Orthodox dogma even if I wanted to.

Volition does not bring belief.  Belief is outside of freewill- Shadal in the name of Crescas Or Hashem 2:5:2. Many people want to believe, but cannot. (Site editor’s note Cardinal Newman says the opposite, that belief is entirely volitional.

The burning of the bridges with these Orthodox institutions liberated me to write what I had in my heart. After that, continuing for six years, from the beginning of 2009 until the end of 2014, I published some more articles in Makor Rishon. This ended when I submitted the article “The Question of Evil and the Ability to Believe” (the fifth chapter in my book). It was not accepted, since the paper was bought by Sheldon Adelson, and he made the editorial position of the paper more conservative. This is the point I moved to the next step, preparing my articles in a book form.

2) Why did you create the book in two parts, a regular book and then aporhism Resesei Mahshavot? The first part 120 pages and the second 80 pages.

My meditations are like poetry raising ideas from different points of view. It is not always possible to unify all points of view that I present within my chapters. My reflections contain complexity, in which the resolution cannot always be ascertained at first glance. For example, regarding the subject of abortions, in my aphorism. I wanted to show that despite my liberal views, I am not captive by the liberal discourse, and can criticize it.

There are short passages that belong to some of the chapters, but reflect a point of view that I have once experienced, but not anymore. Another example: when I become aware of internal contradictions in some of the miracles in the Bible, I wrote it under the heading “Epicurus (Heretic) against his will”. “I really want to believe that miracles are possible, that there is truth in the miracles recounted in the Bible, that there is justice in the world, and that God intervenes in the world and changes the laws of nature when he wants, but these desires break on the rock of reality.” I discussed these issues in the main chapter. Yet, it is important to show that there was a genuine search for truth and I did not mark the goal in advance, it was forced upon me.

The inability of Orthodoxy to provide a real and not apologetic answer to the proofs of biblical criticism, compelled me to abandon the traditional position with which I began to explore the topic, with a surplus of self-confidence in the justice of its path. I then adopted the historio-critical perspective on the Torah, as a text written by many authors, written hundreds of years after the events described in it.

When I submitted the book to the publishing house, I placed my short thoughts at the end of each chapter, but the editors did not like the leap from genre to genre, and this is the reason why all the short thoughts are in one section and all chapters in another one. Every decision has pros and cons. There were people who like the short thoughts, which sometimes are thought-provoking and suitable for study groups. ( In the review of my book by Prof. Ron Margolin in Makor Rishon, (4/10/17, “Saving the faith from itself”) more quotes were taken from the second part than from the first part.

 3) What does it mean to create a continuity between halakhah and secularity?

This means that instead of a society divided into sectors of religious and secular, there should be a continuous Jewish society ranging from secular to religious. In which each individual can find his own place according to where he comes from and according to the root of his soul.

The philosophical basis has two assumptions (1) The Jewish way of life today derives from a process of human development and creativity throughout the generations, and therefore it is not absolute. Not every person at any time and place can fit to this lifestyle. The awareness that this is a human development leads to the conclusion that seeing the observance of the commandments as a divine command is fiction. The meaning of the Mitzvot must be constructed from the content itself, and not from a belief in God who commands them. 2) There are different types of people. Some people are religiously inclined and for some people the religious world is alien to them. In the middle, there are people who are partially suited to a Jewish lifestyle. They feel it intuitively, but they lack a philosophical basis, and that’s what I’m trying to do with my book. To present a model that is softer than the halakhic model, and to show the meaning it contains.

4)      How are you different from  Israeli mesorati or the Israeli Reform movement?

Judaism of Existence” (Kiyumit) suggests double states of consciousness, religious and secular. For example: entering into a state of religious consciousness while praying and entering an atheistic state of consciousness while facing evil. This is even more left than what the Reform movement that see itself as a religious movement that believes in God.

In terms of the everyday life, the model of Sabbath observance, of using electricity in certain need or distress, is practically close to the Orthodox model, and differs from the characteristics of the Reform Sabbath, which is a model of a “secular Shabbat” + prayer, lighting the candles and Kiddush.

With regard to kashrut, non-eating some non-kosher animals takes on significance because it identifies with the moral ideal of vegetarianism. Since it is morally problematic to eat animals, reducing the types of meat to a small number of animals is an intermediate state between the celebration of flesh and vegetarianism. This form of keeping kosher is a softer model than the halakhic model, which forbids eating from vessels that are cooked with unkosher flesh.

Most of the traditional Jews in Israel do not experience a crisis between traditional beliefs and their modern world. Their perceptions of religion are Orthodox, but their lifestyle is different. Traditional existence is a will to continue the legacy of our Fathers, whereas for the Jew of Existence (Kiyumi) this is not enough. He must identify with the content itself. The difference is not limited to a certain lifestyle – like another model of Shabbat, but also to matters such as kashrut, in which the Jew of Existence will be similar to the traditional Jew, but In terms of his inner world, his consciousness, will be completely different.

5)   What is the weakness of Neemanei Torah veAvodah?

The weakness of the liberal wing within religious Zionism is that it is still bound within the halakhah, which often reflects an ultra-Orthodox world view.

To use sexuality as an example. Why does the liberal Religious Zionist complain about the need for separation between boys and girls in order to prevent halakhic prohibitions of “transgressions”? Halakha, and the ultra-Orthodox society, sees a sin in every erotic expression that is outside of the framework of married life, and calls it yetzer hara (evil inclination). Halakha forbids all forms of art that contain erotic elements, or alternatively, a touch of affection or even a touch without affection, between men and women. The liberal national religious are in conflict, between their modern conception of sexuality and their commitment to halakhah.

Another example, attitude toward general culture. Liberal Religious Zionist see the figure of a rabbi who has a broad general education, but according to the Shulchan Aruch, “it is permitted to study by random external wisdom, only so long as there are no species books of heresy (Yoreh Deah, 247,4). That is why the Liberal Religious Zionist is inferior to the more conservative parts of religious Zionism.

The liberal religious parents will have to submit to these stricter decisions because of their commitment to halakhah. What I am trying to do is to liberate the liberal religious from their commitment to halakha, so that they can present their positions without having to apologize. If my book convinces them to abandon their commitment to halakhah, they can feel comfortable standing up for their positions.

6)      How can you have mizvot without a commander?

The question is not how to perform mitzvot without a commander, rather  how do people continue to deceive themselves, and to identify with a way of life that has been developed by ordinary people over thousands of years into a divine command. In addition, the model of man as subordinate to God, is contrary to the consciousness of the modern free man.

The observance of mitzvot without a commander stems from a will to continue the Jewish culture and national heritage that is a part of you. My starting point is the will to connect to the practical level of observance, and I turn only to those who are interested in it and try to give it a philosophical foundation. I am aware that a large part of the secular population is not interested in this, and therefore my vision is to create a continuous Jewishness, between halakhah and secularism.

7) What is your view of revelation as from heaven but creating a human text?

There are two questions. 1) The emergence of the texts. 2) Dealing with immoral things written in the Torah.

The ignorance or apologetics of the Orthodox in dealing with biblical criticism, and the failures of it which I show in my book, creates a softening that enables us to deal with moral questions as well. The strict faith in “Torah from Heaven” is crumbling, which also create moral damages, such as the prohibition of homosexuality, which causes a life of suffering for homosexual religious people. Some of them remain in loneliness and do not have sex, because they think that God dictated this commandment to Moses.

The dissolution of the traditional concept enables a softer conception of God’s revelation. The groundbreaking moral concepts and ideas that we find in the Bible can be seen as ideas inspired by God. As opposed to other content, which is human, especially when it has negative aspects.

8) How should we view God in the new age?

The awareness that all the perceptions of divinity over the ages are human ways to perceive what is beyond all perception, brings to choose one of many perceptions, one that is best suited to the modern era, and to give it dominance. The concept of mystical divinity, as developed by Rabbi Kook, is the most appropriate because the divinity is not a personal God that commands, but as all of reality perceived as divine abundance. In this perception, the rupture between the holy and the secular consolidates and unites, and the secular values ​​become an expression of divine abundance.

9) You seem like another datlash (formerly observant) who does not believe anymore and does not accept all of halakhah anymore? Lots of Israelis are like that.

You can call me a “former Orthodox,” but my attempt to connect to the  world of prayer and to softer model of Shabbat, which is close to the Orthodox Sabbath, distinguishes me from the datlash, whose religiosity is a thing of the past, a “former religious.” I am not only a person who has lost the innocent faith, and then would become a secular Jew. I am a person who in addition to the loss of his innocent faith tries to build and to connect to tradition from a new point of view, which will enable me to maintaining important and essential parts of the Jewish tradition, and to make them meaningful and relevant.

10) You seem very similar to the American liberal movements such as Conservative or Reconstructionist?

The Conservative Movement sees itself as halakhic, whereas “existential (kiyumi) Judaism” is not halachically obligated and I observe the commandments according to my ability to connect to their content.

One of the major innovations of my book is breaking the division between religious thinkers and secular thinkers such as Brenner, in whose world God does not exist. And at the same time still working with Heschel, Soloveitchik and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who deal with different types of a believer.

I present a new position between them, which places the ontological issue of God’s existence in brackets (on the side), and focuses on the subjective experience. My goal is not to deny our various emotions and to allow the possibility of entering a state of consciousness of faith in the living God when you pray or celebrate Independence Day the ingathering of the exiles to the Land of Israel. At the same time, to be able to enter an atheistic state of consciousness when facing the blindness of evil and death, such as earthquakes.

11) Are you just a liberal form of Yoav Sorek?

You are not the first person to similarities in our visions. Nevertheless, we have many differences. I would like to accentuate three of them: )1) Sorek speaks of a discourse of commitment to halakhah, even if it is a “soft” halakhah. Whereas “existential (kiyumi) Judaism” is not halachically obligated and observes the commandments according to the ability to connect to their contents. (2) His thought gives no room for total secularism and atheism, which will continue to be part of the mosaic within the various possibilities it offers. (3) In addition, I claim that on many  values ​​of Western-modern culture which are against traditional Jewish values, the Jewish values should be rejected. In many cases, we should accept Western-modern culture over Jewish values.

12) You claim to be a new movement. But, you do not have an organization, money, institution, speakers? If so, how are you a new movement?

In one of the letters that  I received from one of my readers, I was asked: “Do you intend to establish a stream/Beit Midrash/party?, I would be happy to be a partner and hear more.” Since there is no such stream, I leave things in the open deliberately, and write about it only in one of the inner pages of the second part of the book: “If there are enough people who identify with the idea of ​​existential Judaism, a website will be set up, and if it is joined by people with economic capabilities, a Beit Midrash or pre-military academy will be established in the spirit of these ideas. I am  aware that a movement will not be established without it.

The vision of establishing a movement or institution in the spirit of the ideas of this book is a dream that will probably not materialize, but maybe in another twenty years or in another generation it will arise, who knows?

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