Author Archives: Alan Brill

Interview with James Kugel – The Great Shift

Why do we not see God anymore? Why does He not walk around our neighborhoods the way He did in the Bible? Why do Biblical figures not ask what the law should be? James Kugel seeks to answer these questions in his new book The Great Shift, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2017). 

great shift

In graduate school, instructors spoke often spoke of the Axial Age shift (approximately  8th-6th century BCE, but sometime stretched out from the 8th-3rd BCE), a term first coined by Karl Jaspers in 1949.  The Axial Age was when ancient consciousness of eternal religion gave way to a new consciousness based on an internal self. For Jaspers, the sacrifice of Leviticus gave way to the prophetic call,  the sacrifices of the Vedas became the theology of the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhism, and when Confucius and Zoroaster arose.  It also includes the shift between the many gods of the Greeks to philosophic Platonism.

In the classes I attended, the theory was mentioned to explain the shift between the Biblical descents of God to humanity as opposed to the visionary ascents of heikhalot. The Midrash itself senses the changes when it asks: What should the sinner do? And portrays Leviticus saying to offer a sacrifice and the rabbis saying to repent. Interestingly enough, the 19th century Hasidic thinker Reb Zadok Hakohen of Lubin has a version of it when he notes the change from Biblical religion to Rabbinic religion parallels the shift from ancient pagans to the philosophers of Greek, with the Torah responding correspondingly. (zeh leumat zeh). However, Jasper’s theory is, at best, only a heuristic tool since the theory is somewhat of a shaggy beast in that it does not have clear dates or causality.

James Kugel in the exciting new book The Great Shift discusses a great change, similar to the Axial Age theory, between the era when God walked with people and the era when he no longer did. Kugel quotes the Catholic author Flannery O’Connor “I do not know You, God because I am in the way. Please help me push myself aside.” For Kugel, our modern selves get in the way of our knowing God and, more importantly for this book, understanding the Bible. Biblical people had very different semi-permeable senses of self, different than the modern self, that allowed a direct experience of God. This is the thesis of the book. But conversely, our modern sense of the self causes us to misread the Bible as if it shared modern concepts of the self.

Accepting this shift, Biblical religion was entirely an external affair. Biblical figures do not have internal soliloquies debating whether to follow God. Obedience to God, love of God, and rejoicing before God are all physical and external activities of obedience. The classic work  Mimesis by Erich Auerbach is, therefore, incorrect about the Bible. The Biblical narrative is not fraught with background waiting to be fleshed out by the reader. The early reader did not expect such a background. Rather, it did not play any role.Abraham and Homer’s protagonists have a common worldview.  In addition, the modern concept of faith does not play a role since God is part of one’s cosmology.

In other later parts of the Bible,  Kugel shows that God has changed into a long range planner of human destiny so on-the-spot intervention by the Divine is unnecessary. The future has already been planned and determined. There is also a shift from monolatry the worship of a single God while not denying the existence, and efficacy, of other deities toward monotheism. There is also a shift toward following a fixed law as a means of obedience to God.

During the Second Temple era, conversing with God gave way to the presence of angels and demons, and then in later centuries even the divine messengers stopped. (Reb Zadok also notes this shift).

This is the fourth time Prof Kugel has graced this blog. The best and longest was the third time, a precis of his book  The Kingly Sanctuary (2014).  For those interested in the larger vision of James Kugel then read the first interview followed by the second. (For those, who want a window into contemporary Protestant Biblical criticism, I refer back to my interview with David Carr.)

Kugel leaves us with a deep divide between the world of the 21st century religious  reader of the Bible and the world of the Bible. At the end of this interview, Kugel acknowledges that this  approach is not for the pulpit or day school. Our current understandings are discontinuous with the Bible in context. Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic apologetic  is quoted a second time in the book as a way of rejecting 20th century literary readings of the Ancient Near East that made the Bible inner psychology and symbolism. “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it!”

But where does that leave us 21st century folk who willy-nilly cannot return to an 7th century BCE understanding of the world? Theologians insist on integrating later canonical interpretation into our religious understanding of the Bible. For example, Cardinal RatzingerWalter Brueggemann, Michael Fishbane, and  Benjamin Sommers. For them, each in their own way, assume a text is read with tradition. In contrast, anthropologists defend that we may never be able to return. For example, Lucien Lévi-Bruhl, Jonathan Z. Smith, Evans Pritchard, Marshall Shalins and Clifford Geertz. In this book, Kugel clearly comes out on the side of the anthropologists. Our 21st century sense of self and the Biblical self remain unbridgeable.

As usual, this book is well-written. But this book  offers an especially wonderful capstone to the world of James Kugel’s views of the Bible.

1) What can you tell us about the subject of your last book?

My field is the Hebrew Bible, but for the past six or seven years, I have been working in an area more familiar to anthropologists (as well as psychologists and neuroscientists) than to biblical scholars, namely, the “sense of self,” that is, the idea that different peoples have about themselves, about what a human being consists of and what constitutes his or her “self.”

2) What does this have to do with the Bible?

All humans have a sense of self, but that self differs greatly from society to society and from period to period. For example, our own, modern sense of self is very different from the one that most non-Westerners today think they have. We tend to view ourselves as unique individuals, whereas elsewhere on the globe, people see themselves principally as part of larger group—a tribe, a clan, a kinship group—and they also believe that they are basically the same as all the other members of the group. We prize our individual achievements, whereas others consider such things as secondary, focusing more on family prosperity and wellbeing.

In fact, some scholars refer to our mentality by the acronym WEIRD, that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—all of these being traits that are not characteristic of the rest of humanity today, and almost certainly were not common in the West until a few hundred years ago. So we are probably misreading a lot of the Bible if we think that the biblical self was basically the same as ours.

3) What difference would this make to our understanding of biblical texts or biblical religion?

Scholars know that there is nothing physical in our brain that acts as its central clearinghouse, nothing that a brain scientist can point to and say, “This is the part that puts together all a person’s sensory inputs and memories and so forth to make up ‘I,’ the person speaking to you right now.” Almost all agree that our self is basically a construct, something with no particular physical reality, but something that we construct in our own minds. Some elements of this construct seem to be universal: we all think of ourselves as continuing to be the same person minute after minute and decade after decade (although we might have good reason to conceive of ourselves otherwise). We also seem to believe that we have a body, but that somehow we are not identical to that body; “I” is some floating entity that is somehow distinct from the body and mind that the self “owns.”

But then there are other things that make people’s sense of self in one society radically different from others’. Now, what interested me is how some of these differences are expressed in biblical texts. Perhaps the most striking thing in early biblical narratives is the relative lack of reference to a person’s insides, the thoughts and emotions that people experience. Everything important happens out there or comes in from out there.

So, for example, when God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, Abraham sets out the next morning to do it. What was Abraham thinking, and what was Isaac, the intended victim, thinking? Apparently, these inside things are not important: it’s the outside that counts, the fact that Abraham is willing to carry out this commandment.  It’s not that Abraham doesn’t think. It’s just that, at this relatively early stage of things, everything important still happens outside, so what Abraham thought is just not important.

The same thing is true of Abraham when we first meet him: God commands him to leave “your homeland and your kindred and your father’s house [i.e., your immediate family] to the land that I will show you.” No doubt this wording was designed to stress the difficulties Abraham would face: far from his homeland and kindred and even his immediate family, he would become a homeless alien, with no one to protect him. How did Abraham react? He did what he was told to do. We know nothing of what he thought about all this (on the inside)—it was just not important. What was important was that he did it (on the outside).

But when the Jewish historian Josephus retold these same events many centuries later, he felt he had to do what the Torah did not, namely, turn this departure into Abraham’s decision: “he, thinking fit to change his dwelling-place, at the will and with the aid of God, settled in the land of Canaan.” (Josephus was not alone, by the way; other retellings of Abraham’s departure in the book of Jubilees, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, and other texts from the end of the biblical period all feel the need to tell what Abraham was thinking.)

But in earlier times, things still needed to take place on the outside. In another incident from Abraham’s story in Genesis, God comes to him disguised as three strangers stopping off at his tent; still later, his grandson Jacob wrestles with an “angel,” a divine emissary, all night. These things are also depicted as happening outside, even if they seem to be altogether visionary.

  1. Was there something special about biblical narratives, or was this preference for the outside demonstrated in other parts of the Bible as well?

This may be another manifestation of the same phenomenon in biblical law: What does it mean to love someone in the Bible? Sometimes it seems to means love in our sense: for example, Jacob loved Rachel (Gen 29:18).

But I was always curious about the fellow in the law described in Deut 21:15-17. He has two wives, one of whom he “loves” and the other he “hates.” I used to think, “What a coincidence! Two wives and two exactly opposite emotions!” (And by the way, if he really hates the other one, why doesn’t he seek to divorce her?) But this text is not talking about (internal) emotions; these two terms are used to represent the wives’ (external) standing. So the husband may rank the “loved” wife above the “hated” one in all sorts of external behavior, giving her all manner of benefits, but when it comes to passing on his inheritance, he is not allowed to favor the son of the loved wife over the hated one’s son.

Again, this is not a reflection of his feelings toward one or the other—the text couldn’t care less about that!—but the external matter of status, namely, which son gets the firstborn’s share of the inheritance. Though she may be the less favored wife in other external matters, the “hated” wife’s son comes first in inheritance.

My former colleague at Harvard, the late Bill Moran, wrote a famous article about the use of “love” in ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties. There too, emotion has nothing to do with it. When the Assyrian overlord Essarhadon commands his vassal, “You shall love Assurbanipal like yourself,” he is surely not telling the vassal to fall in love with his son’s winning personality. Love here, Moran said, is not the inside emotion but the outside expression of loyalty. The same is true of “love” in Lev 19:18, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The text is not talking about the internal emotion, but external behavior.

Then what about the obligation to love God “with your whole heart and soul and power”? This may be a more complicated example, but when love of God is mentioned elsewhere in Deuteronomy, it is coupled with “keeping His charge and His laws and His statutes and His commandments” (11:1), “serving Him with your whole heart and your whole being” (11:13), “walking in all His ways” (11:22) “walking in His ways at all times” (19:9) “to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules” (30:16)—clearly, these passages are all talking about “love” in the sense of external performance, not internal emotion. In short, for much of the biblical period, the focus is not on what people felt on the inside, but what happened on the outside.

5) Then what is the “great shift” of your title?

Gradually, things shifted from “out there” to “in here.” So, as in the above examples, people at first are not said to think; instead, they say, an outside event, even when the text probably means to tell us what they were thinking. Sometimes the text says that someone said something  in his heart, and this is clearly a kind of thinking: for example, Esau “said in his heart” that “when the days of mourning my father are here, then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen 27:41). Strange to tell, however, , this internal thought of Esau’s somehow was heard by his mother Rebekah, as reported in the very the next verse.

How could that happen? But it could, because important things still somehow belong on the outside. Lots of Jews nowadays are puzzled today by the commandment to be happy on a festival (Deut 16:14). How can you command someone to be happy? But vesamachta doesn’t mean to be happy—an inside thing—it means to celebrate or rejoice, on the outside.

All this began to change in later centuries. On the one hand, God was now deemed more remote; it is His angels who intervene in human affairs. Even prophets stop hearing from God directly; angels deliver God’s words to them. At the same time, people now had minds, and saying what was going on inside them became a necessity. It’s not that they didn’t have minds before, but the way that they conceived of themselves had come to involve this inner self much more than before. This is evident in late biblical psalms, and still more in the prayers and hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Once you know this, I think, your whole way of reading biblical texts has to include the possibility that Abraham, Moses, earlier biblical psalms as well as biblical laws suddenly acquire a very different sense.

6) How did you, James Kugel, get involved with this stuff?

But as I mentioned, I’ve been reading anthropologists and neuroscientists for some years, and what I’ve been saying so far is really not controversial to them. Everyone agrees that the human self is a construct, and that this construct differs greatly from period to period and from one society or civilization to another. So it’s pretty clear that throughout the biblical period, ancient Israelites did believe that their minds were open to penetration from the outside, by God or by demonic spirits. For example, God inserts His words into the prophet Balaam’s mouth, making him say the exact opposite of what he wants to say. This should not be a minor item for biblical scholars: here is an operating assumption in the biblical sense of self that is very different from our own conception of the human mind, its fundamental permeability.  I’ve always thought that the scholar’s principal task is to try to enter into the world of the Bible, to get inside the head of these people and live their reality. And all this, I think, is very important to that task.

7)      What did you agree with in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, and what do you disagree with?

Jaynes’s book covered some of the same ground that I have in the “Great Shift”—that is, he tried to explain what seems to be a basic shift in the way human beings perceived the world— including the divine—and themselves.

But Jaynes (who, incidentally, wasn’t much interested in the Bible; he was a psychologist and brain scientist) tried to argue that the shift was attributable to a fundamental change in brain function, suggesting that originally there were two independent speech areas in the brain’s two hemispheres. But that this feature of the “bicameral mind” ultimately gave way to the unified, modern consciousness.

It was an interesting idea, but I agree with most scholars today, who doubt that the change was one of the brain’s hardware or basic functioning. Rather, it was a matter of “software,” that is, of the gradual emergence of a new way of conceiving of the human self. What I tried to do in my book was specifically to document this shift via the different ways that God is represented in the Bible.

8)      How do you disagree with the chapter on the Bible in Mimesis by Erich Auerbach?

I love Auerbach’s book—except for the first chapter, the one about the Bible, where he describes the biblical account of the Akedah (Genesis 22, when Abraham is commanded to offer Isaac as a human sacrifice) as “fraught with background.” Auerbach relates to the text as if it were Western literature: there are thus three “characters,” God, Abraham, and Isaac; “their speech does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to externalize thoughts—on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed.”

I’m afraid I have to disagree. This narrative isn’t fraught with background at all. For all we know, Abraham may be some kind of automaton: God commands him and he sets out to obey. The text says nothing about what Abraham was thinking because thinking, that inside the brain activity, is still not on the map, at least not very often.

9)      How is Abraham really like Homeric heroes?

Well, in the story of his nearly sacrificing Isaac, Abraham behaves (contra Auerbach) very much like a Homeric hero. Actually, the person who investigated this (a few decades before Jaynes) was the German classicist Bruno Snell, in his book The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature.

9)      How did biblical figures not worry about faith since they encountered God?

People in the Bible have faith in God in the sense of trusting that He will come to their aid or save them. But they don’t have faith in God’s very existence—no one even raises that issue. It’s not that ordinary people had all personally encountered God, but that God’s existence was simply obvious to everyone, like the rising and setting of the sun or the regular changes of the seasons.

Little by little, however, things did change. It’s as if the center of gravity was slowly migrating from outside to inside. People now interrogate their own souls while lying on their beds late at night; in fact, they come to be “in search of God”—something people  weren’t in earlier times. They pray to God not because they need something, but simply to “establish contact,” and they sometimes pray regularly far from the Jerusalem temple. Now, retellings of biblical narratives—such as those of the 2nd century BCE Book of Jubilees, or the Genesis Apocryphon found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Josephus and later writers—have to give some account of what motivates human beings or how they react to changing developments. All these seem to indicate the emergence of a different “sense of self.”

10)      What is the revelatory state of mind? Why do you say biblical were only surprised by an encounter with God, but not flabbergasted?

This is another striking difference between us and ancient Israelites. In those biblical stories of people meeting up with God or an angel, at first all the people see is an ordinary human being. They converse for a while, and then, at a certain point, the people suddenly realize that their interlocutor is really an angel or God Himself. At that moment, they are surprised but not altogether bowled over; such things do occur, apparently.

Nobody says, “Wow! This just can’t be happening!” Usually, they bow down in reverence, not surprise. Similarly, prophets may not want to be prophets, but when God summons them, they don’t think something’s wrong with their brains. As one biblical scholar put it, they are already in the “revelatory state of mind,” in which such things are possible.

11)      How is the biblical God different from the God of later generations?

My overall theme is that God’s nature—or rather, the way that He is depicted—changed strikingly within the biblical period itself. There is a gradual move from the outside to the inside. People’s inside souls become the true meeting-place of God and humans (the old meeting place was the outside temple).

In addition, God is no longer described as having a human-sized and human-shaped body; He becomes more abstract and, eventually, omnipresent. An omnipresent God must exist on a completely different plane: He no longer enters or moves about, so (I also tried to show this in the book) all those earlier stories about Abraham or Cain and Abel or the Tower of Babel had to be reconfigured by later commentators or interpreters to accommodate their new notion of who God is.

12)      How in other places is God a long-range planner? 

Eventually, God ceases to intervene directly in human affairs: when intervention is needed, it is accomplished by God’s angels, while He remains in heaven. In keeping with this, He is sometimes represented as having arranged everything in advance, sometimes for centuries and centuries, so on-the-spot intervention is unnecessary; He, and we, can just watch the divine plan unfold.

This understanding of God is in part anticipated in the biblical story of Joseph. Joseph’s narrative presupposes that dreams (his own and his interpretation of others) are essentially a peek into a future that has already been planned and determined. Thus, Pharaoh’s dreams inform him of events that are to take place over a period of fourteen years in the immediate future (seventy years of plenty followed by seven of famine). In later times, the book of Jeremiah represents Jeremiah as saying that seventy years will have to pass before the end of the exile (25:11, 29:10). Still later, Daniel is said to revise the understanding of Jeremiah’s seventy years: what he really meant was seventy “weeks” of years, that is 490 years (Dan 9: 24).

The book of Jubilees, written still later (the early second century BCE), divides history into chunks of seventy years apiece: there will thus be exactly 50 jubilees from the time of humanity’s creation until Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. All these present God as a long-range planner—more and more so!

13)      How was the Bible an enchanted world of monolatry? 

Biblical scholars have shown that monotheism only came to be espoused as such somewhere toward the middle of the biblical period. Before that (and, in some places, after it as well), monolatry seems to define biblical religion, the worship of a single God while not denying the existence, and efficacy, of other deities.

The Bible makes no secret of the fact that other peoples had their own gods—indeed, the book of Deuteronomy (4:19) at one point suggests that God had assigned to ther nations the worship of deities associated with the sun and moon and stars; that just wasn’t for Israel.

14)   Was the Law always important in Biblical religion?

Well, it is striking how little reference to keeping biblical laws there is in early times. Why don’t the various people in the books of Judges or Samuel or Kings keep the Sabbath? When David commits his great sin with Bathsheba, why doesn’t the prophet Nathan say to him, “David, you’ve just violated two of the Ten Commandments,” instead of giving him that parable of the poor man’s lamb? But after a while, keeping God’s laws becomes the whole focus of Judaism, not only in the Bible, but in all of post-biblical religion. The service of God, or what is called ‘avodat ha-Shem, truly became the essence of Judaism—as it is to this day.

You might see this as part and parcel of the great shift from the outside to the inside. After all, who is going to police laws commanding you not to hate your brother in your heart, or serve God with all your heart and soul, and dozens of other rules that have no outward manifestation? Keeping them was a matter between you and God, carried out—or not—in that inside world.

15)   Why read the Bible in its original context if the biblical God is not ours, and their sense of self is not ours? And their view of religion is not ours? What happens to canonical context?

You might as well ask, “Why bother with the Bible at all?” But the Bible depicts the reality out of which all of later Judaism developed. That’s why studying it—and getting inside the heads of ancient Israelites, as I said earlier—is crucially important.

16)   Do you believe in the God of the Bible? The God of the 5th century BCE? The God of Yalkut Shimoni? Or a 20th century God? 

All of the above. But I generally try to keep myself out of the discussion.

17)   Should Rabbis teach the content of your book from the pulpit? Should the contents be taught in day schools?

Definitely not. But maybe in an adult education class.



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.


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:

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?

Rav Shagar and Secular Studies: On Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds

What did Rav Shagar think about secular studies? He answers in a twenty page, 7000 word homily on Hanukah On Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds.  – go read the 20 page essay.  I provided a guide to the essay below to be used alongside the original text.I  planned on posting this essay the week for Hanukah already in August, without connection to the recent spate of free floating op-eds about the idea of a Rav Shagar. If you have not grasped his vision yet, this 20 page essay is one of the best places to see what he is trying to achieve.

We have once again to thank Levi Morrow for his translation of the essay. Please let me know of any errors. (For links to our more than 18 prior posts on Rav Shagar,  see herehere. here, here, and here.) As an important side point before you start the essay. If you were looking for an Orthodox postmodern theology, then the Sephardi Algerian thinker Rabbi Professor Marc-Alain Ouaknin wrote such a work twenty years ago, The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud (Princeton University Press, 1998). Rav Shagar is not that; see my excursus on Torah Umadda below.


On Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds

A Sermon for Hanukkah

Shagar starts his homily as follows. The Chanukah candles are placed in the doorway between one’s home and the outer world, which for Rav Shagar means we cannot retreat into the safety of our homes of just having Torah. In Shagar’s view “we have no choice but to exist in the space between inside and outside, between identity and strangeness.

The homily works with the Chanukah tension between the Hellenistic Greeks and the Jewish world of Torah. Shagar assumes that “to Jew” and “to Greek” are two fundamentally different attitudes to life. His question is: how to bring the two together? He offers (1) Rav Kook’s idea of translation, (2) Rav Nachman’s personal grappling with the evil klipot of the haskalah, in which he distinguishes between idolatrous language and holy speech. and (3) his own view that we are all now Rav Nachman and we are all now required us to decent into klippot.

Rav Shagar claims that the “wisdom of the Torah and the wisdom of Greece, along with the holy language and Greek language, were originally clear and distinctive signifiers.” Over the course of history” they no longer “signify specific languages or books, rather ways of learning and existing. Greek wisdom, therefore, is… able to exist even within the walls of the traditional Jewish study hall.”

The term “Greek wisdom” changed over the course of history to the term “external wisdom” which is knowledge that lacks the intimacy of “being with itself,” and at its source is an objectification of the knowledge. Hence, the conflict [between Torah and Greek Wisdom] does not have to focus on the context of the wisdom or the language used, but on intimacy and personal identity, the intimacy and identity that are the eros of the wisdom.” A distinction between “wisdom that is beautiful and effective, but lacks all passion and intimacy” and “a wisdom overflowing with meaning and intimacy, a revelation of existence and substantive content.” Notice that the term Greek wisdom could just as well apply to Torah, or Torah uMadda, while Torah as the wisdom of existential meaning that touched one’s identity may apply to any wisdom.

Rav Shagar on Secular Studies

I will start with his own opinion before we return to how he used Rav Kook and Rav Nachman. He says Rebbe Naḥman’s guidance toward naiveté and simplicity does not respond to our form of life.” Further,  Rav Shagar applies Rav Kook’s bold statement about spirituality to secular studies: “anyone who does not suffer from spiritual descents has no chance of religious ascent.” There is danger in this decent “but only this descent-endangerment can lead to ascent.” He seeks a decent into secular studies for the sake of religious ascent.

Rav Shagar thinks that we have to accept the inevitable and acknowledge that we live in multiple cultures and not fight it with sectarianism by blocking out the wider world of knowledge. “For better or worse, we are citizen of multiple cultures and we live in more than one world of values. We are not able to deny this situation, nor would we deny it if we could. Denying it would be self-denial, leading to deep, radical injury to our religious faith itself.”

Rav Shagar thinks that the confrontation with the Greek, even in Israel, is not at the university level but already from an early age via the media, literature, and our culture. “We therefore need a substantial religious-spiritual-Jewish alternative.”

Rav Shagar is firmly against the bifurcation of religion and secular into compartmentalized identities, like that of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz who opened “an unbridgeable gap between them; he would never bring them together. Leibowitz lived with a contradiction.” Instead, Rav Shagar wants everything to reach “his subjectivity or personal identity.” In contrast to compartmentalization, Shagar wants the Religious Zionist soul to live “not in one world but in many worlds, which it likely cannot integrate. It does not compartmentalize them -Torah versus labor, faith versus science, religion versus secularism- but rather manages a confusing and often even schizophrenic set of relationships between them.”

In his essay: “My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World” Rav Shagar suggests that the believer in modernity such as Rav Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz live in what he calls a “two-world approach.” “This approach establishes a boundary between the internal and the external, between one’s faith and the world in which one resides.” He argues that this worldview is  “at its core [it] is an attempt to fend off modernism’s criticism by isolating faith from the world and its values.” Within this modern worldview, “faith is not perceived as a substantive assertion about reality.”

However, in his view this “belief” in knowledge and its bifurcation from faith has collapsed, and in its wake much of what modern Jewish theologians taught, including Rav Kook, has now become “obsolete.” Not obsolete as a subject of study but obsolete as that which can adequately inspire a religiously devotional life today.

I will quote fully a paragraph of what Rav Shagar envisions as way of offering clear contrast to the modernists or Torah uMadda.

A new type of religiosity has therefore developed nowadays, one that cannot be defined by its location on any graph; it is scattered across many different (shonim), you could even call them “strange” (meshunim), centers. This religiosity does not define itself with the regular religious definitions, but enables a weaving of unusual identities, integrating multiple worlds- in a way that is not a way. [Rav Nachman of Breslov] presents a deep personal faith that, in my opinion, carries the potential for religious redemption. Where does this capacity for integrations and combinations come from? Answer: that very same deep personal faith. This faith is not faith in something, rather an act of self-acceptance. It recognizes a deep core of covenantal eros, which enables the freedom to translate and to make integrations, combinations, and connections that our fathers never dreamed of making.

A person accepts their thrown situation of life embracing it fully to make new integrations and connections, however strange or disjoined they seem. It is not located by any one rubric rather similar to Gilles Deleuze’s ideas of rhizome or  chaosmos, it avoids categorization.

To this base, Rav Shagar returns to his core ideas of seeking faith through accepting life in its complexity.

The existence of faith is not dependent on some sort of faithfulness of a given individual, because its roots are much deeper than the consciousness of its bearers. It is present as a fact, and this gives rise to the covenant. Only thus can a person accept his faith and his way of life, a necessary condition for the novel religious phenomenon we are suggesting.

For him, faith is not an assent to doctrine or affirmation of halakhah, nor is faith a Hasidic  or Rav Kookian “essence that a person discovers after removing all the excess, superficial layers around his true, stable identity.” Rather, for him, faith is “a leftover excess that a person cannot remove or digest, which destroys “dichotomies and definitions of identity, readying them for encounter and creation.” Reframing Rav Kook’s essentialism using the Lacanian term of remnant (not in its original meaning) he thinks our innate inner Jewishness still exists despite not having a stable definition or identity.

Compare the milquetoast bifurcated cognitive idea of Torah uMadda to Rav Shagar’s vision below of his ideal as ecstatic, primordial depths, and psychoanalytic.

Ecstatic and multivalent figures are sprouting up before our eyes, and they cannot be located at any one place in society, for their faith comes from a much deeper place, from times gone by. This faith is a remainder, a psycho-theological symptom manifesting as inexplicable stubbornness, as a willingness to be on the losing side of the world simply because “this is who I am and this is who I want to be,” without conscious justification… [It is] the harmony of an individual with who and what he is, without locking himself into a specific identity; he can be who he is, whoever that may be.

I will add that self-acceptance opposes attempts by a religious community to enforce observance of yarmulke, prayer, fringes, phylacteries, etc. These attempts makes religiosity forced, cowardly, and alienating, one of the causes of the spiritual superficiality of the religious community. A religion that sees itself as at war for its survival is a religion without depth and roots.

Instead of this religious enforcement, Shagar wants “a religious reality overflowing with eros. “I am who I am, which is the innermost aspect of the highest will.” He associates this eros with a dimension described in Hasidic texts that exists “beyond and in excess of its meaning.” Ḥabad discourse says that this dimension “cannot be named, nor alluded to by any extraneous detail of the conventions of language at all.” He concludes the essay stating that this is about self-revelation. “This is not the type of identification that compares the concrete manifestation of a person to a picture, symbol, or idea that exists “outside,” beyond him, but the revelation of the person as he is, without any “beyond” – this is me.”

I jumped to the last part of the essay first in order to present his view of worldly knowledge. I will now return to the other parts of the essay on Rav Kook and Rav Nachman.

Rav Kook: Greek Language on its Own

I was once at a major Israeli academic conference of Jewish studies that allows open submission of proposals. In one of the sessions devoted to Rav Kook, there were papers on his mystical diaries, his kabbalah, and his rejection of secular studies for his closest followers. There was also a paper by a clueless American frum attorney who presented on Rav Kook’s Torah uMadda. The audience did not receive his paper well.  Afterwards, he complained to me when he returned to his seat about all this misplaced focus on mystical and pietistic nonsense, when we know that Rav Kook was a modern Torah Umadda Jew, as presented by Norman Lamm in his book of that title. The attorney grumbled: how could Rav Kook be against secular studies when that is not the way he is presented in the English works he read?

This is part of a wider misreading of Rav Kook in American Modern Orthodoxy as less haredi than he was, and it certainly does not take into account his explicit instructions to his close students to minimize secular studies. More importantly, it ignores the historical trajectory created by his student Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriah who forged a committed core of Merkaz students already in the 1950’s who avoided secular. And it ignores that the interpretations of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook by his son Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook are totally against Western culture. This view of Rav Kook as anti-secular studies is the approach of Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva is what Rav Shagar is responding to in his talk.

The Rav Kook text that Rav Shagar choose to look at was given at “the inauguration of the Mizrahi movement’s study hall (beit midrash) for teachers, during Hanukkah 1932. In the talk, Rav Kook cautioned against external knowledge but language, even conceptual language, as a means of expressing ideas.

 Greek language on its own and Greek wisdom on its own” (Bavli, Baba Kamma, 83a). We see that the main intent was to distinguish between content and style. Greekness as wisdom, as a worldview – harshly injures holiness, profanes it and defiles it. Greek language, however, the language in terms of its expressive capacity, in terms of how richly it describes things – this is an entirely different matter. In the latter, there is no clash between the contents of frameworks of beliefs and ideas. Rather, only an external improvement, which in and of itself does not make contact with or impinge upon internal matters […]. The content we need not accept other than from our holy Torah […]. This is not the case when it comes to style, to the external beautification of things […].

Rav Shagar presents Rav Kook as delineating a boundary between using the Greek as the content and the container, between the medium and the language. For him, “Greek language on its own and Greek wisdom on its own.” a rabbinic phrase “means that the emptying of the light of Torah into the Greek container cannot damage and change the light of Torah, but it is capable of contributing an external improvement, which does not make contact with or impinge upon internal matters.”

Shagar presents Rav Kook as allowing the tools of Greek culture, meaning Western culture writ large. “These tools are, for examples, the tools of the academy – the reflection of research, philological and historical investigation, philosophical, literary, and linguistic richness, which Rav Kook was not afraid to make use of in writing his inspirations.”

In this statement, Rav Shagar rejects the approach of Rav Tau and the Yeshivot HaKav, a breakoff from Merkaz against all secular influences, including influence of modern educational psychology, historical and philological tools, and modern approaches to the study of the Bible.

Rav Shagar then works with Rav Kook’s text to come closer to his own view of seeking personal meaning. Rav Kook asserted in his book Eder Hayakar that the thinking individual can be trusted in his personal searches for truth.

Any idea or thought that comes from research, investigation and critique in its own right, in its pure freedom, could never come to evil, not in the general faith shared by all straight of heart and knowledgeable people […] nor in the foundation of eternal Israel and its connection to the God of its strength […]. Only an evil heart, a licentious heart […] is what causes all the disturbance. (52)

Rav Shagar says that Rav Kook’s

 thought should be seen against the background of the Hegelian understanding according to which the spirit clarifies itself and advances by way of reflection. The spirit, which is the Jewish jug of oil, clarifies itself by way of Greek language, which examines it from an external perspective, investigates it, gives it definitions and conceptual characteristics, but does not defile it internally. According to his position, the problem of Greekness only appears when we try to import an “idol” into the temple of God, meaning the content itself, attempting to integrate with the wisdom of Greece.

Notice both the historicizing of Rav Kook as seeing the theory as spirit (geist) which is crucial for Rav Shagar’s declaration that in our era is the end of Hegalian thinking and its needing to be replaced.

But Rav Shagar also notes and does not develop that Rav Kook thought that sometimes universal ideas needed to be translated and embedded in Torah. In Rav Kook’s case, he thought the ideas of freedom, nationalism, and universal morality needed to be translated into Torah. For Shagar, there are elements within Existentialism, psychoanalysis, and post-modernism that have to be translated into Torah. But the same way, Rav Kook is not trying to write academic essays about Hegel and Schopenhauer or even worried if he is reading it correctly, Rav Shagar is not concerned with the secular fields of philosophy or psychoanalysis.

Rav Nachman

The second position that Rav Shagar looks at is the anti-intellectual position of Rav Nachman. Notice that Rav Shagar did not choose to consider the more intellectual or more cultural positions about secualr studies of of Maimonides, Vilna Gaon, Hirsch, or Reines. He chooses Rav Nachman because he wants to create a path to a deep relationship with God using the secular.

In contrast to Rav Kook, Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav identified any external wisdom or Greek knowledge as a deep threat and attacked those who connected the two. “Someone who, God forbid, learns books of research and philosophy introduces doubts and heresy into his heart […] therefore we do not find any person who was made fitting and God-fearing by books of research.”  (Sihot Haran 5) Rav Nachman “exhorted his devoted followers toward naiveté (temimut) as a way of life.” Rebbe Nachman proclaimed:“Fortunate is one who does not know at all from their books [=of research] and only goes naively… It is wisdom and great service to be like an animal,” meaning naiveté and simplicity.”

Rav Nachman limited the study of the world only to the true Zaddik. “In truth there is a great prohibition against being a scholar, God forbid, and against teaching books of wisdom, God forbid. Only the very great tzadik can enter into this.” This entering into heretical ideas is permitted to the Zaddik in order for him to extract the fallen souls that fell there into their traps, due to the knowledge and skepticism of the enlightenment.

[I am skipping over a section in the homily about language in Rav Nachman compared to Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin because Rav Shagar’s views on language deserve their own discussion.]

Rav Shagar turns to Rebbe Naḥman’s book, Likutei Moharan (I:19), where he teaches about three languages: the holy language, idolaters’ language, and the language of translation.  The first language, the holy language is entirely self –referential without any connection to the outside world as its own reality, which

 can be experienced through the practice of Bratslav or Ḥabad-style learning, with their various jargons, intuitions, movements, and deviation. This practice reveals that this is not study that refers to reality but study that itself becomes reality. It does not have an object, but rather exists in itself – existence as a Bratslav world or existence as a Ḥabad world.

The second language, the idolaters’ language of “the seventy nations” corrupts the covenant. According to Rav Shagar in his interpretation of Rav Nachman as anti-capitalist, anti-Neoliberalism and anti-instrumental, the language of the idolaters is about  capitalism, profit, and instrumentalism. “The will to conquer and control via the word leads to corrupted sexuality.” This language creates gaps between the self and world, between meaning and activity and between the individual and reality. This type of speech presents itself as beautiful, wise, and refined, but does not get to the core or a person.

Quoting Rav Nachman, Shagar accepts that “this is the language of the demon-scholar (shed-talmid hakham), who uses his linguistic aesthetics and rhetoric to create an impression on the other and dominate him via language:  (LM 1:28:1)”  Much of the cognitive gestures of American Torah uMadda would fall into this category.

In his essay on the disengagement that I posted last year, he followed this line of thinking and proclaimed that secular studies are corrupting and we have to do jihad against secular studies. But he wrote there following the idea of dispute in Rav Nachman combined with Franz Rosenzweig  that in the conclusion of the battle the secular should be integrated into a revitalized religious life.

The Third Langauge: Translation

The third language for Rebbe Naḥman is the language of translation, which is an instance of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that contains both holiness and the impure spiritual entities (kelipot), and between the holy and the idolaters’ languages. This knowledge can go for either good or bad depending on who uses it. One must eat the good of the tree and avoid the bad.  Rav Shagar when following this line of thinking, explicitly rejects the idea of a clean distinction between language and ideas. Language always unavoidably contributes something, so what language you use matters.

Rav Shagar portrays Rebbe Naḥman’s teaching on translation as effecting a change from a concrete language to a signifier of reality used to create holiness. The language of translation is born in the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which is not  the wholesomeness (temimut) of the holy language. Rebbe Naḥman teaches that, from this position, it can turn in one of two ways. “It can make you smarter (maskelet) or it can make you bereaved (meshakelet), knowledge of good or knowledge of evil.”

However, it is important to note that this is not “in a meager instrumental manner, rather the translation “illuminates the letters of the holy language.” A quest for holiness.

Rav Shagar on first thought said “This seems similar to Rav Kook’s Hegelian outlook” of an eternal spirit placed in new vessels. But then, Shagar reverses and says that “Rebbe Naḥman… does more than this. It also transforms the holy language itself, changing its primary sense.”  Making him a paradigm for transforming Judaism by grappling with the ambiguity of the Tree of Knowledge.

The interesting example given by Shagar is Rebbe Naḥman’s telling of fantastic tales “of kings and princesses, fantastic lands and wondrous creatures, including giants, spirits, men of the woods, and a prince made entirely of precious stones.”  For Rav Shagar, “Naḥman’s main purpose with his stories is to translate to transport the listener to a magical, mythical, world “from the days of yore.”  Rebbe Nachman takes stories without a “Jewish or religious characteristics at all” and uses them to serve God by exposing “the listener to a world of experiences, which is entirely disconnected from the religious experience and its normal, accepted, forms in the traditional Jewish world.”

In a lecture Rav Shagar gave in 1987 about Hasidic stories, on which I was asked to speak about this past summer, Shagar pointed out that in the 18th century Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye used a ribald story from the Decameron to teach hasidut through finding a message in a adulterous story. Rav Shagar used the ribald story and its Hasidic retelling as a way to speak about the role of eros, sin, journeys, and confession as a way of meeting God. This is a good example of his idea of secular studies.  We use films, stories, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, and anything else needed to wake people up for the needed teaching of Torah.

The goal is not to discuss secular studies or post-modernism or be intellectual. The contemporary goal of Greek wisdom is for the religious seeker to be exposed to new experiences that are not part of the current religious world- such as music, art, psychology, literature, India, movies, science fiction- and use the non-religious material experience to embrace a richer experience of the divine

Appendix: Excerpt from Lecture on Lekutei Moharan I 19

In the above lecture he quoted his own lectures on Rav NahmanLekutei Moharan I:19. The quote below from Rav Shagar in the hasidic lecture is important for this Chanukah homily.

Rav Shagar asks is this activity of translation ideal? And answers that we have no choice today. But he also says that academic language is generally not the language to be used for translated, rather we should seek items something that will help the holy language of Torah bloom.

Is translation less than ideal, only for those who have fallen to low places, or is it an ideal project? This question is irrelevant for us, who have no other option; we have no choice but to translate if we want to turn the Torah we learn into a Torah of life. Every person and student must ask himself what is his place. For example, we cannot study Rebbe Nahman’s writings the same way that Rav Koenig learned them and taught them in his lectures. If we tried to do so, we would just end up with a poor imitation that misses the whole point. On the other hand, it is possible that a Bratslav hasid would not feel the deficiency of staying in the world of the Holy Language. Furthermore, we must note that not all languages external to Torah are fitting to serve as a language of translation. Academic language is not necessarily a language of translation, because it is often superficial, and constrains the Holy Language rather than encouraging it to bloom. Every now and then, there is a flicker, but in general it cannot express the world of holiness.


Torah Umadda

A few words of his view of Torah uMadda, his relationship to the late 20th century modern Orthodox idea of studying secular studies.

TL:DR Rav Shagar is not Torah uMadda.

Shagar’s approach is not a cognitive gesture of combining contemporary thought with Torah, nor is he just another interesting book to be discussed in a once a week class in Jewish thought. Some have been forcing Rav Shagar into their procrustean bed of the familiar by framing him in American terms as just the latest rabbi in long series of formulations of synthesis of Torah and secular knowledge. He is not.  Rather, he is offering a different approach to the observance of Judaism after being straightjacketed by the ideology of forbidding Western knowledge. Shagar’s approach does not fit the usually categories of a theology of synthesis nor a humanistic model.

Another misreading of Rav Shagar’s thought reads him as a Fundamentalist position of their own device. Some Evangelical Christian theologians, such as Stanley Grenz, claimed that postmodernism supported faith in religion since it destroyed foundationalism and through it denuded the critiques of religion. Therefore, one can be a firm Evangelical believer without worrying about critiques to religion. Therefore I was surprised to see one op-ed treat Rav Shagar the way Evangelicals treat postmodernism, as if Shagar was claiming in a postmodern age we don’t worry about questions and critiques to religion anymore and can just fortify our dogmatic Orthodoxy using postmodernism.

Rav Shagar, however, explicitly said that in our age without fixed answers one has a sharp choice. Either seeks greater certainty like the Hardal in Israel who have Fundamentalist certainty, or one has to be open to new ideas and accept the new paradoxes. The old synthesis approach is not applicable in our age. There is no compartmentalization of Torah and secular.

Another way of denaturing him is to say that just like in the past there has been Torah uMadda with Neo-Kantian categories, Hegelian syntheses, and Kierkegaardian faith, now we apply postmodernism for the cognitive gesture. However, it is not so simple. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Shagar followers can, and do, study the Yoga Sutras, Derrida, Spinoza, and Talmud criticism in the beit midrash as part of the Yeshiva seder or they can study film making or critical Bible in the University. They have changed the study hall and the religious life. They have gone places that Modern Orthodoxy never went. They go headlong into the big questions, they just dont worry about answers or resolving contradictions.

If one applied his ideas to a United States day school, then one would change one’s school to go headlong into Hasidut, Agadah, Kafka, yoga, and Franz Rosenzweig for a month instead of Talmud and halakhah. One would also bring in experts to lecture on Biblical and Talmudic scholarship, who are not engaged in apologetics. Then, after that month, return to Talmud but bring questions of 21st century meaning and values to the Talmud study.

Finally, to sum it up clearly. Rav Shagar used worldly knowledge to expand his life not create a text. He is in the person (gavra) and not a text (heftza).

The only recent current English article who understood and had insights into Rav Shagar was by Julian Sinclair, who was able to do because he spent time studying with Rav Shagar.



Thanksgiving Prayers

Happy Thanksgiving -Here are the links to  three of my prior posts in which I posted Thanksgiving prayers.  I am posting tonight to give everyone a chance to print out before the holiday. In future years, I hope to post a few more historic Thanksgiving day services from earlier in the century.

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1940 – Rabbi Joseph Lookstein (2014)

Rabbi Joseph Lookstein’s Thanksgiving prayer was exceptionally universal and was picked up from my blog by several widely read online sites as a wonderful universal prayer- ideal for Thanksgiving reading. Here is a pdf of just the service.Thanksgiving Service at KJ 1940

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1945 – Rabbi David de Sola Pool (2009)

Here is the 1945 Minhat Todah- Service for Thanksgiving Day, Congregation Shearith Israel, NY by Rabbi David de Sola Pool. A version of this service is still done at the synagogue. (If anyone wants to send me a pdf of the current version, I would appreciate it.) Thanksgiving Service- 1945 Rabbi de Sola Pool (pdf of service)

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1905- In Commemoration of 250 Years of Jews in the US(2016)

There was a special convocation in 1905 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in the United States. It was held the Sabbath before Thanksgiving and the prayer was written by Rev H. Pereira Mendes of the Spanish- Portuguese synagogue of NY.


Elsewhere on the Web

1789 Sermon Gershom Mendes Seixas

There is also the historic sermon from 1789 at the start of the US by Rev Gershom Mendes Seixas 40-page sermon for the first national Thanksgiving (1789) or an easier to use version here.

To jump forward to contemporary prayers. Here are two contemporary prayers. 

A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy  of Nashuva in Los Angeles via RitualWell

A Prayer for Thanksgiving by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi via

Here are two sermons 50 years apart.

America, Bless God — A Thanksgiving Day Sermon by Rabbi Norman Lamm

THANKSGIVING SHABBAT 2011 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein Valley Beth Shalom with a Thanksgiving prayer or as she calls it, a kavannah, by Ina J. Hughes

Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of himself giving his baby daughter a century-old family heirloom, a kiddush cup, which he said belonged to her great-great-grandfather, also named Max. Nearby is a marble kitchen counter topped with two lit Shabbat candles and challah under a white cover.

“For shabbat tonight, we gave Max a kiddush cup that has been in our family for almost 100 years. Her great-great-grandfather Max got it after our family immigrated here and it has been passed down through our family ever since,” Zuckerberg wrote in the post. He felt strongly that he was following the tradition in his family. In this case, we have the observance of Jewish ritual with concern for the ideology, halakhah, or meaning. There is no concern whether one is technically Jewish, with God, or any concern about denominations. The observance itself is meaningful as traditional.

Zuckerberg’s approach has been documented is recently published study called Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers by Ari Y. Kelman, Tobin Belzer, Ilana Horwitz, Ziva Hassenfeld, Matt Williams.  Jewish Social Studies, (Volume 23, Number 1, Fall 2017, pp. 134-167- requires subscription) I saw it because Matt Williams posted it on FB.


In the new study, they show that post-boomer Jews do not look at Judaism as a religion or as an ethnicity, rather as the pull of traditional practices, yet without any sense of being either voluntary or binding.

In 2000, Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, a demographer and a historian of modern Jewish religion respectively, wrote an important work called The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, which showed that for baby boomers, American religion is now individualistic, a market place, focusing on personal journeys, spiritual moments, self-help, and the inner self. Cohen and Eisen conclude that Jewish life is entering the era of a breakdown of a grand narrative of Jewish peoplehood. Their refrain for the last seventeen years has been to proclaim that the denomination identity through belonging to a shul has broken down. Therefore, the sky is falling. How do we put people back into the post-war era of belonging to a synagogue?

Their focus on identity through religious denomination obscured the role of the non-religious aspects of Jewish culture in Jewish life such as Jewish literature, politics, summer camp, social action, Federation work, Sephardic culture, Yiddish, art, and family connections. Hence, someone who did not believe in theism or have a synagogue membership, but spent their time professionally and socially in Jewish life would still be listed as a “none.”

In this new study on Jewish traditionalism, the authors of the article limit their scope to ritual without connecting it to all those other forms of Jewish life. Nevertheless, they show that even those who keep religious ritual, go to synagogue, or pray may still be among the “nones.” Those post-boomers whom they studied referred to themselves as not religious, even when performing mitzvot as a ritual.

These post-boomers reject religion and  “described themselves explicitly as not  religious  typically associated  religion with wisdom or  expectations that came  from  a divine source  manifested in legal formulations.” For them, “Religion,  they held,  existed  “out  there,”  in the  realm  of the  divine, the  faithful,  the  biblical,  the  legal,  institutional, and  prescribed.” Those post-boomers whom they studied tended to offer a stricter definition of religious than  those who identified as religious.

The important point of the study is they they are not weak forms of the 1950’s which are petering out but a full affirmation of the ritual reconfigured to work and be meaningful for the 21st century.

Both  the  1990  National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) and  the  2013 Pew report on American  Jews used  religion as a key indicator for determining whether a possible interviewee might  qualify for  inclusion in  the  study.   The  Pew Research  Center foregrounded distinctions between  “Jews by religion”  and  “Jews not  by religion,”

Despite  the  persistence of religion as a term  that  might  describe them,  on  the  whole American  Jews do  not  actively or regularly  participate  in  activities  or  institutions that  look  terribly  religious.  Just over one-quarter (26  percent) of American  Jews say that  religion is very important in their lives, whereas 56 percent of the general public makes that  claim.  American  Jews also attend religious  services with far less frequency than  do other Americans;  only 23 percent of Jews attend religious  services once  a month or more,  whereas  62 percent of Americans  in general claim to do so.

As incoming college  students, Jews were among  the  least  likely to score  strongly on  measures   of  both  religious  commitment and  religious  engagement,   scoring  in  the  single  digits,  alongside Buddhists,   Unitarian Universalists,  and  those  incoming students who  have  no  religious preference… Sociologist Nancy Ammerman found that Jews were also outliers in the use of theistic  and  spiritual  discourse”, in which only 30% used theistic language. The next lowest group was at 60%

The majority of those they interviewed described themselves as not religious. They avoided God language and public worship, but still performed ritual. Notice how much of their findings could also apply to those who do actually belong to synagogues, even to Orthodox synagogues.

Here are some of the vignettes they present:

Sam, who was involved  in  Jewish youth  groups through high  school,  explained, “I didn’t  really believe in what most people would call God,”  and  “I still very much  enjoy songs and prayers, the experience, and I still connect  to the  community, and  I still feel connected to friends  and  family, especially [those] who are  Jewish. That’s  a part  that  wouldn’t  be there without the religious  aspect, but to me, it doesn’t  feel religious  anymore.”

Jacoba  explained, “The religion itself means  very little to me. I wouldn’t  say that I’m a religious person at all; I would say that  I practice certain  observances,  but the  reason  I do them  is not  out  of belief  in God or belief  in halakhah [Jewish law], no. . . . It’s more  out  of being  part  of a community that’s very warm, and  being  part  of a family that  has some  positive attributes in itself, like having a day to rest and  hang  out with your family. I think it’s great.  And the  holidays can be lovely because  you spend  them  with family, so it’s really more  about  a family community for me, in terms of Judaism now.”

For Diana,  “Judaism  offers a lot of tools for us to discuss important things,  and  you were born into a family where this is the language that they have and these are the tools that you were born  into that you have that we can use to help talk about the universe, ethics, culture, identity, and let’s find out what this culture says about  those  things  and  how we can look at them,  and  then you can decide  what your place is in that and if you want to continue.

So how do these post-boomers explain what they do? They don’t. But they don’t like the expectations of established denominations.

Regardless  of whether our  interviewees  described themselves  as religious  or not  religious,  they all generally  rejected the  notion of a meaningful framework  emerging from their  understandings of faith, law, the  Bible, and  direct  divine intervention.

[T]hey referred to religion as something abstract,  judgmental, and irrational. They shared  a common sense that religion had limited authority over  their  lives, regardless of how  personally  meaningful they found it. To be not religious was to reject  the authority of rabbis and Bible, liturgy, Hebrew,  obligatory  laws, empty rituals, and unrealistic expectations of prayer and the like. Yet rejecting religion did not require them  to abandon Jewish rituals,  holidays,  or other practices that they called tradition.

Traditional Judaism

But they do like ritual. The performance of ritual is up. Once upon a time, when Marshall Sklare did his Lakeview studies of the 1940’s, he found that only 6% thought ritual was important to be a Jew. Now, ritual is seen as an important part of religion and for many the most meaningful part. This was already noted in Tom Beaudoin,Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (1998), that compared to the Boomers, post-boomers like ritual. The trends documented in the article help account for the success of methods of Chabad offering discrete ritual without asking for belief or commitment such as giving shumarah matzah to a non-kosher seder, or encouraging lighting candles without asking further question.

The point of the article is that their informants called what they do- “tradition” to describe  the  elements of Jewishness that  they incorporated into their lives. They themselves use that word “tradition.”

Michelle explained how she and her  fiancée  were “figuring  out”  how to incorporate Jewish ritual  in their  lives… [Lighting Shabbat  candles] would have meaning for me, I guess, not necessarily because it’s this religious thing. . . . We do want it. We are both into tradition and  sentiment and  family, and  that comes in hand with all this religious  stuff. You know what I’m saying? We’ll take it because  that’s the tradition, and we care more  about  it as a tradition, I guess.

Yair  offered  a similar  description of his observance of Yom  Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which for him included fasting but not attending synagogue.  “I don’t fast on Yom Kippur because of religious reasons  . . . I view it as a tradition.” With perfect  ambiguity.

Generational Connection

The  generational-connection trope  allowed  interviewees  to connect their  actions  and  beliefs to a past and to an envisioned future, as in the case of Zuckerberg above.

Sarah,   “Religion  is not  a way I connect to Judaism,  but  tradition is. So it’s the  sense of pride  for me to do things  that  are part  of tradition that has been  happening for generations. I feel like they’re  part  of carrying that  on to the  next  generation.”

I just  don’t  give any  thoughts to  things  like  biblical  stories,  [or] the [dietary] laws of kashrut. . . . I don’t  want to know what [Hebrew prayers] mean.  I hate  when  we translate them  into  English  ’cause  I don’t  like talking about  the “Almighty God” and all of that. But I really like lighting candles.  I really like celebrating Jewish holidays. I like those traditions. I like the idea that  people all over the world, for thousands of years, have done  these  traditions, that’s what they mean  to me. They don’t  mean  to me like whatever they’re supposed to mean  about  God.

Brian shared  one of the most illustrative stories of someone whose commitment to tradition rests not on religion but on his connection to the future.

To give you an  example, my girlfriend’s  not  Jewish. The  other day for Hanukkah, I decided to light the  candles.  She asked me, “Why are you lighting  the  candles?”  I said, “Well, it’s Hanukkah.” She’s like, “I know it’s Hanukkah, but you’re not really religious.” I said, “I want to do it for myself. I just want to know that I know the tradition, the ritual.  I want to do it for myself just to reinforce it.” I’m not  doing  it because  I want to make  sure that  God is listening,  that  He knows that  I care. I’m doing  it because  I want to be able to tell my kids, “This is how you light the candles on Hanukkah.” I guess that’s kind of how I look at it.

Despite the good-natured teasing of his girlfriend, Brian lit Hanukkah candles with all of the religious overtones and content intact, provided… that  he made  sense of his performance as tradition and  did not take the formulaic blessing or its theological content to heart.

Getting Together

Besides tradition, they also identified ritual with contemporary social and  familial  networks.

For Elizabeth,  the ritual  of a Friday night  dinner proved  especially appealing. Friday night  marks  the  onset  of the  Jewish Sabbath,  and Elizabeth  approached the  ceremonial dinner as an  opportunity for socializing and education but not for religion.

For us [her and  her  husband], a lot of it is educating our  friends,  both Jewish friends and our non-Jewish friends.  We are sort of that couple  that always has like people over for like Shabbat  dinners and  holidays,  and like I said, Jewish and  non-Jewish. It’s not  meant to be like an outreach kind of thing or try to make people religious because we’re not religious. It’s just like a way to sort of make  everybody stop for a second  and  put down their  phones and  like have a proper dinner and  have like proper conversation.

Penelope and  Sally pointed to their  affinity for synagogues  as important sites for connecting to Jewishness, though not necessarily  with religion. Both  women  described themselves  as not religious,  yet both  explained that they seek out synagogues  and  their communities when  traveling  for work. Penelope enjoys the  “cultural traditions” of Jewish life, “but  not  necessary  the  organized religion aspects of it.” Still, “when I go to places where I don’t  know anyone,” she said, “I still go to the Jewish community. That’s my way of meeting people.” Likewise, Sally, who used to travel for work a great deal, made a habit of going to synagogue  on Saturday mornings no matter where she  was.

I did continue to go to synagogue  in every city. I found some  beautiful temples. I still am close to people I met for one Shabbat  in the middle of the  country.  It really kept  me grounded. I was really grateful  for it. Just the feeling  of prayer,  not religious. . . . Not being  religious  but a celebration  with food  and  with music…

Penelope and  Sally approached synagogues  as centers for socialization,  for  grounding, and  for  finding   community while  away from home.  The  traditional elements and  established space  and  time  of synagogue  practice helped them  locate  Jewish connections in unfamiliar places.

Not Nones

The article argues that these younger Jews might be considered as religious “nones,” or excluded from demographic of Jewish life since they claim to be not religious, not synagogue members, and not theists. These Jews claim an affinity for religious tradition, but avoid religion as they define it. This opens up the bigger question of the very possibility of a Jewish “none.” The idea of faith and synagogue membership as defining belonging is very Protestant, but does not work for Jews (as well as Muslims, and Hindus). The article cites those who seek to differentiate Judaism from Protestant categories, but without the broader historical sense of historians or global sociologists who would show how much of this would apply in other ritual based faiths.

The study offers as a conclusion.

First, the  preference for the  language of tradition suggests that the  sociological  distinction between  Jews by religion and  Jews of no religion emphasized in studies  like the  1990 NJPS and  the  2013 Pew report creates  a sharp  distinction between  groups  that  are,  in reality,  more  fluid.

This argument against  the  use of religion as a meaningful way to understand distinctions among  American  Jews should  not  be taken as a case for the rise of secularism.  What appealed to so many of our interviewees  was not  an explicitly or independently secular  realm  of Jewish life but  a way of making  Jewish life enjoyable  and  meaningful. Casting such occasions  as traditional instead  of religious  allowed our interviewees to activate those associations  while disregarding any theological overtones or  moral  finger-wagging.

Similarly, their  almost total avoidance  of the term  ethnicity suggested  that  it had  even less significance  in their  conceptualization of Jewishness, insofar as they did not offer it as a meaningful or useful term  to describe  their  Jewishness.

Eisen & Cohen understands this quality of tradition to be problematic because it is a breakdown from the 1950’s-1960’s..  Eisen framing  it in between  “the way of being Jewish as determined by God and by age- old  authorities” and  that  epitomized by more  “fragmentary, variable,  and  individualized” engagements.”

Yet this study shows that despite Eisen’s imagined future, the tenacity  of tradition that  holds  a kind  of authority, albeit one  rather distant  from  the  external and  eternal kind  that  he seems to  both  imagine  and  prefer.

For post-boomers, tradition may offer  a way of conceptualizing “the  only authentic response to the past,” but it should  not be mistaken  for a weak version of a strong central  Jewish religious  authority. Instead, it should  be understood as a mechanism for retaining connections to Jews and  Jewishness over time, within which change is a reasonable expectation and adherence is flexible.

Our  interviewees  revealed  no  such  deal  and  expressed no  such tension. They  seemed  largely uninterested in “elites of the  center” and were quite willing to engage  with the authority of tradition, even when  it did  not  make  immediate sense  to  them…  The  inconsistencies that  so bothered Eisen,… did  not  seem  to plague  our interviewees, who were well aware of the contradictions and tensions inherent in almost any commitment—ideological, interpersonal, cultural,  or otherwise.  Tradition, in their  view, offers a way to accept  an authority that one already understands has no power to enforce itself.

Paradoxically, as Jews beyond ethnicity, ritual allow them to open up Judiasm beyond the tight bonds of organized religion. For example, Zuckerberg’s Shabbat candles, challah, and kiddish with his daughter and wife.

Our  interviewees, many of whom have non-Jewish parents, peers,  and  partners, offer no  such  connection between  the  traditions that  they embrace and their sense of a normative, ethnonational identity. Instead, tradition affords  a way of opening up the  exclusivity of ethnicity  and  easing the  limitations of religious  obligation. Rather  than  reinforcing a boundary, tradition offers a kind of cultural resource that  could  be shared  with everyone  in their  social circles, Jewish or not. Tradition offers  all  of  the  positive  valences—occasions  for  gathering, and structures for  socializing  that  are  often  associated  with religion— without  any of its prescriptive obligations or its limitations on who can participate. It is neither as commanding as their  notion of religion nor  as exclusive as associations  with ethnicity.

One final point, the authors note that this is not the traditionalism of Israeli mesorati who have a  ‘thick’ sense of ethno-national (Jewish)  identification.” Here they can be non-traditional and without the ethno-national identity.

Rabbi Pamela Barmash on Rabbi Ethan Tucker

I originally asked for a wide variety of responses to Rabbi Tucker’s book and my interview with Rabbi Ethan Tucker.  We already received a nice series of responses so far. The first response was  by Dr. Malka Simkovich, the second response was by Yoav Sorek, the third response was by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, and the fourth response was by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper. The fifth response was by Rabbi Professor Yehudah Mirsky. I sought diverse responses including ones from the OU and from a Sephardi perspective, they never arrived. However,  below is a sixth response from a Conservative movement perspective.

Last week, I received one from the Conservative movement written by Rabbi Prof. Pamela Barmash who is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Washington University in St. Louis. She received a B.A. from Yale University, rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is the author of Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge University Press). She is finishing a book on the Laws of Hammurabi. She has served as the rabbi of Temple Shaare Tefilah, Norwood, MA.  She has served on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly since 2003 and has served on the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative movement since 2008. She has written many teshuvot for the movement.


In specific, she wrote a recent responsa for the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards entitled “Women and Mitzvot” asking the question:  “Are Jewish women responsible for observing the mitzvot from which they have traditionally been exempted?” To which she answers on behalf of the assembly: “We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of  mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.”

So the question in all of this for some of my readers is where is the push for egalitarianism among liberal Orthodox, Israeli liberal Religious Zionism and halakhic egalitarianism is different than the Conservative movement? This post will allow the reader to decide.

Particularly important is Rabbi Barmash’s special note about the role of women in society, in that, it touches on some of the prior responses that were posted here. It was an aside, a special note in the responsa, but the focus of our discussions here.

A Special Note

It is the case that learning to integrate the performance of mitzvot into our daily routines  takes time and reflective effort for all of us, both women and men. For those in our communities  who are in their beginning steps in the journey of mitzvot, and even for those of us who have  integrated many mitzvot into the path of our lives, it must be emphasized that we are all trying to  increase the holiness that mitzvot bring to our lives and that each mitzvah observed causes  holiness to suffuse our lives more and more. Each mitzvah allows us to walk another step in the  journey toward and with God. In the process of learning the observance of mitzvot, no one is  expected to learn to fulfill every mitzvah all at once.

For many women who grew up in a different atmosphere regarding women’s roles, the  call to observe mitzvot heretofore closed to them will be inspiring and deeply spiritual. They will  feel ready to fulfill many mitzvot, and they will eagerly learn new habits. But for some women  who were raised in a non-egalitarian or not-completely egalitarian atmosphere, it is  understandable that they may be hesitant to take on new mitzvot. Learning new mitzvot may be  challenging, and some women may find certain mitzvot daunting for a significant span of time.  However, it is the calling of our communities, synagogues, schools, and camps to teach men and  women to consider themselves equally obligated to fulfill mitzvot and to educate them equally in mitzvot.

Rabbi Pamela Barmash on Rabbi Tucker

I largely agree with Rabbi Ethan Tucker’s assessment of the unfolding of halakhah. I have written three teshuvot that I would like to bring into conversation with his interview.

In his discussion of the changing social status of women, Rabbi Tucker points to an analogous development in the assessment of the deaf. I wrote two teshuvot dealing with the deaf who use sign language, here and here.

I argue that the rabbinic categorization of the heresh (deaf-mute) together with the shoṭeh (mentally incapacitated) marginalizes the deaf.(Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 2b) By contrast, those with other physical disabilities are restricted only when their particular physical limitation prevents them from participating in a particular act: their impairment hinders them from specific practices. For the deaf-mute, their physical disability disenfranchises them completely. They are thoroughly excluded because their disability is associated with a mental incapacity, not solely a physical limitation. The rabbis categorized the deaf-mute in such a way because the rabbis were unable to determine their mental functioning. A person must have sound cognitive ability (דעת) in order to be a fully functioning individual in the realm of halakhah.

The ruling about the heresh arises from the rabbi’s inability to determine the mental function of a deaf-mute person as illustrated in Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 113a-b. Two questions are analyzed: 1) Terumah must be intentionally separated from other produce. The question arises as to whether terumah separated by a deaf-mute remained unconsecrated produce. 2) If a man had intimate relations with the wife of a deaf-mute, would he be required to offer the sacrifice of asham talui because the marriage of a deaf-mute was valid only according to special rabbinic enactment. A number of rabbis contended that if a deaf-mute separated terumah from other produce, even though he was prohibited ab initio from doing so, his separation of terumah could be considered valid ex post facto because it could be that he did so with the proper intention. Therefore, the terumah cannot revert back to unconsecrated produce. In regard to the second issue, the marriage of the deaf-mute, the rabbis were unsure about its source of authorization. If the deaf-mute were allowed to marry only by special rabbinic enactment, then another man who was intimate with the deaf-mute’s wife did not transgress a biblical prohibition and therefore did not have to offer the sacrifice of asham talui. However, some rabbis argued that the offender does need to offer that sacrifice because the source for the deaf-mute contracting a marriage might be the same as for all Jews because the deaf-mute has the same mental capacity as other Jews do, and no special rabbinic enactment was necessary.

Rav Ashi asked: What is Rav Eleazar’s reason [for not permitting the terumah that a deaf-mute has separated to revert to unconsecrated status and for requiring an asham talui for intercourse with a deaf-mute’s wife]? Is it obvious to him that the deaf-mute is weak in cognitive ability? Perhaps, he is doubtful as to whether [the deaf-mute’s] mind is sound [and therefore the deaf-mute can understand the proceedings and so his separation of terumah is valid and his marriage is not only valid according to rabbinic enactment] or not sound [and therefore the deaf-mute cannot understand the proceedings and so his separation of terumah is invalid and his marriage is at most valid through rabbinic enactment], though [in either case] his cognitive ability is always in the same condition [the deaf-mute’s mind is always in the same condition, unlike the mentally incapacitated who might be lucid at times].

Or perhaps, he has no doubt that the [deaf-mute’s] mind is weak and never lucid. [Rav Eleazar’s doubt] here is due to this reason: Because [the deaf-mute] may sometimes be in a normal state and sometimes be in a state of mental incapacity.

In what respect would this constitute any practical difference? [It makes a difference in respect to] releasing his wife by a letter of divorce. If you grant that his mind is always in the same condition,  his divorce [would have the same validity] as his betrothal.  If, however, you contend that sometimes he is in a normal state  and sometimes he is in a state of mental incapacity, he would be capable of valid betrothal, but he would not be capable of giving divorce [because he might be of weak mind at that time, in which case his divorce would be invalid]. What [then is the decision]? This remains undecided.

The confusion of the rabbis about the mental capacity of the deaf-mute extended to divorce. In extending a divorce, the deaf-mute must be in the same mental state as when the marriage was contracted.( Mishnah Gittin 2:6 ) If the deaf-mute were only intermittently impaired, the divorce could not be executed because it would be unclear whether at the moment of divorce the deaf-mute was lucid. The quandary the rabbis faced was that they could not determine the mental state of the deaf mute and, therefore, could not decide the questions before them.

Starting in the nineteenth century, significant advances were made in the education of the deaf-mute, and their soundness of their cognitive ability became evident. Nonetheless, the assumption that deafness was evidence of flawed intelligence continued to prevail in the general community. Sign language was maligned as a broken version of a spoken language. Only in 1960 did a professor of linguistics at Gallaudet University (then College), William C. Stokoe, Jr., publish the first analysis of a sign language as an ordered system governed by syntax.  In 1979, two linguists, Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi, demonstrated that sign languages are as complex, abstract, and systematic as spoken languages: they are controlled by the same part of the brain as spoken languages and are mastered in developmental stages like spoken languages.

A number of Jewish communities began to establish schools for the education of deaf children. Among halakhic authorities there has been a slow drift toward recognizing the cognitive ability of the deaf.

My teshuvot rule that 1) the categorization of the deaf-mute as mentally incapacitated is to be revoked and that they are to be considered completely lucid, and 2) sign language may be used in matters of personal status (such as weddings and divorces) and may be used in liturgy This is mandated by a new understanding of the cognitive ability of the deaf. Their social status has changed due to two factors: a transformation in the understanding of hearing people, who now comprehend that the deaf who use sign language have sound cognitive ability, contrary to the assumptions made in the past about them, and the increased educational and societal opportunities for the deaf.

An analogous developed has occurred with regard to women, the topic of another teshuvah of mine.  Cultural attitudes have shifted dramatically in society in general, and doors into business and the professions formerly closed to women are now open. Women participate in public life in ways unimaginable a century or two ago, or even a few decades ago. This is an intellectual and psychological transformation in how women perceive themselves and are perceived by others. Women are now seen as equal to men, in social status, in political and legal rights, and in intellectual ability by both men and women. A new world-view has resulted in new roles for women.

It must be emphasized that the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud did not doubt the intellectual abilities of women. Women were charged with responsibility for certain domestic mitzvot, mitzvot whose breach incurred serious consequences for the members of the household, including the (male) head of the household. Women were given responsibility for separating hallah from dough at home. (The mitzvah for bread baked outside the home was fulfilled by men, who served as professional bakers, and the Mishnah does mention dough prepared by herdsmen, such as in Mishnah Hallah 1.8) Women were given the responsibility for the preparation of matzah, and despite the seriousness of the preparations for Passover, they were not supervised by men. The (male) head of the household had the responsibility, according to the Mishnah, to make sure that food kept warm on the Sabbath was done without violating the Sabbath. The Talmud shows that women took care of this task, with many references to women knowing the many details on keeping food warm on the Sabbath.

Women were given responsibility for ritual tasks that took place in the home without any concern for any lack of knowledge, reliability, or intellect on the part of women, according to the Mishnah and Talmuds. At the same time, women did not serve in public ritual roles, nor were they required to perform the mitzvot to be performed by those of highest social standing.

The exclusion of women from public ritual roles was due to two principles. The first is that an individual who is not obligated for a specific mitzvah cannot satisfy the obligation of another individual who is obligated for a specific mitzvah.(Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8) The second is that social standing matters and that those of higher social standing would lose their dignity if some of lower social standing functioned on their behalf. In the case of the public reading of Scripture:

A minor may translate for an adult (who is chanting from Scripture in public) but it is beneath his dignity for an adult to translate for a minor.

(Tosefta Megillah 3:21)

The reader’s social status mattered: a woman or a minor was eligible technically but nonetheless could not represent the congregation, and to do so would infringe on the dignity of the congregation. A woman could not fulfill the obligation of a man because she had a lower social status.

Often, the discussion of women’s status vis-a-vis the mitzvot revolves on the traditional exemption of women from what were deemed time-triggered positive mitzvot. The problem with this exemption is that women were required to perform many time-triggered positive mitzvot. Moreover, many of the time-triggered positive mitzvot did not have to be performed in a narrow window of time. They can be performed at home, and a number of them require only a slight amount of time to fulfill. Women were exempted, for example, from hearing the shofar, a mitzvah that could be completed at any point during the day and one that does not take much time to fulfill.

Women were put into the same category as minors and slaves with an essential difference: minors could grow up and slaves could be emancipated, but women deemed to remain in the same social status.(Babylonian Talmud Bava Kamma 88a and Berakhot 47b)

Women were exempted because the acts of those who are subordinate to an earthly master honor God in a lesser way. It must be emphasized that the subordination of women was about their social status, about their place in the hierarchy of family and society.

When social customs change significantly, the changed social reality requires further unfolding of halakhah. I argue that women are now to be held as equally responsible for the mitzvot as men have been and that the social status of women entitles them to participate in public ritual and may fulfill mitzvot on behalf of others.

Other significant social changes need to be considered: if both men and women are now taking responsibility for infants and young children as well as for frail relatives and friends, it may be that they should be released from the mitzvot that interfere with care-giving for the duration in which they bear those duties. An essential principle of rabbinic tradition has been that an individual who is busy with one mitzvah is exempt from another.(Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 25a). Caring for the young and the elderly and frail are religiously significant tasks, and if a person is busy caring for those in need of care, s/he ought to be released from specific mitzvot that might interfere. It must be noted this exemption should be limited to that particular span of time when an individual care-giver is occupied with care-giving and that otherwise that care-giver would retain the responsibilities and privileges that he/she would otherwise have. This exemption would apply only to individuals during the time they are fulfilling a mitzvah and would not be applied across the board to them as a class. Care-givers would be included in the minyan because they still are obligated for prayer, even if at times they may be exempted. This exemption would be a powerful statement of the importance of care-giving.

Rabbi Tucker’s interview concludes with a discussion of a number of Conservative/Masorti movement teshuvot from the 1980’s, so I would also note a number of more recent teshuvot. The teshuvot of Rabbi Myron Geller and Rabbi Susan Grossman on women and edut (testimony) were approved in 2001, and Rabbi David Fine’s teshuvah on women and the minyan was approved in 2002.

Barmash’s own Summary of her Responsa (from the end of the Responsa)


The general exclusion of women from many mitzvot is based on the characterization of those mitzvot as positive and time-bound. A number of reasons have been devised for the link between this category and the exclusion of women from those mitzvot. However, it turns out that this category was devised for exegetical (formal interpretive) purposes, and only later was the category extended to other mitzvot from which women had already been excluded. It was never a generative principle.

Instead, women were excluded because they had subordinate status. They were exempted from the mitzvot that Jews are obligated to observe in the normal course of the day, week, and year because the essential ritual acts should be performed only by those of the highest social standing, those who were independent, those who were heads of their own households, not subordinate to anyone else. Only males were considered to be fitting candidates to honor God in the most fit way. The acts of those who were subordinate honor God in a lesser way and,therefore, women were excluded from them. Furthermore, social standing matters in relations between human beings, and those of higher social standing would lose their dignity if some of lower social standing functioned on their behalf. Women were endowed with ritual responsibilities for others inside the home because the rabbis thought that women had the intellect and reliability to do so. It was social status alone that determined whether women were exempted from certain mitzvot. Women were also not involved in public ritual ceremonies because of their position in social hierarchy.

The involvement of women in Jewish religious and liturgical life has changed significantly in the past century and even more in the past few decades. Jewish women are aspiring to the privileges and responsibilities enjoyed by Jewish men through the millennia. The halakhah has recognized that when social customs change significantly, the new social reality requires a reappraisal of halakhic practices. The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from time-bound positive mitzvot are no longer operative, and the Conservative movement has for almost a century moved toward greater and greater inclusion of women in mitzvot. In Jewish thought and practice, the highest rank and esteem is for those who are required to fulfill mitzvot.

For other reactions and responses to Rabbi Barmash’s opinion- see these links, especially for the discussion here one should see the abstentions and dissents.

Pamela Barmash, “Women and Mitzvot” YD 246:6.2014a




A Jewish Reflection on Peter Berger’s Theology   Part II – Mysticism and Interfaith

I will continue with my tribute to the work of Peter Berger as a theologian from a Jewish perspective. I dealt with question of theology and the sacred canopy in the first part- here. read that post first for the basic insight into his value for Judaism.  This second part deals with mysticism, interfaith miracles, and the return of non-pluralistic religion.

However, before I do that, a few topics came up in the FB discussion that are worth dealing with. First, someone asked, if he is a sociologist, then does he agree with Feuerbach’s reduction of religion to human projection? The answer is no. In fact, he is explicit in his rejection of Feuerbach, claiming the converse that the  world is a projection of God. The “World is a fragmented face of God.” He has been called a Christian humanist and a Lutheran Rabbi, reflecting about himself that  “I’ve always had a weakness for divinity”

Many sociologists, such as Bryan Wilson did not approve of Berger’s theology and sociology mix. Berger considered the functional sociology of the Chicago school as the human condition, while theology is outside of human condition. Berger sought faith, transcendence, hope and seeking a confrontation with God, he nevertheless considered institutional houses of worship as social in orientation, as following Durkheim. He considered most houses of worship and their followers as inauthentic and self-serving. At points, he even considers organized religion and socialization as Weber’s iron cage or as original sin.

Berger’s goal is to relativize the relativizers and show that atheism of Western sociological functionalism was itself a product of a narrow plausibility structure.  He rejected the late 1990’s Fundamentalism project thinking that the only people who don’t know that the ordinary public take their religion seriously are the sociologists.

Another thread thought that Peter Berger’s ideas were just Mordecai Kaplan’s sociological naturalism, but that misses Berger’s original ideas of the sacred canopy of existential meaning, his quest for transcendence, his thinking naturalism is reductionism, and his thinking that Jewish Centers are iron cages.  Berger’s writings have been positively used in the full spectrum of rabbinic seminaries, and as one FB commenter noted: to account for the changes in thought since the 1930’s someone else in the 1970’s should have updated Mordecai Kaplan’s ideas.

other side God Berger


Berger’s views on India and mysticism were the parts that I felt the need to respond in a blog post. To understand his views on mysticism, we need to return to the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, when a new series of books appeared- The Classics of Western Spirituality, which produced nicely edited translations of Western mysticism. The series included for the first time as part of the same set works by Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Native American authors. The idea was partly an outgrowth of the counter-cultural turn to mysticism of the 1960’s, but more importantly for its conceptual frame and the frame of the volumes of World Spirituality was a rejection of Peter Berger’s denial of mysticism in Western culture.

Berger, in his early writings present a sharp divide between two types of religion, the religion of Jerusalem or the religion of Banaras.  Western religion based on Jerusalem is a religion of divine confrontation. Eastern religion based on Indian culture is a religion of interiority.

Berger’s chapter in The Heretical Imperative “Between Jerusalem and Benares: The Coming Contestation of Religions,” posits two major forms of Divine encounter. A confrontation with the divine (epitomized in the West with the monotheistic tradition, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam); and the interiority of the divine, exemplified in the East with such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. For Berger, these two forms of divine encounter are antagonistic to each other. Western monotheism has a transcendent God, while Eastern interiority have a merger into divine immanence in which human consciousness dissolves into a greater oneness.

Berger was not concerned with empirical studies of mysticism or religious experience, rather with theology. The Protestant theologians of the 20th century dialectic movement such as Karl Barth rejected “every form of mysticism as unbelief, it was converting God into an object. They considered it self-serving and not based on God’s demand.

Berger follows this theological trend in general, and in particular relies on the Protestant theologian Freidrich Heiler whose work Prayer A Study In The History And Psychology Of Religion. The latter work made a sharp distinction between prophecy and mysticism, or more specifically between Biblical prophetic prayer of confronting God and/or petition to God, as opposed to mystical prayer of enthusiasm and absorption into God. Heiler’s two groups are the proper Lutheran prayer as opposed to pagan and enthusiastic prayer such as German spiritualists or Shakers. Berger included in Western prayer two aspects -confrontation and personalist identity- corresponding to prayer in Soloveitchik and Heschel respectively.

It is important to note that this same distinction about prayer used by Freidrich Heiler was eagerly adopted by Jewish studies. Jospeh Heinemann in his Prayer in the Period of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, & Prayer in the Talmud  presented rabbinic prayer as prophetic and confrontational as opposed to the mythic-mystical prayer at the margins of the rabbinic world. Moshe Greenberg presented Biblical prayer as prophetic without myth or mysticism.

Actually, Jewish prayer may be neither of these categories, or at least has more than these two, in that it is also adoration, doxology, magic, theurgy, contemplation, and chant. There are many Jewish educators, and even Talmudists, who because of their lack of interest in theology are still stuck using only Heiler’s Protestant categories.

Berger accepted this dichotomy and globalized it as the West as prophetic and East as mysticism. Nevertheless, Berger does concede that there are Western mystics but says that we have to distinguish mode from content. There is a mystical mode in the West but Western mystics do not have oneness of reality, while Eastern religion can be faith without any mystical experience but their essence is oneness of reality even without the experience.

The Other Side of God

In order to investigate the divide between the religion of the East and of the West, Peter Berger hosted a series of seminars for several years, starting in 1978, called “Monotheism and the World Religions.”   The papers were published in 1981 as The Other side of God: A polarity in world religions.

Berger asked: how can we reconcile these mystical traditions with our firm monotheistic confrontation. Berger’s fellow-scholars criticize this theological dyad of confrontation and mysticism in the light of their own phenomenological research.  Among those invited to attend included Ewert Cousins, the general editor of the new Classics of Western Spirituality (and my doctorate advisor), as well as the quite young Jewish representations, Michael Fishbane and Arthur Green.

Michael Fishbane adapted this distinction to the Bible as similar the distinction of the nature worship of Baal and the goddess as opposed to the worship of the Biblical God.  He supports Berger in showing that the vision of Ezekiel was transcendent and not one of merger. Yet, he then boldly reversed the dichotomy by saying that the Bible exaggerates the battle of God and Baal. On the popular level, the people mixed the cults and practices. Nevertheless, the mythic element comes back, as a return of the repressed, in Midrash and Kabbalah. In the kabbalah, once again god-man- world become one. Kabbalah has the mythic and mystical aspects.

Arthur Green presented Hasidism as a mysticism outgrowth of Judaism in which there is indeed an interiority and absorption into God. Green presented Hasidism as beyond the strictures and institutions of Judaism. A direct outgrowth of their experiencing oneness with God in their minds and within the natural order. Green cites Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Epstein of Homel who clearly expressed their pantheistic view that “all is God” (als iz Got).

Parenthetically, Berger repeatedly misquoted this in the name of Rav Nachman and credits him with Chabad organizational zeal. “The famous Kabbalist Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), corresponded with kindred individuals all over the Jewish world from his obscure locale in Ukraine.” Berger’s version compared Hasidism to the pantheistic heresy of the Islamic mystic al-Hallaj, in which, “that “everything is God”, an idea obviously blasphemous in Jewish law.” Nachman  of Bratzlav “wrote this sentence in one of his letters, but he did not dare to write it in Hebrew, the sacred language of Torah—so he wrote that one sentence in Yiddish.”

Fishbane established the approach of treating the Bible and Rabbis as mythic and both Fishbane and Green gave an emphasis to experiential God consciousness and mysticism to their studies of Kabbalah.

Ewert Cousins in his response to Berger used the medieval Neo-platonic tradition to show that a mainstream Western mystic such as Francis of Assisi had a unified vision with natural realm, a nature mysticism without pantheism or absorption into God. Cousins showed how Francis saw a divine plenitum in the world as a unity in the difference. For Cousins, the Neoplatonism tradition, long buried finds mysticism in the plurality of this world.. After the series of seminars, Cousins was the major drive behind the Classics of Western Spirituality and World Spirituality volumes. Only recently, have Jewish scholars such as Adam Afterman returned the study of Jewish mysticism to Neoplatonic concerns

Yet, Berger continued to treat Neo-Platonism as mythological more than Western, the way Protestant theologians such as Barth did in some of their writings. Berger understands Rudolph Otto’s sense of mysterium tremendum”/”ganz andere” as supporting the Western idea of confrontation and not the concept of mysticism.

Turning to Hinduism and my intest in Banares, there was a nice article by John Carmen on Hinduism as a theistic interiority and showing that the Bhagavad Gita presents a confrontation with God. Nevertheless, Berger never retracted his position to see Hinduism as devotion to a theistic God in which one seeks God help in prayer and to attain merit.  (See my forthcoming book for more on this.)

In his introduction to the volume, and in later essays, Berger treated Gershom Scholem as the reappearance of mythological forms in Judaism despite Judaism as being the most anti-mythological. He concludes that myth is a primordial human experience.  He places Eliade in the same group. Berger acknowledges that his own idea of a sacred canopy bears commonality with the mythic vision of Scholem and Eliade, but thinks the sacred canopy is meaning and plausibility, not myth.

Gershom Scholem saw mysticism as just a symbolic understanding of an ultimate reality, a universal phenomena that plays itself out in non-reducible languages and systems. However, in this case Peter Berger’s phenomenology, based on Alfred Schutz, can be more useful to explain diversity. Berger is willing to consider the various phenomena of mysticism, psychoanalysis, demonic possession, magic, ascents of the soul, meditation, as different plausibility structures. There are different and non-reducible ways to experience reality. Berger acknowledge the diversity of actual people. However, he speaks as an advocate for Western confrontational religion.

Unlike Scholem, Berger does not think that relgion should be reduced to its mystical core or “what William James called the “mysticism of infinity” in which self, world, and divinity merge in ecstasy.” For Berger, mysticism is only a relatively small area within the vast array of human religion.

Finally, as recently as this decade, Berger questioned the compatibility of Yoga with Western religion because they share different views of human destiny. Yoga is self-liberation and Berger’s reading of Western culture is a need for revelation and redemption outside the self. He acknowledges that many just do Yoga as an exercise but he asks “Could one say the Lord’s Prayer while sitting in the lotus position? Conversely, could one seek “emptiness” while receiving communion? The short answer is: One could, but it would be awkward.” Once again, Berger lacks a sense of Yogic Kabbalaists like Abulafia or Hindu theist yoga.

Interfaith to Seek Truth

Berger advocated a non-pragmatic motive for engaging in interfaith activity, which is, quite simply, to engage in a renewed search for truth. For him, “Obviously, such a statement contains an implicit theological assumption, one that is, broadly speaking, liberal. Which is to say, it will make no sense to any orthodoxy holding to the belief that, short of the eschaton , everything has been revealed that is going to be and therefore there is nothing new to be learned of religiously relevant truth.”

For Berger, this is the dialogue between Jerusalem and Benares, between the faiths that descend from the biblical tradition and the faiths of South and East Asia, which to him is the most promising and most challenging questions intellectually.

Nevertheless, Berger cautioned about interfaith and intergroup activities  that harmony will always come from a better understanding of each other. Intergroup tensions and conflicts are based on hard vested interests, on ancient and newly invented hatreds, and on emotional and ideological needs. However, he was in favor of pragmatic purpose in helping to reduce tensions through mutual understanding and empathy. But bearing in mind that it will not effect  the more determined bigots.

Despite being a sociologist and advocating that we have to acknowledge that, we live in an age of pluralism. Berger thinks that the pluralistic situation forces us to choose our religious belief, and every religious affirmation we then make is the result of choice, even if we choose this or that orthodoxy. It becomes very difficult to say innocently, “we believe”; even if we use such words, what we are really saying is, “ have chosen to identify with this we .” At the same time, I must remain faithful to my own experience, even though I know this experience to be relativized by my historical and social location.

According to Berger, the first insight makes it impossible for him to be “exclusivist,” thinking his religious views are the only way. The second insight make it impossible to be a “pluralist.” Because relgious truths are contradictory or some of them are. They cannot readily be put together into a better picture like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; some of them belong to different pictures.

Berger sees three broad interfaith challenges. The first challenge to Western monotheism is the experience of the mythological matrix . Anywhere in the world, if one goes back far enough, one comes upon a worldview that can be described quite adequately as mythological, characterized by fluid, permeable boundaries between the realms of men, of nature, and of the gods. The radical rupture of this world that took place in ancient Israel and is at the root of the biblical tradition almost certainly served to reinforce these boundaries. He never did accept Michael Fishbane’s ideas.

The second challenge of the religions of South and East Asia is their experience of Buddhist emptiness of nirvana, an-atta, shunyata, satori .  Here he learned something from his seminars from Ewert Cousins and Arthur Green, acknowledging those who “tried to reconcile the insights coming out of this experience with the monotheistic affirmations of biblical faith”such as Isaac Luria, the principal theorist of the Safad school of the Kabbalah…or Bonaventure, who sought to retain the speculations of radical Franciscanism within the fold of Catholic orthodoxy…”

Finally, Berger thinks there is the third challenge: the experience of other particular revelations because of the particularistic and historicized character of Israel’s understanding of God’s revelation. “ If God chose Israel, could He have chosen any other people and if so, how are these two elections related to each other?”  Speaking in a Judeo-Christian voice, Berger asks: “Is there any way in which a Jew or a Christian could understand God as speaking in the Quran?” He was the issue with Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s Dignity of Difference, the award winning first edition said yes. While the revised safer second edition removed those lines.

In conclusion, Berger writes about maintaining religious differences: “I am convinced that interfaith dialogue, while acknowledging areas of agreement, must also be frank in stating disagreements. In other words, it is as important to say no as to say yes .”

Lutheranism, and the Heretical Imperative

In my prior blog post, I noted that in his book The Heretical Imperative, he distinguished between the Orthodox deductive position and liberal reductive position, between the positions of a return to certainty despite modernity and the position of accepting the rationalism of modernity. Instead he advocates, a theological pluralism of always seeking to balance the extremes using social science.

However, in some of his later works, he surprises us by crediting his pluralism scheme directly to Lutheranism. On the orthodox side, Catholics have “the miracle of the Mass,” where the “transubstantiation” was supposed to occur.  On the other hand, there was the Swiss view of Zwingli  that the Eucharist was a simple memorial. These are the extremes of reductionism and deductionism, while only the Lutherans understand that the Eucharist, Christ is present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine: neither transubstantiation nor a simple memorial, rather a balance.

Returning to our opening about Berger’s mixture of theology and sociology, for him the Church is a thoroughly human institution, with all the vices and follies of such an entity, possessing no intrinsic authority and certainly not the power of infallibility. God’s revelation is communicated in, with, and under an all too fallible institution.

In many ways this also fits, the middle range of contemporary Jews who treat mizvot not as supernatural nor as merely a symbol. Rather, they are the ways we come to God. Modern Orthodoxy is in its classic mid-20th century form approached Berger’s Lutheran middle position. Moreover, even now when it leans more to the deductive side, it still rejects the miraculous for a Weber sense of rationality, or even Lutheran balance. Therefore, until the recent influx of magical ideas in Modern Orthodoxy, it avoided the miraculous in daily life.

Two years ago, I gave my talk on the “Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy” at a major University. They arranged for a Catholic professor to respond to my talk. She responded that modern Catholics share many of the issues of Modern Orthodoxy Jews, including that both combine their faith and secular studies. However, she added that Catholics have a third element besides the modern and the Orthodox, that of the miraculous.  For her, one must always balance faith with both modernity and with the miraculous. The Catholic Church has been supernaturalist in principle, but cautious in practice: Saints are expected to perform miracles, but these are juridical investigated and bureaucratically regulated; miracles outside these procedures are frowned upon.

This struck me because it was never a Jewish perspective. However, with the return of Neo-Chassidus and magical thinking to Modern Orthodoxy, it may play a bigger role in future thinkers.

However, what is noticeable is that in some issues like the origins of the BIble, Modern Orthodoxy is unlike Lutheran middle  rather closer to the Evangelical deductive. Right wing Conservative is closer to Berger. According to Berger’s “Lutheran view, in which the Bible is a collection of texts produced by human beings under specific historical circumstances, neither directly inspired nor inerrant. God revealed himself in, with, and under these contingencies of history.

Modern Orthodoxy has traditionally been closer to the Protestants who have been more wary of the supernatural: God speaks to us through the kerygma , the proclamation of the Word, yet keeps the miracles  of the past open. Modern Orthodoxy, in some ways, has a similarity to American Evangelical theologians (very non-Pentecostal ones) who have developed a doctrine called “cessationism”: Miracles have ceased because they are no longer needed, or after the canon was completed.

Pentecostals, New Age, and the turn to Ultra-Orthodoxy

Berger writing from a personal biographical perspective of Lutheranism has never been attracted to  Pentecostalism. But as a sociologist he have been fascinated by it. And furthermore, he sees that it improves people’s lives by providing comfort and community for people. It preaches a morality that encourages sobriety, discipline, and devotion to family. Those who do, begin to experience social mobility and will indeed improve their lives. Pentecostalism is itself a modernizing movement in the developing world.  This is an important point for those Modern Orthodox authors who have an animus against the more right wing Yeshivish or Chabad and do not see their value in modernizing, in social mobility, and in producing a disciplined life.

On the other hand, Berger originally supported the need to bring religion into the public sphere as part of conservative trend of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, founded in 1989 by Richard John Neuhaus. Yet, he subsequently broke with them over their obsessions with abortion and same sex relations.

On the other hand, Paul Heelas, one of the leading scholars of the new age movement, points out how Berger never really understood the turn to spirituality. scholars of 21st century religion, note that Berger is not useful for dealing with the new age, therapeutic, and the immanence of religion in our lives. And Berger certainly has fewer insight to apply to the return to non-pluralist religion. Berger understood interiority- the lonely man of faith-  but not how people find God in social activities of helping other, of therapeutically helping themselves, in use of Asian religious ideas, in small groups, and in the arts. He could not see the current immanent form of religious humanism, in which the homeless religious mind found a new home in the immanence of daily life. Berger had too sharp of a sacred and profane distinction. He would not be helpful in understanding the plethora of new age and therapeutic forms of Chabad and yeshivish.

Modern Orthodoxy

Gerald Blidstein  notably compared Rav Soloveitchik’s constructivist  approach of  “world-building and world-perceiving” to “certain  facets  of  the  work of people like [Peter] Berger, [Clifford] Geertz, [Charles] Taylor,  [Michael]  Walzer,  and  others..”  An important point.

But by the time, Blidstein wrote those words, Modern Orthodoxy stopped caring and in an undereducated and frightened but belligerent way thought  Peter Berger was post-modern, and therefore oppose to religion. However, Berger himself had to clarify occasionally his own positon before the misreading of his pluralism and constructivism. Berger’s pluralism is a form of realism in which the modern believer has to have discernment to choose between the options and  not rely on dogmatic deductivism or reductionism. However, the word pluralism twenty years later by other thinkers meant that we have no truth or that all truth is just a subjective construct.

A different distortion seemingly common among Modern Orthodox is to misread Berger’s pluralism and heretical imperative as if he was the first to discuss the voluntary nature of religion after the Enlightenment and Emancipation, as if he is a liberal affirmer of individual conscience. (Get ready for a short screed.)

There is an Orthodox interpretation of Peter Berger, almost a meme, crediting him with the Enlightenment saying that we are all freethinkers today and not locked into a socially imposed religion, as were the pre-moderns. Therefore, these modern Orthodox think he is similar to the Hazon Ish’s statement that there is no heresy today because the social-religious framework cannot the taken as a given. The Hazon Ish notes that in Jewish modern life after the Emancipation if one chooses a non-observant life, it is not an act of deep rebellion. There also seems to be some sense in which these meme users think this misreading distinguishes themselves from Haredim.

However, the Hazon Ish is just responding to the 19th century. Almost any thinker from Locke, Lessing, Hume, Jefferson, Mendelssohn, or Kant says we no longer have an established religion and follow our own conscience. Jews after the Enlightenment and Emancipation can choose to remain Jewish or to leave. Many 20th century books on the modern Jew make a statement to that effect in the first chapter.

In contrast, Berger’s pluralistic choice is about the believer needing to forever be mediating and negotiating using current academic study. Berger was a firm conservative believer against freethinkers since they are giving up the needed pluralist negotiation and seeking of transcendence. For Berger the need to choose is not the decision to be religious or not. It is a philosophic position of a need to create a sophisticated faith- choice means sophistication and the need to apply critical methods, especially of sociology.  Think of his position as the need to affirm Torah Umadda or Tradition and Modernity, or a critical modern faith. Berger is not about autonomy and finding one’s “religious preference”. He is not Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and is against such liberalism. As noted above in the interfaith section, Berger simultaneously affirms that all choices are personal, but we then fully accept them as our Existential choose. Those who follow the meme comparing the Hazon Ish and Peter Berger are themselves guilty of not have a heretical faith informed by social science.


In conclusion, what was the attraction of Berger’s writings for Jews? In a Jewish context, his ideas were generally formulated his ideas as a tension to be negotiated, a hallmark late 20th century of Jewish religious thought. Among the specific Jewish tensions are autonomy and rabbinic authority, between legitimation by personal choice or by Rabbinic tradition, between identity and status in a Jewish community, and critical studies and rabbinic tradition. Different Jewish denominations resolved the tension in different ways.

There were, however, Jewish critics of Peter Berger who bristled against his definition of Judaism as a religion and faith commitment, when they instead defined Judaism Jewish peoplehood or the Jewish historical experience, especially the Holocaust. Yet, the Reform movement even consulted Berger when they considered a campaign of outreach to non-Jews. (I did not deal with these aspects in this essay.)

Nevertheless, Berger remains the model for attaining clarity about a certain form of 1960-1985 form of middle point religion. Jews used Berger’s socio-theological faith as a way to show how to negotiate religious options in tension with each other.