Author Archives: Alan Brill

Conclusion – Rabbi Ysoscher Katz and Rabbi Ozer Glickman

Dear Readers, the story played out fine. A discussion started in prior prejudice of an alleged misplaced progressivism and an assumed instrumental social view gave way to understanding and shalom between Torah scholars. Below are the final statements from Rabbis Glickman and Katz. Part One with the responsa and original complaints was here.

scholarly debate

From Rabbi Glickman

How Rav Ysoscher Katz fooled me and what I learned

Along with its oft-realized potential for Chillul haShem, the internet can also forge new relationships that can blossom into powerful friendships. I first encountered Rav Ysoscher Katz on Facebook. I knew of him only vaguely through Rav Avi Weiss and Dr. Hillel Jaffe, two friends of mine who have been, of course, heavily involved with Yeshivat Chovevei haTorah. Rav Katz reached out to me since we were both participating in the Orthodox Forum this March and we arranged to eat lunch one day. From there, we began to message one another.

When Rav Katz published a couple of notices that referred to his Torah as “progressive,” I wrote him a private, respectful note asking him why he needed to modify the Torah he teaches. He thought this was an important conversation and invited me to post a note on his Facebook wall which I did. This occasioned a back-and-forth, not about his teshuva but about the couching of it as social commentary. Unlike many of the commenters on FB, I actually read his teshuva before commenting and didn’t think it was at all problematic and hardly needed any criticism or haskamah from me.

The original thrust of our discussion was lost as others shifted the conversation to things that interested them, starting new threads and elevating the discourse. I was happy when Rav Katz acknowledged my point and reformulated his language to make it clear that we actually didn’t disagree. His halakhic teachings are in fact not just a vehicle for his political and social views and everyone is happy.

Late last night, when everyone in my home had gone to bed, I was reviewing a siman of Yoreh Deah in my study when my phone jingled with the distinctive sound that heralds a message of some sort. It was Rav Katz, confirming a date for lunch next week. I was in the middle of a comment of the Shach on why the sugya of tipas chalav is not merely a case of tzli and assur k’dei netilah. It’s a well-known kushya in Yoreh Deah. While Rav Katz was typing a response, I was reading a gloss by haGaon Rabbi Akiva Iger that I had underlined years ago and didn’t remember why. It was just the kind of thing that strikes me. The gaon writes that the din of measuring against the whole chaticha cannot be as the Shach characterizes it, a bow to a safeik as to the nature of milk, because it is mentioned in the mishnah. The mishnah is always mei’ikar ha-din, unless it stipulates otherwise. Without thinking, I shared it with Rav Katz and he seemed as animated by it as I was, referring to a rishon elsewhere that affirms the same thing and his general contention that mishnah is about fact…

Now this insight of the Gaon is the kind of thing that really gets me thinking. II can be lost to the world and my wife will ask me what’s bothering me. I have learned not to respond. She doesn’t share my excitement over comments like these.

Here’s the thing, though: Rav Ysoscher Katz does. He is struck by the same methodological comments that suddenly appear when you least expect them and offer deep insight into the literary nature of the sources.

Well, he had me fooled. The rallying of his base with the modifier “progressive” and the emphasis on the Modern in Modern Orthodox were misdirections. It turns out, as he told me from the outset, that we are interested in the same things, that we share many of the same passions.

Last night, we talked about how a Satmar boy raised in the chassidische yeshiva world wound up in the same place as the son of a maskil who spoke in Ashkenazic Hebrew to his children, who taught his son Bialik and Tchernechovski and made him read Albright and Kramer before his Bar Mitzvah, who taught him hundreds of pages of Eyn Yaakov so he wouldn’t waste his time on halakhah… how these two boys wound up in the same place. Yesterday would have been my mother’s 90th birthday had she lived longer than her 65 years and I thought all day about how I have come to be where I am. Last night’s late conversation about life and journeys was very important to me.

So here it is. I found a new friend who loves Torah in much the same way as I do, who enjoys incorporating insights from academia in the spirit of Mada l’maan ha-Torah. Next time, I think I’ll get to know someone before drawing any conclusions.


Response of Rabbi Katz

Observance of mitzvot is rewarded in Olam Haba’ah. The Mishna in Peah (1:1), however, introduces a special category of mitzvot that carry additional compensation. The Mishna has a list of mitzvot which, in addition to generating reward in Olam Haba’ah, also allows people to be אוכל פירותיהם בעולם הזה; to reap benefits in this world. According to Maimonides, אוכל פירותיהם בעולם הזה means that those mitzvot also carry sociological benefits. They have the ability to improve our social fabric and make the world a better place. Somewhat surprisingly, one finds Talmud Torah in that list. Learning Torah, despite being a cerebral pursuit, apparently also has sociological and psychological benefits, it too can make this world a better and happier place.

My experience these last two weeks was an extreme embodiment of this premise. I wrote the teshuvah on breastfeeding in shul for academic and legal purposes. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that this intellectual pursuit will also provide emotional and personal benefits. Instead of being attacked by the usual shrill voices in our community, I was privileged to have someone from across the aisle reach out to me and with a firm but sensitive voice engage me in dialogue. R Ozer raised serious questions about my jurisprudential methodology but did it with the kindness and sensitivity befitting a talmid chacham of his caliber.

While I expected this engagement to be another run of the mill debate, it unexpectedly turned into a very meaningful and stimulating friendship, a true fulfillment of the Mishna’s promise, that proper Torah can also heal social ills.

While we both share an aversion to pesak with an agenda, we respectfully disagree on the degree to which pre-determined convictions can inform the judicial process. While this is an important question, it is not the only one contemporary poskim need to grapple with.

Halakhic Judaism is at a crossroads, new realities confront us with new challenges. To authentically address them important conversations need to happen, some of Halakha’s principles need to be assessed and reevaluated. While there are many questions we need to address, I will list the three most burning ones (in my opinion).

1) What should the posek’s starting assumption be when answering a question? Does the posek assume things are assur, unless proven otherwise? Or, should the starting point be that things are mutar, in which case the onus is on the legal system to prove that the heter assumption was wrong.

2) Given the tradition’s understanding that הלכה is not mere observance, that it is also הליכה, a way of life and a mode of being in this world, how does one create a Halakhic system that generates a proper religious equilibrium, one that runs on the healthy center, and is neither too lenient nor overly stringent?

3) Finally, given my own chassidish upbringing, I am very curious to know if and how Chasidic theology can and should influence our pesika. I have no doubt that in previous generations, Chassidic theology played a role in the judicial thinking of many Chassidish poskim. I would like to unpack that process and figure out how it could be replicated in our current judicial arena.

I am thrilled about this new friendship with my colleague from the other side of the intra-denominational divide. I hope and pray that this relationship can blossom and grow, eventually leading to many more conversations. Hopefully they will ultimately lead to a richer and more sophisticated religiosity for both of our camps.

Apropos of the teshuvah which generated this beautiful debate, chazal actually use a breastfeeding analogy to convey the enormity of Torah. The Rabbis tell us (Eiruvin 64b) that studying Torah is compared to a child being breastfed. Just as the breast provides milk for the infant anytime she latches on, so too does the Torah provide constant nourishment whenever we turn to it for spiritual sustenance. I suspect that this breastfeeding teshuvah will continue to nourish our intra-denominational friendship, allowing it to constantly grow and expand. Working together will give us a better chance at creating a genuine torat emet, one that is true to Torah’s essence and to its mandate.

מורי, ידידי, כהנה וכהנה!

From Rabbi Glickman

I returned to the yeshiva yesterday (I don’t teach every Monday, only every other week). The guys were back from all over these United States, Israel, Europe, etc. where they spent Pesach at home with their families. YU has much more geographical diversity among its students these days. This means there is someone with whom to discuss real football, the kind where you don’t touch the ball with your hands unless you’re wearing gloves. המבין יבין

Wonders of wonders, there was a tremendous amount of discussion about my budding friendship with Rav Ysoscher Katz shlit”a. For those who don’t know him, he’s the talmid chacham who tries to sound cool and progressive but is actually not so progressive, at least not in a prescriptive way. I mean…. enough! He’s a talmid chacham and I like him. That’s good enough for me.

A number of students from my massively overtallied Tuesday halakha class stayed around to discuss l’affaire l’allaitement. They had all read it. Nice to know, at least until all the grades are in, that my students disagree with the assessment of the many commenters on Facebook who found me a) just a politician; b) ignorant of legal theory; and c) a poor student of the responsa literature. The conversation moved out of the classroom after minchah and devolved into a discussion of the internet and the etiquette of posting.

This continued over dinner with one of my colleagues, a very distinguished long-time Rosh Yeshiva. In a nutshell, he doesn’t share my views although he would dispute the contention that I don’t understand shu”t. Thanks for that.

Here are the conclusions I shared with my students (the Rosh Yeshiva doesn’t have a Facebook account although he has heard of it).

  1. Treat people with respect, even if you do not agree with them. We all enjoyed the commenter who addressed RYK with title, called me by my last name, and dismissed what I had to say as uninteresting hackneyed politics. He later apologized by saying he is not a rav and this is the way he and his friends talk in shul. Note to self: find out where he davvens (or talks) and avoid it.
  2. If you are going to comment on a teshuva, read it first.
  3. If you read something written by someone who is generally considered to be a scholar of some standing and you think you can refute it off the top of your head, there is a good chance you didn’t understand what he or she was saying. Even b’nai Torah can be guilty of this.
  4. Most people aren’t interested in what you have to say. They critique your post as an asmakhta for their own ideas. It would be good to first read carefully what you said because they don’t look very fair when they then repeat in other words what you already wrote.
  5. The internet is not the best place for Torah discussion but it is where lots of people meet. Be prepared for all the annoying behavior mentioned above and just get over yourself.
  6. Be aware that there are always angry people with their own issues who take anyone who actually works for the Jewish community in a public role as a target for their own pathologies. Ignore them.
  7. Most of the time, ignore 6. The vast majority of people are nice (a little unthinking sometimes so get over yourself and let them misinterpret and insult you because chances are you do it, too).
  8. Don’t ascribe deep dark motivations to people with whom you don’t agree. This even applies to Open Orthodoxy (joke, okay?).
  9. Which brings me to 8: irony can be lost when words are only printed on a screen. Whenever you’re insulted, chalk it up to a joke that didn’t go over.
  10. Take periodic long vacations from the internet. Like I am about to do.

Kol Tuv

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz and Rabbi Ozer Glickman – Rounds One and Two

Recently, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz released a teshuva permitting breast-feeding in shul. In turn Rabbi Ozer Glickman commented on Facebook, generating the start of a discussion between them. Facebook does not do well for hosting such a conversation; it was moved to this blog. The discussion will be on Facebook. But first a few prefaces.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Chair of the Talmud Department. at Yeshivat. Chovevei Torah; Director of the Lindenbaum. Center for the Study of Halakha received ordination from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok.

Rabbi Ozer is a Rosh Yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He has worked in hedge funds, banking, and risk management. He has also studied critical Talmud in the general academy.

The interesting contrast here is that the former has moved from the Haredi world to the modern world and is self-conscious as modern, while the latter has moved from the Conservative Conservadox world and is self-conscious of his journey.

The Topic: Breastfeeding in public was accepting in many segments of the United States for the last few decades, but the discussion was opened anew in 2007-2008 when people objected to a magazine cover. It quickly became another chip in the culture wars for the last eight years. However, recently Pope Francis made a bold action and others affirmed the act as natural. Rabbi Katz wrote a teshuva permitting breast feeding in public, here is the definitive Hebrew version online, and  as PDF Breastfeeding and showing affection in shul. Word Breastfeeding and Showing Affection in Shul. 

Finally, who is supporting breastfeeding in public? The clearest answer is a select percentage of millennials since they are of child birthing years.

Rabbi Glickman responded to the Teshvah with a Facebook post rejecting Rabbi Katz’s current self-identity as modern and his pesak as a modern pesak as meaningful for someone deciding Jewish law. Remember, the discussion will be on Rabbi Katz’s wall. The conclusion was posted three days later here.


On the Politics of P’sak

At the invitation of Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, I am publishing thoughts on his recent piece on nursing in shul posted on Facebook. Rabbi Katz and I have begun to develop a relationship founded on the mutual respect appropriate for two b’nai Torah in public and private discourse. At the outset, let me state unequivocally that I acknowledge Rabbi Katz to be a talmid chacham with the highest standards of integrity and honesty. I value his opinion, sincerity, and Torah knowledge. That said, there is a fundamental disagreement that has cropped up on the last three things of his that I have read. I am looking forward to discussing this difference with Rabbi Katz personally after the chagim at what we hope will be the first of several regular discussions.

When Rabbi Katz published his invitation to the community to participate in Torah study and prayer on Shabbat ha-Gadol, I noticed it. The Torah was described as “progressive.” I guess that is a dog-whistle word to the base, i.e., proponents of so-called Open Orthodoxy, that the Torah would be to their social and political taste. Given our relationship of candor with one another, I wrote to him privately (eschewing the mores of social media which demand a snarky, arrogant dismissal, often anonymous) questioning whether Torah should be consciously anything other than Torah. We agreed to table the discussion.

When Rabbi Katz published his post on kitniyot, I noticed it again. Rabbi Katz offered one suggestion for those that self-identify as Modern Orthodox and another for those who self-identify as ultra-Orthodox. I again responded, this time in the comments but with respect and affection.

When I read his piece on nursing, I saw the trope again and this time I am moved to respond to him in more detail (I will at a later time comment on the specific textual readings he offers in his extraordinarily well-written teshuva).

It is clear that poskim operate on the basis of political (in the policy rather than electoral sense) views. As human beings who engage with society, they cannot help but have views on the societies in which we live. I do not believe, however, that a genuine poseik ever proceeds with a conscious political agenda. Poskim may intend their decisions for certain ethnicities within the Jewish people that maintain distinct halakhic traditions and practices but never for groups that self-identify sociologically. Writing a Modern Orthodox teshuva is not the same.

It reminds me of a cousin by marriage who is a Conservative Rabbi. When he has discussed halakhah with me, he never discusses the issues; he can only refer to decisions by the Rabbinical Assembly or the United Synagogue. There is no supposition that there is anything actually called Halakhah without a prefix.

I do not teach Modern Orthodox Halakhah in the Yeshiva and I suspect Rabbi Katz doesn’t in his either. I don’t write teshuvot (there are plenty of real poskim to do that) but when I teach Torah I attempt to teach the real thing, without a prefix. It isn’t Modern Orthodox and it isn’t even consciously Orthodox- it’s Torah.

This is a major difference between Rabbi Katz and me. He is much more taken with the notion of Modern Orthodoxy. This stands to reason. I grew up in a Conservadox community (the lines weren’t so clear back then) with a lifestyle very close to the one I live today, the major difference being knowledge. My rabbi was a YU musmakh. Whatever I didn’t do correctly during high school wasn’t because I held other beliefs; it was because I didn’t know better. Without being too personal, Rabbi Katz consciously affiliates with a group very different from the one in which he was raised. It is natural, I would think, that he is more conscious of his current affiliation than I am of mine.

But it is more than that. In my mind, Modern Orthodoxy is descriptive, not prescriptive. I would not ever say about any practice, “We don’t do that- we’re Modern Orthodox.” There is no Modern Orthodox halakhah. There are sociological descriptions of what people who identify themselves as Modern Orthodox do. That is more for sociologists than for poskim.

I note the observations that Rabbi Katz makes about “our women.” I do not think the identity between men and women that he describes regarding attitudes toward public prayer and Torah study are as widespread as he represents. If this is a teshuva for his kehillah, then he is well within his mandate. Teshuvot, though, are written for broad swaths of the Jewish people. The mores he describes are limited to small clusters. It may well be that we should aspire to these changes but I know vast swaths of the religious community that self-identifies as Modern Orthodox in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Los Angeles, Michigan, Canada, Massachusetts, Tennessee not to mention Yerushalayim, Beit Shemesh, Modiin… where nursing a baby in a minyan would offend.

It may be that the commenter was correct: this was intended as “Open Orthodoxy pesika.” That is a notion that I still find difficult to accept.

Please note: Rabbi Katz and I are committed to a calm, cordial and respectful tone. Our מחלוקות are לשם שמים. It would be nice if commenters would maintain the same tone.

Editors original FB comment: So what is the operative factor here? 1) a self-identified catering to an audience 2) a mistake in what the community reactions are to breastfeeding – the “our women” issue 3)The use of modern/progressive as a meta-halakha?


לכבוד הגאון ר’ עוזר גליקמן שליט”א

אחדשת”ה כראוי וכיאות

I first want to thank you for your thoughtful comments and insightful feedback. It is reassuring to know that in a world of סתירת נערים where people who תורתם אינם אומנותם   promote a Torah which thrives on an ethos of איש את רעהו חיים בלעו, there are still gedolim Be’Torah like yourself, who are able and willing to disagree with dignity and also focus on גופן של דברים.

As for your actual critique: you infer from my writings that I believe in “prefix” pesika, that there is such a thing as “Modern” or “Progressive” Torah, which is intrinsically different than its non-modern or non-progressive form. You argue that such a halakhic posture is wrong. You believe that pesika should be an objective exercise in which religious affiliation or philosophical inclination plays no role. In other words, from your perspective we differ on whether the judicial process is objective or subjective. You claim that my pesika is subjective and are strongly opposed to this approach. You see a major divide in our judicial philosophies.

(While you label it “politics” of psak, I prefer to call it the “philosophy” of psak. Politics describes considerations that are external to the judicial exercise. Philosophy, in contrast, describes considerations that are intrinsic to the pesika enterprise.)

While at first blush it seems that we strongly disagree, we actually agree-with a caveat. I too believe that agenda driven Torah is wrong and inauthentic. I, nevertheless, maintain that it is a mistake to assume that Torah exists in a pristine and objective void. Every posek brings to bear his religious orientation when deciding halakhic matters.

I will illustrate my point with an exercise I use in my halakha classes.

Satmar Rav (Rav Yolish Z”L) and R. Moshe Feinstein Z”L famously disagreed on three things, chalav stam, artificial insemination, and the required height of the mechitza.

I do not reveal to my students which views each of them held. I only tell them that each respectively paskened the same way on all three, le’chumra, or le’kulah. I then ask them if they can guess who paskened leniently and who stringently. Using the information they have about these two poskim’s judicial personalities, they always guess correctly:  that R. Moshe took the more lenient position on all three issues, while Satmar Rav paskened more stringently on all three.

This outcome is not a coincidence. Their consistent approach implies that there is an underlying principle informing their decisions, an overarching “philosophy” that animates their pesak. This to me is clear evidence that each posek brings a certain orientation to his pesika. The Satmar Rav’s orientation towards chumra was based on his suspicious view of human nature. R. Moshe had the opposite orientation. His halakhic orientation was permissive because he was less cynical about human intentions.

Therefore, regardless of how much a posek claims that his psak is objective, it is simply untrue. Every psak is guided by the posek’s convictions and internal value system. A posek should consequently not strive for an objectivity which does not exist. He instead needs to develop an internal compass which will lead towards an “orientation” which is true to the text and consistent with tradition’s values. While not determinative, this orientation will then guide the posek’s pursuit of Torat emes.

Personally, my pesika is agenda free but at the same time guided by a deep sense of what I believe the Torah was meant to do. In my case, it is a strong belief that a Torat chaim coupled with a Torat chesed (Mishlei 31) is one which is aware of contemporary realities and proactively responds to them.

Derech agav, I also wish to address what seems to be a slight misunderstanding about a phrase I use in the Teshuva. When I mention “our women” (נשי דידן), I was talking about shul going, not breastfeeding.

It was an argument I utilized in the context of addressing the judicial silence on the subject. As I researched the topic I was surprised to learn that in close to two thousand years of pesika, the question of breastfeeding in shul never arose.

I believe that the explanation is sociological, that female shul attendance on the scale we are witnessing today is a relatively new phenomenon and, therefore, questions relating to female presence in shul rarely if ever came up. Until recently, women, especially those of child bearing age, would attend shul twice a year, on Rosh Ha’shana for tekiat shofar and Yom Kippur for however long they could stay in shul. (In certain communities they would also come for the kria of parshat zachor.)  A Rabbi, consequently, was never asked to address this question, breastfeeding moms were not in shul. Today this sociological reality is no longer true. “Our women” have full-fledged lives even during their child-bearing years. They have rich secular and professional lives and expect the same in the religious arena.  Thus when I was referring to “,נשי דידן” I was making a sociological, not a judicial claim.

בידידות והוקרה, ובברכת חג כשר ושמח,


To this Rabbi Glickman responded:

I enjoyed again reading your thoughts. I am especially charmed by the conscious desire to narrow the gap between us. Our positions may be a reflection of either our temperaments or characters. It may simply boil down to the fact that Ysoscher Katz is a much nicer person than Ozer Glickman. This is something I suspected when I first met you.

My recalcitrance, however, is unconscious and unwitting. And that is precisely my point. I may have views on economics, politics, and social policy and they may impact my view of halakhah. I suspect that they may be very different from yours. They do not, however, directly determine how I read a gemara. You and I can debate the meaning of a text and its relative weight in halakhic decision-making without dealing with the political differences between us. We are not encapsulated by our political personae and neither are the poskim to whom we both look for guidance.

The parallels between Open Orthodoxy and classical Conservative Judaism are too great to ignore. Consider Professor Louis Finkelstein’s The Pharisees in which the rabbis are transformed to populists beneficently caring for the downtrodden masses and Rabbi Akiva is recast as FDR. Consider Professor Louis Ginzberg’s essay “On the Significance of the Halakhah for Jewish History.” Beis Shammai represent the mindset of the wealthy capitalist and Beis Hillel the perspectives of labor. I do not need to reject their analyses out of hand if there is historical truth in what they claim. My point was that poskim are not prisoners of their political mindsets and that Jewish law is not social policy.

Classical Conservative Judaism failed when the historical analyses of Finkelstein and Ginzburg were turned from being descriptive into being prescriptive. Open Orthodoxy makes the same error. I simply don’t believe that Beis Hillel set out to decide halakhic matters on the basis of their philosophic approach. It was unwitting. They and all other poskim would not routinely violate what they believed textually should be the correct halakhah in favor of a philosophic principle. I attribute a greater degree of intellectual honesty to them. If the demands of the system say forbidden, all the orientation in the world won’t change the final decision.

A detail: I didn’t misconstrue what you meant by “our women.” In the Modern Orthodox community in which I live, women attend shul but not as frequently as men do. Open Orthodoxy seeks identity between the genders. I neither believe that the facts on the ground, at least in the part of the ground that I live on, support this nor do I believe that it would be a good thing if they did. Equality does not mean identity, but that’s a discussion for another time.

The exercise you describe in your halakhah class was very enlightening. I’d like to propose another exercise for your classroom. Next time you are writing on a woman-oriented halakhic question, let the students vote how their rebbe would decide before looking into any sources. I’m willing to bet they know the answer every time. Did I for a moment believe that a progressive would not assert a woman’s right to nurse? Anywhere? At any time?

That isn’t the case in my classroom, by the way, so at least we are consistent. I may have a formalist notion of law and it may be a major factor in the way I weigh legal sources. You may be a legal realist and it may be a major factor in the way you weigh legal sources. When I ponder a halakhic problem, however, that orientation is unconscious. I may not be reading the sources with full objectivity but I strive to. This makes me less predictable. Another discussion for another time: rabbinic Judaism appears to me to be unassailable formalist. That’s worth dis-cussing, too.

At this point in our discussion, though, which I hope will continue פנים אל פנים, I think we can be candid with one another. For my part, I think that an Orthodoxy that is dominated by progressivism is neither Orthodox nor Open. To redeem myself in your eyes, I am going to find some progressive question where my scholarly Kohanic friend will prove the point by opting for halakhic integrity over the fashionable mores of Riverdale.

Uh oh! I guess I just proved that I am right: you are a nicer person than I am!

בידידות ובהוקרה רבה



Editors note- (1) Rabbi Louis Ginzberg’s approach to historically situate Halakhah and its evolution was used by Rabbi Ezriel Hildeshimer and Rabbis David Zvi Hoffman, as committed students of Von Savigny. So too at Jew’s College in London, see Rabbi Isidor Epstein introduction to the Soncino Talmud on the evolution of the law, or Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, even by Polei Agudah’s Rabbi Kalman Kahane approves of a historical approach. Prof. Jacob Katz, whose work is influential at YU is seen as the heir to that method.

(2) See the classic Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism (1955, updated 1972) where he notes that in the 1940’s, 1950’s, and into the 1960’s the laity were not observant of the dietary laws or the Sabbath and  they did not turn to rabbis for permission or leniency. Both Sklare and more recently Prof. Jonathan Sarna emphasized that the movement was congregational – meaning that each congregation decided on their own and even a public vote or ritual committee could decide- no halakhah was needed. A shul could choose to hold a non-kosher non-Sabbath observant Hadassah excursions. For more discussion, see Sklare chapter 7 to show that these theories of Conservative law were only a concern of a narrow right wing while unknown and with no effect on the unconcerned laity.

(3) Legal realists who dealt extensively with solving practical issues to generate their response include Rav Moshe Issues, Maharam Mintz of Padua, Rav Yitzhak Elchanan, Rav DZ Hoffmann, Rav Waldenberg, and even Rabbi Liebes of the Rabbinical Alliance.

Rav Ozer,

It is Erev Yom Tov, but briefly, three quick points:

1) Your latest response very much reminds me of arguments I often have with my Satmar friends. In my conversations with them they will occasionally evoke the “milchama against tziyonos” as a justification for certain behaviors. I quickly remind them that the “war” is long over! Presented as a justification for particular actions, it is really an excuse for inaction.

When our opponents evoke the “C” (Conservative movement) argument I feel the same way. They cite old tropes as an excuse for ignoring new challenges. It adds nothing substantive to the debate.  Our scourge is internal, not external. Our dor faces real challenges (high attrition rates, religious apathy, etc.), repeating the Conservative movement’s mistakes, however, is not one of them. Instead of throwing out clichés, let us work together to inspire our communities.  We desperately need to revivify a Modern Orthodoxy that has become dormant and apathetic.

2) While Professor Lieberman may have overstated his case, we now know that his claims have a strong basis in the facts. Much new scholarship has been written on Qumarn in the interim. Scholars like Chana Verman, Vered Noam, Aaron Shemesh, and others have done incredible comparative work on that community. Their arguments make it abundantly clear that Chazal were in dialogue with the Dead Sea communities, offering a more tolerant bent towards the tradition. Their research makes clear that even Chazal were informed by a particular orientation when establishing Rabbinic Judaism.

3) If we are looking at historical precedence, it would be a mistake to not also look at the 12th century. R. Tam, as is well known, revolutionized our understanding of the strictures of hilchot Avodah Zara. He consistently modified the absolute prohibitions that Masechet seems to impose on interfaith commerce. He clearly did not approach masechet Avodah Zara objectively, without a predetermined orientation. To claim that his consistently lenient conclusions are coincidental is far fetched and highly unlikely.  The more likely explanation is that he approached his pesok on this topic with an eye towards the financial wellbeing of his community. Proving once again that judicial orientation is an integral part of the judicial process.

Thanks again for this fruitful conversation. Hopefully this will be the beginning of many more, להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה.

A freilichen yom tov,


Editors note: We are still wishing that Rabbi Katz would be more careful in the use of words like progressive, modern, evolution, or respond to reality. These words have been the subject of denominational debates, which he is seemingly unburdened.

Also what is the role of all this newly read historicist scholarship in his pesak? The pronouncements in scholarly articles relying on the latest changes in social sciences are not Aharonim. Why do they have a role?

Will all of Rabbi Katz’s pesak be reactive rather than constructive? Rabbi Glickman gave him an opening to call himself a legal realist, he should have taken it.

Now dear readers, like the Shakespearean  narrator, I step back for the FB discussion to unfold in several acts. Be aware that as I post the opening act, they are already busy scribing their third round.

Conclusion is here.

Open Orthodox Haggadah- Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

By all criteria the Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld released just two weeks before Passover is a smashing success, quickly selling out of its initial run of 5000 copies. Not bad for a haggadah that is mainly made up of long articles and op-eds.  But more than this, it is the first book or statement produced by a significant pulpit rabbi within the Open Orthodoxy wing of Modern Orthodoxy.  Congregants have already bought every copy, yet historians should acquire a copy of this work to document the changes in American Jewry.


The Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah is quite self- conscious of setting out an agenda for the future of Orthodoxy mentioning the word Orthodoxy as a denomination more times and in more combinations than probably any book that I know. Not only does it trumpet Open Orthodoxy, it also points out the limits of Centrist Orthodoxy and the RCA.

But let us start at the beginning with the opening epithet: “There can be no communal redemption without it also being an individual redemption.” The goal of the community is to hear the needs of its individual members. This affirmation is immediately followed by a very concrete example of proclaiming that we will never be redeemed as long as there is even one agunah. The operative words right from the opening remarks are “sensitivity” and “inclusion of our entire community.”

The text includes the family and children with basic questions for guiding children or beginners before each section, with a distinctive invention for a haggadah, an answer key in the back. The questions are about the lived experience of the seder such as: Why are parents happy for mah nishtaneh? Or in what languages can it be recited?

The majority of the haggadah consists of long essays by the author but much of it consists of guest authors including Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Maharat Ruth Balinsky, Rabbi Avi Weiss, and even the non-Jewish public relations professional to whom they sell their Chometz. These essays confront the reader with our first clear list of Open Orthodox positions including  kol ishah, infertility sensitivity, on entering a church, on including the mentally challenged, the need for Maharats, increasing the role of women, the problems with current conversion policy, and the need to solve the problem of agunot. It may be the first self-proclaimed Orthodox haggadah to support Women of the Wall, discuss the importance of Martin Luther King, and to suggest placing a cup for Miriam on the table and an orange on the seder plate.

Willy-nilly, one finds oneself reading about the agunah problem while everyone is singing dayenu and about the rapid downfall of a local rabbi who violated everyone’s trust while everyone is singing Ha Gadya. For many, these juxtapositions will be the first impression of the haggadah.

What is the message of this haggadah about Passover for those who take the time to read it fully? Herzfeld considers the essence of baking matzos is the need to push ourselves in life. We need to challenge ourselves to succeed; we need spiritual adrenaline, and not settle for mediocrity. Why must matzo baking be done in eighteen minutes? Herzfeld cites the widely read Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle is a 2009 book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer to teach us that we have to act in real life quickly and decisively.  When we fight the Chametz within, we have to change ourselves forever and seek challenges. This Hagadah offers a message for active people- doers who want to change the world.

The community addressed sees itself as go-getters and achievers- baking matzos themselves, succeeding in their careers, and taking position of Judaism as their own.  Herzfeld encourages individuals and families to gain control of their ritual life. After the destruction of the Temple, Judaism is no longer about priests but ordinary person. The haggadah reflects an ethos that educated laity should take an active role.

The Haggadah opens with an essay by the father of Open Orthodoxy Rabbi Avi Weiss but nevertheless I see the historical value in the haggadah as reflecting the current younger and mid-career pulpit rabbis, rather than the issues of the older generation. (I may argue this in a future post as a review of his own book.)

Nevertheless, Rav Avi provides  an unambiguous affirmation of revelation stating that Open Orthodoxy is “completely committed to torah min hashamayim, to believe that God wrote the Torah.” Future readers now have a formal statement as lapidary as that written by Rabbi J. H. Hertz that   “Judaism stands or falls with its belief in the historical actuality of the Revelation at Sinai.”

Rav Avi defines Open Orthodoxy as “the meticulous observance of halakhah,” and “at the same time it is open- inclusivive, pluralistic, and non-judgmental.” Notice that the younger Herzfeld was more about action and pragmatics than offering a definition. Weiss complains that the Centrist Orthodoxy version of Modern Orthodoxy has turned right, rigid, and closed. In contrast, he is envisions the movement as encouraging greater women’s roles, and sensitivity to sexual orientation, but distances himself from the egalitarianism of the liberal movements whom he considers heterodox. Rav Avi advocates for outreach through accepting people as they are in order to increase their involvement, and a mesorah that faces new situations. The message is that Centrist Orthodoxy was forced to revamp and has already made changes.

It is noticeable that innovations not currently practiced in Orthodox synagogues such as Partnership Minyanim are not mentioned. There is no significant use of historical context, academic Jewish studies, or source criticism. The volume is not aimed at those who seek an intellectual discussion. Its audience is not seeking aesthetics or Torah uMadda. In addition, there is neither focus on the Holocaust nor any on the State of Israel.

I would compare this volume to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s out of print programmatic 1983 Haggadah where he used the text to present his agenda as a “window of the Jewish future.” He envisioned solving the agunah problem, increasing women’s roles, and leading a glorious return to Israel. In order to make the text accessible to the newly observant, Riskin sought to have everything fully explained. In contrast, Herzfeld’s volume assumes an already frum readership in that there are no instructions or indications of what to do, but also the basics are available elsewhere.

What is at stake with this programmatic haggadah? Several reviewers –JTA, JPost- mentioned the similarity in using the haggadah as a platform for denominational clarity to several early 20th century Reform haggadot. I will offer another comparison, that of the 1929 controversy for the Vilna Rabbinate between Rabbi Isaac Rubinstein and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. The later was undoubtedly the great scholar but the rabbinic establishment had lost the trust of the people.  In contrast, the Mizrachi leader was a tireless worker for the people, was on all Jewish welfare boards, lead day schools, and was seen as listening to the people’s problems. He was also in favor of secular studies, economic productivity, and the return to the land. Hence, Rubinstein the industrious Mizrachi rabbi was elected to be rabbi in Vilna over the Rosh Yeshiva. There is a fictional version of the controversy for the rabbinate in Chaim Grade’s “The Rebbetzin” and in The Agunah we read a depiction of the loss of trust in the Vilna Rabbinate in that the rabbis are not helping the people with social issues, unlike the lone wolf unorthodox Mizrachi rabbi who was willing to rely on leniencies to help an agunah. Not only in 1929, but also in 1983, and 2015 the plight of the agunah remains a concern. (Has anything been learned?)

I would not overly push the comparison to 1929 rabbinical controversy, but what is common to both is what anthropologist Bruce Lincoln considers essential to authority, that is confidence and trust. In both cases there has been a loss of trust, hence a loss of authority, a large number of Orthodox laity has lost their trust in the Roshei Yeshiva and in the establishment. If there is public debate about the need to submit to authority, then according to Bruce Lincoln the discussion is already a sign that the implicit trust is lost.

Many of the critics of Open Orthodoxy have self-destructed in recent years– one is even on way to jail. To those who lost their trust, Rabbis with desk jobs or minor rabbinic functionaries are irrelevant. Internet critics and bickering is extraneous to regaining trust. As in 1929, it would take a major Centrist pulpit rabbi to offer something to the people to regain their trust, to make them feel heard and addressed. A haggadah can only contain this much critique of the system if a significant number of homes did not already feel alienated.

One should not say that this is only a small group and anecdotally say that my neighbors agree with me. There is a shift in the younger laity. And several synagogues in various parts of the US replaced their long time rabbis with newer YU rabbis who are more about inclusion, family activities, and social orientation.


The translation created for the volume has colloquialisms and is awkward at points to read in public. More worrying is that it is theologically not thought through. The haggadah uses as the translation of the blessing formula “Be blessed God, our God” as if the two divine names were interchangeable. On the other hand, in some places we find lines that read as “my lord, our G-d” indicating a different translator.

Personally, both academically and spiritually, I prefer a focus on the text of the seder as explained by Abarbanel, Maharal, Gra, or Shelah and Sefat Emet. It was not written for my intellectual or spiritual edification, or for those who want to hear about how God took us out from Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm.

In short, this Haggadah oozes moxie and a direct appeal to those who like the Orthodox lifestyle but find a tension with what they perceive as the abuses of the system. For them, they do not need reasons for the commandments, rather an active commitment, determination and ability to overcome their social concerns. All who are hungry  for this moxie, let them come and eat.

Meditation in the Mir: The Teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yurovitch

A friend called my attention to a recent work called Arvas Nachal containing the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yurevitch z”l (d. 2003), written by his son based on the later’s shiurim. Within the larger work is a small pamphlet containing the first few chapters of a  meditation manual is called “Darkei HaHasagah” and consists of three with a promise of more to come. Yurovitch’s son edited the volume and teaches a small group in Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem who calls themselves “Vitebskers.” In short, the book is snippets of Abulafian meditation presented like Western Vipassna breathing meditation.  (This post will change if people provide more information or correct the information.)


Are they Jew-Bus (Buddhist Jews) in Mir?  Not Exactly.

Rav Yurevitch was a prominent Haredi leader, a judge (dayan), a member of Toldos Aharon community and was head of the Ohel Menachem  Vitebsk community. He was teaching the Hasidism of the Magid of Mezeritch and Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and later moved on to teaching the writings of Rav Nachman of Breslov.

Yurevitch was under the tutelage of Rav Osher Freund (1910-2003), an old yishv Karliner who established many of the community charity projects in Jerusalem including Yad Ezra discount grocery stores in 1952 and discount s wedding halls. But he was also a charismatic leader to many spiritualists, ecstatics, and pietists.

This is anything but Jew-Bu land. But the story continues.

Rav Yurevitch was close friends with Haredi publisher Amnon Gross who in the last decades publishes all the works of Abraham Abulafia and has been giving lectures in the Haredi world on the techniques. Gross is one of the cases that shows the influence of the academic world, specifically the work of Moshe Idel, on the Haredi world. Gross through his new editions almost single-handedly through his distribution of the works undid the 750  year condemnation of Abulafia by Rashba and others.

In a eulogistic blog post, Gross laments over the loss of his study partner Yurevitch with whom he had studied Abulafia together for fifteen years.  Gross continues his tribute by saying that he always stated that Abulafia should not be studied by groups, either large or small and only to be studied by individual though the books. This amount to a limited esotericism but it also inadvertently means that Abulafia should be studies without any direct tradition or lineage. Gross mentions nevertheless that he had a group of five men who studied with him as the remainder of an original group of thirty men and women. Gross offers lectures on the web and Yurovitch himself had an organization to spreading these teachings.

OK, so we have Abulafia in Mir, but how do we get to Vipassna? How could they even know about it?

The connection is that Yurevitch was the Meah Shearim expert in alternative medicine, homeopathy, natural cures, herbalist, and natural psychological cures. Almost any contemporary natural health book in the last decades, has basic meditation for health instructions. Yurevitch probably obtained his knowledge from those works. Personally, I would like to see his medical halakhah  as an alternative to the American clinical approach.

Kunres Derekh Hasagah based on shiurim of Rabbi Avraham Yurovitch

The pamphlet has three chapters – seems to be part of a bigger book

The tract opens with its purpose “In which we will explain practical exercises by which means a person can attain the aspect of nevuah, which is spiritual seeing.”

In the first chapter, he presents the ascent to Pardes of tractate Hagigah and the explanations of the heikhalot by Hai Gaon as live techniques for the twenty-first century.

The majority is the first chapter contains the following ideas.

One of the main aims of spiritual accomplishment is for the spiritual to master the physical. One needs to know that there are not two separate components, the material and the the spirit, but that they are one.  All  material that we see is just spirit that descended until it was condensed and materialized…

Any material object is spiritual at its source, meaning that even now it is spiritual too, but just in our physical eyes we view it as material. However, if people look with the eyes of their mind, then even in the present they will see things in a spiritual way… while dealing with material things. For instance with food and clothes, a person’s task is to elevate them from the physical to the spiritual.  Every action in this world is spiritual. A person’s worship in this world is to elevate the physical to the spiritual.

One receives the spiritual influx in two ways- clothed in the material that   requires one to do a physical act like eating  in order to awaken his soul to use the sparks as a key to the larger and much wider spiritual channels. [The second way is ] without any enclothment because he know how to awaken his soul to directly receive a spiritual influx

The second chapter is on purity and to know that we have two divine souls Tzelem Elokim and Tzelem YKVK – grasping the Divine is through the latter higher one.

The third chapter is the start of the practice. It contains an opening on the nature of practice and then a number of basics.

There are seven colors and depending on the color one visualizes it corresponds to that level of sparks that one is raising. – black, red, gold, green, blue, silver and white. You should practice visualizing the colors

These colors are not Cordovero but David Ben Yehudah haHasid (circa 1310) and first published by Moshe Idel.

The chapter refers to Life of the World to Come (Hayai Olam Haba) by Abulafia, which the editor promises will be discussed further in later chapters. But first we read:

Therefore at the time of the exercise… one should sit at the back of the chair with a straight back and your face straight forward and legs toward each other…hands placed cupped up on thighs.

One starts the practice of breathing… with inhales and exhales through the mouth without voice or vapor. One should make sure not to move the body during breathing. The breathing should be in the manner that empties all of the air in the lungs until one feels that there is no anymore air to live. Then take one long and full breath as much as one is able and then exhale. At the start of the practice one should do this between five to ten times breathes by mouth, or else one would get vertigo, afterwards one can do more.  Through this the spiritual power enters more than usually needed to move the physical…  for more see the Sulam Aliyah (by Albotini, student of Abulafia).

This is where it becomes an interesting document of the influence of Vipassana on his approach. First, the directions of how to sit in the first paragraph are nowhere to be found in Jewish literature.

Second,  in no place in Jewish literature do we find directions on how to breathe like “empty your lungs” but it is found as lesson one in any yoga or vipassana teaching on breathing.

Third, here we now have breathing as an end itself, its own form of mediation.  Compare it to the original of Abulafia’s Light of the Intellect below:

When you begin to recite the letter aleph in all its vowelizations pronounced by you, since aleph points to the secret of unity, do not lengthen its recitation except according to the measure of one breath. You cannot stop anytime ever during that breath until you have completed its pronunciation. Lengthen that special breath according to your power to sustain one breath as much as you can lengthen it. And chant the aleph, and every letter you recite, with terror, awe and fear, coupled with the gladness of the soul in its comprehension which is great.

Do not differentiate between the breath of the aleph and the breath of the letter that cleaves to it, apart from one short or long breath. But between the letter of the Name and between the aleph in the straights or between the aleph and the letter of the Name in the inversions you can breathe two breaths only without pronunciation, no more. After completing every row you are permitted to breathe five breaths only, no more, but you can choose to breathe less than five breaths. If you changed or mistook a row in this order, return to the head of that row until you say it correctly.

In Abulafia’s original, the breathing is the length of each pronounced letter-vowel pairing and the goal is to lengthen the breath to hold each letter-vowel pair. One then takes five breaths at the end of a row of vowels in order to continue with the permutation of the letters. In Yurovitch’s meditation, the five breaths are an end in themselves.

In Abulafia’s Hayei Olam HaBa:

And this will all accrue to you after you throw the tablet and stylus from between your fingers or if they fall by themselves due to the plenitude of your thoughts and the multiplicity of your happiness. And know that as much as the honorable intellectual abundance will be strong with you, so much so will your external and internal organs weaken, and your whole body will be engulfed in a very strong upheaval.

Abulafia has a weakening and vertigo from the influx due to the full performance of the permutations, Yurovitch warns against vertigo after only five breaths.

In fifty years, Yurovitch’s instructions will be seen as the true Jewish tradition of breathing and meditating. A new ancient tradition, a reliable mesorah of the past is being constructed. In the meantime,  a younger generation is being raised on these practices.

H/T to Solitude for the sefer and h/t for info to raziel abulafia.

As I said, I will correct this with more or better information. If you are new here, then please read rules for comments.

Interview with Prof Moulie Vidas

Talmudic source criticism goes back to the nineteenth century philological method of reading texts where history, linguistics, and literary structure hold clues to a texts meaning. For Americans, Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise immortalized the issues around layering the Talmudic text by linguistic strata, solving difficult passages by looking at variant manuscripts, and even reading Tannaic texts outside of their Talmudic context. For some, these methods are simply handmaidens useful for a clearer understanding of the Talmud, while for the specialists in the academy these topics are their prime focus. Once the world of academic Talmud was limited to Rabbinical seminaries and taught by those whose erudition and pedigree was identical with that of Rosh Yeshiva. Now, the study of the Talmud has fully entered the academy and is open to all similar to the study of other texts of antiquity such as those in Greek, Latin, Coptic, or Syriac.


The new holder of the chair in Talmud at Princeton University is Moulie Vidas who graduated Princeton and after a brief stint at UC Davis returned to join the Princeton faculty in 2012. In an article celebrating his arrival in California, the local paper did a laudatory feature on him. “Here’s a guy, a secular Israeli, who studied Talmud at Tel Aviv University,” said fellow U.C. Davis faculty member David Biale, “and within a very short time came to master something that was considered only possible to people who went to yeshiva their whole lives.” Though the Tel Aviv native never set foot in a yeshiva as a youth, he says his interest in Talmud stemmed from a desire to know “what the other side thinks. When I got to actually study these texts, the brilliance of the Talmud, the great erudition, attracted me to it. “ Continuing his praise of Vidas, “He’s an incredibly charming, very intellectually curious, open-minded person, “ Biale said. “I think students are going to love him.”

His recent book, Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud, (Princeton University Press, 2014) starts a new research agenda for Talmudic source criticism. For the entire Introduction- see here.

The regnant approach to Talmudic source criticism is that there is a pristine early Amoraic layer in the Talmud and the later layer was an addition that changed the earlier material, making the discussion more abstract, or creating dialectics and justifications.  This approach is usually associated with Shamma Freidman and David Weiss-Halivni who focus on the modern construct called the Stammaim. Both Friedman and Weiss-Halivni seek to restore the earlier strata since it represent a reliable corpus of traditions, unlike the conjectures of the later “give and take.” Some rabbis, for example within the Kibbutz Hadati movement, will occasionally advocate for one of these excavated earlier positions as the true opinion of the Oral law.

In contrast, Vidas assumes that the entire Talmudic argument, the entire sugya is one unit. A somewhat similar literary approach was taught by Abraham Weiss at YU and by Louis Jacobs in his books on the Talmudic Argument. However, Vidas’ innovation is that the texts that seem like earlier texts are literary devices by the later era to create a sense of distance from themselves and the allowing for a creative opening. For him, demarcating opinions as traditional “can be used to invoke discontinuity” by fossilizing them as the past. He cites the Continental theorist Agamben, that quotations in a text do not transmit as much as distance; “the quotation at once… invests it with an alienating power.” The Talmud is no longer a conservative repository of traditions, rather a literary “self-conception of its creators.” There is no earlier opinion, just a later text presenting the topic as if there was a later and earlier layer.

Vidas accepts the views stated by others that the Bavli was about dialectic, analysis, and abstraction, portraying itself as innovative and creative against those who are too conservative. All their innovations were to be considers as from Sinai. Who were the conservative alternatives? The Tannaim- the repeaters- were those who made the goal to consist entirely of memorization, transmission and recitation. Vidas conjectures that they did not have the secondary role of textual preservation assigned to them by the creative Amoraim, rather they were a competing and antagonistic group that advocated recitation as its own goal. Based on this dichotomy, Vidas situates the Heikhalot literature with their emphasis on correct memorization and recitation as allied or even associated  with the tanaim. (Compare David J. Halperin, who situated the Heikhalot as outside of Rabbinic Judiasm entirely). The conclusion to Vidas’ book offered an illuminating contrast of the Geonim who stressed the continuity of the Oral law, probably due to Islamic era concerns. Those parts of Orthodoxy which echo with the concept of continuity,  may not see the Talmud for its creative analysis.

As noted three years ago on the Talmud blog by those in the field, the specialization of rabbinic texts is no longer a provincial Rabbinic or Talmudist position, rather one is now a specialist in Judaism in late antiquity or Judaism in the Greco-Roman world.  (Job seekers take note.) Saul Lieberman was proud that he never visited Columbia’s Library since he limited his sights to an internal perspective, in contrast during the same years E. R. Goodenough wrote about a Jewish-Pagan synthesis without having to cite Talmud. Now, Talmud is integrated with the wider historical context, hence Vidas has important comparisons and contrasts between the Talmud’s tension of recitation vs dialectics with those of Syriac Christians and Zoroastrians. In recent work, Vidas has written on priestly ritual law in comparative perspective and has edited a volume on ways of knowing in late antiquity.

Vidas’ work has already been subject to two online reviews. One at the Talmud blog here (link has been fixed)and one by Raphael Magarik here. In his review, Magarik writes that the book has two problems.

First, by examining closely the formal operation of [only] several substantial sugyot, Vidas wants to revise a picture of editorial activity that was built, by scholars like David Weiss Halivni, on hundreds, if not thousands, of such analyses… The book’s first half has to be read as a scholarly program. Significant future analysis is needed.

Vidas suggests we instead, at least sometimes, read sugyot as crafted, intentional wholes and ask: what literary effects did the editors intend? But such effects are culturally conditioned, and sometimes Vidas assumes that the irony or subversion a modern reader detects necessarily reflects authorial intention. To give one example, when Vidas asserts that punning associations between place names and problematic genealogical categories “seems in this context to be a parody of the arbitrariness of the production of genealogical stratification,” he implicitly assumes the rabbis saw homophones as arbitrary coincidences. But the rabbis, who sometimes regard language as quasi-magical, may have been completely serious about the significance of puns.

Vidas is currently working on a monograph on the emergence of Talmudic culture in Roman Palestine.

  1. How does the Bavli show its alterity, its past making? How does it show its distancization from earlier sources?

The first half of the book argues that, while earlier scholarship has been correct in emphasizing how the Talmud projects continuity with its sources, there are pervasive stylistic features of the Talmud that are used, like air quotes, to mark (or produce – more on this later on) these sources’ alterity. Consider how we use quotation marks in writing or air quotes in oral communication – we do that to mark a certain distance between ourselves and what we are quoting.

The most important of those features is the layered structure, the division between “sources” and “interpretation” or “narration.” The anonymous narrating layer of the Talmud that we encounter on almost every page guides us through the different “sources,” introducing them and commenting on them and constructing various relationships among them. Often, we can very easily distinguish this voice and its sources because of stylistic features: the narration and commentary are almost always in Aramaic whereas the sources are almost always in Hebrew; and sources are introduced with citation terms, whether they are attributed (“Rabbi X says”) or anonymous sources (“It was recited…”).

These features are not necessary. Both types of materials, for example, could have been expressed in the same language. This is especially evident when the interpretation is interpolated or added into a statement – in those cases, the choice to express the interpretation in Aramaic marks off (at least ostensibly) the original source from the later interpretation.

The Talmud could have (and sometimes does) re-formulate the statement in a way that does not indicate this distance. And indeed, in Tannaitic sources, that was probably the more common way to adapt rabbinic traditions – we can see this when we compare the Mishnah and Tosefta for example. My basic question was why the Talmud’s creators chose not to do this but rather keep sources and interpretations separate.

  1. How is the Bavli not simply chronology but literary device?

Some scholars might read what I just said and say: well, sure, but this distance is simply a result of how the Bavli came into being. Both Halivni and Friedman (to different degrees and in different ways) conceive of the layered structure as reflecting stages in the formation of the text and its sources. First, they say, the sources were produced; then, later rabbis came and weaved a narrative and interpretation around these sources. To the extent that we can observe a distance, then, it is simply because there actually was chronological distance between the sources and those who wrote the interpretation; and furthermore – these scholars suggest, the structure of the Talmud was meant to downplay, bridge, or even hide this distance.

The second chapter of Tradition suggests that this distance is not always a reflection of the text’s history. Rather, it is a feature of the text’s self-representation, which may sometimes be the result of a literary construction. The chapter offers two instances in the Bavli in which, I think, the most plausible way to account for the layered structure is that it was imposed on the passage at a later stage. When we compare these Bavli passages to what is likely their earlier versions in the Yerushalmi, we can see that in the Bavli there is a move towards a layered structure: narrating and discursive functions which in the Yerushalmi are taken on by attributed statements are taken in the Bavli by the anonymous layer. That is, the texts went through a re-organization to fit the pattern of representation in which sources are attributed whereas interpretation and discussion is anonymous. This produces, rather than simply represents, the distance between sources and interpretation.

I think there are good reasons to think that this process happened often. But regardless of their representative value, these cases allow us to re-think the layered structure. They allow us to think of this structure not as an inevitable consequence of rabbinic transmission, but as something that could be desired, a literary device that had an important function for those who used it.

In a nutshell, my claim is that in a culture that prized both transmission and innovation, the layered structure epitomized both. By distinguishing between what is transmitted and what is innovated, it allowed those who presented lectures in the academy to model for their students the process of innovation instead of just showing them the conclusion of that process; and it also allowed them to claim both kinds of authority – they presented themselves both as faithful transmitters of tradition from the past as well as sophisticated, innovative interpreters of these traditions.

  1. How are the Heikhalot and magical circles connected to the Mishnaic recitation way of thinking?

Hekhalot and non-Jewish sources give us a critical perspective on what the Talmudists were doing with tradition because, I think, they show us what other options were available for them at the time – what  the Talmudists chose not to practice, and in fact what they chose to argue against.

The argument in the book is that one way the “masters of talmud” defined themselves was to think of what they were doing as different from the reciters – the tanna’im or “masters of mishnah.” Note, in this context, tanna’im does not mean the sages of the Tannaitic period and the Mishnah, but rather those who the focused on the recitation and transmission of rabbinic traditions. Several Talmudic passages take a fairly negative attitude towards these reciters.

Following these Talmudic passages, traditional as well as academic scholars have portrayed these reciters as the mindless teaching assistants of the real scholars. My argument is that this understanding of the reciters is the result of ideological construction, and that what we see in the Talmud is one side of a debate about how to approach rabbinic tradition.

Some of the sages of the period prized exacting analysis of rabbinic tradition that resulted in innovative commentary, while others focused on ritual recitation of the texts that bridged the gap with the past.

The problem, however, is that a reading of Talmudic passages, even if it is very critical, gets us only so far – you can often reconstruct the democrat’s view from a republican’s, but it is far better if you have the republican’s speech itself.

This is where the Hekhalot and magical texts come into the picture. What I think we can see in them is something like the view that the Talmud does battle with – they emphasize a ritual approach to recitation of tradition, they de-emphasize critical analysis, and they present a rich discourse of memorization and retention that sees in these activities a goal in themselves and indeed likens them to the heavenly liturgy.

4. How is this similar to Zoroastrian, Syriac Christian, and Mishnah?

The Zoroastrian and Syriac Christian materials I used, in part, for a similar purpose – to show that, even though the Talmud often presents recitation as simply an aid to intellectual study, in those (and other Jewish) sources, recitation is a ritual in which intellectual analysis is far from the most important component. Furthermore, we can see that both in the Zoroastrian tradition and in the Christian tradition there were similar – but very far from identical – debates about the relationship between analysis and ritual recitation. What may seem at first as a very internal Jewish debate was one inflection of a broader conversation in the period.

5. What is the approach of the Geonim? How has that led later readers to see the Talmud through Geonic lens?

There were a number of developments in the Geonic period that I think really changed the way in which the Talmud and rabbinic tradition were understood. The most important is of course that the Talmud gradually became a fixed text early in this period – so talmud no longer meant an analytical engagement with rabbinic traditions but a study of a particular text, the Talmud.

Geonic literature – especially the influential sources after the Karaites – promoted understandings of rabbinic tradition that emphasized continuity and traditionalism. The Geonim did not, of course, invented these positions out of nothing – they had strong sources in the rabbinic corpus. But they chose to deemphasize other sources, and occasionally they reverse the tone and value of talmudic sugyot on the subject. Scholars such as Jay Harris have already shown that the Geonim understood midrash to be supportive of existing traditions rather than creative of new ones, in contrast with the frequent representations of Midrash as creative in rabbinic sources.

Let me give one example in which R. Sherira’s approach can be contrasted with the Talmud’s.

I mentioned earlier how the Talmud is often negative towards tanna’im, and scholars have shown that at least some layers in the Talmud prefer the innovation-oriented scholar to the retention-oriented scholars.

In tractate Sotah, Rav Nahman mocks the reciter who “does not know” what he recites, and the passage culminates in harsh words against such retention-oriented scholars who dare to issue legal instructions.

Sherira takes almost completely the opposite approach. He acknowledges the importance of penetrating dialectical study, but then immediately goes on a long digression that asserts, unambiguously, the preference for conversation. Even though the retention-oriented scholars “does not know” how to extract logical implications, the Ga’on explains, he is more apt than the innovation-inclined scholar to issue legal instructions.


6. What does Talmud study offer the secular student?

Part of what I think the Talmud can teach us is the limited value of questions about the value or purpose of learning. Of course, in some sense, such questions are important, and one can certainly ask them about the Talmud, and the answers will differ according to context.

The Talmud offers students of late antiquity a very significant testimony of various aspects of the period from dinner formalities through legal thinking through mythology – so significant in part because of its sheer size (I think it is the largest single document from the period, if it can be thought of as a single document).

For secular Jews or others in the community interested in reform, serious study of the Talmud can be part of undoing or criticizing repressive policies and views that have originated in the text or its commentaries. For the liberal arts student, it provides a fantastic experience of humanistic study which is at the same time similar and so obviously different from the Graeco-Roman tradition we practice; this de-familiarizing experience can truly broaden one’s mind – especially when it is joined with the agility of mind that Talmudic study itself encourages.

But again, the Talmud might also teach us the limits of questions about the value, utility or purpose of learning, because it shows us the enormous power and vitality of a leaning which almost completely suspended such teleological questions. Sure, that suspension may have originated in the sense that learning Torah was a divine directive and therefore valuable in itself. But I do not see a good reason it should not inspire those who do not obey or indeed believe in such directives.

7. What do you tell Orthodox scholars that think they own all access and interpretations of the Talmud?

The surprising answer to this question is that I don’t encounter this as often as I thought I would – and also mind it much less when I do! Of course, that is in part because the Orthodox people I meet tend to be those who are committed to cutting-edge work that is very critical of traditional understanding, and I realize that this is not precisely representative of the entire Orthodox community. But I’m pointing that out because it’s interesting that in Talmud – unlike, say, in the case of other sacred texts – some of the most daring research frameworks have come from people who are also committed to Orthodoxy or Halakhah.

I’m not sure what I’ll say to someone who thinks that just because they are Orthodox it means they understand the Talmud better than someone with appropriate training who is not Orthodox. That position seems just so obviously wrong to me.

But if, in order to understand the position you describe, I can try to read it more charitably, I will say that I understand why people can be suspicious of those who work in Talmud who do not have a traditional Yeshiva background. Now, that suspicion, like any prejudice or generalization, is very often proven wrong – there is a large number of highly-respected scholars who do not come from this background.

But it’s also true – and here I’m turning the critical light on my own community – that both secular Jews and Talmud academics have not been as successful as we might want in developing an apparatus that provides an alternative to the Yeshiva world in terms of training students. Studying Talmud without that background still requires an extraordinary personal commitment, and while many had this commitment and became leaders in the field, it is also true that we also see some bad work out there. Things are getting better and better, I think (with online databases, reliable dictionaries, better introductory texts, grammar books, etc).

8. Why does the knowledge of purity laws help define the scholar and canon?

What made Mira Balberg and me curious about the purity laws was that the Bavli represents the study of purity laws both as something amazing – the pinnacle of difficulty and achievement, and at the same time as something suspicious – associated with bad moral character traits such as pride, distant from the divine, this-worldly. Our argument was that this representation was used by the rabbis as a self-portrait to describe what they saw the achievements and failures of their scholastic culture.

We suggested that one of the reasons the study of purity in particular was apt for this purpose was a tension that was already there in Palestinian sources. On the one hand, the field of purity is perhaps the most “ontological” or descriptive of rabbinic fields: that is, it is concerned nor with what one should or shouldn’t do, but with what things are or aren’t – is this object pure? is it impure?

On the other hand, the rabbis were very much aware that this description was very much dependent on a scholarly process of argumentation and reasoning – consider the disciple in Yavne who could render the sheretz pure and impure a hundred times. This tension between a field that on the one hand purports to say something about “reality,” but in which reality is also very much susceptible to scholarly manipulation and deliberation (think about the oven of Akhnai), made it a good element in discussions of rabbinic scholarly ambition and its limits.

9. What does your forthcoming anthology show about knowledge among ancient Jews?

The drive behind Late Ancient Knowing was to try new approaches to intellectual history in late antiquity. What we felt was – I think I represent both Catherine Chin and me when I say this – that after a great deal of work in questions of the social history of the period (questions on identity or community or the body) we can return, armed with a fresh perspective, to questions about knowledge.

In part, we wanted to emphasize how knowledge was “practical” – how it allowed people not only to perceive the world but also to interact with it, and vice versa – how interaction with the world informed the way that people “knew” it.

The rabbinic corpus was particularly good to think with about practical knowledge because, in a sense, rabbinic literature presents a very clear challenge to simple distinctions between “practical” and “theoretical”: on the one hand, topics in anthropology or theology or epistemology are treated through the most mundane and practical questions (e.g., discussion of animal-related torts); on the other hand, these most mundane and practical questions are themselves often formulated in very theoretical and abstract way  (and all that without even getting into the serious historical problem of whether and how people in late antiquity observed rabbinic law). They are a very good example of how knowledge was produced and experienced very much within, rather than apart, of daily life.

10. Are you descended from the Kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu diVidas?

I don’t think so. Perhaps even more lamentable than the low probability that we are actually related, is the fact that no one in my family was knowledgeable enough or industrious enough to even claim that we are descended from him, as far as I know.

Interview with Anthony C Sciglitano — Balthasar on Judaism

A decade ago Pope Benedict published a new two volume life of Jesus loosely based on recent Catholic scholarship but at its core the book was a new theological reading of the gospels. In the volumes, he paints the Jewish background of Jesus, how Jesus fits into first century Jewish traditions and how his early audience was Jewish.  Benedict condemned prior anti-Judaism and wrote that the anti-Judaism of the patristic period, including the deicide charge, was not Christian. There should be no mission to the Jews and the gospels never thought otherwise. But more strikingly, he proclaimed a continuity of priestly, ritual, and monarchal elements of Judaism in the Church, the works of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are the core of the Catholic message.  He also gave validation to the Rabbinic tradition, “we now see it as our task to bring these two ways of rereading the biblical texts—the Christian way and the Jewish way—into dialogue with one another, if we are to understand God’s will and his word aright.

Because of this latter view, Pope Benedict directly attacks the older German approach of Lutherans such as Adolf von Harnack (d. 1930) who paints a radical discontinuity of Judaism and Christianity, in which Jesus is not Jewish and not based on Jewish teachings, the Church and Synagogue have nothing in common and the late and final period of Judaism was the first century. This was, in turn, picked up and accepted in Jewish circles as a supposed truism that Judaism is deed and Christianity is creed.   Some of these Christian anti-Jewish views go back to the second century Christian thinker, whose views were rejected as heresy, Marcion, whom Harnack sought to rehabilitate. Benedict forcefully emphasized the continuity of the Church with Judaism and rejected Harnack and any Marcionite thinking.

Balthasar bookcover

The ideas of Pope Benedict are not unique but part of a sea-change in Catholic thinking over the last seventy years.  Recently,  Anthony Sciglitano , my colleague and head of the religion department at Seton Hall University,  published his book Marcion and Prometheus: Balthasar Against the Expulsion of Jewish Origins from Modern Religious Dialogue, a revision of his dissertation on Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905 –1988), a leading and prolific Catholic theologian of the late 20th century.  Balthasar was a co-founder of the journal Communio, publishing the conservative circle of theologians to which Cardinal Ratzinger also belonged.  Balthasar’s own work focused on reflection on the analogical relationship between Divine and human beauty, goodness, and truth. (resource page on Balthasar)


To return to the subject, Balthasar condemned the modern anti-Judaism and Marcionism in Catholic thought. The Lutheran thinkers of the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth, Kant, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Harnack painted a dichotomy of Christian ethics  (or devotion) and Jewish legalism. Harnack went further and even sought to rehabilitee the rejected thinker second century Marcion who wanted to sever all ties with Judaism and to reject entirely what Christians call the Old Testament. Balthasar rejects that Marcion approach and Anthony Sciglitano is the first English presentation of Balthasar’s arguments. His next book will be an overview of this topic over the last two hundred.

One final point is needed for my Jewish readers to make sense of this interview. Jews know less about Christianity than Christians know about Jews. Even supposed well informed Jews tend to be misinformed and confuse medieval with modern or Protestant with Catholic.  The most significant issue for  this interview is that Catholics do not still think in medieval or Neo-platonic categories, just as Jews do not still think in Platonic-Aristotelian terms or Kavod theories.  A corollary is their thinking on the Trinity.  Nineteenth century Christian thought tended to desiccate, if not scoff, at the Trinity as vestigial metaphysics. Twentieth century thinkers have rehabilitated the Trinity with opinion ranging from a modalism (close to but a little beyond an attribute theory) to theories of the interpersonal.  Current Catholic belief tends to be formulated in existential terms as a past event, an ever-present reality and an unrealized promise. Balthasar formulates a Trinitarian dramatics in which the Father undergoes kenosis and the Passion of the Son bears creation and history.

If all of this is foreign then try and thoughtfully enter these new ideas before commenting.

1. What is the Marcion trend in Christian thought?

The Marcionite strain of modern Christian thought trends against the God of Israel’s covenant, the claim of a special and ongoing relation with Israel, law, and God as both judge and transcendent (that is, not reducible to any immanent sphere whether human being, the nation, a particular race, nature, etc.). All of these claims of Israel’s covenant are seen as either (a) too particularistic and/or (b) interfering with human autonomy. The assumption here is that a God who legislates, judges, or “intervenes” (for instance, in granting grace) in human affairs interferes with human freedom and/or moral responsibility.

Adolf von Harnack is one of the rare figures who explicitly promotes Marcion’s vision (albeit in a slightly modified form), but interestingly Harnack also names Immanuel Kant and Schleiermacher as would-be Marcionites and thinks Luther nearly eliminated the Old Testament, but could not completely do so for his time given other pressures.

Of course Catholic tradition holds Marcionism to be a heresy.

2. Most Jews still see Christian thought as the faith based Lutheran theology of Kant, Kierkegaard, and Harnack. How has the current state of Christian/Catholic thought changed?

Wow. Big question, but you hit on a key demarcation for the book that is left unstated. I am a Catholic theologian and all the people you list above are, in some sense, Lutheran.

Contemporary theology often wants to envision a cooperation and dialogue between Jews and Christians. But recall that for Kant, in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Judaism does not count as a religion, but only as a past theocratic cultural formation. The only pure moral religion is Christianity. But “Christianity” is subject to the philosophical-moral scouring he puts it through. Whether Kant’s religious views are faith-based is an open question because for him “faith” really is something like practical reason.

Harnack would get rid of the entire Old Covenant; he agrees with Marcion that the God of Jesus and the God of the Old Covenant cannot be the same. The remarkable lack of argumentation of this point, incidentally, should give us pause and suggest the extent to which he was in harmony with his cultural moment.

Contemporary Christian theologians (i.e., Richard Kendall Soulen, Jurgen Moltmann, Pope Benedict XVI, Elizabeth Johnson, Pope John Paul II, Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Pawlikowski) generally try to see the commonalities among Jewish and Christian thought, ethical practice, worship and the continuities between the God of Israel, Israel’s praise and devotion and the God of Jesus Christ and hope for the full redemption of the world.

Having said that, relapses often take place. They are usually of the subtle variety where a thinker’s system torques their thought in ways they do not necessarily intend. So, for example, if one determines that history moves in three epochs towards autonomy and away from law, it is likely one will end up in a Marcionite place whether that was desired by the author or not. Someone like Hans Kung tries “paradigms” rather than “epochs” and, in my view, makes of any Judaism interested in Halakah a paradigm consigned to the past along with the Old Covenant.

Key here, though, is that Catholic theology rejects replacement supersessionism. Contemporary Catholic theology sees that Jews remain God’s people and that Christianity has its roots in Jewish belief and practice. Monsignor Oesterreicher of Seton Hall University was central to acknowledging these roots in the mid-twentieth century and helping the Church overcome replacement supercessionist views. Whether we are speaking of Eucharistic prayers, metaphors of salvation, or the traditions dear to Mary and Jesus, we are implicitly or explicitly calling upon the holy Jewish root of our faith.

3. Traditionally, Trinity and Christology were seen as the major break between Judaism and Christianity. How can Balthasar possibly see continuity in the Trinity between Judaism and Christianity?

This is perhaps one of the more provocative and counter-intuitive notes in my book. The first thing to realize is that Balthasar is writing a theology as a Catholic from and for the Church. He certainly expects to be and was in dialogue, but his ecclesial location is his starting point. He dialogues as a Catholic theologian.

What is important here is first the patristic or early Christian context. The point is made by several major scholars of early Christian writings (Robert Louis Wilken, Jaroslav Pelikan, Alois Grillmeier) that the doctrinal/theological discussions of Trinity and Christology were caught in a tensional relation between trying to reflect the God of the Bible in a Greek idiom. What this means, concretely, is that the God of the Bible, as opposed to the One (Hen) of Plotinus, is profoundly involved in human history, creation, being. The One of Plotinus is not or only is involved with the help of intermediaries who, in a sense, keep its (his) hands clean.

When Christians formulated the doctrine of the Trinity (3 co-equal persons/one God), they rejected the intermediaries of Neo-Platonism and decided that the One God in three persons is deeply involved in Creation, Covenant, History, Salvation and is both Transcendent and Immanent, etc. In addition, it is this One God in three persons who unites the one divine plan from Creation through Covenant to Eschaton/End so that Christians find deep continuity in the nature of God, God’s way of relating to humanity, humanity’s proper disposition before God and towards others, especially the poor.

It is in this context that Christianity sides with the God of the Jews against these other options and maintains a positive connection to the content of the Old Covenant. Christ, on this view, is the realization of the two sides of the Covenant: God’s faithfulness to his people, to creation and to the covenant relation itself and Israel’s humble faithful obedience drawn forth by the Glory of God. Irenaeus’s Proof of the Apostolic Preaching (2nd century CE) is particularly concerned to see the covenants of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in continuity with that in Christ.

Now none of this means that Jews can accept the “Trinity” as doctrine obviously. What it means is that in the historical context, the doctrine of the Trinity, and even the formulation of Christology, supported much greater continuity between the Old and New Covenants than did other options (i.e., Marcionism, Gnosticism, neo-Platonism) of the time and often options proposed today.

4. How is there a continuity between old and new covenants according to Balthasar? Was this a major leap of Catholic theology?

This covers a lot of the book! In a sense, Catholic theology of the higher end sort has always envisioned continuity. So, for instance, if it is prima facie the case in liberal protestant circles that the freedom of the Christian should mean freedom from the law, in Catholic circles, law is typically viewed as a pedagogy for freedom. Likewise, liturgical ritual/sacrament/obligation is not seen in Catholicism as antithetical to the “spiritual” life, but rather as its fundamental support and orientation. In brief, Catholic theology rejects the antitheses between law and freedom, religion and spirit, divine transcendence and human autonomy so prevalent in our culture.

Moreover, freedom of will for Catholic theology is not vanquished as it is in classical Protestant formulations of original sin and so supports more continuity between a Jewish and Catholic views of sin (although clearly not identical). But the main continuities have to do with the fundamental relation of Divine and human freedom, experience of God as just judge and loving kindness, care for the poor and outcast, and humility before God that nevertheless begets a dynamic mission to make God’s love and justice real in the world (and, of course, in ourselves).

What is a major leap, I think, is for Catholic theology to recognize explicitly and consistently all it receives from its holy root rather than pretend as if either there is no Judaism after the biblical period or that Judaism’s impact on Christianity is marginal at best. Rather, this influence is thorough, and to grasp this helps Christians understand their own faith much more deeply and exist in a position of gratitude rather than prideful accusation. Nostra Aetate, of course, is tremendously important for this. For all its brevity, it covers a lot of ground.

resume thought

5. How is there no longer hard supersessionism but still a form of soft supersessionism about truth claims for Christianity?

Hard Supersessionism means that Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah leaves the Jewish people rejected by God and replaced as God’s people by Christianity.

Balthasar, and any Catholic theologian I can think of currently, rejects this approach.

Balthasar rejects prior hard supersessionism on the basis of Romans 9:4 and Romans 11. He believes that Israel remains God’s beloved people. He also rejects a Christian mission to the Jews for the sake of “conversion,” which, given the continuity of the God worshipped would not quite make sense.

Now, it gets complicated. When I say “soft supersessionism,” I am referring to truth claims not to replacement or rejection of a people.

The formal expression of God comes to be for Catholics indexed by the Trinity and doctrine of Jesus Christ (Christology), focused through God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Catholics believe there is continuity among the covenant of Israel and Christ. Christ fulfills God’s Covenant with Israel and all creation. In addition, Catholics believe Christ is God incarnate/become human. Insofar as this is the case, in the end, all people will encounter Christ in his Glory.

Given that Christians believe this is true and Jews do not, Catholics believe they are right and Jews are wrong (and, of course, Jews would believe Catholics are wrong on these points and they are right). The only reason this is “supersessionistic” is because Christians emerge from Israel, from Judaism and interpret the scriptures differently in light of Christ. Apart from this historical linkage, this would simply be a difference in religious views like any other philosophical schools would differ. But given the historical linkage and the difference in truth claims, the term seemed correct and forthright, but perhaps not felicitous in the end given historical weight and the likelihood of misinterpretation.

6. Why is Tzedek, Mishpat, Chesed, Emet, and Shalom important for Balthasar’s theology?

Balthasar thinks that in and through Israel’s covenant God reveals God’s identity, that is, God’s virtues or character traits, in the covenant the “Who” of God, not the “what,” gets disclosed.

Events like the burning bush reveal that God is not reducible to but Lord of creation, that God’s will is effective, etc. God’s relation over time with Israel reveals God first as true, that is, true to himself and his promises (especially in liberating Israel from Egypt) (of course, trustworthy, faithful here are all related to Emet).

Now this notion of truth is crucial for Balthasar later on in his philosophical work as well and, as an aside, brings him in proximity to the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his book, Totality and Infinity. Then, each virtue (Tzedek, Mishpat, Chesed, Shalom) speaks to God’s personal identity learned through Israel’s praise/confession of God’s deeds on their behalf. In this sense, Israel discloses who God is through their own literature, that is, God’s personal identity in and through God’s actions.

In addition, Israel— who are made in God’s image and elected by him —is asked to represent these traits in history through its prayer/worship, commandments, dealings with the stranger and poor, and life more broadly. That is, God is like this, you are made in God’s image, so you should, in your human way, image this God’s virtues: provide peace and well-being, act for justice and in loving kindness and be truthful. And, in all this, give glory to God. As God’s human incarnation through Israel, Jesus fully incarnates these traits as a righteous Jew.

7. How is Torah observance by Jews a dynamic trust in God for Balthasar? How is this new for Catholic thought?

Unlike many before him, Balthasar believes that Jews not only seek to incarnate/make real God’s virtues in the world, but also do so in the details of Torah observance. This is not to be looked upon, for him (or for me) as some retrograde obedience, but rather offers a view of a way to remember God in all details of life in a training for holiness and a model for the general disposition of the creature to the creator.

Now, as for all religious communities, the nature of Jewish observance may change from time to time: including some elements formerly forgotten, bolstering old elements with new interpretations, weighting some things differently given new experience, etc. This is part of the dynamism that belongs to Judaism as they confront different historical settings and situations and encounter God in these situations. In this way, God is truly the God who comes to us as Future.

But part of this dynamism is also in the struggle to make real God’s righteousness in a world that often rejects such concerns as those for the poor and the outcast or for loving kindness and justice more broadly. For example, justice will often be considered merely a contractual issue or an issue of “rights,” but we know that real justice goes well beyond a contract that might be signed under coercive circumstances or political rights that do not account for issues of poverty or human dignity.


8. According to Balthasar, how is Israel chosen and Judaism different than the rest of the nations?

Israel is expropriated by God for a unique mission in history, encounters God’s Word and is called to make it real in the world, and breaks open all fatalisms beyond cyclical views of nature-religions so that God and Israel interact in a dramatic relation of freedoms. The uniqueness of Israel’s relation to God is important for Balthasar and, given his experience in Europe, he rejects any attempts to substitute some other historical tradition (i.e., Teutonic mythology) for Israel as the context for the messiah or to make any other context (philosophical or historical/cultural) equal to Israel’s for understanding Christ.

9. What is the role of Biblical criticism in Balthasar and for your own theology?

Biblical criticism is crucial for Balthasar for opening up a kind of symphonic plenitude of interpretive lenses on the scripture whether this involves historical, literary or sociological content.

Of course for him the final form of Scripture is more authoritative than any putative authorial intent. Scholarship ought to contribute to grasping the meaning of the final form which includes the resurrection. We might compare this to reading a Shakespeare play. If one were to rearrange the first and third acts and/or read each act separately and without relation to the whole, a completely different play and meaning would result. Balthasar thinks something like this results in modern readings that exclude the resurrection or break up the text and then cannot figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. A more aesthetically holistic reading is ultimately more helpful, but can include the insights of modern methods within its broader scope.

He is particularly fond of Gerhard von Rad and Martin Hengel. An important person to think about for comparison would be Paul Ricouer and his notion of second naivete. A good book on his biblical reading is that of W.T. Dickens, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: A Model for Post-Critical Biblical Interpretation (South Bend, IN: UND Press, 2003). He would be suspicious of historical critical readings that see a faith perspective as an obstacle to getting to the meaning of the text. I would agree with him on this.

Rav Shagar: To be Connected to Eyn: living in a Postmodern world

Rabbi Shagar on Postmoderism.

In the 1840s, Kierkegaard rejected Hegel’s historical dialectic narrative, instead he stressed that each individual must negotiate his or her own relationship with God. Kierkegaard also objected to Hegel’s claim that there was system of thought that could explain the whole of reality. Rather, Kierkegaard considered that the truth is based on the subject and one’s own resolute decision. As a result, Postmodernism denies the subject and sees everything as culturally constructed. Finally, the Postmodernist Lyotard denies any vestige of a grand narrative of history or ideology started with Hegel .

In the 1990s, many in the Religious Zionist camp felt that their grand collective narrative of history broke down, and that knew realms of knowledge questioned former certainties. Rav Shagar uses the language of Postmodernism to express this sense in his recent collection of posthumous essays, Luhot ve Shivrei Luhut. Today, we are going to look at his most Postmodern chapter in the volume where he defines his postmodernism and his postmodern Judaism. (I posted on a different chapter in Rabbi Shagar’s book here, and in general see the film here and on Torah study here.)

The essay To be Connected to Eyn: living in a Postmodern World is itself constructed from parts of three talks (2000, 2002, 2008) and one can see a progression from his confrontation with  Postmodernism, his postmodern reading of Hasidism, and his moving beyond.

shagar photo

I went through the book with a study group at my house. This is a first draft of selected first thoughts therefore this post is subject to ongoing change and revision. Treat these as notes to myself as I work out the issues. I am trying to understand Rav Shagar’s Postmodernism. (Assume I have seen the prior discussions.)

Section One: The Postmodern condition

In this section we find his most explicit definitions. On basic definitions of postmodernism, see here, here, and here.

For Rav Shagar, Postmodernity is not theoretical philosophy but a condition of life, we live with a sense of the end of the narratives. It is not even a description of society, it is how we feel and it is expressed by Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition. We live after all ideologies of Communism, Socialism, and Nazism. For some readers, this applies also to Zionism and Halakhacism.

In the Postmodern age, we especially experience a loss of self.  “In Postmodernity it is not the [loss of the] creator of the world (God) but also of man, a process that starts  with denial of God  and concludes with the breakdown and death of the subject.” There is what Shagar calls a “Nietzschian loss of the value of man”. Shagar explains the philosophy of Kant as subjectivism and perspectivism (AB- this is not Kant, he is reading Kant through Nietzsche, in that the latter connects everything to his philosophy of will). Kant critiqued metaphysics and now in the modern era we can only save truth, ethics, and God by relying on subject which leads to Nietzsche’s concept of the will, all ethics are based on the will.

Shagar cites Foucault in that all is a will to power, but the will has no hierarchy and it is not the cosmic blind will of Schopenhauer. Rather today, we are in a social weave in which all discourse is power “unidirectional power” – with no metaphysical angle. Shagar’s Foucault has no discussion of freedom, critique, discourse, and stratagem.  This discussion is difficult because the philosophers are more namedropped into the text than cited and analyzed; he works in a Hasidic manner by making equations of terms.

Shagar says that all is language and not metaphysics, which he proves by mentioning Wittgenstein Derrida, and Lacan. He discusses Wittgenstein’s limits of language and limits of questions that can be asked. Shagar reads Wittgenstein not as the peak of analytic linguistic thought but as Postmodern. The mistake is widespread in Israel. I should check the introductions to the Hebrew editions to find the source.

Shagar also mentions the critics of global capitalism and late capitalism, to which he states that we have Rav Nachman’s critique of capitalism. He also notes that technology has changed everything about all lives.

Section Two: Postmodern Eyn

Rav Shagar asks: what is the Archimedical point of the Postmodern era? What deep insight does it express? For Rav Shagar, it reveals the Hasidic concept of metaphysical nothingness, eyn. It is an age of no metaphysics above, no ideology below; it is a pantheistic Postmodernity.

In the Postmodernist age, there is no why. For Rav Shagar, this is neither Heidegger’s nothing nor the mystical nothing, nor is it even the Buddhist nothing. This is nothing with a small “n” as opposed to a capital one.  An attitude of no direction as described by Gadi Taub in his work, Dispirited Rebellion.

This is the loss of the creator, a loss of any great ideology, a loss of man, of truth; this loss is the source of the fantastic perspective which characterizes the Postmodern world. Rav Shagar then compares this condition to Existentialism and (Bahye). Where Existentialism sees no reason for life and is compelled therefore to ask Why not commit suicide, Bahye in his Duties of the Heart sees no purpose in material life so we therefore relinquish everything to serving God (bitachon 7; also see Kuzari III who rejects this opinion).

These are both forms of histavut, equanimity or indifference. The difference is that Bahye sees redemption in the light of God and in an influx of chesed. For him, it brings not only tranquility but also ecstatic love and cleaving to God. In contrast, Existentialism denies any form of redemption and destroys a sense of existence in which life as empty of meaning. An Existentialist sees the Hasid as empty and as a hindrance to self-acceptance.

(AB- Shagar  seems to conflate Existentialism and Postmodernism. According to Camus, “The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions […] and without resignation either. He experiences the ’divine irresponsibility’ of the condemned man.” Bahye sees the Divine in all creation. Despite his asceticism, he does not see the world as devoid of value.)

For Shagar, Bahye’s portrayal of the Hasid is paradoxical:  the Hasid has no promise of wealth or redemption but has complete trust without trust in anything in this world, a relinquishment of trust in anything because the world is empty and he is full [of the infinite] There are two psychological movements in the faith of the Hasid: first, the Hasid must surrender trust just as the Existentialist surrenders meaning in the world. Second one must stand directly before the nothing, Eyn

The Postmodernist, according to Shagar, outdoes the Existentialist by relinquishing truth and the need for truth. This giving up on truth yields self-acceptance But he also relinquishes a need to make a big deal or about the giving up of truth. A postmodern Hasid is therefore giving himself up to an ecstasy not of truth but of infinite self.  Since in the postmodern age there is no more metaphysics then the reaching of Eyn is really reaching our infinite selves. Rav Shagar already said similar things in the last paragraphs of the first essay in his earlier work Kelim Shevurim. God is our own infinite selves.

(AB- This acceptance of the self, a common theme in Shagar’s writings, is in direct contrast to the Postmodern rejection of the sovereign autonomous individual, Postmoderns emphasis construction of reality and linguistic constructions.)

Continuing this line of thought, for Rav Shagar Postmodern equanimity (histavut) can be explained by the two Chabad concepts of sovev kol almin and mimalei kol almin. Sovev surrounds and has no hierarchy, no good or bad, no sense of absolute just that the world is only God –all is his will Postmodern negation is sovev kol almin: nothing is absolute by itself, there is no up and down or hierarchy.

But, a person cannot live on the level of surrounding sovev rather we need to live in mimale kol almin. Sovev leads to nihilism and the breaking of categories but it can also have a positive function in opening up to new options and new places to find God.  It places us in a world where God is hidden and without hierarchy. If we do not know where God is, then we can use our free will to find the way. Shagar sees this as similar to Bahye who chose to seek God in a material world devoid of God.

Shagar declares that Postmodern is similar to hishtavut of Bahye and the sovev of the mekubalim [Chabad] insomuch as  all is equal without clear lines of where God is in the world.  The Postmodern innovation is to turn the perspective of God of Sovev kol Almin into a human perspective However, according to Shagar, in Hasidut, the Eyn has true reality and the Eyn is where all will return and it sustains the yesh, the existence, because the yesh does not really exist; only the Eyn is the true existence

However the Eyn in Postmodernity does not  sustain the yesh.  Now, the Eyn is a negation of hierarchy, postmodern perspective useful for creating new social and political perspectives

This flows from a second difference of the Eyn in Postmodernity, for the Hasid and kabbalist the Eyn is divine but in Postmodernity the Eyn is the halal hapanui – the empty space, the void or absence of God. (Likute Moharan 64) (AB- This is classic Arthur Green and his Existential doubt of God- see“Faith, Doubt and Reason,” in Green’s Tormented Master. )

For Rav Shagar, using the terms from the language of kabbalah and Hasidut allows us to see that postmodernism reveals the Eyn –the Eyn od. He conflates the Infinite of God, the absence of God and the all-encompassing of God.  In truth for Rav Shagar, there is no grasping of the metaphysics above.

We have to accept that God is the ground of everything and all our choices.

(AB- One senses a romantic pantheism and living in the moment, this is akin to Western Zen, focus on being “In the moment”. One also sense an existential concern with an authentic or well lived life not the postmodern concern with hegemony, social construction, or looking at the logic of our desires. This is more Camus meets Siddhartha, and Arthur Green in the language of postmodernism.)

A note should be made of his use of Hasidic language, it is not a translation of Hasidut into Postmodernity or vice-versa, rather a few theologically pregnant Hasidic terms that he uses to create a concrete that is original to him.

Section Three: Soft and Hard Postmodernity

Rav Shagar thinks that Postmodernity has no telos, no ultimate goal, no foundation, no ideology, and no closure. (AB- This means that neither Halakhah, beliefs (emunot), experience nor Zionism can serve as a basis to judge or create hierarchy.)

Postmodernists do not turn look to their struggles into fear or joy because they believe it is all contingent or happenstance.

Question: Can you bind yourself to Eyn in a way similar to the way a traditional religious Jew can bind himself to the Holy One blessed be He for religious devotion?

Answer: No, one cannot. And one cannot experience the resolution offered by religion anymore, no fear or rejoicing.

Question: Will we not we be officially left with nothing and therefore create a closure defined by absence?

Answer: Hard Postmodernism is Nihilism and deconstruction of the subject. It denies truth.

Soft Postmodernism, however, is a mixture of traditions, what works for me, I do not know what the truth is, there is no possibility of knowing truth but it does not deny truth itself. In soft Postmodernism, all is based on the perspective and context of person but truth does exist.

(AB- The only people who use this soft/hard distinction are Emergent Evangelicals who use postmodernism to says that there is no certain truth in the world and therefore we turn to Christianity, but the Christianity is uncertain about doctrine and teachings).

Question: How can this perspective change society without possessing truth?

Answer: The paradox of the void/absence (halal panui) allows us to confront the lack of truth without running from it or hiding, it instills an attitude of humility not victory.

shagar photo2

Section Four: Klipat Amalek as Opposed to Self-acceptance

The paradox of Postmodernism is that if everything is in doubt and there are no true values then does this not lead to the questioning of postmodernism since we cannot know that it is true.  Such a question is “nonsense” in the Wittgensteinian sense.

Wittgenstein’s nonsense is a form of Eyn.

(AB- in Wittgenstein’s writings, the word “nonsense” carries a special technical meaning which differs significantly from the normal use of the word. In this sense, “nonsense” does not refer to meaningless gibberish, but rather to the lack of sense in the linguistic context of sense and reference. In this context, logical tautologies, and purely mathematical propositions may be regarded as “nonsense” Why do these Israelis misread Wittgenstein so horribly?! The very question shows that Shagar is treating postmodernism as an ism to adopt rather than the current condition of our lives like the prior existential-psychological era that we did not choice but were embedded within).

But if Postmodernism is another uncertain narrative then even postmodernism is yeshut (an entity or grand narrative). In fact this makes it a pure yeshut, which in Hasidut makes it the evil of Amalek. The acceptance of postmodernism is thus Amalek. However, soft Postmodernism lets you not even accept the theory without accepting it as the truth. Yes, we are in doubt even about Postmodernism – just give up foundations and accept that you will never know. We will live with the existential irony of holding opposites.

Section Five: Random, Indifference or Discomfort—Routine and Ecstasy

The difference between the two types of Postmodernism is dependent on separating the connection between random and indifferent. Hard postmodernism says the randomness leads to indifference. Soft postmodernism says that randomness does not lead to indifference because there is meaning above the self, even if we cannot know it.  We give up the need for truth and even question Postmodernism.

There is ecstasy when you realize that you can live as Eyn because then you know that you are living life fully without the limits that binds others. In that state of living, one is above the limits of science, historicity, or psychology or any other structure that impedes the believer and his belief. Eyn opens him up to humility and greater spirituality.

In conclusion, we wind up with the irony and freedom of the religious Existentialists,  like Zorba the Greek—or do we? We also get the freedom to see everything as Eyn and not worry about belief in God, the rationality of religion, religious rules, or social roles. We have the absence of God, the self as God and the full language of Hasidut. But whereas Art Green’s Hasidism leaves us in the modern world of doubt, and a postmodern would treat God as culturally conditioned (or textual or a God beyond God), here we have a self that accept itself and its fragmented life.

To sort out where Rav Shagar differs from Existentialism, we return to Kierkegaard: “Without risk, there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am capable of grasping God’s objectivity, I do not believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty […] still preserving my faith.” For Rav Shagar, after his reading of Nietzsche, Lyotard, and Rav Nahman, there is no quest for passionate faith because we have made peace with the contradictions and uncertainties. This peace and uncertainty is our ecstatic freedom.

Appendix: Already on Facebook, Todd Berman commented that in a way that shows that his readers may really just be looking for a pluralist modernity. Kuhn and Berlin are pluralist moderns and not postmoderns.

Can only tell you what works for me. The notion that the corollary to the impossibility of Truth is the lack of necessity of arriving at Truth is very powerful for me. I was quite taken by Isaiah Berlin’s article on History where he argues that history is more akin to art in that it jibes with one’s understand of the world. Then Thomas Kuhn questioning the absolutes of science or more accurately the bias of scientists skews their models of the world, Rav Shagar, for me, seems to be the first person to take such notions and argue for a synthesis within my world view. Can one study artificial intelligence, read Asimov, Biblical criticism, like the Mets, and find a way to work this into a holistic view or why learning Bava Metzia is important as well?

Religious Student-Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces: Interview with Elisheva Rosman-Stollman

The founding of the modern secular State of Israel posed a dilemma for Religious Zionist leadership because the state operated outside of the realm of Rabbinic law. The state had neither Sanhedrin nor a Talmudic legal system. In addition, the daily operation of a state posed many conflicts to the state-less diaspora halakhic tradition. How does Jewish law now accept democracy of elected officials that now includes non-religious, non-Jews, and women? How does one produce electricity or load docks on the Sabbath? In the early years of the state, a variety of rabbis engaged in a still unfinished and unfinishable project of creating a Torah state in Israel. (For more information, see Asher Cohen, The Tallit and the Flag: Religious Zionism and the Vision of the Torah State in the Early Years of the State (Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute, 1998).

Even as many still pin for those fragmentary projects, in recent decades the site of tension has been the required army service, a source of pride for the religious Zionist community especially their entering higher command positions. Yet, does one’s have to obey orders that go against one’s religious beliefs? What if orders go against one’s Zionist political beliefs? What are the limits of bending the laws of prayer, Sabbath, or modesty? To answer these questions of the tension of military service and religion there is a recent book by Elisheva Rosman-Stollman (Professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University)For God and Country?: Religious Student-Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (University of Texas Press, 2014).


From the Blurb:

In many modern armies the religious soldier is suspect. Civilians and officers alike wonder if such a soldier might represent a potential fifth column. This concern is especially prominent in the public discourse over the presence of religious Orthodox Jews serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Will they obey their commanding officer or their rabbi? With research collected over almost a decade, including hundreds of hours of interviews, Elisheva Rosman examines this question of loyalties and reveals how religious soldiers negotiate a place for themselves in an institution whose goals and norms sometimes conflict with those of Orthodox Judaism.
Many journalists and scholars in Israel are suspicious of the student-soldiers who participate in these programs, but in fact, as Rosman’s research demonstrates, the pre-service study programs serve as mediating structures between the demands of Religious Zionism and the demands of the Israel Defense Forces and do not encourage their students to disobey orders… Rosman has discovered that the pre-service study programs can successfully serve as agents of civil society, both able to curb the military’s efforts to meddle in civilian affairs and vice versa.

Rosman prefaces her book by stating that: “Most non-Hebrew speakers are largely ignorant of the civil military issues” She presents the issues for the English speaking reader by looking at the mehinot, the shiluv programs as well as the hesder programs. Currently, more attend the former two programs than the latter one, even if hesder is better known in the US.. She also looks at the women’s programs, the new Garin program.

Traditionally, Yeshiva was an educational ideal, but can army service override it? The Haredi approach says no, it cannot override it except temporarily at best. But for many Religious Zionists army service a religious command like tefillin, while for others it is a needed practicality, or they feel that they are engaged in a continuous obligatory war, and for other it is bearing one’s burden and not standing idly by the blood of your neighbor. Rosman did discover that mechinah and shiluv programs report fewer religious problems, while hesder participants find greater dissidence.

The best parts of the book are based on her extensive interviews In which we see the important roles played by Rabbis Eyal Krim, Ohad Tahar-Lev, Rafi Peretz, Avi Ronztki and Eli Kahan in creating a Religious Zionist approach that closes the gaps between army and religion.

One of the heroes of the book is Rabbi Eli Sadan, who is seen by many as the father of mechinot, who wrote a pamphlet in 2005 stating that religious soldiers should not disobey orders because it would undermine the entire military and he sent it to all active relgious soldiers. Recently and beyond the scope of the book, Sadan called on soldiers to remain in the room when women sing during ceremonies and published sharp criticism against the “price tag” phenomenon. For more on him, see here and here. Sadan also recently put out three ideological pamphlets on the direction that Religious Zionism should take.

As a political scientist, Rosman was more interested in society than ideas; her goal is to understand the function of the mechinot not to analyze the books. For example, she shows that the students of Har Etzion, Petah Tikvah, Yerucham, Ma’aleh Adumin are given a clear signal of where the institution stands compared to other institutions that leave the students in ambiguity. Her question was solely the clarity of the message not it’s content. Nevertheless for the student of Jewish thought, her framework and bibliography provides ample guidance in knowing who to read.

The book, still close to a revised dissertation, uses as a methodology the short book by Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus in To Empower People: From State to Civil Society. In the book, Berger and Neuhaus argue that we are not isolated individuals before the state, rather we exist, find meaning and create civil society through mediating institutions of church, school, and voluntary organizations. Rosman uses the book to show the function of the mediating institutions of mechinah, shiluv, and hesder in easing tensions. However, the work of Berger and Neuhaus came out in 1977 and was a polemic against the individualism of the era arguing for more conservative or religious values in the public sphere, eventually producing Neuhaus’ influential Naked Public Sphere. Rosman work remains functional and does not explore the values of her model. Similarly, the work is devoid of the American discussion of conscience and civil disobedience when looking at the personal opinions of the soldiers

1} What is the thesis of your book?

Pre-service religious programs mediate between religious student-soldiers, the IDF and their social group (religious zionism). When they are successful, these programs are able to regulate pressures and help all the parties involved coexist in a way that is mutually beneficial. In addition, these programs serve as agents of civilianization of the military (As opposed to militarization of civil society) and in certain ways, strengthen civil society in Israel.

Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book about mediating institutions that stand between individuals and the larger institutions of society, such as family, neighborhood, voluntary associations. But also the mafia, gangs, the KKK can all be mediating institutions. These institutions allow individuals to understand the larger constructs of society, give the state legitimacy and allow individuals to voice their needs and wants better.

My book looks at all the pre-service comprehensive programs: hesder, mekhinot, shiluv and the midrashot that serve this role in Israel between the religion and the state. In the context of the book, mediation is the attempt to stand between individuals and greater structures they belong to and regulate conflicting demands and pressures. It is a strategy that can be used – or not – by individuals in order to navigate between these larger structures.

The tensions between religion and the military include specific mitzvot such as how to observe shabbat, and sometimes how to observe kashrut. Observing prayer properly (minyan, torah reading during the week and on shabbat). How does one live in the same quarters 24/7 with non-religious individuals. If one is supposed to study torah during the ages of 18 and 24 (for men), then how does can one also serve in the military during this time?

2) How do the study programs help?

Study programs can serve as mediators by conducting negotiation on behalf of individuals either with the IDF or with religious systems. for example during the disengagement, some of the programs helped students by supporting them actively, some helped by negotiating with the IDF so that the students were less involved. Rabbis and books alone do not have this function.

Study programs can help individual student-soldiers with religious problems by giving halakhic advice, reassuring students, advising on how to navigate situations when dealing with specific situations or problems.  They can also mediate on a more general level: trying to help women soldiers project a halakhically-sound public image, trying to support students during the disengagement or in co-ed issues students find problematic.

In general the study programs serve mostly as a sort of “safety net” – students know that if they really need an advocate, the program will be there for them. In many cases, just the knowledge that this is possible is enough. Sometimes it isnt.

3) What did you learn from your interviews?

Any religious soldier in the IDF (and in other militaries) will tell you that he or she had to negotiate.

The book is looking at the concept of religious soldiers and the potential issues this concept raises from the perspective of the individuals themselves: what do religious Jewish Israeli soldiers contend with and how do they handle potential conflict? In that sense, I think the book is doing something new. It puts the individual soldiers in context. It looks at the mediators themselves, and the super-structures, but the focus is the soldiers. We usually talk ABOUT them, but don’t listen TO them. The book tries to listen to them, to their mediators and to the IDF. It tries to let them do the talking, rather than talk “over their heads”, as happens quite a bit in academic and journalistic discourse regarding this topic.

When I teach this topic, students usually come up with lots of examples for negotiation – not just in this field. Discussion usually reaches the point that people wish there were more options for mediation in order to make sense of our public and private lives, but even more so in order to help us deal with structures we don’t understand, don’t know how to navigate, don’t want to navigate alone, and so on. We usually feel powerless or at a disadvantage when we deal with super-structures. In the context of the book, soldiers are perceived as part of the system, but they are individuals with needs that should be addressed. This is not just for the benefit of the soldiers, but also for the benefit of the military system and the religious system. Having a mediator can be helpful to all actors in this context.

I met with students once a year for at least 3 years. So I got an opportunity to watch them change over their service. I got to see them grow up in many aspects. I had good and bad experiences with army personnel. Rabbi Sadan refused to meet but agreed to a phone interview. He wouldn’t let me come visit the mekhinah either, we had ground rules for interviewing his students (it didn’t affect what I did in the end, but it was a clear message from him about how he felt about the project).

eli sadan
(Rav Eli Sadan)

4) Why is co-ed the most sensitive issue?

This has a lot to do with Israeli society today, I think, as well as the fact that issues of tzniut are in a way more clear-cut halakhically. On the one hand, in general we see a tendency to emphasize tzniut in Israel today. Gender scholars in Israel, such as Orna Sasson-Levy (such as in: “Gender Segregation or Women’s Exclusion? – The Military as a Case Study.” Civil–Military Relations in Israel: Essays in Honor of Stuart A. Cohen (2014): 147-169.), have written about this. And so you have demands to separate buses, not to display women’s photos in the public sphere and so on. Naturally, in Israeli reality, these things spill over into the IDF.

On the other hand, while issues of disobeying orders for example are harder to muster halakhic support for, co-ed issues are a relatively easy target. I think it is harder for rabbis to be lenient when considering tzniut.

In this context, I accept Charles Liebman’s thesis on extremism that all religious systems tend toward their extremist positions and extremism is the norm. It is far harder to explain religious moderation than extremism. Extremists rarely feel the need to apologize and usually blame the moderates for not being “truly” religious. I think this idea makes it easier to understand why the issue of mixed service has become the focal point for religious issues.  It is moderation that needs to be explained. So if a rabbi takes a lenient stance on modesty, it is much harder for him to defend his position if he were to take the more stringent one. Its always easier to say “its prohibited”. Moderate rabbis are suspect.

Looking at it from a different perspective, there are a few points regarding co-ed service that I didn’t discuss in the book: Asher Cohen has spoken a lot about the effect extremists have on the mainstream (for a latest example in English: Cohen, Asher, and Bernard Susser. “The Extreme Case Syndrome in Religion-Army Relationships.” Civil–Military Relations in Israel: Essays in Honor of Stuart A. Cohen (2014): 127-146). Most religious soldiers do not conform to stringent standards of Tzniut in their daily lives when not in uniform. However, when in uniform, they are affected by the minority calling for a more stringent position on modesty and may cave in to this position for many reasons.

Another point to consider is that most religious soldiers do not encounter women during their service. Contrary to what some other civil-military scholars in Israel posit, women and religious men rarely compete for the same military positions. The overwhelming majority of religious men serve in combat positions – few women serve in semi-combat positions in the IDF. So in truth, the majority of religious men in uniform meet women in the initial stages of training (if at all) as instructors. Some do serve with women either in combat support positions or non-combat positions. But they are by far a minority.

5) How are you agreeing or differing with the journalist Amos Harel who also writes about this tension of religion and army?

Amos Harel is a journalist at Haaretz who usually covers military affairs. Harel’s latest book, in Hebrew (the title was translated as: The Face of the New IDF), paints a portrait of the IDF in the 21st century using a single unit (Its a good book – I liked it). I was able to interview soldiers from many units, so its difficult to compare. Harel’s stance in his coverage of similar issues is usually that religion in the ranks is not a positive thing. Religion should not be part of the IDF. I’m trying to put things in context and show that it is much more complex than usually presented. Not “good” or “bad”. But, I’m not sure we’re even trying to do something similar.

Religion can be a negative force. But it can also be a positive one – like anything else. When people go out to battle, or when they are serving their country in other ways, it is not uncommon to feel the need to turn to a higher power. For some people this is religion and it helps them be better soldiers. Not just to be brave, but it can also mean to be more moral. More humane. If a soldier thinks that religiously he is prohibited from behaving violently toward a prisoner of war, then religion can be a positive force. There are many other examples, and if you look at halakhic responsa (shootim) from the past decade or so, you can see examples for positive and negative influences of religion on troops. A lot depends on who is doing the asking and who is doing the responding, halakhically.

6) You compare the Israeli situation to Iran in terms of religious  aura and to Turkey regarding practical issues. Can you explain?

Islam and Judaism have a lot in common. So comparing Israel to Muslim countries is important and not done enough, i think. Of course Iran and Turkey are not the same as the Israeli case, but there is a good basis for comparison since we are dealing with religions that are law-based (or orthoprax). Additionally, all three cases are conscription-based militaries, so we might assume we would find similar structures. But we dont. And I think that the main reason we see differences has to do with boundaries and therefore also with mediation. The Iranian military doenst accept a secular reality. It is a religious Muslim force. So it has no use for mediation. Mediation would only weaken the religious establishment.

The Turkish military is apprehensive about anything to do with religion because it sees itself as a secular force – even though its soldiers are mostly Muslim, if mostly culturally so. This means it also rejects mediation. I think that perhaps if there was a possibility for mediation, the Turkish armed forces could manage religious soldiers and their needs better. In that respect, Turkey and Israel mirror each other. Since they are both conscription-based (for rank and file soldiers), they MUST include religious soldiers and so will have to contend with the dilemmas these soldiers bring with them: prayers, fasting, dietary requirements, dress and so on. In Turkey, these soldiers are basically ignored, but the problems exist. In Israel there are mediators, but – as I show in the book – they dont completely solve every problem. They are, however, better at managing tensions.

6) Does observance erode in the army?

In general, we can talk about processes. During the harder parts of service (mainly training), most of my interviewees felt there was a certain erosion in observance. However, as they progressed and entered other stages of service, this usually changed. Interestingly, quite a few interviewees felt that their level of observance actually increased. Their service made them more committed to their religious identity. Of all my interviewees, only two became secular during service, and even they weren’t entirely sure that this was a final identity change and refused to truly classify themselves.  I do note that my study did not focus on this point and I cant draw definitive conclusions as to secularization during service.

7) What makes the Gariinim program special?

The Garin program is a program geared to help religious women who would like to serve in the IDF but want two requirements met. First, they don’t want to serve in a military position that will be difficult for them religiously. Second, they would like to learn torah as well. These women can enlist through the garin and combine study with service in an environment that is more friendly for religious women (such as service as education NCOs). This is really the first time you have official programs with a halakhic “umbrella” that endorse women’s conscription. Actually, this is one of the projects I am working on now. I think that the garinim mark an important turning point in the way Israeli society in general and Religious Zionism in particular view religious women in uniform.

Religious women always served, but they were basically ignored by the religious establishment. In some places, enlisting meant you werent a “good religious girl”. 20 years ago, 12th graders in certain schools, who knew they were going to enlist rather than go to National Service, did their best to conceal this from their school so as not to hurt their sisters’ chances of getting in. The garinim didnt change this overnight, but they demonstrated how it was entirely possible to be a “good religious girl” and still serve. That is huge. I won’t say that today being a religious women in uniform is considered accepted or a norm or a “good” thing, but it certainly isnt what it used to be and the garinim played a very important part in that.

8) You read through dozens of ideological tracts, seforim, and little  books written by Rabbis for the students. Which do you recommend for readers to gain a sense of the ideological issues?

It really depends on what you are looking for. For readers who want something practical – how to guides, if you will – the books written by rabbis in mekhinot (such as LeEzrat Hashem BaGiborim) and Rabbi Yosef-Tzi Rimon’s (a rabbi  who teaches at Har Eztion) booklets are good choices.

These are basically “how to” books – either practical (how to keep up a positive attitude in the face of difficult and trying military realities, how to find ways to uphold morality or stick to one’s ideals even when others around are slacking off, wasting time and so on) or halakhic (for example – what to do with one’s tfilin if one is leaving the base on Shabbat for a combat situation and will not be back before Sunday morning. Is it permissible to take the tfilin with, in order to be able to use them on Sunday, even though it is prohibited to carry them on Shabbat? During prayer in the field, when it is difficult for cohanim to remove their shoes, can they perform “aliya la-duhan” with shoes? Are there halakhic rules for guard duty? [yes – there are. For example, it is forbidden to be late for your shift as being late means stealing time from the soldier you are relieving; which is prohibited by halakha]. Is it permissible to count non-religious soldiers for a minyan? Or – one of the most common dilemmas encountered by religious soldiers: is it permissible to eat “food that traveled”? – food that was brought to the military base or outpost on Shabbat, violating the eruv.). They are small, army-pocket-sized books that can be very helpful for a religious soldier in daily military life.

Personally, I find almost anything written by Rabbi Eli Sadan, one of the heads of the mekhina in Elie, fascinating. I think he is perhaps one of the least understood rabbis to those who are not his students. Everyone thinks they know what he says, but don’t bother to read him.I think if people really want to understand what the mekhinot are about ideologically, his writings are pivotal.

I think its a shame some rabbis and leaders do not publish more – Rabbi David Bigman of the Religious Kibbutz, Ms. Tami Biton of the Be’er program and Rabbi Ohad Tehar-Lev of the Hadas program, are just a few examples. They have a lot to say, but few hear them since they only speak to their students. It creates a reality where only certain voices are heard and this naturally influences discourse on the topic.

For example, all three of these figures speak of a “thinking halakha”, where a true Torah scholar is ready to ask questions, even without receiving answers, and is willing to face the modern, secular world, and learn from it. Tami Biton has a clear social agenda that she wants to instill in her students. Rabbi Ohad (as his students call him) feels that “if military service is a mitzva, then it’s a mitzva for everyone”, both women and men. His students are taught that their observance of halakha is important and meaningful and that the fact that they are women does not detract from this.

Rabbi Bigman’s students all stress that military service is not a positive thing. It is a civil duty that should be carried out well, but certainly not something to be looked forward to. In his classes and talks, he emphasizes that a Torah scholar must be sensitive to the world he lives in. During one of our talks he told me how much he was impressed, as a teen growing up in the United States, by the famous picture of Rabbi Heschel marching with Martin Luther King Jr. These voices are not as prominent in public discourse and rarely heard when discussing religious soldiers in the IDF.

I think the most interesting part of this project, for me, was meeting rabbis and students, various officers, women who are important to the changes in civil-military relations in this sphere. Most of these people dont have much of a public voice, but they are extremely influential and have something to say that is worth listening to. What I should really do is just publish the interviews. It would be more interesting than this book.

Interview with Prof. James Diamond

The historian of Jewish philosophy Isaac Husik once mentioned that Jewish thought is a series of footnotes to Maimonides. In this he was modifying the famous statement of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who claimed that philosophy was a series of footnotes to Plato. In his recent book Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon, James A. Diamond the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo accepts the veracity of Husik’s claim by looking at many Jewish thinkers and their dialectic relationship with Maimonides.

James A. Diamond has earned an LLB as well as an LLM in International Legal Studies at New York University School of Law and has practicing civil litigation, in addition he has an MA and PhD in Medieval Jewish Thought from University of Toronto. He was the international director of the Friedberg Genizah Project. His prior two books were Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, and Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider, both smart and insightful.

Professor Isidore Twersky considered Jewish intellectual life as revolving around the usage, rejection, or struggling with Maimonides issues. His approach asked how each later thinkers answered the broad cultural issues by which Maimonides had struggled, including the role of aggadah, the role of meta-halakhic knowledge, the role of elitism, and the role of spiritualization of Judaism. James Diamond in his Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon is concerned more with the actual dialectics of subsequent thinkers with the philosophy of the Guide than the cultural world. He looks at points in the thought of Nahmanides, Ritva, Ran, Abarbanel, Spinoza, Netziv, Buber, Rav Kook, and Hermann Cohen among others to see the canon of Jewish thought as shaped by Maimonides.

Moshe Halbertal who has written on the role of canon in the formation of Judaism praises the work for its “analysis of the complex and deep ways in which Maimonides’ own works became, in turn canonical.” James Kugel loved the book and wrote that: “This book is an intellectual tour de force, but more than that, it is an essential guide to understanding the ‘thinking’ part of Judaism in our own day.” Finally, Leon Wieseltier wrote: “James Diamond has captured.. the excitement of tradition generally. His account… establishes the primacy, and the originality, and the beauty of interpretation as a mode of thought.”

Readers may profit from comparing this interview to our interview with Kenneth Hart Green about Maimonides.

diamond cover

1. How is Maimonides a “fulcrum” of all subsequent Jewish thought?

Maimonides set the agenda in one way or another for virtually all of Jewish thought since the Middle Ages; a study of the explicit and implicit Maimonidean threads that course their way through various historical periods and thinkers serves to illuminate certain aspects of the different strands of that thought which might otherwise go undetected. Much of Jewish intellectual history can be viewed as a series of engagements, disengagements, and re-engagements with him, fueled by the kind of writing Maimonides himself practiced, thereby establishing the very lines of discourse that target or conjure up his thought, regardless of the social, cultural, and intellectual transformations inevitably wrought by time.

A few years ago, during the book’s gestation, Leon Wieseltier suggested looking at Gershom Scholem as a contrast. For Scholem there were only three books–the Hebrew Bible, the Zohar, and the collected works of Kafka–which he “read and reread with true attentiveness, with an open heart, and with spiritual tension.” He considered these three “books” to be “collections on which over the course of three thousand years were impressed that spirit customarily referred to as the spirit of Judaism.” Scholem’s concise list of quintessentially Jewish works betrays a certain bias against the classical rabbinic tradition, Maimonides, and rationalism.

I would express the same sentiment with respect to the collected works of Maimonides. Alongside the Bible, the Talmud, and the Zohar, they comprise the core spiritual and intellectual canon of Judaism. It would be difficult to characterize anything postdating the Middle Ages as authentically Jewish absent some engagement with all or some of the components of this canon. Indeed, Scholem’s own canon of Jewish thought, and lifelong interest in kabbalah, can be thought to have been constructed in one sense as a reaction to Maimonides. When reminiscing about what motivated his study of kabbalah, he admitted an antipathy to the Maimonidean (along with Saadya Gaon and Hermann Cohen) project, whose “primary function” he claims was “setting up antitheses to myth and pantheism and disproving them. It would have been more beneficial had they attempted to raise them to a higher level within which they would be negated.” Scholem’s entire kabbalistic project can be viewed as a redemption of what Maimonides had denigrated.

The numerous examples of Maimonidean engagements in the book collectively amount to an argument against Scholem in favor of elevating the Maimonidean oeuvre to canonical status alongside the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and subsequently the Zohar.

Moshe Halbertal’s distinction between central texts that are influential in shaping thought and formative texts “in which progress in the field is made through interpretation of the text itself,” is instructive in terms of how precisely to classify the Maimonidean textual legacy in terms of Judaism’s curricular canon. In light of the extent to which this book places post Maimonidean thought in dialogue with that legacy, Maimonides’ Guide and Code can safely be subsumed within the formative category.

This study gives voice to that dialogue in a panoply of intellectual languages and across historically delineated periods. The dialogue may stretch between a rabbinic rationalist such as Maimonides, living in Islamic-dominated Egypt; an adversarial rabbinic mystical exegete such as Nahmanides (13th century) in Christian-dominated Spain; the fiercely antagonistic fifteenth-century kabbalistic encyclopedist Meir ibn Gabbai; or an admiring twentieth-century Eastern European mystic, Zionist, and political activist such as Abraham Isaac Kook, who reinvented Maimonides; but all are firmly entrenched within a well-established rabbinic tradition. Even Spinoza, Judaism’s arch-heretic and free-thinking iconoclast, who broke with the Jewish tradition altogether in seventeenth-century Holland, could not sever his ties to his inherited religion without refuting the Maimonidean biblical hermeneutic. In his very rejection of Maimonides, he actually resorts to this hermeneutic if only to overcome his primary Jewish intellectual predecessor and foil.

In a sense Maimonides emerges as a fulcrum for Jewish law and civilization in all its genres–legal, rabbinic, philosophical, and mystical. Often, even when Maimonides is not explicitly mentioned, it becomes evident from a cited verse or a rabbinic adage that a later thinker has contemplated Maimonides’ interpretation, whether as endorsement and incorporation of its Maimonidean sense, or to carve out new space for an opposing idea.

2. Do you agree with Isaac Husik, the historian of Jewish thought,who considered Jewish thought as a series of footnotes to Maimonides?

I have been studying Maimonides in various contexts during the course of my life from the yeshivah, through a legal career, and then in the academy. My interests, however, range the entire spectrum of Jewish thought across strictly delineated historical borders the academy has drawn, at times artificially, between medieval, early modern, and modern. At the same time, I have wandered, some might consider trespassed, onto “fields” that also seem to me often artificially constructed when it comes to Jewish thought such as theology, philosophy, law, rabbinics, and biblical exegesis. Maimonides seemed to be a connective thread traversing historical periods and genres of writing.

Every path in Jewish thought and law from the twelfth century onward bears some of Maimonides’ imprint, even the particular crystallization of kabbalah, so inimical to the general thrust of his rationalism, would have been unimaginable without the work of Maimonides.

The Husik quote which launches the book transposes what Whitehead is reported to have said regarding all of western philosophy as a series of footnotes on Plato, to the relationship between Jewish philosophy and Maimonides. This always resonated with me and is an apt, yet partial, characterization. Husik’s observation was actually too narrow in its scope, and emerges from the traditional strict bifurcation between philosophy and theology. I would expand Husik’s observation beyond philosophy to include theology, law, and kabbalah.

As scholars such as Isadore Twersky have argued, the Mishneh Torah offers a grand jurisprudential/philosophical/ political/ social conception of Judaism and humanity in general. It begins with a universal ideal accessible intellectually to all human beings and ends with a messianic vision where that universal ideal is actually realized socially, politically, and philosophically. An entire “parochial” legal code is bracketed by a universal vision.

The Guide is also far more than a philosophical treatise. I begin my book with another observation, this time by Leo Strauss, that it “is not a philosophic book–a book written by a philosopher for philosophers–but a Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews.” When I first began my studies on Maimonides, I thought it a trite observation. However, over the years, I came to increasingly appreciate its full import. Overlaying the Guide’s undercurrent of Aristotelian philosophy, medieval cosmology, and logic, is a very Jewish work. Its relentless citation of biblical and rabbinic sources renders it much more a book of exegesis than strictly a philosophical treatise. The Guide I believe , in its entirety, fits in to the age old tradition of rereading Judaism’s sacred texts both on a micro-level of individual words and a macro-level of passages or units called “parables”. Maimonides’ intended audience is Jewish; his core subject matter consists exclusively of philosophical issues filtered through Jewish texts; the very writing of the Guide is grounded in a halakhic dispensation of openly transmitting forbidden esoteric subjects ; and the existential angst he aims at relieving of the conflict between the Torah and philosophy is a Jewish one.

3. How does Harold Bloom help developing your approach of tracing the use of Maimonides?

There is a form of anxiety that both links and propels the various strands of Jewish thought presented in the book and helps to account for a critical dimension of creativity in advancing Jewish thought. Harold Bloom’s seminal insights into the vitality of poetry and prose are relevant to the way the book approaches the history of Jewish thought vis-à-vis Maimonides.
Here is how Bloom understands the creative force of much of Western poetry composed over the last few centuries:

Poetic Influence–when it involves two strong, authentic poets–always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main traditions of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.

As one proceeds along this study of various Jewish thinkers–rationalist or kabbalist, medieval or modern–this “central principle” of Bloom’s sweeping consolidation of all good poetry under one primary rubric of “misreading,” “correction,” “misinterpretation,” and “revisionism” begins to crystallize as a formative principle of post-Maimonidean Jewish thought as well. By transposing some of the terms in Bloom’s assertion, the following can be stated with equal force:

Jewish philosophical, jurisprudential, and theological influence–when it involves a strong, authentic thinker—often proceeds by a misreading of Maimonides, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. A good part of the history of fruitful Jewish philosophical and theological influence, since the Middle Ages, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism of Maimonidean thought, without which modern Jewish thought as such could not exist.

To borrow another formulation from Harold Bloom’s theory of poetry, one of the indicators of the greatness of the thinkers dealt with in the book lies not necessarily in their “originality” but rather in their “persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to death. Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves.” That “precursor” with whom the subjects of the book wrestled and from whom they appropriated is Moses Maimonides.

4. In your view, what is the dialectic between philosophy and kabbalah?

I don’t believe there can be a neat bifurcation between kabbalah and philosophy and the Maimonidean impetus for the development of kabbalistic theology is a critical focal point to demonstrate this. Scholars of Jewish mysticism have already argued for the Maimonidean influence on kabbalah- and not simply as an antagonist but as a positive catalyst for kabbalah’s formation. Maimonides’ influence on the Zohar is still a scholarly desideratum but I deal with one particular example where the Zohar’s mystical/sefirotic exegesis of a key verse in Maimonidean hermeneutics is fueled by Maimonides’ own pragmatic, rationalist reading of it.

Two chapters in the book deal specifically with the dialectic between philosophy and kabbalah using Meir ibn Gabbai of the sixteenth century and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook of the twentieth as instructive examples.

Ibn Gabbai’s magnum opus, Avodat HaQodesh, consists of a counter-lexicon which methodically displaces the philosophical layer of many of the key terms such as “sitting,” “standing,” “foot,” or “spirit,” dealt with in Maimonides’ lexicography of biblical terms in the first part of the Guide, replacing them with his own parallel, but inverse, lexicon. While Maimonides’ overarching concern was to drain these terms of their anthropomorphic connotations when referring to God, ibn Gabbai’s was to reverse Maimonides’ anti-anthropomorphism crusade, and re-anthropomorphize biblical language in aid of what he was convinced was its kabbalistic message. Along the way ibn Gabbai dismantles Maimonides’ theological rationalism. His exegesis of biblical verses and midrashic traditions are intended as hermeneutical counterpoints to Maimonides, radically transforming the philosophically esoteric exegeses of those common references into a kabbalistic mode.

Throughout his prolific career, R. Kook, engaged the thought of Maimonides, whose own corpus, in its thoroughly systematic nature, whether halakhic or philosophic, could not be more antithetical to R. Kook’s. Rather than Gabbai’s counterpoint, R. Kook rereads Maimonides through commentary- more of an eisegetical reinforcement of his own thought than an objective commentary.

In a sense R. Kook applied the methodology he ascribed to Maimonides’ appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy to his very own appropriation of Maimonidean philosophy. He believed that the patent sense of many Maimonidean texts offends their real, authorially intended, sense and therefore required conscious subversion so that the genuine sense would emerge seamlessly for his readers.

R. Kook reads Maimonides “omnisignificantly”, a term James Kugel applies to rabbinic midrashic readings of scripture. In R. Kook the lines between Jewish mysticism and Jewish rationalism become somewhat blurred. R. Kook, in this short commentary on the most philosophically oriented section of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, combines the two domains seamlessly in constructing an intellectualist mysticism for which Maimonides’ rationalist corpus is indispensable.

5. Should we consider Abarbanel to be a continuation or rejection of Maimonides?

I focused in particular on Maimonides’ thought which was imported by those who succeeded him, adapted to new currents of thought, subverted, or negated by them, as the case may be, and transported further, elongating the chain of Jewish philosophy, theology, and law.

A number of thinkers I deal, such as Isaac Abarbanel, Moses Nahmanides, Ritva, and, I even include Spinoza, suffer from a not uncommon love/hate attitude toward Maimonides. They all share a dynamic emotional/intellectual/spiritual relationship that reflects both a reverence for Maimonides’ towering intellect and rabbinic proficiency as well as fear and anxiety as to the consequences of his rationalism.
The chapter dedicated to Isaac Abarbanel, for example, arguably the most prominent of 15th century exegetes, who also experienced the exile and trauma of the Jewish expulsion from Spain, wrote after centuries of raging controversies incited by Maimonides’ works, over whether the rationalist approach to religious belief in its deference to the Graeco-Arabic philosophical tradition reinforced or undermined Jewish faith and practice. Abarbanel’s thought resonates negatively with both the aftershocks of these religiously bitter and socially divisive debates

I chose his treatment of the akedah as a particularly poignant example of Abarbanel’s passionately conflicted engagement with Maimonides which treads a precarious tight-walk between what Abarbanel perceives as both a continuum and a rupture with rabbinic Judaism and loyalty to halakha. In this case, an apparent endorsement of Maimonidean biblical exegesis rendered in the course of his own exegetical discourse may actually amount to a sustained subversive attack once his overall interpretation is considered. Abarbanel’s cultural/historical milieu, which demanded concrete existential sacrifice for the preservation of one’s faith along with the disappointing failure to withstand a challenge to faith in his own family background and beyond in the general community, may have informed his exegetical divergence in this instance and throughout.

Thus biblical exegesis in fifteenth-century Iberia charts a different path, fueled by a worship that in the end entails absolute submission rather than Maimonidean reasoned obeisance to divine command. Abarbanel’s exegesis has its precedent in the withering assaults on Maimonidean rationalism by Moses Nahmanides, a seminal critic of Maimonides, especially when it comes to offering rationale for mitzvoth. The subsequent struggle to carve out a space for Maimonidean theology is so intense that a major attempt to do so emerges within the Nahmanidean camp itself by Ritva who dedicates a systematic treatise to it. What I argue is that while Nahmanides attempted to replace a rationalist theology with a more kabbalistic one, a generation later Ritva, salvages Maimonidean rationalism and reserves a space for it alongside kabbalah within Jewish practice and belief.

6. How does the Netziv fit into your pattern?
On this score, Maimonides’ anchoring of halakha in reason, as evidenced in his ta’amei mitzvoth, looms so large that the Netziv, one of greatest of nineteenth century rabbinic authorities could find himself expending much energy to combat it. Netziv’s view of Jewish law that transcends reason militates against Maimonidean jurisprudence which appreciates every single commandment teleologically, regardless of their ritualistic or civil character, aimed toward inculcating any one of “opinions, moral qualities, and political civic actions.” Netziv subverts Maimonides’ collapse of any distinction between non-rational (hukim) and rational (mishpatim) commandments into one overarching rational classification, replacing it with his own collapse of them into a uniform scheme of non-rationality. Thus he infuses even that dimension of the law reason would dictate necessary for the normal functioning of any civil society with meta-legal mystery, for “even those commandments which apparently even human reason would engender, were not decreed by the Torah from the aspect of human reason, but rather from the aspect of the non-rational (hukei) dimension of the Torah.”

7. Why is Maimonides relevant today?
Firstly, he remains relevant in the sense for example the Hebrew Bible does. I constantly remind my students that regardless of one’s beliefs, one cannot possibly understand the history of Western thought, culture, and art without knowledge of the Bible. In the same way, from practical, historical, and scholarly perspectives my book demonstrates that the development of Jewish thought since the middle ages, in all its dimensions, cannot possibly be appreciated without considering the traces of Maimonides’ thought explicitly and implicitly. For this, the correctness of his science is irrelevant. My book ends with Franz Kafka, a Jewish writer who is rarely mentioned in the same breath, and I claim that even his Kafkaesque thought can be better appreciated if read against the grain of Maimonides.

Secondly, and more importantly, is that Maimonides stands as the supreme model of a complete human being, who struggled to incorporate both his humanness and his Jewishness into a seamless whole. As such both the world of the yeshivah and that of the academy have much to learn from his legacy.

Again, the science Maimonides operated with is irrelevant to an appreciation of the existential enterprise he devoted his life to. The science changes but the dilemma, conflict, and spiritual wrestling remains the same. The reason he has and continues to wield so strong an attraction in both worlds is because of his wholeness, of his potent combination of rabbinic expertise and philosophical acumen. Without those Maimonides could easily have been ignored by devotees of either school and thus would not loom as large over the evolution of Jewish thought, nor indeed, even be the subject of my study.

For me the problem he addresses that motivated him to compose the Guide really says it all about his continuing relevance to any modern Jew. Those who seek to remain committed to their tradition and sacred texts as well as their intellects need not abandon either. Jewishness cannot be fulfilled at the expense of turning one’s back on one’s intellect and living a lie, condemned to perpetually suffer from “loss to oneself and harm to one’s religion”. Maimonides offered us the tools for avoiding a life of inauthenticity or simplicity.

Religion for Maimonides does not provide comfort but demands extraordinary effort in understanding both the world around you and the why of God’s dictates. Blind faith attracts no praise from Maimonides, except as a childish starting point for a life of sustained thought and struggle as the only authentic mode of existence.

8. Where does Maimonides stand along the classical rabbinic canon that preceded him?

There is a striking observation attributed to R. Hanina bar Papa, a fourth-century rabbinic sage, which demarcates the four primary texts of the classical Jewish canon according to their hermeneutical effects. Midrashically stimulated by the direct form of mass revelation to the Israelites at Mount Horeb described as “face to face” (Deut. 5:4), the divine word is said to manifest itself in four different ways, associated with each of the four constituents of the rabbinic canon: “The Bible possesses the face of dread (אימה), the Mishnah a neutral face (בינוניות), the Talmud a playful face (שוחקות) , and the Aggadah an explicatory face (מסבירות).”

In whatever sense the term “ dread” or “awesome” is understood, the notion is that the Bible undergoes an interpretive process through the various stages and approaches represented by these different rabbinic genres that slowly moderates that initial terror, transforming it into understanding and clarity. I would venture to attribute the dread emanating from the Bible to its inability to communicate sensibly with a later audience that might no longer share its theological tenets and is uncomfortable with its moral and juristic sensibility. Inconsistency and anachronism, as well as large parts of it being rendered irrelevant by the historical demise of the sacrificial cult, obscures its communicative “face” even further. What initially overwhelms, startles, or shocks is illuminated by the conciliating, liberal, and explanatory strategies of rabbinic exegesis.

My book seeks to add a fifth face, that of Maimonides to that exegetical process which filters out further biblical unintelligibility for an even later audience who can no longer tolerate its philosophical, theological, and juridic incoherence. Just as the biblical Moses intervenes to mediate the divine face-to-face communication that people cannot tolerate further, so the medieval Moses intervenes in Jewish intellectual history with a new midrashic face that philosophizes and theologizes. In doing so, Jewish thought continues to advance while at the same time firmly anchored in its foundational texts.

Judaism and Other Religions- paperback is almost here

My book Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding will be out in a reasonably priced paperback in 2-3 weeks. Now is the time to pre-order your copies. Amazon offers price guarantee. The book makes a wonderful gift for Hanukkah (or Thanksgiving, solstice, Saturnalia, Diwali, Christmas, Rohatsu-Bodhi Day, Vasant Panchami or Guru Gobindh Singh birthday). The book has already been used as the text in more than a half dozen university courses.

Available at Amazon here.


Service for Thanksgiving Day 1940 – Rabbi Joseph Lookstein

A few years ago I posted the Thanksgiving service from the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue of NY from 1945. Here is another one, this time the service from Kehilath Jeshurun 1940 and prayer from Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. Read the wonderful universal prayer- ideal for Thanksgiving reading.



Thursday, November Twenty-first
Nineteen Hundred and Forty
11:00 A.M.


Ma Tovu .                                                      Levandowsky, Cantor Fingeroth and Choir

Procession of the Colors
The congregation will rise at the entrance of the
color guard and will remain standing until after the
singing of the national anthem.

Presentation of American Flag     .         .       Ira F. Weisman, President, Kehilath Jeshurun Men’s Club

The flag will be accepted by Mr. Max J. Etra, President of the congregation

National Anthem      Congregation and Choir

President Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Proclamation –Max J. Etra, President 

Thanksgiving Prayer               .    Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein

The congregation will recite in unison the last verse
of the prayer.

Lo Amus                                          Machtenberg Cantor Fingeroth and Choir

Offertory Thanksgiving Address        Hon. Charles Lieutenant-Governor, State of New York

Olenu                                                                               Congregation and Choir

Adon Olam                                                                       Congregation and Choir


THANKSGIVING PRAYER by Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein

Eternal God:

We thank Thee for the glory of the universe, for the light of the sun and the mellowness of the moon and for the stars in their courses whose amazing dimensions and staggering distances challenge our imagination.

We thank Thee for the beauty and utility of Thy creations, for the flowers which are the stars of the earth even as the stars are the flowers of heaven; for the fertility of the soil and the abundance of its products; for the food that is borne within its bosom and the waters that flow from its deep and inner fountains; for the air that surrounds all creatures and that holds within its invisible self the secret and power • of life.

We thank Thee for the dignity and majesty of man, for the spirit of wisdom with which Thou didst endow him, for the vision with which he is possessed, for the sensitivity of his heart and the profound­ness of his soul. We thank Thee for the dominion that is his over all creation, for his capacity to live with all his kind and for the urge that stimulates him to search, to seek and ultimately to approach even Thee.

For all these blessings we thank Thee.

Almighty God, we pray that we may remain true to the destiny for which we were created. We pray that the dignity of human per­sonality may be preserved and the reverence of man for man may continue. We pray that the beautiful heavens that Thou didst spread over our heads may not be darkened by the clouds of hate and that the magic carpet which is earth may not be disturbed by the tramp of hostile feet. We pray that man’s inhumanity to man may forever end and that human genius may continue to strive for greater perfection and for nobler fulfillment. Let man come to understand that he is closest to God when he is nearer to man, that he worships at Thy holy throne when he serves Thy creatures and that he is within Thy holy shrine when he is at one with his fellow-beings.

We pray also for those of our fold in benighted lands of oppression, exposed to cruelty and suffering, that they may soon be blessed with the restoration of the rights and privileges of which they have been despoiled and which we believe to be the inalienable rights of man.

We pray sincerely for America and the ideals of democracy and freedom that are here enshrined. May she be strong to withstand all the currents that assail her and all the forces of evil that would invade her sacred precincts. A tower of light to her own citizenry, may she cast a steady beam and light up all the dark areas of the world and show to a perplexed and straying humanity the path of freedom, of life and of peace.

Rabbi and Congregation.

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to Thee, oh Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Thanksgiving Service at KJ 1940 EDITED

Sam Fleischacker Responses to Comments on “Words of the Living God

The author responds to his critics. Also notes that his next book The Good and the Good Book: Revelation as a Guide to Life comes out July 2015.

Response to Comments on “Words of the Living God
Sam Fleischacker

Here are some responses to the comments and questions about “Words of the Living God” that have been posted on the blog or Facebook page. Thanks very much to everyone who has written in!

1) Pace YK, at no point do I deny that we can experience moments of great religious significance that transcend language. Many elements of our tradition suggest that we need to go beyond language in our relationship to God. “Silence is praise to You,” says Psalm 65, and the Rambam quotes this approvingly; it fits well, of course, with his view of the limitations of language as regards God (I’ll say a bit more about the Rambam below). Psalm 19 also implies that nature “speaks” without words. And hasidut, as several respondents have pointed out, is filled with parables emphasizing the importance of getting beyond language — of moving away from language, in our worship, towards music, dance, or internal, silent devotion — and of God’s presence in non-linguistic spaces.

The question I’m grappling with is just whether these non-linguistic moments should be the source of our religious commitments — as opposed to gaining religious significance only by way of a prior revelation. I certainly think we have and should value these sorts of moments. I had my breath taken away by the sublime and beautiful landscapes on the different sides of Indonesia’s Mount Bromo: and in response uttered, in accordance with our tradition, both the blessing “oseh ma’aseh b’reishit” and the blessing “shekacha loh b’olamo.” But I’m not sure what I gained cognitively from this experience, and I’m quite sure that I wouldn’t have taken it in a religious light at all had I not already been committed to the Torah. What wordless encounter theology does is however precisely to take these sorts of experiences as foundational to the religious life, and read the revelatory moments in the Torah as roughly capturing the wonder and awe they arouse. Giving the non-linguistic this sort of foundational importance — greater importance than the Torah itself — is something new, not a mere extension of the Baal ha-Tanya, and it is supposed to help resolve or side-step the problems we moderns have with the idea of a God who spoke on Sinai. My claim is that that the hopes it holds out in this regard are vain ones: that it does not resolve either the historical or the philosophical or the halachic problems that concern progressive Jews in the modern age. We may well have wordless encounters with God — if we have encounters with God at all, I am sure some of them are wordless — but they cannot be our prime source of revelation: not the source of the sort of revelation that Jews believe in, at least.

2) To YM and HH: As I’ve indicated, I think it’s a mistake to see everything in figures like Heschel as coming from hasidic sources rather than philosophical currents in the non-Jewish world. This is a mistake because it is absurd to suppose that any hasid would have denied the literal truth of the Torah — would have described it as wholly a “midrash,” and allowed that it might have been produced by (fallible, and politically motivated) writers other than Moses. It is also a mistake because Jewish philosophy always draws on a wider non-Jewish context — on Aristotle, or Kant, or Heidegger — and to present it as a hermetically sealed project, in which each contributor is responding only to endogenous Jewish sources, is to distort it. As a philosopher whose training and scholarship has been mostly focused on non-Jewish thinkers, what I can bring to Jewish theology is precisely an appreciation of its wider context. I don’t by that mean to deny that there is also great value in pointing out its endogenous roots. Certainly, the Baal ha-Tanya is very important to Heschel, and it would be wonderful to see the connections between the two laid out in detail. But that shouldn’t blind us to Heschel’s interest in making sense of the Jewish tradition in terms of early twentieth-century phenomenology, or fitting it in with the theology of such writers as Otto.

3) Several people were puzzled by objection (b), in the first part of the essay: that wordless encounter theology gravitates towards animism rather than monotheism.

In response, I’d first note that if my other objections, especially (c), are successful, it doesn’t much matter if one agrees with (b). If wordless encounter theology relies on an incoherent conception of language, then it is unacceptable, even if it does not stand in tension with monotheism.

But I expected that my suggestion that wordless encounter theology smacks of paganism would have seemed obvious, and resonated with the experience of most readers. I recall once participating in shacharit on a retreat in the woods of Maine led by a rabbi much influenced by this sort of theology. When we came to the Shema, he noted to the community that Jews usually cover their eyes when saying the Shema, to make clear that they are committed to a God who transcends their surroundings rather than worshipping some object they see before them. But here in the midst of the nature’s glories, he said, we should for once open our eyes while saying the Shema. “So here,” I thought, “where the danger of avodah zarah is greatest, we should indulge our temptation towards it …” I would be surprised if this is an unfamiliar experience to my readers — that they have not also heard, far more often than they would like to have heard, that the Grand Canyon or a glorious sunset is the real place to encounter God. Again, I don’t mean to deny the joy that comes of praying in beautiful natural surroundings, but the suggestion that this is where God is most to be found surely recalls the pagan investment of groves and springs with divinity more than it does the idea of a God who fills the universe. Among other things, it implies that God does not dwell in ugly office buildings, or depressing slums, or anything else that is humdrum or upsetting: a fall away from, or failure to grasp, the sublime, rigorously monotheistic, declaration of Isaiah, echoed in our liturgy, that God is the creator of both good and evil.

The deeper point to be made here is that the very notion of a “god,” let alone of the one God of monotheism, is an abstraction that we cannot achieve without language. An infant or non-human animal may sense something wonderful or awful about a certain event, even without language, but that is not yet to understand the event as pervaded or governed by a god. To arrive at the notion of a “god” we need first to separate intentional from unintentional agency, to conceive of intentional agents that are not human, and to see elements of nature as explicable only by way of a super-human intentional agent. These are complicated, highly linguistic thoughts — making use of the sorts of generalization and abstraction that only language can accomplish — and without them, there will be nothing in our reactions to experience that could reasonably be interpreted as belief in a god.

To get to belief in “God” full stop, moreover — the upper-case, singular God of monotheism — we need to make sense of and accept an argument to the effect that gods, because perfect, cannot differ among themselves in any significant respect: that if the universe bespeaks intelligent and good government or design at all, government or design worthy of our love and worship, it must bespeak a single governor or designer, who pulls the whole thing together and gives us a place in it that we can embrace. It is unimaginable that we could get to any of these thoughts without language. Hence a view of religion by which pre-linguistic and pre-conceptual experience is fundamental will inevitably be a view of religion that gravitates toward animism rather than monotheism — as wordless encounter theology in fact does.

4) I thought YM’s gesture toward the “skein in our tradition according to which God is both ineffable AND speaking” was terrific. As I indicate in response 2) above, I don’t think this is what the theologians I discuss have in mind, when they make revelation nonverbal, and I don’t think my critique of that theology rules out this interplay. And I suggest that the best way to understand what Yehudah has in mind is by way of a process that is inter-conceptual and inter-linguistic rather than pre-conceptual and pre-linguistic. What is ineffable about God is something we appreciate in the spaces between words, on this model — the ways in which they fail, or fall short — rather than in a space that is prior to language.

I’ve tried elsewhere to explain what this process might look like (see the account of Kant’s “harmony of the faculties” in my Third Concept of Liberty, chapter 2), but the simplest way to think of it — this would also go with the comment of  SR — might be to consider the way great poets move between invocations of the ineffable, the mysterious, etc. and limpid, vivid descriptions of concrete objects: as if to suggest that there is something ineffable within language and something proto-linguistic, something that signifies, in silence (in the silences of a language-user, at least).

Consider in this light R. Mendel of Rymanov’s famous suggestion that the Israelites at Sinai heard just the silent aleph at the beginning of the first word (anochi) of the Ten Commandments. This is often taken to mean that the Israelites heard nothing at Sinai, that they had the sort of non-linguistic mystical encounter I have been taking to task, as a foundation for religion. But that’s not exactly R. Mendel’s point. Even aleph is an element of language, after all, a letter: which is moreover used to abbreviate important Hebrew words (including anochi), has a numerical value that could hardly be irrelevant to a Jewish experience of God, and plays a deep role in Kabbalistic cosmology.

So “hearing the aleph” is by no means something non-linguistic: although it may well draw our attention to the silent spaces within language, the elusive and multi-valent symbols and terms and sentences that we do not quite grasp. But what we do with elusive and multi-valent symbols and terms and sentences is come up with an endless string of attempts to grasp them — endless interpretations, midrashim — rather than being struck dumb. So the silence of the aleph is an invitation to engage in a great deal of language, rather than to abjure language: and it is able to invite us to this because it is already situated within a linguistic system. That’s what I mean by an inter-linguistic rather than a pre-linguistic gesture toward the ineffable. And I suspect that hasidic texts are best read by making use of this inter-linguistic framework, rather than supposing that they long to get beyond words altogether.

5) I don’t see that anyone has mentioned the Rambam (although some may allude to him in his comment on “negative theology”), but one might object to my claim that wordlessness is unsuited to Judaism by pointing to his critique of language in the Guide, and intimation that we come closest to God in silence. It might help clarify my view to note that the Rambam’s silence is a form of philosophical contemplation rather than mystical encounter, and we get there only via a good deal of — wordy! — metaphysics and epistemology. We need first to recognize, by linguistic means, both what the word “God” points us to and the limitations of language in capturing that referent; only then can we transcend language in our love of God. Language is for Maimonides, very much as it is for the early Wittgenstein, a ladder we can throw away only once we reach its top.

This is a very different view than one that would make a pre-linguistic experience of God foundational to all language about God. The Rambam is thus not a wordless encounter theologian. (It is also inept, given the Rambam’s conception of God, to suppose that we “encounter” God. We have encounters with particulars, at particular times and places, but God is necessarily not a particular, for the Rambam, and not present at any particular time or place. All the figures I discuss, starting with Buber, are anti-Maimonidean in their talk of an “encounter” with God: that is meant precisely to undermine Maimonidean and other religious rationalism, to presuppose a personalist God rather than the abstraction that rationalists revere.)

6) To MK: No, I certainly do not want the Torah “to become Heidegger’s Being.” Affinities between the two are drawn out beautifully in Peter Gordon’s book on Heidegger and Rosenzweig, but my own view might better be put by saying that I’d like Heidegger’s Being to become more like the Torah’s God.
MK seems more generally uncomfortable about using Heidegger for Jewish thought, and I imagine other people will feel this way as well. I understand that discomfort, of course. Nevertheless, Heidegger provides very useful tools for thinking about language and revelation (although on language, it is at least equally important for modern Jewish theologians to absorb the crisper, more rigorous, and more thorough-going, investigations of meaning to be found in the so-called “analytic” tradition of philosophy: in Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, Davidson, Dummett, Kripke, Putnam and Brandom, especially). We should never overlook Heidegger’s hostility to liberalism, which is deeply built into his thought (his anti-Semitism is I think less important: it depends on the misconception that all Jews are liberal cosmopolitans), but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from him.

In a debate with Isaac Breuer, Yeshayahu Leibowitz once exclaimed, “Dr. Breuer, why should we deceive ourselves? You know as well as I that in our treatment of philosophical questions both of us — who consider ourselves believing Jews…— do not draw upon Jewish sources but upon the atheistic anti-Semite Kant. We cannot do otherwise!” Today Jews discussing philosophical questions might say the same about Heidegger. And while it is a bit unfair to call Kant an anti-Semite, it’s certainly not unfair to say that of Heidegger. So it’s a dark irony that Jews, including Levinas, have drawn so much on Heidegger. But this is an irony we need to live with. Once again, as in so many other respects, we can understand our own, specifically Jewish beliefs properly only when we recognize openly how much they depend on ideas we draw from a larger, non-Jewish — and yes, sometimes anti-Semitic — context.

Howie Katz responds to Dovid Sears

Howie Katz is a local yoga instructor who has a deep interest in combining Judaism with Yogic wisdom. Here he responds to several of the points made by Dovid Sears.

Critique to Dovid Sears Review- by Howie Katz

Once again, we are indebted to Rabbi Sears for stating the Orthodox objections to positions advanced by Rabbi Glick, and for doing so in a clear and unapologetic manner, a manner without either rancor or sectarian polemics. Our concern is, after all, for the truth, and this type of discussion greatly enhances the search for it.

My major objection is to R Sears’ comments regarding Torah vs. Wisdom. (As a side note, and to perhaps to muddy the waters a bit, it is worth noting that the Sanskrit word Jnana actually means “wisdom”).

R Sears’ view is stated succinctly as follows: “Yoel Glick means something else by ‘Torah’ than most of us do. I think he means that other nations not only possess common-sense wisdom and scientific know-how, but spiritual knowledge – something of the Divine.” And “…our argument is primarily over the concepts of Torah vs. Wisdom. Yoel would extend the meaning of the former while I would extend the meaning of the latter.” This is followed by a quote from Maimonides about the unique revelatory status of the Torah, communicated through the foremost prophet, Moses. This quote is understood to refute the view of R Glick that there is Torah – and not merely Wisdom – among the nations.

I believe that what we have here is a category error on the part of R. Sears. The entire thrust of R. Glick’s book is about meditation, and the spiritual heights to which it can bring the practitioner. Vedanta and other Hindu-derived spiritual disciplines, such as Yoga or Buddhism, are the spiritual practices in question. The crucial point is that neither Vedanta nor classical Yoga is text based; neither relies primarily on a revealed text that is infallible as the means by which one can attain God-Realization. Indeed, both traditions are rather wary about what they sometimes scornfully refer to as “book knowledge.” What brings the practitioner to the desired state, variously called “enlightenment,” Moksha, Samadhi, “Mukti” etc. is saddhana – intense spiritual practice, and not the central reliance on a text or texts.

Indeed, Sri Ramana Maharshi, though he had the Vedas read to him every day in his ashram, felt the classic texts useful primarily as a confirmation of what he himself had directly experienced in the depths of his soul. To be sure, there is what is called shradda, or faith, but this is not in texts; rather, it is faith in the possibility of going beyond conditioned human existence, eliminating the attachment to the ego, and realizing one’s True Self as the one with Divine Consciousness. (None of this is to argue, by the way, that various forms of Hinduism do not believe in something we could call “Revelation.” However, the meaning of this term and its relationship to foundational texts is very different from what these terms mean in Judaism. For an excellent discussion of this see the volume entitled Veda and Torah, by Barbara A Holdrege).

All of this is to say that R Sears’ objection to R Glick’s assertions that other nations (especially India) possess Torah is, to my mind, irrelevant. The unique revelatory status of the Torah is not being “challenged” by the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra, or any other text because Vedanta and other Hindu darshanas are not primarily about texts (although there is certainly no lack of them). The “Torah” that R Glick posits as existing among other nations is, in the case of his book, the meditation techniques, rituals, and other practices that allow the practitioner to go beyond conditioned human existence and realize his or her essence as the Supreme Self. These practices and this view are not dependent on a divinely revealed text.

My argument might seem to fly in the face of the quote from R Glick’s book, cited by R Sears – “The Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, and many other texts provide profound wisdom and moral righteousness.” Note, however, the phraseology – “profound wisdom and moral righteousness.” The “Torah,” in my view, resides in the practices that bring the practitioner to Self-Realization, or Jnana. It may be that here, I diverge from R. Glick as well as from R Sears.

photo (c) D. Sears

The second major issue I would like to address is prophecy. R Sears is at pains to firmly reiterate the traditional view that Moshe is the “Master of all prophets” who “perceived matters clearly,” in contradistinction to other, lesser prophets. Here, I would make two points:

1) The Self-realization/Enlightenment of Sri Ramana, Ramakrishna, etc. is of a radically different nature than the Nevua of Moshe Rabbeinu. Indeed, so different are they that I think it is difficult to make comparative statements at all.

I would argue that the term “prophet” does not apply to the Indian non-dual masters, and that, indeed, the use of the term “prophecy” to describe highly evolved spiritual states in Hinduism is problematic. Though Moshe and the Indian masters both share R. Glick’s “bottom line” of Pure Consciousness/mystical experience (a point to which I will return), the similarities end there. Moshe’s Nevua was the transmission of a very specific set of texts laws, etc. i.e. the transmission of substantive content, while the Enlightenment of Ramana and Ramakrishna was their direct, experiential “knowing” of who they truly were, which filled them with bliss (Ananda). To try to hierarchically “rate” these two numinous experiences, and to place the Indian masters in a subservient position seems to me a profound misunderstanding.

I should also state that that I understand R. Glick’s statement about the “bottom line” of prophecy being “mystical experience” rather differently than does R. Sears. For me this means that any prophetic experience must, by definition, include a “mystical” element, an element of Absolute Silence, and feelings of Absolute Awe. Prophecy is not an Internet chat room with God. However, the fact this this is a defining “bottom line” does not rule out the subsequent communication of content in the form of Divine Commands, etc. In discussing the prophet Elijah, for example, R. Glick notes that the true Nevua was to be found in the Silence i.e. the Still Small Voice. This does not, however, rule out the subsequent communication of Divine directives, and I do not see where R. Glick argues that it does.

Finally, I would like to return to one of the foundations of R Sears’ critique: the statement in Eichah Rabbah that “If someone tells you that the nations possess wisdom believe them, but if someone tells you that they possess Torah, do not believe them.” Here, I have a number of questions/objections. My first is a perhaps rather naïve sounding observation and question. This statement in the Midrash is, in fact, just that – a Midrash! How, and more importantly why, did it get elevated to canonical status? There are, after all, quite a few Midrashim in rabbinic literature. Many are either understood allegorically,reinterpreted or ignored altogether. Why is this one considered so important?

There are a number of answers to the above questions, some of them not especially pleasant. One answer, of course, is the tendency of all monotheistic religions, Judaism included, to posit an absolute claim to the Truth, with no possibility of error. The notion that other spiritual traditions and practices might share in the truth and be equally valid paths–i.e, religious pluralism–is anathema to the Orthodox tradition. Here, we can do no better than quote R. Sears himself: “If this denotes a perrenialist there-really-is-no-difference “new testament” (of Universal Consciousness), why should anyone pack up and go to Jerusalem at all?”

Indeed, that is the crucial question. If “we” are not entirely correct and “they” are not completely “wrong,” does the entire practice of Judaism really become superfluous and, essentially, a waste of time? Seen in this light, the elevation of the above Midrash serves an obvious purpose: to ”plug the holes” against any notion that other spiritual communities might be equally true.

The Indian spiritual traditions, it must be said, are quite a bit more positive and pluralistic on this point. It is assumed that people will practice Yoga/Vedanta because it brings them into union with God, and this union and the associated practices are not undermined by admitting the validity of other paths. There is no concept of avodah zara if a person has an alternate mode of worship, no threat of “kareis” if one does not follow a particular deity or Yogic path. Yogis presumably do not get up at 4:30 AM to practice Yoga Saddhana because they are afraid that, if they don’t, Hanuman (or Shiva, or Kali or Krishna) will cut off their souls.

The idea that Jews do not have a monopoly on “Torah” is deeply threatening to many Orthodox Jews. This demonstrates, to my mind, a profound pessimism and sense of fragility concerning traditional Jewish spiritual practice. As R. Sears seems to indicate, the logic is that, if we are not absolutely and uniquely correct, why would anyone keep Shabbos, Kashrut and other mitzvot? The answer might be – because these practices bring Jews closer to God, even as the practices of other spiritual paths bring their adherents closer to God. Ironically, some anecdotal evidence even suggests precisely the opposite of what R. Sears believes: many Jews who practice Yoga/meditation are actually brought closer to, rather than driven away from, traditional Jewish practice. Indeed, there are more than a few cases where Indian gurus directed their Jewish followers to return to traditional Jewish practice.

Opening the window might not destroy the foundations of Judaism; it might even strengthen them.

Third, I disagree most with R. Sears is in his categorization of R. Glick’s book as a ‘Parah Adumah’, to ‘purify’ those of us who have practiced yoga, Vedanta, and other Indian spiritual practices. Because we are immersed in a spiritual world of ‘Tumah’, it is necessary to wean us away from this, and R. Glick, with his experience and knowledge of all things Indian, is an ideal person to accomplish this. The ideal, of course, is to never have engaged in any spiritual practices outside those of Orthodox Judaism. Thus, R. Sears sees R. Glick’s book as a form of kiruv, which he embellishes by citing the mystical experiences and practices of numerous Hasidic leaders and Mekubalim.

R. Sears’ attempt here is certainly in keeping with Orthodox theology and practice; I simply disagree with it. If one can enhance one’s state of consciousness by using practices from India, then go for it – even if Orthodoxy disapproves. Furthermore, R Sears is at pains to establish that the Jewish spiritual leaders cited developed a level of awareness that is at least equal to, if not superior to, that of Sri Ramana etc. He chides R. Glick for not availing himself of Jewish teachers and studying with Indian ones instead. His position is a vastly more sophisticated version of a slogan heard in kiruv circles: “It’s all in Judaism!”.

What, however, if ‘it’ isn’t? What if Indian spiritual practices do lead a given individual to a higher state of consciousness than the parallel ones cited by R. Sears? His short answer is – tough. Loyalty to the Torah and its’ boundaries come first. And if one resonates more with Jnanis rather than Rebbes – that’s also too bad. Interestingly, R Sears implicitly acknowledges a problem here – the highest goals/practices of Judaism are those related to this-worldly mitzvoth/Talmud Torah. Higher states of consciousness and their associated practices may be available within Orthodoxy, but they are hidden, oblique, and not really accessible. Would it not stand to reason, then, that traditions such as Vedanta and Yoga, which have a ‘one-pointed’ focus on these issues (to use a yogic term), would be a better place to access higher states rather than a spiritual practice that views Jnana/Samadhi/Moksha as ‘at best a sideshow?’, in the words of a previous commentator here.

To be clear; I do not think that R. Sears is ‘wrong’ or incorrect in his characterization of halachic/hashkafic limits to engaging in other spiritual practices. I simply do not agree with them, nor do I agree that reaching for higher states of consciousness is a secondary goal, after the ‘meat and potatos’ of Halacha and Talmud Torah are fulfilled. Of course, if possible, the search for Jnana should, ideally, be conducted within Jewish parameters. However, I, unlike R Sears and his religious co-thinkers, would not be averse to stretching – or in some cases crossing – those boundaries.

Dovid Sears Review of Yoel Glick – part III

Here is a third installment of Dovid Sears’ review of Yoel Glick’s new book. In another day, I will post someone who takes issue with Sears’ critique of Glick.
The original Yoel Glick posts are here part one and part two, the first three Dovid Sears posts are here one, two, meditation.

Wisdom or Torah? Dovid Sears

This is the third posting in a series related to Rabbi Yoel Glick’s recent book, “Living the Life of Jewish Meditation” (Jewish Lights).

In the interview with Yoel Glick, we find the following Q & A. The discussion is based on a Midrash from Eikhah Rabbah: “If someone tells you that other nations possess wisdom, believe them. If someone tells you that other nations possess Torah, do not believe them.”

Additionally, I would like to cite two relevant halakhot from Maimonides, as they are fundamentals of Judaism and are relevant to any discussion of the nature of Torah:

Moses, our teacher, is the master of all prophets … Unlike all other prophets, Moses, our teacher, would prophecy while fully awake … He would perceive a matter clearly, without metaphor or allegory … in a calm and composed state of mind … and whenever he desired … The skin of his face radiated beams of light, and he was sanctified like the angels (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Yesodey HaTorah 7:6).

It is clear and explicit in the Torah that it is a mandate that stands forever, without change, whether by diminution or addition… (as stated in Deuteronomy 13:1) We are commanded to fulfill all of the Torah’s words forever (as stated in Deuteronomy 29:28) (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Yesodey ha-Torah 9:1).

So much for the preamble.

photo (c) D. Sears

Q: Why is Indian meditation only wisdom and not Torah?

A (YG): In the context of the modern world, our understanding of the teaching that there is wisdom among the nations but no Torah needs to be reassessed… Even a few hundred years ago this statement may have seemed self-evident…Today, however, we have to answer this rhetorical question by admitting that there are other nations to whom God has given teachings as righteous and inspiring as the Torah. The Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, the Dhammapada of the Buddhists, and many other texts all provide teaching with profound wisdom and moral righteousness. Today, we have to admit that there is not just wisdom but Torah among the nations. The Torah is God’s special revelation to the Jewish people. A gift made no less meaningful or significant by the acknowledgement of the gifts God has given to His other children. (source here)

I was quite surprised to read such a statement. Read superficially, Yoel’s response seems to imply that Chazal made the distinction between “wisdom (chokhmah)” and “Torah” either out of religious myopia or naiveté. Are these the same sages of whom we learn that “even the the least disciple of Hillel,” namely, the legendary Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, could resurrect the dead, and whose knowledge spanned the Mishnah, Talmud, law, exposition, grammar, scribal analysis, logical inference, astronomy, gematriyot, incantations for both angels and demons, the “speech” of palm trees … a “Great Matter” and a “Small Matter”—the former being the prophetic mysteries of Ma’aseh Merkavah and the latter, the profound scholarly arguments of Abayye and Rava (Sukkah 28a, Bava Batra 134a)? Sages so intellectually adept that Rabbi Akiva, who single-handedly regenerated the Oral Law after the death of 24,000 disciples, could derive “mountains of legal rulings (tilei-tilei halakhot)” from every jot and tittle of the Written Torah (Menachot 29b; Eiruvin 21b)? And if Midrash Eikhah was compiled by the Amoraim, what would we reasonably expect from the foremost successors to the Tannaim we have mentioned?

Moreover, did Chazal lack knowledge of contemporaneous or earlier Indian religious teachings such as those Yoel quotes, when Jews had already long-established communities in India and had likely conducted trade there for centuries? Philo’s Alexandria, well before the redaction of the Mishnah, was renowned for its “Mouseion,” its all-encompassing library and research facilities (in Latin, “Museaum,” of which “museum” is a variant); thus it was an international forum for diverse religious and philosophical knowledge and discussion. I have read that the philosophers of Athens welcomed sages from all over the world, including India (where Hellenism’s influence also reached), creating the model for what came to be known as the “university.”

According to some Jewish traditions, both Plato and Pythagoras conferred with the prophets of Israel (Josephus, “War of the Jews” and “Against Apion”; Reishit Chokhmah, Sha’ar ha-Yirah 13:80, Sha’ar ha-Ahavah 6:42; Sefer Chareidim, chap. 13, et al. I seem to remember mention of this somewhere in Seder ha-Dorot, as well); and the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 10-11a) tells of the dialogue between Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi and Antoninus (although this probably was not Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, author of the Stoic “Meditations”). Were Chazal completely out of touch with what went on in the two greatest intellectual centers in the ancient world?

For that matter, was our Patriarch Abraham, who rejected the idolatry of the East some 4,000 years ago, similarly out of touch? (Hindus attribute the Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata, of which it is but one part, to Vyasa, who according to their traditions lived long before Abraham.)

The distinction Chazal make surely is meant to underscore the uniqueness of the Torah in comparison to “wisdom.” Yet Rabbi Glick would extend the definition of Torah to other religious doctrines—even if they were entirely free of any trace of idolatry or heresy, which in one way or another these scriptures are not. The word “Torah” would become all but meaningless.

There’s another well-known Aggadah that tells how God offered the Torah to the various nations, who refused it for one reason or another; but when God offered it to Israel, they declared, “Na’aseh vi-nishma, we will do, and we will understand.” Would Yoel rewrite that Midrash to say that some of the other nations accepted it after all—or parts of it—and called it the Bhagavad Gita or Dhammapada? If so, do we find that these three doctrines largely agree, or do they fundamentally contradict one another?

As I mulled over these conundrums, I realized that Yoel couldn’t mean anything like this. It would be too bizarre.

Rather, he evidently follows the view of Advaita Vedanta, which finds a common core to all religious experience which transcends doctrinal differences—while affirming that each religion has truth and value for the group that upholds it. For Jews, that is the Torah—while for Hindus it is the Bhagavad Gita, or Dhammapada for Buddhists, or another body of religious teaching that bears spiritual treasures for another faith community. Yet according to this view doctrinal religious values are all on the relative plane; ultimate truth leaves behind the dissipating, billowing dust of worldly concerns and dualistic thinking.

Yoel Glick means something else by “Torah” than most of us do. I think he means that other nations not only possess common-sense wisdom and scientific know-how, but spiritual knowledge—something of the Divine. For he has sensed this in the Eastern paths he has explored and which he deeply esteems. He is certainly entitled to esteem spiritual knowledge from other traditions, and so are like-minded “fellow travelers.” I too can appreciate Eastern mysticism. But the fact that there is truth and beauty in other traditions does not contradict or impinge on the uniqueness of the Torah as a God-given mandate to the Jewish people of a different order entirely. Maimonides takes great care to underscore the uniqueness of the Sinaitic Revelation in world history. So does Rabbi Nachman in his Shir Na’im, which his scribe Rabbi Natan placed at the beginning of Likutey Moharan:

No other religions compare to our faith
Contrivances of mortal intellect their sages conceived
Moses, however, ascended on high, cloud-garbed
Necessary Existent spoke with him at any time
So he distanced himself from his wife

Religious Jews study both the laws and extra-legal teachings of the Torah every day, “for they our life and length of days” (Liturgy), and we are prepared to lay down our lives for them, if need be – as historically has too often been the case.

If my understanding of Yoel’s position is correct, our argument is primarily over the concepts of “Torah” vs. “wisdom.” Yoel would extend the meaning of the former, while I would extend the meaning of the latter.

Non-Jewish wisdom can go beyond the mundane—and although Chazal don’t explain their terminology, this might not be such a radical idea. Especially when we consider that Chazal propose an ancient pre-Israelite monotheism passed down from Adam to his son Seth, who transmitted it to Noah, and Noah to Shem and Ever, the teachers of the Patriarchs (see Sefer Halakhot Gedolot 76, Hil. Hesped, p. 688; Abarbanel on Genesis 11:1; et al.). If some of this religious wisdom continued to proliferate throughout civilization, surely other nations possess righteous teachings too.

But what Jews mean by “Torah” is not one line of spiritual transmission among others. As we have cited above from Maimonides, it is a cornerstone of Judaism that the Torah is a unique Divine revelation to the Jewish people, communicated through Moses, “the master of all prophets,” at Mount Sinai, which was passed on to Joshua, and from generation to generation, as stated in the first mishnah in Pirkey Avot.

If both “wisdom” and “Torah” express truth, what is the distinction that Chazal wish to make in Eikhah Rabbah? In the spirit of Rabbi Nachman’s verses above, I would venture to say that “wisdom” means human wisdom, which the kabbalists would define as an “awakening from below to above” (mi-lematah le-maalah), while Torah is “min ha-shamayim,” thus an “awakening from above to below” (mi-le-ma’alah le-mattah). Certainly all of humanity possesses human wisdom in one form or another, and to one degree or another. But that is not the same as “Torah.”

We must also ask whether the Advaitan mystical-pluralist position is consistent with the foundations of our faith. (I’m sorry, Alan, I tried to avoid treading on your turf, but here we are.) If that theology were acceptable, how could conversion be allowed, much less encouraged (though not through missionary activities since ancient times)? Why would there be any need for conversion or advantage to be gained by it? I once read in Prof. Nathan Katz’s wonderful autobiography how a non-Indian student of an Advaitan professor in Bombay was so moved by what he or she learned as to seek conversion to that school of Hinduism. The teacher retorted that the student had missed the whole point and severed their ties thereafter.

photo (c) D. Sears

And what of Jewish inclusivism? What of Zekhariah and Isaiah and Zephaniah, who envisioned all humanity serving the One God of Israel with a common accord and “flowing” to Jerusalem? What of the teachings of Chazal about the ultimate reconciliation of all nations with Israel and the Torah of Israel? If this denotes a perrenialist there-really-is-no-difference “new testament,” substituting a universalist revelation for the more particularist (although qualifiedly so) revelation entrusted to Moses, why should anyone pack up and go to Jerusalem at all? What need would there be for such a focal point? And if the Great Mandala of human consciousness requires a focal point for some reason, why Jerusalem?

I share Yoel’s view about a phenomena that some academics have called the “Pure Consciousness Experience” which seems to be shared by otherwise widely differing spiritual paths. I can even sense it in Rabbi Nachman’s major hitbodedut teaching, which I quoted in an earlier posting, Likutey Moharan I, 52, particularly in the Rebbe’s remarks about the Necessary Existent as the ultimate reality and the foundation of consciousness. What I question is whether this category of mystical experience may be taken to be the very essence of all religion and the “bottom line” of all prophecy (see Interview Part II, Q & A ##15-16; also Living Jewish Meditation, Introduction p. xviii; Chapter 12, p. 189, where Yoel reiterates this concept).

Our sages (Sota 14a) did not share Yoel Glick’s viewpoint, for they describe how Moses, our teacher – who Yoel acknowledges must have experienced Pure Consciousness and attained enlightenment to the ultimate degree – at the very end of his life begged God that he be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael only so that he could perform the mitzvot related to the land – tithe his produce, bring bikkurim (first fruits) to the Holy Temple, leave a corner of his field for poor, etc. Clearly, Moses didn’t feel that after attaining the PCE such ritualistic mitzvot are trivial!

Neither can I accept the notion that all other aspects of prophecy merely reflect cultural diversity, or are later accretions by interpreters of the cryptic remarks of those privy to the Pure Consciousness Experience, as Yoel indicates. This would similarly deny the foundational beliefs of Judaism, and in so doing, our entire mesorah (aside from bordering on the ridiculous, and even breaking through Customs).

It sounds like what began as laudable good will and respect for others and the discovery of truth both near and far have led the author down a slippery slope. And this is the fatal flaw of the syncretism of Living Jewish Meditation, where all boundaries between the plurality of religions dissolve in the clear white light. Please, Yoel, let’s be content with Chazal’s use of the word “wisdom” and thus preserve what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “the dignity of difference.” Surely at the level of the Absolute, there are no distinctions—not between doctrines, not between anything. “After Creation” has been reabsorbed into “Before Creation” (Likutey Moharan I, 51, 64), and “water into water” (Chagigah 77a). But in this manifest world of olam-shanah-nefesh, with all the distinctions that apply to each category, there surely is—and whether we like it or not, that’s how it must be down here in the trenches, which the Zohar calls (and we can almost hear Rabbi Shimon sigh) the “alma de-peruda,” the World of Division.


Yet when all is said and done, there is something within us that constantly yearns to transcend this state of division and to experience the underlying Divine Unity – as in Rabbi Nachman’s story-within-a-story of the Heart and the Spring in his Tale of the Seven Beggars. Yoel Glick eloquently speaks of this yearning in his meditation on the “Shema”: “The essence of the Shema is a proclamation of the intrinsic unity of all creation. It is a declaration that everything arises from the same divine source. The Shema is a testament of our undying love for the Power at the heart of existence. Love is the path that will lead us to union with the Supreme Reality.”

Sam Fleischacker, Words of the Living God- Part II

Here is the second installment of Sam Fleischacker, Words of a Living God -Part II continued from Part One here. Download the whole essay and get back with comments.
In this part, Fleischacker argues for a Divine revelation in words. Torah should not be less than a poem and therefore subject to the full scrutiny of the midrashic process.“Language is the house of Being,” says the later Heidegger;The Torah is the house of God for us.”


Words of the Living God:Towards A Progressive and Traditional Jewish Theology(Author’s Abstract)
Sam Fleischacker, Philosophy Department, University of Illinois-Chicago

Part II: Sharing Language With God

In Part I of this essay, I criticized the idea — found in progressive Jewish theologians from Martin Buber to Michael Fishbane — that we encounter God outside language and our sacred Scriptures merely approximate what happened in that encounter. Among other things, this view misconstrues language as a purely human tool, under our control and used to manipulate a reality beyond itself for our everyday purposes. I argued that it is hard to make sense of this view of language, and pointed out how badly it fits poetry, in particular.

Part II begins by suggesting that poets exemplify how much language controls us rather than the other way around — they are vessels through whom the spiritual mysteries with which we struggle can be disclosed to us: who bring out the mystery that is in language itself, among other things. I take a particular Celan poem as an example, and propose that we can see it as a revelation.

But if a Celan poem can be a revelation, surely the Torah can be as well. It too is a great poem, brimming with power and mystery. Which brings us to the alternative to wordless encounter theology that endorse. God encounters us, if at all, in language — not, and certainly not just, wordlessly. The aspects of language that are beyond our control can of course be explained naturalistically; social scientists can and do put forward plausible explanations of the emotional, sociological, and historical factors about language that prevent individual speakers from fully mastering what they say. But a religious believer has reason also to take these factors of language as ways by which God shapes our world and destiny: vehicles through which God works. If God shapes nature and history, as the Jewish tradition believes, then God surely shapes language. And if God can be present in trees and waterfalls and horses, as Buber and his followers suggest, then God can also be present in language. God can speak.

What remains is to locate the linguistic site or sites in which we think God speaks pre-eminently. And for Jews, there is one obvious such site: the Torah. Even modern Jews, renouncing the theologically and historically implausible story of God literally speaking to Moses on Sinai, must recognize the fact that the canonization of the Torah was basic to the formation of our tradition. Perhaps that canonization reflects the traces of a powerful historical event, dimly recalled in the Sinai story; perhaps it came about because the Sinai story fit well with the experience of Jews returning from Babylonian exile, as described in Ezra-Nehemiah; perhaps it came about because the Sinai story simply spoke strongly to the ethical and spiritual imagination of Second Temple Jews. Whatever the reason, the text was canonized, and that set the stage for all the midrashim, ritual practices, legal codes and theology that have defined our tradition for over two millennia. I propose that we embrace this canonization as the means by which we have let God speak to us — have created a space in which we can share language with God. In the remainder of the essay, I sketch out what “sharing language with God” might look like.

Selected Passages (they are not consecutive)

God encounters us, if at all, in language — not, and certainly not just, wordlessly. If God shapes nature and history, as the Jewish tradition believes, then God surely shapes language. And if God can be present in trees and waterfalls and horses, then God can also be present in language: God can speak.

The first thing we need to do in order to recognize such a mystery in language is step back from the attempt to control some bit of language, to be sure we know what it means or implies. Which is to say: we need to humble ourselves to it, to let it guide or direct us, let it have authority over us. We need to allow God into our language if God is to speak to us, and we do that by giving some bit of language authority, directive power, over us.

The text was canonized, and that set the stage for all the midrashim, ritual practices, legal codes and theology that have defined the Jewish tradition for over two millennia. By embracing this canonization, we (re-)join our tradition’s particular form of humbling oneself before God. Jews encounter God, first and foremost, in the Torah. If we can’t encounter God there, we have no reason to expect such an encounter elsewhere.

What exactly God might mean by way of these things is a separate question. If, by hypothesis, they reflect something endlessly mysterious, beyond our grasp, then what we take them to mean should be constantly in flux: they will require endless midrash, and endless re-interpretation of the directives they seem to give us. What an all-good being, who loves all human beings and whom we can love, might mean by an expression or command is quite different from what a scribe or priest in ancient Israel might have meant, even if that scribe or priest is the immediate source of these words. Once we ascribe the Torah to God, we have ipso facto stripped it of its most straightforward meaning: we have opened it up to midrash. Taking the Torah’s words to be divine rather than human is precisely an invitation to a fluid, ever-changing process of interpreting them.

But the essential step is for us to take the Torah to be divine; we cannot hear a bit of language as spoken by God unless we invest it with the capacity to be that. We sanctify texts and only then can God speak to us through them. We may compare this process to what happens, according to the Torah itself, when we build a tabernacle for the worship of God. We build it, we sanctify it, and only then can God dwell in it. Exactly the same is true of the language of the Torah. “Language is the house of Being,” says the later Heidegger, and there could be no better metaphor for the Torah. The Torah is the house of God for us, but it becomes that if and only if we make it holy — if we invest it with sanctity, regard it as a way for God to address us. The sanctification of the tabernacle, in the Torah, requires us to treat all its parts with reverence, and never to use the whole for profane, daily purposes, let along to mock or trample it. Only then does it become a home of God, a space we can share with God.

Sanctifying the Torah itself is similarly to treat all its words with reverence, and to avoid employing it for our profane, daily purposes: to try always to learn from it rather than reading into it what we find it convenient to do, let alone mocking it or trampling on its demands. We make the Torah holy — we recognize and thereby establish its sanctity — but it then becomes speech that God can inhabit, speech we can share with God. Once we invest the Torah with authority, we can encounter God in it. On the literalist views common in many traditional Jewish communities, the Torah derives its authority from the fact that we long ago witnessed God speaking it. I am suggesting instead that if we invest the Torah with authority, God can today speak to us. The Torah is not authoritative because it is divine; it is divine because it is authoritative.

In short, the view I am recommending would return us to the traditional Jewish idea that the Torah is God’s word but not out of any historically naïve belief that God literally spoke it to Moses at Sinai. Rather, the view reflects an understanding of language as bearing God’s presence in its mystery, as a meeting place for God and humanity rather than a purely human product. This is a view that fits far better with the Jewish tradition, with personalist monotheism, and with philosophical understandings of the relationship between language and reality, than does wordless encounter theology. The central object of Jewish faith is that God speaks our language — dibra Torah k’lashon bnei Adam. This is what Christians would call a “mystery,” to be sure: a paradox as great and of much the same kind as the Incarnation. But it is mysteries that distinguish revealed religions from the rational theology of philosophers. There is an irremediable paradox or mystery in the idea that an infinite, perfect being can enter our finite, highly imperfect lives — but without that paradox, there can be no personal God, and certainly not the personal God of Judaism.

In a robust sense, then, we can emphatically say that Oral Torah was “given” at Sinai alongside Written Torah. But it was given as free will was given: as a fluid, ever-changing method or set of methods of interpretation, perhaps even just a call to autonomous interpretation on our part, not as a fixed set of meanings for the divine words to which it is directed. And if “Sinai” is, as I have been suggesting, a metaphor for a process that took place historically when we canonized the Torah, we can translate this point about oral Torah by noting that canonization of the written Torah went inextricably along with the rise of oral modes of interpretation. Fixing the written Torah as the word of God freed up its meaning to range widely, and to change over time. What God might plausibly mean by a set of words is after all very different from what a human author might mean by those same words. It is implausible to think that a 5th-century BCE Israelite priest or scribe might intend his words to be read in the light of modern liberalism, but it is not implausible to think that God might intend for us, today, to read them that way: God’s communication is not circumscribed by place and time.

But as long as we realize that attributing the Torah to God should make us more vigilant, not less, about seeking admirable meanings for it, I see no reason — no moral reason, no philosophical reason, and no historical reason — not to attribute the whole Torah to God: every sentence and word of it, as Maimonides admonished us to do.

We may be elated at the burning bush, bemused by the lists in Numbers, and horrified by the stubborn and rebellious son, but we can find religiously valuable meanings in all these passages: as our tradition has in fact long done. And anything less than this holistic reverence for the Torah, anything that splits it into more and less acceptable bits, takes away from its ability to teach us, to humble and thereby enrich the ethical and spiritual sensibilities we bring to it. The Torah becomes less than a Celan poem, and far less than an object of sanctity, a space for encountering God. We preserve the sanctity of the Torah by preserving it whole. “These and these” — all the sentences of the Torah — are the words of the living God. I know no more powerful way of encountering that God.

Full Version of Part II – here