Author Archives: Alan Brill

Tirupati, the Temple at Tirumala, and tonsuring source of some Sheitel Hair

Back in 2004, when I received a call from a known rabbi in Har Nof asking about how the hair in Tirupati, India was offered, I never expected to be actually visiting a decade later the sacred mountain of Tirumala, near Tirupati. The Rabbi was unsuccessfully attempting to avert the expected panic that would ensue when the hair used in the wigs wore by Orthodox women was declared forbidden because of its origin in a Hindu Temple. (For those unfamiliar with this unusual story see here, here, and here) The rabbi’s questions were limited to whether it was similar to rabbinic conceptions of Greco-Roman sacrifice and the Rabbi took the Talmud as a guide to contemporary Indian practice. Visiting the actual mountaintop offers a broader vista on many levels. My observations are in the context of the wig controversy.


Tirumala is fittingly at the top of a mountain as it translates to literally a sacred hill or high place. About three quarters of a mile up, one finds the the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple and the nearest town in the valley is called Tirupati. It is the most visited pilgrimage place on earth, receiving more visitors a year than the Vatican or Mecca. To put it into numbers, the site receives about 156 million visitors a year averaging out to be about 60, 000 on an ordinary day and hundreds of thousands on a festival. Until recently, it was also the wealthiest religious institution, maintaining an annual budget of $167 million USD. The actual wealth is unknown but generally thought to be much greater than the Vatican’s.

During my stay in the city of a thousand temples, Kanchipuram, a town three and a half hours south of Tirumala, I observed a mini-celebration in the town center organized to noisily fete a group of male pilgrims who were beginning their four day walk to Tirumala. While I did not walk with them, I was able to travel by car on well-paved back roads to reach the temple, which was about 138 km (86 mi) from my starting destination.

My local journey at a hotel in Tirupati (16 miles away) that offered check-in based on 24 hour units since the overwhelming majority of the guests people were flying in to visit the Temple for a few hours and then fly out. How does one choose the hour in which one makes the holy pilgrimage for those who can pay the extra fees for immediate entry? The hotel had a full time horoscope prognostigtian and, on the telephone, a direct call button right next to the room service and concierge buttons. The roll of horoscopes in Indian culture is not given much attention in the West but it is ever-present and further makes me think that I am walking into Abraham ibn Ezra’s astrological world.

The ride up Tirumala Hill is straight up, 980 above sea level. The temple itself is located on a big plateau, about 10.33 square miles (27 km2) total in area. It comprises seven peaks and has a permanent population of 18 000. The road up has overlook points and breakdown areas and emergency crews ready on hand.

When you arrive at the top, you enter a several mile area of housing such as dormitories, motels, bungalows, and apartments, all structures reaching three stories. Also on the mountain top are playgrounds, concessions, a deer park, free medical clinics, and programs to help the deaf, blind, or handicapped. There is a shuttle bus taking pilgrims around the area. The mountaintop city is almost like a large state college dormitory complex or fairgrounds or even 1970s detached buildings shopping mall, grey, utilitarian, and urban planned. Below is an aerial view of the whole area
panoramic view

Also on the mountaintop is a ring of semi-decent looking hotels, more clinics, and more activities for kids. This outer-ring area also has a wonderful museum with an amazing collection, nicely curated showing artifacts from the history of the Temple mount, ancient religious objects, and Temple life. Imagine if Jerusalem had never been conquered and never lost anything to war and could therefore display 2500 years of artifacts. The long display case containing a millennium of musical instruments in another museum could have been an entire exhibition room.

On the other side of the circle is an Indian bazaar with wide avenues about five blocks by two blocks selling religious pictures and statues to take home, souvenir devotional objects, and pietistic chapbooks. They also sold children’s toys, especially big stuffed animals; there seems to be a custom to buy one for your children so that they enjoy the trip. There are also food concessions ranging from restaurants to pushcarts. There are also pietistic performances, when I was there men were singing bhakti hymns in Telugu on a small bandstand. The college students making pilgrimage discovered the tackiest item being sold was a winter scarf that when wrapped around one’s head made one look like the halo bands on the Temple statue. Running down the center of the bazaar avenue is a sitting area covered by a high corrugated metal roof for sun and rain protection where people took naps or ate meals.

The next area on the mountain top was the holier Temple region, flanked on either end by the gopuram (the large tower that marks a south Indian Temple area) inside was a large campus sized fenced center that has that includes all the ancillary buildings to the Temple. This area is surrounded by the graded metal holding pens to be used on days of extreme visitation.
Also included in this area is a large bakery of sweets with long lines dominated the first section. Each person who visits the Temple gets a token for two sweet laddu as prasadam which has divine blessing from the deity and they can buy more at the bakery.

Then, there was a large block long holy water tank as found in most South Indian temples, partly a symbolic beauty of the pool, part a place to bath before visiting the Temple, and in this case a roped off area as a kiddie pool. Hindu purity law is similar to Karaite Jewish law and a pool of water is sufficient for purity. It bordered onto a large open square with a stage for artistic performances at one end with a copy of the sacred statue inside the Temple.

To the right was the rather modest, double story golden Temple, the goal of everyone’s pilgrimage the Sri Venkateswara temple, dedicated to the Lord Venkateswara Swamy (also called Sri Balaji). The temple is surrounded by metal lattice grating in several concentric circles creating a labyrinth holding pen for tens of thousands of visitors waiting the requisite 5-10 hours to get into the Temple. For those foreigners who want to enter, one must sign a form that one believes in the deity, they have also now insisted that one can only enter wearing traditional clothes of sari for women- dhoti and bare chest for men. Tamil scriptures say that one can only attain atonement at this Temple. (Tamil religion is more about grace, merit, atonement, and penance than the misplaced stylized Western discussions of Hinduism theology.)

For Hindus, this has become the abode of God, the place where one can directly see the divine, the closest most will ever get to a religious epiphany of the true Supreme Being. Originally, the Temple was a Tamil holy site to Venkateswara, identified by the important 11th century religious theologian Ramanuja as another incarnation of Vishnu, now treated both as a separate deity for adoption as one’s personal representation for personal worship (Ishtava) and as the place to see an epiphany of the Divine behind all specific deities. Ramanuja taught that there is only one Supreme Being and the plurality of manifestations is only images. For Ramanuja, images are not just a human concession or a means or see the divine through a glass darkly but the very thing that allows one to come to the divine. The Bhagavad Gita (XI) describes a scene where Arjuna asks to see God glory (as in Exodus), here at Tirumala it is theoretically everyone’s chance. However, when crowded, the devotee may only get a three to four second vision.

The time in the Temple is exclusively for the vision of the statue. If one wants to offer personal prayers and make personal offerings, there is a place in the center courtyard to offer the traditional camphor flame, incense, flowers, and to make sacrifices of coconuts. See the photo below and notice that the tonsuring building is the white building about two blocks in the background.

The tonsuring building is a white brick building like a 1960s government or school building modified to be open for tonsuring and bathing. One enters it from the bazaar area and it is on the border between the bazaar and the Temple area as a preparation for going further into the temple compound. This building also has the queuing metal grating in which people sat and hawked soap, toothbrushes, shampoo or even little kits- like a mikveh kit. Inside the building, Men are milling about soaping their hair before the tonsure, mothers are hovering over the haircuts of their sons, and people are waiting for friends. On the left hand side of my view was another corridor with men semi-dressed washing, showering, and bathing in preparation for the Temple visit. Those who have had tonsuring have the treat of bathing in hot water, a luxury in India.

Men came into the building wearing their everyday clothes, started to disrobe to soap up their hair, had their hair shorn, and then went next door to wash, groom, and bath. They emerged wearing purified and wearing white dhotis; the virtuous gave their clothes away to the mendicants. Unfortunately, the layout of the building and the transformation of the men into shaved uniform wearing devotees made my Jewish eyes occasionally flash images of head shearing and showering upon entry to a concentration camp. The next step for the men in this case was to walk to the locker building to deposit their shoes and belongings in order to enter the long Temple queue barefoot and pure.

barbers- tirumala
As to the question of the relationship of sacrifice and tonsure: in a simple answer, they are not related. There are none of the signs of Hindu worship:, either camphor, incense, bell, or fruit. There are no statues or images of the divine. No Hindu ever worships wearing shoes, even shower shoes. For all religious homes, one takes off shoes before entering because they have a shrine in the home, this also applies to university rooms or businesses that have shrines. One would not make invocations or chants with shoes on. (See shoes in picture below.)These points are not dependent and language, translation, or regional difference. Pre-schoolers are already trained how to make offerings or worship. No local, regardless of education level, would confuse worship and tonsuring.

What is the meaning of tonsuring? Tonsuring show one’s love for the Gods by washing away one’s past and starting anew. In some cases, someone with a closely shaved head is practicing celibacy. The hair is a symbolic offering of one’s beauty, and in return, one expects blessing. Tonsure can also be used for punishing people for severe crimes as well as a sign of giving up false-ego. According to the rules of the Vedas, the Chudakarana (tonsuring of hair) should be performed either in the first or the third year of the male child as a form of consecration. In Northern India, tonsuring is limited to auspicious occasions. One of the graduate students shaved his head as a morning ritual for his grandmother. It is not uncommon to tonsure the head of a child after the death of a parent. The corpse, too, often receives the tonsure after death. A professor took her daughter to Tirumala for tonsuring as a way of creating an egalitarian equivalent to the boys’ ritual. In the Dharmashastra, Widows are required to tonsure. In Southern India, tonsuring is common as a regular form of votive piety done on a regular basis. Many Southern Indian temples have buildings for regular head shaving. In one city, I found the tonsuring building away from the Temple tucked amidst the concession stands. I bought Diet Coke in the next concession while watching.

Why tonsure at Tirumala? It is custom to make vows that are fulfilled at Tirupati. Vows are done partly because the religious life is filled with votive donations especially to be healed from illness, for children, or as thanks. And partly one makes vows as a spiritual preparation for entering the Temple sanctuary. Among the contemporary votive offerings includes the most popular walking up the 11km footpath to ascend the mountain especially among those in their late teens and twenties (your luggage meets you at the top). Angapradakshinam is when pilgrims lie prostrate, and then roll around the temple, chanting the Lord’s name. Tulabharam is offering one’s weight in coins or other items such as gold, bananas, or sugar candy. Tulabharam is generally performed for children. Tonsuring is in the Kalyana Katta building described above but for the wealthier there are barbers set up in the hilltop hotels and guest cottages at the start of the hilltop so that they can bath and get dressed in their hotel rooms. Niluvudopidi is offering to the Lord the ornaments, etc., that one is wearing when one takes the vow. The biggest source of income for the Temple is from those who directly donate gold, jewels, or money; giving is meritorious. The museum exhibited older forms of vows such as committing to wearing shoes that are a bed of nails while ascending the mountain.

For those who want more information, there are many firsthand accounts in books and online here and here and instructions for pilgrimage.

In a pair of scholarly articles by Benjamin Fleming and Annette Yoshiko Reed, the question they pose is: what happens when Hinduism is confronted by someone who never heard about Hindu categories? According to this article, the rabbis paid “great attention to the details of the Hindu practices, but they interpreted them in conjunction with laws about Greco-Roman religion in the Mishnah and Talmud.” They did not understand that tonsuring is not the same as darshan (vision of a deity) or an offering to a god, and that the cutting of hair can be likened to the washing of dirt from the body. They also did not understand that barbering is not a temple ritual since it is done by low caste barbers—not Brahmins. The rabbis did not ask questions about the entire pilgrimage process to the Tirupati Temple complex or what is done as part of the pilgrimage. In fact, one rabbi imagined he saw the hair actually brought as an offering and thought he was the only one acute to notice that the priest was sneaking the hair out to sell. Another rabbi thought that the stainless steel collection drum was a deity that was being feed.

In both articles, there was the prior assumption that this practice is idolatry; the only question is whether there was an offering. “The pilgrims were asked: If your intention is to give a present why do you cut it here and therefore have to wait for hours in a queue? Why don’t you cut it at home and send it to the God?” They received answers that it is more virtuous not to cut it at home therefore “we want to cut it here because here we are in a holy place[ . . .] and the idol loves our hair.” So they concluded it was forbidden. Eventually, this first thought was overruled with more information.” Leniencies to wear the hair were found by a variety of rabbis; some of their reasoning was based on the barber’s lack of intention for worship, on the tonsuring as a non-ritual act as defined in Greco-Roman terms and on the lack of probability that one has the Temple hair in one’s wig.

Fleming and Reed wrote:

Perhaps most striking, in this regard, may be the manner in which the halakhic discourse about avodah zarah has served to efface the structural and ritual similarities between Jewish and Hindu practices surrounding the cutting of hair, precisely by virtue of the selective appeal to the cultic practice of the Jewish past (i.e., sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple) as the model for the interpretation of non-Jewish ritual practice in the present. Tacit—perhaps already in the Mishnah—is the effacement of the very possibility of any parallels between avodah zarah and contemporary Jewish practice. “Hindu Hair and Jewish Halakha,” Studies in Religion (2011)

As noted above, there is no offering or placing near the murti (statue) that was two blocks away and surrounded by fences and security. And, as Fleming and Reed note, it is worth studying why the rabbis worldview assumed that eye-witnesses, academics, and Brahmins were not telling them the truth. And that even if they the experts were telling the truth, they assumed that the average, unsophisticated worshipper confused bathhouse and Temple, as if an unlettered Jew in the shtetl would not be able to tell mikveh from synagogue or yizkor candle from menorah. The rabbis assumed that the average person could not tell the difference between a votive and sacrifice as if these practices were some ad-hoc rituals whose performance was not deeply embedded in the ritual practice of daily life or that the pilgrimage process would be confusing to its practitioners. In addition, they did not realize utilizing a Hindi speaking translator to communicate to Tamil and Telugu speakers and to translate from there into broken English would not be able to translate terms properly.

Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple2

The Chief Brahmin at the Temple has a doctorate in molecular biology. The approach is more old time Torah uMadda of becoming a Rabbi Dr. than you would have imagined. His sons all have graduate degrees and the finances of the Temple are administered by people who have MBAs. Temple Hinduism is about following the ritual procedure as proscribed in the Agamic books as interpreted by experts. These works have generally not been translated into English and the rituals are not the same as the primordial Veda or dharmashastra texts which, in contrast, have been translated in Western introductory books. For those trying to understand Hinduism the discussion is about observance of the ritual as interpreted by experts, closer to halakhah then hasidut. The Chief Brahmin explains why the elaborate Temple ritual is for the benefit of the laity. Below are some quotes:

Dr. A.V. Ramana Dikshitulu is the head Priest at the Balaji temple in Tirupati . He holds a doctorate in molecular biology and is an inimitable authority on the Agamas”, the crucially important Vedic scriptures.

Can you please describe the “Vaikhanasa Agama” and explain why it is important?
All of the Agamas elucidate the science of ritual but the “Vaikhanasa Agama” is unique in that it gives more detail concerning the performance of ritual, both in the temple and in the home . The “Vaikhanasa Agama,” written by Sage Vikhanasa, is one of four main “Vaishnava Agamas.” The “Vaikhasana Agama” exists in two parts: the first part deals with rituals that are done in the temple and to the Deity whereas the second part deals with purification ceremonies that a priest must undergo in order to qualify to serve in the temple.

The temple rituals are designed to keep the laymen’s physical senses satisfied. This is done by making the process personal.
It describes how the Deity is treated as we would like to be treated ourselves. He is put to sleep at night and awakened in the morning. He is given a bath and dressed in fine silks, jeweled ornaments and fragrant flowers . He is fed a variety of fine foods. Finally, he is carried in grand procession around the temple. As we all know, the dearest thing to man is man. We know God will be happy if we do for Him what we would do for ourselves.

Although the “Vaikhanasa Agama” is available to be read by anyone who knows Sanskrit, it is not easily understood, even by Sanskrit scholars, because of its coded language. The verses have double meanings; the valuable inner meanings can only be perceived by those who meditate deeply upon the verses . Even then, only those at a certain level of spiritual evolution can grasp the deepest meaning. We conduct workshops to stimulate this understanding in our Priests.

Are the principles of the “Vaikhanasa Agama ” to be implemented only by Priests?
This Agama is for people who have no other purpose on Earth but to worship Lord Vishnu. Yes, it is for Priests– Priests who will take up no other vocation. Take me, for example. I am a doctor in molecular biology. Yet, I am a Priest. My elder son is an expert in computers and has a college degree in finance and marketing. My second son is an electrical engineer, and my third son is a bio-chemist. Yet they are also Priests. Like me, they serve here in the Balaji temple in Tirumala.
From your perspective as a priest, how may devotees receive their greatest benefit from a pilgrimage to Tirumala?
If we pray to such a powerful Lord as Balaji for minor things like a promotion, a transfer, a seat in medical college or a marriage proposal, it is possible that these wishes will be granted. But making such requests is like asking for a spoonful of water from an ocean. There is something so much greater to be had here: spiritual evolution. Through the ages, man has evolved both technically and spiritually. However, further spiritual evolution must now take place, for man is still spiritually primitive. It is natural during this Kali Yuga (age of darkness) that we be more attracted to worldly pleasures and ignore spiritual pursuits. To have even a preliminary understanding of the spiritual path during these difficult times depends largely upon one’s personal ” karmas .” These are “karmas” brought over from previous births. Read the rest of the interview here.

Teaching in Banaras

Indian academia is booming; every department in every university is gaining faculty members. New dormitories are popping up all over campuses. At Banares Hindu University alone, 650 new faculty members are being hired. IT, Bio-medical Technology, Engineering, and Medicine have the most new positions, yet even majors such as Philosophy, Dance, and Peace Studies are each gaining several new faculty members. If there is an Indian national out there with a specialty in Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah, then he or she would be almost guaranteed a position. Currently, the Indian universities only have a few Political Scientists whom are familiar with Israel studies, but there are no faculty members whom are well versed in Jewish philosophy And because of this rarity, the institution would be quick to snatch up a specialist. (There is one odd Indian professor in a regional college who gives academic talks that summarize his newspaper clippings on the Indian-Israel relationship or newspaper human interest stories about the remaining Jews in India). Below is a picture of the building that houses the department of Philosophy & Religion, as well as the Psychology department.

BHU philosophy

This month is application month. Tens of thousands of applicants descended on the campus to try for admissions. They make journeys from small towns hoping to change their futures by rising out of the working class and becoming a civil servant or even a doctor or IT worker. In philosophy and history, about 850 apply in each field to be BA freshmen, only about fifty are accepted as students. The ratios are worse in the sciences.

The spring semester in India officially starts in the first week of January but in the north, it is the winter season and still cold and clammy with 40 degree temperature. So every day, the instructors come in and decide if there will be classes that day or if the weather still too cold. No one will ever say that we start mid-month or that there is no class tomorrow as they would at a western institution; rather, every department goes through this ritual on a daily basis to decide it is still too cold.

The language of instruction is English as is the one universal language for the diverse student body. My Indian Hindu class included Thai and Cambodian Buddhists monks, a Cambodian woman, two Tibetans, a native of Ladakh whose native tongue was Ladakhian, an Indian convert to Christianity, as well as a “Western” Australian son of a minister. The campus, as the largest in South East Asia, has many students from Thailand and Cambodia. Thailand contributes a large annual fee to cover all the Thai students and their needs. There is also a special dormitory just for Thai Buddhist monks.

In January, there was a student strike with the cancellation of classes for the day because they raised tuition by over 300% for next year. Bonfires were lit and various objects thrown at officials in protest. (I did not directly enter the crowd and watch because the State dept gave us Fulbrighters a warning to not stand in the sidelines of even seemingly peaceful protests. From behind the barricades, I could see that this protest already had gas masks and possibly tear gas. Here is someone else’s report.)

strike at BHU. all gates are closed. unable to egress or enter…students protesting on rise of tuition by 5x. but many of them are just joining the wall to be loud and boisterous…. Issues: teachers not teaching their classes, not announcing when they will not be attending yet demanding we be on time, lack of planned syllabus and homework, lack of clean bathrooms in hostels.

Now here is the punch line- they were going to raise tuition from 480 Rupees to 1500 Rupees which is US $7.73 to $24.15. This small amount, by American standards, was enough to start a protest. The university gave in by the early afternoon. (For the dormitory and daily hot lunch they pay 2000 Rupees a semester, about 32 American Dollars.)

The Philosophy and Religion department teaches the classic philosophic works of Hinduism and Buddhism under the rubric of Indian philosophy and focusing specifically in Nyaya, Vedanta, Brahma Sutra, Buddhist Yogacara as well as logic and Western thought. Classes treat each Indian approach as a separate worldview, a darshan, and they treat Plato, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Rawls the same way as separate worldviews. There is little analysis or theory. The large faculty is predominately from old Brahmin families. Saryupareen Brahmins with one Buddhist from an untouchable background and one Christian woman from a tribal background. The Social Science department was only a little more diverse.

I taught Judaism- as part of a course on Western religions- and Comparative Religion- both required courses. The Judaism course provided an inside into how India views Judaism. As noted in previous blog posts, the Indian people know Judaism mainly from Christian, anti-Judaism citations or as the religion of Leviticus. At the start of the course, I was repeatedly asked questions like: You got rid of animal sacrifices due to the 19th and 20th century reformers? Was it a 10th century revivalist who taught you to stop doing sacrifices? Did you substitute a coconut, the way some Hindu communities do? I downplayed this line of thinking to avoid leading into the New Testament and started with mizvot, Sinai, Oral law, and Rabbinical Judaism. I also had the professor who normally teaches the course sit in on every lesson taking copious notes for his future lectures.

The class saw Maimonides as part of the Yogic tradition in that for Maimonides one overcomes the ignorance and drives of the natural condition through intellectual training. They related to blessings and names of God as magical mantras. (Jews tend to misuse use the word “mantra” which is a word that has power with the concept of japa- the reputation of a word for devotion.) They liked Kabbalah as dualistic dvaiata Vedanta like Madhva and dislike Hasidut as emotionalism that cannot liberate. Like the ibn Ezra, they treated ritual and mussar statements as scientific. And in the Yogic tradition, debated Maimonides, Nahmanides, and Emergence of Ethical Man on the fallen state that we need to raise ourselves from. They went right for the verse that Adam was only permitted vegetation and saw the ideal even in the Bible as vegetarianism the way Albo read the verse. They liked all the 20th century thinkers especially Rav Kook and Heschel. The professor who sat in on the class proclaimed about how the Humash is different than other scriptures in that here it is “God in search of Man.”

The required Comparative Religion course was a bit trickier to teach. The textbook was an inverse of a Christian colonial approach. The British books proved the superiority of Christianity over Hinduism and the goal of the Hindu version was to prove the superiority of Hinduism over Christianity, which was better at offering liberation. All the other religions of the world, Judaism Included, were not seen as contenders. The last chapter of the book was on whether we can all agree to become one religion. The book’s perspective left it as a problem since there is not enough commonality, people won’t accept a religion that is not theirs, and no one will accept a new religion. I started with that chapter and explained that is not how we do comparative religion, philosophy, or theology in the West. In principle, we do not compare theologies to create a new religion. It gave me a chance to explain the new no-reductive approaches of the theology of other religions.

In general, their book was 19th century approach of looking for the essence of each religion in 8-10 statements and then comparing the supposed essences. The book had no interest in manifestation. For example, one the essence of Judaism or Islam was defined, then the actual texts of the Talmud or Koran/Hadith play no role in the discussion; they could even be seen as irrelevant to the essence.

I went about my own way and started with William James, Mircea Eliade, and Western views of mysticism. In this approach, I learned how they see religion. For example, they rejected James idea of religion and mysticism as a personal feeling done alone to the alone. For them, one requires a guru to teach you how to control your body and mind and one needs to submit to an ashram and to practice the classical techniques.

At one point, I spoke to the PHD philosophy students about how to do research and develop a thesis; some of them had been my friends ever since. One Friday, one of the PhD students came up to me to say that he is dropping out of the program and moving to Delhi. Why? He is very uncomfortable around women and cannot talk to them. He says he grew up in a home of strict separation of the sexes which was very strict about what each sex says to the other, even sibling do not cross the line. So like Raj on the Big Bang theory he cannot talk to women one to one.

Well on this particular Friday he asked a girl to marry him and she said no. The girl is doing a PhD is philosophy and the boy was doing a PhD in philosophy just to be near her. He says he has loved her for three years already but never took her out on a date or a private cup of coffee n campus. He did not really speak to her and never told her about his attraction for three years. After years of silence, instead of asking her on a date or out to coffee, he approaches her with “I have been madly in love with you for three years and will you marry me.“ He says he really didn’t want to do philosophy but it kept him close to her. He feels he wasted three years and will now go to Delhi and sit for the civil servant exam. I would have thought he was pulling my leg as a prank if I did not know the students involved or did not keep abreast of his transfer process.

I was asked many times over the course of my time India what my views on Hitler are. They ask: “What do I think of Hitler?” These students have no context of Western or Jewish history, have never heard of Anti-Semitism except as 19th century Christian and German Aryan truths about the Jew. Few adhere in a meaningful way to the ideas of human rights, crimes against humanity, or genocide. For them, Hitler was just a ruthless leader who defended Germany against her enemies and who took a semi-feudal country having trouble adjusting to modernity and drafted the populous into building factories, autobahn, and cars for all. All virtues in today’s India and Mein Kampf is for sale at every train station. Their question and curiosity is based in innocence.

From their perspective, there are always genocides. The Chinese do not make their loss of six million civilians by the Japanese into the center of their story. Or, for example, I asked the two Cambodia Buddhist monks whom were enrolled in the program how did they revive Buddhism after the killing fields of the late 1970’s when 2-3 million were killed, especially the monks. They answered that the Khmer Rouge destroyed everything but some of the monks fled to Vietnam and returned after the war to rebuild the religion and rebuild the monasteries. They are doing very well and are already the second generation after the destruction. Many spend their late adolescence in the monastery and are ordained as monks at 20 and then become laymen except for those who either become officiates or academics. These two monks studying for an MA saw their story as a triumph of survival over the forces of destruction.

Saraswati Day:report from BHU on women and ritual

I have been too busy lately to blog because for this month I am teaching at Benares Hindu University two college classes a day, four times a week. Today we had off from teaching because it is the anniversary of the school’s founding in 1916 on the auspicious day of Saraswati day. On this day, also called Saraswati Puja, Hindus worship their devi Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music, art and culture. Students, educational institutions seek the blessings of mother goddess so that they can attain enlightenment through knowledge in their chosen field. Originally, I was going to write about my teaching but in this day dedicated to education, the knowledge of women’s ritual education was discussed.

There is a Sanskrit college for girls in Varanasi founded in 1971 to give women access to the sacred texts but it seems they developed in their ideas and now for the last eight years have been giving full training to be Hindu Brahmin Temple officiating clergy. Their training last for ten years to be as rigorous as any men’s program. They enter the program of study around the ages of 9-11 and finish a decade later with a BA or MA. They get up at 4 AM and keep the full monastic Brahmin life of prayer, meditation, sacrifice and training in ritual as well as a full secular studies curriculum. They have little or no contact with the outside world, no radio, no TV, no movie night. They wanted to create a program as intense as the best of the men’s programs. They follow all the strict Brahmin Orthodox rules and they live as a right leaning Orthodoxy. To add to this, they also study archery, swords, daggers, javeline, and horse riding similar to the martial arts monks.

But in the last five years, they have started to advocate the adoption of traditionally male prayer rituals, especially the wearing of the sacred thread, it is like a talit worn by all Orthodox male Brahmins to show their status.It it given at at imitation ceremony similar to bar-mizvah. It was always a male ritual garment and now the women are starting to wear them. The arguments are familiar ones:Can a women keep her body clean? What of her childrearing role? Were there women in history who wore them? What did the original text say?

The local head of the main Temple wrote a public letter stating that Hinduism doesn’t permit women to wear the holy thread, chant the Veda, lead ritual, or become priests. There is a debate on the topic in articles and online. But the President of the Temple Trust of the same main Temple, the equivalent of President of the board of that Temple attends their graduation ceremonies and defends them. (I guess I should be glad I cant read the rhetorical wars in Hindi on their websites. But maybe we should translate our blog posts into Hindi for them?)

For the students, the day begins early at dawn with prayers

The Transformation of Tradition

For thousands of years, religious decree barred women from entering temples and chanting or listening to mantras. The law was scripted by Manu… A strict section of the Brahminical order interpreted Manusmriti, the laws of Manu, as gospel. They quote Manu to provide credence to their claim: “For women, no sacramental rite is performed with sacred texts.

Women destitute of strength and knowledge of the Vedas are as impure as falsehood itself” and that “there is no ritual for Vedic verses for women”. Some even equate women with shudras, the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy, and say that molten lead should be poured into women”s ears should they hear the Vedas.

All that has been turned on its head at Shri Jigyasu Smarak Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya, a Sanskrit college for girls in Varanasi. Manu”s 5,000-yearold law is being challenged here, where almost a hundred girls sit down to perform havans [fire offerings] while chanting Vedic hymns every morning. The college is a unique centre of Sanskrit teaching exclusively for girls where they are taught to practice all the 16 sanskaras (sanctifying or purificatory rites).

“Some pundits had cleverly crafted “stri-suradau nadhi yatam, iti shruti” (it”s said that women and Sudras can”t recite and listen to Vedas) and inserted it in holy scriptures,” says Acharya Nandita Shastri, a senior teacher at the college.

They are taught to perform all important Hindu rites, from vivah to antyeshti.It then became a divine order. We teach the correct Hindu scriptures which nowhere say that women can”t recite mantras or lead pujas.”

The school was founded in 1971 by Sanskrit scholar, Acharya Dr Pranja Devi, and his sister Medha Devi, the current principal. It started as a pathshala (primary school) with just four students in a small house. Their efforts to change the way the scriptures are interpreted have been praised by Brahmins themselves. Professor Somnath Tripathi, who teaches ancient history at Varanasi”s Sampurnananda Sanskrit University which conducts the examinations of the college, rejects the belief that only male Brahmins have the right to recite mantras.

What the scriptures preached was yagna and jajman, one who pays for religious services to a priest or a Brahmin. Also, the concept of karmakanda (religious rites) was non-existent in ancient writings. “Since Sanskrit was in the hands of Brahmins, they followed Manusmriti and imposed it on others as they deemed fit. Besides, with the emergence of shankaracharyas, Manusmriti was strengthened and karmakanda was institutionalised in the 9th and 10th centuries,” says Tripathi.

The girl students are often called to perform Hindu religious rites ranging from karmakanda, antyeshti (funeral), vivah (wedding), shanti yagna (for peace), grih pravesh (entering a new home) and naamkaran (naming ceremony for a child). They are also leading a quiet movement to perform upnayam (sacred thread ceremony) for women as per ancient practices. In today”s times, only Brahmins can conduct such a ceremony.

Here is another article 090724042737_mahilapandit-1

Shloka lessons to break temple glass ceiling

“The institution has so far produced about 25 women scholars, at least 12 of whom are engaged as priests in Hyderabad. They perform pujas at community events and at home,” says Nandanam Satyam Arya, the coordinator.

The institute was set up by Acharya Prajnadevi, who rebelled against the Brahminical order that denied women the wisdom of the Vedas. She vowed to follow the paths of ancient women scholars like Gargi and Maitrayee.

But grooming priests isn’t the only objective. “It’s not our goal only to produce women priests. Imparting a thorough knowledge of the Vedas and Sanskrit shlokas is important, too. But it’s the women who want to be priests. And, we find nothing wrong with it,” Arya says.

Kaumandi, Tejaswini’s classmate from Nepal, already has her own take on what it takes to be a Brahmin. “Brahmins aren’t just born, they are made, too.” Her teacher, Suryadevi Chaturveda, smiles approvingly. “She’s right. Brahmins have to learn and grow in a proper culture to be known as one,” says the 40-year-old.

Predictably, Panini Mahavidyalaya’s efforts have raised the hackles of conservative Brahmin leaders. Batuknath Prasad Shastri, a senior priest at Viswanath Temple, has written to teachers at the institute saying Hinduism doesn’t permit women to wear the holy thread, recite shlokas, pronounce Om and perform yoga. And, in no way does it allow them to become priests. “It is not wise to let women work as priests for they have handicaps in carrying out pujas,” Shastri argued.

The response, some made through journals, has been more than quick. “We have sent Shastri rejoinders, which have been printed in a Sanskrit magazine. We have told him that if women have some handicaps, so do men. They also fall ill and might become impure not to be able to perform puja,” Suryadevi said.

Yet Another source

Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya is a boarding Sanskrit school for girls, mostly from upper bramin class. Education is free but donations are welcomed. There are about 80 girls from the age of 8 till 20 live and study at this school. The school is categorised as a Gurukula type where students live under the instructions and care of a Guru as the centre of the community, doing concentrated study for years and form a particular school of thought, but historically and corresponding to the level of education it received the name ‘Mahavidyalaya’ which is equivalent to college.

Students receive titles of ‘shastry’ and ‘acharya’ after completing their education and are allowed to pass the exams and have official diplomas from Sampurnand Sanskrit University in Varanasi.

Thus, on the one hand, this gurukula follows tradition, that is rules and injunctions of traditional Brahmanical education, but those were meant for men only, so on the other hand, it is almost a revolutionary step towards education and empowerment of women. Girls here learn to perform vedic fire ritual as well as traditional sixteen Hindu sanskar (initiations) and even more interestingly, they are allowed to perform the sanskars for other bramins.

Still it remains fascinating how the ides are practically realized in real life and what is the future of the schools of this type? There are few schools which provide high quality Sanskrit education for women. It seems to remain an ambitious experiment but a successful one.

On their fighting talents

Archery, swords, daggers, javeline, lathi, horse riding girls of this Gurukul have kept alive the ancient methods of war games and at the same time are overshadowing modern world with their self defence skills that also includes karate and martial arts.

Dharmavati Arya, a student, has won accolades in the field of archery. Her calm nature and depth of knowledge in her eyes do not give even a clue that this young girl has mastered archery at national level. She was recently invited by Tata Archery Academy, Jamshedpur, for advanced training in the sport at international level. “I can hit the object with my arrow by looking at the object in the mirror (this act was practiced by Arjun of Mahabharat),” says 22-year-old Dharmavati.

“By the time girls reach 18-20 years, they know all the warfares. As the Gurukul is based on Agra Shishya Shiksha Pranali (seniors teaching juniors), they pass on the knowlegde to the little girls and in this way we revise our art,”

“Girls here do not panic while walking alone on roads and when trapped in problematic situations. Instead, they fight hard and emerge victorious.I believe it is very important to have these skills in this times when we do not know who might turn out to be our enemy,” added Priti.

An Interview with Rabbi Yehuda Brandes of Beit Morasha

Last month, I reviewed and summarized the new book by Rabbi Yehuda Brandes, head of the beit midrash at Beit Morasha, called Human Rights: The Dialectic between “Image of God” and “Holy Nation. יהודה ברנדס, יהדות וזכויות אדם

This month we feature an interview. Rabbi Brandes is noted for his treating aggadah as normative and as part of the holistic study of the Talmud. Now, he turns to the problem of integrating human rights and halakhah. Brandes claims the decision making process behind the pesak is always values based, aggadah and mahshavah based. Judaism is about values, and deciding between values. Hence both poles in the tension are part of the law – universal and particular, feminist and non-feminist, democratic and anti-democratic. Yes, humanism, human rights, feminism are in the halakhic texts as well as their opposites. This is the principle of Elu veElu. Halakhah itself is a value (and aggadah) driven enterprise.

1) What was your innovation of your books Aggadah leMaasah and Mada Toratekhah?
The book illustrates that aggadah has a substantive role in the shaping of halakhah. Agadah is not merely a lull in halakhic discourse, nor is it merely a supplement of ideological and moral aspects. Rather, beyond all that the ancillary roles, aggadah? in two primary capacities. First, it helps our understanding of the ideas underlying the halakha, thus framing the course of the halakhic discussion. Second, it creates the tiny details of Talmudic thinking and halakhah , which the language of halakha is not refined enough to address. In English, you call this fine-tuning.

In my work on tractate Ketuvot, “Mada Toratekhah” I worked with typical halakhic sugyot with the goal of revealing, through close study, their ideological and philosophical underpinnings. There’s no fundamental difference between Aggadah le-Maaseh and Mada Toratekhah in terms of the goal of connecting halakha and aggadah. However, in Aggadah le-Maaseh I chose specific sugyot that incorporate classic aggadic texts within the larger halakhic discourse. In my study on Ketuvot, I showed my method on halakhic sugyot. (I have written on other tractates that have not yet published, though some are available on the Beit Morashah website and that of R. Adin Steinsaltz).

2) What is the role of academic works in Torah ? What is the role of non-orthodox thinkers like Buber in our Torah study? How should we be using academic Talmud ?
Maimonides established the principle: “Hear (i.e. accept) truth from whoever speaks it.” (Introduction, Commentary on Avot). In recent generations, many new tools have been developed for understanding and interpreting the Torah. Some have external, foreign, and even anti-Semitic sources. Nevertheless, the contribution of disciplines such as philology, history, literature, and philosophy to Torah study cannot be underestimated, and we must never relinquish these tools that have been made available to us. We can understand the opposition of our coreligionists to any sort of external scholarship; they are afraid of its negative aspects. Yet we must accept the responsibility of separating the wheat from the chaff, so that all Torah scholars can have access to these innovative methodologies and the possibilities they offer us.

The academic study of Talmud is not different than other academic fields in its important contributions to the study of Torah. The utilization of academic Talmud is widespread and becoming more accepted in Torah circles. Its contribution starts with the use of manuscripts and modern critical editions of texts, as well as turning our attention to the historical context of the formation of halakhah and its commentary. A philological analysis is faithful to the approach of classical sources. In addition, one should distinguish between substantive research and theoretically based research that may reflect other worldviews, rendering it less valuable.

3) How does pesak reflect belief and is not just objective? Why is deciding a halakha (hachra’ah) not just deciding between written statements?
Anyone who is closely familiar with halakhic literature and personalities, especially with our greatest poskim, knows that they are not technicians who just tally up the sources available to them. Even when there are rules for “paskening”, one must choose which of these rules to employ. This is why when two poskim are presented with similar questions under similar circumstances, we shouldn’t be surprised when they arrive at different rulings. Dispute stems from the fact that each posek assigns a different weight to the various elements of psak. These differences can originate in several factors – often differences of ideology.

Beliefs and opinions (emunot ve-deot) are the major motivations in the considerations of a posek. For example, the ideological divide on the meaning of Zionism and the Zionist State influences on the positions of the legal deciders in every realm of halakhah- shimitah, prayer, conversion, kashrut, army, and the economics of the individual and the entire state. The relationship to general culture or even technology creates divisions in pesak. In the world of Torah, there is a difference between the pesak of Hasidim to that of “Mitnagdim,” between a pesak that relies on kabbalah and one that does not, and many other similar distinctions. One of the central topics that I explain in my course on “Considerations in Pesak” is the place of haskafic positions that motivate the poskim in their teshuvot.

4) How does your approach relate to that of Rabbis Eliezer Berkovits and Daniel Sperber?

I’m honored that you’d put me alongside those two giants. I’m only familiar with R. Berkowitz through his writings; his works on halakha are very close to my heart. It is a shame that his halakhic teachings are not more widely known. People prefer to quote from R. Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man, which is not the figure of a classic posek, over the works of R. Berkowitz, who describes the methods of our great poskim. I’ve had the great privilege of getting to know R. Sperber personally here in Jerusalem, and I am also well acquainted with his rabbinic and scholarly writings. It seems that our most significant differences are not substantive, but rather relate to external forms: R. Berkowitz wrote philosophy, R. Sperber writes more on Rabbinic material culture, halakha and Jewish custom, whereas I try, both in my teachings and my writings, to focus on interpreting the Talmud.

5) How do we determine what are the values of Hazal since there is no list in Hazal?

The absence of a list doesn’t imply a free-for-all. As we know, the idea of dogmatic Jewish beliefs is a late arrival, attributed to medieval sages. Yet, it is clear that at the time of Haz”al, they too had their own catalog of faiths and beliefs. Some were explicated and formalized in the siddur. The vast majority were taught throughout the corpus of rabbinic literature. I think that our living tradition has preserved these quite well, including ideas that were later subject to mahlokot and different approaches. The fact that there is disagreement over them in no way negates the fact that Haz”al held an organized system of faiths and beliefs, just as mahlokot in halakha do not undermine the halakhic system or our commitment towards it.

There are ideas appearing in Haz”al that were later excluded from the mainstream of our philosophical tradition, as is the case in halakha. To some extent this leaves us with more choice, because we can rely on those ideas within Haz”al that did not find a central place in Jewish thought, even though they are legitimate and worthy beliefs.
Halakhic figures in every generation found ways to revive ideas and halakhot that were excluded from the mainstream and not in practical use for many generations. It is understood that this is a careful and measured process- not to be done as a revolution- that relies on the living tradition that continues the way of the Aharonim until today.

6) What do you see as the role of feminism in today’s Torah?

Deliberation about questions of feminism take place on three major planes:
A. Women are human beings, created in God’s image, with capabilities that are no less than those of men, and sometimes even greater. Yet they are not “equal” in the simple sense of the concept. Men are men and women are women. It has not yet been determined which differences are essential and which differences are social/cultural, which differences are desirable and welcome, and which should be jettisoned. These are some of the most fascinating challenges of our age. As usual, there are a range of answers between the radical and conservative extremes.

B. There has been a significant change in the status of women in modern society. This change stems from various factors, for example: health, economics, education, technology, etc. This change inevitably leads to changes in lifestyle, law, and of course halakha. Like the debate taking place on the first plane, this is no simple task and challenge: identifying what must be changed and amended and what must be preserved and reinforced. The conflict between various types of feminism and various types of conservatism will ultimately lead to a new cultural construction, of which halakha will be a part. Some of these changes have already taken place before our very eyes, even in some of the most conservative circles – women entering the world of Torah study, for example. Some are still a long way off, hard to integrate, and perhaps even undesirable.

C. The question of feminism is often simply a subsection or particular application of much broader questions: conservatism vs. innovation; the degree to which theology is subject to sociology and historical context; modes of creative interpretation of Scripture and rabbinic literature from Hazal until today; the essence and purpose of man; theological conceptions; etc. The urgency of addressing these questions is the third challenge posed to us by feminist thought.
All of these issues already appear in Hazal, in varying degrees of clarity and salience. The status of woman as a human being, created in the image of God, and endowed with virtues, are quite explicit in Hazal. Social and cultural changes demand that we develop the less obvious layers, as has been done in the realm of halakha. The laws of electricity on Shabbat are not explicit in the Talmud, but nobody thinks that using electricity on Shabbat goes against Hazal. This is the art of traditional exegesis and the vitality of the Oral Law.

If the Gaon Rav Soloveitchik zt”l had assumed that we have to only follow the mesorah of the last generation in matters of beliefs and opinions, then he would have not joined Mizrachi and we would not be privileged to have the drasha “Joseph and his Brothers” included in Five Derashot.

7) What do you say to someone who thinks the halakha is formal, objective, and not values driven?
I would tell him to start studying halakha seriously – not from digests and certainly not from the media. He should not be swayed by what is written about it – not by its enemies and not by its allies. He should study each sugya from the Mishna and Gemara through the Shulchan Arukh, and then from the Shulchan Arukh until today. He should pay special attention to what happens in the responsa literature. He need not become familiar with the entire corpus of halakha; it is sufficient to take 2-3 sample sugyot and master it from top to bottom. Of course, it is important that he learn? it thoroughly, not by means of someone who will limit his view to specific selected? points from within the whole complex. He should pay attention to the weight the poskim give to changes that stem from differences in time, place, and culture. In truth, there is not a single responsum in which one does not see change and innovation. Had there been no innovation, there would be no responsum; the answerer would simply refer the questioner to a ruling in a halakhic code. Anyone who has ever seriously encountered the modus operandi of a posek can relate to halakha differently.

I find it truly hard to understand how a Talmid Hakham and man of halakhah can claim that halakhah is entirely formal if they were not engaging in religious polemic in which it is customary to go to an extreme position even if it is not exact. As a lamdan, halakhic formalism is not possible. One can easily prove this.

8) Why do you reject the approach that see Torah ve-Avodah or Torah u-Mada as combining opposites, one as Torah and one as outside liberalism? How do you see that they are both part of Torah?

Each of your questions demands at least one semester-long course. In general, adopting external ideas is not done unless a robust foundation can be found for it internally. Had there been no long Jewish history of engagement with Mada or labor, it would have been difficult for these movements to find a place within the world of traditional Judaism. Since we have an ancient tradition of scientific enrichment and an ancient tradition of going to work, the new can be contained within the old. Much has been written about the status of Mada in Tannaitic era and among the Spanish Rishonim, and about the importance and virtue of labor in our ancient and new (in every sense of the word!) sources. I do not think there is any need to elaborate.

9) Doesn’t the approach of the Hazon Ish as formal and not based on values, presented by Benny Brown, go against your approach?

I can answer this question in two ways. One way is to say that, indeed, the Hazon Ish represents a different approach, but thank God there are enough gedolim upon whom we can base our approach. This would be the polite thing to do, but it is incorrect. In my opinion, it is easy to demonstrate that halakha and ideology are combined even in the world of the Hazon Ish. I do not think my friend, Dr. Benny Brown, would disagree. Take, for example, his attitude toward the State of Israel, or toward secularists and secularism. Is it conceivable that he derived his attitudes toward hilonim (as those to whom the sanctions pertaining to heretics do not apply) or the state (as an entity with no religious significance) solely by analyzing talmudic/halakhic sources, devoid of all influence from an ideology-driven worldview?

10) Of all the challenges that you presented in your book, which one are the most crucial for our times? Why?
With regard to the Jewish future in Israel and the Diaspora, it seems that he most important thing is to make all parts of Torah accessible to all Jews. R. Saadia Gaon averred that “our nation is not a nation without its Torah.” This principle has not changed, in my opinion. The Torah is the basis of Jewish identity, whether intellectually, in terms of knowledge and study, or practically, in terms of action and existence. It is also crucial both for continued Jewish existence in the Diaspora and for the State of Israel’s progress toward becoming a Jewish state, not just the state of the Jews.

Translated by Elli Sacks and Elli Fischer

Using a Cat to Turn on the Light on Shabbat

I wonder why this question took so much time to be addressed. The topic has been discussed at many a cat-loving shabbos table. I know many cats that have been cajoled into saving Shabbat for their humans. (The same would apply to dogs, rabbits, gerbils, and ferrets; snakes remain a tzarech iyyun.) There is still the question of training the animal to be your shabbos-cat. What about amirah le’kitty combined with another rabbinic prohibition?


From Tzomet’s Shabbat B’ Shabbato

Volume 1504: Shemot 18 Tevet 5774 21/12/2013
Halacha From The Source
Getting a Pet Cat to Turn on the Lights on Shabbat / Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon, Rabbi of Southern Alon Shevut and a teacher in Yeshivat Har Etzion

We have been asked if it is permissible for somebody to hold a pet cat near a switch so that it will turn on a light that was left off before Shabbat by mistake.

Having a Pet perform Prohibited Labor

We differentiate between different ways of accomplishing the goal of having the pet turn on a light.

(1) Pushing the pet against the light switch – In this case, the action is done by the human being, and this is forbidden. Even though this might be viewed as performing the labor “beshinui” – in a modified form – since it is being done in a way that is not usual behavior during the week, but in this case even labor performed beshinui is forbidden (Shabbat 92a).

(2) Holding the cat in the air in such a way that in a natural motion it will almost definitely move its feet and kick the switch. The question in this case is who is actually performing the action.

(a) If we say that the person is performing the action while making use of the natural habits of the cat, this might well be similar to “zoreh,” one who separates the straw from the grain, with the help of a wind (Bava Kama 60a) or to one who puts a leech on a human being in order to suck out the blood (Magen Avraham 328:53; Even Ha’Ozer, ibid). Both of these actions are forbidden.

(b) If, on the other hand, we define that action is the result of both the cat and the person acting together, this would be a violation of the labor of “mechamer” – leading a donkey – which prohibits a person from doing something together with his animal (Shemot 20:9; Shabbat 153b-154a; Shulchan Aruch 266:2.)

(c) Even if we define that the cat performs the action alone in a way that corresponds with the will of the person, this is evidently included in the prohibition of giving work to an animal in your possession (Shemot 20:9; Avoda Aats 15b; Sulchan Aruch 246:3).

According to all three of the above definitions, this action is prohibited on Shabbat.

(3) However, if we hold the cat in a stable position a short distance from the switch in such a way that it is not forced by its nature to touch it, and the cat itself “decides” to stretch out its foot and play with the switch until the light is turned on – this might well be permitted in a case of great need. It would be similar to the case allowed in the Talmud of taking a small child “for a walk” near an item that has fallen down (where there is no “eiruv” to allow carrying), so that the child will pick the item up by himself and bring it home (Yevamot 113b-114a). The Rashba derives from this that one is permitted to put a young baby “near” a prohibited item that he needs “so that he will put out his hand and eat it” (in practice the use of a child is more complicated than indicated here, but we will not discuss this further).

Evidently the same principle applies to holding an animal close to a forbidden item so that it will perform labor, since the obligation for the animal to rest on Shabbat is derived from the same verse (Rashi, Ramban, ibid; Rashba Shabbat 153b; Chatam Sofer volume 1 (Orach Chaim), 83; Responsa Achiezer 3:83; Orchot Shabbat 24:7-8, note 2, and 31:6-10).

Muktzeh: Recent rabbis do not agree whether a pet can be moved on Shabbat or it must be considered muktzeh and therefore not be touched. One who acts in a lenient way has a valid opinion on which he can base his action.

Using a cat or other pets to turn on the light: If one physically pushes the pet onto the switch or if it is placed in such a way that by its nature it is almost certain that it will push the switch, this should evidently be prohibited. However, if the pet is held in a stable way a distance from the switch, such that there is no certainty that it will push the switch – this can evidently be permitted in a case of great need. Full Version Here

h/t Tomer Persico

Yehuda Brandes- Judaism and Human Rights

Yesterday was human rights day. How should Torah deal with moral issues in the social political realm? How should halakhah integrate new realms such as democracy, feminism, or enhanced ideas of human dignity? There is a new book that seeks to answer these questions by Rabbi Yehuda Brandes, head of the beit midrash at Beit Morasha, called Human Rights: The Dialectic between “Image of God” and “Holy Nation. יהודה ברנדס, יהדות וזכויות אדם – בין צלם אלוהים לגוי קדוש

Rabbi Brandes is noted for his treating aggadah as normative and part of the holistic study of the Talmud. His multi-volume work Aggadâh Lĕ-Maaśeh shows how he looks for the meaning (mashmaut) for our lives in the text without being didactic or moralistic. His two volume set on Ketuvot shows how he integrates his quest for meaning into a halakhic tractate. Now, he turns to the problem of integrating human rights and halakhah. (A more general more by Yuval Cherlow, Betzalmo came out in 2010.)

The book has three parts: The universal theme of the image of God, the particular theme of holy nation and a third part explaining his theory of halakhah as dealing with these opposite poles.

The first part is Biblical theology of the universal ideas of Genesis. His casts his net widely for sources. First, Yair Lorberbaum’s important work on image of God showing that on this topic the aggadah influences the halakhah of Maimonides and Nahmanides. He also uses Judge Hayim Cohen, Nachum Rackover, Moshe Greenberg, and Ruth Gavison. He also uses Emmanuel Levinas’ universalism and his moral reading of Rav Hayyim of Volozhin. He also was influenced by the Shalem Center’s view of political Hebraism that many of the great liberals and humanists of Western culture used and based themselves on the Bible.

The second part is theology of the particular holiness and specialness of the Jewish people given at Sinai. Here he starts from Yehudah Halevi, Ibn Ezra, Daniel Elazar, and the Biblical studies of Moshe Weinfled and moves to the universalism of Levinas and French Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi, known as Manitou.

For those who never read, Manitou, Rabbi Ashkenazi was active in interreligious encounter and was a perennialist who saw a common primordial core of monotheism and morals to all religions, based on Abraham of monotheism and morals. “The Bible of the Jews and the Christians is the same Bible. . . It is not the Jewish and Christian Bibles that oppose one another but rather the Talmudist and the Evangelist.” The chapter concludes with a review of the sweeping uses of the Meiri on other faiths.

The third part his theory of halakhah of how to resolve the tension between universalism and particularism, modern social ideas and halakhah. Brandes expects the halakhah and only the halakhah to resolve these tensions. The halakhah express both sides of these tensions as a dialectic, as complexity, and even indeterminacy, but the halakhic decider resolves the tension by deciding the law based on values.

This is the most original part of the book when Brandes claims that even if you think the halakhah is a formal discipline based on texts, the decision making process behind the pesak is always values based, aggadah and mahshavah based.

Yet, Brandes is against the concept of meta-halakhah (as used by many including Eliezer Goldman, Walter Wurzburger, or Isidore Twersky) where an outside theology not part of the halakhah, such as philosophy, kabbalah or humanism, influence the worldview of the rabbi. Rather, the philosophy, kabbalah or the humanism are internal values to the halakhah. (He is relying on Yair Lorberbaum who showed on Maimonides read the aggadah as philosophy and Nahmanides read it as Kabbalah, but both were valid reading of the text.)

Judaism is not about rights but about values, and deciding between values. Hence both poles in the tension are part of the law – universal and particular, feminist and non-feminist, democratic and anti-democratic. Yes, humanism, human rights, feminism are in the halakhic texts as well as their opposites. This is the principle of Elu veElu.

Halakhah itself is a value (and aggadah) driven enterprise. One chooses to respect the universal human rights or one feels that in this instance one does not. In some ways, Brandes reminds the reader of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits- Biblical theology, defense of Jewish particularism, and value driven halakhah- but without the sense of inevitable historical progress.

Halakhah is not a formal reading of responsa as common law but reading the basic texts with values and working through the dialectic. Brandes claims that just as the Chofetz Chaim didn’t invent lashon hara but he expanded its realm by saying that “prior ages did not have all the material collected.” So too Brandes, claims he is just collecting the material.

In the Hebrew book reviews, Isaac Geiger write a positive review and Hillel Gershuni is more ambivalent about the murkiness and seeming cherry picking. Also where is this checklist of Jewish values, some of things discussed do not seem internal to the system.

The second part concludes with a discussion that despite the humanistic sides of the halakhah that nevertheless to maintain our particular faith a heretic or sectarian can be put to death. My question is that when speaking of human rights and liberties one’s system either accepts religious liberty or it does not; it is an absolute monarchy or a democracy, it is a theocracy or it isn’t. Despite his citing Locke, Mendelsohn, and Kant – on tolerance, religious liberty and democracy- these authors saw tolerance as all or nothing, not situational. However, in the introduction Brandes states that the anti-liberal, particualrist Rabbi Eliezer Melemad and one of his students approvingly read over the book. This may prove his point that despite Locke whether to be democratic or not in Religious Zionism is a matter of values of the halakhic decider.

From the Abstract
What is the relationship between Judaism and modern discourse on human rights? The short answer to this question is that the humanistic and liberal values that underlie modern human rights discourse are not foreign to Judaism. Quite the contrary: they exist within it and emanate from it, in the Bible, halakhic literature, and modern religious philosophy.

The book of Genesis, especially the story of the Creation, is the wellspring of fundamental human principles. The creation of human beings in the image of God serves as the starting point from which primary values are derived. These include human life, human dignity, property, equality and freedom, and the family. Many precepts originate from these fundamental values. The value of life, first mentioned in the Bible in the verse “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6), leads to injunctions such as “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13) and “Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened” (Lev. 19:16).

The values of equality and freedom stem not only from the fact that all human beings were created in the divine image but also from the fact that they are all descendants of Adam and Eve; the corollaries of these values include the laws of labor relations, which mandated fair and equal treatment of workers by employers even in societies that practiced slavery, and are all the more applicable in our own day and age.

The family is a value that derives from the simultaneous creation of the two sexes—“male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27); from the description of marital partnership in the second Creation narrative—“Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24); and from the commandment
and blessing, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28, 9:1). These are the underpinnings of many laws related to domestic and family law.

The terms “values” or “principles” should be preferred to “rights,” because the Torah outlook includes precepts and obligations. The right to life and dignity comes with a concurrent obligation to defend and respect the lives and dignity of others. In some cases, the point of departure is one person’s right; in some cases, the other person’s obligation. To put it another way, the term “values” is better because it includes both rights and obligations, without specifying a fixed and absolute primacy of one or the other. Values require limits when the rights of one individual collide with the rights of another, or when one value clashes with another value.

The Bible is not naïve or innocent; or, in the formulation of the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, Judaism is “a religion for adults.” The Bible recognizes the existence of human needs and impulses that lead to failures to maintain these values and to guarantee rights for all. What is more, there is an essential difficulty here, which stems not from sin and evil but from the natural and inevitable confrontations between the values and rights themselves. Dealing with the contest between competing rights and values of individuals and human societies, requires the application of tools for rendering decisions in situations that are questionable.

The characteristic instrument developed by the Oral Law for his purpose is Halakhah. Halakhah is supposed to provide the rulings when values collide.

The universal dimension of the Torah is found in the book of Genesis, which contains ethics that were given to all human beings descended from Adam and Noah. This constitutes the ground floor, the basic values of the Torah and Judaism, parallel to the modern system of human rights and hardly different from it in any essential way. The next level, designated “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), represents the dimension of the selection of Israel to bear a special divine mission.
Before the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai, we learn that the purpose of this gift was to make them into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

The concept of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” obligates the Jewish people to observe an additional and much broader set of precepts than the basic and universal code constituted by the “Seven Noahide Commandments”; even though this code actually encompasses much more than seven precepts, the Torah imposes on the Jewish people an extremely comprehensive canon of statutes that are not incumbent on other nations.

The notion of the added sanctity of the Jewish people, which accompanies the supplementary precepts, rights, and obligations that apply only to them, undermines the principle of equality—not only by creating a distinction between Israel and the nations, but also by introducing gradations within the Jewish people, as, for example, between the kohanim of the priestly caste and other Jews (“Israelites”), or between men and women.

The bloody history of anti- Semitism over the ages has left its mark on Jewish thought and Halakhah and has deeply impaired the Jews’ trust in the humanity of the descendants of Noah. Many of the conceptual and halakhic positions that distinguish and limit the Jews to their own domain, while expressing fierce antipathy to the nations around them, are the result of the bitter historical experience and not of the ideal theory propounded by the Torah

The value of dignity is set aside for a number of precepts:
The value attached to intimate relationships and marriage must give way to the prohibitions related to forbidden unions and holiness: the ban on a kohen’s marrying a divorcee and the problematic status of agunot (wives whose husbands have disappeared), mamzerim (the children of forbidden relationships), and mesoravot get (women whose husbands refuse to give them a divorce) are examples of situations in which the notion of the sanctity of marriage takes precedence over the discourse of the right to participate in an intimate relationship.

The two tracks are presented not as merging but as colliding—the track of the “image of God,” which is the basis of human rights, and the track of “a kingdom of priests and holy nation,” which constrains and limits universal human values.

How do the Torah and Halakhah deal with the tension between these two tracks or two opposing systems for living? The fundamental axiom is that we are not dealing with tension and contradiction between the Torah and some external and alien culture, but with an internal tension that stems from the existence of two principles that coexist within the Torah itself. Dealing with and resolving these two opposing poles is the very soul of talmudic thought. It is based on the notion that “both these and those are the words of the living God” (BT Eruvin 13b): both of these contradictory positions are valid and true, and no final and absolute decision can be rendered in favor of one or the other.

The disagreement will persist and any decisions will apply only to particular cases, as a function of the circumstances. Some are one-time rulings, while others remain in force for generations. This is the art of halakhic ruling as practiced by the rabbis, who have at their disposal a set of substantive and procedural tools for determining the practical Halakhah in cases of disagreement, doubt, and conflict.

A typical example of this is the tension between humanity and nationalism, which can be found in philosophy, Halakhah, and even the liturgy. For example, Jewish prayers and blessings are full of references to the unique status of the Jewish people— “Who selected us from among all the nations” (the blessing on the Torah)—alongside abundant hopes and prayers for all humankind—“when all humanity will call on Your name” (from the daily prayer Aleinu).

The dialectic of values is manifested in specific halakhic issues: it is forbidden to steal from non-Jews, but one need not return lost property to them—although in certain circumstances the injunction to restore lost property to non-Jews is given greater weight than the command to restore such property to a Jew. Distinctions are drawn between “repulsive idolaters” and “nations who live according to ethical laws.” The nature of the relationship between Jews and these types of people fluctuates in response to historical and cultural circumstances.

The dialectic approach does not support the idea that humanistic values are meta-halakhic principles that influence halakhic decision-making, as is sometimes stated in works on the philosophy of Halakhah.

In my view, universal humanistic values are part and parcel of authentic and original Jewish thought and Halakhah. Their fruitful and challenging encounter with the principle of the holiness and uniqueness of the Jewish people is worked out through the practical, concrete, and detailed efforts that are typical of halakhic discourse from the talmudic age to the present.

As in every generation, contemporary Jewish and Israeli society is called upon to find anew the appropriate equilibrium between the universal and the particular, between the human race and the nation. The establishment of the State of Israel and its definition as a Jewish and democratic state place the challenge of dealing with the dialectic of “holy nation” and “the image of God” at the center of discourse about Israeli and Jewish identity today.

Katmandu – The Kumari Devi

Katmandu in Nepal is more cosmopolitan than India with goods and products in the bookstores, groceries, and restaurants catering to both Eastern Asia and Western Europe. The city is in a valley and polluted so that you see the air when you first arrive. However, it is surrounded by the beauty of the highest Himalayan mountains. A member of a group of visiting Israelis over the age of 60, said he tried to hike a Himalayan mountain with his group – hey they were paratroopers 40 years ago - and he said he needed to be bailed out by the accompanying jeep. Climbing here over a mile high is for the young. I took a cab. The local valley people are simultaneously Hindu and Buddhist, but the Tibetans are settling the mountain tops. The Nepalese tradition of Hinduism is different than that in northern India; The most notable is the Kumari Devi, the worship of a young girl.


What is a devi? Why do we translate it as god (small g) when medieval Hebrew and Arabic translated the word as angel (malakhim or malkaya).They did this based on Rig Veda (1.22.20) “All the suras (i.e., the devas) look always toward the feet of Lord Vishnu.” They considered the devas as naturalistic and cosmological forces.

Here in Katmandu, Nepal there is a tradition of worshiping a pre-pubescent girl as the spirit of femininity that is not tied to a male, pure potentiality of the female. This is a good case to think about what would be the Jewish category for such an activity because it does not fit into our standard view of Hindu idols as objects or statues. This is a first draft without answers but this girl is a good test case.(I will come back to it in a later post but the word for God, capital G, in Northern India Hinduism is Ishvara or Bhagwan. People generally have a single Ishvara but many devas)

So how do we understand a devi, when a girl is chosen to act as a devi for a few years and then become an ordinary person to get married? Symbol? Emblem? Idol? Bear in mind that in Northern India, the same tradition just has a girl dress up symbolically for one day a year for the festival of Navaratri in each major Temple and all the little girls are brought to Temple for a blessing. (Navaratri is a 8-9 day festival in which a different aspect of womanhood is celebrated each day.) But in Nepal, she is a declared a god for her entire childhood.

Kumari, or Kumari Devi, is the tradition of worshiping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in Hindu religious traditions. The word Kumari, derived from Sanskrit Kaumarya meaning “virgin.”A Kumari is believed to be the spirit of the goddess Taleju (the Nepalese name for Durga) until she menstruates, after which it is believed that the goddess vacates her body. Serious illness or a major loss of blood from an injury are also causes for her to revert to common status. The veneration of a living Kumari in Nepal is relatively recent, dating only from the 17th century.

The worship of the goddess in a young girl represents the worship of divine consciousness spread all over the creation. As the supreme goddess is thought to have manifested this entire cosmos out of her womb she exists equally in animate as well as inanimate objects. While worship of an idol represents the worship and recognition of supreme through inanimate materials, worship of a human represents veneration and recognition of the same supreme in conscious beings.

Kumaris are now allowed to attend public schools, and have a life inside the classroom that is no different from that of other students. While many kumaris, such as the Kumari of Bhaktapur, attend school, others, such as the main kumari in Kathmandu, receive their education through private tutors.Her playmates will be drawn from a narrow pool of Newari children from her caste, usually the children of her caretakers. She will always be dressed in red, wear her hair in a topknot and have the agni chakchuu or “fire eye” painted on her forehead as a symbol of her special powers of perception.

So let’s return to the original question: What is a Jewish conceptualization of this conception of divinity? Unlike the incarnation, there is no becoming flesh or human because only her spirit becomes divine. And second the infinite unknown of the Brahma is not known through her. She only represents the creative potential of the feminine. Worship of the girl is not a rejection of God the creator; it does not seem to be shituf. Hinduism assume that Brahman is attribute-less and is known through the attributes of the Ishvara and devis, but anything can be a manifestation or epiphany of the divine- any object animate or inanimate. A form of “no place is devoid of God” but not an immanent god of creation rather a manifestation,” no place is devoid of the ability to manifest some attribute of God.

If this case does not immediately fall into the Gemara’s categories
The first thing that comes to mind is Rav Nachman’s story “The Master of Prayer” were each human attribute when taken to extreme by a person makes the person into a God. The person with the most wealth is to be worshiped as a God since he has perfected that attribute.

Next, I think Shlomo Lutzker’s introduction to Maggid Devarav LeYaakov, where the pious one is advised to see God’s attributes in the physical. When one tastes sweetness in food, then raise one’s thoughts to think of the sweetness as an attribute of God. Physical objects are to be used to raise ones thoughts by treating the physical object as a specific manifestation of a divine attribute. The analogy would work if a specific object would then be raised to manifestation status as a devi.

The Ibn Ezra tradition as expressed in writers of the 14th century thought Hindus are bringing down ruhaniut. Idel has written much about this Hermetic bring down but it does not fell the same as this panentheistic anything can reveal an attribute of the divine.

Is it different than a saint, Pope, or rebbe? It does seem similar to those who treat living Hasidic Rebbes as divine or at least an image to draw spiritual of a divine attribute– and they give blessed food just like the girl. Is it like a Chabad follower who says boranu about adonenu?

What if Judaism had people become personified sefirot? Or what if Judaism had more prayers to angels not just machnesei rahamim but daily angelic prayers? Yet, on some level the girl remains a personified Jungian attributes.

Furthermore, do the two traditions of India and Nepal, one where she is a devi and other where she isn’t, count as two different traditions? This is an important question.

One of my Hindu doctors back in Bergen county has a little shrine in his office with pictures of modern rationalist Hindu thinkers and it also includes a picture of Albert Einstein. He knows Einstein is not technically a traditional deva but he is praying to the spirit of wisdom and scientific inquiry. Is it to be considered many gods or just personalities or emblems of the attribute of knowledge? What if he also had a picture of the goddess of wisdom and learning, would it change things?If YU was a Hindu institution, there would be a shrine to Maimonides, Rav Soloveitchik Reb Hayyim and the founder of the school Bernard Revel. They would offer a flower to the shrine before class, before public lectures, or exams. Would it be many gods? What if there was a three dimensional image of the sefirah hochmah, or hochmah, binah and daas?And what of a businessman with a shrine to Ganesha- the deva for prosperity- is it the same as the girl for femininity or the goddess of wisdom?

What is the Jewish translation of devi for the 21st century? Is it still angel?

As I am uploading this post, a friend who is a day school teacher wrote as his Facebook status:

It takes tremendous effort to not think of G-d as if He were a person (and sometimes too to not think of people as if they were G-d).

Post Script
After my recent post on Mimamsa was posted, I have the pleasure of seeing in the new issue of Hakirah an article that makes the same point about a fruitful comparison of Mimamsa and Rabbinic interpretive theory- Daniel A. Klein, Rabbi Ishmael, Meet Jaimini: The Thirteen Middot of Interpretation in Light of Comparative Law

Reasons for the Commandments: Alexander Carlebach-Autonomy, Heteronomy, Theonomy

[Back to some of our regularly scheduled posts on modern Orthodoxy.]
The German neo-Orthodox tradition gave great attention to the topic of reasons for the commandments. They assumed that everyone was a theist and the need for Orthodoxy was to show why the commandments should be added to a theist life. In one of the first issues of the new modern Orthodox journal Tradition (Fall 1963) Alexander Carlebach gives an overview to the importance and history of this quest for the reasons for the commandments. As you read the essay notice the role he give Hellenistic Judaism, the role of medieval Jewish thought, his reading of Hirsch, and the value he finds in Rosenzweig. [The title is based on the language of Paul Tillich who said that there were three choices in theology Autonomy, Heteronomy, Theonomy. Both Rabbis Carlebach and Belkin choose the third.]

Carlebach opens his essay stating that Torah is sum total of divine revelation and belief in such a revelation as both possible and necessary, and moreover, as a historical fact.

Abraham Geiger, the leader of German Reform stated that considered blind obedience to Torah is dead like a cadaver, it is just canine obedience. This incensed Hirsh as blasphemy. Carlebach comes to defend the rejection of blind obedience as not as blasphemous as Hirsch thought

Dayan Grunfeld in his edition of Horeb responded to Geiger, writing that obedience is not dead but from the ardent desire of the Jew to understand God’s will and to make it his own. (The latter is not very far from Rav Lichtenstein) But Grunfeld states that the understanding cannot be just from our own reason and conscience because then it would be a form of rationalism and humanism rather than an acceptance of the heteronomy of revelation which would endanger our a-priori to the binding force of revealed religion. Carlebach’s essay was written to differentiate his position from Grunfeld’s. (For Grunfeld’s own position, see our earlier post here.)

Alexander Carlebach seeks a modern Orthodox position between the two extremes poles of Reform autonomy and Neo-Orthodoxy heteronomy in which there are intermediate degrees, compromise and harmony of the two poles. For him, that is why there is taamei mizvot – reasons for the commandments

For him this is one aspect of the need to have both revelation and reason – but there are many other aspects to these two poles. God speaks across this bridge of revelation and is met by man’s inner voice and conscious. It is a balance of the divine and the human. For Carlebach, reason is self-evident and sits in judgment on our thoughts and actions but revelation has authority and objectivity – the fate of our ethical-religious existence is decided on the battlefields of this clash. [Notice, that he does not think that we need to capitulate to revelation.]There is an eternal clash of the revelation of religion and human feeling, reason, and conscience- we are always located in the middle. This is not because of human frailty of inconvenience but from the start of our faith.

In the Bible, the demand for absolute obedience and servitude must be seen against the background of antiquity but it was balanced by charity, justice, purity, sanctity, peace. The judgments mishpatim are a form of general morality. And already in the Bible there is protest against sacrifice as obedience without the justice and loving-kindness that God wants.

The Rabbis gave us aggadah which was their form of philosophical speculation. Rabbis asked moral questions of biblical character so it shows that they trusted their own hearts and minds to question the Bible. The Rabbis never doubted that they have to conform to universal moral law despite being given a revelation.

They saw two types of mizvot, rational ones and hukkim. -Elazar ben Azariah said that the goal of obeying God against one’s better judgment or the need to fight one’s natural drive is only for the hukkim. But Hirsch thought even the hukim can be explained but not readily apparent . (This is unlike mizvot as a yoke as presented by Rashi-irrational or looking for an esoteric meaning like Maimonides.) But unlike Hirsch, tosafot has a concept of mezuveh veoseh- that one is commanded therefore one takes painstaking care .

Jewish-Hellenistic authors like Philo of Alexandria or Josephus showed that mizvot followed the moral and utilitarian demands of the natural law. Hellenistic Jews “may seem shadowy and diluted” before the Talmud. But we have to give due to those Hellenistic Jews who wrestled with keeping Jews loyal in the diaspora. We have much to learn from them and their episode in Jewish history.

From Saadyah to Abarbanel, “Jewish philosophy in the middle ages is even for us moderns an important laboratory of ideas” The Hellenistic era taught us how to confront popular culture and the medieval era taught us how to confront the philosophic and academic challenges.

Hirsch follows Saadiah viewing reason as a companion to religion. Bahye in his Duties of the Heart presented the commitment to reason and piety against mere legal and formal observance is another form of the tension of reason and revelation. In every generation there are those who are mistaken and see no need for philosophy and who are scared of heresy. It is not the great Jewish halakhic authorities to blame since the great halakhic authorities were not hostile to philosophy and science. Philosophy and science are blamed for lack of martyrdom in Spain by Graetz and Baer. After the philosophic era, then kabbalah took over in the 16-18th centuries.

Moses Mendelsohnn returned Judaism to science, reason, and humanism, he made Judaism catch up to society in the late 18th century. He is an outstanding symbol of reason and revelation. He is falsely maligned by orthodox who never read him- he accepted pure heteromomous legislation of revelation- the Torah tells us what to do not what to believe. He is the model of the Orthoprax Jew, since he keep his heteronomic practice separate from his autonomous reason. He was only a philosophy of transition and not the birth of modern Orthodox Judaism.

The true revolution of the modern age was the philosophy of Kant, who demonstrated the autonomy of ethics and that religion was to be identified with ethics. The Romantics made feeling, beyond ethics, the decider of religion. Reform Judaism is based on Kant, so it stresses ethics and not ritual. Mortiz Lazarus and Hermann Cohen combined Kant and Judaism. In Cohen’s later writings he started to recognize wonders and miracles

In contrast to the Reform position, Hirsch balances heteronomy that the Torah is from God without a denial of the inner autonomous revelation of the ethical self. [This is one of Carlebach’s major points that Hirsch did not advocate following revelation over reason, ethics, and humanism, rather he held onto both.] Hirsch created a fusion of all mizvot into a harmonious ethico-religious system. Hirsch’s emphasis on heteronomy and obedience is more apparent than real because of all the autonomous elements in his system– the role of humanism, the universal, his use of Saadiah, the role he gave to reason, and the inner voice. The rhetoric of obedience was because he was fighting Reform.

For Carlebach, Hirsch’s weak spot was the lack of historical thinking, all 3500 years of history are not the same. There was development and not everything was given at Sinai. Hirsch worked so hard to fight the Reform movement’s thinking that historical change meant the overcoming from mizvot, that he did away with any change. [This comes from Carlebach’s exposure to the Orthodox Wissenschaft curriculum at the Berlin Orthodox Seminary and at London’s Jews College. In general, it is important to note that the essay was based on Julius Guttman’s Philosophy of Judaism and Breslau seminary graduate turned Hirschian, Isaac Heinemann’s Taamei HaMizvot beSafrut Yisrael.]

Carlebach sees mizvot as a partnership of man and God, a dynamic Torah, and that the aggadah of reasons for the commandments and rationality make the heteromous position easier to bear. Reason and revelation, autonomy and heteromomy, obedience and philosophic creativity are not opposites, it is not an either/or choice.

Franz Rosenzweig, the great Jewish thinker advocated keeping mizvot based on the freedom of our existential decision; he also accepted a historic view of revelation as part of a chain of tradition. For Carlebach, Rosenzweig’s position is intensely individualistic and his entirely autonomous freedom of decision has many obvious objections from an Orthodox perspective but his approach remains a door open for many modern Jews to keep some attachment to Torah and mizvot without accepting an all or nothing approach.

The Modern age gave us a hard won inner freedom that we are not giving up.

Rishikesh: Israelis, Chabad, and Theology

This one starts travelogue and ends with theology
I arrived at night to the mountainside hotel part of a group of hotels, cottages and flophouses offering a view of the mountains. The hilltop was dimly lit by candle light from the restaurants and the safety light in each unit. Chabad managed to find me in the dim lit street within an hour, a bachur on a motorcycle pulled up and asked in Hebrew “Where in Israel was I from” I answered “New Jersey.” He invited me for Shabbat and then hurried over a few yards to catch the nonstop stream of Israelis headed to their flophouse. Each one brushed him off and said they were not interested; they repeated they were not interested in anything. I was on the Hummas trail and this was one of their comfy hangouts. Everywhere I had been until now was off the Israeli trail.


Along the ‘Hummus Trail’ By Dor Glick Haaretz Apr. 2, 2009 | 7:10 PM
INDIA – It’s 10:30 A.M. at the Pink House in Vatta Kanal – go straight along the road after Chabad House and bear right near the top of the hill – and 10 Israelis are starting the day with a bong on the porch. Someone asks about the chillum – a clay pipe for smoking which is very popular in India – and everyone is feeling blue because the mushrooms, unfortunately, are no longer in season.
The new Israeli colony has injected vast amounts of money in local terms and provides a living for owners of guest houses and kiosks, taxi drivers – and, of course, drug dealers. “Israeli food” accounts for 80 percent of the menus in the local restaurants; Indian food has been displaced by shakshuka, laffa and sabikh.

The transformation of a small village in India into an Israeli zula (comfy hangout) is a direct result of the abandonment of the basic motivation of generations of backpackers- These days, young Israelis go to India to do drugs with other Israelis against the backdrop of a shifting landscape. The result is the “Hummus Trail” – a chain of laid-back refuges in which the sacred tongue rules in loud tones and the de rigueur item of clothing is a T-shirt signifying the conclusion of an army training course. Dialogue with the locals, when it takes place at all, is confined to “I’d like some chai” or similar commands.

“Do you think I could deal with the Indians when I’m sahit [not stoned]?” says A., a 21-year-old woman from Kfar Sava, who has been in Vatta for two weeks, when asked whether she has spent even one day in the country without drugs.

Two hours later, those revelers whose body and mind allowed it, showed up for a well-organized Sabbath-eve meal. The tables were packed with nonreligious Israelis, most in their early twenties. Among the songs that made the windows shake before the challah was passed around was the latest Chabad-style hit for travelers in the subcontinent: “I tried meditations, I met enlightened types, I went down to Goa and starred in movies, but I felt something was missing … I threw out the chillum, bought phylacteries, I started to recite whole verses from Psalms, because the time is short and the work is great – and the righteous Messiah, here he comes …”
Read the Rest Here
Also see the pictures here

Already in 2006, Elhanan Nir published a work Me-Hodu ṿe-ʻad kan : hogim Yiśreʼelim kotvim ʻal Hodu ṿe-Yahadut shelahem documenting the Israeli pilgrimage to India, but except for one or two academics mentioned in the book the conclusion was that the Israeli don’t really engage Indian culture or Indian religion.

In a café in town, there were signs in Hebrew to use your skills learned in India and come work with the Bnai Menashe upon returning to Israel. Also a sign from Yisrael Batenu, who maintain a series of outposts in india. I have been told that Bnai Akiva is also active in some cities.

When I asked Israelis what struck them about Hinduism, I usually got the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar as the first answer, with a follow-up that they did not know the imageless monotheistic Sikhs were theologically closer to Islam. As a follow-up, those asked tended to answer something about Buddhism. But mainly it did not interest them.

The Chabad house of Rishikesh is what’s called a mushroom, a non-official Chabad house. The Chabad houses on are officially under Krinsky while those elsewhere are separately organized, originally more messianic, and are on There is a rabbi there who has been there for ten years and impressed me for his sense of the reality of the situation. His two young assistants less so. The first got up and was pouring large amounts of Vodka and told wild extemporaneous miracle tales with details that exhibited his lack of education such as a person going to Malaysia to study Hindu meditation (it is a Muslim country), or a story of a person going to the city of Tazmania where a visiting secular Israeli became the only one who remembered the order of the prayers, or the miracle that the Rebbe could stand for so long greeting people. The other bacher lead davening with frequent interruptions in his davening to tell jokes or sing alternate songs with a stoned Israeli. The bencher had the song mentioned in the Haaretz article above “I tried mediation, Goa,movies et al. and in the end my soul craved Torah and I bought tefillin and became a baal teshuah.” It also had a song about being in the Israeli army envious of one’s officer, but he got killed so I am the lucky one, yechi for my life, yechi for the rebbe.

The shaliach said that he has to be realistic and use the leniencies he can to live and work here. He has learned a lot from and relies on the leniencies from the Yeshivat Othniel, Tekoa, and Mekhon Herzog world. He knew their leniencies about entering Sikh Gurdwaras. And here where every day is a holiday he relies on the position of tosafot that “they are only doing the custom of their forefathers.” Yet, he know that in a city like Varanasi, they have an unbroken tradition of understanding of the ritual. He knows something of the leniency about Ashrams, but wanted to know more. He did not know the teshuvah of Rabbi David Hayyim Halevi permitting TM style meditation. In general, he relied on the Rebbe to acknowledge that Indian wisdom is subtle and that there is what to learn but that he sticks to Rabbi Yitzchak Ginzburgh (and he volunteered to say, despite the political problems).

The Shaliach gave an appropriate dvar Torah based on the Magid of Mezritch that originally all is divine and God converts the Nothing (Eyn) of the world into Something (yesh) by the act of creation. And the zaddik converts the yesh back to the eyn by his worship. Hence, you will reach Eyn here. Through Torah uMizvot. As he finished, I could not help thinking that in three months of chulent, heavy vodka drinking, and wearing tefillin, the adept would not have reach anywhere near the level of three months in an ashram. Empirically, those in the Ashram would have more mind control toward Eyn.

Which reopens up the question that people used to ask: Should Judaism have opened up an ashram? I know people in the 1990’s who thought of it. In the Jewish ashram, you would practice solitude –hitboddedut, study Ramchal, CHabad, Nefesh Hahayim and Ramak, engage in the path of Hayyim Vital’s Shaarei Kedushah or that of Ovadiah ben Avraham ben haRambam. It would also mix in some Rav Nachman calling out to God with an awesome Kabbalah Shabbat. Meaning that the Yeshiva Ashram would only teach and practice the Raja Yogic and Vedanta, and Advaitan parts of Judaism. It would leave all the karma yoga of practice, halakhah, and the study of the laws for the advanced students. Just like the Ashram does not teach its strict vegetarian dietary laws or its Hindu rules and does not worry the students about studying them, even as it practices them. Maybe for certain souls this approach would be better for their souls. The mainstream of Jewish outreach has trouble understanding the basic difference between the spiritual states of raja yoga and Vedanta from the action based karma yoga of mizvot.

There is an online guide to rating gurus based on their empirical ability to help you achieve spiritual goals. In it, they also include the Rebbe giving him a half star out of five stars for the ability to help you spiritually.

Lubavitcher Rebbe M 1902-1994 aka Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson Chabad
Seventh Lub Reb, son-in-law of 6th. “The Master Plan of Creation” page begins: “It is no accident that you picked to read this item. Nothing that happens in our lives is mere circumstance or coincidence.” Org = Chabad. Apocalyptic extreme right-wing Jewish Hassidic fundamentalist. 613 commandments, lots of morality. Anyone for fire and brimstone?

But maybe we should say Torah uMitzvot have nothing to do with gurus. There is a contemporary philosopher of religion Mark Heim who in his innovative book Salvations who criticizes the pluralistic approach that all religions are pluralistically the same. No, rather they are different and maybe offering different goals and ends. There are not only various religions but various kinds of religions, sometimes completely at odds with each other, totally incompatible. And this will in turn lead us to discover that these religions have their own religious goal or religious end. The meaning of salvation actually varies from one to the other. Mizvot and Yoga may be completely different and not even have functional equivalence so there is no competition. Maybe instead of seeing Torah and Yoga as an either/or of two religious paths, we should see them as either having nothing in common with each other or having potential for a synthesis like Torah with most of the humanities. Just say that “there is wisdom among the gentiles” and treat Yoga as a form of wisdom.

Yoga should be returned to its secular role as a physical discipline like tai chi or karate. But we should call it asanas (physical positions) not the broader name Yoga. We should accept the Hindu’s complaint about not calling it TorahYoga or those Americans who say Yoga is not Hindu. But we are only doing the physical elements as they have evolved in the 20th century, the asanas. – see here for links to our prior discussions.

There are two paths in Hinduism, as it is practiced, the life of the householder and the life of the holy man. The householder focuses on ritual, holidays, and worship. The holy man tradition sees himself as above the practices of the householder and does not practice them. The Swamis of Rishikesh will tell you to avoid the street Hinduism and festivals since they distract from the Yogic practice. One can be in an Ashram and never learn anything about householder Hinduism or the gods.

Yoga as taught in Rishikesh is not directly connected to ritual Hinduism or worship even in India, except at the ritual at the end of the training course that takes most of the participants by surprise. It is however connected to the Yoga Sutra and Advaitan thought about non-duality, and the Oneness of Being. I know many Jews in America and Israel who would like a Jewish guide of what is similar to our tradition in Ergas, Ramhal, Chabad, and Nefesh Hahayim and what is not similar or what is the dividing line.

But we have a new problem of those American Yoga teachers from Bayonne or Calabasas, we bring back a random assortment of statues for their studios. They freely pick souvenir statues of Buddha or Hindu deities to decorate their studies. Real Hindu divine images need consecration, an altar, and daily service. These, rather, are part of the eclecticism of the US. They also make up new age narratives such “We are now going to worship the Sun by doing the Sun salutation.” So participants think that they are about to worship an ancient Hindu deity when they are not. Then American newspapers debate these things without checking with the original practice.

At the table at the Chabad house, there were also couples from the Othniel, Tekoa, Gush world who were not looking to the Chabad rabbi, rather they talked between themselves. They were simultaneously committed Jews and incorporating their experiences of India. They are the ones who will most need a guide to Indian wisdom and the one’s most needing to write one.

Rishikesh Observations

A painted Sadhu, a man who renounced his possessions to live a life of poverty, stops me for a conversation in hope of receiving money. I stop because I am drawn to watch the wild monkey that he befriended who is politely sitting next to him without grabbing anything. He tells me about his relatives in Buffalo, and their prosperity, how they got a green card, and why he prefers his possession-less life. Over the course of several days I hear much from the simplest locals about their connections to the US or Australia. Rather than isolated figures who do not know of the wider world, now even those in exotic locations are on some of the new routes of globalization.


Rishikesh is one of those off-beat globalization hubs as the world’s capital of Yoga and most of those who currently teach Yoga seek to spend time in the city perfecting the craft. Hence, the recent return of elements of Hindu devotional practice into American Yoga. Rishikesh in the Indian state Uttarakhand, about 45 minutes by plane north of Delhi, located in the foothills of the Himalayas. The name Rishikesh is loosely applied to an association of five distinct sections encompassing not only the town but also hamlets and settlements on both sides of the river Ganges. Three of the sections are for tourists, one is the old ashram hub and there are also several parts on the mountainside itself beyond city lines.

Rishikesh is home to the 133 year old Kailash Ashram dedicated to the traditional Vedantic Studies. Prominent personalities such as Swami Vivekananda, Swami Rama Tirtha and Swami Shivananda have studied in this institution.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, aspiring swamis practiced their attainments in this isolated spot, north of well-known holy city of Haridwar. In the 1940’s they start the modern Yoga movements. In 1934, Swami Asuri Kapila established the the Ramana Ashram and the International School of Yoga in Montevideo, Uruguay. Swami Asuri Kapila wrote to his friend, Swami Sivananda (Rishikesh, India), to promote the organization of yoga all over the World, and proposed the creation of the International Yoga Federation. In 1947, Swami Sivananda established the World Sadhus Federation and in 1948 following the example founded the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, to train yoga teachers and swamis.

These Swami are important because they took their traditional ascetic education and created a Modern Hinduism in the 1940’s to 1970’s. They took out the superstition, the anti-scientific, and any remaining polytheism. They created in their own words a scientific form of body control along with breath techniques and mind enhancement. Yoga was no longer an ascesis to reach beyond rather an ideal form of integrated life. They taught Yoga as a psychology and fitness, leaving out the Brahmin Hinduism and even leaving out the tadtional commentaries on the Yoga Sutra.

Swami Shivananda and his student Swami Vishnu-Devananda set up camps, modeled like summer camp, in the Laurentians outside of Montreal and another in the Bahamas. George Harrison discovered the latter while filming HELP! and the rest is history.

standing beatles

The Beatles
The town Rishikesh becomes internationally known when in February 1968, the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Pilgrimage to the former Beatles ashram, now decaying as part of a natural park, is the leading tourist attraction here. (If you never read the story, it is good tale. Below are parts of the wiki version.)

Along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters, the Beatles arrived in India in February 1968, and joined the group of 60 people who were training to be TM teachers including musicians Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and flautist Paul Horn. While there, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison wrote many songs and Ringo Starr wrote his first. Eighteen of those songs were recorded for The Beatles (the White Album), two songs appeared on the Abbey Road album, and others were used for various solo projects.

Starr and his wife left on 1 March, after a ten-day stay; the McCartneys left after one month due to other commitments; while John Lennon and George Harrison stayed about six weeks and left abruptly following financial disagreements and rumors of inappropriate behavior by the Maharishi.
Also there at the same time were Mia Farrow (who had recently divorced Frank Sinatra), her sister Prudence and brother John, Donovan, Gyp “Gypsy Dave” Mills, Mike Love, jazz flautist Paul Horn, journalist Lewis H. Lapham, film-maker Paul Saltzman, socialite Nancy Cooke de Herrera, actors Tom Simcox and Jerry Stovin, and dozens of other, all Europeans or Americans. Lennon, who had thought of bringing Yoko Ono, decided against it.

Lennon was respectful of the Maharishi but not in awe of him. At their first meeting Donovan remembers that the Maharishi was “amiable but non-talkative” and during an awkward silence Lennon walked across the room and patted the Maharishi on the head, saying, “There’s a good little guru” while the room erupted in laughter. Maharishi canceled the formal lectures for a time and told students to meditate as long as possible. One student meditated for 42 straight hours, and Pattie Boyd once meditated for seven hours

Donovan taught Lennon a guitar finger-picking technique that he passed on to Harrison. The technique was subsequently implemented by Lennon on the Beatles’ songs “Julia” and “Dear Prudence”. The latter was composed by Lennon to lure Prudence Farrow out of her intense meditation.

Both Lennon and McCartney often spent time composing rather than meditating, and even Starr wrote a song, “Don’t Pass Me By”, which was his first solo composition. The group violated the ashrams rules by doing much LSD and Hash. One evening, when the moon was full, the Maharishi arranged for everyone to cruise on the Ganges in two barges. The trip started with the chanting of Vedas by two pandits, but soon the musicians brought out their instruments. The Beatles sang Donovan’s songs, while Love and Donovan sang Beatles’ songs, and Horn played flute.

Lennon wrote the song “Maharishi”, which was later renamed “Sexy Sadie” because Harrison advised Lennon that was potentially libelous. Lennon said on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, “We believe in meditation, but not the Maharishi and his scene”, and, “We made a mistake. He’s human like the rest of us”. Lennon went on to say: “I don’t know what level he’s on but we had a nice holiday in India and came back rested.”

Philip Goldberg, in his book American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoa and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, wrote that the Beatles’ trip to Rishikesh, “may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness”. Despite their temporary rejection of the Maharishi, they generated wider interest in Transcendental Meditation, which encouraged the study of Eastern spirituality in Western popular culture. - read more here

beatles with maharishi

Today in Rishikesh

I was in Rishikesh last week to make connection with the Swamis who signed the Hindu-Jewish dialogue document.(more on that in few months)

Currently, it is a wonderful vacation town. It is as if Rhinebeck, Woodstock, and New Hope-were all combined into a bigger town and everything is inexpensive so that you are staying at least a week or two. The town is surrounded by the beautiful foothills of the Himalayans. They have western style bakeries and coffee shops for a croissant and a French Press coffee. And coming from Varanasi, it is not that religious of a town in the tourist parts since meat and alcohol are served just over the town line. The tourist parts have more of a new age and Buddhist feel than Hinduism, and they offer river rafting, bungee jumping, and motorbike tours. A full hour massage with a trained masseuse is $8:50 and you can pick your style of message or special needs.

Following the path of the Beatles there are two paths in his town: the Yogic OR the hanging out writing poetry and playing music.

Yoga is everywhere here. Every hotel has classes in asanas, the yoga postures. Some also offer meditation, pranayamas (breathing styles). Now Yoga is currently not about the ascetic training of the body, rather 40 positions combined with meditation, breathing and some Vedanta-Advaitan non-duality. Some go full time to Ashrams, other try a one week intro course and then sign up for a two week teacher’s training program. Some go to high priced Yoga training in exclusive spas.

The book stores have the new age best sellers like Eckhart Tolle, all the American yoga books, and books about Buddhism. These attendees at the yoga training workshops will go back to the home towns and teach Yoga.

What about those who are there for the music, drugs, and poetry? That will be covered in the next post on the Israelis in town.

Ramana Maharshi on Judaism

In January the spring semester starts here at Banares Hindu University. As part of the Master’s program there is a requirement to have several weeks on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The person who taught the course in recent years is on Sabbatical, so I asked the person who will be teaching it this January -how Judaism will be covered? He answered that he will focus on “I am that I am” [Exodus 3:14] as showing that God is ultimate Brahman, that only Moses was the realized being who attained this insight therefore the Israelites will accept him, and that unfortunately Judaism does not teach that the goal of the soul should be to identify and merge with this “I am.” He will also teach about the names of God and those that can still be pronounced and those that cannot be pronounced. His source is Ramana Maharshi. Since I will teach part of this class- Where should I cover? Where do I begin?

Questioner:  Is the thought “I am God” or “I am the Supreme Being” helpful?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: “I am that I am” [Exodus 3:14]. “I am” is God – not thinking, “I am God”. Realise “I am” and do not think I am. “Know I am God” – it is said, and not “Think I am God.” 
~ from ‘Talk 354′; 8th February, 1937

Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950) is one of the outstanding Indian gurus of modern times.  At the age of sixteen, he lost his sense of individual selfhood, an awakening which he later recognized as enlightenment.In response to questions on self-liberation and the classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta, Ramana recommended self-enquiry as the principal way to awaken to the “I-I”,realising the Self and attaining liberation. He also recommended Bhakti, and gave his approval to a variety of paths and practices. Paul Brunton, Carl Jung and Heinrich Zimmer were among the first westerners to pick up Ramana’s teachings. In some of the following quotes Ramana Maharshi is simply called “Bhagavan” – “his divinity.” The discussion below relies on both direct quotes and discussion by David Goldman, a leading authority of Ramana Maharshi.

Ramana Maharshi often cited the Bible, and in particular the statement ‘I am that I am’, to support his contention that God’s real nature was ‘I am’.

‘I am’ is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is so well put as the biblical statement ‘I am that I am’ in Exodus chapter three. There are other statements such as brahmavaiham [Brahman am I], aham brahmasmi [I am Brahman] and soham [I am He]. But none is so direct as Jehovah [which means] ‘I am’.

The essence of mind is only awareness or consciousness. When the ego, however, dominates it, it functions as the reasoning, thinking or sensing faculty. The cosmic mind, being not limited by the ego, has nothing separate from itself and is therefore only aware. That is what the Bible means by ‘I am that I am’.

Here are some more short statements

Mr. C. R. Wright, his secretary, asked: How shall I realise God?

M.: God is an unknown entity. Moreover He is external. Whereas, the Self is always with you and it is you. Why do you leave out what is intimate and go in for what is external?

D.: What is this Self again?

M.: The Self is known to everyone but not clearly. You always exist. The Be-ing is the Self. `I am’ is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is indeed so well put as the Biblical statement “I AM THAT I AM” in EXODUS (Chap. 3).

God says “I AM before Abraham.” He does not say “I was” but “I Am’ (Talks, 408).

The Cosmic Mind, being not limited by the ego, has nothing separate from itself and is therefore only aware. This is what the Bible means by ‘I am that I am’ (Reflections, 111).

“I am that I AM” and “Be still and know that I am God.” (Talks, 307).

Is God personal?

One of Brunton’s criticisms of Ramana was that Ramana did not believe in a personal God. And yet there are statements where Ramana says the opposite. Ramana responds to the question, “Is God personal?” as follows:

M. Yes, He is always the first person, the I, ever standing before you.Because you give precedence to worldly things, God appears to have receded to the background. If you give up all else and seek Him alone, He alone will remain as the I, the Self (Maharshi’s Gospel, 55).

But other statements indicate a God far removed from our personal concerns:God has no purpose. He is not bound by any action. The world’s activities cannot affect him. (Osborne, Path of Self-Knowledge, 87, in answer to question is not this world the result of God’s will?)

Below is from David Goldman, a leading expert on Ramana

Ramana criticized some Jews and Christians for clinging to the idea of a permanently real and separate ego, although he says that the greatest mystics did not do so (Osborne, Path of Self-Knowledge, 46). [He also criticizes thinking  about God rather than pure I am.]

Ramana refers to prayer. He says that Western thinkers pray to God and finish with “Thy Will be done!” He comments that it is better to remain silent: If His Will be done why do they pray at all? It is true that the Divine Will prevails at all times and under all circumstances. The individuals cannot act of their own accord. Recognize the force of the Divine Will and keep quiet (Talks, 546).

Kabbalistic ideas on creation are also derived from their conception of God as ‘I am’. In the Jewish tradition creation occurs by the utterance of a single word. The word is the first of all sounds to be heard in manifest existence, and thus parallels the Hindu conception of Om. For the Kabbalists this word is none other than the supreme name of God, ‘Eyheh’, ‘I am’.

The only Jews who used God’s revelation of Himself as ‘I am’ to develop both a theology of God and a spiritual practice through which He might be directly experienced were groups of mystics who followed a tradition known as Kabbala.(10) They evolved intricate cosmologies, deriving them from a mystical exegesis of Old Testament texts, and broke with traditional Judaic thought by proclaiming that man could approach YHWH and in His presence commune with His beingness.

For the Kabbalists, God, the Supreme Being, is Ehyeh, ‘I am’, and one can approach him directly by invoking the divine name of Yahweh. In the Book of Zohar, one of the most important Kabbalistic texts, it is written, ‘Blessed is the person who utterly surrenders his soul to the name of YHWH, to dwell therein and establish therein its throne of glory’.( Tikkune Zohar, Scholem, Second Lecture, n. 137.)

In one interesting practice, which parallels Hindu sadhanas, Kabbalists split the name Yahweh into two components and invoke ‘Yah’ with the incoming breath and ‘weh’ with the outgoing breath in an attempt to be continuously mindful of the reality that the name signifies.

We find similar emphases on the ‘I am’ experience in other writers dealing with comparative mysticism. Rudolf Otto comments on Eckhart’s use of the verse “I am that I am”, and compares this to Shankara.D.T. Suzuki says that all our religious or spiritual experiences start from the name of God given to Moses, “I am that I am.”

One should not push parallels between Judaism and Bhagavan’s teachings too far, for orthodox Judaism maintains that God is wholly and eternally separate from the world, whereas Bhagavan taught that the Self is the sole reality, and that the world is an appearance in it, rather than a creation of it. For Bhagavan, the world is being in the same way that God Himself is being, for the two cannot be separated: ‘Being absorbed in the reality, the world is also real. There is only being in Self-realisation, and nothing but being.’(12)

There is another crucial area in which Bhagavan’s teaching differ fundamentally from those of both Judaism and Christianity. Bhagavan taught that ‘I am’ is not merely the real name of God, it also the real name and identity of each supposedly individual person. Extending the notion to its logical conclusion, Bhagavan maintained that if one could become aware of one’s real identity, ‘I am’, then one simultaneously experienced the ‘I am’ that is God and the ‘I am’ that is the substratum of the world appearance. The following quotes are typical and summaries his views on the subject:

It [I am] is the substratum running through all the three states. Wakefulness passes off, I am; the dream state passes off, I am; the sleep state passes off, I am. They repeat themselves and yet I am.(14)

The egoless ‘I am’ is not a thought. It is realization. The meaning or significance of ‘I’ is God.(15)

‘I exist’ is the only permanent self-evident experience of everyone. Nothing else is so self-evident [pratyaksha] as ‘I am’. What people call self-evident, viz., the experience they get through the senses, is far from self-evident. The Self alone is that. Pratyaksha is another name for Self. So to do self-analysis and be ‘I am’ is the only thing to do. ‘I am’ is reality. ‘I am this or that’ is unreal. ‘I am’ is truth, another name for Self.(16)

I should like now to return to the Old Testament and elaborate on another quotation that Bhagavan was fond of citing. In Psalm 46, verse 10, it is written ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Bhagavan appreciated this line so much that he sometimes said that the statements ‘I am that I am’ and ‘Be still and know that I am God’ contained the whole of Vedanta.(22) In Bhagavan’s view the quotations are very closely related for he taught that ‘the experience of ”I am” is to ”Be still”’.(23) The two words ‘Be still’ denote both the method and the goal for it is through being and through stillness that the ‘I am’ is revealed: ‘If [the mind] is turned within it becomes still in the course of time and that I-AM alone prevails. I AM is the whole truth.’(24)

Question: How is one to know the Self?

Answer: Knowing the Self means ‘Being the Self’ … Your duty is to be and not to be this or that. ‘I am that I am’ sums up the whole truth. The method is summed up in ‘Be still’. What does stillness mean? It means ‘destroy yourself’. Because any form or shape is a cause of trouble. Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so’.(25)

If one paraphrases Psalm 46, verse 10, to bring out more fully the meaning that Bhagavan attributed to it, it would say, ‘Reach the state of pure being and absolute stillness in which the mind is destroyed and one will then experience directly that God is ”I am”’.

Bhagavan often stressed that in order to ‘Be still and know that I am God’ one must be totally free from thought, even the thought ‘I am God’. After citing this biblical quote he once added, ‘To be still is not to think. Know and not think is the word.’(28) And on another occasion: ‘One should not think ”I am this – I am not that”. To say ”this” or ”that” is wrong. They are also limitations. Only ”I am” is the truth. Silence is ”I”.’(29) ‘Being still’, according to Bhagavan, requires no thinking and no assertions. On the contrary, it requires a complete absence of both.

Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord;And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.

Once one knows that Yahweh denotes God as ‘I am’, That is to say, both Moses… were saying, indirectly, that heart, soul and mind must be directed exclusively and lovingly towards the ‘I am’ that is God.  In fulfillment of this command, orthodox Jews attend their synagogues wearing phylacteries on their foreheads and hands that contain copies of these verses from Deuteronomy. They also have copies in special containers that are attached to their door and gateposts. Some devout Jews even kiss the container reverently each time they enter and leave as a gesture of respect towards Yahweh, the one God who revealed Himself to Moses as ‘I am’. Verse four in particular is the greatest and most widespread affirmation of faith for all Jews. Whatever their mother tongue, and irrespective of what country they live in, all practicing Jews regularly recite verse four in the original biblical Hebrew.

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh on Chanukah and Israelis in India

Israelis are flocking to India by the tens of thousands, about fifty thousand a year. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh addresses the issue in a surprisingly decent way. He assumes that those seeking are sincere seekers and if they had been more connected to the religious establishment then they would have not gone seeking, thereby losing their ability to attain higher gifts. For Ginsburgh, India is a place of spiritual gifts; he relies on the story of the gifts to Abraham’s concubines from Jubilees, Zohar, and Menasheh ben Israel. Ginsburgh acknowledges that travel is good, but beyond spatial travel -thinking is the best way to travel -such as to the heikhalot and pardes.

On meditation, hitbonenut- he switches topics by the vague use of the word meditation in English. Indian meditation is to tune out the senses (pratyahara), focus on a single point (dhyana), and then mentally become one with it (samadhi). To think about divine wisdom, the soul, or contemplating an idea is either the path of jnana yoga- the contemplative path or if chanting divine names it is more devotional bhakhti. If he is referring to using a mantra as a focus point (dhyana) that is not contemplation of theology.

Ginsburgh acknowledges the Advaitan philosophy that everything is one and divine but presents it in the name of the Besht. Yet he misunderstands Hinduism by thinking that Hindus worship the cow and nature because God is in all. It is like saying Jews worship the tefilin because of the lower unity. In actually, the Yogic-Advaitan Vedanta philosophy just like Chabad distinguishes between the discussion of unity in Shaar Hayihud and the light in mizvot in the Tanya.Jews put on tefillin to receive the light and blessing and Advaitan’s worship the Ganges as a source of blessing to the world.  This would be a good point for a serious encounter or discussion. And like Chabad, the Yogic-Advaitan approach rejects the semi-dualistic approach of Ramanujan or God entering to save the world.

In an interesting section, he connects the image of God (Zelem) to shadow (Zal), the need to acknowledge the dark hidden side in the Jungian sense. India is a good place to seek the shadow and thereby attain an image of God. (Somehow Abulafia’s Imrei Shefer is translated as The Form of the Jewish Heart.)

In his discussion of mantras, he says the Indian one lead to colorful and interesting place but are not real but that is exactly what it says in Yogic works about other approaches to meditation and it would certainly apply to Jewish prayer. For the yogis, if it does not and cannot reach Samadhi, the overcoming of duality, then it is is only colorful and interesting. Ginsburgh’s criteria is less about training and more that the other approaches are not for the Jewish soul.

Chanukah, India, and the Structure of the Soul (selections)

Chanuka, the quintessential festival of lights, has much to teach about travelling to the heart of consciousness—giving us genuine wisdom and insight, and connecting us to our true vision and voice. Imbalanced perceptions of the nature of the universe can yield mistakes in formulating an authentic philosophic worldview. The light of Chanuka comes to repair this imbalance. This talk, given on Chanuka by  Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh to Israelis on their return from India, discusses how to achieve a consciousness of our soul’s Divine image. (29 Kislev, 5763)

“We must live with the times”, a Chassidic aphorism, refers to the importance of seeing the connections between the events taking place in the Jewish calendar, and our inner and outer world… This is true of any place to which Divine Providence brings a person, but even truer of India, which has always been a spiritual vortex for souls. The Kuzari (by Rabbi Judah Halevy) comments that India is one of the most special nations on earth. The Brahmin elite descend from the sons of Abraham’s concubines, whom Abraham sent to the East. He gave them gifts: a spiritual path, and powers which are right for them, and which prepare them to grow, develop and be ready to absorb and receive the light of holiness. This light will soon become the world’s lot when we, the children of Isaac and Jacob, will merit to enlighten every corner. This will be achieved with the coming of Moshiach

Acknowledging Chasidic Meditation

Learning Kabbalah and Chasidut ought to always involve hitbonenut (the process of self-reflection using the power of bina, understanding). Jewish meditation does not involve repeating a mantra a million times. Rather, it involves looking into an idea, in order to enter it deeply, connect to it, and make a spiritual unification between the light of the idea (and the G-dly life force which creates it) and one’s soul. Everything we read and think ought to be done through hitbonenut, or Chasidic meditation.

What motivates a person to travel? The word tiyul [trip] comes from the Talmud. Tiyul b’pardes is not aphysical trip. It refers to a trip to upper words, to find the secrets of Torah, to find the Master of the World and the secret of how He creates the world and my soul; to see in detail Who He is, What he is, and to recognize my relationship to Him. The sages mention tayalim. Tayalim are those who make unifications…they don’t need to work. All they do is travel; they make unifications. It’s a very high level.

Hodu (the Hebrew word for India) means “Give thanks”, which is, indeed, a very Jewish concept. The entire difference between an Indian (Hodi) and a Jew (Yehudi) is just the letter, yud at the beginning. An Indian is close to a Jew. Sometimes a Jew has the yud [the essential point of connection] but is missing the hodi (acknowledgement), and he or she needs to go to India to find it.

מצולה ביוון טבעתי “I have drowned in yevain metzula, the depths, of logic and nature.”(Psalms, ch. 69) Yevain also spells Yavan, Greece. Whoever learns the dualistic philosophy of Greece, which deals only in natural forces, is liable to drown in the depths [of belief in nature/science alone]. But G-d gives us a way out of this. The hint is that in order to emerge unscathed, one must elevate and transform Greek wisdom.

When we say that there is a revelation of the yechida in the soul, that “G-d is All and All is G-d”, this is a revelation of the Essence of G-d Himself, so to speak. This two-part formulation was originated by the Baal Shem Tov. The concept exists in a hidden manner within the Kabbalah, but the Baal Shem Tov revealed it.

Each side of the paradox contradicts the other. To say G-d is All means there’s no world. This contradicts the previous statement that “All is G-d”, where each second I feel that all, including myself, is coming into being, out of absolute nothingness. Every moment, there’s G-d, the Creator, and we, who are being created. It’s not a duality, where G-d enters a ready-made world to rule, supervise and bestow good. To say that nothing can lift its hand on its own without the help of G-d is this first level [G-d is All], the צ of צלם.

Yet, to say only that “G-d is All” would imply the world itself doesn’t exist; it leads to viewing the world as an illusion. That sounds rather like an Indian belief, wherein only one side of the paradox is emphasized. This is an imbalanced perception that sees only a partial truth, and which certainly ends up degenerating into idolatrous practice and philosophy. All idolatrous religions, especially those of India, emerged out of split thinking. They err in an extreme way toward one or another partial conception. So, immediately, in response to the error, we say,“No! All is G-d!” Each of the phrases contradicts the other. One side of the sentence says that G-d creates the world every moment. The other side says, “there is no world.” A mistake in one part generates a mistake in the other part. In saying only “All is God” by itself, divorced from the other half (“G-d is All”) one can mistakenly come to identify the world itself with G-d—to the extent that one can, G-d forbid, bow to idols or cows.

In this generation, there are many Jews travelling to India. Most Jews today, by Divine providence, have not been raised to learn Torah, have not been educated with a consciousness of Judaism. They have not been raised as the tzadik of the צלם. Why is this?

But this is the crucial point. If everyone were to be born into an observant environment, who knows whether they would ever awaken to the higher levels, to reach for the shadows? Almost certainly, those born with the tsadik of the צלם would be content to remain at their current level (on the level of צ), and not grow toward the ל and ם of the צלם. The secret of צלם, the Divine image in which Adam has been created. Unconsciously, a traveler seeks his shadow, so he comes to a place where he can admit to its existence. One of the best places to find it is in Hodu, India.

Everything in the world has a צל. But a Jew has an additional shadow–an additional צל, or ם -צל indicated by the final Mem ם. The צלם is thus a shade on a shade [called bavua d’bavua]. Only in kedusha do we have this.

Accordingly, it says that the three letters of צלם are three levels of heart: heart within heart within heart. One of the first kabbalists, who lived a thousand years ago, was Rabbi Abraham Abulafia. He wrote (in his book The Form of the Jewish Heart ) about 2 lameds which face each other and join to form a Jewish heart.

In India one reveals one’s yechida–the closed mem of tselem. The tzadik is internal, while the Lamed and Mem are the two shadows. Chassidic meditation isn’t about superficial comparisons, correspondences and terminology. It must flow with  genuine content, without which it’s not hitbonenut. [This is why we are going into all of this detail.]

Mantra or Not?

When you set out to learn meditation, be aware that Jewish meditation is completely different than Eastern  meditation. Jews don’t recite a mantra a million times. A mantra may bring a person into a colorful and interesting world. Yet it isn’t the true path for a Jew. It brings one into an imaginary dimension, and sullies the neshama.

Notwithstanding our hesitance to use mantras, Jews do recite verses of Torah as an entryway into divine meaning and knowledge. For example, a central verse recited twice daily, the Shema prayer. ה-הוי ישראל שמע

אחד ה-הוי אלוקינו. When Jews repeat a Torah verse, it’s not just about the sound, it is about the inner content. Different tzaddikim had special verses which they would repeat. The famed Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, whose main life-lesson was that we should not “kid” ourselves, used to repeat a sentence over and over and over, as he walked: אמת בדרך נחני, “Lead me in the path of Truth; lead me in the path of Truth”. Another famous tzadik, Rabbi David of Lelov (a student of the Maggid), would repeat: תשמרני “Guard me.” (In Yiddish: “hit mir op”) This would keep a coal of conscious connection and enthusiasm (esh kodesh אש קודש) burning for G-d, through the holy speech of the heart.

So, “G-d created one thing opposite another”. On one hand we deny the approach which uses a mantra, and on the other hand, we affirm the power of holy speech. A word or a verse in Torah has infinite spiritual energy and potential for a person to connect to G-d.  Read the rest here.

Shai Held on Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence

I once gave a talk where I asked the audience: What do Heschel, Soloveitchik, and Pope John Paul II have in common? The answer is that they all used the writings of Max Scheler to defend in the modern world the role of sacred action. Heschel defended mizvot, Soloveitchik defended the halakhic man, and Pope John Paul II defended the prayer and sacraments. Scheler pointed toward the eternal nature in man that transcends the biological through the transformation process of religion on the self. Rabbi Shai Held in his new book Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence deals with the role of self-transcendence, prayer, and mizvot in Heschel’s thought- so go buy it.

Shai Held is Co-Founder, Dean and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. Shai has a PhD in religion from Harvard; his main academic interests are in modern Jewish and Christian thought and in the history of Zionism. His book Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence is a clear exposition of Heschel’s thought on these topic and Held, in a clear and readable manner, situates Heschel within contemporary theology and philosophy of religion.

This blog was graced by a detailed interview with Rabbi Held two years ago that allow us to see the influences on his theological thinking. Held writes a thoughtful weekly essay on the parashah here that you can subscribe to for a weekly mailing.  People can sign up to receive his weekly essay on the parashah here: d/ 11MMeI3QQx5GaFFmEklk1wZfRwcOPN UiBMir_5pKQyS8/viewform

Back issues of his mailings, which only started this season, are available here.

There is another answer to the question: What do Heschel, Soloveitchik, and Pope John Paul II have in common? (someone actually called it out in that lecture) They were all born in Poland. Heschel was raised as a potential rebbe in the center of Polish Jewish life and went off to study poetry, aesthetics, as well as philosophy. Heschel’s personality and writings dripped heavily with real Polisher chassidus- Kotzk, Gur, and Reb Zadok. Later, when he entered the modern world, Heschel shined best as a Kotzker prophet by rising to the occasion when situated next to spiritual figures such as Hillel Zeitlin, Cardinal Bea, Daniel Berrigan, or Martin Luther King. This work dries Heschel off from the Hasidic outbursts and pietistic unpredictability in a way that will allow him to be apart of contemporary discussions of what God wants from us and what it means to lead a God centered life in 21st century America.

heschel TV

1) What is the main theme of your new book?
Heschel wrote: “The greatest beauty grows at the greatest distance from the ego.”

The core of my argument is that the theme that animates Heschel’s whole body of work, the thread that connects almost everything he wrote, is a preoccupation with self-transcendence. Self-transcendence, for Heschel, means that I really internalize that my ego is not the center of the universe. As he puts it, “Faith is the beginning of the end of egocentricity.” This notion of self-transcendence is closely connected to what Heschel calls “transitive concern” (as opposed to “reflexive concern”)– the care and concern that one manifests for other selves.

You can’t live if you don’t have any concern for yourself, but you can’t be fully human, Heschel insists, if you care only for yourself. In the book, I show that for him self-transcendence is the highest spiritual level a human being can reach (what medieval philosophers would have called takhlit ma’alat ha-adam). The God of Tanakh, Heschel argues, is a God of transitive concern, a God who is beyond ego and who loves widows and orphans. Worshiping a self-transcendent God, we are (or ought to be) moved to strive for self-transcendence.

Self-transcendence is key to Heschel’s understanding of just about everything that matters to him– the nature of the good, the nature of God, the meaning of revelation, the project of prayer and spirituality, and the meaning of fighting for justice on behalf of the weak and downtrodden.

2) What is Heschel’s greatest theological theme?
He affirmed a God who is personal, who loves and cares, and whose love and concern extend to all of humanity.Sometimes Jews fall into the very dangerous trap of imagining God as just a big Jew. But the God of Tanakh is a universal God, even as He enters into a unique covenant with Israel. God cannot just be domesticated into a cosmic cheerleader for the Jews.

By the way, this is an important point of contact for Heschel and the Rambam. In very different ways, both are very preoccupied with creation as a theological category, and a focus on creation obviously opens the door to a more universalistic way of thinking than does an exclusive focus on Exodus or Sinai. Both Heschel and the Rambam begin with the human as opposed to the exclusively Jewish.

3) Do you feel that you are moving Heschel vibrant sense of God’s immanence to a more of a theology of transcendence and covenant?
Heschel does have a robust sense of God’s immanence, but he insists on God’s transcendence being fundamental. God is not the world, and the world is not God. The world is God’s, but it is decidedly not God. In that sense, Heschel is ever the biblical thinker, not the mystical one. At one point, he goes so far as to say that God is “essentially transcendent and only accidentally immanent.”
All of this is connected to another fundamental question. Was Heschel a mystic? If we interpret mysticism expansively to mean the view that human beings are capable of direct encounter with God, then Heschel is definitely a mystic.

But if we interpret mysticism in the narrower sense of believing the possibility of true mystical union and the dissolution of the self in God, then Heschel is not only not a mystic, he is an anti-mystic. He is, in this sense, a covenant theologian, not a mystic. I talk about this at length in the book– the self that transcends itself, for Heschel, nevertheless remains a self, separate from but eternally connected to God. (He has no sympathy at all for pantheism or monism, whether popular or philosophical).

4) How do you envision a hypothetical Maimonides- Heschel discussion?
One of the things I think mattered to Heschel most was his attack on the way the Rambam talks about God (or, maybe better, makes talking about God impossible). Heschel agrees that theology has to emphasize God’s otherness, but an exclusive focus on divine otherness, such that we can say nothing at all about who God is, leaves us without a God who can be said to care for the oppressed– and this, for Heschel, represents a complete abandonment of the God of the Bible.

The fascinating question he raises is: why is it that whenever people think they have achieved synthesis between philosophy and revelation, you look a little closer and you realize that revelation has essentially surrendered to philosophy? At the deepest level there is no give and take. I would put this in the following way: Heschel disputes the notion that one can arrive at a synthesis between scriptural, covenantal religion, on the one hand, and abstract philosophical monotheism on the other.
I often imagine Heschel and the Rambam exchanging barbs– the Rambam accuses Heschel of being an idolator (“What do you mean, God cares?”) and Heschel retorts that the Rambam flirts with atheism (a charge Michael Wyschogrod makes more or less explicitly).

For the Rambam the enemy was idolatry, and just as Moses shattered external idols, the Rambam will shatter internal pictures of God we have in our mind. For Heschel, in contrast, the enemy is indifference, the disregard of other people’s pain and suffering.

I agree with Heschel that the idea that one can fully synthesize Amos and Isaiah with Aristotle or Plato is a fantasy. But at the most fundamental level, I think the question about Heschel’s God– the God of pathos, the God who is outraged and wounded by every act of oppression by the strong against the weak– is not whether it’s Jewishly defensible (that question is much better posed to the Rambam than to Heschel), but whether it’s metaphysically believable in this day and age.

5) Heschel was know for exclaiming things like “Gevalt, prayer is a proof for God” or “prayer is not symbolism but God himself” How does your book develop this theme?
The last two chapters of my book are about Heschel’s approach to prayer. I explore two key elements:
First, the idea that prayer is an attempt to de-center the ego, to remember that the self is not the center of the universe.

This entails a radical re-orientation: instead of asking how the world can serve me and fulfill my every want, I now begin to ask how I can serve, what God needs me to do in the world. As Heschel puts it at one point, prayer is “the least expedient, the least worldly, the least practical” thing we do. The biggest obstacle to God being present in the world is human selfishness and egocentricity. Not coincidentally, Heschel much prefers prayers of praise to prayers of petition; he is more confident that the former facilitate moments of self-transcendence than the latter.

There is another crucial element to Heschel’s vision of prayer: the idea that since God is in exile, prayer is an attempt to bring God back, to open a space in the world where God can dwell. This is what I call the spiritual discipline of enabling immanence, making a space for God in our hearts and, through that, in the world more broadly.


6) What is Heschel’s approach to Halakha?
Heschel believed that Halakha is fundamental to Jewish religious life, that it is an essential component of Avodat Hashem. But he was also passionately opposed to what he called pan-Halakhism or religious behaviorism. He insisted that a view of Judaism whereby being religious simply equals observing Halakha is a falsification of the Jewish tradition and is both morally dangerous and religiously bankrupt. There is no Halakha without Aggada (just as, he insists, there is no Aggada without Halakha), or else Halakha is just a set of rules with no larger meaning. The rules have to be about something.

But one doesn’t just need a theology; one needs to affirm a God worthy of worship. One can all too easily fall into the trap of worshiping a God who is small-hearted and small-minded. For example, a God who hates all the same people I do (as popular writer Anne Lamott so wonderfully puts it), or a God who does not love the oppressed but is instead used as a bludgeon to hurt them even further (cf. Vayikra Rabbah 32:8). One needs Halakha to be in conversation with a story, a narrative, a set of religious and moral imperatives and aspirations.

Nothing Heschel says about this is really new or revolutionary. That Jewish piety requires inwardness– one can start with Rabbenu Bachya; that the cultivation of virtue is fundamental– one should read the Rambam, Ramban, and the history of Musar; and that what God you worship matters.

Sometimes I imagine Heschel being inspired the old Hasidic canard about Misnagdim: “A hasid is a yerei shamayim, but a misnaged is a yerei shulkhan arukh.” I can imagine him saying: There is a lot of yirat Shulkhan Arukh nowadays, but how much Yirat Shamayim is there?

Implicitly, Heschel says something startling (it seems to me this should be pashut peshat, but it is anything but): you can be medakdek in a million mitzvot and still not have a clue what Avodat Hashem means. Avodat Hashem asks you to observe mitzvot, yes, but also to work on yourself to grow in love and compassion, to care for those who are vulnerable and suffering– just as God does. The Kotzker says that’s the essence of yiddishkeit– arbeitn af zikh. Who talks that way anymore?

7) How is Heschel a critic of materialistic society?
Modernity is all about homo faber, the human being who uses the world, who wants to be served rather than stepping forward to serve. The culture of technology blots out the voice of God’s command and the sense that the suffering of the other is my responsibility. Acquisitiveness, possessiveness, etc. are enemies of the spirit, and modernity only amplifies those very problematic impulses.

In brief, Heschel thinks that modernity is like acid for the capacity for self-transcendence. In general, he thinks there are two ways of carrying ourselves in the world– he calls them “the way of wonder” and “the way of expediency.” In the way of wonder, I realize that God and other people make a claim on me (probably the sentence he wrote more often than any other is “something is asked of us”), whereas in the way of expediency, I only ask how things and people (and ultimately God) can serve me. I instrumentalize the world and turn into a toolbox for the satisfaction of my own wants (the echoes of Heidegger’s critique of technology are clear).

Religion is not just another tool for my own satisfaction. God does not exist to serve me and give me everything I want; rather, God summons me and rips my selfishness to shreds.

8) Why do you think it’s important for Modern Orthodox Jews to read Heschel?
I think all Jews who are serious about piety and Avodat Hashem ought to read Heschel, because he lays down the gauntlet in the most powerful way: do you want to serve God? If Torah has not made you more compassionate, more gentle, more able to listen to the sufferings of another human being, then it is not Torah you have learned.

About Orthodoxy in particular: there is a tendency in certain circles to think that Halakha is the only thing, so much so that Halakha goes from being a core component of Avodat HaShem to being a kind of idol. Heschel provides a much-needed antidote to that form of spiritual illness and impoverishment.

Read Heschel and you are reminded again and again that Rahmana Liba Ba’ei, that God wants the heart, and that religion is about love. Love does not exclude law– ideally, in Judaism, it is thoroughly integrated with it– but law without a focus on love of neighbor and love of stranger is barren and bankrupt, plain and simple.

Modern Orthodoxy (or what used to be called that) is atheological– which is not the same thing as atheistic. It’s not that people don’t believe in God, necessarily (though there is no shortage of atheism), but that they don’t think about what that means, don’t engage with the deep questions faith raises, or they engage with theology in a childish manner. There is little meaningful theological discourse to speak of in Orthodoxy, and Heschel’s challenge is scary and threatening to many.


9) What is your next book?
I am working on two books. The first is about gratitude and compassion as the two pivots of Jewish spirituality. Along the way, I develop the argument that religion ought to teach us to live with and embrace complexity rather than seeking to dissolve it. The second is an attempt to lay out a theory of human personhood and human dignity from a Jewish perspective, with a focus on what it means to talk about human beings as images of God.

Mīmāṃsā on the Vedas and Halakhah

What do the Vedas mean in Hinduism? They mean what the tradition interprets them to mean. Originally the meaning was via a philosophy called Mimamsa and in contemporary time it is through Advaita. However, leaders of the faith study both.

The original meaning of the vedas according to Mimamsa is a set of procedural ritual laws to follow and that is it. For a follower of Mimamsa, the introduction to your Western paperback edition is wrong. For Mimamsa, the bronze age gods of the Vedas of fire, of wind, of the Sun were already a memory to the first centuries of the CE. Schopenhauer may have found them ennobling and heroic, but the Brahmins did not.

The Vedas are an eternal revelation of eternal truths consisting only of rituals to follow. All the stories, gods, metaphysics we don’t understand and don’t bother with. Veda are unauthored, eternal, transcendent and they are called teaching “veda” because they show practical actions of how to live the dharma.

According to Mimamsa, we only see what we can perceive. We cannot perceive morality and we have no direct access to morality.The Vedas are our only instrument to know truth and morality. We also have no reason to believe that there ever were exceptional humans who could perceive morality. Meaning that the Rishees (Seers) who receive the vedas were not using human perception, rather they were conduits for the eternal truth.

The ceremonial details of the rituals absorb its interest, rather than the gods themselves who gradually recede and fade into mere grammatical datives. A Vedic deity comes to be described not by its moral or intellectual qualities, but as ‘that which is signified, in a sacrificial injunction, by the fourth case-ending’ (the sign of a dative, .to which something is given). In Short, a deity is necessary merely as that in whose name an oblation is to be offered at a sacrifice. But the primary object of performing a sacrifice is not worship : it is not to please any deity. *Nor is it purification of the soul or moral improvement. A ritual is to be performed just because the Vedas commands to perform them.

All other works in Hinduism only have the correct action or are giving the correct law if they are based on the vedas as understood by mimamsa. Vedas are only source of what is to be done therefore they cannot be falsified since there is no acceptable outside source. There is no “ethic outside of the vedas.” It is a rigid form of the Divine Command Theory” without the Divine command. In Euthyphro terms, is good because it is in the vedas not because the vedas are good. God is not subject to inquiry but we may subjectively serve God or gods as our own devotion or for our own needs

The origins of Mimamsa lie in the scholarly traditions of the final centuries BCE, when the priestly ritualism of Vedic sacrifice was being marginalized by Buddhism and Vedanta. To counteract this challenge, several groups emerged dedicated to demonstrating the validity of the Vedic texts by rigid formulation of rules for their interpretation. The foundational text for the Mīmāṃsā school is the Purva Mīmāṃsā Sutras of Jaimini (ca. 3rd to 1st century BCE).


The school gathers momentum in the Gupta period with Śābara, and reaches its apex in the 7th to 8th centuries with Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and Prabhākara. The school was a major force contributing to the decline of Buddhism in India. Vedānta Deśika’s Śeśvara Mīmāṁsā was an attempt to combine the views of the Mīmāṁsā and the Vedānta schools.

Human agency is only how one is made into an agent by Vedic injunctive. One trains oneself to desire the right things. Nyaya, similar to Western scholastics, holds that cognition leads to volition and from there to action. Mimamsa cuts out the intellect and volition and holds that desire to action, in which desire means recognition that one has an obligation. If you desire heaven then you sacrifice. Efficacy of ritual is more important than effect on person It also keeps discussions of atman (the self, soul, consciousness) out of the picture.

Mimamsa even removes God and Divine agency from the discussion. An agent needs a body, God has no body so God is not a legal agent. Mimamsa has no discussion or place for a personal God since no we have no access to God therefore no legal intention. People used to debate whether Mimamsa is atheist or theist because the law is followed solely because it is the revealed eternal truth without reference to God. From a halakhah point of view, it is similar to keeping all the commands with a knowledge (daat) that the action is a required commandment without a need for any specific intention (kavvanah).

According to one early 20th century commentator, the Vedic hymns are inspired by the living presence of the polytheistic deities in the place of worship, Mimamsa loses the living faith in deities. At best, the deities of the Mimamsa are like the immortal characters of classical Epics ; they do not belong to the space-time world; they are not existing parsons, but types. They are more thin characters because they are not the products of any imagination . In contrast, medieval and traditional commentaries actually assume they do not believe them at all.

For Mimamsa, according to the great commentary Kumarila, an embodied God is inherently contradictory because how could he be revered by different people in different places simultaneously if he were linked to a body. (Freschi p6 ftnt 10) So for this school and its interpretation of the Vedas, there are no embodied Divine, no incarnations, no physical attributes to God. Everything physical about God can only be from our perspective.

To compare halakhah with fiqh or shariah is so 2005, now there is a trend for composing law papers comparing Hindu law and Jewish law. For example, Prof. Donald Davis wrote an article “Before Virtue: Halakhah, Dharmasastra, and what the Law can Create” published in Duke Law Review (2008).

Dharmasastra is Hindu law, which Davis thinks is best understood in the categories of Mimamsa. According to Davis, Hindu Law creates the full ideal of what humans were meant to be. Davis finds that Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man and dharmashatra share this goal of creating the ideal human through law, the ideal halakhic man and the ideal dharmashastra man.

Davis points out that for both law and practice of law gives virtue without any prior need for values or aspired to virtue. In both the most important thing is to value the tradition and law is the instrument and embodiment of that conviction of sustaining tradition.
Returning to basics, Davis shows how Torah and Veda are both mediated by rules; one should not read them unmediated like from a paperback or archeology records. For both Torah and Vedas- people are not virtuous only actions are. A zaddik or a sadhu are holy and do lots of virtuous acts but they do not define virtue. For example in Maimonides, it is more important to do righteous acts the think about them. Torah (and Veda) is the tree of life

For Soloveitchik, the very command carries with it an endorsement of man’s existence and an affirmation of human responsibility. Davis quotes Prof. Francis X. Clooney who described Mimamsa as transcending anthropocentrism since man realizes that he is part of something larger than himself. The transcendent meaning is not the work of the gods or part of the cosmos but the here and now keeping of the law. In the repeated performances he experiences the transcendent. Law as worldly and still fully religious


The “Theory of Karma” is guided by Mimamsa Philosophy. “Karma” means “deeds”, “act” or “work”. The ‘theory of Karma’ states that good actions produce good fruit, evil actions produce evil fruits. Originally, karma in mimamsa was only based on vedic sacrifice, a ritual that needs to be done – later the term karma was expanded to all of life Mimamsa explain how a human being can achieve the mysterious, transcendent power produced by a correctly performed sacrificial ritual, not through the action of gods. Rather, the merit is only shown after the death of the person performing the ritual.

How many of this basic list seem similar to Rabbinics exegetical rules?I think for the third -we do the opposite. Klal uPrat- we follow the prat;they follwo the klal.

(1) The Sarthakyata axiom, which means that every word and sentence must have some meaning.
(2) The Laghava axiom, which states that that construction which makes the meaning simpler and shorter is to be preferred.
(3) The Arthaikatva axiom, which states that a double meaning should not be attached to a word or sentence occurring at one and the same place.
(4) The Gunapradhan axiom, which states that if a word or sentence purporting to express a subordinate idea clashes with the principal idea the former must be adjusted to the latter, or must be disregarded altogether.
(5) The Samanjasya axiom which states that all attempts should be made at reconciliation of apparently conflicting texts.
(6) The Vikalpa axiom, which states that if there is a real and irreconcilable contradiction between two legal rules having equal force, the rule more in accordance with equity and usage should be adopted at one’s option.

Nyaya and Monotheism

If you ask almost every trained representative of Hinduism whether Santana Dharma (The Eternal Dharma, Hinduism) is theistic or even monotheistic, you will get a firm yes. They may not like the question as betraying Western concerns but the answer will still be: Yes. Why?

This is the second installment of an engagement with Hinduism. Please continue to help me think through these matters.

The classical approach to the study of the ancient texts of the Vedas is through the six schools of Indian philosophy, or literally six visions of reality. Almost every trained representative of Hinduism, whether Brahman, Swami or philosophy Professor, accepts the rubric of six Orthodox philosophies. However, it is only Western academics and some Indian social scientists who do not view Hinduism from the point of view of its Orthodox reading.

Three of the six schools are (1) Nyaya – a rational kalam type of argumentation and logic that defends the proofs for God, revelation, and reward & punishment; (2) Mimamsa – a study of the Vedas as legal codes and a determination of how to derive the law; (3) Vedanta- a study of how the Divine is immanent and also that there is nothing but the Divine of which there are many interpretations. (I will deal in a later post with the other two, as well as the three of Yoga, materialism, and science.)

Nyaya deals with logic, evidence, inference, and argumentation. The Nyaya school of philosophical speculation is based on texts known as the Nyaya Sutras, which were written by Aksapada Gautama in the 2nd century CE. Nyaya functions as the logical backbone of Hinduism the way Aristotelianism did for more than a millennium in the West. Today, university students write on topics like Nyaya and analytic philosophy, Nyaya and Aristotle, Nyaya and Habermas.

The Nyaya approach based on the Vedas argues for a theistic monotheistic position, revelation, and reward & punishment. In short, the theological parts of Nyaya are almost identical in goal and argumentation as the Kalam of Saadyah or the some of the Christian scholastics. This is where any start of an interfaith encounter would show that we have similar ideas of philosophy of religion. Our universal sides of natural theology have much in common.The Indian academic Gopikamohan Bhattacharyya wrote: “The belief in monotheism is rather common to all theistic schools of Indian philosophy.” (Xvi)

Nyaya insists on several versions of the cosmological argument to prove a theistic God, and why there needs to be based on both the Vedas and logic revelation and reward. The Nyaya school’s method proved the existence of God, based on the Vedas, and subsequently, has been adopted by the majority of the other Indian schools. Therefore, you will not find any representative of traditional Hinduism trained in the university, temple, or ashram that denies monotheism. (There are exceptions which we will deal with later, there are non-theist Hindu approaches, and there are those who find the entire question Western and patronizing). However, any Hindu leader who comes to an interfaith gathering as a representative of his tradition will already know and accept Nyaya theism. (What does this have to do with the idols in the street? Save that question for a future installment.)

Julius Guttmann in his grand work Philosophy of Judaism saw Saadyah’s 10th century interlocutors as including the Brahmins and their schools of philosophy. Indian Philosophy used to be taught as an elective at Columbia and CCNY, so it could be discussed in comparison, Now, if anyone takes Aristotle you are lucky. In addition, Indian philosophy has moved to the more ethnographic religion department, the same way much of the study of Judaism has migrated from philosophy and history to Jewish Studies.

According to the Nyaya school, there are exactly four sources of knowledge (pramāṇas): perception, inference, comparison, and testimony. Very similar to Saadyah’s four sources of knowledge. The major difference between Saadyah’s arguments and Nyaya is that the latter assume that God created the world from eternal matter.

However, Nyaya differs from Aristotelian logic in that it is more than logic in its own right. Its followers believed that obtaining valid knowledge was the only way to obtain release from suffering. This offers us an insight into how Saadyah and Maimonides thought philosophy was needed to obtain the world-to-come.

Early Naiyayikas wrote very little about Ishvara (God, the Supreme Soul). However, when later Buddhists in India became strictly atheistic, the later Naiyayikas entered into disputes with the Buddhists and tried to prove the existence of God on the basis of inference. They also increased the attributes of God from just knowledge and volition to a wider list of attributes including providence and beneficence.. Yogic texts, in contrast, have God as an object of contemplation and perfection but not for causality and providence.

Udayana’s Nyayakusumanjali gave the following nine arguments to prove the existence of creative God. Here are four familiar to a Jewish audience from Saadyah.
Cosmological argument – Kāryāt (lit. “from effect”): An effect is produced by a cause, and similarly, the universe must also have a cause. The active cause of the world must have an absolute knowledge of all the material of creation, and hence it must be God. Hence from the creation, the existence of the Creator is proved.
Composite nature of the world- Āyojanāt (lit., from combination): Atoms are inactive and properties are unphysical. So it must be God who creates the world with his will by causing the atoms to join. There is to be seen the hand of a wise organizer behind the systematic grouping of the ultimate atoms into dyads and molecules. That final organizer is God.
Faith in Scripture – Pratyayataḥ (lit, from faith): the Hindu holy scriptures, the Vedas, are regarded as the source of eternal knowledge. Their knowledge is free from fallacies and are widely believed as a source of proof. Their authors cannot be human beings because human knowledge is limited. Hence, only God can be the creator of the Vedas. Hence, his existence is proved from his being the author of the Vedas, which he revealed to various sages over a period of time.
Moral Argument - Vākyāt (lit., from precepts): World is governed by moral laws that are objective and universal. Hence there exists God, the promulgator of these laws.

On monotheism— the Naiyayikas have also provided arguments such a God can only be one monotheistic God . We cannot assume there were many gods (Devas) and sages (rishis) in the beginning, who wrote the Vedas and created the world. This is because the law of parsimony bids us assume only one such, namely Him, the adorable Lord. There can be no confidence in a non-eternal and non omniscient being, and hence it follows that according to the system which rejects God, the tradition of the Veda is simultaneously overthrown; there is no other way open.In other words, Udayana says that the polytheist would have to give elaborate proofs for the existence and origin of his several celestial spirits, none of which would be logical. So it is much more logical to assume only one, eternal and omniscient God.

So polytheism and a multiplicity of gods make no sense in Orthodox Indian philosophy, even if the American ethnographic studies differ.

Nyaya accepts the reality of yogic perception of a direct intuition from a concentration of the mind on the authority of the vedas. Here there is an opening for a discussion of direct intuition in Saadyah. If I remember correctly, Moise Ventura and Israel Efros denied such an intuition in Sadyah but Abraham Joshua Heschel in his article on Quest for Certainty in Saadyah thinks the medieval thinker allows direct intuitions.

Nyaya has some useful discussion of doubt that can help elucidate Norman Lamm’s concept of provisional or methodological doubt in Saadyah in his article “Faith and Doubt”. They acknowledge that sometimes there is conflicting evidence.

Samsaya or doubt is a state of uncertainty. It represents the mind’s wavering between different conflicting views with regard to the same object. Doubt arises when with regard to the same thing there is the suggestion of different alternative views but no definite cognition of any differentia to decide between them. Doubt is not certain knowledge, nor is it the mere absence of knowledge, nor is it an error. It is a positive state of cognition of mutually exclusive characters in the same thing at the same time.

Nyaya also characterizes arguments better than Monty Python and more useful for text study- here is a sample.

Vada is a discussion which is conducted according to logical rules and aims only at finding out the truth
Jalpa is mere wrangling in which the parties aim only at victory over each other, but do not make an honest attempt to come to truth.
Vitanda is a kind of debate in which the opponent doo8 not establish his own position but only tries to refute that of the exponent.
Chaia is a kind of quibble in which an attempt is made to contradict a statement by taking it in a sense other than the intended one in order to deflect an argument.

Karma is which one’s actions lead to future action gets a theistic reading in Nyaya, in that God as a wise and benevolent father directs his son to do certain things, according to his gifts, capacities and previous attainments, so God directs all living beings to do such actions and feel such natural consequences thereof as are consistent with their past conduct and character. Thus God is the moral governor of the world of living beings including ourselves, the impartial dispenser of the fruits of our actions, and the supreme arbiter of our joys and sorrows.

Nyaya is accepted by Vedanta especially Shankara’s Advita as a first step. Some schools of Vedanta such as TM consider that they has transcended the philosophical position of the Nyaya. On the other hand, the strongly theistic non-Advitan approach of Ramanuja has reservations on the rather scholastic first cause theism of Nyaya. Instead, Ramanuja, like Azriel of Gerona or Ramhal, has an image of the Divine as needing to shower the world with His own goodness and blessing. So whereas, Nyaya like many rational thinkers postulates that God creates to show his majesty and glory, Ramanuja has God create to shower blessings.

But those American ethnographers with their recording devices collect stories from common folk, without this scholastic training, and say that in Hinduism that God creates as a sport, as the creative activity of the Divine called lila. The world is seen as the stage of the divine play, in which Brahman is the great magician who transforms himself into the world and then performs this feat with his “magic creative power”.

For those who want more, John Vattanky, Is Theism Central to Nyaya?
Gopikamohan Bhattacharyya, Studies in Nyaya-Vaisesika Theism Sanskirt College, Calcutta, 1961