Author Archives: Alan Brill

Interview: Nathaniel Berman, Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar

Biblical texts contain the great myth of evil dragon. “Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers …” (Ezekiel 29:3) The evil is not a separate power, rather a force to be conquered. Thirteenth century Castilian Kabbalistic texts develop this into a separate realm of evil that is parallel the side of holiness. This becomes one of the major dividing lines between Castilian approach to Kabbalah compared to the Geronesse approach where the evil dragon is an allegory for the privation of the good. The Castilians, as an act of shocking revelation, present this evil realm as a high mystery.

In the Zohar,“Rabbi Shimon said, ‘Now it is fitting to reveal mysteries cleaving above and below.’”   ( Matt, Pritzker Zohar 2, page 34a), which Matt explains in his footnote that “these are mysteries of the demonic powers, who are rooted in the divine realm and branch out below.”Furthermore,“Rabbi Shimon said, The Companions study the account of Creation”–that is, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis–“and comprehend it, but few know how to allude thereby to the Mystery of the Great Dragon.”  That mystery, he says, has been shared with “those fathomers who know the mysteries of their Lord.” The Mystery of the Great Dragon is the shadow side of the Biblical Creation story, hinted at between the lines of creation and understood by those who can comprehend.

To this topic, we have a fine new monograph by Nathaniel Berman, Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar: the “Other Side” of Kabbalah (Leiden: Brill, 2018). Berman is the Rahel Varnhagen Professor of International Affairs, Law, and Modern Culture in Brown University’s Religious Studies Department. A graduate of Yale College, Harvard Law School, and his PhD in Jewish Studies from University College London.

divine and demonic

This book is one of dozen books on the Zohar that came out in 2017-2018, each one making a significant contribution.  This voluminous amount of scholarship is still being absorbed by specialists; this is my second interview on this scholarship, see here for Eitan Fishbane’s book.

If Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby saw this Zoharic myth of evil as relevant for their early 20th century era of breakdown, but with clear sides of good and evil. Berman find the myth useful for our age of evil, in which the sides are ambiguous.

According to the Zohar, evil has diverse sources. (1) Evil is like the bark of a tree of emanation: it is a husk or shell in which lower dimensions of existing things are encased. In this context, evil is understood as a waste product of all organic process—it is compared to bad blood, foul water, dross after gold has been refined and the dregs of wine. (2) These evil powers came into being through the supra‑abundant growth of the sefirah of Judgment (Din) when it separated from the sefirah of Compassion (Rahamim). (3) Human sin continually strengthened this realm. However, correct actions, and avoidance of sin, allow man’s to separate them.

Berman picks up the discussion at this point by showing that these categories are more ambivalent tan prior presentations. For Berman, the evil is specifically proximate to the good. He shows cases of needed nearness of the two realms and cases where they are intertwined. Tishby famously saw the evil as dross needing a purgation and catharsis from the good. Scholem was more ambivalent, seeing the possibility of a Jungian integration of the shadow side in order to attain individualization. In contrast, Berman finds both good and evil belated products of striving to differentiate from the undifferentiated primordial being.

To explain this primordial undifferentiated oneness, Berman turns to Julia Kristeva’s concept of  “Abjection”, which is Kristeva’s word for this “breaking away.” It comprises the subject’s “earliest attempts to release the hold of the maternal entity even before existing outside of her …. a violent, clumsy breaking away, forever stalked by the risk of falling back under the sway of a power as sheltering as it is smothering.”  The maternal body begins to be distanced even before the subject who does the distancing comes into being.  That which is thus “abjected” becomes invested with an intensely negative valence, even disgust. For Berman, that ambiguity and multi-valence of the mother in the coming to be of human subjectively is the very language that can be used to describe the relationship of the sitra ahara and the sefirot.

Berman treats myth as etiological and literary. Julia Kristeva treats them as a symptom. This Incredible Need to Believe  (Columbia University Press, 2009) which is available online here. Kristeva as a post-secular and post-Lacan thinker assumes that we can never escape the psychological necessity for religion as a medium to work out our hidden recesses. We need to acknowledge the powerful and ineradicable need to believe and to use the mythology of belief. If we deny this need, we risk the destructive return of the repressed. Kristeva thinks human beings are constituted by an incredible need to believe, to live in the realms of symbolism, mythology and mystical experience. For her, to be capable of speech is to be capable of symbolic discourse, and symbolic discourse is characterized by a profound need to believe. (Conversely for Rav Shagar, the wild mythic realm of Rav Nachman reconnects us the sacred.)

To return to the discussion of the sitra ahara, the evil side, as the primordial undifferentiated, for Berman, pace Kristeva, we have undifferentiated positive and negative evaluation of the mother. However, Kristeva does not just label it as “abjected.” Rather, she shows how this points to the  fundamental exclusion of woman from the linguistic order.  in Kristeva’s opinion, the abjection of women has been the cause of the separation of the sexes, and the relegation of woman to the silent ‘Other’ of the Symbolic and society, keeping men to command a world based on science and rational authority. Kristeva’s Lacanian Imaginary order, associated with the feminine language of the unconscious is a world of illusion, duality, deception, and surfaces. Women were portrayed as sorcerer, witches, and hysterics. Berman’s book does not particularity discuss Kristeva’s rich analysis of the feminine to paint a richer sitra ahara. In addition, Kristeva’s interpretation of Adam and Eve would have fit the book’s thesis.

Berman treats Zoharic myths as etiological, as explaining our perceived world, rather than as a symptom of our psyche as Kristeva presents myths. Of all my interviews, this is the first one that seemed to call out for a psychoanalytic reading, maybe because the interview itself was personal or that the use of the myth seemed a symptom. Berman’s narrative includes a casting off of a symbolic registry of Orthodoxy before a mythic world of evil, a Holocaust survivor as material image with inherent undifferentiated good and evil, and in turn, a world of very real evil.

Unlike the Buddhist mediator, for whom evil comes from desire. According to Berman, evil is real. For Paul Ricœur, in his classic Symbolism of Evil, we do not have an existential sense of evil and then pick our root metaphor to explain the evil in the world. Rather, we are born into our metaphor though our religion.  Ricoeur assumes the Jewish metaphor is missing the mark, Christianity fall of man,  Zoroastrian dualism, Buddhist illusion- and we see the world through the religious root metaphor. This interview clearly shows Berman’s root metaphor as Zoharic rather than Ricoeur’s choices.

Berman’s book was honored by Yehudah Liebes who wrote a response, which is especially noted in that Liebes is not a fan of English. The review offers a nice insight into Liebes’ own approach to the Zohar, as well as showing how much more there is to be done on these topics especially the personality of the shekhinah. Berman’s book is a important for placing the holiness-demonic dualism at the very beginning of divine auto-genesis. Especially, his discussion of rhetorical elements, such as anaphora and structural homology,within the Zoharic library. Personally, I would now want to see Berman’s reading of the Zohar compared to Catherine Keller’s 21st century use of the same Kabbalaistic ideas of tohu-chaos to construct a positive appreciation of chaos and materiality of the divine.

The book is unfortunately extremely high priced even for an academic monograph, which will limit is readership drastically. It is also a technical work, concerned with literary distinctions and arguing for his readings of the Zohar. However, I have heard Berman in several popular venues such as the various Limmud conferences, where he gives and excellent dynamic presentation of his points in a lively psychological manner. Berman oral presentations are wonderful for bringing the listener into the mythic-poetic world.  (Here is one at Drisha) This book shows Berman as an admirable Virgil leading us on a tour of the demonic realm of the Zohar, offering poetics, psychology, mythology, and current anxieties.

nathaniel berman

Interview:Nathaniel Berman, Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar

1) Why do you call the Zohar a work of “poetic mythology”?

The strand of Zoharic writing upon which I focus consists of mythical portrayals of the divine and demonic realms, written with a literary audacity and virtuosity akin to poetry, language-bending, syntax defying, avant-garde.

Zoharic mythology includes dramas of divine and diabolical personae, male and female, engaging with each other through love and hatred, desire and repulsion, grace and judgment. It portrays a world in which there is nothing, neither plant nor animal, heaven nor earth, ocean nor land, star nor planet, that does not symbolize, or rather embody, some archetype or persona. Zoharic mythology includes wars of a God with a Great Dragon, seduction of a divine Woman by a diabolical Serpent and of a divine Man by the diabolical Lilith.

Earlier scholars, most prominently, Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby, focused on explicating the Zohar’s doctrine. My work participates in a wave of recent scholarship focusing on literary approaches to the Zohar, often associated with Hebrew University Professor Yehuda Liebes. From this perspective, passages that might seem simply internally contradictory from a doctrinal perspective prove to be elaborate, self-reflective, paradoxical literary masterpieces.

In order to appreciate the Zohar as mythology, one must exercise one’s own mythological imagination, seeking to envision, not merely analyze, its extraordinary, often scandalous, portrayals!

2) Why is the demonic important in the Zohar?

“Few are those who know how to allude to the Work of Creation through the mystery of the Great Dragon” (Zohar II:34b).

In pronouncements like these, the Zoharic authors proclaim the greater profundity, difficulty, and secrecy of those who engage with the demonic “Other Side” [sitra aḥra], the abode of the Great Dragon, as well as the “Side of Holiness,” the abode of the divine Creator.

The elaborate Zoharic mythology of a cosmos split between divine and demonic narrates features of life of which we are all aware, however painful it may be to acknowledge them. Our world, as one can verify by experience, is teeming with divergent forces, sometimes harmonious, sometimes conflictual, sometimes beautiful, sometimes repulsive. The Zoharic writers confront this teeming reality by constructing elaborate mythologies of divine/demonic relations – relations of both absolute antagonism and profound intimacy between the two realms.

The Zoharic use of the apparently neutral phrase, “the Other Side,” as the most common appellation for the demonic suggests that the demonic is “Other” to the divine, but also that it is another “Side” of a whole. The phrase suggests an inextricable relationship between the two “Sides” and a drive for unification that is as powerful as that for conflict.

At a human level, the Zohar’s mythology of divine/demonic relations also provides a profound way of addressing a phenomenon that affects us all every day, the manifold and ambivalent relations between Self and Other, whether on the inter-personal, national, ethnic, or gendered planes.

3) How does the Zohar portray the split cosmos of divine and demonic through etiological myths?

“Etiology” literally means the “study of causes.” An etiological myth starts with features of the world as we know it, and then tells an origin story that culminates in those features: a “back-story,” as it were. Zoharic etiological myths focus on features of our world that our rational ideas and/or conventional theological doctrines find unacceptable. These myths do not provide a theological explanation for those features of the world; they do not seek to reassure us by denying or justifying those features. On the contrary, they often make the theological quandary, or even scandal, much worse. They confront the reality of those features unflinchingly, refuse to engage in theological apologetics, and often prescribe ritual practices by which human beings can heal the world’s ruptures.

A clear example of a Zoharic etiological myth: one passage begins by portraying Rabbi Shimon, the Zohar’s chief sage, lamenting the inverted, unjust state of the world, particularly the degraded state of the people of Israel, subjugated by the other nations. He then proceeds to spin his myth, encapsulated in its opening lines, “the King has cast the Queen away from Him and inserted the Bondwoman in Her place” (Zohar III:69a). In Zoharic mythology, the King is the central male divine persona, the blessed Holy One. The Queen is his true consort, the Shekhinah. The Bondwoman is the Shekhinah’s demonic counterpart, Lilith.

This dalliance of the male God with the diabolical female provides a back-story for the inverted state of the world. It does not resolve the theological quandary implicit in the problem that launched Rabbi Shimon’s narrative. On the contrary, for a theologian, the lust of the male God for a transgressive mate is something like the ultimate scandal. Nonetheless, the mythological scandal, the desire of the blessed Holy One for Lilith, also contains a hint of a redemptive drive: the aspiration for unification between divine and demonic, Self and Other.

4) How did the prior Castilian kabbalists develop this mythology?

Gershom Scholem bestowed the appellation “Castilian Gnostics” upon certain 13th century Spanish kabbalists who were particularly interested in the demonic – the most well-known of whom were Yitsḥak Ha-Kohen and Moshe of Burgos.
Yitsḥak Ha-Kohen and Moshe of Burgos wrote short treatises portraying a demonic dimension of the cosmos parallel to the divine dimension: the “Left Emanation” or “Left Column.” These treatises also opened up a path to integrating an array of ancient myths of the demonic – from Jewish and non-Jewish sources – into the emerging kabbalistic imagination. The complex Zoharic portrayals of Sama’el and Lilith, ancient figures who emerge transformed in kabbalistic myth as a diabolical couple, the chief Devil and Deviless, are elaborate extensions of themes in the writings of the “Castilian Gnostics.”
Zoharic portrayals of Dragons also draw on the “Castilian Gnostics.” From a broader perspective, these reptilian creatures emerge from centuries, even millennia, of Jewish and Near Eastern mythology. The Zoharic portrayals draw on, among other sources, the verses describing the Leviathan in Psalms and Job and the “Taninim” in Genesis 1. The latter term has been variously translated as whales, crocodiles, sea monsters, and so on – but their Zoharic portrayals are best understood as those of Dragons, denizens of the demonic realm, at times personifications of the Devils Sama’el and Lilith.

An intriguing feature inherited from the “Castilian Gnostics” is that the demonic Dragons are doubled by divine Dragons. This twinning relationship between the divine and demonic is one of the symptoms of Zoharic ambivalence towards the split cosmos.

5) How does the Zohar use the two literary techniques of anaphora and structural homology to present the two sides of divine and demonic?

My analysis proceeds on two axes: rhetoric and ontology

My rhetorical analysis looks at the literary techniques the texts use to construct a cosmos split between the two “Sides.” One of the principal such techniques employed by the Zoharic writers is “anaphora.”

Anaphora consists of the repetition of the first words of consecutive phrases, clauses, or sentences. The Zohar frequently employs the anaphora “there is … and …. there is …”, with each “there is” followed by an identical noun, to construct the divine/demonic split – for example, “there is a field – and – there is a field” (Zohar I:122a). While the consecutive phrases in such anaphoras are identical, the Zohar’s deployment of them signifies that they refer to opposed entities or personae. In the “there is a field” anaphora, these two antagonists are the Shekhinah, the central female divine persona, and Her mortal adversary, Lilith. This literary technique thus yields two antagonistic personae who are nonetheless identical linguistically.

At the ontological level, the Zohar posits identical structures on each “Side,” a feature I call “structural homology.” Both the divine and demonic “Sides” contain ten Sefirot, seven “breaths” (corresponding to the seven lower Sefirot), three “knots” (corresponding to the left, right, and central columns of each realm), seven “palaces” [Hekhalot], male and female personae in conjugal relationships, and so on.

The rhetorical and ontological twinning between the divine and demonic realms constructs an objectively ambivalent cosmos, in which divine and demonic are absolute enemies and yet often indistinguishable – suggesting a deeply rooted subjective ambivalence of the Zoharic writers to the Other Side.

6) Why use Kristeva’s concept of abjection to explain the demonic?

I believe that underlying Zoharic portrayals of the split cosmos lies a rather startling, even shocking myth: the divine and demonic realms of the cosmos both emerge from a primordial, inchoate indifferentiation. I note that others, including Yehuda Liebes, already pointed in this direction.I have employed the work of Kristeva as a way of elucidating the consequences of this myth for the emergence of the two realms.

I recall that the opposed realms include structures (such as the kabbalistic “Sefirot”) and personae (such as the divine blessed Holy One and his female consort, the Shekhinah, as well as the diabolical couple Sama’el and Lilith). While the dramatic vicissitudes of these personae constitute much of the focus of Zoharic mythology, their emergence from a primordially shared inchoate origin presents one of its most radical features.

How is one to understand the emergence of these personae? They cannot be created in the conventional theological sense, for any Creator would be one of those very personae whose origin we are seeking. Rather, Zoharic texts portraying the emergence of their central personae present one of the most puzzling paradoxes of the literature: a subject-less striving for a separate identity. In order to gain insight into these Zoharic texts, I turned to the work of Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst and literary theorist, whose work has long fascinated me.

Kristeva locates the emergence of the human self in the inchoate strivings of the infant for independence from its mother. She portrays “the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be.” It comprises the subject’s “earliest attempts to release the hold of the maternal entity even before existing outside of her …. a violent, clumsy breaking away, forever stalked by the risk of falling back under the sway of a power as sheltering as it is smothering.” “Abjection” is Kristeva’s word for this “breaking away,” in which the maternal body begins to be distanced even before the subject who does the distancing comes into being. That which is thus “abjected” becomes invested with an intensely negative valence, even disgust.

Kristeva’s portrayals of subject-formation-though-abjection are uncannily reminiscent of Zoharic texts about the emergence of divine and demonic personae from the primordial indifferentiation – and provide a powerful way of appreciating both their antagonism and their secret kinship.

I caution that I try not to “apply” Kristeva’s ideas to Zoharic texts, but to find productive and uncanny parallels between them – parallels that help illuminate both.

7) Where do you differ from Isaiah Tishby?

I often refer to Tishby’s essay on the Zoharic Other Side as a foil for my own approach. Tishby argues that there are two different strands in Zoharic writing on the relationship between divine and demonic.

One is a dualistic strand, in which the two “Sides” stand in radical antagonism to each other. In this strand, the Other Side is structurally homologous to the divine, geographically remote, and fundamentally different in essence. The other strand is marked, in Tishby’s words, by “restrictions” on this dualism. In this strand, the Other Side consists of a set of concentric circles around the divine, rather than a set of independent, homologous structures. In this strand, the demonic is thus geographically proximate to the divine. Indeed, in this strand, the Other Side can even serve as an ally of the divine.

“And, again, I stress that in order to understand these images, one must embrace the mythological genre, and give free rein to one’s visionary powers!”

Tishby’s exposition, however useful, is inadequate as a grid for reading Zoharic texts. Zoharic writers freely mix elements from both of these models, weaving them together in literary texts that foreground startling, phenomenally impossible, juxtapositions of images. Such features would be defects in a text aiming at expressing coherent conceptual models – but are the glory of an audacious literary work.

An example: one Zoharic text depicts the Other Side as comprised of ten Sefirot, homologous to the ten divine Sefirot – and declares that this antagonist to the divine “clings to the slime of the fingernail” of the Shekhinah, the latter associated with the tenth of the divine Sefirot (Zohar III:70a). This text thus portrays the demonic as both homologous to the divine and proximate to it – as well as depicting the demonic as perched precariously on an insubstantial aspect of its divine enemy. Inducing meditation on this paradoxical and scandalous image was, I believe, the author’s goal – not the presentation of a consistent metaphysical doctrine.

8) Can you apply this to the myth of creation?

Zoharic writers re-cast the story of Creation in Genesis as one of divine unfolding, an elaborate emanation of the divine being. While this perspective makes possible a profound appreciation of the world as imbued with the divine, it simultaneously makes far more acute the theological problem entailed in the existence of conflict and evil.

Scholem and Tishby cast the Zoharic, and later Lurianic, understanding of these issues in terms of a myth of divine catharsis – a Greek term whose literal meaning signifies purification or purgation. The God who unfolds Himself through the emanation of the cosmos was seeking to get rid of unwanted elements within Himself. These unwanted elements first emerge as inchoate refuse and then consolidate into the structures and personae of the Other Side.

The myth of catharsis is shocking theologically because it posits a God beset by impurities within His own being. Perhaps even more shocking is this God’s seeming inability to rid Himself of those impurities, the necessity for Him to engage in a never-ending series of attempts at purgation.

I think, however, that the idea of catharsis in Scholem and Tishby emerges from an appropriation of a variety of classic sources, which, moreover, differ among themselves: Plato, Aristotle, Freud, and so on. Among the many crucial questions their use of catharsis leaves open is this: if God is a coherent (even perfect) being prior to catharsis, why does He experience certain elements within Himself as unwanted or alien?

My reading of Zoharic texts reveals a very different myth. The personal God, the God with a distinct, bounded identity, does not stand as the initiator of the story but emerges as the outcome of the story – much as human identity emerges over time. The Zoharic divine subject, like the human subject described by Kristeva, does not pre-exist the struggle with inassimilable elements. On the contrary, this struggle is the pre-condition for the establishment of a bounded subject.

Kristeva’s portrayal of abjection powerfully illuminates this interminable struggle. The (divine or human) subject’s struggle to be rid of impurities, of inassimilable elements, is, by its nature, always provisional and ultimately pyrrhic – for those elements and the subject bear a primordial kinship to each other. The divine Self and its demonic Other are both belated products of strivings to differentiate from the undifferentiated primordial being.

9) Should the demonic be treated with respect or cast out?

Zoharic writers foresee two opposite fates for the Other Side: integration into the divine and annihilation by the divine. Scholem declared long ago that these opposite fates are equally “plausible” within the discourse of the Zohar. One finds these opposite fates throughout the Zohar, often in close textual proximity to each other. In one text, the Zohar stages this opposition as a debate between two of its key sages (Zohar II:203b).
This textual coexistence of opposed fates underscores one of the pervasive themes of my book: the ambivalence of the Zoharic cosmos.

10) What do we gain by using the paradox of abjection and crystallization? How do you apply it to the Zohar passage, elaborating on the first three verses in Genesis, portraying the transition from “slime” to “tohu” to “mighty” wind?

I read a mysterious, poetic, and evocative passage, the “snow-in-water” passage, as paradigmatic for the Zoharic vision of primordial cosmic processes. The passage begins (Zohar I:16a):

“And the earth was Tohu [KJV: without form] and Bohu [KJV: void]” (Genesis1:2). “Was,” precisely – before this. Snow in water: slime issues forth from it, from the force of snow in water. And a harsh fire strikes it. And there is refuse in it. And it becomes “Tohu”: the dwelling place of slime, the nest of refuse. “And Bohu”: a sifting/selecting/clarifying (beriru) that was sifted/selected/clarified (de-itberir) from within the refuse. And it was settled in it.

While I cannot reproduce here the long analysis I give in the book, I note that this passage is a mythological elaboration of the movement from the first to the third verses of Genesis, revealing the mythical events concealed in the enigmatic second verse. In Genesis, we see a movement from the seemingly perfect creation of heaven and earth in the first verse, to an unsettling scene of chaos, darkness, and a confrontation of Elohim and the abyss in the second verse, to the creation of light in the third. The Zohar’s snow-in-water passage recasts this textual movement mythically, in ways that strikingly resemble aspects of Kristeva’s portrayals.

The “snow-in-water” passage moves from a placid scene of primordial harmony (“snow in water”), to a seemingly inexplicable discharge of inchoate, repulsive stuff (“slime issues forth from it”), to a consolidation of that inchoate stuff through a series of berurin (siftings/selections/clarifications). By the end of this lengthy passage, the slime has consolidated into formidable demonic entities, the “great mighty wind,” “earthquake,” and “fire” of Elijah’s Horeb vision (1 Kings 19:11). This entire process, for the Zoharic writer, lurks in the second verse of Genesis.

Only after this “sifting/selecting/clarification” of the seeming primordial harmony between opposites, and the emergence of consolidated demonic entities, can the Creation of the divine cosmos take place, the emanation of the light portrayed in the third verse.

The short imagistic evocation at the beginning of this passage is paradigmatic for the kinds of processes I elucidate throughout the book, with the help of Kristeva: the inevitably simultaneous emergence of divine and demonic, the initiation of processes of abjection (the “issuing forth” of “slime”) even before the emergence of a subject, the inference that the roots of both divine and demonic lurk in the state of primordial indifferentiation – and, implicitly, the endless pyrrhic struggle to separate or reintegrate them.

11) Why is divine anger paradigmatic of the myth of the demonic?

The theme of anger may be the most accessible entrée for many people into the mythology of the demonic. People often encounter anger as a fearsome force of mythical proportions. Most of us have had the experience of being overwhelmed by anger, an experience aptly described as “being possessed by anger,” often followed by “I don’t know what came over me!” This experience of being possessed by something alien to ourselves is rather uncanny – and even those not mythologically inclined might see how one can be led into myths of the demonic in order to narrate what has taken place. At the same time, we experience anger as an appropriate response to injustice against ourselves and others.

On the religious plane, divine anger poses a seemingly insuperable dilemma. Even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible discloses a God who is prone to anger, an anger that often exceeds all bounds. The Bible often associates anger with fire: a pervasive verb to depict divine anger is the “scorching of the nose” [ḥaron af]. That “scorching” at times leads to the literal unleashing of destructive fire, indiscriminate in its targets (e.g., Numbers 11:1). What “possesses” this God, a God of mercy and justice, that transforms Him into a fire-breathing Dragon?

Zoharic myth associates anger with the swelling up of the “left side” of the divine, the side associated with judgment and might (Gevurah). Ideally, divine judgment and might come into balance with divine grace and love (Ḥesed), the attributes of the “right side.” If, however, the left side becomes dissociated from the right side, the divine personality fragments and anger hypostasizes. Zoharic myth sees such moments of the hypertrophy of divine anger as one of the key origins of the demonic – specifically, of the chief diabolical personae, Sama’el and Lilith. These figures emerge as the key unintended consequences of an unleashed divine anger.

12) What is the importance of confusion of the realms of the divine and demonic by means of a demonic “impersonation” of the divine and “enclothing” of the divine by the demonic ?

One of the main themes of the book is that the literary techniques used to construct a cosmos split between divine and demonic also undermine that very distinction. Such techniques include the portrayal of divine and demonic entities as linguistic and phenomenal twins. Divine and demonic personae as portrayed as continually engaged in intimate relations. Zoharic writers portray these relations in vivid and, again, theologically shocking images. Divine and demonic personae are depicted as born from the same gestational processes taking place in the “Supernal Mother” (Ima Ila’ah); divine and demonic personae are depicted as engaged in nurturing, “suckling” relationships (yenikah) with each other; divine and demonic personae are depicted as engaged in sexual relationships with each other. One consequence of these diverse processes is a variety of divine/demonic confusions.

A particularly dangerous set of phenomena are portrayed in myths that I call “aggressive enclothing” and “impersonation.” These phenomena are emphasized in the Tikkune Ha-Zohar and Ra’ya Mehemna, two anonymous works written slightly after the bulk of the Zoharic literature.

Such myths portray assaults by a demonic entity or persona, which take the form of “enclothing” a divine core with a demonic exterior. This “enclothing” results in a capture of the divine by the demonic and the emergence of an entity which is an ontological mixture of the two.

These kabbalistic myths draw on far older rabbinic tales of “talking idols.” Those tales depict two notorious idol-makers, Jeroboam and Nebuchadnezzar, placing the divine name in statues, enabling the latter to proclaim, “I am the Lord thy God.” Even in the rabbinic tales, the perverse phenomena are not merely magicians’ illusions, but emerge from the real subordination of a divine power to the nefarious purposes of a wicked human being. In the kabbalistic re-appropriation of these tales, it is the demonic itself which assaults the divine with its aggressive acts of enclothing.

The danger of confusion posed by aggressive enclothing becomes most acute when it is combined with the twinning phenomena I described earlier. If the entity doing the enclothing is indistinguishable from that which is enclothed, the task of telling divine from demonic, good from evil, becomes almost impossible.

A world in which such impersonation becomes pervasive is a horrifying prospect: the difference between good and evil, friend and foe, God and the Devil, becomes impossible to determine with certainty. Self and Other are at their most antagonistic, and yet at their most indistinguishable. Such a vision is, in fact, the stuff from which many a fictional tale of horror is made; it also corresponds to the terrifying existential dilemmas portrayed by many a modern philosopher.

And yet: the etiology provided by Zoharic mythology of this horrifying vision also hints that such a world is but one step away from redemption. Zoharic mythology shows that the possibility of a world of simulacra lies in the shared origins, desires, and sustenance of divine and demonic. These twins are locked in lethal embrace precisely because of their tragic cognitive and ontological separation, a separation with a history, a reversible history. The aggressive mirroring or even coercive amalgamation of divine and demonic may prove to be a monstrous, reified form of the primordial indifferentiation out of which they both emerge, and thus a promise of redemption in grotesque form.

13) Why is the demonic important to you? And to all of us?
I believe that no one with a moral conscience or emotional sensitivity can fail to experience the world as a place of deep rupture, as well as a place of aspirations for harmony. I grew up in a community of Holocaust survivors, during the brutal American war in Vietnam. The question, “how could an omnipotent, benevolent, God permit evil?” pervaded the air I breathed. From a young age, I found the answers provided by Modern Orthodoxy, in which I was educated, to be unpersuasive, deflective, and, at times, morally unacceptable: answers such as “if you only you were God, you’d see it was all for the best,” or “the question is not ‘where was God?’ but ‘where was Man?’.” Mythological dualism seems to me a much more honest, much more realistic response to the world than a rationalist monism. And even if one is not inclined to mythology, one must still account for the impulses that drive human beings to good and evil, to conflict and reconciliation, to domination and love. It is not insignificant that Freud, for example, was an instinctual dualist, even if his dualism took shifting forms.

Ultimately, I see the Zoharic literature on the divine/demonic relationship as a grand poetic mythology of the relationship between Self and Other. I portrayed its contemporary relevance in the Introduction:

The relationship to the “Other” – ethnic, racial, sexual, religious, unconscious – is the central challenge of our time. From the bloody wars that ravage the planet to the “culture wars” of academia, from parliaments to the streets, from theological walls between religious denominations to concrete walls between countries, from divided families to divided selves, the contemporary world seems in a veritable state of hysteria about alterity. Embrace or exclude? Efface difference or respect it? Protect or crush? Celebrate or ignore? Repress or express? …This book is about the poetic mythology of Otherness in the Zoharic tradition in kabbalah.

14) Do you encourage people to worry about the sexual demonic and the danger of seminal emission? What you treat as mythopoesis is what turns some off to the Kabbalah since they were taught it as literally dangerous during their adolescent years.

The question of “literalness” haunts the reception of all mythological, perhaps all religious, texts. Coercive religious authorities have enforced repressive sexual rules on those under their control using these myths. It should go without saying that I wholeheartedly disapprove of this repression.

The Zohar continues an ancient trend within the Jewish tradition, as well as world mythology, of associating divine creativity with human procreativity. Kabbalists understood the human capacity to produce new life through sexual reproduction as an earthly correlate of analogous divine capacities. The kabbalists gave this correspondence a distinctively mythical turn by envisioning divine Creation as a product of sexual relations between divine personae. Moreover, in relation to the themes of my book, they went further: proper sexual relations among divine personae yield holy creations, while improper sexual relations, especially between divine and demonic personae, yield unholy creations.

This latter theme is a projection into the divine/demonic realm of the story in rabbinic literature about the begetting of demons by Adam and Eve – as a result, the rabbis taught, of their copulation with demonic beings during the period of their sexual separation after the sin in the Garden.

What meaning do I find in these myths? I think most of us recognize that sexuality and love are powerful forces in our lives. I think most of us believe that sincere, honest, and ethical engagement with those forces provide the most vital, even holiest, experiences the human condition offers. I think most of us believe that insincere, dishonest, and reckless engagement with those forces provide the deadliest, unholiest experiences. How we distinguish among those different kinds of experiences, however, is likely to differ radically among us.

15) Your moral compass is unclear to me as a reader. You enjoy the etiological myth as to the closeness of the divine to the demonic to explain the unexplained evil in the world. Yet, your gut cries out against evil such as the Holocaust. Doesn’t your Zohar reading seem to make a needed place for evil?

This question goes to the core of an ambivalence that pervades the Zoharic literature, as well as my own book. Zoharic writing constructs a cosmos split between divine and demonic, but in such a way that the very techniques that construct that split also undermine it. The Zoharic writers fiercely present the split as absolutely real, and yet also present it in such a way that the two poles of that split mimic each other, desire each other, sustain each other, prove to have a common origin. The Zoharic writers, I believe, live within that paradox.

There is no Archimedean point from which to present such a paradox when one is living inside it. Unlike some later kabbalistic writers, the Zoharic writings that I analyze neither present the demonic as merely an illusion nor as simply something to be annihilated. These Zoharic passages present the split in the cosmos as a painful rupture in reality, but also as something they long to overcome. An overcoming that requires real struggle, perhaps eons of real struggle, on the religious, ethical, and personal planes.

As a result of the kinds of complex, confusing dynamics I have described here, it is not always clear how to proceed in that struggle. Indeed, I often disagree with the particular judgments the Zoharic writers made in their struggles – particularly concerning relations with non-Jews and gender issues. Evil is real, all-too-real, in the Zoharic vision – as it is in our world – and evil must be fought. And yet, one must never lose sight of a redeemed world, in which the elements in the divine (or proto-divine) that gave rise to evil must be re-embraced into a harmonious whole. The Zohar is a dualistic mythology with a monistic eschatology (and genesis).

What could be more relevant to a world, our world, beset by seemingly iron-clad oppositions, yet in which dreams of a future harmony seem like our only hope?

Interview with Prof Eric Lawee about his new book on Rashi’s Commentary 

The Bible and the Talmud are certainly the two classic texts of Judaism. But what would be the third classic text? Prof Moshe Idel, says the obvious choice is the Zohar as the third classic text. This would certainly be true for the world of 21st century academic study of Judaism. However, there is another obvious choice: Rashi’s commentaries, [the acronym of the name of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 – 1105)] who wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Bible and the Talmud, which has shaped Jewish thinking for a millennium. Yet, unlike the dozen books on the Zohar, which appeared last year, Rashi as a figure of Jewish intellectual history has not been given his due in historical scholarship. To remedy this lack, Eric Lawee has produced a wonderful new book Rashi’s ‘Commentary on the Torah’: Canonization and Resistance in the Reception of a Jewish Classic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 

rashi book

Eric Lawee is Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University where he specializes in Jewish biblical interpretation in medieval and modern times. He holds the Weiser Chair for Research into Medieval Jewish Biblical Interpretation and directs Bar-Ilan’s Institute for Jewish Bible Interpretation. His doctorate was from Prof Isadore Twersky at Harvard University. His first book, Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition: Defense, Dissent, and Dialogue (2001), won a Canadian Jewish Book Award and was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award.

This new book Rashi’s ‘Commentary on the Torah’:  (tablet of contents here)  treats Rashi as figure in Jewish intellectual history, fielding major questions such as the nature of the Rashi text, its reception, and his critics. Lawee summaries much of the Rashi scholarship of Avraham Grossman, Yisrael Ta-Shma, and Elazar Touitou who contextualize Rashi as a text without a critical edition, as open in scribal editions, and as having 10% or more as comments by other’s hands than Rashi’s.

Unlike the widely known literary method on Nechama Leibowitz, who credited every comment as having an antecedent question based on textual irregularities, a historical perspective yields a text with a clear medieval European context and that many of the comments were to give a midrashic worldview that fit Rashi’s medieval theology. In other words, Rashi is not a neutral baseline of the meaning of the text, rather a painter of an 11th century theological world, as fabulous and as supernatural as other texts of its time.

One of Rashi’s key themes was the defense of Judaism against the idolatrous Christian worldview. In addition, to give a theology of the special chosenness of the Jewish people and the miracles done for them.  Philosophically and scientifically informed commentaries written in other geocultural centers found Rashi lacking. They saw magic, supernaturalism, and lack of rationality. Lawee does not detail the theology of Rashi in a topical manner, rather as an unfolding of history showing how Rashi became accepted despite detractors. Hence, there is no direct discussion on topics such as Rashi’s belief in Divine corporeality. No longer are the rationalists the innovators; rather both the scientifically educated and those without such education are both contextualized.  Lawee made creative use of his Maimonidean training under Prof Twersky to produce this dialectic reading of the medieval tradition.

The biggest novelty of the book is Lawee’s presentation of the rational critics of Rashi: Eleazar Ashkenazi, a 14th-century Maimonidean; Pseudo-Rabad, who also probably wrote in the 14th century. (his attack on Rashi was so harsh that a later reader mutilated the sole surviving manuscript of his work, crossing out Pseudo-Rabad’s harshest expressions); and  Aaron Aboulrabi, a 15th-century offshoot of the Sefardic exegetical tradition. The Mediterranean Levantine readers saw Rashi as an exegete who lacked basic skills and who propounded a version of Judaism they deemed distorted, or even dangerous. One is not expecting there to be Biblical commentaries who found Rashi “ridiculous” or exemplifying a “girl’s fantasies,” or giving the “drash of a dolt”.

Eventually, Rashi was not only accepted but became a staple of Jewish education with claims that nearly 300 commentaries were  written on his commentary. The book also deals with how Rashi’s readers soften Rashi’s views by harmonizing them with the more rational scientific view. They would remove the radical difference of Rashi’s view from their own. A method still done today when 21st century Jews read medieval texts. People do not want Rashi to sound too close to Sefer Hasidim. 

After finishing this book, one feels that one has just put down a great piece of scholarship. A book that is deserving of its forthcoming awards. One that will now be on the reading list of every Jewish educator who teaches Rashi and on the reading list of every graduate student. The years put into this project show in the wonderful final product. The book is almost 500 pages, almost 270 pages of texts and 200 pages of footnotes. In some ways, that is the one drawback to the book. Those who have already read some of the antecedent literature will best understand much of this massive summary of earlier scholarship, especially on the text and early reception. The chapter on the early reception moved at a breakneck speed, a tad too fast to absorb even though I have read the prior literature. This book is groundbreaking for opening up new avenues of research on Rashi’s thought, on medieval intellectual trends, and on the exegetic imagination.

Interview with Prof Eric Lawee about his new book on Rashi

1)      Who is Rashi & what is his Commentary on the Torah

Solomon ben Isaac (1040–1105)—also known as Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi—is one of post-talmudic Judaism’s towering figures. His stature owes to the fact that, astonishingly, he managed to write the classic commentaries on the two classic books of Judaism: the Bible, especially the Torah; and the Babylonian Talmud. His Commentary on the Torah stands out as the most widely studied and influential Hebrew Bible commentary ever composed. It has decisively shaped Jews’ perceptions of their faith’s foundational documents. Its readers have included all strata of Jewish society: young and old, scholars and lay persons, men and women. Contemporary biblical commentator Avivah Zornberg offers a vivid metaphor to help give a sense of the Commentary’s fate: it was “absorbed into the bloodstream of Jewish culture.”

2) Is there a critical edition of Rashi? Is there a unified text?

There is no critical edition of the Commentary. Indeed, no medieval Jewish work experienced as many textual fluctuations as the Commentary. This has led scholars to grapple with the difficulty of establishing any final version of the Commentary in light of numerous variant witnesses and the lack of an autograph manuscript.

The reasons for the variations are many, some common to medieval texts and some more uniquely applicable to Rashi’s work in particular. There were, of course, scribal errors and conjectural emendations of the work. In the period of the work’s transmission in manuscript, there were also elisions of Rashi’s text with jottings placed in the margins of various copies that were incorporated, as if Rashi wrote them, into later versions. Rashi is also remarkable for his effort to refine and revise his interpretations over time, sometimes due to new discoveries but on occasion simply as part of an effort to make his work more “user-friendly” (by, say, relocating a comment to a new location). The Commentary proves to be an extreme case of what Israel Ta-Shma calls “the open book.” By this he means a tendency of medieval authors to circulate different versions of a work in unfinished form. Ta-Shma compares this to computerized databases which are refreshed to give the user a summary of data known at the time of the latest updating.

An example of an addition, this one amazingly late, is a famous expression Rashi puts in the mouth of Jacob at the time of a fraught encounter that he has with his older brother Esau. Rashi has the patriarch say: “I dwelled with the wicked Laban [my uncle], yet I observed the 613 commandments and did not learn from his evil ways.” The comment begins to appear in the Commentary only a half-millennium after Rashi ceased putting pen to paper, in printed versions of his work.

3) What percentage of the text is probably Rashi?

Scholars can’t agree and the issue enters us into a thicket of methodological dispute.

A common idea, espoused for example by Abraham Grossman, is that about 90 percent of the version in use today actually left Rashi’s pen but some scholars would say this estimate is too high. Among them is Elazar Touitou, who argues that one can only be certain that a comment is original if it appears in all good manuscripts, requiring a painstaking comparison of many manuscripts to allow one to spot the “non-Rashi” comments embedded in the text.

Grossman promotes the virtues of a particular manuscript now found in Leipzig. It is increasingly seen by many scholars as the best if not uniquely definitive witness of the Commentary due to its association with Rashi’s close pupil, Shemaiah. For me, the textual issue was not central since my book focuses on the Commentary’s reception. What counts in such a study, or so I suggest, is that a comment was received as a genuine part of Rashi’s interpretation of the Torah by a later reader or migrated as such to a particular locale, circulating as what “Rashi said.”

4)      What is the role of midrash in his commentary? Why is it not closure?

The most striking feature of Rashi’s reading of the Bible is its mixture of what Rashi calls peshuto shel miqra and the classical midrashic expositions.

Peshuto shel miqra is an elusive term often rendered as “biblical plain sense” or the “contextual” interpretation. Classical midrashic expositions that Rashi routinely drew often have an exegetically fanciful character that put them at a far remove from the plain sense.

As for the exact role played by midrash in Rashi’s work, it is complex and, to this day, hotly debated. On one level, Rashi uses midrashim to address countless ever-so-slight “surface irregularities” (a usage of James Kugel) in scripture such as apparent redundancies.

On another level, midrash infuses his Commentary with a profusion of theological ideas and elements of pastoral reassurance. For example, despite a medieval world divided between the “cross” and the “crescent” in which Jews lived under either Christians or Muslims as a tiny minority, and at times a persecuted one (Rashi’s lifetime coincides with the violent assaults on German Jewish communities during the First Crusade of 1096), Rashi frequently reassures his reader via his midrashic teachings that God’s love for Israel is eternal and that the Jews remain, despite the evidence, the “chosen people.”

In terms of closure (or, really, lack thereof), here are two points to consider. First, Rashi does not explain the meaning of the midrashim that he adduces, leaving readers to ponder their purport. Second, these midrashim comprise an elusive and allusive way to teach one’s message whose constituents remained pliably open to interpretation, and sometimes begged for it. This being so, the Commentary has a capacity to generate a successive unfolding of meaning as the divine word is refracted through Rashi’s commentary and, in turn, the varied lenses worn by his diverse readers.

5) What was the role of science and external wisdom (or the lack thereof) in the debates concerning Rashi?

Throughout the Middle Ages, as today, Jewish scholars (and of course many others) debated the relationship between religion and reason, or faith and science. Some saw science, what was sometimes called “external wisdom,” as incompatible with Judaism—or worse, highly subversive of it. Others, most famously Moses Maimonides, insisted that human perfection consisted primarily of the perfection of the intellect and that mastery of sciences was the royal road to spiritual achievement.

Rashi, living in an Ashkenazic cultural setting, was oblivious to such sciences, and his rationalist critics could lament or even excoriate his scientific ignorance. Yet Rashi could also be heralded by those suspicious of intellectualist ideas and aspirations. To give an example, we hear from followers of Maimonides that in a major intercommunal controversy over rationalism in the 1230s traditionalists opposed to rationalism issued a remarkable fiat. It proclaimed that acceptance of Rashi’s interpretations of classical (biblical and talmudic) texts was a binding precept of Judaism! One such follower responds: if some wish to declare Rashi their sole “beloved,” so be it, just as long as these self-appointed “princes and judges” do not foist this choice on others “without our consent.”

To speak in these terms is to emphasize a side of the Commentary that has received short shrift: its role as a source of ideas in Jewish intellectual history. Rashi’s careful selection and at times decisive reformulation of midrash shaped perceptions of the Torah’s teachings.

I think one reason Rashi’s enormous impact on this score has been obscured is his use of the commentary genre. People tend to assume a work that looks back to an earlier text is a “mere” commentary, with no ideas of its own. The Commentary was, of course, a commentary meant to expound the Torah, but it can also be seen as an important work of Jewish thought that is true to the texture of classical Jewish thinking which, as Michael Fishbane puts it, takes the form of an ongoing exegetical process in which ideas “arise hermeneutically.”

6)      Can you briefly summarize his reception in the various medieval Jewish communities?

Over the course of the Middle Ages the Commentary attained its status as the closest thing Judaism has to a canonical commentary on scripture. In the end, the Commentary endured: in Jewish education, in the synagogue, in sermons, and in the public square. Along the way to acceptance, the commentary saw a wide range of responses by individual writers and communities that I trace in several chapters of my book.

In Rashi’s native Franco-German (Ashkenazic) realm, there was initial criticism, most notably by his own grandson Samuel ben Meir, also known as Rashbam, of Rashi’s overly midrashic interpretive approach. This dissipated somewhat in following generations and over time it was replaced by evermore intense study of Rashi and increasingly submissive reverence for him.

In Spain, the Commentary became a classic, but not without reservations. The most important and complex figure is Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), an astonishingly multifaceted communal leader and sage who also wrote a commentary on the Torah. In that work, Rashi’s place was central, with Nahmanides citing the Commentary in an estimated 40 percent of his own comments.

One scholar writes that Nahmanides is for the most part favorably disposed to Rashi’s commentary but this judgment is more than a little facile. His generally respectful tone notwithstanding, Nahmanides often criticizes Rashi, especially for his frequent failure to uncover the true biblical “plain sense.” Later writers were quite attuned to Nahmanides’ trenchant criticisms of Rashi and sought to rebut them.

7) How did Spanish commentaries bring Rashi in step with Sefardic teachings?

Spain sees another significant trend that enabled the Commentary to be “naturalized” there. Problematic elements in the work were read by Spanish scholars in ways that put them in step with Sefardic teachings and sensibilities. This development is writ large in many Spanish commentaries on the Commentary (such works are often called “supercommentaries”) written by a large number of now largely forgotten scholars whose voices I recover in the book (e.g., Samuel Almosnino, Moses ibn Gabbai).

To give an example, Rashi cites a strange midrash to explain Adam’s cry of “This one at last is bone of my bones” (Gen 2:23). The midrash ascribes serial acts of bestiality to Adam. In the case of many Spanish supercommentators on Rashi as well as several more famous Sefardic Torah commentators, like Isaac Arama and Isaac Abarbanel, the notion of actual sexual congress between the first model of humanity and animals was impossible to accept. But rather than reject the midrash that Rashi made famous, their refusal to take the midrash literally paves the way for a new interpretation that takes Adam’s mating with beasts as a metaphor for an act of cognitive discernment as he probed each animal’s nature in his quest to find a fitting soulmate. In this way a strange midrash that Rashi cites without compunction, one that Sefardic readers found implausible or repellent in its literal sense, is made to conjure a noetic act that imbues the midrash, and thence the Commentary, with deep meaning.

8) Was there dissent or resistance to Rashi?

Not everywhere did the Commentary attain primacy in the Middle Ages. In many cases there was indifference but my book also focusses a lot on centers of Jewish learning, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, where Abraham ibn Ezra is the exegetical hero, not Rashi. One startling finding, treated in the three chapters that comprise part 2 of the book, is the phenomenon of hitherto unknown harsh resistance to the Commentary by those whom I call “Rashi’s resisting readers.” Three main figures are discussed from this veritable Babel of conflicting Jewish intellectual and literary expressions.

One is Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Natan Ha-Bavli, a 14th-century Maimonidean whose work, copied in Crete in the early fifteenth century, was plundered by the Nazis and has only recently been recovered.

The second is an anonymous writer whom I call Pseudo-Rabad, who also probably wrote in the 14th century. His attack on Rashi was so harsh that a later reader mutilated the sole surviving manuscript of his work, crossing out Pseudo-Rabad’s harshest expressions. (The cover image of my book depicts the results of this literary violence.)

A third critic was Aaron Aboulrabi, a 15th-century offshoot of the Sefardic exegetical tradition who wandered the Mediterranean and claims to have engaged in a discussion in Rome about the tabernacle cherubs with a pope and his cardinals.

So the critics are a colorful bunch but they are also serious scholars whose engagement with the Commentary brings to the fore competing Jewish visions regarding interpretive method, the status of midrash, scripture as a repository of scientific teaching, and more.

9)      Why did scholars situated in the Eastern Mediterranean show resistance to Rashi?

Why this region provided such salubrious soil for Rashi criticism is not entirely clear but in the book I posit a number of factors. One is the region’s status as a Jewish multicultural mecca where wildly divergent ideas arrived from abroad and generated intrareligious conflict. Rashi became a target, especially for rationalists who saw in him an exegete who lacked basic skills and who propounded a version of Judaism they deemed distorted, or even dangerous. Another, though this one remains to be investigated, is the apparent lack of outstanding rabbinic authorities in the East who could suppress dissident expressions such as those found in the writings of the resisting readers. Another possible contextual element is the high degree of Jewish mobility in the East, which may have created a space for more unfettered expression. Not rooted in any place, certain scholars may have felt free to speak their minds about Rashi and even write without fear of reprisal—or in the knowledge that a safe haven on another Aegean island was not far away.

10) What was the critique of Eliezer Ashkenazi? Why was Rashi considered “ridiculous and risible” in his eyes?

Ashkenazi criticizes Rashi from the perspective of an uncompromising rationalism that frequently views midrashic interpretations in the Commentary as misguided and that finds Rashi propounding a scandalously unscientific understanding of the Torah.

An example is a midrash cited by Rashi to explain the assertion that “all flesh (kol basar) had corrupted its ways on earth” (Gen 6:12). According to Rashi, the corruption involved “all flesh” just as the Torah says, including the subhuman creatures. Specifically, Rashi asserts that “even domestic animals, beasts, and birds cohabited with those not of their own kind.” By implication, then, the fauna shared responsibility with humankind for the depravity that had evoked the divinely wrought flood.

Eleazar objects to the midrash on the fauna’s sins for multiple reasons. First, inter-special breeding is an act no more unnatural for animals than the more frequently attested behavior of conspecific mating or promiscuity. Second, it is untenable that the destruction of the fauna reflected a sin since animals lack a capacity for “choice,” hence are devoid of a capacity for moral (or immoral) action. To these scientific claims Eleazar adds that individual animals are not subject to individual divine providence and thence reward and punishment. Rashi’s exposition, opposed as it is to demonstrated scientific truth and what Eleazar takes to be “Judaism 101,” has to be rejected.

But there is rejection and then there is rejection. Here is where  “ridiculousness and risibility,” a phrase that appears in the title of my chapter on Eleazar, comes in. About Rashi’s idea of the “sins of the fauna” Eleazar says: one can only “laugh at the derash that every species paired with a species not of its kind.” He also calls the idea “ridiculousness and risibility.” In so doing, he hearkens to the manner in which he refers to Rashi, which is by way of his patronymic “Isaac / Yiṣḥaq”— a name that summons the laughter associated with the biblical Isaac (Gen 17:17, 18:12, 21:6). In short, Eleazar deploys ridicule as a weapon in order to undermine the one whom he calls “Ha-Yitzhaqi.”

In so doing, I suggest that Eleazar anticipates advocates of modern Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries who criticized orthodoxy. Leo Strauss casts the latter as figures who “had to laugh orthodoxy out of the position from which it could not be driven by any other means.” Eleazar cultivates this sort of subversive laughter to delegitimize the Commentary.

11)      What does the critique or comments of Abraham Kirimi show?

Kirimi is a 14th-century Crimean Torah commentator who displays plain sense sensibilities and a rationalist outlook. His approach to Rashi shows that criticism of the Commentary did not have to be an all-or-nothing affair. Kirimi can praise midrashim of Rashi in one line and tell his reader in the next one to “pay no heed to Rashi’s words” since they lack grounding in the method of plain sense interpretation.

An example that shows his critical side concerns Lamech’s polygamy (Gen 4:19–24). Rashi cites a midrash that had Lamech opt for an exploitative division of labor, with one wife for breeding and the other for nonprocreative sexual gratification. Rashi takes the name of the second wife, Zillah, to allude to her role as an object of Lamech’s self-indulgence: “she would always sit in his shadow (ṣilo).” But Kirimi rejects such wobbly midrashic readings that derive meaning from names in this way, asking: “[W]ho can fathom the meaning of every name?”

Kirimi also points to another trend mentioned above: valorization of Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides, at Rashi’s expense. In this way, he is one of many who figures in an overarching theme of the book; namely, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides as Rashi’s opposite numbers in a competition for canonical supremacy in a late medieval struggle for Judaism’s soul. This phenomenon is attested in many Mediterranean seats of Jewish learning. In the end, the Commentary’s Judaism emerged triumphant.

12) What was the critique of Rashi by the author whom you call Pseudo Rabad? How was it part of a broader critique of Rabbinic Midrash?

The figure whom I call Pseudo-Rabad authored the most concentrated assault on Rashi’s biblical scholarship in the annals of Jewish literature. It comes down under the title Book of Strictures in which Rabbi Abraham ben David Censured Our Rabbi Solomon the Frenchman. Pseudo-Rabad’s varied formulae of condemnation stand in a class all their own, forming a steady a drumbeat of disparagement in which Rashi is repeatedly said to have “erred,” “blundered,” or worse.

Pseudo-Rabad criticizes the Commentary by contrasting it with an understanding of scripture grounded in canons of plain sense interpretation and steeped in rational criteria of credibility. For example, showing his strong anti-magical spirit, Pseudo-Rabad negates a midrash adduced by Rashi that has Moses killing the Egyptian who struck a Hebrew slave by pronouncing the Tetragrammaton. Implied by the midrash was divine authorization for the slaying in a manner that subdued all moral qualms. Though presumably based in theological opposition, the point of attack is, in the first instance, exegetical.

Pseudo-Rabad denies any prompt for this reading, although midrashists find such a hint in a strange response to Moses by the Hebrew maltreating his brother: “Do you say to kill me?” (Exod 2:14). The implication is that the Hebrew anticipated an end similar to that experienced by the taskmaster, not through physical force but through deployment of the divine name. To bolster his view that the Egyptian’s demise was effected naturally, Pseudo-Rabad notes Moses’ effort to hide the crime by burying the victim. Such an expedient born of fear would, he implies, have been unnecessary if the killing was achieved through supernatural means.

13)      What should we make of the fact Aaron Aboulrabi of Sicily speaks of midrashim of Rashi as “girl’s fantasies” but also as “sweet midrash”?

Aboulrabi can express wildly divergent views of Rashi’s midrashim. On one hand, he does not scruple to hurl invective at “the Straight One,” as he calls Rashi, and at Rashi’s rabbinic forerunners. Yet if he shares the incapacity for prevarication characteristic of Eleazar Ashkenazi and Pseudo-Rabad, Aboulrabi is also open to appreciation of Rashi’s interpretive successes and can, in rare instances, go so far as to speak of “sweet” fruits of the midrashic hermeneutic.

Aaron Aboulrabi evaluates the Commentary on the basis of its consonance with the scriptural plain sense and frequently finds it wanting. He also promotes an approach nourished by considerations of plausibility. Take God’s command to Moses to write “all the words of this Torah” on stones to be erected after the Israelites cross the Jordan (Deut 27:8). Rashi, on the authority of the Mishnah, contended that the Torah was engraved on the stones in “seventy languages.” Sensing, like others before him, a major logistical challenge, Aboulrabi assesses that only “fundamentals of the Torah,” the commandments in a bare litany, appeared, since “not even a thousand stones could encompass” the Torah in its entirety (let alone in seventy languages).

14)   What were Aboulrabi’s criticisms of “drash of a barbarian” and “drash of a dolt”? Why, in his opinion, did the Commentary not always cast biblical figures accurately?

Aboulrabi mocks a midrash that purports to explain the report that the Egyptian Pharaoh went down to the Nile in the morning (Exod 7:15). Rashi says it was because he claimed divinity and tried to hide his need to relieve himself. Aboulrabi calls this “the derash of a dolt,” asking: had Pharaoh no way to relieve himself in a concealed place such that he had to go down to the river? Here is a straightforward rejection of a midrash of Rashi on the grounds that it lacks logic.

Aboulrabi’s disdain for midrashim reaches a crescendo in his handling of the sensitive issue of sins or moral failings of biblical heroes. Rashi tends to justify seemingly problematic words or deeds of such heroes. Aboulrabi is willing to see them more at “eye level” (as modern Hebrew usage has it).

In dealing with conduct apparently unbecoming of biblical greats, medieval exegetes juggle various factors including the plain meaning of the text, the educational value of defending the Jewish people’s ancestors, and findings in the rabbinic record. As the Middle Ages wore on, new factors arose, including a surprising tendency of some Christian polemicists to paint unflattering images of Israel’s ancestors in order to excoriate their Jewish posterity.

Aboulrabi can finds the black-and-white evaluations of biblical figures that often appear in the Commentary severely lacking. Among instances where Aboulrabi impugns such an evaluation, Jacob’s conduct in procuring his father’s blessing stands out. Where Jacob told Isaac “I am Esau, your firstborn” (Gen 27:19), Rashi configures his meaning by dividing this utterance into two and having Jacob add mental reservations as needed: “I am the one who brings [food] to you and Esau he is your first-born.”

To Aboulrabi, it is clear that Jacob’s reply “was a lie” and Rashi’s midrashic artifice of twisting words to preserve their technical veracity “full of wind.” It violates the main principle of human communication—that the aim of speech is to convey truth to another. It is the auditor’s understanding that is determinative in assessing truthful speech in such cases, not some sly equivocation or mental reservation on the part of the speaker. Needless to say, this is not exactly traditionalist Jewish fare, not least because, as always, it is Rashi’s interpretation that has become known among Jewish readers over the ages.

15)   What was the critique of Allilot devarim? What was the book?

Sefer ‘Alilot devarim (Book of Accusations) is a peculiar specimen of late medieval Jewish rationalism. The earliest manuscript dates from 1468 but it may have been written as much as a century or so earlier. Like Pseudo-Rabad, it is written under a penname: “Rabbi Palmon ben Pelet,” described as “a son of ‘Anonymous,’ who married a daughter of ‘So-and-So.’” Its author puts satirical genius in the service of exposure of the obscurantism that, in his view, had come to degrade Jewish life in post-talmudic times. As part of his critique, the author claims that Rashi’s biblical commentaries in general, and Commentary in particular, distance Jews from rationality. Indeed, he insists that the Commentary effects confusion “with respect to the perfection of souls.” In writing those words, he must have had in mind the intellectualist vision of human perfection promoted by his hero, Maimonides.

16)   What role did the commentators such as Elijah Mizrahi play in Rashi’s triumph?

Many factors commended the Commentary, even leaving aside its author’s status as a towering scholar and singular reputation as the foremost commentator on the Talmud. The Commentary explained the Torah in concise and digestible glosses. It provided a more or less continuous running account of the Torah’s narratives and laws where many later commentators glossed the Torah only intermittently. It offered an exposition of the Torah basically in harmony with the authoritative rabbinic corpora, and more. No other commentator could compete on these scores.

One mechanism for the Commentary’s triumph was the extraordinary number of commentaries that it attracted, with the most famous that of the sixteenth-century Ottoman rabbi Elijah Mizrahi, who passed away in 1526. How the phenomenon of commentary promotes a work is a large question but the most basic way is in selecting a text as an object of exposition, thereby potentially initiating or confirming a process of canonization. More important than the number of commentaries is what the enduring succession of glosses—which continues down to the present—betokens; namely, the Commentary’s capacity for sustaining ongoing reading in a way that is of the essence in mechanics of canonization in rabbinic Judaism.

The Rabbi and the Buddhist Monk

“All mystics speak the same language, for they come from the same country,” declares Rabbi Shmuel Braun. There is a mystic reality greater than any religion. This is the position of perennialism or perennial wisdom, a perspective in spirituality that views all of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single core or origin from which all doctrine has grown.

Rabbi Shmuel Braun  is a Chabad educated rabbi who has been teaching Chassidus around the NY-NJ area.  In this video, he is having a conversation with Ajahn Sona, abbot of the Birken Forest Buddhist Monastery. Braun is, by his own admission, a perrennialist.  He states that all of the world’s religions are about seeking the core of religion the oneness and non-duality of reality.

Rabbi Braun originally studied at Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem eventually found his spiritual home in Chabad. Now as a Modern Orthodox Chassidic, he looks to wider religious horizons including Buddhism.

In this sweet discussion with the Buddhist Abbot, Rabbi Braun does not actually discuss Buddhism or any commonalities of faith. Rather, he focuses the discussion on the realm where all religions are the same. He calls this the realm of Pre-Faith, with explicit Heschel influence.  “We are all united in silence.” “We are all the same inside.” “Language is confining.” “God is beyond language.” For him, there is no name for God, all the names of God are just human attempts to speak of God.

Since God is beyond language and reason, the way to God is by mean of meditation. Judaism is about practice of the mizvot. We do mizvot to bring the infinite divine into our world. But also a reaching up to the infinite, the eyn sof. The words “boundless” and “infinite” are the same words used to describe Buddhist Nirvana showing their commonality. Buddhism is just this universal truth. Braun generally sounds more Vedanta than Buddhist. God is not a being or an existant, rather God is existence itself.

In the Second Temple period, according to Braun, everyone meditated but the techniques were lost due to the Anti-Semitic persecution of exile. But we have tefillah to guide us; we should treat prayer as meditative. But we were not let with clear instructions.  He knew of the writings of the Piesetzna Rebbe on stilling the mind, but how does one connect to it? He found the answer in classes by Rabbi Dovid Weiss, who gives classes in Israel on Vipassana for Orthodox Jews.  Weiss openly labels his class as Vipassana and even has approbations from Hardal rabbis. (see Rabbi Weiss’s interview with Tomer Persico.) Weiss’s classes turned him onto meditation.

Personally, I am not a perennialist, but this is still a sweet video.  Forty years ago, these positions of Buddhist –Jewish encounter would have been seen as part of Jewish Renewal, influenced by Reb Zalman, or really pushing the traditional envelope. See for example, Harold Heifetz, Zen and Hasidism : The Similarities between Two Spiritual Disciplines (1978) or even Harold Kasimow’s Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha (2003). Now, it has made itself at home even in the Haredi world. Tomer Persico in his various articles has shown the influence of Buddhist meditation on diverse Haredi rabbis, including Rabbi Erez Moshe Doron, Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Kluger, Rabbi Itchie Mayer Morgenstern, and the aforementioned Rabbi Dovid Weiss. I dealt with Rabbi Avraham Yurovitch,

Braun stresses that many Jews are attracted to Buddhism, and we need to allow Jews (he adds- “and all people”) to feel God.  Therefore, we need to bring some of the Buddhist teachings to help the contemporary Jew.  Braun is one of at least a half dozen NY-NJ Chabad trained figures seeking a following for their spirituality teachings. The others give classes, write books, make podcasts and have tisches. So too Braun, who is seeking to found an organization called SOUL- Seekers of Unity and Love – to be beyond religion and teach the ineffable source of all religions – the mystery and transcendence beyond anything we can speak or articulate.  We wish him mazal and auspicious good fortune.

 

Interview with Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein Part II

Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein has opened himself up to the wisdom of the East, specifically Hindu religious thought. He studied with Swami Chidananda of the Sivananda Ashram and at the Sadhana Kendra Ashram and worked together with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar  In addition, he visited the ashrams of other noted leaders.  Goshen-Gottstein feels is that Judaism is in crisis. Torah needs more god talk, more spiritual focus, and to create a focus on ultimate reality. This interview is a continuation from Part I – here.

Alon- all religions
(Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the first person on the left of the picture)

Goshen-Gottstien asks: “how much is this really an encounter with Hinduism. What I describe in my journey is increasingly a movement away from rituals, ideas and symbols into the realm of spirituality that transcends religions, and perhaps should therefore not be presented as Hindu at all.” There is for him, a spirituality, that transcends any specific form.

In his The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism, he notes that among those whose have experiences with both religions, the two religions are not being mixed. Rather, most with Jewish background “have dropped their Hindu identity upon return to Judaism.” Yet, he could see the integration into Judaism of “various yogic or mantric japa practices.” In his view, “such individuals would certainly be returning back to Judaism with a more expansive understanding of the religious life and possibly of God than many of their Jewish co-religionists. “

Goshen-Gottstein has been grappling with this question for decades and some of his ideas that go beyond this interview can be found here on Jewish-Hindu relations, here on his own encounter, and here on the Hindu-Jewish dialogue. 

The most important point of the interview, from my opinion, is that “[m]ost Jews… do not devote much time, or are incapable of the kind of God-talk that Hindus cultivate.”

So my question is to consider if this is similar to Bahye ibn Pakuda and his extensive integration of Sufism? And what are the categories of this influence from another religion. We have no trouble using the wisdom of Christian thinkers such as Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Barth, or Tillich to understand Judaism. But how do we learn from the wisdom in the theological thinking in the other religions.

Wisdom – Theistic Piety

The most mild usage is that of intellectual wisdom.

In 2009, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (Zt”l d. 2015) Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion gave a discourse for over an hour on the Bhagavad Gita as an illustration of the Torah’s concept of duty.  For him, the Torah teaches the need to do the right action without worry for the results similar to Nishkam Karma. “To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction”(Bhagavad Gita 2.47) He also used it to teach the need for the Torah scholar to have self-control , discipline, and freedom from attachment.   “With the body, with the mind, with the intellect, even merely with the senses, perform action toward self-purification, having abandoned attachment. He who is disciplined in Yoga, having abandoned the fruit of action, attains steady peace. ( 2.48). Here, the Gita did not provide new content or thoughts patterns, it provided as language for discussion.

Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, in his work God, Man, and History, asks about the inherent chasm between the human person and the Divine in the encounter with God. To emphasize his point, he surprisingly quotes the Bhagavad Gita on human smallness before the divine: “Suppose a thousand suns were to arise tomorrow in the sky?” (33) For Berkovits, God’s infinite greatness remains beyond human understanding, creating an abyss between the human person and God. However, unlike Berkovits, classical Hindu commentators believe that this gap can be bridged on a personal level through meditation and enlightenment. Furthermore, for the Hindu the infinite divine takes on manifestations to help bridge the gap.

Learning from the Other

A different approach goes beyond language to actually learning from the other faith to gain greater perspective. A binocular or bifocal vision allows one to see deeper trends in one’s own faith. For those attracted to Asian traditions of meditation this can contribute to one’s own faith through reclaiming lost traditions.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan popularized the statement of Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (17th century Amsterdam) that the gifts of Abraham to his concubines were the Asian religions. But Kaplan held that “Idolatrous and other occult practices often shed light on the prophetic methods.” (Innerspace 109, 115). Hence, he often used books about practices in other religions to figure out Jewish practices. We read books about Asian religions to reclaim Jewish practices.

Integration

Rabbi Yoel Glick, whom I interviewed a few years, (see the links here and here) goes further to integrate a Hindu approach into Jewish texts and practices creating a Judaism of God centered spirituality. Rabbi Glick teaches the wisdom of Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna in a Jewish form. Goshen-Gottstein see this as an important perspective both in the interview and in his book.

The current Christian and Muslim communities in the USA are asking many of these same questions in terms of meditation, yoga, and Asian theology. We have to thank Rabbi Goshen-Gotstein for his Jewish insights into these questions. The interview stresses the impact of great swamis as great spiritual leaders on his life. If I had wanted more from him, it would have been greater autobiographic details in vivid specifics of how it changed the minute of his spiritual life, including specific practices and specific concepts.

As a final point, last week on March 28 Swami Sarvapriyananda of the Vedanta society spoke at Seton Hall and I was the respondent. The Swami was introducing what he called his modern reform Hinduism to students whose home Hinduism was ritual and Temple based. He acknowledged the differences. My response was the need to always compare like to like. We compare Hindu mystics to Jewish mystics, Hindu legalists to Jewish legalists, and Hindu rationalists to Jewish rationalists.  And quoting Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, I said we have to respect our differences and not to elide our differences. When we received questions from the audience, he answered one of them by stating that he was asked the same question by Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein.

Kumbh Mela2

  1. What does it mean to acknowledge a rich spiritual life in another faith?

How do we understand religion? All too often, we have a view of religion as a set of beliefs, moral instruction, and actions. Yet, all too often, we do not take into account the quality of relationship with God that individuals attain in a religion.  How one’s faith is lived allows the formation of a relationship with God as what may be described as a living God. Contact with the living God has a powerful transformative impact on the person. We may describe how this contact transforms the individual as the spiritual life.

Let me give an example from Judaism. I argue that Judaism is in crisis. This means that for the overwhelming majority of Jews, Judaism is not a vehicle for living a spiritual life in the sense just described. Such a life is surely available within Judaism, but only within small circles or spiritual groups that seek it. For the most part, Jews are more concerned with Jewish survival, education, observance, people and state. The spiritual life focused on God, a conscious relationship with God and growing in a spiritual relationship are low on the collective value scale.

Herein is a key to two dimensions of Judaism’s relationship with Hinduism. In part, this is what Hinduism has to offer us, if only by way of the example of a religious culture that does make God more central to its concerns than present-day Judaism does. From another perspective, appreciating the fullness of the spiritual life that is possible in Hinduism would shift the view of Jews from the question of the forms of worship of Hinduism, which are obviously strange and foreign to Jewish sensibilities, to the broader spiritual concerns that Jews and Hindus share.

  1. When did you fascination with Hinduism start?

My own initial fascination with Hinduism owes to street encounters with one brand of Hinduism, popularly known as Hare Krishna, that was visible on street corners of major cities in the 1980s and ’90s. One cannot consider this a real encounter, even if it engaged my fascination, and led me to visits to temples and to conversations with faithful. Of course, it was an encounter of sorts. It involved curiosity, learning, dialogue and contact with practitioners. But this early teenage kind of engagement did not really affect me. The contact remained external, even if fascinating.

Taking up transcendental meditation (TM) in my early twenties might be considered a step toward a fuller encounter, especially as it was accompanied by many hours of study of the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, either through books or recorded videos. Certainly, meditation is a means of going deeper into a tradition. It forces one to make one’s own whatever experience is being attained through meditation, and if that experience is related to another faith tradition, then it could be a way of interiorizing, possibly owning, something of that tradition.

This form of meditation, however, was offered as a universal approach that was not religious and essentially not particularly Hindu. Even if the initiation ceremony followed Hindu conventions, and even if Maharishi wrote a commentary on Hinduism’s most popular text, the Bhagavad Gita, the practice, message and mindset, had been abstracted into a universalism from its Hindu particularity.It was a teaching that taught a path to oneself, not to another tradition. If nothing else, I was introduced to TM by a group of mostly secularized Israelis, for many of whom this functioned as a substitute religious identity, but who lacked the depth of the fullness of a religious tradition that they could represent to others.

  1. Can you explain your journey into Hindu ashram culture?

One approach to Hinduism is what you call Ashram culture. Ashrams are spiritual centers where live-in conditions offer the opportunity for full dedication to the spiritual life. They are typically organized around a great teacher, alive or one who has passed away. They contain some mix of teaching, ritual, meditation, service, community life and they seek to offer a comprehensive approach to the spiritual life as the goal and purpose of life. To compare them to what we know in Judaism, they are not synagogues or houses of study, though both activities take place there. They are closer to monasteries, though the discipline is often much laxer than in Christian monasteries.

Ashrams are closely associated with teachers, gurus, and monks. Broadly speaking, outside of the home, which is an important site for the practice of religion, ashrams and temples are the two main institutional expressions of Hindu religious life. Whereas a temple is organized primarily around the deity, the ashram is organized primarily around the teacher, lineage and the dedication to a form of the religious life. Ashrams are hugely diverse in terms of the activities that take place in them.

My first visit to India was to an ashram of a contemporary Hindu teacher, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. It also included visits to the ashrams of other noted leaders, such as Sai Baba and concluded with the ashram with which I maintain ties until this day, the Sivananda Ashram.

In the course of my years of visiting India, I have visited dozens of Ashrams, some of which did not even go by that name, but which were ashrams in functional terms.

Ashram culture is a where one encounters Hindu dedication to the spiritual life. The following thought occurs to me. Let us consider the purposes of religion. One purpose is to receive blessing in various aspects of one’s life – what the Zohar calls “children, life and livelihood.” One turns to God for the needs of life. The other purpose of religion is to transform oneself to attain the highest goal of religion, which is self-transformation, liberation, going beyond the limitations of material life and entering the fullness of a relationship with the divine.

From my experience, schematically speaking, temples serve the first set of goals; ashrams the latter. Exceptions abound in both directions, but the overall characterization gives us a sense of the institution. So, if you wish to get a handle on how Hindus dedicate themselves to the spiritual life, the practices they undertake, the ideas they share and how they organize their religious life around teachers, teachings and practices with the goal of attaining what they often refer to as “God Realization”, then ashrams are the place to go to.

  1. Why are Israelis attracted to ashram life?

I think the answer is contained in the previous questions. A meaningful number of Israeli travelers to India travel there for spiritual reasons. If they seek the spiritual life, they will usually not find it in Hindu temples that cater to the local Hindu population. They require a structured approach to the spiritual life, as set forth by teachers who offer a teaching and a path. This they will only find in ashrams.

Some ashrams have a high concentration of Israeli visitors, such as Sadhana Kendra Ashram, near Dehradun. The resident teacher, Chandra Swami, has been to visit Israel several times. He practices a form of Hinduism (he would claim he is not even practicing Hinduism, but something beyond the specificity of Hinduism) that is devoid of elements of worship and is focused almost exclusively on meditation.

This makes it easy for Israelis to be enriched by the Ashram experience without compromising their identity. However, Israelis are found in many other places in India. All ashrams that belong to gurus who travel to the west and have western following have Israeli residents, some of whom are even in positions of leadership. Israelis, Jews more broadly, are spiritual seekers. If they do not find their nourishment in Judaism, they will turn elsewhere.

India is an important destination in such a spiritual quest. There are several reasons. One is that India does not come with some of the negative baggage associated historically with other religions. A second reason owes to the ability of Hindu teachers to present their teachings as spirituality, rather than as religion, thus minimizing the conflict between competing identities.

  1. Can you share something about Swami Chidananda, the disciple of Swami Sivananda?

I wish I could communicate in words the feeling of being in this man’s presence. The intensity of energy and feeling, the uplifting of one’s internal orientation and internal quest, that occurred simply by being in his presence, are the stuff of which stories of tzaddikim and masters of faith in all traditions are made. One knows the presence when one is in it and someone who has not experienced being in the presence of a great soul or spiritual teacher will simply not understand the overwhelming energizing and the transformation one undergoes simply by being in the presence of some individuals.

My first encounter with him was as part of a group meeting. I, and others, had been sitting on the floor. He was seated in his chair.  When it came time to talk to me, Swamiji did something startling. Before talking to me, he descended from his chair, and positioned himself on a level with me for our conversation. Here I was, a rabbi of another tradition. He would not talk to me from a position of greater height.

The impression this gesture made was tremendous. It was a gesture that captured the essence of this man, something I came to appreciate later through the reading of many of his books and watching dozens of hours of his teaching. The hallmark of this contemporary teacher was humility, the kind of humility that grows from the fullness of knowledge of divine presence and that translates itself into a meticulous care taken in human relations. I do not think I ever saw or felt the depth of humility in practice as during that brief moment when Swami Chidananda descended to sit facing me.

For me, the encounter with Swami Chidananda is not over. It is alive when I visit him, or nowadays his home, that is maintained as a sacred place, since he passed away in 2008. But it is also alive inside me. To touch the spirit and to be a model means that his example of humility and wisdom in action and his approach to the spiritual life can inform my internal horizons, together with the testimony of the great Jewish teachers. His presence remains real, and so he remains a teacher.

My question is how much is this really an encounter with Hinduism. What I describe in my journey is increasingly a movement away from rituals, ideas and symbols into the realm of spirituality that transcends religions, and perhaps should therefore not be presented as Hindu at all. This may be so. But then at the very least it would be a recognition that there is a spiritual reality that transcends religious particularity and that can communicate across religions. Such an understanding allows us to cultivate respect, appreciation and admiration for figures of another religion, where affirmation of existing boundaries would have the opposite effect. This in itself is no small feat.

Religious teachers speak the language of the tradition and bring its particularity to light, in light of their own experience and person. Therefore, Hinduism as taught by a Chidananda has a very different valence not only from classroom Hinduism but also from what other academic and religious teachers could offer. It is a full reading of the tradition, supported by a high point of spiritual and existential fulfillment. It allows a full encounter with the tradition itself, enhancing respect and understanding, even as it is a force for the transformation of spirit for the outsider who is lucky enough to be invited in.

  1. What do Jews and Judaism gain from the encounter?

Heschel has said that had Judaism gone east rather than west, to the Ganges rather than to Athens, it would have had a different course for its evolution. Religions grow and part of their growth occurs through contact with the other. Hinduism is a relatively new other and contains significant opportunities for growth for Jewish thought. Hindu thought and how it configures the religious life around God’s presence, in an immanentist context, provides many interesting philosophical and theological challenges.

Jewish theology is largely at a standstill. Throughout the ages, Jewish thought grew from its encounter with other religious cultures. Today, science is the significant other, not another religious tradition. I think Hinduism can play the role that Greek culture, Islam and Christianity played in earlier periods, in stretching Jewish thought.

On the personal level, Jews are finding in the Indian religious life a welcome alternative to what they perceive as the rigidity, authoritarianism and politicization of their own religion. Never mind that the same problems plague Hinduism as well. It’s all about perceptions. Because the forms of Hinduism to which many Jews are exposed do offer an alternative to some of the ills of Judaism, some Jews have found their spiritual path through Hinduism.

There are, then, two modalities for what Judaism can receive. The first is a function of the ongoing growth between religious traditions. The second, relating to the spiritual journey of individuals, is a function of Judaism’s present day crisis. The two dimensions come together in the recognition that Judaism does face a crisis in its relation to God, with other values having eclipsed God and the relationship with Him. Hinduism either already is or can become an important conversation partner and source of inspiration. Given that the great majority of gurus do not wish to make souls for Hinduism, but rather to help aspirants on the spiritual path, Jews could make their way back to Judaism enriched by their encounter with Hinduism.

  1. Should Jews go to the Kumbh Mela? Should they bath in the river?

The public image of the Kumbh Mela is governed by picturesque images of exotic sadhus, often naked, dipping in the confluence of Indian rivers. In fact, the Kumbh Mela is very different. It is, more than anything, a great learning camp, where different religious groups camp out and spend a month or so with their spiritual teacher. It is more like yarchei kala than anything else. Going to the Kumbh is therefore a wonderful opportunity for learning about the diversity of Hindu groups as well as of how they are united in the act of coming together and in the practices of the Kumbh.

The Kumbh is very impressive, but without command of the language and ability to partake of the teachings, one can only benefit from a fraction of what goes on. When I visited the Kumbh Mela I was interested in meeting the famous preacher Murari Bapu. I had heard much about him and I know he touches millions in his sermons. I sat through several hours of his teaching. I did not understand anything he said, but I learned a lot. I learned about how teaching and song combine; how teaching moves to prayer; how a teacher and community interact and more. In some ways, this was similar to what I knew from Judaism; in some ways there were new nuances and new dynamics. It was enriching. It allowed me to appreciate this great teacher in context. Still, most of what goes on in the Kumbha Mela is beyond the understanding of the outsider, which is in fact why there are so few outsiders who attend the event.

As regards bathing in the river, it is a question of motivation, and in part a halachic question. Overall, I avoid engaging in rituals of another religion, which is also true for bathing in the Kumbh, if undertaken as participation in the ritual of another religion. However, as I go to the mikveh regularly in preparation for Shabbat, I did find myself bathing alongside Hindus who were engaged in similar activities (though not carried out as fully and as strictly as Jewish mikveh practice). Such a moment is a moment of solidarity across religions, recognizing our common quest for purification and transcendence. I have experienced such moments in other contexts, for example at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where Sikhs bathe.

  1. Do you then espouse a form of multiple religious identity, being both Hindu and Jewish?

I certainly would not proscribe multiple religious identities. In forty years of study of and fascination with Hinduism, I could never say of myself that I have a multiple religious identity. Even when I am in ashram, my path is Jewish, as is my practice, even my meditation practice. But I do recognize that there are Jews whose lives have taken other paths.

Could I see multiple religious identities for them? Much depends on how one defines Hinduism and the engagement to it. As I describe it in The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism, most Jews who have engaged Hinduism have not cultivated a strong Jewish identity or have dropped their Hindu identity upon return to Judaism. I could see ways of upholding certain practices and integrating them within one’s Jewish identity. This could include various yogic or mantric japa practices. Such individuals would certainly be returning back to Judaism with a more expansive understanding of the religious life and possibly of God than many of their Jewish co-religionists.

Most Jews, as stated, do not devote much time, or are incapable of the kind of God-talk that Hindus cultivate.

Within the parameters of a multiple religious identity that does not consider both components of equal value, I could see a theoretical possibility where some individuals would return to Judaism as their primary identity and bring back to it some of the spoils that were gained through their spiritual process and struggle within Hinduism.

  1. Why is Rabbi Yoel Glick’s work important?

Glick is one contemporary spiritual teacher who seeks to live and teach a Judaism with God at the center. He has found a very unique voice that draws from the treasures of Jewish spirituality, especially from Hassidic teachers. But he has also been inspired by some of the great masters of the Hindu tradition, such as Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna. His is not a case of multiple religious belonging, but it is a case of being able to draw from the wisdom of those teachers and to deliver a message of Judaism that is either in dialogue with the teachings of those teachers or that draws in different proportions from the wisdom of both traditions. This is a unique balance and one that addresses head on the spiritual crisis of Judaism, its need to return to God at the center, and also makes room for getting “help” from Hindu sources for this process.

  1. How do you deal with the diversity of Hinduism and what role do your direct encounters play?

There is extreme diversity of forms of Hindu religious life. Some Hindus may never visit an ashram; some Hindus may never go to Temple; some Hindus may not have a guru; some may never read scripture. And yet all come under that broad umbrella called Hinduism. It is a great challenge for the outsider to get a handle on Hinduism given this diversity.

Given the problem of diversity of Hindu positions, we have two fundamental paths we could take. The one is to relate to these traditions in their diversity, as a series of religious phenomena, avoiding reference to the broad, and admittedly somewhat artificial umbrella term of “Hinduism”. The other is to seek to understand the broader phenomena in terms that are broad enough to be representative.

Situations such as the dialogue of the Chief Rabbinate with Hindu leadership require some kind of representative conversation partner. The Hindu side came to this dialogue featuring a broad spectrum of Hindu voices. Reading the transcripts of those dialogues one realizes they were nevertheless united in some important ways relating to the fundamentals of their faith.

My journey involved not only entry into the ashram world, but also very close personal associations with Hindu leadership, through my work with the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders.

Let me recount one moment that will illustrate how broader understandings cut across the diversity of schools. I recall sitting in a hotel room in Cordoba, Spain just as the Elijah Board was established, with Sri Sri Ravi Sankar and one of the leaders of the Madhva stream of Hinduism, Sugunendra Theerta Swami, and discussing what idols and images meant to them. Needless to say, for a Jew this is a cardinal question and one that had to be explored in dialogue with authoritative practitioners.

Engaging religious leaders has provided an opening to what is most meaningful to those leaders in Hinduism, the heart of their faith, their practice and their message for others. As it turns out, the diversity of philosophical positions concerning metaphysical unity or multiplicity was quite inconsequential to that conversation in Cordoba. Both leaders affirmed the same fundamental view of God, the absolute, representation, images, immanence etc. You would not know they belonged to different schools. The same took place during the Jewish-Hindu summits. The same has also been true of my extensive conversations with leaders of diverse streams of Hinduism.

Projecting my understanding back to them, hearing how they conceptualized matters, following their arguments, suggested that fundamental commonalities far outweighed the particularities of philosophical, ritual or devotional schools. Since many such exchanges did not take place in “diplomatic” interreligious contexts, I must conclude that there is a significant religious and philosophical agreement about fundamentals of the faith, notwithstanding many differences.

Thus, I would state that what I write of Hinduism is descriptive of far more than the Advaita Vedanta that I often appeal to. Even if one would put forth the view of a historically diverse Hinduism, to me the living Hinduism of today’s teachers and practitioners is of greater consequence, and this suggests some fundamental commonalities. It seems reasonable to me to appeal to contemporary teachers as far as understanding Hinduism for present Jewish purposes is concerned. I appeal for the validity of my Judaism to the great spiritual teachers who have inspired me, even if some of them lived in the 20th century. I do not see why another religion cannot be dealt with along similar lines.

Interview with Alon Goshen-Gottstein on Same God, Other God: Judaism, Hinduism and the Problem of Idolatry

Do Jews and Hindus worship the same God? Moses Mendelssohn argued over two centuries ago that Hindus were not polytheists but monotheists who worship God through a system of symbols misunderstood by Westerners. Mendelssohn argued that images of the divine in Hinduism are symbolic the same way the rabbinic stories of the cherubim embracing are symbolic. An outsider would misconstrue the story of the cherubs, so too Westerners misconstrue the symbolic nature of Hinduism, which is actually part of their healthy human understanding of God.  Drawing on traditional categories, Mendelssohn thought the Bible only forbids imagery to Jews as Nahmanides taught and he extended the tosafist idea of shituf (association) to Hinduism. Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein returns to this approach in two recent books.

samegod

Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and has a PhD in Rabbinics from Hebrew University has devoted his career to interfaith work as founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. The first book is The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism (New York: Palgrave, Macmillan 2016) and the second book is Same God, Other God: Judaism, Hinduism and the Problem of Idolatry (New York: Palgrave, Macmillan 2016). He is also the editor of Jewish Theology and World Religions (The Littman Library 2012).

This interview will be in two parts; the first part will discuss the questions of Same God, Other God  and the second part will be about Goshen –Gottstein’s actual encounter with Hinduism. This interview raises many important issues. If you want to write a response or want to ask both of us questions then email.

Comparisons

Yale professor Miroslav Volf in a significant book Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne 2012) asks if Christians and Muslims worship the same God starts by separating the question into a series of questions. Do we have the same referent for God? Do we have the same descriptions? Do they have the same attributes?  Were they accepted as historically similar? Is the worship style similar? Medieval thinkers such as Saadyah, Aquinas, or Farabi could see the same God is they affirm a unity based on the classic arguments for the divine. Volf created a method for asking these question in our age when scholastic thought does not have the same resonance.

Alon Goshen-Gottstein wrote an fine essay concerning Judaism and Christianity responding to the book’s argument, “God  Between Christians and    Jews   Is    it    the    Same God?”(available online) in Do We Worship the Same God?: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue edited by Miroslav Volf. In addition, Goshen-Gottstein wrote some of the finest essays on the topic of comparisons with Christianity “God the Father in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity” (2003)  and “Judaisms and Incarnational Theology”(2002)

Four Jewish Opinions

Alon Goshen-Gottstein’s method in his book on Hinduism is to ask what the halakhic figures of Maimonides, Nahmanides, Tosfot and Meiri would say about similarities between the faiths.  According to Goshen-Gottstein, Maimonides’ oneness of God can be compared to a proper understanding of Vedanta’s oneness. As a philosophic monotheist, there can only be one God regardless of the name and worship style. In the case of Hinduism,  Maimonides’ negative theology has great commonality with Shankara’s Vedantic theology, but not the varied theologies of the individual devas -deities. (136)

The Tosafot concept of shituf, according to Goshen-Gottstein, means that non-Jews are not bound by the strict criteria of Jewish monotheism or the demand for exclusive worship of God. They may worship another being alongside God, the saints, Jesus or a deva.

Goshen-Gottstein gives special attention to Nahmanides’ who limit the lack of representation of God to Jews alone.  Thereby, it leaves the other religions with  “room for a rich mythical, imaginative and artistic life, that is particular to any given religious tradition, while balancing it with a more abstract, philosophical, if we will “pure” understanding of God.” For Goshen-Gottstein, “[a]ccording to this perspective, it may indeed be that Hindus worship various gods who are not the same as our God. Nevertheless, such worship may be legitimate and appropriate for them.

The thirteenth century Provencal Rabbi Menachem Meiri created a new category of the “ways of religion” based on its moral teachings, which Goshen-Gottstein perceptively divides this position into two aspects, the acknowledgment of non-Jewish forms of worship and the importance of moral teachings.  Goshen-Gottstein plots a new course by expanding the Meiri into a statement of the acceptance of multiple ways to relate to God.

If we follow the Meiri, Hinduism is definitely a religion bound by the ways of religion and belongs in the same category as Islam and Christianity. For Goshen-Gottstein, “Hinduism provides us with an alternative way of configuring religious belief and moral duty.” This is because all “the fundamental details of belief –God, unity, power- may be recognizable, they appear in different combinations, carrying different weight within the overall system and operating in different ways as they interact with the moral order.” As long as we see the basics of Jewish religious principles in another faith then is monotheistic and moral enough to be respected by Jews.

Goshen-Gottstein creatively reaches to create a new category, a general respect for the “overall structure and value of their religious and spiritual life” found in other faiths. He encourages the reader to bracket out the technical halakhic questions of foreign worship in order to see a common religious goal. Jews can judge the other faiths as sharing common philosophical arguments concerning Gods being, negative theology, actions, and attributes.

Goshen-Gottstein develops from these positions a theory of religious imagination. For him, in this bold theory, the differences between religious ideas and symbols can be seen as the workings of religious imagination. This theme is a strong undercurrent to the book, partially discussed in many chapters, which should have been an independent section.

He models himself on Chief Rabbi Herzog’s statement that Christians elevated Jesus to a level of divinity as an act of their religious imagination and that halakhah permits these imaginative flourishes to gentiles. Goshen-Gottstein  develops that into a broad concept of viewing the role of imagination in religion as our culturally diverse differences, meaning that our theological differences can be ascribed to imagination.  If one accepts this extension of Rabbi Herzog, the other religions are not false gods or others gods, rather, the religious imagination at work. In Goshen-Gottstein’s estimation, the Hindu gods Krishna and Shiva can be treated the same way Herzog treated Jesus, that is, as acts of religious imagination rather than other gods.

Beyond this, he makes imagination a value in the full religious life rather than a hindrance. Just as there are rabbis who allow Jews who need to visualize God during worship as a concession to the strength of the imagination, so too non-Jews should be allowed even greater freedom in their religious imagination, even within their images of God, even if they are false images.

Alon Goshen Gottstein writes: “we might consider the specific manifestations of deities in Hinduism as part of what God has allotted this people, not through astral governance, but through the expressions of their religious imagination.“ The goal would be to “leave room for a rich mythical, imaginative and artistic life, that is particular to any given religious tradition, while balancing it with a more abstract, philosophical, if we will “pure” understanding of God.” For Goshen-Gottstein, “[a]ccording to this perspective, it may indeed be that Hindus worship various gods who are not the same as our God. Nevertheless, such worship may be legitimate and appropriate for them.

Later in the book, Goshen-Gottstein moves beyond his broad interpretations of the Shituf and Meiri  to a theory of religious imagination and the religious personality, which includes “those expressions of moral and spiritual excellence that constitute religious perfection: humility, service, loving-kindness, compassion…”. In turn,  “it can further be extended to formative experiences of God, as these register within human awareness and as these shape the religious personality.”

Goshen- Gottstein poses the question of what are signs by which one can recognize that a religion has true contact with God and extending Meiri from morality to religious life. We approach other religions looking to recognize God’s presence, especially mystical presence, and to see “traces of contact with God.”  It would be non-generous to think that Jews have holiness but other religions have self-interest. We all share a common life of faith and recognize God’s presence. (144-145)

By the end of the book Goshen-Gottstein has advanced Meiri’s thought beyond his own rational starting point to the foundation of a more mystically oriented understanding of divine presence something between Paul Tillich or Bernard McGinn, in which a legitimate religion can be considered as anything having  a presence of God, a dimension of contact with the divine.  If the goal was raise a halakhic discussion, then the work has moved far from it.

Essentialism

The book however suffers from an essentialist approach to Hinduism. Tamar Reich, a Hinduism scholar with academic background in Judaism & Kabbalah, in her review of the book in the journal Pardes points out what she regards as the limitations of the work. “Advaita Vedanta theology resonates with the author’s Hasidic acosmistic leanings. This is very well, but it blinds him, in my view, to most of what Hinduism, for better and for worse, has been and is. He is less interested in the Sub-Continent’s rich pantheon, sacred narrative and religious poetry, theology of sacrifice, great temple architecture and art and devotional and social-protest movements.” I concur; the Hinduism in this book does not accord with what I know from my time teaching and studying in a department of Hinduism in India, rather it reflects Goshen-Gottstein’s own internalization of Advaita- Vedanta from his time with important Hindu teachers. (For more discussion, see part II of this interview- next week).

From Rejection to Acceptance

Most Christians accepted Miraslav Volf’s analysis of the issues of comparing conceptions of God. However, Evangelicals generally rejected it because the Muslim or Hindu views of God do not offer salvation and grace even if God is the same referent and same attributes. Goshen-Gottstein goal is to move from a Jewish Haredi rejectionist position toward his own reading of the Meiri and Nahmanides. Hence, frames his work using the Egyptologist Jan Assmann who claims that the religion of the Bible, and by extension Judaism, draws a sharp line between true and false religions, claiming that all other religions are false. Assman extends his claim, thinking that Biblical faith requires they be hated, persecuted, and destroyed as rivals, parodies, or perversions of the one true faith.

However, Mark S. Smith, professor at NYU, rejected Assmann’s claims and in fact Biblical and Hellenistic Jews translated the God of the Bible into corresponding to the God of their neighbors. He also points out that they could recognize other national gods as valid for Israel’s neighbors. “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11)

From my own work, Jews were able to find an ability to translate the Jewish God into the divine ideas of theos and Allah around them. For example, the  letter of the Jewish Annas to Seneca from the 4th century, is a purported Jewish letter to a pagan. He accepts that the pagan philosophic God and the God of the Bible are one. God is the father of all mortals is invisible to humans. However, Annas, the Jew attacks those who worship images that are nothing but images of their own desires.

The medieval philosophers readily translate between faiths such as Saadyah who writes of the Brahmins. Or Shem Tov Falquera already  in the 13th century adumbrates a theory in which everyone believes in one God but the many deities are due to the religious imagination.

And in the age of exploration in the 17th century, Menashe ben Israel rejected the explorers labeling the nations of Asia as superstitious and pagan, rather he quoted “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11)

During the colonial era, Chief Rabbi of Britain Joseph H. Hertz (1872–1946) stated that the heathens were not held responsible for a false conception of God and “were judged by God purely by their moral life.”  For Hertz, “a primitive stage of religious belief” can still form “part of God’s guidance of humanity.” Even in their primitive version, [they] are serving the one true God (Malachi. 1:11)

All of these historical points are to emphasize that there has been discussions in the past about other religions, Asian religions and pagan practice, albeit not much about Hinduism. Yet, it was not a  blanket condemnation of other religions or a sharp denunciation without translation. Goshen-Gottstein sees a direct line from Chief Rabbi Hertzog to himself. In the end, however, his position is a more developed Mendelssohn position. Finally, while an important book, the volume suffers from dense overwritten chapters which should have been trimmed from the Yeshiva casuistry that makes this work difficult to the reader without the requisite background as well as the many repetitions.

I acknowledge that my comments are some insider’s perspective, coming from my own concern with the topic. This is especially true since my own very different book, Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish Hindu Encounter (Lexington 2019) will be out this Fall 2019. Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber has a forthcoming book on Hinduism and Avodah Zarah that will offer a contrast to this volume, so hold your breath before making final judgments. (Here is a recent article of Sperber’s) We have to thank Alon Goshen-Gottstein for producing strong Jewish theological analysis of the topic and the book should be read by all those interested in the topic, eventually together with my book and Rabbi Sperber’s forthcoming volume. Enjoy the interview. Stay tuned for part II next week.

Rabbi-Dr.-Alon-Goshen-Gottstein

  1. How is the tosfot concept ot Shituf helpful for a Jewish understanding of Hinduism?

Let me begin perhaps by defining what “shituf” is. “Shituf” is the position developed in the late middle ages by Jewish legal authorities who sought to legitimate Christian worship of God for Christians, while maintaining it is still forbidden for Jews. The position assumes there are two standards of proper approach to God – one for Jews, the other for non-Jews. Non-Jews are not bound by the strict criteria of Jewish monotheism or the demand for exclusive worship of God. What this means is that they may worship another being alongside God, the saints or Jesus himself. This provided Jews with a means of affirming the validity of Christianity for Christians, while continuing to affirm it is forbidden for Jews.

In the case of Hinduism, I have personally done very little to extend it because Rabbinic authorities have raised the possibility that what holds true for Christianity can hold true for Hinduism as well. The first to raise this possibility was the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Y.I.Herzog. He made the point tentatively, stating he didn’t know that much about Hinduism, but it seemed to him that the construct could be applied to Hinduism as well. The point was also made by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who affirmed the “shituf” position by arguing that non-Jews are not expected to hold by the same standards that Jewish monotheism does. This softer or compromised monotheism he was willing to apply to Hinduism.

The basic argument would be that while Hindus may worship various forces of nature, deities, being or humans considered divine, they nevertheless do have a sense of a divinity beyond, and that therefore these are worshipped along with that absolute Supreme beyond.

If one thinks in terms of “Shituf”, then one could read the statement signed by the Chief Rabbinate and Hindu leadership, cited below, in these terms. The Hindu worships the Supreme, while worshipping in fact nature, concrete objects or individuals. Actually, in the case of Hinduism the argument to permit “shituf” may be stronger than with reference to Christianity, inasmuch as there is a conscious articulation of the principle that the Absolute Supreme Being manifests as those beings. Therefore, the Hindu acknowledges that it is not those beings that are being worshipped alongside God, but rather God who is worshipped in or as those beings.

But, frankly I find the category of “Shituf” not fully adequate to the task at hand.

  1. What contribution does Nahmanides make to our evaluation of Hinduism?

Ramban develops a theory of Avoda Zara in his commentary on the ten commandments (Exodus 20). According to Ramban there are different levels of what constitutes Avoda Zara.

In a manner analogous to the tosafot’s notion of permissibility of Shituf for non-Jews, Ramban develops a theory of permissibility of worship of other beings for non-Jews, provided they remain aware of the existence of the Supreme Being. He grounds this in a theory of distribution of divine providence to nations through their governing angels. Non-Jews are allowed to worship the celestial beings who provide for them. Why should it forbidden to them? The only thing is that they need to remember that beyond these angels is the one God who put it all in place. Jews, by contrast, may not worship other beings, because they are God’s lot and therefore exclusive allegiance is owed to God and cannot be compromised.

The advantage of Ramban’s position is that it does not require simultaneous worship of the absolute God while also worshiping a created being. In that, it avoids some of the theoretical problems associated with “Shituf”, which may not accurately reflect the beliefs of either Christians or Hindus, even if it is helpful to a Jewish theological discussion. On the other hand, however, is the difficulty that Ramban’s theory assumes a cosmic ordering, wherein different nations worship the angel or star that has been divinely allotted to them.

  1. Meiri helpful to understand Hinduism?

Rabbi Menachem Hameiri seeks to establish what a legitimate religion is; reversing the procedure of first establishing what is foreign worship. For Meiri a legitimate religion is one that has some knowledge of God, that by virtue of such knowledge assures a morally ordered society and that aids humans in their overall moral improvement and evolution. The key thing for Meiri is that details of faith, theology and ritual do not matter. Once one has it basically right, the details that one gets wrong don’t change the big picture. It is a very tolerant view that has great capacity to contain theological and religious disagreement, highlighting instead what is common between religions. In one way, that commonality is the commonality of the moral life.

Ultimately, valid religions all reference the same God. That they have different conceptions, names, myths and rituals does not detract from the fact that it is the one same God that is worshipped in different religions.

Moreover, Meiri subscribes to a theory of progress, wherein idolatry is something of the past and most religions have outgrown it. Because Meiri paints his theological picture in very broad strokes, I see no reason why Hinduism would not be included within this view of other religions. I think Meiri would consider Hinduism a valid religion. It has a notion of God. God ties into the moral order, though in ways that are different, perhaps parallel, to how God and the moral order are tied in Judaism. It has an idea of a morally ordered society and it aids the human person in advancing past his or her material inclinations, as proper religion should.

In my book, I expand the Meiri’s position as considering moral living as the measure of recognizing the validity of other religions. Meiri’s  argument is that God is known through a particular dimension of human life  – the moral order – that serves as proof for a particular religion knowing him. This argument can be extended to other dimensions of the spiritual life. We may consider various expressions of the spiritual life as indications of the presence of God in a given religion. People of deep faith, mystics and saints manifest various qualities. A partial list would include love (of God and other), humility, generosity, altruism, joy and much more. A true religious life forms the individual in particular ways and these in turn can serve as confirmation for a given religion of the nature of God-as known and worshipped.

  1. So do Jews and Hindus mean the same thing when they speak of God?

Well, yes and no. It really depends on which Hindus position one speaks about. But let me give you a Jewish answer – do Jews and Jews mean the same thing when they speak of God? In other words, how much flexibility or pluralism do we assume in our notion of God and when do differences in theological view necessitate declaring the god of another person (or religion) a different god.

The question of how we know that two people, even of the same faith, really refer to the same God, is not always that simple to answer. Naming helps, and sharing scriptures and stories also helps. But these cannot always cover up for theological differences. Sometimes two people from different religions may be closer in their understanding of God than two members of the same faith. One would therefore have to establish the criteria by means of which one knows that two people are speaking of the same God.

Here Meiri’s criterion of the moral life is so crucial.  By your fruits you shall know them, not by their theological declarations. I would push the argument one step further and refer to the spiritual life as a criterion for the knowledge of God. Ultimately, the “yes and no” answer may be the only answer we can give, even with reference to any two individuals.

  1. How do you apply the notion of religious imagination with reference to Hindu faith?

As I suggest, it is possible to construct an argument for God being the same in Judaism and Hinduism, based on authorities such as the Meiri, who applies moral criteria for the establishment of the identity of God. While this resolves many contemporary challenges in practical terms, it does leave us with the difficulty of reconciling God, as he is known in Judaism and the various descriptions of God and gods in Hinduism.

The problem is less extreme in cases where forces of nature or people are worshipped. But what most Hindus refer to as God has elements of the fantastic – either by way of description of the deity or in terms of what is ascribed to God or gods in stories and myths told of them. Do these then undermine the possibility of affirming God in both traditions as the same God? Not necessarily.

This is where a theory of the religious imagination comes in. I suggest we can develop a theory of religious imagination that respects the workings of this faculty of the human person and recognizes its contribution to the religious life. Imagination is instrumental in giving expression to our deepest quest, in guiding us to truths and realities that we cannot attain without it and to integrating mind and heart in religious experience. Without imagination, much of the vitality of the religious life would be lost.

Now, we can recognize that imagination operates differently in different religious cultures, as we see in the art and artifacts produced in different cultures, and specifically religious cultures.

It serves instrumental needs. Looking at it in instrumental terms means we put aside the valuation of whether the portrayal through the imagination is correct. Rather, we ask if it produces good fruit. If it does, we accept its beneficial consequences and bracket the question of its truth content.

I rely on Jewish sources that are willing to make that move internally. For instance, in Hassidic sources we find reliance on Rabad’s refusal to reject someone who considers God in anthropomorphic terms and to call him a min. One important Hassidic teacher, the Piasetzner Rebbe, turns this into a recommendation to cultivate anthropomorphic imagination if it is beneficial for the beginner to cultivate a desired attitude to God. Such internal acceptance of “false” imagination for beneficial purposes can be extended more broadly to recognizing the beneficial consequences of the religious imagination in other religions and religious cultures.

  1. How does Maimonides’ approach help us in relating to Hinduism.

I think Maimonides’ thought and Hinduism needs to be understood in two ways. The first is to compare Vedanta to Maimonides’ view of God and consider the convergence. The second is a consideration of how Maimonides is more concerned with philosophic concepts of unity than practice.

Rambam offers us a baseline definition of Avoda Zara and conditions much of Jewish attitude to other religions. He is the champion of the view that Christianity is Avoda Zara. It would stand to reason that what holds for Christianity would apply also to Hinduism with its multiple deities and the use of image worship. Rambam is therefore not the most promising resource for considering ways of accepting Hinduism as non-Avoda Zara.

Still, a conversation between Rambam and Hindu thought is interesting, in theological terms, even if these do not necessarily affect the practical outcome, the pesak. Hinduism offers an entirely different structure from the one that informs Rambam’s understanding of Avoda Zara. For Rambam Avoda Zara is based on the worship of intermediaries, given a mistaken understanding of divine will. One is worshiping another being instead of worshiping God. This assumes a clear distinction between God and non-God and a theory of intermediaries that leads to the worship of the latter. Hinduism operates with an entirely different structure. As the Hindu-Jewish summit declaration states, the Hindu does not worship another being per se, as he or she worships the many beings, real and imaginary, that are worshipped. Rather, it is God alone that is worshipped, as he is made manifest in these beings. The entire approach to Hinduism as Avoda Zara shifts if one considers that intentionality and awareness are directed to God, rather than to non-God.

I recently heard a wonderful story of the Magid of Dubna, in the context of approaching Avoda Zara. An impostor came to town a week before the Magid of Dubna and received great honor, as well as the monies that would have gone to the Magid of Dubna. When the Magid came to town the people were in shock as they had given all their money to the impostor. The Magid comforted them saying – be not disheartened. Even if you honored someone else, in your own minds it was me you were honoring.

  1. What was lacking by both sides of the Jewish-Hindu encounters in 2007-2009?

Hindus, led by Swami Dayananda, sought to resolve the problem of Hinduism as idolatry by claiming that “the Hindu” only worships the absolute, or Supreme Being, even if such worship is expressed through worship of other beings. It was certainly an important clarification from the perspective of Jewish participants and allowed them to shift their attitude to Hindu participants from one of suspicion of idolaters to a more appreciative and respectful approach.

The rabbis were willing to sign onto a document that affirmed that Hinduism and Judaism shared the recognition of One Supreme Being, Creator and Guide of the Cosmos; shared values; and similar historical experiences. “It is recognized that the One Supreme Being, both in its formless and manifest aspects, has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. This does not mean that Hindus worship “gods” and “idols.” The Hindu relates to only the One Supreme Being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation.”

Rabbi Daniel Sperber who is writing an important book on  Jewish view of Hinduism based on what the Hindus taught is an extreme expression of this change in attitude. But for most of the Jewish participants, I don’t think that they really considered that the Jewish category of Avoda Zara had been addressed by the explanations offered by the Hindu party.

In my understanding of the rabbis involved, personally I do not think that even if they signed a declaration affirming that the Hindu only worships the Supreme Being, I don’t think any of them had intended to declare that the charge of Avoda Zara was off the table.

  1. How does the work of Jan Assman help us move beyond medieval Jewish positions?

Jan Assman is a scholar of Egyptian religion, who has been fascinated with the issue of monotheism and how religions of the ancient world related to each other. His work is important for me because it allows me to explore from a historical perspective the question of “same God” in antiquity.

If you can identify means of translating the name of God from one system to another, you uncover a deeper commonality. Of course, one must distinguish between the ability to do so in a polythetistic and in a monotheistic context. Nevertheless, even the monotheistic context still requires such work of translation. Consider some parts of America where you may find support for the notion that “Allah is not God” and some places where it is a given that “Allah is God.”

Jews are not used to discussing the “same God” issue. I think that beginning to ask the question of the same God is an important theological step and it is particularly important in the context of doing theology of religions against the backdrop of improved relations between faiths. A new framing of the question allows us to get past places where the theological discussion seems stuck. No less importantly, it opens the door to deeper respect, and the possibility of mutual and reciprocal learning and inspiration.

Probably the most important conceptual move that I make in Same God, Other god, and I am certainly not the first to make it, is to shift the discussion from a discussion of whether another religion is “other”, foreign, strange, all synonyms of idolatry, to whether another religion, or rather its God is the same.

Classification as Avoda Zara sends  a religion to the divine recycle bin and renders it senseless to reflect on the relative import of such world religions. The halakhic category devalues the other religions in that traditionally Jews concluded that there is nothing of value to be learned or received from that religion.

Theoretically, one may believe in the same God but still be culpable of Avoda Zara, on technical or conceptual grounds. For instance, there are halachic voices that consider Islam to be Avoda Zara, even though it believes in the same God as Judaism. However, the likelihood is that once the God of another religion is recognized as the same, the charge, or the intensity of the charge of idolatry drops.  Maimonides on Islam is a case in point. His recognition of Islam’s God as the same God as Judaism, on grounds of a philosophical understanding of monotheism, leads him to exempt Islam from the charge of Avoda Zara.

  1. Who defines Hinduism for these discussions?

During the infamous sheitel controversy, a rabbinic emissary was dispatched to determine what Hindus believed. This emissary questioned believers. His procedure then was to approach ordinary believers in order to determine what the beliefs of the faith are. This in turn led him to declare Hindus as idolaters, which in turn led to major international manifestations of Jewish rejection of Hindu faith. The halachic authorities who engaged the subject at the time, notably R. Menashe Klein, tackled the question of who speaks for Hinduism and whether it should be defined by its practitioners or by its sages and scholars.

So the question is who speaks for Hinduism. Should one consider the voice of the sages, the learned, the leaders or should one consider the faith of the man and woman in the temple?

While I am personally in favor of having theologians and religious professionals speak for the religion, one cannot fully divorce the perspective of the sages from that of the common worshipper. To do so would mean we have in fact two different religions, that of the scholar and that of the common person. I have therefore also been concerned about capturing the attitude of the common Hindu person.

One of the challenges we as Jews would have looking at Hinduism is how much of a gap can be tolerated between the views of religious elites and those of the masses and consequently whether our “issues” with Hinduism are theological (differences with the elites) or focus more on different educational perspectives, with Judaism showing greater care for the education of the masses.

In the interim I can state that it is not at all the case that understanding there is ultimately one God is a conviction that only scholars and sages hold by. It is also prevalent among the masses, though by no means universally, based on hundreds of conversations I have conducted.

Eitan Fishbane on The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar

For admirers of the Zohar, the work is a delight to study. What is the attraction of this work?  It opens the reader into a Judaism of great possibilities- possibilities of mysticism, of visions, of the afterlife, of prayer, and of creatively reworked midrashim. Much of the joy of reading comes from following the band of mystics as they wander the countryside encountering supernal beings and revealing a hidden reality. Many have noted in passing the medieval courtly background to these stories- the maiden in the tower, the heroic suitor, spending a night in a secluded castle, or an unexpected teller of tales-, which provides vivid color and richness to the drama. We now have to thank Eitan Fishbane for writing a guide to reading the Zohar as medieval literature, as a mystical narrative.

Eitan Fishbane is associate professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). His earlier book As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist (Stanford University Press, 2009 ) explored the mystical thought of Isaac ben Samuel of Akko especially prayer, meditative concentration, mental intention and chains of authority. His recent book, The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar (Oxford University Press, 2018) is a masterpiece of opening up the Zohar to literary analysis including characterization, dramatic speech, structural framing.

fishbane- book

The 2017-2018 academic year was a bumper crop for Zohar studies producing ten serious studies on the Zohar, each one making a significant innovative contribution. Future studies of the Zohar will never be the same and the field will now start from a very different place than before. The works are so extensive that I have still not gone through this new shelf of books; actually not a shelf but a guilt inducing pile on my floor. Among the recent books are  Melila Hellner-Eshed’s Seekers of the Face : the Secrets of the Idra-Rabba (The Great Assembly) of the Zohar [Hebrew] (2017), Ronit Meroz’s The Spiritual Biography of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai–An Analysis of the Zohar’s Textual Components [Hebrew] (2018), Oded Yisraeli, Temple Portals: Studies in Aggadah and Midrash in the Zohar [English edition], and Yonatan Benarroch’s Sava and Yanuka : God, the Son, and the Messiah in Zoharic Narratives [Hebrew] (2018). (For my 2016 interviews with Joel Hecker and Daniel C. Matt on translating the Pritzker edition of the Zohar, see here and here.)

Nevertheless, Fishbane’s study stands out for the moving of the study of the Zohar from the provincial realm of Jewish thought to the wider realm of medieval literature and Andalusian history. The book is innovative for letting us see what we always knew, that the Zohar tells a good story. Fishbane contextualizes the Zohar in its Castilian  milieu showing influence and parallel with Jewish and non-Jewish works such as Yehudah Al-Harizi’s Takhkemoni, Yitzhak Ibn Sahulah’s Meshal Kadmonim , Alfanso X of Castille’s sponsoring of the collection Cantigas de Santa Maria and Juan Ruiz’s Libro se Buen Amor.

Treating the Zohar as literature was already implicit in Peter Cole’s amazing anthology The Poetry of Kabbalah (Yale University Press, 2014) and in David Stern & Mark Jay Minsky’s Rabbinic Fantasies (1990). However, Fishbane sets it forth as a sustained study of literary criticism.

The book’s topics include: Zohar as a classical work, the role of performance and theatricality in the Zohar, as well as gestures and drama. This drama relies on a magic realism of sheltering trees, astounding cave discoveries, spirit birds, and magical herbs. In each of these, Fishbane analyses structural flow, rhetorical devices, and time sequence. He also used the method of narrative ethics to explain the role of ethics in the Zohar in which the ethic comes from the narrative and not from Kabbalistic symbolism. The book’s chapters have a clear, and sometimes heavy, didactic element in which he explains the literary term and quotes from literary critics who define the term before applying the terms to the Zohar.

The highlight of the book are the last two chapters correlating the poetics of the Zohar with both Jewish and Christian Spanish literature. He relied on this context earlier in the book when he compares the theatricality of the Zohar to the symbolic importance of gestures in medieval Christian liturgical drama and when he discussed the symbolism of the rose. I do however wonder whether the last chapters should have been placed in the beginning. First, give me the Spanish context and then show how each stylistic trait fits into this context, rather than detailing many stylistic traits and then surprising the reader by showing that is a medieval Spanish style.

Fishbane’s book is limited to the section of the Zohar that scholars colloquially called “guf haZohar.” This section is the product of a few circles of kabbalists working over a period of several decades in the late thirteenth century, possibly as a Castilian fellowship. His analysis does not include the over thirty other parts of the Zoharic corpus including the heihhalot, matnitin, Tikkune Zohar, Sitrei Otiot, or Idra. Fishbane says that he hopes to treat some of these other sections in a possible sequel.

The book deserves big congratulations. It is a well-done important book, a significant piece of scholarship, a game changer in Zohar studies. The book will change the manner in which Zohar will be taught in American universities and in adult education classes. I enjoyed reading it, so will your students. Woe to those who think this book is a mere monograph, happy are those who seen the great value in this book.

  1. Why do you like the Zohar? 

I find the Zohar to be endlessly fascinating, intellectually exciting, aesthetically and spiritually alluring. Like so many others, I have been drawn to this magnetic text since the earliest days of my studies and continue to return to it as a great work that reflects the summit of Jewish spiritual creativity and theological imagination.

There is much depth and beauty in these philosophical texts, but the Zohar speaks to the spiritual and theological yearnings of the poetic soul. Just as those of a certain artistic and spiritual bent turn to poetry instead of the more analytic nature of prose, so too does the Zohar beat with the pulse of spiritual artistry, brushing against the borders of the ineffable and the sublime in religious thought and experience.

2) Where are you differing from prior scholarship on the Zohar as literature?

This book is the first full-scale attempt to study the Zohar through methodologies inspired by literary and aesthetic criticism, notable — in part — as an effort to elucidate the text as a work of literary art. I think it is fair to say that no one has attempted or accomplished this prior to The Art of Mystical Narrative.

To be sure, there have been article-length efforts in this direction, and the work of Yehudah Liebes certainly pioneered the emphasis upon the crucial importance of the story of R. Shimon and his circle as the heart of the Zohar.

However, there is a great difference between work that explores the zoharic story and doing for the Zohar what Alter and Sternberg did for the Hebrew Bible, or what Kugel, Stern, Rubenstein (or Hasan-Rokem, Levinson, and Wimpfheimer) did for rabbinic literature.  I developed a multifaceted literary studies methodology for reading the Zohar and this, I suggest, is the innovative contribution of my work.

3) How does the Zohar compare to the Hebrew literature of its time?

One of the key new contributions of the book is my attempt to locate zoharic narrative within the broader landscape of medieval Iberian fiction and poetry, both Jewish and Christian. I specifically focus on the structural form of the frame-tale as a literary device in this time and place.

Isaac Ibn Sahula (b. 1244) wrote two separate works which embody the twin literary concerns of the Zohar, prose narrative and kabbalah. The first was his rhymed prose narrative, entitled Meshal ha-Kadmoni, and the other an explicitly kabbalistic commentary on the Song of Songs. But other key Jewish works compared in the book that seem similar to the Zohar include the Tahkemoni of Yehudah Al-Harizi and the Sefer Sha’ashuim of Joseph Ibn Zabara.

Though consideration of various thematic and structural criteria, I show how our understanding of the Zohar is enriched by considering it as a literary work that employs techniques and conventions of related contemporary non-mystical texts.

4) How does the Zohar compare to the general literature of its time?

Two non-Jewish parallels that I consider as influences on the Zohar are the Libro de Buen Amor (The Book of Good Love) of Juan Ruiz, and the Cantigas de Santa Maria of King Alfonso X El Sabio. Based on my literary analysis of select passages and parallels in the Zohar, I argue that the Zohar appears to have absorbed key features that were part of the larger folkloric and textual culture of this time and place.

One striking example is the source of the famous zoharic advocating against accepting the pure literalism of the Torah (where the wise are advised to look beneath the garments of Torah, and even within her body to the mystical soul of Torah). The source is the the prologue of Juan Ruiz to the Libro de Buen Amor, wherein the author exhorts his reader not to think that his book, which tells tales of seemingly crude lust and debauchery is truly only about the literal kind of lust that it appears to be. In truth the book is meant to teach figuratively about the mystery of divine love.

Ruiz puts it in the following way (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 400-401):

Do not think that this is a book of foolish nonsense (Non cuidedes que es libro de necio devaneo), and do not take as a joke anything that I recite in it, for, just as good money can be stowed in a worthless purse, so in an ugly-looking book lies wisdom that is not uncomely (assí en feo libro yaze saber non feo).

The fennel seed, on the outside blacker than a cooking pot, is very white inside, whiter than ermine; white meal lies within black covering (blanca farina yaze so negra cobertera); sweet white sugar lies inside the humble sugarcane.

Under the thorn lies the rose (So la espina yaze la rosa), a noble flower; in ugly letters lies the wisdom of a great teacher (en fea letra yaze saber de grand dotor)…, under a bad cloak lies good love (assí so mal tabardo yaze el buen amor).

Because the beginning and root of all good is the Holy Virgin Mary, therefore I, Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita, first of all composed a song about her seven Joys…” (Willis, ed., Juan Ruiz, Libro de Buen Amor, pp. 14–15)

In Chapter 6 (The Art of Mystical Narrative, p. 403), I compare these remarks with the much discussed zoharic passage about literalism and mystical meaning in interpreting the Torah. These include lines such as:

“Those fools, when they see someone in a good-looking garment, look no further”;

“Fools of the world look only at that garment, the story of Torah”; and

“Whoever thinks that the garment is the real Torah and not something else, may his spirit expire! He will have no share in the world that is coming!” (Zohar 3:152a)

5) What is the role of dramatization in the Zohar?

One of my core arguments in the book is that the stories of the Zohar are a kind of dramatic literature. In the process of speaking mystical secrets and encountering one another, the characters enact a near-theatrical mode of expression, performing their deep ambivalence and excitement over the disclosure of hidden matters.

The Zohar depicts performative fictional scenes as the context in which the homiletical mysticism is delivered and received. This dramatic element should be seen in the larger context of medieval frame-narratives—a convention of the intersecting literary worlds into which the Zohar was born.

6) What is the role of gestures?

A key aspect of this performative literature is the varied use of physical gestures to express emotion as well as to mark the rhythm and boundaries of different scenes and moments in the narrative. Such gestures include weeping, prostration, kissing, the raising and laying on of hands, sitting, standing, and walking.

Moshe Barasch studied “the language of gesture” among medieval visual artists— particularly in the paintings of the late thirteenth- and early fourteenth- century Italian master Giotto di Bondone (1266/7–1337). Barasch considered the ways in which medieval painters and sculptors utilized similar types of dramatic gesture that were employed in the Christian mystery plays of the period: forms of physical movement that often had to substitute for the spoken word, given that the majority of audience members would view the performance from a significant distance and without a set stage. This gave rise to a cluster of well-established, even stereotypical, gestures that could be interpreted by the audience from afar. Barasch develops the argument that Giotto is representative of dominant sociocultural views, around the year 1300, regarding the potent meaning of gestures in several intersecting realms of social relations, ritual performance, and literary imagination.

Perhaps most applicable to our present inquiry into the zoharic use of gesture, however, is Barasch’s observation— filtered somewhat through later Renaissance characterizations of Giotto’s work—that what “is striking about Giotto’s gestures is not only the aesthetic quality of variety, but their ability to show the figure’s inner life.”

Gestures in the Zohar frequently signify and dramatize interior emotional states; the authors of the Zohar utilize physical expression in their characters to communicate or reveal some inner thought or feeling that the narrators typically will not articulate in an omniscient fashion.” (86) And consider the following representative passage from the Zohar itself:

“R. Elazar came forth, placed his head between the knees of his father and told the story. R. Shimon became afraid and wept. R. Shimon wept and said: “From what I have heard, I too fear the Holy One blessed be He!” He raised his hands to his head and exclaimed: “How is it that you have merited to see R. Hamnuna Sava, Light of the Torah, face to face, and yet I have not merited it!” He fell on his face and saw [R. Hamnuna] uprooting mountains and lighting candles in the palace of the King Messiah.”(Zohar 1:7b)

7) How does soliloquy, embedded performance, and setting replace narration?

Like other literary dramatists the authors of the Zohar use the rhetorical device of dramatic monologue or soliloquy to convey the interiority of thought and emotion without inserting omniscient narration. More common than hearing a third-person narrator say, “character so-and-so felt or thought…,” a character will erupt in a monologue — much like a Shakespearean soliloquy uttered as audible interior thought — to communicate his own inner process and feeling.

The theatrics of disclosure, relations among the disciples, as well as the rhetoric of reverence for the master—all of these are realized by the narrator through a cluster of compositional techniques, each of which is effected through the use of dramatic monologue and dialogue. As the disciples encounter one another on their pedestrian journeys through the Galilean roads, and even more so, when they come before the master (R. Shimon) to receive the disclosure of kabbalistic wisdom, they exclaim about the overwhelming character of these secrets, the elevating and terrifying power involved in hearing their revelation.

Through the representation of dramatic speech, the zoharic narrators construct character intent; the modalities of monologue and dialogue serve as indirect methods for the authors to convey subtext and the interiority of emotion to the reader. (p57)

8) What is the role of encounters on the road?

Most of the Zohar’s narrative action takes place on the road of the characters’ journey through a fictionalized ancient Galilee in quest of mystical wisdom. Along this path, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his disciples will often encounter a person whom they hastily judge to be a simpleton and devoid of any mystical wisdom that they might receive. This expectation is generally turned on its head in a narrative process that I refer to as the poetics of recognition. This dramatic uncovering of true character locates the Zohar in the literary landscape of its time and place, where non-mystical storytellers also frequently utilize this literary motif.

As we see in the following passage from the Zohar:

“R. Hiyya and R. Yosi were walking in the desert. . . . After a while, they saw a man who was approaching with a load in front of him. R. Hiyya said: “Let’s walk on. Perhaps this man is a Gentile or an ignoramus, and it is forbidden to join with him on the way.” R. Yosi said: “Let’s sit here and see if perhaps he is a great man.”

After a while he passed before them and said: “In roughness of crossing, the cluster of this companionship is essential!9 I know another way—let’s turn away from this one. I must tell you so that I am not guilty before you, so that I do not violate what is written (Lev. 19:14): Before the blind you shall not place a stumbling block. For you are like blind men on the road, and you shouldn’t endanger your lives.” R. Yosi said: “Blessed is the Compassionate One that we waited here!” (Zohar 2:49a–49b)

In this instance, R. Hiyya’s initial skepticism is proven to be hasty and inaccurate, for the mysterious stranger turns out to be a wise man who is also able to save the mystical companions from danger on the road. As the text continues in the voice of R. Yosi:

“Didn’t I tell you that he is a great man?”

He opened and said (Prov. 3:13): “Happy is the person who finds wisdom, the person who attains understanding. Happy is the person who finds wisdom—like me, who found you and came to know a word of wisdom from you.

The person who attains understanding— like me, who waited for you, to join with you. This is the person for whom the Holy One blessed be He prepares, on the road, the face of Shekhinah. About this it is written (Prov. 4:18): The path of the righteous is like gleaming light, shining ever brighter until full day.”

9) What is the role of the rose in the Zohar? How does that compare to medieval literature?

The rose in the Zohar typically symbolizes Shekhinah, the tenth of the divine sefirot. In the Zohar characters encounter roses in their travels, leading to theological reflections. In the book, I discuss evocative comparative correlations to the symbolism of the rose in broader medieval literature, including in the class work, Roman de la Rose. One textual case from the Zohar is particularly instructive (Art of Mystical Narrative, p. 173):

He who wanders among the roses. (Song 2:!6) Just as this rose is red and its waters are white, so too does the Holy One blessed be He conduct His world from the Attribute of Judgment to the Attribute of Compassion. And it is written (Is. 1:18): If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow.

Abba was walking along the road, and with him was R. Yizḥaq. As they were walking, they happened upon some roses. Abba took one in his hands and walked on. R. Yosi met them, and said: “Surely Shekhinah is here, and I see that what is in R. Abba’s hands [is there] to teach great wisdom. For I know that R. Abba did not take this [rose] but for to show wisdom.” Abba said: “Sit, my son. Sit.” They sat. R. Abba inhaled the smell from that rose and said: “Surely the world’s existence depends upon scent! For we have seen that the soul’s existence [also] depends upon scent. And this [is the reason for the inhalation of the aroma of ] the myrtle [leaves] at the departure of Shabbat.”

He opened and said (Song 2:16): “My beloved is mine, and I am his—he who wanders among the roses. Who caused it to be that I am my beloved’s and that my beloved is mine? It is because He conducts His world through roses.

Just as the rose has a scent—it is red, and when it is distilled it turns to white, and still its scent never alters—so too does the Holy One blessed be He conduct His world in this way. For was this not the case, the sinner could not endure. The sinner is called ‘red,’ as it is said (Is. 1:18): If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow.” (Zohar 2:20a)

As I note in my analysis of this passage:

The characters who are presented in this passage serve to dramatize the process of metaphysical discovery within the structures and forms of the physical realm—through their interaction and speech they theatricalize the hermeneutical claims made in a homiletical voice on either side of the narrative piece. In this respect, the con- tents of the fiction and the exegesis are clearly integrated; R. Abba’s reflection on the cosmic meaning latent in the color and aroma of the rose fleshes out and clarifies the interpretive argument.

10) How is Zohar magical realism and personified nature?

Supernatural happenings in the world are represented as though they are perfectly normal and even realistic phenomena. At the very least, however, the authors of the Zohar believed that the world inhabited by R. Shimon and his disciples was an enchanted one — where, for example, a character wandering in the desert happens upon a gargantuan tree with a cave opening at its base. This opening reveals steps leading into a mysterious underworld overseen by a magical guardian, leading into a pathway of countless trees where souls fly on their way to the Garden of Eden.

The Zohar is indeed populated with such supernatural realia- magic, magic birds, especially eagles, spirit guides, magic herbs, creating an ambience of enchanted and mysterious spirituality and otherworldly sensation

Encounters with nature play a key role in the literary and mystical imagination of the zoharic authors. For the Zohar, the natural elements of the earthly realm refract higher mysteries about Divinity, and the wandering movement of the text is situated in the outdoor setting of the natural world.

For example, R. Shimon and his disciples are located beneath the shade of a tree on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and through a series of associations this mundane experience leads to rumination upon the supernal tree of life in the Divine Garden of Eden, to a sefirah represented by the royal pavilion (Apiryon) built by King Solomon from the cedars of Lebanon. Nature functions as a symbolic allusion to the supernatural; the physical points the mystic to the metaphysical.

11) What is the tension of road/cave or quests/stability?

The narratives of the Zohar are marked by the ongoing quest of the road, by the recurrent motif of mobility. This is interspersed with moments of pause and stillness, whether sitting in a field to pray or study, or entering a cave only to discover a hidden mystical manuscript therein.

In some cases, this newly discovered manuscript is imbued with heavenly magic and secrecy, erupting into fire and flying away from their hands upon reading it.

We also see several scenes where the zoharic characters stop for the night in a roadside inn — a phenomenon that was relatively widespread in late thirteenth century Spain, especially in light of recent royal edicts to provide such lodging to travelers. These nights spent at an inn also often prove to be times of mystical discovery in the depths of the night.

12)   If this is the Zohar, then why read Zohar instead of Lord of Rings, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones?

Certainly, it is a unique literary world unto itself, which is not reducible to these later instances of fantastic storytelling. But it does share certain features with the magical classics you mention here, the creation of a paranormal universe in which characters are transported beyond the bounds of our normal expectations within natural law.

13)      How is forgiveness portrayed? How is it a form of narrative ethics?

The Zohar gives the theme of idealized forgiveness is given a prominent place. The authors of the Zohar tell the tale of a character who experiences miraculous divine intervention, saving his life, because of his high virtue in always forgiving others for any wrong they may have committed against him. The Zohar compares this character to the biblical persona of Joseph who was called a righteous man precisely because of his ability to forgive his brothers for the grievous wrong they committed against him. Through this exemplum narrative, the reader of the text is guided toward the virtue of radical empathy and love, modalities of artistic evocation that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has shown to be the foundations of moral instruction. In the language of the Zohar (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 287-290):

“Rabbi Abba was sitting at the gateway of the gate of Lod. He saw a man come and sit in a dugout in a mound of earth. He was weary from the road, so he sat and fell asleep there. Meanwhile, [Rabbi Abba] saw a snake that was moving toward [the man].

Out came a honey badger, oozing an excretion, and killed it. When the man awoke, he saw that snake dead before him. He stood up, just as that dugout collapsed into the depths below, and he was saved.

Rabbi Abba came forward to him and said: “Tell me what you do, for behold the Holy Blessed One has performed these two miracles for you! It wasn’t for nothing !” The man said to him: “All my days, no person in the world ever did me evil without my reconciling with him and forgiving him.

And if I could not reconcile with him, I would not climb into bed until I forgave him and all those who hurt me. All of my days I never cared about the evil that they did to me. Not only that, but from that day on, I strive to do good to them.”

Rabbi Abba wept and said: “The deeds of this one are even greater than those of Joseph! As for Joseph, they were surely his brothers, and he had to have compassion for them. But what this one has done is greater than Joseph! It is fitting that the Holy Blessed One performs miracle upon miracle for him!” (Zohar 1:201b)

Narrative ethics is a mode of discourse in which a moral ideal is portrayed through story, often serving to stir understanding and compassion in the reader, helping her to realize how she ought to behave. As Martha Nussbaum has argued, art holds the power to evoke such ethical guidance in a way that philosophical analysis cannot. Art may move us to regard our fellow human beings with love and empathy. The Zohar too partakes of this widespread genre, and it is through its storytelling that the mystics often convey their highest moral ideals — conceptions of value and virtue that are, for them anyway, inextricable from mystical theology.

14)      How is hospitality portrayed?

Hospitality is a revered virtue, dramatized in the Zohar through exemplary narratives and then textured with homilies of mystical-moral midrash. In one remarkable instance (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 317-321), which is actually the source of our contemporary use of the term ushpizin (guests) for the sukkah, the Zohar tells the story of R. Hamnuna Sava who would invoke the presence of the divine sefirot into his sukkah.

Rav Hamnuna Sava, when he would enter the sukkah, he would rejoice and stand inside at the opening, and say: ‘Let us invite the Guests!’ He would set the table, stand on his feet, recite a blessing, and say: In sukkot you shall dwell, O seven days. Sit, exalted Guests, sit! Sit, Guests of faith, sit!

He would raise his hands in joy and say: ‘Happy is our portion, happy is the portion of Israel!’ For YHVH’s portion is His people, Jacob His own allotment (Deut. 32:9). Then he would sit.” (Zohar 3:103b)

The narrator adds, however, that it is imperative that one who invites these divine forces into his sukkah must give their portion of physical food to the actual human poor in his community, that he must provide a place for the hungry at his own sukkah table. The impoverished person here serves as the embodied form of divine presence, and the Zohar is clear that such charity and hospitality is necessary for the divine guests to remain in his sukkah.

For one who has a portion in the holy seed sits in the shade of faith to receive guests; to rejoice in this world and in the world that is coming. Nevertheless, he must bring joy to the poor. And what is the reason for this? Because the portion of those Guests whom he has invited belongs to the poor.

And he who sits in this shade of faith, inviting those supernal Guests, Guests of Faith, but doesn’t give [the poor] their portion, [the supernal Guests] all get up and leave him, saying (Prov. 23:6): Do not eat the bread of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies.

It follows that the table he has set is his own, and not that of the Holy One blessed be He. About him it is written (Malachi 2:3): I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festivals. Your festivals, and not My festivals. Woe to that person when those Guests of Faith get up from his table!” (Zohar 3:103b–104a)

 

Hipster Hasidic Pop-Art

Two years ago, I spoke at Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (VLJI) on contemporary spirituality about the use of pop-psych and contemporary non-Jewish spirituality in American Orthodox Jewish spirituality.  I presented a range from  Aryeh Kaplan’s use of Huxley to Abraham Twerski’s 12 step and self esteem psychology to those Orthodox spirituality books of the 21st century who are using Anne Lamont, Tony Robbins, and various new age concepts.

One of the attendees at the conference was Noa Lea Cohn, an Israeli graduate student in art history who wanted to apply my research to her field of contemporary orthodox art. I sent her a half dozen emails of bibliography on various aspects of the topic. In turn, she asked me to write an introduction for an exhibition catalog of a show she was curating on Hasidic pop -art as part of the Jerusalem Biennale called “Popthodox / Black Humor.”  

She called the exhibition Black Humor after the Israeli slang expression for the ultra-Orthodox, who are called “blacks” for the dominant color of their clothes, and exposes for the first time a new pop art genre called Pophoddox. The exhibition  wanted to show a two-way view: interior and exterior. The exhibition’s artists “use introspective, inner humor that belongs to the public in which they belong to the thin nuances within it. On the other hand, humor enables them to direct an external critical eye on themselves” as a “self-conscious stranger.”For her, it showed the sociological processes taking place under the radar in ultra-Orthodox society.

I was already familiar with several of the artists and already actually had a prepared lecture with a handout with some of the art as part of my Hasidut class.  Below was my short entry in the exhibition catalog. (There were several other entries more concerned with the art itself.)

Hipster Hasidic Pop-Art –Alan Brill

The Baal Shem Tov taught that the Creator is found in all things and that one should serve God in all of one’s ways. Hence, some Hasidic groups, especially Chabad, encourage their followers to use their God-given talents to serve the Almighty. Following this expansive view, some contemporary Orthodox artists serve God through creativity and individuality.

Contemporary Hasidism is not outside of culture nor does it have to bridge the worlds of art and Orthodoxy. Rather, Orthodoxy is embedded in the wider culture around it. One should not conceive of Chabad adherents as otherworldly nineteenth-century mystics, unfamiliar with technology and new ideas. Rather they are media savvy enough to create advertisements, appear on Oprah, and host non-Jewish Hollywood stars in their fundraisers. Hasidim walk the same streets, buy the same consumer goods, and use the Internet as everyone else. Media, graphic design, and popular culture are everywhere in their daily lives.

In recent years with Chabad’s strong emphasis on outreach, its adherents have become masters at using popular culture to bring in unaffiliated Jews. They might almost be considered another form of modern Orthodoxy in that they adopt a modern sense of urban life, media use, and material culture. In order to reach people they have created a rich world of popular psychology, motivational posters, graphic design, and cool evenings devoted to the cutting edge in food, eyeglasses, or design. Many young Chabad Hasidim work in web design or online marketing, so they are well aware of recent trends and are conversant with Photoshop.

One does not have to go to art school to learn about the official pop art of the 1960s. Rather, people with open eyes appreciate the graphic designs that are all around them. The famous designs of the 1960s of Milton Glazer, Peter Max, and Robert Indiana continue to inspire artistic descendants to create pop art on packaging, on housewares, on children’s toys, and on city streets. In living their embedded life in the vibrancy of New York City, Chabad Hasidim are exposed to the pop styles of Keith Haring, David Hockney, and Barbara Kruger. From daily life, they know of the commercialized images of commodified art such as famous cartoon characters, as well as the pop use of them.

Strictly religious cultures create an interest inversion: the more religious it is, the more a particular group has to create its own art. The paradox is that the more the Orthodox community becomes part of an open society, the more it partakes of the general secular culture, and the more it experiences its own sectarianism. When this happens, it must descend into the realm of popular culture in order to produce more accessible products for the Orthodox community.[1]

Since the 1990s there has been a trans-Atlantic hipster subculture of young creatives who distinguish themselves by their quest for authenticity, especially in material culture, as well as by a lifestyle distinguished by its rejection of mass produced consumerism.[2] Journalists noted a subtrend of cross acculturation of Chabad Hasidism and hipster subculture in which the former were seen to adopt various cultural affinities similar to the local hipster subculture.[3] In the hipster Hasidic pop art trend, they have given up the more sentimental and romantic images of dancing Hasidim done as illustrative realism in favor of depicting their authentic lives with the contemporary popular culture they live within

Those in the world of Hasidic hipster religious pop art do not think that art has to have an overt outreach message and be adaptable for a worship service. Rather, they strive for emotional vibrancy and honesty. In this approach, there is a need to be able to see eyn od milvado, all things as connected to God, as a total celebration of Judaism. Many young Orthodox Jews note “there is nothing besides Him” as their religion on Facebook. The question is not whether or not pop art should be used to convey a religious message; rather anything can be used, as long as one believes it will lead to authenticity and commitment.

This is part of the larger trend of religion and religious art around them. Just as Hasidim appeal to finding God in all things, contemporary hipster Evangelicals appeal to the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the riches of art, even art that does not line up with their theology. Many Evangelical pastors are following the lead of hipster trendsetters blurring the lines of cool and religion.

Evangelicals want to leave behind the early decades when, owing to their sole focus on outreach, religious art was fuddy-duddy, kitsch, and unconcerned with broader trends. They are even ironic about these earlier trends. Now they can portray Christian images as pop art with hipster sensibility. Conversely, they offer a redemptive gesture toward the objects of the recent past, in this case pop art.[4]

Hipster Christian pop art culture makes extensive use of the hipster interpretive tool of irony and suspicion of popular mainstream culture, thereby allowing multiple perspectives. For some, this is a path for moving out of the constraining community. For others it is a limited rebellion against conservative elements. Hipster Christianity sends mixed signals.[5]

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The Hasidic pop art in this exhibit shows a similar spectrum from the colorful to the mild rebellion to the critique of the system. Some use the art as a criticism of their social limits and some are already pointing outward toward new lives. They are not all inside the system; rather, there are those who are completely in the system, those who have minor adaptations to the system, and others who are already looking at the community with a sense of distance.

On the one hand, we have Moully with his goal of showing that Hasidim are not homogeneous and that they can appreciate color and pop art. His emphasis is on individuality and creativity. Moully was even featured on a program featuring Oprah’s exploration of the Hasidic community of Crown Heights in 2012. Her religious teachings of individual spiritual journey are filtering down into Orthodoxy. (Notice the Individuality of the Orange Socks.)

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On the other hand, we have those who use their art for more sustained social criticism. Shai Azouly shows the incongruity of Hasidic life with many ordinary aspects of daily living even when not prescribed by religious law or tradition. The Hasid with a well-coiffed poodle highlights a contradiction between the community’s aesthetic and social practices and the wider world, while his image of Hasidim gathered around a museum exhibition of a dinosaur illuminates the problematics in the Hasidic intellectual world.

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In a similar perspective, Yiddy Lebowits draws attention to professions that are currently not associated with being Hasidic, such as doctor, fireman, astronaut, or tai chi instructor. The art allows one to push against the current aspirational limits of the community.

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We see a very different approach in the bricolage of Yom Tov Blumenthal, who portrays a football player as getting his power from Kabbalah, as indicated by the magical emblems all over his uniform. The image plays with the meaning of power and strength: does strength actually come from religious ritual or can this ritual be compared to secular strength.

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Finally, Anshie Kagan’s defining “Hashem is here” with the digital icon of a pinpoint in the way places are defined on a GPS or foursquare is highly insightful for its misplaced concreteness and irony, which leads us to reconsider what it means when we say God is here.

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In the work of all of these artists, the use of pop designs allows for an isolated individual image without background or landscape. In many ways, this is a reflection of the artists themselves grappling with issues beyond their Hasidic backgrounds. In the absence of meta-narratives, atomized individuals follow media inspired mini-trends. The show thrives on the fact that nothing is black and white. Even when it is ironic, it acknowledges that there is also a post-ironic.

Postmodern religion, including much of Chabad, accepts its role as a commodity more than as authentic spirituality. But the semi-ironic gives place for the non-commodified change in people’s lives. The pop art leads to utopian change through its use of irony, immanence, and individuality. The art re-establishes a critical distance between the individual and his society, and recognizes the need for an examination of the material condition of the religious life. Popular culture plays, and will continue to play, an increasing role in Orthodoxy, as one needs products that relate to the first-person journey through life.

[1] Many of these ideas are further developed in Alan Brill, “The Emerging Popular Culture and the Centrist Community,” in Developing a Jewish Perspective on Culture. Ed. by Yehuda Sarna. (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2014) 16–66.

[2] Bjørn Schiermer, “Late-Modern Hipsters: New Tendencies in Popular Culture,” Acta Sociologica 57:2 (October 8, 2013) 167–181; Linton Weeks, “The Hipsterfication of America” (November 17, 2011) https://www.npr.org/2011/11/16/142387490/the-hipsterfication-of-america (accessed October 12, 2018).

[3] Nicole Greenfield, “Birth of Hipster Hasidism?” Religion Dispatches (February 2, 2012).

[4] James Bielo, Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity (New York: NYU Press, 2011), showed how the quest for authenticity of the 1960s counterculture fed into the turn to Evangelical Christianity in later decades. There is a similar connection in Judaism.

[5] Brett McCracken, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2010).

Nick Rynerson, “The Problem with Writing Off ‘Un-Christian’ Art,” MAR 12, 2013 christandpopculture.com (accessed October 12, 2018).