Author Archives: Alan Brill

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]

hipster-christianity-jesus1-1024x527

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.)

orange-socks-moully-art3

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.

poodle-shay

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.

rebbe-fish

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.

yom+tov+blumenthal-player

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.

hashem+is+here

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).

Interview with Daniel Reiser –  Imagery Techniques in Modern Jewish Mysticism

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piacetzna (1889-1943), also known as the “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto” left behind a series of books on educating teenagers and newly married men, a diary of his Holocaust sermons, and variety of visualization techniques that he used in his work to create a modern Chassidus in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman emphasized the use of imagination and vision within Torah. We are to imagine the events in the weekly Torah study as if we are there and with vivid imagery, we imagine the Biblical stories in sermons, we use the vivid element of the midrash to teach and we are to engage in specific techniques of visualization to achieve closeness to God. We can even, if needed, image God for praying. This visionary quality is what gives his tragic Holocaust sermons delivered in the Warsaw ghetto such pathos. Daniel Reiser wrote his dissertation and subsequent book on these visionary meditations. The book was translated last year.

reiser2

Dr. Daniel Reiser is the director of the Department of Jewish Thought at Herzog Academic College and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious and Spiritual studies at Zefat Academic College. He received his PhD in Jewish Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

His book Imagery Techniques in Modern Jewish Mysticism (deGruyter, 2018)   analyzes and describes the development and aspects of imagery techniques. In Reiser’s opinion these techniques, in contrast to linguistic techniques in medieval Kabbalah and in contrast to early Hasidism, have all the characteristics of a full screenplay, a long and complicated plot woven together from many scenes. Reiser compares Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira’s techniques to those of his contemporary Menachem Eckstein and to Musar visualization techniques. The Hebrew edition won The World Union of Jewish Studies Matanel Prize for the best book  in Jewish Thought published during the years 2013-2014.  Here is the Table of Contents.

Reiser’s work on Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira visualization lead to his editing of a new edition of the Warsaw ghetto sermons.

To return to the visualization method of the Piesetzna, he exhorted his students not to limit oneself to one’s first image, rather to cultivate an entire imagery approach to Torah. “Train yourself to expand your thinking, and relate all that you know about the Temple” to your mental image of the Temple. One should think that this Temple image is “the place where God’s Presence can literally be seen and which the Torah commands us to visit three times a year. Why? In order to behold the countenance of the Lord God of hosts.”

These visualization of the themes of prayer and of the weekly Torah study are a continuous activity.  The Piesetzna advocates: “even at times other than the regular prayers, it is recommended that a person practice such imagery, so that when it is time to pray, he will be able to conjure such an image immediately… Even in your spare time, think of such images, so that when you are at prayer it will be as though you are standing in the Temple, etc. Thus, when you come to pray, it will be easier to arouse fervor within yourself.

Rather than a Judaism of emotions, volition, or intellect, neo-chassidic enthusiasm, submission to the law, or conceptual analysis of Torah, here we have a fourth option. A Torah of the imagination. Reiser shows how this Torah of the imagination is linked to a renewal of prophecy in early 20th century Jewish thought.

Reiser, however, does not deal with the basics of Kalonymous Kalman’s thought, presupposing his reader knows them already. He also does not address the full life and corpus of the Piesetzna limiting himself to his techniques. For those unfamiliar with the corpus of the Piesetzna, I highly recommend the book by Ron Wacks available in Hebrew as Lahavat Eish Kodesh and in English as 36 online lessons on the VBM.

This blog has dealt with many of these issues before including Tomer Persico’s broad survey book on Jewish meditation and Menachem Ekstein’s visualization techniques. I also published observations when I returned from a conference on meditation (here and here) and have dealt with Aryeh Kaplan in three posts.  There is still much to write about the Piesetzna and there are several fine unpublished dissertations on his spirituality.

Unfortunately, the English edition of the book costs a fortune therefore the causal English readers will likely rely on the popular and much less reliable presentations on this topic. One final note, the book is very Israeli. It focuses on tracing the ideas to prior texts.It is very unlike current approaches in contemplation studies which are interdisciplinary explorations of psychology, neuroscience and comparative religion.  American graduate programs also integrate practice, critical subjectivity, and character development, this thesis is very rational. For an example of the American approach, see here.

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  1. How did you get interested in Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira?

When I was 21, I went into a store of old and used books in Jerusalem. I saw a small booklet there, at a cost of 1 NIS. It was written on it The Obligation of the Students, Warsaw 1932. The year and location and of course the price drew my attention and caused me to buy the book. I was then drawn to the author’s unique language, full of pathos and ethos. That was the beginning.

Subsequently, it was not easy to get the rest of his books but with the help of a friend I acquired the book “Hachsharat Ha’avrechim” and his other books. I immediately saw that this was an unusual figure, full of spirit and relevant. And the rest was history.

2. What is Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s conception of prophecy?

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira associates imagery exercises done in contemporary times with prophecy. Practicing guided imagery develops a new internal sense, and with that new talent people will be able to gain prophecy.

According to the Shapira, biblical prophecy has two sides to it, the personal and the social. The Prophet has an individual personal attachment to God. However, at the same time his influence has an impact on the surrounding society. His interest in prophecy is both – personal and to influence others to seek prophecy.

The essence of prophecy is a constant cleaving with God, which makes it possible for man to achieve Holy Spirit. Kalonomous Kalman describes this in terms of light: the prophet is filled with the “light of God.” He thus serves as a projector for the dissemination of light to society, which is “full of splendor, they radiate brightness” (El Adon).

Since the prophet is filled with light, he wants to bring it to the people, to let it radiate. Biblical prophecy bring a message to society which is its radiation. It is not a personal enlightenment as in Buddhism. but always with a message. One can call it Jewish spiritual enlightenment or Jewish prophecy in that it always has a social message. Yorem Jacobson assumed this was also true about early Hasidism.

3. What is the role of imagination in Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s thought?

For Kalonymous Kalman Shapira imagination has 2 roles: (1) To prepare man for prophecy (2) To empower any religious experience, that is, to transform any normative religious experience into a more powerful experience which is called a mystical experience.

Similar to the role of hot pepper placed in food to enhance its taste so is imaginative imagery added to other experiences such as Torah study, prayer, dance and music and makes them an experience of contact with the divinity.

4. What role does imagination play for Rabbi Shapira in Torah and prayer?

Shapira stresses that Torah study is not just intellectual and informative learning. Imagery makes learning experiential. Anyone who imagines that he lives far away from his father for many years and suddenly receives an envelope with a letter from his father will obviously be moved and shaken when he opens the envelope and then reads the letter eagerly, over and over again. Thus, one who imagines that learning Talmud is to receive a love letter from God, then all his learning will be full of experience. He will have more motivation to learn. In other words, the imaginative faculty enables empowering Torah learning from an intellectual act to an experiential one.

The same applies to prayer. Institutional prayer is routine and sometimes boring – imagination can “light” it and make it relevant. You cannot compare those who say routinely and banally “And we will be our descendants … We all know your name and learn your Torah for its own sake,” to those who say this while they imagine their children one by one and plead that they will continue their parent’s tradition.

5. How did Kalonymous Kalman Shapira come to these ideas?

Good question. The first role of imagination, namely, the preparation of the prophecy, is based on medieval Jewish philosophy, and especially on Maimonides, who discusses in the Guide for the Perplexed the vital and central role of the “imaginative faculty” in the phenomena of prophecy. Maimonides spoke only theoretically while Shapira offered practical exercises to realize this vision.

The second role of imagination in the empowerment of a religious experience – I do not know – it seems original. Although Rabbi Shapira based his techniques on early Kabbalah and Hasidism, his enormous project – the addition of imagination to every action and religious action – is original and has no serious precedents.

In prior centuries, we can only find traces of such an emphasis on imagination in Abulafia’s school of Kabbalah, which use linguistic imagery techniques, where you imagine the Hebrew letters and different linguistic variations.

At the beginning of Hasidism, we find similar imagery techniques. However, they are characterized by being limited to one short scene such as imagining oneself jumping into the fire to die a maryrs death, by R. Elimelech of Lizhensk.  I am not aware of full imagery techniques of an entire imagined script, as Shapira developed. (In my opinion, a script that is not inferior to a modern full movie).

6) What role does imagination play in his meditation techniques?

Shapira’s Imagery exercises are meditation! (I define meditation as a human effort to reach an experience of divine presence). This is not the current [Vipassana] Buddhist type of meditation of emptying the consciousness but a meditation of mind filling, which has strong roots in Judaism, as Tomer Persico showed in his book on Jewish meditation.

Yet even with antecedents in Jewish meditation practice Shapira is unique in his approach. He brought the imagery exercises in Judaism to a highpoint beyond any antecedents. We mentioned above that he developed very long imaginative exercises similar to a cinema script, which was never done before him. In this he was groundbreaking.

He also has imagery exercises that I would call sub-categories of prophecy, but not a direct prophecy. In these exercises one imagines God in one way or another and thus man demonstrates and presents God in his private life. (See #7)

7)      Why does Shapira allow one to visual God? What does God look like?

Shapira permits in one case an imaginal corporealization of God. He even uses halakhic terminology in order to grant halakhic justification to the practice.

 A person, who is in such a situation at the beginning of his growth and expansion of his thought, can rely on the Rabad (Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières), who comments that a physical being who utilizes images, may visualize this…  As for you, as a member of the fraternity, in a time of distress you should visualize yourself standing before the Throne of Glory, praying and beseeching from God like a son who cries and pleads before his father(Benei Maḥshavah Ṭovah, 18-20).

Mostly Shapira does not go that far in this visualization and prefers not to imagine God as an image but rather uses – what I call – imaginal substitutions. For example, he suggested contemplating the heavens and similar entities as a barrier separating prayer from God. By doing so, one can indirectly turn to God and stand before him, without needing to directly engage with the problem of corporealization of God. Or he encourages visualize the Holy Name of the tetragrammaton, which is an old technique that goes back to the Hekhalot literature.

Shapira radically pointed out quite radically a visualization of God, an insight that Rabbi Kook also insisted on.

Even though an error in divine matters is very damaging, nevertheless, the primary aspect of the damage,which is drawn from the flawed concepts, is not actualized, to the point that one who has [these flawed conceptions] is to have a soul-death (mitat ha-neshamah), only when he actualizes [them] in deed … However, as long as the matter is in an abstract form, this is not a fundamental heresy (aqirah). And in this we are close to R. Abraham ben David’s reasoning, in which he objected to Maimonides’ calling someone who believes in God’s corporeality a heretic (min).We can agree that as long as the man who corporealizes does not make an idol or [a physical] image, behold, he has not completed his thought, and it still remains in the company of the spirit, which is not able to be considered heresy and a departure from religion. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, Shemonah Qevaṣim (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2004), 1:8–9

The Torah forbids the making of a statue/icon – an actual action and object but they do not reject the use of mental images. Imagination is permitted because it is abstract and is not really a materialization of God. Shapira permits to imagine God as light, and stresses that his halachic permission is just post factum for those who need it to pray more deliberately (with Kavvanah) but should not be used ideally.

 8) What do you like most about Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira? 

I like his honesty. He shares with the reader his dilemmas, which he does not hide, and his difficulties. This type of writing is not too common in Jewish-Orthodox writings. In addition, dealing intensively with prophecy surprised me – especially in the 20th century and especially the desire to renew it – and not just for elite individuals, but he designated and assigned prophesy also for simple people.

9)      What are the imagery techniques in Menachem Ekstein’s writings?

In 1921 a short Hebrew book was published in Vienna, entitled Tena’ei HaNefesh LeHasagat HeHasidut [Mental Conditions for Achieving Hasidism] by Rabbi Menachem Ekstein (1884-1942). The author was a Dzików Hasid, from Rzesów in the center of western Galicia, who immigrated to Vienna following World War I. The reader will immediately notice that modern issues of psychology, such as self-awareness, split mind, and complex, daring “guided imagery” exercises, appear and play a central role in this book.

Ekstein’s imagery exercises are a kind of an astral journey in which a person imagines himself flying in the sky and wandering through the world and seeing everything from above – continents, states, animals, seas and lakes and humans. These exercises are very universal and very long.

At first sight they do not seem to have any religious aspects, however they are intended to bring the person to an experience of integration with creation, and creation is presented as a reflection of God.

In addition, he develops Ratso va-Shov (running and returning) exercises in which the person imagines something, enters it psychologically and then imagines the opposite. For example: a person imagines the great joy of a wedding and as in a good dream he really experiences the joy and the love. Then suddenly he imagines the opposite – the couple divorcing, with great anger and bitterness. These exercises are designed by Ekstein to develop full control over our feelings. When a person wants, then he is happy and when he wants, he is sad.

10)      What are the musar techniques in the Lithuanian Yeshivot? How are they different than Shapira’s?

In the Musar movement, Imagery techniques were used, but not for the purpose of attaining adherence to God or achieving an experience of religious amazement, but rather for developing concern and fear from “the great and terrible day of judgment.”

Israel Lipkin of Salant (1810-1883), the founder of the Musar movement said:

The wicked know that their path leads to death, but they have fat on their kidneys that prevents that realization from entering their hearts… . And it can only be established through the expansion of the soul’s ecstasy, expanding the idea through sensory imagery, (Israel Lipkin, Or Yisra’el, ed. I. Blazer (1900), 29 (letter 7).

The imagery techniques revolve around the imagery of death. A person imagines his bitter end and therefore distanced himself from sin and idleness.

Lipkin’s student, R. Simḥah Zissel (Broida) Ziv (1824-1898), also emphasized this and taught the use of visual contemplation for the obtainment of fear, “for fear is built upon images (ṣiyurim);”

He shall remember the day of his death’ that our sages spoke of… meaning, he shall remember a [visual] depiction (ṣiyur) of the day of his death, and so shall he visualize all types of sufferings, how much he will suffer for transgressing the laws of the Torah, and this is very beneficial for being cautious of sin.  (Ḥokhmah u-Musar (1957), 383; 56-57)

Nevertheless, it is possible to find in the Musar movement more positive elements – such as creating a religious impression in the human psyche and deepening living faith. Already Lipkin called on several occasions for the use of the imaginative faculty in connection to experience in general, and excitement in learning in particular, “[One should] learn with burning lips, with a proper idea, a broad imagination (be-ṣiyur) broadening all matters, and bring within him proximate images, until the heart will become impassioned, to whatever degree.”(Or Yisra’el, 22).

11)   What have you found of similarities to mesmerism and modern psychology such as Théodule-Armand Ribot 1839-1916 in Eastern European visualization techniques?

Mesmerism was the name given by German doctor Franz Mesmer in the 18th century to what he believed to be an invisible natural force, “supernal fluid” (“fluidum”),  possessed by all living things. He believed that by controlling this fluid he can heal physical and psychological illnesses. In addition, he held of the existence of a hidden power that exists in the world and passes from one person to another and allows one person’s unconscious to influence another (“suggestion”).

The French psychologist Theodola-Armand Ribot (1839-1916) published essays on the creative imagination in 1900 (Essai sur l’imagination créatrice, translated into Hebrew in 1921). His model of “creative imagination” in which imagination creates the world around us rather than vice versa in which the world molds our imagination. Usually a person sees a certain reality and then imagines it. For example, in many dreams a person dreams of events that he has seen and experiences in his life. That is, imagination is an imitation of reality. However, the “creative imagination” model maintains that in some cases imagination precedes reality and that man can imagine something that he has never actually seen. For example, No one has actually seen an angel in real life and then described it using his imagination. Rather the imagination is primary, it creates the angel.  In this case, a vision of an angel is not imitating reality but rather creating it! we write about angels we pain them etc. and this reality is drawn from the imagination.

These ideas French and German ideas clearly appear in Menachem Ekstein’s doctrine. By using these concepts, Rabbi Yekutiel Aryeh Kamelhor, Ekstein’s Rabbi and teacher, explains the “elevation of the Soul,” (Aliyat Neshama) which is the phenomenon described in the Baal Shem Tov’s famous letter which he wrote to Israel (in 1744) to his brother-in-law. In that letter the Baal Shem Tov describes the elevation of his soul to the upper spiritual worlds – what he saw and what he heard.

Hasidic Jews had access to these ideas via their precis in M. A. Zilbershtrom, “Ha-Hipnaṭizmos,” (Hypnotism) in Kenneset ha-Gedolah, ed. Yiṣḥaq Sovelski (Warsaw: Ḥayyim Kelter, 1889), 41-56. In this Hebrew article, Zilbershtrom delineates the history of hypnosis, beginning with Franz Mesmer until its current state.

Natan Ophir has shown an interesting similarity between Shapira’s silencing technique and elements found in the “self-remembering” teachings of Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1949) and his pupil Peter Demianovich Ouspensky (1878–1947). But in my book, I disagreed with these parallels since I consider Gurdjieff’s method as having phenomenological differences and I did not see direct influence. Yet, it was an interesting possibility.

12)   Do you practice these techniques? Do you teach people these techniques?

No. My students at Zefat Academic College complain to me, asking: how can I write about imagery techniques with great enthusiasm without practicing them? They say it’s like writing about love without experiencing love. My answer is that they may be right, but I am not perfect. It just does not suit me. I am too rational to practice imagery or any other kind of meditation. I’m a kind of a “Litvak” who is interested in Hasidism. I find in Hasidism amazing psychological insights, but I am not the type seeking for emotional experiences and therefore I am far from any kind of spiritual journeys.

13)   How does your approach differ from others who have written on Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira?

Zvi Leshem dealt with the full range of the practices of Shapira. He dealt with the imagery of the Piaseczner, along with other practices such as melody, drinking alcohol, dance, etc. However, I did not relate to imagery as another practice alongside other practices, but rather as a practice that adds to all other practices, similar to hot pepper that you add to other things and empower their own taste. I applied the concept of “empowerment”, which I learned from Jess Hollenbeck’s studies. To empower any religious experience, that is, to transform any normative religious experience into a more powerful experience which is called a mystical experience.

14) How did you move from the imagery techniques to work on Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira’s Holocaust writings?  Do you find the Holocaust work just as satisfying as the visualization writing?

I came to it accidentally!! I went to the Jewish archives in Warsaw to examine his mystical writings written before the Holocaust, and then I saw that the printing edition of his sermons from the time of the Holocaust was unreliable. So, I understood that a new edition was needed. Believe me, I did not really enjoy working on it, but I have done it in order to have a revised and reliable edition as the author would want it to be.

Dealing with these sermons was heartbreaking and tormenting for me. I do not recommend this for anyone. Writing about visualization was uplifting but dealing with the Holocaust was the opposite. In spite of this fact – without any rational explanation – I cannot escape research of the Holocaust. The more I run away from it the more it chases me. I found more and more materials dealing with the holocaust that I must publish, and I am asked to referee papers in Holocaust studies and etc.

 

 

Tomer Persico Responds to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Here is the third of a series of responses to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s Biblical centered Judaism that converges with Christian Zionists. The first response by Rabbi Arie Folger was here.  The second response was by Nechemia Stern and the third is by Tomer Persico.

Tomer Persico is the Koret Visiting Assistant Professor of Jewish and Israel Studies, Dept. of Near Eastern Studies, Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, Center for Jewish Studies at U. C. Berkeley, and Shalom Hartman Institute Bay Area Scholar in Residence. He is also the author of  Jewish Meditation: The Development of Spiritual Practices in Contemporary Judaism [Hebrew] which we dedicated two long blogs to an interview about his book – Part I and Part II

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Evangelical Christian Zionists 

The Jewish Religious-Zionist and Evangelical-Zionist romance is heartwarming. After two millennia of a tense, at times absolutely deadly, relationship, it is certainly a comfort to see the hatchet buried and old bygones be bygones. As is well known, a lively romance includes a subtle play of revealing and concealment. I do however believe that Rabbi Wolicki has invested a bit too much on the concealing side. He is certainly right when he says that “there are many different kinds of Christian Zionists”, and indeed, many of them are not deeply invested in end-time predictions and visions of the coming Armageddon. And yes, most of Christian Zionism is about being a part of the simple fulfillment of the words of biblical prophets on the return of the people of Israel to their promised land.

But when he states that “Christian Zionists [don’t] think about the Book of Revelations end game nearly as much as Jews think they do” it’s important to understand which Christian Zionists we are talking about. If we’re talking about the many volunteers working in different centers in settlements in Judea and Samaria, that might be true. But if we are talking about their leaders, it is false in at least a few important examples.

Let’s take two prominent Christian Zionist leaders – the ones that President Trump chose to speak at the inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem: Pastors John C. Hagee and Robert James Jeffress Jr.. Hagee is founder and chairman of the Christians United for Israel organization, and Jeffress is a passionate supporter of Israel and Israel’s right-wing government.

Both have also written quite a lot about what they foresee in Israel’s future. In his 2015 book (whose sub-headline did not age well) Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning, Jeffress writs that “There is a Millennium coming. Jesus is going to sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem”. Based on the bible Jeffress predicts that “a future invasion of Israel by certain nations to the north and east of Israel” and insists that “It won’t be long now”.

Hagee strikes a similar tune. According to his 2006 book Jerusalem Countdown “The final battle for Jerusalem is about to begin. Every day in the media you are watching the gathering storm over the State of Israel”. Hagee is much more detailed then Jeffress. He predicts a “nuclear showdown with Iran”, aided by Russia, that will “sweep the world toward Armageddon”. Some of the Jews in Israel will be saved, some not. All shall be free from their “spiritual blindness […] concerning the identity of Jesus Christ as Messiah”, as Christ will be descending from heaven. “I believe”, Hagee sums up, “that my generation will live to see Him sitting on the throne of King David on the Temple Mount in the city of Jerusalem.”

These are very clear words. Both Jeffress and Hagee expect the terrible war of Armageddon quite soon, and the Jewish people to become quite Christian. It is one thing to say that notwithstanding a few theological disagreements we, as Jews, appreciate the support of these generous Christians and agree to delay the argument over the exact scenario of the End of Days to the end of days. It is another thing to pass over these disagreements and present a harmonious picture of a mutual messianic path and/or vision. No such mutual path or vision exists.

Rabbi Wolicki writes that “there is a lot more talk of the Christian beliefs in rapture and the millennial kingdom from Jews who are suspicious of Christian motives than there is among Christian Zionists”, but I think that two whole books on the rapture and the millennial kingdom from two central Christian Zionist figures is not something we can brush gently under the rug.

One last thing. Rabbi Wolicki says that he “categorically reject[s] the notion that Islam believes in the same God as we do”, and that only Jews and Christians actually believe in the same God. But Pastor Jeffress differs. In the book mentioned above he writes that “As followers of Christ, we do not share a ‘generic’ God with other religions […] Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in one God, but not in the one, true God. All three believe in one God, but not in the same God.” It seems others can play this triumphalist game.

Now, I’m not going to deny Rabbi Wolicki’s main point on this subject: yes, Muslims do not take the Hebrew Bible to be a canonized text the way Christians do. But perhaps our objective should be finding what’s mutual between the religious traditions, not what they’re antagonistic about, and certainly not bicker about who’s got the best God. The latter path is taken by those who wish to keep the antagonism alive, and it’s a pity that our Christian friends are that kind of people.

Nehemia Stern responds to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Here is the second of a series of responses to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s Biblical centered Judaism that converges with Christian Zionists. The first response by Rabbi Arie Folger was here. 

Nehemia Stern has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University. His research focuses on contemporary forms of Jewish religious Zionism in Israel. Currently he is a Post-Doctoral Fellow and Adjunct lecturer in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ariel University in Samaria. We featured on the blog Dr. Stern’s MA thesis on Post-Orthodoxy and the changes of 21st century Orthodoxy in 2010 and the thesis is now available online

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In a recent article of Stern’s, he showed how the direct turn to the Bible in Religious Zionist circles is parallel the early Zionist turn. The Bible is now being used as a direct source to debate conscientious objection to military service in which “Biblical texts are often intimately intertwined in particular social and political contexts that are “publically manipulated, pushed and pulled by different social actors.” In his article, Stern compares the Israeli use of the Bible to the work of James Bielo in his studies of the Evangelical community in which Bielo shows the “social life of the Scriptures’” (2009). Working off his ethnographic studies of Christian Evangelical Bible study groups, Bielo argues that “the social life of the Bible” is not simply a matter of reading and exegesis but includes various forms of action in the world’ (2009, 160).

In his response below, Stern offer a variety of directions to think about this Evangelical and Religious Zionist convergence.

Christian and Jewish Religious Zionism: Between an ‘Oy Gevalt’ and a ‘Hallelujah’

By Nehemia Stern

Jews have been debating the fine line between ‘inter-faith’ and ‘intra-faith’ relations with Christianity since about the time Saul (later Paul) saw the light and fell to the ground on his way to Damascus. Currently, with the establishment and flourishing of the State of Israel, and the return of the Jewish People to their native lands, a conversation that was perhaps cut off prematurely has since reemerged, and with renewed vigor.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki forcefully argues that the relationship between Christian Zionism and Jewish religious Zionism is an intra-faith one that “expands upon common points of faith and builds the relationship around what is shared”.   According to Wolicki, what is shared between Christian and Jewish religious Zionism is not necessarily a similar theological attempt to “understand and systematize” our understanding of God, but rather a focus on some of the same foundational Biblical and prophetic texts. Both Jewish religious Zionists in Israel and Evangelical Christian Zionists share similar ways of interpreting scriptural lessons as well as “the role that people of faith play in historical processes”. The return of Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel is the precondition for this ‘intra-faith’ relationship.

As an anthropologist of religion who has specifically focused on religious Zionism in Israel, I have to ask: when does a close resemblance between two faiths turn into something uncomfortably familiar? Anthropologists love cross-cultural observations, so I’d like to make a few.

Both Christian and Jewish religious Zionists see in the reestablishment of Jewish statehood after 2000 years of exile a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. For Jewish religious Zionists this return creates an opportunity to refocus educational and religious attention to the biblical text itself. Rabbi Wolicki used the phrase Bible-believing invoking a Protestant sense of sola scriptura. Similar to evangelical Christians (and Martin Luther’s scriptural return), some Jewish religious Zionists directly engage with biblical stories and biblical characters in ways that sometimes marginalize accepted rabbinic tradition. In contemporary Israel this technique is called Tanach b’gova einayim or reading the Bible at eye level- reading the Bible outside of the traditional commentaries. Here the faults and foibles of characters like Jacob, Samson, or David are critical in understanding the Bible’s moral, social, or political lessons. This technique is controversial among some Jewish religious Zionists precisely because it forces the classical medieval biblical interpretations of Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra etc. to take second place to a straightforward reading of scripture.

In a recent academic article of mine titled The Social Life of the Samson Saga in Israeli Religious Zionist Rabbinic Discourse, I demonstrated how various groups of religious Zionists debate their own contemporary political differences through their interpretations of the Biblical tales of Samson. These ‘eye level’ interpretations I argued, are a textual method through which religious Zionists debate not just the narrative of Samson itself but also the very current political and moral questions surrounding issues like personal vengeance towards Palestinians, assimilation, and sexual impropriety. The social life of passages of the Bible becomes a means by which to justify or critique the violence of  Israel’s contemporary Hilltop Youth. For example, a minor textual difference in how the Meforshim (the classical medieval Rabbinic commentators) read Samson’s final call for vengeance in Judges 16:28 can be used by more modern observers to justify violent acts of personal vengeance against Palestinians just as they can also serve as the basis for more statist responses to terror.

Evangelical Christians generally share a similar relationship with Biblical texts. They too seek an unmitigated experience of the Bible centering on a straightforward reading of the text itself.  Their readings of the first few chapters of Genesis for example resonate with just as much political force in political debates surrounding issues of abortion, stem cells, or even educational funding for evolution studies. And I dare say, the consequences of these interpretations can sometimes be just as violent.

Indeed, the relationship between Evangelical Christianity and Religious Zionism may run even deeper than modes of biblical interpretation.  As Rabbi Wolicki noted “the largest most vocal group” of Christian Zionists are dispensationalists. Dispensationalism isn’t a sect, a religious movement, or a denomination. Dispensationalism is a way of reading the Bible and interpreting history (which itself is always a way of commenting on the present and of predicting the future).  In a nutshell, dispensationalism offers a progressive understanding of God’s role in the salvation of humanity, in which the end time is slowly revealed. Redemption becomes a gradually unfolding process that is divided into epochs or dispensations. In each, God presents humanity with a different road to salvation toward the end time.  Humanity fails to fully realize the opportunity, is punished, which in turn begins a new dispensation.

For dispensationalists, the Jewish people are the agents through which this end-time process is meant to unfold, yet their specific contribution to salvation is up for debate. For some Christian dispensationalists, the Jewish rejection of Jesus’ messiahship critically hindered the ultimate redemption. At the same time, God’s original covenant with Abraham (and thus the Jews) was never nullified, making both the Jews and the Church two distinct and theologically legitimate entities. Whether or not ultimate the end-time salvation requires Jewish conversion is left vague for some evangelical Christians.

Those conversant with religious Zionist thought -especially as expounded by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, his son Tzvi Yehuda, and their many contemporary disciples – might see something familiar here. This messianic brand of Israeli religious Zionism views the drama of redemption (which admittedly, is somewhat different from ‘salvation’) as an overarching mystical and historical process. My favorite example of this kind of thinking can be seen in how Rav Abraham Isaac Kook gave historical, ethical, and redemptive significance to the mass slaughters of the First World War. As he wrote in the Lights of War, a collection of notes published in the years following the conflict;

We were thrown out of world politics by a force that had within it an inner will, until such a happy time when it would be possible to administer a kingdom without evil and barbarity. This is the era that we are hoping for. It is obvious that in order to achieve it, we have to awaken with all our strength, and use all the means that the era brings. Everything is in the hand of the creator, but the delay is necessary, for our souls are sick of the terrible sins of the kingdoms in this era. And now the time has come, it is very close. The world is becoming sweetened, and we can already prepare ourselves for that moment when we can manage our kingdom on the foundations of Goodness, Wisdom, Righteousness, and the clarified illumination of the divine.

For Rav Kook, the forceful exile of the Jewish People was one stage in a larger mystical and ethical drama. It allowed the renaissance of Jewish nationalism to occur at a time where the violence and barbarity that characterized the trenches of WWI, were coming to an end. Much like Woodrow Wilson’s ‘the war to end all wars’, the naivete of this prediction, doesn’t take away from its theological and ethical force. What Rav Kook is implying here, is that the Jewish People slowly move through a series of mystical and moral stages which ultimately lead to nothing less than world redemption. The reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is the precondition for this process.

Interestingly for religious Zionists in the Kookian mode, the role of non-Jews is just as ambiguous as that of Jews for dispensationalists. Where do the nations of the world (including Palestinians) fit into the grand process of redemption?  For Rav Kook were the vast casualty lists, the blight of war in general, or of Sin itself, just an unfortunate means to a better future? Can violence and suffering be so easily sanctified? For many religious Zionists these are open question with real world political implications.

Rabbi Wolicki was certainly consistent in questioning Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik’s non-messianic “interpretation of the State of Israel and the ingathering of exiles”. In contrast, mystical and messianic religious Zionism in the framework of Rav Kook offers a vision of redemption that is structurally quite similar to Christian Zionist dispensationalism. Rav Soloveitchik was extremely skeptical of these sorts of progressive messianic redemptive claims. For him, the State of Israel was less an outcome of mystical messianism than it was a pragmatic expression of a renewed Jewish power and political presence after the Holocaust – which itself was a sign of God’s continued love for his people.

Indeed, in my anthropological fieldwork I met many mystical and messianic religious Zionist rabbinic figures in Israel who criticized this aspect of Rav Soloveitchik’s thought. They felt his philosophy simply did not offer an uplifting worldly vision – something they were so used to hearing in Rav Kook’s thought. In their view how could one not see a progressively redemptive message in the Jewish drama of the twentieth century? These religious Zionist debates between followers of the ideologies of Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik, are really two modes of viewing God’s hand in the tragedies and triumphs of his people in the 20th century, and they play themselves out in Rabbi Wolicki’s worldview expressed in his interview.  It is curious though, that many who support a closer theological relationship between Christian Zionism and Religious Zionism come out of an American Modern Orthodox context, where Rav Soloveitchik’s skepticism towards messianic Zionism (and inter-faith dialogue) simply cannot be ignored.

Little ethnographic research has been done on how religious Zionists in Israel reflect on the similarities between themselves and evangelical Christianity. It is possible that some religious Zionists have intuited echoes of this intra-faith paradigm and these similarities have aroused a healthy debate regarding the relationship between Evangelical Christianity and religious Zionist communities in Judea and Samaria.

Not all mystical and messianic religious Zionists are as enthused by the close relationship – both pragmatic and philosophical – between their own communities and the many evangelical Christians who visit and volunteer within their West Bank communities. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the Ateret Cohanim Rabbinic seminary for example has forbidden accepting monetary donations from Christian organizations writing that, “It is there ticket into the nation of Israel to convert us”. Indeed, Rabbi Aviner went further and claimed that American Evangelical Christians who support Israel politically, also “love our souls, and want to bring us to them. Politics – yes. Business – yes. Friendship – no. Money – no.”

Conversely, in 2011, a hilltop community adjacent to the settlement of Har Bracha, objected to the presence of Evangelical Christian volunteers living and working within their neighborhood. The Rabbi of that settlement, Eliezer Melamed however, has come out in support of these volunteers. “Judaism does not intend to cancel or destroy other religions but to raise them up to the source of Israel [presumably a universal kind of divinity] …there is a process of transcendence that has not been seen yet in Christianity. Therefore, with all of the necessary caution, it is our spiritual and moral duty to relate to this process in the most positive manner possible”.

There is this great scene in the Frisco Kid, where Gene Wilder playing Rabbi Avram Belinski had just escaped from being accosted and robbed by two highwayman. He’s wandering around tired, lost and hungry in the wilderness. Suddenly in the distance he sees a group of farmers wearing black hats and long black frock coats. He runs towards them shouting “Landsmen! Landsmen!”. A they embrace and begin to speak a similar Germanic language that is unintelligible to both, he sees a book with a cross. With an “Oy Gevalt”, Reb Avram promptly faints. Sometimes that which seems most familiar can also feel the most threatening.

Jewish and Christian religious Zionists share certain political goals and have a common outlook on social and cultural life both in the United States and in Israel. It’s only natural that an alliance advancing conservative principles and policy goals would form between the two. But the relationship that Rabbi Wolicki describes as “intra-faith” is a world apart from this kind of policy pragmatism.  While he doesn’t like talking theology’, what he is actually describing are two extremely similar theological modes of understanding the divine role in the universe. It’s understandable that this might be worrying to some Orthodox Jews

I think there is much to be gained from a deeper engagement with Christian Zionism and with Christianity in general. Yet, I would however just like to offer a word of anthropological warning. Cultural dialogue is never a one-way street. It’s somewhat naïve to think that religious Zionists can open up ‘yeshivas’ for evangelical Christians, give presentations at churches, invite volunteers to live and work within Jewish communities without being at all being influenced by Evangelical Christianity. It’s never a one-way street.

Recently, a Neo-Hasidic research contact of mine in a Northern West Bank Settlement posted a Facebook status where he came out in favor of wishing Christians a ‘Merry Christmas’. “There is a brotherhood between us, and this shouldn’t alarm us”, he wrote. “I am happy to wish them a happy holiday, full of joy and brotherhood. That together we will move the entire world towards the eternal divine values of respect for others, love of man, and that we will defeat the darkness that covers the earth”. In this case who would object to the common values of respect and love for one’s fellow man? And what religious person would deny that these values have their source in some spark of divinity?

But here lies the catch. This formulation of common divine values assumes a common understanding of divinity. There is and will be increasing Christian influence from these Jewish- Christian contacts and commonalities. I’m not entirely sure that Israeli religious Zionism is ready for the immense repercussions that will come out of this. Religious Zionism can’t expect to influence, without something being reciprocated or transformed. What are we risking when our dialogue with Evangelical Christianity moves beyond pragmatism and beyond even abstract cross-cultural curiosity, to touch upon the experience of faith itself? Our answer might necessitate a little bit more of Reb Avram’s “Oy Gevalt”.