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Interview with Elisha Russ-Fishbane — Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt: A Study of Abraham Maimonides and His Circle

Islam is essential to the future of Judaism.  Such a sentiment is not a modern political statement but the thinking of the thirteenth century Jewish leader Rabbi Abraham the son of Maimonides. Abraham thought that thirteenth century Judaism was in decline compared to the classical age of the Bible and Talmud and that it could only be restored by following contemporary Islamic practices, which in his mind, are reflective of original Jewish practices. He used his leadership, as best as he could, to create a pietistic revival seeking Sufi inspired divine illumination and contemplative prophecy.

sufi book cover

Elisha Russ-Fishbane, assistant professor at NYU recently wrote a study Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt: A Study of Abraham Maimonides and His Times on the fascinating Jewish leader Abraham Maimonides. Russ-Fishbane revisits the Arabic documents from the Cairo Genizah reading them afresh to give greater accuracy and detail in presenting the views of Abraham Maimonides. He relies on the prior work from Naftali Wieder, Paul Fenton and others, but subjects each document and fragment to a renewed scrutiny to offer us a wonderful rich account of this major figure in Jewish history. The monograph is fascinating and has many never before translated passages and excels in situating Abraham in his broader Egyptian context.

Abu-l Muna Ibrahim the son of Musa ibn Maymon, better known in English as Abraham Maimonides (1186-1237) was the only son of the famed Maimonides. Abraham became leader of Egyptian Jewry at age 18 after the death of his father in 1204 and officially ascended to the position of Ra’is (Nagid) in 1213 He was close to Muslim authorities and the Ayyubid Government, and became physician to Saladin’s brother  al-Malik al-Kamal. Abraham was described by a Muslim contemporary as tall and lean with refined speech and pleasant manners.

General knowledge already in our history books about Abraham Maimonides focus on his defense of his father in the 1232 Maimonidean controversy, in which, he shows that religious rationalism and treating the Bible as metaphor are the true Jewish positions while the anti- Maimonideans have fallen prey to the spurious beliefs, under the influence of Christianity, to anti-philosophic and anti-rational positions and read the Bible as anthropomorphism.

Abraham is also known from his great and very large work Kitāb Kifāyah al-`Ābidīn (A Comprehensive Guide for the Servants of God). The original was a voluminous 2500, of which we only have several extent sections, but those sections themselves are almost full treatises. The most famous section in the wider Jewish world is his essay on the aggadic sections of the Talmud (printed as Maamar al odot derashot Hazal)  where he treats the Talmudic stories as didactic allegory not based on a tradition, rather human insights, and they certainly they do not contain any truths about science or medicine. Paul Fenton, leading scholar of the era, insightfully states that in this work Abraham moved from his father prescriptive mode to a descriptive mode explaining the spiritual significance of Judaism in the same manner as al-Ghazzali did for Islam.

Many already know of Abraham Maimonides’ proposed changes to synagogue practice to enhance piety and bring the service more in line with Islamic piety. These practices include the washing of hands and feet before prayer, knelling in synagogue and arrangement in orderly rows like in a Mosque, full prostration when the Jewish custom is to bow, and prostration at the end of every Psalm in pesukei dezimra (pre-shema verses of praise) or paragraph of the Shema and raising one’s hands heavenward at the start of each paragraph.

Needless to say, that ordinary congregants of his time would not want such change or piety, hence leading families complained and even protested to the sultan that he was introducing “unlawful changes,” which is a serious charge in Islamic jurisprudence. In response, one Genizah letter states that Abraham produced two hundred letters of support in one controversy, which was the majority of the men in the community.  (What would this controversy have been in the age of social media?)

Ayyubid Context

Abraham’s Sufism as not a lone voice but part of bigger trends. Nathan Hofer, a scholar of medieval Sufism, documents how after the fall of the Fatimid Empire in 1177, the new Sunni polity under the Ayyubids “founded and funded hospices to attract foreign Sufis to Egypt.” This lead to local charismatic Sufi masters appearing throughout Egypt and organized Sufi brotherhoods emerging in the urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria.

Russ-Fishbane is to be thanked for finally putting together Abraham’s pietistic aspirations and the cadre of other spiritual seekers in an era of growing Sufi piety. “For Abraham Maimonides, Judaism was at a crisis point, a spiritual nadir in its age-old exile.” Jewish revival was to be found in piety similar to the practices of the Sufis.

These pietists around Abraham saw themselves as bearers of a religious mission and harbingers of a spiritual revival. The pious individual ought to pursue an inner path to communion with God and the cultivation of regular fasting and solitary prayer under the guidance of an experienced guide and in fellowship with a spiritual fraternity. Pietists adorned themselves with special articles of clothing and encouraged chant and music in worship.

jewish dervishes (Jewish-Sufi clothes from 1922 Iran —the post about this picture receives more hits than any other post on this blog).

Pietists emphasized inner ‘states’ of consciousness (known as maqāmāt), and spoke of an intellectual-mystical enlightenment as prophetic attainment, thereby combining Maimonidean philosophy and Sufi mysticism. They used the language of luminescence in which the devotee was said to receive an influx of radiance (known as ishrāq al-anwār), a perception or vision of reality beyond the world of the senses.

For the Pietists, Post Talmudic practice reflects an exilic accreditation and decline that can only be restored by restoring the Jewish doctrines that are preserved in Islam but lost in exilic Judaism


Like his father, Abraham vigorously affirmed Islam’s status as a pure monotheistic religion that exerted a positive influence on Jews, encouraging them to maintain the purity of its faith against lack of piety and against the literalism of the Christian world.  Beyond this, Abraham, considered Islam as both foretold by the Bible and affirmed by divine providence.  (Compare this to those Jews today who see a divine providence to Christianity.)

The well-known talmudic law prohibited Jews from imitating the ways of the gentiles (known as hukkat or hukkot ha-goyim) according to Abraham did not apply to the contemporary Muslims.

Abraham’s view according to Russ-Fishbane: “Muslims and Christians pray and give charity, and no Jew would ever dream of banning such activities simply because they are also gentile practices.  Why, he asked, should it be any different when considering practices like prostration and kneeling that were no less authentically Jewish than they were Islamic?”


Pietist spirituality was gradually eclipsed by the path of Kabbalah, especially after the Safed revival, but continued for two hundred years in Egypt lead by five more generations of Maimonides descendants and is still practiced into the Nineteenth century among Jews in Iraq and Iran.

Despite Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt: A Study of Abraham Maimonides and His Times being a wonderful book as a detailed reader of genizah documents, the book at many points lacks any overview for the general reader of the life, times, and issues needed to understand and evaluate Abraham’s contribution. The monograph dives right into precise readings without always telling the reader why a point is important. For that, one should first read Paul Fenton’s introduction to the work of Abraham’s son Ovadiah (1228-1265) Treatise of the Pool where one would gain an overview as well as the recent article by Mordechai Friedman, and, for fun, the popularist articles of Tom Block based on Fenton’s research here and here).

Returning to close this post on this pietistic ethos, Ovadiah son of Abraham son of Maimonides (1228-1265) in his Treatise of the Pool invites his pious reader to “imagine a certain person who, possessing a very old pool, desires to cleanse the latter of dirt and mire and to restore it.” Ovadiah considers this “an allegory alluding to the purification, cleansing and purging of the heart, the correction of its defects and failings and its being emptied of all but the Most High.” If one properly purifies the heart, then one will “progress therein until thou attains an even higher state which man’s tongue is incapable of describing.”


1) What was the Sufi influence on Abraham Maimonides?

Abraham Maimonides could not help but be influenced by Sufism (Islamic mysticism), in that piety and spirituality in medieval Jewish culture of the Near East and North Africa was saturated with the core ideals of Sufism.

The idea that the individual ought to pursue an inner path to communion with God, the emphasis on elevating the spirit over bodily desires (otherwise known as asceticism), the cultivation of regular fasting and solitary prayer – were widely cherished ideals among all religious groups of the medieval Islamic world.

Historians of Jewish philosophy often consider it remarkable that the (only) son of the great Maimonides – considered a champion of rationalism and moderation over against mysticism and asceticism – would so blatantly stray from his father’s course and choose the mysticism of Sufism over the sober ideals of philosophy.  The truth, as usual, is much more complicated.

Philosophy, in its medieval guise, was no less dedicated to a personal liberation from physical attachments than its Sufi counterpart.  Mysticism, for its part, did not always entail a rejection of reason.  In practical terms, Jewish philosophers and mystics of the medieval Islamic world advocated a way of life that was remarkably similar in orientation.

Moses Maimonides was a case in point.  His famous principle of moderation, known as the golden mean, has often been interpreted as a rejection of asceticism.  In fact, it is more accurately a rejection of asceticism for those who do not understand its true goals, not a blanket condemnation.  Abraham Maimonides, for his part, designated the ascetic life an “elevated path” suited only for those who have adopted the general calling of pietism, or hasidut, not for the Jewish masses.

In my book, I argue against a ‘rejectionist’ reading of Abraham Maimonides.  While Abraham was not loath to disagree with his father when he believed it justified (which he did on several occasions), he understood the path of pietism as the logical extension of the core principles of his father’s doctrine.  That said, Abraham made far more extensive use of Sufism’s spiritual terminology than his father ever did (although there is consensus that the latter was not devoid of a modest Sufi vocabulary of his own).  Even more meaningfully, Abraham embraced concrete Sufi practices within his own pietist circle and openly praised his Muslim counterparts, at times holding them up as a model for his own community.

2) How did Abraham justify these adaptations?

While many Jewish intellectuals in the medieval Near East had, for more than two centuries, openly embraced Arabic literature and thought as a model for Jews, Sufism was different.  As popular as Sufi pietism was among Muslims and minorities alike, for Jews to acknowledge as much could be viewed as a betrayal of the Jewish tradition.  After all, Arabic letters and ideas did not pose a challenge to the Jewish religious establishment.  The Arabic intelligentsia and literati did not represent the Islamic faith and were not infrequently cast as heretics by their own religious leaders.  Sufism, by contrast, was by the thirteenth century an entrenched element of Islamic religious life from Persia to the Maghreb.  How could a Jewish religious authority accept key Sufi rites for emulation within the Jewish community?

The answer goes to the heart of my argument in the book: that Islam was, paradoxically, essential to Abraham Maimonides’ vision of Judaism.  Make no mistake, this was no postmodern vision of a pluralistic Judaism.

For Abraham, and for his followers, there was but one true faith.  But that does not mean that Judaism, in their view, was monolithic.  Abraham carefully distinguished between the authoritative religion of Israel, as enshrined in biblical and talmudic law, and what he called “exilic” practices, filled with problematic accretions to, and eliminations of, authentic Judaism.

In Abraham’s view, Islam borrowed heavily from original Jewish doctrines and rites (including such varied examples as monotheism and prostration), at the same time that Jews began to neglect many of their own traditions due to the hardships of the exile.

Herein lies the rub.  For Abraham Maimonides, Judaism was at a crisis point, a spiritual nadir in its age-old exile.  As he saw it, nothing short of a religious revival and a return to the abandoned roots of the religion could lift the Jews from the morass of exile and hasten the redemption.  Abraham envisioned his brand of hasidut as an essential part of that revival.

If Islam (Sufism included) had incorporated a number of those lost traditions, the path to Jewish revival – and the path to messianic redemption – required a profound engagement with the religion of Islam.  The result was a unique combination of inner Jewish traditionalism and an openness to the wisdom of a foreign religion.

 3) How did it express itself in devotional practices?

The movement of hasidim in Egypt was decidedly practical in orientation. Egyptian Jewish pietism had very little taste for metaphysical speculation about the nature of God or the universe.  Here, too, we see the footprint of Sufism.

The dominant models of Islamic mysticism to which Jews were exposed and which were adapted by the hasidim, emphasized inner ‘states’ of consciousness (known as maqāmāt), on the one hand, and a regimen of ascetic discipline and regular meditation, on the one other.  Both the Muslim mystics and their Jewish counterparts described the inner states and the outer regimen as a journey (sulūk or maslak), undertaken by the individual wayfarer (sālik), under the guidance of an experienced guide and in fellowship with a spiritual fraternity.  Abraham Maimonides extended the same language to the culmination of the path (described as a communion of the soul with the divine), which he aptly called ‘arrival’ (wuūl).

Because of their focus on praxis, the Egyptian pietists developed a sometimes fractious relationship with the larger Jewish community, parts of which viewed their reforms as a heretical imitation of Islam.

Pietists practiced forms of solitary meditation, adorned themselves with special articles of clothing, encouraged chant and music in worship, cultivated master-disciple relationships both as individuals and as fellowship circles – all of which were familiar features of Sufi mysticism and were viewed by their adversaries as an alien importation.  In spite of vigorous efforts by Abraham and his colleagues to defend each of these reforms as original to Judaism, they were embroiled in a variety of controversies, all of which left a trail in the Cairo Genizah.

4) How did it express itself in liturgical synagogue life? 

The Sufi-inflected regimen of asceticism and meditation, as remarkable as it is, was only the beginning of the Jewish pietist vision.  As the leader of the entire Jewish community, Abraham Maimonides hoped that the pietist movement would become the vanguard of a much larger religious revival among his fellow Jews.  For example, he promoted the idea (never realized) of pietists serving as permanent fixtures in the synagogue, available at any time for religious guidance and acting as spiritual mentors to other seekers.

Even more significant was a series of devotional reforms he hoped would be accepted in synagogue life.  These include changes to key rites and postures of worship, such as the washing of hands and feet before prayer, prostrating when bowing, kneeling when sitting, reorienting the worshipers from sitting around the walls of the synagogue to sitting in orderly rows, and facing Jerusalem during the entirety of the prayer service.  All of these bear the clear mark of the Islamic environment, more than any other Jewish movement before or after it.

The fact that prostration in worship was also practiced by Muslims was no more of a problem than the fact that facing Jerusalem in worship was also practiced by Christians.

The previous consensus among scholars was that Abraham instituted these reforms willy-nilly into Egyptian synagogues.  My own position in the book is that the evidence actually points in the opposite direction.  In other words, Abraham never actually imposed these devotional reforms on the Jewish community and we can establish for a fact (based on Genizah and other documents) that no synagogue ever adopted them.

The pietists did embrace them and were witnessed kneeling and prostrating both at fixed points in the service and even spontaneously when the spirit moved them.  But, as Abraham testifies in a responsum, they observed such practices when praying in private residences (including his own) but were careful to refrain from them when visiting the main synagogues, in conformity with communal norms.

Abraham Maimonides spilled much ink responding to his critics one by one (all, alas, anonymous), all in the effort at public persuasion, but to no avail.  He even bitterly observed that one of his father’s synagogue reforms had been accepted in spite of the fact that it lacked similar precedent in biblical or talmudic law.  (The reform in question was Maimonides’ removal of the silent ‘amidah during sabbath and festival prayers.  Worshipers who could were to pray in tandem with the hazzan.  The rationale for the change was the perceived desecration of God’s name caused by members of the synagogue talking loudly during the hazzan’s repetition.  The reform remained in place in Egypt until the sixteenth century.)

While we lack critical details on how much of the community supported or opposed Abraham’s efforts, one Genizah letter tells us that Abraham easily produced two hundred letters of support in one controversy, which our source tells us was the majority of the men in the community.

We also hear, importantly, that Abraham was criticized for welcoming women into his pietist prayer circles, mirroring the presence of women’s sections in the main synagogues but somewhat surprising given the intimate nature of these circles.

All of the evidence indicates that the chief opposition to the hasidim came from rival rabbinic figures, who disputed the legitimacy of the reforms, and certain communal judges.

5) Did Jews go to Sufi mosques? At that time, did they did do dhikr with Muslims?

We do have a report in the Genizah of a fourteenth-century Egyptian Jew who spent quite a bit of time with a local Sufi shaikh.  We learn about this from the Jew’s wife, who bitterly complained to the head of the Jewish community (who happened to be Abraham Maimonides’ great-grandson and an avowed pietist in his own right), and pleaded with him to bring her husband out of the mosque and back home.

There may have been other cases like this (there is plenty of evidence of Sufi proselytizing), but if there were they haven’t been preserved.  For his part, Abraham tells us that he witnessed key Sufi rites, although he does not tell us where.  He does not disclose information on any personal contacts he had with Sufi leaders, although it is highly unlikely that he did not have any.  He wrote of conversations he had with Muslim scholars and, given his interest in Sufi matters, we have every reason to believe that he was in conversation with Sufi shaikhs, even if this did not lead him into a mosque per se.

The Genizah preserves numerous examples of Sufi works copied by Jews during this period, some transliterated into Judaeo-Arabic and others in their original orthography, but none of them tell us who their owners were or where they obtained the originals.

Did Jew participate in dhikr sessions with Muslims?  Apart from the fourteenth-century letter from the disgruntled wife, there is no evidence of this.  But, given how prominent dhikr sessions were (and continue to be) for Sufis, it stands to reason that Jewish pietists at the very least adopted a similar rite.  The truth is that, while a number of pietist writers used the term dhikr to refer to a practice of calling God to mind (its literal meaning), they did not create a formal communal dhikr session in imitation of their Sufi counterparts.

This is actually not as surprising as it sounds.  After all, the pietists did not consider themselves to be imitating Sufism but reviving ancient Jewish practices long ago neglected by Jews and adopted by Muslims.  Given that they could discover no parallel practice in the classical Jewish sources, they saw no reason to adopt it wholesale from Islam.  But if dhikr as a form of meditative chant of the divine names was not incorporated by the pietists, dhikr as meditative recollection of the divine most certainly was, if not in collective fashion at least in solitude (known as khalwah).

6) How did he view Islam? And why did Hukkat Hagoyim not apply to Islam?

Like his father, Abraham vigorously affirmed Islam’s status as a monotheistic religion.  In a couple of ways, however, he went even beyond his father in his praise of Islamic monotheism.  It is true that, in his view, Islam derived its own monotheism directly from Judaism.

Yet he did not hesitate to declare to his fellow Jews that, in his day, it was Islam that exerted a positive influence on Jews, encouraging them to maintain the purity of its faith.  His proof was to compare Jewish faith in Islamic lands with that in Christendom.  While no Jew anywhere in the Islamic world, he chided, would dare question the fundamentals of the faith for fear of being the object of ridicule, a number of Jews in Europe did fall prey to spurious beliefs, under what he considered the less than salutary influence of Christianity in its anthropomorphic thinking.

Affirming Islam’s status as monotheistic had yet another consequence.  A well-known talmudic law prohibited Jews from imitating the ways of the gentiles (known as hukkat or hukkot ha-goyim).

Abraham understood the scope of this talmudic ban to be limited exclusively to idolaters.  Given that Islam was not idolatrous, any Islamic practices embraced by the pietists technically did not fall under the ban.

What is more, Abraham argued, there are good reasons to apply this ban with caution.  Muslims and Christians pray and give charity, and no Jew would ever dream of banning such activities simply because they are also gentile practices.  Why, he asked, should it be any different when considering practices like prostration and kneeling that were no less authentically Jewish than they were Islamic?

7) What is Abraham’s paradoxical concept of the Divine Blessing to Islam?

Jews from the second temple period and onward associated the Arabs with the descendants of the biblical Ishmael, a tradition eventually accepted among the Arabs themselves.  This would become all the more significant when, by the seventh century, the Arabs and Ishmael became associated with the world’s newest religion.  Genesis 16:10 records the divine blessing of the progeny of Hagar (mother of Ishmael) with the following words: “I shall greatly increase your descendants and they shall be too numerous to count.”  Applying the traditional Jewish association between Ishmael and the Arabs, Moses Maimonides, in his interpretation of this verse, confined the application of this blessing to the future size of the Arab nation.

Abraham, in a subtle twist, preferred to read the divine blessing as referring not to the number of Arabs but to the religion of Islam per se, which on this reading was both foretold and affirmed by divine providence.

Yet, stunningly, Abraham’s vision of Islam did not end there.  He imagined Israel and Ishmael to be locked in a spiritual combat of epic proportions, mirrored by their different fortunes on the world stage.  When Israel was meritorious, he argued, Ishmael’s role was kept in check.  When, however, Israel experienced a spiritual decline and was cast into exile, Ishmael’s fortunes would in turn begin to rise.  This was not unlike the talmudic tradition of an inverse relationship between the fortune of Israel and that of Edom, later repeated and expanded by some medieval writers in Christian Europe.

Abraham Maimonides is the only writer known to me to apply this same narrative to the relationship between the children of Isaac and Ishmael.

All of this puts Abraham’s contention that Islam adopted core Jewish beliefs and practices, many of which were neglected by the Jews in the course of their exile, into greater relief.  In Abraham’s rendering, the narrative of the inverse fortunes of Israel and Ishmael takes on messianic overtones.  Only when, in the midst of their exile, Jews return to their neglected traditions will they experience an end to their sufferings and the onset of redemption.  The paradox?  The Jews must now relearn those original elements of their religion from Islam.

Tom Block powerpoint

8) Why was Abraham striving for prophecy. What does it mean to be a prophet?

The Egyptian pietist movement referred to itself as the ‘path of the disciples of the prophets,’ which is to say that they envisioned prophecy as the object of their spiritual striving (the culmination of the path, to use the Sufi language of the spiritual journey).  In a creative blend of Maimonidean philosophy and Sufi mysticism, the pietists spoke of this culmination in terms of an intellectual-mystical enlightenment, achieved through a process of self-discipline and solitary meditation.  This enlightenment, in their view, was nothing short of prophetic attainment, reflecting their belief that a return of prophecy to the people of Israel was within their reach.

In the worldview advanced by Moses Maimonides and carried into practice by his son, there was an intimate connection between the renewal of prophecy and the onset of redemption.  Abraham and his fellow pietists saw their role as helping to bring an end to the exile and stimulating the ultimate redemption of Israel.  It is most likely for this reason that neither Abraham nor any of his colleagues harbored messianic fantasies of their own.  They imagined themselves to play a pivotal role in the religious revival required for messianic redemption, without making promises or predictions as to when the awaited end would come.

9) What is the experience of luminescence?

Prophetic attainment, as it was understood by the pietists, did not end with its connection to messianic times.  In line with another tradition of Maimonides, they conceived of prophecy as the ultimate intellectual-spiritual attainment possible for humanity.  It was not the ethical-religious mission of an inspired preacher conveying the words of God, as it typically functioned in biblical accounts of the ancient prophets of Israel.  Prophecy in its pietist context was a decidedly individual objective and (in so far as glimpses of it were attained by the pietists) played itself out primarily in individual experiences.  Abraham no doubt envisioned the pietists as bearers of a religious mission and harbingers of a spiritual revival, but their first and primary objective as ‘disciples of the prophets’ was the perfection of their own humanity as individuals pursuing their personal journey on the path.

The hasidim described the prophetic experience by means of concrete images – some borrowed from Sufism, others from rabbinic Judaism.  At times they used the language of luminescence (in the sense of enlightenment).  The devotee was said to receive an influx of radiance (known as ishrāq al-anwār), a perception or vision of reality beyond the world of the senses.  To someone familiar with the history of Sufism, the parallel to the concurrent Sufi school of illuminationism is quite striking, although the parallel does not extend far beyond the common imagery.

What is less evident is the fact that the language of illumination also appears in Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, a text of great importance for the pietists.  The linguistic connection to his father’s Guide was not accidental for Abraham.  For both men, the path to enlightenment was intellectual contemplation, during which the intellect was purified of its worldly sensation in order to catch a glimpse of the divine reality.

The goal of solitary meditation, for Abraham, was to rid the mind of all attachments and desires, allowing it to commune with God unimpeded – metaphorically speaking, to darken the outer senses so as to allow for an inner radiance, a taste (to use another of his images) of the world to come.  What made Abraham’s approach innovative was less the content than the implementation and institutionalization of the prophetic ideal.  The goal was to create a reproducible ‘path’ (i.e. the pietist regimen of asceticism, prayer, solitude, and contemplation) by which any devotee could make progress toward the ultimate ‘arrival’ of prophetic enlightenment.

10) Why did this approach seem to not leave a lasting impression?

Despite Abraham Maimonides’ public support of the movement in his capacity as head of Egyptian Jewry, pietism aroused considerable controversy in his lifetime – occasionally dividing family members and friends, as our Genizah sources testify – and continued to be a source of contention after his death in 1237.

Some of Abraham’s pietist colleagues: Abraham ibn Abi’l-Rabi’ (sometimes known as Abraham he-Hasid, which has caused confusion with Abraham Maimonides, who was also occasionally referred to by the same epithet!) and his brother, Joseph – the two brothers were referred to as leaders of the nascent movement before Abraham Maimonides’ rise to prominence.  Another one we know by name was Hananel b. Samuel, who was Abraham Maimonides’ father-in-law.  Some of the most interesting pietist tracts that survive in the Genizah do not preserve their authors’ names.  We also hear about pietist prayer circles both in Fustat and Alexandria, but unfortunately most of the practitioners remain anonymous.

Some Jews, including descendants of the Maimonidean house, remained committed to the ideals of pietism for several generations and parts of Abraham’s classic work (called the Compendium for the Servants of God, or Kifāyat al-‘abidīn in Judaeo-Arabic) were still cited into the eighteenth century among Jews of the Arab world.  Sadly, however, much of the work (which covered a wide range of Jewish law and ethics) was not cited and not preserved.  This, in itself, was a consequence of the great controversy it stirred already in its author’s lifetime.

Another reason for the limited reach of Egyptian pietism was because of the language barrier.  Unlike the Judaeo-Arabic works of Moses Maimonides and others before him, Abraham’s writings were not translated into Hebrew until modern times.

A final consideration for its limited duration even within the Islamic world was its timely competition.  Pietist spirituality was gradually eclipsed by the powerful pull of Kabbalah, which has continued to be the dominant form of mystical piety prevalent among Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews to this day.

11) What is innovative in your book?

The fascinating world of Egyptian Jewish pietism has been discussed off and on by a number of pioneering scholars over the years, from Naphtali Wieder to Shlomo Dov Goitein to Paul Fenton.  (Full disclosure: the latter was and remains an important mentor of mine in this field.)

As important as the contribution of these and other scholars continues to be, much work remained to be done in order to produce a comprehensive account of the movement – its historical foundations, its social and economic make-up, controversies and reactions within the community, its intellectual background (including its debt to Moses Maimonides), the nature of its spiritual agenda, its messianic aspirations, and its paradoxical relationship to Islam.  My work made extensive use of Cairo Genizah documents, allowing for greater historical detail and less recourse to speculation in my reconstruction of events.

While thoroughly imbued with Jewish text and tradition, pietist practitioners were unapologetic in their respect (at times, even admiration) for the good found in the Islamic religion.  Abraham acknowledged that Islam has had a salutary influence on Jewish belief and could yet play a meaningful role in the refinement of Jewish practice.  Here, as elsewhere, Abraham drew from the well of his father, who famously wrote in his Eight Chapters: “Be attentive to truth, no matter who utters it.”

Nefesh HaTzimtzum, Avinoam Fraenkel and his translation of Nefesh HaChaim

The famed Yeshiva Etz Hayyim in Volozhin  (founded 1803) stands as an emblem of complete devotion to Torah study. According to Prof. Imamnuel Etkes, the yeshiva had three principle qualities when administered by Rabbi Hayim (d.1821). First, the Yeshiva in Volozhin studied Torah round the clock in mishmarot (watches or shifts) of study because the study of Torah maintains the world. Second, they had an uncompromising approach to the true and simple meaning of the text of the Talmud, avoiding pilpul. Third, was the value of fear of God (yirat hashem) defined as control of one’s passions, Kabbalah, and devotion.  Rabbi Hayim wrote his work Nefesh Hahayim The Living Soul presenting this path.

Nefesh Hatzimzum

Nefesh Hahayim should have been translated into English decades ago as a Torah classic, instead it had to wait until 2015 for its first serious translation by Avinoam Fraenkel, a Hi-Tech professional with rabbinical ordination, currently working as a product manager for a global business management software company. The translation entitled Nefesh HaTzimzum is published in two full volumes for a staggering 1600 pages.  The first volume contains facing Hebrew and English pages as well as copious notes, explanations and an analytic index. The second volume has an entire book presenting Fraenkel’s theory of the concept of Divine tzimzum. It also has 400 pages of translations of almost all related texts written by the Vilna Gaon, Hayyim of Volozhin, Zundel of Salant. These ancillary texts are invaluable for any study of Nefesh Hahhayim.

The work is a labor of love by the translator and its shows. It is a wonderful translation and commentary on a difficult text showing his attention to detail and concern with educating the reader. The new translation should be owned by anyone truly interested in the world of the Mitnaggdim, Lithuanian Kabbalah, or Yeshivish ideologies. I highly recommend the two volumes and they belong in every Jewish library of classic texts. The book has sources, indices, outlines, and background resources forever changing the study of the work. Fraenkel deserves a thank you for his readable and well annotated volume.  I would recommend Nefesh HaTzimzum for both classroom and yeshiva.

The two volumes focus on Rabbi Hayyim’s doctrine of tzimzum and that is why Fraenkel names the two volumes Nefesh Hatzimzum, in that he assumes that this is the major focus of the work. More striking is that according to Fraenkel, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi and Hayyim of Volozhim basically taught the same doctrine of Tzimzum and that the greats of the last two hundred years were mistaken in thinking that they seriously differed. To prove this point, the second volume has a 360 page presentation, a book unto itself, on Tzimzum and the world of the malbush. Translating the copious sources from Rabbis Immanuel HaiRikki, Yosef Ergas and Solomon Elyashiv  in this exposition by itself is a major achievement increasing the texts of kabbalah available in English.

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin’s  Nefesh HaHayim consists of four official parts and an extra unnumbered section.  The first part gives the book its title, in that it shows the amazing power of the human soul to affect the higher worlds. Man is said to be in the image of God, in that he affects the cosmos the way the Divine does.  Mizvot draw down the Divine light and blessing and an influx of supernal holiness. Mizvot maintain the divine realm giving strength the sefirot.  Thought is given precedence over action or emotion.

The second part is on the importance of the words of prayer and that one’s words should cleave above. Prayer should be done to give blessing above in the sefirotic realm and to draw down blessing from above.  R. Hayyim also presents a doctrine in that every word of prayer has deep secrets instituted by the Men of the Great Assembly.

The third part is on tzimzum delineating how the infinite Divine relates to the finite world.  The divine as revealed powers of the Divine name animates the world. However humans cannot access the infinite reaches of the divine, or even the divine in the natural realm around us, rather only the divine as manifest in Torah and mizvot.

The fourth part is on the greatness of Torah study. Torah study does not require a religious experience or emotional enthusiasm.  Torah is divine speech that animates the world. Most of the time, those who open the book only know selected passages in the fourth part.

In addition, there is an unnumbered extra section offering a critique of Hasidic ecstasy and their emphasis of enthusiasm over correct performance of mizvot. While many saw the celebratory nature of Hasidic worship as dangerously reminiscent of Sabbatian excesses. The Vilna Gaon considered Hasidim to be heretics in their doctrine of immanence of God in all things.

In contrast to Hasidism, Nefesh HaHayyim situates Torah study over prayer and piety (not that it rejects those aspects).The most famous idea from Nefesh HaHayyim is the need to continuously learn Torah day and night. The traditional understanding of the need for Torah study as typified by Maimonides defines Torah study as the ability to teach and transmit, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch defines the need to be involved in Torah day and night as applying Torah to one’s home and family. Here in the Nefesh Hahayim, the definition to learn is measured in time, mandating that one actually maximize the time one learns because one’s learning because of its effect on the cosmos. Most contemporary Yeshiva students do not know that the source for this idea is the Zohar, not the Talmud, as developed by various 17-18th century pietistic works .

In the Volozhin yeshiva, students studied for on the average of approximately three to five years, sometime between the age of thirteen and nineteen, then in most cases off to work. They studied individually, not in chavruta study partners,  mastering several Tractates on Talmudic civil law.  Attendance at the lectures by Rabbi Hayim was optional. They did not study to be rabbis or even to be ordained as a rabbi, for that one would have to go elsewhere., rather for the pure study in the belief that study itself was important. Surprisingly, they did not follow the course of study outline in the Nefesh HaHayyim advocating the inclusion of Halakhic Midrash, Yerushalmi, and Midrash.

The widespread availability of the  Nefesh Hahayyim will correct the widespread mistaken view that he, and Mitnaggdim, advocated Talmud study without concurrent emphasis on kabbalah, musar, and worship. I am glad the second volume has a translation of Rabbi Zundel of Salant, Tract on Prayer, because it shows what was actually practiced for prayer in Volozhin.

The Nefesh HaHayim has not played a large role in American Jewry or in the corpus of the scholar of mysticism Gershom Scholem.  However, the work was translated into French  in 1986 by Benno Gross and has played a large role in the modern French thought; where it is used to derive create Jewish ideas of cybernetics and semiotics.  In several of his essays, Emamnuel Levinas uses Nefesh HaHayyim to present the idea of needed to transcend the self for infinite confrontation with Divine will as opposed to what he considers the self-obsession of Neo-Hasidism.


Fraenkel’s volumes, however, totally avoids anything academic or scholarly, or even historic.  The volumes focus entirely on the Lurianic writings, hence, explicit citations of Rabbi Moses Cordovero and medieval Kabbalists are not treated, the influence of Ramchal is minimized, and the book lacks almost any historical context. I will leave it to others to provide a list of words that could have possibly had better translations, especially since a scholarly translation of the Nefesh Hahayim is planned from Harvard University Press (together with Tel Aviv University Press) as part of the the Hackmey Hebrew Classical Library. But in the meantime, this work is a great resource.

For Fraenkel, the secret of tzimzum is treated as a profound puzzle whose elegant solution is to be worked out with a chevruta. However, he relies heavily on the thought and writings of Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv  (1841- 1926) and his Sha’arei Leshem Shevo V’Achlama. Fraenkel properly rejects the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mistaken identification of the position of the Vilna Gaon with that of the 18th century kabbalist Immanuel Hai Rikki (who took tzimzum literally) and he equally rejects the approach of R. Yosef Ergas (who treats tzimzum as metaphor). In general, the late 18th and 19th century Eastern European positions agree that  tzimzum is not true withdrawal or not occurring in the essence of God. But they differ on the role of acosmism, the access of the divine in the world, later day revelations, and what an individual can experience. Fraenkel’s harmonizing approach dissolves accepted differences.

The volume has no recognition of the scholarly work of Imamnuel Etkes, Mordechai Pachter, Tamar Ross, and now a wide cast of articles by younger scholars such as Ron Wacks showing the differences between  Rabbi Schnuer Zalman and Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, between the Rabbi Hayyim and Rabbi Elyashiv’s Leshem, and between the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Isaac Luria. Raphael Shuchat  recently edited an entire issue of the journal Daat on the topic of Lithuanian Kabbalah offering insight into the field and offering the reader bibliography in the footnotes. Elsewhere, Eliezer Baumgarten wrote an insightful article showing that the original plan of the Nefesh Hahayim was a triad of mizvot, prayer, and Torah study as a response to Hasidism, while the section on Tzimzum was needed only as an appendix for the other chapters.

1) What is your background in Kabbalah?

My first exposure to the world of Kabbalah was my introduction to Chabad, Sefer HaTanya and the concept of Tzimtzum at age 15. Since then the Chassidic classics in general and Sefer HaTanya in particular, have been a main area of personal focus for the last 34 years. This background exposed me to many Kabbalistic concepts which I researched further over the years and it provided me with a strong basis with which to approach study of Nefesh HaChaim.

In contrast to Sefer HaTanya and the Chassidic classics in general, Nefesh HaChaim is a unique work which substantiates every statement it makes by referencing many traditional Jewish sources in general, and Kabbalistic sources in particular. As a result, the highly structured presentation of Nefesh HaChaim itself is a gateway into the highly unstructured world of Kabbalah. Having now studied Nefesh HaChaim for many years, I discovered that it can only be properly understood by diving deeply into and beyond the sources that it references, and this process has, perhaps more than anything else, given me a point of entry into the diversity of Kabbalistic thought.

2) What motivated you to undertake this project?

There are many factors which inspired me to take on this project. A primary driver among others was a burning desire to more deeply understand answers to critical philosophical questions about life after my father’s sudden passing when I was an impressionable 15 year old.

The primary triggers for it were however practical ones. This project was born 5 years ago, when in preparation for regular study sessions with a study partner, I started preparing detailed outlines of Nefesh HaChaim. In constructing these, I discovered a new way of learning Torah that I had not personally previously encountered and when completed I was enthused to continue with this approach to Torah study by extending the detailed outlines to become a full blown translation and commentary. This became the single most intense and satisfying form of Torah study that I had ever experienced, as it was no longer acceptable to get the gist of what was going on and I had to understand the meaning and implications of every single word employed by Nefesh HaChaim.

After completing an initial draft of the translation, the project just naturally progressed as I had to continue my new found method of Torah study. I researched and translated all of R. Chaim Volozhin’s published writings which shed light on Nefesh HaChaim and on completion subsequently started to write about the concept of Tzimtzum which I identified as crucial.

Looking back, after a very humble start, this project progressed and transformed naturally beyond anything I would have ever dreamed possible. In retrospect, I can palpably see the hand of Divine Guidance which spoon-fed me with critical pieces of information at the specific times I needed to absorb them without being overloaded by them. Had I planned the end result at the outset, I am sure this project would never have happened. If you would have told me five years ago that it would end up becoming a Nefesh HaTzimtzum, I would have simply dismissed such a thought with hearty laughter.


3) How did you know when you were correct about the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum?

Having entered into the Kabbalistic world from Chabad, it was natural for me to first look at the Chabad resources explaining the concept of Tzimtzum. A primary resource for this was a well-known letter, penned by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l in 1939 which delineates a 4 position approach to the concept and presents a picture of stark contrast between the views of the Vilna Gaon, the Baal HaTanya and Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.

When I started writing about Tzimtzum I had no basis to question the validity of this letter and used it as a primary source to explain what I understood then to be the positions of difference on the subject. This was to the extent that I even constructed an elaborate chart presenting the differences between Nefesh Hachaim and Sefer HaTanya as a result of this understanding.

By the time I had finished this, it transpired that I had written a book on the subject. Although I felt the presentation of difference was correct at the time, I was deeply bothered by the apparent fundamentally different positions between the Mitnagdim and the Chassidim. How could this be? How could the primary concept in Kabbalah, upon which all of the rest of the Kabbalah is based, be subject to such dramatically different interpretation?

To my mind it wasn’t that they were just different views within the boundaries of Judaism (which is how most approach this difference without properly thinking it through), but that difference over this principle of Tzimtzum has to result in different fundamental approaches to viewing Judaism – and this made me extremely uncomfortable.

It was then that through the quirks of Divine Providence, I was introduced to Rabbi Moshe Schatz and started learning with him. About a year after meeting him, during a marathon study session which lasted for 11 hours straight, I watched him suddenly be inspired with a new comprehensive understanding of the various positions on Tzimtzum, one that was generally consistent with both the Mitnagdic and Chassidic worlds. I immediately appreciated its truth and understood its implications, realizing that I had to rewrite my entire exposition on Tzimtzum from scratch as it was then obvious to me that there was no fundamental difference of opinion whatsoever between the Vilna Gaon and the Baal HaTanya.

I then spent the next 3 months rewriting my entire Tzimtzum thesis. It was an extremely painful process as I had to prove to myself that a 180 degree change in my view was indeed justified every step of the way and that it truly agreed with all the details I had amassed. I knew that it was correct when, using the lens of the new understanding, I could clearly see that it was consistently true everywhere I looked across Kabbalistic writings in general and the writings of Chassidut, the Vilna Gaon and the Nefesh HaChaim in particular.

I additionally knew it was correct as having previously held by and invested so much in attempting to understand the positions of difference, I could also now see and fully explain the extensive flaws in that understanding. It was also logically satisfying as it did not make sense in any way whatsoever to suggest that Chassidut had blazed a new separate trail to mainstream Judaism, which in effect is the implication of stating that there were positions of difference.

4) Your essay erases the Chassidic–Mitnagdic divide. How are they saying the same things?

The key point is that the Vilna Gaon, like the Chassidic masters, saw that the arena within which the Tzimtzum process occurred as only being in the level of malchut of any world level, including that of the highest level called the Ein Sof. The level of malchut is the lowest part of any world level and in fact is in a different dimension to it. This means that any change in the level of malchut of any world level as a result of the Tzimtzum process, does not impact the world level itself in any way. Therefore the first instance of the Tzimtzum process which occurred in the level of malchut of the Ein Sof, did not impact the Ein Sof in any way. Therefore, by extension, the Tzimtzum process does not change God in any way.

Once this is understood, key statements in the Vilna Gaon’s writings can be related to properly and in particular, it becomes very clear that when the Vilna Gaon refers to a removal of God as a result of the Tzimtzum process he is only referring to the removal occurring within the level of malchut, leaving all the levels above malchut intact and unchanged in any way.

On further study I also realized that key parts of likkutim (collected writings) of the Vilna Gaon and his students were also to be understood in this way. One prominent follower and expositor of the path of the Vilna Gaon is the Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv (1841- 1926), author of the Leshem Shevo V’Achlama, who was revered by the Chafetz Chaim and the Chazon Ish and was referred to by his student, R. Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, as “the greatest Kabbalist of the generation”. Amazingly, the Leshem, who notwithstanding the fact that he very strongly expresses his position in the historic debate on Tzimtzum which appears to be very much against the general Chassidic camp, on careful analysis of what he actually says on the topic it is abundantly clear that he most definitely agrees with the Chassidic understanding.

5) How did people not see this for 200 years, only to be discovered by you? Are you questioning those who came before you?

Most people, including some very great individuals, have been severely misled and confused by a smokescreen of difference which was contributed to by two key factors. Firstly, by terminology used by some key Kabbalists, whose historic context was misunderstood. Secondly, by a famous letter forged in the name of the Baal HaTanya which explained the Vilna Gaon’s position on Tzimtzum as arguing with the view of Chassidut.

Those who were severely misled spanned the entire Mitnagdic-Chassidic divide for the last two centuries and more recently included no less than the last Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Yoel Kluft, a prominent Mitnagdic Kabbalist who was the head of the Haifa Bet Din. They also included all positions that I had seen in the academic world, where most would present convoluted theories built on an inaccurate perception of difference around the concept of Tzimtzum.

However, not all were misled. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, among many other prominent individuals, understood that the argument between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim was not about the fundamental principles of Judaism. He wrote on the topic of Tzimtzum in 1938 that “in this generation in which there is a need to unite…it is fitting to publicize the fact that there are no differences of opinion in the essence of these issues”.

Unfortunately however, those who were severely misled, such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his 1939 letter mentioned above which was responding to Rabbi Dessler’s position, were much more vocal and their voice became the mainstream view which misinformed both the Jewish World and also the academic world.

6)  What do you make of the dozens of authors who wrote about the difference between the two approaches?

This is explained by the Kabbalistic concept of “The Exile of the Torah”. As God, the Torah and the Jewish People are Kabbalistically referred to as being in Unity, therefore just as the Jewish People are in exile, so too is the Torah. This means that there is confusion and difference of opinion over all Torah concepts. It is the reason why there is so much debate and difference between the positions of our Rabbis over every conceivable minute detail of both the revealed parts of the Torah, such as Talmudic law, and also of the inner deeper parts of the Torah, Kabbalistic thought.

While the Jewish People is in exile and until the times of the Messiah, difference in all areas of Jewish Law and Thought will prevail, however as we draw closer to the times of Messiah, many of these areas will be gradually clarified. Ultimately in the times of the Messiah, there will be a “New Torah”, as the Vilna Gaon puts it, meaning that it will be new to us as a result of it having been fully clarified from all confusion and doubt.

The confusion of dozens of authors on the topic of Tzimtzum was therefore meant to be and has no bearing whatsoever on the stature of those individuals who were caught out by it. The current clarification of this topic is just a very small part of an enormous historic process.

7) What happened to the Ramak, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero? The Lithuanian Kabbalistic literature at many points clearly labels the views of the Vilna Gaon and R. Hayyim as the Ramak, you make that disappear.

My understanding is that there is no contradiction between the Ramak and the Arizal. In many respects the Ramak is a stepping stone to advance to the Arizal. The Ramak deals with the conceptual concept of difference of perspective as denoted by what is referred to as the World of Tohu and the concept of the sefirot. In contrast the Arizal builds on this and additionally deals with the concept of a unified perspective as denoted by what is referred to as the World of Tikun and the unity and wholeness of the concept of partzuf. The sefirot and partzuf views are not contradictory; they are just different ways of viewing the same underlying reality.

It is very clear that the Vilna Gaon and R. Chaim are both heavily invested in the concept of partzuf and the Arizal’s Kabbalah as evidenced, e.g. from the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Sifra DeTzniyuta and Sefer Yetzirah. I would very respectfully suggest that those who differentiate the Ramak as a separate school which is distinct from the Arizal lack the bigger picture.

It is of interest to note that among a number of sources to support this there is a comment of R. Chaim Vital in his Sefer Hahizyonot (Mosad Harav Kook, 1954, entry 17, p.57) which describes a dream where he sees and questions the Ramak about the true path of the Kabbalah between him and the path of the Arizal.  The Ramak answers him saying “the 2 paths are true but my path is the simple one for those entering into this Wisdom and the path of your master [the Arizal] is the inner and main one. I also now only study your master’s way in the [world] above”.

Avinoam at Aish                                Avinoam Fraenkel speaking at Aish-LA

8) What happened to the Likkutim of the Vilna Gaon, many of them are clearly relevant to understand your sefer? Is your sefer, in the end, just according to the Leshem?

Of the Likkutim of the Vilna Gaon, the most important one which relates to the concept of Tzimtzum is arguably the one dealing with this topic which is published at the end of the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Sifra DeTzniyuta. While many misunderstood this piece, on carefully reading it, it is very clear that it also only relates to the removal by the Tzimtzum process exclusively occurring in the level of malchut (as mentioned above). This is demonstrated in my Tzimtzum exposition where a detailed explanation is provided of how the Lubavitcher Rebbe misunderstood this piece.

In connection with the Leshem, I specifically chose to begin my Tzimtzum exposition with his explanation for two reasons. Firstly, because he provides the single most in-depth and extensive explanation of the Tzimtzum process that I have ever seen. Secondly, as mentioned above, as a result of explicit statements that he makes he was historically thought to have taken a strong anti-Chassidic approach to this topic and by fleshing out the detail of his explanation it becomes crystal clear that what he says is identical to the Baal HaTanya’s approach even though it seems that he may have personally thought otherwise. If I have done my job properly, anyone reading through my Tzimtzum exposition in detail should clearly see that the Leshem, Vilna Gaon, R. Chaim and the Baal HaTanya all very much independently entirely agree with each other.

9) What value does this have in a technological age? How do you relate this cosmology to the one that you work with in technology?

The process of coming out of exile in the run up to the imminent Messianic times as mentioned above, involves the clarification of all aspects of the Torah as the Torah also comes out of exile. The Leshem explains that every piece of information in this world, whether it is a new insight in Torah or even details of the scientific understanding of the world around us, has its specific time to be revealed. Until that designated time for each topic, confusion reigns and there is a lack of clarity.

It is common in the history of science for a topic to be suddenly discovered simultaneously and independently by a number of individuals. The concept of Tzimtzum is no different. Every concept, both in Torah and of the natural world around us has its designated time for reaching clarity, and it appears that we have now reached the time for the clarification of a major part of the concept of Tzimtzum.

As we progress towards Messianic times, the Zohar famously predicted that there will be progressive explosive growth in both Kabbalistic and scientific knowledge from around 1840. The current clarification of the concept of Tzimtzum together with an increasing momentum in the awareness of general Kabbalistic thought is therefore no accident. So too, it is no accident that there is an explosion in our understanding of the world around us in this technological and information age.

The technological revolution has caused a tectonic shift in the way mankind views the world over the last 170 years or so. Working full time, as I do, in the burgeoning world of Israeli Hi-Tech, it is amazing to see first-hand, the wildly disproportionate contribution that the Jewish People in their Israeli homeland, the “Start-Up Nation”, is making to this accelerating process of wider technological development across the world stage – which is also no accident. The most significant part of the changes that are occurring is within human awareness of the nature of the world around us which has been enabled through scientific and technological advancement.

The development of a proper and deeper understanding of Kabbalistic thought also drives human awareness allowing mankind to be in tune with the nature of the Divine reality all around us. As the Zohar highlights, these areas of awareness are intrinsically interlinked and go hand in hand with one another. The increasing awareness of the nature of the world around us automatically provides tools for more deeply understanding the Kabbalah. As demonstrated in detail at the end of my Tzimtzum exposition, the Vilna Gaon’s outlook is that proper engagement in the scientific and technological understanding of the world around us as it develops, is a pre-requisite to be able to properly relate to and understand the inner depths of Torah and Kabbalistic thought as the world draws ever closer to Messianic times.

Interview with Rabbi David Wolpe

David Wolpe, the senior rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles is consistently ranked as one of the top rabbis in the United States.  His congregation attracts a thousand worshippers on a Shabbat morning and at its peak his Friday night service attracted 1500. He is the author of a many books and contributes short columns to many national media sources. I know him as the busy public celebrity who has had debates with several of the new atheists and through his active online presence with tens of thousands of follower. But in his books, his real message is found in how he sits with a friend undergoing chemotherapy, discusses faith with adolescents, or comforts a congregant going through tough times.

wolpe headshot

What is behind his great success and what can we learn from him? I came to do this interview via Twitter, in that Rabbi Wolpe paid me the honor of recommending my blog to someone else on Twitter, “good interview, excellent blog” to which I responded: “would you like an interview?” But as I prepared this interview, I found less of an exchange of ideas and more of a person. Unlike other rabbis whom I have interviewed, David Wolpe came across without any cynicism, point to prove, or need to argue. He speaks from his heart.

Rabbi David Wolpe is a leader who feels a deep affinity to King David as shown in his recent David: The Divided Heart (Jewish Lives). But King David now lives in successful suburban America where his congregants are creative and prosperous, but at the same time fissured and flawed. Wolpe portrays David as self-confident, sensitive, and gentle, and that David’s connection to God often seems more stable that his difficulties with people. In Wolpe’s presentation, King David has an enlarged vision that others cannot see, he can envision possibilities.


“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Inside all of us is a life of the spirit that needs cultivating.  A Chabad Rabbi may give a similar message by quoting the first chapter of Tanya about how we all have a divine soul. Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai, in contrast, quotes Teilhard and offers the message without the certainty of metaphysics.

Recently Wolpe posted “What is a Rabbi at her or his best? A spiritual midwife helping others bring forth their deepest selves.” Wolpe’s goal is to support people to cultivate the spiritual self by using the insights of Judaism.

Why Faith Matter? asks Rabbi David Wolpe in his book of the same title where he answers the challenges of the new atheists, the conflict of religion with science, and the continued relevance of religion. He writes: “Faith begins with a question:”Who are you?” He answers: “Love of this world, of one another, is the sole hope in an age when we can destroy the world many times over. Faith when “not blind or bigoted” pushes us to be better, to give more of ourselves, to glimpses of transcendence scattered throughout our lives. He is not going to convince the skeptic or the under-educated.

In this book, we see David Wolpe, philosophy major and philosophy instructor meet the atheism of Bertram Russel, stand with a chemotherapy patient, confront the meaninglessness of the Holocaust, and acknowledge the lack of definitive proofs for God. Wolpe is in favor of honest doubt, uncertainty, and limitations of knowledge. He does not allow any turns to a false certainty, even those of the existential who preaches an existential leap. Rather, we are left with our very human lives that surprises and challenges us, to which we respond with hope and striving for transcendence. The volume can be put on the shelf with one’s copies of Rick Warren, Mitch Albom, and Marilynne Robinson.

Wolpe’s popular book Why be Jewish? answers the title question with a variety of heart felt thoughts grouped under three headings: to grow in soul, join a people, and seek God. The first reason to be Jewish is “to grow in soul.” There is a mystery within us; we have deeper levels to reach in our lives, but many people only open a few doors of their soul. Judaism allows one to open many more. Judaism’s central teaching is that we are all in the image of God; we each have great potential and responsibility.

The second reason to be Jewish is to join a people to be part of an amazing history, a surviving people, and to connect to our land of Israel. As part of the Jewish people you gain a system for realizing truth; one gains the enduring wisdom of the Torah and the power of the Torah for our survival.  The third reason is to seek God. But we should be aware of the limits of human language to grasp God. We access God through living as the Talmud shows involved in human affairs and to rise above our baser instincts. God is felt, spoken to, listened to.

Note that Wolpe is a critic of the trend of spirituality without religion:

Do you like feeling good without having to act on your feeling? … Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world. Religions create aid organizations… To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good.

Being religious does not mean you have to agree with all the positions and practices of your own group; I don’t even hold with everything done in my own synagogue, and I’m the Rabbi. But it does mean testing yourself in the arena of others. [I]nstitutions are also the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions.

wolpe headshot 2

Covenantal Judaism

Rabbi Wolpe is not your grandfather’s Conservative Rabbi. The Conservative movement of the Northeast formulated in the 1950’s responded to the working class moving to suburbia and has noticeably declined rapidly. The Northeastern establishment of the Conservative movement even voted against outreach twenty years ago, thinking there would be natural continuity. There are still twice as many Conservative Jews as there are Orthodox, some of it in decline, some of it in a status quo, and other parts growing stronger and bigger.

Yet, there is a generation of new Conservative Rabbis with new ideas, new approaches, and most importantly new locations in the West.  Wolpe is one of the new approaches. There are even Orthodox rabbis who teach Wolpe’s ideas in their own congregations. Wolpe hosts events to draw people into the congregation including high profile debates and public forums.

In 1998, Wolpe and singer-songwriter Craig Taubman pioneered using contemporary music for the Shabbat-eve musical service called Friday Night Live that offered worship song  mixing traditional prayers with new tunes. Attendance soon soared from 300 worshippers to a peak of about 1,500. Until this point, the use of instruments on Shabbat within the Conservative movement, was limited despite the 1958 allowance of organs and a 1970 opinion permitting guitars and other instruments.

In a move taken from the Rick Warren playbook, Wolpe and Taubman stepped down to give the program to a younger cadre of leadership.

Wolpe’s views on the future of the Conservative movement are easily accessible through his 2005 essay on Covenantal Judaism, his 2007 reiteration, and his recent 2015 essay on Relational Judaism. Judaism should not be stuck in prior centuries slavishly following prior opinion. The wisdom of our age contributes to the ongoing unfolding of Torah, which he now terms a  “Judaism of Relationships.”

Covenantal Judaism. That is our philosophy and should be our name. Renaming heralds our rejuvenation. We believe in an ongoing dialogue with God. Not everything significant has already been said, nor is the modern world uniquely wise. Our task goes beyond mere clarification of the old or reflexive reverence for the new. As with a friendship, we cherish the past but are not limited to its formulations or assumptions. Venerating the teachings of Maimonides does not negate that tomorrow, with the tools of modern study, a new Rambam may arise. The Judaism of relationship. Covenantal Judaism. Such is our creed, our dogma, our gift.

Covenantal Judaism holds aloft the ideal of dialogue with God, with other Jews of all movements, and with the non-Jewish world. In holding each of these as sacred we stand in a unique position in Jewish life. Ritual is language, part of the way we speak to other Jews and to God. Learning, ancient and modern, is essential to sustain the eternal dialogue. “I have been given the power,” said the Kotzker Rebbe, “to resurrect the dead. But I choose a harder task — to resurrect the living!” Resurrection of passion, of faith, of community requires not the touch of the Divine, but the touch of another human being.

The Covenant and Jewish Law: The overriding commandment of Covenantal Judaism is to be in relationship with each other and with God. The more halacha (Jewish law) we “speak,” the more full and rich the relationship. Our faith is neither a checklist nor a simple formula. It is a proclamation and a path.

Jewish authenticity is not measured by the number of specific actions one performs but the quality of the relationships expressed through those actions. Recall what the Torah says of Moses: In praising our greatest leader, The Torah does not recount that he performed the most mitzvot of anyone who ever lived, or even that his ethics exceeded all others. We are told that Moses saw God “panim el panim” face to face. The merit of Moses is in the unparalleled relationship he had with Israel and with God.

In Wolpe’s view, the goal is to strike a middle position between past and present. We dare not permit it to turn into a fossilized faith or a sacrifice to the seductions of modernity. In a different interview, he commented:

RW: I think that it’s very hard for people at the same time to feel the tradition that has deep roots and divine and yet understand how much of it is a product of human creativity. That’s a difficult balance so; it’s easier to think, it’s all G-d or its only people. And if it’s only people then I can discard it anyway I want. If it’s all G-d then I can never ever think of changing no matter how much the modern world may demand it. But I believe that Conservative Judaism represents this idea of ongoing dialogue between people and G-d and just like friendship many many important things are said but there’s always a possibility to say a new thing. So for me that’s the most exciting wonderful model, but I understand that it’s a model that for some people is difficult because it puts all of your life in a sort of dynamic balance so you can’t rest in one place too easily.

When Wolpe speaks of his commitment to academic scholarship, it does not mean that he is an academic scholar, or gives Wissenschaft lectures. Rather that is a signal that he acknowledges that the Jewish classic texts are part of the ongoing human relationship with the divine.

Wolpe does not want to be frozen in the 1950’s conservative motto of “tradition and change” in which a rabbi adapted the old to the current life in suburbia. Wolpe comments that “Tradition and change is actually not a slogan; it is a paradox,” Wolpe said. “It says: We stand for two exactly opposite things. We are the oxymoronic movement.” In its place he offers a defining motto of what a rabbi should be doing, that is, to be “centered on relationship: with other Jews, with the non-Jewish world, and espousing a continuing and growing relationship with God.”

Where do the trends of halakhic egalitarianism and the Seminary tradition of the academic study of Talmud fit into this vision? You can answer by asking how these activities help in relating to God, sitting with a sick congregant, or raising the status of Judaism in the wider world.


As stated above Rabbi Wolpe does not seek to recreate the 1950’s Conservative movement, but he also does not accept the triumphalist myth within Orthodoxy. Most of the recent small growth of Orthodoxy still leaves the Conservative movement as twice its size. Most of the turn to Orthodoxy, he ascribes to the world-wide turn in the last few decades to fundamentalist religions. Rather Wolpe thinks that as “the intellectual pressures of Western society increase” on Orthodox society, “you will see a gradual defection from fundamentalism.” He opines the possibility that “unbeknownst to all these yeshivot – they are training the next generations of Conservative Jews. It has happened before and it may happen again.”

Let us turn to his review of former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to see where the dividing line lies and why he thinks the Conservative movement will prevail. Wolpe cites that Sacks praises pluralism in nations outside of Judaism, but only tolerates Orthodoxy within Judaism.  For Wolpe, this is not a logical argument, rather obedience to a fundamentalist position. Preaching pluralism to the world and denying it at home.

With this dubious stroke, Sacks decides that one people cannot sustain internal variety. But this is a conclusion that both Jewish history and much of Jewish philosophy, with its plurality of incompatible views, flatly contradicts. Moreover, it is a conclusion that I suspect he would be unwilling to apply to others. Can there be no pluralism among the French, Indians, or Serbs? Can there be no multiple forms of Chinese Confucianism? Only on Orthodox premises—God told us we must be this way—are Jews bound to reject pluralism. But then our obligation to act in a certain manner does not stem from the fact that Judaism is “the religion of a particular people.” Rather, the sticking point is God’s will. Presuming to outlaw other interpretations on the basis of one reading of God’s will— God does not wish us to be non-Orthodox Jews— is an ancient, venerable practice, but not much of a concession to the dignity of difference.

In addition, Wolpe praises Sacks as a wonderful wordsmith but ignores the serious intellectual questions of our age or to modern academic disciplines. Sacks cannot be an apologist for Judaism to those leaving Judaism because he ignores the real challenges.

More important than his occasional susceptibility to platitudes is the fact that Sacks fails to do justice to the challenges presented by the modern study of religion. He appears never to risk a straightforward reckoning with biblical criticism. Sacks has been quoted as harshly attacking those who deny the Mosaic authorship of the Torah. But since modern criticism is the standard approach in virtually every non-Evangelical or non-Orthodox university in the Western world, it cannot be simply dismissed out of hand. For a thinker preoccupied with the widespread Jewish abandonment of tradition, ignoring the intellectual impact of comparative religion, history, archeology, textual criticism, and science leaves a gaping hole in the middle of his discourse.

I repeat, Wolpe is not  interested in giving classes based on scholarship and his sermons may be more God centered than Sacks. Wolpe’s book on David was not critical but it acknowledged that the text and all the interpretations came from human struggles.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Wolpe answers the question: Why Do People Become Orthodox? He answers “ The three principal, positive reasons why I believe people choose to be Orthodox: community, coherence and connection [to the Divine will]. In that discussion, Wolpe distinguishes Orthodoxy from Conservative Judaism as the distinction between Kabbalistic theurgy to perform God’s expressed will as opposed to therapeutic encouragement.

The kabbalistic, theurgic amplification is that performing the mitzvah can make a difference to (or in) God’s self. How pale, by comparison, is the dutiful liberal explanation that the mitzvoth will make you a more sensitive person, a more caring person, someone closer to the history and destiny of your people. Of what power is such therapeutic encouragement beside God’s expressed will?

Wolpe backhandedly and with self-depreciation clearly defines the liberal position as cultivation of the self, compassion, and connection to Jews, rather than submission to a Divine will.

1)      One of your main focuses is God in one’s life: What is faith and trust in God?

As I have gotten older my notion of God has gotten more abstract.  When I wrote Healer of Shattered Heart(1990) I was very taken by the midrashic idea of God.  Heschel’s God of pathos – direct, immediate, whose love and embrace are boundless – is powerfully present in rabbinic sources.  It spoke to me and speaks to me.

I still find it beautiful and emotionally compelling.  Increasingly however, I believe we are completely incapable of truly grasping anything real about God. A two year old cannot understand an adult, or even understand what he does not understanding.  The gulf between God and us is immeasurably greater than that between an adult and a two year old. So I come to God less through intellection than through a sense of living in harmony with that great mystery.

And therefore trust is for me trust in something I cannot understand but Who endows the world with wonder, souls with spark and life ultimately with its deepest meaning.

2)      What are the ways we come to God?

We come to God in almost every way – through study, ritual, nature, contemplation, music, relationship.  Individuals have different lodestars.  I love books, but others will find more God in a leaf of a tree than the leaf of a manuscript.  I’ve come to think of religious tradition as a well marked path to get to the destination of both community and Divine Presence.  Judaism can show you endless ways to get there, conflicting ways at times, but the ultimate embrace of God reconciles all the incommensurables.  Some guidelines are firmer than others of course; some beliefs or behaviors take you out of the tradition.  But its boundaries are far wider than once thought.

3)       What is the active role of God in our lives?

God’s role is not a supernatural interventionist but a strength and a guide, an enduring relationship and a deep spur and comfort.  I am skeptical of the God who responds to prayers by changing the world and like very much Leon de Modena’s (early 17th Century Italian darshan) analogy of the man standing on the shore watching someone pull his boat to the dock.  If you were mistaken about mechanics and motion, says Medina, you might think he is pulling the shore to his boat.  Similarly, when we pray we think we are changing God, but we are actually pulling ourselves closer – changing ourselves.

Of course, I cannot know.  Do I rule out God’s intervention?  Of course not.  But if it happens, I believe it is on a meta level — there is a design in history but it is large enough to accommodate many different details that are a result of free choice. That is unsatisfying to those who wish to prove – or disprove – God’s direct cause and effect. But when I had cancer and was receiving chemo, I could not ascribe to God the mechanistic answer to prayer that would respond to me, because I was praying, but not heal the guy in bed four, who neglected his prayers.  So I am content to believe that any intervention is mysterious, if it is real.  In this my orientation is from Buber: what God wants from us is presence, and that is what we should seek from God – not goods, but God’s presence.

4)      What role do specific ritual mizvot play in your life?

Mitzvot are the language we speak to God.  Just as gestures, signs and symbols are part of human communication, they are part of theological communication.  When we light Shabbat candles, it is an age old sign; not only a connection to our ancestors, but something we are saying to God.  So for me the greater mitzvah is to expand and deepen communication, which is more compelling than the command to a single act or observance.

Like my father before me, I am not a ritually oriented person. By that I mean that rituals are often hard for me to sustain, even though I find them nourishing.  My life is more ritually embroidered than most conservative jews, and Shabbat and Kashrut (since I am a vegetarian in any case) and prayer are integral to my normal routine.  Yet they serve as powerful reminders that to stay ‘in touch’ is sometimes a yoke as well as a joy.

My favorite single mitzvah is to recite the modeh ani each morning.  Gratitude is the foundational religious emotion, and to awaken to a new day fills me with appreciation for the restoration of my life and soul.

5)      What is the role of Torah study in your life and that of your congregation?

These days I read more than I study, and generally study ‘for use’ – to prepare derashot and writings and classes.  Not entirely, but mostly. I teach a couple of classes, including a Thursday morning Torah class,  a monthly lunch which this year is focused on topics in the Talmud, and am planning to start a Shabbat morning parasha class during the first hour of shul.

In the congregation there are study groups of various kinds, havurot and Sunday morning Torah study and so forth.  Yet the practice of regular study is one of the things that non-Orthodox Judaism has been weak in for the past decades.  It is a major failing, and in this as in many other things we could learn from our Orthodox sisters and brothers.

6)      Why do you avoid the trends toward Neo-Hasidism, pantheism and renewal?

 Theologically I am deeply drawn to insights that are psychologically oriented.  Most of the notable modern theologians – particularly Heschel and Soloveitchik – write in this mode.  As a lover of literature (had I not been a Rabbi I would have been an English Professor) I am drawn to literary analysis of the Bible, and find in Midrash and modern literary analysis great theological nourishment.  Additionally, I find my Jewish readings enriched by my favorite non-Jewish writers, particularly Emerson, who is an endless well of provocative thoughts. The writings of certain great modern Rabbis, like Israel Leventhal and Milton Steinberg, are particularly dear to me and I hope will not be forgotten.

In high school I was enamored of Bertrand Russell and also read quite a bit of Walter Kaufman, a self-proclaimed ‘heretic’ who was also thoughtful and deep and influential in his day.  Although I believe I outgrew that world view, they oriented me to look for the slightly skeptical but surprising take on theological matters. So I find the slightly astringent (and now sadly neglected) Maurice Samuel and Arthur Cohen worth rereading. But mostly I am drawn to parshanut (Midrash is after all a species of parshanut) and Radal on Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer or the remarkably productive, perspicacious Torah Temimah (his commentary, Tosefet Bracha, is extraordinary) are ever surprising stimulants.

In my own mind I do not so much avoid Neo-Hasidism and renewal, as choose selectively those bits that serve my own theological bent.  So I have taken from classical Hasidic literature (especially the Kotzker, whom I think a remarkable religious genius, if a profoundly troubled human being) and use books like Itturei Torah quite a bit.  But although I read and appreciate Art Green and R. Zalman and the school(s) they represent, my father’s family has roots in Lithuania.  Perhaps I am too much of a Litvak soul; Heschel and Buber speak profoundly to me in different ways, but their ‘Hasidut’ such as it is, is mediated by a profoundly intellectual approach.  I find that more compelling.

7)      You portray King David’s life as the messy but creative life of lover, husband, fugitive, king, sinner, father, caretaker, one that is  fissured and flawed. You paint him as living in the real world. Is that the way you see life?

One of the reasons I was so drawn to King David is that my appreciation for human frailty grows year by year.  I tell younger people that you think you will figure life out as you get older but the opposite, in some sense, actually happens.  The world gets more confusing.  Not because you know less, but the puzzle gets bigger.  You weigh more factors.  Lines are less clear cut.

King David was an astonishingly gifted and astonishingly flawed person.  One of the greatest characters of history, outsized, lasting.  I see his enormity as a model that we, in our lesser ways, reproduce without being aware of it.  The Greeks used to say that whatever road of life you took you found Plato on the way back.  I might similarly say that whatever sin you commit or blessing you bestow, David got there first.  In that sense working on his life consolidated and deepened my view of how human beings work.

wolpe quote

8)      In 2005, you wrote a programmatic essay about your vision for the Conservative movement. What do you think of that essay today? essay?

One thing I believe I was right on is that Judaism needs a public voice.  I was once silenced in a meeting of Jewish leaders on the question of how to revive Judaism.  I kept saying “media, media media.”  I told them it was a shame that only Christian preachers spoke on television.  This was before Facebook and social media in general and I was concerned that Jewish kids were not confronted with powerful role models.  I still think the absence of rabbinic and Jewish voices in public discourse – not political, but public – is a lack that we need to remedy.

But I am someone who is almost constitutionally incapable of seeing one side of the issue.  Invariably I find merit in the other side.  I am bad, in this sense, at being single minded.  So even though I argue vigorously (convincing myself, as a rule, in the process), I am well aware of the dialectic of debate in our tradition and I find the dogmatically certain an astonishment, and sometimes a little worrisome.

10)   What is your advice for the Conservative movement?

I see the Conservative movement as the movement in Judaism that is most centered on relationship: with other Jews, with the non-Jewish world, and espousing a continuing and growing relationship with God. I find that compelling and that is why many years ago I suggested the name “covenantal” in place of “Conservative” for our movement.

Additionally I think of CJ as a movement suffering from a lack of self-definition.  When it was a big tent movement people did not want to define it for fear of losing those at the edges of the tent.  But mushy movements are not growing ones.  So I still believe that a single centralized vision is essential.  And it should be a combined effort of all the organizational braches – the rabbinical schools and assembly, the United Synagogue and with input from laity around the country.  The very process of such reexamination will create dynamism, I believe, that will lead to other and better things.

But I believe deeply in its potential.  Conservative Judaism takes modern scholarship seriously and is not afraid of its insights.  It believes that in relationship (hence another suggestion, relational Judaism) is the secret of our continuity.  Community is our keystone.  And I believe that Conservative Judaism motivates people to see the larger Jewish picture.  Just yesterday one member of my synagogue became President of the Federation and another member became campaign chair.  That’s not a coincidence.  Conservative Judaism at its best pushes people not only intellectually but communally and encourages them to think beyond their boundaries.  It is, or should be, the commitment of a thinking Jew in the modern world.

12)   What did you personally learn from the Exodus controversy in 2001? What does that say about the bifurcation from scholarship even in the liberal world?

What Exodus controversy?

Oh, THAT Exodus controversy.  Well, I learned one thing that I put into practice when I announced that we would be performing same sex marriages.  Before I made the latter announcement I did a series of classes to prepare people.  I think for the Exodus I did insufficient preparation.  But it does demonstrate that what we study and what we preach are often at odds with each other.  Even today when I say something about the Passover story people will say “How can you say that when you question if it happened” (for the record, I never said it didn’t, just that it was uncertain and did not happen the way the Bible depicts it.)

My answer to that is that spiritual memory and historical memory are not identical and religion, if it is to move forward both academically and communally, has to acknowledge those divisions.

13)   What advice do you have for young  rabbis?

Young Rabbis.  Don’t let your sense of mission interfere with your evaluation of your own gifts.  Create the kind of rabbinate that you are good at and your congregants will appreciate you.  If you are pastoral, don’t take a place where they put a premium on speaking; if detached, don’t look for a place where there needs to be a lot of hand holding; if your dream is song and dance and joy, make sure the community is open to your vision.  A mismatch in Rabi and shul is very painful, because unlike other professions, when people criticize a Rabbi they are commenting less on a specific skill than on his or her personality and it is painful.

Two ways of thinking about what you do.  A Rabbi is a spiritual midwife.  We help others give birth to the spiritual drives that exist within them.  And our message is, like a quarterback in football, thrown a little ahead of the receiver.  In time the congregant will (if it is done right) grow into the message, rather than grow out of it.  It is like the Kotzker’s insight about why we say in the shema “al levavecha” – these words should be “on your heart” rather than “in your heart.”  He taught that hearts are not always open, but if you put the words there, in time the heart will soften and they will sink in.

All in all, it is an extraordinary and rewarding calling.  You get more positive reinforcement in a week than most people get in a year.  Ok, you also get more criticism in a week than most do in a year.  But let me close by telling you what two different Rabbis told me when I was starting out.  One said, “Only go into this if you love Jews.” He was right.  But I do, very deeply.  And another told me that he never felt he was wasting his time; the work matters.  As he said, very memorably, no matter how difficult the day, you can get into bed thinking, “it was for God, Torah and Israel.” Be strong, have courage and good luck.

Addenda from an op-ed
When asked about how to deal with tragedy, Wolpe answered in a way that encapsulates his entire view of the tradition of Judaism.

  1. In the face of death, religion maintains that life is meaningful. Not only because of the belief that human beings never fully disappear, but because it teaches that this pageant, with all its pain and anguish, need never resolve into despair. Life still matters; we always matter.
  2. A religious community provides comfort and help. Long after others have forgotten, the congregation will be there, with everything from meals to a shoulder to a prayer.
  3. God is called “Zochair Kol Hanishkachot”— the One who remembers everything forgotten. In the community too, we read the yahrtzeit notices years, sometimes decades later. We do not let the memory of those we loved slip away.
  4. The long tradition reminds us that others have suffered and endured before us. The bereaved can turn to Job and Ecclesiastes for theology and wisdom; to Aaron and David and Sarah and Naomi for the companionship of those who have lost; to the Rabbis for endless, anguished and deep reflections on the fleetingness of life, the meaning of faith, the promise that is the leitmotif of religious life.  Nothing erases pain; nothing wipes away loss. But a kehilla kedosha, a sacred community, is the beginning of healing our hearts.

“The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable:” Another Jewish Perspective

Last week, the Vatican’s Commission of Religious Relations with Jews issued a major document “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable” to coincide the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate. There have been many conferences around the world this year to discuss the 1965 document, what it means today and how to move forward. Even as I type, the members of the Vatican Commission are in Tel Aviv celebrating this document and discussing how to move forward.

This is a first draft subject to change as I work out my ideas.

Most of the global media coverage focused on a few talking points that can be summed up as three: that there is nothing completely new in this document, that there will be no active mission to convert the Jews and that Jews are somehow mysteriously saved without an acceptance of Christ.

My focus is on the document as a whole and the process.

One of the biggest innovations of the document, which took two and a half years to write, was that it was done in consultation with Jews and that there were Jews on the podium at its release that were called on comment on it. Picture the unfathomable: a rabbinic statement that had Christian input and joint religious presentation, which is what we have here.


In the last fifteen years, an era of email and global travel, there has been a flurry of Jewish-Catholic conferences and meetings. Everyone involved knows each other well; everyone emails frequently, and visits each other’s home institutions. Cardinals still annually come to NY Jewish institutions and everyone attends interfaith events like Kristallnacht memorials.

And that is what interfaith dialogue means today. It is not two sides, each foreign to each other, both arrayed against each other to discuss theology. Both sides read each other’s books and op-eds, having visiting lectureships, and are well acquainted with each other. Even an op-ed in a Jewish paper, a colloquium in a university, or a scholarly article on Qumran are part of the dialogue in an information age.

Historical Studies

A second innovation is the extent to which the new document is grounded in historical scholarship. Judaism and Christianity are bound to each other because they both grew out Second Temple Judaism(s); the various sectarian, apocalyptic, hypostatic, and purity ideas of the first century. Both are outgrowths of the Bible, and produce the two religions of Judaism and Christianity. In the background of the document, one hears Daniel Boyarin, Peter Schaefer, and a host of Dead Sea Sect scholars.

In 2001, The Pontifical Biblical Commission, under Cardinal Ratzinger, acknowledged Rabbinic Judaism as a parallel to Christianity worthy of study and respect. The ethos of that statement oozes throughout this document, which considers that there are “spiritual treasures concealed in Judaism for Christians.”  Catholicism teaches now that the rich complimentary Jewish reading is a possible one in that both readings serve God’s will.

After the destruction of the Temple both the New Testament and the Rabbinic literature are parallel responses to changed circumstances. How are they related? Who knows? The discussion starts now with further study.

The document quotes Talmud Sotah, once anathema and labeled blasphemous by Catholics, to understand the Jewish position. It also quotes Avot and Genesis Rabbah, this is a big shift in acknowledging the continuity of Judaism. (See the picture below of Cardinal Kasper in the Yeshiva University beit midrash with a Talmud in hand.) The Church no longer thinks Jews are just the Bible.

The Church is told that it still draws nourishment from the root of Israel. And it mandates that this study should extend to the training of priests. When a generation of priests is brought up with knowledge of Judaism and Rabbinic texts, it will certainly lead to further connections and integration. Will it lead to a generation of Catholic midrashic scholarship and Catholic Hebraists? Will it affect Catholic liturgy and doctrine away from medieval thinking? Time will tell.

Whereas documents of the 1960’s spoke of Divine Love and existential commitment, and documents from John Paul II spoke of the workings of the Holy Spirit, and the document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah spoke the voice of lawyers, this document speaks the voice of contemporary historical scholarship.

The historical approach is especially shown in the new readings of the New Testament. The document treats Jesus and the originals hearers of his word as Jews. Paul is presented following what is called the New Perspectives on Paul pioneered by E.P. Sanders, John Gager, and James Dunn in which Judaism is not intrinsically rejected. The anti-Judaism statements of the New Testament are removed through the use of rhetorical criticism especially in the reading of the books of Acts, and Epistle to the Hebrews. Now, the anti-Jewish rhetoric is treated as just that, nasty rhetoric directed against a specific small group in the course of in-house fighting.The document specifically labors to emphasize these new readings.

At one point, the document makes a major slide from the fact that contemporary Jewish historians can see Jesus as Jewish to the theological speculation that “Jews are able to see Jesus as belonging to their people.” They are not the same.


The actual proximal function of the document is to clear up the immense confusion on the state of Jewish-Catholic relations on the fiftieth anniversary of Nosta Aetate. Nostra Aetate said much less than people think and the last fifteen years we have seen a flood of diverse opinions and statements.

Prior to Nostra Aetate, Jews were seen by much of Catholic teaching as blinded, the Devil, and false; and that once the Jews have served their purpose then God has forgotten them. Jesus had transcended his origins and had nothing in common with his birth religion, according to this now-outdated view. These were repudiated in 1965.

It took more than three decades for Pope John Paul II to move the relationship forward with three bold innovations. First innovation was to acknowledge Judaism as a living religion with an eternal covenant; second, to recognize the Holocaust; and third to actively acknowledge the state of Israel.

Pope Benedict XVI has moved the religions closer in Catholic thought by teaching that Jews and Catholics share one common Abrahamic covenant based on Genesis 15. In addition, after his works on the life of Jesus, based on those of Raymond Brown, Jesus in his Jewish context is now taken as obvious. But he strongly rejected the idea of two separate but equal covenants-rather one covenant. This document must work within his constraints, but in the future Catholic theologians may not.

Nostra Aetate was a revolution. But it did not in itself offer pluralism, recognize Judaism as a separate religion or, even as John Paul II did, grant continuous validity to Judaism. At the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate in 2005, the recent comments of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger were opening up a diverse chorus of where to go next. This year, the need was to give imprimatur to what was said in the last decade in order to go forward.

Nostra Aetate is laconic in the extreme. What does it mean theologically for Jews to be “Abraham’s stock” or “dear to God.” Therefore, Nostra Aetate has both progressive and conservative interpretations, as do most of the documents of Vatican II. Just since the years 2000, there have been diverse statements from Bishops councils around the world, from Catholic theologians, from Catholic interfaith workers and from contradictory voices within the Holy See.  Various Catholic authors and leaders all have different views on the fine points of the Jewish- Christian relationship.

The working out of the laconic statements is an unfolding of the Church’s position. Different documents on the topic have different levels of authority, not usually known to the lay person. In the process of creating this new document, some of both the progressive and conservative statements have been pruned leaving a certain focused perspective. The document brings together specific lines of development based on statements and interpretations of Pope John-Paul II and Benedict, those of Cardinals Kasper and Koch, along with prior documents of the committee.

The document “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable” has the clear and distinct voice and ideas of Cardinal Walter Kasper throughout. For my readers who do not keep current in Christology and Ecclesiology, it is an understatement to say that Kasper is one of the leading theologians of the Church. His most famous theological opponent is Cardinal Ratzinger on the topic of the authority of Bishops.

Kasper and Ratzinger also seemingly differed in a variety of documents on the role of the Jewish-Catholic relationship. This document is clearly the more liberal voice of Kasper along with the voice of Cardinal Kurt Koch’s “Theological Questions and Perspectives in Jewish-Catholic Dialogue (2011) and Pope Francis’ recent address ‘Evangelii Gaudium. On the other hand, it does not contain the progressive voices referring to dual covenants of Moses and Christ.


Finally, many of the theological positions of the last fifteen years are technically still on the table, if someone wanted to return to them. The media, as to be expected, may overstate the finality of these answers. Tyros to these documents, however, may worry too much about major retractions, not understanding how a conservative church and its doctrine moves dialectically between Cardinals and theologians through the years in order to move forward.  The Church is clearly committed to moving forward in Catholic –Jewish relations, but I know that I will probably live to see this document amended at least twice by further documents.

The Document

The first two sections of the document single out Judaism for special treatment compared to other religions. They note that even though the final draft of Nostra Aetate included comments on Islam and Asian Religions that should not mean that all world religions are the same. Judaism was the heart of the document and its catalyst.  In fact, the document is emphatic that Judaism is not “another religion” than Christianity. The relationship is almost “Intra-religious” – “kind of, or a sui generis relationship.” The two faiths are “not really in dialogue” and they are not having a religious confrontation because they are not really separate.

This is not new but was under the radar. During the years 2000-2006, some of the Jewish interfaith participants kept thinking that Cardinal Ratzinger’s reemphasis on a single covenant meant a lowering of the status of Judaism, when it fact it was a little perceived raising. Ratzinger’s goal was to reign in the theologians of Asian religions such as Jacques Dupruis, whom in their acceptance of Asian religions he thought were removing the need for covenant by replacing it with pluralism. But in the process, there has been an increasing placing of Judaism under the Biblical covenant together with Christianity. For more than a decade, there have been arguments moving from internal Christian ecumenicism into Jewish-Christian relations.

The new dividing line between the faiths is the role of Jesus as divine heavenly authority compared to the Torah as the divine authority; this is exactly where Jacob Neusner placed it in his dialogue with Cardinal Ratzinger. The document quotes Genesis Rabbah to show the structural parallelism in that Christian affirm that Christ pre-exists creation while Jews affirm that the messiah and Torah.  And recently, Pope Francis affirmed that both faiths have one God, share the covenant that is revealed in Christ or the words of Torah. He is constrained theologically to create two paths but not allow for two separate covenants.


Much of the language and ideas on covenant and mission are based on the thinking of Cardinal Walter Kasper, see for example this 2010 document  written by Kasper. The very title of the essay is taken from Romans 11:29 “for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” And three lines before Paul declares, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26 ff). Kasper made this a pillar of his thinking in the aforementioned essay and it reappears here.

The document says that the church did not see what Paul was saying for two millennium because they were misled by theories of replacement and supersessionalism. Now they seek to return even as it remains a mystery how it works.

In this document, a covenant “means a relationship with God that takes effect in different ways for Jews and Christians.” A new covenant can never replace the old.

The document clearly seeks to drive out any vestiges of nineteenth century Lutheran Marcionism of thinkers such as Kant, Harnack, and Kierkegaard. Both, the old and new covenants are paradoxically eternally valid.

Jewish and Catholics use the word covenant differently. For Catholics, the world is devoid until God reveals himself with self-disclosure and a covenant of faith. Only those included in the covenant can know God, thereby excluding non-Biblical people. For Jews, covenant is circumcision, Torah, Sabbath, law, and peoplehood. And for Jews, God can be known by all people of the world naturally.

The document acknowledges that the Jewish covenant is circumcision, Torah, Sabbath, law, and peoplehood, their knowledge of Judaism would certainly recognize this. But the Catholic position is that the Noachide covenant as developed by the prophets is the more universal and advanced covenant.

The document see the Jewish reading of the covenant as particularistic and the Christian one as Available for the world. asks “Jews could with regard to the Abrahamic covenant arrive at the insight that Judaism without the church would be in danger of remaining too particularist and of failing to grasp the universality of its experience of God.”

The document assumes that two different paths would endanger Christianity. It specifically faults and seeks to correct the many writers who took the 1985 “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis” as implying two parallel ways to salvation, Mosaic covenant and Christ.

kasper talmud


Yet, the seeming bombshell of this document the statement that Paul would not exclude salvation from those Jews who do not believe in Christ.

Jews sharing the single covenant with Christians are saved. “That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.” But how can this be harmonized with the universal Christ? It is a “mystery of God’s work.” This statement will certainly be clarified in later generations.

However, there are already many resources for working out this salvation without an explicit knowledge or assent to Christ. In the 1960’s Karl Rahner proffered the idea of the anonymous Christian in which Christ can work through people even if they are unaware of it. Gavin D’Costa, a decade later, formulated a theory of the Holy Spirit working on people without their knowledge and there are a variety of Evangelical solutions such as Clark Pinnock’s concept of Christ coming to people after they die. Even if these earlier formulated are not directly used there is a shelf of various positions that seek to be inclusivist, that, is, included the other in one’s own scheme.

To offer a analogous case, recent Vatican theologians have stated that babies who die without baptism no longer go to limbo. But then how are they saved? There is a  recent January 2007 Vatican document that is still working through the issues and offers hope and mystery that they go to heaven.  Each separate theological commission is working through similar issues left open by Vatican II.

How does the Church relate to the salvation of modern Jews, especially non-observant or secular Jews? This document has not confronted the issue


On the important question of mission, the document says there is no active mission to the Jews. Let us look back at the “covenant and mission” controversy of 2002, progressives and conservatives split between active mission and no witness at all. This document attempts to strike a balance.

On the other hand, the Jewish side reluctantly learned the difference between active mission and witnessing.The bad days of active mission are over but the Catholic Church will always witness her faith to welcome people into her fold and assume that she is the fulfillment of the biblical promise.

Conclusion of the Document

If Judaism is not a foreign religion requiring dialogue, then what is the purpose of dialogue? The purpose in this document is to add depth to knowledge from the “spiritual treasures concealed in Judaism for Christians.” In addition, dialogue is now “for the joint engagement throughout the world for justice and peace, conservation of creation, and reconciliation,” and finally it is to combat Anti-Semitism.

The conclusion of the document affirms that Christians should relate to Jews as “people of God of Jews and Gentiles, united in Christ.” I am not sure that any Jewish theologian would be comfortable with this formulation.  Judaism is a separate religion and religious community.

Nevertheless, there is no need to flog your favorite Jewish thinker; one can firmly say that Jews do not see themselves as “United in Christ” without having to cite Soloveitchik. Many on the Catholic side understand how we feel and are committed to acknowledging the ongoing validity of the Jewish covenant but they are working within their own theological restraints. And even in the wider context of this document, the phrase should not be over read.

In addition, some Jews feel more comfortable engaging Protestants, Muslims, or even Hindus (only the latter two naturally understand my dietary restrictions, need to hand wash before eating, and prayer times).

There were two Jewish documents written in response this past week, one from the French Rabbinate and the other from a group of English speaking rabbis living in Israel. They need their own discussion.

Overall, a firm commitment to moving forward, to more study, to a obligation to including Judaism in seminary formation of clergy, and to a greater familiarity. Looking at this from the vantage of 1965, or even of 1998, this is a worthy document.

The Good and the Good Book- Samuel Fleischacker

What would a religion look like that is both ethical and grounded in textual revelation? Samuel Fleischacker is back with a new book The Good and the Good Book: Revelation as a Guide to Life (Oxford 2015) that seeks to answer that question.  It is a shorter, more tightly argued version of his prior tome Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford, 2011).

good book

Fleischacker’s voice has been heard before on this blog in a past interview when the latter large book appeared. In that interview, he explained why he is engaged in this project, what the role of rationality in religion is and how he sees Orthodoxy. He also wrote a two part critique of those who think revelation is ineffable on this blog- here and here.

Fleischacker’s arguments in this new volume are clear and accessible to the educated non-philosopher allow one to use this as a starting point for discussing the entire topic. The current draft is only 138 pages of text , almost a quarter the length of the prior tome. Even if one differs strongly about the thesis or corollaries of one of his chapters, his formulation in contemporary thought is still valuable.

The thesis of the book is that for morality of what to do in daily life, one can and must follow rational morality. But for aspirational ethics of a higher morality, of grounding ethics in a transcendent source, and for a good life, then one needs revelation that is supernatural as a guide.

In order to get this this point, each chapter lays out his thinking on a given building block. First, in a post-Kantian age where one cannot prove anything in metaphysics, then religion is giving a way to live a good life, not metaphysical knowledge. (Here is chapter one.)

Second, ordinary morality is best when from humanistic and rational sources, but higher aspirational morality is from religion.We need both a faith in the divine and in the text of revelation. Third, naturalism does not give us a value or meaning to life, revelation does. One cannot prove that secular morals cannot give meaning just that it is rational to turn to revelation for these issues.  Fourth, we should now use the humanism and revelation together to guide our lives.  Fifth, verbal revelation needs be passed down and received by a community and to thereby pass through our moral sense as part of the process of receiving revelation.  The Bible is to be read as God’s word and not as a human product. And finally, he argues that we should be open to the fact that other communities use different revelations.

To give a contextual example of where Fleischacker is useful, let us look at the recent book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Not in God’s Name. Sacks decries violence from religion looking for a solution. He finds his solution in the secular tolerance from the 17th century classics of Hobbs and Locke, a non-religious basis for morality. But in the same book, Sacks asks us to learn from aspirational figures like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama about how religion can make the world a better place.  Sack’s approach could be seen as falling into Fleischacker’s presentation.

One final point: the book speaks often about the need to combine reason and revelation lumping together many figures with diverse approaches. Fleishacker surprising places himself in the Kierkeguardian fideist camp because his religion is beyond naturalistic reason. Far from me to argue with a philosopher about his self-identity, but the ideas in this book about working with reason and also giving a rational argument for revelation seem to my eye more similar to the ideas of eighteenth and nineteenth religious rationalists who justified revelation rationally. His approach is not an absurdist leap but a rational argument for making a reasonable choice.


1)      What does it mean to say that the Bible is true?

We ordinarily think that “true” means scientifically or historically accurate:  a book is true if the events it describes happened.  I suggest that we look to a different meaning of “true,” to be found in the way the Torah itself uses the word “emet.”  Abraham’s servant looks for a derekh emet, a “true way,” when seeking a bride for Isaac, and then asks Laban and Bethuel if they will deal with him in “kindness and truth” (hesed v’emet);  Moses looks for anshe emet — “people of truth” — to be his deputy judges.  “Truth” here seems to mean “reliable” or “trustworthy.”  I suggest we see the Torah as itself “true” in this sense:  a reliable guide to how we should live (when reasonably interpreted:  see below, under 6),  regardless of whether it is factually correct.

We needn’t see only the Torah as true in this way – other sacred books can be reliable guides to how to live for other peoples.  I do not try to argue here for a Jewish way of life in particular:  just for the value of revealed religion in general.

  2)      Where do we get our morality and ethics from?

I distinguish between morality and ethics.  Morality concerns our interactions with other human beings:  the sorts of things (honesty, nonviolence, kindness) that enable people to live together in society.

Ethics includes morality but goes beyond it:  it adds to morality a comprehensive vision of how to live, a vision of what makes life worth living, of our highest good.  We don’t need revelation for morality.  Morality arises from a variety of purely human sources:  our sentiments, our instrumental reason – the sort of reason by which we satisfy our selfish desires – as well as what Kant calls “practical reason,”  which tells us to respect every human being as an end in him or herself.

Indeed, not only do we not need the Bible, or any other sacred book, for morality:  it is better for us to have a purely humanistic morality.  That way we have moral standards we can share with all other human beings,  and a moral baseline to use in interpreting (receiving) our sacred text. What we need a sacred text — revelation — for is ethics:  for a vision of our highest good.

 3)      Why do we need revelation to find our highest good? 

I find secular conceptions of what makes life worth living overall – what makes for our highest good – deeply unsatisfying.  Knowledge, helping other people, building a just society:  all of these things that are commonly described as making life worth living seem instead to me means to a good life, rather than good in themselves.  As for love, art, and other experiences that are supposed to be intrinsically good, it is easy to come up with skeptical arguments, of the same kind that are used to debunk religion, to suggest that the value we see in them, over and above the pleasure they give us, is an illusion.  And a life in pursuit of pleasure alone seems utterly shallow.

We have had over two centuries of secular ethical philosophies that have tried to show us how life can be worthwhile on a purely secular basis, but they have not been very convincing.  After decades of teaching them, and writing about them, I still think they have little to say to some of the most basic human worries:  the disappointment most of us feel in our central professional and political projects, and in our romantic hopes, the boredom we increasingly feel even in pleasure, and of course the finality of death, and the fact that death seems to rob everything else we do of significance. The

We turn to revelation, if we do, precisely because we find naturalistic attempts to answer the question about our highest good hopeless.  That suggests that there is something about “nature” – which I take to mean the empirical world as construed by science – that bars us from seeing it, or our lives in it, as worthwhile:  it may indeed be essential to the scientific approach to things that it bars us from making sense of the idea that things might have “intrinsic worth.” (I’ve just been reading Durkheim, who makes the point about the link between “nature” and science nicely, and there are also obvious affinities between the suggestion I just made about intrinsic worth and Weber’s conception of science as rendering the world entzaubert).  But if these things are true, then it is essential to revelation that it transcend nature, or enable us to transcend nature:  that it be, quite literally, “super-natural.”

I don’t think one can prove that secular conceptions of our highest good are incapable of answering these challenges, or that religious conceptions of that good improve on them.  What I try to show instead is why it may be reasonable to turn to religion if one takes secular conceptions of our good to fail.  I suggest reasons for thinking that there may be deep problems in the very idea of a purely secular – which is to say a naturalistic and rationally graspable – approach to the value of life.  Perhaps our highest good is intrinsically obscure and non-natural (“super-natural”).

The obscurity and non-natural qualities of our good might also be related.  Our highest good might be obscure because it is somehow “out of nature”:  fully achievable only in a life beyond the one we know, or in some state in which we see through the “veil of illusion” that is nature.  Or it might be obscure because of something about our nature:  because we are too selfish or too wrapped up in material things, perhaps, to grasp it properly.  Each of these possibilities has well-known exponents in religious traditions.

And any of them would provide us with a reason for seeking that good via revelation instead of secular argument, precisely because revelation is non-naturalistic and mysterious.

Revelation also calls on us to submit to it, and learn from that submission, rather than suppose we can figure out everything we need to know about our good on our own.

4)      What are the five qualities of a good revelation? 

Five criteria for a revelation – marks of a writing or teaching that indicate it can plausibly serve as a guide to our highest good – are 1) that it takes the form of a poem (a form of writing that enshrines and preserves mystery), 2) that it purports to have a super-natural source, 3) that it offers us a path, a way of living, by which to discover our highest good, and/or express that good in what we do, 4) that it fits in with what else we believe about goodness (our moral beliefs, especially), and 5) that it offers us an explanation of why we cannot locate our highest good naturalistically.

And the Torah, as I see it, meets the criteria well.  It is an epic poem, telling a grand mythic tale of the origins of a people and their relationship to God, and issuing in laws informed by that tale and couched in elevated and gnomic language.  It of course purports to have a supernatural source, and offers a path of life.  Much of the time, and sometimes very powerfully, it fits in with what else we believe about goodness (where it does not do this,  or seems not to do it, we need to interpret it against its literal grain:  I’ll say more about that when we get to the reception of revelation).  And, as I understand it at least, it provides explanation of why we cannot find our good naturalistically:  because our nature is suffused with a stubborn temptation to idolatry (Pharaoh is the model for this, but the Israelites then show, again and again, how susceptible they are to it).  We need to struggle against that temptation constantly:  it is essentially the temptation to self-worship, which is deeply ingrained in human nature.  With the Rambam, I think the discipline of the Torah is primarily meant to control, and ideally break us, of that temptation.

It’s worth noting that on my view revelation must be verbal:  because it takes the form of a poem, because it gives us directives for action, and because it fits in with, while also correcting, beliefs (linguistic representations) we have about the good.  I’ve defended verbal revelation against what I call “wordless encounter theology”  on your blog, of course:  here and here.  But I wrote that after finishing the book.  The specifically Jewish implications of the book are something I have just begun to work on. In the book, I give Hindu and Jain, as well as Jewish, examples of what coming to a revelation looks like, but of course for me personally the Torah is the prime example.

5)      What is Ethical Faith? 

“Ethical faith” is a phrase I use for a slight revision of what Kant called “moral faith.” Kant argued that even though we can’t know that there is a God, believing in God helps us make sense of our moral life and that is enough reason to hold the belief:  enough at least for a reasonable hope that there is a God.  I see belief in God – or in other religious notions, like nirvana or the tao – as helping us making sense of our ethical life rather than our moral life:  as needed to make sense of our highest good, rather than our relations with other people.  So I talk of ethical faith rather than moral faith.  But otherwise I think Kant is right (and I take Kierkegaardian faith, which is an important source for my own views, to be based on the Kantian model).  We can reasonably hold religious commitments as a frame for what we do in life, not on the basis of science or pure reason.  But, thus understood, religious commitments can indeed be reasonable.  And they can lead us to understand the ultimate author of our revealed texts as God — or whatever we take to be the source of goodness — rather than the human beings who wrote them down.

good book

6)      What does it mean to receive revelation? What are the three implications?

“Receiving” revelation is what we do when God speaks to us:  revelation is not complete until it is accepted, interpreted, and turned into a way of life by a group of people.  (Basically, reception is what Jews call “oral Torah.”)  But that reception has to be appropriately suited to a text that is, after all, supposed to give us access to our highest good.  That means that it must fit in with what else we believe about goodness, and provide us with a livable path (the third and fourth marks of revelation).

So our reception of the text must ensure that it accords with morality, interpreting apparently immoral passages (e.g., the command about killing stubborn and rebellious sons) such that they mean something other than what they seem to mean., and that the path it lays out can be lived by a community.  At the same time, we need to preserve the mystery and sublimity in the text:  only that can sustain our hope that it can lead us to our highest good.

Consequently reception 1) is always communal, 2) can vary from community to community, and 3) is always open to moral challenge:  if we come to think that our ancestors wrongly allowed for slavery or the subordination of women, for instance, we will need to revise their ways of receiving our text (and yes, this is a pathway to halachic change:  but as something that involves a shift in oral Torah, not a rejection of the divinity of written Torah).

7)      How can we show respect for a variety of revelations?   

To respect people with a different revealed religion is not merely to tolerate them:  respect implies that we admire them and think we can learn from them.  On my account, we may do that because, independently of our strictly religious beliefs, we share morality:  we can admire people in a different religion for their high moral standards, and learn from how they act morally.  We may also learn from them religiously because their answers to what makes life worthwhile respond to the same questions as ours do:  the questions about disappointment and boredom and death sketched above.  So we should expect to find that we share at least the same kinds of spirituality, the same sense of what is moving and awe-inspiring.  And in fact Jews and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists often do find this, in one another’s religious traditions, even if they remain committed to their own traditions.

I draw again on Jewish sources for examples of how to learn from other religious traditions:  Moses taking advice from Jethro, a priest of Midian, and the Jewish community taking Nineveh as a model for repentance, when it reads the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur.  If religious traditions are essentially communal, then it makes sense that we will generally remain within the religions of our parents. We cannot be part of their mystery, but we can still learn from other religious communities – and, at least on moral issues, from secular people as well.

We also of course share the questions that lead us to our religious views with secular people, but the division between us over how to answer those questions is deeper than the one we have with members of other religion.  Respecting one another morally is enough, however, to make for a society in which religious and secular people can work together harmoniously, and carry out peaceful and fruitful conversations over their differences.



Rabbi Ethan Tucker on Halakhah

This year Mechon Hadar is sending out weekly shiurim from Rabbi Ethan Tucker that contain his polished and thought out ideas on halakhah.  They are on the verge of becoming a book, so this is the point to raise attentive questions. Below I will look at his thoughts sent out for the weeks of va-yera and bereshit. (Go read the rest of them- here and here.) The former is his manifesto that halakhah should not be a submission to the immoral and the latter is about the phenomena about social shifts. There is an ad-hoc addenda added about women rabbis. I will interview him in the spring; this is just some first thoughts of mine on these two talks.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker is rosh yeshiva at the non-denominational Mechon Hadar. Ethan was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and earned a doctorate in Talmud and Rabbinics from the JTSA. Tucker studied at Yeshivat Maaleh Gilboa and Harvard College (B.A.).

ethan tucker

When Rabbi Ethan Tucker puts out a paper or gives a talk his arguments are cogent and well thought out, they are extensively researched and explained thoroughly.  Then they are honed through delivery and editing. Because of this, his works when they will be published will likely have a cross-denominational effect.

Tucker’s basis for all halakhah is that it is ethical and rational. “We don’t have the luxury of bifurcation. This is critical to what the religious world needs in the 21st century. We have to think, holistically and in an integrated way and with a passion, that the Torah speaks to us.”

Tucker starts his halakhic reasoning with the principle of the Dor Revi’i, R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Hungary, 19th-20th c., a source used by Rabbis Eliezer Berkovitz and Yehudah Amital for similar purposes.  Glasner wrote that “One’s Torah ethic cannot be seen as abominable by Enlightened people” in order to be seen as a wise nation and to be holy. Otherwise we make Torah “foolish and disgusting.” Glasner writes:

If one violates anything agreed upon as abominable by enlightened people—even if it is not explicitly forbidden by the Torah—he is worse than one who violates the laws of the Torah.

I say that anything that is revolting to enlightened Gentiles is forbidden to us, not just because of hilul hashem, but because of the command to be holy. Anything the violates the norms of enlightened human beings cannot be permitted to us, a holy nation; can there be anything forbidden for them but permitted to us? The Torah says that the nations are supposed to say: “What a great nation, with such just laws and statutes!” But if they are on a higher level than we in their laws and norms, they will say about us: “What a foolish and disgusting nation!”…

Anyone resistant to this point denigrates the honor of the Torah and leads others to say that we are a stupid and disgusting people instead of a wise and understanding one.

Tucker’s approach at this point in his editing seems to avoid Lithuanian abstractions in favor of telos and inclusiveness. It has echoes of Eliezer Berkowitz, Kibbutz Hadati and even Hirsch’s rational explanation for the commandments in Horeb.

The essay posted on va-Yera is his anthem that halakhah is not submission to non-ethical irrational system. Rather, it must be an ideal that we can believe in. His overarching contention is that the Kierkegaardian/Soloveitchikian/Leibowitzian reading of the Akeidah and its halakhic corollary is completely alien to Biblical and rabbinic thinking and is a product of relatively late modernity. The more critical issue is that for many who advocate submission,  Tucker astutely senses that it maybe “just deep cynicism and alienation masquerading as piety?”

For Tucker, there is too much Akedah submission thinking and not enough of Abraham’s sense of justice.  In the language of Plato’s Euthyphro, an arbitrary divine command does not make an action good, nor is it good because of human good. But as both Maharal  and Jonathan Sacks answered- God will and his goodness are inseparable in our religious lives. Tucker is not against sacrifice to do mizvot, Mesirat Nefesh, a binding covenant, or communitarian views, just against having to go against our sense of rationality and morality.

Surprisingly, yet a defining debate, Tucker criticized Rabbi David Hartman’s tension of seeing both submission and creativity in halakhah. Hartman advocates the need to stress the moral and creative in halakhah over the submission, as well as to find resources in the tradition for an expansive moral vision and a critique of the submission. But for Tucker, Hartman sidelines the fundamental issue. God is not, and cannot, be asking for immoral acts.

For those on the right within Orthodoxy who see halakhah as singularly based on submission, then you reject Tucker and submit to the halakhic system.

But what do are the liberal Orthodox answers to this tension? Among the answers circulating, we find: (1)Saying that yes indeed, halakhah has  immoral elements and requires a submission but we will be compassionate or Neo-Hasidic in order to soften the pain of submission. (2) Saying that one is open or progressive and needs to change the submissive law to make a concession to fit current perspectives. (3)Thinking of the halakhah as a defensive line and the rabbi as the running back carrying a leniency able to outrun the submission. (4) Showing compassion for the submission but saying that one cannot do anything because of public policy.(5) Acting from personal revelation, hearing the voice of God about what to do. None of these alternatives has been articulated as well as Tucker’s approach.

In general, Jewish practice is molded by three different forces: textual authority and exegesis, community needs and custom,  and authority of rabbis.  In these two lectures, Tucker’s approach is textual. In contrast, Centrism has settled into following authority and Gedolim (a generation ago it was textual), and the older Conservative movement was always peoplehood and the needs of the masses facing modernity.

So where does his egalitarianism fit in?  For Tucker, it is not a concession outside of the halakhah. For Tucker, issues of gender in Jewish practice should be evaluated in terms of textual sources and the data of life.  He thinks that we should be attempting to balance various challenges and engage the issue rather than focusing on boundaries and heresies on a specific policy question.  The reason to have a mehitzah is not because it is Orthodox, but because it minimizes kalut rosh.  The reason to oppose gender equality in the davening is because one thinks such opposition will safeguard kevod hatzibbur and/or because one substantively believes that women’s exemption from time-bound commandments has nothing to do with sociology.  Tucker writes that he does not expect everyone to agree on these issues, but I would like us to speak a shared language of Torah around them.

As a historian of Jewish thought, in some respects I can see Tucker’s  rejection of submission as the debate between Rashi and Maimonides. Rashi held that mizvot are “a yoke on our necks” to be done in submission, while Maimonides and much of the philosophic tradition sees mizvot as achieving ends and perfecting the individual.  However in the language of William James, some people are once born and others twice born and need a redemptive sacrificial act. The deeper issue is that many, if not most, attracted to the halakhic system specifically choose this regiment to get control of their secular lives, this includes baalei teshuvah seek meaning and moral order through submitting to fixed rules, Neo-Hasidiut that sees the outside world as a vail of falseness, and adolescent programs that cultivate enthusiasm where one submits. Tucker addresses a specific audience.

And I conclude with questions from the other direction: What of multiple post-modern selves than engage in various practices and cultural discussions even if they contradict and are incommensurate? Or if I frame a topic in terms of halakhic telos, what about all my non-halakhic truths and commitments?  Where does Aristotle, Cicero, Don DeLillo, and Joan Didion fit in? If we worry about human dignity- but what of our diverse views of rights in the 21st century?

ethan tucker2

Below are selections from Vayera on submission, then sections from Bereshit on category shifts with an introduction. We conclude with a quick answer from Rabbi Tucker on the question  of week: women rabbis.

Parashat VaYera (selections)

The Akeidah – the story of the binding of Isaac – is one of the most central narratives and texts in the Jewish tradition…  As Jews, we invoke this chilling story of Avraham’s near sacrifice of his son with pride on a daily basis, as we contrast our human worthlessness with our covenantal worthiness.

One option is to view the Akeidah as a model for moral surrender. Perhaps the central point of the Akeidah is precisely this: Do not trust your moral instincts when confronted with what you understand to be a divine command. Indeed, God’s command to Avraham was, at least in human terms, immoral. Nonetheless, Avraham was willing to heed this command and thereby passed the test of the Akeidah.

You should be able to feel the power and allure of this approach. It seems to exude humility, an ethic of service and duty, piety and deference to God and the Jewish tradition. The “knight of faith”, as philosopher Søren Kierkegaard labels Avraham, is willing to doubt any personal conviction, no matter how deeply cherished, in favor of an authority whose thinking may be beyond their grasp.

The ramifications for halakhic thinking should be clear as well. One taking this position, would never question authoritative sources based on potentially flawed personal opinions. Indeed, how else could one imagine learning anything from the written and oral Torah? To truly learn, all of our preconceptions must be up for negotiation and reevaluation. Without the willingness to reject my assumptions in favor of a more sophisticated picture, I cannot truly be said to be engaging in anything resembling learning.

But this approach is also fraught with difficulties. Is there really that big a difference between proclaiming fealty to God and Torah despite its immorality and jettisoning its strictures because they are immoral? Or, in other words, is the supposedly humble approach of the Akeidah outlined here just deep cynicism and alienation masquerading as piety? And how long before submissive obedience steeped in alienation gives way to revolutionary rebellion?

If we only obey God because of God’s authority – and not because of deep identification with the message God delivers – why would we expect our long-term relationship with God to be any different than our relationship with Par’oh and other tyrants, whose repressive regimes we escaped at the first opportunity? This reading of the Akeidah is not only incomplete, in my view; it is religiously dangerous and irresponsible.

Another approach is outlined by R. David Hartman, which attempts to reconcile the Avraham of the Akeidah with the Abraham of Bereishit 18 – one of them submits to a morally atrocious action, the other will not stand by and let God violate the laws of justice by destroying S’dom if there are ten innocent people to be found therein. Hartman presents these two Avrahams as a religious dialogue, two approaches to our relationship with God at loggerheads with each other. Why are we choosing the Avraham of chapter 22 over chapter 18? Couldn’t we just as easily mute the voice of the Akeidah’s Avraham and amplify the one arguing with God about the fate of S’dom?

Hartman’s God longs for us to engage the divine command from where we sit as human beings, with ethical instincts of our own, and thus does not abusively demand that we self-negate in order to serve. Hartman emphasizes God’s partnership with humanity and sees engagement with conflicts between the divine will and human ethics as a joint endeavor spanning heaven and earth. The corollary approach to halakhah is thus a quest for human creativity to help God match the divine law to the moral needs and instincts of human beings.

Hartman was not primarily a halakhist himself, so the details here are few. But the thrust of the matter is that God wants human beings, when they find aspects of halakhah to be morally troubling, to use the language of the tradition to rearticulate its norms in a way that resolves the conflict. And this holds out hope that people will embrace this halakhah as willing servants of God rather than chafe at its sometimes apparently callous and inhuman demands.

But this approach only sidelines the problem, it does not eliminate it: Hartman’s Bereishit 22 still denies human ethics a place at the heart of the religious conversation. We can attempt to drown out that chapter with the louder voice of Bereishit 18. But to the extent that the Akeidah is not shouted down by other louder paradigms, the still small voice of Avraham at Moriah continues to beckon us to serve God in spite of our ethical selves. Once it is possible to say that God is entitled to turn us against our own ethical instincts because God knows better, how can we force God to limit this ethical override to a relatively small number of experiences? Aren’t we left with a God who is still abusive and unethical, just only some of the time?

To move forward to a solution that fits all the criteria laid out above, we need make only one simple assertion: Avraham would not have understood the command to sacrifice his son as immoral, because in the world in which he lived, child sacrifice was not immoral. Indeed, narrative (Shoftim 11:30-40, II Melakhim 3:26-27), prophetic (Mikhah 6:6-8), and even some legal (Shemot 22:28-29) passages in the Bible confirm this cultural and religious background.

In Avraham’s time, child sacrifice was different in degree, but not in kind, from other forms of material devotion to God. “To be sure, offering up one’s child was an infinitely more painful gift to one’s God than sacrificing the firstborn of one’s cattle or the tithing of one’s crops.” But at root, Avraham would not have been ethically scandalized by God’s request. At the Akeidah, Avraham “was being subjected to the most painful test possible, but he was not being asked to violate the moral law as he understood it.”

Kierkegaard’s ethical monster is only created by retrospectively writing the later (Rabbinic) rejection of child sacrifice into Avraham’s consciousness, and then lauding him for ignoring later ethical qualms. This disrespects Avraham, divides him against himself, and distorts his relationship with God. Instead, we should see Avraham as a holistic, ethical being willing to challenge God, and to serve God even when it is exceedingly difficult to do so.

This reading not only recaptures the ethical Avraham, but it redeems the narrative of the Akeidah as a central religious text that can motivate us in ongoing ways. The Akeidah stands as an eternal reminder of the periodic need to make very painful sacrifices to serve God and to do what we know needs to be done. Avraham lived in a world in which child sacrifice was an integral part of the religious framework of life. No man longed to sacrifice his firstborn, and yet he knew that doing so was an act of appropriate gratitude to God, who enabled him to have children in the first place, and that showing such devotion to God might also bend the divine will to do great things in the world.

Why can’t we embrace this in our own world? I think there are a few factors. We no longer have animal sacrifice as part of our lived experience and most Jews, I think it is fair to say, have doubts as to its efficacy were we to renew it. We also have a strong notion of individual rights and serious limitations on what parents are allowed to do to their children without their full consent. Against this backdrop, what was once seen as an act of holy sacrifice would today be rightly seen as a deranged act of murder.

Avraham would never have agreed to murder his son, just as he was horrified that God was set to murder the innocent people of S’dom. But human sacrifice was not murder to him, even if it seems so to us.

And yet, we have many analogues today to the sacrifice Avraham was ready to perform, and these are not in conflict with our broader ethical commitments. Who would think that the parents who sent their children to certain death on the beaches of Normandy were ethically lapsed? When we believe a cause is just and is of ultimate significance, the willingness to die – and even to put others at risk – is rightly understood as heroic, not immoral. No one who believes in a culture of life can celebrate such choices, but these painful choices are in fact part of the moral fabric of being committed to ideas and agendas that are larger than oneself.

It is in this spirit that Jews have invoked the Akeidah over the centuries. Those who risked teaching Torah in public under the Romans, those who died in martyrdom in the Crusades, those who invested their life’s resources and lived in poverty to give their children a Jewish education, and those who sacrificed home, hearth, and life to create the State of Israel all continue the tradition of Avraham at the Akeidah.

The consequences for how we approach halakhah are clear. God would not command Avraham – and does not command us – to do things that we understand to be immoral.

When we experience a gap between our understanding of the divine will and the ethical imperative, something is in need of fixing.

It is possible that our ethical instincts are wrong and must be refined. Alternatively, we may have incorrectly understood the divine will or incorrectly applied it to our lives. A deep process of learning and searching may be required to narrow that gap to zero, but eliminated it must be.

The process of halakhah can never end in a place where God and morality are in conflict and the job of the learner – and certainly the posek – is to understand how apparent conflicts are incomplete understandings.

Observing mitzvot is at times exceedingly hard and requires great sacrifice and investment. But the figure of Avraham, properly understood, provides no support for the notion that God’s command is ever meant to supersede our ethics. Mitzvot come to tame the id, not to override the superego.

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Editor Introduction – Category Shifts in Jewish Law and Practice

Tucker is against changing the halakhah based on contemporary values in which the halakhah loses its integrity. He is also against rejecting the law for a new law or making concessions for the needs of the current generation.

Rather, Tucker points out that the halakhah itself undergoes category shifts based on changes in realia and lived experience. This is a very long essay, but I gave excerpts from three of his examples. (1)When the Mishnah says not to wash clothes  in order not to looks one’s best, the Bavli took that to mean ironing. (2) A second case that he gives is the extension of allowing heating for a sick person to anyone who lives in a cold climate.  (3) And the third case I cite is the treating a deaf-mute as  a fully cognizant member of the congregation due to the invention of sign language and braille. R. Osher Weiss, the contemporary posek, is Tucker’s model. In the full essay he also deals with (4) women reclining during Passover sedarim, and (5) How the original Mishnaic laws of oven – tanur-kirah- have been expanded to our contemporary insolated gas stoves.

In each case, they are not making concessions, overriding rabbinic thinking, or saying the rabbinic categories are incorrect. They are consistent with the law as is commitment to the law but they shift in meaning over time based on facts on the ground.

Tucker focuses solely on the legal aspects, but there is a medieval discussion of this phenomenon of category shift, innovation, and change by Rabbenu Nissim, Albo, Maharal and others. Finally, since the reification of halakhah was dependent on the formalist and essentialism of Von Savigny, Hans Kelsen, and other, with Tucker’s turn away from abstraction– what does this relate to in an age of Dworken and Scalia?

Category Shifts in Jewish Law and Practice

Halakhah is, and always has been, about applying an eternal divine will to the shifting facts of life. The details of halakhic discourse focus not on philosophy, nor even primarily on state of mind, but on specific actions taken in response to our experience in the world. The goal of Jewish law is to filter and direct our lived experience.

Some of the most interesting material in halakhah relates to the tensions that emerge between the halakhic language of an earlier generation and the emerging halakhic facts of a subsequent one. How do legal authorities and communities respond to the changing significance of certain objects and actions over time and place, such that the performance of a given act in one context may achieve a specific goal, while it may fail to do so—or even act contrary to that goal in another context? I think it is fair to say that much of the energy in contemporary halakhic discussions is around precisely these sorts of questions.

[M]y goal is to explore a series of examples that demonstrate these challenges and to explore one solution for dealing with them. I call this solution a “category shift”: a claim that a certain object or action, which was once properly classified under one rabbinic category has now shifted categories and the applied law should look different. Rather than arguing for a change in the law in light of new circumstances, this approach claims that the new facts lead to a different application of the old, inherited categories. While exploring these examples, we will consider differences between various types of category shifts and analyze why some are more controversial than others.

(1)An Early Precedent: Laundry and Mourning

In Tractate Ta’anit, the Talmud discusses various laws related to Tish’a B’Av.  Mishnah Ta’anit 4:7​discusses a penumbra of prohibitions that extend beyond the fast day itself. Specifically, it forbids doing laundry during the week in which Tish’a B’Av falls… But then a Babylonian ​baraita ​on Ta’anit 29b glosses the Mishnah’s rule with the following phrase: “Our ironing (or pressing) is like their laundering.”  This is a classic example of what I am referring to as a “category shift.”

What is the basis for this shift? The Talmud does not explicate it, but the reason seems fairly obvious and is already hinted at by Rashi above. The quality of laundering—and therefore the perceived social significance of laundering a garment and wearing laundered garments—was different in Palestine and Babylonia. In Palestine, the water sources ran faster and were full of more abrasive minerals. Both of these factors lead to a superior laundering process. In Babylonia, the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates—and especially the irrigation canals that branched off of them—were slow moving and brackish. Clothes may have made the man in

Babylonia, but laundering certainly did not, and there was thus no reason to forbid this in the day s surrounding Tish’a B’Av. However, there was a Babylonian cultural equivalent of laundering—pressing or ironing clothing. This then becomes forbidden as an expression of the underlying value the Mishnah seems to be getting at here: In the week leading up to Tish’a B’Av, don’t clean and care for your clothes in a way that make them look new and fresh again.

Let’s note two significant things about the dynamics here, one of them stabilizing and the other destabilizing. The stabilizing dynamic is that Jews from Palestine and Babylonia would both recognize one another’s practices surrounding  The destabilizing dynamic, of course, inheres in the baraita’s claim that “laundering” does not mean “laundering”, or more precisely, that does not mean laundering.

 (2)“Everyone is Sick”—Asking Gentiles to Heat Jewish Homes on Shabbat

Such an obviously different reality is in play when Jews relocate to Northern Europe from the Middle East. Another useful and dramatic example of a category shift relates to using Gentiles to light fires for Jews on Shabbat. The following two basic principles are established without dispute in the Talmud: First, Gentiles may not do forbidden labor on Shabbat for Jews, and if they do so, Jews may not benefit from those labors. Second, on Beitzah 22b, Ulla bdR. Ilai rules that one may instruct a Gentile to do anything on Shabbat—including Biblically­ forbidden labors—for the benefit of a sick Jew.

The category of sick can be thought of in two different ways. On a surface level, it would seem to refer to a small subset of the population that is in a hopefully temporary state of illness. It is an abnormal state, recognized by the physically healthy majority as aberrant. This reading makes it virtually unfathomable to use this legal category as a basis for allowing the entire Jewish population to adopt a general practice of instructing Gentiles to light fires on Shabbat on account of the cold. On the other hand, one might think of sick as a legal category that is simply a proxy for a standard of discomfort, the point at which one’s entire body is in distress and one can no longer enjoy Shabbat. R. Ya’akov of Orleans​  read the category this way; the Talmud simply did not require Jews to be that uncomfortable on Shabbat when Gentiles could be of assistance. In fact, being “strict” and applying the Talmud’s leniencies only to more generally sick people would distort the underlying value of that leniency, which involves ensuring, where possible, a certain level of comfort on Shabbat.

Responsa Maharam of Rothenberg IV:92, R. Meir of Rothenberg, Germany, 13thc. You asked about the Gentile women who heat up the furnace on Shabbat. In France, in the home of my teacher, they were lenient [to allow Jews to benefit from the heat], and my teacher said that R. Ya’akov of Orleans even gave permission to instruct a Gentile to light the fire under the permission to tell a Gentile to perform melakhah for a sick person, since we are all sick with respect to fire were we to sit in the freezing cold.

(3) Deaf­Mutes

Those who can neither speak nor hear are routinely exempted by Rabbinic sources from various obligations and banned from certain rituals.  This basic mode of thinking lays the groundwork for a potential category shift for deaf­mutes who learn sign language and receive a full education in schools designed to work around their handicaps. A category shift approach essentially says that such people, despite having a physical condition of being [deaf-mutes] inhabit the legal reality of the  [hearing] and follow the legal rules that are applied to the mentally competent. And so have held many later halakhic authorities with respect to contemporary deaf­mutes who can communicate through lip­reading sign language and writing. R. Markus Horovitz​, of 19th century Frankfurt, took this approach and thought that education in a school for deaf­mutes shifted the students’ legal category…

We find a poignant mixture of deep commitment to the category shift along with concern for stability and continuity in the writings of R. Osher Weiss ​(Israel, 20th­21st c.). In a teshuvah published online, he writes the following: His view is quoted in Responsa Shevet Sofer EH #21. If it were up to me, it would seem that all the earlier authorities spoke about their own time, when most of the deaf­mutes were indeed like the mentally incompetent. Only a few here and there succeeded in overcoming their handicap and to develop a full mental faculty. But in our own time, when a clear majority of deaf­mutes attain full mental ability and they function like anyone else with sign language and lip reading, their status should be that of fully mentally competent people. In the holy city of Jerusalem, we are privileged to have a kollel made entirely of deaf­mutes and they learn Talmudic sugyot in depth and with understanding. How far from reality to say that they have the status of mental incompetents!

But it seems that the essence of the halakhah here is that we should be strict in all directions. On the one hand, we should treat deaf­mutes as fully mentally capable and to obligate them in mitzvot. On the other hand, we should be strict in keeping with the halakhic tradition of past generations, given that this halakhah remains unclear and unresolved…

Editor- Female Clergy

Since this was the topic of discussion for many of my readers last week, this last section was added just this weekend.  Tucker’s ultimate statement is that the Rabbinic tradition was not talking about our women. Their women were functionally put in a set with slaves and children unable to make financial and social decisions, our women are law partners, head physicians in hospitals, and CEO’s.

What About Women Rabbi and Female Clergy?

Here we see in live and raw form many of the dynamics we have explored throughout this essay

On female clergy, I would say you can think of it two ways, one of which, for some people, is a bridge to the other.  I think the second is ultimately the way we need to go, even as the first model may be an important intermediary, transition step.

(1) Identify the role of rabbi a something that can be broken down into components, the most relevant of which never presented a gender problem. e. hora’ah, limmud, role modeling.  Sefer Hahinukh and other sources have already been marshaled to this cause.  Sure, edut, dayyanut, and various other public ritual functions might indeed be out of bounds, but the rabbinic role need not be constructed as including those.

(2) Say that it is inappropriate for anyone who cannot be a dayan to be a rabbi.  This was Lieberman’s claim, and I think it has a great deal of conceptual coherence.  But I would say, in keeping with my category shift analysis, that Hazal only disbarred from this role the sociological group of women  which refers to those with an XX chromosome who can be compared to slaves and children.  That group overlapped entirely with women in the classical, medieval and early modern worlds (arguably extending until 1974 in the US, when women could be denied a credit card without approval of a husband or father).

In the contemporary world (and more and more as we move forward), the halakhot that women shared in common with slaves  (will) no longer apply to contemporary women, who live in a different sociological category.  Following model 2 allows for a stricter standard of who qualifies as a rabbi, even as it takes gender out of the picture.  That is ultimately where I think we will go.

Interview with Rabbi Steven Pruzansky: Country Preacher

Recently, I interviewed Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn about his new book. In that book, the only rabbi mentioned by Einhorn as his personal friend was Rabbi Steven Pruzansky. That, in turn, lead to this interview giving the world further insight into the Right Wing side of Modern Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, a synagogue consisting of over 600 families located in Teaneck, New Jersey. He has served there since 1994. Pruzansky graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in history, and received a JD degree from Cardozo School of Law. He practiced law for 13 years as a general practitioner and litigator in New York City until assuming his current pulpit. Pruzansky was ordained at Yeshiva Bnei Torah of Far Rockaway, New York under the guidance of Rabbi Yisrael Chait. He is a trustee of the RCA on the Board of the Beth Din of America, as well as a dayyan on the Beth Din itself. He also is a member of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.

When asked about his Orthodox affiliation, he replied

Labels are hard for me. The two primary rabbinic influences in my life – Rabbi Wein and Rabbi Chait – defy easy labeling. I choose to fly solo, taking the best from a variety of different movements and when necessary distancing myself from those movements on certain issues. I’m happy to be RWMO, but that doesn’t fully categorize me either. I’m a voice in the RCA but not that influential… Most of the organizational and rabbinical politics accomplish nothing and, frankly, bore me…  I prefer to see myself as a “country preacher.”

Pruzansky’s down home preaching has made him both a role model for some and a problematic lighting rod of controversy to others. One of my former students, who currently serves as rabbi in a major Modern Orthodox pulpit, has a congregant who forever urges him to be more like Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, urging him to use Pruzansky as a role model. On the other hand, some consider Rabbi Pruzansky as a Jewish Jeremiah Wright tainting all those applaud his sermons.  (See here, here, and here.) Regrettably, I expect both sides to hassle me over this interview.

My interview with Pruzansky, however, is not on his politics, his controversies, his view of President Obama, or his views of Open Orthodoxy. Rather, I turned to his books in order to understand his basic religious message.  He is the most articulate of the local Orthodox rabbis, and he has written three books:   A Prophet for Today: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Yehoshua (2006), Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Shoftim (2009) and his latest, Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility (2014).

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The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility (2014) is a clearly written and direct work reflecting his sermons and preaching. The message is that we have to make proper decisions in our careers, marriages, child rearing, and financial dealings.  We have to take responsibility of our lives with its necessary challenges of career, marriage, and child rearing.  The book is a musar book emphasizing self-sufficiency, right choices, and a (very) strong Protestant work ethic. Even quotes from popular works like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers belie a concern for the formula for success.

The work is a model of the implicit Centrist Orthodox critique of the Haredi life. One should plan for a career, not get married until one support a family, don’t let rabbis make your decisions, no learning while supported by others, and not to expect miracles in life or politics.

The country preacher’s thoughts on the book of Genesis show the importance of free enterprise, the necessity of the small state rejecting the state giving free handouts which make us into slaves, the importance of being anti-union, the fundamental importance of being pro-private property, and the necessity of gun ownership. The book is solid musar for Republican values – with some nativism and tea party ideas included.  The book surprised me in how much it was built on yeshivish musar works and not YU related works. But unlike those musar works, here we have a proud use of personal responsibility  for one’s worldly life.

Arguments on the topic of personal responsibility have been hot one in recent years. For example, there have been numerous shows on FoxNews by Bill O’Reiley among others on the topic of personal responsibility (here, here and here),; Nicholas Kristof penned a response, Now, there is a recently released study by the political scientists Mark D. Brewer and Jeffrey M. Stonecash, Polarization and the Politics of Personal Responsibility (2015), which argues that the idea of personal responsibility is the fundamental divide in the US today between liberal and conservative and the notion of personal responsibility can be used to sort out the current divisions surrounding race, gender and religion.

The book is gold mine for an anthropological study of upper middle class Centrist Orthodoxy. If we want to compare Pruzansky’s message to an opposite work, I would recommend the works of Rabbi Avraham Twerski’s musar. Twerski also deals with the contemporary anxiety of making money and the struggles of family life, but Twerski does not stress responsibility, rather he stresses the importance of turning to God, seeking comfort in prayer, coping with stress, maintaining one’s self esteem by being part of community, and assureing his readers that God will extend his mercy to the unemployed like he helped the Jews in Egypt. A message like Twerski’s creates a very different religious anthropology than that created by Pruzansky’s message.

Pruzansky’s book can also be compared to the 16th century Polish Rabbinic homilies- by the Kli Yakar, Levush, Maharashal Maharal and others– on wealth, family, and responsibility as discussed in the still untranslated work by Haim H. Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-Hanhagah (Jerusalem, 1959). Unlike the poverty of Rabbinic Jews in the 19th and early 20 th century, the upper middle class concern with making wealth of the 16 th century  Polish city Jews deserves comparison to our own age.

The other volume discussed in this interview  Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Shoftim (2009) uses the book of Judges to understand contemporary Israel politics. Modern Israeli politicians are compared to the flawed ancient Judges, ethics are learned from the prophet driven battles, and the need to utterly destroy one’s enemy is learned from the battle against the Canaanites.  The volume makes use of many of the recent Israeli Religious Zionist commentaries produced in Hardal yeshivot on the book of Judges that seek to draw modern political messages from the early prophetic books.

I thank Rabbi Pruzansky. Read the interview, learn about this country preacher, one of the leaders of Right Wing Modern Orthodoxy.

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The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.

1) What is your message of personal responsibility?

First and foremost, it means the assumption of personal decision-making about one’s life choices. Major issues in life must be decided by the individual and cannot be outsourced to others. Only in that way can the individual’s unique personality be expressed and realized. Add to that the importance of accepting responsibility for failures or mistakes, which builds character and deepens integrity, and provides a platform for learning from one’s experiences.

2) What is the need for self-sufficiency?

Ultimate decisions on choices of spouse, career, place of residence, etc. must be made by the individual (even after he or she consults and receives guidance from others); otherwise, the person is living someone else’s life.

No person, however, is ever completely self-sufficient. We rely on family, friends and community to provide us with the framework and infrastructure in which we can grow, live and thrive. But we should strive for self-sufficiency in terms of decision-making.

For some, the advantage to having another person make critical life decisions for a questioner is that it frees the questioner from having to take any responsibility for his decisions. For others, that might relieve them of the insecurity engendered by those very decisions. For most, I would think, it deprives them of the capacity to develop and enrich their personalities and to live as free people.

I note in Parshat Lech Lecha: “Individuality is not only a blessing but a fulfillment of God’s will in creation. We are allowed – even encouraged – to pursue our individual talents and destinies, all within a Torah framework. We may become Jewish doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, inventors, scientists, businessmen, entrepreneurs and thinkers. To live in a box stifles creativity, and the attempt to produce cookie-cutter children grows stale…”

3) What is the esteem gained by being part of the Jewish people?

To be a member of the Jewish people is a privilege and a gift. In essence, it is to be entrusted with carrying G-d’s moral message to the rest of the world. One naturally should feel pride in the assignment, but that pride should not feed one’s ego. Rather it should be used as motivation to fulfill the mission that G-d granted us. Indeed, it should induce humility – the humility of the servant executing his tasks on behalf of the king and knowing that the sense of nobility he feels is not innate in him but a reflection of his role as servant.

4) Should people go to rabbis to make decisions for them?

A person should always consult others before making a major decision about which he is conflicted, just to hear other ideas and perspectives. But for a person to allow another person to make a major decision for him is abdicating one’s own humanity and living someone else’s life. That is essentially slavery (avdut), and the antithesis of the image of G-d (tzelem elokim) and right of free choice we were given. Rabbis can have greater insight at times, but I don’t subscribe to the notion that rabbis necessarily have divine inspiration and an unerring perspective on world affairs.

Rav S. R. Hirsch spoke of the tzelem elokim as man’s capacity to be a free-willed being. A failure to exercise that capacity is essentially dehumanizing. Of course, it has to be exercised with care. Man not only possesses a nefesh hasichli – spiritual and intellectual inclinations – but a nefesh habehami – animalistic tendencies – as well. One must be careful to use his gift of the image of G-d (tzelem elokim) to promote the former and harness the latter.

5) You define the goodness in matriarch Sarah’s life as successful. How is the Torah’s goal success?
   Faithfulness to Torah certainly does not guarantee wealth, but why would we define “success” by the size of one’s bank account? Sadly, too many people are afflicted with that mentality. Chazal spoke of the virtues acquired through poverty, although they didn’t of course recommend it. The poor and the rich are both in challenging situations, and that is the basic test of man: to be able to serve G-d under all circumstances, and we are all therefore placed in different circumstances. But faithfulness to Torah produces success as we should define it – being a proper servant of G-d, at peace with G-d and man, blessed with family, and a lack of any sense of deprivation. etc.

6) When is it OK to blame the victim – such as Dinah- for not showing personal responsibility?
   We don’t blame the victim enough in our society. Usually the victim plays some role in his victimization – usually but of course not always. It is the concept in torts of contributory negligence, which is perfectly logical but rejected by most people when it comes to their personal lives. Distinctions are necessary – of course, im ain deah, havdala minayin? (without knowledge, how can we make distinctions?) – and not all cases are identical. Even in torts, contributory negligence is adjudicated by percentages, 1% to 99%, and everything in between.

That being said, no person has the right to harm, molest, assault or otherwise take advantage of any person, even if the victim is responsible for his bad choices. The onus of guilt remains on the perpetrator. Thus, contributory negligence is a matter of civil, not criminal, law. A criminal cannot excuse his crime by saying the victim should have known better than to walk in a dangerous neighborhood. Chazal were clear that Dina went out looking for trouble and found it – but that is a moral lapse. It did not give anyone the right to attack her.

7) How does revelation on Sinai connect to the value of responsibility?

If man was created as a free-willed being capable of being held accountable for his actions, part of Creation has to entail the revelation by G-d of His will and morality to mankind.

That is how the Jewish people enter world history, never to leave it. We were liberated from Egypt in order to be free-willed beings who can receive His Torah, serve G-d and transmit His morality to others. The Torah is misplaced if it is given to human beings who are not responsible for their actions. We have to use our minds to understand G-d’s will as best we can and control our bodies – rein in our impulses – to serve him as well.

8) Why and how do people need limits on their lives?

It’s this week’s sedra – כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֪ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו. (“Man’s inclinations are towards evil – i.e., instinctual gratification – from his earliest youth.”) Man’s animalistic tendencies will emerge unless they are constrained and redirected elsewhere. Man left unchecked – by Torah, law, conscience, society, etc. – will naturally try to consume, abuse and torment others. Man left unchecked lives a pure animalistic – animal soul nefesh habehami existence, seeking only to gratify his physical needs as best and as frequently as he can. That is why we were given the Torah and the nations limited by the Noahide laws.

9) What do you say to someone poor and born into a cycle of poverty with lack of models for responsibility?
Personal responsibility includes responsibility for others, especially the needy or downtrodden. Far better than the handout is the personal involvement in their lives – mentoring, guiding and, when necessary, easing them through and out of financial hardship. But we do not believe that circumstances define a person. Hillel “obligated the poor” (mechayev aniyim) to achieve and lift himself up as he did, (Yoma 35b). If it is done by one, it means it can be done by all.

Nonetheless, growing up in hardship – whether the inner city or the Pale of Settlement – makes it more difficult, and that’s where character and values are indispensable. What ails society today is not the dearth of money but the dearth of values. So many people have money and still have corrupt values.

10) The approach in the book has little on mizvot, ritual or Torah, almost everything on marriage, finances, child-rearing, career, and stress of life. What does this say about the community and its issues? What does it say about your approach to the rabbinate?

Nothing! We are defined as a people of mitzvot but that was not my intention in writing. There are many books that deal with the technicalities of Jewish observance. But one can be a Shomer Mitzvot – and be corrupt, even have idolatrous leanings, and not at all feel a connection with G-d. Those are greater focal points for me, because I assume observance of Mitzvot.

11)  If this is the Torah perspective, then why have there been so many rabbinic scandals- both financial and sexual- in the last few years?

It seems like a lot, but in actual numbers it is not that many in real terms. More than 3% of Americans are either in prison or on parole. What percentage of rabbis are miscreants? Far less. Of course that is small comfort when even one is too many. That being said, the Torah is perfect, not the Jews and certainly not the rabbis. A depraved person who learns Torah is lambasted by Chazal, because he will eventually use the Torah for his depraved purposes. Sadly, none of this is new.

12) Where do books you seem to have used like  Thomas Sowell and Frederich Hayek on economics, Frank Chodorov on libertarianism,  and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers fit into a Torah perspective?
In a general sense I am a big believer in “believe there is wisdom among the gentiles” “chochma bagoyim taamin.” If non-Jews have a particular insight into the world, or they frame a Torah concept in an especially enlightening way, then I am delighted to learn from them and use it. But “don’t accept that there is Torah among the gentiles” “Torah bagoyim al taamin” – they do not have a divine system through which they can sustain and transmit those ideas.

13) Is it just coincidence that the perspective in your book in favor of the small state, anti-union, pro-private property, pro free enterprise, and the importance of gun ownership is very similar to certain Republican platforms. If one is already a Republican with these positions, then why do I need Torah?

What’s the cart and what’s the horse? The Torah always has to be the foundation of all our ideas and values. To the extent that Torah ideas coincide in certain aspects to the Republican Party, I am gratified – for them. Good for them, but it doesn’t really affect us. In any event, the ideas and values in the Torah are of divine origin; the Republican Party platform? How shall we say it? Less so.

The puzzle then is why so many Jews are practicing Democrats – and the answer is that overwhelmingly they are not practicing Jews.    But when the Republican Party deviates or would deviate from the Torah, I would not hesitate at all backing away or repudiating that part of the platform. Bear in mind that politics in America is inherently secular but that Republicans are much more likely to be churchgoers and religious than are Democrats. That itself certainly plays a role in explaining the symmetrical aspects of the conservative philosophy and the norms of Torah.

14) Should shuls have gun clubs? What role does the gun club play in your shul?

The gun club is not officially part of Congregation Bnai Yeshuran  but most of its members are somewhat affiliated with the shul. We did offer (off premises) firearms training years ago for those interested many years ago. We also hosted karate for many years, which I consider quite similar. Self-defense is important for all Jews, a basic Torah requirement. We need not be squeamish about the right to defend ourselves. I do not believe we have any hunters in shul!


Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim

1.       What is your concept of a national leader based on your book?

The ideal leader is a righteous autocrat who is wise, honest, humble and devoted to the welfare of his people. It is no coincidence that this models the philosopher-king; it should. The problem is that the theory is great but it is hard to find such people in reality, at least not in a sustained way. The failure of Jewish leadership in ancient times – and the accounts of the few exceptions – is the story of Jewish history.

2.       How is the leader to bring national solidarity?

National solidarity, for Jews, comes from a shared sense of commitment to G-d’s service and therefore our national destiny. We all have the same mission but we were all given different roles in that mission. The task of the leader is to actualize the fulfillment of the national mission by facilitating the performance of the individual roles.

3.       Why do we need pragmatic thinking in politics and to accept less than ideal judge who make  mistakes?

    I don’t think we have to “accept” poor leadership but the reality is that we have to endure it and overcome it. There is mediocrity in every field, so leadership is no exception. Personally, I think we are too hard on leaders who make mistakes. As long as they accept responsibility and have learned from them, they probably have an advantage over leaders who think they are infallible. In American politics today, there are no second acts. But Israel – and many other countries – has a habit of recycling leaders who have been rejected before. In fact, almost every prime minister in the last three decades has been booted out of office at least once and then restored – if not to the top job then to other top positions.

The world is divided into righteous and wicked, but most people are entrenched in that third category, the intermediates (beinonim). They will usually know what is right but lack the will to see it through.

4.   What is the concept of the degradation of community?
Often during the period of the Judges, when just part of the nation was attacked the tribes that were unaffected felt no need to join in the battle because they lost a sense of nationhood.. Too often, the Judges went to battle with just a small number of tribes, and even then participants had to be solicited. This happened to Gideon, Yiftach, and Shimshon’s case – when he had to fight alone – stands out even more. The sense of community – of nationhood – was lost, and as we saw, only a king governing from a new national center – Yerushalayim – could restore that unity.

5.  In your opinion, why should Jews (or Israel) ignore the Geneva Conventions and other human rights conventions?

I am not saying Israel should categorically ignore the Conventions, which have a value even if they have changed over time. It does purport to regulate the conduct of war between nations, and does it successfully except when it does it spectacularly poorly (such as when a nation chooses to breach it and suffers no consequences – Syria, 2013). Nor did it help Jews during the Holocaust.  But if one side in a conflict vitiates the Conventions, then it is foolish to abide by them and give the enemy the advantage. E.g., an enemy that hides behind civilians, that attacks civilians, that does not fight in military uniform, etc. – in that context, the Conventions should not apply. Indeed, most of the world would not similarly restrict themselves, and so Israel should not be subject to that double standard.

6.       Your position seems very different than those Roshei Yeshiva who teach that human dignity and human rights are never removed from a person. Do you have any thoughts on why you see things differently?

Not at all. I believe very strongly in human dignity and human rights because all human beings are created b’tzelem elokim. But I believe as well, and would be surprised if the other Centrist rabbanim did not, that human beings can so tarnish their image of G-d (tzelem elokim) that it is gone. That happens when a person becomes an animal, completely under the sway of the animal soul (nefesh habehami). Nazi murderers were in that category, like prehistoric man who did not possess an image of G-d.

I can’t believe that other Orthodox leaders would perceive them as human beings like the rest of us, just sinners. Those who wantonly stab innocent people because of their lust for Jewish blood are in the same category. Their image of G-d is so corroded that it is gone. That is why society executes those people.

Indeed, the executed prisoner is called the cursed of G-d. G-d had a certain plan for human beings when He created us and gave us an  Image of G-d. These murderers forfeited that and leaving them hanging from a tree is an “embarrassment” to G-d whose plan went awry. So hang them and take them down right away.

7.  How and why do we use the prophets  of Navi for guidance?

If we can’t learn from it, then there would have been no point in recording it for posterity.  I make this point in the introduction to the book on Yehoshua: “The Jewish people had many prophets…so why are only the words of 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses recorded? Only the prophecy that was needed for future generations was written down, and that which was not needed for future generations was not written down (Megilah 14a).”

In Rabbi Wein’s approbation (haskama) to that book he wrote that it is “an excellent piece of work and scholarship. The danger in it and the criticism that you will undoubtedly receive is in your attempt to fit event and insights from Sefer Yehoshua to the present-day Israeli scene. Many of the leading rabbis of our time have warned against attempting such comparisons.” Wein continued his words: “However, this is not a unanimous opinion for otherwise what is the purpose of studying Tanach…”

Those are the two sides. My efforts were along those lines: to extract from Yehoshua and Shoftim – the books that describe the initial conquest and settlement of the land of Israel – all the lessons that we can apply to the modern conquest and settlement of the land of Israel. The similarities are eerie. And if we can’t gain this wisdom from the Navi, “what is the purpose of studying Tanach?”Actually, we do not learn halacha from Navi but only from Chazal, but this is a different quest.

Selichos With Lipa

Guest post by Avraham Bronstein

This past Saturday night, I made the drive from Scranton, PA, to Airmont, NY for Selichot led by the colorful hasidic music star Lipa Schmeltzer.

Lipa founded his own shul, The Airmont Shul,  in 2008 following his break with the Skvere hasidic community over the contemporary style of his music, his flamboyant personal style, and, later, his secular higher education. The building features a musical motif throughout, including mezuzot cases in the shape of flutes and an ark shaped like a harp. An electric guitar hangs on one wall.

An established sensation in the hasidic and yeshivish music worlds for some time, Lipa has recently attained a following in the more modern elements of Orthodoxy, giving concerts at luxury hotels. summer camps and in modern Orthodox synagogues.  He is now attending Columbia University for a long awaited BA, something denied him growing up Hasidic. He also gives a twice weekly, widely viewed “Sheni ve Hamishi” words of Torah on Facebook. Most of the time the videos are calls to tolerate, get along, and be kind. Recently, he caused a wave by calling for Hasidic women, from Hungarian dynasties, not to shave their heads as prescribed. Lipa has gotten really good press in recent months – here, here, and here.

Before the Selichot began, Lipa welcomed guests to his synagogue, which he described as “improvisational,” and briefly introduced the program for the evening. (“God is my witness, I have not prepared a word of what I’m going to say, but we’ll see how it comes out.”)


Despite the professional-quality flyer disseminated on social media and the presence of two guitarists and a keyboardist for accompaniment, Lipa explained that the idea for a large-scale musical service was only conceived several days before. Supporting this assertion was the lack of Selichot books for use in the synagogue. Some people had brought their own, and many others (myself included) quickly downloaded the text to our phones. Still others went without.

The crowd numbered about 100 people, mostly yeshivish and hasidic-looking men from the Airmont/Monsey area. Guests came from communities ranging from Scranton, PA, Nassau County and Westchester, NY, and Bergen County, NJ. For the most part, the out-of-town visitors tended to look more Modern Orthodox. The crowd seemed a bit restless at first, talking  and shuffling about. Lipa stopped during his opening lines concluding “Ashrei” to ask for silence, and there was a fair amount of “buzz” and cellphone photography/videography throughout.

Lipa went fairly quickly through the standard liturgy using a fairly basic nussach (musical motif) for Selichot. The service was really based, however, around several extended singing and dancing breaks, sometimes based around words from the paragraph being read, and other times more free-form.

During the periods typically reserved for silent congregational reading, Lipa would lead a song or niggun as well. All the piyyutim were done in record time; many people just listened to his background singing.

The music tended towards the upbeat and the Carlebach repertoire, and not his own material. In the beginning, he seemed to be imitating Carlebach’s spirit in style and stories. At one point some words were sung to what sounded like a Billy Joel song and the opening of the Ark in the middle of the service was accompanied by what Lipa said was a waltz that particularly appealed to him and then Avraham Fried’s “Aderaba.” At many points, Lipa would hand the microphone to a friend to lead the singing while he circulated through the synagogue dancing and clapping to generate energy and encourage the dancing. Lipa’s enthusiasm, presence, and showmanship were infectious, and very clearly the lifeblood of the synagogue.

One thing that was not sung was the standard Ashamnu. Before the Ashamnu recitation, Lipa explained that the confessional section of the service was exceedingly personal, between each individual and God. He could not offer guidance, as he had throughout, or suggestions to guide our thoughts, so he would just play a “freiliche song” and we could each chose to silently meditate or proceed as we felt appropriate.

Lipa founded The Airmont Shul in the wake of a painful and public break from the insular hasidic community he was born into. He referenced the difficult founding of the synagogue and his painful personal journey several times. As the service began, he shared that, for him, the night would be a meditation on not judging others, something he said he still finds himself doing too often, especially in light of how he himself has so often been the subject of judgement by others.

He honored Rabbi Dov Oliver, Hillel Director of Rockland County Community
College, where he was a student before transferring to Columbia, with the opening of the Ark before the responsive singing of Shema Koleinu, calling him a mentor who helped him immeasurably as he regained his spiritual footing.Lipa2

Despite their ultra-Orthodox dress and look, it was clear that many of his local attendees share similar stories of being judged or being marginal, and that being a part of his congregation was, for some, socially and politically fraught with  tension.


At the beginning, Lipa asked people who planned to take cellphone pictures or video to only do so in one half the synagogue, and to respect those who expressed their desire to not be photographed by standing on the other side. (He joked, “If someone does appear in a picture, we can always say it was photo-shopped and he wasn’t really here.”) He revisited that theme before the responsive singing of Hashivenu (“Bring us back, O Lord, and we will return”) when he noted the different journeys, both spiritual and physical, that brought his diverse congregation together.

The musical selections towards the end tended to be slower and more contemplative, including a Yossi Green song for Shomer Yisrael and the now-standard Machnisei Rachamim made famous by Avraham Freid. Lipa ended the service with a blast from a shofar before the final kaddish (sung to the Modzitz melody), which led into a post-Selichot round of upbeat dancing. The entire service ran just under two hours, concluding at 1:00am.

There was a women’s section, but less than a handful showed up. One women who traveled to be there was disappointed. According to her, the women seemed like they were there to wait for their husbands as displayed by their continuous smartphone use. Also during the second hour of selichos, many men had already gone outside to smoke and socialize.

At one point before the end of the service, Lipa remarked how overwhelmed he was by the distance some people traveled to attend, and how everyone who was in attendance from “out of town” would receive a CD before returning home. True to his word, as soon as the last dance ended, he dashed out of the synagogue and returned with a stack of CDs. I received two, including his most recent album “Be Positive!,” featuring hasidic dance and electronic music.

Interview with Shlomo Einhorn –Judaism Alive

How does one combine the works of Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins  with the teachings of Rav Hershel Schachter? How does Dr. Phil and Marianne Williamson become part of the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy? In his just published book, Judaism Alive: Using the Torah to Unlock Your Life’s Potential, Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn  incorporates thoughts from popular culture by citing the likes of the rock group Queen, Muhammad Ali, and among countless others seeking to combine what he thinks is the best of modernity to guide readers to a better life.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, the author of Judaism Alive, has his rabbinical ordination and master’s in education from Yeshiva University, During his seven-year tenure as head rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan, Rabbi Einhorn helped his synagogue achieve 70 percent growth. His out-of-the-box work was so successful that in 2010 the Orthodox Union gave him his own think tank to craft programming for other synagogues across America. In 2012, Einhorn moved back to his hometown of Los Angeles to serve as dean and rabbi of Yavneh Hebrew Academy. Rabbi Steven Weil called Einhorn “the top young Orthodox rabbi in all of North America.”

Einhorn finds himself right of center and considers Rav Hershel Schachter as his Rebbe and wears a black hat. Nevertheless, he states that “I do believe in learning from a wide array of teachers to the left and to the right.” Einhorn learned seven blatt every day, rather than the more Lithuanian Yeshiva approach of analytic study, thereby has completed learning the Talmud Bavli nine times. Einhorn also released  a music album  called Judaism Alive: A Musical Odyssey that went to #3 on the Itunes World Music Chart.

This interview was so open and direct that I do not have to pull out his relationship to popular culture since he is direct in his use and acknowledgement of pop psych, new-age spirituality, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist teachers,  rock stars, and talk show celebrities.  They are all a form of Torah for Rabbi Einhorn.

I had a long post on Rabbi Einhorn three years ago; it serves as a good compliment to this interview.  He was also discussed in my Orthodox Forum article on Centrism and Popular Culture on the huge roll popular culture is playing in Centrist Orthodoxy. In that context I had discussed rabbis who are turning Orthodoxy into cruise ships of entertainment.  If the left is turning toward social concerns, the right is turning to motivational speakers and a new form of Neo-Hasidism with their implicit social vision.  This version is highly anthropocentric, neo-liberal in its concern for value, and peak this-worldly experiences.

Early Hasidim used kabbalah from 200 years prior because it was the language and spiritual resource that they knew. Yet, they were using it to express new ideas and start a new vision. Spiritual positions such as Rabbi Einhorn’s Judaism Alive use Hasidism and Neo-Hassidism from two hundred and fifty, or even hundred years ago, but here too it seems that it is because it is the spiritual language and tool at hand in which to create new ideas way beyond the Hasidic sources.

Einhorn front

1)      What was the purpose in your book?

The purpose of the book was partially to prove Prof. Alan Brill wrong. You once said that I was responsible for “cruise ship” Judaism. I wanted to show that presenting Torah in a vibrant and entertaining way can help move people from Point A to Point B. Growth is magnified in our generation when inspiration is presented in color. Rav Kook writes a lot about that in his Shemonah Kevatzim: “It is a great obligation upon the righteous to involve themselves in studies and song which awaken the upper enjoyment…and from their joy will be drawn a joy to the entire world.”

I also wanted people to understand that the best of pop culture, great books, and a knowledge of human biology can all be used to invigorate are commitment to Torah. When you hear the deep traditions of our heritage echoed and or made clear in other areas of life it’s exciting. It’s more than validating. It’s about recognizing that the eternal truth of the Torah weaves its way through all of life’s vistas.

2)      What does it mean to have Judaism Alive?

Judaism Alive means a lot of things. In particular it means that our academic and at times very cerebral vocation is also exciting and passion inducing. It’s meant to be applied, lived, to serve as a guide for a happier and better life.

Judaism Alive means that greater halakhic observance, if done correctly, can promote greater creativity, productivity, energy in our daily lives. I myself found that as I was writing I wanted to express the ideas in the book in some other creative format. I felt that the words of Torah were pushing to express inspiration in different ways.

This got me to simultaneously write and compose my album “Judaism Alive: A Musical Odyssey”, that came out this summer. It was meant simply as a form of spiritual expression. We were all shocked and thrilled when it went to #3 on the ITUNES World Music chart.

3)      How were you inspired by the book you cite Kim Dinan’s Life on Fire?

Kim Dinan is an example of somebody who literally followed her dreams. We all give sermons about following dreams but not everybody does that. Her book resonated with me because I deeply feel that in my life as a Father, a husband, Pulpit Rabbi, Dean of a School – I feel like I am so blessed and living my dream. Yes it’s a little different than Kim’s.

Thank G-d my dream isn’t to backpack down the Himalayas. It’s easier to backpack back down from Kiddush. Following your dream is part of the Judaism Alive message. An inspired Judaism will propel to search for your best life. However, it is Judaism’s spin on that concept and that means that we do not just throw it all away – leave our homes, families, community so that we can achieve serenity.  Passion isn’t enough – I think Steve Jobs said that.

4) Why do you like Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins. Please explain how they are Torah values?

Deepak Chopra was my first entrance into the new age self-help world. I find with every single one of his books he has at least one distinction that is unique and potentially life changing. He writes that “in the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.” That is wonderful. Live is movement and chaos. There needs to be constant growth and give and take, or as the mystics call it ratzo v’shov back and forth. Without that we wouldn’t get anything done. The notion of stillness sounds like we’re being called upon to check out from accomplishing. No! Dr. Chopra argues that stillness is a way to achieve presence while we are running all over the place. There is so much Torah in that. Judaism vehemently believes in working hard, fast, and vigorously to accomplish. There is so much Torah to learn. There is so much kindness to be done. There is so much discord that needs our repair. The problem with that is we can break if we don’t stop and if we don’t realign our purpose and take care of our needs. So learning how find the stillness within While we move is the key to everything.

Tony Robbins. I just love him. He is a guy who loves to find new methods and technologies to make life better. He lives to make people’s lives better. I have seen him give a seminar where he didn’t take a break for 10 hours. That was awesome. But he can do it because every hour is about making people’s lives better. And thinking like that give you the strength to accomplish so much. I think of the Lubavitchter Rebbe. He became Rebbe at 49. That’s unbelievable. We always think he must have become the Rebbe at 25 because he did so much. No! His work just began at 49.

5)      What do you mean when you wrote “anything that teaches is Torah”?

There is Torah in the literal sense. The books of Tanach, the Mishnah, the Talmud, Midrashim, Rishonim, Achronim and then there is Torah in the sense of things which we learn that comport with the values of the Torah. I think the Baal Shem Tov is saying that there is a Torah element to that as well.

There is truth in it. Torah as truth. We need to be careful and not mix and match the two. I try my best to make that distinction. The Steipler is worlds removed from Deepak Chopra. Nevertheless, there is an idea in one of the Steipler’s letters that can change my life and there is an idea in one of Deepak’s books that can change my life. In that sense it is Torah – it instructs, it informs, it causes me to be better.

6)      Therefore, are Dr. Phil and Marianne Williamson Torah?

In the Baal Shem Tov’s definition as per instruction and inform – yes. In the sense of Torah literally, no.

7) What is the ZPD?

Zone of Proximal Development is a concept developed by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsk. It asserts that there is a “sweet spot” by which students learn best. For example, material presented that is too easy (or below the zone) is already known and therefore doesn’t enhance our learning experience. Content that is too hard (or above the zone) is simply a waste of time because it is gibberish to the learner. Finding information that is slightly above what we’re used to maximizes the learning experience.

To apply that personally, I found that when I forced myself to learn the sugyos (topics) of Kodshim(laws of Temple related sacrifices and vessels) I pushed myself into the ZPD. It was an amazingly rewarding experience. Let me add that “already known” material need not always be below the ZPD. When Ramchal writes that “I am not teaching you something you don’t already know”, he’s not suggesting that we spend the next 200 pages learning material below our ZPD. No. He means to say let us take what you already know and now develop it and root it so deeply in your experience.

8)      You explicitly mention that Rav Nachman conveys the same message as Oprah on living mindfully. Isn’t it a new-age Buddhist concept?

One of the great self-help thinkers of our time, somebody who just died this week – Dr. Wayne Dyer said Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.” That line reflects the need for us to be present. Stop using our conception of what should be to force realities that aren’t.

Oprah obviously embraced this movement to accept the Now as it is. Eckhart Tolle brought the power of now to the mainstream. Where Rebbe Nachman fits into this schema is that he constantly drives home the idea (see opening piece in Likutei Maharan) about us appreciating the world and items therein as they are. There is a Divine chochmah that animates everything, without which it couldn’t exist.

Mindfulness is about pausing to appreciate that. Stopping to make a brachah, applying “one is obligated to see themselves as though they are presently leaving Egypt” at the Passover Seder, etc are all expressions of that mindful energy. Judaism is not about commemoration. It is living a particular experience in the present moment.

9)   You mention at several places in your book on the need to learn from Rav Nachman of Breslovs teaching about creation leaving an empty void, devoid of divinity.’. How do we accept this empty void in our lives?

Parker Palmer calls this “hidden wholeness”. There is a part of our lives that appears untamed, more challenging and outside the realm of a simple self-help quote. And guess what, that’s okay. It’s all part of how G-d designed us. When I can recognize who am I and what my flaws are I am able to deal with myself as a religious persona. I can’t begin to understand why I may hurt those I love if I don’t understand that in me is an empty void that seeks significance. If I know that then I can find a more positive and empowering way to meet this “shadow side”.

10)   You quote a Hindu guru that meditation gets us in shape for the day and then you don’t give any meditation instructions. What am I to do with that quote?

I left it open ended because there are so many meditation possibilities. It’s not for one to select one that is most effective. Rav Aryeh Kaplan argued that Shemonah Esrei is the greatest meditation. Rebbe Nachman argued that talking straight with G-d is the greatest meditation. On your blog, you once spoke a bit about the mediation practices of Divine names  from Abulafia and Rav Itcha Meir Morgenstern. Eastern mediation, Western Meditation, Hypnotherapy. Endless. They all contain a powerful mechanism by which to engage transcendence and periodically presence.

11)      How do we have to learn to find answers within ourselves ?

G-d discerns the heart and investigates the innards (Hashem bocher lev u’bochen Kelayos).

There is a teaching in Judaism that our kishkes have answers.

There’s a basic wisdom that runs through our blood. We know what it means to love a child without ever reading Ashley Merryman’s “Nurture Shock”. We know what it means to help the stranger without ever reading William Blake’s “Welcome, Stranger, to this Place.”

Our inner knowledge may not be exceptionally nuanced. Or, I should say, our perception of what our inner world already knows isn’t so nuanced but it is strong. On the other hand, Judaism does not assert “Let your heart rule your head”. No. We, as a people, stand for – “a nation wise and understanding”. Utilize wisdom to make sense of what we are feeling. By feeling I mean what we may sense in our gut to be correct.

12) How do we stop and observe without judging?

There are the times to just stop judging what we do. The Buddhist thinker Thich Nhat Hahn speaks a lot about observing our anger instead of judging it. That is huge. A lot of therapeutic approaches suggest beating your anger, like hitting a pillow. Hahn notes that this only breeds more anger. Instead, stop judging your anger. Note it and care for it.

13)   What was the general reaction to these sermons?

They literally all have gone over well, Baruch Hashem. My best sermons are always delivered after I have already built a rapport with my community and congregants. They understand me and get me. They know what my hashkafa, my worldview, is really about and therefore the quoting of those “outside the pale” doesn’t alarm them. On the flipside they also understand my reverence for those who lead a lifestyle way too rigid for any of us. I imagine though, as this book is read without the possibility of a prior rapport – there will be some push back.
14)   Your book  lacks any reference to Torah or to mitzvot except as a backdrop, do you think Orthodox Jews are now focusing on their challenges of their lives with the mizvot as a backdrop?

Oh, everything here is about the service of G-d (avodas Hashem). No exception. Only a life lived with G-d in mind is one that is optimally fruitful.

The mitzvah is the main mode by which we serve our Maker. The Socotchover (in his remarks on the 7th Day of Pesach) and also the late Tosher Rebbe (also in his remarks on the 7th Day of Pesach) both note that the endpoint is not the mitzvah, though, it is the relationship with Hashem.

My book starts with the end in mind and therefore there is less emphasis on mitzvah. G-d forbid I am attempting to bypass observance. On the contrary I am attempting to provide a meaningful framework for the observance. Let us not forget the Why. This book speaks to “why” we ought to connect, “why” we ought to locate G-d in our lives. The mitzvos are a way to achieve that level. This book starts on a concurrent track teaching us that a life lived with these values takes you there.

I do agree that Orthodox Jews do focus more on the challenges in their lives rather than the mitzvos. However, it is my hope that if this book is taken to heart we can all come to realize that many of life’s challenges can be made more noble and more manageable through proper mitzvah observance.

16] Why use entertainment and popular culture in education? Why use glitz?

If I have a secret to survival and I want to share it with you but I know that you are distracted by the TV blaring, the Snapchat message coming in, the Amazon Alexa device sounding off, on an on – how do I get your attention? That’s how entertainment and glitz is used in education. It’s a call to attention. There’s also a assimilation advantage to using entertainment. If I present a dry class on blessings there’s a chance the listener may observe a bit more than before. But I present a class on blessings via an entertaining evening with Sushi in front of you – it becomes memorable and palpable and therefore you will be more likely to assimilate the values.

17] Do the ideas in the book show up in the Yavneh curriculum?

The ideas in Judaism Alive show up in Yavneh. Every teacher is asked to self-audit their classes and notice whether they are big or small. By big I mean feel as if they are larger than life. Don’t just teach Lashon Harah (speaking slander about another), give Lashon Harah full color by giving a class on posting reviews on YELP. That’s Judaism Alive.

18] Many Rabbis do not teach your path of living fully? Do you feel isolated? Are you the way of the future?

I don’t feel like I’m a lone ranger. When Rav Hershel Schachter gives a class for two hours that twists and turns in all different directions and ends by answering the challenging question on the role of documents in Jewish Law (Shtar Raya vs. Shtar Kinyan), oh wow is Judaism Alive.

When Rav Elazar Shach pens a letter to a struggling with his studies – his emotions come bursting through – and that is Judaism Alive. The pages of Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s Michtav M’Eliyahu are filled with psychological insights that glean from so many different sources. Every Jewish book on my shelf is so different and yet each idea leads to the same place: avodas Hashem – the service of the King – that is Judaism Alive.

19] You learn all of shas (the entire Talmud) every year, does that mean seven blatt a day? That seems very non-yeshivish that usually emphasizes learning, slowly with commentaries.

I learn shas (the entire Talmud) every year. Yes that’s 7 blatt a day. I do it in a yeshivish way.

My in depth learning was limited because I was missing mastery in scope. My in depth learning was an exercise in futility because I didn’t have enough range to fully develop answers.

I feel like since I started this my critically thinking skills when studying Talmud have improved exponentially. Look, what motivates me is ultimately the style of Judaism Alive. I love being in a different world each day. To start the morning in tractate Gitin and then later that night to be lost somewhere in Bechoros is magical. I like being all over the place. Sometimes that gets in the way of focus but it makes the journey fun.

20] What are the differences between the Orthodoxy of Los Angeles and New York?

New York Orthodoxy places a premium on intellectual and cultural sophistication. That, on one hand, is really exciting for a teacher. On the other hand I think a lot of good content and exciting ideas gets dismissed simply because it doesn’t appear high-brow enough. Charisma is sometimes mistaken for compensation. Los Angeles Orthodoxy places its emphasis on tradition and the way that things have been done. That of course is also a double edged sword. On one hand, it keeps the Jewish community at a fairly high level of observance and Torah knowledge. On the other hand, it tends to reject innovations that could be used to enhance the overall Jewish experience.

The Maimonidean Controversy in 1305-6: Gregg Stern–Philosophy and Rabbinic Culture

In the beginning of the fourteenth century 1300-1306, centering in the southern French region of Languedoc was a renewed round of debate over the role of naturalistic ideas in Judaism.

In short, a moderate philosophic rabbi, Abba Mari thought part of the community was too open, too heretical, and too lax in observance. Another moderate philosophic rabbi, Menachem Meiri tolerated the liberal naturalistic positions as part of the open dialogue of the community. Abba Mari draged into the fray the leading rabbi, the “gadol”, Rabbi Avraham Aderet (Rashba) who lived in another country Catalonia, and who was a kabbalist. Rashba issued a local ban and picked on his own local Catalonian philosophic naturalists. In response, the rationalists of Languedoc placed Abba Mari in a ban for denigrating the community and its teachers. They also wrote several sharp defenses of free inquiry, rationality, and philosophy.

In this process we find:

Two rabbis with similar theological and philosophic positions diverge, one seeking to ban the recent liberal thinkers and the other one thinking they should be tolerated.

One of these rabbis was willing to tolerate rabbis who thought that Moses wrote the Torah and that all miracles are to be explained naturalisticly.

One of these rabbis was so outraged that he wrote copious letters and missives to let everyone know what he thought was incorrect seeking to curtail the transgressions.

A major rabbi bans what he thinks are dangerous positions and no one listens.

Major rabbis thinks people should follow the synthesis of the prior century but not engage in new philosophic analysis.

These points are part of what is conventionally called the fourth round of the Maimonidean controversy, which has been well laid out by Gregg Stern Philosophy and Rabbinic Culture (London: Routledge, 2009, pb 2010) Gregg Stern is a Harvard-trained historian of medieval Jewish thought and culture. He is now working on a broader volume, Flashpoints: The Communal Struggle with the Legacy of Maimonides (1188-1340) on the struggles over the Maimonidean legacy. It was published a few years ago, but the paperback just came into the library. The book is a good book to read over the holidays, highly recommended, and it has many long excerpts from the original texts.

Gregg Stern cover

Heinrich Graetz originally portrayed the Maimonidean controversy as a manifestation of the perpetual danger of philosophy to Judaism, as a much needed corrective H.H. Ben Sasson decades ago showed that the controversies were local specific disputed cultural, religious, and social problems, which were based in the richness and diversity of differing Jewish cultures.

The Jewish culture of Southern France was unique in many respects: having traditions that go back to Roman times, being part of Mediterranean religious tolerance, and having a unique method of learning. The classic work was B. Z. Benedict, Merkaz ha-Torah be-Provence (Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1985). Then, Moshe Halbertal, Between Torah and Wisdom: Rabbi Menachem ha-Meiri and the Maimonidean Halakhists of Provence (Magnes Press, 2000) (Hebrew), showed how these Jews crated a philosophic halakhic synthesis. Halbertal’s analysis sees moderate and radical streams of Jewish society as historical expressions of a profound duality immanent within Maimonidean thought, a typology of two different hermenutical horizons from the same book.

Gregg Stern’s book is more step by step, in that, the real-life relationship between the various thinkers and groups within Languedocian Jewish society is, in fact, more contradictory and complex. Stern is also careful, or even insistent, in separating the region of Languedoc from Provence, and both of them are quite dissimilar that Catalonia, similar to the way a careful sociologist may separate the modern Orthodox communities of Riverdale, Teaneck, and Five Towns as each having their own character.

Once we mention modern Orthodoxy, another way to get a handle on the micro issues is to know that Jews attended classes at the University of Montpellier in Languedoc in order to become physicians and scientists. Part of the compulsory curriculum and required sections of the medical boards was Averroes’ philosophy, hence the local community was comfortable with philosophy naturalism, even from the pulpit. For more on medieval Provencal life, see the many studies of Joseph Shatzmiller, in this case especially Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society (Berekeley: 1995).

For more on the liberal natural side of these tensions, especially the influence of the extended ibn Tibbon family of translators and pulpit rabbis, see the introduction to my interview with Carlos Fraenkel and the work of James T. Robinson (University of Chicago).

This Languedoc controversy of 1300-1306 also focused on the use of talisman magic for healing by the medical students, (Abba Mari was upset, Meiri forbid and Rashba permitted, see here) as well as laxity in observance (they thought that if the Maimonidean reason for many commandments is to think of God, then philosophy is a better way to do it.)

The focus of Gregg Stern’s study is the Meiri and specifically the philosophy controversies. In this, he is following his teacher Prof. Isidore Twersky of Harvard, whose Maimonides was a halakhic-philosophic synthesis. Twersky focused much of his research on the well rounded rabbis who were philosophers (hakham hakollel) , and his very doctoral program was itself a potential training grown to produce such rabbis.

Using the philosophic controversy as a distant mirror: In 1974, Twersky was appointed to lead a think-tank for Maimonidean ethics at YU, there was no follow-up. In 1980 or even in 1992, many thought the Maimonidean Rabbi PhD’s that he produced, with their knowledge of Talmud as well as philosophy and history, would be the future leadership of Modern Orthodoxy. They were eclipsed by Rabbi lawyers and rabbi MBA’s. Maimonideanism is no longer popular with modern Orthodoxy and it is not seen as the way of the future.  In fact, the ban of the Rashba was positively cited this past June by R. Willig to rein in secular studies. Most indicative of the changes in the community is that this statement seeking to restrict secular studies did not raise any ire, only the issue of women’s learning. One can also see reflections in the current questions of tolerance, or not, for naturalizing revelation and for treating the Bible as an allegory.

It is a very long interview, so print it out. Be sure to get down to questions 8 & 9, or better yet buy the book.

gregg stern

  1. Where is Meiri’s Languedoc?

Menahem ben Solomon of the House of Meir (ha-Meiri) was born in Perpignan, Roussillon in 1249.  In Meiri’s day, the Jews of Roussillon derived from, and saw themselves connected, culturally and spiritually, to the Jews of neighboring Languedoc. The center of Meiri’s Languedoc (Occitania) was the substantial Jewish communities of Narbonne, Lunel, Montpellier, and Béziers.  Meiri’s entire communal territory — from Roussillon in the West to Provence in the East — was only loosely organized and full of political divisions.  The commonplace use of the term “Provence” to designate this territory is incorrect and confusing — somewhat akin to referring to “New York” as its neighbor, “New Jersey.”

 2. What was the philosophic goal of the law as taught in 1300, especially by Meiri? 

Meiri completed Bet ha-Behirah, in 1300.  In Bet ha-Behirah, Meiri was in deep sympathy with Maimonides’ goals in Mishneh Torah, of organization and clarification.  Meiri described his own halakhic work as a response to Maimonides’ achievements and their limitations.  In the Introduction to Bet ha-Behirah, Meiri observed that Maimonides’ code had not been adopted by rabbinic authorities of subsequent generations as the central instrument of study.  Therefore, he thought to produce a work—albeit entirely different from Mishneh Torah—that might in its own way provide massive simplification and clarification. Beit ha-Behirah is not a running commentary on the Talmud, although Meiri wrote on each tractate then studied.

Meiri records his community’s commitment to philosophy and the sciences as a change in orientation resulting from the 1204 publication of the Hebrew translation (from Arabic by Samuel ibn Tibbon) of The Guide of the Perplexed.

In Meiri’s view, Maimonides had enlightened the Jews of Languedoc, and had invited them to integrate Greco-Arabic learning into their curriculum of Torah study; they had done so admirably, without harm to their Talmudic studies.  After four or five generations – by Meiri’s day –many of Languedocian Jews had established this broader curriculum as a cultural ideal. Meiri emphasizes the success of Languedocian Talmudists with philosophic study and it has exercised no deleterious effect upon them.

Meiri lists and describes these Languedocian Talmudists who inspire him so, such as Rabbis Samuel Shakiel, Gershom of Béziers, and Reuven ben Hayyim. Unfortunately, very little is known about these scholars of whom Meiri is so proud.

Meiri envisioned his own culture as a generations’-old community, formed by the great talmudists of Languedoc, together with its elite group of astronomers, mathematicians, physicians, and philosophers; a community that felicitously integrated Jewish and Greco-Arabic learning in the service both of a greater understanding and more profound worship of God and of the glorification of the Jewish people in the eyes of the nations.

3. In the 1300 Languedoc controversy, which is higher- philosophy or halakhah?  

At the turn of the thirteenth century, there were a range of views regarding the way in which the philosophic tradition and Judaism ultimately ought to be reconciled.

Following the path of Samuel ibn Tibbon, there were Jewish scholars inclined to find the teachings of Aristotle and Averroes in the deepest layers of Scripture. Such scholars, for example, increasingly avoided the understanding that Scripture taught the creation of the world out of absolute privation by the will of God. They felt compelled to interpret Scripture naturalistically.

Similarly, many of the philosophically informed Jewish scholars had become persuaded that human survival after death is based on the role of the properly developed intellect.  Of course, any model of human immortality that solely required philosophic comprehension raised doubts about the precise relationship between observance of the Commandments and his ultimate reward.

Other Languedocian Jewish scholars, although philosophically informed, sought out philosophic interpretations of Judaism of a more moderate character.

Because of the centrality of Maimonides’ contribution to the synthesis of Judaism with the philosophic tradition, the debate about the character of the synthesis frequently took the form of a debate about the meaning of Maimonidean teaching.  A wide range of scholars argued that Maimonidean teaching supported their views, some rather moderate and others quite radical.

Abba Mari ben Moses of Montpellier drew heavily on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and acknowledged it as the authoritative expression of the Torah’s inner philosophic meaning.  Abba Mari’s philosophic teachings are nevertheless quite moderate in character.  Nevertheless, regarding Maimonides’ interpretation of “The Account of Creation” and “The Account of the Chariot,” as Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, Abba Mari’s Maimonidean allegiance shines through clearly.

It is well known to wise men that there are two classes of sciences. The first is the science of nature [physics], which is the science of “The Account of Creation.” The second is the science of divine things [metaphysics], which is “The Account of the Chariot” . . . Without doubt, all of the sciences were known to the scholars of our Torah. . . . On account of our sins, which had multiplied, the wisdom of our scholars was lost—with the loss of our secret books on the esoteric sciences—when we were exiled from our Land… These very teachings are that which is found in the works of speculation written by the sages of Greece. (Abba Mari, Sefer ha-Yareah, Chapter 6, in Abba Mari  ed. and comp., Minhat Qena’ot, p. 653).

The philosophic positions of Abba Mari and Meiri are extremely close. Meiri’s interpretation of the Talmudic texts that refer to “The Account of Creation” and “The Account of the Chariot” easily demonstrate Meiri’s Maimonidean identification of Judaism’s long-lost esoteric lore with philosophy.

Rabbi Avraham Aderet, Rashba held that the Maimonidean identification of Jewish esoteric teaching with philosophy was fundamentally incorrect and deeply misguided. Rashba argued that physics and metaphysics were a noxious and basically valueless Greco-Arabic intrusion upon the Jewish tradition, with which it was incompatible. Rashba wrote that the great Torah scholars of Languedoc initially were ignorant of Arabic philosophy.  Once this new learning arrived, he continued, they falsely identified it with the esoteric teaching of the Torah.

Rashba’s own understanding of “The Account of the Chariot” may be confirmed in his little-known “Responsum to the Scholars of Provence” in Seder Rav ‘Amram Ga’on, ed. 1912, (39b–40b).  In the responsum, Rashba informs us that “The Account of the Chariot” is none other than “the [kabbalistic] things that are hinted at by the commandments of the Torah.” Indeed, one cannot achieve the commandments’ goals by any means other than their performance.. As Rashba would have it, the “Supreme Chariot,” far beyond the grasp of the gentile philosophers, is none other than the ten sefirot.

The Jewish scholars of Languedoc viewed Rashba as an unsympathetic outsider to their interpretive disputes.  In fact, Meiri argued that Rashba’s involvement not only would be considered an intrusion, it should be considered irrelevant.  Meiri maintains that, as a kabbalist and adversary of philosophy, Rashba may not meaningfully express an opinion regarding the disputes then going on in Languedoc regarding philosophic study and interpretation.

Although our master the Rabbi [Rashba] is a father to us all, and no one would raise a twig or open his mouth and chirp against the perfection of his rank, you are well aware that in these [metaphysical] matters there are a variety of opinions. [Rashba and his school] have chosen as their lot the science of the Kabbalah. In their view, most of the discussions of philosophy are a demon, a she-demon, and injurious angels” (Meiri, as quoted in a letter by Simeon ben Joseph, Hoshen Mishpat,  ed. David Kaufmann [Berlin: 1884] Hebrew  150–1).

Asher ben Yehiel (Rosh) was heir to the pietistic and mystical traditions of the Haside Ashkenaz through his father, Yehiel, as well as to the legal and exegetical traditions of the Tosafists through his teacher Meir of Rothenberg,  in short, the living embodiment of the spiritual achievements of German Jewry.As Rosh traveled southward, he was at first overjoyed, praising God at having reached his hosts of the county of Provence (east of the Rhône) found scholars “skilled in [Hebrew] language, with clear minds and possessed of intelligence.”

Upon becoming better acquainted with Provençal Jewry, however, Rosh was astounded at their religious orientation. He entered their “hearts” expecting to find the “chambers white” with the pure spiritual devotion that he knew from Ashkenaz. Instead, he encountered an unfamiliar philosophic orientation that he could only describe as “black” (Rosh, Minhat Qena’ot, p. 596).

In the fall of 1304, Rashba was hosting Rosh in Barcelona.  Rosh would eventually conclude his journey in Toledo, the capital of Castile, where he would head its Jewish community.  While in Barcelona, Rosh declared that he could not support Abba Mari’s position that scientific and philosophic study should be prohibited before the age of twenty-five, because such support would imply, incorrectly, that philosophic study was permitted once one had achieved that age. When settled in Castile, Rosh expressed the view to Abba Mari that philosophic study is entirely prohibited “in our days” (Rosh, Minhat Qena’ot, p. 835).

4. What are the limits to philosophy allegory?

In Judaism, as in Christianity, the allegorical interpretation of Scripture was integral to achieving an accommodation with scientific and philosophic learning. Indeed, the ubiquitous nature of allegorical exegesis, of all types, among both Christians and Jews during the High Middle Ages was conducive to such an accommodation.

Meiri, for example, interprets the biblical story of the building of a tower to the heavens—which God and His Court frustrated—as a trope for the tower builders’ arrogant denial of things divine.  For Meiri, the very idea of the existence of a tower, stairway, or fortress that reached the heavens—and God—was absurd.

[The meaning of the tower, on the contrary,] is that this generation could not comprehend things in the heavens and above them. They could not see ‘the Lord standing [at the top].’ Instead, they denied His existence, may He be praised, and the existence of incorporeal intelligences” (Meiri, ’Avot, , 3: 11,  132).

Meiri clarifies the way in which philosophic sermons in Languedoc might shift from the allegory he advocated and practiced extensively, to the allegory he prohibited and would polemicize against. Meiri speaks of Scripture as divisible into three types of texts, which should be interpreted in three different ways:

In Meiri’s first textual category, elements of biblical narrative that present philosophic problems, are given exclusively figurative interpretations. One such group of narrative elements are references to God’s body. It is known that God has no body, as a body would imply in Him multiplicity and imperfection.

Meiri’s second category is the inverse of his first: biblical texts that must be interpreted literally. In the second category, texts are protected from allegorical interpretation Meiri prohibits the allegorical interpretation of texts such as those that had been the subject of the problematic sermons in Languedoc. The Creation story, like the prohibition of murder, is not to sacrifice its literal meaning; miracles are to be understood as they were related. Meiri also makes an analogy between the minor details of commandments and the minor details of narrative.

Meiri claimed that it is similarly futile to assign allegorical meaning to narrative details that could not help but be related: once Eliphaz’s concubine’s name was given, for example, she could not have a different one.

Meiri’s third category strives to distinguish between interpretation that replaces the literal meaning of a commandment and interpretation that deepens it. In his third category, interpretation sustains the literal meaning and adds a new, hidden meaning.  Meiri mentions two examples: The prohibition of shaving, he explains, may be intended to prevent a practice which could lead to idolatry. Rest on the Sabbath inculcates the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, which in turn allows for the possibility that the world’s laws might be temporarily altered by their Founder. In regard to both examples, Meiri explains, the interpretation of the commandment does not obviate its literal observance; in fact, it may enhance it.

Meiri therefore hoped to steer the radical allegorists in his community away from those texts where the dangers excessive naturalism were most significant. Meiri does not appear overly concerned as to remove allegorical interpretation from public sermons altogether.

In addition, Meiri would enforce the prohibition against public exposition of the Torah’s “Secrets”—the allegorical interpretation of those texts that both Meiri and the preachers held to contain statements of Judaism’s esoteric lore. Meiri says that he would give Abba Mari his full support to pursue such a plan.

Meiri himself directed his substantial allegorical interests and intuitions toward Proverbs and Psalms, but refrained from any such activity in regard to the Torah and Prophets. In regard to the philosophic interpretation of aggadah, Meiri restrained himself along similar lines. Meiri comments laconically, “These Talmudic aggadot contain many esoteric statements concerning the ‘Account of Creation’ and the ‘Account of the Chariot’ which it is not within the bounds of this work to explain” (Meiri, Bet ha-Behirah, Hagigah, 2: 1 [p. 28]).

5. What got Abba Mari upset enough to go to Rashba? 

In Abba Mari’s vision, the study of science and philosophy in Languedoc should be restricted to the community’s senior members, drying up the stream of scientific translation and innovative commentary that the Tibbons had inspired.  He interpreted the biblical verse “Incline your ear and listen to the words of the philosophers but let your heart follow my position” to grant the pious student permission to engage in philosophic study, but he restricted the verse’s application to “great scholars” (Sefer haYareah, Ch. 14, Minhat Qena’ot, 659).

Abba Mari’s consternation over both the broad accessibility of philosophic learning among Languedocian Jews and that community’s increasingly widespread discussion of the philosophic meaning of Jewish tradition provides the germ of the controversy.

Abba Mari esteemed philosophy as the very pinnacle of the Jewish tradition and felt it critical to enforce the Maimonidean injunction to restrict philosophic study to the qualified elite. He hoped that the Jewish scholars of Languedoc would censure those who, in his view, had overly popularized the philosophic tradition in their community. The ways in which the generations of students following Samuel ibn Tibbon sought to widen the scope of allegorical interpretation seemed to Abba Mari to endanger the historicity of biblical narrative and, at times, even threaten the literal meaning of the commandments.

In Languedoc, Aristotle’s writings were not studied directly, but only as they were found embedded in Averroes’ Commentaries. Translated in large part by Samuel ibn Tibbon’s son Moses in the mid-thirteenth century, Averroes’s Commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus were among the most sophisticated philosophic works in circulation at the dawn of the fourteenth century. The devotion of a certain group of Languedocian scholars to Averroes’s Commentaries inspired their reckless interpretations.

At times, Abba Mari reports of “just two or three [persons]” (ibid.) who require censure, but at other times he stands aghast at the troubling and dangerous philosophic interpretations that a small group of “youths” share publicly in the synagogue. Abba Mari’s description of the suspect teachings is limited to a few slogans: Abraham and Sarah are figurae for form and matter; the four matriarchs indicate the four elements; Jacob’s twelve sons represent the signs of the zodiac; and the Urim and Thummim may be understood as an astrolab. Abba Mari feared that the Christian-like reading of the Commandments endangered religious observance, and their public discussion of the Torah’s inner philosophic meaning violated Talmudic law.

Among the Jewish scholars of his own community, Abba Mari failed to achieve sufficient support for his views for any definitive public action. This situation did not dissuade Abba Mari from his mission, however; rather, it appears to have strengthened his resolve to secure the intervention of a powerful authority.

6. Why was Rashba less than involved at first and then later why did he issue a ban?

Rashba wanted to help Abba Mari, nevertheless, he understood that were he to have taken up Abba Mari’s request to condemn the interpretive transgressions of Languedocian Jewry, a fruitless intercommunal estrangement would have ensued. The Catalonian scholar therefore asserted publicly that, while Abba Mari’s intentions pleased him, he had no authority to intervene in the affairs of the Jews of Languedoc.

Rashba, instead, encouraged Abba Mari to find like-minded Languedocian scholars who would take his concerns to heart. Rashba felt that God would give them the resolve to pursue the honor of the Torah, like “the great holy remnant that was formerly in their land” (ibid). “The great holy remnant” may refer to the kabbalists of early thirteenth-century Languedoc, such as Isaac the Blind.

Rashba’s knowledge of the Jewish allegorical interpretation then current in Languedoc derived exclusively from oral reports of individuals from Barcelona, frequently Rashba’s former students, who had occasion to travel to Languedoc. A horrifying variety of reification allegory, which discarded the literal surface meaning of Scripture, is what Rashba heard told was being promulgated in Languedoc.

They inscribe wicked inscriptions in their books and fill their homes with empty vessels saying: Every narrative from Creation to Revelation has an exclusively allegorical meaning. Abraham and Sarah are Form and Matter, the twelve sons of Jacob are the twelve constellations, and the four kings who battled the five kings are the four elements and the five senses. We have heard that they even extended their hands against the Commandments [through allegory] saying: the Urim and Thummim are the mechanism of the astrolabe. They have rendered the phylacteries and prayer unimportant. They have not feared to speak against Moses himself saying, heaven forbid, that [the Torah] is a nomos; saying the Torah is not from heaven, rather norms and customs that Moses decreed (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 734).

Rashba’s informants delivered news from Languedoc of the teaching of a naturalistic understanding of Moses’ prophecy, according to which Moses himself founded and authored the Law, which did not come directly and without mediation from God. The same Languedocian interpreters, Rashba’s informants say, likewise understood many Commandments to have an exclusively utilitarian function, such that one might easily question their continued validity and perhaps even reject them.

One of them said: the intention of the phylacteries is not literally to wear them on the head and arm, because the intention of this commandment is solely to understand and remember the Lord. [This is the case] because the legislated place of the phylacteries—the head apposite the brain and the arm apposite the heart—as they are the instruments of understanding and memory—to intimate that one ought to understand and remember, and nothing more. . . “ (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 735).

7. Who was Levi and why was he hounded?

Levi ben Abraham ben Hayyim of Villefranche-de-Conflent is the author of a voluminous encyclopedia of science, philosophy, and Jewish interpretation, Livyat Hen (1295). Levi was a pious but vulnerable itinerant teacher of philosophy.  At the time of the controversy, Levi had found residence in the home of Samuel L’Escaleta, a wealthy Narbonnese moneylender and philosophically oriented Talmudist.  Based upon oral reports, Rashba chose to make an example of Levi, yet Rashba never saw any of Levi’s writing.

Rashba condemns Levi’s exegesis in the harshest of terms. In fact, Rashba was convinced that Levi was the leader of a Languedocian Jewish group who repudiated the historicity of the biblical narrative, the possibility of miracles, and the very existence of revelation from God.

Rashba’s hyperbolic description of Levi’s work and leadership is more a statement of how Rashba felt about Jewish philosophic interpretation in Languedoc than an accurate description of anything that Levi actually had written or taught.

Crescas Vidal, Rashba’s student, testified publicly to Levi’s probity and piety. Apparently insufficiently impressed by the assurances of his student Crescas, Rashba continued to condemn Levi and to seek his removal from the home of Samuel L’Escaleta.  As Rashba had no further response from Crescas, he turned to Samuel L’Escaleta directly. In an especially moving and forceful letter, Rashba expresses his affection and admiration for Samuel and urges him to abandon philosophic study and to expel Levi from his home.

In his excommunication of the Languedocian allegorists, Rashba cites an interpretation of Levi’s — which, indeed, is also found in Livyat Hen— regarding the ancient Rabbis’ statement, “the mem and samekh in Moses’ tablets floated miraculously in stone” without external support.

Levi writes that these two square letters must have been suspended in the tablets by some hidden support mechanism. Intriguingly, this interpretation impresses one as rather typically Maimonidean, and not particularly dangerous or potentially harmful.

Instead, Rashba draws the dubious conclusion that Levi’s desire to provide an interpretation that obviates the need for a miraculous suspension of these letters constitutes an implicit rejection of all miracles on philosophic grounds.

In 1305, Rashba finally excommunicated transgressive Jewish allegory and allegorists anywhere, including Languedoc — without regard for the authority and jurisdiction of local Jewish scholars

All Israel is required to excommunicate these sinners. Until their death, they shall not atone for this transgression. The fire of Gehinom will be extinguished, but the bodies of these [sinners] will not be consumed. Upon [their bodies] the flame will go never go out . . . Regarding the books that any one of those among them wrote, we judge its owner a heretic and the books as the books of the magicians. They and anyone who owns them stand in excommunication until they burn them completely and no longer mention their name [contents]. Following the commandment of the Torah regarding the statues of their gods, to burn with fire and erase their name [memory]. But one who repents and regrets will receive mercy from heaven. . . .(Rashba, Minhat Qena’ot, p.737).

If Rashba’s fiery condemnation was, in fact, ever received, Languedoc completely ignored it. No acknowledgement, of any kind, to this international condemnation of transgressive philosophic allegory exists.  In the extensive correspondence following the excommunications, the scholars of Catalonia made no mention of this world-wide condemnation either.

Perhaps Rashba’s condemnation was perceived as such an utter blunder that all those involved, including the Catalonian scholars, thought it better to conduct themselves as if it simply did not exist. Rashba himself certainly never took up the issue again.


8. What was the reaction to the ban?

Reaction in Languedoc and Catalonia to Rashba’s grand prohibition of philosophic and scientific study in Barcelona before the age of twenty five is complex and requires some explanation.

Abba Mari failed to overcome local opposition to a prohibition on philosophic study in Languedoc — despite Rashba’s extraordinary support. In fact, the Jewish scholars of Languedoc never complied with Rashba’s urgent request that his decree prohibiting the study of physics and metaphysics.

Immediately following the pronouncements in Barcelona, Rashba found it necessary to issue several written demands for the fulfillment of Abba Mari’s promise to support the ban.  In an especially urgent short note to Kalonymus ben Todros, the Nasi of Narbonne, Rashba wrote that he would send copies of the excommunication documents signed in Barcelona only when he received the promised formal Languedocian approval of the excommunication from Kalonymus.

Quite to the contrary, Languedocian scholars were outraged that the Catalonian scholars had presumed to instruct them. As word of the Barcelona decree reached Montpellier, the leading scholars of the city acted expeditiously to counter any potential effect of the Barcelona decree in Languedoc: they obtained the necessary permission from the representative of the King of France and excommunicated Abba Mari.

Despite Abba Mari’s best efforts, the scholars of Montpellier pronounced a ban upon anyone who would prevent any pupil, regardless of age, from the study of philosophy. Abba Mari was now under excommunication and could have no contact of any type with those under the sway of the Montpellier scholars.

At the same time, the Montpellier scholars issued an angry communiqué to Rashba stating that the Catalonian attempt to influence the course of Jewish life in Languedoc constituted a violation of local communal sovereignty. “One kingdom should not infringe upon its neighbor even so much as a hair’s breadth,” they maintained. In their evaluation, Rashba should never have entertained such “treachery.”

The astronomer and poet Yedayah ha- Penini was most disturbed that Rashba had actually sent letters throughout Aragon, Castile, and Navarre to solicit support for his recommendations in Languedoc, thus tarnishing the reputation of Languedocian Jewry internationally.

The Montpellier scholars equated Rashba’s ban on non-Jewish philosophic works with previous attacks upon the works of Maimonides. In the view of Abba Mari’s adversaries in Montpellier, no distinction could be made between a ban on the study of physics and metaphysics and a ban on the study of The Guide of the Perplexed.

Meiri publicly entered the controversy at the point of the excommunication and counter-excommunication in Montpellier and established his own position among the controversy’s leading figures.

As Meiri was the greatest living Talmudist in Languedoc, it would have been natural for Abba Mari to seek his opinion and guidance. Since Abba Mari never publicly sought out Meiri’s opinion, we can only guess that he must have known that he would not find it welcome. As we have seen, Meiri respected Rashba greatly as a Talmudist, but was convinced that as a kabbalist, Rashba had no role in the controversy between Maimonideans.

When Meiri finally wrote publicly regarding the controversy, Abba Mari attempted to suppress this letter. Even after the letter was leaked to the public through unknown sources, Abba Mari failed to respond to its charges.  Instead, Abba Mari asked a member of his inner circle, Simeon ben Joseph, to pen a public, line-by-line response to Meiri. Abba Mari did not include Meiri’s letter or Simeon’s response in Minhat Qena’ot.

Meiri viewed Abba Mari’s call to Barcelona as contributing not only to the slander of prominent Languedocian Jewish scholars, but also to the defamation of their generations-old cultural ideal of commitment to traditional Jewish and Greco-Arabic learning.  Meiri tried to appeal to Abba Mari to recognize the community of philosophically educated Jews as God-fearing. Meiri upheld the stature of the tradition of Languedocian philosophic translators, encyclopedists, and philosophic exegetes that began with Samuel ibn Tibbon, and insisted that their sometimes-radical works should be accepted and studied.

Meiri’s positions on fundamental issues differed significantly from those of Samuel ibn Tibbon and other Languedocian Jewish scholars who took up his project of the Hebrew translation of Arabic philosophy and the philosophic interpretation of Scripture. Yet, Meiri went to great lengths to deflect any suspicion that their teachings represented a philosophically sophisticated heresy. He argued that scientific works by these esteemed Languedocian Jewish scholars should be judged as a whole, while any apparently problematic individual teaching should not be overly scrutinized.

If, upon occasion, I discover in some work something that, perhaps, is in need of correction, I attribute this to the weakness of my intellect, and I set it aside for one who knows more than myself… I will not abandon a book full of several gems on account of one, two, or three questionable items… We recall the Talmudic statement [concerning the canonization of the theologically problematic book of Ecclesiastes, “Yet why did they not hide it?”] “Because its beginning and end are Torah teachings” (Meiri, in Simeon ben Joseph, “Hoshen Mishpat,” pp. 157-8).

Meiri used the metaphor that the books of the Tibbons “are full of thorns,” but with careful reading it was possible “to pick the rose.” Meiri justified the preservation of books with troubling passages written by Languedocian philosopher-translators with an analogy to the rabbis’ preservation of the frequently troubling book of Ecclesiastes.

Although Meiri held similar positions to Abba Mari regarding the deepest philosophic questions and was aware of the danger posed to traditional views by inappropriate exposure to philosophy, he believed that the Languedocian enlightened Jewish community that the Torah itself required was dependent upon the clear accessibility of distinguished philosophic achievement.

9. How did Meiri and Yedayah ha-Penini issue decrees on the necessity of philosophy?

As a public statement to the Jews of Languedoc and Catalonia, Meiri’s letter to Abba Mari, were it summarized in our own language, conveys roughly the following message.

Greco-Arabic learning is no longer foreign material that might be banned; it is part of Jewish culture. There are Jewish tracts on the sciences, and the sciences have been incorporated into non-philosophic works as well. The sciences are necessary in order to approach the central book on the meaning of Jewish tradition, Guide of the Perplexed. Let us not go back to the days when the validity of the Maimonidean legacy was in dispute! Rashba is a kabbalist, and his commitments make him ill-disposed to ours. Despite his universal authority on legal matters, his anti-rationalism takes him out of our realm of discourse, and renders his opinion concerning the course of Languedocian Jewish culture of little relevance. The religious problems raised by philosophic study are inconsiderable in relation to its benefits. Our distinguished specialists in the sciences should be allowed to pursue their work unhindered, and their writings—however troubling—should not be suspected of heresy.

To restrict access to the sciences—even from a few people for a short time—would almost certainly be to their detriment and the detriment of our community. Experience has shown that excommunications do no good. Let us put them all away, and allow each group within Languedoc to act as it sees fit.  Concerning the incorporation of the Greco-Arabic legacy within Languedocian-Jewish culture and the impropriety of any attempt to reverse it, the community’s leading halakhist was unequivocal.

Meiri cited the failure of the early 13th-century attacks against Maimonides. Rejecting insinuations that the study of philosophy causes heresy, he pointed to many talmudic scholars who were students of philosophy. He regarded the prohibition against certain types of study as self-defeating: “Each individual [nature] will search for what suits him according to his natural inclination.” This trait of human intellect and nature, he maintains, will even cause the second generation of the excommunicating community to seek ways out of this prohibition.

*          *          *

The Ketav ha-Hitnatzlut of Yedayah ha-Penini, who will later become an important astronomer, mathematician and poet was the only Languedocian letter regarding the controversy to be included in Rashba’s anthology, Yedayah’s letter has the air of the Languedocian community’s official reply.

Yedayah concluded his letter to Rashba with a plea for the Catalonian leader to revoke his prohibition on the study in Barcelona of physics and metaphysics before the age of twenty five.

Even if Joshua ben Nun were to command them [to abandon philosophy], they would not obey; for they intend to do battle for the honor of the great Rabbi [Maimonides] and his books. So long as life’s breath is in their nostrils, they will sacrifice their wealth, their offspring, and their very lives for the sanctification of his teaching; and in this manner shall they instruct their children throughout the generations” (Yedayah ben Abraham Bedersi [ha-Penini], “Ketav ha-Hitnatzlut,” in Shut ha-Rashba,, 1: 418, p. 174a).

In Yedayah’s view, one simply cannot not separate the Greco-Arabic philosophic tradition from the Maimonidean legacy.  The Jews of Languedoc therefore would hold fast to the various scientific and philosophic disciplines with their very lives. No grand excommunication from an outside authority could dissuade them. Thus, Rashba had placed Languedocian Jews’ profound respect for him at odds with their most fundamental commitments.  Yedaya therefore advised Rashba to withdraw the ban (which he did not do).

10. What was Twersky’s view of the role of philosophy in Judaism, or Maimonidean Judaism?

Isadore Twersky identified deeply with Maimonides.  Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish Twersky’s own view of Judaism from his understanding of Maimonides’ view.  According to Maimonides, philosophy was transmitted by Jews in Antiquity as esoteric Torah teaching (Guide I:71).  Physics could be taught only in small groups, and Metaphysics could only be taught one-on-one, and in hints (Mishnah Commentary, Hagigah 3:1).  In his Code of Law, Maimonides placed philosophy at the pinnacle of the curriculum of Torah Study, as follows (MT Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3: 11-12):  He requires that one begin with 1) Scripture, and then to advance to 2) the Oral Law – Mishnah, Tosefta, Mekhilta, Sifra, Sifre, Bavli, Yerushalmi, etcetera — and finally to proceed to 3) exegetical theory (which Maimonides distinctively terms “Talmud”).  Within this curricular hierarchy, Maimonides explains, one first masters Scripture and then, the Oral Law, at which time one is free to devote himself exclusively to understanding.  Maimonides rules, at the conclusion of this exposition, that Pardes (philosophy) is part of Talmud.  In Maimonides’ — and Twersky’s — vision, therefore, the entire curriculum of Torah study supports and leads to the study of philosophy.  For Maimonides, as for Twersky, Judaism is an instrument that leads the individual Jew and the Jewish community to lofty moral, intellectual and spiritual goals.

Yet, Professor Twersky would smile as he pronounced the provocation, “Maimonides’ was a failure”.   He intended this pronouncement as a test of his students’ understanding as to how the greatest figure in Jewish intellectual history – profound and innovative halakhist, daring and penetrating philosopher, elite physician and renowned community leader might be considered a failure.  The sense in which Maimonides was a failure was, of course, that Jewish history saw fit to reject his placement of philosophic spirituality at the center of Judaism.

11. How did Meiri view Christians and Christianity?

In the writings of Languedocian Jewish scholars in the generations preceding Meiri, one discerns the notion of “religion” as belief in a creating, overseeing, and recompensing Deity who cannot be known through reason.

The philosopher, however, acquires through inquiry those beliefs that may be attained through syllogism and demonstration. Even so, mankind’s beliefs could not be perfected until the Torah arrived. One who accepts it, takes on the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and believes in everything that the ways of religion require in a perfect fashion that lacks nothing.  (Meiri, Perush Tehillim, p. 47.)

Meiri styles those who are committed to an incorporeal Deity and believe in His reward and punishment as people “bound by the ways of religion.” Religion, in Meiri’s post-Maimonidean, Languedocian understanding, not only provides the beliefs necessary for human perfection, but also constitutes the social order, in that its teachings underwrite the law-bound behaviors and practices that are integral to civilization.

Interview with Adam Ferziger – Beyond Sectarianism

At a recent conference, a speaker noted as a forgone conclusion that Chabad was the only force shaping the last decade of American Jewry.  Prof Adam Ferziger responded strongly and loaded with data that the Yeshivish world has had a great influence in shaping the current American reality. His latest work Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism, examines this claim and in addition offers several other essays where he investigates the changes in American Orthodoxy of the last two decades.


Adam S. Ferziger is a professor and holds the S.R. Hirsch Chair for Research of the Torah and Derekh Erez Movement in the Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University. His first book was Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity Ferziger is primarily  a social historian looking at community structure, theology plays an ancillary role.  Prof Jonathan Sarna praises him, that he “is one of the smartest and most perceptive scholars of Orthodox Jewish life.” I will add that he is also a nice guy.

In his prior work, Exclusion and Hierarchy  (excerpt here., Ferziger shows how 19th century German Orthodoxy evolved two different approaches toward the non-Orthodox majority.  In the initial approach, that became associated with Ultra-Orthodox, the non-Orthodox Jews were simply excluded from the purview of the minority community.  In the predominant approach, which emerged in the context of Neo-Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy  created space for the nonobservant but spawned  a hierarchical culture in which some were seen as keeping the tradition better than others, and as such more “authentic” Jews than others. Hence only the top of the hierarchy could have public religious roles.

In his latest work, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism, Ferziger arrives at the binary conclusion that American Haredi movements such as community kollels have been socially outgoing, pragmatically protean, and concerned with outreach. In contrast, Modern Orthodoxy – once the pioneering Orthodox movement that engages the spectrum of American –  has gravitated toward an inward looking, boundary drawing religious style , and is focused more on raising its own education level.  In short, the former has recast itself as outward and outreach oriented, while the later has become more centripetal focused on its own narrow enclaves.

The first part of the book is a collection of Ferziger’s articles on a wide range of topics in American Orthodoxy: Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Grunwald , the Lookstein dynasty, and the SSSJ- Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.

The second part of the book is a theme and variations on the current approaches to sectarianism of American Orthodoxy.  In 1965, Charles S. Liebman published a study dividing Orthodoxy into two groups, modern Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy.  Liebman  based this division on the sociological distinction between a “church” group that seeks to be open and broad, as opposed to a “sectarian” group that is only concerned for its own members.  Ferziger traces a narrowing of the gap between the two Orthodox trends and ultimately a realignment of American Orthodox Judaism.

Ferziger shows that significant elements within Haredi Orthodoxy have abandoned certain strict and seemingly uncontested norms. He shows how Yeshivish Haredi Jews in the United States are outward looking, non-sectarian, college educated and acculturated in American life. Much of the discussion focuses on the emergence of outreach to nonobservant Jews as a central priority for Haredi Orthodoxy pushing even its core population to new attitudes.

In his focus on Centrism, Ferziger has a long essay, first published a few years ago, on Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s creation of a social boundary by labeling feminism as heresy. Centrism uses this heresy boundary to police its own sect by hunting down violators. He also shows how Rabbi Schachter created an entire historical vision and criteria for authority based on his own newly minted ideas of mesorah. (I am surprised that Ferziger’s article was not cited during last year’s culture wars around women and tefillin. If anyone has antecedent sources, excluding Rav Soloveitchik, for a genealogy of mesorah please  email them to me. )

American modern Orthodoxy does not have the same views as 1965 when Charles Liebman predicted that the future of the movement was in the ideas of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, but that does not make Centrism into a form of Haredi Judaism.  Yet, I wonder about the other direction, in that, current practice for many parts of the professional Yeshivish world are more educated and acculturated than some prior forms of modern non-Haredi Orthodoxy.

I have a few mild comments on the work. First, Ferziger replaces Liebman’s terms Ultra-Orthodox with the current word Haredi, to include Yiddish speaking Hungarian Hasidim, Chabad, and American Yeshivish.  He is quite aware of the distinctions, but we may need to work on a differentiated nomenclature.

Second, the book has a before and after set up of Liebman in 1965 and then bases his conclusions on 1996-2015. The book and the answers below have a wide chasm between the years of 1975-1995 that needs to be filled in. To judge the change, we need to hear more about Rabbi Norman Lamm, Abraham Twerski, Chait, and JD Bleich, more about NCSY, Ohr Sameach, Touro, the Nefesh organization, and Rebbitzen Jungreis, and an integration of what we know about Artscroll and Daf Yomi.

Third, it was not his task, and it does not take awy from his fine book, but I would like an anthropologist to look at some of the same topics and ask questions about books on the shelf, seforim purchases, family leisure time, household décor, political rally’s, sports, and Americanization. In the 19th century topic of Ferziger’s first book, we already knew to only look for the piano and set of Goethe& Schiller in the family salon of those advocating hierarchy and not exclusion.  The book (and interview) touches on economics but I would also like to hear about class, caste, and habitas.

  1. What is the most important message of your book?

A realignment has taken place within American Orthodoxy, most forcefully in the last two decades, offering an alternative to the previously accepted dichotomy of Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Orthodoxy.  One side of this transition, the “shift to the right” of the Modern Orthodox, has received a considerable attention from prominent researchers in recent decades.

My work supports and offers fresh nuances to this appraisal, but it stands out in highlighting the ways that significant elements within Haredi Orthodoxy have simultaneously abandoned certain strict and seemingly uncontested sectarian norms. In so doing, they have become less monolithic and adopted manners of conduct and attitudes formerly associated with the Modern Orthodox.

Once considered a dwindling relic of European Jewry, American Orthodox Judaism has established itself both as a vibrant American religious movement and as a vital subject of academic interest.  Fifty years after the pioneering studies appeared, however, some of the initial definitions and observations need to be reexamined. My book challenges the fixed typological distinctions between Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Orthodoxy that have held sway from the 1960s in academic and lay discourse.  Both sides, then, have contributed toward a narrowing of the former gap between them, engendering a more fluid and complex religious stream.


2)  Can you contrast the paths of Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi in the last generation?

Among the generation of American Orthodox rabbis that emerged in the early to mid- twentieth century, there was a strong feeling that Orthodoxy had to try to appeal to as many Jews as possible. At a time when few congregations existed that could boast of a critical mass of fully observant individuals, it was obvious that Orthodoxy would become obsolete if it only catered to the pious. This “broad constituency” approach evolved into part of the ethos of American Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship rabbinical training ground, RIETS of YU.

Modern Orthodoxy’s Americanized, college-educated graduates were dispatched to communities throughout the country with the goal of creating Orthodox congregations that would offer religious services to the entire Jewish population. With this attitude in mind, some even walked a denominational tightrope by accepting pulpits in synagogues with mixed seating.  RIETS’ historically groundbreaking role in Jewish outreach was orchestrated during the mid-twentieth century through its Max Stern Division of Communal Services (MSDCS).

In contrast, the Haredi world was created by survivors and remnants of the leadership of the Lithuanian yeshivas and Hasidic dynasties who arrived around World War II and directed their efforts toward recreating the institutions and lifestyles that had been destroyed. Fearful of the seductive power of the treife medina (unkosher state)—which to their minds had tainted the established Modern Orthodox—they set up enclaves in which they could regain their former strength and vitality. As such, their yeshivas and kollels concentrated on producing Torah scholars rather than multitalented pulpit rabbis. If some of their graduates later served in more heterogeneous Orthodox congregations, this was certainly not the primary goal of their mother institutions. The main objective, rather, was to create a community devoted to Torah learning and or/Hasidic teachings a cadre of rabbis and teachers who could service the needs of recently imperiled communities of the faithful.

More recently a role reversal has taken place.  While non-Hasidic Haredi yeshivas continue to emphasize theoretical Talmudic learning over practical rabbinics during regular study periods, they and their Jerusalem affiliates have increasingly developed and supported auxiliary programs dedicated to training rabbis (and their wives) so that they can reach out far beyond Orthodox boundaries.  RIETS, meanwhile, focuses most of it energies on inreach—servicing the highly specific intellectual and ideological needs of its natural constituents, observant Jews. Indeed, in the past few years it has offered an option for rabbinical candidates to train to serve as outreach specialists.  Paradoxically, however, the program is funded and orchestrated by the Haredi oriented Ner LeElef, that specializes in training Haredi outreach activists.

If the evolution in Haredi Orthodoxy reflects a distancing from strict sectarianism, the core Modern Orthodox versions exemplify a retreat of this sector inward toward survivalist mode.  Many within the Modern Orthodox camp now admit to the lack of well-defined ideological principles and charismatic leadership.  Some children of Modern Orthodoxy have responded by moving closer to the more doctrinaire Haredi Orthodox approach, while others have been attracted to other social and intellectual frameworks that have led to a weakening in their Jewish observance and religious involvement. Whichever the case, the common result has been a sense of “crisis” that has been articulated by Modern Orthodoxy’s strongest supporters and leading ideologues.

The changes that have occurred within American Orthodoxy have resulted in a more fluid and less easily categorized religious stream than that described by those outstanding academics who initially studied American Orthodoxy in the mid-1960s. Like any religious trend it is variable and continues to evolve in response to changing internal and external realities.

3) How did Kiruv change Haredi Orthodoxy?

The key position that outreach now occupies within the formerly “sectarian” “yeshivish” Orthodox ethos points to a basic change that began to emerge within this sector in the late twentieth century.  The more confident the leaders were that their style of Orthodoxy was not threatened with extinction, the more sensitive some of them became to the sharp increases in assimilation and loss of Jewish identity around them. Indeed, they may have seen outreach as a tool for strengthening their own groups through “mass conversion” of the non-observant. Yet, these trends taking place within Haredi Orthodoxy move beyond mere efforts to draft more adherents.

Rather than simply aiming to bring new recruits into their own ranks, there is a growing appreciation for positive expressions of Jewish identity on the part of the broader Jewish collective, even if they do not lead to adoption of an Orthodox lifestyle. In tandem with the novel efforts, various institutional boundary markers that were considered sacrosanct in previous generations— such as the height of the barrier between men and women in the synagogue, not entering a Reform synagogue even to teach Judaism, strict separation between sexes in social and cultural settings, non-participation in certain types of secular or popular oriented recreational and public events —have been traversed or blurred in the effort to engage other Jews.

There are also growing economic incentives for the Orthodox to adopt a less combative approach and even congenial approach to other denominations and to the broader Jewish community. As the Haredi yeshivas produce larger pools of graduates, the pressure to generate employment opportunities for individuals who possess rich stores of religious knowledge but minimal secular education has increased dramatically. Today, for example, there are nearly 6500 full-time students in Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha.  With an average stay in the institution of six to seven years, more than 500 alumni enter the work force each year.

The Orthodox outreach “industry” has opened new vistas for Haredi employment. By lowering the internal Jewish tensions, then, more opportunities to market their outreach products are made available to the kiruv workers.

Another financial motivation for the Orthodox to adjust their approach to the non-Orthodox is the need to secure funding for specific programming. As Haredi institutions have expanded, they have increasingly looked to earn capital grants awarded for specific projects by nonsectarian frameworks. As one of the conditions for their support, these organizations often demand that those being funded refrain from polemics and demonstrate their commitment to Jewish unity.

The majority of American Haredi Jewry do not necessary have direct exposure to the boundary crossing changes described in my book, as they remain rooted both geographically and culturally in the enclaves spread all over Brooklyn and Rockland County in New York, in Passaic and Lakewood in New Jersey. Nonetheless, the influence of the outreach ethos and practical leniencies on these sectors filters down way beyond the actual activists themselves; in the course of the exposure of their extended families to new environments and locales during visits and lifecycle events, via the numerous programs for training outreach professionals and facilitating their programming that are advertised and often based on yeshiva campuses and in Haredi publications, and through the transformation of “kiruv” superstars into Haredi role-models.


4) How have Modern Orthodox “gap year” pilgrimages to Poland gravitated toward a Haredi model?

Since the 1990s, 8-10 day seminars to Poland have gained a central place in the menu of educational experiences offered to Orthodox students spending their gap year in an Israel-based Torah establishment.  The trip to Poland takes place in the context of a year in which they have detached themselves—almost always for the first time in their lives—from their parents’ homes and watchful eyes and become exposed to all-encompassing environments led by charismatic, spiritually oriented individuals.

During this period abroad, students are often exposed to a holistic brand of Orthodoxy that questions the ideals of Americanization and acculturation once championed by Modern Orthodoxy. In addition, some Israeli Religious-Zionist yeshivas that support the State of Israel and send their students to serve in its army are nonetheless highly critical of secular culture and its educational premises. Their tendency is often toward strict interpretations in matters of halakhah, except in areas that relate to the Zionist enterprise. There are also many products of Modern Orthodox homes and schools who attend yeshivas in Israel staffed by American immigrants who have adopted a Haredi lifestyle and are eager to thrust their students in this direction as well.  Undoubtedly, there are certainly prominent and popular Israeli yeshivas and seminaries that do not fit neatly into this overall description.

The immersion that is experienced during the weeklong seminar in Poland does not in and of itself cultivate new identity formation. It is rather an agent, albeit a uniquely potent one that can complement or concretize processes that have already begun, or even set in to motion new ones.

The numerous encounters with the locations in which Nazi persecution and systematic murder led to so much Jewish suffering, is wrought with tension and emotional intensity. The students remain with their groups during the entire trip, under the supervision and charge of knowledgeable, compelling, and often spiritually driven educators, who perceive the seminar as a unique environment for disseminating religious ideals. Some even refer to it as a “journey toward holiness.”

Like Victor Turner’s now classic description of the pilgrimage, then, the Poland trips for American Orthodox yeshiva/seminary youth represent a phase in which one is separated in space and time from normal social frameworks and their limitations. Yet rather than isolated events with limited long-term influence, these pilgrimages to Poland—which take place at the end of the winter–spring term, when students are generally at their most enthused and motivated—actually serve to solidify lessons learned throughout the year.

These programs have gradually adopted rules and changed educational concentrations such that the overall tenor is much closer to the prevailing Haredi perception of pre-war Eastern Europe and the Holocaust than the more diverse approaches that characterize Modern Orthodox discourse on these subjects. Once a coeducational endeavor, today strict separation of the sexes is enforced to the degree that male and female delegations may not visit the same concentration camps simultaneously.  On an ideational level, Jewish solidarity and the diversity of pre-War European Jewry, once core themes, are no longer central motifs on such seminars.  In parallel, over time considerably more emphasis has been placed on connecting students to an idealized world of prewar Torah luminaries and Hasidic masters.   Two locations that serve, for example, as focal points for this type of experiential education are the gravesite of the early Hasidic master, Rebbe Elimelekh of Lezajsk and the former court of Gerrer Rebbe in Gora Kalawaria (adjacent to Warsaw).

To be sure, other aspects of the Modern Orthodox seminars, such as centering the program on the destructive events of the Holocaust and supporting Zionist perspectives regarding postwar Jewish life, remain firm.

5) How did Rabbi Herschel Schachter create a new heresy? 

Rabbi Schachter has been responding vociferously in writing to various ritual initiatives of Orthodox feminism since 1984, when he together with four other RIETS rashei yeshiva published a responsum forbidding participation in women’s prayer groups.  All of his relevant discussions during the late twentieth century were rooted in his perception of a direct relationship between Orthodox feminist proposals and the “slippery slope” of adopting behaviors associated with the Reform and Conservative movements. (For Ferziger article, see here. )

This focus on interdenominational boundaries changed in 2003, when he published an essay titled “On the Matter of Masorah,” in which Reform Judaism is not the main culprit, but merely one among a long line of heresies that, according to Rabbi Schachter, now includes Orthodox feminism.

The initial theme in the essay is the significance of masorahlongstanding traditions of handed-down religious behavior—for deciding normative Jewish law, even when the textual sources may allow for alternative rulings. He then applies this principle as the basis for prohibiting public Torah recital by women, a novel practice that had risen to the forefront of Modern Orthodox debate.

In a certain sense, Rabbi Schachter’s utilization of “masorah” as a tool for ruling on normative observance is not unlike the authority given for many generations to minhag (custom) as a basis for the correct religious behavior.  That said, minhag may provide justification for conduct that does not seem to be consistent with textual sources, but it does deny the theoretical correctness of the interpretation derived directly from the text. Masorah, on the other hand – as articulated by Rabbi Schachter, not only specifies the correct behavior, it nullifies the possibility of acting differently or even identifying the existence of an alternative approach, even if there exists a strong textual basis for doing so.

Toward the end of his essay, Rabbi Schachter reinforces his prohibitive ruling by depicting a “historical tradition” relating to women and Judaism: “The Tzedukim [Sadducees] were apparently bothered with the fact that the Torah discriminated against women regarding the laws of yerusha [inheritance], and they attempted to “rectify” this “injustice” somewhat. In later years the early Christians adopted several of the positions of the earlier Tzedukim…Several centuries later, the Reform movement continued with this complaint against the tradition,  that the rabbis were discriminating unfairly against women by having them sit separately in the synagogue, etc. This complaint has developed historically to become the symbol of rebellion against our masorah. The fact that this symbolizes harisus hadas [destruction of the religion] causes it to become a prohibited activity.”

In this narrative, which is unprecedented among Orthodox authorities, feminists have not simply followed the path of their Reform and Conservative contemporaries. Rather, through their behavior they had declared themselves direct heirs to the heretical groups who deviated from normative Judaism since ancient times. For beyond any other areas of dispute with the rabbis, according to Rabbi Schachter, the complaint that linked all these historical heresies was discrimination against women. As such, anyone who raises objections to accepted rabbinic policy on this topic is clearly aligned with the deviant legacy and intent upon destroying the religion.

During the following year, 2004, Rabbi Schachter published an essay “Can Women Be Rabbis?” in which attacked the new custom of inviting a learned woman to recite the text of the ketubah (marriage writ) under the wedding canopy. Following the masorah thesis, he argues that the fact that there is no law which requires a male reader for the ketubah, does not automatically mean that having a female one is consistent with other hallowed values that emerge from the halakhah. Here, once again, Rabbi Schachter returned to comparing Orthodox feminists with classical heretics through the common goal of destroying rabbinic Judaism: “Clearly the motivation to have a woman read the kesuba is to make the following statement: the rabbis, or better yet—the G-d of the Jews, has been discriminating against women all these millennia, and has cheated them of their equal rights, and it’s high time that this injustice be straightened out. . . ”

In 2014, Rabbi Schachter revisited this “heretical narrative” for the third time in a nine-page Hebrew responsum that declares “partnership minyanim” to be unequivocally forbidden. Once again, he states that the motivation behind much of the contemporary actions is the sense that the rabbis have historically discriminated against women. Such claims, he warns, can be traced to the Sadducees who disputed the Sages’ understanding of the Torah during the Second Temple period, and subsequently to the early Christians.

In Rabbi Schachter’s references from 2003, 2004, 2014, together with the Sadducees and Christians, the Reform and Conservative movements constitute factions that found their roots in Jewish tradition, but whose theologies and religious behaviors had placed them irrevocably—in Rabbi Schachter’s opinion—beyond the framework of normative Judaism. By associating the claims of the Orthodox feminists with them, he declared that they too were destined for a similar fate. I suggest that in associating Orthodox feminism with other historic heresies, Rabbi Schachter sought to clarify that feminism was not just an issue for debate, but it had become the central litmus test for whether a group or institution could be remain part of the Orthodox spectrum.

6) What revolution is taking place in the role of women in Haredi Orthodoxy?

It has been assumed that Haredi Orthodoxy was relatively immune to the trends of feminism and gender egalitarianism. In recent years greater attention has been drawn to the emergence of new types of Haredi female figures. Chabad women emissaries constituted one of the first groups to draw notice in this transformation.

My book highlights parallel and unique trends among non-Hasidic Haredi women.  There is a “silent” revolution taking place in which Haredi women are increasingly taking on more prominent religious leadership roles. One of the main frameworks for these transformations is the field of outreach. The rise of the female outreach activist is an additional manifestation of the ways that Haredi Orthodoxy’s abandonment of sectarian approaches to nonobservant Jews has led to less rigid religious and social norms on the part of members of its core constituency. The new functions taken on by female outreach activists raise conflicts and engender complex hybrid identities that digress in notable ways from accepted notions within this sector.

Interestingly, despite certain parallels with the new positions – such as “spiritual leader” advanced among Modern Orthodox feminists, to date there has been little public criticism by Haredi leaders of the novel figures within their own camp.  I suggest two explanations for this seeming passivity.  First, while social boundaries have been traversed, the Haredi female initiatives have avoided the area of ritual and prayer.  Thus, the public sanctum has not been challenged.  Alternatively, the rise of the Haredi female leaders may account in part for the virulent condemnations by Haredi officials of Modern Orthodox feminist initiatives such as partnership minyanim.  The main goal of attacking the Modern Orthodox efforts so vigorously, then, is not to dictate Modern Orthodox behavior but to clarify the limits of “Haredi feminism.”

7) How are Haredi activists and YCT graduates more similar to each other than to the RIETS products?

Ironically, from a professional perspective the liberal YCT rabbi actually has more in common with Haredi outreach-oriented figures than the inreach focused RIETS graduates. YCT rabbis are to a great extent, like their Haredi outreach counterparts (along with Chabad), specialists who gravitate to peripheral Jewish communities that lack a strongly-rooted Orthodox infrastructure. Neither of these cutting-edge rabbinical products would reject more “mainstream” congregants, but the skill sets and outlooks that they internalize through their rabbinical training tailor them to attract and address the concerns of the wider Jewish community. To be sure, the YCT and Haredi worldviews diverge dramatically on multiple issues. Yet both frameworks demonstrate that in order for Orthodoxy to deliver a relevant message to the majority of American Jews it must cultivate environments and train leaders who are in touch with the needs of this body.

Notwithstanding the common denominators, it is important to reiterate the distinctive backdrops that led to the emergence of the new Haredi and YCT rabbinates. The Haredi “outreach specialist” training programs emerged as manifestations of strength. The vastly improved self-image of a triumphant Haredi Orthodoxy has engendered the creation a new type of rabbi. One who feels that he can afford to concentrate on dealing with issues that stand outside the immediate concerns of his own community.

YCT, in contrast, came about because prominent Modern Orthodox leaders sensed a weakening in the ideological fiber of their core constituency. Its main justification for existence is to serve as a corrective to what is seen as a Modern Orthodoxy gone astray. In this context, part of the attempt to reformulate its priorities is the need for greater involvement with the weakly affiliated Jewish population. But this is not necessarily an expression of vitality. It stems from a conviction, rather, that without this element American Modern Orthodoxy is lacking a crucial ideological mandate that was for many years at the root of its own self-identity.

The idea that this common “outreach” principle could forge a bond between the ideologically polar but similarly innovative elements within American Orthodoxy based on a shared broad constituency discourse is tantalizing. That said, the chapter in the book on Chabad and Haredi outreach activists, suggests that on a practical level such commonalities more often than not sharpen competition rather than afford a sense of shared mission.

8) How has the emergence of YCT/Maharat impacted on the realignment?

The controversies surrounding YCT, Open Orthodoxy, and Orthodox feminism are expanding and accelerating the realignment of American Orthodoxy. Throughout most of the book I present the move to the right of Modern Orthodoxy and the shift to greater outreach and decline of Haredi sectarianism primarily as parallel but not interdependent phenomena that have reached a certain degree of confluence.  The rise of Open Orthodoxy and the sharp criticism it has received both from the RCA and the Haredi world has recently facilitated a more synchronized coordination.

To offer just two examples: As part of an effort to vilify Open Orthodoxy, in 2014 Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran offered a relatively broad list of who does fit in to the Orthodox rubric that exemplifies the postsectarian realignment examined in my study:

An adherent of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, a Satmar chassid, a ‘Litvish’ yeshiva graduate and a student of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary are all unified by the essence of what the world has called Orthodoxy for generations. But ‘Open Orthodoxy,’ despite its name, has adulterated that essence, and sought to change both Jewish belief and Jewish praxis.

Taken in light of past Haredi attacks on Yeshiva University as well as Chabad, this is quite a historic document.

Similarly, Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, a moderate Haredi figure, responded to Rabbi Schachter’s strong ruling against partnership minyanim with this comment:

Rabbi Schachter’s piece is a wonderful contribution. There are tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews in the Modern Orthodox world (and certainly in the Haredi world) who view the tearing down of all barriers by YCT and Open Orthodoxy with horror… Rabbi Schachter’s presentation ought to be a wonderful beginning. This will be more important in the long run than the existence or disappearance of partnership minyanim. It will not be enough to take Rabbi Schachter’s formulation and use it to rally the troops. The challenge will be to take it and build upon it, at least to those who do not reject the idea of contemporary rabbinic authority. Before this essay, making the case for limitation was an issue of each rabbi for himself. Rabbi Schachter’s contribution could allow for a common platform upon which others can build and explain… that can be shared by the entire community, excepting the outliers.

These declarations exemplify Emile Durkheim’s now-classical explanation from 1892 of the role of deviance in society, “the deviant act then, creates a sense of mutuality among the people of a community by supplying a focus for group feeling. Like a war, a flood, or some other emergency, deviance makes people more alert to the interests they share in common and draws attention to those values which constitute the ‘collective conscience’ of the community.”

Having said this, the future of Open Orthodoxy and for that matter a less Haredi-sympathetic Modern Orthodoxy all together, may be determined just as much by geographic and economic considerations than by clarifying theological beliefs and synagogue standards. Even if Haredi Orthodoxy has expanded its reach and language of discourse, it still remains concentrated geographically around a few locations in Brooklyn and Rockland County in New York, Lakewood and Passaic in New Jersey, as well as smaller but considerable representations in Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto, and Los Angeles.

At the same time, an active and significant group of Orthodox Jews still exists that—regardless of whether they resonate with the ideals of Open Orthodoxy—sees cross-cultural interaction and secular education as part of an ideal. For many of these Orthodox Jews, YU is their standard for a Modern Orthodox institution. Even if they do not necessarily approve of all the innovations associated with YCT and Open Orthodoxy, they may sympathize with some of its core ideals—especially those related to gender—and appreciate its place within the broad spectrum of American Orthodoxy.

At this juncture it is premature to declare that Modern Orthodoxy will disappear as a distinctive educational ideal and lifestyle. Indeed in the end Modern Orthodoxy’s future may be primarily a function of its financial feasibility far more than its capacity to inspire ideologically allegiance. According to the 2013 Pew Report, the Modern Orthodox have the highest per-capita income of all American Jewish sectors (37 percent earn over $150,000) and also have the largest percentage of college graduates (65 percent) and are the most attached to Israel (79 percent). Living within the Modern Orthodox community—joining its synagogues, educating children, sending them to camp, visiting Israel, as well as covering their college and graduate school tuitions—is an especially heavy economic burden. Were there to be a major financial upheaval, Modern Orthodox families and institutions would be particularly vulnerable to these changes.

9) What do you think American Modern Orthodoxy needs for the next decade?

The ongoing vitality of any religious movement depends upon its ability to sustain for its adherents a sense of collective purpose and meaning. The specific issues that preserve group identity can evolve over time; sometimes the focus may fall on positive principles, sometimes on opposition to rival factions or theologies. When the driving assumptions are clear and inspiring, internal differences can be overcome. But when ideological inertia sets in, differences tend to become inflated and to portend rupture.

For over two centuries, factions loosely assembled under the “modern” Orthodox rubric came together around three main principles that were seen merely as pragmatic compromises. First, a full commitment to religious observance does not demand reclusion from the broader society or from secular knowledge. Second, while personal observance is the ideal and should be encouraged, it is not an unconditional requirement for individual membership in the Jewish collective. Third, neither Reform nor Conservative Judaism is a legitimate expression of Jewish theological teachings.

Historically, there were sharp internal debates about these principles as well as multiple interpretations of them. But there was also overwhelming consensus on the foundational ideals that inspired Modern Orthodoxy, and that distinguished it both from liberal denominations and from sectarian forms of Orthodoxy.

If, at the heart of today’s Modern Orthodoxy, one finds only a common “lifestyle”—what Jay Lefkowitz has dubbed “social Orthodoxy”—part of the reason may lie in the weakening hold of its foundational vision on the allegiances of the spectrum of its adherents. Today, by contrast, haredi circles increasingly accept higher education and cooperate with non-Orthodox denominations under the banner of combating assimilation. Still, the norms of haredi Judaism remain clear-cut and well defined, while the nuanced messages of Modern Orthodoxy become harder to detect.

Not long ago, certain causes—a striking example being the activist campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry, a movement in which the Modern Orthodox took a leading part in mobilizing the energies of the entire American Jewish community (and to which a chapter in the book is devoted)—continued to nurture a sense of shared and distinctive purpose.

What themes continue to galvanize America Modern Orthodoxy today? Commitment to the State of Israel as a religious value is still an ideal that joins together the different factions and generates considerable enthusiasm. But those most passionate about Israel tend to move there in order to contribute more directly to the society’s welfare as well as to experience a less bifurcated Jewish life, and this causes American Modern Orthodoxy to lose some of its most capable and inspired offspring.

This brings me back to the evolving religious role of women: the one issue that continues to spark serious excitement and debate among both those who campaign for expanding opportunities and those who oppose far-reaching changes. Whether equilibrium can be achieved on this issue, and can be accepted by the broadest part of the constituency, is unclear.

What is clear is that the ongoing vitality of American Modern Orthodoxy, and ultimately its survival, will depend upon the emergence of new causes or visions that generate pride and solidify a broad identification not just with the movement’s “lifestyle” but with its distinctive religious outlook.

10) What was your biggest surprise in your research?

Among my biggest surprises during my field work were: discovering community kollel-sponsored annual golf tournaments, kiruv Super Bowl parties advertising beer on tap, and that the key to Haredi outreach activists being able to meet students and non-Orthodox colleagues for learning sessions over coffee at Starbuck’s was the decision some years back by the latter to offer soy milk based latte’s and cappuccino’s – thus alleviating the “cholov yisrael” problem.

11) How will the sexual and financial scandals affect the community?

Tragically, over the past decade numerous sexual and financial scandals have come to light across the spectrum of American Orthodoxy.  They are troubling to anyone who, correctly to my understanding, perceives moral fortitude as a central mandate for committed religious Jews.  Their deepest direct impact is, however, upon the specific communities and individuals who held the religious leaders involved in esteem and were personally connected to them – often in very positive ways.

However, fundamental questions are raised by the fact that banner institutions and their leaders were aware at some level of the abuses and whitewashed them and did not confront them straight on. But these do not necessarily relate to ideological issues as much as to a basic stumbling block within organized religion.  Namely, the difficulty to balance between the main goal of religion-which is serving God- and the need to create and sustain religious institutions -that inspire and disseminate religious ideals.  Too often, maintaining the “edifice” takes precedent over securing the values.  Turning the other way when unethical behavior of prominent individuals are discovered out of fear that the scandals will damage the religious or educational framework is a prime example.

It would appear to me that the main lessons to be learned are not that there is any innate connection between the aberrant behavior of individuals and the theological foundations of the movements with which they associate.  Rather, to first acknowledge that religious institutions, like all contemporary public frameworks (corporations, universities, government offices, hospitals) will more likely than not be populated by a certain minority of deviant persons who use their authority and esteem as tools for illegal and/or immoral activity.

Therefore, religious movements cannot simply create internal safeguards.  They should contract with outside, independent bodies, that specialize in this type of security and will not be swayed by personal connections to the perpetrators or fear of damage to beloved institutions. The more realistic and pragmatic the approach is to these issues, the less they will eventually blow up into major public scandals.

Interview with Carlos Fraenkel- Teaching Plato in Palestine

What does philosophy have to teach us today? Specifically what does the Platonic tradition of Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazzali, and Maimonides have to offer?  For these philosophers, the highest human good is philosophic contemplation, but to attain the highest perfection one must first create the virtuous society. To do this, one needs to ask major questions of justice, ethics, and religion.

plato in Palestine

Carlos Fraenkel holds a joint appointment in the Departments of Philosophy and Jewish Studies at McGill University where he is also a William Dawson Research Scholar and the Chair of Jewish Studies.” He grew up in Germany and Brazil and studied in Berlin and Jerusalem. He has written on philosophers such as Plato,  al-Fârâbî, al-Ghazâlî, Maimonides, and Spinoza. Most recently, he wrote Teaching Plato in Palestine:Philosophy in a Divided World, bringing these philosophic questions of the Platonic tradition to places of social conflict.

Fraenkel’s first book From Maimonides to Samuel ibn Tibbon: The Transformation of the Dalālat al-Ḥāʾirīn into the Moreh ha-Nevukhim was on Samuel ibn Tibbon, the translation of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed from Arabic into Hebrew, who also produced the first Hebrew versions of Aristotle and Averroes. Samuel ibn Tibbon was the bane of kabbalists such as Yaakov bar Sheshet who felt he substituted philosophy for the mysteries of the Torah. Ibn Tibbon was known in the Maimonidean controversies as considering Genesis as meteorology and as thinking that knowledge of God was impossible.  Frankel’s work showed that despite Ibn Tibbon looking to Maimonides  as his guide, he felt compelled to differ on many points.

Frankel’s second work Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy (Cambridge UP) was an instant classic, a wonderful exposition of the history and argumentation of philosophic religion. He shows how they argued that God is Reason and that the historical forms of a religious tradition serve as philosophy’s handmaid to promote the life of reason among non-philosophers. People have an imperative to develop their minds and religion cannot be in conflict with this imperative.

If one seeks the philosophic truth offered by the medievals, where does religious truth fit in? This question used to be called the double truth question of having two competing sources of truth. For Saadayh Gaon, philosophic truth and religious truth are one in that the masses gain truth from revelation, on the other certain Averroists held that philosophy was the only truth and religion was just for the masses.

Frankel is the best articulation of the philosophic religion of those who see philosophy itself as the goal of religion; the book is an essential tool for teaching. His introduction to the book is especially valuable to read.

In his third and most recent work Teaching Plato in Palestine:Philosophy in a Divided World, Fraenkel discusses his teaching of these classics in Palestine, Indonesia, Brazil, Egypt, Ex-Hasidim, and an Indian reservation showing their value for advancing claims of justice and truth. Teaching Plato in Palestine is part intellectual travelogue, part plea for integrating philosophy into our personal and public life. Fraenkel thinks that philosophy is essential to a culture of debate. We understand ourselves by arguing with others, and understand others by arguing with ourselves. (Introduction is available here.)

He wants to tackle big questions: Does God exist? Is piety worth it? Can violence be justified? What is social justice and how can we get there?  In the course of the discussions, different viewpoints often clash. That’s a good thing, Fraenkel argues, as long as we turn our disagreements on moral, religious, and philosophical issues into what he calls a “culture of debate.” Conceived as a joint search for the truth, a culture of debate gives us a chance to examine the beliefs and values we were brought up with and often take for granted. It won’t lead to easy answers, Fraenkel admits, but debate, if philosophically nuanced, is more attractive than either forcing our views on others or becoming mired in multicultural complacency—and behaving as if differences didn’t matter at all.

The book Teaching Plato in Palestine  is an enjoyable quick read. I found the weakest part was the discussions with Ex-Hasidim who seemed not ready for book knowledge, let alone philosophy. They thought that philosophers teach hedonism not justice, virtue, and contemplation. Some of the best parts were debates of justice in Al-Quds or his general framing discussions around the tension of inherited knowledge (taqlid) as opposed to philosophic understanding.

For those readers with no background in Maimonides or those who want to read an approach both Orthodox Jewish and Straussian, see our posts by Kenneth Green where he presents many basics- here, here, and here.


1)         What is philosophic religion? 

When I first turned to pre-modern philosophy I was both puzzled and intrigued by thinkers who combined an uncompromising rationalism with strict religious observance. In a sense the book is an attempt to solve what then seemed like a paradox to me.

Since the Enlightenment critics of religion claim that religion is an obstacle to the emancipation of reason. Instead of knowledge, religion promotes ignorance in form of fables and superstition. Instead of autonomy it preaches submission to God by rousing irrational fears of punishment and hopes for reward. If we chose to follow reason, religious beliefs and practices have no place in our life.

To proponents of philosophical religion these criticisms would sound strange. The projects of reason and religion, they hold, cannot be meaningfully distinguished at all. The core purpose of religion is to direct us to a life that is guided by reason towards the perfection of reason. For the best and most blissful life is the life of contemplation, culminating in knowledge of God. God himself, they argue, is the perfect model of this life. Being pure Reason, he eternally knows and enjoys the truth, unencumbered by hunger, pain, ignorance, and other afflictions that come with being embodied. The task of religion is to make us as much like God as possible.

Plato marks the beginning: laws, he contends, are divine if they direct us to “Reason who rules all things.” The same idea is still echoed in Spinoza: While human laws aim only at prosperity and peace, divine laws aim at “the true knowledge and love of God” (though note that Spinoza’s God isn’t just thought, but also extension and an infinite number of other things that we don’t know).

At first view a philosophical religion doesn’t seem to have much in common with the historical forms of religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. How can it accommodate their laws, stories, exhortations, and practices of worship? And how does the concept of God as Reason square with the God of Scripture who speaks, gives laws, performs miracles, gets angry, has mercy, and so forth?

Proponents of philosophical religion reply that, alas, not everyone is cut out for the philosophical life. Hence prophets must put a pedagogical-political program in place that can offer guidance to non-philosophers. This program’s role is to serve as philosophy’s handmaid. It establishes beliefs, practices, and institutions that imitate philosophy to give non-philosophers a share in the perfection that philosophy affords. On this picture, the difference between the philosopher and the prophet comes down to this: while both have knowledge of the good, the prophet is also an accomplished legislator, poet, and orator, skills that allow him to convey the good to non-philosophers and motivate them to do it. Think of a doctor’s prescriptions for a healthy regime and the reasons he gives for following these prescriptions. This is what a religion’s laws and narratives are like.

Now, in my view Maimonides is a paradigmatic proponent of philosophical religion in the Jewish tradition. This said, there are a number of distinctive features in Maimonides, for example his skepticism and his view that over time one can gradually disclose more philosophical content to non-philosophers. And of course my strictly rationalist interpretation of Maimonides is contested.

2) What was the unique goal of your project in the book Teaching Plato in Palestine?

The project had really two main goals, but let me first say a couple of words about what I actually did.

Over the past few years I’ve organized philosophy workshops in various hotspots around the world: with students at Palestinian and Indonesian universities, lapsed Hasidic Jews in New York, teenagers in mostly poor neighborhoods in Brazil, and an Iroquois community on the border between Canada and the US. These are all places fraught with conflict–different kinds of conflict: Israel and Palestine, Islam and the West, religious orthodoxy and urban modernity, social and racial divisions in Brazil, the scars of colonial history, and so on.

Now, these conflicts raise fundamental questions: Does God exist? Is piety worth it? Can violence be justified? What is social justice and how can we get there? Who should rule? What does political self-determination require?

So one goal of the workshops was to show by example that philosophy is useful to articulate such questions more clearly and to explore and refine answers to them. Now, unsurprisingly viewpoints often clashed in the discussions. My interlocutors disagreed with me, but also among each other.

A second aim of the workshops was to show that such clashes are a good thing–as long as they don’t turn into violence but fuel what I call a “culture of debate”: an intellectual space for debating issues we deeply care about, but also deeply disagree on. The widely differing cultural and religious backgrounds of my interlocutors allowed me to test this idea on the ground.

In early 2000 when I was finishing my PhD dissertation on medieval Arabic and Hebrew philosophical texts, I felt the need to brush up on my Arabic, so I went for three months to Cairo where I worked with a private teacher, but also organized a kind of informal language exchange with Egyptian students who were keen to practice their English.

As we got to know each other better, we also became concerned about our very different ways of life. They wanted to save my soul from eternally burning in hell by converting me to Islam. I wanted to save them from wasting their real life for an illusory afterlife by converting them to the secular worldview I grew up with. They would argue that betting on Islam would get me a three-in-one deal, because Muslims also believe in the God of Jews and Christians, to which I’d reply that unfortunately I don’t believe in God at all.

In one of these discussions the question came up if one can prove God’s existence. The question took me by surprise. In the academic and social circles I normally move in that’s not something I often get asked. I argued that one cannot prove God’s existence; they offered a proof. I pointed out a flaw in their reasoning; they came up with an improved version. The discussion ended inconclusively. Here I found myself having–and greatly enjoying–a philosophical conversation with people who had no formal academic training in philosophy.

So I wondered if philosophy can be relevant to real life concerns, if one can embed it in the discussions people are already having to help them tackle questions they’re anyway grappling with.

I also realized that I hadn’t properly thought through some of my most basic convictions–from my atheism to my idea about how to live. So I wondered again: Aren’t debates across cultural and religious divide a great opportunity to test our beliefs and values?

I should add that by philosophy I don’t mean grand philosophical theories like Marxism, existentialism and the like, but something very simple: philosophical techniques–logical and semantic tools that help us clarify our views and make and respond to arguments. Also needed are philosophical virtues–loving the truth more than winning an argument and trying our best to understand the viewpoint of the opponent.

3) How was your goal different from Mortimer Adler’s great books idea or Michael Sandel’s teaching justice?

I think there are many differences between my project and Adler’s or Sandel’s. For one thing their selection of texts betrays a certain intellectual provincialism. Good arguments can be found in lots of texts outside the traditional Western canon–Muslim, Jewish, and obviously also Indian, Buddhist, and so forth.

In the Iroquois community, for example, I read parts of a captivity memoir by James Smith, an American soldier captured by the Iroquois in 1755. He writes about an intriguing debate about the good life that he witnessed in the community where he was held captive: while everyone agrees that a good life is both happy and God-pleasing, there is much disagreement on what that means. One group argues that since God has endowed us with natural desires, he must be pleased when we satisfy them. That, in turn, makes us happy. A second group objects that when we follow our natural desires, we often do harm to ourselves and others. Hence suppressing them is what pleases God and makes us happy. Finally, a third group proposes a middle position: satisfying our natural desires pleases God and makes us happy as long as we do no harm to ourselves and others.

My project also differs from Sandel’s in the sense that he limits himself to moral and political philosophy. There are good reasons why academic philosophy is divided into sub-disciplines that people specialize in, but once you leave the confines of academia things become intellectually “messier”–moral and political questions often interlock with metaphysical and epistemological ones. With my Hasidic students for example, we moved from discussing their loss of faith to a discussion of whether there are any reliable sources of knowledge. The senses? The intellect? Can we avoid absolute skepticism?

I’m not planning to write a text book for the project, but if I were to write one it would likely have two main components: a kind of logical and semantic propaedeutic (the philosopher’s “toolkit” as it were) and a selection of texts that illustrate philosophical questions, arguments, and puzzles that emerged in a wide range of different cultural and religious settings with brief introductions to contextualize these texts in their time and place. To do that competently I’d have to team up with other scholars, for example a logician and a scholar of Eastern intellectual traditions.

4) Was it successful? The encounter with Hasidim seemed like they were not ready for it and could not get much beyond the fact that rationalists are not gross hedonists

It depends on what you mean by success. Most of the discussions I had remained inconclusive, but I think many of my interlocutors saw the purpose of the exercise and enjoyed taking part in it.

It is true that my Hasidic students started out with the assumption that an honest and consistent rationalist is also a hedonist and a secularist (they had of course read Maimonides–partly in secret–but they interpreted him intuitively in a “Straussian” way: as being deceptive when he defends religious doctrines). So they were quite surprised to find Plato portraying Socrates in the Apology as a pious man. Not only is his philosophical enterprise presented as a divine mission (triggered by the oracle of the god Apollo), but he chooses Kiddush Hashem over disobeying God’s command and giving up philosophical examination!

To explain Socrates’ puzzling piety one of the students suggested that “may be he died too early.” At first I didn’t get what he was trying to say. Then he explained that he himself hadn’t lost his faith all at once, but layer after layer. It started with doubts about the things the rabbis in his community taught.  So he went back to the rishonim. But they also said things that he felt didn’t add up. So he went back to the Talmud. In the end, all he was left with was the Bible. For a while he was proud to rely only on the true divine source while everyone else was being misled by false human interpretations. When he finally lost trust in the Bible as well, it was as if the ground had broken away under his feet. . So his suggestion was that if Socrates had lived longer, he also would have gotten to this nihilistic stage.

Now, I don’t think that seeing that rationalism doesn’t entail atheism or hedonism is a small achievement.

We discussed, for example, the similarity between Nietzsche’s concept of self-discipline which is required to increase one’s power and Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s distinction between tevaʿ (nature) and hergel (habit). The idea here is to reshape your nature through habituation: getting rid of features that prevent you from attaining your goal and acquiring features that help. The only thing Nietzsche would disagree with is the goal itself, which for the Alter Rebbe is, of course, avodat ha-Shem. But he certainly agrees that we need to subjugate our petty, human-all-too-human lusts and fears to turn our lives into something valuable.

5) What is Taqlid? Why is it an important concept to discuss in religious settings?

I borrow the notion of “taqlid” from al-Ghazali. It’s not easy to translate, but it means something like naive beliefs, beliefs that haven’t been adopted on the basis of deliberation or examination, but on the basis of the “authority of parents and teachers” as al-Ghazali puts it. In other words: the contingent circumstances of our socialization: education, media, marketing, political and religious ideology–whatever shapes our beliefs without having been subjected to critical scrutiny.

Often people hold the beliefs they were taught by parents and teachers with deep conviction, but that obviously doesn’t entail that they are actually true. Just consider the bewildering diversity of beliefs, held with great conviction across different times and places! What, then, are the odds that our beliefs are the correct ones?

So the uncritical acceptance of beliefs we’ve internalized in the course of our socialization–i.e. the state of taqlid–is an obstacle to attaining the truth: it is a state of unjustified confidence in beliefs that very likely are incorrect (of course it isn’t impossible that the beliefs a person happens to have been brought up with are also true, but it is arguably very unlikely and at the very least uncertain).

I illustrate this with the example of al-Ghazali who in his intellectual autobiography, the Deliverance from Error, describes the crisis of faith he went through as a young man when he realized that he would have been just as fervent a Jew or Christian as he used to be a Muslim, had he been brought up in a Jewish or Christian community, i.e. when he realized that his commitment to Islam wasn’t well founded, but the outcome of the accidents of his socialization. Much of the remainder of his intellectual autobiography is devoted to an account of his quest to rebuild his faith in Islam.

A religious person who values the truth arguably has a strong incentive to move beyond taqlid. On the other hand, we rely on taqlid all the time in day-to-day life. We couldn’t live without taking lots of things for granted.

Even when it comes to moral values, we often may want to rely on taqlid to some extent. Let’s say I want to make consumer choices that are socially and ecologically responsible. I for one would be most grateful if I didn’t have to figure it out on my own for every product, but could rely on a government sponsored commission of experts that labels things “green,” “yellow,” and “red” for example according to social and ecological criteria. And some people may not even want to think through the fundamental metaphysical, epistemological, and moral assumptions that underlie their way of life and worldview. So here the question of securing trustworthy guides becomes important which raises the issue of intellectual elitism.

6) Are you in favor of Platonic elitism?

No, I’m not in favor of Platonic elitism. I’m less pessimistic than Plato about the possibility of democratizing philosophy. Plato looked back on Socrates’ fate who was executed for trying to turn all citizens into philosophers. Athenians didn’t thank him for guiding them to the examined life, but accused him of spreading moral corruption and atheism. And Plato concurs: Socrates failed because most citizens just aren’t philosophers–they’re unsuited to philosophy by nature. To make them question the beliefs and values they were brought up with isn’t useful because they cannot replace them through examined ones.

I wonder, though, if citizens had been trained in dialectic debate from early on, wouldn’t they have reacted differently to Socrates? At the same time I think that even if making philosophy part of our personal and public life were to become a policy goal, there would still be plenty of people who for lack of inclination, time, talent, or whatever may not be interested in integrating the practice of philosophy more deeply into their lives, not to mention of course that we are all born as non-philosophers and in need of guidance. So some of Plato’s observations remain relevant.

For Jewish philosophers, intellectual elitism played a crucial role: it allowed them to integrate their religious tradition into a philosophical framework.

Perfectly rational beings such as God and angels, who were conceived by Jewish philosophers like Maimonides and Gersonides as incorporeal intelligences, don’t need the Bible or the Talmud to live a good life.

The same may be true for the occasional accomplished philosopher (Philo of Alexandria describes the patriarchs as “living laws”–their reason prescribes to them what Moses will later legislate, so they don’t need the actual material document to live according to it).

But most human beings are to a greater or lesser extent imperfectly rational (in fact, all human beings are so as children). So they need pedagogical-political guidance. And Jewish philosophers interpreted the narrative, legal, and institutional contents of the Jewish tradition as precisely such a pedagogical-political program that offers guidance to imperfectly rational human beings. And they explained them on the basis of this assumption–as if they’d been put in place by religious leaders who were also great philosophers to guide non-philosophers toward a philosophically established concept of the good.

7) What is the secular value and importance of studying medieval religious texts?

There are many things that fascinate me, as a secular person, in medieval texts: the seriousness and sophistication with which the great questions were debated–from God’s existence and nature to good politics and how one should live.

I also continue to find the “heroic” concept of philosophy intriguing: the conviction of philosophers from Plato to Spinoza that philosophy can be a guiding, as well as a consoling science, the basis for succeeding in our personal and political lives. This said, I find attempts to revive this kind of philosophy utterly unconvincing (and I say this with some regret).

The idea of organizing our personal and political lives around the ideal of contemplation that brings us closer to Divine Reason, the ultimate standard of the good, makes no sense to me because the concept of Divine Reason makes no sense to me.

The same holds for claims such as that we shouldn’t feel sad if something bad happens to us because once we look at it from the point of view of Divine Reason we’ll see that what we perceive as bad really is a means to promote the universe’s overall good (I apologize for drastically simplifying complex arguments here).

Plato argues in the Timaeus that we attain “the most excellent life offered to humankind by the gods” if we “learn the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, and so bring into conformity with its objects our faculty of understanding.” The assumption is that the natural order expresses Divine Reason. By understanding it we come closer to the divine which is the best state human beings can be in and which thus should be the goal of our personal and political lives. I don’t see a way of defending this sort of view. To me it seems that the metaphysical foundation of this “heroic” concept of philosophy is irretrievably lost. I just don’t believe that Divine Reason is running the universe.

8) Can you be more specific about a secular reading of Maimonides?

What I find most relevant to contemporary concerns in medieval texts is the hermeneutics of philosophers like Averroes and Maimonides. Let me give you an example. For Averroes and Maimonides the biblical God and the God of philosophy is one and the same. And the best demonstration for God’s existence, according to them, is the physical proof that Aristotle worked out at the end of the Physics and in Book 12 of the Metaphysics.

In a nutshell Aristotle argues that motion is eternal and that the instantiation of eternal motion in the universe are the celestial spheres, which eternally move stars and planets around the earth. Since the celestial spheres are finite bodies, they cannot contain the infinite force required to eternally keep moving. And since an infinite body is impossible, the spheres must be moved by an incorporeal mover–that is, God.

Apprehending God in this way, Averroes and Maimonides argue, is the highest good for human beings, because the main component of a good life is intellectual perfection, which is acquired through knowledge of the natural order, culminating in knowledge of God.

Leaving aside the technical details of Aristotle’s proof, the important point for my purpose is that both Averroes and Maimonides claim that the first to establish God’s existence in this way was not Aristotle, but Abraham! This is precisely the point on which Abraham broke with the star worshipping idolaters of his time: they didn’t understand that the stars and planets require an incorporeal mover and thus took them to be the deity itself. Abraham is, of course, the founding father of both Judaism and Islam. By portraying Abraham as an accomplished philosopher Averroes and Maimonides aim to embed at the very foundation of their religious tradition the beliefs about the world and the good that, upon careful reflection, they came to see as true.

It is easy to see why they do this: they are philosophers, but Averroes is also a committed Muslim and Maimonides a committed Jew. Hence they interpret their religious tradition in light of their considered beliefs about the world and the good. Arguably religious people concerned about the truth should do the same: if they are genuinely committed to a religious or cultural tradition, then, to do justice to the truth they take this tradition to embody, they should interpret it in light of their considered beliefs.

As Maimonides reinterpreted Judaism in light of the best founded beliefs of his time, religious Jews today arguably should do so in light of the best founded beliefs of our time. To be sure, religious Jews today must contend with the objections of proponents of the historical-critical method for reading religious texts.

And my sense is that the best founded beliefs today pose more of a challenge to a religious person than they did in Maimonides’ time. So the project of reinterpretation has become more difficult. Yet I think it is an important project nonetheless,

Also for various reasons not everyone may want to acquire sound beliefs on his or her own. So incorporating sound beliefs into the existing religious and cultural traditions is one way to ensure their wide dissemination. So while secular people likely won’t be able to directly participate in such a “Maimonidean” project, it may well be one that they’d be interested to support.

Marc B. Shapiro- Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History

This week’s Economist has an article on the British Haredi community entitled Shtetls of the Mind: The Sad State of British Haredi Jewry. The article points out that the self- imposed restrictions that the Haredi community places on itself are causing economic and social downturn. This recent interest in the Haredi would by outsiders is shared by many of the American Jewish newspapers and, in turn, by the broader Jewish community seeking to be acquainted with this seemingly exotic and closed element of the tribe. Currently, most are gaining their knowledge from the confessional memoirs written by Ex-Hasidim. Marc B. Shapiro took an alternate route to Haredim by documenting how they censor and rewrite their history in his recent book Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History (Littman, 2015).

changing the immutable

Marc B. Shapiro holds the Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton. He is the author of Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg and The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, both of which were National Jewish Book Award Finalists. Shapiro’s writings often challenge the bounds of the conventional Orthodox understanding of Judaism using academic research while adhering to Modern Orthodox sensibilities.  Shapiro was the last PhD student of the late Prof. Isadore Twersky at Harvard University.

Clinton photoshopped out

Shapiro’s book starts off with the blatant censoring by a Haredi newspaper that photo-shopped Hillary Clinton out of the photo of the White Staff watching the assassination of Bin Laden.  He uses this stark example to show how in various ways the Orthodox community rewrites its past and present. According to Shapiro, the Haredi feels that it needs to keep information from the masses, censor things that do not support their view, and to remove inappropriate statements from books. At the end of this introductory litany of distortions, he contrasts this with the motto of the Modern Orthodox school that some of his children attend “Truth and Nothing but the Truth.”

The book is arranged topically collecting the censorship in books by category: Jewish Thought, Halakhah, Writings of Rabbi SR Hirsch, Writings of Rav Kook, Sexual Matters, and Everything else. The final chapter, clearly the most thoughtful, is on the concept of truth and its less than assumed importance in Orthodox Jewish life. The chapter gives cases where a rabbi can use false attribution to give greater credence to what he says, or he can claim that a prohibition is more severe than it really is in order to gain obedience or that the Rabbis can let a scholar can lie in order to save himself from embarrassment. He even has a case permitting forgery of a phony will to prevent one of the parties from going to secular court.

While the book is ostensibly on contemporary Orthodox, along the way we are also given cases of the Victorian removal of sexuality from Judaica, the removal of Renaissance nudes from printing, removal of wild passages from Hasidut and Rav Kook, the medieval practice of hiding things from the masses, and process of paraphrasing during the process of translation.

Last year, I heard a wonderful lecture by Shapiro on how then Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks self-censored his own book Dignity of Difference away from explicit pluralism, but still accepted an award specifically for the first edition with the awarding organization highlighting the removed passages as the reason for the award. Nevertheless, Shapiro’s criterion for this book is censorship by editors and therefore he leaves out acts of self-censorship.

Shapiro accounts for the censorship in Orthodox books as acts of pedagogic truth, while in other places he writes that they distort the truth like the communist party paper from the Soviet era Pravda. But the book does not concern itself with who the editors are, what are their methods, or their social context. Is the agency of book editors the same as the governmental agenda of Pravda? Is maintaining a certain type of respect for rabbis, the same as fabricating alternate accounts of world events?

The book has a clear moralizing tone toward the rewritten truth of the Orthodox and the style clearly seems to be written to address them directly. The buzz on the street and on social media is that this book will help change the Haredi community, that it will expose its problems, that it will open up new horizons for the community, and that it will actually cause social change in the community. However, in the interview below Shapiro demurs. He claims that those are not his goals, rather he is nothing but a historian presenting objective facts without a desire or goal to challenge or change the community.  He wants The Truth and Nothing but the Truth.”

1) How do you think Orthodox Judaism is currently engaged in a systematic censoring of the past?

When we speak of “Orthodox Judaism” censoring the past, we must be clear that we are obviously not speaking about all individuals who identify as Orthodox or haredi. It is, however, the case that among some of the Orthodox there has been an effort to rewrite the past. This rewriting takes on different forms and sometimes it is indeed much like Pravda. There are many more examples of this than I was able to discuss in the book, as the book focuses primarily on censorship and I wanted to tell the story in this fashion.

The late Chabad historian of Hasidism Yehoshua Mondshine wrote many columns debunking phony stories that double as “history” in the haredi world. He seemed to take great pleasure pointing out the factual inaccuracies and often the absurdities of the stories.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that in many such cases the person recording the story must know, or at least suspect, that it is false. However, the point of these stories, and indeed the larger genre of “Orthodox history”, is not factual history but inspirational history. The term pedagogic truth goes hand in hand with distortions, as you can’t have the former without the latter.

The role of the masses is quite important in the story I am telling, since it is precisely the masses that are the focus. The elites have the information and they know the truth. Yet it is thought that this truth would be dangerous in the hands of the masses. Often that means that historical facts are covered up, and at other times it means that “facts” are invented in order to further the goal of strengthening haredi society. To give an example, I am certain that pretty much all of the haredi works that attempt to destroy R. Kook’s reputation knowingly distort the truth. They leave out many important details that would complicate the story they are trying to tell. And that is the point. They don’t want their readers to be exposed to complexity. Rather, they want to indoctrinate their readers and that is really what so-called Orthodox history is. It is a form of ideological indoctrination of which “history” is the means.


2) Why did you write this book? What was your motivation?

I wrote Changing the Immutable for the same reason I wrote my other books: I thought that I had an interesting and important story to tell. There was no additional motivation, no desire to influence the wider community, to hit back against certain trends in Orthodoxy, or anything like that. I say this fully cognizant of the fact that non-academic readers of the book will be overwhelmingly from the Orthodox community, as the issues I discuss are of immediate interest to them.

I understand that people may use the book to further their own ideological goals and that is fine, but it has nothing to do with my motivations, at least my conscious motivations. Anyone who reads the book and can appreciate the work that went into it will, I think, realize that it is a work of scholarship. Someone with a non-scholarly motivation would not put such effort into a book. My first interest in the matter of censorship was an outgrowth of my interest in the history of Jewish books. But it soon became apparent to me that what I was discovering was not merely of bibliographical interest, but could be part of a story whose focus was Jewish intellectual and cultural history.

3) Why the moralism toward the Orthodox Approach? You clearly see their lack of honesty as a problem to condemn.

There are a couple of issues at stake here. To begin with, it must be made clear that before the rise of modern historical studies history was always written with an agenda. This leads me to be more understanding than many others when it comes to “ArtScroll history”, which is another way of saying hagiography. Everyone realizes that what ArtScroll and others like them they are writing is not what we regard as history in the academy, but what they are doing is actually very much in line with tradition, as I will later explain. I also see a place for such works, and in certain communities this is what is desired. However, for communities whose members read general works of history and serious biographies of United States’ presidents and other figures, you can’t expect, and shouldn’t want them to settle for anything less when it comes to Jewish history in general and biographies of great rabbis in particular.

Quite apart from the writing of history, which I do not focus on in the new book, there is the other matter of distortions through altering texts of the past. That is what I devote a good deal of time to in the book. Although I try to write with scholarly detachment, my own feeling is that when people begin to actually alter the words of great rabbinic figures, and to literally cut out things that they don’t like, these distortions must be combated.

As I point out in the book, history used to be written with an agenda. Inventing dialogues was thought to be proper. Thus, as mentioned already, the way ArtScroll writes history is actually very traditional. It is just that many of us have moved away from this approach. I don’t think any academic historians are naive enough to say that we can write “objective” history, but we try to remove ourselves from our prejudices and preconceptions. In the haredi world they are still writing history in the old-fashioned way, whereby history is in many ways designed to serve the needs of the present.

4) Does it matter? If they don’t have basic knowledge of history nor concepts of historicity, authenticity, and authorship so why not let them present things in didactic terms?

It matters because historical truth matters. We are not dealing here with issues of interpretation where there is no absolute “truth”. We are dealing with an attempt to recreate the past in the guise of the present. This doesn’t mean that I believe that everyone needs to be exposed to the complete truth of every matter. But for those who care the truth must be established.

When I say that not everyone needs to be exposed to the complete truth, let me share a story to illustrate this. I realize that some people might find this story surprising coming from me. Some years ago after a lecture someone approached me. He was quite upset that his son had become a hasid and he wanted my help in this matter. He wanted to know if he should give his son David Assaf’s book on Hasidism, as he thought that seeing some of the unsavory history of the movement would change his son’s views. I told him that I thought this was a bad idea. If his son is happy in his newfound spirituality why attempt to destroy it? If his son is interested in the history of Hasidism, sooner or later he will come to Assaf. But I don’t think it should be a goal to have all hasidim become acquainted with these matters. Isn’t this also how families operate? Does everyone in the family need to know all of the difficult and dark secrets? Often life works out better for them if they are blissfully ignorant of certain things.

5) How was Hirsch censored by Netzach publishing? Or Feldheim not publishing the lecture in praise of Schiller until you did?

Netzah censored much that was not in line with the haredi Weltanschauung, so Hirsch’s criticism of Maimonides and his negative characterization of Kabbalah were deleted. On one occasion they even deleted a comment of his dealing with Torah im Derekh Eretz. In a future blog post I will show how they deleted Hirsch’s citation of Wessely. (I only learnt of this when the book was in press and thus could not include it.)

The situation with Hirsch’s Schiller lecture is a bit different. It is not like the Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer Foundation, which published the multi-volume English translation of Hirsch’s writings, printed the Schiller talk but deleted certain sections. They simply chose not to publish it at all, even though they had a completed translation available for use. As you mention, it was only after I published a translation of it did they release their own translation. As I was told, the reason why their translation had not been released until then is somewhat different than what we find with Netzah. It wasn’t that they wanted to cover up Hirsch’s views, and there is indeed plenty that they did publish that breaks with the haredi viewpoint.

The reason they did not publish Hirsch’s talk on Schiller is that in the post-Holocaust years Hirsch’s praise of an aspect of German culture was simply too painful for some to read. I don’t entirely understand this reaction, as the ideals of Schiller have nothing to do with Nazism. By the same token, Professor Mordechai Breuer told me that his father’s love of Kant was never affected by what Germany became. Yet because of the sensitivities of some in the Washington Heights community, it was thought necessary to embargo the translation for a number of years. At least this is the story that was told to me.

6) In your last chapter, you write that truth is not an absolute value for the Orthodox and that one can lie for a purpose? Can you explain?

There are times when other values can trump the value of truth, and the precise details are subject to dispute. In the book I give examples that many people will find understandable and other examples that I think most people will find shocking. Thus, I cite an opinion that one collecting money to pay for publication of a book can falsely tell people that he is collecting for a poor bride. There are also rabbis who permitted lying to donors about how many students attend a yeshiva in order to receive larger donations. How many people today would even consider countenancing such falsehoods?

I don’t think that people find it problematic that parents are not always honest with their children, especially young children. Parents often assume that it is in the child’s best interest not to know the truth about certain things. Doctors used to act the same way when it came to bad diagnoses. It thus shouldn’t be surprising if rabbis acted in a similar fashion, and as I point out, there is plenty of support for this sort of paternalism in rabbinic literature.

7) You mention that Zionist historians censored the history of Israel so as not to mention that the Zionists expelled the Arabs. Is this the same phenomena as the Orthodox? 

I mentioned the creation of the myth that no Arabs were ever expelled from their homes in the new State of Israel. The narrative pushed by the government and widely accepted in the early years of the State was that all of the Arabs left on their own. I haven’t investigated how much this myth is found in academic works of history as opposed to works designed for the general population and polemical works by defenders of Israel. In my lectures on the book I actually spend some time on this point. I do so since I think that most defenders of Israel understand and are sympathetic to the circumstances that led to the creation of this myth, while at the same time recognizing that today we are able to examine the historical record in a more impartial fashion.

They understand that in the years following the creation of the State of Israel, an era which also saw Jews driven out of Arab countries, that it would have been demographic suicide for Israel to allow all the refugees to return. Yet for obvious reasons Israel could not publicly acknowledge that many of these refugees had been driven out and at the same insist that they not be allowed to return. The solution to this problem was the myth that all of the Arabs had left on their own. Even if they had left on their own, it was still not a simple matter to explain why after the war they couldn’t return, but this was better than stating that they had been driven out and were not going to be allowed back in.

In my talks I make the point that if people can understand why this myth was once viewed as important, both for reasons of realpolitik as well as to soothe Jewish consciences, then they should also be able to understand that in the haredi world other myths are important. I try to make the point that myths can have value to societies even if they are not true. Historians also recognize the value of myths even as our research undermines them.


8) Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin in his book The Censor, the Editor, and the Text The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century– thinks that censorship is and was good for creating a more tolerant Judaism. Do you disagree?

There is a non-tolerant verse in the original version of Aleinu that refers to non-Jews bowing to vanity and praying to a god who doesn’t help. . It was censored from the prayer and it might have originally been Jews who self-censored it to avoid problems. Such a verse recited a few times a day is not the sort of thing that will inspire good relations between Jews and their neighbors. So from that standpoint one could argue that it was good that it was removed.

Now that the censors no longer operate should this verse be reinserted? After all, don’t we want to return to the original text? From a historical standpoint it is vital that we understand what the verse meant and why Jews said it. We also need to recognize that Jews were subjected to terrible persecutions and murders and although they could not respond physically they did respond with the pen. This is understandable and nothing to be ashamed of. However, when it comes to reinserting the line that has been gone for so long, and whose absence might have helped create a more tolerant Judaism, my own opinion is that it is best to leave it out. This line, which states that non-Jews bow to vanity and pray to a god who does not help, is not applicable to Muslims and according to many, and this is my opinion as well, is not applicable to Christians either. In any event, I want adherents of other religions to treat Jews and Judaism with respect and therefore it makes sense that Jews should adopt the same approach in their dealings with the non-Jewish world.

This is not just smart politics and important in terms of Christian support for Israel. It is also the right thing to do. In our day and age it is vital that tensions between the religions be lessened. When R. Moses Feinstein was asked about reinserting the line he said not to. What is surprising is that R. Jonathan Sacks’ siddur, the Koren Siddur, has reinserted the line, even if only in parenthesis. This reinsertion is in direct opposition to Sacks’ message of religious tolerance and diversity that is seen most vividly in his book The Dignity of Difference. Even the message of the second edition of this book, in which Sacks retracted some of his more provocative expressions of religious relativism, would not countenance referring to those who worship God in a different fashion as bowing to nonsense and worshiping a god who does not hear them.

9) What about the censorship and rewriting of Modern Orthodoxy? For example, the leaving out of the importance of Rackman as the leading opponent of Lamm for presidency in the official book. Why not document the revisionism of Rabbi Soloveitchik within the YU world?

Regarding Lamm, I too don’t understand how a book on the history of Yeshiva University could avoid discussing the politics behind his triumphing over R. Emanuel Rackman to be selected as president of YU. This was an important event in its own right, and it also spoke to larger trends in American Orthodoxy. I myself interviewed Rackman about his own perspective on the matter.

There are, to be sure, plenty of distortions in Modern Orthodox writing, much of which revolves around R. Soloveitchik. Yet my sense is that for the most part we are not confronted with conscious rewriting of the historical record for ideological reasons. One can be wrong and guilty of propagating a terrible distortion, but when I speak of censorship I am referring to the conscious altering of our perceptions of the past. The run-of-the-mill revisionism of R. Soloveitchik is something I have discussed in blog posts, but I didn’t think that it fit into the theme of the book.

10) We regularly edit works to fit with the times, why are these cases different than the Orthodox? The way we remove rape jokes from the Greek classics or racism from American classics?

You are correct. Some of what I have documented in the book should be placed in the same category as that which you mention, and I could add many more examples (e.g., removing the “N” word in Huckelberry Finn). However, it is one thing to do with when dealing with elementary and high school students, and quite another matter at the college and post-college level. When it comes to college students, I am strongly opposed to any politically correct “updating” of classic texts. As to your basic point, my experience has been that people are very surprised to learn that some of their religious texts have been “updated” in the same fashion as the other works you refer to.

The question assumes that what I want is relevant. But that is really beside the point as my book is not prescriptive. You are on target in referring to the censorship and editing of Shakespeare and the like. In fact, some of what I describe in the book arose for the very same reason. I too would not want to tell fairy tales with graphic endings. I also completely understand the motivation of hagiography, and it could be that certain sections of the Jewish community need hagiography, as their interest in the past is to be inspired by it, not to understand people and events in a historical fashion. I don’t object to that at all, as long as people realize that this is not history.

11) How was it working for Professor Twersky as an advisor?

As to how Twersky was as an advisor, I know that there are difficult stories from the decades before I was there, of students having to work for a decade or two before receiving the PhD. However, my experience with him was fantastic. In fact, right at the beginning it was made clear to me that my time there would be on the short side, and Twersky read my material fairly quickly. Unlike other students who went to Israel or other places in the summer, I didn’t go anywhere, so during the summer I got to spend quality time with him. He hired me to be his gofer, as it were. He had me retrieve books and articles for him and he also asked me to give him interesting things that I found. I was pleasantly surprised that one of the sources I showed him made it into the additional notes at the end of his Hebrew edition of Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, p. 400. In describing what I owe to him as an advisor, here is what I wrote in the preface to my dissertation.

My debt to Professor Twersky is also enormous. From him, more than anyone else, I learned how difficult it is to produce even one sentence of original scholarship. I hope my work has lived up to the high expectations he always set for me, and encouraged me to set for myself. His tremendous learning and genuine humility are an example for all.

I actually did have a couple of disputes with Prof. Twersky. After reading one of my essays, or it might have even been a chapter of my dissertation, he told me that I had a “chip on my shoulder” when it came to Hasidism. He obviously didn’t like something I wrote, but I was never able to understand what he found problematic, as he didn’t elaborate. Perhaps I shouldn’t call this a dispute, just a difference of opinion. However, we did have a real dispute during the writing of the dissertation and it had nothing to do with scholarship. To this day I find it very strange.

He told me that when I refer to great rabbis I should put an “R.” before their names. He said that it was jarring for him to read sentences such as “Weinberg wrote to Kook.”  I was quite surprised by this, and I wasn’t sure if he was making a request of giving an order. I can’t imagine that in his younger years he would have raised this issue, but I knew that in an essay that appeared in 1987, focused on R. Yair Hayyim Bacharach, Twersky continuously refers to him as “R. Bacharach”.

I thought then, and I continue to think, that referring to someone by his last name, which is the academic convention, does not imply a lack of respect. I understand that in yeshiva circles they see things differently, but I was sitting in his office at Harvard University, not in a yeshiva, and I was writing an academic work, not an “Orthodox” work. I was relieved when after I expressed my disagreement he told me that he was not insisting on the point. Interestingly, I later heard from my other advisor, Prof. Jay Harris, that Twersky raised the issue with him as well. Harris replied that if I were to start putting “R.” before the names of rabbis then I would also have to write “R. Geiger”. Twersky had no reply to this and the matter was never again brought up.

Let me also note that for many years I have been working at a Catholic university. Before Pope Benedict assumed his office, the most conservative Catholics academics on campus had no hesitation in referring to him as “Ratzinger”, without prefacing his name with “Cardinal.” In other words, the notion that it is disrespectful to refer to someone by his last name is an Orthodox convention but it doesn’t have general applicability. In fact, in yeshiva circles it is seen as disrespectful to speak to a great Torah scholar in the second person, a convention that has fallen by the wayside among the Modern Orthodox, none of whom would see anything disrespectful in asking a great rabbi, “Do you think I was correct in my understanding?”, as opposed to asking, “Does the Rosh Yeshiva think I was correct in my understanding?”

12) How do you envision the Orthodox community will change in the next decade?

Predictions are always dangerous, which is one reason why I prefer to stick to studying the past. When it comes to Orthodoxy, changes are happening very quickly. I think it is obvious that we have now reached a point where women rabbis are a fait accompli. In the coming years synagogues and Hillels are going to have Orthodox women on the payroll serving as rabbis, even if not all of them go by that title. There already are OU synagogues with such women. It seems to me that it would be too difficult for the OU to take a stand on this and push out these synagogues. This means that, whether people like it or not, women rabbis are now an accepted feature of Orthodoxy. Just like some Orthodox synagogues will have women presidents while most others won’t, so too some Orthodox synagogues will have women rabbis even if the great majority will not. This is a development that no one could have predicted even fifteen years ago.

Marc Michael Epstein- Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts

Most books on Jewish illuminated manuscripts seem to be written for the wealthy collector of manuscripts or for the pedantic cataloger. In a recent book Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Michael Epstein (along with many contributors), we finally have a Jewish art book for the rest of us. The book explains the meanings of the decorative arts as a whole, their history, how to read the metonymy of the images, and even the process of ink and dye by which the manuscript was illuminated.  This is the best Jewish art book out there, worthy to give as a gift to friends and to keep a copy for oneself.SPSI-Epstein-jacket.indd  Marc Michael Epstein is Professor of Religion and Visual Culture on the Mattie M. Paschall (1899) & Norman Davis Chair at Vassar College has a unique position in that he teaches  both Jewish thought, especially Kabbalah as well as Jewish visual culture. This is what makes the book interesting in that he asks conceptual questions of his manuscripts.

How did they conceive of God? What was their cosmology? Why is there Christian iconography? Why is God depicted as a hand or a face? What was their map of the world? Why are there nudes? Why men given faces and the women are not? The manuscripts were chosen for their unique content and form, not that they just happen to be in the patron’s or museum’s collection. One should read the book twice, first just for the  wonderfulness of the pictures and then a second reading for the narrative. The book does not force answers to these question and many times leaves the issues open. Here is the introduction to the book as pdf.

Even the  introduction is worth reading and has reproductions of many illuminations including those depicting God, but notice on pages 11, where he gives two side by side illuminations of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, how he calls on the reader to make her own judgement about how each community interpreted the events and in the latter illustration the role the communities gave to  God, Moses, or the people Israel.

These questions frame the book as a whole and produce a usable history of the past that focuses on culture, self-perception, and wealth. Rather than some of the Jewish art books of prior decades that highlighted persecutions, history, and yearned for messianic redemption, this volume is more about Jewish thought patterns and their use of metonymy to record these patterns.

For years, I have also contacted Marc M. Epstein when I wanted basic information that no one else had such as: What do Griffins eat? Griffins (the legendary creature with the body and legs of a lion with the head, wings and talons of an eagle) are ever present at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a vast collection of griffin illustrations and sculpture spanning Spain to China. After, an afternoon of looking at medieval bestiaries, if I want to know about what do griffins eat, he has the answer. (According to Herodotus, they eat horses. But the manuscripts show that they had a wider diet). More importantly, Epstein changed Jewish art history by showing that the well-known “birds-head”  images in medieval Ashkenaz manuscripts are really Griffins.

The book could be a textbook in a course on the visual culture of the Jews. The interview below mainly focuses on the medieval elements in the book but the volume has much more. The novelty of the book is that includes Persian Jewish illuminations, Yiddish works, as well a solid chapter on contemporary illuminated manuscripts.  Among the contemporary artists, he naturally includes  Arthur Syzk and David Moss, but he also includes Siona Benjamin from Bombay, Archie Granot’s paper cuttings, and JT Waldman from the JPS publications. His volume concludes with a discussion of the current 21st century flourishing of the illuminated Ketubah. The contemporary chapter does not engage in the same cultural analysis offered of prior centuries.  This decade may be too close to ask about its self-representation and cosmology, but it leaves the reader to ponder what will be explainable to future generations about our images.

  1. What is unique and different about your book?

It’s the first comprehensive survey of Jewish manuscript illumination in several decades, the first to use the very highest quality digital imagery.

In terms of content, traditional surveys of what have been called “Hebrew illuminated manuscripts,” (but which also contain Yiddish and Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Arabic and Persian books) generally begin by explaining why Jews have art in spite of the infamous Second Commandment, then go on to provide a brief survey of illumination by time and country of origin, followed by a chronologically organized collection of single openings from thirty or forty manuscripts facing codicological and paleographic descriptions, descriptions of style, national characteristics of the manuscript in question, and the iconography of the particular image shown, and ending with some bibliography.

People bought such books for the beautiful illustrations (nobody, myself included when I purchase a book for a wedding, bar mizvah or host/ess gift is very much interested in enumerations of pickings, quire gatherings and blank sequences.) They were of little use for getting to know what manuscripts were, how they were created, organized, how they functioned as books, what they have to tell us about history, sociology, theology and a myriad of other topics. This book is the first to discuss these wonderful books topically and in depth, addressing questions from how one makes a manuscript to what iconography has to say theologically and polemically. It is a book that is uniquely positioned to speak both to established scholars, students, and lay people. portrait2. How did you become involved in Jewish illuminated manuscripts?

My interest in medieval art generally dates back to my earliest expeditions with my father, an artist (who had himself left behind the world of his of Slonimer and Lubavitch origins, ending up as a student of Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt at Brooklyn College and the Art Students’ League)  to the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, trips that were pilgrimages that always culminated in the wonderful room of the Unicorn Tapestries. Those tapestries—in the richness of the interplay between their “reality”— the details of the flora and fauna, the hunting paraphernalia, and the expressions of the protagonists—and the consummate irreality of the depiction of the hunt of a mythical beast; the powerful symbolism of the beast and its hunt; and the illusionistic three-dimensional, volumetric depiction of all the figures by means of the magic literally woven by warp and woof threads— intrigued and  cast a spell over me.

At Oberlin College I pursued the study of medieval art, but grew more and more discontent with its pervasively Christian contents. So in my junior year of college, I took a year in Jerusalem, to try and figure out what “my guys” were doing in the Middle Ages.

When, at the ripe old age of 17, I approached the late Professor Bezalel Narkiss at the Hebrew University regarding working on animal symbolism in medieval art made for Jews, he told me “Mr. Epstein, I have been studying Hebrew illuminated manuscripts for over 50 years, and I can assure you that no image of any animal in these works has any significance beyond the decorative.”

Stunned, I asked him “Does this mean you won’t support my research?” “On the contrary,” he intoned, “I will OPPOSE it!” And for over 30 years, until his death, he did. Ironically, having a door slammed in my face inspired me to go on and work hard to demonstrate that iconography concerning which the “last word” had been written by scholars of Narkiss’ generation still might yield interesting and compelling food for thought.

As unhelpful as Narkiss was, during my sojourn at Sothebys’—first as an intern, and later as the director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division of the Judaica Department I had a colleague, Jay Weinstein, whose wisdom, experience and humor were inspirational, and under whose guidance I was able to experience and explore first-hand a wide range of manuscripts that would otherwise have been inaccessible to me.

  1. Was there a tension between the verbal culture of the Jews and their visual culture?

The visual culture of Jews is an extension and amplification of their verbal culture. For Jews, art doesn’t merely serve to illustrate text or exegesis, it actually becomes exegesis in and of itself. The illustration of the plague of frogs in the Golden Haggadah (Catalonia, probably Barcelona, c. 1320, London, BL Add. MS 11639, fol. 12va) simultaneously illustrates 1) the biblical text, 2) the midrash that speaks of the gigantic frog that emerged from the Nile, which “they beat” and from which the other frogs emerged, and finally, 3) the invention of the authorship in order to polemicize against the “Pharaohs” of their own time—the distinctly scatological detail of the horde of frogs emerging from the gigantic frog’s rear end.

Or—from the ridiculous to the sublime—the opening folio of the Book of Numbers in the so-called Duke of Sussex Pentateuch, illuminated in the Lake Constance region around 1300, (London, British Library MS 15282, fol.179v) on which  four knights hold banners with the symbols of the major tribes camped around each of the four sides of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The Tabernacle is represented as a word — the opening word of the Book of Numbers, Va-yiddaber: “and [he — (God)] spoke.” It is thus the word of God manifest as the sacred center of everything. It literally stands in for the Tabernacle in the center of the Israelite camp, which was, after all, built to enshrine the Tablets of the Covenant: a physical manifestation of God’s word. It represents, by extension, the centrality of scripture — of God’s words to Moses — in the Israelite experience, in this biblical book, in the entirety of Pentateuch, and in subsequent Jewish tradition. This concept is profound in itself, but it is most fascinating that the creators of this manuscript chose to represent this concept visually: they chose to represent the primacy of the word in the tradition via the image.

  1. Why use bird’s heads and what are their relations to griffins and Jews?

My contention is that the heads that people usually call bird’s heads in the illuminations of the so-called Birds’ Head Haggadah, made possibly in Mainz, around 1300 (Jerusalem, Israel Museum, MS 180/57,) are not birds’ heads at all—they have manes/beards and animal ears. They are, thus, lion-eagle-human hybrids and evoke both the kruvim on the Ark of the Covenant, and the martyrs of Mainz (where this manuscript was likely made) who are described liturgically as “lighter than eagles and bolder than lions” to do God’s will. They represent symbolically those qualities of Jews that would otherwise be difficult to depict visually. My reconsideration of these images has begun to cause a shift from referring to the manuscript as the “Birds’ Head Haggadah” to calling it the “Griffins’ Head Haggadah.”

  1. How can the illustrations depict God, isn’t it against Judaism?

The amount of iconoclasm depended upon the relationship between the illustrator and the patron. In some cases, we are talking about Jews creating the images; in other cases it was non-Jews working for Jews. In some cases there was extraordinarily close collaboration, and in other cases it was very little collaboration. In some cases the book was ordered and accepted as it was because the patron was unconcerned about the iconography. In other cases, the patron was very involved and returned the book for revision of the illustrations.

The hand of God appears in medieval art made for Jews, just as it had in antiquity (see, e.g. The Griffins’ Head Haggadah, Jerusalem, Israel Museum, MS 180/57, fols. 22v and 23v, depicting the giving of the Tablets of the Covenant, and the descent of manna and quails respectively). Whether this demonstrates that the authorship of these images viewed God as somehow embodied is an interesting question—minimally it indicates that they sought a solution to the connection of the Divine and earthly realms that was minimally corporeal and that had classical antecedents (transmitted via the mediation of Christian iconography).

An interesting case in point that addresses the sort of negotiation discussed above is that of the RaShI commentary, illuminated in the Würzburg region of Germany and completed in 1233 (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbiliothek, MS Cod. hebr. 5/I–II, fol. 47v). The illuminator was given an instruction (or just a translation) of the opening of Exodus 6, “And the LORD spoke with Moses.”

For this verse, the non-Jewish illuminator, probably following an instruction translating the phrase “And God spoke [to Moses]” depicted God—in the form of Jesus, no less—conversing with Moses. In this extreme case, the book was sent back and the offending image was scraped and a replaced by a gold semicircle.

The manuscript as it exists now shows a burnished golden semicircle to indicate the presence of God, but it is flaking and beneath it one can make out the image of Christ. Obviously what happened is that the manuscript was delivered to the patron, who took one look at that image and sent it back. Again, you can imagine the conversation, “Yeah, well we don’t do that. No way. I don’t care what you do, scrape it off, put some gold there, anything, but we can’t have that image!” So images were effaced, erased (sometimes post-facto by people seeking to magically neutralize them.) Sinai But images were also configured to display animal heads in place of human heads, presenting the viewer with a richer and more nuanced set of associations than a blank or effaced head, as in the case of the depiction of the revelation at Sinai in the second volume of the Tripartite Maḥzor made in the Lake Constance region around 1320. (London, British Library, MS Add. 22413, fol. 3r).  Here, the men and women, per midrashic interpretation, stand separately at Sinai, but interestingly, the male protagonists have human heads, but women are given the heads of various animals.

Why are the images of women’s faces not depicted? The reasons for this are unclear—a horror of the female face or a desire—as in the case of the griffin heads—to represent women symbolically in ways and for reasons that are unclear, ambiguous or ambivalent? This is a fabulous example of the fact that each manuscript employing facial distortion needs to be interpreted on its own. There are no universal solutions to questions of interpretation.

The relationship between Jews and potentially problematic images like this enables us to trace a variety of responses, and thus strata, of patronage configurations, and of Jewish receptive audiences, from the rich and oblivious to the rich and involved (it’s always the rich, given that these are very expensive books).

  1. What was the secular realm opened up in the High Middle Ages to allow illustrations?

Around 1300, with the growth of more urban centers, manuscript illumination now moved from monasteries, to which Jews would have been unlikely to apply for illuminated works, to secular workshops on the high or cathedral street of nearly every important European city, often directly proximate to the Jewish quarter. Jews could now go into shops and order liturgical books that in form imitated the sort of things their Christian neighbors were using.

We might even imagine them paying for instruction for their sons or daughters with the proviso that the work would be for home consumption only, and would not infringe upon the prerogatives and the market of the guilds of illuminators. In some workshops Jews worked alongside Christians, but even when—as in the majority of cases—Jews ordered iconography from Christian craftspeople, it always involved an interesting conversation between the parties. “Well, I need an illustration of Moses, Zipporah, and their two kids fleeing Midian on their way to Egypt, and meeting Aaron on the way. So, give me that illustration of what you call ‘The Flight Into Egypt,’ but give me two babies, take out the halo on the woman, and put another, older male figure at the left. Oh, and put Moses’ shepherd dog in as well.”

  1. Do Jews have unicorns? Killer rabbits? Demons?

Art made for Jews contains all manner of creatures, from the naturalistic to the phantasmagoric.  We see unicorns—representing the Messiah in Jewish contexts, just as they represent Christ in Christian settings (Pentateuch, Brabant, 1310. Hamburg, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Levy 19, fo1. 97r,). Add. 14761  f.30v We see hares triumphing over pursuing dogs,  for instance in the page from the Barcelona Haggadah  with the rubric “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, ” the lower margin and central illustration depicts the slaving Israelites, while at top, a hare is served a drink by a dog, perhaps articulating the wish that “one day the Egyptian dogs will serve us.” (London, British Library, MS add. 14761, fol. 30v.) And we see demons of various kinds, representing the forces of darkness and destruction (London, British Library MS 15282, fol.179v). Many of the creatures in manuscript illumination are symbolic in nature: the weak wreak vengeance on the strong, the powerless are vindicated. Fantastic beasts are a way of visually manifesting ideas and highlighting concepts that are either so inherent that they require rearticulation in a striking manner, or so subversive that they require encoding.

  1. What surprising images did you find?

There are many images that are initially surprising: how could such-and-such an image appear in Jewish art. But then one realizes that “Jewish art” is merely “art” and that regardless of ultimate origin, nobody totally owns iconography. By re-purposing classically Christian iconography, the Jewish authorship calls attention to its reconfiguration of the values of that imagery.

The dove of the Holy Spirit repurposed as the quails descending in the wilderness in the Griffins’ Head Haggadah (fol. 22v) is an excellent example of such a turn: Although the image assuredly originated simply as a downward flying bird that was available to the (Jewish) authorship in a (Christian artists’) model book, the dove representing the Holy Spirit is an indisputably familiar image expressing a distinctively Christian theological concept. By adopting and adapting it, the Griffins’ Head authorship makes us think about the role of Divine Providence in a Jewish context. Since the Holy Spirit represents the active outreach of the works of God in the world, it is in fact a perfect symbol for Divine Providence in the desert journeys of the Israelites. Holy Spirit stripped of its Christological, Trinitarian context, is an appropriate, (if edgy) analogue to Ruah HaKodesh.  The image thus both answers Christianity and articulates something important for Judaism.

  1. How were they syncretic?

Jews always both adopted and adapted, but they did so selectively. Sometimes, as in the case of the Eucharistic wafers and the dove of the Holy Spirit becoming the manna and quails in the wilderness, the adaptations were contextual and thus prompted to occur in the mind of the viewer. In other cases, there were particular adjustments—haloes removed, figures added or altered.

In the Golden Haggadah, during the cattle plague (fol. 12v), two Egyptians stand flanking a strongly vertical tower with a horizontal visual element, as they lament and mourn their dead livestock in positions and with emotions identical to the mourners around Jesus’ cross. This is a clear example of the exegetical potential of adaptation, in which a radically re-envisioned mourning serves to comment both on the ancient Egyptian enemies of the Israelites and parodies contemporary Christians.

  1. How could they allow nudes?

Attitudes towards nudity were different. In some ways, the utilitarian nature of nudity trumped its eroticism. The human mind can make anything erotic.

We have this myth of modesty—that is, that earlier ages were much more discrete about uncovered body parts. This is actually not the case. But they tended to de-eroticize body parts, particularly breasts, in a way that we do not do nowadays. So if nudity was didactic (medical charts), demonstrative (an image of a woman in the mikveh illustrating the blessing for the mikveh), or functional (a mother nursing, an illustration of a biblical verse, a narrative illustration) in some way, it wasn’t thought of as erotic—or at least not exclusively erotic.

In Agnes Vető’s intriguingly titled essay on “Naked Ladies in the Haggadah,” the nudes illustrating the quote from Ezekiel16:6-7 contained in the exegesis of the haggadah, (where Israel is depicted as a pubescent girl) have theological import, similar to the nudity of the infant Jesus, as discussed by Leo Steinberg in his controversial book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion (1983) and as responded to by Carolyn Walker Bynum in the book’s second, revised edition in 1996.

  1. Did they have a different sense of space of visualization than we did?

In many medieval manuscripts made for Jews a different perspective on history—a world seen from the end of time—allowed patrons to envision a future in which the pursued could triumph over their pursuers. This influenced the physical and spatial organization and configuration of the images, in which different actions in different time frames—and their consequences—could all be depicted within a single frame of illustration.

In the various registers of this single page, viewers are often confronted with the past, the present, and the eschatological future. Images, thus, can simultaneously unfold in three different though interrelated chronological spheres. I’m particularly interested in the concept of what I’ve dubbed “implied ensuing motion,” in which a given image is a “slice of time,” before which something would have happened, and after which something else will occur. If the image invites us to contemplate—but not actually see— that future “something” and that “something” is subversive, we will have committed a thought crime only—neither the image nor the viewer is culpable for the sedition implied but not actually articulated in the present state of the image. Bird-hunt A hunting party, for instance, is depicted in the upper margins of double-page spread in the famous Cervera Bible, illuminated by Joseph the Frenchman in Cervera, Spain,  1299–1300 (Lisbon, Biblioteca Nacional, MS II. 72, fols. 444v–445r). On the right-hand page, we see a commotion. An armed man is drawing a sword and running toward the scene—we presume—of some great battle, or of the hunt of some dangerous beast requiring the coup de grâce of the sword. He is urged on by another man, who points him in the direction of the left-hand side of the two-page spread. There, expecting to see some scene of carnage or of a dangerous beast cornered and needing to be subdued and dispatched by the sword, we are surprised to see only two hunters attacking a little black bird, which has come momentarily to rest on a parapet, just having folded its wings.

The image is a bit of comedy on the theme of the threat of outrageously overdetermined violence. What I read here politically—I would not presume to say is what is “going on” in the minds of the authorship—seems to be that Israel, the abject raven (in medieval Spain, Jews often portrayed themselves in liturgical poetry as small, abject, darkened by sin and awaiting redemption) is hunted by various overpowering means. And there are always outrageously overmilitarized onlookers, ready to sweep down even more heavy-handedly at a moments’ notice to administer a fatal blow that is unnecessary and would be almost comedically exaggerated if it were not so cruel. So much firepower against so little a threat!

But what is important here is not what is going on in the image, but what will go on in the next moment, in the action that will ensue: In just another second, the little black bird will soar off, eluding the deadly but too heavy crossbow bolt and the swift—but not swift enough—hawk alike. And the armed hunter with his sword will arrive on the scene, earthbound, only to watch the little black bird sail away on the breeze, cawing in triumph at its escape. Since the potentialities and consequences of the implied ensuing action are constructed only in the mind of the enlightened viewer, there is no trail of evidence that could lead to the indictment of such a viewer on charges of sedition or heresy. Images employing a strategy of implied ensuing action enable intelligent readers with a thirst for uncovering subversive agendas to commit the perfect crime, a thought-crime only, one for which there is no visual—but only imaginal—evidence.

  1. How have you changed your field of scholarship and what are your future plans?

In some superficial ways: I’ve added new terms to the discussion. These have included reframing what has usually been called “Jewish Art” as “ art made for Jewish patrons and audiences” to foster broad inclusivity, and to deal with the question of the religious affiliation of the (often non-Jewish) artists, placing (properly, I think) the emphasis on the Jewish patrons.

I’ve introduced “authorship” to describe the constellation of actors—patrons, rabbinic advisors, scribes, preparatory workers, drafts people, illuminators, artists, etc. who worked together to produce manuscripts. I talk about “implied ensuing action” per the above.

But most importantly, because of my experience with Narkiss and the repercussions of his herem  for my own career, I’ve been particularly careful to attempt to create multiple opportunities for conversation between and among scholars. I’ve tried to be responsive to every query regardless of how “amateur”, and to every young scholar, regardless of how unseasoned. I’ve attempted to bring a breath of fresh air, a lack of pretentiousness, and most of all, I think, an openness both with my materials and my ideas for all who want to learn about this stuff. Being an “expert” in my field is kind of like living in the penthouse apartment of a one-story building—it’s no big deal, and everyone who wants to share both the (very minimal) glory and the (considerable pain) of being involved in it is welcome.

For example: when I was asked to write Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink, nearly twenty years ago and several publishers before Princeton University Press, I saw immediately the error of the several previous authors who had attempted and failed to write the book. While I know quite a bit about what I know, I’m certainly not expert in every area of manuscript illumination made for Jews. And so I decided to delegate: to gather a roster of star scholar-writers, and rather than write the whole thing myself, to supervise and edit what I hope is a scholarly, entertaining and engaging book.

I think the greatest achievement of the book is the achievement for which I have striven all my career—its balance of tone between the accessible and the rigorously scholarly. For me, scholarship is an enterprise of translation. I need to translate my sometimes abstruse and ingrown ideas into words that intelligent lay people can understand and enjoy. In a way, this is an extension of the main pillar of my personal philosophy: “if it encourages conversation, it is good; if it limits conversation, best to avoid it.”

Apropros this, I’m currently involved in the creation of the envisioned gorgeous multilayered, dynamic visual database of the most beautiful and important Jewish illuminated manuscripts that would become the global standard for virtual interface. This would be an online, web-browser accessible interface in which one could, of course,  “turn the pages” of the manuscript at highest possible resolution, click on an image or a detail, see it at whatever size and resolution one desired.

Now this is old hat in terms of the presentation of manuscripts online. But in our system, all analogues to the image or detail one hovered over would come into view (this image looks like that one but reversed, here’s an earlier example of this iconography etc.), at the bottom of the page, and all the scholarship on the image or detail in question would be available.

But there’s more: Any member of the public could access these books and notice things: “Why are these three angels barefooted, but the fourth one is wearing sandals”? and an actual living scholar (or a number of scholars, each with a different opinion) could weigh in on the answer, which along with the question (and the name of the questioner) would then go into the treasure trove of knowledge regarding the image. This would be a fabulous resource, on which we can envision working with multiple institutions.

Torat Chaim Ve’Ahavat Chesed –Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz has been quite active on Facebook with short hundred word glimpses into his ideas. Here is a guest post by Rabbi Katz turning these epigramic statements on current events into an actual article. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz received ordination from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for over ten years. He is now the director of the Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies at YCT and Rabbi of the Prospect Heights Synagogue. For his earlier activity on this blog, see here and here.

This very personal essay conveys Katz’ sustenance and continuity with a real Hasidic community, his definition of Chassidism, his disregard for history and philosophy, and where he sees Chassidus as a resource for today, especially as imminent within one’s social life. When you get to the end, reread the first page to see how the end positions flow directly from his autobiography at the beginning.


Torat Chaim Ve’Ahavat Chesed
Ysoscher Katz

I was raised in the chassidic community of Satmar. I should make it clear from the outset: I am modern but not Orthodox. Do not get me wrong, I am observant and my practice is orthodox but that is not who I am. In other words, I am orthodox-my practice is halakhic and my belief orthodox-but Orthodoxy is not me. It is not an integral part of my identity. My orthodoxy is merely a means towards a religious end. Keeping halakha and accepting orthodox faith-claims provides me with the infrastructure which allows my soul to strive and pursue perfection. Orthodoxy enables me to be who I really am: a Modern Chassidish Jew.

As I mentioned, my identity is comprised of two parts, Modern and Chassidish. I inherited these identity markers from my parents, the modernity from my mother and the chassidut from my father. Here, I mean real Chassidic, and not Neo-Chassidic. How my chassidic, homemaking and sheitel-wearing mom made me modern is a conversation for another time. At the moment I wish to focus on my dad.

My father is the most non-chassidish Chassid. He does not study “chassidus,” nor does he want to “understand” it. The few times I tried to explain to him Moshe Idel’s distinction between theosophy and theurgy, his eyes glazed over. Chassidut is what he does, not what he learns. From his perspective, Torah is for learning, chassidut for practicing.

His aversion is not limited to the study of academic mysticism. He also stays away from traditional kabbalistic or chassidic texts. He never studied the Zohar nor did he ever read any of the Arizal’s writings. Not only would he not read them, he also would not touch them. He is so intimidated by their sacredness; he fears that his touch would contaminate them. Yet, despite never having formally studied chassidic texts, he still is the quintessential chasid. Chassidut is his essence, part of his religious DNA, but it is a chassidut that is behavioral, not intellectual. Chassidut is how he lives his life. It is the prism through which he encounters the world and the ethos by which he lives by.

He adores his wife, loves his children, cherishes his community and reveres and respects his neighbors and fellow human beings, Jew and non-Jew alike. While this practice is not special, many people love their family and surroundings, its flavor is unique. It is Chassidic love, deriving its passion from the Chassidic teachings he has absorbed throughout his life. These teachings have filled his being with a deep religiosity, which, in turn, infuses his actions and emotions with a deep and robust spirituality. His love of humanity is, therefore, a love that is sensualized by its spiritualized valance.

Chassidut does not just spiritualize my father’s interpersonal relationships, it also enhances his religious practices, particularly the yearly calendar. Chassidut allows him to infuse the annual cycle with a sensuous spirituality.

Satmar is a Hungarian/Romanian Chassidut (The broad strokes difference between Hungarian Chassidut and the Polish and Russian versions is that the latter were intellectually inclined while the former was not. Hungarian Chassidut was predominantly behavioral. This is, of course, a generalization; the nuances are far more complex but outside the parameters of this presentation.)

Hungarian Chassidim are nourished by an elaborate “sacred calendar.” They have more days of note than the conventional Jewish calendar, and their holidays tend to be richer than your typical modern Jews’ chag experience. A Satmar Chasid’s year is thus replete with days of deep joy and periods of intense reflection. While the Jewish calendar has several biblical holidays and two Rabbinic ones, the Chasid’s calendar records additional dates of importance.

Every winter, the Hungarian Chasid has six to eight weeks of “shovavim,” a period that usually falls sometime between Chanukah and Purim, which is dedicated to repentance and introspection, largely focusing on sexual impropriety; the days of awe continue through the end of Chanukah, the potential for repentance lasts for them for two more months; Purim celebrations begin three days earlier than usual; and (a modicum of) Pesach extends all the way to Shavuot (based on Nachmanides’ notion that the interim weeks between Pesach and Shavuot are somewhat akin to a chol ha’moed of Pesach).  Combined these add up to a significant number of additional days of awe and periods of celebration.

Qualitatively, chassidic holidays are different as well. Although many things distinguish a chassidic chag, there is one distinction that is particularly noticeable to the keen observer: chassidic religious celebrations are comprised of a dissonant blend of joy and contemplation.

Here are some examples:

Shabbat in Satmar is an incredibly meaningful day, bookended by powerful contradictory modes. Friday night is a time of joy, where the spiritually and mystically rich Lecha Dodi chant inspires celebration of the metaphysical significance of the day.

While this spirit carries through most of the Shabbat, towards the end of the Shabbat the Satmar Chasid shifts gears, switching modes from the celebratory to the reflective. This transition occurs in a much starker manner than it does in most other communities. A Satmar Shabbat never ends at “shekiah.” Sehudah shlishit is always a two hour affair, spent singing and listening to the Rebbe’s dvar torah. Speaking in highly evocative tones, he expounds on the weekly reading, spending close to an hour challenging and rebuking his followers.

Growing up, this is exactly what Shabbat looked like for me. My dad’s Shabbat was intense and complex. While the day began upbeat, it gradually shifted into the contemplative.

But, my father’s Shabbat, like his chassidut, is adamantly experiential, text and study play a minor role in the development of his religious persona.

Kegavna (a section from the Zohar which Chassidim recite during Friday night prayers), is one of the most powerful kabbalistic liturgical texts. Utilizing the connection between Shabbat and the number seven, a prominent kabbalistic trope, it succinctly articulates the mystical value of Shabbat. It emphasizes that Shabbat is a day of heightened divine intimacy and advanced mystical union. I have begged my dad on many occasions to read this Zohar text with me. He refused each time. Sacred mystical texts are for the elite. The lay receive their nourishment residually, from the spiritualized environment created by those qualified to access those recondite sources.

While he will not study Kegavna, he does recite it every Friday night as part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Notwithstanding that he does not fully grasp its meaning, he reads it with the pathos and passion it deserves. Kegavna’s power for him is metaphysical, not intellectual.

Purim provides another example of the intensity of Hungarian chassidic practice. Many Jews celebrate Purim, but not the chassidic Purim. The chassidic Purim is unique in its richness and multiplicity. Communally, preparations for the holiday start early. More than a week before Purim, one can already detect the arrival of the holiday, both, in the discourse of the scholars and activities of the laity. The learned discourse focuses on the legal and spiritual aspects of the chag, while the public sphere is filled with people making arrangements for every aspect of the day. When Purim finally arrives, it takes on a distinct theological flavor. Appropriating the Zoharic notion that Purim is analogous to Yom Kippur (Yom Kippurim), Satmar Chassidim created a unique Purim blend that is both frivolous and somber. This day of festivity is overlaid with practices of repentance and reflection.

While I am nourished by my dad’s behavioral Chassidut, personally it is not enough. Behavioral Chassidut gladdens my heart but does not stimulate my mind nor sufficiently satisfy my soul. I personally seek a religiosity which nourishes both pillars of my being, the mind and the heart. My personal journey is, therefore, informed by a combination of my father’s passion and the academic’s sophistication. Chassidus resonates with both of them, sometimes simultaneously, when the intellectual engagement and behavioral spiritual encounter complement one another, and sometimes separately, when I religiously shift back and forth between the intellectual and the experiential.

Ultimately, the attraction to Chassidut is the fact that it can operate in different modes at different times, in the process offering up a variety of mechanisms to help spiritualize my life.

It is precisely this multifacetedness which convinces me that Chassidut is the proper theology for us moderns. Its theology is perfectly situated to offer meaning and spirituality to the contemporary modern seeker. I feel strongly that it is our only hope.  Chassidut today is not a luxury, it is a necessity. If the Torah-u’Madda project is to succeed Chassidut needs to become an integral part of its curriculum.

Chassidut is of course a vast discipline, teaching all of it would be a daunting task. For the moment there are three aspects of chassidic theology that stand out as particularly suited for the world we live in today.

1) Truth. We live in a post-modern world where objective truth is rejected and absolute claims are frowned upon. I would go as far as to say that rationalism (in the general and colloquial sense) as a source for Emunah is bankrupt, it increasingly speaks to fewer people. It, therefore, behooves us to come up with alternative models. Chassidut could very well be that alternative model.

Facts and empirical truth is not Chassidut’s primary currency. While it does a priori accept the biblical theological faith statements, its goal is not to argue or prove the scientific veracity of the Bible’s claims. Truth is not of primary concern for these thinkers. Chassidic theology has two main features. It is a-rational and a-historical. It is apathetic about Jewish historicity as a proactive theological stance. The Torah for Chassidim is there to teach us how to live life and serve God, the narrative qua narrative (the origin story) is mere background music. The narration parts of the Torah are, therefore, not of much theological significance to them, they are a-historical

However, during those rare occasions when they do pay attention to the biblical “stories,” their orientation is a-rational. They absolutely “believe” those stories, but their belief is internal: it is true because it happened in the Torah. That is where these events transpire and that is where these stories matter. Asking about their historicity is, as far as they are concerned, foolish and missing the point.

At the same time, to the extent that the biblical narratives have religious and theological significance, they read those stories through the Rabbinic lens. So, for example, while Moshe’s historicity is not historically relevant to them, his persona carries theological and ethical significance.

The same is true for God’s attributes. Chassidim are, by choice, apathetic about God as a scientific reality, his attributes and characteristics, however, are theologically highly significant to them. For that they did turn to the Bible, but the encounter with the Torah is filtered through Chazal.

They see Chazal as essential to the understanding of the Torah. As believers in immanence they actually see the Sages as much more integral to the experience of the written Torah than the rationalists did. They did not think that the presence at Sinai (mamad har Sinai) ended at the giving of the Torah (mattan Torah). For them the Torah is perpetually and continuously revealed.  The modern reader of chassidic texts would, therefore, not have to decide whether they scientifically accept these postulates in order to engage with them.

Chassidut’s goal is instead to describe an immanence which provides spiritual and emotional transcendence. Chassidut (informed, of course, by kabbalah) promotes a sophisticated immanence which results in a dramatic shift in Judaism’s orientation towards God and His commandments. Prior to the emergence of chassidut on the historic scene, theology was convincing and Jewish observance was rewarding. Chassidut changed that. Chassidic theology offered meaning and kabbalistic observance provided sanctity.

Personally, my rejection of the Maimonidean ethos and realization of the degree to which chassidut can speak to the modern searcher was a long and arduous process. It came about as a result of a deep sense of betrayal by Maimonides, the champion of Rationalist Judaism. I for many years was the object and fool of Maimonides “the seventh reason” as presented in his introduction to the Guide by not seeing his philosophic views.  In that passage, Maimonides condones misleading the masses for their greater good, even to the point of advocating contradictory ideas for different audiences and then obscuring those contradictions.

Growing up in Satmar and then Brisk, I was oblivious to his non-halakhic writings and led to believe that he fully and literally believed every word he wrote in the Yad. I was exposed to his other writings only later and when I did I felt cheated. I was part of that the masses, whom he thought could not handle his unconventional approach to theology and tradition. As much as I have read about him, I personally have not managed to reconcile his two sides. I do not find Prof. Isidore Twersky’s harmonizing approach compelling or convincing.

Realizing what a fool I was led me on a tortuous and circuitous search. As the Rabbis say about Yisro, חזרתי אחר כל האלהות; I explored all the options. I finally found the answer in kabbalah and chassidut, they speak a language which resonates with our current reality. They emphasize that which contemporary Judaism needs.

The emphasis in chassidut on meaning and sacredness, are perfectly suited for our community. These are exactly the things our culture needs more of; holiness and meaning. This emphasis in Chassidut on immanence also generates a move towards spiritualization.

2) Spiritualization. As scholars have pointed out, chassidic teachings contain elements of spiritual psychology. They provide us with a language which helps us infuse our lives with meaning. One can point to many examples where this psychological spiritualization occurs in chassidut, I will mention two of them.

Everybody sometimes has a bad hair day, when we wake up feeling less than optimal. Chassidut has a term to describe that mood; it calls it mochen de’katnus. While it technically means the same as a “bad hair day,” the language is mystical. Mochen de’katnus describes a less than stellar spiritual state, a low energy level which does not allow us to engage in the usual religious pursuits we crave to pursue.

Another example is Kabbalah’s elaborate taxonomy of love and awe: Kabbalah and Chassidut talks about superior and inferior love (ahavah ela’e’e and ahavah tata’a) or superior and inferior awe (yirah ela’e’e and yira tata’a)While these terms primarily describe nuanced stages in our engagement with the Divine, they have traditionally been imported into the colloquial arena. They are used to describe varied emotional states which we experience in our interactions with our friends and loved ones.

Contemporary life does not provide us with that many opportunities for encountering the Divine in our daily lives. Chassidut allows us to bring God in. Sprinkling our conversations with mystical and Chassidic terminology allows us to spiritualize our daily routines and infuse our mundane pursuits with meaning and spiritual significance.

Besides enriching our personal encounters, adopting a chassidic ethos could also enhance our communal experiences.

3) Social Change. One of the most pressing tensions in the community is how to reconcile our values with our convictions; what to do when halakha points us in one direction and our values in another direction. We are tempted to follow our values but pulled to abide by our halakhic commitments. A proper resolution requires an emboldened stance towards tradition, one that allows us to cajole the tradition to reconcile itself with our modern sensibilities. [Using, of course, legitimate halakhic mechanisms developed by our predecessors when they were confronted with similar challenges.]

Our values are so emboldened because they derive their power from Chaissdut. A chassidic life is a spiritualized life which infuses our values with powerful theological significance, and it allows us to aggressively challenge the tradition to reevaluate its assumptions and attempt to accommodate itself-when halakhically possible- to a changed modern reality.

Chassidut is very explicit about the value of religious aggression. The following two quotes are often encountered in chassidic writings, “even a thief says a prayer before he breaks in to his victim’s home” (quoted on the margin of Brachot 63A, from the Frankfurt manuscript), and “an aggressive stance towards the Divine bears results” (Sanhedrin 105A). While the provenance of these texts is Talmudic, they take on significant prominence in Chassidic theology. They become the impetus for an aggressive theology which is informed by a religiosity that sees itself driven by a Divine immanence which infuses our values and ethical intuitions with spiritual resonance, subsequently leading to radical societal change.

Such change is actually an integral part of Chassidic social history. When one looks at recent major changes in traditional Jewish society it is hard not to notice that the forerunners were often Chassidim. The last sixty years have seen far reaching social and political change.

The two most dramatic changes that have happened is that Jews are now sovereign and women have made significant progress in their pursuit of religious equality. The pioneers of both these changes were driven, at least in part, by a chassidic ethos.  R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbi of Lubavitch, was one of the first orthodox scholars to champion female Talmud scholarship, while R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, a serious student of Chassidut, was an outspoken early proponent of a Zionist state.

There is no doubt that their chassidic worldview, at least partially, informed their proactive stances towards these changes. Their adherence to a spiritualized religiosity allowed them to explore new religious vistas. Their unique theological outlook changed the religious and legal equation for them, simultaneously making their decisions more complex, but also more progressive. Their spiritualized worldview allowed them to see divinity in the ostensibly secular state or the seemingly illegitimate request of women for greater equality.

Granted, this hybrid of chassidic spiritualization and robust religious creativity would be a 21st century concoction, traditionally, these two do not go together. Chassidism, for the most part, frowns on change and rejects innovation. As a matter of fact, nineteenth century Hungarian Chassidim were vociferously opposed to any accommodations to modernity. Further, the contemporary thinker is not going to intuitively embrace spiritualized non-rational thought. It is, nevertheless, a match pregnant with immense potential and could go a long way towards reviving a dormant Modern Orthodoxy.

Contemporary Modern Orthodoxy is struggling; a significant number of its adherents are abandoning yiddishkeit and many who stay no longer find it meaningful; inertia has set in. I suspect that Modern Orthodoxy’s rationalist ethos is partially to blame. Current Modern Orthodox theology is Litvish and hyper-Maimonidean, it lacks a native spiritual core, and does not satisfy people’s search for meaning. We are due for a change. Chassidus could be that change agent. I strongly believe that a chassidic theology combined with a sophisticated modern overlay could be the elixir for the dispassion and disinterest that ails our community. It will provide our community what it so desperately needs: a torat chaim ve’ahavt chesed; a Torah that stimulates our minds but at the same time also gladdens our neshamah.