Category Archives: Uncategorized

Interview with Daniel C. Matt – translator of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar

In a striking image, the Zohar compares the Torah to a princess sequestered in a palace tower. The student of Torah is her lover seeking her to reveal herself from the window showing her reciprocal love. The lover’s does catch a fleeting vision, a personal and private revelation of her secrets stirring his heart. A mystical approach to Torah yearns for this love and personal revelation.

This may be compared to a beloved maiden, beautiful in form and appearance, concealed secretly in her palace. She has a single lover unknown to anyone—except to her, surreptitiously. Out of the love that he feels for her, this lover passes by her gate constantly, lifting his eyes to every side. Knowing that her lover is constantly circling her gate, what does she do? She opens a little window in that secret place where she is, reveals her face to her lover, and quickly withdraws, concealing herself. None of those near the lover even sees or notices, only the lover, and his inner being and heart and soul go out to her. He knows that out of love for him she revealed herself for a moment to arouse him.

So it is with words of Torah: she only reveals herself to her lover. Torah knows that one who is wise of heart circles her gate every day. What does she do? She reveals her face to him from the palace and beckons to him with a hint, then swiftly withdraws to her place, hiding away. None of those there knows or notices—he alone does, and his inner being and heart and soul follows her. Thus Torah reveals and conceals herself, approaching her lover lovingly to arouse love with him.

A reader could understand this in a technical sense of a ritual to connect to the sefirah of malkhut/shekhinah but for many it is the mystical lyrical aspect of the passage that attracts readers. ” The scholar Michael Fishbane, wrote that the Zohar “pulses with the desire for God on every page.”

For those who cherish the work, Professor Daniel C. Matt has done an invaluable service in translating the Zohar into a vibrant glowing English, thereby setting a benchmark for translations  for contemporary Jewish culture. His Pritzker Edition published by Stanford University Press is easy to use and the website has samples and a full Hebrew/Aramaic text to download.

zohar cover

The Zohar as printed in the 16th century is a five volume set (3 volumes of Zohar, Tikkune Zohar, and Zohar Hadash) of over thirty separate books including the non-Kabbalistic allegorical Midrash Haneelam from the early 13th century, the 14th century Tikkune Zohar, the especially esoteric Idrot and Sitrei Torah by Rabbi Yakov Shatz. It also contains fragments and pieces of Ashkenaz esotericism, Bahir, and a work on palmistry. The work also has 14th century passages from Rabbi Yosef of Hamadan and his contemporaries, whose authorship was already noted in the traditional commentaries.  These works differ in language, protagonist, esoteric ideas, use of midrash, and especially religious worldview.

The part of the Zohar beautifully translated by Daniel C. Matt is the main narrative section of the first three volume.  The 9 English volumes cover 85% of the 3 Aramaic volumes of the standard edition(s) of the Zohar (except for sections such as Midrash ha-Ne’lam, Matnitin, Tosefta, Sitrei Torah, and Heikhalot, which are included in the English volumes 10-12, and Ra’aya Meheimna, which will not be translated.

(As a side point, the Soncino English translation (1934) was almost unusable, inadequate in both translation and passages covered. The Soncino actually selected as a translator a Volozhin Yeshiva alumna who had already converted to Christianity).

The contemporary attraction for the Zohar is in the narrative section whose passages offer the attractive merits of literary stories, heightened language, love of God, and deeper levels of reality. The work is a mystical midrash in which a circle of kabbalists travel and reveal secrets as they expound the verses of the Bible. The narrative invites the reader to share its vision by using the phrase “come and see’ (ta hazai), in place of the Talmud’s “come and hear.” Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby focused on the doctrine of the sefirot, but later academic readers look at the entire package of midrashic-literary-mystical-kabbalistic weave. The other parts of the corpus do not have these qualities. Current trends find multiple hands and opinions even in the narrative sections leading to seeing the work as a group effort. There is no early complete manuscript of the Zohar (and there never was. For more information, see my 2010 Forward review of Daniel Matt & Melila Hellner-Eshed, and some of my prior blog posts- here and here).

The narrative section reworks older materials into something new. For examples a Zohar section may quote two pieces of Genesis Rabbah then a piece of Tanhuma and/or Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer followed by a piece of Gerona Kabbalah and conclude with Rabbi Shimon presenting the position of Castillian Kabbalah. All of it set within a narrative story with rhetorical questions and vivid imagery. The Zohar reworks minor midrashim such as Midrash Wayissa’u, a story of the sons of Jacob warring against their enemies and Midrash Peṭirat Mosheh, on the death of Moses. It also has knowledge of various Second Temple period Pseudepigrapha books whether via midrash or some subterranean tradition. Nevertheless, none of these antecedents are the medieval sefirotic chart.

For those who are not acquainted with kabbalistic literature, there are dozens of seminal kabbalistic works. If one wanted to be informed about the world of the sefirot one would likely start with the Sha’arei Orah, by Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, if one wanted to study the Gerona school then one would start with the works of Rabbis Azriel and Ezra of Gerona or one could study Nahmanides’ French tradition. One could even look at the texts as diverse as Moses ben Jacob from Kiev’s compilation Shushan Sodot or the Byzantium work Sefer Hatemunah. The Zohar is far from the summary or summation of the kabbalah and its many schools. (For those who want an introduction, see my YUTorah introductory lectures on the Kabbalah).

The Zohar had admirers and imitators at the start of the 14th century including Yosef Angelet and David b. Yehudah Hahasid, and it was quoted by Bahye and Recanati, however it was not the classic until the Spanish exiles in the 16th century who turned it into a canonical text by writing commentaries on the recently published text and then building elaborate systems using the Zohar as the basis. It generated ritual gestures such as Kabbalat Shabbat and inviting guests into the sukkah as well as the Yeshiva ideal of studying Torah day and night. In the 17th century, it was applied in a mechanical ritual manner (10 pieces of Chometz, 10 items on the Seder plate, 100 shofar blasts).At the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century, people study the narrative parts of the Zohar for its beauty and mystical worldview.

Those who are carefully reading through the volumes page by page will not agree with every decision made in the volumes, one can question some of his decisions of which Zoharic book a passage belongs to, as well as not always agreeing with his translation and commentary. At some points, Matt follows one commentator over another without citing the important alternate understanding. These points aside, Daniel C. Matt has done the Jewish community a tremendous service in his translation Below is a my interview with him and afterwards  I received a selection from his autobiographic essay.

1)      Why did you decide to make a composite text rather than a
stemma with variants? What were your criteria to choose which variant to use?

There is no complete manuscript of what we now call the Zohar, nor did such a manuscript ever exist, because the Zohar was composed over a long period of time by different authors. At first, I thought that I would translate from one of the standard printed editions and simply consult manuscripts when I encountered difficult passages. However, I soon discovered that the manuscripts (especially the older and more reliable ones) preserved numerous better readings. So I decided to reconstruct the Aramaic text based on those superior readings. There is undoubtedly a subjective element in choosing variants, but I came to trust certain older manuscripts. It is often possible to see how later scribes added material to the text, and I scraped away such later additions.

2)      Why did you include the Matnitin and Idrot if your goal was to
limit the volumes to “guf haZohar”?

The Zohar: Pritzker Edition includes many sections of the Zohar, not just what is called Guf ha-Zohar (The Body of the Zohar). This latter term refers primarily to the running commentary on the Torah, which is translated in Vols. 1–9. Certain other sections of the Zohar are also included in these nine volumes, such as Sava de-Mishpatim, the Idrot, Rav Metivta, Yanuqa. Many of the older manuscripts record the Matnitin as one unit, rather than how they appear in the printed editions (scattered throughout the Zohar), and we decided to follow the older manuscripts. We did not translate either Tiqqunei ha-Zohar or Ra’aya Meheimna, which were composed later as Zoharic imitations.

3)      Are you consistent in the words used to translate a
Hebrew/Aramaic term? For example, is tiqqun always translated as
enhancement? How did you come to translate alma de-atei the way you did? Why is heizu rendered as visionary mirror, rather than one or the other?

It would be a grave mistake to always translate Zoharic terms consistently. As I proceeded in my work, I composed a Zohar dictionary so that I could keep track of various possible nuances for the Zohar’s unique brand of Aramaic. For the root tqn, for example, I listed over fifty possible English equivalents, including “to mend, repair, refine, enhance, improve, prepare, correct, rectify, perfect, restore, arrange, array, adorn, establish.” I used the rendering “enhancement” only for certain passages in the Idrot describing the features (and curlicues) of the divine beard.

The rabbinic term alma de-atei is often translated as “the world-to-come,” but I usually render it as “the world that is coming,” in order to emphasize the eternal present. In the Zohar this term often alludes to the Divine Mother, Binah, who is constantly flowing. In the words of Rabbi Shim’on, “That river flowing forth is called Alma de-Atei, the World that is Coming—coming constantly and never ceasing” (Zohar 3:290b, Idra Zuta).

Occasionally I combine two possible meanings of a Zoharic term in order to convey its range of meaning. For example, the Aramaic word heizu means “vision, appearance,” but in the Zohar it also signifies “mirror,” based on the Hebrew word mar’ah (which can mean both “vision” and “mirror”).

4)      What are some of your most inventive words and hardest words that you used in your translation? 

One of the most charming—and frustrating—features of the Zohar is its frequent use of neologisms (invented words). The authors like to switch around letters of Talmudic terms or occasionally play with Spanish words.

One newly coined word is tiqla. In various contexts, this can mean “scale, hollow of the hand, fist, potter’s wheel, and water clock.” This last sense refers to a device described in ancient and medieval scientific literature, which in the Zohar functions as an alarm clock, calibrated to wake kabbalists at precisely midnight for the ritual stud of Torah. A similar device was employed in Christian monasteries to rouse monks for their vigils. How appropriate to invent a word in order to describe an invention!

The Zohar describes the primordial source of emanation as botsina de-qardinuta. The word botsina means “lamp.” The word qardinuta recalls a phrase in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 7a): hittei qurdanaita, “wheat from Kurdistan,” which, according to Rashi, is very hard. The Zohar may also be playing here with qadrinuta, “darkness.” I sometimes rendered botsina de-qardinuta as “a lamp of impenetrable darkness.” More recently, I chose “the
Lamp of Adamantine Darkness.” As the paradoxical names suggests, the potent brilliance of this primordial source overwhelms comprehension.

Many mystics record similar paradoxical images: “a ray of divine darkness” (Dionysius, Mystical Theology); “the luminous darkness” (Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses); “the black light” (Iranian Sufism). In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides writes: “We are dazzled by His beauty, and He is hidden from us because of the intensity with which He becomes manifest, just as the sun is hidden to eyes too weak to apprehend it.”

5)      What was the biggest surprise that you found in the many year

One surprise was the playfulness of the Zohar and its sense of humor. According to Rabbi Shim’on, a bit of foolishness can stimulate wisdom. In the section called Yanuqa (The Child), two rabbis encounter a little boy who is a wunderkind—and also a bit of a rascal. He alternates between amazing the rabbis and teasing them, impressing and then challenging (or stumping) them. This child prodigy spouts wisdom, spiced with humor.

I used to try and figure out what the Zohar “meant.” Now I prefer to let the rich language wash over me and through me, allowing it to uplift, confound, or transform me.

6)      Many people want to know: How does the Zohar influence your
spiritual life? Do you keep a mystical journal? Are you a mystic?

I don’t keep a journal. I don’t have visions. The Zohar enriches my life by teaching me not to be content with how things appear on the surface, by stimulating me to delve more deeply. I look for the divine spark in the people I encounter, in the phenomena of the natural world, and in everyday life, moment by moment. I am a mystic in the sense that I feel the oneness of all existence, the wondrous interplay of matter and energy.

7)      Why should we study Zohar? What does its  creative imagination of God offer?

In interpreting the Bible, the Zohar is willing to ask daring questions. Going beyond traditional midrash, the Zohar employs radical creativity to make us question our current assumptions about life, about ourselves, about God and spirituality. It moves through the Torah verse by verse, asking probing, challenging questions. As the Zohar says, “God is known and grasped to the degree that one opens the gates of imagination,” so it’s up to our imaginative faculty to understand reality, or the reality of God.

The Zohar is a celebration of creativity—it shows how the Torah endlessly unfolds in meaning. Jacob ben-Sheshet Gerondi, a 13th-century kabbalist, said it’s a mitzvah for every wise person to innovate in Torah according to his capacity. That’s refreshing because you often hear the traditional notion: to accept what’s been handed down or to learn from the master because you’re not able to create on your own. But ben-Sheshet says (after conveying one of his innovations), “If I hadn’t invented it in my mind I would say that this was transmitted to Moses at Mt. Sinai.” He’s aware that his interpretation is new, but he thinks it harmonizes with the ultimate source of tradition—his creative discovery itself is somehow deeply connected to an ancient mainstream. An essential component of all creativity is tapping into something deeper than your normal state of mind.

We all know that near the beginning of Genesis there’s the famous story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s clear that God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden. But the Zohar asks, “Who expelled whom?” It turns out, according to the Zohar’s radical re-reading of the biblical verse, that Adam expelled Shekhinah from the Garden!

This seems impossible, almost heretical or laughable. But the Zohar may be implying that we’re still in the Garden, although we don’t realize it because we’ve lost touch with the spiritual dimension of life. On a personal level, each of us becomes alienated by excluding the Divine from our lives. The Zohar challenges us to reconnect with God, to invite Her back into our lives, to rediscover intimacy with Her.

Ultimately, God is Ein Sof (the Infinite). In a striking interpretation, the Zohar construes the opening words of Genesis not as “In the beginning God created,” but rather “With beginning, It [that is, Ein Sof] created God.” To me, this implies that all our normal names for God are inadequate. What we call “God” is puny, compared to the ultimate divine reality.

8)      What do you like about the Idrot?

The Idrot present a detailed description of the divine anatomy, especially the divine head, face, and beard. This may be, in part, a response and reaction to Maimonides, who insisted on eliminating all anthropomorphic descriptions of God. But there is much more to the Idrot. In the Idra Rabba (The Great Assembly), there is a state of emergency, because due to human misconduct, the world is vulnerable to divine wrath. Rabbi Shim’on and his Companions set out on a dangerous mission to restore the balance in the upper worlds and to stimulate a radiant flow from the compassionate aspect of God, which can soothe the irascible divine force and thereby save the world.

In the Idra Zuta (The Small Assembly), Rabbi Shim’on is about to die, and he reveals profound mysteries. He concludes with a detailed description—graphic yet cryptic—of the union of the divine couple. As he departs from this world, he assumes the role of the Divine Male, uniting ecstatically with Shekhinah. Thus Rabbi Shim’on’s death becomes a joyous occasion, and a celestial voice announces his wedding celebration.

In the recent Zohar conference in Israel I read selections from Idra Zuta because I wanted the listeners to appreciate the dramatic power of this rich narrative.

9)      What do you do with the dualism and demonology of the Zohar- do you find it offensive? What do you do with the nasty parts of the Zohar such as the severe condemnation of masturbation? Many are deeply scarred by the effect of those passages.

The Zohar often describes the conflict between the divine and demonic forces. The demonic realm is called Sitra Ahra (the Other Side). This name can be understood as reflecting the terrifying nature of the demonic sphere—as if it cannot even be accorded a real name, but is just referred to as “Other.” However, this designation can also imply that evil is simply the “shadow side” of good, that you can’t have one without the other. We only recognize light because there is also darkness; we only recognize good because there is also evil. Ultimately, both good and evil originate within God. If there is a balance between the divine polar opposites, goodness flows into the world. If there is an imbalance, evil can lash out, wreaking havoc. Human behavior affects the divine balance, contributing to the manifestation of either good or evil.

I’m not offended by the demonology of the Zohar. I see it as an expression of human fear.

I don’t deny that the Zohar includes “nasty” elements. This masterpiece of Kabbalah is often lyrical and inspiring, but being composed in medieval times, it naturally reflects a medieval mentality, including aspects of chauvinism, misogyny, superstition, and various attitudes that we know find antiquated or harmful. To me, Kabbalah is a great resource for contemporary spirituality; but we should approach it with a critical mind; we should not accept all of its teachings as ultimate truth.


10)  How do you relate to the various theories of recent scholars
that think that there is no fixed original text, rather the continual
accretion of material?

Certainly the Zohar, as we now know it, never existed as a single continuous text. Rather, it is the product of centuries of compilation and editing, which was proceeded by an extended period of composition by various authors. However, by consulting and comparing early manuscripts, it is possible to scrape away from the standard printed editions centuries of scribal accretion and at least come closer to a more “original” text, section by section.

11)  How do you relate to the various theories of recent scholars
that trace ideas back to earlier midrashic and Second Temple sources?

Although the Zohar was composed in medieval times, it is clearly based on numerous earlier sources, primarily various midrashim and the Talmud. Among the midrashim, we find particular influence of Pirqei de-Rabbi Eli’ezer, Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, and Bereshit Rabbah. The Zohar itself is a type of midrash, while sometimes it also an experiment in medieval fiction. The genius of the authors lies in their ability to use the earlier material to compose a more spiritual midrash, stimulating the reader to expand his consciousness, challenging the normal workings of the mind.

12)  How do you explain the different mindset of Rabbi Moshe de León from the Zohar? Do you have any new explanation of why Ramdal rejects opinions that are affirmed in the Zohar?

It is very interesting to compare the Zohar with the Hebrew writings of Ramdal (Rabbi Moses de León), in which he admits being the author. In these Hebrew compositions, Moses de León makes free use of the Zohar, often translating or paraphrasing Zoharic passages and introducing them with formula such as: “As the ancient ones have said….” He is completely fluent in the Zohar and seems to be promoting the “ancient” material for a wider public. He often explicates Zoharic symbolism. It is easy to conclude that the author of these Hebrew books is himself the composer of large sections of the Zohar.

On the other hand, his Hebrew writing lacks the lyrical power, creativity, and playfulness of the Zohar. This can be explained partly by the fact that in these Hebrew writings, Moses de León is working within his normal state of consciousness, whereas in the Zohar he has shed this persona and taken on the identity of ancient sages. This switch apparently liberates his poetic instinct and enables him to create a unique, otherworldly masterpiece.

Moses de León was certainly not the sole author of the Zohar. Most likely, he did not express the Zoharic opinions that he rejects in his Hebrew writings.

13)  How does the universalism of mysticism relate to the very particular ritual focus of the Zohar? Why Zohar rather than Vedanta or Buddhism?

There are many similarities between mystical teachings of the various world religions: God as the oneness of it all, the goal of reuniting the apparently separate self with this divine oneness, the potency of the divine word and of human meditation. While the insights are frequently similar, or even identical, each religion expresses these insights through the unique forms of its own tradition and culture. A Jew should explore and appreciate the wisdom of his own tradition, while also being open to other spiritual teachings.

However, while the insights are frequently similar, or even identical, the mystics of each religion express these insights through the unique forms of their own tradition and culture. More basically, the particular forms and practices of one’s religion provide pathways to experience mystical states and discover mystical truths. For example, a Jewish mystic finds God through Torah, the celebration of Shabbat, and the mindful observance of other mitsvot.

In certain mystical traditions, one sees the desire to leave the material realm, to seek seclusion and to focus on meditation. Although there is a rich stream of kabbalistic meditation practices, Jewish mysticism emphasizes life in this world and cooperation with others. Participation in the community remains vital, for example, davening in a minyan. In general, the regimen of Torah and the mitsvot helps the individual to stay rooted.

14) How can we apply Kabbalah to modern day Judaism?

I don’t recommend that we become complete kabbalists. Rather, we should draw on the spiritual insights of Kabbalah in order to enrich our spiritual lives. We can reimagine God as the energy that animates all of life. We can balance the patriarchal depictions of God with the feminine imagery of Shekhinah. In our prayer services, we can focus on the mystical implications of verses such as “In Your light we see light,” or “Taste and see that God is good.” Furthermore, we can make room for moments of contemplative silence within prayer. This will help us comprehend and experience the profound verse in Psalm 65: “To You, silence is praise.”


Selections from an Autobiographical Essay

My interest in Kabbalah and the Zohar certainly has something to do with the fact that my father, Hershel Matt, was a rabbi. He never urged me to delve into Jewish mysticism; on the contrary, he was somewhat suspicious of mysticism and always insisted on maintaining the gap between human and divine. But he conveyed and embodied an intense spirituality, and this undoubtedly inspired me to search for the mystical element within Judaism.

The writings of Martin Buber introduced me to Hasidic tales and teachings. In my undergraduate years at Brandeis University, I took a Hillel course in Hasidic texts taught by Arthur Green. These texts often quoted phrases or lines from the Zohar, which intrigued me. Then, during my junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I began delving into Zohar. Realizing that I had only one year in Jerusalem, I took a course in Beginning Zohar and simultaneously another one in Advanced Zohar. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the latter, but that didn’t matter so much because I was also overwhelmed by the former! Overwhelmed, but also captivated.

Returning to Brandeis, I completed my B.A. in 1972. I  returned to my alma mater for graduate work in Kabbalah, under the direction of Alexander Altmann. My Ph.D. dissertation consisted of a critical edition and analysis of Sefer Mar’ot ha-Tsove’ot (The Book of Mirrors), written by David ben Yehudah he-Hasid, a thirteenth-fourteenth century kabbalist. I chose this text because it contains the earliest extensive Hebrew translations of passages from the Aramaic text of the Zohar.

I discussed the choice of my dissertation topic with Gershom Scholem when I served as his teaching assistant at Boston University in 1975, and he encouraged me to proceed with it. I recall someone telling me around this time that a doctoral student should be very careful in selecting his topic, since this will likely determine the focus of his entire academic career. I chafed at that notion and responded, “Not necessarily so!” Little did I know then how translating the Zohar would enthrall me.

During these years (early-to-mid 1970s), I was a member of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass. I still cherish the wonderful friendships, rich learning, and inspired davening that I experienced there.

Soon after receiving my Ph.D., Art Green invited me to compose a volume on the Zohar for the Classics of Western Spirituality. After selecting approximately 2 percent of the immense body of the Zohar, I proceeded to translate and annotate these passages. My intent was to demonstrate how the Zohar expounds Scripture creatively: applying the ancient biblical narrative to personal spiritual quest, and imagining (or, at times, recovering) mythic layers of meaning.

I recall someone asking me, “When are you going to translate the other 98 percent of the Zohar?”But I had other projects in mind.

Subsequently, I became interested in the subject of negative theology. The kabbalists describe the ultimate stage of Divinity as Ayin, “Nothingness,” or “No-thingness.” This paradoxical term implies not an absence, but rather a divine fullness that escapes description and language: God is beyond what we normally call “being.” After publishing “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness in Jewish Mysticism,” I later compared the Jewish notion of ayin to Meister Eckhart’s teachings on Nichts and the Buddhist concept of sunyata (“Varieties of Mystical Nothingness: Jewish, Christian and Buddhist”).

In the mid-1990s, I was invited by HarperCollins to produce a volume entitled The Essential Kabbalah. For this project, I composed annotated translations of Hebrew and Aramaic passages culled from several dozen significant texts ranging from the second to the twentieth centuries. The translations are grouped into themes such as: Ein Sof (God as Infinity), the Sefirot (Divine Qualities), Creation, Meditation and Mystical Experience, Torah, and Living in the Material World. This book has been translated into six languages including a Hebrew edition (Lev ha-Qabbalah).

I spent several years working on a book entitled God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony between Science and Spirituality. Here I do not make the simplistic claim that kabbalists somehow knew what Stephen Hawking and others would eventually discover. Rather, I explore several parallels between scientific cosmology and Kabbalah, such as the creative vacuum state and the notion of fertile mystical nothingness, or broken symmetry and the kabbalistic theory of “the breaking of the vessels.” Given that the theory of the Big Bang has become our contemporary Creation story, I seek to outline a “new-ancient” theology, drawing especially on the kabbalistic idea of God as the energy animating all of existence. A revised edition of God and the Big Bang is about to appear, incorporating some of the recent discoveries in cosmology.

In 1995, I was approached by the Pritzker family of Chicago, who invited me to take on the immense project of composing an annotated translation of the Zohar. I was simultaneously thrilled and overwhelmed by this opportunity. After wrestling with the offer for some time, I decided to translate a short section of the Zohar to see how it felt; but I poured myself into the experiment so intensely, day after day, that I was left drained, exhausted, and discouraged. How could I keep this up for years? I reluctantly resolved to decline the offer, but finally agreed to at least meet with the woman who had conceived the idea: Margot Pritzker. I expressed my hesitation to her, and told her that the project could take twelve to fifteen years—to which she responded, “You’re not scaring me!” Somehow, at that moment, I was won over, and decided to plunge in.

I began working on the translation in 1997 in Berkeley (while on sabbatical). Between 2004-14, Stanford University Press published eight volumes of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, and last month Volume 9 appeared, concluding the Zohar’s main commentary on the Torah. Two other Zohar scholars are composing Volumes 10–12, which will include various other sections of the Zohar.

3 Responses to Miriam Kosman-Haredi Feminist- Miriam Gedwiser, Shira Wolowsky, and Gene Matanky

To continue the discussion of gender from the interview with Miriam Kosman. In my last post, I refrained from including various interesting issues in the introduction. For example, Dr. Mendel Hirsch, building on the thought of his father Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, wrote that today all learning should be from the feminine perspective of home, children, and family and not the traditional learning. Alternately, Rav Shagar stated that the original open-ended Talmudic discussion was a feminine style and that in  he post-modern age we need to return – away from the closed and definitive male Yeshiva style – back to a women’s discourse. On a very different level, in 1535, Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, received a message from his Maggid, his angelic visitor, that his wife had a male soul of a great Talmudic scholar that had to return as a female in order to learn charity and sharing.

To directly return to the last blog post, many commented in the typical manner of second wave feminists who say to third wave feminists: How can you do theory when there are still glass ceiling to break. yet, I received three different and complimentary replies that go beyond that complaint. The first by Miriam Gedwiser Esq. is perspective of asking how this would apply to her life. The second by Professor Shira Wolosky accepted the use of gender categories in her studies of literature but still finds Kosman’s approach lacking. Finally, Gene Matansky points out how the contemporary theory of Judith Butler and Daniel Boyarin is different than Kosman’s complimentary position.

gender_quizMiriam Gedwiser is a faculty member at Drisha. She has a BA from the University of Chicago in the History and Philosophy of Science and a JD from NYU School of Law. She studied in the Drisha Scholars Circle as well as at other programs in Israel and Boston. She practiced commercial litigation at a large law firm, and completed a judicial clerkship in the Southern District of New York.

Miriam Kosman’s work, or something like it, could potentially open up a discourse that could be fruitful for the circles I inhabit (let’s call it, for identification purposes only, Modern Orthodoxy). The status quo seems to be that we must all affirm that “halakhah sees men and women differently” – but then tread on eggshells when attempting to conceptualize those differences in any way, and more often than not avoid such conceptualization all together.

The result of this avoidance in coeducational settings, further, is not neutrality. When girls and boys are together for everything in school, the Modern Orthodox impulse seems to teach everyone a Judaism that centers on communal prayer and Torah study. No one talks about what happens when you graduate and move to a neighborhood where the women’s section is locked during the week and the Torah classes are for men only. Nor do they talk about what happens for the decade (or so) when “going to shul” for many women actually means “going to Tot Tefillah.”

Partly because of the assumption of this traditionally male perspective, and partly for reasons endemic to the American professional classes from which Modern Orthodoxy draws so heavily, domestic tasks, and anything stereotypically feminine, are sometimes denigrated; Challah baking generates eyerolls.

So the work of creating the cyclical experiences of the Jewish week and year is largely ignored. The laws of pesach are a topic for halakhah class, but the work of making pesach, the thing women learned from their mothers, is in practice frequently outsourced in whole or part.

The closest we sometimes get to an alternative is a male rosh yeshiva speaking about tznius (modesty). Framing the broadly “internal” values of femininity in terms of tznius may be intended to lift tznius beyond the realm of four-inch skirt rulers and collarbone-effacing diagrams. But, for a large portion of the audience it serves less to uplift than to taint any larger ideas being proposed.

Any discourse about gender differences that is going to succeed for women like me, then, should (a) include women’s voices, (b) provide a frame that does not reduce to “tznius,” and (c) provide a way of thinking about, and valuing, the parts of the mesorah (tradition) that have historically been delegated mostly to women.

Kosman in many ways fits this bill. She makes an emphatic case for a male-female dichotomy that centers the affirmative virtues of the feminine side, and she vigorously upholds equality as the ideal.

Yet it is on the level of the practical, as-applied implications that Kosman strikes me as far from complete. A book on gender and Judaism is interesting to me to the extent that it explains what needs explaining, and here I feel that Kosman is only a very beginning.

What needs explaining is not the abstract differences between “metaphors” of feminine and masculine – though those can be of interest, much as a discourse on din vs. rahamim, or hesed vs. gevurah would be. Rather, the question of gender dichotomy is pressing because of how it plays out in the realities of women and men doing mitzvot and learning Torah. Kosman recognizes as much in her book when she moves back and forth seamlessly between the conceptual framework and practical examples such as the blessings in the morning and at the wedding canopy.

Even a theoretical presentation, then, should shed light on real-life tensions. For me, the two main tensions are: (1) Tensions between gendered halakhot and the religious aspirations of many women – (aspirations often generated by their own Orthodox education!). The bridge does not need to be practical (women can now do XYZ!), but it needs to name the problem and then offer a way of either acting or thinking differently that lowers the level of dissonance. (2) Tensions between the gender hierarchy that I think is clear in many traditional texts, and the self-understanding of contemporary women that we are, in Kosman’s words, “equal.”

Here, too, naming the problem is key, at least for me.
First, at the level of halakhah, Kosman speaks of feminine and masculine archetypes as “metaphors” and acknowledges that the distribution of natural “circle” or “arrow” inclinations does not map onto gender. But living according to halakhah is not a metaphor.

Her answer seems to be that halakhah demands that people consciously activate their masculine or feminine potentials according to the dictates of their bodies. “Judaism,” Kosman says, “has an interest in making sure each of these poles remains alive and kicking in our world.” I think I agree. But I remain unconvinced that assigning people to a “feminine” or “masculine” pole is either the best or only way to ensure that both poles continue to have power in the world – especially if, as Kosman agrees, we resist the notion that “men and women are necessarily essentially different.”

Indeed, Kosman herself notes that the two poles emerge in non-gendered dynamics, such as the tension between Shabbat and the rest of the week, the mindset of prayer, or the different spiritual profiles of different communities. What Kosman presents as an ex-ante justification for gendered halakhot, then, strikes me as, at best, an ex-post explanation. And it is an explanation much more likely to “work” for those already bought in than for those who experience a secular world where gender is not the most fundamental distinction between humans.

On the second question-the hierarchy implicit in traditional texts, Kosman states axiomatically that “the ultimate goal is mutuality and equality,” though also that “the circle/female represents the higher level.” For her, this is the message of the Torah, and history is moving toward a time when both “circle” and “arrow” agree with her.

The weight of rabbinic literature does not support Kosman’s claims of “equality,” and certainly not her assertion that “the female voice always represents the voice of truth agitating under the surface.” If so, can these claims go beyond convincing women with vested interests, and convince Torah-literate men as well? Or are the women in the position of the husband in an old joke who lets his wife make “small decisions” like who his friends are and where he works, as long as he can make the big decisions like whether their family supports the balanced budget amendment.

Relatedly, if the very nature of “circle” values is fluidity, and anything coercive is “arrow,” how can women effect change in a man’s world? I would love to see an exploration, for example, of whether a desire to include women in leadership roles while technically complying with prohibitions on public leadership (serarah) might lead to new models of (less hierarchical) communal leadership.
Circle/feminine approaches cannot, by definition, push hard enough to be taken seriously without giving up their essence. Kosman seems to rely on God to move men toward greater recognition of equality, but accepting this answer requires a lot of faith in her paradigm to begin with.

Kosman does address the question of leadership roles for women:: “The question is what price do we pay as a culture by saying that publicly endorsed- leadership is the only worthwhile kind of influence? Or that if you don’t have an official title or a public persona you don’t exist?”

This was one of the many places where I felt that she was speaking to a different reality than mine. From where I sit, “we” have already basically conceded that public roles are the important roles, and now we are just arguing about who can be important. The Modern Orthodox thought leaders who argue against certain public roles for women have generally failed to offer a compelling vision of what the important, affirmative, nonpublic roles for women actually are and why they are incompatible with public positions. So while I wholeheartedly agree that we need to make space for other models of influence, I come at it more from a position of rebuilding than preserving. And in the mixed-gender universe I inhabit, it seems counterproductive to limit that reconstruction by biological sex.

As a question of style, I didn’t always feel like the intended audience for Circle, Arrow, Spiral (CAS), which contains hundreds of endnotes with rabbinic source material, in Hebrew, while at the same time defining basic terms like “tanakh” in the main text. The body of the text veers too close, at times, to unsupported pop-psychological assertions for my tastes. At the same time there is a refreshing candor, and the footnotes bring in a surprisingly (if also irregularly) broad array of texts and authors – from Maharal to Soloveitchik to Feyerabend, with a guest appearance by Yertle the Turtle.

Ultimately I think Kosman lost me in her first answer, where she highlighted woman’s “mission of being ‘the other’ ‘kneged’.” I do, actually, see a big part of the Torah’s message as a call to remain critical and contrarian about many dominant cultural assumptions. But that critical distance is not the end in itself, but rather enables an authentic role as ovdei Hashem (servant of God), or am segulah (chosen nation). The male-female relationship is not “mutual and equal” so long as women are expected to experience ourselves primarily as “other.” I also want to be able to live in my own skin.

Shira Wolosky (Ph.D. Princeton University) was an Associate Professor of English at Yale before moving to the Hebrew University, where she is Professor of English and American Literature. Her books include Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War; Language Mysticism; The Art of Poetry; Feminist Theory Across Disciplines: Feminist Community; Poetry and Public Discourse, Among other awards, she has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow at the Princeton and the Israel Institutes for Advanced Studies, a Tikvah fellow at NYU Law School, and a Drue Heinz Visiting Professor at Oxford. Prof. Wolosky uses feminist theory and asks questions of gender and women’s space in her literary studies.  For example of her studies of the poetry of Jewish women- see here and here. 

The question of gender remains one of the most challenging within society, both secular and religious.  Does the desire for equality mean erasing all difference? In what way can gender be respected in its difference yet not undermine respect, justice, and dignity?  Both secular and religious societies use norms to enforce inequalities that may not be inherent or necessary according to the values they themselves are committed to and desire to uphold.

Miriam Kosman is a voice of feminine difference, following the work of Gilligan, Miller, and Held.  Her appeal to ‘feminine values’ is I think an important recognition of how the lives women have led have indeed embodied many of the highest commitments of Judaism.  That women have in fact been fundamental builders of community is something that has rarely been recognized, with the notion that women remain in the ‘private’ sphere while men act in the ‘public’ one concealing the work women have traditionally performed to build community and care for its members: the child, the elderly, the sick, the orphan, the male.

In my book Feminist Theory Across Disciplines: Feminist Community and American Women’s Poetry, I have argued that raising children is itself a public service, a foundation of community without which society itself cannot survive.  This is dramatically visible in the stunning drop in birth rates that has followed the elevation of the ‘individual’ as a free being without obligations to others.  Judaism, as a life in community, has always valued many of the activities that women traditionally have performed, in terms of care and responsibility for others and for each other.

Kosman does not, however, either solve or really address how some of the practices within Jewish traditional communities restrict women and undermine the justice and dignity Judaism is committed to.

I wholeheartedly agree that ‘feminine’ values are indeed Jewish ones that should be embraced by both genders, that feminine voices have been a vital  critical correction  against the atomistic individualism that threatens community in the Western world.  Such a critical view of the sale of the self to materialism, the pursuit of selfhood at the cost of relationship to others, which ultimately also impoverishes the self, has been a continuous pressure in women’s writing.

Women have been barred from almost every public forum.  They have not been priests, ministers or rabbis, journalists or professors, lawyers or judges, politicians or witnesses.  Literature has served as one of the few arenas in which women’s gained public voices, although even this became possible only after women achieved education, something that came very late in both the secular and religious worlds (although the history of Jewish women’s literacy is still to be written).

These voices, however, have in fact not been very much heard through the history of Jewish life.  This is of course true of every other society as well.  The revolution of recognizing gender as a central category of analysis, of recovering, exploring, and attending women’s viewpoints and voices, is very recent.  For practicing Jews, the relation of gender to tradition must be, I think, cautious and delicate.  One cannot be traditional by throwing over tradition.  Change must proceed within the discourses, norms and forms of Jewish heritage and life.  Kosman very much respects this caution, affirming the value of both Jewish tradition and feminist recognition.

Furthermore, her sense of the reality of the body as a condition of human existence in this world I think is an important one: that “gender technically exists on a continuum, we live in a physical world and the body that G-d gave us is the medium through which our soul interacts with the world.”  But again: how do we not attempt to escape our body and yet also not let it define who we are?  Something contemporary culture, with its idolatry of beauty and youth, sorely attempts.

Nevertheless, Kosman pretty much leaves Jewish gender practices as they are, in ways that border on the apologetic.  I think that her claim that “by using the fact that one is born into a male or female body to channel men in a particular direction and women in another, Judaism makes use of the most stable and objective standard to maintain tension between the two poles” evades issues of gender inequality even where traditional discourses can be appealed to.  This of course involves Agunoth, but also women as Torah authorities, women as being seen and heard in public fora, and other issues so prominent among those who are committed both to tradition and to feminist justice.

There is I think a strong relationship between Jewish and feminist values, as I have explored in my article “The Lonely Woman of Faith,” taking feminism to mean the lives women have lived in devotion to others as an enrichment of the self; although this should not be one sided to women, but should also, as Kosman writes, be the values of men; while women, too, should have opportunities to pursue projects that develop their talents, combining creativity with contribution in Jewish as in other spheres of life.  To say this, however, is to live inside the question of gender and justice, not to offer easy answers.


Gene Matanky is currently finishing his degree at Herzog College, Alon Sh’vut and has an interest in Jewish thought and gender theory. He plans on beginning a master’s degree in Jewish thought in the following year. Currently he translates Jewish academic works.

From the interview it is apparent that Kosman has a firm grasp of different types of feminist thought and uses them positively when examining Judaism. This response is not in any way meant to undermine this point. A very interesting aspect of Kosman’s work is that she integrates many “outside” viewpoints in her discussion of gender in Judaism. The fact that she doesn’t only base her opinion on strictly “Jewish” sources is a positive development within Orthodox Judaism. Her radical opinion that, “the female voice always represents the voice of truth agitating under the surface” may even be subversive, to say the least.

In this response I would like to explore her position in regard to gender essentialism.  Kosman states in regards to essentialism, “Actually, I have a very strong aversion to the idea that men and women are necessarily essentially different. Instead, I see the two forces as archetypes for different ways of interacting.” From this answer it appears that Kosman equates gender essentialism with the view that biological sex is correlated with gender identity, however, gender essentialism is not only expressed in this biological form.

Gender essentialism is the view that femininity and masculinity have essential (and unchanging) characteristics. For instance, in kabbalah, “As complex as kabbalistic symbolism can be, the issue of gender is surprisingly simple: Male and female are correlated consistently with the activity of projection and the passivity of restriction.” (Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being, p. 95), meaning that the essence of masculinity is activeness and the essence of femininity is passiveness (or as Kosman writes, “The arrow is doing, the circle is being.”).

Her essentialistic stance is prominent in her discussion of transgender, noting how in prayer one must enter a mode of “feminine being” and that positive time commandments require a “masculine mode of being”. This is reminiscent of “gender reversal” that the kabbalist undertakes. When he is receiving from the Shekhinah he is engendered as female, but when he arouses the Shekhinah to unite with Tif’eret he is engendered as male. This view of gender is essentialistic and as scholars have shown it is precisely through this essentialism that the gender reversal is possible.

Another area in which her essentialism may be noted is in her discussion of the Maccabees. She writes that “as Jews, we have generally valued the feminine prototype over the male one.” She continues by contrasting the Jewish men sitting in caves and learning Torah with the “strong Greek army.” Arguing against this  “feminine” perception of the Jewish man, Daniel Boyarin, building on Judith Butler’s work, has shown in Carnal Israel and Unheroic Conduct that masculinity in Judaism has been constructed differently than Hellenistic masculinity and Western masculinity, and that Torah learning is a form of masculine performance. Due to Kosman’s essentialist views in this case she characterizes Torah learning as a feminine activity, which is not the case within Judaism, where Torah learning, until recently, was an only-male activity. In this area it makes much more sense to use Boyarin’s Butler-influenced view of constructed gender.

In addition, I question Kosman’s conception of difference. Due to her rejection of the postmodern trend of “negating any unitary standpoint,” her notion of the masculine and feminine is complementary. She writes, “I feel like the female force always represents immanence and not transcendence—to me greatness in a woman would be more of a greatness of spirit than a greatness of intellect,” as well as, “hassidut, which put a big emphasis on meditative prayer, joy, dance and submission to a Rebbi– can be seen as a more ‘feminine’ approach to Judaism. Others, like the very rational, analytic ‘Yeshivish’ approach seem to set a value on the more confrontational, independent minded ‘masculine’ mode.” In both of these quotations masculine and feminine are complementary, feminine/ immanence/ mysticism/ spirit, in contrast to masculine/ transcendence/ rational/ intelligence. The issue is that there is no true difference here.

As Levinas stated in regards to the Hegelian synthesis, an antithesis that can be combined with a thesis to produce a synthesis, was never truly different, true difference cannot be inferred from the ‘same’. In Kosman’s rendering of gender difference, the feminine is merely the opposite of the masculine. Therefore we must also examine Kosman’s synthesis and see what role the masculine and feminine play in it.

The passage in which the synthesis/spiral is dealt with is in her discussion of Gan Eden and the World to Come. She writes that creation and redemption are characterized by the feminine, yet this world is characterized by the masculine. It is important to note that the past and future (both temporalities that are absent) are feminine, while the present is masculine. Although she writes that the present world must be tempered by the feminine, it is clear the masculine is the more powerful one in the equation. Therefore it appears that although the feminine acts on the masculine by making it into a spiral like form, this form resembles the arrow more than the circle.

I think it would be helpful to contrast Kosman’s formulation with that of some poststructuralist feminist thinkers. Luce Irigaray’s conception of a feminine language is not complementary to “masculine” language, rather it threatens it. The same can be said of Julia Kristeva’s conception of the semiotic chōra – an indeterminate space that refuses symbolic representation. Kristeva takes the word chōra from Plato’s Timaeus, in which he defines it as a maternal receptacle. For the purpose of this discussion what is important to note is that the chōra is not complementary to the symbolic, but rather prevents the subject from firming a “fixed identity”. Although these thinkers may disagree with each other, they all seek to formulate the feminine as a constructed absolute difference.

According to Elliot Wolfson, a formulation of gender difference can be found, in the eschatological vision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson. As he writes in Open Secret, the feminine is not reabsorbed into the masculine within Ḥabad’s conception of tiqqun (reparation), but rather both the feminine and masculine remain in a non-synthesized form and in a non-hierarchal formulation. It should be noted that Schneerson’s view of gender is not constructed, but essentialistic, however due to the essence of the Infinite being conceived as that which cannot be reified, the essences of masculinity and femininity in their “repaired” state are also indeterminate and therefore are not complementary.

Kosman’s view and formulation of gender is an important and positive step within Orthodox Judaism and in many ways is anything, but traditional. However, in regards to her relation to gender essentialism, in my opinion, her view of gender is essentialistic as well as complementary. Due to the importance of gender difference, I think that poststructuralist thinkers should be seriously engaged within the interpretations of Jewish texts.

Interview with Miriam Kosman: Haredi Feminist Thinker

Female and male dichotomies are common in the modern apologetics of Haredi world. Many scholars have noted the importance in the rhetoric of outreach Orthodoxy of Carol Gilligan’s A Different Voice (1982), in that she offered a gendered view of reality. But what if the use of gender categories went beyond window dressing through intense study by a Haredi author? What if a Haredi author actually mastered recent third-wave difference feminism using these recent works as a source of a new religious worldview?

In a new book Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism, Miriam Kosman actually does just that; she uses feminist theory to work out a Torah worldview. Miriam grew up in Baltimore on Yeshiva lane as daughter of Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, the former longtime mashgiach ruchani of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. She is the mother of eleven children and  has lived for 32 years in a haredi community in B’nei Brak, married to a Rosh Yeshiva.  Despite these bona fide Haredi credentials, Kosman started an MA in Bar Ilan five years ago, taking courses in philosophy and feminist theory, and is now working on her doctorate.


Kosman’s book Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism clearly started as an apologetic work in style but as the book progresses the reader finds entire subsections grappling with third-wave feminism, footnotes to Camille Pagllia, and seriously fluid gender ideas, by the end we find themes that would be progressive by any standard. A free excerpt of the apologetic section is available online at her website.  But she is continuing her studies and writing, hoping to write a more universal version of her ideas as well as a doctorate on feminist metaphors in Jewish texts. In the interim, this interview reflects her current thinking about gender categories.

This interview was long in gestation. In the interim, one of my former students independently came to the same conclusions about the novelty of the book and wrote a widely circulated review in the Forward.

As this interview shows, Kosman is not simple gender essentialism or complementarianism, in which each sex has specific roles to play. She starts with the obvious dichotomy of men as arrows and women as circles making one fear for the apologetics, then swerves into the idea of the spiral, in which both genders needs to acknowledge the other elements and work in harmony as individualized gender fluidity, even making space for transgendered identities.  As the author grew in her knowledge while writing the book, the book incorporated more third and fourth wave feminism.

The following is a widespread typology of feminism. The First Wave (Approximately 1840–1920) of feminism grew out of the movement to abolish slavery, and then turned to women’s rights, suffrage, white slavery,  and child labor. These feminists changed our culture through dress reform, birth control, and granting to women the right to own property, get divorced, be educated, keep their income and inheritance, and retain custody of their children.

The Second Wave (Approximately 1960–1988) was the women’s liberation movement (the preferred term of this band of feminists) whose goal was equality and having equal access to domains that had been exclusive to men. Second Wave feminists demonstrated that, given the opportunity or necessity, women could do what men did. These feminists declared that they were the experts—not male doctors, religious leaders, fathers, or husbands—when it came to abortion, rape, pregnancy, and female sexuality. They created language and resources for atrocities once just called “life”—such as date rape, domestic abuse, and illegal abortion. They lobbied for laws and court decisions to strike down legal inequality.

The Third Wave (Approximately 1988–2010) grew out of an enormous cultural shift. By the late 1980s, a cohort of women and men who’d been raised with the gains, theories, flaws, and backlash of the feminist movement were beginning to come of age. Whether or not these individual men and women were raised by self-described feminists—or called themselves feminists—they were living lives changed by feminism. For example, Kosman in her role as a public teacher of Torah, a new role, benefited from the advances in society as a whole.

Scholarship on women’s studies, feminist studies, masculinity studies, and queer studies became prolific generating theorists rather than activists. Third wave is about giving women options and not forcing all women toward egalitarianism. As part of this wave, Post-structuralist feminists see the binaries of male and female as constructs. Some develop difference feminism further and others seek to go beyond them with new ideas of gender.   (See Daniel Boyarin and Judith Butler).

For the typical feminist, the constructs were created to maintain the power of dominant groups. In contrast Kosman, despite following this trend toward theory, sees the binaries as a step in Hashem’s plan to create an ideal society followed by Hashem’s vision of greater fluidity. Her Orthodox approach is not to seek new narratives, rather to reread the old, so too she does not seek new rituals, rather a new  set of reasons for the commandments.

The Fourth Wave (Approximately 2008–Onward) was a critical mass of younger feminists shaped by the 1980s backlash, Take Our Daughters to Work Day initiatives, of the ’90s, and 9/11.

Kosman follows a movement called “difference feminism” – developed in the 1980s, in part as a reaction to popular “equality feminism”, which emphasized the similarities between women and men in order to argue for equal treatment for women. Difference feminism, although it still aimed at equality between men and women, emphasized the differences between men and women and argued that identicality or sameness is not necessary in order for men and women, and masculine and feminine values, to be treated equally. Difference feminism holds that gender-neutrality harmed women “either by impelling them to imitate men, or by neglecting women’s distinctive contributions.

After reader her writings, one becomes certain that the authors of the approbations –from Roshei Yeshiva in Gateshead and Ner Israel, as well as from rabbis opposed to secular studies and their evil influence– had no idea what is written in the book or her ideas.  Even her more modern Yeshivish promoters probably would be surprised by the interview below.  And even one of her well-meaning friends wrote an embarrassingly ill-informed review stating that the work shows how “kabbalah refutes feminism.”

Similar to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan or Rabbi Abraham Twersky, her writings will serve as a conduit for the integration into the Haredi world of ideas formerly seen as beyond the pale.  Because of her affiliations, she has an appropriation from the outreach organization Ner LeElef despite the quotations from sources as wide spread as Nietzsche and the Buddha. Yet, she noticeably uses secular feminist authors to enhance Torah ideas unlike those fearful of feminist and secular books. In addition, unlike the well-known typical apologetics, she envisions a future of new understandings, new roles for women, fluidity of categories, and speaks of the neglect of the women’s voice in Orthodoxy.

Kosman openly relies on the difference feminism as an “ethics of care” such as Carol Gilligan and Virginia Held, the politics of difference by Iris Young, and feminist psychoanalysts Nancy Chodorow and Jean Baker Miller. She uses socially conservative Catharine MacKinnon who asks the legal and political questions, for whom gender is constitutively constructed with reference to changing social factors

These citations are not window dressing, rather the core of Kosman’s grappling, which thereby brings us to her uniqueness.  One is hard pressed to find discussions, or even citations, of these feminist thinkers among Modern Orthodox authors and community advocates who are generally pragmatically oriented toward (or against) egalitarianism.  They are still following the second wave as reflected in the pioneer feminism of Judith Plaskow, accepted by all liberal Jewish denominations. Plaskow wrote “Jewish feminism is praxis-oriented. Its goal is to move Jewish religious law, history, practice, and communal institutions in the direction of the full inclusion of women.”

But what about comments on the vast amount of feminist theory taught on every campus including Bar Ilan, do we ever hear gender concepts and feminist concepts of self discussed?  Kosman is a kaleidoscope of difference feminism theology sliding toward fluidity.

In order to encourage further conversation, I have invited several respondents to comment on the interview-  Read three responses here.

kosman 5

1. What is feminism? Which works on feminism do you find useful?

I see the beginning of feminism as the stirrings of the female voice. . The first stage was where women had to reinstate herself as equal.   Writers on that note like Simone De Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, espoused the view that there was nothing intrinsically different about women and that any difference between the sexes were a result of socialization or cultural construction.  This parallels the stage where women had to reinstate herself as equal—if she so chose to she could be as capable, intelligent, abstract, forceful, creative, etc. as he was.

This was a necessary stage. But once a level of practical equality was achieved, feminist thinkers were open to exploring differences.

To me this is the more interesting stage where woman comes into her own, and her mission of being “the other” ‘kneged’. What is the voice that she brings? In what way is she not like a man? The feminist thought that I get the most out of are the wide swath of feminist thinkers—heterogeneous and irreducible to each other—but who share the common denominator of a critical interest in what differentiates the specifically feminine.  Some of them see the differences rooted in culture, others in biology or early life experience, but they share a willingness to name and analyze specifically feminine traits, as well as to explore the possible social, ethical, ecological, moral and philosophical ramifications of a feminine perspective.  I think these thinkers have been transformative, casting new light on basically every area of human activity.

One obvious example is the works of gender feminists like Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, and Sara Ruddick as well as Virginia Held who focused on differences in approach to morality. But also postmodern feminists like  Luce Irigaray, who see the human body in more metaphoric terms. I found writers like Nancy Chodorow who look at Freudian psychology with a new lens, offered fascinating insights into the difference between boys and girls psychosocial development, . I also got a lot of out of feminist epistemologists—just having different types of knowing put into words, their emphasis on the  relationship between the knower and the knowee, the importance of gathering numerous standpoints.

I very much resonated with eco-feminst ideas about an approach to nature which is based on mutual respect and interdependence—and not on conquering and exploiting.  I found it stretches the applicability of the particularly feminine way of being and interacting to every aspect of life.

On the other hand, , the postmodern trend in feminism  to  dismantle all the “grand narratives” by negating any unitary standpoint at all,  effectively opens the door to any definition and    I am not the first to point out that opening the door to every definition also erases the concept of definition completely.   So today, I think the challenge might be not to get lost just in the female perspective. The male voice of hierarchy needs to be a player also.  Everything is not relative; everything is not in the eyes of the beholder.  Holiness implies impurity, good implies bad, etc.  The goal is synthesis between the two voices.

  1. How can a Torah perspective use these feminist works?

To me these works have been invaluable in bringing the feminine into sharp focus. Reading them emphasizes the power of words and the ability to name things.   Until you know how to call something you don’t even really know it exists.  Insights about aspects of femininity and the ramifications of this way of looking at things have opened up avenues of thought that were completely new to me.   From a very personal perspective, I have found that often my understanding  of Torah has been enriched by outside sources.  Often they have made me aware of nuances and depth in Torah that I would never have even noticed without it.

One example that comes to mind is something I recently read by Iris Young about the difference between touch and sight. One is interactive—you can’t touch without being touched—and one is objectifying, there is the object and the subject.  After reading that insight in her works I began to pick up on references to what different senses represent that I would have just missed before.

  1. How does feminism apply to your thinking?

It underlines the importance of a ‘different voice’. Every thing changes when you look at it from a different angle.  There is an element of imbalance without a female standpoint. Understanding and articulating that voice makes the voice stronger and more of a presence in making the world more human . It is  very easy to betray that voice in the ‘male oriented’ world we live in.

Because I look at the feminine as a metaphor for a way of doing and being, and see it as representing a higher way of being, a lot of the practical ramifications or activist agendas of feminist thought  just roll off me. It is interesting how an idea, once expressed belongs to the world and is no longer owned by the thinker—I am sure many feminists I quote would totally disagree with my conclusions, but their insights can support many different perspectives.

In my book I talk about humanity’s progress towards perfection in which the female voice always represents the voice of truth agitating under the surface but there are various stages of development.

Woman’s curse after gan eden was ‘you will yearn for him and he will rule over you’. People forget that a curse  is not a good thing.  It is a description of reality after the sin–a painful reality– that we would want to change if we could. The reality for women was: you will yearn for him: for relationship, exclusivity, intimacy and closeness but the male approach will rule; the focus will be on conquest, progress, aquisition, etc.

  1. Should frum Jews be scared of feminist writings?

I think there is what to be scared of, but interestingly, it is not the issues of gender roles that people usually worry about.

First of all, I think most of us are blissfully unaware of the extent to which feminist thought has already infiltrated our consciousness—because many of the changes wrought go way beyond the typical gender issues.

More challenging to my way of thinking are issues like the interaction between power and knowledge, the toppling of hierarchy, and the questioning of the possibility  of objectivity  all of which  present challenges to traditional thought.  And as is usually the case in post modernity, good and evil are all mixed up.  There is a lot that feels right—and Jewish—in a feminine way of looking at things.

You always need both a male and a female voice.  The male voice brings the holding power of the absolute, and the female voice brings the dynamic, fluid voice of human reality. Each one without the other is terrifying. The male voice alone creates a rigid, narrow, closed, authoritarian world view, and the female voice alone creates an amorphous, fluid river to nowhere.  I see Judaism as an entire system that seeks to engage both these aspects.

5. Can you explain you three image shapes in your title and their value?

The idea is that the arrow represents a male energy and force. It connotes progress, action, force, productivity, constant striving to have more and get more. The circle represents the female force which symbolizes the idea of wholeness, harmony and relationship. The arrow is doing, the circle is being.

The ideal in Judaism is the spiral which is a synthesis of these two forces. We want to progress, advance, do and accomplish but we want to do it in a holistic way without turning ourselves into a caricature of ourselves, where we are very advanced in one area and very retarded in other areas.  By the way, the circle/arrow/spiral model is not original.

There are many examples of this spiral in the whole structure of Judaism. One classic one is the dynamic between Shabbat and the days of the week. The days of the week would be a male/arrow–progressing, accomplishing, doing.  Shabbat would be a circle/female–being, reveling in the experience, etc. The spiral would be the synthesis between the two:  the building and accomplishing we do during the days of the week creates  the person we bring to the relationship of ‘being’ on Shabbat, and the experience of Shabbat sends us out to our work week from a higher place.

Synthesis is the first theme of the book.  The second theme is that the circle/female represents the higher level.   Gan Eden was a world characterized by a feminine/ circle voice, and the World to Come is also a feminine/circle  world.   So to draw the diagram correctly there would have to be a circle at the bottom of the spiral and a circle on the top.   In the meantime we are in a male world (and we need to balance that with the feminine in a spiral like form).

I believe that as we get closer to the time of perfection, the circle voice needs to get stronger. I see feminism in this context. The circle voice is gaining much more influence.  The challenge is to stay true to that voice and not run after the arrow. It is a fine line, because in our current reality, the arrow is also crucial to the synthesis

  1. What is the female voice and how has it been suppressed?

The female voice is the one that calls for reciprocal mutual relationship.  It sees the process as the goal—meaning it sees greater importance in how you get there than that you got there—the relationships you develop on your way up, not that you make it to the top. The female voice is not interested in status or hierarchy. It zeroes in on authentic, real, immanent reality. It sees the whole world as interconnected and interdependent and every situation as a dialogue.

Our world is characterized by a constant struggle between that female voice and the male voice that puts the emphasis on autonomy, independence, status, accomplishment, end results, etc.  There are midrashic sources  for the idea tht that  every day of creation hides within it another enactment of this  battle between the male and female force–and the male force won the battle every time. But it didn’t win the war—the female voice continues to agitate under the surface and as we get closer to a time of perfection it is getting louder and more influential  in every sphere.

7. You discuss gender separately than biology and point out that the people of Israel can be feminine and so too Jewish males as female. Can you explain that point?

First of all, I see the whole concept of male and female as metaphorical and for this reason it is pretty fluid.  The Jewish people are feminine towards G-d like in Song of Songs, and this might refer to attributes like receptivity, longing, accepting influence, etc.  Obviously this would apply to the males as well.

But there is a much deeper point.  My whole thesis is that when G-d said ‘it is not good for man to be alone, I will make a helpmate opposite him’ he was saying that the male always needs a female as a counterpoint to him.  The female always represents the other, the one who is not mainstream who stands outside and offers an alternative.  So I see that as a statement about the world in general.  The mainstream is male and the female is the other; the one who needs to constantly pull the rest of the world in a direction of health.

And if you think about it,  as Jews, we have generally valued the feminine prototype over the male one.  Jewish male heroes over the centuries were never particularly masculine and certainly not macho. Look at the Chanukah story, a bunch of men sitting around in a cave learning Torah, and the strong Greek army with their elephant tanks and military strength. Even today, what we often choose to praise about a rabbi or great person is their sensitivity—their ability to care, to feel and even to cry.  Crying is not macho, but a Jew who doesn’t know how to cry—in davening, or over other people’s suffering, is in big trouble.

This fluidity between the two poles is very important because the ultimate goal is mutuality and equality. The first verse in Song of Songs talks about a kiss—which is reciprocal—one of the main themes of my book is that real relationship creates a reciprocal flow where hierarchy is less relevant.   On a certain level, the lines between who is the influencer and who is the influencee become blurred.

  1. Are you just a return to Essentialism?

Actually, I have a very strong aversion to the idea that men and women are necessarily essentially different. Instead, I see the two forces as archetypes for different ways of interacting, which once understood can be consciously chosen or activated. Interestingly being born a female in no way guarantees an understanding of or an affiliation with feminine (circle) values and virtues (and vice versa). In fact, I think that femininity is a conscious choice—and as representative of an ideal in Judaism is often incumbent on men as well as women. Notice that not only the woman is compared to the moon, but the Jewish people are as well

In my experience, an essentialist approach, that claims women are like this and men are like that, at the end of the day, always paints itself into the corner. We are just too complex as human beings to be pigeonholed in any way and there is so many other axis of comparison—level and type of intelligence, interests, social standing, country of origin, familial background—that one wonders how much weight gender should even play in the equation.

I always think about the young newly married man at one of those marriage classes, shrinking into the corner because he is the type who yearns for a high level emotional relationship with his wife, but is married to a matter of fact, down to earth practical type, who can’t for the life of her understand what he wants to talk about so much.

On a completely different note, I have found Virginia Held’s comparison of Western society’s approach to birth and death to be very helpful to me in navigating the fine line that divides the  attempt to define the feminine from essentialism. Held points out that while death has often been cast as distinctly human—how a person dies is often seen as the defining feature of life— birth is seen as a natural, unconscious   biological event. Held attributes this distinction to the fact that men were the authors of our culture, and from a male perspective, birth is viewed as a kind of pre-human period,  a necessary stage to go through before men step into their privileged role as completely autonomous beings.

But birth does not just happen to the one being born. There is another active player here, and Held points out that how one gives birth, why one gives birth and, even,  if one gives birth—are just as much defining features of humanity as is how one dies, what one dies for, and how the knowledge of  death affects your life.

This insight helped me to get beyond  the concern that using biology as a model to delineate differences  would end up pigeonholing men and women  into cramped boxes—as it has so many times in history.  Held’s essay helped me to see that a conceptual framework of gender  based on the physical model  may—paradoxically allow woman to redeem her physiological experiences from the fog of  “nature” and free her to consciously choose to align or not align herself with a particularly feminine way of being. We are human when we use our intellect, our awareness, and our very souls to decide the influence that physicality will have on who we are as people.

It is important for me to note, that this “theology  of gender” is not about insisting that men and women are different because they have different types of  brains, or trying to prove that women are good at multi-tasking and men not so much. This is an understanding that there are two pulses that animate our existence, and that Judaism—the ultimate goal of which is synthesis—has an interest in making sure each of these poles remains alive and kicking in our world.

 9) How would you approach transgender orientations?

The idea of feeling connection to more than one gender, on some level, does define  the life of a Jew—who is consistently stretched in both directions. Prayer and Shabbat, for example, require entering into a female mode of being, which is applicable to men and women; the positive commandments require discipline and action—metaphorically male traits– from both men and women.

There are also some fascinating sources which lend themselves to a discussion of whether gender is as firmly entrenched as one might think.  One source that comes to mind is a  Talmudic discussion of whether there is any point in praying for a child to be born a particular sex after the first forty days of pregnancy (when presumably the sex is already decided). According to the opinion that holds that prayer can change the fetus’s sex, being born male or female may be less rigid than we might think.

At the same time, even if gender technically exists on a continuum, we live in a physical world and the body that G-d gave us is the medium through which our soul interacts with the world.  Speculating whether we have a “male” or “female” soul, is like the oft-heard discussion among  mystically inclined folks about whether any of us is a reincarnation.  While it may make for interesting discussion , practically there is little relevance to the discussion. We are still required to get up every morning and keep the mitzvot that are incumbent on us right here in our prosaic world whose borders are the physical, tangible world in which we live. I think the same kind of approach would apply here.

One of the painful aspects of being human is having to fit the enormity of our souls into our physical bodies and one of the challenging aspects of Judaism is fitting the vastness of our spiritual yearning in to the circumscription of halacha. Yet, as in any other creative endeavor, it is specifically the narrow straits that becomes the conduit—the  instrument, if you will– through which the music of our soul makes access with the world.

On another level, by using the fact that one is born into a male or female body to channel men in a particular direction and women in another, Judaism makes use of the most stable and objective standard to maintain tension between the two poles.

At the same time, in day to day life there is an allowance for  a wide spectrum of expression. It is interesting to note that various subcultures within the Orthodox world—for example some types of hassidut, which put a big emphasis on meditative prayer, joy, dance and submission to a Rebbi– can be seen as a more ‘feminine’ approach to Judaism.  Others, like the very rational, analytic ‘Yeshivish’ approach seem to valuate the more confrontational, independent minded ‘masculine’ mode.  People—both men and women—tend to gravitate towards streams within Judaism that resonate with their natural inclinations. These two forces are existentially constitutive elements within every human being, at the same time, the reality of our physical selves create the borders and limits of that fluidity.


 10) Can you give some more examples of how you use feminist authors?

In the context of this interview, I would point to the work of Jean Baker Miller, a feminist thinker and psychologist trained in psychoanalysis. In her ground-breaking book Towards a New Psychology of Women, she points out that ever since Freud, we have been engaged in uncovering the feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability that lurk beneath the surface.   In an insight which, to my mind, really pulls the rug out from under some of our received notions about the human psyche, she wonders if perhaps the reason so much effort is needed to dig up those very human experiences is specifically because of the excellent campaign job that Western society has done, in both forcing men to disassociate from vulnerability, as well as in projecting vulnerability on to women and children.

It is easy to see how women, who are encouraged to cultivate exactly those traits which society derides, might be at a disadvantage.  Miller points out, however, that the real victim of this dichotomy is the male oriented culture in which we live, which is being deprived of exactly the traits that a person needs to access the most meaningful and pleasurable of human experiences.

In an intriguing twist, Miller points out that growth, development and progress itself are dependent on vulnerability.  This is because growth is always measured in terms of  not-there-yet;; you are always looking towards a goal which you can  never be sure you will actually reach.  Breaking through current barriers to a higher level of being, is one of the most exciting qualities of being human but it requires the courage to accept vulnerability.

Jean Baker Miller’s vision, which resonates with me, is that as the feminine voice gets stronger, we can pluck vulnerability out of the corner to which it has been relegated and instead place it front and center stage as humanity’s most defining feature.  Instead of schlepping along these feelings for the rest of humanity, perhaps women can be the facilitators for others to move away from the alienation, which is the curse of modern society, towards connection.

11. What about women who took Torah learning upon themselves as individuals?

One of the ideas I point out in the book is that one of the obvious differences in Halacha between men and women is their obligation to Torah learning.  Men’s obligation is more demanding and more objective. Woman’s obligation has fluctuated over the centuries, but especially after the Chafetz Chaim’s psak, using the language of my book it can be formulated as ‘women need to learn as much Torah as they need to keep within in the ‘circle’ of the relationship with G-d’.   So, historically there were women who didn’t know how to read and write and yet Hashem was a major presence in their live, and on the other hand, there were women who were great Torah sages.

I personally have friends who rarely open a book and friends who spend a lot of time learning.  I don’t necessarily admire a lot of Torah knowledge in a woman—I don’t look at the Torah learning for a woman as an ideal in and of itself.

For me, personally., Torah learning  is crucial, not only in order to stay in the circle, but  because much of the joy of the circle would not be accessible to me without learning. But I see very clearly that for a lot of women that is not the case.  If  a woman is intellectual, then she will probably have to learn Torah in order to feel  close to Hashem. But I feel like the female force always represents immanence and not transcendence—to me greatness  in a woman would be more of a greatness of spirit than a greatness of intellect..

12. How do you differ from those Jewish Feminists, and even Orthodox ones, who think that after feminism we have to change the narrative, evolve and see patriarchy in the Bible and Talmud?

In many ways. .  Firstly, I do not see Jewish gender conceptions as problems that need correction. On the contrary, understanding the value of the dance between these two  primal forces upends the idea that gender difference represents a flawed, chauvinistic approach that needs to be updated. To me, adopting a flat egalitarianism robs us all of the richness, depth and insight that gender difference can yield.

While there is a lot of room for fluidity for individuals who don’t fit the system—I recently picked up a pamphlet in a Hassidic shul and was extremely surprised to see that the lead article was about their late rebbitzin whom, it was discovered after her death, had donned  tzitzit every day– as a whole,  I see value in women upholding one side of the story and men the other.

For example, the question is obviously not can a woman be a public leader? Obviously she can. There is no reason to insist that a particular woman could not become as great a Torah scholar or public leader as a particular man could. The question is what price do we pay as a culture by saying that publicly endorsed- leadership is the only worthwhile kind of influence?  Or that if you don’t have an official title or a public persona you don’t exist?  Do we honestly want to move women—who are the last bastion of internality– into that public-accolades-arena?

I do see women’s growing prominence as a positive thing, and I want that to continue. My ideal is for the woman’s voice to influence and impact society through transforming the way in which people think and approach life. Primarily focusing on an external equality between the genders ultimately devalues many of the gifts that women have to offer.

Interview with Rabbi Michael Harris – Faith Without Fear

What does Modern Orthodoxy look like across the pond over in London? How would the Torah uMadda Journal or Orthodox Forum sound outside of the original American context? One can get a sense from reading the new book by Rabbi Dr. Michael J Harris Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy (hc available pb due in May). Faith without Fear vividly conveys the important religious issues that are on the mind of Michael Harris, a leading Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi and Cambridge don. Harris presents an overview of contemporary debates within Modern Orthodoxy and then offers his own perspective, one man’s Judaism.

harris cover

Rabbi Dr Michael Harris studied at Ma’ale Adumim, Machon Harry Fischel and Yeshivat HaMivtar in Efrat. He holds rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel;  his first degree in philosophy from Cambridge University, Masters from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem., and Ph.D in philosophy from the University of London. Rabbi Harris became Rabbi of the Hampstead Synagogue in 1995.(The historic synagogue is located in bastion of downtown wealthy liberalism and its past rabbis included Raymond Apple and Norman Solomon.)  He is an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge.  And as his bio notes: “When unable to find sufficient aggravation within the Anglo-Jewish community, Rabbi Harris seeks it in his capacity as a proud, card-carrying member of Chelsea Football Club.”

His father was Cyril K. Harris, Chief Rabbi of The Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa from 1987 to 2004, before that he held pulpits in London for 30 years.  His son, Michael grew up as part of the old-time United Synagogue.  He is still an advocate of a broad tent synagogue and a Rabbi needing a doctorate in philosophy as essential for a sophisticated rabbinate.

Harris thinks that Modern Orthodoxy must have the courage to be modern and to be secure enough to not submit to the rival Haredi world. Hence Harris addresses issues with Orthodoxy that he feels others are afraid to publicly tackle from a modern perspective. The work is a summary and evaluation of current answers written for a British community and will not be new for an American audience. His six topics for a modern Orthodoxy are (1)A need to reject the encroachment of Haredi views (2) a support for increasing women’s roles (3)superstition and kabbalah (4)Torah mi Sinai (5) messianism and messianic politics, and (6) other religions.

British modern Orthodoxy is currently converging in certain aspects with United States modern Orthodoxy. Originally, a hundred years ago they were quite different.   American modern Orthodoxy tended to be low-church and led by the recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. In contrast, the British United Synagogue was high church movement funded by the wealthy to have  Victorian Anglican Catholic sensibilities.  The seminary that they established- Jews College-  was modeled in its curriculum on Western European model seminaries and structured by Rabbi Hertz to follow his alma mater JTS of America and over the decades it was staffed by graduates of both JTS of Breslau and Berlin Hildesheimer.  They originally did not have Eastern European attitudes or patterns of study.

On the other hand, they also lacked the immense influence of Mordechai Kaplan on modern Orthodoxy in that their synagogues remained high church rather than a community center with a pool, men’s and women’s club, social hall, and suburban values. They avoided the divide between Orthodoxy and Conservative that defined the American landscape.  The majority of congregants in United Synagogue congregations defined themselves as traditional.   Imagine, if the majority of traditional and right wing Conservative congregations of the 20th century remained in the Orthodox rubric.

I have blogged in the past about Herbert Loewe, Abraham Cohen and Isidore Epstein who operated using the Victorian model, It was  Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits who sought to bring the United Synagogue more into line with Modern Orthodoxy.

However, currently, according to the  2015 United Synagogue Strategic Review, their own self-study, they are losing 1000 members a year of their meager 80, 000 members since the old-time traditionalists Jews are increasingly moving to define themselves as just Jewish. Of United Synagogue members,  23% keep Shabbat and 73% separate meat and milk at home and only 36% avoid non- kosher meat when eating out, in addition 60 % of the congregations are in areas of declining Jewish  population. (The report also noted that Kiruv organization rabbis make more money than synagogue rabbis.)

The report encourages synagogues to become community oriented focusing on families and children, become warmer, more outreach, to become welcoming and more inclusive, reach out to former members, and to have more cultural events.

At the same time, there is within congregations a tension between those who want to continue the broad tent model and those who advocate making the synagogue focused more only on the Orthodox (which over time would shrink the membership  to a mere fraction of its current numbers.)

Rabbi Michael Harris was one of the few Orthodox rabbi who has attended Limmud and has attended since  1994. His view is for stronger Orthodox rabbinic participation at Limmud with  Orthodox rabbis at Limmud in larger numbers. He has written against those who think Limmud as a “rejection of all that is precious to Orthodox Judaism.” Harris  has also written concerning those who ban Limmud: “ I struggle to understand how rabbonim, however senior and respected, can claim to know the mind of HaShem concerning Limmud – a claim that could legitimately be made only by a prophet…  I struggle to understand a simplistic Manichean view of the world in which haredi Orthodoxy is the sole, direct and simple continuation of Torah miSinai and every other contemporary form of Judaism is deluded. “ Hence Harris’s book is offering a British alternative to those “rabbis who deliberately live lives totally secluded from the mainstream British Jewish community. One doubts whether they understand that community, let alone Limmud.”

Harris’ view may have already been stated in the United States- it almost reads like a series of EDAH  (a”h) lectures-  but he is writing for his British audience.  He also has taken pen in reaction to rabbis who in submission to the Beth Din has stopped allowing women to carry a Sefer Torah.  For Harris, “if rabbis are not permitted to rule on such issues in their own synagogues, we risk – as I have said in previous such instances – the infantilisation of the United Synagogue rabbinate. “

He has also been outspoken on women’s roles in the synagogue. In Harris’ opinion, “the momentum towards greater empowerment of women in our religious and communal life is unstoppable. That is the good news. The bad news is that US  [United Synagogue] members who would like to see principled movement and development in this area will likely have to go outside the United Synagogue to find it. “

And they have found it by starting a branch of JOFA in the UK and Rabbi Harris invited a Maharat student studying in the Maharat program in NY  to give lectures and has appointed her as Scholar-In Residence.  This was condemned obliquely by the current Chief Rabbi Mirvis  as a call not to invite “inappropriate speakers” but the newspaper wrote “Michael Harris, of course, has long been the flagbearer for modern Orthodoxy within the United Synagogue…” We have come full circle with an apparent convergence of modern Orthodoxy between the two countries on selected issues. This book points out those issues.


  1. Why should Modern Orthodoxy have faith without Fear? Why is there so much fear in Modern Orthodoxy?

Modern Orthodoxy should have faith without fear because the challenges confronting Orthodoxy in modernity, such as the welcome revolution in the status of women in society and our knowledge of the Ancient Near East, have to be met and not avoided if we are to have an Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually and morally compelling. We also need faith without fear in privileging certain strands of our tradition over others – for example Maimonidean universalism over kabbalistic essentialism and noble messianic visions over vengeful ones.

Further, Modern Orthodoxy has no reason not to be self-confident rather than diffident vis-a-vis Haredi Orthodoxy. There is no such thing as a contemporary form of Judaism which constitutes a seamless continuation of pre-modern Jewish tradition. The changes brought about by modernity have made that impossible. What can be done is to try and continue pre-modern traditional Judaism as faithfully as possible in the modern world, and Modern Orthodoxy has at least as much claim to be doing that as Haredi Orthodoxy, which in some respects, perhaps most obviously the doctrine of “da’as Torah”, has introduced phenomena which were not a feature of historical Jewish tradition.

I think that much of the fear in Modern Orthodoxy comes from an inferiority complex and the unspoken feeling that Charedi Orthodoxy is somehow more authentic. That inferiority complex is, as I have tried to explain above, misguided, but it is unhelpfully bolstered by what seems to be the sociological fact that more Jews who identify with Modern Orthodoxy are lax about mitzvah observance in some areas than are haredi Jews. There ought of course to be no difference between Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews on e.g. the details of Shabbat, kashrut or taharat hamishpacha observance. There may be ideological difference over some chumrot, but when it comes to punctiliousness in observing Halakhah, there is no ideological difference and ought to be no sociological difference.

It is crucial to note that perceived ‘leniency’ for ideological reasons is no less ‘frum’ than Haredi stringency. As the Seridei Eish points out in his famous responsum on Bat Mitzvah, those who are in favour of celebrating Bat Mitzvah are no less concerned about the continuity of Jewish faith and tradition than those who oppose such celebration.

2) How does British United Synagogue differ from American Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy?

The lay membership of the British United Synagogue is much more varied. Its synagogues contain haredi Jews (although not a large number, and by no means in every Shul), Jews who are Modern Orthodox in the American sense, Jews who are not and would not claim to be fully Shabbat– or kashrut-observant but who are strongly traditional, and a large proportion of non-observant Jews who just want to belong to an Orthodox Shul for their own lifecycle events and for the High Holydays. My impression is that American Modern Orthodox communities, certainly in the greater New York area, are much more homogeneous in profile, religious observance and ideology.  The rabbinate of the United Synagogue also seems to be more diverse than that of American Modern Orthodoxy, comprising haredi (with a particularly marked Chabad presence) and Modern Orthodox, with the haredi rabbis probably in the majority. The ideology of the United Synagogue is also deliberately not specifically Modern Orthodox despite the organisation containing several Modern Orthodox rabbis and many Modern Orthodox congregants.

3) What is the divide between Haredi  and Modern Orthodoxy? Why should Modern Orthodoxy resist Haredi influence?

There is a deep divide of mindset and Weltanschauung. Modern Orthodoxy’s mindset is much more rationalist (as opposed to mystical) and scientific than that of Haredi Orthodoxy. Moreover, Modern Orthodoxy views the modern world as something to be engaged with, albeit critically, rather than as something to be shut out, in most respects, as far as possible.

At the level of specific though major issues there are of course further important divides. These issues include the religious significance of the State of Israel (as opposed to the religious significance of Eretz Yisrael which is agreed by both camps), the role and status of women in Judaism, secular studies, particularly the humanities and philosophy, modern scientific understandings of the universe, rabbinic authority versus personal autonomy, and universalistic versus particularistic emphases.

Modern Orthodoxy should resist Haredi influence at the ideological level because its own ideology is (at the least) every bit as legitimate as Haredi ideology as a faithful attempt to continue millennial Jewish tradition in the modern world, and from a Modern Orthodox perspective, many fundamental Haredi positions are deeply mistaken – for example, its failure to appreciate the religious significance of Zionism and the State of Israel. Haredi influence towards punctiliousness (though not necessarily stringencies), intensity and enthusiasm in the observance of mitzvot is however salutary, and I think that both communities would actually benefit from more dialogue and interaction.

4) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward the role of women and toward feminism?

Modern Orthodoxy should view feminism as an essentially positive phenomenon. Beneath all its varieties and manifestations, the core values of feminism are values that Modern Orthodoxy views or should view as being at the heart of Judaism – the fundamental equality of men and women, justice and human dignity. This is what some Orthodox critics of feminism miss when they talk of feminism as alien to traditional Judaism or as a passing fad.

Modern Orthodoxy should work towards enhancing the role of women in Jewish religious and communal life. There is still much work to be done and we should not take refuge in the apologetic idea that men and women already have equal though different roles. Expanding the role of women should be done in a way which is halakhically rigorous and faithful to traditional halakhic texts and methodology, and at a pace which allows the global Modern Orthodox community to sense continuity with rather than a radical break from previous generations of halakhically observant Jews. But I think that within those parameters, much positive development is possible  – witness, to take just one obvious and central example, the wonderful growth, both quantitative and qualitative, of  women’s Torah study (in parts of the haredi world as well as the Modern Orthodox world) in recent decades. This phenomenon has greatly strengthened rather than weakened Orthodoxy.

Similar developments are possible in many other areas once we accept the insight of gedolim such as the Chafetz Chaim and the Seridei Eish who taught us that sometimes the ‘frumest’ response is not ‘no change, ever’ but rather recognising radically altered social circumstances and accommodating them in a responsible halakhic way.

5) How can you go against the chief rabbi on women’s issues? Why did you invite a Maharat?

I do not ‘go against the Chief Rabbi’ on women’s issues. I have expressed disagreement with some initiatives in some shuls being stopped when I believed they should not have been stopped.  That is healthy debate. It is perfectly possible to accept the Chief Rabbi’s authority while expressing polite disagreement.

Dina Brawer, who is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, is Scholar in Residence for the current Jewish/academic year at our Shul, where she continues to deliver superb shiurim and attract large audiences from both our own and neighbouring communities. The aim is to have a different woman scholar in residence at our Shul every year in order to further encourage women’s Torah scholarship. Dina is a local and fine scholar and was an obvious choice, and there was no opposition whatsoever to her appointment in our Shul. The onus is on those outside our Shul who unsuccessfully opposed the appointment to explain why an Orthodox woman scholar with whom some may disagree on particular issues should have been denied a platform to give valuable shiurim on non-contentious topics. To my mind, their position reflects a lack of intellectual and religious self-confidence.

6) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Kabbalah, mysticism, and magic?

Jewish mystical traditions pose a fascinating challenge for Modern Orthodoxy. The Modern Orthodox mindset is rationalistic as opposed to mystical and so mysticism tends to be marginalised or ignored. But there is much in our mystical traditions that can enrich the spiritual world of the Modern Orthodox Jew – prayers, Torah commentaries, practices such as meditation. Rav Kook is fascinating here because he holds out the intriguing possibility that distinctively Modern Orthodox positions like a positive attitude to Zionism or evolution can actually be grounded in our best-known mystical tradition, Kabbalah.

At the same time, some aspects of Kabbalah, in particular, present severe difficulties for Modern Orthodox Jews. Essentialism, whether applied to men and women or Jews and non-Jews – the idea of deep, intrinsic differences which make one sex or one group radically superior to a (sometimes literally demonised) other – has to be jettisoned by any plausible Modern Orthodox ethics. One strategy here is, as consistently advocated by Menachem Kellner, to take Maimonides as our guide in rejecting essentialism and to privilege his deep universalism.

Regarding magic, we should follow Me’iri in adopting naturalistic interpretations.

7) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Biblical criticism?

The first thing is to be prepared to face the challenges posed by Biblical criticism and, more broadly, academic biblical scholarship and not simply to try and hide from them, as most of the haredi world and much of our own Modern Orthodox world tends to do. The conclusions of Biblical criticism are easily available on the internet, encountered by many of our kids at college, and familiar to many educated people in our community. It is not possible to ignore them, and much more importantly it is intellectually dishonest to do so. The Maharal’s beautiful passage at the end of Be’er Hagolah about the courage to take on intellectual challenges to our faith and strengthen and refine our faith through our encounter with them is the only feasible model for Modern Orthodoxy in the area of Biblical criticism as in other areas.

The next step is to analyse academic biblical studies into its relevant component parts and to respond appropriately. Lower Biblical Criticism is unproblematic and even religiously salutary, as argued by Rav Chaim Hirschensohn and others. Regarding Higher Criticism or the Documentary Hypotheses, my view is that Modern Orthodoxy does not need to and should not follow the approach of (for example) Rabbis Louis Jacobs and accept the view of the Torah as a composite document. The underlying assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis and its many contemporary versions can be coherently questioned.

To my mind, the most serious challenge to Orthodoxy from contemporary academic biblical scholarship comes from our modern knowledge of the Ancient Near East. In particular, close similarities to the wording of verses of the Torah in texts such as the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Eshnunna, which predate the traditional date of the Giving of the Torah, need to be explained.

I suggest that a way of addressing this issue is to draw on the Byzantine midrashic tradition highlighted by Rav Amnon Bazak in his book Ad Hayom Hazeh but not applied by him to this challenge. This tradition posits an alternative to the model of the Torah as totally ‘dictated’ word-for-word by God to Moses and allows Moses a greater role in the formulation of some verses in the Torah. It seems to make more sense that Moses might draw on existing legal texts in faithfully formulating in words the Divine content of certain laws than to say that God ‘dictated’ to Moses using almost the precise language of other ancient Near Eastern law codes. This proposal may be unconventional, but I believe it is fully compatible with Orthodox belief in the Divinity of the Torah. It may have sounded very strange to many people in previous generations, but they simply did not have the knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern texts that is easily available to us today.

8) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Messianism?

Messianic hopes are of course an important part of traditional Jewish belief and very much reflected in our liturgy. But Modern Orthodoxy needs in my view to think more about the nature of the Messianic era that we pray for and not restrict its interest in messianism to debates about whether the religious significance of the State of Israel should be construed in messianic or non-messianic categories. There are radically differing conceptions of the messianic era in our sources and in particular in our medieval rabbinic literature. Maimonides’ conception, for example, is very naturalistic: the messianic world will resemble the present world in many respects. A good representative of the other major medieval trend is Abarbanel, whose messianism is apocalyptic, viewing the messianic world as essentially a miraculous new world built on the ruins of this one.

I don’t think that Modern Orthodoxy necessarily need privilege the naturalistic over the apocalyptic vision in all respects. What is wrong with a world in which wolves literally live peacefully with lambs, even though Maimonides sees this as only a metaphor? But where Modern Orthodoxy does have to choose which messianic vision to endorse is when it comes to the ethical arena. Medieval apocalyptic messianism sometimes went with anticipation of the humiliation or even annihilation of the non-Jewish world. Modern Orthodoxy’s messianic vision needs to privilege those strands in our tradition which look forward to a messianic future of universal peace, justice and harmony.

9) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Other Faiths?

I believe that Modern Orthodoxy should resist a strong pluralism which views Judaism and other faiths as equally true, so that, for example, Judaism is true for Jews, Christianity for Christians and Islam for Muslims. There is a more moderate but still valuable kind of pluralism suggested by Me’iri according to which we validate the self-understanding of other religions as religions without accepting all their truth-claims as being on a par with our own.  Believing in the truth of the core claims of our own faith is also perfectly compatible with a positive attitude towards other faiths.

As a religious Jew who believes that Judaism is right and Christianity (for example) wrong on the messianism of Jesus and the relative status of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, I can still and should still accept that Christianity teaches a great deal of moral truth, that it brings blessing to the lives of many individuals and communities who adhere to it, and indeed that it strengthens the moral fabric of many contemporary societies, including the Western ones in which we live. We should also be open to what other faiths and their literatures can teach us – for example, as Jerome Gellman suggests, by their ability to convey shared truths in a particularly powerful way.

10) Was it OK to have mixed choirs in United Synagogue synagogues?  

No, it was not OK, mostly in my view because it involved men and women sitting together in services. My Shul, Hampstead, famously had a mixed choir for longer than most other synagogues (it disbanded many years before I became the rabbi, I hasten to add). [They removed the mixed choir in 1987]  Mixed choirs in United Synagogues were a reflection (though by no means the most serious) of precisely the somewhat lax attitude to some areas of Halakhah that does Modern Orthodoxy no favours and has nothing to do with its ideology.

11) Do major rabbis need a PhD? Why is it important? How has a PhD helped in the Rabbinate?

I think that rabbis of major congregations need to be at least as well secularly educated as their congregants. A PhD isn’t the only way of trying to achieve this goal but it is one way of helping to attain it. Having a PhD and more importantly having ongoing academic interests has been invaluable to me in the rabbinate because the teaching side of the rabbinic role, and the academic research and teaching, feed off each other and are mutually enriching in ways which are productive not just for me but I hope for my congregants as well. To give just one example, working recently on an academic paper on aspects of the interface between treatments of the problem of evil in Chazal and in contemporary philosophy of religion at the same time as teaching an adult education course on the same topic in my shul enhanced both projects. Among other things, the academic project lent another dimension to what I could present to my congregants and forced me to do this in a way that was hopefully clear and accessible to non-specialists, while my congregants’ questions and discussion sharpened my thinking on the academic project.

12) What should the criteria for membership in an Orthodox synagogue?

I have had various ideological battles with colleagues in the United Synagogue over the years. But for me the United Synagogue has got something right that is absolutely fundamental. It is this: although its shuls are Orthodox, with Orthodox rabbis, mechitzot and davening, the only criterion for membership is that one is halakhically Jewish. It upsets me to hear of shuls where one has to be shomer mitzvoth in order to be a member. What is the point, in the contemporary Jewish world where so many Jews need encouragement and support in their Jewish lives, of shomrei mitzvot setting up their own homogeneous shuls and just looking after themselves? Yet this seems to be such a widespread phenomenon in the Orthodox community globally – homogeneous Shuls, even homogeneous yishuvim or neighbourhoods in Israel. The most noble way of running an Orthodox shul is to open it to every Jew. With all the difficulties it entails, that is the best way of fulfilling our responsibilities to the Jewish people as a whole.

Interview with Menachem Kellner- They Too are Called Human: Gentiles in the Eyes of Maimonides

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) teaches the universal doctrine that God began humanity by creating an individual human being, Adam, “to teach that if anyone destroy a single soul from humankind, Scripture charges him as though he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves a single soul from humankind, Scripture credits him as though he had saved a whole world.” However, at a later date, the text of this Mishnah was revised to be particularistic, so that many editions currently read that Adam was created alone “to teach that if anyone destroy a single soul from Israel… and whoever saves a single soul from Israel…” A universal teaching has thus been transformed to a particularist view valuing Jewish life, rather than the value of all human life.

Kellner cover again

Menachem Kellner has devoted the last decades to writing a series of books defending the universal voice in Judaism. Kellner currently teaches Jewish philosophy at Shalem College, integrating Western and Jewish texts, after having spent thirty years teaching at the University of Haifa, where he held the Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Chair of Jewish Religious Thought. For more information, I interviewed him in the past on his views of belief and his friend Prof. James Diamond wrote a  detailed  laudatory intellectual biography of Kellner. 

Kellner has authored nineteen books most of them devoted to his project of advocating that Maimonides’ rationalist universalism should serve as the ideal for contemporary modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionist life.

Recently, he has written They Too are Called Human: Gentiles in the Eyes of Maimonides [In Hebrew] arguing that Maimonides was convinced that Jewish doctrine teaches that there is no essential difference between Israel and the other nations of the world. For Kellner, the distortion of Maimonides by later Rabbis is a tragic distortion, the differences between the nations and Israel, are solely at the level of laws, of history, of destiny. The work is a presentation of the universalism on Maimonides showing the reader the proof texts for such a thesis and answering those who read the texts in different way focusing on three texts in the Mishnah Torah, Foundation of the Torah 1:1-6, Sabbatical Year 13:12-13; Kings 12:5.   Much of this discussion has already appeared in his articles and has been debated  in the field. See  Table of Contents in English here.  The work was published by Bar Ilan Press as part of very good series on Jewish thought.

Orthodox Jewish universalism is not new. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and his son Dr. Mendel Hirsch advocated a Romantic brotherhood of mankind, (see the  volume  Humanism and Judaism by Mendel Hirsch), but the Hirschian approach is not followed anymore. Moshe Unna (1902–1989) brought a universal position to the Mizrachi Worker’s party and the Mafdal, arguing for liberal democracy as a pillar of Jewish humanism, but that too has been eclipsed (see the fine article by Moshe Hellinger and this book).

Orthodox Maimonidean scholars such as Isadore Twersky already pointed out how Maimonides was always careful to distinguish the universal elements in philosophy and religion from the particular legal aspect. Hence, there is an Aristotelian ethic of the wise available to all to follow the ethical mean and the particular Jewish ethic for select Jews of the saint to go to an extreme against anger or pride. Or that the Mishnah Torah distinguishes between the universal knowledge of a first cause divinity and the specifics of accepting the prophecy of Moses. Yet, Maimonides wrote in his letter to R. Samuel ibn Tibbon, that Aristotle had reached the highest level of perfection available to human beings short of prophecy, placing the philosopher above almost all Jews.

Even the Yemenite rationalist scholar Rabbi Yosef Qafiḥ (Kapach) (1917 –2000) made these distinctions in his fine editions of the medieval Jewish rational classics. But a serious reading of these essential works in their philosophic context has been obscured by contemporary Rabbis in their misquotations of Maimonides.

This latter point motivated Kellner, who is upset by the turn among religious Jews towards particularism with its concurrent preaching of irrationality, essentialism, and dogmatism. Hence, as expressed in his preface, his works are an explicit polemic against these positions and the rabbis who hold them, in that, he considers these particularistic thoughts, to capture his rather colloquial style, fakrimt, farfallen, farblonjet, farfoilt, farshlugginner, as well as dangerous.

In prior works, Kellner directly condemned the rabbis who are anti-science and in favor of superstition by showing that Maimonides advocated science and condemned superstition. When rabbis speak of the essentialist metaphysical nature of ritual, land, Torah, and Jews, Kellner responds by showing that Maimonides treated all these as instrumental, sociological, and based their value toward human perfection.

To emphasize his point for the contemporary reader, Kellner even creates an ahistoric dichotomy of mystic irrational essentialists and anti-mystical universal rationalists. Out of bounds of the discussion would be the Universalism of mystic essentialism of Rav Kook who wrote, “The love for Israel entails a love for all humankind” since he would fall into the wrong side of the dichotomy.

On the other hand, when Maimonides seemingly supports a dogmatic or doctrinal position, Kellner sharply rejects Maimonides claiming that Maimonides view of belief was an alien import. In many other cases, Kellner rejects Maimonidean intellectualism favoring Buber’s definition of faith, Hermann Cohen’s ethics, a greater role for the emotional, and a defense of the secular defenders of the State of Israel.

Kellner is highly selective in his reading of Maimonides avoiding the mystical, illuminationist, and pietistic elements of the great rationalist’s thought. He also generally avoids the skeptical aspects of Maimonides’ thought especially where he points out the limits of knowledge and the naturalistic Maimonides who follows Farabi. The Islamic naturalists Farabi, ibn Sina and  ibn Bajjah all have universalist conceptions in which the contemplative of any faith community is higher than the law abiding practitioners of specific faiths. Kellner does not explain why Maimonides reveals his similar position only in Guide III:51.

One of Menachem Kellner’s model for a Jewish Universalism, he even organized a conference to honor him, is Leon Roth, the first Chair in Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1928).  Roth also spent many years uncovering their universal significance for human life. He constantly accentuates the basic features of equality stating: “The children of earth are envisaged as one family. There is by nature no such thing as caste or class, no differentiation by blood or descent. Human equality is thus a primary fact”.  For Roth, Judaism must remain true to its universalistic origins.

Yet, for Roth universalism required one to not forget the universalism in the practical realm. Therefore, Roth resigned his position in 1948 and returned to Britain because of the wanton killing of civilians and by the treatment of refugees following the fighting in 1947-8 along with the lack of condemnation among the general Israeli population. Roth’s reading of the Jewish texts led him to advocate the establishment of a bi-national political entity with complete equality of rights between Jews and Palestinians. Kellner, however, is firmly committed to his own form of particularism, the moral superiority of Judaism in fulfilling universal values, albeit, without the essentialism. He seeks to correct false opinions, but is not concerned with creating imperatives or calls to action.

Michael Waltzer, in a very perceptive article on Jewish universalism, with a greater sense of the complexity of the tradition, wrote:

Orthodox Jews (not all of them, but many) uphold what they take to be the true understanding of divine election and halakhic [Jewish law] order against the ever-encroaching forces of Western culture. They are resolutely opposed to universalism, at least in its secular philosophical and political versions. They have little use for the idea of human rights or for the claims that are made in its name

Kellner seeks to correct this problem of Orthodoxy with a his defense of universalism in Orthodoxy but he does not offer ethical demands and moral vistas like Unna, or Emmanuel Levinas. Confirming Walzer’s analysis that the “universalism from within traditional Judaism ” does not attempt a grand philosophic universalism, rather “what might be called a “low-flying” universalism; that is, one worked out in close contact with the political landscape. Its crucial moral perception is the existence of other nations as moral and legal agents.” For Walzer, “this acknowledgement of the others derives from Jewish particularism; it is, so to speak, the turning outward of a particularist perspective.”

In many ways, it is precisely Kellner’s commitment to changing a particular moral landscape using particularistic texts in order to find a greater space for non-Jews as moral and intellectual agents within a specific Orthodox context that makes him the philosopher of universalism and rationality who feels responsible to write his very readable and erudite books, especial his most recent They Too Are called Human: Gentiles in the Eyes of Maimonides, in order to change the agenda from within.

Kellner headshot

  1. What is the thesis of your book?

Simply put: Judaism is both universalist and particularist and Maimonides was a universalist in the sense that he thought that all human beings are equally made in the image of God and that there is no essential difference between Jews as such and non-Jews as such. When I was working on the book a close and beloved relative asked me what I was working on. When I told him, he asked, in obvious amazement: “Do you really believe that?!”

2) According to Maimonides, what is Image of God (Tzelem Elokim)?

Maimonides thinks it is human intellectual abilities. The image of God is that which distinguishes human beings from animals (but not Jews from non-Jews!). I personally do not think that the Torah means only intellect, although I certainly think that intellect is part of the mix.

All humans can show holiness by reaching out to God intellectually (largely by studying God’s creation after having achieved a high level of moral perfection). Mizvot are a God-given tool to achieve that moral perfection, but, like all tools, are not irreplaceable. Otherwise, Maimonides could never have said, as he did in his letter to R. Samuel ibn Tibbon, that Aristotle had reached the highest level of perfection available to human beings short of prophecy.

3) How do the presentations of  pollution, evil inclination, and snake (zuhama, yetzer hara and nahash) show that Maimonides does not maintain that there is an essential difference between Jews and non-Jews?

We find in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 22b) a statement to the effect that all human beings were polluted by the snake which had sex with Eve. That “original sin ” pollution was removed from Israel at Sinai. One could, of course, read this to teach that by accepting the Torah the Jewish people were made different from and superior to other nations, Maharal does assume this.

But it makes as much sense to read it as teaching that the Torah removes the pollution.  Jews are not better than non-Jews per se, but we were expected to behave better. That, in effect, is how Maimonides reads the passage in the Guide (II.30), that correct thinking removes the pollution.

The snake in the Garden of Eden story symbolizes the very active imagination with which human beings are endowed; this imagination often leads us astray. This tendency to allow the imagination to confuse us is symbolized by the “pollution.” The Torah helps us to avoid the mistakes to which we are otherwise prone. By the way, Maimonides finds the simple sense of this passage in Avodah Zarah to be “abhorrent” (Guide, II.30).

4)  What is the pillar of wisdom (hokhmah) and why is it important if it does not lead to conjunction, overflow, or union?

Maimonides opens his Mishneh Torah  by stating: yesod ha-yesodot ve-amud ha-hokhmot leyda she-yesh sham matzui rishon. Following R. Isaac Abravanel, I translate that as follows: “The foundation of all [religious] foundations is the axiom on which all the sciences are based, to wit:  to know that there is a Prime Existent.”

I spend 4 chapters of my new book explaining the sentence, but perhaps it would be sufficient here to cite Abravanel’s complaint about it:

Why in the Sefer ha-Madda did Maimonides write of the first principle that it was ‘the foundation of all foundations and the pillar of the sciences’ when he should have said, ‘one of the foundations’, not ‘the foundation of all foundations’? Of what concern is it of ours whether or not this foundation is the pillar of gentile sciences, which are not of the Children of Israel (1 Kings 9:20)?” [Abravanel, Rosh Amanah, ch. 5]

Abravanel correctly understood Maimonides to be here importing [“Gentile”] science into the very heart of Torah. Maimonides did this in the context of a particular philosophical understanding of the nature of human intellect and its crucial role in achieving and maintaining contact with God. Abrabanel noticed that Maimonides claims that the “secrets” of the Torah, is a science open in principle to all human beings, study of which is a positive commandment.

While no one today accepts the philosophical underpinnings of Maimonides’ system, we should still ask ourselves: should we not seek to emphasize the sapiens part of our being homo sapiens? Should we not take advantage of one of the important parts of our makeup that distinguishes us from other animals? Indeed, since Maimonidean orthodoxy can never be simply orthopraxy, or social orthodoxy, not to examine the theological underpinnings of our behavior is, in effect, to behave like a robot.

5) Should we be as intellectually elitist as Maimonides? Are the mentally challenged like simians, as stated by medieval rationalists, and therefore will not get the world to come? Is stupid Judaism without wisdom not Judaism?

Let me make one thing clear. Once my wife complained about Maimonides’ elitism, blaming me for it. It did no good to explain that I was simply teaching what he said, without agreeing with it. In order to preserve shalom bayit (peace in the home) I hung a list of Maimonides’ mistakes on the door to our fridge. The first of those related to his intellectual elitism.

Since no one knows what it actually means to earn a share in the world to come, I am not about to express an opinion about who gets in and who does not. One thing, however, is clear: stupid Judaism, contra Maimonides, is still Judaism. Were that not the case, we would have to exclude a huge number of Jews (some of them quite prominent) from Judaism.

6) How did Rav Elchanan Wasserman get Maimonides incorrect?

In one of the chapters of my book I criticize  the way in which Reb Elhanan Wasserman, hy”d, presented Maimonides. Once, when I was much youngerI got into a lot of trouble by telling someone near and dear to me (who then practiced and still now practices a religion which I consider to be close to Judaism) that Reb Elhanan was an unsophisticated philosopher. My interlocutor replied by chasing me with a baseball bat around the yeshiva building in which this conversation took place. One can hardly blame Reb Elhanan for reading Maimonides as if he were a Yiddish-speaking yeshiva-head – otherwise, how could he take him seriously?

But, to judge him more charitably, it may be that Reb Elhanan, who was at one and the same time a very smart and obviously leaned man and also extremely intolerant of modernity and of Zionism, understood what Maimonides actually taught, but wanted to save him from himself as it were, or, at the very least, make sure that those raised to see Maimonides as a paragon of Jewish learning and of Jewish thought were not damaged by exposure to his actual ideas.

Reb Elhanan read Maimonides as if Maimonides had not read and been influenced by Aristotle and al-Farabi, among many others. This was not the way in which the RaN and Hasdai Crescas read Maimonides; they were unflummoxed by the fact that Maimonides got many important things wrong about Judaism (according to them), but it is the way in which much of the “yeshiva world” reads him to this day. BTW, were Maimonides to address us today, my best guess is that he would not tell us to read contemporary philosophers, but to study physics.

7) What is the problem with those who see an essential difference between Jews and Non-Jews?

What is the problem with those who see an essential difference between Jews and non-Jews? In the preface to my new book I discuss three examples of Judaic particularism: the disgusting, insane views put forward by the authors of the infamous Sefer Torah Ha-Melekh, the more moderate view of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, and the even more moderate view of Rabbi Herschel Schachter.

In contrast to Maimonides,  Rabbi Aviner follows Judah Halevi in claiming that the Jews are the chosen people because only they could have become the chosen people: Israel received the Torah at Sinai because no other nation could have received it. R. Aviner adds to this Halevi base ideas culled from Kabbalistic sources. Channeling, as it were, the Or ha-Hayyim ha-Kadosh (on Lev 20:26), for example, he writes (in a work addressed to IDF recruits!) that the difference between a dead gentile and a live gentile is not as great as the difference between a dead Jew and a live Jew. One would think that rabbis would have learned a certain measure of restraint in light of all that has transpired here in Israel over the last 20 years (since the assassination of Yizhak Rabin, z”l), but it seems that rabbinic irresponsibility knows few bounds.

In a more moderate vein, Rabbi Herschel Schachter of YU seems to misinterpret Avot III.14 in order to maintain that while all humans are created in the image of God, Jews are more created in the image of God. I have no idea what that could possibly mean. This appears to be a theological novum in Judaism, designed to moderate the hard-edged particularism of earlier authorities so as to make it more acceptable to contemporary ears. It does not work.

There are several problems with these views. Anyone raised on the US Declaration of Independence will find them abhorrent, since they maintain that all humans are not created equal. Of course, that will not bother anyone who rejects the idea that “all humans are created equal.” Perhaps the fact that these views go against the peshat of the opening chapters of the Torah that, everyone is created in the image of God, might give some people a moment’s pause.

But since, as Maimonides said, “the gates of interpretation are never closed,” there are many ways that one can get around the fact that the views on this issue espoused by Rabbis Aviner and Schachter fly in the face of explicit teachings of the Torah.

There is also, of course, the slight problem that the idea that Jews are in some innate way superior to non-Jews is simply false. There is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim, and plenty of counter-examples. Just last week, Michal Fruman, who was wounded in an Arab knife attack, was quoted in the Makor Rishon newspaper as saying that the Arab ambulance driver who took her to the hospital was much more sensitive and caring than many Jews she knows.

I realize that the fact that I also find the view to be immoral is not likely to carry much weight.

8) If a Jew must not believe anything and there is not one Jewish opinion, then why pick your approach over essentialist approaches other than person taste or moral taste?

 My argument in Must a Jew Believe Anything? is not that Jews may believe anything they please, and that there is no such thing as incorrect Jewish beliefs. Rather, I argue that belief in Judaism is best construed as fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty, trustworthiness, etc., in short, belief in as opposed to belief that.

Obviously in order to be loyal to God in traditional Judaism one must hold certain statements to be true – that God exists and knows us, that the Jews are God’s chosen people, that the mizvot are obligatory, etc.- but until the Middle Ages no one tried to get clear on what precisely those statements actually mean, and no one used the category of heresy in that context.  Just think of what kofer ba-ikkar (denying the principle) means in the Passover Haggadah – not heresy, but distancing oneself from the Jewish people .

The Jewish tradition encompasses a wide variety of views on a bewildering array of issues. Simply put, Judaism is both universalist and particularist.  As much as I would personally prefer that the particularist views were not part of the Jewish tradition, I cannot wipe them away, as most of those whose Judaism is only particularist do with the views with which they disagree.

In a recent article (Hakirah vol. 16, pp. 47-76), Rabbi Hanan Balk critically analyzed views of rishonim and aharonim about non-Jews which I find both distressful and distasteful. As much as I would personally prefer that the views catalogued by Rabbi Hanan Balk were not part of the Jewish tradition, I cannot wipe them away, as most of those whose Judaism is only particularist do with the views with which they disagree. But in actual fact, the Jewish tradition encompasses a wide variety of views on a bewildering array of issues.

I do not have the hutzpah to say that essentialist rishonim and aharonim are heretics. Rather, such views represent a particular strand of Judaism which does exist even if I prefer that it did not. This strand, I am convinced, is a reaction to a long history of tribulations. The messianic dream of Judaism as found in Maimonides’ writings (and elsewhere) represents another strand, one, I hold, to be truer to the teachings of Torah and the Talmudic Rabbis..

 9) Is the revelation at Sinai just human knowledge from Moses’ intellect?

I am a conservative interpreter of Maimonides. Thus, I read him as teaching that the revelation at Sinai was more than Moses tapping into the wisdom of the cosmos, as it were, and translating what he understood in that fashion into the mythic, figurative language in which he wrote the Torah. (Compare this alternate approach.)

10) What will non-Jews believe in the world to come?

My current understanding  about what Maimonides thought about Gentiles in the messianic era is somewhat fluid. I am not sure that he himself knew. After all, questions of universalism and particularism are important to us, but probably aroused much less interest in the Middle Ages. It is even likely that Maimonides never asked himself if he was a universalist or a particularist. The language was not even available to him. Thus, for example, while the notion of divine providence is central to the Torah, there was no word in any Jewish language for that idea till ibn Tibbon made it up (hashgahah).

But, for whatever it is worth, I am convinced that for Maimonides the distinction between Jew and Gentile (if it remains) will be much less important in the messianic era than it is today. Perhaps he thought that all Gentiles would become Jewish, or perhaps he felt that all humans would become Abrahamic monotheists without mizvot (and before any reader has a heart attack allow me to point out that even Nahmanides thought that the Torah only applied during “zman Torah” -the era of Torah- which would end with the coming of the Messiah). I guess we will have to wait and see.

 11) How are you universalist? You  may reject essentialists but you give little guidance about contemporary non-Jews, current oppressed people, or interfaith and multi-culturalism?

I am a Maimonidean universalist (as I understand him) in the following way: I believe that what human beings share in common is more important than what divides us.  Unlike Maimonides I am not a rabbi and I do not pasken (decide) halakhah concerning other religions.

I am a proud Jewish nationalist and think that of all the world’s religions, Judaism is the least bizarre, knowing full well that if I had been born and raised a Hindu I would probably think that about Hinduism (if one is allowed to use that term). Basically, I would just like people to get along.

But, I also do not believe that there is any such thing as a human being without a culture – it will be a long time before nation-states wither away.  A propos Jewish nationalism, it is a category error to think that nationalism is inconsistent with universalism (especially as used in this discussion). Nationalism need not be chauvinism. Maimonides himself was very proud, not only of Torah, but also of the Jewish people. While I disagree with Jewish non-Zionists (such as my respected teacher, Steven Schwarzschild, z”l, or my many loved Haredi relatives), I do not think that their views are illegitimate, only wrong. This in contrast to Jewish supporters of BDS, who are either foolish, or evil, or both.

12) As an intellectual fan of Leon Roth’s universalism, what do you make of his universal concern for the mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs in 1947-1948?

Leon Roth was a thoroughly admirable human being, and certainly a man of principle. I agree with idealists that if we do not use the ideal in order to judge the real we will never advance to the ideal – how could I think otherwise, both as a Jew and as a student of the late (and deeply missed) Steven Schwarzschild?

But I am also enough of a realist to realize that in a world in which only one side of a conflict  seeks to realize the ideal, while the other side ignores it, the first side is likely to end up dead. Leon Roth and the other members of Brit Shalom represented the highest ideals of Judaism, but as has been demonstrated time and time again, they had next to no one to talk to on the other side. I personally would have preferred that he remain in Israel to fight the good fight, but can hardly judge him on that, and have no right to do so. I furthermore admire his apparent unwillingness to allow his critique of Israeli policy to  be used by enemies of Israel.

13) Is Israel is more moral than other nations? Is that universal?

I do not believe that Jews are more moral than Gentiles. I do believe that Torah is superior to other systems, and that people who actually live according to the dictates of Torah are more likely to be moral than those who do not. However, I have met far too many deeply moral Gentiles of many different persuasions (most emphatically including atheists) and too many immoral Jews (including many who think that they represent “Torah true” Judaism) to believe that Jews are more moral than Gentiles.

I certainly do not believe that mastery of Talmud makes one a better person. It is one of the myths I grew up with, and it took me a long time to realize that it is precisely that – a myth. There are simply too many blatant counter-examples. Stating the main point of my new book and of this discussion, I follow Maimonides in holding the Torah to be a challenge, not an endowment. “You should be Holy “ (Kedoshim tihiyu) is not a declaration or a promise, but a commandment.

If by “Israel” in your question you mean the State of Israel, then, while I have intense criticism of much of what we do here, I do indeed feel that we are more moral than other nations. Certainly, compared to the way in which the United States and its allies wage war we are remarkably restrained, and concerned to minimize “collateral damage” (despite what our enemies and fellow travelers maintain).

14)  Why be Jewish according to Maimonides or as a Maimonidean?

If one believes that God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people, then of course remaining Jewish fulfills God’s will. Maimonides thought that the choice of the Jews was God’s backup plan, after the original Abrahamic covenant proved itself to be incapable of maintaining ethical monotheism (and yes, I know where the term comes from) in the Egyptian environment.

There are other reasons why people might choose to remain Jewish, but, as I have pointed out on several occasions, the reasons must be serious: it turns out that the choice of European Jews in the Nineteenth Century to remain Jewish ended up condemning many, many of their descendents to death at the hands of Nazis. Given the truly frightening rise of anti-Semitism in our world,  and the way in which it infects those whom one would expect to know better, I think it is obvious that one should have a stronger reason than sentiment or stubbornness to remain Jewish.

15) Shouldn’t the Roshei Yeshiva decide what is Jewish thought?

A good friend of mine likes to say about a prominent Rosh Yeshiva, “he knows so much more than he understands.” Mastering huge swaths of Talmudic literature does not a theologian make. It is also a category mistake to think that one can “pasken” theology as one “paskens” halakhah

You can ask Maimonides about that – his oft-repeated criticism of his rabbinic colleagues for misunderstanding the basic teachings of the Torah is quite withering (introduction to Helek, beginning of Treatise on Resurrection, etc.).

As the late and deeply lamented Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein pointed out, most of today’s so-called gedolim cannot write a sentence in correct Hebrew, and I add, even understand the grammatical points made by Rashi in his commentary to the Torah.

16) What of Maimonides-Laws of Mourning 3: 3?

A clever reader pointed out that the title of my new book, They Too are Called Human is odd since Maimonides actually follows R. Shimon bar Yohai in deciding that the laws concerning ritual impurity in an enclosed space (tum’ah be-ohel) do not obtain with respect to the bodies of deceased non-Jews (“Laws Concerning Mourning,” III.3). While this is technically correct, it is beside the point, since Maimonides is careful not to cite R. Shimon bar Yohai’s reason for his decision (that non-Jews are not called human).

Let it be further noted that since the Middle Ages at least it has been suggested that R. Shimon himself may have only been making a technical point about the laws of ritual impurity, without making any claims about the humanity (or lack thereof) of non-Jews. However, if it was R. Shimon’s intention to deny the full humanity of non-Jews, then, as argued in my book in detail, Maimonides certainly did not agree with him. Nor did he think that tum’ah is an actual characteristic of impure entities. He goes to great trouble (in Guide III.47 and elsewhere) to argue that ritual purity and impurity are halakhic, institutional distinctions only.

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 entire world. The document 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.

tucker screen

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).

Pruzansky - cover

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.

pruzansky picture

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.