Interview with Eliyahu Stern- Jewish Materialism.

Several years ago after he finished his book on the Vilna Gaon, Professor Eliyahu Stern thought he was going to write a book about trends in Russian Jewish entry into modernity, a book reflective of a survey course.  There was going to be Mitnagdim and Hasidim as well as Zionist and secular. However, the more time he spent with Russian Jewish ideas, the more he found that the shift in the 19th century was not to secularism and Zionism but to materialism. When Stern found Mitnaged Orthodox rabbis who were Marxists and Darwinists and simultaneously Kabbalists, he knew he was onto something. Therefore, Eliyhau Stern recently wrote a book on this important aspect of Russian Jewry entitled Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s (Yale 2018)

materialism cover

Elli Stern is Associate Professor at Yale University. He received his Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley in 2008 having studied with Daniel Boyarin and Martin Jay. Prior to that, Stern was ordained by RIETS. From 2009-2010 he was Junior William Golding Fellow in the Humanities at Brasenose College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. His first book entitled, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism  (Yale University Press , 2012). He has served as a term member on the Council on Foreign Relations a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and a consultant to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. Most importantly, he now has tenure at Yale. Accordingly, some people should be afraid; he will not suffer fools lightly.

Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s is a tour-de-force of rewriting the history of Russian Jewish thought away from intellectual issues- that parallel Western Europe- such as Enlightenment, haskole, nationalism, secularism, or Zionism- and toward their own 19th century Russian concern with materialism.  The volume shows mastery of Russian and Yiddish sources as well as important bibliographic sleuthing showing how 20th century Zionist editions of 19th century works removed the Russian literature and the materialism and replaced with Zionism

Example of his cast of characters include: Rabbi Isaac Baer Levinsohn (RIBaL) (1788–1860), who should not be situated just in the enlightenment project, rather he should be seen as dealing with questions of economic base and productivity.

The father of Jewish socialist Aharon Shemuel Lieberman (1843–1880), should not be seen as secular but as materialist, in that, he combined the Lurianic Kabbalah of Ramhal (Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto) with Karl Marx, a move of materialism not secularism.

Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz combined Kabbalah with Darwin; the innovation is the materialist turn to Darwin while remain an Orthodox rabbi who wrote Kabbalah.   In someone else’s hand, this might of become a rouges gallery of obscure kabbalists and Jewish scientists, but in Stern’s hands, the book become a major study of the Jewish entrance into modernity.

Why should I care about this materialism? First, it changes the narrative of Russian Jewish modernity.

Second, as an analytic category it has vital uses to explain many diverse aspects of contemporary Jewish life. For example, the best way to explain the difference between the creation of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism is that the former was a cultural middle class project while the latter was a materialist project of jobs and self-sufficiency.

Or one can reframe much of the Russian Jewish immigrant experience as a materialist movement creating Lower East side socialism, or even modern synagogues with names such as Hebrew Alliance or Hebrew Institute were originally aimed to uplift the working class. They do not fit into our current denominational models. It is also worth noting that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan received ordination from the religious Zionist Rabbi Reines and studied with the scientist Darwinist kabbalist Sossnitz allowing for a reconceptualization of the project of early 20th century modernizing rabbis.  Or that the cultural project of Ahad Haam was relying on these prior materialists.

Third, it opens up new ways to read other works. Contemporary historian Jeffrey Veidlinger notes in his Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Indiana, 2009) that the books most read by late 19th century Jews in Jewish public libraries were the materialists Nikolay Chernyshevsky & Dmitrii Pisarev. Zionism, Jewish worker’s movements, the musar movement, Mitnagdut, and early 20th century Hasidism were all responding to Russian materialism. After Stern’s narrative, we can go back to these movements and see what they were responding to in their works.

Stern’s book is however incredibly restrained and terse. The writing is so clipped that one needs to look up the biographic details as well as the philosophic details elsewhere.  A reader unfamiliar with Russian materialists such as Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Dmitrii Pisarev, or Nikolai Dobroliubov would not know the oblique references about Narodism or materialist theories.

And more tragically, the classics of Russian Jewish intellectual life have never been translated into English and are nearly forgotten compared to common knowledge of German Jewish thinkers. The books of Isaac Baer Levensohn, Rashi Fuenn,  or Moshe Leib Lilienblum are unknown today despite their importance in their own time. A reader of translations is sorely needed to create a canon of Russian Jewish intellectual history to correspond to the German one. However, Stern tight prose assumes great familiarity with these works and does not offer introductions or extensive translations.  Stern also does not directly deal with the bigger issues of Werner Sombart or Jews and capitalism.

In order to keep a crisp narrative on materialism, Stern has already spun off two side articles from his research. The first is entitled “Catholic Judaism: The Political Theology of the Nineteenth-Century Russian Jewish Enlightenment” which deals with how Russian Jews – focusing on Levinsohn and Fuenn- defended the Talmud as tradition, the same way Catholics defended their reliance on the teachings of the Church. And the other article is “Marx and the Kabbalah: Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s Materialist Interpretation of Jewish History,” which was removed to be a separate article because he was not writing a history of the Kabbalah in Russia.

This interview concludes with some application by Stern of his ideas to contemporary forms of Modern Orthodox and Zionism. His views on Modern Orthodoxy in Question #10 is meant to challenge those who ignore materialism.


  1. What is the thesis of your book Jewish Materialism? And how does it change the way we see 19th century Russian Jewish history?

The book tries to answer what accounts for Jews’ over-representation in late nineteenth and twentieth century political-economic movements such as Communism, Capitalism, Socialism, and Zionism.

Jewish Materialism argues that before we look at immigration patterns (to Palestine and the United States) class, anti-Semitism or marginality, we need to take into account the way in which Judaism itself in the 1870s was redefined around a new set of categories, namely around land, labor, and bodies. It was this conceptual shift that laid the groundwork for Jews’ involvement in movements ranging from Zionism to Communism to Bundism and in some instances capitalism and minority rights.

Jewish Materialism challenges the narratives of modern Jewish politics and modern Judaism by overcoming the bifurcation of “Judaism” as a religion and “Jew” as a secular political description. Scholars of modern Judaism have largely focused on the way Jewish metaphysics, eschatology, revelation, and ethics were reinterpreted to reflect models put forward by modern Protestant and German idealist thinkers. On the other hand, modern Jewish historians have studied the secular nature of modern Jewish politics and labor movements. This division between Judaism as a set of religious ideas and beliefs and Jews as a secular historical-political category is pronounced in the way the modern Jewish experience is most commonly divided in the American academy between departments of Religious Studies (Judaism) and History (Jews). The new agenda put forward in Jewish Materialism challenges this distinction and in so doing explains the experiences of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Jews more accurately. It also wagers that such an approach will better illuminate the historical underpinnings of the major contemporary markers of Jewish identity in United States and Israel.

Instead of concentrating on Western European lands, where the division between “Jew” and “Judaism” was conceptually developed and economically reified through a set of institutions and practices, Jewish Materialism focuses on the Russian Empire, where these categories were often employed interchangeably. By focusing on Russian Jewish thinkers, the book returns Marx and Darwin’s economic and scientific writings (rather than the various forms of idealism and ethics promulgated by Immanuel Kant and his followers) back to the center of modern Jewish thought. It was in Russian lands where Jews began to read Marx and Darwin through a specifically Jewish lens. Conversely, it reveals the kabbalistic, Hasidic, and biblical sources for today’s supposedly “secular” modern Jewish politics. Jews in Russia read Marx as part of a Jewish prophetic tradition and identified the project of historical materialism as reflecting a new form of tikkun olam.

2)      If your book is about a revolution in the 1870s why do you begin in 1795?

The material condition of Jews living in Russia in the 1870s was a by-product of political events that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1795 the Russian Empire, along with the kingdoms of Prussia and Austria, completed the third and final partition of the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russia acquired large swaths of territory spreading east of the Nieman River and down into Volhynian Ukraine. With its territorial expansion it also gained a number of new religious and ethnic groups. Now, Russia ruled over not only Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Catholics but also over roughly one million Jews. This Jewish community had existed for two hundred years as a corporate entity–a state within a state. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews were allowed to establish their own courts and civic institutions in return for taxes paid by leaders of local Jewish corporations. The corporate leaders negotiated these taxes, as well as the Jews’ legal and residential rights, with the Polish aristocracy. The Polish-Lithuanian Jews did not fit into any preexisting socioeconomic category of the Russian Empire. Their customs, dress, and languages appeared foreign and strange within the largely Christian, agrarian world. Jews were for the most part not agriculturalists. And as Jews they were barred from owning property or joining Christian guilds. The empire struggled to determine how best to rule its new population.

Russia was not the first state to be confronted with a seemingly independent Jewish population. For at least two decades, France and Prussia had been taking decisive steps toward dismantling medieval corporate institutions and assimilating their Jewish populations into new confessional and economic structures. In France and Prussia, Judaism would be increasingly restricted to family law, rituals practiced in the home, and services conducted in the synagogue.

In contrast to their coreligionists in Paris and Berlin, Jews residing in Russian lands in the second half of the nineteenth century remained landlocked, sidelocked, and locked out of major labor markets and state offices. Unlike Jews living in Prussia, France, and Britain, Jews living in the Russian Empire did not experience any material improvement to their lives. In fact, Jews in the Russian Empire were still denied basic access to land and labor markets even late in the nineteenth century. The state identified Jews as a foreign entity. Jews dressed in different clothes from those of other Russian subjects, they worked in circumscribed labor markets, and, for the most part, they resided in designated lands. They were not alone in their polarization: the Russian Empire also discriminated against Catholics and Muslims at various times.

The Russian Empire was not simply unable to provide basic material necessities for Jews well-being; increasingly, it began to appear that it was precisely because Jews were Jews that they were being materially discriminated against. For Jews living in Russia “the Jewish Question” quickly turned into a material question:  Would Jews ever be able to obtain the necessary means for ensuring their survival.

3) What happened in the 1870’s in Russia that warrant the focus of your book?

In the 1870s there was a reevaluation of Judaism through the material & physical world:We can point to at-least three factors.

  1. When the serf population was emancipated in 1861, Jews, for the most part remained circumscribed and limited in their professional options. By the 1870s, the stagnant Jewish population begins to experience the economic repercussions of the emancipation of the Russian serfs. The newly emancipated serfs flooded Jewish handcrafting markets creating a glut of laborers and fierce competition for jobs. Jews began to become acutely aware that being Jewish in Russia meant that you had a limited economic profile.
  2. Jews begin to experience increased physical threats and decreased access to resources. In 1871 the Jews of Odessa suffered a pogrom. Their bodies were being marked and punished for being Jewish. Anti-Semitism was not something social; it was becoming something physical and violent.
  3. Marx’s and Darwin’s writings begin to be translated into Jewish languages in Russia. The reception of Marx among Jews in the 1870s was unique. Marx made Jews see themselves as political actors through their labor. One did not have to be a citizen of State to see oneself as a political actor with the capacity for revolutionary activity. Russian Jews read Darwin through a uniquely Jewish prism and attempted to redefine Judaism through the struggle for survival.

4)      What are the three types of materialism, social, scientific, and practical?

As the Jewish memoirist Pauline Wengeroff remarked, a “whole new set of household words” emerged in the 1870s. These included, “nihilism, materialism, assimilation, Anti-Semitism, and decadence.” The term materialism was used to describe various intellectual movements and likewise, when employed in Jewish contexts materialism meant a range of different things.

Even in the 1860s and 1870s there was no consensus about what the term materialism meant. Scientists, social commentators, economists and philosophers all used the term in multiple and often competing ways. For example, F.A. Lange’s grand work The History of Materialism–praises “scientific materialism” in the context of critiquing L. Büchner’s “philosophical materialism.”  In my work, I explore the various discourses in which the term materialism was employed, using each as a locus of discussion.

For Moses Leib Lilienblum, being a materialist meant promoting “a materialistic perspective on life,” in which social practices and religious institutions were scrutinized according to universal scientific principles of efficiency and utility.

For the Darwinian Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz, it translated into being a proponent of a “materialistic religion” based on reading the Bible and Kabbalah through the works of Darwin and Vogt.

For the Marxists Aaron Shemuel Lieberman and Isaac Kaminer, being a materialist entailed practically transforming the world through a critical analysis of history with “labor being the first principle of life.”  All these social, scientific and practical definitions of materialism circulated throughout Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, often overlapping with monistic and certain strands of positivistic thought. What is unique, however, about this book’s protagonists is the way in which they connected these forms of materialism to their identity as Jews. Their Jewishness was defined by the way they related to physical world, to land, to labor and bodies.

5)      Why do we do we need to know about Lilienblum, Sossnitz, Shur, and Lieberman?

Jewish Materialism addresses people’s biographies only insofar as it illuminates something about their political and intellectual significance.

Moses Leib Lilienblum’s role as the founder of Zionism in Eastern Europe turns on his conversion from a melamed to the political upstart who said “in taten aryin.” His break with the rabbinate and critique of the Jewish enlightenment was based on the fact that in Russia both were equally impotent at helping him to procure the necessary means of survival.

The father of Jewish socialism, Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s embodied the very political revolution he helped to put into motion. His transformation from a husband and supporter of the Russian State to an outlaw and a bisexual occurred while he was turning the pages of Marx’s Capital and Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s 138 Gates of Wisdom. Lieberman’s life expressed in bold relief the radical sexual and political impulses in the kabalistic tradition and allows us to see why the concept of tikkun olam animated Jewish revolutionary activity.

Joseph Leib Sossnitz’s path from Habad Hasidism to proponent of a materialistic religion laid the groundwork for the idea of Jewish peoplehood developed by his American student, Mordechai Kaplan. Sossnitz’s own crisis with Habad’s acosmicism brought him to identify God in nature and to see the Jews as a distinct species.

Finally, the future Communist revolutionary Hasia Shur’s experience of being pelted with stones for taking a Shabbat walk hand in hand with Eliezer Tsukerman provides a window onto the way sexual and social liberation went hand in hand with political liberation.

The book tries to explain why these colorful vignettes in fact reflected a crucial turning point in Jewish politics.

6)      How did this effect Zionism?

Zionism was first and foremost a movement that redefined what it meant to be Jewish: Judaism went from being understood as a religion focused on rituals, reason, and study to a collective identity whose touchstones were the protection of Jewish bodies and the fair and equal distribution of resources. It is for this reason that Leon Pinsker and Judah Leib Levin and even Moses Lilienblum originally saw the immigration of Jews to the United States and Palestine as being part of the same movement. Zionism was not founded on the fetish for a particular parcel of land in the Middle East, it was directed at ensuring Jews physical protection and diversifying their labor profile. For the Jewish materialists, the choice between Palestine and the United States was rather minimal; the viability of one or the other was based on a cold and rational calculation of what option would offer greater forms of material protection and opportunities.

Zionism, as understood by the Jewish materialists, stood in opposition to Orthodox economics and politics: the shuls, yeshivot, hechsherim, and rabbanim, and the idea that Jews should be passive subjects to rulers of the various nation-states and Empires in which they resided. Lilienblum made Jews aware that they were starving because of a religious lifestyle and a set of values that drained their resources, and because of their support for a Tsar who could not adequately protect them.

7)      How have people read Klausner incorrectly?
Joseph Klausner is the scholar who came closest to identifying my thesis, but ultimately he also became the largest stumbling block to my research. Klausner was the first to recognize the novel historical impact Marx and Darwin had on eastern European Jewish thinkers in the 1870s. He knew that the Jewish reception of Marx and Darwin (and for that matter Chernyshevky and Pisarev) had radically changed the way Jews understood Judaism and related to their surroundings.  But Klausner submerged these insights into a broader theory of Zionism.

In his writings Klausner consistently insinuated materialism into ancient Jewish sources making it difficult to see the ways in which the materialist idea emerged in Jewish circles in the 1870s. “What do you mean Jewish materialism is a new idea?” Klausner might say, “look, here it can be found in the Bible!” To be sure, Klausner knew that Marx and Darwin could not be found in the Bible. but due to his own disputes with Marxist Zionists and Bundists, he asserted that the conceptual provenance of Zionism could be traced back to the words of the biblical prophets. It was only a matter of time until the writings of Marx, Darwin, and Chernyshevsky would be passed off by Zionists and Bundists as a form of “biblical messianism.”

In this regard Klausner followed in the footsteps of Asher Ginzburg, Ahad Ha-Am (who followed in the footsteps of Smolenskin). Scholars often forget that Ahad Ha-am’s insistence that Zionism was a spiritual movement was built on the material premise first put forward by Lilienblum and Lieberman via Chernyshevsky, Darwin and Marx. In other words, Ginzburg in the 1880s and 1890s was not secularizing ideas that could be traced back to Hasidic or Biblical sources; rather, he was spiritualizing the idea of Jewish land, labor, and bodies first articulated by the Jewish materialists in the 1870s.

8)      How does this change the way we see the breakdown of the religious world?

This is one the most important claims made in the book: the breakdown of the religious world did not come through what are often identified by scholars’ as a secular Jewish modernity:  the rejection of God and religious reform.

It came through the rejection of Orthodox economics and Jews’ revaluing the physical world. The Jewish materialists explained how the resources Jews were putting into yeshivot, synagogues, schools, and rabbis had come at the expense of protecting their bodies and developing their labor capacities.

As the founder of Zionism, Moses Leib Lilienblum explained in 1871, “[Jews labor profile primarily consisted of] the professions of preaching, religious adjudication, teaching, cantoring, matchmaking, writing, kabbalistics, synagogue work, psalm recitation, prayer recitation, seminary studies, asceticism, those who make their living from dowries, creditors, the fear of heaven and thievery.” Lilienblum’s answer to this problem was not to reform the Jewish soul-changing Jews beliefs reinterpreting Scripture or reforming Jewish rituals–but rather to see the Jewish body—its sustenance, maintenance, and protection—as the primary site of identity and then to ask how Jews might go about healing that body.

9)   Is this a book just about the 1870s, or does it have a message for contemporary Jewry?

The book concludes with a cliffhanger: Lieberman, Smolenskin, and Lilienblum debating the pros and cons of joining Russian revolutionary politics, immigrating to the United States, or traveling to Palestine. This debate, of course, foreshadows the big story of modern Jewish politics and present day debates over identity politics and economics and I touch on some of those issues in the Conclusion.

But for American Jewry, the most important takeaway is the deep spiritual background to its progressive character.

The poverty stricken Russian Jewish immigrants who followed in Lieberman and Winchevsky’s footsteps and arrived on these shores became leaders in progressive, socialist, communist, and other left wing political and economic movements. Inevitably, these movements were directed at rectifying America’s discriminatory economic system. From progressives (such as the future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) to socialists (such as Forward founder and publisher Abraham Cahan) Jews advanced a political agenda for the fair distribution of the social surplus and the protection of citizens’ rights as laborers. “The labor question is and for a long time must be the paramount economic question in this country,” Brandeis once remarked.

Their investment in these movements was not simply an attempt to be American or a rejection of their Jewish backgrounds. It reflected the kinds of sensibilities and assumptions about Judaism that were first outlined by the Jewish materialists. As I have detailed elsewhere, for these thinkers there is a clear line that runs from Luria to Luzzatto’s kabbalah to Lieberman’s Marxism. The American Jewish Left’s employment of Tikkun Olam to describe their commitment to social and economic equality was rooted in a long tradition that runs back to the very first yeshiva bochruim who read Marx in the 1870s and became the founders of Jewish socialism, Zionism and Communism.

10) …And what would the Jewish materialists say about contemporary Modern Orthodoxy?    

Jewish materialists, like Lilienblum and Lieberman, would have chuckled at a recently published 100-page sociological survey on Modern Orthodoxy. Its authors asked participants every ideological, halakhic, and theological question that you could imagine. But they forgot to ask them the most simple and basic question about their own lives: What do you do? What is your profession?

Lilienblum and Lieberman remind us that it is a mistake to examine Orthodoxy’s beliefs and spiritual positions independent of its adherents’ class profile. As I detail in Chapter Two, Lilienblum wanted Jews to realize the full implications of what it meant that religious life was an economic choice.

That means instead of understanding Orthodoxy by asking its adherents about their beliefs regarding God, Jewish law, and Torah U-madda, they should first ask them what kind of labor they perform. The Jewish materialists insist that if we want to understand Orthodoxy, we should not begin with its scholastic debates over the status of philosophy or secular knowledge. Instead we must look at its adherents’ marital patterns, zip codes, and the maintenance of boundaries (membership and conversion) that ensures a certain kind of social economy.

By starting with questions surrounding class, you will be able to better understand the cost of day schools, shul membership, and the adoption of various halakhic stringencies far better than if you begin by asking people if they accept or reject a certain paragraph in Karo’s Code. If the Judaism being promulgated by Modern Orthodoxy costs too much it is not Maimonides or Karo fault; it is because ultimately, Orthodoxy’s adherents are invested in it costing that much and want to ensure that only certain individuals can afford to be Orthodox or Jewish.

Applying Lilienblum’s insights to contemporary Modern Orthodoxy we might entertain the possibility that the high tuition fees at Jewish Day schools exist to enforce a desired socio-economic boundary: to be Modern Orthodox one must be wealthy. We might ask, do the schools ensure that only wealthy people (or those that willing to be charity cases) can be part of that community? To what extent do those who support the study of Torah together with secular subjects (Madda) do so because it costs double and ensures that only people who can afford to pay double can be part of their communities? We need to understand why only wealthy people can convert to Orthodoxy Judaism. Generally speaking, the RCA tries to convert only people that can afford to be Orthodox.

Materially speaking you cannot be part of a Modern Orthodox community and be poor; you cannot identify as a Modern Orthodox family and be working class.  To be sure, sometimes this approach will still fail to explain the full range of people’s behaviors. Checkbooks alone do not fully account for commitments.

Today’s Orthodox, however, in their voting patterns, ideological beliefs, and religious practices, reinforce a very defined class profile. They vote for Trump for the same reasons they support school vouchers and day schools: it advances the reproduction of their wealth.  It is certainly interesting and important to study the ways in which various ideas and beliefs –“love of Israel” and “halakha”—reinforce and shape this class structure. However, what Lilienblum reminds us is that if we want to understand why a group votes the way it votes, educates the way they educate, and resides where it resides (in the wealthiest zip codes in the United States), we need to first see its adherents in material terms. We must look at their labor profile and per capita income, and ask in what ways their cultural institutions and political proclivities support a certain class profile.

Lilienblum would insist: there is no such thing as “a conversion crisis” or “a Day School crisis.”  Instead, he would demand that we ask how the high cost of Day School tuition and conversion reinforce Modern Orthodoxy’s class profile. How many poor Modern Orthodox Jewish families do you know (a net income beneath $25,000)? It is a chutzpah for laypeople and rabbis to blame that on Karo or Maimonides, however it is educational malpractice for scholars and academics to continue to perpetuate these “crises” by ignoring the issue of class when examining Orthodoxy.

Channeling Lilienblum and Lieberman, I find it deeply troubling that Orthodox Jews think it costs so much be Jewish. Every time I go to a Shabbat table in an Orthodox community someone inevitably talks about how expensive it is to be Jewish. Do people really believe that Judaism was meant to be given only to rich people or that Jews are allowed only to engage in a few niche professions. Wasn’t the Torah given to the poor?

Once we understand the class profile of Modern Orthodoxy the next step would be to go about creating a space for Jewish practice that would not be classist.  We should develop forms of Jewish observance and culture that are accessible to civil servants, janitors, artists, and chefs, a Judaism for a public-school teacher or a struggling musician. That means ensuring that whatever is being taught does not require one to be able to pay a fortune or be indebted to the largess of philanthropists. We want an educational system that helps people tap into their full capacities. This does not mean that there will not still be lawyers and accountants; it means ensuring that the Judaism being promoted would be one that reflected the full range of people’s labor abilities.

11)   What is economic Zionism? What does it have to do with contemporary Israel?

Economic Zionism was an antidote to Orthodox economics and imperial politics. It attempted to ensure that people did not need to pay double to be Jewish.

Its goal was to ensure that Jews could explore the full range of their human capacities and protect themselves without recourse to institutions outside of their control. Specifically, economic Zionism promised Jews that they could be observant without necessarily being wealthy or recipients of charity.

From Lilienblum and Pinsker, to Herzl, to Borchov and Ben Gurion, Zionism was first and foremost about ensuring greater forms of economic equality. As Herzl stated in the first sentences of the Jewish State: “It is astonishing how little insight into the science of economics many of the men who move in the midst of active life possess. Hence it is that even Jews faithfully repeat the cry of the Anti-Semites: ‘We depend for sustenance on the nations who are our hosts, and if we had no hosts to support us we should die of starvation.’”

There are deep contradictions between the economic and political programs of the Zionism put forward by the Jewish materialists and that proffered by contemporary Israeli and American Jewish political actors. This is confirmed by other recent studies on related subjects. Most notably, James Loeffler has shown in his work, Rooted Cosmopolitans, the strong ties between the early twentieth-century Minority Rights Movement and early twentieth-century Zionists.  According to Loeffler, Zionism and international law were conceived of, and built, alongside one another as complementary protectors of endangered and oppressed ethnic and racial groups.

Similarly, the Israeli historian Dimitry Shumsky has revealed the way in which Zionist thinkers (from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion) stood in opposition to the fetishizing of land and the nation-state. One of the points that emerge from these new histories of Zionism is the deep discontinuity between much of historical Zionism and contemporary Israeli and American Jewish politics. The latter, unfortunately, is largely based around the fetish of a specific landmass, messianic aspirations, Orthodox economics, and the promotion of capitalistic industry and maximalist definitions of a Jewish nation-state.

It is more than ironic that a movement that was founded on the principle equality and the protection of Jewish bodies has flourished into an Israeli State with one of the highest poverty rates in the Western world.

Likewise, a movement that justified itself through an argument about economic mobility and the fair and equal distribution of resources to all groups of people has given rise to a State that seems incapable of applying the same principles to its Palestinian inhabitants.  Finally, and perhaps most shocking it not only tolerates the economic unproductivity of its Orthodox citizens, it encourages such behavior through a vast network of state-based welfare.   It makes one wonder what if any relationship there is between the current version of the State of Israel to the Zionism of Smolenskin, Lilienblum and Pinsker. But that’s a subject for a different book.

12)   What are your next projects

A small-pamphlet on the relationship between Jewish Orthodoxy and the Right Wing of the Republican Party. A large-scale history of the reception of Marx as a Jew. And I will explore the continuity of the ideas in the book in the formation of 20th century American Jewry.


Interview with Rabbi Bradley Artson on Process Theology

What sort of philosophy of God do you have? Theist, Pantheist or an Ultimate Reality or Cosmic Force? Is God all-powerful or limited? Concerned with our daily lives or not? Last week, the Pew foundation released statistics that a third of Americans treat God as a cosmic force and half of America are Biblical theists. These results should not be taken as anything new because much of American religion- from the Deist founding Fathers to the 19th century Transcendentalists, to the 21st century New Age- has always treated God as a cosmic force. However, the more important question is what are the properties of this ultimate reality? Pew, as usual, did not ask any follow up questions to determine the nature of the Ultimate Reality. Is it a disembodied Mind, a theopoetic metaphor for our own best selves or inspiring us with love and justice? Rabbi Bradley Artson has recently developed over several books a Jewish Process theology of love, compassion, and justice to address those who seek a religiously robust Ultimate Reality.

Bradley Artson holds an A.B. Degree from Harvard College, ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary and received his D.H.L. at HUC-JIR in Contemporary Jewish Theology, Artson served as the rabbi of Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo. In 1999, he started at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) where he is currently Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University and University Vice-President. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College at the University of Potsdam in Germany, ordaining Conservative/Masorti rabbis for Europe. Among his many books are the recent works of process theology Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit (Jewish Lights, 2015); God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Lights, 2016).

artson- becoming

Already thirty-three years ago, while still in Rabbinical school, Artson defined his view of God as ethical and simultaneously based on Torah.

Credo – Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson 1985

The two core assertions of  traditional Judaism, assertions  which I cannot prove but upon  which I stake my life:

The first axiom is that God is loving, compassionate, wise, and passionate about justice.

The second is that the Torah and  rabbinic tradition is the preeminent  vehicle for Jews to articulate a sense  of God’s will and to concretize that will in our daily lives and our social  structure.

I refuse to read halakhah or the Torah in such a way that it makes  God seem cruel, nor will I sever the  intimate connection between God’s  will and God’s Torah.  God is just, and halakhah embodies  God’s love and justice.

From these two points, a Torah of compassion and social  justice emerges organically.

Compare this to the other Jewish Gods available in the 1980’s. Some chose a God that demanded an intellectual mastery of a corpus of halakhic books with a concurrent remaking of reality to match the vision of the books, others chose a territorial God on the verge of a messianic return to a Jewish kingdom, and still others chose an experiential and emotional God found in the personal heart. How many would have chosen this moral deity if given a choice?

Artson felt the need to develop a Process Theology of God when his tacitly assumed prior orthodox theistic theology failed, as explained in the interview.

Process theology is a form of theistic naturalism developed by Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) in which God is located in the natural order as a panentheism, ever changing and affected by temporal processes. Unlike traditional theism, God is not all knowing, not all-powerful, not engaged in supernatural acts. God is temporal, mutable, and affected by the world.

To get to today’s views, I am skipping over many subsequent thinkers such as Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000) or Henry Nelson Wieman (d. 1975). In later decades, the theologian John B. Cobb (b. 1925) wrote many works applying these abstract metaphysical ideas to a working practiced religion, religion of prayer and compassion, which emphasizes event, occurrence, or becoming over against substance. Many moderate and progressive members of liberal religion in the United States find Cobb’s view a viable religion. They find it a theology able to preach, teach, and inspire an integration of spirituality, social action, and care for the earth.

In this post-Cobb version, process theology presents a dynamic interdependent universe, congruent with the insights of quantum physics, biology, and the ecological movement. Second, experience is universal, valuable, and variable. Process theologians believe that we live in an organic lived universe in which all things have some level of experience. Third, creativity and freedom are real for God and us. God does not, and cannot, determine the experience of any creature or the future of the planet. God does not determine our lives, have a plan for the details of our lives, or respond to events in our lives. Finally, God is creative-responsive love. God and the world constitute a dynamic synergy of “call and response” in which God inspires and energizes each moment of experience and, conversely, embraces the ongoing history of the universe as part of God’s own experience.

Process theology of the Whitehead variety used to be popular in American liberal rabbinic theology.  In the 1950’s Rabbis Max Kaddushin, Milton Steinberg and Levi A. Olan, and Harry Slominsky were influenced by process theology. Olan was publicly committed to defending in the Jewish journals the concepts of process theology. In later decades, William E. Kaufman and Harold Kushner shared much of this view of a limited divine.  Mordecai Kaplan is famously quoted as defining “God as the power that makes for Salvation.” Whatever Kaplan actually meant by that phrase, Milton Steinberg, a rabbinic theologian sharply and publicly differed with it by affirming a theism, a process theism in which God acts in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, and not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature. He claimed that the universe is dynamic, creative, rational and purposive and contains consciousness: “The entire universe is the outward manifestation of Mind-Energy, of Spirit, or to use the older and better word, of God.” On these older trends, see Jewish Theology and Process Thought eds. Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin (1996); William E. Kaufman, A Question of Faith: An Atheist and a Rabbi Debate the Existence of God and The Case for God.

Rabbi Brad Artson’s position is, in many ways, similar to that of Milton Steinberg but with the influence of Cobb, Clayton, and many later process thinkers who emphasize experience, compassion, and creativity. However, more importantly, Artson is deeply invested in ethics, ritual, and devotional life. When one compares Artson to Steinberg or Levi A. Olan, besides the greater systemization, one sees Artson’s commitment to a life of justice, compassion, and love as well as the importance of prayer, Torah study, and mizvot.

As a coincidence, this week I inherited a copy of Levi A, Olan from an older colleague cleaning out his office.  When perusing the old volume, Olan seems more abstract with a weaker theism, almost deist, allowing only basic universal values. In contrast, Artson’s Torah is robust with many classes, lectures, articles, and dvirei Torah bringing out the ethical meaning of Torah, parasha, or a Rabbinic passage. Artson finds rabbinic texts that support his position and reads them as process theology. This interview is one of the cases where, if I could, I would have redone the interview to focus on Artson’s ethical and Torah views instead of his metaphysics.

Here are three samples of his thinking. Love and Justice, Ethics and Ritual- Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Justice –Passover. For those who want more, Artson has dozens of divrei Torah and videos online.

An earlier version of his process theology was published eight years ago and is still online as a primer for his thought. BA-DEREKH: On The Way —A Presentation of Process Theology. This is a good place to start his thought after reading the interview. There was also a special issue of Conservative Judaism (Vol. 62 No. 1-2 Fall-Winter 2010-2011) dedicated to this preliminary version, comparing his thought to already known entities such as Milton Steinberg, New Age, Kabbalah, and Heschel. There was a solid discussion by Rivon Krygier  “The Force of Bradley Artson’s “Process Theology” and Its Limitations.” Here is a nice excerpt from God of Becoming & Relationship.

When all is said and done, process theologies may have little appeal in broader discourse and all the more so for a Jewish audience. The patriarch of process theology John Cobb was recently asked in an interview: why process theology has gained little traction? Cobb answered “The worldview that dominates most universities excludes both subjects and values a priori… Because this exclusion is a priori, no argument is needed. It is this metaphysics that still runs the world.”

Maybe, but a Jew who does not want a supernatural God but still wants a theism may be happier, and more comfortable, with neo-Hasidic, spinozistic, or New Age conceptions of God, not process theology. In addition, many Jews choose not to believe in theism altogether and prefer a secular humanism. Artson also does not engage the alternatives in a rigorous manner, of why his approach is better than weaker open theisms, than immanence, or than a non-personal God of peoplehood. Other Jews speak of God as a healer of shattered hearts, as having a plan for his people, and as experienced in mysticism. If one already has a theology then one would not be drawn to this. Artson assumes, just like Cobb, that everyone needs a metaphysics, so his is useful and adequate. However, many Jews just do not seek a metaphysics.  And those that do seek metaphysics, may be in the 50% of Americans comfortable with Biblical theism. In addition, his scientific worldview is optimistic, unlike those who sense a forthcoming global catastrophe.

Could there be an Orthodox version of process theology? I have met many Orthodox who interpret their Neo-Hasidic or Kabbalistic worldviews in process terms. But could one make a sustained theory?  (There is already a shallower version of process theology done by a contemporary Orthodox rabbi who adds Tony Robbins to produce a more gnostic New Age Secret Life of God. But he shows his complete lack of seriousness by concluding a 200-page book of process theology by tacking on a disingenuous two page affirmation of Kuzari theism).

In the end, both in this interview and the two recent books, Artson presents a Jewish process theology of God, focusing on the novelty of his process theology ideas of God. However, his ideas would have more traction if he stopped focusing on process theology and instead used these ideas to form a new narrative of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, especially an ethical covenantal narrative of the Jewish people, in which the process ideas are implicit rather than explicit. He should also concern himself more with alternatives to his approach, such as open theism and transcendental theism, and defend his position. He has all the elements of Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness in his books, but they get lost in the novelty of process theology. As a prolific author, Artson may already be writing the needed volume of Jewish narrative.

artson - creation

1) How did you get involved and discover process theology?

I grew up an atheist and turned to belief in God in college as a result of ethical philosophical questions (is morality reducible to majority consensus or is there a ground for what is good?) and then as a result of personal experience of the divine.

My theology was conventional for liberal theology (God was more or less the same God as the Orthodox but didn’t sweat the details quite so much). That carried me through college, working as a legislative aide to the Speaker of the California State Assembly for two years after college, rabbinical school, and into my new congregation in Southern California.

After about 5 years, my wife and I had twins and it soon became clear that my son Jacob struggled with a pretty intense form of autism. That threw my conventional theology (everything happens for a reason; it’s all for the best) into a tailspin. I could no longer affirm those platitudes without betraying my son. For two years, I simply avoided talking to or about God. I never stopped believing in God’s existence; I just felt it was better for both of us if we took a break from each other. But after that time, I needed to confront how this reality was possible: what kind of universe do we live in?

I knew I needed an organized program to see this investigation through, so I enrolled in the doctoral program at Hebrew Union College with Rabbi Dr David Ellenson as my supervisor. My first task was to read broadly in scientific literature to get to know the universe we actually inhabit.

I read in cosmogony, quantum physics, relativity theory, explorations of Dark Energy and Dark Matter, evolutionary biology, cognitive neurobiology, among other areas. I started to develop an understanding that the world isn’t made up of solid components that react against each other externally, but rather is made of recurrent patterns of energy that react both internally by responding to the shifting realities around, and externally by exerting an influence on other patterns of energy.  That means that the universe is profoundly dynamic and relational, and that the divine is not radically separate from creation but permeates creation and impacts it from within (naturally, persuasively). Creation impacts the Divine in the same way.

I was reading a book on different approaches to panentheism (the idea that God and the universe permeate each other but are not reducible to each other) when I came upon a chapter on Process Panentheism and discovered that my invention of Process Thought had been preempted a century earlier by Alfred North Whitehead and others. I started reading Process Theology writings and found a ready fellowship of people who share my core convictions and were personally among the warmest and most encouraging theologian/philosophers I have ever encountered.

2) You speak of the impact of your son Jacob’s struggle with autism on your emerging understanding of Process Theology. How has his autism influenced you?

I’m sure that I am not at all the same person I would otherwise have been. Having Jacob as a son has touched every aspect of my life. In terms of Process Theology, I can think of three areas of particular impact:

(1). Jacob is only moderately verbal, although he is able to type deep and sophisticated thoughts. Process Thought directs our attention deeper than rational, verbal expression, holding our deepest insights as “prehensions.” Jacob lives that reality and he has guided me past our Western obsession with words and analytical critical thought as the only, or primary, road to understanding. Seeing the necessity of knowledge for wisdom, but recognizing that the goal is wisdom, not knowledge, is a gift I got from my son and then found in Process Thought.

(2) I adore my son and see God’s love and generosity in the gift of being his father. Jacob took my commitment to diversity and different ability and vastly deepened it by sharing his life, his struggles and his triumphs every day. Walking through life with him has opened my soul to human and non-human diversity in all its beauty, courage, and resilience.

(3) For Jacob to forge a life of meaning takes such strength, such determination, such refusal to surrender. I see the ways that God is also self-surpassing in my son, as I also see God’s lure to Jacob to join in also being self-surpassing. When Jacob surprised all his doctors and experts by earning a high school diploma and walking across the stage to claim his certificate, I saw the finest example of God’s persuasive power, of listening to the lure, and of naturalist theology capable of gracing us with an additional measure of understanding, courage, and achievement. Jacob says that Torah saved his life, and that Process Theology saved Torah for him. It did for me too.

3) What is Process Theology?

Process Thought understands reality not as the bumping together of solid substances in absolute space and time, but as a cosmos of shimmering particles of energy which interact constantly and eternally. Every creature is really a resilient pattern of interlocking energy, each in a developing process of becoming.

Because “becoming” is concrete and real, and “being” is only a logical abstraction, the distillation of becoming in pure thought, Process Thought focuses on becoming as the central mode of every creature, of all creation, and indeed of the Creator as well.

The universe is recognized to be a series of interacting recurrent energy patterns, but not one that endlessly loops in the same repetitive patterns. Instead, the surprising miracle of our universe is that it seems to generate novelty with each new moment of continuing creation.

Process theology recognizes every “thing” is really a series of events across time, a process, that emerges in relationship. We are each a process, and creation is a process. God is a process, revelation is a process. All emerge in relationship, meaning that no thing can be understood in isolation. Each event has an interiority in which it integrates the reality around it with its own choice about how to proceed. In addition, an exteriority in which it has an impact on the choices of every other event around it.  We are all part of something interactive and dynamic.

In such a worldview, God is not outside the system as some unchanging, eternal abstraction. Instead, God permeates every aspect of becoming, indeed grounds all becoming by inviting us and every level of reality toward our own optimal possibilities. The future remains open, through God’s lure, to our own decisions of how or what we will chose next. God, then, uses a persistent, persuasive power, working in each of us (and all creation at every level) to nudge us toward the best possible outcome. But God’s power is not coercive and not all powerful. God cannot break the rules or unilaterally dictate our choices. Having created and then partnered with this particular cosmos, God is vulnerable to the choices that each of us makes freely as co-creators.

4) Is Process Theology Theist or Panentheist?

Process Thought sees itself as theistic. God has personal and impersonal aspects, eternal and timely manifestations. What most Process thinkers affirm also is that God permeates creation but is not reducible to it (panentheism) and that the two are mutually-influencing. We also reject the notion that God uses coercive power or can break the rules.

Can one ignore God or have a meaningful understanding of life without belief in God? Sure, but ignoring this force doesn’t mean it isn’t a force. One can choose to ignore gravity, but gravity manifests whether we attend to it or not.

Process Thought sees God not just as a character in a novel (with specific lines or actions), but more akin to the presence of the author of a play. Shakespeare, for example is never manifest in particular scenes or as a distinctive personality within one of his plays, nonetheless he permeates the entire drama, every line and as a whole. So, with or without a self-conscious sense of God’s impact or presence, a non-theist lives and moves in a cosmos in which God permeates the entirety of creation and powers its unfolding within and among each of us.

I am a panentheist not a pantheist. A classical theist believes that God is completely separate from the world. I don’t believe that. I believe that the world Is marinating in God, and that God is marinating in the world. If I were a pantheist, I would affirm that God and the world are one and the same.

I believe that both permeate each other, but that there are aspects of God that don’t involve the world, and aspects of the world that don’t involve God. Both have an irreducible reality beyond the other, but both permeate and influence and constrain each other. God influences the world by holding all potentialities, by keeping the future open, by offering lures to each created event, and by forever retaining our choices and all reality. The world influences God by the choices we make, which can either give God pleasure (when we rise to choose the Lure) or pain (when we do not). God’s memory becomes a permanent aspect of God, and it is shaped by our choices and behavior.

5)      How is God relational? How is God loving, caring and wise?

Every reality has an inner aspect (its own self-determination) and an outer aspect (its connection and relationship to the rest of creation. God is no exception: what God shares in common with all creation is a dynamic relationship that responds to the choices and becomings of others, which in turn shapes and constrains divine choices and becomings too.  That means that God influences creation (as I described above) and creation has an impact on God by providing the content of unfolding reality that God will eternally know and remember.

So, God has an internal aspect, choosing how to respond to the newest shiftings of reality. And God has an external aspect, impacting and shaping the Lure that makes our own choosing possible. Because God has timely aspects (ways in which God interacts within time and in the world) and eternal aspects (required by logic to be outside of time), God’s manifestations are beyond our own. One of the ways that God differs from the rest of reality is that God is able to relate to all of creation as a whole (that is part of God’s eternal attributes) and to every entity within creation (as the unifying ground of all becoming), and that God forever holds our choices and journeys in the divine memory (integrating the unfolding our choices into God’s eternal being). Nothing real is ever lost for God.

God’s goodness (love, care, wisdom) is absolute in all frames of reference. God is forever luring us (and all creation) to make the optimal choice facing us at the present moment (optimal in terms of love, experience, compassion, justice). God never gives up on us, never stops offering us the optimal possibility and empowering us to implement that lure if we so choose.

One of the great achievements of Process Theology is to declare that God is a force for good, but not the author of our suffering. As the Book of Genesis recognizes, there was tohu va-vohu (chaos) when God began the work of creation, of inviting the chaos to become cosmos. That chaos always exists, always threatens to destabilize cosmos. And God is always working to bolster the cosmos – the order, patterns, and reliability of creation. God is that force within nature allowing us to thrive, to grow, to surpass ourselves. That is the root of my religious optimism (and of Judaism’s): that our God is a God of righteousness, of justice, of hope. The Holocaust was an eruption of the tohu va-vohu and the outrage of the German nation choosing evil and rejecting the Lure.

6) What is the right way to read the Bible with process theology?

Process thinkers read the Bible as revealing deep wisdom, but not necessarily on the level of literal, historical facts. The stories and guidelines are divine in their insight and capacity to further human thriving, regardless of whether or not they actually happened. In this reading, Process Theology shares a great deal with other non-literalists.

A God who is not outside of time and space is one who can bubble up within human consciousness, removing the false dichotomy of the Bible having to be either God given or a human product. God works in, with and through us. We wrote the Bible together, our ancestors distilling the Lure into words: paradigmatic stories and wise behavioral guidelines that reflect our listening and distillation of a divine/human conversation across generations.

Revelation is the recording of the prehensions (intuition) that God inspires and which, in turn; Israel’s prophets and poets record in writing. That writing is both temporal and involves a series of events across time, making revelation both an ongoing series of punctuated events (the oracles of a particular prophet or the teachings of a particular sage, for example) and also a process that moves through time (hence, the open and ongoing nature of torah sheh be-al peh, the Oral Torah).

7)      How is your approach better than a generic agnosticism or being a “none”? Most Jews don’t care about God and don’t care about any theology, why process theology for these Jews?

One of the fatal challenges of contemporary Jewish thought is the segregation of scientific information and theory from cultural memory and practice. Among today’s Jewish thinkers, Judaism is just a culture, which means it does not help us in relating to the actual physical world, nor to addressing any real existential questions outside of a sophisticated notion of “myth.”

Most people find that approach barren and broken, and I believe that is one powerful reason by so many Jews reject the idea of God or divinity: because it is often presented in contradistinction to (and ignorance of) science. I teach my students that they must cultivate scientific literacy if they hope to be able to say something relevant to the actual world.

Science itself is an ongoing research method and a process of investigation, so it isn’t enough to read up on a field and then stop. Contemporary findings in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, cognitive sciences, to name a few unfold in a dazzling array of new insights and challenges.

I have given this general presentation to research scientists at NIH, who affirmed my scientific claims and descriptions as accurate. Both of my books are grounded in speculating on contemporary scientific data and research, for example the significance of Higgs fields (a relational process) rather than the insignificance of particular Higgs bosons (a thing).

8)      What is gained in your approach compared to other theological views of God?

I think we lose people to Judaism if we can’t provide a single coherent narrative that explains the universe from the beginning to our own cultural emergings and an agenda to make our own future meaningful and worthy. Contemporary people need an integrated description of reality and their place in it and guidance for how to live lives of beauty and purpose. That renewed unified story has to include all we know from the natural and social sciences, which will in turn shape new readings of our tradition and new ways of living that integrate Torah in our communities and our lives.

Process Thought offers several benefits:

(1) It integrates our scientific knowledge with our speculative thought and cultural heritage, Process Thought makes it safe to be rational again, and invites people beyond a false vision of religion as a shortcut around science or science as eviscerating morality. It allows us to know everything we know about the world and to take inspiration from that knowledge.

(2) A God of persuasive power is no longer the bully who torments us or torments our loved ones. That means that theodicy (why bad things happen) is no longer either an intellectual trap or a moral monstrosity that makes religious people blame the victims.

(3) God becomes our cosmic companion, seeking our thriving and making that thriving possible. Just as God is always luring us to an optimal choice and giving us the strength to choose that lure, so we can renew our hope and our strength in the light of this realistic faithfulness,

(4) Finally, a process faithfulness allows us to put our energy into this world: the work of building inclusive compassionate communities, living in harmony with creation, doing the work of justice.

9)      If you say God is our GPS then how does this work? What is gained by process theology that guides our life more than any other non-supernatural approach?

God lures us by an immediate perception or intuition (Whitehead calls that “prehension”) of the optimal next choice for each of us (“lure”). That lure is unique for each one of us, the integration of our own past, personality, character, talents, and possibilities. This is not a specific method, it is a comprehensive explanation of why the future is open, why we have agency and choice, and why some choices allow us to thrive better than others. We can discern the lure through prayer, meditation, therapy, nature, study, mitzvot, and  a host of other paths. They are dipolar too: meaning they are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

What is certain is that we all have the prehension within, and we need training and discipline to be able to discern its content above the clatter and din of modern life. Religion is such a training and discipline; a life of mitzvot can offer such access, if approached with an open heart and a willingness to discern.

Process Theology prioritizes actual events above speculation or conceptions of those events. That prioritizing of real life also elevates a naturalist view of the world, as opposed to a supernatural realm somehow outside of space and time.

Why does that reconfiguration matter? We now know that the cosmos is pretty super all by itself, and it continues to reveal wonders previously unanticipated. Nature itself is super, and wondrous (one might even say, miraculous!). There is neither need nor room for another realm.

10)      It seems you are basically a liberal theologian since you do not take God, Revelation, or reward literally. Are you not just a Jewish Unitarian?

There is a difference between taking something literally and taking it seriously. I affirm that God is real, not simply a useful fiction in my life or our culture. I affirm that God communicates with us and seeks our good (revelation) even if I don’t think that the mechanism God used was dropping a Hebrew book on us around a mountain one day. So, can we clarify: Process thinkers are God lovers, striving always to discern God’s message and God’s will. And we turn to our respective scriptures, to creation, to conscience to distill that message in our own lives and times. That’s pretty religious, isn’t it?


11) Can I just be an ethical ethnic Jew with theology?

I have no need to argue someone out of ethnic Jewishness. But ethnicity doesn’t guide how to live, to rise to what is right, to stand against injustice. So it seems to me a rather trivial goal, one that many contemporary Jews justifiably abandon as marginal. I think many people want to know what is asked of them now, this moment. And they want to live lives of significance and uplift.

Process Thought opens Jewish scriptures (Bible and rabbinics) to help today’s people renew their strength and clarify their life purpose while enlisting the best of today’s knowledge and information into that worthy effort. For others, what it might offer would be a coherent explanation of the cosmos and life that includes what western thought divides up into science, social science, and the humanities. .

12)   You cite the musar masters as process theology, but they used Maimonides and Kabbalah to express and develop hesed.

Finding scattered quotations doesn’t replace the need for a coherent system. And an overarching systemic understanding would then seek instantiation in the insights and sources of a wisdom tradition like Judaism. The metaphysical system of Process can deepen and clarify how a value-concept (to quote Max Kadushin, an early Process influenced rabbi) like hesed works in a way compatible with our scientific and contemporary understandings.

And if that metaphysics is “True” (in the sense of explanatory, predictive, coherent) then we would expect to see multiple Jewish sources that would reinforce its assertions and provide examples of its interpretive utility.

Many have recognized that Aristotle himself was a proto-Process thinker (explaining the world as dynamic, interactive, responsive), and that would entail that the medieval neo-Aristotelians (like Maimonides) also prepare a path that later explicit Process thinkers can extend.

13)   Where do mitzvot fit in to process theology? Your theory of authority of the tradition, a traditional Conservative position, is not itself generated from your process theology. 

In Process approach, the doing of mitzvot as a manifestation of God’s presence and concern would be of greater importance, not less.

Judaism is not reducible to an abstract set of principles, because it has to be lived in actual relationships – between real living entities, between us and other peoples, between humanity and all the earth, between contemporary Jews and Jewish tradition, between Jews and God. Science can inform us about the physical aspects of reality, but the making of meaning is a human action, mediated through culture and character. Hence the humanities are the proper address for that decision making and affirmation. Talmud, in this case, not test tubes.

Of course, bringing a cosmic, Process perspective to our Jewish practice will make that practice more pluralistic and fluid. Some will resonate to a fairly traditional and halakhic Shabbat. Others might discover Shabbat community and connection in a less traditional framework, or outside of any halakhic reference whatsoever. A Process approach won’t adjudicate between these possible Shabbat days, other than to continue to insist that our practice enhance experience, justice, love, relationship (hence, community). The authority of the system is the wisdom the system manifests, not simply how it came to be written down.

14) What is prayer in this approach?

Prayer can engage hope, reminder, struggle. It can be a pouring out of words, song, postures, and crying out. It can be solitary or communal. Maybe the key Process tool here would be to recognize that “prayer” isn’t a thing to be measured against some objective criteria. It is a name we give to range of human activities. People pouring out their hearts, articulating their hopes and pains and aspirations, affirming or smashing assumptions of power, utilizing established liturgies or sitting in silence, dancing to music  or sitting in silence have all been prayer acts in different times and places. I refuse to choose among them.

15) Where do you go beyond Whitehead? What do you take from other Process theologians? Should your readers read them?

One place where I deliberately go beyond Whitehead is to prioritize morality. Whitehead was reacting against the moralistic fundamentalisms of his day, but I think he pushed too far. He correctly saw God as portrayed in Tanakh as moral and the prophets of Israel held an ethical yardstick to their assessment of religious authenticity. We need to restore that priority today as well, so I specify the lure in those terms (love, experience, compassion, justice) to make that moral voice primary.

John Cobb is the living grandfather of Process Thought, and as fine a human being as I have ever met. His introductions to Process Thought (two volumes of Q&As) are worth their weight in gold. Phil Clayton is also a first rate mensch and his scholarship on emergence and on panentheism opened doors for me that I traverse daily. Catherine Keller is my favorite theologian ever! Her audacious heart and her soaring use of English are simply unparalleled. Reaching her book On The Mystery is itself a religious experience. Jay McDaniel has written a great work on the place of animals in a creation theology and a great anthology introducing Process Thought. He has also created a raucous Web site of Processy articles from all faith traditions ( All of these wonderful people have become my treasured colleagues, mentors and friends.

Mordechai Kaplan in his later thinking surpassed his youthful naturalism (a more mechanistic view of nature) into a richer transnaturalism that has more than a few explicit references and hints of Whitehead and Process.  Steinberg and Kadushin also acknowledge the impact of Process thought and manifest it sporadically, but none of these great thinkers addressed themselves in a systemic way to a comprehensive and underlying metaphysics.

Pesach Sheni as a therapeutic holiday

This is an update of a short 800 word post from 2010, now it is seven times larger. It is another one of my loose observations of lived religion. (I will still be editing and changing this post over the next few days)

Pesach Sheni is this Saturday night and Sunday-Iyyar 14. It seems that before our eyes Pesach Sheni became a holiday of second chances, reminding everyone to make sure that everyone is included and in which no one is excluded. This folk practice has connections to Chabad, contemporary American sociology, and current trends in theology

Traditionally, Pesach Sheni was a minor vestigial day, which some especially Hasidim treating it as a minor festival.The practice of Pesach Sheni was originally a day for those who could not bring the Passover sacrifice to be allowed to bring the sacrifice a month later. There are customs among some Hasidim to eat a piece a matza on this day or to hold a seder – a tisch for Hasidic Torah.

The homiletical Torah in later centuries for this day was about those who carried Yosef’s bones. In the Middle Ages it was the last chance to see the miracle of the Exodus and bask in how God is above the natural order. And there is some Polish Hasidic Torah about hametz and matzah being at the same time. There was an important section in the Zohar and it was the holiday of Rabbi Meir Baal Hanes charity (see below).

A decade ago, about 2008 there was a burst on the scene of this Pesach Sheni practice within the broader Jewish community. This day became a day when all those who need a second chance have their holiday. Almost any metaphors of 12 step, broken pieces, therapeutic religion, shattered lives has made its way into Pesach Sheni Torah, from all sorts of outreach/kiruv and self-help sources. (There is enough for grad student to collect and sort it out.)

Originally, it applied to those released from prison, recovering from addiction, or having mental health issues. In the last five years it was further extended to broader questions of diversity to include feminism, LGBTQ. In 2010, Kolech – the Israeli Orthodox feminist organization and initiated by Bat-Kol, the organization of religious lesbians, proclaimed it a day of inclusion of all. The holiday picks up steam in 2016 year when was a widely circulated blog post discussing it as a holiday for GLBT exclusion. In addition, Rav Cherlow gave a Pesach Sheni talk on the need to confront the other and this year on the need to accept gays in the community. In 2017, Pesach Sheni was a declared religious tolerance day.

But what I am noticing on this one is that the individualism of the kiruv organization, yeshivish self help and Neo-Hasidism is overlapping in metaphors and folk holiday with the liberal voices of diversity. There is a social reality of exclusion needing homilies of inclusion and a reality of therapeutic Torah.

Since the practice of Pesach Sheni had little current actual practice except the pietistic custom of eating a piece of matza. It was an ideal underdetermined date with underdetermined practice ready to be filled in by a contemporary cosmology. Much of the language for this holiday comes from Chabad sources.

rebbe-pesach sheni

Origins in Chabad Theology

The Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn arrived in the United States, first as a visit in the 1929 and then permanently in 1940. Already from his first trip the United Sates, he emphasized the piety of the common person over the Rabbinic elite. In his sermons from his visit to Chicago, he categorically stated that the simple Jew who burns in his heart is greater than the intellectual scholar who is religiously cold. He also produced many stories of holy people who appear as sinners or ordinary people. He taught about how simple unlettered Jews are not far from God – in contrast to the rigid hierarchy of Lithuanian Jewry. He was showing inclusiveness for those whose journeys took their personal narrative far from the imagined ideal in contrast to the Rabbinic establishment seeking to exclude.

In 1944, the Rebbe Riyatz (Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn) wrote that Pesach Sheni is a second chance for all those who were far away. It was a noble message for an era of immigration and dispersion. This concern for simple yidden and their probelms, however, went out of fashion in the post WWII era.

In his diary of daily advice (edited by his future successor Rabbi Menachem Mendel) he wrote:

Iyar 14, Pesach Sheini, 29th day of the omer 5703

The theme of Pesach Sheini is that it is never too late. It is always possible to put things right. Even if one was tamei (ritually impure), or one was far away, and even in a case of lachem, when this (impurity etc.) was deliberate – nonetheless he can correct it.

Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn in his sermons was dealing with actually displacement of war, famine, and struggles to survive. Now we have an acute sense by many in the community that many people are excluded and need to be made welcome again.

In 1978, his successor the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn told over the teaching of Pesach Sheni from the prior Rebbe as an opportunity for a second chance.

Pesach Sheni gives those who did not offer the Pesach sacrifice the first time the opportunity to do so a month later. Its message is that nothing is irretrievable, that a Jew can always rehabilitate himself.
One clear lesson from Pesach Sheni is that a Jew need never give up hope. In the words of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe: “The idea of Pesach Sheni is that nothing is irretrievable; we can always rectify our behavior. Even one who was ritually unclean or who was on a distant journey – even willingly – can still rehabilitate himself.” A Jew is intrinsically good, his soul “a part of G-d Above.” Sin is completely antithetical to his nature. If he does transgress, it is an aberration that cannot touch his essential self. He may be temporarily unclean, but he is of the loftiest levels. Thus no sin, no omission of service to G-d, is irretrievable. A Jew can always return to his real identity. Likkute Sichos XII 5738, emor 216-220

In later talks, as paraphrased on the Chabad website, the holiday is an opportunity to change our lives. However, this opportunity is available specifically to those fell from the envisioned path. Their fall is the catalyst for greater growth. A form of spiritual decent for the sake of ascent.

Pesach Sheini embodies the approach of teshuva. In order to return to the proper path, it is not enough to merely avoid impropriety; the individual must address the fact that he has succumbed to the forces of evil and use this fact to strengthen the weak point in his relationship with G‑d. When he does this, he transforms the power of evil into holiness and his previous sin into a source of merit, thereby obtaining G‑d’s forgiveness for his misdeed. This capacity – the ability to change that which is already done and to overcome wrongs that have already been perpetrated – is drawn from a source of transcendent spirituality, a level beyond merit or iniquity. It taps into the essential relationship between man and G‑d, which is not predicated on our obedience to His will. This connection can never waver, for it is intrinsic in nature; the essence of the Jewish soul is one with G‑d whether they obey His will or not.The leaven need not be banished, since we are ready to elevate it…

Because Pesach Sheini, is an exercise in transcendence, it does not require the methodical preparation required by the regular Pesach. The leaven need not be banished, since we are ready to elevate it, too. Earlier impurity no longer matters, for it cannot destroy this intrinsic connection. And one day is enough, for this connection transcends time as well as behavioral issues.

If, as has been explained, Pesach Sheini embodies a higher degree of divine service, why is it reserved for those who became defiled? Why could one who brought the sacrifice on the first Pesach not enjoy the sublimity of the second? How was he to achieve the advantages of transcendence?

It was only those who had deviated from the proper path and had never begun a proper journey of growth that needed to skip directly to the transcendent. They required a catalyst, an offering to be brought in the second month, because without that “jump”, they would have remained helpless and unchanged.

Why do we celebrate the Pesach Sheini nowadays? We were not obligated to bring the sacrifice on the first Pesach. Why do we mark the secondary choice?

The answer is that we celebrate its spiritual meaning. We celebrate the added capacity to achieve a higher degree of spiritual connection. And, we celebrate its lesson: no matter what may have happened in the past, no matter what we may have spoiled, it’s never too late. We still have the ability and opportunity to change – not only our futures, but even the effects of the past.

Typically, Chabad spirituality since the Tanya has stressed the proper path of Torah teaching that one should avoid sin or things that take one from the path. In Chassidic language. It is overcoming temptation (itcafya). However, here we have the other Hasidc option discussed more in other groups of transforming the spiritual energy of the deviation to a higher service (ithafcha). This is closer to an Izbitz of transforming sin into merit teaching than popular Chabad approach.

Nevertheless, this homily follows from the other homilies of Rebbe Menachem Mendel teaching there is a transcendental place, a higher connection, that can transcend ordinary approaches. In most places, the Rebbe calls this Kesser (keter), the point of pure devotion and giving of the will higher than medieval sefrotic hierarchies or specific mizvot. Here we have an ordinary day in which we can work and eat leavened bread that is paradoxically higher then Passover itself.

There is also speculation that the Rebbe’s Pesach sheni teachings are somehow also connected to the yahrzeit of Yisroel Are Leib, the Rebbes brother, who left the religious path.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach added these ideas to his repertoire of stories from Rebbe Riyatz on holy sinners, ordinary people, and deepest desires as a path to a high service. The Carlebach Torah for Pesach Sheni was already on the web back in the days of Web 1.0 and majordomo mailing lists letting the ideas diffuse widely.

By the new millennium these ideas had migrated into English Breslov, outreach literature, and web Torah, but as part of other homilies. It was turned into a day of second chances for convicts, addicts, abuse, sexual and gender alienation, divorce, second marriages, and GLBT identity.  It seems to have happened very quickly both here and in Israel.

Prison and Released Prisoners.

The first group to make use of these ideas was for Chabad organized conferences for prison chaplains. Prisoners and those families touched by cycles of incarceration needed a second chance.

But there is a deeper story here; once again a Chabad story.  Chabad under the Rebbe Riyatz and Rebbe Menchaem Mendel reached out in their outreach to prisoners, mentally and psychologically challenged in mental hospitals, the elderly and infirm, the substance addicted, the handicapped, soldiers, and the deeply assimilated.

I recently supervised as an outside reader an Israeli social work MA on the principles of inclusion of the Rebbe. Whereas, most Jewish communal work is focused on the core of those committed or bringing people into the core, Chabad as expressed in the Rebbe’s talks includes everyone. They can fill an empty synagogue space by going door to door and inviting the elderly and infirm, or bring people from a local institution or assimilated merchants. They can ask tattooed musicians or intermarried store keepers: “Are you Jewish?” Many say they want to learn from Chabad in doing outreach but then miss the point by doing outreach only to comfortable and well organized suburbanites. Then you are only doing marketing and not imitating Chabad who are doing inclusion. I am not saying that Chabad always has the knowledge and professional skills to handle the problems of these constituencies, but they include them.

Hence, one of the first groups to make much of this day were the Chabad groups engaged in outreach to prisoners.

It’s a most opportune day to change for the better, notes Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, the executive director of the northeast chapter of the Aleph Institute, an international organization that aims to help incarcerated Jews and their families, in addition to Jewish service men and women in the U.S. military.

The nonprofit entity will host its seventh annual Re-Entry Symposium, a training program for Jewish chaplains who serve people in prisons, hospitals or group homes. “The way forward is to teach” people who are incarcerated, emphasizes Vogel, “and give them the rehab they need to become productive citizens.”

“We all trip in our own ways, and we have to know that there is a second chance,” says the rabbi. “We can always repent. We can start off life anew. We can fix the errors that we have made.”

Here is where this blog post comes in. These concept of second chances and these activities of inclusion are mainstream in the 21th century among many Americans. When the Chabad chaplains were organizing, so too the Christian and non-affiliated groups have been organizing for the last decade. Most of you are probably unaware that in April 2017, the month of April was adopted in a bipartisan action as “Second Chance Month for those affected by Crime and Incarceration.” The United States has institutionalized April as a time of Second Chances and it coincides every year with Pesach Sheni

In 2017, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring April “Second Chance Month,” a time to focus on giving those who have committed a crime, done their time, and have been released back into the community a second chance to be productive and contributing citizens. The 65 million Americans with a criminal record experience limited access to jobs, education, housing, and other things necessary for a full and productive life.

Make your church a welcoming place for people affected by crime and incarceration with a message on redemption and a special prayer time for impacted families.

Someone even wrote a speech for President Trump on this theme of reintegration in society after incarceration.

During Second Chance Month, our Nation emphasizes the need to prevent crime on our streets, to respect the rule of law by prosecuting individuals who break the law, and to provide opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.  Affording those who have been held accountable for their crimes an opportunity to become contributing members of society is a critical element of criminal justice that can reduce our crime rates and prison populations, decrease burdens to the American taxpayer, and make America safer.

pesach sheni

Further Extensions to the Holocaust and to Acceptance of our defects.

As noted, this idea of a second chance moved to many directions. There are dozens of applications online, but I only want to note a few.

It has been extended as a way to understand how Holocaust survivors were given a second chance, helped by the proximity of Holocaust Remembrance day to Pesach Sheni. There are stories online connecting Pesach Sheni to the liberation of Buchenwald and the Passover eating of matza held that year on Pesach Sheni. “All Jews were invited by Rabbi [Herschel] Schacter to attend services and to eat Matza, since it was Pesach Sheini that day. The second Pesach, for Jews that couldn’t observe the holiday of Pesach at the proper date…The prisoners of Buchenwald never dreamt they would be given a second chance.

Here is one where the Holocaust theme become a model for accepts our defects and moving beyond things that hold us back.

The Gift of Second Chances 

Some apply the concept to their personal narratives as children of Holocaust survivors and their own having to learn compassion as second generation of survivors. “My parents’ lives were replete with second chances. My mother lost her entire family, yet she was able to pursue her life-long dream of becoming a physician. My father survived numerous dramatic encounters with death…”  Yet this author notes they became critical and perfectionist with their children.  “My parents survived on second chances, but they were unable to offer me (or my siblings) the same. Perfectionism ruled our home. Mistakes were not an option. Compliance was survival. Criticism was the language of lullabies; I was nursed on negativity.”

Today I have compassion. I know that my parents could not have done any differently. With their pain, they built the best lives they could. They endured unimaginable horrors. They lacked the gift of faith.

In their plea for a second chance to bring the Passover offering, our ancestors gave expression to our own inner truths: Just because we have inherited traits and adopted behaviors that do not serve us well, why should we miss out on the joys of life? We, too, want fullness and richness and serenity in our lives, true closeness in our relationships.

The same author then extends this framework of not  missing out on the joys in life to brader issues of Judaism and serving God with our imperfections.

The gifts of recovery stem from our connection with our Creator. Biblically, bringing offerings was about coming close to G‑d. In our days, we, too, bring our offerings as a way of coming close to G‑d. We present our defects of character. We offer our addictions, our passions, our habits. We beg G‑d to remove the obstacles to our spiritual, emotional, and physical well being.

Many recovery groups study Step Five this month. We admit to G‑d, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. This is Pesach Sheni/Second Chance work! In admitting our shortcomings in this manner, we have another opportunity to renew our relationship with G‑d. We can become acquainted with our true selves.

Pesach Sheni as a holiday for Feminism and LGBTQ inclusion

Pesach Sheni can represent the inclusion of women for example using the daughters of Tzelophechad as an example.  This Year JOFA is hold a women’s seder on Pesach Sheni as part of a message of inclusion. An example of an Orthodox feminist application is the following:

Nowadays Pesach Sheni is a symbolic date on our calendar, but we can imbue it with contemporary significance by lending it to the ongoing debate around the inclusion of women in rituals from which they have traditionally been exempt. The debate, comprised of numerous elements, both halakhic and hashkafic, would be richer if it included the sociological role of belonging that many of these rituals invoke.

It may well be that in strict halakhic terms a woman is exempt from a particular ritual, but as Pesach Sheini informs us, exemption often comes at a cost. In the case of women and ritual, the cost can be alienation and disconnection from the sacred community. The important question then is, can we afford to bear this cost?

An analogy between the celebration Pesach Sheni and the allowance of same sex marriage as an act of inclusion. Several online statements argue that this Torah portion tells us God instituted a new holiday to enable all people to be involved even if they were different.

They usually connect this inclusion to general diversity issues related to gender and sexuality, but also race, ethnicity, and class

Our Torah portion tells us God instituted a new holiday to enable all people to be involved even if they were different. Putting this notion into modern times makes it easy to believe God wants us to be able to marry if we choose to, since today, marriage can be perceived as analogous to Pesach observance for our ancestors many millennia ago: it demonstrates a kind of “fitting in” or adherence to “expectations” and we all deserve to be able to do this if we feel so inclined.

Second, all people, according to the Torah, are held to the same standards no matter when they celebrate Pesach. Similarly, no matter whether a marriage is same or opposite sex, God expects the same level of commitment, respect, etc. within the relationship; simply being different doesn’t mean we are held to a different-no matter whether it’s lower or higher standard than other people are.


American Popular Psychology Applications of Pesach Sheni

This topic of second chances is playing a bigger role in American culture. For example, there is a journalistic pop psych book “The God of Second Chances,” by Marcia Z. Nelson in which the author traveled the United States in search of people whose lives were transformed by religion.  She found people who returned to religion as a second chance after drugs, after tragic loss of family in premature deaths, after involvement in extreme political groups.

None of her stories told how everything has been wonderful since they found God, the struggles continue, even after divine presence has entered into their lives and transformed them. Rather the book showed that shows something that American organized religion tends not to see: “the extreme highs and lows that characterize the lives of many people, including people of faith.” And it showed the complex ebb and flow, the forward and backward movement of divine transformation. “Sometimes, there are permanent scars. The Jewish man, for example, lost his once-powerful voice to throat cancer – an experience he understood as God taking him by the throat and insisting, “Shut up. Stop talking. Start listening.” The important thing about second chances is that the past can and will influence your life forever. A person uses their struggles to fuel the second chance.

In a similar manner, there are human-interest stories from Jewish journalists about their second chances and their overcoming a sense of disconnection. Websites such as Aish can sanctify people getting their lives in order as part of the Torah concept of Pesach Sheni.

Pesach Sheni: The Holiday of Second Chances Karen Wolfers Rapaport

Disconnection is often a byproduct of unconscious living. When we let our conditioning be our compass so that our paths never change, neither will our landscape. Whether it’s in relation to ourselves or to others we will feel disconnected from the inroads that lead to our essential self.

But life gives us many second chances. And each time we choose to live consciously and move from judgment to compassion, apathy to care, idleness to activity, we begin to reconnect and travel towards home… Pesach Sheni, the Second Passover, thus represents the power of rerouting to our core, to our Divine connection.

American Society and Second Chances

Prof David Newman, a sociologist at DePauw University delivered a paper on “The Practice and Promise of Second Chances in American Culture” and will have a forthcoming book The Promise, Practice and Price of Second Chances in American Culture (Lexington Books), projected to be published in 2019 (Lexington Books). He shared his unpublished paper delivered at the ASA with me.

Newman notes that the news is filled with stories of high-profile people making serious mistakes, crimes, or acts of bad behavior, followed by apologies, then a period of non-visibility (in rehab, in prison, on the disabled list, under suspension, or simply in seclusion). The conclusion is inevitably the individual claiming to experience an epiphany about the misdirection of his or her former life and promises to be a better person from now on, allowing him or her to make a comeback.

But our American lives are filled with adults shifting the trajectory of their lives, divorces remarrying, or fortunate patients overcoming a life-threatening medical condition. According to Newman, “in every facet of our lives” including “intimate relationships, academic performance, occupational choices, financial well-being, run-ins with the law, spiritual happiness, physical health” Americans “expect and seek out opportunities to overcome past misfortune, fix past mistakes, amend past transgressions, or correct past failures.”  Newman notes that the concept of a second chance is a “quintessential cultural paradox,” which represents “individual hopes for redemption, while at the same time it reminds us of our harshest proscriptions and darkest suspicions about the intransigence of human nature.

We find the concept of a second chance “in some form, in societies around the world, it has an especially American appeal.” It combines “Judeo-Christian tradition’s allowance for sinners to repent or atone for their sins and be fully redeemed” with American “therapeutic ideology, providing a progressive, optimistic, curative setting for individual rehabilitation while simultaneously rebuffing the notion that people are inherently, permanently flawed.”

Newman counted over 2,000 listings in the Library of Congress “for novels with “Second Chance” or “Starting Over” in the title.” In addition, “second chance imagery is especially strong in our popular cinema.” We use the phrase second chance in diverse aspects of our life ,” there are second chance checking accounts, second chance credit cards, second chance auto loans, and second chance low-rent.”

In short, we want each phase of our lives to lead logically and progressively to the next… By connecting past transgressions or mistakes to future opportunities for a second chance, we allow our life stories to unfold in a comprehensible trajectory. We are thus able to create order out of a life that might appear on the surface to be muddled and aimless.

When you combine this sort of cultural ethos with the equally powerful western value of individual achievement and the drive for success, it is not surprising that a narrative has taken hold that rhetorically and pragmatically provides people who have somehow fallen short with opportunities to reboot and start over. The second chance serves as road repair—renovating the cracks, filling the potholes, and ultimately smoothing the route to future accomplishment and fulfillment.

As the therapeutic second chance industry has grown, it has become highly specialized. Yet Newman’s analysis of these agencies revealed that they are split roughly equally between those that exist to help people whose misbehaviors have gotten them into trouble, including ex-prisoners, former substance abusers, rebellious teens. And those that seek to help people who are victims of some unfortunate life turn that they couldnot control, including homeless people, transplant recipients, cancer survivors, domestic violence victims.

Newman notes with surprise “that a significant number of agencies… make no distinction at all between the various types of suffering that lead people to a point where they need a second chance… “Indeed some agencies pride themselves on the fact that they attempt to serve the needs of anyone who needs a second chance, no matter who or why.” The philosophic and theological concept of a  second chance takes precedence over the causes of that need. Hence, troubled teens, substance abuser or ex-criminals are treated together with cancer survivors, homeless, and violence victims.

Newman contrasts this new narrative with the concept of the permanent stigma narrative. One cannot have any do overs or second chances in this model. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression. This more traditional alternative stress that  “Once a ________, always a ________,” for Newman this model “resonates in this culture just as much as the redemption rhetoric.”

Contemporary Theology

These popular ideas of second chances and finding a means for inclusion of those who were excluded is also important in contemporary theology. There are dozens of books on the topic and American theological schools and seminaries offer courses on inclusion and second chances. Courses teach about offering hospitality to those in our population considered strangers and to enable students to use that moral framework in developing a pastoral response to contemporary issues of diversity and inclusion in church and society.

Persons with disabilities help theologians to rethink theological assumptions about God, humanity, and the church. They are also helping ministry practitioners to make worship more inclusive and hospitable to all people. For example, religion cannot only be for the smart, able, and wealthy.  The courses discuss diversity, race relations, homelessness, refugees, migrant workers, and persons with disabilities.

The goal of these courses is to teach that we are not our limitations and our limited bodies, or conversely we are our bodies and limitations. The community has to learn to be accepting without being patronizing, rather the fundamental anthopology has to be inclusive.

Here are some examples:

On Disability read Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God  and Amos Yong,  The Bible, Disability, and the  Church. Then discuss How do contemporary perspectives about disability change how we think of human nature? How does our view of disability affect pastoral care and welcome for those with disabilities?

When I read these theological works on physical disability, I wanted to blog about how that changes our views of Maimonides, of Soloveitchik, and of Modern Orthodoxy but never had the chance. If most of our conceptions of our prior conceptions Torah are intellectualist then where do the mentally challenged, the person with cerebral palsy, or the deaf fit in? Not the question of whether they can be called to the Torah for an aliyah but what is our religious anthrology?

On Gender read Sarah Coakley,  God, Sexuality, and the Self,  then discuss how do women’s voices change discussions of gender and sexuality? What is the relationship between theology and pastoral care in matters of gender

On Race, read M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom & J. Kameron Carter,  Race: A Theological Account. Then discuss: What is the theological significance of race?

Older classics from twenty years ago on these topics that won awards include:

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.; Bernard Adeney, Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World. InterVarsity Press, 1995;Brett Webb-Mitchell, Unexpected Guests at God’s Banquet: Welcoming People with Disabilities into the Church. NY: Crossroad, 1994.


Traditional Sources on Pesach Sheni not related to Second Chances

Pesach Sheni is the Yom Hillula -Yahrzeit of the Tanna, Rabbi Meir “Baal HaNess” (“Master of the miracle”), on which the charity Kupath Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess Kolel Polen, founded in 1796 in Poland named after the tanna Rabbi Meir.  The charity was founded by Rabbi Abraham Kalisker, leader of the Hasidim in Tiberias. He secured the assistance of Rabbi Mordecai of Nieschiz, who issued a proclamation urging all Jews of Poland regardless of age, gender, or living conditions, to pay a fixed sum every week for the support of their countrymen who had settled in the Holy Land. The amount was to be paid quarterly, in addition to special donations at weddings, circumcisions, and other religious rejoicings.

In the Ra’aya Meheimna (The Faithful Shepherd) section of the Zohar, an early 1th century work that makes Moses the faithful shepherd, not Shimon bar Yochai as the hero and protagonist. In this reading the divine Matron descends to be seen in her full regalia for a full month which ends on Pesach Sheni. (It is like a darshan of Shakhti in Hinduism). This second passsover from the left handed side of gevurah from binah in which all human impurity is burned off in the fire of gevurah.

It is a commandment to make a second Pesach for those that were unable or were defiled by any other uncleanness. If the secret of Pesach, which is the secret of the faith in which Yisrael entered, dominates in the month of Nissan and then it is the time for rejoicing, how could those who were unable to prepare it on time, or were defiled, make up for it in the second month, seeing that its time had already passed?

Once the Congregation of Israel is adorned with its crowns in the month of Nissan, she does not remove these crowns and adornments from herself for thirty days. The Matron sits in her adornments all these thirty days, beginning with the day of the exodus of Israel since the Pesach lamb and all her legions are in a state of happiness. Whoever wishes to see the Matron may look.

A proclamation calls: Whoever did not get a chance to see the Matron should come and look before the gates are locked. When is this proclamation proclaimed? It is on the fourteenth day of the second month, since the gates remain open from then on for seven days following. Following that, they lock the gates. Therefore, this is the second Pesach.

The Shekhinah is the first Pesach from the right side, and the second Pesah from the left. The first Pesach is from the right where Hokhmah prevails. The second Pesach is in the left where Binah prevails. In Gevurah all foreign fires are removed, which are like straw and chaff in relation to the fire of Gevurah. The unclean are delayed until the second Pesach.

For an example of a non-hasidic homily, I offer Rav Gedalia Schorr who read Hasidut including Izbitz and Rav Zadok, yet treats the holiday as our chance to show our yeshivish effort and earned merit unlike Passover itself which was God’s hand.

Rav Gedalia Schorr in Ohr Gedalyahu explains that Pesach is a great gift from Hashem.  Normally for us to get something from Hashem we must make the first move towards Hashem and then he reciprocates by opening the floodgates.  You open up a miniscule opening for Hashem and Hashem will open a gigantic opening for you.  We didn’t make the slightest move towards Hashem in Egypt yet Hashem ignored that and came our rescue anyway.

Sefira is a time where after having received Hashem’s great chesed on Pesach we go back slowly and earn it day by day… When we demanded Pesach Sheini Hashem opened up the Heavens and graced us with this wonderful opportunity.  The whole point of this second Pesach was that the inspiration come from us below.

Finally, as I was writing this blog post a lecture appeared on YUTorah on Pesach Sheni given in Israel by an Ivy League law graduate and former law partner that was entirely about exclusion or the need to find a way to submit to the fixed system in order to be counted, the opposite of all these recent trends. The lecturer basic showed how without keeping Passover you are entirely excluded from the Jewish people and without believing in God’s miraculous hand in the Passover story, you are excluded and deserving of excision from the people (karet). If one is excluded, then one is outside the foundations of Torah and hence excluded regardless of the reason. Pesach Sheni is way to make sure you don’t miss the boat in submission in thought and action and find yourself excluded or cut off (karet).

Schlissel Challah, Bread Baking, and the Relief of Anxiety -An Update

This is an update of a post from 2016 with revisions based on extensive Facebook discussion. New posts are coming within a few days.

(I updated some of the outdated links at 2:40 4/11)

For those who do not know, in recent years there has been a revival of the folk practice of baking a key into Challah (Schlissel Challah) during the week after Passover as a charm to insure successful livelihood.

In short, I will treat the ritual as modern home ritual focusing on baking bread after Passover, not as a magical act, and sometimes as an act done to relieve the anxiety for making a good livelihood because people are very concerned about paying their bills and making a living especially after the economic downturn.  But, it is more connected to the trend of challah baking parties and contemporary spirituality. It has become a form of annual symbolism, the same way one buys a round challah for Rosh Hashanah, one buys a key challah this week.

This post is not about the Hasidic community or  those who were doing it thirty years ago. It is only about the progress of the custom in the modern community within the last dozen years. If you were from a community doing it thirty years ago, then I am not addressing you. 

Malinowski in Teaneck

For more than decade, I have wanted to do an article entitled “Malinowski in Teaneck.” This is just the tip of the iceberg of many related observations on this topic. I do not think one needs to accept all, or even most, of the functionalism of Malinowski, but the insights are valuable.

Already fifteen years ago, I was taking note of the huge amount of magical acts, healing practices, segulot, and rituals to affect or change bad situations that took place among the modern Orthodox Jews of Bergen county. Keeping track and documenting of the magical practices was easy through the local community shul list serve, currently at over 14,000 members, where invitations to practices were openly posted.

The famed anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski  (d. 1884-1942) wrote seminal articles in the 1920’s and 1930’s showing that people turn to magic when they are doing everything right but things are still coming out wrong.  For example, when a person did everything right in one’s farming or fishing, but one still had well-placed anxiety about this year’s harvest since life is never certain. One released the tension through magical practices. One did magical practices to ensure a good catch even though you still knew it was based on skill and hard work because life remains fragile and contingent.

My original intention was to post about the magic practices by those in Teaneck stricken by illness. Last decade there was a boom in these new practices. They know they have to go to doctors and specialists, along with second and third medical opinions; they know it depends on modern science and the best procedures. But when that fails they turn to magic to deal with the anxiety about the failure and that they have exhausted all possible means. In addition, in their minds they did everything right religiously, they went to the right gap year programs, they followed the rules for social and professional success-so they are left the question: why did this happen? The halakhic universe of duty and obligations does not address their anxiety. Telling them it is nonsense or forbidden is beside the point in relieving anxiety and fear. They will just seek the relief elsewhere.

According to Malinowski:

Wherever there are situations of danger or uncertainty, rift between ideals and realities, or human crisis and resulting in anxiety and fear, religion and magic steps in and attempts to resolve, mediate and/or lessen, and provides chart and procedural knowledge to give order and control.

He must admit that neither his knowledge nor his most painstaking efforts are a warranty of success. Something unaccountable usually enters and baffles his anticipations…Man feels that he can do something to wrestle with that mysterious element or force, to help and abet his luck.

There are no peoples however primitive without religion and magic. Nor are there, it must be added at one, any savage races lacking in either the scientific attitude, or in science, though this lack has been frequently attributed to them.

Malinowski wrote that: “Magic therefore, far from being primitive science, is the outgrowth of clear recognition that science has its limits and that a human mind and human skill are at times impotent.”  These practices are non-pseudo- science; people know what they have to do rationally.  Rather, they are means to deal with the frustrations of real life.  Malinowski confirms the Talmud when it says: “Most sailors are pious, He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea,” (Mish. Kid. iv. 14).

Magic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge or in his powers of practical control and yet has to continue in his pursuit. Forsaken by his knowledge, balled by the results of his experience, unable to apply any effective technical skill, he realizes his impotence. Yet his desire grips him only the more strongly. His fears and hopes, his general anxiety, produce state of unstable equilibrium in his organism by which he is driven to some sort of vicarious activity.

Malinowski still acknowledges the rituals of social order and heightened tension but some are the result of psychological anxieties. What he is rejecting it the approaches of the 19th century E. B. Tylor who developed the evolutionary scheme where people need to be taught to move past their superstitious past based on a lack of knowledge of science and accept the rational world of science.  For Tylor, magic is attempt of bad science cause-effect For Malinowski, magic reduces anxiety and is integrated within proper knowledge of procedures for success, hence it is still part of the life of modern scientific people.

According to Malinowski, the ritual eases stress, mental conflict and possible psychic disintegration. In addition, magic serves not only as an integrative force to the individual but also as an organizing force to society when the stress is collective.

Most practitioners of anxiety magic are middle-class professionals. To take a noticeable case that has been subject to several studies is the great American pastime of baseball . Most baseball players , similar to Talmudic sailors, engage in various magical practices because one can still have bad days despite their training, hard work, and skills.  They have million dollar contracts, managers, and coaches. Yet, they engage in many magical rituals to relieve the stress of winning. They are not following Hasidic customs or pagan practices; they are not ignoring their training or thinking that is all they need. Rather, they are attaching their hope and fear onto a practice as a way of relieving anxiety. Many professions, even those in the upper middle class, or maybe especially those in the upper middle class, partake of a variety of magical practices.

Alternately, Michael Taussig, the Australian anthropologist,  points out the role of magical ritual in capitalist production of wealth, in that, wealth is a limited commodity and requires magic and contact with the devil to obtain a share of it. Michael Taussig’s discusses how societies that come into contact with capitalism for the first time tend to find this fetishistic process pretty weird, and associate it with magic and sorcery—Columbian rural farmers, when introduced to capitalist agriculture, developed myths about how one could, by dealing with the devil, plant money in hope that this money will grow, a practice which only strikes outsiders as strange because the would-be devil worshipers weren’t going about it the right way, using savings accounts, mutual funds etc. The observant life style would be be a form of creation of capital. The desire for wealth creates a need to perform magical acts. This would be a fruitful alternate line of thinking to Malinowski.

Schlissel Challah and Segulah

Now to the segulah of Schlissel Challah, which is to either bake a key into a challah, or to form the challah in the shape of a key for the first Shabbat after Passover . The key is supposed to allow the opening of the gates of heaven for money and making a living. The custom has early 19th century roots in a custom of the Ukrainian Hasidic Rebbes, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz and Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, popularly known as the Apter Rebbe (d. 1825).  (For the current Ultra-Orthodox debate on the topic, see here.)

In addition, there are scores of practices involving the connections of the sacredness of the twelve loaves  of show-bread, the manna in the desert and sacred eating go back to Second Temple times and are further developed in Midrash and Zohar. These themes of the holiness of sacramental bread have not been emphasized in recent history.

Segulot are the Jewish magical and folk charm and remedy practices, of which there are thousands.  Some date back to Second Temple times and the tradition of using them continued unabated through two millennium of Jewish life. They collected in large volumes with names like Sefer HaSegulot, Sefer Ha-Refuʾah Ve-HaSegulah, and Sefer haZekhirah. The Talmud advises that Psalm 91 wards off mazikin (evil spirits or demons), the priestly blessing has been seen as having healing powers since antiquity, and there are dozens of segulot to help retrieve lost objects, prevent fire, remember Torah, to use as love potions, or ward off wild beasts.

A widely accepted magical practice in Judaism is to spill wine while reciting the ten plagues of the Passover seder as a means of either inflicting punishment on our enemies by sympathetic magic or as a general prophylactic against evil forces. For those who want a catelog of thousands of medieval Jewish magical practises from the Ashkenaz lands, one should see Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (1939), dated but still offering a window into traditional folk Jewish practice.  (The book is available online here.)

For a wonderful up to date book on magic in the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism, see here in my interview with Yuval Harari on his excellent book Jewish Magic Before the Rise of the Kabbalah (2017).

Non-Jews also do magic, have symbolism in their baked goods for the holidays, and have folk customs, not only Jews. There is no reason to assume influence. These practices go back at least a millennium. And Gruenbaum’s Kosher bakery in the Heights used to bake a variety of Christian symbolic cakes and breads during Holy Week for their Christian customers.

In the early 20th century, the most common Jewish magical practices were done to ensure a successful pregnancy, to ward off small pox, and to prevent croup, crib death, and other dangers to infants.  Every child’s room had a talisman to ward off childhood illness. With the rise of modern medicine they receded from common practice.   But the practices returned in the twenty first century.  Much of it is due to the loss of faith in progress and science conquering all. Susan Sered, in her book Women as Ritual Experts (1992) noted the role of amulets for infertility in 1980’s Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, a current sociologist notes that there has been more magic in the West in the last 35 years than the entire 200 years prior in the age of Enlightenment


So Why Schlissel Challah?

Shaping challah into seasonal shapes was a regular family practice in the old county as part of weekly baking. Ukrainian Jews shaped the challah before Yom Kippur in the image of birds for an ascent and that sins should fly away, they shaped them into a hand for Hoshanah Rabbah for our fate to be sealed, birds also for shabbat shirah, a key for Iyyar in that the manna stopped falling, and a ladder for Shavuot for a ladder to heaven (and sulam numerically equals Sinai).

Of all the varied traditions of baking, only the custom of the challah in the shape of the key returned about 12 years ago as a quaint custom but caught on about five years ago. It became widespread 2011-2012 and continues to be mainstreamed.  Of all the various Challah customs, this one was specially chosen and the others ignored because of the anxiety about making a living and as a transition back to bread baking after Passover

All of the well-rehearsed discussions of the high cost of Orthodox living show the anxiety about making a living, This ritual acknowledges the very unspoken knowledge of people unemployed or underemployed or have lost their homes.There is a real anxiety about making a living even among those with good jobs, even dual income with six figures each.

(As a 2018 update, the staying power of this custom has more to do with the return to chametz after Passover. People are looking forward to Challah this week. Now Bagel stores and bakeries make key-challah this week for the symbolism. You do not see Bagel stores engaged in other segulot, this custom has now become like the symbolism of round challot for Rosh Hashanah, not like the segulot done by faith healers.)

I must point out that this is not a general turn to Hasidic customs. People are not picking up the very traditional and pious ritual practice of celebrating the seventh day of Passover as a holiday of God’s power, or dancing through water to celebrate the splitting of the sea, despite the hundreds of sources nor are they following the dozens of other post-passover segulot.

Challah and Home

But why choose Challah? The contemporary books of segulot list many practices to insure a livelihood and most of them can also be given Hasidic approbation.

Segulot for making a living include sharpening knives for the Sabbath, buying a new knife for Rosh Hashanah, putting Havdalah wine into one’s pockets, letting Havdalah wine overflow in abundance, and not to throw out any bread. The table and Rosh Hashanah are the traditional locations where the anxiety to make a living plays itself out.

The most famous practice to make a livelihood as quoted in the Shulchan Aruch is to say with intention the section on the giving of the manna every day after prayers, a practice fallen in observance.

Rather, than these traditional practices that are in the Shulkhan Arukh, people are picking something home based and originally gendered as a woman’s activity. The anthropologist Tamar El-Or in an article  “A Temple in Your Kitchen” notes the treating of the separation of challah at home as a Temple service, as a special new collective ritual activity beyond just the need to make weekly bread

She argues that there is currently an inversion in the categories associated with the Temple sacrifice: “The placement of the Temple and the kitchen side by side in the public hafrashat hallah ceremony challenges the division between the public and the private, between male and female…” The Biblical commandment of sacrifice meant to be carried out in the public space of the Temple, moves into the home. “Instead of a private act accomplished by each woman inside her house, the ceremony offers a public spiritual event.”

The renaissance of hafrashat hallah is an “event.” A halakhic practice… has been refashioned to suit contemporary audiences. It has become a celebration of womanhood, an opportunity to shop, to pray, and to learn new recipes. The mass hafrashat hallah ceremonies are policing entertainments, fun targeted toward education and discipline, and a good traded in a bustling and competitive spiritual market. These ceremonies mark a gendered old-new realm of action and a creative initiative within the teshuvah industry.

In the busy schedule of America, this is a chance to create a home ritual in the context of the recent return to cooking and being a foodie. The baking of shlissel challah is an artisan endeavor and part of the new custom of the large group challah-baking events, which I see as a related phenomenon. Far fewer people bake or cook consistently compared to a half a century ago but they like episodic cooking and baking. The bread is not baked out of necessity rather a sense of do it yourself.

This leads to the ritual being picked up on Kosher cooking and Jewish family interests blogs  even for a wider Jewish audience who do not have the anxieties. It becomes a once a year nice Jewish home activity. The internet has played a tremendous role in the rapid spread of this custom in the wider community, which in turn normalizes the activity. Synagogues now have events this week for a collective baking of challah.

Some have made claims that this is a return of chassdic custom but as stated above chassidc practice was to make special challot many times in the year since they had to bake every week. And there are thousands of other chassidc customs that modern orthodoxy is ignoring.  I even have found several who say this is a way to reconnect to almost world of Europe in that it cannot be a “coincidence that Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day, falls around the time of the shlissel challah.”  They are using the Chassidc label to create an aura of authenticity to a do- it-yourself artisan activity.

The custom also points to the role of women in needing to generate income and take on the struggles of the family. But this week, they take the time to bake a challah symbolic of making a living.




There is another element -the new found binary relationship between Chometz and Passover. A clear demarcation of donut and matzah.

In our age of Passover plenty and also weekly plenty, few are looking forward to the Passover treats. Rather we like our routines.  No, I should say that we love our routines. There is a new widespread folk ritual in local modern Orthodoxy of specifically going to Dunkin Donuts for one last Coolatta  and donut, or to the bagel store for one last everything bagel with a smear. You see the new Jewish ritual of waiting in the long lines at Dunkin Donuts, then sitting with the little kids on the curb in a strip mall or walking in circles around the block as one eats one’s last leaven bread.

On the other side of the holiday,  the transition back to normal life after Passover  is an anticlimax and involves a great deal of work in returning the house to the normal non-Passover dishes. People need a transitional ritual of a return to leavened bread and what could be a better practice than baking challah. (Update- there is an increase in pizza parties and Maimouna among Ashkenaz Jews on the night after Passover. As noted above, people are looking forward to challah this week.)

Most busy people ran back to work and had little sense of closure so challah is a treat after two weeks without fresh bread.


I received this week from two rabbis statements of the meaning of the ritual for their congregants in both cases the message is connecting to God.

The first one addressed the critics of the ritual and the second one made a spiritual case for it.  “I think if you are the kind of Jew who thinks – ‘what does working have to do with earning a living, G-d will provide, especially if I do shisel chalah?’ – then they you should NOT do it. But if you are the kind of Jew who thinks ‘What does God have to do with earning a living, I have a great job?’ then you should do it!”

The second one said the purpose was  spiritual engagement . One takes something mundane and elevates  it to a higher level. The Biblical, Rabbinic and Hasidic sources connecting  this challah making to a form of self-sufficiency and helping others as part of a community. The key message is how to improve our connection with the HaKadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One Blessed be He)and use this as a moment to be spiritually engaged.

The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah teaches us that on Pesach we are judged on how much grain we will have for the coming year. The Apter Rebbe connects this to the Shabbos after Pesach to wit baking the challah in the sharp of a key. When Israel finally arrived in the land  after Pesach the manna stopped and they ate from the produce of the land. It was at that point that they had to make their own food . So the Apter Rebbe said now they had to move from passivity and complete reliance on Hashem to actually being productive with the ability to create things and support things and move towards self-sufficiency. Parnassa then means taking the wheat and making the bread-taking what G d gives us and then in partnership building on that.

The Forward posted a nice piece on the topic similar to the second rabbi based on the need for self-sufficiency. It concluded:

The movement from manna to bread, the movement from Egypt to Israel and the movement from Passover to Shavuot are all linked through the commitment to human activity. I’m putting a key on my challah this Shabbat to remind myself of that moment, that first communal moment where we stopped waiting for bread to fall from the skies and started making it ourselves — and perhaps to remind myself that the keys to those gates may be in my hands.

Another homily was found on the Aish HaTorah website in the name of Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller. It should be noted that during her long and successful career she contributed to making many long forgotten midrashim,  wild aggadah, and kabbalistic legends into mainstream Torah. She makes ordinary activities fraught with spiritual meaning.  The reader should notice in this excerpt of a long article how she moves from the universal to the feminine and then to why this is not idolatry.

Everything is in its essence holy, kodesh, and always will be. God gives us permission to use His world for a “mundane, chol” purpose, under one condition: that we preserve its holy essence…”Ordinary” life has a holy source, and it is our responsibility to use it well. This is especially true in regard to bread. Nothing is more “ordinary” than eating. Yet on an intuitive level we can connect to the mystic energy of the earth itself while making bread, in its feel and texture. It is meant to touch us deeply, and halacha (literally, “the way to walk”) tells us how use its power well.

Humans, as a combination of body and soul, flour and water, are like a dough.

The Shlah explains that everything we observe in this world has a spiritual parallel…  The Torah is telling us that while bread alone may sustain the body, it is the word of God — concealed within the physical properties of the bread — that sustains one’s soul. And separating challah initiates this process of spiritual nurture.

It is instructive to note that in the biblical text (Numbers ch. 15), the mitzvah of challah is juxtaposed to the laws prohibiting idol worship. What possible connection exists between uplifting bread and polytheism? The nature of idol worship is to see the Creator as being removed from His creations… By taking challah, we are saying that God is here! He is the source of our souls, bodies, and the forces that sustain them. He is One, and nothing is separate from His transcendental unity.

Our matriarch Sarah achieved this level in her own lifetime. The Talmud tells us that her bread stayed fresh from Friday to Friday. The life force that she was able to identify — the Shechinah presence of God — did not depart. In her role as matriarch, Sarah laid the foundations for the future of every Jewish woman’s spiritual journey. God allowed her to experience a miracle week after week — leaving an indelible imprint not just on her, but on each of her future descendants.

In the last few days there have been posts from Reconstructionist rabbis and new age-Chabad rabbis and cooking blogs all giving spiritual and symbolic interpretations of the new practice.

The Best of Physicians is destined for Gehenna

The same Talmudic passage above about the the piety of sailors (and baseball players) continues by decrying  that “the best of physicians is destined for Gehenna.” Why? The most common answer is because they see their lives as not dependent on God. They trust their skill and personal talents to solve problems without seeing anything higher.

The public face of Modern Orthodoxy is very professional and ordered -trusting in its skill as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and IT personal to solve problems.  They do not say I wont become a physician because the Talmud condemns doctors. Their religion is very self-sufficient and not magical. But how does this play in an era of spirituality and placing greater emphasis on the spiritual self over the organizational?

Ordinary people, for whom the anxieties of life are still the traditional concerns of “children, health, and livelihood” still need to turn to divine help. They need something to relate to their fears and hopes against a backdrop of the age of spirituality. For them the magic and supernatural and the possibility of faith remains a concern, even if they live in a scientific non-magical world. For many, if not most, ordinary people, religion is about having God in their lives life.

As a side observation, last decade there was a local synagogue based drive for better prayer. They mailed everyone an Orthodox book that said that the way to pray is to ask for all your personal needs to God: health, children, job stress, cooking stress, laundry stress, computer problems, burnt food.  It had follow-up by speakers teaching the same points. One turns to prayer in order to solve daily problems. In a ritualized world, it was inevitable to generate ritual. This was one of the many moments of the last decade that laid the groundwork for seeing God in one’s daily problems.

It is interesting to note that members of both the right and left of the Orthodoxy world unite in having written articles condemning the practice as superstition  For them, their deep anxiety is over the boundaries and purity of Orthodox. The left is anxious  about the perceived right wing distortion of Orthodoxy and the right is worried about the left wing distortion of Orthodoxy. For both of them, the practice of turning to God does not relate to their concern for the future of Orthodoxy.  And for both of them it does taint their rational visions of a legal centered Orthodoxy that keeps direct experience of God out of their lives.

The critics mistakenly think  that the performer of segulot is practicing bad science and superstition in the nineteenth century E. B. Tylor patronizing way of telling the natives that their practices were just bad science. It also similar to the 19th century works ascribing Jewish rituals such as dietary laws to bad science.

The same 19th century anthropologists such as Tylor and Frazer cited to show the cross-cultural phenomena of such practices also showed the pagan superstitious totemistic sources of tefillin, shofar, and four species. Many books of the early twentieth century use these arguments to show that all Jewish ritual is just pagan. The current Orthodox rationalist critics of the practice are selectively using sources that undercut the very roots of any observance.  There are magical aspects to spilling drops of wine at the seder and many other practices.

The critics think that the person baking a key in the challah needs to be demeaned by being told that if they want a job they should learn to polish their resume or get job training. They are oblivious that every modern Orthodoxy article and sermon viewed it as a holiday of self-sufficiency or as only symbolic. They are not using it as magic, just a nice shape of challah. At most it is the need for the relief of anxieties of making enough of a livelihood done in a spiritual content. The critics are projecting magical thinking onto others when those who do it only treat it as a symbol, and even a symbol of self-sufficiency.

In addition, many of the critics have a clear sense of mansplaning against gendered women’s challah practices and practices outside of communal synagogue life.

There are similar phenomena among Evangelical Christians who create a rational understanding of their faith and then decry the popular practices of Christmas and Easter with their eggs, bunnies, and magical practices, which they reject. These Evangelicals separate out a core rationalist belief from their personally perceived popular and pagan elements. They assume that if one removes these practices as non-rational then the rest of their belief system becomes rational. One sees the same trends here. In both, the rationalism of their personal views overrides the imaginative, symbolic, and human.

In the end, I do not think one needs to accept all the functionalism of Malinowski and almost no one takes it as primitive science the ways the critics portray it. All we have is a ritual of challah baking, new women’s customs, and using the mundane a a way to turn to God, nice for families, and a special event of challah after Passover done in an age of anxiety.

h/t and deep thank you to all those who responded to my FB call as I was writing this and the two years of FB comments that modified the original.

Still Here- Will Resume This Week

Yes, I am still here.  People were beginning to contact me asking me what is the story with my three months of blogging silence. Basically, I had the horrible flu that you heard about on the news combined with a very busy speaking and travel schedule. Every time I returned from a trip, I started coughing again. Only to have to prepare for my next speaking gig.  (Don’t worry, I am under medical care & I know about things like Ayr for the flight). Now, I am better and Passover is done.  So I will resume blogging.

Among blog posts that have been waiting since January include a book review of Rav Dov Zinger’s book on prayer, a look at the Orthodox Rabbinic statement Between Jerusalem and Rome: Reflections on 50 Years of Nostra Aetate, an interview with Alon Goshen-Gottstein, an interview with Prof Eliyahu Stern about his new book Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s,   another half dozen interviews in the pipeline, some pomo process theology, maybe some Jewish reflections on Billy Graham, and much more.

Among the activities that kept me busy, sick, and away from blogging include a fun popular talk on Judaism and Hinduism.”Rabbi on The Ganges” or directly here at the Valley Beit Midrash. 

A talk at the Center for Catholic Jewish Studies at St Leo’s in Tampa on the recent Vatican document “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable–  “Can the Vatican Recognize Rabbinic Judaism?”

A presentation on the theology of Peter Berger at a conference at CUNY as well as a whole bunch of Shabbat Scholar in Residences.

BERGER poster 3-page-001




Interview with James Kugel – The Great Shift

Why do we not see God anymore? Why does He not walk around our neighborhoods the way He did in the Bible? Why do Biblical figures not ask what the law should be? James Kugel seeks to answer these questions in his new book The Great Shift, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2017). 

great shift

In graduate school, instructors spoke often spoke of the Axial Age shift (approximately  8th-6th century BCE, but sometime stretched out from the 8th-3rd BCE), a term first coined by Karl Jaspers in 1949.  The Axial Age was when ancient consciousness of eternal religion gave way to a new consciousness based on an internal self. For Jaspers, the sacrifice of Leviticus gave way to the prophetic call,  the sacrifices of the Vedas became the theology of the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhism, and when Confucius and Zoroaster arose.  It also includes the shift between the many gods of the Greeks to philosophic Platonism.

In the classes I attended, the theory was mentioned to explain the shift between the Biblical descents of God to humanity as opposed to the visionary ascents of heikhalot. The Midrash itself senses the changes when it asks: What should the sinner do? And portrays Leviticus saying to offer a sacrifice and the rabbis saying to repent. Interestingly enough, the 19th century Hasidic thinker Reb Zadok Hakohen of Lubin has a version of it when he notes the change from Biblical religion to Rabbinic religion parallels the shift from ancient pagans to the philosophers of Greek, with the Torah responding correspondingly. (zeh leumat zeh). However, Jasper’s theory is, at best, only a heuristic tool since the theory is somewhat of a shaggy beast in that it does not have clear dates or causality.

James Kugel in the exciting new book The Great Shift discusses a great change, similar to the Axial Age theory, between the era when God walked with people and the era when he no longer did. Kugel quotes the Catholic author Flannery O’Connor “I do not know You, God because I am in the way. Please help me push myself aside.” For Kugel, our modern selves get in the way of our knowing God and, more importantly for this book, understanding the Bible. Biblical people had very different semi-permeable senses of self, different than the modern self, that allowed a direct experience of God. This is the thesis of the book. But conversely, our modern sense of the self causes us to misread the Bible as if it shared modern concepts of the self.

Accepting this shift, Biblical religion was entirely an external affair. Biblical figures do not have internal soliloquies debating whether to follow God. Obedience to God, love of God, and rejoicing before God are all physical and external activities of obedience. The classic work  Mimesis by Erich Auerbach is, therefore, incorrect about the Bible. The Biblical narrative is not fraught with background waiting to be fleshed out by the reader. The early reader did not expect such a background. Rather, it did not play any role.Abraham and Homer’s protagonists have a common worldview.  In addition, the modern concept of faith does not play a role since God is part of one’s cosmology.

In other later parts of the Bible,  Kugel shows that God has changed into a long range planner of human destiny so on-the-spot intervention by the Divine is unnecessary. The future has already been planned and determined. There is also a shift from monolatry the worship of a single God while not denying the existence, and efficacy, of other deities toward monotheism. There is also a shift toward following a fixed law as a means of obedience to God.

During the Second Temple era, conversing with God gave way to the presence of angels and demons, and then in later centuries even the divine messengers stopped. (Reb Zadok also notes this shift).

This is the fourth time Prof Kugel has graced this blog. The best and longest was the third time, a precis of his book  The Kingly Sanctuary (2014).  For those interested in the larger vision of James Kugel then read the first interview followed by the second. (For those, who want a window into contemporary Protestant Biblical criticism, I refer back to my interview with David Carr.)

Kugel leaves us with a deep divide between the world of the 21st century religious  reader of the Bible and the world of the Bible. At the end of this interview, Kugel acknowledges that this  approach is not for the pulpit or day school. Our current understandings are discontinuous with the Bible in context. Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic apologetic  is quoted a second time in the book as a way of rejecting 20th century literary readings of the Ancient Near East that made the Bible inner psychology and symbolism. “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it!”

But where does that leave us 21st century folk who willy-nilly cannot return to an 7th century BCE understanding of the world? Theologians insist on integrating later canonical interpretation into our religious understanding of the Bible. For example, Cardinal RatzingerWalter Brueggemann, Michael Fishbane, and  Benjamin Sommers. For them, each in their own way, assume a text is read with tradition. In contrast, anthropologists defend that we may never be able to return. For example, Lucien Lévi-Bruhl, Jonathan Z. Smith, Evans Pritchard, Marshall Shalins and Clifford Geertz. In this book, Kugel clearly comes out on the side of the anthropologists. Our 21st century sense of self and the Biblical self remain unbridgeable.

As usual, this book is well-written. But this book  offers an especially wonderful capstone to the world of James Kugel’s views of the Bible.

1) What can you tell us about the subject of your last book?

My field is the Hebrew Bible, but for the past six or seven years, I have been working in an area more familiar to anthropologists (as well as psychologists and neuroscientists) than to biblical scholars, namely, the “sense of self,” that is, the idea that different peoples have about themselves, about what a human being consists of and what constitutes his or her “self.”

2) What does this have to do with the Bible?

All humans have a sense of self, but that self differs greatly from society to society and from period to period. For example, our own, modern sense of self is very different from the one that most non-Westerners today think they have. We tend to view ourselves as unique individuals, whereas elsewhere on the globe, people see themselves principally as part of larger group—a tribe, a clan, a kinship group—and they also believe that they are basically the same as all the other members of the group. We prize our individual achievements, whereas others consider such things as secondary, focusing more on family prosperity and wellbeing.

In fact, some scholars refer to our mentality by the acronym WEIRD, that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—all of these being traits that are not characteristic of the rest of humanity today, and almost certainly were not common in the West until a few hundred years ago. So we are probably misreading a lot of the Bible if we think that the biblical self was basically the same as ours.

3) What difference would this make to our understanding of biblical texts or biblical religion?

Scholars know that there is nothing physical in our brain that acts as its central clearinghouse, nothing that a brain scientist can point to and say, “This is the part that puts together all a person’s sensory inputs and memories and so forth to make up ‘I,’ the person speaking to you right now.” Almost all agree that our self is basically a construct, something with no particular physical reality, but something that we construct in our own minds. Some elements of this construct seem to be universal: we all think of ourselves as continuing to be the same person minute after minute and decade after decade (although we might have good reason to conceive of ourselves otherwise). We also seem to believe that we have a body, but that somehow we are not identical to that body; “I” is some floating entity that is somehow distinct from the body and mind that the self “owns.”

But then there are other things that make people’s sense of self in one society radically different from others’. Now, what interested me is how some of these differences are expressed in biblical texts. Perhaps the most striking thing in early biblical narratives is the relative lack of reference to a person’s insides, the thoughts and emotions that people experience. Everything important happens out there or comes in from out there.

So, for example, when God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, Abraham sets out the next morning to do it. What was Abraham thinking, and what was Isaac, the intended victim, thinking? Apparently, these inside things are not important: it’s the outside that counts, the fact that Abraham is willing to carry out this commandment.  It’s not that Abraham doesn’t think. It’s just that, at this relatively early stage of things, everything important still happens outside, so what Abraham thought is just not important.

The same thing is true of Abraham when we first meet him: God commands him to leave “your homeland and your kindred and your father’s house [i.e., your immediate family] to the land that I will show you.” No doubt this wording was designed to stress the difficulties Abraham would face: far from his homeland and kindred and even his immediate family, he would become a homeless alien, with no one to protect him. How did Abraham react? He did what he was told to do. We know nothing of what he thought about all this (on the inside)—it was just not important. What was important was that he did it (on the outside).

But when the Jewish historian Josephus retold these same events many centuries later, he felt he had to do what the Torah did not, namely, turn this departure into Abraham’s decision: “he, thinking fit to change his dwelling-place, at the will and with the aid of God, settled in the land of Canaan.” (Josephus was not alone, by the way; other retellings of Abraham’s departure in the book of Jubilees, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, and other texts from the end of the biblical period all feel the need to tell what Abraham was thinking.)

But in earlier times, things still needed to take place on the outside. In another incident from Abraham’s story in Genesis, God comes to him disguised as three strangers stopping off at his tent; still later, his grandson Jacob wrestles with an “angel,” a divine emissary, all night. These things are also depicted as happening outside, even if they seem to be altogether visionary.

  1. Was there something special about biblical narratives, or was this preference for the outside demonstrated in other parts of the Bible as well?

This may be another manifestation of the same phenomenon in biblical law: What does it mean to love someone in the Bible? Sometimes it seems to means love in our sense: for example, Jacob loved Rachel (Gen 29:18).

But I was always curious about the fellow in the law described in Deut 21:15-17. He has two wives, one of whom he “loves” and the other he “hates.” I used to think, “What a coincidence! Two wives and two exactly opposite emotions!” (And by the way, if he really hates the other one, why doesn’t he seek to divorce her?) But this text is not talking about (internal) emotions; these two terms are used to represent the wives’ (external) standing. So the husband may rank the “loved” wife above the “hated” one in all sorts of external behavior, giving her all manner of benefits, but when it comes to passing on his inheritance, he is not allowed to favor the son of the loved wife over the hated one’s son.

Again, this is not a reflection of his feelings toward one or the other—the text couldn’t care less about that!—but the external matter of status, namely, which son gets the firstborn’s share of the inheritance. Though she may be the less favored wife in other external matters, the “hated” wife’s son comes first in inheritance.

My former colleague at Harvard, the late Bill Moran, wrote a famous article about the use of “love” in ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties. There too, emotion has nothing to do with it. When the Assyrian overlord Essarhadon commands his vassal, “You shall love Assurbanipal like yourself,” he is surely not telling the vassal to fall in love with his son’s winning personality. Love here, Moran said, is not the inside emotion but the outside expression of loyalty. The same is true of “love” in Lev 19:18, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The text is not talking about the internal emotion, but external behavior.

Then what about the obligation to love God “with your whole heart and soul and power”? This may be a more complicated example, but when love of God is mentioned elsewhere in Deuteronomy, it is coupled with “keeping His charge and His laws and His statutes and His commandments” (11:1), “serving Him with your whole heart and your whole being” (11:13), “walking in all His ways” (11:22) “walking in His ways at all times” (19:9) “to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules” (30:16)—clearly, these passages are all talking about “love” in the sense of external performance, not internal emotion. In short, for much of the biblical period, the focus is not on what people felt on the inside, but what happened on the outside.

5) Then what is the “great shift” of your title?

Gradually, things shifted from “out there” to “in here.” So, as in the above examples, people at first are not said to think; instead, they say, an outside event, even when the text probably means to tell us what they were thinking. Sometimes the text says that someone said something  in his heart, and this is clearly a kind of thinking: for example, Esau “said in his heart” that “when the days of mourning my father are here, then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen 27:41). Strange to tell, however, , this internal thought of Esau’s somehow was heard by his mother Rebekah, as reported in the very the next verse.

How could that happen? But it could, because important things still somehow belong on the outside. Lots of Jews nowadays are puzzled today by the commandment to be happy on a festival (Deut 16:14). How can you command someone to be happy? But vesamachta doesn’t mean to be happy—an inside thing—it means to celebrate or rejoice, on the outside.

All this began to change in later centuries. On the one hand, God was now deemed more remote; it is His angels who intervene in human affairs. Even prophets stop hearing from God directly; angels deliver God’s words to them. At the same time, people now had minds, and saying what was going on inside them became a necessity. It’s not that they didn’t have minds before, but the way that they conceived of themselves had come to involve this inner self much more than before. This is evident in late biblical psalms, and still more in the prayers and hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Once you know this, I think, your whole way of reading biblical texts has to include the possibility that Abraham, Moses, earlier biblical psalms as well as biblical laws suddenly acquire a very different sense.

6) How did you, James Kugel, get involved with this stuff?

But as I mentioned, I’ve been reading anthropologists and neuroscientists for some years, and what I’ve been saying so far is really not controversial to them. Everyone agrees that the human self is a construct, and that this construct differs greatly from period to period and from one society or civilization to another. So it’s pretty clear that throughout the biblical period, ancient Israelites did believe that their minds were open to penetration from the outside, by God or by demonic spirits. For example, God inserts His words into the prophet Balaam’s mouth, making him say the exact opposite of what he wants to say. This should not be a minor item for biblical scholars: here is an operating assumption in the biblical sense of self that is very different from our own conception of the human mind, its fundamental permeability.  I’ve always thought that the scholar’s principal task is to try to enter into the world of the Bible, to get inside the head of these people and live their reality. And all this, I think, is very important to that task.

7)      What did you agree with in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, and what do you disagree with?

Jaynes’s book covered some of the same ground that I have in the “Great Shift”—that is, he tried to explain what seems to be a basic shift in the way human beings perceived the world— including the divine—and themselves.

But Jaynes (who, incidentally, wasn’t much interested in the Bible; he was a psychologist and brain scientist) tried to argue that the shift was attributable to a fundamental change in brain function, suggesting that originally there were two independent speech areas in the brain’s two hemispheres. But that this feature of the “bicameral mind” ultimately gave way to the unified, modern consciousness.

It was an interesting idea, but I agree with most scholars today, who doubt that the change was one of the brain’s hardware or basic functioning. Rather, it was a matter of “software,” that is, of the gradual emergence of a new way of conceiving of the human self. What I tried to do in my book was specifically to document this shift via the different ways that God is represented in the Bible.

8)      How do you disagree with the chapter on the Bible in Mimesis by Erich Auerbach?

I love Auerbach’s book—except for the first chapter, the one about the Bible, where he describes the biblical account of the Akedah (Genesis 22, when Abraham is commanded to offer Isaac as a human sacrifice) as “fraught with background.” Auerbach relates to the text as if it were Western literature: there are thus three “characters,” God, Abraham, and Isaac; “their speech does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to externalize thoughts—on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed.”

I’m afraid I have to disagree. This narrative isn’t fraught with background at all. For all we know, Abraham may be some kind of automaton: God commands him and he sets out to obey. The text says nothing about what Abraham was thinking because thinking, that inside the brain activity, is still not on the map, at least not very often.

9)      How is Abraham really like Homeric heroes?

Well, in the story of his nearly sacrificing Isaac, Abraham behaves (contra Auerbach) very much like a Homeric hero. Actually, the person who investigated this (a few decades before Jaynes) was the German classicist Bruno Snell, in his book The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature.

9)      How did biblical figures not worry about faith since they encountered God?

People in the Bible have faith in God in the sense of trusting that He will come to their aid or save them. But they don’t have faith in God’s very existence—no one even raises that issue. It’s not that ordinary people had all personally encountered God, but that God’s existence was simply obvious to everyone, like the rising and setting of the sun or the regular changes of the seasons.

Little by little, however, things did change. It’s as if the center of gravity was slowly migrating from outside to inside. People now interrogate their own souls while lying on their beds late at night; in fact, they come to be “in search of God”—something people  weren’t in earlier times. They pray to God not because they need something, but simply to “establish contact,” and they sometimes pray regularly far from the Jerusalem temple. Now, retellings of biblical narratives—such as those of the 2nd century BCE Book of Jubilees, or the Genesis Apocryphon found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Josephus and later writers—have to give some account of what motivates human beings or how they react to changing developments. All these seem to indicate the emergence of a different “sense of self.”

10)      What is the revelatory state of mind? Why do you say biblical were only surprised by an encounter with God, but not flabbergasted?

This is another striking difference between us and ancient Israelites. In those biblical stories of people meeting up with God or an angel, at first all the people see is an ordinary human being. They converse for a while, and then, at a certain point, the people suddenly realize that their interlocutor is really an angel or God Himself. At that moment, they are surprised but not altogether bowled over; such things do occur, apparently.

Nobody says, “Wow! This just can’t be happening!” Usually, they bow down in reverence, not surprise. Similarly, prophets may not want to be prophets, but when God summons them, they don’t think something’s wrong with their brains. As one biblical scholar put it, they are already in the “revelatory state of mind,” in which such things are possible.

11)      How is the biblical God different from the God of later generations?

My overall theme is that God’s nature—or rather, the way that He is depicted—changed strikingly within the biblical period itself. There is a gradual move from the outside to the inside. People’s inside souls become the true meeting-place of God and humans (the old meeting place was the outside temple).

In addition, God is no longer described as having a human-sized and human-shaped body; He becomes more abstract and, eventually, omnipresent. An omnipresent God must exist on a completely different plane: He no longer enters or moves about, so (I also tried to show this in the book) all those earlier stories about Abraham or Cain and Abel or the Tower of Babel had to be reconfigured by later commentators or interpreters to accommodate their new notion of who God is.

12)      How in other places is God a long-range planner? 

Eventually, God ceases to intervene directly in human affairs: when intervention is needed, it is accomplished by God’s angels, while He remains in heaven. In keeping with this, He is sometimes represented as having arranged everything in advance, sometimes for centuries and centuries, so on-the-spot intervention is unnecessary; He, and we, can just watch the divine plan unfold.

This understanding of God is in part anticipated in the biblical story of Joseph. Joseph’s narrative presupposes that dreams (his own and his interpretation of others) are essentially a peek into a future that has already been planned and determined. Thus, Pharaoh’s dreams inform him of events that are to take place over a period of fourteen years in the immediate future (seventy years of plenty followed by seven of famine). In later times, the book of Jeremiah represents Jeremiah as saying that seventy years will have to pass before the end of the exile (25:11, 29:10). Still later, Daniel is said to revise the understanding of Jeremiah’s seventy years: what he really meant was seventy “weeks” of years, that is 490 years (Dan 9: 24).

The book of Jubilees, written still later (the early second century BCE), divides history into chunks of seventy years apiece: there will thus be exactly 50 jubilees from the time of humanity’s creation until Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. All these present God as a long-range planner—more and more so!

13)      How was the Bible an enchanted world of monolatry? 

Biblical scholars have shown that monotheism only came to be espoused as such somewhere toward the middle of the biblical period. Before that (and, in some places, after it as well), monolatry seems to define biblical religion, the worship of a single God while not denying the existence, and efficacy, of other deities.

The Bible makes no secret of the fact that other peoples had their own gods—indeed, the book of Deuteronomy (4:19) at one point suggests that God had assigned to ther nations the worship of deities associated with the sun and moon and stars; that just wasn’t for Israel.

14)   Was the Law always important in Biblical religion?

Well, it is striking how little reference to keeping biblical laws there is in early times. Why don’t the various people in the books of Judges or Samuel or Kings keep the Sabbath? When David commits his great sin with Bathsheba, why doesn’t the prophet Nathan say to him, “David, you’ve just violated two of the Ten Commandments,” instead of giving him that parable of the poor man’s lamb? But after a while, keeping God’s laws becomes the whole focus of Judaism, not only in the Bible, but in all of post-biblical religion. The service of God, or what is called ‘avodat ha-Shem, truly became the essence of Judaism—as it is to this day.

You might see this as part and parcel of the great shift from the outside to the inside. After all, who is going to police laws commanding you not to hate your brother in your heart, or serve God with all your heart and soul, and dozens of other rules that have no outward manifestation? Keeping them was a matter between you and God, carried out—or not—in that inside world.

15)   Why read the Bible in its original context if the biblical God is not ours, and their sense of self is not ours? And their view of religion is not ours? What happens to canonical context?

You might as well ask, “Why bother with the Bible at all?” But the Bible depicts the reality out of which all of later Judaism developed. That’s why studying it—and getting inside the heads of ancient Israelites, as I said earlier—is crucially important.

16)   Do you believe in the God of the Bible? The God of the 5th century BCE? The God of Yalkut Shimoni? Or a 20th century God? 

All of the above. But I generally try to keep myself out of the discussion.

17)   Should Rabbis teach the content of your book from the pulpit? Should the contents be taught in day schools?

Definitely not. But maybe in an adult education class.


Interview with Elchanan Shilo

Think of the many blogs of the last decade in which an Orthodox person publicly documented his or her loss of faith in Orthodox dogmas and the equally large number of blogs in which people questioned the halakhah. In many of these discussions, the people discussing theology had never read Spinoza, Hobbs, or Hume and without any sense that philosophers disproved the theistic arguments centuries ago or of the corrosive to religion naturalism of the Enlightenment or modernity.. They also argued without any knowledge of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, or modern Jewish philosophy, or any history of Jewish thought.

Elchanan Shilo has a PhD and was trained in Jewish thought, Kabbalah, and Jewish literature, as well as having attended Yeshivat Har Etzion. His first book was The Kabbalah in the works of S. Y. Agnon [Hebrew] (2011) and he has written on Lithuanian Mitnagged Kabbalah, with articles on Rabbi Isaac Haver and Rav Kook. He put out a volume called Yahadut Kiyumit  (May, 2017) [Heb.] a Judaism of Existence, that we can live by. In this book, he tackles all the perennial issues discussed on the blogs. but with PhD.

(The official translation is Existential Judaism, but he uses the word the way Netanyahu uses the word when he says Iran is an Existential threat, meaning directly connected to  existence, not as influence by Camus or Sartre.)

In the volume, we see his loss of faith in Orthodox doctrine and his loss of faith in Orthodox halakhah as well as his attempt to create a new Jewish movement, the same issues as all those American Bloggers, but with a PhD.


I blogged about Elchanan Shilo’s ideas already seven years ago, when he proposed having a continuous Judaism between religious and secular, in which everyone could work together as part of one community. A noble idea in an age of polarization. That is still a good part of the book.  His article elicited a full response from Rav Dovid Bigman of Yeshivat Maaleh Gilboa.

In his recent book Yahadut Kiyumit, he collects his thoughts and newspaper articles of the last few years into a single volume. The book has been widely received in the Relgious Zionist world included a positive review by Prof. Ron Margolin of Tel Aviv University as well as by Hagai Hoffer.   Here is an hour long youtube interview he did last month about his book. 

The book has two parts. The first part contains his articles about faith from the newspaper in which he moves from his Religious Zionist position to the acceptance of Biblical criticism and the human elements in the Bible, the keeping of mizvot without believing they are commanded by God and a denial of providence because of the Holocaust. Needless to say, he was fired from the religious school (ulpnana) in which he taught becuase of these non-Orthodox ideas. He also rejected the authority of the halakhah because of it attitude toward modern life, legalism, and oppressive laws of personals status. In its place he wants the keeping of Judaism as a voluntary practice, each person taking as they see fit.

Unlike the American bloggers who either leave the fold or want to remain “Orthoprax” (their own self-defining neologism) of full observance despite not believing, Shilo seeks to also reject halakhah. He wants a full spectrum traditionalism without law or belief. Shilo does, however, like Jewish ethno-nationalism.  In many ways, his book has much in common with Yoav Sorek’s The Israeli Covenant (Hebrew), but this book is more about the impossibility of maintaining faith, than a new nationalism. I did not find myself concurring or consenting with the first part of the book. I found it distancing and derivative.

The second part of the book, however, is a contradictory collection of ideas that were quite interesting. They are his personal reflections which he compares to Rav Kook pensées, but to me seems like all so many blog posts or Facebook statuses. They are clearly the best part of the book.  They are all designed to elicit response. If you saw them on Facebook, and you were interested in the topics you would likely be compelled to respond, to amplify, or to reject his thoughts. Here are some selections to give you a taste. Any thoughts on these?

The rhetoric of the using the word “avodah zara” (idolatry) for all sorts of modern phenomena and for other religions is demagoguery and the whole way one can laugh along. Isaiah Leibowitz used this phrase often but one can claim that Leibowitz himself is idolatrous because he does not worship God, rather the halakhah.” (165)

Rav Shagar discusses the Hardal position on women. He says that the negation of the values of modernity is denial of the self…He gives the appearance of being torn. I say “appears” because being broken and including both sides can only exist in the realm of thought.  In the practical realm, one needs to decide and Rav Shagar already decided. He decided against modern values and for the halakhah when there is a conflict between them. He prays in synagogues that exclude women. (162)

[…] Rav Kook’s Kabbalah remained in isolation and its students remained “Lonely men of secrets” but to the outside world he appeared as if the wellsprings burst forth. (188)

Combining the study of Bible in a religious university (Bar Ilan) with liberal a Yeshivat Hesder education, brings on the positive side– aspects of scholarly analysis and critique of things without historicity, on the negative side it brings blindness to the theological aspects of scholarly study. They bring sublime pilpulim to justify the traditional positions and present scholarship as lacking logic. (142)

Dividing society based on praxis – who goes to the beach on Shabbat and who goes to synagogue, or those who do both- is shallow and does not say anything about ones inner life. (144)

The 21st century practice of liberal [Religious Zionist women] to cover their hair symbolically- for example with a bow-has a symbolic function of status similar to a wedding ring, rather than actually covering the hair. (149)

The request of Rav Bigman for the simple Jew to sit and wait for “a new generation of rabbis” more than it changes reality, silences it. The redemption of the people and the return to the land did not come from people who waited. Rather it came from people of action who broke through what was accepted in their time. So too in the halakhic plane, a simple person has to work below without waiting for miracles from above. (154)

What appears in my eyes as God appears to another person as Satan. The God who commanded to kill the one who chopped wood (Numbers 15) is not God in my eyes, rather Satan…. From an external perspective it seems that people who pray together are all worshiping one God, in practice they are all worshiping their own God. What one calls God, the other calls Satan. (178)

I have found many Haredim and Baalei Teshuva, but I have not even one percent as many of those who seek the truth. This is proved by the small number of students in University Bible departments. The number is negligible compared to the  multitude who seek yeshivot. (175)

I want to propose a less radical solution to the conversion problem [in israel] that does not require a conceptual change from the accepted methods of conversion. This solution was told to me by my father Z”L who heard it from Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, afterwards I head it directly from him.

Since infants have no data (awareness), their conversion does not require the acceptance of mizvot, just mikvah and circumcision. Therefore, we need to build permanent mikvaot in courts and hospitals. After every child is born to a couple considered an “Other” in their identity papers, we should do this process. The Rabbinic judge should immerse the child in front of the mother before they leave the hospital, and be registered as a Jew. If it is a male, the parent will also be obligated to circumcise him. This way we solve the problem of conversion… I want to return to the halakhah. The Rambam wrote, pace the Talmud, “We immerse a minor who seeks to convert based upon the guidance of the court. For it is an advantage for a person [to convert]. (Forbidden Relationships 13:7) (189)

Shilo sees his book as a manifesto and his ideas as the start of a new movement. However, I see his book as part of a bigger trend of Israeli traditionalism. I could give an entire course, or create a reader placing Shilo’s book on the shelf with a number of similar works including: Yoav Sorek’s nationalist vision that is conservative socially but religious liberal with Meir Buzaglo’s defense of the Sephardi mesorati position, with Dov Elbaum’s presentation of the tradition for those outside, the studies of mesorati Jews by Yaacov Yadgar, and with Tomer Persico’s religion and spirituality for those coming from the secular perspective.

Yet, Shilo’s thought in the first part of the book most reminds me of the liberal Conservative Mordecai Kaplan influenced authors of the 1940’s and 1950’s- Jacob Agus, Ira Eisenstein, and Milton Steinberg, with an emphasis on peoplehood over dogma or halakhah. There were many articles in the Reconstructionist journal, in its prime, about commandments without a commander. Or see the Israel educator, Mordechai Bar-On, “The Commandments and the Commander” (Reconstructionist, 1977).

I did not find myself in much agreement with Shilo, but his book reflects the debates in Israel today and it is important to note that his book is reviewed within the Religious Zionist world. It is an enjoyable quick read and worth reading, However, while covering similar ground it is not a classic like Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, rather editorials and blog posts.

1)   What is the story of your book

In the second half of the 1990s, I began to write aphorisms – fragments of thoughts, similar to the style of Rabbi Kook, Pascal and Nietzsche. At that time, I considered naming my book: “The Song of Thoughts”.

At the same time, there were parallel processes developing in society such as plans for the establishment of joint religious-secular pre-military preparatory programs.

When I began to write, I felt as if I am a voice calling in the desert. When I finished my writings, I found myself in a new social movement, Called “Israeli-Judaism,” which includes pluralistic Batei Midrash, and pre-military religious-secular preparatory programs, see in this link:

For many years I was worried that publishing my thoughts could harm my relationship with my workplaces. And that’s exactly what happened. Two days after the publication of my article on Biblical criticism, (“Divine revelation in human text” Makor Rishon 6/19/2009), which edited some of my aphorisms related to this subject into an article; I was notified by telephone that my work at Orot College (a religious college) had ended.  At the Nezer David Institute, that publish the Nazir writings, (a disciple of Rabbi Kook), my work was stopped when I finished publishing the Nazir’s commentary on a book attributed to the Ramhal book Kalach Pitchei Hokhmah. I was told that only if I retracted what I had written in Makor Rishon, I could continue my work. I could not acquiesce to their offer. since I could not go back to Orthodox dogma even if I wanted to.

Volition does not bring belief.  Belief is outside of freewill- Shadal in the name of Crescas Or Hashem 2:5:2. Many people want to believe, but cannot. (Site editor’s note Cardinal Newman says the opposite, that belief is entirely volitional.

The burning of the bridges with these Orthodox institutions liberated me to write what I had in my heart. After that, continuing for six years, from the beginning of 2009 until the end of 2014, I published some more articles in Makor Rishon. This ended when I submitted the article “The Question of Evil and the Ability to Believe” (the fifth chapter in my book). It was not accepted, since the paper was bought by Sheldon Adelson, and he made the editorial position of the paper more conservative. This is the point I moved to the next step, preparing my articles in a book form.

2) Why did you create the book in two parts, a regular book and then aporhism Resesei Mahshavot? The first part 120 pages and the second 80 pages.

My meditations are like poetry raising ideas from different points of view. It is not always possible to unify all points of view that I present within my chapters. My reflections contain complexity, in which the resolution cannot always be ascertained at first glance. For example, regarding the subject of abortions, in my aphorism. I wanted to show that despite my liberal views, I am not captive by the liberal discourse, and can criticize it.

There are short passages that belong to some of the chapters, but reflect a point of view that I have once experienced, but not anymore. Another example: when I become aware of internal contradictions in some of the miracles in the Bible, I wrote it under the heading “Epicurus (Heretic) against his will”. “I really want to believe that miracles are possible, that there is truth in the miracles recounted in the Bible, that there is justice in the world, and that God intervenes in the world and changes the laws of nature when he wants, but these desires break on the rock of reality.” I discussed these issues in the main chapter. Yet, it is important to show that there was a genuine search for truth and I did not mark the goal in advance, it was forced upon me.

The inability of Orthodoxy to provide a real and not apologetic answer to the proofs of biblical criticism, compelled me to abandon the traditional position with which I began to explore the topic, with a surplus of self-confidence in the justice of its path. I then adopted the historio-critical perspective on the Torah, as a text written by many authors, written hundreds of years after the events described in it.

When I submitted the book to the publishing house, I placed my short thoughts at the end of each chapter, but the editors did not like the leap from genre to genre, and this is the reason why all the short thoughts are in one section and all chapters in another one. Every decision has pros and cons. There were people who like the short thoughts, which sometimes are thought-provoking and suitable for study groups. ( In the review of my book by Prof. Ron Margolin in Makor Rishon, (4/10/17, “Saving the faith from itself”) more quotes were taken from the second part than from the first part.

 3) What does it mean to create a continuity between halakhah and secularity?

This means that instead of a society divided into sectors of religious and secular, there should be a continuous Jewish society ranging from secular to religious. In which each individual can find his own place according to where he comes from and according to the root of his soul.

The philosophical basis has two assumptions (1) The Jewish way of life today derives from a process of human development and creativity throughout the generations, and therefore it is not absolute. Not every person at any time and place can fit to this lifestyle. The awareness that this is a human development leads to the conclusion that seeing the observance of the commandments as a divine command is fiction. The meaning of the Mitzvot must be constructed from the content itself, and not from a belief in God who commands them. 2) There are different types of people. Some people are religiously inclined and for some people the religious world is alien to them. In the middle, there are people who are partially suited to a Jewish lifestyle. They feel it intuitively, but they lack a philosophical basis, and that’s what I’m trying to do with my book. To present a model that is softer than the halakhic model, and to show the meaning it contains.

4)      How are you different from  Israeli mesorati or the Israeli Reform movement?

Judaism of Existence” (Kiyumit) suggests double states of consciousness, religious and secular. For example: entering into a state of religious consciousness while praying and entering an atheistic state of consciousness while facing evil. This is even more left than what the Reform movement that see itself as a religious movement that believes in God.

In terms of the everyday life, the model of Sabbath observance, of using electricity in certain need or distress, is practically close to the Orthodox model, and differs from the characteristics of the Reform Sabbath, which is a model of a “secular Shabbat” + prayer, lighting the candles and Kiddush.

With regard to kashrut, non-eating some non-kosher animals takes on significance because it identifies with the moral ideal of vegetarianism. Since it is morally problematic to eat animals, reducing the types of meat to a small number of animals is an intermediate state between the celebration of flesh and vegetarianism. This form of keeping kosher is a softer model than the halakhic model, which forbids eating from vessels that are cooked with unkosher flesh.

Most of the traditional Jews in Israel do not experience a crisis between traditional beliefs and their modern world. Their perceptions of religion are Orthodox, but their lifestyle is different. Traditional existence is a will to continue the legacy of our Fathers, whereas for the Jew of Existence (Kiyumi) this is not enough. He must identify with the content itself. The difference is not limited to a certain lifestyle – like another model of Shabbat, but also to matters such as kashrut, in which the Jew of Existence will be similar to the traditional Jew, but In terms of his inner world, his consciousness, will be completely different.

5)   What is the weakness of Neemanei Torah veAvodah?

The weakness of the liberal wing within religious Zionism is that it is still bound within the halakhah, which often reflects an ultra-Orthodox world view.

To use sexuality as an example. Why does the liberal Religious Zionist complain about the need for separation between boys and girls in order to prevent halakhic prohibitions of “transgressions”? Halakha, and the ultra-Orthodox society, sees a sin in every erotic expression that is outside of the framework of married life, and calls it yetzer hara (evil inclination). Halakha forbids all forms of art that contain erotic elements, or alternatively, a touch of affection or even a touch without affection, between men and women. The liberal national religious are in conflict, between their modern conception of sexuality and their commitment to halakhah.

Another example, attitude toward general culture. Liberal Religious Zionist see the figure of a rabbi who has a broad general education, but according to the Shulchan Aruch, “it is permitted to study by random external wisdom, only so long as there are no species books of heresy (Yoreh Deah, 247,4). That is why the Liberal Religious Zionist is inferior to the more conservative parts of religious Zionism.

The liberal religious parents will have to submit to these stricter decisions because of their commitment to halakhah. What I am trying to do is to liberate the liberal religious from their commitment to halakha, so that they can present their positions without having to apologize. If my book convinces them to abandon their commitment to halakhah, they can feel comfortable standing up for their positions.

6)      How can you have mizvot without a commander?

The question is not how to perform mitzvot without a commander, rather  how do people continue to deceive themselves, and to identify with a way of life that has been developed by ordinary people over thousands of years into a divine command. In addition, the model of man as subordinate to God, is contrary to the consciousness of the modern free man.

The observance of mitzvot without a commander stems from a will to continue the Jewish culture and national heritage that is a part of you. My starting point is the will to connect to the practical level of observance, and I turn only to those who are interested in it and try to give it a philosophical foundation. I am aware that a large part of the secular population is not interested in this, and therefore my vision is to create a continuous Jewishness, between halakhah and secularism.

7) What is your view of revelation as from heaven but creating a human text?

There are two questions. 1) The emergence of the texts. 2) Dealing with immoral things written in the Torah.

The ignorance or apologetics of the Orthodox in dealing with biblical criticism, and the failures of it which I show in my book, creates a softening that enables us to deal with moral questions as well. The strict faith in “Torah from Heaven” is crumbling, which also create moral damages, such as the prohibition of homosexuality, which causes a life of suffering for homosexual religious people. Some of them remain in loneliness and do not have sex, because they think that God dictated this commandment to Moses.

The dissolution of the traditional concept enables a softer conception of God’s revelation. The groundbreaking moral concepts and ideas that we find in the Bible can be seen as ideas inspired by God. As opposed to other content, which is human, especially when it has negative aspects.

8) How should we view God in the new age?

The awareness that all the perceptions of divinity over the ages are human ways to perceive what is beyond all perception, brings to choose one of many perceptions, one that is best suited to the modern era, and to give it dominance. The concept of mystical divinity, as developed by Rabbi Kook, is the most appropriate because the divinity is not a personal God that commands, but as all of reality perceived as divine abundance. In this perception, the rupture between the holy and the secular consolidates and unites, and the secular values ​​become an expression of divine abundance.

9) You seem like another datlash (formerly observant) who does not believe anymore and does not accept all of halakhah anymore? Lots of Israelis are like that.

You can call me a “former Orthodox,” but my attempt to connect to the  world of prayer and to softer model of Shabbat, which is close to the Orthodox Sabbath, distinguishes me from the datlash, whose religiosity is a thing of the past, a “former religious.” I am not only a person who has lost the innocent faith, and then would become a secular Jew. I am a person who in addition to the loss of his innocent faith tries to build and to connect to tradition from a new point of view, which will enable me to maintaining important and essential parts of the Jewish tradition, and to make them meaningful and relevant.

10) You seem very similar to the American liberal movements such as Conservative or Reconstructionist?

The Conservative Movement sees itself as halakhic, whereas “existential (kiyumi) Judaism” is not halachically obligated and I observe the commandments according to my ability to connect to their content.

One of the major innovations of my book is breaking the division between religious thinkers and secular thinkers such as Brenner, in whose world God does not exist. And at the same time still working with Heschel, Soloveitchik and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who deal with different types of a believer.

I present a new position between them, which places the ontological issue of God’s existence in brackets (on the side), and focuses on the subjective experience. My goal is not to deny our various emotions and to allow the possibility of entering a state of consciousness of faith in the living God when you pray or celebrate Independence Day the ingathering of the exiles to the Land of Israel. At the same time, to be able to enter an atheistic state of consciousness when facing the blindness of evil and death, such as earthquakes.

11) Are you just a liberal form of Yoav Sorek?

You are not the first person to similarities in our visions. Nevertheless, we have many differences. I would like to accentuate three of them: )1) Sorek speaks of a discourse of commitment to halakhah, even if it is a “soft” halakhah. Whereas “existential (kiyumi) Judaism” is not halachically obligated and observes the commandments according to the ability to connect to their contents. (2) His thought gives no room for total secularism and atheism, which will continue to be part of the mosaic within the various possibilities it offers. (3) In addition, I claim that on many  values ​​of Western-modern culture which are against traditional Jewish values, the Jewish values should be rejected. In many cases, we should accept Western-modern culture over Jewish values.

12) You claim to be a new movement. But, you do not have an organization, money, institution, speakers? If so, how are you a new movement?

In one of the letters that  I received from one of my readers, I was asked: “Do you intend to establish a stream/Beit Midrash/party?, I would be happy to be a partner and hear more.” Since there is no such stream, I leave things in the open deliberately, and write about it only in one of the inner pages of the second part of the book: “If there are enough people who identify with the idea of ​​existential Judaism, a website will be set up, and if it is joined by people with economic capabilities, a Beit Midrash or pre-military academy will be established in the spirit of these ideas. I am  aware that a movement will not be established without it.

The vision of establishing a movement or institution in the spirit of the ideas of this book is a dream that will probably not materialize, but maybe in another twenty years or in another generation it will arise, who knows?