Interview with Richard A. Cohen on Levinas and Spinoza

Thirty years ago I was a graduate student reading the newly published translation of Emmanuel Levinas’ Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (1985) while standing against the door at the end of the dirty subway car on a southbound 1 train. In the midst of my reading, I pause to read the short biography blurb of the translator Richard A. Cohen. I pondered how fortunate he was to study with Emmanuel Levinas and how far his world seems from the Jewish Studies world of Hebrew University. In subsequent years, I read many of his fine translations of Levinas’ writing. Recently, after my interview with Robert Erlewine, Richard contacted me offering me his works and online conversation about Levinas.

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Richard A. Cohen is certainly one of the world’s preeminent Levinas scholars as well as one of his devoted English translators. Cohen is Professor of Philosophy, and served as Chair of Department of Jewish Thought, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York.

Prof. Cohen is author of several books on Levinas including: Levinasian Meditations: Ethics, Philosophy and Religion.(Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2010); Ethics, Exegesis and Philosophy: Interpretation After Levinas. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001 and Elevations: The Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). His prolific number of translations include:  New Talmudic Readings by Emmanuel Levinas. (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1999). His most recent work is Out of Control: Confrontations between Spinoza and Levinas (2016) to which this interview dedicates several questions. And Cohen wanted me to mention that he is a member of the Young Israel of Greater Buffalo

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century and certainly one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the era. Richard A. Cohen as an expositor emphasizes the Jewish element in Levinas’ thought presenting Levinas as in line with Jewish contours of thought. Levinas was a practicing Jew who from 1947-1961 was the director of the Ecole Normale Israelite Orientale, a Jewish day school which was part of the Alliance Israelite Orientale, an educational organization for Jewish communities in France and French Africa. From 1961 to his death he held ever more prestigious academic positions. Starting in 1957, he organized annual public lectures to revive Jewish thought in France together with Rabbi Yehuda Léon Askénazi (also known as Manitou) and Prof. Andre Nehar.

Before turning to Cohen, a short précis of Levinas’ intellectual thrust is in order. According to Levinas, I must accept my relationship with and responsibility toward the Other in order to escape isolation and solipsism and become fully myself. Yet, this relation is not something that comes into existence because I have chosen or initiated it. It had to be there already so that I could be in a position to choose. I have never not been in relation to someone other than myself. It is this relation with the Other that makes possible and gives rise to my very consciousness. The presence of the Other—with its implicit call to responsibility and service—thus brings me fully into being, reveals to me my separation from what is other, hollows out my interiority, initiates discourse, and makes possible a world I have in common with the Other. The relation of the “I” and “the Other” is not self-contained, but calls me to service—not only to the Other before me, but to all other Others, thereby creating the whole of social life.

Therefore, Levinas is against the stream of modern Jewish religious thought as currently preached which emphasizes my personal commitment to Torah, my need to construct the self through repentance and coming to God, or the isolation of the modern self.. Levinas openly rejects Neo-Hasidic experience as self-serving, a false totality concerned with the self and a false sense of reality compared to the responsibility before the Other. And on the recent posts to this blog, Levinas has little in common with Rav Shagar’s mid-20th century concern with authenticity, individuality, and personal expression.

For Levinas, expecting God to help others or save the innocent makes God into a primitive dispenser of favors or a magician, rather we should seek a mature faith and accept personal responsibility for the suffering of the world.

What is the meaning of the suffering of the innocent? Does it not witness to a world without God, to an earth where only man determines the measure of good and evil?… This would also be the healthiest response for all those who until now have believed in a rather primitive God who awards prizes, imposes sanctions, or pardons mistakes, and who, in His goodness, treats people like perpetual children. But what kind of limited spirit, what kind of strange magician did you project as the inhabitant of your heaven – you who today state that heaven is deserted?

An adult’s God reveals Himself precisely in the emptiness of the child’s heaven. That is the moment when God withdraws Himself from the world and veils His countenance… The just person’s suffering for the sake of a justice that fails to triumph is concretely lived out in the form of Judaism.

We have to accept our infinite responsibility toward the world even though we know we cannot solve all the world’s problems. I have infinite moral responsibility for the suffering in the world, for the suffering in Syria, for morality in the United States, and for those who work and live around me.

Richard A. Cohen in all his many works and in this interview shows his great ability to render the thought of Levinas in a clear and concise manner.  Cohen’s writing removes the very Gaelic feel to Levinas whose writing are filled with technical coinages such as  “il y a”,  jouissance, substitution, or exorbitant. Cohen writes like an American instructor in ethics, in plain English and with distinct concepts.. Cohen also avoids many of the academic arguments of interpretation or of scholarship in order to render a clear presentation,

Cohen’s style is to write his books as a series of contrasts of “Levinas and X” so that his chapters are Levinas and Buber, Levinas and Spinoza, Levinas and Ricœur, Levinas and Rosenzweig. An ideal format for upper undergraduates and masters’ students thinking about topics. Cohen rises in each case to take sides and defend the thought of his master Levinas. Beyond the scope of this interview, Richard Cohen distances Levinas from the thought of Jacque Derrida, in that both Levinas was not strongly influenced by Derrida and that they diverge in their thinking.

Levinas’ religious thought has not caught on among United States Jews outside of academia except as out of context quotes making him into a musar thinker, pluralist, or moralist. I can think of many reasons why this is so, but as you read the interview with Richard Cohen, ask yourself if this can be taught in your community. The interview with Cohen stresses Levinas as a Biblical Humanist.

cohen-showing-spinoza
(Richard Cohen perusing 1st ed. 1677, Latin Spinoza, Opera Posthuma)

1)      Why is Levinas important? Why does he deserve more attention than other Jewish thinkers?

Levinas is a Jewish thinker of the first rank, and, if I may put it this way, of the “old school.”  That is to say, born in 1906 his childhood was spent in Kovno, Lithuania.  And then he went to France for a university degree.  His family, like almost all Litvaks, was murdered by the Nazis.  After his war imprisonment, Levinas became director of a AIU Jewish school in Paris, studied under the hidden Talmudic master known to his French students as “Monsieur Chouchani” [pronounced “Shoshani”] and eventually was invited to become a university professor of philosophy, finally at the Sorbonne.   Throughout his adult life he published articles and books of philosophy and Jewish thought, without any rupture between the two.,

So what I mean by “old school” is not simply, as one might mistakenly think, that he was from the “old country,” but rather that he was learned both by experience and training in Judaism and in the larger culture of the world at large.  I am thinking here of Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s lament – all too justified it seems to me – about how isolated and ignorant the post-war Yeshivah world has become in relation to the larger world and the cultural and intellectual heritage of the West.  My more limited point, however, is that this is not the case with Levinas, who truly knew both worlds, and was a Jewish thinker of the very first rank.

Given the fragmentation and ignorance in the Jewish world today, one might also say that Levinas is perhaps more important for the contribution his thinking makes to a certain context, a certain intellectual world, than for his most basic message itself.  His basic message, stripped to its core, is actually quite familiar even if it is all too often unheeded: be kind to others, create a just society.  Certainly this fundamental Torah teaching is also a universal ethical teaching recognized everywhere.   The aboriginal peoples of Australia did not await Mount Sinai to know that murder is evil and lying wrong.  To be sure, Judaism has made these ethical teachings central, and has created a way, halakha – to ensure their instantiation in all life’s endeavors and registers.

What make Levinas’s thought special, however, is that with the utmost intellectual and spiritual refinement he brings forth this teaching – the primacy of ethics – to challenge the heart of what has often, especially in the West (and within some quarters of Judaism itself), been taken to be a higher calling, namely, the call to know, to knowledge and contemplation.

Levinas is important in this critical enterprise – and this is key – because he launches his challenge not by retreating to indefensible and hence debilitating dualist premises, whether gnostic, Platonic or neo-Platonic. Rather, Levinas is a post-Kantian or contemporary thinker, which is to say – contra all the dualisms which tempt a dogmatic or so-called “religious” thought – that he sees in the body, language and time not obstacles to truth and goodness, but the means to their very possibility.  This also aligns with Judaism’s well-known this-worldliness, its rabbinic heritage of making the broad moral imperatives of the Bible concrete, real, rules of everyday life.  Goodness, then, enacted by and for human beings who suffer death and aging, who suffer wounds and wants, who speak and are heard or are silenced, is for Levinas the highest priority and the source of intelligibility itself – and he teaches this lesson to the most sophisticated of thinkers today.

2)      What is Mature Faith according to Levinas?

Levinas does indeed distinguish between what he calls “adult religion” and mythological consciousness, which is not only prone to superstition and error but more fundamentally is morally irresponsible, passing real obligations onto a divinity conceived in the manner of bargaining with Zeus.

The kingship and fatherhood of God for Levinas appear in the unsurpassable moral responsibility of each human being in the face of another.  This difference between adult and childish religion is one that Kant already recognized, namely, that adult religion is mature precisely because it fully recognizes the primacy of ethics, that the religious person is not religious because he or she genuflects to gain favor with Deity, or holds “authorized” beliefs (dogmas) or performs prescribed rituals, but because he or she strives relentlessly to be a moral person and to make the world a more just place for everyone.

Of course, as the Jewish prophets taught, to make morality and justice the measure of true religion does not at all mean discarding certain character traits, beliefs or rituals.  It does mean, however, grasping their real purpose.

The purpose of Judaism for Jews is to produce not good Jews but good human beings – and good human beings who are Jewish are good Jews.  The mission of Judaism to the world at large is to produce a good and just humanity.  Levinas would agree.   Closeness to God is nothing other than this: kindness toward others, a just world for all. Need I quote Micah?   Unfortunately all too many people prefer the irresponsibility of children, to have Daddy tell them what to do, to obey orders, as if such formalism were all that God demands.  Childhood is one thing; adulthood – bar mitzvah – is another.  No wonder, then, that in his many commentaries to Aggadic portions of the Talmud, Levinas discovers always and precisely the call to moral responsibility and the call to justice in all the Jewish texts, beliefs, rituals, and stories.   For Levinas ethics is not a nice gloss on Judaism: it is Judaism at its best and nothing less – let us hope – will satisfy the good Jew.

3)      How does Levinas differ from Spinoza on truth vs goodness?

This is the topic of my last book: Out of Control: Confrontations between Spinoza and Levinas.  One would probably not be exaggerating to say that globalization is itself part of the heritage of Spinozism.

Spinoza witnessed firsthand the beginning of what subsequently became the earth shattering change, the paradigm shift represented by the rise of modern science.  Modern science, in contrast to all previous knowledge, was strictly quantitative, formal-mathematical, analytical and causally oriented.   Or to put this negatively, for the sake of its kind of knowing it rejected what the philosophers had called “final causality,” i.e., reality understood in terms of goals, ends, and purposes.  Modern science cannot say what water is for, its purpose, but it knows that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen in a ratio of H2O.

The basic components of the universe are not Hebrew letters, as some Kabbalists may have thought, but atoms.  When we distinguish God and creation, we can place the Ten Commandments as representative of the first, but the Periodic Table as representative of the second.  But there is a problem, it seems that the latter does not recognize the former – and such is Spinoza’s deliberate thesis.  Not ethics and science, but science is ethics.  No wonder he called his one truly philosophical book Ethics: the measurable real is all there is, and it is “best” because it is the only world.  All talk of morality, then, of good and evil, of justice and injustice, is simply the talk of ignoramuses, non-scientists, fools buffeted about by their bodily desires and emotions.

Obviously, then, modern science as Spinoza understood it stands in conflict with previous religious notions of Providence, of God’s Will, of righteousness and morality and justice.  Science grasps reality without any such notions, and indeed finds such notions – of will, freedom, purpose, goodness – false and deceptive, nothing more than anthropomorphic projections, no more truthful than animism, indicative of humankind in its ignorant immaturity.   In a word, Spinoza took modern science to heart, made it an absolute.

Today this path, however erroneous and destructive, of science and nothing but science – is what is called “positivism,” and it is perhaps the dominant intellectual worldview of the educated elite.   For anyone who has thought seriously about it, however, it is clearly reductive, leaving much that is significant and important about our world out of its picture, and in the process demeaning what it cannot reduce to its limited form of rationality.

This exclusivity is not harmless, however.  Indeed, it is a dangerous exclusion because what science leaves out does not go away, and when it is excluded from reason it comes back, sad to say, as unreason, in monstrous forms. In other words, if one does not properly grasp the true nature and limits of science, if one makes science supreme in all things, all the rest will come back in the most unreasonable forms. So there is nothing “ivory tower” about misunderstanding the standing of modern science.

Levinas, for whom intelligibility is based first in goodness, of course rejects Spinoza’s positivism.  He considers Spinozism to be at the “antipodes” of his thought, because it denies the humanity of the human, denies freedom and transcendence, in its effort to assimilate humanity to the rest of nature.  So Levinas’s great antagonist, one might say, is Spinoza and Spinozism.

4)      What is prophecy for Levinas and Spinoza?

Prophecy for Spinoza is no more than a vivacious imagination coupled with persuasive rhetoric.   Like all products of imagination, it does not contain truth.  Prophets do no more than interfere in politics, causing harm.  Spinoza despite his alleged modernity thinks that “words and images” actually hinder, indeed prevent truth.  Truth is the mind thinking itself, hence with no need to communicate, and indeed insofar as the truth is the intelligibility of One Substance, without anyone to speak to.

Levinas is also not satisfied to limit prophecy to the biblical prophets, because for Levinas it is far more exalted.  Indeed, for Levinas prophecy represents the basic character of all human communication.  Not in the sense that humans like the biblical prophets are able to predict the future, but in the sense that communication is always an elevation rising to transcendence, to goodness.  For Levinas intelligibility arises not in the mind in communion with itself, thought thinking thought, but like chavusa in a Yeshiva it arises in human conversation, discussion, one person speaking to another, what Levinas calls “the saying of the said.”

The first “word” of such intelligibility is one that is not actually said but is nonetheless the condition of all speech and truth: shema, “listen,” hear,” because one must first hear the other person, listen to the other before one can grasp, understand, evaluate  what he or she says.  So for Levinas all speaking is “prophetic” in this sense, attending to the other’s expression, conditioned by respect, by the moral transcendence of the other person.

Levinas takes creation seriously, and takes most seriously the transcendence of the other person, which lies at the root of all multiplicity, especially the multiple readings of the Torah, one for each person, each one of which is necessary as humans approach Torah truth.  The Torah, Jewish tradition teaches, was given to 600,000 Jews, in 4 registers of interpretation, and to the 70 nations as well.  The math is obvious: there are at least 158,000,000 legitimate – divinely expressed – readings of Torah, lacking any one of which the Torah is not complete.  And this as we know is really only the beginning of the math.

5)      Why is the book called “Out of Control” in its comparison of Levinas and Spinoza?

Perhaps it is a title a bit too clever, but the point is that not irresponsibility, wildness, letting go, what we usually think of as “out of control,” but responsibility, caring for the other, putting the other before myself, that such moral responsiveness is what is truly out of the control of all systems and institutions of control, from legislation to norms, from causal systems to linguistic rules.  It is illogical to put the other first.  It cannot be reduced to a calculus of self-interest and benefits.  Ethics is not an economics.  So the idea behind the title, “out of control,” is to re-appropriate this expression from its usual epistemic or aesthetic sense – the madman, the artist, the eccentric, the rebel – and acknowledge that the one event truly most out of control, indeed entirely out of control, is responsibility, the moral responsibility one person takes for another.  This is the radical thesis which the title of my book names and its arguments support.

According to “control” – epistemic and political – we are reduced to sequences of causes or reasons, or fit into categories, systems of genus and species, are Americans or French or Russians; allies or enemies or neutral; educated or uneducated; observant or unobservant; Sephardi or Ashkenazi; Misnaged or Chassidic; or we are Christian or Muslim, or Canadian or Eskimo.  But moral obligation, the responsibility one person takes for another, transcends – breaks out of – all these categories of identity control.

Responsibility fissures our identity, putting the self into question as the for-the-other before-myself of responsibility.  One who is responsible does not choose, but is chosen.  I am responsible for you whether you are my friend or enemy, whether you are Jewish or not, whether you are white or black, whether you care for me or hate me.  There are no prior contracts to contain such a responsibility – they burst upon me, shatter me, demand of me.  Such is moral command: the other comes first, I must obey first.  N’ase v’nishma.  To acknowledge human relations based in this manner means putting the “out of control” – ethical demand – at the root of intelligibility, and not the other way around.

To be sure, moral responsibility, which means caring for another, giving to the other, providing food, clothing, shelter, education, entertainment, medical care, company, etc., also demands justice, a concern for all others, including those who are not present.  Justice requires knowledge and institutions, precisely control.  So a great deal of what is normally thought of as control is genuinely necessary: laws, courts, police, schools, army, highways, hospitals, and the like, everything needed to produce and maintain a just society, a society of plenty rather than poverty.  Nevertheless, we must never forget that all of these universal systems, if they are not to lose their humanity, if they are not to put administration above those to whom they administer, at bottom serve the singularity of moral life, to enable me to be responsible for you.  Justice with a human face, that alone is justice.  Thus the “out of control” is not anything esoteric or crazy, except for evil persons.

My book shows that Spinoza, contrary to “popular opinion” (in this case including scholarly opinion) does not represent a Jewish outlook.  In the history of philosophy and even more broadly in all the cultured circles of the West, Spinoza is usually taken to be representative of Judaism. Certainly it is true that Spinoza writes extensively about Jewish topics, and has a clear mastery of Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible.  Nonetheless, I believe we can hardly fault the rabbis of 17th century Amsterdam who excommunicated Spinoza: he is not only not representative of Judaism, which is to say he does not fully grasp what Judaism is about, he is positively antagonistic toward Jews and Judaism.  He abhors the ancient Jews, who are but “slaves” and “ignoramuses.”  He hates the rabbis, whose biblical interpretations he considers “mad,” “ravings,” and “malicious.”

6)      What is Levinas’ Biblical humanism? How does he define love thy neighbor?

Levinas distinguishes between secular humanism and biblical humanism because the latter is based in radical transcendence, irreducible otherness, while the former is not, is projective, and finally closes in upon itself in an arbitrary or historical immanence.  Thus for Levinas the goodness which is the ultimate purpose of each person, each Jew, of Judaism and humanity as a whole, is properly “holy,” and Levinas uses this term.

Judaism and ethics are thus holy in Rashi’s sense of “separation,” but here in the context of Levinas meaning a response to the transcendence of the other person as moral height.  Responsibility arises in the priority of the other’s suffering over my own, being put into question by the other who I cannot reduce to another myself, hence a shattering of the complacency of my own identity in helping the other, giving more than I am really able but striving nonetheless to give all I can.  Thus the other appears as a surplus, a disturbance, an otherness unassimilable to  my own syntheses but raising me to higher responsibilities.  This separation is holiness: not physical, not ontological, not epistemological or aesthetic, but ethical – a moral demand.  God is the demand that I love my neighbor more than myself, that I dedicate myself to justice for all – such is the passing of the most Desirable, the Most High, indeed, the Holy One Blessed be He.  It was Martin Buber who coined the term “biblical humanism,” but it serves Levinas’s thought quite well.

Again, let me accentuate that Levinas it not trying to “gloss” Judaism with an “ethical interpretation,” as if Judaism were really something else, as if God were a real person, an entity, and Levinas would “improve” it with ethical language.  No, the deepest meaning of Judaism, of its texts, written and oral, its rituals, halakha, of the One God, indeed all of it in all its details, is precisely nothing other than ways to goodness, pathways to goodness, morality between one and another, and justice for all.  Is this not the exalted test – of Abraham, of God – in the Akeda, holding God himself, as it were, to His own Justice, God who cannot condone the slaughter of innocents?  Read with adult eyes, no longer as children, but as sons and daughters of the mitzvot, everything in the Bible, the Talmud, all the words of our sages teach precise this.

Levinas’s ethics is not new, but a renewal – because ethics must constantly be renewed.  Levinas shows the contemporary sensibility how each and every aspect of Judaism, all of it, is a call to moral goodness and a call to justice.  The height of God is the height of goodness and justice.

7)      What is justice for Levinas?

Justice is a society where one can be moral without fault.   I will give a brief explanation because I am not trying to be enigmatic.  To be moral, as I have indicated, is to alleviate the suffering of the other.  It arises in the first person singular, me responsible for you.  But your suffering is infinite, in the sense that each of us is finite, mortal, vulnerable, with physical needs, for air, food, clothing, shelter and the like; medical needs in case of illness or injury; psychological and sociological needs for self-esteem, honor and respect and the like, and the list goes on without end.  If I feed you today, you will be hungry again tomorrow.  No one can ever satisfy even one person despite the most total devotion.

Levinas even calls moral responsibility “maternal,” like a pregnancy, the other in oneself, carrying the other… and who can do this for more than a handful of others and really for only one other one at a time?  But the burden is even heavier, more difficult.

Let us imagine I have some food and I am facing a hungry person.  From a moral point of view, I will give this food to that other person – such is moral obligation, to alleviate the hunger of the one who faces me.  I give all to the other, without even thinking of myself – what a moral person I am!  But the other person, however hungry, is not the only hungry person in the world.  By giving all the food to the hungry person who faces me, by being as moral as I can possibly be, I am at the same time denying food to the hungry persons who are not proximate.  So my act of morality creates injustice, feeding one person leaves others unfed.  What a conundrum: goodness creates injustice.

Thus from out of morality itself comes the call to rectify its own excess.  Morality demands justice: not simply the for-the-other of morality but the for-all-others of justice, to care for those “near and far.”  Morality, though infinite, is not enough: at once I must be moral and just – this is not so easy, indeed nothing is more difficult.  To be sure, justice is guided by morality: what I want to provide for all is what I want to provide for the one who faces me: to alleviate specific suffering, tailoring my aid to the needs of the others, first of all the other’s material needs, food, clothing, shelter, medical care.

Levinas explicitly appropriates an expression he takes from the Mussar giant Rabbi Israel Salanter: “The material needs of the other are my spiritual needs.”  In other words, Levinas is not deceived by the high sounding but abstract “rights” of bourgeois liberalism.  Yes, the other should have “free speech,” “free press,” “free assembly,” well and good.  But the other must also be fed, clothed, housed, medically treated, educated, and the like.  Moral obligations are concrete, real, material, not beautiful ideas.  The first demand of justice, Levinas has said, is for food.

Justice is thus the rectification of morality in a pluralist world.  To be sure, just as morality is “impossible,” meaning I can never fully satisfy the needs of even one person, so too is justice impossible, meaning that I presently know not how to set up a just society in which everyone can be moral without fault.  Levinas thus admits and indeed celebrates the “infinity” of morality, and the “utopian” or “messianic” character of justice.  Anything less would be to reduce the transcendence of goodness to the immanence of being; or to say this more simply, it would be to let ethics off the hook, converting the “ought” to the “is,” – stripping the world of its holiness – which really means to eliminate ethics altogether.  For this reason too one can say that God “is” justice, or better that God is the inescapable demand for justice, that the true transcendence, the transcendence that calls upon us and raises us to our highest stature, and at the same time demands more, above our highest, higher than the highest, is the call to justice, which is always a call for more justice.  Justice, Levinas has said, is never just enough.  In this way God is beyond, indeed above being.

8)   How is Levinas different than Maimonides, especially on ethics and justice?

Maimonides is a medieval thinker and Levinas is a contemporary thinker.  In this context, to be contemporary means taking seriously the body, language and time, not as barriers to what is ultimate but as part and parcel of the absolute.  Body, language and time are not merely ladders, to be discarded, on the path to God; they are the human way of coming close to God – angels going up and down.  To be sure, the Absolute “ab-solves” itself, as Levinas says, meaning that God is not being but transcendence, not the real but the good.

Torah too is for humans: the good only occurs not despite embodiment, language and temporality, but because of them, in the midst of them, by way of them.  Nevertheless, owing to his situation, because he is caught up in the theological premises of medieval thinking, even if in his case they are Jewish rather than Christian or Muslim, I do not think that Maimonides is fully able to share this contemporaneity with Levinas.

Despite so much in Maimonides that is fully immersed in the hustle-bustle and flesh and blood of the created world, i.e., which is so characteristically “Jewish,” with feet on the ground, “pots and pans,” “carnal,”– in his most philosophical moments he remains caught in theology, which is to say, caught in the intellectual conundrums set by ancient thought, originating with Greek and Asian metaphysics.

9)   Prior Jewish thinkers emphasize character, virtue, and self-cultivation, for examples Maimonides, & Rabbi S.R. Hirsch. Why does Levinas critique these ideas? In fact, much of your presentation of Levinas’ critique of Paul Ricœur’s thought could just as well be about Maimonides or Hirsch

This is a huge topic.  We would have to first make clear what exactly Maimonides and Hirsch are saying about character, virtue and self-cultivation.  On the face of it, no ethical thinker would oppose these, and Levinas certainly does not.  But if you are right about their views being similar to Paul Ricoeur’s, then let me speak about Levinas and Ricoeur.  Levinas’ critique of Ricoeur – who was his friend and colleague – is an argument about the priority of self-esteem in relation to respect for the other, an argument therefore about what comes first in the ethical: me or the other.

For Levinas respect precedes self-esteem, being for-the-other is the main thing, getting honor or self-esteem or happiness from such behavior is secondary and in a certain sense entirely accidental.  If a person for whatever reason gets no pleasure, no happiness, and no self-esteem from behaving morally toward others – that is of no importance.  The greatest deeds in the world are for the most part unknown. The desire to be good, a character oriented toward goodness, is good, to be sure, but, as Levinas says: “No one is good voluntarily.”  The other is an imposition – better than my own self-interests, to be sure, but as such not my pleasure or satisfaction.

Levinas does not propose a eudemonistic ethics, an ethics concerned with the happiness obtained by moral agency.  Ethics for Levinas is not a cost-benefit analysis, not a tactic or strategy in the path to self-fulfillment.   Levinas does not say “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which seems to give priority to self-love, but rather “Love your neighbor is yourself,” which thinks moral agency as self-sacrifice, as a rising above selfishness, even the satisfaction of self-esteem.  What is of primary importance, in other words, is the happiness of the other person.  I sacrifice myself for the other’s happiness – that is morality for Levinas.  To be sure, as an embodied being I know pleasures, the enjoyment of good food, fine clothes, for instance, the advantages of spending money, and the like.

But for Levinas these self-satisfactions precisely enable me to understand the suffering of the other.  Giving money is a sacrifice because I would rather keep it.  Giving food to others is a sacrifice because I enjoy eating myself.  Such is one of the great lessons of Yom Kippur.  Levinas has described moral responsibility as a taking of food from one’s own mouth and giving it to the other.

Indeed, for Levinas the ultimate structure of ethics, of moral responsibility, is “dying for… the other.”  Certainly no one wants to make such a sacrifice, but certainly too, this is the ultimate structure of morality, of the for-the-other before oneself, and those who have made it – kiddush Hashem – are moral martyrs.  Let us hope it does not come to that.

10)   Why does Levinas reject love as a basis of ethics.

Generally, Levinas shies away from the term “love” I think for two reasons.  One, the most obvious, is the way this word has been used in Christian discourse.  There it seems to mean an effusive charity and forgiveness toward the other independent of justice, so that Christians, or more precisely some Christians, in America (such is my experience), are often inclined in the name of “love” to care more for the perpetrators of crime and injustice without due consideration for the victims of those same crimes and injustice.

These are themes that Rabbi Leo Baeck addressed more broadly with regard to the nature and contrast between Jewish and Christian ethics and outlook in his 1938 book entitled Judaism and Christianity.  In this book Baeck characterizes Christian spirituality as “sentimental,” prone to good feelings, in contrast to the disciplined spirituality of Jewish “law,” “ritual” and behavior with its intellectual sobriety.

I think Levinas avoids the term “love,” then, because he is very much aware of the rigor and sobriety of Judaism, especially manifest in Talmud and the rabbinic tradition of interpretation built thereupon, but no less evident in the rigor and sobriety of his own writings and philosophy.

The second reason he avoids the term is its vagueness.  For Levinas love is primarily a familial and erotic term, between husband and wife, parents and children.   Ethics for Levinas is neither familial nor tribal, nor a sentiment or feeling, though it includes sentiment and feeling.  The moral agent suffers for the suffering of the other, true, but the moral agent also alleviates the other’s suffering – my suffering is not enough, the other’s suffering comes first, it is an imperative for me.  Moral obligation arises in an alertness to the needs of the other, a wakefulness, an awakening by the other arousing my responsibility to and for the other, and ultimately to and for all others.

But the other solicits infinitely, without end, without conclusion, so I can never do enough.  This does not debilitate my moral responsiveness, however, but spurs it on.  Such is the high exigency of the “ought.”  For this reason Levinas puts “bad conscience” above “good conscience,” because no one has fulfilled their moral obligations or the demands of justice – there is always better and more to do.  Perhaps one could call such stringency and obligation “love,” if one understands this term correctly; the issue is not a matter of semantics, but of giving.

11)   Given that the program you designed at Buffalo focuses on Jewish thought, how do you sees the relationship between Jewish thought/philosophy and Jewish Studies in general?

My answer may surprise you.  Earlier I indicated that Levinas’s thought is contemporary while Maimonides, for instance, is medieval, meaning that Maimonides inherited and was tripped up by certain dualisms from the ancient past (soul/body, mind/matter, spirit/matter, etc.), caught in theological difficulties which Levinas was able to avoid.   I stand by this claim.

But at the same time we must recognize that the Jewish tradition for the most part did not adopt the gnostic and dualist presuppositions which permeated and split Greek thought.  So the Jewish tradition, for instance, did not separate soul from body or body from soul, and hence did not obsess over the immortality of the one and the corruption of the other, as did Christian theologians, nor did it expend much intellectual energy on the split between heaven, hell and earth and the inscrutability of their relations.

Christianity is a theological religion, doctrinal, a matter of belief; Judaism is not.  This said, it follows that the Jewish tradition as a whole – including Maimonides – is much closer to what I have called Levinas’s contemporaneity, for it has very well appreciated the integral unity of mind/body, spirit/matter and spirit/letter.  It is, as I have said above, and speaking quite positively, a “carnal” religion, if I may alter the valence in which Christians used this term to denigrate Judaism.

So, my “surprising” conclusion is that what I am calling the contemporary period of the West, in which Levinas is a major voice, should be open and ready to appreciate rabbinic thinking.  Indeed, I will go further: today, our time, is the epoch of Jewish thought as genuine thinking, thinking beyond dualisms, thinking creation in its reality and integrity without flight into fantastic other-worlds or immaterial souls.  For the first time, in other words, the world is ready for Jewish thought as thought itself and not some parochial second cousin.  Concreteness, this-worldliness, human measure, has always been the strength of Jewish thinking, its hardheadedness, as it were, its sobriety, its famous worldliness.  It seems to me that now the world at large, or at least the Western world which had been dominated by ancient Greek and Christian dualisms, has finally caught up.  So for the first time Jewish thought, because it has been at it much longer, and is far more developed in this style of thinking, can be the leader and guide of a global thought, a truly contemporary appreciation for an integral reality, based – such of course is Levinas’s fundamental view – on the primacy of ethics, of the “ought” over the “is.”

It is all the sadder then, that the Yeshiva world, just when it faces a world never more capable of being receptive to Jewish teachings, seems ever more intent on closing its doors, retreating, remaining willfully ignorant of the science, literature, culture, in sum the spiritual heritage of the non-Jewish world which cannot distract it but surely can enrich it.  Would the Yeshiva world really become impoverished reading Shakespeare?  Just as the non-Jewish world is more prepared than ever for Jewish thinking, Orthodox Jewish thinking is turning away from it – it is a terrible and twisted mistake, for both worlds, so it seems to me.

Levinas was able to speak to the entire world not despite his Jewishness but because of it.  He did not reduce Judaism to an abstract and artificial universality, but found in its most particular words and deeds, in the density of its righteous this-worldliness, the universal, openness to all and everything.   “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.”  This too could be Levinas’s motto.  He wrote philosophical treatises and published “Talmudic Readings,” he lectured in his synagogue on Shabbat and taught in the academic halls of the Sorbonne, without altering his teaching, because his teaching was so quintessentially Jewish that it was a teaching for the whole world.

So today, to answer your question, the Department of Jewish Thought at the University at Buffalo sees itself at the same time as a fount of the Humanities, indeed, as the foundation of the entire College of Arts and Sciences, and hence as the foundation of the entire university, of Higher Education, if this way of putting it does not sound too pretentious.

Never before has the world needed Jewish Studies more, because the world is finally waking up to its grandeur, turning from its time-worn escapisms.   Now is not the time for Jews to turn their backs to the world.  Quite the reverse, now more than ever is the world ready and in need of Jewish thinking.  Without demanding that others convert to Judaism as a religious community, Jewish thought is the thinking of all humankind, each tradition in its own idiom, to be sure, following its own specific heritage – but united in striving for goodness and justice.  Judaism does not demand reductive conformity but harmony, of interpretations – which is the Talmudic way – without erasing their differences.  Levinas’s thought is rigorous, demanding and all-embracing, at once human, humane and holy, for Jews and for everyone, at the highest levels of intelligibility.

Rav Shagar on Hanukah in English Translation

In honor of Kislev, I post Rabbi Shagar on Hanukah. It will give everyone a chance to read it in advance.  Rabbi Shagar (d. 2007), was a Torah scholar and a contemporary religious thinker left a deep mark on the educators and students of the generation.

This essay “Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul” is a discussion of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s discourse on the candles of Hanukah, from R. Shagar’s discourses on Hanukah, To Illuminate the Openings (להאיר את הפתחים)  (Machon Kitve ha-Rav Shagar: Efrat, 2014), 53-6.

The translation was done in first draft by Rabbi Josh Rosenfeld, a RIETS graduate who was a lone soldier in the IDF through the Second Lebanon War. He is the assistant rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogues and is on the Judaic Studies Faculty at SAR High School. It was first posted last year on a different blog and has been repurposed and completely revived and reedited for this blog. If anyone else has made personal translations of essays by Rav Shagar, I would be glad to post them. (Also if you find errors in this translation, please let me know).

rabbi-shagar

In my past blog posts, we have discussed his approach to Torah study, his post modernism, watched a TV documentary about his life and his views of a return to traditionalism away from method and ideology. Recently, we looked at his essay on post-modernism. We also looked at how Smadar Cherlow portrayed the post- Rabbi Shagar turn.

This discourse-essay has three parts moving us from an acknowledgement of modern autonomy in part one, then presents a humanism of an embedded lived narrative in part two and concludes with a defense of full obedience to mizvot using post-modern terms.

In the first part, Rav Shagar sets the problem as a tension between the fixed halakhah and the need for authenticity and religious experience as found in Hasidut. This is standard neo-Hasidic fare of treating Hasidut as a romanticism.  The essay asks: If God is infinite, then how can we come to God by mean of the mizvot, which are finite and limiting. Also if Hasidut teaches us the value of personal religious experience and autonomy, then how can we settle for fixed rules and obedience? Ideally, in an existential reading of observance, we need to have the subjective and objective come together as fixed rules and intention, as both external performance and interior affect, halakhah and kavvanah. But, unlike the 20th century answers, Rabbi Shagar states that we lack the strength for this ideal approach, and cannot live like that, therefore we need the Shulkhan Arukh as fixed halakhah. As a side point, he mentions that those striving for autonomy lack etiquette, showing that he is thinking hippie not modernist.

The second part of the essay is the most original in which he reframes the question of meaning away from autonomy and experience toward living a meaningful life consisting of many embodied moments. Rabbi Shagar invokes an experiential payoff for mizvot. The same way our life is made up of many physical acts and events that have no intrinsic value by themselves, rather the totality of our lives creates meaning. He has shifted the term “meaning” from authenticity to a meaningful life. (The lived experience as we find in authors such as Marilynne Robinson or Anna Marie Quindlen).

In part two, Hasidut shows how the infinite is channeled in the physical tangible garments and conduits of mizvot, which are the lived events that make up our lives. He answered the opening question of the essay on how can physical mizvot lead to the infinite by stating that mitzvot are garments and vessels of light, which allow us to find our experience.

The third part of the discourse shows his creativity in application of his ideas to the Hasidic text and from the Hasidic text. In the third part, Rav Shagar, writes that mizvot are not just subjective symbols, rather they are God’s infinite meaning, specifically they are how God lives out his manifestation in the physical world. Habad has always taught that God dwells in the lower realms,(dirah batahtonim)  which he connects to both Leibowitz’s idea of pure obedience and to post-modernism.

The essential question at the start of the third section is: If religion is just the way we give meaning to our lives then is it just a subjective system? (For a post-secular answer see Julia Kristeva below).

Rabbi Shagar answers that the mizvot are objective in that they reflect God’s need for meaning, hence he needs the embodied mizvot to allow his manifestation.

Using the ideas of the French psychoanalytic thinker, Jacques Lacan (d.1981) whose language was important for post-structural thinking, Rabbi Shagar applies the contemporary language to Hasidic texts. On one foot, Lacan thought religion is entirely our subjectivity, in order to cover up our psychic wounds and holes using the ”imaginary” and the “symbolic”. Lacan labels as “imaginary” the stabilizing fictions that covers up a lack or hole. Lacan labels as “symbolic” all the social structures from language to law which we use to stabilize “reality.” The symbolic carves up the world into language, but in doing so, must always leave something out. The “Real” is precisely what is “left out” after the symbolic cuts up the world. An excess that resists symbolization. Sometimes the Real, “erupts” in the symbolic order causing a traumatic event. Rabbi Shagar responds to the implicit relativism by claiming, using hasidut, that the symbolic realm of mizvot are God’s need, His signification and symbolic realm.

For Rabbi Shagar, when the Admor of Chabad wrote that mitzvot are not just a garment of Divine light but Divine itself, it is a symbolization of divine need. Mitzvot therefore have no social or human aspects.

He connects the human experiential aspects presented in the first two parts of the discourse and the symbolization of the Infinite Divine in the third part to the Chabad text. In the language of Chabad, these two parts are the garment and encompassing (makifim) of Divine light. However, the important point is that since the lower is higher in Chabad, then the aspect of lower encompassing (makifim) in the mizvot is actually the highest access to divinity.

Rabbi Shagar concludes that mizvot have no reason since they are God’s need and God’s symbolization, not ours. We cannot psychoanalyze God to know his reasons. Therefore, halakhah is a closed system, without external referents to ethics, a conceptual system, or our human meaning. This conclusion moves the reader far from the ideas in part one but without erasing the existentialism thrust of part one. In our post-modern age, there is no longer any grand narrative or justification of Torah and mizvot. The infinite is now only know in the finite mizvot.  In other essays, Rabbi Shagar, connects this idea with Rav Nachman of Breslov’s idea of the mystical void without meaning and with Lyotard’s postmodernism of no grand narrative.

As an aside in a footnote, Rav Shagar sees an unlikely parallel between his thought and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, however Chabad texts would disagree in that that emphasize personal experience and the Lacan language in which mizvot are the return of the Divine repressed, as the Real, is foreign to modernist volitional religion.

Rav Shagar allowed his listener to use post-modern language but without a collapse of meaning or subjectivity since everything is guaranteed by God whose mitzvot we follow. Mizvot are not our human imaginal for the Real but God’s. He also still uses the the modernist ideas of individuality and autonomy.

For those who really wanted to probe the questions of the third part of the essay, I recommend Julia Kristeva’s wonderful first essay in her book This Incredible Need to Believe By Julia Kristeva, (Columbia University Press, 2009) part of which is available online here. Kristeva as a post-secular and post-Lacan thinker responds to Lacan by writing that we can never escape the psychological necessity for religion as a medium to work out our hidden recesses. In other works, she shows this process in various mystical thinkers emphasizing their psychic melancholia, horror, and desire.

Kristeva assume “religion” to be self-evident, and to be a matter of belief, which for Kristeva means “to give one’s heart, one’s vital force in expectation of a reward” (p. 4). This reward comes in two “prereligious” forms in the psychoanalytic narrative. The first is the “oceanic feeling” to which Freud famously had no access—the ego’s ecstatic dissolution into the universe, which recalls her infantile union with the maternal body (pp. 7–8). The second is the child’s “primary identification” with the father, whose recognition individuates her by pulling her out of the mystic-maternal sea (p. 10). These two stages correspond to the two stages in Lacan and, by extension, are found in Rav Shagar’s thought.

For Kristeva, her understanding of belief offers resources for a new humanism, in which humanism and atheism need to be willing to engage with religion and acknowledge the powerful and ineradicable need to believe.  If we deny it we risk the destructive return of the repressed. Kristeva’s position is not simply affirming the traditional conservative view that we need a return to faith or a new synthesis of faith and reason or as a ground of morals. For her, it’s not that God exists or does not exist, so too the clash  between religious and non-religious constituencies is superficial. Kristeva thinks human beings are constituted by an incredible need to believe, a drive to believe, to have faith or trust in reality in some powerful and ideal sense, and this is tied up with our existence as speaking beings. To be capable of speech is to be capable of symbolic discourse, and symbolic discourse is characterized by a profound need to believe

In the end, like Rabbi Shagar, Kristeva has two points grounding her system. She thinks the need to believe is rooted in the signifying potentiality of this father of pre-history, this guarantor of symbolic meaning. Second, the contents of any belief structure, any orthodoxy, mark an attempt to contain the potentiality, that ensues from this experience of ecstasy. As a psychoanalyst, religion re-forges for Kristeva an “access to the sacred,” but by way of the secular. In an opposite manner, as a Rosh Yeshiva, the secular meaning of our lives and the need to engage in the wider world, forges for Rav Shagar a connection with the sacred.  As Shagar wrote elsewhere: “the transition from a ‘Religion of Truth’ to a ‘Religion of Belief’ is the most profound point of Post-Modernism.”

shagar photo

“Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul” (link has essay for easy downloading) from To Illuminate the Openings (להאיר את הפתחים)  (Machon Kitve ha-Rav Shagar: Efrat, 2014), 53-6. First draft was by Josh Rosenfeld and second draft by Alan Brill. I thank Rabbi Rosenfled for letting me freely reedit his earlier translation from the Seforim blog.

“Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul”

The Soul and the Commandment

There is a well-known custom of many Hasidic rabbis on Hanukah to sit by the lit candles and to contemplate them, sometimes for hours. This meditation immerses the spirit and allows the psyche to open up to a whole host of imaginings, discoveries, thoughts, and emotions, which subsequently blossom into, what Chabad thought formulates as, the “words of the living God”. Therefore, looking at the physical entity is instructive. The candle and its light are crucial elements in the explanation of the meditation upon the candlelight.

For example, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi  (1745-1812; henceforth, Admor ha-Zaken) distinguishes between two different types of light emanating from the candle: The fact of the matter is that the candle consists of both the oil and the wick [producing] two types of light: a darkened light directly on the wick, and the clarified white light. (Torah Or, Miketz 33a)

This differentiation serves as a springboard for a discourse upon two pathways in religious life. It is possible, to a certain extent, to posit that the discourse is the product of the Admor ha-Zaken’s own meditation upon the different colors of light in the candle’s flame, and without that, there would be no discourse to speak of.

 The motif of the candle, especially the imaginings it conjures, are a frequent theme in scripture and in rabbinic writing – mitzvah candle; candle of the soul; candle of God. Thereby, leading many Hasidic discourses to seek explanations of the relationship between the soul, the commandments, and God. Most importantly, in our study of the discourse of the Admor ha-Zaken, we will encounter the tension between the godly and the commanded – the infinitude of the divine as opposed to the borders, limits, and finitude of the system of commandments.

However, prior to doing so, we will focus our attention for a moment on the tension between the soul and the commandment – the internal spiritual life of the believer relative to the externalized performance of the commandment.

The emergence of Hasidism brought to the fore the following challenge: does the fact of an increased individual emphasis upon internal spiritual life mean that a person will, of necessity, distance himself from the practical framework of halakha? In a different formulation, does the focus of Hasidism upon the ‘soul-candle’ mean that the light of the ‘commandment-candle’ will be dimmed?

The tension between the two is clear: one’s obligation to do specific things affixed to specific times stands in opposition to one’s attunement with and attention to their own inner voice. Our own eyes see, and not just in connection with Jewish religious life, that when one follows his own personal truth, he does not behave according to the dictates and accepted norms of society at large. For example, one who desires to be ‘more authentic’ may be less polite, as the rules of etiquette are seen as external social constructions that dull one’s inner life. Similarly, for this type of individual, when it comes to halakha, it will be approached and understood as a system that holds him back from his own truth, and not only that, but it sometimes will be perceived as a lie. From a halakhic point of view, he must pray at specifically ordained times, but in his heart of hearts he knows that right now his prayers will not be fully sincere, but rather just going through the motions. Must this individual now answer the external call to prayer, or should they rather hold fast to their inner calling, thereby relaxing the connection to the outer halakhic reality?

In truth, this question has yet another dimension with which we may be able to sharpen our understanding – the chasm between objective and subjective experience.

Should an individual seek out the truth through their own subjective experience, or should they rather find it in the absolutist objective realm of reality? Once a person apprehends the truth as a construction of their own subjective internal experience, the concept of truth loses its totality and becomes relativized. Truth instead becomes dependent upon one’s specific perspective, their emotions, feelings, and personal experiences. In this sense, halakha is identified with the absolute and fixed sphere of reality – within which God commanded us, and this type of relativism is untenable in relation to it.

It is possible to argue that the ideal state is when the internal, personal truth is parallel with the objective, external truth.[1] The meaning of this situation is that on one hand, the individual’s internal life burns strongly, and because of this his sense of obligation to this inwardness  is unassailable. This leads to a perspective where the inner life is understood as objective reality, absolute. A person in this type of situation loses their sense of relativity and their inner directives obtain the strength of an outside command, possessing no less force of obligation or truth.

The problem with the situation within which we live is that our inner lives lack strength and force. Our inner lives are prone to ups and downs, steps forward and back. Because of the dullness of our internal lives, they are susceptible to all kinds of outside influences, and thus there is a subsequent lack of authenticity. This is the reason the Shulhan Arukh – not internal spirituality – is the basis for our religious obligations, as the absolute cornerstone of our lives.

To be sure, divine truth is revealed on a number of different levels and planes in our lives. An individual is forbidden to think that truth is obtainable only in one dimension, either in the internal or external life alone. An encompassing, total reality takes both our internal and external lives into account and unifies them. However, in our incomplete, non-ideal reality, to every dimension and perspective there are benefits and detriments, in which we ignore either at our own peril. To this end, our rabbis taught us that we must serve God through both fear and love: and so Hazal said, serve out of fear, serve out of love.[2]

Admor ha-Zaken

Until now, we have seen the tension between the mitzvah candle and the neshamah (soul) candle, to wit – the conflict between the formal halakhic system and the unmediated spirituality sought by Hasidism, a spirituality that nevertheless has as a central prerequisite the authenticity of action. Thus, authenticity stands in opposition to the fact that the believer stands commanded to perform certain actions at appointed, limited times.

In his discourse for Hanukkah, Admor ha-Zaken deals with yet another tension addressed by Hasidism, especially in the system of Habad Hasidism: What is the connection of physical actions – the performance of the commandments – with the metaphysical, spiritual payoff that they are supposed to engender, such as an attainment of closeness with God?

Furthermore, the commandments, as they are sensed and experienced through action, are part of the world of tangibility [יש] – the finite and created human reality. Therefore, what connection can these have with faith in the divine infinity?

As it appears to me, the movement of the Admor ha-Zaken is a dialectical approach. On the one hand, he presents the commandments in a strictly utilitarian manner without any truly inherent value, but on the other, this very physicality of the commandments in our reality that which accords to them their roots in the pure divine will:

It is written: ‘A mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is Light.’ The mitzvot are called ‘candle.’ And it is also written: ‘the candle of God is the soul of man’, that the soul is called ‘candle’. The Zohar explained that the mitzvot are called ‘garments’… and in order to be fully clothed, the soul must fulfill all 613 mitzvot… The soul’s garments… are explained as boundless illuminations… for there are countless understandings of the light and the glow, which is an emanation of the infinite light, Blessed be He…

The delights that derive from the infinite light, which is the source of all delights, are without end. Similarly, we perceive with our senses… that physical delights are also without measure, for there are infinite ways to experience pleasure… Because of this, the soul as an aspect of the finite is unable to fully apprehend the revelation of this glow, which is the very being of the divine, except through a garment – a filter – [The soul] is only able to receive the light and the glow through that garment and filter. (Torah Or, Miketz, 32d)

The soul requires ‘garments’, for without these garments and filters, there is no comprehension. I will try to explain what I mean here. For example, when we speak of an eternal remembrance of a person’s life, are we talking about transcribing the details of a person’s life, as if entering a transcription of reporter’s notes into a computer? Of course not! All these moments of a person’s life are mere garments, a medium for the real that occurred in them. This real is not something specific, not a definable factor, but rather is the thing that grants meaning to the content of those experiences, even though it itself is undefinable.[3] Thus, ‘eternal life’ is life that retains with it the meaning of these experiences – something which can never be quantified or simply entered into a computer.

This undefinable thing that grants meaning, and is the life-force to everything else, is what Admor ha-Zaken calls the ‘glow of the infinite light’. It is not simply ‘meaning’, but rather the ‘meaning of all meaning’. In the discourse before us, as well as in other discourses of his, Admor ha-Zaken draws a connection and equivalence between this glow and the delight and pleasure that in our world always appears via a medium, some physical object. Pleasure will never materialize in this world in its pure state – like delight in the earthly realm that always devolves from something outside it, like when we take pleasure in some delicious food or in the study of some wisdom. (R. Schneur Zalman Likkutei Torah, addenda to Parshat Vayikra, 52a)

If so, the commandments are garments through which our world obtains its substance, existence, and meaning. In the language of Admor ha-Zaken, the commandments act as a conduit for the infinite light to penetrate into our world. That is to say, the commandments as an entire system of life form a space within which a person may experience the Eros of true meaning. Through them, an individual may feel alive, that is sensations of satisfaction, excitement, longing, the joy of commandment, and intimacy – all these we may incorporate metonymically into the word ‘light’ or ‘holiness’, that which Admor ha-Zaken would call ‘delight’ or ‘pleasure’.

In order for this light to be apprehended, it must be arrayed in the outer garments of the commandments. This is to say, that the commandments themselves are not the essence of the light and delight, nor are they the meaningful point of existence, but rather only a garment, that receives its light only by dint of the subjective experience of holiness and pleasure felt through it.As Admor ha-Zaken explains in the discourse we are studying:

Behold, it is not the way of the divine infinite light to be infused in the mitzvot unless it is through… the Godly soul itself that performs the mitzvah, and thereby draws forth through them a revelation of the divine infinite light. As it is written: “that the individual shall perform them” – the individual makes them into mitzvot, in drawing forth through them the infinite light. (Torah Or, Miketz.33c)

The Source of the Commandments

To be sure, it is possible to say that any way of life or cultural system is but a garment for the infinite light, in that, the system bears the weight of the meaning of life and the essence of reality. An individual experiences his or her life through cultural constructs and the social systems – especially the most critical ones such as love, longing, lower and higher fears, loyalty, etc. All these things grant to life meaning and purpose, something we would not trade for anything.

Hasidic thought recognizes this truth as related to the fact that the world was created through “ten utterances” through which the divine light is revealed even without a specifically religious language, such as the Ten Commandments. Yet according to Admor ha-Zaken, there remains a difference between these [human] systems and the system of the commandments, even if the commandments are a ‘human system’, in that, they devolved into [a human form] from their ideal original rootedness in the infinite reality.

At this point, Admor ha-Zaken ceases to see the commandments as merely a garment or tool alone, but rather that they themselves represent constitute a direct encounter with the presence of the divine in our reality. This is to say that the commandments are a system meant to signify and symbolize the infinite itself.[4] They do not simply give expression to it, but direct us to it as well.

How do the commandments symbolize? As a system, they point to the divine will itself, as a closed system, without determination or purpose. One might even say that the symbol does not signify something that we are meant to understand, but rather that the signified is incomprehensibility itself, the ‘void within the void’.

In order to understand these things, we must pay attention to the distinction that Admor ha-Zaken makes between “the infinite light” and the “essential will of the infinite light”.

It is impossible for the essential will of the infinite light to be revealed to any created being, unless that divine will is embodied in some physical act, which are the performance of the mitzvah… The root of the mitzvot is very lofty, rooted in the uppermost realms of the supernal crown, keter… until it devolves into our realm through physical actions and things, tzitzit and sukkah, specifically in these things that the divine will is revealed, as‘the final in action is first in thought’.  In action, heaven was [created] first… but in thought, physicality came first… for the light is revealed from the aspect of divinity that encompasses all realms…

Thus the performance of mitzvot, whose roots lie in this encompassing aspect of divinity – the supernal keter – cannot be expressed below in the aspect of ‘inner light’, but rather must find their expression in exterior, physical actions, as it is well known that that which in its essence is loftier and elevated falls to the deeper depths.

Therefore, through the performance of mitzvot, there is created a covering, an encompassing screen, so that through the mitzvot the [soul] may be able to delight in the delight of the infinite light…    (Torah Or, Miketz. pp. 32d-33a)

Admor ha-Zaken presents the commandments as having a dual character. As a garment, they are only a vessel through which the infinite divine light finds expression. They are the delight of the soul, holiness in which all that is perceived is as the essence of this world. The commandments themselves are not the inner aspect of life but rather a medium for this interiority.

On the other hand, Admor ha-Zaken identifies them with the ‘encompassing’ lights (makifim, מקיפים); a reality that cannot be truly apprehended or experienced within ours. The root of the commandments are as vessels, conduits of a reality beyond ours – ‘the essential will of the infinite light’.

This idea shows a classic HaBaD teaching, which Admor ha-Zaken formulates thusly: that which in its essence is loftier and elevated falls to the deeper depths. We locate the root of the commandments, which in reality are purely utilitarian and without their own essential, inherent meaning, in the very essence and core of the divine.

The claim of Admor ha-Zaken is that the source of the commandments is to be found in the divine will itself. The meaning of the commandments is not resolved through adhering to some system of rules, some ethical or moral ideal, or some historical-progressive idea through which they were conceived.[5] In the most simple sense, God wanted commandments, and through this there developed a system with meaning and sense, which we might call wisdom, but that system does not fully define the Will of the creator, nor is it necessary in the absolute sense.

In the aforementioned discourse, Admor ha-Zaken teaches that the actual final action precedes the first thought, which explains and gives the action meaning. In actuality, the physical performance of the commandments is connected to the Divine Will. This warrants it to be done this particular way and not differently, without any humanly discernible reason.

This is the way of the Divine Will, to desire without dependence upon any externally motivating factor. One might say that since they are grounded in the Divine Will, the commandments as such signify a degree of arbitrariness and happenstance.[6]  The commandments serve as a reminder of the ultimate unknowability of the Divine Will that tautologically ‘desires because it desires’.

This is also the reason why the commandments primarily take the form of actions and not intentions. As actions, the commandments manifest themselves as closed and sealed deeds, their meanings not easily teased out nor defined by the meanings attached to them. Ultimately, there is just the light and the delight that we are able to attain through it.

[1] Thus a reduce conflict between the soul-life and the practical-life. See further torah no. 33 in Lectures on Likkutei Moharan vol. 1, 295-310; torah no. 6, 68.

[2] Commentary of R. Ovadia Bartenura on the Mishnah, Avot 1:3. I will point out, however, that it is basically impossible to impose upon someone a completely external commandment. Therefore, even the ability to follow an external command is a matter of personal prerogative, related to the realm of personal freedom. This is to say that the internality of a person itself transitions between many different phases – sometimes appearing as the freedom to be unfree, limited, and inauthentic.

[3] We must differentiate between ‘sense’ and ‘meaning’ [English in the original; JR]. As we shall soon see, ‘the glow of the infinite’ is what gives ‘sense’ to ‘meaning’. ‘Sense’ is completely attached to the level of content – words, actions, situations. ‘Meaning’ is the internal, animating force behind these, granting these things spiritual ‘weight’.

[4] This may be likened to the Lacanian idea of the real.

[5] The position of the Admor ha-Zaken here parallels in a certain sense the positions of Yeshayahu Leibowitz with regards to the commandments. JR- See further R. Shagar, “Faith and Language According to the Admor ha-Zaken of Habad”, Nehalekh b’Regesh, pp. 175-178.

[6] See R. Shagar, Pur hu ha-Goral; 32-37

© Josh Rosenfeld & Alan Brill 2016. All Rights Reserved. Do not use or republish in part or whole without prior permission.

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1905- In Commemoration of 250 Years of Jews in the US.

Jews have lived in prosperity and security in the United States for 362 years. American Jews have felt a special gratefulness for the opportunities of American life. This year, I offer a 1905 service for the Sabbath before Thanksgiving written by Rev H. Pereira Mendes of the Spanish- Portuguese synagogue of NY. The prayer and its sentiment may be needed more than ever this year as a reminder of our best aspirations for this country.

“O Lord, look down from Thy holy habitation from heaven and bless this Republic.. May it advance from strength to strength and continue to be a refuge for all who seek its shelter… May they be ever mindful that the blessings of liberty are safeguarded by obedience to law…”

A few years ago I posted the Thanksgiving service from the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue of NY from 1945. Then I posted the service from Kehilath Jeshurun 1940 and prayer from Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. Lookstein’s prayer was exceptionally universal and was picked up by several widely read online sites as a wonderful universal prayer- ideal for Thanksgiving reading.

This year, I am posting the service and prayer for the Sabbath before Thanksgiving that was offered in Carnegie Hall at a special convocation to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in the United States.

The event was a broad community event with parallel events in many cities such as Boston and Philadelphia.  Rev Pereira Mendes lead the service and his prayer is below . His sermon exhorted his listeners not to give up their Judaism in the midst of the American acceptance. Rev Pereira Mendes spoke on a Judaism of reverence, righteousness and responsibility.  Newspaper reporter were asked not to write during he service since it was the Sabbath. The mayors of NYC and Philadelphia attended as did former President Grover Cleveland, a letter was sent to be read by President Theodore Roosevelt.

There was also a Reform service at Temple Emanu-El with a more naturalistic prayer by Rev Joseph Silverman. There was also a large celebration at the Savoy hotel for the wealthy donors. The volume has a superb speech on integration in the US by Sephardic Dr. Solomon Soils-Cohen, whose family settled in the United Stated in colonial times.  The volume is available on online in many forms.

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(medal issued in commemoration of the event)

ORDER OF SERVICE FOR USE ON THE SABBATH BEFORE THANKSGIVING DAY, NINETEEN HUNDRED AND FIVE, IN COMMEMORATION OF THE TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE SETTLEMENT OF THE JEWS IN THE UNITED STATES

PREPARED BY A COMMITTEE CONSISTING OF REV. DR H. PEREIRA MENDES (Chairman), REV. Dr. M. H. HARRIS, REV. DR. PHILIP KLEIN, REV, DR. K. KOHLER, DR. S. SCHECHTER, REV. DR, SAMUEL SCHULMAN and, REV. DR. JOSEPH SILVERMAN

ORDER OF SERVICE (To be recited, before the return of the Scroll, of the Law to the Ark)

  1. HYMN. (To be chosen by the Congregation)
  2. PSALM CVII. (To be read in response by the Minister and, the Congregation)
  3. PSALM CXVIII. Verses 1-24. (To be chanted, by the Reader and Choir)
  1. PRAYER

O Lord, our God, God of our fathers, Ruler of nations, we worship Thee and praise Thy Name for Thy mercy and for Thy truth. On this day of our rejoicing we will make mention of Thy loving kindness according to all that Thou hast bestowed on us and we will proclaim Thy great goodness toward the house of Israel. For Thou didst say, Surely they are My people, children that will not deal falsely; so Thou hast been our Savior

Throughout the past ages Thou hast carried Israel as on eagles’ wings. From the bondage of Egypt, through the trials of the wilderness, Thou didst bring us and didst plant us in the land which Thou didst choose. In the sorrows of Babylon, Thy love and pity redeemed us; and when dispersed in every land, Thy Divine presence accompanied us in every affliction. Yea, when we passed through the waters, Thou wast with us, and through the rivers, they did not overflow us; when we walked through fire, we were not burned. From nation to nation Thou didst lead us, until the hand of the oppressor was weakened and the day of human rights began to dawn. Wherever we found a resting place, and built Thee a sanctuary, Thou didst dwell in our midst, and cleaving unto Thee, O Lord, we are alive this day’

We thank Thee that Thou hast sustained us unto this day, and that in the fullness of Thy mercy Thou hast vouchsafed to us of the seed of Israel a soil on which to grow strong in freedom and in fidelity to Thy truth. Thou hast opened unto us this blessed haven of our beloved land. Everlasting God, in whose eyes a thousand years are as yesterday which is past and as a watch of the night, we lift up our hearts in gratitude to Thee, in that two hundred and fifty years ago Thou didst guide a little band of Israel’s children who, . seeking freedom to worship Thee, found it in a land which, with Thy blessing, became a refuge of freedom and justice for the oppressed of all peoples. We thank Thee that our lot has fallen in pleasant places. Verily, O Lord God of Israel, Thou hast given rest unto Thy people, rest from our sorrow’, and from the hard bondage wherein we were made to serve.

O Lord, look down from Thy holy habitation from heaven and bless this Republic. Preserve it in the liberty which has been proclaimed in the land, and in the righteousness which is its foundation. Bless it with prosperity and peace. May it advance from strength to strength and continue to be a refuge for all who seek its shelter. Imbue all its citizens with a spirit of loyalty to its ideals. May they be ever mindful that the blessings of liberty are safeguarded by obedience to law, and that the prosperity of the nation rests upon trust in Thy goodness and reverence for Thy commandments.

Bless the President and his counselors, the judges, lawgivers, and executives of our county. Put forth upon them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and the spirit of might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. May America become a light to all peoples, teaching the world that righteousness exalteth a nation.

Our Father in Heaven, Who lovest all nations, all men are Thy children. Thou dost apportion tasks to peoples according to their gifts of mind and heart. But all, are revealing Thy marvelous plans for mankind. May the day speedily dawn when Thy kingdom will be established on earth, when nations shall learn war no more, when peace shall be the crowning reward of a world redeemed by justice, and all men shall know Thee, from the greatest unto the least.

Then shall loving kindness and truth meet, righteousness and peace kiss each other, truth spring forth from earth and righteousness look down from heaven. May all hearts serve Thee with one accord and recognize that Thou art One and Thy Name is One.

Amen.

  1. RETURN OF THE SCROLL OF THE LAW TO THE ARK

Prof Isaac Chavel responds to Rabbi Jack Bieler

Most of the responses to my blog post on Rabbi Jack Bieler’s new book on Facebook postulated the historical and sociological shifts in society as the cause moving the community away from ethics, Torah uMadda, and a humanistic Torah towards our current climate where they do not matter, as if morals and humanism are just passing fads of the 1950’s to 1970’s.

In addition, I received the following response by email from Prof Isaac Chavel who is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and member of the Doctoral Faculty in mathematics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. in Mathematics at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, Yeshiva University and S’micha form Rabbi Yisrael Ze’ev Gustman zt”l, Ramailis Yeshiva Netzach Israel, Brooklyn, NY (which moved to Jerusalem).

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Dear Prof Brill,

I have read with great interest your interview with Rabbi Jack Bieler, as well as his 2008 article from which you extracted a number of key statements of principles. My view on these educational issues is that of a client, namely, through the years I have been a student in a Hebrew Day School, and a parent and grandparent (I still have three grandchildren in K–12) of children in Modern Orthodox schools.

There is hardly a sentiment expressed by Rabbi Bieler with which I disagree. In fact, they are all extremely admirable. But I would like to comment on their contending with the realities on the ground.

On Rabbi Bieler’s remarks about guarding against isolationist tendencies: If a couple invests economically (that includes real estate, food, schooling), socially, and emotionally to live the Modern Orthodox life we live, it is hard to realistically expect that a sense of uniqueness and, hopefully, excellence will not emerge from such a family life. With nothing intended, such a singular life-style produces a certain exclusivity by the very excellence it aspires to and achieves. Decency, respect, and compassion, for others are sure to be taught in the home and the school, but do not be surprised – especially, if everyone with whom children interact are from our own Modern Orthodox society – if we get unexpected results when our students emerge from our cocoon. To illustrate at a small-scale anecdotal level: I recall that in my day, nearly all our general studies teachers were non-Orthodox, Jew or Gentile; so we had to learn at a very early stage to interact properly with people who were not our own. When I met such people later on, outside my own environment, there was no break with my previous experience. So maybe the current emphasis on general studies teachers who are Orthodox, and thereby can serve as “role models,” comes with an unintended price

Why did Torah im Derekh Eretz, fail? The original ideology presupposed a broad society of educated and cultured people in European civilization. That has been gone for quite awhile, now. For one thing, the kind of education envisioned in the ideology of Torah im Derekh Eretz required mastery of foreign languages. Those university departments, along with classical civilization departments, have been dwindling – if not closing – throughout the United States for four decades. For another, history and literature departments have been politicized by the progressive polemic against the white, male, Eurocentric culture. (That includes, of course, the Founding Fathers of the United States.) My guess is that, today, any university professor casually referring to a classical text, or to Milton, Locke, and James, would be met with blank stares unless in an advanced literature class – the same as students’ blank stares, years ago, when Rav Lichtenstein, zt”l mentioned such authors. As to music, to take a another example, symphonies and operas across the country are under the same pressures as traditional humanities departments. The popular music culture of the past fifty years is not the high culture imagined by Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch in his time, nor by the remaining Torah im Derekh Eretz advocates of our time.

Our current university students are caught in an almost intolerable situation. The humanities and the sciences – beyond medicine and technological uses of the computer sciences and engineering – that were broadly attractive to my generation and the one following, are no longer attractive. So the choice is either the multicultural polemic against the West that has overtaken the universities, or the retreat to professional-prep curricula. Is it small wonder that Torah im Derekh Eretz has failed, and students “have taken a rightward turn?”

Why did Torah u’Madda fail to carry the day? Most people do not live philosophically driven lives. Orthodox Jews are, first and foremost, traditional. When I grew up, Orthodoxy was neither a philosophy nor an ideology. It basically meant being observant of the mitzvot, in contrast to the Conservative and Reform. What has morphed into Modern Orthodoxy today was, back then, ba’ale-batish–no ideological/philosophical pretenses attached. Modern Orthodox ideology currently focuses on the legal (halakhic), historical, and philosophical/spiritual aspects of Judaism to provide an answer to the contemporary situation. But current discussions studiously ignore the anthropology, the mythic structure of the personality – imbedded in one’s DNA from birth, as it were – bequeathed by a tradition of about 3500 years starting with Avraham Avinu, and by the founding myth of peoplehood some 210 years later, the Exodus from Egypt.

Modern life, indeed, challenges the traditional one as it emphasizes among other matters the individual at the expense of, in our case, the covenantal community. But, unless educational and developmental emphases strengthen the traditional life at the anthropological level, the tradition will devolve willy-nilly to a cultural option, to a lifestyle choice, parallel to the spirit of Rabbi Bieler’s remarks about Rabbi Shagar’s post-modernism.

Moreover, contemporary economic pressures mitigate against the luxury of a philosophically driven life. Just do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the cost of 14 years of K–13 (13 represents the year in Israel) of instruction, along with summer camps, elevated cost-of-living with regard to food and real estate. After that, it cannot be realistically expected that many parents have the time and energy to articulate a philosophy of life for themselves and to their children.

Also, traditional Torah study of the halakhah, that kind of limud haTorah b’omekin which Rav Soloveitchik zt”l found religious inspiration, is not part of the Modern Orthodox religious ethos – even if contending with the data of the halakhah is integral to its social program. So Rabbi Bieler’s disappointment, with  those in Yeshiva University’s cultural orbit who did not respond to the Rov’s philosophical endeavors, has its mirror-image disappointment on the other side of the cultural divide in Modern Orthodoxy.

Lip-service is definitely given in Modern Orthodoxy to mastery of texts, and no small amount of effort goes into them. But there is no question that students emerge from a K–13 education without fluent mastery of the two languages of the tradition – Hebrew and Aramaic. One can take a course in a foreign language at a university, and at 3 hrs/week and 15 weeks/semester, for 4 semesters, and command the language up to, say, some elementary poetry in those two years. But how many students emerge from 14 years of  Modern Orthodox education able to study a masekhta, with gemara and Rashi, on their own or with chevrusa without an English translation with commentary? How many students are comfortable studying Chumash with the classical commentaries? Let’s make it easier. How many students interested in TaNaKH will read the Israeli hesder books, for example, those written in accessible Hebrew by Rabbis Yoel Bin-Nun, Yuval Cherlow, and Elchanan Samet, rather than wait for the English translations to appear? One must ask, in addition, as to how much higher the percentage among those who attended Yeshiva University after high school. Walk into a Modern Orthodox synagogue Shabbat morning, and survey people’s reading material a.k.a.“survival kits” (that in itself is for another discussion). How much will be in Hebrew and how much in English?

In the discussion of philosophical commitment to Modern Orthodoxy, you excerpted from Rabbi Bieler’s article the following assumption:

The awareness that participation within general human society will entail encountering manifold situations that are not clearly delineated within the Codes of Jewish law and other primary texts of our tradition. Therefore in order for the Modern Orthodox Jew to act consistently in accordance with Jewish values and tradition in situations that are either unprecedented or where he does not have the time to be able to direct inquiries to halakhic authorities, he will have to possess a sense of not only how to carry out individual Commandments, but also the overall philosophy, theology and worldview that underlie these Commandments, which in turn will develop within him an almost instinctual awareness as to how to act Jewishly a times when no authoritative religious guidance is available to him.

In all candor, the current skill set in the foundational texts among current students – not just the data, but the process and intuition as well – is insufficient for any significant percentage to have developed beyond their formal instruction to achieve “an almost instinctual awareness as to how to act Jewishly a times when no authoritative religious guidance is available.” Rabbi Bieler has set a very high bar, and it is most important that he articulated it; but is it extremely difficult to imagine its realization beyond few exceptional adult individuals in our current religious culture.

Our educators, even with the very best of intentions, especially if they take to heart Rabbi Bieler’s shopping list, are simply overwhelmed by what they aim to accomplish. But for decades, now, Modern Orthodox education has devolved to prep-education for admission to the best universities, with the Jewish studies dedicated to giving students the wherewithal to remain loyal to the tradition upon entry to the wider world. This is not an indictment; it is what I see “on the ground.” When successful, this is no small achievement, and our educators can take genuine pride and satisfaction in their work. But the intellectual and spiritual creativity of the moment seem to be in society at large, and Modern Orthodox education is responding in the best way it can. Cherry-picking the sources of the TaNaKH, ChaZaL, and the rest of the literature that speak to the current situation is just that – current, at best. My sense is that there is a loss of  faith in the capacity of the classical texts of the tradition – the “sophisticated” as well as the “unsophisticated” sources – to inspire; that until such faith returns with the wherewithal to indeed inspire, Modern Orthodoxy will not be able to produce an ethic and ethos from within that genuinely produces the integration of particularist and universalist sensibilities to which it aspires.

Jack Bieler – The Great Principle of the Torah and discussion of Dov Weiss, Rav Shagar, Jewish Education, and Modern Orthodoxy

I received my copy of Rabbi Jack Bieler’s delightful new book The Great Principle of the Torah (Kodesh Press, 2016) in the spring but did not review it at the time because the content was not sufficient for a long review, fitting in with this blog’s current style.  However, when I posted my Interview with Dov Weiss on arguing with God, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a response from Bieler. In the interim, I also received a response from Bieler concerning my Rav Shagar post. Together with quotes from his articles, it produced a fine post.

This post will be somewhat different than my ordinary post in that I will be more explicit in direct comments as a form of internal dialogue between ideal and reality and between different modes of thinking about religion and culture.  I am not aiming to critique Rabbi Bieler in any way, rather to work out in public some of the issues about Modern Orthodoxy. I have known Rabbi Bieler as an email confrere for almost fifteen years since the days of  the defunct EDAH. One can use this post as an insight into what one person from the Torah uMadda era envisioned. One can also use the post to evaluate why the intellectual and moral approach did not garner wide support leading to it being replaced by progressive social inclusion, halakhah as a closed discourse, community building and outreach, and popular culture- in both its open and right wing forms.  By the fourth question, we have Bieler’s own elegy for a path not taken.

Rabbi Jack Bieler founded Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, MD in 1990, where he served as spiritual leader until his retirement in 2015. He received ordination from Yeshiva University and was a faculty member of Yeshivat Ramaz and the Berman Hebrew Academy. He has a website that is worth reading for his archive of articles. In addition, he sends out a daily dvar Torah article on his blog.

In The Great Principle of the Torah, Rabbi Jack Bieler works from a fundamental belief in moral imperatives as the driving force in Judaism. This book deals with seven statements from the Talmud and presents the rabbinic positions on each principle together with further sources in the Biblical commentators, medieval and modern Jewish thought and connections to the Torah readings. In most of the chapters he also offers pedagogic advice and charts.

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The seven principles are:
1. Love they neighbor- Hillel’s opinion that “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” This is a variation of the biblical: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
2. Universalism- Ben Azzai focused on the biblical statement “This is the book of the generations of man in the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him.”
3. The concept of ever more concise Principles- prophet Habakkuk wrote “But the righteous shall live by his faith.”
4. Everyday Consciousness -Bar Kappa’s “In all your ways know him and he will direct your paths.”
5. Pleasantness and Peace- Rabbi Joseph “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.”
6. Loving-kindness- Rabbi Yehudah emphasized kindness, for one who denies it “denies the most fundamental principle.”
7. Lawfulness- Rabbi Elazar said: “The entire Torah is based upon justice.”

These principles are not to be seen as random quotes from the Aggadah, rather fundamental directives that, according to Bieler, should color one’s entire approach to Judaism above and beyond the halakhic or ritual obligations.

In the chapter on  Rabbi Joseph’s principle “the whole of the Law is also for the purpose of promoting peace, Bieler even considers whether Judaism’s legal character is an obstacle to pleasantness and peace. The chapter concludes by cautioning that “it is necessary for Jewish leaders to make absolutely certain that before they make a pronouncement that could have negative social consequences, they have exhausted all legitimate options to render a more inclusive or humane decision.”

Bieler concludes that the value of these principles is more in the reflection on what is involved in a Jewish religious life than in determining the application of principle, their study becomes more of an act of helping his students attain moral maturity than providing set answers. The book belongs in every Jewish high school and middle school library as well as in the synagogue; it is a goldmine for creating lesson plans and homiletic materials. I would have loved a book like this twenty-five years ago when I taught high school, where it would have been integrated into my Talmud and Bible lesson plans for the year.

Bieler’s thought is a synthesis of old school Torah uMadda with elements of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, musar movement, and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, along with Lawrence Kohlberg, Robert Alter, Bibliodrama, and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Those who still envision the possibilities of an educated and observant Jewish life should definitely buy the book and read it over a weekend for a vacation to an Orthodoxy that spoke of “meta-principles” and ethical vision. The book is stimulating and fruitful while at the same time returning to basics.

Now for my dialectic. Why did this approach not catch on? There contents and message of this book are similar to Rabbi Yuval Cherlow’s  recent work on the need for human dignity and ethics ias well as developing a Torah humanism and Cherlow based his approach on the same principles. Bieler’s book may even be better grounded in the sources.

I do think that part of the answer for lack of resonance is that Rabbi Cherlow is in the newspapers and public functions every week dealing with a contemporary social and political questions. Torah uMadda and Hirsch’s TIDYism were  theologies for educators to develop virtue in their students and did not have a strong enough social element. For example, one does not see American Modern Orthodox leadership having much to say about the serious ethical issues of our day. In addition, there has been a shift to looking for fixed halakhic resolutions, rather than using a Hirschian or Kohlberg oriented moral training.  Why the professional community wanted this halakhic approach over the other is a bigger discussion.

Finally, there might have been a sense of the correctness on the part of the advocates of the Torah uMadda approach that did not feel the need to sell itself. For example, this book seems to be lecture notes for a high school class without concern for 21st century presentation. There are long textual quotes, separate discussions in the notes, and no index, as well as a lack of ethical discussion geared for an adult who is not an educator.

In order to further the discussion, let us turn to the email response I received from Rabbi Bieler after the post by Dov Weiss. (The question and answer format was added for the blog post.) In the response, one sees a Torah Umadda that seeks to integrate Jewish history and Jewish texts but without historicism and without considering different texts as alternatives to our presentism. At the same time this approach, assumes that Torah is sophisticated and moral, without leaving a way to directly confront or condemn the overwhelming amount of non-ethical and unsophisticated forms of Torah.

  1. How do you see a tension between academics and the classroom concerning the recent book by Dov Weiss?

Reading the book review and interview with Dov Weiss on the occasion of the publication of Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), in which evolving depictions of the Divine are attributed to various collections of Rabbinic literature written in different epochs, once again raised in my mind a conundrum that probably confounds at least some Orthodox Jewish day school educators and community Rabbis like myself.

I would just suggest that a less untraditional approach to “God’s erring and having to change His mind” would be a modeling of Divine Reevaluation or Self-Reckoning that could serve man well as a moral lesson.

In that sense,  Pesikta Rabbati, piska 44 on “Shuva Yisrael” describing God as having to model as an exemplar case of repentance (teshuva) that can be used in educationally  in order to encourage fearful Israel to emulate His example.

Rabbi Yosef Yehudah Bloch in Shiurei Da’at suggests, based on Rashi (Genesis 1:1), that the image in midrash of Divine repentance (teshuva) manifests that the workings of the world were recalibrated when man came on the scene, from the exclusive province of attribute of judgement (middat hadin), to the addition and precedence of the attribute of mercy (middat harachamim). This is a less radical approach than that advanced by Dov Weiss, but may be a point of view that will allow broad-minded traditionalists to “dance at both weddings,” at least for a little while longer.

For this very reason, I suggest a Katuv HaShlishi HaMachria Beineihem (fig., a third approach that can ameliorate the two extreme alternatives delineated above) as a means to resolve the tension.

Rabbinic sources themselves discuss a certain “plasticity” when it comes to how God intends to be viewed, not only in different historical contexts, but even during the same period of time. The various Names associated with and descriptions of God indicate how at different times, cGod deliberately assumes different modalities in His dealings with the world and mankind, e.g., a) “Elokim”—law and justice; b) “Yud-Keh-Vav-Keh” (the Tetragrammaton)—kindness and mercy; c) “ShaKai”—omnipotence; d) “Keil Kana”—jealous and vindictive; d) “Man of War”—Exodus 15:3; e) “Groom”—Jeremiah 2:2, etc.

To my mind, these varied guises constitute formats deliberately chosen by God in order to suit a particular time and place, rather than merely terminology attributed to Him by man due to fundamental changes in human beings’ conditions and attitudes, thereby allowing a more traditional, and nevertheless complex and sophisticated approach to thinking about God.

Consequently, with respect to a book like Dov Weiss’s volume, in the words of Michael Rosenak, the traditionalist will necessarily have to “translate” concepts from the world of academia into terminology and assumptions that will be appropriate for the traditional premises of the world that he inhabits.

2) What is the tension of academic and classroom understandings of texts?

As a serious student and teacher of Rabbinic sources, I feel responsible to familiarize myself with the state of research in the field. Yet at the same time, since I am not a university academic, I find myself wondering about the extent to which I can justify incorporating contemporary initiatives and discoveries within my presentations in the Modern Orthodox day school classroom and synagogue Beit Midrash, when presenting such material potentially could have adverse effects on the beliefs of my students.

Such concerns have been in the back of my mind for some time, but became starkly delineated at a conference that I attended several years ago.  In 2008, the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish education at Brandeis University, hosted a series of presentations entitled “Teaching Rabbinic Literature,” part of a project called “The Initiative on Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy in Jewish Studies.”

I clearly recall the point at which it became very obvious to me that there exists a significant difference in approach of the university and the day school, regarding research, learning and teaching.

At a session devoted to liturgy, when, following a most stimulating talk addressing the Biblical and Rabbinic sources that contributed to a particular prayer, the academic presenter was asked during the question-and-answer period, “How can we incorporate these ideas in our day school context where prayer is approached as an important part of students’ experiential educational experience?” The frank and direct response given by the scholar was: “My students’ religious outlook is not my concern and therefore I have nothing to say in this regard.”

Both the day school teacher and synagogue educator, as part of their job definitions, per force must take into consideration the manner in which students are likely to respond religiously to what is being taught. While I am not advocating that day school curricula and synagogue course material be deliberately made misrepresentative of contemporary thinking and research offered by experts in the field, to be indifferent to the ultimate effects of what is presented is, at least in my opinion, is inappropriate and even irresponsible for practitioners like myself.

Since I did not begin my Jewish education until my freshman year at Yeshiva College, I remember observing a similar dilemma with respect to how Judaic and general studies were being presented.   While certain educators modeled by their personal examples how Jewish thought and practice were able to not only co-exist with, but even complement the premises underlying general studies, there were virtually no curricular contexts in which these two subject areas were directly and formally brought to bear upon one another. Consequently, students, who were required to enroll in both Judaic and general studies courses, more often than not were left to their own devices to try to resolve what they often experienced as the “cognitive dissonance” between the ideas to which they were exposed first in the morning during Judaic studies, and then over the course of each afternoon, when general studies were pursued.

Those heavily involved in the humanities, as I was, acutely experienced the conflict of such assumptions. Some students dealt with the clashing postulates with which they were continually bombarded by engaging in strenuous exercises of compartmentalization, or what Erving Goffman has elegantly referred to as “dimming the lights.” Some students allowed one subject area to assume overriding precedence over the other, reducing the potentially challenging educational experience offered at Yeshiva U. to a monolithic one, comprised of either the “Yeshiva” or the “University.”

Other students grappled with the conflicts head-on, with many of these eventually giving up on the idea that the two realms could coexist within their minds and outlooks.

I felt then, and have continued to believe throughout my career in day school education and the synagogue rabbinate, that students and congregants must not only honestly be presented with such conflicts, but also with strategies for the resolution of at least some of the issues raised.

It seems to me that a similar process occurs for those who wish to remain informed regarding the state of a field like Rabbinic thought, but who are at the same time are concerned that their students and congregants will be unable to understand how to reconcile the apparent “dissonance” that almost inevitably arises when the frame of reference for ideas is a historical one that has resulted in significant changes regarding how God is perceived and described by human beings over time.

3) Response to Rabbi Shagar’s essay on Postmodernism

My most fundamental concern with this chapter is what I consider an internal contradiction with respect to the terms that ShaGaR employs. On the one hand, he defines post-Modernity as a position “that denies that certitude is possible” as well as legitimizing “the freedom of the individual to establish himself and his values” (p. 2). But then he states that the key to a constructive approach to religion now entails an honest “accepting the yoke of Heaven” (p. 4).

If one cannot be certain of the components of a system, and he believes that he can establish any sort of identity and values for himself, then doesn’t the idea of “accepting the yoke of Heaven” become absurd? If one cannot be sure of the idea that Torah originates with some type of objective Revelation at Sinai of both a Written and Oral Tradition, what “yoke” becomes relevant? If one defines for himself whatever it is that he feels is sincere and freely accepted, then instead of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation in favor of the Revealed Will of some Higher Power that has seemed to go hand-in-hand with the religious lifestyle, a solipsistic system is substituted which one somehow has become convinced is synonymous with the Will of Heaven. Perhaps ShaGaR understands “the yoke of Heaven” differently; I would very much be interested in understanding what this connotes within his thinking.

Secondly, his invocation of Rav Kook as someone who “attempted to come to terms with modern culture” (p. 2), drawing upon “mysticism as the seed of religion” (p. 6) is certainly evocative, but, in my opinion, fails to take into consideration that R. Kook was at the same time a firm Halachist who could even be said to have tended towards the Chumra (stringency) end of the spectrum of staking out Halachic positions. I have long thought that this objective structure supplied an anchor to R. Kook that served as a check-and-balance to his profoundly creative and original ventures into trying to hammer out new approaches to religious observance and a relationship with God. It seems to me that based upon ShaGaR’s definitions of the premises of post-Modernity, such a dialectic is not possible.

Thirdly, in two contexts, ShaGaR references critics who have claimed that his approach will engender “nihilism” (p. 2, 5). While I agree that in the purest context, a disavowal of standard ideology in favor of striving to develop a personal, sincere relationship with God would be ideal and the furthest thing from nihilistic, it seems to me that an unavoidable nihilistic result would be to reduce the observant community as a whole, fractured as it might be currently, to an even looser collection of individuals who each possess a unique and “boutique” perspective on Jewish observance.

Finally, the “devil is always in the details” and ShaGaR mentions as an educational means for addressing the issues he raises in a post-Modern world, a Chassidic existential position (p. 3), and Haredi education “built from identity and not ideology” (p. 4). Diagnosing a problem is one thing; addressing how to effectively cope with it and even use it to improve what currently exists is quite another, and I for one would be very curious to learn why and how he feels such approaches could make a significant difference.

4) Why do you think Torah uMadda lost in hearts and minds of the congregants?  What could have been done differently that might have changed the trajectory of Modern Orthodox history?

At the outset, I think that it is important to acknowledge that there are numerous reasons why Torah u’Madda has failed to capture the imaginations of contemporary American Modern Orthodoxy. Depending upon the frame of reference that one prefers, sociological, historical, psychological, epistemological, and theological reasons could all be brought to bear. Perhaps, as in so many areas of human existence, in order to gain as complete a picture as possible—an “eclectic” must be assembled comprised of the accounts of different individuals who each will be able to develop his/her own particular perspective regarding  the issue at hand.

Having spent my working life as a religious educator in day schools and synagogues, I tend to view this, and many other issues, both religious and secular, in educational terms, once again realizing that my figurative “myopia” in this regard can’t possibly capture all of the dimensions of the issue being considered.

Consequently, I have tended in my own thinking to attribute the ultimate failure of Torah u’Madda to the inability of Modern Orthodoxy’s key educational institutions, Yeshiva University in particular, to self-consciously produce individuals committed to such an outlook and who are aspiring to leadership and influence in the community’s key institutions, i.e., its synagogues and day schools.

Over the years, I have not found there to be a significant group of fellow-travelers who personally strive to model a Torah u’Madda philosophy in their professional and personal lives. While at times specific individuals have emerged from the community’s schooling system who exemplify a Torah u’Madda approach, there never have been enough of them who by serving as community Rabbis and day school teachers, could by their examples and teaching, influence a broad swath of people to become committed to such an outlook. One can argue that charismatic teachers and Rabbis cannot be made to order; however, I believe that, at least currently, neither thought has been given nor concerted effort made to encourage the production of a critical mass of such individuals who in turn would be able to set a tone for both professionals and laymen presently referring to themselves as Modern Orthodox.

In another educational vein, even the structure by which Jewish education is delivered, beginning when subject areas are departmentalized in Jewish day schools, usually during Middle School years, countermands the development of a Torah u’Madda approach. Torah u’Madda is by definition an interdisciplinary approach, whereby elements of Jewish tradition and general studies are brought to bear upon one another. However, over the course of a departmentalized school day, not only are, e.g., English and TaNaCh, History and Talmud, Hebrew language and French, Mathematics and Jewish thought, usually presented in splendid isolation from one another, but even the subjects within the Judaic studies and general studies curriculum are rarely allowed to interact within the classroom. While occasionally, some teachers may personally be conversant with “both sides of the curriculum,” the need to cover ground in the highly pressurized context of a double curriculum educational setting, usually precludes them from regularly incorporating “outside” ideas and thoughts into the classroom context.

Extra-curricular activities and experiences in youth groups and summer camps have focused upon affective rather than cognitive aspects of Jewish thinking, and therefore have not promoted a Tora U’Madda outlook.

Returning to the post-secondary educational scene, as well as the training of future congregational Rabbis and day school teachers, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Z”L, a powerful exemplar of Torah u’Mada both by personal example as well in his teaching and writing, once commented that university education for many Modern Orthodox Jews has become the study of “sophisticated plumbing,” I.e., vocational training rather than an exploration and quest to better understand the human condition. Such a relatively narrow approach to the college learning experience, was clearly evident to me with respect to many of R. Aharon’s own Talmud students. During the time that I was a member of his Talmud class as an undergraduate at Yeshiva during 1968-9, Rav Aharon would often quote from various classical literary sources during the course of his presentations, something that I particularly admired, but also felt did not “register” all that much with most of my fellow students.

The essential dismissal of his citations from, e.g., Milton, Locke and James, took on even sharper focus, when, during a Sabbatical in Israel twenty years later, I attended his weekly Shiurim at the Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, a Kollel for YU Semicha students (candidates for Rabbinic ordination). When R. Aharon would, as his wont, cite some great secular thinker, I noted that the students would often look at one another and smile, saying, things like “There he goes again,” in a respectful, but clearly dismissive fashion. To my mind, this indicated that while they deeply respected and recognized R. Aharon’s extraordinary breadth of knowledge and powers of analysis, it was his Torah erudition that they cared about, not the dimension of his thinking regarding the giants of Western culture, which I certainly continue to believe, contributed mightily to his overall spiritual personality and Weltanschaung.

I believe that a similar phenomenon could be observed with respect to R. Aharon’s father-in-law, R. Soloveitchik, Z”L.  The Rav’s broad understanding of subject areas that included philosophy, literature, and theology were never broached within the context of the Semicha classes that I attended, and one only became apprised of the extent of his familiarity with these subject areas while listening to various talks that he gave to other groups, or reading particular sets of his writings.

If even the students exposed to great individuals like the Rav and R. Aharon, were inspired to emulate only their Torah learning, but not also their broad familiarity with secular ideas and culture, it seems to me that it should not come as a surprise why Torah uMadda has not become the sine qua none of Modern Orthodox American Jewry.

[AB- site editor] Now my dialectic kicks in again. I wonder how this might have been the fault of the Torah uMadda followers themselves? In the 1990’s, there were several score of rabbis and teachers who advocated Torah uMadda ready to ascend to the leadership positions that they assumed were destined to be theirs. What happened? Were they too introvert and cerebral? Were they just lacking political and leadership skills? Was the Torah that they were teaching irrelevant? Or did they just think that the future was already theirs so they did not have to fight for spiritual control of the community? I know many rabbis who are not comfortable with either the current YU Orthodoxy or with Open Orthodoxy and yearn for their 1986 or 1994 Torah uMadda vision. Do the answers above give clues to the change?

Modern Orthodox Jewish Education (my voice)

Maybe Jack Bieler’s article below may help. It is his 2008 “Vision of a Modern Orthodox Jewish Education” (Mandel Leadership Institute) where he offers an ideal vision of a day school education. I would like my readers who are educators to read it.  It is a wonderful essay that did not get the attention it deserved. First, he advocates an integrated approach like Hirsch’s Frankfort HS, in which the general studies teachers such as biology, English, and history are able to be religious Jews who can model integration. Second, education should be a midwifing of the students to find their own selves and voices, not worksheets and memorization.

Bieler gives eight aspirations of an integrated education that includes moral education, God in our lives, religion as part of broader culture and civilization, contribution to the quality of the wider culture, the need for spiritual reflection, to understand that answers will not come from fixed halakha but from creating an  overall philosophy, theology and worldview that will develop within the student an almost instinctual awareness as to how to act, reflection on rote practice, and to combat the natural human tendency to differentiate oneself from other- both Jewish and non-Jewish- through constantly being on guard against socially disruptive isolationist tendencies. The list is part Hirschian, part Victorian, and part similar to the vision of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  This is a great list that educators should think about.

Bieler advocates directly dealing with the question of theology, faith, morality, issues raised in the Guide of the Perplexed, and religious experience to which he suggests to integrate the sociology, psychology and history of religion in general and poetic literature exploring the relationship between God and man and the nature of authority. He also advises to bring in the arts and media, contemporary issues, and moral education. This is different than those who want to talk about how the Modern Orthodox greats of the past read Western books; this is an approach for integration in the future.  (Also notice how different this vision of education is than the recent turn to Neo-Chassidus, outreach, enthusiasm and emotionalism).

5) Vision of a Modern Orthodox Jewish Education (Bieler’s voice- selections from a 34 page article)

[M]ost Modern Orthodox institutions inherently are more likely to be figuratively “schizophrenic” and literally compartmentalized with respect to their educational vision. Asserting that equal attention must be paid to both Judaic and general studies has proven to be extremely problematic from the perspective of some if not all stake-holders in these institutions, i.e., subject matter specialists, teachers, students and the general community. To find educational theorists, instructors, students and parent bodies who embody and adhere to the educational ideal referred to as Torah uMadda (Torah and Knowledge/Science) and Torah Im Derech Eretz (Torah and the ways of the World) has not only proven difficult in the past, but has become increasingly so as religious movements in general have taken a rightward turn.

My favorite metaphor describing a teacher’s role in the educational process is “midwifery.” The underlying assumption driving such a metaphor is that the educational process is essentially student-centered. The teacher’s primary preoccupation is to help the student find himself, his voice, his aptitude, his passion in religious and secular disciplines and activities. To achieve such an aim, the instructor must undertake to expose his disciple to all sorts of materials and ways of thinking in order that the student can ultimately discover what “resonates” within him, what will elicit within himself a powerful response and substantive intellectual curiosity, how he might become drawn to maximize his own unique potential, talents and skill set.

A philosophical commitment to Modern Orthodoxy from my perspective includes the following assumptions:

  1. a) an awareness of an ongoing, personal involvement with God in both our individual lives as well as in all aspects of human history;
  2. b) the sensibility that Judaism is part and parcel of the broadest possible understanding and conceptualization of human civilization and therefore by definition can be harmonized, at least to some degree, with many, if not most, of its widely-held perspectives and values;
  3. c) the assumption that human beings while not inherently inclined to act evilly, nevertheless require explicit moral guidance and development in order for them to transcend natural human self-absorption and self-interest in order to rise to the highest levels of personal spiritual idealism and interpersonal altruism;
  4. d) the belief that even an observant Jew must strive to make a significant contribution to the general quality of life of his fellow citizens, including members of non-Jewish society;
  5. e) the premise that specifically because all human beings, including observant Jews, are intended to participate in a meaningful manner within the greater society, they will be exposed and attracted to innumerable activities that can potentially easily sidetrack them from devoting appropriate time to the sort of spiritual reflection and growth that would allow them to realize their spiritual potentials.
  6. f) the awareness that participation within general human society will entail encountering manifold situations that are not clearly delineated within the Codes of Jewish law and other primary texts of our tradition. Therefore in order for the Modern Orthodox Jew to act consistently in accordance with Jewish values and tradition in situations that are either unprecedented or where he does not have the time to be able to direct inquiries to Halachic authorities, he will have to possess a sense of not only how to carry out individual Commandments, but also the overall philosophy, theology and worldview that underlie these Commandments, which in turn will develop within him an almost instinctual awareness as to how to act Jewishly a times when no authoritative religious guidance is available to him;
  7. g) the concern that because traditional Jewish observance consists of behaviors that often entail daily multiple repetitions, in order for the individual to maintain a sense of freshness and vitality with respect to his religious practices, it is important for him to strive to constantly reflect upon these practices, seeking new insights, perspectives and intents in order that at least internally and spiritually, each repetition will ideally constitute a constantly rejuvenating and evolving approach to expressing one’s commitment to the Divine;and
  8. h) the realization that in order to combat the natural human tendency to differentiate oneself from others in order to achieve distinctiveness and a personal sense of identity, traditional Jews often perceive their religious observance as setting themselves apart not only from non-Jews, but also from their less observant co-religionists. Since Modern Orthodoxy emphasizes the value of recognizing the commonality that Jews share in terms of their history, origins and values, regardless of religious orientation, it becomes necessary to constantly be on guard against socially disruptive isolationist tendencies that would create barriers between the members of the Jewish people;

Examples of such interdisciplinary, integrated issues might include:

  1. The sociology, psychology and history of religion in general and Judaism in particular;
  2. Poetic literature of various cultures exploring the relationship between God and man;
  3. Theories regarding Creation, Intelligent Design and evolution;
  4. The implications of the concept of infinity from religious, mathematical, philosophical and scientific perspectives;
  5. The history of authority and kingship in religious and general thought. humanistic study of the highest order. Examples of such materials might include:
  6. Biblical, Midrashic and Talmudic depictions of general human nature as well as individuals who either rose or fell when confronted by existential moral dilemmas;
  7. Literature that foreshadowed, was produced or influenced by the Mussar Movement;
  8. Classics of world literature, historical accounts and diaries, as well as contemporary media such as film, music, drama, TV programs, etc. in which situations present themselves that are morally challenging;
  9. The depiction of contemporary events in the press, on the internet, in journals that center on ethical conundrums;
  10. Inviting religious personalities to make presentations regarding the moral issues that they have had to deal with in their professional lives, as well as the types of problem-solving in which they had to engage in order to attempt to resolve these challenges.

Judaism and Post-Modernity –Rabbi Shagar in English Translation

Rabbi Shagar (d. 2007), was a Torah scholar and a contemporary religious thinker left a deep mark on the educators and students of the last generation. Here is one of his major essays Judaism and-Post Modernism, the last essay in the work Luhot ve Shivrei Luhut (Tablets and Broken Tablets: Jewish Thought in the Age of Post-Modernism) (Yediot-Sifrei Hemed, 2013) 440- 428. The talk was given on Nisan 19, 2004 – during the intermediate days of Passover.This essay is translated for the first time into English. It is available below as a blog post and as a Word document. Print this out and read it over the next week.

The translation was done by Rabbi Moshe Simkovich, who was the Founding Head of School and Dean of Judaic Studies at Stern Hebrew High School in Philadelphia (now Kohelet YHS), and taught for many years at Maimonides School in Boston. He also served as a congregational Rabbi in Newton, MA.  A graduate of the University of Chicago. If anyone else has made personal translations of essays by Rav Shagar, I would be glad to post them. (Also if you find errors in this translation, please let me know).

tablets-and-broken-tablets

Rabbi Shagar established Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak, in Efrat and was the head of the establishment until his death. Starting in the early 1980’s he was a dominant figure in the Jerusalem rabbinic world, first at Yeshivat HaKotel, then he established the yeshiva “Shefa” together with him Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Rabbi Menachem Froman. The yeshivah established the high school yeshiva Makor Haim. He was then head of the Beit Midrash of Beit Morasha.

In my past blog posts, we have discussed his approach to Torah study, his post modernism, watched a TV documentary about his life and his views of a return to traditionalism away from method and ideology. We also looked at how Smadar Cherlow portrayed the post- Rabbi Shagar turn.

Here we return to his post-modernism by looking at his own words, an eight -page essay where he explained what he means by postmodernism.

Before I start, I must note that Rav Shagar described himself for several decades as a Hasidic existentialist approach. And in the recent work by his colleague Rabbi Yair Dreifus, Touching the Heart [Hebrew] (2013) about Shagar’s approach, he also portrays him as a Hasidic existentialist.

Yet, Rav Shagar did read David Gurevitz, Post-Modernism: Culture and Literature at the end of the 20th Century (Dvir, 1997), a general work applying post-modernism to Israeli literature such as Etgar Keret and the Hebrew translation of Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (Hebrew translation, 1999) and adapted the language as his own to describe the prior twenty years of his thinking.

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home (Bob Dylan)

And if you want to be free, be free
Cause there’s a million things to be
You know that there are  (Cat Stevens/Yusef Islam)

In the essay below, Rav Shagar celebrates the virtues of autonomy, individualism, choosing one’s own life path and to seek one’s own answers. He sees this as inevitable in that we live in an age where there is a breakdown of the hierarchical and patriarchal society and we encourage kids to be themselves. He encourage the individualism we know from most of the 20th century from John Dewey’s educational works to the TVshow by Marlo Thomas, Free to be You and Me (1972). We now have the freedom the create our own reality, to decide whom we marry and accept to responsibility for our life choices.

This is not post-modernism in which we are socially constructed, or bound by language and epistemic ruptures, or disseminating based on language, or “a religion without religion,” or a religion noted by its absence, or making it immanent in the shopping mall and media. Shagar is good old-fashioned existentialist, pragmatist, and romantic with an emphasis on autonomy.

Yet, he is post-modern in a limited sense of having no grand narrative, no foundations, and no metaphysics.  He writes:

I am of the opinion that postmodernism and deconstructionism constitute a ‘shattering of the vessels’ (שבירת הכלים).  Yet this very shattering grants us wide ranging freedom, and as far as religion goes – freedom to believe, even without absolute proofs and evidence.

For him, “belief is found in life not ideology.” Shagar writes: “the transition from a ‘Religion of Truth’ to a ‘Religion of Belief’ is the most profound point of Post-Modernism.” For Shagar, “the departure from Egypt not just as an historic event, but rather as a paradigm for every generation; a leaving of restraints behind, a breaking of the world’s boundaries and oppression.

There’s nothin’ wrong with lovin’ who you are
She said, ’cause He made you perfect, babe
… I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way  (Lady Gaga)

How do we do teshuvah (repentance)? Rabbi Soloveitchik viewed repentance as an existential act of self-creation. For Rabbi Shagar, the first question we need to ask is: to where can we return? There is no direction to return. For us, repentance is the radical acceptance of the self.

We were born this way, and we should accept God’s creation of individual difference.  Shagar lets you accept yourself and your personal turns and struggles and individuality.  Post-moderns deconstruct the self, Rav Shagar like Lady Gaga advocates a total acceptance of the self.  We need to embrace our Freedom, personal choice, and existential choices.

Shagar’s vision is to see this as a constructive moment for exciting new faith options. Just as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook challenged the status quo with new ideas and new ways of seeing things, we should embrace this opportunity. Tolerance for others and those who challenge us is a good thing for creative encounter.

For most modernists, including The Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik and Kierkegaard – one comes down from the peak moment of the religious experience and then channel the experience into an acceptance of the yoke of heaven and the ordinary life.

For Rabbi Shagar, however, the peak moment is “authenticity, as readiness to be myself.” One then comes down and accepts “the yoke of Heaven” butit is through the “wholehearted acceptance of this independence as a divine fiat, not as chance.” One understands that “there is no instant of authenticity, and so it is a more difficult freedom.

He advocates a mystical option as a solution of our era. He quotes Rabv Kook and Gershom Scholem that “mysticism is the seed of religion.”  In mysticism, there “is real potential for a religiosity of intimacy, of a strong passionate position in regards to the Infinite, the very position searched for by Rav Kook… This is my religiosity.

“We were born sick”, you heard them say it
My church offers no absolutes (Take Me to Church by Hozier)

Even in this essay, Rabbi Shagar has a strong critique of system. He points to the excesses of Religious Zionism, and to young adults  who give up their religiosity upon discovering that the truths of the yeshiva do not stand up to the university and secular culture.

The fundamentalism of the Religious Zionist position with its fixed answers leads to a breakdown into those who chose the Haredi side by becoming Hardal (haredi leumi) and those who become part of the Conservative movement. Religious Zionism has become downtrodden by its own ideological stances.

Those who went into the Hesder yeshivot overburdened their life’s with ideology- which is a fixed statue and hardened structure. In addition, looking over one’s shoulder at the observance of others is a sign of estrangement and shows an inability to relate to one’s essence.

In the tradition of liberal pluralism of the West, Rabbi Shagar is against religious coercion.

My pluralism does not remain within the walls of the study hall; it is wider.  Yet I hold to it without thereby saying all is acceptable; I am not passive, holding back from opposing things that are off-limits.  At the same time, and I say this deliberately, I have no need to disqualify things that are not within my circle.  I can be true to my faith, live, die, and kill by its authority, and in so doing I do not have a need to create a hierarchy of beliefs crowning mine above all; who is better or worse is a question without substance.

One should not insult or even be patronizing toward non-Orthodox, they are not “captive children” but thinking and informed adults. He distinguishes between his public beliefs and his private personal views, therefore we have to understand the role of Reform conversions and marriages, as well as civil marriage.

I’ve conquered my past
The future is here at last
I stand at the entrance to a new world I can see.
The ruins to the right of me
Will soon have lost sight of me. (U2 –Love, Rescue Me)

This essay ends on a high note looking toward the future.

I am enthusiastic.  I see something deep and great transpiring now.  Amongst the young I see personalities that did not exist when I was young, young men and women with great spiritual devotion, deep religiosity, not empty-headed nor caught in fantasy – rather, individuals who are quite sober, mature, reflective.  They have a form of charisma and religious devotion, very real, that didn’t exist when I was their age.  Neither I nor others amongst my generation had it.  I foresee in the footsteps of Postmodernism and in the ‘New Age Culture’ that comes on its heels, an entry point to a new world, one in which there will occur a real change in human consciousness.  This change will also bring societal changes, greater social justice, and much deeper interpersonal relationships.  A world where the divine presence will be tangible.

Rabbi Shagar, regardless of the philosophic label, allows a generation to accept the complexities of the modern world without looking for a resolution. His thought made space for questioning and the liberating acceptance of the possibility of alternatives. They are not going back to the ideological certainties of the past, but look to create new approaches.

rabbi-shagar

JUDAISM AND POSTMODERNISM – CONCLUDING THOUGHTS (Word file)

I am concerned that my involvement with Postmodernism may have been unduly delayed, that is, too late to fully realize the opportunity for a real revitalization of our religious world.  Passover, the Jewish Festival of Freedom, teaches us not to force matters, but we also must not push matters off.  From my perspective, one of the problems of the Torah world is that out of concern for forcing matters, all too often we act too late, and the ramifications are tragic.

I do not intend to sanctify Postmodernism, and I do not wish to hide from its problems.  However, the Postmodernism position is not at all marginal; it exerts its influence throughout society.  We must come to terms with it.  One can observe the influence of Postmodernism even in the relationship of children to their parents and teachers – a small child might contact the police if his father beats him, and if his teacher tells him something he will not hesitate to tell him how he thinks differently.  The relativistic mindset is already embedded in the basic personality structures of children.

The influence of Postmodernism is also recognizable in the religious community. It is particularly so in the younger generation, as is readily apparent from the perspective of its popular repercussions.  One could argue that the loss of authority, nihilism, and the instability was due to the ideological excesses that characterize Religious Zionism.

True, seminaries and yeshivot hesder thrive and increase, but are most young adults there?  How many of the young complete army service, skip through the universities, and remain true to Religious Zionism?  What of the phenomena of secularity that apparently is here to stay?  And in general, what of the ‘good youth’ who complete yeshiva and enter university?  More than once I have heard of students, even those who studied in more ‘open’ yeshivot, who complain: ‘They misled me in yeshiva!’  When they came to university they encountered a different worldview, a secular culture that they testify forced them to totally reconsider the worldview as taught in the yeshiva.

Indeed, there were those who foresaw that the confrontation between Torah and Western Culture would tear the religious community up, splitting it into a Conservative camp, and a Haredi or Haredi-Zionist camps (חרד”ל); one could claim we see that very thing before us now.  From my point of view, the problem has not one but two sides, i.e. as evidenced by the Haredi-Zionist phenomena.  In some of the yeshivot, there is missed opportunity – a slide of the Religious Zionist perspective towards inflexible fundamentalism.  This is at variance from the blend that we aspire to; to be rooted in the land in its deepest and simplest manifestation, while at the same time to be rooted in universalistic-modern values.  These Neo-Haredi do not return to the prevailing Haredi stance, which has its own natural flow and whose essence is self-evident to its followers.  It is precisely because these Haredim are of the modern rather than the traditionalist world, and yet are taken aback by the ramifications of their ideology, that their strict reverence creates a new sort of Haredi. I must tell you this form of Haredi scares me.  It seems dangerous because of the identity it creates, not to mention its impact upon the communal and political levels.  I identify this breaking up of Religious Zionism with the impact of Postmodernism. In response to the multi-faceted Postmodernist challenge, some give in to modern culture, and some throw up defenses against it.

In the face of this reality, what I wanted to do is, as Rav Kook said, ‘build a palace of faith beyond apostasy (כפירה)’, i.e. to recognize this situation and not to settle for its mere internalization as is, or its rejection.  I would rather see how it can help build a new level of faith based on our reality, whatever the difficulty.  I will not hide my conviction that in this situation there are exciting faith options, ones that I believe are superior to classical or modern options.

Moreover, and here I make an audacious leap, I see myself like someone grasping the hems of Rav Kook’s cloak in his coming to terms with the era’s movements.  I don’t mean to compare myself to Rav Kook, I am dust under his feet.  But if you wish to follow his path you must learn from his example, have the bravery to clarify and come to terms with modern culture and the times, as well as stand up to the critics of your approach.

Truly, one should not forget that the Rav’s ideas also raised serious challenges.  More than once critics claimed that his way was appropriate for those on his high level, but not for people at large.  For example, the Gerrer Rebbe, the ‘Imrei Emes’, after critiquing Rav Kook, spoke about him in glowing terms, but held that his way was not suited for the general public.  Rav Haim Sonnenfeld criticized Rav Kook’s tolerance and opposed his ‘impatience for the end’ (messianic hopes).

Still and all, these were classic attacks, resisting all who had breakthroughs.  Whenever we have to consider change, we are filled with doubts and fears.  The new portends destruction of the old, and forces us to separate from old good familiar ways.  But if we wish to contend with the questions raised by changing times – modern in Rav Kook’s times, postmodern in ours – we have no alternative.  Even if we don’t want to confront the times, we are forced to do so.  Thus, as Rav Nachman [of Breslov] says, we must adopt a position based on the power of holiness and must say things heretofore deemed unacceptable, even though it contradicts earlier approaches.

Postmodernism does not have a standard definition, and many have written about this.  Many Postmodernists themselves resist a clear definition of their perspective, as in principle they oppose definitions.  For the sake of our discussions Postmodernism can be characterized as a position that holds truth to be a function of societal cultural constructs, and thus denies that certitude is possible, Post-modernism can also be characterized as a radical striving for freedom, i.e. the freedom of the individual to establish himself and his values.

There are educators, perhaps the majority, who denigrate Postmodernism as absolutely worthless, seeing in it dissolution, nihilism, and the breakdown of societal framework.  Others can accept limited aspects – as a critique that awakens us to the falsity and limitations under which we exist, or as it expands the pluralistic horizons of our education- not as negative phenomena, but as an in-house inner critique. Yet, I believe there is a more radical critique here.

I am of the opinion that postmodernism and deconstructionism constitute a ‘shattering of the vessels’ (שבירת הכלים).  Yet this very shattering grants us wide ranging freedom, and as far as religion goes – freedom to believe, even without absolute proofs and evidence.

The Hassidim understood the departure from Egypt not just as an historic event, but rather as a paradigm for every generation; a leaving of restraints behind, a breaking of the world’s boundaries and oppression.  In this sense postmodernism is a departure from these limitations in its most radical sense.

In relationship to this conception I would like to emphasize a few points.

My friend Rabbi Yehuda Brandes opposes the classical and widespread trend to base Jewish Philosophy curricula on the assumption that faith can be rationally demonstrated.  His opposition is based on the premise that a young student who is not philosophically adept, in the framework of the spiritual cultural world in which he exists, will not incorporate these proofs.

In its place he recommends a Hassidic Existentialist position – to attempt to show the student a point which he too can believe in – assuming no one to be a total nihilist.  It is our job to clarify, or to help the student clarify, that point of absolute truth which he too believes.  Once this entry point to belief has been brought to light, one can move on, perhaps expand his domain of belief, and make a place there for additional beliefs.

The reader should be careful not to misunderstand this exposition as a call to no longer attempt philosophical proofs that support faith; the mood of our times must come to terms with any suggested change along these lines. Just as a philosophical or historical proof will hold little interest for our youth, similarly an existential proof will likely not be accepted.  Why?  Because faith, by definition, cannot be conclusively proven.  The very pursuit of a sturdy viewpoint, with reliable support for faith, undermines it.

I attempted to demonstrate this very point in my book “Kelim Nishbarim” (Broken Vessels).  We must free ourselves from seeing discussions of faith as providing reliable support, something to hang on to.  Faith is its own category – I can pray to God, I can be part of the faith, I can identify myself as a believer – but once someone brings ‘proof’ for faith, I am no longer a ‘believer’.  Proof and faith are mutually exclusive.  Bringing a proof to me does not make me a believer.  A proof of that sort is like a gun pointed at my head, and it cannot influence my inner being.

Here is where I see the constructive role of Postmodernism.  Postmodernism typically leads down the road to nihilism, relativism, to a loss of a point of reference, to no longer being able to validate faith; yet it can lead us to discussions of faith (rather than just about faith), and free us to pray.

This postmodernist world, in my humble opinion, opens the door to a much higher level of belief.  What drives my thoughts of God is not the idea of God’s great omnipotence, but rather that God is not ‘a thing’; God is the absolute pure, the fulfilled seeking, the infinite; as Maimonides says ‘the Omnipresent but not of the world’.  The ‘devekut’ (cleaving or intense spirituality) that this recognition generates flows from our understanding that divinity and belief are not truly accessible to language and objects  This understanding releases us from our daily preoccupations, allows us to enter into the world of belief and prayer, and thus brings us to devekut (cleaving to God), deeper faith, and great dedication.  Thus, I contend that we should release faith and religiosity from the objective-philosophical domain of facts, as faith is not something that one can really verbally express.  In this manner Postmodernism can create faith based on freedom, faith that is based on personal choice, on a decision.  Such a freedom is of course terrible and difficult, with a feeling of the earth quaking beneath us.  Thus, Sartre spoke about how the individual is condemned to freedom, but we must overcome this ominous predicament, and train ourselves to a radical freedom that entails deciding to accept the heavenly yoke.

This point is particularly important for adherents of the Religious-Zionist movement, so downtrodden by ideological stances. One could characterize the previous generation as the generation of Baalei-Teshuva (returnees to faith).  In that generation religion was not a given, deeply rooted, as in the Haredi world.  The gap between faith and the Baal-Teshuva was bridged through ideology, which responded to contradictions between traditional Judaism and the values and lifestyle of modern life.  However, ideology and faith are not identical; ideology is like a statue, a picture, a hardened structure, and doesn’t have the sense of the infinite that characterizes faith in the divine.  The Midrash says that God is truth, because God lives.  Belief is found in life, not in ideology or philosophy.

Postmodernism’s sharp opposition to ideologies dispels the Religious-Zionist community’s extreme emphasis on ideology, bringing it back to a Living Torah.  From this perspective one can learn from Haredi, which at its best is built from identity and not ideology, which changes the Jewish world into something self-evident.  We need an education that fosters accepting Heaven’s yoke in its highest conceptualization, reforming our existing religious world into a world that confidently affirms itself without constantly looking over its shoulder.  Ideology often is a sign of estrangement, of an inability to relate to one’s essence and all its ramifications. Thus a sensitive and open pedagogy (that yet maintains certain connections) characteristic of the Haredi world, should be an important central ingredient in our education.

In my opinion, the transition from a ‘Religion of Truth’ to a ‘Religion of Belief’ is the most profound point of Post-Modernism.

From a pedagogical standpoint, instead of speaking about ‘the Truth’, which in the Postmodernist conception has a pejorative connotation, let us speak of ‘accepting the yoke of Heaven’.  This is something altogether different.  Our truest difficulty is to accept the yoke of Heaven; to accept responsibility.  An example from married life:  A man could fall in love with a particular woman, but in order to get married he must do something further – he must (mindfully) decide to get married.  A person can be married many years without coming to the conclusion that this is the woman with whom he wishes to spend his entire life.   It is the same in the domain of faith, and in the domain of values.  In all these domains there are needs to make a decisive move to accept the yoke of Heaven.  This decision is a paradoxical move. It is not based on arguments and proofs, but rather on the readiness of the person to become obligated, and to trust in the values that due to his decision become obligatory and absolute.

Here a beautiful Chabad teaching is worth consideration.  Chabad distinguishes between Passover where the departure from Egypt is at its heart, and the Counting of the Omer.  The departure from Egypt is inspirational, redemptive, and filled with love, as expressed in the Song of Songs which we read on Passover.  But as usually happens, when we descend back into our mundane routine world, enthusiasm dissipates.  An individual cannot base his life on passion, redemption, and inspiration, of the theme of departing Egypt, which Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi indeed recommended to be the anchor for faith.  Thus, we need the ritual of Counting the Omer in which we accept the yoke of Heaven – readiness to serve without such illuminations.

One can explain these two stages; illumination and accepting Heaven’s yoke, in a different way.

The emancipation of leaving Egypt is freedom as independence, authenticity, as readiness to be myself; it is the primary freedom.  The second freedom, accepting the yoke of Heaven, is the wholehearted acceptance of this independence as a divine fiat, not as chance.  In contrast to the first decision, there is no instant of authenticity, and so it is a more difficult freedom.

Indeed, from the pedagogical angle it is difficult to create a sensitivity to independence,  to the divine point within us.  To some of our youth this independence is nothing but chance and relativism.  They will claim that they are faithful, but only because they were brought up that way. If they were brought up somewhere else they would have grown into different people, perhaps not faithful.  Of course such an attitude weakens the possibility to hand down tradition, to enter into the Torah world empowered and with conviction.  This difficulty of having a self-confident identity is an effect of the inability to have confidence in any foundational point outside of oneself.

Besides the claim that Postmodernism can purify and free us to believe, in Broken Vessels I argued that all told, a decision to believe is based on the person himself.  Belief in truly begins with us.  Accepting the yoke of Heaven begins from the point of the absolute incomprehensible void, and this is difficult since this commitment in itself is prone to be understood as nihilistic.  Indeed, it has been said that both the apikorus (non-believer) and faithful refer to the ‘void’, but the believer refers to the ‘holy void’.  The ‘unholy void’ of Postmodernism can flip and become the ‘holy void’ which the Kabbalists speak of, and from which they derived their closeness to the divine. The task I set for myself in my book was a description of this phenomena.  I think that in this manner, the problem itself is potentially the source of its solution.

Emphatically, I do not take lightly the possibility that Postmodernism can lead to nihilism.  It not only disparages the idea of truth and the ability to prove, but also challenges the whole concept of religious norms, values, and ethics, seeing in them societal repression.  It identifies those things which we perceive as givens in our reality as social constructs.  Yet, in so doing it enables radical freedom, and it is this very freedom that scares religious people.  To me, the answer to this fear is the understanding that a construct may be specifically empowered, such as what came into being via the six days of creation, or that descended from Sinai. It all depends upon the ability to accept the yoke, to decide.  We must not fear freedom.  I am not party to the fear that in a world of unlimited possibilities, a world where belief itself is possible, where a decision – and not logical proof nor society – determines belief, that we will abandon religion. I am not party to the fear that without a campaign built on constraints, pressures, and compulsion, our youth will run away.  I myself am not tied into a social network for security – normative or otherwise – in order to fulfill mitzvoth.  We need to believe in ourselves and to believe in the Only One.

I was not surprised by the reactions to my book, neither by the opposition to it, nor its popularity, nor by the intensity of the responses.  I am not interested in the consensus, and there is no doubt that the critiques and stands expressed in the book are likely to shake many convictions.  This was indeed my goal; shaking Religious-Zionist thinking from its dogmatism.

Nevertheless, I was very frustrated because the essential message of the book was missed and misunderstood.  This is the mystical option that Postmodernism enables, precisely because of the deconstruction that comes in its wake and its strong critique of the rationalist position.  As Rav Kook taught in a multitude of places, mysticism is the seed of religion.  Scholars such as Gershom Scholem held the same from their perspectives.  Here is real potential for a religiosity of intimacy, of a strong passionate position in regards to the Infinite, the very position searched for by Rav Kook and his students the Nazir and Rav Charlap.  This is my religiosity.

From here we move on to an additional basic point, with emphasis on the social context.

Does Postmodernism lead to a passive ethical relativism?  I think not.  Here too fine distinctions must be made between tolerance and pluralism (I do not think of these words as pejoratives) of the right sort – a sort of openness; and of an improper sort – one might call it dissoluteness.  Dissoluteness connotes a direction that holds nothing true,  I can accept anything.  In contrast, openness can be a higher perspective – absolute commitment to my truth, but with the capacity to recognize other’s truths.  I need not think my house is the best; it is enough to know it is my house.  The important question, once again, is the question of acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, the question of the integrity of my beliefs, the question of whether I believe absolutely.

Thus, I hold a complex position in regards to distinguishing pluralism from relativism. Even though under certain circumstances I can understand the perspective of one person coming to kill another, I will do what I can to prevent him from sacrificing someone, and if I have no choice I will bring about his death.  That is what God wants of me.  If someone comes and asks me – ‘Why don’t you figure out what God wants from us?’ – I would answer that it is not my problem.  I am not to be held accountable for this question!  The question I do ask myself is not about what is universally true, but rather a more intimate question – ‘What does God want from you?’  This question is in the forefront of my awareness in the here and now, and with this there can also be a strong and deep stand based on my values and faith, one that in extreme situations can go the limit, even risking self-sacrifice, or sacrificing another.

I will provide an example that expresses this pluralistic position in regards to the relationship of religion and state.  I am not in favor of Reform conversion nor civil marriage.  However, when we wish to lead a state, there is a great difference between a personal position and a public stance; and the question of whether to impose one’s faith upon others is inevitable.  I do not have to denigrate all other positions in order to promulgate my own.  My pluralism allows me sensitivity to diverse cultures.  I believe the Messiah will come and that everyone one will return, but from my point of view this conviction is not relevant to the state’s laws.  In the same way, I cannot establish the relationship to secular Jews on the basis of the paternalistic principle of ‘tinok shenishba’ (“a captive child” without Jewish connection is given the benefit of the doubt in regards to culpability) – the secular person would not accept such a characterization, and truth be told I do not see him as a ‘tinok shenishba’ in the classical understanding of the term.  On the contrary, it seems to me that if we want to retain some measure of religious character in the state, some minimal unifying national force, and no less important – the opening up of the religious community, we must begin with a pluralistic perspective.  This approach should be considered in regards to the proposals about the issues above as of late, such as the proposal for couples in regards to civil marriage.

Is it legitimate to bring such complex positions before the public?  When we first established Yeshivat Mekor Haim, there were those who said that students should first undergo the regular course of yeshiva studies, and only then should be taught the more complex approaches we were bringing.  They claimed: ‘If you present them to a young student, without yeshiva preparation, you will destroy him.’  No doubt, there is some truth to this claim.  Certainly a student must be taught in a conducive relatable manner, and it is a challenge to teach a student to grasp matters this way.  Pedagogy according to the belief system of the Rishonim, who grasped such matters via metaphysics, gives an initial degree of protection, creates a house.  Only after that is taught does it make sense to introduce the approach I am suggesting.  Parenthetically, I would like to say that I by no means endorse the Postmodernist claim that one should forego the house, forego being at home.  On the contrary!  I would like to see how one could build a house in a landless world, how one could come to being at home in a world of (unstructured) freedom.

Withal, I do not think we should hold off the Postmodernist critique for only the mature; beyond any doubt a good pedagogy for youth will enable the building of a home base for him/her along with an independent identity.  This indeed is our pedagogical goal; but its basis must be, once again, a basis built on life and not on ideology.  Seder night is a model for this; the experiences of seder night are in-depth experiences that create a youth’s identity; augmented by its smells and flavors, by the aura that passes amongst everyone.  It is there that the deep foundational structure of religious identity exists.  If one does not have that, it is very difficult to build deep and flowing belief.

How you educate a young person determines his/her possibilities later. If you teach him/her like the Griz (הגרי”ז סולובייציק), who stood with his son at the window and pointed at the people who stood in line at the Edison Theater saying: “They are asses, camels…” you cannot impose on such an outlook another outlook that is more pluralistic.  Therefore it is all important to continue the discussion of the best education for the young.  One might begin with a relatively conservative education, even Haredi in some aspects along the lines which we have discussed, but one must carefully cultivate openness, and build a structure of faith on the basis of identity, of life, of a natural flow, and not on the basis of self-estrangement and ideology.  One must start training early towards religious responsibility, towards acceptance of the yoke of Heaven by choice and self-recognition, and not rely on compulsion and authority.

I have not given up.  On the contrary, I am enthusiastic.  I see something deep and great transpiring now.  Amongst the young I see personalities that did not exist when I was young, young men and women with great spiritual devotion, deep religiosity, not empty-headed nor caught in fantasy – rather, individuals who are quite sober, mature, reflective.  They have a form of charisma and religious devotion, very real, that didn’t exist when I was their age.  Neither I nor others amongst my generation had it.  I foresee in the footsteps of Postmodernism and in the ‘New Age Culture’ that comes on its heels, an entry point to a new world, one in which there will occur a real change in human consciousness.  This change will also bring societal changes, greater social justice, and much deeper interpersonal relationships.  A world where the divine presence will be tangible.

© Alan Brill & Moshe Simkovitch 2016. All Rights Reserved. Do not use or republish in part or whole without prior permission.

Interview with Joel Hecker- Pritzker Zohar volume 11

The Zohar is a collection of over 32 different works with slightly different theologies and literary styles. Volume 11 of the new Pritzker editions is a collection of smaller works, including later pieces of Midrash ha-Neelam, and the Matnitin.

The new volume, Volume 11 was translated, edited and annotated by Joel Hecker, Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, who was ordained by RIETS and a PhD from NYU.  Professor Hecker said that his approach to annotation is toward greater annotation, an arc already started in the latter volumes by Daniel C. Matt. Hecker also offers greater discussion of halakhic issues in his annotations.

Hecker’s approach to translation was to follow Matt’s lead, but to my ear he placed more emphasis on the poetics of retaining alliteration, use of synonyms, and the general sound and feel of the texts. The volume is a hefty 800 pages, so I have not yet worked though the translation- -it only arrived yesterday—however, even from the sample of passages that I looked at, they were marvelous in their capturing the original.

joel Hecker.jpg
(Photo Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

Come and See: There is an Aramaic Zohar above and a Pritzker English Zohar below.  The Zohar above and the Zohar below are perfectly balanced. When the Zohar descends into American Jewish culture, it needs to put on the garment of this world. If the Zohar did not put on a garment befitting this culture, the work could not endure in this world and the world could not endure them. Happy are they who look at Zohar properly! As wine must sit in a jar, so Zohar must sit in this garment. Hecker’s translation and annotation allows one to reference back to original text, allowing one to remember that these words are garments for the original printed Zohar.

My interview with the translator of the first nine volumes- Daniel C. Matt is here. For my review of one of the volumes and Melila Heller-Eshed’s work, see here. For a general interview with Joel Hecker in the  Philadelphia Inquirer  see here.

A little historical background will help in reading this volume. This volume contains several sections of the Zohar called Midrash ha-Neelam, which are separate in language and theology than the main body of the Zohar. They have a Hebrew core and an Aramaic overlay, they mainly concern the soul and other allegorical topics, rather than sefirot, and the named scholars are unlike the Zohar. The works use Neoplatonic philosophic language and philosophic terminology. The Midrash ha-Neelam offer a sense of how 13th century Castilian Jews integrated the Heikhalot and early esotericism with the scholastic philosophic traditions.

In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Yaakov Emden considered these sections separate and earlier than the rest of the corpus. In 1926, Gershom Scholem speculated in his inaugural lecture at Hebrew University, that these texts were earlier than the rest of the Zohar. Scholem completely buried this article and never referred to it; he considered these sections from Moses deLeon. Samuel Belkin, (1957) argued that there were Philonic elements in the work, which received a long critique from R.J. Z. Werblowsky (1960).

Current range for the origin of the Midrash ha-Neelam is between 1250 as an allegorical precursor to the Zohar to 1280 as part of De Leon’s large oeuvre, the opposite positions of belong to Ronit Meroz and  Nathan Wolski.

Ah… but all this is only background. Pritzker Zohar Volume 11 contains a selection of later texts that are modeled on Midrash ha-Neelam. They are post-Zohar and before the 14th century Tikkune Zohar, and combine philosophic allegory with kabbalistic sefirot. They also have significant amounts of reworked later Midrash such as Eichah Rabbah or the short works of Batei Midrashot.

What is the origin of these later texts?  1250 and then additions in 1280? All 1280? How many strata? Was there an Aramaic overlay on Hebrew original or mixed language right from the start. Were they written by several people? Who were they? What did they think they were doing? Did they relate to one another?

Current Hebrew University thinking is to speak of an “intermediate layer” or a “middle layer” of the Zohar corpus written between the Zohar and the Tikkunim. They can currently fudge the issue by placing many short works that have no clear category into this basket.

An example of one of these works included in the volume is Midrash haNeelam on the book of Ruth. It was originally published as a separate volume independently of the Zohar and then was added later to the printed edition of the Zohar Hadash, which was extra material not included in the first printing.  Elimelekh, Naomi, Ruth, & Orpah, are mapped onto four different aspects of soul (as often happens in Midrash ha-Ne’lam al ha-Torah). However, here those identifications were simultaneously mapped onto the tetragrammaton, with explicit reference to Father, Mother, Son, Daughter.

 “Corresponding to this: Naomi—נשמה (neshamah), holy soul. Elimelech—נשמתא לנשמתא (nishmeta le-nishmeta), soul of soul. Mahlon—רוח השכלית (ruah ha-sikhlit), intellectual spirit. Ruth—נפש השכלית (nefesh ha-sikhlit), intellectual soul. Chilion—רוח הבהמיות (ruah ha-behemi’ut), animal spirit.

“Of this Solomon said Who knows if רוח (ruah), the spirit, of man ascends on high and רוח (ruah), the spirit, of a beast descends into earth? (Ecclesiastes 3:21). Ruah of man—Mahlon. Bestial ruah—Chilion, from the left side. Bestial nefesh—Orpah, stiff-necked, from the left side. Thus Chilion—his name was not remembered in Israel.” (Zohar Hadash 78b).

Others works in this volume are the Matnitin and the Tosefta which present themselves as an earlier strata corresponding to the Talmudic Mishnah. In these works, we have a reworking of an ethos of the Heikhalot into a dramatic heightened style, almost poetic, awakening the reader to the visionary and hidden. I have always been quite fond of these sections and have always thought they would make a good volume of visionary poetry.  They echo Sefer Yetzirah and other early works. Rabbi Moses Cordovero considered these works as primary keys to opening up the rest of the Zohar and that they may be the earliest part of the Idrot texts.

Try reading this passage aloud:

Matnitin. “Will of the deed, clusters of faith! A voice—voice of voices—arousing above and below. Open-eyed we were. Sphere above, rotating toward diverse sides. A voice intones, arousing, “Awaken sleepy, slumbering ones, with sleep in their sockets, who do not know to look and do not see! Stopped-up ears, lethargic hearts, they sleep and do not know. The Torah stands before them, yet they pay no heed, and do not know upon what they gaze; who look but do not see. The Torah sends forth voices, ‘Look, foolish ones! Open your eyes and understand!’ Yet none pays heed, and none inclines his ear! How long shall you remain in the darkness of your desires? Look and understand, and the shining light will be revealed to you!” Zohar 1:161b (Vol. 11, pp. 542-43)

If you read it aloud then you saw the contribution of Hecker’s concern with poetics and the sound of the text. Here is a section of Tosefta to read aloud:

We were close by, heard a voice concatenating above, downward, spreading throughout the world. A voice smashing mountains, shattering mighty rocks, gargantuan whirlwinds ascending, our ears patulous. Proclaiming in undulations: “Thorn-prick to slumberers, torpor in their sockets, subsisting in their subsistence.

The King speaks! Avoid inebriation, gatekeepers! The ruler of numerous troops is stationed in his place! All are insensate, unaware that the book is open, names recorded. Zohar 1:121a (Vol. 11, pp. 608-9).

This project will be finished with a final volume in a few months. The Pritzker Zohar will be known in future decades as one of the great Judaica projects of our era, whose immense contribution with be evident in the upcoming years as rabbis start to teach and integrate these texts.

Several decades ago, Prof. Rivka Shatz-Uffenheimer of Hebrew University envisioned a Zohar project of dividing the corpus between many scholars to analyze its content. Maybe the completion of these volumes would be good time to renew the project in the United States and divide the 12 volumes among 40-50 scholars who would elucidate its meanings and treasures. However this time, since the volumes are in English, maybe invite poets, theologians, cultural theorists, and comparative students of mysticism, along with midrash, and Jewish thought scholars to open up the text.

1) What is Midrash ha-Ne’lam?

Midrash ha-Ne’lam is from the earliest stratum of Zoharic writing, first appearing in the early 1280’s.  Midrash ha-Ne’lam is written in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic, and those two different languages reflect greater interests in allegory and kabbalistic symbolism, respectively.  The allegorical readings here are often spiritualized readings of biblical characters as stand-ins for different parts of the human soul and psyche.

Shifra Asulin has argued that the kabbalistically-inflected Aramaic material was written and woven in to an older allegorical Hebrew text of Midrash ha-Ne’lam.

Scribes and printers sometimes attached the title Midrash ha-Ne’lam to other texts. Rabbi Yaakov Emden, the first person to engage in extensive critical analysis of the Zohar, tried to delineate its parameters using careful methodological criteria; he refers to one Zoharic section as “not from the true Zohar, but rather typical of formulations from the Midrash ha-Ne’lam” (Mitpahat Sefarim, 21).

Volume 11 contains sections that have received the label Midrash ha-Ne’lamShir ha-Shirim, Rut, and Eikhah—but they do not necessarily match the model of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on the Torah.

Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Shir ha-Shirim may be a fragment of a larger work, now lost, and it bears some of the characteristics typical of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on the Torah: multiple rabbinic figures; mix of Hebrew and Aramaic; allegorical interpretations; and with only slight use of kabbalistic symbolism.

  1. How does Midrash ha-Ne’lam fit into the formation of the Zohar?

Gershom Scholem argued that the entire Zohar was written by Moshe de Leon, a prolific 13th century kabbalist, including the earliest strata of the Zohar to the latest—from the work called Midrash ha-Ne’lam through the sections called the Idrot—even though many difficulties remained with this broad-brush thesis.

In the late 1980’s Yehudah Liebes, one of our generation’s foremost academic Zohar experts concluded that while Moshe de Leon may have been the primary author of the Zoharic compendium, he also served as editor, incorporating the works of others with whom he did not necessarily agree.

And for some time this new approach was adopted by scholarly consensus. Over the last decade there have been three primary responses to Liebes’ thesis.

Some scholars, many of them Liebes’ Hebrew University students, fine-tuned his argument, suggesting that there is another stratum of Zoharic literature. While the old topography of the Zohar’s textual composition had three stages—1. Midrash ha-Ne’lam; 2. Epic Layer of the Zohar (Zohar on the Torah); 3. Tiqqunei Zohar & Ra’aya Mehemna—according to the new scheme another layer intervened between numbers 2 & 3, and this came to be called the mediating or middle layer, i.e. the stratum written after most of the Zohar had been written.

To speak historically, we currently use a basic four-part scheme of authorship:

  1. Midrash ha-Ne’lam on the Torah;
  2. Epic Layer of the Zohar (Meroz’s name for guf ha-Zohar);
  3. a mediating period before Tiqqunei Zohar and Raya Mehemna, containing parts of Saba of Mishpatim, Yanoqa, Zohar Shir ha-Shirim, Idrot, Sifra di-Tseni’uta, Matnitin, Tosefta (and more);
  4. Tiqqunei Zohar and Raya Mehemna.

A second response to Liebes’ thesis has been pushed primarily by Ronit Meroz through careful study of Zoharic manuscripts in comparison with other contemporary (14th century) kabbalists. She has suggested that Sitrei Torah came from the pen of Rabbi Yaakov Shatz, and that large sections of Zohar Hadash came from Rabbi Yosef Angelet. These assignations are intriguing but probably require further investigation. The possibility remains that the Zohar texts and their “sister” texts may have had a source in common rather than originating from the same author.

A third response has been that of Daniel Abrams who argues that the Zohar is more a collection of literary phenomena bearing accretions and losses evolving over centuries into the anthology now called Zohar. For Abrams, Zoharic authorship is chimerical, and the best we can hope for is to observe trends of development over time through assiduous examination of the manuscripts.

The scholarship of Yehuda Liebes and Ronit Meroz has been very helpful in tracking down textual affinities between texts that appear in the printed Zohar and works written by kabbalists living in the late 13th-early 14th century.

Affinities may not prove authorship, however, and may demonstrate a relationship of source and target, or perhaps only that these authors and the Zohar as it emerges both drew on similar sources.

Even then, since the earliest identified manuscript that contains substantial Zoharic material was written at the beginning of the 15th century (and owned by Sabbatai Zevi!), there is at least 100 years of redaction before we have substantial amounts of Zoharic texts.

While there is little doubt that much of the conceptual and literary work would have been written in the decades between, say, 1280 and 1310, what existed at that time is like a black box buried at the bottom of the sea, or a rumored lost train carrying a fortune in gold lost in mountainous regions of Eastern Europe.

3) How was Midrash ha-Ne’lam Ruth originally considered a separate book?

Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut was first printed under the titles Yesod Shirim and Tapuhei Zahav (Thiengen 1559) without any reference to the Zoharic corpus. While the frontispiece of one of the first two printings (Cremona 1558) referred to Midrash Rut, only small parts of the work appear there. Ultimately it was published in 1658 in Zohar Hadash under the title Midrash ha-Ne’lam Rut.

MhN Rut is a shaggy dog of a text. I have often thought of it as a duffle bag into which all kinds of materials could be stuffed; indeed, this says something about the nature of redaction of kabbalistic texts in general.

MhN Rut cannot be said to have a clear message, per se. Many rabbis are quoted in it, which is a feature of Midrash ha-Ne’lam in general, without the central figure of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his cohort. It has stories about dreams, long passages about the various compartments of hell and the details of the tortures that go on there; it contains one of the versions of the popular story of the Tanna and the Restless Dead, a story that inspired the practice of children reciting Kaddish (and other parts of the liturgy) after a parent’s death.

The story enjoyed wide circulation in over forty versions in medieval folktales, liturgical works, midrash, ethical literature, and Kabbalah, but its best known source is from medieval Ashkenaz, where dreams and the fear of hell are frequent tropes.

It is interested in the nature of the soul. And, of course, there is a fair amount of allegorical and kabbalistic interpretation of the story of Ruth.

Noteworthy in Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut is the reliance on late, small midrashim published by Jellinek and Eisenstein. Much of the material regarding Geihinnom draws upon Masekhet Geihinnom, Masekhet Hibbut ha-Qever; on the fetus it gleans from Seder Yetsirat ha-Vlad; and on the martyrology from Heikhalot literature, but also from Elleh Ezkerah.

It is one of the ironies of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut that while the biblical Book of Ruth is classically treated as a story of conversion and of a non-Jewish woman’s dedication to the people of Israel and their God, this section of the Zohar demonstrates its ambivalence and hostility toward non-Jews, and Christians and Muslims in particular. The Zohar’s ethnocentrism and xenophobia is prominently on display here.

4)      Describe Midrash ha-Ne’lam Lamentations.

Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Eikhah is a beautiful, pathos-filled work that stands alone, but it was not published independently as was the case with MhN, Rut. The first part of the work is structured as dueling claims to greater suffering between the residents of Jerusalem and the residents of Bavel. The debate follows a trope established in a piyyut written by Solomon ibn Gabirol between two fictional wives of Israel, each suffering neglect. Here the winner will claim the right to offer a eulogy for Jerusalem after Her destruction.

The work draws on Eikhah Rabbah, but has a light overlay of kabbalistic symbolism, focusing on the absence of both the blessed Holy One, signifying Tif’eret, who abandoned the people of Israel, but Shekhinah too is absent.

It draws upon Eikhah Rabbah’s famous midrash that describes Rachel crying from her tomb in Bethlehem, refusing to be consoled over her children’s exile and suffering. While MhN, Eikhah strikes the same emotional tones as Eikhah Rabbah, the artistic skill of the authorship lies in the rereading of rabbinic midrash that seamlessly retrojects kabbalistic myth into the earlier material; or, put differently, elaborates literarily the mythos that is quietly embedded within the rabbinic texts.

5)   What are your differences in translation from those of Daniel Matt?

One of the aims of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition was to maintain stylistic consistency throughout the 12 volumes and, indeed, originally Daniel Matt was originally hired to do all twelve—but Nathan Wolski and I were hired so that the project would be completed before 2022. While the careful reader can detect stylistic changes over the course of the nine volumes written by Daniel Matt, there is impressive consistency. Nathan and I were charged with the task of trying to sustain that consistency and I found little temptation to fiddle with a winning formula. That said, here and there one can find idiosyncratic divergences, particularly in my commentary.

I received rabbinical training at Yeshiva University and, as a result, there were times where I chased down halakhic issues that were of interest to me.

For example, I was interested in the issue of the three words that are repeated at the end of the Shema, as treated in Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut. Midrash Tanhuma on Tazri’a teaches that there are 248 words in the liturgical Shema, corresponding to the 248 limbs of the human body.

Bracketing the anatomical question, any brash 5th grader would challenge this teaching, noting that there are in fact only 245 words contained in the Shema’s three paragraphs. Hasidei Ashkenaz were deeply interested in numerical aspects of the liturgy and, confronted by this apparent contradiction, suggested that one could say the three words El Melekh Ne’eman, a putative expansion of the word Amen, after the blessing before the Shema and immediately preceding the Shema. Thus is the numerical discrepancy resolved.

We do not know about the pervasiveness of this innovative practice, but both Ramban and Rashba felt called upon to object, emphasizing that reciting these words, even if they are only an expansion of the “acronym Amen” constitute an impermissible interruption between the blessing before the Shema and the recital act itself. They did not propose any other solution to the problem, apparently indicating a lack of concern for the midrash’s inaccuracy.

The battle over this issue did not subside, however, and a passage in the printed version of Midrash ha-Ne’lam on Rut offered a unique solution: repeat the last two words of the Shema (Adonai Eloheikhem) plus the first word of the subsequent blessing (Emet). Yet another solution had been offered, however, and that was to repeat the last three words of the Shema (Ani Adonai Eloheikhem).

Medieval Spanish Talmud commentators and poskim in the late 13th and early 14th centuries quarreled over this issue (as documented by Israel Ta-Shma). From my examination of Zohar manuscripts and consideration of variants in the different works of Moses de León that dealt with the same issue, I concluded that the Zohar’s original position was to repeat the words ani YHVH Eloheikhem (the “losing” position in halakhic history), and that scribes subsequently “corrected” the Zohar in light of the emerging halakhah.

I believe that I have also differed slightly from Matt in terms of some key word choices and emphases. Thus I was more likely to translate yir’ah as “fear” rather than “awe.” Similarly, I often characterized kabbalistic interests as “pious” rather than “spiritual.”

6)      What Poetic principles do you follow in your translation?

Following Danny Matt’s model for the series, I have tried to produce a translation that is both “literal yet poetic.” The translator’s line between replicating the feel of a foreign language and rebirthing the text in a different vernacular is inevitably individual and sometimes fuzzy. One of the problems in creating a translation is that there is no such thing as a word-for-word translation. No two languages correspond so neatly that one could pull off this feat.

A recent estimate puts the numbers of words and roots in the Zohar at roughly 6,000, while the average North American with a graduate school education has close to ten times that number in her vocabulary. Indeed, Gershom Scholem wrote that “It remains to be added that the author’s vocabulary is extremely limited, so that one never escapes a feeling of surprise at his ability to express so much with the aid of so little” (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 163–65).

While the Zohar does not feel flat-footed, if one were to reproduce its iterative quality in English, the result would feel pedestrian. Many words are repeated but with subtle (and not-so-subtle) nuances and variations; the richness of English can reproduce these distinctions using different words.

Thus in Daniel Matt’s working dictionary for his volumes of the translation (an enormously helpful tool), he lists almost forty words or phrases to translate the root ahd (or ahid, itahid) whose simple meaning is “grasp” or “hold.” Similarly, the root qym (“exist, stand, abide”) in its various forms has well over one hundred possible entries, as does slq (“rise, ascend, depart, disappear”).

7) Can you give examples of your poetics?

Some of the poetic moves that I have adopted include the following:

  1. Dash—Often replaces words such as אינון (“they”) or  דא(“this”) or אלין (“these”). This move compresses and tightens the English text, providing more punch.
  1. Exclamation marks—The dialogue of the Zohar’s fictional kabbalists is frequently punctuated with expressions of astonishment, delight, and dismay. The addition of this simple punctuation mark accentuates the literary experience and emphasizes the affective tone of the text’s characters.
  1. Elimination of the definite article yields compactness, poetry, personification, and mythicization.
  1. An attempt to reproduce alliteration or patterns of repetition where possible.

Alliteration and repetition are frequent literary features in the Zohar. Sometimes there is a greater literary payoff by mimicking the Aramaic repetitions in English, and sometimes a better effect is achieved through varying the terms. Using alliteration in the English (“power and potency”) is a poetic act that provides some of the feel of the text even if it is not a precise echo of the specific sounds.

Commenting on Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1:16), the author of Zohar Shir ha-Shirim (63b) writes: “Its flame flares momentarily, flickering. Sparkles revolve, one shimmer entering the other.”

Sometimes a term carries two possible meanings and I opted to use two terms rather than simply one to convey the meaning. Thus (Zohar Hadash, Shir ha-Shirim 63c) as “When he approached her later and Seth was born, the world became stabilized and fragrant with the righteous and saintly ones who came into the world afterward.” The root bsm carries both senses of “stabilized” or “established” and “fragrant.” Danny Matt has translated this term as “fragrantly firm,” but that didn’t work for me.

As to repetition, sometimes I opted to translate the same term with multiple words as a way of enhancing the experience. I translated a passage in Zohar Hadash, Shir ha-Shirim 62c as follows: “Come and see. When Israel are righteous, the supernal Throne of Glory ascends in teeming delight, in an abundance of love, higher and higher… All worlds are saturated, blessed, and sanctified with a profusion of blessings, brimming with sanctities. Then the blessed Holy One rejoices with them in total rapture.” Here, I have translated the word kamah in four different ways (teeming, abundant, profusion, brimming) as a way of capturing the plenitude that the language itself suggests.

And yet at other times the repetition works well: “In this manner, The Song of Songs of Solomon, ascending in bliss, descending in bliss, joining in bliss—all the worlds in bliss.” Repeating the word “bliss” (bliss, bliss, bliss, bliss) has its own sensual qualities.

8)      Why is Zohar Song of Songs important and special?

Following Rabbi Akiva’s famous statement in Mishnah Yadayim (3:5) that “All of scripture is holy, but Song of Songs is holy of holies,” Jewish traditions have treated the love song as an allegory for love that transcends the love of young lovers, as an allegory for the love between God and Israel; love between the individual soul and God; and in kabbalah, as a symbol for the love between the masculine and feminine potencies of Divinity. It is hard to overstate the pervasive influence of the Song of Songs on the Zohar as a whole, as the Song’s themes suffuse the Zoharic corpus.

The Zohar on the Song of Songs represents the Zoharic authorship in its most mature phase—masterful in exegetical craft, soaring in its rhetoric. As noted above, the Zohar on the Song of Songs contains material that is similar to the interests of the later strata of the Zohar, Raya Mehemna and Tiqqunei Zohar (specifically the letter mysticism). It also appears to be familiar with some of the Zohar’s favorite themes, and re-renders them skillfully.

The literary framework for much of the text is an exchange of mystical homilies between Rabbi Shimon son of Yohai and the prophet Elijah, running a sustained commentary on Song of Songs 1:1–11. For many of the first homilies, each speaker demonstrates a thematic consistency: Rabbi Shim’on’s teachings are about ascent (within the sefirot or of the individual soul), while Elijah’s deal with the ruptures caused by the presence of the demonic Other Side, human transgression, and the ways in which evil is overcome and harmony restored.

Much of the latter part of this large work transposes the romance of the Song onto the exalted plane of masculine and feminine letters that are the fundaments of reality, with an overarching theme in both speakers concerning the restoration of linguistic and divine harmony.

In this text, as in much of the Zohar, the demonic Other Side is a personification of the current of evil and judgment that runs through humanity and the world. Evil is understood (in strong contrast to Maimonides) as a real force in humanity, but also as a celestial force, corresponding to Divinity though inferior in stature. This modified dualism has anthropological consequences, raising the stakes that appear in Bahya ibn Paquda’s Hovot ha-Levavot, in which every human action is a step toward holiness or sin. For the Zohar, these fateful steps result in one abiding in one dimension of reality or another—the holy or the demonic. This dualism has metaphysical significance as well, inasmuch as it calls for a recasting of the Neoplatonic approaches that were popular at the time.

9)   What are the Matnitin and Tosefta?

The Matnitin (“Our Mishnah”) and Tosefta (“Addenda”) sections of the Zohar corpus consist mostly of anonymous enigmatic revelations. These two sections have different names, but are identical in style, imagery, and tone. Their primary interests are the process of emanation; the development of the soul; and the role of the forces of judgment and evil.

These striking, compact passages, often have oracular, hortatory voices that call upon sleeping humanity to awaken from their spiritual slumber in order to learn the esoteric truths of Torah and God’s inner being. Their style is terse, dramatic, and at times rhythmic, suggesting that some of them may have been chanted to induce mystical consciousness.

Matnitin and Tosefta show strong familiarity with a range of Zoharic themes, and this led R. Yaakov Emden first, and then later Scholem and Tishby to characterize them as early compositions—just as the terse style of the Mishnah leads to the expansive discussions of the Gemara. I agree with Daniel Abrams’ position that it is more likely that the authors wrote them with many Zoharic texts before them.

The use of neologisms in these sections heightens their sense of mystery and allure—often derived from Greek, Latin, Persian, or Arabic—and made these sections the most fun to translate. Several examples:

  1. “Glow of ten flowing streams” renders קוזטיפא דהרדינא עשרא דאפקותא (qoztifa de-ha-redina asara de-afquta), (V206, 331a). The neologism qoztifa apparently implies projection or flow. See the expression קסטיפא דשמשא (qastifa de-shimsha), “ray of the sun” (Zohar 3:283b); and the Arabic root qdf, “to throw.” The word רדינא (redina), or perhaps הרדינא (hardina), is utterly cryptic and probably a corruption, but it may derive from the root רדי (rdy), “flow, liquefy.”
  2. “Lusters” renders קסטורין (qastorin) (Zohar 1:232b), apparently derived from קסיטרא (qasitra) and Greek kassiteros, “tin.” “Constricted caissons” renders טסקורי קמיטין (tasqurei qemitin); alternatively, “furrowed forms” or “tautened templates.” The strange word tasqurei appears nowhere else in the Zohar, or classical or medieval rabbinic literature. The author may have in mind the other Zoharic neologism טסקוסאי (tasqosa’ei) on Zohar 2:234b where טסקוסאי (tasqosa’ei) is linked with Targum Yonatan, Ezekiel 43:10: טקוסיה (tiqquseih), “its pattern” (recorded in Bei’ur ha-Millim ha-Zarot as טסקוסטיה [tisqusteih]), deriving from Greek taxis, “arrangement, order.”
  3. I translated קולפי בסיכתא (qulfei de-sikketa) (1:232a) as “nail-studded (or flanged, spiked) clubs.” The singular form קולפא (qulpa), “club,” derives from the Persian kūpāl, “club, lance.”

10)    What is the Sitrei Torah?

Sitrei Torah is the title given to a collection of Zohar passages from the later period that are mostly connected to the book of Genesis, but the title is also sometimes used in manuscripts and by early commentators to refer to texts that appear without that title elsewhere. In other words, it is a somewhat generic title that is applied somewhat randomly. A central focus of these passages is the power of the demonic Other Side.

11)   Why should we study Zohar?

The Zohar has charmed its readers because of its literary richness, its acute midrashic eye, and for the lush interlacing of Tanakh, midrash, halakhah, aggadah, medieval philosophy, and kabbalah. It is a poetic, visionary masterpiece whose system—both structured and fluid—offers shining religious homilies. Encompassing the entirety of Judaism, its narratives and mysterious characters confer a quality of both mystery and familiarity, and an aura of authenticity even as it is endlessly creative.  The flow from one set of symbols is seductive, and induces in the reader a desire to participate in its associative process.

For today’s spiritual seeker, Hasidut is often more accessible because it is more expressly psychological, and has usually dropped the arcana of sefirot, angels, demonic forces, etc. Each spiritual seeker, of course, will find the practices, texts, and forms of contemplation best suited to her or him.

12)   How does the Zohar influence your spiritual life?

The Zohar strongly informs my spirituality and the religious intentions that I bring to my Torah study, prayer, and observance of mitsvot, but I do not regard myself as a mystic. The religious imaginaire supplied by the Zohar fills my brain, but it is not the only constellation that guides me. And yet, a large tetragrammaton graces the door of my study serving as a focus for visualization during davenning, inspired by my study of the Zohar.

When I first read through the entire Zohar in the early 90’s, I would spend hours every morning reading large chunks of text. Then I would take a walk down the block to Riverside Park and everything appeared differently: sun, sky, birds, trees, etc. all carried symbolic weight, having become portals onto Divinity itself.

After several months of immersion in the Zohar’s letter mysticism, I received an aliyah at shul. Nothing mystical occurred, but my relationship to those letters, parchment, and the entire text had been transformed, and I was filled with reverence and awe.

13)   What do you do with the nasty parts of the Zohar?

When saying kaddish after my father died several years ago, I thought frequently about the Zohar’s injunctions to say Kaddish and other public rituals to save the deceased from Hell, along with the Zohar’s extensive descriptions of the various compartments and sufferings of Hell. Literal readings of those texts have no purchase on my religious thinking. While I feel deeply religious, my academic training, extending back to a B.A. in English Literature at the University of Toronto, has inculcated in me a ironic distance between me and any text.  Moreover, I am aware that any and all texts I read are filtered through my own subjectivity, and through the broad range of Jewish religious texts with which I have spent time.