On the Joke of the Megillah by Rav Shagar

Franz Kafka saw the law as an alienating fetishized political practice to which we are disciplined despite our not agreeing to this arrangement. In his novel The Trial, Kafka presents the law as an unwieldy arbitrary force driving us to determinism and absurdity. Rav Shagar treats King Achashverosh as the personification of the law and the Book of Esther as showing the absurdity of the law. In its place, Rav Shagar advocates a releasement to the absurd, which paradoxically does not provide meaning or release us from the absurd predicament.

I just posted an Adar essay of Rav Shagar To Jest for Liberation but Levi Morrow in his earnest quest to devour Rav Shagar delivered another translation to me this morning. I am posting it quicker than usual in order to get it out before the holiday. Levi Morrow is studying for a Bachelor’s degree at Herzog College in Tanakh and Jewish Philosophy as well as for rabbinic ordination at the Shehebar Sephardic Center.  As noted before, if anyone else has translations of Rav Shagar, then I will post them.  I have two more in the pipeline. Here are some of the prior ones- herehere, and here. If you have already had enough of Rav Shagar, then be patient for other topics.


This essay  “On the Joke of the Megillah” by Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) was published in שארית האמונה (Remainder of Faith), a collection of postmodern sermons for the Jewish holidays of the Jewish calendar. (Original Hebrew text-Rav Shagar – On the Joke of the Megillah)

Rav Shagar offers in this essay a deep critique of the law (hok) as a represented in Israeli law and Israeli government as meaningless and absurd. But the essay also has an undertone of critiquing the law of Jewish law (halakhah), which is further developed in other essays. With echoes of Rav Nachman of Breslov’s ability to reduce civilization to the absurd, Shagar sees all the palace intrigue in the book of Esther as edicts issued solely as legislating the trivial and self-evident. In fact, Shagar points out how the legal minutia in the book stands in contrast to the King’s “caprice and hedonism that appear throughout the megillah.”

“The megillah’s theater of the absurd is life and death leads us to existential anxiety. Where does it lead us to? “To laughter, or perhaps despair.” Rav Shagar preaches that out attitude should be “a sense of security that secures nothing,” Beyond this, he thinks that our serenity of trust in God is only after the dark night of grasping the terror and absurd, then and only then, can we make peace with the trust in the meaninglessness and chance of life.

The joke is fully aware of fate, leading to an ecstasy in which negativity, bitter despair, and suffering are lived as they are. In the extreme experiences of life, a person discovers that there’s no way to deal with the events of life. But there’s also no need to deal with them, since life happens for itself, entirely for itself. Man’s activity as chance

Rav Shagar was speaking about Israeli politics but Americans probably can easily apply it to own unique situation of Presidential elections and capricious policies. Yet, Rav Shagar’s approach does not advocate resistence to immoral executive orders, rather a change in our attitude.

Rav Shagar also compared the absurdity of meaninglessness of the political to the halakhah.

In light of this ironic character, the serious way in which halakhah relates to the megillah is basically a second-order joke. In order to notice this joke, one simply has to look at people sitting in shul, with me among them, reading and listening to the megillah, terrified of missing a single word and thereby failing to fulfill their obligation, for “it is a mitsvah to read all of it” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah, 1:3).

For Shagar, we should maintain irony and not reduce the halakhic regiment to unironic concern.

In typical Rav Shagar style, everything is then connected to a playing out of an infinite Divine and expressed using a Hasidic text. He uses Habad ideas of divine immanence as a manifestation of the unknown infinite Divine Will. “The fickle caprice of this world, the baseless and meaningless rises and falls, merge with the  absolute Divine decree.” Everything should be considered as a Divine decree. Yet, one that does not have “a lofty meaning that is hidden from human eyes” just the decree of the King of the Universe. Habad hasidut says regarding Divine  reason for creating the world:-“you can’t interrogate a desire.

It is interesting to compare Rav Shagar’s moral of the happenstance of life with several other modern readings. For the Malbim, the story is very realistic, similar to Austiran-Hungary Empire. The message is about not assimilating. For many Religious Zionists, the message is that even if the Divine name is not mentioned in the book, the secular story is still a historical unfolding of Divine providence. For liberal thinkers, such as Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the point is the need for an appropriate amount of acculturation and that the assimilated may be our saviors. In a secular age  we have to destiny into our own hands. For several Haredi Yeshivish authors, the message is to listen to Mordechai as a prototypical gadol hador who knows what to do even if it does not make sense to you. For Rav Shagar, in contrast, we have to come to “a trust that does not guarantee anything.”

Political Appendix

The appendix is directly on the disengagement from Gaza as a Religious Zionist disengagement from identity with the Israeli government and the rule of law and politics. Rav Shagar  considered the Israeli policy of disengagement as absurd. Like many in the religious Zionist world, he saw the disengagement as delegitimating the government and an act of violence and as a demonstration of the absurdity of the inner decay of the government.  In this process of delegitimation of the government and disengagement as violence, he finds a deep inner decay. In addiiton, the act goes against the will of the people.

To make his case, Rav Shagar quotes one of his favorite works during these years, Eric Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life. Santer used Lacan to discuss how the decay of our ideals results in violence and force, which remain as the only legitimation of the law. He considers the Israeli government as showing this decay. His students have both right and left wing interpretations of this anti-government position.

What manifests itself as the law’s inner decay is the fact that rule of law is, in the final analysis, without ultimate justification or legitimation, […] At its foundation, the rule of law is sustained not by reason alone but also by the force/violence of a tautological enunciation—‘The law is the law!

To explain Haman’s antisemitic hatred of Mordechai, Rav Shagar  views Jews as an “other” as outside the natural order, as disrupting the normal core of politics. Hence, the extreme need for others to hate the Jews. There is an deep exceptionalism of Jews as an “other” that Haman was compelled to destroy.

In general, we see a profound hollowing out of politics and society, non-humanist or attempting a synthesis of religion and the secular. (I already have another translation being edited where these issues are the central focus.)

Levi Morrow Introduction

1) Shagar’s approach to Tanakh is to look for larger themes, in this case irony and parody. He’s willing to see non-traditional themes in biblical texts, such as irony and parody. He does have an awareness of contemporary Israeli religious articles on the passage.

2) Shagar’s novel understanding of bitaḥon (trust in God) is one of his unique concepts, known among his students as “a trust that does not guarantee anything”. This is the idea that trust in God does not promise or guarantee anything  about the events that will happen to us. In order to capture the paradox inherent in this phrase, I have translated it in the somewhat awkward formulation “a sense of security that secures nothing,” sacrificing the more common English terms “trust” and “guarantee”.

3) Shagar’s struggled with his perception of the disengagement from Gaza as absurdity.  As the original editors note in footnote #1, this sermon was originally composed and given around the holiday of Purim in 2005, when the Israeli Knesset decided to disengage from the Gaza strip and parts of northern Samaria. This sermon is thus one of several of Shagar’s sermons from that period and the two years thereafter that show his struggles with Zionism and the contemporary state of Israel, as well as with issues of government and law more generally.

On the Joke of the Megillah[i]

A Sermon for the Days of Purim

A Sharpened Critique

The megillah is unquestionably a parody. The author shoots the sharp arrows of his irony in every direction.[ii] They are aimed, first and foremost, not at Haman but at Aḥashverosh. There are many examples of this, such as the exaggerated description of Aḥashverosh’s feast that opens the megillah:

At the end of this period, the king gave a banquet for seven days in the court of the king’s palace garden for all the people who lived in the fortress Shushan, high and low alike. [There were hangings of] white cotton and blue wool, caught up by cords of fine linen and purple wool to silver rods and alabaster columns; and there were couches of gold and silver on a pavement of marble, alabaster, mother-of-pearl, and mosaics. Royal wine was served in abundance, as befits a king, in golden beakers, beakers of varied design. And the rule for the drinking was, “No restrictions!” For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes. (Esther, 1:5-8)

The mocking description of the feast reaches its crescendo when the king is not satisfied with “displaying the vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty for one hundred and eighty days” (1:4), for half a year, no less, and his ostentatious urges lead him to command: “bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials; for she is beautiful” (1:11).

At the center of the megillah’s critique stands the law (חוק), “the procedure (דת) of Shushan the capital,”

This critique first arises in the narrative of Vashti. Drawing on the Purim-esque spirit of the megillah, the event can be described thusly: An urgent cabinet meeting gathered in the palace of Aḥashverosh with the highest legal forum of the seven officers of Persia and Medea, all well-versed in the laws and procedures, in order to determine “what the correct procedure is for dealing with Queen Vashti” (1:15). Aḥashverosh acts, of course, exclusively within the framework of the law. The conclusion of the legal debate is almost too meaningful; “that every man should wield authority in his home and speak the language of his own people” (1:22). Such an important decision, made by such important people and of such great significance, of course had to be distributed via all means of communication available to the empire. “Dispatches were sent to all the provinces of the king, to every province in its own script and to every nation in its own language” (ibid.). The dramatization here is ridiculous and makes fun of itself. They are legislating something so trivial and self-evident. The Persian empire was multi-national, “a hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia” (1:1), such that linguistic pluralism was a present reality, and the time was well before the feminist era.

The author of the megillah mocks and derides Aḥashverosh’s devotion to the law, devotion that stands in total contrast to his caprice and hedonism that appear throughout the megillah. The hedonism of the king, of course, is shown in the ridiculous description of the young women being brought to Shushan and waiting in line, cleansing in “the twelve months’ treatment prescribed for women.  That was the period spent on beautifying them: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics” (2:12), and this in order to pleasure the king.[iii]

In the Theater of the Absurd

Exacting in law and acting exclusively via legislation and government, Aḥashverosh enthrones exaggeration, lack of proportion, and kitsch alongside caprice and unrestrained indulgence. The book repeats this depiction throughout the book, this exactingness is combined with the famous Persian bureaucracy, which itself does not escape the irony and joke of the megillah unscathed. The runners and riders of the king’s steeds go to-and-fro, carrying messages from Haman one time and from Mordechai the next; this state is a state of law and “an edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked” (8:8).

Only this joke is not at all funny. A deep terror lies at its foundation. Aḥashverosh’s caprice, anchored in law, is lethal to the point of absurdity. The scariest piece of it all is that the different actors in the megillah – Mordechai and Esther, the youths and the gatekeepers – don’t seem to notice how absurd it all is; they think that the law is as serious and as logical as it gets. The megillah’s parodic depiction only ramps up the dread. A story about a feast, an exiled queen, another crowned in her place, and a man who will not bow yields a cost so heavy and disproportionate to the frivolity and mundanity of the story itself: the decree, enshrined in law, “to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women” (3:13).

The joke of the megillah is a response to a deep, bitter, despair over an absurd situation: the author of the megillah discovers that what ought to be serious (the law) is a parody, and the parody, incredibly, makes it all the more funny and absurd. The cost of entry to the megillah’s theater of the absurd is life and death. Where does this lead? To laughter, or perhaps despair.[iv]

So Shall Be Done

On its own, the story that the megillah tells is not at all funny. On the contrary, the threat of genocide inspires fear more than laughter, even if we were ultimately saved. So why does the megillah make all of this into a joke? The danger is tangible and serious; Esther’s fear, Mordechai’s cries, the mourning and the sackcloth, these aren’t nothing. Where did the author get the ability to turn the frightening into the funny? To tear away the mask and reveal the ridiculous in the foolish?

The megillah seems to provide a clear answer.[v] The ability to laugh at all of this comes from the knowledge that the actors are just puppets controlled by a hidden puppeteer, shaping the performance according to his own intentions.

This knowledge does not override the awful human experience of chaotic happenstance and of the total absence of any guiding hand behind events that arises from the megillah. In fact, the reverse is true. Paradoxically, the Divine  decree highlights the human happenstance rather than erasing it.

The story teaches about the incidental and unstable nature of Jewish existence in specific and of human existence in general. For example, regarding Mordechai the Jew who sits at the gate of the king: who is the “man whom the king desires to honor” (6:11), Haman or Mordechai? The clear answer would seem to be Mordechai. He wears the king’s royal clothing, he is led around on a horse, and he is ultimately chosen to be the king’s right hand. However, is he guaranteed a secure and redeemed existence after he rises to greatness? Various verses indicate a parallel between Haman’s position before his fall from grace and Mordechai’s position after his rise, suggesting that he is anything but.

Furthermore, the phrase “So shall be done for the man whom the king desires to honor” (ibid.), describing Mordechai as he rides on the king’s horse, shows up in only one other place in Tanakh[vi]: “his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: So shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house” (Devarim 25:9). In light of this, should we not read “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor” as spit in Mordechai’s face?… “Here today, gone the next” as they say; yesterday Haman, today Mordechai, and tomorrow who knows?!

Indeed, Hasidic texts see the phrase “Just so” (ככה) as standing at the center of the megillah. “‘So shall be done for the man whom the king desires to honor’ – the use of “so” is not accidental.”[vii] They further expounded: “The word “so” (ככה) should be read with ‘the holiness of the crown’[viii] in mind – “so” (ככ״ה) is an acronym for “the crown of all crowns (כתר כל הכתרים).”[ix]

The fickle caprice of this world, the baseless and meaningless rises and falls, merge with the absolute Divine  decree. There is no attempt to explain the different steps of the narrative individually, rather the entire story is shifted to a different plane. Human happenstance does not reigns in the story, nor a lofty meaning that is hidden from human eyes, but the decree of the king of the universe: “a king’s command is authoritative, and none can say to him, ‘What are you doing?” (Kohelet 8:4). Why does he do what he does? “Just so” (ככה), because this is what he wants. Citing their founder,[x] Habad hasidut says regarding Divine  meaning of, and reason for, creating the world: “Oyf a tayvah iz kain kashya nit” – you can’t interrogate a desire.[xi]

Opposite the kingdom of Persia, ruled by the capricious Aḥashverosh, stands the kingdom of God. As Rabbi Yoḥanan taught: “anywhere [the megillah] says “king” without clarifying, it is referring to the king of kings.”[xii] The writer of the megillah is not thinking of the happenstance that reigns in the kingdom of Persia but the absolute “just so” of the king of kings.

How does this focus lead to the unrestrained joke about the terrifying situation of the megillah? Isn’t the only laughter possible in this situation the laughter described in the verse, “He who is enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord mocks at them” (Tehillim 2:4)? God sits and laughs, for from heaven the events really are funny. However, “the heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He gave over to man” (Tehillim 115:16), and here on the earth the joke is not at all funny!

For the writer of the megillah, the events happen in a different plane, that of the absolute Divine  decree, and the joke also exists on that level. This is an ecstatic joke, in which our awareness is opened to the possibility of its liberation, and the individual accepts the arbitrary “just so” quality of his life. Deep pessimism leads a person to the ecstasy of liberation from the need for proof, liberation from teleological support for reality. Pessimism can liberate us from dependency, because we have despaired of everything.

The pain in the megillah’s joke is not lessened, for the Divine  decree does not comfort; it does not explain or grant meaning to the events that happened or will happen, and it cannot guarantee (להבטיח) that in the future Haman’s plans will not come pass. The joke is fully aware of fate, leading to an ecstasy in which negativity, bitter despair,  and suffering are lived as they are. In the extreme experiences of life, a person discovers that there’s no way to deal with the events of life. But there’s also no need to deal with them, since life happens for itself, entirely for itself.

If I Am To Perish

The religious feeling of security (בטחון), like the joke, bears within it arbitrariness and dread: Hasidut teaches that this sense of security is the result of passionate commitment (מסירות נפש) and sacrifice. In other words, the sense of security comes after the terror and fear of the incidental and the absurd, not before, it cannot be achieved without them. Moreover, the sense of security is not a support that lends a person strength, turning the whole game into something predetermined; from a certain perspective, this sense of security is the terror itself: “if I am to perish, I shall perish” (4:16), says Esther. What she does not say is “I am certain (בטוחה) of my success;” On the contrary, she expects to die because of her sense of security in her passionate commitment. This sense of security is not free of terror; it is present in the terror itself, since it is open to anything that might happen.[xiii]

Mordechai also does not promise Esther anything. He does not say, “I am certain (בטוח) that you will succeed,” but “who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?” (4:14). He is certain (בטוח) that salvation will come for the Jews from somewhere, but in his and Esther’s personal attempt at salvation he is not at all secure. “Who knows?!” he says, and not, “I know.”

Mordechai and Esther’s responses inspire astonishment, and perhaps even a challenge: should they not have believed fully based on the Divine  providence that they could see before their eyes? Esther, beyond surprisingly, was selected as queen at exactly this moment. Everything that was happening pointed to the fact that God “gives the medicine before the disease” and enthroned her in order for her to save the Jews, and despite this the doubt persists – “who knows?!” This is because “who knows” is the flip side of “just so;” in a place where things happen “just so” persists the “who knows.”

The human response to the Divine  “just so,” the response that provides a sense of security, is the human “just so.” This, in short, is the secret of Purim: passionate commitment without any security that has nothing to rely on is in fact what creates the religious sense of security. The sense of security in God does not come from tangible protection and goodness that he gives. On the contrary, the lack of security that people flee from provides an individual with the opportunity to commit and to feel secure in God in anything that he does.

The midrash says, “Why does everyone flee from the apple tree during a heat wave? Because it does not have any shade in which to sit. Similarly the nations of the world fled from sitting in the shade of God at the time of the revelation of the Torah.”[xiv] The lack of security that comes from the Divine  “just so” is what creates the human ability for passionate commitment, for a sense of security in God that does not give any security regarding the future, nor any sense of meaning or ultimate purpose. This is because the Divine  is beyond human comprehension; not because a person has such a narrow perspective that it cannot encompass the Divine , but because the Divine  Will itself lacks meaning. Correspondingly, security in and devotion to God are illogical processes.

The passionate commitment that life in its arbitrariness invites enables a person to escape the human frameworks that bind him and to cling to the Divine essence. A person who accepts the Divine  “just so” overrides his conceptual, human, consciousness that demands explanation and justification. He accepts his life as it is, in its arbitrariness. Why? Just so!

Appendix: The Law and the Jew

The author of the megillah emphasizes how Mordechai’s position within the space of the narrative is in direction relationship with the law of the procedures of Persia and Medea. For example, the scene that motivates Haman’s genocidal plot:

All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow low. Then the king’s courtiers who were in the palace gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage. (3:2-5)

Why do the king’s servants get involved? If Haman himself did not notice Mordechai’s disobedience, or if he just was not bothered so much by this behavior, why was it so important for the king’s servants to direct his attention to this critical problem? Moreover, if they are motivated by their commitment to the dignity of the king’s decree, then they should turn to the king himself.

The explanation for the servants’ process is explicit in the text: “they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew.” Mordechai disrupting the order of the kingdom is what bothers them. He tells that that he is a Jew and therefore does not obey and bow, and in this, the Jew functions as one who disrupts the law and the proper order.

Not by accident is the term “Jew” is repeated throughout the megillah; this is the first development of the place of the Jew, his identity and his role in relation to the world. Here we find the roots of anti-semitism. The Jew is the remainder than cannot be accommodated, because by his very appearance, he represents that which does not enter the symbolic order and in this, he destroys and undermines it.[xv] Indeed, why did Mordechai endanger the Jews by refusing to bow? Why didn’t he just leave the king’s gate? Did he have provocative aims? Either way, this is his identity as a Jew, and in this Haman and the king’s servants are correct: Mordechai has a loyalty that precedes his loyalty to the king.[xvi]

To be clear: Mordechai’s disloyalty is a complex disloyalty, and he thus appears as a pure disruption of the order of the kingdom. On the one hand, Mordechai is loyal to the king and reports on Bigtan and Teresh, the two servants of the king that attempted to assassinate Aḥashverosh. On the other hand, Mordechai ultimately has a greater loyalty to his nation and his God, and in this he shatters the law. This is a disloyal loyalty, something that disturbs more than anything else a law and order that attempt to determine “Are you one of us or of our enemies?” (Yehoshua 5:13).

Esther also manifests this sort of existence, validating Haman’s claim to Aḥashverosh “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them” (3:8). She enters the court of the king without receiving the king’s permission. Vashti refused to come, and Esther came uncalled; Vashti is entirely outside, while Esther is simultaneously inside and out.

In general, the Jew who does not bow disrupts the orderly world of “servants of the king,” and Haman chief among them – they are devoted to the law of the kingdom by virtue of it being law. They cannot tolerate the anomaly of Jewish existence; this is actually Haman’s basic claim: difference and lack of obedience threaten and reject the decree of the king.

“That day Haman went out happy and lighthearted. But when Haman saw Mordecai in the palace gate, and Mordecai did not rise or even stir on his account, Haman was filled with rage at him. And Haman controlled himself and went home” (5:9-10). Haman’s serenity is disturbed not because the Jew does not obey but because the Jew rejects the entire principle upon which his happiness is based: the king’s decree. This is why it was not enough to just get rid of Mordechai alone; the problem is the very presence of the Jew – “he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus” (3:6).

Further, the megillah notes that Haman “controlled himself.” As angry as he was with Mordechai, he did not respond immediately. Why was it important to the writer of the megillah to note this? Was Haman afraid that if he killed Mordechai in anger he would be punished? Seemingly, Haman  knew that if he did that, he would not succeed in freeing himself from the Jew, and Mordechai’s death would chase after him.[xvii] Only if he arranges Mordechai’s destruction in the framework of the law will he succeed in ridding himself of Mordechai and the disruption that he embodies. Law fights by way of the law itself, via legislation. One cannot ignore the violence inherent in legislation. The megillah reveals, in a painful and sarcastic form, the very basis of sovereignty, the violence that founds its laws:

What manifests itself as the law’s inner decay is the fact that rule of law is, in the final analysis, without ultimate justification or legitimation, […] At its foundation, the rule of law is sustained not by reason alone but also by the force/violence of a tautological enunciation—‘The law is the law![xviii]

As far as I am concerned, the mindset of the writer of the megillah lays bare the foundation that underlies the events we will undergo this summer. The disengagement plan symbolizes for me, more than anything else, the crime that is in legislation, the violence subsumed within it; the recognition that the violence of transgressing the law is less than the crime of legislating the law. The inner decay that exists in the rule of law comes to the fore in the claim heard constantly in the mouths of the supporters of the law of the removal: this is the law, and the law is the law! – and therefore it must be respected. The tautology of the law is strengthened by the arbitrariness of its legislation; the “judicial wisdom” that would be able to justify it is entirely lacking, and now its justification is simply the legality of the process: the process is legal, it is confirmed and organized in the Knesset. The law is justified not by ethics or judicial wisdom but by the simple fact of its legislation at the hands of the majority. The violence required to enact this law, removing people from their land, is not the extraneous remainder of the process but the very heart of law: the violent claim that the law is law.

If he was with us today, how would the author of the megillah write the story that we are a part of? Where would he aim the sharp arrows of his irony?

[i] [These words were written in 2005, against the background of the decision of the government, headed by Ariel Sharon, to enact “The Disengagement Plan” from northern Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The plan brought the meaning of law and justice and their validity to the fore of communal debate.]

[ii] In light of this ironic character, the serious way in which halakhah relates to the megillah is basically a second-order joke. In order to notice this joke, one simply has to look at people sitting in shul, with me among them, reading and listening to the megillah, terrified of missing a single word and thereby failing to fulfill their obligation, for “it is a mitsvah to read all of it” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah, 1:3).

[iii] The irony is expressed in the comparison alluded to between the verses of the megillah and their parallels in the Torah. David Henkesheh finds a playful example in the formulation “for that was the full period spent on beautifying them” (2:11), which shows up only one other time in Scripture, in the story of the death of Yaakov in Egypt: “for that was the full period of embalming” (Bereshit 50:3).; The women are embalmed in their perfumes. See David Henkesheh, “Megillat Esther: Literary Disguise” (Hebrew), in Amnon Bazak (ed.), “Hadassah is Esther: Essays on Megillat Esther” (Hebrew), Alon Shevut: Tevunot, 1997, pp.93-106.

[iv] Here we must ask, is it possible to look at the Nazis with a parodic gaze? To turn them into the object of a joke? Is it possible that, despite the terror that wells up within us when we remember them, they are simply ridiculous, and that this ridiculousness heightens the absurd and the terror in their actions?

[v] Particularly after its combination with the holy books that make up the Tanakh.

[vi] This was also noted by Henkesheh.

[vii] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (The Tzemach Tzedek), Yahel Ohr Al Tehillim (Hebrew), New York: Kehat, 1953, ch.144, p.533.

[viii] [The ‘holiness of the crown’ is a prayer said on Shabbat and holidays by the community as it prays and is considered one of the peaks of prayer. “We will crown you, Lord our God; the angels, the hosts above, with your nation Israel, the masses below.”]

[ix]Said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov. see “Things I Heard from my Teacher,” in “Rabbi Yaakov Yosef HaKohen of Poland, Toldot Yaakov Yosef (Hebrew), Warsaw 1941, p.209.

[x] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812). Involved in halakhah and kabbalah, founder of Habad Hasidut.

[xi] Quoted in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (The Lubavitcher Rebbe), Torat Menachem: Hitvaaduyot (Hebrew), 1953, Brooklyn: Otzar HaHasidim, p.31.

[xii] “Anywhere in Megillat Esther where it says “King Aḥashverosh,” the text is referring to Aḥashverosh; anywhere it simply says “king,” the text is referring to the king of kings” (Midrash Aba Gurion [Buber edition], 1, on the verse “like the joy of a king after wine”).

[xiii] If we turn this discussion to the actual situation that crouches by our door, Esther would not have said “I am certain, the “disengagement” definitely won’t come to pass”…

[xiv] Midrash Shir HaShirim, 2:1.

[xv] See also the sermon “On the Remainder and the Exile.”

[xvi] Similarly, Esther remains loyal to Mordechai and follows his commands even after she marries Aḥashverosh.

[xvii] Just like the oedipal killing of the father, that traps the son through guilt.

[xviii] Eric Santner, “On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig,” Chicago, University of Chicago, 2001, pp.56-57. See also Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence” (Hebrew), trans. Danit Dotan, Tel Aviv: Resling, 2006.

Rav Shagar on Adar- Infinite Jest- English Translation

Martin Buber perceptively noted that the early Hasidic masters were no longer theoretical Kabbalists, rather many of them were using the Kabbalah of 250 years prior as the only language they knew in order to express their new ideas of enthusiasm and ecstasy. In a similar manner, 21st century Jews are using Hasidic texts of 250 years prior to discuss the psychology of contemporary religious experience. Rav Shagar uses Hasidism as a language to address 21st century issues of personal meaning and transience. He offers us thoughts on Adar as a discussion of the transience of life using Rav Nachman of Breslov.

The first draft of this translation was done by Levi Morrow, who is studying for a Bachelor’s degree at Herzog College in Tanakh and Jewish Philosophy as well as for rabbinic ordination at the Shehebar Sephardic Center. (I only knew him from Facebook, but in a coincidence, he sat next to me at a weekday morning service.) Levi Morrow has a summery on his blog of several other of Rav Shagar’s Purim homilies; they will help fleshing out the meaning of this one. As noted before, if anyone else has translations of Rav Shagar, then I will post them. I think I have two more in the pipeline. Here are some of the prior ones- here, here, and here. If you have already had enought of Rav shgar, then be patient for other topics.


As we read in a prior post, Rav Shagar considers Chanukah as a chance to see the our lives as a playing out of an infinite meaning, our creating our Real from the details of well-lived life. Purim, in contrast, is when we realize that our in reality the vessels are broken and that all of our plans and projects are naught and empty. During the year we are repaired vessels that embody the beyond, but on Purim we are broken vessels shining the infinite light

Adar is the acknowledgement that the true nature of reality is that the vessels are broken and that we need to have an experience of ecstasy during Adar to give an infinite perspective to the rest of the year.

For Freud, the transience of the everyday lead to a sense of melancholy and the need to make peace with our impending death. Mindlessness causes pain. In contrast, for Rav Shagar the realization that everything in our lives is transient turns it into an ecstasy.  Transience lets us live in the moment, to be free, and to be reach infinite beyond the finite rules of the rest of the year.  It is an infinite love and lack of security that breaks all bonds. In broad definition, akin to Lacan’s ecstatic pleasure (jouissance).

Be Ecstatic, It’s Adar.

The question for the validity of this Adar homily is whether our reactions are closer to those Freud or Rav Shagar? Freud and Rilke had profound sadness on the transience of things, Rav Shagar finds in transience a post-modern ecstasy as beyond our normal concerns.

For Rav Shagar, the destruction of our plans and projects is vital to creating a sense of being at home in the world, so that the home should not become a prison. Like the end of the movie, Zorba the Greek, when his grand project failed, Zorba danced in ecstasy of the moment. Rav Shagar considers Purim as a chance to acknowledge that our plans will simultaneously come to naught and at the same time the plans of our enemies will be negated and come to naught.

Rav Nahman of Breslov dreaded the upcoming loss of the Shabbat as soon as he ushered it in. The yearning from this impending loss allows the attainment of ecstasy. So too the potential loss and death of Purim, leads to a greater jest.

In the language of Kabbalah, the infinite divine has shattered in the destruction of our world and the repair allows us to just point to a divinity beyond, which for Rav Shagar means that “God exists without existing” allowing us to believe without actually believing.

Purim is when we were destined to be destroyed and instead we turned it into a celebration a jest. It is only exile and negation that can reveal what is usually hidden. The lack of security and survival of potential negation brings ecstasy.

During the year, the fullness of our plans and ideals leads to kindness and charity, but on Purim we give indiscriminately to show that it is not kindness but a surrender to the infinite.

Neo-Hasidic Purim Torah of the late 20th century, such as that of Shlomo Carlebach, was about reaching the most menaingful, the deepest or most hidden parts of the soul, which are deeper than my conscious self. The act of being drunk is beyond the conscious mind, lotteries show we are not in rational control, and giving gifts to everyone shows that we are all one. The goal was to reach a deeper point. Here, in Rav Shagar’s homilies we give indiscriminately give gifts to show that we outside of any value, lotteries shows that we all is transient and we accept fate, and being drunk is outside of any meaning. The goal is lightness, joy, and overcoming nihilism, which yield a revelation of the unbounded.  By the double negative of negating the negative forces in life, it is a positive.

However, to return to the opening of this post, on his differing with Freud in an Adar sermon. The concern with Freudian (and Lacanian) transience was not an Adar coincidence. Rather, Rav Shagar read and recommended to his students as a monumental work On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig by Eric Santner (Chicago:2001) available in Hebrew in 2005.

One of the major editors of Rav Shagar’s works, Yishai Mevorach mentions this in the introduction to his own work, Theology of Absence [Hebrew] (Resling, 2016). I will review Mevorach’s book later this season, but I want to point out that Mevorach did not reduce Rav Shagar to a Hasidic Purim homily or a tisch-torah, rather the true student used it as an opening for further reading and study in order to move beyond Hasidism to construct what Mevorach calls a post-secular theology of God’s absence. The question is what is the need for the 18th century Neo-Hasdic language if we can read Lacan and Santner? It seems to be the need to bring it into the synagogue and study hall.

To Jest for Liberation: Talk for Rosh Hodesh Adar – Rabbi Shagar

Translated by Levi Morrow and Alan Brill

The happiness of Purim is an ecstatic happiness, different from the happiness associated with the other Jewish holidays.

Hasidic texts explain that the happiness of the holidays is joy (ששון), the word used many times throughout Tanakh. Those verses make clear that joy is bound up with eros, with the happiness of a bride and groom:

“As a youth espouses a maiden, Your sons shall espouse you; And as a bridegroom rejoices (משוש) over his bride, So will your God rejoice (ישיש) over you” (Isaiah 62:5);

“Who is like a groom coming forth from the chamber, like a hero, eager (ישיש) to run his course” (Psalms 19:6). Similarly, the expression “The sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride” that is common throughout the prophecies of Jeremiah, as well as in the context of salvation.

The Mittler Rebbe of Habad differentiated between the happiness of the other holidays and the happiness of Purim as the difference between happiness contained within a vessel and happiness that is beyond and above any vessel (Sha’arei Orah 99).

The happiness of the other holidays is the happiness of commandment, a Jewish happiness that flows from a sense of security in Jewish existence and its value. I am secure in what will happen to me, but also in the value of what I do. A deep happiness that contains fullness and satisfaction, faith and security in the value of my life.

The classic expression of this happiness is in acts of kindness. We are truly happy not when we are receiving but when we are giving. Because giving willingly is a gesture that expresses a deep faith in its own value. Through this giving, we establish our existence as a worthy existence, of infinite value. This satisfaction comes from doing good acts, the faith in Jewish destiny, and the value of his life. The happiness of the holidays is the happiness of commandment and kindness, happiness based on fullness and actuality, a happiness of existence in its very existence and the Jew in his Jewishness.

In contrast, [the joy of Purim,] is ecstatic, which is based on loss (אובדן), “and if I am to perish (אבדתי), I shall perish! (אבדתי)” (Esther 4:16), and on the discovery that within this loss and absence, there is an unlimited presence, even more than in the fullness of presence itself. The source of ecstasy is the foundation of terror that lies at the basis of the jest of the Megillah, the ability to turn this capricious and frightening story into a joke.

Ecstasy is ignited by an encounter. A person is confronted by strong mutual presence, which always appears as a present reality; an experience of “Whom else have I in heaven? And having You, I want no one on earth” (Psalms 73:25).

More than anything else a person desires presence itself. A presence that is an uncontainable intangible now, beyond restraint. He wants to dissolve in love that is as strong as death. The nature of the event is an instantaneous encounter, [illuminating] how today we are here and tomorrow we are not, without a sense of security. In this lack of security, there is an existence much deeper and infinite.

The happiness of the encounter occurs against its fleeting background and its basis in loss. In overcoming these factors as well as accompanying naught (אין) and terror, a person arrives at ecstasy. The discovery of the ability to turn arbitrariness into fate and accept it. This ecstasy reveals the infinite nature of human existence, exactly because of its transient nature and lack of a need to be anchored.

In the writings of the Arizal, Purim is depicted as an exceptional situation, which occurs specifically against the background of the crisis of exile. The word “Megillah” (“מגילה”) alludes to revelation (“התגלות”), the happenings and chance [of the Purim story] enables temporary and transitory revelation of what is generally concealed and hidden.

A happiness of a life that draws on the naught, turning it into joy. A revelation that “we are here,” in the presence of the fleeting moment. After this, when the present turns into the past, joy will turn into your home, into being-with-yourself. However, in the moment of the encounter there is an unlimitedness beyond the home, which, in turn, sanctifies the home. Correspondingly, the ecstasy of the death of Aharon’s sons was the condition for the creation of the Mishkan.

Similarly, Rebbe Nahman wrote regarding the holiness of Shabbat, which is stronger for our awareness of its temporary nature, of the loss that threatens it. “Due the immense pleasure of the extra soul that arrives on Shabbat, we immediately begin to feel pain and yearnings over the loss of the soul with Shabbat’s exit” (Lekutei Moharan I:126)..

Ecstasy reveals in me an ability to be free and independent. The discovery of this very real possibility is enough to ignite us with “darts of fire, a blazing flame” (Song of Songs 8:6), with the rejoicing of a groom over a bride. Overcoming the self by way of the joke is the greatest form of   self-sacrifice, thereby creating a center of lightness not weightiness.

In this manner, the chaotic lights of destruction (tohu) are gathered in the vessel of repair (tikkun), which are not understood as independent entities, rather the [repaired vessels] embody something beyond them. A belief in God without believing, God exists without existing.

This destruction is vital to the creation of a sense of being at home, so the home should not become a prison. Only then will be built a Tabernacle into which the Shekinah could descend, thereby satisfying the desire of He that spoke and there was the world.

The joke of Purim is a joke of negation and nullification, the complete opposite of the affirmative fullness of the rest of the year, which stresses the positive and discussable. Normally, mockery is wickedness and nihilism, and mocking is therefore forbidden (except for the mocking of idolatry, Megillah 25b). On Purim, however, the mockery is turned towards the Amalekite mocker himself, becoming a negation of negation, a joke about Haman’s joke. In overcoming the self and in this double-negation is formed a positivity, a saying yes that takes as its own the strength of the negativity of the naught.

Interview with William Kolbrener- The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik

What would a literary critical approach look like if applied to Orthodox Jewish texts? What if the texts chosen for a critical theory treatment were the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-93)? William Kolbrener attempts such a reading in The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (Indiana UP, 2016), using psychoanalysis, gender, and 17th century literature to read Soloveitchik as a literary text.


William Kolbrener is professor of literature at Bar Ilan University, and was educated at Oxford (MA) and Columbia University (BA, PhD.).  His first book was Milton’s Warring Angels: A Study of Critical Engagements, (Cambridge University Press, 1996). His current work  The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is an application of his literary studies to a contemporary Jewish thinker. Despite writing on Soloveitchik, his classes at Bar Ilan University are currently populated mainly Arab students, both Muslim and Christian. He has also recently started writing in the public forum at Haaretz on timely topics such as “The Moral Failure of pro-Trump Orthodox Jews” and “The Cartoon God of Israel’s Settler Rabbis.”

In this new volume, Kolbrener paints Soloveitchik as an irreconcilably torn personality and as a complex pluralist.  Soloveitchik writings, in this reading, become texts of pluralism, creativity, modernity, and self-creation, instead of the more popular presentation of his writings as geometric, analytic, and halakhic. Kolbrener admits that his method as a literary critic, allows him to interpret freely outside of Soloveitchik’s original meaning and context. He is certainly not attempting a conventional archival based biography or interviews. Hence, Soloveitchik, using critical theory, becomes a window on contemporary pluralism, gender studies, and psychoanalysis, not the more often used Centrist Orthodox lens of mesorah, submission, and anti-feminism.

Kolbrener deeply admires John Milton’s religious vision, which combines religious commitment and intellectual freedom.  Counted among his other literary heroes are Mary Astell, 18th century author who combined Tory politics, and conservative religion with a proto-feminist vision. He also admires John Donne’s use of comparisons and paradox. Kolbrener finds all of these intense poetics of synthesis and complexity resonating with the writings of Rabbi Soloveitchik.

(For insights into Kolbrener and his method, here is an illustrative Youtube lecture of his on Milton and Milton’s midrash. I would recommend comparing Kolbrener’s synthesis of complexity to the synthesis of “two worlds” of the poet Yehoshua November.)

Kolbrener also draws on recent psychoanalytic authors, Adam Phillips, for example, who writes about ‘voices in the plural,’ to illuminate the sometimes conflicting voices in Soloveitchik. The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, as another example, points out how melancholy moderns, failure to capture the essence of the Real (associated for her, with the feminine) leads to embracing the compensation of the masculine Law (language, culture, law).

The Last Rabbi focuses on a vignette that Soloveitchik shares in And From There You Shall Seek, in which he recounts that as a child, Soloveitchik was torn between the rational intellectualism of his father and the emotional support offered by his mother. According to Kolbrener, Soloveitchik idealizes the halakhic man who relies exclusively on reason and Talmudic study.

Yet, Soloveitchik cannot fully accept his father’s masculinity and for this reason, he runs into the arms of his consoling mother who provides an outlet for his emotive self. It is with his mother that he finds “sympathy in the presence of the feminine”. The imagery of Soloveitchik running back and forth between his father and mother, according to Kolbrener, reverberates throughout his theological teachings. Soloveitchik confronted a constant psychological need to choose between his father and his mother.

Kolbrener’s own narrative arc moves from secular graduate student to living a haredi life in Israel, and now a tempered modernity writing about Modern Orthodox thinkers.

When he was a graduate student, Kolbrener fell in love with the religious writings of John Milton and Mary Astell, which led him to discover Ultra- Orthodox Judaism as a fulfillment of his religious quest.

Only when I began to study Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic re-writing of Genesis, did it to occur to me that being religious was not a sign of neurosis or flaky otherworldliness. In graduate school at Oxford and later at Columbia, for me and many of my fellow Jewish students, Milton was a safe way, without the risk of embarrassment, of experiencing the poetry of a religious sensibility. In earnest discussions of Christian redemptive history, the relationship between free will and divine providence, I lived, through Milton, the possibility of religious engagement.

Kolbrener was deeply bothered by the weight of the modern age, which represents a loss of a common set of shared languages, with the growth of individual subjectivity leading to the loss of opportunity for meaningful community. Ultra-Orthodoxy was the rediscovery of a community of a shared language and meaningful community.

But the Haredi world was not the return to John Milton’s world of community. “Over years of living in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and studying in their institutions, I realized that the fantasy of an isolated community with a single set of impervious languages was just that, a fantasy.  Communities are porous: the Haredi world in many ways is  – whether recognized or not – in conversation with the surrounding secular world.” In addition, Kolbrener was surprised to discover that they lacked the essential need for creativity and self-creation. Instead, they were fundamentalists expecting rigid conformity to social norms and having inability to tolerate complexity thereby reducing knowledge to a single and absolute meaning.

In a subsequent narrative turn, Rabbi Solovetichik and his son-in-law Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein offered Kolbrener his needed creativity and self-creation. They offered a cure for the potential fundamentalism of Orthodoxy, in that they celebrate complexity, pluralism, and self-creation. Nevertheless, here too he discovered that ideals, as Kolbrener understood them, of Torah uMadda were ever receding aspirations.   Kolbroner wrote a piece on Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s ideal of the synthesis of Torah and literature, finding it precarious. Not that Kolbrener was, God forbid, questioning the indispensable need for literature and critical theory, rather that the path of synthesis was not a safe reproducible method.

When I first became religious, I thought that Judaism and literature were incommensurable, their synthesis impossible, in any case, entailing too many risks.   Today, I still think ‘synthesis’ is an overly optimistic goal, but also understand that without taking the ‘risk’ – of reading literature and philosophy – Judaism itself would become, for me, an impoverished thing.

Kolbrener does indeed take this risk of synthesis by reading The Lonely Man of Faith as a confessional diary. His captivating analysis of Soloveitchik’s psyche is projected and speculative, yet it offers a complex synthesis of contemporary critical theory and Torah.  Kolbrener has an uncanny ability for projection of ideas onto a religious system, followed by idealization and personal identity with the object of idealization, and eventual melancholy when it does not live up to his projections.  This fascinating journey merging the personal, the interpretive, and the community offers us not a return to the pre-modern shared language and community, rather a methodology of taking risks to live in a fragmented subjective interpretive age.


1)   What were you hoping for in the study of the Soloveitchik tradition?

I first encountered Soloveitchik’s work in graduate school while working for my PhD in English Literature.  I had never considered taking Judaism seriously – as an intellectual enterprise – until I read Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind, both written during the 1940s. Soloveitchik’s advocacy of methodological pluralism (or what he describes as different interpretive perspectives) seemed to anticipate so much of the critical theory that I was then studying at Columbia.

Unlike my professors in the academy, and strangely for me, Soloveitchik was able to advocate this pluralism in the context of both belief and commitment.  Pursuing my interest in theories of interpretation, I went on to write several articles on pluralism in the Talmud and in Soloveitchik’s works.  Several years back, I decided to put together a volume on pluralism and interpretation – a composite collection of those early articles.

The book that I found I was not able to write would have reflected the ideals of an earlier integrated self, mirroring the integrated image of Soloveitchik and the tradition of which he was said – especially by his students – to be the foremost modern exemplar.  But re-reading Soloveitchik, instead of dialectic – the word so often invoked by students to describe Soloveitchik’s thought – I found contradiction. Instead of continuity between the Talmudic tradition and Soloveitchik, I saw rupture. My elegiac tone in The Last Rabbi, is for a pluralism not fully pursued.

 2) What is your melancholy or disillusion with the Soloveitchik tradition?

Rabbinic interpretation performs, what I call following Freud, a hermeneutics of mourning, producing, in the face of loss or death, multiple possibilities of meaning. This version of interpretation acknowledges loss, indeed recognizes loss as intrinsic to the process of tradition, always offering partial interpretations in the plural.

Soloveitchik’s mourning, however, resembles more ‘melancholy,’ as Freud described it, where the devastation of loss (for Soloveitchik, personal, historical, existential) leads to a desire for a full compensation for loss. Unlike Talmudic ‘mourning’ which accommodates difference and merely good-enough interpretations, Soloveitchik’s ‘melancholy’ interpretive perspective shows him vacillating between a knowledge imagined as full conquest and the despairing realization that such knowledge is tragically insufficient.

Ironically, Soloveitchik acknowledges multiplicity in his ethics (the multiplicity of different perspectives) and in his conception of repentance (the multiplicity of different psychic voices or agencies); but in his representation of the Talmudic tradition, he usually emphasizes the certainty of a singular voice.

A further irony in his work: while Soloveitchik embraces the innovations of quantum physics to justify methodological pluralism, when it comes to justifying the interpretive perspective of halakhic man, he relies on older Newtonian conceptions of science and scientific truth. The melancholy, but still optimistic, tone of my book is for Soloveitchik’s abandonment of a pluralism that he cultivated in so many other realms, but not in his representations of Talmudic interpretation.

3)    How is Soloveitchik a self-construction but also a failure?

Soloveitchik writes in Halakhic Man of what he considers to be the primary Jewish imperative, for man to ‘create himself.’  From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s philosophical writings serve as a kind of spiritual memoir, the means by which he creates himself through writing.  Halakhic Man, for example, is about his father, his uncle, but also himself, as he at once declares allegiance to his ancestors, but also asserts independence from some of the traditions they represent. Repentance or teshuva is critical for Soloveitchik – throughout his works – as a form of story-telling about the self, one which allows for constant self-critique and continued self-construction.

Recognition of failure plays an important role in Soloveitchik’s emotional journey, and in the stories he tells about himself.  Where in childhood memories, failure is embarrassing even shameful, later in his life, both failure and suffering, are transformed, becoming retroactively a mark of distinction, indeed of existential chosenness.

By contrast, the older halakhic man – from whom he distinguishes himself – does not pursue the emotional life, and only sees failure as devastating loss.  Soloveitchik, however, through with a particular kind of memory – a ‘timeless event memory,’ what he calls both ‘blessing and curse,’ associated with the feminine – pursues his own story of self-creation.  In the end, Soloveitchik emphasizes existential authenticity, failure and suffering, the preconditions for ethical success, and full personal development.

4)    What does your title “last rabbi” mean?

Soloveitchik came to America in the early thirties when many Orthodox leaders in Europe forbade it: if you want to live a religious life, they said, you had better stay put. In this sense, Soloveitchik was one of the first rabbis in 20th century America, certainly the foremost innovator in Jewish thought and practice. To achieve this, Soloveitchik had to embody the traditions that his father represented, but also to create, innovate. In my reading, Soloveitchik has to kill off his father – in a version of his oedipal battle with his forbearers – to become fully himself, that is, a new version of the halakhic man who incorporates within his psyche, the ‘Torah of the heart’ associated not only with Brisk masculinity, but also with the feminine.

Indeed, I call him ‘last rabbi’ because of this self-perceived (and self-represented) failure as a teacher, his ostensible inability to communicate that ‘Torah of the heart.’  While engaging his students intellectually, he was not able, he confesses, to solicit ‘growth on the experiential plane,’ nor to bestow his ‘personal warmth on them.’ That is, Soloveitchik may have emphasized creativity and self-creation to such an extent, become so much the individual that he transformed himself into the last rabbi. Though perhaps Soloveitchik’s representation of his own failure implies as well a disappointment with his students who were unable to receive his personal legacy.

From my literary perspective, Soloveitchik in the Jewish tradition shows an emphasis on subjectivity that I first encountered reading John Milton, the great individualist of the English Renaissance, described by one literary critic as ‘a Church of one, a sect unto himself.’  Milton spent the last days of his life, however, as he writes in Paradise Lost ‘in darkness and solitude.’ Soloveitchik of course defines himself in similar solitary terms towards in his late writings.  Soloveitchik, however traces his ‘lonely and forlorn’ sensibility to the Biblical figure of Moses, who lived out, according to him, in obviously autobiographical terms, ‘the tragedy of the teacher who is too great for his disciples.’

5)      What is the importance of Milton for your thinking?

While still in graduate school, I wrote my first scholarly article on Areopagitica, Milton’s 1644 tract against censorship.  Looking back now, I can see how it anticipates my subsequent research into questions of modernity, community and interpretation.

In Areopagitica, written, at the beginning of the English Civil War against Parliamentary policy to re-institute royalist publication policies, Milton argues against censorship, while also elaborating his ideal for the perfect republic, a commonwealth in which different perspectives and opinions multiply. Milton imagines a community strengthened through discourse, a political ‘discordia concors’ – or discordant harmony – where differences, or what he calls brotherly ‘dissimilitudes’ preserve the whole.

Aharon Lichtenstein, Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, often wrote often about the emotional power of Milton’s poetry. For me, Milton’s Areopagitica has always been most resonant, preparing me to understand a parallel ‘discordia concors’ of rabbinic thinking, where difference – encapsulated in the phrase about rabbinic disputes ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ – is essential to the dynamics of a vibrant interpretive community.

6)      What is the importance of Mary Astell for your thinking?

Mary Astell was an 18th century Tory proto-feminist, a descriptive phrase which might be construed as an oxymoron.  Astell was conservative in both her political and theological thinking: she embraced church ritual and royal authority in a time of dissent, arguing vigorously for older models of government and community. With those commitments, however, she was also among the first writers to articulate a program for education and rights for women – pointing out the corruption of a masculine culture that excluded women from the public sphere.

Astell’s simultaneous emphasis on a conservative theology with an emphasis on individual agency provides an antecedent parallel to Soloveitchik.  But more than that, Astell’s methodology – reading gender as a marker of historical change – provides a methodological precedent for The Last Rabbi.  Astell understands modernity after 1649 in relationship to the impoverishment of masculinity (as well as a concomitant abandonment of the feminine). Soloveitchik’s embodiment of a certain version of the masculine – what I call ‘Brisk masculinity’ – marks him in my readings as a ‘melancholy modern,’ a distinction he shares with others like Freud and Walter Benjamin. From the point of view of psychoanalysis and Astell’s gender-inflected historical analysis, Soloveitchik emerges in my book as a fraught figure with his ambivalent affinities to masculine and feminine (as well as the paternal and maternal) impacting his representation of cognition, interpretation, and tradition.

7)      Why do you think of your book on Soloveitchik – with its emphasis on pluralism, gender, and psychoanalysis – as an outgrowth of your earlier work on Milton, Astell and psychoanalysis?

When, as an undergraduate I began to explore questions of pluralism, interpretation and community, I did so within the context of Western, particularly, Christian thought.  My study of Milton and the discord of the English Revolution – and his version of an idealized commonwealth in Areopagitica – had prepared me to better understand the rabbinic pluralism of the Talmud.

My work on the eighteenth-century proto-feminist Mary Astell – with her emphasis on the relationship between concepts of gender and the modern – allowed me to see the importance of gender roles in Soloveitchik’s family reminiscences, and how they impacted his conceptions of interpretation.  My more recent interest in psychoanalysis has enabled me to see how Soloveitchik’s representation of trauma – both personal and historical – came to inform both his conceptions of interpretation and ethics.  Further, from a psychoanalytic perspective, Soloveitchik’s work was charged, I argue in The Last Rabbi, even from its beginnings, with an anxiety about Freud, and the attempt to distinguish his own ‘halakhic’ project from that of the founder of psychoanalysis.

One plan for my future personal memoir would be structured in relationship to the literary and philosophical texts that most influenced me. Reading Milton marked the personal discovery of the theological languages that were never made compelling to me in the Long Island Hebrew School of the 1970s.  In many ways – and perhaps this is a paradox – my Jewish commitments emerged from my scholarly engagements with Christianity.  Reading Astell, again from a scholarly perspective, marked a personal awakening, to the importance of gender and particularly the feminine (in the world of the Haredi yeshiva, I bracketed, or perhaps even repressed, questions of gender).  Further, Astell showed me, as did Milton, that religious commitment and a commitment to individual freedom are not incommensurable.  My engagement with Freud – and especially the neo-Freudians Jonathan Lear and Adam Phillips – started as a personal inventory that turned into my book Open Minded Torah, but then helped inform the methodology of The Last Rabbi.

I should also add that Soloveitchik would occupy a central chapter in that hypothetical memoir – for only through reading his writings did I realize that Judaism did not have to be watered-down, apologetic and clichéd.  Indeed, reading Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind showed me that Jewish languages could be as nuanced, sophisticated and complex as the languages I was encountering in graduate school.  No matter how critical the methodology of The Last Rabbi, it is largely because of Soloveitchik and his students that I am the person I am today.

8)   Does modern mean Niebuhr, Cassirer, and Dostoevsky which are  Soloveitchik’s own historical canon and context or is it your canon of Adam Adam Philips, H. G. Gadamer, and Quintin Skinner?  

My book takes the risk of placing myself both inside and outside of Soloveitchik’s hermeneutic circle.  There is a part of me, privileged, grateful to be inside the circle that still reveres the figure referred to as ‘the Rav.’ But the literary critic in me, outside of the hermeneutic circle – never exposed to the charismatic brilliance of Soloveitchik’s presence – elicits a different more complicated, even divided, figure.

The hermeneutics of suspicion should never be a starting point for any kind of study of texts, but it can complement different interpretive approaches. Adam Phillips, for example, a British psychoanalyst, who writes about ‘voices in the plural,’ provides an external set of language for reading the sometimes conflicting voices in Soloveitchik, who himself embodies many of the ‘types’ about which he writes: ‘halakhic man,’ ‘lonely man,’ ‘homo religiosus.’  Soloveitchik marshalled dozens (even hundreds) of different voices to explain Jewish thought; I aspire to a similar methodology in reading Soloveitchik’s work.  Moreover, Phillips recent literary biography of Freud, ‘Becoming Freud,’ became a model for The Last Rabbi – which charts Soloveitchik’s own drive towards individuation in relation to his predecessors as he becomes ‘The Rav.’

Hans Georg Gadamer, one of the founders of contemporary hermeneutics, and Quentin Skinner, a leading historian in the Cambridge School, are an odd couple in themselves.  But for me the former, who typically emphasizes the role of subjectivity in interpretation, and the latter, who emphasizes intention and objectivity, provide a productive gloss when read together on Soloveitchik – who throughout his life was interested in breaking down the often rigid distinction between subject and object.

For Soloveitchik the exclusive emphasis on subjectivity led to the extremes of either relativism or fascism. The belief in objectivity, by contrast, for Soloveitchik, was just an illusion, leading to misunderstandings about the nature of both knowledge and interpretation.

Gadamer and Skinner, like Phillips, provide a set of external tools for showing how, for Soloveitchik (like many of the quantum physicists whom he celebrates in Halakhic Mind) subjective perspectives or constructs are indispensable in eliciting the truth of the object.

9)       How can you psychoanalyze Soloveitchik from a vignette? 

The psychotherapist Christopher Bollas writes of ‘small details of the past’ that are resonant with unexplored, even unconsciously unintended, meanings.  Soloveitchik’s reminiscences of his family living room in Pruzhna can be simply appreciated, as some suggest, as a charming account of the family dynamics of Soloveitchik’s extraordinary rabbinic family.  From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s memories of his youthful self simply provide two accounts of his father’s approach to study.  In the first ‘Rabbi Moses’ confronts an interpretive problem raised by Maimonides and solves it; in the second, however, faced with a parallel interpretive problem, he fails.

From the psychoanalytic perspective that I adopt, however, the young Joseph’s response to his father’s interpretive endeavors (as well as his mother’s response) help to elaborate his future representations of both gender and interpretation.  In the first instance, when his father resolves the interpretive crux, he is described, in unambivalent terms as triumphant, a man of conquest (indeed parallel to the description of the typological halakhic man whose knowledge is achieved through a process of acquisition and conquest).

The young Joseph, who conceives himself in these stories as standing apart from the gathering of young men in his grandfather’s study, runs off to his mother’s room, to share the triumph of his father.  In Joseph’s eyes, his victorious father Rabbi Moses rescues ‘Moses ben Maimon,’ and by extension the prophet Moses, an intergenerational conquest, allowing for the continuation of Jewish tradition.

The heroic version of the conquest of Rabbi Moses has its opposite in the account of his father’s interpretive failure – which is treated as a near catastrophe by both Joseph and the gathered men.  Subsequent to this, the young Joseph is figured as sitting on a bed together with Maimonides, together crying, with the boy again running to his mother’s room, but this time for consolation.  She tells Joseph that one day he may surpass his father, but that in the meanwhile, he should learn to live with uncertainty.

Soloveitchik’s later representations of interpretation, in my reading, emerge from out of the reference points established in these earlier stories.  For Soloveitchik, like for his father in his grandfather’s living room, interpretation means either absolute conquest or utter failure, anticipating the vacillation between triumph and melancholy prevalent in his later works.

Only in the feminine realm, outside of the gathering of men and their legal discourse, is the young Joseph able to express uncertainty as well as emotion. Throughout his writings, Soloveitchik’s conceives of interpretation as an all-or-nothing affair – interpretation as total conquest, or completely ineffective in the face of a resistant world. The feminine, by contrast, allows for the expression of uncertainty, and promises comfort outside of the strict and often uncompromising realm of interpretation associated with his ancestors.

Soloveitchik tells his story, not in the traditional terms of autobiography, but often in relationship to the masculine and feminine, and the different, contradictory values that they represent.  Much like Adam Phillips sees Freud in his recent biography, I see Soloveitchik as both ‘scientific thinker’ attached to the rigorous methods of Brisk learning, but also ‘radical skeptic’ as he charts a course away from ‘halakhic men,’ a path only made possible through his detour through his mother’s room and the feminine.

10)  How do you understand midrash or “midrashic poetry” using John Donne, Quentin Skinner and Hans Georg Gadamer?

John Donne helps in understanding the homiletic method of R. Elazar – for both embrace a poetic stance that elicits unexpected resemblances in both world and texts.

Donne went out of fashion for generations because critics like Samuel Johnson felt that the metaphors in Donne’s poems were inappropriate over-the-top, and the forceful yoking together of unconnected realms, such as compasses and lovers or sex and religion. Donne, in suggesting such comparisons, emerges, when read sympathetically, as the great poet of paradox.

Elazar as interpreter elicits the paradoxical poetry of the divine word. When R. Elazar reads a verse from Ecclesiastes – the subject of chapter 2 of my book – he pulls out multiple and seemingly contradictory meanings, where the Torah is compared to both ‘nails’ and ‘flowers,’ inorganic and organic matter, seen as both temporal and eternal. Reading R. Elazar through the lens of Donnean poetry shows the Biblical verse asserting paradox, a metaphysical conceit avante la letter, creating a poetry in which opposites are both asserted and maintained. In my readings, midrash should be read as Wittgenstein conceived of poetry, ‘the highest form of philosophy’ – rendered only in philosophical language as impoverished paraphrase.

Wittgenstein once wrote that poetry is the highest form of philosophy, that poetic insights can only be paraphrased through different – sometimes contrary – philosophical perspectives.

I turn to the Gadamer who emphasizes subjectivity in interpretation, and the historian Quentin Skinner, who by contrast emphasizes original intention to help explain midrash and the poetics of rabbinic dispute. The dual emphasis on objective intention and subjective perspectives – Skinner and Gadamer -help provide a philosophical gloss on the paradoxical divine pronouncement ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ – in which different subjects elicit opposed but still valid perspectives on the divine law. Indeed, a method combining Skinner’s injunction to be receptive to the text, with the Gadamerian emphasis on interpretation as a creative act provides a corollary to R. Elazar’s assumptions about the ideal interpreter, both passive and active, receptive and creative.

11)   How do you use Kristeva and Winnicott to understand Soloveitchik?

Throughout his writings, Soloveitchik writes about loss: for him, even the greatest quantum scientists acknowledge with ‘despair’ that their conceptions only approximate reality, never getting to its essence. The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva associates this outlook with melancholy moderns, where failure to capture the essence of the Real (associated for her, with the feminine) leads to embracing the compensation of the masculine Law (language, culture, law).

From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s yearning for a full connection with the Real, often associated for him with the comforts of the feminine and the maternal, leads to an always ambivalent embrace of the Law.  Kristeva’s Law for Soloveitchik, the halakha, is only partially satisfying, indeed, manifests itself as opposed to the feminine – impersonal, dry and even punishing. Soloveitchik in the end chooses the Law of his father, quite literally, though he remains ambivalent about the stringencies and exclusions of the law, as well as the feminine and the experience of existential union it offers.

The memory of a pre-linguistic union with the feminine, as the child psychologist D.W. Winnicott explains, lingers in the adult psyche as an echo of a lost feeling of existential wholeness. That echo always remains for Soloveitchik, as a possibility both tempting and potentially dangerous, promising organic unity, but threatening to undermine his agency, and subsume him entirely.

12) How has  repentance (teshuva)  and self-creation been critical in your own life & thinking?

In his poem, ‘The Hollow Men,’ T. S. Eliot laments ‘20 years largely wasted,’ referring perhaps to two decades of an attitude born by a religious pursuit (he became an Anglican in the 1920s) –  which he after came to regret.

My own life narrative – in retrospect – may look like a reverse version of modern Jewish history: where modernity is a progressive narrative of reform and enlightenment, my narrative began in the university, and ended, or perhaps looked like it was going to end, in a kollel in Mea Shearim.

Mine however was not a story that included body-snatching outreach rabbis at the Western Wall, but my decision to be part of the ultra-orthodox world was educated, informed by my readings of Western literature and philosophy.  Not T. S. Eliot’s poetry, but his essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ was a major influence, asserting that being part of a tradition involved, ‘a constant surrender,’ a ‘continual self-sacrifice.’

Gaining entrance to the world of Jewish ‘tradition,’ required, I thought, only an unequivocal and uncompromising immersion in Talmudic languages  At the same time, I was reading the historian of science Thomas Kuhn who wrote about the incommensurability of different worldviews, how religious and enlightenment paradigms were necessarily in conflict with one another.

As a result, coming to Jerusalem in the early 1990s, I saw Western and Jewish worlds as opposed, even antagonistic, and thought the best way to be part of the latter tradition was a kind of surrender to it.

Over years of living in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and studying in their institutions, I realized that the fantasy of an isolated community with a single set of impervious languages was just that, a fantasy.  Communities are porous: the Haredi world in many ways is  – whether recognized or not – in conversation with the surrounding secular world.

Further though tradition does require receptivity, even surrender of a sort (an obviously over-stated ideal of the ultra-orthodox world in which conformity to social norms is such a powerful force), it also requires, indeed is founded upon, as Soloveitchik always emphasizes, creativity.  The Brisk Haredi world, I found, values the ‘hiddush’ in the Beit Midrash, but there only; for Soloveitchik, by contrast, the highest realization of creativity is the creation of the self.

Part of the challenge of the modern world, I think, is breaking out of the manic oscillation between authority and personal freedom, finding not so much a middle ground, but a balance, however fraught, between the two.

I hope I don’t show the same unhealthy zeal and close-mindedness of an earlier self, I also don’t consider those years ‘wasted,’ no more so than I think the years of skeptical questioning in the university wasted.  Living with modernity, I have come to realize, means combining skepticism and commitment, however difficult that may be.


Adam Afterman Interview-Mystical Union in Judaism  

What is Kabbalah? Are you still having trouble understanding how it came to be? This post may help you. In short, kabbalah is the name given to the 13th century texts which were able to synthesize ancient Jewish theosophy images and visions with medieval  philosophic language and conceptual framework.. The visions of God in the Aggadah with its angels, divine names, and images of the Divine chariot are retold in the fixed organized system based on medieval cosmology and philosophy, especially mystical union.

The work of Professor Adam Afterman, chair of the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel Aviv University is dedicated to this synthetic process of ancient Jewish visions and philosophic mystical language.  His Ph.D was from Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2008) , and he serves as a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His most recent excellent book:And They Shall Be One Flesh: On the Language of Mystical Union in Judaism(Leiden: Brill, 2016) is on this subject providing a wonderful overview of the issues of this synthesis along with a lucid exposition of the texts on mystical union in Judaism.  (Unfortunately, it is not available at a reasonably priced edition).


Now, that the senior scholars of Kabbalah, Moshe Idel and Yehuda Leibes has both retired, there is a new generation of scholars of Kabbalah chairing the departments and who have recently put out works (and were kind enough to send me copies).  I expect this interview with Prof Afterman to be the first of a series.

For those who still need a little more background about his project, let us look at the well-known Talmudic passage.

It was taught: Rabbi Yishmael b. Elisha said: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akatriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Yishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied:” May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou may deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice!’ And He nodded to me with His head. (TB Berachot 7a)

In the eyes of a traditional medieval thinker concerned with the divine, this text provided information that God has a right and left side and has a part that appears in visions called Akatriel. It also describes how prayer affects God and if read with aspiration to follow the Talmudic exemplar, it encourages one to seek visions similar to those of Rabbi Yishmael.  When these ideas met Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, and Sufi mystical language then the vision and prayer takes on sharper contours of sefirot and mystical union, which we now call kabbalah, in that, it preserves as a revived tradition the ancient descriptions of God.

Much of 13th century kabbalistic texts written were commentaries on the commandments or on prayer.  The kabbalists saw reality as a chain of Being, what Moshe Idel calls an enchanted chain. The goal of prayer and the commandments were to activate this chain or to merge with it.

Adam Afterman’s first book, based on his dissertation,  was on an anonymous 13th century guide to mystical visualizations to be done during prayer that combines many separate strands of mystical language. Then he published several articles on Rabbinic esoteric traditions concerning prayer including enclothing God during prayer, visualizations of the Temple, the knot of tefillin, and various other antecedents to medieval kabbalah. This new book teases out the various languages of union separating the Rabbinic era texts from those exposed to philosophic language.

Afterman’s approach is disjunctive, viewing the world of Rabbinic Judaism as distinct from medieval Judaism. He considers the new philosophic language of mystical union as making medieval spirituality into a separate new project, unlike Idel who sees continuity with the Rabbinic sources. Yet, Afterman’s own studies on Rabbinic ideas and techniques and their use in Kabbalah shows continuity in esoteric matters not related to mystical union.  Alternately, Afterman finds the Zohar as closer to Rabbinic ideals than medieval philosophic ideals because it does not have mystical union.

Afterman separates out the approaches of different Kabbalists including Rabbi Isaac the Blind, Yaakov Bar Sheshet, Abraham Abulaifa, parts of the Zohar corpus and Isaac of Akko. The book has a long first section devoted to the synthesis of the Bible and philosophy among Middle-Platonists such as Philo of Alexandria. Afterman shows the integration of philosophy and esotericism, more than one would understand form popular works on the topic.

A note on terminology. The original Greek word mysticism meant mystery, related to the idea of secret (sod). The word emerged in the 20th century as a broad category for all forms of Oneness with the Divine, including visions, emotional enthusiasm, letter magic, feelings of intoxication, cosmic consciousness, and contemplation. All of these diverse phenomena were identified and conflated with each other and with reaching a oneness with God, a unio mystica, During the 20th century, there were theological debates about whether this was the essence of religion or totally opposed to religion, and about whether Judaism had this peak experience.

Afterman adeptly separates out the concept of union in Philo of Alexandria from rabbinic esoteric practices and both from later medieval developments.  Afterman carefully defines and differentiates the nature of union of each text. Therefore, the book could have avoided the overarching term mysticism altogether thereby producing a cleaner work.

The next stage in this analysis would be to analyze within given thinkers the complexity of the identities with the divine. The next question: how do the parts of prayer, various festivals or calendar of holidays generate different experiences and different instructions? Finally, it is a shame that Isaac of Acre’s, Ozar Hayyim is still in manuscript since it is a very important work.Someone should produce an edited text.

The interview is much longer than I generally post. But, I left the length since these interviews have become regular assignments on many syllabi and this one is a nice summery of many issues and also because his book is not readily accessible.


  1. How is communion with God a medieval innovation in Jewish thought?

The ideal of contemplative or mystical communion with God, I argue, is an innovation of medieval trends of Judaism all functioning under the influence of Hellenistic-Muslim theology and philosophy and in particular Neoplatonism. This innovation goes along with the transformation of Judaism into a religion of love – the two usually go together as intensified and realized love of God is reached through spiritual communion with God.

Although the terms and commandments to love and “cleave” to God are biblical, their spiritual interpretation was articulated first only in medieval Judaism with the important exception of the first century Jewish philosopher Philo.

Philo represents in many ways a form of Judaism that is very different from rabbinical Judaism of his time and in fact quite similar to medieval Judaism – but instead of synthesizing Judaism with Neoplatonism, he offered a synthesis with middle Platonism.

The two biblical commandments – “to cleave to the Lord” and “to love the Lord” that become the main axis of medieval Judaism, both for the philosophers and mystics. The synthesis of Judaism with Plato or Aristotle gives birth to a religion that is fundamentally different from the Judaism of the rabbis in the Talmud. I view this as fundamental revolution in which rabbinic Judaism after encountering forms of Hellenistic philosophy (medieval forms of Platonism and Aristotelianism) transformed into a religion of spiritual love and mystical communion and union with God. These are fundamentally new religious values and perhaps experiences were projected back into the biblical terminology of “devequt” and “love”.

In contrast, the Talmud and Mishnah created a religion that did not emphasize spiritual and abstract forms of religious perfection and indeed did not allow or demand the human to spiritually love God and practically denied the possibility to actually “cleave” to Him. The rabbis rather emphasized the communal and physical aspects of the religious life. Rabbinical Judaism is not in any way a spiritual religion, rabbinical Judaism transforms into a spiritual religion much later with medieval Jewish thought and even more so in kabbalah.

I view the question of union with God as part of this fundamental change in Judaism and that is way I consider, kabbalah to be ultimately a medieval phenomenon and not an ancient or rabbinic phenomena; this is in contrast to Moshe Idel, Gershom Scholem and Yehuda Liebes.

2) How is the approach to union found in the Kabbalah different than that of Philo of Alexandria?

Mystical union for Philo is the ultimate experience of coming close to God, standing in his “place” or becoming one with him. This experience is the most intimate experience of friendship with God, achieved by the movement of the human soul that not only escapes the body but also transcends the created world in order to stand where God does.

This might sound as a contradiction how can union be a form of intimacy? That’s exactly why Scholem argued that Judaism is a religion of intimacy therefore it cannot allow for full mystical union, which by definition does not allow some kind of gap or “space” for intimacy. I argue that some Jews did not recognize such contradiction in terms; in fact for Philo union is the ultimate form of intimacy.

Within philosophical kabbalah with a philosophical God i.e. static abstract and transcendent God- for example Abraham Abulafia and his ecstatic kabbalah. Mystical union is achieved through a radical and rather violent move of the human soul or intellect that breaks free from the body and material existence and becomes one with God and eternal life.

In classic sefirotic kabbalah uniting with God is part of a more complex and richer movement of acting upon the Godhead, unifying it, or participating in its inner dynamics of union and only then uniting with the united Godhead or the core of the Godhead the Tetragrammaton. In this sense that main trend of kabbalah developed a much more complex religious path in which union is a component in a complex dynamic in which the Godhead itself must first unite in itself before the mystic can unite into that unity. The integration in to the Godhead is part of a dynamics that serves God and not only man!

3) What is new in your approach to mystical oneness (henōsis) in Philo of Alexandria?

Most scholars deny that Philo developed a theme of mystical union with God (See David Winston and Andrew Louth) rather they think that there is only a mediated return to God via and through the Logos or an ecstasy. I read Philo as a union with the personal God, the same God we are commanded to “love” and yet at the same time to develop a direct relationship, unmediated union with the God of Abraham etc.

My hidush (insight) was very simple indeed – I checked all the places Philo refers to the biblical commandment to “cleave” or “unite” to God. I found several discussions that if you read them together it is possible I argue to reconstruct a theory of mystical union as the fulfillment of a commandment given to the Jews – and this practice is somewhat different from all the other discussions about visionary mysticism and logos based mysticism in Philo.

Thus I argue that mystical union as a theistic ideal grew out of the synthesis of middle Platonism and the Greek Torah, as a natural and logic outcome of philosophical monotheism itself. Once you develop the idea that religious perfection and love is to come close and transform into God– the religious ideal of becoming one with the One becomes the most fundamental religious experience and ideal or religious perfection.

This has not been presented this way although Idel and McGinn have pointed out that Philo does promote some form of union and that he stands at the background of the henōsis tradition in Neo-Platonism, which later impacted all three monotheistic traditions creating the ideal of western mysticism as the union with the One God.

Most text books grant Plotinus the credit of being the first to articulate the idea of mystical union without its theistic values and without the mystery of encountering a persona.

In contrast, Plotinus’ experience of the One is a “philosophical ecstasy” in which one experiences the absolute One but not the God of that one must love.  I claim that mystical union is a Jewish idea, the result of a synthesis between middle Platonism and the Greek Bible- the biblical verses calling upon Israel to “cleave” and “love”, a monotheistic idea that is the natural outcome of theological monotheism.

4) What is Ancient Jewish mysticism?

In ancient forms of Jewish mysticism the encounter with God is through mystical vision and gnosis, through translation to paradise or the higher mythical realms. Ancient Jewish mysticism was through ideals such as apotheosis and theosis, enthronement and coronation. All of them indicate a form of transformation and even participation in Gods being and hierarchy of power but still part of a mythical setting, not abstract and spiritual “enough” to allow for mystical integration to take part. In these ancient settings mysticism is about empowerment and ascension in knowledge as participating in the divine power and knowledge – but no mystic or angel integrates himself into God Himself!

On this, I follow Elliot Wolfson who makes a clear distinction between forms of mystical henōsis and other forms of ancient Jewish mysticism. My study explores how medieval Jewish mysticism interprets and uses the ancient forms of vocabulary and symbolism in its new setting. For example the idea of apotheosis of Enoch into the arch angel Metatron is now understood as a form of mystical integration in an abstract spiritual and in fact internalized form.

Other symbols such as coronation that symbolized a transformation in hierarchy are now interpreted in terms of cleaving or uniting to the mystical light. Another idea is the midrashic idea that the patriarchs served as a “chariot” to God (based upon the biblical theme that God raised “above” Abraham and Jacob) – now in the mystical tradition of integration, in which, man and God integrate. God can even now dwell in the perfected person the same way He dwelled in the patriarchs.

5) How does Maimonides influence early Kabbalah?

Maimonides more than any other medieval Jewish thinker was instrumental in the development of forms of mystical paths that end in mystical union.

Maimonides internalized into his vision of Judaism the basic Aristotelian formula of knowledge and union, which was used to explain contemplative transformation of the human intellect into an angelic intellect or to explain of the human agent can become a metaphysical agent – then this was adopted further to explain how the human agent can integrate or assimilate into the Godhead.

The idea of spiritual transformation in this life leads to integration into spiritual realms associated with the world to come and eventually with the Godhead itself. The noetic mechanism of Maimonides helped the kabbalist explain how a human can integrate into God and how God may integrate in to the human.

I must stress that I don’t think Maimonides himself was a mystic! And I don’t think he thought that man can unite with God! But Maimonides developed a worldview that divided the universe into two realms – the material and the non-material metaphysical realm. The metaphysical realm is considered to be unified in itself as pure thought. Thus the religious path that leads us from material existence to noetic existence as angels – is at the same time a movement from multiplicity to unity a transformation from the corporal to the union of intellect.

6) What was mystical union in early Kabbalah?

In thirteen-century kabbalah we find the development of two mystical axis. (1) An axis of human integration into God through the human thought and another spiritual components that can cleave, integrate and unite with specific elements in the Godhead– usually the divine wisdom. (2)The opposite dynamics of the integration of the divine in to the human psyche, body and flesh.

The dynamics of mystical integration, where the divine and the human are living not separately but integrally– the human on a collective basis as the Jewish people (the “Assembly of Israel”) and on a personal basis (the kabbalist or mystics) participate in the inner life of the divine.

The fact that the Jewish collective was consider now to be a fundamental organ of the Godhead explains mythically the idea that the Jewish people are part of the divine, the participate in the divine life, affect it, experience it and integrate into it on different levels sometimes on a unitive basis. Gershom Scholem identified that the two key terms of early kabbalah are “devequt” and “kavvanah” meaning mystical integration\union and theurgy through intention respectively.  They are both part of a mystical life mediated through a by the commandments and the Torah.

The early kabbalists of the 13th century developed the idea of uniting with God through several philosophic forms.

First, in Neoplatonist forms of kabbalah human thought and will are capable of uniting with their divine correspondences, the Divine Thought and Will. In turn, the human agent can then tap into Gods Will or Thought act upon it, help the divine integrate itself, and draw light from the higher forms of the Godhead to the lower forms or vessels of the Godhead. At the same time, the union allows for divine energy in the form of light to descend from the divine to the human.

Second, the neo Aristotelian language of “knowledge as union” (via Maimonides) explained how integration might lead to union even in the life.

Later Sufi images further enriched the path of integration and mystical union towards the end of the thirteen century.

Kabbalah developed there are two fundamental vectors: the integration of man into God–and the opposite integration or embodiment of the divine into the human.

Isaac the Blind, the first kabbalist in Europe in the 1190’s, used Neoplatonic ideas to develop a theory of contemplative union of the human thought with the divine wisdom. Then the contemplative unified the divine components and concluded by drawing down light into man, The performance of any ritual and blessing that mentions the Tetragrammaton, allows cleaving to it, uniting to it and then drawing it down to the concrete realms.

One of his students Jacob Bar Sheshet  writing in the middle of the thirteen century drew on Judah Halevy’s Kuzari to develop a different trend of mystical embodiment – that of the human becoming a vessel for the Tetragrammaton to dwell in – as a level of union.

7) What was unique about Isaac of Acre?

Isaac of Acre (late thirteenth century), synthesized different trends of kabbalah including the ecstatic kabbalah of his teacher R. Nathan, philosophical discourse of union through knowledge and also powerful Sufi images. These diverse strands allows Isaac of Acre to present the most articulated descriptions of mystical union in classic kabbalah.

For example he describes the moment of unio mystica as following:

On that day, I saw the secret of the fire that consumes fire. The secret of fire is Form, and the consuming here is when one thing is swallowed by another, and “[man] shall cleave to his wife becoming one flesh”(Gen. 2:24). The intellectualizing Hasid allows his soul to ascend and to properly cleave to the Divine Secret, which cleaves to her and swallows her [the soul]. […]

The secret of this consumption is the true devequt. If the soul is consumed it will consume, […] i.e. if she will pursue the Intellegibilia she will perceive them and they will be held and engraved [upon her]. Truly the secret of consumption.

Of this consumption and devequt it is said [Ps. 34:9] “taste and see that God is good”. [The soul shall] cleave to the Divine intellect and He will cleave to her- for more than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse (BT Pesahim 112). She and the Intellect become one entity, as one who pours a pitcher of water into a flowing spring, all becoming one entity. This is the secret intention of our Rabbis of blessed memory when they said: “Enoch is Metatron”, which is the secret of “a fire that consumes a fire”.(Ozar Hayyim, fol. 111a see: Afterman, And they Shall Be, pp. 177-178).

Here we find images and symbols enriched with Sufi symbols of unio mystica such as the drowning and swallowing. “His soul shall cleave to Ein Sof and will return to the complete universal (klali gamur) after being particular when she was imprisoned in her vessel. She will return to become universal in her true secret source.” (Isaac of Acre, Ozar Hayyim, fol. 112a)

What’s new in my analysis is that I put together all of the elements that he uses about reaching union while still in the body. This is a rather rare and very risky state, acknowledged as possible by the theological system of Nahmanides and his followers, typified by the ascent of Enoch into an archangel Metatron. Following Nahmanides, Isaac saw mystical union as achievable in the life at the risk of mystical death.

Also following the ecstatic  Kabbalist R. Nathan he thinks that the union of man and God provides a fuller Being that before i.e. that God desires the union no less than human and that the result of the union of man and God is more than just God himself.

8) What are the types of mystical union in the Zohar?

There exist a major dispute among scholars about the mystical nature of the Zohar.

On the one hand, we have Melila H. Eshed and Moshe Idel who consider the Zohar as a relatively mild form of mystical path not promoting ecstatic and unitive forms of mysticism. The Zohar does not use “strong” techniques and does not describe ecstatic and unitive moments. In addition, the Zohar does not employ philosophical phrases of “knowledge as union” that was so common and important in other kabbalists. In fact the Zohar almost does not use the language of “devequt” in a mystical sense. The mystical path of the Zohar is rather mild and especially not ecstatic and not unitive.

The Zohar continues the rabbinic and ancient forms of mysticism that did not promote integrative mysticism, yet at the same time it does promote a complicated theory of integration – most clearly on the collective level where the “assembly of Israel” is now, at times, untied with the Godhead.  In addition, the individuals of Israel integrate, to different extents, into the Godhead. This integration leads to the participation in the inner light and holy spirit descending from above on the collective being of Israel and into each one of Israel..

Eliot Wolfson reads the Zohar as describing powerful mystical forms of integration leading indeed to mystical union. He reads the theosophical dynamics of union within the divine as referring also to human processes that describe parallel human process of integration.

The best example to discuss the issue is the way that the Zohar perceives the Shabbat as a special time in which the Godhead undergoes a dramatic change, it unifies itself and the collective of Israel are part of this unification, they participate and unite with the mystery of the one that is undergoing every Shabbat evening.

The question is this: when the Zohar describes the Godhead unifies into the secret of the One on Shabbat evening – does this indicate that the Jewish people participate, experience, or even become one with this state?

The following Zoharic source known as “Kegavanah” incorporated in the Hasidic “qabalat Shabbat” is very representative both of the participatory modus and of the embodied manner in which unification is taking place:

The Mystery of Sabbath: She is the Sabbath – united in mystery of the one, so that mystery of the one may settle upon Her. At the beginning of the prayer of Shabbat evening (maariv) the Holy Throne is united in mystery of the one, arrayed for the supernal Holy King to rest upon Her. When Sabbath enters She unites and separates from the “Other Side”, all judgments removed from Her. She remains unified in the holy radiance, adorned with many crowns for the Holy King. All powers of wrath and masters of judgment all flee; no other power reigns in all the worlds. Her face shines with supernal radiance, and She is adorned below by the Holy People, all of whom are adorned with new souls.     (Zohar Terumah, 2:135b, my translation)

The time of the arrival of Sabbath is depicted first not as an event of a unification but as a process of separation, an overcoming of a state of being grasped by “the Other Side”, a process that is concomitant with the prayer for the entrance of the Sabbath. Only once this movement of separation is completed can the mystery of the One “settle upon her” – that is, upon the Shekhinah, who is identified with the Sabbath – and allow for a rejuvenation that is taking place by the adorning with new souls of the congregation of the Holy People and a descent of an effluence from the supernal source.

The initial integration of the collective of the “assembly of Israel” into the Godhead that takes part every Shabbat allows for the collective to participate in the mystery of the One. This is symbolized by the crown and Holy Spirit that adorn each of the individuals, which function now on a higher level of unity and integration with the Godhead than throughout the six days of the week. The crown and the Holy Spirit, or the additional soul received on Shabbat, is an ontological extension of the mystery of the One bestowed by the higher elements of the Godhead on to the feminine Shekhinah, which is identified with the community of Israel. In that way, all of Israel on a collective basis participates in the inner union and unity of the godhead. In the latter part of the passage, the Zohar explain that the Holy Spirit is the extension of the point of union and unification, the mystery of the One that is the Shabbat.

I argue that on Shabbat and other unique times the collective of Israel is partially integrated into the Godhead– this is symbolized through the union of the feminine persona of the assembly of Israel that “unites” with God. The result is spiritual or mystical integration of the divine into Israel experienced as the Holy Spirit descending unto the people of Israel.

On the Sabbath, the dynamics of “theosophical union” i.e. union taking part in side the Godhead apply to kabbalist symbolically through the crown of light that is on his head and the Holy Spirit that is enveloping him.

Primarily the dynamics of union in the Zohar apply to the Godhead and not to the human realm. Wolfson does not accept this distinction in the Zohar and considers all dynamics above in the Godhead reflect and participate in those below.  I believe that this is true only sometimes when the Godhead absorbs the assembly of Israel then they are part of the Godhead and experience the dynamics of union above – other times they witness those dynamics from distance.

9) Is your book just a defense of Idel’s challenge to Scholem on Unio Mystica?

I hope not! The question is not if there is Mystical Union in Judaism (you have shown it also in your book Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin) but in what ways was this idea and practice developed in Jewish sources. How did Jews articulate the language the phrases and symbols to refer to such idea? How did they transform ancient forms of mysticism into the medieval forms of integrated mysticism of cleaving and union?

By the way, there are many people that continue arguing about this not willing to accept that this idea, ideal and experience is expressed in Jewish sources.

My method was to forget about the theological debate if and why “Judaism” can or not allow union and examine what different Jews actually wrote about the topic. My focus is on the language, that express the idea that man unties with God or with the Godhead. I say if a Jew writes that he united with God. I believe him and have no desire to interpret him differently. I’m not interested in trying the define the difference between Christian and Jewish mysticism by articulating a false criteria – I mean that Christians unite and Jews only reach partial dynamic communion, as Scholem argued.

I said if some Jew chooses to write about his integration with God using unitive vocabulary I will follow up on that. I’m interested what does he mean? Personally I have no problem with such claims and much of my work is to demonstrate that such claims for union are not necessarily pantheistic – and even if they are so what?

Idel and others started by opening a new perspective on the place of union as a theological apriori criteria (see also what Idel wrote in his first chapter of his book Enchanted Chains) and I offer a systematic investigation into the topic.  I’m trying to investigate further the ways the kabbalist talked about mystical union and integration with God in the body (embodiment and even incarnation), the language they used, the symbols the used (like the kiss and crown).

I wrote it primarily out of personal interest and I needed to investigate this matter – especially because of what I read and knew about Hasidism and Kabbalah. I wrote on earlier article on dvekut and my interest grew from there.

The fact that Scholem wrote that there categorically no unio mystica- but I came from a place that thought there is unio mystica – so this contradiction I found worth investigating even though some of my conclusions might be similar to Idel’s and Wolfson’s ideas.

I focused in this study on both the dynamics of human integration into God and the opposite integration of God into man at the extremes of both dynamics when both become unitive.  I found that the Jewish sources are loaded with unitive experiences and expression much more than I imagined at the beginning. I’m writing now about 16th century kabbalah and the same is true – I view Judaism now as a religion of union or unitive integration with God promoting this idea freely without almost any constraints or objections.

In a way, because Jews were much less theologically orientated they felt rather free to write about union with God without sensing it to be problematic. They had less constraints upon their thinking so they could easily develop unitive practices without feeling they are doing something wrong.

It was only much later under the influence of the great Jewish philosopher Herman Cohen that Jewish intelligentsia started to think that union with God cannot be a Jewish idea or experience exactly differing Judaism from Christianity. For Cohen, such language leads to Spinoza’s pantheism- defined by them as the theological borderline for Jewish heresy.

The sources themselves tell us a totally different story- that Judaism is the religion of union – that the desire for union with God is a natural outcome of monotheism and the development of integrative ideals of love and devequt.

10) Do you strive for mystical union? Why is this important to you?

Personally I’m not a mystic but a scholar of Jewish literature. I’m personally very interested in “radical” forms of religious mysticism.  I view myself as focusing on the mystical moments and mystical vocabulary and imagery in the Jewish literature. One can focus on many other elements in this literature.

The idea of mystical integration and fusion between man and God I think is the most exciting idea that exists in all religions I mean what is more exciting than the idea that man and God can fuse or integrate and even unite? I view most of kabbalah and Hasidism as exploring this idea. I’m interested in all forms of integration unitive or not – and there is wide spectrum and I’m now investigating some forms of mystical embodiment that are not qualified necessarily as unitive.

In addition the fact that my father the poet Allen B. Afterman Z”L was a kabbalist and mystic very much interested in the phenomena of mystical union (see his poetic exposition of kabbalah  Kabbalah and Consciousness in which he dedicated an entire chapter to mystical union.) did have its impact on me – and that’s natural.

11) Can you tell me about the prayer technique of the anonymous 13th century work that you edited.

The text I analyzed and offered a critical edition is a unique synthesis of ecstatic techniques of letter permutation with prayer, as the content of prayer. The anonymous text was written around 1250 in Spain and it’s an ecstatic manual to the prayers. It is rather similar to Abraham Abulafia’s mystical techniques which are not part of the prayer – here they are used as mystical manual for the performance of the daily liturgy in which the mystic uses a very sophisticated technique of letter permutation during the daily prayer leading to ecstatic experiences.

The anonymous 13th century kabbalist used a neural ecstatic technique as a prayer technique to draw down power, light and voice in the human consciousness and into the world. The practice leads to the revelation of angels and divine lights and voices.

The work foreshadows the later synthesis in the sixteen-century between ecstatic kabbalah and prayer and other forms of kabbalah like the Zohar were possible from the beginning- Abulafia represents only one possibility in the history of ecstatic kabbalah.

This commentary is a very important example of how early kabbalists added on to the daily liturgy mystical practices, associating them with a rabbinic term of kavvanah (intention) and the biblical tern of devequt (cleaving to God).

12) Why was Enclothing God important for the development of Jewish prayer?

There is a very ancient Jewish tradition that views God as enclothed with clothes of lights and colors in particular the color of the rainbow. God’s revelation was in in light and colors as is prayer. For them, collective prayer affects God’s appearance. When he receives prayer he becomes luminous. His appearance reflects his relationship with his people.

Later a fundamental step was taken in which the energy of prayer, which is the voice of prayer of the community of Israel transforms into lights and colors thereby clothing God. In a third phase, the collective spiritual of Israel becomes those cloths, in particular the crown and the tefilin that are on God reflecting his erotic relationship with his people. A classic example of the mutual crowning of Israel as a collective and God is to be found in Shir hakavod (Hymn of Glory) and is fundamental in the Zohar and kabbalah.

13) How was the myth of the knot of God’s tefilin important for early Kabbalah?

The knot represented the fundamental Kabbalistic notion that God is a halachic agent: based upon BT Brachot describing God putting on tefilin, tallit and praying. They envisioned God performing the rituals and not only demonstrating their details to Moses. These ideas were then used as by the medieval kabbalist to show that the commandments are divine. They are not only given by God, but they are also performed by God.

In addition, the Godhead contains the commandments and the Torah in their spiritualized
form. Given to the Jewish people as an extension of God they are now the main vehicle to connect or integrate with God. Reaching God through the commandmentsis a fundamental insight articulated by the Bahir and followed by the early Kabbalists.

God’s wearing tefilin is the heart of Moses’ personal revelation on the mountain. At the most intense moment in which the prophet tried to comprehend the divine nature he experienced the commandments. This becomes symbolic of the apotheosis of the Torah and the commandments into the Godhead. Moses that desired to view God’s face viewed the knot of the tefilin instead. The knot is the visible icon of the invisible God.

14) What was the technique of envisioning of the Merkavah?

In the body of literature known as Hechalot and Merkavah there are many techniques and practices used to induce trance and elevate the human agent to participate in the heavenly liturgy undergoing at the same time.

Generally speaking Merkavah mysticism and liturgy go hand in hand in context, technique and content. I mean by this that reciting a prayer, a poem, was considered as a main technique to ascend to heaven and then participate in the heavenly liturgy.

It seems that by chanting the same songs that the angels are singing at the same time in heaven the transports the mystic to participate together or in communion with the angels. Many of these prayers were memorized by the mystics that heard them in heaven and then introduced them into the daily liturgy. In all of the Jewish world besides the rabbis for example in the apocrypha, in Qumran, in Hechalot and Ashkenazi forms of Judaism and later forms of medieval Jewish spirituality there is fundamental link between visionary mysticism and prayer.

In the Talmud, the rabbis instituted the formal public liturgy and made all efforts to create a non-mystical prayer. They severed the link between Merkavah and prayer in both ways – when the rabbis write about entering the Pardes of Merkavah speculations there is almost no mention of prayer and prayer itself is almost totally detached from Merkavah mysticism. The qedusha, the sanctum is considered as a kind of compromise of the rabbis with the mystical circles to give something, some form of recognition of the heavenly liturgy but again without any mystical inclinations.

In my article I examined two rabbinic discussions that nevertheless suggest some “lost” contact between some technique of envisioning the chariot or Merkavah speculations and prayer.

I suggest that the discussions in BT Brachot 21b and Mishnah Megilah 4:6  reflect a practice of contemplative envision of the chariot during the public prayer while citing the qedushah (sanctum) There was some sort of mystical practice of contemplation of the chariot practiced in the content of reading the qedusha in the public institutionalized prayer.

Rabbi Shagar- Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age

Rabbi Shagar (d. 2007), was a Torah scholar and a contemporary religious thinker who left a deep mark on the educators and students of the last generation. Here is a translation of one of his  essays called “Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age” which is chapter 1 in his book Kelim Shevurim: Torah ṿe-Tziyonut-Datit bi-Sevivah Posṭ-modernit : derashot (Broken Vessels: Torah and Religious Zionism in Postmodernity) (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Śiaḥ Yitsḥaḳ, (2003). This essay is translated here 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 beautifully done by Rabbi Roy Feldman, rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob, Albany NY. Rabbi Feldman received rabbinic ordination from the RIETS and from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.  A graduate of Columbia University and he studied at Yeshivat Petach Tikva in Israel.   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).

In the last few months, I posted two other essays by Rav Shagar in translation (Hanukah and postmodernism) and have had several posts on his postmodernism. I have several other translations of Rav Shagar essays coming that are still in the pipeline.

shagar photo

To understand this essay on what Shagar calls post-modernism, it is important to bear in mind the difference between Post-modernity and Postmodernism. Post-modernity is the sense of our era when there is a breakdown of modernism. In contrast, Postmodernism is a specific moment in 20th century thought when the assumptions of modernism- in philosophy, art, architecture and literature- gave way to the post-modern assumptions.  Post-modernity is a sense of an age, a zeitgeist. postmodernism is a philosophic movement, similar to Pragmatism, Existentialism, and Kantian. The former is spirit of the age, the latter is an academic movement with a canon.

Postmodernity, the contemporary cultural era of the last 25 years is a breakdown of the objectivity of modernism, there is a questioning of rationality, science, ethics, progress, and secularism.

Postmodernism, the philosophy, deals with the current theoretical issues in hermeneutics, cultural theory, literary theory, psychology, and social science.

During the modern era, in both the phases of Enlightenment and Modernism, Judaism had to agresively defend itself against secularism especially those who thought religion is outdated, but the defense to be effective had to be on the turf of modernity. Rabbi Soloveitchik dealt with modernism as a philosophy, discussing Kantianism, and Existentialism. He did not generally discuss the cultural mood of modernity; however there were scores of books with titles on Jews and modernity dealing with the mood of modernity

In the era of postmodernity, when all values are questioned and there is no longer belief in progress and rationality, religion has come back with vengeance. Evangelicals, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews can all say that the modern critiques of religion do not really exist, or do not have to be taken seriously. Many 21st century religious works present the modern critiques of religion as just personal editorial opinions, which can be easily dismissed by believers. They can also cite popular critiques of academia as affirmations that they don’t have to answer the critiques of modernity. Orthodox op-ed writers are part of post-modernity in that they think the Orthodox perspective trumps Hume, Locke, and Kant, but at the same time they grab whatever they like in modern science, psychology or sociology. But these anti-intellectual religious figures are part of postmodernity, they are not postmodern.

Rav Shagar deals with postmodernity as a cultural social moment and not as a philosophy of postmodernism. He also uses the term post-modernism to mean postmodernity and with a dash between post and modern, contra US style.

Rav Shagar opens his article quoting a Hebrew University sociology professor, an archetype of the challenges of this era, as saying that we cannot condemn honor killing by a Druze clan since that would be subjecting them to Western liberal values rather than respecting their own values.  (There are sociologists who present such views such as Saba Mahmood who justify burkas, honor killings and polygamy as a critique of the secular-liberal assumptions by which some people hold such movements to account).

Shagar uses this topic to explain how in the Post-modern world there are no universal values. In his caricature of post-modernism, he states that they hold the impossibility of condemning honor killing since it would be just another act of “European white male” hegemony.  So he asks, when do I abandon my relativism for moral values?

Soft Justice

Shagar introduces a distinction from the important philosopher Richard Rorty  ofSoft Justice”. We may no longer be able to ground our ethical distinctions in foundational moral realism, yet we believe in ethics even though it is not absolute. For Rorty, we do not discover the truth of our beliefs, rather they are an invention and self creation.

Shagar asks: If we have soft justice, then can also have soft religion?

He gives a political application. The left says religious Zionist can never achieve peace because of its foundational absolute claims of homeland and Holy Land  To which Shagar asks: What do we do with the Religious Zionist claim if there is no absolute truth and religion is nothing but language games?

Here is the crux behind most of his writings. What do we do when we realize that the absolute claims of Merkaz haRav, Religious Zionism, Gush-Brisker halakhah, and the Kuzari cannot be affirmed in a post-modern age?

As in many of his essays, the sections end on a question.

The Contradiction of Experience

Shagar turns the essay to several of Rav Nachman of Breslov ideas: (1) in this world we always have problems without answers. (2) that we live with an unresolved  paradox of the absence of God in the world and that His glory fills the earth (3) that the world is a contradiction of experience – tzimzum, contractions, un explained suffering.

As a good point of contrast, Art Green in all his books used these same Rav Nachman building blocks to say that we live in a world of modernist doubt and silence from God. We are disconnected from the theistic God of the past, now we consider God as a spiritual voice in our inner selves, as well as a panentheism of God in the world. We may not have belief in the modern age but we still have spirituality.  Green states clearly that, after the modernism of Darwin, Freud, Wellhausen and the tragedy of the Holocaust,we cannot believe  in theism anymore only a panenetheism,

In contrast, Shagar will use these passages to create a postmodernity view, a way to live after cultural relativism.

The Right to be Silent

Shagar asks: How  does Rav Nachman realted to postmodernism? To which he answers with his thematic statement that post-modern means to “have no answers.”  Which he takes to mean no grand narrative or foundational knowledge.

Hence, he asks: Can we ban unethical murder in honor killings and impose our ethical values. To which he answers: I trust my human finite truth.  We can trust our own personal judgments. My truth exists as a personal revelation of God; God exists in everything including my personal truth. We are all seekers for a path. God and ethics are part of our personal existential quests.

Here is where Shagar goes off the post-modern rails and returns to Existentialism as we noted in prior blog posts. For a post-modern, we have no access to the self, everything, including the self, is decentered in signs and constructions.   The personal self is a constructed category in postmodernism.

As a modern Existentialist, Shagar in the next paragraph proclaims that a personal truth is so valid that I can be willing to devote myself my life to the personal meaning and even kill and die for it.  The fact that we cannot substantiate our values and can always doubt our values should not hinder our faith This is Existentialism 101, from an introduction class on Sartre who says the exact same thing in his Existentialism as a Humanism (1946). But whereas the modernist Sartre placed the emphasis on the firmness of decision-making, personal resolution, and commitment. Shagar places the emphasis on silence, contradiction, and the inability to have an absolute. A Postmodernism form of Existentialism.

For Sarte, there are no universals because we are isolated beings thrown toward our own finite existences and ultimate deaths. In contrast, for Shagar, there are no answers because the narrative of truth has broken down as described in Lyotard. Meaning, for him, the religious Zionist narrative has broken down.

Why stop an honor killing?  Because we still believe eternal value to goodness. Yet, this value is based on faith, our personal revelation and paradox.

Shagar even reads Maimonides based on this framework.  Maimonides write that God has no final goal for the world after creation. God is unknown and not known through history. This is clearly a rejection of the Rabbi Kook and Religious Zionist view of god’s plan for history. In Shagar’s hands, Maimonides’ negative theology becomes post-modern; Maimonides’ unknowability of God is explained as no meaning  or grand narrative or even meaninglessness.

Positive Faithful Pluralism

What is the difference between secular “postmodern pluralism” as presented by the Hebrew University professor, and our aspiration to a religious “faithful pluralism”? The former has no divine inspiration and the latter has divine inspiration.

A faithful pluralism will still use the modernist metaphor of discovery but acknowledge the believer has contradictory personal revelations. Shagar elevates and glorifies personal religious decisions as a form of divine revelation.

Our personal decisions are substantive creation of Torah. It is not an empty game of post-modernism, rather the religious person opens himself up to the possibility of creation and revelation. (I need someone to translate one of his essays on mesirat nefesh and emunah, an important category of his).

In a “Postmodern Faithful Pluralism”, the encountering of a diversity of believers and non-believers with contradictory positions will not weaken the believers faith. Rather, it will strengthen the faith. Furthermore, similar to Hasidim, we find God in everything. The awareness of contradictions makes us more sensitive, moral, and modest.  We see our boundaries.

Nobody’s faith is preferable to another’s faith. We all have our faith and individual inspiration allowing this diversity to strengthen human fraternity. “Postmodern pluralism denounces the violence of the “enlightened individual” who tries to coerce his values on reality and also that of the believer who wants to impose his faith on the whole world.”

Hence, the religious man is not a primitive being rather one who possesses a genuine option for human existence. (I am not sure if this line is more reminiscent of Rav Soloveithcik’s defense of the dignity of Halkahic man or a defense of cultural relativism).

A student of mine, who is now  a major pulpit rabbi, recently reminded me why was I less interested in Rav Shagar when this book first came out in 2003.  First, I lean more to classical moral realism of Saadiah Gaon, Maimonides, or Rav Kook. Second, the way to overcome fundamentalism is not with treating relativism as revelation but with returning to a rational culture that can temper religion. Scholars of fundamentalism such as Oliver Roy (II, III, IV) point out that fundamentalism thrives on the hollowing out of mainstream culture as immoral and relativistic. His answer is to strengthen the moderate rational cultural world with multiple sources of truth including both religious and secular  Third, as a professor of religion/theology I prefer the more rigorous postmodern philosophy-  Foucault, Lacan, Bauman, Caputo -than the pop postmodernism. The philosophers have religious responses by Christians akin to what Rav Soloveitchik attempted with modernism. Finally, I think Shagar’s post-modernism in the 2013 volume is better worked out than this 2003 essay.



Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age (here)

From Kelim Shevurim: Torah ṿe-Tziyonut-Datit bi-Sevivah Posṭ-modernit : derashot  (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Śiaḥ Yitsḥaḳ, (2003). Part I, chapter 1. Translated by  Roy Feldman

 Judaism and Postmodernism

There are countless articles appearing about the murder of Ikhlas Knaan in her home in the Druse quarter of Kfar Ramah in the Galilee region.  The murderer was her brother, a regular service soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, fifteen years younger than his victim. . .  Her family hinted that it was dissatisfied with her lifestyle and activities in the United States; it was even less satisfied with her manner of dress and self-expression while she was in Israel. I offered to write an editorial in the Opinion section of HaAretz discussing the cultural context that could allow, and at times even require, a man to kill a woman in his family.  My offer was gladly accepted.  The essay deals with what I term, “The Liberal Dilemma.”  On the one hand, murdering women contradicts our value of the sanctity of human life; on the other hand, interfering in the world of a different group and imposing dominant group’s values on the minority’s culture contradicts the liberal tendency to leave alone those who do not bother us, and to respect them.  Viewing the other as exotic—as cultured, but part of a different culture, long ago replaced the alternative, paternalistic view of the White cultured European.

I have selected the above excerpts from an essay by Danny Rabinowitz, of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Hebrew University.  Rabinowitz attempts to present a point of view from which one can understand the murder as it was committed for the sake of “family honor.”  He was surprised by the raging responses he received from feminists and others who opposed the notion that he would even consider justifying a cultural context in which such a murder could take place.

The attacks come first and foremost against my propriety; and to a certain extent against the propriety of traditional anthropology to offer coherent and functional explanations for shocking phenomena.  Many of the critics assume that there is a connection between investigating for the sake of explanation legitimizing a crime and its culprit.

The discussion highlights the dilemma of the postmodern world, a world that cannot talk about “universal values” because, as far as it is concerned, such values do not exist.  Truth does not exist, and “the truth” surely does not exist.  In this world, “truth” is a social construct—it is only “politics of truth,” as Nietzsche explained: “Values and their changes are related to increases in the power of those positing the values.”

What can we do in such a world?  Must the Knesset, for instance, impose laws on the Druse to prevent these murders, blood redemption, or other traditions that seem immoral to us?  Our moral values oblige us to prevent and eradicate such shocking phenomena from happening, but our historical, sociological, and anthropological consciousness teaches us that, from the Druse point of view, the murderer not only defended his society and its moral values—but he did the right thing.  As a man of values, can I ignore the second point of view, a critical approach that rejects the imposition of “European White Male” values on a world that seems primitive to his condescending eyes?

This story highlights more than anything the fact that the central question of “values in the postmodern world” is the question of limits: At what point do I abandon my relativist awareness in exchange for my moral values?  There are values for which even the most extreme relativist—enlightened to and fully aware of the fact that all values are relative and contextual– would put his foot down, rebel, and declare: “That’s IT!”  If not, we would arrive at a paradox, as Rabinowitz himself explains in his essay:

English city governments with large communities of people of African descent, specifically those that customarily circumcise babies and young girls, face a difficult dilemma.  The citizens (in this case Muslims), who possess inexorable electoral power, demanded that their practical religious needs be included in the list of surgeries covered by the state health insurance. . .  Thus, they would save a great deal of money and prevent the inherent danger of circumcising their daughters without any medical attention or hygienic conditions, and most importantly– they would have the opportunity to openly maintain their culture and traditions in their glory.  At least one city has added this operation to its list of surgeries that are subsidized by public funding.

Similarly, we must ask, what is our position regarding the burning of Indian widows?  From our point of view, this is the most despicable of immoral acts, but the Indian man believes he is doing the widow a great favor.  The perplexed postmodernist has a predicament:  He will object to the phenomenon, but he can also see the Indian man’s perspective.  As far as he is concerned, the notion of a general moral decree, one devoid of a socio-cultural context, is baseless.

The Postmodern Solution: “Soft Justice”

If so, what is justice in a relativist world?  David Gurevitz has coined an apt phrase: “Soft Justice.”  Again, we do not expect complete justice which, as we have established, does not exist; our expectations are lowered to a soft, local justice, that is derived through discourse and consent among people.  There are many models of “soft justice,” but they are all characterized by conceding the pretense of absolute rulings.  Nonetheless, as Gurevitz remarks, soft justice has its own boundaries; it is guided by non-relativistic rules, namely, the dogmatic belief in human rationality without which fruitful discussion and consent are impossible.  These values are formulated in terms different from those of traditional justice.  Richard Rorty, a contemporary American philosopher, suggests just that: we must abandon the metaphor of discovery, and adopt instead a metaphor of self-creation and self-founding.  The metaphor of discovery causes man to believe he has discovered “the truth,” and there is therefore no room for other truths.  The metaphor of invention and self-creation, on the other hand, encourages the outlook that each value is produced from and by its society, and, if so, it does not contradict values of other societies.  Only through such compromise can we have harmony within a society and outside it.

In this context, we develop a fascinating question: Is it possible that, like “soft justice,” we can also have “soft religion,” or are faith and religion naturally forced into decisive truths?

In order to achieve peace, the secular left says, we must abandon our traditional sense of “home.”  Only the cosmopolitan, who feels at home everywhere in the world, can bring peace.   Religious Zionist society, therefore, is incapable of establishing peace: concepts of “homeland,” “my home,” necessarily displace the Other, and lead to a perpetual struggle.  Therefore, says the left, in order to achieve peace, we must abandon—even through suffering—the sense of home, and stop thinking in terms of “homeland” in order to prevent the constant spilling of blood.  Religious Zionism, says the left, can never achieve peace, since the belief in “homeland” and the “holy land” lead to an unending conflict.  Nevertheless, the connection the left makes between the “social revolution” and the question of peace cannot be severed so simply.

Is a Religious Zionist solution, one that does not give up and resort to Haredi insularity, possible?  How can we establish truths in a world that no longer believes in them and maintains that the concept of “truth” in and of itself no longer exists, that discourse cannot represent reality and is simply composed of “language-games?”

The Contradiction of Existence

I would like to claim that this problem is unresolvable; its source is a ‘programming failure’ of the human experience.  Furthermore, understanding this failure and its role as an origin opens a religious option far more exciting than the accepted one.

In one of his famous teachings, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav teaches that there is a contradiction at the core of the human experience.  He terms this phenomenon, “problems that have no answer.”  Rebbe Nachman opens the teaching with the assertion that “the Blessed Lord created the world in light of his mercifulness since he wanted to reveal his mercifulness, and if not for the creation of the world—on whom would he have mercy?”

This is a difficult assertion.  On such an assertion, Yehuda Amichai wrote: “If God were not full of mercy, there would be more mercy in the world.”  If God had created the world as better, He would not need to have mercy on us, nor would we on Him.

To my understanding, Rebbe Nachman is not claiming that God created the world to have an object for his mercy; rather, the creation itself, its resonance, that which it reveals, is mercy.  He is not discussing mercy as a concrete status; mercy is embedded in the contradiction of experience, specifically the human experience (and they come to include the concrete expression of suffering).  Rebbe Nachman explains this rift as the concept of tzimtzum (lit. “constriction”) in the Kabbalah.

According to him, tzimtzum is a paradox: On the one hand, in order for a world to exist, God must disappear from the world.  On the other hand, a Godless reality opposes the infiniteness of God, for the concept of God’s unity comes not only to negate cooperation, but also to assert that there is no entity other than He, for “His glory fills the earth.”  And so, Rebbe Nachman continues:

And so tzimtzum, the contraction of empty space, we cannot understand or deduce until the future.  For we must say two opposites, existence and nothingness, for the empty space exists through the tzimtzum, that God, as it were, contracted his Godliness from there, and there is apparently no Godliness there, for if it were not so, it would not be empty, and all is infinite, and there is no room whatsoever for the creation of the world; truthfully, however, there is certainly Godliness even there, since there is surely no life without Him, and so we cannot have any element or aspect of empty space until the future…

Reality in general, and the human experience specifically, is absurd, but absurdity is an abyss, and it itself is the origin of the great mercy at the heart of creation.

The Right to be Silent

How is this related to postmodernism?  The postmodern contradiction is one of the problems that Rebbe Nachman said “have no answer.”

Let us return to the morality example we discussed earlier: Do we have the right to interfere and impose our moral values on the Druse murdering the young woman?  As we have said, the possibility of reflective observation, that places all matters in their context and in their place, always exists and we may not escape it.  However, in the end, I am indeed human, finite, with my own truth, and I believe in that truth, and I cannot and will not deny it.

Rebbe Nachman’s notion of tzimtzum is latent in this paradox.  My truth, indeed, exists as a revelation of God.  God exists in everything—“leit atar patur minei,” say the hassidim.  It’s translation: “There is nothing from which God is absent,” including the existential and ethical domains, and so, they exhibit certainty.  We can always pose the question: do other people not have other values?  But this possibility should not destroy the notion that a certainty exists which I would not renounce, in truth, I am willing to devote myself to it, to die for it or even to kill for it.

How can both of these ideas exist together?  Rebbe Nachman recommends silence.  He cites the midrash in which Moses asks about Rabbi Akiva’s destiny: “Is that Torah, and is that its reward?”  And he is answered, “Be silent; this is how we advance thought.”  In other words, the solution is not found at the theoretical level; the solution is a response, or, to be precise, abstention.  Abstention which is not evasion but rather a unique response to a human situation that knows itself and rejects the denial of any of its components.

The fact that we cannot substantiate our values, and that we can always doubt them, should not hinder our faith.  Rebbe Nachman’s greatness lies in his ability to turn problems into devotion.  Take for example the unjust event we have described: if any of us were to encounter this situation, he would not sit aside and allow the Druse to murder his sister.  He would implement any measure necessary—including killing—in order to prevent the murder of the young woman.  But why?  Rebbe Nachman teaches that we can respond to these questions, questions of faith, in three ways: (1) a positive response, (2) a negative response, and (3) not asking the question in the first place.  There are questions that cannot be answered, and there is no need to answer them.  That is faith, paradoxical as it is (and Rebbe Nachman was correct to express paradox), and as such its strength and intensity are hidden.

Such a response answers not only the question of moral values, but we can broaden it to the general question of human existence: Everyone asks himself whether his life has value.  If he helps someone—even if that day he was to die, and the person whom he helped would also die, and nothing would be left, we still believe that there is eternal value to such actions.  Similarly, Rebbe Nachman knows that the final questions, the metaphysical questions, are beyond the capacity of language.  Unlike the postmodernist, however, who concludes from this that they lack meaning, that they are “nonsense” as Wittgenstein claims derisively (and maybe even despairingly), for Rebbe Nachman, this knowledge opens the possibility of faith.  He knows, as many before him also knew, that absolutes deviate from the “language games” possible in a given language, and that silence is a human potential no smaller than speech.  In effect, only a meaningless environment can create true meaning.  Maimonides writes that God does not have one absolute, final goal—that exists only in the world, after its creation, and not outside it.  God is One unto Himself, and that is also the nature of faith.

Positive Faithful Pluralism

The difference between faithful pluralism and postmodern pluralism is the difference between relativism which lacks inspiration and relativism which is open to inspiration, between the claim that the postmodern game is an empty one and a stance that ascribes meaning to it.  Faithful pluralism does not hesitate to use the metaphor of “discovery.”  Even if it knows that there are many different and even contradictory “revelations,” these contradictions do not paralyze it.  It would certainly admit that “truth” is a social construct, but it is still a substantive creation and not simply an empty game.  Am I willing to open myself to the possibility of this creation, and to see within it divine inspiration, full of faith, even if I am aware of other possibilities?

We therefore arrive at Positive Faithful Pluralism.  Encountering different types of believers and nonbelievers will not weaken my faith, it will strengthen it.  Like the hasidim, I will be able to recognize the Godliness in everything.  The theological question of “which faith is preferable” loses meaning in the postmodern world, however, this does not disrupt my allegiance my Jewish heritage.  What remains is the existence of faith and inspiration, and these serve to strengthen human fraternity.

This will not eliminate the possibility to have faith and to live ourselves, but know to set boundaries.  The awareness of contradictions will balance us and make us more sensitive, moral, and modest.  The Muslim will remain Muslim and will live in his faith, but if he also adopts for himself the western perspective and is reflective and rational, he will be able to accept me as a Jew.  And, certainly, vice versa—the Jew…

Only then can fraternity be created.  Postmodern pluralism denounces the violence of the “enlightened individual” who tries to coerce his values on reality, and also that of the believer who wants to impose his faith on the entire world.  The faithful individual will be forced to adapt a rational but uncertain approach, without hurting his faith; so too, the others must relate to the religious man not as a primitive being, but rather, as one who possesses a genuine option for human existence.

The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox (MO) Community-Ruvie

I know many intermarried couples where one member of the couple is Jewish; they live on my block, they are students, and they are friends. I also have many formerly Orthodox Jewish day school students who are currently married to non-Jewish spouses.

I once asked a leading Jewish sociologist involved in producing some of the recent surveys –and currently placing his bets on Orthodoxy-: How many Orthodox Jews are intermarrying? His answer was that they are no-longer Orthodox so he has no such statistic. How about how many day school graduates have intermarried? To which he answered that he does not deal with such statistics. As I have discussed before, most surveys are barometers of the moment without taking into account historical or longitudinal trends.

However, from my class lists from the 1990’s, I have a rough anecdotal sense that about 7-8% of my former students from committed day schools living in the center of Jewish life have intermarried.  Someone at an Orthodox Forum circa 2000 raised the point and independently came up with a similar percentage.

(Chava introducing Tevye to  Fyedka- Fiddler on the Roof)

Today’s post is a guest post by Ruvie, an Orthodox parent whose son intermarried.   I met this person at a dinner in support of a Hesder Yeshiva; we are talking about a committed family, highly affiliated and associated with a halakhic approach, who asks questions to Roshei Yeshiva. Ruvie has appeared on this blog in the past when he was working through his son leaving Orthodoxy in a post entitled Being a Supportive Parent to a Child Who Leaves Orthodoxy. 

This post is intellectualized rather than direct first-hand account of his personal reactions, finding solace in engaging in armchair theorizing as a means to come to grips with his disappointment. I know several of the other Orthodox parents whom Ruvie mentions that are dealing with children who have recently entered a mixed marriage. This is not about blame and little could have been different since these were highly committed families. From my observations and from the anecdotes in this post, the Modern Orthodox marrying out is done relatively equally by men and women.

This post is not about cases with full Orthodox conversion. If we included those, which are now quite common, then we have an perspective of even greater exogamy.

As a basis, here is an encyclopedia survey on intermarriage among Jews in the United States. For a broader perspective that summarizes much of the field, I recommend Robert Wuthnow, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity (2007). In chapter nine, Wuthnow makes a number of important summary observations. Wuthnow finds that such couples tend to deemphasize the doctrinal aspects that differentiate their faiths and embrace the view that religions are essentially cultural traditions rooted in personal biography and private opinion. He also notes that mixed-married couples understand that their childhood more traditional clergy will not perform a mixed-marriage, but they do not care since there are plenty of progressive clergy who will.

Wuthnow also notes that in many cases religiosity and mixed-marriage are, in many cases, two separate variables. An American can be religious and still intermarry and vica -versa, a nominal affiliate can be firmly against mixed marriages. The latter is a social sense of group identity and the former is one’s religious commitment. Group identity and religious identity are separate variables.

In practical terms that means that, a non-committed, non-affiliated young Jew in Brooklyn or Baltimore is statistically likely to adhere to endogamy, while the exogamy trend is strong for a Jew in the South-West or Pacific Northwest even if raised Orthodox.

My reader should also grasp that for many today Passover and Easter or Yom Kippur and Christmas are not mutually contradictory. One can be a Jew and a Christian –or a Jew and a Hindu –without a sense of contradiction. They are not seen by many Jews (and Christians or Hindus) as competing narratives. There are programs that capture to “being both” and even an after-school program that teaches both Christianity and Judaism.

In addition, mixed marriages are often not the confrontation of unknowns from Philip Roth novels or old-time sitcoms. Both sides are likely to know much about the other faith and feel comfortable in keeping both. They have been working or socializing together for years. In mixed marriages, the non-Jewish spouse may be the one in charge of making the Passover Seder, taking the children to synagogue, or even teaching Hebrew school. As a starting point, I recommend Jennifer A. Thompson. Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism. (New Brunswick:Rutgers University Press, 2014) and  Keren McGinity, Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014). Both books treat the claim that intermarriage poses the greatest threat to the American Jewish community as bombastic rhetoric.

For a historically sense before contemporary US, here are some older statistics from the start of the 20th century.

During 1900 in Prussia there were 4,799 Jews who married Jewesses, and 474 Jews and Jewesses who married outside their faith (“Zeitschrift für Preussische Statistik,” 1902, p. 216). … Berlin, where in 1899 there were 621 Jewish marriages as against 229 intermarriages (“Statistisches Jahrbuch,” 1902, p. 61). New South Wales.. there were 781 who had married Jews or Jewesses, as against 686 who had married outside the faith (“Census of New South Wales 1901, Bulletin No. 14”).

Finally, here is a recent first-person account by a formerly Modern Orthodox, highly affiliated day school graduate describing his first experiences of Christmas.

This year marked my third Christmas in Europe…  That first year, like an Orthodox teen nibbling on the edge of a Big Mac just to see what the fuss was about, I played Charlie Brown’s Christmas album over and over again…I tried leading my in laws in a rendition of The First Noel, which they found a bit too religious for their taste.

Ordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic, even if it has not yet reached the rabbis. Similar to the belated discover of the high attrition rate in Modern Orthodox in the last few years, this too needs to be acknowledged.


(RSN1-may11) “Interfaith Marriage Grows,” Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen.

Guest Post by Ruvie
The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox (MO) Community

Last year I penned an article describing the issues (emotional and practical) of a parent with a child leaving orthodoxy (here). Last month, my son, married a non-Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage lead by a liberal Rabbi. I participated along with my family in the ceremony.

I am aware of 5 families in my observant MO circle of friends that have dealt with interfaith marriages in the last eighteen months. Among these families: all the children (28-32 yr. olds) were bright successful students who attended 12 year of yeshiva day school, plus many also spent a gap year in Israel. The parents are in stable long term marriages of 28 plus years. The families are all observant – shomer shabbat, kashrut, and taharat hamishpacha. This was/is an emotionally trying time for all families. All parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt. I will address my personal feelings at the end of article.

This is something new and growing in the MO community.Are my personal anecdotes a rarity or a growing trend that is rapidly emerging when increasing numbers of children of Modern Orthodox families grow up and decide not to continue Orthodox life?

There are no statistics in the recent Pew report (or any other survey) for this phenomenon. One advisor to the Pew report thought that a 10% number for MO intermarriage would not surprise him. He estimated the range could vary between 5-20%.

Regardless of the statistics, many in our community have the subjective sense that something is changing. An issue which not long ago was never discussed, whether or not it was actually occurring, or was regarded as a problem only for others, now has a growing place on the communal agenda. What has changed, why, and what can we do about it?

Personal Theories

In discussion with friends numerous theories were offered.

  1. Is it the next step in a community where increasing numbers of grown children of MO families decides not to continue Orthodox life. It seems that the identity fashioning they receive in MO schools and at home is very tightly tied to just ritual observance. Perhaps the Hareidi subliminal view of all or nothing worldview seeped into the 21st century MO and once our children become non-religious, the hierarchy of forbidden actions go by the wayside.
  2. A sociologist/Rabbi opines: “Basically, Jews were one of the most reviled white ethnic group at the start of the 20th century…. America, in short, would not accept the Jews — not into social clubs, nor neighborhoods, nor boards nor colleges. This kept intermarriage rates low.  If Jews wanted to intermarry, it’s not like America was deeply interested in them doing so.

This changed in the 1960s.  Jews went to college in record numbers.  A young person leaves their home, their family network, their local shul and neighborhood for an artificial community. In that place Jews meet a lot of gentiles and form new social networks.  After the 1960s, America is also more meritocratic for a time.

By the dawn of the 21st century, Jews are the most beloved ethnic group.  The Gores, the Clintons, the Trumps all married Jews or became Jews.  Jews ran for the presidency.  Jews are more than 30% of every elite group in the US except the military.  America has said yes to the Jews, and Jews have responded by intermarrying.”

3. Our children identify with Judaism in a different way than previous generations. They pick and choose their individual identity. More importantly the non-Jew/gentile is no longer viewed as “the other”. They see little difference between themselves and the non-Jew. The belief, by both parents and children, is that all humans are fundamentally alike — that there is no ontological difference between Jew and non-Jew accepted. Ethically and culturally they are very similar. Most importantly, the change in America to acceptance in the last 30 years.

Fifty plus years ago, Jews who wanted to assimilate and join another culture (or acceptance in it – leaving their Judaism behind) intermarried. Today, our youth feel they are not leaving their religion with intermarriage. We no longer just inherit our identity but also construct it as well. They pick and choose what traditions to observe or not and what defines their Judaism. They are proud of their heritage and are not trying to hide it. Intermarriage is no longer the third rail for many. It should be noted that Jewish intermarriage rate is similar to other ethnic groups which has also risen in the last few decades.

4. With the passing of time and the growth of a gulf between American Jews and Israel, the Holocaust and Zionism are no longer the major magnet foci for Jewish identity in America individually and communal. This is especially true for millennials.

I initially rejected this theory for modern orthodoxy given the inculcation of our children received all year long (home, Day School, camps, gap year in Israel as well as numerous visits)  for the love of the State of Israel and reverence and continuing references to the Shoah (Yom Hashoah, Tisha B’av, and other events as constant reminders who we are directly connected to: Western Europe Jewry). Of the families at least two parents are children of survivors who were close to their grandchildren who are intermarrying.

Independently, a psychiatrist friend opined that the Holocaust and the State of Israel no longer have the emotional hold on the psyche of the community as of our generation. Yes, it is taught and emphasized much more than the non-orthodox world but only we were in the generation of Eichmann and Holocaust deniers (my brother was born in Bergen-Belsen). We lived through the anxiety of the 1967 and 1973 wars when the state could have been destroyed. Today’s generation sees these significant events as given history that they discuss in school (like the biblical Exodus and the destruction of the temple) which is more part of our collective history and memory than individual association which is more detached emotionally on the personal level because of time.

5. We raised our children with rules unlike those of our parents; we instilled a sense of freedom and respect for their personal decisions. They responded in kind and we are left baffled as to why they didn’t continue to think like us.

Navigating the Terrain – A Parent’s View

While there are many possible reasons for the current phenomenon of interfaith relationships and marriage, the challenging issue is finding a way to deal with this situation at hand. Learning more about the root causes may offer insights for leaders on the communal level but families in short term need tools and resources in helping them navigate these waters.

How should we cope with this as parents, friends and as a community? How do we engage, participate, and publicize in our reality? Are there red lines or limits to what we can accept as observant Jews (Is this an individual choice that varies)? As parents? Can we balance the tensions or is it DOA?

There is a certain taboo about this subject that no longer exists today in discussing controversial topics in orthodoxy like homosexuality and abandoning orthodoxy (OTD – Off the Derech – or XO ex-orthodox). There are many articles published and discussions from the pulpit on these topics but not one on MO and interfaith marriage.  In December 2015 there was a symposium with Orthodox Rabbis on intermarriage in America  – no names of Rabbis were published nor media exposure to details – Rabbis are afraid to be publicly associated with this topic. Parents are reluctant to talk to friends, Rabbis, and extended family. They first are embarrassed and in denial then hope and pray it goes away as a phase not wanting to alienate their children- or they fight and alienate their children.

On a personal level, for myself and others, there was a certain amount of: shame in being in this situation – didn’t discuss with my closest friends until later, anger at our ourselves (as failures) and our educational system, confusion – how could this have happened and where is my allegiance – son, family, community and Judaism?and lastly a certain amount of guilt.

One friend claimed that 10 years ago she would have blamed the parent 100% for this outcome and now she has to look in the mirror and realizes that until you are in the situation it’s never so black and white.

Of the five couples – two met in college and three many years later. Most of the couples have been together for a minimum of 3 years. On gender: two men and three women are non-Jewsh.

Four out of five couples are married already. In four out of the five couples (one I am not sure about) there has been on-going conversion discussions. One conversion occurred before marriage. Two had private civil ceremonies with receptions at a later date and two had a chupah or Jewish style ceremony (with other cultures incorporated) and receptions. All were relatively small affairs (max in the low 100s).

Each family has their own story with specific issues and yet there is commonality among all. All the children were already not religious for many years. Some of the questions/issues: What kind of wedding ceremony does one have, if one at all? Is there an interest in converting? What kind of future home do you envision? What role does Judaism play in the couple’s future? Parents have a role to play if they listen and offer suggestions without making absolute demands. Children are willing to listen to their parents’ concerns and adjust but that does not mean adopting all suggestions.

In our situation, I referred my son to a friend/Rabbi knowledgeable in this area and after meeting the couple referred him to a Rabbi willing to officiate in an interfaith marriage (after meeting the couple). The couple and the referred Rabbi together devised the ceremony.  I was asked to bless the couple under the chupah via birkat kohanim. My daughter read a section from Megilat Ruth. A friend of the bride began the ceremony singing a Yiddish love poem in Yiddish and later in the ceremony sang Lecha Dodi/Boee Kallah to Leonard Cohen’s Hallejuah. The mother of bride (former opera singer) sang an Aria from Eicha and father also blessed the couple. A friend read a passage from Shira HaShirim and the couple exchanged vows.

After the ceremony, the Rabbi explained privately to me that he informed the couple that for religious reasons there is no cup of wine nor blessings (including sheva berachot) nor halakhic Ketubah in this ceremony because of Jewish law. The Rabbi sang In Eshkachech Yerushalayim (If I forget thee, O Jerusalem) and the glass was broken at the end of the ceremony

While attending a Judaism class, recommended by the Rabbi, she decided to convert at some future date and the Rabbi offered to sponsor her for a Conservative conversion. They searched and found a synagogue to join and attend.

Prior to the wedding my son requested me to affix a mezuzah on his apartment door (he had rejected my offer when he originally moved in to his apartment).Post wedding my son texted my wife asking where he can tovel his new dishes.

Where are the red lines? Are there limits of what parents are willing to accept?  Of course but I think I have not crossed that Rubicon. My son’s happiness and ascent from loneliness is an important factor in the equation. I realize that being supportive leads to possible normalization of interfaith marriage. As a parent the best interest and wellbeing of my child supersedes other considerations that are communal in nature.

Will Orthodoxy reach out and offer help and guidance to families? Will other denominations grappling with the topic fill the void? Many Orthodox parents have no resources at their disposal to help them navigate – they are uncomfortable with their local Rabbi for many reasons. How many know the parameters of conversion or giyur k’halakha (conversion according to Jewish Law – Orthodox vs the recent adopted stringency), zera yisrael issues (those with Jewish linage, but not technically Jewish), or bedieved (after the fact) conversions? Which Rabbis will publicly stretch out their hands to help and risk being ostracized or previous conversions annulled?  Who in Orthodoxy can they turn to in a “time of action” (et la’asot) situation?

In my previous blog post, I recalled a conversation with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on those that abandon Orthodoxy. He said: “The days of sitting shiva for those that leave are long over – it is a failed policy.” He believed the door must remain open with a willingness for conversation. There is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Lets begin now.

“Teach your children well, Their father’s hell did slowly go by, And feed them on your dreams The one they picks, the one you’ll know by. Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry, So just look at them and sigh And know they love you.” Crosby Stills Nash and Young

Yehoshua November Interview – Two Worlds Exist

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

When I teach the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya (Likutei Amarim) I display a bumper sticker with the above quote attributed to Chardin to illustrate how we live in two worlds, a material and Godly. But what does that mean? The Orthodox, Chabad influenced, singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman in his song Impermanent Things treats the world as transitory and weighing us down from our spiritual soaring. “All these impermanent things Oh how they fool me dominate and rule me They keep me waiting here forever”.  In contrast to that dualism, the recent volume Two Worlds Exist by the local Teaneck Chabad poet Yehoshua November elicits the tension of our living rich emotional and sensory lives and at the same time knowing that we are called to a higher understanding of reality. For November, the human experience deserves a poetic snapshot of the depth of human experience, while letting the light of the spiritual shine in through the cracks.

Yehoshua November’s poetry has been celebrated in many newspaper interviews and excerpts in poetry journals, even garnering the success of having his poems published in The New York Times, Prairie SchoonerThe SunVirginia Quarterly Review, and on National Public Radio.  November teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro College. His first poetry collection, God’s Optimism, won the MSR Poetry Book Award and was named a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. November’s recent second book of poems, Two Worlds Exist, (Orison Books, 2016) is a gem of religious poetry.

The Soul In A Body

is like an old Russian immigrant
looking out his apartment’s only window.
Yes, yes, he says.
The landlord printed my name in block letters
on the lobby directory
decades ago.
All correspondence
has been forwarded to this address.
But I am not from here. I am not
from here at all.

Most of this publicity concerned his poetics or the exceptionality of an Orthodox Jewish poet. This interview focuses on theological matters. The title of the recent second book of poems, Two Worlds Exist, points to his Chabad vision of living in the material world and at the same time acknowledging the higher divine world.  Influenced by the Lubavitvcher Rebbe concept of the highest essence of divinity is found in this world, November mediates between the messiness of real life with its losses, loves, and mundane events with a real presence of the higher life of the divine. “I think it’s important to explore how most people, even if they look as if everything is in order, are facing challenges. Art that doesn’t express conflict always falls flat because it’s not true to human experience.”

To contextualize this in Chabad thought, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab presented a theology of religious experience and personal revelation. In contrast, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught a paradoxical theology of the everyday, in which the lowest is really the highest, finding the divine essence in our meaningful existences. November follows the Rebbe.


What is noticeable in November’s poems, and also in his own self-understanding, is that we are not seeking divinity as a revelation, peak experience, or moment of transcendence to burst forth in life, as does Rainer Maria Rilke. Rather, the other world of the divine shines in our understanding of our complex lives.

When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?

“Two Worlds Exist”

On the other hand, November does not follow Gerard Manley Hopkins in seeking a mystical immanence, in transfigured ordinary life. Hopkins experienced what he called “inscape” beyond the surface of things, seeing God even in the most troubled events of our life. November lives his untransformed material life, yet his personal experience of it is transformed by acknowledging a higher realm.  November also avoids the existential subjectivism and memory of Yehudah Amichai.

November credits his early influence to Leonard Cohen’s poetry. Yet he avoids Cohen’s dark Sabbatian theology of human desire, rebellion, and standing as a sinner before God, but as noted above he also generally avoids Cohen’s quest for revelatory moments.

Several interviews noted the paucity of poetic imagination and creativity in the Orthodox Jewish world, attributing it to a cultural shunning of poetics to which November responded that the real issue is a lack of emotional range and connecting the heart to Jewish texts.

The lack of poetry in the Orthodox community is not necessarily a poetry issue per se, but an issue of creativity or inspiration. The true Jewish way is to be in full command of the mind and the heart and to use both in the service of God. Overall, Orthodox Jews could improve in the area of the heart, which may be connected to the dearth of poetry. And if there is sometimes a disconnect between what we read in the texts and our real lives, poetry is a good place to explore that, a place to bridge the gap and figure things out.

November embraces a religious faith can be compatible with a poetry of deep feeling of religious doubt and uncertainty as real options.

A Jew is supposed to trust in God, but this too comes against the backdrop, against the possibility, of doing otherwise. This is what makes faith meaningful. Secular audiences are skeptical about religious poetry because they are skeptical about religious life in general, believing it’s less thoughtful or too simplistic, a kind of mindless surrender that wipes away life’s problems, at least on an intellectual level. If a religious poet is honest, however, if he or she can represent the challenges and humanity of religious life, a secular audience should be able to relate, as long as that audience is open to reading it in the first place.


The Purpose of this World (From his first volume God’s Optimism)

When some Jews cannot explain the sorrow of their lives
they take a vow of atheism.
Then everywhere they go,
they curse the God they don’t believe exists.
But why, why don’t they grab Him by the lapels,
pull His formless body down into this lowly world,
and make Him explain.
After all, this is the purpose of creation–
to make this coarse realm a dwelling place
for His presence.

His second volume presents more complex religious imagery, such as his long poem “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah” which depicts the self-consciousness and shame of the men who became Orthodox, but now have to live with their tattoos “It may be easy to want to suppress or stigmatize the whole scene because tattoos are forbidden according to Jewish law, but in the poem I try to take the opposite angle and shine a light on this particular moment as one of great sacrifice and courage. For November, “It’s the human embarrassment that makes their sacrifice so meaningful. And thinking about how God must appreciate their efforts makes Judaism, as a whole, more real and touching for me.”

Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah

Sometimes you see them in the dressing area of the ritual bath,
young bearded men unbuttoning their white shirts,
slipping out of their black trousers, until, standing entirely naked,
they are betrayed by the tattoos of their past life:
a ring of fire climbing up a leg, an eagle whose feathery wing span spreads the width of the chest,
or worse, the scripted name of a woman other than one’s wife.
Then, holding only a towel, they begin, once more, the walk past the others in the dressing room:
the rabbi they will soon sit before in Talmud class,
men with the last names of the first chasidic families
almost everyone, devout since birth.
And with each step, they curse the poverty
that keeps the dark ink etched in their skin,
until, finally, they descend the stairs of the purifying water,
and, beneath the translucent liquid,
appear, once again, like the next man,
who, in all this days, has probably never made a sacrifice as endearing to God.

I also strongly recommend his poem  “At the Request of the Organization for Jewish Prisoners” depicting a visit of Chabad rabbinical students to a prison, depicting the tension between their lofty aspirations and the visit of a women in a “tight dress”  arriving for a  conjugal visit with a prisoner.

Another poem from his second volume captures the tension and sadness of the religious life rather than certainty and even when one is asking for certainty.


Before the Silent Prayer,
some slip the hood of their prayer shawls
over their heads,
so that even among many worshipers
they are alone with God.

Primo Levi wrote about the sadness of
“a cart horse, shut between two shafts
and unable even to look sideways … ”

Let me be like those pious ones
or that horse,
so that, even amidst a crowd,
no other crosses the threshold
of my dreaming.

Watching him read his own poem here and for more about Yehoshua November, I recommend the following three interviews at the Forward,The Jewish Standard and surprisingly Jewish Action had an Hasidic MFA interview him.

1)      Which poets influenced you?

When I was younger, in college and high school, I was drawn to the work of Leonard Cohen and other lyrical poets such Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda. For a time, I read Cohen almost exclusively.  I loved his lyricism and authoritative, almost prophetic voice.  His tropes and sense of consequence are Biblical, but often, the subject matter is secular.  I suppose I identified with this duality, having grown up in a traditional home that also prized literature, art, and popular culture.  G-d was against the backdrop of everything—a booming voice heard from a distance (and from up close in synagogue and in Torah classes at school), but daily life was lived out playing baseball, watching T.V., and listening to secular music.

Above all, when I was single, I was drawn to Cohen’s poems about love and relationships. In these poems, confounding factors render the relationships impossible, but Cohen often implies a kind of mystical chord continues to connect the two parties despite their parting. After some tough breakups, I suppose these poems spoke to me; they also implied—though it never actually seems to happen in Cohen’s work–a long-term fated love would emerge.

When I married just after college and settled into life’s daily rhythms, Cohen’s complicated love poems and tendency toward chaos did not seem to speak as directly to my predicament. I felt like his poems—and maybe I superimposed this on them—were not about finding meaning in or celebrating ordinary life but were always gesturing toward a kind of modern romanticism—waiting for the next transcendent moment (whether it be spiritual or erotic) or exalting the current one.  Ultimately, though his darker or graphic impulses probably go unrepresented in my poems, I’m sure his sense of spiritual longing and insistence on meaning has left a mark on my work.

Also, I read and continue to read my teachers from college and grad school. Often, they attempted to ground me in narrative work and poems that took contemporary details and family history as their props or centerpieces.  For instance, when I was an undergrad at SUNY Binghamton, Maria Gillan, the daughter of Italian immigrants, pushed me to write about my family upbringing and culture.  In graduate school, Tony Hoagland, a poet whom I was studying under, would tell me I needed to insert a microwave into my poems. Like many young poets, I wanted to be a kind of Universalist, to write poems that would be read throughout the ages and sail beyond the edges of what could be articulated or known.  To accomplish this, I believed I needed to avoid the particulars of my specific time period or tradition. Though my work from that era did include Jewish references, they were the sort of allusions that situated the speaker of the poems—figuratively, and sometimes literally—as a figure afloat in Chagall’s village sky—a time and place so distant and lovely it seemed never to have existed at all.

In graduate school, one of my teachers introduced me to the work of the Pulitzer Prize- winning poet Louis Simpson, who was born in the early 1920s, to a Russian Jewish mother and Scottish father. Some of Simpson’s poetry focuses on his Russian ancestry, painting vivid pictures of mundane life in Volhynia and elsewhere. The voice, too, is often conversational. I think reading these Simpson poems helped shift my focus from lyrical poetry to work that tells a story and isn’t necessarily trying to dazzle the reader via language.

In recent years, I’ve been reading Sharon Olds, a well-known American poet, whose most recent book, Stag’s Leap, heartbreakingly chronicles the end of her 30 year marriage.   Her narrative, confessional slant makes her work accessible and compelling to my students in Intro to Creative Writing, many of whom take the class to fulfill a requirement.
2)      Are there non-Jewish spiritual poets that influence you?

For a long time now, I’ve been reading the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, (born Lvov, Poland, 1945), and became an important member of “The New Wave’” of Polish poets in the late 1960s. His work is often more abstract than mine, but I am drawn to how he combines the mysterious with the particulars of history, philosophy, and European culture. And his most recent book often touches on his childhood and his parents.

I’d have to consider Zagajewski the poet I return to most often. I first heard him read in Pittsburgh, when I was in grad school. A few years ago, he came to Rutgers for a reading, and I met him and gave him my first book. He’s a very humble and generous man, despite being one of the giants of contemporary poetry.  I often share his work with my students, and, through email, he’s answered questions I’ve had about his poems.

I also like the poetry of Marie Howe, former Poet Laureate of New York State.  Her work blends the mundane and spiritual in surprising ways, and her language is precise and elegant but also plain-spoken, especially in her collection What the Living Do. Though I don’t think she considers herself a believer, she grew up in a very large Catholic family, and New Testament allusions are present in much of her work. I’d say Zagajewski and Howe are spiritual poets.  I also admire the work of Li-Young Lee, a poet born in Indonesia, in 1957, to Chinese political exiles. Though initially a physician, Lee’s father later became a Presbyterian minister when he relocated his family to America. Much of Lee’s work describes his childhood and his father’s influence on his life.

And I’m in touch with two other Orthodox Jewish poets, David Caplan and Eve Grubin, whose poetry I read often. David Caplan, who’s also a poetry scholar, was instrumental in helping me shape Two Worlds Exist.  As a poet familiar with Chassidic thought, he has been an amazing resource for me, providing suggestions both in terms of craft and content, especially when questions concerning incorporation of difficult Chassidic concepts came up in the book.

3)      How are you/we living in two worlds? How does that influence your poetry?

Chabad  speaks of two simultaneous realities, referred to as the Hidden World (Alma Daiskasya) and the Revealed World (Alma Daisgalya).  In a sense, the Hidden World corresponds to the spiritual realities which I discuss at greater length below. Chassidic thought compares the Hidden World to the life forms that exist in the sea, covered over by water.  Sea life is, generally, so dependent on its life source—water—it could be said to have no separate sense of selfhood. So too, the spiritual realities remain bathed in so much Divine light—their source—that they do not experience themselves as Other, as separate from G-d.

In contrast, the Revealed world is the reality we see, physical life as we experience it.  Here, we stand out as independent from our source; we perceive ourselves as separate from G-d.  Not covered over by or swallowed in Divine light, we are revealed. However, the Jewish mystical tradition posits that this perception is inaccurate: it argues that, at each moment, G-d re-speaks all of creation, including our physical world, back into existence. Just as He did at the beginning of time. Divine speech is embedded in and constantly revivifies the Revealed World, which mistakenly takes its tentative existence as autonomous.

It is, of course, one thing to be familiar with the idea that the Divine resides beneath the physical curtain of the world. It is another to remember this as one goes through daily life. And it’s especially difficult to believe in when one suffers or feels he or she is trying to do what’s right but failing. You might say much of the poetry in my new collection moves back and forth in motion with the tug-of-war between the mystical claim of Divine unity underlying our days and the world’s surface appearance of randomness.

In a less spiritual sense, teaching in university and trying to live as a Chassid obviously entails a life in two worlds as well.  Before I left yeshiva and returned to academia, I happened to meet Professor Yitzchok Bloch, a Chabad Chassid and philosophy professor.  At one point, much to the approval of the yeshiva faculty and his Lubavitch peers, Bloch attempted to abandon his graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard to learn in yeshiva in Crown Heights. However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent him back to Harvard. Looking back on his career, Bloch said, in a sense, he always felt misunderstood in academia because Chassidic culture was foreign to his colleagues, but he also felt misunderstood in the Chassidic community because very few understood what his work as a philosophy professor entailed. Sometimes I, too, feel I have fallen into the gap between two worlds, but there is also a strong sense that my Chassidic life significantly enriches my poetry, and that my poetry provides a space for me to process my efforts to live as a Chassid. In this sense, the two worlds pleasantly overlap.  Also, that my rabbis pushed me to return to poetry helped me see Judaism as much more expansive and encompassing than I had imagined it to be earlier in my life.

4)      How does Chassidus speak to you?

Chassidus emphasizes physical life, or at least combining the physical and spiritual.  I think this kind of world-embracing theology is healthy and comprehensive. It addresses the conditions of life in a body and explains Judaism’s non-ascetic leanings (marriage, physical commandments, etc).  I always felt somewhat alienated from the thinking that Judaism is all about getting a reward in the afterlife.  It sounded kind of like a video game, a philosophy that doesn’t speak to the here and now; it also seemed to breed a holier-than-thou mentality.  It was refreshing to learn that kind of thinking was at odds with Chassidus.

Some of the points I note below concerning Essence and Revelation relate to this. According to Chassidus, the afterlife falls into the Revelation category; it involves experiencing G-d as He “suits up” into a spiritual persona:  In the afterlife, souls experience luminous lessons in hands-on mysticism. In this life, we have G-d’s Essence.  According to Chassidus, this explains why the deceased envy the living and their ability to do mitzvot, G-d’s commandments, which can be performed only in this world.

I’m also moved by the Chassidic emphasis on our unconditional connection to G-d. According to Chassidus, to live and feel this connection, and to fulfill our purpose of sanctifying the mundane, we must adhere to tradition.  But even when we abandon tradition–and, therefore, tarnish the outer layers of our connection—Chassidic thought posits that an unconditional, deeper bond with G-d remains undiminished.

5)      How does Chassidus help your imagery?

I think my studies in Chassidus–in which I encounter mystical images, terminology, and conceptual frameworks–add another layer to my work.  It infuses my poems with a kind of tension or binary, as I mentioned earlier.   After I sent my new book to the poet Tony Hoagland, he wrote me a postcard in which he describes this tension quite well. As he puts it, the book demonstrates a “simultaneous allegiance…to traditional spirituality and the difficulties and paradoxes of contemporary life; the poems insistently bring scriptural idealism into contact with realism, and they seem to insist that we cannot live the one without the paradoxical, sometimes contradictory, presence of the other.”

I think the juxtaposition of these two types of images represents an attempt to hold the teachings I’m studying up against the life I’m actually living. Perhaps it’s an attempt to blend the theoretical with the actual. I want these teachings to speak to me; poetry can serve as the bridge between study and the life that is lived when the books are closed.

6) How do you understand and apply the Chassidic idea of the divine dwelling below (dirah bathahtonim)?
Dirah Btachtonim is the Midrashic principle that G-d desires “a dwelling place in the lowest realm.”  Chabad Chassidus understands this to mean G-d created all of existence, the higher worlds and this physical one, because He desires “to be present” in our physical world.  The home “or dwelling place” metaphor implies Essence, for, in one’s home, one behaves as he or she truly is. And G-d is His “true self” here in our world. (I elaborate on this a bit later, in discussing Essence and Revelation).

In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe suggests that when the Midrash states G-d wants to dwell in the lowest realm, it means we—as G-d’s ambassadors—are charged with spiritualizing material existence by employing it in the service of G-d. The Alter Rebbe adds that G-d wants to dwell in “the lowest of the low.” In other words, in our doubts, darkest moments, greatest failings—those conditions basic to the life of a soul in a body. Somehow, we must redeem and elevate these experiences. We must infuse them with the Divine.

Similarly, poetry tends to provide unflinching renderings of life’s difficulties as they are.  Not as a prayer for salvation. Rather, as an assertion that the imperfect has a kind of perfection to it.  Holiness filtered through the messy human experience.  This appears to be a theme contemporary poetry and the Dirah Btachtonim theology share. I would venture to say this thinking informed–inspired me to publish–some of the very personal, sadder poems in my second collection.

Furthermore, inviting struggles and imperfections into my work provides me—and hopefully my readers—with the potential to see Judaism as more real, as something that speaks to us in our flawed human context.   And reciprocally, tension, struggle, and conflict make for meaningful art. “Light that comes out of darkness” is a term used in Chassidus but is also a good description of the moment in many poems when the speaker finds redemption through or in a conflict rather than via transcending or negating it.

7)      Which Hasidic works do you still study? Why?

I try to study Chassidus every day.  Each morning, before prayers, I learn with a few friends. We tend to focus on the discourses of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which represent the most fleshed out last link in the evolution of Dirah Bitachtonim theology.

For me, at least, the Rebbe’s discourses speak most directly to our condition. So often, even as they highlight the imperative of Torah study and prayer, his teachings emphasize that an equal—or greater—connection to G-d is possible outside the synagogue, in living our mundane lives with Divine purpose.  Of all the Chabad Rebbeim, he seems to have spent the most time with his Chassidim, explaining Chassidus and Dirah Bitachtonim in direct and accessible language. The 39 volumes of Likkutei Sichot record some of his many talks. It would be interesting to delve into other Chassidus as well, but the Chabad body of work is so vast, unified, and sequential, I feel there isn’t enough time to do it justice.

8)      What is your distinction between revelation and essence? 

In simplest terms, Essence, or Atzmut, refers to G-d as He exists unto Himself, beyond all definitions, parameters, or categorizations. Here, even the terms “infinite” or “spiritual” prove inadequate in that G-d transcends equally the physical and spiritual, the finite and infinite.

(Often Chabad Chassidus takes this logic to its extreme, suggesting that G-d’s engagement within our finite frame reflects His true unlimitedness, His transcendence of infinity. As one discourse puts it, certainly, “G-d is higher than nature,” but He is also “higher than higher than nature.”  He is not locked in transcendence).

As noted, Essence refers to G-d as He exists beyond all limitations.  Thus, an act that combines two opposites—such as a union between physicality and spirituality—bears the mark of G-d’s Essence.  For, only G-d’s Essence, which remains locked in neither the limitations of physicality or spirituality, can unify the two opposites. Chassidus points to the performance of a mitzvah, a Divine command, as an example of this kind of Essence phenomenon: When the command is performed, a Divine light flows down from above, leaving the physical object used in the act infused with holiness.

Ultimately, Essence breaks all categories. It combines opposites and complicates all definitions.

In contrast, the term revelation (giloyim)refers to how G-d expresses Himself according to the makeup of His audience, how He packages Himself and manifests, especially in the higher, spiritual worlds.  Each of these worlds receives a different measure of revelation according to its capacity to hold light. This is G-d not as He is unto Himself, but G-d acting within the spiritual parameters and expectations of the particular environment.  In the upper worlds, revelation (knowledge of G-d) is the defining characteristic; it’s the weather up there.

However, according to Chassidic thought, this physical world is the realm most closely linked to G-d’s Essence. As noted, only Essence can balance opposites, physical and spiritual, and this Essence paradox occurs solely in our physical realm.

In addition, G-d’s Essence is unknowable and unchanging. And these two qualities characterize G-d’s presence in our world.  In contrast, His behavior in the higher realms is marked by change (diminishment of light from one spiritual world to the next) and revelation, non-Essence qualities.

In this world, we experience no gradations in the magnitude of light—usually, we experience no light at all—because, here, G-d is simply being His unchanging and unknowable self.  In this physical life, we may suffer a lack of spiritual revelation, but in the un-heavenly, ordinary moment, G-d’s Essence is most accessible.

Interestingly, when a miracle occurs, and G-d reveals Himself to us, the Essence dynamic recedes into the background, and this world takes on the status of the worlds of revelation.  G-d pervades all of creation, of course.  However, it was from a space higher than and prior to creation–from within His Essence—that G-d desired a home in the lowest realm.  (The upper worlds largely serve as a sort of ladder leading down to this lowest point). And so our physical world bears traces of and is more deeply rooted in Essence than are the higher realms.  As the ancient mystical work Sefer Yetzirah puts it, “The beginning is wedged in the end.”

9) How does this distinction of essence and revelation apply to poetry?

I think this theology, which points decidedly earthward, aligns with many of the impulses behind contemporary poetry, and certainly with my own work.  One might say an absence of spirituality characterizes much of contemporary poetry because many of today’s poets eschew religion; at the same time, contemporary poets do, quite often, attribute a kind of luminescence to—they shine an intense light on—ordinary experience, insisting it has something to teach us.  Perhaps, in some sort of secular way, this parallels the mitzvah dynamic noted above—where spiritual and ordinary conjoin.  Indeed, locating transcendence or light in the mundane appears to be a chief ambition of many contemporary poets. Just look at the lines of praise on the back of any recent volume of poetry. Or perhaps contemporary poetry’s emphasis on the ordinary, the non-illuminated, as opposed to the transcendent, reflects a kind of Essence instinct.

Though I can’t say I’m always conscious of it, knowledge of the Essence/Revelation dialectic probably informs my work and may distinguish my poetry from that of other spiritual poets, especially Jewish ones. Here, I’m thinking, for example, of the spiritual work featured in journals of contemporary Jewish poetry, such as Poetica. To me, it seems many Jewish spiritual poets reach upward toward infinity and transcendence–the realm of revelations, you might say—and their language, correspondingly, tends toward musicality and abstraction.   In contrast, my language may come across as plain spoken and hint at or reference a Divine presence behind the details of daily life.

Often, those unfamiliar with my poetry assume it will read like prayers, calling out to G-d above.  They are surprised to find the poems usually entail human narratives locating or struggling with G-d below.
10)   How does your spiritual vision of two worlds exist against the backdrop of very non-Hasidic Modern Orthodox Teaneck?

Based on what I have experienced, the Modern Orthodox synagogues here have been very warm; a number of them have invited me to give readings or talks. I have many wonderful neighbors in Teaneck who are supportive of my poetry and interested in discussing Chassidus. I’d say Chabad and Modern Orthodox overlap in several key areas. Both believe in the authenticity of the Oral and Written Torah, and both demonstrate a level of openness toward the larger world. For a Chabad Chassid, this openness is likely an outgrowth of the Dirah Bitachtonim ideology, which posits that the sanctification of the mundane—and in some cases the secular—is the purpose of creation.

If anything, living in Teaneck has forced me to question and own my identity as a Chabad Chassid. No one is expecting me to uphold Chabad customs or to learn Chassidus here, so I need to rely on my own initiative. Also, I teach Chassidus classes at the Chabad House. In this role, I’ve had the opportunity to deepen and clarify my understanding of Chassidus in a way that I had not experienced when I lived in Morristown, a Chabad yeshiva community.

11)  How do you relate/respond to the deep atheism and anger at God within contemporary Jewish literary circles?

Concerning my first book, a reviewer in the Reform Jewish Quarterly wrote that the poetry was that of an innocent individual yet to encounter many of life’s struggles. We’ll have to see what happens as November ages. I understand where the reviewer was coming from, and I think my second book does more to engage with some of the darkness (but not anger) you mention, especially the title poem.

I think people deal with their doubts and difficulties in different ways.  When G-d/the world does something terrible to me, I’m more overwhelmed and speechless than I am angry.  That said, I don’t think that, today, I could write the way I did in my first book. I think my new collection doesn’t answer questions or give advice—it simply asks questions and shares experiences.

When I was younger and first getting into Chassidc life, I did feel somewhat disappointed by the agnosticism that characterized the contemporary Jewish literary scene (and larger literary culture, for that matter), but this was probably because, at that time, I was diving headlong into a new lifestyle and, seemingly, cutting my ties with the old one: after I finished my M.F.A. in poetry, I enrolled in a Chabad yeshiva in N.J. and didn’t concern myself with poetry for a few years. Like most of us, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized life is more complex; so many of us shoulder complicated histories.

Yet, secular contemporary poets have a lot to teach us about living with deeper consciousness. So often, they point out what others tend to overlook. A poem in Two Worlds Exist, “Contemporary Poets,” touches on this. Habituation—boredom with familiar life—may be one of the greatest sources of displeasure today. Poetry’s celebration of ordinary individuals and quotidian experiences can re-center us to a more appreciative sensibility.

As I’ve noted, I see some important points of overlap between Chassidus and poetry, even while many poets are atheists. And ultimately, it was my rabbis and Chassidic thought that compelled me to choose a career as a poet and not a rabbi.  If anything, attempting to live as a Chasid and a poet in the larger world has enriched my life as a Jew and a writer, making both more meaningful and erasing, in a sense, the secular/Divine divide I felt throughout my college and grads school years.