Robert Erlewine Interview – Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik

For decades, American Jews when confronted by Christianity would proclaim the moral superiority of Judaism as a religion of ethics compared to the emphasize on faith within Christianity. Jews would explain how Judaism is this-worldly compared to Christianity’s concern with other-worldly salvation or romantic flights of pietism. This attitude was fostered against the backdrop of many German thinkers from Kant to Adolph von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann denigrating Judaism as a religion without ethics, without love of God, and as empty superstition. The popular Jewish response was to turn the tables and proclaim Judaism as the morally superior faith for reasons of both apologetics and self-definition. The widely read works of Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism,  and Abba Hillel Silver Where Judaism Differed became part of the civil religion of American Jews. But what of the Jewish philosophers?

Robert Erlewine , Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Illinois Wesleyan University, provides the answer in his new book Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016) by looking at the philosophic writings of Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joseph D. Soloveitchik  showing how each defined religion and by doing so responded to the challenge of Christianity.  Personally, I was attracted just by the title alone as making the book worthy of my interest. But after reading it, I would certainly recommend this thoughtful book for those scholars interested in the topic especially my colleagues in the religion department.


The backdrop of the book is the deep resonance with Marcion thought in late 19th and early 20th century German Lutheran thought. Marcion was the Second century early Church thinker who thought that Christianity was a complete rejection of the God and values of the Old Testament. The 19th century thinkers who followed this line of demarcation painted Jesus as complete break with Judaism, as not really being Jewish rather he was Galilean and they painted Judaism as having a vengeful unethical God compared to Christian love. I must point out that Marion was actually rejected by the Church fathers and that this is not the current position of current mainstream Christian theologians who uniformly are working to recontextualize him within his Jewish context. And certainly Catholic thinkers such as Cardinal Ratzinger or Balthasar rejected it (see my very fruitful interview with Anthony Sciglitano here on the Church’s rejection of Marcion thinking).

Erlewine shows that Hermann Cohen portrayed Judaism the most ethical and rational religion, in turn, Judaism can serve as a model to the world. Cohen was the baseline for much of 20th century Jewish thought.

Franz Rosenzweig thought only the religions of Judaism and Christianity (not Islam) have access to the fullness of reality. And yet, these two religions will be in conflict with one another until the end of history.

Martin Buber considered the hallowed life of I-Thou to be the core of religion, in that, the celebrates the importance of this life, the way of man. Erelwine accentuates how Buber present Jesus as a Jew, a claim in direct contrast to the German thought of his era. And that Jesus never claimed to be anything more than a human being teaching ethics. In contrast, Buber presents Christianity as breaking with the teachings of Jesus. Buber’s distinction between fate and destiny plays a similar role of showing how Jewish thought is about living up to our God given destiny. Parenthetically, and not part of the book’s discussion, Buber had the similar responses to the Neo-Hindu visions of Advaita as the highest religion in which he reaffirmed Judaism as the hallowed highest religion.

Abraham Joshua Heschel receives an interesting treatment focusing on his dissertation on prophecy in which the young Heschel defended Jewish prophecy as greater than other religious phenomena. Erlewine also shows the polemic side of Heschel in his later American essays against Christian thought as having lost its connection with its Biblical roots.Many who quote him leave these important critiques of other faiths and Christianity  out of their discussion of Heschel thereby misrepresenting his views.

Erlewine presents Soloveitchik as building on Cohen but moving toward using a scientific model for religion and using Buber’s distinction between fate and destiny. Soloveitchik, however, completely separates Judaism and Christianity from each other, neither can be understood by the other and neither can comment on the other. There is no convergence or common idea and certainly no room for criticism of the other faith.

Erlewine describes his journey to writing this book, his second, came from his time earnestly studying “intellectual historians and theorists like Susannah Heschel, Suzanne L. March and, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Russell McCutcheon. I increasingly came to regard modern Jewish philosophy as embedded in a network of discourses about race, religion, and modernity.” This, along with the 20th century reactions to Hermann Cohen helped him “recognize that there were more fruitful ways of study modern Jewish philosophy than approaching it as a series of rarefied arguments regarding how best to understand what Judaism was… Instead, I began to emphasize how modern Jewish philosophy was an ongoing process of constructing Judaism in relation to Christianity, Europe, and modernity.”

The book assumes that the reader already has a basic familiarity with the canon of modern Jewish philosophy. For my readers, who want a basic familiarity, the only decent introductory secondary source remains: Eugene Borowitz’s Choices in Modern Jewish Thought: A Partisan Guide. For more academic introductions for those with philosophic background, there is The Cambridge Companion to Modern Jewish Philosophy edited by Michael Morgan and Peter Gordon and The Cambridge History of Modern Jewish Philosophy, edited by Martin Kavka, Zachary Braiterman and David Novak. For an introduction to reading Hermann Cohen, for someone who is not ready for his other works, one should start with Reason and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen edited by Eva Jospe or the pieces in Simon Noveck’s Contemporary Jewish Thought: A Reader. 

In each chapter Erlewine generally only picks one or two representative works, so for example he focuses on Heschel’s dissertation and Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind but does not deal with their later works nor does he go beyond their German influence into their later influences from William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Existential thought. If he is moving into intellectual history, then it still reads too close to a rarified philosophic question.  I have a personal pet peeve about his using the term Christianity when he only means German Lutherans. Many aspects of the conversation does not apply to Catholics, Calvinists, or Biblical centered Protestants.  Finally, to turn to my own field, the philosopher of religion could make use of the widely used current categories of theology of religions in the post Vatican II era. (I recommend my own books (here and here) which dealt with some of these same thinkers on related issues.) These comments are not to deflect from his valuable contribution to the discussion and his goal of bringing Jewish thought into discourse with scholars of religion.


1.What was the novel thesis of this book?

I argue that modern Jewish philosophy, especially 20th century German Jewish philosophy, should be understood as a response to developments in the conception and study of religion and its political implications.

One of the major goals of this book is to incorporate recent scholarship in religious studies into the study of modern Jewish philosophy. While scholars of modern Jewish philosophy (or modern Jewish thought) are often housed within religious studies departments there is not always a fruitful exchange between these respective fields. This book is an attempt to help build bridges between the two as they have much to contribute to each other.

  1. How did early 20th century German Theologians and Historians portray Judaism?

In the early 20th century, there was a great deal of interest in “world religions” and the religions of the Ancient Near East.  German theologians who wanted to show that Judaism really was not the source out of which Christianity emerged and that Jesus was not really Jewish used these new fields of study to make their arguments.  In Europe, much of the scientific or scholarly study of religion was motivated by this desire to free Christianity from any essential connection with Judaism. Indeed, during this period we see a resurgence of positive interest in Marcion a heretic from early Christianity, who declared that the God of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament.

In 1920, Adolf von Harnack, an eminent scholar of Christian history and liberal Christian theologian, wrote his major study of Marcion translated as Marcion: The Gospel of an Alien God. This work was hugely influential on many leading scholars of his time, But even before this, important scholars, including Ernst Troeltsch and Julius Wellhausen, were using new developments in historical scholarship to sharpen the distinction between Judaism and Christianity. In this distinction Judaism always came out the loser, as no longer possessing life, as an anachronism that should no longer exist. In this way, even if Christian theologians at that time did not literally believe there were two different Gods as Marcion did, they often believed that the God of the Old Testament was qualitatively different from the God of the New Testament. The former was a harsh tyrant demanding strict obedience whereas the latter was full of mercy and grace and allowing for moral autonomy.

Christian theologians and scholars (who were also often theologians) sought to differentiate Judaism from Christianity, to argue that Christianity was fundamentally different from Judaism. In many ways this was a continuation from the Enlightenment as a period in which philosophers were trying to figure out how to characterize modernity and why it was different than what came before. Non-Jewish thinkers used Judaism and Christianity as useful symbols in this effort. They cast Judaism as the epitome of all that was pre-modern, unfree and unenlightened as opposed to Christianity, which was supposed to embody all the virtues of modernity.

  1. How did Modern Jewish Philosophy Respond?

Taking such developments into account, I show that modern Jewish philosophy is very much an attempt to construct or recast how we are supposed to think about and understand Judaism in ways that makes Christianity inferior or derivative of it, and to show how Judaism is an essential component of European modernity.

I do this by reading major works in the canon of twentieth century Jewish philosophy by Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Joseph Soloveitchik. In different ways, these thinkers are engaged with discussions about the role of Judaism in relationship to the West, with most (but not all) of these thinkers arguing that Judaism is absolutely fundamental to the European civilization. In a very powerful way, they offer a counterpunch to the work of the European (and particularly German) theologians and culture makers seeking to exclude Judaism, to deny it any place in modern Europe.

Modern Jewish philosophy then, particularly as it takes shape in the work of the thinkers I discuss in this book, is quite hostile to Christianity. These thinkers go to great lengths to show that Christianity is not only not more rational than Judaism but that it is decisively less rational, that it is not independent of Judaism but derivative, and so on.

In the work of these thinkers Judaism is made central to how we should envision Europe or the ‘West’, at least all that is good and proper in the West. Christianity, in turn, is regularly criticized for retaining idolatrous elements, for failing to be autonomous in its reliance on God to forgive (rather than say taking responsibility for one’s actions) or as being dependent on Judaism for access to God.

I argue that rather than simple, straightforward criticisms of Christianity for its beliefs and practices (although this critical element is certainly present), I think this hostility and bellicosity on the part of Jewish philosophers reflects both the precariousness of the position of Jews and the  desire of Jewish thinkers to beat Christian philosophers and theologians at their own game. In order to pull this off, they had to relentlessly criticize and show the problems with Christianity which was just assumed to be more rational and modern, even by many Jews.

  1. What was Hermann Cohen’s call for reason and demythologization?

Hermann Cohen was a neo-Kantian philosopher who grounded his own work in a firm belief in reason and the rationality of religion. He emphasized that reason was universal to all human beings and could not be limited to any single community.

Ostensibly, his task in Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, his magnum opus (at least of his explicitly Jewish work), was an attempt to show how the Jewish tradition—like all religious traditions—begins with certain ideas that remain mythological and not fully rationalized. He then traces different layers of the Jewish tradition in order to show how this tradition becomes increasingly rational through continuous interpretation. For example, God is initially depicted as a personal being, indeed even a being with human characteristics. However, in rabbinic interpretation, and then in the medieval philosophers especially Maimonides, we see that the idea of God is increasingly purified of these anthropomorphic traits. For Cohen this is rationalization at its best. God ceases to be modeled on a human a king and comes to increasingly function as the moral exemplar and that which secures the possibility of the moral world order.

But there is another dimension to Cohen’s use of reason. While Cohen claims that all peoples possess the capacity for reason, he does not hesitate to point out where religious traditions such as Christianity and the ancient Greeks go wrong in their notions of God, failing to properly demythologize, and this leads to disastrous moral consequences in Cohen’s opinion.  Indeed, Judaism becomes the example of what a rational religion looks like. To the degree that other religions will become rational they will emulate Judaism. In this sense, Judaism becomes the exemplar of rationality in terms of religion.

Cohen was indeed making use of tropes and concepts that would resonate with German culture and Christianity, he even made use of Jesus, because he claimed that Jews understood Jesus better than Christians, and that Judaism was inextricable to German identity. To grasp the power of this argument, one has to recognize that Cohen was writing at a moment when Orientalists, Historians, and Christian theologians claimed that research could show Jesus was not Jewish and that the New Testament should be freed from Jewish moorings. Cohen’s sophisticated arguments, which were widely read and not merely by Jews, were actively making a case for the inclusion of Jews in German culture.

  1. How was there a shift to direct experience in Franz Rosenzweig and what are its implications for other religions?

Rosenzweig, who was Cohen’s student,  was highly critical of what he called ‘philosophy,’ which he argued equated thought with being. Rosenzweig breaks with Cohen’s religion of reason and its strict rejection of anthropomorphism (actually, Rosenzweig claims he is properly interpreting Cohen who he thinks ultimately changes his mind about God, but this is a highly technical dispute). For Rosenzweig, however, God is a person, a being that requires love, and enters into relationship with the religious individual.

Rosenzweig argued that while philosophy claimed to account for all of human experience, there are aspects of it such as death and the fear of death that philosophy cannot and does not try to adequately describe.  Indeed, there are dimensions of human existence, but not just human existence, for which philosophy cannot account. Rosenzweig attempts to account for this existence irreducible to philosophical thought.

To carry out his attempt at this “New Thinking”  based on human experience, Rosenzweig uses a very complicated method that is part mysticism and part negative theology rooted in Cohen’s philosophical mathematics. He unearths three elements, namely, God, Human Being, and World that are part of our raw experience but beyond the reach of philosophy. These constitute the crucial elements of his system, which relate to one another in in creation, revelation, and redemption. One lives or experiences creation and redemption in one’s life.

However, Rosenzweig’s philosophy associates philosophy with German Idealism and then associates Idealism with paganism. He is also very critical of Indian and Chinese religions which he thinks fail to grasp these three elements of life- God , the human being, and world and in turn, creation, revelation, and redemption.

Only the religions of Judaism and Christianity (not Islam) have access to the three elements of reality: God , the human being, and world. Only Judaism and Christianity are not idolatrous. And yet, these two religions will be in conflict with one another until the end of history because they cannot recognize each other as partners of truth, although they very much are partners.

Many scholars have been critical of Rosenzweig’s depiction of other religions, particularly Islam. What I want to suggest is that his account of these religions had a lot more to do with what was going on in the German intellectual culture at that time and its fascination with Orientalism (at Judaism’s expense) than with any actual engagement with these other religions.

Rosenzweig  is engaging these traditions not so much as they actually are but rather as they exist in the European imaginary (whether he knows it or not). By emphasizing experienced revelation, Rosenzweig hopes to link Judaism and Christianity and distinguish them from all other traditions. He wants to secure Judaism’s privileged metaphysical status in a European world that was increasingly rejecting it.

  1. How does Buber embrace and not embrace other religions?

Martin Buber devoted a great deal of attention to the study of other religions. Indeed, I and Thou was meant, at least originally, as a sort of foundation for the study of religion, what you might call a phenomenology of religion. He readily drew examples from Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. But he would treat these religions and  stories and parables from them in idiosyncratic ways. He would often either show certain shortcomings in these traditions, as for example, faulting traditions that did not to his mind sufficiently celebrate the importance of this life, or read them in a way that made them support Judaism in some tacit way. Perhaps the most obvious example is his account of Jesus as a Jew who never claimed to be anything more than a human being.

In I and Thou Buber tries to show certain patterns that not only spoke to the crises of the present moment, the possibility of redemption, but also to the structure of religious experience as such. For example, he has a notion of the renewal of spirit, which is a version of teshuva. In German, the word he uses is Umkehr.

In Buber’s famous account of the I-It and I-Thou, where the I-It relation is one of use, and the I-Thou is a living relation that cannot be quantified, the I-Thou cannot last forever, and will inevitably become an It. As history progresses, the world of Its, of things, accumulates and increases. However, there is the possibility of a renewal of spirit, of return, of teshuva to the Eternal Thou at the heart of all I-Thou relationships. There is the possibility of renewing all living relations, even those that have become inert, that have become Its.

In many ways, I and Thou reflects the world in which it was written, a time of spiritual uncertainty and crisis. But it also holds out the hope that the world of It relations can be reclaimed, brought back into the world of spirit, into the world of the Thou. A life of use and objects can be made spiritual and full of living relationships once more.

  1. What is Buber’s distinction of faith and destiny?

Religion, for Buber, is not about belief, but about the manner in which one approaches the world. Genuine religion is a matter of one’s basic disposition towards the world. Faith and destiny correspond to Buber’s distinction between the  I-It and the I-Thou. However, they are grounded in how these modes are in turn related to God or the Eternal Thou, that which undergirds all relationships.

For Buber, God is inextricably bound up with this world—although never reducible to it. Therefore, to understand the human relationship with the divine means one must study different ways in which human beings live in the world.

In Book II of I and Thou Buber sets up a juxtaposition between the person of destiny, who believes that the course of the world needs him or her but does not yet know how, and the person of fate, who believes in objects and mastery.

The person of destiny both pursues and embodies the Thou perspective, stands open and ready for relationship, realizes that the world order stands in need of him or her even if he or she does not yet know how. The person of fate seeks to use, to organize, to control. For Buber, this latter mode of being is It-being, it shuts out, it closes off the world to the Eternal Thou and the ability to return, the ability to harness Thou relationships that have grown rigid, that have become sedimented in culture. However, it is the path of the person of destiny to reopen, to recover and harness these sedimented Thous, to recover their salvific potential and let them flow once again. God is not outside or beyond this world. God is within this world, if hidden and covered over, lying dormant, waiting to be recalled and engaged once more.

  1. How was Heschel a Scholar of Religion? How did Heschel have a critique of Christianity?

Heschel’s Die Prophetie, which was the book that was published from his dissertation in 1936, was a scholarly work on the phenomenon of Israelite prophecy in a broad, comparative context.

His study is very much an attempt to show the ways in which the unique contours and structure of Israelite prophecy have been forgotten or distorted through false equivalences.

Heschel was particularly eager to distinguish prophecy from ecstatic modes of religion, where one approached the divine by means of departing one’s consciousness whether through narcotics, breathing exercises or elaborate rituals designed to induce a trance. Heschel insisted that Israelite prophecy was predicated upon and emphasized God’s agency, a God who chooses to make known his emotional life, his pathos, to the human being.

Heschel’s book, while it seems like it is merely descriptive, is also a critique of the Christianity of his time, particularly the manner in which Christian historians were treating Judaism. Christian scholars of religion (again, at this time, religious studies was part of seminaries and thus it was almost always confessional) attempted to blur the uniqueness of the Israelite prophets, to show that they were merely part of a much larger phenomenon in the Ancient Near East. This was done, at least in part, to undercut the importance of the Old Testament and thus to diminish the importance of Judaism for Christianity.

Heschel is particularly concerned with the rising Marcionism in Germany, a tendency that cast God as detached and unconcerned with human history. Rather, Heschel emphasizes that the prophets insisted upon God’s pathos, that God cared about human history, about human beings, about justice. Divine anger is not a scandal but testifies to God’s concern about human history, God cares about every day life.

Heschel was very critical of Christianity in Germany, which he thought was turning its back on its ethical commitments by downplaying the importance of the prophets of the Old Testament (indeed, often rejecting the Old Testament altogether). He felt it had lost touch with the Hebrew Bible and the prophetic sense of justice. It had lost sense of a God who had pathos, of a God who cared about human beings, about what transpired in history. Indeed, his work to build bridges with Christian theologians in the US aimed at emphasizing to Christian leaders the shared investment of Jews and Christians in the prophets of Israel and their God who could be angry and disappointed by human beings. Should Christianity lose its connection to the Old Testament and thus the prophets, Heschel insisted, it would forfeit its relationship to the divine.

  1. How is Soloveitchik not just an Orthodox version of Cohen?

While Soloveitchik was decisively influenced by Cohen, I think it is safe to say he is by no means just an Orthodox version of Cohen. I would rather characterize him as someone who had some shared concerns with, but also who had some fundamentally different sensibilities from Cohen, including, as you mention, with which branch of Judaism he would affiliate.

Soloveitchik, particularly in The Halakhic Mind, shows an appreciation for Cohen’s attempt to use the sciences, at least as they were understood at the beginning of the twentieth century, as a foundation for a system that held culture to rational standards.

However, The Halakhic Mind was written several decades after the death of Cohen and much had changed in regard to the understanding of science. Where Cohen was operating with a unified notion of science rooted in infinitesimal calculus, Soloveitchik highlights that science has become increasingly pluralistic such that no one method or approach can be all encompassing, and as a result philosophy must adjust, must embrace an “epistemological pluralism.” This does not mean there is no reality, but that reality has many faces. There is no one foundation for all of reality, no one basis for rationality. Rather, just as chemists and physicists apply different methods to understanding reality, Soloveitchik thought this meant we should also study religion according to its own unique methodology.

This is a major break from Cohen. Cohen refused to grant religion autonomy, as possessing its own sort of logic, but insisted that it was related to the other members of the system—logic, aesthetics, and particularly ethics. Soloveitchik, in contrast, rejects this, and thinks the best way to understand religion in its own terms, which for Soloveitchik means treating religion through the cultic, through practice, Halakhah. This leads Soloveitchik to very different conclusions from Cohen regarding religion.

Soloveitchik’s position is open to pluralism, where each religious tradition must be understood according to its own sensibilities as grounded in its own practices, whereas Cohen thinks since all human beings share reason and ethics, ultimately their religions should converge in these areas. While Soloveitchik did believe that Judaism would ultimately be vindicated in the eschaton, he does not explicitly criticize Christianity, at least regarding its theology. His philosophy does not so much justify Judaism against Christianity as to show why Judaism should remain distinct and unique even as it participates in the larger ‘Western’ world. In this respect, he represents a distinct voice among these thinkers, attempting to secure Judaism’s apartness, that it is a stranger and sojourner in the Christian West, not its foundation.

  1. For our era of late-modernity and pluralism, what is most enduring and valuable in these thinkers?

I think what is most enduring and valuable about these thinkers, at least when we take them as a whole, is the way the use philosophy to interrogate and revitalize various aspects of the Jewish tradition. They turned to philosophy as a way to explain Judaism to their cultured despisers but also to use it to fight back and critique those who would exclude and reject them.

What these thinkers accomplished that remains relevant for us is that they made Judaism vital and exciting at a time when it had very few friends and was by no means popular in the broader European culture. They made, in different ways and in different capacities, the tradition speak to their present moment and not just liturgically but in regard to culture and broad social movements. Our concerns may not be theirs (although I do think we share a lot with them) but more than anything, what is enduring in their work is the ability to use philosophy to think about traditions and practices that many take for granted, to think about them in a new light and in relation to the larger culture or cultures in which we live.

Their work demands that we never just accept the tradition but that we constantly inquire why and what place it has in the modern world. When I look at contemporary religious life  in the US and not just Jewish life, I see very little of this intellectual rigor. I see a lot of self-satisfaction. I think this aspect of these philosophers remains a great gift when religion is so often couched in terms of feeling or authority.

  1. From your earlier work: How does Cohen point the way for combining tolerance and religion without having to reject religion? How can we have absolute truth and be tolerant? How is he better than Habermas and Hick?

In my previous, Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), I examine current discussions of monotheism by scholars such as Jan Assmann, Regina Schwartz and Martin Jaffee which highlight the tension between notions like election or chosenness and current, liberal sensibilities such as tolerance and pluralism.

Christian theologian John Hick and philosopher Jürgen Habermas both require that all religious communities learn to treat each other with equal respect. That is, all claims of being special, to having a privileged relationship with God must be rejected in favor of viewing all traditions as more or less equal. However, this is in conflict with the way concepts like chosenness or election traditionally function in the Abrahamic monotheisms.

I found that our current sensibilities about tolerance were rooted in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his treatment of religion. However, the works of Moses Mendelssohn and Hermann Cohen offer better ways forward.

After studying the respective philosophies of religion of Mendelssohn, Kant, and Cohen, I conclude that Cohen figured out a way to retain a notion of election but in a way is grounded in an ethical universalism. For Cohen the Jews continue to insist on their uniqueness and their chosenness, but only for the purpose of highlighting the universality of the ethical ideal of the human being that continues to go unrealized. That is, Cohen links the particular religion of Judaism to the universal ethical ideal of the human being.

What Cohen accomplishes that Habermas and Hick do not, is that he finds a way to maintain the particularity of a religious tradition while also linking it in a way that remains firmly grounded in ethics to the universal. He allows a religious community to retain a link between the particular to the universal.

For Hick and Haberamas, tolerance requires that all traditions become only particular, that they relinquish any conception of themselves that would grant their particular community universal importance. In this way, I think, Cohen offers a method of thinking about how we might more realistically bring religious traditions to think about religious diversity without requiring that they forfeit notions like election or chosenness that are often perceived to be absolutely essential to their self-identity.

  1. It seems that Gershom Scholem as a philosopher and historian of religion is essential for many of your arguments, but was not covered in the book.

Gershom Scholem is a thinker I struggle with a great deal. In particular, I find much of my scholarship geared toward combating his highly influential, post-Holocaust critiques of German Jews and German Jewish thinkers as self-negating, lacking dignity and failing to adequately defend themselves.  To be sure, Scholem’s account is not without nuance or pathos, which I think is what makes his work so powerful. And yet, I think another part of the power of his depiction is that it is still very much haunted by the immediate aftermath of the Shoah and it tends to see it as an inevitability and that this should have been evident to others. In making this assumption, his depiction downplays the subversiveness, the boldness with which Jewish thinkers challenged their Christian contemporaries.

Rabbi Menachem Froman – My Followers Will Laugh from This

Image a new volume of Hasidic aphorisms akin to those of Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz or those a Sufi pir. A volume of epigrams about directly relating to God and creating a deep religion of the heart. Reminders not to treat religion or ones denomination within that region as just another sports team to root for victory for one’s squad. Rather, a person with faith looks directly to the self and to the Zohar, Rav Nachman and Rabbi Mordecahi Yosef Leiner of Izbitz. Currently, there is a new little volume by Rabbi  Menahcme Froman that does just this.

The new book by Rabbi Menachem Froman, who unfortunately died three years ago, is called by a title with a double meaning My Followers (Hasidim) Will Laugh from This (Privately Published as Hai Shalom Publishing, 2015, 160 pages). The book is a collection of 180 gems of spiritual wisdom culled by his son from Rabbi Froman’s writings. The volume is a little paperback, available for under five dollars. For those just discovering the writings of Rav Shagar, it is important to note that Froman and Shagar were close and share a common group of followers in Othnel, Tekoa, Siah and elsewhere. His volume fills the reader in on some of the sounds and thoughts of this collective approach.

Froman book

For those who have never heard of him, Rabbi Menachem Froman (1945 –2013) was an Orthodox rabbi and a peacemaker. He was a man of apparent contradictions. Froman was the chief rabbi of Tekoa, a settlement deep in the West Bank, as well as a tireless advocate for peace, religious dialogue and coexistence with his Palestinian neighbors. He was a founding member of the settler movement Gush Emunim, and dedicated to the right of the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel, but also acknowledged, that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is “evil” and “derives from the power of man’s fear.”

But for Froman, these ideas were not contradictions. Rav Menachem loved the Land of Israel, while recognizing that it did not only belong to one people. In an interview, he stated: “What I want for myself I must also want others to have. I want a Jewish state, I must want there to be an Arab state. I love Jerusalem, I have to want them to have Jerusalem, too.” Rabbi Froman believed that religion and love of the land could be unifying forces between Israelis and Palestinians instead of dividing ones. And he taught that love and peace could be the only responses to hate and violence.

His political essays have recently been collected and published in a slim volume titled Sokhaki Aretz, (Laugh My Beloved Land): Peace (Shalom), People (Am), Land (Adamah), the first of several expected volumes of his essays. For those who want to know more, see Hebrew wiki, Arabic wiki, and the memorial website. I especially recommend these two heartfelt obituaries expressing his life and thought – here and here. 

I knew Rabbi Froman from interfaith events, where he taught Rav Nachman and Zohar to Muslim leaders,  the politicians did not take him seriously but the pious did. He danced and sang with Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Buddhist leaders.  Froman was friendly with many secular artists and novelists whom he felt were more open to life than many a self-proclaimed religious person.


Froman loved to pray and speak about praying to God. He also thanked God constantly. One of his favorite gestures was to clap his hands  rhythmically, while chanting the word “Todah” (Grateful ). Rav Menachem believed deeply in the power of thanks. He thanked his students, his friends, and strangers.

Rabbi Froman’s aphorisms  are about embracing the space of uncertainty, learning to cultivate trust and prayer in place of fixed answers. He was one of those people “whose religious revelation was not expressed in ready-made ideas about what’s forbidden and what’s permitted, and regular forms of prayer, but existed in the body, the soul, in action.”

The goal of his teaching is to reopen the heart to experience God. Froman wants to touch and see God, yet knows that we will not attain his goal. We are left with our limits and acceptance of inevitable death. Froman thinks our most human response should be humor, to be able to laugh at ourselves.

I starting translating a few pieces of My Followers Will Laugh From This for my files then realized they would make a good blog post. Hence, they have a double numbering – with the end numbering as a potential footnote, and the header numbering for a blog reader. These are not polished or translated for publication; if I ever quote one then I will retranslate it.  If you quote my translation, then please acknowledge source of translation.

Read them and enjoy them.


131) Rav Shagar criticized the religious community for the fact that their faith was not realistic, rather it is an illusion. In my eyes, the problem of the faith of the religious is that in place of faith in God they changed into a faith in themselves, in the righteousness of their path and their worldview and who they are. Consequently, it turned into a closure of the heart to the sense of God (Inyan elokhi).(131)

179) Sometimes I think that all of theology, all religions, and all words spoken in the world about God – spring forth only from the need to explain the simple instinctual human activity called prayer.  A person prays but he needs to explain to himself to Whom does he pray and what he is doing. Therefore, he calls this by the name of God and builds a complete religious worldview around this. The core of everything is prayer. (179)

180) The world is divided into two types of people. The first type of person repeats himself again and again, each time saying the same thing. The second type are those who don’t have anything to say, (180)

21) What is religious? Depth is religion. To be religious is to be deep and what is deep is religious. The novelist Amos Oz told me many years ago “To you Menachem I can tell that my works are religious literature.” The question is open if this is true about his works but this is exactly the issue- depth is the essence of the divine. For that reason, I taste in Kafka more of a taste of divinity than from many of the book of rabbis.

Once, when I was young, I traveled to a wedding and on the way I read the Biblical Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia Mikrait) which is filled with scholarship and biblical criticism.  Rabbi Avigdor Nevenzal saw me and wondered about me in his characteristic humility. I told him: In this book there is much religious depth. But this was then, when I had strength to permit. Today, my strength has grown weak. (21)

26) I am a friend of a former commander and Palestinian defense minister. He is a lover of Israel, therefore he retired when Hamas took control of Gaza. He is a truly religious person. Once he asked me to bring him [Maimonides’] Guide of the Perplexed in Arabic… If only that our [Israeli]  defense minister would study the Guide of the Perplexed. (26)

56) According to the Rebbe of Izbitzer: What is the test of the sacrifice [of Isaac]? That the command of the sacrifice of Isaac was through a glass darkly (aspaklaria sheano meiriah)- an unclear message with ambiguity. This is the self-sacrifice of Abraham that despite that he did not know and was uncertain, he followed it.

Abraham was not a completely religion person knowing what God wants and then fulfilling the command. Rather, he acted as if he was in the secular world, which does not have a system of absolute decrees and one does not have 100% certainty. Therefore it was a great test(56)

57) What makes me religious? I am not religious because I am an agent of God, rather I am religious in that I rely on God, that I cling to God, I am completely dependent on God. I depend on God for what I do and I know that I depend on God.

There are two type of religion: The first says: There is a God- this is the religion of soccer fans and yeshivot- every place where you cry out “There is a God”  or “Here O Israel”. There is another religion that says God knows or in a certain sense God is vast.(57)

58) Once I explained in an article that I wrote that the purpose of my life is to be an example of what not to do. (58)

73) Fear of [God] is to accept reality, not to fool oneself but to live with the questions. In the end we die, this is difficult but this is fear [of God]- to accept reality (73)

80) The entire dynamic and tension of the religious life is built on our continuous attempt to see what is impossible to see. The Torah says “No one shall see me and live”. The piyyutim, for example Yigdal (I will glorify the living God), explain and emphasize that it is impossible to see God- but we do not stop our desire. In Rav Nachman’s story The Humble King, he explains how the hero went out to seek a portrait of the king of whom no one has his portrait, he has the desire to reach the impossible.

One who understands this and makes peace that He is impossible to reach and to see – loses the religious faculty (inyan elokhi). The religious life starts with this want –despite that it is probably impossible.

Yet, in the Torah it is written that Moses saw God face to face therefore it is possible to see Him . This is certain- that without sight or contact there cannot be a connection. On the other hand, seeing Him also destroys something. In the moment that you see the girl of your dreams you also lose her in a certain way.

Then what do we do? See? Don’t see? I have a friend who told me that he returned to observance (hozer be teshuvah) after he went with his father to the Louvre in Paris and saw the Mona Lisa. Perhaps this is the answer.  (80)

81) For many years, I have said that I have two proofs for God. The first is that media fills the void of the world with so much nonsense and despite this a person keeps a little reason – this is a sign that there is a God.

[Second:] is that the religious community appears the way it does and speaks about God the way it does. Despite this there remains people in the world who believe [in God] – this is a sign that in truth there is a God. (81)

100) The purpose of the Zohar is to reveal the answer to “know… to where you are heading” (Avot3:1) then you wont fear death, on the contrary you are strengthened from it.  (100)

115) In truth, the world is filled with tragedy; existence is laden with many inner contradictions. The difference between me and Rav Kook is that Rav Kook triumphed over them with a harmonistic approach an I triumph over them with humor.  (115)

137) The Zohar is not the Torah of the righteous but for the masters of return. Why? Because someone who has not fallen – who has not “glanced and been stricken”, one who has not “cut down some of the shoots”, one who has not tasted the taste of heresy – does not learn Zohar. Only someone who visits the abyss can reach the secret (sod). (137)

151) Who is permitted to enter the empty void? One who does not wait for answers, one who does not wait for decisions of halakhah that decide what he is to do. Only one whose religiosity is built on silence. One whose emotions of cleaving to God are at times such that he does not know what is incumbent upon him to do. A person like this becomes a stronger believer from the times that he calls out the question of “where is the place of His glory?”

One whose faith is built on emotions of grace in which he only experiences that “there is a God” – that his cleaving to God comes from an answer to questions, then it is forbidden for him to enter the empty void, his religious world would collapse there. (151)

164) The uniqueness of the Zohar as opposed to other works of kabbalah is that the Zohar deals entirely with the left, the side of the other side (sitra ahara). It does not remain in the sublime mercy of the right side. Rather it seeks embodiment by partnership with the forces of evil, only in this way can something be whole. This is exactly the opposite of Maimonides. The entire purpose of Maimonides was to negate corporeality, while the Zohar is the book of corporeality and partnership with evil.

Therefore, the Zohar really loves sacrifices. Today in synagogue we do all sorts of spiritual activities such as praying and intention – but where is the meat? Where is the corporeality? The Zohar says that a sacrifice is peace and there is not peace without the left [side]. We make peace with enemies otherwise it is one sided as when there is only the right side. The [right side] is the essential part but without the accompanying [left] part there is no wholeness. So too with a sacrifice- there is confession, which is perhaps the essential part of sacrifice but without the meat and blood it is not a sacrifice. The Zohar is the opposite of Maimonides.  (164)

169) It is customary to say that it is forbidden to study the Zohar before one marries, but how is it possible to get married without learning Zohar? (169)

30) When I learned in Merkaz Harav, we continuously returned to the divine grasp of Nahmanides who said that to live in the land of Eertz Yisrael (land of Israel) was a mitzvah, in contrast to Maimonides who did not count this as a mitzvah. The entire settlement movement is based on this position of Nahmanides. But perhaps, Maimonides is correct.

Anyone who reads  “And it shall come to pass that if you keep the mitzvot” (“Vehaya im shamoa tishmeu mitzvosai asher…”) sees that living in the land is a gift of God, the land is a reward for keeping other mitzvot. There is no other command placed on people. (30)

33) What can brokenness create? It can produce a revelation of the shekhinah that fills the thankful heart. (33)

35) The principle power of a person is to acknowledge his weaknesses and to turn to God. This is the great power of a person.  (35)

47) The Rambam [probably he meant Maharal or Ramhal] said that the truth is grasped by contradictions because I live a life of everything and its opposite. I am wide but also narrow. I am required to be focused and grounded but to have a rich world, scattered but to have fear of God. It is impossible to know consequences: Does wealth brings fear of God or the opposite? Every mitzvah and every action need two wings of love and fear. Between these two poles is formed the electric tension of life.

I once told the story of how a yeshivah student became a disciple of Rav Shagar, who was then R”M at Yeshivat Hakotel. Once in the middle of Yom Kippur he took the student for a walk, they ambled and wandered around until they arrived at David’s tomb. Instead of all the focus on the Yom Kippur service they hiked around and wandered. This gave the student the light of worshiping God. (47)

© Alan Brill 2016

Tomer Persico Interview – Part 2: Spiritual Journey & What Kind of Judaism Do We Want.

Here is the second part of my two part interview with Tomer Persico. Part I was dedicated to his new book on Jewish meditation and Part II is on his spiritual journey and vision for a future Judaism.

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This interview is based on my having read two earlier interviews with Tomer Persico. One in Globes and a great interview in Haaretz that they translated into English. In the Haaretz interview Persico stated his desire to create a humanistic Judaism with a message for the world that is not dependent on the impoverished ethnocentric world of contemporary Orthodoxy.

The fundamental question is what kind of Judaism we want. Do we want an isolationist Judaism that entrenches itself in its own minutiae, contributing nothing to the world, or do we want a Jewish culture that has a religion but is much more than that? The situation is ridiculous. The Bible contains a universal vision, encapsulated in the simple slogan, “a light unto the nations.” That is the message of Judaism. Yet the groups we consider the most religious are precisely the most separatist and insular, and wield the least influence worldwide. The average Western person has never even heard the names of the revered local rabbinical sages. It’s absurd.

The secular public – and in this regard, I include myself among that public – must articulate an autonomous Jewish identity for itself, one that is not dependent on Orthodox Judaism to represent it. The Jewish tradition is packed with values that are easily translated into humanistic and even feminist language. It’s authentically ours. Of course, the tradition is also packed with other things, which are easily translated into racism and ethnocentrism.

But if we look at the Jewish identity of the religiously observant community in Israel – both the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionism – we find that it is far more impoverished than it seems to be from the outside. It looks very sure of itself, but there is very little original religious creative work going on. It’s often a meager identity, based on ethnocentrism, xenophobia, a false sense of superiority or the cloning of passages from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, or from Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik or Rabbi [Eliezer] Shach. But they have no answers to offer to the challenges faced by present-day Jewish society in Israel. It’s running on empty. It is not such a daunting challenge to put forward an alternative, autonomous identity that provides a decisive answer.

As discussed in the prior interview, Persico sees the source for a meaningful Judaism in the turn to spirituality and personal religion. Yet he is aware of the problems of the New Age movement and the crude marketing of contemporary spirituality- both secular and Orthodox.

New Age became a series of products for people in search of self-fulfillment and transformation. Workshops and courses were offered of a kind never seen in the history of the religions familiar to us. Taking a potpourri of elements from a range of sources, New Age turns them into a product, such as workshops in fasting and reincarnation. It reaches grotesque levels, in which one supposedly learns how to “suck in abundance from the universe.” Like in “The Secret.” If you believe you’ll have a Porsche, and hang a picture of a Porsche in your house, you will have a Porsche.

There are spiritual techniques that work. Just because the market learned how to exploit the whole spectrum of beliefs for its needs doesn’t mean that you can’t find pure gold in it – but the search becomes more difficult.

Instead of changing the rules of the game for you, New Age becomes a kind of release valve for a pressurizing system and allows the system to go on battering you. The whole current trend of becoming religiously observant is also part of this. It’s the same search, except that it turns to the source of Judaism – but with the aim of fashioning a tailor-made Judaism for ourselves. It is not Orthodox penitence, acceptance of the burden of the precepts. The search is for the personal connection, the experience.

Instead, Persico advocates a inner commitment to a system that takes into account our individuality and humanism.

Persico discovered the seriousness of religion and by extension of Judaism through his journey to India. In this, he is part of a bigger story of Israelis traveling to India after the army and then returning with an Indian understanding of religion to which they can now understand their own Judaism. Not just secular Jews travel to India but also yeshiva graduates and now even those who give Talmud shiur are traveling to India. For an older book about these journeys, see Elhanan Nir, Me-Hodu ṿe-ʻad kan : hogim Yiśreʼelim kotvim ʻal Hodu ṿe-Yahadut shelahem (2006) [Hebrew] This is a major trend that will further accentuate the difference between American Judaism which generally views itself in Protestant terms, even the Orthodox.

In the last few years, Persico has taken on the role of a liberal clergy by having performed almost fifty weddings for those wanting to avoid the Rabbinate. Yet, Persico still sees himself as secular despite his high level of traditional ritual observance because from his Israeli perspective one is either Orthodox or secular.


1) What was your religious background and how did you rediscover religion in India?

I grew up in a secular and atheist family in Haifa. Studying in Israel’s secular education system I had almost no contact with traditional Jewish sources except for the Bible. After my compulsory army service, at age 22 (1996-7), I flew to India, traveling the sub-continent for ten months in what can be called the compulsory Israeli trip-after-the-army. I devoted my journey to the investigation of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religion and thought, met with numerous spiritual teachers and pundits, and had also taken up Buddhist Vipassana meditation (that I learned from what were then the annual Bodh-gaya retreats led by Christopher Titmuss), which I practice to this day. It is then that I realized that contrary to what I was convicted of, there is more to existence than crass materialism.

I went through a few transformative experiences, most of them challenging the presumed border between the inner self and the outer world, and initiated what I refer to as an intimate relationship with the divine. Since then I have been to India eight more times, spending more than two cumulative years of my life in the Indian sub-continent. I usually go to Varanasi, where I just hang out and soak up the atmosphere, and to Tiruvannamalai, were I meditate at the Ramana Maharshi Ashram  at the feet of the holy mountain Arunachala. I must have spent months in each place, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit them again and again.

In the past I would also sit and learn from Ramesh Balsekar, a follower of Nisargadatta Maharaj, who himself became a teacher. He died in 2009. I must say also that even though I still practice Vipassana meditation concerning Eastern traditions I feel much closer to Hinduism then to Buddhism today. I am a lot more Bhakti oriented then I was when I started my journey…

Addenda- Here is an account of one of Persico’s experiences in  Tiruvannamalai.

2) How did you rediscover the Jewish tradition of practice, texts, and experiences?

I started being interested in the Jewish tradition simply because it made no sense to me studying translated Sanskrit and Pali texts when I can read ancient religious texts in their original language. Add to that the fact that it was my own mother tongue, and it really seemed absurd not taking a close and serious interest in the Jewish sources.

So I took up any course or program that I could find. I studied with Rabbi Ofek Meir (today the Director of the Israel Rabbinical Program in Jerusalem’s HUC) In a year long course about the Jewish tradition in Haifa, then for two years in the Hevruta Beit Midrash in the Hebrew University with Rabbi Shimon Deutsch. (which really engendered in me a great love for the Talmud), and I also took almost any academic course I could in Jewish Studies all through my BA and MA, studying with gdoylim such as Moshe Halbertal, Moshe Idel and Shalom Rosenberg. That made for a great background in Talmud, Kabbalah, Hasidism and Jewish Thought on which I could further independently build more.

But I came closer to the Jewish tradition for more fundamental reasons. From Buddhism and Advaita I learned how much of an illusion our separate sense of self is. I never believed in an eternal, individual soul (and still don’t), but understanding deeply that there isn’t any inherent separate self, any “little man” inside us, led me to recognition of the important place of society in our individual formation and existence. We are more or less the sum of the influences on us. And indeed, the Buddhist tradition places the Sangha, the community, as equal in importance to the Buddha and the Dharma. Now the Jewish tradition is a tradition of community building, if not nation building. Finding this of tremendous importance, I went through a renewed evaluation of it.

Another great thing about the Jewish tradition that I found is its groundedness. It is very down to earth, not only in that it gives importance to the body and its actions, but in a very fundamental way that it seeks divine work in the here and now, in this world. It does not picture the ideal in another world, somewhere “out there” or “above”, but in this one. This for me helped get over a very common spiritual trap, when seekers take this world (material existence, the body, the mind, etc’) as an obstacle on the path to the divine, instead of seeing it as the most perfect manifestation of the divine.

For these two reasons (but not only them) I came to greatly appreciate the Jewish tradition, and to develop a feeling of responsibility towards it. I felt there is something here that needs to be preserved, nurtured and developed. I took to studying it (yes, Talmud, Halakha, philosophy) and practicing it (I would call myself “Masorti” in my observance).

3) Why do you think there needs to be sangha- a practice based in community?

I believe a sangha is essential of course, and a sangha for the non-orthodox is divided into two levels. The first is simply the nation, and by that I don’t mean the ethnic collective but the body politic of the nation state that one is part of. This is your larger community in which you have to act, on which you have to influence and which you have to support and better. This means that you can’t hide in a closed community like the Haredim. You must be a part of the time and place you live in. you must be a part of the general, common, day to day society, experience the same problems and work together for the mutual good. I try to do my part as an activist and an intellectual in Israel.

The second level is the closer, more like-minded community, which, I admit, for the non-orthodox in Israel is harder to establish. There are of course many non-orthodox communities, but they lack the matter-of-factness that comes from a mutual commitment to a defined traditional structure.

I am a part of the Hartman institute, and for me that is a sangha I am a part of, and I of course have my circle of friends. But the Jewish renewal in Israel will indeed have to learn to create communities. It already does so here and there, but not enough. By the way, here is where the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel can help – by giving the foundations and structure needed for community building for the non-orthodox.

4) You currently perform Jewish weddings in Israel. Is that legal? Why do people come to you?

I perform Jewish weddings as part of my activism for freedom of religion in Israel. The law here restricts the prerogative to conduct weddings to the Chief Rabbinate. As such, Jews cannot marry non-Jews, and those disqualified for marriage (psulay chitun) such as mamzerim and kohanim with divorcees. There are also a few hundred thousand not-Jews-according-to-Halakha that came to Israel via the Law of Return that cannot marry in their own state. It’s a tremendous grievance. Of course, many others simply don’t want an orthodox Rabbi under their chuppah. Me and my friends in Havaya organization (an organization that performs non-orthodox life-cycle events without payment) , as well as the Reform and Conservative movements, give them another option.

The weddings that I conduct do not register in Israeli Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the couples by law are only Common Law married. They are also, if halakhicly valid (not all couples care or want that of course) against the law can be punishable by up to two years in prison. This ludicrous law will never be enforced, but it shows you the level of hysteria the Chief Rabbinate is in. And indeed, the numbers and percentage of weddings out of the Chief Rabbinate are constantly growing.

The changes almost always requested concern the role of the bride. In the wedding that I perform, the bride gives the groom a ring and also says something to the groom, before or after he does. Also the Ketubah is usually changes- no kinyan, or buying of the woman, and there must be mutual, shared commitments and aspirations for the future.

Some couples also have a problem with the “Im Eshkachech” Jerusalem part at the end of the chupah. With all these we work in a dialogical way. We don’t want to make up a whole new chupah up. But we do want to stand under a chupah and conduct a marriage that speaks to us, that is meaningful to us, that does not insult our intelligence or our values. It’s always a work in progress and always a sort of compromise, because for most of those getting married the tradition is also important.

5) Do you see yourself as a form of liberal clergy?

Yes, I do. I do not call myself a Rabbi, but that is in part my function in my society. Basically we see all over the Western world the move from denominations memberhood to non-identification (aka, “the rise of the Nones”). Most of the people who refuse to identify with any organized denomination are far from being atheist and still need “clergy” for different functions. The clergy thus is also best when non-denominational, and really “charismatic” in character. I believe Max Weber would have been pleased with the turn to the charismatic.

[AB- Max Weber actually thought charismatic and Romantic religion was dangerous. If the rational  bureaucracy becomes sterile or if it loses sight of the ultimate end, Weber advocated a return to local rational organization.]

6) With all this religion, why do you see yourself as secular? What is a secular Jewish identity?

I see myself as a religious Jew. But since I don’t have a religious authority other then myself, I would say that in a very important way I am secular, secularity being less the dropping of belief and praxis and more the transference of different fields of power and knowledge from religious institutions to non-religious ones.

As for secular Jewish identity, I think that at this time it is in a deep crisis. In the states we see that it is very hard to remain a Jew (not ethnically, but culturally, which I think is much more important) without engagement in any denomination, let alone any synagogue/beit midrash centered community. In Israel the collapse of the old Secular Zionist paradigm brought with it the collapse of that paradigm’s “Jew”, meaning the distinct Jewish identity that it espoused.

The Jewish renaissance (described in the last interview) which Israel has experienced for the last two decades is an expression of the renewed search by secular Jews for a Jewish identity to replace the old, crumbling, Secular Zionist one. This make for the great spectrum of Jewish expressions that we see now in Israel, of which I am part of, of course.

7)  Why do you think that this new identity will be based on New Age, Kabbalah, meditation and personal experience?

It will not wholly be based on them. This new Jewish identity is simply very diversified. It is individualistic in principle, and as such likes to tailor-make its Jewish suit, so to speak. Naturally, for many the materials used will be from the New Age expressions of the tradition, such as Neo-Hasidism, Neo-Kabbalah, new Jewish spiritual paths like Yemima (sometines called “Conscious Thinking”, a spiritual path based on the instructions of Yamima Avital (1929-1999), which combines psychological insights with Kabbalistic language), etc’. But for many this identity will be more intellectual and cultural in character, taking from pluralistic Talmud study, Piyut singing and such. Still for others the new Jewish identity, and this we see a lot in Israel lately, is simply an ethnocentric, tribal position, based on the narrowest and least demanding conditions for being Jewish, and displayed by hyper-nationalism, racism and xenophobia. But the New Age translations of Jewish traditions are certainly popular, and satisfy the need for an individual, experiential, connection to the tradition.

8) What is your emphasis on autonomy and authenticity? What do you
apply the quest for authenticity also to the followers of Yitzhak Ginzburgh, hill top youth and Haredi Breslovers? More, importantly, what can secular Israeli learn from them?

Well, first, they apply it to themselves. They use the word “authentic” to characterize their Judaism. Of course, there is no surprise here in my opinion, because as I said in the first part of this interview, we are today at a time were the Western would in engrossed more then ever before in the inner world, finding in it sources of meaning, authority and identity.

What I did in one of my articles on Ginzburgh’s followers and the hilltop youth was to try to show that the roots of their attitude are found in the Romantic movement, and in particular in German Romanticism. Like many today, they also seek an inner experiential validation for their identity, and want very much to be “true to themselves”. Now the Jewish tradition is not really about being true to yourself, but being true to your covenant with God. So they are in a point of tension with their presumed orthodoxy.

Shlomo Fischer has written a few articles about the violence (against Palestinians of course) that is inherent to these groups, and I tried to explain the violence as a way to solve the deep seated divergence between adherence to our inner urges and compliance to heteronomic tradition. What I suggest is that these groups realize the authenticity of their intimate selves by externalizing their most passionate feelings as religio-nationalist violence. This not only allows them to stay within Halachic boundaries but actually enforces the Halacha, as the Halachic restrictions are the very standards by which the division between Jew and Gentile is created, and thus lay the necessary ground for these passions and acts.

In a similar way Breslovers seek inner validation for their religion.I don’t think that on this point the secular Israeli has a lot to learn from these groups, simply because like them, she is also seeking authenticity, and I don’t think their solutions are very good.

9) How has Israel moved from a democracy to an ethnocracy?

The state is nearing the point of becoming a full fledged ethnocracy. Of course, the State of Israel has always been a home for the Jewish people, so many say that it has always been an ethnocracy, but we have to remember that is all streams of Zionism, left and right, there was a prominent liberal-democratic vain. Both Jabotinski and Begin on one side, and Weisman and Ben Gurion on the other, insisted on equal right to all citizens, and indeed understood that that is the only way to insure the legitimacy of the new state.

Really, it has to be noted that democracies do not form by accident. It takes a lot of effort. And that effort was taken. And a liberal democracy was formed. The problem today is that the said liberal vain is waning, and citizenship is replaced by ethnicity as the fundamental building block of the state, as the basic criterion for deciding who gets privileges. Naturally, in a situation like this, when there is a majority of ethnic Jews, other ethnic groups will suffer. All this is coated with layers of Jewish symbolism and imagery, and the Halacha is recruited in order to justify discrimination and racism, so it might seem like Israel is turning into a theocracy, but really there is much more nationalism, ethnocentrism, triumphalism and simple xenophobia then religion here.

10) How is Israel no longer seen as an exemplar society?

I would say the most significant political and moral challenge facing the Jewish State can be expressed by the question how to be faithful to the founding Zionist principle of building a model society in Israel, while forming a modus vivendi with the Palestinian people. Here is the point of tension: historically, classical Zionism, both socialist and revisionist, set to built in the Promised Land not only a safe haven for the Jews all over the world, but an exemplary society. A modern and secular interpretation of the traditional “Light onto the Nations”, the Jewish state was meant to be democratic, egalitarian, gracious and just. The ways in which to reach this ideal were debated, but the vision was clear in essence: the Jewish modern political body would be both a national home for the Jewish people, the expression of their right to self rule and self determination, and the envy and the inspiration of the world.

As we near the 50th anniversary of the conquest of Judea and Samaria, the chance of erecting a border on the 1967 “Green Line”, between the State of Israel and a Palestinian political entity is growing minute, and ever smaller. Whether resisting the founding of an independent Palestinian state comes out of religious views and aspirations, whether it comes out of security concerns, or whether the Palestinians themselves don’t in fact want it, the reality that is taking shape discloses a situation in which between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea about six million Jews are ruling over about six million Palestinians, of which only about two million are citizens holding equal rights.

This situation, in any way it enfolds, spells the end of the Zionist vision. If it remains as it is, it holds the termination of the hope of building in Israel a model society, for no country in which a large minority is denied equal rights in this day and age can be called a Light onto the Nations. On the other hand, if all the Palestinians are given equal rights, the reality of an independent Jewish state is lost, and the Jewish people’s right to self rule and self determination is denied. Thus, even before speaking about any security threats and economic forecasts, a modus vivendi between the Jewish and the Palestinian people that is reached on the basis of the current demographic and political reality expresses the end of the Zionist principle of building a model society.

11) How does Israel regain humanistic values?

The occupation must end. How? Well, basically, the two state solution. Unless we end the forced control of millions of non-citizens there is no hope for a moral Jewish state.

One idea I heard, which for me carries hope, is the idea of a Jewish-Palestinian confederation. In this political alternative there will be two independent states between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, but the border between them will be open, and no individual will be forced to leave his or her home. Both peoples will receive their right to self determination, while the mutual historical and religious yearnings for the whole land will not be denied. Jews and Palestinians will live wherever they wish, but be citizens only of one state. Of course, many questions still remain: how many military forces will exist here? What about the question on Palestinian refugees? What to do with the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif? But I think the direction proposed here is a positive one.

12) Why do you think the future will be the way you described as spirituality when most people are concerned with business, finance, hard technology and reading Globes? Are you not a minority opinion?

I never said we are headed for a spiritual heaven, no… I am a minority view by being a sort of a spiritual seeker.

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(Dont forget to look at his blog.)

Addenda- From Persico’s Maariv article on the problem and need of gurus

Spiritual teachers who gather pupils around them have existed in the Oriental religions for thousands of years, and for a thousand or more in Judaism and Islam. What’s different these days is that while in the past those teachers functioned within a constant, well-known context – that is to say, within a certain spiritual tradition – today there is often no normative framework in which gurus and their acolytes operate. The guru institution has been removed from its traditional context (“traditional” here in more than one meaning) and implanted into conditions foreign to its nature.

This should not be taken lightly. Instead of being surrounded by a system of checks and balances that can limit and stabilize him, the Western spiritual teacher in essence develops his spiritual path on his own, and therefore does not enjoy the benefit of previous generations’ experience, nor is his will bound by traditional laws and restrictions. If in the past the guru would ask the student to yield to his will on the authority of a tradition of which he was but a link, today’s guru asks his disciples to submit to him alone, and solely to his own authority. Instead of joining a veteran spiritual heritage that has withstood the test of time, today’s student binds himself to one person, original and perhaps special, but not necessarily very intelligent or responsible, and in more miserble cases merely a charlatan. Who will question his every whim? His conscience, one would hope, but sometimes he lacks one, or the spine to obey it, and the consequences can be dire.

What we see here is the magnification of the well-known problem of contemporary spirituality. Alongside the freedom to take different ideas and practices from various traditions and mold the spiritual path best suited to the individual, and alongside the personal discipline which spiritual seeking without a set tradition requires, there are the drawbacks deriving from inexperience and a lack of boundaries.

And yet, a wholesale rejection of the guru institution is a solution not only devoid of real probability, but also speaks of a simplicity and lack of understanding. Spiritual teachers exist not only, as detractors would have it, because people like to surrender their freedom or fear loneliness. The spiritual teacher exists because this institution does indeed help us discover new things about ourselves.

Tomer Persico Interview – Part I : Jewish Meditation

Tomer Persico knows the insides and outs of the contemporary Israeli religious scene. He is a keen observer of the various spiritual trends in both Orthodox and secular society writing about them in the media, in scholarly articles, and on his important blog. He writes a widely read blog, — occasionally he writes in English for his English language blog or his posts are translated in English by the papers, but the good stuff is in Hebrew–which presents an entrance into the many facets of contemporary Israeli spiritually.  I know some people who only read my blog and his blog. If you don’t know about his blog, then you should. Besides, observing the religious world, Persico teaches at Tel Aviv University and is a fellow at the Hartman institute. His voice is a growing influence in Israeli culture as an exemplar, in that, he is a secular Israeli who turned to Jewish spirituality who provides the Israeli audience with a glimpse into the best (and worst) of Judaism.

In addition to his social role, Persico recently released his first book, based on his Tel Aviv University doctorate, on Jewish meditation. In order to cover both of these aspects well, this blog will have two posts dedicated to Tomer Persico, today we will discuss his new book on meditation and in a follow-up post we will discuss his spiritual journey and religious views.

Persico’s first book was just published as Jewish Meditation: The Development of Spiritual Practices in Contemporary Judaism [Hebrew] —available here. The book is a 500-page opus surveying the entire history of Jewish meditation creating a new and fresh perspective on the history of Jewish religiosity by surveying actual spiritual practices, similar to many a book on Buddhism or Hinduism. Persico provides his own typology of different types of meditative practice in order to compare the different approaches. The book starts with a rapid survey of medieval positions, then moves to showing the Hasidic practices as part of a world historic turn to interiority. He takes a serious interest in the Piesetzna Rebbe and  Menachem Eckstein as the dawn of modern practices. The latter half of the book presents the American counter culture, Jewish Renewal, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi as the sea-change of a new Judaism culminating into a flowering of various new age, Neo-Hasidic, Jewish renewal, and Israeli new age spirituality. Finally, the work surveys contemporary forms of Jewish meditation in Israel including various Chabad, Breslov, the reception of Aryeh Kaplan, and new age practices.

The author brings to the topic a mastery of the literature, an exceptional ability to understand religious phenomena, a sensitivity to the psychological aspects of the study of meditation, and a deep familiarity with the literature in religious studies on varying levels of consciousness.

meditation book

The book should be read by all those interested in Jewish mysticism, kabbalah, and Jewish spirituality. Even the casual reader would gain from skimming the topics of personal interest. The first run of a thousand copies sold out quickly. The non-Hebrew reading public deserves to have this book translated into English, (especially if you know of a donor) but the Hebrew length would produce an 800 page English book. The work will stand as a reference on my shelf for both its content and vast bibliography.

Persico sees himself as part of, or offshoot of, Jewish Renewal in an expanded definition, in that, he is seeking a path of Jewish spirituality after the paradigm shift to an open and individual life. The same way the New Religious Zionists started after the breakdown of the older vision in the 1990’s, so too the older secularism brook down into an Israeli New-Age. But in Persico’s journey, Aryeh Kaplan and Hindu meditation were also equally important, and he integrates the wisdom of both Rav Aharon Lichtenstien and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

The book has a clear thesis in seeing the turn of contemporary Judaism in the last half century as a shift toward a more internal religion of meditation and inwardness. This thesis has two parts: the first is showing the various expressive, utilitarian, and new age ideas that have found their way even into traditional practices. The second is the sea- change of civilization from a transcendent external religion to one of internality and spirituality. At many points, this thesis of religion overtakes the interest in meditation.

The first one is about how the counter-culture begat the New Age and Jewish Renewal begat the Israeli New Age began the Haredi appropriations of the New Age.  His unified approach does not get involved in the diverse and contradictory cultural settings of current practices showing their functional use in a given age. He uses an abstraction of New Age as a unified concept without the thick description of LSD, progressive politics, self-help literature, Burning Man, and La Leche leagues nor the breakdown into decades and contradictory trends. For English readers, who want to know more about the turn to spirituality in the last fifty years, I recommend Robert Wuthnow’s now classic After Heaven: Spirituality in American since the 1950’s (1998) and for more examples of the self-development utilitarian reframing of traditional practices in our era of late modernity, I recommend Véronique Altglas, From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage.

The second part is that Persico sees an evolution of civilization  from the former religious age to what Charles Taylor calls in his recent seminal work of the same title The Secular Age, where religion is now immanent in personal meanings and moral orders, which Persico links to the New Age in influence and varieties. Taylor, however, was discussing the entire Western culture not just New Age and spirituality. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s paradaigm shift and Taylor’s imminant frame are not the same. In my opinion, Persico selectively focuses on meditation and does not situate the change as part of a much bigger global shift that also includes the interiority of contemporary novels, Korean Pentecostals, Heaven is for Real, Anne Lamont, Rick Warren, and Stuart Smalley. Persico’s book links microstudies on specific forms of recent new-age spirituality with the macro-study of an overall progression of eighteenth to twenty-first century secularism and now post-secularism. They should have remained separate. In addition, most Jewish Renewal spirituality is of song, emotions, non-duality, and healing not meditation or techniques of bettering self.

I have many minor differences and corrections from Persico’s approach that do not detract from his accomplishment but I must point out the Musar movement is glaringly missing except for one page and musar has the most techniques that we call mediation  from Rabbis Israel Salanter and Dessler to the rise of American new age musar.

In conclusion, the important upshot of Tomer Persico’s writing is to stop thinking that contemporary usage of Hasidism by modern Jews either as Neo-Hasidism or neo-Chassidus or even as a hasidic meditative technique is just a phenomena of retrieval or the direct usage of eighteenth century Hasidism idea today. Persico’s approach is to be honest about the new approach as part of contemporary and not to pretend one is doing pre-modern practices or teaching pre-modern ideas. The new Hasidic usages are part of New Age ideas, goals, and practices that make use of or are grafted onto older traditions but should be explained as part of contemporary spirituality.

My English readers can find an ample taste of Persico’s approach in his online articles. For example, he discusses the utilitarian self of inner transformation and self-improvement in contemporary Israeli spirituality to show how it transformed contemporary Breslov practice. Or in another article, this time on romantic expressionism and contemporary spirituality that weaves together into a single whole Rabbi Menachem Eckstien, Rav Shagar, Rav Ginzburgh, and contemporary Breslov teachers.


1)       Why start with a quote from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein quote from the Orthodox Forum?

I take Rabbi Lichtenstein as a well known authority not only on Halakha, but on the dialogue between Halakha and the modern world (“Tora U’Mada”, etc’). Lichtenstein writes: “The antinomy is real and the tension immanent”. The quote shows explicitly how for him there is a fundamental tension between law and spirituality. I wanted to lay the ground from the beginning that we are dealing here with two equally important principles that cannot wholly overlap. Later in the book I of course develop the fruits produced by this tension.

2)       What is the purpose and innovation of your book?

The purpose, first of all, is to present for the first time a panoramic, academically valid, map of the, so to speak, major trends in Jewish meditation. As a scholar of contemporary spirituality I focused on seven teachers of Jewish meditation that worked in the 20th century and work today, but in order to understand the roots of their practices I had to uncover what was before them of course. Next, I wanted to analyze the social and cultural forces behind the changes and different vectors that the Jewish meditative tradition went through and towards.

Now, in order to demonstrate the changes in and between meditative traditions, and in order to competently compare Jewish meditative traditions and meditative traditions from other religious traditions (and so also determine were there has been influence or a wholesale appropriation of techniques) I had to devise a typology of meditative methods (and of the mystical states that they aspire to lead to). That is also, I feel, an important innovation of the book.

The book, therefore, contributes to current research on three areas: that of the study of Jewish mysticism and contemporary spirituality by presenting and analyzing past meditative traditions and central contemporary representative teachers of meditation; in the area of the study of mysticism and meditation in general, by presenting a detailed typology for evaluating different characteristics of meditative practice and mystical experience; and in the study of Jewish culture by examining the above findings while noting the cultural conditions necessary for the transformation of Jewish meditation, that is through placing them in a general socio-cultural context.

3)      Why include Maimonides and the Early Kabbalah?

I tried to include any instance were a major figure or school laid down instructions for meditation, or that such instructions could be, without too much loose interpretation, be understood from their practice. Maimonides has clear instructions for meditation (such that anyone slightly experienced in mindfulness meditation cannot, I think, miss). Early Kabbalah and Cordovero do not indeed play a part in my book, because of lack of such.  Abulafia gives us the most elaborate and straightforward meditative instructions in the Jewish tradition before the 20th century, and he indeed gets a whole chapter of his own, and There is of course a whole chapter on Lurianic Yichudim and Kavvanot, which I place as techniques connected with a form of mythical thinking that characterize Luria and his group.

4)      How was the 20th century a change? Why are Rabbi Menachem Eckstein and the Piesetzna Rebbe important?

From the beginning of the 20th century, that is beginning with the work of Eckstein and the Piesetzna Rabbi, we find a clear rise in the interest in mindfulness and introspective work. Meditative techniques are much more introverted, delving in, deep in, our psyche. They are also somewhat more focused on bringing calm and clarity, and not ecstasy or an effluence of the emotional life. Eckstein and the Piesetzna Rabbi are the first to exhibit such characteristics. They are also the first to espouse a Neo-Hasidic ethos that is committed to the Halakha (as opposed to Buber’s Neo-Hasidism, for example, that was of course adamantly not committed).

Now why is this so? Well, that’s what I try to elaborate on in the book. In very few words, beginning with the reformation we can see a process in which the North Atlantic culture developed increased involvement and attention with the individual’s inner life, and an enhanced relation to the inner life as a source of meaning, authority and identity. What certain thinkers (my own favorite is Charles Taylor) call “the great subjective turn of Western culture”. This process comes to a sort of peak in the 20th century, and becomes a major cultural movement since the 1960’s.

5)      What was the change of contemporary spirituality and new age? Why is it important and why is it important to your thesis?

During the 1960’s our culture experienced a shift in focus, in which our feelings, experiences, and sense of individual unique identity became sources of meaning and authority for us (more than ever before, and in a significant way, that is). This affected all areas of our life: education, medicine, politics etc’. Of course it also affected religion. The traditional, pre-modern concept of religion as a communal system of habits and values into which one was born and to which one was committed finally gave way and now not only was one expected to choose his “denomination”, but one was internally obligated, as it were, to be totally faithful to his inner convictions and tailor-make an individual spiritual path of his or her own. This is the era that the old, worn out brand “religion” was replaced with the young and hip “spirituality”, and New Age culture became a mainstream phenomenon. Of course this is just a privet manifestation of a much bigger social and cultural process.

Now, the New Age is not only indebted to this process for its popularity, it is also formed by it in essence. The religion of the New Age is a private, internal, expressive and experiential religion. It is very much involved with our inner lives and sees the place of religious action and significance in our emotional and psychological makeup. Following this, the meditative methods that evolved in our era are all concerned with our interiority. This is, by the way, why there is so much appropriation from the Far East – because inner directed meditation was developed there long before it was in the West, and they can offer us great traditions of such spiritual practices. Now Judaism of course is not divorced from the cultural transformations of the West, and as such developed an interest in inner life as well. What I try to analyze in my book is how that interest played out. What meditative methods were developed, how past traditions were reconstructed, and where and when were foreign, mainly of course Eastern, practices imported and converted.

6)       Why is Jewish Renewal important?

It is important because is displays one way that the Jewish tradition responds to modernity, and in particular to the developments I mentioned above. Jewish Renewal is a vibrant and complex cultural phenomenon that seeks to integrate our contemporary sensitivity to psychological and emotional life with the Jewish tradition, which historically, except for Hasidism, did not give much space for psychology or emotions. The challenge is thus not small. Look at the transformation Reb Zalman has made in his life and in the lives of others. As he would say, it’s about a “paradigm shift”, which involves a translation of the Jewish tradition into an non-exclusivist, but inclusive and egalitarian, world religion. As mentioned above, there is also an inherent tension here, between important elements of the tradition like Halakha and this modern direction. Jewish Renewal deals with this tension many times by letting go of Halakha, and at other times by translating ritual and mitzvah to spiritual language. This is also an interesting development worth studying.

As for me, I see myself a part of the Jewish Renewal. I am a spiritual seeker in the Jewish tradition, trying to base my relationship with the divine on Jewish ground. I am also convinced that inner transformation is essential for true spirituality, and that outer obedience to the Halakha, however important, is not all that God demands of us. I therefore seek a Jewish Spiritual path, and the Jewish Renewal offers quite a few options towards that goal.

7)      How did the New-Age come to Israel? Why is it important?

The New Age came to Israel only in the 1990’s. Very briefly, since the 1980’s changes in the economic thought and structure, in the political system, in the justice system and in Israeli demographics led to abandoning the Zionist secular socialist republican ethos that characterized Israeli society under the rule of the old Labor movement, (Mapai), and encouraged the rise of a liberal, indivisualist ethos. Mainly I would say that developments in the economic sphere (neo-liberalism, privatization) were accompanied by parallel adjustments in social and cultural field. Globalization brought not only products but also Western (especially American) ideals and social trends, principally the individualistic ethos of self-fulfillment. The Israeli individual now saw herself not as an integral part of the people, drawing its values and goals from the collective, but as an autonomous unit that stands apart from society, and indeed before it both ontologically and ethically.

These developments allowed the privatization of the spiritual quest: the individual was empowered as sole authority in matters concerning her spiritual path and even religious identity. The various elements to fill her spiritual world were gathered from the spiritual marketplace that grew around her. For the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel the religious and spiritual field was diversified and woven into numerous parallel channels. On the other hand, the collapse of the secular Zionist worldview also created the need for a new definition of Israeli Jewishnness (for those who were not Orthodox).

In simple words, the Israeli secular individual now needed to answer for herself how exactly she was Jewish. Some decided it did not matter, and completely ignored the Jewish tradition. This makes for either Israeli cosmopolitanism or Israeli non-Jewish New Age  (e.g. Yoga centers, channelers, etc’).

But some, maybe most, engaged with the tradition from this new perspective. Now this new perspective was of course liberal and individualistic, and it led to a whole new Jewish discourse, sometimes called (depending on the speaker) “pluralistic”, “spiritual”, or “neo-Reform”. It was no longer based on the premise that the Jewish Orthodox establishment faithfully represented the authentic Jewish tradition. Quite the opposite, it wanted to reclaim Jewish heritage – especially Talmudic, Kabbalistic and Chassidic – as a part of secular Israeli identity.

8)       Why was Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan so important and what did he contribute?

Basically Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was the first to bring the Shem Ha’Meforash “Jewish Meditation” into wide public knowledge. When he published his books on the subject it was a great novelty – that indeed, the Jewish tradition was not all Halakha, holidays and yiddishkeit, but had spiritual techniques that the individual could employ in order to spiritually develop. Now Kaplan did this in direct response to the rapidly growing interest in the end of the 70’s with meditation. We have to remember that this is the time that TM (Transcendental Meditation) is teaching literally millions(!) of Americans how to meditate, that ISKCON (a.k.a. Hare Krishna) has long gained popularity and visibility, that Yoga has become widespread, etc’.

Kaplan himself writes explicitly in his Jewish Meditation (published posthumously in 1985) that “Today, many American Jews have become involved in Eastern religions […] and large percentages follow disciplines such as Transcendental Meditation.” So that no doubt troubled him, and he sought to answer this problem (from his point of view of course) by presenting Jewish meditative methods. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most common method he teaches in his books is Mantra meditation.

9)       What did Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi contribute?

In my book I write about Reb Zalman’s contribution to the Jewish meditative field, and he of course contributed much, much more. Being arguably the central pillar of the Jewish Renewal movement from its beginning, there is a lot we can say about Reb Zalman. But if we limit ourselves to meditation, it must be noted first that Reb Zalman did found the first meditation group and publish the first meditative manual of the Jewish Renewal. The “Chapel Group” in Winnipeg where he taught (in Manitoba U), and from which came in 1958 the booklet The First Step, with Chabad style meditative instructions accompanied with some of the Piesetzna’s guided imagination exercises. He actually got a Haskama from the Lubavitcher Rabbi on that text. But his later work, such as Paradigm Shift (1993), Gate to the Heart (1993) and The Gates of Prayer (2011), is of course much more important. In these he lays out a fully developed system of meditation, still in dialogue with Chabadic meditation but also integrating Buddhism mindfulness methods. Indeed, with Reb Zalman we can see a movement over time from Chabad style meditation to Mindfulness.

Now what in my opinion is of crucial importance is the openness and honesty with which Reb Zalman introduces non-Jewish methods. He does not hide his intentions and pretends that he “finds” them in the Bible or the Kabbalah, like Kaplan. He says quite openly that he thinks that they are generic spiritual “technologies” that are very valuable and that should be used by Jews today in order to get closer to God. Reb Zalman has a very thought out and sophisticated worldview along which he works, and he is committed to his own and to the different traditions’ integrity. This is a path held also by another important voice in Jewish Renewal, Arthur Green, who speaks about the importance of intellectual honesty.

While I do not follow neither Reb Zalman nor (Prof’ Rabbi) Green teachings as a whole, this is a principle that for me is also very important, and, by the way, looking at it from a sociological point of view, is another religious sign of our times (I mean by that that as modern people we regard authenticity and integrity, being true to ourselves and not “faking it”, as very important. We do not want a religious life that conflicts with different parts of our selves. That is also why we have an ingrained biast against ritual, that for many of us feels “fake” of “mechanical”).

10)    Why is contemporary Breslov so important?

Breslov today is an extremely important social and cultural focal point in Israel. Since the 1990’s it has experienced an unprecedented burgeoning, and is undoubtedly the fastest growing Hasidic group in Israel. It is one of the primary sites for welcoming BT Jews (and indeed, most of Breslov today is Ba’aley Teshuvah), produces the yearly Rosh Ha’Shana festival in Uman that attracts tens of thousands, and is the inspiration of multifarious artistic expressions, with Bratslav oriented singer-songwriters, musicians and poets attracting media attention and a large audience in Israel today. There is really no way not to notice Breslov in some form or another in Israel.

Breslov is also specifically important for my research, as it practices “Hitbodedut”. This is an hour a day practice that Rabbi Nachman laid out for all his followers. Today, the situation being that many Jews, among then many BT Jews, are seeking some form of meditative practice, this one hour observance can be used as an place holder for whatever meditative method a Rabbi would want to insert. There are today a great many different Breslov rabbis, really small scale Hasidic Tzadiks, that lead small circles – some tens or hundreds – of followers and form communities. They differ in spirit and in demographic makup (more or less Haredi, Ashkenazi of Miztrachi, spiritual seekers or community builders, etc’).

In my research I studied two prominent contemporary Breslov spiritual leaders Rabbis Yisrael Yitzchak Besancon and Erez Moshe Doron). Besancon, born in France in 1944, was a student of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Bender, one of the most influential Bratslav leaders of the twentieth century, but today belongs to the “Na-Nach” group, who follow the late Yisroel Ber Odesser. He leads a small community in Tel-Aviv, and is popular amongst National Religious youth.

What I found out is that each diverge from the basic teachings of Rabbi Nachman and teach a more introverted, inner-directed meditation technique. Besancon teaches a more Vipassana-like technique and Doron a mantra based technique (itself based on Aryeh Kaplan’s teachings). Now why do they not simply repeat Rabbi Nachman’s instructions that teach a dialogical, very emotional, very ecstatic meditative path? There are a few reasons for this, but not least is the current wish for introspective techniques prevalent in contemporary spirituality circles.

From a Persico article:

Rabbi Erez Moshe Doron is one of the most popular leaders of the Bratslav BT upsurge. Born in 1962, Doron began his own spiritual quest at the beginning of the 1980’s. He joined the Israeli Union for Parapsychology, and within two years became its chairman. In a popular media interview he recalls he was exposed there to “a salad of ideas: a bit of east, a bit of west, a bit of Judaism.” (Doron eventually started a process of Teshuva, finding his place in the Bratslav community. Today he heads the Lev Ha’Devarim organization for the propagation of Bratslav teachings, and is a self-proclaimed “authority for questions regarding Hitbodedut.”  The defines the latter as a “Jewish method of disconnecting consciousness from the senses and connecting it to the higher worlds. [… Hitbodedut is] a spiritual practice which is able to detach man from tangible reality and connect him to much deeper levels. (Ibid. 30-31)  Elsewhere Doron describes Hitbodedut as “the original and most amazing martial art”, able to overcome “the slings and arrows of the cruel adversary – the arrows of despair, the arrows of negligence, the arrows of deadly sadness or the arrows of vainglory and other anesthetic drugs” (Doron 2008b: 17-18)

Doron’s meditative method is from the Rabbi Nachman’s teachings on Hitbodedut (who never mentions the use of a mantra), and how much they rather resemble Yoga-like concentration based techniques (Persico 2012: 634; Persico 2013).  Hitbodedut is no longer seen as a special period during the day meant to enable the Bratslav Hasid to find intimacy with the divine. It is a method for self manipulation and adjustment. Hitbodedut affects not only the self. Doron describes Hitbodedut as a “weapon”, to be used by the Bratslav Hasid: politically against Ishmael (i.e., the Arab and/or Muslim world) (Doron 2008b: 14), and metaphysically in order to bring about redemption (Ibid. 15). As such it is of course of great importance, and Doron wishes to “open schools for Hitbodedut, where children will systematically and deeply study its ways and gates, and in which generations of warriors of light will be raised, seekers of true freedom” (Ibid. 21).

Rabbi Israel Isaac Besancon was born in France in 1944. After immigrating to Israel he became a student of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Bender, one of the most influential Bratslav leaders of the twentieth century. Today he belongs to the “Na-Nach” sub-court, which follows the late Yisroel Ber Odesser, and leads his own community within it. Located in Tel-Aviv, it is popular amongst young Religious-Zionist Israelis. Besancon teaches that Hitbodedut is “the key of keys”, “the weapon that will allow us to conquer the world”, a “secret”, disclosed by Rabbi Nachman and meant to help the individual Jew reach “personal redemption” (Besancon 2001: 4). Indeed, for Besancon Hitbodedut is the path to “original Judaism”, meant to transform its practitioners into “true Jews” (Ibid. 84).

Indeed, for Besancon what Rabbi Nachman taught is quite similar to Buddhist meditation. “In its essence, the goal of Hitbodedut is to disconnect our consciousness, even partly, from all the stimulations that pull it in different and scattered directions, in order to connect it back to its spiritual root. This temporary disconnection from the noisy surroundings brings calm, mental stability, that help us found personal relationships with our Maker, to learn to be assisted by Him, blessed be He, and to win a measure of Devekut – which promises us supreme spiritual happiness.”

Obviously, the prime objective of Besancon’s Hitbodedut has ceased to be the divine, and is now the human self. It is this self that learns how to utilize the practice for its own well being, while using God to help it on its journey. Hitbodedut for Besancon is a technique for bringing God’s light down into the self. Whereby Rabbi Nachman it as an encounter in which the self annuls itself and rises up to God. I have written elsewhere on the obvious influence of Vipassana meditation on Besancon’s interpretation of Hitbodedut (Persico 2012: 627-430; Persico 2013).

11)    What did Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburgh contribute?

In terms of Jewish Meditation? Not a lot. This was a bit of a surprise for me. Rabbi Ginzburgh, a foremost Kabbalist and a major influence on the religious ultra-nationalists (but anti-Zionists), talks a lot about a “consciousness revolution” as a fundamental step on the way to a full “life according to the Torah” in Israel, so I assumed he also teaches meditative techniques towards that goal. Ginzburgh does teach a bit of classic Chabad meditation and a minor new breathing technique. On the other hand he lays little stress on his followers actually practicing those techniques. It’s really not what you would expect from such a creative person who also admits he has knowledge of Eastern methods, and has had a few mystical experiences.

12)    What are your conclusions from your book? (pages 402-404)

When we take an eagle’s eye view of the different meditative traditions that developed since the first centuries CE we see, as I noted before, a distinct change in direction happening in the first centuries of the 20th century. We see an introspective, reflective direction, we see for the first time (with the possible, arguable, exception of Maimonides) instructions for development mindfulness and awareness, and we see an unmistakable rise in the mystical objective we first found in Hasidism, of what I call (following the philosopher of mind Thomas Metzinger) “manipulation of the Phenomenal Self Model”, which we usually refer to as the nullification of the “I” in Unio Mystica.

Again, the interesting question for me is: So what? What does this mean? What does this say about our culture? Here again I turn to an analysis of the cultural and sociological processes that led to the great subjective turn of western culture.

13)   What are the changes to Western religion that see?

In the Forward to the book I bring a quote from Emile Durkheim, who in the late 19th century already made the important distinction between two different kinds of Religion: The collective, traditional, coercive type, into which one is born and to which one is unquestionably devoted to, and the privet, novel, voluntary type, which one chooses to adopt and is the main authority as to her relationship to. It’s not that in the past the second type was never to be found, but what is special about our time is that it is not restricted to outstanding individuals or elite groups who create esoteric clubs, but is a mainstream and widespread phenomenon.  As I said earlier, a major characteristic of this privet religion is that it is also inner-directed, and sees experiences, intuition and the emotional life as sources of religious meaning and authority.

How did this come about? Well, that’s basically what I try to explain in my book. In very short, it is an organic development of the Christian tradition, who from its genesis (St. Paul) laid emphasis on the inner life of the individual. This increased greatly in the Reformation of course. Add to this the rise of the modern subject, our modern emphasis on autonomy, uniqueness and authenticity not only as needs, as basic conceptions of the way we live, but as ideals and add the death of the transcendental God, killed by the lances of Enlightenment materialism and naturalism – and you get a self-oriented inner-directed religion that seeks meditative methods in order for one to connect not to the heavens, but to oneself or “the God within”.

Read part 2 here.

In His Image –An Interview with Rabbi Yuval Cherlow

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow (Hebrew wiki) thinks there is a need for developing greater sensitivity to the new social and economic issues not legislated by halakhah by turning to ethical literature (mussar) and non-legal rabbinic literature (aggadah). Under these new conditions, “social sensitivities become more significant… If we can only build on this sensitivity, we can create a more just world.”

As a statement of this need for greater awareness of the need for a religious Zionist humanism, he has recently issued a new book called In His Image: The Image of God in Man (Maggid Press, 2016). The blurb for the book exhorts us that  “at a time when religion is distorted to crush, belittle, and negate Man, when personal responsibility is replaced by passive faith, and human endeavor is deemed unworthy, This book “seeks to reinstate on of the fundamental truths of Judaism: the creation of Man in the image of God.” The book “explores the significance of Man’s divine image, and its radical halakhic, ethical, psychological, and existential implications.” Cherlow argues that “Judaism is based on the profound glorification of Man, his strengths and freedoms, rights and responsibilities. A manifesto of Jewish humanism.”

The book is a direct presentation of his moral vision in a volume that should be in every day school and synagogue. We have snippets of his views on society, marriage, interpersonal relations, and moral responsibility. The book is not philosophic or literary like the works of Jonathan Sacks, rather straightforward and geared for ordinary people. The interview below conveys the overarching message but without the dozens of presented cases of the book.


Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a leading Religious Zionist educator, ethicist and activist, was inspired to get involved in social causes following the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. After Rabin’s assassination, however, “I understood that something critical happened and that we should get involved.”

Cherlow thinks that rabbis “must communicate with society at large, not only our community. Communication means that we have to listen, not to come with the attitude that we know everything. There needs to be real dialogue.”

He was one of the founder of the rabbinic group Tzohar. Cherlow is also active in the Takana forum, which confronts sexual abuse in the Religious Zionist community. Cherlow is passionate about organ donation, inspired by his sister, who at the age of 65 recently donated a kidney and saved a life.

He is active in various aspects of contemporary ethics of media, medical, war, social concerns and economics. He composed a prayer for the welfare of the people of Syria and suggested that Israel take in Syrian refugees. Cherlow has argues for workers’ rights and a living wage for workers. He invokes the Biblical story of Sodom as showing a value for today, in that, some “insisted on preserving their high quality of living to such an extent that they established a principle not to let the poor and homeless reside in their city.” He is also for saving the environment. For him the failure to protect the environment “exposes a society driven by consumerism and greed.”

Born in 1957 to parents who made Aliyah in 1949 from Massachusetts, Cherlow was raised in Herzliya Pituach, north of Tel Aviv. He served as a major in the Reserves and studied at Merkaz Harav and Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Rabbi Cherlow is head of Yeshivat Orot Shaul in Raanana, founded in 2013- a successor to his prior yeshiva in Petach Tikvah- a yeshivat hesder, which combines Torah study with service in the IDF. The Yeshiva combines traditional, in-depth study of Gemara and commentaries with an emphasis on discovering the relevance of the Gemara to the personal life of the student, ethics and social responsibility.  This focus, along with classes in Tanach, Jewish Philosophy and Chassidut, and an environment that encourages personal expression, exploration and creativity allows each student to identify his own path in divine service.

(As a side note, a senior Talmud instructor at a major elite Jerusalem high school recently said to me that the overwhelming majority of the students were planning on attending one of three hesder programs: those that wanted modern Orthodoxy chose Rabbi Cherlow’s Orot Shaul, those wanting intense learning chose Yerucham, and those who wanted spirituality and experience choose Tekoa).

This work is direct and conveys an ethical message and it is geared for English speakers. But for those interested in the depth and development of Cherlow’s thought, I recommend his first two books. His first book VeErastikh li Leolam (1994 reprinted 2003), his first book asks: what is the religious image of a person in a time of national rebirth?  And, since there is a wide gap between the modern age and traditional reality- what is the nature of this gap? How do we explain the changes to ourselves?  Cherlow asks the same question as Ramhal (R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, 1707-1747), “what does God wants from us?” But for Cherlow, Ramhal’s 18th century answer and our answer cannot, and must not, be the same. We no longer reside in a world where we live for the world to come

His second book Torat Eretz Israel leOr Mishnat Harieiah  (Yeshivat Hagolan 1997) seeks to define a renewed Torah of the land of Israel (Torat Eretz Yisroel) for the new era. Specifically, how do we balance the concern for the current age with the eternity of the Torah?

In that work, Cherlow gives his four basic ideals of Torah study. (1)Prophetic Torah study is found in the Kuzari’s prophetic Judaism, and Raavad’s claim to have holy spirit (ruah hakodesh) in the beit medrash. When Rav Kook called for the renewal of prophecy, he did not mean actual prophecy but a prophecy method through listening to the inner call, and illuminations of the soul. New visions do not mean innovations but to remove the partitions and blinders of the exile.

(2) Torah study needs to include all human faculties – imagination, desire, feelings, volition-  to brings together the complexities of a person. The goal of Torah study is to become a different type of person, one who is complete and all-inclusive. Cherlow advocates the cultivation of spontaneous intuitions or revelations- to integrate more intuition, than logic. In an intuitive approach, we need to know that we never have certainty about Torah since the infinite source of Torah is never grasped. And thereby, the most important lesson is that one needs to accept that Torah is entirely estimations, even the secrets of Torah are only approximation not absolutes.

(3) Torah has inner meaning, as Bahye ibn Pakudah taught that we need duties of the heart and not just of the limbs. This inner meaning includes reasons for commandments, ethical demands and inner states. Therefore, the study of Torah needs to include Tanakh, Jewish thought, and Kabbalah, to include the duties of the heart.

(4) We have to acknowledge that we currently live in an age of age of national renewal and that must change the way we study Torah. At the destruction of the temple, Torah became confined to the four cubits of halakhah (Berakhot 8), but at this time of national renewal Torah needs to be about expansion.

This current work In His Image:The Image of God in Man (Maggid, 2016) written twenty years after his first book now presents the basic ideas of a seasoned rabbi who gives over his straight message for his listeners. The work is based on the Hebrew edition but has been significantly reworked and rewritten for the English edition.

At the same time that Rabbi Cherlow published this book, Rabbi Yehuda Brandes the current head of Mechon Hertzog College at Har-Etzion published a similar but complimentary work that covers many of the same issues called  Human Rights: The Dialectic between “Image of God” and “Holy Nation. I discussed the work here and interviewed Rabbi Brandes here.

This book In his Image, however, is marred by a very poor translation from someone who knows English words but not usage or syntax. For example, the Hebrew phrase was “Ha-ideologiah shel Torat Eretz Yisrael” was rendered as ” The Torah of Israel’s ideology.”  We discussed the work in a study circle at my home and the group found many passages of fractured structure. Maggid Press, who also publishes Jonathan Sacks and Adin Steinsaltz, should have done a better job.


  1. What is the Image of God?

No expression is more wondrous than Image of God (tzelem Elohim). There is something frightening about telling ourselves that we are created in the image of God. This becomes even more complicated because we believe that God has no body or image. Moreover, we know our weaknesses and faults and to describe ourselves as created in the image of God seems presumptuous and arrogant.

Nevertheless, by saying Image of God we assert that we believe that God created us with special strengths, with a role to protect and develop the Divine creation and manage it according to moral and religious norms. The main similarity between us and the Almighty is the deep faith that we have free choice and are able to both distinguish between good and bad, wrong and right, as well as choose good and reject that which is bad. This is one of the most profound human qualities, which characterizes the singular uniqueness of man. Integrity serves as the compass for our conducting ourselves in the world.

The assertion that we are created in the image of God guides us to examine whether the deed we want to do is tuned to moral principles and is not just a function of base, primitive interests. Technology deals with the question of what we are capable of doing. Ethics deals with what we should do.

2) How is Orthodox Judaism abandoning the Image of God?

An integral component of the valued image of the religious person is self-submission, a sense of lowliness, and the constant reminder of man’s weaknesses. All these are deeply rooted in the entire Torah literature. Already in the Bible (Tanach) we find Abraham stating “I am but dust and ashes”, King David stating “I am a worm and not a man”; the 13th century Letter of Nahmanides (Iggeret HaRamban) commands one to constantly live in a sense of humility and personal wretchedness. That is all true and one should be aware of one’s faults, weaknesses, deficient status within creation etc.

The problem is that attention is given solely to these aspects creating a very jarring disregard of the other aspects of the human person who is worthy in the eyes of God. Abraham, for example, indeed claimed that he was “dust and ashes”. Yet, he made moral claims, even against God; he led war maneuvers against the four kings and his identity is as a man striving for justice and law; King David was a king – he led battles and wars, moral stances, ethical discussions with God etc. In all these, Jewish leaders realized the full scope of their inherent image of God (tzelem Elohim), through courage, wisdom, strength, creation, greatness and creativity.

The problem is not with self-submission, but that other important aspects of the human persona are ignored. When a movement is created within us that also exalts the image of man, that has faith in his ethical and intellectual worlds, that believes it is just as significant to develop his physical, emotional and intellectual capabilities – an entire world of creativity, empowerment, heightened spirit and mainly a sanctification of God’s name, will be opened up to Torah and Halacha adherents.

3) Why is the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the American Constitution important to the Torah world?

Torah is the contact point of man and God’s word. Therefore, it is fascinating to examine what happens when an evil, corrupt, egocentric and aggressive person comes into contact with the Torah. Often, the Torah is able to change his character, refine it and bring it closer to the Master of the Universe and to the complete figure of man. However, frequently, the opposite happens, and the meeting with God and his Torah actually makes one an even worse person, more evil, his faith intensifying his negative qualities. The Sages were very much aware of this and stated that Torah can become the elixir of death and not just that of life. In our times, we know of many movements that carry the name of God, but flood the world with murder, wickedness and cruelty. This informs us of the great danger that lurks for all.

History teaches us that ideological movements risk having their ideologies dazzle them, blinding them to the rights of people and to the image of God intrinsic to them. Therefore, it is critical to protect human rights as well as the basic foundation of man’s dignity and existence.

The Torah itself commands us to do so. It teaches us, from the start, that all people were created in God’s image (b’tzelem); it demands that the entire world be moral, and expresses it in the Seven Noahide Laws; and mainly – it orders us, as part of the commandment to remember the Exodus, to remember that we were slaves, and for that reason we must form an alliance of solidarity with the exploited all over the world. This already appears in the reason given for the commandment of Shabbat, in the Ten Commandments.

Thus, the UN Declaration of Human Rights fits in well with this movement. It stands to reason that were we ourselves to articulate it – there would have been differences, in light of Judaism’s special perception of man and God’s image within him. However, its very existence is an integral part of striving for a more moral world, and one, it follows, that goes more in the path of God.

4) Is there dialogue between Torah and Reality?

Dialogue is constant. By the very fact that the Written Law (Torah she’bichtav) takes place within history, within the real and human world, we learn that this dialogue has been happening all along. Sometimes it is a dialogue of opposition (fighting idolatry); sometimes it is one of partnership (Yitro), but it does take place.

This dialogue continues throughout the entire history of Oral law (Torah she’be’al pe). Can one observe the Jewish greats during the Spanish Diaspora without noticing the dialogue they had with Aristotle, Plato, Sufi Islam etc.? Is it possible to not see the dialogue in our times between the world that surrounds us and Judaism, in all of its shades, including that which wishes to isolate itself and claim that it is not engaged in such dialogue?

Of course, there are different levels of dialogue. I strongly believe that dialogue should be entered bearing a stable, significant backbone, and believing that Torah has a special message for the world in which we live; I believe that one has to be extremely careful about dialogues in which the discourse takes place on a purely “politically correct” level, and in which honest, sincere messages are not said; I believe that care has to be taken to not lose the unique Torah-true, Jewish identity. Nevertheless, such dialogue does take place, whether one wishes and aims for it or not, and whether one is interested in it or not.

5) What is the role of moral sensitivity in Torah?

The greatest articulator of the necessity of engaging with morality was Nahmanides, who taught that a person can formally observe all the Torah commandments and still remain a scoundrel (naval birshut ha’Torah). This possibility exists due to the fact that no legal system – of whatever kind – is able to define morality and introduce it into a carefully-formulated normative system. One’s ethical behavior is based, first and foremost, on one’s “ethical intelligence”, and that is the most fundamental basis for one’s moral character.

I encounter this daily, given the two hats that I wear. The first, central one – the rabbinic hat – acquaints me, not infrequently, with people who are strictly observant about every clause in the Shulchan Aruch, but are basically corrupt people. For example, they do not view the value of decency as a basis for any kind of consideration, believing that if something is not halachically forbidden – then it is both moral and ethical. The Sages were already aware of this, when they revealed to us the behavior of Noach’s peers, who, they maintained, would steal only less than a a penny’s worth (shve pruta)i.e., a steady theft of a sum of money that is under the radar of Halacha. Formally – they observed the law; however, they were corrupt.

I also wear a second hat. I specialize in ethics and serve on different types of ethical committees in Israel, from the Supreme Helsinki Committee for Genetic Medical experiments on humans and other bio-ethical committees, to being a member of the presidium of the Israel Press Council, and lately even published a book that compiles short online answers in these matters. In the ethical world, I clearly differentiate between those who only wish to keep the letter of the law and those whose behavior aims for moral values, which are the basis for proper human behavior.

An example that just recently became public in Israel: It turns out that government and bank officials, entrusted with realizing and selling the assets of defaulting borrowers, purchased these very houses themselves, at very low prices. There is no law that prohibits this, but this is a corrupt thing to do!

Not to mention sexual abuse perpetrated by religious officials, which was also not forbidden by law (since it involved two adults, between which there was no authority-based relationship) and which, shamefully, took place. This is the reason I was among the founders of the Takana Forum ( that dealt with it. Lately, the law has been changed in Israel, but naturally, that, too, does not solve all problems.

6) How do we live with duality in the world and ourselves?

Truthfully, I don’t see any other way. I don’t know of a one-dimensional option. The world God created is so complex and contains so many, varied truths. It contains lovingkindness and judgment, man and woman, Israel and the nations, holiness and secularity, body and spirit and countless other components. How, then, can one think of monolithic reality?

The declaration, Shema Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Echad, contradicts idolatry. In the idolatrous world, every power had a god of its own and one could choose one of the gods and surrender himself to it. We believe in one God, who is the God of the entire world, and the source of the different ideas that exist in the world. We are not permitted to choose one of them, and neglect the one that contrasts it. Consequently, dualism is the only option. There are, of course, different forms of dualism: power struggles, checks and balances, partnership, dialectic movement from one end to the other and many more possibilities. Yet, every attempt to place belief into one, single framework and to present one single idea – is a type of modern idolatry, which totally contradicts the Jewish world.

7) How should we avoid other-worldly forces that reject our role in the world?

The Torah teaches that we operate within the world. Although we believe in miracles, and sometimes even expect them, that is not the political policy that is accepted in Judaism, and in the words of Ramban, “for the Torah will not rely in all of its paths on miracles.” Hence, we are required to build an army, political systems, economic frameworks, a world of medicine etc. in order to operate in the proper manners (derech eretz) of the Torah.

In contrast, the spiritual world of complete trust (bitachon), is presented by the Hazon Ish in his book Emunah U’Bitachon (Faith and Trust).

However, we have no contract with God and He did not promise us that things will be good. We must, as mentioned, operate in the world in the fashion in which the world operates. What we get from the quality of bitachon (trust) is the awareness that everything is possible, and even when it seems that all is lost, we remember that the Master of the Universe is the leader of the world and He has the ability to determine how things turn out. Therefore, we do not despair even in difficult hours and deal with hardships out of deep faith in God.

8) How do we give greater attention to physical pleasures yet balance faith and the physical life?

Note that we don’t find even one place in the Torah that negates the body, its pleasures and human satisfaction. The Torah describes the beauty of our holy fathers, their wealth and power, and views all these as very positive elements. And it deals with them in no small measure. The Torah perceives man as a coherent figure and not as one who is constantly struggling between his physical and spiritual self. At the same time, it does not refrain from warning of the dangers to which physical pleasure can lead. The Torah is not fearful. It teaches us to accept all the good there is in the world and to strive for it, but not to be addicted to it, to be connected to that which is good in an appropriate way and to always remember that there are more important things beyond it.

We, too, have to conduct ourselves this way. To see all the good that exists in the world as something with which we have a connection, and which merits contact, and which makes our life in this world more pleasurable. At the same time, we must constantly remember that it is a part of the overall picture. For that reason, we must not make it the single foundation of our life. There are also laws that pertain to the many physical aspects: Kashrut laws that apply to the gastronomical pleasure; Hilchot Arayot that deal with sexual connections; Dinei Mamonot that deal with wealth etc. It is, obviously, important to remember that some of the commandments pertaining to pleasure obligate us to look after others, and not to consider ourselves alone.

9) How do we work toward equality, universalism and ecology?

First, we have to internalize the fact that these values are deeply rooted in Torah. There is no total identity between these values and Torah (for example, the Torah often mentions “You shall have one manner of law”, which emphasizes equality, but at the same time, it contains many mitzvot which distinguish between Israel and the nations), yet, there are many parallels. For that reason, we must cooperate with all who advance these foundations.

We need to include ecology in our Halachic considerations – for example, pesticides make it possible to eat leafy greens without bugs, but they are very harmful to health and the environment; the commandment of settling the Land of Israel, which also considers the importance of wild animals and open spaces (I am a director in The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which is the largest ecological  body in Israel) etc.. We must develop unique legislation regarding refugees, which takes into account both the capabilities of the State of Israel and our obligation to prevent assimilation in Israel itself, but is also influenced by the commandment to remember our Exodus from Egypt, which requires us to remember what was done to us and be careful to not do the same to others etc. etc. I believe that it is precisely this deep and complex approach which must guide the State of Israel and not extreme approaches in either direction.

 10) How should we relate to the Holocaust and the State of Israel as part of world events?

Two movements must grow from the Holocaust that greatly strengthen each other.

The first movement is one for the resilience of the State of Israel and for turning it into the safest place in the world for Jews. The scar etched in us by the Holocaust obligates us to never fully rely on anybody in the world, and to maintain a political and national entity in which we defend ourselves. I wish to emphasize that I don’t mean an isolated state, but one which engages the world, in the manner that enlightened countries do. However, its primal basis is the concern the safety of its citizens and the safety of the Jewish people the world over. It is very important to greatly strengthen the State of Israel and to be careful about taking risks, that if turn out to be failures – will bring about great destruction to the existential foundation of the Jewish people.

The second movement is the realization that we must partner with the entire world in fortifying those elements that fight against the very possibility of repeating the Holocaust. First and foremost, this should be done by promoting a world in which human rights, individual freedom, human dignity and life, are the fundamental principle that underlies any government. But that is not enough. There is a need to cultivate free media, accessible to everyone, which thereby does not enable processes to take place in the dark; opposition must be cultivated everywhere too, so that there is never excess power accumulated in one place; we need to be participate in international solidarity wherever wrongdoing is perpetrated on ethnic groups etc.

The Torah itself teaches us about the great dangers that are innate to power. In Parashat Hamelech it instructs us that danger lurks for the king, among other things, of “his heart be(ing) lifted above his brethren” (Deuteronomy 17, 20), meaning that the power he yields will corrupt his responsibility for the fate of his citizens. It is important to emphasize: The Torah did not say that due to these dangers there should be no kingdom. Much importance is attributed to power and strength, manifested in a stable, strong rule. Simultaneously, the Torah did not ignore the great risks present in monarchy, and for that reason it ordered the restriction of the power of dominion, in various ways. In Biblical times, this restriction was expressed differently than it is today, but this restriction is vital.

Moreover, the Torah does not grant the king exclusive reign. In the Torah’s set of laws, there are additional public functions – the kohen (priest), the judge and the prophet – and we did not learn the principle of separation of powers from Montesquieu, but from the existence of additional ruling bodies. As viewed by the Torah, even today we need institutions which limit the ruling power, and until we return to the days of prophecy and priesthood, it is very important to us that there be “substitutions” for these institutions.



Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar by Geoffrey D. Claussen

“Man wants to achieve greatness overnight, and he wants to sleep well that night too.”– Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, Alter of Kelm

“Most of us, myself included, let ourselves off the hook too easily in our moral lives.” – Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen

The leading musar teacher Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv of the late 19th century was deeply troubled as he walked along the main road in his town of Kelm, which had been paved by the king’s prisoners sentenced to slave labor. He would  be troubled by their suffering.  “How can people walk calmly through this place,” he wondered, “when people suffered so much and invested their blood and sweat?” Today in 2016, we have labor injustices, workers mistreated and much of the cheap merchandise that we buy is produced by slave labor. But do we have any authoritative traditional Jewish voice that makes Jews sensitive to these sufferings?

Geoffrey D. Claussen, professor at Elon College turns our attention to the moral sensitivity training musar of Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv with his dissertation turned into a book, Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar, which will be issued in paperback next month. The work gives the American college reader a thought introduction to musar in the context of the study of moral philosophy (introductory chapter here).

musar cover

In the late, nineteenth century, the musar movement  found by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin (Salanter; 1810–1883) promoted educational changes that flourished among the elite of rabbinic Lithuanian Jewry, showing that intellectual mastery of Talmudic texts is not enough nor are scrupulous ritual observance or emotional prayer going to help create a meaningful leader, teacher, and rabbi. One needed to work on one’s character  in order to develop moral compassion to the world around them. This musar approach infused the late nineteenth century Lithuanian yeshivot, giving them their severe litvak qualities of self-discipline, self-scrutiny, and moral sensitivity.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv Broida (1824–1898), also known as the Alter of Kelm (the Elder of Kelm), one of the foremost students of Rabbi Salanter and one of the early leaders of the Musar movement who founded and director the Kelem Talmud Torah (1866–1876) and later in Grubin (1876–1886). His outstanding students went on to spread his method, included Rabbis Yitzchak Blazer, Naftali Amsterdam,  and Eliezer Gordon. .

These Talmud Torahs aimed at young adolescents- thirteen and fourteen-year-olds- devoted much of daily study at the Talmud Torah to the study of Musar, while comparatively little time was devoted to the conventional study of Talmud. Rabbi Ziv also introduced general subjects such as geography, mathematics, and Russian into the Talmud Torah curriculum for three hours a day, in order to allow for “better living” and “a better understanding of religious teachings as well.”

With the closure of the Grobin Talmud Torah, the focus of his work shifted back to Kelm, which now regained its former prominence. Rabbi Ziv, the alter of Kelm established a group that was known as Devek Tov comprising his foremost students. There he delivered his discourses eventually edited by his students.

Rabbi Ziv’s discourses emphasized how people are depraved at heart seeking self-interest similar to a Calvinist emphasis on human depravity. Yet, unlike the Protestants seeing a divine grace as the only solution, musar taught that the use of one’s God wisdom ability to grow in wisdom would give one the tools to raise oneself to goodness and we can overcome our blindness to moral concerns Rabbi Ziv encourage the cultivate of the fundamental character trait of lovingkindness to all people: How can you help them? How do you empathize with them? How can you see them as good or potentially good?   The musar approach, which is behaviorist at core, required visualization, introspection and check lists.

As a way of creating character, the Alter of Kelm focused on having a rightly order life. He once came into the school and saw that in the row of galoshes that had been lined up outside the study hall, one of the pair of galoshes was not in line with the others. In light of the event, he dedicated an entire sermon to the need for order.

The windows that faced the street in the study hall were never opened in order to prevent distractions. A noise was once heard outside the study hall. One of the students opened the window and looked out to see what was happening. Rabbi Ziv commented that he did not see that there was any possibility that that student so easily distracted would become an accomplished person (Think of our media, snark, and FB age of distraction).

As in contemporary Japan, the yeshiva did not hire a custodian in that the students had to clean their own dormitory and classroom in order to learn discipline.

The Aler of Kelm also instituted a five-minute seder, for which the students were required to come in specially for five minutes. The sole purpose was to accustom the students to value time and concentrate their thoughts quickly.

Rabbi Ziv taught that the whole world is a classroom where one can learn to improve one’s character and increase one’s belief in God. Rabbi Ziv would frequently quote Socrates, who said that “true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

An example of his ethical teaching is his homily on why Betzalel  was worthy to build the Tabernacle, of which his answer is that Betzalel was filled with  compassion and kindness, and had no inner harshness, whatsoever. The Tabernacle was the place where God revealed His compassion and forgiveness, so it had to be built by someone who had those traits.

The alter of Kelm posted this notice to the Door of the Kelm Talmud Torah before the High Holidays on the importance of spending the holidays working on love of one’s fellow. If you hate someone, then you are fundamentally denying God’s kingship over all rather creating a self-serving division in which you deny God’s kingship from people whom you do not like.

Therefore there is an obligation upon us, prior to the Day of Judgment (may it come upon us for good), to occupy ourselves during the entire year with the positive commandment “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) And through this there will be unity among the subjects of the Blessed Lord, and [God’s] Kingship will come into our hands well . . .

But if (God forbid) the sin of hating people is on our hands, how can we not be ashamed and disgraced to be speaking lies . . . when we ask [in prayer for God to] “rule over the entire world, in Your glory”? We have not prepared ourselves to do what is essential for maintaining the kingdom of heaven in power over us . . . And so we must accept upon ourselves the work of loving people and of unity.

And, if we merit a community that is immersed in this work during the entire year, who can measure the greatness of the merit for us and for the entire world? No one should say that this work is too difficult.

It is good to set aside a place for thinking of this matter every day during prayer. (Translation by Claussen from here.)

Yet,  we need to find out how to adapt this musar for today due to its ascetic or at least puritanical tendencies. For example,  Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein related that the Alter happily lost his sense of taste for a period of ten years since taste is one of the principal means of indulging and seeking pleasure, which is liable to hinder a progress. So God helps his righteousness through arranging special circumstances for them. Levenstein continues by pointing out that in contrast,  in the disembodied spiritual realm unlike the physical there is no immediate pleasure is experienced.  Musar was also highly anti- haskole, anti-modern, and very behaviorally manipulative of the adolescents in its charge.

Geoffrey Claussen has written a wonderful introduction to the world of Kelm musar able to be assigned in a college classroom, which focuses on philosophic questions of morals and ethics. What is the role of wisdom? What is compassion? How does one train a person for morality? I find that my students responded well to Claussen’s focus on morals presented in comparison and contrast with Aristotle, Maimonides,  and Kant. He offers many fine translations of passages and explains to a college audience the value in Rabbi Ziv of Kelm. This work is innocent of any yeshivishness or old world Litvak connection, nor does concern itself with any  insider baseball details of who studied under whom. The book also does not seek to do Russian archival work on the history. Claussen articles after his dissertation are even better in  using the Alter of Kelm in application to contemporary ethical issues, articles available online include: love and empathy, work and wealth,  the dangers of extremism,  compassion for animals, and war.  The article on love and empathy is a concise and fruitful place to see Claussen’s ability to explain and engage in moral reasoning.

In our self- centered age where religion, especially traditional forms of Judaism are expected to give one a fixed moral order through ritual observance, tribal politics, and community identity, musar’s quest for character development has fallen on hard times.


1)      According to Simhah Zissel, what is human nature?

Simhah Zissel describes human beings as naturally inclined to selfishness, cruelty, and pride—to being, in the language of Genesis 6, “simply evil, all the time.”  But he also sees human beings having great potential, given their creation in the image of God, to develop lovingkindness and other virtues through musar, the cultivation of moral discipline.

To cultivate such discipline, one needs wisdom about the depravity of human beings, and also wisdom about human potential.  But merely understanding these two aspects of human nature is insufficient; Simhah Zissel also thinks that one must engage in tremendous efforts so that wisdom can bring discipline (musar) into one’s heart.

2) How are we depraved?

Simhah Zissel thinks that all human beings have “sick souls,” as we are always at risk for acting in depraved ways, and we are always in need of “physicians” (that is, musar masters who understand human psychology) who can help us to identify and manage our sickness.  Such physicians may prescribe a variety of therapies to help their patients; Simhah Zissel and the supervisors who worked with him at the Talmud Torah guided some students, for example, to give particular attention to lovingkindness, and others to give particular attention to their observance of Shabbat.

Simhah Zissel’s closest students joined him in setting aside every tenth day for making special efforts to overcome negative inclinations; they each committed, for example, to find three opportunities to overcome their desires on that tenth day, not to engage in idle talk on that day, and to meditate with appropriate intention on one’s eating during that day.

Simhah Zissel saw all people as tending towards evil and therefore in need of continually guarding against destructive appetites. At the same time that his writings emphasize this inevitable sickness, though, they often also emphasize the potential greatness of human beings.

Even as Simhah Zissel indicates that human beings can never be perfect, he holds out the ideal that human beings should strive to perfect their character traits, always seeking to emulate the ultimate goodness of divine lovingkindness.  He thinks that we all need tremendous dedication to the work of musar—the work of cultivating character— not only because we need to overcome our depravity but also because we are called to strive towards the highest possible ideals.

3) What is practical wisdom?

The particular virtue of “practical wisdom,” gained through experience, is also necessary for figuring out how virtues should find expression for diverse human beings in diverse circumstances.  Thus, for example, Simhah Zissel speaks of the importance of seeking to alleviate suffering in the world, and he urges his students to focus on understanding and responding to the legitimate needs of others.

How should one implement these ideals?  Sometimes, his writings give clear advice on how practical wisdom should guide his students forward.

But his writings suggest that individuals often will have to figure out for themselves how to apply general principles in particular circumstances.  Many questions cannot be easily answered.  When should one focus on one’s immediate community and when on more distant communities?  When should one proceed gently and when should one act harshly?  How should one take care to rebuke those who seem to act wrongly without being overly condescending and proud?  Practical wisdom, gained through continued study and continued learning from experience, is the virtue that will need to be employed in answering these questions in varied circumstances.

4)      What is proper virtue?

Virtues are excellent, stable dispositions, such as lovingkindness, humility, equanimity, reverence, or practical wisdom.  They are acquired through habit and affirmed by choice.  In Simhah Zissel’s view, virtues can emerge to the degree that one’s reason transforms one’s appetites, emotions, and imagination.

Virtues can be cultivated through many different kinds of activities, whether putting on tefillin, observing Shabbat, performing deeds of compassion, contemplating the day of one’s death, or meditating with empathy on the suffering of others.  Even everyday business activities can help to produce virtue, when carried out in a spirit of justice and lovingkindness.  A brief meditation before using money (“I know that my mind is inclined to covet profit; given this, I must constantly beware and strengthen myself so that I do not distort Torah law”) or when asked for a loan from someone in poverty (“see yourself as if you are the poor person, and see whether it would be good for you if the lender refrained from lending”) can help.  But cultivating virtues will never be easy.

Simhah Zissel suggests that even if one can develop somewhat stable virtues, the ideal of full virtue can never be attained by human beings.  Full virtue is divine, and it seems that even the best of human beings—even the greatest of rabbis, even prophets—will always fall short of the divine ideal of perfect, stable virtue, even as all human beings are called to strive towards that ideal.   Even those who seem to have acquired real virtue will struggle to maintain it, because problematic emotions and desires will inevitably resurface.

5)   What is the role of love and compassion? Is it really love of the sinner if he paints the sinner as a wild beast?

Love and compassion stand at the center of Simhah Zissel’s moral vision, and he emphasizes the need to engage in the difficult work of cultivating deep empathy within one’s soul so that one can truly fulfill the commandment to “love one’s fellow as oneself”—as naturally and spontaneously as we typically love ourselves and care for that which is ours.  Thus, for example, Simhah Zissel describes the ideal of feeding all who are hungry with the same commitment that we ordinarily show to our own families.

Since we privilege ourselves and those dear to us over others despite the commandment not to do so, inappropriate levels of love for ourselves and that which is ours constantly compete with love for the other. And so Simhah Zissel sees “self-love” as a central obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s commandment to love.

He also sees the commandment as requiring both attention to the physical needs of others and also to their spiritual needs—showing empathy for their moral situation, even seeking to love sinners and to help them to overcome their vices.  Yes, that includes caring for those sinners who seem like “wild beasts.”

Sometimes the sinners whom Simhah Zissel condemns are, say, non-traditionalist Jews whom he saw as threatening the piety of traditionalist Jewish society.  In this condemnation, I see a kind of self-righteousness at work, the kind of self-righteousness that characterizes many of us when we feel threatened.

Simhah Zissel could surely have done better in living up to the ideals of love that he espoused—his stress on the need to see the good in everyone, his concern that reproof of others may be easily motivated by self-love, his argument that love requires seeking to truly understand the perspectives of others.  But even if I think he struggled to live up to his ideals, I admire not only the ideals but also the way that Simhah Zissel aspired to be critical of himself and to find ways in which he too could improve his own character.

6)  Can you give the reader a really good teaching of Simhah Zissel’s that will touch the readers soul?

I love the way that Simhah Zissel tells the narrative of Moses’s transformation from a prince in Pharaoh’s palace to a prophet, and I think that it well illustrates Simhah Zissel’s conception of how Musar practice can be transformative.

He imagines Moses “seeing the sufferings” of Israel (Ex. 2:11) as a process of Moses meditating on the suffering of the slaves, keeping their experiences before his eyes and feeling their pain “as if he himself was in such pain.”  Moses comes to “share the burden” of the slaves—to feel the burdens of the slaves weighing upon his own shoulders, and to do what he can to alleviate those burdens. When he then flees to Midian, Moses also feels the sufferings of Jethro’s daughters, sharing their burden and seeking to protect them; as he comes to work as a shepherd, he feels the suffering of his sheep, sharing their burden and seeking to care for them; as he encounters God in a burning bush, he feels God’s suffering and is called to reduce it by bringing Israel out of slavery and by conveying the Torah to them.

Moses is, here, a musarnik, attentive to the needs of all who are in need (his own people, other human beings, non-human animals, and God), and he takes the time to cultivate the meditative state of mind that makes this attention possible.

7)       What is new in your book- that is not already in prior works?

Dov Katz describes Simhah Zissel’s life and thought in his study of the Musar movement (Tenu’at Ha-Musar), but whereas Katz takes a traditional approach, I seek to take a more critical approach.  I also offer a more philosophical analysis of Simhah Zissel’s moral vision, and in taking this approach I build on  Tamar Ross’s dissertation, a dissertation that does outstanding work in analyzing the thought of a range of Musar movement figures (Israel Salanter, Joseph Bloch, Yerucham Levovitz, Yosef Yozel Horowitz, and Eliyahu Dessler, along with Simhah Zissel).  I accept Ross’s analysis of Simhah Zissel as a thinker who respects autonomous human reasoning and as a “semi-consequentialist”—one who thinks that not seeking personal satisfaction in fact yields the greatest satisfaction.

I explore and expand on these ideas, but I also focus much of my attention elsewhere.  I give particular attention to Simhah Zissel’s conception of love as a virtue and his concerns about the difficulty of cultivating and sustaining proper love for others.

I also give substantial attention to his discourse surrounding philosophy and philosophers in general, and Aristotle in particular.  And I find using Aristotelian categories to be particularly productive for analyzing Simhah Zissel’s thought, especially in light of his own interest in Aristotle.

8)       How did he use Aristotle yet differ with him? How does he at the same time mock the philosophers and at the same time claim to be their heir?

Simhah Zissel’s general conception of virtue is highly Aristotelian, and at times he makes it clear that he has learned from Aristotle’s writings directly.  When he explains the concept of practical wisdom, for example, he refers his readers to Book 6 of Aristotle’s Ethics.  As he discusses his conceptions of virtue and human happiness, he periodically notes that he is following the approach of Aristotle or, more generally, “the approach of the philosophers.”

Simhah Zissel sometimes depicts Aristotle as a kind of musar master—Alexander of Macedon’s “special teacher for musar,” as he puts it at one point.  He celebrates other philosophers as well, for example depicting Socrates as precisely the kind of sage praised by the Talmud (a sage who is better described as a “disciple of the sages” because he is always learning).  And Simhah Zissel also offers particular praise to the German neo-Orthodox Jews whom he saw as appreciating the path of the philosophers (and the importance of general studies in Jewish schools) more than his fellow Russian Jews did.

But sometimes when he praises Aristotle, he quickly pivots in order to point out that Aristotle was overly focused on self-love, or that Aristotle—because he didn’t have access to the perfectly rational Torah—lacked many insights that are familiar to all Jews.  Simhah Zissel clearly wanted his students to admire certain characteristics of the philosophers, but he also clearly wanted them to see the superiority of the path of the Torah over all other paths.

I should also note that there are substantive differences between Simhah Zissel’s teachings and those of Aristotle.  For example, Aristotle does not think that human beings are naturally inclined to evil, as Simhah Zissel did.   Simhah Zissel sees the human soul as fundamentally “sick,” and he sees virtue as far more fragile than Aristotle (or Maimonides) did.  For Aristotle, character traits can be quite stable; Aristotle did not think that people of real virtue need to constantly beware that they will act viciously.  For Simhah Zissel, by contrast, one’s evil inclination can always rise up to challenge whatever stability one might achieve, sometimes producing surprising behavior.  The person who consistently acts with generosity in giving charity, for example, may suddenly revert to inexplicable miserliness and cruelty in certain situations, perhaps sparked by something rooted in his or her subconscious from a young age.  For Simhah Zissel, even the most virtuous of people need to be on guard against this kind of possibility.

9)      How is he authoritarian and anti-modern?

Dov Katz suggests that Simhah Zissel often downplayed his authority—for example, refusing to let his students address him with the title of “rabbi,” or gladly welcoming the insults and accusations of others.

But he clearly had a strongly authoritarian side, setting up a yeshiva with a system of “supervisors” who would watch over students and carefully look for signs of their moral development or moral weakness, expelling students who challenged the yeshiva’s orthodoxy.  The Talmud Torahs that Simhah Zissel led were clearly designed as insular institutions that could protect and preserve traditionalist values and Orthodox dogmas  and keep out modernity. Simhah Zissel’s writings are often quite dogmatic. I do think that this takes away from his message; I argue that in my book that Simhah Zissel could have better exemplified the values of humility, self-criticism and philosophical reasoning that he claims to have championed.

10)      Does he see all rabbis as tainted by their own moral vices?  Even the rabbis of the Talmud? If he acknowledges that the Talmudic rabbis were tainted then does that make contemporary gedolim higher than many rabbi of the Talmud?

Simhah Zissel indicates that most rabbis are not fit to be rabbis, because—as he learned from Israel Salanter—a rabbi “needs to perfect his character traits” in order to make legal judgments that convey God’s perfectly rational and loving will.  It is clear that, in his view, even the greatest sages always need to work on their character traits, and are always in danger of letting their appetites overcome their rational capacities—“even the best of them can revert to being reborn with a cruel nature.”  Even the sages of the Talmud are not called “sages,” but are called “the disciples of the sages” (talmidei hakhamim) because they are always seeking to learn and to improve.  Even Moses lacked complete wisdom, such that he needed to be rebuked by his father-in-law Jethro.

Still, Moses was as close to perfection as anyone can be, and the laws he transmitted were ultimately to be obeyed on pain of death; the Talmudic rabbis were qualified to articulate God’s will precisely because they had improved their character traits to a tremendous degree.

Would a contemporary musar master who nearly perfected his character traits be on the level of the Talmudic rabbis, or even on the level of prophets?  This seems to be the implication of Simhah Zissel’s teachings, and later students of his Kelm Talmud Torah—most prominently, Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler—certainly emphasized that true musar masters were uniquely qualified to convey the truth (da’as Torah) and were to be obeyed just as prophets must be obeyed.  Simhah Zissel does not convey the same confidence that any contemporary rabbi could reach this level, but he certainly holds it out as a theoretical possibility.

11)    How do you use Simhah Zissel’s message of the Golden Calf incident as a modern message showing the need to not be stiff necked rather self-critical?

Simhah Zissel notes that God condemns Israel after their worship of the Golden Calf above all for their stiff-neckedness—as Simhah Zissel understands it, their inability to accept criticism, to change, and to grow.  The people of Israel were fixed in their habits, convinced of their own righteousness, unable to accept truths that contradicted their own experiences.  Studying the Golden Calf story, Simhah Zissel thinks, should inspire us to turn away from the assumptions to which we have been habituated.

I deeply appreciate how Simhah Zissel sees this story—and so many other stories in the Torah—as a story that can remind us of our own fixed assumptions and the ways in which we could be more open-minded and self-critical.  But it’s also important to me to recognize the limits to Simhah Zissel’s own ability to be self-critical.

I end my book by reflecting on Simhah Zissel’s inability to question assumptions about the perfection of the Torah as he understands it.  I do think that a better model of musar would acknowledge the imperfections of the traditions to which we are heir—studying those traditions critically can help to make one more open to criticism, less convinced of one’s righteousness, less fixed in one’s assumptions.

As I suggested in a recent essay on this theme, not only questioning oneself in light of authoritative traditions but also considering critical questions about how those traditions have been constructed and their authors’ particular interests can be an important way “to accept criticism, to change, and to grow.”

12) There seems to be a revival of musar around JTS and some Conservative rabbis, can you describe this revival?

I wouldn’t say that such a revival is widespread, but there have been significant efforts by a number of teachers and institutions that have generated interest among Conservative rabbis in musar practice (involving the disciplined attention to character traits) based on models from the 19th century Musar movement.  My teacher Rabbi Ira Stone taught at JTS for a number of years and promoted a vision of musar practice there (and subsequently at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and now through his Mussar Leadership Program).  Stone’s model of musar practice and his focus on lovingkindness are very much grounded in Simhah Zissel’s teachings, though he has developed an alternative, non-orthodox theological framework that draws on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.

Another influential musar teacher for Conservative rabbis and lay leaders has been Rabbi Shmuel (Richard) Lewis, who for a decade held weekly musar lectures and dialogues with students at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he was Rosh Yeshiva, focused on inspiring students to greater piety.  Rabbi Amy Eilberg has been teaching musar practice in a variety of contexts, and has developed a model of musar practice focused on conflict resolution in her book From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace.  JTS has also received funding to support musar practice at the Seminary through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Tikkun Middot Project (funded by the John Templeton Foundation).  And while the Mussar Institute led by Alan Morinis has taught Musar practice to a wide range of Jews, with particular success in the Reform movement, they are also sponsoring a workshop later this month specifically to train Conservative rabbis committed to bringing musar groups to their communities. I don’t think, though, that at this point such groups are any more widespread in Conservative than in Reform, Reconstructionist, or other non-Orthodox contexts.

13)   Do you think this is really a message for American Conservative Jews who are basically tribal and at the same time not virtuous, without a sense of depravity, and without a need to work on themselves?

When I’ve described a “revival” of non-Orthodox interest in the legacy of the Musar movement in America, I’ve tried emphasize that this revival is small, counter-cultural, and unlikely to spread widely.  That’s especially true among aging American Conservative Jews whose Jewish identity is expressed in largely tribal terms and who are not eager to commit to years of slow and disciplined critical introspection.  Nor will this path be appealing to younger Jews who are only interested in nonjudgmental forms of spirituality.  And there’s certainly no appetite among American Jews of any stripe for the sort of 19th century Musar that emphasizes human depravity and the need for submission to authority.

But it’s not surprising to me that many younger rabbis, who do see Jewish tradition as a path towards love and moral sensitivity and who appreciate the value of disciplined practice, are disproportionately attracted to aspects of the Musar movement’s legacy.  And it’s not surprising to see some broader interest among non-Orthodox American Jews, especially among those who are interested in forms of Jewish spirituality focused on individual transformation that can happen outside of conventional Jewish communal settings.

14)   What are his ideas on wealth and how can they be used as both self-centered prosperity gospel by Daniel Lapin and for liberal love of others by American Jewish World Service.

Simhah Zissel devotes considerable attention to the importance of developing qualities of empathy and responsibility towards those in need, and the writings and practices he advocates can serve as a source of inspiration for many contemporary Jews focused on alleviating poverty.  American Jewish World Service, for example, has a curriculum for a ten-month service-learning program (for recent American college graduates and young professionals) that asks students to engage in musar work focused on different character traits over the course of the program; for the trait of responsibility, it asks students to reflect on Simhah Zissel’s teachings on responsibility.

Simhah Zissel’s writings also stress the ways in which business activity and gaining wealth can be morally dangerous—typically a source of pride, greed, dishonesty, distraction, a lack of concern for other people, and a lack of trust in God. They show some appreciation of commerce, however, as a potential arena for lovingkindness and not just as a necessary evil.  I’ve been struck by the resonances between some of his language about lovingkindness in business and some similar language used by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the contemporary American conservative political activist and business consultant, in his claims about how the Jewish tradition supports making money as a businessperson.  Lapin’s family’s origins are with the Kelm school of Musar that Simhah Zissel founded, and Lapin echoes his forebears with his stress on cultivating virtues and seeing commerce as an arena for love.

But his confidence that business is “inherently moral” is antithetical to Simhah Zissel’s stress on the inherent dangers of business activity.  I think that Lapin’s writings offer an interesting example of how musar can be transformed by American Orthodox Jews in a new cultural setting that unabashedly revels in material prosperity.

Philosophic Religion, Popular Polytheism, and Foreign Worship

As I finish writing up my thoughts on the Jewish -Hindu encounter, I will be offering a few tentative posts to get feedback (email or FB). For those who did not read the earlier posts, this is part of a bigger project. For some examples of the the prior posts, see here, here,  here, here, here and here and the feature article here. As stated in some of those prior posts: this post is not meant as a critique of either religion.

When I present lectures on the Hindu-Jewish encounter in Jewish venues, I inevitably hear from the audience that everything I say is only about the narrow elite Hindus who are like Westerners. However, they claim that the masses have no knowledge of any of these Hindu philosophies. The audience has never been to India, has never read or studied about the topic, and generally, is not socially connected to practitioners of Hinduism. Yet, the listeners are persistent in their stereotypes. Where does this widespread prejudice of assuming Hindus are primitive come from?


The short answer is that this approach is derived from English philosopher, David Hume and the thinkers of his era. It was copied in various mainstream books until the 20th century and promoted a distinction between popular and philosophic religions. Hume presents an evolution towards Protestantism, beginning with the first people being polytheists and then ritual legalists, culminating in Christianity.

Hume considers the basis of polytheism is “not the beauty and order we discover in the works of nature, as that leads us to genuine theism.” Rather, polytheism is a religion that responds directly to the human hopes, fears, and misery caused by weather, illness, and wars. “When human beings are in a more primitive and backward state of society,” we find that the “ignorant multitude conceives of these unknown causes as depending on invisible, intelligent agents who they may influence by means of prayers and sacrifice. By this means, human beings hope to control what they do not understand” by means of many gods.

Hume thinks that “As a result of this process, the world becomes populated with human-like invisible, intelligent powers that are objects of worship.” But is this not the concern of every religion?  Hume answers, no, in that polytheism does not concern itself with the abstract question concerning the origin or supreme government of the universe. For him, primitive people who are struggling for their daily survival do not have time to speculate about philosophy or our idea of God (Natural History of Religion, 4.2).

Hume sees two tiers of religion, the intellectuals and the common people, in which the common people are driven by fears and anxieties to accept forces beyond their control and slip into polytheism.

What does this have to do with Hinduism, in that much of it also applies to uneducated Jews and Christians? The application of Hume’s line of thought was made by eighteenth century authors on Hinduism. Sir William Jones (1746 –1794), for example, was an Anglo-Welsh philologist, a judge on the Supreme Court of in Bengal, and a scholar of ancient India. He was particularly known for his invention of the idea of Indo-European languages and wrote six volumes on Hinduism considering it locked into its infancy. It once had a magnificent past, but it did not progress yielding a degenerate present.

Jones explicitly compares the Hindus to the Jews as both stuck in their development to an ancient age of needing rituals. Jones writes: “Hindus are like the Israelites who needed rituals and ceremonies because of their childlikeness. With the full manhood of Christianity these rituals become superfluous.” So modern Jews should be careful about accepting the Hindu side of this pejorative statement, since much of the same applies to Judaism.

The 19th century Bengali Renaissance accepted Hume’s distinction and the colonial gaze of these books distinguishing the philosophic parts of the Hindu religion from the popular superstition. During this same era, Judaism refashioned itself so as to meet this rationalist and Protestant challenge creating Reform and aesthetic Orthodoxy.

This approach was further aided by Max Muller, the German Sanskritist and translator of the Hindu volumes in the series, Sacred Books of the East, who had never actually been to India, sought a rational meaning in the Vedas which he considered Aryan and philosophic as opposed to the popular Hindu religion of the last 2,500 years, which he considered degenerate and primitive. His focus on the ancient classics at the expense of medieval and modern Hinduism is the core of many religion textbooks to this day. Like Jones, Muller saw Christianity as the highest expression of religion to the detriment of Judaism and Hinduism.

This view became standardized in introduction to religion textbooks such as L.S.S. O’Malley’s 1935 work, Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses. O’Malley writes:

The differences between the beliefs and practices of the cultured classes and those of the masses, mostly unlettered villagers, are so great that they almost seem to be differences of kind rather than of degree. The religion of the latter has few of the higher spiritual conceptions of Hinduism and represents in the main its lower side. A mixture of orthodox Hinduism and of that primitive form of religion which is known as animism, it combines Brahmanical rites and observances with the fetishism of lower cults.

Notice that the elite Brahminical works as well as the medieval theological works are listed as primitive in contrast to the modern Neo-Hindu approaches.  In contrast, my stay at Banares Hindu University concerned the so called “primitive” Brahmimical works, especially as they are similar to Jewish works.

Between the 16th to 19th centuries Jews were also generally considered pagan in their rituals, so much so, that Jewish practice was used to understand Native American practices and other newly discovered peoples. Let us not forget, in our discussion, the visit of Samuel Pepys, English naval administrator who is now most famous for his 1663 diary entry, detailing his visit to a synagogue for Simchat Torah. Pepys saw Judaism as brutish and primitive, the way contemporary Westerners have viewed Hindu festivals:

But, Lord! To see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.

The philosopher G. F. W. Hegel following Hume saw Judaism as mediation between primitive religion and Christianity having aspects of both.


Jewish ritual was only excluded from the primitive in the twentieth century. James G. Frazer in his classic work The Golden Bough (1890) placed the rituals of Biblical religion amidst primitive polytheism. Originally, Semitic scholar, Robinson Smith, in an 1880 article discussed totemism and animal worship among the Hebrews. However, later he switched and kept the Biblical religion separate from the primate, treating many statements as mere metaphor. In 1951, the Biblical scholar H Frankfort wrote that scholars should no run to create parallels between the Ancient Near East and the Bible, almost repudiating the connection in Western culture.

shabot 6000

Foreign Worship

Is Hume’s concept of polytheism and the Jewish concept of foreign worship (avodah zarah) the same? In a word: No. Polytheism is about being primitive, magical, and behind the evolutionary curve, a Protestant pejorative. The Jewish halakhic category of foreign worship deals with a mistake that leads people from a primordial natural theism to a form of worship using representation. Among the first to use the term polytheism was John Selden in 1619 who applied it as well to ancient Hebrews.

The most common definition of the Jewish concept of foreign worship is that of the medieval commentator Rashi, who considers the prohibition as referring as using images. Judaism remains without images and statues, compared to its iconography-heavy religions of Christianity and certainly Hinduism.

If we turn to Maimonides, we see foreign worship as a categorical mistake of logic and of one’s following imagination instead of reason.  He presents the use of images in worship as only having started in the era of Enosh, the first son of Seth who figures in the generations of Adam in the book Genesis.

In the days of Enosh, the people fell into gross error, and the counsel of the wise men of the generation became foolish. Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error was as follows: Since God, they said, created these stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified, and honor should be rendered them.


They began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech, and prostrated themselves before them – their purpose, according to their perverse notions, being to attain the Creator’s will. This was the root of idolatry, and this is what the idolaters, who knew its fundamentals, said. They did not however maintain that there was no God except the particular star.

Foreign Worship  is born of a confusion growing from this fact that stars and astral bodies govern the world and the proper way to worship the one true God. It is a category mistake followed by a second mistake about needing Temples, ritual and sacrifice. The foreign worship is the misdirected quest to fulfill God’s will and to grant Him honor through ritual to these forces regardless of good intention.

Maimonides continues his presentation by explaining how this view of Biblical history plays itself out as a restriction on Jewish practice:

The essence of the commandment of foreign worship is not to worship any creation, not an angel, a sphere, or a star, one of the four elements, nor any entity created from them. Even if the person worshiping knows that the Lord is the God, but nevertheless serves the creation in the manner in which Enosh and the people of his generation worshiped originally.

Worshiping another being is what constitutes foreign worship.  Jews do not use any intermediary, angels, or natural force in their worship . Most traditional Jews accept this definition, albeit traditional Jews have always had appeals to angels as part of the liturgy that seems to violate this approach. In contrast, for Hindus, the images are the only ways to reach the Absolute infinite divine, in that a sensory image is needed to focus human worship, while for Jews images are a category error.

Let us contrast Hume to Maimonides in their concepts of incorrect worship of the divine. Maimonides thought that monotheism came first and turning to other beings  came second as a mistake; for Hume it was the other way around.  People are primitive until they evolve into enlightened reason.

To Maimonides view, Hindus could easily retort that he is mistaken on the nature of their Hindu worship, but to Hume the only response would be to claim to be philosophic as did the Neo-Vedanta modernists. The Jewish concept of foreign worship is about the concept of the divine and the role played by the imagination. While the non-Jewish English word polytheism is about a primitive state of humanity that could not conceptualize the divine.

Maimonides argues that we ought to endeavor to imitate God as much as it is possible for a human being. In imitating God, we will be drawn towards greater human perfection which may eventually result in knowledge of God and becoming like God. However, to Hume one is not seeking to obtain knowledge of God or to imitate God, rather to be rational in an Enlightenment sense.

How does Maimonides see the Jewish non-philosophers? Maimonides claims the Bible is written in a way that all men are capable of understanding even prior to their philosophic training. (Guide I: 26, 56). According to Maimonides, “the Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man,” in order that everyone has exposure to correct views, therefore the multitude ought to be instructed as to the perfection of God in terms using only the external, sense of the words.  Elsewhere he claims that people ought to be “made to accept on traditional authority the belief that God is not a body; and that there is absolutely no likeness in any respect whatever between Him and the things created by Him. (Guide I: 35, 80).

Maimonides, similar to Saadyah, could have no problem with theist versions of Nyaya, Mimamsa, and Yoga, and could theoretically find a way to accept many forms of Vedanta. The fundamental divide in the two religions from a Maimonidean perspective comes down to three key differences, the first being the proper method of worship. For Hindus, imagination, sight, sense, and aesthetics are essential to proper worship. Jews in theory do not embellish worship with the senses.

Second, the Maimonidean philosophic religion aimed for the elite gives it a lack of tolerance toward lay devotion or any vestigial forms of ancient religion so a Maimonidean would even have problems with Jewish folk practices.  Hindus have huge amounts of tolerance toward lay devotion and popular conceptions.

Third, Hindus use images and intermediaries in their worship as a proper means to bring the person to God. Maimonides rejects this, but Nahmanides’ approach of limiting the eschewing of images only to Jews is more productive in that it allows non-Jews to have images. Rashba, Nahmanides’s student, states that worship is not considered foreign worship provided one has not lost sight of God, who is the ultimate source of power and governance behind the lower forces.

Polytheism implied an evolution to the truth of Christianity. The traditional Jewish category of foreign worship in practice is more  about erecting boundaries in relation as to what a Jew is allowed to do than a theological position.

During the colonial era, Chief Rabbi of Britain Joseph H. Hertz (1872–1946) combined Hume with a universal tolerance. He states that the heathens were not held responsible for a false conception of God and “were judged by God purely by their moral life.”  For Hertz, “a primitive stage of religious belief” can still form “part of God’s guidance of humanity.” Even in their primitive version, [they] are serving the one true God (Malachi. 1:11) “Even the heathen nations that worship the heavenly hosts pay tribute to a Supreme Being, and in this way honor My name; and the offerings which they thus present (indirectly) unto Me are animated by a pure spirit, God looking to the heart of the worshipper.”

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, editor of a modern edition of the Talmud, takes other religions at their word as theists and considers the high culture philosophic version as the correct version.  First, he assumes that “Hinduism and Buddhism are sufficiently monotheistic in principle for moral Hindus and Buddhists to enter the gentile’s gate into heaven.” For Steinsaltz, “the compromises made or tolerated by the world’s major religions as ways of rendering essentially monotheistic theologies easier in practice for large populations of adherents.” So a theist Shavite, or a Vaishnavite would fall under Jewish monotheism.

At the same time, however, Steinsaltz, while still following Hume, writes that “the less than absolutely monotheistic folk beliefs” of Hindus are taken in Jewish law to be violations of the monotheistic principles of those religions.  Folk believes “are only problematic internally – solely within the discourse of another religion about its own believers. Such violations do not affect what Judaism has to say that religion.” Once the other religion is deemed sufficiently theistic then they are not foreign worship despite their folk belief since Jewish law cannot be violated “by Hindus since Jewish law does not apply to them.”


Folk Religion

What is the religion of the folk in the villages? There are two main Western books on village Hinduism. Lawrence Babb’s Divine Hierarchy and the subsequent C.J. Fuller’s The Camphor Flame.

In contrast to Western speculation from afar based on Hume, Lawrence Babb, an academic specialist on Hinduism who did field work in a small village, calls this distinction between philosophic Hinduism and primitive Hinduism into question. Babb notes that before he entered the field, his Western education taught him to distinguish between the great tradition of the relatively few and the little tradition of the unreflective masses. In contrast, his field work showed that the two elements are complimentary and that the Sanskrit high tradition plays an important role in defining the local traditions while the local traditions define how the high tradition would be performed in a given location.

Babb specifically shows how ordinary villagers have internalized a hierarchy of behaviors with philosophic theologies behind them showing they know both the high and low levels of their relgion. A prime example is found in the ubiquitous knowledge of different types of temples differentiating the high culture of the Brahmins, who serve in the temple and have fixed liturgy from the folk in their own local temples who know that in their own local temples they themselves can perform rituals and worship lower devas. For these people, no god can be so demanding as to exclude their own worshipers from their altars. Local devas and temples are less strict about purity, procedure, and chants than Brahmin temples but there remain a known hierarchal differences between a temple with a Brahmin priest and those without.  Deities of the high culture are seen as responsible for the social order unlike smaller local ones who handle smallpox and fertility. According to Babb:

The Hindu pantheon is a fluid array of supernatural beings and tends to alter in form as one context is replaced by another. In some contexts particular deities are seen as discrete entities, but under other circumstances deities merge with one another and their characteristics blend. At the most abstract level differentiation disappears altogether, as is suggested in the frequently heard Hindu truism that “all gods are one.

Major deities may have a village, local or little version who hears personal concerns. Great theistic god(s) with general powers over the cosmos, are normally thought to be distant from mundane problems of ordinary people. For that reason, Hindus rarely ask them for help.” All towns have a goddess to pray to for fertility, marriage, and smallpox even though she irrelevantly assumes different names.  The high theist god (s) are known by the people but are seen as abstract and distant in both feeling and in their pure rituals. But the local devas are kept featureless so that tales and theology return to the high culture.

The high Sanskrit culture and the culture of the ordinary villager are not separate or discrete from each other; they are merely differences of style or dialect, different modes of expression saying the same thing. Even complex theologies of metaphysics, philosophy and emanations are chanted in the vernacular or carved into the images in the walls of the Temples.

For the religion within contemporary urban slums, the more practical needs of daily life predominate over formal temple ritual. They stress the feminine Shakti elements in religion that are concerned with fertility, childbirth, health and family. Ordinary people pray for worldly ends and individual needs in the same way all urban poor worry about money, relationship and health in their religion. Jews and Christins who fret about illness and money also turn to practices that address these issues.  And like graffiti and hip hop, urban poor create their own original art and stories and songs that catch on among the elite as part of modern popular culture.


Benjamin Brown on Halakhic Labor Law: Statist or Democratic?

One of my favorite articles by Prof. Benjamin Brown of Hebrew University has recently been translated and revised. It was first given in 2006 and here it is online a decade later with more documentation.  “Trade Unions, Strikes, and the Renewal of Halakhic Labor Law: Ideologies in the Rulings of Rabbis Kook, Uziel, and Feinstein”

In the article, Brown asks how the three ideologies in the early 20th century: Socialism, Statism and Democracy played themselves out in halakhic labor law. He specifically focuses on how Rabbis Kook and Uziel in Israel followed the statist-fascist direction of the Revisionists and Italian nationalism, while Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in the United States followed democratic thinking.

Brown asks: Why the difference and concludes that it was cultural-historical differences between the United States and Israel.

Brown focuses on his binary ideological categories but what if he started with cultural-historical categories and gave an historical development? His footnotes give ample material for such an approach. For example, we can show that American Orthodoxy in the 1930’s and 40’s was concerned with labor and labor rights, Orthodoxy in the 1960’s was concerned with democracy and the individual, and Orthodoxy  in the 1990’s was interested with supply side and conservative economics.

The question is where does that leave us in our age- where right and left- seem to be writing for top 6% of wealth and for the upper middle class? Who will be the halakhic leaders for the middle and lower middle class, and even for Orthodox workers?

Finally, if we say that religious views mold us, then how do these different economic positions mold different communities socially and politically?

To contextualize the article itself, Brown’s starting approach is based on Karl Mannheim’s (1923)view of ideology  as a worldview that determines the way we read a text or define a situation.  In contrast, in the US, we are more likely to start with Clifford Geertz (1973) who took issue with considering ideology as determining a situation. Rather, all ideology is embedded in a cultural construction that bears the meaning, symbolism, and moral order of the society.  Brown concluded the article by turning to the cultural rather than starting there.

For ease of reading, the paragraphs below are cut from Brown’s essay. Only the quotes from the repsonsa literature are blocked off as quotes.  At the end of the piece, I have a little ending section on Rabbi S. Z. Shragai.


Precursors in Europe: Rabbis Against Labor

In the 1870s, the authorities demanded that rabbis preach against workers’ movements and denounce their subversive elements; the rabbis, usually adopting a submissive approach towards the “Kingdom,” complied.  It appears, however, that even when the state was not directly involved in the employee-employer relations, the rabbis took the side of the employers… when a worker’s strike broke out in the Edelstein cigarette factory in Vilna, the local preacher (maggid) came out in a sermon against the strikers—and this was not an isolated incident. Similarly… halakhic rulings issued by the rabbis often tended to minimize the legal liability of the employer towards the employee.

[I]n the entire literature of the Jewish workers’ movement all these religious types were presented as haters of the worker and the revolution; but in general the rabbis indeed subscribed to the rule “a rabbi respects the wealthy” [a pun based on B. Eruvin 86a].

A similar line was also followed by Gershon Bacon concerning Agudat Yisrael’s lack of interest in social questions. In his opinion, one of the reasons for this was that “the leadership cadre of Aguda consisted mostly of wealthy communal notables and venerable rabbis, both of a decidedly conservative bent.”

Torah veAvodah

During the 1930s, we witness the initial awakening of rabbinic writing in the field of labor law. Articles and books, both halakhic and quasi-halakhic, began to appear. Some of them dealt with, among other things, the right to unionize and the right to strike. In 1933, Rabbi Kook issued an oral responsum on this matter that was published in the journal Netivah of Hapoel HaMizrachi and subsequently referenced repeatedly.

In 1934, Rabbi Yekutiel Aryeh Kamelhar published a short article on the topic in the one-time bulletin Torah vaAvodah (Torah and Labor).3 Books on the subject were soon published: in 1935, Rabbi Chaim Zev Reines of the United States published his book of rabbinic scholarship The Worker in Scripture and Talmud.  In 1935, Rabbi Moshe Findling of the Land of Israel published his pioneering halakhic work Tehukat haAvodah (The Constitution of Labor) contained a concise and clear summary of the halakhic laws of labor. Rabbi Baruch Schlichter (Yashar) published in 1947 a digest of useful halakhah, in which he had already included two chapters on labor law. In 1947, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Bick published his short book Mishnat HaPoalim (The Doctrine of Workers), which was written while he was in the Land of Israel but only published years after he immigrated to the United States; this work had five responsa concerning labor laws.

Rabbis Findling and Bick did not adhere to the traditional halakhic line, which outlawed strikes in a more or less categorical manner. Rather, they recognized the halakhic legitimacy of the workers’ struggles. Rabbi Findling’s formulation in this matter is instructive and beneficial in reflecting the change that has gradually broken through in the rabbinic world since the time of the responsum by Rabbi Aryeh Leibush Lifshitz banning strikes. At the outset, Rabbi Findling presents the traditional halakhic line, accompanied by critiques of the Marxist position that was opposed to it:

To cease working without the consent of the employer, we find no permission in Jewish law, . . . and even less to prevent other workers, whose work conditions were agreed upon in a contract, from doing their job. The concept of “strike” was established in the terminology of Marxism, rooted in the unilateral dictatorship of the proletariat. No objective law in the world can accept it, and certainly not the Torah, which is the true law

On the other hand, we must not close our eyes to the reality that forced the workers to use the means of striking to protect their vital interests. Therefore our duty—not because of any defense for either side, but to find the truth of our Holy Torah—is to seek legal ways to have the workers reach the desired benefit, without discarding the path of law and morality. Therefore . . . we would like to mention two legal ways to permit halting the work in necessary circumstances.

Rabbi Findling unhesitatingly refers to the right to strike as a legitimate and lawful measure. In this spirit, he writes that one of the objectives of the trade union, which is recognized as legitimate according to halakhah, is to

force workers into a general strike, if the employers do not agree even to their minimum demands.” And this is so in order “not to leave the worker isolated and unaided and to protect himself and his vital interests . . . and attain respect and fair wages for his work even if employers might thereby incur losses.

It is interesting to note that at least three of the responsa on this topic came as replies to the query of one person, Akiva Egozi…

The responsa regarding the right to strike as a whole were also almost all issued in reply to the query of one person—Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Shragai. Three of the responsa concerning the right to strike and the right of unionization owe their existence to a member of Hapoel HaMizrachi movement, Shlomo Zalman Shragai. Shragai, public activist and author, addressed these questions to Rabbi Kook, who was then serving as the Chief Rabbi for Eretz Israel, and he published both of his oral responsa in the journal Netivah in 1933.About five years later, in 1938, he again took up this issue with Rabbi Uziel on behalf of the Hapoel HaMizrachi organization… In 1945, we also find a further query by Shragai concerning the same question, this time to Rabbi Eliezer Y. Waldenberg, author of Tzitz Eliezer.

Mizrachi Truck

The Corporatist Model

The corporatist model was accepted by the Revisionist movement. Ze’ev Jabotinsky studied in Rome under one of the fathers of the fascist corporatist theory, Arturo Labriola, and was influenced by him. He believed in the importance of private capital for the construction of the land while negating the principle of class struggle. He held the conviction that national aspirations were supposed to unite all classes (“monism”). Settling labor disputes, he held, must be done through boards of “national arbitration”—the revisionist model that corresponded to the corporations.

Shragai asked Rabbi Kook: “What is the halakhic law regarding strikes aimed at preserving existing labor conditions and strikes aimed to improve them?” According to the text in Netivah, the Chief Rabbi replied:

A strike is permitted for the objective of forcing the employer to appear in a rabbinic court (beit din) or to enforce a court decision in connection with a contentious dispute, be it to preserve the workers’ conditions or to better them. As a result of this it is clear that in all disputes of this type the workers must summon the employer to a rabbinic court with a claim, [and] if the employer refuses, it is the right of the workers to call a strike, even without any special consent from the court to such a call, which accords with the legal reasoning of the later poskim.  Of course, it is permitted to require that such conflict will not be adjudicated in an ordinary rabbinic court but in a court of broad panel, consisting of rabbis noted for their Torah prowess and proficiency, and well versed in issues of life and labor.

An examination of this responsum teaches that Rabbi Kook did not allow strikes to enable free bargaining, by which the parties would determine their rights and duties through the accepted power games. The final authority was the court that Rabbi Kook now offered to set up. Striking was intended to enforce attendance at the beit din or to enforce compliance with its rulings but not to achieve economic goals per se. The language of the text emphasizes the dispensations—“a strike is permitted,” “it is permitted”—but, practically speaking, the requisite conditions made it fairly limited.

It is easy to see that the arrangement Rabbi Kook suggested here is the system of national arbitration of the type which Jabotinsky had supported, and also the General Zionists at the outset of their movement. The basic approach embodied in this model is, as already noted, the concept of the organic unity of the nation, which finds its expression in the state.

The Responsum of Rabbi Uziel

In my humble opinion it appears that in general striking is not allowed and not desirable, neither for the worker nor for the employer. [Not] for the worker— because each day of striking from productive work is a day lost of life, and the Torah commanded about obligations of working. . . . And not for the employer—because any construction or industrial labor, let alone planting, that would not be done and completed within the proper season falls into the category of permanent loss, not just because the time was lost but also because of the damage that results from it to the work-process material.

Make a deduction from the law governing a workman who withdraws from his work in the middle of his contractual employment time: although in principle the workman can retract even in the middle of the day, based on the biblical verse “For unto me the children of Israel are servants” [meaning] “they are My servants—but not servants to servants” (B. Baba Kamma 116 and B. Baba Metzia 77), the law is decided that, if loss would result, the worker could not withdraw ([Shulhan Arukh] Hoshen Mishpat section 333, paragraph 8).

According to prevailing labor conditions, at present it is clear to me that any delay in the work of agriculture or industrial production or construction causes enormous losses that cannot be later restored. . . . In view of all the above considerations it is obvious that strikes or work lockouts are not desirable in themselves and cause losses to the worker or to the owner on the grounds of the law absolving liability for indirect damages.

This source, which was cited by almost all the halakhists who discussed the issue of striking, is problematic largely because it deals with the right of the worker to cancel his labor contract totally, while a strike is not the breaking of a labor relationship but an attempt to achieve better conditions within the framework of this relationship. This crucial flaw, which Rabbi Waldenberg pointed out in his responsum of 1945.

Rabbi Uziel explains:

The rationale for this law is that no trade organization can be objective in its decisions but only subjective, and their own self-interest blinds them from seeing the employer’s point of view. Moreover, the existence of one organization leads to the establishment of another to counter it, and they [both] do not limit themselves to their [direct] interests; and so the constant clashing between the two sides—the workers and the employers—never stops, and is followed by blind resistance and constant mutual hostility.

In the spirit of this understanding he suggested, to establish a distinguished court (beit din), assembled of members fluent in Torah law and academics proficient in the field of economics and societal market conditions, so they jointly enact a detailed labor legislation, and afterwards appoint permanent judges to adjudicate on the basis of this legislation all the conflicts that occur between the workers concerning the proper division of fair labor among themselves, and settle disputes between the workers and employers concerning their mutual relationships.” Rabbi Uziel supported this idea with the Talmudic requirement of a “distinguished man’s” consent.

It is almost needless to add that the court suggested by Rabbi Uziel has never been established. Israeli workers today, even Orthodox, may strike without asking permission from any judiciary, and if the conflict is brought to court, it will be the Labor Court, established by the secular law in 1969, that will adjudicate the case according to secular law and without any rabbinic involvement. Workers and employers can bring their case to a rabbinical court only in the form of arbitration, based on mutual consent.

Despite Rabbi Uziel’s reliance on Jewish traditional sources, and possibly due to internal tensions that arise from this reliance, it is difficult not to notice that he practically adopts the corporative model, which we saw with the fascist thinkers and subsequently with the revisionist thinkers.Rabbi Uziel, who had a clear humanist bent, was disinclined to fascism. But he was a man open to the intellectual winds of the time, and it is reasonable to assume that he had absorbed corporatism through the agency of the revisionists.

He continues at length about the halakhah giving the worker “the legal right to organize and establish beneficial regulations for his society, which would anchor a fair and just division of labor among its members and achieve a respectable treatment and a fair wage for his work.”

He wanted to see the workers’ organization establish “cultural institutions to enrich the scientific and artistic education [of the worker] and his Torah knowledge, medical institutions and recreation places to renew his strength exploited by work and heal wounds caused by it.” He even saw the worker’s organization as the responsible body for the pension insurance of the worker—“to create a savings fund for old age and for disabilities”—a norm that would exempt the employer from that responsibility.

Thus, it is abundantly clear that Rabbi Uziel did not negate the right to strike because of a lack of solidarity with the workers or to protect the interests of the employers. The element that attracted him to the corporative model was most likely the element of harmonious concord, and the idea that it is possible to solve labor relations issues through brotherhood and national unity beyond any class interest. This way of thinking integrated into his broader Zionist viewpoints, which placed the unity of the nation as a supreme value,and his aspiration to see all segments of the public joining in the enterprise of the national revival.

Rabbi Uziel does not want to see workers on strike, since strikes are detrimental to the process of “nation-building.” But also he does not want to see workers fired, since this also causes similar harm. What he would like to see is an idyllic situation free of conflict. Indeed, Rabbi Uziel’s quasi-corporative model was nourished by exaggerated optimism, if not naiveté. At its base stands an organic approach to national unity, which seeks to keep aggressive measures distant from both sides.


Rabbi Feinstein & Democracy

Rabbi Feinstein began his responsum of 1951 with decisive words, expressing unequivocal support for the freedom to unionize and the freedom to strike:

Concerning the associations of workers called “unions,” which make regulations, determine set wages, prevent employers from firing them, and help each other through strikes and similar means for their benefit, I do not see any shade of prohibition; on the contrary, we see moreover that they are allowed even to make terms contrary to the set halakhic law… they are allowed to impose sanctions for enforcing their terms and even cause damage [to a person who violates them]

but in matters which are not against the law, such as to determine wages and to help each other—there is no need at all for the consent of a sage, for the matter is like all business arrangements and ordinary partnerships.

Thus, in passing, Rabbi Feinstein ruled that striking is not against the halakhah—a problematic claim in traditional thinking about labor relations

In his responsum of 1954, Rabbi Feinstein deals with the question of the majority rule and the applicability of regulations on non-unionized workers. From a close reading of the language of the Shulhan Arukh he concludes that the resolutions of a trade union do not require the unanimous consent of its members, and hence “it is obvious that they require [only] a majority.” He stresses that a clear majority is needed, and the voice of one half is insufficient.

The possibility of requiring a full consensus, as in ordinary partnerships, was not raised even as a rejected supposition.

In the following text, Rabbi Feinstein seems to go even further, as he referred not only to the majority of union members, but to that of all the workers in the same trade, including those that are not unionized.

Rabbi Feinstein seems to have been forced to abandon the rules of the partnership model and to adopt those generally associated with the beit din model. In essence, he grabs the rope by both its ends: he is ready to take any “gains” from each model, but he not prepared to pay the “prices” enveloped in them. The author of Igrot Moshe did all this without giving thought to the theoretical problem of the model that substantiates the authority of the union. His explanation is a patchwork from the two approaches put together. In reference to the consent of the “distinguished man” and to joint unionization with non-Jews, he is content with the contractual approach, but in reference to the power to impose its orders he favors the authority approach.

[AB- below is a famous paragraph from Rav Moshe Feinstein]

This clearly shows the great advantage of the United States: And so the government of the United States—that already 150 years ago established in its constitution not to promote any faith or ideology but let each person do as he wills while the government only watches that no one swallow up his fellow—does God’s will. It is by that right that the United States has prospered and become great during this time period. And we are obligated to pray for them [for the United States and its government], that God send them success in all that they undertake. In light of these words, it is no wonder that Rabbi Feinstein saw the United States as the “Kingdom of Grace.”


abolish slavery

Brown’s Conclusions

[T]he poskim developed the halakhic models which in their eyes were best suited to regulate labor relations, and thus absorbed the right of unionization and the right of modern strikes into Jewish law. The modern world posed three main models for such regulation: the communist model, the liberal-democratic model, and the corporative model.

However, Rabbis Kook and Uziel remained still closer to the conceptions of the traditional, pre-modern labor laws, and adhered (with certain internal contradiction) to the model that saw labor relations in terms of rental relationships. Consequently, they saw the striking worker as one who breaches the work contract and damages the employer. Rabbi Feinstein, in contrast, was clearly closest to the concept of modern labor laws

In terms of the ideological context, Rabbis Kook and Uziel adopted a corporative model quite close to the one that was advocated by the Revisionists in the Land of Israel (and the fascist theorists in Italy), while Rabbi Feinstein adopted a distinctly liberal model, which corresponds to the arrangement that was established in most Western democratic countries

What is the root of the differences between the authorities under discussion? Two possible explanations are available. The first explanation, historical-cultural, is that the differences in the opinions of the halakhic authorities stem from differences in personal and social background among the three personalities: Rabbis Kook and Uziel acted in the emerging Zionist yishuv in the Land of Israel, with ideological commitment to the values of building the land through labor and with a strong aspiration to unite the various camps into a nation. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein acted in a capitalist country in which labor was perceived primarily as a means for the welfare of the individual and less as a national value, and labor relations crossed the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews.

My Excursus on Rabbi S. Z. Shragai

Rabbi S.Z. Shragai, a rabbinic scholar, first mayor of Jerusalem, and head of religious Workers Party  was one of the major ideologues of Torah ve Avodah. He was the one who asked the questions about to Rabbi Kook, Uziel and Walenberg. He is also responsible in general for many of the questions about the government and Knesset to Rabbis Uziel and Waldenberg. His approach highlights the difference in genealogy between Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy

For Shragai, Torah ve Avodah as Religious Zionism meant a literal and orienting return to labor and manual productivity against the imperfect bourgeois life. Unlike other socialisms, it is a spiritual revival, a new moral vision, and mutual aid and concern for one another.We wont need police for maintaining property because our connection to personal property will wither. Labor has to organize so that the conditions of labor allow one to live properly, as the Torah says: “you shall live by them.”

Our main relationship  to the political parties is economic in order to provide freedom and equality. By bettering the individual we lead to a national restoration. Torah ve Avodah means a restoration of a Torah state that has application to the modern life of the worker building for the freedom of self-determination. We need Torah “of religiosity not of religion.” We don’t ask about the role of religion in modern life because all of life, especially the worker’s life, needs to be infused with religiosity. We need Rabbis who know about barns and stables and we need to study the agricultural sciences to figure out how to live as a Torah observant laborer.

Unlike the communists for whom the problem of society is a structural problem of state economic inequality, for Torah ve Avodah the solution is for an individual to directly realize justice in society by returning directly to a life of labor. Judaism does not need organized labor rather, labor is a form of musar and an ethical path.

Shragai was from a Radzhin family, and based on Polish Hasidism envisioned an individualistic Kotzker Rebbe approach to Torah in which  physical labor was a mystical unity of the Holy One Blessed Be He and the Shekhinah, which would revive Judaism as a living Biblical relationship with God. Shragai followed the Izbitzer Rebbe in which the  inner point of every Jew shows that their flaws and sins are only external but the inward nature remain ever pure; even the heretic is doing God’s will. (More on Shragai for the Hebrew reader).

Religion, Polls, and Judaism: Robert Wuthnow’s Inventing American Religion

People are daily bombarded with polls about the presidential primaries giving targeted information about which ethnic group is voting for which candidate. We understand that over the course of months opinions will change. More importantly, we don’t assume the results work over years and decades. When in 1988 Republican George H.W. Bush beat Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in the polls (and in the actual election), people did not go around saying that the future is all Republican or that the Democratic Party is dying. When a mere eight years later in 1996 when Democrat Bill Clinton beat Republican Bob Dole in the polls, people did not go around saying the reverse that the future is all Democrat or that the Republican Party is dying.

However when it comes to polls about religion, we find pundits, editorials, and ordinary people assuming that any given trend will continue without accounting for changing times, swings in cultural, shifts in religious patterns, maturation of those polled, or the narrowness of the original question. Almost all the discussions of the future of Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, the Pew study, Renewal, or assimilation are predicated on assuming that the answer to binary questions at a given point in time can be predictive.

Eighteen years ago, the Israeli demographer of the Jewish people Sergio DellaPergola when asked about the future trends of Orthodoxy, started his discussion by reminding his reader that no demographic data can predict the future since the data is not stable. There are always earthquakes and floods, wars and disease, economic depressions and social mobility.  Imagine if you did a poll in 1910 of the Jewish community, and you were going to base the future on it. You would be encouraging people to move to Poland. However in the 21st century, we have a trend of Jewish demographers and journalists who preach based on the assumption of long time stability. In actually, nothing is ever stable and the future will likely not look like the past.

In order to set the record straight about the problem with polls, especially the PEW polls, Robert Wuthnow professor of sociology and director of its center for the study of religion at Princeton University wrote the important work Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith Oxford University Press (October 1, 2015). The book came out last year and seems not to have influenced Jewish discussion, that is, yet.  I posted about a previous book of Wuthnow- The God Problem- here.

This post has many long direct quotes from online reviews that are not indented or noted because this post started as teaching notes to myself, which I only afterwards decided to post as a blog post. The most important source was the interview by Andrew Aghapour at Religion Dispatches, but there were about a half dozen others.


American relgion

Wuthnow’s recent book is a broadside against how polling is done today. Well-known groups like Gallup, Pew, and Barna through their religion polling, are complicit, he says, in giving birth to a slippery thing called “American religion.”

According to Wuthnow:  Broad commercial polling began in the 1930s, when George Gallup, Sr. paid for polls by getting a couple hundred newspapers to pay for his columns. Religion was something that was of personal interest to him, but the pieces about religion would simply occur at holiday time. Church leaders were skeptical. What does it mean to say that 95% of the public believe in God? That doesn’t tell us much of anything.

[However, in 1976 when Jimmy Carter achieved election to the Presidency polls wanted to know the number of Americans who were evangelicals. George Gallup, Jr. had the answer, because he’d asked questions in his polls about whether people considered themselves born again, had ever had a born-again experience, what they believed about the Bible, whether they considered themselves Evangelicals, and so forth.Gallup said there might be 50 million American who are evangelicals, and journalists ran with that. It was a much higher number than had been assumed before.

In addition to changing the numbers, polling also changed political perception by implying  that evangelicals were a voting bloc. That made sense to journalists because Catholics were a voting bloc for John F. Kennedy in 1960—so surely evangelicals must have been a voting bloc for Jimmy Carter. That wasn’t the case at all. Some of the leading, most powerful, influential evangelical leaders were actually for Gerald Ford. There was a lot of diversity among evangelicals themselves that got masked by being lumped together in the polls as if they were all the same thing.

The way they got the much larger figure of 50 million was basically inventing a new question that said something to the effect of, “Have you ever had a born-again religious experience, or something similar to a religious awakening?” And that was pretty much it.

 And so in 1978, Christianity Today, a leading periodical for evangelicals, paid Gallup to do a big survey and in addition to just asking the born-again question, they asked questions about belief in the Bible, belief in Jesus, and intent on converting others. As a result, Gallup revised its estimate downward, to less than 30 million. The notion of a politically focused evangelical upsurge might have been more an artifact of bad polling than an actual phenomenon in the history of American religion. If exact wording of what you want to know is not included then you never know the real answer.

As a response Evangelical sponsored Barnea polls asked a different set of question showing the contradictions of American religion. Americans prayed  but in their own styles and they believed in bible without any knowledge of it.  But mainly they distracted by material and family needs. This knowledge led to the panic that since families are spending less time together, families are dissolving. So we need to campaign since 1990 for family values.

The Pew surveys were founded 2000 offering a centralized location and centralized database for polls.


Today’s most controversial polling trend is the rise of the “Nones”—those who indicate religious non-affiliation in surveys by selecting “none of the above.” Nones seem to have jumped from a stable 6-8% of the population during the 1970s and 1980s to, in recent years, 16-20%. The real question is, “What exactly is going on?” And there appear to be several conclusions.

First, many of the Nones still claim to believe in God, occasionally attend religious services; hardly any of them identify clearly as atheist. So they may be, for some reason, identifying themselves as non-religious even though they still believe. We also know from some of the surveys that they identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” meaning that somehow they’re interested in God and spirituality, and existential questions of life and death, but are turned off by organized religion.

Second, the political climate of the religious right of the last 15 years has become so publicly identified with conservative politics, that people who were formerly willing to say, “I’m religious” in [denominational] terms are now saying, “You know what, I just don’t want to have anything to do with it.” That’s a hard story for many of us to believe, but there does seem to be pretty good data supporting it, as part of the story at least.

Third is that the studies that actually ask a person the same question a year or two later are finding that individuals change their minds a lot. One paper identifies at least half of the Nones as “Liminals,” people who are trying to decide, on the cusp of making up their mind. You ask them one year, and they say “I’m non-religious,” you ask them the same question the next year and they’ll say they’re religious and they’ll tell you what kind of religion they are. Or [vice-versa].

Now this may be characteristic of the times in which we live—people are uncertain about who they are, about what they think religiously—but it also challenges how we think about polls. Polls have always assumed that whatever a person says is reliable, and that they really mean it and stick with it.

When Robert Putnam wrote his important work Age of Grace (2012), he returned to many of his interviewees after a year to see how they changed their minds to attend stability

Current trends see the crisis of Nones as created by polls and only 10% may be stable in that position, the rest are betwixt and between.  Also when you go back and check many of those who claimed to be following “some other religion” like Buddhism a year later, only 35 % are still with it


Why are they not to be completely relied upon? Polls are measuring answers to questions that are not very thoughtful, because polls are hastily done by telephone rather than in person.

Poll numbers being reported may be in the general ballpark correct, but probably can’t be interpreted very precisely in terms of the small trends that are being reported. For instance, if somebody reports that American religion is declining because church attendance is down a percentage point this year from last year, one should not pay much attention to that.

Secondly, pay attention, skeptically, to the way the headline describes the data. So once again, let’s imagine that the church attendance rate is lower this year than last year, let’s say it’s two or three percent lower all of a sudden. Unfortunately, the headline say that religion is “on the skids” or that “America is losing its faith”! That’s more the journalist’s or the editor’s fault than the pollster’s fault.

Third, always remember that the polls have a very low response rate. Most of the polls, whether about religion or politics, have an eight percent response rate now. It means that ninety-two percent of the people who should have been contacted for it to be a representative poll are not there, and we don’t know what they would have said, and so we’re only making guesses. The guesses could be wrong, and often are wrong.

From Wuthnow’s vantage at Princeton, he says that even when we are reassured that a poll is trustworthy, for example, TIME claiming to be 3% off, it is really more like 20 % off. Even then much of it is echo chambers and people responding to the way the question is asked.

Such a low response rate almost invalidates the data. There are other ways of drawing sample data and then weighing it.  The sociologist Rodney Stark quipped that we were taught that you need at least an 85% sample to be a valid survey now 9% is considered valid. Why can academics and governments get 70% samples and pollsters 9%?

One of the biggest problems today invalidating many polls is that most data skewers older or even elderly since polls rely on land line telephones and most people under 50 do not use landlines anymore.

We also have the problem of micro studies done by religious groups themselves such as of those that only survey their graduates which are self-selecting and have no follow up. (Think of some of the studies done by Orthodox intuitions).

In short, American religion is volunteeristic, fuzzy and not mutually exclusive, so binary questions do not work. The polls remove all theological questions.

Fluctuations in results of a poll could occur within just months based on events in the news. The way the media frames a question and then a poll based on the media creates answers to questions that do not reflect the depth of religious life.  Even questions about abortion among Catholics who oppose abortion could get a 20% difference based on the design of the survey. In 2012, polls showed that 80% of Evangelicals had pre-marital sex, but when asked to define themselves as believing in the inerrancy of the bible and attend church we get a statistic of only 44%. Which is it 80% or 44%?

Today, most people do not trust pollsters and will not answer their phone calls? In 1995, 65% thought htta it was in their best interest to answer surveys and now it has declined to 33%.

A proper method was shown in the 1993 classic by Wade Roof Clark Generation of Seekers  where he worked with a scale of   affirmation ranging from active identification, mild identification, minimal identification, and none at all. During any period of social or theological innovation some are highly involved, other have heard of it or attend a lecture, and many have not heard of it of missed it. Also there are many individuals who reject a given trend or have their own person views outside of the thinking of an era. Few people are interested in the current trends every era. Most people remain connected to the thinking of their years of formation and according to the famous saying ‘Many people die at twenty five and aren’t buried until they are seventy five.’

Finally, remember that where political polls have occasional checkpoints—elections actually happen, and pollsters can [subsequently] adjust weighting factors so that the data are closer next time—with religion questions, they don’t have anything like that. So if we hear that x percentage of the public is not really Catholic even though they say they are, or x percentage of the public like the Pope or they don’t like the Pope, we can only ask ourselves, “Well, does that make sense with what we know from other sources, and from talking with our neighbors?”

Polls can produce inconsistent, and sometimes baffling, representations of American belief. They also range in accuracy, from sophisticated sociological surveys to thinly veiled propaganda

Whereas the accuracy of political polling is ultimately held accountable by election results, religion is much more problematic to measure. Religion polls today regularly report on the demise of faith in North America, yet nearly a century ago 91 percent of poll respondents said they believed in God, compared to the 92 percent who said the same in a Pew poll just a few years ago.

Why do we listen?

The main reason religion polling gets so much funding, Wuthnow argues, and the main reason it gets reported on, is that it has consequences for American electoral politics.

“What would we lose if we didn’t have Pew kinds of surveys? Frankly, not much,” he added. For most people who work in polling or media or politics, this probably sounds like an extreme position, and it is. The polling industry is not going away. Wuthnow’s proposed alternative—“an occasional survey that was really well-done, even if it costs a million dollars”—may be rosy sounding, but it’s almost certainly impractical in today’s quickly churning public sphere.

Another way to put it: Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life. Facts like church attendance are much easier to trade than messy views about actually beleifs and commitments, or  the nature of sin, or whether people have literal soul mates. A question about who a person might vote for is relatively straightforward. A question about whether he or she believes in heaven or an afterlife is not.

For example: African Americans are only somewhat more likely than white Americans to go to religious services every week; if that’s the test of religiosity used in a poll, black and white faith may not seem so different. But in a large national study, Wuthnow found, black respondents spent much more time than white respondents at the services they attended. They also expressed their faith in different ways, like praying for fellow congregants.

Wuthnow points out that television coverage, recent articles, and debates can affect religious survey results. Similar to the ever fluctuating approval rating of religious leader, it says little about religious life

Pew’s international polls about attitudes toward the United States in Muslim countries, one Middle East specialist writing in Foreign Policy wrote: “The polls are one dimensional and filled with panic” (p. 149).These criticisms, and others Wuthnow offers, call into question the value of surveys conducted as “must-get-the-findings-out-there-quickly!” polls. Wuthnow quotes Darren Sherkat, who goes further: Polling is conducted by whores who violate every scientific convention that social scientists developed to make sure that polling would indeed produce high quality results. … Worse yet, indifference towards high quality data is infiltrating the social sciences (p. 149).

Nevertheless, Wuthnow admits the perception of an evangelical surge, though exaggerated by questionable polling, was and is an actual phenomenon.

Jewy in Wuthnow

Wuthnow notes that the studies overplay change. That means more are not abandoning religion and more are not Orthodoxy. As JJ Goldberg pointed out the recent Pew claims that Jews abandoning religion rose from from 7% in 2000 to 22 % in 2013.  But Wuthnow quotes Goldberg who points out that when compared to 1990 data – it was then 20%. Also many Jews who are connected in a weak or negligible way then find points in their lives when they are more connected.

In addition, Wuthnow notes that the Pew was biased for white Protestants values who attend church. Hence, they had a panic over the those who do not attend services. He notes that   Afro-Americans tend to pray at home rather than attend a service. He also notes that Jews and Muslims have all sort so all sorts of bodily rituals and avoidances that were not covered in the questions. When asked about attendance at services, they excluded weddings, funerals, and High Holy Day attendance.

The survey was also biased about having religions that can be separated by ethnicity and culture, even though many transmit their religions via ethnicity. One can have a strong Italian, Greek, Nigerian, or Gujarati identity and eat ethnic foods and go to cultural, artistic, and political events of that ethnic group and the religions is a tacit element of the ethnicity without houses of worship.

There are many connected to Jewish culture who read Jewish books and papers, go to Jewish arts events and have what they think are sufficient Jewish practices that sustain them. They don’t really survey Aipac Judaism, Holocaust remembrance Jews. A Pew survey cannot measure Jewish pride and tribalism along with the dozens of ways Jews maintain a connection. The survey also focuses on the very Protestant question of individual attendance at house of worship, rather than membership in the house of worship.

Wuthnow notes that the recent Pew went out of its way to raise the Jewish responses from 9%to  16% He does note that most polls only include 25-30 Jews making them almost irrelevant to assess the community.


I gave one post to the Pew the day that it came out just clipping out what it said about Orthodoxy. (It was the most hits that the blog ever received.)  I did another post a  week later about not predicting history. Here we go with another one on the upshot of the Pew. By this point everyone is using it to say the sky is falling and whatever their point of view is it seems the PEW proves it.

My first observation is that Orthodoxy has assimilated the language of what Wuthnow calls “American Religion.” Torah consists of polls, metrics and election predictions rather than looking at Torah, Sages, and the holy. Rav Soloveitchik spoke about the importance of “the remnant of the scribes” keeping the tradition alive. We used to count scholars and books or the subjective feel of piety of Yom Kippur or the love of Torah. Now, Orthodox papers start articles about percentage points like it was an election. The very essence and self-understanding of Orthodoxy has changed with the times. Now Orthodoxy understands itself as another object subject to polls.

Second, the poll did not say Orthodox won just that it went up two percentage points. When it declined from 60% to 9% (1950-1970) that was significant, slight rises are not. Also the numbers of Orthodox polled were still low and lumped together the divergent categories of Chabad, Heimish Hasidic and yeshivish in to one group. (Oy, what can you do with outsiders!) Like the newspaper headlines that say “religion on the skids”  or “all of American will be Mormon in another decade,” the use of the Pew by Orthodoxy has shown a terrible innumeracy. Nor is the Conservative movement dying, another act of innumeracy. They just shed their nominal members and the congregations in NE towns that no longer have Jewish populations. They lost 35%-55% like Orthodoxy did earlier in the century. This is against the background of the the decline of mainline Churches, for example Episcopalian Church now to 14% of the US from its 1950’s high.

Third, who fits into a category? The same way the number of Evangelicals can be less than half depending on the questions that you ask, so too in the Jewish case they asked denominational identification. If you did follow-up questions then they may no longer be included in your definition  of your Orthodox denomination

Fourth, simple questions do not lead to a good indication of the movement. Did they ask: how often do you learn Torah? What Torah do you learn? How long is your daily morning prayer?  Do you say Psalms? Use a mikvah? Feel alienated from your rabbis? Attend tu beshevat seder? Do you like Rav Nachman of Breslov or Maimonides better? If it had these questions then we might know something about the denomination.

Fifth, there need to be follow-up with the same people. Lives are always in flux.

Sixth, some of the same pundits and sociologist, who themselves are not-Orthodox, are now using the Pew to say that the Orthodox are successful in growth and stability and the Orthodox should serve as a model. Let me remind you that the same sociologists lauded the Conservative movement 20 years ago for its growth and stability. They advised the Conservative movement that outreach was not needed because we can assume that religion is stable. They predicted the future from the 1990 surevys and were wrong. They are giving the same precious advice now about Orthodoxy. Wuthnow reminds us that religion in America is always moving and changing in which nothing is stable. Whoever answers people needs and has their communities respond to changes in economics and social mobility gains adherents. When most of the Nones seek a meaning affiliation as they get older, who will be there answering their needs?

But in fact, what Pew shows is that there are more engaged Jews, more synagogue members, more folks doing traditional Jewish things today than compared to 1990.

Finally, we have never predicted the upheavals of a century in advance. Earthquakes, plague, wars, and economic crashes are always with us.

Any other thoughts?


Rav Soloveitchik on the Guide of the Perplexed-edited by Lawrence Kaplan

When Rabbi Soloveitchik arrived at Yeshiva University he gave classes for two decades on philosophic topics.  In these lectures, we see Soloveitchik as the graduate of the University of Berlin in philosophy and as the former student in the Berlin Rabbinical seminary (for a year). Soloveitchik gave great weight to future rabbis having training in philosophy and having a master’s degree in Jewish Studies.

Did you ever want to know what Rabbi Soloveitchik’s early philosophy lectures were like? Did you ever wish to have been able to attend them? Here is your chance.

We now have a record of one of those early courses, edited thanks to the hard work of Lawrence Kaplan professor at Magill University, who was the official translator for Halakhic Man.  The new volumes is called  Maimonides – Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Lectures on the Guide of the Perplexed (Urim Publications). The work is based on  a complete set of notes, taken by Rabbi Gerald (Yaakov) Homnick. The original notes consisted of two five spiral notebooks of 375 pages and 224 pages.  For the philosophic reader of Soloveitchik, these are interesting and exciting lectures bringing many scattered ideas into one place. Kaplan provides a wonderful introductory essay setting out and explaining the ideas in the lectures.

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In this volume we see Soloveitchik in his use of Isaac Husik, David Neumark  and Leo Roth to help him understand the texts of Jewish thought, and his reliance on the modern thought of Hume, Spinoza, and Bertrand Russell. We see him giving out an academic reading list to start and engage with university Jewish studies.

Soloveitchik was originally planning on writing his dissertation on Maimonides but that did not work out so instead he switched advisers to work on Hermann Cohen. But what did he plan to discuss in the original medieval dissertation? This work gives the reader a sense of what he would have written since Soloveitchik incubated his ideas for decades and remained for decades with the direction of his earliest thoughts. It seems to have been a modern reading and defense of Maimonides.

Hermann Cohen’s modern reading of Maimonides as ethical and Platonic was instrumental in the 20th century return to Maimonides and especially Soloveitchik’s understanding of Maimonides. This lectures in this volume show how Soloveitchik both used and differed with Cohen. However, the citations from Cohen in the original lectures were telegraphed, in that, Cohen was not available in English at the time and Soloveitchik was just giving the gist to audience that had not read him. This makes it harder for those who have not read Cohen recently.

Kaplan notes that Soloveitchik’s readings of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Aquinas are “highly controversial” meaning that they are less confrontations with the texts of those thinkers and more the reception and rejection as found in early 20th century thinkers. His German Professors considered idealism as superseding the classics and Russell considered science and positivism as superseding the ancient. For these works, Maimonides was relegated to the medieval bin. Soloveitchik was going to save the great eagle.

In addition, the 19th century Jewish interpreters saw Maimonides as an abstract Aristotelian philosopher, and, if anything relevant, closer to Reform than Orthodoxy. The scholar George Y. Kohler showed that at the Berlin seminary they were quite ambivalent about Maimonides. In addition, the instructor in Jewish thought Isaiah Wohlgemuth at the seminary leaned in his teaching towards considering faith as absurdity- Tertullian meets Kierkegaard and Scheler.

So the point of these lectures, and probably the unwritten dissertation, was to show the continuous relevance of philosophy for the understanding of Torah and the relevance of Maimonides. The goal was also to show the importance of Torah study for Maimonides despite the explicit vision in the Guide. Much of this agenda was later set out and popularized by Soloveitchik’s students David Hartman and Isidore Twersky.

Soloveitchik sought to move the reading of Maimonides from the practical Aristotelian approach to a German idealistic higher ethic of imitating God.  According to Kaplan’s notes this reading is not really Maimonides’ own thought.

One of the bigger unexpected formulations of this volume is Soloveitchik’s presentation of a pantheistic view of God as the hesed (mercy or caritas) behind creation. As in many idealists where the world is fundamentally mental or immaterial, the world is in God -in some ways the real is the rational- but he sets this within a theistic scheme .

This pantheism led Soloveitchik to think that aspiring Torah scholars should attain a cosmic-intellectual experience and thereby identify with the world through their minds.

There lectures discuss the ascent from ecstatic prophet to the higher cosmic prophetic experience. For Soloveitchik, the goal of cosmic-intellectual prophecy is to surrender to God beyond words to an inexpressible point.

Soloveitchik distinguishes between two levels in the observance of halakhah. A lower approach where halakhah concerns obedience, duties and practical law; at this level ethics are instrumental. There is a second higher level of identifying with God and thereby with the cosmos. In the lower level there is obedience to a normative halakhah which is distinctly and qualitatively lower than having a cosmic intellectual experience where the divine is internalized as a prophetic experience in which one reaches the pinnacle of human existence.

Soloveitchik declares that halakhah is not about “how to” rather in its ideal state it is about merging into cosmos via cosmic experience to reach a higher truth into reality. (This ideal is quite unlike the way many today conceive of Soloveitchik).

Kaplan notes that these lectures present an innovative theory of fear, in which fear at that moment of cosmic consciousness generates a recoil thereby returning us to the halakhah and norms. After love and identity with God, one recoils in distance, submission and returns to the external norm.

For Soloveitchik concern for others and responsibility for fellows as hesed is the inclusion of the other in the cosmic vision. Just as God is inclusive of the world and knows the world because it is part of Him, the Talmud scholar knows about people through his universal understanding.

Kaplan points out how this is completely the opposite of Jewish thinkers such as Levinas where you actually confront the other and through the face of a real other person gains moral obligation.  (I am certain that Soloveitchik pantheistic-Idealist view of ethics will elicit some comments. )

Rav Soloveichik’s speaking style often consisted in sentence fragments and repetition of phrases, especially a repetition to return to where he left off, after a side interjection. Many times one did not know the relationship of the return to the interjection. Was it in agreement or disagreement? Unfortunately, I am not sure if this edition solved the problem in that there were many dangling sentences and lines that the reader would be unclear if it agreed or disagreed with the prior line. In addition, many of the lines in this book needed an explanatory footnote especially those concerning idealism and Hermann Cohen.  But despite these caveats, for the philosophic reader of Soloveitchik, we once again owe Kaplan gratitude for his fine work. We should also thank him for this extensive interview analyzing many of the most important issues in the work.

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  1. What is new in this work?

From the point of view of form, these lectures are certainly new, since until now we have never had an essay of Rav Soloveitchik [henceforth, “the Rav”], much less a book, devoted to an analysis of the Guide. But from the point of view of content, the matter is not so clear After all, the Rav discusses certain themes from the Guide at length in Halakhic Man, Halakhic Mind, and U-Vikashtem mi-Sham (And from There You Shall Seek). Also, another very important discussion of the Guide can be found in his Yiddish Teshuvah Derashah (Discourse on Repentance), “Yahid ve-Tzibbur” (“Individual and Community”) in his Yiddish volume of Essays and Discourses. The truth is that if combines what the Rav says in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham with what he says in “Yahid ve-Tzibbur,” you get much—not all—of the basic outline of the argument of these lectures. Still, there are a number of   new elements.

One point obvious, while, in another sense, new is that while the Rav in all his essays displays a great openness to scientific and philosophic thought, he never explicitly justifies such openness. In these lectures, however, the Rav finally justified his practices.  The Rav notes that Maimonides believes that non-Jews could also reach the high religious level of “serving the Lord continually.” In this connection he observes that Bahya often cites “pietists,” who turn out to be non-Jews, and similarly cites Arabic philosophers and Church Fathers. He goes on to cite Maimonides’ famous statement  “Accept the truth from whoever said it.” He also cites a passage from the Laws of the Sanctification of the New Moon to the same effect, and concludes “Maimonides is clear…we do not care who the author is.”

There are, however, three entirely new elements. First, in the lectures the Rav presents his basic argument as a response to the claim of medieval commentators on the Guide and, in the modern period, of Heinrich Graetz that Maimonides considers Halakhah (Jewish law), both its study and practice, as secondary to philosophy.

Second, though in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham the Rav maintains that according to Maimonides, “The existence of the world [is] not only caused by God, but [is] also rooted in Him,” he carefully avoids any use there of the word “pantheism.” In the lectures, by contrast, he does speak of Maimonides’ pantheism—to be sure, with certain important qualifications.  Third, the penultimate section of the book on Yirat ha-Shem, the fear of the Lord, is, to my knowledge, new, and, in important ways, it goes against what he states both in Halakhic Man and in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham.

2) Could you elaborate on the claim that Maimonides considers Halakhah as secondary to philosophy? How does R. Soloveitchik counter this approach?

This is an old objection to Maimonides. The claim is that Maimonides follows Aristotle in maintaining that knowledge is superior to morality, both moral virtue and moral action, and, furthermore, in arguing that only intellectual knowledge possesses intrinsic value, while morality possesses only instrumental worth, serving only as a steppingstone to attaining intellectual perfection. From this it would follow that Halakhah, dealing with action, is of lesser worth than science, and that Talmud Torah, that is, the study of Halakhah, is inferior to the study of the sciences.  The Rav—inaccurately by the way—quotes Graetz as stating that Maimonides in the Guide “sneered at halakhic scholarship.”

The Rav counters this objection by claiming that Maimonides distinguishes between two stages of ethics: pre-theoretical ethics, ethical action that precedes knowledge of the universe and God, and post-theoretical ethics, ethical action that follows upon knowledge of the universe and God. Pre-theoretical ethics is indeed inferior to theory and purely instrumental; however, post-theoretical ethics is ethics as the imitation of God’s divine attributes of action of Hesed (Loving Kindness), Mishpat, (Justice), and Tzedakah (Righteousness), the ethics referred to at the very end of the Guide, and this stage of ethics constitutes the individual’s highest perfection.

3) It sounds as if here Soloveitchik is just following Hermann Cohen.

The Rav, as he himself admits, takes the basic distinction between pre-theoretical ethics and post- theoretical ethics from Hermann Cohen, but his understanding of the imitation of the divine attributes of action involved in post-theoretical ethics differs from Cohen.

Cohen, following Kant’s thought, distinguishes sharply between practical and theoretical reason, ethics and the natural order, “is” and “ought.” For Cohen, God’s attributes of action do not belong to the realm of causality, but to that of purpose; they are not grounded in nature, but simply serve as models for human action.

What Cohen keeps apart, the Rav—and here he is, in my view and the view of others, for example, Avi Ravitzky and Dov Schwartz, more faithful to the historical Maimonides—brings together.  For the Rav, the main divine attribute of action is Hesed, God’s abundant lovingkindness, His “practicing beneficence toward one who has no right” to such beneficence. The prime example of Hesed, for Maimonides, is the creation of the world.  This act of creation is both an ethical act, whereby God freely wills the world into existence, and an ontological act, an overflow of divine being, whereby God brings the world into being by thinking it.  However, the Rav goes beyond what Maimonides states explicitly by maintaining that the deepest meaning of God’s Hesed is that he not only confers existence upon the world, but continuously sustains it by including the existence of reality as whole in His order of existence.

4) Is this the basis of Soloveitchik’s claim that Maimonides is a pantheist?

Yes. The Rav denies that Maimonides affirms substantive     pantheism, that is, in terms of substance there are two orders: a finite order, all reality other than God; and an infinite order, God Himself.

But he maintains that Maimonides was an ontological pantheist, inasmuch as God included the existence of reality as whole in His order of existence.  Actually—I did not make this point in my Introduction—I wonder whether the Rav might have done better to refer to Maimonides as a panentheist. Thus the Rav concludes that Maimonides agrees with the seventeenth century French Catholic philosopher, Malebranche that ontically the world exists in God, which is exactly what panentheism (All-in-God) means.

5) Why do you think that Soloveitchik felt it was so important to make this claim of pantheism?

I am not sure, but I believe it is may be motivated by his conception of what true human Hesed is. That is, formally, the Rav begins by articulating Maimonides’ conception of divine Hesed, and then maintains that human Hesed has to imitate and therefore resemble divine Hesed. But I wonder whether the Rav’s thought, in truth, proceeded in the opposite direction, that is, he began with a conception of what true human Hesed is, and then projected that conception back onto divine Hesed.

Anyway, the Rav’s argument is as follows. We can only grasp the divine Hesed and only imitate it through knowing the world in which that Hesed is manifest.  It is in this sense that the highest stage of ethics is post-theoretical, for it is based upon and follows from the knowledge of God attained through the knowledge of the cosmos. To spell this out, since God created and sustains the world through knowing it, when man knows the world, whether through philosophical knowledge or prophetic knowledge, he and God unite together, since they both have the same object—the world– as their object of thought.

More than that—and here the Rav’s interpretation of Maimonides follows that of Solomon Maimon, though, strangely enough, the Rav never cites Maimon in these lectures—in man’s every act of knowledge his finite intellect unites with the infinite divine intellect which constantly and uninterruptedly knows everything. Here, the Rav maintains, we find another type of pantheism in Maimonides, intellectual pantheism, the union of man’s finite intellect with God’s infinite intellect in the act of human knowledge.

But the real point, and, as I said, I think the motivation of all this, is that after this intellectual union with God, man first internalizes the all-embracing divine Hesed, and then imitates that Hesed in the sense that he not only helps and confers benefits upon all who are in need, but, rather, in God-like fashion, he invites them to share in, to participate in his own existence, including them in his own order of being.

Here I would contrast the Rav with Levinas. Hesed, for the Rav, is not extended to the other qua other, as Levinas would have it; but, to the contrary, it is extended to the other because he is not other, because I have made him part of myself, of my own existence. What is truly ethical is not acknowledging the otherness of individuals I interact with, but identifying with them.  And this, to repeat, constitutes the true imitation of God.

So I believe–this is yet another point I did not make in my introduction—that the Rav’s pantheistic or panentheistic reading of Maimonides’ view regarding God’s relationship to the world is motivated by what he perceives as its ethical payoff.

6) Is Soloveitchik, then, claiming that for Maimonides there is no direct knowledge of God?

Indeed, the Rav denies that for Maimonides there can be direct knowledge of God. In this way Maimonides differs, say, from Rav Kook, for whom the highest knowledge of God derives from the soul’s direct love of God as the highest good, a love not mediated through nature. As the Rav clearly says, for Maimonides the only way to know God is through knowledge of the world.

Three times in the lectures the Rav cites Maimonides’ statement in Guide 1:34 that “there is no way to apprehend [God] except through the things He has made.” Similarly, the Rav appears to understand Maimonides’ citing in Guide 3:51 the rabbinic statement that “Ben Zoma is still outside” to mean that Ben Zoma tried to attain direct knowledge of God without intellectually cognizing the universe.  To repeat, it can’t be done.

7) What is the relationship for Maimonides, as Soloveitchik understands it, between philosophical and prophetic knowledge?

For Soloveitchik, as stated earlier, when man knows the world, whether through philosophical knowledge or prophetic knowledge, he and God unite together.

As the Rav’s understands it, Maimonides’ view is that prophetic knowledge builds on philosophical knowledge, that is on the scientific knowledge of the cosmos. Or, as the Rav phrases it, first we have the pre-theoretical normative-halakhic experience, that is, the halakhic experience that precedes knowledge of the cosmos, then the cosmic-intellectual experience, and finally, building on and going beyond that cosmic-intellectual experience, the ecstatic–prophetic experience.

Sometimes the Rav emphasizes the difference between prophetic knowledge and philosophical knowledge, sometimes he blurs the distinction between the two. But there seem to be three features that characterize the ecstatic–prophetic experience as opposed to the cosmic-intellectual experience: intuition, vision, and self-surrender. The key point seems to be that while the cosmic-intellectual experience brings the individual into intellectual contact with God, the ecstatic–prophetic experience brings one into personal contact with God.

The way I understand this—the Rav never states this explicitly—is as follows. God created the world by an act of free will, and, as such, His relationship with the world is a voluntary one, and the connection between Himself and man is an ethical one. But God also created the world by an act of thought, in which case God’s relationship with man is primarily intellectual and ontological.

Ultimately these are two sides of the same coin, for, in Maimonides’ view, God’s will and wisdom are one. Still—again, this is my formulation of the Rav’s view—the philosopher who unites with God solely through the intellect focuses on God’s wisdom, on God as pure intellect, while the prophet who, in addition to uniting with God intellectually, also connects with Him via intuition, vision, and self- surrender, focuses on the personal God, whose creation of the world is a free ethical act.

8) Does Soloveitchik deprecate philosophic thought, at least in comparison to prophetic knowledge?

To an extent. But while the Rav refers to Maimonides’ alleged belief in “the insufficiency of the cosmic-intellectual experience,” nevertheless, in the Rav’s view, Maimonides is firm in affirming that this experience is a necessary stage in arriving at the ecstatic–prophetic experience.  The Rav could not be clearer that for Maimonides there is no bypassing the scientific knowledge of the cosmos.

 9) How would you answer someone who says that this book sets up each problem as goyish philosophy as opposed to Maimonides and that Maimonides is really a halakhic position? Ostensibly, this work rejects both Aristotle and Kant on most issues, leaving Maimonides as unique and as halakhic?
With reference to the Rav’s playing up Maimonides’ differences with Aristotle and (a-chronologically) with Kant, as I and other scholars have noted, one can broadly divide interpreters of Maimonides into two camps: the radicals who minimize the differences between Maimonides and the philosophers (particularly Aristotle), sometimes going so far as to deny that there are any differences; and the traditionalists, who emphasize these differences. The Rav clearly belongs in the traditionalist camp.

Still, though the Rav devotes an entire chapter to contrasting Aristotle and Maimonides, we must not forget that regarding the issue of the necessity for scientific knowledge of the cosmos, and regarding the conception of God as the unity of intellect, the subject of intellection, and the object of intellection the Rav forthrightly acknowledges that Maimonides follows in Aristotle’s wake.

I think that what the Rav objected to most in Aristotle, Plotinus, and
Spinoza was that for them God’s relationship with the world and man is one of necessity. (I am not sure if the Rav is correct about Plotinus, but this is a long story.) They, thereby, negate the possibility of an ethical relationship between God and man, which, as stated above, is possible only if God’s creation of the world was a free and therefore an ethical act. Again we see the ethical motif coming to the fore.  Perhaps in this respect, the Rav reflects the influence of Kant.

10) Is the ecstatic–prophetic experience the same thing for Soloveitchik as revelation? Does he have multiple conceptions of Maimonides’ view of revelation?

Actually, the Rav contrasts the ecstatic-prophetic experience with prophecy and revelation proper, what the Rav refers to as “apocalyptic prophecy.” To cite the lectures: “The Prophetic-Ecstatic experience… is not the apocalyptic moment of prophecy he describes in the latter chapters of Book 2 of the Guide. That moment of prophecy, where God bestows upon man a prophetic revelation, is an act of grace on God’s part. The Prophetic-Ecstatic type of prophecy that Maimonides speaks about in Guide 3:51 can be obtained by all.

In sum, there are two types of prophecy:  The apocalyptic moment of prophecy is granted to the individual by God; the Prophetic-Ecstatic experience is a state of mind.”

Another indication that the ecstatic-prophetic experience is not to be identified with prophecy proper is that sometimes the Rav refers to the ecstatic-prophetic experience as the ecstatic-mystic experience.  This is part of the emphasis in all the Rav’s works not so much on theology, but on human experience, human states of consciousness. Nevertheless, I actually think there is some basis here for the Rav’s distinction in Maimonides’ texts, though it is not so clear and neat as he would have it.

In U-Vikashtem mi-Sham, when the Rav refers to the revelational experience he is referring to “apocalyptic prophecy,” which, for him, is a supernatural phenomenon.So U-Vikashtem and the lectures are operating on two different planes. Actually, I think that, contra the Rav, all prophecy, for Maimonides is natural, but, again, that is a long story. (For Kaplan’s understanding of revelation in Maimonides – see his prior post on Maimonides on Mosaic revelation. )

Still, there may be an important difference between the lectures and U-Vikashtem. In the lectures, where the Rav speaks as an expositor of Maimonides, it is clear that no prophet, not even Moses, can bypass the cosmic-intellectual experience. In U-Vikashtem, where the Rav, though citing Maimonides, speaks in his own name, the revelational religious experience is discontinuous with what he refers to as the rational religious experience.

11) How does this respond to the objection that even if Maimonides did not “sneer at halakhic scholarship,” nevertheless in his view the study of Halakhah, is inferior to the study of the sciences.

The Rav, like a good “Brisker,” a practitioner and devotee of the analytic school of Talmud study, sharply distinguishes between the practical study of Halakhah, study in order to know how to perform the norm properly, and the conceptual and theoretical study of the Halakhah, lomdus. He grants that Maimonides deprecates the significance of the practical study of Halakhah, inasmuch as it belongs to the pre-theoretical, normative-halakhic, stage of religious experience, and, indeed, possesses only the instrumental value of enabling one to perform the commandments properly.

However, he argues that Maimonides would view lomdus, the theoretical study of the Halakhah, if carried out “in conjunction with the cosmic experience (science),” as providing a cosmic-ethical experience parallel to the cosmic-ethical experience attained in the study of the cosmos. Indeed, he claims that when Maimonides in Guide 3:52 states that the knowledge of the de‘ot, “the opinions the Torah teaches us” leads to the love of God,  he is referring not only to theoretical, metaphysical knowledge, but also to the theoretical understanding of the Halakhah.

This claim in my view lacks any textual basis in Maimonides. Still, perhaps the Rav might view his reading of Maimonides as a legitimate “updating” of Maimonides’ position.  Thus, as a number of scholars, including myself, have argued, Maimonides in the Guide appears to suggest, albeit not explicitly, that understanding the reasons for the commandments, that is, the divine wisdom inherent in the commandments, leads to the love of God. The Rav might argue that given that Maimonides’ view of nature was teleological, he viewed the wisdom inherent in the commandments in teleological terms, and thus focused in the Guide on ta‘amei  ha-mitovot, the purpose and aim of the commandments.

However, as the Rav often pointed out, modern science, as a result of the Galilean-Newtonian revolution, no longer views nature as teleological.   Rather the rationality found in nature is that of the abstract quantitative laws that parallel and thus serve to explain the particular, qualitative, natural phenomena. Following from this, the wisdom found in the commandments would not be their purpose, but the abstract legal principles that underlie the particular laws, i.e. lomdus!

But coming back to Maimonides himself, presumably, Maimonides, according to the Rav’s understanding, would not view the lomdus of Rav Hayyim Brisker, the Rav’s grandfather and the founder of the analytic school, as significant, since Rav Hayyim never studied science, and thus should be classified as one of the talmudiyyim, the unphilosophical jurists, to whom Maimonides refers in deprecating fashion in Guide 3:51, but he would approve of the Rav’s lomdus. This obviously is my own extrapolation.

12) How is Soloveitchik’s discussion of the fear of the Lord, (Yirat ha-Shem) original, and how does it goes against what he states elsewhere?

The Rav’s take on the fear of God is, in my view, the most innovative part of the lectures. In U-Vikashtem, the Rav’s discussion of the love and fear of God follows, I would say, a Mishneh Torah model. That is, in the Mishneh Torah, his great code of Jewish Law, Maimonides discusses the love and fear of God, where fear follows love, in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2, and both are necessary. However, in Laws of Repentance 10:3 he only discusses the befitting love of God and does not mention fear. The Rav—questionably, I believe—understands this to mean that the love and fear of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2 refer to a lower form of religious experience, Hidammut, imitation of God, but at the highest level of religious experience, Devekut, cleaving to God, there is only love and no fear, as Maimonides supposedly suggests in Laws of Repentance 10:3.

The Rav’s discussion of the love and fear of God in the lectures follows, I would say, a Guide model—not surprising, since these are lectures on the Guide—and differs from his discussion in U-Vikashtem in three ways. First, as I already noted, in the lectures, according to the Rav’s reading of the Guide, imitation of God does not precede but follows upon Devekut or union with God. Second, in the Guide Maimonides discusses love in Guide 3:51 and fear in 3:52, and in the conclusion of 3:52 he sums up his discussion by speaking first of love, then of fear. As the Rav, correctly I believe, understands it, fear here is the last word, and, unlike the alleged implication from Laws of Repentance 10:3, is indispensable.

The Rav notes that in Guide 3:52 Maimonides links fear with the “actions prescribed by the Law,” or, to use the Rav’s terminology, the mitzvot ma‘asiyyot, by which the Rav seems to have in mind rituals, such as—the example is his—tzitizit (ritual fringes). How is fear connected the “actions prescribed by the Law”? The Rav links Maimonides’ discussion of fear of God in Guide 3:52 with his discussion in the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2. There Maimonides states that while love of God is the drive to know God and unite with Him, in the fear of God the individual becomes aware of his lowliness and immediately “nirta le-ahorav,” recoils backward. Thus fear reopens the gap between God and man that love or union had closed up. In this way—and this is the Rav’s main point— fear fulfills a halakhic function. Via the love of God, via uniting with Him, the individual internalizes the Law. But the danger is that by internalizing the Law the binding force of the norm will fade away. Fear, by reinstating the distance between man and God, “rehabilitates the norm,” the performance of the law on the practical level. That is, only a heteronomous norm, only a norm imposed upon man from the outside retains its force and binding authority. And this, concludes the Rav, is the meaning of the link that Maimonides in the Guide 3:52 establishes between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law.”

Here we come to the third difference between the lectures and U-Vikashtem mi-Sham, and, I would add, Halakhic Man.  In the latter essays the highest religious level that halakhic man or the man of God reaches is precisely the love of God and consequently the autonomous internalization of the laws; but in the lectures internalization must be followed by externalization, autonomy by heteronomy. Of course, in the essays the Rav speaks in his own name; in the lectures as an expositor of Maimonides. Are we to conclude that the Rav’s exposition of Maimonides in these lectures is more “halakhic” and less “philosophic” than the Rav’s own philosophy?

I should add that while this reading of the link in Guide 3:52 between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law” is very ingenious and provocative, it is exceptionally hard to maintain that it is what Maimonides had in mind. The Rav’s attempt to understand Maimonides’ discussion of fear in Guide 3:52 in light of his discussion of fear in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2 fails, in my view, to convince.  For in Guide 3:52 Maimonides sees the fear of God as being connected not with distance from God, as he does in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2, but, to the contrary, with God’s constant presence, with, to use Moshe Halbertal’s phrase, the individual’s sense of constantly being scrutinized by God. How, in fact, then, Maimonides understands the link in Guide 3:52 between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law” remains to be established, but whatever it turns out to be, it is not what the Rav had in mind.

13) You pointed to a number of places where you argued that is it difficult to uphold Soloveitchik’s interpretation as what Maimonides actually meant. Do you think this is true for Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide more generally?

While I think that the Rav’s understanding of the cosmic-intellectual experience in Maimonides, with its focus on the cognition of the cosmos and man uniting with God through the intellect is true to the spirit of Maimonides, I think the way he attempts to broaden and deepen this concept and argue that in the ecstatic-prophetic stage the total individual establishes personal contact with God is a modernizing reading that is much too existentialist for my tastes.

Negatively speaking, the presentation of Maimonides in the lectures differs from more recent interpretations of Maimonides by the almost complete absence in it of any concern for Maimonides’ political thought and, as well, with the almost complete lack of any concern for the hermeneutic aspect of the Guide, for the Guide as a reading of both Scripture and the rabbinic tradition.

This last point is ironic, for the lectures begin with a lengthy analysis of why Maimonides began the Guide with the verse “In the name of God, the Lord of the world” (Gen. 21:33).  In that connection, the Rav very presciently observes that Maimonides “in quoting a verse… casts off philosophic routine and jargon, and we can gain a more intimate glimpse of him. Maimonides’ citations of biblical verses and rabbinic midrashim throw new light on his thought.”  Prof. James Diamond couldn’t have said it better! But, alas, the Rav does not follow up on this insight.

Schlissel Challah and the Relief of Anxiety

This is one of my old-time style posts with rambling freehand observations about the culture around me. By the end of it Schlissel Challah will have connections to presidential elections, Dunkin Donuts, baseball, and right-left Orthodoxy debates.

For those who do not know, in recent years there has been a revival of the folk practice of baking a key into Challah (Schlissel Challah) during the week after Passover as a charm to insure successful livelihood. In short, I will treat the ritual as an act done to relieve the anxiety for making a good livelihood because people are very concerned about paying their bills and making a living especially after the economic downturn.  But, at the same time it is connected to the trend of challah baking parties and contemporary spirituality.  This post is not about the Hasidic community or  those who were doing it thirty years ago. It is only about the progress of the custom in the modern community. The post is a work in progress subject to change and to later be integrated into other posts (comments  via FB).

Malinowski in Teaneck

For more than decade, I have wanted to do an article entitled “Malinowski in Teaneck.” This is just the tip of the iceberg of many related observations on this topic.

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

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

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

According to Malinowski:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schlissel Challah and Segulah

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

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

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

In the early 20th century, the most common practices were to ensure a successful pregnancy, to ward off small pox, and to prevent croup, crib death, and other dangers to infants.  Every child’s room had a talisman to ward off childhood illness. With the rise of modern medicine they receeded from common practice.   But the practices returned in the twenty first century.  Much of it is due to the loss of faith in progress and science conquering all. A current sociologist notes that there has been more magic in the West in the last 35 years than the entire 200 years prior in the age of Enlightenment


So why Schlissel Challah?

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

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

All of the well-rehearsed discussions of the high cost of Orthodox living show the anxiety about making a living, This ritual acknowledges the very unspoken knowledge of people unemployed or underemployed or have lost their homes.There is a real anxiety about making a living even among those with good jobs. The Presidential primaries have certainly shown a mass popular anxiety about economics.

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

Challah and Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The custom also points to the role of women in needing to generate income and take on the struggles of the family.


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

In our age of Passover plenty and also weekly plenty, few are looking forward to the Passover treats. Rather we like our routines.  No, I should say that we love our routines. There is a new widespread folk ritual in local modern Orthodoxy of specifically going to Dunkin Donuts for one last Coolatta  and donut, or to the bagel store for one last everything bagel with a smear. You see the new Jewish ritual of waiting in the long lines at Dunkin Donuts, then- because one would not go home to a clean home –sitting with the little kids on the curb in a strip mall or walking in circles around the block as one eats one’s last leaven bread.

On the other side of the holiday,  the transition back to normal life after Passover  is an anticlimax and involves a great deal of work in returning the house to the normal non-Passover dishes. People need a transitional ritual of a return to leavened bread and what could be a better practice than baking challah.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best of Physicians is destined for Gehenna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The critics think that the person baking a key in the challah needs to be demeaned by being told that if they want a job they should learn to polish their resume or get job training. They are oblivious to the need for the relief of anxieties of making enough of a livelihood done in a spiritual content.

But more importantly, every modern Orthodoxy article and sermon viewed it as a holiday of self-sufficiency or as only symbolic. They are not using it as magic, just a nice shape of challah. The critics are projecting magical thinking onto others when those who do it only treat it as a symbol, and even a symbol of self-sufficiency.

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

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

h/t and deep thank you to all those who responded to my FB call as I was writing this Thursday night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

zohar cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8)      What do you like about the Idrot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Selections from an Autobiographical Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Miriam Kosman: Haredi Feminist Thinker

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. How does feminism apply to your thinking?

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

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

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

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

  1. Should frum Jews be scared of feminist writings?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Are you just a return to Essentialism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 9) How would you approach transgender orientations?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Rabbi Michael Harris – Faith Without Fear

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

harris cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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