Adam Afterman Interview-Mystical Union in Judaism  

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) What is Ancient Jewish mysticism?

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

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

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

5) How does Maimonides influence early Kabbalah?

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

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

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

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

6) What was mystical union in early Kabbalah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) What was unique about Isaac of Acre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Shagar- Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age

Rabbi Shagar (d. 2007), was a Torah scholar and a contemporary religious thinker who left a deep mark on the educators and students of the last generation. Here is a translation of one of his  essays called “Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age” which is chapter 1 in his book Kelim Shevurim: Torah ṿe-Tziyonut-Datit bi-Sevivah Posṭ-modernit : derashot (Broken Vessels: Torah and Religious Zionism in Postmodernity) (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Śiaḥ Yitsḥaḳ, (2003). This essay is translated here for the first time into English. It is available below as a blog post and as a Word document. Print this out and read it over the next week.

The translation was beautifully done by Rabbi Roy Feldman, rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob, Albany NY. Rabbi Feldman received rabbinic ordination from the RIETS and from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.  A graduate of Columbia University and he studied at Yeshivat Petach Tikva in Israel.   If anyone else has made personal translations of essays by Rav Shagar, I would be glad to post them. (Also if you find errors in this translation, please let me know).

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

shagar photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soft Justice

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

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

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

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

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

The Contradiction of Experience

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

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

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

The Right to be Silent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Faithful Pluralism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age (here)

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

 Judaism and Postmodernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Postmodern Solution: “Soft Justice”

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

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

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

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

The Contradiction of Existence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Right to be Silent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Faithful Pluralism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Theories

In discussion with friends numerous theories were offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navigating the Terrain – A Parent’s View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yehoshua November Interview – Two Worlds Exist

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

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

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

The Soul In A Body

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

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

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


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

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

“Two Worlds Exist”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

1)      Which poets influenced you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4)      How does Chassidus speak to you?

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

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

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

5)      How does Chassidus help your imagery?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8)      What is your distinction between revelation and essence? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Richard A. Cohen on Levinas and Spinoza

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Richard Cohen perusing 1st ed. 1677, Latin Spinoza, Opera Posthuma)

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

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

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

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

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

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

2)      What is Mature Faith according to Levinas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4)      What is prophecy for Levinas and Spinoza?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7)      What is justice for Levinas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rav Shagar on Hanukah in English Translation

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

shagar photo

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

“Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul”

The Soul and the Commandment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admor ha-Zaken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Source of the Commandments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(medal issued in commemoration of the event)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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