Monthly Archives: September 2009

Pesikta deRav Kahana

Speaking of Kalir, piyyutim, repentance, and angelology, when Prof. Isadore Twersky was having conferences on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries at Harvard, an academic friend suggested that we need conferences on the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. The world of Pirke deRabbi, Midrash Mishlei, Yannai, the start of the Baghdad Gaonate and Alphabet of Ben-Sira. A world that is very dissimilar the world of the Tannaim and Babylonian Talmud. This is the world of anthropomorphism, and corporeality, and the texts that the Jewish philosophers were uncomfortable with accepting.

So I was glad to see that a new book in the library- Rachael Anisfeld,: Sustain Me With Raisin-Cakes: Pesikta deRav Kahana and the Popularization of Rabbinic Judaism. The book is literary-historical and not theological. I will leave it to the Talmudists to evaluate its value for the study of rabbinics.

She shows how Leviticus Rabbah and Pesikta deRav Kahana (PRK) are not the same as Tannaic Midrash. (The book should have also had Leviticus Rabbah in the title.)

She uses as her example that the content shows a God who is more intimate with humans, and shows a special indulgence for the people Israel. For example, repentance is about God moving from his seat of judgment to his seat of mercy and less about personal repentance. Even when repentance is discussed, God does everything in his power to exonerate Israel.

The homilies are in a personal and familial voice  – less exegetical

Since the book is literary, it does not develop these themes. There is still much to gain for a theological reader from Neusner’s volume on PRK and Arthur Marmorstein Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God.

She has a chart on the difference in technical terms between Tannaic midrash and Amoraic midrash. Some of the striking numbers are

Talmud lomar “Scripture teaches” 4504 times in Tannaic Midrash to 13 times in amoraic midrah. They are not directly interpreting Scripture.

On the other hand, phrases of direct communication by God increase.  There is knowledge from speaking in Gods name and directly invoking God. “The Holy One Blessed be He said” 36  in tannaic to 343 in amoraic.

The book does not offer an overview of the many other themes in PRK such as the longing to rebuild temple, visions of the end of days, revenge on the gentiles, and God himself needing to be saved

Hence, I am looking forward to reading the following article when the Fishbane Festschrift arrives in the library.

Marc Hirshman, “Yearning for intimacy: Pesikta d’Rav Kahana and the Temple”

pp. 135-146(12) Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane

This chapter examines the ambience of the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana and its objectives by paying close attention to some of the Greek loanwords it uses and, more generally, to the nature of the language it employs in parables when speaking of the temple and the degree of intimacy indicated between God and Israel. The Pesikta d’Rav Kahana throbs with a longing for God’s presence in the temple. The longing for restoration is accompanied by a strong desire for retribution on the nations of the world, a motif that is a staple of most, if not all, of the piskaot. The king parables are employed to indicate God’s desire for a place (papilion) where intimacy with Israel is assured and secure. God secures a place among the Jewish elders, abandoning the angels above (sunkleten), in order to guide the discussion of calendar, the heart of the Pesikta’s concern.

“Unetaneh tokef” – Who wrote it?

In the beginning of the web era, Haaretz still commissioned academic Judaica articles before every Jewish holiday. They made great printouts to take to shul.

In 2002, Yosef Yahalom wrote a concise article showing that the piyyut is originally a conclusion to a piyyut by Yannai  later attached to Kalir and was not written by R. Amnon in Ashkenaz.

The piyyut, or sacred poem, “Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom” (“Let us recount the power of the holiness of this day”), is one of the central and most thrilling texts in the liturgy of the High Holy Days.

This text was written by Yanai’s most celebrated student, Elazar Hakalir.

A year later Hananel Mack wrote a follow up article, less certain which Byzantium author wrote the poet. But Mack shows that the vision of the angels themselves being judged is a theme of Kedusha, so the piyyut was originally a ending poem to a kedushah piyyut.

Additional corroboration for the claim that the liturgical poem `Unetaneh Tokef’ was written during the period of Yanai and Elazar Hakalir and not, as tradition says, by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz.

However, here we hear for the first time of the fate shared by heavenly beings and humans, who are all judged on Judgment Day – that is, on Rosh Hashanah and, apparently, also on Yom Kippur, which is also a judgment day and is also mentioned in the body of the piyyut.

This topic is a reminder that we do not have a good book on the theology of Judiasm 600-1100, the great age of Piyyut and Aggadic Midrash.



Update 2010- Haaretz is no longer giving free access to the articles.

Evolution as too Controversial for American pop culture

American religion, of which Judiasm is part of,  has a stlll unstudied line of where they are scientific and where they are Biblical. George Marsden stated that the line was between common sense realism and theory, Alan Wolfe seems to place it on the fact that people are rational at work but all revelation at home. And since few of us are palentologists or evolutionary biologists, so evolution does not matter for work.

Get Religion reports on the meager coverage of the inability of a movie about Darwin to find a distributor.

But if stories coming out of Britain are to be believed, you aren’t likely to be seeing “Creation” here. “A British film about Charles Darwin has failed to find a US distributor because his theory of evolution is too controversial for American audiences, according to its producer,” reads the headline of a story on the website. Though this story is racing through the blogosphere, it’s getting very little attention from the mainstream on this side of the Atlantic. And where it is covered in Britain, the story is not being covered by religion reporters, though it’s clearly a story about religion as well as about moviemaking and business.

And yet the issues seem important enough to merit coverage, not so much because of the merits of the well-reviewed film itself (though it seems like it would play well in art houses), but because of what it says about the state of play with regard to belief and evolution in America.

However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.

There’s something odd going on here. Not only do we create slasher movies and highly sexually explicit films in the United States, but we import them. Are we really expected to believe that evolution is such a cultural taboo that a movie about Charles Darwin would be “too controversial?”

Orthodox heilsgechichte

This weekend, I read a work on modern Jewish thought that considered the only Orthodox heilsgechichte as that of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. The author, writing in 2006, could not name any other Orthodox theory of history.

Actually, by definition most Orthodoxies must have a heilsgechichte to avoid secular causality and historicism. Therefore all of these authors will engage in the general outline of schoolbook history to produce a theology.Heilsgeschichte is German for “Salvation History.” The term is used for theological writing that is committed to two things: the affirmation of God’s suprahistorical activity in history and the need to critically reconstruct these events through the sources. In these approaches, the historical writings of Nahmanides, the Vilna Gaon, and Maharal are drafted into new contexts, to explain modern data.

About a decade ago a former colleague of mine asked about Orthodoxy and historicism and I gave a quick list of about eighteen  20th century orthodox theologies of history including:

Rabbi Isaac Breuer and Yeshaya Leibowitz who said that Judaism was ahistoric. This one is not popular anymore because it requires one to take refuge in philosophy. Now people need a theology of history. Especially since historical thinking was so important for modern thinking that it had to be subsumed, integrated and then overcome with a relgious theology against historicism.

As against secular history:Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman turned  Graetz on its head and making Torah study the causality for Graetz’s lachrymose history. Rav Shlomo Wolbe wrote a triumphalistic anti-Zionist vision of the end of modernity as shown by the baalei teshuvah. He includes quotes from several modern historians including Scholem.

As a messianic vision: Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and the age of redemption and ingathering of the exiles. Rabbi Amital’s accounting for setbacks in the redemptive process. Rabbi Kasher (as probably author of Kol Hator), redemption through natural means.

On the Holocaust: Rabbi Teichtel’s blame of the Holocaust on the anti-Zionists. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek, with its references to Secretary of State Dulles and recent American history.

Chabad: Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak’s messianism, and his version of Dubnow’s history of the common folk. He also has a history of the hidden saints. Rabbi M M Schneerson’s account of the fall of the Soviet Union and the post-historic messianic age.

Centrism:Treating Jewish history as history of the mesorah. (This one needs its own discussion because it accepts facts but without historicism.)

Even a figure as progressive as Rabbi Cherlow gave a paper at an academic conference on halakhah and ideology on the need for a theology of history. Cherlow wanted the academics to produce the chronology and raw facts, while rabbis will provide the meaning in history and evaluate the value of the data. Needless to say, it provoked reaction.

First Jewish reference to the Dalai Lama

Meoreot Zvi, published Lvov 1804, was a narrative of the events surrounding Shabbatai Zevi along with a description of his prophecies, visions, magic, and charismatic gifts used in generating a following.  The work is modeled after Enlightenment travelogues to the East with their vivid reports of distant lands combined with condescending evaluations of the foreign cultures. The author shows that he read such works and provides many parallels between Shabbatai Zvi’s actions and Eastern practices.

In the province in the sky, which is the great [Lhasa] valley in the land of Tibet next to East India is their great city Potala. There resides the great monk of all their idolatrous monks, called the [Dalai] Lama, who is father of impurity from which all the monks derive their way of crookedness from one of the spirits of impurity.

The mater is like this: The monks called Brahmins make a golem from clay in the image of a man with their magic until skin, flesh, bones, and veins. Afterward, they adjure it with (demonic) spirits of the impure spirit because of their crookedness. Then an actual living man literally appears and its appearance is like the golem made from clay by our [Jewish] masters of the names. [The Jewish masters of the name] do everything with the predetermined received skills; in contrast they adjure spirits of the false seven heavens. They are all experts in adjuring spirits of impurity, especially the face-spirit of impurity. By their oaths a face-spirit continuously appears illuminated, sometimes it changes and there will appear a continuous image of the previous (demonic) [Dalai] Lama, who had died.

At the time of a particular festival of theirs, the monks bear [the Dalai Lama] through the streets of the city in a throne sheathed in linens, with his face covered. His face does not appear to the masses, because he is holy in their opinion. When he dies they treat the incoming ruling Lama with the same authority as they did for the preceding Lama. The monks deceive  the masses with the image saying that their Lama is the living and eternal God, holy and awe-inspiring.

Any one of the masses that is at least worthy to drink from the urine of the Lama (which the monks themselves urinate) is sanctified with a special holiness. Those sanctified with the drinking of this urine are called holy and pure due to all types of holiness.

Thousands and tens of thousands go on pilgrimage to him from far and he prophecies the future for them, and the monks write healing amulets with his name inside. Even the emperors who rule over them, and every prince of the kingdom, must receive authorization for his rule from him or he will not be received as king over them.

I thank Prof. Zvi Mark for the reference. There are other digressions on Buddhism,  but this is one of the longest. The religious language used in the account reflects a mixture of Enlightenment, and Catholic ideas. The idea that ecstasies are either divine or demonic is an early modern Catholic language, depicting a world of exorcisms and possession. The mention of their impure spirit rather than the traditional Jewish discussion of their idols, their avodah zarah, reflects a source in a missionary travelogue.

As historic points, the 18th century Enlightenment actually entertained using the urine-cure as one of the wondrous cures available from the East. The description of the creation of a golem like figures in Tibet is readily available in Alexandra David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, 1929.

Peripheral Vision

In the new “Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States 2008-09” released this week by Marvin Schick

We have the following statistic:

Outside of New York and New Jersey, 47% of day school students are enrolled in non-Orthodox schools.

Yet 83% of all day school students are in orthodox schools. It emphasizes again the role of regional differences and the enormous difference between center and periphery. The very image of a day school is different out of NY-NJ.


It was usually the same in most countries. In Congress Poland, Cracow had Yeshivot and Italian cultural influence, Lublin only had the yeshivot, while Podolia, the birthplace of Hasidism, was out of town. A major economic center, but culturally on the periphery.  Similarly in Spain, Castille was not the same as cultured Gerona. Many peripheries  were sources of new ideas.

The end of weak thought?

Recently, several people have noted the similarities between the message of Chief Rabbi Sacks and Pope Benedict, both offering a critique of materialism and the lack of truth in modern life.

In the 50’s-70’s, people looked for meaning, in the 80’s until today people looked for a moral order – either conservative or progressive- but without a sense of universal truth.  Is there a return to reason in religion? Are we entering a new era of truth?

Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, archbishop of São Paulo in Brazil, suggested that the great contrast between Ratzinger and Benedict has nothing to do with politics, but with his legacy and impact. Ironically, Scherer suggested, this consummate theologian may well make his most important contributions as pope not in theology, but rather in philosophy and even cultural criticism.

Surveying Benedict’s efforts so far, Scherer identified three key themes: the relationship between faith and reason; natural law; and the centrality of the human person. All three, Scherer said, offer a challenge to what Italians call the pensiero debole, or “weak thought,” of the modern world, meaning a lack of confidence in the ability of the human mind to ever find objective truth.

“This may seem a little out of place, because logically you’d expect a pope to talk about the importance of faith,” Scherer said. “That obviously is also important to Benedict XVI. Yet from the beginning, the pope also has been calling attention to human reason, the human capacity to reach the truth.”

In that sense, Scherer suggested, the real surprise of the papacy so far is that Ratzinger the theologian has emerged as Benedict the philosopher.


Everytime you zzzz, a kitten dies

Overhead on Shabbat by a Baal Teshuvah mother of 7, who raised her kids as Yeshivish.

“Every time you bentch, an antisemite dies”

The source seems to be the phrase from 1996, that took off 2003 with the internet.  The phrase is now used in every way “every time you vote for the wrong candidate,  a kitten dies.”

Wiki article

It may also go back to the line from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life “”Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”

But what interested me was its use as an explanation for the observance of commandments. Benching does not remind one of God, it does not do a tikkun, or show gratitude for the food. Benching fights the evil in the world. Is fighting antisemitism our new cosmology?

Why Blog?

I just submitted a book manuscript to my publisher and I have 5 months to submit another book manuscript. Since I am spending long hours in front of the computer, this is my jot pad for things I come across or think about.  I will also post items from friends. I will only check comments once a day, so if you want to comment be patient. I prefer longer comments once a day, rather than many short ones.