Monthly Archives: July 2010

Missing Source

A pulpit rabbi send the following out as his message for AV.
What Talmud is he looking at?

According to the Talmud the 2nd Temple was destroyed because we didn’t practice what we studied. We knew how to learn, but we didn’t know what its message meant for us on a practical level.

Rav Yehuda Amital Z”L

This morning we mourn the death of Harav Yehuda Amital zt”l, a truly courageous and moral leader of our time.

Here is the opening of an article that I wrote about him a few years ago in my review of Rav Amital’s book “Worlds Destroyed Worlds Rebuilt: The Religious Thought of R. Yehudah Amital” (the essay originally appeared in the 2006 Edah Journal) :

* Rabbi Amital is a profound visionary driven by his memory of the past with a unique natural sense of Judaism. Yehudah Klein (later changed to Amital) was born in 1925 in Transylvania. As a boy he studied in heder and yeshiva and had only four years of elementary secular education; his teacher in Hungary was the Lithuanian R. Hayyim Yehudah Halevi, a student of R. Hayyim Ozer and of Reb Barukh Baer Leibowitz. R. Amital recounts a story of his youth in which he imagined a ball of fire in the sky. His vivid and active imagination took it as a messianic sign, and he persuaded his classmates to dance around a tree in celebration. R. Amital didn’t himself experience this envisioned messianic redemption, for in 1943 the Nazis deported him to a labor camp, and the rest of his family perished in Auschwitz. Upon his release, he came to Israel in December of 1944 and resumed his yeshiva studies, receiving ordination from R. Isser Zalman Meltzer and then married the latter’s granddaughter. R. Amital joined the Haganah and fought in the battles of Latrun and the Western Galilee. After the war, R. Amital became a rabbinic secretary in the Rabbinical Court in Rehovot, and two years later, he started giving a Talmud shiur in Yeshivat Ha-Darom together with his colleague Rabbi Elazar Mann Shakh.

While at Yeshivat Ha-Darom, R. Amital formulated the idea of the yeshivat hesder, which combines yeshiva study and military service. The exemption from army service granted to yeshiva students increased the friction between the religious and secular communities, so R. Amital created the yeshivat hesder to unite these two communities, as well as to illustrate the religious significance of the accomplishments of the new state. This decisive move shifted R. Amital from his haredi background to a religious Zionist affiliation and distinguished his teachings from those of his colleague Rav Shakh, who came to lead the anti-Zionist yeshiva ideology at the Ponovitch Yeshiva in Benei Beraq. For R. Amital, there was no turning back: the secular state was a reality. The hesder form of Religious Zionism became a distinct variety of Modern Orthodoxy, one that consisted of helping to build the state under labor Zionism, and combining Torah study with army service. (One should note the difference between this form of religious Zionism and Hirsch’s diaspora keeping of mitsvot, Hildesheimer’s academic study of Talmud, or American suburbanization).

Propelled by Holocaust memories, R. Amital became a force in the building of the modern state of Israel, and, after the liberation of the Gush Etzion in the Six-Day War of 1967, Rabbi Amital founded the yeshiva in Kefar Etzion. (In 1971, R. Amital invited R. Aharon Lichtenstein to join him as Rosh Yeshiva.) R. Amital later led the politically liberal religious party Meimad and served as a cabinet minister. He publicly displayed his pain over the 1973 and 1982 wars, especially the loss of some of his earliest students, and raised three generations of primarily Israeli students, teaching them to think independently, sensitively and subtly about the complex issues of morality, piety and politics that the modern Israeli faces. His combination of simple interpersonal directness and complex inner theology makes him, to quote a recent Ha’aretz article, “a simple Jew… a rare breed” and one from whom American Jews can learn much.

David Shasha on Kellner, Idel, and Nationalism

David Shasha is a proponent of all things Sefardi and a radical follower of Jose Faur who envisions a Levantine synthesis of Jewish and Arabic humanism. Shasha offers a critique of Kellner, Idel and others as destroying the humanistic foundations of Judaism. He claims that they destroy the foundation of Maimonidean humanism even if they accept Maimonides. Kellner advocates for the rationalism of Maimonides but back-handedly considers the Maimonideans as too demanding for the common person, as rejecting folk religion, and as not the Jewish tradition. Shasha demands that Maimonides be considered the tradition or else Maimonideans would always be in a defensive position. If one does not live in a rational world then all the power is in the magical hand of the rabbis.

Shasha places blame at the feet of Moshe Idel who explores the magical, irrational, and mythic forces in Judaism but who also maintains that this theurgic world is the world of the Talmudic Rabbis. For Idel, the Rabbinic tradition is magical. Kabbalah is not a Gnostic intruder into Judaism but the very meaning of the commandments for the Rabbis. Once Jews studied Saadyah, Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Gersonides as the traditon, now they read Abulafia and Zohar. For Shasha, this is tantamount to a return to idolatry and the source of militant nationalism. Full Version here.

Shasha writes:
At the center of this controversy is the vexing question of Jewish authenticity.
In his 2006 study “Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism,” Menachem Kellner adopts an approach that has become standard in most Jewish circles, writing:

“The Jewish world in which Maimonides lived was uncongenial to the austere, abstract, demanding vision of Torah which he preached. Evidence from a wide variety of sources shows that Jews in Maimonides’ day – common folk and scholars alike – accepted astrology, the magical use of divine names, appeals to angels, etc.”

In a noble attempt to elevate the thinking of Maimonides, Kellner’s arguments bizarrely lend credence to the positions of the anti-Maimonideans.
In the book’s conclusion he states:

The world favored by Maimonides’ opponents, on the other hand, is an “enchanted” world. Many of Maimonides’ opponents, in his day and ours, do indeed accept the efficacy of charms and amulets, and fear the harm of demons and the evil eye. But it is not in that sense that I maintain that they live in an enchanted world. Theirs is not a world which can be explained in terms of the unvarying workings of divinely ordered laws of nature; it is not a world which can be rationally understood. It is a world in which the notion of miracle loses all meaning, since everything that happens is a miracle. In such a world instructions from God, and contact with the divine in general, must be mediated by a religious elite who alone can see the true reality masked by nature. This is the opposite of an empowering religion, since it takes their fate out of the hands of Jews, and, in effect, puts it into the hands of the rabbis.

We can see the tension at the heart of Kellner’s argument, a tension that forces his hand in accepting the absolute authenticity of the mystical-occult tradition of the Kabbalah and rejecting the Jewish validity of Maimonidean rationalism.

Kellner’s book contains a forward by Hebrew University professor Moshe Idel, perhaps the single most influential academic in the world of Judaica, a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize and a ubiquitous presence in the world of Jewish studies. Idel has relentlessly promoted the pro-magic, neo-pagan, anti-rational strain of Jewish tradition also called Kabbalah.

Idel’s scholarly project has been designed to affirm the authenticity of the mystical-occult Kabbalah and undermine the validity of the rational standards of Religious Humanism. As we see in a representative passage in his seminal 1988 work “Kabbalah: New Perspectives”:

Kabbalah can be viewed as part of a restructuring of those aspects of rabbinic thought that were denied authenticity by Maimonides’ system. Far from being a total innovation, historical Kabbalah represented an ongoing effort to systematize existing elements of Jewish theurgy, myth, and mysticism into a full-fledged response to the rationalistic challenge.
It is, however, possible to assume that, if the motifs transmitted in those unknown [Kabbalistic] circles formed part of an ancient weltanschauung, their affinities to the rabbinic mentality would be more organic and easily absorbed into the mystic cast of Judaism.
According to this hypothesis, we do not need to account for why ancient Jews took over Gnostic doctrines, why they transmitted them, and, finally, how this ‘Gnostic’ Judaism was revived in the Middle Ages by conservative Jewish authorities.

Shasha concludes:

This has led to the rejection of Sephardic Jewish Humanism as formulated by Maimonides and an affirmation of an ethnocentric Jewish chauvinism based on the magical mysticism of Kabbalistic theurgy. It is a Judaism that rejects the tenets of a critical reading of the Jewish past and has led us to the sort of ideological purity and militant nationalism that has become characteristic of the intractable impasse in the Middle East. Though this occult process has been secularized by Zionism, it is apparent that the ideological values of the mystical continue to animate the Jewish self-perception in a nationalistic sense.

Wild Strawberries for Tisha B’Av

I just received an email that Drisha will be screening and discussing the Ingmar Bergman film Wild Strawberries at 4pm on Tisha beAv. I take this as another indication of our relating to God as a therapeutic deity.

In the 1970’s Conservative congregations spoke of Jewish history and the Holocaust on Tisha Be-av. Reading of Josephus and Ghetto diaries. During this time period, Rav Soloveitchik spoke of the ontic catastrophe of the destruction of the Temple and the existential state of acquiring emotions in a case of “old mourning” and turned it into a day of shiurim on mourning and the mikdash.
Flashy Rabbis gave lectures on “why do we still mourn now that we have a state of Israel?”

By the 1990’s Centrist Orthodoxy used the talks of Rav Soloveitchik to speak of Jewish History and the Holocaust, or discussing the halakhot of the land of Israel. Holocaust films were shown and protests are held at the UN and embassies. The halakhic God of Lonely Man of Faith gave way to a God of History, Land, and War.
On the more yeshivish side, there are lectures on hastening the geulah- either through not talking lashon hara or not doing any of the activities that hasten it.

In the last few years, there has been a shift to the brokenness of the world. Renewal announcements ask: How do we deal with the brokenness, trauma, and injustice in the world. Yeshivish announcements offer sessions on the destruction in our lives and restoring family and teens in trouble. And now Drisha is leading a discussion about Wild Strawberries, a movie in which the protagonist a retired medical professor sees his life as loveless and without meaning. He is haunted by memories, brought on by dreams and by people he meets, about the chances for love, family, and forgiveness that he messed up. Tisha Be-Av is a chance to undo psychic damage.

One path that is not being continued is the Tisha BeAv rally held several years ago in Jerusalem in which Rabbis Lichtenstein, Cherlow, Lau, and others as an occasion for justice. They denounced the lack of in Israel of worker’s rights, the human trafficking, the oppression of the poor, of the Arab other, of unfair business practices. The event did not have continuity. (Can someone send me the links from Haaretz, Ynet or the speeches?)
Rabbi SR Hirsch also emphasized the ethical since the prophets denounced Israel for its immorality.

As a side topic- Here is Reb Shlomo from 1992 asking for intimacy with God, to heal from the pain of the Holocaust, to rebuild the Temple. It’s longing is palpable.

It is possible to do everything G-d wants you to do and not to be intimate with G-d. You know, beautiful friends, Mount Sinai is where G-d told us what to do. But Jerusalem, the Holy Temple, is where we are intimate with G-d. The Holy Temple is the headquarters for being close to G-d and to each other. But when the house is destroyed, there is no place to be intimate anymore. And gevalt! Are we longing and crying to be intimate with G-d, with every Jew, with every word of the Torah, and, one day, with the whole world…On Tisha b’Av the Messiah comes. On Tisha b’Av until the Six Million you only heard the sound of the destruction of the Temple; you could not hear the footsteps of the Messiah. Today, the voice of destruction gets further and further away, the voice of the coming of the Messiah gets closer and closer. Let it be this year that the whole world will be fixed and G-d’s holy intimacy comes back into the world and into our lives. You know, beautiful friends, I’m so proud of our moshav and our shul because they are filled with prayers, with so much dancing and joy, but also with so many tears begging G-d for intimacy with every word of the Torah with every Jew, with every human being, with all of nature. I have a feeling it will be this year.

Shlomo offers an undifferentiated healing love- primordial and oceanic.
Viewing Wild Strawberries offers self-scrutiny of one’s wrong choices and how does one let go of hindrances that prevent healing. One sees that one’s choices are the cause of one’s meaninglessness, therefore a person needs to take responsibility, a therapeutic mussar.

Updated- One week later Drisha sent out an announcement that they will be showing a Holocaust movie and not Wild Strawberries.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Sufi Story in Breslov: Transmigration of a Mystical Story

Here is a guest post, using his pseudonym Eiver LaNahar. He is a renowned Haredi teacher of Breslov Chassidus. Here he lets his hair down and starts with a trans-personal psychology quotation from the 1975 classic of Charles Tart. From my historical approach this dates his approach to a pre-new age, pre-spirituality era- when it was still countercultural and transpersonal. The goal is to awaken to the richness of experience despite our 1960’s culture having no ability to discuss these experiences. (Courtney Bender’s New Metaphysics don’t have these problems). Our blog post is willing to let down his hair and note a similarity to a Sufi story, quote Aryeh Kaplan on LSD imagery in Hasidic texts, and explain Breslov as offering non-dual states of perception.

I (AB) have a worksheet where I show how a single line of Breslov gets interpreted in the last 20 years as transpersonal psych, as 12 step, as primal emotions of depression, and as postmodernism. The story is indeed sufi, but that is a topic for another post.

Transmigration of a Mystical Story by Eiver LaNahar

Transpersonal psychologist Charles T. Tart observes:
“…[A]ttention/awareness energy is constantly flowing back and forth, around and around in familiar, habitual paths. This means that much of the variety and richness of life is filtered out. An actual event, triggering off a certain category of experience, activating a certain structure, is rapidly lost as the internal processes connected with that structure and its associated structures and prepotent needs take over the energy of the system… (“States of Consciousness,” Chapter 19 (“Ordinary Consciousness as a State of Illusion,” pp. 269-270),
“ if your cultural conditioning has not given you any categories as part of the Input-Processing subsystem to recognize certain events, you may simply not perceive them… so the wheel of your life rolls over these events hardly noticing them, perhaps with only a moment of puzzlement before your more ‘important’ internal needs and preoccupations cause you to dismiss the unusual…
“If you experience such an event, though, the cultural pressures, both from others and from the enculturated structures built up within you, will probably force you to forget it, to explain away its significance. If you experience something everybody knows cannot happen, you must be crazy; but if you do not tell anyone and forget about it yourself, you will be okay.”

Tart goes on to cite a Sufi story from Idries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes (pp. 21-20), “When the Waters Were Changed,” to illustrate this idea:

Once upon a time Khidr, the Teacher of Moses, called upon mankind with a warning. At a certain date, he said, all the water in the world which had not been specially hoarded would disappear. It would then be renewed, with different water, which would drive men mad.
Only one man listened to the meaning of this advice. He collected water and went to a secure place where he stored it, and waited for the water to change its character.
On the appointed date the streams stopped running, the wells went dry, and the man who had listened, seeing this happening, went to his retreat and drank his preserved water.
When he saw, from his security, the waterfalls again beginning to flow, this man descended among the other sons of men. He found that they were thinking and talking in an entirely different way from before; yet they had no memory of what had happened, nor of having been warned. When he tried to talk to them, he realized that they thought he was mad, and they showed hostility or compassion, not understanding.
At first he drank none of the new water, but went back to his concealment, to draw on his supplies, every day. Finally, however, he took the decision to drink the new water because he could not bear the loneliness of living, behaving and thinking in a different way from everyone else. He drank the new water, and became like the rest. Then he forgot all about his own store of special water, and his fellows began to look upon him as a madman who had miraculously been restored to sanity.

On a brighter note, Tart concludes, “Fortunately we do make contact with reality at times. There are forces for real change in culture so the conservative forces do not always succeed. I have great faith in science as a unique force for constantly questioning the limits of consensus reality (at least in the long run) for deliberately looking for cracks in the cosmic egg that open onto vast new vistas. But, far more than we would like to admit, our lives can be mainly or completely tightly bounded wheels, rolling mechanically along the track of consensus reality.”

One of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s enigmatic parables is remarkably similar to this Sufi story. (I have no idea which came first, nor if the connection is causal or merely serendipitous; tzorekh iyyun.) Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translates it in his collection, “Rabbi Nachman’s Stories” (Breslov Research Institute, p. 481). Although the primary source isn’t given, I tracked it down to Ma’asiyos U-Meshalim (pp. 27-28), a group of stories discovered in the the notebook of Rabbi Naftali of Nemirov (and later, Uman), a member of Rabbi Nachman’s inner circle. These stories were later appended to Kokhvey Ohr, Breslov oral traditions compiled by Rabbi Avraham b’Reb Nachman [Chazan], and edited and published by Rabbi Shmuel Horowitz before the outbreak of World War II.

A king once told his prime minister, who was also his good friend, “I see in the stars that whoever eats any grain that grows this year will go mad. What is your advice?”
The prime minister replied, “We must put aside enough grain so that we will not have to eat from this year’s harvest.”
The king objected, “But then we will be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad. Therefore, they will think that we are the mad ones. It is impossible for us to put aside enough grain for everyone. Therefore, we too must eat this year’s grain. But we will make a mark on our foreheads, so that at least we will know that we are mad. I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine, and when we see this sign, we will know that we are both mad.”

In a footnote, Rabbi Kaplan observes that “there are fungi of the ergot family that attack grain and can cause hallucinations and other bizarre experiences when ingested. These fungi contain substances very similar to LSD.” However he doesn’t offer any key to unlock the secret of Rabbi Nachman’s story.

Perhaps Tart’s quasi-Buddhist explanation of the Sufi story may be applied to the Chasidic one. The “corrupted” consensually-conditioned consciousness of those who partake of the new grain corresponds to samsara, ordinary dualistic (i.e., relational) perception. However, the pristine consciousness of the king and his royal minister corresponds to the enlightened mind, which is the ability to see things in their simplicity and utter newness—which Rabbi Nachman calls “sanity.”

The bottom line of both stories is the necessity of forgoing enlightenment in order to participate in the world. But the difference between Rabbi Nachman’s parable and the Sufi one is that the king and his friend make a sign on each other’s forehead to remind them that they are mad.

Is this an allusion to Tefillin, “…they shall serve as a reminder between your eyes…” However, Chazal give us hope, too: “In the future world, the tzaddikim will sit and their crowns [i.e., nondual states of perception] will be in their heads (ve-atroseihem bi-rasheihem) [i.e., internalized]…” (Berakhos 17a; and cf. Likkutei Moharan I, 21:4)

What does this mean when our leadership is anything but non-dual states of perception? In the 1970’s once could think that leaving the Jewish middle class and entering the social imaginary of the frum world would be like the spiritual awakening in a Sufi tale, what do we do now when the community does not seem anything like a source of enlightenment? Forty years after the counter-culture’s critique of society have we learned anything that offers new insight to Eiver LaNahar’s tales? Has spirituality with its quest for wellness killed the crazy wisdom of awakening?

General Update

I am glad to be home, I posted a few short posts this week to be back online.
Later this week we have a guest post by Eiver LeNahar on a Breslov tale. If anyone else has an appropriate guest post that fits into the topics covered here then let me know.
Next week, I will review to posts that require being at home and learning or reading. I will review the first 3 chapters of Rav Morgenstern’s introduction to Komarno. So please read them. If you subscribe they were sent out last week, and the intro was sent in Dec. I might also mention his “intro to the history of Chasidus” that was sent out before Pesah.
I will review “Imagining Holiness: Classic Hasidic Tales in Modern Times”- I owe a paper book review.
And next month we will get to the two new books by Zvi Mark on Breslov, the forthcoming book by Kellner, some translations of Rav Ashlag, and we will do Belevavi Mishkan in Elul.

The New Metaphysicals Post #2

I had posted a few weeks ago about the new book by Courtney Bender called The New Metaphysicals about the current practice of new age in America.

My post received no comments even though it touches on many topics that come up whenever I post on Neo-Hasidism. Specifically, how the narratives of believers and those of historians or scientists do not match. Here is a review of the book by Andrew Perrin dealing with some of the issues from a different angle. First off, when do we say that these new age practitioners are loony? The 1950’s saw all kabbalah, hasidut as off limits and would scoff at negel wasser or Tu beshevat. But now that new age is everywhere and neo-hasidism is everywhere, when can you tell someone that his new explanation is daffy?

Perrin spends more of his time asking about authenticity. There is already a huge anthropology literature showing that practices revived in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the US, Korea, and Japan, are done in the name of authenticity, even when the performer has no claim to authenticity, even if the person has no continuity with the past, the practice did not characterize the past, and the practice is not done like the past. Perrin notes that even if the practitioner investigates the matter, evidence wont change anything because they have a Platonic idea of authenticity. A similar but not identical phenomena has occurred in Jewish law, where tradition (mesorah) is invoked by people with no direct link, only a theological link based on imagined institutional ones, no similar practice to the old country, and an explanation of the practice that flies in the face of the older interpretation.

Perrin’s question to Bender is how can university educated people not know the refutations to their positions and not understand that the very Ivy academies where they received their degrees would not accept this pseudo-science. Perrin concludes that Bender offers a glimpse of how people believe but not why they do and how they reconcile it with the world around them.

Perrin’s own start of an answer is that they think that not everything is known by the official standards of the academy and that they have access to an authentic source of knowledge. It is authentic because it comes from a different source, a truer source, and a truer conception of reality unharmed by empiricism.

The New Metaphysicals offers a peek into a world that I found at once pedestrian and strange, and the information that it gives us about so-called “spiritual but not religious” people is invaluable. The new agers, mystics, yoga instructors, and other metaphysicals whose words animate The New Metaphysicals seem quite foreign at first blush, and it’s to Professor Bender’s enormous credit that she theorizes the milieu without undermining the authenticity claims and struggles in which her subjects engage. At the same time, I found myself wanting more of a critical stance, a more thoroughgoing interrogation of the epistemologies that these subjects espoused.
Authenticity is a constant struggle for Bender’s subjects, amongst whom a common theme is the sense that their metaphysical pursuits offer something more real, more genuine, than the routine life of urban Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Bender conducted her fieldwork. Hans, for example, had developed an extensive theory of ethnic authenticity, applied as “the coloring, the embellishment” of generic shamanism, and had sought vainly for a sufficiently authentic Germanic shamanism to match his ethnic heritage. Along the way, though, he laments the fact that Native Americans, who constitute for him a kind of Platonic ideal of indigenous authenticity, don’t really seem that interested in his shamanic group
I found myself wanting more of this sort of critique. While I admire the self-control that enabled Bender to restrain herself from dismissing her subjects as just plain loony, many of them do go through remarkable rhetorical contortions to make the elements of their narratives fit together adequately. Many of these contortions map onto terrain that has been covered over the past century or so by sociological, anthropological, and cultural theorists agonizing over precisely the same chimerical authenticity that seems to motivate many of Bender’s subjects. Why do these academic critiques not carry the same weight among the metaphysicals?
Philippa, an astrologer, uses recognizably scientific language (gamma rays, matter, Pluto, Prozac, Ritalin, even “a wobble in Mercury’s orbit”) all to establish the reality of the planet Vulcan. Each of these individuals engages in reasoning that strikes me as essentially post hoc, selectively deploying observations, likely random in origin, as evidence for a predetermined conclusion.
I assume that, were Philippa to take her talk to the Astronomy department down the street, the evidence she mounts would be unlikely to convince the faculty there that Vulcan exists. So why the attempt at a common language? Why not just adopt a dismissive attitude toward observational evidence, claiming spiritual, metaphysical space for themselves and leaving material, physical space to the scientists? Bender’s narrative provides great insight into what the new metaphysicals believe and how they engage that belief, but why they believe it and how they reconcile that belief with the outlook of less-metaphysical friends, neighbors, and family, are open questions.
Read the rest of Perrin here.

Nahmanides’ appeal in his introduction to the Humash commentary to the 49 gates of wisdom known only to Moses, the traditions of the Torah as black fire on white fire, and one long name of God, and the scientific traditions known to Solomon and King Hizkiyah serve many of the same functions of undermining the science of the day and creating an alternative authority and authenticity. The widespread use of Nahmanides in late 20th century Judaism has helped foster and coalesces with this deeper authenticity.

So, why does the Jewish community accept pseudo-science? And what are the alternate forms of authenticity?
I know one neo-Hasidic haredi author who writes complete pop-psych but claims he is authentic because he tangentially copies Idel’s footnotes (And mine and Aryeh Kaplan’s and Scholem’s). There authenticity is his claim to know texts, even if not these texts.

How do our Jewish new age practitioners ignore Western canons and also claim Torah authenticity?

There is still much meaty discussion of the book at The immanent Frame- we will return to the book again later in the week.

Joseph Weiler, traditional Jew, defends the freedom to affix a Crucifix

Joseph H. H. Weiler, expert in international law, who has more degrees -earned and honorary- than almost anyone else has written a piece defending the freedom the affix a crucifix. Some of my readers may know him because he is mainly situated at NYU and is a traditional Jew. I was once on a panel with him post 9/11. In the post-EU world, one part of the EU can hold another part to its standards. The placing of a crucifix was brought to court of European Court of Human Rights and banned in school use. Italy appealed the ban. Below is part of the defense of the Crucifix by Joseph Weiler.

13. Consider a photograph of the Queen of England hanging in the classroom. Like the Cross, that picture has a double meaning. It is a photo of the Head of State. It is, too, a photo of the Titular head of the Church of England. It is a bit like the Pope who is a Head of State and Head of a Church. Would it be acceptable for someone to demand that the picture of the Queen may not hang in the school since it is incompatible with their religious conviction or their right to education since – they are Catholics, or Jews, or Muslims? Or with their philosophical conviction – they are atheists? Could the Irish Constitution or the German Constitution not hang on a class room wall or be read in class since in their Preambles we find a reference to the Holy Trinity and the Divine Lord Jesus Christ in the former and to God in the latter? Of course the right of freedom from religion must ensure that a pupil who objects may not be required actually to engage in a religious act, perform a religious ritual, or have some religious affiliation as a condition for state entitlements. He or she should certainly have the right not to sing God Save the Queen if that clashes with their world view. But can that student demand that no one else sing it?

21. Today, the principal social cleavage in our States as regards religion is not among, say Catholics and Protestants, but among the religious and the ‘secular’. Secularity, Laïcité is not an empty category which signifies absence of faith. It is to many a rich world view which holds, inter alia, the political conviction that religion only has a legitimate place in the private sphere and that there may not be any entanglement of public authority and religion. For example, only secular schools will be funded. Religious schools must be private and not enjoy public support. It is a political position, respectable, but certainly not “neutral.” The non-laique, whilst fully respecting freedom of and from religion, embrace some form of public religion as I have already noted. Laïcité advocates a naked public square, a classroom wall bereft of any religious symbol. It is legally disingenuous to adopt a political position which splits our society, and to claim that somehow it is neutral.

23. If the social pallet of society were only composed of blue yellow and red groups, than black – the absence of color – would be a neutral colour. But once one of the social forces in society has appropriated black as its colour, than that choice is no longer neutral. Secularism does not favour a wall deprived of all State symbols. It is religious symbols which are anathema.

24. What are the educational consequences of this?
25. Consider the following parable of Marco and Leonardo, two friends just about to begin school. Leonardo visits Marco at his home. He enters and notices a crucifix. What is that?’, he asks. ‘A crucifix – why, you don’t have one? Every house should have one.’ Leonardo returns to his home agitated. His mother patiently explains: ‘They are believing Catholics. We are not. We follow our path. Now imagine a visit by Marco to Leonardo’s house. ‘Wow!’, he exclaims, ‘no crucifix? An empty wall?’ “ We do not believe in that nonsense” says his friend. Marco returns agitated to his house. ‘Well’, explains his mother, ‘We follow our path.” The next day both kids go to school. Imagine the school with a crucifix. Leonardo returns home agitated: ‘The school is like Marco’s house. Are you sure, Mamma, that it is okay not to have a crucifix?’ That is the essence of Ms. Lausti’s complaint. But imagine, too, that on the first day the walls are naked. Marco returns home agitated. ‘The school is like Leonardo’s house,’ he cries. ‘You see, I told you we don’t need it.’

27. Make no mistake: A State-mandated naked wall, as in France, may suggest to pupils that the State is taking an anti-religious attitude. We trust the curriculum of the French Republic, to teach their children tolerance and pluralism and dispel that notion. There is always an interaction between what is on the wall and how it is discussed and taught in class. Likewise, a crucifix on the wall, might be perceived as coercive. Again, it depends on the curriculum to contextualize and teach the children in the Italian class tolerance and pluralism. There may be other solutions such as having symbols of more than one religion or finding other educationally appropriate ways to convey the message of pluralism.

Read the whole thing here.

Notice his definitions of the open society, tolerance and pluralism. A lack of religion in the public sphere is itself a religious decision. Also note how far the defense of the crucifix has no connection to medieval polemics or even the polemics of the age of tolerance and the Enlightenment. One is not proving either side right or wrong, nor is one conflating liberal tolerance with pluralism. Many modern orthodox Jews still respond to questions in medieval terms or attempting to fit Enlightenment tolerance into the classic positions. Neither one is where current discussions of human rights start.

Any thoughts on his arguments? Would Judaism agree? Would Judaism seeking a place to defend its own religious liberty in the US agree?

God is Back —-Part II—-Religious Conclusions and Orthodox implications

Here is the second part of the Guest Post by Benzion N Chinn. It continues from Part I – here. In this part he offers an evaluation of religion as lifestyle coach, and asks about the more intellectual elements. I am less certain about this approach since the book’s point is that 21st century religion is amoral and non-intellectual. Why be religious? It is a good lifestyle, offers meaning, and warm shabbosim.Chinn asks where are the orthodox bikers? In this I think he still bears the limits of the YU ideal.We do not have statistics but there are more bikers than you think- there is Orthodox 12 step for NA, chabad, outreach devoid of torah and mizvot, and as I saw yesterday heavily tattooed Jews worried about the hashgahah on chicken. Finally, the book deals with everything from meditation and spirituality to pentacostals- each part of which deserves its own discussion. Here is Chinn on his own blog has a post “Do some religions make you stupider” discussing one of the playful pages on the book.

Having reviewed God is Back, I would like to follow up with a consideration of some of the implications of its main thesis that an American model of religion, mixing a surface conservative theology with modern notions of community and self help.

On the surface this book is a strike against the New Atheism and their traditional Enlightenment narrative. But before we start cheering in the streets at the coming defeat of Dawkins and company, any serious religious thinker is going to have to sit down with this book and ask some hard questions; are we actually comfortable not just with religion triumphing in the battle for modernity, but the type of religion that is doing so. Is this a battle we can afford to win?

In many respects this book is an ode to Evangelical Christianity, the source for the American model and its most successful practitioners to date. In particular, the new generation of social activist pastors, like Rick Warren and Bishop T. D. Jakes, are given very positive portrayals

Jesus now is a lifestyle couch to teach you how to reach your worldly potential. It is somewhere among the glowing descriptions of Evangelical mega churches, with their comfy seating and sports complexes.

I must admit to having felt slightly queasy. While Evangelicals have certainly proved capable of harnessing modern technology for their own ends, one has a hard time seeing them as having the sort of intellectual sense to confront the modern world in a serious fashion and actually effecting the broader secular culture. These concerns were only confirmed when the authors brought up Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind only to dismiss it as a problem of the past that is quickly being solved. (For this reason I would strongly urge readers to read Noll in conjunction with this book as a necessary corrective.) God is Back is written from a sociology of religion perspective, content to simply describe what it sees, without ever attempting to pass judgment. (Perhaps this explains the willingness to pass on Noll’s concerns. Noll, as someone living within the Evangelical world, does not have the luxury of not concerning himself as to whether his religion is intellectually tenable.)

That being said, the attraction of the American model is precisely its willingness to mix such theological conservatism with tolerance for the individual and downplaying theology in favor of society building. In essence this is an attempt to have one’s conservative cake and eat one’s modernity too. Rick Warren is an excellent example of this with him being caught on both sides of the gay marriage debate. On the one hand, as an Evangelical Christian, he had no choice but to come out and support Proposition 8 yet he likes to brag about his personal friendships with homosexuals and his tolerance for them even to the point of distancing himself from Proposition 8 once it dropped off the map.

Warren along with every leading figure in liberal Evangelicalism have trapped and knotted themselves in finding a politically correct Evangelical response to the question of “is Jesus the sole path to salvation,” saying both yes and no. If Warren and company are going to be representing Evangelicalism then why bother being an Evangelical? Why not simply join mainstream Protestantism and openly consider mainstreaming homosexuality and acknowledging the existence of alternative paths to salvation? That is unless your religious conservatism is simply a pretense to claim some sort of high ground in terms of authenticity.

Looking at Orthodoxy through the lens of the American model puts an interesting twist on the issue of individuality within Orthodoxy. The Modern Orthodox world is woefully ill equipped, at an institutional level, to offer a place for anyone who does not fit into the doctor/lawyer/accountant living in suburbia model. Where are our Orthodox biker gangs or taxidermist societies? (Academia presents its own set of problems.) I am constantly amazed as to the extent that someone with long hair and shorts might just be a deeply religious Christian. Orthodoxy’s emphasis on a uniform, such as a kippah, closes off this possibility. Part of our problem is that we lack the numbers to serve niche markets. The American model of religion suggests that offering one size fits all systems may not just be bad simply as a matter of promoting conformity, but suicidal. I would also suggest that this might be one more reason why Israel is important. Israeli Orthodoxy has shown itself capable of offering niche Orthodoxies.

I can see two ways in which the American model plays to the strength of Modern Orthodoxy, more so than Evangelical Christianity, at the intellectual level and in terms of ritual practice. The Orthodox emphasis on study gives it an integral intellectual element absent from Evangelical Christianity. (This is not to say that all Orthodox Jews are learned or that Evangelical Christianity cannot produce learned individuals.) Even the authors, while they downplay the threat, take it as a given that the society building of the American model cannot hope to survive, in the long run, without an intellectual component. Now Orthodoxy’s intellectual culture can work against itself, in the short term, by hastening the moment of crisis when the intellectual pretenses of the movement crash against the distinctively anti-intellectualism of the American model.

On the flip side a deep rooted intellectual culture may be just the thing to balance out and cover for such anti-intellectualism. Orthodox practice gives an extra dimension to claim the authenticity high ground, unavailable to Evangelicalism, thus opening the possibility of taking politically liberal positions. An Orthodox rabbi could come out in favor of legalizing gay marriage and even pursue an active “don’t ask don’t tell policy” in terms of homosexual Orthodox Jews.

I certainly accept the author’s premise of the success of the American model and the reasons for it. I am less certain as to whether this is something long term. The inherent tensions, if not downright contradictions, in the American model beg this to be an exercise in the power of unforeseen consequences; the most obvious of them being the American model doing itself in after doing secularism the favor of first eliminating the sort of rigorous intellectual faith that might have been able to stand up to a secularist assault. The forces of faith may not have lost the battle for modernity, but that does not mean that religion have won.

Gulen Movement – Part 2

Continued from part one here. Read part one before you read part II.

I am now asked to comment and tell people what I think of the Gulen movement. The people in the Gulen movement themselves ask me what I think about the movement. Before are some first thoughts – still not organized- still not fact checked- treat it as first impressions. Coming from my knowledge of the Jewish community, I can only evaluate them based on analogy to Jewish parallels.

My basic questions for evaluating the Islam of the Gulen movement is what will the next generation look like. Even knowing that next generations can turn out the opposite of the prior ones, the vantage point of projection allows evaluation. This is where I am stumped as to how to evaluate my experiences.

Vignette 1 –I am speaking to a 21 year old economic major who describes how the movement took Islam from the folkways and tradition in his small town and made it into a religion. Now the religion of Islam that he follows is by conscious choice and he sees that it can be treated as Turkish-Islamic culture. This would sound like a religion of self-conscious traditionalism. Their own newspaper quotes the anthropologist Ruth Benedict that “Our faith in the present dies out long before our faith in the future.” They are a transition that is still taking place in which the plausibility structure of the past has died and the Gulen movement offers the potential of a future plausibility structure that works.

Vignette 2- I am speaking to an 18 year old recent graduate of the Gulen boarding prep school in CT. He explains to me how Islam was not part of the curriculum but they have prayer and chaplains. He tells me that he is going to study Political Science and pre-law in a major Midwestern mega-university. I wonder how is he going to keep his Islam on a college campus? Will he change due to the influence of the Muslim-chaplain on campus? Will be forced to either assimilate or stake out a more public form of Islam to maintain his identity? What can I use to evaluate this kid as a success story of Gulen Islam?

Vignette 3- I am speaking to a 50 year old teacher of the movement. Someone shows him a keychain and asks: what is written on it? He says he thinks the first Sura of the Koran but that he cannot translate it and would need to look up its meaning. Since the first Sura is known to every school child who learns Koran-and even to any Jewish studies teacher who has ever taught the second Sura because of its Judiac sources- what do I make of his lack of knowledge of the Koran? it is not hard to remember
In the name of the merciful and compassionate God.
1 Praise belongs to God, the Lord of the worlds,
2 he the merciful, the compassionate,
3 he, the ruler of the day of judgment!
4 Thee we serve and Thee we ask for aid.
5 Guide us in the right path,
6 the path of those Thou art gracious to;
7 not of those Thou art wroth with; nor of those who err.

In general, they say to trust one’s own heart in religion. Don’t be a hypocrite and try to be sincere in your practice. They have created an Islam of knowledge of the basic rules and Mosque etiquette but no real learning of Islamic sources. They say to trust the heart for matters of interpretation. Imama, kadis, and scary sources of authority do not play a role in their thinking. How can I evaluate if the next generation will return to sources of authority and which ones they will choose?

They affirm the need for salat (worship) five times a day, yet they also say that God wants you to be engaged in medicine or business or community work so that if you miss some of the prayers it is OK. Once or twice a day is enough is one is busy with other service of God such as helping people. There is a form of osek be mitzvah patur min hamitzvah and rahmana leba bai.

When asked about restrictive fatwas, salafi interpretation or about Islamic reformers, they tend to shrug it off and say: Dont question others or engage in polemics- love all – don’t fight with the right or the left.

So how do I evaluate them? Where will they be in 20 years? 40 years? Are they like the Conservative movement of 1940’s – traditionalists following accepted practices of the people? Are they renewal and romantic for their setting as their base a universal reading of Sufism as tolerance, love, and intercultural understanding? Are they Modern Orthodox for their insistence on women covering their hair and everyone only eating OU kosher as their halal– both inside and outside the home? (There is money to be made by the OU giving them seminars in what to look for in ingredients and how to navigate American Kashrut.)
What happens when the kids open the books? Will they?

To offer a comparison: Teaneck has a new Muslim Mayor affiliated with the local Mosque and Muslim day school. In the Teaneck al-Ghazzali school they have half a day religious studies and half a day general studies. The Gulen schools all have only secular studies and one period a week of religion. To teach classes in al-Ghazzali, they sometimes have less than modernist teachers and the textbooks are produced in Pakistan. In the Gulen school, every teacher is bright-eyed and supportive of Gulen’s vision of love, tolerance, and purity of the heart. Here in Teaneck, the Muslim women do not all cover their hair but in the Gulen movement they do.

So how do I evaluate the movement? How are they similar or difference than the American Jewish entrance into modernity? Where will they be in 20 years?

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

CFP: Volume on Beyond Halakhah & a recent newspaper article with choice quotes

For those who enjoyed the discussions on post-orthodox, ironic -orthodox, Elchanan Shiloh, Yoav Sorek, and Peter Beinhart, here is a CFP that can help you gather your thoughts.

CFP by BGU for a volume on Judaism Beyond Halakhah- On Jewish culture without clear boundaries of religious-secular, modern-traditional, mystic-rational. What is the role of mesorati, new age, and secularism in the mix?

קול קורא להגשת מאמרים לאסופה חדש

מעבר להלכה: מיפוי מחדש של מסורת, דת ורוח בישראל

כרך הנושא החדש של כתב העת עיונים בתקומת ישראל עתיד לכלול מחקרים על החילוניות, המסורתיות, ה’עידן חדש’ (ניו-אייג’) והרוחניות בחברה הישראלית ובתרבותה. בכוונת עורכי הגיליון ליצור אכסניה מחקרית החורגת אל מעבר לשיח ה’קשוח’ בדבר ‘השסע הדתי-חילוני’ ואל מעבר לחלוקות דיכוטומיות רווחות המבחינות בחדות בין מודרני למסורתי, בין דתי לחילוני, בין רציונלי למיסטי וכיוצא באלו.

המאמרים בכרך זה לא יוגבלו לתחום דעת ושדה מחקר מסוימים. ייכללו בו מחקרים מתחומי דעת מגוונים (סוציולוגיה ואנתרופולוגיה, חקר הספרות, פילוסופיה, היסטוריה ועוד). הגיליון יהיה פתוח לגישות מחקריות מגוונות. יתקבלו מאמרים שלא פורסמו בעבר בעברית או בשפה אחרת.

חוקרים המעוניינים להשתתף בכרך זה מוזמנים לשלוח תקציר (בן כ400 מלים) המתאר את מחקרם המוצע עד לסוף חודש אוקטובר 2010 , לכתובת הדואר האלקטרוני של המערכת:

omiller@bgu.ac.il

As a side note- here are some paragraphs from a recent newspaper article used to describe the current climate. The article was ostensibly on politics but there was the soul of another article “On the Religion of the Thirtysomethings” buried in the article. This is not the religion of the Datiim Hadashim who are now in their 40’s and 50’s. It is the younger university crowd- South Jerusalem and the towns around Beer Sheva.

Most are young people in their twenties and thirties, and they represent an entire spectrum: religious, datlashim ‏(formerly religious, but usually people for whom religion and tradition are still important to some degree‏), datlafim ‏(sometimes religious‏), “transparent skullcaps” ‏(bareheaded people who describe themselves as religiously observant‏), secular, and those who do not want to specify their position along this continuum. In any event, nearly all consider Judaism and their religious education and background to be important elements in their political thinking and activism.

“I think this is a new phenomenon,” he says. “Something that crosses religions is emerging in Jerusalem today. [These are] young people who are not bound to their parents’ conventions and don’t care whether their partners in the struggle are religious or not, but all of them share the feeling that our future is in danger.”

Ben Sasson, son of the president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, historian Menahem Ben-Sasson, is currently writing his doctoral dissertation in Jewish studies. The subject: the explicit name of God. He describes the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations as “worship of Hashem [the Hebrew name for God]” and is very eager to engage his settler-adversaries in theological debate. It’s clear he has already rehearsed these arguments in his mind many times.
“In the Middle Ages disputations were held between learned Jews and Christians. Sometimes the Jews won, in which case they had to escape to avoid being killed. If you bring [the settlers] for a disputation now, I will win. All the Jewish sources are on my side. Their whole activity is twisted. What they are doing is desecration of God’s name, in the most explicit way.”
Sharon, now secular and a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Stanford University, attended a hesder yeshiva ‏(combining religious studies with army service‏), studying at Alon Shvut in the Etzion Bloc south of Bethlehem and Otniel Yeshiva, also in the West Bank.

“I am religious, but there was a period in which, even though I did not stop believing, I did not want to walk around with a skullcap,” says Netanel Warschawski, 27, who also works at Keter. “I was a bit ashamed that in the name of the beliefs of the settlers, and in the name of the skullcap, as it were − people say and do terrible things. I did not want to identify with that society, did not want them to think that I was like them, that we share the same views. Eight years ago I had an argument with friends, during which one said I was ‘shaming’ the skullcap on my head, and since then I decided that it is precisely an opposite symbol. I am proud to be religiously observant and I represent the religion better than they do. That is why I still wear the skullcap and go to demonstrations with it.”

God is Back- John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge Part I

Here is the first of several guest posts by diverse authors. This one is by Benzion N. Chinn, former student, who is an ABD in Jewish History at Ohio State. He generally blogs at his own blog Izgad. He reviews God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, which is one of the best introductory books on religion of the last few years. The book written by two journalists from the Economist who provide an easy to read overview of the current state of religion. They show how the secularization theory is dead, but without the technical details of Peter Berger, Jose Casanova, or Talal Asad. The book presents the role of religion everywhere in our lives. Unlike 25 years ago., religion now seems to be a factor in everything. Rather than the ritual, myth, symbol, and mysticism of older studies of religion, this book provides insight into topics of current interest such as religion and politics, religion and violence, religion and media. They view the current champion as the evangelical model that mixes free-enterprise, self-help, and family life. Benzion N. Chinn offers his review in two parts. The first part of Chinn’s review here is a general overview of the book and the second part is on its application for Modern Orthodoxy. So be patient for the second part.

In the course of studying the contemporary religious resurgence, we must step back and review the Enlightenment ideology its presumptive attractions and strengths as well as its defects and disadvantages. If Schleiermacher aimed to reconstruct theology in the wake of the Enlightenment, today we need to reconsider the Enlightenment in view of recent religious developments. They include liberal theology as well as a variety of neoorthodox and existential ideologies. The return to religion may to some extent be rooted in and related to the inadequacies or oversimplifications of earlier thought.
One corollary of this development would be that we should seek to engage not only people who are formally in the field of religious studies but religiously committed people who are reflective and articulate and who would be able to describe in general nonconfessional terms the nature of their commitment, the meaning and impact of their religious experience, the views they have of secularism or other antireligious ideologies. (Prof. Isadore Twersky, Random Thoughts)

The traditional narrative of the Enlightenment was that the Enlightenment came in and defeated the forces of “superstitious” religion. Such a narrative still retains a certain cultural currency (particularly in the hands of the like of Richard Dawkins), but fails to offer a convincing explanation as to the continued success of organized religion in the United States and, even more devastatingly, the role that religion is playing in the modernization of the developing world. I have no reason to assume that John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge were familiar with the work of the late Prof. Twersky, but their book, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World, is certainly an admirable attempt to carry through precisely this charge. It offers a narrative that covers both the Enlightenment encounter with religion and how it continues to play itself out today. Furthermore, the book both challenges the traditional Enlightenment narrative of religion and seeks to understand religion by engaging in a dialogue with its modern practitioners.
The basic narrative of God is Back is one that should be familiar to students of American religious history. While in France (and eventually Western Europe as a whole) a radical version of the Enlightenment, which saw modernity as being in opposition to religion, triumphed, in the United States it was a moderate Enlightenment, which saw religion as the natural ally of progress, which proved dominant. Because of this, today Christianity remains an active force in American politics, while Western Europe has become a collection of post-Christian countries.
This does not mean that the United States was founded as a Christian country. The authors are careful to debunk that myth to show that, in the eighteenth century the young United State was not that different from Western Europe in terms of religiosity. It was plausible that the situations could have been reversed. As to why this did not happen, the authors argue that the lack of strong State supported churches created an opening for niche churches and the sort of religious innovation necessary to thrive in the open climate of modernity. A religious free market forced clergymen to actively seek congregants to fill their pews by catering to popular needs. As the authors openly admit, this thesis comes from Tocqueville; they are merely updating it for the twenty-first century.

While the authors spend the early part of the book giving an overview of the diverging histories of religion in the United States and Western Europe, the most worthwhile part of the book is when the authors move away from the United States to places like the Philippines, China, South Korea, and Nigeria as they struggle to embrace modernity. This path to modernity is increasingly not one of secularization, but on the contrary an embracement some pretty conservative brands of religion. I particularly recommend the anecdote in the introduction, describing a home bible study and worship session by a group of middle-class Christians in Shanghai.

If there is one central thesis at the heart of this wide ranging discussion of religion it is more than just that organized religion is here to stay as an essential part of the modern world, it is that there is a distinctively American brand of religion that is winning in the battle for the soul of modernity. This is no longer just in the United States; the American model is sweeping across the developing world and is even making inroads in the secular bastions of Western Europe. The basic features of this model are, despite a conservative exterior, a move away from top down hierarchal structures, emphasizing hard theology, toward social communities, with an emphasis on personal experience and growth. This is not just Christianity we are dealing with; the authors spend much of the later parts of the book charting how this model has moved into Hinduism and even Islam.  The authors, furthermore, consider the implications of this shift for the future of Islamic relations with the West. Could it be that American style religion, as opposed to American bombs and American style secularism, will be what brings down radical Islam?

The success of this American brand of religion, across confessional lines, is not contrary to the narrative of modernity or peripheral to it, but at the heart of modernity. Modernity has given us choice, but at the same time has disrupted traditional values and community. It should therefore be no surprise that there would be an attraction to a system that offers a surface reaffirmation of traditional values, the sort of community that modernity leaves wanting, all while allowing one to enjoy the freedom, independence and personal choice that are the fruits of modernity. In the struggle between religion and modernity, the American model allows one to eat one’s cake and have it to.
God is Back offers a general picture of the issue, which, while not particularly innovative, offers a readable and much needed statement as to where we are at today in terms of religion and modernity.

The Gulen Society as Modern Orthodox- Part One

I am back from Turkey or as they keep telling me I am in the Anatolian peninsula and Turkey is the greater vision of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. I had a Jewish-Christian conference here followed by a whirlwind tour provided by the Gulen Movement started by Fethelulah Gulen.

The Gulen organization steers its followers between a state mandated modernism without religion or an Islamic totalizing embrace of religion. In Turkey, a country where the public school and society does not teach Islam, the Gulen society advocates a completely secular curriculum under religious auspices and the keeping of the practices of one’s youth. In the US where it is permitted to teach religion in a private school, they only teach secular studies in their charter school in NJ and their private boarding school in CT. They only have a chaplain on campus and one period a week of religion (like the old Episcopal prep schools). With the Gulen Society’s help, they send first generation students to a good colleges and then medical school or other professions. It produces a modernized Islam that keeps the commandments but has little to do with the vast corpus of Islamic works since they do not study them. The only Islamic teaching that they study are the writings of Fethelulah Gulen, who defines Islam as love, tolerance, interfaith and cultural dialogue, science, and caring for others. Numbers of adherents are hard to come by and vary from 500k to 10milion. The Gulen movement is one of the many emergent faces of 21st century Islam and you will be hearing much about them in the future.

The Gulen society is trying to create a modern-orthodox Islam in Turkey. They don’t trust the airlines when they say it is halal and women refrain from shaking men’s hands. (But men will shake women’s hands in a business context.) Women are encouraged to cover their hair. They wear Western dress and push for secular university study and want to blend into American democracy. Their NJ charter day school emphasizes the study of science and that you will get into a good college.

Turkey is officially a secular country maintained by the military. It has a prime minister who is head of the ruling religious party (but a PM even if religious cannot enforce religion or else he will be ousted by the military). The Gulan society is trying to create a middle ground between secular and Islamist and is supported by the police and the businessmen. There is a whole class of newly minted doctors and factory owners who support the movement. Fethullah Gulen himself is in exile in PA since he was seen as promoting religion in Islam, which is illegal.

I am not talking politics, but religion. So limit your comments to his modern religion. Nevertheless I must point out that he was on Israel’s side against the current PA flotilla disaster. I repeat please deal with the politics elsewhere.

Reclusive Turkish Imam Criticizes Gaza Flotilla
SAYLORSBURG, Pa.—Imam Fethullah Gülen, a controversial and reclusive U.S. resident who is considered Turkey’s most influential religious leader, criticized a Turkish-led flotilla for trying to deliver aid without Israel’s consent. Mr. Gülen said organizers’ failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid “is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters.”

Fethullah Gulen is a liberal hanafi imam when it comes to law, (think of Rav Uziel or Rav Nissim) and he is against the strictures that has emanated from the influence of Salafi (Wahabi) Islam or from the Brotherhood in Egypt. While denying to actually follow Sufism, Gulen is a neo-Sufi- following and modernizing their ideas (Think, neo-hasidism). Gülen was a student and follower of Sheikh Sa’id-i Kurdi (1878-1960), also known as Sa’id-i Nursi, the founder of the Islamist Nur (light) movement. In contrast, Salafi Muslims, for example the Saadis, consider all forms and ideas of Sufism to be Baadah- innovation, changing the tradition, not binding, heresy.

Now for some of the interesting points. Once again, like Centrist Orthodoxy or Evangelicals, the community is linked to success and making money.

The movement appears to be very rich, leading to questions about the source of its money (with the implication that if the money is “bad”, then the movement must be too). The answer seems to be: voluntary donations, largely from rich businessmen. The Gülen network’s organizations – mainly schools, based in over 100 countries – are publicly registered and subject to legal scrutiny. Their members are also highly motivated, as reflected in the fact that Fethullah Gülen was (in July 2008) voted the world’s most significant intellectual in the respected intellectually monthly journal Prospect.

At the event, we listened to the stories of men from humble backgrounds who had after years of work and investment recently become rich; they now supported the movement’s drive for an ethical capitalism. They seemed to personify the argument of the Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk (in his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City) that the elite’s cosiness with the Turkish Kemalite military is based on the shared fear that people rooted in or close to the great unwashed mass of urban and rural (and Muslim) working people are on the verge of gaining power- more here

On woman’s issues they are in favor of woman’s equality and entering the modern world but they are against woman’s prayer quorums or female imams.

The Qur’anic verses which insist on women’s equal human status with men really do seem to operate in the movement. The women (choose to) obey the injunction to dress modestly; at the same time, the verse “(there) is no compulsion in religion” seems to operate as strongly on this question as it does in the movement’s relations with people of other faiths. But, as the Muslim feminist Kecia Ali points out, the Qur’an does not propose full social equality, however ‘complementary’ men’s and women’s roles are seen to be (see Sexual Ethics And Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence, Oneworld, 2006).

On questions of globalization, interfaith, and modern vales they are of the same cloth as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks because of their emphasis on the Neo-Sufism to create a vision of love, brotherhood of man, and natural human piety. The Gulen Society’s motto is “All is based on Love.” Rumi for a modern age.

The movement builds on Sufism; they define their Islam with pithy paragraphs like this one.

On the basis of Sufism lies a struggle with the self, a purification of the heart, and a feeding of the soul. This is accomplished with prayers and remembrance, and with increasingly extra forms of worships. If the methodology of fıqh constitutes a fundamental part of Islamic civilization, social mind, worship, and transactions; Sufism should be viewed as the most important manifestation of Islamic spirituality. Sufism is not solely a lifestyle. It is at the same time a special perspective that determines how the Sufi should establish relations with his Lord, with himself, and with the whole universe and all its contents. But this perspective is a perfect worldview in wider and philosophical meaning. – more here.

The Gulen society is not into theological dialogue and they rarely discuss Islam or even mention that they are Muslims. They advocate friendship dinners where you have a evening where clergy of all faiths, along with politicians and government officials meet and deliver fellowship speeches. (They hold three a year in NJ). For example, you can find on the web a speech by Bill Clinton at one of these dinners. They also advocate joint visits to religious sites and religious ruins- let’s bring Jews, Muslims, and Christians to ruins in Ephesus or to see the synagogues of Istanbul. They have contacts with Jewish organizations and are playing an increasing roll in local and US politics.

IF you have any thoughts on their brand of modern Islam, their religion, or their means of interfaith then please leave a comment. If you are coming to preach politics of Islamophobia please go elsewhere.

This post was written before spending 12 days with them, it was modified slightly after seeing them in the field. I will have a follow-up post(s) on their religiosity, and some of the cultural elements brought up by Thomas Friedman’s recent op-eds.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved