Meet an Evangelical Orthodox Rabbi- Rabbi Daniel Cohen

This past Shabbat I was visiting a resort community as the guest of the associate rabbi. The special Friday night guest speaker at dinner was Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford . The rabbi got up to speak and in an informal style opened his talk by seeking to elicit responses from the assembled. One example: He would say the word Phoenix and then point his hand at the audience to get them to shout out Arizona.

When he did start speaking, after about 5 minutes I turned to the associate rabbi and whispered that this talk is straight word for word -Rick Warren, A Purpose Driven Life. I received a nod of agreement and for the next fifteen minutes heard a 1980-1990’s evangelical talk about God wants you to make the most of every moment and listen to the decisive moments in one’s life. When the rabbi was discussing how we have a million truths revealed in our hearts every day and we need resolve to follow them then I knew we were in the heartland of America. He also stressed the importance of peak moments and self actualization as well as the need to decisively commit oneself to Judaism.

Rabbi Cohen also announced that this week he would start his website – “Forty days to a better you.” At that point there was no uncertainty as to his teachings since Rick Warren’s book opens by saying it will take the reader on a 40 day spiritual journey and is divided accordingly. This method of leadership divides teachings into 40 days of purpose, 40 days of spiritual growth, 40 days of love.

What stuck in my mind from the talk was that Jews and Jewish texts don’t use the word “truth” for the moments of everyday life and feelings of the heart. That language is from the Second Great revival and the need to find grace and God acting in in one’s life. But whereas the early 19th century Evangelical text sought a single conversion moment, now in the Fourth Great Revival the religious person seeks God every day in their suburban family decisions..

So I walked over to Rabbi Cohen after dessert and asked: Who else he reads besides Rick Warren? He answered immediately Abraham Maslow on peak experiences, John Maxwell on leadership in Evangelical Churches, Eckhart Tolle on living in the moment and the Harvard Business School studies of Evangelical leadership.

The next day, Rabbi Cohen sought to continue the conversation. To be fair, I told him that I study phenomena like contemporary spirituality and that he is object of study in this conversation.

I asked him when he first got interested in the writings of the Evangelicals? After a cautious pause he answered that since his father was rabbi in the Atlanta Ga., one day when he was around ten years old he heard Robert H Schuller, the famous senior televangelist on the radio who preaches his Hour of Power show from his Crystal Cathedral and was hooked.Rabbi Cohen narrated how this interest continued for decades and that he sought out meetings with Evangelical leaders when he had a pulpit in Denver.

Rabbi Cohen described how he presents the material as learning wisdom from the gentiles and gathering sparks of Torah. It is no different to him than any other management or leadership training. Rabbi Cohen lead a session for rabbis at the RCA convention two years ago on “The Purpose Driven Synagogue- the need for Purpose Driven Leadership.” He gives sermons, available as podcasts, on American Evangelical topics like “The Road Less Traveled (C Scott Peck) or “Love is the Answer.” (Gerald Jampolsky- 1980’s newage)

This form of evangelical finding peak moments in the everyday grew alongside Centrist Orthodoxy for the last few decades so it is a natural fit. When asked if he interested in the recent changes to the Evangelical world over the last decade like-social action, stewardship, concern for the world, openness to the underprivileged- he answered not as much and only to help people be more in touch with their life mission and purpose. He is not interested in the Emergent post-Evangelical Church nor the widespread use of Pentecostal materials found in kiruv organizations. Rather, we now have an orthodoxy which expresses its modernity in the narratives of everyday life, our human relationship, how we budget our time, and how we narrate our suburban lives.

Is Rabbi Cohen late to the game of 1980’s Evangelical works? Not really. The groundwork was already laid by rabbis who were teaching a halakhah that reflected these values. Compare this late entrance to Maurice Lamm, explaining Orthodoxy in his late 1960’s books as popular psych which was twenty years after the post WWII popular psychology of Joshua Liebrman’s Piece of Mind.

Notice also how far this approach of love and decisive moments is from submission to a system. We look into our hearts for love. Rabbi Ethan Tucker wants to reopen the intellectual questions of high modernity and explain the texts of the Talmud in a new light. This Evangelical approach does not need to let any texts or laws interfere. The crucial religious acts personal and family oriented. One does not fight about changes in synagogue life since religion is situated in one’s heart and decisions about life’s course.

This interest runs in the family since Rabbi Daniel Cohen’s brother Benjamin Cohen wrote My Jesus Year A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith.

Postscript: As I prepare to post this to the blog, I received an email from another shul stating as its Elul teshuvah announcement “Re-energize your Relationship with God,” a phrase owing more to Evangelical language than to Maimonides or the Chai Adom.

13 responses to “Meet an Evangelical Orthodox Rabbi- Rabbi Daniel Cohen

  1. Next will come “prayer strategies” and “gospel”-singing from AME churches…Halavi on the later!…This is just the sort of analysis I follow your blog for, now I return to the second reading, as is my custom.

  2. Setting aside the content, I heard the style of call response many years ago in an Eydut Hamizrach minyan in Jerusalem from a local Rabbi.

    I am interested in the way presentation comes from elsewhere perhaps without thought?

    Some of the Braslav speakers ( forgoten the names ) are definetly Southern Baptist to my ears.

  3. “the widespread use of Pentecostal materials found in kiruv organizations.”
    could you elaborate on this?

  4. In the early 80’s I would use devices, insights, etc. from a certain buisness book entitled “In Search of Excellence” and also draw upon Dale Carnegie and others of that sort. The trick was to adapt their energy, drive, organizational insights, self-actualization skills and the like and adapt it to Torah. It was challenging but it alowed for fresh insight and ocassional brilliant revelation. The above rabbis’ usage of out-and-out religious texts like the ones cited in your piece, seems disingenuous.
    At bottom my advice is, read inspired, acknowledge truth from whomever, and dive back into your own rich tradition.

  5. Yaakov, I assume he is completely sincere and assumes this is Torah, especially Hasidut. In this he is not different than Abraham Twerski. He is just telling over what he sees in Judaism.
    Moshe- I like to work in particulars, so when I get a chance to sit in a kiruv session then I will give it a details. Or if I deal with a book on the topic.

  6. Do you see this as a continuation of late 20th century mussar texts which were already appropriating modern self-help concepts? Is the chiddush that is has moved from text to congregational rabbis? Or is there a greater discontinuity from those earlier works?

    Also, can you offer a brief history of the idea of “self-actualization” in Judaism? It seems to entail a particular understanding of the concept of ‘self’ involved but I can’t readily put my finger on why it always strikes me as out of place.

    • AS-
      have you read Andrew Heinze’s book on the topic? He connects as mussar Salanter, Freud, Dear Abby, and Abraham Twerski. In all of the cases- they operate on a id-superego axis. How do we deal with our yetzar hara? When is food and sex good? This purpose driven life is on an inner voice trajectory as discussed in Ann Taves, Fits, Trances,and Visions.
      The Self-actulaization idea is Carl Rogers- and it includes individuality, creativity, returning to one’s natural needs, complete freedom, and seize the moment.

  7. avraham rosenblum

    The problem is that there seems to be energy in Orthodox Judaism that saps up creative energy. I mean that you just don’t find a lot of new ideas among orthodox Jews. It almost seems to be a business to look for ideas among gentiles and then to write a book a market it among Jews as original Jewish thought while depending on the fact that if anyone discovers the goyish book it will be attributed to the subsequent Jewish author. I have seen a book about positive thinking exactly along those lines in Israel. Often I have tried to point this out and the reaction is always the gentiles got it from us.
    (I do however except from this critique a few creative Jewish thinkers–the Arizal, Rebbi Nachman the Rambam and the Talmud–all who I consider creative, original and very powerful.)Let me just add that I know the that Rebbi Nachman and the Talmud and Rambam and the Arizal all borrow concepts– but the system that they create is original and fresh and independent.

  8. Don’t some of these themes appear in Jewish sources from early in the 20th century? The emphasis on peak moments of connection and the importance of family and home in religious life appeared regularly in the talks of of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. While R. Cohen readily acknowledged the influence evangelical works had on him, perhaps they appear in the Rebbe’s talks more as a result of convergence than any direct influence.

    • Peak moments of connection are not the same as peak moments of decision or truth. The former is modified devekus the later is hearing an inner voice about ones own life.
      The Rebbe stating that a Jewish home is about loyalty, dedication, and commitment is a convergence with Rav Hirsch. Here it was the preacher’s “have you ever asked yourself about your values?” Do you commit to a purpose in life?
      I thought through as I was listening to the talk- why it is not chabad. The Rebbe would be 10 ways to connect, 10 way for a miraculous marriage. Here it is 40 ways to a better you, not 40 ways to connect.

  9. peak moments, better you, a million truths in your heart, decisive moments…

    these are in the rebbe’s work in a way, but the difference is that ultimately they play into a larger dialectic pointing to a life of service and self sacrifice. The question is never “your values” but always “your obligations”. For the rebbe, i think, these are all moments not of individualistic awakening, but of realizing the metaphysical construct that already commands towards others.

    this is to say that the messianic fervor, despite its other theological difficulties, at least points away from the possibility of complacency. From man’s perspective it can never be satisfied b/c he can demand the messiah but never actually make the decision that is G-d’s alone. The sorts of evangelical ideas discussed above can, in the end, be completed: “well, yes, I have now thought about my values”, “I am now listening to the truths of my heart”. They terminate in myself and serve myself (i.e. – while “my values” may pertain to others, the search for “my values” is a search for me, to fulfill myself and my own wish to know “my values”… and once I do I can feel safe and assured in myself)

  10. When I was young it was considered inconceivable that evangelicals would have anything worth emulating. It’s true evangelicals have changed, but the Jews have changed even more. In my twenties I indentified with what was called the Partisan Review crowd and later the NY Jewish Intellectuals. Today none of this is left or what’s left is scattered, under pressure and on the periphery of Jewish life. These Jewish intellectuals promoted an intellectual type of the Bohemian style,especially a life devoted to high serious literature especially new difficult books. They valued Freudian psychoanalysis as an intrinsic part of life, were liberal to radical in their politics, and engaged in advanced cultural criticism. Has anyone seen one single serious novel reviewed on any of the Orthodox websites? Psychoanalysis is gone, to be replaced by books on self esteem and behavioral therapies. (See Daphne Merkin’s eloquent eulogy in this Sunday’s Times.) Seventy percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Bush and are chasidim of Fox News. In Israel the left has effectively gone underground. The cultural criticisms of our time are now used as a mark of Cain….why that’s post modernism, poo poo. I didn’t grow up in a world where intelligent Orthodox Jews are happy to embrace Evangelical themes, and frankly I am horrified to see how it’s playing out.

  11. If what you describe is truly how a segment of orthodoxy was when you were younger then I envy you because the whole of my experience has been with a community unreservedly aligned with the right… and the limbaugh-right at that. I have a few friends who view things otherwise (radically so) but I could never describe us as a “scene”. I would, however, point out that the “chullent crowd in manhattan strikes me as highly promising for the future. (btw. behaviorism is not as mindless as it is portrayed as. while I do not personally like skinner’s views or agree with them in the larger sense, he makes some salient points in his writings – he even goes so far as to say that it is manifestly unethical not to train children in an organized manner … which I cannot help but recognize some wisdom in …. even caputo (follower of derrida) ultimately returns to an ethics of phronesis which, in the end, is simply a matter of education and acculturation… i.e. implicit behavioral training – though I am sure caputo would cringe at this.)

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