Monthly Archives: October 2010

Pentecostal Philosophy of Science can Breslov Epistemology be far behind?

Here is an excerpt from a an Pentecostal philosopher who does philosophy from within his commitment to speaking in tongues. What would happen if a Breslover were to write philosophy of science based on his faith commitment to outpouring of the heart? Or an NCSY’er would grow up to write a theology based on circle time, ebbings, and ruah? Or what about a philosophy of science written by a practitioner of Abulafia techniques? I am trying to understand, and to evaluate. What would be good about this? I do think there are many good aspects. And what would be problematic verging on the ridiculous? If the starting point of a lamdan was halakhah, then what would be the starting point of a modern Hasid, or a kiruv professional? Can it create something rigorous or only silly? Read the short interview and then try the thought experiment of doing the same thing to a reader of Izbitz acting in accord with God’s will.

Q&A with Jamie Smith on Pentecostalism
September 17, 2010

Calvin professor of philosophy James K.A. Smith has recently written two books focused on the subject of Pentecostalism: Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Theology and Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences.

What would you say is the pentecostal contribution to Christian philosophy?

Well, so far, not much! But I hope this is a beginning. The whole project was actually inspired by Alvin Plantinga’s important article, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” which I read while I was in college. In that article—which was his inaugural address at Notre Dame—Plantinga argued that Christian philosophers should have the courage to begin philosophizing from their specific convictions as Christians. I have simply extended Al’s argument and made it more specific: What would it look like for Pentecostal and charismatic philosophers to begin with some of the basic convictions of their unique worldview? Thinking in Tongues tries to answer that question.

I argue that there are unique elements of a pentecostal worldview: an openness to God’s “surprise;” a kind of “enchanted” theology of creation which sees the Spirit continually active in the world; an affirmation of embodiment as seen in the emphasis on physical healing as well as the “physical” shape of charismatic worship; a special place for story, narrative, and testimony in how we know; and a unique emphasis on eschatology and mission. So following Plantinga’s lead, I argue that these elements of a pentecostal worldview would affect philosophical thinking about knowledge (epistemology) and the nature of reality (ontology). So the goal is to explore how a pentecostal starting point makes a difference for philosophical thinking. That’s why, rather playfully, I talk about “thinking in tongues!”

You’ve also just co-edited a related book: Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences. Can you briefly describe this book?

For some people, a book on Pentecostalism and science might sound like an oxymoron! But that’s precisely why we launched this project. Both science and Pentecostalism are “globalizing” forces, and while one might expect there to be an inherent tension between the two, we try to show otherwise.
Science and the Spirit grew out of a grant we received from the Templeton Foundation—so the book is the fruit of a multi-year research initiative that brought together a team of scientists, theologians, and philosophers from Pentecostal and charismatic traditions to consider some of the big questions at the intersection of Pentecostalism and science. On the one hand, we wanted to show how and why Pentecostals should engage and pursue science; on the other hand, we also wanted to show that sometimes scientists try to smuggle in assumptions about science that would seem to preclude certain Pentecostal beliefs, such as belief in divine healing or the realities of demons. So the book’s not just about getting Pentecostals to submit to the unquestioned authority of science. We’re also encouraging Pentecostals to think critically about some of the assumptions in the sciences. It’s a two-way street.

source here
His blog

Philippa Foot and Halakhah

Phillippa Foot died yesterday. Once upon a time, Rabbi Walter Wurzburger force fed me platters of Phillippa Foot’s philosophic writings on ethics. For Wurzbuger, the writings of Foot were basic for formulating a contemporary philosophy of halakhah. Unlike the Kantians and Utilitarians, Foot stressed the lived elements of human life and purposeful aspects of ethics. Similar to Prof. Isadore Twersky’s presentation of the law in Maimonides, halakhah has a telos. Foot also taught the non-reducibility of ethic to a single factor. Like halakhah, there are always multiple variables to be considered. Foot rejected subjectivism, helping Wurzburger formulate an Orthodox rejection of Buber. Finally, Foot turned to the importance of Virtue Ethics and Wurzburger followed suit. Even though no one in the US cares about a philosophy of halakhah anymore, it is still nice to remember the attempts. Now I must get back to Hilary Putnam.

Obituary from The Guardian – full text here

The moral philosopher Philippa Foot, who has died aged 90, started a new trend in ethics. She challenged, in two seminal papers given in the late 1950s, the prevailing Oxbridge orthodoxy of AJ Ayer and Richard Hare; and, for the next few decades, passionate debate over her naturalism, as against Hare’s prescriptivism, occupied most moral philosophers in Britain and America. She was also one of the pioneers of virtue ethics, a key development in philosophy from the 1970s onwards.
From her essay Moral Beliefs (1958) to the collection Moral Dilemmas (2002), and throughout her academic life at Oxford and universities in North America, she was always passionate that “the grounding of a moral argument is ultimately in facts about human life” and in what it is rational for humans to want.
Yet her comparison, in a well-known paper (Morality As a System of Hypothetical Imperatives, 1972) between Immanuel Kant’s view of moral law as “inescapable” in some special way, and the demands of etiquette, was intended to argue that people who follow either morality or etiquette without questioning them “are relying on an illusion, as if trying to give the moral ‘ought’ a magic force”. Later, she rejected this position, and was irritated to be still credited with it. Moral constraints, she came to believe, were indispensably a rational part of flourishing as a human being – in this, they did not resemble etiquette.
Foot pooh-poohed what she called the “rigoristic, prissy, moralistic tone” so frequent in moral philosophy, and the way it had lost touch with real life. “I do not know what could be meant by saying that it was someone’s duty to do something,” she said, “unless there was an attempt to show why it mattered if this sort of thing was not done.”
But she opposed such theories not just because they were too wide, but because they were too narrow. In the 1950s she had begun, along with Anscombe, to shift the focus away from what makes an isolated action good or bad, to the Aristotelian concentration on what makes a person good or bad in the long-term. Morality, she argued, is about how to live – not so much a series of logically consistent, well-calculated decisions as a lifetime endeavour to become the sort of person who habitually and happily does virtuous things. And “virtuous”, for Foot, meant well-rounded and human. She condemned as moral faults “the kind of timidity, conventionality and wilful self-abnegation that may spoil no one’s life but one’s own”, advocating “hope and a readiness to accept good things”.
Foot continued, and modified, her onslaught on subjectivism in ethics throughout her life. She also attacked utilitarian theories, which see goodness as a matter of actions’ consequences, and tend to equate the badness of failing to prevent an evil outcome with perpetrating it.

Millennials again- What religion would you design?

This is taken from a longer article addressed to college faculty about how to adjust to the new generation of students. It is from a list serve for faculty development. In response, my colleagues are busy creating online dimensions to courses and FB pages to their courses. They are redesigning for this generation. My question is what if we think about the same issues for teaching Torah? What sort of synagogue would you design that fits this student? What sort of rabbi? (I am assuming that modern Orthodoxy followed the lost generation and Centrism followed the gen x.- not the topic for this post.) What synagogue will keep them busy and plugged in but acknowledge that they have no interest in books, introspection, or rebellion? They are not deep minds or deep psychologically. They dont like authority but like emotional parental units and respect expert knowledge. What does the rabbi need to teach? What do you offer those who are action centered? (shechitah lessons?) Would rabbis need to have a techie knowledge of some aspect of Judaism? They all expect to not have their self-esteem broken, so I guess no stories of older Lithuanian rabbis calling people horses when a wrong answer is given. They respect rules. So do we give them a Judaism of rules and leave them free the rest of the time OR do we engage their materialism? Their boomer parents thought they valued introspection, intellect and rebellion but instead settled into materialism and emotionalism. What halakhah would you offer this group? Which Jewish thinkers would you teach?

This generation comprises children born between 1982 (some say 1980) and 1995 to the late baby boomers. These parents kept their children’s lives busily structured with sports, music lessons, club meetings, youth group activities, and part-time jobs. In their spare time, young millennials spent many hours on the computer, often the Internet, interacting with peers, doing school work, playing games, shopping, and otherwise entertaining themselves…They received a weaker K-12 education than previous generations.

Their combined family and school experience, along with their heavy mass media exposure, made them self-confident, extremely social, technologically sophisticated, action bent, goal oriented, service or civic minded, and accustomed to functioning as part of a team. On the flip side, they are also impatient, demanding, stressed out, sheltered, oriented materialistic, and self-centered. They use—and abuse—alcohol and prescription drugs more than street drugs.

Although skeptical about authority, they tend not to be particularly rebellious, violent, or promiscuous.

With so much activity in their lives as well as frequent interaction with friends and family (much on computers and cell phones), they have little time or inclination for reflection, self-examination, or free-spirited living. Another feature of this generation, one that distinguishes it from so many preceding ones, is that millennials do not hunger for independence from their parents. Quite the contrary, they stay close to the parents through college (and often beyond) and turn to their parents for help when organizations don’t meet their needs.

Those whose grades slip in college feel their self-esteem threatened and may react with depression, anxiety, defensiveness, and even anger against us.

We are also very different from them and difficult to fathom and identify with. We prize the life of the mind, we love to read, and we work long hours for relatively little money. We must remember that this generation values money and what it can buy. Aside from the materialism that their parents and the mass media promoted, these young people face the prospect of being the first generation at least in the United States, that cannot afford a standard of living comparable to that of their parents, let alone higher. So while some observers call millennials hopeful, others point to their economic anxiety (Levine & Cureton, 1998)…In any case, our modest material status, coupled with all our education, does not inspire a great deal of their respect.

Despite the difficulties millennials may present, this generation can be easy to reach if we make a few adjustments. After all, they have career goals, positive attitudes, technological savvy, and collaborative inclinations. In addition, they are intelligent enough to have learned a lot, even if it is not the knowledge the we value.

Although millennials are understandably cynical about authority (so are we) and don’t assume we have their best interests at heart, they value communication and information and respond well when we explain why we use the teaching and assessment methods we do. We can “sell” them on the wisdom of our reading selections…reinforcing the fact that we are the experts in our field and in teaching it. As experts, we should have solid, research-based reasons for our choices.

Millennials also want to know that we care about them. Remember that they are still attached to their parents and not far from the nest. They are also accustomed to near-constant interaction, so they do want to relate to us. Showing that we care about their learning and well-being—by calling them by name, asking them about their weekend, promising we will do whatever it takes to help them learn, stating how much we want them to be successful, and voicing our high expectations of them—will go very far in earning their loyalty and trust.

Finally, having led a tightly organized childhood and adolescence and not being rebellious, they respond well to structure, discipline, rules, and regulations. If you set up or have them set up a code of classroom conduct, they will generally honor it. If you promise that you will answer their email at two specific times each day and you follow through, they will not expect you to be available 24/7.

Of course, blanket statements about an entire generation always apply to only a portion of its members.

Rabbi Riskin engages Christians in dialogue about our “United Mission” (updated)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin started a Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. Originally, based on the reports in the newspaper, the institute seemed like a place to invite Christian Zionists like Pastor Hagee to show them the importance of the settlements. Now, it seems to be a full fledged center for theological dialogue about the core issues between Judaism and Christianity. They are holding a conference on Yale’s campus and have signed on Miroslav Volf, one of the most important contemporary Protestant theologians. Here is their description:

The Institute for Theological Inquiry is the theological division of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, the first Orthodox institution in Israel and the world dedicated to Jewish-Christian relations. Its American partner is the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey. The Institute’s objective is to engage world-class theologians to break new theological ground on focused research projects in areas critical to Judaism, Christianity, social values and world culture. Through its research, ITI’s aims to develop rich new foundations for cooperative Jewish-Christian understanding, as well as spiritual and moral values that will bear on global religious, cultural and political life in the 21st century. It is the goal of ITI for its research to be adapted and utilized as pedagogical tools in educational settings.

The theme of the conference is the following:

Jewish and Christian religious life is grounded in God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants as it unfolds throughout human history…Fulfilling God’s covenant with us, as we respectively understand it, constitutes the “mission” of both Jewish and Christian life….Christians are asked to examine the implications of Christian covenantal theology for relations with Jews and Judaism, while Jews are asked to probe the covenantal implications for Jewish relations with Christians and Christianity.

Conference schedule here.
Rabbi Riskin’s paper is online. It is 43 pages long and deals with many issues.
His first point is his novel adaptation of Reformed covenant theology for a Jewish purpose. In the Reformed Protestant tradition, there is a series of covenant of the unfolding of God’s will. In a short version, the Noahide covenant is a moral requirement with all humanity, the Abrahamic is the covenant of faith and grace, and the covenant of Jesus is the messianic one of grace. In some versions, Deuteronomy is the covenant of blessings and curses for before entering the land. Rabbi Riskin postulates three covenants: Noahide as universal, Sinai as Jewish people, and Deuteronomy as universal redemption. In the third covenant, we bring the redemptive universal message to the world. He has transferred some of the aspects of the Jesus covenant to a universalism from Deuteronomy.

Rabbi Riskin pushes for a Jewish drive to seek conversion of Christians to Judaism or more to the point the conversion of Christians in the escaton. He finds passages in the Bible, Talmud, and Maimonides to support a mission to the gentiles. But in each section, he returns and says there are two opinions, conversion or conversion to the Noahide code. He concludes with a need to teach gentiles Torah since they will be united with us in the escaton.

Covenant And Conversion: The United Mission To Redeem The World

It is generally not recognized that there is yet a third covenant, presented by God before the Jewish people entered the promised land of Israel…The Bible states:

“These are the words of the Covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to seal with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, aside from (in addition to) the covenant which He sealed with them at Horeb,” emphasizing the unique nature of this third covenant (Dt.28:69). What is the message of this third, additional covenant, especially since our other two covenants have already designated us as an eternal nation and an eternal religion? I submit that this is the Covenant of Universal Redemption, which can only come about if the nations of the world accept fundamental biblical morality. It is the covenant that squarely places upon the Jewish people the responsibility of teaching the moral truths of the Bible to the world.

It is important to note that the laws delineated in this third covenant are all directed to “ish,” the Hebrew generic term for “person”—as opposed to “Jews.” They are universal in import.
This universal message of the Third Covenant may likewise be why, immediately after the content of the Third Covenant is delineated, the Bible records, “Not with you
(Israelites) alone do I seal this covenant and this imprecation, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before the Lord our God, and also with whoever is not here with us today” (Dt. 29:13-14). The meaning of these words seem to be the inclusion of the gentiles as well as the Israelites: the gentiles who are not with us today will one day stand with us in acceptance of the fundamental laws of morality.

If I am correct in interpreting this Third Covenant to be a covenant for all the nations of the world, the implications of this debate are serious indeed. Are Jews covenantally responsible to teach gentiles only the seven Noahide laws and these twelve moral imprecations, or is the Jewish people duty bound to teach the world all 613 commandments to convert them to Judaism?

Does the Bible and Talmud advocate converting the world to full Judaism, or merely to bring as many people as possible into the third covenant and the Noahide covenant with its seven fundamentals of morality? This question may be seen as a difference of opinion between the prophets Isaiah and Micah… [S]cholars disagree whether Maimonides believes that gentiles and Jews will remain separate and distinct religious bodies in the eschaton.

We are however permitted—and perhaps even encouraged—to teach gentiles the Torah and its commandments, an act that Maimonides saw as part of the commandment for Jews to love God. Finally, Maimonides contended that in the eschaton all will convert because it will be rationally and morally compelling for them to do so.

By the end of his paper, Rabbi Riskin surprised me by pleading for religious pluralism in which there is one God and the names YHVH, Allah, the Trinity, Buddha all reflect one reality. All ritual, images, statues, and representations serve the same Divine force. God only cares about morality and the forms of worship are incidental. The rainbow metaphor and its explanation seems like a paraphrase of the famed pluralist John Hick’s rainbow of faiths.

The case for religious pluralism alongside ethical and moral absolutism is strengthened by the nature of the Noahide covenant, [with the rainbow as its sign.]

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch provides additional content to the rainbow’s symbolism: Gazing upon a rainbow, one sees seven dazzling colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Yet, in reality there is but one color, white. When the rays of the sun shed their light upon the cloud, the white of the cloud refracts into the seven colors of the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. So it is also with human beings: Humanity seems separated into different peoples, with different skin pigmentations from black, to brown, to yellow to white. In reality, however, we are all descendants of one human being, created in the image of the One Unique God. We all emerge from the divine womb and are all endowed with a portion of divine eternity.

Allow me to add to his symbolism. Can we not argue that, although we use different names, symbolic images, rituals, customs and incantations by which we call and worship the Deity, everyone is speaking and praying to the same Divine Force who created and guides our world? Allah is another name for the one God (“El” or “Elohim”), the Trinity is mysteriously considered a unity by Christians, all the physical representations of the Buddha are meant to express the All in the All that is the god of the Far East. Is it not possible that the real meaning of the credo of Judaism, the Sh’ma, is: “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord (who is known by our different names of different forces and powers), Elohaynu, is (in reality the) One (YHVH of the entire cosmos).” Just as the white of the cloud is refracted into different colors, so the one God of love may be called by different names and different powers, but these all coalesce in the mind of the one praying and in the reality of the situation into the one all-encompassing Lord of the Universe.

If this is the case, as long as humans are moral, they can call God by any name or names they wish since their true intent is the God of the universe. They may even be secular humanists, as long as they do not engage in the abominations of idol worship. The ultimate religious concern is that humans not destroy the world, and this can only be predicated upon the universal acceptance of ethical absolutes, compassionate righteousness and justice, the inviolability of the human being, and his/her right to live in freedom, peace and security.

Rabbi Riskin concludes with an acceptance of the Pauline understanding of Abraham as the covenant of faith. He views Christianity as entirely within the Noahide laws and as reconciled with Judaism. He concludes with a plea for moderate Muslims to show their morality against Satanic Islamic radicalism. (In an earlier version of this paragraph, delivered in a speech with Hagee, and printed three years ago in the newspaper, he branded all Islam as Satanic and Molech. I am glad he changed this part.) We now march together with Christians and “pluralistic Muslims.”

Christianity sees itself as being grafted onto the Jewish covenant, God’s covenant with Abraham. This is legitimate from a biblical and Jewish perspective, since Abraham, by his very name, is a patriarch of a multitude of nations. Christianity worships Abraham’s God of compassionate righteousness and justice, and traditional Christianity surely accepts the seven Noahide laws as given by God. The return of the younger faith to its maternal roots was eased by leading theologians from most churches recognizing the permanent legitimacy of the Jewish covenant with God and the possibility of Jewish salvation on the merit of that covenant. The partnership between the daughter and mother religions is particularly important today in the face of the existential threat of Islamist extremism against which all who are committed to a hopeful future must battle—including moderate Muslims. The Bible records a loving reconciliation between Isaac and Ishmael, coming together in bringing their father to his eternal resting place. The God of Abraham as the God of love, compassion, and peace is the antithesis of Satan, who instructs violence against all those who do not accept his cruel prescription for world domination.

Now that the Jewish people have returned to their homeland and to empirical history and now that Christians again recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish covenant, Jews and Christians must march together to bring the faith of morality and peace to a desperate but thirsting world. We dare not rest until we succeed and see “justice roll like the waters, and compassionate righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24). This is our united mission, far more important than the legitimate and the to-be-respected differences that divide us. And if the moderate, religiously pluralistic Moslems join us, we will all not only survive as free people created the Divine Image. We will redeem ourselves and the entire world.
Full 43 page pdf version here.

OK- now what do we make of this? On first reading, I am not sure where to start and there is no need to state the obvious. Do we treat this as ideas, as an event, or as another new project of Rabbi Riskin?

I have had a day to reflect and here are some initial thoughts.

I find the ideas in the paper going beyond anything the community has even said in the past. This is actual thinking about the very issues of covenant and redemption that separate and now with Rabbi Riskin’s help unit us. Even Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who spoke of the limits of our knowledge of the truth, still did not engage in the reading of Christian thought. For Greenberg, Christian theology is just another way of teaching Jewish thought. Here we have a direct integration of Christian thought with the goal of closing the gap between the two faiths. Even Rabbi Elliott Dorff gets to interfaith through the Jewish commitment to Elu ve ELu pluralism. If we accept internal Jewish pluralism, then we should accept the pluralism between religions. Here we have a commitment to knowing about Christianity and then thinking about actual parallel ideas.

Rabbi Riskin combines two lines of thought that are not usually combined. The first is finding Jesus’ universal message in Deuteronomy. Riskin’s version seems to have origins somewhere in a student of Walter Bruggerman. It is about an actual belief in a God given universal covenant as presented in the words of scripture..It affirms revelation of the Bible and the special role of covenantal history. This line of thought as applied to Mt Gerizim and Mt Eval is original and works well for both Protestant and Catholic thought. The second line of thought in Riskin is the pluralism of John Hick in which all religions are human responses to the quest for the absolute. This requires nothing more than a theism that can be considered as a ground of reality. The two lines of thought do not compliment each other.

As an event, this is a major rejection of Orthodox ban on theological dialogue. The mission of the organization flies directly in the face of the Orthodox approach because it speaks directly of seeking theological commonality. It is important because of who Rabbi Riskin is and because he has now raised funds for a center to engage in direct theological dialogue. It seems he has taken the Baltimore based Dabru Emet project into Ohr Torah Institutes; he certainly has invited into his project one of the main drafters of Dabru Emet.

Finally, we have the problem that he can deny any of it a week later. This past summer he backtracked on his statements about “my brother Jesus.” Since the paper was ghostwritten, as are all his recent works, the source of the ideas and the ghostwriter are not hidden well. Two years ago, he issued two op-eds within a few months of each other that sharply contradicted each other because they were written by two different people. The bigger issue is that Rabbi Riskin always needs to be in the right place at the right time. Since he does not have a prior major commitment to interfaith nor does he know the players in the field or the literature, will this be able to have any effect or even merit a backlash?

I just wrote four paragraphs. I can almost hear Prof Jon Levenson finishing his twenty page response to the this talk and this event.

Further Update:

Rabbi Riskin sometimes shows a desire to solve all of Judaism’s problems with a speech, but then he has no follow up. He published a book to solve the Agunah problem through Rabbinical court nullification of the marriage. Yet, he did not fight for it nor teach it in his institutions or fight against the rabbis who did not allow it to take root. I have the same sense here, he thinks that a talk alone that will boldly break new ground and undo Rav Soloveitchik’s prohibition on interfaith dialogue. However, no one will remember Rabbi Riskin for his writings; he is a man of action. The Northeast does not need another academic dialogue between those raised in the Conservative movement and a liberal seminary. Riskin should have used his clout to start dialogue with the Evangelical seminaries. There are almost 30 centers of Jewish-Catholic Reconciliation, while there are no Evangelical equivalents. He wants to change America, then let him go where other have not gone. I want to see him create a center in the heart of Baptist Evangelical country. I will also be able to take this more seriously if he walks into his Ohr torah Stone Institutes -Yeshivat HaMivtar, Yeshivat Torat Shraga, and his rabbinical training program- and puts this on the curriculum and makes interfaith part of their ideology.

For a nice blog post on Riskin’s moral bad luck, despite wanting to be among the good guys, see Magnes Zonist here.

A Journey into the Zohar: Nathan Wolski

Nathan Wolski, who gained his PhD in Aboriginal Archaeology from the University of Melbourne in 2000, sets out to give an introduction to the Zohar as a great work of literature. He translated Melila Hellner-Eshed’s wonderful work on the Zohar into English and he wants to capture some of that literary drama of the mystical adventure for the novice reader of the Zohar. This book is, as the title tells us, to help us Journey into the Zohar.

From his own blurb.

The crowning work of medieval Kabbalah, the Zohar is unlike any other work in the Jewish canon. Written in Aramaic, the Zohar contains complex mystical exegesis as well as a delightful epic narrative about the Companions—a group of sages who wander through second-century Israel discussing the Torah while encountering children, donkey drivers, and other surprising figures who reveal profound mysteries to them. Nathan Wolski offers original translations of episodes involving this mystical fellowship and goes on to provide a sustained reading of each. With particular emphasis on the literary and performative dimensions of the composition, Wolski takes the reader on a journey through the central themes and motifs of the zoharic world: kabbalistic hermeneutics, the structure of divinity, the nature of the soul, and, above all, the experiential core of the Zohar—the desire to be saturated and intoxicated with the flowing fluids of divinity. A Journey into the Zohar opens the mysterious, wondrous, and at times bewildering universe of one of the masterpieces of world mystical literature to a wider community of scholars, students, and general readers alike.

His method is to translate a long passage of the Zohar at the start of each of the ten chapters and then free associate similar passages in the Zohar, in midrash, and in mystical literature. These additional passages of the Zohar are not really explained, at least not enough for a reader like me to understand.

In a chapter on “the world of separation” he introduces the role of Neo-Platonism and Plotinus. In a chapter on secrets, he introduces Gnosticism. In other chapters, he freely contextualizes Zohar in Spanish love poetry, and Maimonidean thought, a passage on midnight in the Zohar leads to a discussion of the Islamic mystical poetry of Ibn Arabi and Rumi, a Chain of Being passage leads to a discussion of in ibn Gabirol, and he accepts Fritz Baer’s presentation of the dangers of Averroism.

Wolski talks of the great poetics of the Zohar but does not actually show any. As an English teacher that I knew used to say “show me don’t tell me.” He claims the book has great literary technique but he only shows a little drama such as the bold and delayed entrance of the protagonist of a passage. He claims that the book requires great detective work to catch all the explicit and not so explicit allusions but he does not show any rather he settles for giving a broad cultural context. He does not try to explicate and pin down any proximal sources or allusions. Does the book have greater literary merit than Alfonso X of Castile’s magical tales or the tales in Yehudah Al-Harizi’s Takhkemoni? We cannot know from this volume.

At points he is not sure if he is writing an introduction to a medieval work or offering a 21st century presentation.For examples, he writes that even if we don’t relate to Plotinus or Zohar metaphysics, nevertheless the ideas still resonate with the new age. Or even if don’t relate to Maimonides or Zohar on providence, here is a piece of Yeshaya Leibowitz to ponder. It seems like the book is an outgrowth of an adult education course, or a non-critical undergraduate course on translations of Zohar passages.

The translations in the volume are predominately from Book III of the Zohar, the section Matt wont get to for a while. The grapevine tells me that Wolski will be translating Midrash Ha-Neelam of the Pritzker Zohar, maybe he will also have his hand in volume III.

The book reminds me of the 1940’s books on Maimonides that discussed Plato, Aristotle, Saadyah, Ralbag, and Spinoza and then they discussed the role of rationality in Judaism. The goal was not to pin down what Maimonides’ position was by comparison to Farabi and ibn Sina, rather to explain the reader the Maimonidean project of rationality. Those of you with less background than I, please let me know if you find this book clear or useful for an introductory course.

In the meantime- here is a complete copy of the book in pdf to download, he has a fan who uploaded it in Croatia.

What will future generations condemn us for?

Here is a bit more post-holiday moralizing. Kwame Anthony Appiah, the famous ethicist and philosophy professor at Princeton University asked the question in the Wapo:What will future generations condemn us for? What else should be on the list? Does anyone in the observant community care? Why not? What were we thinking?

Industrial meat production

The arguments against the cruelty of factory farming have certainly been around a long time; it was Jeremy Bentham, in the 18th century, who observed that, when it comes to the treatment of animals, the key question is not whether animals can reason but whether they can suffer. People who eat factory-farmed bacon or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they’re doing. Instead, they try not to think about it too much, shying away from stomach-turning stories about what goes on in our industrial abattoirs.
In the European Union, many of the most inhumane conditions we allow are already illegal…

The institutionalized and isolated elderly

Nearly 2 million of America’s elderly are warehoused in nursing homes, out of sight and, to some extent, out of mind. Some 10,000 for-profit facilities have arisen across the country in recent decades to hold them. Is this what Western modernity amounts to — societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders?

Keeping aging parents and their children closer is a challenge…Yet the three signs apply here as well: When we see old people who, despite many living relatives, suffer growing isolation, we know something is wrong. We scarcely try to defend the situation; when we can, we put it out of our minds. Self-interest, if nothing else, should make us hope that our descendants will have worked out a better way.

The environment

Of course, most transgenerational obligations run the other way — from parents to children — and of these the most obvious candidate for opprobrium is our wasteful attitude toward the planet’s natural resources and ecology. Look at a satellite picture of Russia, and you’ll see a vast expanse of parched wasteland where decades earlier was a lush and verdant landscape. That’s the Republic of Kalmykia, home to what was recognized in the 1990s as Europe’s first man-made desert. Desertification, which is primarily the result of destructive land-management practices, threatens a third of the Earth’s surface; tens of thousands of Chinese villages have been overrun by sand drifts in the past few decades.

It’s not as though we’re unaware of what we’re doing to the planet:

Let’s not stop there, though. We will all have our own suspicions about which practices will someday prompt people to ask, in dismay: What were they thinking?

Even when we don’t have a good answer, we’ll be better off for anticipating the question.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, is the author of “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.”

Chida as 18th century European

Tom Segev who usually write sharp book reviews almost “phoned this one in” to fulfill his obligation to an editor without stopping to consider the content.Nevertheless, it is nice to see the Chida reviewed in a paper. One does not get a sense that Segev understood the role of an 18th century “Emissary of the land of Israel” as cultural conduit.

The Makings of History / Renaissance rabbi

Azulai also wrote a text called “Ma’agal Tov,” a kind of travelogue that depicts the ways of life of the several Jewish communities he visited.

Oded Cohen, a doctoral student in Tel Aviv University’s history department who devoted his master’s thesis to “Ma’agal Tov,” described the book as a kind of autobiography. In it, he shows that Azulai curiously investigated art, landscapes, architecture, history and politics. Many of his acquaintances were Muslims and Christians. This social network led him to King Louis XVI.

An article by Cohen about Azulai appears in the new edition of the Ben-Zvi Institute’s bimonthly Hebrew historical journal, “Et-Mol.”

As sometimes happens, the article’s title, “The Jerusalem Rabbi and the French King Meet at Versailles,” promises a bit too much. That meeting took place on January 6, 1778. Azulai was staying at the time in Paris, where he befriended a person he described as a “wise goy from academia,” named Fabri, who was a courtier at Versailles; he took Azulai with him on one of his visits. Before they saw the king, they toured the palace.

“We came to a handsome, adorned room lined with several pillars that were coated with gold on both sides,” Azulai wrote. Finally they reached the hall where Louis XVI was seated – he was surrounded in the gallery by ministers and all sorts of counselor-aristocrats.

“He was dressed in simple red,” wrote Azulai, adding “my blessings to the king.”

Azulai indicated that the king noticed him, and sent one of his men from the court to clarify with Fabri “where I came from as an ambassador.” Azulai’s acquaintance replied that he was not an ambassador, but rather a guest from Egypt, who came out of curiosity. “Then we walked out, and all those who were standing showed respect, and some of the ladies who passed by bowed, as is their custom.”

At the bottom of the Haaretz page is a little review of a book about the area of J-M that we now call Palmach and was originally called Merhavia- and the burning question of why is there a Chopin Street?

Yom Tov Sheni

The past few years there has been a growing tension among those who work in interactive professions about their need to check their blackberries on Yom Tov. Some fields need daily input. There was quite a strain in the community this year with the three day Yom Tovs. We will have this same 3-day yom tov pattern in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2017.

Over at Jewschool, the following was posted:

Love it or hate it, this pattern is here to stay. We’ll do it all over next year, and then again in 2013, 2014, and 2017: half of the years in the 2010s.

The other half of the decade will see a different pattern that we haven’t seen in quite a while: Rosh Hashanah on Monday, with all the fall holidays falling on weekdays. This pattern also includes Shavuot starting on Saturday night, leading to another “3-day yom tov” for the 2-day crowd.

All told, the half-decade from 5771 to 5775 will include a total of 14 “3-day yom tovs”, and the decade from 5771 to 5780 will include 21. (But don’t worry, there’s only 18 more to go!)

This leads to my prediction (awaited since the title of the post): This decade, and especially this half-decade, will see lots of 2-day-yom tov people switching over to 1 day.

In a few years, we can come back and check this prediction and see whether the 1-day majority has gotten any larger.

So, I have a historical question. When modernizing Jews gave up the second day of yom tov in the 19th century was the push from certain professions or certain districts?

Jacob Katz, following his method of relying on Mannheim’s concept of ideology, presents the issue as an ideological battle between Reform and Orthodoxy (See, “Orthodox defense of Second Day of Yom Tov in Divine Law in Human Hands). But has anyone checked- did the push to get rid of yom tov sheni occur after a series of 3 day yom tovs pushed people to feel a need for the change? Was it more in certain professions? Maybe it was not ideological but a social push from ordinary businessmen? Was there a need to do manual labor or more likely to check the European stock market? Someone want to check the 19th century dates and determine if there was a decade like the next decade with many 3 day yom tov’s in a row? Does it coordinate with the push for the change?

Professor Lawrence Kaplan and Yakir Englander on each other’s work

A month ago, I posted a recent article by Yakir Englander of Hebrew University on the Hazon Ish. It received a highly emotive response by Prof. Lawrence Kaplan of McGill University. Before allowing Englander to respond, I asked Kaplan for a more cognitive gesture. Below is Kaplan’s response to Englander and following that, if you scroll down, is Englander’s reply to Kaplan. If you wish to enter the fray, then please read both Lawrence Kaplan’s article (pdf) and Yakir Englander’s article(pdf), and an html version. (Both responses were longer and more personal than I expected. In all of this, I do wonder what someone who teaches Hazon Ish as their personal view would make of this discussion).

Prof. Lawrence Kaplan’s response.

This post deals not so much with scholarly issues relating to differing interpretations of the world view of the Hazon Ish (=HI), but primarily with an issue of academic responsibility.

I believe that a comparison of my article with Englander’s—something I hope readers will undertake– will clearly show that Englander 1) misrepresents my thesis; and, more important, 2) that his own thesis, far from being a scholarly innovation, essentially follows along the lines of and develops the thesis presented in my article.

With reference to my first point, the very title of my article, “The HI: Haredi Critic of Traditional Orthodoxy,” setting to the side the article’s contents for the moment, should alert the reader that Englander’s presentation of its thesis cannot stand. Since the title indicates that, in my view, the HI’s critique of Traditional Orthodoxy constitutes a major identifying feature of both his person and thought, how can it be maintained, as Englander does, that, to the contrary, I consider the HI’s criticisms to be “matters of differing emphases in the service of God, and not much more”?

And turning now from the article’s title to the article itself, in its main section (pp.149-163) I set forth the thesis, specifically with reference to the HI’s critique of the mussar movement and the “Yeshivishe” method of study, that the “HI developed a rather subtle, oftentimes more implicit than explicit, but nevertheless powerful and far reaching critique of [Lithuanian] Orthodoxy” (p.150). Again, in note 57 (p. 163), I refer to the HI’s “profound disagreement with the analytic method” and to his being in Emunah u-Bitahon “openly and forcefully critical about the mussar ideology.” “Differing emphases,” indeed!

With reference to my second and major point, I write with regard to the HI’s opposition to the mussar movement, “The HI was of the opinion that the fundamental mussar approach of working on oneself, of turning inward, in order to develop one’s spiritual personality … was fundamentally misguided. [He] was suspicious of the focus on, the concern for the self, even if that focusing, that concern, was for religious purposes” (p.159). In order to explain the grounds of this suspicion, I pointed to the HI’s own psychology as opposed that of the mussar approach.

With regard to the HI’s opposition to the “Yeshivishe” method of study, I write “for the HI, the analytic approach allows too much room for self-expression, for play of the individual’s own intellectual powers, unconstrained by the discipline of the text….What the HI feels is called for in the area of traditional Jewish learning is not intellectual self-assertion, but intellectual submission, submission to the authority of the text” (pp. 155-156). I conclude my article’s main section thus: “In sum we are arguing that the HI’s critiques of both the analytic method of Talmudic scholarship and the mussar ideology stem from the same source….The proponents of both … in their praiseworthy efforts to bolster tradition and combat the attractions of modernity tacitly conceded too much to modernity by allowing too great a role for human self-assertion and human autonomy, even within a strictly traditional framework, and by not sufficiently insisting on the absolute submission of the individual to the authority of the tradition in the realm of both study and practice” (p.162).

Developing this theme of submission even further, I devote the next section of my article to showing “how this ethos of submission is a fundamental and central element in the religious world–view of the HI” (p.164).

Alan Brill in his original post sums up Englander’s thesis thus: “Mussar and lomdut are about the cultivation of the self. The anthropology of the HI is to bypass the self entirely.” If we add to this Englander’s point about the HI’s emphasis on the need for submission, we have a perfect summary of my article as well.

Even regarding minor points, I anticipate Englander. Thus Englander concludes his article by noting “Precisely on account of the central position of the HI in the Lithuanian community, it very interesting that his thought…has not been absorbed (nikletah) in a sweeping manner in that community” (p. 214). Compare that to my observation in my article’s conclusion that “despite the HI’s immense role in forming and shaping the ethos of the Haredi community, in a certain respect he was a failure. Certainly the full dimensions and implications of the HI’s critique of the traditional world of Lithuanian Mitnaggedism were never really absorbed, much less acted upon, by the Haredi community” (p.172). (Also compare Englander, p. 195, n.46, with Kaplan, p. 162, n. 57.)

All this is not to deny that there is much that is new, interesting, and important in Englander’s essay. While I discuss the HI’s psychology only briefly, focusing on the HI’s view that man’s fundamental evil trait is “allowing one’s natural life to flow along its natural course” (Emunah u-Bitahon 4:5) and that that evil trait can be overcome only through “the constant adhesion to the precise requirements of the law (dikduk ha-din),” Englander presents a fuller discussion of the HI’s view of man. He argues that for the HI man is comprised of body, imagination/ will, and intellect, and he analyzes at length the HI’s (very suspicious) attitude to each of these component parts. He has very interesting things to say about the analogy the HI draws between bodily and spiritual impurity (p.191). Particularly insightful is his observation that for the HI the common error shared by both the “yeshivishe” method of study and mussar ideology is the unwarranted confidence they both place in man’s intellect. Also worthy of note is Englander’s discussion of the HI’s view regarding the relationship between halakhah and interpersonal ethics, and his discussion in that connection of the famous example offered by the HI of the competing schoolteachers (pp. 197-198).

Our articles also have somewhat different emphases. While I, perhaps somewhat speculatively, link, as indicated above, the contrast between the more positive attitude to the self taken by the “Yeshivishe” method of study and the mussar movement and the more negative attitude taken by the HI to their contrasting attitudes toward modernity, Englander limits himself to a more strictly internal analysis. Also, the HI’s attitude toward the self in my account, while quite pessimistic, is not quite as pessimistic as it is in Englander’s.

The path, then, that Englander should have taken is clear. He should have written something to the following effect. “My basic approach follows along the lines of the thesis presented in Lawrence Kaplan’s article, ‘The HI: Haredi Critic of Traditional Orthodoxy.’ I have, however, built and elaborated upon his approach, filled in lacuna, and in several places modified a number of his specific contentions.” This is the way scholarship progresses: acknowledging its debt to past scholarship, and then both building upon and modifying that past scholarship in the service of greater insight and understanding. This is not the path Englander chose.

Here is the reply by Yakir Englander.

I am grateful for the opportunity offered me by Alan Brill to clarify the differences between my approach to Hazon-Ish (=HI) and that of Professor Kaplan.

In order to make my position clear, let me first summarize Kaplan’s criticisms of my work as follows:

a. My article, according to Kaplan, is based on the thesis he himself set forth in his own article. Instead of acknowledging my debt to Kaplan, he says, I digress into a discussion of the work of Dr. Brown;
b. Kaplan complains that I fail to present his thesis adequately, and thus I betray one of the principles of good scholarship;
c. Since my article is founded on Kaplan’s own position, it follows that my article has no new thesis to offer.

Regarding the first claim, I will point out that my article does not repeat Kaplan’s arguments, since in his article he occupies himself with a basic exposition of the actual sayings of HI. This exposition does not shed light on the general positions of HI, but stays too close to the descriptive level. It is true that my work enters into dialogue with the fascinating work of Dr. Benny Brown, who has made the first effort to set forth the thought of HI in a comprehensive fashion. I am in agreement with all aspects of Brown’s work, with only the one exception, to which my article is devoted.

Kaplan’s second claim is that I failed to adequately represent his position. My response to this criticism is that in fact there is really nothing to represent. Kaplan is not presenting a new critical thesis, but rather simply repeating the words of HI himself. What Kaplan has done is provide an important service to English readers who may not have access to the actual Hebrew texts of HI; Kaplan thus offers a good preliminary introduction to the HI writings.

Now I address Kaplan’s third criticism. Anyone reading my article will in fact see that in this article an effort is made to present a comprehensive thesis concerning the thought of HI about the human person. As I argue, the central confrontation on the issue of Torah Study between HI and the Yeshivish Method of Study is not to be found in questions concerning the nature of study required, or what disposition the student should display, whether diligence and submission or some more traditional approach (cf. Kaplan 155- 156). There is nothing new here; all this has been stated already by HI himself.

The new element in my thesis is my assertion that the conflict between HI and the Yeshivish Method of Study is anchored in the concept of the human person, and of the human person’s essential task in this world. As I argue, HI asserts that the study methods required in the Yeshivish system do not come to terms with the desires and urges of the human individual. On the contrary, they perpetuate the submission of human being to the evil inclination. It is in contrast to this view that HI presents his own position. It follows, then, that even if HI, in his own system, demands of the student diligence and submission this does not show him to be more traditionalist than the Modern Yeshivish Method of Study. On the contrary, for HI diligence and submission will become means by which a human person may come to terms with the evil inclination.

Therefore, the view of HI is intimately interwoven with the drama of human existence; study of Torah is a central part of the human being’s process of becoming fully human. Clearly, on this point precisely, HI comes into conflict with the teachers of the Torat HaMusar Movement. For the goal of Torah Study is precisely not to reach a state of passivity and submission. On the contrary, any submission achieved is of the second order, not a goal in itself but the means to an end, which is the vanquishing of the evil inclination.

Kaplan fails to see the anthropological drama that HI highlights; instead, he chooses to analyze the sayings of HI using a static conceptual dichotomy of submission vs. creativity and tradition vs. modernity. Kaplan begins with a priori categories, into which he tries to fit whatever he finds in HI. I, on the other hand, like Brown, am endeavoring to listen to the words of HI himself, and to position those words in the appropriate conceptual network.
My article is a reworking of a chapter in my doctoral dissertation (to be completed during the coming year) – a dissertation that examines the image of the human body in the Lithuanian Orthodox Jewish culture from the Holocaust to the present. In my opinion, the issue of the human body represents an axis of conflict in the entire Lithuanian tradition; only when one understands this tradition’s approach to the body can one fully grasp how this tradition in its various aspects takes shape. The first part of my dissertation deals with Lithuanian thought in general (contrasting the diametrically opposing stands of HI on one hand and Rabbi Avigdor Miller on the other). The second part considers the ideal image of the human body through the genre of hagiographic works on the tsadikim. The third part is devoted to the image of the female body, and the cultural and halakhic repercussions of this image.

To conclude: Professor Kaplan, acquainted as he is with Jewish Tradition and general philosophy, should be aware that controversy, disagreement and mutual clarification are all parts of the internal essence that motivates all knowledge. There can be no doubt that Professor Kaplan can claim a pioneering status in the effort to understand HI in a wider framework than that offered by halakhic sermonizing. This pioneering status, however, cannot be construed as ownership, nor does it indicate a boundary beyond which research may not go. Rather, Kaplan might have rejoiced to see research on the thought of HI not only continuing but deepening. Not all researchers need to agree on everything; texts remain open to interpretation. But on one thing we do need agreement: it is, on one hand, the right of every scholar to conduct research; on the other hand, it is never appropriate to gloss over differences and present another scholar’s research disingenuously.

Perhaps Professor Kaplan should keep in mind, that when he misrepresents his fellow scholar, he stands at risk of being himself besmirched. It was Hegel who pointed out that “only by night are all cows black.” Only in the darkest of nights could anyone fail to see the clear distinctions between the “thesis” of Kaplan and the new thesis that I myself offer.