Monthly Archives: November 2010

Should Non-Liberals be Allowed to Study Bible in Public?

Most people who study the Bible are in some way motivated by their belief in the book. Years ago, the academy was the domain of the liberal positions and those more conservative and literal kept away. Now the conservatives feel free to attend academic conference. In fact, they now make up a good percentage of scholars. Below are two blog posts, one by a liberal Jew and the other by an Evangelical. The first, at Mystical Politics, decries all the Evangelicals and Mormons at the SBL, while the second, at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, welcomes the diversity. Any thoughts?

SBL – an increasingly confessional Christian scholarly society?
Upon reflection about this year’s SBL annual meeting, aside from my own pleasant experiences of meeting friends and going to intellectually stimulating panel sessions, there were also things that bothered me about the conference. Ron Hendel, earlier this year, wrote a cri de coeur against what he saw as the increasingly confessional (especially conservative evangelical Protestant) and less critical approach to biblical scholarship at the SBL. (It was published in Biblical Archaeology Review and is available at his website for download – I was skeptical of his critique, because that was not how I experienced the SBL…This year I noticed a marked difference – the increased presence of explicitly confessional panel sessions at the SBL, usually organized by outside groups. In the program book I noticed sessions organized by the Society for Pentecostal Studies, the Society of Christian Ethics, the Institute for Biblical Research (six total sessions), the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and the Academy of Homiletics. The Academy of Homiletics held nine panels on Friday and two on Saturday.

The first meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research, their annual lecture and reception, was held on Friday evening. N.T. Wright, of the University of St. Andrews, gave the annual lecture, on “The Kingdom and the Cross,” which was preceded by “scripture reading and prayer,” led by Helene Dallaire of Denver Seminary. The reception was sponsored by the InterVarsity Press. If I had been interested in hearing Wright’s lecture, I would have been made very uncomfortable by the explicitly confessional nature of the session.

The group’s website ( describes its mission: “The Institute for Biblical Research, Incorporated (IBR) is an organization of evangelical Christian scholars with specialties in Old and New Testament and in ancillary disciplines. Its vision is to foster excellence in the pursuit of Biblical Studies within a faith environment. The achievement of this goal is sought primarily by organizing annual conferences, conducting seminars and workshops, and by sponsoring academic publications in the various fields of biblical research. IBR’s conferences, seminars and workshops are open to the public and its publications are available for purchase.”

The Society for Pentecostal Studies sponsored four sessions. On Saturday, their 1:00 p.m. session was on “Charismatic perspectives on the Hebrew Bible.” Their 1:00 p.m. session on Sunday was a book review of “Filled with the Spirit” by John R. Levinson. Their Monday 9:00 am session was on “Pentecostal-Charismatic Hermeneutics.” The Monday 1:00 p.m. session was “Charismatic Perspectives on the New Testament.” Judging purely from the session titles, the point seemed to be to give an explicitly Pentecostal perspective on various biblical books – not from the perspective of one studying about Pentecostalism, but of people utilizing their own Pentecostal faith to interpret the Bible.

In my view, it is essential to the mission of the SBL to be a scholarly society where the religious commitment of scholars is irrelevant to their participation in any panel discussion at the annual meeting. I would be just as opposed to separate tracks of programming organized by a Jewish group that required a commitment to traditional Judaism as I am to the tracks of programming that now exist that appear to be limited to evangelical Protestants or Pentecostals. I think it is time for the SBL to dissociate itself from such groups and reaffirm its commitment to scriptural study beyond confessional boundaries. Read the Rest Here and see the comments.

Is SBL an organization dedicated to the propagation of evangelical Christianity?
[M]y experience of the SBL has been very positive. In the years that I have gone to the annual meetings I have seen Jews, Christians, people of other religions, and people without any religious belief or practice cooperating in the study of texts in a way that once would have been impossible. It was not necessary to be a Christian, or pretend to be one, in order to be an active participant in discussions at the SBL. Will this continue to be true?

SBL is an alienating place if you are “out” in a cultural sense rather than “in.” Maybe you don’t mind a liberal Prot ambiance, because you are, without realizing it, a liberal Prot yourself at some level. But this evangelical Prot ambiance is too much.
Oh, for a society for the rest of us. Where people don’t take it for granted that you know about B. B. Warfield and have read the latest volume by N. T. Wright.

It is my second if not my first nature to imagine that it is rather angst-provoking to go to SBL and be surrounded by clean-cut Southern Baptist seminary students who might easily be semper fidelis Marines if they dropped about 20 lbs. As for Mormons, how dare they even show up given that their founder in an obvious fraud? As for Pentecostals, those people who handle snakes and roll in the pews, everyone knows that the only good Pentecostal is a recovering Pentecostal.

Once upon a time, SBL was a society the majority of whose members were liberal Prots who knew how to make liberal Jews and liberal Catholics feel at home. All others, even if they were welcome in theory, were not so welcome in practice. Now, SBL is something else, a better, more representative, but far more contradictory thing. Can’t we all just get along? Read the rest here.

Allen Brill of Rolex

For those arriving here looking for the funeral and death announcement of Allen Brill, President of Rolex. I express sympathy for the mourners but the Alan Brill of this blog is not the person you are looking for and has no connection to the deceased. The author of this blog is alive and well and cannot afford a Rolex.

Google Allen Brill with the words Rolex and CEO.

From today’s NYT
BRILL–Allen. With great sadness, Tourneau mourns the passing and loss of our friend and colleague, Allen Brill, President and CEO of Rolex Watch USA. Allen was an exceptional leader, a distinguished gentleman and a true visionary, who will be profoundly missed. We extend our deepest condolences and sympathies to the Brill family during this most difficult time and to Allen’s extended family at Rolex, including the countless associates and colleagues whose lives he touched.

If you want to leave condolence messages, this is not the place. I have no connection to the deceased. Here is the online place for condolence messages. Please take note that this blog has nothing to do with the deceased.

Pope Benedict and Other Religions

The attitude of Nostra Aetate toward other religions was that they were human quests toward the transcendent. A similar approach was contained in Rav Soloveitchiks’ u-Bekashtem meSham.

This new document by Pope Benedict, acknowledges that Muslims “adore the one God,” a phrase crafted to avoid acknowledging their prophecy and revelation. He also acknowledges that they use “countless Biblical figures, symbols, and themes” without acknowledging any revelation on their part.. On Eastern religions, he acknowledges a Catholic respect for them, as well as an acknowledgment of their concern for the transcendental, family, and ethics. Pope Benedict sets these ideas amidst a vision of our age as one of globalization and the need for religion to work toward universal fraternity, especially since every faith has some form of the love of God and neighbor.

The new point in this apostolic epistle is the following line in which he says that one can recognize in Eastern religions admirable religious traits. “ in Buddhism, respect for life, contemplation, silence, simplicity; in Hinduism, the sense of the sacred, sacrifice and fasting; and again, in Confucianism, family and social values.” The Hindus immediately applauded this statement that moved them from a human quest for transcendence to having religious wisdom, in which there are things that westerners can both learn from, admire, and emulate in Indian religions. The ability to meditate, have silent retreat, and even the desire for sacrifice are recognized as positive methods. The value is not just the existential human quest, but also the conclusions reached and the methods developed.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein at the 2009 Har Etzion dinner gave a discourse for over an hour on the Bhagavad Gita (I assume it was somewhat of a regression but he mentions the work in several of his essays.) Rav Lichtenstein mainly focused on the karma yoga aspects (not the bhakti or jnana). Don’t worry about right action without worry for results, that the ben Torah should have equinimity toward life and the need for self-control , discipline, and freedom from attachment. He could have quoted Bahye’s Hovot Halevavot or Reshit Hokhmah, yet his source text of choice was a theistic reading of the Bhagavad Gita.

“To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction”(2.47)
“Fixed in yoga, do thy work, O Winner of wealth (Arjuna), abandoning attachment, with an even mind in success and failure, for evenness of mind is called yoga”(2.48)
“With the body, with the mind, with the intellect, even merely with the senses, the Yogis perform action toward self-purification, having abandoned attachment. He who is disciplined in Yoga, having abandoned the fruit of action, attains steady peace.

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits and other Rabbis used to appreciate the theism of the work and quote it in their works. And Rav Aharon used to mention often the closeness in approach of Judaism to Confucianism as religions of duty, tradition, and maintaining the social order. (if anyone has a printed source for that, let me know)

The question now is can we develop an appreciation for wisdom among the other religions similar to what was implicit in Rav Lichtenstein? Several of the commenters on this blog, in the yoga discussions, alternate between allowing in Buddhist ideas along with the meditation without dealing with the fact that Jewish theology differs from Buddhism, and then flip to stating that everything was already in Chabad or Abraham ben Maimon. Can we learn from Pope Benedict to acknowledge that they have a virtuous practice of contemplation and silence, not found in Judaism. We can acknowledge it in Jewish terms as “wisdom among the gentiles” but then say it needs a Jewish theological understanding? To say that: accepting Jewish revelation allows one to take anything from Eastern thought as kosher Judaism that way one uses an Indian recipe for shabbat, a bit disingenuous. Acknowledge that there is a wisdom there. But also then watch where one has picked up a different theology.

What else can we learn from this recent Vatican document about approaching other religions? (for the tyros, dont confuse a unilateral theology of other relgion with dialogue.)

Judaism is already treated as sharing revelation and covenant with Christians, a common Judeo-Christian heritage, so it is elsewhere in the document. Rav Soloveitchik arguing against a theological Judeo-Christian heritage, only a cultural commonality, as well as the fact that Judaism is not linked to any other faith community. Michael Wyschogrod advocates a theological commonality with Christianity similar to Pope Benedict. Do Jews think we should privilege Christianity over other religions? As time moves on- will we treat all religions equally or will we be closer to one more than other? Islam? Hinduism?

The Word Of God And Interreligious Dialogue (Selections)

Nowadays the quickened pace of globalization makes it possible for people of different cultures and religions to be in closer contact. This represents a providential opportunity for demonstrating how authentic religiosity can foster relationships of universal fraternity. Today, in our frequently secularized societies, it is very important that the religions be capable of fostering a mentality that sees Almighty God as the foundation of all good, the inexhaustible source of the moral life, and the bulwark of a profound sense of universal brotherhood.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, one finds a moving witness to God’s love for all peoples: in the covenant with Noah he joins them in one great embrace symbolized by the “bow in the clouds” (Gen 9:13,14,16) and, according to the words of the prophets, he desires to gather them into a single universal family (cf. Is 2:2ff; 42:6; 66:18-21; Jer 4:2; Ps 47). Evidence of a close connection between a relationship with God and the ethics of love for everyone is found in many great religious traditions.

Dialogue between Christians and Muslims

Among the various religions the Church also looks with respect to Muslims, who adore the one God.They look to Abraham and worship God above all through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. We acknowledge that the Islamic tradition includes countless biblical figures, symbols and themes.
Dialogue with other religions

Frequently we note a consonance with values expressed also in their religious books, such as, in Buddhism, respect for life, contemplation, silence, simplicity; in Hinduism, the sense of the sacred, sacrifice and fasting; and again, in Confucianism, family and social values. We are also gratified to find in other religious experiences a genuine concern for the transcendence of God, acknowledged as Creator, as well as respect for life, marriage and the family, and a strong sense of solidarity.

Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?

2. From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.

Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination.

David Nirenberg on Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in his World from LRB

David Nirenberg wrote a thoughtful full length review of Sarah Stroumsa’s recent work Maimonides in his World, Princeton University Press, 2010 in November LRB. This blog has already had a discussion of the book and link to the first chapter. We have also discussed David Nirenberg on Medieval Jewish-Muslim relations.

The essay is about Nirenberg’s interest in how to situate Jews in medieval Islam. He develops the themes of the multiple aspects of Maimonides’ work and how much they are based on his Islamic milieu. Maimonides in Nirenberg’s hands is a radical theologian seeing much of scripture as an accommodation to the masses and that philosophers should keep their true philosophic views secret, yet false beliefs held by the masses could be changed by sword. In a word, open-minded toward toward philosophy and science, yet situated as an intolerant fundamentalist, an Almohad follower of Ibn Rushd. Nirenberg then offers reflections on how we retrograde images onto medieval civilization and was the society in which Maimonides worked really open-minded. It is a long review, here are some selections.

Maimonides’ discovery of what would eventually be called ‘historicism’ would, in the very long run, help shake the study of scripture to its foundations. Yet his goal was not to demolish the divine word, but rather to bring our understanding of that word into harmony with the other things we know about the world. According to Maimonides, the basic error of theology is that it wants to ‘consider how being ought to be in order that it should furnish a proof for the correctness of a particular opinion, or at least should not refute it’. Seekers after truth should instead attempt to ‘conform in our premises to the appearance of that which exists’. He thought Aristotle was wrong to believe that the universe was eternal, a belief that, if true, ‘destroys the law’, and ‘gives the lie to every miracle’. But, he insisted, if Aristotle’s belief were some day proved, then he too would interpret scripture to conform with Aristotle.

The RaMBaM, meanwhile, appears to have had a very different project. He writes in a self-consciously archaic Hebrew reminiscent of the Mishnah, the ancient (second century ad) core of rabbinic Judaism from which the Talmud later developed. His codification of that Judaism is dogmatic, and he articulates, in his Commentary on the Mishnah, the closest thing rabbinic Judaism has to a credo: the 13 ‘articles of faith’ that bind all Jews, even ‘children, women, stupid ones, and those of defective natural disposition’. Some of these principles, such as belief in the resurrection, sit uneasily with what Maimonides elsewhere presents as rational philosophical truths.

Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker is, among other things, a critical engagement with Strauss’s view. Sarah Stroumsa insists that ‘the Straussian dichotomy of esoteric versus exoteric writing does not do justice to Maimonides’ context-sensitive rhetoric.’

Stroumsa admits that her argument depends on a series of assumptions, first that Maimonides was ‘generally familiar with major books of his period’ published by Muslim theologians and philosophers. Moreover, a philosopher who was so fully immersed in Islamic philosophy and used it to shape his own could not disengage himself from Islamic culture when he delved into other kinds of intellectual activity, be it exegesis, theology or polemics. My assumption is therefore that, in writing on Jewish law, for example, Maimonides was not only toeing the line of Rabbinic, Gaonic tradition, but also bringing to bear the influence of his non-Jewish cultural context.…He used, she argues, a ‘double linguistic and textual register’, and ‘even when he writes in Hebrew, his philosophical frame of reference is that of Arabic philosophy.’

This innovative ‘fundamentalism’, according to Stroumsa, bears a strong resemblance to that put forward in the writings of Ibn Tumart, the founder of an Islamic movement that arose among the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains in the early 12th century. Ibn Tumart attacked what he saw as the anthropomorphising and polytheistic tendencies of Islam in his day; the treatises he wrote were designed to provide his followers with the prophetic foundations for the pure monotheistic beliefs and practices incumbent on every Muslim, uncluttered by the later disputes of the learned. The Almohad movement he inspired – from the Arabic al-Muwahhidun, meaning the ‘proclaimers of God’s one-ness’ – swept to power throughout North Africa and Muslim Spain. The Almohads, unlike nearly all their predecessors in the history of Islam, did not tolerate the presence of Jews and Christians on their territory.

Many Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians fled to the northern Christian kingdoms. Others, like Maimonides’ family, accepted forced conversion to Islam and began a long series of displacements or exiles. The family seems to have spent 12 years wandering from city to city in Muslim Spain before settling for five years in Fez, where, according to a Muslim biographer, Maimonides learned the Quran by heart and studied Islamic law. He then escaped the Almohads’ orbit, moving briefly to Palestine and then to Egypt, where he could live openly as a Jew.

His journey through these multiple Islams, Stroumsa maintains, enabled Maimonides to create his singular approach to religious teaching. From the Greek philosophical tradition transmitted by his Muslim and Christian predecessors he learned that God teaches humanity by stages, accommodating his message to the capacities of those whom he addresses. Maimonides referred to this strategy – sometimes called the ‘doctrine of accommodation’ – by the Arabic word talat.t.uf, which means ‘shrewdness in the service of loving kindness’.

From his Cordoban Muslim contemporary Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes) he learned that scripture ‘speaks in different ways to the three levels of society: the multitudes, the theologians and the philosophers, and that the spiritual leader or philosopher should try to follow this model’.
And from the Almohads he learned that some of what the multitudes can’t be taught by reason, they can be taught by credo: hence the ‘fundamentalist’ style of his commentaries on the Torah.

But although he learned from Islamic philosophy, Maimonides was not a Muslim. He was the religious leader of a small and stateless community, and didn’t have a highly elaborated world of rival authorities to answer to. This meant that he could go much further than a Muslim like Averroes, even to the point of treating the ancient texts of his religion as the product of human history:

For Stroumsa, this is not a symptom of a split personality or a split text, but rather the product of a coherent if highly idiosyncratic system of thought.

The space between ‘intellectual openness’ and ‘tolerant image’ is not very well defined, and partiality is encoded in the argument. No reader will finish this book with any doubts about Maimonides’ ‘intellectual openness’, but that of ‘his world’ is much less clear, especially since for Stroumsa a key aspect of that world is the rise of the Almohad movement, which deliberately crushed, through conquest, forced conversion and mass exile, the pluralist traditions of the western Mediterranean Islamic world. To speak of Maimonides as the product of the ‘relative intellectual openness’ of the world he was forced to flee makes sense in more or less the same way that we might speak of the ‘relative intellectual openness’ of the liberal German world whose collapse drove Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem into exile.

From The London Review of Books, November 1, 2010

Thanksgiving services–Beth Wenger on Jewish American Heritage

Tomorrow starts my holiday weekend, so I probably (or hopefully) will not be as close to the computer as usual. I still have a few posts, mainly about Pope Benedict that need to get posted this week to get me to summarize the material for professional purposes. I even have an eight grade day school reunion this week. There were several long posts last week, too many for some to read, the break will give everyone a chance to catch up. In the meantime here is some Thanksgiving material.

Give thanks to the Lord, who is good, whose love endures forever. —Psalm 118:1

Last year, I posted the Thanksgiving Day service as done in the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. (I know there is a page missing from the pdf., if you have it then please forward it.) This year, this was an interfaith service at the Hampton Synagogue. Here is the service of Psalms and responsive readings and here is a description of what occurred. Here is the program. (Also take note of the new blog …VaAni B’Sof HaMizrach written by a former elder of the Protocols blog.)

Below is a nice review of Beth S. Wenger’s recent book on Americanism and democracy. In Poland, we created myths of our relationship to Polish nobility, in contrast in Bratslavia the Hatam Sofer saw himself as a medieval serf of the Royal chamber, owned by King. But here in the US, we painted ourselves as part of the original melting pot and as a religion of democracy. In America, we saw ourselves as part of the ideals of America. There are lots of great Thanksgiving sermons out there if anyone wants to send me some from

History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage by Beth S. Wenger Princeton University Press, Review by By Robert Rockaway

When I attended Hebrew school, growing up in Detroit after World War II, my peers and I were taught that Judaism and America shared similar democratic values; that America’s early Puritan settlers had been inspired by the Hebrew Bible; that a Jew, Haym Salomon, had bankrolled America’s war for independence; and that the Spanish navigator Christopher Columbus had connections to Jews and Judaism. The notion that Jews and their heritage had played a key role in America’s founding fascinated us, and we uncritically accepted these stories as true. They inspired us and became part of our identity as Jews and Americans.

Years later, when I was in college, I understood that while biblical Judaism contains great moral and ethical values, Judaism and democracy are not necessarily compatible.

The concept that Judaism and American democracy share the same set of values was an idea fashioned by American Jews. Beth Wenger, an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, has written the first full-length study that explains how and why American Jews manufactured and perpetuated the view that the Jewish religion and culture were compatible with America’s democratic ideals. Utilizing a wealth of primary and secondary sources, Wenger demonstrates that by the end of the 19th century, American Jews formulated this idea to demonstrate that Jews belonged in the United States and that from the nation’s beginning, they had been unequivocally and organically part and parcel of America’s social and cultural fabric.

Wenger shows that this was no conspiracy hatched by a select group of Jewish leaders, but something that evolved over time, as generations of Jews acculturated and adjusted to life in the United States. She writes: “Through fledgling historical societies, from the pulpit, and within emerging Jewish organizations,” as well as “through individual reflection and talks around the dinner table,” American Jews sought meaning for their experience in America. Wenger cites the philosopher Horace Kallen, the Zionist leader and future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, philanthropist Oscar Straus, and Reform Rabbi Emil Hirsch as playing key roles in American Jewish efforts to manufacture a collective history in the United States. Ultimately, they and others “produced definitions of what the United States meant for Jews as well as what Jews meant to the United States.” Through the narratives they created, “Jews wrote America into Jewish history and Jews into American history.” Although democratic ideals and Jewish ideals don’t always overlap, the idea persisted for generations and became a part of the American Jewish heritage and the effort to convince the host society that Jews belonged.

Although Jews in Poland, France and Germany had also devised myths to explain how they came to live in those countries, the American environment offered something different from what Jews had experienced in Europe. America lacked a medieval past and legacy of Jewish persecution. Jews in America never experienced mass expulsions or violent pogroms. The federal government never passed any law that specifically targeted Jews. The United States offered them citizenship without any prolonged debate over emancipation. Separation of church and state meant that Jews enjoyed freedom of religion and freedom from religion. No religious test to hold political office on the federal level meant that they could run and be elected congressmen, senators and even president. As a result, American Jews were fond of exclaiming that “America is different.”

Similarly, Jewish leaders used American holidays and America’s two most hallowed presidents to emphasize the intimate connection between Jewish and American ideals. They compared July 4 (the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776 ) to Passover
Read the rest here

Millennials entering their 30’s

I recently noticed a list serve group with a description similar to the one below. (Changes in wording were made to protect their privacy. If any of the organizers of the list serve want further changes or corrections then contact me by email.)

A Support Group for Former “Day School Q” Students Who Lead Alternative Lives:

Did you go to Orthodox “Day School Q”? But are you also, say, gay, a cross dresser, a sex worker, a heretic? Are you married to a gentile? Did you marry a gentile of the same sex? Have you written for porno magazines? Do you refer to yourself as Conservative and have the courage to think for yourself? Would the principal Rabbi Q be ashamed of you? Yes, Great! Then come join us!
(If you’re completely religious, married with kids, spent a Israel before college and still study Talmud to this day, basically the ideal product of day school, but are friends with all us apikorsim, then you are also welcome.

The school is a flagship Modern Orthodox day school and this online list serve group is predominately for the graduate of the 1990’s, those who finished college as gen y millennials. Currently they have either just reached or are in their early thirties. “They have a solid plurality of former students who share their experiences about identity and are beginning to reflect on each other’s journeys. One member of the group has indicated to me that there is a large diversity among the members in their level of observance within or outside of Orthodoxy, in the types of families that they have created, and in their political and philosophical views. Their intermarriage rate (including those that converted to Judaism for the marriage) is not yet known since many are still happily single. (In the 2000 NJPS study, day school graduates had a 7% rate).”

I must note that these same classes produced a higher than average number of Jewish educators- several years in Israel, YU through smicha, and then rebbe in day school. What they called the day school ideal.

I asked one of the members of the group whom I am friendly with to try to explain or to account for—why your era/years produced so many interesting souls – unconventional and not in the ordinary box. I received the following response. (slightly edited)

I think that there is something particular about my period since many of us are the last offspring of the baby boom generation (the end of the 1950s Middle Class American Dream); we lived in the time of post-USSR Jewish immigration to the U.S. in the 1990s and with that the beginning of a new capitalized and globalized world post-cold war; and maybe we had more social class diversity because there were more scholarships at the time (this is a guess). In any case, it made up a somewhat alternative group within a homogenous community.

Also, I think there is also something to the crisis of postmodernity playing out in the 1990s that added on other interesting factors that made people clash with traditional institutions in a way that was more vibrant and also destructive.

People in their late 20s and 30s are now coming out more in NY, Baltimore and all over about abuse from Orthodox yeshivas. This is also happening in the Catholic world, and I don’t think that it is a coincidence. Whether it’s physical, sexual or emotional, young adults around the world are speaking out. I think that many of us realize that the old model of family/shul/community needs to be reinvented.

There were few people who saw that a transition period was coming up for Modern Orthodoxy and with that a big identity crisis for all of us. I guess that our generation happened to come into adulthood just as these old definitions were dying out, or at least I would hope so.

I am ready for a new cycle in the world since the last period has been so destructive. Sadly I don’t think that things are getting better. We just need to find some sort of space for taking care of one another and hold out the storm. Maybe many of us know what we don’t want and are finding that there isn’t a space yet for what we would like to see in the world. Some people believe that it can be created; I am pretty skeptical but am at least enjoying the diversity that’s coming to the surface in all of our stories.

This is a group of the best and brightest. Some of the goof-off’s who hated studying Torah are the ones who remained Orthodox. It is not those who needed to be exposed to correct doctrine or practice, since it includes offspring from Gemara teachers, the rabbim. Their parents were not especially lax or cynical.

Notice that according to this member’s explanation, Orthodox was not an emotionally safe place. (I know for others then and now, religion is a safe refuge from the outside.) They felt it as unsafe. They already sensed that the old was dying 15 years go. Student’s identity is formed by the end of high school, so don’t blame it on college. The problem is not modern Orthodoxy since if needed; I can produce a similar overview of a Yeshivish school. Their principal has been complaining for decades about the twin “corrosive influences” of thinking for oneself and eating dairy without kashrut supervision.” That is probably not the cause.

Here is a thought experiment for the Jewish educators out there. Picture your class of 25 students. If it has a similar demography of this class, then picture 1 of the 25 as gay or lesbian, 2 of them as marrying non-Jews (who may or may not convert), 5 of them giving up Judaism entirely and 5 of them leaving Orthodoxy for another denomination. Assume that these may be your best and brightest. Would this change what you teach? Would it change how you relate to your students? If you were a principal would it change who you hired? There are no easy answers because you may also have in the same classroom a significant number of students for whom the very definition of their religion and commitment to Orthodoxy is moral certitude, absolute values and rejection of the relativism of the outside world. (For more on this group- see my post on Christian Rock and kiruv) I cannot comment on the students currently in high school who will be “gen z” obsessed with texting. Time will tell if they follow those who are half a generation older than them.

Any official organization want to start doing long term studies of day school graduates for variables besides assimilation? If so, contact me offline. Don’t be concerned with which school this is describing. My point is not to castigate the school or the graduates.

Most educators and those reading this, myself included, are within the religious parameters and cannot see the outside perspective of those who left. When you leave comments know that this is about real people, so of whom will be reading this. Know that you may have little insight into the other side other than this 400 word email.

David Biale Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought

Once upon a time, Jewish secularists wrote about creating a Jewish identity moving past the older religious versions. This included most Hebrew and Yiddish authors, most important Zionists, and the American Jewish establishment, think of Chaim Zhitlovsky, Theodore Herzl, and Louis Brandeis. There are famous essays by Irving Howe, and Yehuda Bauer advocating a Jewish humanism, ethics without the classic texts. Now we have a recent work by David Biale offering the opposite, a Jewish secularism that claims the classic texts including The Bible, Rabbi Meir, Maimonides, and Zohar as part of a dialectic that created Elisha ben Avuyah, Shabbati Zevi, Spinoza and modern Jewish secular identity.

The Posen Foundation has been giving money for courses and books on Jewish secularism. The creators of the foundation were tired of all the emphasis on Judaism as a religion. Most major universities have been recipients and now have major professors offering courses on Jewish secular thought. This volume is one of the first volumes coming out under this aegis.

My perspective is what would be the correct religious response. A sanctimonious answer about the need for God, revelation, mizvot is not what is needed. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, there many traditional and non traditional responses to Jewish secularism. In responding to secularists, Eliezer Berkovits and Heschel were at their finest. (However, the essays by Rabbis Lichtenstein and Wurzburger were not, they were better at delineating themselves from liberal Judaism.) Will Herberg and others argued the need for religion. Thoughts? How would you respond to Biale?

In this volume, Biale discusses those theories (Weber, Schmitt, Blumenberg) of how medieval Christianity served as a basis for modern secularism, he offers a Jewish version of these theories. A traditionalist on first reading would claim as Lowith describes, the illegitimacy of the modern age. But where does one go with that? John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy as the the 21st century need to go back to medieval thought?

Biale shows how God, Torah, and Israel are reinterpreted for the modern age. He does include the secular Zionists and secular authors, but with the amount of weight he gives Kabbalah, Shababti Zevi and Ahad Haam this begins to feel more like a liberal theology, similar to Arthur Green. Would the two of them reject each other? Is the major difference between them Occam’s razor toward pantheism, the enjoyment of prayer and holidays, or something more? This seems like a theology of secular academic Jewish studies.
And what happened to the good old-fashioned humanism?

From the Blurb

Not in the Heavens traces the rise of Jewish secularism through the visionary writers and thinkers who led its development. Spanning the rich history of Judaism from the Bible to today, David Biale shows how the secular tradition these visionaries created is a uniquely Jewish one, and how the emergence of Jewish secularism was not merely a response to modernity but arose from forces long at play within Judaism itself.

Biale explores how ancient Hebrew books like Job, Song of Songs, and Esther downplay or even exclude God altogether, and how Spinoza, inspired by medieval Jewish philosophy, recast the biblical God in the role of nature and stripped the Torah of its revelatory status to instead read scripture as a historical and cultural text. Biale examines the influential Jewish thinkers who followed in Spinoza’s secularizing footsteps, such as Salomon Maimon, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. He tells the stories of those who also took their cues from medieval Jewish mysticism in their revolts against tradition, including Hayim Nahman Bialik, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Kafka. And he looks at Zionists like David Ben-Gurion and other secular political thinkers who recast Israel and the Bible in modern terms of race, nationalism, and the state.

Not in the Heavens demonstrates how these many Jewish paths to secularism were dependent, in complex and paradoxical ways, on the very religious traditions they were rejecting, and examines the legacy and meaning of Jewish secularism today.

“Although religious Jews have always anticipated spending ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ others have preferred to tarry, as it were, ‘this year in Tel Aviv,’ the symbolic capital of secular Jewry. This is their story, told by a master Jewish historian with erudition, sympathy, and full awareness of the ironies that tie both destinations–and the destinies of religious and secular Jews–inextricably together.”–Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley

Quotes from the Introduction available online:

I want to argue that Jewish secularism was a revolt grounded in the tradition it rejected. The relationship between the premodern and the modern, in which the first is associated with religion and the second with the secular, remains one of the most fraught for students of religion. According to a common master narrative of the Enlightenment, also sometimes called “the secularization theory,” modernity represented a total rupture with the past as innovation was privileged over tradition, science over superstition, rationalism over faith.

In recent years, this dichotomous break has come under new scrutiny, especially given the persistence of religion in the modern world.

Karl Löwith proposed that the secular idea of progress owes much to the secularization of Christian apocalypticism. And Carl Schmitt argued that modern “political theology” secularized the power of a transcendent God in the power of the state.If these scholars found the origins of modernity primarily in medieval Catholicism, Peter L. Berger, building on Max Weber, suggested that the roots of the secular lay rather in Protestantism, which had shrunk the medieval realm of the sacred and created a heaven empty of angels.11 Berger also observed that this Protestant move, in turn, had its roots in Old Testament monotheism, since the ancient Israelites had already banned the gods from the world: monotheism thus became the first step toward secularization.

In this book, I will argue that Jewish secularism is a tradition that has its own unique characteristics grounded in part in its premodern sources.

Jewish secularists typically reject the idea that Judaism has an essence. The past is no more harmonious or homogeneous than the present, and indeed, the secularist insistence on the pluralism of the past can serve as an argument for pluralism in the present. Nevertheless, I will argue that these three originally medieval categories provided the questions to which secular thinkers responded with new answers. To quote Hans Blumenberg, “the [modern] philosophy of history is an attempt to answer a medieval question with the means available to a post-medieval age.”

The chapters that follow are therefore organized around the categories of God, Torah, and Israel. Each chapter starts by examining how the traditional categories might have contained in a nutshell the source of their later secularizations. In chapter 1, we will see how the God of the Bible lost his personality in the philosophy of Moses Maimonides and then became nature in the renderings of Spinoza and his disciples. The medieval Kabbalah provided the source for another modern vision of God, as “nothingness” or “void.” And, finally, paganism suggested another alternative to the God of tradition. In chapter 2, we turn to secular readings of the Bible, but first pausing to observe how the Bible itself and some of its medieval interpreters already prepared the ground for such readings. Stripped of its status as revelation, the Bible now emerged as a historical, cultural, or nationalist text. Chapters 3 and 4 treat the final category, Israel. Chapter 3 concerns itself with the new definitions of Israel as a nation, a definition that has its roots in earlier Jewish history. But the way secular thinkers shaped this definition was equally grounded in modern ideas: race, nationality, and the state. Chapter 4 turns to another way of defining the traditional category of Israel: history, language, and culture. Culture in particular is a modern concept that, in the hands of Jewish secularists, comes to take the place of religion.

Jewish secularism may be seen as the attempt to fashion a countertradition, an alternative to Judaism as a religion that has its own intellectual lineage.
Read More Here

To the Exurbs- Changing Denominations Again

Nancy Ammerman notes that 44% of Protestants in America change their denomination twice in their lives. The majority change it at least once. In her description of Golden Rule Believers, which I discussed below, she noted that “When people of all ages talked about being dissatisfied with a church, it was rarely over doctrinal disagreements, but often over the failure of a congregation to care for someone in need.” If people feel outside the family of the congregation they fund a new home. Jews are not identical to Protestants, however the point is that people move denominations not just once in life, but many change their denomination twice. Here is a recent story heard from another person.

“I know a man in his 50’s who grew up in what he calls a Conservadox congregation, which is one of the main NYC Orthodox congregations.” [editor’s note- that shul would firmly consider itself a bastion of Centrist Orthodox.]

“He moved out to the suburbs in line where he helped build a new synagogue similar to his vision of his old synagogue. He raised his kids there. Now, he and his wife are sick of Orthodoxy, he finds the very synagogue that he helped build is not hospitable anymore. He does not like the narrowness and judging. And he finds all the classes from the Center form the Jewish Future of YU completely irrelevant and a turn off.” (They have targeted this congregation for fund-raising and may not realize that they might be having the opposite effect in some cases.)

“ So, he and his wife are moving out to an exurb, far from an Orthodox shul, to be semi-retired. The implication is that he will now either drive to the Conservative congregation. He might occasionally drive to an Orthodox one”. Eventually, he might be part of a group that starts an Orthodox synagogue there. If there is a population study in 2010, he will be listed as having left Orthodoxy. “And, as a successful and wealthy professional, because they are annoyed, their charitable donations will not go to Orthodox institutions.”

“Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.”

Tomorrow and Friday there will be a conference on what it means to combine religion and modernity. Details, speakers, and abstracts Here. Currently, modernity is not seen as secular process, rather each religious group creates its own religious modernity. This means that each and every religious group has its own narrative of modernity. Furthermore, modernity does not mean the 18th and 19th century values of autonomy, rationalization, individualization, or modern knowledge. It involves many other aspects. Those of you who use the words modern Orthodox or Modern Orthodox, the volumes produced by this conference will help you evaluate what you might mean.

On November 18-19, dozens of scholars, religious leaders, business people, and intellectuals will gather in New York for the public launch of a new, multi-year project called “Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.” Based on the premise that Catholic, Muslim, and secular modernities each bring distinctive resources to the task of illuminating and resolving an array of characteristically modern problems, the project will examine the dynamic co-existence and competition of these “multiple modernities”—as well as the conflicts and contentions among them—with the aim of opening “new paths for constructive engagement between and among religion and secular people and institutions.”

In anticipation of the launch of this new project, we asked a distinguished group of scholars: What is gained by framing research on religion, secularity, and modernity in terms of “multiple” or “contending” modernities, and what “new paths for constructive engagement” might such a frame afford?

There are 12 speakers, here are some relevant aspects from the abstracts of 4 of them

R. Scott Appleby, John M. Regan Jr. Director, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and Professor of History, University of Notre Dame was instrumental in the Fundamentalist project. He thinks the current criteria is whether the groups are “deliberating and acting together for global justice?” Does Modern Orthodoxy participate in global justice? Does it work on inclusivism?

Modernity, scholars now agree, is not a linear, a priori, exclusively Western-originated, inspired, or driven project. “It” takes multiple forms, admits of no discernible telos, and emerges from discursive communities with both overlapping and incommensurate epistemologies and worldviews.

To make matters all the more complex, these supposedly self-contained discursive communities are themselves internally plural, and their priorities and self-understandings internally contested. Not least, they are culturally, economically, and physically “all over the map.”…

All of this is good news for religious communities, especially, which not so long ago were considered virtually irrelevant to “the project.”

Then the question becomes: how to translate disparate historical experiences into platforms or frames for “deliberating and acting together for global justice?”

Not everyone can or will play: these worlds are vast and divided, with remote or inaccessible parts. But the crosscultural conversation has already begun, and now it must become ever more explicit and, as possible, inclusive.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, J. Donald Monan Professor, Department of Theology, Boston College offers another definition. Does modern orthodoxy fit into this definition? Does it have a universal language? Why does it still buy into the myth that there is a neutral objective secular sphere?

“Modernity” brings global movements for democracy, women’s rights, human rights, and the environment. It also carries increased conflict within states, huge gaps between rich and poor, climate change, “superpower” hegemony, and global economic collapse.

Modern Catholicism has developed a universalizing language of the common good, mutual rights and duties, and global social justice. Catholicism aspires to be a moral voice for all citizens of “the modern world.”

“Contending Modernities” will increase understanding and respect between these different worldviews. More importantly, each can assist the other to renegotiate what it means to live faithfully before God and responsibly in a global environment. The dynamic of productive and self-critical interreligious “contention” is essential to meeting shared modern challenges constructively and creatively.

But there is no such thing as a “neutral” and “objective” secular sphere. “Secularity” is itself grounded in particular historical experiences, such as Enlightenment resistance to religious authority, sixteenth-century religious wars in Europe, evolving democratic regimes, growth of market capitalism, and defending the rationality of Western nation states and their agendas.

Robert Orsi, Professor of Religion, Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies, Northwestern University complains about the term Catholic modernity because Catholicism has been a force for rejecting modernity. Since Orthodoxy has been a social and psychological force for rejecting modernity, people choose it to find safety in the tradition or mesorah, then is the very term Modern Orthodox an oxymoron?

But it is a sleight of nomenclatural hand to rename Catholic life since the 18th century as one among “multiple modernities” without attention to the ironies and contradictions of such a claim and to the tragedies the phrase masks. Catholicism has long stood fiercely against the protections and rights offered by secular modernity, including women’s equality, the freedom of sexual identity, respect for children’s autonomy, and reproductive choice. The church objected to democracy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, aligning itself with repressive political regimes around the world. Better the torture cells of a pious dictator than a condom!

The various goods of modernity were hard won; the language of multiple modernities obscures the fact that Catholicism was one of the major obstacles to their achievement

Eboo Patel, Founder and President, Interfaith Youth Coreworks associates modernity with diversity. Since Modern Orthodoxy is about living in an homogeneous enclave then are they modern? Is there any difference between the left and the right if both of them only live in isolated neighborhoods. As one of my students put it. “Modern Orthodoxy means never meeting a gentile until graduate school.” Does modern orthodoxy choose authority over diversity? Does it see Orthodoxy as choice or necessity?

British academic Anthony Giddens claims that modernity has one chief characteristic: frequent interaction between people from different backgrounds. The chief question for religions is how to engage this diversity. Or, as Peter Berger bluntly put it, “Modernity pluralizes.”

Many religious leaders view the presence of diversity as a serious challenge to their authority. They could once pass down their ways of being, believing, and belonging to the next generation without multiple sets of other ways competing with them. To draw from Berger again, where they could once reasonably present their traditions as fate, now the next generation views those ways as a choice.

This post of mine from Dec 2009, Modern Orthodoxy- Modern meant Moral Self-transformation is relevant to this discussion. Since everyone is modern in the temporal sense, to go out of one’s way to call yourselves modern needs a specific aspiration.

Judaism and Yoga Part III

Rajiv Malhotra is a Hindu who agrees somewhat with the Evangelical position. Here is his article. This discussion is continued from part II here.

Malhotra emphasizes that there is a distinct metaphysics that runs counter to Christianity. The point of Yoga is liberation from this world. That is unlike the Christian scheme of salvation. But does Judaism have anything against liberation from the material world? Does Judaism just run an alternate track and this is ancillary like other forms of metaphysics? Does the fact that prophecy has ended in Judaism and that God is transcendent contradict also affirming God is everywhere as taught in Hasidut? Do we have a problem with dissolving the ego? If it is done in a Hasidic way? Are we bother by being embodied or are we anti-body in a monastic way?

While yoga is not a “religion” in the sense that the Abrahamic religions are, it is a well-established spiritual path. Its physical postures are only the tip of an iceberg, beneath which is a distinct metaphysics with profound depth and breadth. Its spiritual benefits are undoubtedly available to anyone regardless of religion. However, the assumptions and consequences of yoga do run counter to much of Christianity as understood today. This is why, as a Hindu yoga practitioner and scholar, I agree with the Southern Baptist Seminary President, Albert Mohler, when he speaks of the incompatibility between Christianity and yoga, arguing that “the idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine” is fundamentally at odds with Christian teaching. This incompatibility runs much deeper.

Yoga’s metaphysics center around the quest to attain liberation from one’s conditioning caused by past karma. Karma includes the baggage from prior lives, underscoring the importance of reincarnation. While it is fashionable for many Westerners to say they believe in karma and reincarnation, they have seldom worked out the contradictions with core Biblical doctrines. For instance, according to karma theory,…All humans come equipped to recover their own innate divinity without recourse to any historical person’s suffering on their behalf.

The Abrahamic religions posit an infinite gap between God and the cosmos, bridged only in the distant past through unique prophetic revelations, making the exclusive lineage of prophets indispensable. …Yoga, by contrast, has a non-dual cosmology, in which God is everything and permeates everything, and is at the same time also transcendent.

The yogic path of embodied-knowing seeks to dissolve the historical ego, both individual and collective, as false….Yoga is a do-it-yourself path that eliminates the need for intermediaries such as a priesthood or other institutional authority. Its emphasis on the body runs contrary to Christian beliefs that the body will lead humans astray.

Some have responded by distorting yogic principles in order to domesticate it into a Christian framework, i.e. the oxymoron, ‘Christian Yoga.’ Others simply avoid the issues or deny the differences. This is reductionist and unhelpful both to yoga and Christianity.

The “ dark ” passages of the Bible

More from the recent Pope Benedict document.
He explicitly acknowledges that there are morally difficult passages of the Bible. Read his passage below. Is it a Maimonidean “The Torah speaks in the [moral] language of men of the time? Is it Christian supersessionalism?
Progressive evolution of humanity? Probably not the later, because he mentions that history and current events are still violent. He wants a literary-theological reading from pastors that helps the laity deal with these passages in a way that preserves the sanctity of the text. So is it like the way modern Orthodox deal with Amalek, through a variety of answers? Is he going beyond? Or is it just a more historical approach? Maimonideans are comfortable saying that revelation made accommodations for the anthropomorphisms of the era, but what of accommodation for Bronze age ethics? What would be an interpretation made in the light of Hazal? in light of the Torah of Hashem is eternal?

42. The “ dark ” passages of the Bible

the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which,
due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance.

God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “ dark ” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day.

So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “ I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.

For those who have not thought about these questions before the starting point for the discussion is Avi Sagi,The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem, Harvard Theological Review Vol.87, No.3 (1994) p.323-46. Sagi deals with the various approaches in the traditional medieval and modern commentaries.

Golden Rule Jews or Family Value Orthodoxy

I am not working on this right now, but thought that this article would help clarify a few thing that came up in the half-shabbos discussions.

The religion of much of the laity is not on a left-right spectrum or a frum or less frum spectrum. Many modern Orthodox congregation are made up entirely of people who choose it for the lifestyle and family values. Being Orthodox is about family on Shabbat, shiva calls, hospital visits, sharing simchas, and helping people out. They are oblivious to both doctrine and practice demarcations. They consider the warmth of the community as their Orthodox Judaism. Nancy Ammermann, the leading sociologist of congregations, calls the Christian equivalent “Golden Rule Christians.” She argues despite their lesser observance and liberal beliefs, they are not liberals and are not to be contrasted with Evangelicals, rather they are oblivious to most of the right-left issues.

Many congregants are concerned whether the Rabbi is good at shiva calls and hospital visits, not whether they went to Ner Israel or YU. They care about if the rabbi participates in their lives, welcomes new members, and gives divrei Torah or sermons about suburban life, not about the left-right flash points. And they are completely oblivious to ideology confusing Rav Frand and Aviva Zorenberg.

We can use a study of Orthodoxy using her categories developed about congregational life. JTS brought in Nancy Ammermann to do a study of the Conservative movement, but she accepted the statements of too many of the ideological talking heads as if they were empirical. This article was written 14 years ago; much has changed since then in American relgion. And Judaism is not the same as Protestantism. Nevertheless, her work is a good starting point for empirical discussions. Go read the 20 page article in full.

She points out that they are sincere, engaged, and have a relationship with God. They see themselves as neither lax nor liberal. She notes that ideologues and liberals are more likely to be found in urban areas. So innovations in an urban area like Riverdale or the Upper West Side, may have little to do with the Family Value Orthodoxy of Livingston, Scarsdale, Engelwood, or Great Neck. (I am only speaking of the big shuls).

This chapter is reprinted from the book LIVED RELIGION IN AMERICA edited by David Hall (1997), Pp. 196-216 with permission from the Princeton University Press

The first step in describing the religiosity of “lay liberals” is to recognize what these people believe and practice. Their religiosity is not just a paler reflection of evangelical fervor, but different in kind… Their own measure of Christianity is right living more than right believing. are characterized by a basic “Golden Rule” morality and a sense of compassion for those in need.

What is this good life for which Golden Rule Christians aim? Most important to Golden Rule Christians is care for relationships, doing good deeds, and looking for opportunities to provide care and comfort for people in need. Their goal is neither changing another’s beliefs nor changing the whole political system. The emphasis on relationships among Golden Rule Christians begins with care for friends, family, neighborhood, and congregation. In the neighborhood, they value friendliness and helpfulness. Many of these folk know what it is to be mobile and therefore what adjusting to life in a new location involves. “Doing unto others” means welcoming newcomers and offering routine neighborly assistance. Beyond such routine care, they are also convinced that a good person invests in relationships. That means being open and vulnerable, working through difficulties, being there during the hard times.

Among those we interviewed, older people were especially likely to describe the church as like a family, a place where people care for each other in times of need. When people of all ages talked about being dissatisfied with a church, it was rarely over doctrinal disagreements, but often over the failure of a congregation to care for someone in need.

Implicitly, most observers seem to measure strength of belief and commitment against a norm defined by evangelicalism, equating that with “religiosity” and painting these non-exclusivist, less involved practitioners as simply lower on the scale. In this essay, I suggest that “lay liberals” are not simply lower on the religiosity scale. Rather, they are a pervasive religious type that deserves to be understood on its own terms.

What I am describing may in fact be the dominant form of religiosity among middle-class suburban Americans. It certainly is among the middle-class suburban Americans in our study. It is their form of “lived religion.” Urban congregations were more likely than suburban ones to be activist,
They draw from Scripture their own inspiration and motivation and guidance for life in this world. Their knowledge of Scripture may not be very deep, but they have at least some sense that the Bible is a book worth taking seriously, especially as a tool for making one’s own life and the life of the world better.

This emphasis on caring also defines their picture of God. Just as our interviewees’ most common description of the Christian life was living by the Golden Rule, so the most common description of God was as a protector and comforter. God was experienced most often in moments of need. Even beyond times of crisis, these church members talked about seeing God’s presence in the ways “things just work out” or feeling more confident about everyday challenges because they know God will care for them.

Relationships with friends and fellow church members are important, then, but the relationship that perhaps defines the religiosity of Golden Rule Christians more than any other is the relationship of parent to child. A quarter of the interviews we analyzed contained explicit statements linking faith to the upbringing of children.

They are not in church only for their children (as we will see below), but religious training for their children is part of what they see as their obligation to the world. They would not be doing good or making the world a better place if their children were denied the training provided by the church.

Stresses in family life are among the items of most concern to the Golden Rule Christians in these two affluent suburban congregations. They spoke often of care for spouse and children as very important to them. They worried about the demands of their jobs and how to balance work and family life. Among the relatively small proportion who participated in various Bible study or discipleship groups at the two churches, discussions about work and family decisions were frequent refrains.

If Golden Rule Christians are characterized by their moral practices and their lack of creed, why call them Christian (or even religious) at all? Could they not be doing all these things based on an ethic generally available in the culture, the sort of generalized value system Could they not be members of a lodge or community club just as easily as of a church?

There are at least two reasons to reject that argument. The first is that they themselves insist on joining churches. They may join community organizations as well, but they talk about how important it is to them to find and join a church.
They simply see no other organization that puts caring for others so clearly at the center of its life. The more potent reason to reject Golden Rule Christianity as proof of secularization, however, is that Golden Rule Christians have not given up on transcendence. They were sometimes rather fuzzy on just what it is they experience, and they sometimes had to stop and think when we asked, but they almost always came up with answers to questions about their experience of God.Some said that they feel close to God in Sunday worship, especially in the music and in the opportunity for quiet reflection. Nearly half of those whose interviews we analyzed mentioned some aspect of the worship service as important to them, as a time when they feel God’s presence or find new insight and understanding for their lives…The parts of the service that involved participation and introspection seemed most important.

Others mentioned experiences with their children – births, for example – or moments near the end of their parents’ lives. One man reflected, “I think He [God] has always been a big part of our life, our married life, and our kids’ lives. I think our kids had a lot to do with making Him more real to us, and personalizing Him.” As these people encounter the power and grandeur of nature and the mystery of life’s formative moments, they again sense that something beyond themselves is present. Not surprisingly, they also sense this presence in times of special difficulty. Many of those we interviewed mentioned times of sickness and death as moments of particular closeness to God. Rather than eliciting questions or existential anger, these trials seemed to allow Golden Rule Christians to draw on a reservoir of spiritual energy.

Half of the people we surveyed define their faith more in terms of everyday morality than in terms of institutional commitment or theological orthodoxy. They would be likely to find a high-commitment sectarian congregation uncongenial.
While theologians might want to argue that the people I have termed “Golden Rule Christians” have no coherent theology, and evangelists might worry about their eternal souls, sociologists cannot afford to dismiss a form of lived religion just because it does not measure up to orthodox theological standards.

I have argued here that the Golden Rule Christianity we see today is explicitly nonideological. That is, it is not driven by beliefs, orthodox or otherwise. Rather, it is based in practice and experience. God is located in moments of transcendence and in the everyday virtues of doing good. The good person invests heavily in care for family (especially children) and friends, tries to provide friendly help in the community, and seeks ways to make the larger world a better place. All the while, the ideas of others are respected.

Christians, Jews and the Sacred Scriptures

This week, Pope Benedict published a 208 page document giving the core of his official views for the Church. Most of it has to do with the Bible. Several small sections set out what may be the new standard in Christian-Jewish relations. I have at least two weeks to produce a statement for the press since the document is so long, the Catholic press has yet to digest it, and for a Jewish paper to cover the topic two weeks later is fine. I will be discussing various parts of this very binding document and then posting my 850 words without any theological words in two weeks. In the meantime, © Alan Brill 2010, all rights reserved.

We will deal with pages 76-78 on the relationship of Judaism to Christianity.

Christians, Jews and the Sacred Scriptures

43. Having considered the close relationship between the New Testament and the Old, we now naturally turn to the special bond which that relationship has engendered between Christians and Jews, a bond that must never be overlooked. Pope John Paul II, speaking to Jews, called them “ our ‘beloved brothers’ in the faith of Abraham, our Patriarch ”.141 To acknowledge this fact is in no way to disregard the instances of discontinuity which the New Testament asserts with regard to the institutions of the Old Testament, much less the fulfillment of the Scriptures in the mystery of Jesus Christ, acknowledged as Messiah and Son of God. All the same, this profound and radical difference by no means implies mutual hostility. The example of Saint Paul (cf. Rom 9-11) shows on the contrary that “ an attitude of respect, esteem and love for the Jewish people is the only truly Christian attitude in the present situation, which is a mysterious part of God’s wholly positive plan ”.142 Indeed, Saint Paul says of the Jews that: “ as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable! ” (Rom 11:28-29).

For Pope Benedict, the relationship of the two religions is because of shared scripture and the sharing of God’s revelation to Abraham (as defined in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews). Benedict does not attempt to acknowledge the Jewish understanding of these passages in Genesis or to acknowledge the Jewish self-understanding of the role of Moses and Torah. He does, however, state that the commonality does not invalidate the discontinuity of institutions and how the New Testament fulfills the Old.
The difference is “profound and radical.” This return to fulfillment language after a several decade absence was already used in his homilies last year.

Benedict does seek to avoid any mutual hostility, rather to seek respect and love. His reason is because the separation of Judaism and Christianity is part of a mysterious plan on God’s part for some greater purpose. God gave the Jews an irrevocable gift. Why? We dont know. We do know that it has a productive role. This is the line of text for Christian theologians to crawl through to create a theology of Judaism. Even if Christians acknowledge separate covenants for Jews and Christians, they are not mutual since Christianity is the fulfillment of the Biblical promise. Expect speeches trying to give this paragraph a positive spin. And needless to say, none of this is from the Jewish perspective.

Saint Paul also uses the lovely image of the olive tree to describe the very close relationship between Christians and Jews: the Church of the Gentiles is like a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the good olive tree that is the people of the Covenant (cf. Rom 11:17-24). In other words, we draw our nourishment from the same spiritual roots. We encounter one another as brothers and sisters who at certain moments in their history have had a tense relationship, but are now
firmly committed to building bridges of lasting friendship.143
As Pope John Paul II said on another occasion: “ We have much in common. Together we can do much for peace, justice and for a more fraternal and more humane world ”.144

This is a paraphrase of Nosta Aetate paragraph four, but Moses and the prophets are not mentioned here. More importantly, it does it mention the vision of a reconciliation. It does acknowledge, albeit tersely, prior anti-Jewish attitudes. Now, there should be lasting friendship. Benedict has been firmly committed to friendship with the Jews, so Jews should have tackled more fundamental issues of historical anti-Jewish texts. Instead,we squandered our audiences and communications on a crazy excommunicated Bishop and on how Benedict’s speeches could be parsed for bad. We need to work together or peace, justice, and more fraternal and human world. Nothing specifically Jewish-Christian there.

I wish to state once more how much the Church values her dialogue with the Jews. Wherever it seems appropriate, it would be good to create opportunities for encounter and exchange in public as well as in private, and thus to promote growth in reciprocal knowledge, in mutual esteem and cooperation, also in the study of the sacred Scriptures.

Conclusion more dialogue and study of Scriptures. (For Jews who dont know that dialogue for Catholics is currently a generic term meaning everything from social action to soup kitchens to study of Jewish history to attending a Holocaust memorial, see Dialogue and Proclamation, section 3.

140 Propositio 29.
141 JOHN PAUL II, Message to the Chief Rabbi of Rome
(22 May 2004): Insegnamenti XXVII, 1 (2004), p. 655.
142 Cf. PONTIFICAL BIBLICAL COMMISSION, The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (24 May 2001), 87: Enchiridion Vaticanum 20, No. 1150.
143 Cf. BENEDICT XVI, Farewell Discourse at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv (15 May 2009): Insegnamenti, V, 1 (2009), 847-849.
144 JOHN PAUL II, Address to the Chief Rabbis of Israel
(23 March 2000): Insegnamenti XXIII, 1 (2000), 434.

Benedict’s footnotes are reliant on his recent speeches. He does not use the more open to Judaism “Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” Written by Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews from 1985. But we dont even hear “Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain” from Cardinal Ratzinger’s document cited in footnote 143.

On page 74, two pages before the section discussed above, Benedict wrote his transition to this section.He then seemingly inserted page 75 on a different topic, breaking the original transition).

we must not forget that the Old Testament retains its own inherent value as revelation… Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament (cf. 1 Cor 5:6-8; 1 Cor 10:1- 11) ”.For this reason the Synod Fathers stated that “ the Jewish understanding of the Bible can prove helpful to Christians for their own understanding and study of the Scriptures ”.

This is an acknowledgment that one can learn from Jewish exegesis, both traditional and scholarly. Yet, his proof is not Jerome or Nicholas of Lyra, rather the New Testament itself. It seems to imply that the NT used the OT, as an independent and outside source. It does not give a feeling of setting the NT in Jewish context. It gives a feeling that a non-typological reading still has some value, even though the NT is radically past literal readings. I am not sure that the small army of Catholic Tanakh teachers would formulate the matter this way.

(Please if you want to enter the discussion by commenting then be willing and eager to read and discuss these documents. And even to learn about the last decades of discussion and documents. If not, then this isn’t the place.)

Interview with Avi Solomon about Jewish relationship to other Religions in India

In the comments section on the post about the limits of Yoga for Jews, Avi Solomon, a reader of this blog, posted that as a Jew from Mumbai India he knew that Indian Jews knew how to keep a distance. (He is the author of a blog avisolo.blogspot that mainly discusses Abulafia and technical writing.) Since he has firsthand knowledge of Jewish practice in India, I decided to ask him a few questions and then a few more questions. I wanted to learn how they keep a distance and where they put the lines.

Please treat him and his answers with respect. We don’t need to point out where the practice among Indian Jewry is different than the Rambam, Rama or Pithei Teshuvah. Nor should we correct him with hindsight. The goal is to ask what can we learn from the natural practices of Indian Jewry.

When I posted on Yoga and Judaism, it was during Diwali. I was receiving many emails wishing me a happy Diwali. So the first thing I asked was concerning the holiday.

How did Jews relate to Diwali? Did they give greeting? Go out to the festivities?

We participated (along with members of every religion) in setting off very loud firecrackers! We greeted the Hindus when socially appropriate but attended any Diwali festivities only if we were invited. We told them we have our Diwali too -Hanukkah, which usually came a week or two after Diwali.

Which holidays did the Jews avoid?

None really. All holidays were an social occasion to meet the Goyim or to do excursions together as a (Jewish) family. This included the [Muslim] Id festivals too.

What were some of the things forbidden as Avodah Zara in India?

Never bow down to an Idol or at any place of worship that was not a synagogue. We somehow knew instinctively when we were about to cross a line.

How much did Jews know about Indian religions, its practice, and its Gods?

A lot – we were neighbors and Mumbai is a very cramped place.

Is there anything noticeable that was allowed?

Stuff to do with protection from ayin hara. For example a lemon with seven chillies would hang from the main door under the mezuzah as “additional protection”; or breaking coconuts on various occasions to ward off ayin ha ra.
Some religious customs were adopted from the Goyim but thoroughly koshered, for example the “Malida” ceremony honoring our “patron saint” Eliyahu HaNavi:

Shirley Berry Isenberg’s classic book “India’s Bene Israel” has more info.

Did you model yourself on the Muslims?

Not really. The Jews were there a lot before the Muslims and there was always some tension with the Muslims. The positive model to aspire to in India were the Zoroastrians (Parsis) who are ironically called the “Jews of India”. In fact my family lived next doors to a Zoroastrian family and our house overlooked a fire temple.

How did Jews relate to Zoroastrianism?

Congenially – Zoroastrianism was closer to the Jews as they worship an invisible God albeit made present in the form of fire and there was a sense of companionship as Zoroastrians were fellow “exiles” in India even after being there for a few thousand years. Also the Zoroastrians/Parsis were the most cosmopolitan Indians and the Indian Jews (Bene Israel) of Bombay naturally gravitated towards the same middle class status as them.

See the movie ‘Such a Long Journey’ for an intimate portrayal of the Zoroastrian life in Bombay.

‘Percy’ is also good but difficult to find.

How did you relate to the fire temple?

It was off limits to any non-Zoroastrian. I was able to sneak in once as a kid with my Parsi neighbor friend. Don’t tell anybody. 🙂

What were the boundaries with Zoroastrians?

None apart from not bowing down to their prophet.

Was it different than Hinduism?

No. Will all religions the boundary was not bowing down before their Gods (you could go into their places of worship if you wished and they allowed). The other boundaries were not marrying goyim or eating non-kosher meat. Of course there were some Indian Jews who crossed these lines and paid prices. For young Jews the solution was usually to immigrate to Israel to find a Jewish partner. When the community is down to 5000 it’s hard to find someone suitable.

Do you know of any writings on how actual Jews related to Indian religions? (Besides Nathan Katz)

Mostly fiction (Shirley Berry Isenberg’s non-fiction book India’s Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook [Hardcover] is the best factual accounts):
Shulamith by Meera Mahadevan (hard to find – movingly shows that Indian Jewish life was not all hunky dory)
Esther David

“Baumgartner’s Bombay” is a unique fictional account of a German Jew who ended up in Bombay just before the war and stayed there.

There is an online Jews of India forum.

These documentaries on the Bene Israel might be useful:


Were there any rabbis- or hakhamim who were stricter? (I wanted to know if anyone followed the way it is discussed in the poskim.)

Not that I know of – most of the strictness was in setting a personal example of high levels of observances.

Aish Hatorah is now offering the same Torah as the Kabbalah Centre

This article by Adam Jacobs of Aish presents Sefer Yetzirah as an ancient esoteric wisdom of different forms of energy and states of consciousness, useful for our secular lives. The way this shell game works is to draw equal signs between different things and not worry about whether the associations works. Sefer Yetzirah= 32 states of consciousness= Huxley on altered states of consciousness= right-brain left brain pop psych= Freud= Chabad modernization of chochma and bina. As one commenter put it “where are the other 30 states and how do you actually attain them.

Aish usually likes the esotericism of creating a gematria to artificially connect a Zohar to modern psychology, implying we have from Sinai a deeper well of contemporary pop psych than the secular world. This one caught my eye because of the scientology or Kabbalah Centre language of guidebook, harness, tools, and benefit. It is a “guidebook that explains the tools and techniques.” I wonder which traditional commentaries is he reading? Notice also the lack of for its lack of reference to God.

People have always said that those who know kabbalah should offer something to compete with the Kabbalah Centre. American academics say that we should teach them to read Zohar and understand it as myth, symbols, and history. But that isn’t useful tools and techniques. Chabad teaches about your neshoma and your connection to God.. But is also not an esoteric guidebook to manipulate the world. Now, we have Aish giving the world what it wants: a Da Vinci Code that will make your material life better.

What makes this article even more interesting is that Irwin Kula of CLAL showed up in the comments in order to call Adam Jacob’s bluff. Kula states that “traditional people like to imagine that the latest science is in the ancient texts. Kula then calls on Jacobs to get beyond the gobbeldy gook and admit that if one is interested in these topics then read the scientific literature. Kula asks Jacobs the empirical question of whether religion offers any teachings about any states of consciousness.

Rabbi Adam Jacobs
Managing Director, Aish Center in Manhattan Posted: November 7, 2010 – Full Version Here
The most ancient (and still used) text of the Kabbalah is called the Sefer Yetzirah or Book of Formation, and its contents are generally attributed to the Biblical patriarch Abraham. The book opens with a discussion of the “32 Mystical Paths of Wisdom,” paths derived from the 10 digits on our hands (quantity) plus the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which we use to construct language and thereby describe reality (quality). These paths are also reflected in the 10 sefirot — spheres of energy that are the building blocks of physical reality yet also relate to character traits as well as states of consciousness:

The Sefer Yetzirah is a guidebook that explains the tools and techniques that are required to enter these states. One important (and practical) distinction that we can all make and relate to concerns the states of chochma (expansive subconsciousness) and binah (the conscious mind). Long ago, the Kabbalah knew that creativity was housed in the right brain and analytical thought in the left. Freud and Jung were familiar with these kabbalistic works and borrowed heavily from them (as did Newton and others).

Therefore, we are all familiar with these two states of being. Chochma is what we experience when we are at our creative best — when we are in “the zone” and experiencing a natural, easy flow. Artists, musicians and other creative people know it well and they also know that they are able to achieve, channel and create in that space in ways that would be impossible in normal waking life. Chochma is not concerned with life’s practicalities

Chochma is the dimension where, as Aldous Huxley wrote, “we see the world as it truly is … infinite”. He also said that in order to do that, the “doors of perception” needed to be cleansed. The Torah is the instruction manual that guides us along that path.

Binah is our analytical, practical and down-to-earth state. One that is useful for accounting, problem solving, computer programming, paying bills on time and the like. It is grounded and practical and has the ability to take the inspiration from chochma and “make it real…Though useful, binah does not always bring us to tranquility, harmony and big picture thinking.

For a stunning, impactful and crystal clear example of what I’m describing, have a look at this video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist describing the effects of a stroke that shut down her left brain. What she describes is simply pure chochma consciousness in its most distilled form as her binah was completely switched off. It’s as beautiful as it is astounding. This is the state that the Sefer Yetzirah is teaching us to access, and there are wondrous benefits available to all those who succeed in harnessing and bonding these two great powers of the mind.

The right left brain version of Chabad seems traceable to a source like this.

Jacobs seems inspired by secular new age works like this Personal Kabbalah: 32 Paths to Inner Peace and Life Purpose

I recommend this book if you’re looking for personal and professional success and fulfillment. It not only explains ancient wisdom in non-religious, contemporary, practical terms, it also gives you methods for accomplishment. The techniques in this book work for personal use as well as business.

It is a good thing that Jacobs speaks as the authentic tradition. Image where he would be if he could innovate. As one commenter put it- “this makes Scientology believable”. Kula grasps the important point is that one readers of this pseudo-scientific religion dont really want a deep understanding because if they did they would read popular science. The question that Kula does not ask is:Why are people satisfied with this? Why are the successful MBA’s, that he gives private classes to at 10K each, happy with this?

Rabbi Irwin Kula comments

I really do appreciate both the creativity of your response and its precision-quite an example of integrating chochmah and binah- which is nothing more than an ancient language for what we know as right brain and left brain. Traditional people often like to see contemporary scientific discoveries hinted at in their past traditions as it gives them a sense that their religious inheritance is really smart especially as it is becoming irrelevant to increasing numbers of people.

But forgetting about the gobbeldy gook of all this (which you point out quite humorously) especially when you can actually get a far deeper understanding of both chocmah and binah from reading Daniel Pink and other neuroscientists I have a question for you. And forget about the god stuff and the esoteric theological language that presumes all this is true in some metaphysical way, do you think there are a variety of levels/ states of consciousness that we have access to or can experience that can be parsed/explained with enough detail that we can recognize them. In other words besides asleep and awake are there other levels of awareness (making no metaphysical claim about them) that give us insight into ourselves/our world that are worth trying to attain. And last do you think there is a possibility that – admittedly in an inaccessible language and often crudely – ancient wisdoms happened upon some of those states and tried to record them in ways that might help us understand them better.