Monthly Archives: November 2010


The Sister Rose Thering Fund COLLOQUIUM


Sunday, November 14, 2010
2 p.m

Sunday, November 14, 2010, 2 p.m.
Jubilee Hall Auditorium
Seton Hall University
400 South Orange Avenue
South Orange, NJ 07079

Rabbi Jack Bemporad
Executive Director
Center for Interreligious Understanding

Imam Abdullah Antepli
Duke University

Professor Marshall Breger
Professor of Law
Catholic University School of Law

This past August, Professor Marshall Breger organized an unprecedented mission to the death camps at Dachau and Auschwitz led by Rabbi Jack Bemporad for eight influential Imams. The reactions were life-changing.

At the end of the service, prayer leader Muzammil Siddiqi, imam of the Islamic Society of Orange County, California, offered up an additional prayer: “We pray to God that this will not happen to the Jewish people or to any people anymore.”

Siddiqi was one of eight American Muslim leaders on a study tour to Dachau and Auschwitz that was co-sponsored by a German think tank and the Center for Interreligious Understanding, a New Jersey-based interfaith dialogue group. The delegation’s sole female member was Laila Muhammad, daughter of the late American Muslim leader W.D. Muhammad and granddaughter of Elijah Muhammad, the late leader of the Nation of Islam.

The unusual trip was the brainchild of Marshall Breger, an Orthodox Jew and a Republican who served as a senior official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Breger, who wore his yarmulke on every leg of the trip, said he first had the idea of organizing the expedition last year, while he was in Israel during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. He described it simply as a kind of eureka moment.

“There is a view that there is growing anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, reinforced by people like President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, that there is growing Holocaust denial in the Muslim world,” explained Breger, now a law professor at Catholic University. “In light of that, the idea was to offer education to those who might not have the kind of knowledge that we’ve had about World War II and the Jewish community, and to do this in a public way.”

It is impossible to know what the long-term impact of such a trip will be. But if the heartfelt comments of the trip participants — including some with a history of previous statements that many Jews view as problematic — are any guide, Breger did not underestimate the value of direct experience in promoting education, understanding and even, perhaps, change.

Indeed, it was not hard to imagine that some of the Muslim delegates might be viewed as imperfect candidates for dialogue by Jews wary of discussions with those they see as Islamists or as prone to extremist views.

Emerging from the crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the delegates signed a memorial book. One of the inscriptions, from Sayyid M. Syeed, an interfaith activist, read, “For Muslims to see the Holocaust is an overwhelming experience.” It went on to quote a verse in the Quran stating that though man was created by God in excellent form, he is capable of becoming the lowest of the low.

In some of their most sensitive discussions, several delegates grappled with the issue of how to present the truth of the Holocaust in a way that would be accepted and taken to heart by their congregants.

Full Article in the Forward- here

Statement of Muslim American Imams and Community Leaders on Holocaust Denial

‘O you who believe, stand up firmly for justice as witnesses to Almighty God.” (Holy Qu’ran, al-Nisa “The Women” 4:135)

On August 7-11, 2010, we the undersigned Muslim American faith and community leaders visited Dachau and Auschwitz concentration camps where we witnessed firsthand the historical injustice of the Holocaust.

We met survivors who, several decades later, vividly and bravely shared their horrific experience of discrimination, suffering, and loss. We saw the many chilling places where men, women and children were systematically and brutally murdered by the millions because of their faith, race, disability and political affiliation.

In Islam, the destruction of one innocent life is like the destruction of the whole of humanity and the saving of one life is like the saving of the whole of humanity (Holy Qu’ran, al-Ma’idah “the Tablespread” 5:32). While entire communities perished by the many millions, we know that righteous Muslims from Bosnia, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, and Albania saved many Jews from brutal repression, torture and senseless destruction.

We bear witness to the absolute horror and tragedy of the Holocaust where over twelve million human souls perished, including six million Jews.

We condemn any attempts to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics.

We condemn anti-Semitism in any form. No creation of Almighty God should face discrimination based on his or her faith or religious conviction.

We stand united as Muslim American faith and community leaders and recognize that we have a shared responsibility to continue to work together with leaders of all faiths and their communities to fight the dehumanization of all peoples based on their religion, race or ethnicity. With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred, rhetoric and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth.

Together, we pledge to make real the commitment of “never again” and to stand united against injustice wherever it may be found in the world today.

Signatures of Imams Here

Why Half-Shabbos?

Sometime this week, the original post on half-shabbos and the squeal on “half- shabbos again” became my all-time most read post. Why?
It is not novel. People already know about these things. Was it just the web effect of going viral? Is it the sensationalism of peering behind a door? Were educators and rabbis really unaware? Was it the name “half-shabbos”? Was it just because it talked about the community and not ideas?

My runner-up biggest posts are on Rav Kook, Rav Amital, Kugel, Green, Riskin, Sacks, and post-orthodoxy —each of these posts had content not found elsewhere. Therefore, I understand why they received many readers. The Riskin post was my third biggest post without any links or discussions on other sites and without going viral, just because I was the only one who covered the topic.
But half-shabbos?? An overheard fragment. Really! Thoughts on why?

Culture Wars win over Feeding the Hungry

There is a Jewish or Orthodox parallel somewhere. It sounds familial. There is something to take note of here. But the similar Jewish debates do not immediately spring to mind.

Bishops Play Defense On Anti-Poverty Initiative

(RNS) For four decades, the U.S. Catholic bishops have maintained a nationwide program designed to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty. And for just as long, fierce critics have tried to kill it.

Proponents of the Catholic Campaign on Human Development (CCHD) say it exemplifies Jesus’ preference for the poor and downtrodden; opponents, including several bishops, say it funds left-wing activists, some of whom undermine church doctrine on homosexuality and abortion.

As the U.S. bishops’ flagship anti-poverty program, the CCHD is funded through a special collection taken up each year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Since 1970, the program has disbursed $290 million in grants, according to CCHD officials.

But the program’s practices and guiding philosophy have been sharply attacked by conservatives armed with Internet-enhanced research, a sharp nose for malfeasance, and a deep apprehension for anything that sniffs of socialism.

Smiling and Religion

Someone told me a story of how they were at a wedding last year, and that during the course of dinner the head of a major Modern Orthodox institution told a Rosh Yeshiva that he does not smile enough. One should always be smiling. I have nothing against smiling, I do it often myself. But there was something interesting in this post on another blog that made me think of that wedding story. Here are selections from the other blog’s 12 points. It reminds me how hard it is to speak of Navardok today.

2. In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalization of a well ordered life. Sadness is moral failure.

3. The motif of late-capitalist society is the stylization of happiness, the cultivation of lifestyles from which every trace of sadness has been expunged. Peter Berger identified ‘the Protestant smile’ as part of Protestantism’s cultural heritage in the West. In a Catholic country like France, it is still considered crass to smile too often, or at strangers. Evangelical churchliness is the re-utilization of bare-toothed crassness. Our cultural obsession with health, happiness, and positive thinking is a secularization of the evangelical church service.

4. The cultural triumph of the smile leaves behind a trail of casualties. Where evangelical churches theologize happiness and ritualized the smile, sad believers are spiritually ostracized. Sadness is the scarlet letter of the contemporary church, embroidered proof of a person’s spiritual failure.

5. When the church’s theological rejection of sadness was secularized, sadness became a pathology requiring medical intervention. The medicalization of sadness is the final cultural triumph of the Protestant smile. If Luther or Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky had lived today, we would have given them Prozac and schooled them in positive thinking. They would have grinned abortively – and written nothing. The truth of sadness is the womb of thought.
8. I know a fellow who was interviewed for ordination in an American denomination. Asked to describe his hope for the church’s future, his eyes filled with tears and he admitted, ‘I don’t know if I have any hope for the church.’ Perplexed by this response, his ecclesiastical interviewers furrowed their brows, scribbled little notes and question-marks, conferred gravely about his fitness for ministry – though they ought to have asked for his prayers, or poured oil on his head, or sat at his feet and made him their bishop.

9. Where sadness is expunged from a culture, the cry for justice falls silent. Johnny Cash carried darkness on his back, refusing to wear bright clothes as long as the world is unredeemed. Why do we dress our priests in black? Are they not in perpetual mourning for a world that is passing away? Is not Christian joy carried out in the shadow of this sadness? In a culture of happiness, it is all the more necessary that our priests continue to dress in black, refusing the cheap comfort of bright vestments and the empty promise of the rainbow.

10. At the turn of the millennium, J. G. Ballard wondered how the next generation would perceive the 20th century: ‘My grandchildren are all under the age of four, the first generation who will have no memories of the present century, and are likely to be appalled when they learn what was allowed to take place. For them, our debased entertainment culture and package-tour hedonism will be inextricably linked to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, though we would never make the connection.’ How do we explain the fact that Auschwitz and Hiroshima are immediately succeeded by the cult of happiness and the triumph of the smile? How can it be that the worst century was also the happiest? Our children will interpret our happiness as blindness and self-forgetfulness. We have drugged ourselves against history; sadness is truthful memory.

12. The Bible promises the end of history and the end of sadness…This can be understood as eschatological promise only on the presumption that history is catastrophe, a vale of tears. Sadness is overcome through cosmic redemption. A culture without sadness is a culture without hope. The cure for sadness is God.

Full version here at Faith and Theology.

American Neo-Hasids in the Land of Israel-Joanna Steinhardt

I once had a student attempt a cultural analysis of Bat Ayin. Here we have a sociological article on the topic. Her example of dredlock peyot in a good catch,but I wish there the article had a thicker description, in the Geertz sense.

Joanna Steinhardt, American Neo-Hasids in the Land of Israel Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Volume 13, Issue 4, (2010) pages 22–42,

Some wore a blend of Eastern-style clothes, such as Thai fisherman pants, open-collared Indian shirts and embroidered vests; others wore baggy pants and T-shirts like any other American youth. The women wore long flowing skirts and dresses, multilayered over loose pants, with colorful tunics, scarves and shawls. The young Americans were demonstrative in their piety, uninhibited and enthusiastic in their adherence to Jewish law, and youthful and informal in their behavior.

At parties they sat on the floor in a circle playing acoustic guitars and drums, singing Hasidic songs, drinking and smoking…Their speech was interspersed with Yiddish exclamations—Mamesh! Gevaltic!—that took some time for me to decode.

These young people seemed to embody a unique variation on mystical religious Zionism, which mingled American counterculture with a primordial philosophy of the Jewish people’s tie to their ethnic-spiritual homeland, the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael).

In my fieldwork, I sought to understand better how American countercultural discourse provides an ideological bridge to Zionist Orthodox Judaism. In this case, I found that the countercultural discourse, with its particular construction of “spirituality,” disrupted the familiar right-left political continuum in Israel by exhibiting both progressive and reactionary political features.

My fieldwork began with in-depth interviews in 2005 and 2006 of students at Yeshivat Chesed V’emet (CV), located twenty minutes outside Jerusalem in the settlement of Bat Ayin… Although Gush Etzion is known for its suburban atmosphere, Bat Ayin is more akin to the extremist settlements deeper in the West Bank. Yitzchak Ginsburgh helped found the settlement with his students—a mix of American and Russian immigrants and native Israelis, the majority ba’alei teshuvah—in 1989.

When I told secular Israelis that I was interviewing people in Bat Ayin, their immediate association was the story of the Bat Ayin cell.
Beyond this public association with political violence, the culture and policy of the settlement reflect extremist attitudes in relation to the Palestinian Arab population and the claimed right of the Jewish people to the biblical land of Israel. Bat Ayin has long maintained a ban on Arabs working in the community and, more recently, a total ban on Arabs in the community for any reason. While this antagonism is indicative of settlers’ attitudes in general, Bat Ayin is extreme in its relatively lawless militancy.

I was told that the surrounding Arab villagers refer to the Bat Ayin settlers as “the crazies.” As many students noted, the proximity to “nature” was a key ingredient in their positive experience at the yeshiva. In a similar vein, the simple and rugged lifestyle is conducive to introspection. On a more complex level, I sense that the political extremism and marginalization of the settlement also appeal to these yeshiva students, but only to the degree that these qualities reflect the values of anarchism, radicalism, and self-sufficiency and an underlying mystical vision—even though the same students may be uncomfortable with the racism or violence that results from these same values and ideas.

At first I dressed in T-shirts and skirts that hit below the knee (a typical Modern Orthodox look), but I noticed that some of these interviews had the subtle atmosphere of a date coordinated by a matchmaker for religious singles. In the next few interviews, I wore jeans and found that the date atmosphere quickly dissipated.

Since I was interested in the reach and influence of CV, Yeshivat Shirat HaTorah (ST) was a logical extension of my research.

For example, students cited 1960s counterculture books, authors and iconic figures, such as Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan (1968) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), as well as writings by Timothy Leary, the Beat poets, William Blake and others. Independently of each other, four CV students cited Ken Kesey as an influential figure in their youth. “Read that book,” said Aharon, referring to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Tom Wolfe’s journalistic account of Kesey and his LSD-dropping crew, the Merry Pranksters…

Nearly every interviewee had been part of the countercultural milieu that includes subcultural successors to the 1960s hippie movement—Rainbow Gatherings, Grateful Dead and Phish concerts, raves, radical environmentalism, Neopaganism, anti-globalization activism, and other youth subcultures. Students from this milieu shared a particular construction of spirituality associated with the New Age movement and an antagonism toward mainstream society.

Yonatan cut off his dreadlocks but left two above his ears as peot hanging down to his chest in long s-shaped curves under his knit kippa. In this way, CV and ST students created a syncretistic material culture linking countercultural styles with innovative religious ones.

American Neo- Hasidism in Israel, as practiced at Chesed V’Emet and Shirat HaTorah, is a syncretistic revival of traditional Judaism that uses American countercultural expressions to give meaning to Jewish practice and identity.

Gersonides’ Use of Aristotle’s Meteorology in… some Biblical Miracles-Sara Klein-Braslavy

A new 75 page article on miracles in Gersonides. Very well done, working out all the naturalistic details.

Gersonides’ Use of Aristotle’s Meteorology in his Accounts of some Biblical Miracles Sara Klein-Braslavy
Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism Jul 2010, Vol. 10, No. 2: 240–313.

Abstract (Summary)

In his theological-philosophical treatise the Wars of the Lord and in his biblical exegesis Gersonides shows himself to be a believer bound by what he understood to be the fundamental tenets of the Jewish religion, but also a scientist and philosopher who sought to interpret these beliefs in keeping with the philosophy and science he knew from the Aristotelian corpus, especially Ibn Rushd’s commentaries, or as part of the theories developed through his own inquiries based on Aristotelian principles. In his exegesis of miracles he preserves their miraculous character but brings them very close to natural occurrences, introducing a rational and scientific element to his interpretation. Of the explanations based on scientific theories, those that draw on meteorology are the most common. Seven biblical miracles that Gersonides explains on the basis of Aristotle’s Meteorology are examined, along with three events that he interprets as natural meteorological phenomena rather than as miracles. It is shown that he anchored his explanations in the meteorological theories of several phenomena: the stratification of the air; the doctrine of exhalations; earthquakes; the splitting of the earth by an earthquake; the creation of minerals; the saltiness of the earth; the generation of lightning; the formation of rain and the formation of rivers; the nature of the wind; and principles of optical meteorology

In his theological-philosophical treatise the Wars of the Lord and in his biblical exegesis Gersonides shows himself to be a believer bound by what he understood to be the fundamental tenets of the Jewish religion, but also a scientist and philosopher who sought to interpret these beliefs in keeping with the philosophy and science he knew from the Aristotelian corpus, especially Ibn Rushd’s commentaries, or as part of the theories developed through his own inquiries based on Aristotelian principles. Gersonides can be distiguished from earlier Jewish Aristotelians in the extent to which he also expounded various conservative Jewish ideas,2 including his theories of the immortality of the intellect, divine providence, and the creation of the universe.

1. Natural law cannot be abrogated. Gersonides did not accept the “hard” definition of miracles; namely, the idea that a miracle is a total abrogation of the laws of nature. Instead, he applied the principle that “it is impossible for nature to change its ways.”10 He formulated this principle in another way, too, arguing that miracles cannot contradict the laws of nature. They must be “possible” within the framework of natural law, even if similar phenomena are not found in nature.11

2. Miracles are produced by the “most appropriate causes.” This is the most important principle that guided Gersonides in his explanation of biblical miracles. According to it, miracles are not effected by direct divine intervention in the natural order. Rather, God employs natural means, “causes” that can be found in nature as well. These causes are very similar to the causes that would engender, in nature, phenomena similar to the miracles; they differ in that they were not themselves produced by preceding natural causes but by God, employing miraculous means.

3. Miracles cannot take place in the heavenly bodies. This principle, necessary to make miracles compatible with his worldview, required Gersonides to interpret miracles that seem to involve the heavenly bodies as actually taking place in the sublunar world rather than in the celestial domain.

What happened in Sodom and Gomorrah is that a rain of sulfur or of some other mineral of a similar composition fell from heaven. According to Gersonides this sulfur was formed in the air. He draws on his knowledge of meteorology to explain its formation

“Lot’s wife behind him looked back, and she became a pillar of salt”
The pillar of salt refers not to Lot’s wife but to “the land of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Nor is the meaning that this region actually turned into a pillar of salt, but rather that, after it was ravaged by an earthquake, it was full of salt and sulfur. The Bible likens the sulfur and salt that appeared where the cities had formerly stood to a pillar of salt; the land, that is the region around Sodom and Gomorrah, was like a pillar of salt.

In Exodus 13:21-22 we read about the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites in the wilderness:
According to his explanation, then, the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud are simply air that has become smoky exhalation. Although in nature smoky exhalation is formed in the bowels of the earth, in the case of the two pillars it was formed above the surface of the earth, from air itself. Here matter took on a particular form in conditions other than the natural ones:

The Bible recounts the miracle of the shadow that moved backward on the shadow clock worked by Isaiah for Hezekiah, in two places: 2 Kings 20:8-11 and Isaiah 38:8
According to the Meteorology, a cloud is not the only dense body that can serve as a natural mirror…Gersonides assumes that Hezekiah was familiar with the meteorological phenomena in question and understood their cause.172 He looked at the cloud in the sky then and saw that it was moving rapidly westward. Thanks to his knowledge of meteorological phenomena he knew that the shadow could readily climb higher on the western steps, because the cloud bearing the image of the sun was rapidly moving westward.


He employs the information he drew from the meteorological literature in different ways in different commentaries. Our analysis has shown that he applies it in several ways:

1. To account for a miracle he sometimes makes explicit use of an explanation or description of meteorological phenomena in the Meteorology or of a theory advanced there. In these cases Gersonides almost always refers his readers to the Meteorology: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the pillar of salt, the opening of the earth to swallow up Korah and his faction, the pillar of fire and cloud that confounded the Egyptians when they crossed the Red Sea, and some elements of the flood.

2. He argues that miracles cannot contradict the laws of nature and that miraculous phenomena are compatible with the principles of the natural phenomena described and explained in the Meteorology. To support this argument he explains the natural law that underlies the miracle, according to the Meteorology: the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites in the wilderness.

3. He uses knowledge acquired from reading the Meteorology in order to reject the idea that a phenomenon described in the Bible is natural and not a miracle (the manna).

4. He comes up with an original explanation for meteorological phenomena not mentioned in the Meteorology in order to use it to explain a miracle. His new theory draws on similar meteorological phenomena that he learned from the Meteorology: the retrograde shadow.

5. In his explanation of miraculous phenomena, Gersonides employs the terminology used by the Meteorology to describe natural phenomena in order to explain the natural causes created by God in order to effect the miracles. Here he does not explicitly cite the Meteorology to explain the miracle but uses its terminology to show that he understood these things in accordance with the ideas expounded there, and that his readers should do likewise: certain elements of the flood and perhaps also of the splitting of the sea.

Leon Wieseltier on the Steinsaltz Talmud – 1989

In honor of the Global Day of Jewish Learning, I give you selections from the classic review of the Steinsaltz Talmud written by Leon Wieseltier. I remember clearly when the review came out; there are few New York Times Reviews like it.

By LEON WIESELTIER; Published: December 17, 1989

Rabbi Steinsaltz’ observations on the relationship of Talmud to truth are troubling. For a start, they are gooey. His use of ”Torah” as an adjective is the use of a preacher, not a scholar. For the Torah is, supremely, a noun, a particular revelation, a specific text; it is the Torah. Rabbi Steinsaltz’ generalities have an evangelizing tone. An evangelist is, among other things, a person for whom the definition of the truth is less important than the conviction that he brings it. Rabbi Steinsaltz doesn’t hector, but he is carrying news. For all his historical and philological pains, he is without the critical spirit. He appears to aspire to a rather paradoxical role in Jewish life: a guru of the Talmud… In the world of the Talmud, a rabbi is the opposite of a guru.

There have been previous translations of the Talmud into English. None of them have presented themselves, however, with Rabbi Steinsaltz’ presumption. ”The overall structure of the page,” he writes of his edition, ”is similar to that of the traditional pages in the standard printed editions.” And so it is. The text of the Talmud is set in the center, swaddled in exegesis. Where the commentary of Rashi was, there is Rabbi Steinsaltz’ ”literal translation.” (Rashi’s commentary, which more or less inaugurated Talmudism, appears below it.) Where the commentary of the Tosafists was, there is Rabbi Steinsaltz’ ”translation and commentary.” Where the commentary of Rabbenu Hananel was, there appears Rabbi Steinsaltz’ guide to ”concepts.” Where the commentary of Rabbi Joel Sirkes was, there is Rabbi Steinsaltz’ guide to ”sages.” And so on. The student is referred to these features of the translation by the same superscripts that referred the student to the features of the original. The Steinsaltz Talmud is even published with gilded edges, in the folio format in which the Vilna Talmud was published.

But there is something slightly false about the experience of its study. When all the work on Rabbi Steinsaltz’ page has been done, when all his superscripts have led the student to all his information, the student will have experienced nothing more than the literal meaning of the text. Beyond the literal meaning, Rabbi Steinsaltz provides only allusions to subsequent debates and the legal rulings that resulted. But it is precisely in the space between the literal meaning and the legal ruling that the experience of Talmudism is to be found. After the rudimentary explanation of words and concepts, after the judicial extrapolation of practices and regulations, the dance of reason begins.

The duty of the translator, of course, is to provide Talmud, not Talmudism. As a translator, and as an amplifier of his translation, Rabbi Steinsaltz succeeds nicely. But this is not only a translation of the Talmud. It is also a mimicry of the Talmud. It leaves the student on the surface, but it dupes him into the feeling that he has dived below. For this reason, it should be used with a little care. The differences between the translation and the original are just as important as the similarities – more important, in fact, for the measure of the tradition, and for the measure of its loss.

Wieseltier’s own positive appreciation for the Talmud.

The Talmud is one religion’s great homage to mind. That is why it remains worthy of study, even for the godless. And it deserves the attention of godless Jews for another reason, too. The Talmud is where they come from… – the Talmud is the spine of Judaism, the scripture of Jews to whom God no longer speaks. From this oceanic source, Jewish identity will never be completely disentangled.

If you have a subscription, read the full seven page review here.

Wieseltier goes out of his way, as did the recent JTA press release, to note that Steinsaltz did not actually write the commentary, rather it was by paid committee. Wieseltier highlights that the translation was supervised by Rabbi Israel V. Berman. Does anyone know the other hands? Was Rav Shagar, who headed the Steinsaltz Yeshiva from 1987, involved? As a side point, does anyone have a list of the avrachim involved in the Artscroll Talmud and has anyone discussed if one can notice differences between tractates?

Wieseltier was not the only early critic. Arthur Samuelson, a book editor who critiqued Steinsaltz’s English edition for The Nation magazine wrote: “In making the Talmud overly accommodating to strangers, the translators have betrayed its essence. Reading the Steinsaltz Talmud in English is like trying to understand what a crossword puzzle is when the words have been filled in. You get the idea but you miss the point: Process is everything.”

The best translation and tool for teaching adult education remains the superb El Am Talmud, published by JTS, United Synagogue, and Bar Ilan. It was to be an American equivalent to Steinsaltz. It was edited by Rabbi Dr Arnost Zvi Ehrman. This was a truly scholarly work with input by Rabbi Drs Halivni, Sperber, Felix, Shilo and Alexander Carlebach. They only put out Berachot, some of Bava Metsia and Kiddushin.

Orthodox 1990’s New Age – Unique Soul, Respect, Love, and Conenction

Earlier this week, I received a comment from a Rabbi Yisroel, whom I never met, with a website link to his site Jewish Paths. When I went to his website, I found a list of affirmations that seemed to come directly out of early 1990’s New Age. We each have a uniqueness and personal connection. We have to respect ourselves and heal ourselves. God loves us. Religion is concerned with the cessation of universal suffering along with a oneness of mankind and all life. Here is an ostensibly Neo-Haredi person entirely enmeshed in the new age. There are many many Orthodox teachers out there offering similar spirituality. While Green-Landes is the official public debate and that many think there is an official Orthodox theology, in reality there are many forms of local theology and local knowledge.
Check out the wiki New Age. Here are similar versions from a non-Jewish School of Metaphysics and A Spiritual Counseling Center and Jewish Lights -Kerry Olitzky’s Jewish Paths Toward Healing and Wholeness.
Looking over the list, it seems to owe not a small bit to Rabbi David Aaron’s new age religion.

Jewish Paths
Connect with your Soul

Statement of Beliefs
* We believe that every person must find their personal connection with life.
* We believe that happiness and an optimistic outlook are essential in
attaining positive growth and fulfillment.
* We believe that everyone can find the voice of their soul which will help
guide them through their journey.
* We believe that each of us has our uniqueness that defines our mission in life
and our unique contribution to the world.
* We believe that everyone has a responsibility to identify their personal
weaknesses and work truthfully and diligently to overcome them.
* We believe that Tikun HaOlam (repairing the world) is predicated upon
Tikun HaNefesh (repairing oneself).
* We believe that we have an individual and collective responsibility to create
a world free of hunger, suffering and political and religious oppression.
* We believe that we are here to respect ourselves, one another and the fragile
* The G*d that you do not believe in, we do not believe in either.
* We believe that G*d is loving, kind and patient.
* We believe in the Oneness of G*d, the Universe, Life and Mankind.

On first glance, the spiritual emphasis is on healing, the emotions, and getting in touch with oneself. This is not to be confused with our Evangelical Orthodox rabbis. Using the Albans Institute criteria, this is a spirituality of emotions. If you want to contrast it with other spirituality types, Aish Hatorah (usually) and the Kabbalah Centre is about understanding the deep intellectual connections between things, the rules of reality. 12 Step, Chabad and the Purpose Driven Life are action centered.

Yoga, Hinduism and Judaism again

I want to return to the issue in the comments from a few weeks ago. The question of Yoga. Are religious warnings crazy and fundamentalist? I actually liked Albert Mohler’s Evangelical critique of Yoga.

Before I start, a few details.

The Hatha Yoga of back bends and head stands taught by Richard Hittleman and Lilas in the 1970’s was entirely physical education. Anyone who practices those- do not even know that there is more. In the 1990’s, Yoga was combined with Buddhist insight meditation and new age. Now, much of the original Hinduism is returning for some, a small number. Some are practicing gym class Yoga and others, a much smaller number, are chanting to the monkey God or invoking Hindu deities. Not all of the latter is permitted according to Judaism. I do not think that is very reactionary position. The question is where are the lines? There are responsa permitting yoga and meditation as a physical activity with caveats not to bow, offer flowers, or worship. But what of asanas that have a reference back to a Vedic deity? What of the Sun salutation, where the sun in our culture has none of the original Helios worship references?

Now, that Hindus are moving to America, they are complaining that Americans, especially Jews, are robbing their religion by not acknowledging that Yoga was Hindu. In their practice, the asanas are connected to their worship. There are Jews claiming to do Jewish Yoga- either giving Jewish context, or coming up with Hebrew letter positions, or just delusional claiming it was the teachings of the prophets.

Stefanie Syman published The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010) showing that American Yoga has been sanitized, de-religioned, marketed, and made Yoga a fluffy cure all. She noted that there was protest by Evangelicals against the Hindu practice of Yoga in the Nineteenth century. She notes that Transcendentalism and the counterculture helped make Yoga acceptable. The book was reviewed by the NYT.

In turn, Albert Mohler reviewed the book pointing out the idolatrous nature of Yoga and many who practice the gym version wrote in to complain.

“The Subtle Body — Should Christians Practice Yoga?”
Monday, September 20, 2010

No one tells the story of yoga in America better than Stefanie Syman, whose recent book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, is a masterpiece of cultural history….Her book actually opens with a scene from this year’s annual White House Easter Egg Roll. President Barack Obama made a few comments and then introduced First Lady Michelle Obama, who said: “Our goal today is just to have fun. We want to focus on activity, healthy eating. We’ve got yoga, we’ve got dancing, we’ve got storytelling, we’ve got Easter-egg decorating.”

Syman describes the yoga on the White House lawn as “sanitized, sanctioned, and family-friendly,” and she noted the rather amazing fact that a practice once seen as so exotic and even dangerous was now included as an activity sufficiently safe and mainstream for children.

She also explains that yoga “is one of the first and most successful products of globalization, and it has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.”
Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God — an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation — not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables.

Jews are also not called to reach Samadhi or to attain a cessations of thoughts. Jewish requires action and to listen to God’s word. But that does not mean it is forbidden.

Most seem unaware that yoga cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine…”. “All forms of yoga involve occult assumptions,” he warns, “even hatha yoga, which is often presented as a merely physical discipline.”

This is where we differ. Side bends or the “Cobra” do not have spiritual dimensions as practiced in the gym. Not all of it is occult. The bigger question are practices like the Sun Salutation. Is that addressing the Sun as deity or only as positive force, the way we refer to Mr Sunshine in children songs? We dont follow people who find occult origins on wikipedia, our criteria is the current meaning. If the original meaning is forgotten, then it is forgotten.

Consider this — if you have to meditate intensely in order to achieve or to maintain a physical posture, it is no longer merely a physical posture.

For use, everything not physical – mental, meditative, or therapeutic is not automatically an alternate religion. Just because something it uses inner forces, does not make it forbidden.

As a response Philip Goldberg, Interfaith minister; author of the forthcoming book ‘American Veda’ assumed that the Evangelicals are worried about conversion. No, they are worried about idolatry.

I can’t help thinking: What are they afraid of? Are they that insecure? Do they think so little of their flock as to fear that they’ll convert to Hinduism because they chant some Sanskrit mantras, or say “Namaste” instead of goodnight, or hear some tidbits of Vedic philosophy while stretching?

Based on my research for my book, American Veda, the Christians and Jews who have leaped body and soul into Hinduism or Buddhism were not seduced away from their ancestral religions; they were already out the door and searching for alternatives…. In fact, the current revival of Christian and Jewish mystical practices was triggered by the popularity of Eastern meditation forms in the 1970s.

This should comfort most Christians, although it might alarm fundamentalists all the more. The truth is, Christians who believe that theirs is the one true religion, that Jesus is the one and only savior of all humankind and that the Bible is to be taken literally as God’s only revealed word, will always feel threatened by a spiritual tradition that recognizes many pathways to the divine and many ways to engage in any particular religion.

Another response by Josh Schrei who argues for the pop American version. He shows how far our Yoga is from the original, so much so that Mohler should calm now. I think the factors necessary for a Jewish response lies somewhere in Schrei’s presentation.

Historically, yoga is a rigorous process of self-transformation that requires continual practice over decades and decades. In one of the many branches of Tibetan Buddhist yoga historically practiced by the yogins of Ladakh, there were three pre-requisites for initiate yogis to begin on the path: 1) You must be willing to spend many years alone in a cave. 2) You must be willing to spend many years alone in a cave and probably die there. 3) You must be willing to spend many years alone in a cave, probably die there, and have no one remember your name. This certainly is not the feel-good yoga practiced at countless studios and gyms around America. It is an extreme example but it highlights a key point. Yoga as historical practice had a severe starting point, and was certainly not designed to make practitioners feel better about themselves. In fact it was quite often extremely uncomfortable.

In historic yoga, the individual with a capital I, as we in the West often view ourselves, is nowhere in the picture… Which means that yoga, at its core has absolutely nothing to do with individual feelings of fabulousness, or well being, or individual happiness, or satisfaction.
So is modern yoga “dangerous?” Of course not. Certainly Mohler and his cohorts — and orthodox Hindus for that matter — have nothing to fear from the modern yogis who practice only asana and chant a few words of Sanskrit they don’t understand.

I am still looking to find the good post by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman on Yoga that he took down when the ignorant began to attack him.

From GetRelgion on the controversy:

I’m always surprised at how many people don’t know the relationship of yoga to Hinduism…I subscribe to the Hindu American Foundation news and this is a common theme. They really want non-Hindus to understand that yoga is a Hindu practice. They send out quotes, announcements about temple openings — complete with an explanation of and workshops for yoga and its philosophy — and snippets of stories where Hindus are defending the practice of yoga.

I think the topic of whether the exercises can be secularized and adopted by non-Hindus is tremendously important and fascinating. But I was still shocked that no Hindus were quoted in the piece. Many would say that removing the religious aspect from the exercise makes it something completely different — something like rigorous stretching exercises.

Half-Shabbos Again

When I posted the Half-Shabbos post, my point was solely to show a generation gap and a technology gap.

My point was correctly understood in a recent tweet linking to my blog.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg said: Asking kids not to text on shabbos may be like taking a taanis dibbur

The tweet was followed by another a tweet that the average adolescent sends almost 3400 text messages a month. (Since I don’t use Twitter, I don’t know how to find the original follow-up tweet.) Adolescents are identifying themselves with text messaging. Self-definition through FB and texting is stronger than traditional patterns. I had noticed the phenomena in a broad range of Orthodoxy, not limited to any one segment.

What is interesting is the diverse range of reactions to the post, none of which was my intention. People emailed me and spoke to me during Sukkot with their theories.

What does half-shabbos show?

1] It shows how repressed they are. They don’t want to be frum and when in private they violate shabbos. They want the change to break it.
2] It shows how comfortable they are. They want to be frum but are comfortable to observe it on their own terms. And it shows a community comfortable enough to accept them.
3] They are the failures of modern Orthodoxy or they are the failures of Orthodoxy-lite. They show how kids are going bad.
4] They need shabbatons to help make them frum. We need to help make shabbos meaningful. This is probably the tip of an iceberg of many other non-frum activities and they need to find shabbos meaningful. Only ruah can help.

From the simple quirk of our era of a practice called “half-shabbos,” I am not sure there is enough evidence for any of these.

As a side note- many of the discussion are confusing several separate and unrelated phenomena.

Laity will always bend rules. A major desideratum is a history of the laity within Judaism. The responsa literature show many communities that had to deal adolescent transgressions including with mixed dancing, bunding, swimming on shabbos, brothel use, not wearing tefillin, and theft. And adults who violate Shabbat, create problematic slaughter houses, drink regular wine, and have affairs. In all of these cases they remain in the community, and it is acknowledged that they are deviants within the social norm.

This is not to be confused with leaving the community. We are witnessing the start of a new cycle of retreat from religion in which people are leaving Orthodoxy.

There is a further confusion of those leaving with liberal positions. Those who are leaving are not those keeping half-shabbos nor are the ones leaving on the left wing side of orthodoxy. Do not think of it as a spectrum in which one keeps moving to the left and then one falls off a cliff into non-observance. Those fleeing will come from all parts of the community. Kids in KGH, Passaic,or Brooklyn turn 16 or 17 and then decide this is not for them and them just stop keeping kosher and stop keeping shabbos. Then they move away. They don’t care about anything liberal in thought or practice. Others wake up in their 20’s and say this is not for them. Others will leave after a divorce. When the US reached a peak of divorce and dissolution in 1969-1972, it was the marriages of conservative and early-married 1958-1962 that were breaking up. Now, it is the gen x who married young and were all frum that is getting divorced and many are not returning. (One of the local rabbis devoted his Rosh Hashanah sermon to this epidemic). They were not liberal, just waking up to life’s options at 30.

Many jumped to assume that Half-Shabbos was automatically in category two of leaving Orthodoxy and not category one of transgressions of the laity.

Some activates are deviant and other activities write one out of the community. In interwar Poland, playing cards on shabbos, brothel use, and eating in a restaurant that served meat and milk was deviant. Eating ham meant one was outside the community. In Western Europe, carrying on Shabbat, going to the symphony on shabbos, treating all dairy as kosher and even eating shellfish may have been seen by some of the laity as only deviant. The criteria is not based on halakhah but folk categories. As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein noted 25 years ago when religious Zionist kids did not worry about teudot on fruit “terumah is a greater prohibition than traifah, but people do not treat it that way. ”

In America, the cycle of religion reverses every 30-35 years since the 1730’s. We are now at the start of another downward turn. Jews are now on an American cycle.

In Eastern Europe most Jews gave up observance after 1881. It was 90% in new lands like Odessa, 70-80% in most other place. The yeshiva and Chassidic systems were seen as rotten to the core. Moving to the cities, not America, was considered as detrimental to faith. However, the cities provided new religious organization This was followed by new inter-bellum loss of faith. The Jewish cycle was similar to many of the European peasants who gave up religion as they because 20th century citizens.

But separate than this is the fact that the laity, especially adolescents, will always have transgressions. There were lay transgressions in 1995, but the triumphalist rhetoric assumed that a greater commitment to a totalizing halakhic ideal and practice was around the corner.

There was an equally divergent spectrum of how to “solve” half shabbos. But since they are in the fold already, you cannot convert them to Orthodoxy. Some of these issues relate to my post from Saturday night on “Christian Rock and Kiruv,” which did not get discussed and relates to these issues. If i dont get discussion of the Christian Rock post, then I will repost it.