Monthly Archives: January 2011

Ka’et Orthodox Dance Ensemble

Today’s NYT had a nice piece about an Orthodox Dance Ensemble just for men. You can go to their Ka’et website to find out their bios and pieces they perform as well as the schedule of courses. Facebook page of Ka’et Israeli Religious Zionists have created a film school and teach film and poetry in their high schools, here is another element for them to create a rich expressionistic religious life. This are the types of arts which American Orthodoxy lacks.

Whirling Along The Borders Of Israeli Life By JANICE ROSS

Perhaps the epitome of this effort is Ka’et, a group of five Orthodox men working under the direction of a Tel Aviv choreographer, Ronen Izhaki. Together they create spare yet emotionally rich work that takes gestures from daily prayer movements along with chants and synagogue attire, and gently shifts and reframes these elements as postmodern dance. It’s a savvy move, reflecting both the explosive body of Ohad Naharin’s choreography and its social opposite, the trancelike swaying of devout Jews in deep prayer. “We are using the stage to awaken a new discussion between our lives and our bodies,” said Amitai Stern, 25, the youngest member of the group.

The men of Ka’et (a Hebrew acronym that means “timely”) are not professional dancers. In their 20s and 30s, some have families; all have day jobs — one is a rabbi at a yeshiva, another works with runaways from ultra-Orthodox homes. But when they made their debut in the fall at the Lab, an important alternative space in Jerusalem, and afterward in sold-out concerts elsewhere, their lack of performing experience didn’t matter. They presented an astonishingly intense dance, “Highway No. 1,” with movement, costumes and sound score taken from Jewish religious practice.

Starting with Emmanuel Witzthum’s techno music overlaid with chanted Kabbalah passages, the dance revealed prayer as not just its medium but also its subject. The men, barefoot and wearing worn slacks and shirts, sway softly, palms forward, eyes rolled back, lips moving noiselessly. Suddenly one begins accelerating his movements. With growing agitation he tries to climb over the others clustered around him — like a sleepwalker driven by a disturbing dream. The ensemble responds reflexively, folding his swimming arms down to his sides and pressing him back into a posture of quiet prayer without breaking the steady rocking motions of their own davening.

When a group of religious men from Mr. Izhaki’s dance school saw a performance, several chuckled out loud at this passage. “It reminds me exactly of when I am praying and an errant thought keeps trying to interrupt me,” one of them, Yuval Azulay, said. “You try to put it aside and get back to the focus of the prayer, but it keeps coming back.”

“Highway No. 1” takes its title from the road connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which epitomize the secular and religious in Israel. “If you work in Jerusalem with religious people, you are right wing,” Mr. Izhaki, 38, said. “And if you live in Tel Aviv and are a dancer, you are left wing and a vegetarian. But I didn’t take the package with either of those.”

The men’s ability to draw religious and secular Israelis into the same theater for a dance performance is highly unusual. Alon Ben-Yaacov, a tour guide and the one member of Ka’et who wears long payos, the side curls of Orthodox Jews, said it took three years for his family members to understand that he wanted to dance, but now, he said, they are supportive.
Hananya Schwartz, the young rabbi in Ka’et, was anxious about his own rabbi’s seeing him dance onstage. His anxiety wasn’t entirely misplaced: after the performance, his rabbi quoted a passage from the Talmud that Mr. Schwartz said could be summed up as “interesting but you are wasting your time.”

… and all of the men said they were looking for a way to teach movement in yeshivas and religious centers.
Read Full article here (requires subscription after today)

Brain Death- Broader Concerns

For the last few months,  I have been thinking about how to organize the material coming into my feed about brain death. My most basic comment is to point out that the Catholic Church is also busy defining the time of death. After the Terry Schiavo case, they realize that they did not have clear enough decisions. So in 2008-2010, there have been speeches, documents and Catholic policy papers on brain death. Catholic run hospitals are the largest group of hospitals in the US. The question is whether they will adopt a theory of human nature approach or a casuistry approach for the final documents.

Another set of documents relates to the changes in the President’s Commission on Bioethics, there have been major changes from the Bush commission to the Obama commission. (You can read the papers and transcripts here and here.) But also the change from clergy as bioethicists to professional bioethicists and now a majority are physicians and scientists. Pay attention when you a read a statement if it is by a scientist, a clergy acting as a scientist, or a clergy speaking from religion. Also pay attention if the new clergy statements are following Bush or Obama President’s Commission on Bioethics guidelines and visions. In this set of documents, I also should mention the Congressional debates over end-of life panels.

The current perspective for those in theology, hospice, or those wanted to give a religious meaning to death is return to a deathbed and a natural acceptance of death. People feel there has been too much medical intervention in our lives. Here is a prior post on the topic with two thoughtful comments.

These debates about the definition of end of life have bothered moderns for 250 years already. 19th century Europeans projected their anxiety of burying still alive people onto vampire stories and tales from the crypt. The famous Schwerin debate between Mendelssohn and Emden was over end of life, Mendelssohn claiming that someone can still be alive in coma and life takes precedent over burial customs. 

Post WWII Twentieth Century thinking tended to be infatuated with medicine and trusted the doctor; there are several excellent books on that topic. Now there is a greater skepticism toward physicians as deciding the big question of end of life. Whichever way the brain death issues of 2008-2012  get settled, it is only for a few decades. Know that the question will most likely be opened up at least twice more within the next hundred years.

American newspapers set this as a personal choice and do not usually reflect on the complex weave created by a religious affiliation hospital, and the religious affiliations of the doctors and nurses in the mix. The Catholics involved in health care that I know are familiar with the writings of Fred Rosner and the Jews are familiar with Catholic Bishops statements.

So I was delighted when I was saved the trouble of organizing my links by the post last Thursday by Religion Link, a service that gives resources for papers to write articles on religion. Many papers take the bait and in three weeks one can compare how various papers covered the same religion story from the same sources.  I will give selections from a much longer Religion Link post. As you can see, the post gives lots of great links.

Defining brain death and sparking a health care debate
Posted on January 12th, 2011

The Obama administration’s decision to halt regulations authorizing end-of-life counseling through Medicare once again shows how politically fraught the issue can be in the wake of the health care reform controversy over so-called death panels. But knotty issues remain for ethicists and religious groups on what constitutes brain death and the end of life.

The renewed debate can be traced to technological advances and new brain research, and also to questions being raised by believers, particularly in Catholicism and Judaism.

Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican officials have in recent years questioned whether “brain death” is an adequate marker to determine biological death.

Caring for people in the final stages of life is one of the most expensive aspects of the nation’s health care system, accounting for as much as one-third of all health care costs, and about 30 percent of Medicare expenditures come in the last year of a patient’s life. Moreover, modern medicine is able to keep human beings — or at least their bodies — alive for increasingly long periods, often in what is known as a “persistent vegetative state,” or PVS.

This comes as the nation’s population continues to grow grayer, with the responsibility of providing for the terminally ill falling on the next generation, and on strained state and federal budgets.

Americans last engaged in widespread public discussion about the emotional topic of people in a “persistent vegetative state” in 2005, during the protracted and acrimonious national debate over the fate of Terri Schiavo.

At that time, Schiavo’s husband, Michael Schiavo, decided to remove the feeding tube that had kept the severely brain-injured woman alive — though unconscious and unresponsive –- for 15 years. Her parents strongly objected and took legal action to prevent the move. Michael prevailed after weeks of rancorous dispute that eventually involved national politicians as well as religious figures, ethical experts and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court. Points of contention included whether and how Terri Schiavo had expressed her desires about her situation, whether her condition justified steps that would have the effect of ending her life, and who had the right to decide. The recent developments in medical technology and ethics involve each of these issues.

In the brain imaging study published in February 2010, British and Belgian researchers reported on studies of 54 persistently unconscious individuals. In five of these people, a brain-imaging machine revealed particular patterns of brain activity that occurred after researchers asked “yes” or “no” questions to the patients. “A small proportion of patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state have brain activation reflecting some awareness and cognition,” the article states. The technique “may be useful in establishing basic communication with patients who appear to be unresponsive.” But an editorial in the Journal cautioned families of brain-injured patients against taking from these results any unfounded hope that the patients with severe brain injuries can improve.

In November 2009, the nation’s Catholic bishops issued new guidelines on care of terminally ill patients in Catholic hospitals that tightened standards to prevent the actions taken in Schiavo’s case from occurring in institutions under church control. The new policies would make refusal or removal of feeding tubes and some other life-sustaining measures more difficult and, many observers believe, conflict with the desires — and even the legally valid directives — of some patients to have such measures ended or never begun. “In principle, there is an obligation to provide patients with food and water, including medically assisted nutrition and hydration for those who cannot take food orally,” states the document, Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. “This obligation extends to patients in chronic and presumably irreversible conditions (e.g., the “persistent vegetative state”) who can reasonably be expected to live indefinitely if given such care.”

These standards, however, differ sharply from the general practices of American hospitals, which permit end-of-life decisions that include withholding of nutrition and hydration if such comports with the express wish of the patient. Observers therefore predict the probability of conflict between the new guidance and the desires and decisions of many dying individuals and their families.

  • The University of Miami’s second Global Business Forum, held Jan. 12-14, 2011, explored “The Business of Health Care: Defining the Future” and included a panel titled “Care Models, Economics and Ethics of End of Life Decision Making.”
  • On Jan. 6, 2011, the Obama administration reversed course on end-of-life counseling regulations due to concerns that they would revive the “death panels” controversy.
  • Research reported in the February 2010 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine indicates that some individuals with brain damage previously thought to prevent thought, consciousness and communication in fact possess previously unsuspected levels of awareness. Even if aided by advanced technology, they have the ability to answer questions accurately. Experts caution that this dealt with a small percentage of patients in PVS and that hopes for a recovery for these patients were vanishingly small.
  • In November 2009 the Catholic bishops of the United States issued guidance to Catholic hospitals banning the removal of nutrition and hydration from patients who would survive if they were provided. That has raised concerns that advance directives could be ignored in Catholic hospitals if they conflict with Catholic policies. There are more than 600 Catholic medical facilities in the United States, the largest single private provider of health care in the country.
  • Catholic teaching on the definition of death and the ethics of organ harvesting appears to be in flux. In the latter half of 2008 the issue came to the fore when the Vatican newspaper published a front-page column calling for a re-examination of the definition of brain death. Subsequently, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an address to a Vatican conference on organ donation in which he said that “where certainty has not been reached the principle of precaution must prevail.”
  • In October 2009, Nature magazine published an editorial calling for a “realistic definition of life’s end” in order to facilitate the harvesting and donation of organs, among other things. The editorial sums up the current laws and policies and the state of the debate.

More on the Rock and Roll Shabbaton

I tend to get the most readers/comments when it snows locally. So check back here over the next days. For those looking for my Tu b’Shevat Seder post from last year, here it is.

This should not be taken as a critique the rabbi or the rock shabbaton. Rather since this will be setting the tone for OU synagogues, let’s understand it now. I will have several upcoming posts on the connection of these trends in Orthodoxy with the new “Emerging Church” “Café Church” and “Next Level Church.”

This post is a continuation of Cruise Ship Synagogues for Orthodoxy, which generated interesting comments.

First, Daltry will be presented with an award at the Shabbaton.

ROGER DALTREY. This larger than life figure is being honored by our synagogue for his countless contributions to charities around the world. He will be the recipient of WSIS’s first annual Tikkun Olam Award. Roger has been at the forefront of the battle against teen addiction.

Second, as presented to the elderly readers of the Jewish Week about this experiment in the future of Modern Orthodoxy.

The “Tommy” singer will discuss “what it’s like to be him, his connection to Jewish people and his charity work,” said the congregation’s president, Andrew Fox… Fox, 43, said the “Rock and Roll Shabbaton” is part of the shul’s “experiment on what modern Orthodoxy is going to become.”

Third, Rabbi Einhorn was interviewed on Zev Brenner – link was provided by an anon commenter.

The Rabbi declared that he had an expansive Eyn od Milvado “There is nothing but God or there is no ultimate source but God” (Eyn od milvado-literally “there is none other than God”) approach. God can be found everywhere.
He said that such a program gives Hizzuk because it shows that non Jewish have great respect and love for Judaism. If they did not have this respect then they would not be speaking in a shul

Zev Brenner pondered out loud about our use of Winnie the Pooh menorahs or Mickey Mouse Menorahs. Do we use pop-culture to be hip?

Rabbi Einhorn explained that these programs serve as an entry point to Jewish life for many people, they serve as a bridge between where people are and the synagogue. We encourage a “total celebration of Judaism.”

Brenner: Where do you draw the line?

Rabbi- We draw the line only if we find someone who values are antithetical to Judaism.
[site editor- he was asked this 4 times in the course of the interview from both Brenner and audience. In each case he avoided the issue that few bands stand for sex, drugs, and rebellion as do the Who. ]

[I skipped the phone questions that wanted to discuss Rock trivia.]

Phone-In question- Do we need to go to Rock and Roll, does it show we are lacking? And the Who is certainly against Jewish values, one of the members is even charged with child molestation.

Rabbi- We have to make decisions with all tunes that we use and with the decoration and styles of shuls. In each case, we have to decide just how far and how much. Our shul does not turn to rock instead of gedolim, in fact we have have more gedolim than any other shul. We have had the Moditzer Rebbe, the Nikelsburger Rebbe et al. Our shul promotes gedolim. [The list of gedolim is interesting as well as the choice of the word “promote.”]

Question from Brenner- what is the use-function of a shul?
Rabbi’s Answer- You have to experience to understand how it brings hizzuk.
When I teach about the angels going up and down above Yakov avinu, I use Stairway to Heaven- it is a mashol!
Everyone has things from the outside world – Our difference from the Haredim is only how and where it comes in There is wisdom among the goyim so we try to pick up the best.
These approach is not pulling someone out of shtibl but our congregants are already immersed in rock and roll.

Zev Brenner – The moral life of rock stars is not recommended. How can you bring them? What are they showing?

Rabbi Einhorn- “He wont bring in anyone who is against Torah values.” Elan Atias – Lead Singer of Bob Marley has started to put on tefilin everyday. Ellen Foley – davens at Jewish center and is rediscovering her connection to yiddishkeit.

There is limited time for programming and a house of worship does take on the character of the programs.
When Centrism started with Medical Ethics, Business Ethics and politics, it produced congregations of upper middle class professionals active in Israeli politics. Those with other interests did go elsewhere. What wil this produce over time?

Shul life programs like the men’s club cater to those already members, but outreach program’s that are not part of the shul life create a consumer ethos like Aish Hatorah. Most of Aish’s attendees belong to Reform Temples and they come for the Aish programming. Even if they change denominational affiliation, this outreach will create an Orthodox synagogue of non-observant or not totally observant congregants.

Will phrases like “eyn od milvado” and “total celebration of Judaism” replace the halakhic terminology?

Finally, in what way is this a hizzuk? A hizzzuk of what? Jewish pride in what?

Shmuel Feiner on the 19th century Kulturekampf

Review of New Book by Shmuel Feiner on the tension between Orthodoxy and the Enlightenment. This book focuses on middle positions- Religious haskalah, nationalist theists, enlightened Hasidism- each seeking a third way between Orthodoxy and Enlightenment. Feiner highlights observant maskilim -Shadal, Rashi Fuenn, Eliezer Zweifel. They are invested with maintaining of Jewish national consciousness that was not Zionist, or assimilationist (contrasted with Kovner or ILGordon).

Milhemet Tarbut (Kulturkampf: The Jewish Enlightenment in the 19th Century‏), by Shmuel Feiner. Carmel Publishing House (Hebrew), 387 pages, NIS 96

The word “kulturkampf,” or culture war, has been tossed around a lot lately, and has turned into such a cliche ..A culture war is not just any conflict that takes place between people with different opinions, or even people with different lifestyles, but is, rather, a battle over the fundamental nature of life.

Shmuel Feiner illustrates that belligerence at the beginning of “Kulturkampf: The Jewish Enlightenment in the 19th Century.” He describes how a rabbi in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, forced a young maskil ‏(a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment‏) to divorce his wife because “forbidden” books – nontraditional books that dealt with “modern” issues – were found in his satchel.

All the while, he tells us about the various and sometimes conflicted parts of the whole: “The tensions and the many splits that were caused by the enemies of the Haskalah during the course of the 19th century, the counter-Haskalah, the moderate Haskalah, the radical Haskalah, the religious Haskalah, the anti-clerical Haskalah, the false Haskalah, the nationalist Haskalah and finally, the post-Haskalah.”

The period of expansion ended, in Feiner’s opinion, in 1824, with the publication of an issue of the Jewish weekly Hatzfira that espoused a more radical modernization than the Eastern European maskilim had been advocating. Four years later, Isaac Ber Levinsohn published “Teudah Beyisrael,” in which he demanded that the Jews of Russia undergo cultural and economic changes by adopting modern education, speaking the Russian language, and turning to the trades and agriculture instead of mid-sized and petty commerce.

But the most important step Levinsohn took was to request a monetary grant from the Russian authorities. Within the Jewish community, writes Feiner, this “defined the place of the maskil as an ally of the government,” since the changes he suggested were favored by the Russian government at the time.

At the same time, the maskilim generally described “the new era” as an unprecedented period that God himself had granted to mankind, including the Jews, if only they would accept the fact that the new era was a manmade change that was taking place within history rather than outside of it.

The reaction of the Orthodox establishment was, of course, very negative. It saw the new era “as a crisis and a threat, as though the very awareness of Jewish survival in exile was gradually disappearing, and with it the expectation of redemption.”

The result was that the controversy over the Enlightenment seemed to become “a battle between faith and heresy,” a viewpoint that prevails to this day among a large part of the Orthodox establishment. The historical truth, notes Feiner, was different: Few, if any, of the maskilim could be considered atheists, and only a few of the most radical maskilim might be considered deists, meaning that they believed in the existence of a primordial power but did not believe that such an entity intervenes in the day-to-day functioning of the world – thus rejecting such concepts as miracles, redemption and the role of divine providence in individual lives.

The polarization between the two camps was clearly described by someone who adhered to Orthodox belief but had one foot in the Haskalah camp: Samuel David Luzzatto, a man of contrasts who after a nighttime discussion with a young intellectual in Padua wrote an article that begins with the sentence: “World civilization at this time is a result of two different foundations: Ethicism and Judaism.” Feiner devotes a chapter to Luzzatto that deals with the counter-Enlightenment, and writes that it can be seen as one of the early signs of “the historical trend of the formation of a modern national consciousness in light of the challenges of modernism.”

Feiner depicts Eliezer Zweifel, who “dared to question the branding of Hasidism as an enemy reflecting everything against which the Haskalah was fighting,” as the founder and representative of this group. Zweifel was aware of the weakening of collective Jewish identity in Europe and observed two ways to strengthen it: the literature created by the moderate maskilim, which preserved the spirit of the nation “like an iron wall of Jewish identity that separates Israel from the other nations,” and “the path of the members of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, who take care of the actual physical survival of the Jewish people.”

Zweifel considered the success of Hasidism and the large number of admirers of the Ba’al Shem Tov, “a fact that obligates the maskilim to free themselves of prejudices and anti-Hasidic images,” and rejected the portrayal of Hasidism as representing the opposite of rational wisdom.

“Zweifel integrated Hasidism into a complex historical scheme of Jewish development,” writes Feiner. He rejects the idea that Zweifel “gave up at the height of a kulturkampf against Hasidism” and notes that he did harshly criticize the Hasidim of his time, going so far as to ask Hasidic leaders to change Hasidism based on “ten pieces of good advice” that he thought would pave the way to an end of the kulturkampf.
The Hasidic leaders, of course, did not agree to the changes, but Zweifel did succeed in raising the possibility of a “third path” that remains available to contemporary Jews: a moderate and harmonious Haskalah that would preserve “improved Hasidism” as a spiritual asset.

Feiner attributes another attempt to stop the kulturkampf to Samuel Joseph Finn, a moderate maskil who called the battle between Orthodoxy and Haskalah “the war of knowledge.” Feiner calls Finn’s philosophy “religious Haskalah,” which was expressed mainly in Finn’s involvement in the establishment of the rabbinical school in Vilna, which opened in 1847.

In contrast to Finn, Feiner brings the message of the radical Haskalah in Russia as expressed by Isaac Eisik Kovner, who harshly criticized the Jewish lifestyle in that country. But Kovner, who wrote “Sefer Hamatsref” and who was one of the first of the Russian maskilim to identify the existence of “false maskilim” ‏(assimilationists‏), remained on the margins of the maskil experience. Unlike Finn, another native of his city, Vilna, Yehuda Leib Gordon, was very influential. Gordon, who introduced the expression “kulturkampf” in its original German into the maskilic discourse, is described by Feiner as having been influenced by the anti-clerical wave that swept through several European countries during the last third of the 19th century.

In this spirit, Gordon demanded that control over education and various political functions be taken away from the Orthodox establishment. read Full version here- 3k of words with reviewers own political application of the book for today’s problems.

Meir Buzaglo on Micah Goodman’s The Secrets of the ‘Guide to the Perplexed’‏

Book Review of New Book on Maimonides by Micah Goodman, the director of Ein Prat– The Israeli Academy for Leadership, where religious and secular learn Jewish texts together. Articles about the place in ynet and NJJN.
Interesting article on his family background in Hebrew. And Hebrew article in Maariv.

Sodotav shel Moreh Hanevukhim (The Secrets of the ‘Guide to the Perplexed’‏),
by Micah Goodman. Dvir Publishing House ‏(Hebrew), 383 pages, 92 NIS

Dr. Micah Goodman, a rising star in the field of Jewish thought, has something new to say. He thinks that perplexity is, indeed, one of the fundamental elements of the “Guide for the Perplexed.” …

The Rambam’s work promised to be a guide that would enable one to bypass both popular folk religion and atheism, and to build a narrow bridge over doubt.

The book begins with a presentation of the crucial problem of faith in a transcendent God. Such a removed God presents “the greatest threat to religion,” says the author; the solution he offers is that Maimonides had as his goal the creation of a new hero of faith; and faith in God is not a matter of passive waiting, but rather a function of human initiative, a heroic undertaking in which man creates his own personality. In the same way, redemption is seen not as the result of miraculous intervention that transpires as a result of divine beneficence, but rather is a natural result of man’s striving, his commitment of all his resources to the search for God. Redemption is a natural process in which the redeemed is also the redeemer.

“Guide for the Perplexed” leads the reader to a Socratic conundrum in which a person knows that he does not know, yet does not give up on the possibility of knowledge. Despair about great ideologies, which comes to us courtesy of postmodernism, derives from a loss of the possibility of knowledge, which is also the possibility of doubt. In Goodman’s view, this despair can be converted into an enabling form of perplexity.

As the author sees it, there is no contrast between revelation and wisdom, since wisdom is that which has been revealed. And what about the Torah? In the book’s second part, after reviewing analogies between the Torah and nature, the author interprets Maimonides as implying that the Torah is divine, but not written by God. Moses observed nature scrupulously and wrote the Torah, and since nature required the existence of God, the Torah has to be divine.

It is in its third part that the book reaches its pinnacle, as it presents a discussion of the concept of perplexity that distinguishes between forms of confusion and identifies a form of redemptive perplexity, enabling us to keep a distance from the cult of reason and from the paralyzing authority of tradition; this state of perplexity propels an individual on a journey of self-growth. Influenced by the late philosopher Shlomo Pines, Goodman suggests that the aim of this journey is to identify the limits of knowledge and allow elements of mystery to enter an individual’s spiritual life. A fulfilling intellectual life brings wonder into an individual’s existence. This is a life in which the individual does not view himself as the center; it is life lived in the constant awareness of mystery.

The concept of an individual who creates his own personality has about it an air of existential analysis, but we should be wary of attributing an atheistic form of existentialism to Goodman’s text… nor does the analysis depend upon a Lurianic kabbalistic view of divine contraction in order to provide room for individual autonomy. “On the contrary,” writes Goodman. “The huge majesty of God is what frees the world from its dependence on [God], and provides free space for individual creativity.”

We thus face an interesting question: To what extent is this theological idea that an individual’s self-realization renders him closer to God akin to everyday popular metaphors about “the creation of personality”? To what extent is the presumably secular idea of self-realization consistent with the religious idea maintaining there is only one way of heeding an absolute commandment? It is on this level, I believe, that the allure of secularism needs to be compared with the allure of Maimonides.

The natural situation of the human being, before sin, is one of closeness. From the moment that sin, materialism and the expulsion from Eden are created, distance comes into being. Thus the differences between the doctrine of tzimtzum, or divine contraction, promulgated by Rabbi Yitzhak Luria and that espoused by the Rambam are minor, because this doctrine sees the need to explain how there can be places where God is only partially present.
Read the Full Version Here.

Dr. Meir Buzaglo researches the philosophy of Judaism, language and mathematics at Hebrew University.

Rabbi Hayyim Amsalem at 16th St in the Viliage

If anyone is driving from Northern NJ, then please let me know.
In the meantime, here is his 140 page pdf summary of his two volume Zera Yisrael dealing with the authority of the State Rabbinic courts and his reading of the sources on conversion of a person who we do not if they are observant. He has a good editing & research staff working for him. The pamphlet contains cross references to his book, yellow highlights for summaries, hyperlinks, and all relevant sources in Israeli law and Halakhah.
Here is his recent 90 page pamphlet on the need for Haredim to work and support themselves.

Art and Interfaith

Menachem Wecker posted at his Iconia Blog a fascinating interview with Ari Gordon about art and interfaith.

Getting beyond the Jewish “deer in the headlights” reaction to images of Jesus
Although he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Philadelphia and completed his undergraduate studies at the Orthodox Jewish school Yeshiva University, one of Ari Gordon’s favorite paintings is a crucifixion — Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion to be exact.

Gordon, who is special advisor for inter-religious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee, sees “Jewish features” and a Jewish prayer shawl (tallit) — a stand-in for the typical loin cloth — in Chagall’s Jesus, and he says the scene is set in modern Germany, “surrounded by mini-scenes portraying the suffering of Jews in Chagall’s own time.”

“I like this painting because it crosses boundaries to great effect,” Gordon says. “Jesus has always been a point of fear and confusion for Jews; he is a suffering Jew, who somehow led to many centuries of suffering for his people. As a result, most Jews (to this day) when confronted with images of or conversations about Jesus react like a deer in headlights.”

Chagall’s work, particularly the crucifixion, draws “comfort, irony and dialogue,” according to Gordon.

“In the image of a crucified Christ, Chagall was able to find a model to best capture the Jewish martyrdom he perceived around him,” he says. “At the same time, the irony of using a Christian symbol that had been the cause of much Jewish persecution over the years was not lost on the artist. Chagall seems to have painted White Crucifixion as a way of crying out to Christians about the situation of Jews in Germany.”

By juxtaposing Jewish and Christian scenes, Chagall not only captured centuries of polemics, but also opened “a window for inter-religious dialogue for the painting’s viewers,” he says.

According to Gordon, who holds a master of theological studies from Harvard focused on Islamic-Jewish comparative studies, art is an “under-utilized” tool in interfaith relations, “which tends to focus more exclusively on political or theological matters.”

“Religions are cultures that cannot be restricted simply to politics and theology,” he says, “The arts — like ritual, food, language and literature — have always been essential venues for religious expression. To ignore the demonstrative and often innovative religious sentiments manifest through the arts is to lose the opportunity to understand our partners’ lives away from the negotiation table and outside of the conference room.”

Art in the service of interfaith dialogue also offers a unique scope — “simultaneously universal and particular.”

“Art can take a religion’s particular narratives, expressions and beliefs and make them universally accessible,” Gordon says. “Religious art can be a fruitful tool for dialogue that welcomes all to the table without sacrificing individual religious identities in the process.”

Read the Rest Here

On Cheap Swipes by Refraining

Here is a paragraph found at another blog.

However, to deny that there are some pathologies that its easy for us bloggers to fall into would be a tad irresponsible. To that end, I give you the first of hopefully several unveilings of theoblogging “strategies” that we sometimes fall prey to in an effort to win favor for our supercool ideas and projects.

One great one is to say, sort of as an aside in the course of talking about something, “I’m tempted to take a swipe at ______, but I will refrain.” This is one of those great ways to sneak in a backhanded “Oh snap!” moment in your campaign to express your theological cleverness. Not only do you get to take your jab, you get to valorize your magnanimous restraint at the same time! Too often we never stop to wonder, is saying that you are tempted to take a cheap shot at a theological idea and then stating that you are resisting said temptation, simply a convenient way of taking said cheap shot? Might this not be a way of avoiding speaking critically in a way that would involve the kind of in-depth theological discussion that might betray one’s own ignorance and misunderstanding of that very idea?

I’m afraid this is often the case. But this tactic definitely helps up one’s theoblogging coolness quotient and allows you to rest assured that all the people who already agreed with your perspective on the issue in question got a good chuckle out of your witticism.

Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi on Interfaith

Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi, (also known as Manitou, 1922- 1996) was one of the leading educators and thinkers of post WWII French Jewry. He was a descendant of the Lurianic Kabbalist Joseph ibn Tabul and the Talmudic commentator, the Rosh. He studied Kabbalah in his native North Africa and later under the influence of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook and Rav Baruch Ashlag. He studied philosophy, psychology, and anthropology in the University of Algiers, and in the Sorbonne in Paris.

Rabbi Ashkenazi along with Andre Neher and Emmanuel Levinas served as educational directors of the Jewish school system. In 1957, they organized the Annual French Jewish Intellectuals Conferences, which sought to create an academic, philosophical language for understanding the Torah and Jewish culture. Those attending his lectures included a who’s who of younger French Jews, including Prof Benny Gross and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner

In the last five years, at least five of Ashkenazi’s works have appeared in Hebrew. Another half dozen books recently came out in French.

Ashkenazi was active in inter-religion encounter traveling often to give lectures around Europe and Asia. Notably, Ashkenazi was a perenniaist, who saw a common primordial core to all religions. He composed a prayer for the dedication of the Sanctuaire de l’Universel, a Parisian multi-faith venture of the Universal Sufi Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Ashkenazi, however, considered this core as the Judaism taught by Abraham of morals and monotheism, rather than a generic theism. He sees that Jews and Christians share the Bible and its values, but differ in the interpretation by means of Talmud and New Testament. After Vatican Two, since Jews are not accused of deicide, the the rivalry between Judaism and Christianity can now end. An open dialogue would be when learn to honor and respect Jewish teachings.

The Bible of the Jews and the Christians is the same Bible… Any differences in our theologies and interpretations do not originate in the Bible… It is not the Jewish and Christian Bibles that oppose one another but rather the Talmudist and the Evangelist, who turn their backs on one another and never communicate. If this dialogue were to open one day, it would be the day that the Christians recognize and respect the Jews as creatures worthy of love of living things and especially the day Christians recognize the honor of Judaism, whose seal is truth.

Our theologies are highly polarized, but there are points of interface regarding ethics.

It was a deicidal nation, an expression that has been rejected since Vatican II. The Church purported to be the New Israel, but mutual recognition brings the rivalry between identities to an end.

Ashekenazi tries to stick close to Rabbinic categories. First and Second century Jews who became Christians are sectarians (minim), those of gentile decent, which are most of today’s Christians have no contention to the life of Jesus.

There is a basic misunderstanding. Contemporary Christians and Jews present themselves as if they were living in the Generation of the Dissociation [the Second Temple Era]—rendering dialogue impossible but so essential.

For us, today’s Jews, Christians are not false witness. They are simply not witnesses at all. They do not represent anything that we did not understand or that we rejected as alien to our mission. Similarly, Christianity is not responsible for the formulation of its faith. Christians inherited it from their sages…
Had they been Jews, the authentic heirs to the covenant, they would be considered idolaters who bear a message of apostasy… They would be like any other Jew who violates the covenant…

Askenazi’s approach to dialogue with Christians was not to start with one’s existential attitude of either closeness or non-reconcilable faith commitments. Neither did he start with the theological differences. Rather, one needs to jointly read scripture and grapple with the fundamental tension of the Bible as historical reality and revelation as opposed to a private faith act. Ashkenazi applies that dichotomy to contemporary events and favors the approach of historical reality since he sees God’s hand in the 20th century Jewish experience and attests that many Christians support Israel since they also see it as Divine providence.

Dialogue at the attitude level has no meaning. This is not the place for opinions, but rather for reading the Book [the Bible] and designating the realities associated with the reading. The problem should not be limited to focus on philosophical issues that ostensibly differ in said religions. Perhaps instead of discussing it would be better to think? On the one hand, historical reality: the Hebrew nation and its history as formulated in the Bible—the ‘Old Testament’ to Christians—through prophetic revelation vs. the founding myth as a matter of faith and not identity or existence.

The long duration of a two-thousand year parting, the horrors of the Holocaust and the shock of the Christian soul and admission of responsibility for anti-Semitism, the fact of the Ingathering of Exiles, recognition of the State of Israel by most world nations—cannot leave the believing person indifferent. And I know many Christians who attest that they have interpreted the incidents as follows: This is Divine Providence at work. Let us help it succeed, with humility and prayer.

The quotes and translations are from Yossef Charvit “From Monologues to Possible Dialogue: Judaism’s Attitude towards Christianity According to the Philosophy of R. Yéhouda Léon Askénazi (Manitou)” In Interaction Between Judaism and Christianity in History, Religion, Art, and Literature, Marcel Poorthuis, Joshua Schwartz, and Joseph Turner, eds., Leiden: Brill, 2009, pp. 319-336.

For some of Ashkenazi’s theology of the unity of Being as applied to Shema and Tractate Berakhot- see here and here.
On his Universalism- here.
On Rav Kook and Kabbalah.
For those who read French- use this site. and here.

Three Conferences in Jewish Thought- one with mp3s

The Fourth International Conference on the Philosophy of Halakhah – Halakhah as an Event Tuesday-Wednesday, 28-29 December 2010
jpeg of Program Here
The conference will focus on philosophical analyses of the event of the halakhic entity. Can the knowledge concealed in action and the body of the actor be revealed? What is the gap between the knowledge gathered from theoretical writings and the knowledge gleaned from the halakhic act and the Halakhic event? Does Halakhah change because of the dynamics connected to action rather than due to halakhic theory? What new insights about Halakhah have arisen given the halakhic actor’s awareness about body issues, his senses, and his movements?
A study group on ” Halakhah as an Event”undertook in 2009 an innovative study of the way Halakhah came into being, focusing on the philosophy of the praxis, not only on the theory, as has been common hitherto.

The Second Conference is at Ben Gurion University on Levinas and the Bible
There is a program and abstracts.

The conference aims at fostering two main sets of problems. One set of queries focuses on Levinas’s references to biblical figures, and raises questions about the role these figures play in Levinas’s philosophy. In this context the conference will question whether the biblical figures function merely as a rhetorical and literary device, as illustrations of Levinas’s ideas, or perhaps they have a deeper philosophical function that contributes to Levinas’s project in general. The conference will also discuss if Levinas’s references to biblical figures work in his philosophy in a way that other literary figures are incapable of, and how do these references comply with his conflicted attitude towards literature.

The second set of questions stems from adopting a Levinasian perspective in order to interpret the actions and stories of biblical figures that are not necessarily discussed by Levinas himself. This will lead to questions such as: Does Levinas’s thought open up a unique way for understanding biblical figures and their stories? What is the relation between Levinas’s interpretation and the traditional midrash? Does a Levinasian reading contribute to the tradition of midrashim and exegesis revealing ways to enhance and enrich these interpretations?

These questions will set up the background for a broader discussion of the relation between the two main traditions that have influenced Levinas’s thought – philosophy and Judaism, and for the examination of the intersection between philosophy, Judaism, and literature.

Ben Gurion held a Conference this past June on Belief and Doubt. They just uploaded the recording.

The speakers include: Moshe Halbertal, James Kugel, Moshe Lichtenstein, Ruth Calderon, Marc B. Shapiro, Menachem Kellner.
Full mp3 recordings are available here.

Brief Review of new book on Walter Benjamin

New Book on Walter Benjamin
Here is the publisher’s blurb:

Seven decades after his death, German Jewish writer, philosopher, and literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) continues to fascinate and influence. Here Uwe Steiner offers a comprehensive and sophisticated introduction to the oeuvre of this intriguing theorist.

Acknowledged only by a small circle of intellectuals during his lifetime, Benjamin is now a major figure whose work is essential to an understanding of modernity. Steiner traces the development of Benjamin’s thought chronologically through his writings on philosophy, literature, history, politics, the media, art, photography, cinema, technology, and theology.. Steiner contends, can best be appreciated by placing Benjamin in his proper context as a member of the German philosophical tradition and a participant in contemporary intellectual debates.

From Tablet Review:

In the last five years, more than 300 books and articles on Walter Benjamin have appeared in English alone
Uwe Steiner’s new book on Benjamin—which attempts to put Benjamin in his historical place—doesn’t really do him justice either.
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus] shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
A beautiful piece of writing that gets an extra kick from its pessimistic counter-intuitive punch line. Progress doesn’t progress in the slightest. It is a steady march through disaster. And there is nothing, it seems, we can do about it.
Benjamin claimed that his work was saturated with theology, even—or rather especially—when it appears to be at its most secular. In the piece that contains the Angel, the revolution fulfills a theological mandate by making “whole what has been smashed.” Benjamin imagines that it will enact tikkun olam in a very literal sense. Benjamin’s colleague, the philosopher Max Horkheimer, once accused him of believing all too squarely in the Last Judgment.
Benjamin’s thought was essentially religious. It clung to the twin promises of redemption and transcendence. The man worked from the clearly Jewish intuition that justice cannot be derived from the world as it is. Justice is precisely that small break from nature instituted by the Law. Our problem is not that nature is sinful. Our problem lies with the fact that on its own, nature just isn’t enough. It needs to be transcended, if only just a bit. As his friend T. W. Adorno was fond of reminding us, the Talmud says that the redeemed world will be like this one, but a little different. And that tiny shift means everything.

But what happens when we, as the children of modernity, have lost the Law? That is where Benjamin’s messianic politics slip in. Gershom Scholem, the magisterial historian of Kabbalah, always maintained that Benjamin was a Jewish thinker and not really a Marxist. For his part, Benjamin argued that he pursued a single goal—the radical transformation of the world, a utopian strike against suffering. His was not the tikkun olam of good deeds and incremental improvements, but of bold risks and decisive moves.
Sure, sure, there is a great deal of Romanticism in all this (as Steiner would be the first to point out) and a sentimentalizing anarchism that speaks of another era. Even so, Benjamin proposes a heresy we might want to consider: redemption without faith. He refuses to give up the rigors and promises of theology for a more amenable, even amiable ethical Judaism. He therefore cuts a different path for the post-religious. Just as Scholem, however unwittingly, presents us with a Kabbalah without halakhah, so Benjamin quite wittingly addresses a theology without God. An intractable contradiction? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it is a historical conundrum that we have yet to overcome.

Holiday Rambles – Dec 2010

I prefer posts that have a book under discussion. But since people have liked my past rambles, here are various things heard or observed since Thanksgiving.

I had a junior high reunion. The person with whom I drove in talked about how the majority of the class was surprisingly still somewhat observant even through half the class went to public high. Attending a Day School for HS was not needed to keep people religious, rather other factors. She mentioned that in the late 1970’s there was great optimism in the new Modern Orthodox institutions. She commented how everyone thought whatever kinks in the day school system were going to be ironed out. No more 1960’s gruff rebbes without teaching skills letting out their frustration on the kids, now it was going to be American teachers paid well. So everyone rode the wave of optimism. In contrast, she pointed out how now her husband is on the school board dealing with long term planning issues not dreamt of then. She also pointed out from her own observations and those of her kids that right now many HS kids are going through periods to see what life is like without Orthodoxy, even the good and committed kids. Some of them go without shabbos and kashrus for a while, some a complete rumspringa, and others a mild thought experiment. I wonder how the HS students decide in the end: cost-benefit analysis, where their interests lie, if they have the skills to make it on the outside, group think with friends, finding reaffirmation of meaning.

I wonder what kept everyone in the fold, it seems the optimism and Orthodoxy as a growth stock counted more than the formal content of a yeshiva high education. Most of them were what I called in an earlier post Golden Rule Believers, oblivious to ideology and textuality. They also broke down into those who stayed in NY, who even if they were non-observant, were nominally Conservative, or Conservidox, and still in the loop of observant culture from friends, neighbors, and business contacts. And one who came in from out of state were acculturated out of the former world and into new ways. Those completely off and out of the system did not attend.

For my trend watching, I wonder what parts of the community are most optimistic now? Which parts think that they are just around the corner from perfection? What do twenty somethings feel most confident about Orthodoxy or which group of twenty-somethings are the most optimistic about solving everything. I am not asking which are most committed or most learned or most scared of the outside. Which group between 18-28 sees itself as most on the right track in their decision? If you can identify it then you can pretty much be assured that they will last as Orthodox the course of their lives.

I meet a 30-31 year old couple who are renting a house here in Teaneck. They knew me and complained that it is not spiritual or intellectual. They know that if they stay here by buying a house, their lives will be rightly order and both will structure their lives to have material success and receive promotions. Their kids will have friends and possessions. But is that all there is? Where can they find an intellectual and spiritual neighborhood in the US?

Met a thirty year old who used to briefly blog about his pain at ethical scandals in the Orthodox community. No longer blogs and has given up all observance entirely. Finds all these big Centrist derashot that combine Bible as literature, Rav Soloveitchik Torah and presentism as hokey and as having nothing to do with the Bible. It is interesting that Orthodoxy was presented to him as these new Literary Biblical derashot and not as an “halakhic system.”

Met a person who claims his son says that his class is 40% not observant and 20% non-observant and also lechahis. Even I think this number of 60 % is a great overstatement but what is interesting is that only a third are lechahis against the system. When you meet the older baby boomers who left Orthodoxy are now 58-65 , you get much more anger and lechahis reaction. I get a sense that it is due to socio-economic reasons. Most of those who were so angry grew up in inner-city Orthodoxy and saw Orthodoxy of the 1940’s and 1950’s as backwards, poor, uneducated and primitive. I get a sense that now if your Orthodoxy is upper-middle class and consists of malls, suburbia, and entertainment then one cannot be so angry. I may be wrong, we will know after the fact but I sense that for the majority this is a respectful checking out without the need for anger. Even now, I have colleagues in the English department in their 60’s who still picture the Orthodoxy of their youth and cannot imagine anything positive in Orthodoxy let alone the existence of an Orthodox academic. They are still angry after 50 years.

Was told at a Shabbat meal by a parent of a Maaleh Gilboa student that YU made a pitch to attract Maaleh Gilboa students. AT the meeting, they had to admit that the graduates of Maaleh Gilboa wont find any of the YU Roshei Yeshiva to their liking and that the latter will oppose and condemn what they think as Maaleh Gilboa grads, but they should come anyway and take solace in philosophy and Jewish studies. More interestingly, the pitch turned into a single focus on how they are not ready to be in a co-ed environment. A very senior YU person said: “What if it is New Year’s Eve and a non-Jewish girl sits on your lap with a bottle of non-kosher champagne and says lets have some fun? You are not mature enough to handle it. You are not mature enough to make the right decisions. Only when you reach graduate school will you be ready to be in a co-ed environment.” The YU person said it actually happened to him when he went to NYU, now he sees he made the wrong choice. The fear of the outside became the major part of the pitch. I was not there and this is hearsay but the students asked about the ban at YU of Rabbi Ethan Tucker, a graduate of Maaleh Gilboa. More tellingly, they asked about Levinas and the importance of doubt, disbelief, and mature faith, and were only met with lack of comprehension of their points- submission counts not doubt. The most important point was rather than using anything aspirational or ideological they offered fear that a girl will sit on your lap and fear that you will give up Torah, mizvos, and learning if you go to a secular college.

It is a known Yeshivish thing to point out that Chanuka had no holiday sacrifice, no hagigah so one should not say Hag Sameah. I received Christmas cards from Hebrew speaking Christians that say Hag Ha-Molad Sameach and Hag Sameach for Hag-Hamolad. Should they be corrected?
I received Holiday Cards for New Year’s from Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, and India and noticed that they waited until after Christmas in order not to have to mention it and to only mention New Years.