Monthly Archives: February 2011

Rav Aviner has bad dreams about Christains

Today, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has organized in Jerusalem at Van Leer a repeat performance of his theological dialogue held at Yale. The papers are the same at both conferences. Both sites have complete texts of the papers. Here is someone who is not too keen on Rabbi Riskin’s activities, yet provides many links.
On the same day, Rav Avinar has Anatevka nightmares about the idolatrous Christians. In Aviner’s visions Christians bear collective guilt as murderers with blood on their hands. Christians are idolatrous and as taught in the dark days of the middle ages, once should repent all of one’s days for contact.
The Hagee event that gives Aviner his apoplexy was back in October, when there is a Christian Zionist parade in Jerusalem. Hagee held a public event of giving money to Jewish institutions. In the video of the event is a gospel choir. The legwork for this animus is done by Mina Fenton, former Jerusalem city councilperson from the NRP. video of Hagee event with Fenton commentary here and interview with her here. In the later interview, she declares that Christian Zionist is a contradiction in terms, that they distort the meaning of the Bible, and that they are carnal for expecting God’s blessing for giving to Israel.

Rav Aviner,
And in My Dream I am in a Church

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Tetzaveh 5771 – translated by R. Blumberg]
… And in my dream, I am in a Christian church, a majestically adorned church, but I feel like I am suffocating. The smell of blood rises in my nostrils, Jewish blood spilt down through the generations, the blood of murders and torture, forced conversions and expulsions. I smell an awful stench. I want to flee, but I am frozen in place. Suddenly I see representatives of Jewish religious and Charedi organizations coming in, yeshiva directors and prominent rabbis. I rub my eyes. I cannot believe what I am seeing. It’s an awful nightmare. I pinch myself to wake up, but I am still here.
All the representatives and all the rabbis sit smiling and self-satisfied. They must certainly have been forced to come here. I remember that during black periods of our history we were forced to sit in churches and to listen to the priests preaching to us. Yet how did we end up back in a church? Don’t we have our own State? Apparently, you don’t questions about a nightmare.
And now the choir is starting to sing. I don’t understand a word of the Christian verbiage, but it doesn’t interest me. It sears through my brain and makes my head spin. Then a Christian minister steps up to the pulpit and starts to speak. He says: “I am the head of this church, Pastor John Hagee. Welcome to the Corner Stone Church following our three days of Christian celebrations. I am pleased about the privilege that has come my way to grant every one of you a religious contribution from the Evangelical Christians, to each of you up to a million dollars.”
What!? Shall we accept a contribution from the non-Jews? What?! Are we beggars? Schnorrers? It’s forbidden to accept public gifts of money from non-Jews! (Rambam, Matanot Aniyim 8:9. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 254:8). And here this is happening with a live broadcast!
And if it’s exclusively for Jews, that is even worse. (ibid. 254:16). I am ashamed! What a nightmare! And now, a Jewish representative is stepping forward… for all the cameras to see, and he is accepting an enormous check made of poster board, a meter long, and all the cameras are flashing! I don’t understand! After all, the Chief Rabbinate prohibited accepting money from Christians… And here is still another representative… How did we dare enter a Christian church? It’s forbidden to enter! (Chochmat Adam 84:16. Birkat Yosef on Yoreh Deah 145:15. Shut Yabia Omer vol. 2 Yoreh Deah #11). And still another representative… I can’t believe it. Look who else has come in!
Surely Rambam writes that it is forbidden to pass through a city in which there is idolatry, let alone to live there. Yet we have no choice, and we are the living fulfillment of, “There you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone” (Devarim 4:28) (Perush HaMishnayot Avoda Zara 11). And once again… a well-known representative… It cannot be that that prominent Chassidic sect is generating influence and dependency on Christianity. Heaven help us! What a great temptation money creates! Bribes blind the wise men’s eyes!
I see the ___ Institution stepping forward, and I am despondent. This strengthens the status of the Christians in Israel. Precisely because of their money, the law we wanted to pass against missionizing has failed several times.
And now the ____ institution! Surely Ha-Gaon Rav Mordechai Eliyahu forbade accepting Christian money, as did Ha-Gaon Rav Avraham Shapira, Ha-Gaon Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Ha-Gaon Rav Asher Weiss, Ha-Gaon Rav Ovadia Yosef and many more.
And the ___ yeshiva! Oh no! Have you forgotten that the Jerusalem “Badatz” Rabbinical court forbade this, as did the rabbinical court of Chabad? True… true… it’s just a dream.
I then remembered Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Chassid, who said, “A priest owed a Jew money, and the priest knew that the Jew would not follow him into the church. So, when the Jew came to demand his money, the priest went into his church, and the Jew did not wish to follow him inside.” (Sefer Chasidim 60:435). Yet here the Jews are, coming to the church for money!
And the X organization as well! Maybe they never heard the following story from Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Chassid? “A Jew went into a house of idolatry, and then felt contrite. He asked an elderly sage to instruct him what to do to repent. The sage asked what day he had gone inside, and the Jew told him. The sage responded, ‘Fast on that date every year.’ And the Jew did so.” (Sefer Chasidim). We can hope that those Jews in the dream will pray.
Yeshivat X is stepping forward! What about our souls? Yes, of course, another quotation from Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Chassid: “A Jew walked in the courtyard of a house of idolatry. When he left, he heard a Divine voice say, ‘You have cast Me behind your back’ (Melachim 1 14:9), and he fasted all his life” (Sefer Chasidim, ibid.).
The Jewish-Christian Center in ___. That’s no surprise… but why should there be such a center in the Holy City?…
The Reform Movement’s ___ School. All right, they’re “Reformed”, but they’re still Jews. They’re our brethren, and not Christians. Heaven help us! Don’t they understand that the very fact of accepting Christian money increases their stature in our country?
There are even rabbis who are hugging that pastor, and all this for a million dollars. How great the power of money!
Now they’re starting to sing: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together.” No! You are not my brothers! First ask forgiveness for murdering my ancestors, body and soul. I don’t know how you will be able to atone for that. Come to me in my Land, discreetly, and ask forgiveness, and then we’ll talk.
Oy! How great the power of money! Don’t all these wretched souls understand that accepting money from Christians undermines the opposition of weak-souled Jews to accepting Jesus the Christian? Where is our self-respect?
Quick! Let’s escape from this nightmare! An idol has been brought into the sanctuary!
It’s the Money Crusade!
But it’s no dream! It’s the reality! (The entire episode can be seen on the Internet at Obviously, I am not there, G-d forbid. Run away fast! I am getting out of this nightmare and going back to my own dream, our own dream: “When the G-d restores the fortunes of Zion, we shall be as dreamers” (Tehilim 126:1)…. “Our feet stood inside your gates, Jerusalem” (ibid. 122:2).
I am sitting in our yeshiva, “Ateret Yerushalayim”, and I remember a gentleman who came to visit us thirty years ago, and here is approximately what he asked me: “I represent many Evangelists, and we would like to advance the construction of the Temple. I am therefore coming to you because your yeshiva is the closest to the site of the Temple. Are you preparing the construction of the Temple? You’re not… Well… you say that through Torah study and observance of the commandments, good character and the fear of G-d, one can bring the Temple’s construction nearer?…. Fine… So we would like to help you. In America we’ve got fifty million Evangelists. I will collect just one dollar a year from each of them, so that you’ll receive fifty million dollars a year until the Temple’s construction is completed. That is my offer. Do you agree?
Do you know what I answered him? Just one word. “No!”

Maimonides in Teaneck- updated

Last week the accomplished Maimonidean scholar Yair Lorberbaum of Bar Ilan University spoke at Davar. I will deal with his talks and writings in a later post. What I want to discuss first is the reaction to Maimonides in Teaneck.

Lorberbaum presented Maimonides’ Introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed focusing on how the Torah is only parabolic knowledge. He presented Maimonides’ two models for the parable of the narrative portions of the text of the Torah. The first model considers the parable only an insignificant wick lit to provide light to find a pearl. The second model considers the parable like filigrees of silver around a golden pendent. In the first, the story is insignificant to the message and in the latter the story has its own worth. He started to correlate that with later passages in the Guide concerning those religious ideas that are necessary beliefs for the masses worthless without their function in society compared to the true beliefs that have an intrinsic value.

Before he could finish his initial presentation, the room broke out into a pandemonium of questions. Is this really true?

Aren’t you presenting an extreme position? But Rav Soloveitchik said! We know from the Kuzari that…!

An Israeli educator who was sitting a small distance behind me moved his chair closer to me and asked: Have they never studied Maimonides before? Even in this audience? They have never studied Maimonides outside of citations embedded in Nahmanides or Rav Soloveitchik! They do not know basic Rambam! They could not pass a 9th grade [Israeli] exam in Jewish Thought (Mahshevet Yisrael).

At this point, I decided to remain quiet and listen to the questions. The lecturer never got back to the core of his presentation.

People asked:

Rambam sees everything as natural? Really? Aren’t you an extreme interpretation?

Is God only a mashal?

Lorborbaum answered that according to Maimonides’ criteria the story of Matan Torah would fit the criteria parabolic knowledge, let alone that the Genesis stories certainly are.
(The audience obviously never heard of the Efodi-Narboni commentators who treat much of the narratives as parabolic. And they certainly are oblivious to the ibn Tibbon approach treating it all as parable.)

Someone in the audience wanted to explain the phrase “necessary beliefs” as meaning necessary for the merit in the world to come. They are not false or political. You are making the Torah Hobbsian by introducing political elements! (site owner- I wonder how he came by knowledge of Hobbes without having read Plato?)

Someone else called out- the stories all teach us something in the details.

Someone else called out that Maimonides was talking about the need to use literary analysis on the Bible- not this theory of parables.

A psychologist asked about the danger of telling kids the truth. How much can you tell them? But more importantly if you don’t tell them they will have shattered beliefs when they get older. They belief system will completely shatter.

To this Lorberbaum told an anecdote of how he had a class of yeshiva bochrim and the first class they could not handle that this was Maimonides’ view. It took them an entire semester to grasp Maimonides.

A 30 year old former Chabad person said this is why he left Chabad- because the Rebbe’s interpretation of Maimonides as magic and miracles made no sense in the text of Maimonides.

A senior member of the community, law partner, who sits on the boards of the various day schools said to me privately after the talk: “This is new to me; my era was concerned with the problem of the Holocaust.” He said that his kids know this stuff (one of them took me for it) and they are in Jewish education. They tried to teach it in the local HS and it did not go well. You can only push the kids so far. There is a fear to push.

The subject of this post is the community not Maimonides’ Guide. I assume this lack of knowledge is typical. The community has almost never directly opened the Guide of the Perplexed. They only know a safe version through quotes elsewhere.

I have been asked to explain more of the original Maimonides. Since the discussion became derailed, I cannot tell you where it was going. So here are the passages of the Guide that were under discussion. It is the Friedlander edition, modified to fit the Pines edition. The basic outline of the logic of the passages is that people use their reason and then cannot tolerate the literal sense of the Bible. The goal is to understand how parabolic knowledge works. “Ignorant individuals” and those with philosophic training but no knowledge of parabolic knowledge may, God forfend, look at the external sense and not at the inner meaning of metaphysics. He gives two very different models of how parables work.

Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law,

Having spoken of parables, I proceed to make the following remark:–The key to the understanding and to the full comprehension of all that the Prophets have said is found in the knowledge of the figures, their general ideas, and the meaning of each word they contain

This work has also a second object in view. It seeks to explain certain obscure figures which occur in the Prophets, and are not distinctly characterized as being figures. Ignorant and superficial readers take them in a literal, not in a figurative sense. Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative. For this reason I have called this book Guide for the Perplexed.

What is really meant is the apprehension of profound and difficult subjects, concerning which our Sages said, “If a man loses in his house a sela, or a pearl, he can find it by lighting a taper worth only one issar. Thus the parables in themselves are of no great value, but through them the words of the holy Law are rendered intelligible.” These likewise are the words of our Sages; consider well their statement, that the deeper sense of the words of the holy Law are pearls, and the literal acceptation of a figure is of no value in itself.

The wise king said, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in vessels of silver” (Prov. xxv. 11). Hear the explanation of what he said:–The word maskiyoth, the Hebrew equivalent for “vessels,” denotes “filigree network”–i.e., things in which there are very small apertures, such as are frequently wrought by silversmiths.

See how beautifully the conditions of a good parable are described in this figure! It shows that in every word which has a double sense, a literal one and a figurative one, the plain meaning must be as valuable as silver, and the hidden meaning still more precious: so that the figurative meaning bears the same relation to the literal one as gold to silver.

Q & A with James L. Kugel, In The Valley Of The Shadow

James L. Kugel just published a new book containing his general thoughts about religion-IN THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW (Free Press; February 1, 2011). He posted an online interview and here are some excerpts.

Our community alternates between having a variety of images of God all based on the modern Western self, a personal kitchen god to turn to with prayer for everyday problems, a Oprah god in the heart that wants you to actualize yourself, or a Neo-Hasidic feeling of closeness. Kugel distinguishes between this modern self and the traditional self that was embedded in a cosmos and surrounded by God/ gods. Kugel offers us a great big God to contrast with the smallness of man. According to Kugel, most people’s relgion is about feeling the need to feel useful and in control of the situation, what the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski considered magic. Modern religious people have forgotten the greatness of God before man’s smallness.

Kugel believes that much of religion is innate in our brains.Life is complex but relgion consistently makes things black or white. Or with more theological terminology- saved or damned, vision or blind, found or lost. His conclusion is that we need to open our eyes to the human condition of smallness, frailness, and contingency. There is not a word in the interview about his Judaism. The book seems to have Schleiermacher’s sense of dependence meets the Ancient Near East and neuroscience. There is no mention of revelation or reward and justice, but I will wait to read the book before commenting.

The backdrop to this book is Kugel’s own battle with cancer. Here are some quotes about the nature of relgion from the Q and A.

To put it simply: believing in God or the gods or the supernatural seems to begin with how you conceive of yourself, how you fit into the world.

My book isn’t about turning to God in your hour of need. It’s more about the essence of religious faith and what it’s based on. You know, anthropologists and psychologists have studied what they call the “sense of self” that people have in different parts of the world, and it’s surprising how different our own “sense of self” is from that of most of the people on this earth. They are quite the opposite of the Western individualist. They typically see themselves as part of some larger entity – a family or clan – and that entity is, in a way that’s hard for us to understand, who they really are. But that’s only one part of their “sense of self.” The space around them is filled up in a way that ours is not. God, the gods, evil spirits, or beneficent ancestors are everywhere, and so they are constantly being taken into account. They fill up the space. I’m not talking just about so-called primitive cultures or peoples.

One of the things I discuss in the book is religion in traditional, Arab society. Anyone who spends any time in an Arab country comes back with the same impression: these people are always talking about God. That doesn’t mean they’re more moral or better than other people – my impression is that people all over the world are pretty much the same. But it is true that Arabic speech has built into all sorts of obligatory references to God. You can’t mention your own plans – “I’m flying to Paris next week” – or reasonable expectations, “After the baby’s born,” without appending the phrase Insh’allah, “If God wishes.” I admit it becomes automatic after a while. But the underlying idea is that it would be presumptuous and arrogant to talk about the future as if God did not have the final say.

People might chalk this up to the influence of Islam, but I think that’s really getting it backwards. Anyone who has studied the writings of ancient Mesopotamians can’t miss the continuity between their mentality and that of later, Islamic culture. They all have this common starting point: God or the gods are very big, and you are very small. .

Q: One of your chapters is called “Man Stands Powerless Before Elevator.” What does that have to do with your subject?

A: It’s an example of what I called “the need to do something,” which is also connected to religion. It all goes back to something I noticed at my first job after graduate school. I had an office in a building that was very tall – maybe 20 stories. So of course it had an elevator – state-of-the-art for the 1970s. There was a button you pressed, and the button would immediately turn orange after you pressed it. But the elevator rarely came right away, so a small crowd of people would usually form on the ground floor, waiting for the elevator to come. That’s when I noticed something funny. A new person arriving and seeing the button already illuminated would nevertheless sometimes go up to it and press it again. Nothing would happen, of course: it was already orange. Now these people were for the most part graduate students or professors, and so probably not idiots. But they kept on pressing that button, sometimes more than once. I know, because sometimes that person was me.

I talk about this in the book because I think it’s a model of some people’s idea of what religion is all about, “the need to do something.” People say prayers, go to churches or temples, offer sacrifices or slip a dollar bill onto the plate – but deep down they’re like the people waiting for the elevator. They know it’s not going to do any good: the elevator can’t register any more than one press of the button, it can’t feel their desperation or hear their pleas, and it can’t deviate from what it has been programmed to do: make all its intermediate stops until it gets to the bottom floor. But people keep pressing the button just because they feel they should do something.

Q: But you don’t agree with this view of religion?

A: No, I think it really misses the whole point. “The need to do something” may be there, but people don’t pray because they definitely believe they’re going to get what they ask for. They certainly hope that might happen, but in the end it’s more a matter of what the French proverb says, “Man proposes, but God has the final disposition.” In fact, the Bible said it a long time before: “Many are the plans in a person’s mind, but God’s decision is what prevails.” So we’re really back at “Man is small and God is very big.” In a sense, the very act of praying is an acknowledgment of our smallness, you might even say, an enactment of our smallness. Of course, that’s not why a person prays; a person prays to get help. But in so doing, he or she is also expressing that great truth of human smallness, the one we mostly have forgotten nowadays.

Q: You mean religion is just innate?

A: Well, the word religion covers a lot of territory. But at least some of it – and especially this way of seeing – seems in a sense to be built into the human brain. This might sound fishy, but nowadays we know that there are lots of things that we know are simply in our brains when we’re born: our minds are no blank slate, as scientists used to presume. I suppose the best known example of this is language. Nowadays we know that little newborns come equipped with brains designed for language acquisition: they are born with, so to speak, little boxes in their brains that help them to sort those sounds they hear from grownups into nouns and verbs and to make sense of them, no matter what language is involved. So, scholars today think that it’s not only language that human brains are set up for, but all sorts of other things – including some of the things that belong to the area of religion.

One day I happened to hear Judy Collins singing her a capella version of “Amazing Grace,” and I was struck by the all-or-nothing, black-and-white quality of the words. “For I was lost and now am found, was blind and now I see.” Religious poetry often has that same quality – whether it’s in the Bible or in other religious traditions. Of course that’s not how people usually see things, no matter what society they live in. Life is not usually either-or, black-or-white, lost-or-found, But it’s precisely that way of seeing that’s all over religion.

Q: What’s the message that you want people to take away from this book?

But all this leads me to talk about something that is rarely discussed. I believe that the reality of religion – the reality of God – is something that a lot of people in the modern West have trouble seeing nowadays. It’s hidden because of us, because we have lost the old, small way of being that humans had for thousands and thousands of years. What I try to do in the book is give readers some sense of what that smallness was, and the stark reality that it can open up before our eyes

Aparigraha and Judaism

I was asked on Jewish parallels to the Jain concept of Aparigraha. Any thoughts about Jewish texts that fit this concept? I found a few texts in a quick web search. Does anyone have any comments on these texts? or any difference in tonal qualities or applications between the Jewish and Jain concepts?
The Jewish texts are all in their unedited web version. I do have an attraction to this question as the opposite of all the current Orthodox interest in popular culture, conspicuous consumption, and wealth.

Aparigraha means taking what is truly necessary and no more. Aparigraha is the sanskrit word for non-possession or non-possessiveness; or non-covetousness, non-grasping, non-attachment, non- greed or trusteeship or limiting one’s personal desires and belongings or limit possessions to what is necessary or important. It is the antonym of the word parigraha, ‘compulsive hoarding,’ which means reaching out for something and claiming it for oneself.

Aparigraha is in the first place understood as an economic concept: one should not collect more material items or money than one needs, one has to set certain limits Aparigraha gives importance to abandoning emotional and mental attachment also. Mahatma Gandhi is famous for phrasing it as ‘there is enough for everyone’s need, but not for anyone’s greed.’

Aparigraha means giving up your worldly possessions like wealth and property without attaching thoughts of what you have given up. The thoughts can comprise of sadness or happiness. By giving up I mean, one should not attach himself to the very thought of owning something. This does not only apply to materialistic things but also to the baggage that we carry within ourselves from the past.

“Who is rich? He who is happy with his portion” (4:1)

The tendency of the wealthy is to seek to increase their assets, as our Sages have commented: “A person who possesses 100 desires 200; one who possesses 200 desires 400.” One who is truly wealthy is one who does not become caught up by such desires, but rather maintains inner peace and calm. Nor will this approach force him to sacrifice wealth. On the contrary a person at peace with himself is far more able to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, and thus achieve success in the world at large. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe)

Histapkut defined as contentment through simplification, is a trait designed to help us grapple with the idea that “less is more.”
Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol says, “Who seeks more than he needs, hinders himself from enjoying what he has. In giving up what you don’t need, you’ll learn what you really need.”

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches in Likutei Moharan (II,19), that, “The main goal of a Jew is to serve God with simplicity and without any sophistication.” It means that when it comes to serving our creator or working on improving ourselves we need to do so in a straightforward manner.

Simplicity and contentment have to go hand in hand. Figuring out what middah we need to work on or what spiritual or religious goal we need to set for ourselves doesn’t always have to be the loftiest of ideals or the most rigid level of observance. It is often we who are the ones that over-complicate things.

Bitachon and Histapkus. These are the principles for all good middos. They are the the antitheses of desiring and coveting, and the root of all [middos] is Bitachon. One who lacks Bitachon cannot retain Torah (Gra to Devarim 32:20). histapkus which is the opposite (of “do not covet”) is a foundation for the entire torah and it means to believe with emuna shlema (whole faith) to not worry about tomorrow. And he whose heart is good with bitachon even though he has transgressed severe sins, he is better than one who is missing in bitachon because such a person (who lacks bitachon) will come to jealousies and hatred and even though he studies torah and is involved in good deeds, all of this is only to make a name for himself.” (Even Sheleimah 3:1-2):

As we have written, all transgressions and sins result from coveting. Lo Sachmod encompasses all of the commandments and the entire Torah. Histapkus, the converse [of Lo Sachmod] is the foundation of the entire Torah. It consists of complete belief, of not worrying the worries of tomorrow… One whose heart has been enhanced by the trait of Bitachon — even if he transgresses severe transgressions — is superior to someone who lacks Bitachon, for [through lack of Bitachon] one comes to jealousy and hatred. Even if he is involved in Torah and Gemilus Chesed [his activities are meaningless] because he only does so to glorify his own name (Gra, Likkutim to Rabba bar Chana in an explanation of Sabbei d’Bei Athuna d”h Iysai Budia).

“It is well known that “histapkus”, being satisfied with just the basics, is one of the greatest attributes. The Vilna Gaon writes (in “Even Shlaimoh”) that this quality is even more necessary than bitachon (trust that Hashem provides) to acquire Torah. One aspect of histapkus is to train oneself to be satisfied with little and not run after “bigger and better” in food, in clothing etc. Nevertheless, at this level, one still feels that he is missing something. An even higher level is “Someach B’chelko” – To be happy with whatever one has — without being bothered because of what he does not possess; without even feeling he is missing anything. The highest level of all, however, is the attribute of “Yeish Li Kol”, feeling that he has everything; that there is nothing more [materially] that he could even want. This is what [Hashem meant when he said to Avrohom Ovinu] v’heyei tomim – be whole, perfect – lacking nothing.” (Mishnas Rav Aharon, Vol. 3 Ma’amar “Kol Mitzvoh Shekiblu Aleihem B’simchah” p. 123 in first ed.)

More texts from Deiah vDibbur that are related but not as relevant.

Yoram Hazony, Kierkegaard, and Judaism

I recently posted about the new book on Kierkegaard’s antisemitism. To this post I received the following public challenge from Yoram Hazony (used with permission).

Thanks for your column on Kierkegaard. I can’t understand why Kierkegaard is regarded (by Orthodox Jews!) as being theologically relevant to Judaism. As far as I have been able to tell, Kierkegaard views belief as an absurdity: We believe not because it is reasonable, but precisely because it is unreasonable. I’m not familiar with any biblical or talmudic sources that are compatible with this view. On the contrary, classical Jewish belief always involved a view of the Torah as reasonable. I think modern Jews need to ask themselves whether they really think that what we are interested in inculcating in our children is the view that Torah is something absurd. If so, then Kierkegaard is our man. If not, then perhaps we should consider dropping this.

Yoram Hazony
The Shalem Center, Jerusalem

I know that the dozen various major Orthodox proponents of Kierkegaard each claim to differ with Kierkegaard and correct his thought. But in the end, even when they said they were different they remained in the realm of absurd, contraction, submission, heroic struggles and leaps. They do not move into Maimonidean rationalism or other approaches where Judaism is reasonable. Any thoughts?

Personally, I don’t see this as a live debate. Some mixture of Oprah, Neo-Hasidism and Roshei Yeshiva have replaced high modernism. And the critiques of Kierkegaard by Levinas, Derrida, and Adorno have not been absorbed by the Orthodox religious community.

Hebrew and Jewish Studies in Jaipur

Here is an under-reported initiative from Jaipur, India. Hebrew and Jewish Studies set in a Sufi college framework.
And at the bottom of this post I note a 13th century Sufi Muslim teacher of Maimonides.

Central University’s courses on Sufism and Hebrew for world peace* – Times Of India – India; Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Jaipur: To cash in on the growing bilateral ties between Israel and India, the Central University, Kishangarh, has announced a language course on Hebrew. It is also starting a research programme on Sufism to spread progressive school of Islam from the coming session.

“The growing strategic and diplomatic relationship between two nations is generating many opportunities for professionals. The proficiency in this language besides management or engineering degree will open floodgates for our students in fields like space technology, agricultural and strengthening business ties,” said MM Salunkhe, vice-chancellor of Central University.

For instance, in 2008, Israel and India finalised a three-year plan to introduce crops such as olives, dates and grapes in Rajasthan for products like olive oil.

The university might open a research centre on Judaism considering the large presence of Jews in Pushkar and Ajmer. The Chabad — a place of worship for Jews in Pushkar, attracts thousands of Jews in the state. The course came into the thought of V-C after reading an international opinion survey conducted in 2009 on behalf of the Israeli foreign ministry.

In fact, the university is taking assistance to formalise the structure of the course as per the Sufi teachings and Sufi philosophy of Khwaja Moinuddhin Chishti, which dates back to 11th century. “I have experienced Sufism and found it necessary to have extensive research on its practices and values,” said M M Salunkhe, vice-chancellor, Central University.

They are also planning to invite speakers from Jewish and Sufis to find out solutions to growing confrontation between Muslims and Jews across the globe. Syed Nazmul Hasan Chisthy, a sufi scholor has offered his assistance to design the curriculum for research programme in Sufism.

I have had this clipped for months since I read the article waiting for some chance to mention Sufis and Jews in the same post.

Ibn Sabʿīn’s circle included both the controversial poet al-Shushtarī and the intriguing figure of Ibn Hūd al-Mursī (d. 1299 or 1300), who taught Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed to Jewish students, and who reportedly once scandalized a scholar who had asked to be initiated into his order by replying, “Into which order, that of Moses, Jesus or Muhammad?”

Cited in Khaled El-Rouayheb, “Heresy and Sufism in the Arabic-Islamic world, 1550–1750: Some preliminary observations” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (2010), 73: 357-380

Catholic View of Judaism-Rome and Phila.

The first is from the secretary of the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, a bureaucratic not theological position. He seems to ever slowly be inching to treat Judaism as another part of Christianity. The second is the liberal American Catholic perspective of recognizing Judaism also acknowledges a radical change to viewing Judaism as a continuous covenant but points in the opposite direction that the Church should recognize Judaism as unique, preferably as an independent Mosaic covenant with God.

From ASCA news service (Italy);
L’Osservatore Romano: For the Pope, [the Jews are] not “elder brothers” but “fathers in the faith”
ASCA / Vatican City, January 15: In his interview-book “The Light of the World,” Pope Benedict XVI “re-examines the older definition of the Jews as ‘elder brothers’ and links it to his own expression, ‘fathers in the faith,’ which, he contends, explains even better the relationship between Jews and Christians.” This is what was stated in an article published today in L’Osservatore Romano by Father Norbert J. Hofmann, the secretary of the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism.

The Vatican’s point-man for dialogue with the Jews explains: “John Paul II, during his historic visit of April 13, 1985 to the Synagogue of Rome, addressed the Jews as ‘specially beloved brothers,’ as ‘elder brothers’.”

But, on the Jewish side, several voices had criticized this new definition. In fact, in the Bible, the elder brother doesn’t always come off best; it is sufficient to recall the example of Jacob and Esau, where it is precisely the elder brother who is not chosen”. As Hofmann explains, “Benedict XVI has demonstrated [his] sensitivity in the face of such criticisms, preferring to opt for the term ‘fathers in the faith’.”

This concerns an expression which “clearly recalls the Jewish roots of Christianity and, thus, the fact that, as Christians, we have inherited from our ‘Jewish fathers’ faith in the one God of Israel, and we share in common with them the same religious tradition, even if we interpret it in a new and different way, in light of the Christian event. As Christians, we have in Christ a different image of the Jewish ‘motherland,’ from which we ourselves have been born.

This is from a statement of St Joseph’s University honoring Cardinal Kasper, Fr Nobert Hofmann’s former theological superior.

* Your insistence that after Nostra Aetate, “the way Christians look at Jews has changed radically” because “the old theory of substitution is gone since II Vatican Council.” Demonstrating the frank honesty of an authentic scholar, you have observed that “the most important spiritual and ethical impulse for … the revolutionary shift of the relations between Jews and Christians was the horrors of the Holocaust.”

* Flowing from Nostra Aetate, you have also consistently stressed the uniqueness of the Church’s relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people. “Judaism is not one religion among the non-Christian religions,” you have written. “Christianity has a particular and a unique relation with Judaism. We cannot define Christianity and its identity without making reference to Judaism.”

* You have frequently stressed that “God’s Covenant with Israel has not simply been replaced by the new Covenant. God … has not repudiated and forsaken his people. Israel is still God’s partner. God is still devoted to his people with love and loyalty, mercy, justice and pardon; God is always with his people especially in the most difficult moments of history. Every Jew, as one of His people, lives in promise.” Moreover, you have drawn out the implications of this conviction: “So from the Christian perspective the covenant with the Jewish people is unbroken (Rom 11,29), for we as Christians believe that these promises find in Jesus their definitive and irrevocable Amen (2 Cor 1,20) and at the same time that in him, who is the end of the law (Rom 10,4), the law is not nullified but upheld (Rom 3,31). This does not mean that Jews in order to be saved have to become Christians; if they follow their own conscience and believe in God’s promises as they understand them in their religious tradition they are in line with God’s plan, which for us comes to its historical completion in Jesus Christ.”

* “In the end,” you have written, “the relationship of Israel and the church is a mystery of election and judgment, of guilt and even greater grace, which Paul is able to approach only with doxology (cf. Rom 11:33-36). The continuing existence of Israel confronts us [Christians] inevitably with God’s unconditional faithfulness to his people. The existence of the church is also a mystery, for without deserving it, out of pure grace, God’s covenant commitment has been extended to the Gentiles. So the relationship of Israel and the church is an absolute mystery. ”

* Finally, your dedication to pursuing these challenging topics has prompted you to support relevant sustained academic research. One example of this has been your consistent encouragement of the work of a transatlantic team of scholars, culminating in the important foreword you have authored for their forthcoming book, Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today: New Explorations of Theological Interrelationships. Your support has been edifying for everyone involved.

Amish breaking law to preserve lifestyle

Murdoch’s new paper The Daily has an article on Amish breaking the law by transporting unpasteurized milk across state lines. GetRelgion takes the story apart but the interesting punchline is that the farmer is breaking the US law in order to preserve his religious life. Hmm… Why the parallel form of thinking between sectarian Jews and sectarian Christians? It seems to be a common effect of locating all value within one’s own community.

Samuel is part of a shadowy community of outlaw Amish and Mennonite dairy farmers who risk fines, loss of equipment and product, and even imprisonment to transport raw milk across state lines and satisfy a burgeoning appetite for illegal raw milk in places like New York. In January, The Daily rode along on one of these smuggling runs.

Unpasteurized milk is increasingly popular among foodies and health nuts for both its taste and its supposed nutritional benefits. But government authorities take a hard line, warning that unpasteurized milk may contain salmonella, E. coli and bacteria that can lead to typhoid fever and tuberculosis.

“Raw milk is inherently dangerous and it should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose,” says the Food and Drug Administration.

When he brings a shipment of illegal milk to New York, Samuel has more than 140 customers waiting for him, ready to pay $6 a gallon.
Samuel’s smuggling run started in Pennsylvania’s Amish country, where his family farm is located. As Amish doctrine prohibits him from operating an automobile, he paid a non-Amish person to drive.

Samuel is well-aware that he’s breaking the law.
OK … he won’t drive a car, but he’ll break federal law? Why? How does smuggling raw milk fit with his personal values? The story doesn’t say.

Isaac, another Amish farmer who agreed to be interviewed if the publication kept his identity confidential, offers this perspective:
For Isaac, the issues are cultural. When it comes to dairy farming, becoming a smuggler was the only way to maintain a pure, Amish way of life. “I want my family on the farm,” he said. “I don’t want them out in the world.”

He wouldn’t be able to make ends meet in his traditional dairy operation if he was operating above board, he said. “We have church restrictions, and our people are losing that because of the way modern dairy farming is being done.”

He wondered aloud why the state won’t let him pursue his preferred way of life.
But what does his religion say about breaking the law? Would God approve of what he’s doing? The story fails to tackle such basic questions.

Tolner Diary

There is a diary of the court of the current Talner Rebbe that has appeared on the web with the title of Tolner Wikilinks. It was likely taken or stolen from the computer of one the aides of the Rebbe or from someone inside of the court. Most of it concerns the recent courts of Reb Pinches Menachem and Reb Yitzchok Menachem Weinberg, today’s Tolner Rebbe of Bayit Vegan. The former was the powerful and politicaly active Gerrer rebbe who died in 1996.

It is a journal-pinkas of 492 typed pages in Hebrew and Yiddish of the last 20 years and includes reactions to people, weddings, current events as well as visits to the doctor. It opens with stories and then moves on to more personal material.But even then the editor mixed past and present. It includes a pinkas of those who came for yehidus, the etzah and the pidyan as well as who got to sit at a tisch. It is as close as most people will ever get to the inside working of a hasidic court. Once digested will likely generate op-eds, articles and certainly the possibility for a book on contemporary Hasidism using this as a basis.

There are Brisk stories, stories of Rav Menachem Zemba, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Holocaust stories,and many other stories. Some of the stories about decades ago are clearly anachronistic, the recent stories are the gems. The Hasidic blogs will likely pick out the gossip first, then name calling and petty comments about Belz, Slonim, Satmar, Viznitz, and Gur as well as the visit by Gutnik. I am most interested in the actual content.

Here is the leaked Talner Diary as a large pdf file.

I skimmed its almost 500 pages and here are a few random items that caught my eye. If you find important parts then please let me know in the comments. Also if important discussions start on Hyde Park or on other blogs then please let me know.
To give you a sample:
1] There is a conversation between the two aforementioned rebbes about the Jerusalem trend of graphology and does it work?
2] We have a discussion on the need to learn ibn Ezra.
3] We have Hasidim coming for advise to recoup losses from an American bank scheme.
4] We have a steady stream of bachrim and young avrachim asking for a tikkun for an averah. To one he says, “learn for 5 hours straight.” The bachur says that would go over seder time so he cant, to which the rebbe answers that if one has enough effort then ordinary seder will count as 5 hrs.
He told another to seek truth like Kotzk, to which the avrach said that is above his level. So instead he was told to learn half a day and to guard his eyes the other half.
Another came in asking for help in his avodah and he was told to take everything easy and to go on a diet.
A group of avrachim asked to go on a trip to the Golan, he told them to act appropriately and to remember God at all times “when you go on your ways.” Same advice was given to group heading up to Meron.
He refused pidyon money from Avrachim.
5] We have him keeping Rav Hayyim Druckman waiting for a yehidus since Druckman wanted greater support for Yesha and the settlements and the rebbe did not want more of this avodah zara.
He leaves town for a day when there was a gush emunim rally.
6] We have an 18th century mocking of his doctors. He went to an eye doctor erev Sukkot and his vision improved, to which he attributes to the power of the Sukkah.
He another time he went to visit the Professor- Doctor and the doctor complained about Rav Getz calling the police on the woman’s group at the Kotel. To which Professor-Doctor #2 said it is because of the prohibition of a woman’s voice. Doctor #1 said he listened to a woman’s voice many many times and it has never bothered him. And then the Rebbe said it is like the peasant who walks barefoot with rocks compared to the sophisticated European, who is elevated and greater than the peasant, who cannot tolerate a little pebble in his shoe, so too here. At this the doctor praised his amazing wisdom.
7] We have a case where someone lied to get a pre-wedding berachah and now came to admit lying and get a real berakhah.
8] We have a story of ideology about not reaching out to common people. The Besht reached out to common people and was not able to create a court, but Kotzk threw people out and it created Gur.
9] It is better to have a marriage with the son of a heretic than a son of mumar leteavon, because the latter leaves a lasting bad virtue.
10] We have a bachur coming for advice what to do since his mother is not Jewish. He was told just keep the 7 mizvot and not to try for more. [I assume it was a conversion question]
11] We have a miracle tale of causing the Petah Tikvah movie theater that was open on Shabbat to close permanently.
12] They have an suspicion of the Israeli government officials and at the same time claiming credit for themselves. For example, they have a minhag to say shem reshaim yirkov about Mt Herzl. But they claim credit for the Yom Kippur War victory.
13] He visited his son on his birthday and brought a present and said that there are also tikkunim on a birthday.
14] The essence of Hasidut is obedience tot he rebbe as we know from Mordechai giving Esther instructions. (This drashah is usually cited for Rav Elhanan Wasserman’s daas Torah)
15] When Reb Pinches Menachem heard that there is kolel for baalei teshuvah, he exclaimed ” who took this upon themselves to create this ..they should work and only have fixed times for Torah.”
16] When asked by an avrach who had many preparations for prayer and prayed for a long time, the rebbe told him to stop it is not for our generation.

The h/t goes to CIRCUS TENT צירק געצעלט who also provides a guide to abbreviations in the text.

רי”ם = Reb Yitzchok Menachem Weinberg, today’s Tolner Rebbe of Bayit Vegan,

ס.ט. = Saba Tolner, his zeide, the old Tolner Rebbe, Reb Yochonon Twersky,

הב”י = is the Bais Yisrool, of course, Reb Yisroel Alter,

ל”ש = the Lev Simcha, Reb Simcha Bunim Alter,

הגרפ”מ = is the Gaon Reb Pinches Menachem, before he was Rebbe, (after which he was known as the אד”ש, and after his passing as the Pnei Menachem,) which was after 7 Tammuz, 5752, when his brother the Lev Simcha passed away.

מו’ ד. ח = Moreini Reb Doniel Chaim, son of the Pnei Menachem

Reb Shaul is the Rosh Yeshiva of Sfas Emes in yerushalayim and a son of the Pnei Menachem,

Reb Aryeh was the Pnei Menachem’s son who passed away some 20 years ago after being hit by a bus. He was a son in law of Rav Menashe Klein.
Other Roshei Teivosen are Shamoshim and Gaboyim.

קו”פ is קודש פנימה = the Rebbe’s Tzimmer

Moshe Idel on Orthodoxy and Principles of Faith

In the current issue of Havruta,Professor Moshe Idel defines Orthodoxy and gives his view of the principles of Judaism. For Idel, the Talmud has theological points but focuses mainly on practice. Idel points to three subsequent approaches to the principles of faith. The first is that of medieval philosophers and kabbalists who created an intellectual religion subject to debate within and without Judaism. His is lumping together with Maimondies everyone from Gersonides, Abulafia, Ibn Ezra, Gikkitila, and Alemano.
The second is that of modern liberal Judaism who rest everything on the single principle of ethical monotheism and to be a light to the nations.
The third approach is that of Orthodoxy, then and now, which denies the ability to make evaluative judgments or create hierarchies. Even thing is holy and required , so nothing can be justified internally or to the outside world. He assumes that the first group won.

So is Idel insightful or missing the mark?
I ask because Moshe Idel is not catching on with the popular psyche of American Jews. It is not just because his books are difficult and filled with unexplained quotes, rather there are theological reasons. Scholem’s counter history of myth and symbol was loved by everyone. Kabbalah became Scholem’s theory of symbols. Idel’s enchanted chains, absorbed perfections, hieroglyphics, and magical rabbis does not strike the same cord.
To return to this case at hand the principles of Judaism. We understand when Arthur Green says the principles are passé and Danny Landes defends them. We understand when Orthodox Jews define the principles with ahistoric presentism and ignore the historic variety of interpretations and the response.
But do we recognize Idel’s conception of Orthodoxy defined as action-centered with a lack of the ability to make distinctions and evaluations as the community of Orthodoxy? And if we do, is this an original insight or old hat?

In the classical Judaism of the Bible and of the rabbis there is no such concept as ikkarim.

Starting with Maimonides in the Middle Ages, we encounter the enumeration of ikkarim as the main precepts of Judaism,..

This move marks a large leap from a performative approach – whereby religious life is defined by the way we practice it – to a new, more theoretical approach whereby faith is defined by the way we think about it Maimonides did not take this leap alone: he was part of an elite that sought to transcend halacha centered Judaism in a manner that confers a much greater role to intellectual processes than previously allowed. In attempting to formulate principles for a religion that was originally based only on practice, this elite tried to establish propositions that can be explained and debated both within and outside the Jewish faith.

A representative of both the rabbinical and mystical approaches is Rabbi David ben Shlomo ibn Zimra, known as Radbaz (1479- 1573). An important halachist, leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, and a learned mystic who probably initiated the famous Ari (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria) to the secrets of Kabbalah, Radbaz dismissed the whole idea of ikkarim, which, in his view, ran counter to the Torah, the bedrock of Jewish faith:

I cannot agree with [a move to] impose upon our perfect Torah any ikkar or other, for it is all an ikkar [emanating] from the mouth of God … each and every mitzvah is an ikkar and cornerstone [of our faith] and you may find a mitzvah that seems marginal, when in fact the reason it was commanded and the secrets it contains are beyond our comprehension (She’elot ve-Teshuvot HaRadbaz, Responsum 344).

Radbaz makes two strong claims. First, the Torah is a perfect whole, and its perfection is tainted by the attempt to focus on some of its teachings while marginalizing others. Second, there is no way for us to discern any hierarchy in the divine commandments, because we can grasp neither the “external” justification for their practice, nor their “internal” mystical essence. Therefore, according to him, we must perform all of the commandments with equal devotion and refrain from taking liberties in assigning different degrees of importance to them. This approach of the Radbaz remains normative in Orthodoxy.

But there are also traditions within Judaism that take a somewhat more universalistic approach and regard religious speculation as a higher value than religious performance The most radical manifestation of this development is the assumption that Judaism can be summarized as ethical monotheism, and that Jews were the people chosen to disseminate this one important religious insight to the whole of humanity.

There is more than one irony here. In seeking to shed all the religious obligations of Judaism… with one big thing that may be harder to live up to than all the 613 commandments combined.

In the end, the winner is Maimonides, whose thirteen ikkarim, distilled into the Yigdal hymn, are sung every Shabbat by Jews all over the world, Orthodox and liberal alike, who may or may not be aware of the ultimate significance of the ikkarim.

Oprah, Religion, and Orthodoxy

I sat next to someone recently who told me that they loved the stories of Hanoch Teller. Since he was very far from our projected image of Teller’s audience, I asked him: what other books does he likes? What has he read recently that was similar? He answered that he loved the recent Keith Richard’s autobiography. In both cases, what mattered was the human narrative and how the people responded to life. In neither case, did the protagonist have a heroic change or a transformation, just little moments of everyday life. He volunteered that he also liked the stories of Studs Turkel. This human narrative was the rubric for his religion.

This human narrative is also the rubric for the Oprah Winfey show, The role of this narrative theology is the subject of a recent academic work Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon(University of California Press, 2011). Lofton, a scholar of religion is interested in the religious views of the show. Oprah is not interested in abstract knowledge or knowledge that does not relate to one’s life. All books that one reads have to fit into the “first-person journey of my life.” How does that book make a better me or a vision of an alternate reality?

And this dovetails with my current looking at the role of popular culture in the Centrist community. Popular culture plays an increased role in Orthodoxy because one needs products that relate to the first person journey of one’s life. Talmud study, halakhah, and philosophy do not deal with the individual. The huge amount of Neo-Hasidism, self-help, evangelical purpose-driven Orthodoxy, and narrative books are all needed to offer suggestions of a better self or an alternate reality. Rav Sooveitchik is not filtering down through his students and transforming the popular worldview of suburbia, rather the religious teachings of Oprah (and other popular teachers) are filtering down and the world of Orthodoxy is being transformed into Oprah. Halakhah will somehow gain a self-improvement packaging to compete.

Oprah creates a social ethos where people think they are part of a tight knit group even though they have less actual connection. She holds the model for bringing religion into the social network age. If everyone is reading the same book and posting on the same message board and feeling they are telling their story they feel a personal social connection. She praises her followers for their forming bonds and people want the praise. Oprah is against institutional religion and has spirituality outside institutions, but in a way that followers see her supporting traditional values. She has an online institution. Some of the media based forms of Orthodoxy will grow at the expense of the local version, Chabad and Aish come to mind, but there will be greater forms of Orthodoxy by media connection. Don’t think in linear terms of a web site that will discuss halakhah as much as an online community that offers the feeling that one has a God given means of self improvement and first person journey’s that can only be found in Orthodoxy.

Oprah’s religion postulates a daily life of a false self having to make pragmatic decisions and a true inner self that possesses infinite potential for solving problems, creativity, and individuality. The religion of Oprah promises you the oxymoron of instructions for personal creativity and how precious is each person’s story. It is not that one is promised a better marriage, better children, better health, and richer life in an ordinary prosperity gospel sense but that the true self, the inner self, the inner spirit needs to grow. I do think that much of the new expansive “Eyn Od Milvado” and cruise ship Centrism is heading in this direction. As well as those recent works on Hashem having a plan for all of us to personally actualize. At some point, it will clash with the top-down teachings of following a Rosh Yeshiva.Living for personal insight and the higher self is not the same Orthodoxy as submission to the halakhah. In the meantime, the writing of self-help books has moved from the Engaged Yeshivish community to the Centrist community. I noticed several new life cycle books that seem to go in this direction, but I do not own them to analyze them.

The inner self is know through commercial commodity products. Lofton Shows how the inner self is pre-packaged as ready to buy units. They pre-package the statement that people are not alone in their problems and they can buy into solidarity with others in similar situations.

I loved the fact that Lofton was self aware that she came to this through ironic application of high theory to TV and stayed to write a book when she saw that Oprah was a great test case for theories of religion. I think that she has a virtue over the academic students of Hasidut who are not self-aware and do not see where they fit into the applied real world of new-age, spirituality, popular religion. A reader of Hasidut who watches Oprah will differ from someone who reads the same passage of Hasidut and listens to Evangelicals or Keith Richards. Any further thoughts on Oprah and Orthodoxy??

From an interview on the Immanent Frame
NS: What would Oprah think of your book?
KL: This is not the sort of book she reads—or, rather, this is not the sort of book that the product Oprah endorses—since it neither prescribes a better reality nor posits an alternative reality to which you could escape. If she and I were talking, though, the first thing she’d want to know is how this book fit into the first-person journey of my life. Then I’d find myself quickly formatted into her production as a signifying woman of one sort or another. This is her real legacy. After Oprah, what first-person iteration is not a commodity?

NS: As an American woman, do you feel some responsibility to confront what Oprah represents, in the form of an active, engaged social critique?
KL: The social is incredibly absent from Oprah, even as she praises the idea of girlfriends, of groups, of clubs. The social is a rhetorical formulation leaving women exposed in their extremity without any public held accountable.
“Girls, I’ll guide you to your total originality.”

KL: Oprah is a passionate advocate for a kind of prosperity gospel, insofar as she believes in a correlative relationship between one’s disposition and one’s materiality

NS: So all else becomes subservient to the commercial?
KL: Her reply would be that, no, all else becomes subservient to the spirit. The first question everyone should ask is, “What is my spirit telling me to do?” How do you tap into your spirit? How do you re-enchant your spirit after being pulled upon, tugged upon, by the false pragmatism of men, family, work? The replies to that are frequently flattered by the commercial, but not solely comprised of it.

NS: Tell me about what brought you to the study of Oprah. Was it fandom, or irony, or what?
KL: Undergraduate irony. As a student at the University of Chicago, my dorm had a communal room with a television, and Oprah repeated late at night on the local ABC affiliate. I would be sitting with a group of friends who were, because of the Common Core, all reading the same high-brow social and political theory and applying it colloquially to The Real World:
As I began to teach courses in religious studies, I found she was a great way to test theories of myth, ideology, and ritual for students new to religious studies abstractions. So, since the early nineties, I haven’t been able to get her out of my head—she seemed pervasive in the world and persuasively central to any given narrative of the West.

Kierkegaard the Anti-Semite

I once was stuck in a slow elevator and was asked by my fellow traveler for some seasonal Torah. I proffered a thought from Maharal developed by a Kedushat Levi. When I was done, the person said with dismay that they are not our mesorah (tradition) and instead he recited a third-hand insight of Soren Kierkegaard as the true Rav Soloveitchik tradition (mesorah). Centrist Orthodoxy has invested much in its incorporation of Kierkegaard’s theology of submission, sacrifice, and absurdity. Modern Jewish thought has been willing to override Rabbinic readings of the Bible to affirm those of Kierkegaard. Repeated essays by Milton Steinberg, Louis Jacobs, Emil Fackenheim and Jon Levenson as well as statements by Walter Wurzburger and others did little to divest Orthodoxy of its Lutheran moorings. In general, modern Jewish thought has taken a liking to Kierkegaard when compared to its use of other modern thinkers.

However, all this may change soon. Last year there was a new book in Danish by Peter Tudvad Stadier paa Antisemitisms Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the Way of Antisemitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010). The book has elicited controversy and as of December 2010 has had approximately 90 articles published in the Danish media on the book, some of which appeared even before the book itself. This controversy has yet to make it into the American Jewish media and I only found out about it on an academic philosophy list. You are getting it first.

The Danes have been portrayed as non-antisemitic because they kept the Holocaust out of Denmark. But Peter Tudvad’s book includes a broad survey of antisemitism in Denmark especially the 1819 Hep Hep riots against the Jews. “We had one, a pogrom, in Denmark in 1819 too, which was so severe that the king had to declare Copenhagen, his capital, in a state of emergency. The city was under a curfew for several weeks, and the military patrolled the streets of Copenhagen.” The new book shows that Kierkegaard was heir to the inherited Danish economic and social antisemitism as well as Lutheran theological antisemitism. Danish scholars have been quick to defend Danish honor by claiming that Kierkegaard was typical for his age without dealing with all of Tudvad’s evidence.

To document this controversy the Kierkegaard scholar M.G. Piety, associate professor of philosophy at Drexel University in Philadelphia has created a blog called “Piety on Kierkegaard.” The blog is sporadic and it has taken her two months to provide enough information for me to post a decent blog post. (I wanted to post as soon as I found out about the book but her blog still did not have enough information.) For the most important posts, see here and here and here.

Piety offers an interview with the Peter Tudvad, the author of the controversial book. Here are some excerpts.

Piety: Not much is known in the English-speaking world about the controversy over your new book. Can you give a brief summary of it?

Tudvad: That might be difficult as the row lasted for about two months, and was very intense. A newspaper, Berlingske Tidende, published an interview with me about three weeks before the book was actually published. The reporter was shocked by the quotations I had included in the preface, which I let him see, such as Kierkegaard writing that the Jews were typically usurers and as such bloodthirsty, that they had a penchant for money (due to an abstract character, as Kierkegaard supposes), and that they dominated the Christians.
As I told the reporter, Kierkegaard was of the opinion that the Jews would eventually kill the European Christians – something which he wrote in an entry in his diary, but which was omitted from the Hong’s translation, I guess on purpose – and that they had an extraordinary sexual appetite and thus many children. They were, according to Kierkegaard, mundane and had no real spirit, no quest for the eternal bliss.

the reason that we have seldom discussed this aspect of his theology might be that we were afraid of damaging his image, his reputation, thus losing the prostrate respect many have for one of the few internationally renowned Danish authors.

His diaries have always been considered a key to the understanding of his published works, so if one, for example, with the help of his entries can link his antisemitisme with his theology, and vice versa, I think we really ought to discuss the problem seriously

Piety: Do you think Kierkegaard was anti-Semitic? If so, in what sense?

Tudvad: Yes, I do. Sure he was not a kind of anti-Semite as the Nazis. He hated any kind of collectivism, and he would certainly not have participated in the pogrom in 1938. Nevertheless, I published my book on November 9, i.e. on the anniversary of the Kristallnacht in 1938, but my point was, that anti-Semitism and pogroms are not exclusively a German phenomenon.

My point is, that Danes are not less disposed to anti-Semitism than Germans, Poles, Russians or any other peoples, and that words are not harmless. So, Kierkegaard’s words are not harmless either. Some Danish Nazis actually referred to him in 1940 as their ally against the Jews.

Piety: The English theologian George Pattison actually admitted in his article “Søren Kierkegaard was neither better nor worse than his times” that he had not read your book. Is that right?

Tudvad: Yes. – ”Neither better nor worse!” He was surely not worse than some people, and surely not better than quite a few liberal politicians, the ones who fought at the same time for a free constitution that would guarantee freedom of religion. Now, is it really a relevant argument that somebody, and especially one who is considered a genius and far ahead of his contemporaries, was neither better nor worse than his times? Would you excuse somebody living in Germany in the 1930’s or 1940’s the same way? [The regnant view that he was not worse than his times is Bruce H. Kirmmse, “Kierkegaard, Jews, and Judaism,” in Kierkegaardiana vol. 17 1994]

Piety: What do you think was the biggest problem that critics of the book had with it?

Tudvad: That I made clear a tight link between Kierkegaard’s theology and his anti-Semitism. People seemed to be surprised that anti-Semitism as such has it’s origin in Christianity. The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism, did they?

Tudvad’s new data will likely be debated in the Jewish community in the upcoming years. Kierkegaard will now receive the same treatment as Heidegger, Ezra Pound, or Paul DeMan, especially when the antisemitic passages that were censored out are all returned. Closer to the mark he will receive the same treatment as the other Germanic Lutherans whose theology had Marcion antisemitic overtones such as Adolf von Harnack and J. F.W. Schlegel On the other hand, my Centrist Orthodox elevator companion will probably not be interested in the entire debate.