Monthly Archives: April 2011

How did God get invented? Answer to a Six year old

This appeared last week. What would your rabbi answer? What would an ideal rabbi answer?

A six-year-old Scottish girl named Lulu wrote a letter to God: “To God, How did you get invented?” Lulu’s father, who is not a believer, sent her letter to various church leaders: the Scottish Episcopal Church (no reply), the Presbyterians (no reply), and the Scottish Catholics (who sent a theologically complex reply). He also sent it to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent the following letter in reply:

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected. Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – … – to help them get closer to what I’m really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan

But what the letter also tells us is that the Archbishop took the trouble to write a really thoughtful message – unmistakably his work and not that of a secretary – to a little girl. “Well done, Rowan!” was the reaction of Alex Renton’s mother, and I agree.

Original in The Telegraph h/t and edited version from here.

I Just Pass on the Matzah

I had a conversation this week with a 52 year old Yeshiva College graduate, who is firmly committed to Orthodoxy and even hangs around his Orthodox shul to always be available to make a minyan or help the rabbi.

He said that he was glad to get back to eating bread and cookies and along the way mentioned that any matza upsets his stomach and that he avoids matza meal all Passover. I asked what do you do for the seder? I was expecting an answer on the relative merits of spelt or oats. He answered “I do nothing. When the matza is passed, I just pass on the matza. I just keep passing it. I have not eaten matza for 8 years already.”

Whenever there is a survey done of ritual practice in Orthodox synagogues and you usually get results like 92% eat matzah on Passover, 93% fast on Yom Kippur. I generally ascribed the non-observant percentage to the elderly, infirm, adolescent and college rebellion, divorce, and psychological stress. This is the first time I heard from an unwavering Modern Orthodox shul regular who is not gluten intolerant in any way and has no medical condition that “I just pass on the matzah.”

Mormons and Orthodox Judaism Part II

After my last post on Mormons and Orthodoxy, Mark Paredes the Mormon author of the column “Jews and Mormons” emailed me with encouragement. Mark seems to be a one man quest for Jewish-Mormon encounter.

Mark’s Wiki bio offers the following hurricane of productive activity.

Mark Paredes is the author of the “Middle East Matters” column for the Deseret News and the “Jews and Mormons” blog for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. He served as a U.S. diplomat at the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv from 1994-1996 and the U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara, Mexico from 1991-1993. He also worked as the press attaché for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, the National Director of Hispanic Outreach for the American Jewish Congress, and the Executive Director of the Western Region of the ZOA.

Jewish-Mormon encounter seems to be his special passion. A few weeks ago, he spoke at the Orthodox minyan at Harvard and the event was one of the best received that they ran all year, and got a glowing write-up by one of the participants in The Crimson, who dubbed it “one of the most profound interfaith events I’ve ever attended on this campus” due to its refusal to sidestep difficult issues, and cast it as a model for substantive interfaith work.

In the spirit of his passion, Mark answered a few questions about the Orthodox-Mormon encounter. Personally, I am fascinated by how a religion that accepts that there are many gods, accepts that god was a person who later became divine, has a wife, and that God has a body could be embraced by Orthodoxy. The obvious answer is that the common ground of family values, conservative politics, and banning gay marriage overcomes little things like the principles of faith. It even has them discussing their conflicting Abrahamic covenants.

Read on and then feel free to ask good questions that will open up the discussion. If I read Mark’s passion correctly, he will be checking the comments here eager to reply.

1] Which Orthodox rabbis are you friendly with or impressed with? why?
Rather than list specific rabbis, I’d prefer to list organizations with which I have worked. The OU, Agudath Israel, The Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance, Jews for Judaism, the Sephardic Educational Center, Harvard Hillel and many LA-area Orthodox synagogues all have rabbis whom I know and admire. Last summer I conducted an especially meaningful dialogue with a Montreal Orthodox rabbi. I am very impressed by their dedication to Torah-based Judaism and Jewish values, and the way in which they use their influence both to strengthen their own communities and to work with people of faith to improve the world. I have attended OU seminars and lectures on kashrut laws and dina d’malchuta dina, welcomed the collaboration of the OU and Agudath Israel with Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and Evangelicals to pass Proposition 8 in California, attended a luncheon sponsored by Jews for Judaism, taken a Torah class from an inspired SEC rabbi, and conducted a town hall meeting on gay marriage at a leading Orthodox shul.

2] What theological topics do you talk with them?

It’s hard to identify a common theme to my religious discussions with Orthodox rabbis. Together we’ve explored many topics: the obligations associated with the Abrahamic covenant, what it means to be created b’tselem, whether dina d’malchuta dina can ever trump Torah law, whether evil was divinely created, the role of Satan in Jewish thought, why certain prohibitions are contained in the Noahide Laws, and why religious Jews and Mormons wear sacred garments.

Two weeks ago, I had the distinct honor of giving the D’var Torah to the Orthodox minyan at Harvard University. After discussing lepers and cleansing, I thanked the Orthodox for standing for morality and Torah values in a world that sorely needs them. I’ll never forget this experience.

3] Why is Mormon-Orthodox Jewish dialogue important?

Mormons generally consider the Orthodox to be Jews who take G-d and their religion seriously. We have enormous respect for people who believe that the Hebrew Bible is a divine book, and that this knowledge obligates us to act in certain ways. On a personal level, I have found that Orthodox Jews are usually much more knowledgeable about their own faith than their Reform and Conservative counterparts.

Given that Mormons believe that they are modern-day Israelites and that their theology is far more complete than other Christian belief systems on the Abrahamic covenant, chosenness and Israel, the prophetic tradition, etc., it’s only natural that they would seek to dialogue with Jews who look to Judaism, not secular liberalism, for enlightenment on these questions.

The LDS Church as a whole is interested in working with other faiths in two areas: humanitarian aid and promoting religious freedom. At the grass roots level, however, Mormons love Jews, Judaism, and Israel, and any attempt by the Orthodox to engage in dialogue with us would be warmly welcomed.

4] Do the Orthodox rabbis ever learn about Mormonism and its doctrines?

I’ve fielded many questions from Orthodox rabbis on LDS beliefs and practice. On one occasion the local LDS Church’s public affairs committee invited a group of LA-based rabbis to visit the temple in Draper, Utah, before it was dedicated. An Orthodox rabbi was in the group, and he was very appreciative of the chance to learn more about our sacred rituals.

5] If there is one message that would give an Orthodox audience?

Mormons have enormous respect for Judaism and Jews, and we have more to say to religious Jews than do other Christians.

6] Where do you see the most divergence?
Mormons have temples, revelation through prophets, and the priesthood. We consider them to be both necessary and irreplaceable. When we read the Hebrew Bible, we see a pattern of G-d calling prophets, giving them His word, and the sending them to transmit it to the masses.

There are no authorized dissenting voices in the Torah. Therefore, when a Mormon reads the Talmud, with its quarreling rabbis and multiple interpretations of scriptural passages, it’s difficult for him to accept the rabbinic/Talmudic tradition as being a continuation of temple-based Judaism. For us, there can’t be a prophetic tradition without prophets.

7] Is there any advice that you would give someone who is not used to encounter with Mormons.
Mormons do not believe that Jews and others who reject Jesus Christ as the Savior are going to hell. [For us the deadline for accepting G-d’s truths is not death, but the olam ha-ba]. Finally, there is no room in LDS doctrine for replacement theology. The Abrahamic covenant is at the center of our temple worship, and children born to couples who have been “sealed” in our temples are said to be “born in the [Abrahamic] covenant.” To be sure, our definition of that covenant is more expansive than the Jewish one, but the idea that the Abrahamic covenant has been replaced by something else is antithetical to our beliefs. Does the covenant still apply to Jews? Yes. Are they keeping all of its requirements? That would make for a fascinating dialogue topic.

8] One of the student organizers of your talk at Harvard emailed me after the event to inform me about it. But he added “My only regret is that we ran out of time before we could ask about the Mormon corporeal conception of God… many Orthodox rabbis may not be aware of the problematic Avodah Zarah-esque (idolatrous) natures of many LDS theological tenets.” How would you respond to this student statement?

Site editor--For those not acquainted with Mormon belief about God, here is a neutral BBC article on the topic.
• God is not of another species
• God is an exalted, perfected man
• God has a physical body
• There is more than one God
• Human beings have the potential to become like God
• The Godhead consists of 3 separate and distinct beings, united in purpose
• Mormons believe that God is immortal and that God was once a man.
• God the Father is a being called Elohim, who was once a man like present day human beings, but who lived on another planet.
• Over time this man made himself perfect and became God, with a knowledge of everything, and the power to do anything.
• Jesus Christ is the first-born spirit child of God. He was the literal, biological Son of God, and of Mary
• They believe that after the resurrection, Jesus visited America, where he taught and performed miracles.

Answer- Instead of waxing indignant like some Christians do when they discover that the Talmud regards them as idolaters (I tend to think that the rabbanim were targeting the Roman-era Christians who were persecuting them under the guise of religion, but I digress), I’ve found that it’s easier to simply explain what we believe and let Jews come to their own conclusions. The BBC link is accurate, but a little perspective is needed.

For Jews, the concept of covenant Israel begins at Sinai. For Mormons, it is an eternal covenant that began in the pre-earth life when we lived with G-d and will continue into the eternities. We believe that the first covenant Israelite, the first “Mormon” if you will, was Adam. We also believe that all of the early patriarchs (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham) held G-d’s priesthood and taught true worship of Him. In other words, we don’t believe that worship of the true G-d began with Abraham Avinu, though it may have been restored by him. While Jews tend to dismiss pre-Abrahamic concepts of G-d as idolatrous or benighted, Mormons see the ancient Near Eastern belief in a council of Gods reflected in the Hebrew Bible.

In Genesis 1:26, for example, we see the plural “us” used by G-d and we learn that we are created b’tselem, which Mormons interpret literally. Psalm 82:1 is another scripture that resonates with us.

We do believe that G-d is an exalted, perfected man who is the Father of our spirits. He is married to an exalted, perfected woman, and we are their spirit children. In LDS teaching, we are all literally brothers and sisters of G-d. We lived with our heavenly parents before we came to earth, and b’ezrat Hashem we’ll live with them in the olam ha-ba.

Mormons reject the concept of the Trinity, choosing instead to believe in three distinct divine members of a Godhead headed by G-d our Father.

One clarification is needed for the BBC article, one which may allay some avodah zarah concerns. Although we believe that there is more than one god, we only pray to our Heavenly Father (in the name of Jesus). In our modern scriptures, we learn that Abraham is now an Exalted Man who “Sitteth Upon His Throne,” but we do not worship Abraham.

Our relationship to G-d and other gods is analogous to a child/parent relationship: there may be many fathers walking the earth, but a child has only one dad that he recognizes as such.

Please let me know if you need more information. Clarity is always more important than agreement when it comes to interfaith dialogue, and this is especially true with respect to our concept of the divine.

Top Rabbis, Interview with Abigail Pogrebin, and Open Orthodoxy

The fifth installment of Daily Beast- Newsweek’s Top Rabbis list appeared last week. The co-creators were Michael Lynton —Sony Pictures chairman and CEO, and Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of Time Warner Inc. Neither one seems knowledgeable or qualified to make such a list and Los Angeles is not known for culture. This year they brought in journalist Abigail Pogrebin, former 60 Minutes producer and author of Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. She helped edit Lynton and Ginsberg’s brainchild. Where the prior lists seemed all wrong, this one has its finger on something correct—media is the medium.

James Hunter in his latest book (discussed here) asked: why religious groups do not change American culture if they are so prevalent and dedicated? His answer is that they do not play in the big leagues and confine themselves to their parochial culture. This list lets us know who is playing in the media league. And for many rabbis in the coming decade reaching people will involve media, social media, networking, and preaching to those in power. Since Jews have reached the highest levels of society in the last years and the greatest acceptance in society of any group then this public media faith may be the way of the future for those who want to influence society. CLAL is now training rabbis to use the media and preach to general America culture as a whole what it calls “rabbis without borders.”

But what about the list? Is this order indicative of anything? Others have done excellent jobs of fisking prior lists – here, here, and here.
My angle is to look at the trends and not to look at the ranking at all and more importantly, not to look at the names. Not more than 25 actually belong on the list. The other 25 could have been interchanged with other names. But the trends are correct.

What are the trends?
Chabad represents authentic tradition to most Jews and most American Jews have some involvement with Chabad. Jews in Reform Temples eagerly await their shmura matzah from the local shaliach. In the public’s eye Chabad is mainstream Orthodox and has pushed most other forms of Orthodoxy out of the picture.

Denominational Rabbis are insulted that the Kabbalah Centre is on the list but the Kabbalah Centre, Aish, Chabad, and many other groups besides the major denominations have great influence over Jewish life.

If you are involved in an indie minyan then you are “in” this year. It does not matter which rabbi was honored.
If you are involved in Joshua Venture then you are honored.
If you are connected to the game changing foundations then you are on the list such as Bronfman, or Wexner. If the Jim Joseph Foundation had a rabbi in charge it would have been on the list, while if Wexner loses its Rabbinic director then it is off the list.

The list rewards interfaith work, involvement in politics, and those that criticize the system.

The list rewards anyone who is bringing change rather than having accomplished it. The prime case is that Rick Jacobs is on the list and Eric Yoffie is off even though Yoffie had another successful year of leadership. Something akin to the Obama peace prize.

Those proclaimed by the list are the members of the RVI who criticized the status quo of the Reform movement and seek to lead Reform into new terrains of the 21st century. But at this point, they are only critique not accomplishment. The list rewarded those who criticized the Conservative movement, even if the solution will not necessary come from those figures who issued the critiques. And it heavily rewarded Open Orthodoxy. This is a good chance for some of my readers to know what is going on in other movements. Go download their speeches and critiques. If Reform and modern Orthodoxy remade themselves in the 1980’s into success stories from their nadir, it pays to watch who emerges from the new Conservative and Reform initiates.
Many of the rabbis share the religious message of Oprah, the gospel of prosperity and individual growth. Religion relates to one’s own narrative. Many of the rabbis have appeared on TV or written plays or other forms of media.

Who are the intellectuals and authors that have broad appeal? David Wolpe, David Saperstein, Jospeh Telushkin, Jill Jacobs, and Arthur Green. The emphasis is on social justice, ethics, a narrative sense of religion. Note that Green is credited with environmentalism and pacifism, more ethics than pantheistic metaphysics. There needs to be more rabbis to step into the mass market book niche. More rabbis should be able to successfully have a public debate besides Wolpe. On the other hand, I wish someone more learned and bookish rabbis could learn to have an impact with their ideas.
Reb Zalman has been issuing a book every few months and is taking on a new following.
My readership does not first think of organizational rabbis or even synagogue rabbis but teachers of Torah in the broadest sense- Rabbis Green, Dorff, and Schachter.

And of course the first Rabbah is mentioned as an exemplar the way Sally Priesand was a celebrity as the first American female rabbi.

From this list, one sees that Open Orthodoxy has won the media war. American Jewry has accepted it and cheers it on. Returning to my point above from James Hunter, Open Orthodoxy may have lost the blog wars and the YI wars but blogs and the RCA are considered provincial and not competing in the main cultural arena. In the major cultural arena as defined by Hunter, Open Orthodoxy seems to have won.

But from where I sit and type, Open Orthodoxy seems to have few applicants and ever fewer strong applicants. It is struggling for legitimacy and is not getting major positions. Am I too far away? Too close? I dont see the change. And I found the choices idiosyncratic. The list is written as if there is a tidal wave of YCT rabbis reaching major pulpits. So I decided to directly ask one of the authors of the list who wrote a recent article on Avi Weiss.

Last year, the third member of the evaluation team Abigail Pogrebin befriended me on Facebook. Now what are Facebook friends for, if not for quick interviews on what they write? (For example, Peter Beinart on his Orthodoxy.)

1] I know that you wrote an article on Avi Weiss. Your list is heavily slanted in its Orthodoxy section to Open Orthodoxy.

It’s true that my reporting for the Avi Weiss story for New York Magazine made us more familiar with the leading figures in Open Orthodoxy but we didn’t decide to include them because we favor their philosophy necessarily — more because they’re clearly at the vanguard of a significant movement that both balances Orthodox requirements and re-envisions Orthodox learning and ritual. Avi Weiss and Sara Hurwitz were already on the list last year so there were some new additions, as was YU’s Hershel Schachter, who is as far from Open Orthodoxy as they come. It should also be noted that Schachter entered the list higher than Hurwitz and Linzer.

One thing that we think is important, is that it’s very significant that we put Krinsky first. So to those who feel that “true” Orthodoxy got short shrift, no ranking gets greater notice than the number one slot.

2] Do you think they have that much influence? And on whom?
I think there’s no question that YCT is having real influence because its graduates are going to some of the nation’s most prominent Hillels, shuls, and organizations –and they’re bringing their new approach to Orthodoxy with them. If you look at the job placement list of YCT’s graduates the last ten years, I think you’ll see what I mean. These rabbis are going to some of the top positions in Jewish leadership and clergy and they’ll have an impact on their students and congregations. I think there’s no question that many Orthodox Jews– who feel the old models are too fixed —have been responsive, despite the discomfort and criticism of others who think Open Orthodoxy isn’t Orthodoxy.

3] How did you pick the open and modern orthodox rabbis? It seemed arbitrary.
There are obviously too many rabbis to include — in every denomination — but we chose the rabbis on the front lines of this reinterpretation of Orthodoxy who have been most on our radar over the last year. Part of the goal of the list is to tell readers what is happening in the Jewish world in terms of new ideas and leadership– no matter how controversial.

Editorial distance is important because we aim to include rabbis who meet our criteria, whether we “like” them or not.

4] Does the list offer any insight in your mind to the future of the Reform and Conservative movements?
Absolutely, we think the list reveals the internal tensions and dissatisfaction in both movements. Peter Rubinstein’s Rabbinic Vision Initiative, which was launched in the last year to very strong reactions — positive and negative — represents a bold questioning of the URJ’s effectiveness and relevance, and involved the participation of several rabbis on our list, who have some of the largest Reform synagogues in the country, namely Rick Jacobs, Steven Leder — who almost quit the URJ because he’s been so frustrated, David Stern, and Stephen Pearce.
As is well known, the Conservative movement is also doing some serious soul-searching, since many of its leaders feel its definition and virtues have become perilously unclear. See especially Ed Feinstein, who sounded the alarm at the recent convention in Las Vegas, David Wolpe — who has said that Conservative Judaism needs a definition it can fit on a bumper sticker, and Julie Schonfeld — head of Rabbinical Assembly — who is taking this precarious moment extremely seriously as she travels the country to hear from 400 of her movements rabbis to try to address the malaise.

5] Do you have any criteria for what is Judaism?
That’s a very interesting question and obviously more complex than I can answer succinctly, but basically I think we know that we’re recognizing Jewish leadership in the pulpit, the seminary, and in organizations, but we’re not listing people according to observance or whether they’re meeting some standard of what it means to be A Good Jew, or an “authentic” or “Halachic Jew.” When most Jews think of “Judaism,” they think of the religious practice itself — not just worship but study of Torah and Talmud, observing Kashrut, Mitzvot, etc. I don’t think we’d ever begin to list people according to some standard of an authentic Jewish life.

6] What do you keep getting asked?
Why weren’t more women on the list? (Although many reporters have noted there were twice the number as last year — see Marc Tracy in Tablet, Debra Nussbaum Cohen in the Forward, and The Jewish Week)– and I would just like to remind those critics that 13 our of 50 women amounts to 26%, which exceeds the proportion of women in the rabbinate. We still want the list to reflect the reality of Jewish leadership, which doesn’t mean to suggest we don’t know there are plenty of other influential women rabbis doing significant, important work.

One side note from the list is that Rav Schachter is only being documented by his critics similar to the way the Hatam Sofer was only documented by those who opposed him. The Hatam Sofer was a strong leader of his rabbinical followers and offered appropriate leadership for his communities. But since his followers could only write hagiography we only hear the side of those authors with whom he differed. So too Rabbi Schachter is showing up in the history books as an opponent of people he disagrees with and not for his own sake. It is unfortunate that he is unlikely to produce a student to write a critical analysis.

If offered to fly out to LAX to work on next years list, I have in mind 2-3 Centrist and Yeshivish names that could be added to the list. In the meantime- Which Orthodox Rabbis have a national effect on all of America’s Jewry?

OK- now all those who emailed me that you wanted me to post on this topic, here is your chance to comment and discuss.

Happy and Kosher Passover holiday

At this point when I see that my readership has all but disappeared for the holiday, I wish everyone a zissen pesach, a joyous and kosher holiday.

I do have new posts written which will go up on Thursday/Friday. Should I post my thoughts on the top 50 rabbis or let it go?
I post my comments on this year’s 2011 Haggadot after Passover.

For some prior posts.

Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Haggadah (This should have gotten comments)
Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi on Pour out thy Wrath
Pour out thy Love Upon the Nations and Miriam at the Seder-Updated (On Bloch’s forgery and that everyone even Rabbi Jonathan Sacks uses it.)
Haggadot 2010

And from elsewhere: Here are 42 traditional Haggadot, most from Eastern Europe of the 17th to the early 20th century. For those who think they are the tradition, spend some time with Shelah Hagadah or the Munkatz Haggadah.

Interview with Naftali Loewenthal at Lubavitch News Serivce

The full interview by Baila Olidort of Naftali Loewenthal is a long 8000 words, read the full interview here. Below are some excerpts. Here we have another baby-boomer who dropped out- lived in the woods- came back via Chasidut- chose between Breslov and Chabad- and became a teacher of Hasidism. Note also that he had the chance to learn with Rav Futerfas.

Naftali Loewenthal caught my interest about twenty years ago when his book, Communicating the Infinite, was issued by Chicago University Press. The Chabad Chasid, a Ph.D in Jewish history who wrote his dissertation on the second Chabad Rebbe at University College London, lectures on topics such as Hasidism and Modernity, Gender in Orthodoxy, Science in Chassidic Thought in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UCL.

With his own interests in art, poetry and music, Naftali explored Chabad Chasidism as a young scholar in search of sustaining truths. A father of eleven children, Naftali is widely appreciated as a teacher of Chabad Chasidism—its texts and its applied ideals and values. Naftali lives in London with his wife Kate-Miriam, who holds an emeritus Chair of Psychology at London University and currently lectures at New York University in London.

Naftali Loewenthal: I come from a mixture of Yekkish (German) Jews who were very much under the Hirschian influence—my father’s family, and Chasidic Jews on my mother’s side.
After school I began studying psychology at University College London—the first Godless university in England, set up on agnostic and humanistic principles.
But I dropped out in my first year there because I didn’t want the falseness of academia. I decided I wanted to be a writer. This was around 1967. I was in my early 20s. My wife and I were living a very solitary life in the mountains above Bethesda, North Wales.

How did you get interested in Chassidism?
Well, in my first year at UCL, I took a course with Professor Yossi Weiss.
Weiss was fascinated by Rabbi Nachman of Braslav, so that sparked my own interest in Braslav and I began to learn Likkutei Moharan. Later when I was spending a semester studying at Hebrew U, I met Rabbi Gedaliah Koenig, a prominent Braslav teacher, and studied with him three times a week in his home in Mea Shearim. At that time also, my family in Jerusalem would often take me to the tisch of the Beis Yisroel, the Gerer Rebbe.

At that time, did you meet any other significant Chabad Chassidim?
Well, a very important figure in London Lubavitch at that time was the legendary Reb Mendel Futerfas. During my Summer vacation of 1969, for a period of a few weeks, I would meet with him early in the morning and we would study Likkutei Torah and sometimes Tanya. His approach was not overtly to try to make me a Lubavitcher, it was to help me become a Chasid. He felt that everyone has to be a Chasid, because if you’re not a Chasid, then who is your Rebbe?

You yourself are your own Rebbe—and mechanically you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, because you don’t have any outer objective reality to measure yourself by, you are your own Rebbe.
So everyone has a Rebbe—either the Rebbe is their own ego, or they have a Rebbe of some kind. From Reb Mendel I understood that you need a Rebbe—that was an important step for me.
Reb Mendel is still referred to today as a model Chasid. He sat in Soviet prisons for almost a decade.
Yes, and he once said to me, “a lot of people were very unhappy in lager [prison camp].”
That was the statement—I felt this was an incredibly significant point of reality in terms of what life is about, what being a human being is—broader even than being a Jew. In my juvenile mind—to “live” was what I wanted to do, and I saw Reb Mendel as a person who was living. He described his nine years in lager as “a long farbrengen without mashke”—that was his experience of it.

Another wonderful figure in London at that time was Rabbi Meir Gurkow. He was very old, and found it hard to walk all the way to Lubavitch House. So he would daven in a little shtiebl next door to where he lived. Well, it just happened, by Divine Providence, that this was the shtiebl where we davened before we began going to Lubavitch. On Shabbos at Shalosh Se’udos he would give a drosho, which I now know was probably from Likkutei Torah. I didn’t understand a word, but it was somehow radiant!
At this time… our second daughter was born, at which point I spent the time in Jerusalem which I mentioned earlier, and got involved with Braslav.
When I returned to England I actually began collecting money for Braslav, for a building complex, a Shikun, which Reb Gedalia wanted to build in Safed.

How do you reconcile the need to assert individuality, with the lifestyle of a Chasid?
It is a challenge, I would say it is called pnimius, inwardness. A pnimiusdig Chasid is totally an individual and at the same time totally attuned and connected to the Rebbe. His individuality is expressed in his or her unique perspective on the world.
When you consider the corpus of Chabad Chasidut, you find that you are dealing with something that is bli gvul, or infinite. Communicating or integrating such content means that you are attempting to fit the infinite into our finite, individual personalities. And that will express itself in distinctly individualistic ways in each person.

In that way, no two Chasidim are the same—they are each their own charismatic guide and character, and each will understand the same Chasidic discourse in very different ways. Over the years, working closely with Rabbis Lew, Zvi Telsner and Faivish Vogel, the individualistic side of Chabad Chasidic thought was strongly emphasized. Each of those three people would look at a topic or a problem in a somewhat different way. Rabbi Vogel, for example, can embrace modernistic and individualistic perspectives while at the same time sensing the purist, traditionalist dimension.

The idea of individualism in Chasidism is very important to me—it’s part of the lecture course I give, and the book I am currently writing. I see it in the values and the inwardness of a Chasid, of the way he might bare his own private experience after a few hours of contemplative prayer, and allows others access to that, often in a farbrengen that follows, on a Shabbat afternoon.
What he chooses to share, his discovery from his contemplative prayer experience will be very different from his fellow Chasid. I’ve seen this many times where some of the Chasidic greats spent time in contemplative prayer, and would then come down to “farbreng,” and you could feel the “richness” of the exploration..

When did you meet the Rebbe for the first time?
After two years of writing long letters in Hebrew to the Rebbe, in the Summer of 1973 I went to Crown Heights for the first time for a month. My question to the Rebbe in yechidus –[private audience] was, should I go working on my Ph.D, or should I do a smicha –rabbinical ordination—at Jews College, or should I go into business.
The yechidus with him lasted nine minutes, and when I came out, I remember thinking that the Rebbe lets you see as much of yourself as you can bear.

The ego is a monster—the Rebbe holds up a mirror to you, so you see your own coarseness but not too much of it, because otherwise you’d turn to stone, it would have a paralyzing effect. Yet at the same time, I felt the Rebbe activates a kind of detonator, releasing your own potential.
The Rebbe advised me to go on with my Ph.D.

You are now working on another with a curious title.
Yes, I’m calling it Hippy in the Mikva: The Chabad Paradigm in a World of Change.
After I completed the book, I began changing the ways I thought about Chabad. I began thinking of a more general and universal way of expressing what Chabad is really about. I thought in terms of “drawing the infinite into the finite.” In a way, that is a more general way to describe “communication.” But an essential aspect of that process concerns the borders of the finite. That’s where I began to think of deconstruction as the paradigm—the see the borders that there are between, for example, the individual and the divine, between the individual soul and body, between the Jew and the community, and then to deconstruct those borders—to find a way to open those borders without being destructive.

That’s the great challenge which the Chasidic movement as a whole from the Baal Shem Tov, and Chabad in particular, is emphasizing in its communication of Chasidic thought.
And the Mitteler Rebbe did this—he communicated Chasidut to the widest reach, in terms of the society he was facing. Of course, our Rebbe took all this further in a most remarkable way. But in the process there are some barriers that have to be lifted, or made porous, and in that process there might be danger, or someone might think there is danger. Hence the controversial nature of Chasidism in its early years, and Chabad today, which continues the early deconstructive essence of Chasidism.

You are a mentor to so many people. What do you tell them about how to understand the idea of Divine Providence in evaluating their own lives, mistakes, bad choices they’ve made, and believing that none of it is coincidental?

I believe that you’ve got to see the world as a chess game which G-d sets up for you. Whatever moves you made in the past are all part of the situation as it is now, and the spotlight is on you. You are the master of your own destiny—and it is not a matter of regretting the past or fears of the future.
As the Rebbe said in a Maamar of Purim, 1957, the point is to come to a place beyond ordinary rational knowledge where you are able to act in the right way, whether avoiding bad or doing good, because you are operating from your own essence. Of course, you are guided by the Torah and the Code of Jewish Law. But your knowledge of the halachah is a channel for that which is beyond knowledge, the essence. That essence is the Yechidah, the innermost part of the soul, the point at which the individual joins with Yachid, the Infinite Divine. Full interview Here.

An interview with Prof Zachary J. Braiterman

Blogs can reconnect a person with people whom they have not spoken to in years. I recently received a note from Prof Zachary Braiterman that he enjoys the blog and he agreed to an interview. We come from opposite directions and this makes for an interesting meeting point. In this interview, there is a good sense of how a secularist perceives of revelation and religion. Maybe if you ask good questions, he might show up to answer queries.

Prof Braiterman teaches modern Jewish philosophy at Syracuse University- specializing in German Jewish Thought. He is the author of (God) After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought which deals with Rubenstein and Berkovits. He is also the author of The Shape of Revelation: Aesthetics and Modern Jewish Thought “In his new book, [Braiterman] brilliantly traces the parallels between modern Jewish religious thought as epitomized by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, and contemporaneous trends in visual art as exemplified by Kandinsky, Klee, and Franz Marc.” He also has a superb article on Rav Soloveitchik “Joseph Soloveitchik and Immanuel Kant’s Mitzvah-Aesthetic,” AJS Review (25:1, 2000-2001).

1]As a specialist in modern German Jewish thought, what value do the German Jewish thinkers have for non-academics?

The German Jewish tradition that dominated modern Jewish thought (the tradition of Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig) is clearly dated, maybe outdated. It is modern and modernist, not postmodern. In my estimation, its pseudo-prophetic focus on transcendence and immediacy seems overstated and melodramatic. It does not really focus on ordinary life, democratic politics, technology, mediated culture, and science. The whole style, the tone and affect, are no longer ours at the start of a new century. Talmud has more to say to me now than Bible, although a colleague of mind has put her finger on the biblical wisdom tradition as a resource for contemporary Jewish thought. This would get us back to another German Jew –the liberal and gregarious Moses Mendelssohn.

But these Germans still grab the attention of my students and make sense to them, and to me.

I think it’s because of the “art” and artfulness they bring to Judaism and Jewish culture. The German Jews –all of them, including S.R. Hirsch– were committed to “Bildung,” the formation of character and culture through the arts (poetry, theater, music, painting). And by the way, I would also remind you that Soloveitchik and Heschel were also “German,” having trained there in philosophy. In contrast, contemporary American Jewish thought looks dull and shapeless, without the verve which the Germans enjoyed. Even when we Americans try to get arty, it doesn’t work, because our taste in art is not up-to-date. (Michael Wyschogrod, another “German,” makes this point in The Body of Faith)

2] Your book is called The Shape of Revelation and it explores the overlap between revelation and aesthetic form from the perspective of Judaism. What is the relationship of aesthetics and revelation for Buber-Rosenzweig? What is the aesthetic revelation of Buber-Rosenzweig?

First of all, there’s no such thing as “aesthetic revelation.” And yet revelation is aesthetic insofar as it is organized by and/or to the senses. By “aesthetic,” I mean more than the beautiful and the sublime, not that I would preclude them entirely. But more important is what one early theorist identified as “the science of perception.”

Revelation refers to that event or those events that take shape between God, the human person, and human persons, and uncovered through the senses. In the history of religions, accounts of revelation are shaped in vision, as visual experience, but to this one should add hearing and one could add touch, smell, and taste. In Judaism too.

In more traditional pictures, revelation is marked by thick and often ornate (legal, doctrinal) contents. For Buber and Rosenzweig, the encounter with God was shaped along the contours, primarily of German Expressionism. Think of the expressionist woodcut, painting, or poem –the wild-eyed prophets, the unnatural color, the strong erotic tonalities, the drive towards death and redemption; and most interestingly by “the spiritual in art” as practiced by Kandinsky, Klee, and Franz Marc, especially by abstract art. For Buber and Rosenzweig, the content of revelation is reduced to the event of revelation itself, the appearance of the presence of God, and to the claims that this makes on the human person and persons.

About revelation, all they can say is “something happens to the human person” that forms a part of but does not fully belong to the time-space continuum, and which fundamentally re-orients human subjectivity in its light.

3] Why call it revelation if it is not the traditional meaning of revelation? Who would it speak to?
I guess I’d call it revelation because I don’t know what else to call it. Revelation is revelation. It’s not “just” aesthetic –or psychological, or sociological. Buber-Rosenzweig spoke to God’s reality in the world. For some this might not provide enough content.

Lots of people don’t take to abstract art, or might like abstract art without wanting it in religion. But, the minimum of truth claims speaks to people like me who are
[1] both skeptical regarding dogmatic assertions of religious faith and traditional claims to religious authority, and [2] also open to religion and to spirituality.

There is a simplicity, grandeur, and coherence in this type of picture that intensifies consciousness, like blinding light or a painting by Mark Rothko. Is it Jewish? As I read him, Buber never rejected form per se, just dead form. Jewish thought, speech, and acts were the garbs through which he and Rosenzweig saw this light.

4] As one of secular Jewish background, what do you think of the future of Jewish secularism? Do you like projects such as David Biale’s attempt at theology of Jewish secularism?

As an ideological, anti-religious platform, Jewish secular-ism is a dead dog. But as a worldly
life-habit, I think most Jews today remain secular. Indeed, it probably means that almost all Jews, religious or not, live under conditions of secularity. This means [1] slipping out from under the necessary and final control of rabbinic authority, [2] turning Torah and mitzvoth into folkways for those repelled by or indifferent to religion, but not to Jewishness, [3] turning Jewish belief and religious practice into spirituality for the spiritual seekers, and [4] interest in the arts and pop culture.

In all this, I follow Charles Taylor. According to Taylor, secularity does not ipso facto reject religion. In “a secular age,” religion may not constitute a privileged social default-setting. It does, however, represent one live option, among other, non-religious ones. Or as per Rawls, religion represents one type of “comprehensive community” that participates in the larger project of “political liberalism,” alongside other types of comprehensive communities. Or as per Jakobsen and Pellegrini, rather than exclude religion tout court, secularism actually makes new forms of religious life possible.

Taylor’s point, by the way, is very much in line with Biale’s thinking, for whom religion is a formative part of Jewish culture.

5] Why do you like Eliezer Berkovits as a thinker?

In my estimation, Berkovits made all sorts of claims about “authentic Judaism,” which on the surface I find quite obnoxious. But what he regarded as “authentic Judaism” was really quite stunning for me as a liberal Jew. He was genuinely open to doubt and anger about God and providence. More than anything, it seems to me that Berkovits thought was based first and foremost on deep commitments to ahavat and klal Yisrael. As an empiricist (his dissertation was on Hume), Berkovits was sensitive to lived-life, not simply concepts and constructs.

6] Do you feel closed out of Orthodox or Rabbinic discourse? Does that affect your view of Jewish studies?

In my scholarship and university teaching, Orthodoxy represents one possible subject-position regarding religion and culture in the modern period. Some of its manifestations strike me as coherent, others less so. This is also true of liberalism.

Ideologically, what concerns me is the tendency towards trying to own Judaism coupled with the tendency towards sectarian enclavism. From this I feel completely shut out. In Israel, as I see it, the problem is particularly problematic. In the U.S. it matters less. I would also like to think that, like any system, orthodoxy is open and multivalent.

Personally and intellectually, I’ve always felt welcome in those orthodox circles that have been open to me. I admire the warm facility and easy fluidity with Jewish things. I’d point to formative encounters growing up in Baltimore, as well as interactions with colleagues and students in the U.S. and in Israel.

As for rabbinic discourse, it depends what you mean. I’m most familiar with midrash which now interests me less than the Bavli, which interests me a lot. I’m drawn to a formal approach to Torah which is this-worldly, framed around very plastic, theoretical notions of space and objects, and spatial relations; less driven by necessity, and open to pushing out the limits of theoretical possibility.
Kabbalah gives me the willies.

7] What are you working on now? why?

Two projects, one on aesthetics of classical German Jewish liberalism. I’ll start with Mendelssohn in the 18th century, and move on through Geiger and maybe Graetz to Hermann Cohen at the start of the 20th.

For all its faults, liberalism still seems to me to be the most coherent way to conceive and organize modern Jewish culture and religion. As I see it, liberal Judaism was best able to articulate a place for religion in the new secular order of things. (If only it could make that place more robust. There’s the rub, yes? and my attraction to orthodoxy.)

Clearly, my conception of liberalism is idiosyncratic. For me liberalism is more than comprehensive secularism, atomistic individualism, and cold reason. What draws me to classical German Jewish liberalism is the combination of ideas, sentiment, imagination, and style. I am particularly interested in the bourgeois articulation and interaction between three (not two!) kinds of space: public space, domestic space, and the civic space of synagogue life, which is an in-between kind of place mediating between the public and private.

The other project is on postmodern Jewish religion in which I will look to the determination of religious thought and practice by images and the imagination, simulacra and virtuality. Instead of approaching the image as a “symbol” referring to some unknowable external reality, I want with this project to explore the “truth,” force, or place of religion and holiness within the image itself. I’m basing it on the Bavli and Baudrillard.

8] What sort of philosophic preparation would you recommend for someone interested in Jewish thought?

[1] Deep, ongoing engagement in Jewish thought and texts (with the Schottenstein Talmud and Matt’s Zohar translation, liberal Jews no longer have an excuse to claim ignorance).
[2] Getting lost in thinkers and theoretical fields outside Judaism. Start with the history of continental thought, but get into the current moment (aesthetics, critical theory, ecology, gender, media, political theory, pragmatism, Wittgenstein).

9] Do you see yourself as a follower of Buber or a post-modern? why?
I’m still with Buber, whom I like better than Rosenzweig. He’s less pretentious, more fluid and genuine. I like him because he’s modern.
I guess I’m also postmodern, although in general I prefer the term “contemporary.” I don’t care much for Levinas, Marion, or religious Derrida. Their concepts strike me as weirdly static (the other, gift, the impossible, messianicity without messinainism). I loved the Derrida of deconstruction, and Deleuze for the animating volatility they bring to concepts and structures.

Denominations of Judaism

Philologus had a column a few weeks ago where he claimed:

“Denomination” in contemporary English is a rather sociological-sounding word; it’s what you call someone else’s religion, not your own. Can it be, then, that the real reason more American Jews are now using it is that they have come to regard Judaism as someone else’s religion?

As I was reading it, I knew that it was not true because I was in the middle of typing texts from the early 20th century in which both Reform and Orthodox Jews called themselves “denomination.” I also remembered that Marshall Sklare had used the term in the 1950’s. I was not going to respond since I already responded to one of his articles using Ngram to show he was wrong. Why do it again? But then I received an email from a friend who knows about language, and writes better than I do, exasperated about the column on denominations. After a few emails back and forth, sharing ideas and sharing places to check, the following guest post emerges from my email friend. I found the quote from Sklare, he found the use of the word streams. The humor is not mine but I post the entire thing.

Guest post by Philobiblios
Philologus is back to writing op-eds under the guise of philology. This week he claims that the use of the word “denomination” is new to Judaism. Its usage reflects a nefarious combination of Christian and apathy by liberal Jews impinging the authentic Jewish lexicon which, he says, prefers the term “movement.”

Philologus may have missed Marshall Sklare’s classic, Conservative Judaism (1955), which explains the rise and fall of different groups based on the Chicago School’s theory of first, second, and third places of immigrant settlement. Sklare repeatedly uses the word denomination to discuss the shift from the denomination of Orthodoxy to that of Conservative. “Jews who rise in social class might simply leave one denomination, Orthodoxy, and switch their affiliation to Conservative or Reform. “ The term was used in all subsequent literature based on Sklare. Most Jewish sociologists continued to use the word (e.g. Chaim Waxman; Jack Wertheimer). Even amateur sociologists used it; see, for example, Hillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend (1977), where the three American denominations are discussed on page 118.

Ok, maybe Philologus had no interest in the Conservative movement of his youth. But he should have know that at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions the Jewish speakers presented as part of the Jewish Denominational Congress. American Jews were proud to take their stand as another faith and denomination.
In fact, between 1893 and 1919, most references to the “movements“ are to the Reform denomination and the Orthodox denomination. (AB-I was actually working on these texts of the early twentieth century text when the op-ed appeared.)

Maybe Philologus does not like universalistic sociology and prefers his beloved tribal Zionism. Zionists surely would not use such a goyish word. But no. Jacob de Haas, the Hasidic and Haredi Zionist leader who worked with Brandeis to build American Zionism, used the word Jewish denominations throughout the 1940’s and 1950s. Maybe Philogos doesn’t like de Haas because he can’t fathom that a Zionist would be Hasidic and not a pork eater.

In any event, already in 1935 the term was being used to describe the constituents of the Synagogue Council of America.

So what’s wrong with movements? No doubt the association with bowels makes the word less than ideal for copy editors (though it offers possibilities for low-minded headline writers.)

The current term, my journalist friends tell me, is “streams.” This is a translation of the Hebrew zerem, and has been the standard word out of Israeli dispatches since the 1970’s. Some of the earliest citations come from reports of Israeli leadership, in the late ’70s and ’80s, promising American machers that if they came to power, they would work to recognize all “streams” of Judaism. How the term zerem came to apply to the religious movements, or denominations, is an interesting question.

But when it comes to English words, however, Philologus has to learn to use Google Books, the Ngram, and various other online archives before creating non-existent philology.

Elizabeth Johnson, Arthur Green, and the Spirit of 1941

Last Thursday, the book Quest for the Living God by Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, was questioned by the US Bishops as “not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.” This is big news in the world of American theology. I repeat this is big news and generating lots of discussion. The report claimed that her view of the Trinity and God was incorrect. The response by some of the liberals was that it is a return to the middle ages and repression. A more thoughtful approach was that she was being attacked by the Bishops because of her feminism and they went after other aspects to be circumspect. Those who defend her find when they read through the Bishop’s documents that the Bishop’s office is not reading her book correctly. You know these less educated clergy misread and think she is nothing but jargon. There is a lot of buzz about why, why now, and who was responsible behind the scenes.

But when I read through the Bishop’s document, I find that they were condemning her for pantheism and panentheism, the use of mystical metaphors for God, and an immanent view of God that clashes with traditional doctrine. They also do not like her thinking that the Holocaust has changed theology. It sounds a lot like Arthur Green and her critics sound a lot like Daniel Landes. One side is post mystical and post Holocaust and the other side does not read carefully but knows enough that this is not traditional and that they do not like it.

The interesting thing is the same trend of thought by Johnson and Green and the same year of birth. The youngest of the “lost generation” served as vanguard leaders of the baby-boomers. It was also the year that Tommy was born in the Who’s rock cantata. A boy born in 1941 who was a spiritual savior (It’s a boy Mrs Walker, it’s a boy!) (The story loosely based on the encounter with the gurus in the 1960’s).

On first thought, we might be glad that modern Judaism follows Mendelsohnn’s Jerusalem by not have required dogma checked in this sense of a group of bishops deciding what a theologian should say. Yet, we do have reviewers and institutional voices that are just as effective. Notice how much Green felt Landes was acting as a censor or decider of who is a heretic. And the repercussions of this debate will be felt in American theological circles, even Jewish ones.

Here are selections from the 24 page condemnation, notice the parallels to Green. What are the implications of this debate for Jewish thought?

In the light of the Holocaust and other horrendous evils, modem theism found itself unable to defend belief in its “omnipotent, omniscient Supreme Being” (52)

Later in her book, Sr. Johnson advocates an understanding of God that implies that the finite order is ontologically constitutive of God’s being. It is this view of God, which she identifies as “panentheism,” that allows her to predicate suffering to God as such. It is only
because God partakes of the finite order that the suffering within the finite order redounds to him. However, such an understanding undermines God’s transcendence in that God’s manner of existence, as Creator, would no longer differ in kin

The panentheism espoused by Sr. Johnson, however, fails to respect not only the transcendent integrity of God, but also the integrity of the created order, for in this view the finite created order finds its value not in its own created being, possessing its own inherent created value, but in being ontologically constitutive of God’s own being. Read the whole 24 pages here.

Here are the events from NCR; notice how pedestrian this write up is compared to the actual contradictory charges of panentheism, Kantianism, mysticism, and post-Holocaust theology.

Despite that conclusion, the bishops did not call for any disciplinary measures against Johnson, such as a ban on teaching or publishing. Johnson, 69, is a distinguished professor of systematic theology at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York.
According to the statement, the committee felt compelled to publicly denounce Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God because it is directed to a “broad audience,” and because it’s being used in many venues “as a textbook for the study of God.”

When it appeared, Quest for the Living God drew praise in many quarters for sketching new understandings of God based on various contemporary intellectual currents, including political, liberation, feminist, black, Hispanic, interreligious, and ecological theologies.

The statement, however, asserts that the book reaches many conclusions which are “theologically unacceptable.” The Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is chaired by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Though dated March 24, its statement on Johnson’s book was released today.

The 21-page statement from the doctrine committee outlines seven categories of problems in the book.
First, at the level of method, the statement accuses Johnson of questioning core elements of traditional Christian theology, including its understanding of God as “incorporeal, impassible, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.” Doing so, the statement asserts, is “seriously to misrepresent the tradition and so to distort it beyond recognition.”

Second, the statement faults Johnson for treating language about God in the Bible and in church tradition as largely metaphorical, implying that truth about God is essentially “unknowable.” Even if mysteries such as the Trinity and the Incarnation can never be fully grasped, the statement says, they can nevertheless be “known.” While Johnson bases part of her argument on early church fathers, according to the statement, her position actually has more in common with Immanuel Kant and “Enlightenment skepticism.”

Third, the statement asserts that in talking about the “suffering” of God, Johnson actually undermines God’s transcendence, suggesting that God differs only in degree, not in kind, from other beings.

Fourth, according to the statement, Johnson advocates new language about God not based on its truth but its socio-political utility. In particular, she argues that all-male language about God perpetuates “an unequal relationship between women and men,” and thus has become “religiously inadequate.” In fact, according to the statement, male imagery about God found in scripture and tradition “are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable.”

Fifth, the statement asserts that Johnson’s emphasis on the presence of the Holy Spirit in non-Christian religions “denies the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnate Word.” In effect, according to the statement, Johnson’s argument suggests that for the fullness of truth about God, “one needs Jesus + Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.”, a position it says is “contrary to church teaching.”

Sixth, the statement says, Johnson’s treatment of God as Creator ends in pantheism, undercutting the traditional understanding of God as “radically different from creation.”

Seventh, the statement faults Johnson’s understanding of the Trinity. Johnson treats traditional language about God as three persons as symbolic, according to the statement, thereby undercutting the church’s belief that “Jesus is ontologically the eternal Son of the Father.”
In its conclusion, the statement says the root problem with Johnson’s book is that it “does not take the faith of the church as its starting point.”

“It effectively precludes the possibility of human knowledge of God through divine revelation,” the statement says, “and reduces all names and concepts of God to human constructions that are to be judged not on their accuracy … but on their social and political utility.” Read Full story here and it has links to documents and articles.

Charge that the bishops office is misreading the document:

The document accuses Johnson of wanting to “replace” masculine names for God with feminine ones. Johnson never says any such thing. “Are they [the bishops on the committee] doing so much reading between the lines they’re overlooking what the lines themselves say?” Mollie asked. That’s certainly possible. But I wonder whether they’ve read the book at all.
Take, for example, this passage from Quest:

All fruitful metaphors have sufficiently complex grids of meaning at the literal level to allow for extension of thought beyond immediate linkages. That is why God can be seen as a king, rock, mother, savior, gardener, lover, father, liberator, midwife, judge, helper, friend, mother bear, fresh water, fire, thunder, and so on.
And this:

God is not literally a father or a king or a lord but something ever so much greater. Thus is the truth more greatly honored. This is not to say that male metaphors cannot be used to signify the divine. Men, too, are created, redeemed, and sanctified by the gracious love of God, and images taken from their lives can function in as adequate or inadequate a way as do images taken from the lives of women…. If God is a “he” as well as a “she”—and in fact neither—a new possibility can be envisioned of a community that honors the difference but allows women and men to share life in equal measure.

As anyone who has read the book can tell, Johnson has no interest in dumping male images of God in favor of female ones. She wants us to consider both. Read the rest here.

Here is a blog Women in Theology that has extensive coverage of the debate, along with reflections and defenses.

Rav Tzair and an American Sanhedrin

Someone sent me an interesting old JTA posting about the attempt in 1926 to create an American Sanhedrin by Rabbi Chaim Tchernowitz, the Religious Zionist thinker. (RZ is one of my 14 types of MO and it existed in 3 continents). The speech was also covered in much less detail by the NYT. Prof. Tchernowitz, was the maggid shiur at Rav Reines’ Yeshiva in Odessa and then sought refuge by teaching at JIR in NY. He wrote many interesting works such as Toldot Haposkim and a very interesting autobiography. Just reading this speech you can get a sense of the 1910’s and 1920’s hock that he provides.

Between WWI and 1951, most Religious Zionist leadership was in NY because it was too hard to make a living in the yishuv. Rav Tzair wanted one rabbinic body to unite the three American religious movements in order to return everyone to Torah.

This speech was given at Chavrutha, the Jewish intellectuals club, lead Peter Wiernik, who sought to create an Yiddishist anti-Zionist modern Orthodoxy. (It is not one of my 14 types because Yiddishist Dubnov modern Orthodoxy never caught on.) However, Weirnik’s papers are in the YU archives waiting for MA thesis and he has an autobiography.

JTA October 26, 1926
Rabbinic Council to Revise Religious Laws on Basis of Tradition Proposed for U. S.

The creation in the United States of a rabbinical council which would be endowed with authority to interpret, in accordance with the spirit of Jewish traditions, the Biblical and Talmudic laws in accordance with the requirements of the time, was the suggestion put forward by Professor Chaim Tchernowitz, at the last meeting of the Chavrutha, a Jewish intellectuals club, held at the Broadway Central Hotel. Peter Wiernik, editor of the “Jewish Morning Journal” and president of the Club, was in the chair.

The suggestion of Dr. Tchernowitz, who is known in Hebrew literature under the nom de plume of “Rav Zair” and is professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Institute of Religion, stirred the audience.

Professor Tchernowitz presented his conclusions as a summary of his observations of Jewish life in the United States during the past three years. All three parties of American Jewry, the Orthodox, the Reform
and the Conservative according to the speaker have embarked on a road which is not in accordance with the development of the essence of Jewish law. The most important place in Jewish life in the United States is now occupied by the prayer book and the synagogue, which are, viewed from the angle of historic development and judged by the place these were accorded in olden times, rather less significant and at any rate non-essential in the general scheme of things Jewish, he declared.

Reviewing the history of the development of the Halakah and citing a number of instances in the Halakah in which the Sages have interpreted and amended the original Biblical law in accordance with the spirit of this law, rendered necessary by changing conditions, Dr. Tchernowitz pointed to the fact that Jewish Orthodoxy in the United States is developing into a party instead of maintaining the position of the original reservoir of Jewish thought and leadership. When the prayer book and the synagogue building are the center of interest and when Orthodoxy is becoming stagnant and is being transformed into a party, it is not surprising that it is not led by the rabbis, the leaders of thought, but by the congregational presidents, or the political leaders, he stated.

“Traditional Judaism,” he continued, “had this quality that while it maintained the essence of the revealed tradition, it nevertheless allowed development. Laws, as they are known in human history, are of a two-fold origin: one is of revealed religion or divine inspiration,
the other of human legislation. The first, revealed religion, cannot be changed, except by the same process; the other can be changed by the legislators. The Torah from its very beginning had the religion
and legislation. This found expression in the principle that while the basic foundation is of divine origin, its application was left in the hands of the scholars. ‘Everything which any devoted scholar is destined to introduce was handed down to Moses.’ This is one of the
determining outlooks of Jewish law. The Biblical commandment of ‘According to the Torah which they will instruct thee’ embodies the combination of the two channels of legislation. Orthodoxy, in ignoring this circumstance, has placed itself in the difficult position in which it is now. The fact of the matter is, all the inventions based on modern science, such as electricity, the telephone, the telegraph, rapid transportation and the radio, greatly affecting the life of modern man, have been introduced after the close of the ‘Schulchan Aruch.’ A revision of the Sabbath law, for instance, toward these inventions, is a matter of imperative necessity.

“There is also great need for a revision of the law with regard to marriage, divorce and in matters of Agunoth (women who have lost track of their husbands) and Chalitzah (the ancient rite practiced when the husband dies without progeny).”

The Jewish reform movement in the United States was also discussed by the speaker. “In all history of religion,” he said, “the reform movements were motivated by strong faith and the urge to greater piety. The Karaites insisted that the rabbis were too liberal in the interpretation of the Bible and renouncing the Talmud urged a return to the source, which meant the strict enforcement of the letter of the law. Also the Chassidic movement which has laid emphasis on religious enthusiasm could be regarded as a reform movement which rebelled against the stagnation of the religious laws among the rabbinic ‘Mithnagdim.'”

“In the history of Christianity, the reform movements were brought about through similar motives. The only exception is the Jewish reform movement. It did not spring out of faith, but out of a desire for adaptation. The reform movement is not based on faith nor on any
particular philosophy. The reform movement, contending, on one hand, that Judaism is a religion but not a nationality and, on the other hand, basing its theory on the idea of “a Jewish mission, created a situation of contradictio in objecto and is wrangling with irreconcilable theological contradictions. The present day advocates of reform have entirely deviated from the path outlined by the founders like Geiger and his contemporaries, who wanted to establish reform Judaism on the basis of historic Judaism. The sermons of the reform preachers and rabbis in the United States are mainly of a secular and political character and are not permeated with Jewish religious thoughts. Some of these sermons even go into regions totally outside of Judaism.

“To add to its troubles, there is no leading thought which is binding for all rabbis. The reform movement in the United States apparently adheres to the other half of the previously quoted sentence. They leave out ‘according to the Torah,’ but they practice ‘as they will instruct thee.’ Each reform rabbi chooses what he finds expedient and ‘instructs’ as he sees fit.

“The Conservatives are,” Dr. Tchernowitz said, “a fifty-fifty proposition. The Conservative congregations have neither the contents of the Orthodox nor the freedom of the Reform. Emphasis is laid by them on the Siddur (prayer book) which is indeed a non-essential in Jewish life. When the sources are consulted, it appears that the Siddur and the synagogue ritual are the latest and the least significant parts of Judaism,” he stated.

“The great temples were converted by the cantors into a sort of cheap opera, where the music, which is mostly non-Jewish and an imitation of secular melodies lacking in proper taste and religious feeling, occupies the central place to which prayer is merely of secondary importance. These temples are becoming more and more empty, they are not frequented by the youth, who do not find there any religious inspiration. Historic Judaism centered more around the Beth Ha’midrash, the house of learning, around learning and not around the prayer.”

Dr. Tchernowitz concluded his discourse by expressing his opinion that in previous periods, although the law was considered “closed” there was a “silent consent” on the choice of one or several rabbinic authorities with whom rested the power of decision. But this type of
the Gaon has disappeared never to return. In these times of modern democracy the only way to insure the continuity of Jewish law and Jewish tradition and to fuse the three sections which sail without direction is to create a “Beth Din Ha’Gadol” to revise Jewish religious laws in accordance with the spirit of historical Judaism.
Such a council would thus be given the authority and all sections would adhere to its opinions, he stated.

Mr. Moses Stoll, well known New York Talmudist, in a learned discourse opposed the views of Dr. Tchernowitz, arguing that no matter what innovations the Jewish religious law experienced in the course of its development and no matter what other innovations might be necessary, they were accomplished and can be accomplished only “within the circle.”

Modern Orthodox words in my mouth

I have just been quoted about my supposed views and I dont recognize it and agree with little of it. So you are needlessly keeping me up tonight to respond. (gezel shanah!)I am usually online- you and others can always contact me to fact check first to see if you are correct.

Some, such as Professor Alan Brill, now divide the American Orthodox community into three wings: haredi, CO and MO, where the CO straddle the ideological divide between right and left. In other words, in addition to being stricter in halakhic observance, the CO are more skeptical of the MO values described above. Some call this middle camp “gray” or “gray hat,” connoting a kind of diluted version of haredism.

According to Brill, CO has a more conservative religious ideology than that of philosophical MO. Moreover, beginning in the 1980’s, children from MO homes have become increasingly CO, partly as a result of their study in Israel post-high school. As a result, a generational shift is gradually condemning the philosophical MO to extinction.

But there are problems with Brill’s analysis. While the changes he documents are real, they seem minor relative to the overall continuity between philosophical MO and CO. Moreover, the generational shift suggests that this new ideology is nothing more than a new generation’s version of their parents’ MO, sort of a MO 2.0. Third, Brill sees CO as a uniquely American phenomenon; yet there are striking parallels in the Israeli equivalent of MO, which has also shifted toward more scrupulous observance of Halakha, more obedience to rabbinic authorities and more distance from secular culture.

Why the MO of the 60’s and 70’s changed is a question deserving a separate post. But the changes MO underwent point to larger cultural trends that include rising affluence, a more assertive rabbinic class and changes in the zeitgeist. In any case, no one will argue with Brill’s central point – that the MO community has moved right over the last 40 years.

Feh! Yuck!
Let me start with the last point, I do not think that the community has turned right. I go out of my way to avoid ever saying that. I even avoid it on the blog. I leave right and left for politics and Hegelians. (I have the word once in one article-it was added by an editor). I emphasize difference and change not right or left.

I find the Centrist community and ideology of the community more acculturated into Americanism, popular culture, and suburbia. It also has parallels with the Evangelicals. That is a specific pattern of combining Orthodoxy with modern life. I do not see Centrist as closer or further from either modern Orthodoxy or Haredi or “engaged yehivish.” It is its own ideology. I do not see it as more or less religious than any other group. I have 100’s of posts here trying to create a thick description of the workings of Centrism.

Now back to the beginning. No, No, No. I do not see three groups out there. I leave that for online quizzes and hockers. I have never discussed hats or sociological continuities.

If we are talking philosophic or ideological trends, then I see about 12-14 groups within Modern Orthodoxy. Their differences are not right and left but canon, genealogy, ideal, and goal. The most important one that some have already picked up on is “engaged yeshivish.” That would be an essential category.
The full 12-14 groups would include as a category the still inchoate “open orthodoxy,” the pedigreed “European community orthodoxy” and Israeli imports “New Religious Zionists” and “Hardal.” They are philosophic or theological trends so one person can be connected to more than one. I repeat, one person can be connected to more than one of them the same way a person can be connected to more than one philosophy, political theory, or theology. And I certainly dont arrange them on any spectrum. I certainly did not mention a correlation with strictness of observance or laxity.

As a sociologist, one needs to create a study that has predictive value. Most of the hock is not sociology and has no real correlation between observance and group.

If we talk about sociology of the community, then first tell me what form of sociology or demographic you are using. Sociology measures social behavior, an institution, or a demographic. Then we have to discuss what are you using to create your set, frame analysis, an institution, or a neighborhood. I think the author is confusing me with the sociologists who discuss “sliding to the right.” On a popular level especially on the blogs, ideology and sociology are confused. Observance levels may or may not have anything to do with a given ideology.

I do not come to this not as a sociologist, and am not answering sociological questions. Rather as an intellectual historian, or student of contemporary relgion.

If we are dealing with social organization, then mid-twentieth century documents used to write “the Young Israel movement” “the Agudah movement” The Conservative movement” “The Mizrachi movement” or the “Bnai Brith movement.” In that sense Centrism and the older Modern Orthodoxy are one movement.

The term modern orthodox has three distinct meanings in our context.
(There are more meanings but not in our context. For example, the term was first used in the 1920’s for synagogues that were mixed seating and had English preaching eventually leading them to become Conservative.)
The first meaning is the coiners of the term, the 1950’s and 1960’s modern rabbis. They called themselves modern (small m) and Orthodox. Then it was an ideology because the sociology of the synagogues were simply called Orthodox. They thought it applied to a few dozen rabbis.
The second meaning is that in the 1970’s and 1980’s the term was applied to a social group that went to certain school, camps, and a specific university- they called themselves Modern (capital M) and Orthodox. Those who lived in certain neighborhoods or had certain professional and family profiles were now Modern Orthodox. But the ideologies and religious practices of these communities were so varied and diverse, the term became a catch-all still subject to debate and hock.
The third meaning which is the one that I am most interested in- is that many groups since the late 18th century have mediated both modern and Orthodox. The term was invented in the US but we can use it to discuss diverse phenomena in many countries. I am not interested and dont know “who” is modern Orthodox but I am interested in “what” is modern Orthodox. Especially,how it works, and what forms of hybrid, acculturation, synthesis, and bifurcation are created.

Now, to the middle point. Centrism may or may not be just MO 2.0. But if it has more continuity or more break it needs to be discussed in a context of different versions of ideology and with clear criteria for what is continuity and break. My sole interest is ideology and theology to determine these ideological distinctions. If you want to discuss other questions of continuity and break: Is Isaac Breuer’s Agudah Neo-Orthodoxy a theological continuity or a break with Hirsch’s Israel-Mentsch. (I am not discussing hat color or what they ate out.) Are the Datiim Ha-Hadashim a break or a continuity with Kibbutz Hadati ideology of SHaL or from that of 1960’s Mizrachi? Is Italian traditionalism, the same as that of chief rabbi British, or cathedral American?

You write “the CO are more skeptical of the MO values.” How do you know that? I certainly have no interest in ascribing motivations or even recording motivations- a path filled with the danger of projection at every turn. I treat groups as discrete entities.

And as a final coda, I dont lump all Haredim together. They have many separate ideologies with clear distinctions.

Good night.

Free-Market Theology

There is an April Fool’s joke of a legal blogger writing a phony abstract for a legal paper by Richard A. Posner. The latter is the important legal theorist of free-market economics as the basis for American law, Judge, 7th Court of Appeal, and University of Chicago Law School. The April fool’s paper is a free-market theory of what God does and why houses of worship are needed. Even though it is a joke it makes a lot of sense of a classic theism in modern terms. It can serve as a contemporary restatement of theistic reward and punishment theology such as Saadyah in American terms.
Here is the [phony] abstract:

This article presents a positive economic theory of the behavior of supernatural beings or deities. The essay addresses a well known problem in the conventional theological account of a supreme being that is omnipotent and omniscient. Given omnipotence, the state of the world should be identical with the state most favored by the preference structure of the deity. But rational choice theory is the positive theory that a rational actor will act so as to maximize the satisfaction of its preferences. Given omnipotence and omniscience, it follows that all states of affairs already accord with the preferences of an omnipotent and omniscient deity, leading to the paradoxical conclusion that rational action by such an entity is impossible.

The model proposed in this article resolves this paradox by invoking the familiar notion of “free will.” By creating beings with free will, a rational deity creates conditions in which it is possible for the deity to act rationally by interacting with creatures that it creates which have free will (who thus can act in ways that do not accord with the the deity’s preferences). On this model, a deity acts rationally when it acts in ways that induce creatures with free will to satisfy the deity’s preferences. For example, a deity might demand some act of sacrifice, reverence, or obedience and then threaten to punish creatures that do not satisfy these demands. Such threats might be made credible by actions that demonstrate the power of the deity to create plagues, floods, and other natural disasters visited upon those who are disobedient or irreverent.

This model provides a theoretical alternative to the common view of divine beings as Prometheans or saints, and it suggests new ways of looking at such practical issues as the design of religious institutions that can produce human behavior that will avoid the deleterious consequences that attend punitive actions by omnipotent deities. The author expresses no opinion on the question whether such entities actually exist. source is here at Lawrence B. Solum, h/t here.


This was just posted on the Catholic websites- it will be posted on the Israeli websites after Shabbat. In the meantime here is the jpost writeup. I was going to only post selected paragraphs but it is so short that I posted the whole thing. These things dont usually make the American Jewish papers.


1. The Bilateral Commission of the delegations of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews held its tenth meeting to discuss the Challenges of Faith and Religious Leadership in Secular Society. The meeting opened with a moment of silence in memory of Chief Rabbi Yosef Azran who had been a member of the Chief Rabbinate’s delegation for many years. Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, co-chairman of the Bilateral Commission, welcomed the participants and reaffirmed the historic nature and importance of these meetings. His counterpart Cardinal Jorge Mejia brought the greetings of the Cardinal Kurt Koch, recently appointed President of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, to the delegates. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yona Metzger, graced the meeting and expressed his strong support and encouragement for the work of the Bilateral Commission, acknowledging its impact on the positive change in perceptions of Jewish-Christian relations in Israeli society.

2.Deliberations sought to define the challenges that modern secular society faces. In addition to its many benefits; rapid technological advancement, rampant consumerism, and a nihilistic ideology with an exaggerated focus on the individual at the expense of the community and collective wellbeing, have led to a moral crisis. Together with the benefits of emancipation, the last century has witnessed unparalleled violence and barbarity. Our modern world is substantially bereft of a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose.

3.Faith and religious leadership have a critical role in responding to these realities, in providing both hope and moral guidance derived from the awareness of the Divine Presence and the Divine Image in all human beings. Our respective traditions declare the importance of prayer, both as the expression of awareness of the Divine Presence, and as the way to affirm that awareness and its moral imperatives. In addition, the study of the Divine Word in Scripture offers the essential inspiration and direction for life. The Biblical description of Moses (Exodus 3:1-15) was presented as a paradigm of religious leadership who, through his encounter with God, responds to the Divine call with total faith, loving his people, declaring the Word of God without fear, embodying freedom and courage, and an authority that comes from obeying God always and unconditionally, and listening to all, ready for dialogue.

4.The responsibility of the faithful is accordingly to testify to the Divine Presence in our world, (Isaiah 43:10) while acknowledging our failures in the past to be true and full witnesses to this charge. Such testimony is also to be seen in education, focus on youth and effective engagement of the media. Similarly, in the establishment and operation of charitable institutions with special care for the vulnerable, sick and marginalized, in the spirit of ‘tikkun olam’ (healing the world). In addition, the religious commitment to justice and peace also requires an engagement between religious leadership and the institutions of civil law.

5.Modern secular society has brought with it many benefits. Indeed, if secular is understood in terms of a broad-based engagement of society at large, this is likely to provide for a society in which religion can flourish. Furthermore the above mentioned focus on the individual has brought much blessing and led to an overwhelming attention to the subject of civil rights. However, in order for such a focus to be sustainable, it needs to be rooted in a higher anthropological and spiritual framework that takes into account “the common good”, which finds its expression in the religious foundation of moral duties. Society’s affirmation of such human duties, serves to empower and enshrine the human rights of its constituents.

6.Resulting from the discussion on the practical implications for religious leadership in relationship to current issues, the Bilateral Commission expressed the hope that the outstanding matters in the negotiations between the Holy See and the State of Israel would soon be resolved, and bilateral agreements speedily ratified for the benefit of both communities.

The Catholic delegation took the opportunity to reiterate the historic teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate (No.4) regarding the Divine Covenant with the Jewish People that “the Jews still remain most dear to God because of their Fathers, for He, does not repent of the gifts He makes, nor of the calls He issues (cf. Romans 11:28-29)”; and recalled the prayer for peace of Pope Benedict XVI when receiving the Bilateral Delegation in Rome on March 12 2009, quoting Psalm 125 “As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about His people, from this time forth and for evermore.”

March 31, 2011, Adar II 25, 5771
Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen Cardinal Jorge Maria Mejìa
(Chairman of the Jewish Delegation) (Chairman of the Catholic Delegation)