Monthly Archives: July 2011

Social History from a Contemporary Sermon

Marc Saperstein in his superb Your Voice is like a Ram’s Horn: themes and texts in traditional Jewish preaching, points out that sermons are the most important genre for social history. Halakhah, kabbalah, and exegesis often only reflect the imagination and concerns of the author, while sermons delivered in public are more likely to actually reflect the issues of the era. H.H. Ben Sasson, Azriel Schochat B. Z. Dinur and others successfully mined them for the religious behavior and deviance of Jewish societies. Saperstein points out that unlike the other genres which allow projection by the author, sermons are usually more critical of the congregants when delivered and are cleaned up of much of the detail for publication.

This post continues to look at the sermons of Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky delivered last year at the Jewish Center. In the following sermon can offer the future historian a glimpse into the social world of the early 21st century. The sermon opens with a TV Evangelical family that is in the process of disintegration. Then notes that many in the community are not scrupulous in their observance. He offer direct observation of the deviance in the realm of Kashrut, Shabbat and Negiah. Congregants are loose about where they eat out, they find the laws of cooking on shabbos beyond their ken, and justification for not following negiah.

Rackovsky does not use the language of following the halakhic system that needs to be followed as an ideal halakhic aspiration or submission to the halakhic discipline. Rather, he refreshingly returns us to Rav Dessler’s idea of point of choice, our current religious fault line or current struggle. In this model, our piety is judged by our individual striving to succeed in the battle to do the mizvah and our lapses are judged by our indifference to choosing correctly. Those who only use the language of halakhic system tend to sort the behavior of people like grades of eggs. This person is makil, this one is mahmir, this one is right and this one is left. But to use the mussar language of struggle and choice makes it personal, volitional, and about avoiding self-deception and rationalization. (Whereas Rav Dessler had a modernist concern for self-perfection, I hear faint echoes of Evangelical Neo-Calvinist struggle with sin and failings in Rackovsky’s usage).

Lax observance of kashrut, shabbos, and negiah by overworked UWS lawyers. What else do these contemporary sermons teach us?

Who is “frum”?
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky
The Jewish Center 5769

It seems that all anyone is talking about these days is on and Kate plus Eight, the TLC show chronicling the life of on and Kate Goselin and their twins and sextuplets.

Let me ask you a question: What are the actions that make someone an observant Jew, someone we might call ‘frum’?

• Another definition might be that observant Jewish man or woman attends minyan, keeps Shabbos carefully and knowledgeably, studies Torah regularly, is scrupulous in observance of kashrus inside the home and out and is careful to observe the laws of taharas hamishpacha and negiah. This may be a more technically correct definition, but it is not reflective of our sociological reality here on the West Side. If we are honest, we will admit there are plenty of people among us who do not do some-or any-of these things yet call themselves “observant.” Besides, even people who are meticulous in their observance make mistakes on occasion. So what does it mean to be frum in our community?

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler Z”l mashgiah of the Gateshead and Ponavitch yeshivos, wrote his masterpiece, Miktav MeEliyhau in which he coined the term nekudat habehirah the point of choice. Each person has a point at which struggles take place and willpower and commitment are tested. No two people have the same nekudat habehirah, and our task is to work on ourselves and constantly push our own upward. We live in a community in which people are in a transitional, experimental phase, and often find themselves violating that which was previously a red line, whether in the area of Shabbos, boundaries in relationships or kashrus observance. Perhaps a more accurate and productive definition of observance-of frumkeit for our community is one based on the lesson of the nekudat habehirah.. We are guided by a halachic system regardless of what we do; being observant means that we are challenged to struggle to maintain and increase standards of observance regardless of our previous shortcomings. The moment we start to rationalize that certain rules don’t apply to us personally, or say they are archaic, too difficult to observe and prevent us from having a good time, we are railing against the maintenance of a strong moral framework.

In our social construct, we are often faced with nekudat habehirah moments. For some people, it may be in the realm of Kashrus. Of course, there are people whose jobs depend on going to non-kosher restaurants on business lunches, and who exercise the proper precautions in these situations, and those are not what we are discussing. I refer to the questions I often get from people about eating in non-kosher vegetarian restaurants, or establishments under represent a nekudat habehirah for people, as it allows for greater opportunities for socializing and there is a certain illicit thrill involved as well.

Secondly, an area that may test our commitment is the area of Shabbos. Most people in our community are not willfully violating Shabbos, but many are doing so due to ignorance or apathy. I have seen numerous instances in which people heat food on Shabbos in ways that are definitely prohibited. It seems that this is not even an area of nekudat habehirah, but rather an area people avoid because they are scared of doing it wrong, or feel it is too difficult for them to follow.

Another area that can severely test one’s willpower is the area of negi’ah physical contact with the opposite gender. It is easy to decide that the laws of negi’ah are too difficult, unfair or do not apply to us, but this is the response of the path of least resistance. Read the rest here (The quotes have been slightly altered because the Hebrew did not transfer.).

Here is yet another sermon by Rackovsky that was delivered Kol Nidrei last year. Once again it reflects the social reality. Olam Haba is spiritualized to mean freeing us from what hinders us in life. He briefly opens up on imprisonment through addictions and bad relationships, but the peak of the Yom kippur speech is how our professions are imprisoning us. Striving for the law firm causes people to lose their ability to make choices, they are imprisoned to the paycheck. They subject themselves to a life of turmoil.

The second ingredient in entry into Olam Haba is the restoration of freedom and release from imprisonment. But there are many kinds of prisons that are unrelated to actual incarceration, and which rob us of the ultimate freedom- the freedom to make our own decisions.

For others still, it is money that is the prison. In the legal profession, there is a slang term called “Golden Handcuffs.” This is when someone has a demanding, stultifying and soul crushing yet lucrative job in a law firm, and leaving it would be too costly, especially when considering debts to be paid and lifestyle choices that have to be supported. This term is now used with irony; given the sad state of employment in the legal profession, most lawyers are thankful to have any kind of job, let alone one with golden handcuffs. But in truth, this applies to any unrewarding profession that imprisons its practitioners, who are afraid to leave due to finances- especially because having a job these days is such a blessing. If having a job is a source of imprisonment, think about the imprisonment of the all encompassing worry and emotional turmoil that can be experienced- constantly bythose who are unemployed.
Read the Rest Here

Please keep sending me synagogue websites that have the sermons of Orthodox rabbis. I am especially looking for younger rabbis in important congregations, not the usual self-promoters and institutional speeches. These are less likely to reflect social realities. I am not looking for OU/YUTorah sanitized sermons, or those by ideologues and tools. I am looking for those under the radar and in the real world like this one. I was given two synagogues so far.

Orthodoxy Both Uncomfortable and Envious Of Evangelicals

I was doing my usual work and was fact checking something and google delivered this sermon by Ariel Rackovsky, assistant rabbi of the Jewish Center. I have never met him and do not know anything about him. But I found this recent sermon quite interesting.

Rackovsky asks about our comfort level in the adoption of Jewish ritual by Christians. He thinks we are bothered because they know things about Judaism that we as Jews don’t; we are bothered that they are trying to proselytize; and we are reticent to talk about our faith and doctrine compared to them. He defends Evangelicals as not engaged in proselytizing. This is a great piece for a social history of the current era.

Rackovsky uses Evangelicals as paradigms that we can learn from. We learn to know our own tradition better, we can missionize our own people, and we need to know more about our own principles of faith and learn to articulate and express them.As a contrast to seeing contemporary Christians as knowing Bible, active outreach and expressing theology, R. Yosef Karo saw their ascetic piety and mortifications as worthy of emulation.

Go and learn from the Gentiles: Think of the tortures and mortifications which they suffer. How much more then should you be ready to suffer tortures and mortifications… (Magid Mesharim 38a)

He knows about replacement theology and dispensational premillenialists, and expects his congregants to know those terms. (This is more those who did interfaith work in the 1960’s knew and it is way beyond the meager knowledge gained from the sharing of pulpits in the 1960’s!)

The Challenge of Evangelism
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky
The Jewish Center 5771

If we are honest with ourselves, all this love of Jewish rituals and Jews in general, particularly by devout Christians, makes us more than a little nervous and uncomfortable, and there are a number of good reasons for this,
besides politics alone. First, it is discomfiting when others know more about important aspects of our heritage than we do. Even if they profoundly misinterpret a number of key passages, many devout Christians can quote chapter and verse in the Bible better than many of us can (I include myself in this).

Another reason we may be concerned is the legitimate worry that many of these groups are actually interested in proselytizing to us. We are wary of philo-Semitism, because we are concerned of the ulterior motive involved therein. After all, many fundamentalist, evangelical groups make no secret of their belief that salvation can only be attained through accepting their belief system. Indeed, some of the Sedarim carried out in Churches substitute Christianized themes for those uniquely Jewish elements of the Seder, and it is not God who saves the Jewish people.

The truth, though, is that many evangelical denominations have officially disavowed replacement theology and have stopped proselytizing to Jews, while the Presbyterian Church, one of the most pernicious and implacable opponents of the State of Israel, still funds messianic congregations.
A related concern… Centuries of the most horrific persecution, from the Crusades to the pogroms to the Holocaust to
institutionalized anti Semitism in the United States have made us deeply wary of the motives of those around us.

A third reason that these kinds of imitations of our rituals and fascination with Judaism and the Jewish people make us nervous is that like our forebears in Egypt who were reticent about declaring God’s dominion, we in the Modern Orthodox community are more than a little wary of public proclamations of faith and expressions of religiosity. It’s understandable; many Christian groups express great certitude about ideas that we struggle with, or are afraid to talk about, like the Messiah (even though they disagree with us on his identity), Jewish chosenness, and, most notably, the spiritual significance of the Land (and State) of Israel as the God given home of the Jewish people.

Christian advocacy for Israel especially makes us nervous because of our perception that they are doing it to agitate events in the middle East, and thereby hasten an Apocalyptic outcome, even though many Christian Zionists are dispensational premillenialists who don’t believe they can do anything to hasten the arrival of the Messiah-
So, is Christian love of Jews and Jewish rituals good for the Jews? I don’t know, but I think our nervousness about it is, as it presents us with a powerful challenge.

*If we are uncomfortable with Christian knowledge of our scriptures and co-opting of our rituals, this should spur us to become more Jewishly literate, and take greater ownership over the traditions that are a critical part of our spiritual heritage.

*If we are uncomfortable with proselytizing, that should be a powerful challenge for us to proselytize as well. Not to members of other religions, of course; Judaism is not that kind of religion. Rather, our challenge is to reach out to our brothers and sisters who are unconnected to the beauty of our tradition and their heritage, by showing them that it is something beautiful and exciting for us that we want to share, and that they need not look outside their own heritage for authentic religious experiences and inspiration.

*Finally, if we are uncomfortable with public professions of certitude and faith by others about the things we are not sure if we believe, that is a challenge to us to review and study classic texts of Jewish thought and belief, acquainting ourselves with the rich tradition in this area, and to arrive at a serious and well thought out articulation of faith. Moreover, we should not be afraid to express the aspects of Jewish faith we do believe, and do so resolutely.
Read the rest here

I have asked before for people to submit sermons of Rabbis. Let me rephrase the request. Let me know of synagogue websites that have the sermons of the rabbis. I am especially looking for younger rabbis in important congregations, not the usual self-promoters and institutional speeches. Which other Orthodox synagogues post the rabbi’s recent sermons besides the Jewish Center? I am not looking for OU/YUTorah sanitized sermons, I am looking for those under the radar and in the real world like this one.

Here is a great collection of sermons by Conservative Rabbis.
From those under the radar we see that Scholarship and historicism is out while the word covenantal is in.

Cremation and Modern Jewish History

With all the buzz about Amy Winehouse, I am surprised that none of the recent articles have presented the history of the issue. Most of the newspapers are simply quoting I don’t usually give simple bibliographies for a blog post but in this case it may be needed. (Nothing in this post is intended to decide any legal issues.)

In 1873, an Italian inventor presented in Vienna his new machine for cremation. It ushered in an era when cremation was seen as more modern, scientific, and hygienic than burial. It was seen as dignified and respectable. It sweep the Protestant world for several decades. They said that if God can resurrect the dead from bones, then he can just as easily do it from ashes. However, cremation was banned by the Catholic Church until 1963.

Rabbi Elijah ben Amozegh, Chief Rabbi of Livorno, wrote a treatise on the subject Ya’aneh Ba’esh (Livorno,1886), and called a conference of the Rabbis who banned cremation. Yet, Moses Israel Tedeschi, rabbi of Trieste, published a responsum in 1890 in which he not only tried to prove that cremation was not opposed to the spirit of Judaism, but asked that at his death his own body should be disposed of in this way. Cremation was avoided but would not write someone out of the fold.

For more on Italy, see David Malkiel, “Technology and Culture Regarding Cremation: A Historical and Phenomenological Analysis,” (Hebrew) Italia 10 (1993) pp. 37-70.

Similar to Italy, England Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, who held office from 1845-1890: “I beg to state that whilst there does not exist any precept prohibiting the interment in a Jewish cemetery of the ashes of a person who has already been cremated, our law is decidedly and emphatically opposed to the practice of cremation.”

Chief Rabbi Herman Adler, Nathan Marcus Adler’s son and his successor in office, stated: “There does not exist any precept prohibiting the interment in a Jewish cemetery of the ashes of a person who has already been cremated, an opinion supported by other eminent rabbis. We accordingly permit such a burial. At the same time we earnestly beg you not to construe this permission into a sanction of the practice of cremation.”

And therefore after the fact the practice was allowed full burial service by Burial Society of the United Synagogue of London: “The society shall not make any arrangement whatever for cremation. Where cremation is nevertheless to take place a service may be held at the house prior to the removal of the body, and if the ashes be encoffined then interment may take place at a Cemetery of the United Synagogue and the burial service shall be conducted there at the time of the interment.” (They have subsequently revoked such after the fact tolerance, but still tolerated by the Liberal movement.)

But in Germany things were different. In 1905, Dr. Meir Lerner of Altona, Germany, published his famous Hayyei Olam (Berlin 1905), containing answers of Rabbis from every country in the world that had a Jewish community with a rabbi. Not only did they all condemn the practice, but also, with a few notable exceptions, they prohibited doing anything with the ashes, such as burial in a Jewish cemetery, or for the survivors to observe the laws of mourning.

Adam Ferziger (Bar Ilan) has been giving an academic paper in the making for several years: “The Hamburg Cremation Controversy: early 20th century Orthodoxy and the boundaries of Jewish identity.” In the paper, he explained how this became a major cause célèbre and ideological battle culminating in considering those who are cremated as not deserving of shiva.

When I heard the paper in a room of historians of modern Judaism, the question was: why the extreme reaction in Germany and not in Italy or England. The basic consensus was that in German Jewry everything rose to dramatic ideological battle lines and identity proportions of inclusion and exclusion, which was not true about other countries.

Israel was the most categorical and did not have cremation until 2005. In 1935, the Rabbis of Jerusalem issued this ban against cremation: “We hereby notify all our fellow Jews that every Hevra Kadisha may not handle the ashes of those cremated, and they may not receive the ashes to bury them in a Jewish cemetery” 10 Tevet 5695 (1935)… (Responsa Da’at Kohen of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook,382).

In a more recent paper Adam Ferzinger, “Ashes to Outcasts: Cremation and Jewish Identity Before and After the Holocaust.” Points out the change in rhetoric to now eschew cremation, even among secular Jews, because of the Holocaust. A 1990 Reform responsum notes: “Reform Jewish practice permits cremation… although… we would, after the Holocaust, generally discourage it because of the tragic overtones.”

In the 19th century Rabbinic statements from Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan and reiterated by Rabbi Chaim Ozer, cremation is an implied statement of rejection of the concept of resurrection.The reason at the end of the 19th century  for not cremating was still becuase of the need to be whole at the time of resurection of the body.  In the 20th century rabbis explain the avoidance as a to a reason based on human dignity. We witness a change from rejecting cremation in the 19th century because of the need for a complete body for resurrection to Meir Lerner’s 1905 collection of Talmudic sources of human dignity and the prohibition to harm a body even after death. The responsa of Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann as well as the one written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook frame the issue as issues of human dignity and not to harm the body of the deceased. It is now seen as forbidden to destroy or mutilate a human body, even after death.

Jon D Levenson at the start of his work Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life. (Yale University Press, 2006) describes the loss of a sense of resurrection of the body among modern Jews. This shift away from resurrection exemplifies what the historian Michelle Vovelle documents as the cultural shift away from death by the end of the 19th century. For him, it is a removal of relgion and theology from our lives.

Now in the 21st century, we have a turn to cremation in American non-Jewish culture because it seems more clean and final, more economical, as well as more “Buddhist.” More than half of Americans in Western states are being cremated. It will increase in the Jewish community, so be prepared to deal with the issue and even create new traditions.

For some sources:
Jewish Encyclopedia
Jewish Virtual Library
Rabbi Raymond Apple
Does Jewish Law Permit Cremation? Rabbi Isaac Klein edited by Rabbi David Golinkin
Reform Movement- CCJR Responsa
Chabad Answer with a stronger emphasis on resurrection and the soul

For those who will be quoting this in their classes, please give full credit to the hard work of all the scholars cited and to this blog.

Postscript Update- I received an email from someone who claims that one of the YU Roshei Yeshiva told his aveilut shiur that, off the record, he knew of nothing halakhically wrong with cremation, though there are kabbalistic reservations.

Pawel Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement

I just finished the first of the many books in my summer pile of reading. Pawel Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement 1755-1816 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) There are already a variety of good reviews on the web already so I will not repeat them. I will deal with some things that struck me.

First of all, the book is done using solid British historical methods and offers a contrast to many of the concerns of Jewish narratives. (On the author. and his works.) The book is also not a continuous biography or a theology work, rather flash points in 60 years of a movement. Major conclusions is that one has to separate Jacob Frank from Scholem’s Sabbatian setting, Shabbatai or Kabbalah. Frank was a heretical 18th century charlatan and had much in common with his younger contemporaries Wolf Eybeschutz and Casanova, inventing royal titles, seducing women, and crossing back and forth between religious lines. A significant excerpt of the book with most of the conclusions is available here.

Now to the interesting questions for today. During most of the Early Modern period, those who left Judaism or sinned or considered the eruv rav- the mixed multitude who should be wiped out or left to rot. It is an important point for understanding how Judaism saw the laity. The Vilna Gaon and his intellectual followers had deep misgivings about the masses whom they termed the eruv rav. One still finds this attitude in 1920’s Haredi circles in which the masses of Jews are the evil mixed multitude. 20th century views of people hood owe much to Graetz, Reines, Kook, Schechter, Rebbe Riyatz, Dinur and other modernists. (For the current emptiness of the term, see Daniel Septimus’s recent piece.) How do see the collective today? What if one wants to be Catholic and Jewish like Frank? Would we celebrate if a messianic Jew properly converts to Christianity? I have always been amazed that many communities in Jewish have assimilated and we find few mentions. If one converts or assimilates then one has proved one is the mixed multitude. (We find some of this invoked in the statements and teshuvot in the recent conversion controversies.)

In late summer and early autumn 1759, a sizable group of Jews-thousands, by most accounts-led by one Jacob Frank embraced Roman Catholicism in the city of Lwów. The conversion was unique not only in its sheer size. It was also-or at least appeared to be-voluntary: whatever caused Frank and his followers to approach the baptismal font, they were not facing a choice between baptism and expulsion or violent death like their brethren in medieval German lands or Portugal. What was most unusual, however, was the reaction of most Jewish contemporaries. In contrast to typical reactions of sadness, anger, or despair, many Jews saw the conversion of Frank and his group as a God-given miracle and a great victory for Judaism. Entire communities celebrated.

Among early Jewish accounts of the 1759 conversion, only one departed from the prevailing triumphant mood and expressed radically different sentiments. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, known as the BeSh”T (1698-1760), who was the founder of Hasidism, the most important spiritual movement in Judaism of the period, was said to have bemoaned the Lwów mass apostasy or even to have died of pain caused by it. According to the story recorded in the hagiographic collection Shivhe ha-BeSh”T, the Ba’al Shem Tov laid the blame for the eruption of the entire affair on the Jewish establishment; he was “very angry with the rabbis and said that it was because of them, since they invented lies of their own.” The leader of Hasidism saw Frank and his group as part of the mystical body of Israel and presented their baptism as the amputation of a limb from the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence on earth: “I heard from the rabbi of our community that concerning those who converted [in Lwów], the Besht said: As long as the member is connected, there is some hope that it will recover, but when the member is cut off, there is no repair possible. Each person of Israel is a member of the Shekhinah.”

In recounting the BeSh”T’s reaction to Frank’s conversion, Agnon alluded to the symbolism of the “mixed rabble” or “mixed multitude,” the erev rav. The concept appears in the Hebrew Bible in the narrative account of the Exodus (Exod. 12:37-38): “And the People of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot, who were men, beside children. And a mixed multitude [erev rav] went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, and very many cattle.” Jewish tradition interpreted the phrase erev rav as denoting a group of foreigners who joined the Israelites following Moses from Egypt.

the majority of rabbinic exegetes saw in the mixed multitude the source of corruption, sin, and discord: accustomed to idolatry, the erev rav enticed Israelites to make the Golden Calf and angered God by demanding the abolition of the prohibition of incest. Thus, the emblem of the erev rav came to evoke the image of unwelcome strangers present in the very midst of the Holy People; the mixed multitude were not true “children of Abraham” but Egyptian rabble who mingled with Israelites, contaminated their purity, incited them to sin, and caused them to stray from the right path in the wilderness.

The Zohar universalized the midrashic image by removing it from its original place in the sequence of biblical narrative: the presence and activity of the mixed multitude were not restricted to the generation of the Exodus but extended over the entire history of humanity. The erev rav were the impurity that the serpent injected into Eve; they were the descendants of Cain; the nefilim, “sons of God” who procreated with the daughters of men (Gen. 6:2-4); the wicked ones who survived the deluge. They were progeny of the demonic rulers, Samael and Lilith. They contributed to the building of the Tower of Babel and caused the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. They practiced incest, idolatry, and witchcraft. They were the cause of the imprisonment of the Divine Presence in the demonic realm of the “husks” (kelippot) and, likewise, the exile of Israel among the nations.

In the Zohar’s narrative, the activity of the mixed multitude was by no means restricted to the past. Rather, the erev rav represented the ever-present force of destruction, whose aim was to bring the world back to the state of biblical “waste and void,”… : in accordance with its wider mythology of metempsychosis, the Zohar depicted present-day Jewish sinners as Jews the “roots of whose souls” originated among the erev rav.

Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, the preeminent adversary of early Sabbatianism, heard about Nathan’s statements. Angered by the preposterous claims that the very cream of the cream of the rabbinic elite consisted of descendants of the mixed multitude, Sasportas proclaimed that it was not the leaders of the generation but the Sabbatians themselves whose souls originated among the erev rav. In a short time, the symbolic opposition of the “mixed multitude” and the “true Israelites” permanently entered the lexicon of the debate between the Sabbatians and their opponents.

The book has a nice section on the impact that the 27 years Podolian spent under the Ottomans had on the Jews of the region. It created a sense of ideological and social separatism in the region in that they where considered a new Polish land and became the place where Hasidism started.

In the late seventeenth century, the situation of Podolian Jewry went through a significant change. Following the disastrous war with the Porte and the Crimean Khanate, the Commonwealth signed a humiliating peace treaty in Buczacz in 1672, ceding the Palatinates of Podolia and Braclaw to the Ottoman Empire. Poland-Lithuania had regained part of its territories by the following year, and all of them after the treaty of Karlowitz (1699); yet the impact upon the province’s Jewish communities of twenty-seven years of practical independence from the central administrative bodies of Polish Jewry was profound. Podolian Jews developed close ties with their brethren in Turkey, and for over twenty years, Turkish, Wallachian, and Moldavian Jews settled in the region. Even after the province was returned to Poland in 1699, the Council of Four Lands did not regain full control: local Jews often voiced their dissent from the decisions of the council or the rabbi of the Ruthenian Land in Lwów, and many disgruntled individuals moved to Podolia to seek a measure of freedom from the scrutiny imposed by the rabbinate in other parts of the Commonwealth.

After their return to Poland, the Podolian communities refused to pay their poll tax to the Land of Ruthenia, and the tax evasion in Podolia severely increased the fiscal burden placed on other regions. On 1 June 1713, King Augustus II ordered the creation of a separate, fifth Land, with the seat of the presiding rabbi in Satanów.

In the mid-eighteenth century, Podolia became for Judaism what twelfth-century Languedoc was for Christianity: a seditious province where dissenters gathered and heterodoxy was practiced openly and publicly. Podolia was the only place in the world where-almost a hundred years after Sabbatai Tsevi’s conversion to Islam-many Jews openly adhered to Sabbatianism. A number of communal rabbis belonged to the sect and drew in their entire communities. Many Podolian Sabbatians were scholars: among some twenty sectarians identified by name in Ber Birkenthal’s Divre binah, the names of eight of them are preceded by the title morenu (“our teacher”),

Pawel Maciejko, “The Jews’ Entry into the Public Sphere: the Emden-Eibeschuetz Controversy Reconsidered”, Jahrbuch of the Simon Dubnow Insitute for Jewish History. Special Issue: Early Modern Culture and Haskalah, 6 (2007)is an great article by the same author on how and why the Emden-Eybeschutz debate went public and why Eybeschutz was suspected of being a Crypto-Christian. Maciejko took the discussion way beyond the usual antiquarianism.(I was able to find it before online, and now I cannot.)

Defensive Orthodoxy

Here is a little rant by an Evangelical over at Pantheos. First, a little background for my Jewish readers. After the public defeat of Fundamentalism in the 1930’s, they recoiled and became sectarian. Starting in the late 1940’s and 50’s, there was a new era of modern Evangelicals who rejected sectarianism went out into the world, they took on modern education, politics, and society. In the 1980’s and 1990’s they became the dominant religious force in the US of A and they are evangelicals, the F word is reserved for those who don’t engage with the modern world.

Here, Roger Olsen who calls himself a post-conservative evangelical decries that the evangelicals are beginning to sound like fundamentalists in these are intellectually inbred and spend all their time trying to correct drifts and mistakes in the community. He sees them as defensive of the received tradition and obsessed with fighting perceived liberals (whose existence he thinks is chimerical). He concludes by asking them to try their hand at something constructive.

Read it and let me know if anyone sees any Jewish parallels here? Do we have anyone or any groups that fit this bill?

rogereolson, July 6, 2011 3:53 pm
One hallmark I don’t think I’ve talked about here before is the neo-fundamentalists’ tendency to publish ONLY scholarship aimed at “correcting” doctrinal drift or declension among fellow evangelicals. For them, theology should not be creative or engage in reconstruction. Apparently, anyway, God does NOT (for them) have new light to break forth from his word. They are defensive of whatever they perceive as “the received evangelical tradition” and pump out books and articles attacking those evangelicals they regard as somehow departing from it. It always turns out that they see all those straying evangelicals as “on a liberal trajectory.” They (the neo-fundamentalists) are obsessed with liberal theology–as if it still poses a huge threat. (In fact, although it is still around, it has almost no real influence except in some of the mainline Protestant denominations.)

But what puzzles me is why these seemingly brilliant neo-fundamentalist scholars, many of who teach in very respectable evangelical institutions, don’t get to work on something more constructive theologically than criticism of fellow evangelicals. They seem always to be waiting and watching for an evangelical to write or publish something they consider less than fully orthodox so they can jump on it and write another book attacking it.

We have too many “morosely gloomy” evangelical theologians today. I’d like to challenge them to take a year off from their inquisitions to write something positive and constructive.
Read the Full Version Here

We’re an American Blog?

Tomer who runs two excellent blogs in Israel, – one and two- called this a US blog. Is that true? I am trying to wrap my head around that one.
NYC has the largest group of my readers but the next city is the region of Gush Dan. Most of the people I interview are Anglos living in Israel-Buckholtz, Joshua Berman. I write reviews of Yair Sheleg and Eliaz Cohen. The paper I quote most often is Haaretz and that is for culture not politics! I review Jewish studies produced in Israel- Daniel Abrams, Avi Sagi, Moshe Idel. I cover kabbalists who live in Jerusalem- Rav Morgenstern. On the other hand, this blog does not reflect the majority of American Jews- the happenings of Reform and most Renewal, no representation at the CCAR, NHC, or at 92nd st Y. I dont share the concerns of Mah Rabu, Velveteen Rabbi, or Jewlicious. I dont cover the majority of great stuff happening in American Jewry.

Is this blog American? Would you call the Talmud Blog US or Israeli? Would you call JID or even the Jerusalem Post US or Israel?

My blog tends to discuss things from a vantage point relating to intellectual formation that included the cultural world of Israeli Yeshivot and Universities. I think Tomer can relate to the blog specifically because it is not too American, he is not quoting the more American blogs.

This is not a new phenomena, Safed piety was created not just in Safed but in Cairo, Venice, Damascus, Saloniki- there was a network of interests and trade routes. So too in Colonial America, Boston was culturally connected to London, but not to Virginia. Or Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem still writing in German and attending the German conferences. So in that sense I am reporting on how a certain set of ideas play themselves out in my location, like R. Gedaliah Cordovero living in Venice and writing back to Safed about his new siddur.

But is there more to this story? Is it a story of globalization.

Globalization assumes that large numbers of people are in flux and information is in flux. People do not define themselves in 19th century territorial national terms. People and ideas keep moving.
Fifteen years ago, Arjun Appadurai published Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization explaining some of the new dimensions of mobilization through small vignettes.

Appadurai describes a trip he and his wife made to a Hindu temple in Bombay. His wife asked about a Hindu priest that she had known before, and they were told that he was in Houston. The point isn’t just that they went there and he came here. He’s talking about trans-locality, and the production of locality beyond mere connection to a place. Not all Hindus live in India, and not all Indians have to live in India to maintain their Indianness.

The conjunction of media and migration means that what is imagined is no longer the “imagined community” of the nation-state, but numerous “diasporic public spheres.” Appadurai writes that “[a]s Turkish guest workers in Germany watch Turkish films in their German flats, as Koreans in Philadelphia watch the 1988 Olympics in Seoul through satellite feeds from Korea, and as Pakistani cabdrivers in Chicago listen to cassettes of sermons recorded in mosques in Pakistan or Iran, we see moving images meet deterritorialized viewers”

The US can be represented in Israel and Israel in America. Appadurai coins words like ethnoscape and mediascape. To give a relevant application of the former. Anglosaxon Israeli culture is related in Raananah, Jerusalem, Teaneck or Miami. People come and go and the culture of the Anglosaxim in Israeli is not Israeli or US. Rather a specific ethno-scape, not landscape. Charlie Buckholtz and David Hartman could be in NY or J-M, as well as their readers. The Anglo-Israeli world of JID or J-Post does not depend where the authors live. And do you feel comfortable saying that David Hartman or Shlomo Riskin are Israeli thinkers? American thinkers? or part of an ethno-scape of Anglos in Israel.

And this works because of the amazing fluidity in which people go back and forth with regularity and have spent years of their lives working in more than one country. They can even come and visit the other country for 5 trips of 3-4 weeks each. Or if you spend every summer for 20 years in the other country, besides being 5 years of time it allows one to live in both countries. I certainly see the gap year programs, the yeshivot as Anglo-Israeli products, a specific ethno-scape that transcends boundaries. Or we joke about the many people that we know, we make “aliyah” as an ideal and then return to live for many years in the US after only a year or two in Israel. They return for business, doctors, their kids education, but after a year in Israel they get to live in the US for the next decade as an “oleh,” there are even those Anglos who commute bi-weekly between Israel and the US. These are post territorial demarcations of globalization.

In terms of the media-scape, there is a realm of cultural production that occurs in more than one country but is not localized to one country. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein writings are produced in Israel but more copies are sold here. The writings of Rav Shagar or Moshe Idel (There are many names to insert) live in a mediascape that is used in an ethnoscape more than an national landscape. Many of my neighbors, watched Serugim on their computer before the DVD came out. I have probably given more papers in Van Leer in J-M than anywhere else.

Appadurai whose book mainly deals with the Indian diaspora has many insights that apply to other groups as well. For example he points out how some Indians can be universalist and tolerant in the US setting but fiercely nationalistic when they discuss politics in India. (Think of the American Jew who is universal here and fiercely nationalistic about Israel.) In the age of nationalism, people wanted to fit into the land they lived in and did not have two elements.
He also points out that in the age of media, flashpoints and images on TV can count more than your own neighborhoods. Here he gives examples of Kashmir, and Hebron overriding concern for Delhi and J-M. Or a more halakhic example, the media makes Torat Hamelekh more important than all the other responsa being written by the Religious Zionists.

So are we an American Blog?

We’re an American blog
We’re an American blog
We’re comin’ to your town
We’ll help you party it down
We’re an American blog
(With apologies to Grand Funk Railroad)

I finished Judaism and World Religions

I have been silent for the last two weeks not because I was on vacation but because I needed to finally finish the manuscript for my book Judaism and World Religions. The publisher had eighty pages of instructions on editing, publicity, production, marketing and submission. My deadline was Friday and it took more than few days of concentrated attention, crossing t’s and dotting i’s, to finish it for submission.

If any of you ever read the ABOUT page on this blog, I started this blog in Sept 2009 as a way to stay focused on the book. This way I forced myself to sit down regularly and write. It also allowed me to blog things that caught my notice so as to get the distraction out of my way to continue, to put it out of my mind. It also allowed me to work on formulations of certain selections in the book, hence all the interfaith material on the blog. They ideally wanted the book in 14 months and I did it in 23 months.
It was by average about a page a day. (I dont count blog writing.) In contrast, Joseph Dan at his height of productivity once said he averaged 3 pages a day. And Moshe Idel is averaging way more than that.

During the year I asked to produce an Orthodox Forum paper on popular culture, I wound up writing that article as a series of blog posts. Along the way, new phrases such as Post-Orthodoxy, Half-Shabbos, and cruise ship Orthodoxy took on lives of their own. When I worked on a paper on Maharal, it never made any appearance on the blog. And over time, I posted less on Kabbalah.

At this point, my ABOUT page is no longer true. I will no longer be forcing myself to write to make my deadline. The blog needs a new purpose and About statement. I am not sure of its new purpose. I will continue blogging but my hours and topics may change. I am not sure how they will change.I will take much longer breaks from my computer but still post things that interest me or first drafts of reviews. This past year even trips to Norway, Poland, and Turkey did not take me too far away from the computer.

My book Judaism and World Religions comes out in March 2012, once again by the very efficient Palgrave-McMillan. We have not set the exact production schedule yet. But I assume that I get the edited manuscript back in OCT and then proofs a month later.

My 2010 book Judaism and Other Religions will be out in inexpensive paperback in 2012. It has already been assigned in three courses and there are already 150 pre-publication copies of the paperback ordered. People are sending me their corrections because I get to revise it for a second edition. It is interesting to note that the digital version did not sell well.

I thank Thanbo for responding to one of the blog posts soliciting a cover by providing a .gif scan that will be used on the cover.

I have to determine which should be my next manuscript to pitch to a publisher: Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy? Kabbalistic Meditation? A popular book on Judaism and Christianity: The Differences in the 21st Century?

Immediate focus – what do I do with Google+? Necessary Plug-ins? Does anyone have better circle arrangements that don’t sound like an MCI plan of friends and family? Should I arrange it as Academics, Interfaith, Orthodox chatter, Kabbalah, Former student still into Jewish stuff, Former Students, and Online acquaintances, and then family and friends? How many incoming streams and feeds are people setting up? And other than announcing my posts, is there any purpose in Twitter for those of us who don’t comment in less than 500 words.

Interview with Charlie Buckholtz, co-author of new book with David Hartman

I met Charlie Buckholtz a few years ago at a Tu BeShevat Seder, where he was in front of the congregation playing the guitar and telling Hasidic tales. The seder was a joint project of three downtown Orthodox shuls and at the time he was rabbi of the Sixth Street Synagogue in NYC. Recently, I saw that he was co-author of the new book by David Hartman, The God who Hates Lies, so I asked him for an interview in my attempt to evaluate that book. The response was a very personal and introspective interview, in which he dealt with his own religious journey and questions.

From the interview I learned how much Rabbi Charlie was an actual co-author of this work. (Many of Hartman’s prior editors like Malcolm Lowe, were only editors.) The interview also help explain to me the attraction of the book for many and why I am having difficulty approaching it. From this collaboration, we receive a more emotional side of Hartman. Charlie helped Hartman speak from from his kishkes. Hartman is quite emotional in public but his books always took the intellectual route. Hence, the new book has fewer appeals, compared to prior works by Hartman, to Maimonidean rationalism or Leibowitz’s rejection of a this-worldly use of relgion. In this volume, Hartman appears less the intellectual and philosopher and more the pulpit rabbi speaking from his heart.

This is not my cup of tea. Yet, some of my readers may have a visceral reaction to this interview. Nevertheless, please formulate your response in a productive way. If we are fortunate, Charlie may answer some questions on his position. So keep the questions respectful.
This interview is part of a longer series on my trying to understand Hartman  Part I here and Part II here and Part III here.

Charlie Buckholtz attended Williams College and Yeshivat Hamivtar, received an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and rabbinical ordination from the Bat Ayin Yeshiva. He held a year-long fellowship as a rabbinical apprentice to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and served for three years as rabbi of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue in the East Village. He coauthored the punk-rock-murder-mystery, In Heaven Everything is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre, and is currently Senior Editor at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

1] How did your very different life story resonate with that of Hartman’s?
He came from an urban ethnic background to Haredi and then to YU and finally Israel. You are a suburban kid who likes music and writing.

I think a big part of David Hartman’s success as a public intellectual, and community- and institution-builder over the last half-century is that his questions strike a chord with lots of people who resonate in different ways with the rich vitality of traditional life, but are not comfortable with the kinds of tradeoffs that modern traditionalist gatekeepers have concocted as the admission fee for ‘legitimacy,’ ‘authenticity,’ etc. As I understand him and his thinking, a central question at the heart of his work, addressed most explicitly in this recent book, is: “Does the tradition really desire, indeed require, that we check huge parts of ourselves at the door in order to engage with it in good standing?” This is a basic human spiritual question that clearly has implications across Judaism and beyond it.

Another part of my own resonance with Hartman is temperament–a healthy dose of skepticism towards authority along with a confidence in the sincerity and authenticity of one’s own religious quest.

Hartman knew himself well enough to know that there was no contradiction between his passion for gemara and his intellectual thirst to contextualize what he was learning historically and conceptualize it philosophically. How could this inner drive to understand the ‘story’ he was learning on deeper and deeper levels — to turn it and turn it — disqualify him from being a valid carrier of the story? So when he started getting that message at Lakewood, he left Lakewood, and when he started getting it from the broader modern Orthodox world in the U.S. and Israel, he built a community and started his own institute. He knew his path was fueled by a love for the tradition and that he thus had a place in it, notwithstanding the various self- and community-appointed gatekeepers telling him he didn’t.

I tend to be similarly inclined. I was a kind of ‘artsy’ or ‘alternative’ kid from the suburbs who became a ba’al teshuva while at Hebrew U. my junior year of college.I was deeply moved by the rhythms of life in Jerusalem and as a literary person, a reader and writer, I was drawn to the poetry, imagination, and wisdom of the tradition. While that resonance with the spirituality, authenticity, and heimishkeit of traditional life have remained constant, the overwhelming emphasis on rabbinic authority and social conformity — and subjugating one’s point of view to the traditional version of ‘reality’ — that tends to typify Orthodox culture has always nagged at me a distortion of some the Jewish values I’ve always valued most–empathy, imagination, and intellectual fearlessness.

2] How does your Bat Ayin spirituality relate to a very rational Hartman? Hartman is not exactly a Rav Nachman follower or guitar player.

He’s actually a pretty soulful guy who loves a lot of Hassidic music, and is passionate about the music of Shlomo Carlebach.

I would say his philosophical thinking is informed by American Pragmatism, particularly William James, who carves out a reasoned space for doubt, uncertainty, and spirituality. I would suggest he’s more of a ‘critical appropriator,’ finding different and diverse thinkers that strike different and diverse chords within his thinking and prompt evocative associations from within the tradition; then bringing the resonant strains of these multiple voices into his inner beit midrash and having fruitful conversations without attempting any systematic synthesis.

I suppose I have a similarly ‘postmodern’ orientation. For example, I consider Rebbe Nachman of Breslov to be my rebbe. My connection to him and his teachings is deep, longstanding, intimate, and authentic (whatever that means). At the same time, ‘my’ Rebbe Nachman is not the Rebbe Nachman of Mea Shearim or Borough Park, of academia or Renewal; though he is shaded by all of those influences. My Rebbe Nachman is the one who wants our personalities to emerge out of an intense, ongoing, personal conversation with God; who holds that desire is the most (if not only) important spiritual quality; who pranced like a madman through the streets of Istanbul; who wants us to be in Uman on Rosh Hashana, for our own good and for the souls of the martyrs who died there, who wrote truly strange, enigmatic stories based on universal folk tales and appropriated for them all the sacredness of the Torah itself.

Hartman hasn’t had much exposure to Breslov Hassidut, and is not mystically inclined, so there’s a gap there. But at the same time, and perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t claim to present an exhaustive approach to Jewish spirituality. To the contrary, he is a believer in the sacredness of partial perspectives who celebrates the diversity of Jewish spiritual traditions and personalities as constitutive of a partial, historical revelation and its natural outgrowth in the evolution of halakha.

Moreover, I find Davi Hartman’s pragmatic insistence on evaluating ideas against their empirical consequences to be a grounding force against some of the more apocalyptic tendencies (both individually and communally) that can result from adopting a mystical point of view.

3] Why do you feel so connected to the events from several decades ago that involved Rabbis Emmanuel Rackman, and Joseph D Soloveitchik?
The story about The Rav publicly denouncing Rabbi Rackman at the RCA convention feels extremely relevant to me. Personally, listening to the tape of Soloveitchik’s speech and discussing the incident with Hartman helped me to understand a lot of my own experiences and frustrations as I’ve travelled through the Modern Orthodox world, first in yeshiva and eventually as an Orthodox congregational rabbi. Soloveitchik’s version of halakhic theology set the template for American Modern Orthodoxy and continues to permeate and dominate its spiritual culture, as well as its attitude towards halakhic development.

It is, I feel, a shadow that continues to loom over this world, and the speech he gave at the RCA — enlisting all the weight of his persona and the authority of his stature to stigmatize and foreclose an empathic, intuitive human way of thinking about the Torah in favor of formalist abstraction and ‘heroic’ self-sacrifice — was, to me, a dark episode. Something about it helped me personally to understand the extent to which many of my own critiques and areas of resistance to various aspects of Modern Orthodox culture can be traced back to his legacy in particular.

For all his theological creativity and religious pathos, Rav Soloveitchik’s essential stance vis a vis tradition and modernity is both triumphalist and apologetic. He does not tend to adopt the posture of having struggled with, much less having had to rethink any of his assumptions or principles, in light of his encounter with Western ideas. His struggles, his pathos (at least, as he tends to characterize them), are all deeply internal to the tradition. When it comes to the encounter with external ideas, he’s read everything, thought it all out, squared all the circles. Torah stands as a wise critique/noble rebuke of some trends of Western thought and culture, and embodies the highest values of others. While often scintillating, illuminating, and deeply moving, the cumulative effect is one of reassurance.

And this, indeed, seems to have been a powerful motive of his teaching and writing–that contemporary Orthodox Jews should not feel “ashamed” (his word) in the face of the Western philosophical tradition. He did not allow for the possibility that Torah itself, and Torah communities, might have something new and important to learn from philosophy or psychology or history–or just daily life (what he pejoratively referred to as ‘the utilitarian marketplace’); he did not advocate a substantive, open-ended encounter.

The net result of this perspective, it seems to me, as it has filtered into MO groupthink, is a prominent strain of complacency, smugness, reflexive superiority, suspicion of subjectivity, anxious insecurity, and alarmist resistance to halakhic change. If the system is perfect — majestic — and has nothing to learn, any change could only be to its detriment, and anyone seeking change could only be misguided, uninformed, or sick, and therefore must be marginalized. Who am I to assert my puny subjectivity against the objective ontological perfection of the Torah? As he says elsewhere in the lecture, “It’s ridiculous to say, ‘I have discovered something which the Rashba didn’t know, and which the Ketzos didn’t know, and the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge. I have discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new!’ It’s ridiculous.”

The community chose the Rav as their paradigm for the encounter between tradition and modernity. I think a central purpose of the chapter about Soloveitchik and Rackman is to show that this was not a foregone conclusion, not the only authentic Orthodoxy available to American Jews.

To me Rackman’s embrace of historical context, subjectivity and self-awareness as legitimate and important factors in religious life and halakhic decision-making — neither contradicting, nor contradicted by, the tradition — could have opened new possibilities for halakhic development and Orthodox culture and led to a more sane, human, inclusive Orthodoxy. The fact that Soloveitchik saw this possibility as intolerable is, in my opinion, a failure of imagination, empathy, and communal leadership.