Monthly Archives: September 2011

Zachary Braiterman takes on the Tikvah Fund, Jewish Review of Books, and Jewish Ideas Daily

Professor Zachary Braiterman of Syracuse University, a specialist in modern Jewish thought, takes on the conglomerate of publications coming out from the Tikvah fund. The current version is over 6000 words, over 12 pages. Below are some excerpts, the full version is available at ZEEK – here. Any thoughts?

For some time now, a professional colleague has shared with me his profound misgivings about the presence at his home university of the Tikvah Fund, a right-wing philanthropy that in recent years has invested considerable resources funding academic Jewish Studies programming as well as more popular platforms geared to a broader reading public. The original impetus for writing these critical remarks were occasioned by my deep dismay upon reading the Tikvah-funded Jewish Review of Books (JRB). Of particular concern was a raft of unfairly tendentious reviews of books and ideas relating to liberal, progressive, post-denominational, and secular Judaism. (A survey of such reviews appears below.) Really, I should not have been surprised; everyone knows that the Tikvah Fund is pugnaciously neoconservative. Indeed, anyone interested in connecting the dots between corporate capital, rightwing ideology, and current drifts in academic and popular Jewish thought and culture would do well by starting with the Tikvah Fund.

The problem is how it is rewriting the rules and compact between donors, universities, scholars, and students. An ideological organization with deep pockets that makes use of academic institutions and faculty while masking its own ideological agenda, the Tikvah Fund shows a lack of clear commitment to the values of openness and transparency. In doing so, the Tikvah Fund co-opts scholars and scholarship. This chips away at the independence upon which academic life depends and upon which the very integrity of Jewish Studies relies as a bonafide academic discipline.

In contrast, the stated mission at the Tikvah Fund to advance “serious Jewish thought” is meant to sound more open-ended and non-partisan than the political vision actually animating the organization; the neoconservative vision articulated by Roger Hertog goes unmentioned in the information provided to the general public or unmentioned by scholars who may or may not share that vision. The consistent pattern across the full range of platforms funded by the Tikvah Fund reveals a misleading mix of conservative ideological content with non-partisan scholarship or general-interest material. It is my contention that non-partisan and apolitical scholarship and even moderate left of center political opinion (usually related to Israel) are used as cover to insinuate conservative ideas about Jewish religion and culture into a more liberal American Jewish milieu. Platforms that follow a strategy of esoteric programming create a space for promoting conservative ideas about religion and culture far more effectively than would be possible in the type of purely rightwing venues from which many if not most of its intended target-audience would otherwise shy.

The Tikvah Fund acts as an interloper by setting up closed shops inside the university under the guise of misleading mission statements. Surely, any set of principles and practices should be subject to the free exchange of ideas and open argument. The intertwining of money, ideological content, and university life is one that needs to be examined much more forthrightly by all of us who seek to negotiate the creative lines between public political life and the critical and self-critical exploration of ideas inside and outside the university.

In this light, I would propose to my academic colleagues that they consider that, at the very least, their participation in academic programming and other related platforms sponsored by the Tikvah Fund supports an organization in which Jewish ideas are intended to leverage conservative theories regarding the nature of law and the role of religion in politics. It is hard to believe that the organizers and officers of the Tikvah Fund would invest such large sums of money and the extraordinary time and effort without a subtle cost-benefit analysis and an eye to long-term profit. Scholars should understand that their very participation on Tikvah-Funded platforms contributes to an arguably anti-democratic milieu, one that Roger Hertog has called a “high-order community” whose proprietary interest is to educate “new generations of Tikvah scholars.”

No. 1 (Spring 2010)

• The reviewer of the new orthodox prayer book, the Koren Siddur argues for the superiority of the Koren Siddur over Mishkan Tefilah, the new Reform siddur, and the Conservative Sim Shalom. Although the reviewer reveals that he himself is not an observant Jew, there is a nostalgia here for a form of prayer that “cuts to the quick like a knife,” a form of prayer that is in part the product of the reviewer’s own poetic fancy.

• The reviewer of two books on Herzl casts doubts on the integrity of Herzl’s Jewish identity. While recognizing the place of Jewish secular culture in the novel Old-New Land, the reviewer insists that it is nothing more than Judaism-lite. Blamed for post Zionism and even the brain-drain to Silicon Valley, Herzl’s legacy is described in terms of “subversion,” planting “seeds,” and “self-destruction.” These very words will resurface in the same reviewer’s review of David Biale’s book on Jewish secularism in a later issue of the JRB.

• A Reform rabbi is enlisted to review Dana Kaplan’s book on American Judaism. He claims that, with the exception of Orthodox Judaism and a few non-mainstream communities, American Judaism is in precipitous demographic decline. The problem is pinned on secularism. The reviewer complains that Kaplan is disproportionately interested in Renewal, pop-mysticism, and post-denominationalism, which the reviewer finds to be of only marginal importance. Parenthetically, the reviewer adds that David Biale, as a secularist, would view the decline of Jewish religion with some equanimity, but then fails to understand why Biale is in fact concerned about the decline of institutional Judaism. The reviewer also does not care for Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s afterword to Kaplan’s book, claiming that Schachter-Shalomi soft-pedals his theological radicalism, which is a comment that any reader of Schachter-Shalomi would find strange.

I have seen nothing in the JRB to contest the picture presented here. Each individual review has been paid for by the Tikvah Fund, and presumably serves its interests directly or indirectly. Now, one could argue with the points made in any single one of these reviews, fair-mindedly and on the merits. But once gathered into an aggregate under the auspices of an ideological organization, each single contribution, no matter the intention of the reviewer or even against the express intention of the reviewer, has been marshaled into a polemical bloc whose agenda is clear to see. Greater than the sum of its parts, the intellectual foundations of this agenda have been rendered so unfalsifiably secure that they can only be rejected as a whole from without, not contested from within. Early claims that the Jewish Review of Books was not going to slant rightward, that it would “range broadly from the center left to the center right” do not hold up to critical scrutiny. As per the comments cited above by Roger Hertog, this was never going to be allowed to happen.

Rav Shagar-B’Torato Yehageh: The Study of Talmud as a Quest for God Part I

Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) B’Torato Yehageh: Limud Gemara Kibakashat Elokim (In His Torah He Meditates: The Study of Talmud as a Quest for God) Hebrew, 290 Efrat 2008

I caught up on a variety of summer reading and will post some of my thoughts on what I read. I just got around to reading Rav Shagar’s sefer on how to learn Torah, which came out three years ago.

The Anglo educator who brought me a copy told me how he read the sefer on his flight over and he told me how in Israel everything is now a shitah unlike the monochromatic quest for single lines in the US. People will say I am learning Hazon Ish, or learning Telshe, or learning Brisk or learning Rav Nahman or learning like the Gra. They say: I am using academic Talmud or I am using philosophy or I am using film theory. Discussions of this phenomenon are found in Rav Cherlow’s books on Torat Eretz Yisrael. It is also found in the writings of the Rammim of Othniel, Maaleh Gilboa and Beit Morashah. There is a group think by this generation of middle aged ramim, who wish to broaden the canon and to create many voices. But the acknowledged exemplar of this new approach is Rav Shagar Zl.

Rav Shimon Gerson Rosenberg (Shagar) was educated at the Kerem B’Yavneh Hesder Yeshiva and later moved on to Yeshivat HaKotel. He also studied with Rav Yisrael Gustman and Rav Shlomo Fisher. He became a ram at Yeshivat HaKotel. At a later stage he was the Rosh Bet Midrash of Bet Morasha and then founded Yeshivat Siach-Yitzhak. He died young at the age of 57 in 2007. His lectured caused many to emulate his approach or at least to create their own version. He created the new “Israeli Hasidut” which was a Neo-Hasidism for the Hesder Beit Midrash that combined hasidut, Zionism, new age and post-modernism. And was one of the pillars of the group think that created this new Torah Eretz Yisrael of pluralism and meaning.

Whereas his rabbinic contemporaries tended to discuss the nature of this new Torah, Rav Shagar asked about the person. They formulated the hefza but he focused on the gavra. One cannot spend much time in the Datiim Hadashim world without hearing a call for Rav Shagar’s magical word mashmaut –meaning. All Torah has to have personal meaning. And meaning (mashmaut) transcends words (milim), or even halakhic conclusion (maskanah).

In this thoughtful and fruitful new book, Rav Shagar’s students collect all his speeches, lectures, and essay on Torah study into a very quotable book. It is a light read with discrete separate sections, ideal for a Shabbat or Yom Tov.
Rav Shagar’s thesis is that in addition to traditional learning we also need in our Torah study the fruits of academics, Hasidut, literature, Jewish thought, and aggadah. For Rav Shagar the post-modern pluralistic Jew cannot be satisfied with the older approaches to learning. It needs to be broader and have meaning.

But what is novel in Rav Shagar’s thought is that these other fields cannot and should not be done in the University but in the beit midrash. And they should not supersede Gemara learning rather be part of study session and on the list of sources for the shiur.

Rather, than look to the University or to Chassidus as places of character formation, for Rav Shagar the beit midrash and the study of Talmud is the character formation of the yeshiva student. A ben Torah is formed in the beit midrash and can only create a personal relationship with Torah in a beit midrash. So the hasidut, academic Talmud, mahshevet, poetry, modern literature, scholarship, sociology needs to be done by Ramim in the beit midrash. One should not replace Talmud with a more relevant field because that is doomed to failure, rather the other fields need to be part of Talmud study. Kafka, David Grossman, and Rav Nahman in the tosafot, Archeology and Moshe Idel in the Rambam, Academic Talmud and van Leer conferences in the Talmud shiur.

For Rav Shagar Torah study is the crucial component of the Brit, the covenant, between God and the Jewish People, and the in-depth study of the Talmud must remain the cornerstone of that covenant. The Ramim need to know the other fields and the students should be allowed to integrate them into their Talmud study.

I will return to the outline of the new Torah in the next post, but in order for the English reader to grasp the novelty of the agenda of Rav Shagar I will start with his discussion of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. On Page 250 of Rav Shagar’s book he quotes the 2001 essay by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein “Teaching Gemara in a Yeshiva HS” [Hebrew] Shanah bShanah 41
Rav Aharon states that those raised on intellectual knees of learned families have the qualities needed for in depth Talmud study, only they see the fruits for the long toil. In addition, the educator cannot overcome the current liberal and individual atmosphere in which the students were raised. Most students do not have the family background or the yirat shamayim to stick to Talmud study. Most of our students have a questionable knowledge of Gemara and do not desire to delve deeper. Therefore they should stick to studying mishnayot and Maimonides Mishneh Torah

Rav Shagar asks: For someone not raised in the closed religious world and who has a liberal and individual upbringing with the whole Western world open to them: why will they be happy studying only mishnayot?

Rav Shagar says he differs with Rav Aharon on two points. (1) Did we as the first generation of Hesder graduates come from learned halakhic homes? No. So do not blame the problem on culture or the level of the parents. (2) The students going to college and engaging in secular studies are not low level workers engaged in practical studies content to have concurrent low level learning. Some of those whom you question their appropriateness for Talmud study, master other fields on the highest levels including philosophy and Jewish thought.
The educated students from which you seek to find your Yeshiva students will find your approach existentially and spiritually cold and they will seek elsewhere personal and existential meaning. And furthermore the post-modern pluralism approaches without a grand narrative strongly clash with your tough emphasis on the normative.

Rav Aharon replied in the article and at the Lavi Conference on which the article is based that Gemara is not cold but springs from the heart of Judaism in which one recognizes the Holy Blessed be He as both norms and religious experience. Our fundamental relationship to God is as the commander who sets boundaries and limits. Rav Lichtenstein claims that if they are not ready to sit to study Talmud then it is a lack of interest and desire. The struggle is to achieve that inner desire. He quotes Rav Soloveitchik that the inner turmoil and the triumph is itself a religious goal.

Rav Shagar responds that Mishnayot do indeed maintain the normative and even foster a return to the balei batish. But Rav Shagar emphatically states that even if Rav Aharon succeeded with his American students to appreciate such balei-batishkeit – he will not succeed with the Israelis. Israeli youth do not want a struggle that they do not understand. They have a large gap between their lives and the norms of the Talmud. Studying mishnayot or Rambam does not address their issues or their need for an intellectual challenge.

Rav Shagar states, and this is the message throughout the book, that Torah study is to seek meaning, connection to life of the student, and integration of Torah and secular, especially the humanities. In addition, we need to use not just the intellect but also imagination, emotions, and desire. We need to connect to their literately sensitivities of the students and not skip the aggadita (and also bring literature into dialogue with the Talmud.)

For Rav Shagar, there needs to be individual creativity in interpretation of the Talmud. The student need to create. And not just chevruta but also individual projects and group discussions.

For Rav Shagar, we need to stress the existential and not the normative. We need to instill a sense that that the Gemara is my world, my culture. A world in which one lives and plots one’s inner life. We need to involve students in all their limbs, embodied and connected. Faithfulness to the Sages wont come through untrue apologetics but through identity, covenant and a recognition that that the beis medrash is one’s place. The Beit Midrash and the acceptance of the Talmud should be my personal choice because it makes meaning in my life, it offers experiential contact with the Infinite as both personal and primal

Should Ramim include Kafka, Academic Talmud, and Jewish thought in their reading of the Gemara? Should knowledge of these fields be based on the untrained auto-didactic interests of the Ramim? How can we combine so many methods of Talmud study: Gra, Brisk, Telshe, Hazon Ish, Rav Nahman, Chabad? To discuss these issues, stay tuned for Part II.

The Leftovers: Whose in your group?

This past Sunday, Stephen King had a superb book review of The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta.

The plot of the novel is that rapture occurred (not specific version), in which people were raptured away leaving behind the leftovers to mull: why they were not chosen? But the rapture did not conform to what believers thought. Naturally, each group assumed that their own group with its narcissism of small differences for inclusion would be saved, but instead they found that rapture ignored religious and denominational lines as well as ignoring profession, sexual orientation or even belief. So now they are hyper-charged for messianic end time and create all sorts of cults and rationalizations for their being the leftovers.

Yet, the novel focuses with exacting detail on their continued concern with their suburban lives: take out pizza, Blackberries, and investments. One reviewer notes: “This, of course, is what Mr. Perrotta does so well: depict with both sympathy and humor the sense of sadness, regret and yearning that ordinary people (even in ordinary times) feel as they drift into adulthood and find that connections — between husbands and wives, parents and children — are way more fragile or elusive than they’d once thought.”

From a promotional blurb:

Author Tom Perrotta is a master at exposing the quiet desperation behind America’s suburban sheen. In The Leftovers he explores what would happen if The Rapture actually took place and millions of people just disappeared from the earth. How would normal people respond? Perrotta’s characters show a variety of coping techniques, including indifference, avoidance, depression, freaking out, and the joining of cults. Despite the exceptional circumstances, it’s really not unlike how people respond to more minor incidents in their lives (excepting cults). The result is a novel that’s a slow burn yet strangely compelling, one that leaves the reader pondering the story long after it’s over. In vivid and occasionally satiric prose, he takes a bizarre and abnormal event–the Rapture–and imagines how normal people would deal with being left behind. –Chris Schluep

What I did not know was that the gothic author Stephen King as a book reviewer is capable of writing intellectual history and social context with a paucity of words. He was a model of showing me, not telling me. King compares our current era to the late 1950’s, 58-64 era of the Twilight Zone. Those years were a time of conformity and convention as well as an acute fear of the Communists, the Atomic bomb, and things unAmerican. The Twilight Zone showed how this fear and conformity lead to disaster and to our destroying ourselves with our own fear. The show was a social commentary on themes such as racism, war, xenophobia, and social conventionality. The fears were the problem not the “other” itself. The show captured the moment when things started to unravel away from the fear to openness by deflecting the issues as parable and fable.

King shows us that the Perrotta captures the post 9/11 conformity, with a sectarian religion as the glue holding society together with visions of an ungenerous God offering limited lifeboat redemption. In King’s take, what happens when those currently keeping the boundaries discover that they do not correspond to God’s plan? Picture a Jewish novel about the dawn of the messianic era where few of the current assumptions hold true, offering a redemption by those outside the sectarian designation. Imagine if Sarah Silverman, Rahm Emmanuel, the cast of the original Law And Order, the Skverer Rebbe, Mahamud Abbas, your shul gabbai, and the teens who only keep half-shabbos were those chosen. How would those not chosen react? Justify their not being chosen? How would they go about their life?

FYI- King is about to release an alternate history novel about 58-63, reflecting our own era. And Perrota’s book is being adapted for TV by HBO.

Perrotta has delivered a troubling disquisition on how ordinary people react to extraordinary and inexplicable events, the power of family to hurt and to heal, and the unobtrusive ease with which faith can slide into fanaticism. “The Leftovers” is, simply put, the best “Twilight Zone” episode you never saw — not “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” but “The Monsters Are Us in Mapleton.” That they are quiet monsters only makes them more eerie.

The rapture’s failure to conform to biblical prophecy has driven some people plumb over the edge. The Rev. Matt Jamison becomes chief among the rapture deniers of the remaining Mapleton population: “He wept frequently and kept up a running monologue about . . . how unfair it was that he’d missed the cut.” The minister’s response to this unfairness is to insist this wasn’t the real rapture, and to prove it with a news¬letter full of scurrilous tittle-¬tattle about the disappeared.

Perrotta suggests that in times of real trouble, extremism trumps logic and dialogue becomes meaningless. Read as a metaphor for the social and political splintering of American society after 9/11, it’s a chillingly accurate diagnosis.
There is Perrotta’s beautifully modulated narration to admire, too. His lines have a calm and unshowy clarity that makes the occasional breakout even more striking, as when Laurie smells a freshly unboxed takeout pizza, the aroma “as full of memories as an old song on the car radio.” Or when a suburban housewife recalls her husband’s job-¬related BlackBerry obsession, his mind “so absorbed in his work that he was rarely more than half there, a hologram of himself.” Lines like that offer their own form of rapture.

Elul: Days of Awe

After more than a week of power outages, lack of internet and wifi, and flooding followed by subsequent mildew, I can get back to a few posts. Getting upgraded to this year’s MS OFFICE package also was a setback.

What happened to Elul as a time when one has fear of heaven that one is going to gehena if one does not do penance? Were did the primal fear of God that the rabbis of earlier generations had? Do people today believe or not believe that this month is a time to appeal to God for mercy?

What happened to using the month for pious practices of solitude, taanis dibbur, fasting? We have recorded from many sources and I used to know rabbis who took on a vow of a self-imposed silence of no talking for the month. How come I wont run into anyone in the neighborhood who wont be speaking this month. What role model are these rabbis setting? The last time I saw it seriously practiced was by Rav Naftali, the assistant to rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Netzach Yisrael. He practiced it and encouraged many who studied there to follow suit by only speaking Torah in chevruta and nothing else.

Maybe it is just due to my isolation in East Coast modern communities? Where are they still practiced?

It is important to note that the Shelah was the cornerstone of Eastern European Judaism. The Shelah was the Rav Soloveitchik or Rav Kook for 200 years with many popular kitzur hashelah created. Anyone going back to the tradition? How can we lose the entire character of this time in the Jewish calendar?

The Shelah relaying on the Safed pietistic literature defines teshuvah as
T-taanit -fasting
S – sak -sackcloth
U ve-epher- ashes
V- vechiah crying – penthos
H- Hesped – eulogy and recognizing mortality.

Anyone for ashes, sackcloth, and crying? And if you think we cannot do these anymore, then why not? ANd what do you replace them with?
This period was a time for Tikkun Hamiddot- Jews worked on their character and virtues. They fought pride, practiced self-effacement, and limited their eating if they were not fasting.

Here is one tekhinah, that I found on the web, written for Rosh Chodesh Elul by Sarah bat Tovim:

With lovingkindness and great mercy, I entreat You to do with me; accept my petition….I pray that You may accept my tears as You did those of the angels who wept when Abraham, our father, bound his dear son; but the tears of the angels fell on Abraham’s knife, and he could not slay Isaac [Genesis 22]. So may my tears before You prevent me, my husband, my children, and good friends from being taken from this world….’All gates are closed, but the gate of tears is not closed.’ Merciful Father, accept my tears….wash away our sins with the tears and look on us, with mercy, rather than with justice. Amen.

Other pietistic practices to think about:
Some Breslover Chassidim travel to Meron on Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul in order to recite the Yom Kippur Katan prayers beside the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rebbe Nachman encouraged his followers to recite the Tikkunei Zohar. Reb Noson praises the custom of reading the entire TaNaKH during the days of Elul and Tishrei, finishing on Hoshanah Rabbah.

If we create a tikkun for web use should it be the avoidance of social networking or should it be a specific way to use the web in a way of awe?