Monthly Archives: February 2013

Sarah Benor on Orthodox Culture & Linguistics

At another session at the Yarnton Manor Conference on Modern Orthodoxy the topic was the sociology of the Orthodox community. The speakers were Daniel Sperber: “Tradition, Continuity and Innovation: Opposing Halakhic Concerns” Sarah Benor, “Frum Unity, Frum Diversity: The Orthodox Continuum in Popular Culture.”Samuel Heilman, “Old and New Orthodoxies”and Chaim I Waxman – Respondent. The presentation by Sarah Benor was novel and engaging. For those who just missed her at Limmud-NY, then catch her talk at Princeton University this Wednesday. (This blog has a sizable Princeton readership who should attend.)

Sarah Bunin Benor is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (Los Angeles campus) and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Linguistics Department at the University of Southern California. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Linguistics in 2004. She teaches about the social science of American Jews, as well as about language and culture. In addition to the book Becoming Frum, she has published many academic papers and given lectures around the country about Jewish languages, linguistics, Yiddish, and American Jews. Dr. Benor edits the Journal of Jewish Languages and the Jewish Language Research Website, both of which she founded.

She is almost single-handedly (re)creating a field of Jewish Linguistics.

She has a website of Jewish-English keeping track of Yinglish, Hebrish, and other distinctive ways Jews speak English.

The goals of the Jewish English Lexicon (JEL) are to collect data on the English of Jews in America and elsewhere and to make it available to the general public. JEL is a collaborative database of distinctive words that are used in the speech or writing of English-speaking Jews. Think of it as the Wikipedia or Urban Dictionary of Jewish language.

She wrote a seminal paper on the language of American Jews as a Jewish language and concludes:

Yes, American Jews do speak a Jewish language comparable to Judeo-Persian, JudeoArabic, Judeo-Greek, and many other Diaspora languages.
When we analyze the distinctive repertoire available to American Jews, we find that it does have most of the components common among other Jewish languages. It has a non-Jewish coterritorial base language (English), a Hebrew/Aramaic component, influences from a previous Jewish language (Yiddish), displaced dialectalism, other distinctive features not linked to previous languages, avoidance of non-Jewish religious features, and a recognition that Jews use distinctive language.

In addition to these similarities, we also find important differences. Jewish American English is written in the same alphabet as general American English (albeit with occasional remnants of Hebrew orthography), rendering it more accessible to non-Jews than any language written in the Jewish alphabet.
American Jews are generally able to speak an English indistinguishable from that of nonJews—even to pass as non-Jews, if they so choose—leaving American Jews much less vulnerable to linguistic ridicule than some Jews of the past.

Prof Benor’s recent book is Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (Go read it!)

The book has a website and here are some excerpts:

“One of the few times I heard Milldale Orthodox Jews listening to non-Orthodox music was in the Kramers’ van on the way to New York for a wed­ding. The Kramer parents both became BTs in their twenties, and their teenage children have grown up as FFBs. For part of the trip, they listened to an Orthodox band. When the tape ended, they turned on the radio, which was set to a classic rock station. When “American Pie” started, the children got excited. They sang along for the chorus and some of the verses. But just as the singer was about to say, “The three men I admire most, the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” the mother turned the volume all the way down. One of the sons asked why, and she answered, “It’s words you don’t want stuck in your head.” The older daughter said, “Probably something about Yoshke” (the Yid­dish diminutive form of Jesus and the name I generally heard applied to him in Orthodox communities). After “American Pie” was over, the mother put in another Orthodox tape, which happened to start with “Ani ma’amin,” a Hebrew song stating a “full belief” that the Moshiach (Messiah) will come. I couldn’t help but smile about the ironic contrast.” (p. 74)
“For many BTs, feeling or being called inauthentic does not stop them from participating in Orthodox practices. When Mark was a Peripheral BT, he told me that he felt he was not acting like himself when he used chanting intonation or wore a black hat. But he sometimes adopted these behaviors anyway, because, he said, “it’s fun.” So when he was planning his wedding, he told friends and family that it would be “black hat optional, and I’m opting in.” Although put­ting on this “costume” did not seem authentic to him, it was an enjoyable way of connecting with the community. As Ira, an advisor at a BT yeshiva, says, “To a large part, everyone’s putting on a costume in [a BT] yeshiva.” This self-consciousness tends to be only temporary; BTs who continue to participate in a cultural practice eventually feel it is an authentic part of who they have become.” (p. 178)

She has a fascinating article on the language of non-Orthodox Jewish elites, the super-Jews, showing their language as distinct from ordinary Jews.

I argue that the major factor in the distinctive linguistic profile of non-Orthodox Jewish elites is their interaction with others like them. Anyone who attends synagogue more than monthly, has spent significant time in Israel, and/or reports that most of their close friends are engaged in Jewish life (the three criteria we used to define super Jews) likely has regular conversations with others like them. In addition, almost half of young super Jews in the sample refrain from handling money on Shabbat, which suggests that they may also host and/or attend Shabbat meals regularly. We know from studies around the world that people who talk to each other on a regular basis often converge linguistically…Participating in Jewish religious and communal life offers Jews ample opportunity to converse with others like them and to learn and spread Hebrew and Yiddish words. Read the rest here.

And she has an article on how the language of Reform sisterhoods changed . “From Sabbath to Shabbat: Changing Language of Reform Sisterhood Leaders, 1913-2012.” In Women of Reform Judaism / National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods Centenary Volume

1) What was it like for you as a non-Orthodox Jew doing research in an Orthodox community? Is there anything you want to convey to the Orthodox community?

It was a great experience. I am a religiously engaged non-Orthodox
Jew, and I came to my research with a good deal of knowledge about
halacha, tefillah, brachot, and chagim. I also came in with
proficiency in Hebrew and Yiddish. In that sense, I had an easier time
making sense of Orthodox culture and fitting in than some new BTs and
gerim (converts) who come from secular or non-Jewish backgrounds. On the other hand, my experiences also mirrored those of a new BT in many ways, as
we both encountered new traditions, Ashkenazi pronunciations,
different gender distinctions, and a community that’s much more tight
knit than our own. One major difference between my experiences and
those of BTs: I knew that my participation in Orthodoxy was just
temporary, and they expect that theirs will be long-term. Some of the
people I met during my research expected that I would become frum
myself, and a few were disappointed that I didn’t. I hope that
Orthodox Jews will read my book, even though it’s written by a
non-Orthodox Jew. I hope they’ll see in my writing my deep respect for
Orthodox communities and culture. And I hope they’ll invite me to give
talks at their shuls and kiruv centers.

2) What is your method of sociolinguistics? And how does it produce different results than other sociological methods?

My main method is ethnography: hanging out with people, visiting their
homes, attending their lifecycle events, going to shul and school with
them, and going out to restaurants with them. I observe their
interactions, I talk to them informally, and I also do formal
interviews. Throughout this process, I write detailed notes about what
I observed and heard, and I analyze those notes regularly, leading to
more questions I can ask and hypotheses I can test. This is a classic
anthropological technique, and it’s increasingly used in sociology
too. In addition, I also listened carefully to their language and
analyzed their use of words from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish, their
grammatical influences from Yiddish, and other distinctive features
(like /t/ release). I also did a sociolinguistic experiment called a
matched guise test, in which I recorded an individual saying a
sentence in two slightly different ways (like “Do you know where he
was going?” and “Do you know where he was goingk” or “rosh chodesh”
and “rosh choydesh”), mixed up a bunch of speech excerpts, and played
them back for community members. I then asked them whether they
thought the speaker was Orthodox and FFB (frum from birth), and their responses told me a lot about the linguistic feature in question.

3) How does your data show Modern Orthodoxy as separate from the rest of Orthodoxy?

In my study of responses on, I found that users who
self-select the category Modern Orthodox Liberal differed
significantly from those who selected other categories (Modern
Orthodox Machmir, Yeshivish Modern, and Yeshivish Black Hat) in a
number of indicators, including head covering (kippah/hat type for
men, plans to cover hair for women), tzitzit, and skirts vs. pants. I
found a continuum in all four categories for several of the
indicators, but for some, Modern Orthodox Liberal was distinct from
the other three.

4) How do certain ways of pronouncing letters like stronger Ts show rabbinic authority?

Americans have a few ways of pronouncing a /t/ at the end of a word,
including with or without a release of air. The released /t/ is common among people presenting themselves with an air of authority. This is not just an Orthodox thing- it can be heard in diverse communities. I found that in Orthodox communities /t/ release is more common among men than women and that people tend to release their /t/s more when they are in a position of authority (or when they want to indicate a stance of adamance). It’s not just a rabbinic linguistic feature, but certainly many rabbis release their /t/s frequently, because they often seek to speak with authority.  ( AB- to articulate -a speech sound,  so as to produce an audible puff of breath, as with the first t  of total,  the second t  being  usually unaspirated.)

5) What do you make of the Orthodox rejection of liberal Jews from their purview? What do your HUC students not grasp about Orthodoxy or where are they most resistant (other than egalitarianistm)?

This is, in my opinion, one of the most pressing issues facing
American Jewry today: the fact that many Orthodox and non-Orthodox
Jews have disdain for each other. I think the problem stems mostly
from lack of knowledge and contact. In my fieldwork I heard some
Orthodox Jews (especially but not only ba’alei teshuva) making
critical comments about Reform and Conservative Jews and their
institutions. And in my everyday life in the non-Orthodox world (in
Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and post-denominational
egalitarian circles), I sometimes hear critical comments about
Orthodox Jews and their institutions. I also hear people on both sides
of this divide talking about “Jewish diversity and unity” and “klal yisrael” while
(sometimes inadvertently) excluding those on the other side. Most
people who make critical comments do not understand how diverse and
dynamic the other group is. Orthodox Jews tend not to know that some Conservative Jews observe Shabbat strictly and that some Reform services are now mostly in Hebrew. And non-Orthodox Jews tend not to know that some Modern Orthodox shuls have women’s tefillah groups and that many Haredim have professional degrees. People in both groups assume that those in the other group have no interest in them. I hope this book serves as a small step in addressing this issue: non-Orthodox readers will learn about a Black Hat community and about diversity in the Orthodox world, and Orthodox readers will understand that a non-Orthodox researcher can represent frum Jews and frum culture in a positive and respectful way.

5) Any thoughts on how Orthodox Academics shift their way of speaking in presentation, discussion, and dinner? Can you give examples?

At the conference on Orthodoxy, most of the participants were Orthodox. One of my favorite parts of the conference was the question and answer session after one particular talk. This one speaker gave his presentation in a very academic way, talking about the Pentateuch and referring to biblical concepts with their English names. As soon as he began his answer to the first question, he switched to a more Yeshivish style, using Hebrew names for biblicalconcepts and using other distinctive Orthodox features, like the Israeli hesitation click. His New York accent even became stronger. During the rest of the conference, including coffee breaks, meals, and other academic sessions, he (along with most of the other attendees) used varying degrees of Orthodox features in his English, but he never shifted back to pure Academese. This kind of style shifting is common and useful. We wouldn’t expect a frum scholar to use Yeshivish at AAR, and we wouldn’t expect him to use Academese at his rov’s mussar shmues.

6) How do ba’alei teshuva distinguish themselves from FFBs?

It depends on the individual. Some BTs (acronym for ba’alei teshuva),
especially those who have been frum for many years, are
indistinguishable from FFBs. Those individuals sometimes intentionally
pass as FFB and don’t correct people who assume they are FFB. But many
do not feel comfortable with this situation, and they avoid it by
referring to their non-Orthodox past or to their process of teshuva.
However, most new BTs are not able to pass as FFB. Some indicate their
BT status by trying too hard to fit in – maybe their skirt is longer
than it needs to be, they display their tzitzis too conspicuously, or
they say “baruch Hashem” and “mamish” too much. Others indicate their
BT status through unique combinations, like geflite fish made with
with Indian spices, a black hat worn with trendy sunglasses, or Hebrew
and Yiddish words combined with American slang (like “mamish keepin’
it real”). This distinctiveness is sometimes intentional and sometimes
not. As I write in chapter 1: “Even when BTs attempt to pass as FFB,
their in-between status may become apparent to those in the know,
based on the tilt of a hat, the slit of a skirt, or the shape of a

Five big Hartman ideas by Rabbi Mishael Zion with Noam Zion

Here is one of the best, so far, of tributes to Rabbi David Hartman z”l in that it focuses on what he taught. It was written by Mishael Zion who has a great blog Text and the City together with his father, one of the earliest members of the the Hartman Institute. Below is about half of it- follow the link for the rest of it.

Five big Hartman Ideas 

If you walked into his class, you were probably going to get yelled at. The most boring thing you could say to him was “I agree with you.” His sharpness – and fallibility – managed to revive the Talmudic Beit Midrash, bringing students, intellectuals and politicians to his door.

Our teacher David Hartman, who passed away last week at age 81, was more Socrates than Plato. He challenged young and old alike on their sacred presuppositions.

In his honor, we offer five of his most influential ideas enshrined by the provocative catch-phrases he often used to describe them.

ONE: ‘Sinai or Auschwitz?’

In the 1970’s, the Holocaust came to dominate the strategies for enhancing Jewish identity in Israel and America. Hartman was sharply critical of what he saw as a “Holocaustization” of Judaism. Without detracting from the calamities of the Shoah, the center of Jewish experience must be Sinai, not Auschwitz, he claimed. Sinai is the blue print for a living community which seeks to embody in practice a world of justice, solidarity and service. Dwelling on the indignities of the past will not renew our passion for a just life – rather the creation of a vibrant future-oriented discourse must be the basis of our identity.

Hartman loved teaching a passage in Maimonides which addresses a seemingly ritualistic question: The Candle of Hanukkah and the Candle of Shabbat, which candle takes preference? In Hartman’s keen reading, this was a question of philosophy, not blind ritual: What takes precedence – commemorating heroic wars and the defense of God and the Jewish people, or conserving shalom bayit and the intimacy of a candle-lit Shabbat dinner? Maimonides resoundingly subordinates Hanukkah to Shabbat, which to Hartman was a call to subordinate historical memory and messianic dreams for the joy of a Shabbat meal and the vibrancy of family life. As his teacher Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik said: “The Jewish people were not put in this world simply to fight anti-Semitism.”

TWO: ‘From Sinai to Zion’ – from Children to Adults

Hartman’s book A Living Covenant was translated into Hebrew as From Sinai to Zion. For many Jews, Sinai represents the moment that God forced Israel to accede to his commandments, a God of paternal authority who threatens to destroy those who do not obey him. Instead, David Hartman’s theology emphasized God as a loving parent who gradually steps back. A wise parent creates room for his child to grow into an adult and make his own mistakes.

The Rabbinic project continues God’s ceding of responsibility to a preponderance of human wisdom in the partnership of God and Israel. Hartman made Rabbi Joshua’s cry – “it is not in Heaven” into the canonized text of all liberal minded Jews. God’s self-ironizing response: “My sons have out-argued me!” is the supreme expression of Hartman’s notion that Torah education is a millennial process of making Jewish children take on the adult responsibilities of shaping the Divine law in human hands. Zionism was the final stage in this movement, where the Jewish people took on not only law, but also history.

But where others saw messianic redemption in the State of Israel as the achievement of Judaism’s vision on earth, Hartman saw it as only the expansion of a challenge that puts our Jewish adulthood to the supreme test. The Jewish state in Zion with its empowerment over all aspects of society is the laboratory to test the Jews capability of fulfilling the desert vision of Sinai in a real world without miracles. But it is also a test-tube for Judaism to see if it has matured enough to provide not just idealistic sermons in the synagogues of the Diaspora, but to guide a modern democratic Torah-inspired state with a concern both for human rights and for security, for democracy and for Jewish identity.

THREE: ‘There is just as much a Jewish morality as there is a Jewish science!’

 Hartman had no patience for the self-congratulatory discourse of an essentialist “Jewish ethics,” and enjoyed counting the reasons why:

First, he recalled that historically Jews in all generations held a myriad of opinions and that the gap between even their best moral maxims and the actual communal behavior was often appalling. In this way, he was a student of the Biblical prophets who have pointed this out in every generation.

Second, the strength of Jewish thought is not in celebrating a common core but in revisiting the grand debates of Judaism. His books engaged in a series of living dialogues: the Bible versus the Rabbis, Maimonides versus Nachmanides and HaLevi, Rabbi Kook versus Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Rav Soloveitchik. Judaism is not a monolithic tradition, but a series of grand debates and fiery revolutions.

Third, “the God of Sinai is still the God of Creation,” and any other claim is a desecration of God’s name. Jewish ethics is first a universal ethics based on the creation of all human beings in the image of God. Human dignity is not divisible and the Chosen People cannot preach their own intrinsic superiority, discriminating against others in the name of becoming a holy people.

Hartman loved to cite the story of a Talmudic rabbi who was urged to use a legal loophole to justify cheating a non-Jew in the purchase of his donkey. The Rabbi retorts: “What, shall I become a Babrbarian?!” That Jewish law, like other systems, cannot prevent one from being a barbarian, was one of his most profound lessons. Hartman’s most uncompromising diatribes against venerable Jewish wisdom were his angry dismissals of the racist presuppositions he found in Kabbalah, Chabad or Rav Kook.

FOUR: ‘Out of the Bathtub of the Shulkhan Arukh!’

Hartman sought to hold two poles – the ghettoized and the cosmopolitan. On one hand there was Torah study as an all-encompassing passionate practice, such as he experienced in the Lakewood yeshiva among the great scholars of Lithuania who escaped the Holocaust. In Lakewood, just as since the destruction of the Temple all God has is the four ells of halacha, so today all a Jew needs is the four walls of the Beit Midrash. In many ways, Hartman never left that Beit Midrash.

On the other hand Torah is meant to be a torat hayim – a guide for life in all aspects of human endeavor. He loved to quote Maimonides who cited Aristotle’s Ethics to illuminate Pirkei Avot: “Accept truth from whomever has spoken it”. For Hartman this meant that Jewish scholars must come out of their intellectual ghettos to seek a critical dialogue with Western thinkers and with other religions.

Hartman could be sharply critical of liberal Judaism for neglecting deep Jewish learning in quality and quantity, even though he honored their commitment to adapting Judaism creatively. On the other hand Hartman, whose parents and siblings would today be called Haredi, would often lash out at the Orthodox community for what he saw as a turning of the “Talmudic Sea of Halakha” into the sordid “Bathtub of the Shulkhan Arukh.”  Halakhic Judaism had become obsessively concerned with libido – kosher eating, kosher sex and kosher dress.

FIVE: ‘What can I say? I love my people…’

David, whose name means lover, loved both the Torah and the Jewish people. He abhorred those who used Halakha to degrade the ordinary Jew’s failure to reach its ideals. Yet he never promoted a facile, apologetic Judaism to pander to Jews seeking a self-congratulatory religion. He loved the Jewish people with a passion, but wanted them to be a sea of raging intellectuals, a yeshiva where all Jews and indeed all seekers of truth could sit, study, and argue. He loved Rabbinic Judaism precisely because it preserves and engenders perennial ongoing debates about conflicting values.

His heart was made of many rooms, but these were not neatly distanced conference rooms for polite toleration of difference, rather it was one big Beit Midrash with many dueling study hevrutas. Rather than a return to the pristine days of old, Hartman celebrated the living covenant of Sinai, where each generation applies a constant reinterpretation to the ancient texts. In this way Judaism is not a community of shared beliefs or values, but rather a community of interpretation – where different readings of shared texts create the boundaries of the community.

Read the Rest Here

Smadar Cherlow- Rabbi Kook’s Secret Mission and Mystical Experience – review by Tomer Persico

There is a solid review by Tomer Persico from Haretz Jan 25, 2013 of an important new book on Rav Kook by Smadar Cherlow (Yuval is her husband).

The book claims that Rav Kook saw himself as a hidden Tzaddik who had to maintain the world and that he was endowed with prophecy. Cherlow deals with Kook’s mystical diaries and claims of the holy spirit.

After WWI, his messianism peaks and is the drive behind his goal to raise the sparks of the secular settlers. Rav Kook see an inner light of God in the secular, while Rav Sonnenfeld said that we look at halakhah not inner hearts.

During this time, Rav Kook’s diaries contain a wealth of religious revelation, visions, entering pardes, and holy spirit: He wrote  “… and I shall listen and hear.. the voice of the Lord calling” ‏(“Shmona Kevatzim,” 4:17‏). Because of its audacity, the sentence was censored when Kook’s words were transferred from his diaries to the book “Orot Hakodesh.”

The review is from Haaretz premium here  Read the selection from the review below-Any thoughts?

“Tzadik Yesod Olam: Hashlihut Hasodit Ve’ha’havaya Hamistit shel Harav Kook” ‏(“Tzaddiq Yesod Olam: Rabbi Kook’s Secret Mission and Mystical Experience”‏), by Smadar Cherlow. Bar-Ilan Press, 435 pages,

Considering the immense influence that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook ‏(1865-1935‏) has had on the fate of the State of Israel in our day, it is surprising how few scholarly books have been devoted to him. The thinker who lay the foundations for the national-religious viewpoint that sees in the state the beginning of the budding of Jewish redemption − and in its sovereignty over its territory reliable signposts marking the progress of this redemption − has indeed been the subject of several doctoral theses. But in bookstores the number of titles about him and his philosophy does not exceed a single digit, and approximately half of these are more than 20 years old.

As the subtitle of Smadar Cherlow’s book attests, her work presumes to expose a hidden and secret dimension of the life and importance of the figure known popularly as Rav Kook: his mission as a tzadik yesod olam, literally, a righteous man who serves as a foundation of the world. This mission led him to view himself as one who had been endowed with prophecy − and ultimately also as a tzadik in the role of a messiah waiting for revelation.

Cherlow introduces these characteristics of self-perception from a close reading of Rav Kook’s diaries ‏(which were made public only a dozen or so years ago in the volumes “Shmona Kevatzim”‏), and via a reading of the words of his close students Rabbi David Cohen ‏(“The Nazirite”‏) and Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harlap. Delving deeply into “Shmona Kevatzim” enables Cherlow not only to suss out what is hidden in Rav Kook’s heart, but also to weave his statements into a chronological axis of development.

After publication of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the subsequent end of World War I, messianic expectations from Rav Kook reached their height. These hopes emanated from Rav Kook’s own view of himself as a tzadik, and in fact tzadik hador− the righteous man of his generation. Cherlow brings a variety of his statements, which point to the mission to which Kook saw himself as enlisted as early as his tenure as the rabbi of Jaffa, starting in 1904.

Rav Kook determined that the secular immigrants of the Second Aliyah ‏(wave of immigration‏) − “the impudent transgressors of roads and fences,” as he put it, who came to the Land of Israel between 1904 and 1914 − were the ones who, by their actions, were implementing the divine plan that called for the return of the people of Israel to its land. If to date the preoccupation focused on these views, then in the new book the emphasis is on the mystical intuitions behind them. With the help of assorted quotations from his diaries, Cherlow shows how Kook’s self-perception as tzadik hador led him to perceive himself as responsible for “raising” the pioneers’ enterprise and inserting it as another stone in the evolving tablet of the priestly kingdom that was taking real shape.

About his own times, Rav Kook asks: “Then what are tzadikei hador to do?” and answers himself: “Rebelling against the spirit of the nation … that is something one cannot … but they have to perform great work, discover the light and the sanctity in the spirit of the nation, the light of God that is inside all these” ‏(“Shmona Kevatzim,” 1:71‏).

Kook expresses himself in the third person, but his writing style elsewhere tells us that he is referring to himself, and from his view of himself as tzadik hador, he rolls up his sleeves to try to discover the light of divinity in the actions of the heathen Jews.

It is worthwhile juxtoposing these statements by Rav Kook with the position taken at the same time by Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the first rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox Edah Haredit in Jerusalem. With reference to Kook, Sonnenfeld stated that, “the path of this one is not straight in my eyes. What have we got to do with their inner lives? The Lord sees into the heart, but we, human beings, we have but things that are visible and to rule according to the law and the halakha ‏(traditional Jewish law‏).”

Sonnenfeld recognizes that the venerated rabbi is developing his theological method in accordance with “inner sight,” and finding in the secular pioneers a divine spark that is not evident in their actions. From the Haredi rabbi’s standpoint, however, we are talking about a presumption to vision into the Holy Spirit, and he refuses to play on that field. In contrast to him, Rav Kook saw himself as a lead player on that same field.

Later on, Kook exhibits a prophetic and even messianic self-perception. The rabbi’s diaries contain a wealth of terms that describe religious revelation, starting with tzefiyah ‏(vision‏), through tiyul bapardes ‏(a walk through the orchard; pardes, lit. orchard, signifies mysticism), and ending with ruah hakodesh ‏(the holy spirit‏) and nevuah ‏(prophecy‏). Cherlow points out the increasing frequency of these phrases following Kook’s immigration from Russia to Israel and the start of his tenure as the rabbi of Jaffa, based on the assumption that a complete prophecy is only possible on Israeli soil. That was when the rabbi wrote: “… and I shall listen and hear from the depths of my soul, from the heart’s emotions, the voice of the Lord calling” ‏(“Shmona Kevatzim,” 4:17‏). Because of its audacity, the sentence was censored when Kook’s words were transferred from his diaries to the book “Orot Hakodesh.”

Rav Kook’s self-perception as a tzadik and prophet developed into a self-perception as messiah with the end of the Great War. The terrors of World War I inspired him to hope that it was in fact “the war to end all wars,” as it was dubbed at the time. In similar fashion to the impact that the horrors of the Holocaust had on Chabad rabbis, the sensation grew on him that out of such great darkness must burst forth light, and he saw himself as responsible for spreading that light. To that end he worked to found a spiritual-political movement and to revive the Sanhedrin.

Contact with the divine

Cherlow’s formulation of these insights was done based on things − explicit and insinuated − contained in Kook’s diaries. This method is dangerous sometimes, since scholars tend to find in writings whatever they are looking for. But in many cases there is no other choice, for rarely will a mystic ‏(let along a Jewish mystic‏) relate in a simple manner what he feels and the image he has of himself. Cherlow is aware of these dangers. She focuses in her book on Kook’s experiences, at the expense of looking at his activity or his philosophic and halakhic writings. This choice underscores the mystical dimension in his life − i.e., his constant striving for immediate contact with the divine.

One of the interesting insights that arise from this study pertains to the image of Kookian mysticism, which focuses on one’s subjective inner life. The prophetic source as far as Kook is concerned lies in the depths of his psyche. His world is divided into the subjective interior and the objective exterior. This also gives rise to the tension between the inner revelations and hovot ha’evarim − the duties to be performed by the bodily organs, which is to say the mitzvoth and social ties by which he is bound.

His words suggest that his mystical self-perception is utterly different from that shared by mekubalim ‏(mystical masters‏) in the past, in whose eyes the mitzvoth are the mysticism − i.e., that their mystical journey ‏(which includes mating of spheres or impregnation of souls, prophetic revelations or elevation of sparks‏) takes place by means of the mitzvoth, and out of an affiliation with a group of mekubalim around them.

“Cherlow devotes two chapters to examining the strains in the rabbi’s life between his inner identity as a mystic and his social role as a public leader. Again and again, Kook writes about the sorrow caused him by the necessity to go out into the world, and even by the obligation to be a stickler for halakha. His words suggest that his mystical self-perception is utterly different from that shared by mekubalim ‏(mystical masters‏) in the past, in whose eyes the mitzvoth are the mysticism − i.e., that their mystical journey ‏(which includes mating of spheres or impregnation of souls, prophetic revelations or elevation of sparks‏) takes place by means of the mitzvoth, and out of an affiliation with a group of mekubalim around them.

Rav Kook presents a modern mystical consciousness, which he shares with other Jewish figures who were active in the early 20th century, such as Martin Buber, A.D. Gordon, Hillel Zeitlin and the Grand Rabbi of Piaseczno. In a spiritual world such as theirs, mythic thinking, which unites inside and outside, and above and below, gave way to a modern consciousness and a perception that makes a harsh distinction between consciousness and action, between the subjective world and the objective world. Their reunification is precisely the challenge facing the mystic, and meeting it is perceived as the height of mystical accomplishment.

In the eyes of the Jewish mystic, that is a new situation, the first signs of which appeared in the Hasidic movement. From Cherlow’s book emanates Rav Kook’s passion not only to redeem the world, but to redeem his soul as well, through the total unification of the aspects of his life − the mystical, the halakhic, the social and the national. Rav Kook, a dedicated optimist, was convinced it was possible.”

Tomer Persico teaches in the program for contemporary religious studies at Tel Aviv University.

New York: 2011 Geographic Profile.

In mid-January, they released the data from the UJA-Federation 2011 Geographic  Profile. It provides statistics of wealth, denomination, intermariage and other valuable knowledge about the NYC community broken down by county. I have seen no discussion of the data.

Among my observations is that in Manhattan only 18 % light Shabbat candles or are in household that lights candles. In the national studies of 1990 and 2000, it was about 36 % then 32% making it one of the most kept rituals. The keeping of candle lighting was one of the firm ritual kept out of nostalgia or filial piety, not anymore. In addition, kashrut in Manhattan is down to 17%, made up of the  Orthodox and half of the Conservative. On the other hand, Shabbat meals is at 32%- meaning that synagogue sponsored Shabbat meals are attractive even to those who dont light Shabbat candles.  And 32% study Judaism, much higher among those younger.

the whole study is here Geographic Profile (PDF)

A breakdown by counties is here Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 Geographic Profile

Let me know if you discover any interesting trends.

Conversation with James Kugel- A Follow-up

Prof. Kugel has accepted to answer some of the questions that I received on the prior conversation about revelation. Do not expect a third round. So if you are qualified and want to continue the conversation, then contact me about a guest post or email me a draft.

Prof. Kugel reiterates his approach to the challenge of modern biblical scholarship and again asserts that Orthodox Jews need not be afraid of it.  He also formulates a theory of prophecy, with content somewhat similar the medieval commentaries on the Guide of the Perplexed; a prophecy that is above our comprehension and above the historical details. (This is my take, he avoids the medieval language.) The goal of revelation was to teach the people of Israel the service of God in their daily lives. This is the religion of mitzvot.

In Kugel’s reply, he compares the human apprehension of divine revelation to the human faculty of sight, specifically, our perception of colors, whereby different wavelengths of light reflected off of objects are turned into different colors inside our brains. “The wavelengths are indeed ‘out there,’” he writes, “but the color happens inside our brains.” So too with divine speech: it indeed starts “out there,” but it acquires the form it ultimately has inside the human brain. (AB- think of medieval theories of the agent intellect for prophecy.)

In saying this, Kugel does not address directly the matter of the Documentary Hypothesis or the presence of doublets, repetition, and other apparently human elements in the text, as do other scholars. For example, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer holds that the Torah exhibits different aspects (behinot) corresponding to the different “sources” in the Documentary Hypothesis, but these are all part of a single, divinely authored text and no proof of human intervention. Prof. David Halivni holds that the Torah is a Divine text, but that it became earthly and then was tragically broken and needed to be restored in the time of Ezra, so that the final product does indeed show signs of historical wear and tear and the presence of different voices. In contrast,  Kugel does not try to accommodate the historical reconstructions and multiple authors of the Documentary Hypothesis the way Breuer and Halivni do.

Kugel writes in a style both captivating and convincing, but expresses surprise that his Orthodox readership did not understand that his book How to Read the Bible was not intended specifically for them. He did not expect an  Orthodox audience who are too rationalistic for his Jewish approach and preferred the critical approach once they heard about it. They found Second Temple stories and Midrash too fanciful. He remarks: “I don’t see how they can be Orthodox if they can’t accept the traditional Jewish approach.” He may have misunderstood how some of his Orthodox readers sought to keep literature and psychology free of doubtful material  or how insular they were raised. The audience to whom he wishes to teach modern criticism once they can tell the difference “between Torah and Pentateuch” may be much smaller than he thinks.

Kugel does not answer why there are so many doublets, contradictions, tensions, etc. in the Tanakh, since he believes that the critical approach is completely incompatible with the traditional Jewish approach.

At this point, it may be need to bring into the Jewish discussion through selctive adaptation ideas from theologians who emphasize a second nativity or reading the Bible as part of a community’s exegesis such as Paul Ricoeur, George Lindbeck, Hans Frei or Cardinal Ratzinger. One can only push Biblisists so far, and no further, for philosophic formulation

Commenters please do not comment without having read the books. Also skeptics: your affirmation that you “Aint buying it” does not add to the discussion.

Dear Alan:

I’ve been somewhat overwhelmed by all the email generated by our motza’ei Shabbat conversation. I’m grateful for your invitation to expand on it a bit here (though I’m pretty sure I won’t get to answering all the questions raised). But I should also mention that I hope to have a little book coming out soon that addresses a lot of these issues. It’s Part II of a book I wrote some years ago called On Being a Jew, which took the form of a dialogue between a young man just discovering Judaism and a more knowledgeable, older fellow, who leads him through a series of basic issues and concepts. I had always intended to have that book followed by a Part II: it begins four years later, the younger guy having spent the intervening time in yeshiva in Israel. Now he has a different set of questions, some of them the same as, or at least related to, the questions raised in our earlier conversation and those subsequently sent in to your website. So, if I don’t get to everything in this writing, let me put in a plug for Part II, which is called The Kingly Sanctuary.I should have it out in some form pretty soon, and as soon as I know when, I plan to announce it on my website,

Now, here are some answers to questions:

    1) Why did Kugel bother writing a whole book about modern biblical scholarship if he thinks it’s irreconcilable with traditional Jewish belief?

    I think a lot of your correspondents don’t realize that How to Read the Bible was not written primarily for Orthodox Jews, in fact, not for Jews at all. The book was aimed at any educated reader interested in the Bible, which includes an awful lot of Christians, plus some Muslims, Buddhists, etc. as well as people with no connection to any particular religion.

    What I wanted to show to all these readers was the great gap between the Bible as it was generally understood by both Jews and Christians in earlier times and the Bible as it is understood today by modern biblical scholars. So that’s what I did, contrasting the two approaches in chapter after chapter. The point of this, apart from teaching about both ancient biblical interpretation and the basics of modern scholarship, was to raise an important question: hasn’t this whole modern approach seriously undermined the role that Scripture used to play in Judaism and Christianity?

    Most Orthodox Jews don’t have any troubling answering “yes” to that question (in fact, some of them would answer, that’s why we don’t want to hear about it).  But lots of other people found my question very disturbing, or else it just made them mad—among them, not surprisingly, many of my colleagues, people who teach modern scholarship in universities and Christian seminaries. Some of them wrote pretty negative reviews: “Kugel overstates the case, the Bible is alive and well,” “Modern scholarship only enhances our knowledge, which can’t be bad,” etc. etc. Actually, not all of these reviews were written by Christians; at least one of the nastier ones came from a Jewish Bible professor eager to denounce my book as too “Orthodox” in its whole approach.

    So I ended up alienating people on my right (Orthodox Jews who somehow concluded that I was endorsing the modern approach) and people on my left (who attacked me for not endorsing the modern approach). You might say that this is the true mark of success, proof that I hit it just right. But actually, in terms of what I set out to do, I would have to judge the book a failure. I may be wrong, but I think a lot of my Christian colleagues read one or two of the “too Orthodox” reviews and never even bothered to look at the book or consider its argument, while a lot of Orthodox Jews looked at the table of contents and dismissed it for exactly the opposite reason.

    2) Isn’t Kugel being inconsistent? On the one hand, he says that modern scholarship is irreconcilable with tradition Jewish beliefs, and on the other he says Orthodox Jews who don’t want to know about it are “hiding their heads in the sand.” Which is it?

    Actually, I don’t find these two things to be contradictory. As I explained last time (no need to repeat here) modern scholars and traditional Judaism don’t even agree on what the “text” is: the former take it to be strictly the words on the page, the latter to include the whole Oral Torah (torah she-be’al peh). This is no minor disagreement: it represents two completely opposed notions of how to read the Bible. But precisely for that reason, I don’t believe Orthodox Jews need to hide from modern scholarship: its Pentateuch and our Torah exist on two different planes. Of course, I know that there are people who nevertheless feel quite threatened by the whole approach of modern scholars; I’ve always said I’d never compel anyone to study this material. But for me, in any case, I really wanted to know about it, and I think there are a lot of Orthodox Jews like me. So to them I would say: if you truly understand the difference between “Pentateuch” and “Torah,” then go ahead. (But maybe, for some people, it should be like studying the Zohar: age forty and up.)

    3)Why doesn’t Kugel say anything about medieval parshanut and medieval ideas about Torah—Abraham ibn Ezra, Rashbam, the Rambam, Ramban, etc.?

    The story of the rise of medieval parshanut has been told many times and the various contributory factors are well known: the entrance of Greek philosophical ideas into the Arabic-speaking world and their impact on Jewish biblical interpreters from Se’adya on; the fierce Islamic critique of Judaism; the rise of Karaism; the development of Hebrew grammars and Hebrew lexicography; and yet others. All these things combined to cast traditional Jewish exegesis into doubt, indeed, to make Jewish Scripture itself look silly. That’s where the whole movement of medieval parshanut started, and who could blame its brilliant practitioners?

    But these are different times now. We now know full well where the approach of the pashtanim ultimately leads, and you can’t start down that path today without going all the way; the search for peshat didn’t end in the Middle Ages. So if it’s peshat you’re after, then eventually you have to consider not just what Rashbam wrote in the twelfth century, but what is known now about the historical circumstances in which this or that text was uttered, since this will certainly illuminate the peshat. You’ll also have to concern yourself with the archaeology of the ancient Near East and what it has revealed about biblical history, as well as with all the ancient Near Eastern writings that parallel biblical passages and what these may teach us about peshat—what, for example, ancient Mesopotamian law may show about the straightforward meaning of this or that legal passage (as well as the implications of the Mesopotamian law codes’ historical priority to the biblical texts in question).

    You’ll also have to consider questions of the authorship of various books and parts of books (since you really can’t talk about peshat and ignore all that scholars have concluded about the chronology and the unity of different biblical books and passages). Eventually, you’ll have to start looking at the Big Questions—the origins and nature of Israel’s God as reflected in Ugaritic epic; the whole of Israelite cultic practices, i.e. sacrifices and holy days and tum’ah and tahorah, in the light of Mesopotamian cultic worship; likewise, the origin of the people of Israel as currently understood by scholars and the impact of this understanding on the peshat meaning of the Bible’s account of same—in short, you can’t start down the road of peshat and stop once you get to the eighteenth or nineteenth century because it becomes inconvenient after that. So I’m altogether a follower of Hazal  (the rabbinic sages of the opening centuries of the common era) and the approach to Torah that they championed. That is the true theological significance of the doctrine of the torah she-be’al peh.

    4)What does Kugel really think went on at Mount Sinai? How much of the Torah as we have it—if anything!—was actually given to Moses? If he accepts the idea of scholars that the Torah was put in its final form in the Persian period, does this not contradict the plain historical statement that Moses was given the Torah at Sinai?

I tried last time to address the significance of the Torah’s own narrative of mattan Torah by contrasting the theme of Torah min ha-Shamayim with Torah mi-Sinai. With regard to the latter, I alluded to what is said in Sifrei Bemidbar (Beshallah 112), “Anyone who said, ‘The whole Torah was spoken by the Holy One, except that this one thing/word Moshe said on his own (mippi ‘atzmo amaro)’—this is what is meant by ‘He has spurned the word of the Lord’ [Num 15:31].” In other words, Hazal insisted that Moshe was strictly the conduit for God’s words; in their view, he himself had no role in establishing its contents.

As for Mount Sinai, it was so significant to them that no one today has any idea where the real Mount Sinai is. (The place that tour-guides take you to, called in Arabic Jebl Musa, is simply someone’s wild guess of where Sinai might have been. The only ancient Jew I know of to have expressed an opinion on the mountain’s location said it was “in Arabia,” which would put it considerably to the east of the Sinai peninsula.) Actually, it seems that Jews lost sight of Sinai’s geographic location fairly early in biblical times. What was significant in the Sinai narrative was the fact that the Torah came from God; it is not, as others would have it, a “human reaction to the ineffable.” But equally important is the fact that it was given into human hands.

I can certainly imagine a holy book of some other people claiming (somewhat Platonically) that its words are but a pale reflection of the true text, which remains in heaven. That’s not Judaism. So, if one considers these two central principles of the Torah’s own narrative—that the Torah came from God and that the Torah was given over to human beings—then Torah mi-Sinai will itself be seen to embody what I said is the crucial teaching, Torah min ha-Shamayim.

But perhaps I should repeat here something that the older fellow in my forthcoming Kingly Sanctuary says (which is not too different from I have been saying for quite a while): The whole purpose of the Torah is to teach ‘avodat ha-Shem. In fact, the Kingly Sanctuary’s protagonist (“Albert Abbadi”) goes on to describe the Torah as “Volume One of a multi-volume work entitled How to Serve God”; it is followed by other volumes, the Mishnah and Tosefta and the tannaitic midrashim and the Talmud and the medieval codes and so forth. This is certainly not to equate all of these, but to assert that they all constitute a single trajectory. That trajectory began with the Torah, and its divine origin is no insignificant circumstance. But believing in Torah min ha-Shamayim does not imply that the Torah is the last word (otherwise, why do we have these other books?). Rather, it is the first word, and its literal text never was equated with the whole Torah.

Indeed, as I also tried to say as clearly as I could last time, a central doctrine of Judaism is that what starts in heaven is eventually handed off to human beings. That’s the meaning of lo ba-shamayim hi, “It’s no longer in heaven.” Somewhere, at some point in this trajectory, it comes down to earth and human beings take over. Considered from this standpoint, I don’t think much is theoretically at stake in where that line is drawn; it has to be drawn somewhere. I’ve heard people say that every word of the Babylonian Talmud was divinely inspired, and every word of Rashi’s perush to it was divinely inspired, and the Shulhan Arukh was divinely inspired, and all the teshuvot of R. Moshe Feinstein ztz”l were divinely inspired, and so forth. I think this is to miss the whole idea of this divine-to-human handoff, which is so central to Judaism.

5) How can the Torah come from God if it contains elementary mistakes in physics or biology or history?

If we really understood what it means for God to speak to human beings, we would know just how much of a part the human mind plays in the process. But we don’t. Let me mention, by way of analogy, something about our own faculty of sight. Neuroscientists know full well that the objects that we see with our eyes really have no color. Nothing is blue or red or whatever. Rather, what happens is that light (from the sun or an electric bulb or whatever) is reflected off objects in different wavelengths. These wavelengths in and of themselves might be altogether insignificant, but long, long ago, brains developed the capacity to sort them into colors in a process that starts, in humans, with those wavelength-sensitive “cones” in our retina. But that’s only the beginning of a long journey, which moves next to the optic nerve and from there to the optic chiasm, at the base of the hypothalamus; there the information from both eyes is combined and eventually passed on to something else called the LGN (lateral geniculate nucleus), which in humans is a six-layered sensory relay nucleus that further processes and sorts the information until it is forwarded to the visual cortex, way at the back of the brain above the cerebellum. (The visual cortex is actually the largest system in our brain and the one responsible for ultimately making sense of all the input deriving from the previous stages.) What does this mean? It means that there is nothing essential, nothing inherent in the object viewed, to connect it to the color that we perceive. The wavelengths are indeed “out there,” but the color happens inside our brains. Someone could take a computer and program it to assign quite different colors to various wavelengths and so produce a very different picture of what is seen. (This is somewhat similar to what scholars have done with some previously unreadable parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, causing the black letters of the scroll to emerge from the parchment on which they were written, despite the fact that, to our eyes, both the letters and the parchment are indistinguishably black.) The nimshal is this (and its implications go even beyond the matter of divine speech): we simply don’t know the beginning of the process we call prophecy, i.e., God speaking to a human being. All we know is what comes out the other end, after the intervention of a human brain.

    .6)Does Kugel accept a version of Halivni’s corrupted text theory? If that’s not his explanation for imperfections in the text, what is? Does he expect us to adopt the “solutions” suggested in the Book of Jubilees and the like?

    I guess I’ve answered some of this in the above. And although I am a great admirer of Professor Halivni, I don’t think his idea of a corrupted text is the way to go. But I would like to say one thing in this connection. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as from the close textual analyses undertaken by scholars over the past century and more, that our biblical texts were not static. You give to someone, an ancient prophet or sage, a text of the words of God as transmitted to the prophet Isaiah or Jeremiah, and what does he do? He changes them. He moves this over there, he puts some material that came after the beginning of the book and makes it into the new beginning, he glosses and explains and elaborates. Sometimes he does this on a very large scale. We know from Qumran that there were two “editions” of the book of Jeremiah; one version, attested in the Old Greek translation of the Bible as well as in some Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, was about ten chapters shorter than our Masoretic version of Jeremiah (also attested on some Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts), and the chapters were arranged somewhat differently. It appears, though not irrefutably so, that the shorter version was expanded (rather than the longer version having been abbreviated).

    With regard to all such changes—and there are a lot more—you want to ask that meddling scribe or sage or prophet: How dare you? Someone gives you divrei Elokim hayyim and you start switching things around and adding to them? How dare you?! And the answer is: he dare. And although changing the actual text ceased at a certain point, ancient biblical interpretation continued to accomplish precisely the same thing without changing a word. The endless refrain of those interpreters—people who otherwise had little in common with each other, Philo of Alexandria and ben Sira and the author of Jubilees and so forth—is always the same: “The text says X, but what it really means is Y.” In this sense, I think, there is a direct line leading from text alteration to biblical interpretation: they look like two completely different things, but viewed from a distance, their similarity is unmistakable. And this way of viewing sacred texts, in one form or another, has been there from the very start.

    Do I expect people to accept the “solutions” found in Jubilees? I expect Orthodox Jews to accept, to champion, the solutions found in the writings of Hazal (although, as my earlier remark about Rashi versus Yalkut Shim’oni was intended to convey, midrashic collections generally present multiple solutions to the same textual problem, and these frequently contradict one another). Then why am I bothering with Jubilees? Because the earliest texts of Hazal were written down four hundred years after Jubilees. Jubilees and other writings from the same period thus afford us a glimpse of part of the Torah she-be‘al peh at an earlier stage (though I don’t mean to equate the two)—that’s how I got interested in pre-Hazal midrash in the first place. But quite apart from this, the reason I used Jubilees and other pre-Hazal sources in How to Read the Bible was that I did not want my Christian readers to think that midrash was strictly a Hazal-ic (that is, rabbinic) operation: it was there long before, and is as much a part of what Christianity inherited from earlier Judaism as the books of the Bible themselves.