Monthly Archives: May 2014

Hindu pictures at an Exhibition

I am still trying to find my voice in writing up the theological contents of my India trip; let me try my hand at something more local in the same style that I was writing about India. (too wordy? Makes it readable? Unreadable?) This post is still a tentative work in progress.

There is a wonderful exhibit that opened when I first returned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century.” Museums are one of the key components in the creation of the middle class public sphere. The world’s treasures are no longer available only to royalty, rather since the invention of the museum, everyone can be uplifted by the exhibits as well as learn and debate their meaning. They control the way the public looks at history and are simultaneously an amusement for the family. In this case, for those not privileged to have a grant to travel to India and see the material objects of Eastern religions in their own culture, the exhibit offer a chance to expose people as well as mold their understanding of Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Met museum is located on museum mile on Fifth Ave, one of the densest concentrations of cultural institutions in the world, with a single entrance to the museum in the middle of a four block long building. The entrance has a monumental grand stone staircase almost half a block wide and a grand three story entrance. Outside in front of the staircase are a half dozen hotdog/gyro trucks with the most expensive vendor permits in the city at almost a quarter of a million dollars each, for the right to sell hot dogs. Just three blocks away the permits cost half that amount. Think of how many people buy hot dogs and sodas in a year to make this profitable for half a dozen trucks. It also shows what an institution the Metropolitan Museum is for the area.

Upon entering the museum those who visiting every few years wait on long lines for entry and treat this as a special trip in their lives. Those with annual membership enter by showing their card, immediately receiving tickets without waiting. The latter group also tends to avoid the grand front pavilions and go to the elevators in back to reach their destination of a special exhibit.

The Hindu-Buddhist exhibit was on the second floor in the same recessed serpentine exhibit room used for many other special exhibits (for pictures see here and here.) It was kept dark except for the lights on the objects. This separation from everything else marks these objects as art and sculptures removing them from their original religious context. But can we so easily convert statues of gods into art objects? Would a display of tefillin in an exhibition of Greco-Roman leather work remove their religious nature? In many museums in India they have a tough time getting the patrons not to leave flower or incense offerings at the statues, some even want to light votive candles before the statues. Even at the Rubin museum of Himalayan art on 17th Street, there were patrons who did not keep art and devotion separate and left offerings at the statue of Ganesh.

Since exhibits color how people view religions, I have a problem with these exhibits of Indian art from the Gupta and Chola periods (320 to 1000CE). These early centuries produced some of the most spectacular highly ornate art and were a high point of military power for Hindu kingdoms. However, we have very little knowledge of what those statutes meant to those who worshipped. They do not correspond to the sacred texts from either before or after. Nor do they even correspond to classic sutras being written during this time period. Even when the images of Hinduism are from a bas-relief on a Temple, most of these classical Temples are of historical interest and not currently used.

Book publishers love putting these early images on the cover of books leading many if not most people in the West to think that this pantheon of gods is still worshiped and the worship is still in the form of 1500 years ago. Many Westerners will be adamant since these were the illustrations to their paper book books on Hinduism, hence they know what goes on today.

During those years the collective word Hinduism was not even invented. There were separate religions of the worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Durga and others religions with separate festivals, ritual books, and theologies. Placing everything in a single room creates a sense of hodgepodge image of the foreign religion. In addition, there were many pieces of Hindu-Buddhist yakshas- little nature spirits – similar to Gaelic nature spirits before Christianity- giving an image of the religion that is far from contemporary concerns.

Furthermore, most of the pieces in the display were from outside lintels or display pieces in royal buildings. The exhibit did not distinguish between temples and royal buildings since its narrow goal was to show Indian influence in South East Asia. The museum had big decorative lions on display with palace Buddhas, with scenes of the life of the gods, with actual Temple gods. The depiction of the gods on building ornamentation is not the same as actual Temple practice. For example, do Christians worship the gargoyles, griffins, and unicorns used as building ornamentation? Are all the scenes from Ovid or baroque passions found in museums reflective of the theology of the chapel? Do New Yorker’s place altars next to Patience and Fortitude, the lions in front of the New York public library?

Finally, those that were actual Temple deities should have been clothed and fully dressed to preserve the dignity that Hinduism gives its temple statues. Unlike the Greco-Roman statue that celebrated the body, especially the nude form, the Hindu statue is symbolic and non-representational with extra body parts and symbolic ornamentation to tell a story. Temple deities once consecrated are meant to be dressed every day as worship. Luckily, most of the statues had broken pieces and a chipped or broken image loses its status as deities in Hinduism.

Here is a way to put it in Jewish terms. Jews do not make representations of images for worship. But what if they did? What if a curator put together an exhibit of the Biblical image of a golden calf, Helios mosaic synagogue images, relics from the Jewish Temples in Onias and Elephantine, together with images of birds heads from the haggadah and Polish synagogue lions. What would you think? Would you think that Jews worship the synagogue lions?

In addition, if Jews did visual arts for worship, Jews would have to deal with the remains of statues to the shekhinah or the kavod. When Yehudah Halevi tells us to visualize the shekhinah during prayer what would the image had looked like if we made images? What would a devotional image of the body of God from the Song of Glory look like? So would such an exhibit reflect current Jewish thought? [Jews in late antiquity and early middle ages described in their texts zaddikim as having halos of light around their heads, but without the painted images or sculpted figures few know of our similar imagery with the rest of the West.]

There was a decorative statue from Cambodia of Kalkin, the form of Vishnu that will appear at the end of time on a white horse. He will amass an army of those few pious souls remaining and will destroy all demons and sins in the world. This eschatology of a final battle is much closer to our Western messianic and Armageddon battles than our images of Hinduism, yet the visual alone does not convey the meaning.

Notice the row of mediators on this relic cover below. Even some of the most ordinary Buddhist art has depictions of rows of mediators.

Another special exhibit in the museum was by a nineteenth century French sculpture who sought to capture all the realism of the human body as sculpted by Michelangelo. His sculpture had realistic eyes that seem to be real and watching you. In contrast, India sculpture is always ideal or devotional. The eyes were intentionally blank on the statues that were used in worship because they get painted on to consecrate the statue. The Buddhas had eyes half shut to show that one has to look not just outward but also inward. Only the protective/decorative lions and dragons had ordinary eyes since they were not objects of worship.

There is a very similar exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art on the import of Indian image into south East Asia which does not have as extravagant pieces but it is much better curated, limiting itself to devotional pieces.

On leaving the museum on a street proceeding out from the front stairs was the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, an NYU gallery hosting an incredibly important exhibit Copper Age Art from Israel of items from the Copper Age 4000 BCE from what is now the land of Israel. These pieces made between the Neolithic and Bronze age offer an insight in the gods and burial practices of the land 2000 years before the date ascribed to the Patriarchs. When we see this exhibit we know to keep its contents separate from Israelite religion and certainly from Judaism. But if so, then why do people treat Indian archaeology from the Vedic period as if it reflects contemporary Hinduism? And when we see statues of Ugarit or Sumerian style found in what is now Israel, we know it does not reflect the group that became Judaism but we do not make the same distinctions when at exhibit of items from the Indus valley.

Are the book cover designers at fault for causing us to blur historic ages, or maybe various museum exhibits?

Can one talk about Religion in 300 words?

Between 2009 – 2011 when I was working on book manuscripts, I posted 24 times a month, lots of small posts and news clips. I submitted the manuscript in 2011 so I went back to research, grant writing, and Fulbright year abroad. Therefore, between 2011-2014, my posts have been limited to a handful a month and gotten much longer, usually magazine length. Well, I am now working on a manuscript again. So I back online. I will start posting things I read again. As of now, I do not plan on posting the small stuff on Facebook, but if people would like that then let me know-maybe a separate page.

The AP has sent a memo to relgion journalists to limit their stories to 300-500 words. But can any religion story be explained in so few words?It seems that unless people are already within one group and know the people involved that it limits stories to organizational teams and rooting for one side. It removes all tradition, doctrine, text, and spiritual quest from religion. Everything is now either good news or bad news. The blog GetReligion which is dedicated to watching how the press handles religion flags this point.

Here’s the story as reported by The Washington Post:

Citing a “sea of bloated mid-level copy,” Associated Press Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano last week instructed fellow editors at the wire service to limit most “daily, bylined digest stories” to a length of between 300 and 500 words. Top stories from each state, Carovillano directed, should hit the 500 to 700-word range, and the “top global stories” may exceed 700 words but must still be “tightly written and edited.”

Carovillano’s memo itself references the driving force behind the limits: “Our members do not have the resources to trim the excess to fit shrinking news holes,” notes the editor.

Paul Colford, a spokesman for AP, notes that a “common concern” among AP members and subscribers is that stories are too long. In recent months, says Colford, the wire service has been trimming stories in Europe and the outcome has been “successful.”

Noting that the memo encouraged AP reporters to “consider using alternative story forms either to break out details from longer stories, or in lieu of a traditional text story,” a Poynter Institute blogger quipped: So is AP getting into the listicle business?

Here at GetReligion, we often critique stories that seem incomplete and lacking in basic context and details. Often, those stories run 800 to 1,200 words. But what happens when a journalist has only 300 to 500 words to tell a complicated religion story? Is that even possible?

Can a news organization report fairly and fully on, say, a same-sex marriage lawsuit or a doctrinal debate or a faith affiliation survey in that amount of space? Can it even pretend to?

source GetReligion

Interview with Yehudah Mirsky about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Years ago, when I was at Yeshiva College after I had already read the available English books about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as well as the meager translations, I decided it was time to turn to his Hebrew works. Fortuitous for me was that the person who lived across the hall from me in the dorm was future Brandeis professor, Yehuda Mirsky. He recommended that I start with Eder Hayakar-Ikvei h’Tzon (excellent translation of much of it here), which contains Kook’s early clarion call that we live in a unique age,in which the youth will not continue the archaic ways; Times are changing and new solutions are needed.

The same Yehudah Mirsky now guides all of us in his recently written book, the only introduction to Kook’s life entitled, Rav Kook Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2014). Mirsky is currently an Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies as well as affiliated with the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He served in the U.S. State Department’s human rights bureau has lived in Israel for the past decade, and has contributed to the New Republic, the Economist, and many other publications.

Even though many have heard of Rabbi Kook, English readers have had little exposure to the actual complexity of his thought. Most of the translations into English were done in the mid-20th century by RIETS graduates who studied with Kook’s student Moshe Seidel at Yeshiva University and who went on to respond to the changes of modernity by building the Conservative Movement (Ben-Zion Bokser, and Jacob Agus). On the other hand, the writings produced in mid-twentieth Israel stressed that Kook wanted to “renew the old and sanctify the new’ through Religious Zionism of secular education, poetry, imagination, state building, and a modern worldview (Zvi Yaron).

Even for those who read Hebrew, his ideas were elusive. After the 1967 War, Rav Kook was presented in the works constructed by his son, Zvi Yehudah (such as Orot) as stressing the organic bond of the Jewish soul to the land, the glories of war, messianic politics, and nullification of the exile. In contrast, the more Modern Orthodox world stressed Orot Hakodeh, edited by the Nazir David Cohen, in which worked out Rav Kook’s positions on faith, heresy, kefira, tolerance, and science (such as Benjamin Ish Shalom, for a good overview of this angle read the VBM classes).

Recently, Rav Kook’s original notebooks, Shemonah Kevatzim were published, from which the other works were constructed. In addition, other manuscripts, mystical diaries, and Kook’s early articles have also been recently published wherein he reveals himself to be a Haredi who struggled with the spirit of modern philosophy, someone who rejected secular education in school but eagerly met regularly with secular authors, someone who liked the free-spirited thinking of the Religious Kibbutz movement but opposed their halakhic leniencies and as someone who wants a religious Zionism but vehemently fought against the institutions and social vision of the Mizrachi party.

Now, Mirsky offers us a comprehensive yet concise biography.We still await a comprehensive book on Rav Kook’s thought.

This post is already very long but one should also find time to read Mirsky’s ideas about the staying power of Orthodoxy and Orthodox Feminism.


1) Can you tell me about your new book?
Rav Kook is an immensely significant and compelling figure, at the very least one of the most important Jewish thinkers and public figures of modern time. His life is a sacred history of the most powerful and contradictory currents of modern Judaism. And yet he’s hardly known in the English speaking world, including among students of religion.

State Department colleagues of mine who spent years working on settlements, peace process etc. have never heard of him – and thus never thought of settlers as anything other than Bible-thumping nationalist fundamentalists. American Jewish intellectuals know almost nothing about him (other than “he was the vegetarian, right” – though only sort of, or “that fascist?”), rabbis and educators know only the vaguest things and even Orthodox Jews know very little about him – though they are curious. And even reasonably well-informed people have little idea just how hard-fought the internal history of Zionism in general, and religious Zionism in particular, have been.

So I tried here to fill that gap, with a book length essay about Rav Kook’s life, thought and times, that would be meaningful both to learned readers like you and to people whose knowledge of Judaism comes from book reviews in the New Yorker.

I tried to write in a style that would strike a balance critical distance and empathetic understanding. And because it was so short, I had to make every sentence count.

2) What do you do with the dominant interpretation of Rav Kook as messianic militarism via his son Rabbi Zvi Yehudah and Hardal.

In some ways this is THE question here.

Our interpretive choices as readers, especially as engaged and committed readers, are also moral choices. My moral choice here is to try and do justice to the man, understand him as best I can, trying to convey the very great weight of moral and spiritual authority he rightly brings down to the present – while at the same time choosing not to use his deeply essentialized ideas about the land of Israel and the Jewish people, by which those entities are in some ways removed from the world and can, in the exercise of their selfhood do no wrong, as guides for political life in the present.

Rav Zvi Yehudah and his disciples have chosen otherwise – to read him as a corpus that can brook no contradiction, and to take those essentialized readings of Eretz Yisrael and Knesset Yisrael as guides for action in the present day. I believe that doing so will in the end lead to bad results, and to cruelty, whether intentionally inflicted or not. Which is not to get the Palestinians and Israel’s other antagonists off the hook for the bad things they have done. As Rav Amital taught us, life is complicated, but that complexity is not an excuse from trying to think things through.

Now, Allan Nadler in his smart and bracing piece in the Jewish Review of Books argues that I let Rav Kook too easily off the hook – in that his ideas, to Allan’s mind, lead directly to those of Rav Zvi Yehudah – as well as arguing that while I do present a nuanced and critical view, I left out some of Rav Kook’s less congenial or even disturbing rulings and pronouncements. As far as the latter goes, as I said, I wrote this book for a wider audience, and assumed that what I had in there already was shocking enough to liberal sensibilities, and that adding more would have kept general readers from trying to understand what was so compelling about this man and why he’s so significant. (In Hebrew I tend to write a bit more freely.)

As for the first point – yes, mystical metaphysics, messianism and absolutist thinking make for dangerous politics. Allan’s points here are well-taken, necessary and refreshing.

And as I say repeatedly in the book, Rav Kook’s powerful spiritual and theological understandings were uncoupled from a concrete understanding of politics; and he was regularly very naïve . But choosing to use that mystical metaphysics as a basis for politics in a modern state, one that arose nearly fifteen years after his death, is a choice. It wasn’t historically inevitable – nothing is. It certainly wasn’t an obvious choice after the Holocaust.

It’s worth remembering that Rav Kook was hardly studied for years, and Religious Zionists were politically moderate until 1967. The war radically shifted so many people’s perceptions – that, and then the apocalyptic atmosphere of the Yom Kippur War, coupled with the Religious Zionist youth rebellion against the hegemony of Mapai, is what truly led to his teachings being turned into a political doctrine.

In a sense it was then that Scholem’s amazing prophecies in his incredible letter to Rosenzweig, about the summoning of the ghosts of the past with terrible violence, finally came to pass.

I have to say that one of the things that writing this book did was give me greater personal sympathy for Rav Zvi Yehudah as someone grappling with an unimaginably large fatherly shadow in darker historical circumstances than his father could have imagined. It was a terrible predicament, that yielded tragic results. I say these critical things without triumphalism and with sadness. There are reasons why I have devoted so many years of my life to Rav Kook’s life and thought and one of them is love. But love does not in and of itself answer our moral questions, or tell us how to avoid injustice.

Yoske Achituv z’l, who deserves to be better known (whose passing you noted here and see my tribute )– struck, I think, just the right balance in writing about Rav Kook with both reverence and criticism. Yoske wrote about the need for “Religious Zionism Without Illusions,” a humbler, and I think more life-giving, dispensation (akin to what I’ve called “tragic liberalism”). There needs to be some way to mix the extraordinary vitality, passion and holiness with which Rav Kook electrifies our religious lives, while respecting the inevitable compromises, and necessary limitations on self-expression, limitations imposed above all by the real needs and sufferings of others, here in this world.

3) What was your relation to Rav Amital?
In many ways, all of this begins with him. I owe him so much, and Rav Kook is just one part of it.
Like many Modern Orthodox kids, I grew up with this vague sense of Rav Kook as a culture hero. In addition to hearing this at home (though surprisingly not often, given how deeply, I came to learn later on, my grandfather had been shaped by him).

The culture hero for us was, of course, the Rav, and for me it was also my father z’l and his literary humanist inflection of Modern Orthodoxy.

I arrived at the Gush for Elul zman in 1978 and was immediately drawn to Rav Amital and deeply fortunate, blessed actually, to be, so to speak, gathered in by him. He was immensely supportive and understanding, while being challenging at the same time. I once asked Rav Steinsaltz to sum up how he saw Rav Amital and he said “he built human beings, hu banah anashim”.

Via Rav Amital I encountered Rav Kook as this thinker and figure who simply shifted the ground under your feet by saying that all the things that concern you – about theology, ethics, politics, history, art, culture, your own personal and spiritual life, including your doubts, criticisms, questions – all of it is from God and all part of the greater spiritual life of the world. That was at one and the same time immensely empowering and immensely healing.

I was worthy (zokheh) (a word I don’t use lightly) to spend much time and have many conversations with Rav Amital, up to just a few weeks before his death. About him I could go on, and on. I guess for now, I’ll keep it at this: I was one of the students who followed the same political trajectory as he. I arrived at those conclusions independently but his going in that direction too was deeply meaningful. The night in early 1983 in which I heard him criticize Gush Emunim, Peace Now and Arik Sharon as all forms of false messianism, was one of the most powerfully formative moments of my life.

In looking at Rav Amital’s approach as an interpreter of Rav Kook, there are, I think it fair to say, two major elements. First, the interpretive key, the compelling leitmotif, of the vast Rav Kook corpus as a whole, is ethics. The second is that Rav Kook was a human being, and human beings can be wrong and make mistakes. As Rav Amital often said, Rabbi Akiva’s greatness is undiminished and his power within the tradition undimmed, even by his having been wrong about Bar Kochba, and, according to Hazal, he was.

As time went by, the Shoah loomed larger and larger for Rav Amital and he had an increasingly hard time with Rav Kook’s relentless optimism, all the more with Rav Zvi Yehudah’s belief that he could read God’s mind. Rav Amital, let’s recall, had smuggled Rav Neriah’s Mishnat Ha-Rav into the labor camp where he’d been imprisoned and that book had helped him survive. His willingness to go on thinking and rethinking until the end was, to my mind, a mark of incredible integrity and courage.

4) What is the role of the ethical and “natural or ingrained ethics” (musar tivii) in Rav Kook’s thought?
Rav Amital often pointed out that the single most often used word in the corps is “musar.” But what it means, is complicated. In one passage, (Shemonah Kevatzim 1:683, Orot Ha-Kodesh, vol. 3, p. 19) Rav Kook lists no fewer than fifteen categories, or rubrics, of musar: Divine, revealed, of faith, natural, virtue ethics, personal relative to collective, educational and familial, practical relative to theoretical, historical relative to contemporary, ideal morals of the future, and the last – the morals of the spiritual communion (kibbutz), greater than all the others.
What unites them all for him, I think, is that musar is how God’s heavenly light manifests in human action. Without it, our relations to God are abstract, ethereal, un-centered. But ethics require the corresponding knowledge that God’s light is that which holds the world and from which all flows (or makif). Ethics, if not enacted with the sense that it is rooted in the very order of being, will inevitably decay and decline.There is in that set of ideas, a powerful way of thinking about religious ethics.

As for natural ethics, musar tivii, recall that For Rav Kook nature is itself imbued with divine energy, striving upward. And so natural morality, basic moral intuitions are God-given, and the foundation for a larger moral project – whose ultimate goal is for Rav Kook the very dissolution of the categories of body and soul, and with it the need to choose goodness from within a divided self.

My sense for now is that that dissolution may be something attainable by very rare individuals (think of Rav Aryeh Levine). And the re-embodiment of Judaism is, as Rav Kook understood, a key and immensely significant part of the Zionist revolution. But taking the dissolution of body and soul as a collective prescription for the here and now – and especially for politics – it’s a recipe for disaster. And I don’t think Rav Kook meant it in his time for the masses.

5) What was Rav Kook’s relationship to Christianity?
One of the things I emphasize in my book is his response to Christianity, particularly in the context of World War I. (Indeed, I recognize that devoting an entire chapter to the comparatively short period of July 1914-August 1919 is far from an obvious choice but to me it somehow was clear from the outset that was what I had to do, there was just no way to do it otherwise.)

In Shemonah Kevatzim we can now see just when – and where – various reflections of his were written, and we immediately see that his most critical comments about Christianity were written during World War I — or should we say “The Great War” since that’s what it was, not just in Western nomenclature until World War Two, but in his canon forever after, since editions of Orot simply reprinted over and over his sections on “Ha-Milchamah” – which was clearly WWI to readers of the first edition, in 1920, but not at all clear to readers later on.

In many ways he blamed WWI on the Church and in particular on the doctrines of “render unto Caesar” and of antinomianism, which to his mind, taken together, lead to what he calls a ‘half-way despair’ in which rather than believing you can change the world for the better through the world’s own inherent goodness (for him, the Jewish view) or despairing of the vanities of the world as a whole (how he understood Buddhism, which he respected on those terms), in Christianity you half-heartedly to moralize a world you don’t really believe in, draining religion of real moral power and yielding the worst of all results.

Now a few things are interesting here – first, he directs much more rhetorical fire at Christianity than at another more obvious culprit of the war, namely nationalism.

Second, while he’s very harsh about the Church throughout, at other points in his life, especially in earlier years, he has favorable things to say about Jesus, whom he regards as a powerful spiritual figure (one who perhaps had real Messianic potential) who let his elan vital get the better of him.

Third – and perhaps where these two points come together, I suspect he inveighed so strongly against Christianity precisely because he himself felt the pull of antinomianism, in his longings to move beyond the law to a rich fullness of being, and felt the pull of love that dissolves all boundaries.
Remember, for him the ultimate goal was nothing less than the dissolution of the boundaries of body and soul. And yet, for me at least, his not going all the way with those thoughts but remaining tied to the law is one of the most attractive things about him. That dialectic of structure and anti-structure which courses so powerfully through him, and I think through us.

Much of his critique of Christianity is rooted precisely in the sense that it has fatally attempted to vault over the law into oceanic love, before its time, and the results have been catastrophic.

6) How is Rav Kook’s thought relevant for American Jewry?
In many ways it’s not –but that’s a function of my general sense that US and Israeli Jewry inhabit two truly different worlds. I know I’m being overly flip, but that is to remind us to acknowledge the huge gaps – which also play out in key differences between Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism, which are about different challenges and questions.

That being said, I do think he points to seeing, or better using Kabbalah as a way of accepting that we live in a world characterized by very real differences, and that there are ways of seeing these differences as dialectically engaging and enriching one another. Of course that doesn’t work all the way through, and when it comes to moral issues we do have to choose. But I find it helpful that he thinks of a universe structured like a series of rivers, each with its own certain path, in its own sluices. All of human culture, Jewish and non-Jewish, Rav Kook considers as an effort to overcome the alienation we find in ourselves, and to have faith in God as a fount of ultimate self-realization for every one, is powerful and healing.

Another thing that American Jews stand to benefit from is exposure to the sheer intensity and vast aspiration of Rav Kook, as well as the other figures I discuss, like Gordon and Brenner. In America we trade off spiritual intensity for civic peace, and it’s in many ways a good bargain. But we need to be reminded of people who took responsibility for their historical moment and their own moral and spiritual lives, amid the chaos of modernity, with a seriousness of purpose we can scarcely imagine.

I think the biggest potential contribution, certainly for American Jews, is his thinking on living in a pluralized society. People see pluralism as this wishy-washy split-the-difference kind of thing where they don’t really take strong opinions on anything (except for where they do but won’t admit it, e.g. about material prosperity or basic civic assumptions of American life). Rav Kook offers a vision of pluralism grounded in real commitments that you’re willing to fight for and in a faith that God ultimately underwrites the integrity of honest commitments and the faith that there will be peace in the end. That is something that American Jews could learn from.

In my own life, for instance, in the years that I was actively engaged in the struggle against Mehadrin public transportation bus lines in Israel, I drew strength from this vision of Rav Kook’s and actively sought to understand my Haredi opponents on the issue, not just to learn where they were coming from, but to learn what it was that they genuinely had to teach me.

Also, I was deeply gratified that the first review of the book to appear was by Rabbi Jack Bieler on takeaways for American Jewish educators (and Orthodox educators in particular).

7) One gets a sense from your narrative that he if he was alive today in the US he would be Lakewood Haredi (Not Modern Orthodox) but meeting regularly with Reb Zalman, Art Green, Joanthan Foer, and Tova Mirvis. Is that a correct assessment?

You left out Dylan!
You’re very on to something here. It’s fair to say he would have appreciated a lot about Modern Orthodoxy – and yet, it does seem to this observer at least, in its deeply bourgeois character, its tamping down of subjectivity, expression, in its not seeing inner freedom as a religious value, to be well afield of what he had in mind. He wanted the religious life, in a deep way, to be wild.

8) What is your next project?
I am considering a serious project on re-examining some core assumptions of the enterprise of human rights, in terms of law, politics, and, yes, theology. This was what was in my mind when I left the State Department back in 1997, and it’s been kicking around with me since. The effort to moralize politics that goes by the name of ‘human rights’ is a precious and terribly important thing, whose present conceptual foundations, I fear, will be unable to sustain it for long. ‘Human rights’ may be the wrong term to capture what it is we’re trying to do.

But first I do want to go back and publish my dissertation, which as you know is a different sort of work, a full bore academic monograph, 500 typescript pages on Rav Kook’s first decades, before his aliyah in 1904, which receive a mere 35 pages in the present book. I like to think of it as “Rav Kook: The Motown Years.”

I have of course at times asked myself, how is it that here I am in my early 50s still trying to figure out what Rav Kook thought in his early twenties? The answer is that there are some figures and thinkers who are worth that effort, who repay our efforts to learn about and understand them in ways that go far beyond themselves, and I do truly believe that he is one of them.

Adin Steinsaltz-My Rebbe

Sometimes I like reading hagiography, currently called sacred narrative, such as saint, zaddik, or mystic tales, not because of the historical truth or the miracles but because they sometimes reflect a worldview better than explicit statements . Adin Steinsaltz in his new book My Rebbe (Maggid Press, 2014) gives a completely romantic ahistorical account of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that is a good read and offers a few gems of insight. The book is written as a form of world wisdom literature so that it can be excerpted in general spirituality magazines on myth and story such as Parabola, to which Steinsaltz is a frequent contributor.

The book is a human exploration stressing the universal aspects of the Rebbe as a spiritual hero- for example think of the books on Rumi or Francis of Assisi, or one of the romantic retellings of the Baal Shem Tov, with chapters with titles like lover of common people, wagon driver stories, mysticism, and humble beginnings. So too, this book is only loosely arranged chronologically, it is more of a topical arrangement -leadership, adulation, shlichus, outreach, nurturing, farbrengen, politics. The chapters try and capture a human essence of the soul as a personal reflection of Steinsaltz’s relation with the Rebbe. The book goes out of its way to quote Non-Jewish and non-Orthodox sources and combines that with culling fanciful gems from the oral histories. One important note is that Steinsaltz is a non-messianic, a non “meshichist.”

Compared to other books on the Rebbe, this one is smooth, clear, and lacking all local color, the same way Steinsaltz retold Rav Nachman’s tales without any Eastern European detail. This is the exact opposite of the wonderful book by Sue Fishkoff, The Rebbe’s Army which is filled with local color, real stories, and gritty journalistic details. I am sure that those vested in historical study of Chabad will jump to criticize this book with a vengeance but history and documents are beside the point of a sacred narrative of a saint. More importantly, Joseph Telushkin just released what is claimed to be the definite biography of the Rebbe- we shall see the reaction to that book in the upcoming weeks.


The book tells some good stories and reveals much about Steinsaltz as image creator. Steinsaltz describes Isaiah Leibowitz on the Rebbe and gives a ridiculous story taken from the oral reminiscences about Rav Soloveitchik and the Rebbe.

‘I knew him [the Rebbe], but he [later] went crazy.’ The caustic comment was typical of Leibowitz, but in Berlin they were on good terms.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik recalled that he once rescued the rebbe-to-be from jail. It was the joyous day of Purim, and the Rebbe observing the usual practice of the holiday – was on the Humboldt University campus, somewhat tipsy. Climbing onto a chair, Menachem Mendel began to speak loudly about religious observance and the meaning of the holiday. Holding a public event without a permit was illegal, and he was promptly arrested for creating a public disturbance. A man on the scene, a respected physician, telephoned Rabbi Soloveitchik and said something about Schneerson being in jail. After securing his release, Rabbi Soloveitchik joked with Menachem Mendel, telling him that he could now become a rebbe. He had been imprisoned as all of the Lubavitcher rebbes had once been.

With a Disney talent for painting evil villains who are predestined to be defeated, Steinsaltz depicted Rabbi Gurary, the family member who was passed over to become Rebbe.

Unlike Rabbi Gurary, who was the official head of the schools, the Rebbe’s relationship with the students was personal.
Barry carefully chose the books he took; he did not hurriedly scoop them off a shelf by chance. Because Barry was not a collector himself, he had an ally in Rabbi Chaim Lieberman, one of the former rebbe’s followers who had never fully accepted the new rebbe. He was the librarian who pointed him to the most valuable books. Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak had not left any valuable personal property – goods, real estate or money – after his passing, except for these books. Many were first editions, rare and important works. Barry must have needed the money; within the first two years, he sold over one hundred books.

Steinsaltz captures the nature of the Rebbe’s messages, and conversations with the Rebbe for a wide audience.

For Rebbe Menachem Mendel, however, stories were a kind of scientific instrument, only useful as they would impart lessons. He did not fill his stories with emotional detail and character analysis. Instead, each story he told had a purpose and a point. When King Midas touched everyday things, they turned to gold. When the Rebbe touched a story, it turned into a lesson.

Chabad’s adulation of the Rebbe is unusual even among the Chasidic movements. In our times, movie stars and rock idols are similarly adored. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, extraordinary individuals were considered geniuses, and sometimes their personae even defined a period. Voltaire is perhaps the best example of such a figure; Goethe is another.

The Rebbe would never flatter. He was always polite and considerate– yet always spoke with authority. He spoke to everyone as a royal personage would speak: polite, attentive and considerate, yet without lowering himself to any extent. Whether he agreed or disagreed with his distinguished guests, he would express his own opinion. The Rebbe was courteous to everyone. In personal meetings, his politeness – which had nobility about it – was particularly remarkable. His courtesy was widely perceived as a true, unguarded expression of his personality.

So what went on in the private conversations with the Rebbe or in yechidus? What did he advise? Did the advise work?

The Rebbe was always optimistic, and would guide the petitioner to try and see things in this way. When people asked how to repair their misdeeds, he would offer them ways to correct and improve. Mainly he would encourage them to think less about the past, and more of the future, encouraging them to increase their good deeds and focus on positive action. To a woman who despaired and wrote that “all is bad in my life,” the Rebbe responded: “In this world, good and bad are mixed together. One has to choose what to emphasize, what to look at…. In our lives, there are always two ways to see the good that happens to us or the opposite. For us who have a firm belief in the superiority and eternity of the spiritual, the good always wins over the bad. That which is good is everlasting, unlike the bad.”

The Rebbe used to quote Rebbe Shmuel, the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, who urged people to jump a hurdle rather than go under it – to go the harder way.

Even when the Rebbe’s advice was followed, things still did not always work out well. That can happen. With so many questions and answers involved, it is likely that some of the outcomes will be unsatisfactory no matter how obedient the participants. That the Rebbe’s advice might fail certainly did not seem to deter any of his Chasidim, just as it does not deter people who go to a doctor for medical advice. However, a rigorous assessment of the Rebbe’s advice is beyond my capability.
We often wondered what was the source of his advice – besides his experience. His answers often depended on common sense or obvious vast knowledge, but from time to time his answers were inexplicable and seemed to be drawn from another wellspring. A partial answer may be that he served as a channel – sometimes consciously, sometimes not – of the world beyond our daily reality, touching on the transcendent.

[Reform rabbi from South Orange, NJ] Rabbi Herbert Weiner once told me that he asked the Rebbe, “How is it that you can give advice?” The Rebbe answered, “People come to me and complain that the gate is locked and the way is closed before them. They do not know that they carry the key with them. All I have to do is to turn the key in the lock and open the closed door.”

An important part of the Rebbe’s teachings was his acceptance of many aspects of the 1950’s emphasis on Americanism and democracy as well as his acceptance of civil society and even civil religion. His writings defend equality and more striking Steinsaltz says he supported American law. Compare this to his current followers who has endless appeals, litigation and cries of Anti-Semitism to defend their severe crimes.

The Rebbe believed that governments’ monies should be spent on quality of life and not on weapons of war. The injustice of the income disparity – the great gap between rich and poor – was not an unfortunate economic byproduct but a universal issue.

The Rebbe referred to the United States as a malchut shel chesed, a “benevolent society.” It is true that the Rebbe was grateful to the country that had saved the life of his family. Beyond the personal, however, the Rebbe saw the country as a force of good in the world. While he did not approve of every aspect of American life and government policy, he always spoke about the nation with deep appreciation. The Rebbe valued the legal and civil fairness of the United States, the equal opportunity to all its citizens, and the equality that Jews enjoy under the law.

For the Rebbe, America was a nation of great moral character, characterized by a strong religious bent. Since America treats all its citizens with decency and equality, the Rebbe emphasized that every Jew is bound by Jewish law to uphold the laws of the land – and not to subvert, let alone break them. For this reason he refused to protect his Chasidim or others who had been caught breaking American laws.

The Rebbe also saw the United States as a true supporter of Jews and the Jewish state. More than once, he commented that the source of problems in America’s relationship with the State of Israel lay in Israeli errors in judgment: Israeli political leaders often misjudge the strength of American support.


Here is an interesting section. In the Freidman/Heilman work they speculated that the young Rabbi Schneerson was a man who “must be feeling desperate in his anxiety, loneliness, confusion and survivor guilt, whose prospects are unclear, looking for a way out, an answer from God.” Here we have that isolated hypothetical passage turned into a theory of the Rebbe as the Lonely Man of Faith.

The Rebbe’s loneliness was perhaps inevitable. Those who had once been his peers, workmates and colleagues became his subordinates and Chasidim. Although their relationships continued, these were no longer ordinary friendships. Having assumed the responsibility of solving his Chasidim’s personal problems, he could no longer talk to them as an equal. This created an existential choice for loneliness, which might even be termed “aloneness.” From his deep relationship with his family, we know he had the capacity of intimacy with others. Yet, in the official role that consumed his life, it could not be expressed.

What about the stories of supernatural precognition? Steinsaltz does not give us lots of colorful stories of people coming to the Rebbe and him saving them against all odds. Rather, we get a universal call to the possibility of Enlightenment and prophecy within all of us.

Those with the gift of ruach hakodesh describe it as a kind of sight-seeing, perceiving or experiencing things that are physically or tempo¬rarily at a distance. In the nineteenth century, the second and the third rebbes of the Komarno dynasty described their experiences of ruach hakodesh in the book, The Scroll of Secrets. Both state that they had this ability since a very young age. Given only someone’s name, the Kom¬arno rebbes could provide a full physical description of a person whom they had never met.

A college student once had the temerity to ask the Rebbe if he had supernatural powers. The Rebbe answered that these powers are within the grasp of every Jew. The ability to control nature and to rise above it comes from a devout and complete adherence to God’s will, from the observance of mitzvot and the study of Torah. Each of us can rise above our situation. The question before us, the Rebbe continued, is whether we have the determination and the commitment to reach our potential.

Finally, what about the messianism? Steinsaltz portrays the Rebbe as concerned with the topic since his youth, that he did not see himself as the mashiach, and that his followers are now adrift and forlorn.

From childhood, the Rebbe had dreams about the coming of the Mashiach. In a letter to Israel’s second president, Yitchak Ben-Zvi, the Rebbe wrote: “From the day I went to cheder [religious primary school] and even before, the picture of the final redemption started forming in my mind – the redemption of the Jews from their last exile, a redemption in such a way that through it will be understood the sufferings of exile, the decrees and the destruction….”

At a 1991 farbrengen, just a few months before his first stroke, some of the Chasidim began a song which clearly named the Rebbe as Mashiach. The Rebbe stopped them quickly and said, “I cannot leave here now, but after hearing such a claim I should leave this room as a protest.”

We may think of the famous Walt Whitman poem about Abraham Lincoln: “O Captain, My Captain.” But for Chabad the situation has been more perilous; the Rebbe’s ship has not reached port. It has not come to rest at the end of its intended course. While in the middle of the sea, it lost its captain.

Rabbincal Council of America conference 1986 – the last reign of the pulpit rabbis

The year was 1986, Rabbi Binyamin Walfish was head of the RCA and former head of the RCA Rabbi Gilbert Klapperman was head of the Synagogue Council of America (including Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis). The issue which was to occupy them for several years was the lack of a successor for Rav Soloveitchik and no potential prospects. Three months after this conference they created a law committee but left the chronically infirm Rav Solvoeitchik as its head. The following year’s conference in 1987 was a debate about what Rav Soloveitchik had meant in various decrees and a bemoaning of not having anyone to resolve issues anymore. Artscroll bothered them a lot. I include the entire article as read by OCR software. (Photos are both Rabbi Walfish)

RCA struggles to carve out centrist Orthodox stand – Long Island Jewish World Feb 14-20, 1986-Larry Yudelson

Even as participants in the Rabbincal Council of America’s midwinter conference struggled with the question of dialogue with non-Orthodox colleagues off to the left. they were looking regularly over their shoulders towards the Orthodox right. Indeed, much of the conference shaped up as a forum for defining and staking out a position of “centrist Orthodoxy” by the RCA in the face of the apparent ascendancy of Orthodox fundamentalism.

Whether the RCA can work with the non-Orthodox on questions of basic Jewish identity depends on whether it can resist pressures against such contact from the right.


Several speakers at the conference attacked rightwing Orthodoxy, but despite the rhetoric, many members of the RCA acknowledged the Orthodox right’s influence.

The distinctive tenets of the RCA were implicit in the conference theme of “Initiative and Innovations Within the Parameter of Halacha”: a rejection of the 19th century Orthodox maxim that “anything new is prohibited by the Torah,” and a firm acceptance that any charge must take place within, and not against, the framework of halacha.

Rabbi Tobias Roth, from Long Branch, N.J.. distinguished centrist Orthodoxy from Reform and Conservative. who ‘ legislate without halacha” and from right- wing Orthodoxy which, he said, made political and social issues such as siting on a board of rabbis with non-Orthodox rabbis, into matters of halacha. He decried the right wing “tendency for fundamentalism, which is encouraging the separation of the observant and the non-observant,””Even within Orthodoxy,” he continued, “the only bridges are unidirectional, leading to stringency in observance.”

Centrism No Compromise
Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa, Ontario called for the RCA to “become much more aggressive in the ideology it espouses.”

“The middle of the road should not be looked at as a compromise,’ he said

He took the right-wing to task for what he charged was its growing distancing from the State of Israel He asked why the modern Orthodox tolerate statements from Orthodox circles that “we’re not anti-Israel we’re just against the Israeli government,” when claims from anti-Semites that they’re “just anti-Zionist” are rightly protested.

“We’ve capitulated on our own domain,” he said, noting that a yeshiva shows religiosity by not doing anything on Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).

“Any ideology that doesn’t recognize the State of Israel should be fought very aggressively,” he said. Bulka cited the popular ArtScroll series of Jewish books as an example where the right’s approach is tolerated. The new ArtScroll siddur, he said, omits the prayer for the State of Israel; a translation of an Israeli halachic work eliminates references to the religious Zionist leader Rabbi Abraham Kook; and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the RCA’s halachic authority, is never quoted in their anthologies of Bible commentaries.

“I’m not saying we should boycott ArtScroll,” he said. “But we should say, we represent the Torah community too. What right do they have to say that the ideology of the RCA has to be excluded from the realm of legitimate interpretation.”

He criticized what he called “terror tactics” that are used to decide matters of halacha. “Great luminaries, halachic masters, are threatened and cajoled by the yeshiva world. It ends up distorting the halachic process.”

Bulka further attacked the right for its parochial reaction to events in Israel.
“When tragedy involves someone from the religious segment of the community, immediately there are prayers in yeshivas and public outcries. But if it’s someone non-observant, there’s a strange silence whim the religious community,” he charged.

Roshei Yeshiva Too influential
Rabbi Yossi Adler of Teaneck, called on the centrist Orthodox to win back the educated Orthodox community from the roshei yeshiva or yeshiva heads, who, he said, indoctrinate their students not to respect synagogue rabbis.

He asked why the RCA held the conference isolated in the Catskills. saying the public should know that innovative changes can be made within the parameters of halacha.

[Rabbi Jacob] Rubinstein echoed that view, decrying the “myopic” and “irresponsible” view that there are no so such things as innovation in halacha.

In an interview after the conference, Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, executive vice president of the RCA, said that “a major problem in Jewish life today is that roshei yeshiva have become poskim (decisors of halacha).”

In the European communities, he said, the community rabbi decided halacha. Roshei yeshiva, he said, don’t have a good perspective on the problems of the community.

“This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask your rebbe questions on the laws of kashrut or Shabbat,” Walfish said. But he distinguished between relying on a teacher for the fine points of halacha arid for answering sociopolitical questions “where halacha is not involved.”

According to Walfish, “the younger element (of the RCA) is more dependent on the roshei yeshiva.”

RCA Israel Excutive Team 3

Orthodox Stringency
In his session on “Halacha Confronts a Changing Society.” Rabbi David Berger, a professor of Jewish History at City University of New York, discussed a change in the direction of halachic decisions in the modern period when the Jewish People divided between observant and nonobservant Jews

One reaction, he said, was greater strictness. The rabbis feared that if they gave the increasingly rebellious community a finger, they would take a hand.

And ironically, he said, the pressure for leniency decreased as those pressing for leniency split off from Orthodoxy. No longer would ordinary people, burdened by a halachic decision. return to the rabbi h hi in pain. They would just walk away from the Orthodox community.

Because of the voluntary nature of Jewish observance in the modern era, those who cared about halacha cared strongly enough to accept stringent opinions, said Berger. Even when Reform Jews were right in the technical halachic sense, he said, some Orthodox rabbis argued for inflexibility as a matter of public policy.

Today, the question of women’s prayer groups, he said, in a certain sense falls into this category. The condemnation is “a public policy decision based on a judgment of the consequences of this particular step.”

“It’s explicit in the discussion,” he said. “It’s couched in halachic, or quasi-halachic terminology, but it’s really a public policy issue.”

“Someone who reacts positively towards the religious complaints of Jewish feminists is more likely to be lenient,” he said.

Rabbi Lookstein on Social Orthodoxy

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the Senior Rabbi of KJ reflected on the article written by his congregant on social Orthodoxy. (Everything below is his words and the sermon is complete w/o editing.)

This past Shabbat morning, I delivered a sermon entitled The Rise of ‘Social Orthodoxy:’ Is it Good or Bad for the Jews? The sermon responded to a recently published article in Commentary by KJ Member Jay Lefkowitz, entitled The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account… Jay’s article elicited a great deal of interest and some criticism. I devoted my sermon to the article, to some unjustified criticism which came to my attention, and to my own reactions to Jay’s excellently researched and analytic description of a very important phenomenon in Orthodox Jewish life.
Haskel Lookstein

The Rise of ‘Social Orthodoxy:’ Is it Good or Bad for the Jews?
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
Parashat Kedoshim
April 26, 2014

The Jewish community, and particularly the Orthodox Jewish community, owes a debt of gratitude to our member, Jay Lefkowitz, for opening a conversation on a phenomenon that has existed for quite some time and that is growing in numbers and influence in America and, perhaps, in Israel as well. Jay calls it “Social Orthodoxy.” It could be described as “cultural Orthodoxy” or “communal Orthodoxy.” He describes a committed Jewish life that doesn’t rely on God or a divinely authored, authoritative Halakha for inspiration or obligation. No one is being obligated to do anything. Social Orthodox Jews are developing what might be described as a voluntary commitment to behave in a religious way as a manifestation of their commitment to the Jewish people, to a 4,000 year old history, to Zionism, and to Jewish culture. All of this is expressed through serious, religious practice including Shabbat, Yom Tov, prayer, tefillin, kashrut and other forms of observance. As he writes: “And so for me, and I imagine for many others like me, the key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity. This way of life makes the social Orthodox Jew part of the Jewish people and the sweep of Jewish history in a very powerful and fulfilling way.”

Jay freely admits in this article that he – and, no doubt, many other social Orthodox Jews – who act like religious people, who speak like religious people and who look like religious people, do not really relate to God or to the divine authority that lies behind a life of mitzvot.

He graphically describes this phenomenon in a conversation about religion which he had with a devout Catholic friend as a young adult. He writes: “When I explained (to my friend) that I was an observant Jew and began each day by reciting the morning prayers, but wasn’t really sure how God fit into my life, he was perplexed. When I admitted that these theological questions didn’t really occupy much of my attention and certainly weren’t particularly germane to my life as an observant Jew, he became agitated. And when I told him that I certainly wasn’t sure if Jewish law was divine or simply the result of two millennia of rabbinical interpretations, he threw up his hands and said: ‘How can you do everything you do, and live a life with so many restrictions and so many obligations, if you don’t even believe in God?'”

When I read this exchange I had a déjà vu experience. It was about sixty years ago that I had an extended debate with Jay’s father, my tennis opponent of almost seventy years (we have played about 500 sets over these years and Jerry Lefkowitz is narrowly ahead of me by something like 251 to 249).

The debate took place in my parents’ living room on a Shabbat afternoon. Jerry was explaining exactly the kind of life that his son and daughter-in-law and their children live today, a life to which he subscribed: observant, deeply engaged in Jewish culture and Zionism, committed to Hebrew literacy, but without a firm belief in God or Halakha.

I remember saying to him that I couldn’t understand why he accepted upon himself so many restrictions and rules if there was no divine authority behind them. I said that if I didn’t believe in God and a divinely based Halakha, then I would go inside to my bedroom in the middle of Shabbat and take out my pack of cigarettes and light up a cigarette. Why should I deprive myself of such pleasure if there are really no compelling rules about Shabbat? Jerry’s answer was that he keeps Shabbat because that’s part of being a Jew and uniting with Jewish culture and history over thousands of years. I found that position perplexing.

I have to admit that over the years I have come to feel that Jerry and his wife, Myrna, had a point. Part of the proof of the validity of that point is their children and grandchildren, specifically, Jay and Elena and their three children and the life that they lead.

So, clearly, what Jay describes as Social Orthodoxy is good for the Jews. It keeps many Jews together and on the derech, so to speak.

But I am still troubled by some of the concerns that I had sixty years ago. Those concerns were highlighted in an analysis of the Haggadah by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, which he published recently in YU’s publication “Passover to Go.” Focusing on the question of the rasha – the skeptic son – in the Haggadah, “What is this avoda,” Rabbi Sacks identified the question of the skeptic son as the Talmud Yerushalmi explains it, when it translates the word avoda as tircha – hard work or bother. The Talmud says that the rasha is asking a question about the Passover sacrifice. Why all this bother and effort? Why this plethora of rules about a festival sacrifice? The Ritva (a medieval commentator who never experienced the Passover sacrifice) focuses on the seder itself and suggests that the rasha is asking: “Why is it necessary to go through this whole tedious Haggadah before getting to the meal? Why can’t we just sit down and eat? Why go through the whole effort of telling the story in so many ways about the exodus from Egypt and the progress of the Jewish people from idol worshipping to the service of one God? Let’s just eat!”

In truth, as Rabbi Sacks suggests, Judaism does require tremendous effort. It is a system of detailed attention to religious practice in Shabbat, kashrut, nidah and mikveh and a myriad of other responsibilities. Who needs all this, asks the rasha!

In fact, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist leaders tried to keep Jews close to Judaism by easing the requirements and giving Jews the opportunity to be less restricted and restrained in Shabbat, kashrut, taharat hamishpacha and other ritual performances. What happened was that, rather than keeping Jews closer to tradition, the lessening of demands led Jews to move further and further away from Judaism, the opposite of what was the intention of the leaders.

Interestingly, what are the holidays that non-Orthodox Jews celebrate in the largest numbers? They are the holidays that require the biggest effort: fasting on Yom Kippur and celebrating the seder and Pesach. Apparently, Rabbi Saks suggest, Jews find meaning in the effort which the rasha rejects. This should not be surprising. Anything worthwhile is achieved through effort and struggle: becoming an artist, a musician, a scholar, a doctor, lawyer or financier. Why should religion not require tircha – effort?

The real question that Jay raises for the Orthodox Jew is the question of sustainability. Can Social Orthodoxy actually produce generations of committed Jews? How is Jewish history, Jewish culture and commitment to Jewish people-hood going to demand of me and my descendants the kind of avoda – effort and consistency – that is required of a committed Jew? Doesn’t such effort and consistency rest on a foundation of God, a divinely authored Halakha and, therefore, a required set of observances, not just a reasoned, voluntary performance of rituals? If it is the latter, why not allow driving to shul on Shabbat; why does one need a blech on the stove for Shabbat? Can’t one have a meaningful Shabbat without a blech? And why require a mechitza during worship? Can’t one have an inspirational davening without separating men from women?

These are serious questions which are not easily answered by reason and logic and a desire to be part of the Jewish people and 4,000 years of Jewish history. The Orthodox or Halakhic Jew – answers them by saying: all of these are required by Jewish law. They may or may not enhance our religious experience, but they are obligations which are part of the Halakhic system to which we subscribe.

It isn’t that we fear a thunderbolt hurled by God at us if we fail to perform a mitzvah or if we commit a sin. But there is something compelling about a life of Torah and mitzvot when one feels that such a life is based upon a divinely ordained system.

Many of today’s Social Orthodox Jews have sustained their commitment beyond a first generation. Jay and Elena Lefkowitz and their children are a case in point. They lead a highly committed Jewish life in our community, impelled by deeply ingrained cultural, historical and social forces. And yet: will those forces, divorced from a divine, Halakhic imperative, have a lasting power for the Orthodox community as a whole? Will the children and grandchildren of today’s Social Orthodox be able to answer the Haggadah’s question: Why exert all this effort and all this expense and this whole avoda and undertake this detailed, comprehensive and demanding way of life?

That troubling question remains. On the answer to it depends the survival and sustainability of a sanctified Jewish way of life, a life in which Jay Lefkowitz and all of us so passionately believe.


I was looking for an article about early 20th century Orthodoxy and in the process I found the following article on Jewish Hobos. I have especially selected the paragraphs that deal with religious life and Orthodox hobos. The article was written in 1928 and the problem of homeless vagabonds got worse in the 1930’s. Does anyone still remember Red Skelton’s character Freddie the Freeloader? Many rabbinical sermons of the 1950’s exhorted the congregation by claiming that a Jewish way of life prevents one from becoming a hobo or Bowery bum. As late as the 1970’s Jewish English still had the phrase trombernick as for someone vagabond, undisciplined or even for a hippie. Notice how the homeless think they can judge a community’s customs or have a self-perception as defenders of the faith. Also notice the tone of the author, which would not be accepted in social science today.


Cities with old orthodox constituencies like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, attract religious itinerant mendicants in the practice of making regular week-end visits. They attend the synagogues to pray for departed souls at so much a prayer, deliver lectures (droshes) and pass judgment on differences concerning various religious customs and observances. In return they are invited by the members of the synagogue to their homes for the Friday evening meal or to dinner following the Saturday morning services. Some of the religious travelers possess vast knowledge in their specific field and an excellent oratorical delivery, but many of them are rabbis who are ignorant of the Law, melamdim (teachers) who know nothing about pedagogy, and chazanim (cantors) who cannot sing.

They consider themselves entitled to reduced transportation rates and an unqualified welcome by the local hachnosas orchim, and usually do receive special attention. They generally shun the offices of case working agencies and prefer contributions from private individuals, benevolent aid societies made up of members from their home towns, and friendly orthodox synagogues in the poor sections of the city. In their journeys to small communities they occasionally do strike desirable jobs and settle down, but such examples are rare, indeed.

To meet the above situation Dr. Bogen has suggested that “a better organization of our synagogues, an absolute refusal to permit the traveler the use of the pulpit unless by previous engagement through a central agency, are possible ways to reduce the number who are dependent upon charity. Then the situation will be easily controlled and the traveling chazan will be considered just as legitimate a proposition.

They will search telephone books for a “noch” (hachnosas orchim), a Jewish shelter for transients, or a “pay station” (a social agency or central almsgiving society). If there is no established “pay station” in town, he feels at liberty to work “factories” (synagogues where collections might be made), store keepers whose names end in “stein,” “baum” or “berg,” and, of course, junk dealers of any nationality, a never failing source.

No wonder the Jewish hobo prefers the “noch” with its simple precept not to make oneself too well known to the janitor or caretaker. Wise old beggars have sometimes manipulated a two- and even three month extension of time at a hachnosas orchim, a feat quite impossible at a publicly maintained lodging house. “You know how it is,” explained one experienced schnorrer,”with Yiddin you can always come to terms.” Another young hobo, an habitué of the Bowery, lacking “two bits” (25c) for a “flop,”refused to associate with the”goyim” and bums at the city shelter and requested permission to stayat the hachnosas orchim, pronouncing that difficult name flawlessly, though unable to utter another Hebrew word. There are “nochs” famous throughout Jewish hobohemia for their abundant fare on the High Holidays, particularly on Passover.

Your Gentile hobo loses hope, fills his stomach with rotten liquor at every opportunity, and shoots needles into his arms to relieve his aching heart. The Jewish tramp will take refuge in metaphysics or “riddles,” as he calls it, break up a game of dice to which he is not adapted, and start a poker game instead.

Sex perversion is generally frowned upon by Jewish hoboes, although they freely indulge their normal desires in the cheapest brothels where they never once fail to admonish an inhabitant of their own faith for her disgraceful profession.

At one such party I caught notice of a “trombenick” clandestinely tugging carrots from his pockets, unwilling to participate in the prize dish because it was not kosher, as he declared to me later
Many a young fellow has been hounded out of home for his laziness or queerness. There may be a marriageable daughter at home, or a son about to enter an honorable profession, when it becomes essential to sacrifice the pariah to the road rather than jeopardize the social ambitions of the other members of the family.

Many a runaway lad will discover the Bowery, that Alsatian den of misery and despair. Only recently a boy of fifteen who had refused to “leigen t’filin,” told me how he had lived on the Bowery during his entire absence from home and associated with the human riff-raff who make that street their winter headquarters.

One pitiful old vagabond called himself the “Defender of the Jewish Faith,” and so offensive were his letters to public men that he was finally held for observation and sent to a state institution.

Close observation of the homeless, their examination by competent psychiatrists, have indicated that a large number of them are either mentally unbalanced or of defective intelligence.

The writer fervently hopes that his interest in this human debris will be retained at least until the time when opportunity will enable him to make a national comprehensive study to disclose more fully their character and needs, shedding light on the possible diminution of their number.
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