Monthly Archives: July 2014

Jeroboam, Elijah, Ezra, and Abraham: Hinduism and the Bible

Here is another attempt to conceptualize Hinduism for a Jewish audience. This time in the reverse. How would Hinduisms react to Biblical stories. Help me think this one through- does it work?

Hinduism is really a variety of religions held together in the 20th century by politics and agreed upon commonalities. Hinduism is a “complex, organic, multileveled and sometimes internally inconsistent nature.” Hinduism does not have a “unified system of belief encoded in a declaration of faith, rather an umbrella term comprising the plurality of religious phenomena of India. According to the Supreme Court of India: “Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more”. Hindu family law includes jurisdiction over panentheists, polytheists, monotheists and monists; those that use images and those that reject them.

In short, Hinduism includes the worship of ancient High deity Shiva and also the worship of Incarnations of Vishnu, which were according to historians originally separate cults around Krishna, Ram, and many others. Other regions have a worship of a feminine Kali/Durga. Shiva worship includes the aconic and monotheistic Lingayat as well as wild ascetics. Vishu worship include those who see as Krsna as an incarnation born to save humans through belief in him, as well the duty ethos of the great epics. This is without even discussing Smartism, Ganapatya, Saura or Arya Samaj. These denominations are then divided by 19 separate languages without commonalities. These diverse groups started to see commonality in the middle ages which increased after the 17th century. Yet, as late of the 18th century we still accounts of fights and polemics over who is correct in their worship.

How would you explain the diversity in Western Biblical terms? Here is a little thought experiment. This is not intended to make fun of the Bible or Hinduism. Nor is its goal to subject Hinduism to the Bible. Rather, this is an attempt to explain diversity in a Western context that prefer exclusivity and to divide the world into true/false, believer/pagan. These are hypothetical and are not my beliefs or historically true. But they will help explain why many in India think we still have golden calves.
golden calf

When Jeroboam set up his golden calves in Beth El and Dan we know that the Bible condemned it as unfaithfulness (1 Kings 12). But what if this was the Indian subcontinent? They would have said it was great. People need their shrines and they need more of them. The 20th century author Ramakrishna wrote that India is not a tiny country like the Biblical land so it needs shrines everywhere so that the people can get to them. They would also have had a debate between those who said the images are a concession away from the Vedantic truths and those who said that images are the best path to connecting to the Divine. The latter view became dominant.

Also remember all those further caveats in Deuteronomy about pillars, trees, minor deities, astral deities, and spirits, don’t worry about then too much. Yes, the elite texts are not in favor in much of it and the Temple cult in Jerusalem forbids them but don’t worry about the masses. They will learn slowly, very slowly. So we will tolerate all of their practices as they evolve spiritually. Even golden calves are needed to wean the people away from other forms of worship.

Elijah and the Priests of Baal had a showdown of two competing religions of whose sacrifice will be consumed. What if both sides said:there is only one God in the universe and we are just two separate cults of the same God. So lets put away differences and merge all the cults of the high god Baal into the biblical cult. We already have related languages. All of the various Aram nations will become one religion with you. We will give some deference to Jerusalem but we will be allowed to keep our own cultic practices but model them more like yours. We will also combine our scripture and produces various versions. We will affirm the Biblical universalism of Malachi 1:11 “My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty.” It is all the same God despite different cults, nations, and names.

Not only that we see that Moab, Ammon, and others tribes speak similar languages to you and have similar practices. We should include them also. Now, once we are speaking about linguistic commonality we should really include the Hittites whose language is close to yours. Yes, they have many gods, in fact, they have a thousand gods but they are good at syncretism. Over time, they will become one with us.

Ezra & Alexander the Great
In this hypothetical, Ezra never asked for anyone to put away foreign wives and never sought to limit practice. Rather, he saw strength in including as many different people and practices in his Jerusalem cult. When he read the Torah in public, he brought it to every nation that he could. He asked each group to accept it as best as their culture could. He acknowledged that only the priests truly kept everything. Image if he made the Judean cult as open as Greco- Roman religion.

So imagine that when Alexander the Great conquered Greece, Anatolia, Egypt, and Persia, he integrated all those diverse religions, cults, and languages all under Jerusalem. All sorts of polytheists of the Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian world were now included. They came with their philosophers, oracles, mystery cults, civic polis cults, and with local deities. Some kept their sacred narratives, others merged the Bible and their stories, and other kept two sets of stories. You could always point to the priests and scribes of Jerusalem as the pure faith but there was more complexity from Greece to Persia. Yet, almost no one would be called false or pagan, rather they were folk, masses, or not of the highest religion.

Imagine if the Mishnah was still written from a Jerusalem point of view, and was seen as authoritative. But many parts in this harmonious empire felt no need to study or follow it in practice.

Parting of the Ways
To consider a later century, image that even when Judaism and Christianity divided, it still did not matter. They were still both lumped together. Image if Christianity never became the religion of the Roman Empire and just another offshoot of this complex Jerusalem religion. Both Judaism and Christianity would still be closer to the Jerusalem thinking and practice than the cults of Persia, Egypt or Rome.

Now image that between the 7th-17th centuries all these groups started converging more and developing a common identity as not Muslim. They in the 18th -20th century they were all lumped together by the colonial British (Let’s pretend they had became Druids.) as natives and the new rulers discouraged practices that did not meet their standards. Finally, this region from Greece to Iraq gains liberation as a single country in the middle of the 20th century with a government that is going out of its way to downplay differences and claim everyone is Biblical. They had started creating ideologies of a single identity already in the 19th century, but now they were written into textbooks and law. Hinduism came to be in a similar fashion to my hypothetical Biblical story.

But Judaism did not go that way and between Jereboam and the Mishnah always choose the particularist direction. Judaism was always in theory aconic and even iconoclastic.

Let me tell one more story, the famous story of Abraham shattering the idols of his father Terach. The story is found in all three Abrahamic faiths. Here is a truncated Jewish version. I don’t know if all of it works. Feel free to write more dialogue.

Abraham came to the realization that there is one eternal God in the heaven and the earth greater than any earthly force.
Terah was an idol maker. Once he went to a certain place, and left Abraham to sell in his place. A person would come and wish to buy. [Abraham] asked him: How old are you? And he would reply: I am fifty or sixty years old. And he would say: Woe to that man who is sixty years old and wishes to bow to something that is one day old! And he would be embarrassed and go away.
One time a certain woman came along carrying a dish of fine flour. She said to him: Come and offer this to them. He went and took a rod and broke all the statues, and placed the rod in the hand of the largest one of them.
When his father returned, he said to him: Who did this to them? He said, I cannot lie to you. A certain woman came carrying a dish of fine flour, and said to me: Go offer this to them. I offered it to them: this one said, I will eat first; and that one said, I will eat first. The largest among them got up, took the rod, and broke the others. He [his father] answered him: Why are you making a fool out of me! Do these know [anything]! He replied: Let your ears hear what your mouth says!

My addenda to understand Hinduism

Terach: Are you a moron? The Hindu statues are used to bring the infinite Divine to mind. We need a representation. We can only show true devotion to a human image.

Abraham: But there is only one immaterial God.

Terach: But we live in a sensory material world. That is why the Torah will later give us a Tabernacle. Also God will give physical mizvot. So here we also have statues. Not just you but also Greek philosophers like Xenophanes or the Indian poet Tagore were against images and thought religion was mental, but you don’t see them going around breaking things.

Abraham: But you think they are actually alive!

Terach: Give me a break. They are wood and clay. Only when they are brought to the Temple and consecrated in a special ceremony do they become gods. Now they are still in the workshop. And when they are consecrated they become an access to the divine. They are not robots or with moving parts. Really Abraham, have you ever seen a golden calf move? Your straw man arguments do not work. Do the Cherubim move in the Tabernacle?

Abraham: Yes, They do. They turn towards each other and away from each other.

Terach: Boy you are really anthropomorphic. You better read the Guide for the Perplexed or maybe Shankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutra.

Abraham: But what about the thousands of plaster and clay little idols that Hindus make for home shrines and for stores? Aren’t you worshiping those?

Terach: They serve as reminder and help focus on a specific aspect. They change them regularly. The ones they use for festivals are even throw into the river to show that the image has no intrinsic value. The little ones they leave out in the rain under trees to show that they have no holiness after they are used. You treat many religious objects like tefillin in a more intrinsic manner.

Abraham: But she brought them food to eat. Can they eat?

Terach: She said offer it to them. Tabernacle sacrifices are also offerings. You were the one who says she thought they actually ate. You seem to treat your ritual as pure and assume that they are naïve. If you visit a foreign country, try and assume that the people are on the same level of sophistication as you.

Abraham: But I discovered the God of heaven and earth and everyone else was primitive. I get to correct them. I get to show my elders the right way.

Terach: I cannot wait until you are out of adolescence. But if God ever says to you to offer your son on a mountain, please think about what offering means.

Watching Hindu Sacrifice

I am wandering around a UNESCO world heritage site in Nepal, a paved area of intricately carved temples and shrines which pay homage to a distant historical dynasty which has since become officially long defunct from religious practice. Tourists with cameras are wandering around taking photographs next to the intricately carved shrines. These tourists are continuous accosted by street hustlers, or as they are called “touts,” who are jacks of all trades wandering around seeking to sell trinkets, pickpocket, steal handbags, and act as phony tour guides. I turn away in disappointment from this scene and turn down a side street, a small alley with stalls as common in many open air markets.

About a block down this alley, I smell a horrific smell and sense it is coming from a passage between two buildings leading to a backyard. I proceed to enter and reach an enclosed area to find several men dressed in their finest Nepalesse suits and Dhaka hats watching a worker searing a whole goat with a blow torch. They invite me to sit down on a small wall of cinder blocks and join them. As I watch the goat’s hair burning off and the meat begin to cook, it slowly dawns on me that I am watching the cooking of an offering that was just made serendipitously at one of the shrines. Later, I am going to asked to join in consuming the sacrificial animal, I politely excuse myself by saying that I have someone waiting for me. (For those not squeamish clips of sacrifice- see here and here. )


Animal sacrifice has been out of favor and banned in official vegetarian Indian Hinduism for almost 2000 years, yet is has continued in folk traditions, most notably among the worship of Kali and is conducted during special performances of the original Vedic rituals presented in Brahmin enclaves in South India. It was banned in most of Northern India in the 1950s. However, animal sacrifice is alive and well in Nepal and Bali. All over Nepal exists various forms of sacrificing an animal and then taking the meat home to feast on, small offerings to insure success and atone for sins, as well as large sacrifice festivals where 100’s of thousand animals are sacrificed in a single day. A friend of mine said his Yeshiva-age son was mesmerized in watching the killing process as a way to relate to the Biblical and Talmudic sacrificial precepts, despite the differences in rules.

Now, one of my explicit Fulbright goals in encountering Hindu religions was to look at Hindu ritual that seemingly corresponded to Jewish ritual, karmakanda to mizvot. Hindu-Christian encounter tends to focus on topics such as salvation, but a Jewish-Hindu encounter could look to ritual . As a starting point, both faiths have sacrificial scriptures; almost every Hindu that I met assumed that Jews still perform Leviticus sacrifices and that Jewish folkways still accept the banned practices of Deuteronomy as pillars and sacred groves. For Jews, many assume that contemporary Hindus still follow the Vedic practices and that they can use books that compare Bronze Age to Iron Age Vedic practice as guides for contemporary practice.

However, there was less to compare than I expected. Jews do not offer sacrifices anymore, but still use the sacrifice metaphor for prayer, home table, synagogue, and martyrdom. Hindus also reject animal sacrifice and use the symbol for temple service and home ritual. But Hindus kept the practice of a sacred fire and they kept the practice of agricultural offerings such as fruit and flowers but without the specific details. In some communities, Hindus keep the physical practice and “slaughter” a whole coconut by cracking its head. Hindus have a sense that the fruit and flowers are substitutes for animals while Jews has a sense that prayer is a substitute. Jews have a continuous light, ner tamid, but no sacred fire burning. However, Jews place their sins on a chicken only for Kapparot on Yom Kippur eve (Gaonim and Rashba treated it as an offering outside the temple, therefore forbidden), while in Nepal there are regular voluntary offerings of animal sacrifices.

The only major group that still practices animal sacrifice in India is the worshippers of Kali, who tend to limit it to individual offerings once a year during Duga Puja. There is no blessing from devi if she does not receive blood. (Last year, a newspaper went out of its way to note that it was not just preserved at the local level but also at the University temple by those set on maintaining the tradition, They quote the University priest who says: “In keeping with our custom, on Mahanavami, after the morning puja, we perform animal sacrifice here. This year, around 100 goats will be sacrificed. This number also depends on the number of devotees who come to offer sacrifice.” At another university, the priest said: “A large number of devotees come here to witness the sacrifice every year…” However, in Bengal there is an annual sacrificial slaughter of up to 100,000 turtles. And in Nepal, they have a month long festival every five years where up to 250, 000 animals, mainly water buffalo, are killed in honor of the goddess Gadhimai. (The meat is eventually sold to meat processing companies.)

Scholars such as J. C. Heesterman explain the ideal original Bronze Age Vedic sacrifice as a kingly ritual for power that culminated in a feast and restoration of kingship. Heesterman shows that later Vedic sacrifice all but exclusively stressed the offering in the fire—the element of destruction—at the expense of the other elements. At the same time, sacrifice was turned to the individual sacrificer. The ritual turns in on the individual as “self-sacrificer” who realizes through the internalized knowledge of the ritual the immortal Self. At this point, the sacrifice recedes behind the soul attaining immortality in the atman’s transcendence and unity with the cosmic principle (brahman). No longer is it about maintain the cosmos, now it is about the discovery of the soul. It is worth comparing this to the Talmudic shift to repentance. When one of my visiting Jewish graduate students asked if the original sacrifice was still practiced as a kingly practice without concern for the soul’s transcendence, I answered that no Hindu has thought like that for two thousand years.

The Vedic literature also describes an elaborate horse sacrifice called the Ashvamedha that involved many animals and even bestiality to create a victorious kingdom. 20th century commentaries, such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati, rejected the classical commentaries of the Vedas corruptions “opposed to the real meaning of the Vedas.” He arrives at an entirely symbolic interpretation of the ritual: “An empire is like a horse and the subjects like other inferior animals”. Thus, according to Saraswati, no horse was actually to be slaughtered in the ritual.

There is one Vedic sacrifice ritual still performed by a secluded group of priests in the South and in recent decades, Western scholars led by Fritz Staal have paid for them to perform the ritual and to have it filmed. A temporary shelter is built then a huge falcon is built from consecrated bricks. This bird is the Universal Being. Seventeen specialized priests are required for this most elaborate of Vedic rituals. A sacrifice of 14 goats forms a central part of the early ritual. It involved reciters, chanters, performer of actions, and priests. Staal shows how expensive and complex were the ancient rituals. This ritual is a cosmogonic ritual, in which the cosmic “Man” is ritually sacrificed to re-create the universe yearly.

The Early Buddhists, Jains, and some Upanishads criticized the animal sacrifices made by the Brahmins on account of their corruption in monetary pursuits. It is worth comparing the critique of corrupt sacrifice in Isaiah and other prophets. A Jain sage interprets the Vedic sacrifices as metaphorical: “Body is the altar, mind is the fire blazing with the ghee of knowledge and burning the sacrificial sticks of impurities produced from the tree of karma…”Hindus like Jews see the criticism as only applying to corrupt forms and not as a critique of all ritual and sacrifice. Also, Hinduism does not accept treating the ritual law as an allegory and Jews reject when Christians do the same.

Hindus study and recite the Vedic rules of ancient sacrifice as a replacement to doing them similar to the way the Talmud see the study of sacrificial law as a replacement for their performance. Also, Hinduism sees sacrifice as about merit and getting to heaven, not maintaining cosmos or kingship. Swami Prabhupada, of Iskcon wrote introducing the more recent doctrines: “Although animal killing in a sacrifice is recommended in the Vedic literature, the animal is not considered to be killed… the animal is given a new animal life after being killed in the sacrifice, and sometimes the animal is promoted immediately to the human form of life.”

For centuries, these rituals have been explained at home and in school as performed for the benefit of the performer. This sacrifice has the power to influence energies and provide blessing for your earthly life, they have the power of fulfilling the desires of the aspirants. More commonly, they are explained in terms of addressing human emotions like fear, stress, confidence, and happiness.

My Western readers should note that Hindus do not actually take their rituals from anything in the Vedic literature. The details come from the vast sea of Agamic literature, larger than Rabbinic literature, which was written between 3rd century BCE to the 8th century CE, the same era as Rabbinic literature. Almost none of it has been translated into English The Agaimic literature is about worship of a divine image and is very theistic, with an occasional panentheistic element. Rituals in the Agamic literature consists of two parts a mental part (tantra) and a performance

The Vedas remain as an inspiration for a sacred fire, in the use of many of its metaphors, and that it generated the ritual rules of the Mimamsa. As a conceptual frame “whoever eats a meal without having performed his sacrifices consumes only sin and does not really eat”

So to summarize for my Western readers, forget whatever you read anything on sacrifice in ancient Vedic India. Today there are fixed temples with Yajna, which are offerings by a Brahmin, Puja is simple offering done daily at home and also at temple ceremonies and large festivals, or to begin a new venture. Puja in its simplified domestic form consists of a diya (sacred lamp) with offerings of flowers/incense/camphor. One brings a simple offering of the heart, that has no intrinsic fixed measure, rather customary rules. The third element is Homa or fire sacrifice at the Temple, clarified butter and other substances are poured into the fire as offering to God, accompanied by Mantras, usually starting with Om. The most widespread homan is Gnaptapy homam at the start of every new endeavor. Prarthana is a prayer with a specific request. It even includes simple prayers like “let us be happy.” They say that in our fallen age, even the giving of money substitutes for sacrifice.

To offer some observations, in Hindu sacrifice, the animal is killed by a direct single motion chop, in contrast in Jewish Temple sacrifice and meat slaughtering the animal is killed in a continuous motion of an across swipe of the knife. The Hindu method would be unacceptable in Jewish law as applying pressure and not cutting (derasa). Brahmin Hinduism does not have a concept of slaughter of meat for ordinary people (Hullin). In many laws they combine the Jewish concepts of purity and holiness into a single category. If eating meat is not pure then there cannot be a holy way of doing it. In Jewish ritual, every sacrifice required sanctification (ḥakdashah), and was to be brought into the court of the sanctuary (haḳrabah), sacrifice to Kali can be done in the yard or at home. In both religions, the animal cannot have a blemish or broken bones.

The four stages of Jewish sacrifice slaughter (sheḥiṭah), receiving the blood (ḳabbalah) carrying the blood to the alter (holakah) sprinkling the blood (zeriḳah). Ancient Vedic texts describe specific placement and carrying processes for the burning. Post-Vedic to contemporary Hindu sacrifice centers entirely on the slaughter. They let the blood spill out or even drink it or bath in it. The inner organs of the animals are then offered upon the altar.

In the south where they use coconuts, voluntary lay sacrifice at Tirupati is of coconuts. In other Temple complexes it is the task of the Brahmin not the lay person to officially crack the coconut with the single smash against a metal rod in the same rapid succession as the goats were killed in Nepal. The coconut water plays the role of blood and is spilled out, leaving the coconut flesh to be eaten by the one who made the offering.

When visiting Mumbai, there is a major Temple to Ganesha, who is seen as responsible for prosperity. The temple is on a side street parallel the freeway and is blocked by traffic guards and scaffolding obscuring the view on the non-descript white building. Wealthy business families dressed in their festive clothes came in a procession of a continuous stream loaded with baskets of fruit to offer to the image. My wife commented that the way people arrived is how she imagined the Temple in Jerusalem, to her it was just like the images of families carrying cornucopias of first fruits to the Temple. They were well dressed in colorful outfits, happy smiling families making a minor pilgrimage entering the line to offer their fruits. They seemed to be in competition for whom could bring the best basket of fruits and flowers.

While on line they watched other families since the offering of the baskets to the priests were broadcast inside and outside on the close circuit TV screens. When they arrived they made the gift and told the Brahmins of the names and birth dates of the entire family. They then stopped at a variety of other minor shrines in the Temple room on the way out. They seemed to leave happy and confident in their certainty of the gift of more prosperity so they went for sweets and special snacks at the restaurants that lined the temple street. No animals, no elaborate ritual, just the simplified urban offerings of the happy middle class.

An Interview with Michael Fishbane

How do we experience God or read religious works in an era of globalization, after modernity, after the hermeneutic turn, and after the modern critiques of religion? Michael Fishbane, the Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago, attempted to deal with these issues in his Sacred Attunements: A Spiritual Theology.” (You may want to print out this post for home reading, it is very long.)

fishbane teaching

Fishbane is currently one of the world’s leading Jewish thinkers whose attempts to create a philosophy of Judaism from contemporary philosophy, in this case hermeneutic theory, makes him a significant major thinker -akin to Buber- whose thought transcends denominational concerns. Hermeneutic theory is one of the major philosophic systems today, therefore I would recommend reading some Hermeneutic theory especially Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and general hermeneutics. There have been academic symposiums on Fishbane’s thought but he has not become a household name. I blogged him when I first read his book here, here, here, and here.

Fishbane is the author or editor of over 20 books including Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel; Garments of Torah. Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics; The Kiss of God: Spiritual Death and Dying in Judaism; The Exegetical Imagination; Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking; and his recent Sacred Attunement. A Jewish Theology (2008). He is the recipient of many scholarly awards.

Fishbane is aware of modernity’s challenges to religion, writing that, “the mirror of the world reflects back to us our willful epistemologies, our suspicion of values, and the rank perversities of the human heart.” (ix) (H/T to Sam Berrin Shonkoff for the following formulations.)

Fishbane recognizes that the classic approach to Jewish theology is no longer viable. The classics of pre-modern Jewish thought tried to reconcile Jewish texts with their own generation’s philosophies, but in today’s intellectual world cannot support synthesis. First, Fishbane explains, there is the “absence in our times of one coherent or compelling worldview.” Second, in the currents of globalization and multiculturalism, “we are affected by diverse sources of cultural value and memory,”

Fishbane identifies the need for a new theological breakthrough. It cannot be a new idea, concept, or theoretical framework. It must be a quality of awareness more than a state of mind, an invitation to the divine more than an answer, an opening to “a throbbing of divine everlastingness” —he presents a theology that is permanently unfinished and open-ended

Fishbane calls for a new breakthrough of mindfulness but in a post-hermeneutic age, he holds that all consciousness involves verbal and hermeneutical constructions. Language, he writes, is “our most primary rationality, giving our minds their most basic mindfulness.” How can we have or trust experience when it is filtered through the lenses of hermeneutical consciousness? Fishbane suggests that the only way to preserve a theology’s integrity is, ironically perhaps, to open it up to the dynamic dissonance of multiplicity, “the multiform diversity of life itself.”

Over a Shabbat dinner table, Fishbane complained to me how his graduate professors were religious in shul but entirely secular in class. He seeks to overcome that dichotomy through shifting to a post-apologetic theological discourse. Fishbane does not seek to explain and justify his fidelity to his faith before a forum of philosophers or other custodians of reason. He suffices with a witness to ‘a journey of spiritual quest’ as embodied in the life of a pious Jew. He even worries about the ways in which his own primary field of Biblical exegesis can end up missing the forest for the trees: neglecting divine reality, while getting caught up in what too easily become pleasurable but soulless word games.

His form of “The beginning of wisdom is fear of God” is sacred attunement, an ability to listen. Fishbane contends that “[t]he capacity to listen with attention and humility is a spiritual beginning … [of] a gradual growth in religious consciousness.” But it is one that is impossible without this initial ethic of listening. He maintains that the practitioner must cultivate a “spiritually pregnant silence” before speaking. But even afterwards: “As the curve of speech bends toward the transcendent, this truth becomes ever more unsayable.”

Fishbane occasionally speaks at the minyan here in Teaneck. The first times he spoke, the questions from the audience afterwards reflected the Lutheran inspired modern Orthodoxy. “We confront God and then recoil.” “We follow the law but do not have God directly in our lives”. “We cannot trust the self” In contrast, Fishbane is comfortable with direct God talk and religious experience without recoil and as a once born optimist he does not have the withdrawal and darkness of the twice born. He assumes that everyone is looking to get in touch with themselves and God. He also assumes that his audience is transparent and psychologically aware in their religious lives.

Since the goal of this project is a hermeneutical one, most of the book is on his views of Torah For him, the four levels of Pardes are the peshat of the everyday, the remez of the theological-legal, the derush philosophical-psychological, and the sod of the mystical. He develops Scholem’s idea of Torah as organism into Torah kelulah: God’s ongoing presence as a hermeneutical process. We have an opening to receive God’s word in everything if we are “attuned” to it. The fullness of Torah Kelulah is unsayable, yet an opening in which God’s creative power issues forth into a manifest universe. The Oral Torah is the ongoing expression and development of the primordial Written Torah. Religious life is in Torah study as reflected, imbibed, and present in the self. This process includes interiorization, centering, and silence.

Fishbane sees that the attunement leads to action and therefore we move quickly from hermeneutics to ethics. The book deals with reasons for the commandments, prayer, Shabbat, and the meaning of tehillim.

These interviews resulted from the Oxford Summer Institute for Modern and Contemporary Judaism at Yarnton convened by Dr. Freud-Kandel of Oxford and Prof. Ferziger of Bar-Ilan. Yet, one modern Orthodox intellectual present called Fishbane’s approach prophetic but not relevant for our real world lives based entirely on sociology and politics.

But this is real world-class contemporary theology in dialogue with contemporary philosophy thinking and within the bounds of contemporary thought. It is not just personal opinion but an opening to fertile rich new lines of thought. Take the time to understand it.

sacred attunment

1) What is Attunement with God? What are your sources for such attunement?
In my book, Sacred Attunement, I am concerned to cultivate modes of spiritual attentiveness. This involves focusing the mind and heart in particular ways – on the entities of existence and ultimately on God. The notion of ‘attunement’ serves this purpose. With respect to these entities, attentiveness to their distinctive qualities (be they persons or features of the world) involves putting oneself into an ongoing resonance with them; and this constant dialogical adjustment, which never appropriates the other, is a matter of self-attunement. With respect to God, the concern is to concentrate on ultimate transcendence, above and beyond the entities of the world; and this spiritual orientation is an attunement of another kind – a mindfulness of God, this being an attitude or disposition totally other that ‘knowing’ or ‘having’ some factual knowledge of Divinity. The self may even rise to a state of awareness of the Divine gift of being, and hold that cognition ‘in mind’. Humble reverence is its emotional valence.

I adapted the term ‘attunement’ from medieval and renaissance sources dealing with the vibration of the soul to ultimate matters; I subsequently found that a related existential usage was developed by Heidegger. My usage is idiosyncratic.

2) How can we use the Bible for gaining consciousness of God after historical criticism?
In religious traditions formed from Scripture, study is a multifaceted means of accessing knowledge of its content, for the sake of its values and practices. Thus the language of Scripture serves various purposes. Towards this end, Judaism has cultivated different modes of textual interpretation; these include the plain-sense of Scripture, its multiple midrashic senses (theological and halakhic), and some allegorical and mystical dimensions. Since all of these types were concerned to understand or apply the content of Scripture to religious life, these modes – singly and together – may provide a resource for contemporary seekers as well. But they will each have to be reinterpreted. For example, we have much to gain from contemporary studies of language and its modes of signification: this may guide us in thinking about how language names and transforms the world, and how it formulates terms of transcendence – through its various metaphors and figures (many of which are rooted in ancient Near Eastern stylistic forms, and cannot be fully appreciated apart from this context).

Midrashic creativity is also a rich source for thinking with Scripture about the mysteries of life and the transcendent claims they may make upon us. Midrash gives us a God-language that is grounded in the Bible, but also allows us to formulate new religious thought. This religious language is itself inflected by components of its historical environment (and many midrashic parables, which imagine God in human terms, are influenced by Roman figures and scenes).
I would add that many contemporaries also find in the meditative interpretations of the Bible as recorded in the Zohar a profound fund of verbal elements for imagining God in cosmic terms, or in the service of meditations that transcend language altogether (and knowing that some of these features also derive from Neoplatonism does not diminish their value, but may help us to better understand our own mystical texts).

Study of the Bible can therefore foster diverse forms of God-consciousness and attention to ultimate matters; and a critical understanding of its historical features may prove beneficial – both in their own right, and as they impact our contemporary lives. I therefore have no problem with historical criticism of any sort. We are historically situated beings, and all that we have created through acts of the spirit and the imagination are historically inflected – this includes the Torah, which we have through the agency of Moses and Tradition.

Historical criticism can enhance our sense of the myriad ways Jewish spiritual life (both theology and practice) has developed or changed over time, through ongoing biblical interpretation, and even stimulate new creativity. It is therefore a spiritual resource in every sense. Historical criticism respects the specificity of the literary works. Our appropriation of them is no less situated and historical.

In so many ways, the study of the Bible may inculcate new theologies or religious consciousness; and in doing it may put the interpreter in mind of God in diverse ways. As moderns (not unlike our forebears) we live with a conglomerate of theological figures; and in ritual moments (be they the study of different passages, or the recitation of different psalms in prayer) we move from image to image without any need for systematization or harmonization. We are their living coherence.

3) What does Sinai and the event at Sinai mean? How is Sinai an ever present reality? What happened to Biblical criticism?

Sinai is a foundational moment for Scripture and for Judaism. It is a cultural pivot, insofar as it mediates the founding event of the covenant and the onset of a commitment to certain values and acts. From Sinai on, the Jewish people have been devoted to God’s absolute transcendence – beyond all images and forms; and to a Torah and its related traditions which teach the inviolable character of life and its sanctification. Scripture places that event in an axial position, and Tradition has affirmed that every moment of its study can renew that event in consciousness as a living entity. Sinai was not merely a historical ‘then’, but may be an ever-present ‘now’; and thus the old event of Sinai can be revived anew, in ongoing ways. And just as Jews are repeatedly enjoined to see themselves ‘as if’ they came out of Egypt, every day, so too are we enjoined to see ourselves as standing at Sinai in the everyday: each moment being a modality of ongoing divine instruction which we may hear and do.

In this way, a person is attuned to the possibilities presented at each and every moment. For a Jew to live theologically, with Sinai in mind, is to live with this mindset. Biblical criticism is but one vector into the ancient moment of the ‘happening of Sinai’ and its literary transformations. These records are part of the formation of Scripture that radiates from Sinai, and has become sacred for Jews. If we suppress or elide the voices of the past, we become tone-deaf to primary accounts of our precious legacy.

4) You wrote about a “communal moment” at Sinai, but isn’t your approach very individualistic?

Every reading of Scripture is an individual event, even as it also participates in a communal paradigm; similarly, every religious action is performed by an individual, even as worshippers are part of a larger congregation or community of believers. The same holds true for the founding moment. The event of Sinai is portrayed in Scripture as a communal and collective moment (We shall do and we shall hear); but since antiquity many different midrashic passages reinterpret the literary traditions in the Book of Exodus, or other Scriptural passages linked to Sinai, with the individual aspect of this event. In some cases, each person was asked if they were individually committed to all the Torah and all its subsequent Traditions; in other ones, we learn that different persons received and understood the revelation according to their particular ability or capacity.
My book strives to renew the theological spirit of modern Jews. It therefore addresses them personally and individually; hence the particular tone I have taken throughout. But the renewal of Jews means the renewal of Judaism, which cannot be transformed without them; and thus the ultimate context for my work is the entire Jewish community. The individual and the communal are therefore intertwined.

5) Can one separate serving God from specific cultural forms? How is theological thinking a basis for action, and how do the mitzvot bring thoughts to action?

I do not understand how one can serve God separate from specific cultural forms – be those verbal or silent, public performances or private thoughts. This is true for all religions, and is distinctively so for Judaism. Moreover, because of this vital interconnection, the ritual forms used by the worshipper shape consciousness in different ways, and the ways one serves God enact distinctive God-forms for the culture and persons involved. Acts of thanksgiving or petition come to mind, as do deeds of charity and blessing. Each involves a distinct image or mode of Divinity. We incorporate these various modalities through our ritual gestures and in the vocabulary of our prayers (referring to God as the one “who” does thus and so). This said, I would still suggest that serving God through various cultural forms may include a theological disposition that can transcend them all, insofar as a person performs these actions with God in mind – a God who is transcendent to the specific actions and even the God-mindedness involved.

All activities may become occasions for such a God-consciousness, when recognizing in and through all our actions the God-given reality that challenges us to service and celebration. Each ‘Sinaitic moment’ obligates us to hear and do – to respond to our Divine destiny as creatures through the forms Torah and Tradition have prescribed. These are not restrictive obligations, but ones that are mind-expanding. They call upon us to enact our freedom in service to these duties; hence we discover our freedom through our obligations to God. This is the way I understand the great mishnaic watchword that interprets the laws “inscribed upon the tablets” (harut ‘al ha-luhot) as modalities of “freedom” commanded through them (herut ‘al ha-luhot). Thus this intersection of freedom and obligations transcends the dichotomy of autonomy and heteronomy (inner-directedness vs. external rules). I do what I must do for the sake of the fulfillment of who I am and may freely become as a moral and spiritual person.

6) What is the role of the ever changing reasons for the commandments?

When one speaks of the ‘reasons for the commandments’ one thinks primarily of constructing meanings that serve one’s spiritual destiny and intellectual integrity. These reasons have changed over time – and there is evidence for this process already in the Bible – since people are ever trying to live with meaning and honesty, and trying to find in the commandments a higher purpose (or justification) for their religious behavior or attitudes. This purpose often accords with their hierarchy of values at any time – a hierarchy that emerges from Scripture and the Tradition, but also from external philosophical values reincorporated into it. The changing ‘reasons’ attest to our changing historical situations and our desire to justify the quality and character of our religious lives. Finding reasons for the commandments offers opportunities for such reflection, and for integrating what we value from the world at large into our daily religious lives. This process keeps us spiritually alert and morally honest.

7) What is the difference between the Adamic Self and the Mosaic Self?
When I use the designations ‘Adamic Self’ and ‘Mosaic Self’ in my book, I am concerned to highlight the difference between two ways of being in the world: the term Adamic Self refers to ourselves as natural beings, who share mortal characteristics and a world destiny with all creatures of flesh and blood (it thus has a universal component); whereas the term Mosaic Self refers to us Jews as religious beings, who share the specific spiritual path charted by Moses our teacher and his historic heirs (it thus has a particularistic component).
Our religious lives are both embedded within, and develop from, our condition as creatures of the earth – and we must never lose track of this alignment. But our universal creaturehood is also culturally marked and inflected, and we choose this as self-conscious religious persons. This choice is exemplified by Moses himself, who turned from his natural condition as a shepherd, to engage his spiritual destiny. In Scripture this is a paradigmatic moment; and this challenge confronts each of us – our turning to religious choices and spiritual destiny is something we ourselves are ever called upon to do. And so, just as we must always be aware of our natural ground as creatures, so must we try to be simultaneously conscious of the religious challenges that give us opportunities to transform our naturalness. This is a mentality to be cultivated and lived on a daily basis.

8) Your work is so pious and God-centered that most who share your sense of the sacred would not have a historicist consciousness? How do you bring the two together?
To be a Jew is constantly to stand at Sinai and choose to accept the life tasks that present themselves. Our Jewish Tradition has powerful means for shaping our consciousness and attitudes, and for guiding them towards action in the world. It is essential to live with alert attunement to these tasks and what they require of us at every moment. This is a demanding requirement; so is the God-mindedness related to it. To be God-centered is therefore not to be self-centered; it is rather to be engaged in self-transcendence through attunement to the presentations of the world, as they present themselves.

This is not a theological attitude that transcends the world for some metaphysical domain, or is free of the nitty-gritty that stains things and our frail moral purposes. It is a theological disposition that is historically situated, with all the contingencies and complications that go with that posture. Hence our historical factuality is fundamental and cannot be escaped, if we are spiritually honest; and to be critical and analytical by degrees is not a stultification of our God-centeredness, but a way that we may monitor ourselves and our attunements to existence at every moment. Living in this way, is a type of ‘avodah be-gashmiyut – a service of God in and through our embodiment. Ultimately, I believe, it is a ‘sacred attunement’.

9) Do you have an ‘ontological presupposition’ of sorts about the existence of God and of Sinai?
This is a weighty question, and needs to be sorted out at several levels. The primary ontological given that one has to reckon with as a human being is the totality of existence that impinges upon our lives, and demands (or calls us to) a response. We answer with attempts to live meaningful lives: to name things rightly and for good ends; to act rightly and for high-minded purposes; and to do all this in ways that reduce harm and increase goodness.
This is part of our natural lives within a mystery that ever exceeds us – call it ‘super-natural’, if you wish. Oriented to this all-encompassing mystery, we humbly direct our consciousness to what we name ‘God’ – meaning by this word a culturally inflected limit-term, which exceeds all our cognitive and passionate presuppositions. And this limit includes all of our theological presuppositions about God, be these ever so sophisticated or naive.
Religious philosophy and mysticism have always cautioned us to beware of thinking that God is a being like other beings, or even a supreme Being, since God is wholly Other than anything our anthropomorphic presuppositions may suppose; contemporary philosophical and theological thought has reinforced this caution and the dangers of mental idolatries.

But if our ontological nature as human beings is something we are potentially cognizant of, this requires us, so to speak, ‘to know before Whom one stands’, and to live a life consonant with such a God-inspired humility: one that seeks the good and the sanctification of all life from within the standpoint of our mortal frailty. Sinai calls upon us, as a Voice of destiny, to heed these values: to have no god but God before us at all times, to smash idols of every sort, and to respect human and material boundaries.

For this reason we may perhaps say that Sinai is an ontological reality that calls us, through the unfolding realities of tradition and interpretation, to hear what must be heard and to do what must be done. It is a cultural presupposition that directs our minds and lives beyond ontology, to God as absolute transcendence, and absolutely transcendent to all being.

10) What are the philosophical challenges of theology, metaphysics or hermeneutics today?
Every person must start from their own particular life situation, knowledge, and proclivities. There is no set of philosophical challenges that address all minds, or in the same way. This said, we are all aware that our small universe is part of infinities beyond our comprehension, and that its peril and fate is both related to but far exceeds our intentions and our destiny. And this must give pause to the hubris of our various theological, metaphysical, or hermeneutical assertions.

Modern thought has produced volumes that stress our cognitive and interpretative limits (for any number of epistemological reasons), or the limitations of our situated perspectives (for phenomenological reasons) – even as our scientific capacities challenge the constraints we have imposed. We must therefore determine to live with self-conscious humility and with a consciousness of our moral responsibilities – both for ourselves and our planet.

Hermeneutical thought, in particular, has brought home in incontrovertible ways that we use language within certain ‘horizons of understanding’, and that it shapes human consciousness and social realities. Language is a creative force to be used or abused – both for the forms of thought produced and the forms of life which underpin them.

These considerations also affect our religious and theological lives. The issue of religious language is a challenge, as it has always been (since the sages in the Midrash or philosophers like Philo). Once again, we are perplexed. What terms should we use for God, and what is their status? Are the images of God to be understood as theological propositions, or as figures that direct consciousness towards non-conceptual references?

And, more practically: how can we use or develop a theological language that fits with both our tradition and with intellectual frontiers our tradition has never confronted? These and related topics have particular import for the practice of our religious lives. Within ever-expanding horizons that may include the respect for and awareness of different religions and theologies and philosophies (including literatures depicting diverse worldviews), we must repeatedly determine how to formulate and sustain compelling motivations for our traditional behaviors.

These are great challenges. Taking them in hand, we must not retreat before this vast horizon into naive fundamentalism or narrow traditionalism; or dilute our basic values within some indeterminate universal dimension. A stance of open steadfastness (open to the world yet steadfast in a thoughtful commitment to traditional forms of life and value) will require will power and good will. But despite the confusions and tensions these issues engender, we still have local tasks to perform – which compel us without doubt; and face the reality of other persons (both religious compatriots and fellow creatures) and the imperatives they impose – calling us to hear and do what we can, as best we can. Such demands are perhaps sufficient for the day, and help ground our lives, otherwise depleted of much metaphysical certainty.

Interview with Prof. Tamar Ross on Revelation-Round Two

Here is a second installment of discussing Tamar Ross’s view of revelation- see here and here. In some ways this one is the clearest and the last one was diffuse. The last interview introduced her ideas by first starting with the modern problem of revelation, then a swim through an assortment of philosophy- modernism and post-modernism, fideism and indeterminacy, liberal and orthodoxy– then we receive an answer, and finally we conclude with how Rav Kook made all this possible.

This interview proceeds in the opposite direction and better lets us evaluate her thought paragraph by paragraph. She starts with her experience of many years of teaching Kabbalah and Rav Kook, then the kabbalistic view of revelation, and only then the application to today. Now, if you buy into her mystical approach and her reading of Rav Kook, you can see clearly if her extension flow or not.

Ross photo

Prof. Ross is Professor Emeritus of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s Yeshiva in Jerusalem. One of her major fields was the writings of Rav Kook. Her specific focus was teasing out the great modernist vision of Orot Hakodesh.

She synthesized the evolutionary modernist statements of Rav Kook that exhorted his readers to understand that just as we have in the past evolved beyond ancient concepts to medieval Maimonidean rationalism, we now have to evolve to modern concepts. Just as people used to think the sun went around the earth but since Copernican revolution we see the earth going around the sun, so too we have to accept the modern revolutions in politics, society, and philosophy. Just as we used to follow Aristotle, now we follow Kant and Hegel.

For Rav Kook, the Torah is above the thought of any given era and can accommodate itself in any theory of a given age. In fact, Rav Kook states that from the divine perspective both truth and heresy are equally limiting categories. In her reading, Rav Kook following Maimonides, teaches that there is an inner core to the Torah that is clothed in the language of the era. Humans are evolving in the concepts they use to understand the world. For Ross, Rav Kook is daring, dazzling, lofty, and rising to the modern challenges.

This approach to Rav Kook is unlike the national essentialist reading of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook or the dialectic ethicist of the Second Aliyah captured by Yehudah Mirsky. For more on Tamar Ross’ approach, see her articles on truth, here and here or on toleration.

Mysticism in the United States is usually defined using William James as an experience, for Ross mysticism mean kabbalah, here specifically the monism and panentheism worldviews of the 19th century Jewish thinkers, Chabad, Mitnagdut, and Rav Kook. And she follows, Scholem’s understanding of the progressive revelation in the Shelah, as found in “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism.” (cf. Heschel or Idel)

These interviews resulted from the Oxford Summer Institute for Modern and Contemporary Judaism, convened by Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel of Oxford and Prof. Adam Ferziger of Bar-Ilan.

1) What is mysticism?
This term is used, of course, in many contexts, to denote a variety of traditions and practices. The sense in which I use it here refers to a view which assumes the existence of an absolute, all-encompassing, monolithic and infinite unity (i.e., the Ein-sof) that transcends all particularist definitions and perceptions

2) What is Revelation for the Mystic?
The mystic tradition does not support an understanding of revelation as the eruption of a transcendent force into a reality that is other than itself. It is rather the culmination of a new constellation of forces from within that reality. According to the mystic tradition, God is not a person or an object that exercises agency upon the world from without. Our personalist conception is not to be belittled; it is a necessary pointer to that which in essence leaves no room for distinction between subject and object, or between the perceiver and the object of his perception. In accordance with this understanding, revelation is a vision of the totality that is grasped by a particular aspect of it in a new light.

So long as we experience ourselves as separate, independent beings, some measure of personalist God-talk must be maintained. We therefore speak, according to the mystic, “as if” God imposed His will upon us from without. But because the divine will is infinite, the meaning of revelation is also infinite, varying from generation to generation, building upon and modifying previous understandings in accordance with the never-ending give and take between its various elements.

3) What is your Dynamic View of Revelation?
A dynamic view of revelation is not my invention. It is a well-established strand in Jewish tradition. The stipulation of the Sages that “the Torah is not in Heaven” already recognizes the importance of human interaction with the text in establishing its ultimate meaning, and appears to foster a spirit of pluralism as well. This is evident in the rabbinic declaration that “there are seventy faces to Torah” and in the story of the heavenly voice that mediated the conflicting legal opinions of the Schools of Hillel and Shammai by proclaiming that both “these and these are the words of the living God.”

In acknowledging the human factor that led to plurality when interpreting the received tradition, the Rabbis understood God as attaching religious value to human participation in the process of deliberation and the overcoming of ambiguities. This breadth of understanding on their part is evident again in their interest in preserving minority opinions as an essential part of the canon, even when the law was determined otherwise.

Further support for a more dynamic understanding of revelation that blurs the boundaries between the divine word and the human interpreter can be found in various aggadot, in kabbalistic literature, in the writings of biblical commentators, halakhists, and especially in the drashot of many of the Hassidic masters, who do not pose God and His word as utterly distinct and separate from the flow of history and human subjectivity. Viewed collectively, these more fluid conceptions of Torah presents the Sinai revelation of God’s word as the initiator of a series of revelations in the form of inspired interpretations throughout the ages. The ideal meaning of the Sinaitic revelation is eked out only with these accumulated interpretations. The various strata are then absorbed as an integral part of the primary text, expanding upon and sometimes even transforming its original meaning, while forever remaining rooted in its precise language and frames of reference.

Aside from avoiding gross anthropomorphisms, if we are to understand God’s word as conveying a message for all generations, its transmission cannot be limited to a one-time event, but must be understood as a process.

This process began with the formal canonization of the Torah and its acceptance by the Jewish people as the primary filter through which the authorized beliefs and practices of Judaism are determined. It continues, however, with the cumulative interpretations that accrue to this text, inevitably informing and altering its meaning in light of the ever-changing historical contexts in which it is read. Viewed religiously, these contexts – no less than the original text – may likewise be regarded as an ongoing revelation of the divine word, constantly refining its meaning in light of new surrounding circumstances. As a result, the Torah can be understood as all human (in terms of its literary and historical genesis) and all divine (in terms of its origin, value and significance) at one and the same time.

4) How does Rav Kook offer a more fluid view of revelation?
Many elements in R. Kook’s theology revive fluid understandings of revelation that were developed in pre-modern times. His immersion in the mystic tradition and its panentheistic image of God discourages positing God and His word as distinct from the flow of history and natural morality. It also leads him to a view of truth which is remarkably sympathetic to the postmodern critique of sterile, fixed, and universal truths that purport to reflect a neutral and objective view “from nowhere”, and to celebrate conflict as a trigger to spiritual advancement.

While R. Kook did not set out these elements of his thought in the form of a systematic theology of revelation, a response that resonates various strands of his thought has greater chance of success in a religious community that finds it difficult to view subservience to halakha as the be-all and end-all of its spiritual existence, and is more invested in developing an inclusive majority culture than in preserving denominational borders.

Indeed, a hallmark of R. Kook’s positive attitude to secularism is the understanding that revolutionary and ostensibly destructive developments in the world of ideas are the most significant tools of all, for these are a clear indication that humanity has outgrown more primitive forms of spirituality and is ready for a new, more sublime level.

Taken in this spirit, we might conclude that even the challenges of biblical criticism in our day can be regarded as a rare privilege and a new revelation of the divine will. Divine providence itself has orchestrated the rise of serious problems with Torah as history so as to lead us, and all of humankind with us, to a new and more subtle understanding of the relationship between divine intent and human interpretation. We do not doubt God when we walk through this threshold. We are listening to God as we go forward, for this too was from God.

The revolutionary shift from the conventional understanding of truth as corresponding to some objective reality “out there” also has significant parallels in R. Kook’s writings, which reveal a remarkably tentative attitude to religious truth-claims. R. Kook’s skepticism is founded on the presumption of an inbuilt contradiction between finite human perceptions and God’s monolithic all-encompassing infinity that transcends all definitions and distinctions.

Although he employs the metaphysical vocabulary of tradition, the authority of revelation does not derive on his formulation from the “fact” that God gave us the Torah, but rather on strength of “kabbalat ha-umma” – i.e., the willingness of the Jewish people to accept it as such. Even the notion of divine providence appears to be a “necessary truth”, useful for developing our urge for the absolute, rather than a “true truth” that exists independent of human needs.

5) What, then, might be a viable view of revelation for today?
At the first stage, when viewing revelation from within tradition, we must try to achieve an understanding that is as coherent as possible on its own terms. This is accomplished by breaking down the distinction between divine speech and natural historic process and recognizing that God does not speak through vocal chords but through the orchestration of history and the evolution of human understanding that develops in its wake.

Viewing our internal religious talk from a more universal perspective, however, leads to a second, more radical, stage in the development of a contemporary theology of revelation. Appropriating some of the insights of postmodern theory regarding language and its uses, we now understand that equating professions of belief in divine revelation with factual descriptions entails a misconception of the role of such statements in the religious context. It is this misconception that has led to the bankruptcy of a modernist Torah u-madda approach which regards religion as a rival source of knowledge vying with science on the same ball-park.

Instead, we now understand that the primary concern of such statements is not to discuss facts or establish history, but rather to function on an entirely different plane – establishing a system of symbols and “picture” of reality that legitimate our most basic patterns of thought, feeling and behavior, and signaling to our co-religionists that we share the same ultimate loyalties.

6) What is the meaning and significance of revelation, according to this view?
The conclusion we must now reach is that the meaning and significance of the belief in revelation, divine accommodation, and all religious doctrine making metaphysical claims, is best understood in light of its function in the life of the believer. The “truth” of such beliefs is vindicated not by appeal to external evidence or re-interpretation, but on the basis of their ability to inculcate spiritually meaningful attitudes and values, reinforcing the particular form of life upon which such attitudes and values are predicated.

The obvious appeal of this understanding is that it evades the convoluted appeals that modern liberals continue to make to supernatural events despite the fact that these do not withstand historical scrutiny. It also avoids the dubious ontological status of claims of communication with a transcendent force that is by definition beyond grasp and beyond human experience. The difficulty of this understanding for the self-aware believer who adopts it consciously, is the problem of negotiating between his internal religious vocabulary and his more sophisticated awareness of its limitations. Can I remove my philosophical cap when praying and put it on again when theologizing? And can such flip-flopping guarantee the rigorous halakhic commitment that characterizes Orthodoxy and the traditional way of life? As God-seekers, we yearn for a sense that life points toward a greater goal, that we are seeking answers that are not merely our, and are larger than our own minds.

7) So how does such an understanding of revelation differ from a secular naturalistic view?
On surface, a functionalist approach to revelation may lend itself to reductionist allegations. A skeptic might easily contend that all that such talk amounts to is the imposition of a vacuous gloss of religious instrumentalism over what is ultimately no more than a secular naturalistic view. In experiential terms, however, there is a world of difference, beyond semantics, for the believer who adopts a religious vocabulary that grounds the meaning of revelation and its various interpretations on the assumption of an infinite metaphysical source.

For one thing, in the mind of such a believer, the realm of the possible is never exhausted. Within every naturalistic explanation lurks the potential for a further extension. In the words of Harav Kook ,) בקדושה אין גוזמא במציאותin holiness [i.e., God’s reality], there is no exaggeration). Today’s miracle is tomorrow’s reality, for in essence, כל המדומה ואפשר בציור – הוא באמת מצוי (all that is imaginable actually does exist). The existing natural order can never have the last word. Its ostensible rigidity and determinism can always lead to something else. On such a view, wonder can be preserved.

Secondly, the secular postmodernist who rejects metaphysics and the notion of universal truth altogether regards all choices as random selections from an arbitrary collection of isolated and unconnected viewpoints, whose relative worth can be understood or assessed only from within their own partial terms. In the words of Hazal, by contrast, conflicting opinions are all valid because “all of them are given from one shepherd”.

Thirdly, on this view, a functionalist criterion need not be regarded as irrelevant to truth. For Rav Kook, the fact that revelation produces a form of life that “works” in the sense of promoting human flourishing is precisely the proof of its validity, because it enables us to replicate the existence of a perfect and Infinite Being in finite terms that make existential sense for us.

8) To ask a question in the language of Marc Shapiro: Are there limits to Orthodox theology? How do we explain to people that your approach is “within” Orthodoxy?
Orthodox theology is a theology that supports the Orthodox way of life, relates to its traditions, and expresses itself in Orthodoxy’s distinctively halakhic terms. What is “in” or “out” is not something that can be decisively defined in accordance with some pre-determined knock-down drag out formula. The test is pragmatic – the degree of its effectiveness in providing a conceptual framework that facilitates identification with the community of the halakhically committed, its key concepts, attitudes and hierarchy of values. The forms that such a theology takes will vary in accordance with the cultural/historical circumstances, often allowing for the tenuous co-existence of several models side-by-side which bear differing degrees of mutual tolerance or acceptance. But the blurring of distinctions between the divine and the human in revelation surely does not lack respectable traditional precedents.

9) If authors such as diverse as Reb Zalman and Michael Fishbane are seeking to return us to God language because we have lost God language, then why are you moving us to naturalism? Is it because their audience is the US and yours is a religious Israel?

I am not promoting a move away from God language. However, just as the medieval rationalist philosophers, as epitomized by the Rambam, generated a radical about-face from the biblical concept of God that nurtures Jewish theology to the present day, Modern Orthodoxy, in the turn from modernist to postmodern notions of truth, may now be on the brink of a similarly radical revolution in Jewish thought, which involves imaging God as a force encompassing nature, rather than its antithesis.
Such a revolution does not obviate the importance of popular religion, and the traditional God-talk characterizing simple straightforward yirat shamayim. The vision of God as outside ourselves may be crucial to the experience of prayer as a dialogic activity. The notion of divine providence may be as necessary to the development of human morality and social responsibility as policing is to the preservation of law and order. And the image of a God who stands over and above creation may be invaluable for developing the sense of a metaphysical entity that is more than the projection of our subjective desires.

On the other hand, there may be justice in the claim that there is greater call for a more comprehensive and nuanced attunement to the sacred in Israel than in religious circles in the States. In the U.S., Modern Orthodox identity is closely bound up with organizational affiliations and adherence to a distinctly urban and middle-class life-style. Theology is not a great concern. Because Jewish life in Israel is all-encompassing, it is more difficult to cordon God off in the synagogue, and distance our understanding of Torah and our ritual practices from natural morality and broader intellectual, political, and spiritual interests.
Moreover, because much of Modern Orthodoxy here functions independently of the rabbinate, and includes a higher proportion of educated laity confident in their ability to make ideological judgments on their own, they have little compunction in drawing inspiration from less bourgeois thinkers that are not strictly identified with them denominationally. This includes figures both on their left (such as Heschel, Zalman Schechter and Rosenzweig) and on their right (such as R. Nachman of Bratzlav, and other bona fide representatives of Hassidic spiritualism).

Interview with James Kugel round 3- The Kingly Sanctuary

James Kugel has written a new book, The Kingly Sanctuary, a short volume explaining his views on the Bible, Oral tradition, and Judaism. While based on his earlier writings, he is clearly answering many of the questions he has received in the last few years from his troubled religious readers. The book is currently available only as an e-book; a hard-copy paperback is due out in another few weeks. It is a fun read and between that and this interview all your questions about Kugel’s views will be hopefully answered.


This interview is third in a series of interviews with Kugel on this blog. The first one is here and the second one is here. There seems to be a greater clarity and a much greater role for an independent act of faith in the commanding voice of revelation than the first interview or in the appendix to his 2007 book. Kugel seems to deny this change in his articulation, yet greater readers than I such as Marilynne Robinson also read his book as I did, far from the positions in this interview.

In short, here is as an introduction to this interview for those trying to follow the discussion. Prof James Kugel was a professor of Bible, Second Temple literature, and Midrash at Harvard and Bar Ilan universities (he’s now retired from both)., He started off by writing an award winning book on The Idea of Biblical Poetry, then began to concentrate on Judaism in the Second Temple period and, in particular, the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is not an archeologist or historian of the ancient Near East such as professors David Carr or Jacob Wright (Read their interviews to see the difference).

Kugel wrote another book (How to Read the Bible) in which he contrasts traditional Jewish and Christian understandings of the Bible, which were based on ancient interpretations and traditions not found in the text itself, with the modern critical approach, which seeks to uncover the original meaning of different parts of the Bible by studying them in terms of their original historical setting and incorporating everything that archaeologists, Assyriologists, Egyptologists, and others have discovered about the world of the Bible. He personally advocates the former approach as the only appropriate one within a Jewish framework. But many of his readers found his outsider’s presentation (in that he is not a Biblical source critic) of the critical method as cogent, convincing, and more attractive than Jewish midrash. Think of a believing philosophy professor who is better in his lectures at presenting atheism than belief.

In this current interview (and book), we have a clear confessional acceptance of revelation that is entirely separate from modern Biblical study. Now, the divine sound of revelation breaks through and commands the Jews to serve Him. Now, the Bible is a work of teaching us how to serve God, albeit as known through the historic text and its interpreters.

He wears at least four hats and keeps them quite separate. He can encapsulate the work of the Biblical historians, he can then change his hat and describe his own beliefs, he can be a critical scholar of Second Temple traditions, and he can explain the modern rise of Bible as literature. I see this interview as finally answering all our queries on Kugel’s Biblical positions. But now we are opening up a whole new set of questions on the nature of Judaism’s oral tradition. Are we back to discussing the theological positions of Shadal, Krochmal, and IH Weiss on the Oral Law?

As noted in the first interview, Kugel did not realize that not just high school students but much of the observant community including its leaders and authors lack the requisite exposure to historical thinking and critical studies. He also cannot begin to address those lacking a good humanities education. Before commenting on the blog, I invite my readers who fall into the latter category and think revelation can be proved to peruse the writings of Hume, Hobbs, and Kant on religion, or a good introduction to the philosophy of religion.

1) What is revelation? What do you mean when you say that Judaism without revelation is impossible because it virtually denies God ?

The term revelation refers to God appearing to, and/or speaking to, human beings, just as the Torah recounts. I’ve always believed these are real encounters, as I tried to show in an earlier book of mine, The God of Old (so anyone who wants a longer account of things should look there).

I know that there are people who wish to claim that the Torah, or all of Scripture, is simply a human creation, because God does not, or cannot, actually speak to human beings. To me this seems a contradiction in terms. Without a God who can, and did, speak to humans, Judaism makes no sense.

2) How much of the Torah was given at Sinai?

As most Jews know, there are two classical assertions about the Torah’s origins, known by the shorthand expressions Torah mi-Sinai (i.e., the Torah was given at a particular time and place, that is, at Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt) and Torah min ha-Shamayim, that the Torah was given to Israel by God. (The word Shamayim, “Heaven,” is a common way of saying “God” in rabbinic Hebrew, as in the phrase yir’at Shamayim, “the fear of God,” Malkhut Shamayim, “God’s kingship,” and similar expressions.)

I’ve never denied either of these formulations (I’ve always said that I’m not out to create a new form of Judaism, just trying to live with the old one). But I should point out that of these two classical assertions, only the second one—Torah min ha-Shamayim—is a weight-bearing member in the structure of Judaism (see thus its mention Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).

On this our rabbis were quite clear: anyone who says that the whole Torah came from God except for such-and-such a verse, claiming instead that it was introduced by Moses on his own authority—to such a person apply the words of Num 15:31, “For he has impugned the word of the Lord and violated His commandment” (b. Sanhedrin 99a).

In other words, the role of Moses in transmitting the Torah to Israel was simply that of a go-between: the fact that he was the go-between and not someone else had no bearing on the Torah’s content. The same of course is true of the place involved. Sinai’s actual location was so unimportant to our rabbis that no one today knows where it really was—we’re not even sure that it was located somewhere in the Sinai peninsula, which was so named because of a much later theory that that is where the mountain was.

The thing that does matter is that the Torah came from God, that is, Torah min ha-Shamayim. This is absolutely essential. At the same time, as many people have pointed out, this is a claim that is not subject to proof or refutation. The Torah is made of words, and words don’t come with little flags attached to them, identifying this word as of divine origin and that one as merely human.

To put it another way, Torah min ha-Shamayim is an article of faith. That is why no biblical scholar I have ever heard of has said that modern research proves that this or that part of the Bible did not come from God; this is just not subject to scientific verification. Either you believe it or you don’t. I do.

3) So is the Torah just Divine inspiration?

I don’t know what “just Divine inspiration” means. The Tanakh presents different pictures of how prophecy works. Most often, God is said to speak to prophets, but it is not clear how exactly this happens—or what happens next. Bil‘am was undeniably a prophet, but he seems to have turned whatever he heard from God into what the Torah calls meshalim, couplets apparently of his own composition that sound a lot like biblical poetry. God at times showed Jeremiah or other prophets images or pictures, and then asked them, “What do you see?” (Spinoza made much of this, sliding the Latin word imaginatio from “mental image” to “imagination” in our sense.)

On the other hand, Philo of Alexandria, an otherwise rational Alexandrian Jew of the first century, said that when God speaks to prophets, He takes over their minds completely, so that when they recover from their prophetic trance, they don’t know what they said or what it means.

As I said before, I believe that God speaks to human beings; but not being a prophet myself, I’m really not sure what this is like. Something tells me it’s not a matter of words traveling on sound waves through the air that separates God’s mouth from the prophet’s ear. If you object to this by reminding me that the Torah itself says that God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow” (Exod 33:11), I would say that this is an expression of what the Torah says elsewhere (Num 12:7-8, Deut 34:10-12), that there never was a prophet like Moses—no one else reached his degree of closeness to God. But I don’t think I would push this into being a literal description.

(People often ask in this connection about Maimonides’ eighth principle and his assertion that “we believe that the entire Torah presently in our possession is the one given to Moses our master…Moses was like a scribe writing from dictation.” Everyone in Maimonides’ day knew precisely what he was talking about, though it has subsequently been forgotten and his meaning distorted. What he had in mind was the Islamic doctrine of tahrif, “distortion,” namely, the claim that while Moses had gotten the true Torah, it had been distorted by Ezra the scribe, so that the Jews no longer had the correct text. This claim Maimonides rightly rejected; but he was also careful to say that it all came from God “in the manner that is metaphorically called ‘speaking.'” That is to say, it really wasn’t words moving on sound waves through the air.)

In fact, I would give the same answer that Albert Abbadi, the protagonist of my new book The Kingly Sanctuary, gives to Judd when the latter insists that the Torah must be factual history because it was “written by the finger of God” (Exod 31:18): “I see,” Abbadi says. “It is, whatever else it is, necessarily factual. Then perhaps you will explain to me in what sense God has a finger, as factually reported the verse you just cited.”

4) How is the Bible not history? If it is not history, then why in How to Read the Bible did you seem to treat it as history? Your readers are confused.

The Bible certainly recounts historical events, but merely relating history is never the point. Here I am hesitant to use any kind of analogy, especially a literary one, since I’ve been arguing against the appropriateness of such analogies since I wrote an article called “The Bible as Literature” more than thirty years ago. So I don’t think that the Tanakh is like Shakespeare.

But I would say this: Shakespeare’s Hamlet may be based on a certain obscure Danish ruler named “Amleth,” whose story was told in the medieval chronicle Deeds of the Danes by Saxo Grammaticus, but most people don’t read or see the play Hamlet in order to find out what really happened to the historical Amleth. Same with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the real events surrounding the assassination of a Roman tyrant by the same name in the first century BCE. It is in this sense, too, that the Bible is not merely relating history.

My readers are confused? I suppose some of them are. But the whole point of How to Read the Bible was to argue against the approach of modern biblical scholarship, with its systematic exclusion of the great exegetical traditions that have accompanied the Torah from the start, as well as against modern scholarship’s relentless focus instead on “what really happened,” that is, the historical events underlying biblical texts. In chapter after chapter, I contrasted what modern scholars have discovered about “what really happened” —much of it carried out with great insight and skill, let it be said—to the way in which the Bible had been read and understood by both Jews and Christians for centuries and centuries before.

These two approaches, I said, are fundamentally incompatible, and their incompatibility has put lots of modern Protestants in particular in a bind. In order to make this argument, of course, I had to give my readers an extended look at how modern scholarship works and what it has figured out; nor did I hide my admiration for some of its practitioners and what they have been able to do. But the incompatibility remains.

For Jews, I went on to say, the solution to this problem is clear, since it has always been in place: our Torah is not about “what really happened” and is not limited to the words on the page alone. Rather, ours is the Torah as it was explained and expounded by the rabbis of Talmud and midrash, a great, multiform text that combines the written words, the torah she-bikhtav, with the oral traditions explaining their meaning, the torah she-be‘al peh. It is as concerned with “what really happened” as Hamlet is with “Amleth.” Still confused? I can’t put it more clearly than that.

5) Wasn’t the Bible changed during Beit Sheni (the Second Temple Period)?

This is an important question, since the answer says something fundamental about the significance of divine revelation in Judaism. Interestingly, this is a subject on which modern biblical scholarship does have something to say.
Biblical scholars have demonstrated over the last two centuries that many books in the Tanakh have undergone a lengthy process of editing and supplementation. (Actually, part of this insight goes back far earlier: for example, the great medieval biblicist Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that the later chapters of the book of Isaiah, starting with chapter 40, did not come from the biblical prophet Isaiah, who lived in the eighth century BCE; they seem to presume a historical setting toward the end of the Babylonian exile, or perhaps still later.)

Thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now know that the book of Jeremiah circulated in at least two different editions in Second Temple times; the one that Jews translated into Greek in the late third or early second century BCE (the so-called Septuagint edition) is considerably shorter—by about eight chapters’ worth—than our current Hebrew text, and the order of the chapters is different from ours. Through careful examination, scholars have come to similar conclusions about quite a few books in the Bible. In fact, we can sometimes see this process of revision and supplementation continuing in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The obvious question that this raises is: How dare they? How dare someone come along and take a sacred text, one that had been preserved for centuries, and start fiddling with its contents?

If we could ask an ancient prophet or sage how he dared to change this or that piece of Scripture, I think I know some of the reasons he might give: “There was an apparent inconsistency between what it says here and what it says there—so I had to clarify things”; “Ordinary people wouldn’t understand this particular word/place-name/historical reference”; “I had to highlight what is really important in the prophet’s words for us nowadays”; or sometimes, “Our sages just don’t think that way anymore,” or “We don’t do that anymore.” But this in turn tells us something basic about the idea of divinely given Scripture in biblical times. It was divine, but not unalterable. I don’t believe there is any other way to construe the evidence.

6) But how can that be? Do you mean they just had a different idea of what was permitted, a different set of “rules of the game”?

This touches on what is really the main point. I think that there is, and always has been, something very basic in Judaism, so basic that we tend not to talk about it—it’s just obvious. But it deserves to be said here. The whole idea of Judaism (I suppose one has to be over the age of 60 to start off a sentence this way) is that we can come close to God by doing His bidding, that is, by keeping His commandments. This is what Judaism is all about—what is called in Hebrew avodat ha-Shem, the service of God. This may sound like some theological abstraction, but it underlies everything religious Jews do every day, from the birkhot ha-shahar that they say first thing in the morning until the keriyat Shema that they before going to sleep at night. Avodat ha-Shem is the whole purpose for which the Torah was given to Israel: to set out a detailed list of actions, great and small, to be done throughout our daily lives, 613 concrete do’s and don’ts that bring us closer to God.

But precisely because avodat ha-Shem is so important, our rabbis did not hesitate to add to those 613 commandments, fleshing out the details and sometimes promulgating what are called mitzvot de-rabbanan, commandments transmitted on the authority of the rabbis alone. This interest in fleshing things out is what stands behind every page of Gemara, and for that matter, every paragraph of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah or Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Arukh. And in the end it is why we are not fundamentalists or literalists: even the apparent sense of a verse in the Torah is sometimes expanded or modified in the interest of avodat ha-Shem, serving God more fully.

Of course, there have always been people who are bothered by this fact, and I understand why. They want to claim that everything comes from God—not only the Torah and the rest of Tanakh, but the entire Mishnah and Tosefta, all the give-and-take of the two Talmuds, all of midrash, the decisions of Geonim, everything that Rashi said, and so on, right down to the teshuvot of R. Moshe Feinstein ztz’’l.

I know where this desire to attribute everything to God comes from, but I think it’s quite wrong-headed: at some point ordinary human beings, or extraordinary ones, have to enter the process. In fact, this is a basic principle (a kelal gadol, I would say) in Judaism: what starts in heaven eventually has to come down to earth, or, as the rabbis said, Lo ba-shamayim hi, the Torah started out in heaven, but it is no longer up there. Even in the days of Hazal (the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud), the Torah was held to have been given over to human interpreters, human poskim, human authorities. And our rabbis were not bothered by this handoff; it was central to their whole view of Torah and avodat ha-Shem.

I mentioned one concrete example of this in my new book, The Kingly Sanctuary. Various sorts of calendars were used by Jews in Second Temple times. One was based on the Babylonian calendar, in which each month began with the new moon and ended 29 or 30 days later, at the end of the lunar cycle. Twelve lunar months make for 354 days per year, so this calendar required an extra month to be intercalated at irregular intervals. Exactly when each month began was determined by human observation, just as when that extra month was to be added was originally decided on an ad hoc basis by human beings, specifically by a board of experts learned in these matters.

But there was another Jewish calendar, used by the Dead Sea Scrolls community and others in Second Temple times. It was based on the solar year of 365 and a quarter days. Month had no connection with the lunar cycle (just as our September or January don’t). They were arbitrary units of 30 days apiece, making for 360 days over 12 months; another 5 or 6 days were interspersed and/or added in some other way to bring the total into equilibrium with the solar year.

Which calendar was better? Both could certainly claim to be the “right” calendar: after all, the Torah nowhere tells us which sort of calendar to use. (Supporters of the sun-based calendar actually claimed that the biblical chronology of the flood supported their case—see Genesis 7:11 and 8:3-4). In any case, one could certainly say about the sun-based calendar that, in a sense, it came straight from Heaven, since it required no human intermediaries: no two witnesses testifying that they saw the new moon, as in our Hebrew calendar, no intercalating a second Adar, no human intervention at all. So why not adopt it?

But Hazal actually gloried in the other calendar and our human role in determining the months. That is why we say on every Rosh Hodesh: “Blessed are You…who established the laws of Rosh Hodesh for them [Israel]; blessed are You who have sanctified Israel [that is, given us this sacred task of determining] the new months.” In fact, because we exercise this function, we also determine the days on which the festivals in various months will occur; we even determine the most sacred day in the year, the day on which people will fast on Yom Kippur (see on this Mishnah Rosh ha-Shanah 2:8-9). So here too: what starts in heaven ends up in human hands. I can’t think of a more striking example of this “handoff” from divine authority to human beings. And just as it is with the calendar, so is it with the other things I mentioned.

7) How do you feel about the website “” and its contributors, some of whom claim your book, How to Read the Bible, as their inspiration?

Not great. Of course I know some of the people involved in this website, and I have nothing against them personally. But my position is exactly the opposite of theirs: they seem to believe that there is some possible way to reconcile modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism, and I have always said that these two are irreconcilable. Traditional Judaism and modern scholarship have completely different approaches to the text, different notions of what it is for and why we study it—in fact, they don’t even agree on what the Torah is, since ours consists of both the written Torah, the torah she-bikhtav, and the orally transmitted torah she-be‘al peh. So trying to blend these two approaches inevitably results in apologetics and, I’m afraid, sometimes leads to plain intellectual dishonesty: “I’ll take this part of modern scholarship because it suits my purposes, but I’ll never mention that part, because it doesn’t.” The way to proceed is to recognize that our Torah is the Torah as explained by Hazal. Its meaning is not up for grabs or subject to new insights from archaeology or modern scholarship; it already has its definitive interpretation in Talmud and midrash. This is its meaning.

8) Tell me about your new book, The Kingly Sanctuary. Why did you write it?

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a kind of general introduction to Judaism called On Being a Jew. It took the form of a conversation between two Jews, an older, knowledgeable fellow (a Syrian banker named Albert Abbadi) and a younger man (Judd Lewis) who, although born a Jew, really knew nothing. By the end of the book Judd at least knows some of the basics of Judaism and decides to go to yeshiva in Israel to learn more.

I always had in mind to write a sequel, and that’s the new book. Judd has been learning in yeshiva for four years, and now he has a whole new agenda of questions to work through. One thing that pushed me to write this book now is all the emails and letters I’ve gotten since How to Read the Bible came out. Many of my correspondents are frum Jews who are troubled by modern biblical scholarship; in fact, some of them are yeshiva students themselves, and their questions go way beyond just modern biblical scholarship to things that are even more basic. So I thought it was time to go back to my old notes and bring out this next volume.

9) I saw in one place in their conversation that Judd tells Albert Abbadi that his explanations are doing more to tear down Orthodox Judaism than to build it up. I’m sure some in the Orthodox world would agree.

Well, Abbadi was a somewhat idiosyncratic expositor of Judaism, as he himself admitted. But the issues he talks about are real issues, even if some people would rather not hear about them. And he was also very smart—so I think his ideas are worth listening to.

10) You talk about him as if he were a real person.

He was, as I explain at the end of the book. And the young fellow, Judd, is in a lot of ways me at the age of 25 or so—though I’d like to think I wasn’t quite that dumb sometimes.

11) Your book begins by explaining the history of religion from primitive man to polytheism to monotheism; why did you start that way?

Isn’t that the way that the Rambam begins? Adam in the Garden of Eden didn’t need to have God explained to him: He was right there, and Adam heard “the sound of the Lord God walking in the Garden.” But beginning with Early Man was important for another reason. Human beings started off small; for them, the presence of God was overarching and overwhelming. People in the modern West have lost this sense of their own smallness, so we have to learn how to get there again. I think that’s what Abbadi was out to explain.

12) What’s the “kingly sanctuary” exactly? Why did you call the book that?

The central image in my earlier book, On Being a Jew, was the mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary that the Israelites carried around with them for forty years in the wilderness. The central image of this one is the great Jerusalem temple, built by King Solomon—hence, the Kingly Sanctuary. It represents a way of conceiving of Judaism that is different from the one associated with the mishkan.

Interview about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach with Natan Ophir

Most people who even briefly knew Reb Shlomo Carlebach understood that he had a multifarious life with many interesting turns. Natan Ophir (Offenbacher) has recently published a chronology of the events in the life of Reb Shlomo called Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy(Urim Press, 2013).garnered from an exhaustive range of interviews making it the first place to look in order to know about these twists and turns. The book is best on people, place, and dates and at many points reads like an almanac.

The book does not seek to push to understand his personality, mission, or contradictions of his persona. It mentions Reb Shlomo’s dark side but quickly moves on to other topics. The interviews are most thorough when dealing with Orthodox youth influenced by him in the 1950’s and least complete when discussing his connections to the Greenwich Village music scene or his connection to the Israeli world of the Chasidic Song Festival. It also does not interview bystanders or outsiders to gain context. One would not get from the book a sense of what it was like to live at the House of Love and Prayer or at Moshav Me’or Modiin. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a description of how his Torah changed over the decades or how the seven hour wedding ceremony was slowly created. Did I say that it reads like an almanac at many places?


In the interview below with the author, I tried to bring out some of the themes of the book in a more analytic way that in the book.

1) How did you come to write the book?
I first met Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach at his shul on Shemini Atzeret in 1969. My family had moved from Philadelphia to Manhattan, just two blocks away from the Carlebach Shul. At the time, I was a student at Yeshiva University and did not really appreciate what I perceived then as a “Hippie Rabbi”.

Only many years later, when my son became a Carlebach Hasid, set up a Carlebach band, and named his second son Hod Shlomo for Reb Shlomo, that I began to take a real interest in the life and legacy of Reb Shlomo. The more I researched the more I became fascinated by a Rabbi whose influence was quite remarkable.

If I was writing the book again I would write it a little differently. I would try to condense some of the events and the laudatory stories so that the book can read more like an objective academic biography. Maybe I would try and put these into an appendix with a list of places and dates where he appeared.

2) What was the most meaningful thing that you found out about Reb Shlomo?
I was surprised to discover the extent of influence of Reb Shlomo on so many different types of people from Jewish Renewal to haredim. Even just last week when I was visiting New York, I encountered people who vividly described how they had been close friends and some had even been “adopted” by Reb Shlomo.
If I were to narrow down Shlomo’s legacy to one word that would capsulize a key message of his approach to life it would be “Empathy”. Shlomo’s dynamo was “empathy”, a genuine attempt at appreciating other people and bringing out their best….Everyone is Best of the Best, Holy Brother, Holy Sister, holy everyone… If you ask how can that be possible when there is so much sin, evildoing and lowliness? The answer is in his Beshtian type stories of the Hidden Tzadik, the lamed vav zadikim and their leader who all disguise themselves.

3) Can you detail and explain his relationship with Michael Steinhardt?

Michael Steinhardt played a key role in financially supporting Reb Shlomo at three junctures – 1963, 1967 and 1971. Steinhardt graduated the Wharton School at the age of 19. In 1960, he went to a Carlebach concert and was “enthralled by the joy of Rabbi Carlebach’s singing”, and struck up a personal friendship. In 1963, he set up a company called The Shabbos Express to help Shlomo channel his talents in a professional business-like manner. However, Shlomo’s new managers were unable to dictate new habits and the company folded.

When the Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967, there was a news blackout from Israel. Arab sources claimed that the Israeli Air Force had been destroyed, the oil reserves in Haifa were on fire, and Arab forces were outside of Tel Aviv. At an impromptu rally at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza on June 6, 1967, Reb Shlomo got up on a truck, led the crowd in a mournful El Maleh Rahamim, and then broke down in tears. Steinhardt:

I’ll never forget his crying on that June night. After the rally was over, I went to him, and I asked what I can do for you. He said I want to go to Israel. So I paid for his ticket. Somehow, he managed to get on the next flight and soon was at the Kotel and visiting the wounded in the hospitals.

Michael became a supporter of the Carlebach Shul. Each year, from 1967 through 1971, he would place a full page ad in the annual Kehillath Jacob Synagogue High Holiday bulletin.

Michael recalled how his first date with Judith (his wife to be) took place at the home of Reb Shlomo (apparently on motzei Yom Kippur, 1967). Half a year later, Reb Shlomo was one of the two officiating Rabbis at their wedding.

Finally, in 1971, Michael was one of three benefactors who committed to pay the monthly mortgage to finance the purchase of the second House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco.

4. How did Shlomo change between the decades?
1950-1954 Chabad Meshulach: Beginning December 10, 1949, Shlomo becomes an outreach emissary for Chabad. After the RaYaTZ dies on January 28, 1950, he works on behalf of the 7th Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel, whom he deeply admired. Later, he was to portray himself as having been the Rebbe’s “right hand man”. In 1951, he began learning English in a Columbia University program and in 1954 he receives rabbinic ordination from R. Yitzhak Hutner. By 1955, he had left Chabad and embarked upon his own unique path.

1955–1959: a guitar playing Orthodox Rabbi: In May 1954 Shlomo meets David Ross, producer of The Dybbuk, and is hired as Hasidic advisor for the play where the rehearsals take place in Greenwich Village. He sees how one of the actors uses his guitar and decides to try it himself. He studies guitar with Anita Sheer who transcribes his songs and encourages him to perform. Shlomo begins to perform at clubs in the Village and connects to folk singers such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Peter Yarrow, and Phil Ochs. In 1956–1957, he serves as a weekend Rabbi in Dorothy, Atlantic County, New Jersey and begins to try out his musical compositions. He meets with religious youth in Brooklyn basements and entertains in the summers in Catskills hotels and soon has a devoted following of young religious students who encourage him to develop a professional musical career and help him set up a record company. The formative year towards producing a record is when he works as a youth director at Congregation Tpheris Israel, St. Louis, Missouri (Oct. 1958–June 1959). The youth help him in selecting the songs which are then recorded on his first record. Soon, Reb Shlomo establishes his reputation as the first Orthodox guitar playing Rabbi.

1959–1966: Shlomo’s musical career takes off with five LPs and six European Trips
with his first two LP records, June 1959, Songs of My Soul, produced by Zimra, Shlomo’s record company and Sing My Heart in 1960. His first trip to Israel was in August 1959.
In 1963, his third LP, At the Village Gate is produced by Vanguard Records, and marks the first time that a religious Jewish artist produces an album with a major American record company. By 1964, this was his eighth visit to Israel. His most famous song, “Am Yisrael Chai,” was created in April 1965 as the anthem for the SSSJ – Student Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. In 1965, he produces his fourth LP, In the Palace of the King, and his fifth LP, Wake Up World. By 1965, he had been on six trips around the world entertaining from Rotterdam to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Rome.

1966-1968 Rabbi for the Hippie Counter-Culture Generation
Several events in 1966-1968 wrought new directions in Shlomo’s life. On the July 4th weekend of 1966 at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, Shlomo discovered his calling in life as the only Orthodox Rabbi who could effectively reach out to a hippie generation. At the outbreak of the Six Day War in June 1967, he flew to Israel to be with the soldiers. A year later, his record entitled I Heard the Wall Singing added to the post-war fervency. The death of his father on December 23, 1967 created a void and Shlomo was expected to assume Rabbinical leadership of his father’s shul, Kehillath Jacob. Although, he did lead the services regularly on the High Holidays, it was not easy for him to be anything like a full time Rabbi at the Manhattan shul when other challenges were beckoning. In May 1968, he established the first House of Love and Prayer (HLP) and created a Jewish commune at the peak of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture in San Francisco.

1968-1979 Maturation of an outreach career
In mid-life, ages 43-54, Shlomo had a major impact on hundreds of close followers and on several communities. His 1972 marriage to Neila and the birth of his two daughters created some basic form of family life in Manhattan and then by 1978 in Toronto. However, Reb Shlomo was not a person who could be limited, and he continued traveling around the world extensively.

1980–1994, Last Years
The year 1980 was a difficult time period for Reb Shlomo, and the decade of the 1980s had its ups and downs. However, outstanding peak experiences include his trips in to Poland (January, 1-10, 1989 and June 1992) and to the Soviet Union (September 7–27, 1989). In these trips, not only did he reach out to Jews, but to thousands of non-Jews as well, and his post Holocaust message of forgiveness and love was most extraordinary. Shlomo’s last concert tour was in October 11-18, 1994 in England. He suffered his fatal heart attack in LaGuardia Airport on October 20, 1994.

5) Can you touch on why much of Shlomo’s Torah had Holocaust themes?
Reb Shlomo responded to the Holocaust by stressing how every individual can become God’s partner in fixing the world and replace anger with love and joy: “After the Holocaust it’s so easy to be angry at the world, and it’s so easy to condemn the world. But we have to continue to love the world. The most important thing today every person has to do is to cleanse their hearts from anger, and fill the heart with a lot of joy” In the concert hall in Bielsko Biala, Poland, in 1989, Reb Shlomo asked how can we “repair the hate of the past?” His answer: “Only by filling ourselves with absolute and complete love and joy.”
Shlomo explained his decision to leave Lakewood yeshiva in order to devote himself to a Chabad outreach mission to save the lost Jewish souls and make up for all those who perished in the Holocaust. In one of Reb Shlomo’s most famous stories, “The last Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto”, the child asks a fifth question, “Will we be alive next year and make a Seder?” The father replies, “I do not know if you or I will be alive next year to make a Seder. but somehow, somewhere in this world, there will be a Jew who will remain alive, and that Jew will be making a Seder.” Shlomo adds: we are all “the remaining Jew”, and each Seder is our own individual gift to that brave father who gave over to his son the faith that Od Avinu Chai, Am Yisrael Chai.

This theme of historical perpetuity and replacement was pronounced in February, 1971, when Reb Shlomo promised: “My theory is that six million Jews who died in the Holocaust have come back as today’s young people. Let’s not lose them again”.
Moshe Waldoks reflected recently: “I was a 10-year old boy in 1959 when Shlomo came to my yeshiva in Brooklyn, the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway. Reb Shlomo Carlebach was important because he gave us permission to sing after the Shoah. The Shoah was still very raw and it was Shlomo who taught us to sing in renewed joyous Hasidic melody”. Similarly, Eli Schlossberg was 9 years old in 1959 was later to reminisce how Shlomo restarted musical simcha after the Holocaust – “Klal Yisrael had stopped singing, and now Shlomo was teaching our youth how to sing once again”.

Some of Shlomo’s tunes reflect his post Holocaust response. “Gam Ki Elech” (Psalms 23:4) – “Even as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…” was first sung in the wake of the Yom Kippur war. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau describes how he had often hosted R. Shlomo in Tel Aviv, and Shlomo once said to him: “Rav Yisrael, you are a child of the Holocaust. I want to sing a special tune for you,” and then he composed a melody Gam Ki Elech. Following that, Shlomo’s album, The Children of Jewish Song Sing Ani Maamin, was released in 1975.

In his eulogy at the Carlebach Shul before Shlomo’s burial, Moshe Rothkopf described how R. Shlomo would warmly greet everyone who came to his shul because “he felt that after the Holocaust every Yid is a miracle. He wanted us to go out and hug and kiss every miracle.”

6) What did you find about the sexual allegations?
There are several stories circulating, which, if true, would indicate that Shlomo acted ‘inappropriately’. However, the challenge is to find concrete evidence for ‘sexual abuse’. One obstacle is that the negative stories are reported anonymously making them difficult to verify. Secondly, events of a few decades ago are problematic to reconstruct based on oral memories.

A decade and a half have passed since the allegations were first publicized in the Lilith magazine. Since then, strangely enough, no one has published any substantially verified new material. If the stories were indeed true, one would expect that someone would be willing to present certifiable evidence.

(The answer to question 6 does not reflect the opinion of this blog and should be taken as solely reflecting Ophir’s view.)

7) It seems his best years according to your book were his 1957-1961 years of visiting shuls, NCSY, summer camps. Can you describe that period for shlomo and for his audience?

I don’t know if ‘best years’ is a good definition, but yes, there was something magical and promising about 1957-1959 when he began choosing the songs, and his fans encouraged him to prepare his first record. His audience was a natural fit – mostly modern Orthodox. Shlomo’s own personal outreach then was done through his organization T.S.G.G (pronounced TASGIG), an acronym for Taste And See God Is Good based on Psalms 34:9. Thus, for example, on December 25, 1957, T.S.G.G. organized a “Chanukah Festival” at Riverside Plaza Hotel, near the Carlebach Shul, and on March 16, 1958, a “Purim Song Festival” at Hotel Diplomat on W43rd Street. Here Shlomo was accompanied by a 5 man band, one of whom was Kalman Kinnory. It was Kinnory as a recording engineer who ensured that Shlomo record his first two songs professionally, Haneshama Lach in 1958 and Borchi Nafshi in 1959.

8) You paint Shlomo as sad and an outcast in the 1980’s. Why?
In 1980, at age 55, his life changed. His mother died and he became divorced. Suddenly, he seemed rather alone. His two little daughters were with their mother in Toronto most of the time. It was a sad time when idealistic concepts of family life seemed to have dissipated. And he was having various health issues from heart problems to serious back aches.

I don’t think that he was more of an ‘outcast’ in 1980 than in earlier times, but he was definitely now out in the world without the parental base that had played such an essential role until then. I do know that the “loneliness” had its impact in those years.

9) Much of Shlomo’s message was about an inner self or imagining all is good and healed. Do you have any thoughts on the psychology of that message for Shlomo?

Shlomo felt that the emotions that you have mentioned (love, joy, and healing) were being unfairly trumped by proste frumkeit, and his message took on a utopian vision of a world that would be healed and filled with empathy and brotherhood. This was pronounced with fervour in his encounters with the New Age Movements. In Vancouver at the World Symposium for Humanity, November 27–December 4, 1976, Shlomo reinterprets the story of Cain’s murder of Abel, and admits that throughout history, and especially in the Holocaust, the Cains of the world murdered their brothers Abel. But in the future, there will be a resurrection and the brothers will be reconciled. The audience composed of various New Age Movements all joined with Shlomo swaying in a trance-like state of ecstasy and fraternity.

Shlomo was keenly aware of the pain and suffering that he encountered but his message of how we can all work together to bring the Great Day when all of creation will sing in harmony was not only a product of the New Age idealism but it was also a reworking of Messianic themes inherent within Judaism. It is no coincidence that his reaction to the 1967 miraculous victory and imminent sight of Divine Redemption coincided with his view that the spiritual question of the holy hippelach of the late 1960s was part of a Divine Plan to soon fulfil the Messianic vision. In tune with the counterculture of the late 1960s, Shlomo was very critical of the Establishment and accused them of emphasizing a rote practice and lacking true spirituality, love and joy.

Shlomo projected an ideal future world within easy reach. In that he was not only following Jewish messianic ideas and Hasidic interpretations, but also he was cognizant of the utopian New Age ideas of gurus and swamis such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Satchidananda and Timothy Leary. Shlomo however, sang “the whole world is waiting to sing a song of Shabbos”.

Shlomo described the hippies as a new generation of young people who hear the Divine melody but “don’t know the words.” Shlomo’s thesis was that the world would be fixed when the older generation listens to the hippies’ melody, and simultaneously “these inspired young people” learn some of the traditional words.