Monthly Archives: February 2015

Meditation in the Mir: The Teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yurovitch

A friend called my attention to a recent work called Arvas Nachal containing the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yurevitch z”l (d. 2003), written by his son based on the later’s shiurim. Within the larger work is a small pamphlet containing the first few chapters of a  meditation manual is called “Darkei HaHasagah” and consists of three with a promise of more to come. Yurovitch’s son edited the volume and teaches a small group in Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem who calls themselves “Vitebskers.” In short, the book is snippets of Abulafian meditation presented like Western Vipassna breathing meditation.  (This post will change if people provide more information or correct the information.)


Are they Jew-Bus (Buddhist Jews) in Mir?  Not Exactly.

Rav Yurevitch was a prominent Haredi leader, a judge (dayan), a member of Toldos Aharon community and was head of the Ohel Menachem  Vitebsk community. He was teaching the Hasidism of the Magid of Mezeritch and Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and later moved on to teaching the writings of Rav Nachman of Breslov.

Yurevitch was under the tutelage of Rav Osher Freund (1910-2003), an old yishv Karliner who established many of the community charity projects in Jerusalem including Yad Ezra discount grocery stores in 1952 and discount s wedding halls. But he was also a charismatic leader to many spiritualists, ecstatics, and pietists.

This is anything but Jew-Bu land. But the story continues.

Rav Yurevitch was close friends with Haredi publisher Amnon Gross who in the last decades publishes all the works of Abraham Abulafia and has been giving lectures in the Haredi world on the techniques. Gross is one of the cases that shows the influence of the academic world, specifically the work of Moshe Idel, on the Haredi world. Gross through his new editions almost single-handedly through his distribution of the works undid the 750  year condemnation of Abulafia by Rashba and others.

In a eulogistic blog post, Gross laments over the loss of his study partner Yurevitch with whom he had studied Abulafia together for fifteen years.  Gross continues his tribute by saying that he always stated that Abulafia should not be studied by groups, either large or small and only to be studied by individual though the books. This amount to a limited esotericism but it also inadvertently means that Abulafia should be studies without any direct tradition or lineage. Gross mentions nevertheless that he had a group of five men who studied with him as the remainder of an original group of thirty men and women. Gross offers lectures on the web and Yurovitch himself had an organization to spreading these teachings.

OK, so we have Abulafia in Mir, but how do we get to Vipassna? How could they even know about it?

The connection is that Yurevitch was the Meah Shearim expert in alternative medicine, homeopathy, natural cures, herbalist, and natural psychological cures. Almost any contemporary natural health book in the last decades, has basic meditation for health instructions. Yurevitch probably obtained his knowledge from those works. Personally, I would like to see his medical halakhah  as an alternative to the American clinical approach.

Kunres Derekh Hasagah based on shiurim of Rabbi Avraham Yurovitch

The pamphlet has three chapters – seems to be part of a bigger book

The tract opens with its purpose “In which we will explain practical exercises by which means a person can attain the aspect of nevuah, which is spiritual seeing.”

In the first chapter, he presents the ascent to Pardes of tractate Hagigah and the explanations of the heikhalot by Hai Gaon as live techniques for the twenty-first century.

The majority is the first chapter contains the following ideas.

One of the main aims of spiritual accomplishment is for the spiritual to master the physical. One needs to know that there are not two separate components, the material and the the spirit, but that they are one.  All  material that we see is just spirit that descended until it was condensed and materialized…

Any material object is spiritual at its source, meaning that even now it is spiritual too, but just in our physical eyes we view it as material. However, if people look with the eyes of their mind, then even in the present they will see things in a spiritual way… while dealing with material things. For instance with food and clothes, a person’s task is to elevate them from the physical to the spiritual.  Every action in this world is spiritual. A person’s worship in this world is to elevate the physical to the spiritual.

One receives the spiritual influx in two ways- clothed in the material that   requires one to do a physical act like eating  in order to awaken his soul to use the sparks as a key to the larger and much wider spiritual channels. [The second way is ] without any enclothment because he know how to awaken his soul to directly receive a spiritual influx

The second chapter is on purity and to know that we have two divine souls Tzelem Elokim and Tzelem YKVK – grasping the Divine is through the latter higher one.

The third chapter is the start of the practice. It contains an opening on the nature of practice and then a number of basics.

There are seven colors and depending on the color one visualizes it corresponds to that level of sparks that one is raising. – black, red, gold, green, blue, silver and white. You should practice visualizing the colors

These colors are not Cordovero but David Ben Yehudah haHasid (circa 1310) and first published by Moshe Idel.

The chapter refers to Life of the World to Come (Hayai Olam Haba) by Abulafia, which the editor promises will be discussed further in later chapters. But first we read:

Therefore at the time of the exercise… one should sit at the back of the chair with a straight back and your face straight forward and legs toward each other…hands placed cupped up on thighs.

One starts the practice of breathing… with inhales and exhales through the mouth without voice or vapor. One should make sure not to move the body during breathing. The breathing should be in the manner that empties all of the air in the lungs until one feels that there is no anymore air to live. Then take one long and full breath as much as one is able and then exhale. At the start of the practice one should do this between five to ten times breathes by mouth, or else one would get vertigo, afterwards one can do more.  Through this the spiritual power enters more than usually needed to move the physical…  for more see the Sulam Aliyah (by Albotini, student of Abulafia).

This is where it becomes an interesting document of the influence of Vipassana on his approach. First, the directions of how to sit in the first paragraph are nowhere to be found in Jewish literature.

Second,  in no place in Jewish literature do we find directions on how to breathe like “empty your lungs” but it is found as lesson one in any yoga or vipassana teaching on breathing.

Third, here we now have breathing as an end itself, its own form of mediation.  Compare it to the original of Abulafia’s Light of the Intellect below:

When you begin to recite the letter aleph in all its vowelizations pronounced by you, since aleph points to the secret of unity, do not lengthen its recitation except according to the measure of one breath. You cannot stop anytime ever during that breath until you have completed its pronunciation. Lengthen that special breath according to your power to sustain one breath as much as you can lengthen it. And chant the aleph, and every letter you recite, with terror, awe and fear, coupled with the gladness of the soul in its comprehension which is great.

Do not differentiate between the breath of the aleph and the breath of the letter that cleaves to it, apart from one short or long breath. But between the letter of the Name and between the aleph in the straights or between the aleph and the letter of the Name in the inversions you can breathe two breaths only without pronunciation, no more. After completing every row you are permitted to breathe five breaths only, no more, but you can choose to breathe less than five breaths. If you changed or mistook a row in this order, return to the head of that row until you say it correctly.

In Abulafia’s original, the breathing is the length of each pronounced letter-vowel pairing and the goal is to lengthen the breath to hold each letter-vowel pair. One then takes five breaths at the end of a row of vowels in order to continue with the permutation of the letters. In Yurovitch’s meditation, the five breaths are an end in themselves.

In Abulafia’s Hayei Olam HaBa:

And this will all accrue to you after you throw the tablet and stylus from between your fingers or if they fall by themselves due to the plenitude of your thoughts and the multiplicity of your happiness. And know that as much as the honorable intellectual abundance will be strong with you, so much so will your external and internal organs weaken, and your whole body will be engulfed in a very strong upheaval.

Abulafia has a weakening and vertigo from the influx due to the full performance of the permutations, Yurovitch warns against vertigo after only five breaths.

In fifty years, Yurovitch’s instructions will be seen as the true Jewish tradition of breathing and meditating. A new ancient tradition, a reliable mesorah of the past is being constructed. In the meantime,  a younger generation is being raised on these practices.

H/T to Solitude for the sefer and h/t for info to raziel abulafia.

As I said, I will correct this with more or better information. If you are new here, then please read rules for comments.

Interview with Prof Moulie Vidas

Talmudic source criticism goes back to the nineteenth century philological method of reading texts where history, linguistics, and literary structure hold clues to a texts meaning. For Americans, Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise immortalized the issues around layering the Talmudic text by linguistic strata, solving difficult passages by looking at variant manuscripts, and even reading Tannaic texts outside of their Talmudic context. For some, these methods are simply handmaidens useful for a clearer understanding of the Talmud, while for the specialists in the academy these topics are their prime focus. Once the world of academic Talmud was limited to Rabbinical seminaries and taught by those whose erudition and pedigree was identical with that of Rosh Yeshiva. Now, the study of the Talmud has fully entered the academy and is open to all similar to the study of other texts of antiquity such as those in Greek, Latin, Coptic, or Syriac.


The new holder of the chair in Talmud at Princeton University is Moulie Vidas who graduated Princeton and after a brief stint at UC Davis returned to join the Princeton faculty in 2012. In an article celebrating his arrival in California, the local paper did a laudatory feature on him. “Here’s a guy, a secular Israeli, who studied Talmud at Tel Aviv University,” said fellow U.C. Davis faculty member David Biale, “and within a very short time came to master something that was considered only possible to people who went to yeshiva their whole lives.” Though the Tel Aviv native never set foot in a yeshiva as a youth, he says his interest in Talmud stemmed from a desire to know “what the other side thinks. When I got to actually study these texts, the brilliance of the Talmud, the great erudition, attracted me to it. “ Continuing his praise of Vidas, “He’s an incredibly charming, very intellectually curious, open-minded person, “ Biale said. “I think students are going to love him.”

His recent book, Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud, (Princeton University Press, 2014) starts a new research agenda for Talmudic source criticism. For the entire Introduction- see here.

The regnant approach to Talmudic source criticism is that there is a pristine early Amoraic layer in the Talmud and the later layer was an addition that changed the earlier material, making the discussion more abstract, or creating dialectics and justifications.  This approach is usually associated with Shamma Freidman and David Weiss-Halivni who focus on the modern construct called the Stammaim. Both Friedman and Weiss-Halivni seek to restore the earlier strata since it represent a reliable corpus of traditions, unlike the conjectures of the later “give and take.” Some rabbis, for example within the Kibbutz Hadati movement, will occasionally advocate for one of these excavated earlier positions as the true opinion of the Oral law.

In contrast, Vidas assumes that the entire Talmudic argument, the entire sugya is one unit. A somewhat similar literary approach was taught by Abraham Weiss at YU and by Louis Jacobs in his books on the Talmudic Argument. However, Vidas’ innovation is that the texts that seem like earlier texts are literary devices by the later era to create a sense of distance from themselves and the allowing for a creative opening. For him, demarcating opinions as traditional “can be used to invoke discontinuity” by fossilizing them as the past. He cites the Continental theorist Agamben, that quotations in a text do not transmit as much as distance; “the quotation at once… invests it with an alienating power.” The Talmud is no longer a conservative repository of traditions, rather a literary “self-conception of its creators.” There is no earlier opinion, just a later text presenting the topic as if there was a later and earlier layer.

Vidas accepts the views stated by others that the Bavli was about dialectic, analysis, and abstraction, portraying itself as innovative and creative against those who are too conservative. All their innovations were to be considers as from Sinai. Who were the conservative alternatives? The Tannaim- the repeaters- were those who made the goal to consist entirely of memorization, transmission and recitation. Vidas conjectures that they did not have the secondary role of textual preservation assigned to them by the creative Amoraim, rather they were a competing and antagonistic group that advocated recitation as its own goal. Based on this dichotomy, Vidas situates the Heikhalot literature with their emphasis on correct memorization and recitation as allied or even associated  with the tanaim. (Compare David J. Halperin, who situated the Heikhalot as outside of Rabbinic Judiasm entirely). The conclusion to Vidas’ book offered an illuminating contrast of the Geonim who stressed the continuity of the Oral law, probably due to Islamic era concerns. Those parts of Orthodoxy which echo with the concept of continuity,  may not see the Talmud for its creative analysis.

As noted three years ago on the Talmud blog by those in the field, the specialization of rabbinic texts is no longer a provincial Rabbinic or Talmudist position, rather one is now a specialist in Judaism in late antiquity or Judaism in the Greco-Roman world.  (Job seekers take note.) Saul Lieberman was proud that he never visited Columbia’s Library since he limited his sights to an internal perspective, in contrast during the same years E. R. Goodenough wrote about a Jewish-Pagan synthesis without having to cite Talmud. Now, Talmud is integrated with the wider historical context, hence Vidas has important comparisons and contrasts between the Talmud’s tension of recitation vs dialectics with those of Syriac Christians and Zoroastrians. In recent work, Vidas has written on priestly ritual law in comparative perspective and has edited a volume on ways of knowing in late antiquity.

Vidas’ work has already been subject to two online reviews. One at the Talmud blog here (link has been fixed)and one by Raphael Magarik here. In his review, Magarik writes that the book has two problems.

First, by examining closely the formal operation of [only] several substantial sugyot, Vidas wants to revise a picture of editorial activity that was built, by scholars like David Weiss Halivni, on hundreds, if not thousands, of such analyses… The book’s first half has to be read as a scholarly program. Significant future analysis is needed.

Vidas suggests we instead, at least sometimes, read sugyot as crafted, intentional wholes and ask: what literary effects did the editors intend? But such effects are culturally conditioned, and sometimes Vidas assumes that the irony or subversion a modern reader detects necessarily reflects authorial intention. To give one example, when Vidas asserts that punning associations between place names and problematic genealogical categories “seems in this context to be a parody of the arbitrariness of the production of genealogical stratification,” he implicitly assumes the rabbis saw homophones as arbitrary coincidences. But the rabbis, who sometimes regard language as quasi-magical, may have been completely serious about the significance of puns.

Vidas is currently working on a monograph on the emergence of Talmudic culture in Roman Palestine.

  1. How does the Bavli show its alterity, its past making? How does it show its distancization from earlier sources?

The first half of the book argues that, while earlier scholarship has been correct in emphasizing how the Talmud projects continuity with its sources, there are pervasive stylistic features of the Talmud that are used, like air quotes, to mark (or produce – more on this later on) these sources’ alterity. Consider how we use quotation marks in writing or air quotes in oral communication – we do that to mark a certain distance between ourselves and what we are quoting.

The most important of those features is the layered structure, the division between “sources” and “interpretation” or “narration.” The anonymous narrating layer of the Talmud that we encounter on almost every page guides us through the different “sources,” introducing them and commenting on them and constructing various relationships among them. Often, we can very easily distinguish this voice and its sources because of stylistic features: the narration and commentary are almost always in Aramaic whereas the sources are almost always in Hebrew; and sources are introduced with citation terms, whether they are attributed (“Rabbi X says”) or anonymous sources (“It was recited…”).

These features are not necessary. Both types of materials, for example, could have been expressed in the same language. This is especially evident when the interpretation is interpolated or added into a statement – in those cases, the choice to express the interpretation in Aramaic marks off (at least ostensibly) the original source from the later interpretation.

The Talmud could have (and sometimes does) re-formulate the statement in a way that does not indicate this distance. And indeed, in Tannaitic sources, that was probably the more common way to adapt rabbinic traditions – we can see this when we compare the Mishnah and Tosefta for example. My basic question was why the Talmud’s creators chose not to do this but rather keep sources and interpretations separate.

  1. How is the Bavli not simply chronology but literary device?

Some scholars might read what I just said and say: well, sure, but this distance is simply a result of how the Bavli came into being. Both Halivni and Friedman (to different degrees and in different ways) conceive of the layered structure as reflecting stages in the formation of the text and its sources. First, they say, the sources were produced; then, later rabbis came and weaved a narrative and interpretation around these sources. To the extent that we can observe a distance, then, it is simply because there actually was chronological distance between the sources and those who wrote the interpretation; and furthermore – these scholars suggest, the structure of the Talmud was meant to downplay, bridge, or even hide this distance.

The second chapter of Tradition suggests that this distance is not always a reflection of the text’s history. Rather, it is a feature of the text’s self-representation, which may sometimes be the result of a literary construction. The chapter offers two instances in the Bavli in which, I think, the most plausible way to account for the layered structure is that it was imposed on the passage at a later stage. When we compare these Bavli passages to what is likely their earlier versions in the Yerushalmi, we can see that in the Bavli there is a move towards a layered structure: narrating and discursive functions which in the Yerushalmi are taken on by attributed statements are taken in the Bavli by the anonymous layer. That is, the texts went through a re-organization to fit the pattern of representation in which sources are attributed whereas interpretation and discussion is anonymous. This produces, rather than simply represents, the distance between sources and interpretation.

I think there are good reasons to think that this process happened often. But regardless of their representative value, these cases allow us to re-think the layered structure. They allow us to think of this structure not as an inevitable consequence of rabbinic transmission, but as something that could be desired, a literary device that had an important function for those who used it.

In a nutshell, my claim is that in a culture that prized both transmission and innovation, the layered structure epitomized both. By distinguishing between what is transmitted and what is innovated, it allowed those who presented lectures in the academy to model for their students the process of innovation instead of just showing them the conclusion of that process; and it also allowed them to claim both kinds of authority – they presented themselves both as faithful transmitters of tradition from the past as well as sophisticated, innovative interpreters of these traditions.

  1. How are the Heikhalot and magical circles connected to the Mishnaic recitation way of thinking?

Hekhalot and non-Jewish sources give us a critical perspective on what the Talmudists were doing with tradition because, I think, they show us what other options were available for them at the time – what  the Talmudists chose not to practice, and in fact what they chose to argue against.

The argument in the book is that one way the “masters of talmud” defined themselves was to think of what they were doing as different from the reciters – the tanna’im or “masters of mishnah.” Note, in this context, tanna’im does not mean the sages of the Tannaitic period and the Mishnah, but rather those who the focused on the recitation and transmission of rabbinic traditions. Several Talmudic passages take a fairly negative attitude towards these reciters.

Following these Talmudic passages, traditional as well as academic scholars have portrayed these reciters as the mindless teaching assistants of the real scholars. My argument is that this understanding of the reciters is the result of ideological construction, and that what we see in the Talmud is one side of a debate about how to approach rabbinic tradition.

Some of the sages of the period prized exacting analysis of rabbinic tradition that resulted in innovative commentary, while others focused on ritual recitation of the texts that bridged the gap with the past.

The problem, however, is that a reading of Talmudic passages, even if it is very critical, gets us only so far – you can often reconstruct the democrat’s view from a republican’s, but it is far better if you have the republican’s speech itself.

This is where the Hekhalot and magical texts come into the picture. What I think we can see in them is something like the view that the Talmud does battle with – they emphasize a ritual approach to recitation of tradition, they de-emphasize critical analysis, and they present a rich discourse of memorization and retention that sees in these activities a goal in themselves and indeed likens them to the heavenly liturgy.

4. How is this similar to Zoroastrian, Syriac Christian, and Mishnah?

The Zoroastrian and Syriac Christian materials I used, in part, for a similar purpose – to show that, even though the Talmud often presents recitation as simply an aid to intellectual study, in those (and other Jewish) sources, recitation is a ritual in which intellectual analysis is far from the most important component. Furthermore, we can see that both in the Zoroastrian tradition and in the Christian tradition there were similar – but very far from identical – debates about the relationship between analysis and ritual recitation. What may seem at first as a very internal Jewish debate was one inflection of a broader conversation in the period.

5. What is the approach of the Geonim? How has that led later readers to see the Talmud through Geonic lens?

There were a number of developments in the Geonic period that I think really changed the way in which the Talmud and rabbinic tradition were understood. The most important is of course that the Talmud gradually became a fixed text early in this period – so talmud no longer meant an analytical engagement with rabbinic traditions but a study of a particular text, the Talmud.

Geonic literature – especially the influential sources after the Karaites – promoted understandings of rabbinic tradition that emphasized continuity and traditionalism. The Geonim did not, of course, invented these positions out of nothing – they had strong sources in the rabbinic corpus. But they chose to deemphasize other sources, and occasionally they reverse the tone and value of talmudic sugyot on the subject. Scholars such as Jay Harris have already shown that the Geonim understood midrash to be supportive of existing traditions rather than creative of new ones, in contrast with the frequent representations of Midrash as creative in rabbinic sources.

Let me give one example in which R. Sherira’s approach can be contrasted with the Talmud’s.

I mentioned earlier how the Talmud is often negative towards tanna’im, and scholars have shown that at least some layers in the Talmud prefer the innovation-oriented scholar to the retention-oriented scholars.

In tractate Sotah, Rav Nahman mocks the reciter who “does not know” what he recites, and the passage culminates in harsh words against such retention-oriented scholars who dare to issue legal instructions.

Sherira takes almost completely the opposite approach. He acknowledges the importance of penetrating dialectical study, but then immediately goes on a long digression that asserts, unambiguously, the preference for conversation. Even though the retention-oriented scholars “does not know” how to extract logical implications, the Ga’on explains, he is more apt than the innovation-inclined scholar to issue legal instructions.


6. What does Talmud study offer the secular student?

Part of what I think the Talmud can teach us is the limited value of questions about the value or purpose of learning. Of course, in some sense, such questions are important, and one can certainly ask them about the Talmud, and the answers will differ according to context.

The Talmud offers students of late antiquity a very significant testimony of various aspects of the period from dinner formalities through legal thinking through mythology – so significant in part because of its sheer size (I think it is the largest single document from the period, if it can be thought of as a single document).

For secular Jews or others in the community interested in reform, serious study of the Talmud can be part of undoing or criticizing repressive policies and views that have originated in the text or its commentaries. For the liberal arts student, it provides a fantastic experience of humanistic study which is at the same time similar and so obviously different from the Graeco-Roman tradition we practice; this de-familiarizing experience can truly broaden one’s mind – especially when it is joined with the agility of mind that Talmudic study itself encourages.

But again, the Talmud might also teach us the limits of questions about the value, utility or purpose of learning, because it shows us the enormous power and vitality of a leaning which almost completely suspended such teleological questions. Sure, that suspension may have originated in the sense that learning Torah was a divine directive and therefore valuable in itself. But I do not see a good reason it should not inspire those who do not obey or indeed believe in such directives.

7. What do you tell Orthodox scholars that think they own all access and interpretations of the Talmud?

The surprising answer to this question is that I don’t encounter this as often as I thought I would – and also mind it much less when I do! Of course, that is in part because the Orthodox people I meet tend to be those who are committed to cutting-edge work that is very critical of traditional understanding, and I realize that this is not precisely representative of the entire Orthodox community. But I’m pointing that out because it’s interesting that in Talmud – unlike, say, in the case of other sacred texts – some of the most daring research frameworks have come from people who are also committed to Orthodoxy or Halakhah.

I’m not sure what I’ll say to someone who thinks that just because they are Orthodox it means they understand the Talmud better than someone with appropriate training who is not Orthodox. That position seems just so obviously wrong to me.

But if, in order to understand the position you describe, I can try to read it more charitably, I will say that I understand why people can be suspicious of those who work in Talmud who do not have a traditional Yeshiva background. Now, that suspicion, like any prejudice or generalization, is very often proven wrong – there is a large number of highly-respected scholars who do not come from this background.

But it’s also true – and here I’m turning the critical light on my own community – that both secular Jews and Talmud academics have not been as successful as we might want in developing an apparatus that provides an alternative to the Yeshiva world in terms of training students. Studying Talmud without that background still requires an extraordinary personal commitment, and while many had this commitment and became leaders in the field, it is also true that we also see some bad work out there. Things are getting better and better, I think (with online databases, reliable dictionaries, better introductory texts, grammar books, etc).

8. Why does the knowledge of purity laws help define the scholar and canon?

What made Mira Balberg and me curious about the purity laws was that the Bavli represents the study of purity laws both as something amazing – the pinnacle of difficulty and achievement, and at the same time as something suspicious – associated with bad moral character traits such as pride, distant from the divine, this-worldly. Our argument was that this representation was used by the rabbis as a self-portrait to describe what they saw the achievements and failures of their scholastic culture.

We suggested that one of the reasons the study of purity in particular was apt for this purpose was a tension that was already there in Palestinian sources. On the one hand, the field of purity is perhaps the most “ontological” or descriptive of rabbinic fields: that is, it is concerned nor with what one should or shouldn’t do, but with what things are or aren’t – is this object pure? is it impure?

On the other hand, the rabbis were very much aware that this description was very much dependent on a scholarly process of argumentation and reasoning – consider the disciple in Yavne who could render the sheretz pure and impure a hundred times. This tension between a field that on the one hand purports to say something about “reality,” but in which reality is also very much susceptible to scholarly manipulation and deliberation (think about the oven of Akhnai), made it a good element in discussions of rabbinic scholarly ambition and its limits.

9. What does your forthcoming anthology show about knowledge among ancient Jews?

The drive behind Late Ancient Knowing was to try new approaches to intellectual history in late antiquity. What we felt was – I think I represent both Catherine Chin and me when I say this – that after a great deal of work in questions of the social history of the period (questions on identity or community or the body) we can return, armed with a fresh perspective, to questions about knowledge.

In part, we wanted to emphasize how knowledge was “practical” – how it allowed people not only to perceive the world but also to interact with it, and vice versa – how interaction with the world informed the way that people “knew” it.

The rabbinic corpus was particularly good to think with about practical knowledge because, in a sense, rabbinic literature presents a very clear challenge to simple distinctions between “practical” and “theoretical”: on the one hand, topics in anthropology or theology or epistemology are treated through the most mundane and practical questions (e.g., discussion of animal-related torts); on the other hand, these most mundane and practical questions are themselves often formulated in very theoretical and abstract way  (and all that without even getting into the serious historical problem of whether and how people in late antiquity observed rabbinic law). They are a very good example of how knowledge was produced and experienced very much within, rather than apart, of daily life.

10. Are you descended from the Kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu diVidas?

I don’t think so. Perhaps even more lamentable than the low probability that we are actually related, is the fact that no one in my family was knowledgeable enough or industrious enough to even claim that we are descended from him, as far as I know.

Interview with Anthony C Sciglitano — Balthasar on Judaism

A decade ago Pope Benedict published a new two volume life of Jesus loosely based on recent Catholic scholarship but at its core the book was a new theological reading of the gospels. In the volumes, he paints the Jewish background of Jesus, how Jesus fits into first century Jewish traditions and how his early audience was Jewish.  Benedict condemned prior anti-Judaism and wrote that the anti-Judaism of the patristic period, including the deicide charge, was not Christian. There should be no mission to the Jews and the gospels never thought otherwise. But more strikingly, he proclaimed a continuity of priestly, ritual, and monarchal elements of Judaism in the Church, the works of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are the core of the Catholic message.  He also gave validation to the Rabbinic tradition, “we now see it as our task to bring these two ways of rereading the biblical texts—the Christian way and the Jewish way—into dialogue with one another, if we are to understand God’s will and his word aright.

Because of this latter view, Pope Benedict directly attacks the older German approach of Lutherans such as Adolf von Harnack (d. 1930) who paints a radical discontinuity of Judaism and Christianity, in which Jesus is not Jewish and not based on Jewish teachings, the Church and Synagogue have nothing in common and the late and final period of Judaism was the first century. This was, in turn, picked up and accepted in Jewish circles as a supposed truism that Judaism is deed and Christianity is creed.   Some of these Christian anti-Jewish views go back to the second century Christian thinker, whose views were rejected as heresy, Marcion, whom Harnack sought to rehabilitate. Benedict forcefully emphasized the continuity of the Church with Judaism and rejected Harnack and any Marcionite thinking.

Balthasar bookcover

The ideas of Pope Benedict are not unique but part of a sea-change in Catholic thinking over the last seventy years.  Recently,  Anthony Sciglitano , my colleague and head of the religion department at Seton Hall University,  published his book Marcion and Prometheus: Balthasar Against the Expulsion of Jewish Origins from Modern Religious Dialogue, a revision of his dissertation on Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905 –1988), a leading and prolific Catholic theologian of the late 20th century.  Balthasar was a co-founder of the journal Communio, publishing the conservative circle of theologians to which Cardinal Ratzinger also belonged.  Balthasar’s own work focused on reflection on the analogical relationship between Divine and human beauty, goodness, and truth. (resource page on Balthasar)


To return to the subject, Balthasar condemned the modern anti-Judaism and Marcionism in Catholic thought. The Lutheran thinkers of the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth, Kant, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Harnack painted a dichotomy of Christian ethics  (or devotion) and Jewish legalism. Harnack went further and even sought to rehabilitee the rejected thinker second century Marcion who wanted to sever all ties with Judaism and to reject entirely what Christians call the Old Testament. Balthasar rejects that Marcion approach and Anthony Sciglitano is the first English presentation of Balthasar’s arguments. His next book will be an overview of this topic over the last two hundred.

One final point is needed for my Jewish readers to make sense of this interview. Jews know less about Christianity than Christians know about Jews. Even supposed well informed Jews tend to be misinformed and confuse medieval with modern or Protestant with Catholic.  The most significant issue for  this interview is that Catholics do not still think in medieval or Neo-platonic categories, just as Jews do not still think in Platonic-Aristotelian terms or Kavod theories.  A corollary is their thinking on the Trinity.  Nineteenth century Christian thought tended to desiccate, if not scoff, at the Trinity as vestigial metaphysics. Twentieth century thinkers have rehabilitated the Trinity with opinion ranging from a modalism (close to but a little beyond an attribute theory) to theories of the interpersonal.  Current Catholic belief tends to be formulated in existential terms as a past event, an ever-present reality and an unrealized promise. Balthasar formulates a Trinitarian dramatics in which the Father undergoes kenosis and the Passion of the Son bears creation and history.

If all of this is foreign then try and thoughtfully enter these new ideas before commenting.

1. What is the Marcion trend in Christian thought?

The Marcionite strain of modern Christian thought trends against the God of Israel’s covenant, the claim of a special and ongoing relation with Israel, law, and God as both judge and transcendent (that is, not reducible to any immanent sphere whether human being, the nation, a particular race, nature, etc.). All of these claims of Israel’s covenant are seen as either (a) too particularistic and/or (b) interfering with human autonomy. The assumption here is that a God who legislates, judges, or “intervenes” (for instance, in granting grace) in human affairs interferes with human freedom and/or moral responsibility.

Adolf von Harnack is one of the rare figures who explicitly promotes Marcion’s vision (albeit in a slightly modified form), but interestingly Harnack also names Immanuel Kant and Schleiermacher as would-be Marcionites and thinks Luther nearly eliminated the Old Testament, but could not completely do so for his time given other pressures.

Of course Catholic tradition holds Marcionism to be a heresy.

2. Most Jews still see Christian thought as the faith based Lutheran theology of Kant, Kierkegaard, and Harnack. How has the current state of Christian/Catholic thought changed?

Wow. Big question, but you hit on a key demarcation for the book that is left unstated. I am a Catholic theologian and all the people you list above are, in some sense, Lutheran.

Contemporary theology often wants to envision a cooperation and dialogue between Jews and Christians. But recall that for Kant, in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Judaism does not count as a religion, but only as a past theocratic cultural formation. The only pure moral religion is Christianity. But “Christianity” is subject to the philosophical-moral scouring he puts it through. Whether Kant’s religious views are faith-based is an open question because for him “faith” really is something like practical reason.

Harnack would get rid of the entire Old Covenant; he agrees with Marcion that the God of Jesus and the God of the Old Covenant cannot be the same. The remarkable lack of argumentation of this point, incidentally, should give us pause and suggest the extent to which he was in harmony with his cultural moment.

Contemporary Christian theologians (i.e., Richard Kendall Soulen, Jurgen Moltmann, Pope Benedict XVI, Elizabeth Johnson, Pope John Paul II, Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Pawlikowski) generally try to see the commonalities among Jewish and Christian thought, ethical practice, worship and the continuities between the God of Israel, Israel’s praise and devotion and the God of Jesus Christ and hope for the full redemption of the world.

Having said that, relapses often take place. They are usually of the subtle variety where a thinker’s system torques their thought in ways they do not necessarily intend. So, for example, if one determines that history moves in three epochs towards autonomy and away from law, it is likely one will end up in a Marcionite place whether that was desired by the author or not. Someone like Hans Kung tries “paradigms” rather than “epochs” and, in my view, makes of any Judaism interested in Halakah a paradigm consigned to the past along with the Old Covenant.

Key here, though, is that Catholic theology rejects replacement supersessionism. Contemporary Catholic theology sees that Jews remain God’s people and that Christianity has its roots in Jewish belief and practice. Monsignor Oesterreicher of Seton Hall University was central to acknowledging these roots in the mid-twentieth century and helping the Church overcome replacement supercessionist views. Whether we are speaking of Eucharistic prayers, metaphors of salvation, or the traditions dear to Mary and Jesus, we are implicitly or explicitly calling upon the holy Jewish root of our faith.

3. Traditionally, Trinity and Christology were seen as the major break between Judaism and Christianity. How can Balthasar possibly see continuity in the Trinity between Judaism and Christianity?

This is perhaps one of the more provocative and counter-intuitive notes in my book. The first thing to realize is that Balthasar is writing a theology as a Catholic from and for the Church. He certainly expects to be and was in dialogue, but his ecclesial location is his starting point. He dialogues as a Catholic theologian.

What is important here is first the patristic or early Christian context. The point is made by several major scholars of early Christian writings (Robert Louis Wilken, Jaroslav Pelikan, Alois Grillmeier) that the doctrinal/theological discussions of Trinity and Christology were caught in a tensional relation between trying to reflect the God of the Bible in a Greek idiom. What this means, concretely, is that the God of the Bible, as opposed to the One (Hen) of Plotinus, is profoundly involved in human history, creation, being. The One of Plotinus is not or only is involved with the help of intermediaries who, in a sense, keep its (his) hands clean.

When Christians formulated the doctrine of the Trinity (3 co-equal persons/one God), they rejected the intermediaries of Neo-Platonism and decided that the One God in three persons is deeply involved in Creation, Covenant, History, Salvation and is both Transcendent and Immanent, etc. In addition, it is this One God in three persons who unites the one divine plan from Creation through Covenant to Eschaton/End so that Christians find deep continuity in the nature of God, God’s way of relating to humanity, humanity’s proper disposition before God and towards others, especially the poor.

It is in this context that Christianity sides with the God of the Jews against these other options and maintains a positive connection to the content of the Old Covenant. Christ, on this view, is the realization of the two sides of the Covenant: God’s faithfulness to his people, to creation and to the covenant relation itself and Israel’s humble faithful obedience drawn forth by the Glory of God. Irenaeus’s Proof of the Apostolic Preaching (2nd century CE) is particularly concerned to see the covenants of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in continuity with that in Christ.

Now none of this means that Jews can accept the “Trinity” as doctrine obviously. What it means is that in the historical context, the doctrine of the Trinity, and even the formulation of Christology, supported much greater continuity between the Old and New Covenants than did other options (i.e., Marcionism, Gnosticism, neo-Platonism) of the time and often options proposed today.

4. How is there a continuity between old and new covenants according to Balthasar? Was this a major leap of Catholic theology?

This covers a lot of the book! In a sense, Catholic theology of the higher end sort has always envisioned continuity. So, for instance, if it is prima facie the case in liberal protestant circles that the freedom of the Christian should mean freedom from the law, in Catholic circles, law is typically viewed as a pedagogy for freedom. Likewise, liturgical ritual/sacrament/obligation is not seen in Catholicism as antithetical to the “spiritual” life, but rather as its fundamental support and orientation. In brief, Catholic theology rejects the antitheses between law and freedom, religion and spirit, divine transcendence and human autonomy so prevalent in our culture.

Moreover, freedom of will for Catholic theology is not vanquished as it is in classical Protestant formulations of original sin and so supports more continuity between a Jewish and Catholic views of sin (although clearly not identical). But the main continuities have to do with the fundamental relation of Divine and human freedom, experience of God as just judge and loving kindness, care for the poor and outcast, and humility before God that nevertheless begets a dynamic mission to make God’s love and justice real in the world (and, of course, in ourselves).

What is a major leap, I think, is for Catholic theology to recognize explicitly and consistently all it receives from its holy root rather than pretend as if either there is no Judaism after the biblical period or that Judaism’s impact on Christianity is marginal at best. Rather, this influence is thorough, and to grasp this helps Christians understand their own faith much more deeply and exist in a position of gratitude rather than prideful accusation. Nostra Aetate, of course, is tremendously important for this. For all its brevity, it covers a lot of ground.

resume thought

5. How is there no longer hard supersessionism but still a form of soft supersessionism about truth claims for Christianity?

Hard Supersessionism means that Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah leaves the Jewish people rejected by God and replaced as God’s people by Christianity.

Balthasar, and any Catholic theologian I can think of currently, rejects this approach.

Balthasar rejects prior hard supersessionism on the basis of Romans 9:4 and Romans 11. He believes that Israel remains God’s beloved people. He also rejects a Christian mission to the Jews for the sake of “conversion,” which, given the continuity of the God worshipped would not quite make sense.

Now, it gets complicated. When I say “soft supersessionism,” I am referring to truth claims not to replacement or rejection of a people.

The formal expression of God comes to be for Catholics indexed by the Trinity and doctrine of Jesus Christ (Christology), focused through God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Catholics believe there is continuity among the covenant of Israel and Christ. Christ fulfills God’s Covenant with Israel and all creation. In addition, Catholics believe Christ is God incarnate/become human. Insofar as this is the case, in the end, all people will encounter Christ in his Glory.

Given that Christians believe this is true and Jews do not, Catholics believe they are right and Jews are wrong (and, of course, Jews would believe Catholics are wrong on these points and they are right). The only reason this is “supersessionistic” is because Christians emerge from Israel, from Judaism and interpret the scriptures differently in light of Christ. Apart from this historical linkage, this would simply be a difference in religious views like any other philosophical schools would differ. But given the historical linkage and the difference in truth claims, the term seemed correct and forthright, but perhaps not felicitous in the end given historical weight and the likelihood of misinterpretation.

6. Why is Tzedek, Mishpat, Chesed, Emet, and Shalom important for Balthasar’s theology?

Balthasar thinks that in and through Israel’s covenant God reveals God’s identity, that is, God’s virtues or character traits, in the covenant the “Who” of God, not the “what,” gets disclosed.

Events like the burning bush reveal that God is not reducible to but Lord of creation, that God’s will is effective, etc. God’s relation over time with Israel reveals God first as true, that is, true to himself and his promises (especially in liberating Israel from Egypt) (of course, trustworthy, faithful here are all related to Emet).

Now this notion of truth is crucial for Balthasar later on in his philosophical work as well and, as an aside, brings him in proximity to the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his book, Totality and Infinity. Then, each virtue (Tzedek, Mishpat, Chesed, Shalom) speaks to God’s personal identity learned through Israel’s praise/confession of God’s deeds on their behalf. In this sense, Israel discloses who God is through their own literature, that is, God’s personal identity in and through God’s actions.

In addition, Israel— who are made in God’s image and elected by him —is asked to represent these traits in history through its prayer/worship, commandments, dealings with the stranger and poor, and life more broadly. That is, God is like this, you are made in God’s image, so you should, in your human way, image this God’s virtues: provide peace and well-being, act for justice and in loving kindness and be truthful. And, in all this, give glory to God. As God’s human incarnation through Israel, Jesus fully incarnates these traits as a righteous Jew.

7. How is Torah observance by Jews a dynamic trust in God for Balthasar? How is this new for Catholic thought?

Unlike many before him, Balthasar believes that Jews not only seek to incarnate/make real God’s virtues in the world, but also do so in the details of Torah observance. This is not to be looked upon, for him (or for me) as some retrograde obedience, but rather offers a view of a way to remember God in all details of life in a training for holiness and a model for the general disposition of the creature to the creator.

Now, as for all religious communities, the nature of Jewish observance may change from time to time: including some elements formerly forgotten, bolstering old elements with new interpretations, weighting some things differently given new experience, etc. This is part of the dynamism that belongs to Judaism as they confront different historical settings and situations and encounter God in these situations. In this way, God is truly the God who comes to us as Future.

But part of this dynamism is also in the struggle to make real God’s righteousness in a world that often rejects such concerns as those for the poor and the outcast or for loving kindness and justice more broadly. For example, justice will often be considered merely a contractual issue or an issue of “rights,” but we know that real justice goes well beyond a contract that might be signed under coercive circumstances or political rights that do not account for issues of poverty or human dignity.


8. According to Balthasar, how is Israel chosen and Judaism different than the rest of the nations?

Israel is expropriated by God for a unique mission in history, encounters God’s Word and is called to make it real in the world, and breaks open all fatalisms beyond cyclical views of nature-religions so that God and Israel interact in a dramatic relation of freedoms. The uniqueness of Israel’s relation to God is important for Balthasar and, given his experience in Europe, he rejects any attempts to substitute some other historical tradition (i.e., Teutonic mythology) for Israel as the context for the messiah or to make any other context (philosophical or historical/cultural) equal to Israel’s for understanding Christ.

9. What is the role of Biblical criticism in Balthasar and for your own theology?

Biblical criticism is crucial for Balthasar for opening up a kind of symphonic plenitude of interpretive lenses on the scripture whether this involves historical, literary or sociological content.

Of course for him the final form of Scripture is more authoritative than any putative authorial intent. Scholarship ought to contribute to grasping the meaning of the final form which includes the resurrection. We might compare this to reading a Shakespeare play. If one were to rearrange the first and third acts and/or read each act separately and without relation to the whole, a completely different play and meaning would result. Balthasar thinks something like this results in modern readings that exclude the resurrection or break up the text and then cannot figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. A more aesthetically holistic reading is ultimately more helpful, but can include the insights of modern methods within its broader scope.

He is particularly fond of Gerhard von Rad and Martin Hengel. An important person to think about for comparison would be Paul Ricouer and his notion of second naivete. A good book on his biblical reading is that of W.T. Dickens, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: A Model for Post-Critical Biblical Interpretation (South Bend, IN: UND Press, 2003). He would be suspicious of historical critical readings that see a faith perspective as an obstacle to getting to the meaning of the text. I would agree with him on this.