Monthly Archives: June 2016

Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar by Geoffrey D. Claussen

“Man wants to achieve greatness overnight, and he wants to sleep well that night too.”– Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, Alter of Kelm

“Most of us, myself included, let ourselves off the hook too easily in our moral lives.” – Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen

The leading musar teacher Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv of the late 19th century was deeply troubled as he walked along the main road in his town of Kelm, which had been paved by the king’s prisoners sentenced to slave labor. He would  be troubled by their suffering.  “How can people walk calmly through this place,” he wondered, “when people suffered so much and invested their blood and sweat?” Today in 2016, we have labor injustices, workers mistreated and much of the cheap merchandise that we buy is produced by slave labor. But do we have any authoritative traditional Jewish voice that makes Jews sensitive to these sufferings?

Geoffrey D. Claussen, professor at Elon College turns our attention to the moral sensitivity training musar of Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv with his dissertation turned into a book, Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar, which will be issued in paperback next month. The work gives the American college reader a thought introduction to musar in the context of the study of moral philosophy (introductory chapter here).

musar cover

In the late, nineteenth century, the musar movement  found by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin (Salanter; 1810–1883) promoted educational changes that flourished among the elite of rabbinic Lithuanian Jewry, showing that intellectual mastery of Talmudic texts is not enough nor are scrupulous ritual observance or emotional prayer going to help create a meaningful leader, teacher, and rabbi. One needed to work on one’s character  in order to develop moral compassion to the world around them. This musar approach infused the late nineteenth century Lithuanian yeshivot, giving them their severe litvak qualities of self-discipline, self-scrutiny, and moral sensitivity.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv Broida (1824–1898), also known as the Alter of Kelm (the Elder of Kelm), one of the foremost students of Rabbi Salanter and one of the early leaders of the Musar movement who founded and director the Kelem Talmud Torah (1866–1876) and later in Grubin (1876–1886). His outstanding students went on to spread his method, included Rabbis Yitzchak Blazer, Naftali Amsterdam,  and Eliezer Gordon. .

These Talmud Torahs aimed at young adolescents- thirteen and fourteen-year-olds- devoted much of daily study at the Talmud Torah to the study of Musar, while comparatively little time was devoted to the conventional study of Talmud. Rabbi Ziv also introduced general subjects such as geography, mathematics, and Russian into the Talmud Torah curriculum for three hours a day, in order to allow for “better living” and “a better understanding of religious teachings as well.”

With the closure of the Grobin Talmud Torah, the focus of his work shifted back to Kelm, which now regained its former prominence. Rabbi Ziv, the alter of Kelm established a group that was known as Devek Tov comprising his foremost students. There he delivered his discourses eventually edited by his students.

Rabbi Ziv’s discourses emphasized how people are depraved at heart seeking self-interest similar to a Calvinist emphasis on human depravity. Yet, unlike the Protestants seeing a divine grace as the only solution, musar taught that the use of one’s God wisdom ability to grow in wisdom would give one the tools to raise oneself to goodness and we can overcome our blindness to moral concerns Rabbi Ziv encourage the cultivate of the fundamental character trait of lovingkindness to all people: How can you help them? How do you empathize with them? How can you see them as good or potentially good?   The musar approach, which is behaviorist at core, required visualization, introspection and check lists.

As a way of creating character, the Alter of Kelm focused on having a rightly order life. He once came into the school and saw that in the row of galoshes that had been lined up outside the study hall, one of the pair of galoshes was not in line with the others. In light of the event, he dedicated an entire sermon to the need for order.

The windows that faced the street in the study hall were never opened in order to prevent distractions. A noise was once heard outside the study hall. One of the students opened the window and looked out to see what was happening. Rabbi Ziv commented that he did not see that there was any possibility that that student so easily distracted would become an accomplished person (Think of our media, snark, and FB age of distraction).

As in contemporary Japan, the yeshiva did not hire a custodian in that the students had to clean their own dormitory and classroom in order to learn discipline.

The Aler of Kelm also instituted a five-minute seder, for which the students were required to come in specially for five minutes. The sole purpose was to accustom the students to value time and concentrate their thoughts quickly.

Rabbi Ziv taught that the whole world is a classroom where one can learn to improve one’s character and increase one’s belief in God. Rabbi Ziv would frequently quote Socrates, who said that “true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

An example of his ethical teaching is his homily on why Betzalel  was worthy to build the Tabernacle, of which his answer is that Betzalel was filled with  compassion and kindness, and had no inner harshness, whatsoever. The Tabernacle was the place where God revealed His compassion and forgiveness, so it had to be built by someone who had those traits.

The alter of Kelm posted this notice to the Door of the Kelm Talmud Torah before the High Holidays on the importance of spending the holidays working on love of one’s fellow. If you hate someone, then you are fundamentally denying God’s kingship over all rather creating a self-serving division in which you deny God’s kingship from people whom you do not like.

Therefore there is an obligation upon us, prior to the Day of Judgment (may it come upon us for good), to occupy ourselves during the entire year with the positive commandment “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) And through this there will be unity among the subjects of the Blessed Lord, and [God’s] Kingship will come into our hands well . . .

But if (God forbid) the sin of hating people is on our hands, how can we not be ashamed and disgraced to be speaking lies . . . when we ask [in prayer for God to] “rule over the entire world, in Your glory”? We have not prepared ourselves to do what is essential for maintaining the kingdom of heaven in power over us . . . And so we must accept upon ourselves the work of loving people and of unity.

And, if we merit a community that is immersed in this work during the entire year, who can measure the greatness of the merit for us and for the entire world? No one should say that this work is too difficult.

It is good to set aside a place for thinking of this matter every day during prayer. (Translation by Claussen from here.)

Yet,  we need to find out how to adapt this musar for today due to its ascetic or at least puritanical tendencies. For example,  Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein related that the Alter happily lost his sense of taste for a period of ten years since taste is one of the principal means of indulging and seeking pleasure, which is liable to hinder a progress. So God helps his righteousness through arranging special circumstances for them. Levenstein continues by pointing out that in contrast,  in the disembodied spiritual realm unlike the physical there is no immediate pleasure is experienced.  Musar was also highly anti- haskole, anti-modern, and very behaviorally manipulative of the adolescents in its charge.

Geoffrey Claussen has written a wonderful introduction to the world of Kelm musar able to be assigned in a college classroom, which focuses on philosophic questions of morals and ethics. What is the role of wisdom? What is compassion? How does one train a person for morality? I find that my students responded well to Claussen’s focus on morals presented in comparison and contrast with Aristotle, Maimonides,  and Kant. He offers many fine translations of passages and explains to a college audience the value in Rabbi Ziv of Kelm. This work is innocent of any yeshivishness or old world Litvak connection, nor does concern itself with any  insider baseball details of who studied under whom. The book also does not seek to do Russian archival work on the history. Claussen articles after his dissertation are even better in  using the Alter of Kelm in application to contemporary ethical issues, articles available online include: love and empathy, work and wealth,  the dangers of extremism,  compassion for animals, and war.  The article on love and empathy is a concise and fruitful place to see Claussen’s ability to explain and engage in moral reasoning.

In our self- centered age where religion, especially traditional forms of Judaism are expected to give one a fixed moral order through ritual observance, tribal politics, and community identity, musar’s quest for character development has fallen on hard times.


1)      According to Simhah Zissel, what is human nature?

Simhah Zissel describes human beings as naturally inclined to selfishness, cruelty, and pride—to being, in the language of Genesis 6, “simply evil, all the time.”  But he also sees human beings having great potential, given their creation in the image of God, to develop lovingkindness and other virtues through musar, the cultivation of moral discipline.

To cultivate such discipline, one needs wisdom about the depravity of human beings, and also wisdom about human potential.  But merely understanding these two aspects of human nature is insufficient; Simhah Zissel also thinks that one must engage in tremendous efforts so that wisdom can bring discipline (musar) into one’s heart.

2) How are we depraved?

Simhah Zissel thinks that all human beings have “sick souls,” as we are always at risk for acting in depraved ways, and we are always in need of “physicians” (that is, musar masters who understand human psychology) who can help us to identify and manage our sickness.  Such physicians may prescribe a variety of therapies to help their patients; Simhah Zissel and the supervisors who worked with him at the Talmud Torah guided some students, for example, to give particular attention to lovingkindness, and others to give particular attention to their observance of Shabbat.

Simhah Zissel’s closest students joined him in setting aside every tenth day for making special efforts to overcome negative inclinations; they each committed, for example, to find three opportunities to overcome their desires on that tenth day, not to engage in idle talk on that day, and to meditate with appropriate intention on one’s eating during that day.

Simhah Zissel saw all people as tending towards evil and therefore in need of continually guarding against destructive appetites. At the same time that his writings emphasize this inevitable sickness, though, they often also emphasize the potential greatness of human beings.

Even as Simhah Zissel indicates that human beings can never be perfect, he holds out the ideal that human beings should strive to perfect their character traits, always seeking to emulate the ultimate goodness of divine lovingkindness.  He thinks that we all need tremendous dedication to the work of musar—the work of cultivating character— not only because we need to overcome our depravity but also because we are called to strive towards the highest possible ideals.

3) What is practical wisdom?

The particular virtue of “practical wisdom,” gained through experience, is also necessary for figuring out how virtues should find expression for diverse human beings in diverse circumstances.  Thus, for example, Simhah Zissel speaks of the importance of seeking to alleviate suffering in the world, and he urges his students to focus on understanding and responding to the legitimate needs of others.

How should one implement these ideals?  Sometimes, his writings give clear advice on how practical wisdom should guide his students forward.

But his writings suggest that individuals often will have to figure out for themselves how to apply general principles in particular circumstances.  Many questions cannot be easily answered.  When should one focus on one’s immediate community and when on more distant communities?  When should one proceed gently and when should one act harshly?  How should one take care to rebuke those who seem to act wrongly without being overly condescending and proud?  Practical wisdom, gained through continued study and continued learning from experience, is the virtue that will need to be employed in answering these questions in varied circumstances.

4)      What is proper virtue?

Virtues are excellent, stable dispositions, such as lovingkindness, humility, equanimity, reverence, or practical wisdom.  They are acquired through habit and affirmed by choice.  In Simhah Zissel’s view, virtues can emerge to the degree that one’s reason transforms one’s appetites, emotions, and imagination.

Virtues can be cultivated through many different kinds of activities, whether putting on tefillin, observing Shabbat, performing deeds of compassion, contemplating the day of one’s death, or meditating with empathy on the suffering of others.  Even everyday business activities can help to produce virtue, when carried out in a spirit of justice and lovingkindness.  A brief meditation before using money (“I know that my mind is inclined to covet profit; given this, I must constantly beware and strengthen myself so that I do not distort Torah law”) or when asked for a loan from someone in poverty (“see yourself as if you are the poor person, and see whether it would be good for you if the lender refrained from lending”) can help.  But cultivating virtues will never be easy.

Simhah Zissel suggests that even if one can develop somewhat stable virtues, the ideal of full virtue can never be attained by human beings.  Full virtue is divine, and it seems that even the best of human beings—even the greatest of rabbis, even prophets—will always fall short of the divine ideal of perfect, stable virtue, even as all human beings are called to strive towards that ideal.   Even those who seem to have acquired real virtue will struggle to maintain it, because problematic emotions and desires will inevitably resurface.

5)   What is the role of love and compassion? Is it really love of the sinner if he paints the sinner as a wild beast?

Love and compassion stand at the center of Simhah Zissel’s moral vision, and he emphasizes the need to engage in the difficult work of cultivating deep empathy within one’s soul so that one can truly fulfill the commandment to “love one’s fellow as oneself”—as naturally and spontaneously as we typically love ourselves and care for that which is ours.  Thus, for example, Simhah Zissel describes the ideal of feeding all who are hungry with the same commitment that we ordinarily show to our own families.

Since we privilege ourselves and those dear to us over others despite the commandment not to do so, inappropriate levels of love for ourselves and that which is ours constantly compete with love for the other. And so Simhah Zissel sees “self-love” as a central obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s commandment to love.

He also sees the commandment as requiring both attention to the physical needs of others and also to their spiritual needs—showing empathy for their moral situation, even seeking to love sinners and to help them to overcome their vices.  Yes, that includes caring for those sinners who seem like “wild beasts.”

Sometimes the sinners whom Simhah Zissel condemns are, say, non-traditionalist Jews whom he saw as threatening the piety of traditionalist Jewish society.  In this condemnation, I see a kind of self-righteousness at work, the kind of self-righteousness that characterizes many of us when we feel threatened.

Simhah Zissel could surely have done better in living up to the ideals of love that he espoused—his stress on the need to see the good in everyone, his concern that reproof of others may be easily motivated by self-love, his argument that love requires seeking to truly understand the perspectives of others.  But even if I think he struggled to live up to his ideals, I admire not only the ideals but also the way that Simhah Zissel aspired to be critical of himself and to find ways in which he too could improve his own character.

6)  Can you give the reader a really good teaching of Simhah Zissel’s that will touch the readers soul?

I love the way that Simhah Zissel tells the narrative of Moses’s transformation from a prince in Pharaoh’s palace to a prophet, and I think that it well illustrates Simhah Zissel’s conception of how Musar practice can be transformative.

He imagines Moses “seeing the sufferings” of Israel (Ex. 2:11) as a process of Moses meditating on the suffering of the slaves, keeping their experiences before his eyes and feeling their pain “as if he himself was in such pain.”  Moses comes to “share the burden” of the slaves—to feel the burdens of the slaves weighing upon his own shoulders, and to do what he can to alleviate those burdens. When he then flees to Midian, Moses also feels the sufferings of Jethro’s daughters, sharing their burden and seeking to protect them; as he comes to work as a shepherd, he feels the suffering of his sheep, sharing their burden and seeking to care for them; as he encounters God in a burning bush, he feels God’s suffering and is called to reduce it by bringing Israel out of slavery and by conveying the Torah to them.

Moses is, here, a musarnik, attentive to the needs of all who are in need (his own people, other human beings, non-human animals, and God), and he takes the time to cultivate the meditative state of mind that makes this attention possible.

7)       What is new in your book- that is not already in prior works?

Dov Katz describes Simhah Zissel’s life and thought in his study of the Musar movement (Tenu’at Ha-Musar), but whereas Katz takes a traditional approach, I seek to take a more critical approach.  I also offer a more philosophical analysis of Simhah Zissel’s moral vision, and in taking this approach I build on  Tamar Ross’s dissertation, a dissertation that does outstanding work in analyzing the thought of a range of Musar movement figures (Israel Salanter, Joseph Bloch, Yerucham Levovitz, Yosef Yozel Horowitz, and Eliyahu Dessler, along with Simhah Zissel).  I accept Ross’s analysis of Simhah Zissel as a thinker who respects autonomous human reasoning and as a “semi-consequentialist”—one who thinks that not seeking personal satisfaction in fact yields the greatest satisfaction.

I explore and expand on these ideas, but I also focus much of my attention elsewhere.  I give particular attention to Simhah Zissel’s conception of love as a virtue and his concerns about the difficulty of cultivating and sustaining proper love for others.

I also give substantial attention to his discourse surrounding philosophy and philosophers in general, and Aristotle in particular.  And I find using Aristotelian categories to be particularly productive for analyzing Simhah Zissel’s thought, especially in light of his own interest in Aristotle.

8)       How did he use Aristotle yet differ with him? How does he at the same time mock the philosophers and at the same time claim to be their heir?

Simhah Zissel’s general conception of virtue is highly Aristotelian, and at times he makes it clear that he has learned from Aristotle’s writings directly.  When he explains the concept of practical wisdom, for example, he refers his readers to Book 6 of Aristotle’s Ethics.  As he discusses his conceptions of virtue and human happiness, he periodically notes that he is following the approach of Aristotle or, more generally, “the approach of the philosophers.”

Simhah Zissel sometimes depicts Aristotle as a kind of musar master—Alexander of Macedon’s “special teacher for musar,” as he puts it at one point.  He celebrates other philosophers as well, for example depicting Socrates as precisely the kind of sage praised by the Talmud (a sage who is better described as a “disciple of the sages” because he is always learning).  And Simhah Zissel also offers particular praise to the German neo-Orthodox Jews whom he saw as appreciating the path of the philosophers (and the importance of general studies in Jewish schools) more than his fellow Russian Jews did.

But sometimes when he praises Aristotle, he quickly pivots in order to point out that Aristotle was overly focused on self-love, or that Aristotle—because he didn’t have access to the perfectly rational Torah—lacked many insights that are familiar to all Jews.  Simhah Zissel clearly wanted his students to admire certain characteristics of the philosophers, but he also clearly wanted them to see the superiority of the path of the Torah over all other paths.

I should also note that there are substantive differences between Simhah Zissel’s teachings and those of Aristotle.  For example, Aristotle does not think that human beings are naturally inclined to evil, as Simhah Zissel did.   Simhah Zissel sees the human soul as fundamentally “sick,” and he sees virtue as far more fragile than Aristotle (or Maimonides) did.  For Aristotle, character traits can be quite stable; Aristotle did not think that people of real virtue need to constantly beware that they will act viciously.  For Simhah Zissel, by contrast, one’s evil inclination can always rise up to challenge whatever stability one might achieve, sometimes producing surprising behavior.  The person who consistently acts with generosity in giving charity, for example, may suddenly revert to inexplicable miserliness and cruelty in certain situations, perhaps sparked by something rooted in his or her subconscious from a young age.  For Simhah Zissel, even the most virtuous of people need to be on guard against this kind of possibility.

9)      How is he authoritarian and anti-modern?

Dov Katz suggests that Simhah Zissel often downplayed his authority—for example, refusing to let his students address him with the title of “rabbi,” or gladly welcoming the insults and accusations of others.

But he clearly had a strongly authoritarian side, setting up a yeshiva with a system of “supervisors” who would watch over students and carefully look for signs of their moral development or moral weakness, expelling students who challenged the yeshiva’s orthodoxy.  The Talmud Torahs that Simhah Zissel led were clearly designed as insular institutions that could protect and preserve traditionalist values and Orthodox dogmas  and keep out modernity. Simhah Zissel’s writings are often quite dogmatic. I do think that this takes away from his message; I argue that in my book that Simhah Zissel could have better exemplified the values of humility, self-criticism and philosophical reasoning that he claims to have championed.

10)      Does he see all rabbis as tainted by their own moral vices?  Even the rabbis of the Talmud? If he acknowledges that the Talmudic rabbis were tainted then does that make contemporary gedolim higher than many rabbi of the Talmud?

Simhah Zissel indicates that most rabbis are not fit to be rabbis, because—as he learned from Israel Salanter—a rabbi “needs to perfect his character traits” in order to make legal judgments that convey God’s perfectly rational and loving will.  It is clear that, in his view, even the greatest sages always need to work on their character traits, and are always in danger of letting their appetites overcome their rational capacities—“even the best of them can revert to being reborn with a cruel nature.”  Even the sages of the Talmud are not called “sages,” but are called “the disciples of the sages” (talmidei hakhamim) because they are always seeking to learn and to improve.  Even Moses lacked complete wisdom, such that he needed to be rebuked by his father-in-law Jethro.

Still, Moses was as close to perfection as anyone can be, and the laws he transmitted were ultimately to be obeyed on pain of death; the Talmudic rabbis were qualified to articulate God’s will precisely because they had improved their character traits to a tremendous degree.

Would a contemporary musar master who nearly perfected his character traits be on the level of the Talmudic rabbis, or even on the level of prophets?  This seems to be the implication of Simhah Zissel’s teachings, and later students of his Kelm Talmud Torah—most prominently, Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler—certainly emphasized that true musar masters were uniquely qualified to convey the truth (da’as Torah) and were to be obeyed just as prophets must be obeyed.  Simhah Zissel does not convey the same confidence that any contemporary rabbi could reach this level, but he certainly holds it out as a theoretical possibility.

11)    How do you use Simhah Zissel’s message of the Golden Calf incident as a modern message showing the need to not be stiff necked rather self-critical?

Simhah Zissel notes that God condemns Israel after their worship of the Golden Calf above all for their stiff-neckedness—as Simhah Zissel understands it, their inability to accept criticism, to change, and to grow.  The people of Israel were fixed in their habits, convinced of their own righteousness, unable to accept truths that contradicted their own experiences.  Studying the Golden Calf story, Simhah Zissel thinks, should inspire us to turn away from the assumptions to which we have been habituated.

I deeply appreciate how Simhah Zissel sees this story—and so many other stories in the Torah—as a story that can remind us of our own fixed assumptions and the ways in which we could be more open-minded and self-critical.  But it’s also important to me to recognize the limits to Simhah Zissel’s own ability to be self-critical.

I end my book by reflecting on Simhah Zissel’s inability to question assumptions about the perfection of the Torah as he understands it.  I do think that a better model of musar would acknowledge the imperfections of the traditions to which we are heir—studying those traditions critically can help to make one more open to criticism, less convinced of one’s righteousness, less fixed in one’s assumptions.

As I suggested in a recent essay on this theme, not only questioning oneself in light of authoritative traditions but also considering critical questions about how those traditions have been constructed and their authors’ particular interests can be an important way “to accept criticism, to change, and to grow.”

12) There seems to be a revival of musar around JTS and some Conservative rabbis, can you describe this revival?

I wouldn’t say that such a revival is widespread, but there have been significant efforts by a number of teachers and institutions that have generated interest among Conservative rabbis in musar practice (involving the disciplined attention to character traits) based on models from the 19th century Musar movement.  My teacher Rabbi Ira Stone taught at JTS for a number of years and promoted a vision of musar practice there (and subsequently at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and now through his Mussar Leadership Program).  Stone’s model of musar practice and his focus on lovingkindness are very much grounded in Simhah Zissel’s teachings, though he has developed an alternative, non-orthodox theological framework that draws on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.

Another influential musar teacher for Conservative rabbis and lay leaders has been Rabbi Shmuel (Richard) Lewis, who for a decade held weekly musar lectures and dialogues with students at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he was Rosh Yeshiva, focused on inspiring students to greater piety.  Rabbi Amy Eilberg has been teaching musar practice in a variety of contexts, and has developed a model of musar practice focused on conflict resolution in her book From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace.  JTS has also received funding to support musar practice at the Seminary through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Tikkun Middot Project (funded by the John Templeton Foundation).  And while the Mussar Institute led by Alan Morinis has taught Musar practice to a wide range of Jews, with particular success in the Reform movement, they are also sponsoring a workshop later this month specifically to train Conservative rabbis committed to bringing musar groups to their communities. I don’t think, though, that at this point such groups are any more widespread in Conservative than in Reform, Reconstructionist, or other non-Orthodox contexts.

13)   Do you think this is really a message for American Conservative Jews who are basically tribal and at the same time not virtuous, without a sense of depravity, and without a need to work on themselves?

When I’ve described a “revival” of non-Orthodox interest in the legacy of the Musar movement in America, I’ve tried emphasize that this revival is small, counter-cultural, and unlikely to spread widely.  That’s especially true among aging American Conservative Jews whose Jewish identity is expressed in largely tribal terms and who are not eager to commit to years of slow and disciplined critical introspection.  Nor will this path be appealing to younger Jews who are only interested in nonjudgmental forms of spirituality.  And there’s certainly no appetite among American Jews of any stripe for the sort of 19th century Musar that emphasizes human depravity and the need for submission to authority.

But it’s not surprising to me that many younger rabbis, who do see Jewish tradition as a path towards love and moral sensitivity and who appreciate the value of disciplined practice, are disproportionately attracted to aspects of the Musar movement’s legacy.  And it’s not surprising to see some broader interest among non-Orthodox American Jews, especially among those who are interested in forms of Jewish spirituality focused on individual transformation that can happen outside of conventional Jewish communal settings.

14)   What are his ideas on wealth and how can they be used as both self-centered prosperity gospel by Daniel Lapin and for liberal love of others by American Jewish World Service.

Simhah Zissel devotes considerable attention to the importance of developing qualities of empathy and responsibility towards those in need, and the writings and practices he advocates can serve as a source of inspiration for many contemporary Jews focused on alleviating poverty.  American Jewish World Service, for example, has a curriculum for a ten-month service-learning program (for recent American college graduates and young professionals) that asks students to engage in musar work focused on different character traits over the course of the program; for the trait of responsibility, it asks students to reflect on Simhah Zissel’s teachings on responsibility.

Simhah Zissel’s writings also stress the ways in which business activity and gaining wealth can be morally dangerous—typically a source of pride, greed, dishonesty, distraction, a lack of concern for other people, and a lack of trust in God. They show some appreciation of commerce, however, as a potential arena for lovingkindness and not just as a necessary evil.  I’ve been struck by the resonances between some of his language about lovingkindness in business and some similar language used by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the contemporary American conservative political activist and business consultant, in his claims about how the Jewish tradition supports making money as a businessperson.  Lapin’s family’s origins are with the Kelm school of Musar that Simhah Zissel founded, and Lapin echoes his forebears with his stress on cultivating virtues and seeing commerce as an arena for love.

But his confidence that business is “inherently moral” is antithetical to Simhah Zissel’s stress on the inherent dangers of business activity.  I think that Lapin’s writings offer an interesting example of how musar can be transformed by American Orthodox Jews in a new cultural setting that unabashedly revels in material prosperity.

Philosophic Religion, Popular Polytheism, and Foreign Worship

As I finish writing up my thoughts on the Jewish -Hindu encounter, I will be offering a few tentative posts to get feedback (email or FB). For those who did not read the earlier posts, this is part of a bigger project. For some examples of the the prior posts, see here, here,  here, here, here and here and the feature article here. As stated in some of those prior posts: this post is not meant as a critique of either religion.

When I present lectures on the Hindu-Jewish encounter in Jewish venues, I inevitably hear from the audience that everything I say is only about the narrow elite Hindus who are like Westerners. However, they claim that the masses have no knowledge of any of these Hindu philosophies. The audience has never been to India, has never read or studied about the topic, and generally, is not socially connected to practitioners of Hinduism. Yet, the listeners are persistent in their stereotypes. Where does this widespread prejudice of assuming Hindus are primitive come from?


The short answer is that this approach is derived from English philosopher, David Hume and the thinkers of his era. It was copied in various mainstream books until the 20th century and promoted a distinction between popular and philosophic religions. Hume presents an evolution towards Protestantism, beginning with the first people being polytheists and then ritual legalists, culminating in Christianity.

Hume considers the basis of polytheism is “not the beauty and order we discover in the works of nature, as that leads us to genuine theism.” Rather, polytheism is a religion that responds directly to the human hopes, fears, and misery caused by weather, illness, and wars. “When human beings are in a more primitive and backward state of society,” we find that the “ignorant multitude conceives of these unknown causes as depending on invisible, intelligent agents who they may influence by means of prayers and sacrifice. By this means, human beings hope to control what they do not understand” by means of many gods.

Hume thinks that “As a result of this process, the world becomes populated with human-like invisible, intelligent powers that are objects of worship.” But is this not the concern of every religion?  Hume answers, no, in that polytheism does not concern itself with the abstract question concerning the origin or supreme government of the universe. For him, primitive people who are struggling for their daily survival do not have time to speculate about philosophy or our idea of God (Natural History of Religion, 4.2).

Hume sees two tiers of religion, the intellectuals and the common people, in which the common people are driven by fears and anxieties to accept forces beyond their control and slip into polytheism.

What does this have to do with Hinduism, in that much of it also applies to uneducated Jews and Christians? The application of Hume’s line of thought was made by eighteenth century authors on Hinduism. Sir William Jones (1746 –1794), for example, was an Anglo-Welsh philologist, a judge on the Supreme Court of in Bengal, and a scholar of ancient India. He was particularly known for his invention of the idea of Indo-European languages and wrote six volumes on Hinduism considering it locked into its infancy. It once had a magnificent past, but it did not progress yielding a degenerate present.

Jones explicitly compares the Hindus to the Jews as both stuck in their development to an ancient age of needing rituals. Jones writes: “Hindus are like the Israelites who needed rituals and ceremonies because of their childlikeness. With the full manhood of Christianity these rituals become superfluous.” So modern Jews should be careful about accepting the Hindu side of this pejorative statement, since much of the same applies to Judaism.

The 19th century Bengali Renaissance accepted Hume’s distinction and the colonial gaze of these books distinguishing the philosophic parts of the Hindu religion from the popular superstition. During this same era, Judaism refashioned itself so as to meet this rationalist and Protestant challenge creating Reform and aesthetic Orthodoxy.

This approach was further aided by Max Muller, the German Sanskritist and translator of the Hindu volumes in the series, Sacred Books of the East, who had never actually been to India, sought a rational meaning in the Vedas which he considered Aryan and philosophic as opposed to the popular Hindu religion of the last 2,500 years, which he considered degenerate and primitive. His focus on the ancient classics at the expense of medieval and modern Hinduism is the core of many religion textbooks to this day. Like Jones, Muller saw Christianity as the highest expression of religion to the detriment of Judaism and Hinduism.

This view became standardized in introduction to religion textbooks such as L.S.S. O’Malley’s 1935 work, Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses. O’Malley writes:

The differences between the beliefs and practices of the cultured classes and those of the masses, mostly unlettered villagers, are so great that they almost seem to be differences of kind rather than of degree. The religion of the latter has few of the higher spiritual conceptions of Hinduism and represents in the main its lower side. A mixture of orthodox Hinduism and of that primitive form of religion which is known as animism, it combines Brahmanical rites and observances with the fetishism of lower cults.

Notice that the elite Brahminical works as well as the medieval theological works are listed as primitive in contrast to the modern Neo-Hindu approaches.  In contrast, my stay at Banares Hindu University concerned the so called “primitive” Brahmimical works, especially as they are similar to Jewish works.

Between the 16th to 19th centuries Jews were also generally considered pagan in their rituals, so much so, that Jewish practice was used to understand Native American practices and other newly discovered peoples. Let us not forget, in our discussion, the visit of Samuel Pepys, English naval administrator who is now most famous for his 1663 diary entry, detailing his visit to a synagogue for Simchat Torah. Pepys saw Judaism as brutish and primitive, the way contemporary Westerners have viewed Hindu festivals:

But, Lord! To see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.

The philosopher G. F. W. Hegel following Hume saw Judaism as mediation between primitive religion and Christianity having aspects of both.


Jewish ritual was only excluded from the primitive in the twentieth century. James G. Frazer in his classic work The Golden Bough (1890) placed the rituals of Biblical religion amidst primitive polytheism. Originally, Semitic scholar, Robinson Smith, in an 1880 article discussed totemism and animal worship among the Hebrews. However, later he switched and kept the Biblical religion separate from the primate, treating many statements as mere metaphor. In 1951, the Biblical scholar H Frankfort wrote that scholars should no run to create parallels between the Ancient Near East and the Bible, almost repudiating the connection in Western culture.

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Foreign Worship

Is Hume’s concept of polytheism and the Jewish concept of foreign worship (avodah zarah) the same? In a word: No. Polytheism is about being primitive, magical, and behind the evolutionary curve, a Protestant pejorative. The Jewish halakhic category of foreign worship deals with a mistake that leads people from a primordial natural theism to a form of worship using representation. Among the first to use the term polytheism was John Selden in 1619 who applied it as well to ancient Hebrews.

The most common definition of the Jewish concept of foreign worship is that of the medieval commentator Rashi, who considers the prohibition as referring as using images. Judaism remains without images and statues, compared to its iconography-heavy religions of Christianity and certainly Hinduism.

If we turn to Maimonides, we see foreign worship as a categorical mistake of logic and of one’s following imagination instead of reason.  He presents the use of images in worship as only having started in the era of Enosh, the first son of Seth who figures in the generations of Adam in the book Genesis.

In the days of Enosh, the people fell into gross error, and the counsel of the wise men of the generation became foolish. Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error was as follows: Since God, they said, created these stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified, and honor should be rendered them.


They began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech, and prostrated themselves before them – their purpose, according to their perverse notions, being to attain the Creator’s will. This was the root of idolatry, and this is what the idolaters, who knew its fundamentals, said. They did not however maintain that there was no God except the particular star.

Foreign Worship  is born of a confusion growing from this fact that stars and astral bodies govern the world and the proper way to worship the one true God. It is a category mistake followed by a second mistake about needing Temples, ritual and sacrifice. The foreign worship is the misdirected quest to fulfill God’s will and to grant Him honor through ritual to these forces regardless of good intention.

Maimonides continues his presentation by explaining how this view of Biblical history plays itself out as a restriction on Jewish practice:

The essence of the commandment of foreign worship is not to worship any creation, not an angel, a sphere, or a star, one of the four elements, nor any entity created from them. Even if the person worshiping knows that the Lord is the God, but nevertheless serves the creation in the manner in which Enosh and the people of his generation worshiped originally.

Worshiping another being is what constitutes foreign worship.  Jews do not use any intermediary, angels, or natural force in their worship . Most traditional Jews accept this definition, albeit traditional Jews have always had appeals to angels as part of the liturgy that seems to violate this approach. In contrast, for Hindus, the images are the only ways to reach the Absolute infinite divine, in that a sensory image is needed to focus human worship, while for Jews images are a category error.

Let us contrast Hume to Maimonides in their concepts of incorrect worship of the divine. Maimonides thought that monotheism came first and turning to other beings  came second as a mistake; for Hume it was the other way around.  People are primitive until they evolve into enlightened reason.

To Maimonides view, Hindus could easily retort that he is mistaken on the nature of their Hindu worship, but to Hume the only response would be to claim to be philosophic as did the Neo-Vedanta modernists. The Jewish concept of foreign worship is about the concept of the divine and the role played by the imagination. While the non-Jewish English word polytheism is about a primitive state of humanity that could not conceptualize the divine.

Maimonides argues that we ought to endeavor to imitate God as much as it is possible for a human being. In imitating God, we will be drawn towards greater human perfection which may eventually result in knowledge of God and becoming like God. However, to Hume one is not seeking to obtain knowledge of God or to imitate God, rather to be rational in an Enlightenment sense.

How does Maimonides see the Jewish non-philosophers? Maimonides claims the Bible is written in a way that all men are capable of understanding even prior to their philosophic training. (Guide I: 26, 56). According to Maimonides, “the Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man,” in order that everyone has exposure to correct views, therefore the multitude ought to be instructed as to the perfection of God in terms using only the external, sense of the words.  Elsewhere he claims that people ought to be “made to accept on traditional authority the belief that God is not a body; and that there is absolutely no likeness in any respect whatever between Him and the things created by Him. (Guide I: 35, 80).

Maimonides, similar to Saadyah, could have no problem with theist versions of Nyaya, Mimamsa, and Yoga, and could theoretically find a way to accept many forms of Vedanta. The fundamental divide in the two religions from a Maimonidean perspective comes down to three key differences, the first being the proper method of worship. For Hindus, imagination, sight, sense, and aesthetics are essential to proper worship. Jews in theory do not embellish worship with the senses.

Second, the Maimonidean philosophic religion aimed for the elite gives it a lack of tolerance toward lay devotion or any vestigial forms of ancient religion so a Maimonidean would even have problems with Jewish folk practices.  Hindus have huge amounts of tolerance toward lay devotion and popular conceptions.

Third, Hindus use images and intermediaries in their worship as a proper means to bring the person to God. Maimonides rejects this, but Nahmanides’ approach of limiting the eschewing of images only to Jews is more productive in that it allows non-Jews to have images. Rashba, Nahmanides’s student, states that worship is not considered foreign worship provided one has not lost sight of God, who is the ultimate source of power and governance behind the lower forces.

Polytheism implied an evolution to the truth of Christianity. The traditional Jewish category of foreign worship in practice is more  about erecting boundaries in relation as to what a Jew is allowed to do than a theological position.

During the colonial era, Chief Rabbi of Britain Joseph H. Hertz (1872–1946) combined Hume with a universal tolerance. He states that the heathens were not held responsible for a false conception of God and “were judged by God purely by their moral life.”  For Hertz, “a primitive stage of religious belief” can still form “part of God’s guidance of humanity.” Even in their primitive version, [they] are serving the one true God (Malachi. 1:11) “Even the heathen nations that worship the heavenly hosts pay tribute to a Supreme Being, and in this way honor My name; and the offerings which they thus present (indirectly) unto Me are animated by a pure spirit, God looking to the heart of the worshipper.”

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, editor of a modern edition of the Talmud, takes other religions at their word as theists and considers the high culture philosophic version as the correct version.  First, he assumes that “Hinduism and Buddhism are sufficiently monotheistic in principle for moral Hindus and Buddhists to enter the gentile’s gate into heaven.” For Steinsaltz, “the compromises made or tolerated by the world’s major religions as ways of rendering essentially monotheistic theologies easier in practice for large populations of adherents.” So a theist Shavite, or a Vaishnavite would fall under Jewish monotheism.

At the same time, however, Steinsaltz, while still following Hume, writes that “the less than absolutely monotheistic folk beliefs” of Hindus are taken in Jewish law to be violations of the monotheistic principles of those religions.  Folk believes “are only problematic internally – solely within the discourse of another religion about its own believers. Such violations do not affect what Judaism has to say that religion.” Once the other religion is deemed sufficiently theistic then they are not foreign worship despite their folk belief since Jewish law cannot be violated “by Hindus since Jewish law does not apply to them.”


Folk Religion

What is the religion of the folk in the villages? There are two main Western books on village Hinduism. Lawrence Babb’s Divine Hierarchy and the subsequent C.J. Fuller’s The Camphor Flame.

In contrast to Western speculation from afar based on Hume, Lawrence Babb, an academic specialist on Hinduism who did field work in a small village, calls this distinction between philosophic Hinduism and primitive Hinduism into question. Babb notes that before he entered the field, his Western education taught him to distinguish between the great tradition of the relatively few and the little tradition of the unreflective masses. In contrast, his field work showed that the two elements are complimentary and that the Sanskrit high tradition plays an important role in defining the local traditions while the local traditions define how the high tradition would be performed in a given location.

Babb specifically shows how ordinary villagers have internalized a hierarchy of behaviors with philosophic theologies behind them showing they know both the high and low levels of their relgion. A prime example is found in the ubiquitous knowledge of different types of temples differentiating the high culture of the Brahmins, who serve in the temple and have fixed liturgy from the folk in their own local temples who know that in their own local temples they themselves can perform rituals and worship lower devas. For these people, no god can be so demanding as to exclude their own worshipers from their altars. Local devas and temples are less strict about purity, procedure, and chants than Brahmin temples but there remain a known hierarchal differences between a temple with a Brahmin priest and those without.  Deities of the high culture are seen as responsible for the social order unlike smaller local ones who handle smallpox and fertility. According to Babb:

The Hindu pantheon is a fluid array of supernatural beings and tends to alter in form as one context is replaced by another. In some contexts particular deities are seen as discrete entities, but under other circumstances deities merge with one another and their characteristics blend. At the most abstract level differentiation disappears altogether, as is suggested in the frequently heard Hindu truism that “all gods are one.

Major deities may have a village, local or little version who hears personal concerns. Great theistic god(s) with general powers over the cosmos, are normally thought to be distant from mundane problems of ordinary people. For that reason, Hindus rarely ask them for help.” All towns have a goddess to pray to for fertility, marriage, and smallpox even though she irrelevantly assumes different names.  The high theist god (s) are known by the people but are seen as abstract and distant in both feeling and in their pure rituals. But the local devas are kept featureless so that tales and theology return to the high culture.

The high Sanskrit culture and the culture of the ordinary villager are not separate or discrete from each other; they are merely differences of style or dialect, different modes of expression saying the same thing. Even complex theologies of metaphysics, philosophy and emanations are chanted in the vernacular or carved into the images in the walls of the Temples.

For the religion within contemporary urban slums, the more practical needs of daily life predominate over formal temple ritual. They stress the feminine Shakti elements in religion that are concerned with fertility, childbirth, health and family. Ordinary people pray for worldly ends and individual needs in the same way all urban poor worry about money, relationship and health in their religion. Jews and Christins who fret about illness and money also turn to practices that address these issues.  And like graffiti and hip hop, urban poor create their own original art and stories and songs that catch on among the elite as part of modern popular culture.