Monthly Archives: August 2016

Robert Erlewine Interview – Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik

For decades, American Jews when confronted by Christianity would proclaim the moral superiority of Judaism as a religion of ethics compared to the emphasize on faith within Christianity. Jews would explain how Judaism is this-worldly compared to Christianity’s concern with other-worldly salvation or romantic flights of pietism. This attitude was fostered against the backdrop of many German thinkers from Kant to Adolph von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann denigrating Judaism as a religion without ethics, without love of God, and as empty superstition. The popular Jewish response was to turn the tables and proclaim Judaism as the morally superior faith for reasons of both apologetics and self-definition. The widely read works of Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism,  and Abba Hillel Silver Where Judaism Differed became part of the civil religion of American Jews. But what of the Jewish philosophers?

Robert Erlewine , Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Illinois Wesleyan University, provides the answer in his new book Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016) by looking at the philosophic writings of Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joseph D. Soloveitchik  showing how each defined religion and by doing so responded to the challenge of Christianity.  Personally, I was attracted just by the title alone as making the book worthy of my interest. But after reading it, I would certainly recommend this thoughtful book for those scholars interested in the topic especially my colleagues in the religion department.


The backdrop of the book is the deep resonance with Marcion thought in late 19th and early 20th century German Lutheran thought. Marcion was the Second century early Church thinker who thought that Christianity was a complete rejection of the God and values of the Old Testament. The 19th century thinkers who followed this line of demarcation painted Jesus as complete break with Judaism, as not really being Jewish rather he was Galilean and they painted Judaism as having a vengeful unethical God compared to Christian love. I must point out that Marion was actually rejected by the Church fathers and that this is not the current position of current mainstream Christian theologians who uniformly are working to recontextualize him within his Jewish context. And certainly Catholic thinkers such as Cardinal Ratzinger or Balthasar rejected it (see my very fruitful interview with Anthony Sciglitano here on the Church’s rejection of Marcion thinking).

Erlewine shows that Hermann Cohen portrayed Judaism the most ethical and rational religion, in turn, Judaism can serve as a model to the world. Cohen was the baseline for much of 20th century Jewish thought.

Franz Rosenzweig thought only the religions of Judaism and Christianity (not Islam) have access to the fullness of reality. And yet, these two religions will be in conflict with one another until the end of history.

Martin Buber considered the hallowed life of I-Thou to be the core of religion, in that, the celebrates the importance of this life, the way of man. Erelwine accentuates how Buber present Jesus as a Jew, a claim in direct contrast to the German thought of his era. And that Jesus never claimed to be anything more than a human being teaching ethics. In contrast, Buber presents Christianity as breaking with the teachings of Jesus. Buber’s distinction between fate and destiny plays a similar role of showing how Jewish thought is about living up to our God given destiny. Parenthetically, and not part of the book’s discussion, Buber had the similar responses to the Neo-Hindu visions of Advaita as the highest religion in which he reaffirmed Judaism as the hallowed highest religion.

Abraham Joshua Heschel receives an interesting treatment focusing on his dissertation on prophecy in which the young Heschel defended Jewish prophecy as greater than other religious phenomena. Erlewine also shows the polemic side of Heschel in his later American essays against Christian thought as having lost its connection with its Biblical roots.Many who quote him leave these important critiques of other faiths and Christianity  out of their discussion of Heschel thereby misrepresenting his views.

Erlewine presents Soloveitchik as building on Cohen but moving toward using a scientific model for religion and using Buber’s distinction between fate and destiny. Soloveitchik, however, completely separates Judaism and Christianity from each other, neither can be understood by the other and neither can comment on the other. There is no convergence or common idea and certainly no room for criticism of the other faith.

Erlewine describes his journey to writing this book, his second, came from his time earnestly studying “intellectual historians and theorists like Susannah Heschel, Suzanne L. March and, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Russell McCutcheon. I increasingly came to regard modern Jewish philosophy as embedded in a network of discourses about race, religion, and modernity.” This, along with the 20th century reactions to Hermann Cohen helped him “recognize that there were more fruitful ways of study modern Jewish philosophy than approaching it as a series of rarefied arguments regarding how best to understand what Judaism was… Instead, I began to emphasize how modern Jewish philosophy was an ongoing process of constructing Judaism in relation to Christianity, Europe, and modernity.”

The book assumes that the reader already has a basic familiarity with the canon of modern Jewish philosophy. For my readers, who want a basic familiarity, the only decent introductory secondary source remains: Eugene Borowitz’s Choices in Modern Jewish Thought: A Partisan Guide. For more academic introductions for those with philosophic background, there is The Cambridge Companion to Modern Jewish Philosophy edited by Michael Morgan and Peter Gordon and The Cambridge History of Modern Jewish Philosophy, edited by Martin Kavka, Zachary Braiterman and David Novak. For an introduction to reading Hermann Cohen, for someone who is not ready for his other works, one should start with Reason and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen edited by Eva Jospe or the pieces in Simon Noveck’s Contemporary Jewish Thought: A Reader. 

In each chapter Erlewine generally only picks one or two representative works, so for example he focuses on Heschel’s dissertation and Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind but does not deal with their later works nor does he go beyond their German influence into their later influences from William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Existential thought. If he is moving into intellectual history, then it still reads too close to a rarified philosophic question.  I have a personal pet peeve about his using the term Christianity when he only means German Lutherans. Many aspects of the conversation does not apply to Catholics, Calvinists, or Biblical centered Protestants.  Finally, to turn to my own field, the philosopher of religion could make use of the widely used current categories of theology of religions in the post Vatican II era. (I recommend my own books (here and here) which dealt with some of these same thinkers on related issues.) These comments are not to deflect from his valuable contribution to the discussion and his goal of bringing Jewish thought into discourse with scholars of religion.


1.What was the novel thesis of this book?

I argue that modern Jewish philosophy, especially 20th century German Jewish philosophy, should be understood as a response to developments in the conception and study of religion and its political implications.

One of the major goals of this book is to incorporate recent scholarship in religious studies into the study of modern Jewish philosophy. While scholars of modern Jewish philosophy (or modern Jewish thought) are often housed within religious studies departments there is not always a fruitful exchange between these respective fields. This book is an attempt to help build bridges between the two as they have much to contribute to each other.

  1. How did early 20th century German Theologians and Historians portray Judaism?

In the early 20th century, there was a great deal of interest in “world religions” and the religions of the Ancient Near East.  German theologians who wanted to show that Judaism really was not the source out of which Christianity emerged and that Jesus was not really Jewish used these new fields of study to make their arguments.  In Europe, much of the scientific or scholarly study of religion was motivated by this desire to free Christianity from any essential connection with Judaism. Indeed, during this period we see a resurgence of positive interest in Marcion a heretic from early Christianity, who declared that the God of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament.

In 1920, Adolf von Harnack, an eminent scholar of Christian history and liberal Christian theologian, wrote his major study of Marcion translated as Marcion: The Gospel of an Alien God. This work was hugely influential on many leading scholars of his time, But even before this, important scholars, including Ernst Troeltsch and Julius Wellhausen, were using new developments in historical scholarship to sharpen the distinction between Judaism and Christianity. In this distinction Judaism always came out the loser, as no longer possessing life, as an anachronism that should no longer exist. In this way, even if Christian theologians at that time did not literally believe there were two different Gods as Marcion did, they often believed that the God of the Old Testament was qualitatively different from the God of the New Testament. The former was a harsh tyrant demanding strict obedience whereas the latter was full of mercy and grace and allowing for moral autonomy.

Christian theologians and scholars (who were also often theologians) sought to differentiate Judaism from Christianity, to argue that Christianity was fundamentally different from Judaism. In many ways this was a continuation from the Enlightenment as a period in which philosophers were trying to figure out how to characterize modernity and why it was different than what came before. Non-Jewish thinkers used Judaism and Christianity as useful symbols in this effort. They cast Judaism as the epitome of all that was pre-modern, unfree and unenlightened as opposed to Christianity, which was supposed to embody all the virtues of modernity.

  1. How did Modern Jewish Philosophy Respond?

Taking such developments into account, I show that modern Jewish philosophy is very much an attempt to construct or recast how we are supposed to think about and understand Judaism in ways that makes Christianity inferior or derivative of it, and to show how Judaism is an essential component of European modernity.

I do this by reading major works in the canon of twentieth century Jewish philosophy by Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Joseph Soloveitchik. In different ways, these thinkers are engaged with discussions about the role of Judaism in relationship to the West, with most (but not all) of these thinkers arguing that Judaism is absolutely fundamental to the European civilization. In a very powerful way, they offer a counterpunch to the work of the European (and particularly German) theologians and culture makers seeking to exclude Judaism, to deny it any place in modern Europe.

Modern Jewish philosophy then, particularly as it takes shape in the work of the thinkers I discuss in this book, is quite hostile to Christianity. These thinkers go to great lengths to show that Christianity is not only not more rational than Judaism but that it is decisively less rational, that it is not independent of Judaism but derivative, and so on.

In the work of these thinkers Judaism is made central to how we should envision Europe or the ‘West’, at least all that is good and proper in the West. Christianity, in turn, is regularly criticized for retaining idolatrous elements, for failing to be autonomous in its reliance on God to forgive (rather than say taking responsibility for one’s actions) or as being dependent on Judaism for access to God.

I argue that rather than simple, straightforward criticisms of Christianity for its beliefs and practices (although this critical element is certainly present), I think this hostility and bellicosity on the part of Jewish philosophers reflects both the precariousness of the position of Jews and the  desire of Jewish thinkers to beat Christian philosophers and theologians at their own game. In order to pull this off, they had to relentlessly criticize and show the problems with Christianity which was just assumed to be more rational and modern, even by many Jews.

  1. What was Hermann Cohen’s call for reason and demythologization?

Hermann Cohen was a neo-Kantian philosopher who grounded his own work in a firm belief in reason and the rationality of religion. He emphasized that reason was universal to all human beings and could not be limited to any single community.

Ostensibly, his task in Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, his magnum opus (at least of his explicitly Jewish work), was an attempt to show how the Jewish tradition—like all religious traditions—begins with certain ideas that remain mythological and not fully rationalized. He then traces different layers of the Jewish tradition in order to show how this tradition becomes increasingly rational through continuous interpretation. For example, God is initially depicted as a personal being, indeed even a being with human characteristics. However, in rabbinic interpretation, and then in the medieval philosophers especially Maimonides, we see that the idea of God is increasingly purified of these anthropomorphic traits. For Cohen this is rationalization at its best. God ceases to be modeled on a human a king and comes to increasingly function as the moral exemplar and that which secures the possibility of the moral world order.

But there is another dimension to Cohen’s use of reason. While Cohen claims that all peoples possess the capacity for reason, he does not hesitate to point out where religious traditions such as Christianity and the ancient Greeks go wrong in their notions of God, failing to properly demythologize, and this leads to disastrous moral consequences in Cohen’s opinion.  Indeed, Judaism becomes the example of what a rational religion looks like. To the degree that other religions will become rational they will emulate Judaism. In this sense, Judaism becomes the exemplar of rationality in terms of religion.

Cohen was indeed making use of tropes and concepts that would resonate with German culture and Christianity, he even made use of Jesus, because he claimed that Jews understood Jesus better than Christians, and that Judaism was inextricable to German identity. To grasp the power of this argument, one has to recognize that Cohen was writing at a moment when Orientalists, Historians, and Christian theologians claimed that research could show Jesus was not Jewish and that the New Testament should be freed from Jewish moorings. Cohen’s sophisticated arguments, which were widely read and not merely by Jews, were actively making a case for the inclusion of Jews in German culture.

  1. How was there a shift to direct experience in Franz Rosenzweig and what are its implications for other religions?

Rosenzweig, who was Cohen’s student,  was highly critical of what he called ‘philosophy,’ which he argued equated thought with being. Rosenzweig breaks with Cohen’s religion of reason and its strict rejection of anthropomorphism (actually, Rosenzweig claims he is properly interpreting Cohen who he thinks ultimately changes his mind about God, but this is a highly technical dispute). For Rosenzweig, however, God is a person, a being that requires love, and enters into relationship with the religious individual.

Rosenzweig argued that while philosophy claimed to account for all of human experience, there are aspects of it such as death and the fear of death that philosophy cannot and does not try to adequately describe.  Indeed, there are dimensions of human existence, but not just human existence, for which philosophy cannot account. Rosenzweig attempts to account for this existence irreducible to philosophical thought.

To carry out his attempt at this “New Thinking”  based on human experience, Rosenzweig uses a very complicated method that is part mysticism and part negative theology rooted in Cohen’s philosophical mathematics. He unearths three elements, namely, God, Human Being, and World that are part of our raw experience but beyond the reach of philosophy. These constitute the crucial elements of his system, which relate to one another in in creation, revelation, and redemption. One lives or experiences creation and redemption in one’s life.

However, Rosenzweig’s philosophy associates philosophy with German Idealism and then associates Idealism with paganism. He is also very critical of Indian and Chinese religions which he thinks fail to grasp these three elements of life- God , the human being, and world and in turn, creation, revelation, and redemption.

Only the religions of Judaism and Christianity (not Islam) have access to the three elements of reality: God , the human being, and world. Only Judaism and Christianity are not idolatrous. And yet, these two religions will be in conflict with one another until the end of history because they cannot recognize each other as partners of truth, although they very much are partners.

Many scholars have been critical of Rosenzweig’s depiction of other religions, particularly Islam. What I want to suggest is that his account of these religions had a lot more to do with what was going on in the German intellectual culture at that time and its fascination with Orientalism (at Judaism’s expense) than with any actual engagement with these other religions.

Rosenzweig  is engaging these traditions not so much as they actually are but rather as they exist in the European imaginary (whether he knows it or not). By emphasizing experienced revelation, Rosenzweig hopes to link Judaism and Christianity and distinguish them from all other traditions. He wants to secure Judaism’s privileged metaphysical status in a European world that was increasingly rejecting it.

  1. How does Buber embrace and not embrace other religions?

Martin Buber devoted a great deal of attention to the study of other religions. Indeed, I and Thou was meant, at least originally, as a sort of foundation for the study of religion, what you might call a phenomenology of religion. He readily drew examples from Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. But he would treat these religions and  stories and parables from them in idiosyncratic ways. He would often either show certain shortcomings in these traditions, as for example, faulting traditions that did not to his mind sufficiently celebrate the importance of this life, or read them in a way that made them support Judaism in some tacit way. Perhaps the most obvious example is his account of Jesus as a Jew who never claimed to be anything more than a human being.

In I and Thou Buber tries to show certain patterns that not only spoke to the crises of the present moment, the possibility of redemption, but also to the structure of religious experience as such. For example, he has a notion of the renewal of spirit, which is a version of teshuva. In German, the word he uses is Umkehr.

In Buber’s famous account of the I-It and I-Thou, where the I-It relation is one of use, and the I-Thou is a living relation that cannot be quantified, the I-Thou cannot last forever, and will inevitably become an It. As history progresses, the world of Its, of things, accumulates and increases. However, there is the possibility of a renewal of spirit, of return, of teshuva to the Eternal Thou at the heart of all I-Thou relationships. There is the possibility of renewing all living relations, even those that have become inert, that have become Its.

In many ways, I and Thou reflects the world in which it was written, a time of spiritual uncertainty and crisis. But it also holds out the hope that the world of It relations can be reclaimed, brought back into the world of spirit, into the world of the Thou. A life of use and objects can be made spiritual and full of living relationships once more.

  1. What is Buber’s distinction of faith and destiny?

Religion, for Buber, is not about belief, but about the manner in which one approaches the world. Genuine religion is a matter of one’s basic disposition towards the world. Faith and destiny correspond to Buber’s distinction between the  I-It and the I-Thou. However, they are grounded in how these modes are in turn related to God or the Eternal Thou, that which undergirds all relationships.

For Buber, God is inextricably bound up with this world—although never reducible to it. Therefore, to understand the human relationship with the divine means one must study different ways in which human beings live in the world.

In Book II of I and Thou Buber sets up a juxtaposition between the person of destiny, who believes that the course of the world needs him or her but does not yet know how, and the person of fate, who believes in objects and mastery.

The person of destiny both pursues and embodies the Thou perspective, stands open and ready for relationship, realizes that the world order stands in need of him or her even if he or she does not yet know how. The person of fate seeks to use, to organize, to control. For Buber, this latter mode of being is It-being, it shuts out, it closes off the world to the Eternal Thou and the ability to return, the ability to harness Thou relationships that have grown rigid, that have become sedimented in culture. However, it is the path of the person of destiny to reopen, to recover and harness these sedimented Thous, to recover their salvific potential and let them flow once again. God is not outside or beyond this world. God is within this world, if hidden and covered over, lying dormant, waiting to be recalled and engaged once more.

  1. How was Heschel a Scholar of Religion? How did Heschel have a critique of Christianity?

Heschel’s Die Prophetie, which was the book that was published from his dissertation in 1936, was a scholarly work on the phenomenon of Israelite prophecy in a broad, comparative context.

His study is very much an attempt to show the ways in which the unique contours and structure of Israelite prophecy have been forgotten or distorted through false equivalences.

Heschel was particularly eager to distinguish prophecy from ecstatic modes of religion, where one approached the divine by means of departing one’s consciousness whether through narcotics, breathing exercises or elaborate rituals designed to induce a trance. Heschel insisted that Israelite prophecy was predicated upon and emphasized God’s agency, a God who chooses to make known his emotional life, his pathos, to the human being.

Heschel’s book, while it seems like it is merely descriptive, is also a critique of the Christianity of his time, particularly the manner in which Christian historians were treating Judaism. Christian scholars of religion (again, at this time, religious studies was part of seminaries and thus it was almost always confessional) attempted to blur the uniqueness of the Israelite prophets, to show that they were merely part of a much larger phenomenon in the Ancient Near East. This was done, at least in part, to undercut the importance of the Old Testament and thus to diminish the importance of Judaism for Christianity.

Heschel is particularly concerned with the rising Marcionism in Germany, a tendency that cast God as detached and unconcerned with human history. Rather, Heschel emphasizes that the prophets insisted upon God’s pathos, that God cared about human history, about human beings, about justice. Divine anger is not a scandal but testifies to God’s concern about human history, God cares about every day life.

Heschel was very critical of Christianity in Germany, which he thought was turning its back on its ethical commitments by downplaying the importance of the prophets of the Old Testament (indeed, often rejecting the Old Testament altogether). He felt it had lost touch with the Hebrew Bible and the prophetic sense of justice. It had lost sense of a God who had pathos, of a God who cared about human beings, about what transpired in history. Indeed, his work to build bridges with Christian theologians in the US aimed at emphasizing to Christian leaders the shared investment of Jews and Christians in the prophets of Israel and their God who could be angry and disappointed by human beings. Should Christianity lose its connection to the Old Testament and thus the prophets, Heschel insisted, it would forfeit its relationship to the divine.

  1. How is Soloveitchik not just an Orthodox version of Cohen?

While Soloveitchik was decisively influenced by Cohen, I think it is safe to say he is by no means just an Orthodox version of Cohen. I would rather characterize him as someone who had some shared concerns with, but also who had some fundamentally different sensibilities from Cohen, including, as you mention, with which branch of Judaism he would affiliate.

Soloveitchik, particularly in The Halakhic Mind, shows an appreciation for Cohen’s attempt to use the sciences, at least as they were understood at the beginning of the twentieth century, as a foundation for a system that held culture to rational standards.

However, The Halakhic Mind was written several decades after the death of Cohen and much had changed in regard to the understanding of science. Where Cohen was operating with a unified notion of science rooted in infinitesimal calculus, Soloveitchik highlights that science has become increasingly pluralistic such that no one method or approach can be all encompassing, and as a result philosophy must adjust, must embrace an “epistemological pluralism.” This does not mean there is no reality, but that reality has many faces. There is no one foundation for all of reality, no one basis for rationality. Rather, just as chemists and physicists apply different methods to understanding reality, Soloveitchik thought this meant we should also study religion according to its own unique methodology.

This is a major break from Cohen. Cohen refused to grant religion autonomy, as possessing its own sort of logic, but insisted that it was related to the other members of the system—logic, aesthetics, and particularly ethics. Soloveitchik, in contrast, rejects this, and thinks the best way to understand religion in its own terms, which for Soloveitchik means treating religion through the cultic, through practice, Halakhah. This leads Soloveitchik to very different conclusions from Cohen regarding religion.

Soloveitchik’s position is open to pluralism, where each religious tradition must be understood according to its own sensibilities as grounded in its own practices, whereas Cohen thinks since all human beings share reason and ethics, ultimately their religions should converge in these areas. While Soloveitchik did believe that Judaism would ultimately be vindicated in the eschaton, he does not explicitly criticize Christianity, at least regarding its theology. His philosophy does not so much justify Judaism against Christianity as to show why Judaism should remain distinct and unique even as it participates in the larger ‘Western’ world. In this respect, he represents a distinct voice among these thinkers, attempting to secure Judaism’s apartness, that it is a stranger and sojourner in the Christian West, not its foundation.

  1. For our era of late-modernity and pluralism, what is most enduring and valuable in these thinkers?

I think what is most enduring and valuable about these thinkers, at least when we take them as a whole, is the way the use philosophy to interrogate and revitalize various aspects of the Jewish tradition. They turned to philosophy as a way to explain Judaism to their cultured despisers but also to use it to fight back and critique those who would exclude and reject them.

What these thinkers accomplished that remains relevant for us is that they made Judaism vital and exciting at a time when it had very few friends and was by no means popular in the broader European culture. They made, in different ways and in different capacities, the tradition speak to their present moment and not just liturgically but in regard to culture and broad social movements. Our concerns may not be theirs (although I do think we share a lot with them) but more than anything, what is enduring in their work is the ability to use philosophy to think about traditions and practices that many take for granted, to think about them in a new light and in relation to the larger culture or cultures in which we live.

Their work demands that we never just accept the tradition but that we constantly inquire why and what place it has in the modern world. When I look at contemporary religious life  in the US and not just Jewish life, I see very little of this intellectual rigor. I see a lot of self-satisfaction. I think this aspect of these philosophers remains a great gift when religion is so often couched in terms of feeling or authority.

  1. From your earlier work: How does Cohen point the way for combining tolerance and religion without having to reject religion? How can we have absolute truth and be tolerant? How is he better than Habermas and Hick?

In my previous, Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), I examine current discussions of monotheism by scholars such as Jan Assmann, Regina Schwartz and Martin Jaffee which highlight the tension between notions like election or chosenness and current, liberal sensibilities such as tolerance and pluralism.

Christian theologian John Hick and philosopher Jürgen Habermas both require that all religious communities learn to treat each other with equal respect. That is, all claims of being special, to having a privileged relationship with God must be rejected in favor of viewing all traditions as more or less equal. However, this is in conflict with the way concepts like chosenness or election traditionally function in the Abrahamic monotheisms.

I found that our current sensibilities about tolerance were rooted in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his treatment of religion. However, the works of Moses Mendelssohn and Hermann Cohen offer better ways forward.

After studying the respective philosophies of religion of Mendelssohn, Kant, and Cohen, I conclude that Cohen figured out a way to retain a notion of election but in a way is grounded in an ethical universalism. For Cohen the Jews continue to insist on their uniqueness and their chosenness, but only for the purpose of highlighting the universality of the ethical ideal of the human being that continues to go unrealized. That is, Cohen links the particular religion of Judaism to the universal ethical ideal of the human being.

What Cohen accomplishes that Habermas and Hick do not, is that he finds a way to maintain the particularity of a religious tradition while also linking it in a way that remains firmly grounded in ethics to the universal. He allows a religious community to retain a link between the particular to the universal.

For Hick and Haberamas, tolerance requires that all traditions become only particular, that they relinquish any conception of themselves that would grant their particular community universal importance. In this way, I think, Cohen offers a method of thinking about how we might more realistically bring religious traditions to think about religious diversity without requiring that they forfeit notions like election or chosenness that are often perceived to be absolutely essential to their self-identity.

  1. It seems that Gershom Scholem as a philosopher and historian of religion is essential for many of your arguments, but was not covered in the book.

Gershom Scholem is a thinker I struggle with a great deal. In particular, I find much of my scholarship geared toward combating his highly influential, post-Holocaust critiques of German Jews and German Jewish thinkers as self-negating, lacking dignity and failing to adequately defend themselves.  To be sure, Scholem’s account is not without nuance or pathos, which I think is what makes his work so powerful. And yet, I think another part of the power of his depiction is that it is still very much haunted by the immediate aftermath of the Shoah and it tends to see it as an inevitability and that this should have been evident to others. In making this assumption, his depiction downplays the subversiveness, the boldness with which Jewish thinkers challenged their Christian contemporaries.

Rabbi Menachem Froman – My Followers Will Laugh from This

Image a new volume of Hasidic aphorisms akin to those of Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz or those a Sufi pir. A volume of epigrams about directly relating to God and creating a deep religion of the heart. Reminders not to treat religion or ones denomination within that region as just another sports team to root for victory for one’s squad. Rather, a person with faith looks directly to the self and to the Zohar, Rav Nachman and Rabbi Mordecahi Yosef Leiner of Izbitz. Currently, there is a new little volume by Rabbi  Menahcme Froman that does just this.

The new book by Rabbi Menachem Froman, who unfortunately died three years ago, is called by a title with a double meaning My Followers (Hasidim) Will Laugh from This (Privately Published as Hai Shalom Publishing, 2015, 160 pages). The book is a collection of 180 gems of spiritual wisdom culled by his son from Rabbi Froman’s writings. The volume is a little paperback, available for under five dollars. For those just discovering the writings of Rav Shagar, it is important to note that Froman and Shagar were close and share a common group of followers in Othnel, Tekoa, Siah and elsewhere. His volume fills the reader in on some of the sounds and thoughts of this collective approach.

Froman book

For those who have never heard of him, Rabbi Menachem Froman (1945 –2013) was an Orthodox rabbi and a peacemaker. He was a man of apparent contradictions. Froman was the chief rabbi of Tekoa, a settlement deep in the West Bank, as well as a tireless advocate for peace, religious dialogue and coexistence with his Palestinian neighbors. He was a founding member of the settler movement Gush Emunim, and dedicated to the right of the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel, but also acknowledged, that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is “evil” and “derives from the power of man’s fear.”

But for Froman, these ideas were not contradictions. Rav Menachem loved the Land of Israel, while recognizing that it did not only belong to one people. In an interview, he stated: “What I want for myself I must also want others to have. I want a Jewish state, I must want there to be an Arab state. I love Jerusalem, I have to want them to have Jerusalem, too.” Rabbi Froman believed that religion and love of the land could be unifying forces between Israelis and Palestinians instead of dividing ones. And he taught that love and peace could be the only responses to hate and violence.

His political essays have recently been collected and published in a slim volume titled Sokhaki Aretz, (Laugh My Beloved Land): Peace (Shalom), People (Am), Land (Adamah), the first of several expected volumes of his essays. For those who want to know more, see Hebrew wiki, Arabic wiki, and the memorial website. I especially recommend these two heartfelt obituaries expressing his life and thought – here and here. 

I knew Rabbi Froman from interfaith events, where he taught Rav Nachman and Zohar to Muslim leaders,  the politicians did not take him seriously but the pious did. He danced and sang with Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Buddhist leaders.  Froman was friendly with many secular artists and novelists whom he felt were more open to life than many a self-proclaimed religious person.


Froman loved to pray and speak about praying to God. He also thanked God constantly. One of his favorite gestures was to clap his hands  rhythmically, while chanting the word “Todah” (Grateful ). Rav Menachem believed deeply in the power of thanks. He thanked his students, his friends, and strangers.

Rabbi Froman’s aphorisms  are about embracing the space of uncertainty, learning to cultivate trust and prayer in place of fixed answers. He was one of those people “whose religious revelation was not expressed in ready-made ideas about what’s forbidden and what’s permitted, and regular forms of prayer, but existed in the body, the soul, in action.”

The goal of his teaching is to reopen the heart to experience God. Froman wants to touch and see God, yet knows that we will not attain his goal. We are left with our limits and acceptance of inevitable death. Froman thinks our most human response should be humor, to be able to laugh at ourselves.

I starting translating a few pieces of My Followers Will Laugh From This for my files then realized they would make a good blog post. Hence, they have a double numbering – with the end numbering as a potential footnote, and the header numbering for a blog reader. These are not polished or translated for publication; if I ever quote one then I will retranslate it.  If you quote my translation, then please acknowledge source of translation.

Read them and enjoy them.


131) Rav Shagar criticized the religious community for the fact that their faith was not realistic, rather it is an illusion. In my eyes, the problem of the faith of the religious is that in place of faith in God they changed into a faith in themselves, in the righteousness of their path and their worldview and who they are. Consequently, it turned into a closure of the heart to the sense of God (Inyan elokhi).(131)

179) Sometimes I think that all of theology, all religions, and all words spoken in the world about God – spring forth only from the need to explain the simple instinctual human activity called prayer.  A person prays but he needs to explain to himself to Whom does he pray and what he is doing. Therefore, he calls this by the name of God and builds a complete religious worldview around this. The core of everything is prayer. (179)

180) The world is divided into two types of people. The first type of person repeats himself again and again, each time saying the same thing. The second type are those who don’t have anything to say, (180)

21) What is religious? Depth is religion. To be religious is to be deep and what is deep is religious. The novelist Amos Oz told me many years ago “To you Menachem I can tell that my works are religious literature.” The question is open if this is true about his works but this is exactly the issue- depth is the essence of the divine. For that reason, I taste in Kafka more of a taste of divinity than from many of the book of rabbis.

Once, when I was young, I traveled to a wedding and on the way I read the Biblical Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia Mikrait) which is filled with scholarship and biblical criticism.  Rabbi Avigdor Nevenzal saw me and wondered about me in his characteristic humility. I told him: In this book there is much religious depth. But this was then, when I had strength to permit. Today, my strength has grown weak. (21)

26) I am a friend of a former commander and Palestinian defense minister. He is a lover of Israel, therefore he retired when Hamas took control of Gaza. He is a truly religious person. Once he asked me to bring him [Maimonides’] Guide of the Perplexed in Arabic… If only that our [Israeli]  defense minister would study the Guide of the Perplexed. (26)

56) According to the Rebbe of Izbitzer: What is the test of the sacrifice [of Isaac]? That the command of the sacrifice of Isaac was through a glass darkly (aspaklaria sheano meiriah)- an unclear message with ambiguity. This is the self-sacrifice of Abraham that despite that he did not know and was uncertain, he followed it.

Abraham was not a completely religion person knowing what God wants and then fulfilling the command. Rather, he acted as if he was in the secular world, which does not have a system of absolute decrees and one does not have 100% certainty. Therefore it was a great test(56)

57) What makes me religious? I am not religious because I am an agent of God, rather I am religious in that I rely on God, that I cling to God, I am completely dependent on God. I depend on God for what I do and I know that I depend on God.

There are two type of religion: The first says: There is a God- this is the religion of soccer fans and yeshivot- every place where you cry out “There is a God”  or “Here O Israel”. There is another religion that says God knows or in a certain sense God is vast.(57)

58) Once I explained in an article that I wrote that the purpose of my life is to be an example of what not to do. (58)

73) Fear of [God] is to accept reality, not to fool oneself but to live with the questions. In the end we die, this is difficult but this is fear [of God]- to accept reality (73)

80) The entire dynamic and tension of the religious life is built on our continuous attempt to see what is impossible to see. The Torah says “No one shall see me and live”. The piyyutim, for example Yigdal (I will glorify the living God), explain and emphasize that it is impossible to see God- but we do not stop our desire. In Rav Nachman’s story The Humble King, he explains how the hero went out to seek a portrait of the king of whom no one has his portrait, he has the desire to reach the impossible.

One who understands this and makes peace that He is impossible to reach and to see – loses the religious faculty (inyan elokhi). The religious life starts with this want –despite that it is probably impossible.

Yet, in the Torah it is written that Moses saw God face to face therefore it is possible to see Him . This is certain- that without sight or contact there cannot be a connection. On the other hand, seeing Him also destroys something. In the moment that you see the girl of your dreams you also lose her in a certain way.

Then what do we do? See? Don’t see? I have a friend who told me that he returned to observance (hozer be teshuvah) after he went with his father to the Louvre in Paris and saw the Mona Lisa. Perhaps this is the answer.  (80)

81) For many years, I have said that I have two proofs for God. The first is that media fills the void of the world with so much nonsense and despite this a person keeps a little reason – this is a sign that there is a God.

[Second:] is that the religious community appears the way it does and speaks about God the way it does. Despite this there remains people in the world who believe [in God] – this is a sign that in truth there is a God. (81)

100) The purpose of the Zohar is to reveal the answer to “know… to where you are heading” (Avot3:1) then you wont fear death, on the contrary you are strengthened from it.  (100)

115) In truth, the world is filled with tragedy; existence is laden with many inner contradictions. The difference between me and Rav Kook is that Rav Kook triumphed over them with a harmonistic approach an I triumph over them with humor.  (115)

137) The Zohar is not the Torah of the righteous but for the masters of return. Why? Because someone who has not fallen – who has not “glanced and been stricken”, one who has not “cut down some of the shoots”, one who has not tasted the taste of heresy – does not learn Zohar. Only someone who visits the abyss can reach the secret (sod). (137)

151) Who is permitted to enter the empty void? One who does not wait for answers, one who does not wait for decisions of halakhah that decide what he is to do. Only one whose religiosity is built on silence. One whose emotions of cleaving to God are at times such that he does not know what is incumbent upon him to do. A person like this becomes a stronger believer from the times that he calls out the question of “where is the place of His glory?”

One whose faith is built on emotions of grace in which he only experiences that “there is a God” – that his cleaving to God comes from an answer to questions, then it is forbidden for him to enter the empty void, his religious world would collapse there. (151)

164) The uniqueness of the Zohar as opposed to other works of kabbalah is that the Zohar deals entirely with the left, the side of the other side (sitra ahara). It does not remain in the sublime mercy of the right side. Rather it seeks embodiment by partnership with the forces of evil, only in this way can something be whole. This is exactly the opposite of Maimonides. The entire purpose of Maimonides was to negate corporeality, while the Zohar is the book of corporeality and partnership with evil.

Therefore, the Zohar really loves sacrifices. Today in synagogue we do all sorts of spiritual activities such as praying and intention – but where is the meat? Where is the corporeality? The Zohar says that a sacrifice is peace and there is not peace without the left [side]. We make peace with enemies otherwise it is one sided as when there is only the right side. The [right side] is the essential part but without the accompanying [left] part there is no wholeness. So too with a sacrifice- there is confession, which is perhaps the essential part of sacrifice but without the meat and blood it is not a sacrifice. The Zohar is the opposite of Maimonides.  (164)

169) It is customary to say that it is forbidden to study the Zohar before one marries, but how is it possible to get married without learning Zohar? (169)

30) When I learned in Merkaz Harav, we continuously returned to the divine grasp of Nahmanides who said that to live in the land of Eertz Yisrael (land of Israel) was a mitzvah, in contrast to Maimonides who did not count this as a mitzvah. The entire settlement movement is based on this position of Nahmanides. But perhaps, Maimonides is correct.

Anyone who reads  “And it shall come to pass that if you keep the mitzvot” (“Vehaya im shamoa tishmeu mitzvosai asher…”) sees that living in the land is a gift of God, the land is a reward for keeping other mitzvot. There is no other command placed on people. (30)

33) What can brokenness create? It can produce a revelation of the shekhinah that fills the thankful heart. (33)

35) The principle power of a person is to acknowledge his weaknesses and to turn to God. This is the great power of a person.  (35)

47) The Rambam [probably he meant Maharal or Ramhal] said that the truth is grasped by contradictions because I live a life of everything and its opposite. I am wide but also narrow. I am required to be focused and grounded but to have a rich world, scattered but to have fear of God. It is impossible to know consequences: Does wealth brings fear of God or the opposite? Every mitzvah and every action need two wings of love and fear. Between these two poles is formed the electric tension of life.

I once told the story of how a yeshivah student became a disciple of Rav Shagar, who was then R”M at Yeshivat Hakotel. Once in the middle of Yom Kippur he took the student for a walk, they ambled and wandered around until they arrived at David’s tomb. Instead of all the focus on the Yom Kippur service they hiked around and wandered. This gave the student the light of worshiping God. (47)

© Alan Brill 2016

Tomer Persico Interview – Part 2: Spiritual Journey & What Kind of Judaism Do We Want.

Here is the second part of my two part interview with Tomer Persico. Part I was dedicated to his new book on Jewish meditation and Part II is on his spiritual journey and vision for a future Judaism.

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This interview is based on my having read two earlier interviews with Tomer Persico. One in Globes and a great interview in Haaretz that they translated into English. In the Haaretz interview Persico stated his desire to create a humanistic Judaism with a message for the world that is not dependent on the impoverished ethnocentric world of contemporary Orthodoxy.

The fundamental question is what kind of Judaism we want. Do we want an isolationist Judaism that entrenches itself in its own minutiae, contributing nothing to the world, or do we want a Jewish culture that has a religion but is much more than that? The situation is ridiculous. The Bible contains a universal vision, encapsulated in the simple slogan, “a light unto the nations.” That is the message of Judaism. Yet the groups we consider the most religious are precisely the most separatist and insular, and wield the least influence worldwide. The average Western person has never even heard the names of the revered local rabbinical sages. It’s absurd.

The secular public – and in this regard, I include myself among that public – must articulate an autonomous Jewish identity for itself, one that is not dependent on Orthodox Judaism to represent it. The Jewish tradition is packed with values that are easily translated into humanistic and even feminist language. It’s authentically ours. Of course, the tradition is also packed with other things, which are easily translated into racism and ethnocentrism.

But if we look at the Jewish identity of the religiously observant community in Israel – both the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionism – we find that it is far more impoverished than it seems to be from the outside. It looks very sure of itself, but there is very little original religious creative work going on. It’s often a meager identity, based on ethnocentrism, xenophobia, a false sense of superiority or the cloning of passages from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, or from Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik or Rabbi [Eliezer] Shach. But they have no answers to offer to the challenges faced by present-day Jewish society in Israel. It’s running on empty. It is not such a daunting challenge to put forward an alternative, autonomous identity that provides a decisive answer.

As discussed in the prior interview, Persico sees the source for a meaningful Judaism in the turn to spirituality and personal religion. Yet he is aware of the problems of the New Age movement and the crude marketing of contemporary spirituality- both secular and Orthodox.

New Age became a series of products for people in search of self-fulfillment and transformation. Workshops and courses were offered of a kind never seen in the history of the religions familiar to us. Taking a potpourri of elements from a range of sources, New Age turns them into a product, such as workshops in fasting and reincarnation. It reaches grotesque levels, in which one supposedly learns how to “suck in abundance from the universe.” Like in “The Secret.” If you believe you’ll have a Porsche, and hang a picture of a Porsche in your house, you will have a Porsche.

There are spiritual techniques that work. Just because the market learned how to exploit the whole spectrum of beliefs for its needs doesn’t mean that you can’t find pure gold in it – but the search becomes more difficult.

Instead of changing the rules of the game for you, New Age becomes a kind of release valve for a pressurizing system and allows the system to go on battering you. The whole current trend of becoming religiously observant is also part of this. It’s the same search, except that it turns to the source of Judaism – but with the aim of fashioning a tailor-made Judaism for ourselves. It is not Orthodox penitence, acceptance of the burden of the precepts. The search is for the personal connection, the experience.

Instead, Persico advocates a inner commitment to a system that takes into account our individuality and humanism.

Persico discovered the seriousness of religion and by extension of Judaism through his journey to India. In this, he is part of a bigger story of Israelis traveling to India after the army and then returning with an Indian understanding of religion to which they can now understand their own Judaism. Not just secular Jews travel to India but also yeshiva graduates and now even those who give Talmud shiur are traveling to India. For an older book about these journeys, see Elhanan Nir, Me-Hodu ṿe-ʻad kan : hogim Yiśreʼelim kotvim ʻal Hodu ṿe-Yahadut shelahem (2006) [Hebrew] This is a major trend that will further accentuate the difference between American Judaism which generally views itself in Protestant terms, even the Orthodox.

In the last few years, Persico has taken on the role of a liberal clergy by having performed almost fifty weddings for those wanting to avoid the Rabbinate. Yet, Persico still sees himself as secular despite his high level of traditional ritual observance because from his Israeli perspective one is either Orthodox or secular.


1) What was your religious background and how did you rediscover religion in India?

I grew up in a secular and atheist family in Haifa. Studying in Israel’s secular education system I had almost no contact with traditional Jewish sources except for the Bible. After my compulsory army service, at age 22 (1996-7), I flew to India, traveling the sub-continent for ten months in what can be called the compulsory Israeli trip-after-the-army. I devoted my journey to the investigation of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religion and thought, met with numerous spiritual teachers and pundits, and had also taken up Buddhist Vipassana meditation (that I learned from what were then the annual Bodh-gaya retreats led by Christopher Titmuss), which I practice to this day. It is then that I realized that contrary to what I was convicted of, there is more to existence than crass materialism.

I went through a few transformative experiences, most of them challenging the presumed border between the inner self and the outer world, and initiated what I refer to as an intimate relationship with the divine. Since then I have been to India eight more times, spending more than two cumulative years of my life in the Indian sub-continent. I usually go to Varanasi, where I just hang out and soak up the atmosphere, and to Tiruvannamalai, were I meditate at the Ramana Maharshi Ashram  at the feet of the holy mountain Arunachala. I must have spent months in each place, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit them again and again.

In the past I would also sit and learn from Ramesh Balsekar, a follower of Nisargadatta Maharaj, who himself became a teacher. He died in 2009. I must say also that even though I still practice Vipassana meditation concerning Eastern traditions I feel much closer to Hinduism then to Buddhism today. I am a lot more Bhakti oriented then I was when I started my journey…

Addenda- Here is an account of one of Persico’s experiences in  Tiruvannamalai.

2) How did you rediscover the Jewish tradition of practice, texts, and experiences?

I started being interested in the Jewish tradition simply because it made no sense to me studying translated Sanskrit and Pali texts when I can read ancient religious texts in their original language. Add to that the fact that it was my own mother tongue, and it really seemed absurd not taking a close and serious interest in the Jewish sources.

So I took up any course or program that I could find. I studied with Rabbi Ofek Meir (today the Director of the Israel Rabbinical Program in Jerusalem’s HUC) In a year long course about the Jewish tradition in Haifa, then for two years in the Hevruta Beit Midrash in the Hebrew University with Rabbi Shimon Deutsch. (which really engendered in me a great love for the Talmud), and I also took almost any academic course I could in Jewish Studies all through my BA and MA, studying with gdoylim such as Moshe Halbertal, Moshe Idel and Shalom Rosenberg. That made for a great background in Talmud, Kabbalah, Hasidism and Jewish Thought on which I could further independently build more.

But I came closer to the Jewish tradition for more fundamental reasons. From Buddhism and Advaita I learned how much of an illusion our separate sense of self is. I never believed in an eternal, individual soul (and still don’t), but understanding deeply that there isn’t any inherent separate self, any “little man” inside us, led me to recognition of the important place of society in our individual formation and existence. We are more or less the sum of the influences on us. And indeed, the Buddhist tradition places the Sangha, the community, as equal in importance to the Buddha and the Dharma. Now the Jewish tradition is a tradition of community building, if not nation building. Finding this of tremendous importance, I went through a renewed evaluation of it.

Another great thing about the Jewish tradition that I found is its groundedness. It is very down to earth, not only in that it gives importance to the body and its actions, but in a very fundamental way that it seeks divine work in the here and now, in this world. It does not picture the ideal in another world, somewhere “out there” or “above”, but in this one. This for me helped get over a very common spiritual trap, when seekers take this world (material existence, the body, the mind, etc’) as an obstacle on the path to the divine, instead of seeing it as the most perfect manifestation of the divine.

For these two reasons (but not only them) I came to greatly appreciate the Jewish tradition, and to develop a feeling of responsibility towards it. I felt there is something here that needs to be preserved, nurtured and developed. I took to studying it (yes, Talmud, Halakha, philosophy) and practicing it (I would call myself “Masorti” in my observance).

3) Why do you think there needs to be sangha- a practice based in community?

I believe a sangha is essential of course, and a sangha for the non-orthodox is divided into two levels. The first is simply the nation, and by that I don’t mean the ethnic collective but the body politic of the nation state that one is part of. This is your larger community in which you have to act, on which you have to influence and which you have to support and better. This means that you can’t hide in a closed community like the Haredim. You must be a part of the time and place you live in. you must be a part of the general, common, day to day society, experience the same problems and work together for the mutual good. I try to do my part as an activist and an intellectual in Israel.

The second level is the closer, more like-minded community, which, I admit, for the non-orthodox in Israel is harder to establish. There are of course many non-orthodox communities, but they lack the matter-of-factness that comes from a mutual commitment to a defined traditional structure.

I am a part of the Hartman institute, and for me that is a sangha I am a part of, and I of course have my circle of friends. But the Jewish renewal in Israel will indeed have to learn to create communities. It already does so here and there, but not enough. By the way, here is where the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel can help – by giving the foundations and structure needed for community building for the non-orthodox.

4) You currently perform Jewish weddings in Israel. Is that legal? Why do people come to you?

I perform Jewish weddings as part of my activism for freedom of religion in Israel. The law here restricts the prerogative to conduct weddings to the Chief Rabbinate. As such, Jews cannot marry non-Jews, and those disqualified for marriage (psulay chitun) such as mamzerim and kohanim with divorcees. There are also a few hundred thousand not-Jews-according-to-Halakha that came to Israel via the Law of Return that cannot marry in their own state. It’s a tremendous grievance. Of course, many others simply don’t want an orthodox Rabbi under their chuppah. Me and my friends in Havaya organization (an organization that performs non-orthodox life-cycle events without payment) , as well as the Reform and Conservative movements, give them another option.

The weddings that I conduct do not register in Israeli Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the couples by law are only Common Law married. They are also, if halakhicly valid (not all couples care or want that of course) against the law can be punishable by up to two years in prison. This ludicrous law will never be enforced, but it shows you the level of hysteria the Chief Rabbinate is in. And indeed, the numbers and percentage of weddings out of the Chief Rabbinate are constantly growing.

The changes almost always requested concern the role of the bride. In the wedding that I perform, the bride gives the groom a ring and also says something to the groom, before or after he does. Also the Ketubah is usually changes- no kinyan, or buying of the woman, and there must be mutual, shared commitments and aspirations for the future.

Some couples also have a problem with the “Im Eshkachech” Jerusalem part at the end of the chupah. With all these we work in a dialogical way. We don’t want to make up a whole new chupah up. But we do want to stand under a chupah and conduct a marriage that speaks to us, that is meaningful to us, that does not insult our intelligence or our values. It’s always a work in progress and always a sort of compromise, because for most of those getting married the tradition is also important.

5) Do you see yourself as a form of liberal clergy?

Yes, I do. I do not call myself a Rabbi, but that is in part my function in my society. Basically we see all over the Western world the move from denominations memberhood to non-identification (aka, “the rise of the Nones”). Most of the people who refuse to identify with any organized denomination are far from being atheist and still need “clergy” for different functions. The clergy thus is also best when non-denominational, and really “charismatic” in character. I believe Max Weber would have been pleased with the turn to the charismatic.

[AB- Max Weber actually thought charismatic and Romantic religion was dangerous. If the rational  bureaucracy becomes sterile or if it loses sight of the ultimate end, Weber advocated a return to local rational organization.]

6) With all this religion, why do you see yourself as secular? What is a secular Jewish identity?

I see myself as a religious Jew. But since I don’t have a religious authority other then myself, I would say that in a very important way I am secular, secularity being less the dropping of belief and praxis and more the transference of different fields of power and knowledge from religious institutions to non-religious ones.

As for secular Jewish identity, I think that at this time it is in a deep crisis. In the states we see that it is very hard to remain a Jew (not ethnically, but culturally, which I think is much more important) without engagement in any denomination, let alone any synagogue/beit midrash centered community. In Israel the collapse of the old Secular Zionist paradigm brought with it the collapse of that paradigm’s “Jew”, meaning the distinct Jewish identity that it espoused.

The Jewish renaissance (described in the last interview) which Israel has experienced for the last two decades is an expression of the renewed search by secular Jews for a Jewish identity to replace the old, crumbling, Secular Zionist one. This make for the great spectrum of Jewish expressions that we see now in Israel, of which I am part of, of course.

7)  Why do you think that this new identity will be based on New Age, Kabbalah, meditation and personal experience?

It will not wholly be based on them. This new Jewish identity is simply very diversified. It is individualistic in principle, and as such likes to tailor-make its Jewish suit, so to speak. Naturally, for many the materials used will be from the New Age expressions of the tradition, such as Neo-Hasidism, Neo-Kabbalah, new Jewish spiritual paths like Yemima (sometines called “Conscious Thinking”, a spiritual path based on the instructions of Yamima Avital (1929-1999), which combines psychological insights with Kabbalistic language), etc’. But for many this identity will be more intellectual and cultural in character, taking from pluralistic Talmud study, Piyut singing and such. Still for others the new Jewish identity, and this we see a lot in Israel lately, is simply an ethnocentric, tribal position, based on the narrowest and least demanding conditions for being Jewish, and displayed by hyper-nationalism, racism and xenophobia. But the New Age translations of Jewish traditions are certainly popular, and satisfy the need for an individual, experiential, connection to the tradition.

8) What is your emphasis on autonomy and authenticity? What do you
apply the quest for authenticity also to the followers of Yitzhak Ginzburgh, hill top youth and Haredi Breslovers? More, importantly, what can secular Israeli learn from them?

Well, first, they apply it to themselves. They use the word “authentic” to characterize their Judaism. Of course, there is no surprise here in my opinion, because as I said in the first part of this interview, we are today at a time were the Western would in engrossed more then ever before in the inner world, finding in it sources of meaning, authority and identity.

What I did in one of my articles on Ginzburgh’s followers and the hilltop youth was to try to show that the roots of their attitude are found in the Romantic movement, and in particular in German Romanticism. Like many today, they also seek an inner experiential validation for their identity, and want very much to be “true to themselves”. Now the Jewish tradition is not really about being true to yourself, but being true to your covenant with God. So they are in a point of tension with their presumed orthodoxy.

Shlomo Fischer has written a few articles about the violence (against Palestinians of course) that is inherent to these groups, and I tried to explain the violence as a way to solve the deep seated divergence between adherence to our inner urges and compliance to heteronomic tradition. What I suggest is that these groups realize the authenticity of their intimate selves by externalizing their most passionate feelings as religio-nationalist violence. This not only allows them to stay within Halachic boundaries but actually enforces the Halacha, as the Halachic restrictions are the very standards by which the division between Jew and Gentile is created, and thus lay the necessary ground for these passions and acts.

In a similar way Breslovers seek inner validation for their religion.I don’t think that on this point the secular Israeli has a lot to learn from these groups, simply because like them, she is also seeking authenticity, and I don’t think their solutions are very good.

9) How has Israel moved from a democracy to an ethnocracy?

The state is nearing the point of becoming a full fledged ethnocracy. Of course, the State of Israel has always been a home for the Jewish people, so many say that it has always been an ethnocracy, but we have to remember that is all streams of Zionism, left and right, there was a prominent liberal-democratic vain. Both Jabotinski and Begin on one side, and Weisman and Ben Gurion on the other, insisted on equal right to all citizens, and indeed understood that that is the only way to insure the legitimacy of the new state.

Really, it has to be noted that democracies do not form by accident. It takes a lot of effort. And that effort was taken. And a liberal democracy was formed. The problem today is that the said liberal vain is waning, and citizenship is replaced by ethnicity as the fundamental building block of the state, as the basic criterion for deciding who gets privileges. Naturally, in a situation like this, when there is a majority of ethnic Jews, other ethnic groups will suffer. All this is coated with layers of Jewish symbolism and imagery, and the Halacha is recruited in order to justify discrimination and racism, so it might seem like Israel is turning into a theocracy, but really there is much more nationalism, ethnocentrism, triumphalism and simple xenophobia then religion here.

10) How is Israel no longer seen as an exemplar society?

I would say the most significant political and moral challenge facing the Jewish State can be expressed by the question how to be faithful to the founding Zionist principle of building a model society in Israel, while forming a modus vivendi with the Palestinian people. Here is the point of tension: historically, classical Zionism, both socialist and revisionist, set to built in the Promised Land not only a safe haven for the Jews all over the world, but an exemplary society. A modern and secular interpretation of the traditional “Light onto the Nations”, the Jewish state was meant to be democratic, egalitarian, gracious and just. The ways in which to reach this ideal were debated, but the vision was clear in essence: the Jewish modern political body would be both a national home for the Jewish people, the expression of their right to self rule and self determination, and the envy and the inspiration of the world.

As we near the 50th anniversary of the conquest of Judea and Samaria, the chance of erecting a border on the 1967 “Green Line”, between the State of Israel and a Palestinian political entity is growing minute, and ever smaller. Whether resisting the founding of an independent Palestinian state comes out of religious views and aspirations, whether it comes out of security concerns, or whether the Palestinians themselves don’t in fact want it, the reality that is taking shape discloses a situation in which between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea about six million Jews are ruling over about six million Palestinians, of which only about two million are citizens holding equal rights.

This situation, in any way it enfolds, spells the end of the Zionist vision. If it remains as it is, it holds the termination of the hope of building in Israel a model society, for no country in which a large minority is denied equal rights in this day and age can be called a Light onto the Nations. On the other hand, if all the Palestinians are given equal rights, the reality of an independent Jewish state is lost, and the Jewish people’s right to self rule and self determination is denied. Thus, even before speaking about any security threats and economic forecasts, a modus vivendi between the Jewish and the Palestinian people that is reached on the basis of the current demographic and political reality expresses the end of the Zionist principle of building a model society.

11) How does Israel regain humanistic values?

The occupation must end. How? Well, basically, the two state solution. Unless we end the forced control of millions of non-citizens there is no hope for a moral Jewish state.

One idea I heard, which for me carries hope, is the idea of a Jewish-Palestinian confederation. In this political alternative there will be two independent states between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, but the border between them will be open, and no individual will be forced to leave his or her home. Both peoples will receive their right to self determination, while the mutual historical and religious yearnings for the whole land will not be denied. Jews and Palestinians will live wherever they wish, but be citizens only of one state. Of course, many questions still remain: how many military forces will exist here? What about the question on Palestinian refugees? What to do with the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif? But I think the direction proposed here is a positive one.

12) Why do you think the future will be the way you described as spirituality when most people are concerned with business, finance, hard technology and reading Globes? Are you not a minority opinion?

I never said we are headed for a spiritual heaven, no… I am a minority view by being a sort of a spiritual seeker.

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(Dont forget to look at his blog.)

Addenda- From Persico’s Maariv article on the problem and need of gurus

Spiritual teachers who gather pupils around them have existed in the Oriental religions for thousands of years, and for a thousand or more in Judaism and Islam. What’s different these days is that while in the past those teachers functioned within a constant, well-known context – that is to say, within a certain spiritual tradition – today there is often no normative framework in which gurus and their acolytes operate. The guru institution has been removed from its traditional context (“traditional” here in more than one meaning) and implanted into conditions foreign to its nature.

This should not be taken lightly. Instead of being surrounded by a system of checks and balances that can limit and stabilize him, the Western spiritual teacher in essence develops his spiritual path on his own, and therefore does not enjoy the benefit of previous generations’ experience, nor is his will bound by traditional laws and restrictions. If in the past the guru would ask the student to yield to his will on the authority of a tradition of which he was but a link, today’s guru asks his disciples to submit to him alone, and solely to his own authority. Instead of joining a veteran spiritual heritage that has withstood the test of time, today’s student binds himself to one person, original and perhaps special, but not necessarily very intelligent or responsible, and in more miserble cases merely a charlatan. Who will question his every whim? His conscience, one would hope, but sometimes he lacks one, or the spine to obey it, and the consequences can be dire.

What we see here is the magnification of the well-known problem of contemporary spirituality. Alongside the freedom to take different ideas and practices from various traditions and mold the spiritual path best suited to the individual, and alongside the personal discipline which spiritual seeking without a set tradition requires, there are the drawbacks deriving from inexperience and a lack of boundaries.

And yet, a wholesale rejection of the guru institution is a solution not only devoid of real probability, but also speaks of a simplicity and lack of understanding. Spiritual teachers exist not only, as detractors would have it, because people like to surrender their freedom or fear loneliness. The spiritual teacher exists because this institution does indeed help us discover new things about ourselves.

Tomer Persico Interview – Part I : Jewish Meditation

Tomer Persico knows the insides and outs of the contemporary Israeli religious scene. He is a keen observer of the various spiritual trends in both Orthodox and secular society writing about them in the media, in scholarly articles, and on his important blog. He writes a widely read blog, — occasionally he writes in English for his English language blog or his posts are translated in English by the papers, but the good stuff is in Hebrew–which presents an entrance into the many facets of contemporary Israeli spiritually.  I know some people who only read my blog and his blog. If you don’t know about his blog, then you should. Besides, observing the religious world, Persico teaches at Tel Aviv University and is a fellow at the Hartman institute. His voice is a growing influence in Israeli culture as an exemplar, in that, he is a secular Israeli who turned to Jewish spirituality who provides the Israeli audience with a glimpse into the best (and worst) of Judaism.

In addition to his social role, Persico recently released his first book, based on his Tel Aviv University doctorate, on Jewish meditation. In order to cover both of these aspects well, this blog will have two posts dedicated to Tomer Persico, today we will discuss his new book on meditation and in a follow-up post we will discuss his spiritual journey and religious views.

Persico’s first book was just published as Jewish Meditation: The Development of Spiritual Practices in Contemporary Judaism [Hebrew] —available here. The book is a 500-page opus surveying the entire history of Jewish meditation creating a new and fresh perspective on the history of Jewish religiosity by surveying actual spiritual practices, similar to many a book on Buddhism or Hinduism. Persico provides his own typology of different types of meditative practice in order to compare the different approaches. The book starts with a rapid survey of medieval positions, then moves to showing the Hasidic practices as part of a world historic turn to interiority. He takes a serious interest in the Piesetzna Rebbe and  Menachem Eckstein as the dawn of modern practices. The latter half of the book presents the American counter culture, Jewish Renewal, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi as the sea-change of a new Judaism culminating into a flowering of various new age, Neo-Hasidic, Jewish renewal, and Israeli new age spirituality. Finally, the work surveys contemporary forms of Jewish meditation in Israel including various Chabad, Breslov, the reception of Aryeh Kaplan, and new age practices.

The author brings to the topic a mastery of the literature, an exceptional ability to understand religious phenomena, a sensitivity to the psychological aspects of the study of meditation, and a deep familiarity with the literature in religious studies on varying levels of consciousness.

meditation book

The book should be read by all those interested in Jewish mysticism, kabbalah, and Jewish spirituality. Even the casual reader would gain from skimming the topics of personal interest. The first run of a thousand copies sold out quickly. The non-Hebrew reading public deserves to have this book translated into English, (especially if you know of a donor) but the Hebrew length would produce an 800 page English book. The work will stand as a reference on my shelf for both its content and vast bibliography.

Persico sees himself as part of, or offshoot of, Jewish Renewal in an expanded definition, in that, he is seeking a path of Jewish spirituality after the paradigm shift to an open and individual life. The same way the New Religious Zionists started after the breakdown of the older vision in the 1990’s, so too the older secularism brook down into an Israeli New-Age. But in Persico’s journey, Aryeh Kaplan and Hindu meditation were also equally important, and he integrates the wisdom of both Rav Aharon Lichtenstien and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

The book has a clear thesis in seeing the turn of contemporary Judaism in the last half century as a shift toward a more internal religion of meditation and inwardness. This thesis has two parts: the first is showing the various expressive, utilitarian, and new age ideas that have found their way even into traditional practices. The second is the sea- change of civilization from a transcendent external religion to one of internality and spirituality. At many points, this thesis of religion overtakes the interest in meditation.

The first one is about how the counter-culture begat the New Age and Jewish Renewal begat the Israeli New Age began the Haredi appropriations of the New Age.  His unified approach does not get involved in the diverse and contradictory cultural settings of current practices showing their functional use in a given age. He uses an abstraction of New Age as a unified concept without the thick description of LSD, progressive politics, self-help literature, Burning Man, and La Leche leagues nor the breakdown into decades and contradictory trends. For English readers, who want to know more about the turn to spirituality in the last fifty years, I recommend Robert Wuthnow’s now classic After Heaven: Spirituality in American since the 1950’s (1998) and for more examples of the self-development utilitarian reframing of traditional practices in our era of late modernity, I recommend Véronique Altglas, From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage.

The second part is that Persico sees an evolution of civilization  from the former religious age to what Charles Taylor calls in his recent seminal work of the same title The Secular Age, where religion is now immanent in personal meanings and moral orders, which Persico links to the New Age in influence and varieties. Taylor, however, was discussing the entire Western culture not just New Age and spirituality. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s paradaigm shift and Taylor’s imminant frame are not the same. In my opinion, Persico selectively focuses on meditation and does not situate the change as part of a much bigger global shift that also includes the interiority of contemporary novels, Korean Pentecostals, Heaven is for Real, Anne Lamont, Rick Warren, and Stuart Smalley. Persico’s book links microstudies on specific forms of recent new-age spirituality with the macro-study of an overall progression of eighteenth to twenty-first century secularism and now post-secularism. They should have remained separate. In addition, most Jewish Renewal spirituality is of song, emotions, non-duality, and healing not meditation or techniques of bettering self.

I have many minor differences and corrections from Persico’s approach that do not detract from his accomplishment but I must point out the Musar movement is glaringly missing except for one page and musar has the most techniques that we call mediation  from Rabbis Israel Salanter and Dessler to the rise of American new age musar.

In conclusion, the important upshot of Tomer Persico’s writing is to stop thinking that contemporary usage of Hasidism by modern Jews either as Neo-Hasidism or neo-Chassidus or even as a hasidic meditative technique is just a phenomena of retrieval or the direct usage of eighteenth century Hasidism idea today. Persico’s approach is to be honest about the new approach as part of contemporary and not to pretend one is doing pre-modern practices or teaching pre-modern ideas. The new Hasidic usages are part of New Age ideas, goals, and practices that make use of or are grafted onto older traditions but should be explained as part of contemporary spirituality.

My English readers can find an ample taste of Persico’s approach in his online articles. For example, he discusses the utilitarian self of inner transformation and self-improvement in contemporary Israeli spirituality to show how it transformed contemporary Breslov practice. Or in another article, this time on romantic expressionism and contemporary spirituality that weaves together into a single whole Rabbi Menachem Eckstien, Rav Shagar, Rav Ginzburgh, and contemporary Breslov teachers.


1)       Why start with a quote from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein quote from the Orthodox Forum?

I take Rabbi Lichtenstein as a well known authority not only on Halakha, but on the dialogue between Halakha and the modern world (“Tora U’Mada”, etc’). Lichtenstein writes: “The antinomy is real and the tension immanent”. The quote shows explicitly how for him there is a fundamental tension between law and spirituality. I wanted to lay the ground from the beginning that we are dealing here with two equally important principles that cannot wholly overlap. Later in the book I of course develop the fruits produced by this tension.

2)       What is the purpose and innovation of your book?

The purpose, first of all, is to present for the first time a panoramic, academically valid, map of the, so to speak, major trends in Jewish meditation. As a scholar of contemporary spirituality I focused on seven teachers of Jewish meditation that worked in the 20th century and work today, but in order to understand the roots of their practices I had to uncover what was before them of course. Next, I wanted to analyze the social and cultural forces behind the changes and different vectors that the Jewish meditative tradition went through and towards.

Now, in order to demonstrate the changes in and between meditative traditions, and in order to competently compare Jewish meditative traditions and meditative traditions from other religious traditions (and so also determine were there has been influence or a wholesale appropriation of techniques) I had to devise a typology of meditative methods (and of the mystical states that they aspire to lead to). That is also, I feel, an important innovation of the book.

The book, therefore, contributes to current research on three areas: that of the study of Jewish mysticism and contemporary spirituality by presenting and analyzing past meditative traditions and central contemporary representative teachers of meditation; in the area of the study of mysticism and meditation in general, by presenting a detailed typology for evaluating different characteristics of meditative practice and mystical experience; and in the study of Jewish culture by examining the above findings while noting the cultural conditions necessary for the transformation of Jewish meditation, that is through placing them in a general socio-cultural context.

3)      Why include Maimonides and the Early Kabbalah?

I tried to include any instance were a major figure or school laid down instructions for meditation, or that such instructions could be, without too much loose interpretation, be understood from their practice. Maimonides has clear instructions for meditation (such that anyone slightly experienced in mindfulness meditation cannot, I think, miss). Early Kabbalah and Cordovero do not indeed play a part in my book, because of lack of such.  Abulafia gives us the most elaborate and straightforward meditative instructions in the Jewish tradition before the 20th century, and he indeed gets a whole chapter of his own, and There is of course a whole chapter on Lurianic Yichudim and Kavvanot, which I place as techniques connected with a form of mythical thinking that characterize Luria and his group.

4)      How was the 20th century a change? Why are Rabbi Menachem Eckstein and the Piesetzna Rebbe important?

From the beginning of the 20th century, that is beginning with the work of Eckstein and the Piesetzna Rabbi, we find a clear rise in the interest in mindfulness and introspective work. Meditative techniques are much more introverted, delving in, deep in, our psyche. They are also somewhat more focused on bringing calm and clarity, and not ecstasy or an effluence of the emotional life. Eckstein and the Piesetzna Rabbi are the first to exhibit such characteristics. They are also the first to espouse a Neo-Hasidic ethos that is committed to the Halakha (as opposed to Buber’s Neo-Hasidism, for example, that was of course adamantly not committed).

Now why is this so? Well, that’s what I try to elaborate on in the book. In very few words, beginning with the reformation we can see a process in which the North Atlantic culture developed increased involvement and attention with the individual’s inner life, and an enhanced relation to the inner life as a source of meaning, authority and identity. What certain thinkers (my own favorite is Charles Taylor) call “the great subjective turn of Western culture”. This process comes to a sort of peak in the 20th century, and becomes a major cultural movement since the 1960’s.

5)      What was the change of contemporary spirituality and new age? Why is it important and why is it important to your thesis?

During the 1960’s our culture experienced a shift in focus, in which our feelings, experiences, and sense of individual unique identity became sources of meaning and authority for us (more than ever before, and in a significant way, that is). This affected all areas of our life: education, medicine, politics etc’. Of course it also affected religion. The traditional, pre-modern concept of religion as a communal system of habits and values into which one was born and to which one was committed finally gave way and now not only was one expected to choose his “denomination”, but one was internally obligated, as it were, to be totally faithful to his inner convictions and tailor-make an individual spiritual path of his or her own. This is the era that the old, worn out brand “religion” was replaced with the young and hip “spirituality”, and New Age culture became a mainstream phenomenon. Of course this is just a privet manifestation of a much bigger social and cultural process.

Now, the New Age is not only indebted to this process for its popularity, it is also formed by it in essence. The religion of the New Age is a private, internal, expressive and experiential religion. It is very much involved with our inner lives and sees the place of religious action and significance in our emotional and psychological makeup. Following this, the meditative methods that evolved in our era are all concerned with our interiority. This is, by the way, why there is so much appropriation from the Far East – because inner directed meditation was developed there long before it was in the West, and they can offer us great traditions of such spiritual practices. Now Judaism of course is not divorced from the cultural transformations of the West, and as such developed an interest in inner life as well. What I try to analyze in my book is how that interest played out. What meditative methods were developed, how past traditions were reconstructed, and where and when were foreign, mainly of course Eastern, practices imported and converted.

6)       Why is Jewish Renewal important?

It is important because is displays one way that the Jewish tradition responds to modernity, and in particular to the developments I mentioned above. Jewish Renewal is a vibrant and complex cultural phenomenon that seeks to integrate our contemporary sensitivity to psychological and emotional life with the Jewish tradition, which historically, except for Hasidism, did not give much space for psychology or emotions. The challenge is thus not small. Look at the transformation Reb Zalman has made in his life and in the lives of others. As he would say, it’s about a “paradigm shift”, which involves a translation of the Jewish tradition into an non-exclusivist, but inclusive and egalitarian, world religion. As mentioned above, there is also an inherent tension here, between important elements of the tradition like Halakha and this modern direction. Jewish Renewal deals with this tension many times by letting go of Halakha, and at other times by translating ritual and mitzvah to spiritual language. This is also an interesting development worth studying.

As for me, I see myself a part of the Jewish Renewal. I am a spiritual seeker in the Jewish tradition, trying to base my relationship with the divine on Jewish ground. I am also convinced that inner transformation is essential for true spirituality, and that outer obedience to the Halakha, however important, is not all that God demands of us. I therefore seek a Jewish Spiritual path, and the Jewish Renewal offers quite a few options towards that goal.

7)      How did the New-Age come to Israel? Why is it important?

The New Age came to Israel only in the 1990’s. Very briefly, since the 1980’s changes in the economic thought and structure, in the political system, in the justice system and in Israeli demographics led to abandoning the Zionist secular socialist republican ethos that characterized Israeli society under the rule of the old Labor movement, (Mapai), and encouraged the rise of a liberal, indivisualist ethos. Mainly I would say that developments in the economic sphere (neo-liberalism, privatization) were accompanied by parallel adjustments in social and cultural field. Globalization brought not only products but also Western (especially American) ideals and social trends, principally the individualistic ethos of self-fulfillment. The Israeli individual now saw herself not as an integral part of the people, drawing its values and goals from the collective, but as an autonomous unit that stands apart from society, and indeed before it both ontologically and ethically.

These developments allowed the privatization of the spiritual quest: the individual was empowered as sole authority in matters concerning her spiritual path and even religious identity. The various elements to fill her spiritual world were gathered from the spiritual marketplace that grew around her. For the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel the religious and spiritual field was diversified and woven into numerous parallel channels. On the other hand, the collapse of the secular Zionist worldview also created the need for a new definition of Israeli Jewishnness (for those who were not Orthodox).

In simple words, the Israeli secular individual now needed to answer for herself how exactly she was Jewish. Some decided it did not matter, and completely ignored the Jewish tradition. This makes for either Israeli cosmopolitanism or Israeli non-Jewish New Age  (e.g. Yoga centers, channelers, etc’).

But some, maybe most, engaged with the tradition from this new perspective. Now this new perspective was of course liberal and individualistic, and it led to a whole new Jewish discourse, sometimes called (depending on the speaker) “pluralistic”, “spiritual”, or “neo-Reform”. It was no longer based on the premise that the Jewish Orthodox establishment faithfully represented the authentic Jewish tradition. Quite the opposite, it wanted to reclaim Jewish heritage – especially Talmudic, Kabbalistic and Chassidic – as a part of secular Israeli identity.

8)       Why was Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan so important and what did he contribute?

Basically Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was the first to bring the Shem Ha’Meforash “Jewish Meditation” into wide public knowledge. When he published his books on the subject it was a great novelty – that indeed, the Jewish tradition was not all Halakha, holidays and yiddishkeit, but had spiritual techniques that the individual could employ in order to spiritually develop. Now Kaplan did this in direct response to the rapidly growing interest in the end of the 70’s with meditation. We have to remember that this is the time that TM (Transcendental Meditation) is teaching literally millions(!) of Americans how to meditate, that ISKCON (a.k.a. Hare Krishna) has long gained popularity and visibility, that Yoga has become widespread, etc’.

Kaplan himself writes explicitly in his Jewish Meditation (published posthumously in 1985) that “Today, many American Jews have become involved in Eastern religions […] and large percentages follow disciplines such as Transcendental Meditation.” So that no doubt troubled him, and he sought to answer this problem (from his point of view of course) by presenting Jewish meditative methods. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most common method he teaches in his books is Mantra meditation.

9)       What did Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi contribute?

In my book I write about Reb Zalman’s contribution to the Jewish meditative field, and he of course contributed much, much more. Being arguably the central pillar of the Jewish Renewal movement from its beginning, there is a lot we can say about Reb Zalman. But if we limit ourselves to meditation, it must be noted first that Reb Zalman did found the first meditation group and publish the first meditative manual of the Jewish Renewal. The “Chapel Group” in Winnipeg where he taught (in Manitoba U), and from which came in 1958 the booklet The First Step, with Chabad style meditative instructions accompanied with some of the Piesetzna’s guided imagination exercises. He actually got a Haskama from the Lubavitcher Rabbi on that text. But his later work, such as Paradigm Shift (1993), Gate to the Heart (1993) and The Gates of Prayer (2011), is of course much more important. In these he lays out a fully developed system of meditation, still in dialogue with Chabadic meditation but also integrating Buddhism mindfulness methods. Indeed, with Reb Zalman we can see a movement over time from Chabad style meditation to Mindfulness.

Now what in my opinion is of crucial importance is the openness and honesty with which Reb Zalman introduces non-Jewish methods. He does not hide his intentions and pretends that he “finds” them in the Bible or the Kabbalah, like Kaplan. He says quite openly that he thinks that they are generic spiritual “technologies” that are very valuable and that should be used by Jews today in order to get closer to God. Reb Zalman has a very thought out and sophisticated worldview along which he works, and he is committed to his own and to the different traditions’ integrity. This is a path held also by another important voice in Jewish Renewal, Arthur Green, who speaks about the importance of intellectual honesty.

While I do not follow neither Reb Zalman nor (Prof’ Rabbi) Green teachings as a whole, this is a principle that for me is also very important, and, by the way, looking at it from a sociological point of view, is another religious sign of our times (I mean by that that as modern people we regard authenticity and integrity, being true to ourselves and not “faking it”, as very important. We do not want a religious life that conflicts with different parts of our selves. That is also why we have an ingrained biast against ritual, that for many of us feels “fake” of “mechanical”).

10)    Why is contemporary Breslov so important?

Breslov today is an extremely important social and cultural focal point in Israel. Since the 1990’s it has experienced an unprecedented burgeoning, and is undoubtedly the fastest growing Hasidic group in Israel. It is one of the primary sites for welcoming BT Jews (and indeed, most of Breslov today is Ba’aley Teshuvah), produces the yearly Rosh Ha’Shana festival in Uman that attracts tens of thousands, and is the inspiration of multifarious artistic expressions, with Bratslav oriented singer-songwriters, musicians and poets attracting media attention and a large audience in Israel today. There is really no way not to notice Breslov in some form or another in Israel.

Breslov is also specifically important for my research, as it practices “Hitbodedut”. This is an hour a day practice that Rabbi Nachman laid out for all his followers. Today, the situation being that many Jews, among then many BT Jews, are seeking some form of meditative practice, this one hour observance can be used as an place holder for whatever meditative method a Rabbi would want to insert. There are today a great many different Breslov rabbis, really small scale Hasidic Tzadiks, that lead small circles – some tens or hundreds – of followers and form communities. They differ in spirit and in demographic makup (more or less Haredi, Ashkenazi of Miztrachi, spiritual seekers or community builders, etc’).

In my research I studied two prominent contemporary Breslov spiritual leaders Rabbis Yisrael Yitzchak Besancon and Erez Moshe Doron). Besancon, born in France in 1944, was a student of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Bender, one of the most influential Bratslav leaders of the twentieth century, but today belongs to the “Na-Nach” group, who follow the late Yisroel Ber Odesser. He leads a small community in Tel-Aviv, and is popular amongst National Religious youth.

What I found out is that each diverge from the basic teachings of Rabbi Nachman and teach a more introverted, inner-directed meditation technique. Besancon teaches a more Vipassana-like technique and Doron a mantra based technique (itself based on Aryeh Kaplan’s teachings). Now why do they not simply repeat Rabbi Nachman’s instructions that teach a dialogical, very emotional, very ecstatic meditative path? There are a few reasons for this, but not least is the current wish for introspective techniques prevalent in contemporary spirituality circles.

From a Persico article:

Rabbi Erez Moshe Doron is one of the most popular leaders of the Bratslav BT upsurge. Born in 1962, Doron began his own spiritual quest at the beginning of the 1980’s. He joined the Israeli Union for Parapsychology, and within two years became its chairman. In a popular media interview he recalls he was exposed there to “a salad of ideas: a bit of east, a bit of west, a bit of Judaism.” (Doron eventually started a process of Teshuva, finding his place in the Bratslav community. Today he heads the Lev Ha’Devarim organization for the propagation of Bratslav teachings, and is a self-proclaimed “authority for questions regarding Hitbodedut.”  The defines the latter as a “Jewish method of disconnecting consciousness from the senses and connecting it to the higher worlds. [… Hitbodedut is] a spiritual practice which is able to detach man from tangible reality and connect him to much deeper levels. (Ibid. 30-31)  Elsewhere Doron describes Hitbodedut as “the original and most amazing martial art”, able to overcome “the slings and arrows of the cruel adversary – the arrows of despair, the arrows of negligence, the arrows of deadly sadness or the arrows of vainglory and other anesthetic drugs” (Doron 2008b: 17-18)

Doron’s meditative method is from the Rabbi Nachman’s teachings on Hitbodedut (who never mentions the use of a mantra), and how much they rather resemble Yoga-like concentration based techniques (Persico 2012: 634; Persico 2013).  Hitbodedut is no longer seen as a special period during the day meant to enable the Bratslav Hasid to find intimacy with the divine. It is a method for self manipulation and adjustment. Hitbodedut affects not only the self. Doron describes Hitbodedut as a “weapon”, to be used by the Bratslav Hasid: politically against Ishmael (i.e., the Arab and/or Muslim world) (Doron 2008b: 14), and metaphysically in order to bring about redemption (Ibid. 15). As such it is of course of great importance, and Doron wishes to “open schools for Hitbodedut, where children will systematically and deeply study its ways and gates, and in which generations of warriors of light will be raised, seekers of true freedom” (Ibid. 21).

Rabbi Israel Isaac Besancon was born in France in 1944. After immigrating to Israel he became a student of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Bender, one of the most influential Bratslav leaders of the twentieth century. Today he belongs to the “Na-Nach” sub-court, which follows the late Yisroel Ber Odesser, and leads his own community within it. Located in Tel-Aviv, it is popular amongst young Religious-Zionist Israelis. Besancon teaches that Hitbodedut is “the key of keys”, “the weapon that will allow us to conquer the world”, a “secret”, disclosed by Rabbi Nachman and meant to help the individual Jew reach “personal redemption” (Besancon 2001: 4). Indeed, for Besancon Hitbodedut is the path to “original Judaism”, meant to transform its practitioners into “true Jews” (Ibid. 84).

Indeed, for Besancon what Rabbi Nachman taught is quite similar to Buddhist meditation. “In its essence, the goal of Hitbodedut is to disconnect our consciousness, even partly, from all the stimulations that pull it in different and scattered directions, in order to connect it back to its spiritual root. This temporary disconnection from the noisy surroundings brings calm, mental stability, that help us found personal relationships with our Maker, to learn to be assisted by Him, blessed be He, and to win a measure of Devekut – which promises us supreme spiritual happiness.”

Obviously, the prime objective of Besancon’s Hitbodedut has ceased to be the divine, and is now the human self. It is this self that learns how to utilize the practice for its own well being, while using God to help it on its journey. Hitbodedut for Besancon is a technique for bringing God’s light down into the self. Whereby Rabbi Nachman it as an encounter in which the self annuls itself and rises up to God. I have written elsewhere on the obvious influence of Vipassana meditation on Besancon’s interpretation of Hitbodedut (Persico 2012: 627-430; Persico 2013).

11)    What did Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburgh contribute?

In terms of Jewish Meditation? Not a lot. This was a bit of a surprise for me. Rabbi Ginzburgh, a foremost Kabbalist and a major influence on the religious ultra-nationalists (but anti-Zionists), talks a lot about a “consciousness revolution” as a fundamental step on the way to a full “life according to the Torah” in Israel, so I assumed he also teaches meditative techniques towards that goal. Ginzburgh does teach a bit of classic Chabad meditation and a minor new breathing technique. On the other hand he lays little stress on his followers actually practicing those techniques. It’s really not what you would expect from such a creative person who also admits he has knowledge of Eastern methods, and has had a few mystical experiences.

12)    What are your conclusions from your book? (pages 402-404)

When we take an eagle’s eye view of the different meditative traditions that developed since the first centuries CE we see, as I noted before, a distinct change in direction happening in the first centuries of the 20th century. We see an introspective, reflective direction, we see for the first time (with the possible, arguable, exception of Maimonides) instructions for development mindfulness and awareness, and we see an unmistakable rise in the mystical objective we first found in Hasidism, of what I call (following the philosopher of mind Thomas Metzinger) “manipulation of the Phenomenal Self Model”, which we usually refer to as the nullification of the “I” in Unio Mystica.

Again, the interesting question for me is: So what? What does this mean? What does this say about our culture? Here again I turn to an analysis of the cultural and sociological processes that led to the great subjective turn of western culture.

13)   What are the changes to Western religion that see?

In the Forward to the book I bring a quote from Emile Durkheim, who in the late 19th century already made the important distinction between two different kinds of Religion: The collective, traditional, coercive type, into which one is born and to which one is unquestionably devoted to, and the privet, novel, voluntary type, which one chooses to adopt and is the main authority as to her relationship to. It’s not that in the past the second type was never to be found, but what is special about our time is that it is not restricted to outstanding individuals or elite groups who create esoteric clubs, but is a mainstream and widespread phenomenon.  As I said earlier, a major characteristic of this privet religion is that it is also inner-directed, and sees experiences, intuition and the emotional life as sources of religious meaning and authority.

How did this come about? Well, that’s basically what I try to explain in my book. In very short, it is an organic development of the Christian tradition, who from its genesis (St. Paul) laid emphasis on the inner life of the individual. This increased greatly in the Reformation of course. Add to this the rise of the modern subject, our modern emphasis on autonomy, uniqueness and authenticity not only as needs, as basic conceptions of the way we live, but as ideals and add the death of the transcendental God, killed by the lances of Enlightenment materialism and naturalism – and you get a self-oriented inner-directed religion that seeks meditative methods in order for one to connect not to the heavens, but to oneself or “the God within”.

Read part 2 here.