Monthly Archives: January 2017

Rabbi Shagar- Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age

Rabbi Shagar (d. 2007), was a Torah scholar and a contemporary religious thinker who left a deep mark on the educators and students of the last generation. Here is a translation of one of his  essays called “Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age” which is chapter 1 in his book Kelim Shevurim: Torah ṿe-Tziyonut-Datit bi-Sevivah Posṭ-modernit : derashot (Broken Vessels: Torah and Religious Zionism in Postmodernity) (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Śiaḥ Yitsḥaḳ, (2003). This essay is translated here for the first time into English. It is available below as a blog post and as a Word document. Print this out and read it over the next week.

The translation was beautifully done by Rabbi Roy Feldman, rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob, Albany NY. Rabbi Feldman received rabbinic ordination from the RIETS and from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.  A graduate of Columbia University and he studied at Yeshivat Petach Tikva in Israel.   If anyone else has made personal translations of essays by Rav Shagar, I would be glad to post them. (Also if you find errors in this translation, please let me know).

In the last few months, I posted two other essays by Rav Shagar in translation (Hanukah and postmodernism) and have had several posts on his postmodernism. I have several other translations of Rav Shagar essays coming that are still in the pipeline.

shagar photo

To understand this essay on what Shagar calls post-modernism, it is important to bear in mind the difference between Post-modernity and Postmodernism. Post-modernity is the sense of our era when there is a breakdown of modernism. In contrast, Postmodernism is a specific moment in 20th century thought when the assumptions of modernism- in philosophy, art, architecture and literature- gave way to the post-modern assumptions.  Post-modernity is a sense of an age, a zeitgeist. postmodernism is a philosophic movement, similar to Pragmatism, Existentialism, and Kantian. The former is spirit of the age, the latter is an academic movement with a canon.

Postmodernity, the contemporary cultural era of the last 25 years is a breakdown of the objectivity of modernism, there is a questioning of rationality, science, ethics, progress, and secularism.

Postmodernism, the philosophy, deals with the current theoretical issues in hermeneutics, cultural theory, literary theory, psychology, and social science.

During the modern era, in both the phases of Enlightenment and Modernism, Judaism had to agresively defend itself against secularism especially those who thought religion is outdated, but the defense to be effective had to be on the turf of modernity. Rabbi Soloveitchik dealt with modernism as a philosophy, discussing Kantianism, and Existentialism. He did not generally discuss the cultural mood of modernity; however there were scores of books with titles on Jews and modernity dealing with the mood of modernity

In the era of postmodernity, when all values are questioned and there is no longer belief in progress and rationality, religion has come back with vengeance. Evangelicals, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews can all say that the modern critiques of religion do not really exist, or do not have to be taken seriously. Many 21st century religious works present the modern critiques of religion as just personal editorial opinions, which can be easily dismissed by believers. They can also cite popular critiques of academia as affirmations that they don’t have to answer the critiques of modernity. Orthodox op-ed writers are part of post-modernity in that they think the Orthodox perspective trumps Hume, Locke, and Kant, but at the same time they grab whatever they like in modern science, psychology or sociology. But these anti-intellectual religious figures are part of postmodernity, they are not postmodern.

Rav Shagar deals with postmodernity as a cultural social moment and not as a philosophy of postmodernism. He also uses the term post-modernism to mean postmodernity and with a dash between post and modern, contra US style.

Rav Shagar opens his article quoting a Hebrew University sociology professor, an archetype of the challenges of this era, as saying that we cannot condemn honor killing by a Druze clan since that would be subjecting them to Western liberal values rather than respecting their own values.  (There are sociologists who present such views such as Saba Mahmood who justify burkas, honor killings and polygamy as a critique of the secular-liberal assumptions by which some people hold such movements to account).

Shagar uses this topic to explain how in the Post-modern world there are no universal values. In his caricature of post-modernism, he states that they hold the impossibility of condemning honor killing since it would be just another act of “European white male” hegemony.  So he asks, when do I abandon my relativism for moral values?

Soft Justice

Shagar introduces a distinction from the important philosopher Richard Rorty  ofSoft Justice”. We may no longer be able to ground our ethical distinctions in foundational moral realism, yet we believe in ethics even though it is not absolute. For Rorty, we do not discover the truth of our beliefs, rather they are an invention and self creation.

Shagar asks: If we have soft justice, then can also have soft religion?

He gives a political application. The left says religious Zionist can never achieve peace because of its foundational absolute claims of homeland and Holy Land  To which Shagar asks: What do we do with the Religious Zionist claim if there is no absolute truth and religion is nothing but language games?

Here is the crux behind most of his writings. What do we do when we realize that the absolute claims of Merkaz haRav, Religious Zionism, Gush-Brisker halakhah, and the Kuzari cannot be affirmed in a post-modern age?

As in many of his essays, the sections end on a question.

The Contradiction of Experience

Shagar turns the essay to several of Rav Nachman of Breslov ideas: (1) in this world we always have problems without answers. (2) that we live with an unresolved  paradox of the absence of God in the world and that His glory fills the earth (3) that the world is a contradiction of experience – tzimzum, contractions, un explained suffering.

As a good point of contrast, Art Green in all his books used these same Rav Nachman building blocks to say that we live in a world of modernist doubt and silence from God. We are disconnected from the theistic God of the past, now we consider God as a spiritual voice in our inner selves, as well as a panentheism of God in the world. We may not have belief in the modern age but we still have spirituality.  Green states clearly that, after the modernism of Darwin, Freud, Wellhausen and the tragedy of the Holocaust,we cannot believe  in theism anymore only a panenetheism,

In contrast, Shagar will use these passages to create a postmodernity view, a way to live after cultural relativism.

The Right to be Silent

Shagar asks: How  does Rav Nachman realted to postmodernism? To which he answers with his thematic statement that post-modern means to “have no answers.”  Which he takes to mean no grand narrative or foundational knowledge.

Hence, he asks: Can we ban unethical murder in honor killings and impose our ethical values. To which he answers: I trust my human finite truth.  We can trust our own personal judgments. My truth exists as a personal revelation of God; God exists in everything including my personal truth. We are all seekers for a path. God and ethics are part of our personal existential quests.

Here is where Shagar goes off the post-modern rails and returns to Existentialism as we noted in prior blog posts. For a post-modern, we have no access to the self, everything, including the self, is decentered in signs and constructions.   The personal self is a constructed category in postmodernism.

As a modern Existentialist, Shagar in the next paragraph proclaims that a personal truth is so valid that I can be willing to devote myself my life to the personal meaning and even kill and die for it.  The fact that we cannot substantiate our values and can always doubt our values should not hinder our faith This is Existentialism 101, from an introduction class on Sartre who says the exact same thing in his Existentialism as a Humanism (1946). But whereas the modernist Sartre placed the emphasis on the firmness of decision-making, personal resolution, and commitment. Shagar places the emphasis on silence, contradiction, and the inability to have an absolute. A Postmodernism form of Existentialism.

For Sarte, there are no universals because we are isolated beings thrown toward our own finite existences and ultimate deaths. In contrast, for Shagar, there are no answers because the narrative of truth has broken down as described in Lyotard. Meaning, for him, the religious Zionist narrative has broken down.

Why stop an honor killing?  Because we still believe eternal value to goodness. Yet, this value is based on faith, our personal revelation and paradox.

Shagar even reads Maimonides based on this framework.  Maimonides write that God has no final goal for the world after creation. God is unknown and not known through history. This is clearly a rejection of the Rabbi Kook and Religious Zionist view of god’s plan for history. In Shagar’s hands, Maimonides’ negative theology becomes post-modern; Maimonides’ unknowability of God is explained as no meaning  or grand narrative or even meaninglessness.

Positive Faithful Pluralism

What is the difference between secular “postmodern pluralism” as presented by the Hebrew University professor, and our aspiration to a religious “faithful pluralism”? The former has no divine inspiration and the latter has divine inspiration.

A faithful pluralism will still use the modernist metaphor of discovery but acknowledge the believer has contradictory personal revelations. Shagar elevates and glorifies personal religious decisions as a form of divine revelation.

Our personal decisions are substantive creation of Torah. It is not an empty game of post-modernism, rather the religious person opens himself up to the possibility of creation and revelation. (I need someone to translate one of his essays on mesirat nefesh and emunah, an important category of his).

In a “Postmodern Faithful Pluralism”, the encountering of a diversity of believers and non-believers with contradictory positions will not weaken the believers faith. Rather, it will strengthen the faith. Furthermore, similar to Hasidim, we find God in everything. The awareness of contradictions makes us more sensitive, moral, and modest.  We see our boundaries.

Nobody’s faith is preferable to another’s faith. We all have our faith and individual inspiration allowing this diversity to strengthen human fraternity. “Postmodern pluralism denounces the violence of the “enlightened individual” who tries to coerce his values on reality and also that of the believer who wants to impose his faith on the whole world.”

Hence, the religious man is not a primitive being rather one who possesses a genuine option for human existence. (I am not sure if this line is more reminiscent of Rav Soloveithcik’s defense of the dignity of Halkahic man or a defense of cultural relativism).

A student of mine, who is now  a major pulpit rabbi, recently reminded me why was I less interested in Rav Shagar when this book first came out in 2003.  First, I lean more to classical moral realism of Saadiah Gaon, Maimonides, or Rav Kook. Second, the way to overcome fundamentalism is not with treating relativism as revelation but with returning to a rational culture that can temper religion. Scholars of fundamentalism such as Oliver Roy (II, III, IV) point out that fundamentalism thrives on the hollowing out of mainstream culture as immoral and relativistic. His answer is to strengthen the moderate rational cultural world with multiple sources of truth including both religious and secular  Third, as a professor of religion/theology I prefer the more rigorous postmodern philosophy-  Foucault, Lacan, Bauman, Caputo -than the pop postmodernism. The philosophers have religious responses by Christians akin to what Rav Soloveitchik attempted with modernism. Finally, I think Shagar’s post-modernism in the 2013 volume is better worked out than this 2003 essay.



Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age (here)

From Kelim Shevurim: Torah ṿe-Tziyonut-Datit bi-Sevivah Posṭ-modernit : derashot  (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Śiaḥ Yitsḥaḳ, (2003). Part I, chapter 1. Translated by  Roy Feldman

 Judaism and Postmodernism

There are countless articles appearing about the murder of Ikhlas Knaan in her home in the Druse quarter of Kfar Ramah in the Galilee region.  The murderer was her brother, a regular service soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, fifteen years younger than his victim. . .  Her family hinted that it was dissatisfied with her lifestyle and activities in the United States; it was even less satisfied with her manner of dress and self-expression while she was in Israel. I offered to write an editorial in the Opinion section of HaAretz discussing the cultural context that could allow, and at times even require, a man to kill a woman in his family.  My offer was gladly accepted.  The essay deals with what I term, “The Liberal Dilemma.”  On the one hand, murdering women contradicts our value of the sanctity of human life; on the other hand, interfering in the world of a different group and imposing dominant group’s values on the minority’s culture contradicts the liberal tendency to leave alone those who do not bother us, and to respect them.  Viewing the other as exotic—as cultured, but part of a different culture, long ago replaced the alternative, paternalistic view of the White cultured European.

I have selected the above excerpts from an essay by Danny Rabinowitz, of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Hebrew University.  Rabinowitz attempts to present a point of view from which one can understand the murder as it was committed for the sake of “family honor.”  He was surprised by the raging responses he received from feminists and others who opposed the notion that he would even consider justifying a cultural context in which such a murder could take place.

The attacks come first and foremost against my propriety; and to a certain extent against the propriety of traditional anthropology to offer coherent and functional explanations for shocking phenomena.  Many of the critics assume that there is a connection between investigating for the sake of explanation legitimizing a crime and its culprit.

The discussion highlights the dilemma of the postmodern world, a world that cannot talk about “universal values” because, as far as it is concerned, such values do not exist.  Truth does not exist, and “the truth” surely does not exist.  In this world, “truth” is a social construct—it is only “politics of truth,” as Nietzsche explained: “Values and their changes are related to increases in the power of those positing the values.”

What can we do in such a world?  Must the Knesset, for instance, impose laws on the Druse to prevent these murders, blood redemption, or other traditions that seem immoral to us?  Our moral values oblige us to prevent and eradicate such shocking phenomena from happening, but our historical, sociological, and anthropological consciousness teaches us that, from the Druse point of view, the murderer not only defended his society and its moral values—but he did the right thing.  As a man of values, can I ignore the second point of view, a critical approach that rejects the imposition of “European White Male” values on a world that seems primitive to his condescending eyes?

This story highlights more than anything the fact that the central question of “values in the postmodern world” is the question of limits: At what point do I abandon my relativist awareness in exchange for my moral values?  There are values for which even the most extreme relativist—enlightened to and fully aware of the fact that all values are relative and contextual– would put his foot down, rebel, and declare: “That’s IT!”  If not, we would arrive at a paradox, as Rabinowitz himself explains in his essay:

English city governments with large communities of people of African descent, specifically those that customarily circumcise babies and young girls, face a difficult dilemma.  The citizens (in this case Muslims), who possess inexorable electoral power, demanded that their practical religious needs be included in the list of surgeries covered by the state health insurance. . .  Thus, they would save a great deal of money and prevent the inherent danger of circumcising their daughters without any medical attention or hygienic conditions, and most importantly– they would have the opportunity to openly maintain their culture and traditions in their glory.  At least one city has added this operation to its list of surgeries that are subsidized by public funding.

Similarly, we must ask, what is our position regarding the burning of Indian widows?  From our point of view, this is the most despicable of immoral acts, but the Indian man believes he is doing the widow a great favor.  The perplexed postmodernist has a predicament:  He will object to the phenomenon, but he can also see the Indian man’s perspective.  As far as he is concerned, the notion of a general moral decree, one devoid of a socio-cultural context, is baseless.

The Postmodern Solution: “Soft Justice”

If so, what is justice in a relativist world?  David Gurevitz has coined an apt phrase: “Soft Justice.”  Again, we do not expect complete justice which, as we have established, does not exist; our expectations are lowered to a soft, local justice, that is derived through discourse and consent among people.  There are many models of “soft justice,” but they are all characterized by conceding the pretense of absolute rulings.  Nonetheless, as Gurevitz remarks, soft justice has its own boundaries; it is guided by non-relativistic rules, namely, the dogmatic belief in human rationality without which fruitful discussion and consent are impossible.  These values are formulated in terms different from those of traditional justice.  Richard Rorty, a contemporary American philosopher, suggests just that: we must abandon the metaphor of discovery, and adopt instead a metaphor of self-creation and self-founding.  The metaphor of discovery causes man to believe he has discovered “the truth,” and there is therefore no room for other truths.  The metaphor of invention and self-creation, on the other hand, encourages the outlook that each value is produced from and by its society, and, if so, it does not contradict values of other societies.  Only through such compromise can we have harmony within a society and outside it.

In this context, we develop a fascinating question: Is it possible that, like “soft justice,” we can also have “soft religion,” or are faith and religion naturally forced into decisive truths?

In order to achieve peace, the secular left says, we must abandon our traditional sense of “home.”  Only the cosmopolitan, who feels at home everywhere in the world, can bring peace.   Religious Zionist society, therefore, is incapable of establishing peace: concepts of “homeland,” “my home,” necessarily displace the Other, and lead to a perpetual struggle.  Therefore, says the left, in order to achieve peace, we must abandon—even through suffering—the sense of home, and stop thinking in terms of “homeland” in order to prevent the constant spilling of blood.  Religious Zionism, says the left, can never achieve peace, since the belief in “homeland” and the “holy land” lead to an unending conflict.  Nevertheless, the connection the left makes between the “social revolution” and the question of peace cannot be severed so simply.

Is a Religious Zionist solution, one that does not give up and resort to Haredi insularity, possible?  How can we establish truths in a world that no longer believes in them and maintains that the concept of “truth” in and of itself no longer exists, that discourse cannot represent reality and is simply composed of “language-games?”

The Contradiction of Existence

I would like to claim that this problem is unresolvable; its source is a ‘programming failure’ of the human experience.  Furthermore, understanding this failure and its role as an origin opens a religious option far more exciting than the accepted one.

In one of his famous teachings, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav teaches that there is a contradiction at the core of the human experience.  He terms this phenomenon, “problems that have no answer.”  Rebbe Nachman opens the teaching with the assertion that “the Blessed Lord created the world in light of his mercifulness since he wanted to reveal his mercifulness, and if not for the creation of the world—on whom would he have mercy?”

This is a difficult assertion.  On such an assertion, Yehuda Amichai wrote: “If God were not full of mercy, there would be more mercy in the world.”  If God had created the world as better, He would not need to have mercy on us, nor would we on Him.

To my understanding, Rebbe Nachman is not claiming that God created the world to have an object for his mercy; rather, the creation itself, its resonance, that which it reveals, is mercy.  He is not discussing mercy as a concrete status; mercy is embedded in the contradiction of experience, specifically the human experience (and they come to include the concrete expression of suffering).  Rebbe Nachman explains this rift as the concept of tzimtzum (lit. “constriction”) in the Kabbalah.

According to him, tzimtzum is a paradox: On the one hand, in order for a world to exist, God must disappear from the world.  On the other hand, a Godless reality opposes the infiniteness of God, for the concept of God’s unity comes not only to negate cooperation, but also to assert that there is no entity other than He, for “His glory fills the earth.”  And so, Rebbe Nachman continues:

And so tzimtzum, the contraction of empty space, we cannot understand or deduce until the future.  For we must say two opposites, existence and nothingness, for the empty space exists through the tzimtzum, that God, as it were, contracted his Godliness from there, and there is apparently no Godliness there, for if it were not so, it would not be empty, and all is infinite, and there is no room whatsoever for the creation of the world; truthfully, however, there is certainly Godliness even there, since there is surely no life without Him, and so we cannot have any element or aspect of empty space until the future…

Reality in general, and the human experience specifically, is absurd, but absurdity is an abyss, and it itself is the origin of the great mercy at the heart of creation.

The Right to be Silent

How is this related to postmodernism?  The postmodern contradiction is one of the problems that Rebbe Nachman said “have no answer.”

Let us return to the morality example we discussed earlier: Do we have the right to interfere and impose our moral values on the Druse murdering the young woman?  As we have said, the possibility of reflective observation, that places all matters in their context and in their place, always exists and we may not escape it.  However, in the end, I am indeed human, finite, with my own truth, and I believe in that truth, and I cannot and will not deny it.

Rebbe Nachman’s notion of tzimtzum is latent in this paradox.  My truth, indeed, exists as a revelation of God.  God exists in everything—“leit atar patur minei,” say the hassidim.  It’s translation: “There is nothing from which God is absent,” including the existential and ethical domains, and so, they exhibit certainty.  We can always pose the question: do other people not have other values?  But this possibility should not destroy the notion that a certainty exists which I would not renounce, in truth, I am willing to devote myself to it, to die for it or even to kill for it.

How can both of these ideas exist together?  Rebbe Nachman recommends silence.  He cites the midrash in which Moses asks about Rabbi Akiva’s destiny: “Is that Torah, and is that its reward?”  And he is answered, “Be silent; this is how we advance thought.”  In other words, the solution is not found at the theoretical level; the solution is a response, or, to be precise, abstention.  Abstention which is not evasion but rather a unique response to a human situation that knows itself and rejects the denial of any of its components.

The fact that we cannot substantiate our values, and that we can always doubt them, should not hinder our faith.  Rebbe Nachman’s greatness lies in his ability to turn problems into devotion.  Take for example the unjust event we have described: if any of us were to encounter this situation, he would not sit aside and allow the Druse to murder his sister.  He would implement any measure necessary—including killing—in order to prevent the murder of the young woman.  But why?  Rebbe Nachman teaches that we can respond to these questions, questions of faith, in three ways: (1) a positive response, (2) a negative response, and (3) not asking the question in the first place.  There are questions that cannot be answered, and there is no need to answer them.  That is faith, paradoxical as it is (and Rebbe Nachman was correct to express paradox), and as such its strength and intensity are hidden.

Such a response answers not only the question of moral values, but we can broaden it to the general question of human existence: Everyone asks himself whether his life has value.  If he helps someone—even if that day he was to die, and the person whom he helped would also die, and nothing would be left, we still believe that there is eternal value to such actions.  Similarly, Rebbe Nachman knows that the final questions, the metaphysical questions, are beyond the capacity of language.  Unlike the postmodernist, however, who concludes from this that they lack meaning, that they are “nonsense” as Wittgenstein claims derisively (and maybe even despairingly), for Rebbe Nachman, this knowledge opens the possibility of faith.  He knows, as many before him also knew, that absolutes deviate from the “language games” possible in a given language, and that silence is a human potential no smaller than speech.  In effect, only a meaningless environment can create true meaning.  Maimonides writes that God does not have one absolute, final goal—that exists only in the world, after its creation, and not outside it.  God is One unto Himself, and that is also the nature of faith.

Positive Faithful Pluralism

The difference between faithful pluralism and postmodern pluralism is the difference between relativism which lacks inspiration and relativism which is open to inspiration, between the claim that the postmodern game is an empty one and a stance that ascribes meaning to it.  Faithful pluralism does not hesitate to use the metaphor of “discovery.”  Even if it knows that there are many different and even contradictory “revelations,” these contradictions do not paralyze it.  It would certainly admit that “truth” is a social construct, but it is still a substantive creation and not simply an empty game.  Am I willing to open myself to the possibility of this creation, and to see within it divine inspiration, full of faith, even if I am aware of other possibilities?

We therefore arrive at Positive Faithful Pluralism.  Encountering different types of believers and nonbelievers will not weaken my faith, it will strengthen it.  Like the hasidim, I will be able to recognize the Godliness in everything.  The theological question of “which faith is preferable” loses meaning in the postmodern world, however, this does not disrupt my allegiance my Jewish heritage.  What remains is the existence of faith and inspiration, and these serve to strengthen human fraternity.

This will not eliminate the possibility to have faith and to live ourselves, but know to set boundaries.  The awareness of contradictions will balance us and make us more sensitive, moral, and modest.  The Muslim will remain Muslim and will live in his faith, but if he also adopts for himself the western perspective and is reflective and rational, he will be able to accept me as a Jew.  And, certainly, vice versa—the Jew…

Only then can fraternity be created.  Postmodern pluralism denounces the violence of the “enlightened individual” who tries to coerce his values on reality, and also that of the believer who wants to impose his faith on the entire world.  The faithful individual will be forced to adapt a rational but uncertain approach, without hurting his faith; so too, the others must relate to the religious man not as a primitive being, but rather, as one who possesses a genuine option for human existence.

The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox (MO) Community-Ruvie

I know many intermarried couples where one member of the couple is Jewish; they live on my block, they are students, and they are friends. I also have many formerly Orthodox Jewish day school students who are currently married to non-Jewish spouses.

I once asked a leading Jewish sociologist involved in producing some of the recent surveys –and currently placing his bets on Orthodoxy-: How many Orthodox Jews are intermarrying? His answer was that they are no-longer Orthodox so he has no such statistic. How about how many day school graduates have intermarried? To which he answered that he does not deal with such statistics. As I have discussed before, most surveys are barometers of the moment without taking into account historical or longitudinal trends.

However, from my class lists from the 1990’s, I have a rough anecdotal sense that about 7-8% of my former students from committed day schools living in the center of Jewish life have intermarried.  Someone at an Orthodox Forum circa 2000 raised the point and independently came up with a similar percentage.

(Chava introducing Tevye to  Fyedka- Fiddler on the Roof)

Today’s post is a guest post by Ruvie, an Orthodox parent whose son intermarried.   I met this person at a dinner in support of a Hesder Yeshiva; we are talking about a committed family, highly affiliated and associated with a halakhic approach, who asks questions to Roshei Yeshiva. Ruvie has appeared on this blog in the past when he was working through his son leaving Orthodoxy in a post entitled Being a Supportive Parent to a Child Who Leaves Orthodoxy. 

This post is intellectualized rather than direct first-hand account of his personal reactions, finding solace in engaging in armchair theorizing as a means to come to grips with his disappointment. I know several of the other Orthodox parents whom Ruvie mentions that are dealing with children who have recently entered a mixed marriage. This is not about blame and little could have been different since these were highly committed families. From my observations and from the anecdotes in this post, the Modern Orthodox marrying out is done relatively equally by men and women.

This post is not about cases with full Orthodox conversion. If we included those, which are now quite common, then we have an perspective of even greater exogamy.

As a basis, here is an encyclopedia survey on intermarriage among Jews in the United States. For a broader perspective that summarizes much of the field, I recommend Robert Wuthnow, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity (2007). In chapter nine, Wuthnow makes a number of important summary observations. Wuthnow finds that such couples tend to deemphasize the doctrinal aspects that differentiate their faiths and embrace the view that religions are essentially cultural traditions rooted in personal biography and private opinion. He also notes that mixed-married couples understand that their childhood more traditional clergy will not perform a mixed-marriage, but they do not care since there are plenty of progressive clergy who will.

Wuthnow also notes that in many cases religiosity and mixed-marriage are, in many cases, two separate variables. An American can be religious and still intermarry and vica -versa, a nominal affiliate can be firmly against mixed marriages. The latter is a social sense of group identity and the former is one’s religious commitment. Group identity and religious identity are separate variables.

In practical terms that means that, a non-committed, non-affiliated young Jew in Brooklyn or Baltimore is statistically likely to adhere to endogamy, while the exogamy trend is strong for a Jew in the South-West or Pacific Northwest even if raised Orthodox.

My reader should also grasp that for many today Passover and Easter or Yom Kippur and Christmas are not mutually contradictory. One can be a Jew and a Christian –or a Jew and a Hindu –without a sense of contradiction. They are not seen by many Jews (and Christians or Hindus) as competing narratives. There are programs that capture to “being both” and even an after-school program that teaches both Christianity and Judaism.

In addition, mixed marriages are often not the confrontation of unknowns from Philip Roth novels or old-time sitcoms. Both sides are likely to know much about the other faith and feel comfortable in keeping both. They have been working or socializing together for years. In mixed marriages, the non-Jewish spouse may be the one in charge of making the Passover Seder, taking the children to synagogue, or even teaching Hebrew school. As a starting point, I recommend Jennifer A. Thompson. Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism. (New Brunswick:Rutgers University Press, 2014) and  Keren McGinity, Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014). Both books treat the claim that intermarriage poses the greatest threat to the American Jewish community as bombastic rhetoric.

For a historically sense before contemporary US, here are some older statistics from the start of the 20th century. Notice that it was 26% in Berlin and 47% in New South Wales.

During 1900 in Prussia there were 4,799 Jews who married Jewesses, and 474 Jews and Jewesses who married outside their faith (“Zeitschrift für Preussische Statistik,” 1902, p. 216). … Berlin, where in 1899 there were 621 Jewish marriages as against 229 intermarriages (“Statistisches Jahrbuch,” 1902, p. 61). New South Wales.. there were 781 who had married Jews or Jewesses, as against 686 who had married outside the faith (“Census of New South Wales 1901, Bulletin No. 14”).

Finally, here is a recent first-person account by a formerly Modern Orthodox, highly affiliated day school graduate describing his first experiences of Christmas.

This year marked my third Christmas in Europe…  That first year, like an Orthodox teen nibbling on the edge of a Big Mac just to see what the fuss was about, I played Charlie Brown’s Christmas album over and over again…I tried leading my in laws in a rendition of The First Noel, which they found a bit too religious for their taste.

Ordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic, even if it has not yet reached the rabbis. Similar to the belated discover of the high attrition rate in Modern Orthodox in the last few years, this too needs to be acknowledged.


(RSN1-may11) “Interfaith Marriage Grows,” Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen.

Guest Post by Ruvie
The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox (MO) Community

Last year I penned an article describing the issues (emotional and practical) of a parent with a child leaving orthodoxy (here). Last month, my son, married a non-Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage lead by a liberal Rabbi. I participated along with my family in the ceremony.

I am aware of 5 families in my observant MO circle of friends that have dealt with interfaith marriages in the last eighteen months. Among these families: all the children (28-32 yr. olds) were bright successful students who attended 12 year of yeshiva day school, plus many also spent a gap year in Israel. The parents are in stable long term marriages of 28 plus years. The families are all observant – shomer shabbat, kashrut, and taharat hamishpacha. This was/is an emotionally trying time for all families. All parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt. I will address my personal feelings at the end of article.

This is something new and growing in the MO community.Are my personal anecdotes a rarity or a growing trend that is rapidly emerging when increasing numbers of children of Modern Orthodox families grow up and decide not to continue Orthodox life?

There are no statistics in the recent Pew report (or any other survey) for this phenomenon. One advisor to the Pew report thought that a 10% number for MO intermarriage would not surprise him. He estimated the range could vary between 5-20%.

Regardless of the statistics, many in our community have the subjective sense that something is changing. An issue which not long ago was never discussed, whether or not it was actually occurring, or was regarded as a problem only for others, now has a growing place on the communal agenda. What has changed, why, and what can we do about it?

Personal Theories

In discussion with friends numerous theories were offered.

  1. Is it the next step in a community where increasing numbers of grown children of MO families decides not to continue Orthodox life. It seems that the identity fashioning they receive in MO schools and at home is very tightly tied to just ritual observance. Perhaps the Hareidi subliminal view of all or nothing worldview seeped into the 21st century MO and once our children become non-religious, the hierarchy of forbidden actions go by the wayside.
  2. A sociologist/Rabbi opines: “Basically, Jews were one of the most reviled white ethnic group at the start of the 20th century…. America, in short, would not accept the Jews — not into social clubs, nor neighborhoods, nor boards nor colleges. This kept intermarriage rates low.  If Jews wanted to intermarry, it’s not like America was deeply interested in them doing so.

This changed in the 1960s.  Jews went to college in record numbers.  A young person leaves their home, their family network, their local shul and neighborhood for an artificial community. In that place Jews meet a lot of gentiles and form new social networks.  After the 1960s, America is also more meritocratic for a time.

By the dawn of the 21st century, Jews are the most beloved ethnic group.  The Gores, the Clintons, the Trumps all married Jews or became Jews.  Jews ran for the presidency.  Jews are more than 30% of every elite group in the US except the military.  America has said yes to the Jews, and Jews have responded by intermarrying.”

3. Our children identify with Judaism in a different way than previous generations. They pick and choose their individual identity. More importantly the non-Jew/gentile is no longer viewed as “the other”. They see little difference between themselves and the non-Jew. The belief, by both parents and children, is that all humans are fundamentally alike — that there is no ontological difference between Jew and non-Jew accepted. Ethically and culturally they are very similar. Most importantly, the change in America to acceptance in the last 30 years.

Fifty plus years ago, Jews who wanted to assimilate and join another culture (or acceptance in it – leaving their Judaism behind) intermarried. Today, our youth feel they are not leaving their religion with intermarriage. We no longer just inherit our identity but also construct it as well. They pick and choose what traditions to observe or not and what defines their Judaism. They are proud of their heritage and are not trying to hide it. Intermarriage is no longer the third rail for many. It should be noted that Jewish intermarriage rate is similar to other ethnic groups which has also risen in the last few decades.

4. With the passing of time and the growth of a gulf between American Jews and Israel, the Holocaust and Zionism are no longer the major magnet foci for Jewish identity in America individually and communal. This is especially true for millennials.

I initially rejected this theory for modern orthodoxy given the inculcation of our children received all year long (home, Day School, camps, gap year in Israel as well as numerous visits)  for the love of the State of Israel and reverence and continuing references to the Shoah (Yom Hashoah, Tisha B’av, and other events as constant reminders who we are directly connected to: Western Europe Jewry). Of the families at least two parents are children of survivors who were close to their grandchildren who are intermarrying.

Independently, a psychiatrist friend opined that the Holocaust and the State of Israel no longer have the emotional hold on the psyche of the community as of our generation. Yes, it is taught and emphasized much more than the non-orthodox world but only we were in the generation of Eichmann and Holocaust deniers (my brother was born in Bergen-Belsen). We lived through the anxiety of the 1967 and 1973 wars when the state could have been destroyed. Today’s generation sees these significant events as given history that they discuss in school (like the biblical Exodus and the destruction of the temple) which is more part of our collective history and memory than individual association which is more detached emotionally on the personal level because of time.

5. We raised our children with rules unlike those of our parents; we instilled a sense of freedom and respect for their personal decisions. They responded in kind and we are left baffled as to why they didn’t continue to think like us.

Navigating the Terrain – A Parent’s View

While there are many possible reasons for the current phenomenon of interfaith relationships and marriage, the challenging issue is finding a way to deal with this situation at hand. Learning more about the root causes may offer insights for leaders on the communal level but families in short term need tools and resources in helping them navigate these waters.

How should we cope with this as parents, friends and as a community? How do we engage, participate, and publicize in our reality? Are there red lines or limits to what we can accept as observant Jews (Is this an individual choice that varies)? As parents? Can we balance the tensions or is it DOA?

There is a certain taboo about this subject that no longer exists today in discussing controversial topics in orthodoxy like homosexuality and abandoning orthodoxy (OTD – Off the Derech – or XO ex-orthodox). There are many articles published and discussions from the pulpit on these topics but not one on MO and interfaith marriage.  In December 2015 there was a symposium with Orthodox Rabbis on intermarriage in America  – no names of Rabbis were published nor media exposure to details – Rabbis are afraid to be publicly associated with this topic. Parents are reluctant to talk to friends, Rabbis, and extended family. They first are embarrassed and in denial then hope and pray it goes away as a phase not wanting to alienate their children- or they fight and alienate their children.

On a personal level, for myself and others, there was a certain amount of: shame in being in this situation – didn’t discuss with my closest friends until later, anger at our ourselves (as failures) and our educational system, confusion – how could this have happened and where is my allegiance – son, family, community and Judaism?and lastly a certain amount of guilt.

One friend claimed that 10 years ago she would have blamed the parent 100% for this outcome and now she has to look in the mirror and realizes that until you are in the situation it’s never so black and white.

Of the five couples – two met in college and three many years later. Most of the couples have been together for a minimum of 3 years. On gender: two men and three women are non-Jewsh.

Four out of five couples are married already. In four out of the five couples (one I am not sure about) there has been on-going conversion discussions. One conversion occurred before marriage. Two had private civil ceremonies with receptions at a later date and two had a chupah or Jewish style ceremony (with other cultures incorporated) and receptions. All were relatively small affairs (max in the low 100s).

Each family has their own story with specific issues and yet there is commonality among all. All the children were already not religious for many years. Some of the questions/issues: What kind of wedding ceremony does one have, if one at all? Is there an interest in converting? What kind of future home do you envision? What role does Judaism play in the couple’s future? Parents have a role to play if they listen and offer suggestions without making absolute demands. Children are willing to listen to their parents’ concerns and adjust but that does not mean adopting all suggestions.

In our situation, I referred my son to a friend/Rabbi knowledgeable in this area and after meeting the couple referred him to a Rabbi willing to officiate in an interfaith marriage (after meeting the couple). The couple and the referred Rabbi together devised the ceremony.  I was asked to bless the couple under the chupah via birkat kohanim. My daughter read a section from Megilat Ruth. A friend of the bride began the ceremony singing a Yiddish love poem in Yiddish and later in the ceremony sang Lecha Dodi/Boee Kallah to Leonard Cohen’s Hallejuah. The mother of bride (former opera singer) sang an Aria from Eicha and father also blessed the couple. A friend read a passage from Shira HaShirim and the couple exchanged vows.

After the ceremony, the Rabbi explained privately to me that he informed the couple that for religious reasons there is no cup of wine nor blessings (including sheva berachot) nor halakhic Ketubah in this ceremony because of Jewish law. The Rabbi sang In Eshkachech Yerushalayim (If I forget thee, O Jerusalem) and the glass was broken at the end of the ceremony

While attending a Judaism class, recommended by the Rabbi, she decided to convert at some future date and the Rabbi offered to sponsor her for a Conservative conversion. They searched and found a synagogue to join and attend.

Prior to the wedding my son requested me to affix a mezuzah on his apartment door (he had rejected my offer when he originally moved in to his apartment).Post wedding my son texted my wife asking where he can tovel his new dishes.

Where are the red lines? Are there limits of what parents are willing to accept?  Of course but I think I have not crossed that Rubicon. My son’s happiness and ascent from loneliness is an important factor in the equation. I realize that being supportive leads to possible normalization of interfaith marriage. As a parent the best interest and wellbeing of my child supersedes other considerations that are communal in nature.

Will Orthodoxy reach out and offer help and guidance to families? Will other denominations grappling with the topic fill the void? Many Orthodox parents have no resources at their disposal to help them navigate – they are uncomfortable with their local Rabbi for many reasons. How many know the parameters of conversion or giyur k’halakha (conversion according to Jewish Law – Orthodox vs the recent adopted stringency), zera yisrael issues (those with Jewish linage, but not technically Jewish), or bedieved (after the fact) conversions? Which Rabbis will publicly stretch out their hands to help and risk being ostracized or previous conversions annulled?  Who in Orthodoxy can they turn to in a “time of action” (et la’asot) situation?

In my previous blog post, I recalled a conversation with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on those that abandon Orthodoxy. He said: “The days of sitting shiva for those that leave are long over – it is a failed policy.” He believed the door must remain open with a willingness for conversation. There is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Lets begin now.

“Teach your children well, Their father’s hell did slowly go by, And feed them on your dreams The one they picks, the one you’ll know by. Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry, So just look at them and sigh And know they love you.” Crosby Stills Nash and Young

Yehoshua November Interview – Two Worlds Exist

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

When I teach the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya (Likutei Amarim) I display a bumper sticker with the above quote attributed to Chardin to illustrate how we live in two worlds, a material and Godly. But what does that mean? The Orthodox, Chabad influenced, singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman in his song Impermanent Things treats the world as transitory and weighing us down from our spiritual soaring. “All these impermanent things Oh how they fool me dominate and rule me They keep me waiting here forever”.  In contrast to that dualism, the recent volume Two Worlds Exist by the local Teaneck Chabad poet Yehoshua November elicits the tension of our living rich emotional and sensory lives and at the same time knowing that we are called to a higher understanding of reality. For November, the human experience deserves a poetic snapshot of the depth of human experience, while letting the light of the spiritual shine in through the cracks.

Yehoshua November’s poetry has been celebrated in many newspaper interviews and excerpts in poetry journals, even garnering the success of having his poems published in The New York Times, Prairie SchoonerThe SunVirginia Quarterly Review, and on National Public Radio.  November teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro College. His first poetry collection, God’s Optimism, won the MSR Poetry Book Award and was named a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. November’s recent second book of poems, Two Worlds Exist, (Orison Books, 2016) is a gem of religious poetry.

The Soul In A Body

is like an old Russian immigrant
looking out his apartment’s only window.
Yes, yes, he says.
The landlord printed my name in block letters
on the lobby directory
decades ago.
All correspondence
has been forwarded to this address.
But I am not from here. I am not
from here at all.

Most of this publicity concerned his poetics or the exceptionality of an Orthodox Jewish poet. This interview focuses on theological matters. The title of the recent second book of poems, Two Worlds Exist, points to his Chabad vision of living in the material world and at the same time acknowledging the higher divine world.  Influenced by the Lubavitvcher Rebbe concept of the highest essence of divinity is found in this world, November mediates between the messiness of real life with its losses, loves, and mundane events with a real presence of the higher life of the divine. “I think it’s important to explore how most people, even if they look as if everything is in order, are facing challenges. Art that doesn’t express conflict always falls flat because it’s not true to human experience.”

To contextualize this in Chabad thought, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab presented a theology of religious experience and personal revelation. In contrast, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught a paradoxical theology of the everyday, in which the lowest is really the highest, finding the divine essence in our meaningful existences. November follows the Rebbe.


What is noticeable in November’s poems, and also in his own self-understanding, is that we are not seeking divinity as a revelation, peak experience, or moment of transcendence to burst forth in life, as does Rainer Maria Rilke. Rather, the other world of the divine shines in our understanding of our complex lives.

When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?

“Two Worlds Exist”

On the other hand, November does not follow Gerard Manley Hopkins in seeking a mystical immanence, in transfigured ordinary life. Hopkins experienced what he called “inscape” beyond the surface of things, seeing God even in the most troubled events of our life. November lives his untransformed material life, yet his personal experience of it is transformed by acknowledging a higher realm.  November also avoids the existential subjectivism and memory of Yehudah Amichai.

November credits his early influence to Leonard Cohen’s poetry. Yet he avoids Cohen’s dark Sabbatian theology of human desire, rebellion, and standing as a sinner before God, but as noted above he also generally avoids Cohen’s quest for revelatory moments.

Several interviews noted the paucity of poetic imagination and creativity in the Orthodox Jewish world, attributing it to a cultural shunning of poetics to which November responded that the real issue is a lack of emotional range and connecting the heart to Jewish texts.

The lack of poetry in the Orthodox community is not necessarily a poetry issue per se, but an issue of creativity or inspiration. The true Jewish way is to be in full command of the mind and the heart and to use both in the service of God. Overall, Orthodox Jews could improve in the area of the heart, which may be connected to the dearth of poetry. And if there is sometimes a disconnect between what we read in the texts and our real lives, poetry is a good place to explore that, a place to bridge the gap and figure things out.

November embraces a religious faith can be compatible with a poetry of deep feeling of religious doubt and uncertainty as real options.

A Jew is supposed to trust in God, but this too comes against the backdrop, against the possibility, of doing otherwise. This is what makes faith meaningful. Secular audiences are skeptical about religious poetry because they are skeptical about religious life in general, believing it’s less thoughtful or too simplistic, a kind of mindless surrender that wipes away life’s problems, at least on an intellectual level. If a religious poet is honest, however, if he or she can represent the challenges and humanity of religious life, a secular audience should be able to relate, as long as that audience is open to reading it in the first place.


The Purpose of this World (From his first volume God’s Optimism)

When some Jews cannot explain the sorrow of their lives
they take a vow of atheism.
Then everywhere they go,
they curse the God they don’t believe exists.
But why, why don’t they grab Him by the lapels,
pull His formless body down into this lowly world,
and make Him explain.
After all, this is the purpose of creation–
to make this coarse realm a dwelling place
for His presence.

His second volume presents more complex religious imagery, such as his long poem “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah” which depicts the self-consciousness and shame of the men who became Orthodox, but now have to live with their tattoos “It may be easy to want to suppress or stigmatize the whole scene because tattoos are forbidden according to Jewish law, but in the poem I try to take the opposite angle and shine a light on this particular moment as one of great sacrifice and courage. For November, “It’s the human embarrassment that makes their sacrifice so meaningful. And thinking about how God must appreciate their efforts makes Judaism, as a whole, more real and touching for me.”

Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah

Sometimes you see them in the dressing area of the ritual bath,
young bearded men unbuttoning their white shirts,
slipping out of their black trousers, until, standing entirely naked,
they are betrayed by the tattoos of their past life:
a ring of fire climbing up a leg, an eagle whose feathery wing span spreads the width of the chest,
or worse, the scripted name of a woman other than one’s wife.
Then, holding only a towel, they begin, once more, the walk past the others in the dressing room:
the rabbi they will soon sit before in Talmud class,
men with the last names of the first chasidic families
almost everyone, devout since birth.
And with each step, they curse the poverty
that keeps the dark ink etched in their skin,
until, finally, they descend the stairs of the purifying water,
and, beneath the translucent liquid,
appear, once again, like the next man,
who, in all this days, has probably never made a sacrifice as endearing to God.

I also strongly recommend his poem  “At the Request of the Organization for Jewish Prisoners” depicting a visit of Chabad rabbinical students to a prison, depicting the tension between their lofty aspirations and the visit of a women in a “tight dress”  arriving for a  conjugal visit with a prisoner.

Another poem from his second volume captures the tension and sadness of the religious life rather than certainty and even when one is asking for certainty.


Before the Silent Prayer,
some slip the hood of their prayer shawls
over their heads,
so that even among many worshipers
they are alone with God.

Primo Levi wrote about the sadness of
“a cart horse, shut between two shafts
and unable even to look sideways … ”

Let me be like those pious ones
or that horse,
so that, even amidst a crowd,
no other crosses the threshold
of my dreaming.

Watching him read his own poem here and for more about Yehoshua November, I recommend the following three interviews at the Forward,The Jewish Standard and surprisingly Jewish Action had an Hasidic MFA interview him.

1)      Which poets influenced you?

When I was younger, in college and high school, I was drawn to the work of Leonard Cohen and other lyrical poets such Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda. For a time, I read Cohen almost exclusively.  I loved his lyricism and authoritative, almost prophetic voice.  His tropes and sense of consequence are Biblical, but often, the subject matter is secular.  I suppose I identified with this duality, having grown up in a traditional home that also prized literature, art, and popular culture.  G-d was against the backdrop of everything—a booming voice heard from a distance (and from up close in synagogue and in Torah classes at school), but daily life was lived out playing baseball, watching T.V., and listening to secular music.

Above all, when I was single, I was drawn to Cohen’s poems about love and relationships. In these poems, confounding factors render the relationships impossible, but Cohen often implies a kind of mystical chord continues to connect the two parties despite their parting. After some tough breakups, I suppose these poems spoke to me; they also implied—though it never actually seems to happen in Cohen’s work–a long-term fated love would emerge.

When I married just after college and settled into life’s daily rhythms, Cohen’s complicated love poems and tendency toward chaos did not seem to speak as directly to my predicament. I felt like his poems—and maybe I superimposed this on them—were not about finding meaning in or celebrating ordinary life but were always gesturing toward a kind of modern romanticism—waiting for the next transcendent moment (whether it be spiritual or erotic) or exalting the current one.  Ultimately, though his darker or graphic impulses probably go unrepresented in my poems, I’m sure his sense of spiritual longing and insistence on meaning has left a mark on my work.

Also, I read and continue to read my teachers from college and grad school. Often, they attempted to ground me in narrative work and poems that took contemporary details and family history as their props or centerpieces.  For instance, when I was an undergrad at SUNY Binghamton, Maria Gillan, the daughter of Italian immigrants, pushed me to write about my family upbringing and culture.  In graduate school, Tony Hoagland, a poet whom I was studying under, would tell me I needed to insert a microwave into my poems. Like many young poets, I wanted to be a kind of Universalist, to write poems that would be read throughout the ages and sail beyond the edges of what could be articulated or known.  To accomplish this, I believed I needed to avoid the particulars of my specific time period or tradition. Though my work from that era did include Jewish references, they were the sort of allusions that situated the speaker of the poems—figuratively, and sometimes literally—as a figure afloat in Chagall’s village sky—a time and place so distant and lovely it seemed never to have existed at all.

In graduate school, one of my teachers introduced me to the work of the Pulitzer Prize- winning poet Louis Simpson, who was born in the early 1920s, to a Russian Jewish mother and Scottish father. Some of Simpson’s poetry focuses on his Russian ancestry, painting vivid pictures of mundane life in Volhynia and elsewhere. The voice, too, is often conversational. I think reading these Simpson poems helped shift my focus from lyrical poetry to work that tells a story and isn’t necessarily trying to dazzle the reader via language.

In recent years, I’ve been reading Sharon Olds, a well-known American poet, whose most recent book, Stag’s Leap, heartbreakingly chronicles the end of her 30 year marriage.   Her narrative, confessional slant makes her work accessible and compelling to my students in Intro to Creative Writing, many of whom take the class to fulfill a requirement.
2)      Are there non-Jewish spiritual poets that influence you?

For a long time now, I’ve been reading the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, (born Lvov, Poland, 1945), and became an important member of “The New Wave’” of Polish poets in the late 1960s. His work is often more abstract than mine, but I am drawn to how he combines the mysterious with the particulars of history, philosophy, and European culture. And his most recent book often touches on his childhood and his parents.

I’d have to consider Zagajewski the poet I return to most often. I first heard him read in Pittsburgh, when I was in grad school. A few years ago, he came to Rutgers for a reading, and I met him and gave him my first book. He’s a very humble and generous man, despite being one of the giants of contemporary poetry.  I often share his work with my students, and, through email, he’s answered questions I’ve had about his poems.

I also like the poetry of Marie Howe, former Poet Laureate of New York State.  Her work blends the mundane and spiritual in surprising ways, and her language is precise and elegant but also plain-spoken, especially in her collection What the Living Do. Though I don’t think she considers herself a believer, she grew up in a very large Catholic family, and New Testament allusions are present in much of her work. I’d say Zagajewski and Howe are spiritual poets.  I also admire the work of Li-Young Lee, a poet born in Indonesia, in 1957, to Chinese political exiles. Though initially a physician, Lee’s father later became a Presbyterian minister when he relocated his family to America. Much of Lee’s work describes his childhood and his father’s influence on his life.

And I’m in touch with two other Orthodox Jewish poets, David Caplan and Eve Grubin, whose poetry I read often. David Caplan, who’s also a poetry scholar, was instrumental in helping me shape Two Worlds Exist.  As a poet familiar with Chassidic thought, he has been an amazing resource for me, providing suggestions both in terms of craft and content, especially when questions concerning incorporation of difficult Chassidic concepts came up in the book.

3)      How are you/we living in two worlds? How does that influence your poetry?

Chabad  speaks of two simultaneous realities, referred to as the Hidden World (Alma Daiskasya) and the Revealed World (Alma Daisgalya).  In a sense, the Hidden World corresponds to the spiritual realities which I discuss at greater length below. Chassidic thought compares the Hidden World to the life forms that exist in the sea, covered over by water.  Sea life is, generally, so dependent on its life source—water—it could be said to have no separate sense of selfhood. So too, the spiritual realities remain bathed in so much Divine light—their source—that they do not experience themselves as Other, as separate from G-d.

In contrast, the Revealed world is the reality we see, physical life as we experience it.  Here, we stand out as independent from our source; we perceive ourselves as separate from G-d.  Not covered over by or swallowed in Divine light, we are revealed. However, the Jewish mystical tradition posits that this perception is inaccurate: it argues that, at each moment, G-d re-speaks all of creation, including our physical world, back into existence. Just as He did at the beginning of time. Divine speech is embedded in and constantly revivifies the Revealed World, which mistakenly takes its tentative existence as autonomous.

It is, of course, one thing to be familiar with the idea that the Divine resides beneath the physical curtain of the world. It is another to remember this as one goes through daily life. And it’s especially difficult to believe in when one suffers or feels he or she is trying to do what’s right but failing. You might say much of the poetry in my new collection moves back and forth in motion with the tug-of-war between the mystical claim of Divine unity underlying our days and the world’s surface appearance of randomness.

In a less spiritual sense, teaching in university and trying to live as a Chassid obviously entails a life in two worlds as well.  Before I left yeshiva and returned to academia, I happened to meet Professor Yitzchok Bloch, a Chabad Chassid and philosophy professor.  At one point, much to the approval of the yeshiva faculty and his Lubavitch peers, Bloch attempted to abandon his graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard to learn in yeshiva in Crown Heights. However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent him back to Harvard. Looking back on his career, Bloch said, in a sense, he always felt misunderstood in academia because Chassidic culture was foreign to his colleagues, but he also felt misunderstood in the Chassidic community because very few understood what his work as a philosophy professor entailed. Sometimes I, too, feel I have fallen into the gap between two worlds, but there is also a strong sense that my Chassidic life significantly enriches my poetry, and that my poetry provides a space for me to process my efforts to live as a Chassid. In this sense, the two worlds pleasantly overlap.  Also, that my rabbis pushed me to return to poetry helped me see Judaism as much more expansive and encompassing than I had imagined it to be earlier in my life.

4)      How does Chassidus speak to you?

Chassidus emphasizes physical life, or at least combining the physical and spiritual.  I think this kind of world-embracing theology is healthy and comprehensive. It addresses the conditions of life in a body and explains Judaism’s non-ascetic leanings (marriage, physical commandments, etc).  I always felt somewhat alienated from the thinking that Judaism is all about getting a reward in the afterlife.  It sounded kind of like a video game, a philosophy that doesn’t speak to the here and now; it also seemed to breed a holier-than-thou mentality.  It was refreshing to learn that kind of thinking was at odds with Chassidus.

Some of the points I note below concerning Essence and Revelation relate to this. According to Chassidus, the afterlife falls into the Revelation category; it involves experiencing G-d as He “suits up” into a spiritual persona:  In the afterlife, souls experience luminous lessons in hands-on mysticism. In this life, we have G-d’s Essence.  According to Chassidus, this explains why the deceased envy the living and their ability to do mitzvot, G-d’s commandments, which can be performed only in this world.

I’m also moved by the Chassidic emphasis on our unconditional connection to G-d. According to Chassidus, to live and feel this connection, and to fulfill our purpose of sanctifying the mundane, we must adhere to tradition.  But even when we abandon tradition–and, therefore, tarnish the outer layers of our connection—Chassidic thought posits that an unconditional, deeper bond with G-d remains undiminished.

5)      How does Chassidus help your imagery?

I think my studies in Chassidus–in which I encounter mystical images, terminology, and conceptual frameworks–add another layer to my work.  It infuses my poems with a kind of tension or binary, as I mentioned earlier.   After I sent my new book to the poet Tony Hoagland, he wrote me a postcard in which he describes this tension quite well. As he puts it, the book demonstrates a “simultaneous allegiance…to traditional spirituality and the difficulties and paradoxes of contemporary life; the poems insistently bring scriptural idealism into contact with realism, and they seem to insist that we cannot live the one without the paradoxical, sometimes contradictory, presence of the other.”

I think the juxtaposition of these two types of images represents an attempt to hold the teachings I’m studying up against the life I’m actually living. Perhaps it’s an attempt to blend the theoretical with the actual. I want these teachings to speak to me; poetry can serve as the bridge between study and the life that is lived when the books are closed.

6) How do you understand and apply the Chassidic idea of the divine dwelling below (dirah bathahtonim)?
Dirah Btachtonim is the Midrashic principle that G-d desires “a dwelling place in the lowest realm.”  Chabad Chassidus understands this to mean G-d created all of existence, the higher worlds and this physical one, because He desires “to be present” in our physical world.  The home “or dwelling place” metaphor implies Essence, for, in one’s home, one behaves as he or she truly is. And G-d is His “true self” here in our world. (I elaborate on this a bit later, in discussing Essence and Revelation).

In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe suggests that when the Midrash states G-d wants to dwell in the lowest realm, it means we—as G-d’s ambassadors—are charged with spiritualizing material existence by employing it in the service of G-d. The Alter Rebbe adds that G-d wants to dwell in “the lowest of the low.” In other words, in our doubts, darkest moments, greatest failings—those conditions basic to the life of a soul in a body. Somehow, we must redeem and elevate these experiences. We must infuse them with the Divine.

Similarly, poetry tends to provide unflinching renderings of life’s difficulties as they are.  Not as a prayer for salvation. Rather, as an assertion that the imperfect has a kind of perfection to it.  Holiness filtered through the messy human experience.  This appears to be a theme contemporary poetry and the Dirah Btachtonim theology share. I would venture to say this thinking informed–inspired me to publish–some of the very personal, sadder poems in my second collection.

Furthermore, inviting struggles and imperfections into my work provides me—and hopefully my readers—with the potential to see Judaism as more real, as something that speaks to us in our flawed human context.   And reciprocally, tension, struggle, and conflict make for meaningful art. “Light that comes out of darkness” is a term used in Chassidus but is also a good description of the moment in many poems when the speaker finds redemption through or in a conflict rather than via transcending or negating it.

7)      Which Hasidic works do you still study? Why?

I try to study Chassidus every day.  Each morning, before prayers, I learn with a few friends. We tend to focus on the discourses of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which represent the most fleshed out last link in the evolution of Dirah Bitachtonim theology.

For me, at least, the Rebbe’s discourses speak most directly to our condition. So often, even as they highlight the imperative of Torah study and prayer, his teachings emphasize that an equal—or greater—connection to G-d is possible outside the synagogue, in living our mundane lives with Divine purpose.  Of all the Chabad Rebbeim, he seems to have spent the most time with his Chassidim, explaining Chassidus and Dirah Bitachtonim in direct and accessible language. The 39 volumes of Likkutei Sichot record some of his many talks. It would be interesting to delve into other Chassidus as well, but the Chabad body of work is so vast, unified, and sequential, I feel there isn’t enough time to do it justice.

8)      What is your distinction between revelation and essence? 

In simplest terms, Essence, or Atzmut, refers to G-d as He exists unto Himself, beyond all definitions, parameters, or categorizations. Here, even the terms “infinite” or “spiritual” prove inadequate in that G-d transcends equally the physical and spiritual, the finite and infinite.

(Often Chabad Chassidus takes this logic to its extreme, suggesting that G-d’s engagement within our finite frame reflects His true unlimitedness, His transcendence of infinity. As one discourse puts it, certainly, “G-d is higher than nature,” but He is also “higher than higher than nature.”  He is not locked in transcendence).

As noted, Essence refers to G-d as He exists beyond all limitations.  Thus, an act that combines two opposites—such as a union between physicality and spirituality—bears the mark of G-d’s Essence.  For, only G-d’s Essence, which remains locked in neither the limitations of physicality or spirituality, can unify the two opposites. Chassidus points to the performance of a mitzvah, a Divine command, as an example of this kind of Essence phenomenon: When the command is performed, a Divine light flows down from above, leaving the physical object used in the act infused with holiness.

Ultimately, Essence breaks all categories. It combines opposites and complicates all definitions.

In contrast, the term revelation (giloyim)refers to how G-d expresses Himself according to the makeup of His audience, how He packages Himself and manifests, especially in the higher, spiritual worlds.  Each of these worlds receives a different measure of revelation according to its capacity to hold light. This is G-d not as He is unto Himself, but G-d acting within the spiritual parameters and expectations of the particular environment.  In the upper worlds, revelation (knowledge of G-d) is the defining characteristic; it’s the weather up there.

However, according to Chassidic thought, this physical world is the realm most closely linked to G-d’s Essence. As noted, only Essence can balance opposites, physical and spiritual, and this Essence paradox occurs solely in our physical realm.

In addition, G-d’s Essence is unknowable and unchanging. And these two qualities characterize G-d’s presence in our world.  In contrast, His behavior in the higher realms is marked by change (diminishment of light from one spiritual world to the next) and revelation, non-Essence qualities.

In this world, we experience no gradations in the magnitude of light—usually, we experience no light at all—because, here, G-d is simply being His unchanging and unknowable self.  In this physical life, we may suffer a lack of spiritual revelation, but in the un-heavenly, ordinary moment, G-d’s Essence is most accessible.

Interestingly, when a miracle occurs, and G-d reveals Himself to us, the Essence dynamic recedes into the background, and this world takes on the status of the worlds of revelation.  G-d pervades all of creation, of course.  However, it was from a space higher than and prior to creation–from within His Essence—that G-d desired a home in the lowest realm.  (The upper worlds largely serve as a sort of ladder leading down to this lowest point). And so our physical world bears traces of and is more deeply rooted in Essence than are the higher realms.  As the ancient mystical work Sefer Yetzirah puts it, “The beginning is wedged in the end.”

9) How does this distinction of essence and revelation apply to poetry?

I think this theology, which points decidedly earthward, aligns with many of the impulses behind contemporary poetry, and certainly with my own work.  One might say an absence of spirituality characterizes much of contemporary poetry because many of today’s poets eschew religion; at the same time, contemporary poets do, quite often, attribute a kind of luminescence to—they shine an intense light on—ordinary experience, insisting it has something to teach us.  Perhaps, in some sort of secular way, this parallels the mitzvah dynamic noted above—where spiritual and ordinary conjoin.  Indeed, locating transcendence or light in the mundane appears to be a chief ambition of many contemporary poets. Just look at the lines of praise on the back of any recent volume of poetry. Or perhaps contemporary poetry’s emphasis on the ordinary, the non-illuminated, as opposed to the transcendent, reflects a kind of Essence instinct.

Though I can’t say I’m always conscious of it, knowledge of the Essence/Revelation dialectic probably informs my work and may distinguish my poetry from that of other spiritual poets, especially Jewish ones. Here, I’m thinking, for example, of the spiritual work featured in journals of contemporary Jewish poetry, such as Poetica. To me, it seems many Jewish spiritual poets reach upward toward infinity and transcendence–the realm of revelations, you might say—and their language, correspondingly, tends toward musicality and abstraction.   In contrast, my language may come across as plain spoken and hint at or reference a Divine presence behind the details of daily life.

Often, those unfamiliar with my poetry assume it will read like prayers, calling out to G-d above.  They are surprised to find the poems usually entail human narratives locating or struggling with G-d below.
10)   How does your spiritual vision of two worlds exist against the backdrop of very non-Hasidic Modern Orthodox Teaneck?

Based on what I have experienced, the Modern Orthodox synagogues here have been very warm; a number of them have invited me to give readings or talks. I have many wonderful neighbors in Teaneck who are supportive of my poetry and interested in discussing Chassidus. I’d say Chabad and Modern Orthodox overlap in several key areas. Both believe in the authenticity of the Oral and Written Torah, and both demonstrate a level of openness toward the larger world. For a Chabad Chassid, this openness is likely an outgrowth of the Dirah Bitachtonim ideology, which posits that the sanctification of the mundane—and in some cases the secular—is the purpose of creation.

If anything, living in Teaneck has forced me to question and own my identity as a Chabad Chassid. No one is expecting me to uphold Chabad customs or to learn Chassidus here, so I need to rely on my own initiative. Also, I teach Chassidus classes at the Chabad House. In this role, I’ve had the opportunity to deepen and clarify my understanding of Chassidus in a way that I had not experienced when I lived in Morristown, a Chabad yeshiva community.

11)  How do you relate/respond to the deep atheism and anger at God within contemporary Jewish literary circles?

Concerning my first book, a reviewer in the Reform Jewish Quarterly wrote that the poetry was that of an innocent individual yet to encounter many of life’s struggles. We’ll have to see what happens as November ages. I understand where the reviewer was coming from, and I think my second book does more to engage with some of the darkness (but not anger) you mention, especially the title poem.

I think people deal with their doubts and difficulties in different ways.  When G-d/the world does something terrible to me, I’m more overwhelmed and speechless than I am angry.  That said, I don’t think that, today, I could write the way I did in my first book. I think my new collection doesn’t answer questions or give advice—it simply asks questions and shares experiences.

When I was younger and first getting into Chassidc life, I did feel somewhat disappointed by the agnosticism that characterized the contemporary Jewish literary scene (and larger literary culture, for that matter), but this was probably because, at that time, I was diving headlong into a new lifestyle and, seemingly, cutting my ties with the old one: after I finished my M.F.A. in poetry, I enrolled in a Chabad yeshiva in N.J. and didn’t concern myself with poetry for a few years. Like most of us, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized life is more complex; so many of us shoulder complicated histories.

Yet, secular contemporary poets have a lot to teach us about living with deeper consciousness. So often, they point out what others tend to overlook. A poem in Two Worlds Exist, “Contemporary Poets,” touches on this. Habituation—boredom with familiar life—may be one of the greatest sources of displeasure today. Poetry’s celebration of ordinary individuals and quotidian experiences can re-center us to a more appreciative sensibility.

As I’ve noted, I see some important points of overlap between Chassidus and poetry, even while many poets are atheists. And ultimately, it was my rabbis and Chassidic thought that compelled me to choose a career as a poet and not a rabbi.  If anything, attempting to live as a Chasid and a poet in the larger world has enriched my life as a Jew and a writer, making both more meaningful and erasing, in a sense, the secular/Divine divide I felt throughout my college and grads school years.